Tag Archives: Pop Art

Rotating the Collection at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965; opened June 28; ongoing.

Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s; March 29 – August 28, 2019.

(at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Five years in, The Whitney has become thoroughly at home in its spacious new digs and primo downtown locale (the right move out from the old guard Upper East Side).  This is the second substantial collection overview-type installation since the new building’s inaugural extravaganza (2015). The rotation and attention to expanded contexts for a few renowned works that have remained on view in shifted juxtapositions is notable.  (I must say, a welcome trend seen in major museums broadly; remember when a small portion of a museum’s holdings remained on view in the same spots seemingly for decades?) The salon-style painting display in a dark blue gallery at the start (facing the 7th floor elevators; above) is effective in setting the mood, scale, and subject range–a mix of urban and rural, portrait, landscape, and genre–in mainstream Depression Era art in America. At the same time, an elite few were busy opening galleries and museums in Manhattan, like the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose “Whitney Museum of American Art” opened at a downtown location in 1931.  GVW was a committed supporter and promoter of living American artists, not to mention an artist herself aware that her larger mission presented conflicts of interest. Unlike her art-philanthropic peers (for the most part), her interest in the production of her time left a strong collective record of the years between the wars on the American scene through a heavy lens of New York.  A lack of wall labels draws visitors close, partly to look for signatures. Works by renowned American Regionalists like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are immediately recognizable, partly due to their early and close identification with the Whitney.  There were several women artists on this wall that I did not know, as well as elsewhere throughout; like Madeline Shiff (aka Wiltz), whose lively portrait of her artist-husband painting a landscape in a windowless studio here (Wiltz at Work, 1932) both reinforces and goes towards filling the lacunae of her own career.    

Several mini-show arrangements, according to the museum’s holdings, stars with Edward Hopper.  One of the great “poignant clown” depictions of many in modernist paintings can be seen in his early Soir Bleu (1914), a post-Impressionist-like Parisian pub scene and last European nod in his oeuvre.  Across the room and several decades the sublimely distilled ordinary New York air of Early Sunday Morning (1930) beckons.  Nearby is Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetic approach and temperament, via the results, are diametrically opposed.  Likewise, a display of selections from Jacob Lawrence’s War Series (c. 1946-47), which is truly experimental in its washy sepia palette and rhythmic forms without loosing humanistic, topical force.  A number of sculptural elements from Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926-1931), a Whitney coup, have been re-installed in an isolated darkened niche featuring a documentational film (1961, transferred to bright video) of the artist performing his kinetic ensemble.  That is, cranking, blowing, twisting his miniaturist mixed media props, caricatures, and animals to tumble, race, jump, and dance in ingeniously low-tech machinations.  If art is play for adults (as some psychoanalytical theories suggest) Calder was deep in and highly convincing. 

Other pre-WWII works are grouped stylistically; such as Cubist-informed “Machine Age” cityscapes paintings by the Charles-es, Demuth and Sheeler and art-deco architectural sculpture by John Storrs, Surrealist-tinged work, which, in the United States, elided in many cases with aspects of Social Realism and even Regionalism, whether or not in conscious intent. A remarkable contribution here is a visionary animated film, as far as later video and other digital art goes by Mary Ellen Bute (Spook Sport, 1939).  Of many additional highlights in the pre-WWII section, you won’t miss a relatively large-scale, quirky painted ode to the end of WWI and her beloved NYC in general by Florine Stettheimer, with fabric folds added to Lady Liberty; and don’t miss Elizabeth Catlett’s quietly uplifting terracotta-as-bronze Head (1947).

The  Abstract Expressionist section is energized by a boldly splotched Ed Clark canvas and a crusty, monumental relief-painting by Jay DeFeo; and Pop Art is dominated by Tom Wesselmann’s ginormous Still Life Number 36 (1964), from his loose kitchen-counter collage-paintings series, which presciently anticipates the Photoshop-based paintings of Jeff Koons and other digital “commodities” artists.  Warhol’s silver-screened Elvis Two Times (1963), however, holds its own despite, or because of the artist’s consistent omnipresence in so many spheres of the contemporary art world.  (Younger viewers probably now recognize “a Warhol” before his once ubiquitous celebrity depictions.)  

The 8th floor show on color as form in painting of the 1960s is a kind of addendum, first and foremost conveying how dominant abstraction had become by then. Kenneth Noland’s dizzying “post-painterly” (a la Clement Greenberg) measured-stripe abstraction at the entrance (New Day,1967) looks thoroughly triumphant.  A now classic stained canvas “bunting” piece by Sam Gilliam stands out against the majority work in geometrically-defined color-blocked experiments, sometimes differentiated only slightly in handling between different artists. And a few representational artists, it is proposed, still focused primarily on color in at least some work of this period, as in good examples by Alex Katz, Bob Thompson, Kay Walkingstick, and Emma Amos.  A thoughtful but not too didactic display. 

With this history under your belt, you’re ready to tackle the Biennial on two floors below (through 9/22/19) — if anything is left in the show by the time you get there (see Biennial) !

Andy Warhol, Elvis Two Times, 1963 (installed in the exhibition, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965 (photo: 7/12/19).
Kenneth Noland, New Day, 1967 , installed in the exhibition, Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s at the Whitney Museum (photo: 7/12/19).

Great and Small (and great) in Chelsea

Tom Wesselmann: Standing Still Lifes; through Feb. 24, at Gagosian, 555 W. 24th St.

Marti Cormand: Formalizing their Concept: After Levine, After Evans; through March 3, at Josee Bienvenu, 529 W. 20th St.

Bright, billboard-ish, photorealist-light paintings stacked into surface-defined tableaux, in the contextual swell of Mad Men advertising, latent feminism, and white-privilege American consumer consciousness.  This Wesselmann series, c. 1967-1981, really nails that postwar Polaroid, plastics, and early mass media sensibility in sleek (but not slick) renditions of mainly generic personal objects, blown up in scale like Claes Oldenburg’s related Pop sculptures.  Each “set” suggests a snippet of domestic life, while hedging the allegorical orbit of still life memento mori.  Straightforward, well executed, clever and amusing, Wesselmann’s method and flattened modality here prefigure the digital layering of Photoshop.  Beyond the arranged canvas works are several related gems on paper, part and parcel of a succinct, illuminating archival display on the development of the series.

One does not have to engage the title of Marti Cormand‘s show to find his small-scale, minutely marked, mimetic pencil drawings of rural American landscapes and run-down architecture compelling. Upon approach they can appear to be black and white photographs before gradually revealing their graphite identities.  However, beyond the pictorial pleasures and paradoxes of the pointillistic trompe l’oeil rendering, the backstory of the series title  complicates this labor-intensive exercise by explicating Cormand’s source material:  Sherrie Levine’s infamous photographs (1981) of Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans (as reproduced in a book).  Cormand has run the now iconic images, mechanics, and messages of these predecessors through his own artistic mill, sieving a near-century of gender-inflected discourse on art craft, content, and visual aesthetics into his collective result.

Serving Andy’s Soups, Yoko’s “Apple” and “Grapefruit,” at MoMA









“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” through September 7.


The oddly empty, yet addictive allure of Warhol‘s art is mind-boggling. Boring until it’s mesmerizing (not unlike Minimalism). Students cannot get enough of Warhol, the images, as well as the myth.  Even if they think they don’t get it. Even if they are skeptical. Whether or not they are interested at all in “art” broadly or specifically. Supermarket to Studio 54 to the Louvre. Same take. Same procedure. Same surface. Pure “spectacle” –  reproductions of reproductions—no substance. Labels, photos, the front page of a newspaper. Yet despite its built-in, flattened reproducibility, so many of Warhol‘s big, bold screen prints, such as the suite of mostly neon-tinged Marilyns (on paper; 1967) in the current MoMA show, stake a clear claim in a long, essentially modernist lineage of “art.” (Today I thought of Picasso’s Dora Maars before this repeated yet stuttering, puzzled and psychedeli-cized image of the sexy star—which I hadn’t, precisely, in the past;  Warhols keep on giving that way.) Meanwhile, the seminal gold Marilyn canvas (1962; moved from the collection galleries into this focused show) looks more and more like a Byzantine icon over time, its aura palpable.

The central installation is the entire original series of 32 Campbell’s soup cans (1962), among the last of Warhol’s hand-painted (traced; stenciled) works, displayed like the commodities they are, on a shallow shelving, as in their debut at Ferus Gallery (L.A.)–just a moment away from the forthcoming “brillo boxes” (1964) that would that come closest to such an art-product union. As it is, the soup cans remain more so disembodied icons, like the Marilyns.  Still provocative in the machine-mimicking technique and vision of fast-food cultural nourishment for the democratized surplus society of postwar USA.

While Andy was creating a campy, subterranean superstar milieu around his art “factory,” Yoko was even more avant-garde (for lack of better term) with the Fluxus crowd, where she furthered its concept-driven, anti-product ideals not only through her own work but by hosting events for others in her downtown loft.  Subsequently, the creatively energetic octogenarian has remained foremost–through thick and thin in terms of her maligned public persona (late 1970s-80s) and the tragic death of long-time lover and husband, Lennon–a New Yorker. It feels right—an adopted hometown show for this  idiosyncratic, artistically generous-spirited, bohemian survivor.

With that in mind, her well-known piece, Apple (1966), placed near the start of the exhibition, reads as a kind of vanitas: a real apple, left to disintegrate gradually, is placed on a plexiglas pedestal adorned with a metal plaque that bears its tautological title–an imprint of the artist’s having “thought” this that will remain.  The clear base gives a floating effect to the plaque and the apple,  a green variety that evokes its frequent appearance in Magritte’s inscrutable paintings; likewise, the play between word and object.

Yoko‘s aesthetic is linked to Surrealism in other ways as well.  Bag Piece (1964) has visitors don a dark sack to appear as a “bundle” crawling in a corner, evoking Man Ray’s famous object, Enigma (1920).  There are also hired performers to keep it live for several hours each day.

"Bag Piece" by Yoko Ono; MoMA (5/22/15)
Yoko Ono, “Bag Piece” (1964) at MoMA (5/22/15)





Christo also comes to mind, even more so in a performance in which musicians are progressively wrapped in gauze as they are playing until the sound becomes mute, represented by photo documentation in the show. There is also the Half a Room installation (1967), which recalls Yayoi Kusama’s foray into domestic absurdity around the same time.

Yoko Ono, "Half-a-Room" (1967); at MoMA, 5/22/15
Yoko Ono, “Half-a-Room” (1967); at MoMA, 5/22/15

An absurdist element underpins the extensive, intermittent series of haiku-like “instructions” and “scores” for actions and performances that make up most of the show, the earliest of which were first presented in a book Yoko titled, Grapefruit (c. 1964), for the hybrid origins of the fruit.  So: “dance in pitch dark”; light matches, touch the sky; scream; imagine weather; interact with others—sometimes realizable in real time, sometimes not, sometimes seemingly somewhere in between. This aesthetic mix of prose and poetry, whimsy and obscurity, auteur and collaborator, has been the mainstay of her art. And some of the texts have been incarnated for the exhibition, e.g., “stepped on” or “dripped upon” or ink-obliterated canvases–also, at points, reflecting a Zen-ish approach. Buddhist precepts also lie within the scope of her most famous performance,  Cut Piece, (first performed 1964), represented here in a 1965 filmed version, in which audience members are invited to the stage to cut off pieces of the artist’s attire. The work has only become more resonant as it has been absorbed into waves of local and global feminist art and discourse through the decades.

While conceptual art, especially ephemeral-type text, is purposefully anti-visual in any conventional sense, the marketplace and museum have found ways to subsume it into their linked folds, not least with slick framing of salvaged, expansive notations  that suggest an “administrative” style.  So there’s that to consider here. There have also been criticisms of some of this work as “light-weight,” in terms of conceptual exercises (is it any thought in her head at any moment?).  Yet, the lightness (I agree) is also refreshing compared to more heavy-handed (whether through scale, medium, or philosophical implication) examples of the genre, and in that sense, accessible without thinking so hard that it’s not enjoyable to peruse.

At opposite ends of the ’60s spectrum in so many ways, Andy and Yoko share a blank-screen sensibility with their visual and verbal texts (respectively) that rely heavily on the viewer’s participatory imagination to become art.