4.4.18 — A Flatbed Up to Nature

As a follow-up to last time on “Thinking Machines,” allow me a late review that somehow fell through the cracks. I also bring them together, with more on art and technology, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Art, they say, holds a mirror up to nature—but, honestly, why bother? Why not bring nature to art? Simply place it on the glass of a photocopier, close the lid, and push a button.

And artists have, with what the Whitney just recently called “Experiments in Electrostatics,” through March 25. The small show of works in series from its collection infiltrates the museum’s education department, which itself looks like the offices of a small business and probably has a copier. What could be more natural?

The medium seems only natural for an artist even now, working a day job that uses up way too much time and way too much paper. Imagine the temptation of the copy machine, at the office for free. There was even, briefly, an International Society of Copier Artists with hundreds of members and a show in Italy in 1986. Yet no small part of the machine’s appeal was its novelty. The company that later became Xerox had produced one as early as 1948 and brought it to market in 1959, but Robert Whitman still marveled at it in 1974, when he placed oranges on its bed. Edward Meneeley must have felt that he had entered the very heart of the beast at IBM in 1966.

Nature in their hands takes quite a beating, as is only natural, but emerges with a greater glow. The oranges take on a stranger and deeper coloring from the machine’s charged particle beams—and from Whitman’s use of fabric for equally colorful backgrounds. Meneeley’s grainy verticals might pass for Minimalism in monochrome or, up close, biomorphic abstraction, but they derive their patterning from office supplies and other detritus at IBM. A fourth artist, Lesley Schiff, blurs the borders of nature and artifice once again in 1981. The hand holding a tulip belongs to a mannequin, and the floral vision on which they rest belongs to more fabric. Yet the hand looks ever so real from its very awkwardness, and the tulip has turned a blood-stained white.

Their ghostliness has a precedent in photograms, or what Man Ray called his Rayograms. So does holding objects right up against the plane that will take their impression. Sheets from ISCA would have looked at home in Dada in Zurich at that, like the face of the medium’s creator in 1938, Chester Carlson, corrupted by cryptic signs as in a collage. Yet there is no direct imprint on the glass plate, unlike with photograms. The device mediates the results after all, much like a camera. Schiff alters the image further through copier settings and by lifting the lid.

The medium also anticipates art’s turn to newer technologies—the very technologies that led just this year to the demise and acquisition of Xerox. David Hockney was already working with a fax machine, but artists are still duplicating, manipulating, and duplicating again thanks to scanners, printers, and Photoshop. Every device promises to deliver on the perfect copy, much like a camera, and every device moves a step or two further from the original. Think of photography approaching painting and painting approaching photography. Think of those frustrating days in the office with toner running low, smears, and paper jams. A postmodern critique of the “originality of the avant-garde” takes on new meaning.

This art is self-referential, like the portrait of Carlson above the word Xerografia, but not only self-referential. Schiff points to nature’s transience in her series title, Seasons, along with her imagery and variety. And the transience can easily become a threat. A gyroscope spins in a dark woods, while the plastic props in a fishbowl come to life. A beachball in three colors looks like the blade of a knife, and the mannequins continue their role as flaccid, vulnerable, and fragmented bodies. With every copy, they seem to say, something is lost and something else refuses to go away.

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

2.21.18 — Your Presence Is Required

Toyin Ojih Odutola left Nigeria for the United States at age five, but it will not let go. As one title puts it, she is not just between continents, but Between the Margins.

At the Whitney through February 25, Odutola pictures a young adulthood that she could never have had, in two interlinked families that she might feel privileged to call her own. They survey the family seat and unclaimed estates, with a bottle from the family vineyard on the floor. They maintain an office as representatives of the state. They may also feel trapped by the very demands that they have placed on others and themselves. Toyin Ojih Odutola's Between the Margins (courtesy of the artist/Jack Shainman, 2017)They go through with barely a smile through the milestones of a marriage, a pregnancy, and the first night at boarding school—when the next generation can or must stand on their own. When an invitation that “requires your presence” lies unanswered on a massive desk, it sounds like an injunction on both the recipient and the art.

Odutola cannot let go of the past, but not in the way of many today. A new academicism has gained in popularity among African American artists, to assert pride in themselves, their ancestry, and life on the street. It rejects “post-black identity,” but also turns aside from racism, police killings, and southern history. With Mickalene Thomas and Barkley L. Hendricks, it adopts an overlay of portraiture and glitter. It helps explain why Barack and Michelle Obama have chosen Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald for their official portraits. It may put in question the very status of modernity—and so, far more knowingly, may Odutola’s Nigeria.

She, too, has a command of both realism, informed by European and American art, and “Pattern and Decoration.” She works in charcoal, pastel, and pencil on the scale of painting. They allow the precise outlines of a face, a figure, or a bridal veil, but also quick scrawls for a handwritten letter or grass. She poses newlyweds in front of wallpaper, an intricate architecture, patterned flooring, and an equally patterned rug. Highlights snake across faces. They belong less to depth than to the picture plane, and they make porcelain skin tones and reserved expressions more unyielding as well.

Odutola stands out from the new academicism in reaching for narrative. Her past shows have had blunt messages but also a growing sympathy for both blacks and whites. Here she creates a history. While the new series has no obvious order, it unfolds implicitly over time. The balding patriarch still has a dark beard and a youthful vitality as he overlooks his estate—and then he sits with “her” scarf, with every implication of a loss. A portrait stands unfinished, as if the sitter could not hold out for an ending.

This black landowner has his inhuman side, too. His estate pulses like clouds for Charles Burchfield in the 1930s, while his high vantage point approaches landscape for Vincent van Gogh. The latter, though, roots his ethics and his art in the labor of those who tend the earth—here barely discernible and barely human. The demands press in on a young man, perhaps the heir apparent, throwing his head back against the wall. They leave a bridal veil as less a triumph than a mask. They may contribute to the anxiety of that boy in boarding school, clinging to oversize bedding even as it threatens to smother him.

The artist, too, has entered the aristocracy, but not as a trader or ambassador like her subjects. Still in her early thirties, she has a museum exhibition in the Whitney’s (free) first-floor gallery, with seventeen works from just the last year or so. “To Wander Determined” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but then her subjects feel those very contradictions. They assert their entitlement by abandoning work for leisure, where leisure means loosening one’s tie, and they leave unclear what they have contributed to Africa’s future. A pregnant woman casts her shadow where one might expect a reflection. With that portrait of an unfinished portrait, Odutola may be questioning or celebrating her artistry as well.

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

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.

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