Other Stories: Chris Ofili at the New Museum
Chris Ofili: Night and Day at the New Museum
October 29, 2014 to January 25, 2015
235 Bowery (between Stanton and Rivington streets)
New York City, 212 219 1222
“Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” the first major solo museum exhibition in this country devoted to the artist, is staged on four floors of the New Museum. At the lobby façade is his vinyl on glass Afro Waves (2002-03). On the second floor, there are 17 paintings from the 1990s, 26 small watercolors and pencil drawings, and a couple of sculptures. On the third floor, the pencil on paper Afro Margin drawings and an enormous room full of dark blue paintings. And, on the fourth floor, seven large pictures made in the past decade. Because these galleries are very large and extremely high, and so best not subdivided, they can be a difficult painters. But Ofili’s tall works really command the setting. This generous installation provides a really good understanding of his career.
In the 1990s, he favored single figures in a vertical format: the Madonna, some other women, and the phallus of Pimpin’ ain’t easy (1997). In the first decade of the next millennium, when Ofili moved from London to Trinidad in 2006, came the dark narrative scenes such as Blue Night Watcher (2006). And then more recently, inspired in part by a commission from the National Gallery, London, he began his compositions after Ovid — Ovid-Actaeon (2011-12), for example — in response to the Titians recently accessioned by that museum and National Galleries of Scotland, the former Bridgewater loan of Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (1556-59). A large number of contemporary artists were been invited to respond to old master art in the National Gallery. Ofili responded empathetically and most successfully to this commission by enlarging the narratives of his earlier painting. In place of his icon-like frontal scenes from the 1990s, and the political ‘blue night’ pictures, he began to develop more complex narratives, some based upon Ovid, others presenting sacred texts.
As this masterful exhibition demonstrates, Ofili has a rare capacity for decorative, room-filling ensembles of paintings. Because his sources, in both old master and contemporary art, are so very varied, his ability to create an effective synthesis of the two, which cannot have been uncomplicated to achieve, is all the more impressive. If it is not easy, sometimes,to read his retelling of these stories, that is because this ability to generate decorative schemes doesn’t support focus on individual works:without knowing the titles The Raising of Lazarus (2007) and Ovid-Actaeon (2011-12), it wouldn’t be easy to identify these (very different) narratives. Because these pictures are gathered together by the high-pitched pastel colors of the recent narratives on the fourth floor and the very dark blues on the third, the net effect of his installations on both floors is much great than the sum of the individual pictures.
In Reflections on the Nude (1967), the British art writer Adrian Stokes speculatively described Paul Cézanne’s The Bather (1894-1905), recently acquired by the National Gallery as “among the first and perhaps the greatest works of a deeply founded cosmopolitan art which . . . (is) to pre-figure the eventual evolution of a multi-racial society.” He was thinking of its anticipation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon “and upon all those works that were so soon to forge the easiest of links with Negro sculpture.” I see Ofili’s recent painting, which makes excursions into such diverse sources as hip-hop music, Zimbabwean cave paintings and Blaxploitation films as an answer to this hopeful prophecy.
No service is done to the present reputation of this ambitious, wonderfully successful mid-career artist, however, by replaying the story of the reception of his The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) in “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” at the Brooklyn Museum, as it is at length by several writers in the New Museum catalogue. Since, in that unhappy political controversy, the true merits of his art were not really at stake, why look back to 1999 when right now he is a heroic artist to reckon with? Having provided a magnificent installation, in its catalogue the museum has let him down. But that is a minor problem.