My “Eye On Art” column appears monthly in the Sag Harbor Express
Krasner and Lewis in Context
I’ve heard it said that the art world is like an athletic competition: there are many players, but only a few winners. In art as in sports, the top finishers get to stand on the podium, while the rest are relegated to the sidelines. Leaf through back issues of Art News and you’ll find legions of them. “From the Margins,” an exhibition (through February 1) at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, focuses on two from among that multitude, and I wish the show had made it clear that they were far from the only ones. The so-called margins around the central few were very wide indeed.
The two artists in question, Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis, came of age in the 1930s, when they were on the WPA Federal Art Project payroll. Among its many virtues, the project was non-discriminatory, and it paid a living wage. Krasner, born in Brooklyn to immigrant Jewish parents, rose to the rank of supervisor, directing a team of artists that included her future husband, Jackson Pollock—in 1942 she was his boss. Lewis, an African-American, taught at the Harlem Community Art Center under WPA auspices. Like so many of their contemporaries, they matured in this non-competitive, non-commercial art world, where your sex and your skin color were immaterial.
All that changed after World War II, when the art market began to recover from the Depression and American artists claimed territory that had been reserved for the European avant-garde. Both Krasner and Lewis took advantage of that shift. Krasner, who first showed her Little Image abstractions at Guild Hall in 1949, had been active in the American Abstract Artists group. In 1950 Lewis participated in an important two-day conference, known as “Artists Sessions at Studio 35,” with most of the major players in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Although Lewis was the only artist of color on the panel, there were a few women. The pecking order had not yet been established, and the movement embraced a wide range of styles and approaches.
From 1949 to 1964, Lewis was represented by the Willard Gallery, a prestigious venue that also showed Morris Graves, Mark Tobey and David Smith. Krasner had her first solo show in 1951 at the well-respected Betty Parsons Gallery, which also represented Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. Her second was in 1955 at the Stable Gallery, a showcase for advanced contemporary art. Not slouchy, as she would have said. But in spite of these achievements and associations, neither Krasner nor Lewis got to stand on the AbEx podium, which was reserved for a small cadre of white males. Plenty of other white males were also excluded, so it can’t be chalked up entirely to art-world sexism and racism, although those factors undeniably played significant parts. But how much did it have to do with the art, rather than the artists?
The Jewish Museum show posits that both Krasner and Lewis were outside the artistic mainstream during the period in question, 1945-1952. Neither of them painted the big, bold gestural abstractions or color-field canvases that were grabbing the attention of curators, critics and collectors. Yet like their more celebrated peers, both created all-over abstract compositions using spontaneously generated imagery. They shared an interest in jazz, with its syncopated rhythms and reliance on improvisation, and in linear forms, often interwoven, as in Lewis’ 1947 canvas, “Twilight Sounds” (note its kinship to Tobey’s calligraphic style), and Krasner’s Little Image paintings, like “Black and White Squares, No. 1” 1948. In terms of quality, works like these certainly hold their own with those from the same period by A-listers like Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Ad Reinhardt, who were also working in small to medium-size formats.
So how marginal were Krasner and Lewis? In the past couple of decades, scholars and collectors have taken a broader view of mid-century American abstraction—the scholars recognizing that many excellent painters who were very much part of the movement have been overlooked and undervalued, and the collectors reacting to the inflated prices for paintings by the artists Krasner called the “big boys.” To return to the sports simile, you see a lot more talent if you widen the field.
American Today, Or Was It?
In his autobiography, Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) wrote that his purpose was to create a truly American art with “recognizable American meanings.” To that end, in the 1920s he crisscrossed the country, recording his observations in countless sketches of rural and urban life. They are the raw material of his 10-panel mural cycle, “America Today,” painted in 1930-31 for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. Equitable Life purchased the mural in 1984, and 28 years later the insurance company donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has now been installed in a custom-built room, Gallery 746 in the Met’s American Wing, where visitors can judge how well Benton lived up to his principles.
The exhibition, on view through April 15 (after which the mural will reportedly move to another location), includes many of Benton’s related drawings and preliminary studies. A selection of examples from the Met’s collection puts his work in context, from its formal roots in 16th century European Mannerist painting to its kinship with Reginald Marsh and John Steuart Curry, other so-called realists of the period, and its antipathy to the modernism of Stuart Davis and Stanton MacDonald-Wright. Most telling, however, are the photographs by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, James Van Der Zee and others chronicling the onset of the Great Depression, which was just taking hold as Benton’s mural was installed.
No sooner was “American Today” unveiled than it prompted a storm of disapproval, both on aesthetic grounds and for its subject matter. The art critics disliked Benton’s sinewy, sometimes grotesquely articulated figures, more like caricatures than character studies. His curious use of molding strips to separate areas of disparate imagery was likened to cheap tabloid layouts—a criticism Benton embraced. Objections to his content were centered on the fact that he had focused on the picturesque aspects of America, ignoring the hardship that was a more honest reflection of contemporary life. He depicted the vigor of industry and the bounty of agriculture, not the idle factories and foreclosed farms. The city scenes teem with gyrating dancers, prizefighters and circus performers. In speakeasies, at the movies, even at a revival meeting, everyone seems to be having a fine old time. Only as his mural was being completed did Benton add a reference to the bread lines that were an increasingly evident reality.
Benton dismissed the carping from left-wingers and those he felt were out of touch with grass-roots America, but even some of his supporters questioned the mural’s premise. His art dealer, Alma Reed, considered it dated, reflecting a bygone era of prosperity. The New School’s progressive director, Alvin Johnson, who had commissioned it, complained that Benton pictured “the gigantic inhuman machinery of industrialism with never a pathetic note for the wage slaves operating it.” To be fair, the artist did treat coal mining as a hellish occupation, but the farmers, dockworkers and other manual laborers are going at it with gusto. The strikes by textile workers and farm workers that were then in the news are literally out of the picture.
Now, more than 80 years after it was painted, how does “America Today” stack up, both as art and as a reflection of Benton’s aims? The installation recreates the boardroom’s original dimensions and uses sympathetic lighting to bring out the mural’s best features, with a helpful little text panel for each section. Viewers can relate directly to the life-size figures and get a good look at the many intriguing details and clever juxtapositions, like the dancer’s derrière cheek by jowl, so to speak, with the preacher’s head. In the Equitable Building’s lobby the panels were rearranged, hung too high and lighted too brightly, emphasizing the figures’ flaws—the gangly arms, outsize feet and awkward poses that Benton’s detractors scorned. And notwithstanding his claim that he was creating a genuinely American art, his style and technique are European in origin. This country’s true indigenous art is not in the Met’s Gallery 746, but in Gallery 356, Native Art of North America.
Color at the Clark
If you’re among the folks who jump in the car and head north when the first red leaf appears on the Bay Street maples, you need to know that Williamstown, Massachusetts, will be having an exceptionally colorful fall. After enjoying the annual foliage display in the nearby Berkshire Hills, which peaks in early October, those in search of chromatic delights are advised to visit the Clark Art Institute, where “Raw Color,” a selection of painted sculptures and related spray paintings by David Smith, is on view through October 29.
Together with Alexander Calder, Smith (1906-1965) was a 20th century pioneer of welded metal sculpture. But while Calder routinely painted his mobiles and stabiles in bright primary colors, Smith is best known for steel constructions that are either brush-polished or have their natural metallic finish. Old tools, scrap metal and bits of mechanical detritus often found their way undisguised into his work. If a shape looks like a rusty wrench, it actually is a rusty wrench. Even the shiny cubes and rectangles are obviously welded metal. Such truth to materials was considered a hallmark of mid-century modernism, to the extent that after Smith’s untimely death in an automobile accident, one of his executors, the critic Clement Greenberg, had the paint stripped from several of his pieces.
But Smith himself was not such a purist. Originally trained as a painter, he turned to sculpture in 1933, drawing on his early experience as a riveter in a Studebaker plant. As early as 1938, when he had his first solo sculpture show, he was painting some of his metal pieces. After he moved to a farm in Bolton Landing, New York—less than 100 miles from the Clark—he began peppering the property with examples of his work, some polychromed and some plain metal. In the early 1960s he executed a group of flat circular pieces painted in what he described as raw color—institutional green, school bus yellow, and other industrial hues. Known as the Circle series, they were installed in a row on the grounds. Each piece framed the next one in turn, establishing their relationship to one another and contrasting sharply with the natural tones of the surrounding landscape.
The current installation, in the Clark’s Lunder Center at Stone Hill, aims to recreate that effect, or at least that’s the billing. It is not, however, the result. Four of the Circles are said to be lined up as they were in the Bolton Landing field, but they’re in a clean white gallery inside the building, not out on the lawn interacting with nature. Even Primo Piano III, the one piece that’s outdoors, sits on the building’s pristine patio. I think they all look just fine, but let’s not pretend that, as the curator would have us believe, the installation tells us “how Smith approached the eternal problem of how to deal with nature.” What it does show is that, in addition to his genius for formal invention, Smith had a remarkable gift as a colorist.
If you get to the Clark before October 13, you can also take in another colorful show, “Make it New,” a group of abstract paintings on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Installed in the brand new Clark Center, the museum’s impressive special exhibition venue, the show spans the years 1950-1975 and features some of the treasures displaced by the renovation of the National Gallery’s east wing. Jackson Pollock’s 1950 masterpiece, Lavender Mist, provides the chronological starting point, as well as the anchor of a mini-survey of Abstract Expressionism, featuring equally impressive canvases by Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Barnett Newman and Franz Kline. Moving on to subcategories devoted to shape, color and texture, the show ranges widely while staying within the boundaries of abstraction, mainly domestic but also imported. Even David Smith gets into the act, with Primo Piano II, another painted piece from 1962, in the entrance court. Not as colorful as some of the neighboring canvases, it still looks right at home among the abstract paintings.
Motherwell in East Hampton
Although Robert Motherwell spent relatively little time living and working in East Hampton, his brief tenure had a major impact on his artistic development, his personal life, and the history of the area’s creative community. That legacy is the subject of “Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952,” on view through October 13 at Guild Hall. Organized by guest curator Phyllis Tuchman, the exhibition brings together choice examples, some of them rarely seen. It spans the period when Motherwell first summered in Amagansett, hanging out with the “artists in exile” who were displaced by the war, through his residency in a custom-built modernist house in Georgica (demolished in 1985), to his last East Hampton summer.
Born in 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington, son of the president of Wells Fargo Bank, Motherwell was educated at Stanford, Harvard and Columbia, and also studied in France. With his father’s financial support, he studied literature, philosophy and art history, as well as studio art. Exempt from military service due to asthma, he was in New York when the European émigrés arrived, and he soon attached himself to the Surrealist contingent. In 1944, when several of them decamped to eastern Long Island for the summer, he followed. He and his wife Maria rented in Amagansett for $35 a month; among their neighbors were John Cage, Stanley William Hayter, Jean Hélion, and Max Ernst. Harold Rosenberg, the influential critic with whom Motherwell edited the journal Possibilities, had already bought a place nearby on Neck Path.
While working on his first solo show, scheduled for that fall, Motherwell met the French architect Pierre Chareau, who would later design the artist’s controversial house and studio. In the meantime, he and Maria moved to East Hampton village for the fall, and when his show opened at Art of This Century in late October it included several paintings and collages made in East Hampton. Unfortunately none of them are in the current exhibition, but it does include “In Beige with Sand,” painted in East Hampton in late 1945, when they rented a cottage near Georgica Pond. Motherwell later said that the palette, with tentative sprinklings of beach sand embedded in the paint, was inspired by “the sand and sea in winter.” He also described the glowing red-orange of his 1947 collage painting, “The Poet,” as akin to “the reddened and angry sky” he observed on a winter’s day on the Long Island coast.
In 1946 Motherwell bought two acres of land in Georgica and commissioned Chareau to design a house and a separate studio, using army surplus Quonset huts. (Oddly, although the studio is discussed, it’s not pictured in either the catalog or the show’s documentary section. See the 1956 drawing below.) Needless to say, the neighbors in their shingled cottages were not amused by the corrugated metal half-tubes, and the artist, who thought the prefab design would be inexpensive, was dismayed by the cost overruns. The new digs also proved to have a negative effect on his already rocky marriage. His wife felt isolated there, and in 1948 they moved back to the city. A painting from that period, “Portrait of Maria,” is a telling psychological study in which her figure is reduced to a decorative dress pattern surmounted by a featureless, diamond-shaped head in a pall of darkness. That winter Maria left him.
This troubled period also saw the emergence of what would become Motherwell’s signature image. To illustrate a poem by Rosenberg, intended for the second (unpublished) issue of Possibilities, he sketched the black verticals and ovoids that established the basis for his Spanish Elegies. In the first painted version, a small work on paper from 1948-49 titled “At Five in the Afternoon,” the ominous forms are recast as a response to Garcia Lorca’s lament on the death of a matador. Such literary associations, both direct and oblique, run through Motherwell’s entire oeuvre. “The Voyage,” for example, takes its title from a Baudelaire poem, and “Ulysses,” 1947-51, and “The Homely Protestant,” 1948, both reference James Joyce.
Motherwell rented out the Georgica house until late 1949, when he returned with Betty Little, who would become his second wife. Sadly, Chareau, who lived on the grounds, died suddenly the following August, and Motherwell felt the loss of his friend so deeply that he never worked in the Quonset hut studio again. He sold the property to Barney Rosset in 1953. But while his time in East Hampton was limited and intermittent, it marked the creation of his first mature works and his early recognition as a pivotal figure in the emerging New York School—the term he coined to define the postwar vanguard.
The Prellwitz Legacy
When Wendy Prellwitz was a little girl, she spent summers with her family on the North Fork at High House, overlooking Little Peconic Bay, where her great-grandparents, the painters Henry and Edith Prellwitz, had his-and-hers studios. She remembers her enchantment with the many paintings by both artists that were still there, and her fascination with the diaries and photographs that documented the artists’ community of which they were a vital part. Now, seventy years after their deaths, Wendy finds ideas for her own paintings and prints in the same locale that inspired her ancestors. Examples of her recent work are on view through July 28th at the South Street Gallery in Greenport.
Like its South Fork counterpart, the North Fork art colony attracted artists based in New York City because of its ready access by rail, as well as its natural beauty. Edith and Henry began visiting the area in the early 20th century and moved to Peconic in 1913, joining colleagues like Irving Wiles, Edward Bell, and Benjamin and Harriet Fitz, who were already established there, and William Steeple Davis, an Orient native. They lived in High House year-round for over a decade, during which they focused on views of their immediate surroundings—the coastal scenery, sailboats on the bay, the fishing fleet in the harbor—at all times of day, and in all seasons. Their property has stayed in the family, and with Wendy Prellwitz in residence the studio building is once again filled with creative activity.
During her career as an architect, with a practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wendy nurtured her early aptitude for painting and drawing and is now
concentrating on visual art full time. Her childhood attraction to Edith and Henry’s maritime subject matter is reflected in her own imagery, but not literally. She starts from a similar place, but takes the impulse in a different, more personal direction. Instead of simulating natural elements in the impressionist style favored by
her ancestors, Wendy uses visual metaphors to evoke them. The wavy grain of wooden boards—actually rubbings from the steps leading to her Cambridge studio—becomes a stand-in for rippling water and/or cloud-streaked sky, and works equally well as either one. Reflections are achieved by translucent layering, which is especially effective in her monotypes, with their complex multiple overprintings.
A recurring motif is a dock near the Prellwitz property that juts out into the bay. Wendy made one painting of it that’s a fairly straightforward study, but it seems like a way to get the observation out of her system and move into more challenging interpretive territory. In “Departure,” the dock’s planks and pilings are clearly indicated, although schematically, leading the eye across the water toward Jessup Neck and the North Sea coastline. In other paintings, including “Departure #4” and “Coming and Going,” the dock is reduced to a linear outline or chromatic area. The departure and return are optical rather than actual, so the travel from place to place that the titles suggest is accomplished in the viewer’s imagination. The illumination, which could be reflected sunlight or moonlight, depending on your mood, enhances the ambiguity.
In an article in last October’s Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, Wendy Prellwitz considered her relationship to her forebears in terms of their shared enthusiasm for the Peconic environment. She described her fascination with “the reflections, the ever-changing, unknowable light,” and the pleasure of painting outdoors “in every season and in all weathers.” One can imagine her great-grandmother jotting similar observations in her diary nearly a century ago.
“Degenerate Art” Revisited
At the same time as Futurism—the subject of my column last month—was challenging the academy in Italy, Expressionism was Germany’s answer to hidebound artistic conservatism. The Expressionists used formal distortion and unnatural coloration to go beyond surface appearance to expose the inner truth of a subject, as they saw it. Forward-looking private collectors and museum curators embraced this bold new approach, and works by members of Die Brücke in Dresden, Der Blaue Reiter in Munich, and the Berlin Secession entered prestigious collections all over Germany. Even the National Socialists, who came to power in 1933, were favorably disposed at first.
But Europe’s avant-garde was imperiled by the rise of totalitarian regimes. In Italy, as we have seen, Futurism was tolerated, if not supported, by Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship, but it was a different story in Hitler’s Germany. The Nazi response to modernism was to ban it, burn it, and ridicule it in a series of exhibitions that labeled the artists as decadent or insane. Many of them were persecuted or driven into exile. That shameful episode in the devastating history of Nazi atrocities is the subject of “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” on view through September 1 at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan. Its overlap with the Futurism show at the nearby Guggenheim is a fortunate coincidence.
Smaller and more focused that the 1991 show on this subject in Los Angeles, the Neue Galerie’s overview is a fascinating and chilling glimpse of the systematic campaign to rid German art of corrupting influences. The purge extended to film, theater and literature as well—pictures of book-burnings are standard fare in documentaries about the Nazis—but paintings and sculptures were especially vulnerable. Confiscated from museums, they were crammed into makeshift galleries in Munich’s Hofgarten and presented as a “chamber of horrors.” The current show includes a selection of the survivors from the 1937 display, which featured more than 700 of the estimated 20,000 pieces that ultimately were seized.
“Entartete Kunst,” as the show was billed, opened a day after Hitler’s spanking new German House of the Arts—the first example of Nazi architecture—premiered with a lavish display of officially sanctioned art. One of the Neue Galerie’s rooms contains works from both shows. An especially apt juxtaposition is Max Beckmann’s haunting allegorical triptych, “The Departure,” on loan from MoMA, side by side with Adolph Ziegler’s triptych, “The Four Elements,” a saccharine celebration of ideal German womanhood in pseudo-classical guise. The contrast between the retarditaire Nazi paradigm and the powerful emotional impact of Beckmann’s images is striking. And don’t miss the room on the second floor where the empty frames of lost or destroyed paintings surround the original ledger that documents, on neatly typed pages, the items that were sold off to enrich the Nazi war machine.
Although only six of the 112 artists in the “Entartete Kunst” show were Jewish, all the work was denounced as reflecting a “perverse Jewish spirit,” an ominous warning that modernists would be subject to the same fate as their Jewish colleagues. They lost their jobs, were hounded by the authorities, and many simply left town. Paul Klee, an early casualty, had already moved to Switzerland in 1933. Oskar Kokoschka fled to Prague the following year. Beckmann left for Amsterdam the day after the Munich show opened. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a founder of Die Brücke, killed himself in 1938. Even Nazi Party membership was no protection. Emil Nolde, whose work had earlier been praised by Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was a party member and strong supporter of the regime, yet more of his works were confiscated than those of any other artist, and after 1941 he was actually forbidden to paint.
And what did he and his fellow modernists paint, model and carve that made the Nazis so hostile? The current sampling ranges from what now look like innocuous landscapes and still lifes to grotesquely distorted figures that still challenge our sensibilities. To the Nazis, however, they were dangerous alternatives to the weird amalgam of Aryan-Greco-Roman-Germanic aesthetics that represented their concepts of classic beauty and racial purity. Ironically, Hitler’s “Great Exhibition of German Art,” promoting those ideals, was far less popular than “Degenerate Art,” which attracted two million visitors to its Munich venue alone. Like the Hofgarten in 1937, the Neue Galerie has a line waiting to get in, this time not to mock the art but to admire it.
Back to Futurism
“We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.”
With those words, published in Le Figaro in 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti announced the birth of Futurism, a literary movement that soon embraced all the arts in its fervid grip. Reading a translation of its founding manifesto on the wall of the Guggenheim Museum—where “Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” is on view through September 1—you might dismiss the Futurists as a bunch of pompous misogynistic cranks. To be sure, the movement has long been marginalized as politically naïve and aesthetically weak. This exhibition, the first comprehensive survey ever mounted in the US, asks us to take a longer and more nuanced look at how the Futurists envisioned a civilization remade according to their principles.
Like last year’s brilliant Gutai exhibition at the Guggenheim, the current show delves into all aspects of its subject, from its revolutionary pronouncements and free-form poetry to painting, sculpture, photography, performance, urban planning, and design of utilitarian objects. It traces Futurism’s inception, in response to what the avant-garde perceived as an ossified, retrograde culture, through its various phases to its demise with the death of Marinetti. However misguided the Futurist worldview proved to be, this show finally gives the movement the full treatment it deserves. Far from glossing over its unsavory aspects, it presents them in the context of the political, social and artistic upheavals that shaped the first half of the 20th century.
The contradictions are evident from day one. The Futurists worshiped speed, especially mechanized speed, which symbolized modernity, but failed to express it effectively in their art. The first gallery highlights Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture, which aims to capture dynamic movement in a static medium and predictably misses the mark. Painters also tried unsuccessfully to depict motion optically without actual animation. In works by Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà, Gino Severini and others, racing cyclists, galloping horses, speeding cars and trains, a violinist sawing away at his instrument, all come to a screeching halt on canvas. Why didn’t the artists use cinema, a new, mechanical medium that actually could capture movement, and lacked the imprimatur of the despised museums? Instead, they chose the traditional media long enshrined in the very institutions they attacked.
With the advent of World War I, the Futurists’ dream of armed conflict as a tool of cultural renewal became instead the grim reality of destruction, misery, and death, which claimed three of them. In the aftermath, Marinetti formed a tenuous alliance with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party, which came to power in 1922. Although he had formally renounced their association, Marinetti had a change of heart; he and his associates praised Il Duce and courted his favor. The most blatantly pandering example is Alessandro Bruschetti’s “Fascist Synthesis,” a 1935 triptych that glorifies Mussolini’s dictatorship. Under his rule Futurism was tolerated but never adopted as the official art that its promoters envisioned. This association has long tainted the appreciation of the movement’s interwar phase, to the extent that few works from that time have ever been seen in this country, until now.
Another paradox is Futurism’s bias against women. Notwithstanding the virile posturing of its 1909 manifesto, it attracted several female members, notably Benedetta Cappa, who became Marinetti’s wife. Ironically, given the earnestness with which the macho Futurists pursued the macho Mussolini, the most important commission they ever got from his regime went to Benedetta, as she was known professionally. Her impressive 1933-34 murals for the Palermo post office’s conference room, painstakingly removed from the building and installed in their own gallery at the top of the Guggenheim’s ramp, treat various aspects of communication by airplane (a favorite Futurist subject), ship, rail, telegraph, telephone and radio. Unlike some of the more pretentious efforts of her male colleagues, they succeed in celebrating modern technology symbolically, instead of trying in vain to simulate its effects.
Ray Johnson’s Guessing Games
When Ray Johnson drowned in Sag Harbor Cove on the night of January 13, 1995, he committed the ultimate act of performance art. His suicide at the age of 67—while in good health, and financially solvent—remains unexplained. One thing is certain: that’s how he wanted it. After all, in both his art and his life, Ray invited speculation, so is it any wonder that he keeps us guessing posthumously?
The game continues at Baruch College’s Sidney Mishkin Gallery on East 22nd Street in Manhattan, where a selection of Ray’s collages is on view through May 7. Spanning four decades, the show illustrates his signature use of free association and word play, combined with an eccentric graphic style, to create fascinating, mystifying, amusing, and sometimes disturbing imagery. That many of them are also quite beautiful is, I think, often overlooked in the effort to decipher their meaning. The quirkiness and deliberate cartoon-like quality of his drawings masks an aesthetic refinement that is most apparent from a distance. Once you get drawn in and start trying to decode them, you can get lost in the woods of Ray’s omnivorous imagination.
That said, it’s hard to make a wrong turn. Like the Dada and Symbolist poets he admired, Ray leads you in multiple directions at once, all of them fruitful. Although some of the references are very personal, especially when a piece is inscribed or dedicated to one of his friends, the visual puns may still carry beyond the in-joke level. To help the perplexed viewer, a few of the examples on view come with explanations, which are only somewhat useful. For instance, in the wall label that accompanies “Untitled (Golf Balls with Brick Snake),” with which Ray reportedly tinkered over a 15-year period, we are told that the repeated face is that of Betty Boop, a cartoon character he often referenced. But the faces bear the name Abby Friedman, the wife of the writer B.H. Friedman, and she isn’t mentioned in the gallery’s text. So why does Abby get Betty’s face? Perhaps because the two B’s in her name match the two B’s in Betty Boop. That’s how Ray’s mind worked.
A goggle-eyed bunny head, Ray’s iconic image and surrogate, casts a baleful glance at the pair of golf balls, which sport eyelashes that echo Betty/Abby’s, drawing the analogy between golf balls and eyeballs. The snake, another frequently repeated motif, makes three appearances. Two are inscribed with Ray’s name, and the brick one—now there’s a contradictory idea—is named Jim Rosenquist. A quartet of silhouette masks, identified as Edward Albee, flank the bunny head. As a professional name-dropper Ray had no equal, and the fact that his own signature appears several
times in reverse tells you that he’s the one behind this elaborate casting call. Other examples, like “SALE,” are even more complex, with references to René Magritte, Luis Buñuel, Geraldine Chaplin doing a backbend, soft-core gay porn and numerous other unrelated elements, jumbled together inside and around a silhouette profile of the artist William Condon’s head, as if his thoughts—are they dirty? That’s what “sale” means in French—had suddenly become visible.
Writing about Ray’s art is difficult, because each image has multiple meanings. What I see may not be what you see. It’s all about connections, one thing leading to another, and if you let your eyes and your mind wander freely you can make your own links. Ray actively promoted this through his New York Correspondence School, in which drawings and collages were exchanged, altered, and forwarded by mail. It was a sendup of the New York School of abstract painters who dominated the art world when he first came to the city in 1949, fresh from Black Mountain College. Rather than working alone in the studio, Ray collaborated with his correspondents. Instead of meeting in person at The Club, he connected vicariously through the US Postal Service. When Happenings were all the rage, he staged Nothings. There wasn’t a trend he didn’t love to buck. Even his reclusiveness was contradictory, since he kept in constant touch with a wide circle of friends, admirers, and fellow artists via telephone and letter. If he had lived, not doubt we’d now be inundated by his emails, and his Facebook page would be off the charts.
Mural Gets a Makeover
You might think that we already know all there is to know about Jackson Pollock’s life and work, but you’d be wrong. For example, before Pollock’s 1943 mural arrived at Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, it had acquired a coating of varnish, as well as a heavy overlay of myth, both of which made it difficult to see the painting properly. Now, after more than 18 months of analysis and treatment, it has emerged from under its literal and figurative shrouds.
Anyone who doubts Pollock’s compositional and technical skills should study this canvas—at 8 x 20 feet, the largest he ever painted—on view at the Getty Center through June 1, after which it will travel. A tour de force of vibrant brushwork (this was before his signature pouring technique was fully developed), dynamic abstract rhythms and vivid colors, it signals his breakthrough after years of struggling to find his own direction. Like his hero, the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco, and his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock wanted to paint big, bold pictures that could fill a room with energy. Thanks to his patron, Peggy Guggenheim, who commissioned the mural for the entrance hall of her Manhattan duplex, he was able to realize his ambition.
Pollock was unknown in 1943, and Peggy took a big risk in promoting him. His drinking problem and emotional fragility were red flags, but a talent that MoMA’s curator, James Johnson Sweeney, described as “volcanic” was also obvious. In addition to the mural commission, Peggy signed him up for solo shows at her avant-garde gallery, Art of This Century, and gave him financial support. She bet on his potential, and was rewarded with the credit for launching his career, as well as a superb collection of his paintings. When she moved to Italy after World War II she gave several of them to museums around the country, from Rhode Island to Seattle, and took the rest with her.
But the mural—which was made to be portable, since she was only renting the town house—was too big for her Venetian villa, and finding a home for it proved to be a challenge. There were no takers among the New York museums. Fortunately for the University of Iowa, the head of the art department learned that it was available and got it for the school. For years it hung in the art studio, but when the UI Museum of Art opened in 1969 it became the new building’s centerpiece.
Meanwhile the legend surrounding the mural grew and flourished. The story goes that after procrastinating for months, Pollock painted it in one furious burst of pent-up creative energy. He missed the deadline, so it wasn’t delivered until January 1944, two months after it was due. It was too big for the hallway, so Marcel Duchamp cut eight inches off one end. Turns out none of this is true. Doubts began to arise when the painting was shown at MoMA in Pollock’s 1998 retrospective, and it got its first major examination by conservators. There’s no evidence that it was cut down, and it certainly wasn’t painted in a single night.
The Conservation Institute’s painstaking analysis, discussed and illustrated on the Getty Center Web site, confirms that each layer of oil paint had to dry before the next one was applied, a process that takes days, if not weeks. Plus the finished painting needed drying time before it was unstretched and rolled, the only way to get it out Pollock’s studio door and into Peggy’s hallway. And a recently discovered letter from Peggy says it was in place by early November 1943, right on schedule. So much for the image of an irresponsible, impulsive artist splashing it out in a panic.
Looking at it now, without the 1973 varnish that dulled and flattened its surface, and cleverly re-stretched to disguise a slight sag caused by years on an inadequate support, it’s obvious that the mural is a thoughtfully conceived, methodically executed masterpiece. In addition to restoring its aesthetic glory, the Getty has done it a great service by unpacking its phony baggage.
Fred McDarrah’s Hungry Eye
“I was a groupie at heart,” Fred W. McDarrah confessed, “and my camera was my ticket of admission.” It was also his meal ticket. As The Village Voice’s picture editor, and for a long time the only staff photographer, Fred (who died in 2007 at 81) made his living documenting the downtown scene for more than four decades. The result is a huge body of work, estimated at some 35,000 images, from which a sampling is on view through March 8 at the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea. While it’s a small percentage of Fred’s total output, there are over 100 photos, many of which will be familiar to readers of his books on Greenwich Village, the art world, the gay pride movement, and the Beat Generation. In fact the exhibition’s title, “Save the Village,” is drawn from a cover photo on his 1963 paperback, Greenwich Village, showing the demolition of the sculptor Arnold Bergier’s studio, which had those words painted on its façade. Fifty-four years ago, when that building was torn down, the locals were already mourning the imminent demise of their historic neighborhoods, cheap lofts and far-out life styles.
Fred, a Brooklyn boy, migrated to Manhattan after his Army service and studied journalism on the GI Bill at NYU, when Washington Square was, in his words, “the focus of intellectual and cultural activity.” After graduating in 1954, he snagged a job as an ad salesman for the fledgling Voice, and soon became its photographer-in-residence. Starting with the beatniks, he chronicled the evolution of New York’s bohemia, as well as its surrounding milieu. He hit the street just as the counterculture was warming up the Cold War climate, and the alternative press was providing a forum for innovations in art, theater, music, writing and film. For those of us who came of age in the city during those years, Fred’s images are like the pictures in a family album. For those who weren’t there (or were and can’t remember), they conjure a time when, quoting Fred again, “painting, poetry, avant-garde performances and Off-Broadway theater were in full swing—everybody was creating something.”
The statements I’m quoting were written for an exhibition of Fred’s Greenwich Village photographs at the Pollock-Krasner House in 1990. It was the first show I organized there. When Fred wasn’t prowling the downtown byways, he and his wife Gloria retreated to a cottage on Three Mile Harbor Road, so they were the museum’s not-too-distant neighbors. That was my excuse to prevail on him to share some of his favorite pictures. He was a pleasure to work with, patiently sorting and selecting material and carefully identifying the characters—some famous or notorious, others now obscure—captured in his iconic images. Several of them, and many more, populate the current exhibition. Their habitat ranges from the Cedar Bar, the Club, the Living Theater, the White Horse Tavern and Café Wha? to Judson Church, the Factory and the Stonewall Inn, as well as the anti-war rallies, be-ins, Happenings and demonstrations that mark the Village as a legendary locus of political, social and artistic ferment.
Fred never claimed that he was making art, but it can’t be denied that some of his images rise above reportage. Jack Kerouac’s impassioned reading from “On the Road,” gesturing as if to embrace the whole audience, illuminates a dingy loft more brightly than the glaring light bulb overhead. A performance by the Velvet Underground casts the band as stark silhouettes against a projection of the singer Nico’s eye—an appropriately surreal backdrop for their visionary music. And a shot of a gay power rally, in which a banner obscures the marchers’ faces, turns their singular embraces into universal gestures. There are also outstanding portraits of individuals, among them a gleeful Yayoi Kusama flashing her trademark dots; a trenchcoated Robert Rauschenberg lurking in an alley; Andy Warhol photographing Fred, as if each inveterate shutterbug were winking at the other; a grizzled Robert Moses, whose plan for a lower Manhattan expressway prompted bitter and ultimately successful opposition by Village denizens; Allen Ginsberg in an Uncle Sam hat, patriotically protesting the Vietnam War; and Bob Dylan earnestly saluting the camera. No doubt about it, Fred was in the right places at the right times, even as the times they were a-changin’.
HAH x 2
Ever since enterprising wreckers began luring merchant vessels onto the treacherous reefs around Key West, the so-called Conch Republic has been a magnet for creative thinkers. The island is best known for its colorful literary characters, from Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop and Tennessee Williams back in the day to contemporaries like Judy Blume, Alison Lurie and Joe Pintauro. It’s less renowned for its visual artists, although they’ve been drawn to its tropical climate and welcoming hospitality since 1832, when John James Audubon stopped at the Geiger house on Whitehead Street and fleshed out his “Birds of America” portfolio with novel specimens he spotted in the Geigers’ garden.
Today there’s a lively art scene and several commercial galleries, including Key West’s own Guild Hall, a co-op on the main drag, Duval Street. The former Custom House on Front Street is now a museum that shows both contemporary and historical art. At The Studios of Key West, in the old armory building, there’s a full program of residencies, classes, lectures, exhibitions and performances. Sculpture Key West, which began in 1995 as an informal outdoor exhibition for local artists in Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, has become an annual public art showcase that attracts entrants from around the country and even overseas.
Among the outstanding resident artists is Helen A. Harrison. No, I’m not boasting, because although I’ve been spending time in the Conch Republic for more than 20 years, it’s not me I’m talking about.
My husband and I have returned several times since our first visit in 1989, when we stayed at a charming Victorian guesthouse, The Palms, on White Street. Almost directly across the way, in a modest storefront at the corner of Olivia, I spotted the Harrison Gallery. Peeking through its big picture window, I saw some things that made me want to take a closer look. It turned out to be one of the best showcases for contemporary art in a town that’s burdened with more than its share of schlock houses and tourist traps. A bell tinkled as I opened the door, and a slim, attractive woman came out of the back room. I asked if she was the eponymous owner, and she said she was. I said, I’m a Harrison too, Helen Harrison. “So am I,” she said, “Helen A. Harrison.” Well, I’ll be jiggered. “And so am I,” I told her.
Piling one coincidence on another, the other HAH is a sculptor, which is what I was before going into museum work. In addition to carving wood, she uses natural materials like Cohuna Palm fronds and Royal Poinciana seed pods that she manipulates in ways that both enhance and disguise their botanical character. She might build up contours with metal mesh or fiberglas, cover the surfaces with glossy enamel paint and gold leaf, and add geometric stone or wood elements as counterpoints to the organic undulations. She respects the inherent quality of the material, but isn’t intimidated by it, and often pushes it beyond its apparent limits. Her shoe-shaped carvings turn functional forms into works of art, while her vessels and furniture are as useful as they are sculptural.
Helen and her husband Ben, a musician and author, arrived in Key West in the mid 1980s. After nearly a decade of living aboard their 38-foot sailboat, La Dulce Mujer, they dockedat the old Navy pier and decided it was time to become landlubbers again. This was not simply a practical matter—two kids and a sculpture studio were more than the boat could hold—but an emotional transition as well, because they had built La Dulce Mujer with their own hands.
“Sailing Down the Mountain,”Ben’s account of their sojourn in the Costa Rican highlands, where the boat took shape over three and a half years, is about to be published, and it promises to be both an excellent adventure and a cautionary tale. In a short version that appeared in Boatbuilder magazine ten years ago, Ben admitted that the project, “when looked on objectively, lacked any element of common sense.” But they did it anyway. As much as Helen and I have in common, that’s more than I would have been willing to take on, even in my most daring days. So when I tell you that Helen A. Harrison is an artist, a creative thinker and a risk-taker, I’m not tooting my own horn.
Mysterious Magritte at MoMA
Attending the Museum of Modern Art’s “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” on view through January 12, is a bit like visiting an old friend whose eccentricities are both endearing and annoying. His parlor tricks are by now so familiar that they no longer astonish, yet there was a time—the period covered by this tightly-focused exhibition—when they were novel, shocking and revelatory. The whole Surrealist enterprise blossomed and withered during those twelve years, feeding on the social, political and economic malaise of interwar Europe. Although our recent traumas pale in comparison to the aftermath of World War I, the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, they remind us how fragile civilization’s structures are, and why visionary artists like René Magritte (1898-1967), coming of age in that uncertain era, questioned the fundamental nature of perception.
While many of the Surrealist painters and poets looked inward for inspiration, Magritte turned his gaze outward, toward the everyday world around him. But he saw it disordered and reorganized according to his own set of rules, which really amount to no rules at all. In his universe, a painting can no longer be seen as a representation or depiction of reality; it has become an idea, a concept, and a disturbing one at that. The viewer, normally as passive as Magritte’s deadpan bourgeois gentleman, is challenged to become an active navigator of this unknown territory. The old compass doesn’t work here, and the map is out of date. Throw logic out the window, and dump the window while you’re at it.
Magritte’s conflation of the mundane and the marvelous began in his native Belgium, where a reproduction of The Song of Love, a 1914 painting by Georgio de Chirico, made a profound impression and set him on the path toward his own version of metaphysical art. Magritte adapted de Chirico’s irrational juxtaposition of unrelated objects and distorted perspective in his earliest Surrealist works, a series of collages inspired by Max Ernst’s cutouts, in which two of his now-famous motifs, the bowler-hatted cipher and the baluster-like bilboquets, were introduced [left]. After the collages were exhibited in Brussels in 1927, to less than enthusiastic reviews, he moved to France and for the next few years became a key member of the Parisian Surrealist circle.
During this period, Magritte explored the interplay of words and pictures, often questioning the distinction between what we see and what we believe to be true. In The Treachery of Images, perhaps his most famous painting, a straightforward rendering of a tobacco pipe is labeled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Of course a painting of a pipe isn’t actually a pipe—as Magritte pointed out, you can’t put tobacco in it—what could be more obvious? The tendency to confuse illusion with reality is epitomized in this iconic visual conundrum.
An even more explicit illustration, this time without a text, is Attempting the Impossible, in which the artist shows himself working on a nude portrait of his wife Georgette, only instead of painting her on canvas he appears to be making her materialize in the room. Like the pipe, her figure is ambiguous. In the real world, Georgette was always by his side, but in his art she was a figment of his quirky imagination.
In 1930 economic setbacks forced Magritte to return to Belgium, where he made ends meet as a commercial artist while continuing to develop his singularly enigmatic imagery and interacting with the local Surrealist contingent. With the exposure of his work in New York and London in the mid 1930s he began to gain wider recognition. The current show ends in 1938, after an English patron, Edward James, commissioned three large paintings that summarize Magritte’s development to date. In later years he would reprise many of those themes and motifs as demand for his signature imagery increased—another reason why, taken as a whole, his work often seems repetitious. And through countless reproductions, appropriations and parodies, Magritte has entered popular culture as the master visual punster and the avatar of cultural anomie. In these early works, however, we see him at the start of his remarkable creative journey, guided only by his desire, as he put it, “to be enriched by exciting new thoughts.”
Art Under the Microscope
The aim of “Art From the Ground Up,” a symposium sponsored by the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook Manhattan last Friday, was to examine the authentication tool kit, which includes time-honored perceptive skills, diligent research, traditional forensics and the latest technology. If a work of art lacks undisputed bona fides, it has to be examined and approved by reputable authorities—connoisseurs, materials analysts and provenance investigators. To explain that process, I invited five of them to share their insights with an audience that included museum professionals, art collectors, and representatives of artists’ foundations and catalogue raisonné projects, who have a vested interest in protecting their assets from corruption.
Fakes and forgeries have been much in the news of late, most prominently in the ongoing drama of Knoedler & Company’s spectacular meltdown. (The venerable gallery, established in 1857, was forced to close when much of its inventory of modern masterpieces turned out to be counterfeits painted to order by a Chinese immigrant.) Patricia Cohen, who was awarded a 2013 Annette Giacometti Prize for her in-depth investigative reporting, covered the story in The New York Times. She gave the symposium’s closing remarks, which stressed the point that journalists, operating under various constraints, often can’t do justice to the nuances.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the New York Post’s coverage of the crime-scene style examination of a painting that belonged to the late Ruth Kligman, whose five-month fling with Jackson Pollock is vividly described in her 1974 memoir, Love Affair. The presentation by Colette Loll Marvin, a researcher who is helping her estate (Kligman died in 2010) validate her claim that the painting is by Pollock, illustrated the forensic work of Nicholas Petraco, a retired New York City police detective and respected trace evidence analyst. Petraco, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, examined foreign matter found in the painting and compared it to samples taken at and around the Pollock-Krasner House. He found enough matches—including grass seeds, sand grains, wool fibers and, of all things, a polar bear hair stuck in the paint that matches hair from a rug in the house—to conclude that the work was painted there. Unfortunately all this fascinating detective work doesn’t establish who painted it.
Authentication, as the symposium’s presenters reminded us more than once, involves connoisseurship, provenance and materials analysis, for which the standard analogy is a three-legged stool. If any leg is broken, the stool can’t stand. In the Kligman case, one leg now appears solid, while another is shaky and the third is missing. The only provenance is Kligman’s word, which is naturally suspect. What’s missing is acceptance by the connoisseurs. In the early 1990s, when Kligman submitted the painting to the Pollock-Krasner authentication board, the experts couldn’t reach a firm conclusion. They offered to include it in a supplement to the Pollock catalogue raisonné—the documentation of his known work—with the proviso that more research was needed. That left the door open to future authentication, but Kligman refused. She wanted the unequivocal approval of the board, which was disbanded when the supplement was published.
For whatever reason, the Post story and its subsequent spinoffs didn’t include this information, which Marvin discussed. Instead it was falsely reported that Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, personally rejected the painting out of spite, and that the board later refused to recognize it because they were “Krasner’s pals.” On the contrary, Krasner never even considered it, since it wasn’t submitted until after she died, and the board did acknowledge it, albeit with reservations. Apart from its obscure history—until 1999, when she added a new introduction to her memoir, Kligman neglected to mention it in her otherwise detailed account of virtually every moment of her liaison with Pollock—a major stumbling block is that, in the words of the eminent scholar and authentication board member Francis O’Connor, “I don’t think there’s a Pollock expert in the world who would look at that painting [illustrated on the cover of the 1999 paperback, right] and agree that it’s a Pollock.”
So although the painting has failed the three-legged-stool exam, the headlines blare, “CSI tests authenticate Pollock’s final work,” and “Mistress Proved Right.” As with many such disputes, time, and the art market, will decide the merits of that claim.
Forever Young in the Hamptons
Twenty years ago this month, in the October 1993 issue of ARTnews magazine, I reviewed an exhibition at Glenn Horowitz Booksellers in East Hampton. The show was titled “Young in the Hamptons,” and it comprised photographs from the 1950s and ‘60s by John Jonas Gruen. The column prompted a gracious note from John, whom I had met once or twice socially, thanking me for the writeup and mentioning, much to my surprise, that it was his first solo show and the first time his photographs had been reviewed. Since then that body of work has been collected in a book, The Sixties: Young in the Hamptons, published in 2006, and sampled for several exhibitions, including a selection of artist portraits at the Whitney Museum in 2010. Its latest incarnation is now on view, through the end of the month, at Susan Eley Fine Art in Manhattan.
Best known as an art and music critic, composer, biographer and memoirist (author of The Party’s Over Now and Callas Kissed Me… Lenny Too!), John and his wife, the painter Jane Wilson, bought their Water Mill carriage house in 1960. The picturesque property, south of the highway, with its spacious hayloft studio overlooking potato fields, was purchased with the proceeds from the sale of one of Jane’s paintings. Yes, I said one painting. If that makes you sigh and murmur, “those were the days,” wait until you see the pictures of them and their friends sipping cocktails on the patio and frolicking on nearby Flying Point Beach. They’ll make you nostalgic for the days when everyone smoked.
Like any good host and hostess, John and Jane made their guests feel welcome and comfortable, an attitude that’s reflected in the photographs. These are not candid, fly-on-the-wall images in which people are caught off guard. With an eye sharpened during a stint as a photo agent dealing with the work of such notables as Man Ray, Bill Brandt and Brassaï, John achieved an admirable blend of sympathetic observation and character study, revealed more by body language than by facial expression. Whether individual portraits or groupings, most are posed, and even in the casual moments there’s an evident rapport between the photographer and his subjects. Apparently mugging and clowning for the camera was part of the fun of these social occasions. What elevates them above the level of generic party snapshots is John’s flair for just the right combination of people and settings, plus the fact that these are no ordinary people. In one famous beach gathering [above], for example, you have Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher and John Bernard Myers, among others.
Jane Wilson, whose day job as a fashion model paralleled her painting career, is the recurring presence that anchors these fleeting occasions. She and the camera clearly have a thing going. From her first appearance, caught in a pensive moment during a 1957 visit to friends in the area, through the round of cocktail parties and beach outings that punctuated the 1960s chez Gruen, she stands out among the host of luminaries. The picture of her holding their daughter Julia, age 4, while Willem de Kooning flirts with them both, documents her outer and inner beauty, as well as de Kooning’s good taste in women. This could have been cloyingly sentimental, but instead it has a frisson generated by Julia’s slightly apprehensive expression, while Jane smiles warmly but knowingly.
Speaking of de Kooning, who was closing in on 60 when this picture was taken, it must be said that not everyone in Young in the Hamptons can honestly be called young. Of course Julia qualifies, as do Lisa de Kooning and the other children in attendance. But most of the adults were born in the 1920s, and a few, like de Kooning, Fairfield Porter and Stella Adler, are of pre-war vintage—World War I, that is. On the other hand, if it’s true that you’re as young as you feel, then the joie de vivre that radiates from John’s photographs entitles everyone he pictured to honorary membership in the Hamptons Youth Club.
Eye On Main Street Art
A walk down Riverhead’s Main Street is a journey along small town arteries everywhere: an eclectic mix of architectural periods and styles, and a lot of empty storefronts. Remember Woolworth’s? Gone. McCabe’s? Closed. Swezey’s? Vacant—well, not quite. For the past few months, the former Swezey’s display windows have been occupied by an installation by Andrea Cote, a multimedia artist who lives in nearby Flanders. Her ambitious project, “Eyes On Main Street,” aims, in her words, “to promote an awareness of the rich and varied spaces and stories of Riverhead’s citizens.” This appealed to me not only because my column is called “Eye On Art,” but also because I have a longstanding interest in public art and how it addresses and responds to its audience. In Andrea’s project, there is no separation between them, since the audience is the art.
The eyes in question are those of some 100 local residents, natives and newcomers alike, whom Andrea photographed during the spring and summer, beginning in May at the annual Community Mosaic Street Painting Festival, an outdoor participatory art event that’s also a huge block party. It’s all part of the downtown revitalization effort, which is using educational and cultural attractions like the East End Arts Council, Atlantis Marine World, the Long Island Exhibition Center and the Peconic River Walk, as well as the gorgeously renovated Suffolk Theater, vintage 1933, to bring people back to Main Street for reasons other than retail. As they stroll past what was Swezey’s department store, they encounter an array of translucent gauze masks on which photographs of eyes have been printed. Another window features photographs of people wearing the masks, covering their own eyes with someone else’s. The artist herself sports several of them in deadpan self-portraits, posed in front of the locale associated with each subject. In this way, she and the others who wear the masks metaphorically view Riverhead through the eyes of people who are intimately connected to the town, from recent arrivals like Glynis Berry, who opened the art sites gallery on West Main Street in 2007, to Anthony Meras, the third-generation proprietor of Star Confectionery, in business at 4 East Main Street since 1911.
But this is not simply a static installation documenting a series of photo shoots. Andrea’s self-portraits also include QR codes that allow viewers with scanners on their smart phones or tablets to access video interviews with the eyes’ owners. You can watch, among others, EEAC director Pat Snyder talking about her organization’s wide range of arts programming; Bob Spiotto, former Suffolk Theater executive director, doing a star turn on stage; performance artist Judy Sky, whose grandfather owned the Vail-Levitt Music Hall, channeling Judy Garland and recalling the history of the venue, which opened in 1881 on Peconic Avenue, just off Main Street; and Rob DiGiovanni, director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Rescue and Preservation, showing how to give a medical exam to a reluctant seal. And if you’d prefer not to spend time looking at videos when you could be enjoying all the cool attractions that Main Street has to offer, you can watch at home by visiting eyesonmainstreetriverhead.com.
There’s a bittersweet undertone to “Eyes On Main Street.” While many of the interviewees are upbeat and optimistic about the town’s future, there’s no rah-rah Chamber of Commerce boosterism. Naturally you expect nostalgia from those who remember the town’s heyday, when the whole high school football team piled into the luncheonette after a game, and you could get a strip of photos for a quarter in the booth at the back of Woolworth’s. But in spite of its emotional nuances and engaging personalities, the picture feels incomplete. Where are the lawyers and judges and court personnel who dominate the Suffolk County seat’s professional class and work only a few steps from Main Street? Where are the people of color? The Riverhead of this project is less a mosaic than a jigsaw puzzle with some crucial pieces missing.
On a summer afternoon in 1951, the Swiss architect, artist and theorist Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris—known professionally as Le Corbusier—found himself on an East Hampton beach in the company of the Nivola family. In New York to work on an ill-fated commission for the United Nations headquarters, he had first visited the Nivolas the previous year, when he painted two murals in their house on Old Stone Highway. Evidently he was intrigued by the sand-casting technique that his host, the sculptor Costantino Nivola, had developed while playing on the shore with his kids. By hollowing out shapes in the wet sand and filling them with plaster, Nivola created reliefs that, with Corbu’s encouragement, evolved into large architectural installations. Corbu himself experimented with the process, creating a cast-plaster panel that is now on display in “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes,” at the Museum on Modern Art.
I am far from alone in pointing out that the exhibition’s problems begin with its title. In Archinect, Ross Wolfe describes the theme as “superfluous and tacked on,” while Martin Filler, in the New York Review of Books, notes that no amount of curatorial emphasis on how Corbu framed the landscape in views from ribbon windows can counter “his reputation as a megalomaniacal city planner” whose enormous apartment blocks epitomize all that went wrong with 20th century urbanism. Writing in The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman called the show’s premise “tendentious,” since Corbu’s early landscape paintings and the few natural objects he collected, which apparently inspired some of his structural forms, do little if anything to revise his image as a doctrinaire formalist whose buildings often stick out from their surroundings like geometric sore thumbs. Nature was far too chaotic for his taste. Indeed, as envisioned by Corbu, the modern landscape was a product of human intervention, shaped in the service of the built environment.
Why not just forget the title and take in the vast scope of Corbu’s accomplishments, presented here in MoMA’s first-ever comprehensive survey? I think that makes sense, although there are still other weaknesses in this panoramic overview of the master’s career. One is the contradictory character of his apparent aims. Adopting a pseudonym derived from a family surname, as Le Corbusier he co-founded an art movement known as Purism, which advocated clarity and rationality. But the paintings on view are hardly distinguishable from the Cubism he denounced as decorative. This reductive impulse translated more effectively into his architectural designs. Although he maintained that the architect creates “in observance of the laws of nature,” he was talking about gravity, tension, weight, and other such physical laws. Nature was a force to be reckoned with, but more as an adversary than an ally.
Corbu’s famous concept of a building as a “machine for living in” had worldwide impact, not only on his own commissions—from single family homes like the Villa Savoye to an entire planned city in the Punjab—but on modernist architects’ fundamental approach to design problems. He is often blamed for the destruction of rundown but vibrant urban neighborhoods in favor of sterile towers, although his own plans for such monoliths remained on the drawing board. Those plans are in the show, together with many fascinating original scale models, concept sketches and other documentation, period films of Corbu explaining himself, and beautiful contemporary photographs (mounted way too high) of several notable buildings. It’s hard to get a sense of scale and proportion without actually visiting the buildings themselves, and a few reconstructed rooms do little to conjure the experience of place, but the insights into Corbu’s thought process more than compensate. This is, after all, an exhibition, not a house tour.
Given his penchant for unadorned structures, amply illustrated at MoMA, it’s hard to understand Corbu’s interest in Nivola’s sand-casting technique. After the solitary experiment in 1951, which he left at the Nivola house, it seems he never tried it again or chose to use anything like it to embellish his buildings. But even as an anomaly the plaque is interesting, although why the curators chose to display it flat is anyone’s guess. It was intended to be a wall piece, but at MoMA it’s lying on a raised base, looking more like a lumpy coffee table than a bas relief. As I was pondering this decision, without any prompting from me a nearby group was debating the same question. Nevertheless, it was created horizontally, exploiting the inherent qualities of wet beach sand, and in its modest way it represents the closest Corbu ever got to conforming to nature’s dictates.
Three in One at the Parrish
If we needed a reminder that art is a reflection of the personalities and experiences of those who create it, the current exhibition at the Parrish Art Museum offers ample evidence. “Angels, Demons, and Savages,” on view through October 27, was organized by Klaus Ottman and Dorothy Kosinski for the Parrish and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, where it premiered in the spring. The show focuses on a critical moment of interaction among three artists who were paying close attention to one another’s work at a time when modern art was being redefined in the aftermath of World War II. Like the balance of political and economic power, cultural momentum had shifted westward, but certain members of the French avant-garde had fervent admirers in America. One of the most highly regarded was Jean Dubuffet (connoisseur of “savage” art brut), whose interaction in the early 1950s with the American Jackson Pollock (he of the demons) and the Filipino-American Alfonso Ossorio (middle name Angel) is the exhibition’s raison d’être.
It was Ossorio who recognized and nurtured the artistic kinship and became a close friend of Dubuffet, although he failed to forge a personal bond between Dubuffet and Pollock. The two may have met briefly at Ossorio’s MacDougal Alley studio, but it never went further. More important, however, was Pollock’s admiration for Dubuffet’s work, which he saw at New York galleries and later at Ossorio’s East Hampton estate, The Creeks. The calculated rawness of Dubuffet’s approach to both subject matter and technique clearly struck a sympathetic chord. For his part, Dubuffet was sufficiently impressed by Ossorio’s opulent, multi-layered paintings and works on paper to write a monograph about them, in which many of his own attitudes are echoed. For Pollock’s 1951 show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Ossorio wrote an eloquent catalogue essay, using descriptions that could be applied just as well to Dubuffet’s work or his own.
They formed a kind of aesthetic triangle—or, from Ossorio’s perspective, a trinity. The Roman Catholic symbolism that pervades his imagery is absent from Pollock’s and Dubuffet’s, but the relationship between the earthly and spiritual realms plays out in all three artists’ work. If there’s one element that unites them, it’s the striving for some truth beyond superficial appearance, an essence that is the goal of abstraction. They also shared a concern with the materiality of their paintings—the sense that they’re made of a substance that has its own distinctive character, whether it’s Pollock’s enamel paint or Ossorio’s wax resist or something resembling earth concocted by Dubuffet. A fascinating section in the catalogue discusses their innovative materials and techniques.
Praise for fellow artists’ work is one thing, but Ossorio put his money where his mouth was. As a man of means (scion of a Philippine sugar magnate), he collected their art, gave them studio space on the grounds of his estate, and housed Dubuffet’s collection of l’art brut for some ten years. Interior photographs of The Creeks in the 1950s show works by Dubuffet, Pollock, Clyfford Still, Lee Krasner, and Ossorio himself. His patronage, as well as his moral support, was crucial to Pollock, especially after he returned to using figurative imagery. In addition to five classic poured paintings, including the 1950 masterpiece, Lavender Mist (now in the National Gallery), Ossorio owned two of the black enamel paintings from 1951-52 in which abstracted human and animal forms are evident.
Unfortunately Lavender Mist, the highlight of the Phillips installation, could not travel to the Parrish, and several other pieces were excluded owing to lack of space. It’s ironic that the big new building doesn’t have enough room for a show of just over 50 works, some of them quite small. Nevertheless, the claim that these three artists influenced one another in significant ways that have not been fully appreciated is borne out by the examples on view. The big disappointment is how they look in the galleries. The lighting is so uniform and subdued that textural subtleties and chromatic nuances are lost. More graphic and monochromatic, the Pollocks pretty much hold their own, but the Dubuffets and all but the most high-key Ossorios look dingy. Vis-à-vis the Phillips, the comparison is dusk to daylight. A show as illuminating as this one deserves better illumination.
Artists & Writers: How Old?
In a switch on the common habit of shaving off a few years, the annual Artists & Writers Softball Game has added a few. The claim that the first pitch was hurled back in 1948 has been around since at least 1998, which was billed as the 50th anniversary. But was it really? As the venerable contest marks yet another milestone, I was hoping that the research behind Guild Hall Museum’s current exhibition, “Artists & Writers: They Played in the Game,” on view through July 28, would answer that question. No such luck.
The show is a joyful romp around the bases, from the first documented casual outing in 1954—captured in two photographs and described by Harold Rosenberg, the art critic and only participating writer, as not so much an athletic event as a “preliminary to cocktails”—to last year’s 10-inning celebrity slugfest for charity. Hard evidence is very thin prior to the first fundraiser in 1968, recapped in the East Hampton Star as the 4th annual, moving it at least ten years forward from its recorded origin and further confusing an already obscure history. Let’s face it, if it did begin, as legend has it, in sculptor Wilfrid Zogbaum’s yard, it wasn’t in 1948. He didn’t move to Springs until the early 1950s.
So where does that date come from? Even veteran sportswriter Jack Graves, who has compiled a chronology based on Star reporting over the decades, has fallen back on speculation. His investigative journalism reveals that the purported 1948 game was “played somewhere,” and is “recorded only in memories.” Will it take a subpoena to get Jack to reveal his sources? Inquiring minds would also like to know who placed Jackson Pollock in the lineup. He was the quintessential anti-athlete, the guy who was expelled from high school for complaining about too much emphasis on sports, and whose only known exercise was lifting a beer bottle to his lips.
That said, it’s always a treat to see Guild Hall’s magnificent 1951 Pollock drawing, although a disclaimer on the label would have been nice. (Let’s call him the first honorary ringer.) There are excellent examples by some genuine early participants, including Franz Kline, Ludwig Sander, Philip Pavia, David Slivka, Howard Kanovitz, Herman Cherry and Willem de Kooning (dismissed by Pavia as a “lousy player”), as well as stalwarts of the 1960s like Ray Parker, Warren Brandt, Bill King, Esteban Vicente, Kyle Morris and Syd Solomon, whose yard became the venue. Apart from Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, female artists and writers didn’t enter the fray in numbers until the 1970s.
The fact that many of the works in the show are from the museum’s collection is a testament to the wisdom of focusing on representing artists of the region, many of whom have humiliated themselves repeatedly on the field of broken dreams. Few if any have a longer tenure among the perpetually pathetic Paletteers than Leif Hope, impresario of the charity game, which was inaugurated as a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Eric Ernst, a real glutton for punishment, first faced the mound at the tender age of 12, or was it 13? (Another fuzzy statistic, but hey, this is a competition where even the final score is often in dispute.)
In 1970, the matchup raised $500 for the legal defense fund of artist Robert Gwathmey, who had been cited for defacing the American flag with a peace symbol. As usual, the artists went down to defeat, but by only one run instead of the typical shellacking. A rare poster for that event is among those in the memorabilia gallery, replete with T-shirts, caps, and videos of play and sideline interviews. Here too is the Scriveners’ deep bench of publications—but incredibly, none of Harold Rosenberg’s books. Also missing, although billed in the gallery handout, is a Gwathmey painting from the Guild Hall collection. Considering his fundraiser’s iconic status in the annals, it’s an odd omission.
What once was amateur recreation notable for its ineptitude has evolved into a star-studded spectacle that Graves laments has been “discomfortingly well-played in recent years.” The roster now boasts movie stars and supermodels moonlighting as artists, and a scribes’ squad that runs the gamut from Pulitzer Prize-winners to those whose literary talent is confined to check-writing. But be the players bona fide or bogus, the aim is to support local non-profits. And by that measure, whether the game is really 65 years old or only 59, it just gets better with age.
A group of local artists, joined by a guest from California, convened at the Pollock-Krasner House on May 19 to discuss the contemporary relevance of expressionism, whether abstract or figurative, and how it relates to their own work. The event, sponsored by Drs. Marika and Thomas Herskovic, harked back to the early days of the New York School, when artists hotly debated such issues at The Club. It attracted a large audience, whose comments sparked some lively responses. As moderator, my job was to make sure everyone got his or her say.
For expressionists, they proved to be a remarkably well-behaved bunch, reserving any emotional outbursts for their interactions with the canvas. Actually not all of them are purely painters. Ruby Jackson also makes sculpture, and both Colin Goldberg and Carol Hunt use digital technology as well as brushwork, and are inspired by Asian calligraphy. The artists’ approaches were as varied as their media, so there was a general reluctance to embrace a unifying label. Haim Mizrahi set the tone when he quoted Willem de Kooning’s famous warning, “It is disastrous to name ourselves.” That said, there was consensus on the fundamental need for spontaneity, whether it’s an expression of internal impulses or a reaction to outside stimuli. The underwater world, with its marvelous creatures and intriguing shapes, is the key that unlocks Ruby’s imagination. In Carol’s case, what began as a fascination with fabric patterns has evolved into a complex vocabulary of abstract forms.
The term “abstract” has long been a bugbear, implying a lack of recognizable subject matter, but as Haim pointed out, “just because it isn’t evident doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Connie Fox was glad that the abstract qualifier has become divorced from expressionism, freeing the artist from prohibitions against figurative imagery. For her, as for others on the panel, the real task is to engage with the work as it evolves, to follow where it leads and dispense with preconceptions. Colin maintained that, far from constraining him, the computer encourages that kind of improvisation; he thinks of digital technology as “a tool to tap into the unconscious.” A question from the audience provoked several musings about the psychological aspects of creativity, and how the artist gains access to that Jungian reservoir. Our West Coast panelist, Linda Hatofsky, spoke on behalf of her late husband Julius, a longtime teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute, who told his students to “take your mind out of the work and let your hand guide you.” There were nods of concurrence around the table.
Art as a process of self-discovery—perhaps expressionism’s key defining quality—was a recurring theme. Linda described how her husband’s traumatic experiences in World War II, including the liberation of a concentration camp, were eventually manifested in his paintings decades later. For Haim, art is “a constant investigation of who we are,” while for Ruby it’s a vehicle that lets you “go someplace you have never been.” Connie mentioned how the act of looking inward helps focus attention where it needs to be. Sally Egbert eloquently evoked the artist’s “rare space,” a private realm shut off from daily life. Yet far from being lonely, or out of touch with reality, that space is filled with the residue of experiences that are carried into the studio and translated into meaningful imagery. Expressionism isn’t only about self-expression, she insisted. To her, “communication is key.” An audience member elaborated on the distinction between “painting your feelings,” which might be considered mere navel-gazing, and “painting with feeling,” implying a broader empathy with the zeitgeist, to which Sally replied that “really great art should be of its time, but timeless.” That’s something we can all agree on.
A Fine Show at Spanierman Modern
When Willem de Kooning visited Perle Fine’s Springs studio in the late 1950s, he remarked that her abstract imagery “is what you see out here, isn’t it? You know, through a big studio window.” Not wanting to hurt her old friend’s feelings, Fine replied “well yes, I guess so, if you say so,” while silently contradicting him. As she later told an interviewer, “of course it wasn’t.” Yet she also admitted that living in the country—literally off the beaten path on Red Dirt Road, which wasn’t even cut through until 1954, when she and her husband Maurice Berezov bought land there and had the town bulldoze a right-of-way to it—did have a subtle, even subliminal, effect on her work. As she saw it, her city paintings tended to be more “cerebral,” while the country paintings seemed “more open and more relaxed.” You can judge the merits of this observation at Spanierman Modern in Manhattan, where “Perle Fine: 30 Years of Painting,” is on view through May 24.
The exhibition’s earliest pieces date from the 1940s, when Fine was transitioning from a geometric style to a more organic approach to abstraction. Her previous works were heavily indebted to the Cubist principles of her teacher, Hans Hofmann, and the strict Neo-plasticism of Piet Mondrian, whom she befriended in New York and considered the most important influence on her art. Her admiration for him was so deep and well known that in 1947 she was commissioned to make an exact copy of his final masterpiece, “Broadway Boogie-Woogie.” She once said of his philosophy, “in everything I’ve ever done you see a trace of that, in some more strongly than others.”
Again the show allows you to decide whether or not that’s true, as it runs the gamut from “End of Day,” a pictographic composition from 1945, to “Sunscape,” a minimalist 1975 canvas. It also includes a couple of the works made soon after her move to Springs, notably the major 1959 diptych, “Tournament,” and several paintings from her Cool series of the 1960s. I think Fine was right to insist that Mondrian’s grid underpins even her most exuberant abstractions, and it evidently informs the rectangular structure of the Cool canvases, which are far from chilly or detached in mood. Their vibrant color and sensuous finish argue against any such reading. Cool can have so many meanings, and in this case I see it as denoting the transcendent restraint, filtered through Mondrian, Albers and Rothko, that characterizes these canvases.
After many years of summering in Provincetown, where she painted in the Days Lumber Yard studios cheek by jowl with her fellow artists, Fine chose Springs as a permanent home at the urging of Lee Krasner, a close friend from their Hofmann School years. Like Krasner, Pollock and the other artists flocking to the East End after World War II, Fine enjoyed the benefits of country living with easy access to the New York art scene. Her relative isolation apparently freed her from the constraints she felt in the city and allowed her to respond indirectly to her surroundings. As she later acknowledged, the rural environment contributed in some measure to her imagery. Some of her paintings allude indirectly to natural forms, like the dark forms of trees in a snowy landscape, water rippling in a shallow pool, or a summer afternoon’s radiant atmosphere—which may be why she titled a 1960 painting “Winter,” a 1974 composition “A Criss-Cross of Currents,” and her golden 1975 canvas “Sunscape.”
While continuing to exhibit regularly in Manhattan, Fine operated outside the art-world mainstream, yet her work reflects some of the major trends of the era. Her collage paintings of the 1950s, including “Tournament” and “Billet Doux,” are Abstract Expressionist classics, and her Cool series, begun in 1961, looks like textbook Color Field painting, but you won’t find her mentioned in the standard histories of either movement. This may be due in part to her reticence; her colleague Robert Richenburg described her as “quiet and remote, off in her own cloud.” She hated the rough and tumble of self-promotion. And let’s face it, female artists of her generation—she lived from 1905 to 1988—were long neglected by both the chroniclers and the marketplace. I trust we’re now enlightened enough to judge Fine’s work on its merits, not by the artist’s sex.
Gutai at the Guggenheim
Geographically, Ashiya, Japan is a long way from East Hampton, New York—roughly 10,000 miles—but artistically those two towns are closer than you might imagine. The connection is the feeling of kinship with Jackson Pollock that was felt by members of the Gutai Art Association, established in Ashiya in 1954. In the words of its founder, Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai’s aim was to “pursue enthusiastically the possibilities of pure creativity.” The group’s name means “concreteness,” and its manifesto scorned traditional illusionistic art as fraudulent because the material it’s made of—paint, cloth, metal, stone—represents something other than itself. “Gutai Art does not alter matter,” Yoshihara declared, “Gutai Art imparts life to matter.” It’s easy to see why the group related to Pollock.
The fruits of this iconoclastic attitude are on full dress parade in Gutai: Splendid Playground, a truly marvelous exhibition on view through May 8 at the Guggenheim Museum. It’s billed as the first North American museum show devoted to Gutai, but strictly speaking that’s not true. It was actually inspired by a 2009 exhibition, Under Each Other’s Spell: Gutai and New York, at the Pollock-Krasner House. Organized by Ming Tiampo, co-curator of the Guggenheim show, Under Each Other’s Spell explored the direct connections between the Japanese and New York avant-gardes, especially the Gutai-Pollock link. It was narrowly focused and of course far smaller than the extravaganza that now occupies Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fifth Avenue landmark, but it set the stage, so to speak.
Theater is an appropriate metaphor for much of Gutai art, which often involved performance and audience participation. In many cases the action was as important as the product, which is one reason why artists like Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson and Allan Kaprow, father of the Happening, were Gutai fans. It’s fascinating to see examples, some of them re-created for this show, that prefigure process art, conceptual art, installations and New Realism in the US and Europe. Gutai artists painted with their feet, used a motorized toy car to draw, hurled jars of paint at canvas and exploded it from a cannon, and made sculptures of plastic sheeting filled with colored water, among other antics. Occasionally their work was downright dangerous, like Atsuko Tanaka’s so-called “electric dress,” a wearable sculpture made of light bulbs, and Saburo Murakami’s performance piece at the first Gutai exhibition in Tokyo, where he crashed through a series of paper screens and landed with a concussion.
Murakami’s literal breakthrough symbolizes the essence of their philosophy. As Yoshihara summarized it, “Gutai places an utmost premium on daring advance into the unknown world.” It’s clear why, in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II, such a challenge would appeal to creative thinkers. The old orthodoxies were crumbling as the whole society underwent radical transformation. In that atmosphere, vanguard artists had to look beyond their own culture for direction. Well aware of their Dada and Surrealist predecessors, as well as Abstract Expressionism’s postwar innovations, they reached out through their publication, Gutai, which they sent to interested parties abroad, including Pollock. The Pollock-Krasner House still has the copies he received in 1956, shortly before his death; one of them is in the Guggenheim show.
Gutai not only broke with conventional Japanese art, it also renounced the gravity of that heritage and opted for novelty and creative play. Judging by the evidence at the Guggenheim they had plenty of fun, but it was serious fun, not just amusement for its own sake. Gutai’s playfulness was an effort to engage people by intriguing them, drawing them in, getting them to let down their guard. It didn’t really work very well, at least not on a popular level. Much of the public remained skeptical, if not confused and even alienated by Gutai antics—all the more reason to cultivate an overseas audience that might be more familiar with, and receptive to, such methods. But Western critics didn’t get the joke, or appreciate the important cultural impetus behind it. Unable to see beyond its superficial resemblance to Dada, they largely dismissed Gutai art as derivative. Thanks to the Guggenheim’s long-overdue reappraisal, we can now appreciate the error of that judgment, as well as the full range of Gutai’s contribution to international modernism.
An Armory Show Homage to Duchamp
A hundred years ago today, New Yorkers were flocking to the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue to gawk, giggle and gasp at the International Exhibition of Modern Art. Of the roughly 1300 works by more than 300 European and American artists, one painting seemed to epitomize all that was aberrant in modernism: Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier No. 2. Ridiculed by the press as “The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway)” and “Explosion in a Shingle Factory,” Duchamp’s 1912 canvas quickly became the symbol of how the European “fakers” and “madmen” were trying to corrupt sane and sensible America. But the harder the critics knocked it the more the public clamored to see it, with as many as 12,000 piling in on March 15, the show’s closing day.
Today another Armory Show opens in New York, and although this international art fair did occupy the actual armory for two years, it’s now housed in piers on the Hudson. Unlike its predecessor, this update is a showcase for commercial dealers, one of whom, Francis M. Naumann, has mounted a tribute to Duchamp’s masterpiece. Naumann, a respected scholar and author of books on Duchamp and Dada, assembled a selection of responses, several of them created especially for the occasion. They range from direct quotes, including a couple by Duchamp himself, to flights of fancy (pun intended). “Nude Descending a Staircase: An Homage,” opened at Naumann’s 57th Street gallery on February 15. It will be on view at Pier 94 through Sunday, after which it will move back to the gallery through the end of the month.
Two multiple-exposure motion studies by Muybridge—although not his 1887 woman walking down stairs, which you can see animated on YouTube—introduce the concept of capturing movement in a static medium. The photographer Gjon Mili made a time-lapse version in 1942, and Duchamp was similarly photographed, albeit fully clothed, by Eliot Elisofon for a 1952 Life magazine article. A 21st century variant by D. James Dee uses a spiral staircase and a corpulent model who is billed as naked instead of nude, shifting the focus from the world of art to the real world. Similarly, Mel Ramos’ 1987 canvas is literally a painting of a naked young woman coming downstairs, looking directly and somewhat seductively at the viewer as if to say I’m here, I’m real, and I’m yours. In 75 Years Later Revisited, his reprise of a theme he first explored in 1988, Larry Rivers set his real-life lover, Daria Deshuk, in a cubistically fragmented space, making her the calm center of a gyrating environment.
The staircase rather than the nude gets top billing in Thomas Shannon’s Slinky Descendant un Escalier, where, as the title suggests, the toy substitutes for the figure, and Tetsuya Yamada’s Endless Staircase (Double Helix version), which channels both Duchamp and Brancusi. In Sophie Matisse’s canvas, the staircase seems to climb down itself, and Wim Delvoye re-imagines it as a cross between a twisted dump truck and a spiral of Gothic architecture.
Among the direct quotes, Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine bring their appropriationist sensibilities to bear on Duchamp’s icon. Bidlo’s handmade versions are meant to simulate studies by the master, while Levine’s group of identical postcards of the painting illustrates how a unique work of art becomes a “readymade” through mechanical reproduction. Examples of Duchamp’s own manipulated reproductions, in the form of pochoir multiples, indicate that he was equally capable of capitalizing on the painting’s fame.
Indeed, on the Armory Show’s 50th anniversary in 1963, Duchamp collaborated with the graphic designer Herbert Matter on a poster [left] for a reincarnation of the exhibition, which was held at the original venue. An example, signed by the artist, is included in the current show. At the time Duchamp was criticized for hogging the limelight, but the painting had by then become such a talisman of the Armory Show phenomenon that it’s hardly surprising the organizers chose to use it as the literal poster child. As a college art major I visited the anniversary exhibition a few times—I still have the 1913 button replicas they gave away—and could have bought one of those posters for $25. I almost did, but in those days that was a lot of money for a student to shell out, so I passed it up. A copy in good condition now sells for as much as $7,500.
Redefining Abstraction at MoMA
The premise of “Inventing Abstraction,” the current blockbuster survey at the Museum of Modern Art through April 15, is that “traditional art was wholly reinvented” in the early twentieth century. While I question the logic of that argument, since the Western art tradition was basically thrown under the bus, the exhibition itself is amazing, if inaccurately titled. (More on that later.) It not only musters a formidable array of paintings and sculptures from the breakthrough years 1910-1925, drawn from MoMA’s own stellar collection and many other sources, but it ranges across the arts to include innovations in music, poetry, dance, photography and cinema in Europe and the United States. Art luminaries share billing with lesser known, even obscure, colleagues, and while some critics have quibbled about individual exclusions the territory is thoroughly mapped—literally so in the show’s lobby, where a huge wall chart traces the multiple connections among the key players.
In this cavalcade of isms, starting with Cubism and proliferating into Futurism, Synchromism, Orphism, Rayonism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Neo-Plasticism, Vorticism, etc., etc., the show presents convincing evidence that modern artists were responding to radical advances in philosophy, science and technology, as well as shifting social and political conditions. To call the era revolutionary is an understatement, with World War I epitomizing the upheaval that led to the rejection of traditional values, not only in the arts.
The modernists’ manifestos proclaimed iconoclastic attitudes that were promoted in their publications and performances. Exhibitions like the Salon de la Section d’Or in Paris, Futurist shows in Rome and London,“0.10” in Petrograd, Salon 2 in Odessa and the Armory Show in New York, Boston and Chicago (celebrating its centenary this year) foisted their aberrations on a puzzled public, whose ears and sensibilities were assaulted by concerts of dissonant music and grotesque dances. Those were the days when such high jinx really could shock, and MoMA’s curators have assembled the proof of just how rapidly and widely the shock waves spread, with Paris as the seismic epicenter.
Notwithstanding the exhibition’s wealth of first-rate examples from this singular era, as well as its admirable inclusiveness, its title is hopelessly misleading. These artists did not invent abstraction, and some of them weren’t even abstractionists.
All cultures practice abstraction in one form or another, and have done so for millennia. Alphabets, numbers, musical notation, money—all are abstractions that have no inherent meaning outside their cultural context. They represent the essentials of communication, just as abstract art communicates essential qualities of aesthetic experience. Picasso’s contention that “you always have to begin with something” is often cited as proof that his art was never completely abstract, but in fact that’s exactly what abstraction is: it starts with something as a point of reference or inspiration and refines it to its essence.
As the European and American modernists were well aware, abstract art had been around for a long time before they got wise to it. The so-called primitive cultures proved to be gold mines of significant abstract forms that inspired Cubists and Surrealists alike. Folk art and tribal art were especially fruitful. These precedents may be acknowledged in the exhibition catalogue, which I haven’t read, but they are completely ignored in the copious gallery labels, which reinforce the wrongheaded notion that abstract art is a twentieth-century Eurocentric phenomenon.
The show also errs in applying the abstract label to work that clearly derives from a different impulse—not to essentialize, but to conceptualize. Pure chromatic and formal compositions and constructions are properly classed as non-objective art because they contain no tangible outside references, however minimal or disguised. To the non-objectivists, abstract art was the bastard offspring of representation. This pure-versus-impure debate has been going on for decades and deserves a fair hearing in an exhibition that aims to analyze “the language of the modern” in all its variety and complexity.
Artists in Love
According to the Symbolist poet Remy de Gourmont, “art is the accomplice of love.” In his essay, “Decadence,” he wrote: “Take love away and there is no longer art.” If only that were true! For proof that it isn’t, leaf through Veronica Kavass’ gorgeous new coffee-table book, Artists in Love, where you’ll find scant evidence of the creative flame dying when passion cools or the loved one departs. Among the 29 couples she profiles, in only one case does it appear that the loss of love triggered artistic stasis, and then only temporarily. After Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s accidental death, her grief-stricken husband paused then resumed a career that lasted another twenty years.
The book ranges widely through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, starting with Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter, who went their separate ways after a tumultuous affair, and ending with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, a married couple who collaborate on installations. It includes a few with local associations—like the Kabakovs, who live on the North Fork, and Susan Rothenberg, who had a house in Sag Harbor before moving to New Mexico when she married Bruce Nauman, as well as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Saul Steinberg and Hedda Sterne, and of course Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, whose photograph came from the Pollock-Krasner House collection. When Kavass contacted me to ask for it I was glad to comply, since I could hardly imagine a book on the subject that didn’t include them.
In addition to the other obvious candidates, like Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, Rivera and Kahlo, Picasso and Gilot, etc., there are some less famous but no less deserving inclusions: Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight (the only artists of color), Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, for example. Naturally there are omissions. In her introduction, Kavass explains that she was forced to leave out Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta when permission to reproduce their work was refused—not surprising, given the still-controversial nature of Mendieta’s death. (Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder.) Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz are also absent, as are the Starn Twins (brotherly love), and Newton and Helen (not this one) Harrison. The most unfortunate exclusion is Gilbert and George, the British duo who have created art jointly for more than 40 years. To her credit, Kavass does include two other gay couples, but if ever there were an argument for art, love and life merging, that pair makes it. Their work is unthinkable without their relationship.
Like Gilbert and George, some of the featured couples are known for collaborative ventures, notably Bernd and Hilla Becher, McDermott & McGough, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Brugen. In the latter two instances, Kavass points out that the female member of the team is (or was, as Jeanne-Claude died in 2009) more of a facilitator than an artist in her own right, and she’s positively catty in describing the Oldenburg-van Bruggen pairing: “Artist falls head over heels and wants to charm curator. He recreates his sculptures to her liking, under the same title, adding her name to it. Curator falls for him, marries artist, and takes over his career. What did he lose in this equation? Perhaps some pride. But otherwise, he had a ball.”
Kavass’ breezy text is peppered with occasional brickbats like that one. Her informal tone sometimes veers into snark, as when she dismisses the wealthy Surrealist painter Kay Sage as a “sugar mama” who was “completely gooey-eyed” over her husband Yves Tanguy, and describes Krasner as “Pollock’s ball-and-chain, someone [Peggy Guggenheim] had to talk through to get to Pollock.” Yes, these couples had troubled relationships, but they were also mutually supportive, often through tough times—Sage literally rescued Tanguy from the Nazis. But Kavass also comes up with some telling observations, as when Dorothea Tanning’s autobiography prompts her to imagine the artist as “a woman wrapped in velvet, resting supine on the grass, taking drags from a long ivory cigarette holder, letting the smoke shape the words.”
Interestingly, although not surprisingly, in only two cases is the female partner better known than the male, although you could argue that Kahlo has now pulled ahead of Rivera, at least in terms of critical opinion. The two in question are Eva Hesse, whose short, stormy marriage to sculptor Tom Doyle propelled her from painting to sculpture, and Marina Abramovic, the performance artist who credited her partnership with the mononymic Ulay for saving her from self-destruction. But even when the partnership was creative as well as romantic, the man is almost always the dominant figure. People who admire the designs of Charles and Ray Eames often assume that both were men, possibly brothers, rather than husband and wife.
In Artists in Love, however, the work of both sexes gets equally beautiful reproductions, many of them full page and in color, and expansively captioned. Each essay begins with a photograph of the couple, ranging from the stiff formality of the Kandinsky-Münter portrait, taken years after their affair ended, to Josef and Anni Albers’ affectionate embrace and Rothenberg and Nauman’s sweet smooching. Where they are concerned, you might agree with Gourmont that love and art are accomplices.
A Bellows Bonanza at the Met
George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most acclaimed American artists of his generation, yet there has not been a major retrospective of his work since 1966. Happily that situation has been remedied by the National Gallery of Art, which organized the outstanding show on view through February 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where Bellows was known to haunt the galleries during his student days and where his memorial show was held in 1925. For the first time in decades we can see the full range of Bellows’ stellar career, which was cut short by his premature death from peritonitis when he was 42.
Renowned as a painter of urban life, especially the gritty tenements, teeming streets and seedy prize-fighting clubs of New York City, the Columbus, Ohio native had Eastern Long Island roots. His father’s people came from Good Ground (Hampton Bays), and a relative, Daniel Bellows, owned a cooperage on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor in the 1840s. His mother was the daughter and granddaughter of Sag Harbor whaling captains, and the family often summered at Captain Davis’ house on Amity Street, where young George’s Aunt Fannie encouraged his artistic endeavors. Her faith was well placed.
In 1910 Bellows and his bride honeymooned in Montauk, where he sketched the lonely dwelling on the bluff in “Shore House.” The canvas was painted the following year, when he became one of the youngest artists in the Met’s collection. He was only 29 when the museum acquired his 1908 oil, “Up the Hudson,” which unaccountably is not in the exhibition. The show does include several other views of the Hudson River and Palisades, as well as scenes of strollers in Central Park and a fascinating series documenting the construction of Penn Station. Also on display are the famous oils and drawings of urchins swimming in the East River, brawling on the Lower East Side and generally living up to the popular image of urban riffraff. But while Bellows’ character studies sometimes cloy into stereotypes they are always vibrant, and handled with the skilful draftsmanship and painterly panache that earned him early election to the National Academy—at age 27, the youngest associate in its history.
Bellows was adept at traditional portraiture and landscape painting, but he is most celebrated as a member of the so-called Ashcan School—whose subjects were dismissed as vulgar, even borderline immoral, by genteel critics—yet somehow he managed to move with ease in respectable social circles. He contributed Daumier-like drawings to the socialist magazine The Masses, and produced a gruesome series of prints (in the spirit of Goya) based on accounts of German atrocities during World War I, while painting tender portraits of his wife and daughters in their comfortably bourgeois surroundings. He was on the planning committee for the 1913 Armory Show, a modernist extravaganza that challenged everything the Academy held dear, at the same time producing Winslow Homer-inspired studies of the rugged Maine coast. In short, Bellows was a walking contradiction, and apparently he knew it. He thought an artist should “Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive.”
For many Bellows fans, the paintings of boxers are his signature works, and three of them are here: “Club Night,” “Stag at Sharkey’s,” and “Dempsey and Firpo,” his last major oil, as well as related works on paper. But where is the National Gallery’s “Both Members of This Club,” a masterpiece of what might be termed realist action painting? Its slashing brushwork is perfectly suited to the scene of brutal combat between a white fighter and an African American. Why the National Gallery didn’t send it to New York is as curious at the Met’s failure to show “Up the Hudson.” [NOTE: the Met tells me that Chester Dale, the donor of “Both Members of This Club,” gave the painting to the National Gallery with the stipulation that it never be loaned. No explanation about “Up the Hudson.”] In any case, it’s interesting to compare the dynamism of the early prize-fighting scenes to “Dempsey and Firpo,” with its rather wooden treatment of the boxers’ figures. There’s actually a film of this legendary fight on YouTube, where you can watch Luis Firpo, known as the “Bull of the Pampas,” send Jack Dempsey through the ropes in Round 1. (Dempsey climbed back into the ring and won the bout.) Bellows was there at ringside, and he worked a self-portrait into the painting. Maybe a sharp-eyed viewer can spot him in the film.
At the Parrish, The Real Thing
When you visit the new Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, where selections from the permanent collection are (finally!) on display, you can be sure that the paintings signed “Wm. M. Chase” really are by William Merritt Chase. They were checked six ways from Sunday by Ronald G. Pisano, the museum’s former director and Chase curator. Until his untimely death in 2000, Ron studied Chase for nearly 30 years. He was both a connoisseur with an eye for quality and a scholar whose meticulous research is apparent in his posthumously published Chase catalogue raisonné, which records all the artist’s known works.
Ron’s task of separating the bona fide from the bogus was made harder by the fact that some contenders were painted by Chase’s students, who were trying to imitate him and often succeeded. And he had hundreds of students. At some point down the road, an unscrupulous owner or dealer would occasionally remove a student’s signature and replace it with Chase’s, or add his name to an unsigned painting. So the style would be right, the age of the canvas and paints correct, but the master himself never touched the picture.
Authentication issues have been much in the news lately, making us more aware than ever that as market values rise, so does the number of fakes. The problem is complicated when, as with Chase, a popular artist is widely copied during his or her lifetime. It became such a problem for Thomas Moran, whose Yellowstone paintings were much in demand, that late in life he took to adding a thumbprint to his signature. (Guild Hall owns a fine 1917 example.) Many artists keep inventories, but they may be incomplete or ambiguous, and dealers’ records can be frustratingly vague as well. It sometimes takes years of painstaking sleuthing to come up with authoritative documentation of an artist’s complete output, and there are always a few things that get missed. Fakers just love to fill in those gaps.
Sometimes it’s true that the owners simply aren’t aware of what they have or how valuable it is. Take the case of the Wisconsin couple who thought their van Gogh flower painting (at left) was a reproduction, but it turned out to be an original. Or the guy on a recent episode of Antiques Road Show who learned that a painting he’d bought for $2.50 at a farm auction is worth upwards of $75,000. It’s still possible to score big at a yard sale or flea market, and lost works do occasionally emerge from the shadows.
The widely publicized case of Knoedler Gallery’s cache of discredited paintings by some of the biggest names in 20th century American art—including Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning and Rothko—illustrates how previously unrecorded works can acquire an elaborate explanation of why they were missing for so long. The story went that a collector had bought them from a gallery employee behind the dealer’s back, and they were squirreled away until his heirs discovered them after his death. Suspended disbelief and wishful thinking, coupled with the blinding prospect of lots of cash, resulted in sales that were disputed when the paintings’ authenticity was questioned. The venerable Knoedler & Co., in business since 1852, was crushed under the weight of lawsuits and settlements, compounded by devastating press.
One reason the whole sorry business got as far as it did is the reluctance of experts to authenticate discoveries and to speak out about questionable works of art. Threatened with legal action if the owners don’t like their opinions, many of them just keep quiet. So it’s hard to get a credible judgment about a probable piece, much less a clear dismissal of a fake, even one that’s obvious to an expert. Nowadays it’s often left to scientific analysis to prove that the canvas is wrong, the paint is too new, and other so-called objective tests. Ironically, a recognized authority like Ron Pisano can spend a lifetime developing expertise that may land him in court when he uses it. Like the genuine paintings that can’t be acknowledged for fear of reprisal, connoisseurship like Ron’s is becoming a lost art.
Mike Solomon Makes His Mark
Mike Solomon’s art is, in his words, “rooted in materials and what they can do.” This means not only the physical properties and capabilities of his media, but how they can function to express his concepts in tangible form. Over the past six years, his two- and three-dimensional work—featured in a solo show that opens today at Salomon Contemporary in Chelsea—has explored the potential of wax, watercolor and resin as vehicles for a deeper understanding of the phenomena that fascinate him.
His longstanding devotion to watercolor, which he uses to record his observations of the ocean, with its rhythmic tides and translucent reflective surface, has evolved into an independent entity—a material in its own right, rather than a mimetic device. The ocean also inspired his series of wave-shaped fiberglass sculptures, which echo the flowing curves of surf without literally imitating them. It isn’t the wave per se, but the arching form that folds in on itself, the translucence of a curtain of water, and the dynamic forces that give the wave its structure, that Mike translates into art.
The shapes are made on armatures overlaid with netting that serves to measure and define those forces. Pulled this way and that, the netting’s grid pattern illustrates the wave’s twist and torque without losing its own fundamental character; Mike describes it as “a way of visualizing that energy.” It also illustrates how, in art as in nature, large complex structures are made of small building blocks. In fact the finished sculptures are pieces of larger shapes that the artist has edited, implying that they could continue to evolve the way a wave rolls along the shore.
This kind of conceptual momentum—animating art that is inherently static—is also fundamental to Mike’s watercolor and resin works. Exploring chromatic relationships through layering, he applies watercolor in horizontal and vertical strokes to mulberry paper (one translucent material on another) and saturates the paper with resin, which makes it nearly transparent. Then another sheet with another color is added, and the process is repeated until a sandwich of multiple layers is created. It’s an additive method, in which each new color interacts with those underneath, subtly changing its character without masking it.
The remarkable vibrancy and spatial ambiguity of Mike’s layered watercolors are functions of the media he has chosen. But those media are only tools. He uses them not for their own sake, but for the effects they allow him to achieve. They create optical blending while keeping the pigments separate, and the process itself enables him to be both spontaneous and deliberate as he develops his compositions. As the colors aggregate, the inherent grid structure becomes more apparent. The luminosity of the resin-saturated paper further emphasizes the color shifts that occur when brushstrokes overlap. “I’m not hiding what I did before,” Mike explains, “but I have a chance to make a new decision with each layer.”
These recent works are rooted in Mike’s earlier muslin paintings, with their interactive surfaces that simultaneously mask and expose what lies beneath. Like the resin watercolors, they combine two seemingly disparate techniques. “Putting the opposites together was what was so interesting to me,” he says. The underlying canvas is unstructured and free-flowing, painted wet on wet with poured pigment, while the muslin overlay is a grid-based wax drawing enlarged from a small study. Wax makes the drawing translucent, so the random color underneath peeks through the surface, and the regular pattern gives coherence to the composition.
Whatever the medium, all of Mike’s work invites contemplation and reflection. Some of it is literally reflective—light bounces off shiny resin and shimmering wax—and colors are activated by illumination that penetrates shallow but perceptible space. But these physical properties alone don’t account for its fascination. It is that extra, intangible element, going beyond the material’s sensuous appeal—what Mike calls “taking it to the next level”—that sets it apart. His art embodies fundamental qualities that he perceives in nature, for which he creates aesthetic analogies. Without imitating those qualities he captures their essence, pins it down and offers it as a gift to those who take the time to receive it.
Space Lessons at the Lyceum
“Shaping Space,” a selection of Hans Van de Bovenkamp’s bronze and steel sculptures, is on view through October 20 at the Lyceum Gallery at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern campus in Riverhead, newly relocated to the Montaukett Learning Resource Center. Although the pieces are made of metal, Hans calls them menhirs—the Breton word for standing stones—linking them conceptually to ancient megaliths like Stonehenge. The original purpose of those monuments is lost to history, but whatever their ritual or commemorative function, they are made of natural rock rooted in the earth. Much of their power and mystery derives from that relationship.
Anyone who has seen Hans’s steel sculptures peppered along Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton or visited his Sagaponack Sculpture Farm, where many of his large-scale pieces are installed on the grounds, will appreciate their kinship with their prehistoric forbears. Like the ancient menhirs, they frame and define the spaces around them. Yet there is a fundamental difference. As Hans interprets them, the menhirs are not earthbound. They seem to defy gravity and contradict the character of their material. Heavy metal is made to appear light, ponderous shapes cavort playfully, and what looks solid is mostly hollow.
One typical example occupies the lawn in front of the Montaukett building. “Siv’s Tiara,” a nine-foot piece in brushed stainless steel, is dedicated to Hans’s late wife, the poet and artist Siv Cedering who died in 2007. A gracefully curving stalk supports a slightly lopsided crown of eccentric letter-like shapes. From the ground it’s hard to tell, but I suspect they are melted versions of L-O-V-E. On the day I visited, brilliant sunshine animated the surface with flashing reflections, enhancing the effect of a jeweled corona. Although it’s consistent with Hans’s other steel monoliths, its memorial association sets it apart as a deeply personal statement. Inside the Lyceum Gallery, “Letter to my Mother,” is a more intimate tribute with a similar aim. It also uses calligraphic references to suggest communication with a loved one, preserving the heartfelt message in durable bronze.
The room’s centerpiece is “Oracle,” an eight-foot bronze roughly elliptical in shape, like the earth’s navel (omphalos) of ancient Greece. It’s composed of boxy elements, loosely analogous to the grid on the Delphic omphalos, that appear to jostle for position, as if trying to cohere into a proper ellipse. The tension that holds them in place symbolizes the oracle’s dynamic energy. But the slightly off-kilter balance suggests that the whole thing might just as easily fly apart as stick together. Whereas prehistoric menhirs appear inert, Hans’s modern interpretations seem to have been arrested in the act of morphing into something else.
The gallery also contains several small-scale pieces, some of which Hans has made in much larger versions. The tabletop size “Sagg Portal #10 Landscape,” for example, includes a bronze miniature of an 11-foot tall steel structure at Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey. It also proposes an environment that complements the portal or gateway, a landscaped setting in which the terrain and plantings are sculptural elements in their own right. It recalls Isamu Noguchi’s playground designs, with their combination of whimsical forms and interactive spaces, but in a more contemplative mood. By shaping not only the spatial presence of the sculpture itself but also that of the surrounding area, the artist seeks to create a unified experience.
Unfortunately the artist had no control over the space in the gallery. Its tall windows admit plenty of natural light, but that’s the most appealing feature of a room that is not well adapted as an exhibition space. In addition to intrusive furniture, it contains an ugly snack bar, inviting visitors to treat it as a lounge in which art is the décor rather than the raison d’être. A lyceum is a place of learning, and there’s a lesson here: art deserves more respect.
Mike Kelley’s Theater of the Absurd
For the current exhibition, “Mike Kelley 1954-2012,” which pays tribute to an artist who made his reputation as a self-described anarchist and hippie in the 1980s, the entire south wing of the Watermill Center has been transformed into a venue for Kelley’s video and installation art. In contrast to the cool formalism of Robert Wilson, the center’s founder and artistic director, Kelley’s is an art of excess, deliberately piling on the visual and auditory stimuli, physical and emotional obsessions, social and political critiques, not to mention heavy applications of postmodern irony and slapstick humor.
Selected by the German art collector Harald Falckenberg, the show surveys Kelley’s career from his days at CalArts, where he and his fellow students made performance videos and played together in rock bands, to the project he was working on at the time of his death (an apparent suicide) in January. Four galleries featuring videos are filled with overlapping soundtracks and thumping music by The Poetics, a band he formed in the late 1970s with Tony Oursler, his frequent collaborator. There are also earphones for specific sound tracks, which helps cut down on the aural confusion, but then sensory overload is all part of the package. You just have to go with it. There’s plenty of narrative content, but don’t expect a coherent story line.
Much of the content deals with social, sexual, religious and political themes, treated with mockery and theatrical exaggeration. In “Family Tyranny,” for example, Kelley and fellow artist Paul McCarthy engage in a parody of parental control and infantile rebellion that also refers to institutionalized force-feeding and torture. Lots and lots of unappetizing food, broken furniture, toys and old clothes come into play—there can’t have been a dumpster in Los Angeles that Kelley didn’t dive into. In “Heidi,” also made with McCarthy, masks and dolls play roles that blur the lines between love and hate, affection and aggression.
Far from being innovative, much of this anti-establishment nose-thumbing has its roots in Dada and Surrealist performance, codified in Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, and its post-World War II offspring, the Theater of the Absurd. Kelley’s final video project—the short title, “Vice Anglais,” refers to the English penchant for erotic spanking—could be the background action in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play “Marat/Sade.” There’s even a direct acknowledgment of Surrealist precedent in “Kappa,” a 1986 video collaboration that includes a clip from Buñuel and Dalí’s film,“Un Chien Andalou,” a classic made 57 years earlier. Kelley piles it on with more panache, overloads the special effects and does it in garish color, but his aesthetic is straight out of an avant-garde that led the countercultural charge a quarter century before he was born.
Kelley’s Kandor Project, on the other hand, is a genuine act of radical imagination, equal parts obsession, analysis and creative play. In the twelve years before his death, Kelley interpreted the fictional city of Kandor–capitol of the planet Krypton, the birthplace of Kal-El (a.k.a. Superman)–which was miniaturized and preserved in a bell jar. The project began with a 1999 video of an actor in a Superman costume reciting selections from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” as he contemplates a model of Kandor. Other aspects involved growing crystals, making architectural models, and commissioning what are said to be the largest bell jars ever made, in which various chemicals bubble and seethe.
The two galleries devoted to elements of the Kandor Project are both visually engaging and conceptually fascinating. Not only do they illustrate the power of pop culture to inspire and impel the imagination, they also acknowledge the absurdity of Kelley’s endeavor, which envisioned, among other fantasies, an international Kandor-themed convention modeled on Comic-Con. A banner detailing the convention’s budget contrasts the original $17,000 outlay with projected costs topping $10 billion, showing that Kelley was not afraid to turn a mocking eye on himself.
The exhibition, which will be on view through September 16, may be visited by appointment. For timed admission, go to http://watermillcenter.org/events/mikekelley19542012. A $20 donation is suggested.
The Power of Sculpture at Hayground School
When it comes to art, the power of playfulness is often discounted. Art should be serious, and we should approach it with respect and even reverence. Well, gravitas has its place, but sometimes art, even great art, can be fun. Alexander Calder may be the best-known artist whose sculpture is both sophisticated and whimsical, and Red Grooms certainly elicits a chuckle with his 3-D caricatures of urban life.
“Powerplay,” the current sculpture installation at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton, aims to take that attitude one step further by engaging children with sculptures peppered around the school’s 13-acre campus. Organized by The City Firm, a Chelsea-based art advisory service with connections to the East End, the project features work by 28 artists working with diverse materials. On opening day, July 14, a series of events and performances enhanced the overall theme of questioning “the value system of power and how it is interpreted within the American psyche.” For those who, like me, missed the occasion, there’s a YouTube video showing some of the day’s happenings. Apparently the idea was to have serious fun, mixing participatory activities with teaching and learning experiences.
Now that the dust has settled, what remains is a mixed bag of outdoor sculptures, some of which have not weathered well. When I visited, only a week after the official opening, several of the more ephemeral works were no longer in evidence. Matt Stone’s “Xithform” had lost its embellishments, “Pinwheel Park and Whirligigs,” an ambitious installation by Grant Haffner, Carly Haffner and Scott Gibbons (assisted by the Hayground Campers) was in disarray, with several pinwheels broken and other parts missing, and Matt Jones’ “Obelisk #1” had suffered the fate of some of its Egyptian forebears. But Mr. Jones’ other piece, “A Ruin,” a skeletal art gallery with a single painting on each wall, is anything but ruined. I take it as an ironic comment on art’s place in modern life, at the mercy of the elements and with little visible support.
The works that have stood up well are those made of durable materials, like welded metal. Joining Bill King’s family group on the main lawn are some witty entries, like Steve Heller’s “Fintasia,” a whacky rocket ship with a car tail light for a nose cone. (Mr. Heller’s “Cadillac,” a miniaturized version of the vintage tail-finned confection, is appropriately placed in the parking lot.) Also on the lawn are Willy Neumann’s “15 Minutes of Frame,” in which visitors can create their own tableaux vivant, Michael Chairello’s “Split Differences,” a linear interplay of calligraphic curves, and Gloria Kisch’s spidery constructions, “Copper Fusion” and “Golden Fusion,” that appear both organic and metallic at the same time. Jason Peters’ “When There Was Nothing, Now There is Something” makes clever use of plastic, a substance that’s all too durable in the environment. It’s a snaking loop of red and white paint buckets that unfortunately needs a lot of support to keep its shape. The crutches and guy wires detract from its graceful form, but the piece nevertheless makes the point that the artist’s imagination can transform even the most unpromising material.
Many of the “Powerplay” works use recycled or found objects, perhaps as a way of highlighting the exhibition’s theme of critiquing American values. What most people discard with impunity, artists often rescue and rehabilitate. But it seems to me that this high-minded purpose is not the project’s most important message. Regardless of what art is made of, what style it is or what idea it expresses, it should be part of everyday life, an essential element of our experience. Rather than teaching about art from secondary sources like books or slides, sculpture on the school grounds allows youngsters and adults alike to interact with it directly, question its meaning and purpose, and play with it in the most rewarding sense.
# # # #
Memory is the theme of the Summer 2012 issue of Voyeur, the Sag Harbor Express’ annual art and literary magazine, which features the following article:
Imagining the Man on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth
What color were his eyes? Jeffrey Potter couldn’t remember, and it bothered him. Not being able to recall such a fundamental thing about someone he observed closely over a period of several years was frustrating. It became a recurring question Potter asked many of the more than 150 people he interviewed for his 1985 book, “To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock.” Armed with a cassette recorder and a strong sense of purpose, Potter was determined to document as many reminiscences as he could before it was too late. He encouraged each person—whether a family member, close friend, neighbor, fellow artist or casual acquaintance—to describe the Pollock he or she knew. His aim was to do with words what Pollock did with paint: to create “memories arrested in space.”
For his own part, Potter had an advantage. He didn’t have to rely on memory alone, since he had actually taken notes of some of his conversations with Pollock. His small blue notebooks, as well as his interview tapes, comprise a precious trove of first-person testimony about the artist whose volatile personality and controversial painting technique have become the stuff of myth. Among the gems Potter jotted down refers to a comment by George Sid Miller, a scion of Springs’ oldest family, that got back to Pollock, and rang true. “He told someone I had a lot of noise in me and I got to let it out. Now, there is one smart Bonacker!”
Some people felt that Pollock let out his noise too often and too loudly, while others saw him as quiet and withdrawn. In many cases, their memories were colored by his condition. His dual nature was nicely summed up by Betty Parsons, an artist whose gallery represented Pollock from 1948-51: “Jackson was a very shy man when he wasn’t drinking, hardly opened his mouth; when he was drinking, he hardly ever closed it.” Echoing Miller, she observed, “he had a power, a force inside, that disturbed him.”
Potter’s oral history archive, preserved in the Pollock-Krasner Study Center, contains many such revealing recollections, far more than made it into his book. His tapes are now being digitized by Stony Brook University’s Media Lab. As extensive as they are, however, they aren’t the Study Center’s only sources of personal remembrances. From time to time, someone comes forward with information that adds a new dimension to the picture. One of my favorites is a written statement by Lillian Meyer Emanuel, sent in by her daughter in 2001. She was Pollock’s girlfriend in 1933, when they were in an art class at the Henry Street Settlement. Sixty-seven years later, she described their brief relationship:
“Jackson and I would walk hand in hand all over Greenwich Village, silently looking at buildings and birds flying up above. Sometimes he would take me to exhibits.” One of their dates was a visit to the New Workers’ School, to watch Diego Rivera paint fresco panels. She particularly remembered Pollock’s disheveled appearance. “He had two shirts and pants he would alternate wearing every day,” she recalled. “They were washed, never ironed, and always wrinkled.” Their romance ended when she snubbed him in front of friends (“I was frankly ashamed of his wrinkled clothing”), and he became angry. Nostalgically, she concluded, “I remember him well, with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. He was a western man and I was an easterner from Brooklyn. He did attract and fascinate me.”
Another favorite came from a Pollock-Krasner House visitor, Joan Schreder, who was a student at the City and Country School in 1934, when Pollock worked there. Received wisdom has him as a janitor, but Ms. Schreder remembers him as “a special teacher of drawing and painting” who worked with the 8th grade class on “a series of murals to be sketched and painted on large brown paper, depicting the opening of the U.S. Western states to settlement.” This revelation, which she contributed to the Study Center in 2006, casts the 22 year-old fledgling artist in a whole new light:
“Pollock, as a teacher, commanded respect and undivided attention—dressed casually as he was in cowboy jeans and boots.” Fresh from his training with the muralist Thomas Hart Benton, he “demonstrated how to create three dimensional shapes using shading with charcoal. Next step: extending the process with dark to light poster paint colors. The effects were impressive. Pollock’s teaching transformed our school’s drab walls.”
Recollections like these illustrate how important it is to gather and preserve personal accounts, intangible evidence that enriches the historical record. Verifiable facts and hard documentation are essential, but as the scholar Carl Becker observed, “history is the memory of things said and done.” Also, I would add, of things seen—in this case, one man seen through the eyes of those who knew him. And speaking of eyes, what color were Pollock’s? Here’s where the documents come in handy when memory fails. According to his passport (issued in 1955 but never used), they were hazel.
July is a Fair Month for Art
Summer is the slow season for New York City art galleries. They generally hang a selection from the inventory and go on autopilot. Next month, many of them will be heading to the Hamptons, but not on vacation. Together with colleagues from Europe, Asia and several other cities in the U.S., they’ll be manning booths at no fewer than three art fairs.
The first (also the oldest and, with 75 international dealers in modern and contemporary art, the largest) is ArtHamptons, opening its fifth season on July 13, at Nova’s Ark in Bridgehampton. The following week, on July 20, a spinoff venture known as artMRKT Hamptons is back for a second season at the Bridge Hampton Historical Society, with 40 galleries specializing in contemporary American art. A week later, on July 27, Art Southampton premiers on the grounds of the Elks Lodge, where 50 modern and contemporary art galleries from several countries will hang out their shingles.
In addition to their mercantile function, these extravaganzas also have a charitable side. Each one will hold a Thursday evening preview party to benefit a local non-profit. ArtHamptons will raise funds for LongHouse Reserve, artMRKT Hamptons for the Parrish Art Museum, and Art Southampton for Southampton Hospital. Other non-profits—including my own organization—will also reap rewards from the various VIP receptions, celebrity photo ops, award ceremonies, and other special events. Each fair’s calendar is brimming over with enough activities to keep your dance card filled for the duration.
Participants from London, Paris, Munich, Helsinki, Beijing, Seoul and Tel Aviv will camp out with colleagues hailing from Massachusetts to California, as well as scores of New Yorkers. Among the dealers with local addresses are Karen Boltax on Shelter Island, Kathryn Markel in Bridgehampton, and Eric Firestone from East Hampton. There are even a few overlaps, as if one fair in the Hamptons weren’t enough for some dealers. For example, two Florida galleries, Mindy Solomon from St. Petersburg and 101/Miami, are at artMRKT Hamptons and Art Southampton; New York’s Anita Shapolsky Gallery is at ArtHamptons and Art Southampton; and Richard J. Demato Fine Art, a Sag Harbor gallery, will show at ArtHamptons and artMRKT Hamptons.
It’s obvious why galleries from Manhattan and farther afield might want exposure to the well-heeled Hamptons clientele, but why would locals participate? The art business out here is notoriously spotty, with far more browsers than buyers. By taking the goods to an art supermarket, you’d hope to attract purposeful shoppers. Like the gallery district in Chelsea, there’s an advantage to clustering with the competition. And since the setup is temporary, the competitive element is enhanced—not to the spine-tingling pitch of an auction, but well above the leisurely pace of most gallery-goers in the Hamptons. If you spot a bargain, you should grab it before someone else does. If you want to snap up a cutting-edge trophy, you’d better hurry because the tent folds in three days.
Come July, however, you’ll have a few chances to find that bargain or snag that trophy. No sooner does one fair end than another begins, and not only in this neighborhood. The new normal has some dealers on the road virtually year-round, taking their wares to the customers in a less formal (that is, less intimidating) atmosphere. The fairs are also see-and-be-seen social occasions, complete with live entertainment and the frisson of excitement generated by a crowd. According to The Art Newspaper, there are now more than 190 art expos worldwide, nearly triple the number only seven years ago. This proliferation, as the article puts it, is “the most significant change in the market since the turn of the century,” partly in answer to the explosive growth of auction sales, and also as “a way of extending a gallery’s global reach” in an increasingly international market. Such outreach can account for as much as 50% of a gallery’s annual sales.
So what’s happening here next month is a microcosm of a trend that’s changing the way art is marketed. The gallery has become a road show, and acquisition is now a spectator sport.
Van Gogh: The Life—Not a Beach Book
More than a decade in the making, “Van Gogh: The Life,” (Random House, 2011) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith is the antithesis of light reading, at least in terms of bulk. Weighing in at three pounds and running to 950 pages, the book aims to probe more deeply than ever before into the troubled personality and transcendent achievements of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the 19th century’s stereotypical crazy artist. Their previous heavyweight biography, “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990, tackled the 20th century’s poster boy for that category. Comparisons are inevitable, and in fact the authors themselves made them at Stony Brook Southampton in 2008, when they discussed their research methods for both books and outlined the similarities and differences between their two subjects.
As for the differences, whereas Naifeh and Smith were able to interview numerous people who knew Pollock, there were no survivors among Vincent’s contemporaries. And while Pollock left few written or oral statements, Vincent was a prolific and eloquent letter writer whose correspondence provides the backbone of their book. In their talk, they noted that a new edition of the letters was forthcoming from the Van Gogh Museum, and that it would include much previously unpublished material. Drawing on this resource, and employing a team of researchers who scoured archives in several countries, they were confident that they could shed new light on an artist whose reputation, like Pollock’s, had been distorted into a pop-culture cliché.
As they did with Pollock, Naifeh and Smith have uncovered, scrutinized and evaluated an enormous amount of material, ranging far more broadly than previous van Gogh biographers. You might expect the result to be a reading experience as heavy as the book itself. On the contrary, the story is engaging, well paced and beautifully told, with much more perceptive attention to Vincent’s art than was devoted to Pollock’s. The pages are peppered with drawings, and 32 color reproductions survey the late masterpieces, which are discussed in depth. But the book is first and foremost the story of Vincent’s life, which began in provincial Holland and ended in Auvers-sur-Oise in France, where he died from a gunshot wound that may or may not have been self-inflicted. Questions surrounding his death are raised in the book’s appendix, and have assumed disproportionate prominence in media coverage. Suffice it to say that Naifeh and Smith make a good lawyerly case for an accidental killing rather than suicide, although other authorities maintain that, 120 years after the fact, the jury is likely to remain permanently out.
For all the detail the authors have mustered, there is one curious omission. Early on it was clear that Vincent was an unstable character, a misfit who veered from one enthusiasm to another in a painful effort to find meaning and purpose in life. The extent to which his problems were psychological, medical, or a combination of the two, is a primary theme, but although Naifeh and Smith mention that he was diagnosed with syphilis, and describe in detail how that disease destroyed his younger brother Theo, they do not discuss its contribution to Vincent’s mental and physical decline.
Four years Vincent’s junior, Theo was his brother’s financial and emotional supporter from 1880 on, which made for a problematic and sometimes volatile relationship. Naifeh and Smith quote extensively from their correspondence, harping on Vincent’s demands for money and complaints about Theo’s stinginess. They also put a negative spin on many statements that could be interpreted more favorably. For example, they read Vincent’s desire for financial success—surely a positive attitude, in light of his dependence on Theo’s handouts—as “mercenary,” and his disappointment at Gauguin’s reluctance to join him in Arles as childish petulance instead of the understandable frustration of a thwarted longing for creative stimulation. It seems that, as with Pollock, the more Naifeh and Smith learned about Vincent the less they sympathized with him. Apart from size, that may be what the two biographies have most in common.
Déjà vu at the Whitney
Every two years the Whitney Museum of American Art fills its galleries with what’s billed as a survey of current trends, including work by established and emerging artists. This is a show that’s routinely scorned by the critics, but not this time around. Encouraged by Roberta Smith’s rave review in The New York Times, as well as a favorable writeup in New York magazine by her husband, Jerry Saltz, I approached the current Whitney biennial optimistically. I came away wondering if I’d stumbled into the wrong museum.
Anyone hoping for something fresh and original will be sadly disappointed. Not that art has to be fresh and original to be good, but after reading descriptions like “new and exhilarating” (Smith), “a forest of good signs” (Saltz) and “visually entertaining as well as thought provoking” (Emily Nathan on Artnet), one might expect some innovations. Instead, to me at least, the show is more like a demonstration of how to reinvent the wheel. A stroll through the galleries is a walk down memory lane. Tom Thayer’s video reprises Len Lye’s experimental films from the 1930s, and Luther Price’s hand-manipulated 35mm slides hark back to Ibram Lassaw’s similar experiments in the 1940s. Richard Hawkins goes straight to the art history books for his collages (based on Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh-fu notebooks), which quote everyone from Gustave Moreau to Francis Bacon. Joanna Malinowska’s cryptically titled From the Canyons to the Stars is a large-scale reworking, in faux ivory and horn, of Duchamp’s bottle-rack readymade, as if such a droll commentary on originality in art needed further elaboration. Lutz Bacher dispenses with creativity altogether by framing up pages from a book of celestial formations. Her randomly-played Yamaha organ is a shade more interesting, although the shade is that of John Cage.
I confess that I didn’t sit through all the video and performance pieces—the “open rehearsal” by Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players that occupied most of the fourth floor on the day I was there was all I could take. It was about as interesting as watching paint dry, which you can do on the third floor, where electric fans are gradually evaporating Sam Lewitt’s “Fluid Employment.” I did stop in to see Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul. A leader of the New German Cinema who now lives in Los Angeles, Herzog has made a bombastic tribute to Hercules Segers, a very minor 16th century Dutch landscapist, whose work he presents in slide form with dramatic musical accompaniment. According to Herzog, Segers is an unrecognized genius and pioneering modernist, but I think he’s kidding. At least I hope so. A little humor is welcome in this otherwise very earnest show.
Narcissism is a sub-theme, nowhere more so than in Dawn Kasper’s installation, This Could Be Something If I Let It. The artist has moved all her stuff into the museum, and her artwork is herself spending time with it. Similarly, on the fifth floor mezzanine, Georgia Sagri has assembled a bunch of self-referential objects that have little interest to anyone but Sagri. This type of navel-gazing has been done before, and better, by performance artists like Marina Abramovic and Colette, whose tableau-vivant environments comment more broadly on gender roles, not just on first-person issues.
Call me reactionary, but the work I actually enjoyed is pretty conventional, which is not to say that it isn’t original. Nicole Eisenman’s monotype portraits don’t break any new ground technically, but each one is a singular examination of a particular subject. Eisenman is an abstract artist in the literal meaning of that term, probing the essence of what she observes. In a more formalist vein, Andrew Massulo’s small paintings follow a traditional path, using strong colors, eccentric shapes and stark contrasts to create lively, intriguing images. Both artists have managed to make novel work within established guidelines. But if you want something really subjective, go into the second floor room devoted to Forrest Bess. Not surprisingly, Massulo is a fan and a collector of his work. In a mini-retrospective assembled by the artist Robert Gober, this supremely odd painter expressed an inner vision that is at once familiarly “primitive” and totally unique. Bess, who died 35 years ago, seems more avant-garde than most of the Whitney’s live ones.
What’s Public is Private
While Larry Rivers’ legs continue to dance around the question of what is and isn’t art, I got to thinking about what is and isn’t public art. When you take a look around the East End, almost all the sculpture on public display is in fact privately owned and, like the legs, located on private property. In a region that’s world famous for its arts community, it’s odd that there are no officially sponsored public art programs.
Both the Parrish Art Museum and Guild Hall display sculpture in their gardens, but neither is a municipal museum. In the Parrish’s case, Southampton village owns the real estate, but the museum’s governance is private. You could argue that, as part of the original Parrish collection that was donated with the building, the colonnade of Roman emperors gracing the east garden, as well as the della Robbia knockoffs on the outside walls, are village owned artworks on public display, but that could hardly be considered public art patronage. In the west garden, Mel Kendrick’s jacks, a temporary sculpture installation sponsored by the Mary Boone Gallery, is a private project, as was Guild Hall’s display of a Willem de Kooning bronze, which sat on the East Hampton museum’s front lawn for several years, replacing a Tony Rosenthal cube that Guild Hall commissioned in 1972.
If you want to see a de Kooning bronze in East Hampton today, you won’t find it on town or village property. But if you go to LongHouse Reserve on Hands Creek Road (open by appointment at this time of year), you’ll get a whopper of a de Kooning reclining figure, and a wealth of sculpture by such luminaries as Lynda Benglis, Carl Andre, Dale Chihuli, Eric Fischl, Sol LeWitt and Yoko Ono as well. To enjoy the dynamic engineering of a signature Mark di Suvero, visit the Ross School campus on Goodfriend Drive and head for the tennis center, where his 32-foot tall steel sculpture was installed in 2009. You can also catch a glimpse of a smaller di Suvero on the lawn of the Riggio estate—private, of course—on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton, which also boasts Richard Serra’s Sidewinder, an amazing double wall of Cor-ten steel
that reportedly weighs in at 300 tons but curves as gracefully as ribbon.
From internationally renowned artists like de Kooning, di Suvero and Serra to Theophilus A. Brouwer, Jr. is, I admit, a long stretch, as is the drive from Sag Harbor to Westhampton on a summer afternoon. But the off-season is a good time to check out Casa Basso, the restaurant that has occupied Brouwer’s eccentric property, Pine-Wold Park, since 1928. Drive down that section of Montauk Highway and you’ll be confronted by a mock castle, which was Brouwer’s pottery studio in the early 20th century. Out front are a rearing white stallion, a golden lion, and a pair of 12-foot tall costumed swordsmen that would look at home in Disney World. Brouwer created all this and more in carved and painted cement, and his fantasy is lovingly maintained by the restaurant—yet another instance of privately owned public art.
Of course the most conspicuous example is Linda Scott’s Stargazer, the unofficial gateway to the Hamptons, which was erected in a field off County Route 111 in 1991. The bright red, 70 by 50 foot stylized head of an antlered deer looking up at the sky was commissioned for the entrance to the Animal Rescue Fund’s headquarters near East Hampton airport. When the town, citing safety concerns, failed to give permission for its installation there, the artist found a home for it on Harvey Pollock’s Manorville farm. For the past couple of years, the Hampton Jitney has sponsored the steel, plywood and stucco icon, featuring Stargazer on two bus wraps. Unfortunately, like many outdoor sculptures it’s a bird magnet, and their droppings don’t exactly improve its aesthetic appeal, so Sherwin Williams has donated paint to keep it looking fresh. Once again, private patrons have taken responsibility for a work of art that enhances our shared environment.
So to those deciding the fate of Larry’s legs I say, if our local government isn’t willing to sponsor public art, it should at least encourage those who are.
Choice Chamberlains at the Guggenheim
If Larry Rivers hadn’t bought welding equipment and started fooling around with scrap metal sculpture in 1957, if there hadn’t been a rusting jalopy in Larry’s yard in Southampton, and if John Chamberlain hadn’t visited Larry’s place that summer, there would not be a retrospective exhibition of Chamberlain’s sculpture at the Guggenheim Museum right now. It goes to show how circumstances—in this case, three happy coincidences—sometimes change the course of an artist’s career.
By the time he settled into a huge studio on Shelter Island in 2000, Chamberlain was internationally renowned as the sculptor whose art looked like the aftermath of a demolition derby, although he insisted that his work had nothing to do with car wrecks. He was already working with welded scrap metal when he flattened a couple of fenders from Larry’s 1929 Ford and added some twisted steel rods to create “Shortstop.” That was his first use of the automobile components that became his signature material. Like his earlier sculpture, “Shortstop” pays homage to David Smith, but it also joins the ranks of three-dimensional art made of utilitarian found objects that hark back to Duchamp and Schwitters. When two of Chamberlain’s pieces were included in MoMA’s 1961 survey, “The Art of Assemblage,” they fit right in with their Dada predecessors.
But the crushed automobiles, which implied a commentary on American car culture, pigeonholed Chamberlain with the Pop artists of his generation. The current exhibition, on view through May 13, shows that to have been misguided. He was, above all, a formalist whose main preoccupation was with the plastic and chromatic potential of the material at hand. As he once said, “I’m more interested in seeing what the material tells me than in imposing my will on it.” The fact that it was prefabricated and often prefinished seems to have challenged him to deconstruct and reconstruct whatever it might be, from vintage cars to kitchen cabinets, Tonka toys, cookie tins and urethane foam padding.
The Guggenheim’s notoriously problematic inclined ramp is remarkably sympathetic to Chamberlain’s sculptures—all the more so because, even on a flat surface, they often seem to be precariously balanced. The tension created by the incongruity of spritely forms made of heavy metallic components is one of his work’s chief delights. And the variety of colors and textures, with gleaming chromed bumpers accenting towers of cracked and crumpled bodywork, sometimes embellished with splashed and dripped enamel paint, reinforces the notion that the materials’ automotive implications are beside the point. It also has led to another misconception, that he was a sort of abstract expressionist painter who happened to work in three dimensions. On the contrary, his work is inherently sculptural, defined by mass and volume rather than surface. If there is a kinship, it’s with abstract expressionism’s improvisational character. And the Dada affinity is at play in his titles, many of them taken from his random collection of words he found intriguing.
The roughly one hundred examples have been picked very judiciously to show off Chamberlain’s versatility and inventiveness. The centerpiece is SPHINXGRIN TWO, a six-legged, 16-foot tall structure of twisted aluminum, based on a tiny 1986 foil maquette, that does the cha-cha in the rotunda. It wasn’t until 2010—a year before his death—that he found the technical means to fabricate the towering piece he envisioned. His digressions into photography and film making are absent, and the repetitious rut into which he slipped in the 1980s is not in evidence. The exhibition’s title, “John Chamberlain: Choices,” refers to the artist’s decision-making tactics, but it’s just as applicable to the Guggenheim’s shrewd selection process.
Digging for Gold in the Archives
When the Archives of American Art invited me to be the guest curator of a show celebrating Jackson Pollock’s 100th birthday, I jumped at the chance to dig into the original documents. His personal papers, which were donated to the Archives by his widow, Lee Krasner, have been digitized and are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, but the exhibition’s purpose is to display the actual stuff. There’s nothing like the real things to take you into the artist’s world—the family snapshots, the personal notes, the scrapbooks, the mementoes of a short but enormously influential life and career. There was one drawback, however: the collection is in Washington, DC, quite a curatorial commute from Sag Harbor. But by traveling to the material on line, I was able to make a preliminary selection, so I knew what I was looking for when I got to the Archives and hit the boxes.
I was eager to find one particular document that’s often been reproduced and quoted. The original is filed under “Photographs” instead of where it belongs, in “Notes by Pollock,” because it’s pasted on the back of a Hans Namuth portrait of the artist. It’s a handwritten statement, actually a series of phrases summarizing his intentions, which probably dates from 1950. One phrase, “memories arrested in space,” gave me the exhibition’s title; another, “energy and motion made visible,” was used by B.H. Friedman to subtitle his Pollock biography. The paper is good quality, the words are elegantly arranged on the page, and the document is signed, as if Pollock meant it to be official. It neatly and concisely says, “this is what I’m trying to do, this is what my art is about.” Pollock was said to be inarticulate regarding his work, but this piece of paper contradicts that notion.
In a file labeled “Fan Mail to Pollock,” I spotted a letter from a woman named Helen K. Sellers of Charleston, SC, written on August 8, 1949. That was the publication date of the now-famous Life magazine article on Pollock, headlined, “Is he the greatest living
painter in the United States?” Mrs. Sellers wrote on behalf of her seven year-old son Manning, who loved one of the paintings in the Life color spread, the long canvas identified as Number Nine. (It’s now called Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, and it’s in the Tate Modern in London.) Manning asked her to tell Pollock that he’d put it in his scrapbook, “the first painting that he has ever cut out,” and that he wanted the artist to have his picture in exchange—not a painting, but a photograph of him with his cocker spaniel, Snafu. I’ll bet Pollock never had a more heartfelt and sincere tribute. He kept the letter and the photo, and there they were, 63 years later, in the fan mail file.
Well, Manning may have fallen in love with Number Nine, but I fell in love with Manning and Snafu. Not only did I want the documents in the show, but I thought that Manning would like to know about it. Again thanks to the Internet I was able to track him down in Florida. He was surprised to hear from me, and thrilled to learn that his fan letter has survived—although Snafu has long since gone to that great dog park in the sky.
“Memories Arrested in Space: a centennial tribute to Jackson Pollock from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” opened on January 28, the 100th anniversary of Pollock’s birth, and will be on view through May 15 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, Donald W. Reynolds Center, 8th and F Streets, NW, Washington, D.C. Sample the exhibition at: www.aaa.si.edu/exhibitions/memories-arrested.
Still Controversial After All These Years
Denver’s new Clyfford Still Museum [right] has been praised for its sympathetic design and its inaugural exhibition, which places Still in the forefront of Abstract Expressionism—all the more intriguing because much of his work has never before been exhibited publicly. After turning his back on the New York art world in 1961, he hoarded more than 90% of his total output, which remained in his Maryland home at the time of his death in 1980. Owing to the stipulations in his will, it’s taken more than 30 years to bring his estate to light. But the achievement is fraught with compromises that no doubt would have outraged that most uncompromising of artists.
Still, who spent two summers working in East Hampton in the mid 1950s, had very specific ideas about how and where his art should be shown, as well as a cynical view of the art world’s motives and machinations. He considered painting to be an act of social defiance and spiritual liberation—not so much the creation of an image as the expression of “freedom, intrinsic and absolute,” devoid of any mundane similes or analogies. In 1959, when Dorothy Seiberling wrote a Life magazine article that compared his jagged motifs to flickering flames, she received a scathing letter from Still denouncing her interpretation in highly unflattering terms. Alienating Life’s art editor was not a good career move, but alienation was Still’s default mode.
A couple of years earlier, he had turned on his friend and fellow artist Alfonso Ossorio, who was also a major collector of his work. In 1953 and 1955, Still had summered at Ossorio’s Georgica estate, The Creeks, where seven of his paintings resided. For reasons that remain unclear, Still demanded one of them back. (The report was that Ossorio had agreed to lend it to an exhibition he disapproved of.) When Ossorio refused to hand over the painting, Still showed up at The Creeks, cut it out of its frame with a knife, stuffed it under his coat and made his escape in a waiting taxi.
It surprised no one that Still wanted to control his legacy from beyond the grave. His will offered the collection to any city that agreed to create a museum for it, “with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged.” There were to be no loans, no works by other artists, no cafeteria and no gift shop. In spite of these severe restrictions, several cities courted his widow, Patricia, who finally chose Denver in 2004. When she died the following year, she left her own collection of Still paintings and archives to the proposed museum, evidently believing that Denver would honor both the logistical limitations and the injunction to keep the estate intact.
But building a museum is one thing, and running it is another. In order to establish an endowment, four paintings from the bequest were auctioned off, raising more than $100 million. As reported by ARTnews, the sale was made possible by a Maryland court ruling that opens the door for future deaccessioning if operating funds run low. Also, to make up for the lack of income from a café and shop, the entire museum is available for party rentals. The sales pitch is: “Some events beg for somewhere different. Somewhere refined and intimate. Somewhere unlike any other place in the world.” The Web site shows guests socializing in the galleries, as oblivious to the paintings as the boozers and schmoozers at Chelsea openings. Still, who considered museums the “gas chambers of culture,” might want to revise that opinion regarding his eponymous shrine. The catering hall of culture would be more accurate.
Rivera’s New York Winter Returns
Eighty years ago this month, the fledgling Museum of Modern Art opened a solo show devoted to Diego Rivera [right], described in the New York Sun as “the most talked about artist on this side of the Atlantic.” To commemorate that occasion, MoMA has reassembled a selection of the frescoes he painted for the exhibition, together with supporting material. Although it’s far from complete—only five of the eight so-called portable murals are on view—the current show (through May 14) and its excellent catalogue make it clear why Rivera and his art were so notorious, as well as illustrating his relevance today.
Celebrated for acres of murals in his native Mexico, Rivera was a supersize personality with a talent for self-promotion that rivaled his artistic gifts. By the time he arrived in Gotham in November 1931 to prepare for his MoMA exhibition, he had generated more ink than a giant squid. His recent expulsion from the Communist Party (he took money from capitalist patrons, and even worse, dared to criticize Stalin) made him a cause célèbre on the left, and his announcement that he would paint fresco panels at the museum sparked the general public’s interest. They had read about his marvelous murals in Mexico City, Cuernavaca and San Francisco, where people could watch him at work on the scaffold like an American incarnation of Michelangelo, and wanted to see the performance for themselves.
For its part, MoMA was looking for a crowd-pleaser. Opened only two weeks after the 1929 stock market crash, and already viewed as a plaything of those we now call the 1%, the museum was still struggling to find its audience. Rivera’s international renown and devotion to “art for the masses,” plus the popularity of Mexican folk art and crafts, helped redirect traffic that normally bypassed the museum’s first home in the Heckscher Building.
Notwithstanding the disappointment that Rivera painted his frescoes in a makeshift studio that was closed to the public, the show was a hit. He completed five panels in time for the December 23rd opening, and finished three more during the exhibition’s run. Four of them are details of his Mexican murals, and one is an original composition dealing with the repression of workers during the recent Mexican revolution. The last three were inspired by his impressions of New York City, where, in spite of the worsening economy, a building boom was in progress. The Empire State, Irving Trust, McGraw-Hill and Chrysler Buildings were brand new, and Rockefeller Center was under construction. These and other American Century landmarks found their way into “Frozen Assets” [right], the most famous of his MoMA frescoes. (Since the Rockefellers, major MoMA patrons, were paying Rivera’s bills, it’s hardly surprising that Rock Center is prominently featured.) The painting now belongs to the museum in the former home of one of his Mexican mistresses, Dolores Olmedo, but for this occasion it has returned to the city of its birth.
It’s a timely visit, to be sure. The three-tiered composition—monolithic skyscrapers looming over a human warehouse of homeless people laid out like corpses on a municipal pier, below which a wealthy few visit their heavily guarded safe deposit boxes—could be, as they say, ripped from today’s headlines. Compared to Rivera’s colorful slices of Mexican life, filled with vivid personalities and drama, this fresco is dull and static, but that’s in keeping with the elaborate visual metaphor. Construction cranes abound, straphangers crowd the el, but the city is strangely paralyzed. Even the plutocrat—who, patronage be damned, looks a lot like a Rockefeller—waiting to count his stash seems to be in a trance. It’s as if everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop, which it did the following July, when the stock market hit bottom.
Whether Rivera actually said “I paint what I see,” a quote famously ascribed to him by E.B. White, from today’s perspective his vision of “Frozen Assets” was 20-20. In the winter of 1931-32, the economic temperature was low and falling. Eight decades on, we’re in the grip of another cold spell.
Jackson in Japan
Today I find myself in the port city of Nagoya, Japan, capital of Aichi Prefecture. Seaweed for breakfast, smart toilets—I’m definitely not in Sag Harbor anymore. Fascinating as it may be, Nagoya isn’t one of the country`s top tourist destinations. Japan’s third largest city, it was heavily bombed during World War II and built back up along strictly practical lines, without much of an eye to architectural distinction. People who aren’t headed here on business usually pass through on the way from Tokyo to Kyoto. But from now until January 22, Nagoya will be a premier attraction for modern art enthusiasts from around the world. They’ll be headed to the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art to see “Jackson Pollock: A Centennial Retrospective,” the largest exhibition of his work ever mounted in Asia.
The occasion is the one hundredth anniversary of Pollock’s birth, which actually falls on January 28, 2012, but Nagoya has kicked off the celebrations a bit early. For the actual birth year, the show will travel to Tokyo. Organized by Aichi Museum curator Tetsuya Oshima, it includes over 60 paintings and works on paper, as well as Pollock’s only mosaic, personal memorabilia, and a full-scale replica of his Springs studio (which will not travel to Tokyo), complete with a photographic reproduction of his paint-spattered floor.
I’m here because the Pollock-Krasner House is lending the only Pollock painting we own, an early work that shows the influence of Native American art, the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco, and Picasso. We’re also lending artifacts from the studio—paint cans, strips of colored glass left over from the mosaic, the human skull he reportedly stole from the Art Students League prop cabinet—and the Hans Namuth films of him at work. The idea is to amplify the art by pairing it with evidence of the creative process. In New York, the Springs studio and the paintings in MoMA and the Met that were made there are a hundred miles apart, but here in Nagoya they’re in adjoining rooms.
Tetsuya, who got his doctorate from the CUNY Graduate Center with a dissertation on Pollock, has scored major loans from those and other US collections, from several other countries, including Australia, Switzerland, Germany and England, and from collections here in Japan. Star of the show is one of Pollock’s two mural commissions, a masterpiece painted in 1950 for a house designed by Marcel Breuer in Lawrence, Long Island, and now in the collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Acquired in the 1970s under the Shah’s regime, the 6 by 8 foot canvas hasn’t been seen outside Iran since the revolution. Getting it here was a real curatorial and diplomatic coup. Needless to say, it won’t be coming to the US any time soon, so if you want to see it you’d better book your flight to Japan.
In fact no American museum will be mounting such a wide-ranging survey in honor of Pollock’s centenary. (Our own show, opening next August, will focus on his kinship with Orozco.) But considering the high regard in which Pollock is held in Japan and his influence on the development of modern art here, you could hardly ask for a more appropriate place to hold his 100th birthday party.
East End Abstractionists Take New York
Just a few blocks from each other in midtown Manhattan, two galleries are currently showcasing abstract paintings and sculpture by members of the eastern Long Island artists’ community. At 724 Fifth Avenue, David Findlay Jr. Gallery’s new location, “East End: Artists of the Hamptons” focuses on nine of them, while Spanierman Gallery, at 45 East 58th Street, is showing eleven painters, several with local addresses, under the rubric “Abstract Expressionism and Its Legacy.”
Among them are Mary Abbott, Herman Cherry, Perle Fine, Gertrude Greene, Ibram Lassaw, John Little, Kyle Morris, John Opper, Alfonso Ossorio, Charlotte Park, Betty Parsons, Philip Pavia, Robert Richenburg and David Slivka. One, the painter John Ferren, is in both shows. Sadly, most are now permanent residents of Springs—in Green River Cemetery.
As I noted in my essay for the Findlay catalogue, by the 1960s the East End art colony included a sizable number of the postwar New York vanguard. They came for a respite from the pace and pressure of city life, and also to enjoy one another’s companionship in cordial surroundings. But not all the contentious energy that fueled the heated debates at The Club and the Cedar Bar was left behind in Greenwich Village. It animated the summer softball games that began as early as 1948, with two renowned scrappers, Pavia and Cherry, as regular players. Those who didn’t care for sports might be found at the beach, where hot tempers could be cooled by a dip in the ocean. In the evening there were house parties and cookouts, and perhaps an exhibition opening at Guild Hall. This sense of community was far more attractive than the scenery.
If the surroundings had an impact on the abstract expressionists, it was oblique. A color or shape glimpsed in the landscape, the quality of morning or evening light, the atmosphere of a certain moment might all play a part, but the outcome of those experiences would be subjectively interpreted rather than literally recorded. The unifying creative principle was a devotion to responsive expression. Pavia spoke for them all when he championed “the artist’s own personal experience as the basis for communication and definition.”
Many of the works in these exhibitions reflect such a process of assimilation. Fine—whose 1949 canvas, The Forest, is on view at Spanierman—once told me that her spare linear imagery was indirectly influenced by the winter landscape, in which the dark verticals of tree trunks are foiled against the snow’s whiteness. Parsons’ ambiguously titled Blue Field, also at Spanierman,could refer to a farm field like the ones near her Southold home, or to the background that supports her abstract motifs. In the Findlay show, the gnarled forms in Slivka’s energetic ink drawings have their counterparts in chunks of driftwood, and in tree roots exposed by erosion on the coastal bluffs. Similarly, Pavia’s late 1940s bronzes suggest fragments of structures weathered by wind, sand and sea. The celestial allusions in Lassaw’s open-space sculptures—like Callisto [right], named for one of Jupiter’s moons—became more frequent after he began summering in Springs, where the night sky was not obscured by the city’s lights.
As these two shows demonstrate, it isn’t only landscape painters who are inspired by the East End environment. For abstract artists, it may be a mood, a feeling, a sensation that makes the creative juices flow, prompting responses to natural phenomena that are all the more evocative for being abstract.
Glimpsing de Kooning at MoMA
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) [left] famously referred to himself as “a slipping glimpser,” a painter who paradoxically felt most comfortable when he was off balance. “When I’m falling,” he said, “I am doing all right. And when I am slipping, I say, ‘Hey, this is very interesting.’” He made that remark in 1960, roughly midway through a seven-decade career that is now the subject of a long-overdue survey at the Museum of Modern Art. To paraphrase the artist, it’s very interesting that for decades he slipped past the glimpse of the normally eagle-eyed MoMA curators, who focused instead on his contemporaries among the New York School vanguard. This show (on view through January 9) redresses that imbalance.
Balance is a metaphor for the exhibition itself, and (notwithstanding his disclaimer) for de Kooning’s artistic enterprise. The show maintains its equilibrium by presenting his seesaw shifts from representation to abstraction in parallel rather than divergent courses. The earliest works, from his native Holland and soon after his emigration in 1926, make it clear that even when he was working as a commercial artist and decorator he was simultaneously a skillful academic draftsman and a keen observer of modern art trends. With equal assurance he could render a still life accurately, or abstract it à la Matisse.
In the 1930s the WPA Federal Art Project enabled de Kooning to quit his day job and concentrate on fine art. Alternating between figure study and non-objective formalism, his paintings, mural studies and drawings of the period continue a dialogue that aims to resolve this dichotomy—an endeavor that fortunately never succeeded. At a time when purists insisted on an either-or approach, he was unwilling to take sides. In 1947-48, when the argument was at its most intense, he was painting stark black and white abstractions like Orestes [1947, right] and Dark Pond while also coming out with his second Woman series, represented here by Pink Lady, Woman and several works on paper.
I’m far from alone in believing that 1948-1955 marks the high point of de Kooning’s achievement, and this exhibition hasn’t changed my mind. The masterpieces from those years are here in force, including Excavation, Attic and Asheville, supreme demonstrations of his ability to combine observation, sensation and invention, and six of the monstrous (and monstrously controversial) Woman paintings that to this day divide de Kooning’s admirers and detractors. Volumes have already been written about these grotesques; suffice it to say that they’ve never looked better than they do here, lined up like beauty pageant contestants from Hell.
For whatever psychological or aesthetic reasons, the distorted female figure continued to preoccupy de Kooning for decades, but in tandem with compositions that lack overt figurative references. Not that the real world was excluded from canvases like Gotham News and Easter Monday, in which he retained offset text and photos from the newspapers he used to blot the surface. As with the Women, where schematic but recognizable body parts give coherence to what otherwise would look like disorganized explosions of paint, these fragments anchor the abstractions in familiar imagery.
It seems to me that de Kooning’s entire career was a balancing act. Or maybe a pendulum, with its regular alternation from one extreme to the other, is a better analogy. As visitors progress through the selection of some 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints in MoMA’s brilliantly installed sixth-floor galleries, the artist’s clock winds down and the swings become less pronounced, until they resolve in a series of biomorphic abstractions that distill the essence of his vision. Toward the end, his glimpse slipped ever more inward. But this exhibition doesn’t tell the whole story of that interior journey. The curator, John Elderfield, chose to exclude work from 1988-90, the last three years of de Kooning’s productive life, when he painted more than 50 canvases while succumbing to senile dementia. A full retrospective assessment won’t be possible until those paintings are seen.
Sol LeWitt at Mass MoCA: Worth the Trip
At this point in the summer we could all use a break from the seasonal craziness of The Hamptons. I suggest you hop in the car and take the ferry to New London. Then breeze through The Other Hamptons (Southampton, Easthampton and Northampton, MA, that is) en route to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as Mass MoCA, in North Adams. There you’ll find an extraordinary installation celebrating the life work of Sol LeWitt, one of the pioneers of conceptual art.
LeWitt [right] made his first wall drawing more than forty years ago at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Manhattan—his first, and in a sense, his last, because after that he no longer drew them himself. Instead he produced sets of instructions for other people to follow, like scores that a composer writes for other musicians to play. When collectors buy his work, they buy the visual-art equivalent of sheet music. He was less interested in the art object than in the idea behind it, which he called “a machine that makes the art,” although in truth it takes a lot of hand labor to create the finished product.
For his Mass MoCA retrospective, scores of drafters spent months executing nearly ninety of them on all three floors of a specially renovated 27,000 square-foot former factory building. This extremely ambitious project is a collaboration among Mass MoCA, the Yale University Art Gallery and Williams College Museum of Art. Teams of students from both schools filled acres of custom-built walls according to LeWitt’s instructions. Sadly, the artist who dreamed up this prodigious body of work didn’t live to see the ensemble completed. He died in 2007, so the exhibition is a memorial that spans his entire conceptual output.
It’s inevitable, given the wide scope of his imagination, that some examples are more appealing than others. I’m partial to the early work, with its spare geometry, muted colors and formal rigor. Those pieces are on the first floor, and they include the fascinating Wall Drawing 51 [left], first drawn in 1970 and made entirely of blue lines created by snapping chalked string that was stretched between all the architectural points on the wall—from the corner of a window to the corner of a door, for example. The result is a complex web of linear marks that articulates the wall surface in surprising, and surprisingly beautiful, ways. And it would be completely different on different walls. The instructions don’t vary, but the results on each wall are unique.
This floor also features another of my favorites [right, during the remaking process], Wall Drawing 797, a 1995 piece that starts with a meandering horizontal line near the top of the wall, drawn by one person using a black marker. Then another person draws a parallel line just below it, using a red marker. Then another person draws a parallel yellow line below the red one. The next line is blue, then red again, then yellow, and so on. Eventually the wall is filled with an undulating curtain of colored stripes, because the freehand lines don’t follow the preceding ones exactly.
The upper floors are a riot of color, and to my taste the drawings lose some of their interest as they become ever more like hard-edged super graphics. They kind of hit you in the eye, rather than seducing you with subtlety, but if you prefer jazzy colors, bold shapes and decorative effects, you have them in abundance. The late works, however, go back to simple graphite pencil lines on white walls, re-emphasizing the hand-made quality that’s so attractive in the earlier pieces. At the end of his life, Sol LeWitt returned to first principles.
Theft: A Love Story
As a summer read for those who believe that the art world is less than scrupulous, I recommend Peter Carey’s wickedly entertaining novel, Theft, subtitled A Love Story, in which everyone is a crook. The primary narrator, a washed-up Australian painter named Michael Boone (alias Butcher Bones) steals from his patron, who has stolen Michael’s wife. The ex-wife, Michael believes, has stolen his paintings, as well as their son, in the divorce settlement. Michael, in turn, steals someone else’s wife, Marlene Liebowitz, who steals anything that isn’t nailed down. Even the detective who pursues her reveals himself as a petty thief. Dealers steal from artists, collectors steal from dealers, and so it goes, right down to the New York taxi drivers who rob Butcher of his equilibrium, or at least give him someone else to blame for his agitation and clouded judgment.
Michael’s mentally retarded brother Hugh—or Slow, as his nickname has it—steals more benignly, almost by default. His is the other narrative voice, a dark, distorted echo of his brother’s. He reminds me of John Steinbeck’s Lenny in Of Mice and Men: large, strong and volatile, a protector and an avenger. His crime is to witness the fraud and deception all around him, which makes him potentially even more dangerous. In a sense, you might say that he steals the truth and stores it away in his poor, addled brain. Occasionally it comes spilling out, and that’s always messy.
This larcenous tale is set in the art world of the early 1980s, when Michael’s star is most definitely on the wane. Now in his late 30s, he’s already a has-been in the insular Australian art market, where he was a big noise ten years earlier. In fact this son of a provincial butcher had a phenomenal run of luck—escaping the family business, which his rough-hewn father was grooming him to inherit (hence his nickname), then actually achieving some measure of success as an artist, even if only in his homeland. But Michael is mordantly bitter, self-flagellating and comically hapless, a cross between Kurt Vonnegut’s Rabo Karabekian and Gulley Jimson, the charming scoundrel who stars in The Horse’s Mouth, by the Irish novelist Joyce Cary—related to Peter Carey only in his gift for brilliantly capturing his central character’s foibles.
The plot hinges on the theft of a very valuable painting by Marlene’s long-dead father-in-law—a cubist ranked right up there with Picasso and Braque—and the disappearance of another of his masterpieces. It has a couple of unlikely twists, which I won’t give away, although I will say that the ending is a bit too pat for my taste. The book’s real rewards are in the reading itself, in Carey’s use of language, although much of it is unquotable here. The text is heavily larded with vulgarity and profanity, an earthy tone that suits the characters perfectly. It also cleverly masks the quicksilver turns of phrase and the dead-on aperçus that give Carey’s writing its punch.
When Marlene wangles a solo exhibition for Michael in Tokyo, he fantasizes that it will be the ticket to his ultimate destination, the top of the New York art heap. In fact, the show is not so much his comeback as his payback for the enormous favor he’s about to do for Marlene, who has a vested interest in, shall we say, his success. In the end, the artist is nothing more than a hired gun, producing to order what he thinks, or knows, will please his client. That his client happens to have stolen his heart is a minor complication.
In their odyssey from Sydney to SoHo, Michael discovers the true extent of Marlene’s thievery, but along the way he accumulates a raft of insights—none of which are of any use to him. Time, the greatest thief of all, teaches him nothing.
Abstract Expressionism Lives On
Last month a panel was convened in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, to discuss the current state of the art world in general, and in particular whether the approach known as Abstract Expressionism is still relevant in the 21st century. The hosts, Tom and Marika Herskovic, are art collectors who specialize in that genre and have published three books on the subject. They asked me to moderate the discussion, which ranged from nostalgia for the good old days 60 years ago, when Ab Ex reigned supreme, to despair over the emotional vacancy of much contemporary art, but was not without a hopeful outlook for the future.
The pioneering Abstract Expressionists are no longer with us, but the Museum of Modern Art’s recent blockbuster collection show signaled that they’re definitely not forgotten, as well as proving that they had successors. Panelists George Ortman and Sonia Gechtoff, both born in 1926, represented the next generation. They were just coming of age when The New Yorker’s art critic, Robert Coates, decided that Abstract Expressionism was a more polite label for what others had derisively called “the spatter-and-daub school.” Attacking a bone of contention that was first chewed on back in the day, neither veteran could come up with a clear definition of the term. Ortman emphasized the fact that, although it’s often hailed as a purely American phenomenon, Ab Ex was really an outgrowth of European Surrealism, with all its literary and narrative baggage, while Gechtoff maintained that its most important characteristic was a total lack of representational content. It was, she insisted, “about nothing but the painting itself.”
Other panelists, including relatives of deceased artists like Nicolas Carone, John Hultberg and Michael Goldberg—members of the sizeable Ab Ex contingent that frequented the Hamptons in the 1950s—gamely weighed in but failed to arrive at a consensus. If there was agreement, it was that while there’s no such thing as an Abstract Expressionist style, the common denominators are subjectivity, improvisation and inner vision. Hultberg’s partner, Elaine Weschler, called it “emotional shorthand,” and Christian Carone pointed out that his father, a former Springs resident who died last year, relied on imagination rather than observation for his imagery, even when faces or figures appeared [see example below]. To the artist Rudy Ernst (no relation to Max, Jimmy and Eric), Abstract Expressionism is the “rendering of personality.”
Several panelists complained about the superficiality of current gallery fare, but I saw the prospect of a resurgence of individuality and feeling. During the week or so before the panel, I had encountered artists from Finland, Hungary and China who enthusiastically self-identified as Abstract Expressionists. It struck me that one of the movement’s original aims—the invention of what the artist Alfonso Ossorio described as “an international language of the brush”—had been fulfilled. And far from being a historical phenomenon that went out with tail fins and transistor radios, Ab Ex seems to me to have staying power.
Among the younger generation of artists, Sam Rivers—Larry Rivers’ youngest son and, at age 25, the youngest panelist—believes that the spirit is alive and well among artists for whom emotion and experimentation are paramount. While allowing that it’s no longer mainstream, he and Anki King, a 40 year old Norwegian-American painter whose symbolic figures embody “feelings that can’t accurately be described in words,” agreed that Abstract Expressionism is still valid, and that it offers a rewarding alternative to the slick merchandise that dominates today’s art market.
Nicolas Carone, Shadow Dance, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 119-3/4 inches. Courtesy Washburn Gallery, New York.
Imago ad Absurdum
Not so long ago, the idea of a photograph selling for a million dollars seemed absurd. Why would anyone pay that much for a reproduction? But, for the sake of argument, if someone did, what sort of picture would it be? Well, a rare vintage print, maybe one of a kind, personally made in the darkroom by a master like Alfred Stieglitz or Ansel Adams, of course. At least that was the prediction, which just goes to show that you can’t trust the ol’ crystal ball.
In fact, the first million-dollar photo was anything but a unique vintage masterpiece. It was one of Richard Prince’s “Cowboy’ series—a so-called rephotograph of a Marlboro cigarette ad [left]—that hit the million-point-two mark in a 2005 auction. Prince, who will be having a solo exhibition at Guild Hall Museum this summer, takes pictures of other people’s pictures and passes them off as his own work. If I did that with other people’s words it would be called plagiarism, but in the art world there’s a long tradition of this kind of unauthorized and uncredited borrowing. Heck, Andy Warhol made a fortune doing it, and Prince is on the same career path, although he suffered a detour in March, when a U.S. District judge ruled against him and his dealer, Larry Gagosian, in a copyright infringement suit brought by a French photographer, Patrick Cariou, whose pictures were “appropriated” by Prince without permission.
In the pricey photographs market, however, no one tops Cindy Sherman. Two weeks ago at Christie’s New York, one of her role-playing self-portraits sold for an astonishing $3.9 million, reportedly the highest price ever paid for a photograph. And, even more amazing, it’s one of ten prints of the same image. The owners of the other nine must be in hog heaven. Sherman, who has a home in Sag Harbor, made her name over 30 years ago with a series of 8 x 10 black and white photos that mimicked stills from B movies, all featuring herself playing the Central Casting characters. They’re basically costume pieces, and their interest is in how they comment on pop-culture female stereotypes.
Her next move, in the early 1980s, was to make them bigger and do them in color—the 1981 record-breaker [below] is an early example. If we wanted to be here all day, we could debate the artistic merits of this picture, we could discuss its crossover from low to high culture status, and we could consider what its high price says about the current state of the art market. But none of those issues addresses its monetary value. I’m hardly the first person to point out that, as far as intrinsic value is concerned, art has none. It’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Unfortunately all those dollar signs form a barrier that blocks the view and make it hard to draw a distinction between the photograph as an image of significance and as an object of acquisitive desire.
There was a time when originality and innovation were major indicators of art’s value, but those days are long gone. When copying went from being a training exercise to an end in itself, uniqueness lost traction. I don’t want to sound grumpy—as a matter of fact, I agree with Marcel Duchamp that art is whatever the artist says it is—but I begin to have a problem when price eclipses merit as a benchmark of quality. Still, it’s good to put everything in perspective. Lots of yesterday’s overpriced trophies are now languishing in museum basements, and we may live to see the day when, like the housing bubble, the photography bubble bursts and (if you’ll forgive the pun) Sherman tanks.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96, 1981. Color coupler print, 24 x 48 inches.
Protest Art: China vs. America
A few days ago I got an email from my friend Gail Pellett, a documentary film maker who has a house on Three Mile Harbor, about the plight of the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. He was arrested at Beijing airport on April 3 and is being held incommunicado on charges that range from tax evasion to bigamy. Gail met Ai in China in 1980, when she was working as an editor for Radio Beijing. He was then a young rebel affiliated with an avant-garde group called Star Star, which rose and fell with the New Democracy movement. The following year he moved to New York, where several Star Star alumni had migrated. He lived in the East Village, enrolled in Parsons School of Design, and met up with Gail again. In an article she wrote about the expats for The Village Voice in 1985, she quoted Ai as describing them as “the scorched flowers of China.”
Since then, Ai has become an internationally celebrated figure, known for his outspoken cultural critiques, provocative installations, and running around with no clothes on. He delights in disparaging authority and saluting power with his middle finger, yet he was invited to design the National Stadium, famous as the Bird’s Nest, for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. His apparent endorsement by the Chinese government seemed to augur well for a new era of openness, but over the past few years they’ve been clamping down on him and other artists who have stepped over the so-called red line of official tolerance.
The recent unrest in the Middle East has accelerated efforts to stifle freedom of expression in China. Ai’s high status on the global art stage didn’t insulate him against what everyone from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Václav Havel and the European Union has condemned as a blatant attempt to muzzle dissent. His arrest, following earlier incidences of police brutality, detention, and the demolition of his Shanghai studio, appears to be related to calls for a “jasmine revolution” inspired by regime change in Egypt and Tunisia. Fearful of his potential endorsement of such a movement, the authorities are holding him at an undisclosed location. In a cynical effort to disguise their true motives, they accuse him of “economic crimes” and deny charges of censorship. Since creativity has yet to be criminalized in China (wait for it), they came up with something illegal to charge him with.
In the United States, by contrast, even art that is in fact illegal gets the official stamp of approval. I was amused to read an article in last Sunday’s New York Times about a show of graffiti at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, organized by the museum’s controversial director, former art dealer Jeffrey Deitch. Although he looks like a Harvard MBA—which he is—Deitch is no strait-laced suit. Known for his promotion of street art at his now-defunct New York gallery, Deitch Projects, he delights in the outrageous, like exhibiting a burned-out meth lab as a sculpture installation. Other people get arrested for having a meth lab, but Deitch gets reviewed in the art press.
Wall-tagging and subway-car defacement—quintessential expressions of urban protest—are also frowned on by law enforcement, but when they’re enshrined in LACMA they’re more than just sanctioned, they’re defanged. They become, as the LA Times aptly put it, “eye-candy.” In the art world and the real world, if the powers that be embrace transgression, it loses its power to threaten. For a while it seemed as if the Chinese authorities had learned that lesson, but apparently not.
Cézanne’s Card Players: Asleep at the Deal
If you take a right turn off the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek and Roman galleries, you’ll find three small rooms devoted to focused temporary exhibitions. The current show, on view through May 8, brings together many of the paintings and drawings of card players by Paul Cézanne, whose fans included just about every pioneer of 20th century modernism. Made in the 1890s on his family’s estate near Aix-en-Provence, the series illustrates his fascination with the timeless character of peasant life. He once said, “I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs,” an odd sentiment for someone who broke with nearly all the old customs in painting’s rulebook.
For those who are interested in how the curatorial mind works, this show is an object lesson, both positive and negative. First the bad news. Operating on the premise that everyone is dying to know the order in which each painting or drawing may have been produced, which one may be a study for, or tracing of, another, as well as other conjectures, the organizers have written mind-numbing label copy. Playing that guessing game may be fun for hair-splitting scholars, but it contributes nothing to an appreciation of the art itself. Nor it is helpful that the two largest paintings from the series are missing. (In The New York Times, Karen Rosenberg quipped that the show is an “incomplete deck.”) Even the Met’s formidable leverage wasn’t enough to pry loose the Barnes Foundation’s example—which will only travel when that fabled collection moves from Merion to Fairmont Park next year—and a sibling canvas from a private collection. So they’re reproduced at full size, but in dull black and white. Evidently the curators think we can’t tell the difference between a color print of a painting and the real thing.
In spite of these shortcomings, the exhibition illuminates certain aspects of Cézanne’s achievement and offers a revealing look into his aims. A selection of prints from the Met’s collection shows how his Dutch, French and English predecessors depicted card playing—an inspired curatorial decision that underscores how different Cézanne’s approach was. Instead of scenes of rowdy gamblers in taverns, often with implicit moralistic messages, he gives us straightforward studies of rustic workers, presumably relaxing after a day’s hard labor on the estate. He was well aware of the genre tradition, but he wasn’t aiming for social critique or satire. His subjects were the salt of the earth—he admired their peasant simplicity (perhaps a bit condescendingly) and their stoicism, which are evident in his treatment of their figures.
Each man is presented as a solitary, self-contained individual, absorbed in studying his hand and ignoring his companions. They’re sitting so still that they might be asleep, and even the guy watching the game in a couple of the versions looks like he’s in a trance. It seems that they aren’t even gambling—there are no stakes on the table. This preternatural stillness robs the figures of vitality and forces you to see them as objects rather than subjects. Apparently Cézanne was more interested in studying and organizing their forms, and the space around them, than in either their personalities or what they were doing. His statement about loving the appearance of people is telling; he loved what they looked like, not who they were. He was intrigued by the way one man’s sleeve folded at the elbow and by the pleats in his smock, by how another man’s hat brim curled, by the contrast of a bent knee’s roundness with the sharp angle of a table leg. All this analyzing led to paintings that are neither genre scenes nor portraits. They’re about solving the formal problems of painting itself, which is what makes them so modern.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), The Card Players, ca. 1890–92. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark.
The Watchcase Factory—Think Creative
Four years ago, Cape Advisors, a Manhattan real estate developer, unveiled the latest of several plans to come down the pike—East Hampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, that is—for renovation of the former Bulova watchcase factory [left], the once-proud 19th century industrial building in the heart of the village that’s now a crumbling eyesore. The proposal, which called for 63 luxury condominium apartments and 18 town house units, was approved by the zoning board in August 2008. But the venture ground to a halt when the real estate bubble burst and the sponsoring group, now known as Sag Development Partners, lost steam. Maybe that’s just as well, since there was considerable public dissent during the review process, focusing on the lack of affordable housing units mandated by the Suffolk County Planning Commission. So let’s rethink the project, this time a bit more creatively—and I mean that literally.
Last week I attended a forum, with the catchy title “Promoting the Arts, Cultural Institutions and Historic Sites,” sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office. Representatives from arts organizations all around the Island met at the Patchogue Theatre to learn how we can take advantage of public funding opportunities. Those of us who till the creative fields know how much the arts contribute to the regional economy, as well as the less tangible quality-of-life benefits. But you can’t have a thriving, diverse arts community without affordable places for artists to live and work. That’s an issue the Village of Patchogue is addressing, and the Village of Sag Harbor just might want to listen up.
The forum’s afternoon session featured a presentation by Shawn McLearen, representing Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit real estate developer for the arts. Artspace owns and operates 27 projects in 19 cities, from Seattle to Bridgeport. Twenty-one of them are live/work projects, mostly in renovated buildings like factories, schools, warehouses, and even an old army base, with a total of nearly a thousand residential units. Many also include offices for arts organizations, rehearsal and performance venues, and commercial space for arts-friendly businesses.
A few years ago, Artspace partnered with the Patchogue Village Community Development Agency, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement District, the Patchogue Arts Council (yes, the village has its own arts council) and other groups to create affordable residential workspaces for artists and their families. The fruit of that labor—Artspace Patchogue Lofts, a five-story, 45-unit complex on Terry Street—is due to open this spring. Unlike most Artspace projects it’s new construction, a sleek modern building with an $18 million price tag financed by a combination of corporate, foundation and government grants, loans, gifts, and economic development funds. If you don’t want to drive the 50 miles to Patchogue to check it out, you can see it on their website, www.artspace.org.
Interestingly, although preference is given to applicants who “participate in and are committed to the arts,” anyone who qualifies for affordable housing may apply. So while Artspace is focused on serving artists, it doesn’t exclude others. The Patchogue project has had 75 applications so far, and is still accepting them, so if you can’t wait for the watchcase factory to become an Artspace project, you can download the application form.
While you’re on the website, take a look at some of the industrial and commercial rehab projects, like the Northern Warehouse in St. Paul, the Harvester Lofts in Council Bluffs, and especially the Switching Station in Chicago [right], and see if they remind you of a building closer to home—on Hampton Street, in fact. Sag Harbor may not have an arts council, but it does have a Community Housing Trust that could work with Artspace, the Long Island Housing Partnership, the Suffolk County Office of Economic Development and Workforce Housing, CONPOSH, Save Sag Harbor and other interested parties to rescue the watchcase factory and transform it into a hive of creative activity, as well as a monument to creative thinking.
Hot Books for Cold Weekends
On a cold winter weekend, what could be better than a hot book? The two I have in mind aren’t hot in the best-seller sense, since they’ve been around for a while. You’ll have to call the John Jermain Library and order them through inter-library loan, or you can find them for sale on the Internet, in either the original hardcover editions or paperback reissues. These books are hot in the other metaphorical sense, dealing as they do with the sex lives of two of the art world’s most colorful female characters. No bodices are ripped—these gals willingly shed their garments.
The gals in question are the celebrated art collector Peggy Guggenheim, whose memoir, Out of This Century, with a jacket design by Jackson Pollock, was published by Dial Press in 1946, and Ruth Kligman, mistress to the stars and author of Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock, published in 1974 by William Morrow. Kligman added a preface in 1999, when her book was republished in paperback by Cooper Square Press. Guggenheim updated hers in 1960 and again in 1979, when Macmillan brought it out as Confessions of an Art Addict.
Guggenheim has been the subject of three biographies, but no one tells her story with the verve and candor that she brings to the saga of her scandalous escapades as an expatriate heiress in interwar Europe, where her modest fortune went much further than in her native New York City. It financed a bibulous social life, complete with a cast of world-class eccentrics, adulterous liaisons, verbal (and sometimes physical) conflict, and whirlwind travels punctuated by the acquisition of a fabulous collection of modern art. Peggy chronicles it all breathlessly, often at her own expense. When the book was first published, her horrified family reportedly said it should have been titled Out of Her Mind, and tried to buy up all the copies.
She came into her inheritance at the age of 21, just as World War I ended, and within a year was in Paris, where she lost her virginity to Laurence Vail, a neurotic, alcoholic would-be writer and artist whom she called the King of Bohemia. In the original 1946 edition, she identifies him by the pseudonym “Florenz,” an odd conceit considering that he was well known as her first husband and the father of her two children. Some of her other lovers who were then living are discreetly disguised—Samuel Beckett as “Oblomov,” Douglas Garman as “Sherman” and Marcel Duchamp as “Luigi,” for example—while others, even those inconveniently married to other women, are allowed to sail under their own colors.
During World War II, people named Guggenheim were not welcome in Hitler’s domain, so Peggy returned to New York with her art collection and a retinue that included her current lover (soon to be husband number two), the Surrealist painter Max Ernst. In New York she opened a gallery, Art of This Century, which showcased her treasure trove of abstract and Surrealist art, as well as local talent of the vanguard persuasion. Among her discoveries was the then-unknown Jackson Pollock, who became her protégé. The Pollock biopic, starring Ed Harris as the artist and his off-screen wife, Amy Madigan, as Peggy, gives them an abortive love scene, but if such an encounter did occur the memoir is uncharacteristically silent on the matter. Indeed, in the expanded version, written after Pollock’s death, Peggy describes their relationship as “purely that of artist and patron.” Whether that implies any extracurricular duties on his part is left to the reader’s imagination—just about the only thing in this tell-all that is.
Kligman’s book, on the other hand, leaves no doubt that her knowledge of Pollock was carnal; the title alone makes that clear. By turns gushingly romantic, deeply delusional and painfully conflicted, it describes her brief, turbulent involvement with the artist at the end of his career—in fact, at the end of his life. They met in the spring of 1956 at the Cedar Bar, the artists’ hangout in Greenwich Village, where a drunken Pollock would bait his colleagues and make passes at their dates. Even though, mired in alcoholism, he was no longer painting, he was still top dog among the abstract expressionists. An aspiring artist herself, Ruth (18 years his junior) was star-struck. She threw herself at him, and to no one’s surprise—except maybe Pollock’s—he caught her. After a steamy encounter in her apartment, they declared their mutual love, and the affair was off and running.
That summer Ruth wangled a job at the Abraham Rattner School of Art in Sag Harbor (the former Baptist church that now hosts Larry Rivers’ legs sculpture), handily close to Pollock’s home in Springs. No longer would their trysting require a Long Island Rail Road commute. Inevitably Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, noticed that something was up, especially when she caught the errant couple sneaking out of his studio the morning after. This led to the predictable ultimatum. To her credit, Ruth is frank about her doubts that the relationship had a future, although she had a habit of jumping back into the deep end in spite of her misgivings. When Lee took off for Europe, she moved into the Springs house, where she fantasized about reviving Pollock’s creativity and despaired over his black moods and violent temper.
It all builds to a climax on an August night, when a drunken driver, a misjudged curve and an overturned convertible spelled serious injury for Ruth and death for Pollock and another passenger. This section of the memoir is both cinematically vivid and melodramatic to the point of bathos, including a flashback to her rejection by a judgmental father. And by the time the book appeared in 1974, her pledge of enduring devotion: “That great romantic love. It can never come again,” was sounding a little hollow. Pollock’s body was barely cold when she took up with his great rival, Willem de Kooning, followed by a veritable Who’s Who of male art-world luminaries. Nevertheless, for the rest of her life—she died last March at the age of 80—Ruth dined out on Pollock, and I don’t mean the fish.
Three Cheers for MoMA
It’s a perennial complaint that, no matter how big the Museum of Modern Art gets, it never has enough room to do justice to its permanent collection. This problem is hardly unique to MoMA—most of the well-stocked museums are in the same boat. So much space is occupied by temporary loan shows designed to draw crowds eager for novelty that most of the stuff they own languishes in storage. It takes an economic downturn to make them rummage around the vault for material that they don’t have to truck in and are already insuring. That’s just what MoMA did for “Abstract Expressionist New York,” a three-part extravaganza, on view through next April, which fills the museum’s fourth floor and spills over onto two other floors.
So how come everyone isn’t cheering? Delighted? Thanking MoMA for giving us a long-overdue look at treasures usually squirreled away, some of them never before out of the warehouse? Of course they always display a good selection of New York School paintings, sculpture and works on paper, but this is the first time they’ve devoted so much space to them, and explored the topic in such depth. Yet the critical response has ranged from tepid to downright hostile. It seems that MoMA can’t win for losing. Why is that?
The chief objection is that the show doesn’t challenge the orthodox view of Abstract Expressionism—America’s greatest contribution to world art—as a boy’s club dominated by a few superstars. In The New York Times, Roberta Smith hurled the first brickbat, calling its focus “myopic,” while The New Republic’s Jed Perl heaped it with scorn, labeling it “uninspired and predictable.” To Ariella Budick of The Financial Times, it “re-tells the same saga,” and in The Huffington Post Sharon Butler huffed that, in spite of the inclusion of some lesser-knowns, “the familiar easily outmuscled the newly anointed.”
None of these complaints take into consideration an important fact. An exhibition drawn entirely from a museum’s collection comprises, you guessed it, only what belongs to the museum, so there are bound to be gaps. Without loans, MoMA couldn’t show some New York artists who deserve to be included—for example, Kyle Morris, Wilfrid Zogbaum and Perle Fine—because the museum doesn’t own their work. And speaking of Perle Fine, she is indeed one of the deserving women who have often been left out or overlooked, but several of the other female New York School artists are present and well accounted for. There are excellent pieces by Hedda Sterne, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Dorothy Dehner and Grace Hartigan, refuting the contention that women need not apply for membership in the Ab Ex club. True, as Sharon Butler noticed, the only Helen Frankenthaler painting on view is not the best of the several MoMA owns. But neither is Jack Tworkov well represented by his solitary painting, one of only two in the collection and not the better one. And alas, only four de Kooning paintings made the cut. His famous Woman I is front and center, but where is Woman II?
Above: Installation view of “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture,” with Gaea, by Lee Krasner, at left and Willem de Kooning’s Woman I at right. Photo: Jason Mandella, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Curatorial quibbles aside, another fact must be faced. While there were quite a few Ab Ex painters and sculptors active in New York in the movement’s heyday—the historian Irving Sandler estimates that some 200 artists would qualify for inclusion—there aren’t that many whose work has stood the test of time. A comprehensive survey would be as much of a mishmash as a group show in one of the period’s Tenth Street co-ops. Do we really want something like that at MoMA? I sure don’t.
I want to see the cream of the crop, and there’s cream aplenty in “Abstract Expressionist New York.” Paintings that invite you to dive in and swim around, others that dare you to get anywhere near them. Sculpture that looms majestically, barks and snaps like a junkyard dog, or seduces you with its sensual appeal. Drawings that show you what the artist was thinking. And so many of them! In spite of the gaps, the collection is huge. What a treat to see how, over the decades, curators and donors recognized the importance of Ab Ex and saw to it that the museum got its share, including many first-rate examples that are rarely seen. Ibram Lassaw’s spidery sculpture, Kwanon, James Brook’s Qualm, an outstanding stain painting, and dynamite canvases by Bradley Walker Tomlin, Richard Pousette-Dart, Alfred Leslie and Norman Lewis enlarge the canon without diluting its quality. Yes, the show is dominated by the so-called usual suspects, but what’s wrong with roomfuls of Pollocks, Klines, Newmans and Rothkos? As far as I’m concerned, the more the better, and more power to MoMA for giving this aspect of its collection such a splendid airing.
Installation view of “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture,” paintings by Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning. Photo: Jason Mandella, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Jobs for Artists? Don’t Hold Your Breath
Jobs, jobs, jobs—the three top issues in Tuesday’s Congressional elections. Will the 112th Congress do anything to lower the unemployment rate? Even if they do, it’s not likely to benefit artists. Heck, there’s already a federal jobs program for them on the books. So why aren’t artists all across the country cashing government paychecks right now? I’ll get to that.
In the years since the Great Depression, when the New Deal put artists on Uncle Sam’s payroll, what part has the federal government played in support for individual artists? A very small one. The National Endowment for the Arts, created under the Johnson administration, offered competitive grants, but they evaporated in the 1990s when the NEA became the demagogue’s delight—an easy target for budget-cutters whipping up outrage over controversial exhibitions. Like most federal agencies, the NEA relies on Congressional appropriations, and politicians are naturally sensitive to charges of spending your tax dollars on smut.
Fortunately there’s a way around Congress that allows the government to patronize contemporary artists. Under the longstanding percent-for-art clause in capital projects, the General Services Administration’s Arts in Architecture Program commissions works of art for new federal buildings. But the artists must conform to rigid standards and regulations that may well be at odds with creative expression. And commissions awarded at the federal level may not please the locals. Perhaps the most famous example is a 1981 GSA Arts in Architecture project, Tilted Arc, a 120-foot long, 12-foot tall Cor-Ten steel wall that loomed menacingly in front of the federal office building in downtown Manhattan. Richard Serra, the artist who designed it, was quoted as saying: “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people”—a sentiment with which the denizens of Federal Plaza clearly agreed. Many people who worked there hated the thing, and after a contentious process of hearings and appeals it was removed in 1989.
On the other hand, some communities have come to admire and embrace government-sponsored art that was initially greeted with skepticism or hostility. Both the NEA and the GSA have been responsible for public sculpture installations designed to bolster civic pride and signal that their host communities were “progressive”—that’s a code word for willing to accept modern abstract art.
The NEA’s Art in Public Places Program began in 1969 with Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, a bright red, 43-foot tall stabile in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which had its share of vocal critics. Flamingo [right], an even larger scarlet stabile by Calder, was commissioned by the GSA and installed in Chicago’s Federal Plaza in 1974. At first the City of the Big Shoulders was perplexed by the queer bird that had landed in the Loop, but it wasn’t long before Chicagoans were won over by its whimsicality, and today both La Grande Vitesse and Flamingo are beloved civic landmarks.
The closest we’ve come to federal jobs for individual artists since the New Deal was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973, which provided block grants for unemployment relief to state and local governments. Although it was phased out by the Reagan administration in 1982, the CETA project serves as a model for decentralized federal support for artists. While focusing on community service, it directly subsidized creative development by paying artists a living wage. It also reinforced the notion that they’re workers, not self-indulgent idlers or hobbists.
During the Obama campaign, there was talk of an Artists Corps, a public service project that would employ artists in educational and community settings—not in their own studios, but at least, like CETA, it would pay them to do work that benefits the community and makes use of their creative talents. What happened to that plan?
Politifact dot com reports that the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which President Obama signed into law in April 2009, authorizes federal funding for “skilled musicians and artists to . . . work in the public domain with citizens of all ages.” On that basis, Politifact rates the President’s campaign pledge as a promise kept. But so far only $277,000 has been spent on such a project—the Maryland Institute’s Community Art Corps—and the prospects for an appropriation from the 112th Congress look pretty dim. I think it would take another New Deal to get artists back on the job, and I’m not holding my breath for that.
President Barack Obama signs H.R. 1388, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, at The SEED School of Washington, D.C., April 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
The Parrish: what have you got when it’s gone?
The thump of Governor Paterson’s shovel breaking ground on July 19 for the new Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill must have sounded to the Southampton village elders like a wake-up call. The very next day, they announced the creation of an “arts district” in beautiful downtown Southampton, embracing the Cultural Center, the Rogers Memorial Library, Peconic Public Broadcasting, the Historical Museums and the Parrish, which is its anchor and raison d’etre. The district’s first annual fall festival, billed as its “coming-out party” and dubbed Arts Harvest Southampton, is now underway, and not a moment too soon. That line, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” from the old Joni Mitchell song, comes to mind. What happens to the arts district when its chief attraction leaves town?
As reported in July, the arts district is a key element of the village’s so-called vision plan, which recommends making art “a defining characteristic” of Southampton. So now the planners and officials are scrambling to figure out what to do with the building when the Parrish vacates it in 2012. They should have thought of that back in 1998, at the time of the museum’s centenary, when ambitious expansion plans were unveiled. That proposal, which called for an aggressively modern glass pavilion and demolition of part of the Job’s Lane garden wall, was met with hostility from several quarters, including the village board. No construction could be done without their approval, and not only because of zoning restrictions.
The village actually owns the Parrish’s building [left]. Originally called the Southampton Art Museum, it was deeded to the village in 1941 by Mrs. Samuel Longstreth Parrish, the widow of the museum’s founder. In short order the collections of art and antique furniture were relegated to the basement and the galleries were used to store plumbing fixtures (the mayor at the time was a plumber). When it was learned that the next step was to demolish the building and replace it with a parking lot—shades of Joni Mitchell again—a group of concerned citizens formed a private non-profit board of trustees and revitalized the museum, which had been renamed in Parrish’s honor, in 1952.
But although the collections, governance and funding are private, the trustees can’t touch the building without the village’s say-so, and that wasn’t forthcoming. Hence the decision to move, first to the Southampton College campus, and when that fell through, to the Water Mill location.
On a smaller scale, this echoes the struggle to relocate the Barnes Foundation from its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania to Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, although in the opposite direction—from in town to the outskirts, whereas the Barnes will move from the suburbs to downtown. If you’ve seen the film, “The Art of the Steal,” you know that this plan has caused a titanic controversy, fueled in part by charges of mismanagement that bear no resemblance to the Parrish’s situation. But what strikes me as similar is the turnaround of the good people of Merion. For decades they wished the place would disappear, prevented it from expanding, and resented its parking problems, litterbug visitors and annoying tour bus traffic. Now that it’s leaving, however, they’re wringing their hands, howling in protest and passing resolutions demanding that it stay. Too little, and way too late.
Like Merion, Southampton is soon going to have a big, beautiful but very vacant building in the heart of town—not exactly a tourist attraction. Mayor Mark Epley has acknowledged that the Parrish’s departure will “leave a hole for a long time,” unless some alternative is found, preferably one that’s compatible with the arts-district concept. One proposal is to make it a multi-use facility for visual and performing arts, a kind of village cultural center. Oops, wait a minute, isn’t there already one of those just down the block? Let’s think again.
Remember the Long Island Automotive Museum that used to be on the highway, next door to the tombstone shop? That was so cool. Why not revive it, and put it into the Parrish building? I think it could work. They had an Avanti in the transept gallery not long ago, and it looked pretty good in there. Roll in a few dream boats and cream puffs for visitors to drool over, show car-chase movies in the concert hall, and problem solved. Not a good fit for the arts district? Anyone who thinks cars can’t be works of art didn’t see that Avanti.
Let’s See Your Legs, Larry
The oversize legs striding along Henry Street have prompted some spirited debate in these pages. Clad only in old-fashioned nylons (sans garter belt), they add a dash of spice to the village’s architectural streetscape. Passers-by, not knowing the backstory, may well wonder where they came from and how they got here. Surely they didn’t walk to Sag Harbor on their own.
Their journey began in Lake Grove, Long Island, home of the Smith Haven Mall. When it opened in 1969 it was one of the nation’s largest shopping complexes, according to The New York Times, which also reported that it contained an unprecedented mixture of “high art and low commerce,” thanks to commissions arranged by Leonard Holzer, an executive with the mall’s developer. As it happened, Holzer’s wife, Jane, was something of an art-world personality. An uptown girl with downtown inclinations, Baby Jane, as she was known, was one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” appearing in several of his films, including Soap Opera, Batman Dracula and Ciao Manhattan. She persuaded her husband that the mall should feature site-specific work by contemporary artists, and got him to earmark $350,000 for the project. Among the pieces she convinced Holzer to commission—oddly, none by Warhol—were a stabile with a mobile top by Alexander Calder (dubbed Janey Waney in her honor) and a mural by Larry Rivers, 40 feet long and 15 feet tall, titled Forty Feet of Fashion [above].
Heavily into his assemblage phase at the time, and influenced by his friendship with the Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, Rivers delighted in using vinyl, Plexiglas and recycled material to make dimensional mixed-media constructions, sometimes with moving parts. His recently completed The History of the Russian Revolution, for example, featured storm windows, plumbing pipes and real military weapons. Like Warhol and the other Pop artists, Rivers embraced the iconography of mass-market culture. His concept for the mall included references to some of the consumer products available in the surrounding shops: cosmetics (floating lips, à la Man Ray), bathing suits (somersaulting swimmers), appliances (including a clock with Leonard Holzer’s portrait as the face) and hosiery, represented by a pair of disembodied mannequin legs modeling sexy black stockings. There was also an automatic slide show, which broke down not long after the mural was installed. It was never repaired.
That was only the first step in the gradual deterioration of the mall and its art. The Calder lost its moving top section, and the base was insensitively relocated outside, where it graced the parking lot. Other pieces simply disappeared. Forty Feet of Fashion remained in place until another developer took over the mall in 1985 and did a major renovation. Rivers’ mural didn’t gibe with the new look, themed around the restored Calder, so the developer suggested donating it to a museum. But Rivers insisted on its restoration first. When they couldn’t come to terms, the mural was disassembled. Rivers got a few of the elements, including one of the swimmers, which is on view through August 31 at the Vered Gallery in East Hampton, as part of the exhibition, “Larry Rivers: Pop Icons.” He also got the legs, slightly reworked and repainted them, and planted them on the lawn outside his house on Little Plains Road in Southampton, where they disquieted the neighbors until his death in 2002. He later made a duplicate set, which gallery owner Ruth Vered and her partner Janet Lehr acquired and installed on their Sag Harbor property, the former Bethel Baptist Church, two years ago.
Opinion seems to be divided on their appropriateness, and not only because they’re out of character with their surroundings. As the work of an artist whose controversial video portrait of his daughters’ sexual development is the subject of a tug of war between his younger daughter Emma and his estate, they are viewed less than sympathetically by those who see the artist as a degenerate who exploited his children in pursuit of his own agenda. That argument will be settled by the interested parties, and really has no bearing on the merits of the legs as a work of public art in a prominent village location.
Considering the paradoxical dearth of public art in a village notable for the many artist who live and work here, I think it’s about time we got a monument by a prominent local artist that’s livelier and more noteworthy than the generic Civil War statue at the intersection of Main and Madison. Rivers was a member of the East End art community for more than half a century. To be sure, he didn’t live in Sag Harbor, but he is buried in our Jewish cemetery, so he’s truly a permanent resident. The former church is also a fitting location for his sculpture. It became an art center when Abraham and Esther Rattner bought it in the 1950s—it’s where Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend, Ruth Kligman, worked briefly during the summer of 1956—so what could be a more suitable spot for showing off Larry’s shapely legs?
Artists Don’t Get No Respect
Artists need to get over themselves. That was the blunt message from Jerry Saltz, New York magazine’s senior art critic, to his artist-dominated audience at Guild Hall on July 18th, when he delivered the Annual Pollock-Krasner Lecture. Funny, irreverent, self-deprecating and voluble, Jerry is the art world’s answer to Rodney Dangerfield. His monologue, provocatively titled “The Good, The Bad and the Very Bad: An art critic talks about art, demons, and other things that have to do with making art today,” focused on how artists’ expectations often outstrip achievement. And he was just as frank about unrealistic notions of the critic’s power and influence as he was about the artist’s misguided visions of fame and fortune.
Having been a journalistic art critic for more than 30 years, first for The New York Times’ now-defunct Long Island section and then for WLIU radio, I was delighted to hear Jerry discredit the image of the critic as a tastemaker whose judgments can make or break an artist’s career. On the contrary, he maintained, critics play a limited role in the rise and fall of artists’ reputations, and virtually none in determining the market for their work. It’s only natural to want a rave review, but I agree with Jerry’s contention that it has very little influence on an artist’s ultimate success.
“Artists want everyone to love them,” Jerry declared. That’s an overstatement for effect, but it does highlight some of the demons that haunt the studio, where the artist labors in isolation and struggles to give tangible form to intangible concepts or feelings. Having the idea is one thing, finding a way to express it so others can get the message is something else again. Remember Edison’s assertion that genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration? Well, it may be a cliché, but it’s true. Then, having expended all that energy on an artistic labor of love, the demon of self-doubt pokes you with its pitchfork. Is my work good enough? Will anyone else get it? Then another demon takes a stab. What if no gallery will show it? Suppose it does get shown, but no one buys it? And even worse, what if it gets a bad review?
As far as Jerry is concerned, that should be the least of an artist’s worries, and I concur. Andy Warhol, the world’s most famous and successful modern artist, never got a favorable review in his life. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Julian Schnabel and other contemporary art stars do have their critical champions, but they’re regularly pilloried by others. What makes the market, according to Jerry, is marketing.
Before he spoke, Jerry mentioned to me that a poll by Art Review magazine had named him the fifty-fifth most important person in the art world—hardly a top draft pick. When I introduced him I included that statistic, which got a hearty laugh from the audience. Who was number one, they wanted to know. The answer: the art dealer Larry Gagosian. If what you want is commercial success, Jerry told them, find a dealer who will promote your work, an enthusiast to write about it and a few collectors who will invest in it, and don’t worry about whether critics or the general public love you or what you do.
If you think that sounds cynical, Jerry would be the first to agree with you. He has a pretty jaundiced view of the high-powered contemporary art scene. But even as he admonished artists to stop complaining that they don’t get enough recognition and to scale back their expectations of stardom, he encouraged them to remain true to themselves and to follow their inner necessity. Far from suggesting that they compromise themselves or just give up, he advised them to stay with it and keep it authentic. That’s the only way to be credible, and it holds true for art criticism as well. Both processes, he believes, should be intuitive, not calculated or formulaic, or they become mannered, shallow and pretentious.
In the end, credibility is the defining factor that both artists and critics need to embrace. Although they speak different languages—as Jerry put it, critics are dog-like in their direct communication with their audience, while artists are like cats, which express themselves indirectly—if they aren’t honest, they aren’t worth paying attention to. Authenticity, he insisted, is the true measure of success.
Art’s a Bargain
I don’t know about you, but with the economy the way it is, I’m on the lookout for bargains. More than ever, we want value for our money, and when it comes to great deals we can’t do better than our museums or historic sites. They’re popular destinations for locals and out-of-towners alike, but not everyone realizes what bargains they are.
These places are called non-profits for a reason. There’s a huge gap between what you pay at the door and what it actually costs to let you in.
At the museum where I work, the increasing number of requests for discounts prompted me to calculate that differential, and to ask some of my colleagues to do the same. The results of my informal survey bear out my contention that cultural attractions are among the best buys in town.
My museum—the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, where the artists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived and worked—belongs to Stony Brook University’s non-profit foundation. It has beautiful grounds overlooking Accabonac Creek and a charming 19th century house full of their stuff, but the main draw is Pollock’s studio floor, covered with colorful remnants of his controversial paint-pouring technique. We’re open three days a week from May through October, and last year we had about 6,500 visitors.
We charge $5 for general admission and $10 for a one-hour guided tour. Members get in for free, and so do children under 12, as well as New York state and city university students, faculty and staff. When everything is factored in—salaries and benefits, utilities, insurance, supplies, advertising, and all the other expenses—each pair of feet on the floor in 2009 cost us $48.84. Admissions amounted to a little over $51,000, which averages out to $7.84 a person. So where did we get the other forty-one bucks?
Like most cultural organizations, we rely on several sources of income to make up the difference. We have no endowment, but our two staff positions are state-funded. The rest comes from memberships, museum store sales and other earnings, government and foundation grants, individual donations and fundraising events—the traditional non-profit strategy.
Zach Studenroth, director of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, which is also open seasonally, says that’s his formula too. Last year he had about the same number of visitors as we did. They paid $5 each, with discounts for seniors, students and groups, but the real cost of admission was $28. Your ticket gets you into one of the village’s grandest architectural confections, and once inside you see fascinating art and artifacts from Sag Harbor’s glory days as a whaling port. It’s an eccentric, eclectic and authentic tribute to a bygone era, all for about one-sixth of its actual value.
In Bridgehampton, the Children’s Museum of the East End [right] charges $9 for admission to a wonderland of interactive educational exhibits, where youngsters and grownups can have fun while they learn about the local community. The array of imaginative programming is staggering. There are classes, workshops, performances and special events, which help with the bottom line. They have the lowest differential among the five museums in the survey, but there’s still an $11 gap between the admission price and the $20 cost per capita. The executive director, Steve Long, tells me that they get a third of their money from earned income, a third from grants and gifts, and a third from fundraising activities. That’s a good balance, in line with what most unendowed non-profits aim for.
At the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, a small endowment helps underwrite curatorial positions, but the bulk of the budget must be raised annually. The museum, which had about 26,500 visitors last year, boasts a fine permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American art and runs a lively year-round program of temporary exhibitions, lectures, films, concerts and classes. This is one of the biggest bargains on the South Fork. You pay $5 to get in—only $3 if you’re a student or senior, and free if you’re 18 or under—but if you paid what it costs you’d pony up a whopping $106. Admissions cover only about 1% of their general operating expenses.
Similar numbers are reported by East Hampton’s cultural center, Guild Hall, with the John Drew Theater and an art museum devoted to artists of the region, past and present, under the same roof. The museum asks only for a suggested donation, which makes a negligible contribution to the bottom line. Calculating its per capita cost is problematic, since the galleries are often open before performances and during intermissions, when audience members can see the exhibitions at no extra charge. Taken as a whole, each of the roughly 39,000 bodies that entered the building last year cost $88.71.
Why do museums routinely subsidize admissions so heavily? Because we can, thanks to those alternative sources of income. Also because we believe it’s the right way to serve our community. Guild Hall’s executive director, Ruth Appelhof, sums it up succinctly. “Our mission,” she says, “is about supporting the arts and artists on the East End, and inviting and providing access for all is paramount.”