Tag Archives: Betye Saar

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 to redress 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, where it is inevitably mitigated; or the implied juxtaposition (on different walls) of Faith Ringgold’s “race riot” (from her seminal “American People” series, late 1960s) with Picasso’s ubiquitous Demoiselles. I can see where each has an intensity perhaps overshadowing peer works, and curatorial sensitivity in suggesting a powerful painterly aggression equally shared, but I think it encourages ultimately superficial comparison especially with the rest of the large room also filled with Picasso.

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

Mapping at MoMA: Perilous Journeys; A Decade; Dark Visions by an Impressionist

At the Museum of Modern Art (West 53rd):

Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project (through August 28)

From the Collection: 1960-69 (through March 12, 2017)

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty (through July 24)

Like many, I did not really like the gargantuan atrium-centered MoMA re-do (2004); and, despite the ostensible (arguable) necessity of a ginormous space to accommodate ever-larger postmodern projects,  not that much has looked great in there.  (One exception that immediately comes to mind: Sanja Ivekovic’s pregnant female monument presiding over MoMA’s infamous modernist “hot mamas,” in her 2011-2012 show, “Sweet Violence.”)  Anyway,  Khalili’s current video installation does looks very good — or maybe I just love the piece, which was included in the New Museum’s 2014 exhibition, “Here and Elsewhere“; but deserves any and all exposure.  It’s comprised of a group of free-standing screens, each projecting close-ups of hands drawing routes on maps, with audio narratives detailing the journeys of exiles, refugees, and migrant workers.  Beyond the crucial content–often dangerous, subterranean transient life around the globe, the aesthetic component is considerable.  Moving between the flickering screens, fade-in-and-out murmuring, and zoomified map graphics, patterns emerge, echoing the stories.  And the regions delineated, as well as the synecdochal hands featured, carry myriad, fluid associations.

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The collection survey of work from the 1960s, organized by year, again defies the corny adage: familiarity breeds contempt–at least in its current incarnation, which will shift intermittently through its year run.  The 1961 Jaguar near the entrance is cool–even if obviously sensational and not quite integrated into the context of the outre art featured (though not exclusively) in the rest of the installation.

Overall, the art featured, pace the Jaguar, is relatively low or raw tech, hopeful, outspoken, eccentric; and individualistic–but not navel-gazingly so (lots of worldly references everywhere).  A few highlights:

Yayoi Kusama’s soft-phallus-covered, stuffed armchair represents an idiosyncratic, sex-charged counter-culture sensibility, and reminds of the octogenarian’s brave early visions, hard work and persistence that have perhaps been clouded a bit by her subsequent cult of personality and factory-like output.  Nearby, Claes Oldenburg’s aging, bean-bag-like, colossal ice cream cone, slumped in a corner, looks, in other ways, just as kooky.  Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn appears to be hung lower than I recall in the permanent galleries, which brought him–if not her–down to earth and not quite omnipotent (though no less iconic) in the midst of this mixed crowd.  James Rosenquist’s monumental, Pop-Photorealist sectional mural, F-111, wrapped around its own nook, gives it a physical reality, in terms of scope and process, lost in reproductions of his work in general–where it appears much more like the Photoshop imaging that it anticipates with loosely traced and sometimes airbrushed handiwork.  A luxurious Sam Gilliam drapery painting brings in the continuing development of abstraction, still dominant on the art scene through the decade.  An iconic flag-and-body print by David Hammons is especially latent, retrospective of his subsequent rise to the center of the international art world adamantly on his own terms.   Arte povera is represented with a tough and deliberate yet chance-driven assemblage grounded in concrete by Giovanni Anselmo.  A modest Betye Saar “window” collage-painting brings in a glimmer of diaspora expression that would not break fully into the mainstream until the late 1980s.   A Beatles section of ephemera includes the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover designed in collaboration with early British Popster Peter Blake;  and writhing Day-Glo posters suggest psychedelia as the true popular art style of the era; whereas Pop, in spite of itself, can be viewed within a continuum of the historical avant-garde.   In this vein, Milton Glaser’s famous Bob Dylan poster (MoMA has one) comes to mind for the rotation.

A niche section displaying mainly plastic-based furniture, coincidentally (or not) positioned near the old Bauhaus stairway area brings backs memories of a unique museum with a particular identity.

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You will see why the Degas show bears such a seemingly cliche title — incontrovertibly weird, but, in the end, highly engaging; how else can you say it?  (Well, I don’t know about the “new” – that’s pushing the institutional rhetoric.)  This extensive monochrome print oeuvre appears particularly odd-ball for an artist famously associated with color by association with Impressionism–and it impresses as an authentic endeavor in pushing formal boundaries without apparent concern for critical affirmation.  Equally, especially in the extensive array of brothel scenes, an expressive quality is imbued that, although (or because) ultimately ambiguous, departs in sensibility from his characteristically alert, cerebral pictorial deliberations.  Collectively, they convey an obsessive, subconscious searching in their claustrophobic variety.  I have to admit, I did, eventually, succumb (for,  despite  a scholarly appreciation of this art giant, I’ve never “liked” his work).  Moving through the profusion of dark-toned, intimate (embarassingly so, in some cases) imagery, the chemically washy smears and smudges, defined by intermittent and brief fluid contours, became mesmerizing.  And his lighting effects are, at times, as effective in print as Rembrandt’s.

Tried and True next to New in Studio Museum Winter Shows

At the Studio Museum in Harlem; through March 6:

A Constellation” /

“Black: Color, Concept, Material” /

“Marc Andre Robinson: Twice Told” /

The large show, “A Constellation,” juxtaposes diverse postwar works by artists in the museum’s collection with those of artists exhibiting at the museum for the first time who expand in some way on themes and/or forms of the predecessors. Visually, it’s not always clear what is linked or why, as the curatorial/press  statement concedes; the tentative, non-exclusive schemata is meant to be reflected in the exhibition title.  More important, everything on display is engaging on an individual basis.

Best parts, for those of a certain art world age, are works that have become “classics” in living memory, including: a late, life-size carved wood mother-and-child sentinel by Elizabeth Catlett; a post-minimal grisaille painting experiment by Jack Whitten; a mid-1970s female-spirit-themed window construction by Betye Saar; Faith Ringgold’s quilt painting, Echoes of Harlem, 1980, a portrait-enhanced, patterned banner that initiated her subsequent signature medium; a shape-shifting, rusted “lynch fragment” by Mel Edwards from his decades-long series of small-scale, anamorphic metal wall sculptures; David Hammons’s 1995 Dada-ist African American piggy bank–which, cracked open, reveals a cache of cowrie shells (historical currency in many regions of Africa), and which he titles, Too Obvious; precisely–that’s the impact or coup of the absurdly unified conception. (Speaking of circuitous connections, I’ve always associated Too Obvious [it’s been periodically on view at SMH in recent years] with a print image by Hammons’s immediate predecessor, Charles Wright, titled Sounds of Silence, 1971 [litho., issued in color and black and white editions] which depicts, in a naturalistic style, a young Afro-crowned man with a large seashell in his belly.)

Of work among the younger artists that stuck with me: a Hugo McCloud rough-surfaced, vermilion-pigmented palimpsest abstraction trapping traces of of structural scaffolding in its layered–nominally connected to Whitten’s formal approach, but recalling more so the urban build-up of early Mark Bradford; and Aaron Fowler’s huge, Family, a large-scale, slightly chaotic mixed media wall tableau with titular signage slipping onto the floor.

Aaron Fowler, "Family" (2015) [taken at SMH, 11/21/15)
Aaron Fowler, “Family” (2015) [taken at SMH, 11/21/15)
The central component of the Fowler is a painted procession of variously costumed individuals set onto a backdrop of re-used  wood planks and ornamented with small objects that suggest associative bridges between time and place, public and private.  In Family viewers can glean aspects from virtually all of the elders represented in the show, along with Rauschenberg and Whitfield Lovell.

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Beyond the literal monochrome and/or chiaroscuro of most of the work included, “Black: Color, Concept, Material” is nearly a smaller version of “Constellation” with its fluid cross-section of provocative selections, here all from the permanent collection.  I was surprised the introductory text did not mention Raymond Saunders’s famous, seminal essay, “Black is a Color” (1967).  Maybe I missed it somewhere, or, perhaps it may be considered something of a trope by now that need not dominate all related art conversations; yet, I would say that it is that important and (still) bears a lot of repeating.  (The California-based octogenarian, Saunders, is currently having a solo show of that title at UC Santa Cruz; through Nov. 25; Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery).

Personal faves: Nari Ward’s metaphorically and materially resonant, transformative ironing board sculpture, in which the content-loaded object of domestic labor has been cloth-wrapped and thickly tarred and “feathered” (with cotton) into a kind of New World boli (the amorphous traditional power votive type of the Senufo, comprised partly of ancestral materials); Leonardo Drew’s chunky, rough-cut, black-painted abstract wood wall-leaning sculpture, recalling Louise Nevelson;  Glenn Ligon’s glinty coal dust painting of obscured stenciled text; a sculptural self-portrait as nkisi (central African) or (related) vodun (Haitian) votive by Vanessa German.

Vanessa German, “Self Portrait of The Artist with Physicalized Soul,” 2013 [taken at SMH, 11/21/15]
Vanessa German, “Self Portrait of The Artist with Physicalized Soul,” 2013 [at SMH, 11/21/15; background and right wall: works by Glenn Ligon]
‘Floating” (with the aid of clear fish-line) in the downstairs project space: a gallery-scale, undulating, “cloud” comprised of chair appendages (arms and legs) by Marc Andre Robinson. The artist’s pruning and cobbling of worn, discarded furniture into cultural expression aims to trace, in abstract art terms, the renowned double-identity thesis of W.E. B., Dubois. Formally and in relation to the missing but evoked bodies, there are affinities with several projects by Doris Salcedo; and, just formally, Nancy Rubins and Frank Stella.

Covered previously, also on view downstairs: Lorraine O’Grady’s art-politically pointed yet delightful early relational performance, “Art Is . . ., ” 1983, represented in photo-documentation (extended from a previous closing date).