Goya and nft’s: tragedy and Farce (in more muddy ways than one)

“Obligatory comment on the “nonfungible token” (NFT) craze

Goya’s Graphic Imagination; at The Met, through May 2, 2021.

Everyone interested in any way in “contemporary art” must comment on the development and encroachment of NFTs — virtual-only stuff stored in cyberspace in that makes Photoshop-minded and delivered imagery seem archaic –into the elite art world.  In some ways, art collecting always been that way–i.e., about chancing a “find” that would accrue in cultural as well as financial value in some sort of tandem. There’s been admiration, in retrospect, for collectors and dealers who made and jumped waves, individually and as part of art world cabals, variously near- and far-sighted; in short, part of what reifies art, artists, and artistic directions in history. Almost too obvious to be said, media and materials as well as what may be, in many cases, mementos of a particular moment in historical time (aka artificial [human-made] things) evolve.   There is evidence that elite members of a number of very ancient peoples sponsored the creation of symbolic and/or documentary “tokens” (art; artifacts), perhaps musing far into the future. 

It has been a tenet of many art dealers working with living artists across at least two centuries: don’t buy art only as investment–barely such a thing as sure-fire in the early days; make sure you like it as art or you may ultimately be very disappointed in more ways than one. Somewhere c. 1990 (formulating gradually under Reaganomics) that changed and so now we’re here with the crypto-currency crowd buying up code.   Who is shocked?

There is only so far I want to go with this after so much more explicit blabber, better and worse; honestly, I am not that interested. The idea that novelty per se in any form seems to have a kind of instinctual appeal and titillation for many, itself provokes mild curiosity. Specifically, I do believe the recent rise of this one particular $million sale of an NFT by the artist Beeple this week marks a pending final death knell for a postwar art world that survived the first decades of the new millennium (for better and worse).   Late boomers (me) have remained tethered to a mixed sensual and psychic interaction with art by any means (i.e., art in person, wherever, however – even if its in a booth or isolated place on a screen yet presented as the surround of the art). Traipsing through the galleries and museums of NYC for all sorts of reasons and non-reason and in many different hats and contexts–that was a norm and a boon and a privilege in New York for the art-leaning (in myriad directions). Whatever the exclusionary, financial-and-other scandal-laden networks of elite New York art dealers and galleries for several centuries now, the fact remains that there “office space” (as it were) has been largely open to anyone to peruse art for free. For many of us art-loving plebes the galleries were en route every day or a frequent small detour, if not a “scene.” That “norm” has drastically changed now in more ways than one. Veritably all art and general interest journals and newspapers cover physical art through online interaction.  Covid-19 of course is tied up in the kind of synchronistic event of the Beeple sale. Certainly the gallery sphere appears to be headed to a wholly virtual reorganization very quickly. Likewise, some museums, spurred by the pandemic to be sure, are nearly saturated, even in online presentations, with digital bells and whistles.  So this blog was started at the the tail end of that era and the crest of addiction to “art on Instagram” that everyone acquired in isolation. We’ll see what happens.

For the moment, I reacted to the hype with an antidote–the sensitive, Gothicizing works on paper of Goya at The Met.  Goya is a good go-to when the going gets bad. His often cryptic, sometimes breezy iconography of fear and suffering, especially that humans directly provoke in each other, are visceral at intimate scale, close-up, IRL. I find myself taking, or looking for, “sides” with Goya–not so much politically drawn per se, as emotional and spiritual reactions to his miniature mis-en-scenes–here fluid ink-washed drawings are included with his signature scratchy etching. Some of his most renowned images, like a few from the intricately brutal Disasters of War series, still shock–thank goodness. Also included are a few studies of mainstream (as it were) subjects to remind of the stature, training, and assorted patronage of the “enlightened” artist; but the disturbing ones remain most compelling and communicate a soul-searching creative, as well as a unique artistic hand.

Looking at Norman Rockwell at a time of National Crisis*

*Below is the initial musing … . For an edited version with repros: Reconsidering Norman Rockwell.

Looking at Rockwell paintings, and a show of photographs by Pops Peterson on view through May 2021, at the Norman Rockwell Museum

The work of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) resonates in new ways in the age of the Covid pandemic, the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and the Biden/Harris inauguration. 

Prolonged pandemic relocation has led to explorations of art venues I probably never would have sought out otherwise—such as the Norman Rockwell Museum, located in the pre-Revolutionary-established village of Stockbridge, MA, by far the most popular museum in a region that encompasses The Clark and MassMoCA (according to mainstream touristic press in recent decades).  Recent national events relative to what and who and where America has been and hopes for its future spurred me on.

Opened in 1969 with the facilitation of the artist, who spent the last two decades of his life in the town, the museum was reestablished on new grounds in 1993, along with Rockwell’s last studio. Since then Rockwell’s art historical and market stock has risen incrementally. Previously, art cognoscenti generally resisted consideration of Rockwell as a serious artist, per se. His populist success was his failure, to paraphrase Arthur C. Danto, who begged to differ, based mainly on Rockwell’s ability to tap emotion in viewers (google Danto, “Age of Innocence,” The Nation, Jan. 7, 2002). The millennial (final) fall of canonical modernism as the only path for artists who had their proverbial hand on the pulse of their times has also opened onto new critical looks at Rockwell. Straight away I will say that, beyond these somewhat dissipated debates about Rockwell’s abilities as a painter (i.e., artist) on the one hand and an illustrator (aka picture-maker-for-hire, to some) on the other, seeing his original paintings first hand if you know them only through repros and adaptations for print will probably effect your assessment of his oeuvre.

Until recently, Rockwell was best known for idealized representations of white-American-middle-class life from the eve of WWI to the 1960s. His pictorial appeal (in dual senses) to viewers overlapped with emerging tropes in advertising and television programming; indeed, familiarity with timely iconographic cues were key to his quickly amassed faithful following, facilitated through his long affiliation with the Saturday Evening Post.  Over 300 of his cover illustrations for the publication spanning five decades are on long-term view on the ground floor of the museum.  The installation reads as a collective visual history of changing fashions, gadgets, transportation modes, public persons, holiday trends, and a mostly upbeat view of two world wars and their veterans.  Beyond certain cliché settings and very light humor, and along with impressive, detailed realist style, Rockwell’s prosaic humanism (for lack of better term) seems to have rung true with diversifying viewers over time.  In fact, his seeming knack for capturing human postures and expressions, and apparent technical skill were diligently nurtured through art school in his native Manhattan. From there, he relocated to rural Vermont, where he became famous as the Boy Scouts of America artist who immortalized the local ginger-headed kids, apple pie moms, Barney Fife policemen, et al., –in careful arranged poses and set-ups to be sure—carried to a climactic phase in Stockbridge. 

Rockwell considered himself an illustrator, unabashedly, although he admired “fine artists,” especially historical painters, suggested in many paintings worth dissecting formally as well as thematically found on the main floor, most ultimately related to Saturday Evening Post covers. Currently, as with most museums in the Covid era, exhibitions focus on works in the collection, sometimes in lieu of cancelled or postponed shows and open-ended. Here, several ostensibly discrete permanent and special displays run into each other–it doesn’t much matter the order in which one meanders through the apropos New England-Classical galleries. A tour de force is Shuffleton’s Barbership (1950), in terms of spatial illusion, narrative detail and simulated texture–far more complex than a functional printing guide need be. (It’s on view here via long-term loan agreement from the Los Angeles Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in 2018 after its controversial deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum of Art). Apparently deferring to the demands of producing lucrative mass media, Rockwell exhibited paintings intermittently but sold relatively few; thus, the cache he had in store for posterity here.

Several galleries comprise an abridged version of a previously traveling exhibition, “Imagining Freedom,” and includes graphics by peer artists of the WWII era in the museum’s expanded collection. The star is Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series of four paintings and related studies and resultant prints. Based on points enumerated in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 address to the nation and created to be issued as posters to raise funds for the war effort, the series secured Rockwell’s national ubiquity—and makes a great case for art directly effecting social action, judging by public response. Perhaps the most famous, “Freedom from Want,” aka the “Thanksgiving” painting (although other of his works include “Thanksgiving” in their titles and this one does not), benefits in person from the nuanced perspective that seats you at the depicted dinner table. This work has been as copiously appropriated in diverse visual culture as its precedent kin, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930).

Today Rockwell is increasingly known by his late forays into topical Civil-Rights subjects, which led to a break with the Saturday Evening Post and an affiliation with the more forward-looking magazine, Look. Prominently, “The Problem we all Live with,” (1963) has generated an enormous amount of brilliant academic and pedagogic, as well as popular coverage in the past decade, furthered by an extended loan to the White House during the Barack Obama years, and the increasing activism of Ruby Bridges, whose seminal case of grade school integration in New Orleans inspired the painting. What could be more relevant than the 2020 Democratic debate in which Kamala Harris stated to Joe Biden her similar experience with busing in California? In fact a substantial amount of political cartooning and a brilliant manipulated photo meme by Bria Goeller (google it) on the incident referred back Rockwell’s painting. Standing in front of it was quite moving, the internal scale of the giant cropped guards against the child especially impactful at eye level. Rockwell photographed several young girls to model in a white dress he had created to develop the final composition, which helps qualify his brand of realism and complicates his intentions and ours in excavating its latent layered messages. Among his last works, studies and paintings from a loose series based on several brutal Civil Rights murders, are highlighted in a separate presentation.

The museum also mounts small special group and solo exhibitions of other historical and contemporary artists. On my visit, a big bonus was an intro to Pops Peterson, a Stockbridge artist who riffs on Rockwell with photo-based works printed on canvas to simulate, imo, a light impasto characteristic of Rockwell’s paintings (only discernible in person). Especially acute is Peterson’s version of Rockwell’s “Freedom from Fear,” which foregrounds particular concerns of African American families as far as domestic safety, and an updated take on “The Problem we all Live With,” which reflects on its unfinished business after the Michael Brown police shooting and aftermath in Ferguson, MO. All in all a highly thought-provoking excursion.

Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Jan 31

Well, a bit behind the times (aren’t we all in veritable lockdown) …

But I’ve had finally had a chance to reflect on this extensive spread at the Whitney—which sticks to its theme of influence and confluence vis-à-vis Mexican artists after the revolution and American artists through the Depression era into WWII—led by Los Tres Grandes, Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros.  All three had direct and indirect, personal and professional ties to the US and, in the main, were recognized by the Americans included as such, several sojourning in Mexico at various points in their careers.

Near the start (main wall off the elevators and to the right, moving towards a central cluster of galleries) the tone is set by Rivera’s stoic, Olmec-like softly geometric bodies, ancient, historical, and of his time, intertwined with their environments; along with other kinds of culturally and geographically specific scenes, painted, photographic, and (in one case) sculptural, by (among others) Frida Kahlo, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Rufino Tamayo, Tina Modotti, and Mardonio Magana.  Moving into direct juxtapositions of Mexican mural projects and WPA-type projects by Americans, an illuminating installation of mainly studies and disparate panels by Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton, along with other well-known and lesser-known practitioners of mural-scale art.  Collectively, a good sense of the kind of imagery that infiltrated the American public square in the period covered is conveyed–namely, a charged Social Realism. Peasant and proletariat protest, pain, injustice, and heroic workers, agricultural and industrial, are featured, gathered in spaces that mash together current, asynchronous, and symbolic political events and gatherings. The influence of Orozco and Siqueiros, vis-à-vis fiery visual tone and gestural bravura on a formative Jackson Pollock is also given substantial attention, reminding of Pollock’s art journey beyond the hype.      

One pending curatorial critique (still thinking): the inclusion of several wall-papered repros of murals that go beyond documentation into a kind of simulacrum, especially so with Diego Rivera’s famous Controller of the Universe fresco (Bellas Artes, CDMX), the result of a famous controversy over a commission for Rockefeller Center, covered through ephemera here.  This work is crucial to the trajectory of the exhibition and the impulse to give a sense of its scale is understandable.  At the same time, at this moment when online art viewing has been rapidly disintegrating lines between virtual and physical art, an alternative, expanded documentation with additional related original studies might have been another route.  Being very picky, I also felt coverage of Siqueiros’s recently restored Los Angeles mural, Tropical America (1932), a scathing anti-colonialist visual tract centralizing a crucifixion, which was ultimately hidden for decades, could have been given more context, although its recent history of recuperation is past the scope of this exhibition. BTW, note the powerful foreshortening, overall, in Siqueiros.     

Mardonio Magana, Motherhood, 1931 (collection: Museo de arte moderno, INBAL, Mexico City; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)
David Siqueiros, Revolutionary March, 1935 (collection Palm Springs Art Museum; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)

Who’s teaching arts online this semester?

‘Nuff said — hope to be back here soon 🙂

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.

Installation shot of sculpture of the Bamana (with headdresses/distinct hanging hairstyle) in "Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara" at The Met (9/12/20)
Installation shot of Bamana sculpture (with headdresses/distinct hanging hairstyle) in “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at The Met (9/12/20)

It’s a wrap: R.I.P. Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Detail of “Reichstag Wrapped” (Berlin, 1995).  Photo: Oscar Wagenmans, 2019; Wikipedia Creative Commons / ShareAlike 4.0 International]

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 with, 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 rail car 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.

The Cosmology of Agnes Pelton

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. 

Agnes Pelton, Lotus for Lida (Egyptian Dawn), 1930; in the current WMAA exhibition
Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1938; in the current WMAA exhibition

Museum as Muse: Three intimate views

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.

A painting by Joe Fig, on view at the SVA Flatiron Project Space (as above).

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.

Paintings by Leigh Behnke at the SVA Flatiron Gallery Project Space (as above)

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.

A work on paper by Peter Hristoff at the SVA Flatiron Gallery Project Space (as above)

Arabesque: ornament, form, gesture

“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 – century Rococo 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.

Arts & crafts at the whitney museum

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.

Liza Lou, Kitchen (1990-1995); detail through the “window” (Whitney Museum exhibition, Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019

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 frauen Anni 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).

Pepon Osorio, Angel the Shoe Shiner (1993) (partial/detail; in the exhibition, Making Knowing; Craft in Art 1950 – 2019)

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. 

An installation in the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum; yes, the chairs are part of it 🙂
Rachel Harrison: Life Hack at the Whitney Museum
An installation from the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum)

Snapshot reactions to contemporary and occasionally other art recently on view mostly (not exclusively) around this town. Jody B. Cutler-Bittner (art historian, educator). Search artists, galleries, museums, key words below, and "enter."