1.31.18 — The End of Her Rope

Laura Owens takes the museum’s proverbial white cube literally, as a room within her midcareer retrospective at the Whitney, and paintings wrap around its top. In one painting high on each exterior wall, a single hand sweeps along like a clock that has lost track of everything but the precious seconds. The rest might be counting off the hours more figuratively, even if having fifteen rather than twelve in each row disrupts space and time once again.

Another partition cuts off all but the top of a few more rows on a back wall. Sneak into the narrow corridor behind it for the rest, should you dare arouse a museum guard’s vigilance. Two more paintings face one another as mirror reflections, give or take the artist’s imperfections.

Laura Owens's Untitled (detail) (Whitney Museum, 2014)Still another installation treats its paintings as bedroom furnishings, with a painted couple in bed hung just around the corner. Given three beds, five dressers, and two bedroom mirrors to multiply them, this would be quite a slumber party. Jorge Pardo, her boyfriend at the time, contributed the stiff and seemingly mass-produced furniture. And then there are the paintings within rooms within rooms within paintings, like the one with an easel and a perspective onto other galleries at back. Either this imaginary museum welcomes copyists, or Owens has enlarged her studio. She does so implicitly every step of the way.

Owens pays tribute to a great museum. Still cherish the moveable walls and flexible galleries of the old Whitney on Madison Avenue, now the Met Breuer? The 2015 architecture by Renzo Piano extends them to larger spaces downtown. Now the Whitney brings them to much of two floors, through February 4. And yet Owens began her paintings more than twenty years ago, and she and the walls are still on the move. Do not believe her one minute when she says that she is at the end of her rope.

Despite all appearances, her retrospective is anything but site specific. The curators, Scott Rothkopf with Jessica Man, base its rooms on her past shows—and that painting of a museum, first exhibited in London, contains her distorted memory of the Art Institute of Chicago. She plays freely, too, with boundaries in taking Minimalism’s grids into wood slats that may extend beyond a painting’s edge. She plays just as much with memory, with a style out of children’s books and subjects out of the lives of her children. Her son contributed a homespun fairy tale to four freestanding panels. As a likely museum first, she brought her little girl to the press preview.

The childishness extends to mythic lovers and warriors, nature scenes, and slapdash abstraction. And the overt sophistication extends to the illusion of thick brushstrokes on classified ads—or knots of paints that stand for birds and bees. Owens has lived in LA since attending Cal Arts, where John Baldessari made conceptual art the order of the day. She reasserts painting, in accord with its revival nowadays (like her appearance at MoMA in “The Forever Now“), but conceptualism is still on her tail. It follows her even to the naïve and the painterly, like the circle of light from a table lamp. Who knows whose eyes or stars peek through as blurred circles of light in a dark forest?

Owens does not often do darkness or depth, and the space aliens in her son’s fractured fairy tale may have leveled cities. She is more at home with her grandfather’s sailboat or the birds and the bees. As the text of one painting puts it, “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on.” A cartoon boy and baboon take her advice, happily ignoring the irony. So much LA whimsy can wear quickly, but one can still enjoy the exuberance—not to mention a painting’s way of referring to itself and others. Go ahead and feel impassive, but the museum walls have given way.

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

1.22.18 — Join the Club

Groucho Marx would not join a club that would accept him as a member. Jimmie Durham feels the same way about citizenship in a nation.

Make that at least two nations, counting what Anglos might call a tribe. Born in 1940, Durham grew up in the American South but left for Geneva to study art. He showed in New York in the glory years of alternative spaces, but left again for Mexico and then Europe. By his own account the most prominent Native American artist, he gave up activism in 1973, and the Cherokee will not recognize him as their own. Either he could not document his ancestry or he could not be bothered. In each and every case, he never once looked back.

Jimmie Durham's Self-Portrait Pretending to Be a Stone Statue of Myself (ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2006)If it gets tiresome to keep track of his movements and affections, he embraces the charge. Wherever he goes, he says, he is the “center of the world”—and the Whitney adopts just that as the title of his retrospective, through January 28. He might be there only in spirit, but he finds his spirit everywhere. He could not make it to the United States for the opening, but he does leave the polished branch of a “saved tree” to open the show and to mark its location. If it looks like a flagpole, it accompanies text art from 1992 labeling it an Anti-Flag. Try not to salute.

If something here sounds phony, he embraces that charge, too. His art boasts of its artifice, not least when it consists of pretend Native American artifacts. Even when he sets real animal skulls atop New York police barricades, they look like something left in the garbage. Maybe he hoped that they would join his 1982 Manhattan Festival of the Dead. He lived uptown in those years, not far from the Cathedral of John the Divine, which he revered as fake Gothic. Even when he displays what may or may not be his blood, he labels it “color enhanced.”

If he also sounds awfully self-involved, he would be the first to question himself, sincerely or not. His self-portrait looks like flayed skin, with a paper head and an opening onto his fragile heart. The penis of found plastic is anything but erect. He could be the consummate New Yorker after all, always doubting, always complaining, and always demanding that one listen. His Six Authentic Things include turquoise and obsidian, but also words. But then, as more text has it, “I forgot what I was going to say.”

Durham is in constant dialogue with others, but he has scripted the voices, not least his own. Works on paper speak up for Caliban from The Tempest, and one can never doubt that he identifies with the ignoble savage. Another complains that he “made me without regard to his art career or I am sorry to say the sensitivity of the general art public,” but soon enough he interrupts. The text on his largest work, from 2005, advises humility: “we worry . . . but the world has already moved on and has forgotten us.” Do not believe that he has forgotten himself for one minute.

Those words precede an odd assortment of exhaust ducts, a spare tire, and dated electronics. Durham has some of the trash and macho of contemporary installations, some of today’s identity politics, and a touch of outsider art as well—but the work’s heart is appropriation as improv, with a debt to Robert Rauschenberg. His moose’s head sprouts one antler like the wings of Rauschenberg’s eagle, but with steel pipes in place of the other. Art as an ongoing ending experiment drew him in the 1990s to science, but again as sheer subjectivity or comedy. “Boy! Those are pretty colors, aren’t they?” Yellow Higgs Transmitting Apparatus from 2013 sounds meaningful, but do not count on results.

He quit the American Indian Movement after just four years to make art, but he could not resist a dig at its leadership on the way out. One could accuse him of faux politics, much like his faux everything else. It can infuriate people, including me, and it has kept him on the margins, although he appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial—his first in decades. He plays the saint or sinner well enough, pounding an old refrigerator with stones, as if stoning Saint Stephen, but his “homages” have veered from Native Americans to artists of other races, like David Hammons and Alexander Calder.

No doubt he would just as soon pay tribute to himself. Yet his work has at least one thing going for it, in its insistence of self-reference and artifice as inextricable from art.

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

12.11.17 — The Way Home

It has taken a few years, but the Whitney has found its way home. Maybe it never could find its way back to Madison Avenue, obliging the Met Breuer to pick up the pieces—at the cost of a balanced budget and a director’s career. Maybe it felt a bit lost in the Meatpacking District, reopening in Renzo Piano architecture with “America Is Hard to See.”

Now, though, after a stormy Whitney Biennial, it has taken a liking to what it sees. It even calls a rehanging of the permanent collection through roughly 1960 “Where We Are“—Johns's Three Flags (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1958)and what better way to enjoy tourist season in New York than with a return visit? This being a museum of American art, naturally it has to assess who we are as well.

The show alludes early and often to a poem in the darkness of a world at war, and it opens with paintings about a previous war. Yet it has space for the comforts of home, including two different paintings of room heated by a stove. It has no room for Stuart Davis and American Cubism, some of the leading lights of the Ashcan School and Abstract Expressionism, or the showpieces of Pop Art, but repeat appearances by Edward Hopper and a renewed emphasis on race and gender. Who we are, then, is changing, but not all at once, which is only reasonable. It is less out to change the face of American art than to change how one sees it. In other words, it is even now looking for home.

It takes its title from an exile in America, W. H. Auden, but the British poet opens “September 1, 1939” with a chilling specificity of time and place:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

It has become something of a cliché to say that this or that warning hits home in age of Donald J. Trump, but Auden’s does. As curators, though, David Breslin with Jennie Goldstein and Margaret Kross are at least cautiously optimistic about home ground. Their five rooms borrow further from the poem, for familiar themes of American aspirations—”No One Exists Alone” for family and community, “The Furniture of Home” for domesticity, “The Strength of Collective Man” for labor and industry, “Of Eros and Dust” for the greater longings of postwar art, and “In a Euphoric Dream” for American icons. In this company, a near abstract riff by Larry Rivers on Washington Crossing the Delaware looks less like a shriek of pain than the sheer pleasure of painting.

Auden would have had his doubts, to judge by the context of a quote: “but who can live for long / in an euphoric dream.” You are entitled to your doubts, too. Museums rehang their collections all the time, as the Whitney did for its seventh-fifth birthday—and I have not even bothered to write up work from the 1980s on another floor or at MoMA. The wall text, too, can sound phony, in comparing “the rural Kansas of his youth” for John Steuart Curry to “the mother he lost” for Arshile Gorky. The double portrait of Gorky and his mother, who died in the Armenian genocide, has a monumental blankness that Curry’s regionalism could never attain.

Within, though, Curry’s Baptism in Kansas hangs next to an equally ecstatic religious community bathed in a blue light from Archibald Motley, the black artist in Chicago. A trite history has given way to diversity and feeling. The same comes in the room for “collective man,” where linoleum cuts by Elizabeth Cattlet pronounce I Am the Negro Woman. Right off the elevator lies another recent acquisition of African American art, the war series by Jacob Lawrence. It puts on equal terms the pain of soldiers in World War I and of families learning of their death at home. Look off to the side, to a parade in Washington Square by William Glackens, and its sentiments look a lot more suspect but its dabs of color more modern.

Women appear again to the other side, where as unfamiliar a name as Agnes Pelton under the influence of theosophy leads to a glowing abstraction Georgia O’Keeffe. A pair of eyes by Jay DeFeo hangs next to a Veil by Morris Louis, as if looking behind the curtain. Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French supply another kind of diversity, in collaborative photos of gay identity as PaJaMa. White males can add surprises, too, like Andreas Feininger. His photo of a house brought in one piece to suburbia seems torn between assertions of rootlessness and home. Speaking of home, I had forgotten that Edward Hopper also painted East River apartments.

Icons like Hopper and Jasper Johns still have their place. In fact, Early Sunday Morning and Three Flags have a wall to themselves, just in case you had never noticed that the first has its own red, white, and blue—in the shape of a barber’s pole. So does an abstraction by Ellsworth Kelley. A black painting by Frank Stella appears with scenes of white working class America by Charles Demuth, Elsie Driggs, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange because, among other reasons, Stella applied house paint. But picking winners gets old quickly when it comes to the permanent collection. Even Auden ends his poem with an “affirming flame.”

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

11.15.17 — Lurking Within

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well.

Almost anything might be lurking in a photograph by Willa Nasatir, maybe even someone you know. She would insist otherwise, but should you trust her?

Much of the appeal of her images lies in the elusiveness of what they represent and the evidence of deception. There is plenty of evidence, all from the last year alone. Nasatir works large, on the scale of a person, and in layers of objects and spaces. Willa Nasatir's Butterfly (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2017)Walking into her exhibition recently at the Whitney was like entering a room in which not even harsh museum lighting can fully penetrate the darkness.

You might have stumbled on it earlier this fall coming off the large floor for Hélio Oiticica, the Brazilian artist, through October 1. They appear as different as night and day. Oiticica loved the plainness of simple geometry and wide open spaces for visitors, or “participants.” From his early constructions in Rio to photographs on a Manhattan rooftop, he wanted art to feel alive and free. Nasatir makes her work impenetrable, although she, too, likes the sensation of floating. Ghostly whites hover uncertainly over electric colors and sheer black.

They present at first a cascade of color, although nearly half the small show is black and white. Several color photos hang side by side on the wall facing the entrance, like a single unstable space. They hold more photographs parallel to the picture place, along with larger and equally cryptic objects. The work in black and white, most often smaller, looks denser to the point of abstraction. Both could seem primarily about the choice of chromogenic or gelatin silver prints for their own sake, all mounted on wood. Both, too, could almost pass for photograms.

Nasatir’s cascading shapes have much in common with work today between photography and abstract painting, like that of Eileen Quinlan, right down to signs of craquelure. They are, though, always about something. She starts with assemblages of found objects, and then the manipulation continues with photography and rephotography. A cart in the foreground of one image could be stacked objects or stacked images. A speckled rag running down that same photo repeats itself for sure. While she tends to avoid digital manipulation, the electric colors belong to a digital age, and it takes a moment to realize that they are almost all red, yellow, and blue.

What they are not are people, although they have every sign of life. A cart like that one could stand beside a patient’s bed in a hospital, and the rag, to judge by the photography’s title, has become a butterfly. Vertical shapes could stand for people or empty clothing, and shadows run beneath them. Most images look like interiors, and they do take place in her studio. Titles, though, speak of a bird, a hitchhiker, a sunbather, and Coney Island. Did I mention that installations for Oiticica include live birds and sand?

The ambiguity of inhabited and empty, static and busy, inside and out, helps explain why the spaces seem both deep and claustrophobic. They could be sites for forbidden experiments, like scenes for Everett Kane, and two are The Red Room and The Green Room. The interest in pre-digital equipment from an artist barely old enough to remember it resembles Kane’s as well. A photo in black and white might represent a control tower, and another appears to perch a bus on top of the bus depot. Mostly, though, they seem safe enough to enter. You never know whom you might encounter within.

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

10.23.17 — Mobiles in Motion

With his mobiles, Alexander Calder created sculpture so lively that one can use it to introduce Modernism to kids. Still, the stubborn child in me has always had a question: when are they going to move? The answer at last is now.

With “Hypermobility,” through October 23, the Whitney sets the mobiles in motion. One can see them as Calder intended—often for the first time since an initial display long ago. Alexander Calder's Circus, Tightrope Artists (Whitney Museum, 1926–1931)One can see, too, their central place in his art. Did his larger, static public sculpture introduce Modernism to corporate adults? When he hit on a back-formation, stabiles, to describe that work, he was reminding everyone what came first. So what if, by its very definition, it is already slipping away?

One really can use the mobiles to introduce sculpture to kids. They show that abstract art, too, gets to play around. The most familiar have the lightness of slim steel planes in black or fire-engine red, suspended by wire like a fancy chandelier on the verge of falling apart. Some incorporate imagery, such as fish, but all are teeming with life. One can take for granted that they do not even have to move, because of their potential for motion. It helps, though, to plan around the museum’s schedule, for when they do.

They move in more ways than one. The very first, starting in 1931, incorporate a hidden motor, and restoration took some doing. The show’s title suggests hyperactivity, but the changes are often barely perceptible, as a single ball rises while another just as slowly falls. Sculpture moves, but it demands that viewers slow down. Others respond to currents of ambient air, while still others require a museum staffer to give them a push, with a rod. Calder’s ingenuity or his early training as an engineer allows them to hold together during their not so simple harmonic motion.

Calder can seem a bit of a lightweight, but he started out heavier. The show holds just three dozen works, most from the Calder Foundation, with a stabile or two outside on the museum’s terraces. Double Cat from 1930, in carved wood, still lies face down on the floor, like a “primitive” totem that has come to ruin or taken a nap. The first mobiles make use of wood, too, along with motors and steel. One from 1941 looks like a boulder sprouting modern art. Only after World War II, with the artist approaching fifty, do they reach for the ceiling.

They also reflect his first encounters with abstraction. Their birth coincided with Calder’s Paris years—the subject of a larger show at the Whitney in 2009. Background planes make some look almost like paintings, perhaps of constellations. The curators, Jay Sanders with Greta Hartenstein and Melinda Lang, throw in a few static bronze spirals as well, to point to their affinity with modern sculpture. He got to know Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian, whom he urged to experiment with motion as well. He kept returning, though, to the perpetual motion machine of New York City.

Marcel Duchamp himself coined the term mobile, with a pun on the French for motive, which makes sense. They not only move, but also derive their impetus from within. They also encourage the motives of others, like the staffer with a pole. In concerts during the show’s run, musicians and sound artists like Christian Marclay can use them as settings, themes, or instruments. They may still feel caught between clumsiness and lightness—like Calder’s Circus, long a fixture at the Whitney on Madison Avenue. Yet they refuse to sit still.

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

9.27.17 — North of Paradise

In December 1970, Hélio Oiticica moved to New York. Had he brought Brazil with him or left it behind? The Whitney shows him searching all his life for a sense of belonging and freedom, through October 1.

So what if now and then they got in each other’s way? So what, too, if the creator of an installation called Eden never found paradise. With an earlier report on Lygia Pape, a fuller version of this review is the subject of my latest upload.

With Pape and Lygia Clark in Brazil, Oiticica launched a movement. The Neo-Concrete manifesto of 1954 asserted their place in Modernism and geometric abstraction, and it connected both ideals to personal freedom. Hélio Oiticica's Tropicália (César and Claudio Oiticica Collection/Carnegie Museum of Art, 1967)Oiticica liked it so much that he used the movement, Grupo Frente, as the title for his early art. Works on paper break from the grid, with elements in motion in debt to Kazimir Malevich, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian. A painting in shades of red has a luminosity and rigor that would have done Ad Reinhardt proud. Just in case you have not had enough of the group, it appeared recently enough in a Chelsea gallery’s summer group show.

Not bad for an artist in his twenties, nearly fifty years before museums and markets embraced Latin American art. Yet he came to New York not as an apostle of modern art, globalization, or cultural identity. He came to belong and to create. He had already survived the dictatorship that took over Brazil in 1964. He had watched as friends suffered exile, jail, execution, or silence. As an artist and a gay male, he found new friends and new life in East Village art. From the wild and personal look of his work from the 1970s, he had left painting and politics alike all but behind.

Ten years later, he quit the city, under pressure from immigration agents and under suspicion for his sexuality. His proposed urban architecture had gone nowhere. Still in touch with Clark, he wrote that he felt “in prison on this infernal island.” He returned to Rio, but not to the formal exuberance with which he began. He died from a stroke just months after his return home, at age forty-two. In his short life, every discovery came at the cost of the abandonment of another—and every step toward release became confining once again.

The search for belonging and freedom appears from the start, along with their tensions. Belonging is obvious, given a moment and a manifesto, but so are the free-floating elements of geometry. Malevich became a hero to Minimalism in America for his spare paintings. The curators, though, suggest that he meant something else again in Rio—much as Soviet art in its time stood for new beginnings. Still, Grupo Frente quickly felt confining, and Oiticica sought to free his work from canvas and the wall. He adapted his planes to sculpture for others to enter, and he placed a mirror on the floor beneath one piece, so that others could see themselves.

He called smaller works Bólides, or fireballs, beginning in 1963, so that the explosions could continue. He gave wood cabinets movable shelves and filled glass receptacles with pigment, crushed brick, organic substances, and earth. They hint at his identity as a sexual being in a native landscape. That landscape expands, too, to include others, but refuses the labels that others place on him. Tropicália from 1967 allows “participants” to follow its pebbled paths or to wander on their own in sand. Its plants, TV footage, and caged birds place the work in the tropics, but allow for a recreation anywhere. It offers a place for reading and contemplation, while contemplating stereotypes that Oiticica abhorred.

Two years later, he created Eden at the Whitechapel in London. Now the paths are gone, leaving open sand and cryptic enclosures. You may stumble onto a floor of leaves, hay, or running water, so watch your step even in paradise. Then comes the fall from Eden and New York. At his death, he had left the infernal island for a hotter climate and death. So where did he belong, and was he ever free?

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