Category Archives: Artists

Botanicals and Beasts in two Shows at The Clark: Nikolai Astrup and les Lalanne

at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA:

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway, through Sept. 19, 2021

Claude & Francois-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed, through Oct. 31, 2021

Take heart, struggling artists. Just keep going and be sure to leave a few works with at least one person who will take care of them and perhaps facilitate your coming out a century later. Actually, Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is fairly well known in his native Norway as a tentative modernist on the heals of elder compatriot Edvard Munch, but hardly known elsewhere until a 2016 show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (London). Yet his work sits squarely within the European Post-Impressionist milieu of his time in engaging emotional as well as formal ways. He clearly moved away from naturalism towards highly subjective transformations of the visible world into pictures, on occasion broaching Symbolism, yet retained plein air effects held over from Impressionism. The collection of work here imparts an idiosyncratic painterly charm, tempered by gestural, impasto brushwork and content suggesting the metaphysical dimensions of humans interacting with nature. 

Beyond the promotion of personal stylistic autonomy and disavowal of mimesis as an art goal, Post Impressionism’s orbit reined in a catch-all European-defined “primitivism”–in Astrup’s case, fomented in depictions of regional folkloric–aka pagan, according to Astrup’s preacher father–festivals gathered in an opening gallery. They suggest blended earthbound and mystic experience, a la Gauguin in Brittany and Van Gogh in Arles and recall Munch in their swirling, smoky bonfires. 

Paintings by Nikolai Astrup at The Clark (6/22/21)

Following some traditional art training, Astrup, like Munch, apropos of interest in a questioning new art, sojourned in Paris and Berlin. His animated renderings of rugged mountains and spectacular fjords are kin to Alpine views by his German contemporary, Ernst Kirchner and others of the expressionist Die Brucke group.  Unlike Kirchner or Munch, Astrup enjoyed a close-knit married family life intertwined with the environment on a near self-sufficient farm-residence.  Think holistic healing idyll a la Heidi (the late 19th c. novel. best known from a 1937 Shirley Temple film). Several ersatz replications of his last homestead in the form of hi-rez photo wall paper appear in gallery corridors (as in the header image above).  A bit overblown (literally)? I liked this curatorial touch, considering the simultaneously intimate and monumental, transporting sense of place that his art itself registers. Somewhat ironically, Astrup died of pneumonia at 48, reminding of the probable many harsh realities not alluded to in these portrayals.

Among the engaging technical variations in Astrup’s paint application, breezy but deliberate dabs approximating botanical details stood out.  At times, swaying foxgloves, blankets of marsh marigold, and giant rhubarb (for example) suggest transformation from wood’s edge to wonderland. 

Foreground detail of a Nikolai Astrup painting at The Clark (6/22/21)
Nikolai Astrup, “Foxgloves” (1920); at The Clark (6/22/21)

Domestic scenes are conspicuously filled with cut flowers, towering plants, and table-top produce, and often include open doors and windows to meld inside and outside space.

Nikolai Astrup, “Early Snow” (1926); at The Clark (6/22/21)

A substantial cache of Astrup’s woodcut prints, most hand-colored in experimental ways, are also on display, along with some of the corresponding carved blocks.   It is obvious he shared a trendy interest in Japanese woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e “school” then flooding the European market, notable especially in his images of the local Mount Klauva as a repetitive, stabilizing stand-in for Mount Fuji in the protoypes.

Some compositions and ostensible subjects veer distinctly away from naturalism through awkward scale, and enigmatic, sometimes anthropomorphized shadows and objects (like giant coffee-pot silhouettes and scarecrow-morphing grain stacks); even a few anamorphic forms, like a rocky crevice or ridge that can appear alternatively as a skull or a woman’s body, can be discerned sparingly.  But it’s Astrup’s ability to convey the ethereal through his rooted allegiance to the earth that is awesome and uplifting.

***

Astrup’s pictorial nature segues nicely to non-human creatures featured in the sculptural work of Claude (1925-2019) and François-Xavier (1927–2008) Lalanne, couple-creators somewhat akin to the ubiquitous art collaborators, Christo and Jean-Claude.  Each Lalanne, however, generally created independent works, albeit with related content, namely, fauna, which they exhibited and marketed jointly as Les Lalanne. 

Among their signature designs are woolly-coated “sheep” seats, examples of which are included, some replete with cast bronze faces, some distorted and partial, first created by Francois-Xavier in the ’60s and popular with the European jet set.  

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Moutons de Laines (first created 1965) at The Clark (6/22/21)

Having seen some of these previously in outdoor settings, I wondered, at first, whether a glimpse, beyond the glass gallery wall, of still cattle in the distance at the edge of the Clark grounds was a site sculpture extension of the exhibition—not.  But a perfect backdrop, past a large cast metal fish sculpture in an architectural pool just outside the gallery that is.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Carpe (Tres Grande; 2000); at The Clark (6/22/21)

I found the large-scale bronze “flying rabbit” richly evocative, conjuring a prosaic Pegasus, an updated ritual Near Eastern lamassu, and a Brancusi fish, for starters.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Lapin a Vent (1994/2004; bronze)

Jointly, the collection here may insinuate inter-species development and mutation–discordant and slightly sinister–but also suggest blow-up toys in a futuristic 3D bestiary.     

The Astrup and Lalanne exhibitions are unexpectedly complimentary, each striving for a child-like visual and psychological examination of non-human living things as extensions of being.

Claude Lalanne, Choupatte Moyons (bronze; 2012) at The Clark (6/22/21)

 

Alexander Calder: American Modernist at Mid-Century tied to MoMA

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start; through August 7 at MoMA (New York)

Calder is renowned as the “mobile” guy whose shape-shifting sculpture inspired an industry of dangling decorative objects.  His prolific public art and high print yield has capped his status as among the most famous American artists of the 20th century, up there with the populist Norman Rockwell and Pop-ist Andy Warhol.  Equally feel-good and recognizable in his buoyant modernist metier, he shares with them a conveyed optimistic sensibility.  Specifically, Calder offers an accessible snapshot of European-derived abstraction between and immediately following the wars through an American roots lens.  This exhibition provides an overview via Calder’s relationship with and presence in the collection of MoMA from early on and throughout his career. 

Despite the many NYC venues where one might seek out or run into a Calder at just about any moment, I still appreciate a cache of his art just about any where, as in, most recently, the Whitney’s targeted show “Hypermobility” (2017)– and again here. Ultimately Calder delivers an unpretentious kind of elemental universe–concerned with opacity and transparency, shadow and light, mass and line–but also content-wise as in the actual universe, along with the micro version, our personal space. And therefore not “non-objective” per se; along with astronomical phenomenon, generative subject matter includes, prominently, an array of creatures (including human beings).

Indeed his earliest mature works are small-scale figures of wire and wood (good examples on view), quintessential examples of making art magic with next to nothing, that belie acute visual shorthand, low-tech ingenuity, and a certain humility. His later large-scale steel assemblages cut sinuous contours into space somewhat similarly, stretched out and opaque.

In his day, Calder was part of the art in-crowd (white, male) from the West to East Coast US to Europe and back and forth; exposed to Ashcan School influencers followed by Duchamp and Mondrian; and a recipient of formal training in mechanical engineering and art.  Still, much of his oeuvre seems a direct off-shoot of his childhood tinkering and memories, for example, adornments for his sister’s dolls, and formative experiences of the sky. Early commercial gigs included illustrations of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and images for a toy manufacturer—culminating in his famous artist-activated suitcase circus (Calder’s Circus, Whitney Museum) and entrée into the bohemian art crowd in Paris.

Much of Calder’s art is inhabited by a kind of child-like wonder, a vocal if elusive goal of many canonical (again, European, male-coded) modernists, prominently Picasso. Overall, Calder’s output comes across as authentic vis-a-vis art gestures derived from immediate, momentary reflection.

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start, at the Museum of Modern Art (4/14/21)

What Becomes a Legend Most? Kusama grand in garden setting

Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature, at New York Botanical Garden (The Bronx), through October 31, 2022.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is arguably the most famous living artist globally, her art widely appreciated and sometimes disparaged by diverse constituencies among both cognoscenti and the general public.  As she claimed decades ago, even more true today, her only rival in postwar art renown and notoriety has been Andy Warhol.  Her backstory is so well known, expounded by herself in innumerable candid interviews, that it has become part of her art in a way that exceeds the obvious intrinsic connection between any artist and her work.  Kusama has created for herself fashions that match her installations and collages that feature photos of herself interacting closely with her art. She has described her art activity as a life-saving compulsion that fills an emotional lack—a kind of neurosis for which she has been treated by mental health professionals as well.  A long-term symptom has been hallucinations, which at times “obliterate” (in her terms) her being.  Most prevalent are blizzard-like masses of dots, represented throughout her oeuvre. However, among her earliest such episodes, according to her self-propelled legend, was a flower pattern that extended from a tablecloth throughout a room; related representations tied in with her close examination of nature early in her art training (in the nihonga school). And so, an apropos and grand return to a garden in NYC, where she pushed her way into the avant-garde scene in the mid-1960s but also succumbed to mounting mental stress that led her back to Japan permanently in about a decade. From there, she laid low, art-wise, although she continued to make art and exhibited sporadically. She turned to literature in an equally frenetic way (including stories, novels, and poems, several awarding-winning; and she has continued, with a recent autobiography). A gradual shift back to the center of the art world was spurred by her appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1993–officially representing Japan.  Not debatable: a committed, prolific trajectory, from small works on paper to expansive canvases to sculpture and gallery-scale installations to an army of production assistants, and manufacturing and commercial design partners.  So what is hype and what is boring (you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all?) and what is purposefully, consciously repetitious to hypnotic aesthetic effect? Well, a lot of postwar art that is very interesting — imo. In these (and other) aspects, there’s a strong connection between Kusama’s oeuvre and Minimalism; mainly, it’s about the space around and between, as much as or in some cases more than particular images and objects.  Whether or whatever influence or osmosis of work by predecessors and peers (she has always claimed not – or at least “not much”), it is clear that, as in the case of Van Gogh, it is hardly the result of “madness,” although conveying insight into extreme psychological disturbance.  Hers is a a practiced, knowledgeable, studied oeuvre, vis-a-vis techniques, materials, surface, color, line, mass, scale, et al.

For my money (more on that below), veritably any Kusama show is exhilarating in some way or many. Bold and riotous; idiosyncratic and bombastic; predictable and inventive; individualistic and universal in its limited elements – namely, dots, and, secondarily, a netting motif, each possibly borne of deconstructed, isolated flower parts.  Thirdly, phallic forms, increasingly plant-like, which she derived as an apotropaic strategy to address her decried fear of sex (along with intimacy overall). Intermittent additions include pumpkins and eyes. Despite the immense size of and “workshop” participation in realizing her grandiose sculptural projects in recent decades, an authenticity of artistic mien and mission comes through.  Along with a wild and wacky sensibility that is freeing from the very idea of art analysis, contemplation, and, to some degree feeling. It’s nearly pure optical phenomena with a few thorny, metastasizing, tromp l’oeil effects that can suggest diseased sight. 

The exhibit spans Kusama’s career, extrapolating from the nature theme that is foundational equally with her psychic motivations. Displayed in three main indoor spaces and outdoors on the grounds, it’s a good walk to see it all, although it’s not as big a spread as several international traveling solo shows for the artist over the past two decades. Of course, you get the great NYBG as well–indeed, you pay extra for Kusama. Access to it all is a steep $35 (adults).  The current entry system, with tiered fees for varied indoor permanent and special exhibit points is confusing and not conducive to efficient navigation of the campus. Perhaps it’s time for museums to scale back increasing extravaganzas in lieu of reasonable visitor costs, or to otherwise limit according to specialized fundraising. Not to mention, it’s “rain or shine” ticketing and the stormy day of my reservation really put a damper on things — though still well worth it imo if you can swing the full fare.

I started in the lower library building, not far past NYBG’s main Moshulu Parkway entrance.  In the foyer area, a glass vitrines foyer hold strange sculptural “growths” that suggest alien, perhaps poisonous specimens; while a floor piece of glittering serpentine “phalli” rises in a cluster like luminescent tentacles.

From the exhibition, “Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library building (4/12/21)

Further inside are a few exquisite, very early works on paper that reveal a formative blending of botanical and cosmic with Surrealist inflection. Also introduced here are her complete repertoire of media and forms, including a relatively recent wall-sized, segmented painting with graffiti-like, all-over short-hand symbols, and an array of sculptures embellished—or blighted—with spots and sparkles. Pumpkins (as mentioned) are another staple–as they were in the war-time Japan of Kusama’s youth (as she has recalled).  They also evoke fairy tale play and Halloween-ish magic—the latter especially in a small, dark gallery found near the main visitor center/gift shop that you’ll come to later.  It features dotted pumpkin-shaped lanterns in a box of mirrors—not as fantastical as some of her past “mirror room” installations, but still engaging for its illusionistic infinity via simple concept and contraption, mashing up nothingness with stream-of-consciousness associations.    

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

In another part of the library building (one must go out and enter through another door) is a small “info” gallery with a mundanely presented timeline and small slide show of an early Kusama performance piece. You could skip that and just google later (if you didn’t already).  

Approaching the gorgeous conservatory building is a huge, hollow painted steel pumpkin sprouting “legs.” Inside, Kusama’s wide-eyed, over-blown Pop art flowers, along with a shining, half-hidden pumpkin piece, are inserted into bright floral displays—perfect.  A bit Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, Kusama loved the bronze of Alice and cohorts at the giant mushroom tea table by Jose de Creeft in Central Park, which she incorporated into staged “happenings” in the 1960s.

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; inside the Enid Haupt Conservatory (4/12/21)

Along a main thoroughfare, selected towering trees are animated with with red-and-white polka dot fabric wraps. From a distance, the brightly bandaged branches may signal Anthropocene distress, but also facilitate an impression of a costumed tree ballet. 

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Elsewhere, depicted cheery hybrid “organisms” can evoke the more forthright feminist biomorphism of Nikki de Saint-Phalle (playing over at PS 1 at the moment).   

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

A tour de force is the siting of a 1966-conceived installation, Narcissus Garden, in a pooling section of a stream (as in the header photo above).  Comprised of bowling-ball-sized silver spheres, it was first exhibited, unofficially, on a lawn at the 1966 Venice Biennial, where it caused a success de scandal, especially as Kusama tried selling off the orbs for a few dollars each.  Here, the myth of Narcissus—i.e., the death-drive inhered in his magnetic attraction to his own image, is brilliantly conjured up in the fractured pull of bouncing reflections into the dark water.   Jarring in its juxtaposition of nature and artifice from close up, as one approaches and recedes, the flickery elements blend, like Seurat’s pointillism, into a buzzy and beatific environmental scrim.      

A stand-alone “cottage” installation returns to the early flower hallucination described above (and other of her work through the decades), with visitors handed plastic flower tokens to participate. As you go through the motions, you may find yourself musing once again on the timeless metaphorical trickery of Lewis Carroll’s fun and frightening fantasy. A shrine to and sharing of potent poetic vision.

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“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Garden” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Goya and nft’s: tragedy and Farce (each in more 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 their respective office spaces (as it were) have 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 full-blown 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 that is 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 oddly 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 as emotional and spiritual, in terms of reactions to his miniature mis-en-scenes–here fluid ink-washed drawings are included with his signature scratchy etchings. Images from some of his most renowned series,such as the intricately brutal Disasters of War, still shock–thank goodness. Also included are a few studies of more mainstream period 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 intent as a painter (i.e., artist) on the one hand and an illustrator (aka picture-maker-for-hire) 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.

Rockwell has been best known, at least until recently, for idealized representations of white-American-middle-class life from the eve of WWI to the 1960s. His mid-century 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 carefully arranged 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. These are 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 for his late forays into topical Civil-Rights subjects, which led to his 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 in both artists’ cases). 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) …

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 thus recognized by the Americans included here, 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 several characteristic Rivera paintings featuring Olmec-like soft geometry and folksy subjects mixing ancient, historical, and his own time. Following are 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 more 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 critical quandary (still thinking): the inclusion of several wall-papered repros of murals that go beyond documentation into a kind of simulacrum. Especially so here with a huge image of 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 the crucifixion of a Native American that was ultimately covered and hidden for decades, could have been given more context, although its recent 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)

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 artists 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 over time in this direction.  Off the elevator, the perfect intro is a fragmented 3D-ornamented 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—words like “pleasures” and “atmospheres” rendered in sculptural form. 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 every piece in the show is engaging visually, with much provocation to jump around via perceived kinships, contrasts, comparisons. 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; a Harmony Hammonds padded rag-swathed scaffold sculpture; a 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 manufacture his envisioned abstract textile designs.

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 Joseph Cornell‘s “containers”; 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. Stand-outs among an abundance of more strictly ceramic works: Viola Frey presides with a characteristic painterly-glazed colossus in business attire; a self-portrait by Frey’s 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 way back … ).

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 painted plaster-ish and wood-built structures and embellishments.  My immediate reaction to the furtive “one person’s trash is another’s art” kind of thing was tentative; but the blur of 1990s DIY randomness and Duchampian, gender-astute gesture to which Harrison is 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 sculpted forms and more, which impressed as both absurdist stacks and spreads and inventive forays into perpetual recycling as make-shift decorating.  A key section within the show was an apartment-like interior installation. 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)

The Hyde Collection art museum and historic house

Warren Street, Glens Falls, New York.

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 Kirchner: Living through paint at Neue galerie

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).