“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.
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 sensde 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.
But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa; through Oct. 5.
Laszlo M.-N. (b. 1895, Hungary; d. 1946, Chicago) is utterly impressive in his utopian geometric (but not necessarily rational) conceptions and execution of high-tech objets d’art and design in his time– that much any visitor will appreciate via this extensive presentation. Something else everyone will notice, pervasively: Wright’s sloping-interior gem gets in the aesthetic way of nearly anything else–partly on purpose, as remarked ad infinitum from the drawing board to the opening of his magnum opus. Many of these works are too small-scale to be installed on Wright’s weirdly curved ramp walls with their continuous melting ledge that precludes close approach. So large rectangular partitions, positioned to block a number of those wide niches, have been set up (uncomfortably) to accommodate them. (What can you do?)
M.-N.’s precise/precious abstract paintings are admirable in their idiosyncratic, linear rigidity and embody the Bauhaus internationalist formalism in which he was heavily invested. Constructivism is mashed into the most original works, namely, wall assemblages that include perforated metals, sometimes kinetic, as well as paint (and assorted other stuff). Even with a few large and intriguingly colorful works interspersed, it’s a bit dry for the layperson after a while. As a high priest of modern photography, as well, a good selection of both his straight photos, which follow geometric suit through modern architectural subjects and disorienting viewpoints, and his “photograms,” among the first examples of intended abstract photography, are covered comprehensively. The tour de force was a recreation of an exhibition space that M.-N. designed, c. 1930, but was never built–a then futuristic Gesamtkunstwerk exploiting spliced and intersecting planes, materials, and light effects. I enjoyed the few modest examples of his relatively prosaic commercial graphic work, which bring this Bauhaus Buddha back to earth (in a good way).
A large,cage-like but lithe metal-frame “cloud” hangs, suspended from the ceiling, near the entrance to the Blowing Winds show – not a bad segue from M.-N., via Minimalism. However, the variously sized rectangular sectionals, layered to incorporate disorienting shadow play, have derived not from intuitive formal arrangements but tracings of carpets sold by Mid-Eastern street vendors in Venice made by the artist, Nadia Kaabi-Linke (as per the gallery label). And made specifically for a Venice debut (the Biennale 2011). The more you know . . . the evocations and destabilizing effects pile on.
Like most (not all) of the seventeen artists in this show (two of whom are collaborators), Kaabi-Linke, was raised within one area of the title geography (in her case, Tunisia), and has traveled/relocated to other parts, as well as the West, for sustained periods (she currently resides in Berlin). For those (like myself) interested in the current, formulating, global art world, and how artists, curators and scholars are grappling with art identities in the age of transnational arts networks, the details provided on the artists and works here are highly relevant and interesting. This is beyond more obvious issues hovering, such as the fraught politics and violence, potential censorship, and sometimes wary blend of tribal with later pervasive Islamic cultures across the region, the last somewhat downplayed in the accompanying texts.
For the hoi polloi (relatively speaking–again including myself), there are a number of other intriguing show-stoppers; including (but hardly limited to):
Most . . . spectacular: the cooked couscous model of Ghardaia (2009)–the medieval Saharan city known for its syncretistic (indigenous and Arab Islamic) architecture–by Kader Attia. Here the artist’s literal journey–b. France, raised in Algeria–is foregrounded vis-a-vis “foodways”–from (original) staple to (colonial) “exotic” and back again in the diaspora. Notwithstanding its myriad immediate provocations, it also took me back to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s curry days (i.e., his 1990s “banquet” events). The piece also encompasses, on the wall behind, photos of the Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, who subsumed ideas from his study of/visits to the site into his very white modernist program (without credit).
The seemingly floating brass handrail sculpture (2010) of Hassan Khan is an artist-designed replica–not a found object–of a mundane modern banister noticed repeatedly by the Cairo native (and current resident) at the entrance to downtown Cairo’s National Bank of Egypt (the oldest in the post-colonial era). Some critics may insist on content latent in this economic-tinged, if ambiguous, back-story, however, (again, as per text info provided) Khan himself was interested simply in teasing a disorienting point of view and viewpoint out of a prosaic mainstay–indeed, he punningly elevates it. Grounded at one end, each stake is progressively shortened as if over invisible steps, recalling, in reverse, Wolfgang Laib’s “stairways to nowhere” sculptures (early 2000s).
And Abbas Akhavan’s fragmented, horizontal monument to the arts and culture of historical Mesopotamia, with bronze-cast flora scattered on white sheets that also imply the pilfering of heritage.
Issues with accommodating lengthy videos in these large shows notwithstanding, I picked a mesmerizing one, thank goodness, for my self-allotted fifteen minutes of this activity. In Evaders (2009) by Ori Gersht, a dual channel/screen captures a weathered man walking through a teetering mountain range, through seasons and storms, fading in and out, via various pans and close-ups. One reads that it is based on an escape route through the Pyrenees from the Nazis, and specifically recalls the mythologized flight of German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide when he was blocked from entering Spain after fleeing Nazi-occupied France. Should we/do we thus assume Gersht is Jewish, and then, the only Jewish artist included, because, beyond his subject, he is the only one included born in the modern nation of Israel? The real point, given our current world of disparate and desperate large-scale migrations, is that Gersht manages to convey the reality of what many forced travelers endure, metaphorically and/or physically, that most others could hardly, on their own, imagine. For a skewed comparison, catch Bouchra Khalili’s current video installation at MoMA, The Mapping Journey Project (2008-11); previously shown at the New Museum in Here and Elsewhere, dubbed (in museum press), “contemporary art from and about the Arab world”; which prefigures in many ways the Guggenheim show; see post).
Oh, the exhibition title is taken from Rokni Haerizadeh’s Surrealist series seamlessly mashing animation stills, mass media images, collage, and gouache into energetic pictorial chaos.
“Doris Salcedo,” Guggenheim Museum (NYC), through Oct 12 (originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)
Doris Salcedo (b. 1958, Bogata, Columbia) received a Guggenheim grant twenty years ago, so it’s fitting enough that the NY venue of her first US retrospective is here. On the other hand, it’s broken up into three floors of the museum’s tower, so visitors walk through the louder “contemporary acquisitions” show on the ramp to enter each level, breaking the overall, palpable haunting aesthetic of her sculptural oeuvre. Certainly, its characteristic large-scale and installation layout is a good example of why the museum felt it needed the once-controversial addition to Wright’s idiosyncratic building (determined to compete in “Contemporary” broadly–rather than to more selectively consider historical strengths in evolving; same for MoMA). Yet, a major one-person show at the Guggenheim that does not somehow engage Wright’s incomparable (if also often inconvenient and impractical) ramp and (especially) rotunda–the omnipotent stars of any show here–somehow tampers or sleights the potential experience. Although . . .inhabited by Salcedo’s serial, Minimalist-oriented, somber constructions, one or two of the closed, squared-off back galleries appropriately evoke solemn tomb rooms.
Anyway, Salcedo’s art is undeniably moving, thought-provoking, expressive, slightly magical. Her most characteristic works over several decades involve fragmented and imaginatively reconfigured, primarily wooden, furniture to suggest eco-sensitive monuments that encapsulate both human loss and conflicted emotions associated with memory and commemoration, with very occasional glimpses of hope for some sort of spiritually-infused regeneration. The constructions often include volumetric, cemented portions, a la Rachel Whiteread, but more tuned to content that suggests both the suffocation and preservation of signs of life. Other distinguishing, sometimes disarming alterations appear at the surface in uncanny treatments with silken threads, human hair, live grass.
Other installation types include found objects glimpsed behind scrims over punctures in gallery walls; garment-type creations that may symbolize missing bodies; and the use of Eva-Hesse-waxy textures blended with ephemera. And then there are the stacked dress-shirt sculptures, shot through with metal stakes–somewhat reminiscent of Ann Hamilton’s early feminist folded shirt installations. Both touch on the topoi of labor–Salcedo’s evoking more violent, erased exploitation.
Salcedo’s art ethics as well as aesthetics, distinctly informed by the political conflict that has pervaded her homeland for much of her life, find kinship with those of Christian Boltanksi and Mona Hatoum, in so far as their broad implications of absence and displacement, conjured through a compelling, art-refined scavenging, retrieval and subsequent bricolage.
“On Kawara: Silence”; Guggenheim New York, through May 3.
It’s a show about nothing (to pun on a classic line from the philosophical depths of Seinfeld). No narrative or thematic arc. In a limited variety of art forms, On Kawara numbered his own days to a total 29,771 (according to the David Zwirner Gallery website) before his death on July 10, 2014. By that count, he was born on January 2, 1933, although there are few facts confirmed about the notoriously tight-lipped, peripatetic artist when it comes to his biography or meaning in his work.
Anyone interested in/predisposed to/involved even tangentially with Conceptual Art per se will quickly recognize the mastery of Kawara in this vein through the current installation, where his renowned date paintings make infinite, unspeakable sense up or down the museum’s unique spiraling space (as has been widely noted).
For the less informed, one might begin by apprehending Kawara’s implacable singular vision–in so far as a vision is a kind of idea– for the duration of his career and adult life, those two arguably more unified in his being than in that of any other of the many artists on record who have aspired to something similar. And then, well, read the painted signs—calendar dates—literally. While a few foster a quiet intersubjectivity (e.g., July 10, 1969; the first moon landing; Sept. 11, 1999, now foreboding), most resonate only individually, vis-a-vis blankness and specificity, as one surrenders to one’s inner Archimedean rhythm in scaling the ramp.
What might be called his “action” pieces (in comparison to the studio paintings)—mailed postcards, time-stamped as well as dated in series with repeated messages, then retrieved by the artist–are particularly interesting in the collective displays here. “I got up.” “I am still alive.” “I met.” Life and afterlife conjoined. They add up to . . . something. But what? There is a compulsion to look for patterns and clues in names or recipients and/or numbers throughout, but nothing conclusive emerges.
Inevitably, Zen consciousness appears at stake in the seemingly ego-less lack of desire and even-keeled tonality of this oeuvre. Another take: Barthes’ “Death of the Author”—there is nothing but what we fill in (to very loosely summarize). Then again (as Foucault would reply to Barthes’ essay [“What is an Author?]), there is someone distinct behind it. How “disinterested” can any human be while constructing or construing anything to be left behind?
Art is not to humans as web is to spiders—even when it comes very close, as in that of Kawara’s chronological peer, Yayoi Kusama. It may be somewhat superficial to link them via their respective disturbing war-time youth in Japan, reflected by both in dystopian Surrealist imagery in their early works. On the other hand, their repetitious, statements of self–Kusama, through repeated morphic symbols, and Kawara, numeric and linguistic ones–share a prolonged relentlessness and circular continuity. There is no “progress” (in the colloquial sense) in either oeuvre. Of course, there is no indication that Kawara, pace Kusama, had any social/emotional illness. Still, the obsessiveness of his art endeavors and commitment to personal erasure through the most subtle means bears an inverse resemblance to her fight against self-obliteration through flamboyant, though equally empty surfaces.
Methodological discipline, supported by predetermined colors, sizes, and formulaic composition, was means and end to expression for Kawara. At once highly idiosyncratic and encapsulating the dominant lingua franca of the international avant-garde art at the time he fell into his groove, On Kawara will surely live on, ironically vividly, in both contexts .
Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s; SRGM, through January
Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection; MMA, through February
Mid-week morning at the Guggenheim, filled to capacity, lines outside?
For an exhibition at the opposite extreme of an obvious popular “blockbuster”? With crowds like these here and double at MoMA’s “Matisse,” it’s hard to imagine the necessity for admission prices topping out at half-a-hundred for two adults. (SRGM is $22, to MoMA’s $25). It’s all of a piece with the rise in herd marketing of museum memberships that promotes advanced ticketing, and, more and more, “reservations”–at odds with the public accessibility and related purposes–for immediate, regional constituency rather than far-flung tourists (obviously built in)–claimed by these institutions. But I digress … .
Conceived by two postwar German artists, who, like the Futurists, Constructivists, and Bauhaus-ers before them, sought to re-start art for a new era from scratch, the Zero group eventually encompassed a loose network of international experimenters and an amalgamated aesthetics of disco-y shadow play and mirrored surfaces, kineticism, and Minimalism (at its cusp). Overall, as much interesting to really look at as to read about as you proceed. One stunner was a floor piece by Yves Klein in his signature IKB indigo–a fantastic, possibly radioactive, sci-fi sand box. Two sooty (literally), seemingly rubbed paintings of celestial circles by Otto Piene were sublime. And I appreciated Arman’s early “accumulation” of empty candy foils (thinking how full of content Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s waxing and waning candy piles would be two decades later). Recreations of two original Zero installations including multiple affiliated artists–Duchamp-meets-Rube Goldberg set-ups–crucially convey the collective phenomenon (if you will) and counter-balance the inevitable fetishizing of the objects that were left, once its mark was widely recognized as historically (at least) significant. Though many specific works hold up well as such (as suggested above), others now appear slightly naive or even anachronistic, in light of their forward-looking intentions.
Perhaps no modernist works have been more fetishized than early Cubist ones by the dynamic duo, Picasso and Braque (the latter destined to be second fragmented fiddle, though his early formal precocity is on full display here). However, when modern-day Medici, Lauder, meets brilliant scholar-curator, Emily Braun, you get the creme-de-la-creme selection expected: a personal yet diverse display, through gem-like examples, of a visual revolution. Starting with the pioneers: color stands out, surprisingly, with a few quietly shimmering oils amid the more familiar monochrom-ish palette of the pair that remains fascinating; ditto the hybrid drawings/papiers colles (“how little can we get away and still . . . signify,” some seem to portend). The two immediate followers that round out this formidable gift to the Met, Juan Gris, and Fernand Leger, might be described as, respectively, warmed domestic and cooled urbane outgrowths. Imaginary souvenir: a tiny, terracotta-toned, talismanic mask painting (gouache; 1907) by Picasso.
P.S.: The food cart kerfluffle in front of the Met continues into the era of the renovated MMA plaza. (Google it.) What an eye–and nose–sore; but, it’s a decent living. Any alternatives?
Snapshot reactions/recommendations on contemporary and occasionally other art recently on view around town. See you in the galleries, Jody B. Cutler-Bittner (art historian/educator). Search artists, galleries, museums, key words below, and "enter".