Vitality Amidst the Ruins: Lower Manhattan’s gritty golden age

Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present at the Reina Sofia

June 10 – September 2, 2010
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Barbara Probst, Exposure #18: NYC, 498 7th Avenue, 2003.  Ultrachrome ink on cotton paper, 44 x 29-1/2 inches each.  Courtesy Murray Guy, New York.

Barbara Probst, Exposure #18: NYC, 498 7th Avenue, 2003. Ultrachrome ink on cotton paper, 44 x 29-1/2 inches each. Courtesy Murray Guy, New York.

New York City endured a near-death experience during the 1960s, and the steep decline of lower Manhattan precipitated the rise of a vibrant underground culture. The City began to acknowledge the pioneering efforts of artists to create live-work spaces or lofts within this wasteland of residential and commercial buildings in the 1970s by rezoning them as “mixed use”, albeit in piecemeal fashion and with much rancor. Within a decade, the empty lots and ruined real estate property that had incubated a wealth of sinewy conceptual art were transmuted into Soho gold.

If “mixed use” as a real estate term inspires this show’s outward theme, it implicitly applies to “artistic practices and strategies” in transition over a four decade period, as well. Curators Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp present a considerable array of films, photographs, texts, and sound installations by 40 artists spanning several generations. The city as performance space or experiential sphere of creativity becomes the unifying frame around projects of wildly differing intention, and the show often suggests links between specific works by artists who might otherwise appear to have little in common.

For example, several of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills from 1978 (#25, #60, #83, #63), hang near Barbara Probst’s Exposure #9, New York City, Grand Central Station, 12.18.01, 1:21 pm from 2001. Probst’s six-part work features a female model, photographed simultaneously from six distinct points of view. Clearly, Sherman’s and Probst’s concerns, conveyed through distinct conceptual and technical approaches to picture-taking and picture-making, are strikingly different and decades apart. Yet the juxtaposition of these selected works highlights a common interest in the instability of photographic verity, set right in the midst of some of New York’s most familiar public spaces.

By contrast, photography as a straightforward accomplice to performance pertains in Babette Mangolte’s Woman Walking Down a Ladder from 1973. The ladder in question is that of a rooftop water tower. Contact sheets reveal a figure descending perpendicular to the ladder with no visible sign of a harness or guide wire. At close range, we see that she wears a nondescript blouse and skirt, while her face is obscured by her hair. At medium distance in profile, her descent appears even more precarious against the void of sky; and she is a mere speck when the photographer pulls back to reveal the full height and might of the building on which the water tower is delicately perched.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, New York Water Towers, 1988.  15 black and white photographs.  Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).

Bernd and Hilla Becher, New York Water Towers, 1988. 15 black and white photographs. Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).

New York City’s rooftop water towers are also featured in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s 15-part array of fine black and white photographs from 1988. Echoing a 19th century trend to assemble photographic archives of like things for civic records, the Bechers adopted a similar methodology in the 1960s to make comparative studies of decaying industrial architecture in Europe and the US. Their systematic approach dovetailed with strategies of conceptual art being forged in that era, and the Bechers’ typological studies of water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, and other industrial relics have been highly influential.

Typologies abound in Mixed Use, Manhattan. From John Miller’s enigmantic series Clubs for America (1993) to Moyra Davey’s Newstands (1994), the streets of New York are teeming with similar things made unique by happenstance and style as much as wear and tear. The windows of urban buildings are the common denominator for Jennifer Bolande’s Globe series, which features blue metallic orbs with maps that are forever out of date. In a different key, Gordon Matta-Clark’s deadpan, black and white Window Blow-Out from 1973 depicts an abandoned building whose grid of broken windows is animated by a lone dog’s vigil.

The line between typology and series is porous. They synchronize neatly in William Gedney’s 1960s views from his apartment window. Entertaining a play between the static camera and everyday movement in the world beyond, his window is the theme for a set of variations. James Welling employs much the same strategy in Eastern Window #1-24 (1997-2000) except #8, 11, 12, 23. A chair on the neighboring rooftop changes position; light alters the buildings’ forms; the moon changes phase and disappears. Welling’s introduction of occasional color in this black and white world of ideas is mildly startling.

If still photography lends itself easily to urban typologies, photography on the move offers other possibilities. Sound and physical movement predominate in David Hammons’s video Phat Free (1995), in which a hand-held camera follows a performer kicking a can down the street. In David Wojnarowicz’s well-known series, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-1979), a figure wearing a crude paper mask of the poet’s face traverses Coney Island, Chinatown, and the deserted streets of the West Side, enacting the artist’s taste for romantic irony and despair. With less drama, the painter Christopher Wool would photograph streets at night while walking home from his studio, studying incidental marks.

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Images of the bygone West Side Piers stir piquant nostalgia for many New Yorkers of a certain age. In all their decrepit glory, the Piers were a magnet for aesthetic prowess as well as sexual trysts. From 1975-1986, Alvin Baltrop photographed their interiors and exteriors, observing cruisers, lovers, and yawning empty space in exquisite detail. When Gordon Matta-Clark cut an enormous, half-moon aperture at the far end of one pier, Baltrop noted its impact on the huge space as sublime cathedral or camera obscura. Peter Hujar’s haunting nocturnes of the Canal St. Piers, from 1983, submerge their secrets in velvet hues of photographic black. What’s left of them in 2010 amounts to jagged rows of decaying piles, as shown in Emily Roysdon’s gray-hued photographs, The Piers, Untitled (#2-5).

In 1971, the Piers were the site of an ambitious series of conceptual art pieces by 27 artists (all male, as it happened). Curated by Willoughby Sharp, photographed by Harry Shrunk and Janos Kender, the consistent format and high quality of the small, gelatin silver photographs establishes a collaborative framework within which each artist had his own word-and-image solo. Because the works were installed in a long corridor of the museum, viewers walking past the sequential imagery might experience it like stills from short silent movies. Vito Acconci, for example, spars with a reputed stranger who threatens to push him off the pier. Besides Acconci, the list of illustrious participants included John Baldessari, Keith Sonnier, Michael Snow, Daniel Buren, George Trakas, and others.

In quite another register, Charles Simonds, Gabriel Orozco, and Bernard Guillot found in the city places for reverie and magical thinking. Simonds, a sculptor, made a 16mm film called Dwellings in 1972. With children as his witnesses in blighted neighborhoods on the Lower East Side, Simonds uses tweezers to move tiny clay bricks into wall crevices. He explains that he’s creating miniature cities for “Little People” who will be moving in soon. (Simonds’s ephemeral archaeology eventually found its way into permanent niches, such as the stairwell of the Whitney Museum). Orozco’s color photograph, Isla en la isla (1993), also plays with changes in the cityscape’s scale. Wooden planks and other debris lean against a traffic barrier in a parking lot beside the Hudson River, mimicking the World Trade Center buildings and piers along the skyline due south. Guillot, in a series of photographs titled Orpheus and Eurydice from 1977, reinvents a mythic tale of tragic love, death, and descent into the underworld as photographic views of forlorn territory on the West Side.

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79.  Black and white photograph. Collection Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79. Black and white photograph. Collection Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid).

The richness and variety of these projects is daunting. They attest to the elasticity of photographic and cinematic media as co-conspirator to artistic vision, be it performance, conceptual art, architectural intervention, socio-aesthetic political commentary, memento mori, extreme ballet, found object, available view, topographic documentation, lyrical serial existentialist anarchy, rough play. Cumulatively, the show exudes an inviting sense of spontaneity and hard-won freedom. I was particularly moved by Glenn Ligon’s harrowing, 20 wall-panel narrative of his residences, from his youth in the Bronx through a series of legal and illegal sublets early in his career, to, more recently, a stable situation in a condominium. Ligon’s true story is a bracing reminder of the anarchic forces of city real estate and the crucial, double role of the home-studio environment in an artist’s life.

It should be remembered that many of the works in Mixed Use, Manhattan were not seen publicly at the time of their creation. Some of the work on view came to light only through the efforts of dedicated curators and/or the survivors of loved ones. With equanimity and to fascinating effect, the curators have conjoined informal, private, and underknown works with widely known icons. Despite the real estate theme, as I see it this exhibition primarily draws inspiration from artists of the 1960s and 1970s who intentionally kept their work out of mainstream systems, creating alternative avenues for reception and distribution. A long perspective on the sensibility they set in motion can be found here, in disparate works that embrace plurality and resist categorization, revealing quixotic and tantalizing whispers of desire.

Curved Forms, Out of the Loop: Portugal’s Nadir Afonso

Report from… Lisbon

Nadir Afonso: Without Limits at Mnac-Museu do Chiado, Lisboa

June 22 to October 3, 2010
National Museum of Contemporary Art
Museu do Chiado, Rua Serpa Pinto, 4
Lisbon, (00351) 213 432 148

Nadir Afonso, Espacillimité, 1954.

Nadir Afonso, Espacillimité, 1954.

Are there universal laws governing the development of abstraction? The canonical American Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko) started in the WPA years as naturalistic painters, passed through Surrealism in the early 1940s, and then made the breakthrough into their varied forms of abstract painting. Nadir Afonso, born into a very different culture, in a small town in Northern rural Portugal, in 1920, studied architecture and then painted magnificent cityscapes like Vila nova de gaia (1942). In the late 1940s, working in Paris for Le Corbusier, he did surrealist pictures like Èvora surrealista (1945). Unlike his American colleagues, however, he always retained a geometric structure. No doubt this was a natural device for a practicing architect. Hethen quickly moved into what he called “pre-geometrism,” making paintings like composiço geométrica (1947), positioning circles, squares and rectangles painted in soft, neutral colors in a flat field. He lived for a time in Brazil. When he returned to Portugal it was to make purely abstract paintings employing curved forms, which he associated with the baroque architecture of Porto. Around 1950 he entered what the catalogue calls his “Egyptian Period,” employing geometries he associated with hieroglyphics. And then when in 1954 he moved to Paris to produce kinetic abstractions like Espacilimitè (1958). He was involved with the Galerie Denise René, where kinetic art was shown, and exhibited alongside Victor Vasarely.

This large exhibition included only two small rooms of Afonso’s early landscapes and Surrealist pictures, but too many of his later paintings. When a gifted artist is frankly repetitive, he is not served by a very full display of many of his variations on a limited range of themes. It only takes us up to 1960 and so I look forward to learning what Agonso has done more recently. Now ninety, he’s still at work. It’s hard to name a famous Portuguese painter. Paula Rego was born there and has her own freestanding museum just North of Lisbon, but her career has unfolded in London. Like many of the smaller European countries, Portugal doesn’t have an easily identifiable visual culture. Spain has a long tradition, including El Greco, Velazquez, Goya and Picasso. It’s impossible to name equivalent Portuguese visual artists. In this way, Portugal is like Greece or Ireland or Sweden, other countries, which have not produced a single canonical artist. The novelist José Saramago has become world famous, but no Portuguese painter is well known internationally.

Nadir Afonso, Évora Surrealista, c.1945. oil on canvas. 96.5 by 111 cm

Nadir Afonso, Évora Surrealista, c.1945. oil on canvas. 96.5 by 111 cm

Afonso’s urban-based abstractions will remind an American of Peter Halley’s cells, but rounded and done in pastel, like many buildings in Lisbon. How, one wonders, did Afonso, whose goal was creating harmonious spaces, respond to the dramatic history of his native country, which during his lifetime has passed through fascism to now become a functional, if troubled democracy? In Latin America, Mondrian-style abstraction was associated with hope for a utopian social order. It would be extremely interesting to know how Afonso understands the relationship between his development and Portugal’s politics. For abstractionists based in or coming from America, the city offers a structure. Look at Cy Twombly’s 1960s painterly abstractions, which are based upon his Roman life; at Ellsworth Kelly’s great early paintings, which are grounded in his experience in the 1950s of Paris; and Sean Scully’s reductive paintings, which grow out of his life as an emigrant in New York in the late 1970s. The grid, the stripe, or indeed any regularly repeated element can serve to organize abstract painting. So too can graffiti-filled walls or geometric structures. Afonso comes from a different culture, and so it is not easy for an American to understand his abstractions. But doing that is worthwhile because it provides a valuable perspective on our art and also, more importantly, because his paintings are intrinsically interesting. Some people, Baudelaire writes, go to museums only to see a few masterpieces. Fortunately, he adds, “there come forward righters of wrong… curious enquirers” who declare that minor figures “too have something good, solid and delightful to offer.” We Americans need to learn more about art from other cultures. Doing that, a necessary act of political generosity, is a way of enriching our experience of the art of our own country.

Nadir Afonso, Composiço Geométrica, 1947

Afonso, 1947

The New Jerusalem: Israel Museum reopens

For the occasion of the Israel Museum’s reopening this summer after the $100 million renovation of its 20-acre hilltop campus overlooking Jerusalem, three contemporary artists—Zvi Goldstein, Susan Hiller, and Yinka Shonibare—were invited to plumb the museum’s encyclopedic  collections and create their own installations as they saw fit. These three highly idiosyncratic shows, grouped under the title “Artists’ Choices,” are on view through January 2011.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2010.  Polished stainless steel, 15 foot.  The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2010. Polished stainless steel, 15 foot. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The impetus for the renovation project was to provide better circulation through the many modernist buildings dotting the campus—which had grown from 50,000 to 500,000 square feet of built space since the museum opened in 1965—and offer visitors a more logical route through its three major collection wings devoted to the archeology of the region, Jewish culture, and fine arts. In a way, the three artists turned that linear coherence upside down by pulling works from different time periods, geographies, and media and using them to support narratives formed from their own associations. This is underscored by having no labels in the galleries next to the art, leading viewers to approach the objects unfiltered and look at each room more as a whole (maps with captions are provided outside the exhibition, which are informative but encumbering). Yet the shows ultimately reinforce the interconnectedness of world cultures—one of the fundamental messages of the Israel Museum which houses everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to art of the present, in a city where the crossroads of history and cultures play such an immediate role in contemporary life. This message is embodied in the new monumental stainless steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor commissioned as part of the campus renewal for the highest point of the museum’s outdoor promenade. Shaped like an hourglass, the sculpture inverts the reflection of the Jerusalem skyline, which starts at the tapered center of the piece and levitates to the top as the viewer approaches. It’s a lovely metaphor for the sands of time not running out but continually filling to the brim.

Susan Hiller, a U.S.-born, London-based multidisciplinary artist, hewed closest to standard curatorial practice by drawing 34 works from one timeframe—modern and contemporary—but created a more dense and visceral installation than typically encountered at a museum. Depending on the day viewers come, they’re greeted by either a brilliant burst of 2000 red gerberas pressed behind three large panels of glass or else the flowers in some form of rot and stench in the piece “Preserve Beauty” (1991) by Anya Gallacio. It’s tapestry-like visual effect and themes of life and death, memory and loss, are echoed in Christian Boltanski’s “Reserve (Storeroom) (1989), a long wall hung ceiling-to-floor with limp used clothing. Two floor pieces carpeting large areas—Erez Israeli’s “Field of Flowers” (2005), a bed of artificial red blooms, and Dina Shenhav’s “City” (1997), a charred gray topographical model of architectural ruins—ripple associatively with the others around the ideas of beauty and decay.

Yinka Shonibare, Fire, 2010. Collection of the artist. Image: courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Photo: Stephen White

Yinka Shonibare, Fire, 2010. Collection of the artist. Image: courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Photo: Stephen White

Yinka Shonibare, who grew up in Nigeria and is now based in London, selected of more than 200 objects from across time and installed them in dynamic, geometric configurations on four square platforms organized around the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. Each is punctuated with one of Shonibare’s trademark figures in Victorian-era clothes made from African fabrics that personify the four elements and were made especially for the show. On the “earth” platform, with Shonibare’s dandy that has a globe for a head and looks to be charging out into the world in animated stride, the artist has juxtaposed a contemporary Andres Serrano photograph of a black Christ with an assortment of prehistoric tools, an Egyptian funerary mask, a South African fertility doll, and a color image of an 18th-century synagogue from Suriname among others, pressing viewers to consider elemental relationships and the cross-pollination between cultures.

While Shonibare’s platforms suggest the idea of a “cabinet of curiosities” using a very modernist-looking installation approach, Zvi Goldstein’s floor-to-ceiling installation of more than 400 objects on antiquated shelving overtly referenced those 16th- and 17th-century wonder cabinets of odd and precious items collected by noblemen that preceded the concept of a modern museum. A Romanian artist based in Jerusalem who combines objects with text, Goldstein here crowded commonplace objects he found in the museum’s offices and recesses—including old typewriters, eyeglass cases, a Hoover vacuum cleaner, a urinal not by Duchamp—together with photos by Harold Edgerton, Andre Kertesz, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, designs by Charles and Ray Eames and Le Corbusier, and Japanese screens in a visually dramatic, non-hierarchical presentation. He was inspired by a hallucination he had of being haunted by objects, which he alludes to in 62 poems he wrote about the experience that hang on the walls amidst the shelves of objects. Some poems and items on the shelves are so high up they are impossible to really see or read, akin to the way memories can be tantalizingly out of reach while others remain vivid. Of the three shows, Goldstein’s most successfully transcends the individual objects and becomes an artwork in its own right.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilis III inspecting newly installed artefacts at the Israel Museum.  Courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Our Bodies, Ourselves: elles@centrepompidou

Report from… Paris

elles@centrepompidou: Women Artists in the Collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne

May 27, 2010 to February 21, 2011
Place Georges Pompidou
75004 Paris, +33 (0)1 44 78 12 33

Eva Hesse, Untitled (Seven Poles), 1970. Resin and fiber-glass, polyethylene, aluminum wire (picturing six of the seven), 272 x 240 cm.

Eva Hesse, Untitled (Seven Poles), 1970. Resin and fiber-glass, polyethylene, aluminum wire (picturing six of the seven), 272 x 240 cm.

France has a long history of women artists and of organizations supporting their work.  Partly as a result of that tradition, the National Museum of Modern Art owns works by more than 800 mostly European women artists.  Approximately twenty-five percent of these are represented in elles@centrepompidou, an exhibition that runs through February of next year with occasional substitutions of additional works.  Occupying the extensive fourth floor of the Pompidou Center, elles is divided into nine categories: “Pioneering Women,” “Fire at Will,” “The Body Slogan,” “Eccentric Abstraction,” “A Room of One’s Own,” “Words at Work,” “Immaterials,” “elles@design,” and “Architecture and Feminism?”  This thematic approach enabled curator Camille Moreau to organize some 500 works in provocative groupings.  Her purpose was “to present the public with a hanging that appears to offer a good history of twentieth-century art.  The goal is to show that representation of women versus men is, ultimately, no longer important.”  But she goes on to say, “Proving it is another matter.”

“Pioneering Women” encompasses the late 19th to the mid-20th century period.  Often described as pre-feminist, these women nevertheless engaged the male-dominated art world with wit and determination.  Lack of representation of these artists in galleries and museum collections was one of the issues prompting demonstrations and other actions by feminists during the 1960s and 1970s.  Because of their longevity, several pioneering women were still working during those decades, notably Louise Bourgeois, Sonia Delaunay, Joan Mitchell, Maria-Elena Vieira da Silva, and Dorothea Tanning.  In general, however, they did not identity themselves as feminists or participate in exhibitions open only to women artists.

Confrontational and deconstructionist approaches produced the dynamic pieces in “Fire at Will,” which includes print and video documentation of performance art by Valerie Export (exposed crotch and machine gun), Sigalit Landau (barded-wire hula hoop), and Charlotte Moorman (cello and camouflage uniform), along with Wendy Jacob’s eerie installation of inflated, animated blankets.  In materials as well as subject matter, artists in this section attacked assumptions pertaining to art production. The violence of war, viewed as a male domain, prompted this theme. From Zineb Sedira’s nostalgic photograph of an Algerian ruin to Annette Messager’s skewered protest, these artists dealt with war-scarred landscapes and psyches.  The female body as both canvas and subject in “The Body Slogan” addresses concepts of gender and identity, creating the most unified section of the exhibition. Jana Sterbak’s flesh dress of thinly sliced raw beef (completely dried by the time I saw it in June of 2010) resonates with the bloody visions of a nude Ana Mendieta holding a flapping, decapitated chicken.  Marina Abramovic, Sonia Khurana, and Carolee Schneemann dance to their different drummers, while Tania Brugera, Louise Bourgeois, and Cindy Sherman consider the self-portrait as an exploratory genre.

“Eccentric Abstraction,” with its unmistakable reference to the 1966 New York gallery exhibition curated by Lucy Lippard using the same title, functions as the lynchpin of elles.  If we consider that the final two sections of the show focus more on design than art per se, then “Eccentric Abstraction” can be seen as positioned near the center of the exhibition.  Our opinion of everything that we see before these pieces and after them becomes enhanced or reduced by the “craft” materials and offbeat treatment of shape and space in this section.  Besides the classically deviant sculpture of Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse, works here emphasize the power of repetition, both inside and outside the grid.  The rhythm of marking, stacking, and stitching is claimed and perpetuated as essentially female within the context of this exhibition.

Charlotte Moorman, New Television Workshop Performance, 1971. Video

Charlotte Moorman, New Television Workshop Performance, 1971. Video

In “Immaterials,” eccentric abstraction morphs into post-minimalist dialectics, with light and white as recurring motifs. “A Room of One’s Own” strays from the rigorous curatorial focus in the rest of the show, with several works seemingly shoehorned into this category.  While Louise Nevelson’s sculptural installation, for example, may look like a wall unit for storage and display, its title Reflections of a Waterfall I suggests that the artist’s thoughts were elsewhere.  Although Mona Hatoum’s circular structure resembles a tiny room, the video seen on the floor invades and exposes the universal physicality of the human body.  The most ironic “room” is experienced in the 1975 video of Martha Rosler’s kitchen. “Words at Work,” while conflating text and visual narrative, nevertheless emphasizes the crucial component of language and storytelling within feminist art.  From the literal messages of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger to Eleanor Antin’s liberated black boots, we are reminded not only that women have stories to tell, but also that women tell them best.

On seeing an exhibition of this magnitude focusing exclusively on women’s art, it is very hard to imagine how its curator could suggest that the “representation of women versus men is, ultimately, no longer important.”  Moreau’s show underscores the fact that museums have only just begun to demonstrate the advances in post-1960 women’s art, let alone to explore work  by early women modernists that explores their differences from male pioneers.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Chicken Piece Shot #2), 1972. Video

Ana Mendieta

Nikí de Saint Phalle, Crucifixion, ca. 1965.  Miscellaneous objects on painted polyester. 236 x 147 x 61.5 cm

Nikí de Saint Phalle

Keeping an Eye on the Windy City

Roger Hiorns, Untitled (Alliance). installed on the Bluhm Family Terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Roger Hiorns, Untitled (Alliance). installed on the Bluhm Family Terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Just a few feet from Terzo Piano, the chic new museum restaurant where you can sup on grilled Nettesheim Farms beef strip loin with crispy Anson Mills polenta, mushroom fonduta and grilled ramps for 26 bucks, Roger Hiorns’s placement, through September 19, of two massive Pratt and Whitney TF33 P9 jet engines on a exterior roof terrace of the Art Institute of Chicago seems another eerie reminder of the temporal mechanics of power and authority.  The two clearly spent and non-functional engines lay parallel to one another as if now prepped for cultural autopsy, their previous function (described in a wall label nearby) as the preferred jet engines for long-range surveillance planes, as the literal support and facilitator of ceaseless governmental geopolitical observation, is now reversed into something to be looked at, the stealthy observer now the recipient of the museum-goers gaze.  In a kind of abject post-Futurist manner, London-based Hiorns allows the sheer rhythmic grace of the sweep of these engines, their almost lurid beauty of full-throated design, to be both celebrated and tempered by their current functional impotence.  In their curious passage from embodiment of global power to inert sculptural and museological remnant they are somewhat, but not completely, defanged.  Gilding the lily a bit was Hiorns’s almost secretive embedding  of anti-depressant drugs such as Effexor and citalopram into the body of these two engines, something that was impossible to discern visually if not for information provided in the wall label, metaphorically positing that if surveillance is a manifestation of an age of anxiety, then these engines go about their business in a chemically induced calm, as do many of us. Hiorns’s action reminded me most of that scene in William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, where Dana Andrews encounters a field filled with remnants of discarded bombers, just like those he recently flew in during WW II.  He climbs into one and for a spell fully relives the physical and psychological presence and intensity of war until recalled to the present by a yard boss to whom these planes are now just so much scrap metal.  Hiorns, in a similarly neo-masculinist kind of way, seems to evoke a similar sense of the evocative history of these machines—weapons, really—of mass observation and to brood on their current employ.

Tony Tasset, Eye, rendering for Pritzker Park, Chicago

Tony Tasset, Eye, rendering for Pritzker Park, Chicago

Surveillance of another sort underpins Tony Tasset’s 30-foot tall EYE, which will be placed in Chicago’s Pritzker Park across the street from the Harold Washington Library on State Street on July 7, and remain on view there until the end of October.  Based on a 12 x 12  x 12 foot (it’s an eyeball, after all) fiberglass, resin, oil paint, and steel piece Tasset did for the Laumeier Sculpture Garden in St. Louis in 2007, the three-story highly realistic eyeball (to the extent that, at 30 foot, an eyeball can be realistic!) has a blue iris and slight indications of red veining across this expansive orb.  It’s the latest in a seemingly unending series of witty and insidiously insurrective populist sculptures by this Chicago-based artist.  In the grand tradition of clever and scrupulously crafted Chicago sculpture—H. C. Westermann, Karl Wirsum, Claes Oldenberg and Tom Friedman all come to mind.  The latter two both trained in Chicago, Friedman under Tasset at the University of Illinois – Chicago. Tasset’s recent work has included Paul, a monumental sculpture of an exhausted and seemingly depressed Paul Bunyan, done in 2007 for the Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University in University Park in Illinois and his 2010 Blob Monster, which debuted at the ArtChicago art fair this April.   Tasset’s EYE will be accompanied by CARDINAL, a series of 156 vertical street banners along State Street that function as a kind of flip book showing a cardinal—the state bird of Illinois—in flight.  While EYE is probably not intended as a punning reference to where Tasset teaches—the school is referred to as UIC—and only possibly alludes to the staring heads of Illinoisans that comprise Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in nearby Millennium Park, it would be like this artist to be thinking about the hundreds of cameras aimed at people walking through Chicago’s Loop every day.  While overwhelmingly inviting that omnipresent sense of unrelieved and unblinking observation, of the urban dweller’s rapid scan being replaced by the rapid scan of the urban dweller, in Tasset’s case, however, the damned thing is blind.

By the time you read this John Parot is either continuing to make his way through his colleagues on Bravo’s rather disappointing “The Next Great Artist,” or has heard that dulcet phrase “Your work of art didn’t work for us,” and is free to return to Los Angeles, where he now lives and works.   That’s for us, anyway, as the entire series has already been filmed Parot certainly knows his fate, which undoubtedly will have little impact on an already interesting career.  Parot studied at UIC, and while there are even several images of stylized eyes in his recent exhibition at Western Exhibitions, it would mischaracterize his work to carry the above surveillance leitmotif further.  His work does have a sort of pseudo-Ptolemeic quality, a kind of commingling of ancient Egyptian motifs throughout touched by a Hellenistic eroticism—the pyramid/triangle, hieratic staring eyes, and unabashedly pretty boys—that has an indolent and fey charm to it, all realized in the kind of pink/purple/black tones that have a lurid self conscious hipster Las Vegas feel.  Parot is a clever artist, and this work is marked by the sort of pictorial cunning now much in vogue, particularly in LA, high in abstract but playful design motifs, lots of bright stripes and chevrons, etc., but refusing to be too intense or belabored, but with just enough intimations of sensuality to make it all upbeat and cheery.  No narrative, no burden of subject matter, really, just a succession of amiable images that every once in a while playfully alludes to something kind of important, such as sex, intimacy, vulnerability, etc.  Unlike, for example, Hiorns or Tasset, Parot is loathe to imbue too much weight to any single work, preferring capriciousness and variety over decidedness and concentration.  All things considered, I think Parot would probably prefer to be the next cool artist than the next great one, and he may be well on his way to achieving his wish.

Dalí’s Delhi Disciple: Baba Anand at the Religare Arts Initiative

Baba Anand, The Major Arcana: The Fools Journey, detail.  Courtesy of Religare Arts Initiative, Delhi

Baba Anand, The Major Arcana: The Fools Journey, detail. Courtesy of Religare Arts Initiative, Delhi

Any exhibition entitled ‘The Major Arcana’ may prompt fears of artistic pretentions, mystery, and superstition. However, Baba Anand’s exhibition at the Religare Arts Initiative (arts.i) seems to comprehend the powers and perils of an alternative belief system, quite prevalent in modern Indian society. Inspired by Salvador Dalí’s World Tarot deck, the artist parades the deceptive dimension of hypnagogic images. He reinvents the surrealist spectacle with frenetic embellishment.

The visitor is taken into the space with a succession of giant tarot card paintings with direct reference to the clearly identifiable Three Graces and the Adonis by Dali. The oil paintings are covered with embroiderer’s sequins, silver-dust, glitter and gold leaf. The 22 tarot card paintings stand six feet tall and mark the beginning of a fool’s sojourn in the dark interiors of the gallery space or may be the dark reservoir of the subconscious.

As a surveyor of the enchanted domain, the artist presents twelve installations with sculptural references to Dali’s Bleeding Roses and the Burning Giraffe. A suspended female mannequin’s head of the kind seenat the hairdressers hangs away from its plinth. Two heavily embellished and inviting chairs with a painted rose, skull and sky scrapers take the centre-stage in the space offering a strange air of wistfulness to the probing visitor. The legendary Mae West Lips Sofa in the shape of plump, red lips which Dali created with Edward James, also gets replicated in this surrealist reserve. The occult and the erotic are constant companions in this show.

Baba Anand, The Major Arcana: The Fools Journey, detail.  Courtesy of Religare Arts Initiative, Delhi

Baba Anand, The Major Arcana: The Fools Journey, detail. Courtesy of Religare Arts Initiative, Delhi

The rather exhaustive repertoire of decorated, jewel-like surfaces is reminiscent of Gustave Moreau’s principle of ‘necessary richness’ – where art should aim to represent everything that is most sumptuous in the world. The luxurious blaze of enamel and shimmer, the overloaded surfaces and the sharply lit opulence of these installations tend to evoke the nostalgia of dream and desire. Anand, who has been a devotee of tarot card reading for about ten years. first appeared on the Indian art scene in 2002. This exhibition places him at the nucleus of the rapidly sprouting contemporary art spaces in Delhi. Religare Arts Initiative stands as a visionary portal of contemporary art practice and has been able to showcase some extraordinary exhibitions in its first year.

Amidst numerous other shows going on in Delhi, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s LAVA at the  Gallery Espace presents intricately made sculptures in wax, rope, clay and metal.  The formational dynamics of Mukherjee’s spirals, loops and hollows run parallel to Baba Anand Daliesque doodles in acrylic on small square mirrors. Both exhibitions provide distinguished renditions of solid art and abstraction with experiments in medium and technique. Few artists and very few galleries in the Delhi endeavour to showcase and promote unconventional mediums.  Exceptions are the Devi Art Foundation, Khoj International, Palette Art Gallery, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, and Gallery Nature Morte.  This is either due to the lack of resources or because of the commercial market’s favoritism towards painting. Regardless of the overwhelming artistic ambition, contemporary art practice is underplaying its identity and the drama gets reduced to the bare minimum.

It’s June so it must be Basel

Report from… Basel

Gotthard Graubner, centaurea, 1983. Mixed media on canvas over synthetic padding on canvas, 104 x 100.5 x 6 cm. Courtesy of Galerie m, Bochum

Gotthard Graubner, centaurea, 1983. Mixed media on canvas over synthetic padding on canvas, 104 x 100.5 x 6 cm. Courtesy of Galerie m, Bochum

For the art world, June is synonymous with Art Basel. Each year, countless international galleries and art professionals flock to Switzerland to exhibit, sell or buy art. Besides its commercial appeal, this, still regarded as the most prestigious art fair, offers something much more important: a global overview. Together with the proximate and concurrent Scope, Volta and Liste fairs, Art Basel provides a solid introduction to what is shown in galleries from Tokyo to Bochum and from Lausanne to Los Angeles. Thanks to its geographic range, trends emerge, whether in regards to art movements, favored genres or aesthetics.

My quick take on 2010: Though there might be less photographs on display than ten years ago when Gursky and Ruff began dominating the international scene, there are still significantly more now than in the past three years, in particular by photographers from Leipzig. In addition, even if the Whitney Biennial might have tried to convince us otherwise, there is a distinct decrease of video works, but an overall re-awakened embrace of sculpture.

Nedko Solakov, Just Drawings #36, 2009.  Ink and wash on paper, 19 x 28 cm. Courtesy of Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv

Nedko Solakov, Just Drawings #36, 2009. Ink and wash on paper, 19 x 28 cm. Courtesy of Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv

A general tendency towards simplicity stood out. In place of glitz, gold and sparkle there was a striking focus on purity, coming for example in the form of monochrome paintings by Günter Umberg at Galerie Nordenhake (Stockholm, Berlin) and Studio Invernizzi (Milan) or Gotthard Graubner at Galerie m (Bochum). Along these lines, a large array of black and white works formed a thematic undercurrent: for example, Marlborough (London, New York, Monaco) offered four of Ad Reinhardt’s rare “Black Paintings,” Acquavella (New York) showed a fantastic 1964 black and white sunset by Roy Lichtenstein, and Galerie Thomas offered an exquisite Gerhard Richter “Tubes” painting from 1967. This trend along with recent auction results, might also explain the remarkable amount of Group Zero and Arte Povera works at the fair. While good examples of Lucio Fontana’s work are increasingly rare, paintings by Piero Manzoni, Enrico Castellani and Jan Schoonhoven were prominently displayed in several booths. The most attention, however, was given to the German artist Günther Uecker who in the 1960s began to employ nails as an artistic means of expression. Several examples of his white kinetic paintings covered with nails could be found around the fair, but a work propped on a pedestal with two connected round charts entitled “Weisse Muehle” (1964) at the Mayor Gallery (London) stood out.

Discovering new names in a sea of artists is a pleasure, but so is working out which established artists are being hyped, the definition of which, in art fair terms, is being showcased in various galleries despite their differing programs. Though Gerhard Richter continues to fall in this category, the group this year also included Jaume Plensa, Anish Kapoor, Rebecca Horn, Markus Schinwald and the Bulgarian Nedko Solakov. The works by these artists have little in common. Plensa has become increasingly known for his ethereal figurative sculptures, some of which involve strings of words. An example of one of his mesmerizing marble heads could be found at Galerie Alice Pauli (Lausanne), which will host a solo exhibition this October. Represented by the New York powerhouse Gladstone Gallery and London’s Lisson Gallery, among others, Kapoor is by no means little known, but one does get the sense that the best is yet to come. The quality of his work is solid and he often manages to stand out in juxtaposition to other artists in a booth. Though the oeuvre of German sculptor and installation artist Rebecca Horn is multi-faceted, it was her nature-inspired kinetic works that could be found in various galleries. Blue butterfly wings animated by ominous little machines and parrot feathers that are moved by mechanics like a hand fan (as seen at Galerie Lelong, Paris/ New York) make for an interesting symbiosis of nature and human control and manipulation. They are as stunningly beautiful as they are disturbing and one wishes that one of Horn’s works would have been included in the important “Dead or Alive” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design (through October 24).

Markus Schinwald, Edith, 2010. Oil on canvas, 56.5 x 44 cm. Courtesy of Galleria Gio Marconi, Milan

Markus Schinwald, Edith, 2010. Oil on canvas, 56.5 x 44 cm. Courtesy of Galleria Gio Marconi, Milan

The work of the Austrian painter Markus Schinwald stands out for its embrace of classicism. Schinwald’s paintings, great examples of which could be found at Yvon Lambert (Paris/New York) and Galleria Gio Marconi (Milan), fuse 19th-century academicism with hints of psychoanalysis and gore. Schinwald appropriates antique oil paintings, which he restores, by outfitting them with unidentifiable appendages that suggest 19th Century medical braces or medieval torture devices. Dvir Gallery (Tel Aviv) was one of at least three galleries, where the ink drawings of Nedko Solakov could be found. Solakov represented Bulgaria at the 1999 Venice Biennale after its three-decade long absence and showed at Documenta 12 (2007). His drawings at the fair, most of which belonged to a body of work entitled “99 Fears,” which each address a personal worry, are striking in their simplicity and humor. Solakov’s attitude hits the nerve of our time. As the world we know seems to be threatened daily and anxiety mounts, what better to keep in our toolkit than a unique sense of humor?

South Africa’s Forwards: High scoring centennial survey at National Gallery greets World Cup

Report from… Cape Town
1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective
Iziko South African National Gallery
April 16 to October 3, 2010

installation view of the exhibition under review, with, foreground, Mary Sibande, Conversation with Madam CJ Walker, 2009. Mixed media, life size synthetic hair on canvas. Courtesy of Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg

installation view of the exhibition under review, with, foreground, Mary Sibande, Conversation with Madam CJ Walker, 2009. Mixed media, life size synthetic hair on canvas. Courtesy of Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg

Riason Naidoo has hit it right. Young, smart and very individual, Naidoo is the first Black director of the Iziko South African National Gallery, appointed just a year ago. His first exhibition, 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective ( April 16 to October 3, 2010), seizes the moment and leaps into the spirit of World Cup celebration, matching the excitement that is running like an electric current through this country. It is an excitement generated not only by football, or the novelty of hosting hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors – it is the exhilaration of seeing ourselves with new eyes, as part of the larger world, and of standing together as one nation behind one team, the experience of national pride legitimated.

With something like this in mind perhaps, Naidoo chose to mount an exhibition that would “turn the focus in on ourselves” and give visitors to the National Gallery, both foreign and local, “a reflection of our own art stories”. To explain the title, Hendrik Pierneef was an Afrikaner landscape painter of 100 years ago, much admired by the establishment: seven murals by him are in South Africa House, Trafalgar Square, London (which became a focus for anti-apartheid activism). Gugulective is a concept as much as a group. It was started in 2006 by a collective of young Black artists, actors and dancers living in Gugulethu – a disadvantaged township outside Cape Town – in the hope of stimulating social interaction and political change. Now it includes artists from other townships. In spite of the chronological order of its title, the hanging of this exhibition takes us in the opposite direction, moving from the current works of the Gugulective back to the beginning of the White Afrikaner narrative, when the British and the Boers achieved Union, solidifying White rule.

But far from being a studious plod through history, Pierneef to Gugulective is more like being at the coolest party in town. With over 700 works by that many artists, all crammed together and jostling for attention in a not very large space, there is no point in trying to give proper attention to everybody. You can either skim the surface and enjoy the general atmosphere or get into a huddle with a few pieces. I was grabbed by Mary Sibande’s In Conversation with Madam CJ Walker (2008) – a sculptural installation of a woman being unravelled by her maid, and by Steven Cohen’s video Chandelier (2001), which shows him near naked and teetering on fetish high heels in a Johannesburg squatter camp, and by Deborah Bell’s luscious oil painting, Lover’s in the Cinema (1985). The exhibition occupies the entire gallery, with most works taken from its own rich collection. With a modest budget and limited time, all five of the museum’s curators collaborated – Naidoo says he told them to play – resulting in an intoxicating get together of artists and ideas that looks light and spontaneous even though a lot of heavy issues are included.

There is color, wit and gravitas, not only within the works themselves but in the unpredictable relationships set up between them. Even for those who know little about South African art, there is the fun of spotting celebrities on the crowded walls, with artists like William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas given no special treatment. There is plenty of emerging young talent at this party, the heady excitement of South African artists who are beginning to be noticed by the rest of the world. Seeing them under one roof is like picking the cream off the best recent exhibitions – but these are the artists who are always seen. Their appearance on biennials and international shows adding to the great feeling of being a respected part of the international art world, just as the general population loves being part of international football. Like the vuvuzela – the ubiquitous plastic trumpet that gives every holder the power of expression at football matches – individually these artists may have a lot to say, but all at once they can be taxing.

A happy surprise is the inclusion in Naidoo’s wide embrace of older generations, of familiar works long out of circulation, and of little known works. Black artists and photographers who were denied access to art schools during the apartheid years, and mostly ignored by galleries, are treasured guests at this party. Naidoo says he is especially preoccupied with ‘bringing together neglected history’. Some works, like Ronald Harrison’s Black Christ (1962), which the apartheid regime banned, are heard about but seldom seen. And there are seminal works, like Willie Bester’s 1913 Land Act (1995), a bench assembled out of found materials with the words “Europeans Only” carved into it; or Jane Alexander’s The Butcher Boys (1985), three lifesize half-human figures that expresses the bestiality of the times.  At the other extreme, you want to say Wow! to VladamirTretchikoff, the wildly popular realist painter previously considered too kitsch for the National Gallery – How did you get invited!?

Lionel Davis, a Cape Town artist, says that he has never seen anything that appealed to him as much as this show. “Every moment that I spent in that place was a joy to me,” he said. After seven years on Robben Island, Davis was kept under house arrest for a further five years, living in a tiny flat with his mother within the Coloured community of Cape Town – which is when he started painting. He enjoyed this rare opportunity to see works of artists he knew from the past, and said that although Tretchikoff was scorned by academics and intellectuals, reproductions of his work hung in every Coloured home. He loves the way the walls at this exhibition are packed with art, he says, because they remind him of an ordinary home, and show “how a museum can be an extension of oneself”.

installation view of the exhibition under review, including Ronald Harrison, The Black Christ, 1962.  Iziko South African National Gallery Permanent Collection

installation view of the exhibition under review, including Ronald Harrison, The Black Christ, 1962. Iziko South African National Gallery Permanent Collection

Naidoo, who says that the first time his parents went into a museum was when he was working in it, wants the National Gallery to belong to the wider public, and to attract communities who do not normally visit. He started as a painter, but was driven to curating by a passion to rediscover forgotten artists like, for instance, the 1950s photographer Ranjith Kally, whose work he unearthed from old files and has exhibited around the world. He says his aim is “to open up our gallery to beyond our borders, especially to the African continent”.

But Naidoo has received some harsh criticism. In an attack which became personal, one prominent local critic accused him of trashing the reputation of the National Gallery, of having no curatorial experience and of being out of his depth. Others have equally strenuously defended him, praising the exhibition’s feeling of freshness and air of vitality. But in general, the Cape Town art establishment seems to be hedging its bets – for the moment – about an exhibition which in so many ways goes against the accepted international approach to art presentation.

Los Tres Grandes: US Artists Interpret the Mexican Muralists

Translating Revolution:  U.S. Artists Interpret Mexican Muralists at the National Museum of Mexican Art

February 12th to August 1, 2010
1852 West 19th Street
Chicago, 312-738-1503

Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton), 1938-41.  OOil on the smooth side of Masonite attached to a stretcher, 20 x 24 inches.  Collection of Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton), 1938-41. OOil on the smooth side of Masonite attached to a stretcher, 20 x 24 inches. Collection of Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

Modernism was so underdeveloped in the United States in the early 1930s that the impact that the Mexican Muralists – Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera – was all the more decisive.  The employment of artists to paint WPA-funded murals in public spaces created a burst of activity that lead to the emergence of art communities and groups, including amongst them many future Abstract Expressionists.  Translating Revolution gives ample opportunity to review the course of this progression, and to see how it flowed from the Mexicans’ emphasis on themes of the common man engaged in political and social struggle.  It is not hard to see how the expressionist fury and Futurist intensity in the murals of Orozco and Siqueiros were suggestive to American artists during the Great Depression – a time of considerable social and political upheaval.  Diego Rivera’s tamer version of Social Realism also had significant impact.  He absorbed important lessons from Cubism which became part of his rhythmic compositions using flattened planar figures in densely populated mural scenes, a style that proved to be a very popular with WPA artists.

Edward Millman’s Detail Fresco, St Louis, MO Post Office (1942) observes many aspects of Orozco’s work.  Three counterpoised men stand and kneel in a wasteland of ruptured planks, a design clearly inspired by Orozco’s Zapata 1930 (not in the exhibition). Millman’s men have large knuckled hands that convey both supplication and anger.  This same symbolic device is apparent in the lithograph by Leopoldo Mendez, Murdered Teacher (1938), which presents a bound teacher being burned along with his books.   His struggling hands and the flames of fire surrounding him directly and simply convey the emotional impact of the scene.

One highpoint of the exhibition is a boldly sketched charcoal head study from Orozco’s  Man on Fire mural 1938 – 39 (in Guadalajara, Mexico) in which the brusquely rendered bald head of a furious prophet stares intently with piercing eyes.  His painting The Martyrdom of Saint Steven I (1943) shows the violent stoning of the saint by a bloodthirsty crowd: muscular sinews in the limbs and backs of his figures heighten the tension in the mob and add to the tone of existential violence and death so common in his art. In contrast to this particular work, much WPA art is infused with a populist sympathy for suffering.  The painting A Man to Remember (1939) by Charles Wilbert White presents a seated ragged amputee begging for alms.  The creased folds in his worn out face and clothes magnify the sense of pathos.  His approach seems inspired by Siquerios’ energetic use of abstract space around his figures, resembling a vortex of fire that is used to highlight the presence of intense feeling.

Two important early examples of Jackson Pollock’s work show his direct connection to the Mexicans. In Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton) (1938-41) a nightmare scene presents a faceless bald female nude bending over a disjointed animal skeleton.  She is surrounded by an hallucinatory mob with starving faces claustrophobically crammed on either side of her.  The intense gestures in Pollock’s brushstrokes and the bilious mix of yellow, green, blue and red makes this one of his darkest Orozco- inspired works.  In another equally turbulent painting, Untitled (Composition with Ritual Scene) (1938 – 41), the primitive theme of animal sacrifice is repeated.  By outlining his figures in heavy black angles and curves he abstractly suggests figures marching or intertwining in a tangle of movement. Pollock had participated in a political art workshop lead by Siqueiros in 1936, and though he never met Orozco he was deeply moved by his 1930 mural, Prometheus, which he had seen at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Edward Millman, Fresco Detail, St Louis, MO Post Office, 1942.  Tempera on masonite

Edward Millman, Fresco Detail, St Louis, MO Post Office, 1942. Tempera on masonite

Futurist-based circular and geometric divisions of space are visible in Philip Stein’s Battered (1983) where almost the entire vertical surface is filled with the curved torso of a nude woman rendered in heavy outline.   Her hands and arms are protectively raised as if to fend off an attack while her foreshortened face, pressed into the upper right corner, is reduced to an expressive oval.  Her pained and contorted expression rhythmically repeats in a series of curved brushstrokes. In a smaller work of Stein’s, The Cursed (1951), the metallic sheen of a phalanx of Conquistador helmets defensively glow with the cold hostility of machines used in warfare – a prevalent theme in Mexican Muralist art.

There are noteworthy works in the exhibition by Ben Shahn, Tina Modotti, Pablo O’Higgens, Elizabeth Catlett, and Eleanor Cohen and others.  The last room, however, has many contemporary, more conceptual works that are distant from the compositional and expressionist urgencies of the Mexican Muralists. Gone is the vitality with which “Los Tres Grandes” challenged American painters to connect with the social realities, emotions and conflicts of their time.

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, Illinois. The recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Grant in 2002, she will be exhibiting at the Kouros Gallery in New York City in 2011 and is represented by the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago.

Mercedes Matter at the Weisman Gallery, Pepperdine University

January 23 – April 4
24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263

Mercedes Matter, Tabletop Still Life, ca. 1936. Oil on canvas, 43 x 48 inches, Private collection, Florida.

Mercedes Matter, Tabletop Still Life, ca. 1936. Oil on canvas, 43 x 48 inches, Private collection, Florida.

Mercedes Matter has long deserved the retrospective organized by art historian Ellen Landau, currently on view in the Weisman Gallery at Pepperdine University in Malibu. With more than fifty works, accompanied by documentary photographs and a comprehensive catalogue, this is an enlarged version of the show featured last fall at Baruch College in New York City.  It establishes Matter’s role in the development of the New York School and attests to the force of her artistic vision.

Exhibiting rarely during her lifetime, Matter, who died in 2001, became known as an educator through her leadership of the New York Studio School. To those of us who studied there, her personal associations with Hofmann, Gorky, Pollock and others remained mysterious, even though the force of her personality suggested that she was no mere hanger-on. In fact, as evidenced here, her paintings hold their own against those of her colleagues – smaller in scale, yet often richer and more eloquent in their grasp of essentials.

Through her father, the American modernist painter Arthur Carles, and her mother, a Spanish dancer and model, Matter was exposed in childhood to the artistic tradition and avant-garde milieu of Europe. She also underwent the religious discipline of Catholic girls’ schools. In a youthful letter she describes dancing alone on Good Friday while meditating on Christ’s suffering, testifying to a strong inner life, to a personal investment in rhythmic movement and light. The earliest works here –a teen-age self-portrait and two surprisingly mature paintings from age eight – use paint and color with expressive assurance and a suggestion of contained passion.

Her first mentor, Hans Hofmann, cultivated tensions between sensuality and self-discipline, between drawing and color, much as did her father. Both Carles and Hofmann painted cubist abstractions from subjects in the studio, while also endorsing, somewhat contradictorily, the primacy of color. But while Carles generally respected the planar architecture of cubism, Hofmann, whose color involved a more impulsive, expressionistic drive, prepared the way for Jackson Pollock’s all-over improvisations.

Here we can witness Hofmann’s concepts, which she later interpreted in her teaching, emerging within Matter’s own artistic practice and in dialogue with her peers. In early works she abstracts flower arrangements into rectangular planes of color, somewhat like early Mondrian, but these soon give way to more propulsive, looping forms, shaped by competing relations of figure and ground. Initially influenced by Gorky, these works culminate in the early 1950s in paintings like Tabletop Still Life (1952), which have the gritty incisiveness of de Kooning’s Attic, a painting she particularly admired.

Matter seems to thrive in relation to authority figures – to her father, her peers at the Club, or great artists of the past – but there’s always her own powerful persona, which survived the psychic stresses of abstract expressionism and the existential doubts of Cézanne and Giacometti. Her works maintain their own assertive vigor as she negotiates among these influences. There’s an internalized severity to her art; its fierce angularity suggests an appetite for sensual abandon constrained by geometry. Although close friends with Pollock, and an admirer of his work, Matter resisted his method, remarking in an interview, “What I like least … is the liberation.” Closest to Pollock’s gestural abstractions are some open, ethereal paintings that move freely into and around a still life yet maintain a geometric clarity. “Articulation” was a word Matter favored, “activating space”, and shaping the final inflection of every mark.

Mercedes Matter, Still Life with Skulls, ca. 1978-98, Charcoal on canvas, 40 x 44 inches, Estate of the artist

Mercedes Matter, Still Life with Skulls, ca. 1978-98, Charcoal on canvas, 40 x 44 inches, Estate of the artist

But after 1960 Matter’s work tends more towards density, towards the gradual accumulation of colored marks, as in Cézanne’s late paintings. As for him, direct visual experience, the process of observation, assumes primacy. Still life is no longer a step on the way to abstraction; painting doesn’t point beyond the objects, but hovers around their simple physical mass. Her high-keyed colors become more earthy and muted, and then disappear entirely in the large, powerful drawings, which appear through the 1980s and 90s and often include cows’ skulls collected near her home in Connecticut. Matter excavates the projections and voids of the skulls, as though to impart their airy hollowness to the entire arrangement; united in an overall mesh of marks, the objects seem to levitate from the table.

Giacometti becomes a dominant influence, but Matter doesn’t step back, as he often does, to take in the larger view of the studio; as in cubism, still life remains a close-up affair. Combining artifice and sheer physical presence, still life embodied for Matter the truth of visual experience. She claimed to work from still life for practical reasons, but it must have remained for her a site of origin, a source of fresh beginnings, shrouded in associations with her father’s studio and the art of the past. The objects in her paintings, steeped in emotion, fusing modernist ambition to European tradition, are eloquent in their muteness.