Category Archives: Exhibitions

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-florescent palette of psychedelic rock posters that dominated popular visual culture at the time.  What a magic, even even pretty, 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 turned more Pepto-Bismol, the complimentary lime green and vermilion contours more jarring, the parade of trussed up women more ghoulish, and the anxious, animated child, clutching her doll upside down, seeming right in path of the rushing background streetcar. 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 of 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 not unlike Picasso’s pre-war women denizens of the demi-monde.  A collective simultaneous (and later) antidote are scenes of Kirchner’s Bohemian cohorts frolicking nude in watery nature, the fragmenting figuration almost anticipating those underpinning much of Willem De Kooning’s abstractions.  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–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 debated 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 start where 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 apparent 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).

MoMA’s re-do and inaugural shows

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 toi re-dress 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; or the implied juxtaposition (on different walls) of Faith Ringgold’s “race riot” (from her seminal “American People” series, late 1960s) with Picasso’s “demoiselles.” I can see where each has an intensity perhaps overshadowing peer works (etc.), and curatorial sensitivity in suggesting a powerful painterly aggression equally shared, but I think it encourages superficial comparisons.

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. 

MoMA, Fifth floor

world wide works of resistance

“Clapping with Stones: Art and Acts of Resistance” at the Rubin Museum (17th Street); through January 6, 2020.

As a post-millennium museum (opened 2004), The Rubin well represents the global age by linking past and present in its programming; namely, between its core holdings of historical art from Southeast Asia and and contemporary work that bears witness to the constantly shifting national and cultural borders, diasporas, and self-identities traced to the region–and even alliances and overlaps with disparate communities beyond this constellation, real and insinuated. This shows exemplifies all of that, taking up the theme of resistance (as per the title)—to oppression, to sectarianism, to homogeneity through diverse presentations of protest, rapprochement and healing, with violence prescient and hovering.  The ten artists included each make a distinct impression and collectively offer a multitudes of mediums and techniques.       

Located on the top floor (six) of this mini-Guggenheim, the dome above the central spiral stair is elaborated with a striking site-specific installation by Kimsooja of magenta-colored, lotus-shaped globe lamps, accompanied by a soundtrack blending Buddhist, Christian and Islamic chants.  (It’s amazing that this mandala-apropos architectural feature was left over from its original position in a department store.)  The show’s title is taken from Lida Abdul’s mesmerizing video (2005) on the destruction of giant sixth-century stone Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban (2001) through local ritual, which takes on new relevance since the high-tech projection project of the destroyed statues on site by Chinese filmmakers Janson Yu and Liyan Hu (2015; intermittently repeated).      

Among the more poetic works, a suite of architectural ceramics by Shahpour Pouyan signifying on various architectural forms associated with aspects of his hybrid ethnic and national heritage; and a moving Abstract Expressionist-mode triptych-altarpiece by Nadia Kaabe-Linke, monochrome, smoky, and “scarred”—in fact incorporating tracings of bullet holes from a Nazi bunker.  At the opposite end of aesthetics, a strong documentary video on immigrant activism in Barcelona by Kader Attia aka the artist who created a spectacular couscous replica of the ancient Algerian town of Ghardaia in an installation exposing the unacknowledged inspirations of Le Corbusier (2009, Tate; seen in NYC at the Guggenheim in 2016).

Nari Ward contributes a now characteristic shoe-lace wall piece spelling out, “We Shall Overcome”; and a bricolage-type installation linking Africa to Harlem in a “living room” of discarded objects surveilled from above with a fish-eye mirror.  A large-scale seemingly faded photographic appropriation of a Civil Rights march by Hank Willis Thomas (see Thomas) takes on a kind of 3-D focus when viewed (as instructed) with a cell phone flashlight, alluding to the tricks of the journalistic trade and positive populism in the art gallery; while one of his steely, 3-D printed-looking sculptures deals with police brutality through synecdoche (cropped hands and baton).  Literal violence is broached with Ibrahim Quraishi‘s exploded violin piece (somewhat akin to Nouveau Realiste Arman’s smashed musical instrument) accompanied by a soundtrack of the destruction.

Detail of Hank Willis Thomas, “The March” (2017; UV print on retroreflective vinyl) at the Rubin Museum (one of several effects depending on lighting)

Fiercely feminist works by Nazia Khan include Mad Max / Game of thrones empty female armor and a watercolor homage to Indian female resistance fighter Rani of Jhansi; while Pallavi Paul’s tangled trail of heavily redacted paper points to the hidden fate of a WWII-era Indian female operative for Britain. Go through once just for the riot of textured, complex forms; and then again reading the backstories.

“Radical Love” at the Ford Foundation”

320 East 43rd Street, through August 17, 2019

If you’ve never been to the landmark 1960s building of the Ford Foundation for Social Justice, which has had an extensive public plaza-like space open to the public from the beginning, the new gallery and its programming (established 2018 in a building overhaul; this is the second exhibition) is even more reason to get going. Exhibitions focuses loosely issues and circumstances related to the Foundation’s mission, whether and both who the artists are. Here the thematic title reins in global artists dealing more and less with injustice, personal obstacles, wrapped up with self-love, communal celebration, and most often post-colonial, Diaspora, and transnational identities and social issues.

An innovative feature of the building is its tiered indoor tropical garden (above), the site of a sound piece (part of the show) by Umani Uzuri, which incorporates the spiritual, “Wade on the Water” to invoke a “hush arbor,” or hiding place for escaped slaves in the antebellum South.  On the second floor in the gallery proper a large entrance wall accommodates a kind of memorial to the protestors arrested in the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, in which their individual photos have been developed on transparent silk and superimposed onto painted portraits for a ghostly stereoscopic effect.  A trio of figurative textile sculptures from the late 1970s by the still prolific Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) are as political as they are personal in their feminist form and subjects.  Most other works share some sort of visual dazzle through a riot of color, patterning, and textures.

A tin-foil-glittery, kitsch-Baroque, paper-mache rat-infested, gay-urban altarpiece by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who started with this sort of thing c. 40 years ago, is impressive for its obsessive dedication to scrappy, inventive craft.  His semiotic linking of superficial sparkle with queerness as well as spirituality is seen elsewhere here; while others use glittery effects to other associative ends.  Ebony Patterson’s hanging, sequin-dotted patchwork tapestry, in which images of body parts peak through in sections, includes gold-painted conch shells and coins strewn below to reinforce the Caribbean context of her dreamy-nightmare aesthetic. Rashaad Newsome’s kaleidoscope-like photo-collages of glam-bling adornments on impossible bodies deals partly in drag ball fantasy, picked up in Athi-Patra Ruga’s staged portrait photos.  Weedy growths sprouting from high on several walls are tangled with bits of shiny detritus in an installation by Lina Puerta.   Raul de Nieves’s opulently costumed mannequins representing two aspects of his mother recall Egungun masks (which completely cover dancers in the Nigerian masquerade traditions) and Nick Cave’s “soundsuits.”  A gold-ornamented painted female portrait by Lina Iris Viktor includes a backdrop map melding Africa with sites of its Diaspora. An especially moving assemblage sculpture by Vanessa German depicts a “white-face” Madonna / nkisi (power figure in traditional groups of the Congos) cradling a black baby doll, with silver-beaded strands of tears. Probably the most arresting and eye-opening work for most viewers will be Sue Austin’s video of her underwater experience in a wheelchair specially equipped for the event. More than a half-dozen other works included are similarly engaging; and a bonus on my visit were publicly accessible works beyond the exhibit by Kehinde Wiley and Hank Willis Thomas (look down the hallways to and from the elevators).

Raul de Nieves, “Fina Beauty” and “Fina Nurture” (both 2019); at the Ford Foundation)
Foreground: Vanessa German, “Notes on the absence of Sacredness: How Little Black Girls Die” (2018); background: Lina Iris Viktor, “Eleventh” (2018); at the Ford Foundation.

Rotating the Collection at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965; opened June 28; ongoing.

Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s; March 29 – August 28, 2019.

(at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Five years in, The Whitney has become thoroughly at home in its spacious new digs and primo downtown locale (the right move out from the old guard Upper East Side).  This is the second substantial collection overview-type installation since the new building’s inaugural extravaganza (2015). The rotation and attention to expanded contexts for a few renowned works that have remained on view in shifted juxtapositions is notable.  (I must say, a welcome trend seen in major museums broadly; remember when a small portion of a museum’s holdings remained on view in the same spots seemingly for decades?) The salon-style painting display in a dark blue gallery at the start (facing the 7th floor elevators; above) is effective in setting the mood, scale, and subject range–a mix of urban and rural, portrait, landscape, and genre–in mainstream Depression Era art in America. At the same time, an elite few were busy opening galleries and museums in Manhattan, like the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose “Whitney Museum of American Art” opened at a downtown location in 1931.  GVW was a committed supporter and promoter of living American artists, not to mention an artist herself aware that her larger mission presented conflicts of interest. Unlike her art-philanthropic peers (for the most part), her interest in the production of her time left a strong collective record of the years between the wars on the American scene through a heavy lens of New York.  A lack of wall labels draws visitors close, partly to look for signatures. Works by renowned American Regionalists like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are immediately recognizable, partly due to their early and close identification with the Whitney.  There were several women artists on this wall that I did not know, as well as elsewhere throughout; like Madeline Shiff (aka Wiltz), whose lively portrait of her artist-husband painting a landscape in a windowless studio here (Wiltz at Work, 1932) both reinforces and goes towards filling the lacunae of her own career.    

Several mini-show arrangements, according to the museum’s holdings, stars with Edward Hopper.  One of the great “poignant clown” depictions of many in modernist paintings can be seen in his early Soir Bleu (1914), a post-Impressionist-like Parisian pub scene and last European nod in his oeuvre.  Across the room and several decades the sublimely distilled ordinary New York air of Early Sunday Morning (1930) beckons.  Nearby is Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetic approach and temperament, via the results, are diametrically opposed.  Likewise, a display of selections from Jacob Lawrence’s War Series (c. 1946-47), which is truly experimental in its washy sepia palette and rhythmic forms without loosing humanistic, topical force.  A number of sculptural elements from Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926-1931), a Whitney coup, have been re-installed in an isolated darkened niche featuring a documentational film (1961, transferred to bright video) of the artist performing his kinetic ensemble.  That is, cranking, blowing, twisting his miniaturist mixed media props, caricatures, and animals to tumble, race, jump, and dance in ingeniously low-tech machinations.  If art is play for adults (as some psychoanalytical theories suggest) Calder was deep in and highly convincing. 

Other pre-WWII works are grouped stylistically; such as Cubist-informed “Machine Age” cityscapes paintings by the Charles-es, Demuth and Sheeler and art-deco architectural sculpture by John Storrs, Surrealist-tinged work, which, in the United States, elided in many cases with aspects of Social Realism and even Regionalism, whether or not in conscious intent. A remarkable contribution here is a visionary animated film, as far as later video and other digital art goes by Mary Ellen Bute (Spook Sport, 1939).  Of many additional highlights in the pre-WWII section, you won’t miss a relatively large-scale, quirky painted ode to the end of WWI and her beloved NYC in general by Florine Stettheimer, with fabric folds added to Lady Liberty; and don’t miss Elizabeth Catlett’s quietly uplifting terracotta-as-bronze Head (1947).

The  Abstract Expressionist section is energized by a boldly splotched Ed Clark canvas and a crusty, monumental relief-painting by Jay DeFeo; and Pop Art is dominated by Tom Wesselmann’s ginormous Still Life Number 36 (1964), from his loose kitchen-counter collage-paintings series, which presciently anticipates the Photoshop-based paintings of Jeff Koons and other digital “commodities” artists.  Warhol’s silver-screened Elvis Two Times (1963), however, holds its own despite, or because of the artist’s consistent omnipresence in so many spheres of the contemporary art world.  (Younger viewers probably now recognize “a Warhol” before his once ubiquitous celebrity depictions.)  

The 8th floor show on color as form in painting of the 1960s is a kind of addendum, first and foremost conveying how dominant abstraction had become by then. Kenneth Noland’s dizzying “post-painterly” (a la Clement Greenberg) measured-stripe abstraction at the entrance (New Day,1967) looks thoroughly triumphant.  A now classic stained canvas “bunting” piece by Sam Gilliam stands out against the majority work in geometrically-defined color-blocked experiments, sometimes differentiated only slightly in handling between different artists. And a few representational artists, it is proposed, still focused primarily on color in at least some work of this period, as in good examples by Alex Katz, Bob Thompson, Kay Walkingstick, and Emma Amos.  A thoughtful but not too didactic display. 

With this history under your belt, you’re ready to tackle the Biennial on two floors below (through 9/22/19) — if anything is left in the show by the time you get there (see Biennial) !

Andy Warhol, Elvis Two Times, 1963 (installed in the exhibition, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965 (photo: 7/12/19).
Kenneth Noland, New Day, 1967 , installed in the exhibition, Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s at the Whitney Museum (photo: 7/12/19).

“Joan Mitchell: I Carry My Landscapes around with Me”

At David Zwirner, 537 W. 20th St., through July 12, 2019.

Abstract Expressionist  painting (and this is that) is not so much about reflecting visual reality but making parallel visual reality. And the making of the making, funneled through vision.  That doesn’t mean the results necessarily or not refer to nothing beyond themselves nor that this aspect is incompatible with intuitive, gestural, self-referential or other aspects associated with its aesthetic terrain as historicized.  For example, reading Mark Rothko’s horizontally segmented compositions as landscapes or Clyfford Still’s stalactite forms geological, whatever the artists’ non-objective intentions.  Mitchell skews closer to the edge of nature (as per the artist quote and exhibition title above), encasing atmospheric experience in the picture plane with an economy of drippy, weave-y brushwork and a joie de la coleur that evoke Fauvism—the Matisse reference per se also on point—rather than topographic environment.  Part of that may be absorbed from the prolonged close proximity (literally and figuratively) to the landscapes of Monet, whose own abstract-leaning work hovers between encroaching blindness and close-up optics.  Yet the large-scale multi-panel format (as in Monet’s late work) itself echoes or mirrors spatial expanse despite its ontological flatness.

Anyway, each example in this survey, spanning four decades, is energetically gorgeous–a profusion of signature reedy, ribbon-y brushstrokes with spots of blank canvas spraying light from behind.   The painted strands gather densely in places and in others fray into surface maps and  pathways, while color runs the gamut across seasons and terrain in associative juxtapositions, inadvertently and not.   In some cases, Mitchell got away with very little—a very high complement.  Minnesota (1980), a breezy brilliant discourse on yellow and shadow in the glare of the white backdrop, is a fave from now on.  Elsewhere, she invites us to wallow deeper into layered representation as well as the metaphoric free range of the studio. 

Detail/installation shot: Joan Mitchell, Riviere, 1990 (at David Zwirner, 537 W. 20th St., NYC (6/22/19).

Claudia Schreuders: In the Bedroom

at Jack Shainman, 513 W. 20th St. (Chelsea), through June 22.

Sorry this is over by the time I got to it, but, too good to forego comments—do look for Schreuders at any opportunity:   

Recent examples of her characteristic (by now) stunted, polychrome wood figures were featured, along with related studies and a series of portrait heads on paper (lithos; ink drawings).  As per the show’s title (above), I read them (collectively) as stand-ins for Freudian exposés, if not explorations, of Eros among prosaic-looking heteros, tangentially reminiscent of Charles Ray’s fiberglass familial figures of the 1990s. Her hand-carved-and-painted technique casts a Pinocchio vibe into her wooden, lightly pasty-white boy-men and girl-women. Yet, static and solemn in bearing and hue they might suggests votives–but then, dedicated to what sort of being, idea or aspiration?  Only slightly Surrealist (some more than others), they point more so the mundane, rote nature of a range of sexual activities (explicit) and casual musings about them than subconscious simmerings.  

Some basics of the artist’s backstory, which adds layers: Schreuders’ acknowledged autobiographical subject matter; her upbringing in Apartheid-era South Africa; her attendance at the Michaelis School of Fine Art (Cape Town), where Jane Alexander has had an influential pedagogical presence for decades and likewise, her inter-species sculptural  creature, in the context of the atrocities of Apartheid (and otherwise), for the international art world. 

A group of washy, simplified portraits on paper were pointedly down-lifting (as my viewing companion put it)—the visages effectively, viscerally, conveying vulnerability and wounded-ness, reminiscent of those of Marlene Dumas, another precursor.

Claudette Schreuders, 2018.

Beauty in the beast: Whitney Biennial 2019

So another edition of the show the art world loves to hate, The Whitney Biennial—somewhat subdued overall this round in contrast to the shocking and rarified avant-garde culture that has been widely seen as characteristic and (rightly) off-putting to many sectors of the cognoscente and the public. And yet. Thank goodness–in a big way. In the end, love wins … for better and worse, as its very existence has furthered the cause and spread of contemporary art in America since its inception as a founding component of Whitney’s activities (beginning in 1932 shortly after the museum opened, as an “annual” until 1973 ).     

Over the course of this nearing centenary span negative criticisms have been directed increasingly towards the curators charged with the coveted but impossible task of amassing the most interesting “new art” produced or, in some cases, first “noted” in the past c. two-year span–by artists working primarily in the United States at least through the period in which they were created. A few repeated charges have been clique-ishness (among curators, institutions, dealers, artists), heavy-handed thematics, forced relationships and trends, and the reverse–a lack of installation strategy and direction that might leave a little too much work for most viewers. I’d say here that that last caveat has been turned to a positive, bolstered by ample space in which to consider individual works/artists. Both chronology and de facto eligibility–vis-a-vis the museum’s mission of “American” art have been (rightly) more fluid in response to post-millennial transnationalism–exemplified this time around. The overall tone hovers carefully between post-identity PC and pointed politics, and also indulges, intermittently throughout, in a kind of crafted visual pleasure not prevalent on the scene in recent decades. 

My impulsive and partly preordained (because I already like the artists) “hot spot” run-through starts at the beginning–in the ground floor gallery, given over entirely to Diane Simpson, who continues to create art in her mid-80s. Here her highly developed body-Bauhaus aesthetic hits high points in both drawings and contoured constructions inspired by sartorial designs and architectonic abstraction. Elegant-without-trying, deliberately and expertly plied geometry with anatomical armatures in mind.

Upstairs (including two main floors; niches elsewhere and two outdoor terraces) a number of other women are working directly with bodies in sculpture, including Simone Leigh, whose several majestic female-vessel works here (ceramic; bronze) are gorgeous (yes, she’s one artist I’m always looking out for). They can evoke supreme, feminist minkisi whose power, however, is invested in serenity and timelessness rather than fear and aggression (as in traditional Kongo culture). Another more amorphous, bulbous piece, with its clay-braided seams, recalls Yoruba “house for the head” shrine coverings and even head sculptures themselves from ancient Ife (more so in the context of her oeuvre broadly). Wangechi Mutu (another favorite a priori) is also represented by spirit-suggestive, more malleable female figures well known from her collage and video oeuvre; here, imbued with an atavistic sensibility in their sinewy, muddy appearance of simulated and real organic materials. A pending or perhaps present dystopian humanity is embodied in a parade-like installation of a gender-bending (some bent over) grotesques by Nicole Eisenman. They seem to have risen out of the muck (environmental and metaphorical) depicted in her paintings, wherein band-of-fool scenarios include evidence of psycho-sexual trauma. Wholly incongruent in sensibility, both Mutu (in one piece) and Eisenman incorporate a kinetic element (that doesn’t add much, imo, to their otherwise impactful works). Eisenman‘s freaks refer at least partly to American society specifically with details like NY Giants socks and a one sartorially-defined cowboy in the mix; but the US matrix is most indulged by Kota Ezawa‘s “social realist” watercolors and animations documenting Colin Kapernick’s sports protest revolution.  There’s quite a bit of figurative painting throughout, stylistically ranging from “bad painting” popularized in the 1980s to very good, nuts and bolts oils of nothing much, such as those of Keegan Monaghan that engage with tinges of object nostalgia and overlooked viewpoints.  

A large wall installation of calligraphic metal “signs” in a taxonomic-like arrangement (with cryptic key) by Maia Ruth Lee may recall, for those weaned on European modernism like me, the wrought iron “folk” hardware collected by Albert Barnes and integrated with his precious the French (mainly) paintings and African sculpture. (Barnes may have been on to something after all with his universalist formal reductionism, despite his blind spot when it came to content.)  Even more so, the Barnes-commissioned mural, now in the collection, by Ellen Harvey (not in the Biennial, but a great candidate) comprised of separate, movable depictions of each of Barnes’s related objects (Metal Painting, 2015). For Lee the paradigm is language—one built on components with accrued associations if not meaning through their past lives as functional object parts, reshaped and shuffled into 3-D “texts.”  Other compelling bricolage approaches include Joe Minter‘s free-standing sculptures of similarly rusted and rustic fragments resonant with notions of past labors, and Robert Bittenbender‘s haywire wall assemblages of hi-tech, bling-y detritus. Some artists are still addressing directly legacies of modernism–, as concept, restriction, barrier, foil, especially here John Edmonds in a loose photographic series that tackles evolving (or not) attitudes towards and outgrowths of European “primitivism” inhered primarily in African art. 

I am sure there are many very “good” videos within the numerous dark, murmuring partitioned areas for this purpose; however, (I’ve mentioned before) I have a hard time giving them the time they require within such large extravaganzas—nothing I am compelled to share on a first run-through–as I am the above.

Postscript (7/22/19): By late last week, eight artists (including Eisenman) had requested that their works be withdrawn from the show in protest of Whitney Vice Chairman Warren Kanders, CEO of weapons manufacturing company, Safariland (which had been mounting). As of right now, I believe everything is still in place. This may end up the most political biennial ever–unquestionably a Pandora’s box has been opened. Perhaps I should not say, but will, hurry.

Simone Leigh, “Stick” ( 2018; bronze); background: paintings by Keegan Monaghan.
Keegan Monaghan, “Blue Door” (oil; 2019).
Wangechi Mutu, “Sentinel I” (background) and “Sentinel II” (2018; mixed media).
Maia Ruth Lee, “Labyrinth” (detail; 2019; steel and laminated key)

Textured pictures in Chelsea


Paul Anthony Smith, through May 11 at Jack Shainman, 513 West 20th Street and 524 West 24th Street

Christina Forrer, through April 20 at Luring Augustine,  531 W. 24th St.

*The Whole Picture: Zipora Fried, Arturo Herrera, Thomas Pihl, Erin Shirreff, through April 6 at Sikkema Jenkins, 530 West 22nd Street.

*Never got to a post on the recent, intriguing abstract quartet at Sikkema Jenkins that closed last weekend, but still want to mention, re texture, Thomas Pihl‘s evenly sheathed, encaustic-like minimalist paintings (recently at Sikkema Jenkins). Close-up viewing of his waxy, glowing fields broach Rothko territory, in terms of inner light.   The revealed intensive layering only at the paintings’ edges, in fact iterated the context of a continuum as much as very personal abstract expression.

Still plenty of time to catch the latest by Paul Anthony Smith spread prolifically across both Shainman spaces. Smith‘s “picotages”– mounted textured photographs–debuted in New York five-some years ago with images of Jamaican street scenes and portrait subjects donning African masks, each “pricked” with a sharp potter’s tool in sections to create a simultaneously furry and sparkling, surface rippling.  This “scarring” induced, likewise a duality between a kind of psychological uncanny and spirituality veiled over the depicted realities.  Now Smith’s scale, subjects, and signature technique have expanded boldly, piqued in a series of (Caribbean) carnival scenes with complexly patterned, pricked grill-work superimposed and dazzling. And a third-level screening of sometimes spray-painted, sometimes speckled chain link fencing in another loose series has equally tiered levels of associative content. 

At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum:  Christina Forrer‘s Freudian-cartoon tapestries at Luhring Augustine, which, from a distance look very much look like blobby, post-millennial figurative paintings. Upon approach woven textures pixilate a rotating constellation of girls, boys, and anthropomorphic others with goopy, stretchy tongues, gum bubbles, and Gumby-body parts emitting from their mouths. Absurdist, abject, amusing, honest.

Paul Anthony Smith (textured photograph, detail); taken at Jack Shainman Gallery (NYC), April 5, 2019.

Smith and Forrer share a near obsessive commitment to their materials and methods, which itself generates at least part of their respective results and communicates; and both convey, overall, a humanistic (for lack of better term) motivation and intention.

Christina Forrer, woven textile work; taken at Luring Augustin (NYC), April 5, 2019.

Playing house with Derrick Adams


“Derrick Adams: Interior Life”; through April 20, 2019

at Luxembourg & Dayan (64 E. 77th St.,NYC)

Working with curatorial impresario Francesco Bonami,  Derrick Adams has grafted a fantasy modernist home onto the walls of this multi-tiered fancy townhouse gallery.   His vision is pristine and showroom-like, each flattened tableau (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, etc.), mixing geometric motifs that glide between wallpaper, textile, furniture, and flooring with simulated shiny surfaces–the artist’s (collective) ideal interior (a double-entendre, as in the exhibition title). At the same time, the schema as a whole is credible and relatable, aided by quirky and familiar details and appointments, such as honeycomb tiling or candy-colored alphabet magnets on a refrigerator–as well as the individuality appended through framed cubistic collage portraits, in upright profile, included as part of the decor and reflecting (in context) the inhabitants, directly or indirectly. (These works on paper are part of a loose series completed over several years inspired by passers-by near his studio). It’s all further set into motion by the intermittent appearance of small images of African sculpture—in a mirror, a sink, on countertops, in corners—that read as trickster-like spirits—perhaps apotropaic.   They are differentiated from the tangible African “art” displayed in some of the spaces.

For over two decades, Adams has maintained, above all, a fluidity between topical subjects, broad themes, very mixed mediums, personal expression (typically muted), and art references—here a nod to Sol Lewitt’s foray into fresco-like environments seems apparent. The strong graphic style, anchored by repetitions of varied masonry patterning throughout, can be traced back to a provocative 2009 show in which he revisited his youth and the vicissitudes of his native Baltimore, largely through the semiotic lens of its architecture–colonial, neoclassical, colonial, postwar housing projects (see link ). His emerging design aesthetic was highlighted in his installation at the Museum of Arts and Design last year (see link) that mashed up playroom-plywood ingenuity, his now characteristic cubistic stoicism, and conceptual poignancy on the theme of “The Green Book” (turns out, especially presciently for American society at large). 

In short, the current show wows with boldy colored and pressed, Op-arti-ish patterning, brought to life by the stately patchwork portraits and (perhaps) ancestors that hold down the fort.

Derrick Adams installation (detail), Luxembourg & Dayan (NYC; 2/26/19)
Derrick Adams installation (detail) at Luxembourg & Dayan (NYC; 2/26/19).