Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, at the Whitney Museum (WMAA), through June 21, 2020.
(As of this posting, the museum is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 emergency; check museum website.)
Luckily, I got to see this transporting show before the bad news hit —including the closure of the Whitney and virtually all other NYC museums, the Met Opera, Broadway, live t.v., and more until further notice. Hopefully things will normalize soon, and then the sophisticated spiritual surrealism of Ms. Pelton will be the perfect antidote to the current gloom.
Starting from a European-based realism, Pelton gradually moved very deeply into nature and finally the outing of inner visions through the course of a somewhat peripatetic life, literally and metaphorically—ending up as a yogi-transcendentalist painter in Palm Springs, CA. In the Whitney presentation back-story material (wall text) is nicely brief so that visitors stay focused on the surfaces of these contemplative works, which effectively approximate the states of mind and imagination that apparently motivated them. They emit a collective quietism–via smoothed brushwork, softened contours, and dusty, twilight-like palette, with intermittent flashes of glowing atomic detail.
Many include recognizable botanical forms highly abstracted, for example, linear Deco-like lotuses or floating arabesque ferns. As in the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe, these can yield archetypal central female forms, furthered in Pelton’s oeuvre by ova-orbs and some female figures. The inevitable comparison between these two peers is interesting as much for their divergent sensibilities, styles and artistic aims as for shared ones. (Their artist circles overlapped although there is no known direct contact between them; Pelton was more consciously involved with female-centered experience.) Elsewhere Pelton goes full-on cosmological—the kind of thing associated canonically with Kandinsky and now—and here more so—Hilma af Klint’s idiosyncratic celestial mysticism [see Klint]; Pelton’s work evokes more intimacy. Her surrealist affinities lie in her morphing of watery, heavenly, and biological elements, e.g., flower heads and petals into rippling waves and stars. A major inspiration for many early modernists (broadly) was music—as Pelton herself, an accomplished pianist, emphasized in her case, and which should be recalled in forthcoming exegesis in this arena.
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) !
So another edition of the show the art world loves to hate, The Whitney Biennial—somewhat subdued overall this round in contrast to the shocking and rarified avant-garde culture that has been widely seen as characteristic and (rightly) off-putting to many sectors of the cognoscente and the public. And yet. Thank goodness–in a big way. In the end, love wins … for better and worse, as its very existence has furthered the cause and spread of contemporary art in America since its inception as a founding component of Whitney’s activities (beginning in 1932 shortly after the museum opened, as an “annual” until 1973 ).
Over the course of this nearing centenary span negative criticisms have been directed increasingly towards the curators charged with the coveted but impossible task of amassing the most interesting “new art” produced or, in some cases, first “noted” in the past c. two-year span–by artists working primarily in the United States at least through the period in which they were created. A few repeated charges have been clique-ishness (among curators, institutions, dealers, artists), heavy-handed thematics, forced relationships and trends, and the reverse–a lack of installation strategy and direction that might leave a little too much work for most viewers. I’d say here that that last caveat has been turned to a positive, bolstered by ample space in which to consider individual works/artists. Both chronology and de facto eligibility–vis-a-vis the museum’s mission of “American” art have been (rightly) more fluid in response to post-millennial transnationalism–exemplified this time around. The overall tone hovers carefully between post-identity PC and pointed politics, and also indulges, intermittently throughout, in a kind of crafted visual pleasure not prevalent on the scene in recent decades.
My impulsive and partly preordained (because I already like the artists) “hot spot” run-through starts at the beginning–in the ground floor gallery, given over entirely to Diane Simpson, who continues to create art in her mid-80s. Here her highly developed body-Bauhaus aesthetic hits high points in both drawings and contoured constructions inspired by sartorial designs and architectonic abstraction. Elegant-without-trying, deliberately and expertly plied geometry with anatomical armatures in mind.
Upstairs (including two main floors; niches elsewhere and two outdoor terraces) a number of other women are working directly with bodies in sculpture, including Simone Leigh, whose several majestic female-vessel works here (ceramic; bronze) are gorgeous (yes, she’s one artist I’m always looking out for). They can evoke supreme, feminist minkisi whose power, however, is invested in serenity and timelessness rather than fear and aggression (as in traditional Kongo culture). Another more amorphous, bulbous piece, with its clay-braided seams, recalls Yoruba “house for the head” shrine coverings and even head sculptures themselves from ancient Ife (more so in the context of her oeuvre broadly). Wangechi Mutu (another favorite a priori) is also represented by spirit-suggestive, more malleable female figures well known from her collage and video oeuvre; here, imbued with an atavistic sensibility in their sinewy, muddy appearance of simulated and real organic materials. A pending or perhaps present dystopian humanity is embodied in a parade-like installation of a gender-bending (some bent over) grotesques by Nicole Eisenman. They seem to have risen out of the muck (environmental and metaphorical) depicted in her paintings, wherein band-of-fool scenarios include evidence of psycho-sexual trauma. Wholly incongruent in sensibility, both Mutu (in one piece) and Eisenman incorporate a kinetic element (that doesn’t add much, imo, to their otherwise impactful works). Eisenman‘s freaks refer at least partly to American society specifically with details like NY Giants socks and a one sartorially-defined cowboy in the mix; but the US matrix is most indulged by Kota Ezawa‘s “social realist” watercolors and animations documenting Colin Kapernick’s sports protest revolution. There’s quite a bit of figurative painting throughout, stylistically ranging from “bad painting” popularized in the 1980s to very good, nuts and bolts oils of nothing much, such as those of Keegan Monaghan that engage with tinges of object nostalgia and overlooked viewpoints.
A large wall installation of calligraphic metal “signs” in a taxonomic-like arrangement (with cryptic key) by Maia Ruth Lee may recall, for those weaned on European modernism like me, the wrought iron “folk” hardware collected by Albert Barnes and integrated with his precious the French (mainly) paintings and African sculpture. (Barnes may have been on to something after all with his universalist formal reductionism, despite his blind spot when it came to content.) Even more so, the Barnes-commissioned mural, now in the collection, by Ellen Harvey (not in the Biennial, but a great candidate) comprised of separate, movable depictions of each of Barnes’s related objects (Metal Painting, 2015). For Lee the paradigm is language—one built on components with accrued associations if not meaning through their past lives as functional object parts, reshaped and shuffled into 3-D “texts.” Other compelling bricolage approaches include Joe Minter‘s free-standing sculptures of similarly rusted and rustic fragments resonant with notions of past labors, and Robert Bittenbender‘s haywire wall assemblages of hi-tech, bling-y detritus. Some artists are still addressing directly legacies of modernism–, as concept, restriction, barrier, foil, especially here John Edmonds in a loose photographic series that tackles evolving (or not) attitudes towards and outgrowths of European “primitivism” inhered primarily in African art.
I am sure there are many very “good” videos within the numerous dark, murmuring partitioned areas for this purpose; however, (I’ve mentioned before) I have a hard time giving them the time they require within such large extravaganzas—nothing I am compelled to share on a first run-through–as I am the above.
Postscript (7/22/19): By late last week, eight artists (including Eisenman) had requested that their works be withdrawn from the show in protest of Whitney Vice Chairman Warren Kanders, CEO of weapons manufacturing company, Safariland (which had been mounting). As of right now, I believe everything is still in place. This may end up the most political biennial ever–unquestionably a Pandora’s box has been opened. Perhaps I should not say, but will, hurry.
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).
Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb. 7, 2016
It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at pre-c. 1990 Stella in person rather than reproduction–as usual, indescribably worth it vis-a-vis true appreciation for the crafted subtleties that were central to his early painting project as a whole. Definitely forgot the buzzy spill-over into Op-artiness. Once the 3-D elements set in, the separation of painting and sculpture blows up in a way that fulfills Donald Judd’s observations and prescriptions in “Specific Objects” (1965), in which he praised, as the right direction, Stella’s then novel shaped canvases. Yet, Stella remains a painter in the mind as Picasso does in the gut–the few ingenious sculptures featured in his current MoMA show not withstanding. Put another way: like the mythic earlier master, when Stella does go full out 3D, whether in throw-back modernist table top constructions or the colossal computer-generated “stars” landed on the 4th floor outdoor patio, a bold but studied negotiation of forms consolidates into a material and intellectual solution with a punch.
While not a hint of figuration appears in the 50-year coverage on view, individual works take on distinct personalities, ironically. At a certain point, definitively established from around 1990, the works turn from graphic experiments to buoyant, or angry, or contemplative, or meditative (etc.) “presences” — the goal of abstraction, in the end, according to the early accolades of long-time critical supporter, Michael Fried.
For anyone (still) ambivalent about “non-objective” art per se, this show could turn you.
Since I am all about NY nativism, I should react (here) to the Whitney Museum’s new Rienzo Piano building and inaugural show downtown. (Needless to say, all the detailed cognoscenti blog posts are long out. Like the overall consensus:) Well, it’s all . . . fine, suitable, functional (seemingly); in that sense, as well as the tier-conceived exterior, there is a strong connection to the neutralism of Marcel Breuer’s mildly Brutalist, inverted ziggurat uptown. No question, it was right to grab a spot in the nabe–a prime one, right in front of the southern entrance/exit to the Highline. The Mepa district is not turning back in my lifetime, and has possibly outpaced the Upper East Side already as the international upscale epicenter of NYC, soon (it seems) to meld into the high-end gallery universe in Chelsea a few blocks north. Without knowledge of the duration of the planning/design/construction process and interior details still underway, it appears to have been an efficiently-paced, organized project, with the opening six months after the close of the Breuer with the Jeff Koons shebang.
Outdoor steel decks off several floors are (again) fine. (As someone with latent vertigo, I found two of them a wee bit narrow.) Some of the scattered sculpture out there didn’t look great, in terms of weight and scale (David Smith; Joel Shapiro, Tony Smith), especially where there had to be “primitive” signs about not sitting or touching, such as that “guarding” Robert Morris’s famous three part “L-beams” (Unititled, 1965/70). For me, human-scale Minimalist work is usually more powerful in a closed space where viewers’ bodies are more fully involved (and you don’t need distracting signs). On the other hand, Scott Burton’s furniture-marbles that visitors can use, are naturals for this sort of thing. And the site-specific installation, Sunset, by Mary Heilmann on a the largest terrace, which included rainbow-colored block chairs scattered about (for use) and monochrome pink geometric “clouds” panels hovering above on the building facade worked well in more ways than one. From here, the refreshing far vistas on three sides interestingly contrast with the gritty near views of sanitation and meat processing plants remaining nearby below (probably not for much longer).
Given the impossible task of an inaugural re-invention of such a famous collection, I’m not surprised that it all seemed very careful; fine; even “good,” but I’m not left with one installation decision that really wowed. Okay, maybe the giant Felix Gonzalez-Torres hanging light-bulb sculpture cascading through a central open stairwell from top to bottom of the building. There was noticeably more diversity of artist gender, ethnicity, and race, and (related) subject matter among the sections from the first half of the century, then picked up again after the 1970s. (On that note, can’t wait for the Chicago painter Archibald Motley show, coming in October.) Yet, Fred Wilson’s brilliant piece, Guarded View (1991; four headless mannequins “of color” suited up in NYC museum guard uniforms) was striking more than two decades after its debut in the midst of the white-bread crowd. (There’s still a host of issues on this topic; ’nuff said in the immediate context.)
What else did I notice? The great graffiti man, Keith Haring, known for the brightest of colors and intertwined, glyphic-cartoon babies, tv sets, hearts, wings, and out-there penises, was not well-represented here in a dark-on-dark near-abstraction (one of only two Haring paintings in the collection; one overtly topical AIDS-related work on paper was including in a politically-themed installation area). Chuck Close’s early monumental airbrush self-portrait seemed out of place in a gallery that featured post-painterly abstraction (okay again – perhaps simultaneous directions, but visually; for example, elsewhere there was the juxtaposition of large portraits by Katz and Warhol; maybe Close’s mug there). Discoveries: a Vlaminck-like, putty-painted, foam-green-dominated landscape by George Bellows; an early Veja Cemins oil painting of a burning electric space heater in a burnt umber void–some convoluted root of the charcoal-toned, star-studded galaxies and flickering oceans that later brought her art renown.
P.S.: Other museum news: See NYT, June 3, “Frick Abandons Contested Renovation Plan,” Robin Pogrebin); yeah! (See previous post.)
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".