Tag Archives: Robert Colescott

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)

Motley mixed Color, Characters, Concerns about Race and Representation

At the Whitney Museum, through January 17:

“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” 

Before Robert Colescott (1925-2009) was creating his satirical, caricature-like black folk (especially), white folk, and assorted, imaginary racially-mixed beings,  there was Chicago-based painter, Motley (1891-1981), who took kaleidoscope color to all sorts of literal and metaphorical extremes in paint.  His jaunty Bronzeville and Parisian street scenes, cafes, and billiard halls, which  merge into broader thematic meditations on “modern” social life largely revolving around African American jazz, gain rhythmic momentum en masse.  (Motley commented on occasion, as one label points out, that he didn’t feel his art had much to do with his Chi-town, per se.)  And the ambiguous, much-discussed exaggeration of facial features that pops up across this extended urban subject matter remains emotionally and artistically provocative.  It should be noted also, since Motley’s works generally reproduce well, that the delicate but deliberate facture perceived in a first-hand viewing adds a palpable warmth to much of the oeuvre.

The subtle anatomical distortions, along with a tendency towards slightly soft-edged and animated forms, comprise Motley’s signature brand of blended Regionalism and Social Realism, both prominent in America for the first half of the 20th century.  Like other painters associated with these umbrella terms, his figuration shows consideration of late Cubist and other abstract, as well as Surrealist, directions.  Especially the latter is suggested in a few experimental monochromatic works featuring dreamy pastel-ish environments and evaporating figures.  (See Floor 2 of the permanent collection, which has a newly integrated [in several senses] installation of artists of the era that facilitates insights regarding their overlapping concerns and unique stylistic flourishes; e.g., Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, William Henry Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, among others).

Motley’s several portraits of his mother, his (white) wife, and those of a number of other women, emphasize age, class, and skin tone–the latter reiterated in some of their titles, which bear on mainstream (white; official)  nomenclature of race in America into the postwar years.  They can convey both distanced, ethnographic-type visual scrutiny and self-searching, empathetic poignancy.  Two self-portraits done about a decade apart, one with a quirky array of objects and one of his nude paintings adding explicit iconography, are engaging for their carefully plotted presentation that both reveals and conceals something of the inner artist.

A late tour-de-force, the mnemonic, First One Hundred Years (1972) is a sudden, stark indictment of the violent and plodding pace of racial equality in the United States. This nightmarish faux-collage bulletin board of racism and resistance woven through a deep blues environment lingers long after leaving the exhibition and seems to answer lingering questions about Motley’s earlier artistic motives, life experience and intentions.