Tag Archives: Whitney Museum

Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Jan 31

Well, a bit behind the times (aren’t we all in veritable lockdown) …

I’ve had finally had a chance to reflect on this extensive spread at the Whitney—which sticks to its theme of influence and confluence vis-à-vis Mexican artists after the revolution and American artists through the Depression era into WWII—led by Los Tres Grandes, Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros.  All three had direct and indirect, personal and professional ties to the US and, in the main, were thus recognized by the Americans included here, several sojourning in Mexico at various points in their careers.

Near the start (main wall off the elevators and to the right, moving towards a central cluster of galleries) the tone is set by several characteristic Rivera paintings featuring Olmec-like soft geometry and folksy subjects mixing ancient, historical, and his own time. Following are other kinds of culturally and geographically specific scenes, painted, photographic, and (in one case) sculptural, by (among others) Frida Kahlo, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Rufino Tamayo, Tina Modotti, and Mardonio Magana.  Moving into direct juxtapositions of Mexican mural projects and WPA-type projects by Americans, an illuminating installation of mainly studies and disparate panels by Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton, along with other more and lesser-known practitioners of mural-scale art.  Collectively, a good sense of the kind of imagery that infiltrated the American public square in the period covered is conveyed–namely, a charged Social Realism. Peasant and proletariat protest, pain, injustice, and heroic workers, agricultural and industrial, are featured, gathered in spaces that mash together current, asynchronous, and symbolic political events and gatherings.

The influence of Orozco and Siqueiros, vis-à-vis fiery visual tone and gestural bravura on a formative Jackson Pollock is also given substantial attention, reminding of Pollock’s art journey beyond the hype.      

One pending critical quandary (still thinking): the inclusion of several wall-papered repros of murals that go beyond documentation into a kind of simulacrum. Especially so here with a huge image of Rivera’s famous Controller of the Universe fresco (Bellas Artes, CDMX), the result of a famous controversy over a commission for Rockefeller Center, covered through ephemera here.  This work is crucial to the trajectory of the exhibition and the impulse to give a sense of its scale is understandable.  At the same time, at this moment when online art viewing has been rapidly disintegrating lines between virtual and physical art, an alternative, expanded documentation with additional related original studies might have been another route.  Being very picky, I also felt coverage of Siqueiros’s recently restored Los Angeles mural, Tropical America (1932), a scathing anti-colonialist visual tract centralizing the crucifixion of a Native American that was ultimately covered and hidden for decades, could have been given more context, although its recent recuperation is past the scope of this exhibition. BTW, note the powerful foreshortening, overall, in Siqueiros.     

Mardonio Magana, Motherhood, 1931 (collection: Museo de arte moderno, INBAL, Mexico City; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)
David Siqueiros, Revolutionary March, 1935 (collection Palm Springs Art Museum; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)

Arts & crafts at the whitney museum

Making Knowing:  Craft in Art 1950-2019; through January 2021 (floor 6)

Rachel Harrison: Life Hack; closed January 12, 2020 (floor 5)

Thanks largely to a postwar infiltration of feminist and diaspora art (often of a piece) in the West and artists working elsewhere receiving wide exposure in the context of an emerging global scene (if still dominated by the West), distinctions between art and craft in contemporary production have been ostensibly erased.  At the same time, long-held gender, cultural and other associations with each term persist. And “craft” most often evokes hand-hewn textile and textural materials … for the better in the “art world,” as per this show, in terms of diversity and possibility when juxtaposed with hands-off new media equally ascendant through the same period.  Most of the work included seems to acknowledge to at least some degree this semiotic and material lineage, whether as precursor and/or foil, while conveying strongly personal, pliable and luxuriant relation to preferred mediums and techniques.

Both well known artists and some with less exposure in this context are represented, overwhelmingly (not completely) by examples in the museum’s collection, which highlights its ample interest over time in this direction.  Off the elevator, the perfect intro is a fragmented 3D-ornamented mural (1976) by Ree Morton, comprised of painted pinkish, putty-like, imitation ribbons, flowers, puffy clouds, and make-shift ladders to … heaven, enhanced by literal floating signifiers—words like “pleasures” and “atmospheres” rendered in sculptural form. The hopeful feminist romanticism (small “r”) conveyed is refreshing and seems, as well, to incorporate a subtle jab at heroic (male) abstract painting in the gluey strips and skeins of her process. To jump to a personal fave (and then I’ll circle back), which shares some of the same underlying sensibilities and offers reason alone to see this show: Liza Lou‘s near full–scale, pop-up kitchen (c.1990-1995), replete with brand-name, opened food boxes, dishes in the sink, and pie in the oven, sheathed entirely in tiny glittering beads.

Liza Lou, Kitchen (1990-1995); detail through the “window” (Whitney Museum exhibition, Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019

Just about every piece in the show is engaging visually, with much provocation to jump around via perceived kinships, contrasts, comparisons. Among first-generationers featured (although works here by them span three decades collectively): aesthetically oppositional sewn soft sculptures by Yayoi Kusama and Claes Oldenburg; a Richard Artschwager cube-table; an Eva Hesse macramé-like ropey hanging; a heavy, draped felt blob by Robert Morris; a cagey, wire-woven abstraction by Ruth Asawa; a lace-like, shimmery canvas by Howardena Pindell; a Harmony Hammonds padded rag-swathed scaffold sculpture; a Faith Ringgold painted tangka banner; an open-frame Alan Shields wall work of bead strands; a Miriam Shapiro frilly collaged canvas; small-scale weavings-on-paper by Sheila Hicks, who, forthwith, will be known by many for her monumental yarn column-waterfall recently exhibited at MoMA (“Surrounds: 11 Installations”; 10/21/19-14-20).  Hicks is also included in MoMA’s current show, “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” with an early serial bundled-yarn piece, which highlights more so earlier 20th-century fiber art and therefore offers (among other things) some historical context for the Whitney show. Selections there by Bauhaus frauen Anni Albers and Gunta Stolz may be further appreciated after seeing Elaine Reichek‘s satirically pedagogic embroidery samplers at the Whitney, one of which bears a quote by a Bauhaus “master” relegating the activity of weaving to women assigned to manufacture his envisioned abstract textile designs.

Along with Lou’s tour de force, highlights from the next generation and beyond include: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt‘s fragile, flowery flotsam and jetsam dream box, a distant relative of Joseph Cornell‘s “containers”; Pepon Osorio‘s barrio-baroque assemblage-portrait of a shoe-shiner; a super-fly Nick Cave sound suit; a Mike Kelley big-baby blanket incorporating mangy stuffed animals; a very large textile-inspired figurative painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby; a conceptual piece primarily of found blankets alluding to the Native American foundations of US cities by Marie Watt; a ceramic and straw, regal and demure giantess by Simone Leigh. Stand-outs among an abundance of more strictly ceramic works: Viola Frey presides with a characteristic painterly-glazed colossus in business attire; a self-portrait by Frey’s parodic peer Robert Arneson; an earthy, rolled and modeled reclining figure by Mary Frank; and a sensual abstracted vessel series by Katy Schimert (whose work I first saw in a Whitney Biennial way back … ).

Pepon Osorio, Angel the Shoe Shiner (1993) (partial/detail; in the exhibition, Making Knowing; Craft in Art 1950 – 2019)

The Rachel Harrison solo (10/25/19-1/12/20) was an apropos complement in several ways. Harrison thrives on very mixed up media, mashing found stuff with artsy painted plaster-ish and wood-built structures and embellishments.  My immediate reaction to the furtive “one person’s trash is another’s art” kind of thing was tentative; but the blur of 1990s DIY randomness and Duchampian, gender-astute gesture to which Harrison is party (with Karen Kilimnik and Sarah Lucas, among others) eventually drew me in. Solidifying an allusion to the era, a winning series of tragi-comic drawings depicting Amy Winehouse juxtaposed with scribbled Picasso and DeKooning “women.”  

But the mainstay of Harrison’s oeuvre is gathered and arranged stuff–tools, socks, wigs, racks, partitions, live plants, original sculpted forms and more, which impressed as both absurdist stacks and spreads and inventive forays into perpetual recycling as make-shift decorating.  A key section within the show was an apartment-like interior installation. With its flimsy walls papered with photo-blow ups of misaligned faux-wood paneling and other box store improvement projects in progress, it conveyed an ongoing attempt at securing a home-sweet-artist-home. 

An installation in the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum; yes, the chairs are part of it 🙂
Rachel Harrison: Life Hack at the Whitney Museum
An installation from the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum)

California Minimalist Mary Corse stays the Course at Whitney

Mary Corse: A Survey in Light, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, through November 25, 2018

Traveling to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (the organizing institution), July 28 – November 20, 2019

Mary Corse (b. 1945) has had some substantive recognition among cognoscenti for her measured Minimalist oeuvre, which sometimes has incorporated neon and fluorescent light; however, she has generally been overshadowed by coverage of her West Coast male peers similarly occupied from the mid-1960s.  Perhaps foremost, this show redresses the still lacking female voices of post-Ab Ex abstraction.  Corse was very much in the thick of its optical and spatial concerns and had her own take on white as a reflective hue, explored in geometric arrangements early on.  She soon bolstered different types of white paint, painting grounds, and real illumination with a “glass microsphere” material, crystalized to sandy granules, which added shifting sheen to the monochrome surface.  If you focus on the light per se, the picture plane becomes quietly dizzying.  Corse has continued with apparently strict delimits playing out myriad proportionally-sectored possibilities.  A major revelation came in the mid-1970s with the addition of less finely ground black microspheres, which have the effect of shimmering sequins and add, unwittingly or not, a metaphoric galaxy to her studio-laboratory aesthetic.  Unfortunately, only one of those is included here. New Yorkers were treated to a roomful of related, more recent and expansive works at Lehman Maupin Gallery last fall (2017)—more thrilling, overall, than this show, which is, however, deserved and important.  Highly significant: two diptych-type sculptures from 1965, each consisting of elongated wood and Plexiglas triangular white columns that appear to change shape when viewed from different angles, are as confident in their Minimalist mien as Robert Morris’s famous “3 L’s” of the same year that came to define it (now in the Whitney’s permanent collection).


Farm Livin’ Writ Large: Grant Wood at the Whitney

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables; through June 10, 2018, at the Whitney Museum

This smartly installed Grant Wood show is as illuminating as his mid-West-baroque corncob chandelier in the entrance gallery that highlights his generally underplayed substantial early design training and career.  Unexpected are inventive yard art-meets-Dada table-top-scale sculptures, alongside subdued classically-derived painted allegorical adornments.  There are two examples (models) of stained glass projects in situ, one of which depicts a sweetly sanctified male youth that fast forwards to similar window treatments by Kehinde Wiley.  Yes,  sexual undertones are there throughout, and in accompanying scholarship.

Grant’s disciplined Arts & Crafts-influenced foundation underlay a strong compositional and surface facility in his “fine art” paintings.  His bold and deliberate figurative style cedes to warmly rounded gestalt-like geometry from a distance.  Upon close viewing, many paintings reveal an obsessively repetitive and layered, near-pointillist technique.  Also in his drawings Wood approaches the coup de chiaroscuro of Seurat’s charcoals, with similar dense and gradated hatchings and rich opaque silhouettes.

Following the sens de la visite, I practically sensed beneath my feet the velvety-verdant patches of field and earth on which Wood set his mainly sprawling yet intimate homages to farm life, real and mythologized, while engaging his emblematic adaptions of the locals, inflected, variously, with nuanced satire and lofty stoicism. The famed American Gothic (1930) is not one of his most intriguing works in painterly terms, but its iconic hold is as strong as ever.  In a few late paintings his pristine light impasto opens up, a la rich Fauvist contouring, harking back to his roots in Impressionist tapped on an early sojourn to Europe, some examples of which are included.

Most copious here are all manner of studies for Wood’s expansive murals, which impress in scope and refinements.  Committed Regionalist we know–as per the canonized “story of American art”–unabashedly, and above all–one whose perceptive, partly repressed humor and social commentary is veiled in technical confidence and representational inventiveness.

Toyin Ojih Odutola: Realist Portraits in a Faux-Collection

Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb. 6, 2018

A large-scale pastel drawing titled, Surveying the Family Seat (2017) which plants a strong, contemporary male figure in a high-ground position peering out over an extensive landscape, introduces and encapsulates the solemn, hermetic privilege that pervades this series of recent pastel and charcoal portraits by Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985).  Here and throughout, verdant, serpentine terrain, rhythmically and colorfully delineated, melds into fabric folds and textile patterns, with emphasis on sartorial details and highlighted patches of exposed skin.  The latter is carried through from the artist’s earlier work, first in ballpoint pen and then other media, in which dense black-on-black face and body images were inflected with peaks of “shine” (following Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light . . ., 2015) that could read as both emanating and reflective, and also allude to  scarification and masking.  Here the effect is subdued and woven into overall naturalistic representation and implied narrative.

A decorative wall text imitating a book-plate frontispiece introduces a credible but fictional backstory grounding the disjointed visual chronicle of the multi-tiered, upper-crust Nigerian clan featured in the ensuing display.  Linked through marriages and the business of maintaining wealth and status, the current heritors of a lineage portrait collection are a gay couple depicted in a work titled, Newlyweds on Holiday (2016)– artistic cousins to Kehinde Wiley’s intricately patterned pairs.  Kerry James Marshall’s domestic insights and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s imaginary portrait sitters are also recalled, forthrightly.

Ojih Odutola is of a millennial generation of artists of African descent working within and outside of Africa who are stretching diasporaic and transnational vision in multi-directions for art content.  Between them, new routes of artistic exchange—literal and metaphorical—have proliferated.  Beyond Yiadom-Boakye, a number of woman among them have pursued figurative modes with specific emphasis on simulated fabric and/or fashion flair including Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, and Njideke Akunliyi Crosby, the latter a compatriot (Nigerian) émigré and perhaps closest painterly peer of Ojih Odutola.  The works of these woman share a photo-like directness, incorporating typically shallow foregrounds that convey the desire to be boldy apprehended.

Among the distinctions of Ojih Odutola’s realism in this series is an enigmatic sensibility percolating beneath the surface linear fluidity of her pastel technique. Mostly, the depicted characters hold gazes that slyly confront or obviously deny viewers-voyeurs.  Gender ambiguity is a recurring theme, mashed up with postmodern global styling and localizing trends.  Ojih Odutola wrangles the controlled pose and inner ennui of her faux-subjects in the manner of John Singer Sargent—updated with the self-possessed polish and countour definition of Barkley Hendricks.  Finally, tilting picture planes bring japonisme into Ojih Odutola’s orbit of inspirations, and white-on-white, veil-like layerings add a breezy elegance across several works–formal effects coaxed effectively out her earlier close-cropped monochromatic variations.

Hipster Paintings for Posterity

“Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s”; Whitney Museum; through May 14.

Reganomics; the mainstreaming of hip hop, club kids, 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 Boone and Gogo Gagosian); 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 helped (a lot) in constructed this “history”–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 identify the dealers most in on the action here – namely, a cache of exciting paintings on the surface variously psychological, politically explicit, or purposefully left at accessible sea level, as far as content.  The entrance wall (facing the elevators) has been painted with Haring’s mural design from his unprecedented 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 (imo) 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 his oeuvre, 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)

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).



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.


Jeff Koons / Yayoi Kusama?

Re: Jeff Koons at the Whitney Museum:  Has anyone mentioned Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden of mirrored balls on a lawn at the 1966 Venice Bienale (to which she had not been invited)?*  For $2 each, she hawked them–“on sale: your narcissism”–until chased out by officials.  (The piece has since been revisited and installed in various contexts by the amazing octogenarian, Kusama.)   Narcissism is the great common denominator, as Koons’s not at all uninteresting bloated Brancusis remind us–and just as he predicts–Koons_1 (2)over and over.

[Left: Snapping myself at the  Whitney.]

*Images of the original Kusama in situ are copyrighted, though still in wide circulation on the web (google).