Tag Archives: Met Breuer

Body Language through the Ages at The Met

Life Like: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300 to Now); The Met Breuer, through July 22, 2018.

Flashback to the Breuer building as the Whitney Museum, 1994: ushered into the great “Black Male” show by Fred Wilson’s Guarded View (1991)—then a revolutionary, highly controversial installation of headless dark mannequin-museum guards, now widely renowned.

Fred Wilson, Guarded View, 1991 (mannequins/museum guard uniforms; collection Whitney Museum of American Art.; as installed at the entrance to “Black Male,” 1994; image: https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/from-the-archive-linda-nochlin-on-black-male/#slideshow_17646.1).

Same sentinel post here:  Duane Hanson’s resin-cast “replicant” of a black male housepainter (c. 1984), in this  cross-chronological, interdisciplinary exhibit by the new Met tenants.  Brings a little extra along, in more ways than one, for those who will not outlive deja vu moments linked to the Whitney-Met exchange.

Duane Hanson, “Housepainter II,” c. 1988     (cast resin/pigment/clother; image: https://artssummary.com/2018/03/23/like-life-sculpture-color-and-the-body-1300-now-at-the-met-breuer-march-21-july-22-2018/).

The ahistorical juxtapositions throughout are generally accessible as well as provocative.  Among the best examples: the pairing of Degas’s famously awkward, tutu-clad Little Dancer (c. 1881) and Yinka Shinobare’s headless Girl Ballerina (1995), which borrows the Degas pose but re-dresses the figure with African-print fabric and a pistol clutched behind her back.

Yinka Shonibare, Ballerina, 1995. (manniquin/fabric/ mixed media). Installed at the Met Breuer, 2018.

Beyond the intended fine art spectrum, the show hedges the visual culture bet convincingly (as suggested above), mixing in anatomical models, death masks, effigies incorporating organic material, and other functional (so to speak) items, sometimes ambiguously, sometimes unequivocally.

The postwar work is twisted in intriguing directions simultaneously in sub-thematic groupings (about a half-a-dozen, overlapping).  In a section linking commentary on race to this discourse, a variety of postmodern monochrome nudes play directly off Renaissance marble examples that imitate antique prototypes–before the re-discovery that most were once vividly painted.  Fred Wilson is present here in this context with a diptych-like piece comprised of cast replicas of black-Egyptian and white-Greek goddess statues (The Mete of the Muse, 2004-2007).   However, most of the Renaissance-era work included is sensationally polychromed, wood-carved Christian stuff–which, in its day, possibly provoked the kind of visceral sensations that Goshka Macuga’s animatronic automaton (2016), or at least, Tip Tolland’s super-trompe l’oeil women in The Whistlers (2005), both featured, do now.

Tip Toland, The Whistlers, 2005 (mixed media).

Yes, the medical supply eyes, hair, prosthetic limbs,  blood (some real), real bones, and mortuary elements gets creepy .  Precisely, that’s one point–the spatial confrontation with our status as physical specimens.   We are drawn to and faced with reflective bodies who play on both our egoistic desire for permanence and our self-conscious, inevitable disintegration.

The postwar material gathered is just a fraction of what is out there in this vein, which means that this effort is timely if not overdue.  (Off the top of my head, surprised no Chapman Brothers, like their 3-D “Goya” and “disasters of yoga” series).   But it’s a still a diverse, eclectic selection of mainly interesting work.  Beyond those already mentioned: John Andrea’s illusionistic artist-as-Pygmalion tableaux nicely complements Hanson’s painter; Alison Saar (who also had an effecting body sculpture in “Black Male”) is represented here by Strange Fruit (1995), a choppy figure suspended upside down, as terrifyingly blunt as it sounds; a potato-phallus-sprouting female mannequin (mid-1960s) by Yayoi Kusama, which conveys the fiercely feminist and self-consciously fruity mien for which she is now cultishly admired (I’m in); Jeff Koons’s life-size porcelain Michael Jackson with his pet monkey (Bubbles, 1988), a high-point in Koons’s kitsch-driven career; Isa  Genzken’s bricolaged post-punker mannequin;  Charles Ray’s Freudian play with figurative scale.  Indeed, Freud’s “uncanny” pervades large swaths of the whole curatorial exercise.   If the installation is a bit chaotic and imbalanced (echoing the formal truth of most real bodies, inside and out), the work featured adds up to a lot, and points clearly to a strong reaction to abstraction in postwar sculpture, continuing.

Mad Munch at Met

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed; at the Met Breuer, through February 4, 2018

“Between a rock and a hard place” would have been an equally apropos title for this copious display of swirling anxiety by the brooding, eternal modern screamer, Edvard Munch.  Trapped between old and new values and modes of existence, his oeuvre conveys tensions between the restrictive mores of an immediate Christian past and an intuitively and philosophically Bohemian worldview–inflected by pervasive illness as well (himself and those close to him).

The title painting, a late self-portrait, shows “the master” isolated in a monk-like studio (just his art and a bed are identifiable), presided by a sentinel-like, towering and seemingly ticking clock.

Indeed Munch’s art-book persona as depressive, gone-mad anti-hero and soul-bearing post-Impressionist is powerfully reinforced here.  His ability to ensnare viewers into his chaotic emotional orbit is considerable–even for those who will not identify with its central,  fraught protagonist.  His forthright  engagement with Freudian conflicts surrounding women and virility is at full force in a gallery of femmes fatales that burn with raw vulnerability.  Most compellingly haunting, however, are his writhing, perspectivally perilous views of Oslo from Ekeberg Hills and related, washy, windswept night scenes punctuated with ghostly figures.  Overall, his fluid, lightly muddied painting technique, along with the existential and psychological introversion of it all, strongly prefigures Abstract Expressionism.

“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.)

Photos on the Fence (of Evidence and Art): Diane Arbus; Danny Lyon

At The Met Breuer, through November 27, 2016:

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

At the Whitney, through September 25, 2016:

Danny Lyon: Message to the Future


In the new-normal virtual world,  b & w darkroom prints are increasing compelling in their accrued aesthetic objecthood–including technical variation–which both exhibitions exemplify and further.

The ubiquity of Arbus’s most famous images and related commentary, not to mention her dramatic bio (1923-1971/suicide), weighed heavily upon approach; yet, very soon I was absorbed in her/my journey–from tentative to provocative “art” photography.   This was facilitated by the ingenious installation (worth seeing in itself), which lined up rectangular columns through the main viewing space, hypostyle-like,  each displaying one work on each side.  The unusual alternative to the typical horizon-line ordering of small-scale photo shows disrupted preconception in general; and also: mimicked the action of the individual photo shot; evoked a Surrealist-tinged maze apropos of Arbus’s marginalized or else mainstream-transformed-to-slightly-sinister-through-the-viewfinder subjects; and offered flexible viewing paths.  Given that the bulk of work included dates from within a dozen years before her prematurely final images, a triumphant selection of which was featured in an exiting gallery, chronology was somewhat beside the point–even the attention to thematic placement was not essential–it’s all postwar New York.  The point was to illuminate, broadly, the break from her commercial studio career with her husband in the mid-1950s in pursuit of her art–at least as conceived within the realm of photography at the time.  (Work produced on various assignments was not necessarily excluded.)  It’s a captivating glimpse into that fiercely precocious (as a photographer and woman) foray, driven by a cache of never before exhibited work.

Coney Island carnivalesque–“freak” shows, the wax museum, and the like–was a magnetic draw for the quirky Arbus and the photographic encounters here seem to encompass an intended mix of a sympathetic and artistic, even expressionistic, eye, with selective truth-is-stranger-than fiction documentation, climactic in her famous pictures.  Elsewhere, uptown grotesques, Mad Men-midtown scenarios, the downtown demimonde, and urban street urchins link her variously to more conventionally journalistic predecessors and peers.   Her compositions are often from head-on perspectives, with undertones of an “exposé” aesthetic.  In places, I thought of Nan Golden; in others, especially the suburban pictures, Gregory Crewdson; also Carrie Mae Weems, among other photographers emerging in the mid-1990s in the context of a broader contemporary art world who have focused on the tropes, trappings, and relative truth of  documentary photography.

Danny Lyon (b. 1942) has had a brilliant, prolific career from the early 1960s in the documentary realm, imbuing straight images with emphatically committed partisan politics.  This passion came through early in his insider, close-up Civil Rights work, and later in several near-anthropological series in which he took an “embedded” approach, cutting edge at the time–e.g., motorcycle bikers, prison life, a foray into rural Columbia.

However, the bulk of small pictures in the humongous Whitney galleries gets . . . difficult . . . as a manageable whole.  While the show was organized by FAMSanFran, and the Whitney curators broke up string-course rows of photos (the usual, as noted above) with intermittent, free form arrangements, the installation still needed a bit more . . . editing (? – something) to be both engaging in the moment and memorable–despite the power of many individual prints.

A “bulletin board”-type display of media images culled by Lyon, illustrating his professed visual and conceptual thinking, segues to some collage and montage work–fairly basic to methods and extra-curricula experiments of many photographers.  Other artsy (not in a bad way) works incorporate language–mainly expressions of freedom and the perpetual questioning of the post-Kerouac on-the-road/looking-for-America counter-culture.

The Civil Rights work will be of particular interest to specialists delineating the extent and nature of the many peer contributors to the cause; and there is a good amount of ephemera throughout for those with scholarly interests related to Lyon and the documentary field in the decades covered.  For the laity: brief prep/background and patience will be rewarded.

For those with a whole lot of time and/or inclination after making it through the expansive photographic display, there are several of Lyon’s feature-length films on view (within the exhibition – with seating).  I didn’t have either – although, after the latter, I will be looking into some of his film work (one way or another).