Tag Archives: woman artists

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).

Claudia Schreuders: In the Bedroom

at Jack Shainman, 513 W. 20th St. (Chelsea), through June 22.

Sorry this is over by the time I got to it, but, too good to forego comments—do look for Schreuders at any opportunity:   

Recent examples of her characteristic (by now) stunted, polychrome wood figures were featured, along with related studies and a series of portrait heads on paper (lithos; ink drawings).  As per the show’s title (above), I read them (collectively) as stand-ins for Freudian exposés, if not explorations, of Eros among prosaic-looking heteros, tangentially reminiscent of Charles Ray’s fiberglass familial figures of the 1990s. Her hand-carved-and-painted technique casts a Pinocchio vibe into her wooden, lightly pasty-white boy-men and girl-women. Yet, static and solemn in bearing and hue they might suggests votives–but then, dedicated to what sort of being, idea or aspiration?  Only slightly Surrealist (some more than others), they point more so the mundane, rote nature of a range of sexual activities (explicit) and casual musings about them than subconscious simmerings.  

Some basics of the artist’s backstory, which adds layers: Schreuders’ acknowledged autobiographical subject matter; her upbringing in Apartheid-era South Africa; her attendance at the Michaelis School of Fine Art (Cape Town), where Jane Alexander has had an influential pedagogical presence for decades and likewise, her inter-species sculptural  creature, in the context of the atrocities of Apartheid (and otherwise), for the international art world. 

A group of washy, simplified portraits on paper were pointedly down-lifting (as my viewing companion put it)—the visages effectively, viscerally, conveying vulnerability and wounded-ness, reminiscent of those of Marlene Dumas, another precursor.

Claudette Schreuders, 2018.

Beauty in the beast: Whitney Biennial 2019

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.

Simone Leigh, “Stick” ( 2018; bronze); background: paintings by Keegan Monaghan.
Keegan Monaghan, “Blue Door” (oil; 2019).
Wangechi Mutu, “Sentinel I” (background) and “Sentinel II” (2018; mixed media).
Maia Ruth Lee, “Labyrinth” (detail; 2019; steel and laminated key)

SPIRITIST SENSATION HILMA AF KLINT AT GUGGENHEIM

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”; at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, through April 23, 2019.

Everyone with any interest in the history and mystery of art (or maybe just everyone), must know about the Swedish turn-of-the-century artist, Hilma (1862-1944), who, very much on her own with conscious intention created abstract art per se before, it seems, its widely dubbed pioneer, Wassily Kandinsky.  Does it matter who got there first (even if that could be securely delineated)?  Probably, to Kandinsky and other guy-heroes who shaped Modernism partly as a competitive bro-manship.  Probably not to Hilma.  Along the lines of Kandinsky, but much more so, she was wrapped up in a syncretistic spiritual calling.  The specifics are murky and were apparently malleable throughout her life, a blend of Christian,  Eastern and occultist beliefs and practices that included communing with the dead and spirit “masters” who initially inspired her (according to her) to paint autonomously without studies.  She did have early academic training and proficiency in botanical illustration and Impressionist (more or less) landscape by then, seen in examples on view.   The abstraction appears somewhat suddenly, full force, in colossal paintings jointly titled,The Ten Largest (c. 1906-1915).  In these, plant and amoebic life are suggested in the biomorphic shapes and squiggles floating against flat, sectioned planes, occasionally punctuated with idiosyncratic, alpha-numeric  markings.  The distinctive palette features mauves, ochres, and ceruleans with a dusty cast partly due to the tempera-like paint medium on paper that she preferred even for large work, but is carried over also in  matte oils. 

These “largest” are exhibited in the museum’s High Gallery off the main ramp (as shown above; view from above)—virtually the only space in this museum that could well accommodate them (a criticism of Wright’s ramp design when the museum opened in 1959,  by which time most abstract painting had become substantially larger than the Kandinskys at the nucleus of the collection).  Yet,  Wright’s winding “snail” could not be more apropos for the bulk of the show, given that Hilma imagined several dozen of her works in a grand spiral “temple.”  

So the show is brilliant for its melding of transporting, otherworldly art and environ, as well as the rich cache of a little known oeuvre.  While it is not surprising that any prolific pre-war woman artist has not had more exposure, in this case, Hilma hid, or at least did not show publicly, most of her abstract work, prognostic about its probable tentative reception, and perhaps discouraged by a  negative response from a towering male figure in her Spiritist/Theosophic circle (Rudolf Steiner).  She did find kindred souls in a small sisterhood of like-minded women artists, also not surprising among woman artists in history who pursued art careers against social odds.

Later, her explorations became a bit more Bauhaus-formal, though prismatic “ray”paintings with pyramidal and planetary forms and sporadic cryptic scribbling can evoke, variously, Freemasonry-type symbolism, early 20th-century Orphism, and Malevich’s Surprematism.  Figuration is also reintegrated after a point, perhaps in an effort to be more accessible, though all remains mostly enigmatic.  It gets somewhat esoteric and precious, not to mention opaque as far as content, in scrutinizing large spreads of of small color and shape studies based on gender coding and other symbolic correlation.  But not less fascinating.


 


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, add a metaphoric universe 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.  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).

 

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.