Tag Archives: abstract painting

The Cosmology of Agnes Pelton

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, at the Whitney Museum (WMAA), through June 21, 2020.

(As of this posting, the museum is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 emergency; check museum website.)

Luckily, I got to see this transporting show before the bad news hit —including the closure of the Whitney and virtually all other NYC museums, the Met Opera, Broadway, live t.v., and more until further notice.  Hopefully things will normalize soon, and then the sophisticated spiritual surrealism of Ms. Pelton will be the perfect antidote to the current gloom.

Starting from a European-based realism, Pelton gradually moved very deeply into nature and finally the outing of inner visions through the course of a somewhat peripatetic life, literally and metaphorically—ending up as a yogi-transcendentalist painter in Palm Springs, CA.  In the Whitney presentation back-story material (wall text) is nicely brief so that visitors stay focused on the surfaces of these contemplative works, which effectively approximate the states of mind and imagination that apparently motivated them.  They emit a collective quietism–via smoothed brushwork, softened contours, and dusty, twilight-like palette, with intermittent flashes of glowing atomic detail.

Many include recognizable botanical forms highly abstracted, for example, linear Deco-like lotuses or floating arabesque ferns.   As in the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe, these can yield archetypal central female forms, furthered in Pelton’s oeuvre by ova-orbs and some female figures.  The inevitable comparison between these two peers is interesting as much for their divergent sensibilities, styles and artistic aims as for shared ones.  (Their artist circles overlapped although there is no known direct contact between them; Pelton was more consciously involved with female-centered experience.)  Elsewhere Pelton goes full-on cosmological—the kind of thing associated canonically with Kandinsky and now—and here more so—Hilma af Klint’s idiosyncratic celestial mysticism [see Klint]; Pelton’s work evokes more intimacy. Her surrealist affinities lie in her morphing of watery, heavenly, and biological elements, e.g., flower heads and petals into rippling waves and stars.  A major inspiration for many early modernists (broadly) was music—as Pelton herself, an accomplished pianist, emphasized in her case, and which should be recalled in forthcoming exegesis in this arena. 

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


“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”; at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, through April 23, 2019.

Everyone with any interest in the history and mystery of art (or maybe just everyone), must know about the Swedish turn-of-the-century artist, Hilma (1862-1944), who, very much on her own with conscious intention created abstract art before, it seems, its widely dubbed pioneer, Wassily Kandinsky.  Does it matter who got there first (even if that could be securely delineated)?  Probably, to Kandinsky and the other guys who shaped Modernism partly as a competitive bro-manship.  Probably not to Hilma.  Along the lines of Kandinsky, but much more so, she was immersed in a syncretistic spiritual calling.  The specifics are murky and were apparently malleable throughout her life, a blend of Christian,  Eastern and occultist beliefs and practices that included communing with the dead and “spirit masters” who initially inspired her (according to her) to paint autonomously without studies.  She did have early academic training and proficiency in botanical illustration and Impressionist (more or less) landscape by then, seen in examples on view.   The abstraction appears somewhat suddenly, full force, in colossal paintings jointly titled,The Ten Largest (c. 1906-1915).  In these, plant and amoebic life are suggested in the biomorphic shapes and squiggles floating against flat, sectioned planes, occasionally punctuated with idiosyncratic, alpha-numeric  markings.  Her palette features mauves, ochres, and ceruleans with a dusty cast partly due to the tempera-like paint medium on paper that she preferred even for large work, but is carried over also in matte oils. 

These “largest” are exhibited in the museum’s High Gallery off the main ramp (as shown above; view from above)—virtually the only space in this museum that could well accommodate them (a criticism of Wright’s ramp design when the museum opened in 1959,  by which time most abstract painting had become substantially larger than the Kandinskys at the nucleus of the collection).  Yet,  Wright’s winding “snail” could not be more apropos for the bulk of this show, given that Hilma imagined several dozen of her works in a grand spiral “temple.”  

So the show is brilliant for its melding of transporting, otherworldly art and environ, as well as the rich cache of a little known oeuvre.  While it is not surprising that any prolific pre-war woman artist has not had more exposure, in this case, Hilma hid, or at least did not show publicly, most of her abstract work, prognostic about its probable tentative reception, and perhaps discouraged by a  negative response from Rudolf Steiner, a towering male figure in her Spiritist/Theosophic circle.  She did find kindred souls in a small sisterhood of like-minded women artists, also not surprising among woman artists in history who pursued art careers against social odds.

Later, her explorations became a bit more Bauhaus-formal, though prismatic “ray”paintings with pyramidal and planetary forms and sporadic cryptic scribbling can evoke, variously, Freemasonry-type symbolism, early 20th-century Orphism, and Malevich’s Suprematism.  Figuration is also reintegrated after a point, perhaps in an effort to be more accessible, though all remains mostly enigmatic.  It gets somewhat esoteric and precious, not to mention opaque as far as content, in scrutinizing the featured large spreads of small color and shape studies based on gender coding and other symbolic correlation.  But not less fascinating.


Damien Hirst as (Outer) Space Painter

Damien Hirst: Colour Space Paintings, Gagosian Gallery, 24th Street; through June 30, 2018

At this stage of the game for Hirst, when hype has become both draw and a distraction vis-a-vis his art activity, he has been attempting to re-presented himself as a seemingly un-ironic, authentic (for lack of better term) abstract painter.  I’ll say, unexpectedly, that consolidated foray into pointillist non-objectivity on display here rises to the company of postwar predecessors like Richard Pousette–Dart, Larry Poons, Veja Celmins, and, especially, Yayoi Kusama, in terms of visceral optical power–specifically Kusama’s simultaneous vision of the endless universe and the buzz behind our eyes.

Hirst himself has linked the featured works, mainly from 2016-2017, to his long-standing interest in pseudo-scientific content via images of cells under a microscope.  He first produced “spot” paintings in the 1980s in the context of post-Minimalism, which segued, reciprocally, into candy-colored tablets of big pharma.  The circle forms were typically arranged in grids or bounded patterns, sometimes shifting within the compositional structure through color arrangement.  In the best works here, the spots, in a staggering diversity of tinted hues, are densely applied in all-over fields with an uncanny stroke that seems mechanical in regularity and hand-hewn with occasional delicately trailed paint threads.  Depending on light or dark grounds, they can  intimate staring into the daylight sun or night star gazing, rendering the exhibition title a double-entendre.

As a bonus, if seeming non-sequitur, a sliced shark piece from his break-through days (1990s) as art infant terrible is installed in an anteroom before the street-front gallery window. Perhaps a reminder of the shark-infested blue-chip art sea in which he swims, but also, of the preeminent theme of death that has haunted his oeuvre.  In that sense, to borrow a metaphor from Kusama on her own practice, the new paintings can suggest the obliterative nature of infinity.

Damian Hirst, installation of paintings at Gagosian 24th St. (May 2018)


Damien Hirst, sculptural installation, c. mid-1990s, at Gagosian 24th St., May 2018

Geometric Variations: Odita; Rhode; Johnson

Odili Donald Odita: Third Sun; through Feb. 10 at Jack Shainman, 513 W. 20th St. (Chelsea)

Robin Rhode: The Geometry of Color; through Feb. 24 at Lehman Maupin, 536 W. 22nd St. (Chelsea).

Kelley Johnson: Slow Hum; through Feb. 4  at Freight & Volume, 97 Allen St. (LES)

A key theme in the group of recent abstract paintings at Shainman by Odili Donald Odita is celebration (according to the press release).  Yes.  Odita’s sharply juxtaposed, color spectrum-spanning, slices and shards pop back, forth and across these flat pictures as viewers approach and recede.  Odita has already mastered this post-Minimalist terrain, climactic in his public murals; he continues here to mine its infinite potential when it comes to visceral variation–especially with nuanced chromatics.  With each work momentarily mesmerizing, collective dynamics include: tension between perceived patterns and their disruption: illusionistic spatial shifts, algorithmic autonomous patterning, and attention to color theory; plus, not least extra-formalist design inspiration (e.g., textiles; architecture).  Above all, the presiding staggered-dagger motif sets the body, as well as the eyes, abuzz.

Robin Rhodes also creates outdoor murals with geometric foundations; however, in socially subversive contexts.  Namely, on city walls in Johannesburg (S.A.)—a la authentic graffiti, with which he then interacts in performances.   At Lehman Maupin, these projects are completed (as it were) as art photographs. The painted backdrops recall, variously, point-to-line-to-plane Kandinsky, Sol Lewitt’s systematic faux-frescos, and, occasionally, simplified archetypal symbols as embedded in local traditions of façade decoration in the region.  The superimposition of Rhodes’s own silhouette in various poses conjures Banksy and Bauhaus mashed into absurdist street ballet.  Collectively, the framed up rhythmic arrangements bind together, bounce, and juggle such myriad associations.

Flip side to Odita’s crisp-cut partitioning by trading on related geometric coin are the recent airy works of Kelley Johnson at Freight & Volume.  Johnson has left tape strips and over-stepped masking edges intermittently and strategically around his striped and scaffolded compositions, through which white space peaks in, often in sectional, horizontal bands.  To use the sonic metaphor of Kelley’s exhibition title: a distillation of Odita’s big  band to a low (as well as slow) hum.   Leavening classic Minimalist monochrome with pop-neon color and, in a few sculptures, more fragile structure for which kites were Kelley’s inspiration, the hand-tinged element tempers his neo-geo modality with somewhat ironic, off-beat charm.



Woman Across Generations, Modes, Mediums in Chelsea

“Kara Walker: Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present…” at Sikkema Jenkins (530 W. 22nd St.) through Oct. 14.

“Aurel Schmidt: I Rot before I Ripen” at PPOW (535 W. 22nd St. 3rd Fl.) through Oct. 7.

“Barbara Chase-Riboud:  Malcolm X: Complete” at Michael Rosenfeld (100 11th Ave. @19th St.) through Nov. 4.

“Mary Corse” at Lehman Maupin (536 W. 22nd St.) through Oct. 7.

“Suzan Frecon” at David Zwirner (525 W. 19th St.) through Oct. 21.

“Maya Lin: Ebb and Flow” at Pace (537 W. 24th St.) through Oct. 7.

“Janet Fish: Poppies and Pinwheels” at DC Moore (535 W. 22, 2nd Fl.) through Sept. 30.

The one with the most pre and post-opening press so far lives up to the billing – Kara Walker (Sikkema Jenkins).  These biting, heart-wrenching, sprawling, churning, Americanist, Freudian, large-scale drawings and drawing-like paintings push everything she has done over the past two decades to newly excruciating heights.   Beyond a challenge, they dare viewers into her racially-charged, amalgamated visions of depraved eroticism and emotional and physical violence through which the powerful have subjugated and bankrupted others historically; and ensnare with fluid linear elegance and mash-up iconography in which all manner of images across time and place are re-mixed and spewed.  Staying her decades-long artistic course, a reinvigorated investment in her hard-core thematics of race and linked monochromatic artistic roots are palpable.  She also continues with her extensive, only partly parodic exhibition (as well as art) titles–read this one in full at the gallery and consider it when musing on the work.  However, a shorter phrase wielded by precedent upstart Robert Colescott in his own pre-emptive defense of devil’s advocate race-baiting in his art would be  apt: “Self-censorship is a cop-out.”  No question, Walker remains one of the most gutsy, defiantly provocative artists out there.

Aurel Schmidt (PPOW) also specializes in colossal, curvy, psyche-scape drawings–in her case, post-pubescent, priapic fantasies conveyed through stoner-Eden settings inundated with butterflies, daisies, snakes, and vulva-centered spiderwebs.   Her sensibility blends faux-naivite with a dash of harajuku and a druggie- decadent twinkle.  Hello Kitty-ish kitties may be a bit rabid; and a few exquisitely drawn rodents (one on a skate board) just above floor level tug back to urban earth the flighty fancies envisioned above.  Trigger warning: the “high times” sexual undercurrent explodes (yes) in a back room installation-homage to the erect member of her bf—including several graphic close-ups.  Good for her (the careful attention to detail seems to express).  But the critter-and-flora-packed, delicately rendered mirages are the wow factor.

The sculptural sentinels, or steles (as they have been aptly, described) of Barbara Chase-Riboud (Michael Rosenfeld) are majestic, yet at a human scale that addresses the viewer as an autonomous entity.  The past decade (mainly) of work here is a collective tour de force of her renowned signature mode developed over nearly fifty years: thick folded slabs of cast steel and aluminum combined with densely draped, ropey textile elements.  The results of this gendered yin-yang formulation suggest soulful effigies akin to ka statuary of ancient Egypt. The metal sections and knotty, braided skeins visually meld through the monochromatic (mainly) schemes—deepest blacks, rich golds, and one blood red show stopper, furthering this effect of “beings.”  The works featured ostensibly complete a series begun in 1969 dedicated to Malcolm X—not at all a secondary aspect of the hovering content, though conferred after her initial foray into this formalist vein.

Mary Corso has also continued on an abstract trajectory from early on—namely, “light and space” exploration in painting formats (with others starting out in southern California c. 1970).  Again, I don’t hesitate to use the term “majestic” in summarizing the flickering Minimalist planes she creates with micro-plastic bits blended into tarry black pigment and juxtaposed with silky, silvery acrylic in broad, flat bands.  The very mechanics of seeing activates her surfaces, further impacted by viewer movement.  Recent work by Leo Villareal and Veja Celmins came to mind while staring into Corso’s spatial “galaxies”—achieved with streamlined methods and means.

Likewise, the recent work of Suzan Frecon (David Zwirner) conveys long-term, discriminating devotion to abstract painting–hers employing a very subtle palette of earth tones and lightly, carefully biomorphicized geometry.  She is most concerned with proportional relationships in terms of intuitive perception.  However, landscapes are implicated (not to say “depicted”), as much by tonal mood as by mounds and horizontal passages.  With a conceptual turn of intention and phrase, one could say the same of Maya Lin’s new sculptural installations (Pace), which translate rivers of the world from maps to glass marble arrangements and silver-pour creations crawling up the walls and pooling along the floor (along with a few other inspired material variations).  Since her spectacular public debut decades ago (The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, design c. 1981), virtually nothing Lin has produced has not been well worth experiencing and engaging.

An anomaly in the art age of millennial Chelsea is the gorgeous,  painted still life oeuvre of Janet Fish (DC Moore)–again an artist who has stuck with her early art impulses and affections.  The selections here, spanning over thirty years, highlight Fish’s studious yet exuberant fascination and facility with reflections, contours, textures, and color in the observed real world.  All manner and types of natural and artificial  objects are reigned into loose, often spilled-over set-ups that Fish maintains as she paints, working exclusively from life.   Collectible ceramics, kitsh tchokes, arm-to-table bounty, Chinese take-out, crispy potato chips, lush floral arrangements, poppy-pocked field flowers, and multiplying are glisten in jam-packed, vigorous compositions that fold in swiftly stroked patterned fabrics.  It’s a palpable pleasure to revel in these prosaic reveries grounded in domestic life.

Modernism and Reaction: Guggenheim Summer

At the Guggenheim Museum, New York:

Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim; through September 6, 2017.

Guggenheim Collection: Brancusi; through January 3, 2018.

Mystic Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris 1892-1897; through October 4, 2017.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum building (opened 1959) generally so dominates any art on view that an emphatically self-reflexive, self-contained show featuring its core collection of modernism seems virtually the only “natural.”  Presiding over the museum’s character and legacy is Wassily Kandinsky, whose spiritually-aimed abstraction grounded the aesthetics of Wright’s design–as charged by SRG’s German émigré art advisor Hilla Rebay.   Rebay had egged on SRG in acquiring early Kandinsky,  which, supplemented by additions from the collections of other “visionaries,” adds up to a retrospective-ready holding by the museum.  The full spectrum is summarily  featured here,  from The Blue Rider years, through Stravinksy, the Bauhaus, and the late cosmic geometry.   The shifting subtleties and enigmas of his “non-objectivity” are climactically concentrated in the double-height High Gallery but interspersed throughout, due to the organization of the show, which separates the holdings of each sub-collection: SRG’s, Rebay’s own small one, those of Rebay’s compatriot émigrés, Karl Nierendorf and Justin Thannhauser, and Americans, Katherine Dreier and SRG’s famous niece, Peggy (see the film, “P.G.: Art Addict,” dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland [Netflix]).  This conceit offers insight into certain “progressive,” elite art tastes, cliques, cabals, and their interactions, and diversions, through (mainly) the first half of the 20th century.

Cubism and Kandinsky dominate.   Despite long-standing charges of narrative sentimentality by some, I love the charmingly enigmatic paintings of Marc Chagall, which blend both, and add folkloric/primitivist and topical political content, such as the three gems here, among SRG’s purchases.   Dreier and Peggy brought in Alexander Calder, who had a strong presence in Paris between the wars.  Thannhauser added most of the antecedents (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism [the biggest names in both cases]; and early Picasso; although always on view by stipulated agreement, they are especially relevant absorbed into this show).  Nierendorf contributed Joseph Albers; Peggy brought in Surrealism and Jackson Pollock (and like that).  The most prevalent sensibility overall is a kind of cool Cubist-derived Bauhaus that asks quite a bit of the mind as well as the eyes.  Where artists’ early and later works are not in proximity due to the collectionaire theme,  some works lose context that might be helpful for those beyond cognoscenti (this observation amounts to a very small thing–but, e.g., see the Mondrians).

While Wright envisioned primarily (not at all exclusively) a downward trajectory from the top of the continuous, angled ramp (reached by elevator), and it doesn’t matter much how to attack this show to get wrapped up in its brave new formal euphoria, I suggest the upward climb if you can, the sens de la visite of the curators.  Thus the High Gallery full of Kandinskys is a grand opening, just past the start of the upward spiral.  Up another tier,  veer off into the Thannhauser space (as indicated, grounding for much material to follow), and then ascend to the culminating splatter Pollock (1947) that implicates, retrospectively, the reach of Kandinsky.

The most important sculptor in this milieu is probably Brancusi.  Only a few are scattered throughout; however, there is a small addendum show (off Thannhauser) that fleshes out his contributions, along with Edward Steichen’s acclaimed photos of his influential Paris studio.

A great juxtaposition with the forward-looking tenor of “Visionaries” (retrospectively) is the Rose + Croix salon display, off the ramp at the 4th floor, which retracts from canonical modernist tendencies into fin-de-siecle ennui and an idealized early Christian past—portrayed through detailed, engrossingly fussy figuration.  Starting with the physical transition from Wright’s giant egg-white snail/spaceship into a dark-red-colored room with plush sofa-seating.  The Rosicrucians were one of many 19th-century syncretistic Christian groups incorporating ancient, esoteric mysticism, new occultism, and socio-philosophical prescriptions that looked backwards from the “fall” of the industrial revolution.  One of its high priests, Josephin Peladan, took up the arts component as a sect of umbrella fin-de-siecle Symbolism, organizing a series of salons such as that simulated here.  The collective results—a mini-Counter Reformation kind of thing, in which hell-and-damnation (among other) Biblical, Christian, and Classical allegorical narratives, heavy on male-moralistic notions of female purity, boast highly crafted, sometimes experimental techniques amplified in a close personal viewing;  William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites are precedents.  Across the works the lighting is appropriately ethereal, and a pan-European Art Nouveau can be loosely applied to the languorous anatomies and foliage.

One bridge between several turn-of-the-century artistic milieus across the two shows is the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler.  He hovered between various fringe movements and goals, melding figuration and formalism with his rhythmic “parallelism,” represented in the Rose + Croix show by a soulful, freize-like composition of anguished, black-draped bodies.  Most of his peers here are far lesser known.  in terms of art history, they lost out to the (then) futuristic art sojourners highlighted in “Visionaries.”  Yet, the intentions of both Kandinsky’s and Peladan’s flocks, as far as developing a spiritually-infused art that could effect broad societal direction, overlap.

Abstract Painting Hangs In There: Stanley Whitney; Albert Oehlen

Stanley Whitney,” Studio Museum in Harlem (through 10/25/15).

Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden,” New Museum of Contemporary Art (through 9/13)

Abstract paintings are tough–in more ways than one.  Have been from the beginning.  But the charm is in the challenge–escapist idealism (no “thinking”); impossible, idealist . . . part spiritual/part scientific–art as innate impulse.   The digital age of endless reproduction–even more so than the photographic “mechanicism” that preceded it–is not conducive to generating engagement with abstract painting, which is predicated on material nuances,  non-illusionism, (in short) presence.  Abstraction that . . . surprises (in terms of preconception as well as perception) has really accomplished something.  So, (in short) Stanley Whitney (American; b. 1946) does that–sparingly, primarily with color, evident immediately upon entering the main gallery here.   What he does with the color is turn it into light.  Pace Rothko’s layered, glowing rectangles, to  which Whitney’s paintings broadly connect, their luminosity comes in the pure skin of oily, barely opaque though bright pigments, arranged in squares playing off each other in slightly wobbly grids.  Compositions can appear brick-wall-like; or blown up, woven-textile-ish.  The fully initiated may associate modernist stained glass windows; neo-Colorfield; Hofmann push-pull, vis-a-vis slips between skeletal frameworks and building blocks. The most engaging abstraction conveys the intuitive expression of a singular vision of the world that pulls in others.*  This is that.   In a fresh, as opposed to ponderous, way.

Albert Oehlen (Geman, b. 1954) came of art age in the milieu of Neo-Expressionist painting in the 1980s.  Along with his own contributions to gestural figuration through that decade, some on view here in which a roster of immediate predecessors and peers from across the continent are recalled, Oehlen experimented heavily with (nearly) pure abstraction as well; and since has added new kinds of imagery from the digital world to whip up a new, synthetic formal language.  I say “formal language” because the increasingly appropriated, nominally representational digital imagery progressively incorporated his painting brew contribute more so qualities like implied textures and ephemera than conventional iconography.  His surfaces can evoke a compressed, ahistorical “now”–non-reflective.  In that sense, the works of the past decade (at least) are, mainly, essentially “abstract.”  There is surely visual interest in the laminate-screen and digital print effects, airbrush-y swatches, and splashy (good old) painting mashed up in Oehlen’s work.  It pulls together a number of international trends  through the 1980s-1990s that, above all, sought to reclaim painting from “new media” and second-generation conceptual art in an authentic (for lack of better term) way.  The show (two floors) makes best aesthetic sense chronologically from the early, mainly figurative, to the later, mainly abstract work, although part of the equation is in the fluidity between them throughout.  I would repeat my advice concerning the MoMA show of Oehlen’s obvious early teacher, Sigmar Polke, last year (here): don’t overthink.  Just, are you / how are you feeling his studio struggles?

An anomaly in Oehlen’s oeuvre that you won’t miss is the 2005 untitled “bed” installation.  Artists’ beds–or bedroom-studios–and angst.  Doubt.  Isolation.  Van Gogh.  Philip Guston (see Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973).  Rauschenberg’s art ur-bed (MoMA). Lucas Samaras (back in ’64).  Rirkrit Tiravanija. Tracy Emin.  And like that.

Albert Oehlen, installation at the New Museum (7/31/15)
Albert Oehlen, installation at the New Museum (7/31/15)








*Adolf Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman: “It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way–not his way”; quote from a letter published in the NYT, 1943; in American Artists on Art, 1940-1980, ed. Ellen H. Johnson (NY: Icon, 1982).