Tag Archives: American 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

Farm Livin’ Writ Large: Grant Wood at the Whitney

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables; through June 10, 2018, at the Whitney Museum

This smartly installed Grant Wood show is as illuminating as his mid-West-baroque corncob chandelier in the entrance gallery that highlights his generally underplayed substantial early design training and career.  Unexpected are inventive yard art-meets-Dada table-top-scale sculptures, alongside subdued classically-derived painted allegorical adornments.  There are two examples (models) of stained glass projects in situ, one of which depicts a sweetly sanctified male youth that fast forwards to similar window treatments by Kehinde Wiley.  Yes,  sexual undertones are there throughout, and in accompanying scholarship.

Grant’s disciplined Arts & Crafts-influenced foundation underlay a strong compositional and surface facility in his “fine art” paintings.  His bold and deliberate figurative style cedes to warmly rounded gestalt-like geometries from a distance.  Upon closer viewing many reveal an obsessively repetitive and layered, near-pointillist technique.  Speaking of pointillism,  Wood also offers a challenge in his drawings to the coup de chiaroscuro of Seurat’s charcoals, with similar dense and gradated hatchings and rich opaque silhouettes.

Following the sens de la visite, I practically sensed beneath my feet the velvety-verdant patches of field and earth upon which Wood set his mainly sprawling yet intimate homages to farm life, real and mythologized, while engaging his emblematic adaptions of the locals, inflected, variously, with nuanced satire and lofty stoicism. The famed, featured American Gothic (1930) is not one of the most intriguing works in painterly terms, although its nuanced iconic hold is as strong as ever.  In a few late paintings the pristine impasto opens up, a la rich Fauvist contouring, harking back also to some early Impressionist work done in Europe, examples included.

Most copious here are all manner of studies for Wood’s expansive murals, which impress in scope and refinements.  Committed Regionalist we know–as per the canonized “story of American art” –yes,  unabashedly, and above all–one whose perceptive, perhaps partly repressed humor and social commentary is veiled in  confident technique and representational inventiveness.

Hipster Paintings for Posterity

“Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s”; Whitney Museum; through May 14.

Reganomics; mainstreaming of hip hop, hipsters, supermodels; gender and body politics, from the Pop-post-feminism of Madonna to the onslaught of AIDs.  Insert art world: the disco art show; Wolf-of-Wall-Street collectors; out-sized art stars (bringing Pollock’s posthumous persona to its ironically macho [after Warhol] conclusion) and the (reciprocal) PR-savvy mega-dealer (read Queen Mary and Gogo); reverse-chic tiny salons; (props Gracie Mansion); graffiti brought in from the cold (not to mention, scaled to the sofa), with Keith Haring (gay white artist) and Jean Michel Basquiat (of African descent; i.e., black in America) leading the way.

The socio-economic and cultural climate not only ushered the definitive infiltration of photography into the galleries in the 1980s, but also a barrage of refractive, hand-hewn painting.  (That’s even if the hand was hired by the artist of record, a la Mark Kostabi–one bold-face name in the era missing from the Whitney’s collection.  Hmmm.  Certainly his early style was appropriated, overall, as seminal “East Village”; but I digress.)

For one thing, paintings long have been assimilated in the West as trophies of wealth and (thus) taste, and, in tandem, are far more easily commodified (conceptually and physically) than sculptural and new media modes that gained traction in the upper art echelons through the 1970s.  This revival of sorts in the US (centralized in NY out of art schools all over) was bolstered and burdened by a similar burst in Europe, especially Germany, where some incarnations were deemed by some cognoscenti “reactionary”–dangerously or just redundantly so–in their gestural equivocations of unbridled virility.

Yet, in the end, despite numerous claims to the contrary, painting  hardly died and still thrives in the digital age.  Through the 1980s, the eternal appeal and joie de peintre for those on both sides of the picture plane was outed, unabashedly–for what it’s worth in itself (everything–a fundamental experience of visual artifice haunted by the painter-magician, to lift from a more complex Walter Benjamin metaphor).  In particular, figurative painting of any ilk could seem transgressive (an aesthetic buzzword of the era) in its structural (literal and semiotic) “decadence,” compared to the purposefully esoteric continuum of inventive forms aka “the historical avant-garde” (see Donald Kuspit, The Dialectic of Decadence, 1993).

If you weren’t there, well, the Whitney’s got most of it–pretty much to a tee; if you were, I think you’ll enjoy/agree.  Of course, the museum also constructed “it”–not least, via its ongoing Biennials of “best new work,” which accrue caché for emerging artists and have served as feeders for the collection at the same time.  (Just saying.  It’s all part of  the culture industry.)  Along that vein, it may be fun (to oversimplify) for some to identifying the dealers most in on the action here.

What is here is a cache of exciting paintings on the surface, variously deeply psychological, politically explicit, or purposefully left at accessible sea level, as far as content.  The entrance screen wall has been painted with Haring’s mural design from his (unprecedented, commercial) Pop Shop, onto which is hung a Haring edge-to-edge sprawl on faux animal hide that binds his inextricably child-like and sophisticated art primitivism; and examples by fellow graffiti-istes Basquiat and Kenny Scharf.  It’s a cold-hearted viewer who, at this point, can resist Haring’s autonomous mazes of intertwined, loving stick figures; like-wise, Basquiat’s raw and poignant word and image play, and Scharf’s Surrealism-meets-the-Jetsons cosmos.

The hit room (for me, of course) includes a dark, expressionist Julian Schnabel featuring a male hero/savior; a prurient tourist beach scene by Eric Fischl; a terrifying Leon Golub from his blood-red-grounded mercenary series: an antidotal (to all that drama), splashy and parodic self portrait by Robert Colescott (he’s done in by three  Graces); and an almost-Realist slice  of landscape by Louisa Chase.  Beyond their own merits, each indicates directions of many peers not represented here.

Other works recalled vividly:  Walter Robinson’s dime-store paperback novel cover image over printed fabric work, which brought to mind earlier Sigmar Polke and later Richard Prince; of few abstractions, Ross Bleckner’s and Terry Winter’s biology-evoking images with diametrically opposite painterly  sensibilities; and piece-meal painted montage puzzles that anticipate Photoshop by Julie Wachtel and David Salle.

Caveats:  the Schnabel is not one of his broken plate paintings that really made his mark.  The Whitney’s example is concurrently on view on another floor in “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection” (through April 2); likewise, among the most compelling Basquiat paintings in existence, Hollywood Africans (1983).  There is much other brilliant work in this (ostensible) portrait show (not limited to painting), including a personal favorite, Gary Simmons’s sculptural installation, Lineup (1993; first featured in Thelma Golden’s landmark, Black Male, 1994-95); and some engaging odd ducks, e.g., Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s carved stone female Buddha type, Chinoise (1914).  However, the theme and organization is catch-all and amorphous.  Yes, expanding preconceptions and boundaries of genres and (other) categorizations with highly subjective takes can be interesting to a point but here the term “portrait” looses meaning in a way too simplistic to say, simply,  that this was the point.

Gary Simmons, Lineup, 1993 (detail; mixed media installation); at the Whitney Museum (1/31/17)

Titus Kaphar stays the Course at Shainman

Titus Kaphar: Shifting Skies; at Jack Shainman (513 W. 20th; and 524 W. 24th) through January 28.

Kaphar had a breakthrough with his extensive painting series, The Jerome Project, 2014, in terms of public exposure, as well as artistic and socially committed aims.  This group of portraits juggled and compressed deep personal motivations, hyper-realist painting style, Byzantine-golden grounds, the visual rhetoric of mugshots, and post-painterly abstraction; in each, the subjects are partly obscured by tarry blackness seeping up over the image field.

Around the same time, Kaphar was developing two other directions (according to his first [dual] exhibitions at Shainman; see post): one, steeped in revisionist history thematics sprung from past art images as catalysts and templates upon which to surface and flesh out the ostensibly invisible black presences outside–or erased from–these “frames”–joining, in this terrain, immediate predecessors and peers like Robert Colescott, Whitfield Lovell, and (fellow Yale alum) Kehinde Wiley.  The other has been his direct engagement with and poetic documentation of Black Lives Matter from its beginnings, especially prominent images of the spontaneous hands-up-don’t-shoot solidarity gesture partly obscured by a maelstrom of ghostly brushwork.  (One of these was published in Time, 12/10/14, in conjunction with the selection of BLM as collective runner up for Person of the Year).

The works on view in the current show further all three veins mentioned, variously.  Individualistic portraiture remains prominent; notably in a series of intimate,  sepia-toned images on raw canvases, and larger, Warholian off-register-photo-silkcreen-type images of (to most) anonymous, “shaken” individuals.

Titus Kaphar; seen at Jack Shainman, 24th St. (Jan. 19, 2016)

The torch of history is carried through in the clever, curt, crunched and jewel-toned Twisted Tropes, 2016;

Titus Kaphar; seen at Jack Shainman, 20th St. (Jan. 19, 2016)along with other distorted, ripped and re-organized pictures and planes throughout; with several silhouette-cut-out wood panels that move away from paint entirely.  Elsewhere, more photo-based imagery vies with windy brushwork in soldier subjects–namely uniformed and armed (African American) Buffalo soldiers.  Familiar visages of George Washington pop up throughout; including (I believe–or a similar colonial “father”) in squished-profile within an  experimental glass series of amorphous-heads.  I think many will agree the most compelling is in the form of an over-blown, tipped and corked canister with a bit of “brown juice” (both liquor and molasses are evoked) puddling at the bottom.

Overall, the works here are no less energetic for also conveying a  slow and steady visual exploration of presence and absence simultaneously.

“We Mourn Our Loss”: Kerry James Marshall Retrospective Right On Time

At The Met Breuer, through January 29, 2017:

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry 

The morning after the election debacle brought immediately to mind a painting in this timely (for the artist, the art world, and American society at large) Marshall retrospective.  On a huge, gold-fringed canvas tarpaulin, a glitter-winged, but gravity-bound women fusses with a flower arrangement in a pristine, spacious living room.  One wall is adorned with a banner featuring medallions of MLK, JFK, and RFK above the slogan, “we mourn our loss”–itself echoing a cloud of fading photo-screened portraits hovering at the top of the composition above a carefully glitter-scripted caption, “in memory of.”  With a silvery-grisaille companion piece hung nearby, in which memories of the 1960s infiltrate a domestic interior veiled by shiny beaded curtains that can read also as bars and grounded with the inscription, “what a time what a time,”  Marshall’s layered iconography and mix-and-match painting techniques provoked in this viewer a palpable nostalgia for the immediate post-Civil Rights decade or so possibly approaching the intensity of Marshall’s own that inspired them.

Marshall’s entire 30-some-year oeuvre has been related in content to the subdued but rich private and pubic, social and emotional summaries encompassed by these two mentioned works–first recognized definitively in a breakthrough series based on urban-periphery “garden apartment” housing projects erected through the 1960s and 1970s, here exhibited in full (about a half dozen unstretched canvases from the mid-1990s).  In these vaguely Norman Rockwell-ian blow-ups, bicycles, dogs and school kids (except they’re all black) abound.  Adults are scarce, but, when they do appear, are sartorially Afrocentric or literally white-collar.    sporadically dripped passages over and under figurative imagery seems screen-like and stain-like, in terms of clouded memories.  The aesthetics and messages overall vacillate between tentative and idyllic, challenging, disappointing, and ultimately loving, through the eyes of a knowing artist from early on destined to stay the course.  Especially gripping (perhaps as I had looked at it closely years before, now encountered in a political context that lent nearly to tears) is a scene of three youths performing a solemn and private patriotic ceremony in a patch of yard, which bears the slogans, “Happy July 4th Bang,” and “We are one.”

Marshall’s stylistic signatures of very dark skin color and deliberate, stoic poses can evoke traditional African votives–ameliorated with the Western realist figurative tradition in which he is deeply ensconced.  Canonical art history seeps into his naturalism one way or another throughout, variously referenced and appropriated.  This is most obvious in an intermittent, loose series of artist-at-work pictures, capped by a bubbling, stocked and staffed  studio extravaganza to rival Courbet’s ubiquitous proto-modern prototype (The Painter’s Studio . . . , 1855).   A tour de force is a bustling hair salon scene emanating shades of Ernie Barnes and Barkley Hendricks as well as Rockwell, Archibald Motley, and maybe a hint of Kehinde Wiley, not to mention a shout out to Chris Ofili directly in a reproduced poster of his art hung in the salon–all crowned with a sarcastic riff on the Renaissance novelty of anamorphosis–as you walk across the picture plane, an abstract blob in the foreground becomes a disembodied blond Barbie-head.

Then there are the ethereally-hued and musically-ornamented pictures of black love–family; romantic; in myriad settings, which stop short of both sentimentally and irony to convey a rare authenticity (for lack of better term).  Add light-box-presented comics that Marshall has developed over the past decade surrounding a character called “Mastr.”  Final bonus: none of the artists I’ve mentioned, but many more, are included in a gallery of “favorites” across time and place from the Met’s collection selected by Marshall.

Great paintings change through time, carrying their pasts with them.  Many in this show fit that.  Any American should be moved by them; as well as anyone interested in the continuing powerful potential of figurative painting.

Works described (google):

Souvenir I, 1997 (MoCA, Chicago)

Memento #5, 2003 (Nelson-Atkins)

Untitled (Studio), 2014 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

School of Beauty, 2012 (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Bang, 1994 (Progressive Corp.)