4.6.18 — A Scandal in Bohemia

Out in Brooklyn recently, Robert Longo crossed decades or even centuries, comparing himself to Francisco de Goya and Sergei Eisenstein. Yet a German contemporary artist thinks even bigger, with a career that began just a few years before his but a continent away—and I combine this with my earlier report on Longo’s recent political art as a longer review and my latest upload.

Anselm Kiefer wants to encompass Europe’s deep past and his nation’s twentieth-century trauma. They fill vast canvases and layer upon layer of neo-expressionist paint, charcoal, shellac, and emulsion. He has moved his studio from Germany to still larger quarters outside Paris to make room for it all. He flexes his muscles even in a small show at the Met Breuer, through April 8, of work from its collection. Anselm Kiefer's Untitled (Heroic Symbols) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 1969)Provocations” has none of his breakthrough paintings from the 1970s or his images of books like the Bible as an opening onto landscape, but it pays off by making his epic theater more vulnerable and personal.

The Met has just one painting, from 1996, along with two outsize woodcuts and twenty-eight more works on paper, but that one is more than enough. (The show takes up the relatively modest fifth floor, where the Whitney hung some of its own permanent collection before taking up larger quarters downtown to make room for more.) That painting, on coarse burlap, asserts itself by size alone. At more than eighteen feet across, it asks one to take its measure by walking its length and turning one’s head. It runs to infinity pictorially as well, with a road straddling the two panels as it barrels up to the horizon. Its brushwork appears to form palpable leaves scattered across it, although Kiefer intends blood-red poppies.

As ever, he also intends to recover a cultural and political history. A road into depth and a field of poppies are bound to recall Vincent van Gogh. The title, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, quotes an Austrian poet, Ingeborg Bachmann—but Kiefer cannot forget that Hitler began his conquests by annexing modern-day Bohemia, the Sudetenland, and Bachmann saw the German troops enter. He sees history as a saga of collective dreams, but also as present-day limits. Bohemia lies far from the sea, the top edge of the painting presses down on its high horizon, and the twisting road can never reach infinity. History’s big gestures are not his alone, but he still feels the limits.

Kiefer has a habit of conflating the political and the cultural, much as Hitler demanded both mass extermination and mammoth architecture. He has traveled to northern Europe to connect his bleak but ultimately spiritual vision to that of Edvard Munch, but also to war sites in Poland by the Vistula. He also quotes Richard Wagner and the poetry of Paul Celan, knowing that Hitler, too, loved Wagnerian opera and that Celan, a Romanian Jew, survived a work camp and lost his parents to the camps in World War II. He calls a work on paper The Unknown Masterpiece, after a short story by Honoré de Balzac, but he layers over a photo of Hitler’s plans for a Soldier’s Hall in Berlin. And there, too, he encounters limits. Hitler’s plans never came to fruition, for architecture or for conquest, just as Balzac’s hero can never finish his masterpiece.

That artist cannot finish because he cannot stop slathering on paint, and Kiefer would understand. Like the unknown masterpiece, his dark but colorful Brünnhilde’s Death tumbles into abstraction. The personal has become the political, but it is still artistic and personal. The Met points out that he gained notoriety by posing in his father’s army uniform with a Nazi salute. He adopts the same pose in self-portraits set against a plummeting, barren landscape. When he quotes Wagner again for My Father Pledged Me a Sword in 1975, he takes the text literally.

Then again, maybe not literally, since surely his father did no such thing. Rather, he means it as an aspiration, and he means aspirations as grounds for responsibility. If art has always had the same longing for the infinite as fascism, at least in his eyes, it has to share responsibility. His salute appears in 1970 encased within a sky-blue hemisphere as Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven. Another languid Wagnerian figure contemplates death, like Hamlet, but the skull in her hands could just as well be an artist’s palette, most likely his own. When Kiefer calls a landscape and open sky dotted with more blood or flowers Sick Art, he scorns Hitler’s equation of blood and soil and the assault on “degenerate art,” but he still sounds a little guilty.

Where German Expressionism never distinguished the personal from the cultural or political, Neo-Expressionism has a harder case to make before it can engage the present. Georg Baselitz or Julian Schnabel positively wallows in the personal, while Kiefer obsesses over a past that he himself cannot remember. He was born only in 1945 and grew up in a divided Germany with its own dreams of a nation. Still, he believes, people all too often want to forget, but the past refuses to let go. Big Iron Fist sounds like fascism, but it refers to a slogan in the Cold War for NATO. He can be portentous or pretentious, even in his book art, but he asks all of western civilization along with him to think big.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

2.28.18 — Who Pays for Museums?

The Met has it all—great art, astounding exhibitions, and record attendance. Where museum expansions elsewhere have produced nasty real-estate deals and dubious architecture, the Cloisters, the Met Breuer, and its beloved home on Fifth Avenue have never looked better. Why then is it raising admission for so many?

For all its signs of success, the Met is losing friends and losing money. It has cut staff, fired its last director, and delayed renovation of its twentieth-century wing. And now it will do the unthinkable: Mark Flood's Career Suicide (Zach Feuer, 2014)as of March 1, 2018, “pay what you will” may not apply to you. Those who care about the arts are not happy. They are also pointing fingers—often as not at that former director, Thomas P. Campbell.

For anyone from New York State, “suggested admissions” will still be just that, a suggestion. (Why the entire state, when the Met gets so much of its public funding from the city? Politics and tax deductions are a messy business.) So will students in and around the city. The museum promises not to turn away New Yorkers without an ID, for now, and kids under twelve will still get in free. Anyone else, though, must pay in full.

How did the museum mess up its finances despite soaring revenues? As much as anything, it took on too much when it rented and renovated the Whitney’s former home on Madison Avenue, as the Met Breuer—and I have wrapped this into an earlier critique of museum expansions inspired by Ben Davis as a longer review and my latest upload. It also accepted a huge gift from a trustee and right-wing political funder, David Koch, only to spend it on LED lights and pointless changes to its outdoor fountains. One can make a good case for the Met Breuer as a short-term investment in the display of recent art and the saving of a New York landmark, and gifts often come with strings attached. Then, too, for all Campbell’s strengths as a curator and weakness as a financial manager, the board almost surely chose in favor contemporary art and eye candy, much as Davis says. Maybe Philippe de Montebello, his fabled predecessor, could have stood up to the board, but he also did more than anyone to commercialize the Met—and, with the Lehman wing and European sculpture court, to undertake its most tasteless expansion.

All is not lost, though, and one of the most convincing objections also helps explain why. The problem with high ticket prices is not just whom they exclude. It is also that they discourage museum-going as a way of life, as regular as catching or streaming a movie. It takes long acquaintance (or a good critic) to make art meaningful, not “just looking,” and that can make an adult’s life more meaningful as well. The Met is on the right track, then, in welcoming locals and students. More fully private museums charge at least as much.

Money has to come from somewhere, although less than a sixth comes from admissions, and people on vacation expect to spend money. That has drawbacks, if it makes New York a destination for the rich alone—and if art becomes as touristy as Broadway. Still, a museums can resist the demand for crowd pleasers, and the toxic mix of art and money is not going away any time soon. As an alternative to mandatory prices, some suggest a surcharge for special exhibitions. That would only encourage blockbusters, and exhibitions should be a way of life, too. They attract newcomers to art, make figures like Michelangelo more than a cliché, and introduce lesser artists and aspects of the permanent collection at that.

Still, something has gone terribly wrong, and there has to be another way to ask who pays. For starters, extend “pay what you will” to everyone in the New York area and to artists everywhere—or at the very least to everyone who commutes to work in the city. Second, other museums should not be off the hook. They could start their free evening (currently Fridays after seven at the Morgan Library or the Whitney) sooner or, better still, make an afternoon each week as cheap for locals as the Met. That might hinge on federal and state arts funding, but it should be part of the solution, too. Last, critics can stop fawning and insist that museums tempted by growth stick to their mission.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

1.29.18 — Acquainted with the Night

Edvard Munch had his share of sleepless nights. Is it any wonder that his Dance of Life takes place beneath a full moon?

Munch’s sleepless imagination shows in his earliest Nocturnes of figures trapped by moonlight or a storm, unable to find a way to shelter or to rest. It shows in caregivers at a sickbed, their heads sunk in exhaustion or grief. It shows in Sick Mood at Sunset, where the sky cannot relinquish its flame. It shows in Munch as The Night Wanderer, leaning to make eye contact because he cannot trust a viewer who would share his acquaintance with the night. It shows, too, in his final self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed. That portrait anchors a small but not unrepresentative survey of his work, at Met Breuer through February 4—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload.

Munch makes it easy to lapse into melodrama in describing his art. As I wrote when he appeared among unfinished prints at the Frick in 2004, I find him easy to love but harder to like. There is plenty of Victorian sensibility in his sick children, threatening women, and Madonnas between innocence and whores. Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (Munch Museum, Oslo, 1940–1943)Born in 1863, he made a leap forward from late Romanticism and realism when he encountered Symbolism, but that movement valued melodrama, myth, and sentiment, too. Yet it also paved the way to Modernism, and none of its fellow travelers traveled as far into the new century as Edvard Munch. He completed that last self-portrait in 1943, the year before his death.

It has become still more modern since his death, thanks to Jasper Johns. The American has borrowed its title and, repeatedly, a motif. The diamond pattern of a bedspread becomes a starting point for near abstract paintings and prints. The patches for Johns keep failing to line up in color or direction, but so they do, too, in the bedspread. I would hesitate a long time to call it a comforter. The borrowings hint at sleepless nights for Johns as well, as in the studio wall of his 1983 Racing Thoughts.

Johns always stops short of auto-biography, in the most literal but also most elusive body of work in modern art. One might never know that he ever had a lover, much less a life as a gay male, or one might have to know to appreciate the depth of his allusions. Munch can be just as enticing and frustrating. When he shows himself with a model, his studio contains a bottle of wine, but not an easel in sight. Another bedspread rises up in the foreground, with a life of its own. Who can say whether the unmade bed hints at sex or just art on the verge of chaos?

The same question haunts Between the Clock and the Bed. Munch stands erect but hardly at ease in the narrow space of its title. The grandfather clock without hands attests to his counting out the hours without rest, and it looks as unnaturally gaunt as does he. He stands in front of past work that he cannot take time to admire and behind a section of flooring so shiny that he might slip if he dared to take a step. A door at back cannot quite fit with the doorway beside it, looking onto another room that one cannot quite see. One last tall painting, above the bed without a pillow, could be a nude study, a lover, or a ghost.

Like the hatching, the painting is far more colorful than its overt subject, which only adds to the tensions. The artist’s glum expression is bright orange, with the down-turned lip of an emoticon, but with red for a patch of hair and his ears. Munch has become ever so popular for his six versions of The Scream, beginning in 1893, but he had a breakdown in 1908 and had to start his life anew. Not everyone admires half as much what came after, but the Met quotes him as saying that he got serious only in his fifties. And the curators, led by Gary Garrels, tend to agree. Like Johns, they place his last self-portrait at the center of his work.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

1.12.18 — After the Fever

Je ne demande plus qu’à sentir mon cerveau: for Antonin Artaud, “I ask no more than to feel my brain.”

Can art, too, ask no more? In 1972, Nancy Spero created her Codex Artaud. On its thirty-three scrolls, the words of the French poet and playwright float amid crude figures in a field of white, in a desperate attempt to recover sensation. For “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason,” contemporary art is still emerging from a clinical disorder.

Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)Let me tell you about the 1960s. In art, it was a culmination of everything rational and modern—in formalism, spareness, and the logic of the grid. For others, it was the summer of love. It was a time of expanded opportunities and long overdue demands, most especially for blacks and women. When the logic shattered and the love gave out, in the 1970s, the horizons could only expand still further, taking in Latin American art and the resurgent individualism of Neo-Expressionism. The cynicism of the 1980s was still to come.

Or is that all a lie? The Met Breuer, through January 14, sees only art in the throes of a bad trip, and I have added this to previous reports on art and madness as a longer review for my latest upload. The show divides into four sections as “Vertigo,” “Nonsense,” “Twisted,” and “Excess,” to locate the breakdown in drugs, language, physical sensation, and the very impulse to abstraction that had promised so much clarity. It includes dark voices speaking for the oppressed like Spero or Nancy Grossman, but also the cheery spectacle of Yayoi Kusama. It includes the Post-Minimalism and body parts of Paul Thek, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse—but also the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt and Al Loving, the Pop Art of Claes Oldenburg and Philip Guston, the cartoons of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul, and the experimental videos of Gary Hill and Stan VanDerBeek. By the time you exit, you, too, may be delirious.

It starts innocently enough, with what looks like standard fare in abstraction, including Loving. Yet he has peeled and flattened a cube, much as Agnes Denes seeks alternative projections of the 3D geometry of planet earth. The next room brings in Robert Smithson, who devoted himself to entropy, and Lygia Clark, for whom The Inside Is the Outside. Grids include LeWitt, but also Dara Birnbaum with clips from The Hollywood Squares, Andy Warhol with Electric Chair, and Paul Sharits with Cellular Disorder. The terrors of the body are already in evidence, even before Anna Maria Maiolino presses her mouth to the camera and Ana Mendieta her cheeks to glass. For artists like these, delirium means abjection.

The breakdown of language begins with Léon Ferrari and his Tower of Babel in wire, tin, and lead. It includes VanDerBeek’s fragmented poetry and Mira Schendel, with unreadable graffiti. And it all gets an unhealthy boost from drugs, only starting with a book by Timothy Leary. Lee Lozano declares herself Stoned Drunk Sober, Henri Michaux has his Mescaline Drawing, and Dan Graham charts the side-effects. When Carolee Schneemann confronts the atrocities in Vietnam in grainy film, she takes as her soundtrack the Beatles and “We Can Work It Out,” because she no longer can. Still, something gets lost in the fever dream.

Museums are feeling a welcome pressure to display the permanent collection, after so many blockbusters and wasted atriums. They are also feeling the pressure to keep up with contemporary art—which is, after all, what drew the Met to lose money by taking over the Met Breuer. Here it borrows two-thirds of the show, but the same factors are at work. Is it fair to the period and to art? As curator, Kelly Baum includes too many lesser artists and unrepresentative work. She also needs way too much wall text to fit it all into a thesis, but it breaks away, often movingly, all the same.

To force the work into excess, the show has to separate Warhol’s electric chair and Saul’s by an entire floor. It also has to see disintegration, where a collector like Hanne Darboven or a black woman in abstraction like Howardena Pindell saw freedom—or where Jennifer Bartlett saw Rhapsody. It includes illustrations by LeWitt and Jasper Johns with text by Samuel Beckett, but does that reduce them all to apostles of nonmeaning? As its saving grace, the show eats away at the distinction between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, along with the privilege of the prosaic. For Smithson, “Here language ‘closes’ rather than ‘discloses’ doors to utilitarian interpretations.” Yet it allowed him to open doors to perception.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

12.20.17 — Modernity and Revelry

The Met Breuer introduces Raghubir Singh as “Modernism on the Ganges,” through January 2, but the photographer knew better. Modernism had long preceded him to India, and its advent seemed fated to remain incomplete.

Raghubir Singh's Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal (Cynthia Hazen Polsky collection, 1991)The mammoth steel frame of a cantilever bridge looks down on a wedding party by the river in much the same spirit as Shiva the destroyer looks down on an electric fan. Lenin looks down on the diminutive Communist party leader in much the same spirit as Kali, the malevolent mother goddess, looks down on a barber shop where a man, naked from the waist up, flexes his muscles. An equestrian monument looks down on storefronts and filmgoers in much the same spirit as the Bollywood posters behind it and the wires that hold the statue up—or threaten to tear it down. Yet the spirit is not altogether willing, and the flesh is not altogether weak.

Singh thrives on juxtapositions, because they put modernity in perspective. They describe how art enters into life and past into present. Here he can rely for his presences on statues and the poster at a campaign rally. They also pack in that much more of a caste- and class-ridden culture. He traveled the length of the Ganges starting in the late 1960s to see it all. And he liked the panorama so much that he took to the Great Trunk Road in the 1990s for more.

He likes juxtapositions, too, so that no one has the last word. The colonial era weighs down on the present, but Singh views its institutions through green mosquito netting. Modernity promises to lift the weight of the past, but commuters have to settle for a run-down excuse for a bus, while peacocks carry on in the foreground much as they have for a long time. Past and present struggle for primacy within lives as well. The wedding party follows the rules for the occasion, but they serve as an excuse for rejoicing. The barber and his customer kneel face to face as if poised for a fight.

Singh keeps returning to rituals, and it is hard to know where the rules end and the display begins. Young men sparkling in the spray from a fountain are taking part in a rite of immersion. A diver enjoys the flood waters that have all but submerged ancient architecture. Singh sticks to color, too, for its own display. He avoids broad fields of clashing colors as in William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, in favor of pulse and variety. He admired glowing prints by Anish Kapoor as well as old manuscripts, but he prefers motion and spectacle.

Modernism did indeed precede him, and he found a model in Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also found a friend in William Gedney, and he may have seen a parallel between India’s uncertain modernity and Gedney’s rural America. Not coincidentally, both Gedney and Cartier-Bresson also worked in India (and Howard Greenberg in midtown brings together Gedney’s and Singh’s work there for the occasion, through December 9), while Singh also lived in Paris, London, and New York. He did a stint in the north of England as well—to teach, but also to photograph, of course, Indian immigrants. Still, he has little talent for the French photographer’s decisive moment or the American’s vivid portraits in a crowd. These are revelers first and second, slum dwellers or workers a distant third, and individuals hardly at all.

Singh saw India not as individuals, but as jostling for space. It can leave him as conventional and picturesque as most photojournalism, and he worked for the New York Times Magazine, Life, and National Geographic. (The last supplied him with Kodachrome and those nice bright colors.) The curator, Mia Fineman, integrates work by others, also including Helen Levitt and Eugène Atget. She even excerpts films by another friend, Satyajit Ray. Singh looks clumsy by comparison, but in search of a nation’s indecisive moment.

He was still trying to see it all at his death in 1999, at age fifty-six—often from the windows of a car. The Ambassador looks like a real clunker, but India and Hindustan motors were proud of it. The device also recalls “America by Car” for Lee Friedlander, whom he admired as well. He associated windows and mirrors with Modernism, for both the formal constraints and the fragmentation. By the end, his gestures and juxtapositions were loosening. At least one photograph could pass for photocollage, but its colors, frames, and images belong to an actual mirror store—and they mirror a bustling but often stagnant nation.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.