3.13.17 — The Zelig of Modern Art

He exhibited in the first wave of abstraction, as Cubism shattered into fragments of color. He met the founder of Dada in Zurich, and he caught up with the movement again when it shifted to Paris. He published with it and delighted in its machine esthetic.

He collaborated in theater, film, and dance with one each of France’s most daring and celebrated composers, directors, and choreographers. He painted Spanish women, much as a Spaniard two years younger was turning back to realism. Francis Picabia's I See in Memory My Dear Udnie (Museum of Modern Art, 1914)That Spaniard was Picasso, but the older painter, too, discovered Neoclassicism and then Surrealism. And then he declared that “figurative art is dead,” at the very moment of the triumph of abstract painting in New York. Oh, and did I say that he sat out part of World War I here, just in time for the Armory Show, and World War II in Vichy France, painting in the official style and spouting anti-Semitism? He was, he declared himself, one “funny guy.”

He could be the Zelig of modern art, but it did not take another funny guy to make him up. Francis Picabia had his signature work, much of it now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but he did all he could to disavow the artist’s signature. His retrospective, at MoMA through March 19, packs two hundred works into rooms claiming ten different periods—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload. You can forgive it if it throws up its hands and calls one period simply eclecticism. So who was he for real? Part of his contribution to Modernism was to question whether the question makes sense.

Actually, it still may. It all depends on which version of the artist one accepts—from a man with so many versions of himself. He may have devoted himself to one movement after another, or he could have stood apart from them all. The curators, Anne Umland and Cathérine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich with Talia Kwartler, argue for Picabia as the consummate trickster. They see an essential nihilism behind his many shifts, and they quote Friedrich Nietzsche, as he was wont to do in his lifetime. The full title of the show’s messiest room is “Eclecticism and Iconoclasm,” with the emphasis on iconoclasm.

A quote from the artist highlights the very idea of change and supplies the show’s title: “Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction.” If the joke seems awfully lame, that accords with another version of Picabia. Maybe his signature works, mostly abstract and all from 1912 to 1920, were his signature. Maybe he floundered after that, all the way to his death in 1953. A noted critic has argued much the same for Pablo Picasso apart from Cubism.

Maybe, too, he came into his own only later—or even after his death. His grab-bag of styles and media looks forward to Postmodernism and art now. So does his use of Ripolin, the premixed enamel, or his paintings after photography and porn. So, too, do his evasions and irony. One could mistake some of his most enigmatic realism for the work of Sigmar Polke or David Salle in the 1980s. The most garish paintings from Vichy France have become some of the show’s most popular on Facebook.

And then there is Zelig. Maybe one can make sense of Picabia only by watching him change, from moment to moment. It can bring out the truth in all those versions of his art. It can show him always in the middle of the action but never altogether there. He may not have left much in the way of great painting, but it becomes easier to see why. He was always looking ahead, looking aside, and looking back.

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

3.8.17 — After the Revolution

Was there ever an art so open to the future? Dada reinvented itself every day, but with no thought to tomorrow. The Bauhaus demanded a new beginning, but with a program. “A Revolutionary Impulse” shows the Russian avant-garde moving so fast that it could hardly know where it was going. It lived by a revolution, with support from Lenin, and it died by a revolution, with Stalin and Soviet Realism, but there was no turning back or turning away. Like the elements of its most revolutionary abstract paintings, it took the risk of floating, soaring, or falling in space. Alexander Rodchenko's Spatial Construction #12 (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1920)

MoMA is having its own quiet revolution. Its 2004 expansion subordinated the permanent collection to hype and real estate, while exhibitions have descended to circuses and celebrities. Yet it has begun to use its smaller galleries and its collection for real history. Now it has to encompass many movements, through March 12, because Russian revolutionary art had more than its share. It places Rayonism, Suprematism, Constructivism, UNIVOS, Proun, and more within a single trajectory—where the last two acronyms share the words Affirmation of the New. They also do not refer explicitly to socialism or politics, a tension that began to eat away at their foundations even before they fell to repression.

They began even before the October revolution. As early as 1913, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were treating Cubism as a forest penetrated by rays of color and light. Kazimir Malevich was proving himself a student of Pablo Picasso and George Braque as well, right down to a soft palette of blue and gray. Prints by Olga Rozanova speak ambiguously to the terrors of war and the nobility of soldiers and workers. She could hardly know that the first would topple the tsar and then a democratic provisional government, while the second would become dogma. Later, with Malevich, Lyubov Popova opens up to colliding geometric forms on fields of white. For now, she could only insist, “we are breaking with the past.”

They were, but not entirely. Her war series also draws on woodcuts for its clumsy edges and images like trumpets. And folk art continues to inspire Russian Modernism. It comports with a shared aim in art and Communism to bring modernity to everyone. El Lissitzky converts Malevich’s red and black squares into characters for a children’s book. Alexandra Exter designs costumes and sets for operettas and Othello—and never mind that the revolution, too, was to end in tragedy.

It began with no time to lose as well. Some art movements are close circles, the kind that might fit in a gallery opening or a crowded bar. This one has one leading name after another, including Wassily Kandinsky (on his brief return to Russia from Munich), Naum Gabo, Ivan Puni, Antoine Pevsner, and Vladimir Tatin. It also has women on equal terms with men. The curators, Roxana Maroci and Sarah Suzuki, devote entire walls hung high to a single artist. The arrangement suits works on paper more than the momentous quiet of Malevich’s white square, but it echoes his floating compositions and the period’s headlong rush.

It also gives due prominence to film. It opens with a collage of found footage by Esfir (or Esther) Shub, and it pauses midway for four silent classics. The revolutionary montage of Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein, and Man with a Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov, plays out on facing walls. One follows the crew of a battleship to rebellion, the other the wild course of a single day. Yet something changes with that room—and not just with its political message. Something darkens as well, from the stern imagery of Earth by Alexander Dovzhenko and Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin to Eisenstein’s murderous Cossacks and a woman’s bleeding eye.

The show’s subtitle speaks of “The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” but its arc suggests instead a rise and fall. Earlier, the plywood tracery of Spatial Construction, by Alexander Rodchenko, casts its dizzying shadows on the wall. After the movies, he and El Lissitzky command a room for photography, with continued experiment but a greater chill. Rodchenko buries a woman in a grid of shadows and turns a street protest into an ant colony. Portraits of artists, poets, and a Pioneer girl close in on imposing faces and a gaping eye. They could be inspiring or terrifying.

A last room gives way to Soviet propaganda. It includes posters and postcards, with the shadow of Lenin’s raised arm. It includes a People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry that looks more like guard towers. “The people” appear everywhere—but, as one of Rodchenko’s photos already had it, “the workers are quiet.” Art had become far too important for innovation, even before Stalin demanded just that. The future was no longer so open.

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

2.6.17 — Memories Are Made of Death

Memories are made of this. The song comes near the end of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, by Nan Goldin, perhaps the last place one looks for nostalgia. So why do its words sound so true? For an answer, I have reworked this together with an earlier report on the artist, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Goldin’s slide show has entered the collective memory of the AIDS crisis and East Village art. It recalls land lines and phone booths, dance clubs and dangerous city streets. Nan Goldin's My Mother Laying on Her Bed, Salem (Matthew Marks, 2005)Seemingly everyone is smoking. It has lingered on the very edge of the present since its origins in 1979, through performances in Berlin, London, and New York of the 1980s to today. A screening at the Museum of Modern Art, through February 12, opens with posters and stills from its nearly forty-five minutes. They merge for me with a cold winter when I caught it in Chelsea in 2001, because these are now my memories, too.

I had seen the slides before when the Whitney remembered “The American Century“—and could see them in my mind again when Anne Collier turned sunsets in Afghanistan and Iraq into a slide show, too, for a war that refuses to fade into night. Of course, memory is notoriously deceptive, and Postmodernism was teaching everyone back then that narratives are constructed. Seeing the work again, I found that it no longer matched my memories either. This was a time of crisis, but a collective one. This was a time, too, of excess but also of pleasure, and many of its moments are celebrations. Memories are made of this, but this in turn is made of memories—first and foremost hers.

One of its first shots is in fact an older couple, presumably her parents, and their wedding photo appears close to the end. In a signature shot, one that appears on several of those posters, the artist herself clutches a pillow while a man sits with his back to her on the edge of the bed. The work has also evolved along with her, and the credits identify the print as the fifth of ten, each unique. Its nearly seven hundred photos could pass for a family album from a very extended family, lingering for those precious seconds before one turns the page. “Ghosts” spells out the family connections, another show her Scopophilia. She is not documenting a crisis but rather living it.

That sense of lived experience has much to do with why the slides hold up, when shows like “New York 1993” at the New Museum have been stuck in the past. I remembered one long testimony to abjection, but a life requires more than that, and Goldin gives it a shape. Sure enough, music is part of that melancholy shape, segueing from opera to cabaret to the Velvet Underground without even waiting for a song to end. The work’s title is itself a song, from The Threepenny Opera. So much, though, for Brechtian detachment. She is out to catch people not in the act, but rather face to face.

As the song goes, “In women he meets deep authority. In them he feels his old dependency.” After opening with mature couples, Goldin moves to young women, smiling or reflective. In time they acquire children, and then children cavort alone, only to grow into men. The men start to gather as if on their way to a confrontation or a party (another obsessed with death, Andy Warhol, among them), and then women join them for birthdays or for booze. Drugs enter the picture, hard drugs, and then at last a terrifying intimacy. In Goldin’s extended climax, couples cling for affection or for sex.

Like Danny Lyon, Sally Mann, or or Paul Mpagi Sepuya, she is penetrating closed spaces and closed circles, to discover loved ones and friends. She is also sinking further and further into night. In that feverish sequence near the end, even a small distance can seem unbridgeable. The work ends with tombstones, a hilly road to nowhere, and an open casket for a funeral. Many that passed through are survivors, although only Goldin can say who. They will have a lot to forget.

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

1.30.17 — Shelter from the Storm

Fear of radical Islam. Fear of terrorism. Fear of immigrants. Fear of capitalism. Fear of imperialism. Fear of the heavy hand of the United States.

Is it up to art to bridge North and South, East and West? “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” looks instead at those caught between worlds, but it fails to put a face on the refugee crisis. And apologies for this late review, but I’d be remiss not to highlight the issue today of all days.

What can art do? What can anyone do to help the more than sixty million uprooted by poverty, oppression, terror, and war? What can one say to people without means, without a certain future, or without a home? One could try to bring the horror to the attention of others and demand action from nations. One could assist with shelter and provisions. One could offer compassion—and address the roots of the crisis, so that the forced displacements will end and not happen again.

MoMA does its best, through January 22, but it never gets past the first. Even there, it barely glances at the headlines. It has at its center an actual shelter—a modular shed from the appropriate United Nations agency, for temporary use only, UN label intact. To its side lie the barest of provisions, such as an emergency blanket, water purification tablets, and a UNICEF “adolescent kit for expression and innovation.” Toys, to you. Visitors will have little clue as to whether the museum means these as exemplary or dismaying.

The shelter stands out for its sheer presence, in an exhibition that struggles to fill so much as a single room. One can enter, noting the bare interior and IKEA-designed doorway, just large enough that I, at least, did not have to stoop. Surrounding it is documentation, in maps and photographs. The maps include drawings, interactive software, a wall installation with each path of human flight a different colored thread, and even a tapestry, the variation all but incidental to meaning or purpose. The photographs fall mostly into two grids, one of makeshift shelters and the other of boat people, but both oddly reassuring. The first look admirably ingenious, even when falling apart, and the boats bear not just people but their hopes.

Still, the display falls well short of compassion or understanding. It never singles out human lives or national histories. Even the photographers run together, from Dorothea Lange in the Great Depression to more than a dozen others in the present, daring one to single out a name. Then again, that may be the point. One of the few artists on hand, Do Ho Suh, contributes a doormat with welcome in bristly rubber spikes. Do not expect a warm welcome.

The curators, Sean Anderson with Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, take nothing for granted, least of all a welcome. They speak of shelter as a human right but also a means of control. They speak of a “fluid sovereignty” in the face of modernity and globalization. They speak of “unbelonging” and “proto-cities.” They may end up, though, reducing politics to postmodern theory, and they may not do enough to illustrate either one. On the maps, the borders look as impregnable as ever.

As the show opened, Bouchra Khalili still had the museum atrium for The Mapping Journey Project, videos tracing the routes of eight refugees, through October 10. It, too, comes off as an exercise in mapmaking, in contrast to images that leave searing memories—in the press and from artists working among refugees in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. Tiffany Chung does better with small monitors in mahogany connected by a tangle of wires on the floor, as Finding One’s Shadow in Ruins and Rubble. They could stand for individuals, for the media bringing them to attention, for the information overload burying their fates, or for access to news and the Internet denied them in overcrowded camps. The most telling juxtaposition, though, comes in the exhibition’s opening—the very same day as one on modern interior design. Guess which show has the real question in its title, as “How Should We Live?”

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

1.16.17 — MoMA’s Thrift Store

Kai Althoff would like to make a statement, if only he had more to say. MoMA gives him every opportunity, turning over one of its largest exhibition spaces to his work, with Althoff himself as curator.

Art lies everywhere, through January 22, seemingly at random, much of it piled together or still under wraps. Partitions have fallen away, in favor of whatever divisions might emerge from the artist’s tables, easels, and pallets. A coarse wood floor, painted white but well scuffed even before public access, covers the usual one, as if to protect him from himself. Consider it a wise idea.

The two hundred objects look as casually assembled as they are arranged. Figurines have the clumsy air of a child’s modeling clay. Paintings approach Paul Gauguin on Quaaludes, German Expressionism without the sharp edges, or simply amateur night. A rug remains half curled up and a balloon heart stuck in an air vent. Antique dolls lie apart from their beds. Discarded furniture, used fabrics, and an entire model city in black fill the awkward spaces in between.

Is it a yard sale, a thrift store, a warehouse, or a studio? Is it a retrospective or an installation? For Althoff, they amount to much the same thing. MoMA’s Laura Hoptman turns over the press release to an actual artist’s statement, but its rambling paragraphs boil down to little more than this: “I cannot choose, but I must.” The show’s title, “and then leave me to the common swifts” (repeated in German) seems to catch him in mid-thought, but a thought that never quite makes sense.

You may not find a puzzle worth teasing out. Some themes do emerge, though, just as the show’s scale attests to bold aspirations—and just as its execution attests to futility. Paintings and photographs show friends hanging out for a lifetime or just for the day. The tormented dolls hint at an unhappy childhood, and the show claims to span much of Althoff’s fifty years, although most of it dates from just a few years around the turn of this century. Perhaps he became a celebrity artist only to run out of ideas. Perhaps he had few ideas all along.

Critics have read a great deal into his work. They have seen inventive installations and a haunting sadness. They have seen memories of Hasidic culture or a bridge between New York and his native Cologne, where he splits his time. Maybe, but one can read practically anything into all this and still lack for meaning. Althoff emerged in the infuriating wave of overblown installations, with some of the biggest. A collaboration with Nick Z., the street artist, only confirmed their macho and their glibness. He later brought his depictions of claustrophobia and high society to the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Althoff’s collecting may recall the legendary 1978 show of “bad painting” at the New Museum, curated by Marcia Tucker. Yet Tucker was aiming another blow against late Modernism, and those days are past. He may recall the provocation of “thrift store art” from Jim Shaw, but Shaw hung anonymous paintings on gallery and museum walls. Althoff has little interest in breaking the boundaries between insider and outsider art, and he has little space for anyone but himself. It will take others to make a statement beyond the artist as brand name. It will take others, too, to stop trashing the gallery and to start poring over the trash.

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

10.5.16 — Anti-Art with Style

Not every art movement has a letterhead, especially a movement dedicated to questioning art. Yet Dada did, and Tristan Tzara set out to use it. Please excuse me if I use another catch-up post to tell you about it.

Tzara, the poet and the movement’s founder, and Francis Picabia wrote fifty artists and writers in ten countries, asking for contributions to an anthology, to be called Dadaglobe. They imagined a volume of up to three hundred pages and ten thousand copies, with four categories of art. Suzanne Duchamp's Factory of My Dreams (private collection, c. 1920)It never came to be, but a recreation documents some rakish personalities and iconic works. Could Dada have taken over the planet?

The letters went out in late 1920, in German (in typescript) or in French (in truly atrocious handwriting). By then the movement was already torn and scattered, with Surrealism to rise from its ashes. No wonder Dadaglobe succumbed to financial woes and infighting. It was also not all that global, apart from exiles like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray in New York. Contributors came mostly from major European capitals, especially Paris and Berlin. They are nonetheless a litany of modernists—including Constantin Brancusi, who otherwise had little to do with Dada, and Jean Cocteau, the playwright and poet, who often wished that he had as well.

They also had an impressive share of women artists, such as Sophie Taeuber (later Taeuber-Arp), Adon Lacroix, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Luise Straus, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, Hannah Höch, and Suzanne Duchamp (here with her Factory of My Dreams). They included others less well known as well, such as Johannes Theodor Baargeld, who grafted himself onto ancient statuary, and Jean Crotti, who portrayed My Other Me. Some who photographed contributors and their work are lost to history. Throw in the contribution of Dada to book art, even an art that died in the making, and the Museum of Modern Art has quite a historical aside, through September 18. Samantha Friedman and Adrian Sudhalter as curators can claim some serious detective work in realizing it. Its impact may depend on one’s patience with memorabilia. Yet that, too, suits suits the period’s argument for mechanical reproduction as an assault on fine art—an argument that resonates to this day.

Contributors were asked for photos of themselves, photos of their work, works on paper in a limited range of color, and page designs. Beyond that, the details were left to them, and they came down very much in favor of art. As revolutions go, this one had style. Few will recognize the artists, but everyone will recognize their care to look dapper, even when Picabia labels himself at once a failure, a gigolo, and a clown. A few photographs take advantage of the medium to submerge the artist in shadow—or subvert it a bit with added drawing or text. Most, though, do not.

The photos of their work have a comforting familiarity, too, and the Modern helps by often setting them beside the original. Duchamp’s Bride retains its soft browns, and the glass of his To Be Looked at looks all the more shattered in a silvery print by Man Ray. Photos restore Brancusi’s wooden head to its lost figure. All these embody the movement as collaborative, and so does André Breton wearing a placard designed by Picabia. Depuis longtemps, his protest reads, tas d’idiots (“for a long time now, a pile of idiots”). And that means you.

Here and there that kind of assault on supposed civilization peeks through. It appears in Man Ray’s construction site as The Most Beautiful Sculpture in America or Jean Arp’s Laocoön as dog intestines. Mostly, though, they take to the particulars of design and the imagination. Even Kurt Schwitters and George Grosz leave memories of war behind. They treat page design as particulars, too, rather than as templates for an artist’s book. Maybe a little at a time, they could create a world.

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

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