Tag Archives: Sam Gilliam

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).

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.