9.25.17 — Museum Mile

The architect of a mile-high building sought to rein in skyscrapers. He found the loss of light and open space soul deadening. He hated congestion and unchecked growth—but he never, ever shied away from contradictions.

Frank Lloyd Wright contained multitudes. He designed more than a thousand buildings in the course of seventy years, roughly half of them built. He left hundreds of thousands of drawings and other records along the way. Five years after their acquisition, the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University are still sorting them out. “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, photo by William Short, c. 1959)with a follow-up on Wright’s housing projects just opened at Columbia this fall, will have you doing the same—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. With some four hundred objects at MoMA alone, through October 1, it can feel congested and unchecked, but it dares anyone to tease out the multiplicity.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” Wright was no Walt Whitman, but he was distinctly American. It shows in his egotism and optimism, even in the face of the Great Depression. It shows in his salesmanship, which lay behind his drawings and press events.

There is a lot to unpack, and the lead curators, Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray, are delighted to tick it off. Fifty-five thousand drawings in the archives? (Check.) Three hundred thousand sheets of correspondence, well over a hundred thousand photographs, nearly three thousand manuscripts, and any number of films and models? (Check, check, check, and check again.) One can spend a long time amid the generous selection and wall text, dip in and out, or give up and turn away.

The show already follows a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2009, plus “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City” at MoMA in 2014 (and my earlier reviews will fill out the story). If that, too, sounds like overkill, it has its advantages. It can avoid the Guggenheim’s focus on itself, and it can point more firmly than last time to Wright as an architect rather than urban planner. Yet it can also add to the confusion. It brings separate scholarly curators to each of twelve sections, arranged by theme. If one does not already know Wright’s achievement from past shows, one may not learn about it here.

Fortunately, the themes help pin down the contradictions. Were they even real? Maybe Wright just changed his mind, between his Skyscraper Regulation Project for Chicago in 1926 and Mile-High Illinois some thirty years later. Yet he proposed a high-rise for Manhattan back in 1927, next to St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and that never got built either. Both towers had the same foundation at that, a “taproot” set deep into the ground as an anchor for cantilevered floors. To add to the seeming contradictions, the idea of a taproot borrows from botany.

The contradictions may never quite go away, but they are also nurturing. Wright was never the dictatorial capitalist out of Ayn Rand—not when he cared so much for people, design, and nature. “Unpacking the Archives” leaves a delight in textiles and table settings as well as buildings. It leaves the beauty of his drawings for their fine lines and soft orange, blue, and green. A large model for the Guggenheim, just as well crafted, will make you want to restore its cream color and to obliterate the toilet tank for tower galleries, added in 1992. It will, at least, until you return to Wright’s building and try to find a decent place for art.

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

9.15.17 — When Great Artists Borrow

Robert Rauschenberg did not traffic in stolen property. Yet few have taken more risks in the name of art.

Everything may seem, barely, above board. Rauschenberg bought the toilet paper of his black paintings over the counter, and he rescued the soiled bedding of a shocking combine painting from the trash. Yet no one else can bring art so close to criminal conduct. And no work comes as close to a defacement of private and public property as his Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon (Sonnabend Collection, gift to Museum of Modern Art, 1959)

At least critics at the time thought so, but Willem de Kooning handed over a drawing knowing full well what would become of it. The older artist did not just go along with the game either. He got into it, selecting a composition with several figures that he knew would be difficult to erase. In Rauschenberg’s recollections, the number of erasers and the time it took kept growing with each retelling. Jasper Johns got into the game, too, supplying a frame and a label as integral parts of the work. If Rauschenberg committed vandalism, he had partners in crime.

The Museum of Modern Art takes collaboration as its theme, for a mammoth retrospective—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload. It places the artist “Among Friends,” through September 17, including work with and by others along with the breadth of his career. It argues for his art as interdisciplinary, egalitarian, and open. It helps in understanding his frequent shifts in substance, style, media, and materials, as he kept up with friends and influenced them in turn. People like to say that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. MoMA sees Rauschenberg as not just borrowing, but repaying the loan with interest.

The line about stealing comes in several versions (sometimes with copy in place of borrow), and Pablo Picasso may or may not have coined it. That confusion only adds to its assault on the “originality of the avant-garde“—and who more than Rauschenberg led the assault? Robert Hughes long blamed Andy Warhol for ruining modern art, like the Huns descending on classical civilization, but Rauschenberg was the consummate vandal. He took the readymade from Dada, with all its refusal of art, and turned it into appropriation, with all its refusal of art apart from the world. It made him a founder of Pop Art and a leading influence on the turn away from painting with the “Pictures generation” after 1980. It allowed him to work, as he liked to say, in the gap between art and life.

For MoMA, it also makes him a natural collaborator. Right out front stand classics of Pop Art from the museum’s collection, like Warhol’s Marilyn and a soft telephone by Claes Oldenburg. Already Rauschenberg is among friends. The exhibition proper then opens in 1950 with ghostly blue photograms by him and his wife at the time, Susan Weil. They took turns posing and photographing the other. For one, she adjusted the light sources so that he appears twice in collaboration, as if holding his own hands.

Collaboration sounds ever so reasonable and cuddly. Maybe great artists do steal, and none more than Rauschenberg—and I was more cogent in reviews of the Rauschenberg retrospective twenty years ago and his combine paintings in 2006, so I hope that you will have time to read about them as well. Still, this show is overwhelming for good reason, because so is Rauschenberg. It may even overturn one version of him, along with its own theme. I had always written off the lightness of cardboard boxes from the 1960s and the seemingly endless late silkscreens to reliance on assistants, but maybe they represent a falling off in collaboration instead. Starting in 1962, he spent much of the year in Florida, to recover the “isolation needed for productivity.” He began delegating more than collaborating. By his death in 2008, he could steal from no one but himself.

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

8.4.17 — Making Space in Abstraction

Maybe the Museum of Modern Art is finally getting the point. It has begun focusing on its collection, which got short shrift in its 2004 expansion.

It has done so with special exhibitions to illuminate movements in modern art. And now it headlines not a period in history, but women in abstract art. While the show pays only token attention to African Americans, take heart: as I noted in an earlier report, a Chelsea gallery has William T. Williams ripping through many of the same years. Together they belong now to a longer review and my latest upload.

Magdalena Abakanowicz's Yellow Abakan (Museum of Modern Art, 1967–1968)Making Space” does not try to pick winners in the contemporary scene, through August 13—although women have done plenty to drive the resurgence of painting. MoMA has been picking winners for a long time, but that is starting to look more suspect in a hot market with a short memory. Rather, it tackles the glory years of postwar abstraction and Minimalism. With “Women of Abstract Expressionism” in Denver or Carmen Herrera at the Whitney, maybe other institutions are getting the point, too. The display of the collection quite generally will be changing as well—and the changes are rubbing off on men.

The show calls attention to past practices as well. When critics object to a paucity of women in museums, they almost always mean MoMA. Recently women have seemed to be everywhere, but here mostly as Marina Abramovic staring off into space. The good news is that more than third of this show consists of fairly recent acquisitions. The bad news is what that says about the last forty years, after paintings by Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Agnes Martin shaped a generation’s understanding of postwar art. With shows like this, they could shape a new generation’s understanding now.

Not that MoMA was ever out of the picture. It says as much with the exhibition title, which recalls the standard history of abstraction as formalism, as well as the need to make room for women. It says so, too, in mentioning exhibitions going back to 1951. It cites “Abstraction in Photography” when it comes to Barbara Morgan and Gertrude Altschul, “The Responsive Eye” when it comes to Bridget Riley and Op Art, and “Wall Hangings” when it comes to Sheila Hicks and Anni Albers—who had served as acting director of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus. It opens with big gestures in red, blue, and green by Grace Hartigan, whose work toured the country in “New American Painting” starting in 1956. She was the sole woman present.

Coming late to the game has its advantages at that. Like prior shows of “Dadaglobe” and “The Revolutionary Impulse,” it allows the curators, Starr Figura and Sarah Hermanson Meister, to bring history up to date. They devote nearly a room to Latin American art, including Altschul, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Gego. They incorporate design with ceramics by Lucie Rie and again with tapestry in a room for “Fiber and Line,” including a grand cape of rumpled sisal by Magdalena Abakanowicz. They can even distance themselves from formalism by calling the last room “Eccentric Abstraction”—for such figures as Lee Bontecou, Jay DeFeo, Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Eva Hesse. The very first room bows to globalism with Etel Adnan, born in Lebanon, and to African Americans, with Alma Thomas.

A revisionist history is bound to bring surprises, even with work acquired long ago. That first room counters the epic scale of Abstract Expressionism with collage by Anne Ryan and Janet Sobel, perhaps the first drip painter. The show leaves out Hesse’s large work in favor of hanging paper-mâché and cord, created at an abandoned German textile factory. I already hear cries to move all this immediately to the regular galleries, displacing as many men as possible, to get a revisionist history going there, too. That would be a mistake. This is not a zero-sum game at the expense of men who changed the rules—and it is not another round of puffery and pop stars.

Does MoMA have a distinct vision of women in art? Maybe or maybe not, and either can be the point of giving them their due. One can argue that all along, as with Mitchell or Krasner’s Gaea, they have rooted abstraction in both subjectivity and nature. One can again argue for riffs on craft, such as polyurethane Belly-Cushions by Alina Szapocznikow. One can also argue for women as outsiders, including Jews who escaped Europe—with Szapocznikow a Holocaust survivor. Male immigrants like Arshile Gorky would understand.

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

7.26.17 — A Proper Burial

More than thirty years ago, painting was dead, and a woman in her thirties was determined to give it a decent burial. Louise Lawler photographed a painting by Jackson Pollock at his peak, but hanging above fine porcelain in the home of Connecticut collectors.

A soup tureen’s delicacy all but subsumes Pollock’s drips in its pattern. Is this the proper decor for a funeral parlor or what? Also in 1984, Lawler photographed a flag painting by Jasper Johns above monogrammed bedding—both as white as a sheet. May it rest in peace. Louise Lawler's Monogram (courtesy of the artist/Metro Pictures, 1984)

Not that painting had ever died, although all the right people declared it dead, and I had to pursue abstract art to Staten Island in the 1990s for the first hints of its resurgence. Lawler and others, though, were prepared to bring the death blow as well as the funeral. The “Pictures generation,” named for an exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp, saw painting as one more great white male institution in crisis—and who better to rise up against it than a woman with a camera like Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, or Lawler. She did the deed well, too, for her image of Connecticut is instantly recognizable today. It is recognizable even traced on vinyl, in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art through July 30, curated by Roxana Marcoci with Kelly Sidley.

Just the year before, in 1983, Crimp wrote “The Museum in Ruins” for a book edited by Hal Foster. And no wonder, for postmodern art and critical theory were then learning from and encouraging one another. So why does the museum look very much intact, even when Lawler takes one behind the scenes for, ambiguously, a taking down or an installation? Her photographs from the 1980s and 1990s occupy the show’s first room—some more recently enlarged to the scale of walls. Some are distorted in the process, which she deems a response to distortions of another kind, in fact-free politics after Donald J. Trump. A second room has the tracery and “ephemera,” such as announcements of past exhibitions.

Lawler takes down the “originality of the avant-garde“—not just with her photographs, but also in the spirit of collaboration. She casts leaf shapes in bronze with Alan McCollum and engages Jon Buller, a children’s book illustrator, to do the tracing. She photographs a painting by Robert Rauschenberg that already appropriates Peter Paul Rubens. She also packs a mean spirit when she cares to do so, as with the white globes of an art handler—or in pairing Jackie Kennedy with a Nazi. Titles ask whether Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol make you cry, and the obvious answer is no. How, then, did painting and sculpture escape death?

For one thing, no one ever doubted that art depends on patronage. Pollock made do with far less than the bounty of Renaissance princes before him—or of art fairs, art advisors, and museum blockbusters today, when The New York Times interviews celebrities each week about what hangs on their walls. In contrast to her obviousness, Lawler can also come off as more insular than a private dealer. Wall labels follow the money trail, naming the owners of all her prints from editions of five. They do not, though, offer the least help in identifying the art on camera. If you have to ask. . . .

To her credit, she freely admits her complicity in the game. When she makes a glass paperweight from a photo of Dan Flavin, his lights shimmer. She picks co-conspirators like Sherman as subjects, transforms the name of male competitors into bird calls for the museum’s sculpture garden (in a recreation of sound art from 1972 and 1981), and includes stationery and custom matchbooks for her gallery. One matchbook even gives the retrospective its title, “Why Pictures Now.” So why return to “Pictures” now, and did Lawler’s generation kill art only with kindness? May it rest on museum walls in peace.

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