I’ll just mention, don’t miss Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at The Met, through October 26, 2020. An astutely organized display of intriguing objects whose creators and their cultures interacted in known and most likely still unknown ways over time throughout the Sahel (aka Central Sudan region)–as seen in intermittently shared forms, subjects, themes.
The death of the amazing Christo sent me back to the musing mode and keyboard — there’s so much to say . . .
At this scariest of points in baby-boomers’s lives, we’re partly reflecting on the gradual loss of artists we grew up, artistically speaking, who have excited and guided us–the latest, for many, Christo (b. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, June 13, 1935, Bulgaria; d, May 31, 2020, New York City). His art journey began within the propagandistic parameters of a repressive Communist society and ended at the pinnacle of the international avant-garde. No one familiar with his oeuvre would dismiss it with his pop-cultural reputation as preeminent “wrap artist”–at the same time, not that far off–and through the decades, an endearing and referential sobriquet across many aesthetic constituencies.
Among his earliest widely known works, wall objects he called “empaquetages” (“packages”) from the late 1950s-early 1960s, associated with the loose “Nouveau realisme” movement, portended what was to come. Critics have turned to Man Ray’s Dada sculpture, “L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920), a mysterious, covered ready-made, as a suggestive precedent. Within a decade he had begun creating his quintessential environmental works for which he became famous, in collaboration with Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon aka Jeanne-Claude (born the same day as Christo; d. 2009). Most of their work features miles of industrial-strength fabric swathed, bunted, and/or wrapped with roping over buildings and landscapes, sometimes incorporating added structural elements. Google “Wrapped Coast,” (1969, Sidney, Australia), in which fabric hugged and billowed from seaside cliffs, and “Valley Curtain” (1970; Rocky Mountains, Colorado), in which a seamed, continuous length of cloth is hung on cables above an expanse of remote terrain. One of my favorites, “Surrounded Islands” (1983, Biscayne Bay, Miami) resembled, from aerial views, a Monet waterlily painting for the gods. As well as innovative forms and spatial conceptions, there are political dimensions encoded in most of their works based on place, perhaps climactic “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995, Berlin).
As can be imagined, administrative work related to the logistics and codes involved with realizing such projects normally necessitated long gestation periods from the drawing board to project incarnation. “The Gates” (2005, Central Park, New York) took over two decades to see the light. Ultimately, it became a bond and point of pride for us locals who followed its newsworthy genesis from early controversies to celebratory event.
It is sobering to recall, at this critical moment of world refugee crises, Christo’s WWII-era escape from brutal Communist and Nazi regimes in Bulgaria and then Czechoslovakia. From Prague he made it to Vienna as a railcar stowaway; and on to Geneva and Paris—technically a stateless person for over a decade before receiving U.S. citizenship in 1973. At the same time, he maintained certain Socialist, even Communist skepticism about the “culture industry” in capitalist society—namely, the connections between patronage and art forms and contexts. He refused economic support for the public works so that they could not be ideologically distorted, or piggy-backed upon by sponsors. Instead his site work relied on revenue from related conventionally portable work such as sketches, plans, and dramatic photographs. The installations were not for sale (via diagrams and permissions as is common for Conceptual artists), but exhibited temporarily and de-assembled, with salvaged materials reused or redistributed.
Christo’s life-work explored and offered a multiplicity of meanings about what art might be in the general and specific. Look for a proliferation of forthcoming material over the next few decades about it all–most of it sure to be fascinating.
This blog is all about art off the streets (mainly) of (mainly) New York that I have tread and retread through the decades. Waiting it out for now; and posting art-related pieces intermittently at fineartglobe.com. For direct links to a few recent ones, see “More Art Writing” (top menu).
Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, at the Whitney Museum (WMAA), through June 21, 2020.
(As of this posting, the museum is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 emergency; check museum website.)
Luckily, I got to see this transporting show before the bad news hit —including the closure of the Whitney and virtually all other NYC museums, the Met Opera, Broadway, live t.v., and more until further notice. Hopefully things will normalize soon, and then the sophisticated spiritual surrealism of Ms. Pelton will be the perfect antidote to the current gloom.
Starting from a European-based realism, Pelton gradually moved very deeply into nature and finally the outing of inner visions through the course of a somewhat peripatetic life, literally and metaphorically—ending up as a yogi-transcendentalist painter in Palm Springs, CA. In the Whitney presentation back-story material (wall text) is nicely brief so that visitors stay focused on the surfaces of these contemplative works, which effectively approximate the states of mind and imagination that apparently motivated them. They emit a collective quietism–via smoothed brushwork, softened contours, and dusty, twilight-like palette, with intermittent flashes of glowing atomic detail.
Many include recognizable botanical forms highly abstracted, for example, linear Deco-like lotuses or floating arabesque ferns. As in the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe, these can yield archetypal central female forms, furthered in Pelton’s oeuvre by ova-orbs and some female figures. The inevitable comparison between these two peers is interesting as much for their divergent sensibilities, styles and artistic aims as for shared ones. (Their artist circles overlapped although there is no known direct contact between them; Pelton was more consciously involved with female-centered experience.) Elsewhere Pelton goes full-on cosmological—the kind of thing associated canonically with Kandinsky and now—and here more so—Hilma af Klint’s idiosyncratic celestial mysticism [see Klint]; Pelton’s work evokes more intimacy. Her surrealist affinities lie in her morphing of watery, heavenly, and biological elements, e.g., flower heads and petals into rippling waves and stars. A major inspiration for many early modernists (broadly) was music—as Pelton herself, an accomplished pianist, emphasized in her case, and which should be recalled in forthcoming exegesis in this arena.
Museum as Muse: Leigh Behnke, Joe Fig, Peter Hristoff
SVA Flatiron Gallery Project Space, 133 W. 21st St. (hours: M-Sun, 9-6), through March 8, 2020.
The School of Visual Arts has expanded apace with other art schools with Manhattan-based campuses over the past few decades (if without the new grandiose buildings of, prominently, Cooper Union and Parsons). Once concentrated around its flagship on East 23rd, additions across town include a movie theater, more classroom-studios, and some exhibition venues, like this modest, street-level gallery on the north side of 21st, currently featuring a quietly engaging show of three SVA faculty curated by Leigh Behnke vis-a-vis recent explorations in her own work and noted overlaps with colleagues Joe Fig and Peter Hristoff.
Through the post-war era, the museum theme has been associated mainly with large-scale rapprochements, irreverence and even ressentiment when it comes to the canonical Western masterpiece-museum complex—from Marcel Broodthaer’s faux Musee d’Art Moderne (late 1960s) to The Whitney’s landmark “Art about Art” exhibition (1978) to Thomas Struth’s gigantic photographic museum tableaux and Fred Wilson’s institutional interventions (1980s-1990s) to MoMA’s major survey exhibition of the same title (1999), for starters. Here it’s much more intimate. Fig’s small-scale naturalistic meta-paintings—viewers viewing art by widely known artists in traditional art-viewing setting—appear most literal. For example, an earnest rendition of Hilma af Klint’s abstract paintings as recently displayed in the Guggenheim’s High Gallery, viewed from a ramp; which also calls up Normal Rockwell’s painting of a Jackson Pollock in his well-known painting, The Connoisseur (1961). Fig’s figures have a rounded solidity that aligns with several mid-century American realists as well as his background in sculpture.
Behnke has long been perfecting her mimetic, glaze-layered oil painting technique, most often trained on interior and landscape subjects. Typically unpopulated, fragmented, segmented and reorganized, her results can take on a surrealist veneer. In each of three paintings here the shuffling of observed elements are blended into a kind of dissonant unity. A tour de force, the largest work in the show at about 40 x 30 inches, has a ghostly allegorical “fury” tumbling into a dark gallery, possibly appropriated from the cropped Baroque-ish paintings represented that book end the composition. Together with a raging fire beyond a central window, the stabilizing, arrangement of pristine, nearly tactile velvet settees seems somehow vulnerable. As one pauses and parses, Magritte motifs may come to mind, and (for me, after a chat with the artist when I visited) also the topsy-turvy terrors of climate change.
Hristoff’s works on paper—collaged, inked, printed—allude to hallowed classical sculpture through abbreviated contours and silhouettes, further obscured through palimpsest-like pastel hues and fluid, floating patterns. They suggest dreams or memories, while Fig conveys an empirical present, and Behnke portends a nostalgic, distopian future. As represented here, the artists share not only content but respective understated, refined sensibilities.
“Arabesque” at The Clark, Williamstown, MA; through March 22.
This modestly chic, none too didactic show suggests the gradual assimilation of Arabic and Arab-influenced Islamic design elements, especially the nature-derived arabesque, into European art through the course of the 19th century. Mostly prints, the gathered material also includes drawings, paintings, photographs and a few objets, drawn mainly but not exclusively from the Clark’s holdings. The trajectory moves from ornamental flourish to the edge of expressive abstraction implicated in the fluidity of the curvilinear per se, climatic in Art Nouveau. Taken nearly for granted in the concerted formalist approach is the hovering cultural backdrop of increasing French and British (mainly, among other European) interaction with Ottoman and other societies in the Middle East.
Starting with the earliest work: late 18th – centuryRococo compositions centralizing figure groups with decorative borders of Roman vegetial stock underlying Islamic styles that bring in indigenous eastern regional forms and spiritual intentions. By then, Chinoiserie and “Turkish” tropes were in vogue in Europe. Contoured arcs are given distinctive play in several exquisitely delicate allegorical prints (c. 1800) by Philipp Otto Runge (see German Romanticism) featuring cherubic babies amidst billowy beanstalk-like botany in celestial settings.
The underlying mathematics of much Arab design is conveyed in jewel-hued studies of architectural details of the Alhambra by British designer, Owen Jones. These are displayed in a constructed room with a horseshoe-arch portal to add a relevant real architectural element; glass, fabric, and furniture selections are also included here. Several other British artists in the orbit of the Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements are represented primarily by densely intertwined rhythmic foliage motifs, among them a charming ink drawing by Walter Crane in which you can follow the hand of the emerging image. At the other design end of such lacy intricacy, the wavy-gravy geometry of Henri van de Velde, Art Nouveau progenitor, on the title pages of a 1908 edition of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. (Van de Velde’s interest in Nietzsche, who extolled primal, communal arts in many of his writings, was not incidental.)
Other faves: Aubrey Beardsley’s sinuously sinister illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which never get old; ditto the fetching, tentacle-haired women of Alphonse Mucha in two large color litho advertisements and several well-known images of lithe dancers by Toulouse-Lautrec, which, together with an ink-brush-like print image of an animated tiger by Paul Ranson, bring japonisme into the formal focus; an elegantly writing female personification in a large painting by Maurice Denis (borrowed from the Detroit Institute of Arts); and an intimate Matisse interior with apropos curlicue-laden wallpaper, reminding of his forthright Moroccan inspirations.
Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019; through January 2021 (floor 6)
Rachel Harrison: Life Hack; closed January 12, 2020 (floor 5)
Thanks largely to a postwar infiltration of feminist and diaspora art (often of a piece) in the West and artists working elsewhere receiving wide exposure in the context of an emerging global scene (if still dominated by the West), distinctions between art and craft in contemporary production have been ostensibly erased. At the same time, long-held gender, cultural and other associations with each term persist. And “craft” most often evokes hand-hewn textile and textural materials … for the better in the “art world,” as per this show, in terms of diversity and possibility when juxtaposed with hands-off new media equally ascendant through the same period. Most of the work included seems to acknowledge to at least some degree this semiotic and material lineage, whether as precursor and/or foil, while conveying strongly personal, pliable and luxuriant relation to preferred mediums and techniques.
Both well known, expected suspects and some with less exposure in this context are represented, overwhelmingly (not completely) by examples in the museum’s collection, which highlights its ample interest in this direction. Off the elevator, the perfect intro is a fragmented mural (1976) by Ree Morton, comprised of painted pinkish, putty-like, imitation ribbons, flowers, puffy clouds, and make-shift ladders to … heaven, enhanced by literal floating signifiers—incarnate words like “pleasures” and “atmospheres.” The hopeful feminist romanticism (small “r”) conveyed is refreshing and seems, as well, to incorporate a subtle jab at heroic (male) abstract painting in the gluey strips and skeins of her process. To jump to a personal fave (and then I’ll circle back), which shares some of the same underlying sensibilities and offers reason alone to see this show: Liza Lou‘s near full–scale, pop-up kitchen (c.1990-1995), replete with brand-name, opened food boxes, dishes in the sink, and pie in the oven, sheathed entirely in tiny glittering beads.
Just about everything is engaging visually, with much provocation to jump around via kinship, contrast, comparison. Among first-generationers featured (although works here by them span three decades collectively): aesthetically oppositional sewn soft sculptures by Yayoi Kusama and Claes Oldenburg; a Richard Artschwager cube-table; an Eva Hesse macramé-like ropey hanging; a heavy, draped felt blob by Robert Morris; a cagey, wire-woven abstraction by Ruth Asawa; a lace-like, shimmery canvas by Howardena Pindell; one of Harmony Hammonds‘s padded rag-swathed scaffold sculpture; an Faith Ringgold painted tangka banner; an open-frame Alan Shields wall work of bead strands; a Miriam Shapiro frilly collaged canvas; small-scale weavings-on-paper by Sheila Hicks, who, forthwith, will be known by many for her monumental yarn column-waterfall recently exhibited at MoMA (“Surrounds: 11 Installations”; 10/21/19-14-20). Hicks is also included in MoMA’s current show, “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” with an early serial bundled-yarn piece, which highlights more so earlier 20th-century fiber art and therefore offers (among other things) some historical context for the Whitney show. Selections there by Bauhaus frauenAnni Albers and Gunta Stolz may be further appreciated after seeing Elaine Reichek‘s satirically pedagogic embroidery samplers at the Whitney, one of which bears a quote by a Bauhaus “master” relegating the activity of weaving to women assigned to realized his envisioned textile abstractions.
Along with Lou’s tour de force, highlights from the next generation and beyond include: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt‘s fragile, flowery flotsam and jetsam dream box, a distant relative of many “containers” by Joseph Cornell; Pepon Osorio‘s barrio-baroque assemblage-portrait of a shoe-shiner; a super-fly Nick Cave sound suit; a Mike Kelley big-baby blanket incorporating mangy stuffed animals; a very large textile-inspired figurative painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby; a conceptual piece primarily of found blankets alluding to the Native American foundations of US cities by Marie Watt; a ceramic and straw, regal and demure giantess by Simone Leigh. Of an abundance of more strictly ceramic works, Viola Frey presides with a characteristic painterly-glazed colossus in business attire, along with a self-portrait by parodic peer Robert Arneson; an earthy, rolled and modeled reclining figure by Mary Frank; and a sensual abstracted vessel series by Katy Schimert (whose work I first saw in a Whitney Biennial).
The Rachel Harrison solo (10/25/19-1/12/20) was an apropos complement in several ways. Harrison thrives on very mixed up media, mashing found stuff with artsy-like, painted plaster-y, wood-built structural and ornamental elements. My reaction to the furtive “one person’s trash is her own … art” kind of thing was tentative; in fact, the blur of 1990s DIY randomness and Duchampian, gender-astute gesture to which Harrison was party (with Karen Kilimnik and Sarah Lucas, among others) eventually drew me in. Solidifying an allusion to the era, a winning series of tragi-comic drawings depicting Amy Winehouse juxtaposed with scribbled Picasso and DeKooning “women.”
But the mainstay of Harrison’s oeuvre is gathered and arranged stuff–tools, socks, wigs, racks, partitions, live plants, original sculptural forms and more, which impressed as both absurdist stacks and spreads and responsible, inventive forays into perpetual recycling as make-shift decorating. A key section for me was an apartment-like interior installation within the show. With its flimsy walls papered with photo-blow ups of misaligned faux-wood paneling and other box store improvement projects in progress, it conveyed an ongoing attempt at securing a home-sweet-artist-home.
Run-through of the permanent collection and a print exhibition of Picasso, Braque and Leger (through January 5):
When traveling through the New England hinterlands, check into historic house museums that dot region, e.g., the Hyde complex in Warren County. The core experience is a kind of mini-Frick (initiated by local paper mill magnate couple, Louis and Charlotte Hyde), from the 1912 faux-palazzo façade and indoor central courtyard of the main building to the substantial focus on 14th to 17th century Italian painting and a few corresponding sculptural works, e.g., a ceramic Della Robbia shop Madonna and Child relief.
Look carefully for a tiny Tinteretto “True Cross” scene (there’s also a larger portrait by the prolific Venetian) and a velvety Veronese of the biblical Rebecca, as the lighting is very low and indirect in spots not only due to conservation concerns but mainly small domestic spaces including alcoves and stairwells. In one of the larger reception rooms, you won’t miss a bust-height, glassy-eyed portrait attributed to Raphael–worthy even if workshop or follower, and excellent “International Gothic” French-produced tapestries with charmingly conventional allegorical themes (faith; eternity). Lowlands Renaissance and Baroque painting is also amply represented, not least by a sensitive Rembrandt of a long-maned Christ and a lively unfinished Rubens portrait of an African male model.
The mainstream pre-WWII American taste for French Impressionists, especially Renoir and Degas, is evident. A gem of an example is a pre-Pointillist Seurat landscape comprised of dabbed pure colors that suggests his dizzying optics to come. A subtle, possible plein air precedent by Gustave Courbet featuring his signature rocky topography is nearby. Top-tier American Realists and Impressionists also have a notable collective presence. Among several Thomas Eakins paintings is a portrait of his acclaimed student Henry Ossawa Tanner; there are seaside and garden scenes by Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, and William Merritt Chase; and a quintessential moonlit cracked-impasto Albert Pinkham Ryder. A charming vertical Blue-to-Rose Period Picasso of a lithe youth surprises in madame’s bedroom, although acquired after her death (1968), as both the collection and exhibition space has continued to expand.
The current print show of illustrative suites based on literature by Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger is lovely. Starting with, Picasso (of course, and this spread is a good argument for why), the monochrome coverage extends to nearly the full iconographic range of his oeuvre, from the Blue Period, through shattered Cubist still life, through Surrealist-styled figures including auto-portrait minotaurs, to scathing cartoons of Franco, and classically-tinged lover-muses like a profile head of Marie Therese “carved” out with chiaroscuro. Fortuitously, one can appreciate his facility with classical contouring (when he wanted to employ it) through comparison with a painted portrait head by Ingres in the house library, along with two others by this sultan of slick academic painting. The latest Picasso images here, from the 1960s, are incredibly reduced caricatures that bring a semiotic mixing of the most minimal markings to life. The overriding technique is etching, with some technical variation (most by specialty print houses but a few early ones his own pulls).
Picasso’s early Cubist art-brother Braque is seen in this display veering into frenemy Matisse’s territory with softer organic forms, specific nature imagery and some color; and Leger’s contributions combine strongly contoured, bold figuration a la his constructivist-like direction, with flat, abstract color blocks characteristic of his post-WWI paintings.
A new gallery (opened 2017) highlights continuing acquisitions of post-WWII works with the current installation focusing (not exclusively) on geometric abstraction by Jean Arp, Joseph Albers, Frank Stella, and Al Held, among others. Veering off, but wonderful, a characteristically conceptual Tim Rollins and K.O.S. wherein pages from a text of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are pasted as a picture plane and embellished with colorful floating abstract “blots”–the perceptual apparition not wholly unlike the effect of the scaffold-stablized shapes of in Leger’s prints (as above).
It’s a pleasantly scaled excursion in which all can be taken in leisurely, and special programming, judging from this visit, is thoughtful and erudite within the context and means of the institution as a whole.
Ernst Ludwig Kircher, through January 13, 2020; at the Neue Galerie (Fifth Ave. at 86th Street):
Kirchner’s painting, Dresden Street (1908-1919; MoMA) was one of the earliest and pronounced influences on my life in art. We’re talking Age of Aquarius when I first encountered it – the hot neon flourishes across the fashionable crowd seemed oddly adjacent to the blacklight-and-fluorescent palette of psychedelic rock posters that dominated popular visual culture at the time. What a magic, bubble-gum pink city street, not to mention the fierce little girl with her dark halo-shadow at the center of the scene with whom I identified distinctly. Through a course of later pilgrimages informed by increasing familiarity with the artist’s oeuvre, I came to look at it very differently – the pink more Pepto-Bismol, the complimentary lime green and vermilion contours more jarring, the parade of trussed up women more ghoulish, and the animated child, nearly in the path of the rushing background streetcar, more anxiously clutching her doll. What has never changed is my attraction to its palpable psychic energy, autonomous, physical brushwork, and exploitation of expressive, brilliant color.
Sans this painting (currently featured in the MoMA’s re-opening installation), its implicated pleasures and perils re art and society in Kirchner’s day are well fleshed out in the Neue Galerie’s copious spread across two floors of the bonus-appropriate period townhouse venue. The full range of his thematic and stylistic diversions as well as his extensive, impressive experimentation in print-making are covered. Arranged mainly (not exclusively) chronologically, I started in a large gallery on the second floor with a triumphant display of post-war landscapes near Davos, Switzerland, where Kirchner went to recuperate from his late WWI nervous breakdown; he continued to work and live in the region intermittently for the rest of his life. The blend of gestural rhythms and searching primitivism in these personal interpretations of “pure” rural life call up Van Gogh’s discovery and depiction of Arles in light of his own grim view of modern urbanity and discomfort among its sinners–after his failed attempts to join this hipster coterie. There is plenty of related debauchery here from Kirchner’s breakthrough Die Brucke years (a short-lived artist group he spearheaded, c. 1905); prostitutes, performers, implied male voyeurs including himself when it came to prepubescent female models – many angular and aggressive a la Picasso’s pre-war women denizens of the demimonde. A collective simultaneous (and later) antidote are scenes of Kirchner’s bohemian cohorts frolicking nude in watery nature, the fragmenting figuration nearly anticipating those underpinning much of Willem De Kooning’s bodily abstraction. In other nudes and portraits we see the rounded simplicity of Matisse, whom, like Picasso, Kirchner admired and assimilated early on.
Although somewhat superficial (in terms of context), a broad comparison with Van Gogh stuck with me throughout. Both artists suffered from mental ailment/s probably exacerbated by drinking (though specifics are debated) and ultimately lost their struggles to find inner peace (suicides; in the case of Van Gogh, generally accepted although challenged recently). Kirchner self-visualized his excruciating trauma in a now famous self-portrait in military uniform with an imagined, gruesome severed hand (he was not physically injured in the war)—one of the most disturbing well-known small-scale paintings in the history of 20th-century art, here displayed in a darkened room among a suite of medievalizing color woodcuts based on a literary work in which a man becomes a shadow.
If you choose the starting point I did, once through the suite de visit, circle back up to the grand Swiss landscapes and imbibe the undeniable joie de peintre that enveloped Kirchner (like Van Gogh) when it came to nature. This kind of compulsion to just pour on the paint superseded Kirchner’s committed intellectual and professional art aims, including a concerted effort to be accepted as a leader of German if not pan-European painting in his time, as well as the apparently consistent emotional turmoil that haunted him. One has to wonder how the rise of the Third Reich affected his ongoing attempts at recovery and acclaim, and the devastating irony of his condemnation by the Nazis just as he was receiving wide critical attention in Germany and elsewhere shortly before his death (1938).
Notable among an increased number of special exhibitions and displays at the Museum of Modern Art, re-opened to the public today (after a renovation and major collection re-organization):
Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girls Window, through January 4, 2020
Taking a Thread for a Walk, through Spring 2020
Sur Moderno: Journeys of Abstraction: The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift, through March 24, 2020
member: Pope. L, 1978-2001, through February 1, 2001
Two interior design changes noted that I like: the mini-chic-modernist living room seating spaces now on each floor, especially the one featuring Hiroshi Sugimoto’s blurred photographs of an earlier incarnation of the sculpture garden viewed below out the windows; and the black strips of wall, sans art, on the elevator landing corridors to rest the eyes between galleries. Thank goodness for the continued enshrinement of the original building’s Bauhaus stairway, which relieves what has become an elegant but corporate-like art headquarters with large-scale partitioned warrens.
Standing out in the inaugural re-installations of the permanent collection, which the museum has publicized will change more frequently than in the past (great): the full scope of MoMA’s Migration series panel paintings by Jacob Lawrence, which have, by now, infiltrated so many spheres of American arts and culture; a window-lit Brancusi spread; the juxtaposition of heavy-handed abstract sculpture by Melvin Edwards, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Lynda Benglis, and Jackie Windsor; a small section on early experimental photography and film integrated into the turn-of-the-century painting and sculpture galleries; an ode to the quirky art of Manhattanite Florine Stetheimer (1871-1944) with a room of her own; a giant female nude (1978) by Joan Semmel, indicating the popularity of figurative painting at the time often ignored by high-profile venues focusing on “cutting edge” developments, especially in relation to feminist content — also helping to redress the MoMA’s infamous renown for “hot mamas” painted by modernist men (elucidated in a now classic study by art historian Carol Duncan, 1989). I didn’t like the placement of a gorgeous, vermilion and cobalt abstraction by Alma Thomas at the edge of a Matisse room, where it is inevitably mitigated; or the implied juxtaposition (on different walls) of Faith Ringgold’s “race riot” (from her seminal “American People” series, late 1960s) with Picasso’s ubiquitous Demoiselles. I can see where each has an intensity perhaps overshadowing peer works, and curatorial sensitivity in suggesting a powerful painterly aggression equally shared, but I think it encourages ultimately superficial comparison especially with the rest of the large room also filled with Picasso.
Special exhibition highlights: the quietly engaging Betye Saar show, which explores the early print-making of this indefatigable nonagenarian and her break into assemblage, exemplified by MoMa’s Black Girl’s Window (1969). Overall etching-based (not exclusively and with broad technical variation), her blending of alternately scratchy and sinuous contours with washy, earth-toned, passages and layered grounds are absorbing formally and fairy-tale-like in their representational mix of pensive and dreamy females in webbed forests or isolated interiors flecked intermittently with floating symbols to evoke innocence, wonder, terror, and intellectual, sensual, and spiritual curiosity. Others that elide into the mixed materials works retrieve the diagrammatic subject of pseudo-scientific phrenology to deconstruct the roots of entrenched racists and sexist psychosis. The featured “window” and others suggest both inward soul-gazing and exterior cosmological views of the world, mashing mystery, politics, veiled personal emotion, and much more into make-shift pictorial fenestration.
Then the engaging, “Thread” show, which features the similarly visionary aesthetics–in a non-objective overall framework–of the remarkable Anni Albers (1899-1994), with a large selection of her on-the-board and canvas abstractions, weavings, and commercially-produced textile designs; as well as work by direct and indirect progeny and kindred spirits, including a thickly braided-rope “phantom” by Mrinalini Mukherjee (d. 2015), introduced to many with her recent retrospective at the Guggenheim and a thick rainbow-bow colored yarn waterfall by contemporary artists, Sheila Hicks.
“Sur Moderno” adds lots of South American artists to MoMA’s seminal “story” of geometric abstraction long confined to Europe; and as such enriches its purview by endless subtle variation–in this display, augmented by furniture and other related design work. I did not like the confining of Mondrian’s brilliant late painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie to a lost corner of the show in perhaps an admirable attempt to dethrone his preeminence in this sphere somewhat.
Finally, a performance retrospective for wild-and-crazy Pope L. X-rated in parts, unremittingly absurdist and confrontational, the artist’s career has been committed to calling out injustice satirically and back-handedly, especially racism, in works that demands some investment in unraveling. One broader issue that comes to the fore here: a new-ish trend in turning performance props and residue into ostensible sculpture. Most compelling in this presentation: make-shift structures that can remind of David Hammons’ inventive, folks-y architectural constructions, here complete with instructions and other trappings that reference (perhaps), more esoteric conceptual modes without the pointed, people-centered missives of this art preacher-provocateur.
Snapshot reactions/recommendations on contemporary and occasionally other art recently on view around town. See you in the galleries, Jody B. Cutler-Bittner (art historian/educator). Search artists, galleries, museums, key words below, and "enter".