3.12.18 — Art Is Scary

Video art is scary. I do not just mean that it makes art all too easy, although it sure seems that way these days. I do not just mean either that it draws on the same tools as the surveillance state—or that, like any art, it can border on madness.

No, I mean that moment when one steps behind the curtain unaccustomed to the dark, afraid of walking into something dangerous or tumbling to the floor. With Untitled (Havana, 2000), through March 11 (and so sorry I’m a day late), Tania Bruguera latches onto every one of those fears and never lets go. You may not feel safe even after you leave—and I have added this to past reports on contemporary Cuban and Caribbean art as a longer review and my latest upload.

At the very least, you will not feel safe until you come out again into the light. Bruguera recreates her installation for the 2000 Havana Biennial, set within an old fortress used for torture, imprisonment, and mass executions before and after the Cuban Revolution. By then, it held just another art fair, which come to think of it is scary, too. It followed the Clinton administration’s opening to Cuba, with Americans flocking to see what they could before a Republican backlash. The Castro regime was welcoming, up to a point. It closed the work within hours, because it did want to remind people of its terrors.

Here, too, one enters past imposing walls into silence and near total darkness, like an Infinity Room for Yayoi Kusama in reverse. MoMA admits only four visitors at a time, and they must power off and pocket their cell phones—or slip them into black cases that the museum provides. There is no looking for guidance or relief. Every step requires risk taking, for Bruguera lays down a thick carpet of pulp from crushed sugarcane, and its scent does not exactly sweeten the air. Maybe you will make out a small source of light high and in the distance, and maybe you will manage to approach it. You will still be in danger of falling as you crane your neck to view the monitor overhead.

It displays a short video of Castro and more Castro, basking in adoration. Fidel swims, smiles, speechifies, embraces, and exposes his chest again and again. He could be the soldier pointing to what he suffered on behalf of the cause—or the resurrected god pointing to his wounds. In fact, he is showing off his going among the people as one of them, without a bullet-proof vest. Images of the fearless leader were always suspect, but what drew censure is what accompanies them. Depending on your adjustment to the light as you begin a slow walk back to the exit, you may see a performance element that bares its chest, too.

I have already revealed too much, but Bruguera herself cannot stop redescribing the work. Nothing for her is without meaning. She made earlier art from her body in performance, and now she puts yours and that of others on the line, much like the regime. Does a limit on visitors produce lines? Cubans are used to waiting for hours through shortages. The show has an unusually short run for a museum, but she might respond that its first run was even shorter.

The lack of title, too, is meaningful, although Postmodernism might argue that Untitled is always a title. Bruguera alludes to the erasure of the work’s original title, Engineers of the Soul, while adding in parenthesis the specificity of time and place—and while adopting the practice of another Cuban artist, Félix Gonzáles-Torres. This Caribbean art combines sensory overload and sensory deprivation. It depends on immediate experience, shared histories, the artist’s associations that one might never guess, and crucial elements that one may never see. It is vague or broad enough to target Communism and colonialism. It collapses under its own weight, but you can still fear that it might fall on you.

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

1.19.18 — Your Mother Should Know

“My mother was right. Suffer and die.” It sounds like a final plea from the heart, from a woman long past the need for compromise.

Not that Louise Bourgeois was ever one to compromise, and MoMA has every right to call more than two hundred and fifty prints “An Unfolding Portrait,” through January 28. Still, for all her thoughts of dying, she had lasted well into her nineties by the time of My Inner Life, a print just two years before her death in 2010. Like her sculpture, it combines frankness with just enough detachment to make anyone squirm—and I have wrapped this into earlier reports Louise Bourgeois's Spider (Dia:Beacon, 1997)on two other American sculptors, David Smith and Alexander Calder, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Ma mère avait raison, it runs in French, just outside the show’s entrance. Souffrir et mourir. And Bourgeois shows a standing nude with a big belly, swept up in lighter curves—never entirely comfortable in her own body, but also never once willing to prettify it or to disown it. She is smiling way too much to play victim, not to mention too busy observing her surroundings and making art. By the show’s end, she has become a female Saint Sebastian with a big butt. The arrows that pierce the first Christian martyr are the least of her problems, and anyway they come from her.

Who knew that she had her mother in mind with her spiders and Femme Maison (“house woman”)—and not her fears? Yet she insisted that spiders take care in weaving, and her mother kept a tidy home. Then again, the spider is as scary as ever, and the mother who told her to suffer and die sounds pretty scary, too. A homebody can be homey or cut off from the world, and art for Bourgeois can an act of self-assertion or a nightmare. Better still, it can be both, just as the spider’s legs can morph into the tendrils of her hair. As she says in another print, “You can get twisted and tangled in your emotions.”

Enjoy the tangle. A show of prints sounds like a small matter, and I shall not attempt to recap larger matters from a 2008 Guggenheim retrospective (so do give my earlier review a look as well). Yet it has plenty to keep one guessing, including two dozen sculptures. Bourgeois even gave her etchings the look of freehand drawing—and then supplemented their slim curves and splotches with brush and pencil. The sculptures, in turn, run to studies for other work. An exception, a chair barely visible through encircling doors as one of her many Cells, is suitably comforting or confining.

Bourgeois may not compromise, but the curators, Deborah Wye with Sewon Kang, do seek a compromise—between chronology and an arrangement by subject matter. It is not easy, given an artist who could not get enough repetition and variation. The room titles, such as “abstracted emotions” and “forces of nature,” can be more cryptic than the prints, but then her thoughts and feelings always flow together. Those spider legs may spiral inward as a tightening of the chest or outward as a release. A bell jar can suggest natural history, but she may herself be the subject of an unwanted experiment. The Sky’s the Limit, runs another title, but it is a difficult climb (or Montée Difficile).

The prints date mostly to the 1940s, before she turned once and for all from painting to sculpture, and to her last twenty years. They look back to her childhood in France and ahead to life in New York, not far from today’s Chelsea galleries. Their obsessive repetition also connects to both Surrealism and Post-Minimalism. A small figure bulges every which way like a prehistoric fertility goddess or the female body for Kiki Smith. Segmented sculpture can rear up like a horse for Raymond Duchamp-Villon—or weigh down like dreams for Eva Hesse. Prints on parallel staff lines may evoke forgotten melodies or formalism.

Artist books also allow her to tell stories, with a command of both French and English. Her words have the simplicity of fairy tales and the complexity of a family history. She is always waiting for the man who got away—or the man who finally had the nerve to slam the door on her mother. The show concludes in the museum’s atrium with larger prints and a large spider, its legs tightly encircling a steel cage. Does Bourgeois partly cover the cage with tapestry? She is still finding her way home.

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

12.25.17 — To the Max

If your idea of Christmas is the evidence of things unseen, welcome to the mind of Max Ernst. It took art from Dada to Surrealism and then some.

Max Ernst's The King Playing with the Queen (Museum of Modern Art, 1944/1954)For a time, Ernst styled himself Dadamax, and no wonder. He threw himself heart and soul into Cologne Dada, which he had helped found. He shared its disdain for audiences that expect a “proper” form of art—the kind, no doubt, bearing the more dignified signature of someone named Ernst. He also made the transition with others to Surrealism, rushing to join them in Paris in 1922. Besides, he did everything to the max. MoMA catches up with him in medium after medium and subject after subject, through January 1.

Ernst believed in movements and in the collision of art and words. One can see his disdain and disciplined excess in prints from 1920. Let There Be Fashion, the title proclaims. Down with Art. The series looks like a textbook in design or in higher mathematics—right down to unclothed mannequins, geometric constructions, and more or less meaningful formulas. Artist books also allowed him to work with everyone from Paul Eluard, the poet, to Antonin Artaud, the writer and provocateur.

Friends also allowed him multiple identities, as in To the Rendezvous of Friends Become Flowers, Snakes, and Toads. He produced that series alone, but with the help of countless quotations. It also points to his fascination with natural history as another field for transformations. A collage positions a boat with steam pouring out, beneath what might be a fish or a beetle—and who is to say which gave birth to which? The show ends with 65 Maximiliana, ou l’Exercice Illégal de l’Astronomie. Again he is competing with science, and again he is taking things to the max.

“Beyond Painting” in fact has paintings as its high points. They bring still more to the science project, with images after microbes. They also introduce Ernst’s most disruptive media. Frottage, grattage, and decalcomania amount to rubbings, scrapings, and transfer from glass plates. Like collage, they replace the artist’s hand with a process of addition and erasure. More composed paintings do not come off half as well, for all their pursuit of the luminous.

The Modern attempts a career survey solely from its holdings. It accords with a greater attention to its collection, as in exhibitions of “Dadaglobe” and women in abstraction. It could serve as a plea for its expansion now in progress—billed as a way of giving space at last to its core. Yet it risks an aborted retrospective. It has little background beyond the dates of his move to Paris, his escape to New York in 1941, and a return to France in 1953, more than twenty years before his death. Late work and books threaten to bury the more revolutionary painting, sculpture, and collage.

One could well define Ernst by what he is not. Born in 1891, he served in World War I but returned consumed not by the horrors of war, but by his art. Guilliame Apollinaire, who later coined the term Surrealism, had thrilled him as early as 1913, the year of Ernst’s entry into the Berlin Salon. His postwar collage lacks the scraps of combat in Kurt Schwitters, the brutal face of the machine in Francis Picabia, or the poetry in Man Ray. His Surrealism lacks the existential puns in René Magritte or the dreams in Salvador Dalí. He turns his pointed sense of humor on high culture and the psyche.

He comes closest to terror in 1924 with Deux Enfants Menacés par un Rossignol (or “two children menaced by a nightingale”). Its heavy frame holds a gate onto a landscape of the mind, including a girl fleeing with a razor and much the same blade affixed to the front of a house. Yet its boy holding a small child has a toe on the roof like an accomplished dancer—and the outstretched arm of a football player barreling ahead. Terror and agency blend together again in the finest of Ernst’s later sculpture, The King Playing with the Queen. The king is caught up in the game, perhaps a reference to a greater chess player in Marcel Duchamp. Who knows who is playing or playing with whom?

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

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.