Critical Essays on Abstract Painting Today

In contemporary art, Abstraction rules the order of the day like at no time before, except when New York’s Abstract expressionist artists exploded onto the international scene and elevated the NYC artworld above that of Paris. One key difference today is that there are artists making money similar to that of professional athletes and entertainers because of the entry of art into the financial art market  as a major new financial instrument. In January 2016 a historical survey exhibition of abstract paintings by 35 artists opens at what will be the world’s largest contemporary art gallery space totaling 100,000 square feet. Former MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, now a partner in the Hauser Wirth and Schimmel art exhibition compound being built in downtown Los Angeles and designed by leading museum architect Anabelle Seldorf (who is also designing the expansion of MCA San Diego). Because HW&S plans for a third of its exhibitions to be historical, non-commercial exhibitions, it will defacto become the third museum of modern and contemporary art in downtown Los Angeles, the other being the new Broad Museum, which opens on September 20, 2015, and of course LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has two spaces, the MoCA on Grand ave., and the 55,000 sq. ft exhibition space, the MoCA Geffen, in Little Toyko. The latter is to be renovated by Frank Gehry.

Paul Schimmel’s debut exhibition curatorial exhibition at HS&W Los Angeles (which he describes as the first “museum-like gallery) will be “A Revolution Within,”will feature “35 artists from the late 1940s to the present working in abstraction–kind of biomorphic and figurative abstraction.” The gallery promises to have a beautiful restaurant, major art bookstore, artist and curatorial talks, and more.

Vincent Johnson

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ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Exhibitions

Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Painting lives on, but the critical terms stagnate and slacken, the art historian says

by Richard Shiff  |  5 June 2015
Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Eddie Martinez, Time Was (2007). Copyright Eddie Martinez. Courtesy the artist and a private collection
Painting is back in style. At the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the exhibition New York Painting (until 30 August) looks at the work of 11 contemporary artists based in the city, including Eddie Martinez and Antek Walczak, who are part of the medium’s “recent return to cultural acclaim,” in the words of the art historian Richard Shiff. Yet critics, who often insist on comprehensiveness, have failed to take into account the raw power of individual pictures, Shiff argues. In the below essay, which is an adapted version of his catalogue entry for the exhibition, Shiff surveys the terrain of criticism and explains why critics have been remiss.

Jack Whitten, Prime Mover (1974). Courtesy the artist.

Repetition and cliché infect art criticism. The art historian Thierry de Duve noted an irony in 2003: “About once every five years, the death of painting is announced, invariably followed by the news of its resurrection.”

Like history, criticism is subject to optics—that is, perspective. Critics once opposed photography to painting, as if the two media were representative of antithetical psychologies and social orders. This perspective lies within the penumbra of Walter Benjamin, who associated painting with focused concentration and photography and film with disruptive distraction. But photography, film and video are productive technological aids for painters, as are copiers and computers. Few of us today balk at the juxtaposition of hand-drawing and digital printing. Each can be manipulated to resemble the other—or not. It remains an artist’s choice, refined or sometimes reversed in response to immediate sensation. Critics, with their comprehensive concepts, shield themselves from such experiential disorder.

The problem is optical: two parties, critics and artists, look past each other with incompatible expectations. Art critics often typecast painters as committed “modernists” and, what is worse, “formalists.” But even Clement Greenberg, who has been maligned for his rigid evaluative standards, warned of applying conceptual order to aesthetic judgment. Few listened when he said it: “There’s no theory. No morality.” Feeling comes first. When critics argue that any emotional or intellectual position must always derive from an existing cultural construct, they beg the question, and dismiss the feeling of their own experiences.

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Consider this common, usually unchallenged, notion: photography constitutes “a phenomenon from which painting has been in retreat since the mid-19th century”. This is Douglas Crimp’s phrasing from 1981, put at the service of the argument that painting had died. Yes, photography depersonalizes imagery. But so does much modern painting. To avoid “that hand touch,” as he phrased it, Robert Mangold used sprayers and rollers. Mary Heilmann developed a slapdash technique, “a freeform, unstretched kind of painting work,” as she has said, so that her hand might be anyone’s. David Reed arranged paintings in the manner of film strips, to be animated by an anonymous viewer’s mobility. Jack Whitten combed, raked, or swept his way across paint layers: “The idea was to construct a non-relational painting by extending a single gesture to encompass the entire picture plane,” he once said. “The analogy, symbolically, was to photography.” Thoughts of impersonal, mechanistic photography have motivated many innovative painters. The two media are not at odds unless willfully put there.

A social critique like Crimp’s operates within limited optics. An artist’s need to engage in hand-work raises issues apart from the totemic value of handmade objects as markers of cultural prestige and economic status. The notion that humans have always had the desire to make paintings should not be dismissed as an arbitrary element of modernist mythology, as Crimp’s account insists. Academicised critical formulations—whether they are dialectical, historicist or determinist—have no bearing on the human need for immersion in physical acts of creation.

Ruth Root, Untitled (2014). Photo: Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska, Salzburg

Clichéd metaphors

Corpse, zombie, vampire, ghost, mourning and cannibalization: these are among the clichéd metaphors attached to painting. In his 1984 article Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson assessed the society that had nurtured walking-dead media. His analysis derived from the prevailing theoretical discourse—the writings of Benjamin along with other Europeans, such as Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord—only to re-enter the critical conversation as an authoritative template for North Americans. Those who argued the case for postmodernism in the 1980s, with its strategies of pastiche and appropriation, seemed to act their theory out; they cited Jameson frequently, repeating his array of examples and mimicking his phrasing.

Postmodernism signaled the collapse of the modernist ideology and the dissolution of modernism’s foundations in authenticity, individual subjectivity and emotional expressiveness. Jameson noted “the waning of affect … the imitation of dead styles … the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past.” Such strategies and effects served a consumer’s “appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself”—life removed from living, feeding on the corpse of life. Gone was the integral subject, the authentic experience, the expressive self. Gone was easel painting.

Joe Bradley, Maag Areal (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Photo: Thomas Müller

The emerging consensus already troubled Max Kozloff in 1975: “A whole mode, painting, has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing.” Arthur Danto added a wrinkle in 1993: “It was … ‘handmade’ art that was dead … the easel picture.” Despite painting’s recent return to critical acclaim—or marketplace enthusiasm—metaphors of its demise persist, as if this art, when revived, were still half-dead, an aura lacking a body. As David Geers wrote in 2012: “[We] re-live a myth of a ‘wild,’ unmediated subjectivity welded inextricably to the primal medium of paint … nostalgic and mystified.”

Today, painting lives on while the critical terms pale. In 2014, Laura Hoptman organised an exhibition of recent painting, The Forever Now, for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her ingenious title generated unwanted echoes of Thomas Lawson’s vilification of Barbara Rose’s analogous exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, American Painting: The Eighties, staged in 1979: “a corpse made up to look forever young.” At the time, Rose’s artists—among them, Elizabeth Murray, Mark Lancaster and Mark Schlesinger—were condemned wholesale, despite the variety of their methods. They shared only the misadventure of painting. To greet an exhibition like Rose’s or Hoptman’s with bias for or against the medium is to miss all the informative nuances. When critics harp on rising commercial values or restrict their analysis to social critique, they deny life to the medium, so that painting appears vampiric. But such a response derives from critical concepts that are projected onto the art. It ignores the work’s manifest energy.

Ross Iannatti, Hysteresis/Large no. 2 (2014). Courtesy of the artist and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

Generating generalities

The politics of art keeps generating generalities. Within American universities, the case against painting has hinged on the belief that Western culture is morally bankrupt; that it is inherently sexist, racist, colonialist, imperialist and authoritarian. Because Western nations sponsor museums packed with paintings—many of which are commissioned or owned by oligarchs and dictatorial leaders—the medium can appear complicit with corruption and oppression. Yet such induction is faulty: an artist may be complicit, but painting itself exercises no agency.

In 1974, Rose warned against “the skepticism of any criticism based on distinctions of quality.” As she wrote: “weakening public trust in art may as easily pave the way to fascist counterrevolution, for a mass culture in the service of totalitarian ideals.”  When Crimp quoted from Rose’s essay in 1981, he actively excised that sentence. Her overt fear of “fascist counterrevolution” would have muddled his argument, which required opposing his “cultural” and “historical” interest to her “natural” and “mythical” aestheticism.

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

According to Crimp, Rose failed as a critic because she never challenged “the myths of high art” or “the artist as unique creator.” If these “myths” continued to inform Rose’s optics, we merely witness a conflict of systems of belief. Neither Crimp nor Rose is more ideologically progressive (although Crimp  attacked Rose’s values as regressive, implying that history had a trajectory and had left both her and the medium of painting behind).

To call Rose’s belief a myth, as Crimp did, is either trivial or inherently extreme—extreme if it implies that one’s own belief is not also a myth. All beliefs, which instigate aesthetic strategies, amount to myths; if not, they would be facts or laws of nature. But even laws of nature are subject to irregularity and exceptions to their presumed invariability; they are also therefore mythical. The “death of painting,” as a widely held theory that its adherents fail to question, is another myth. We cannot escape our myths simply by accepting alternative beliefs. To suppress general beliefs and principles altogether would be more effective—a state worth seeking, even if impossible to attain.

Artists devoted to painting believe in it, but they also doubt their belief. Their doubt opens painting, as well as its artists, to living.

Richard Shiff is professor and the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.

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ART NEWS Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Structure Rising.”

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Trends

The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now

 ART NEWS

Riffing on the past as it comments on our own time, contemporary abstraction evokes landscapes, bodies, signs, buildings, and much more

It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect. The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art, past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented “Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20 abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in “Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S. and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens, for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.1. Cosmologies

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs, orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a rational utopia in outer space.

Another kind of cosmological imagery emerged in the 1920s: the constellation or star chart, consisting of an array of dots connected by lines. In the late 1940s, Pollock took the fixed constellations and set them into motion, in paintings like Reflection of the Big Dipper (1947). Both static and mobile versions of the motif play important roles in contemporary abstraction.For the Parisian Surrealists, the dot-and-line motif of the star chart was significant as an example of the way that intelligible meaning (the figurative image of Orion or the Great Bear) can emerge from chance events (the random distribution of stars in the night sky). For a contemporary audience, however, the same formal motif is likely to read not as a literal constellation but as the more abstract image of a network.Chris Martin’s cagelike “constellations” evoke the Internet Age, with its promise of total connectedness and its threat of incessant surveillance. The funky, handmade facture of his painting, with papier-mâché spheres emerging at each node, reasserts the value of flawed humanity over the seamless web of technology. Julie Mehretu’s paintings similarly transform the meaning of her sources. Where Pollock’s swirling constellations appeared to their original audience as images of the Jungian unconscious, Mehretu’s grids and streaks, punctuated by shifting crowds and billowing smoke, express the dynamism and turmoil of the global economy.Among contemporary painters, David Row combines orbital imagery with crystalline forms, shifting its meaning from social and utopian to spiritual and transcendent. Other abstract artists using cosmological imagery include Olafur Eliasson, Iole de Freitas, Bill Komoski, Albert Oehlen, Matthew Ritchie, Peter Schuyff, and Christopher Wool.2. Landscapes

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary abstraction.

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside. His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his nonfigurative compositions.At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.3. Anatomies

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences” have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts, internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially look like abstract landscapes.Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips, stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets. These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create new compositions.We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.4. Fabrics

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their brilliantly colored compositions.

Of the artists emerging from this movement, Valerie Jaudon has remained one of the most severely abstract. In her recent work, she almost eliminates color, using only black and white, or white paint on bare brown linen. But she combines this austere palette with a sensual profusion of pattern, numbing and teasing the mind like a carved wooden panel from the Alhambra. Her designs suggest the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, without ever quite resolving into regularity.In the 1970s, some American artists, like Kim MacConnel, looked to African fabrics as models of laid-back geometry. Today, it is African artists themselves who are winning recognition as brilliant innovators. Take, for example, the abstract tapestries of El Anatsui, on view in a retrospective that runs through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui’s tapestries are put together from hundreds or thousands of pieces of metallic scrap—the caps, bands, wrappers, and labels that adorn the bottles and other items you would find in a market or trash heap in western Africa. The shimmering gold and silver of Anatsui’s work offer an image of celebratory splendor. Draped and folded, rather than hung flush against the wall, these tapestries challenge our assumptions about the obligatory flatness of abstraction. Other contemporary abstractionists working with the imagery of fabric and decorative patterning include Linda Besemer, Bernard Frize, Richard Kalina, Ryan McGinness, Beatriz Milhazes, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, and Adriana Varejão.5. Architectures

Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring, the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge, the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Whereas Halley and Morris propose large allegorical statements about contemporary society, Rachel Harrison speaks to a realm of personal experience. Her sculptures often incorporate beams, lintels, and moldings embedded in cement or pieces of sheetrock fastened into a loose grid, accompanied by toys, framed photographs, and other household furnishings. The works seem like fragments of houses that have been smashed apart by natural disasters or worn down by everyday life. And yet there’s something oddly cheerful about Harrison’s eroded architectures, even when they’re not painted in the primary-school colors she often favors. They have a kind of pluck, as if they’re determined to carry on, no matter what. (In Harrison’s most recent work, architecture has mutated into anatomy, as her stacked forms begin to resemble living creatures.)Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.6. Signs

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning. They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into blankness.Mark Bradford’s paintings resemble the giant computer screens that sophisticated police departments use for real-time surveillance of traffic, crime, and accidents, with data overlaid on urban grids. But in contrast to the flickering pixels of the computer screen, Bradford’s images have actual substance. Like Calame, he works with papers and materials gathered from the streets of Los Angeles, shredding and aging them, then layering them into his compositions. Bradford’s powerful combination of imagery and materials captures the experience of living simultaneously in the parallel universes of information and sensation.Other artists using written language or formats recalling maps and diagrams include Ai Weiwei, Mel Bochner, David Diao, Caio Fonseca, Carmela Gross, Gu Wenda, Jenny Holzer, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Glenn Ligon, Tatsuo Miyajima, RETNA, Joan Snyder, Xu Bing, Stephen Westfall, Terry Winters, and Hossein Zendoroudi. Written language, in particular, seems to have an international potency.Ultimately, the evolution of abstract art—like the evolution of modern art more broadly—has been a series of responses to the experience of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Halley argues in a brilliant 1991 essay, abstraction before World War II was largely inspired by the utopian belief that rational technocracy (i.e., socialism) would create a better world. The technocratic ideal found its most powerful symbol not in the rosy-cheeked workers of Socialist Realism but in geometric abstraction. After the devastation of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, geometry could no longer function as an image of utopia. Changing polarity, it became instead a symbol of alienation.Much contemporary art—not to mention fiction, film, and television—reflects a Blade Runner vision of a world, in which the individual is rendered powerless by anonymous government agencies, giant corporations, and deafening mass culture. It’s useful to remember that this nightmare vision is itself a romantic stereotype, ignoring the positive aspects of postmodern society. Since 1980, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, both as a percentage of world population and in absolute numbers. The principal reason is the globalization of the economy, which has created millions of factory jobs in the former Third World, lifting workers from starvation in the countryside to subsistence in the cities. Some of the most exciting abstract artists today are those, like Anatsui and Mehretu, whose work responds to this transformation, either by reinventing traditional arts for a global art world or by creating visual allegories of social change that carry us beyond the old capitalism-socialism divide. In 2013, as in 1913, abstraction is how we think about the future.Pepe Karmel is associate professor of art history at New York University.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Abstraction’s Ambiguity is Its Own Reward

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1957, 461/4 × 44˝, oil on canvas. Copyright the Estate of Joan Mitchell and Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.

On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?

Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.

Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.

Louise Fishman, “Zero At The Bone,” 2010. Oil on linen. 70 × 60˝. Photo credit: Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.

What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”

Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.

Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.

Karl Klingbiel, “Book of Days,” 2010. 41 × 41˝. Oil on paper (woodcut print) mounted on canvas, mounted on board. Photo credit: Karl Klingbiel Studio and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art, New York.

“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.

Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.

The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).

A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.

“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”

A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.

Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.

In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.

Madeleine Spierer, “Parcours d’un espace (Course of a Space),” 2010. Variable dimensions. Rolled-up newspaper, glue, paint. Photo credit: Andata Ritorno Laboratoire d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland

“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.

In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.

Contributor

Edward M. Gómez EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at www.edwardmgomez.com.

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Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Benjamin Buchloh, Brian O’Doherty, Conceptual art, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois

1. Conceptuality versus medium specificity

What continues to give an edge to any discussion about the current status of painting as a medium is that this particular debate raises the following fundamental question: which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? Precisely because the theory of High Modernism pronounced painting to be the ‘Royal Road’ of artistic practice, it seems that ever since that doctrine was challenged it has been the fate of painting as a medium to provide the forum for all arguments about the road that art should follow in the future. Even if some of the original heat has gone out of these arguments in the course of their cyclical resurrection and abandonment since the late 1960s, it still remains a burning issue. An increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years. There are today, quite simply, a multitude of interesting positions in painting, each in its own way doubtlessly relevant to our times. Nevertheless, painting still has to fend off the latent reproach of being reactionary, not least because populist apologists for the medium often use reactionary arguments in its support, for example when they celebrate the ‘return of painting’ as a renaissance of authentic artistic skills. Faced with this situation, it seems useful to reconstruct the fundamental questions inherent in the arguments about the validity of painting in particular, and about the definition of contemporary artistic practice in general, in the hope of finding a way out of this notoriously intractable discussion.

One question that inevitably arises when painting is being discussed is why painting should be considered in isolation from other media? Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? Is this still relevant? Or is it not? A possible first answer is, ‘No it is not. Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. Today every medium represents only one possibility among many. The only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project. The choice of a particular medium only has meaning inasmuch as it relates to a strategic gain within the overall project. If a conceptual statement can be adequately formulated in terms of painting, then artists paint, but if a different medium proves to be more useful, they turn to video or build installations. In this context anybody who looks at the medium alone is missing the most important thing.’

A second possible answer is, ‘Yes it is. It is even necessary to discuss painting qua painting, because that is the only way to investigate its true significance. The enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any kind of art or art criticism that excludes all of that must necessarily be superficial. Anyone who reduces art to transferable concepts and readily comprehensible ideas has lost sight of what art is, and what it can achieve by virtue of its nature as a non-verbal language. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content, and not in terms of its medium-specific form, becomes the kind of issue-related speciality art that critics and curators love, because it always comes with ready-made categories to file it under, such as “identity politics”, “institutional critique”, “critical urbanism” and so on. No valid art or criticism can avoid dialogue with the medium qua medium.’

Both positions seem well founded in principle. So perhaps it is unnecessary to opt for either one or the other, as one may adopt a different perspective from one case to the next. A painter’s paintings may be regarded fruitfully as engaging with the medium of painting in terms specific to that medium, while painting by conceptual artists working with a range of media, for instance, may be more readily understood with reference to the conceptual themes it proposes. From a pragmatic point of view this may be a useful approach. A convincing solution to the fundamental problem it is not. The conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice only becomes comprehensible in all its intensity and depth of meaning when it is viewed not pragmatically but historically. By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium. Seen in this light the arguments produced by Conceptual Art at the end of the 1960s refute once and for all the ‘High Modernist’ theory (adduced by a critic such as Clement Greenberg) that true art must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. If one follows this argument through to its conclusion, then the refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks a historical caesura with normative effect and consequences that must inevitably be faced. It represents a threshold that no one can step back over.

2. The change to conceptuality as the historical norm

The assertion of the normative validity of the turn towards conceptuality became canonical largely because the school of American art criticism around the journal October made this claim one of the central tenets of its art-historical theories. In her essay ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the age of the post-medium condition’, for instance, Rosalind Krauss characterises the effects of the conceptual turn at the end of the 60s as normative and irrevocable.1 To begin with, Krauss reiterates the argument Joseph Kosuth proposed in 1969 in Art after Philosophy that Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Acknowledging this thesis, she describes Conceptual Art’s strategic coup as a successful refutation of the doctrine proposed by Clement Greenberg, according to which art, by necessity, concentrates on a thorough exploration of the laws of the given medium, in particular painting. According to Krauss, this global privileging of the concept over the medium in effect created entirely new, historically irreversible conditions for the production of art. After Conceptual Art, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition’.

For Krauss, this historical caesura manifests itself in the ‘mixed-media’ installations of Marcel Broodthaers – for example his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures (1972), a fictitious museum exhibition consisting of an obscure collection of artefacts (stuffed animals, books, prints, etc.), all of which show or represent eagles in one way or another. Broodthaers restricts himself in this work to the conceptual gesture of a spatial mise-en-scène. This gesture not only makes every included object into a readymade, but it also declares each one to be interchangeable. One eagle is worth as much as any other. What medium is used to represent the eagle is likewise a matter of complete indifference. Picture, object and text are all accorded the same status. Krauss interprets their equivalence as a radical withdrawal of all meaning from specific artistic media. Apart from being an attack on the traditional concept of art, the assertion that artwork is interchangeable also counts as a cynical embrace of the fact that artwork can be exchanged like any other commodity. By releasing art from the specificity of the medium, Krauss argues, Broodthaers effectively equated it to its pure exchange value.
In this way, she claims, the art object has been ‘reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’.2 For Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity therefore leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market.

In his essay ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, Benjamin Buchloh offers a variation on this argument.3 He too concedes that Kosuth, through his bold demands for an examination of the general conditions of art, successfully abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on the medium in post-war American painting. At the same time, however, Buchloh warns that the freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues, in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions. For if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not. Buchloh describes this dubious triumph of Conceptual Art as follows:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest
lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the
traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoirsseurship
– have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition
of the aesthetic becomes
on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function
of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power
rather than taste).
4

Here Buchloh relativises the emancipatory status of conceptual art by pointing out that it can also be understood as a reflex of the latest metamorphosis in the capitalist conditions of production. Thus whereas pop art and minimal art still celebrate industrial production and mass consumption in their materials and subjects, conceptual art, through its fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy.

These arguments lead up to two substantive conclusions about possible modes of artistic practice after conceptual art. If one follows Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s intervention shifts the practice of art onto a new level: while he demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless, he simultaneously establishes the conceptual gesture as the ultimate possible artistic act which can still create meaning. According to this view, the only art that has any significance at all in the historical framework of the ‘post-medium-condition’ is one that declares its subject to be the system of art, its conditions and its history as a whole. Media-immanent practice is dismissed as irrelevant as the meta-historical conceptual gesture alone can lay claim to artistic relevance. If one considers the contribution of conceptual art to constitute a normative caesura in the history of art, then the conceptual gesture is the only available sphere of activity left open to artists who seek to make work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art production.

This conclusion is then reinforced by a second: as Krauss, and more particularly Buchloh, argue that the arrival of the ‘post-medium-condition’ in artistic practice coincides with art’s subjugation to the dictate of institutions and laws of the market, it then is not only a historical but a political necessity to adopt a detached, meta-critical position in relation to the system of art. From this point of view, those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, for example in painting, not only condemn their practice to historical insignificance, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market. The conclusion is then that only a form of art that through conceptual gestures articulates a critical position with regard to the institution of art is capable of resisting the historical devaluation of artistic media and the subjugation of production to the laws of the art-system. In this way, both Krauss and Buchloh posit the significance of institutional critique from a historical point of view as the last form of art still capable of making a difference.

3. From strategic logic to the practical aesthetics of conceptual gestures

The question now is how, in practice, are we to imagine an art of conceptual gestures? Taking the arguments of Krauss and Buchloh literally, the only conclusion that can really be drawn is that with the entry of art into the ‘post-medium condition’ the notion of practice – if one understands it as continuous work on particular subject matter using particular formal media – has lost its meaning as such. The art of the conceptual gesture stages the artistic act as a direct entry in the book of art history. A successful gesture rewrites history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique. Its meaning must be as transparent as an argument in textual form, so that the general understanding of art and its history is altered by its clarity and persuasiveness. If this gesture has a revolutionary effect, that is, if it constitutes a profound intervention in the history of art, then it acquires the status of a singular event. This definition of the conceptual gesture as a unique historical event with a convincing meaning has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production: in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a new understanding of art. And this contribution tends to be unique. After all, how often can anyone achieve a conceptual gesture of historic dimension?

Modernism still permitted artists to produce revolutions through continuous work in their own medium (that is to say in practice). A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism, however, requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero – he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism had already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely. As a result, we now have the tragic figure of the melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come to him or her, or worse still, waiting for the next idea to come, trying to reinvent their work after their first success.

The irony here is that the type of art that in recent years has actually succeeded in turning the ideal of a historically influential and universally comprehensible gesture into reality, is in fact the so-called ‘one-liner’ art of the 1990s. The dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde fulfils all the necessary criteria, as does the artist’s self-portrait as a wax figure with the features of Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s Elvis: these represent unique statements demonstrating the new possibilities for interpreting both the concept of sculpture and the art-historical conventions for the representation of vanitas or self-portraiture, respectively. These works were universally understood and widely reported in all the media. So, strictly speaking, the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more than a well-told wisecrack. By taking the criteria of historical-critical conceptualism at its very word, ‘one-liner’ art demonstrates that the principle of the conceptual gesture scarcely differs from the commercial logic that lies behind the skilful launch of a publicity stunt or the effective placement of a hit single.

One might assume that the effective realisation of the conceptual gesture in the ‘one-liner’ idiom must seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism. In some respects this conclusion might well be justified, if perhaps just a little premature. For only if one reduces the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone does it cease to be possible to distinguish its significance from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. But how else is one to understand the gesture if not strategically? Brian O’Doherty suggests a more flexible definition in Inside the White Cube. He describes the conceptual gesture not only in terms of the logic of strategic intervention in history, but also in terms of an aesthetics of its own:

I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and
grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs
that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and
ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may
overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by
cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the
context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike and
thus has a meta-life around and about art. Insofar as it is unsuccessful it
remains a frozen curio, if remembered at all. If it is successful it becomes
history and tends to eliminate itself. It resurrects itself when the context
mimics the one that stimulated it, making it ‘relevant’ again. So a gesture has
an odd historical appearance, always fainting and reviving.
5

O’Doherty here replaces the hard normative criteria of transparency and singularity with the more dynamic parameters of elegance, didacticism, irony and perspectivity. By stressing the particular aesthetic and pedagogic effect of the gesture on its public, he emphasises that the staging of the conceptual gesture constitutes a practice in material terms, which possesses a formal language of its own and achieves particular effects by use of particular means. Such an understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history, just as the concepts of irony and perspectivity relativise the idea of the gesture as a unique event. O’Doherty’s concept of history is not linear and normative but multi-perspectival and relational. The meaning of a gesture cannot therefore be taken directly from the gesture itself, but is dependent upon the historical context that it both actively construes and is retroactively perceived in. The meaning of the gesture (just like that of an ironic remark) is therefore not transparent but latent. The historical context is furthermore not given by history per se, nor has it one single meaning. O’Doherty understands the construction and reconstruction of historical connections as a form of artistic and critical practice in its own right. In this way, O’Doherty avoids the Modernist reduction of the gesture to one single throw of the dice by describing the staging of the conceptual gesture as material practice that opens up history as a dynamic field for action.

4. Painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted

In principle you might say that a postmodern theorisation of the conceptual gesture differs from the modernist definition in that it understands the gesture not as a singular event with normative validity but as a strategic intervention into the history of art with a situational meaning. From the postmodern point of view conceptual gestures reflect the history and conditions of art by producing situations that show art in a light that is constantly new and changing. In practice it is probably easier to meet the challenge of producing surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events. This is probably why, in the context of the postmodern debate in art in the late 1970s, it again seemed possible to integrate painting situatively and strategically into conceptual practice. A common form of situative integration was the inclusion of painting as one object among many in comprehensive spatial setups (see, for example, Ilya Kabakov and the ‘Sots-Art’ artists). Another way to remodel painting according to a logic of situative strategic choices was to forcibly disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references (for example, in Kippenberger’s paintings, where meaning can only be accessed through a multiplicity of cryptic references to other artworks and social events).

Yve-Alain Bois develops the idea of painting as conceptual practice along similar lines in his book Painting as Model.6 Referring to the theses Hubert Damisch proposes in his book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Bois describes the ‘strategic model’ in painting as the well-considered location of a work within a network of references: ‘Like chess pieces, like phonemes in language, a work has significance, as Lévi-Strauss shows, first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…’7 Bois then underlines the situative significance of such a strategic intervention in the field of art by distinguishing it sharply from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art.

The strategic reading is strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in the
exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art criticism,
always ready, unconsciously or not, to follow the demands
of the market in search of new products, but neither does it believe in the
order of a homogeneous time without breaks, such as art history likes to
imagine.
8

Bois, however, goes a decisive step further in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Referring to Damisch he argues that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality is produced not only by way of positioning a work within a particular set of external references. For Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. In relation to this immanent criticality, the strategic instalment of painting in a network of external references has the status of a meta-critical gesture. This means that this gesture essentially derives its critical force from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific art practice it simply takes it to another level. This conceptuality, however, only exists as a potential. Consequently, Bois differentiates between a progressive type of painting, one that recognises and develops this conceptual potential, and a more conventional painting that relies uncritically on a traditional understanding of the medium. In Bois’s view, in order for the conceptual potential to be activated, a painting must produce its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations.
In support of this he quotes the following from Damisch:

It is not enough, in order for there to be painting, that the painter take up
his brushes again,’ Damish tells us: it is still necessary that it be worth the
effort, it is still necessary that [the painter] succeed in demonstrating to us
that painting is something we positively cannot do without, that it is
indispensable to us, and that it would be madness – worse still, a historical
error – to let it lie fallow today.
9

In that he pleads for the possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential, Bois mediates between a conceptual and a medium-specific perspective. He tries to break down the conflict between the normative account of the conceptual turn and a medium-specific perspective on art practice. Various general conclusions relating to a resolution of this conflict could be derived from Bois’s line of argument.

The medium-specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique. All it has lost is its status as self-evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own. That means, on the one hand, that an appeal to the specifics of the medium as its sole justification is no longer possible. Painting can no longer just be painting. Today it is also necessarily a form of conceptual art, and as such it must be judged in relation to conceptual practices in other media, and in turn it must hold its own in this comparison. (Every group exhibition where different media are presented demonstrates this at a quite banal level.) But this also means that painting as practice can take strength precisely from the fact that by way of an immanent dialogue with its own history and conditions as a medium it arrives at a (situative strategic) self-justification within a more widely-spread conceptual horizon. In principle these conclusions correspond exactly to the thesis formulated by Thomas Lawson in his essay ‘Last Exit Painting’, in which the crisis in painting is understood as a positive opportunity, and the loss of its self-evident justification as a productive possibility that could provide painting with a conceptual basis again.10

5. Open Questions

The definition of situative strategic painting as an immanent conceptual practice has proven to be a practiceable one. It supplies the arguments for the necessary critique of retrograde approaches that repudiate the challenge of conceptual self-justification. It also allows for painting to be discussed as a relevant medium again, and thereby liberates it from the curse of a premature rejection at the hands of a normative understanding of history. Nevertheless, the ‘strategic model’ remains limited. To begin with, it can only describe the meaning of a painting in metaphors that are drawn from the conceptual field of argumentation; the main concepts that Bois finds for the meaning of painting are position’, ‘verification’ and ‘demonstration’. From this perspective, the agency of the artist would be limited to the declaration of his or her own position over and over again. ‘Here I stand, where do you stand?’ would be the invariable formula for any exchange that painting could provoke. This model is depressingly static. The description of positions in a field of opposites says nothing about the possibility of transforming that field, or any potential process of change that a work sets in motion.

Furthermore, a model that concentrates on interpreting a work only in terms of the strategic position it claims, effectively reduces the discussion of art in a no-less dismal fashion to the matter of its legitimation.11 No doubt, the question of whether a position is legitimate and how it legitimises itself is necessary if a critique is to investigate a work’s conceptual core and symbolic political standpoint. For the critique to have a conceptual edge it needs to discuss the legitimation of a work as a position. Yet, at the same time, every discussion of legitimacy is always based on the more than questionable assumption that something like legitimate art might actually exist. The experience of criticism, on the contrary, is precisely that all art can be adjudged legitimate from some viewpoints, and equally illegitimate when viewed from others. So in this sense the strategic model might be said to confuse the judgement of the completed work with the initial motivation of its production. For it does not follow from the fact that art will be scrutinised for its legitimacy that it was actually made with the intention of being legitimate, or that it can even be legitimate per se. Against this objection one of course could hold that a crucial point in the conceptualisation of art was precisely that the criticism of art was no longer considered to be a process that happened after the event, but an inner dynamic inherent in its production. Conceptual art is by definition art-critical art and the cogency of its critical position must therefore also be amenable to interrogation. Nevertheless, whether the critical potential of a work can be equated with the legitimacy of its strategic position is another question again, and one that still has to be discussed.

A further obvious limitation of the ‘strategic model’ is that, given the conceptual apparatus at its disposal, it does not provide any useful steps toward grasping the immanent qualities of a painting, even if it happens to actually recognise their existence in principle. All it can do is state that, for particular conceptual reasons, a painting is what it is. Any statement about what experience a painting communicates qua painting can scarcely be formulated with concepts like position, verification and demonstration. In fact it is questionable whether this quality of experience can be comprehended in conceptual categories at all, or whether the moment when the ‘strategic model’ reaches its limits really is the time when the art of describing aesthetic experiences comes into its own once again.

The final question that remains open is how painting, understood in terms of immanent conceptual practice, relates to the market and art institutions. A cynical position would be that as long as there are enough canvases to sell, and as long as the buyers perceive the conceptualisation of painting as just another refinement added to the commodity (one that does not trouble their bucolic conception of art), the market cares not a bit about the way painting has been subtly complicated by means of conceptual self-criticism. The counter-objection would be that, as Buchloh and Krauss point out, the abandonment of painting in favour of a purely conceptual process is no guarantee that such a practice will not also be appropriated – there are plenty of institutions specialising in the administration of conceptual types of work, and because of the absence of any material resistance, conceptual practices are even more likely to become trapped in institutional dependency. The choice of medium per se therefore says little about the critical potential that a work might develop in cases of doubt. With this contentious point we now arrive at a stalemate. It can only be resolved by a double appeal to criticism: painting’s present commercial boom certainly requires an acute conceptual critique of contemporary positions. At the same time the boom in interdisciplinary and project-based approaches at international biennales raises the question of how resistant ephemeral forms of practice are to the administrative logic of the global exhibition industry, and whether a renewed examination of the intractable materiality of certain media-specific approaches might not actually be what is needed at this precise moment.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison

— Jan Verwoert

Footnotes
  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999
  2. Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit Painting’, Artforum, October 1981, pp.40-47
  3. The transfer of the strategic model from the American school into German art criticism in this sense has produced a neurotic fixation on the examination of the legitimacy of art in discussions in the journal Texte zur Kunst, and a corresponding paranoid fear of illegitimacy among German artists.
  4. Ibid., p.15
  5. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999
  6. Ibid., p.519
  7. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986, p.70
  8. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
  9. Ibid., p.254. See also Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaunecadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984
  10. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p.256
  11. Ibid., p.255

===

R.H. Quaytman: Archive to Ark, the Subjects of Painting

Sarah Ganz Blythe

 

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, silkscreen ink and gesso on panel, 62.9 x 101.6cm. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Onward! enough speculation

keep on copying

the page must be filled.

Everything is equal, the good and the evil,

the fruitful and the typical,

they all become an exaltation of the

statistical.

There is nothing but facts — and phenomena

Final Bliss

— Gustave Flaubert via Hanne Darboven via Douglas Crimp (via R.H. Quaytman)1

‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’, R.H. Quaytman asks.2 To address this question, she devises an ‘artist’s art history’ that follows a learning-by-doing model through which she inserts herself into the material presence of this history.

Her work in response to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) is a case in point. Klee first exhibited the transfer drawing with watercolour — a wide-eyed angel hovering with wings outstretched, gaping mouth, locks of hair and feathers fluttering — in 1920 at Galerie Goltz in Munich. It inspired Gershom Scholem to pen a poem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’ (1921), to Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the drawing from the show.3 In Benjamin’s hands, Klee’s angel became the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. […] What we call progress is this storm.’4 Shortly after writing this in 1940 as part of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin is believed to have left the drawing in the care of Georges Bataille, who then passed it on to Theodor W. Adorno, who gave it to Scholem, who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Quaytman knew this life history when she visited the drawing there in 2014. She was struck by the figure’s ambiguity — angel or animal, male or female, self-portrait or alter ego? For one work in the series O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014), she meticulously copied the image onto a wood panel, replicating Klee’s transfer technique, hoping to learn more through the making of the thing.5 In Quaytman’s rendering, a molten polyurethane splatter now comes between the angel and the past he suspiciously contemplates from a modest hole. A wide border of a geometric pattern derived from a Brazilian basket weave cleanly frames the black cloud; it is at once evocative of medieval icons and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. Besides the afterglow of fluorescent paint applied to the top edge of the panel, there is no heavenly benevolence or ethereal escape here. It it is not the past that Quaytman’s angel surveys, but us, the viewers.

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, urethane foam, silkscreen ink and gesso on two panels, 31.4 x 31.4cm and 82.6 x 82.6cm, detail

Such conscious positioning of viewership lies at the core of Quaytman’s work: ‘My pictures often reflect the space in front of the picture and the space the viewer is in, historically, optically or architecturally.’6 She achieves this through a working method that takes the conceptual form of an inconclusive book, in which each new exhibition of predominantly photography-based silkscreened images equates to a chapter that is developed in response to the location where they will be shown. ‘The ambition of this ongoing serialised system’, Quaytman writes, ‘is to develop a living, usable painting model, that corresponds with how — not only what — we see.’7 For example, the use of Klee’s Angelus Novus points towards her forthcoming body of work, Chapter 28, which will be presented in June of this year at the Israel Museum, while the border of the Atantowoto basket-weave pattern refers to Brazil, the eventual site of O Tópico, Chapter 27. The latter will be Quaytman’s first permanent installation, housed in a garden pavilion at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte. The building will take the form of the golden spiral, with interior walls positioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. The spiral’s curve is also registered in the gesso of several panels of the series, which themselves are proportioned according to the eight component parts of the golden ratio, a format the artist has adhered to since her first chapter, in 2001, and which she intends to pursue for the remainder of her career. While this conceptual framework connects the logic of the panels to that of the framing exhibition space, the panels’ surfaces register their surroundings via images of historical artworks, artists or events associated with the gallery, institution or location of display. The result of archival and field research, Quaytman’s ‘subjects’, as the Portuguese title O Tópico (‘The Topic’) suggests, are specific and wide-ranging, among them: a seed the artist found on the ground while visiting Brazil; a teenager posing in front of an old VW Bug, referring to an artwork by the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes; and the artist Dawn Kasper, shown working on a drawing that says ‘chaos is a …’. The panels bring external referents into the gallery ‘in the hope that’, as Quaytman says, ‘…attention, whether from a gaze or a glance, can be contained, reflected and distracted’.8

In this sense, painting is made to work against some of its most traditional formulations. Rather than offering a window-like view onto other worlds, the panels press into the gallery space and are formulated so that each is to be read in relation to its neighbour or another piece in the chapter. Occasional plinths protruding from the panels of Quaytman’s paintings, or, elsewhere, shelves accommodating a selection of them, disrupt the suspension of disbelief that representational images can produce while affirming the paintings’ status as objects that will be stored away. Rather than invoking a hermetic processional encounter, in which visitors would stop reverentially in front of each work, Quaytman’s paintings are positioned ‘as objects that you passed by — as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings’.9 Working against what she has called the ‘aloneness and self-sufficiency’ of paintings that ‘behave like film in dark rooms’, the flatness achieved through silkscreen on gesso allows the panels to ‘reverberate with other paintings around’.10 A large vocabulary of artistic languages and references shapes this effect: abstraction and figuration, silkscreened photographs on gesso and polyurethane splats, absorbing Op art patterns and glimmering diamond-dust lines, hand-ground pigments and encaustic paint, printed text and striped lines that reference the panels’ plywood edges while evoking Barnett Newman’s zips.11 Quaytman speaks of creating sustained attention through a visual syntax that inculcates first, second, even third readings in which the paintings open up many possible meanings, much like words in a poem.12 For example, a sequence of silkscreened allusions to the paintings’ place of exhibition may be interrupted by an Op art pattern that also indexes the site, while a ‘caption’ in the form of an arrow suggests punctuation. This variety is held together by a grammar in the form of rules that govern Quaytman’s practice. Not unlike Richard Serra’s text piece Verb List (1967—68), which offers a series of focused ‘actions’ that generate new forms, Quaytman’s strict adherence to format (chapters), size (golden ratio) and support (gessoed plywood with bevelled edges) provides the structure through which materials and subjects may vary while remaining interconnected. Rather than closing down meaning and invention through an imposing single vision, the open structure of associative relations invoked by the panels allows distinct media, materials and subjects to remain themselves while also animating one another. Much like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel, in which many voices, styles and references coexist within the author’s construction, Quaytman’s system permits a plurality of independent voices that are each allowed their own space within the gallery context.13 In one work from O Tópico, Chapter 27, for example, a gestural blue-brown pool in waxy encaustic lies against the geometrical rigour of the golden spiral in egg-yolk yellow. Mondrian lozenges hung within viewing distance quietly reiterate a segment of the spiral’s arc while perpendicular trompe l’oeil stripes evoke the plywood stripes that hover above the basket-weave pattern. Distinct pieces, like words, exist in and of themselves while also animating one another in contribution to their group as a whole.

But, what might this whole or subject be? Perhaps it is painting itself, summoned and pointed to without solely using the medium of painting. Quaytman writes: ‘Despite my frequent use of photography, the digital and printmaking techniques, I use the name “painting” to describe what I do.’14 She seems to ask: can a painting be a painting while being something else? And, as if to test out her logic, she plays a game of substituting ‘painting’ as a noun for other words in a sentence. This grammar exercise plays out amid her notes that accompany each of the 61 plates in the artist’s book , Chapter 24 (2012): ‘Declension: the variants of the form of the noun, pronoun or adjective by which grammatical case, number and gender are identified.’15 Painting, like a part of speech, can be placed in different contexts and made to act as the subject, predicate, verb or noun and then asked if it still retains its status as painting. ‘Paintings, like words, lose their origin and become, over time, emblems.’16 Quaytman formally accomplishes this exercise by employing non-painting methods (photography, silkscreen, sculpture), but also through the use of historical paintings themselves. They make their appearance in almost every sequence, called up for their association with the exhibition’s context or to signal the next stop in Quaytman’s itinerary. Her litany of iconic paintings by largely male modernist masters includes, in addition to the aforementioned examples: El Lissitzky’s Prouns, Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun (1961), Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and Sigmar Polke’s artificial resin paintings. She also draws on the photographs of such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Andrea Fraser. This ‘artist’s art history’ manifests itself through a range of replicative methods including the traditional academic mode of hand copying (such as the Klee) and the relatively recent technique of silkscreening (typically to reproduce paintings or photographs of other artists). Consistently, historical references are deliberately disrupted through shifts in colour, stark overlayed lines, shallow plinths, additional panels or the application of bulbous polyurethane splotches. This at once calls up the figures of painting’s past and interrupts, distorts and critically works against its utopic impulses and celebrated heroes.

Quaytman’s tactical approach is both inventive and resourceful. It balances the sheer desire to participate in painting while soberly mitigating the pitfalls of involvement.17 This is accomplished, in part, by fashioning painting’s narrative as the artist so chooses — calling up certain masters, alluding to particular radical moments. Quaytman takes what has come before as an opportunity to absorb and construct: ‘My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favour of a medium — specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.’18 So, like the angel of history, Quaytman persistently assesses history and finds herself at once fascinated and unmoored by it. But rather than gingerly backing away from the accumulation of ruins, she acts as an anthropologist, collecting and marking pieces of that history. As she describes, this approach started in 2001: ‘The start of the new millennium, combined with the historical circumstances of 9/11 … induced a sharp sense of flowing time and the instinct to mark it.’19 Such marking literally manifests itself in O Tópico, Chapter 27 when her fingerprint overlays a pictogram of the Roman Empire taken from Emma Willard’s Universal History: In Perspective (1845). A source used in previous chapters, Willard’s textbook relates to other pedagogical references, including knitting patterns and instructions for making knots. Throughout, Quaytman’s acts of transformation are in the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who intervenes and relocates signs and sources into new positions or contexts, disrupting their original context or narrative to constitute a new discourse.20 The once-removed (silkscreened photographs of paintings) or even twice-removed (silkscreened X-rays of paintings) presence of historical materials testifies to her ambivalence about the meaning of the past, while also offering an actionable, often critical way to insert herself into a number of structures that surround it: the patriarchal nature of painting’s past, the history of place, the systems of the art world.

Lest her purposes be misinterpreted, or not interpreted at all, this process of bricolage is always undertaken with logic and explanation. Perhaps as a function of her years spent occupying many positions — curator, writer, editor, gallery owner, artist’s assistant — or in resistance to notions of the impulsive, expressive creator, Quaytman consistently explains her purpose using the art world’s most viable formats: books akin to catalogues raisonnés (Allegorical Decoys, 2008; Spine, 2011; , 2012); statements issued with each chapter; and display instructions concerning how purchased works should be hung. Knowledge gained from lived experience has allowed her to smartly play with but also work against the pitfalls of the art world to assure that hers is not the forgotten, unstorable or unwritten-about work. She manages the ‘circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark’.21 Indeed, Quaytman adopts the gallery as ark, all-containing and protective, as an inevitable construct. Unlike the negotiations between self and history apparent in her version of an ‘artist’s art history’, the gallery remains unscathed, an aesthetic container of silent dominance much like what Brian O’Doherty described in the 1970s.22 However, Quaytman’s system is devised to accommodate the reality that this well-ordered ark is but a temporary haven — its contents will soon be archive bound.

This focus on the past is tempered by Quaytman’s interrogation of the manufactured narrative of art history: again, ‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’23 Without answering this in the affirmative or negative, the question itself opens up a line of enquiry about painting’s efficacy then and now. Did early-twentieth-century avant-garde practices actually have the revolutionary impact we now pine for? Did its novel formulations incite revolutionary experiences we can no longer access? If so, can rehearsing its forms and stories ever provide such revolutionary experiences again?24 For Quaytman, the subject of painting is the devoted commitment to continuously working through these questions, at once to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’.25 As such, it is necessary to remain at a proper distance from which to observe, analyse and speculate, as the logic, material form and compositions of her paintings gesture back to history and location, left and right to elsewhere in the chapter or the next, and directly in front to us. Her work suggests, like the Angelus Novus, that our present is an ambiguous state of affairs, caught between the storm ‘called progress’ blowing from Paradise and a fascination with ‘the wreckage of the past’.26 In this suspended limbo, these pictures want something of us, as W.J.T. Mitchell would suggest.27 They compel us to ask: Should we perpetuate the angel’s fixation on the past, or turn around? How might the past be our constant companion along the way to Paradise? What might the subjects of painting be tomorrow?

Footnotes
  1. R.H. Quaytman,,Chapter 24, Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 2012.
  2. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, October, vol.143, Winter 2013, p.49.
  3. See Gershom Gerhard Scholem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’, The Fullness of Time (ed. and intro. by Steven M. Wasserstrom, trans. Richard Sieburth), Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2003.
  4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.249.
  5. I saw portions of O Tópico, Chapter 27 laid out in Quaytman’s studio in September 2014, and in November visited its full installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York, which was organised as a prelude for its ultimate destination in Inhotim, Brazil in a pavilion designed by Solveig Fernlund.
  6. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.247.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., text printed on the cover.
  9. Steel Stillman, ‘In the Studio: R.H. Quaytman,’ Art in America, June/July 2010, p.88.
  10. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with David Joselit, ‘I Modi’, Mousse, issue 29, June—August 2011, p.136.
  11. ‘The diamond-dust paintings attract focus, as opposed to repelling it the way the Op patterns tend to do. They pull you in while the others push you out.’ R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., p.157.
  12. Conversation with the artist, 21 September 2014.
  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  14. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  15. R.H. Quaytman,, Chapter 24, op. cit.
  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  17. Quaytman has said she lives by the Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro’s statement: ‘I like to have fun by correcting what was not finished in any former artistic movement.’ Quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.50.
  18. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with D. Joselit, ‘I Modi’, op. cit., p.131.
  19. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  20. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  21. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  22. See Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Gallery as Gesture’, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp.87—107.
  23. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  24. See Saint-Simon’s definition of the avant-garde in Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy’s L’Artiste, le Savant, et l’Industriel: Dialogue (1825), reprinted in translation in Art in Theory, 1815—1900 (ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.40—41.
  25. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008.
  26. W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit.
  27. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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DEMYSTIFYING GERHARD RICHTER’S GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


NOTES

  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter.com.
  2. See, respectively, whitney.org/Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
  3. See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
  4. See mfa.org/collections/object/red-disaster-34765.
  5. See www.warhol.org/ArtCollections.aspx?id=1541.
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.

Contributor

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

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The Triumph of Painting

ESSAYS

AN ART THAT EATS ITS OWN HEADBarry Schwabsky


Painting in the Age of the Image


We live in the age of the image. But don’t ask me to define the word: its very elusiveness is of the essence. We talk about image when we want to indicate an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support. This is most obvious when we speak of a photographic image: it’s the same image whether it’s presented as a small snapshot or blown up as a big cibachrome, glowing on the monitor of my computer or mechanically reproduced in the pages of a magazine.


It has often been said that the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century changed the nature of painting by withdrawing from it the task of representation that had so long been at its core, thereby enabling the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a fully abstract art. The initial plausibility of this story, however, should not disguise its falseness. Any mediocre painter of the nineteenth century could depict a person, object or landscape with greater accuracy and vividness than a photograph. (If nothing else, the painter could show the colour of things, hardly a negligible dimension of visual experience.) The real attraction of the photograph – beyond simple economics since a photographic portrait cost a lot less than one in oils – lay not in its capacity for iconic representation but rather in what has been called its indexical quality, that is, the apparent causal connection between an object and its image. The image comes from what it shows, a sort of relic.


Far from irrational, there may be an important truth lurking in this notion of the image as a detachable constituent of the reality it pictures. In any case, it finds an echo not only in the transformation of art since the advent of photography but even in philosophy. In the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant taught that we can know, not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The ‘thing in itself’ is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind, in this view, is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the camera, a different idea of perception became plausible. Henri Bergson declared that we are acquainted with the world not through mere appearances that are somehow different in kind from things in themselves, but through what he called, precisely, ‘images’, which are part and parcel of the real. The mind, for Bergson, is less like a painter than it is like a camera, its sampled images not fundamentally other but simply quantitatively more limited than the ‘aggregate of “images”’ that is reality. Our perceptual apparatus is, one might say, touched by the thing it perceives as the photographic plate or film is touched by the light that comes from the object.


Abstract painting developed under the spell of a philosophy not unlike Kant’s: that the ultimate reality was not the one indicated by the senses, but something intellectually deducible. This was the era of Malevich and Mondrian, and for a long time it seemed misguided to think of modern or contemporary painting primarily in terms of the images it might bear. The most famous and most concise formulation of this view was, of course, Clement Greenberg’s: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ (Subsequently, one began to signal adherence to this dictum simply by adjuring the word ‘picture’, preferring ‘painting’, a usage still in force today.) To look at a painting for its image could only be to lose sight of the painting’s material, physical existence, leading to the absurdities eloquently denounced by Yve-Alain Bois in his well-known essay ‘Painting as Model’, where he lashes into critics who ‘would make Malevich’s Black Square a solar eclipse, Rothko’s late work stylized versions of the Pietà and Deposition, or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie an interpretation of the New York subway map’. In this view, to think of painting in relation to image was to see it as a form of representation, however veiled, whereas the great abstractionists had shown that painting could have quite other functions.


Of course, images never left painting, not even in the work of sometime abstractionists like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. In the early eighties, image-based painting took the art world by storm. Yet the renown of the Neo-Expressionists (as that generation of painters was called whether the term suited them or not) was much resented and short-lived. Their work has never had the disinterested critical assessment that, perhaps, may now be possible. It was really a decade later that a new generation of painters began to emerge, more slowly and steadily than the Neo-Expressionists, and gathering real force only late in the nineties – painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Thomas Scheibitz, or many others whose fascination with images was clearly central to their work. They were clearly up to something other than a simple reversion to the dogmas of the pre-modernist academies. In fact, many of them may have been as much influenced by the work of non-painters like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley or Jeff Koons as by anything in the history of painting, both Old Master and modern, which they explore freely. Their sometimes earnest, sometimes slackerish technique – at times academic, at others approaching the simplicity of the Sunday painter or the extreme stylisation of the decorator – often seems to recklessly evoke everything that had been off-limits to serious painting. In some of this work one can see parallels in the once despised late work of artists like de Chirico and Picabia.


A criticism too enamoured of the tradition of abstraction, by now threatening to become academic in turn, is ill-equipped to deal with these new manifestations of the image in painting. But so would be a criticism based on the criteria of the Old Masters. The image as we encounter it in contemporary painting is something quite distinct from depiction or representation in European painting before Modernism. Think of all the training in perspective, the investigations of anatomy – the painter was working, in a systematic, indeed almost scientific way to reconstruct pictorially the real world before his eyes, and therefore had to understand not simply its surface but its structure. Contemporary painters, needless to say, do nothing of the sort. Bergsonians without knowing it, they work from a reality that is always already image. The Impressionists were already pointing in this direction when they changed the focus from the self-subsistent object to the shimmering play of its appearances. A more urgent precedent for contemporary painting, however, is the Pop Art of the sixties: Roy Lichtenstein taking comic strips as his models, James Rosenquist mimicking billboards, or Andy Warhol with his grainy news photos. Painters who cultivated the look of the snapshot, like Gerhard Richter or Malcolm Morley, were pursuing similar ends. But notice the difference between the image-consciousness of the painters who have emerged in recent years and that of these elders: taking photographs, comics or billboards as one’s material – simply because they are clearly limited categories of image material – still seems to imply that there could be a realm beyond the image that the artist might otherwise have elected to access: it implies a quasi-polemical choice of the image-realm over some other reality. That’s a polemic today’s painters no longer seem to feel called upon to make. Instead, they find everything to be a matter of images.


Painters like Doig, Marlene Dumas or Luc Tuymans – to name three of the most influential artists at work today – make work that is entirely permeated by a photographic reality, that is, a reality composed of detachable appearances; yet in contrast to Richter or Morley, they feel no need to represent the ‘look’ of the photograph. The painting remains painterly. To say that contemporary painters treat reality as an aggregate of images, in Bergson’s phrase, is not to say that they paint it with neutrality, or with pure aesthetic distance, or without commitment. On the contrary, their engagement with the image is precisely that, a form of engagement, and inevitably conveys an emotional stance, whether it be the piss-taking disdain typical of Tuymans’ saturnine gloom, the airy bemusement that emanates from Sophie von Hellerman’s paintings, Ian Monroe’s sense of claustrophobia, or Cecily Brown’s frenetic urgency. The effects are often uncomfortable. wangechi mutu’s images are images of the body, but always awkward and resistant, while Dexter Dalwood’s are spaces, plausible enough to draw one in but too disjointed to actually inhabit. Much of this work has a syncretic quality that could not have existed without the example of modernist collage, but by folding its disjunctive effect back into paint — an actual heterogeneity of materials is exceptional here, and when it occurs, as in the work of Michael Raedecker or David Thorpe, it represents not the shock of an irruption of the real into art, as it did in different ways for Cubism, Dada and Constructivism, but something more like an incursion of the homely distraction of crafts and hobbies into the artistic field.


This fascination with craft has the same source as the more widespread attraction to painterliness, among today’s younger painters, as opposed to the seamless surface of photorealism: not an overturning of hierarchies between high and low cultures, but a more fundamental concern with a physical involvement in the image. For although it was photography that taught us the modern idea of the image, it is painting that allows us to internalise it. It’s a question of touching and being touched. The photograph may have been touched by the light of its object, but the sense of contact is entirely subsumed in the seamlessness of the photograph’s surface. Painters like Dumas and Tuymans, and so many others who freely interpret photographic imagery, are attempting neither to disguise its photographic basis in order to retain an aesthetic effect, nor to reproduce the appearance of the photograph in order to neutralise it. Their strategy is not essentially different from that of colleagues who may not directly use photographs in the work process but who nevertheless treat the world they paint as wholly image. The surface of painting, then, is for current painting something that partakes neither of the homogeneity of the photographic emulsion nor the heterogeneity of collage. It is a place where both differences and similarities are consumed. In a way, Schutz’s painting Face Eater (2004), can be taken as a paradigmatic painting of the moment. With its evident allusions to Picasso and Bacon, it clearly signals its art-historical allegiances, but the painting wears its citations lightly – the paintings of the two modern masters, and notably those of Bacon which are themselves based on photographic vision, are simply part of Schutz’s image-world. It is hilarious and terrifying at once. A head tries to swallow itself and in the process it does not disappear, but the senses become confused: the mouth sees by consuming the organs of vision, the eyes feast on their own imminent consumption. Is this an emblem of the artist’s solipsism? Not necessarily. The painting declares itself to be – borrowing a resonant phrase from the literary theorist Stanley Fish – a self-consuming artefact, but does consumption really take place? Not really. Instead, we are shown a commotion of the senses that seems as pleasurably seductive as it may be neurotic. To look at it is practically to feel one’s own teeth start reaching up to bite the upper lip. It’s an image about interiorising as image even oneself. And in that image, touching reality.

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The Triumph of Painting


The Mnemonic Function of the Painted Image

Alison M. Gingeras


‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate of the subjects of most photographs.’ Geoffrey Batchen


The desire to ensnare and preserve memory is a fundamental human pursuit. Photography, with its capacity to indexically depict the world, long seemed to surpass painting as the optimal tool for capturing the fleeting instant. Yet amid the overabundance of photographically generated images in the world today, photography has slowly revealed its limits. The advent of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. The sharpness and precision of camera-made images conflicts with the way the human brain remembers. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen provocatively argues the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Over the course of the medium’s popularization, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, incorporating them into jewellery or devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation. These embellishments ‘counteract the fact of death’, and aid the photograph in its struggle against being forgotten by the living.


Certain contemporary painters have long since understood the mnemonic insufficiency of the photograph and have capitalized on their own medium’s strength in this domain. The painted image, with its material sensuality, tactility, and atmospheric possibilities, corresponds more closely to the imprecision of the human brain’s mnemonic functions. Memory is often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant or impressionistic details that prompt the senses through association. Painted images – precisely because they lack the pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity of photography – can more easily trigger a free play of association or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. Inverting the photograph’s claim to instantaneity, the painstaking, artisanal nature of a painting’s own making metaphorically relates to the mental intensity and time required by the act of reminiscence. As curator Russell Ferguson has surmised, ‘with photography in command of specificity, advanced painting seeks ambiguity.’


Artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Kai Althoff have seized upon the mnemonic potential of painting to weave together hybrid tableaux, conflating personal stories and collective events. Living and working in Poland, Sasnal culls his subjects from several recurrent categories: architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture (most frequently he paints his wife Anka), film stills (often appropriated from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources for inspiration; in any single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, informal minimalism and gestural abstraction, among others. He uses these different painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate his photographic source images into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. Mixing the historical and personal with the random and trivial, Sasnal creates a pictorial rebus that is simultaneously accessible to the viewer and yet remains deeply subjective. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in-and-out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images.


Like Sasnal, the Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff’s work is driven by an inextricable mélange of intimate fictions and allusions to Germany’s highly charged history. Althoff channels his obsession with adolescence, homoeroticism and utopian communities into an astounding formally and materially varied oeuvre. His best-known series entitled Impulse (2001) is drenched in narratives and imagery taken from Germany’s collective memory. German folklore, Prussian military regalia, as well as Catholic mysticism have directly inspired his iconography. His compositions are mostly populated by a series of androgynous characters in period settings and dress – often illustrating the artist’s own alter egos. The figures and scenes that are depicted in Impulse are rendered with great dexterity; not only do their costumes and uniforms evoke the First World War, but they strategically recall the style and draftsmanship of such early twentieth century German artists as George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. These stylistic borrowings are as much a self-conscious acknowledgement of art historical antecedents as they are part of Althoff’s mnemonic alchemy.


Three young German artists – Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and Dirk Skreber – combine the languages of figuration and abstraction in their painting to explore a different aspect of public memory. Less narrative and personal than Althoff or Sasnal, these three artists have each developed a unique conceptual procedure (as well as signature style) that allows them to investigate universal experience and collective consciousness. An inveterate voyager, Ackermann records his journeys around the globe in the form of dense, pop-flavoured canvases that often incorporate sculptural elements or photographic collage. Entitling these works ‘Mental Maps’ or ‘Evasions’, Ackermann translates his physical and mental experiences into a painted atlas of a world that is both real and imagined. While his renderings contain numerous recognizable fragments – such as architectural motifs, sprawling urban plans, silhouetted skyscrapers and dynamic transportation networks – his picture planes equally contain passages of exuberant abstraction. Ackermann’s shrilly-fluorescent palette and undulating forms echo the fleeting impressions of the tourist/traveller who is incapable of verbalizing their experiences when they return home. Ackermann treats the canvas as a privileged site to exorcise his memories, though his cartographic recollections are open-ended enough to allow the viewer to project their own urban reminiscences. In essence, on each viewing one recomposes Ackermann cartographies according to his or her own experience.


By merely travelling around the corner to the newsagent’s shop, Thomas Scheibitz has amassed a vast archive of human experience. His countless clippings of found images appropriated from the deluge of mass media publications serve as the basis of his canvases. Scheibitz takes the most banal of singular objects – a suburban house, a flower, a man’s face – and formally manipulates them into semi-abstract compositions. Using a sickly, glacial palette of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens, Scheibitz subjects remain somewhat recognizable, though the abstraction process produces an alienating effect. Instead of romanticizing the mnemonic potential of ordinary consumer products, Scheibitz uses painting to distil them into cold, cerebral objects of contemplation. Scheibitz has often compared his practice with scientific research in the area of ‘public memory’. Having read about a series of experiments in which brain specialists recorded the patterns in neural activity of human subjects when hearing certain commonplace words, Scheibitz sees his choice of prosaic imagery as a similar exercise in stimulating our universal consciousness.


Dirk Skreber similarly fuels his painterly practice with collective experience, though his interest veers towards a more visceral terrain. With the saturation of twenty-four hour news channels and the endless stream of infotainment available on the Internet, the spectacle of disaster – whether natural or man-made – has become one of the most banal forms of experience in contemporary life. Painting on a monumental scale and using aerial compositional techniques that mimic the P.O.V. of surveillance cameras, Skreber portrays gruesome car crashes, floods of biblical proportion and impending train wrecks with a cold-blooded fascination. Yet unlike Warhol, Skreber’s preoccupation with death and disaster does not seem to be lifted from a mass media source. Instead, Skreber’s lushly painted images of catastrophe seem to be distilled from our collective nightmares. These disembodied images are like phantom memories, not based in actual events but part of the universal experience of contemporary life.


Albert Oehlen, who occupies the dual role of ‘senior’ artist and agent provocateur in this loose agglomeration, uses his vast knowledge of painting’s history to debase his own medium. As one of the 80’s proponents of ‘bad painting’ (alongside Martin Kippenberger), Oehlen deliberately pillages from a repertoire of established genres, techniques and idioms to demonstrate the failures of both abstraction and figuration. As Diedrich Diederichsen has written of Oehlen, ‘If [he] was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium: to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to ‘say’ it, since he believes that painting functions like, and indeed is, a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification.’ In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Oehlen uses the memory of his own medium against itself, to deflate painting’s own mythology in order to rebuild it anew.


Once threatened by the advent of photomechanical devices, painting has struggled against slipping into irrelevancy, in the same way that human beings grapple with the possibility of being forgotten. Yet since the contemporary viewer has become so saturated with camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status. The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2004, pp. 96 – 97.


Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country, Los Angeles, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 2004, p. 18.


Diederich Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994.

On Walter Hopps: Interviews and Reviews

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Bruce Conner

by Walter Hopps


Bruce Conner, Frankie Fix, 1997, photocopy on Bristol paper and mixed media, 48 × 40″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.

I’d never seen Bruce Conner’s work and had no idea what to expect, when all of a sudden a small San Francisco gallery advertised a show of his. I went up to see it (this was in the late 1950s, when I was running the old Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles with Ed Kienholz). I could see the work through the gallery’s windows, but on the glass there was a notice that said “Presenting the work of the late Bruce Conner”—as though, sadly, he had died, and the work was being put up regardless. On exhibit were a few of the early Ratbastard-type assemblages. Everybody figured, Well, whoever the hell Bruce Conner was, he’s already dead. It was all fake, of course—he hadn’t died. But Bruce was living in the Midwest at that point, and although we’d heard about him through the poet Michael McClure, who was a friend of his, nobody on the West Coast really knew what he looked like. So Bruce got to see how people reacted to his work assuming that he was deceased. Later, after we became friends, he attended an opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as me. After that, I sort of took the cue from him and went to social events as someone else on occasion, and once sent someone else out to California as me.

We started showing Bruce at Ferus in 1959. In 1961, he moved with his wife down to Mexico, and shortly afterward I joined him there. I wanted to go down to where my relatives were in Mexico City. (My grandfather, Walter Hopps Sr., went to Tampico to seek his fortune in 1880. He was a character much like the old man in Treasure of the Sierra Madre—except tall instead of short.) While Bruce and I were there, ruins were discovered on my relatives’ property outside of Puebla, south of Mexico City, on the side of a mountain. We wanted to go down and excavate with some workmen and see what we could find. We dug up some old pots and artifacts—nothing spectacular, no gold or anything. It was dusty and difficult work, but quite an adventure. Bruce had been on an expedition once when he was in college, in North Dakota or someplace, trying to excavate Native American relics, so he was really interested in doing this. You could say he generally wanted to be in touch with the old. We found a human skeleton, which we ended up giving to my relatives who owned the property. There was an old stone building and we slept in there in sleeping bags. It wasn’t always easy to get a normal night’s sleep with Bruce around. Stoned, he had visions and thought strange things were going on in the night sky, winged beings coming after him and so on.


Bruce Conner, still from Cosmic Ray, 1961. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

I stayed with him at his place in Mexico City for a while, and during that time I helped him edit Cosmic Ray, the movie he made about Ray Charles. He had me cutting up pieces of film. He was quite fun to work with, but he could be crazed as well. One Sunday, we went to my aunt and uncle’s house for an afternoon soiree. We had a late lunch, and then people played croquet in the garden. Bruce refused to play croquet like a normal person, and he was driving everybody nuts by going around and hitting the wrong balls and goofing off.

While he was in Mexico, Bruce was finding things—really raggedy stuff—on the streets. The work he made there took a different turn; it was certainly influenced by the scene in Mexico City and what he was finding. It looked more handmade than the earlier assemblages, a little more crude. Wherever he is, Bruce somehow gets connected with what’s going on. I get the feeling that in certain periods of his work, even when it’s changing, he has a strange instinct for what it is he’s looking for. In terms of the work he made in Mexico, there is a kind of fragile quality to a lot of the materials he used; an almost fugitive quality—fugitive in the sense of being impermanent. Fabrics, cardboard, melted wax—these are vulnerable materials. And in his very best work he tends to use a lot of that, giving things a mellow, often rather dreamy surface—in the assemblages, the inkblots and also the Angels series of photograms, which are life-size versions of what Man Ray had done on a much smaller scale; silhouettes of objects on light-sensitive paper.


Bruce Conner, Guadalupe, 1962, assemblage, 27 × 20 x 5″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.

Some of Bruce’s drawings from early on are also very faint—strong, but not bold. The more bold graphic works are these strange Rorschachs and repeating patterns, which are mysterious and unclear but nonetheless beautiful abstractions; inchoate symbols or emblems that, if they can be compared to anything else, they would remind me of the French Symbolist Odilon Redon.

Bruce Conner is an original. His art has a quality and a look all its own—even in its several different ways. Bruce has always had a certain mystique, and he’s a terrific contradiction. He’s from Kansas, and when you meet him he can seem like the most normal Midwestern man—like a classically constructed Kansan house. But then there are all these odd corners and nooks; he’s got quite an attic stuck on him, and there are strange things going on in it.


Bruce Conner, stills from A Movie, 1958. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.


Bruce Conner, The Mutants, 1978, black-and-white photograph #1 of 3, 9 × 13″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.


Bruce Conner, stills from Cosmic Ray, 1961. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

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Feature

Reflections on Walter Hopps in Los Angeles

Ken Allen

Ed Kienholtz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959.

With Walter Hopps’ passing in late March of 2005, the art world lost one of its keenest curatorial minds.1 Hopps was an iconoclastic figure who embodied the free-wheeling climate of the “culture-boom” years of the early 1960s in which American artists and American museums seemed to carry the mantle of modernism as well as renew the avant-garde experiments begun in Europe earlier in the twentieth century. Hopps ended his career as curator of 20th century art and the founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston and as adjunct senior curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but in approach and attitude he was the product of the sparse cultural landscape of postwar Los Angeles. Born in Glendale in 1932, Hopps grew up in a period in which artistic modernism was a kind of secret history in Los Angeles, a city that saw a series of conservative backlashes against progressive ideas of many stripes during the early Cold War from abstract painting to public housing. It was this atmosphere that contributed to Hopps’ lifelong commitment to cultivating a public for new and ambitious art in a way that both increased and intensified its audience. Responsible in large part for drawing attention to the burgeoning Los Angeles art world beginning in the late 1950s, Hopps’ special talents might be best defined by looking back at his early career as it shifted from promoting a number of artist friends to participating in a “scene” which exemplified the particular combination of creativity and commodification that characterized the 1960s.

According to Hopps himself, he attempted to carve out a unique position within the tradition of curators and “museum men” from the beginning of his career at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) in the early 1960s. As he told an interviewer in 1987, “even in the Pasadena days, as I got to know Michael Fried, he would curse me, saying, ‘You just aren’t part of the profession at all. You’re a damned anthropologist.’ And I would say, ‘You’re damned right I am.’”2 Hopps explained that he cultivated relationships with artists of different backgrounds and temperaments, and while he was always conscious of their distinct visual languages he attempted to remain above the fray of the kinds of value judgements often made by critics, dealers and the artists themselves. He combined a closeness and loyalty to artists with a kind of participant-observer role remarked upon by Fried, a forceful critic at the start of his career at the time.

But Fried’s comment also gets at a part of Hopps’ character, which grew out of his education in the sciences. Born into a family of physicians, he was home-tutored before attending the Polytechnic School in Pasadena and Eagle Rock High School, where he excelled at math and science. In 1950, he enrolled at Stanford, but left shortly thereafter to study microbiology at UCLA. His aptitude in the sciences did not limit his curiosity about the arts, however, and it was during a high school trip to see the best collection of modern art in the area, at the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg in Hollywood, that his interest was seriously piqued. Hopps made several return visits to see the tremendous examples of surrealism, cubism, the sculpture of Brancusi and especially the work of Marcel Duchamp, which particularly intrigued the young student and could be conceived as a series of experiments about the nature of art and aesthetics. As Hopps would later demonstrate when he mounted the show he was most noted for, the first career retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963, the sense of an exhibit as a finely-tuned experiment, as an occasion in which bring together sensitive visual material and then to observe the interaction between art objects, ideas, artists and the public, was central to Hopps’ approach. But the results of this show–a galvanized Los Angeles art world and international media attention–were preceded by a number of earlier activities in which Hopps honed his skills as an arts organizer.

Hopps’ transition from college science major to arts impresario in the mid-1950s is marked by his interest in jazz and his earliest attempts to bring a wider audience to contemporary art in Los Angeles.3 As young students, Hopps, Jim Newman (later director of the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco) and the artist Craig Kauffman organized jazz concerts in the early 1950s under the name Concert Hall Workshop. In the summer of 1954, Hopps and Newman spent time together in San Francisco exploring the work of a group of artists, most of whom came out of the abstract expressionist milieu that had developed at the California School of Fine Arts (which became the San Francisco Institute of Art).4 These artists, such as Hassel Smith, James Kelly, Julius Wasserstein, Roy De Forest, Sonia Gechtoff, Wally Hedrick, and Jay DeFeo, exhibited at a few dynamic galleries in San Francisco committed to new, local work, such as the King Ubu Gallery (which later became the “6” Gallery) and the East & West Gallery. Inspired by the creative energy and dadaist spirit of these galleries and fascinated by the work of the artists they represented, Hopps wanted to bring what he found in San Francisco to Southern California. While attending UCLA around this time, he had founded a gallery in Los Angeles called Syndell Studio, which he operated with his first wife Shirley and the poet Ben Bartosh. In a bizarre building in Brentwood constructed of old telephone poles painted white, Syndell presented a mix of San Francisco and Los Angeles artists. As Hopps has remarked, Syndell functioned for him “like a discreet laboratory. I didn’t care if four or five people came, as long as there were two or three that were really engaged.”5

But along with this rather private endeavor, Hopps was inclined to try to bring this work to a larger public and conceived of a large survey of West Coast abstract painting called Action. Held in May of 1955 under the auspices of the Concert Hall Workshop group, the detailed exhibition announcement reveals Hopps’ interest and struggle to secure a public place for the exhibit. Originally conceived for a super market space on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, then slated for the Frank Lloyd Wright Pavilion (the Hollyhock House) at Barnsdall Park, the announcement states that “because of pressures of certain groups in Los Angeles who have always been in opposition to contemporary art we found the usage of the Wright Pavilion unfeasible.”6 After proposing to use outdoor theater spaces also controlled by the city, the Action show was finally mounted on the Santa Monica Pier, in the merry-go-round building rented by Hopps for $80 for the week and therefore “subject to no pressures.”7 Because the Concert Hall Workshop was the main sponsor of the “merry-go-round show,” as it is often called, it is not surprising that recorded jazz music was playing throughout the show, adding to the unusual mix of abstract art within the amusement park atmosphere of the pier. The flyer text states that this combination of music and visual art “implies only aesthetic compatibility, not a reciprocal relationship.”8 Because this was the first large-scale exhibit of California “action painting” in a public venue, the show is described in the text as “an attempt to begin to provide the concepts and facilities for the exhibiting of indigenous contemporary works.”9 The fact that this show was followed by Action 2 (“Action squared”) the following year, which included many of the same artists but in a more refined venue, is proof that these “concepts and facilities” were beginning to take root in Los Angeles.10

Action 2 was the result of the collaboration between the “6” and the East & West Gallery in San Francisco and the two galleries in Los Angeles that had established themselves as places for local, avant-garde art in the year since the first Action show, Syndell Studio and Edward Kienholz’s Now Gallery in the Turnabout Theater on La Cienega, where the exhibition was actually held. The two main organizers of Action 2, Hopps and artist and poet Robert Alexander met through Alexander’s friend Wallace Berman, a central figure among a number of artists working in collage and assemblage outside of the network of art schools and annual city shows that constituted the most visible aspect of the Los Angeles art world at the time. The change in the size and location of the second Action show, and the lack of any accompanying music, marks a further refinement of the presentation of the avant-garde in Los Angeles and an interest in the attracting a different public. From the work of twenty-three artists installed in the spectacular display context of an amusement park building on a public pier to the presentation of the work of twelve artists hung in a gallery space located on La Cienega in West Hollywood — a street that was to become known as “gallery row” in the mid-1960s — Action 2 marks a renewed ambition to carve out a new space for vanguard art within the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.11

Charles Brittin, Ferus Alley (Bob Alexander, John Reed, Wallace Berman, Juanita, Walter Hopps), Los Angeles, California, ca. 1957.

The exhibition brochure for Action 2 was designed and printed by Robert Alexander in collaboration with Hopps and includes tipped-in, black and white photographs of paintings by Craig Kauffman, Jay DeFeo, Sonia Gechtoff and a collage by Alexander himself. These images are accompanied by a series of short, poetic statements that tellingly illuminate the spirit in which Hopps conceived of his activity in this period. As he remarked on the conception of these texts, Hopps recalled that he and Alexander “just talked it through,” echoing the improvisational style of many of the works on display.12 The introductory text, following the title page, encapsulates the mix of serious intent and bohemian attitude that surrounded the Action shows:

WE CAN MAKE, HANG, WRECK, SHOW, sell or enjoy them, but it’s “….almost impossible for us to measure the efficacity [sic] of a work of art which we have written or painted, since true admiration…..is almost always accompanied by an insurmountable uneasiness”[ellipses and capitals original].13

Hopps has admitted that he invented the portion of the passage within the quotation marks, but it is printed in such a way to suggest an authoritative text has been excerpted, although the uneven ellipses and use of the incorrect “efficacity” lean toward parody. 14 Another cryptic message declares:

paintings (the other works too) demand being seen (under a variety of circumstances); sometimes they’re good to trade for other things.
observe, & involve even yourself.15

Hopps and Alexander may be referring to Kienholz’s penchant of bartering art work for services here, but the last line emphasizes the kind of democratic, open-ended aesthetic experience which the show was designed to offer. The most radical aspect of the show was a gesture of pure dadaist aggression performed by Alexander when he knocked a hole in the gallery wall clean through to the alley behind the building and pulled in the tall weeds and vines that were growing there, leaving them sticking into the exhibit space.16 This piece, a precursor to later alterations of museum and gallery spaces of the 1960s, was surely meant to represent the anarchical spirit of the “outlaws,” as he liked to identify Wallace Berman and himself, and one with which Hopps still identified years later.17

But these two shows preceded the endeavor for which Hopps is most remembered in the LA art world, the founding of the Ferus Gallery with Edward Kienholz in 1957. Kienholz’s 1959 piece, Walter Hopps, Hopps, Hopps, is a cunning assemblage portrait of his business partner, but one which literally embodies the contradictions that Ferus quickly came to represent as the contemporary art market developed in Los Angeles. In this piece, Kienholz altered a popular gas station advertisement of the time, the Bardahl Man, to make a unique contribution to the modernist tradition of dealer portraits. Hopps is represented as a street hustler hawking paintings from under his jacket as if they were hot merchandise. He shows off mini-paintings by Willem deKooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, in order from top to bottom. The reverse of the figure reveals a series of compartments containing various notes and items pertaining to Hopps’ work as a dealer. In the box behind his head, for instance, can be found a long list entitled, “Major Artists I Want to Show,” which doesn’t include a single local artist, but consists of puns on the names of major New York artists such as, “Willem de Conning,” “Franz Climb,” “Jasper Cans,” “Adolph Gothis,” “Robert Nothingwell” and “Jackson Potluck.” Other compartments are labeled “Important People w/influence or money” and “Competitors and Other Un-informed Types.” According to Hopps, Kienholz was criticizing his preference for New York School painters over any of the Los Angeles artists he represented, including Kienholz himself.18

The piece is striking in its indictment of the local and national art worlds within which Los Angeles artists such as Kienholz had a stake. As Hopps’s founding partner in the Ferus Gallery, only Kienholz could make such a biting caricature and perhaps only he was willing to challenge the shift in the gallery’s direction, from a cooperative arrangement devoted to the California avant-garde to a commercial endeavor positioning itself to represent New York artists in Los Angeles. As a new partner and director of Ferus, Irving Blum imposed a vision of the gallery that was resisted by many of its artists. He urged Hopps to streamline their operation by reducing the roster of California artists and to widen the scope of the enterprise by utilizing his East Coast connections in order to arrange joint representation for New York artists in Los Angeles. In this, Ferus would be competing with other local galleries that showed New York painting, but the cache and notoriety the gallery had developed through its support of local avant-garde artists gave it an edge that would be fully exploited as the 1960s unfolded. Ultimately, Blum’s blueprint made the gallery into the centerpiece of the rapid rise of a new Los Angeles art market in the 1960s. So the figure in Kienholz’s dealer portrait, although unmistakably Hopps in his horn rimmed glasses and black coat and thin tie, can also be seen as a representation of Irving Blum’s influence on the gallery. Shortly after this piece was made in 1959, in fact, Ferus opened the 1960 season with a show entitled 14 New York Artists that included works by deKooning, Kline, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Hoffman, Motherwell and others. This was the first time Ferus had shown work other than that by Los Angeles and San Francisco artists. By this time, the gallery had moved across the street in a new, more professional space designed by Blum. As Hopps remarked at a recent museum talk, the new Ferus space “was slicker than deer guts on a door knob.”19

Kienholz’s portrait ultimately represents Hopps’ greater ambitions as a new Los Angeles art scene got off the ground in the early 1960s. It shows him as the tireless promoter of contemporary art which he was, carefully cultivating a collecting public through art history courses he gave at UCLA Extension, that helped introduce the avant-garde to collectors such as Betty Asher, Monte Factor, Fred and Marcia Weisman, and Ed Janss. After leaving Ferus and consulting at the Pasadena Art Museum where he officially became a curator in 1962 and then director in 1964, Hopps went on to mount many groundbreaking shows, including an early survey of pop art, New Paintings of Common Objects and the Duchamp retrospective in 1963. Picked to curate the U.S. section of the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1965, one of the first extensions of the international art fair beyond Europe, Hopps’ earlier efforts were beginning to pay off. He would continually face resistance from more conservative members of museum boards, however, and never alter his idiosyncratic working hours and sometimes autocratic management style which lead him to leave jobs in Los Angeles and later Washington D.C.. In a 1965 column in Frontier magazine, Philip Leider (then editor of L.A.-based Artforum) provided a sense of just exactly how valuable Hopps was to the Los Angeles art community in this period:

The Duchamp exhibition climaxed almost a decade of the most intense activity on behalf of the contemporary art scene by Hopps. Practically living in studios in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Hopps acted as a kind of one-man liaison between avant-garde artists in the three cities. His friendship with countless artists, including Rauschenberg, Johns, Conner, Diebenkorn, Kienholz, et. al., extends to the earliest days of their careers, and as curator at the Pasadena museum, he exhibited young artists such as Ruscha and Goode before they had ever been seen in commercial galleries. He was instrumental in the development of many private collections of contemporary art in Los Angeles, and to this moment he can be credited, by coaxing, cajoling, teaching and demanding, with bringing more important contemporary art into Southern California than any other single figure.20

Having returned to the area for his first local project in decades, Hopps passed away shortly after celebrating the opening of a tremendous survey of the assemblage work of George Herms he curated at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in March. As Doug Harvey noted in his LA Weekly review of the show, “It isn’t very often you get to orchestrate your own requiem, but Walter Hopps–who once compared curating to conducting a symphony–has managed it neatly.”21 Herms was one of Hopps’ oldest friends and a member of the original group of “outlaws,” who pushed the boundaries of the Los Angeles art world in the 50s and 60s with gritty and poetic, found-object sculpture that embraced the lived experience of the jazz, drugs, sex and love which defined the era. As a tribute to the spirit in which Hopps began his career in Los Angeles, nothing could have been more fitting.

Ken Allan received his Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Chicago in June 2005 with a dissertation on the relationship between artistic practice and social space in postwar L.A. entitled, “Making the Scene: Assemblage, Pop Art and Locality in 1960s Los Angeles.”

Footnotes

  1. Support for the preparation of this article was provided by an ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.
  2. “Pasadena Art Museum: Walter Hopps,” Joanne L. Ratner, interviewer, October 11, 1987, Department of Special Collections, Oral History Program, University Research Library, University of California Los Angeles, 1990, p. 36.
  3. For a more detailed reading of Hopps’ activities and his collaboration with Robert Alexander and Wallace Berman in this period, see my “Creating An Avant-Garde in 1950s Los Angeles: Robert Alexander’s Hand-Printed Gallery Brochure in the Archives of American Art,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 42, Nos. 3-4, 2002.
  4. Much of this account of the history of the period leading up to the Action show is drawn from the “James Newman Oral History Interview,” Paul Karlstrom, interviewer, May 13, 1974, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  5. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps hopps hoppsoart curator,” Artforum, February 1996.
  6. Action exhibition flyer, Craig Kauffman papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,
    Washington D.C.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. The artists included in Action were James Kelly, Sonia Gechtoff, Adelie Landis, Paul Wonner, Bill Brown, Robert Craig Kauffman, Hassel Smith, James Bud Nixon, Relf Case, Madeleine Diamond, Gilbert Henderson, Larry Compton, J. DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, David Stiles, Richard Diebenkorn, Roy De Forest, Richard Brodney, Julius Wasserstein, Jack Lowe, Paul Sarkisian, Phil Rober, and James Corbett.
  11. The artists included in Action 2 were Fred Wellington, Paul Sarkisian, James Kelly, Gilbert Henderson, Sonia Gechtoff, Elwood Decker, Julius Wasserstein, Gerd Koch, Robert Craig Kauffman, Wally Hedrick, J. DeFeo, and i.e. alexander. Robert Alexander often signed his poetry and artwork with the name “i. e. alexander.”
  12. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  13. Action 2 exhibition brochure, Sonia Gechtoff papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  14. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  15. Action 2 exhibition brochure, Sonia Gechtoff papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  16. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  17. Robert Alexander quoted in Sandra Leonard Starr, Lost and Found in California: Four Decades of Assemblage Art (Santa Monica: James Corcoran Gallery, 1988), p. 82.
  18. Walter Hopps, Kienholz: A Retrospective (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996), p. 32.
  19. Walter Hopps, “Walter Hopps and George Herms in Conversation,” March 8, 2005, Santa Monica Museum of Art.
  20. Philip Leider, “Culture and Culture-Boom,” Frontier, April 1965, p. 25.
  21. Doug Harvery, “Herms the Messenger, Hopps Down the Rabbit Hole,” LA Weekly, April 15-21, 2005, p. 38

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Correction to This Article
The March 22 obituary of art curator Walter Hopps gave an incorrect name for the Smithsonian Institution museum where he worked in the 1970s. The correct name is the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Walter Hopps; Curator Of 20th-Century Art

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B06

Walter Hopps, 72, the self-taught curator who specialized in 20th-century art and gained an international reputation for his innovative exhibitions, died March 20 at a hospital in Los Angeles after falling and breaking three ribs earlier in the month.

In a career that spanned from Los Angeles to Washington to Houston, where he most recently was 20th-century art curator at the Menil Collection, Mr. Hopps was known for a renegade spirit that attracted much attention in the art world.


Walter Hopps, known for a renegade spirit, was director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 1967 to 1972. (Gary Cameron — The Washington Post)

 


 

He showcased the work of leading abstract expressionists as well as emerging pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Among his landmark exhibits was the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp, the first museum exhibition of Frank Stella and “The New Painting of Common Objects,” a 1962 exhibition that signaled the rise of American pop art.

He also was art director of Grand Street, a New York-based literary magazine.

Jean Stein, the publication’s editor, said Mr. Hopps surpassed his job description. She said his vision guided the magazine, which combined art, literature, science and political thought and published works by internationally known artists and writers.

“He influenced so many people in the art world to care for artists the way he did,” Stein said. “He cared for them and nourished them.”

Mr. Hopps relished doing “small exhibitions” — photo layouts in the magazine — particularly when it became more difficult for him to get around, Stein said.

His last full-scale exhibition was for Beat generation artist and poet George Herms, one of the figures from Mr. Hopps’s early days in Los Angeles. “George Herms: Hot Set” opened March 4 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California, and Mr. Hopps and Herms held a talk March 8.

In a 1991 New Yorker magazine interview, Mr. Hopps was described as “a tall, imposing man with flowing hair and with Mephisto eyebrows that form bushy circumflex accents over blue eyes.”

In the article, Mr. Hopps compared his work to one of his other passions: music. “I think that the closest analogy to installing a museum exhibition is conducting a symphony orchestra,” he said.

This was a fair analogy, wrote Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker story: “Like some artists, he has the visual equivalent of a musician’s perfect pitch.”

Mr. Hopps was born in Eagle Rock, Calif., on May 3, 1932. In high school, he started a photographic society and organized exhibits. During this time, he also met the influential art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, which further spurred his direction. He attended Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities but never earned a degree.

In 1957, he and artist Edward Kienholz opened the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, a legendary spot where Warhol exhibited his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans.

In the 1960s, he became director of the Pasadena Art Museum in California. He left Pasadena in 1967 and later became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington until 1972. He reportedly was fired from the Corcoran because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behavior.

He then was curator of 20th-century American art at what is now the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art and served in 1972 as U.S. commissioner of the Venice Biennale exhibition in Italy, where he featured artists such as photographer Diane Arbus and painters Richard Estes and Sam Gilliam.

In 1979, he settled in Houston and soon became founding director of the Menil Collection.

In 2002, he was named adjunct senior curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. There, he organized a traveling retrospective of the American pop artist James Rosenquist, one of his many path-breaking exhibits.

Guggenheim director Thomas Krens once called Mr. Hopps “one of the preeminent curators of his generation” and said that he “redefined how we look at art of the modern era.”

The Menil Foundation established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement in 2001 to recognize and encourage a continuation of Mr. Hopps’s “spirited tradition of innovation and excellence.”

A colleague once said Mr. Hopps merely “wanted the world to see what he saw.”

Survivors include his wife, Caroline Huber of Houston.

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 Current Issue Cover

The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps

What Is a Curator?Under the Roman Empire the title of curator (“caretaker”) was given to officials in charge of various departments of public works: sanitation, transportation, policing. The curatores annonae were in charge of the public supplies of oil and corn. The curatores regionum were responsible for maintaining order in the 14 regions of Rome. And the curatores aquarum took care of the aqueducts. In the Middle Ages, the role of the curator shifted to the ecclesiastical, as clergy having a spiritual cure or charge. So one could say that the split within curating—between the management and control of public works (law) and the cure of souls (faith)—was there from the beginning. Curators have always been a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest.

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity, Commodity, the bias of the world—
—Shakespeare, King John1

Portrait of Harald Szeemann. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

For better or worse, curators of contemporary art have become, especially in the last 10 years, the principal representatives of some of our most persistent questions and confusions about the social role of art. Is art a force for change and renewal, or is it a commodity for advantage or convenience? Is art a radical activity, undermining social conventions, or is it a diverting entertainment for the wealthy? Are artists the antennae of the human race, or are they spoiled children with delusions of grandeur (in Roman law, a curator could also be the appointed caretaker or guardian of a minor or lunatic)? Are art exhibitions “spiritual undertakings with the power to conjure alternative ways of organizing society,” or vehicles for cultural tourism and nationalistic propaganda?

These splits, which reflect larger tears in the social fabric, certainly in the United States, complicate the changing role of curators of contemporary art, because curators mediate between art and its publics and are often forced to take “a curving and indirect course” between them. Teaching for the past five years at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, I observed young curators confronting the practical demands and limitations of their profession armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything. Where did this image come from?

When Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps died in February and March 2005, at age 72 and 71, respectively, it was impossible not to see this as the end of an era. They were two of the principal architects of the present approach to curating contemporary art, working over 50 years to transform the practice. When young curators imagine what’s possible, they are imagining (whether they know it or not) some version of Szeemann and Hopps. The trouble with taking these two as models of curatorial possibility is that both of them were sui generis: renegades who managed, through sheer force of will, extraordinary ability, brilliance, luck, and hard work, to make themselves indispensable, and thereby intermittently palatable, to the conservative institutions of the art world.

Each came to these institutions early. When Szeemann was named head of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1961, at age 28, he was the youngest ever to have been appointed to such a position in Europe, and when Hopps was made director of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1964, at age 31, he was then the youngest art museum director in the United States. By that time, Hopps (who never earned a college degree) had already mounted a show of paintings by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, and many others on a merry-go-round in an amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier (with his first wife, Shirley Hopps, when he was 22); started and run two galleries (Syndell Studios and the seminal Ferus Gallery, with Ed Kienholz); and curated the first museum shows of Frank Stella’s paintings and Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the first U.S. retrospective of Kurt Schwitters, the first museum exhibition of Pop Art, and the first solo museum exhibition of Marcel Duchamp, in Pasadena in 1963. And that was just the beginning. Near the end of his life, Hopps estimated that he’d organized 250 exhibitions in his 50-year career.

Szeemann’s early curatorial activities were no less prodigious. He made his first exhibition, Painters Poets/ Poets Painters, a tribute to Hugo Ball, in 1957, at age 24. When he became the director of the Kunsthalle in Bern four years later, he completely transformed that institution, mounting nearly 12 exhibitions a year, culminating in the landmark show Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969, exhibiting works by 70 artists, including Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman, among many others.

While producing critically acclaimed and historically important exhibitions, both Hopps and Szeemann quickly came into conflict with their respective institutions. After four years at the Pasadena Art Museum, Hopps was asked to resign. He was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1970, then fired two years later. For his part, stunned by the negative reaction to When Attitudes Become Form from the Kunsthalle Bern, Harald Szeemann quit his job, becoming the first “independent curator.” He set up the Agency for Spiritual Guestwork and co-founded the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) in 1969, curated Happenings & Fluxus at the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, and became the first artistic director of Documenta in 1972, reconceiving it as a 100-day event. Szeemann and Hopps hadn’t yet turned 40, and their best shows were all ahead of them. For Szeemann, these included Junggesellenmaschinen—Les Machines célibataires (“Bachelor Machines”) in 1975-77, Monte Veritá (1978, 1983, 1987), the first Aperto at the Venice Biennale (with Achille Bonito Oliva, 1980), Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk, Europaïsche Utopien seit 1800 (“The Quest for the Total Work of Art”) in 1983-84, Visionary Switzerland in 1991, the Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1993, Austria in a Lacework of Roses in 1996, and the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001. For Hopps, yet to come were exhibitions of Diane Arbus in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972, the Robert Rauschenberg mid-career survey in 1976, retrospectives at the Menil Collection of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Max Ernst, and exhibitions of Jay DeFeo (1990), Ed Kienholz (1996 at the Whitney), Rauschenberg again (1998), and James Rosenquist (2003 at the Guggenheim). Both Szeemann and Hopps had exhibitions open when they died—Szeemann’s Visionary Belgium, for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Hopps’s George Herms retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum—and both had plans for many more exhibitions in the future.

What Do Curators Do?

Szeemann and Hopps were the Cosmas and Damian (or the Beuys and Duchamp) of contemporary curatorial practice. Rather than accepting things as they found them, they changed the way things were done. But finally, they will be remembered for only one thing: the quality of the exhibitions they made; for that is what curators do, after all. Szeemann often said he preferred the simple title of Ausstellungsmacher (exhibition-maker), but he acknowledged at the same time how many different functions this one job comprised: “administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat.” I have heard curators characterized at different times as:
Administrators Advocates
Auteurs
Bricoleurs (Hopps’ last show, the Herms retrospective, was titled “The Bricoleur of Broken Dreams. . . One More Once”)
Brokers
Bureaucrats
Cartographers (Ivo Mesquita)
Catalysts (Hans Ulrich Obrist)
Collaborators
Cultural impresarios
Cultural nomads
Diplomats (When Bill Lieberman, who held top curatorial posts at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died in May 2005, Artnews described him as “the consummate art diplomat”)
And that’s just the beginning of the alphabet. When Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Walter Hopps to name important predecessors, the first one he came up with was Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, “for his unrelenting rigor.” He continued, “Fine curating of an artist’s work—that is, presenting it in an exhibition—requires as broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist’s work that a curator can possibly muster. This knowledge needs to go well beyond what is actually put in the exhibition. . . . To me, a body of work by a given artist has an inherent kind of score that you try to relate to or understand. It puts you in a certain psychological state. I always tried to get as peaceful and calm as possible.”3

But around this calm and peaceful center raged the “controlled chaos” of exhibition making. Hopps’ real skills included an encyclopedic visual memory, the ability to place artworks on the wall and in a room in a way that made them sing,4 the personal charm to get people to do things for him, and an extraordinary ability to look at a work of art and then account for his experience of it, and articulate this account to others in a compelling and convincing way.

It is significant, I think, that neither Szeemann nor Hopps considered himself a writer, but both recognized and valued good writing, and solicited and “curated” writers and critics as well as artists into their exhibitions and publications. Even so, many have observed that the rise of the independent curator has occurred at the expense of the independent critic. In a recent article titled “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” Mark Spiegler opined that “on the day in 1969 when Harald Szeemann went freelance by leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, the wind turned against criticism.”5 There are curators who can also write criticism, but these precious few are exceptions that prove the rule. Curators are not specialists, but for some reason they feel the need to use a specialized language, appropriated from philosophy or psychoanalysis, which too often obscures rather than reveals their sources and ideas. The result is not criticism, but curatorial rhetoric. Criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things, while the inflationary writing of curatorial rhetoric is used to obscure fine distinctions with vague generalities. The latter’s displacement of the former has a political dimension as we move into an increasingly managed, post-critical environment.

Although Szeemann and Hopps were very different in many ways, they shared certain fundamental values: an understanding of the importance of remaining independent of institutional prejudices and arbitrary power arrangements; a keen sense of history; the willingness to continually take risks intellectually, aesthetically, and conceptually; and an inexhaustible curiosity about and respect for the way artists work.

Portrait of Walter Hopps. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

Szeemann’s break away from the institution of the Kunsthalle was, simply put, “a rebellion aimed at having more freedom.”6 This rebellious act put him closer to the ethos of artists and writers, where authority cannot be bestowed or taken, but must be earned through the quality of one’s work. In his collaborations with artists, power relations were negotiated in practice rather than asserted as fiat. Every mature artist I know has a favorite horror story about a young, inexperienced curator trying to claim an authority they haven’t earned by manipulating a seasoned artist’s work or by designing exhibitions in which individual artists’ works are seen as secondary and subservient to the curator’s grand plan or theme. The cure for this kind of insecure hubris is experience, but also the recognition of the ultimate contingency of the curatorial process. As Dave Hickey said of both critics and curators, “Somebody has to do something before we can do anything.”7 In June of 2000, after being at the pinnacle of curatorial power repeatedly for over 40 years, Harald Szeemann said, “Frankly, if you insist on power, then you keep going on in this way. But you must throw the power away after each experience, otherwise it’s not renewing. I’ve done a lot of shows, but if the next one is not an adventure, it’s not important for me and I refuse to do it.”8

When contemporary curators, following in the steps of Szeemann, break free from institutions, they sometimes lose their sense of history in the process. Whatever their shortcomings, institutions do have a sense (sometimes a surfeit) of history. And without history, “the new” becomes a trap, a sequential recapitulation of past approaches with no forward movement. It is a terrible thing to be perpetually stuck in the present, and this is a major occupational hazard for curators.

Speaking about his curating of the Seville Biennale in 2004, Szeemann said, “It’s not about presenting the best there is, but about discovering where the unpredictable path of art will go in the immanent future.” But moving the ball up the field requires a tremendous amount of legwork. “The unpredictable path of art” becomes much less so when curators rely on the Claude Rains method, rounding up the usual suspects from the same well-worn list of artists that everyone else in the world is using.

It is difficult, in retrospect, to fully appreciate the risks that both Szeemann and Hopps took to change the way curators worked. One should never underestimate the value of a monthly paycheck. By giving up a secure position as director of a stable art institution and striking out on his own as an “independent curator,” Szeemann was assuring himself years of penury. There was certainly no assurance that anyone would hire him as a freelance. Anyone who’s chosen this path knows that freelance means never having to say you’re solvent. Being freelance as a writer and critic is one thing: The tools of the trade are relatively inexpensive, and one need only make a living. But making exhibitions is costly and finding “independent” money, money without onerous strings attached to it, is especially difficult when one cannot, in good conscience, present it as an “investment opportunity.” Daniel Birnbaum points out that “all the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship and branding in contemporary art today are fully articulated in [‘When Attitudes Become Form’]. Remarkably, according to Szeemann, the exhibition came about only because ‘people from Philip Morris and the PR firm Ruder Finn came to Bern and asked me if I would do a show of my own. They offered me money and total freedom.’ Indeed, the exhibition’s catalogue seems uncanny in its prescience: ‘As businessmen in tune with our times, we at Philip Morris are committed to support the experimental,’ writes John A. Murphy, the company’s European president, asserting that his company experimented with ‘new methods and materials’ in a way fully comparable to the Conceptual artists in the exhibition. (And yet, showing the other side of this corporate-funding equation, it was a while before the company supported the arts in Europe again, perhaps needing time to recover from all the negative press surrounding the event.)”9 So the founding act of “independent curating” was brought to you by . . . Philip Morris! 33 years later, for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02, Szeemann designed a pavilion covered with sheets of gold, containing a system of pneumatic tubes and a machine that destroyed money—two 100 franc notes every minute during the 159 days of the exhibition. The sponsor? The Swiss National Bank, of course.
When Walter Hopps brought the avant-garde to Southern California, he didn’t have to compete with others to secure the works of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, or Jay DeFeo (for the merry-go-round show in 1953), because no one else wanted them. In his Hopps obituary, Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight pointed out that “just a few years after Hopps’s first visit to the [Arensbergs’] collection, the [Los Angeles] City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.”10 In 50 years, we’ve progressed from banning art as Communist propaganda to prosecuting artists as terrorists.11

The Few and Far Between

It’s not that fast horses are rare, but men who know enough to spot them
are few and far between.
—Han Yü12

The trait that Szeemann and Hopps had most in common was their respect for and understanding of artists. They never lost sight of the fact that their principal job was to take what they found in artists’ works and do whatever it took to present it in the strongest possible way to an interested public. Sometimes this meant combining it with other work that enhanced or extended it. This was done not to show the artists anything they didn’t already know, but to show the public. As Lawrence Weiner pointed out in an interview in 1994, “Everybody that was in the Attitudes show knew all about the work of everybody else in the Attitudes show. They wouldn’t have known them personally, but they knew all the work. . . . Most artists on both sides of the Atlantic knew what was being done. European artists had been coming to New York and U.S. artists went over there.”13 But Attitudes brought it all together in a way that made a difference.

Both Szeemann and Hopps felt most at home with artists, sometimes literally. Carolee Schneemann recently described for me the scene in the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, when she and her collaborator in “Happenings and Fluxus” (having arrived and discovered there was no money for lodging) moved into their installations, and Szeemann thought it such a good idea to sleep on site that he brought in a cot and slept in the museum himself, to the outrage of the guards and staff. Both Szeemann and Hopps reserved their harshest criticism for the various bureaucracies that got between them and the artists. Hopps once described working for bureaucrats when he was a senior curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts as “like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal.”14 And Szeemann said in 2001 that “the annoying thing about such bureaucratic organizations as the [Venice] Biennale is that there are a lot of people running around who hate artists because they keep running around wanting to change everything.”15 Changing everything, for Szeemann, was just the point. “Artists, like curators, work on their own,” he said in 2000, “grappling with their attempt to make a world in which to survive. . . . We are lonely people, faced with superficial politicians, with donors, sponsors, and one must deal with all of this. I think it is here where the artist finds a way to form his own world and live his obsessions. For me, this is the real society.”16 The society of the obsessed.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Although Walter Hopps was an early commissioner for the São Paolo Biennal (1965: Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Richard Irwin and Larry Poons) and of the Venice Biennale (1972: Diane Arbus), Harald Szeemann practically invented the role of nomadic independent curator of huge international shows, putting his indelible stamp on Documenta and Venice and organizing the Lyon Biennale and the Kwangju Biennial in Korea in 1997, and the first Seville Biennale in 2004, as well as numerous other international surveys around the world.

So what Szeemann said about globalization and art should perhaps be taken seriously. He saw globalization as a euphemism for imperialism, and proclaimed that “globalization is the great enemy of art.” And in the Carolee Thea interview in 2000, he said, “Globalization is perfect if it brings more justice and equality to the world . . . but it doesn’t. Artists dream of using computers or digital means to have contact and to bring continents closer. But once you have the information, it’s up to you what to do with it. Globalization without roots is meaningless in art.”17 And globalization of the curatorial class can be a way to avoid or “transcend” the political.

Rene Dubos’s old directive to “think globally, but act locally” (first given at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972) has been upended in some recent international shows (like the 14th Sydney Biennale in 2004, and the 1st Moscow Biennial in 2005). When one thinks locally (within a primarily Euro-American cultural framework, or within a New York-London-Kassel-Venice-Basel-Los Angeles-Miami framework) but acts globally, the results are bound to be problematic, and can be disastrous. In 1979, Dubos argued for an ecologically sustainable world in which “natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications.” At their best, the big international exhibitions do contribute to this. Okwui Enwezor’s18 Documenta XI certainly did, and Szeemann knew it. At their worst, they perpetuate the center-to-periphery hegemony and preclude real cross-cultural communication and change. Although having artists and writers move around in the world is an obvious good, real cultural exchange is something that must be nurtured. Walter Hopps said in 1996: “I really believe in—and, obviously, hope for—radical, or arbitrary, presentations, where cross-cultural and cross-temporal considerations are extreme, out of all the artifacts we have. . . . So just in terms of people’s priorities, conventional hierarchies begin to shift some.”19

The Silence of Szeemann & Hopps Is Overrated

‘Art’ is any human activity that aims at producing improbable situations, and it is the more artful (artistic) the less probable the situation that it produces. —Vilém Flusser20

Harald Szeemann recognized early and long appreciated the utopian aspects of art. “The often-evoked ‘autonomy’ is just as much a fruit of subjective evaluation as the ideal society: it remains a utopia while it informs the desire to experientially visualize the unio mystica of opposites in space. Which is to say that without seeing, there is nothing visionary, but that the visionary should always determine the seeing.” And he recognized that the bureaucrat could overtake the curer of souls at any point. “Otherwise, we might just as well return to ‘hanging and placing,’ and divide the entire process ‘from the vision to the nail’ into detailed little tasks again.”21 He organized exhibitions in which the improbable could occur, and was willing to risk the impossible. In reply to a charge that the social utopianism of Joseph Beuys was never realized, Szeemann said, “The nice thing about utopias is precisely that they fail. For me, failure is a poetic dimension of art.”22 Curating a show in which nothing could fail was, to Szeemann, a waste of time.

If he and Hopps could still encourage young curators in anything, I suspect it would be to take greater risks in their work. At a time when all parts of the social and political spheres (including art institutions) are increasingly managed, breaking out of this frame, asking significant questions, and setting the terms of resistance is more and more vitally important. It is important to work against the bias of the world (commodity, political expediency). For curators of contemporary art, that means finding and supporting those artists who, as Flusser writes, “have attempted, at the risk of their lives, to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden.”23

This essay will be included in the forthcoming Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating
Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris, published by Apex Art. It will be available by January 2007.

Endnotes

1 Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, Act II, Scene 1, 573-74. Cowper: “What Shakespeare calls commodity, and we call political expediency.” Appendix 13 of my old edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, edited by G. B. Harrison (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 1639-40, reads: “Shakespeare frequently used poetic imagery taken from the game of bowls [bowling]. . . . The bowl [bowling ball] was not a perfect sphere, but so made that one side somewhat protruded. This protrusion was called the bias; it caused the bowl to take a curving and indirect course.”

2 “When Attitude Becomes Form: Daniel Birnbaum on Harald Szeemann,” Artforum, Summer 2005, p. 55.

3 Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews, Volume I, edited by Thomas Boutoux (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003), pp. 416-17. Hopps also named as predecessors exhibition-makers Katherine Dreier, Alfred Barr, James Johnson Sweeney, René d’Harnoncourt, and Jermayne MacAgy.

4 In 1976, at the Museum of Temporary Art in Washington, D.C., Hopps announced that, for thirty-six hours, he would hang anything anyone brought in, as long as it would fit through the door. Later, he proposed to put 100,000 images up on the walls of P.S. 1 in New York, but that project was, sadly, never realized.

5 Mark Spiegler, “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” The Art Newspaper, no. 157, April 2005, p. 32.

6 Carolee Thea, Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators (New York: Apex Art Curatorial Program, 2001), p. 19.

7 Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility: Proceedings from a symposium addressing the state of current curatorial practice organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, October 14-15, 2000, edited by Paula Marincola (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2001), p. 128. Both Szeemann and Hopps passed Hickey’s test: “The curator’s job, in my view,” he said, “is to tell the truth, to show her or his hand, and get out of the way” (p. 126).

8 Carolee Thea, p. 19 (emphasis added).

9 Daniel Birnbaum, p. 58.

10 Christopher Knight, “Walter Hopps, 1932-2005. Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2005.

11At this writing, the U.S. government continues in its effort to prosecute artist Steven Kurtz for obtaining bacterial agents through the mail, even though the agents were harmless and intended for use in art pieces by the collaborative Critical Art Ensemble. Kurtz has said he believes the charges filed against him in 2004 (after agents from the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Depeartment of Defence swarmed over his house) are part of a Bush administration campaign to prevent artists from protesting government policies. “I think we’re in a very unfortunate moment now in U.S. history,” Kurtz has said. “A form of neo-McCarthyism has made a comeback. . . . We’re going to see a whole host of politically motivated trials which have nothing to do with crime but everything to do with artistic expression.” For the latest developments in the case, go to caedefensefund.org.

12 Epigraph to Nathan Sivin’s Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).

13 Having Been Said: Writings & Interviews of Lawrence Weiner 1968-2003, edited by Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004), p. 315.

14 Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps—Art Curator,” Artforum, February 1996.

15 Jan Winkelman, “Failure as a Poetic Dimension: A Conversation with Harald Szeemann,” Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over Hedendaagse Kunst, No. 3, June 2001.

16 Carolee Thea, p. 17 (emphasis added).

17 Carolee Thea, p. 18.

18 With his co-curators Carlos Basualdo, Uta Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya.

19 Hans Ulrich Obrist, p. 430.

20 Vilém Flusser, “Habit: The True Aesthetic Criterion,” in Writings, edited by Andreas Ströhl, translated by Erik Eisel (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 52.

21 Harald Szeemann, “Does Art Need Directors?” in Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, edited by Carin Kuoni (New York: Independent Curators International, 2001), p. 169.

22 Jan Winkelman.

23 Flusser, p. 54.

Copyright

Contributor

David Levi Strauss DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is a scholar and writer living in New York. He is the chair of the graduate program in Art and Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts. The author of several books on photography and politics, his recent collection Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow was published last year by Aperture.

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A final farewell to Menil Collection’s Walter Hopps

A final farewell to Walter Hopps
PATRICIA C. JOHNSON, Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle | May 1, 2005

Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, was buried in a private ceremony on April 23 in Lone Pine, Calif., a breathtaking site at the foot of Mount Whitney. His coffin was a marvelous Duchampian assemblage crafted by California artist Richard Jackson: A pine box with a lid made from a five-panel mahogany door from Hopps’ Pasadena, Calif., house, complete with round brass knob and metal plaque with Hopps’ signature.

Hopps, who died March 20 at age 72, began his long career as a brilliant if unorthodox curator in 1957 when he and artist Edward Kienholz founded the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles to spotlight progressive art by then unknown artists such as Robert Irwin, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

His 50-year career as museum director started at the Pasadena (Calif.) Art Museum, where he introduced the work of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell to the American public. He moved on to direct the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then to the Smithsonian Institution as curator of 20th-century art. He came to Houston in 1981 at the invitation of Dominique de Menil to direct the museum she was building. In recent years he was also adjunct curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Hopps not only championed art, but also the artists.

He died in California, where he curated a retrospective for the Santa Monica Museum of Art of West Coast assemblagist and art-world comrade George Herms. The artist gave the eulogy, a loving remembrance that also captured Hopps’ brilliant connoisseurship and his penchant for “stealing” art to make a point.

(Hopps “stole” an early assemblage from Ed Kienholz’s studio to prevent the artist from destroying it. Years later, to make a point about security, he stole a painting by Julian Schnabel from an exhibit at the University of Houston‘s Blaffer Gallery.)

Herms told the mourners that when artists enter heaven’s gates, instead of signing St. Peter’s book, they make drawings. After Hopps went through, Herms joked, St. Peter noticed that all the drawings were gone.

He added that the curator in Hopps is now looking around at cumulus clouds, saying, “We only need three clouds, and I know which three are the best!”

Another celebration of Hopps’ life will be held 6-8 p.m. May 17 at the Menil Collection. The Santa Monica Museum of Art honors him, as well, with a gathering this Wednesday.

Caroline Huber Hopps, Hopps’ wife, requests that in lieu of flowers, anyone wishing to make a gift in Walter’s memory make a donation to the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, established in 2001 by the Menil Foundation (1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400).

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 DICTIONARY OF ART HISTORIANS

Hopps, Walter C

Date born:  1933

Place Born:  Eagle Rock, CA

Date died: 2005

Place died: Los Angeles, CA

Seminal curator of 20th-century art and founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston. Hopps hailed from a family of California physicians. A chance visit to the modern art collection of Walter Arensberg (1878-1954) and his wife Louise Arensberg (1879-1953) in Los Angeles piqued his interest in modern art.  He became close friends with the Arensbergs. He attended Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities without ever securing a degree.  As a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hopps and two friends opened a gallery space called Syndell Studio. In 1955 Hopps married a University of Chicago graduate student in art history, Shirley Neilsen [see Shirley Neilsen Blum], in a ceremony at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The Studio’s one-person shows included Craig Kauffman and Ed Kienholz. In 1957, he and Kienholz opened another gallery, Ferus Gallery showing the work of a new generation of artists Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston. Hopps, however, lacked the presentation skills to market art to wealthy collectors. He encountered Irving Blum (b. 1930), who became a gallery partner, and the two made Ferus a seminal space for modernist art in California.  Hopps organized exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum (today the Norton Simon Museum) in 1959,  joining the staff in 1962.  He rose from curator to director. At the Pasadena Art Museum, he was responsible for the first American retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp (1963) and Joseph Cornell as well as featuring the art collection of the California art historian Kate Steinitz. He was selected to be United States commissioner for the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1965.  Hopps’ wife began an affair with Blum, divorcing Hopps and marrying Blum in 1967. He joined the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1967. Again he identified and showed cutting-edge modern art, such as Gene Davis, street art from Los Angeles, and Chicago’s Hairy Who group.  Hopps was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art where he featured Paolo Soleri’s architecture and an installation of David Smith’s extending outside the building.  Hopps was fired from the Corcoran in 1972, reportedly because of his habit of leaving for extended periods of time without notifying staff, in part due to his mental illness.  He worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum under Joshua C. Taylor, acting as the U.S. commissioner for the Venice Biennale in 1972.  Dominique de Menil (1908-1997), the visionary Houston collector, hired Hopps in 1980 to assist in building a museum for the collection of art that she and her late husband assembled. Hopps urged the selection of Renzo Piano, assigning the architect to design flexibly lit galleries, resulting in the innovative system of roof shutters which the Menil is today. He married a third time, to Caroline Huber in 1983. Hopps was director of the Menil from its opening in 1987 until 1989 when he became curator of solely 20th-century art. He mounted retrospectives of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst. His closeness with Kienholz resulted in a retrospective of that artist at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996.  The following year he organized a Rauschenberg retrospective with Susan Davidson at the Guggenheim Museum which traveled to the Menil.  In 2001, the Menil established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement. In 2002, he was named adjunct senior curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. There he and Sarah Bancroft mounted a James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2003.  He died of pneumonia after having sustained a fall in 2005.

An eccentric personality, nearly every person who worked with him remarked he would disappear for hours or days at a time, sometmes later being found in contemplation, other times simply unexplained.  Hopps, according to many, had an inate sense of what modern was. Los Angeles was practically without modern art representation, overwealmed by New York. Hopps tapped into indigenous southern-Californian modernist art movements, exploiting them to the fullest and developing a serious contemporary art presence in Los Angeles. LS

Home Country:  United States

Sources:  McKenna, Kristine. The Ferus Gallery: A Place to Begin. Steidl, 2009; Cool School [documentary video]; [obituaries:] Richard, Paul. “Walter Hopps, Museum Man With a Talent For Talent.” Washington Post March 22, 2005 [see correction], p. C01;  Lamb, Yvonne Shinhoster.  “Walter Hopps; Curator of 20th-Century Art.” Washington Post March 22, 2005,p. B06;  Smith, Roberta. “Walter Hopps, 72, Curator With a Flair for the Modern.” New York Times March 23, 2005 , p. C15.

Bibliography: Marcel Duchamp: a Retrospective Exhibition. Pasadena, CA: Padadena Museum of Art, 1963; The Art Show [of Ed Kienholz].  Washington, DC: Washington Gallery of Modern Art, 1968;

Sujbect’s name: Walter Hopps; Walter C. Hopps

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WALTER HOPPS | 1932-2005

Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

March 22, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Walter Hopps, an art dealer and museum curator who was instrumental in bringing the first generation of postwar Los Angeles artists to international prominence and whose 1963 retrospective of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp ranks as a seminal event in modern museum history, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief hospitalization. He was 72 and lived in Houston.

Frail and in ill health for some time, Hopps had pneumonia, according to artist Ed Moses, a longtime friend. Hopps was in Southern California for a 45-year survey of assemblage art by sculptor George Herms, which he organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Artist Larry Bell said that he had unexpectedly encountered Hopps in the coffee shop of a Venice hotel last Tuesday and that he insisted on taking him to see his doctor.

Bell said Hopps had fallen earlier and broken several ribs, which contributed to a buildup of fluids in his lungs. On Saturday, Bell and Moses had hoped to visit Hopps at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but Hopps had been moved to intensive care and was in a coma. He died there Sunday morning.

At the time of his death, Hopps was curator of 20th century art at the Menil Collection in Houston, where he had been founding director, and an adjunct senior curator at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. When the surprise dual appointment was made, Ned Rifkin, then director of the Menil, described Hopps as “a giant among his peers in the arena of modern and contemporary curators.” He organized a large retrospective of paintings by American Pop artist James Rosenquist for the Guggenheim in 2002.

Hopps’ most celebrated exhibition was the 1963 Duchamp retrospective, held at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in its original home on Los Robles Avenue. Hopps was in his first year as curator. He had been introduced to the French expatriate’s iconoclastic work in the late 1940s, during a high school visit to the Hollywood home of art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Their formidable collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Dadaist and other modern art, now a centerpiece of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, included such classic Duchamp works as “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912).

During the Pasadena show, Hopps arranged two chess matches with the impish artist — one for himself and one for the young writer Eve Babitz, who famously played her match nude.

The Duchamp exhibition was typical of Hopps’ modus operandi as a curator. He had come upon the artist by accident as an impressionable and inquisitive youth, and he was determined to follow his instincts; he knew from his conversations with young artists that their interest in Duchamp’s art was far ahead of the museum establishment’s. A Duchamp retrospective was not mounted in New York, where the artist lived, until 1973, five years after his death. The Pasadena show entered the realm of legend as a symbol of a more freewheeling, less tradition-bound artistic climate in Southern California.

Hopps’ first exhibition, organized with his first wife, Shirley, in 1954, was itself unorthodox. Dubbed “The Merry-Go-Round Show,” it arose from his concern that a new generation of Abstract Expressionist painters was not being seen in L.A. Hopps rented the merry-go-round at the Santa Monica Pier for $80, stretched tarp around the poles and hung nearly 100 paintings by 40 artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Jay De Feo. All were for sale, none for more than $300. Nothing sold.

Hopps and his wife regularly held informal exhibitions in their Brentwood apartment, where occasional sales helped keep them afloat. He briefly operated a gallery housed in a small structure built from used telephone poles. Called Syndell Studios, it was named in memory of a farmer who was killed in a freak accident while Hopps was driving cross-country. At Syndell Studios, Hopps showed the seminal Beat generation artist Wallace Berman, and he met Herms.

In 1957 he and artist Ed Kienholz, who would become an important figure in the development of assemblage art on the West Coast, opened Ferus Gallery. Ferus, the first professional space in L.A. to be principally devoted to the Southern California avant-garde, rapidly became the most adventurous and influential contemporary art gallery west of Manhattan.

In addition to showing the work of established Abstract Expressionist painters, Ferus introduced young L.A. artists to the growing scene, including Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin. Moses had his first exhibition at Ferus while still a student at UCLA. Hopps once told The Times that the name Ferus — Latin for “uncivilized” or “wild” — was “borrowed from an anthropological description of an aboriginal tribe with subhuman, irascible, possibly dangerous tendencies.”

The implied link between science and art came naturally. Hopps was a native of Glendale, born in 1932 into a family of prominent surgeons. He was home-tutored until junior high school, when he entered the private Polytechnic School in Pasadena. From there he went to Eagle Rock High School. After so many cloistered years, he described high school as “the most exciting time of my life; all of a sudden kids, boys, girls — friends.” It was with a class of Eagle Rock students that he first visited the Arensberg collection, to which he later returned on his own. The work of Duchamp, Picasso, Brancusi, Dali, Miro and many others made a profound impression on him.

“That was the clash,” Hopps later told a Times reporter. “I thought of myself as a rational positivist. And I couldn’t figure out why this seemingly nice, intelligent man [Arensberg was a prosperous businessman] had devoted his life to this collection. I started reading.”

The Arensbergs had been the unofficial center of the European emigre Dada movement when they lived in New York; in Hollywood, where they moved in 1927, their role changed to that of keepers of its history.

Duchamp had been the primary advisor in the development of their collection, and for them he was the center of that legacy. It was a legacy that encountered much hostility in Los Angeles, where, just a few years after Hopps’ first visit to the collection, the City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.

In 1950, Hopps enrolled at Stanford; a year later he switched to UCLA to study microbiology. He also studied art history. Shortly after opening Ferus, he began to teach at UCLA Extension; over the next four years he helped to cultivate a group of art collectors informed about the avant-garde, including Betty Freeman, Monte Factor, Ed Janss and Fred and Marcia Weisman.

Kienholz made a witty 1959 assemblage-sculpture portrait of his early partner at Ferus, the title of which, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps,” suggested his peripatetic energy. Its allusion to Beat era slang for illegal drugs also described a problem that followed Hopps for many years.

Part homage, part satire, the sculpture was made from a gas station advertising sign that featured a cutout of the Bardahl motor oil man. Kienholz turned the clean-cut image into a picture of a slippery salesman of Modern art. Hopps, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, black suit and skinny necktie, is shown pulling open his jacket as if he were a sidewalk slicker hawking hot merchandise to unsuspecting passersby. Instead of jewelry or watches, however, he reveals vest-pocket pictures of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

Turn around the sculpture — at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, appropriately just larger than life — and the back features a spine made from animal vertebrae, a rotary dial telephone and annotated lists of important people in the L.A. art world.

Kienholz left the gallery to pursue his own work, and Irving Blum, a Knoll furniture salesman, became Hopps’ partner in Ferus. Conflicts between them — which later resulted in Shirley Hopps’ becoming Shirley Blum — led to Hopps’ departure. In 1962 he was hired by Thomas Leavitt to become curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. In addition to the Duchamp retrospective, Hopps organized the first museum show of Frank Stella’s paintings, a landmark survey of box assemblages by Joseph Cornell and “The New Painting of Common Objects,” a groundbreaking 1962 survey that heralded the emergence of Pop art. When Leavitt departed the museum in 1964, Hopps was elevated to director; at 31, he was the youngest art museum director in America.

He was asked to resign four years later, the first of many times that jobs ended badly or in a cloud of complications. He was celebrated for his curatorial abilities and his working relationships with artists, but was a notoriously poor administrator.

Perhaps the most famous art-world story about Hopps concerned his chronic lateness. During his tenure at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the staff made lapel buttons that said, “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.”

“He didn’t like museum bureaucracies,” Moses said. “All his files at the Pasadena Art Museum were kept under the carpet. When he left there, he didn’t let anybody know about the files. Later, when they rolled up this giant carpet, they found very careful files and letters.”

Hopps was named director of the Corcoran in 1970 and fired in 1972. His seven years at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art) were marked by chronic absenteeism, which prompted Director Joshua Taylor to pay his curator only for the time he spent inside the building. Hopps joined Houston’s Menil Foundation in 1980 — artistically an excellent fit, given the collection’s strength in Surrealism — and became founding director of its celebrated museum in 1987; but patron Dominique de Menil despaired of her director’s administrative failings. He was made chief curator and a new director was hired. In 2001 the Menil Foundation inaugurated the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, a $25,000 prize bestowed biennially by an international jury.

Hopps once estimated that he organized more than 250 museum shows during his career. Most were well received. Among his great successes was a pair of Robert Rauschenberg surveys — one for the National Museum on the occasion of the 1976 American Bicentennial, the other, in 1991, for the Menil. Among his rare failures was 1984’s “The Automobile and Culture,” a show for L.A.’s then new Museum of Contemporary Art that ironically ended up demonstrating what little influence automotive imagery had on Modern art.

“With him goes a certain breed of unorthodox curator,” said painter and Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens, who lived in Los Angeles during Hopps’ heyday at Ferus and the Pasadena Museum. “Museums now are much more business-based and focused on the bottom line. There are fewer margins for error, so you don’t have guys like Hopps who are not organization people — much to their credit. He might have been the last of the breed.”

Hopps is survived by his second wife, Caroline Huber. A memorial service is being planned.

Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.

==

Walter Hopps Obituary
by gary c. (2005)

Billy Name: “Walter Hopps was a surprisingly brilliant and very well-liked and admired curator as a young man. He had a magic-like inspiring air like enlightened, creative people have. He was very engaging and easily knowable. I liked him a lot, as did everyone in the art scene.”

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Walter Hopps
(Photo: Gary Cameron)

Walter Hopps died on March 20, 2005 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 72 years old and had been suffering from pneumonia. The last exhibition that he organized for a museum was George Herms: Hot Set at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from March 5 – May 14, 2005.

Hopps made several important contributions to Pop. He was one of the original owners of the Ferus Gallery which was the first gallery to show Warhol’s Soup Cans in 1962 and during the same year he organized what is generally regarded as the first Pop exhibition in a museum, New Painting of Common Objects, at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). The following year he organized the first U.S. retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the same museum.

Walter Hopps:

“Here’s how it all began. By 1959 I had bought out my partner, Edward Kienholz, and taken over Ferus Gallery. I shopped around for another partner because I was supposed to still be going to U.C.L.A. When Irving Blum came into Ferus Gallery, I gave him a third of the stock to act as its director… In 1960 in New York, I met a man named David Herbert who worked for Betty Parsons, then Sidney Janis… Herbert knew Andy Warhol, whom we had never heard of in California. Herbert said ‘You’ve got to meet this artist, Andy Warhol,’ and this finally happened in the fall of 1961. Herbert’s friends hung out in this trendy Manhattan store called Serendipity. Herbert arranged the meeting there and finally Warhol showed up. Irving Blum and I went to Warhol’s studio on Lexington Avenue in the Upper East Side.” (PK43)

Among the works that Warhol showed him were the Pop paintings of comic strip characters and newspaper advertisements that Warhol had displayed in the window of Bonwit Teller in April 1961. Hopps also recalled being shown an unstretched canvas of a work “that has since disappeared” of Superman flying through the air with Lois Lane in his arms. Although Hopps was “blown away” by Warhol’s work it wasn’t until the Soup Cans that an exhibition was arranged. (PK44)

Walter Hopps:

“At some point, we may have also seen, in Warhol’s studio, work in progress that included one of his first Campbell’s Soup cans. Blum was running Ferus Gallery, but I still had ownership stock and had stayed involved. I said to Warhol, ‘Absolutely, I want to take some of this work for a show in Los Angeles.’ Warhol, who had never been to California, answered with some excitement, ‘Oh, that’s where Hollywood is!’ In the sea of magazines and fanzines scattered on the floor, so deep it was hard to walk around, were all those Photoplay and old-fashioned glamour magazines out of the Hollywood publicity mill. So a show in L.A. sounded great to Warhol. He agreed, and thus the multiple-image soup can show came to Ferus in 1962. Warhol missed that first exhibition of his Pop images, but he finally made it to California in September 1963 for the opening of the Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum and his own second Ferus show.” (PK44)

The now historic exhibition of Warhol’s 32 canvases of individual soup cans took place at the Ferus Gallery from July 9 – August 1, 1962. New Painting of Common Objects opened the following month at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). Hopps organized the New Painting show as curator for the museum .

Walter Hopps:

“By the time the Warhol show hit, I was working full time as curator and then director at the Pasadena Art Museum. I had started doing some shows there in 1960, never having thought of my future as being a gallery dealer. Somebody asked once why I did the gallery work and it was like when Max Ernst was asked why he painted. He replied, ‘So, I have something I like to look at.’ In a way, I did the gallery work because the art that the California artists and I wanted to look at, we couldn’t see in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, early 1960s.” (PK48/9)

The New Painting exhibition featured 8 artists each of whom were represented by three works. Warhol’s contribution was Campbell’s Cream of Chicken, Campbell’s Pepper Pot and Green Stamps. The exhibition catalogue consisted of mimeographed pages contributed by the artists. The show’s poster was designed by Ed Ruscha – by telephone.

Walter Hopps:

“… we couldn’t afford a full catalogue, so instead we created a special portfolio – copies are rare now. What I was able to do – we didn’t have photocopiers or fax machines in those days – was crank out a checklist and my gallery notes by hand from a mimeograph stencil. Then I got every artist in the show to do a page as a stencil, and we ran off these line drawings. We put the whole package in a white envelope with a gummed label, red on white. I had a rubber stamp made that I stamped on the label in blue ink: New Painting of Common Objects. Edward Rusha designed the poster by calling up a commercial printer who made posters for concerts and boxing matches. Ruscha dictated all the copy over the phone, and his only directions on the type and style were to ‘make it loud!’ The poster came back with bold red and black type on a bright yellow background. Our limited budget dictated the portfolio and poster, though the off-the-shelf look fit right in with the show’s aesthetics.” (PK45)

In an art world still suffering withdrawal pains from Abstract Expressionism, the critical reaction to the show was mixed. It wasn’t until Pop was embraced in the general press that it was accepted by many old school art-tellectuals.

Jules Langsner [Art International, September 1962]:

“This critic finds himself in the unfamiliar (and vaguely uneasy) position of being cantankerously at odds with a serious effort to fashion a new mode of vision in the pictorial arts. That effort is the attempt to invest commonplace objects with a hitherto unsuspected significance, usually in painting with a straightforward presentation, on a magnified scale of things characteristic of our machine way of life. To be sure, this tendency, variously described as New Social Realism, Common Object Painting, and Commonism, currently is receiving the endorsement of the more zealous enthusiasts of “Pop” Culture as well as the shrill acclaim of the more chic circles of the art world… The Pasadena Art Museum’s current exhibition – New Painting of Common Objects – has brought this emerging tendency into sharp focus… A can of Campbell Soup by Andy Warhol, or a Travel Check by Dowd, initially rivets the viewer’s attention by the simple expedient of removing the mundane object from its ordinary surroundings and enormously increasing its scale. The initial shock, however, wears off in a matter of seconds, leaving one as bored with the painting as with the object it presents.” (PC33)

Walter Hopps:

“Langsner championed abstract art. He literally coined the term ‘hard-edge painting’ to describe the refined geometric renderings of John McLaughlin, for example – I will give him credit for that. He also wrote the first positive reviews of the young Abstract Expressionists in California such as Craig Kauffman.” (PK46)

The following year, Hopps organized the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. Warhol, who was in Los Angeles to see his second show at the Ferus (the Elvis paintings), also attended the opening party of the Duchamp exhibition. It was during that trip that Warhol filmed Elvis at Ferus and shot footage for Tarzan and Jane Regained…. Sort of.

Andy Warhol:

“Marcel Duchamp was having a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum and we were invited to that opening… I talked a lot to Duchamp and his wife, Teeny, who were great, and Taylor [Mead] danced all night with Patty Oldenburg – she and Claes had been living in California for a year ‘to get the feel of a new environment,’ she said, so they could send back a ‘bedroom’ for a group exhibit at the Sidney Janis Gallery in early ’64… They served pink champagne at the party, which tasted so good that I made the mistake of drinking a lot of it, and on the way home we had to pull over to the side of the road so I could throw up on the flora and fauna. In California, in the cool night air, you even felt healthy when you puked – it was so different from New York.” (POP43)

Two years after joining the Pasadena Art Museum as a curator, Hopps was promoted to director of the Museum at the age of 31 – making him the youngest director of a museum in the U.S. at the time. (AI) Other exhibitions that he presented there included the first Joseph Cornell retrospective and the first American retrospective of Kurt Schwitters. (MP) He left the museum in 1967 to become the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where he remained until 1972. From 1972 – 1979 he was the curator of 20th Century American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum where he organized the mid-career retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg during the American bicentennial in 1976. (PG)

Hopps’ success as a curator was exceptional for someone without a college degree. Although he attended various universities he never earned a degree. His unorthodox approach to his curatorial duties generally endeared him to artists and his staff although he was reportedly fired from the Corcoran because of the hours he kept – or didn’t keep. According to one account of his days there, he was fired “because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behaviour.” (WPL) James T. Demetrion, who worked as a curator for Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum, recalled Hopps hanging a Jasper Johns exhibit the night before it opened: “He said he’d show up at 9 pm, though, of course he didn’t. He strolled in after midnight, and we were there all night. Still, the show looked great.” (WPR) Hopps’ boss at the Smithsonian, Joshua C. Taylor, sometimes remarked, “If I could find him, I’d fire him.” The staff at the Smithsonian produced a badge which ironically read, “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.” He never was. (WPR)

In 1980 Hopps joined the Menil Foundation in Houston and became the Founding Director of The Menil Collection in 1987. He organized the Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s exhibition for The Menil Collection and in 1996 was responsible for the Edward Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following year he organized a survey of Rauschenberg’s work at the Guggenheim which traveled to several museums in the U.S. and Europe. In 2001 the Menil Foundation created a biannual award in his name – the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement – and he also became Adjunct Senior Curator of Twentieth Century Art at the Guggenheim. In 2003 he organized the James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim with co-curator Sarah Bancroft.

In addition to his curatorial work, Hopps also served as the art director for Grand Street, a New York literary and arts magazine edited by Jean Stein, the author of Edie: American Girl. Warhol stars Gerard Malanga and Brigid Berlin were both contributors to the magazine. Issue no. 55 included reproductions from Brigid’s Cock Book and an article about Brigid by Anne Doran; issue no. 68 featured a piece written by Brigid on sweets; and issue no. 63 included Gerard Malanga’s poem, Leaving New York.

Hopps’ life was celebrated at two memorial events – one at the Santa Monica Museum of Art on May 3, 2005 and another at The Menil Collection in Houston on May 17th. He is survived by his wife, Caroline Huber, of Houston.

gary c.
Warholstars 2005

===

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Walter Hopps, 72, Curator With a Flair for the Modern, Is Dead

By ROBERTA SMITH Published: March 23, 2005

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Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

Walter Hopps, left, with the sculptor John Chamberlain in 2003.

ARTICLE TOOLS

Walter Hopps, a leading curator of 20th-century art and founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 72 and lived in Houston and Los Angeles. The cause was pneumonia, a spokesman for the Menil Collection said. In the museum world, Mr. Hopps was famous for groundbreaking exhibitions, inspired installations and an empathy with living artists, many of whom he helped push to the forefront of the art world, including Ed Ruscha and Edward Kienholz. His career coincided with the coming of age of postwar American art and contributed significantly to the emergence of the museum as a place to show new art. His exhibitions included the first American retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, and the first museum survey of American Pop Art, all organized at the Pasadena Art Museum, where he worked as a curator and then as director from 1959 to 1967. He also organized the first midcareer survey of the work of Robert Rauschenberg (in 1976 at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and in 1997 organized an exhibition of Mr. Rauschenberg’s early work at the Menil that traveled to four other American museums. He once likened installing exhibitions to conducting a symphony orchestra. Mr. Hopps was born in Los Angeles in 1933 into a family of doctors. His aptitude for science and math was sidelined by a chance visit to the formidable modern art collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg, with whom he became close. While he was still in his teens and was studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, Mr. Hopps and two other friends opened the Syndell Studio, a free-form exhibition space in which they gave one-person shows to Craig Kauffman and Kienholz. In 1957, with Kienholz, he opened the Ferus Gallery, which became a crucial force in the Los Angeles art scene and showed the work of a new generation of artists, including Mr. Ruscha, Ken Price, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston. Mr. Hopps also began organizing exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum two years later and joined the staff in 1962. He served as United States commissioner for the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1965 and the Venice Biennale in 1972. In 1980 he began working for Dominique de Menil, the visionary Houston collector, who wanted to build a museum for the extraordinary collection of modern, ancient, African and Byzantine art that she and her late husband, John, had assembled. Mr. Hopps helped select the architect Renzo Piano to design it and, according to a 1991 profile in The New Yorker by Calvin Tomkins, requested flexible galleries “where you can turn daylight on and off.” Mr. Piano complied with an innovative system of roof shutters and a design that over all is among the most admired museum buildings in the world. Mr. Hopps was director of the Menil for two years after it opened in 1987 and then became its curator of 20th-century art. At the Menil, his exhibitions included a retrospective of the French artist Yves Klein as well as exhibitions of the work of John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst. He organized a Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996; a second Rauschenberg retrospective (with Susan Davidson) at the Guggenheim Museum and the Menil in 1997; and a James Rosenquist retrospective (with Sarah Bancroft) at the Guggenheim in 2003. In 2001, the Menil established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, with a cash prize of $15,000. Throughout much of his career Mr. Hopps was also known for his eccentric work habits, his mysterious disappearances and an autocratic manner that caused conflicts with museum boards, even while his curatorial imagination inspired fierce loyalty in many of his colleagues. But detractors and admirers alike agreed that the quality of his curatorial work rarely faltered. Mr. Hopps’s first marriage, to Shirley Neilsen, ended in divorce, as did a brief second marriage. He is survived by his wife, Caroline Huber, whom he married in 1983; and his brother, Harvey Hopps of Amarillo, Tex.

== http://www.egglestontrust.com/hasselblad_hopps.html Eggleston’s World by Walter Hopps ‘I think of them as parts of a novel I’m doing.’ These were the first words William Eggleston uttered when I asked what he felt he was accomplishing with his photographs. Another fine photographer from the South, William Christenberry, had brought Eggleston to meet me at the Corcoran Gallery of Art around 1970. The three of us had looked through a box of Eggleston’s 8 x 10 chromogenic coupler prints in silence. By the time I went through the prints a second time, I believed them to be the finest work in color photography I’d seen. In 1974 while serving at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, I was planning an exhibition of Eggleston’s work which would have been that institution’s first exhibit of photography as fine art. When I learned that John Szarkowski, the distinguished curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York wanted to make the first museum presentation, I deferred my plan. To accompany the exhibition, Szarkowski edited a selection of Eggleston’s color photographs, largely people and places in the Mississippi delta published as Eggleston’s Guide. His essay, the first important text addressing Eggleston’s work and to this day perhaps the best, emphasized in a positive light the way Eggleston made his seemingly documentary photographs carry the enriched reverberations of fiction. Eggleston’s color is always naturalistic. If the color print seems lurid, that’s the way the subject was found. Calm, subtle, uncolorful subjects are photographed in just this way. Nonetheless, the subjects would mean far less if they were presented in black and white. However, over the years Eggleston has done bodies of work in black and white photography and videotape. With each shift in medium, the kinds of compositions and nature of the images somehow changes to fit his vision. Eggleston’s home is Memphis, Tennessee, on the northern edge of the Mississippi delta. The places, parts and people of the region comprise the center of Eggleston’s world just as they had for the great American novelist William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi in the eastern part of the delta. Both of these men have had the ability to imbue seemingly modest subject with extraordinary moral weight and dignity. Over the past forty years Eggleston has exposed an enormous amount of film for someone who does not work on assignment. Perhaps his only contemporary, Gary Winogrand is as comparably prolific. Eggleston’s editing process is rigorous. To date, a relatively small portion of his finest work has been exhibited and published. Eggleston, working with Caldecot Chubb, has chosen original prints to be presented in four bound books and five unbound portfolios. In 1991 the Barbican Art Gallery in London staged the most recent important survey of Eggleston’s photographs: William Eggleston: Ancient and Modern. In the introduction, Mark Holborn concludes: ‘His prodigious output has barely been seen, yet he is only in mid-stride. He continues to cut to the heart of the ordinary, probing at those things which constitute tangible dimensions, like some concrete explorer. Or, as a great exotic, he can be in the kitchen or in Zanzibar, staring at the dirt by his boot or looking up at the sky. – Walter Hopps ====== BROOKLYN RAIL

The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps

What Is a Curator?Under the Roman Empire the title of curator (“caretaker”) was given to officials in charge of various departments of public works: sanitation, transportation, policing. The curatores annonae were in charge of the public supplies of oil and corn. The curatores regionum were responsible for maintaining order in the 14 regions of Rome. And the curatores aquarum took care of the aqueducts. In the Middle Ages, the role of the curator shifted to the ecclesiastical, as clergy having a spiritual cure or charge. So one could say that the split within curating—between the management and control of public works (law) and the cure of souls (faith)—was there from the beginning. Curators have always been a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest. That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity, Commodity, the bias of the world—
—Shakespeare, King John1

Portrait of Harald Szeemann. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

For better or worse, curators of contemporary art have become, especially in the last 10 years, the principal representatives of some of our most persistent questions and confusions about the social role of art. Is art a force for change and renewal, or is it a commodity for advantage or convenience? Is art a radical activity, undermining social conventions, or is it a diverting entertainment for the wealthy? Are artists the antennae of the human race, or are they spoiled children with delusions of grandeur (in Roman law, a curator could also be the appointed caretaker or guardian of a minor or lunatic)? Are art exhibitions “spiritual undertakings with the power to conjure alternative ways of organizing society,” or vehicles for cultural tourism and nationalistic propaganda? These splits, which reflect larger tears in the social fabric, certainly in the United States, complicate the changing role of curators of contemporary art, because curators mediate between art and its publics and are often forced to take “a curving and indirect course” between them. Teaching for the past five years at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, I observed young curators confronting the practical demands and limitations of their profession armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything. Where did this image come from? When Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps died in February and March 2005, at age 72 and 71, respectively, it was impossible not to see this as the end of an era. They were two of the principal architects of the present approach to curating contemporary art, working over 50 years to transform the practice. When young curators imagine what’s possible, they are imagining (whether they know it or not) some version of Szeemann and Hopps. The trouble with taking these two as models of curatorial possibility is that both of them were sui generis: renegades who managed, through sheer force of will, extraordinary ability, brilliance, luck, and hard work, to make themselves indispensable, and thereby intermittently palatable, to the conservative institutions of the art world. Each came to these institutions early. When Szeemann was named head of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1961, at age 28, he was the youngest ever to have been appointed to such a position in Europe, and when Hopps was made director of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1964, at age 31, he was then the youngest art museum director in the United States. By that time, Hopps (who never earned a college degree) had already mounted a show of paintings by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, and many others on a merry-go-round in an amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier (with his first wife, Shirley Hopps, when he was 22); started and run two galleries (Syndell Studios and the seminal Ferus Gallery, with Ed Kienholz); and curated the first museum shows of Frank Stella’s paintings and Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the first U.S. retrospective of Kurt Schwitters, the first museum exhibition of Pop Art, and the first solo museum exhibition of Marcel Duchamp, in Pasadena in 1963. And that was just the beginning. Near the end of his life, Hopps estimated that he’d organized 250 exhibitions in his 50-year career. Szeemann’s early curatorial activities were no less prodigious. He made his first exhibition, Painters Poets/ Poets Painters, a tribute to Hugo Ball, in 1957, at age 24. When he became the director of the Kunsthalle in Bern four years later, he completely transformed that institution, mounting nearly 12 exhibitions a year, culminating in the landmark show Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969, exhibiting works by 70 artists, including Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman, among many others. While producing critically acclaimed and historically important exhibitions, both Hopps and Szeemann quickly came into conflict with their respective institutions. After four years at the Pasadena Art Museum, Hopps was asked to resign. He was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1970, then fired two years later. For his part, stunned by the negative reaction to When Attitudes Become Form from the Kunsthalle Bern, Harald Szeemann quit his job, becoming the first “independent curator.” He set up the Agency for Spiritual Guestwork and co-founded the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) in 1969, curated Happenings & Fluxus at the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, and became the first artistic director of Documenta in 1972, reconceiving it as a 100-day event. Szeemann and Hopps hadn’t yet turned 40, and their best shows were all ahead of them. For Szeemann, these included Junggesellenmaschinen—Les Machines célibataires (“Bachelor Machines”) in 1975-77, Monte Veritá (1978, 1983, 1987), the first Aperto at the Venice Biennale (with Achille Bonito Oliva, 1980), Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk, Europaïsche Utopien seit 1800 (“The Quest for the Total Work of Art”) in 1983-84, Visionary Switzerland in 1991, the Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1993, Austria in a Lacework of Roses in 1996, and the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001. For Hopps, yet to come were exhibitions of Diane Arbus in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972, the Robert Rauschenberg mid-career survey in 1976, retrospectives at the Menil Collection of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Max Ernst, and exhibitions of Jay DeFeo (1990), Ed Kienholz (1996 at the Whitney), Rauschenberg again (1998), and James Rosenquist (2003 at the Guggenheim). Both Szeemann and Hopps had exhibitions open when they died—Szeemann’s Visionary Belgium, for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Hopps’s George Herms retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum—and both had plans for many more exhibitions in the future. What Do Curators Do? Szeemann and Hopps were the Cosmas and Damian (or the Beuys and Duchamp) of contemporary curatorial practice. Rather than accepting things as they found them, they changed the way things were done. But finally, they will be remembered for only one thing: the quality of the exhibitions they made; for that is what curators do, after all. Szeemann often said he preferred the simple title of Ausstellungsmacher (exhibition-maker), but he acknowledged at the same time how many different functions this one job comprised: “administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat.” I have heard curators characterized at different times as: Administrators Advocates Auteurs Bricoleurs (Hopps’ last show, the Herms retrospective, was titled “The Bricoleur of Broken Dreams. . . One More Once”) Brokers Bureaucrats Cartographers (Ivo Mesquita) Catalysts (Hans Ulrich Obrist) Collaborators Cultural impresarios Cultural nomads Diplomats (When Bill Lieberman, who held top curatorial posts at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died in May 2005, Artnews described him as “the consummate art diplomat”) And that’s just the beginning of the alphabet. When Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Walter Hopps to name important predecessors, the first one he came up with was Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, “for his unrelenting rigor.” He continued, “Fine curating of an artist’s work—that is, presenting it in an exhibition—requires as broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist’s work that a curator can possibly muster. This knowledge needs to go well beyond what is actually put in the exhibition. . . . To me, a body of work by a given artist has an inherent kind of score that you try to relate to or understand. It puts you in a certain psychological state. I always tried to get as peaceful and calm as possible.”3 But around this calm and peaceful center raged the “controlled chaos” of exhibition making. Hopps’ real skills includ
ed an encyclopedic visual memory, the ability to place artworks on the wall and in a room in a way that made them sing,4 the personal charm to get people to do things for him, and an extraordinary ability to look at a work of art and then account for his experience of it, and articulate this account to others in a compelling and convincing way. It is significant, I think, that neither Szeemann nor Hopps considered himself a writer, but both recognized and valued good writing, and solicited and “curated” writers and critics as well as artists into their exhibitions and publications. Even so, many have observed that the rise of the independent curator has occurred at the expense of the independent critic. In a recent article titled “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” Mark Spiegler opined that “on the day in 1969 when Harald Szeemann went freelance by leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, the wind turned against criticism.”5 There are curators who can also write criticism, but these precious few are exceptions that prove the rule. Curators are not specialists, but for some reason they feel the need to use a specialized language, appropriated from philosophy or psychoanalysis, which too often obscures rather than reveals their sources and ideas. The result is not criticism, but curatorial rhetoric. Criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things, while the inflationary writing of curatorial rhetoric is used to obscure fine distinctions with vague generalities. The latter’s displacement of the former has a political dimension as we move into an increasingly managed, post-critical environment. Although Szeemann and Hopps were very different in many ways, they shared certain fundamental values: an understanding of the importance of remaining independent of institutional prejudices and arbitrary power arrangements; a keen sense of history; the willingness to continually take risks intellectually, aesthetically, and conceptually; and an inexhaustible curiosity about and respect for the way artists work.

Portrait of Walter Hopps. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

Szeemann’s break away from the institution of the Kunsthalle was, simply put, “a rebellion aimed at having more freedom.”6 This rebellious act put him closer to the ethos of artists and writers, where authority cannot be bestowed or taken, but must be earned through the quality of one’s work. In his collaborations with artists, power relations were negotiated in practice rather than asserted as fiat. Every mature artist I know has a favorite horror story about a young, inexperienced curator trying to claim an authority they haven’t earned by manipulating a seasoned artist’s work or by designing exhibitions in which individual artists’ works are seen as secondary and subservient to the curator’s grand plan or theme. The cure for this kind of insecure hubris is experience, but also the recognition of the ultimate contingency of the curatorial process. As Dave Hickey said of both critics and curators, “Somebody has to do something before we can do anything.”7 In June of 2000, after being at the pinnacle of curatorial power repeatedly for over 40 years, Harald Szeemann said, “Frankly, if you insist on power, then you keep going on in this way. But you must throw the power away after each experience, otherwise it’s not renewing. I’ve done a lot of shows, but if the next one is not an adventure, it’s not important for me and I refuse to do it.”8 When contemporary curators, following in the steps of Szeemann, break free from institutions, they sometimes lose their sense of history in the process. Whatever their shortcomings, institutions do have a sense (sometimes a surfeit) of history. And without history, “the new” becomes a trap, a sequential recapitulation of past approaches with no forward movement. It is a terrible thing to be perpetually stuck in the present, and this is a major occupational hazard for curators. Speaking about his curating of the Seville Biennale in 2004, Szeemann said, “It’s not about presenting the best there is, but about discovering where the unpredictable path of art will go in the immanent future.” But moving the ball up the field requires a tremendous amount of legwork. “The unpredictable path of art” becomes much less so when curators rely on the Claude Rains method, rounding up the usual suspects from the same well-worn list of artists that everyone else in the world is using. It is difficult, in retrospect, to fully appreciate the risks that both Szeemann and Hopps took to change the way curators worked. One should never underestimate the value of a monthly paycheck. By giving up a secure position as director of a stable art institution and striking out on his own as an “independent curator,” Szeemann was assuring himself years of penury. There was certainly no assurance that anyone would hire him as a freelance. Anyone who’s chosen this path knows that freelance means never having to say you’re solvent. Being freelance as a writer and critic is one thing: The tools of the trade are relatively inexpensive, and one need only make a living. But making exhibitions is costly and finding “independent” money, money without onerous strings attached to it, is especially difficult when one cannot, in good conscience, present it as an “investment opportunity.” Daniel Birnbaum points out that “all the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship and branding in contemporary art today are fully articulated in [‘When Attitudes Become Form’]. Remarkably, according to Szeemann, the exhibition came about only because ‘people from Philip Morris and the PR firm Ruder Finn came to Bern and asked me if I would do a show of my own. They offered me money and total freedom.’ Indeed, the exhibition’s catalogue seems uncanny in its prescience: ‘As businessmen in tune with our times, we at Philip Morris are committed to support the experimental,’ writes John A. Murphy, the company’s European president, asserting that his company experimented with ‘new methods and materials’ in a way fully comparable to the Conceptual artists in the exhibition. (And yet, showing the other side of this corporate-funding equation, it was a while before the company supported the arts in Europe again, perhaps needing time to recover from all the negative press surrounding the event.)”9 So the founding act of “independent curating” was brought to you by . . . Philip Morris! 33 years later, for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02, Szeemann designed a pavilion covered with sheets of gold, containing a system of pneumatic tubes and a machine that destroyed money—two 100 franc notes every minute during the 159 days of the exhibition. The sponsor? The Swiss National Bank, of course. When Walter Hopps brought the avant-garde to Southern California, he didn’t have to compete with others to secure the works of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, or Jay DeFeo (for the merry-go-round show in 1953), because no one else wanted them. In his Hopps obituary, Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight pointed out that “just a few years after Hopps’s first visit to the [Arensbergs’] collection, the [Los Angeles] City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.”10 In 50 years, we’ve progressed from banning art as Communist propaganda to prosecuting artists as terrorists.11 The Few and Far Between It’s not that fast horses are rare, but men who know enough to spot them
are few and far between.
—Han Yü12 The trait that Szeemann and Hopps had most in common was their respect for and understanding of artists. They never lost sight of the fact that their principal job was to take what they found in artists’ works and do whatever it took to present it in the strongest possible way to an interested public. Sometimes this meant combining it with other work that enhanced or extended it. This was done not to show the artists anything they didn’t already know, but to show the public. As Lawrence Weiner pointed out in an interview in 1994, “Everybody that was in the Attitudes show knew all about the work of everybody else in the Attitudes show. They wouldn’t have known them personally, but they knew all the work. . . . Most artists on both sides of the Atlantic knew what was being done. European artists had been coming to New York and U.S. artists went over there.”13 But Attitudes brought it all together in a way that made a difference. Both Szeemann and Hopps felt most at home with artists, sometimes literally. Carolee Schneemann recently described for me the scene in the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, when she and her collaborator in “Happenings and Fluxus” (having arrived and discovered there was no money for lodging) moved into their installations, and Szeemann thought it such a good idea to sleep on site that he brought in a cot and slept in the museum himself, to the outrage of the guards and staff. Both Szeemann and Hopps reserved their harshest criticism for the various bureaucracies that got between them and the artists. Hopps once described working for bureaucrats when he was a senior curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts as “like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal.”14 And Szeemann said in 2001 that “the annoying thing about such bureaucratic organizations as the [Venice] Biennale is that there are a lot of people running around who hate artists because they keep running around wanting to change everything.”15 Changing everything, for Szeemann, was just the point. “Artists, like curators, work on their own,” he said in 2000, “grappling with their attempt to make a world in which to survive. . . . We are lonely people, faced with superficial politicians, with donors, sponsors, and one must deal with all of this. I think it is here where the artist finds a way to form his own world and live his obsessions. For me, this is the real society.”16 The society of the obsessed. Where Do We Go from Here? Although Walter Hopps was an early commissioner for the São Paolo Biennal (1965: Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Richard Irwin and Larry Poons) and of the Venice Bi
ennale (1972: Diane Arbus), Harald Szeemann practically invented the role of nomadic independent curator of huge international shows, putting his indelible stamp on Documenta and Venice and organizing the Lyon Biennale and the Kwangju Biennial in Korea in 1997, and the first Seville Biennale in 2004, as well as numerous other international surveys around the world. So what Szeemann said about globalization and art should perhaps be taken seriously. He saw globalization as a euphemism for imperialism, and proclaimed that “globalization is the great enemy of art.” And in the Carolee Thea interview in 2000, he said, “Globalization is perfect if it brings more justice and equality to the world . . . but it doesn’t. Artists dream of using computers or digital means to have contact and to bring continents closer. But once you have the information, it’s up to you what to do with it. Globalization without roots is meaningless in art.”17 And globalization of the curatorial class can be a way to avoid or “transcend” the political. Rene Dubos’s old directive to “think globally, but act locally” (first given at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972) has been upended in some recent international shows (like the 14th Sydney Biennale in 2004, and the 1st Moscow Biennial in 2005). When one thinks locally (within a primarily Euro-American cultural framework, or within a New York-London-Kassel-Venice-Basel-Los Angeles-Miami framework) but acts globally, the results are bound to be problematic, and can be disastrous. In 1979, Dubos argued for an ecologically sustainable world in which “natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications.” At their best, the big international exhibitions do contribute to this. Okwui Enwezor’s18 Documenta XI certainly did, and Szeemann knew it. At their worst, they perpetuate the center-to-periphery hegemony and preclude real cross-cultural communication and change. Although having artists and writers move around in the world is an obvious good, real cultural exchange is something that must be nurtured. Walter Hopps said in 1996: “I really believe in—and, obviously, hope for—radical, or arbitrary, presentations, where cross-cultural and cross-temporal considerations are extreme, out of all the artifacts we have. . . . So just in terms of people’s priorities, conventional hierarchies begin to shift some.”19 The Silence of Szeemann & Hopps Is Overrated ‘Art’ is any human activity that aims at producing improbable situations, and it is the more artful (artistic) the less probable the situation that it produces. —Vilém Flusser20 Harald Szeemann recognized early and long appreciated the utopian aspects of art. “The often-evoked ‘autonomy’ is just as much a fruit of subjective evaluation as the ideal society: it remains a utopia while it informs the desire to experientially visualize the unio mystica of opposites in space. Which is to say that without seeing, there is nothing visionary, but that the visionary should always determine the seeing.” And he recognized that the bureaucrat could overtake the curer of souls at any point. “Otherwise, we might just as well return to ‘hanging and placing,’ and divide the entire process ‘from the vision to the nail’ into detailed little tasks again.”21 He organized exhibitions in which the improbable could occur, and was willing to risk the impossible. In reply to a charge that the social utopianism of Joseph Beuys was never realized, Szeemann said, “The nice thing about utopias is precisely that they fail. For me, failure is a poetic dimension of art.”22 Curating a show in which nothing could fail was, to Szeemann, a waste of time. If he and Hopps could still encourage young curators in anything, I suspect it would be to take greater risks in their work. At a time when all parts of the social and political spheres (including art institutions) are increasingly managed, breaking out of this frame, asking significant questions, and setting the terms of resistance is more and more vitally important. It is important to work against the bias of the world (commodity, political expediency). For curators of contemporary art, that means finding and supporting those artists who, as Flusser writes, “have attempted, at the risk of their lives, to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden.”23 This essay will be included in the forthcoming Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating
Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris, published by Apex Art. It will be available by January 2007. Endnotes 1 Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, Act II, Scene 1, 573-74. Cowper: “What Shakespeare calls commodity, and we call political expediency.” Appendix 13 of my old edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, edited by G. B. Harrison (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 1639-40, reads: “Shakespeare frequently used poetic imagery taken from the game of bowls [bowling]. . . . The bowl [bowling ball] was not a perfect sphere, but so made that one side somewhat protruded. This protrusion was called the bias; it caused the bowl to take a curving and indirect course.” 2 “When Attitude Becomes Form: Daniel Birnbaum on Harald Szeemann,” Artforum, Summer 2005, p. 55. 3 Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews, Volume I, edited by Thomas Boutoux (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003), pp. 416-17. Hopps also named as predecessors exhibition-makers Katherine Dreier, Alfred Barr, James Johnson Sweeney, René d’Harnoncourt, and Jermayne MacAgy. 4 In 1976, at the Museum of Temporary Art in Washington, D.C., Hopps announced that, for thirty-six hours, he would hang anything anyone brought in, as long as it would fit through the door. Later, he proposed to put 100,000 images up on the walls of P.S. 1 in New York, but that project was, sadly, never realized. 5 Mark Spiegler, “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” The Art Newspaper, no. 157, April 2005, p. 32. 6 Carolee Thea, Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators (New York: Apex Art Curatorial Program, 2001), p. 19. 7 Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility: Proceedings from a symposium addressing the state of current curatorial practice organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, October 14-15, 2000, edited by Paula Marincola (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2001), p. 128. Both Szeemann and Hopps passed Hickey’s test: “The curator’s job, in my view,” he said, “is to tell the truth, to show her or his hand, and get out of the way” (p. 126). 8 Carolee Thea, p. 19 (emphasis added). 9 Daniel Birnbaum, p. 58. 10 Christopher Knight, “Walter Hopps, 1932-2005. Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2005. 11At this writing, the U.S. government continues in its effort to prosecute artist Steven Kurtz for obtaining bacterial agents through the mail, even though the agents were harmless and intended for use in art pieces by the collaborative Critical Art Ensemble. Kurtz has said he believes the charges filed against him in 2004 (after agents from the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Depeartment of Defence swarmed over his house) are part of a Bush administration campaign to prevent artists from protesting government policies. “I think we’re in a very unfortunate moment now in U.S. history,” Kurtz has said. “A form of neo-McCarthyism has made a comeback. . . . We’re going to see a whole host of politically motivated trials which have nothing to do with crime but everything to do with artistic expression.” For the latest developments in the case, go to caedefensefund.org. 12 Epigraph to Nathan Sivin’s Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968). 1
3 Having Been Said: Writings & Interviews of Lawrence Weiner 1968-2003, edited by Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004), p. 315. 14 Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps—Art Curator,” Artforum, February 1996. 15 Jan Winkelman, “Failure as a Poetic Dimension: A Conversation with Harald Szeemann,” Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over Hedendaagse Kunst, No. 3, June 2001. 16 Carolee Thea, p. 17 (emphasis added). 17 Carolee Thea, p. 18. 18 With his co-curators Carlos Basualdo, Uta Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya. 19 Hans Ulrich Obrist, p. 430. 20 Vilém Flusser, “Habit: The True Aesthetic Criterion,” in Writings, edited by Andreas Ströhl, translated by Erik Eisel (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 52. 21 Harald Szeemann, “Does Art Need Directors?” in Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, edited by Carin Kuoni (New York: Independent Curators International, 2001), p. 169. 22 Jan Winkelman. 23 Flusser, p. 54.

==

Pacific Standard Time LA/LA 2017

PACIFIC STANDARD TIME LA/LA

Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA Grants Awarded

http://www.getty.edu/foundation/initiatives/current/pst_lala/grants_awarded.html

A complete list of research and planning grants for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibitions and programs around Southern California supported by the Getty Foundation follows below.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles
From Latin America to Hollywood: Latino Film Culture in Los Angeles 1967–2017

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will undertake research for a film series, symposium, and book to explore the work and shared influences of Latino and Latin American filmmakers in Los Angeles. From the 1960s to the present, multiple generations of L.A. filmmakers were inspired by early Latin American cinema, and an exchange of ideas took place among filmmakers in Latin American countries and the Latin American diaspora. Areas of inquiry will include the Chicano film movement, which responded to stereotyped portrayals in Hollywood films and the lack of Latino participation in the industry, and the recent achievements of Latino and Latin American filmmakers, whose work has seen worldwide artistic and commercial success. The Academy will conduct oral histories with notable filmmakers and ultimately present a film series pairing contemporary films with their earlier influences.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena
Aesthetic Experiments and Social Agents: Renegade Art and Action in Mexico in the 1990s

The 1990s was a period of radical social change in Mexico, marked by increasing violence, the devalued peso, industrial pollution, and political corruption. Against this backdrop, artists in Mexico City and Guadalajara created alternative spaces that nurtured experimental practices and helped gain acceptance for art that was more expansive, ephemeral, and socially based. The Armory will look at several of these spaces, from Mexico City’s Ex Teresa, founded by artists in 1993, to the energetic spaces that emerged in Guadalajara, including Jalarte and Clemente Jacks. Out of the dynamic activities of these local art spaces grew strong relationships with art centers abroad, an expanded dialogue that helped launch the careers of numerous internationally prominent artists.

Exhibition research support: $140,000

Autry National Center for the American West, Los Angeles
La Raza

Published in Los Angeles from 1967–1977, the influential bilingual newspaper La Raza provided a voice to the Chicano rights movement and its images became icons of the era. The Autry will examine La Raza’s photojournalism, drawing on a previously inaccessible archive of nearly 20,000 negatives now housed at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. The film images range from street and documentary photography to portraiture and relate to many critical issues that persist today, including education, media representation, immigration, and civil liberties. The exhibition will explore the individual contributions of the editors, writers, and photographers in the La Raza collective. Focusing on how a distinctive “Chicano eye” contributed to the struggle for social equality, this exhibition will situate Chicano photographic practices within a larger social, aesthetic, and hemispheric context.

Exhibition research Support: $115,000

California State University Long Beach
David Lamelas: A Life of Their Own

The University Art Museum (UAM) will organize the first U.S. monographic exhibition on the Argentine-born photographer, filmmaker, and conceptual artist David Lamelas. A pioneer of conceptual art in Argentina and beyond, Lamelas gained international acclaim for his work in the 1968 Venice Biennale, Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels. Starting in the 1970s, Lamelas began living in Los Angeles for extensive periods. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he produced videos for the Long Beach Museum of Art’s experimental video arts program. The UAM exhibition will feature selected objects, films, performance documentation, media installations, and ephemera from the 1960s and 1970s, and drawings of unrealized architectural “interventions”—one of which will be realized for the exhibition.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, Los Angeles
Home

To be presented at LACMA as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, Home will feature works by approximately 30 U.S. Latino artists from the 1950s to the present. The focus will be on the largest historic groups—artists of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban origin—with Latin American diaspora artists also considered. Home seeks to investigate what the curators call the “betwixt–and–between” of these Latino artists who do not typically find a comfortable home in either American or Latin American art history. Works in a range of media will be examined for their exploration of such timely ideas as belonging, domesticity, and nationalism. The curators’ object driven approach will take into account the stylistic complexities of the artworks and the boundary crossing practices of many of the artists—a departure from previous exhibitions that tended to use individual artworks to illustrate preexisting concepts about Latino culture.

Exhibition research support: $210,000

Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles
Caribbean Visual Culture and the Chinese Diaspora

The Chinese community has been an important part of Caribbean society since the mid-19th century, when island-based enterprises, searching for cheap labor, recruited Chinese workers. This exhibition will bring together modern and contemporary work by artists of Chinese descent working in the Caribbean, or who have emigrated from the region. These artists often had a complicated relationship to their Asian roots, sometimes denying them, as in the case of Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, or enfolding them in a hybrid vocabulary, as in the work of Trinidadian artist Carlisle Chang. This exhibition seeks a richer understanding of Chinese diasporic art and how it relates to the broader spectrum of Caribbean art and culture, the study of which has traditionally been more focused on the region’s African influences.

Exhibition research support: $55,000

Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles
Design on the Border: Contemporary Design in Mexico and Mexican America

For the past twenty years, designers in Mexico have worked with traditional folk communities to preserve popular art forms. While championing the iconography of popular culture, these artists also infuse the imagery with fresh attitudes, assigning new meanings to familiar cultural symbols. The design collective DFC, for example, creates product lines with traditional crafts people that feature motifs related to Day of the Dead celebrations, celebrities, and Aztec imagery. Others such as Einar and Jamex de la Torre, working between Ensenada and San Diego, question notions of taste and kitsch in installations such as the Borderlandia (2011), with it glass versions of sugar skulls and luchador libre wrestlers. Design on the Border will be the first project to fully explore the work of these designers and the burgeoning cross-border market for their borrowed imagery of stereotypes.

Exhibition research support: $70,000

18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica

As part of their collaboration with LACMA on A Universal History of Infamy—an exhibition focused on alternative artist practices in Latin America and in the U.S.—18th Street Arts Center will provide eight residencies for Latin American artists over the next two years. Having hosted more than 300 artists from 36 countries, particularly those working in non-traditional performance, social practice, and multi-media, 18th Street is an ideal partner for the project. Artists in residence will interact with local artists, schools, museums, galleries, and community-based organizations, possibly resulting in new site-specific or process-oriented works. The partnership will also help shape the flexible structure of the LACMA exhibition, with segments of the show traveling to alternative venues similar to 18th Street in size and capacity throughout the U.S. and Latin America.

Support for artists’ residencies: $60,000

Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles
The Roads that Lead to Bahia: Visual Arts and the Emergence of Brazil’s Black Rome

Salvador, the coastal capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, emerged in the 1940s as an internationally renowned center of Afro-Brazilian culture and an important hub of African-inspired artistic practices in the Americas. The Fowler will undertake the most comprehensive presentation of African-inspired arts of Bahia, looking at a complex group of artists from various racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds, along with their social circles and the arts patrons, government officials, and international development officers who fueled Salvador as a Mecca of Afro-Brazilian culture. The relationship between art and local religious and spiritual practices; prevailing notions of Africanness, regionality, and nationality; and why this art accrued such cultural significance beyond Brazil will all be examined.

Exhibition research support: $170,000

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
The Political Body: Radical Women in Latin American Art 1960–1985

The Hammer Museum will bring to light the conceptual and aesthetic experimentation of women artists in Latin America from 1960 to 1985, extraordinary contributions that have received little scholarly attention to date. Made during a key period in the women’s rights movement, this work often required heroic acts in the face of harsh repression under military dictatorships. The exhibition will feature work in a range of media, including photography, video, and installation by several better-known Latin American women artists, such as Lygia Clark and Ana Mendieta, alongside lesser-known artists, such as Brazilian Mara Alvares and Argentine Margarita Paksa. With approximately 80 artists from 12 countries, The Political Body will constitute the first genealogy of feminist and radical women’s art practices in Latin America and their influence internationally.

Exhibition research support: $225,000

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino
Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin

Drawing on the Huntington’s Latin American and botanical holdings, Visual Voyages will explore indigenous and European depictions of Latin American nature over a 500-year period. From the time of Columbus through the 19th century, European and American naturalists produced images of fantastic animals, lavish flora, and landscapes of military and spiritual conquest as a means of understanding the natural world in Latin America, including Spanish California. The project will reveal how early explorers and chroniclers portrayed the region as an earthly paradise; how indigenous artists used representations of nature as a site for the study of cultural contact and transformation; and how 19th-century Latin American artists envisioned nature as integral to the creation of national identity.

Exhibition research support: $200,000

Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Los Angeles

JANM will mount the first exhibition on modern and contemporary artists of Japanese or Japanese Latino ancestry in Latin America and Southern California, expanding our understanding of what constitutes Latin American art. From the large wave of Japanese immigrants to Brazil to the influx of Okinawans in Peru, Japanese Latinos have complex cultural identities. Curators will investigate how the work of artists in places such as Lima, São Paulo, Tijuana, and Los Angeles illuminates regional differences, generational approaches, and the impact of transnationalism on individual and communal identity.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

Laguna Art Museum
Mexico/California, 1820–1930

Mexico/California, 1820–1930 is about how Mexico became California. Following the U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848), lands that had for centuries belonged to New Spain, and later Mexico, were transformed into the thirty-first state in the U.S. This process was facilitated by the visual arts that forged distinct pictorial motifs and symbols to establish its new identity. This exhibition focuses on works that speak to the process of becoming California and to the dialogues and intersections between these two geographic identities. Contents range from a Mexican colonial painting transported to a California mission where it became a beloved icon, to the work of early modernists such as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whose Portrait of Luther Burbank depicts the California horticulturalist whose development of over 800 fruits, flowers, and other plants contributed to the state’s agricultural growth. Utimately the exhibition will demonstrate how California evolved a profile distinct from any other U.S. state, which is directly attributable to its unique amalgam of Mexican and Anglo visual traditions.

Exhibition research support: $92,000

LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division)
Jose Dávila

LAND plans a mid-career survey of Guadalajara-based artist Jose Dávila (b. 1974). Trained as an architect, Dávila creates sculptural installations and photographic works that use reproduction, homage, and imitation to both explore and dismantle the legacies of 20th century avant-garde art and architecture. Referencing artists and architects from Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz to Donald Judd, Dávila explores how the modernist movement has been translated, appropriated, and reinvented in Mexican art. The exhibition will include the artist’s sculptural installations, photographs, studies, drawings, proposals, and models, as well as a new interactive public sculpture. In keeping with its mission to curate site-specific projects, LAND hopes to install the exhibition in a local modernist building, thereby referencing the architectural language so critical to Dávila’s work.

Exhibition research support: $70,000

LA Phil, Los Angeles

The LA Phil will undertake research and planning for bookend contributions to Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, including an opening concert event at the Hollywood Bowl and a closing music festival at Disney Hall. Taken in combination, these events will represent the largest scale and most in-depth exploration of Latin American performing arts ever presented by the LA Phil. Under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil has already taken an active role in connecting Latin American music with L.A. audiences, but now it will be able to present an even more complex picture of contemporary Latin American musical expression. Exploratory trips throughout Latin America in the coming months will enable the curatorial team to identify and cultivate relationships with leading artists and ensembles. As a result the team will work actively with the artists to create a wide range of new programming.

Programming planning support: $68,000

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) and Pitzer College Art Galleries, Claremont
Juan Downey: Radiant Nature

LACE and the Pitzer College Art Galleries will mount a two–part exhibition on the early performance work of video art pioneer Juan Downey (1940–1993). Born in Chile, Downey moved to Paris in the 1960s and later to Washington, D.C. where he developed a practice combining interactive performance with sculpture and video. Works such as Video Trans Americas (1973–1976), based on his Amazonian travels, and The Thinking Eye (1976–1977), a meditation on myths, media, and mass culture, highlight the artist’s fascination with perception and identity. While previous exhibitions have focused on Downey’s video work, the current project will consider his extensive body of performance art. Along with drawings, installations, photographs, videos, and ephemera from the performances, LACE and Pitzer will restage some of Downey’s rarely seen, interactive performances, such as the four-day piece Plato Now (1973).

Exhibition research support: $120,000

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
For three exhibitions

50 Years of Design in Latin America, 1920–1970

LACMA will undertake the first survey of modern design in Latin America, from Art Nouveau and Pre-Columbian Revival, to mid-century modernist design and its successor styles. During the interwar era, Latin American designers adopted styles from Europe while also emphasizing regional motifs that reflected increasing nationalism. The region embraced utopian ideas of progress, from Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, to Gui Bonsiepe’s work for Salvador Allende’s Project Cybersyn in Chile, and by the 1960s was home to internationally recognized designers and several industrial art schools. 50 Years of Design in Latin America will include a range of media—furniture, ceramics, jewelry, graphic design, paintings, photography, and film—to highlight the interplay between local and international contexts. The ties between Latin American and U.S. designers will also be featured, from pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial revival styles to mid-century design.

A Universal History of Infamy

Taking its title from a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Infamy will present interdisciplinary works at LACMA and in a variety of venues around Los Angeles by some of today’s most compelling Latin American and Latino artists. As part of the project, LACMA will partner with 18th Street Art Center to organize artist residencies from 2015 to 2017, emphasizing process, collaboration, and performance. The culminating exhibition will offer a platform for new projects alongside significant works made in the U.S. and Latin America in the last twenty years.

Playing with Fire: The Art of Carlos Almaraz

Painter Carlos Almaraz was a driving force behind the Chicano art movement in the 1970s, active in the farm workers causa and with Gilbert Luján, Frank Romero, and Roberto de la Rocha, founding the artist collective Los Four. As a politically active Chicano artist, Almaraz’s identity was complicated, and this complex notion of self played out in his work. Almaraz’s images of lush vegetation, vibrant L.A. skylines, fiery freeway crashes, and flaming suburban houses are imbued with beauty and tension. While Almaraz has been the subject of smaller exhibitions since his untimely death in 1989 at age 48, Playing with Fire will be the first large retrospective, comprising some 60 works, including the major paintings, along with pastels, prints, ephemera, and notebooks. Following its landmark exhibition of Los Four in the mid-1970s, LACMA will be a fitting venue for this important artist whose work holds value for multiple communities.

Total exhibition research support: $335,000

Los Angeles Filmforum

With leading scholars from the U.S., Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Spain, Filmforum will research experimental film in Latin America, tracing the web of connections between the pioneering cinema of various countries. Starting in the 1930s with rarely–seen films such as the Brazilian surrealist masterpiece Limite, through the 1970s with collaboratively produced films such as Robarte el arte, to the current day, the series will look at the relationship of experimental film to mainstream entertainment, as well as to other avant–garde art forms. Along with its own film series and publication, Filmforum will also connect with the artists and movements explored in the various Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibitions, creating film programs in collaboration with the other partners.

Research support: $150,000

MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, Los Angeles
How to Read El Pato Pasqual: Disney’s Latin America and Latin America’s Disney

The MAK Center will investigate Walt Disney Studio’s work in Latin America, and its ongoing reception and reinterpretation. An early example is Disney’s 1942 The Three Caballeros, a musical film starring Donald Duck that was the product of a public–relations tour of South America by Walt Disney and his artists, musicians, and screenwriters to promote the U.S. government’s “Good Neighbor” policy. Disneyland itself was inspired in part by the Argentine theme park República de los niños, conceived by Juan and Eva Perón to teach children citizenship. The MAK Center will explore this history of Disney engagement with Latin American imagery, and the ways that Latin American artists have responded to, played with, re-appropriated, and misappropriated Disney iconography.

Exhibition research support: $140,000

Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA)
Latin American Abstractions

From the 1930s through the 1970s, a wide variety of artists in Latin America experimented with diverse modes of abstraction. While geometric abstraction has been featured in U.S. and European exhibitions, other strains with which it was in dialogue are less well-known, including lyrical, informalist, gestural, and expressionist abstraction. MOCA will uncover this heterogeneity of non-representational art throughout Latin America, and the ways in which the various forms developed, interacted, and competed over a span of almost 50 years. The exhibition will include the exploration of unfamiliar terrain, such as the work of Japanese artists who came to Brazil in the 1930s, the Grupo Signo in Chile in the 1950s, and the first presentation of the informalist movement in Argentina in 1959, as well as abstract practices in Central America and the Caribbean.

Exhibition research support: $225,000

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD)
Memories of Underdevelopment

In collaboration with Mexico City’s Museo Rufino Tamayo and the Museo de Arte de Lima, MCASD will examine the ways that artists from the 1960s through the 1980s, primarily in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico, used conceptual and performance art to subvert artistic norms and redefine avant-garde practice outside the established centers of the art world. Searching for alternatives to museum-based exhibition practices, these artists sought to engage directly with local communities, often incorporating popular strategies from film, architecture, and theater, and grappling with political oppression. The exhibition will shed new light on such well-known artists as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape, as well as lesser-known artists in Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru. Along with paintings, sculptures, and videos, the exhibition will recreate a number of site-specific, ephemeral works in Southern California for the first time.

Exhibition research support: $275,000

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara
Art in Guatemala, 1960–present

This exhibition will feature key Guatemalan artists such as Roberto Cabrera, Isabel Ruiz, and the collectives Grupo Vértebra and Imaginaria, and the unique performance and conceptual art strategies they developed under the repressive regimes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Even during the worst years of war under the presidency of General Rios Montt, these artists produced work, often covertly, that directly engaged the country’s socio-political realities. The exhibition will also include a younger generation of Guatemalan artists who came to international prominence following the 1996 peace accords, revealing an artistic history still largely unknown, and showcasing the country’s vibrant contemporary art scene today.

Exhibition research support: $65,000

Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), Long Beach
Spirituality in the Art of the Caribbean

Africans slaves arrived in the Caribbean with a rich artistic and spiritual heritage that has persisted in the art of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. MOLAA will trace the ways that African spiritual practices such as Santería, Macumba, and Voodoo were suppressed, tolerated, or embraced under different socio-political conditions. From Colonial-era Afro-Caribbeans creating equivalents between their “Orishas” (deities) and Catholic saints, to modern Haitian artists Hector Hyppolite and Robert Saint Brice incorporating elements of Voodoo, Caribbean artists have adopted traditional forms of spirituality for their own ends. Other artists such as Wifredo Lam used spiritual elements to promote a new pride in African culture, Ana Mendieta created highly ritualized self-portraits, and contemporary artists such as painter Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal, himself a “Babalao” or priest in the Ifá tradition, are also now incorporating spiritual practices.

Exhibition research support: $95,000

Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), San Diego
Displacement: Mexican Photography, 2000–2012

The most recent generation of photographic artists in Mexico came of age in an era of profound political and social change, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ceded power after seven decades. Drug wars, outward migration, and changing attitudes toward religion and traditional gender roles characterized this “post-nationalist” period. Inheriting the social reforms of the 1990s, artists such as Karina Juarez, Jose Luis Cuevas, and Luis Arturo Aguirre used a range of practices, from “straight” photography, to manipulated photographs, installations, and videos, to explore the fracturing of personal and cultural identities in the new Mexico—displacements that were both disorienting and liberating. Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, MOPA will draw on its strong relationship with artists and organizations across the border for this project, and will also contextualize this work within broader international developments in photography.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

The Music Center, Los Angeles

The Music Center will undertake a survey of performing arts organizations across Southern California to identify programs that could complement the visual arts exhibitions supported by the Getty. As a result of the survey, the Music Center intends to encourage and coordinate participation by a selection of artists, companies, and centers around dance, theater, and opera in support of LA/LA.

Programming planning support: $65,000

Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), Newport Beach
Kinesthesia: South American Kinetic and Light Art of the 1960s

While L.A. was becoming the epicenter for vanguard sculptural practices in light and space, a separate set of experiments was unfolding in South America and Europe. With roots in 1940s Buenos Aires, two artists groups developed approaches to kinetic sculptures that had strong links to contemporaries in Paris, where many of the artists eventually relocated. These pioneers of optic and mechanical art, the “cinetic” generation, include Jesús Rafael Soto (Venezuela), Julio Le Parc (Argentina), and Carlos Cruz-Diez (Venezuela), and they had a profound impact on the trajectory of South American art. OCMA will showcase these remarkable yet under-known sculptural experiments and explore their dynamic social and political underpinnings, particularly the relationship between artists’ use of new technologies and the region’s political struggles, such as those that followed the 1962 military takeover in Argentina.

Exhibition research support: $170,000

Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles
Talking to Action

The Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design will survey the artistic, social, and anthropological actions of contemporary “Social Practice” artists in Latin America—artists who freely blur the lines between object making, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism, and performance. Creating a participatory art outside the gallery and museum system, these artists and artists’ collectives engage their respective communities in compelling ways. Argentine artist Eduardo Molinari, for example, adopts the strategy of walking—simply traveling and observing—to produce work critical of official historical narratives, while travel is also central to the SEFT (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada) collective in Mexico, which uses a playfully futuristic vehicle to traverse land and rail, exploring disused railroads. Connections between Social Practice in Latin America and those of Los Angeles artists will also be explored though a series of artist residencies and collective research projects. Talking to Action builds upon the scholarship of Otis’ Graduate Public Practice MFA program.

Exhibition research support: $160,000

Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont
Prometheus: 1930/2017

In 1930 José Clemente Orozco completed his Prometheus fresco at Pomona College, the first mural painted in the U.S. by one of Los Tres Grandes of Mexican muralism and a work that Jackson Pollock declared the greatest contemporary painting in North America. Drawing on the Greek myth about bringing fire to humanity, Orozco’s mural goes beyond the story’s traditional symbolism to present a complex political work that questions the very idea of enlightenment in a modern world steeped in conflict. For Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, Pomona College will examine the politics of Orozco’s mural through the lens of contemporary Mexican artists who are producing a variety of socially-engaged and politically activist artworks, including forms of public intervention and social practice. Possible themes may include the ways socially-engaged art has been positioned in the public arena in Mexico from the 1920s until today, to the impact of conceptual art and post-minimalist art practices of the 1990s and the emergence of trans-disciplinary actions in more recent years.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

REDCAT, California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles
Palabras Ajenas–León Ferrari

REDCAT will explore the work of acclaimed Argentine artist León Ferrari who died in 2013 at the age of ninety-two. The voice of a generation, Ferrari is best known for his politically-charged work that challenged authoritarianism of all types, from the Argentine dictatorship and the Catholic Church to the U.S. military’s war in Vietnam. REDCAT will focus on Ferrari’s use of appropriated text, his “deformed writing,” restaging the performance Palabras Ajenas (1965)—the first complete presentation of this landmark piece. This literary collage is an imaginary dialogue among 160 historic figures, composed of fragments from contemporary news-wires and historical texts. The project will be accompanied with an exhibition and publication that will contextualize the performance in its time and in Ferrari’s body of work.

Exhibition research support: $110,000

Riverside Art Museum
Spanish Colonial Revival in the Inland Empire

Spanish by way of colonial Mexico, the Spanish Colonial Revival style in architecture and design has been part of the aesthetic fabric of Southern California’s Inland Empire for 100 years. While claiming ties between Southern California and Colonial Spain and Mexico via their cultural and design traditions, the style was based largely on myth and invention. Influenced by such diverse sources as the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the popular Ramona novel and pageants, the New California elite adapted Spanish Colonial, Mission, ecclesiastical, and native elements to create romanticized perceptions of California for a burgeoning tourism industry. Landmarks such as Myron Hunt’s First Congregational Church of Riverside (1912–1914) and the historic Mission Inn Hotel are amalgamations of the historic and the imagined. Even today the region’s suburban housing and public infrastructure continue to use an eclectic mix of elements rooted in Spanish Colonial Revival design motifs. The exhibition will use architectural and archival materials, decorative arts, paintings, and photographs to explore the style’s origins and continuing popularity.

Exhibition research support: $75,000

Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, Claremont
Revolution and Ritual: The Photographs of Sara Castrejón, Graciela Iturbide, and Tatiana Parcero

This exhibition will focus on representative figures from three generations of women photographers in Mexico. From Sara Castrejón, the least known of the three artists and one of the few woman photographers who documented the Mexican revolution, to Graciela Iturbide, who often photographed the daily lives of Mexico’s indigenous cultures, to Tatiana Parcero, a contemporary photographer who splices images of her own body with cosmological maps and Pre-Columbian Aztec codices, the exhibition will trace a broader transformation in notions of Mexican identity. As part of a women’s college, the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery has built its photography collection with a special emphasis on women who have shaped the photographic field.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA)
Indigenismos: Amerindian Inscriptions in the Art of the Americas

Indigenismos—the concern with peoples indigenous to a region—has primarily been studied as a defining characteristic of Mexican modernism, but SDMA will investigate the multiple ways in which indigenismos was a persistent force in Latin American art. From the first appearances of indigenismos in 19th-century figurative painting, to early 20th-century representations of the Indian as a symbol of national identity, to the Surrealists’ fascination with Indian imaginaries, artists have linked indigenismos to political and social concerns, and, above all, to what it means to be Latin American. The exhibition will examine these and later avant-garde practices of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the re-appearance of indigenismos in the second half of the 20th century in such forms as land art and early performance and video art.

Exhibition research support: $175,000

Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Valeska Soares

Brazilian-born artist Valeska Soares began her career in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and even after moving to New York in the 1990s, she maintains a deep connection to her home state of Minas Gerais. Soares creates environmental installations that use the phenomenological effects of reflection, light, entropy, and scent to explore how viewers experience time. Her work is often identified with other minimal and conceptual artists, including Eva Hesse and Robert Morris, and with the sensibilities of Brazilian artists from the 1960s through the 1980s, including Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Mira Schendel. This mid-career survey will include early works such as Vanishing Point (1999–2000), along with later installations not yet seen in the U.S., such as Narcissus (2005) from the Venice Biennale or Un-Rest (2010).

Exhibition research support: $95,000

Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA)
Martín Ramírez

SMMoA will reexamine the work of one of the most accomplished outsider artists, Mexican-born immigrant Martín Ramírez, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1930s and confined to California state hospitals most of his adult life. Ramírez produced intricate drawings and collages of horses and riders, the Madonna, and trains and tunnels, whose rhythmic linear qualities and spatial tension have been compared to the techniques of Wassily Kandinsky, Frank Stella, and Sol LeWitt. This first presentation of Ramírez’s work in Southern California will trace the artist’s technical development, his formal connections to mainstream modern art, and the significance of his cultural identity as a Mexican-American. A reexamination of the artist’s psychiatric evaluations may even call his diagnosis into question, recontextualizing Ramírez’s work and contributing to the growing reconsideration of outsider art more broadly.

Exhibition research support: $90,000

Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles
Idols & Icons: Anita Brenner and the Visual Culture of Mexico, 1920–1960

Moving often between her native Mexico and the U.S., the Jewish Mexican-American anthropologist, translator, author, and art critic Anita Brenner (1905–1974) was close to the leading Mexican intellectuals and artists, including José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Jean Charlot, and Tina Modotti. An influential and prolific writer on Mexican culture, Brenner is best known for her critical study of Mexican art from the Pre-Columbian to the modern era, Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots (1929). The Skirball will use Brenner’s unique position as a contemporary observer and collaborator to reexamine Mexican modernism, looking not only at the most famous artists of the day, but also at lesser-known artists such as Lola Cueto and the photographer and cinematographer Agustín Jiménez. Befitting the Skirball’s mission, the exhibition will also trace the ties between Jewish intellectuals and the Mexican avant-garde.

Exhibition research support: $125,000

UCLA Film & Television Archive
Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1932–1960

As Los Angeles became a key destination for Mexican immigrants and native film industries developed in Mexico, Argentina, and Cuba, L.A. became the undisputed capital of Latin American cinema culture in the United States. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Downtown movie palaces like the Teatro Eléctrico, California, Million Dollar, and the Roosevelt were a prominent cultural force, presenting vaudeville, live appearances by top stars, and such classic films as La mujer del puerto (1934), Simón Bolivár (1941), and comedies with the Mexican actor Cantinflas. UCLA will conduct research for a film exhibition and related publication that will revive these classic but largely forgotten films from Latin America, painting a full portrait of Spanish-language cinema culture in L.A., from audiences to cinema owners and film critics.

Research support: $80,000

University of California, Irvine (UCI)
Magulandia and Aztlán

One of the founding members and the major force behind the Chicano artists collective Los Four, UCI alumnus Gilbert (Magu) Luján (1940–2011) is known for his colorful large-scale paintings and drawings, outrageous lowrider art, and Día de los Muertos altars. Irvine’s retrospective will focus on two concepts central to Magu’s work: Aztlán, the mythic northern ancestral home of the indigenous Mexican Aztecs that became a charged symbol of Chicano activism; and Magulandia, the term Luján used for the space in which he lived and produced his work, and for his work as a whole. While Aztlán and Magulandia represented physical spaces, together they also symbolized the complex cultural, geographic, and conceptual relationships that exist between Los Angeles and Mexico. Mining several local archives, curators will examine Magu’s background, professional activities, writings, and travels to paint a full picture of the artist’s practice.

Exhibition research support: $75,000

University of California, Riverside (UCR)
Critical Utopias: The Art of Futurismo Latino

The three gallery spaces that comprise UCR’s ARTSblock will host an exhibition on the representation of Latin American artists and Latinos/as in science fiction, and the ways that contemporary Latin American and Latino artists employ science fiction for social, cultural, and political critique. Scholars and writers have begun to investigate the genre’s affinity with histories of colonialism and its power to offer alternative perspectives on history. Drawing on the University’s strong faculty and collections in this area, the project will bring together scholars in science-fiction studies with curators and artists to examine Latin American and Latino science fiction’s capacity to imagine new realities, both utopic and dystopic. While the study of Latin American science fiction in literature and film is well underway, UCR’s focus on the visual arts promises to be groundbreaking.

Exhibition research support: $125,000

University of San Diego
Xerox Art in Brazil and Argentina, 1970–1980

Xerox art flourished internationally in the 1970s and 1980s under the names “Copy Art” in the United States and “Electrographie” in France, and was particularly strong in Brazil and Argentina. As part of a broader interest in the dematerialization of the art object, artists in these two countries experimented with photocopiers, fax machines, and teletext as they explored the intersection between art and forms of communication. The exhibition will explore how the work of Brazilians such as Nelson Leirner, Paulo Bruscky, Regina Silveira, Carmela Gross, and Eduardo Kac, along with León Ferrari in Argentina, developed in reaction to the rise of authoritarian regimes, and as an attempt to produce a truly democratic form of art. Xerox art’s relationship to billboards, artist books, and graffiti art and to international movements such as Fluxus and Mail Art will also be considered as a smaller component of the project.

Exhibition research support: $58,000

University of Southern California (USC), ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles
Mundo Meza

The ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries will organize a retrospective exhibition of Tijuana-born artist Edmundo “Mundo” Meza (1955–1985). Meza grew up in East L.A. as part of a generation of Chicano conceptualist artists that included Gronk and Robert Legorreta/Cyclona, with whom he staged confrontational performances in East L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s. Meza’s multidisciplinary practice encompassed performance, painting, design, fashion, and installation, and his work addressed the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s with wit and campy extravagance. Many early works also responded to his contemporaries’ use of Mesoamerican imagery, such as his queer “return to Aztlán” that co-opted this revered Chicano visual symbol. The exhibition aims to contextualize Meza within both the Chicano and Gay Liberation movements, and position sexual difference as a crucial, yet largely unwritten, facet of Chicano art history.

Exhibition research support: $95,000

Vincent Price Art Museum, East Los Angeles College, Monterey Park
For two exhibitions

L.A. Collects L.A.

Beginning in the 1920s, legendary Hollywood figures, including Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger, and Natalie Wood collected Latin American art, from Olmec jades to Rufino Tamayo paintings. Starting with Museum founder Vincent Price’s own collection, L.A. Collects L.A. will examine these patterns of collecting and display, as well as the reframing of Mesoamerican antiquities as art objects and the ways collecting was popularized through mass media. Period rooms in L.A. Collects L.A. will evoke this history, including possible reconstructions of Walter and Louise Arensberg’s foyer on Hillside Avenue, a corner of John Huston’s Puerto Vallarta home, and Bernard and Edith Lewin’s furniture store in Van Nuys. Historical photographs, biographical sketches, and ephemera will further illuminate the sensibilities and ideologies that shaped these collecting practices.

Laura Aguilar Retrospective

East Los Angeles College alumna Laura Aguilar will be the focus of the Museum’s second show, organized in collaboration with UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. Aguilar uses startlingly frank portraiture to document social groups typically marginalized in mainstream culture including Latina lesbians. Many of Aguilar’s photographic series are autobiographical, exploring her own bi-national, Mexican American identity, as in her famous work Three Eagles Flying (1990). The exhibition will trace the development of her work from early themes to more recent self-portraits that explore the boundaries between the body and iconic landscapes in the American Southwest.

Exhibition research support for two exhibitions: $150,000

In addition, there will be three exhibitions at the Getty:

Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas

In contrast with other parts of the world, gold and silver in the ancient Americas were first used not for weaponry, tools, or coinage, but for objects of ritual and ornament, resulting in works of extraordinary creativity. The J. Paul Getty Museum will explore the idea of luxury in the pre-Columbian Americas, particularly the associated meanings of various materials, from 1000 BC to the Europeans’ arrival in the 16th century. The exhibition will trace the development of metallurgy from the Andes to its expansion northward into Mexico, but will also include works made of shell, jade, and tapestry—materials that were considered even more valuable than rare metals. Co-organized by the Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas will highlight the most precious works of art from the Americas, and provide new ways of thinking about materials, luxury, and the region’s visual arts in a global perspective.

A New Narrative: Constructed Photography from Latin America

Although several previous exhibitions on contemporary Latin American photography have called out the interest in fabricated imagery, no exhibition has been solely devoted to this practice of arranging compositions for the camera with props, models, and other materials. The J. Paul Getty Museum will explore the production of these images for religious purposes, the souvenir trade, propaganda, memorial portraits, journalistic photo-essays, medical diagnoses, identity politics, performance art, self-portraiture, and for narrative tableaux that recreate the pictorial traditions of painting and sculpture. Possibly focusing on one country, the exhibition is expected to include post-modern photography of the past forty years, with key earlier works included for historical context.

Materiality and Postwar Latin American Art

The Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros will work together to research the materials and techniques used in key works from the Colección Cisneros—a world renowned collection of modern Latin American art—to inform new art historical interpretations. The team’s work will culminate in an exhibition at the Getty Center, bringing some of the collection’s most canonical works to Los Angeles for the first time. Included will be artists such as those in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela who were experimenting in the 1940s and 1950s both formally with geometric abstraction and through their use of new industrial materials. By considering the works’ social, political, and cultural underpinnings in tandem with the results of technical studies, the project aims to make significant contributions to both the conservation field and postwar Latin American art history.

Great and Devastating Reviews of MoMA’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

 

 

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HYPERALLERGIC

Museums

Reviewing the Responses to MoMA’s Divisive Painting Survey

Installation view of 'The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World' at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by John Wronn, © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art)

As talk of art fairs and Björk took the spotlight at the beginning of the month, I lingered on the Museum of Modern Art’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, up through early April. In mulling over its status as either a landmark statement on contemporary painting that demonstrates the museum’s cultural leadership, a taste-making stunt for collectors, or just another group show, I turn to six thoughtful reviews out of the many written about the exhibition. Four are by painters: Sharon Butler, Brian Dupont, Thomas Micchelli, and David Salle; two are by critics: Jason Farago and Christian Viveros-Fauné. There are several possible entry points into the debate: the show’s premise — “atemporality … in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” as eagerly laid out by curator Laura Hoptman in the hardcover-only catalogue; the works themselves; or the show’s timing and venue.

I’ll start with the premise. Salle finds Hoptman’s ideas distracting, “like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think.” “Audacious,” is Farago’s take on the essay. Others are irked by Hoptman’s claim that the premise reflects a “new and strange state of the world.” Viveros-Fauné says her ideas have an “utterly passé nature [since] run-of-the-mill postmodernism has entertained fantasies of simultaneity since the 1970s.” Micchelli calls Hoptman’s concept “old wine in new bottles.” Finally, most question the soundness or even existence of the link between the premise and the paintings selected for the show. “The work has no common denominator outside of generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale,” according to Dupont. Viveros-Fauné says the premise “provides flimsy theoretical cover for this disparate group of painters.” Once in the museum’s galleries, Micchelli finds that “nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point.” So much for a convincing, relevant, and effective organizing principle.

Nicole Eisenman, "Guy Capitalist (2011), oil and mixed media on canvas (collection Noel Kirnon and Michael Paley; courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

Premise or no premise, how does the actual artwork fare? Out of all the work by the 17 selected artists, Farago favors the pieces by the women in the show. “Not one of the eight male artists here comes anywhere close to the intricacy or complexity of [Amy] Sillman, [Laura] Owens, [Nicole] Eisenman, and others,” he writes. The practitioners in my reviewer group bring a hands-on, maker’s understanding to their evaluations of the paintings. Each reveals his or her own personal and aesthetic values as much as each conveys his or her impression of the show. Butler finds pleasure in Josh Smith’s grid of loosely composed paintings, but says the rest of the work displays “a dispiriting interest in strategy and finish over experimentation and heart.” Dupont and Salle work the hardest to parse the art, with gratifying results. Dupont earnestly considers the show within a modern art historical context, focusing on Twombly’s legacy. He is underwhelmed by Rashid Johnson’s monumental, scratched surfaces of black soap and wax, which leave him wondering “just how much really is needed to make a painting?” Salle values paintings with a “sense of structure” that is best exemplified by Mark Grotjahn’s palette knife paintings of colorful, webbed arcs, and Richard Aldrich’s varied collection of works based on a deconstruction of abstract painting. Within the wordy environment of Hoptman’s premise, Salle’s crisp insights on appropriation, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Walter Benjamin, and West Coast aesthetics as they relate to the work in the show are welcome and easily put to use.

In several cases the critics under consideration have polar opposite reactions to specific pieces. Julie Mehretu’s large, grey-and-black, calligraphic work, for instance, is rated by Dupont as the most related to Hoptman’s notion of atemporality, whereas Farago, while admiring her as an artist, asks: “What on earth is Julie Mehretu doing in this show?” Sillman’s layered color improvisations in oil are a favorite among most, while Oscar Murillo’s dark, graffiti canvases — including the interactive work on the floor — are almost unanimously dismissed. An overarching complaint is that most of the work in the show seems shallow — Salle’s word is “unconvincing”; “safe, decorator wares,” according to Viveros-Fauné; Butler’s phrase is “command-z aesthetic.”

Installation view of 'The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World' at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by John Wronn, © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art)

From my perspective as a painter, the show’s pinball game-like layout helps to disguise a pervasive and telling sameness of surface. Forever Now makes a punchy first impression. The drama is superficially heightened by having some paintings hung too high and some placed on the floor, leaning against the wall, while others are grouped in batches. Walking through the compactly installed show, I spent time looking at each work in relation to its neighbors. Since you have to walk back through the show to exit, an alternate version of these juxtapositions is available on the return trip. Despite the initial intrigue with scale and color, starting with Kerstin Bratsch’s monumental, high-contrast, framed works on paper propped against the exterior of the exhibition gallery, I eventually noticed a dead-eyed lack of variety in paint application in works throughout the exhibition. Neither Smith nor Mehretu vary their brush width, Grotjahn’s palette knife stripes are nearly identical, Mike Wilson’s compositions are covered with uniformly murky goo, Johnson scores his surfaces with the same tool, and Joe Bradley’s stick figures in grease pencil have virtually no surface at all. In contrast, Sillman, Bratsch, and Charline von Heyl offer a richer visual reward. Even if painters avail themselves of the entire stockpile of art historical references — digitally or by other means — it is the vagaries of individual subjective experience, translated through the mind, eye, hand, and more visceral organs of the painter, that make a painting worthwhile.

It has been 30 years since MoMA’s last milestone painting exhibition. We can only guess at why the museum has let such a long gap in time occur in its participation in the conversation about painting. The delay adds to the pressure to perform with this show. The significant conceptual flaws in Hoptman’s atemporal premise are a misstep and make me suspicious of her motives. That she equates the internet with simultaneity is just plain wrong. As Salle notes, “Hoptman wants to make a point about painting in the internet age, but the conceit is a red herring — the web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.” It’s as if Hoptman is trying to sell us on the openness of content sources as an appealing, “no strings attached” lifestyle. There may in fact be oceans of digital information available online, but it still enters our consciousness through a variety of knowable sorting mechanisms that are not so different from attaining knowledge by sitting in a library with a book. Hoptman is siding with the machines.

Charline von Heyl, "Carlotta" (2013), oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas (Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles; courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York; photo by Jason Mandella)

If Hoptman’s misdirection is unintentional, I suppose that could be forgiven, but given her position and MoMA’s status as an institution, it’s a disappointment. Viveros-Fauné suggests that MoMA has a more self-serving basis for the show’s inflated concept and distracting execution. He proposes that, in place of embracing the “pioneering critical spirit” of the museum’s prior directors and curators, Hoptman’s Forever Now is pandering to collectors and donors who support the museum financially — especially now, as it prepares for another expansion. MoMA’s motive for the show could be to support painting as an “asset class,” to use Dupont’s phrase, as opposed to dealing in the realm of ideas. “In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street,” Micchelli writes. We don’t need more art that masks the effects of our society’s calcified and coercive patriarchal structures. We don’t need more instances of institutional conflict of interest disguised as leadership.

Ultimately, I can’t help comparing Forever Now to a Super Bowl halftime show: hotly anticipated, splashy, mainstream entertainment packaged with a story for corporate sponsors and those in the VIP suites. It’s as if Hoptman sees painters as the ultimate mash-up artists, with the emphasis in her show being on style over content. While the bloodsport of fine art — and the goings on of the actual world — rage on around it, no head injuries or body blows occur within the exhibition’s snug, stage-like realm. I can’t decide if Forever Now’s shortcomings represent a tragic lost opportunity, or if the distance between the show’s over-reaching premise and under-performing artworks is part of an art world joke on the larger museum-going audience.

Amy Sillman, "Still Life 2" (2014), oil on canvas (courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; artwork © 2014 Amy Sillman; Photo by John Berens)

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 5.

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BROOKLYN RAIL

THE FOREVER NOW:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014  –  April 5, 2015

In an instance of spectacularly unfortunate programming, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World shared the first two months of its exhibition life on the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth floor with Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Visitors intoxicated with Matisse’s rhapsodic color and cunning simplicity wandered bemused through the thicket of contradictory, restrained, profligate, ambivalent paintings in The Forever Now exhibition.

Rashid Johnson. Cosmic Slop “Black Orpheus” (2011). Black soap and wax. 96 × 120 × 13/4 ̋. Collection of Richard Chang. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

The exhibition announces its disruptive position outside the entrance to the gallery, where Kerstin Brätsch’s super-sized drawings-as-paintings in monumental wooden frames variously hang on the wall or stand stacked awaiting their turn. These are complex works in which shards of black invade vaporous orbs of light out of Nolde and O’Keeffe, malevolently stealing their glow as though jagged sci-fi creatures were colonizing Brätsch’s customary brash color.

On the evidence of sight alone, the paintings by 17 painters in The Forever Now exhibition do not bear a discernible relationship to one another. Matt Connors pirates and dismembers color strategies from Matisse through Richter with screwball combinations and improbably painted frames. Rashid Johnson incises thick gestural troughs through expanses of black soap and mud. Dianna Molzan unravels her paintings, deconstructs canvas and frame, and repositions both structure and surface as sculpture.

But The Forever Now is not specifically concerned with what the eye sees. Its motivating principle is theory. In the end that theory has very little to do with the actual experience of viewing the paintings. It misunderstands the process of their making and obfuscates the reasons for their selection.

Laura Hoptman, curator of the exhibition, has been called “the canary in the coal mine of contemporary art.”1 The selections she made for MoMA’s Projects series between 1995 and 2001, before she departed to organize the 2004 – 05 Carnegie International and to mount such exhibitions as Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum, have since been successfully market tested. As a canary in the coal mine, Hoptman has responded to a very real phenomenon since the turn of the millennium—the upsurge of painters painting and the prevalence of abstraction emerging from studios—and she has guided MoMA on a painting buying spree. As a coal mine canary, she might also appreciate comments of the “my graduate students can do better” variety from an exhibition visitor or two. After all, isn’t one test of advanced art that it takes a while for audiences to get it?

On the contrary, Hoptman argues in her catalogue essay. In this cultural moment of forever now, “thanks to the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” a situation that the science-fiction writer William Gibson described as “atemporality” in 2003. The artists whose search engines prowl continents and eras, universes and grains of sand for information and cues “dramatically” challenge “the great, ladder-like narrative of cultural progress that is so dependent upon the idea of the new superseding the old in a movement simultaneously forward and upward,” she writes in the catalogue. The already well-acknowledged artists on the MoMA’s sixth-floor walls don’t hold with the notion of historical progress or make any attempt “to define the times in which we live,” she writes. On the contrary, “it is not progress as such that is at stake in this new, atemporal universe. Time-based terms like progressive—and its opposite reactionary, avant- and arrière-garde—are of little use to describe atemporal works of art.” Instead, she states, images from all times and all places have become malleable materials to mine, manipulate, “reanimate,” “reenact,” and “cannibalize.”

It’s a workmanlike, even plausible, concept particularly since atemporality under various soubrettes has lately been the hot new concept in fiction, fashion, poetry, pop music, and pop culture. Yes, the impulse to name a period is irresistible; yes we live in a Google world; yes information is cheap and phlegmatic. But as a lens for looking at painting—and particularly at some of the most arresting paintings in the exhibition—the Forever Now thesis is as reductive as Modernist Formalism. It leaves out intent, content, biography, the alchemy of transmutation, the hustle and flow of lived life, the conversation between hand and paint—all variously present in works in the show. And most of all it leaves out how painters make and what the eye sees.

“You feel the painting and the reason you read the mark is because you can also feel the mark,” the painter Julie Mehretu has said.2 Her exquisitely layered, often epic encrustations of marks, erasures, fade-outs, superimpositions, and gestures engulf an underlying stratum of maps, grids, and blueprints—emblems of humanity’s attempts at imposing order. Only on the most superficial level does the fierce calligraphy distilled into her new paintings in the exhibition fit the atemporal template.

Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, where her American mother and Ethiopian father experienced the radical disruptions of decolonization, and she fled with them at the age of seven in 1977 during the Derg terror. “Now we’re all dislocated … and there’s this constant negotiating of place, space, ideals, ideas,” she has said.3 Through painting, she interrogates the news, the contradictions of the moment into which she was born and history as it evolves. That includes 9/11, the Iraq War, and internecine battles everywhere. True, she browses the Internet for information about Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, a new shopping center in Africa, et al. But this is hardly promiscuous surfing. It serves core concerns with construction and collapse, order and chaos, utopias and their disintegration, all occurring simultaneously. She also incubates images while watching TV, listening to NPR, riding the subway, traveling, reading, doing all the things that artists do to inhale reality and exhale it as a work of art.

I’d argue that it has almost always been thus. The Internet may be faster than the mind can comprehend, its reach further and less discriminating than once imaginable. But Willem de Kooning created his mash-ups from cartoons, movies, magazine pinups, art historical training, 10th Street talk, Louse Point water-gazing, and East Hampton evenings on his orange leather couch paging through artbooks in the interests of problem-solving.

In the exhibition, Mary Weatherford is represented by neon tubes affixed like slashing lines to dark washes of color (for New York) or sunny hues (for Bakersfield, California). Memory and experience trumped Internet when she recited the backstory of the Bakersfield paintings for W Magazine in a “breakneck monologue that touches on the Dust Bowl, the oil rush, The Grapes of Wrath, Dorothea Lange, Merle Haggard, honky-tonks, the Tea Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and dinosaurs. Thrown in are an impression of Jackson Pollock and a rendition of a Beatles song.”4 Even more important than such sources, is what, in the actual making, she left out.

The Internet collapses time and space, alters world views, influences consumption, and disrupts economic sectors. It lets artists’ fingers do some of the walking. It certainly wields its influence on painting, but so did the newfangled tools of the telegraph, the automobile, the radio, photography, and television, not to mention technological advances in the materials of canvas, oil paint, acrylic, video, and—thank you David Hockney—the copying machine and the smart phone. In the end, painting and drawing are handmade, their recombinant DNA resulting from an intimate interface between artist and process. Many of the artists in the exhibition engage in multiple practices, venturing periodically into photography, performance, installation, sculpture—each medium with its own history, demands, and possibilities.

The strength of The Forever Now exhibition lies in the macro/micro nature of so many of the paintings, which demand multiple viewpoints, with close-up examination of details and passages slowing things down to pre-fiber-optic pace. Visual satisfactions are often labor intensive. Even here, Hoptman diminishes the rewards by installing mostly color affinities, dark to light. Palettes of tamped down greens and golds, dour purples, grays, and blacks inhabit the opening galleries, periodically interspersed with antic shout-outs of color by way of Nicole Eisenman’s riffs on portraiture, modernism, and masks. (There’s comic relief, partway through, in young-artist-of-the-moment Oscar Murillo’s sophisticated takes on graffiti, rendered in underplayed urban colors. Viewers are invited to interact with a selection of his canvases heaped on the floor. One afternoon I watched four dapper men drape the paintings neatly over their suits and request the guard to shoot them the old-fashioned way before selfies.) The exhibition’s tone brightens in the back galleries, culminating on the end wall with Michael Williams’s resort-wear hued, allover compositions of air-brushed washes, and computer-generated painted incidents.

This literal arrangement of works manages to diminish the force of Rashid Johnson’s black soap and wax paintings, which could easily have held the whole gallery on their own. The black-on-black paintings induce an aftereffect in the manner of Ad Reinhardt, as the eye attempts to focus. Gouged with a broom handle, his whole body implicit in the gesture, the paintings suggest bomb sites, itinerant paths, the mellow wail of jazz on a summer night. In the grand humanist tradition, he holds that “Art should be about the bigger issues in life. Life, death, sex, taxes, race, gender. The best art has something to say about the human condition.”5

As with so many of the artists, it wasn’t necessarily from the Internet that Johnson learned sampling. His influences are as apt to be tangible as digital. “I’ve collected so many things that there are so many crosscurrents of language and contradiction throughout my studio, whether it be a rap album next to W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, or a gold rock that I painted next to a brass urn. It’s all this language that, when combined, produces a complicated kind of narrative.”6

A good place to end here, is with a poem that is a kind  of road map to the ways in which so many artists—and poets—make art. Frank O’Hara wrote “The Day Lady Died,” on a typewriter in 1964:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

 


Endnotes

  1. Julie Halperin, “The Curator as Canary or Crony,” The Observer (Oct. 20, 2010).
  2. Julie Mehretu, “To be Felt as Much as Read,” Interview by Susan Sollins, Art21 (Oct. 2009).
  3. Jason Farago, “Julie Mehretu … from Tarhir Square to Zucotti Park,” The Guardian (June 20, 2013).
  4. Fan Zhong, “Mary Weatherford: Brushes with Greatness,” W Magazine (Dec. 11, 2014).
  5. Andrew Goldstein, “Rashid Johnson on Making Art ‘About the Bigger Issues in Life,’” Artspace (Dec. 31, 2013).
  6. ibid.
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BROOKLYN RAIL

THE FOREVER NOW:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014  –  April 5, 2015

Nothing sums up the ephemeral nature of MoMA’s attempt to make a statement about painting today better than its title, The Forever Now. The phrase implies no history and no future, no past and no evolution. All the right “postmodernist” tendencies are represented—stylistic quotation, simulation, irony, mixed media, self-reference, graffiti, media recycling, text and image, interactivity, multiple overlays—you fill in the rest. In that sense, the works are strictly academic, torn from the pages of the art magazines or taught in the proliferation of M.F.A. programs. However, the dominant tone is not of a rigorous examination of the medium. Rather, the feeling is of the relaxed atmosphere of a mosh pit in a provincial art fair.

The question is, why is this show at MoMA? The answer seems only too obvious: the collectors who own the work are young and affluent potential new donors to the insatiable funding needs of the ever expanding, constantly morphing museum that once prided itself on having its great permanent collection permanently on display. (Now, try and find these fragments on view in hallways and ancillary galleries.) In the show’s favor is the fact that of the 17 painters included, each is represented by several works that when viewed together, could possibly be assessed as a personal style. The collection of oversize, bright paintings on paper by Kerstin Brätsch piled up and flanking the entrance are indeed startling and could possibly have been a credible one-person exhibition. Instead, they are stacked casually on the floor so that few can be entirely seen. The jagged black framing image is bold, as are the brilliant colors that pop like a fireworks display. Unfortunately, the rest of the works in The Forever Now, with the exception of Julie Mehretu’s paintings of dense and elegant calligraphic filigree, seem flaccid and singularly unambitious despite their hugeness, which unfortunately does not correspond to monumental scale.

Matt Connors, “Divot,” (2012). Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36 ̋. Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy of Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

Making paintings as big as those of the New York School does not equate to anything more than using large quantities of material. In some cases, like that of Michaela Eichwald, her individual works are more impressive than the large mural in the show that lacks concentration and coherence. Matt Connors, too, is better dealing with human rather than architectural scale; it’s too easy to see his tricolor floor to ceiling planks as a Gulliver-size marriage of Ellsworth Kelly and John McCracken. But at least in the smaller, more personal pieces he exhibits interest in perceptual issues and a lack of fear in confronting the past. Nicole Eisenman, once one of my favorite painters, is represented by enormous, thickly impastoed caricatures of goofy heads that seem inexplicably crude in comparison with her earlier work as if she, too, felt the need to join the chaotic din that characterizes this not-so-magic moment.

Among the common denominators of this exhibition is a lack of coherence; an indication perhaps of what post-postmodernism may turn out to be. Presenting this collection of works as a sampling of where painting is now, is as irresponsible as within the current context it is understandable. These artists, after all, are supported by “emerging collectors”—“emerging” being the code word for a non existent avant-garde—courted by powerful galleries who place ads in art magazines, which review shows by galleries who advertise. This self-serving Ring-Around-the-Rosie proves why the exhibition of a work at MoMA is like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a much sought-after guarantee of quality that instantly skyrockets prices into the auction house stratosphere.

Some of the choices are clearly more market driven than others. Saatchi and Rubell protégé Oscar Murillo’s hodge-podge of this, that, the other thing, and everything else is particularly vacuous and unconvincing. Murillo’s is not the only work that suggests more is less, seeming to throw everything against the wall to give an impression of excitement, activity, and the spontaneity that is, in fact, entirely absent. The result is like a Chinese master sauce to which new ingredients are constantly added until a thick gluey mixture produces a blurring of distinctions in taste and consistency. One senses a desperate, even nervous need to get the recipe right despite the je m’en fous nonchalance of the Forever Now artists. The problem with the mock-heroic dimensions of many of the canvases is that the inarticulate surfaces look flabby rather than tense. This suggests that the work, rather than trying to stun with super size, should go on a diet.

I remember when “freshness” was the sought after quality in painting. Laura Owens makes a stab at freshness with her wallpaper-like floral motif embellished with oil stick squiggles, but the effect is coy rather than crisp. The artist who most successfully embraces the slacker attitude is Richard Aldrich. His conflated and referential images do have a certain piquant unpredictability. His use of mixed media—including greasy oil, wax, and charcoal on fine linen—belies the sophistication behind his off-the-cuff bricolage style. In the all and anything-at-all current mode, he does it best. Looking casually uncomposed, the work is actually quite consciously structured.

Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)” (2012). Oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 8 ́5 1/2 ̋ × 72 1/2 ̋. Collection Donald B. Marron, New York. Courtesy of Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio.

Mark Grotjahn’s “Circus” triptych is a competent evocation of the manic thrill of roller-coaster rides which is at least evocative, demonstrating control and skill, rather than just an empty accumulation of larded pigments and aimless scrawls. Personally, I think Kurt Godwin’s complex carnivals were more original and ambitious, but he had the disadvantage of living on the wrong side of the tracks in Virginia where nary a critic or curator would venture. He painted all his life, immersing himself directly in the alchemical sources of both Duchamp and the best recent German art. He died last fall, age 58, in total obscurity.

It’s not as if there is no ambitious painting today that would not look out of place in a Museum of Modern Art, a name by now inappropriate for much currently featured by the Matrix on 53rd Street. Everyone, of course, has their own suggestion of painters not on the list of conspicuously strategized market darlings in The Forever Now. I would point to the exquisite enlarged miniatures of Shahzia Sikander, the rigorous constructions of R.H. Quaytman, the sophisticated color and compositions of Joanna Pousette-Dart, the tough materiality of Melissa Kretschmer, and the lush, fluid painterliness of Cecily Brown, along with the meticulous warped optical space of Rebecca Norton, the kinky perfection of Julie Speed, or the quiet poetry of Mary Corse. Not only is their painting unhip and uncool, they have the distinct disadvantage that they can’t produce enough to satisfy the needs of international mass production. Their work requires long hours of thought, preparation, and execution, as opposed to the fast-food rehash of Sigmar Polke—whose stunning retrospective, it should be said, MoMA did house—Albert Ohlehn and Martin Kippenburger, the apparent godfathers of The Forever Now. It is as if the unspoken message for young artists is grab the first flight for Berlin; do not pass New York or Paris except in reproduction.

I never thought I would be nostalgic for Marcia Tucker’s 1978 Whitney Museum Bad Painting show. In retrospect, it was a valiant effort to show a group of highly individualistic works that went beyond the boundaries of good taste and current trends. Like Kynaston McShine’s equally aberrant and even more memorable International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture show at MoMA in 1984, Bad Painting made no attempt to find common denominators defining a moment. At the time, McShine was quoted as saying, “I have to go beyond the way work is perceived in New York … a serious public cannot depend upon the whims of commercial galleries. It has to depend upon museums.” Ah, how nostalgic that sounds today. An independent contrarian spirit, McShine curated exhibitions that brought unexpected variety to MoMA’s mainstream program that have not been sufficiently acknowledged as major contributions. Some of the artists he chose were more durable than others, but many in the International Survey proved to become major international figures. And surely one of the “bad painters,” Neil Jenney, deserves to occupy precious MoMA space with a retrospective far more than this collection of forever now, forgotten tomorrow work.

Contributor

Barbara Rose BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.

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ARTNEWS
Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.

Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.

What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.

Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”

In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.

Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.

Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.

(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)

But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.

Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.

Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.

Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.

Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.

Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.

George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.

I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.

Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.

Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.

The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.

David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews LLC, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Antenna More paint, less ‘isms’

Antenna: More paint, less ‘isms’

Sampling is in which, according to Meredith Etherington-Smith,
might just lead paint out of the cul de sac of the conceptual

Forget conceptual, let’s talk timeless


The earliest years of the 20th century were a tale of ‘isms’ — from the dying fall of Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Cubism, Surrealism and on to Abstract Expressionism; all convenient labels which defined and promoted artists in different schools of art.

In the earliest years of the 21st century, however, something very different is going on. Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at MoMA in New York could be taken as long-hand for ‘anything that smacks of an ism is irrelevant to contemporary art’. This is a show of work by 17 artists (see our interview with the curator), none of whom represent through style, content or medium the time in which they work.

Left: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36” (121.9 × 91.4 cm). Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate

Right: Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18), 2012. Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. 8’ 5 1/2” × 72 1/2” (257.8 × 184.2 cm). Collection Donald B. Marron, New York. Courtesy Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

Put another way, sampling is in. That means historical references to the ism schools of 20th century art or earlier and general sampling of popular motifs — all at the same time. It’s the same thing that’s happening now in literature, fashion and popular music. The Seventies are back? Yeah! So are the Cubist Twenties, and so, for that matter, are the Abstract Expressionist Fifties, Sixties, and so on.

Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 82 x 76” (208.3 x 193 cm). Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella
In fact, the only thing that the artists in this exhibition have in common is paint. And maybe that’s the giveaway — the common denominator — even if it isn’t an ism: that this whole sampling exercise, this banishment of isms, is a way out of the cul de sac paint got itself into which led to the ‘conceptual decade’ at the end of the last century.

Rising stars like Oscar Murillo, established stars such as Matt Grohjahn, Charline von Heyl and Richard Aldrich are painting, not welding. So forget conceptual; talk timeless.

Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is at MoMA until 5 April 2015.

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ART CRITICAL

Mary Weatherford, La Noche (2014)

Mary Weatherford, La Noche (2014)

From the 1940s through the early ’60s, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a series of group shows that offered many viewers their first glimpse of some of the most vital new American painting and sculpture of the day. Curated by Dorothy C. Miller, the exhibitions never claimed to capture the zeitgeist, but rather to do nothing more than display new art worth considering. Even the titles of the shows were modest: “Sixteen Americans,” “Twelve Americans” and so on. As Miller explained in 1959, “Differences rather than similarities in point of view, as well as in age, experience and fame, have been emphasized in these exhibitions at the Museum…bringing together distinct and widely varying personalities.” Yet the shows were often controversial. “Congratulations, Dorothy,” her boss, Alfred H. Barr, quipped at the opening of one. “You’ve done it again. They all hate it.”

Yet the “Americans” exhibitions are legendary because Miller was discerning in her choices. In 1946, the second of these shows, “Fourteen Americans,” included such exponents of the new abstraction as Arshile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell and Mark Tobey. Among those in “Sixteen Americans,” in 1959, were Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, not to mention the West Coast assemblagists Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick; and the last in the series, “Americans 1963,” included the budding Pop artists Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist among the fifteen selected, as well as young and older abstractionists such as Lee Bontecou and Ad Reinhardt.

Miller decided to start the series because she’d realized that there was no other way for many artists, in the New York of the 1940s, to get their work seen. “I had this terribly sad job of seeing all these artists who were starving,” she later said. “There were no galleries to send them to.” By the mid-’60s that was no longer true. Accompanying the emergence of Pop Art was a boom in the market for contemporary art, and the number of galleries mushroomed along with it. Fifty years on, New York is so thick with galleries that it’s impossible to immerse yourself in all of them, and so many cities around the world have thriving gallery scenes (and art fairs) that you couldn’t possibly visit them all. Maybe the museum should be the public’s filter again—surveying all the galleries and selecting the best work for an audience that wants to explore contemporary art without hacking a path through the jungle. Except that the population of artists has increased even more rapidly than the number of galleries, so that there are still plenty of talented artists whose work is hard to see even for die-hards of the scene.

One of the current shows at the Museum of Modern Art (through April 5) could have been called “Fourteen or Fifteen More-or-Less Americans, Three Germans and a Colombian Who Lives in London.” That’s an unwieldy title, but also as accurate and straightforward as it could be. The “More-or-Less” would be necessary because the show includes some foreign-born New Yorkers, and the qualification also has the virtue of not pretending that the exhibition is other than it is: a gathering of “distinct and widely varying personalities” with not much more in common than that they’re all at work right now and the curator (in this case, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman) thinks they demand attention.

Sad to say, MoMA has done something different: it has saddled the exhibition with the unjustified goal of thematic coherence. With good reason, the museum has lost faith in its competence to pick the cream of contemporary painting without ulterior rationale. What’s on offer instead is another nebulous effort to take the temperature of the zeitgeist. But guess what? It’s the zeitgeist of no zeitgeist, so anything goes. The show is called “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” and, according to the museum’s press release, the remarkable thing about the works is that “they paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.” How is that even possible? Hoptman, in her catalog essay, attributes the word “atemporality” to the science-fiction novelist William Gibson, for whom it means “a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” But long before the invention of the Internet, Jorge Luis Borges imagined an infinite library in which all the books that could ever be written would already exist. What’s new and odd is the urge to characterize a phenomenon of apparent timelessness with the distinctly temporal designation “new.” Neo retro, anyone?

In any case, the feeling hazily conjured at MoMA is far from new. “All ages are contemporaneous,” Ezra Pound wrote in The Spirit of Romance in 1910. He might have seemed, at the time, to be speaking for the great cultural movement about to emerge—for James Joyce, with his layering of classical myth and the profane reality of early-twentieth-century Dublin in Ulysses; for Picasso, whose postwar art of pastiche seemed to disassemble and recombine historical styles just as his earlier work had taken apart and reconstructed pictorial space; for Stravinsky, whose music had found a sense of modernity in both primitive ritual (The Rite of Spring) and the mincing artifices of the eighteenth-century ballroom (Pulcinella), and who sought for his Oedipus Rex “a medium not dead but turned to stone.” And decades later, the postmodernism of the 1980s—above all in architecture but also in the quotationism of neo-Expressionist and “transavantgarde” painting—sought atemporality with a vengeance.

* * *

For Hoptman, all this history is bunk. “Forever Now” does not mean, as it did for Gibson, that “all eras seem to exist at once,” but that the present is all, and no one knows when that is. Her only point of comparison is with the practice of “appropriation in the 1980s,” by which she presumably means Sherrie Levine’s quotations of famous photographs or Richard Prince’s Marlboro Man. She might have thought back to the 1960s and Elaine Sturtevant’s remakes of works by contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, the subject of a retrospective elsewhere at MoMA (“Sturtevant: Double Trouble” is on view through February 22). Levine, Prince and Sturtevant are the artists who, as Hoptman says, “lifted images and styles from art history and pop culture and dropped them in the arena of contemporary art as if they were toxic ready-mades, stripped of their auras of power and persuasion through decontextualization.” By contrast, according to Hoptman, her atemporalists draw on history guiltlessly, one might even say uncritically. Maybe so, but wouldn’t she say the same of artists as different as Nancy Spero, Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel, each of whom has ranged through time and space in pursuit of the sources of his or her art?

If anything, Hoptman’s artists du jour have a shallow sense of tradition. One of Richard Aldrich’s paintings has a certain redolence of the Philip Guston of the early ’60s; Matt Connors is showing a twelve-foot-tall triptych of red, yellow and blue monochromes that can’t fail to remind you of Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman; Nicole Eisenman’s stylized heads have discreet echoes of Paul Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky as well as of the ’80s neo-Expressionists themselves; Mark Grotjahn’s densely layered concatenations of shimmering, thickly textured lines recall Joseph Stella’s Americanized Futurism as reinterpreted by way of Richard Pousette-Dart’s hypnotic tactility; Amy Sillman sometimes uses still life as an armature for abstraction in ways that would not have seemed alien to Hans Hofmann; Rashid Johnson and Julie Mehretu draw very different conclusions from Cy Twombly—in Johnson’s case, an influence productively united with that of the matterism of ’50s Europeans like Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri.

I could go on, but you get the point: for inspiration, Hoptman’s atemporalists rarely look beyond European and American modernism, and most often postwar modernism—which is not surprising, because most of them are abstractionists. Less easily explicable is the restricted geographical reach of Hoptman’s choice in an era when ideas, like people, pass so easily from continent to continent. The time traveling behind Spero’s fascination with the archaic or Clemente’s with Indian miniatures or Schnabel’s recourse to the religious iconography of Spanish and Mexican Catholicism—this is absent from “The Forever Now.” As it is, the best paintings in the show are the least dependent on citation: in a set of gloriously luminous works, depicted light is confronted with the literal light of bent neon tubes that Mary Weatherford has stretched like drawn lines across the canvas. Almost miraculously, it’s the depicted light that wins out.

* * *

What MoMA has offered is hardly a state-of-the-art report on painting in an age when the Internet has supposedly made all the information in time and space available to us simultaneously. But how would the exhibition look to the innocent viewer who walks into the museum without reading the catalog or text panels or giving a second thought to the title? How would it be, in other words, for the viewer who sees the show for what it really is, a sort of “Seventeen Mostly Americans”?

A little better, but not a lot. The usual MoMA tendency to shoehorn too many works into too little space is partly to blame. At least Kerstin Brätsch is lucky enough to have her massive “Blocked Radiant” paintings on paper installed in the hall outside the show’s first room, where they can breathe a little; and the strongest of an otherwise thin batch of paintings by Laura Owens, combining silk-screened appropriated imagery and freehand gesture, broadcasts loud and clear from the wall above the ground floor ticket desk. But in the rooms housing the bulk of the show’s art, the works elbow each other irritably. More important, Hoptman’s choices are questionable—not only her selection of artists, but also her selection of works by some of them. Eisenman, Grotjahn and Sillman are among the most interesting painters at work today, but the canvases of theirs on view give little sense of their range and adventurousness. Owens, Aldrich and Brätsch, like Charline von Heyl and Josh Smith, have always been hit-or-miss (in Smith’s case, where Stakhanovite productivity is the name of the game, the misses must number in the thousands, and for all I know maybe the hits do too), and while a daring inconsistency is often in itself attractive, the selection here makes it less so.

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A tightly organized presentation of just those five artists might have made for a rewarding show in itself—an examination of how what looks like eclecticism can sometimes amount to a determinate artistic strategy. On the other hand, Oscar Murillo and Michael Williams still look like promising, slightly too energetic grad students, and it seems a little cruel to expose their weaknesses in public when some good might still come of them if they are left to develop at their own pace, undisturbed. The jury is still out on Connors, Michaela Eichwald and Dianna Molzan. But Mehretu, like Joe Bradley, is wildly overrated. Rashid Johnson, better known as a photographer, assemblagist and installation artist than as a painter, comes on strong with his “Cosmic Slop” paintings (their title borrowed from the 1973 George Clinton/Bernie Worrell song about doing what you’ve got to do to survive)—monochromes made of black soap mixed with wax and vigorously incised. Along with Weatherford, Johnson will be the surprise bonus for many viewers of ”The Forever Now.”

I owe to Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of the exhibition the “demographic detail”—which I have to admit I’d overlooked—that almost all the male artists in the show are younger than almost all the women. That tells us something about time and history that Hoptman’s notion of atemporality leaves out: that men can still find institutional and market acceptance far more quickly than their female peers. I’m getting sick of it. Unfortunately, Smith, who certainly knows better, falls into the trap of pitting women against women, pointing out some midcareer women painters who she feels might have been worthier inclusions than those in the show. More to the point would be to mention the young women artists who might have been there instead of the young guys. Sticking to New Yorkers, I’d trade Bradley and Williams for Amy Feldman, Julia Rommel, Kianja Strobert or Wendy White any day.

* * *

What “The Forever Now” fails to offer is painting that, in its curator’s words, is “inspired by, refers to, or avails itself of styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies, and ideas from an array of periods on the art-historical timeline.” To see such work, amble downtown to the New Museum, where Chris Ofili’s midcareer retrospective “Night and Day” is on view through February 1.

Although Ofili, now in his mid-40s, is one of the most prominent figures in the British art scene (despite his having deserted London for Trinidad), New Yorkers still probably know him best, unfortunately, for the 1999 controversy over the Brooklyn Museum show “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection.” There, Ofili’s 1996 painting The Holy Virgin Mary became an object of extreme contention; like most of his paintings at the time, it used elephant dung as one of its materials. It was denounced in the pages of the Daily News, then by the Catholic League and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who threatened to cut off municipal funding for the museum and evict it from its city-owned building. Catholic groups picketed the museum, and the painting itself was eventually vandalized by a protester who smeared it with white paint—the black Madonna had to be whitewashed to be made less offensive—though conservators were able to successfully remove the paint before it dried.

The Holy Virgin Mary is here again to bless us, and I still agree with Peter Schjeldahl in his review of “Sensation” for The New Yorker, where he wrote that “Ofili’s lightning-rod canvas is gorgeous, sweet, and respectful of its subject.” Ofili’s art of the 1990s is mostly joyous and extrovert, and designed to catch the eye, as much by wild patterning as by the employment of porn and pop-cultural imagery and the symbolism of black nationalism. At the New Museum, there are a few works from the period that are more overtly serious in their demeanor, like The Holy Virgin Mary or No Woman, No Cry, from 1998, but they are exceptions. (The latter painting was a response to the murder in London of a black teenager; it was subsequently found that the haphazard way in which the crime was investigated was a result of institutional racism on the part of the Metropolitan Police.)

Around the middle of the last decade, Ofili’s art suddenly changed. Out went the elephant dung, the glitter, the riotous patterning, the map pins, the often raw and attention-grabbing subject matter—though the religious overtones remained. What came in is harder to characterize, and that seems deliberate. In 2005, Ofili moved from London to Port of Spain, Trinidad. To some degree, the move seems to have been a calculated effort to distance himself from the London art scene, where he had become the object of attention and where he was rapidly becoming something like an establishment figure. He’s chosen rural life over his urban origins, but also a locale where, as a foreigner who is black, he can blend in, becoming an observer who looks on from close quarters without attracting attention.

Strangely enough, some of Ofili’s more recent works all but rebuff the viewer’s attention. The “Night” segment of “Night and Day” is a group of paintings done mostly in shades of blue, and shown in a room with dark walls and lowered lights. Even after your eyes adjust to the darkness, it’s still hard to detect the forms in the paintings. One depicts the hanged Judas; another, a man set on by policemen. In a few cases, I was never quite able to tell what it was I was trying to see. But even in other recent paintings that are not so hard to decipher, the imagery can be difficult to interpret. Ofili seems to evoke what might be a coherent narrative or at least a metaphor, only to dissolve it into ambiguity. Stylistically, too, his reach has become broader, more unpredictable. Robert Storr, in his catalog essay for the New Museum, notes that “the work’s pictorial frame of reference has changed dramatically from that of the earlier works to a sleek, semisilhouetted semiabstraction reminiscent in some respects of the cutouts of Henri Matisse, and in others of Art Deco murals, while evoking the fusion of these influences in the marvelous rhythmic hybridity of Romare Bearden’s collages and prints.” Tribal art is recurrently evoked too. Ofili’s subject matter ranges from biblical tales to Greco-Roman myth to Afro-Caribbean folklore to the artifice of daily life in what is also, after all, a tourist destination. He seems to be questioning, more and more, who he is—what he’s made of and what he cannot absorb. He doesn’t always succeed in making his images and influences cohere, but his self-questioning has its own coherence that transcends mere thematic or even pictorial consistency. It’s a communion with the unknown.

 

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WALL STREET JOURNAL

Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

14 Dec 20145 Apr 2015 at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Nicole Eisenman. Guy Capitalist. 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas. 76 x 60” (193 x 152.4 cm). Collection of Noel Kirnon, New York, NY. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Paintings by 17 artists working today will be the focus of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art from December 14, 2014, through April 5, 2015. These works are united by a singular approach that characterizes our cultural moment in the early years of this millennium: they paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made. This “atemporality,” or timelessness—also present in contemporary literature, fashion, and popular music—is manifested in painting through the reanimating of historical styles or by recreating a contemporary version of them, sampling motifs from across the timeline of 20th-century art in a single painting or across an oeuvre, or by radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form. The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator, with Margaret Ewing, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA.

The Forever Now includes nearly 90 stylistically disparate, and often visually dazzling, large- and small-scale paintings made in the last several years by Richard Aldrich, Joe Bradley, Kerstin Brätsch, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Mark Grotjahn, Charline von Heyl, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith, Mary Weatherford, and Michael Williams. Several artists—including Connors, Eisenman, and Owens—are producing new work for the exhibition.

The featured artists utilize a wide variety of styles and impulses, but all use the painted surface as a platform, map, or metaphoric screen on which genres intermingle, morph, and collide. Their work represents an engagement with traditional painting, however each artist tests those traditions with a view towards reshaping the various languages of abstraction, redefining strategies like appropriation and bricolage, and reframing more metaphysical, high-stakes questions that surround notions of originality, subjectivity, and spiritual transcendence.

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World will be accompanied by a catalogue featuring an introductory essay by curator Laura Hoptman and illustrated sections on each of the 17 artists.

 

 

 

New Yorker magazine
The Art World January 5, 2015 Issue
Take Your Time
New painting at the Museum of Modern Art.
By Peter Schjeldahl

 

2015_01_05

Struggling to tame a wild mental landscape: Laura Owens’s “Untitled” (2013). Struggling to tame a wild mental landscape: Laura Owens’s “Untitled” (2013). Credit Courtesy MOMA and Enid A. Haupt Fund

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Those lines, from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock,’ ” published in 1934, came to mind at “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a challenging show of seventeen mid-career artists at the Museum of Modern Art. The note of dismay resonates generally today, when another of Eliot’s prophetic laments—“distracted from distraction by distraction,” from a year later, in “Burnt Norton”—might be this morning’s spiritual weather report. But consider the signal plight of painting. The old, slow art of the eye and the hand, united in service to the imagination, is in crisis. It’s not that painting is “dead” again—no other medium can as yet so directly combine vision and touch to express what it’s like to have a particular mind, with its singular troubles and glories, in a particular body. But painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information. Some of the painters in “Forever Now,” along with the show’s thoughtful curator, Laura Hoptman, face this fact.

Don’t attend the show seeking easy joys. Few are on offer in the work of the thirteen Americans, three Germans, and one Colombian—nine women and eight men—and those to be found come freighted with rankling self-consciousness or, here and there, a nonchalance that verges on contempt. The ruling insight that Hoptman proposes and the artists confirm is that anything attempted in painting now can’t help but be a do-over of something from the past, unless it’s so nugatory that nobody before thought to bother with it. In the introduction to the show’s catalogue, Hoptman posits a post-Internet condition, in which “all eras seem to exist at once,” thus freeing artists, yet also leaving them no other choice but to adopt or, at best, reanimate familiar “styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies, and ideas.” The show broadcasts the news that substantial newness in painting is obsolete.

Opening the show, in the museum’s sixth-floor lobby, are large, virtuosic paintings on paper by the German Kerstin Brätsch, which recall Wassily Kandinsky and other classic abstractionists. Brätsch encases many of her paintings in elaborate wood-and-glass frames that are leaned or stacked against a wall. The installation suggests a shipping depot of an extraordinarily high-end retailer. Next, there is a wall of six canvases by the American Joe Bradley, who, at the age of thirty-nine, has been hugely successful with dashing pastiches of circa-nineteen-eighties Neo-Expressionist abstraction. His pictures here are swift sketches in grease pencil that a child not only could do but has likely already done, such as a stick figure, the Superman insignia, a number (“23”), or a lone drifting line. How little can a painting be and still satisfy as a painting? Very little, Bradley ventures. After straining for a sterner response to the works, I opted to relax and like them.
Kerstin Brätsch, “Blocked Radiant D (for Ioana)” (2011).
CreditCourtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Disarming, too, is the show’s youngest artist, the twenty-eight-year-old Colombian art-market phenomenon Oscar Murillo, who shows stitched-together, furiously scribbled and slathered, uncannily elegant abstractions somewhat in the vein of early Robert Rauschenberg. In addition to the canvases that are stretched and hung on the walls, several lie loose and heaped on the floor. Viewers are encouraged to rummage through them, pick them up, and inspect them. (This provides a definite frisson—you’re playing with paintings by someone whose works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars—enhanced by the clayey odor of fresh oil stick.) The American Josh Smith, a year younger than his friend Bradley, joins him in testing the world’s tolerance for shambling improvisation. Fantastically prolific, he creates series of bravura paintings, all of them five feet high, four feet wide, with motifs that include monochromes, kitschy tropical sunsets, kitschy memento mori (skulls and skeletons), and his own signature. What is painting for? Smith’s answer stops a winsome step short of nihilism: something more or less lively to hang on a wall. As with Bradley, resistance to Smith is understandable but, in the end, too tiring to maintain.

Painters of a more conventionally serious stamp are on hand. The most distinctly original is the forty-six-year-old American Mark Grotjahn. His palette-knife patterning, packed and energized in smoldering colors, yields tensions that you can feel in your gut. Grotjahn’s art may not be about much beyond the pleasures of his mastery, but it is awfully good. More symptomatic of Hoptman’s thesis of “atemporality” are works by the Americans Julie Mehretu and Amy Sillman. Mehretu, forty-four, rose to fame, and a MacArthur Fellowship, in the past decade with exhaustingly complex compositions of overlaid marks and diagrams, which seemed bent on mirroring our cybernetic age in total. To my relief, she appears to have abandoned that conceit in order to liberate her inner abstract lyricist, with skittery gray paintings that pay candid and exhilarating homage to Cy Twombly. Sillman, fifty-nine, revisits modern-arty looks, from around 1940, by the likes of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, to which she adds mainly the assurance of knowing, as they could not, that they were on a right track.

If one modern master haunts “Forever Now,” it is Sigmar Polke, who, from the early nineteen-sixties until his death, in 2010, ran painting through wringers of caustic irony and giddy burlesque. He hovers at the shoulders of the two most impressive painters who befit Hoptman’s theme of present pastness, the German Charline von Heyl, fifty-four, and Laura Owens, forty-four, from Los Angeles. Heyl’s mixes and matches of elements of many styles forswear irony but take Polke’s restless eclecticism as a rule. Each stages a more or less successful struggle to tame a wild mental landscape. The quicksilver Owens contributes two rather precious new works—bagatelles, really—that feature perfunctory touches of paint on silk-screened reproductions of an advertisement for bird feeders and of a notebook page bearing a sarcastic fairy tale written out in a child’s guileless hand. But be sure to spend time with her large abstraction, an untitled work from 2013, hanging in MOMA’s ground-floor lobby: gestural glyphs and splotches in white, black, green, and orange on a ground imprinted with a blown-up page of newspaper want ads. It is almost off-handedly majestic and preternaturally charming, and my favorite work in the show. It suggests Polke mistaking himself for Joan Miró.

It will surprise many, as it did me, that “Forever Now” is the first large survey strictly dedicated to new painting that MOMA has organized since 1958, when “The New American Painting,” a show of seventeen artists, including all the major Abstract Expressionists, went on to tour Europe and to revolutionize art everywhere. Hoptman clearly considered the echo, presenting the same number of painters—except that this group bodes little change in art anywhere, that being a melancholy mark of its pertinence today. But even more arresting is the mere occurrence of the show at MOMA. Hoptman strives to shoehorn painting back into a museum culture that has come to favor installation, performance, and conceptual and digital work. The effort seems futile, at least in the short run.

You can see the painters in “Forever Now” reacting to the dilemma of an image-making art struggling to stand out in an image-sickened society—“Filled with fancies and empty of meaning,” as Eliot went on from his line about distraction. The artists’ tactics include emphases on gritty materiality and refusals of comforting representation. It’s a strong show, and timely. But its own terms make it more expressive of honest discontent than of inspiring invention. Painting can bleed now, but it cannot heal. ♦

==

WALL STREET JOURNAL

Reshuffling, Not Reinventing

Breaking no new ground, a show at the Museum of Modern Art merely recycles received wisdom, with artists who are market-vetted and gallery-approved.

New York

In the Museum of Modern Art’s long-anticipated exhibition “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a showcase of about 100 works by 17 living artists, you will encounter Richard Aldrich’s “Angie Adams/Franz Kline” (2010-11). A mixed-media muddle roughly 7 feet tall by 5 feet wide, the mostly white painting comprises a big, derisively Franz Kline-like black rectangle, adjacent to two smaller splotches of pale red and violet, with some drips, smudges and squiggles.

‘Angie Adams/Franz Kline’ (2010-11), by Richard Aldrich. ENLARGE
‘Angie Adams/Franz Kline’ (2010-11), by Richard Aldrich. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York. Photo: Farzad Owrang

According to the show’s curator, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman, Mr. Aldrich’s “Angie Adams/Franz Kline” exemplifies the zeitgeist of the new millennium’s Internet-driven “atemporality,” a term coined in 2003 by science-fiction writer William Gibson. Her theory is that in our globalized, “atemporal” world—in which artists always have access to everything on the Web—hierarchies, timelines, meanings, distinctions and histories dissolve. Today’s irreverent, ransacking artists, Ms. Hoptman explains in the show’s catalog and wall text, are “self-identified cultural pirates…contemporary Dr. Frankensteins” who, “taking advantage of this avalanche of information…reanimate, reenact, or sample elements from the past without a trace of parody or nostalgia, challenging them to be relevant again in our ‘endless digital Now,’ as Gibson has described our time.”

How does open-ended “atemporality” rear its head in “Angie Adams/Franz Kline”? The wall label clarifies: The painting refers to “pop culture and art history simultaneously, in effect leveling any hierarchy between them. Angie Adams is a name Aldrich misheard in a Kanye West song that he listened to while making this painting.”

Elsewhere, Mary Weatherford slaps bright neon tubes over pastiches of Color Field painting. According to the catalog, these derivative artworks supposedly “reanimate” American abstraction and the “neon-flecked nights in New York.” Joe Bradley’s childish linear scrawls—of a cross, a stick figure, the number “23” and the Superman logo, respectively—in grease pencil on large white canvases, are said, by Ms. Hoptman, to “thwart time,” as they sample Abstract Expressionism, Carl Jung’s archetypes, Paleolithic cave painting, comics and emoticons.

Matt Connors “reenacts” painting styles “plucked” from abstract sources as diverse as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Lewis. Imagine enormous hard-edged planes of pure color, fudged here and there with splatters and drips. Also mashing up styles is Nicole Eisenman, who borrows from African art, German Expressionism and pop culture. Catalog text explains that her large “Feminist” paintings of masklike male heads riff on tribal art, as they subvert early 20th-century Modernists and today’s “masculine archetype, preoccupied with technology, money, and status.” Ms. Eisenman’s “Breakup” (2011) depicts a cartoonish, clownish man staring at his smartphone.

Performing what Ms. Hoptman refers to as “a kind of self-cannibalism,” Oscar Murillo recycles his own work, cutting up and sewing together remnants of earlier paintings, refuting notions about progress. Three of Mr. Murillo’s stretched canvases, influenced by graffiti and Jean-Michel Basquiat, hang on the wall, while eight more lie, unstretched, in a heap on the floor. Viewers are encouraged to unfold and examine, move and manhandle the floor works, which, we are told, “are indistinguishable from the ones on the wall in terms of quality.” (I won’t argue with that.) This process purportedly “breaks down the border between the studio and the outside world.”

‘Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)’ (2012), by Mark Grotjahn. ENLARGE
‘Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)’ (2012), by Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Courtesy Mark Grotjahn/Douglas M. Parker Studio

To anyone who has consistently followed contemporary painting, a medium that has been under attack as irrelevant for decades now—increasingly so recently, in the wake of digital art—none of this work will come as a shock. The artists in “Forever Now” superficially recycle ideas that go all the way back to Dada, Pop art—especially Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines”—Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Dada and Postmodernism. To her credit, Ms. Hoptman has chosen artists who actually touch their paintings—as opposed to producing them mechanically or digitally. But she has created a show neither visually nor conceptually engaging. Worse, the most compelling paintings here, Mark Grotjahn’s energetic abstractions that rehash the work of American Modernists Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella and Alfred Jensen, are pigeonholed to illustrate the curatorial proposition—which is inherently flawed.

It contends that artists today are different from 20th-century artists. Ms. Hoptman believes that past artists thought of art as progressing linearly—evolving—that they looked at art history in terms of a timeline. This viewpoint strikes me more as that of an art historian than of an artist. Let’s not forget that it was Picasso who said: “To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”

Picasso, the first and greatest-ever mashup artist, took from other artists, too. But he did not borrow, sample and remix. He stole. Stealing—as opposed to borrowing—stresses ownership. “The Forever Now” artists merely reshuffle, rather than reinvent, the art of the past.

The other major problem with this exhibition is that it breaks no new ground. Almost all of its artists are blue-chip gallery- and market-approved. In effect, “The Forever Now” is a recycling of the perceived wisdom of New York’s most prominent galleries, as well as that of other museums. This show, the first survey of new painting MoMA has mounted since 1958, says a lot about the museum’s stance on contemporary painting—which is grim, to say the least. It may seem backward—nostalgic—to pine for the old days, but MoMA’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Dorothy Miller trawled artists’ studios, building shows from the ground up. “The Forever Now” feels top-down.

When MoMA reopened a decade ago, after the enormous renovation, expansion and reinstallation of its stellar permanent collection, it was made perfectly clear that its curators wanted to weigh in more on contemporary art. The big question for some of us was how, exactly, the museum with the greatest holdings of Modern art in the world would balance that collection against contemporary art. What would happen when Modernism and Postmodernism collided?

“The Forever Now,” which identifies contemporary strategies, not great contemporary paintings, turns its back on—if not mocks—MoMA’s superb permanent collection. This is not a show that values, deepens and extends excellence in art, but one, instead, that celebrates lessening attention spans, careerist trends and a blatant, blanketing dismissal of the past. This exhibition identifies, celebrates and panders to contemporary art’s lowest common denominator. “The Forever Now”—hell-bent on the moment—repositions MoMA as a follower, not a leader. Forever “now,” it is a show that tomorrow most likely will forget.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

 

FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

January 5, 2015 6:23 pm

The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York — review

MoMA’s survey of contemporary painting is a depressingly inert experience
Left, Amy Sillman, 'Still Life' (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, 'Carlotta' (2013)

Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)

In The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hauptman takes the pulse of contemporary painting and finds it dangerously weak. You can sense the desperation masked in her upbeat analysis, her frustrated desire to extract some excitement from all those studio visits. Weighed down with depressingly inert material, the show follows a line back to the past where it peters out in confusion. Hauptman is a perceptive museum-world virtuoso and if this is the best she could come up with, the situation must be dire.

Gloom is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and on the day I saw the exhibition, a wet grey light filtered into MoMA’s galleries, dampening spirits even indoors. Yet, as a fellow critic pointed out, the best art renews the world around it. That would have been a good time for an infusion of artistic joy or a blast of inventiveness. MoMA’s handpicked highlights offered neither. They returned my curious gaze with a deadpan stare and a knowing mash-up of art-historical precedents.

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In her pop anthology “Carlotta”, Charline Von Heyl adorns a Warholesque Marilyn type in black lipstick with a band of Lichtenstein Ben-Day dots. In “It’s Vot Behind Me That I Am”, she experiments with a smear of abstract expressionist angst, drips and all. Von Heyl’s eclecticism invokes a whole catalogue of forebears with an arched eyebrow, as if to hint that even her mix-and-match technique is a reference to the postmodern past.

For his series “Cosmic Slop”, Rashid Johnson covered large canvases in a thick impasto of black soap and wax, then scratched them with a stick. You can practically deduce the recipe: two parts Stella to one part of each of Reinhardt, Twombly and Pollock. Even his titles have a pedigree. Just as Stella named his works with Nazi phrases such as “Die Fahne Hoch!” and “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Johnson dresses up his abstract studies with cool historical consciousness. “Cosmic Slop: The Berlin Conference” refers to the 1885 meeting where the colonial powers carved up Africa among themselves.

Hauptman doesn’t just acknowledge these parrotings: she celebrates them, building the whole exhibition around the theory that imitation is the new originality. She marshals plenty of evidence. Dianna Molzan channels Kandinsky; Amy Sillman prays at the altars of Matisse and De Kooning; Matt Connors’ bold geometric abstractions imitate the colour-field painters of the 1950s and 60s, by way of Josef Albers. All this recycling, according to Hauptman, accumulates into the fascinating phenomenon of “atemporality”, a word popularised by the novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The term refers to the internet’s great whirl of information that has come to replace a sense of linear history. Ask not “What happened in the 14th century?” Sterling exhorts, but “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘14th century’?”

Hauptman is excited by this development, this “new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once”. She detects an unprecedented weirdness in the oil paintings she has hung on MoMA’s walls. I’m not sure that “super-charged art historicism”, as she calls it, is quite as thrilling or new as she claims. Artists have rampaged through the past before, wrangling with their predecessors, conflating eras and violating chronology. Picasso retrofitted Manet who reworked Velázquez. Long before the internet, the performance artist Meredith Monk was already stirring together antiquity and futurism, treating time like a pack of cards to be endlessly shuffled.

Still, Hauptman is right that in the past 20 years, the cultures of other periods and continents have come clamouring for attention like never before, leaving artists of all kinds overstimulated and reeling. New York magazine music critic Justin Davidson has pointed out that young composers are often burdened by too many sources, stifled by too much freedom. YouTube, he writes, offers “an infinite thrift store of influences. A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” We no longer need to sift, select, and organise knowledge; the internet has made Collyer brothers of us all.

The fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, formerly the FT’s fashion editor, noticed a similar ragpicker phenomenon on the runway: “I sat through fashion show after fashion show and saw yet more yet more ‘reinventions’ and ‘homages’ to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, ‘How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?’ Her answer was a scathing label: The New Mediocre.

Maybe it’s fusty to feel distress at the atemporal present, but in art it yields a regurgitated mash-up that leaves me feeling sour. And it occurs to me, as I cruise through MoMA’s old-timey galleries and look at pre-digital handmade paintings encrusted with minced bits of movements past, that Hauptman’s Forever Now will soon seem hopelessly dated — the expression of a naive belief that humanity is done with unidirectional history. We have developed a whole lexicon to describe the culture of neo-everything timelessness: retromania, hauntology, steampunk, presentism, super-hybridity. But these terms all paper over the same uninspired and superficial revivalism, a bankrupt excuse for having no fresh ideas.


Until April 5, moma.org

====

ft.com > Life&Arts > Arts >
Visual Arts

January 5, 2015 6:23 pm
The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York — review

Ariella Budick
MoMA’s survey of contemporary painting is a depressingly inert experience
Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)

Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)
I

n The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hauptman takes the pulse of contemporary painting and finds it dangerously weak. You can sense the desperation masked in her upbeat analysis, her frustrated desire to extract some excitement from all those studio visits. Weighed down with depressingly inert material, the show follows a line back to the past where it peters out in confusion. Hauptman is a perceptive museum-world virtuoso and if this is the best she could come up with, the situation must be dire.

Gloom is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and on the day I saw the exhibition, a wet grey light filtered into MoMA’s galleries, dampening spirits even indoors. Yet, as a fellow critic pointed out, the best art renews the world around it. That would have been a good time for an infusion of artistic joy or a blast of inventiveness. MoMA’s handpicked highlights offered neither. They returned my curious gaze with a deadpan stare and a knowing mash-up of art-historical precedents.

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FirstFT is our new essential daily email briefing of the best stories from across the web

In her pop anthology “Carlotta”, Charline Von Heyl adorns a Warholesque Marilyn type in black lipstick with a band of Lichtenstein Ben-Day dots. In “It’s Vot Behind Me That I Am”, she experiments with a smear of abstract expressionist angst, drips and all. Von Heyl’s eclecticism invokes a whole catalogue of forebears with an arched eyebrow, as if to hint that even her mix-and-match technique is a reference to the postmodern past.

For his series “Cosmic Slop”, Rashid Johnson covered large canvases in a thick impasto of black soap and wax, then scratched them with a stick. You can practically deduce the recipe: two parts Stella to one part of each of Reinhardt, Twombly and Pollock. Even his titles have a pedigree. Just as Stella named his works with Nazi phrases such as “Die Fahne Hoch!” and “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Johnson dresses up his abstract studies with cool historical consciousness. “Cosmic Slop: The Berlin Conference” refers to the 1885 meeting where the colonial powers carved up Africa among themselves.

Hauptman doesn’t just acknowledge these parrotings: she celebrates them, building the whole exhibition around the theory that imitation is the new originality. She marshals plenty of evidence. Dianna Molzan channels Kandinsky; Amy Sillman prays at the altars of Matisse and De Kooning; Matt Connors’ bold geometric abstractions imitate the colour-field painters of the 1950s and 60s, by way of Josef Albers. All this recycling, according to Hauptman, accumulates into the fascinating phenomenon of “atemporality”, a word popularised by the novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The term refers to the internet’s great whirl of information that has come to replace a sense of linear history. Ask not “What happened in the 14th century?” Sterling exhorts, but “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘14th century’?”

Hauptman is excited by this development, this “new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once”. She detects an unprecedented weirdness in the oil paintings she has hung on MoMA’s walls. I’m not sure that “super-charged art historicism”, as she calls it, is quite as thrilling or new as she claims. Artists have rampaged through the past before, wrangling with their predecessors, conflating eras and violating chronology. Picasso retrofitted Manet who reworked Velázquez. Long before the internet, the performance artist Meredith Monk was already stirring together antiquity and futurism, treating time like a pack of cards to be endlessly shuffled.

Still, Hauptman is right that in the past 20 years, the cultures of other periods and continents have come clamouring for attention like never before, leaving artists of all kinds overstimulated and reeling. New York magazine music critic Justin Davidson has pointed out that young composers are often burdened by too many sources, stifled by too much freedom. YouTube, he writes, offers “an infinite thrift store of influences. A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” We no longer need to sift, select, and organise knowledge; the internet has made Collyer brothers of us all.

The fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, formerly the FT’s fashion editor, noticed a similar ragpicker phenomenon on the runway: “I sat through fashion show after fashion show and saw yet more yet more ‘reinventions’ and ‘homages’ to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, ‘How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?’ Her answer was a scathing label: The New Mediocre.

Maybe it’s fusty to feel distress at the atemporal present, but in art it yields a regurgitated mash-up that leaves me feeling sour. And it occurs to me, as I cruise through MoMA’s old-timey galleries and look at pre-digital handmade paintings encrusted with minced bits of movements past, that Hauptman’s Forever Now will soon seem hopelessly dated — the expression of a naive belief that humanity is done with unidirectional history. We have developed a whole lexicon to describe the culture of neo-everything timelessness: retromania, hauntology, steampunk, presentism, super-hybridity. But these terms all paper over the same uninspired and superficial revivalism, a bankrupt excuse for having no fresh ideas.
Until April 5, moma.org

MUSEUMSWEEKEND

The Death of Painting: All-New, 2014 Edition

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, prompted thoughts of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though I’m not sure how much acceptance there is in the end.

This particular reaction was due to a particular experience of the show, which began with reading the press release a few minutes before heading up the escalator to MoMA’s sixth floor to see the actual art. The statement, which is a single-spaced, four-page reduction of the catalogue essay by Laura Hoptman, one of the show’s two curators (the other is Margaret Ewing), painted a picture (to use a term advisedly) of an exhibition that seemed nothing if not dry, rigid and academic.

The term “atemporality” is taken from the science fiction writer William Gibson, who used it in 2003, according to Hoptman’s essay, “to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once. Since that time, atemporality has been observed in literature, popular music, and fashion, and subsequently called many different names, including retromania, hauntology, presentism, and super-hybridity.”

The exhibition, in turn (according to the press release), is presenting art that embodies atemporality “through the reanimating of historical styles or by recreating a contemporary version of them, sampling motifs from across the timeline of 20th-century art in a single painting or across an oeuvre, or by radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form.”

Old wine in new bottles, some may say. Others might argue that the Museum of Modern Art is throwing its weight behind a narrow bandwidth of contemporary painting practice, one that revolves around the artwork as a mediated object referencing institutionally sanctioned styles. This footnoted approach fits all too well within the historical narrative that MoMA, despite its best efforts, has never been quite able to shake: that after representation was subsumed into abstraction, and abstraction was reduced to Minimalism, painting could only repeat itself. As Hoptman writes in her essay:

Abstraction is a language primed for becoming a representation of itself, because as much as it resists the attribution of specific meanings, the abstract mark cannot help but carry with it an entire utopian history of modern painting. […] It would be difficult to identify a contemporary abstract painter who is not self-consciously referring to that history.

Moreover, to uphold such Postmodernist strategies as “the reanimating of historical styles” and “sampling motifs” while supporting what sounds for all the world like classic Minimalism — “radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form” — is a contradictory stance. It may reflect the crazy-quilt visual environment in which we live, but it’s also a little crazy-making for the passionate observer — a premise that seems to play both ends against the middle while paradoxically ignoring what lies between those two extremes. This is where the stages of denial (of a narrowly parsed take on contemporary art) and anger (over the glibness of same) come in.

By associating atemporality, which is admittedly a very cool and potentially useful term, with the reuse or revival of past styles (characterized by neologisms like retromania and hauntology), the exhibition is affirming the inability of painting to do anything surprising or new — aka painting is dead — a mindset reinforced by the subheads and “corollaries” in Hoptman’s essay: Nostalgia; Frankenstein’s Monster; Cannibalism.

But upon reaching the sixth floor, all that changed. The first thing that hits you is the stack of very large, very aggressive paintings by Kerstin Brätsch, which are leaning against the walls on either side of the entrance to the exhibition — compositions that look like Georgia O’Keeffe gone off the deep end, with crabbed, thorny, branch-like forms and other ominous but less definable shapes skittering around a central, intensely pigmented, haloed disk.

Walk through the entrance, and you’re confronted with a double-height black wall filled with Joe Bradley’s casual scrawls of grease pencil on canvas. They look splendid. Turn around, and there are Rashid Johnson’s heavily impastoed and scarified works in black soap and wax, and in your peripheral vision, the playfully brooding paintings of Michaela Eichwald — one small, expressionistic portrait and two large, long, loopy abstractions.

Suddenly, what seemed predetermined to be an infuriatingly categorical exercise in curatorial cherry-picking, all in the service of a constricted thesis, had turned into a rumpus room of contemporary art-making. Nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point. You could stay in that first room for as long as you liked without bothering with any formalist or anti-formalist distractions, reveling in the purely visual language of line, color, texture and shape.

We are now at the bargaining stage: okay, MoMA, you can have your teleology and hang these paintings on whatever theoretical scaffolding you like, as long as you are reopening your doors to the medium and allowing its inherent multiplicities to do their subversive dirty work.

But then you venture deeper into the show, and while the visual spectacle makes it is easy to forget (or, more accurately, to be confused about) which one of the four points outlined in the press release (Reanimation; Reenactment; Sampling; The Archetype) is being made among the exhibition’s various alcoves, the work in aggregate begins to wear thin.

Perhaps this is due in part to the backward-glancing criteria of the selection (that everything in the show is allegedly based on — or at least related to — something else), which disregards and even, in an indirect way, countermands vitality as a qualifier. All that matters is that the chosen works, again from the press release, “paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.”

In the Western tradition, the pattern of art history is a continual cycle of ossification and regeneration, with form-breakers like Giotto, Caravaggio, Manet and Pollock arriving every now and then to shake things up, adapting strains of an inherited style to what they knew of experiential existence. What the exhibition proposes is that, in our forever now, “an atemporal painter,” as Hoptman writes in her essay, would “see and utilize style, as if it is a bit of iconography; some even use specific stylistic gestures and strategies in a manner akin to a medium.”

In its insistence that painting is a closed system, the exhibition falls apart. This is the fourth stage, depression. Julie Mehretu’s big canvases in acrylic, ink and graphite may relate to automatic writing and “seem to channel mid-century calligraphic abstractions by artists like Michaux and Twombly.” But even if they achieve “a result as distinct from theirs as one person’s signature is from another,” as the essay claims, the works do not make much of an impression. Nor do Michael Williams’ busy, cartoonish amalgams of digital printing, airbrushed lines and loaded, meandering, Terry Winters-esque strokes. In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street.

But then you look around again, and certain paintings stand out, not for any other reason than their presence as worked-over objects. And this allows for a degree of acceptance, the fifth of the five stages, although the constant echo of the show’s restricted premise makes those pieces feel as beleaguered and isolated as they are individuated.

There’s Charline von Heyl’s “Concetto Spaziale” (2009), titled after Lucio Fontana’s series of slashed canvases, but in its dazzling array of lines and wedges in yellow and black against a purplish gray field, it’s miles away from the Italian painter’s reductive gestures (which are in fact recapitulated in the show by the deconstructed canvases of Dianna Molzan).

Mark Grotjahn’s untitled “Circus” paintings from 2012 and ’13 — complexly tessellated, dazzlingly colored, high-speed collisions of spirals, loops and arcs — are highlights of the show, but their references to faces or masks (evidenced by indications of nostrils sprouting in the lower midsection of the canvases) signal a weakness in my view — they would be much more resonant as pure abstractions — but the allusions are what the show wishes to underscore, with Grotjahn’s wall of three “Circus” works facing off with Nicole Eisenman’s wall of three moon-headed “Guy” portraits, “Whatever Guy” (2009), “Guy Racer” and “Guy Capitalist” (both 2011).

Matt Connors’ enormous (216 × 132 inches), tripartite “Variable Foot” (2014) in red, blue and yellow (shades of Barnett Newman and Jasper Johns), along with Kerstin Brätsch’s large-scale installation, “Sigi’s Erben (Agate Psychics)” (2012), comprised of agates, glass, masks, and painted aluminum, go a long way toward supplying the exhibition’s wow factor, though Connors’ other works are contrarily, exceedingly modest in their ambitions.

Amy Sillman turns to Neo-Cubist semi-abstraction in her four contributions to the show, but one of them, “Still Life 1” (2013-14), goes beyond the blunt, linear forms of the other three, wandering into a place that’s weightier, darker, more layered and mysterious. Richard Aldrich is another artist with one painting that leaves his other, more desultory work behind: it’s a small, aqua, scraped and scarred oil and wax on panel from 2006, “Blue Sea Old Wash.” At 14 1/2 × 11 inches, it’s the smallest thing in the room, but it pulls your eyes immediately toward it.

With his renderings of palm trees, insects, fish and his own outsized signature, Josh Smith makes a splash in the final gallery with nine, big, juicy, colorful paintings on a single wall (painted black, like Joe Bradley’s at the entrance, forming a kind of bookend to the show), while Laura Owens’ text-based works seem to retreat into hermeticism. Neither Mary Weatherford nor Oscar Murillo appear able to escape their antecedents (Mario Merz, Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman for Weatherford; Robert Rauschenberg for Murillo), but in the exhibition’s inverted logic, that may be a plus.

And yet, there’s acceptance. The Forever Now is a show that should be seen and argued with. Its highly specific focus provides a flint to strike sparks and sharpen nails, a useful “this, not that,” which helps to clarify issues even where its assumptions are mistaken. For an exhibition like this, the trick is to light a path without erasing the shadows.

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 5, 2015.

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NEW YORK MAGAZINE

‘The Forever Now’ Is MoMA’s Market Moment

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal WorldInstallation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at MoMA. John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art arrives, curated by Laura Hoptman, at a moment when painting is in an astonishingly conflicted but promising abysm of wakefulness. A group show about this stirring medium, atthis moment and in the very House of Modernism, sends shock waves through the art world — anointing artists, starting arguments, performing operatically contested desires and new standards. It’s the kind of thing that friends stop being friends over. Or that’s what shows like “The Forever Now” used to be — when time moved slower, information wasn’t instantly accessible everywhere at once, museums were codifiers and curators defending their absolute power positively, or ridiculously. I’m not nostalgic for the dreaded age of curator-bullies, and now that galleries and biennials do most of the codifying, I love that museums have the luxury of time to sift through things rather than react to every twist of aesthetic fate (although too many museums are trying to be like galleries — more on that later). “The Forever Now” is handsome, professional, well intentioned, and has moments that take the breath away. I’m a fan and was an early advocate of a third of its 17 artists. Yet, overall, “The Forever Now” doesn’t capture enough of painting’s pangs, conflict, promise, or current astonishment at its position. Most of all, with a handful of exceptions, the show fails to make a case for the exceptional quality, or truly new character, of contemporary painting; For long stretches, it instead settles for showcasing its ubiquitous presence. If MoMA is the Ferrari of Modernist museums, “The Forever Now” is driving it like a Prius: something made to have minimum impact on the environment while making people feel okay about something troubling.

How did this happen? Hoptman is nobody’s fool. Highly admired, even loved in the art world, she is a lucid thinker and writer and has long been a remarkably perceptive curator, among the first proponents of early-1990s artists like John Currin, Luc Tuymans, Elizabeth Peyton, Gabriel Orozco, and Chris Ofili. I count myself lucky to call her a friend and to have known her for more than 25 years. The roster of artists she has chosen is revealing. Thirteen of the artists in “The Forever Now” are American; all but one of the rest are from Germany. Age-wise, there’s a 30-year spread with Amy Sillman being almost 60 and Oscar Murillo nearly 30. This is not a show to define a generation, since the artists are not of a generation as that term has typically been used. Instead, they are all participants in a cultural moment, in which painting has come to reign supreme, defined by virtuosic newness, of course, but more and more by the basic stylistic sameness valued by the art market and the art fair in particular. To those in the art world, the list of included artists will seem familiar, almost a lineup of acceptable artists and market darlings, many of whom are represented by major spaces or megagalleries like David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Marian Goodman. (Although a few do not fall into this category.) Many have had museum retrospectives. It’s not the fault of the curator, but most of these artists already fetch enormous prices — some in the millions of dollars — for their work. Indeed, the show’s opening found dealers and art advisers parked in front of artist’s work taking sales orders, as if at an art fair.

That feels odd. The job of forging art history over the last 100 years has probably always been in the hands of galleries and artists more than in museums. But it’s in galleries (and art fairs) more now than ever. This is how it should be, but it has had a deleterious effect of late, causing some curators to transform themselves into Grand Guignol showmen specializing in big productions and spectacle, arriving at every art event, moving on to the next, and in between making atrium exhibitions, film screenings, and the like. Other curators contract, demonizing anything successful or of the art world and embrace a kind of Curatorial Correctness — specializing in the rediscovery of the assistants of famous artists or other overlooked makers of the recent past (in other words, safer, quieter projects that make fewer grand claims about what is new or newly important). Some say that the market has taken over everything. There was a panel this week titled “Zombie Formalism,” the term for precisely this kind of look-alike abstraction. Painter Walter Robinson who coined the term, remarked, “If bad abstraction is the problem then the virus spreading it is money.” It’s true — the market loves abstraction as an easy-on-the-eyes investment and surefire sign of being avant-garde and radical. But Hoptman is too good a curator, with too much integrity, to ever follow the whims of the market. Yet so many of the artists in “The Forever Now” are critically or market approved that the exhibition has the feel of the validation of the inevitable. How does this happen, and what does it mean? Maybe it’s that curatorial impulses and market judgments are no longer separate enough that it makes sense to talk about one or the other taking over.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

Hoptman writes in the catalogue that “the seventeen artists in this show are stalwart practitioners of painting qua painting.” For those not conversant in art-speak, “painting qua paintingmeans, technically, painting as painting. What it seems to mean to those in the art world is painting about painting. Or painting about the processes of making paintings; or about the history of making paintings; or maybe about painting’s modes, compositional approaches, color theories, materials, marks, and subject matters. Or something. Frankly, this is not all that different from what we used to simply call “abstract painting.” And in fact, it’s not hard to see the painting collected here, and the broader painting universe from which it’s drawn, partly as an expression of some nostalgia about earlier eras, when experiments with form seemed to offer something like truly radical content. (There are numerous gestural similarities to the painting of the Abstract Expressionists and the Neo-Expressionists.) Not to say these painters would necessarily acknowledge any of that; I suspect that each one of the included artists would emphatically say that his or her work is not “qua” painting but just painting.

As for what the show says, its subtitle is “Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.Atemporal refers to the conceit that all artistic styles — from cave painting to Pop Art back to Impressionism and Chinese ink drawings — are current, because we see them in the present, a present that collapses the sprawling palimpsest of history and geography into the flat screens of our smartphones. In this view, painterly styles, schools, and gestures all exist free from the limitations of time, history, and, perhaps especially, Modernism’s imperious dictate about always having to change style in order to be Modern, novel, and worthy. All art has always come from other art, and artists have always dug into, repurposed, and outright stolen from and made styles, tendencies, and approaches their own. But the conceit of “The Forever Now” is, I think, that something is different now, that Modernism’s incessant ever-forward march seems so last century, so debunked, and with the combined knowledge of the known universe essentially in our pockets, more artists know about more art than ever before. This is probably true. And because of that, the title suggests, they are making art that, for once, isn’t about taking the next step forward in art history. I think.

But let’s put aside the rhetoric and look at what the show itself tells us. As is often the case with MoMA these days, “The Forever Now” is wedged into too little space. Paintings are hung salon-style, wedged in, given attenuated spaces and little bins, or installed near the top of tall walls meant only for showing the work of Richard Serra. It would have been better had Hoptman been allowed to do 17 one-month one-person shows of each one of these artists somewhere in MoMA to really drill down into their own ideas and make a real statement.

Looking around at the statements made by what has been hung, Laura Owens, Nicole Eisenman, Michael Williams, Michaela Eichwald, Kerstin Bratsch, and Joe Bradley all impress. (Josh Smith does, too, although this may have to do with all of his work being jammed together on one wall and generating this massive graphic impact.) Bradley’s gigantic squiggles and doodles really have grandeur while simultaneously producing a shock of incredulity at how simple and unfinished looking art is, but how powerful of presence. Similarly, Bratsch’s giant paintings on paper encased in steel and glass frames leaned against the walls outside the show’s entrance look like grossly enlarged book end-papers adorned with crenellated turrets of iridescent paint and colorful aigrette crowns gone mad. I love them. Ditto Eichwald’s pliable brown and black Formica-like surfaces of stains, marks, shapes, and scrapes, which have the feel of having gone through excremental fire and survived.

I relish the ropy sluicing surfaces of Mark Grotjahn, but his great paintings seem more excellently old-school than newly atemporal. Stalwarts like Amy Sillman, happy inclusion Mary Weatherford, and Charlene Von Heyl come off well. Von Heyl is, to my eye, the most influential artist in art schools today (almost every student loves to mix up different styles, spaces, and gestures in individual canvasses), but one who is falling into the predictable habit of making all the parts of her painting different. Sillman supplies brushy mid-century-like figurative-abstractions à la de Kooning, Diebenkorn, and Guston. It is a style that is easy to be bad at, and one I don’t often pay much attention to, but in Sillman’s accomplished hands looks strong and also original of color. There are the physically powerful, otherwise bland, almost-monochromes of Rashid Johnson. And some pulled-apart paintings by Dianna Molzan — certainly not a “market approved” artist, as I don’t think she even has a New York gallery — are placeholders for all the generic deconstructivist art (torn or otherwise attacked canvases, exposed stretcher bars, etc.) that’s all the rage. And endlessly boring. Matt Connors, whom I’m usually not a fan of and who is the show’s token Zombie Formalist, looks fantastic here with a gigantic, leaning three-panel painting that is Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden made by Richard Serra. It is painting as architectural fact. International art star and market phenom Oscar Murillo shows his impressive Schnabel-like touch and wonderful color in works that are warm and would look lovely in any living room. Beyond that, they are only elegant. Speaking of which, Julie Mehretu, whose handsome work strikes me as merely decorative, makes a welcome move here. Brava. The problem is that now she’s making sooty Cy Twomblys.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

So: There is good painting in “The Forever Now.” Very good. Some great. (The show’s last wall of Michael Williams finds an artist so adept at creating complex surfaces that it’s hard to even fix our focus on them.) But it is far too narrow in its focus, giving us only one known strain of contemporary painting that, while shadow-dancing with various methods of reproduction and processes, is all more or less handmade and mostly abstract. That’s it. What does all this abstract atemporality and gestural painting add up to? In the case of the artists I don’t like, I’d say that dipping into any and all styles of painting and abstraction is a way not to address the anxieties that now exist around painting in general and abstraction specifically. It’s become a kind of shelter and sanctuary where instead of making old ideas new (as many artists do now), these artists make old ideas palatable, unthreatening, un-conflicted. Or they make paintings that look like edgy hard-core abstraction, deploying fields of black or monochrome paint; Polke, Richter, or Oehlen–like effects; splashes; all-over composition; switching styles willy-nilly within works. These are all familiar signals that say to viewers and buyers, “I know I’m an abstract painting, but the fact that I know that means that I’m cool and you knowing that I know it makes you cool too. Plus, I’m not crass like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Like me.” It’s both too confident and too needy. I call this assertive negative content — art whose primary content is what it’s not. And it’s a startling statement that this negative content is so appealing to people (collectors especially) right now.

But what is truly missing here is the sense of painterly anxiety. Not enough of “The Forever Now” lets us in on the storms gathering in the medium, where there is an epic struggle going on, not in spite of the disappearance of modernism’s teleology but precisely because painters working today have had that universe of possibilities collapse on them. On the one hand, artists are ultra-aware of and therefore in an ironical position to painting’s processes, endless tropes, styles, ideas, and, therefore, their own work. Perhaps it’s been ever thus, but it’s more thus than ever. An artist using Day-Glo color today is also using Warhol; every brushstroke references a hundred other artists; painting on fabric might be Polke, Kippenberger, Salle, Oehlen. And so on — not absolutely, not every time, not intentionally, even, but it’s there. History and style are now extra-active content.

If that were that, we’d be dealing only with self-conscious work. The complication is that while artists are in this ironical position to painting, to them their work is not ironic at all — in fact, it is completely, utterly sincere. Today, artists have an almost Romantic relationship to their own work — even if it is made in a time when they are as self-aware as almost never before. This is because the need to make art and the drive to be an artist still run as deep as ego and insecurity towers high. The tension that now exists between these two previously opposed, now concurrent states, is fusing in some new powerful emotion of being at once sincere and ironic. It is a new interior emotion and the tremendously productive chasm and chaos alive in painting and much art today. I’m thinking, for example, of the blasted-looking abstract paintings of Lucy Dodd; the scorching color and rash repeating orders of Katherine Bernhardt; the erratic organization and Eros of Keltie Ferris; the maybe-too-pretty but hobbled Modernism of Patricia Treib; the all-out discontentedness and retinal attack of Bjarne Melgaard; the insane glutted flat surfaces of Borna Sammak.

While I like a lot of the artists in this show, the exhibition as a whole fails to deliver up the restless interiority, forming intellectual constructions, and exigencies that this split is producing. There are places beyond just using abstraction as a cruise ship or tasting menu. These places can be glimpsed in “The Forever Now.” But the show doesn’t venture far enough into this charged, pathos-filled, maybe magisterial arsenal of internal and historical anxiety, insatiable introspection, and outward amplitude. If art really has broken free of time and history — more of the art in “The Forever Now” would not cling to or look like so many of its known safe lifelines. More of this art would not look like what more and more art looks like. That’s why I love the artists I love in this show, and even more why I love all of the artists I love who are not in this show. I almost don’t know what to call what they’re making now or how to see it — except with my nerves.

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HAMPTONS ART HUB

This weekend allows members of MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) with a first look at “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemportal World.” The show officially opens on December 14, 2014 and continues through April 05, 2015 on the sixth floor of the museum in the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art Gallery. The show presents the work of 17 artists whose work manifests a timeless that alludes qualities that could identify the work as being of a specific or current time period, according to the museum.

The condition of atemporal (or timelessness) was first noted by science fiction writer William Gibson, who used the term to describe a cultural product of our moment that paradoxically doesn’t represent the time from which it comes, according to MoMA. In painting, the concept results in a “historical free-for-all, where contemporaneity as an indicator of new form is nowhere to be found, and all eras co-exist.”

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"Blocked Radiant D (for Ioana)" by Kerstin Brätsch. 2011. Oil on paper, 110 × 72 inches. Tony and Elham Salamé. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Copyright the artist. Photo by Filippo Armellin.

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"Divot" by Matt Connors, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas, 48 × 36 inches. Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photo by Andy Keate.

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This mixing of past styles and genres is a hallmark of our “moment in time” in painting with artists reanimating historical styles or creating contemporary versions, sampling motifs from across 20th-century art and comingling in a single painting or an oeuvre, or paring their visual language to archetypal forms, explained MoMA.

The exhibition presents works by Richard Aldrich, Joe Bradley, Kerstin Brätsch, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Mark Grotjahn, Charline von Heyl, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith, Mary Weatherford, and Michael Williams.

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"Carlotta" by Charline von Heyl, 2013. Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 82 x 76 inches. Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo by  Jason Mandella.

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"6" by Oscar Murillo, 2012-14. Oil, oil stick, dirt, graphite, and thread on linen and canvas, 7' 2 ¼” x 6’ 13/16." Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photo by Matthew Hollow.

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The artists represent a wide variety of styles and impulses but all use the painted surface where genres intermingle, morph, and collide. “The work represents traditional painting, in the sense that each artist engages with painting’s traditions, testing and ultimately reshaping historical strategies like appropriation and bricolage and reframing more metaphysical, high-stakes questions surrounding notions of originality, subjectivity, and spiritual transcendence,” states the museum.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemportal World is organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator, with Margaret Ewing, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA.

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Installation view of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photo by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art.

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SLIDE SHOW|9 Photos

‘Forever Now’

 

‘Forever Now’

CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

 

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” has been a long time coming. The Museum of Modern Art has steadily been acquiring new painting, as a visit to its website will confirm. But for years it has disdained actually saying anything about the state of the medium in exhibition form, and all the while painting has developed actively on numerous fronts.

“The Forever Now,” which opens Sunday and is organized by Laura Hoptman, curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, considers some of those changes, and it does so with a normal combination of successes and shortcomings, including a lack of daring. Its thesis hinges on the word atemporal, inspired by “atemporality,” which was coined by the science fiction writer William Gibson in 2003. The idea is that, especially in the digital era, culture exists in a state of simultaneity, where all of history is equally available for use.

It could be argued that simultaneity is nothing new: It was once the definition of postmodernism; it also describes the ways artists selectively consider past art alive and useful, and can be a cover for simple derivativeness — a condition not entirely absent from the exhibition.

The terrain the show stakes out is diverse and fairly recent, but also very familiar: The 17 artists represented here are all known, mostly market-approved entities familiar to anyone who follows contemporary art even casually. Nearly all the participants possess résumés dotted with solo shows in smaller museums and at blue-chip galleries, here and abroad; 12 of the artists are already represented in MoMA’s collection.

In short, this exhibition looks far too tidy and well behaved, much as you might fear a show of recent painting at the Modern would look: validating the already validated and ready for popular consumption. For the majority of the museum’s visitors who rarely set foot in commercial galleries, the show may hold surprises and even mild frissons of shock.

And this exhibition may also exceed the expectations even of gallery-scene regulars. Against the odds, it is surprisingly engaging. It gives you plenty to look at, which has become something of a rarity with shows of recent art at the Modern. (It’s when you consider what else could be here that the problems begin.)

The show is actually less predictable than the list of names would imply. It helps that there are new works by several artists. Some, like Julie Mehretu, have pushed into new territory (in her case, from drawing closer to painting, of a decidedly Twombly-esque sort).

If you focus intently, you can get an expanded appreciation of some of the artists. The much ballyhooed young painter Oscar Murillo, for example, shows several reasonably promising new paintings, albeit all lent by one of his galleries, which should have been avoided.

Although it occupies galleries that are too small for close to 100 pieces, the show has been smartly installed. The sequence of works and the conversation about current painting that it presents in real space is one of its primary strengths. It is arranged in largely contrapuntal exchanges between extremes: spare and labor-intensive; little or no color and lots of it; improvisation and deliberation; and riffs on Minimalism and reconsiderations of Expressionism, both abstract and figurative. And in plotting this conversation, Ms. Hoptman makes highly effective use of the narrow, dead-end space at her disposal, dividing it crosswise with walls, including four free-standing ones.

Consequently, artists drop in and out of sight, and different ones are prominent, when you retrace your steps, as you must. The work of Josh Smith, possibly the most rough-edged artist here, is (perhaps deliberately) invisible until you reach the show’s final space and turn around. Mr. Smith’s nine canvases insouciantly sum up the show’s no-holds-barred attitude, tripping the light fantastic with works variously monochrome, gestural and figurative, as well as a kitschy sunset and the artist’s signature, writ goofily large.

The contrasts among artists are sometimes so glaring they seem sure to set even a novice’s mind in motion. At the entrance, the large elaborately textured and tinted, latently Symbolist paintings on paper by Kerstin Brätsch — which suggest masses of rustling silks or feathers — flank a wall of works from which they could not be more different: Joe Bradley’s emblems simply outlined in grease pencil on raw canvas, redolent of children’s drawings. But the rich detail of Ms. Brätsch’s works attunes you to the unexpected subtleties of Mr. Bradley’s bare-bones approach. The rudimentary perpendicular forms of his “On the Cross,” for example, are enhanced by repeated diagonal creases in the canvas, intimating the wrapping of a bandage, a shroud or swaddling.

Rashid Johnson’s voluptuous black paintings, whose thick graffitilike marks are scrawled into a mix of wax and black soap with a broom handle, confront the more delicate and colorful improvisations of Michaela Eichwald, which look impressive but more decorous than usual.

After that comes a conversation about carefully but thickly applied paint that is one of the show’s best face-offs. To one side: Mark Grotjahn’s palette knife loops of color, which define a deep space but are also scattered with oblique features, and Nicole Eisenman’s forthright, masklike faces, laid on in thick, textured slabs of color. They recall the early modernist visages of Alexej von Jawlensky, but on a contemporary scale and with references to our political present: a raised (white) fist here, collages of African sculpture elsewhere.

Sometimes the show makes such clear points, you can get the impression that artists or works were chosen to fill slots, to demarcate positions as much as for themselves. You almost imagine Ms. Hoptman going down a punch list.

Interactive? Check: Mr. Murillo has an additional eight unstretched canvases on the floor that visitors can unfold and look at, like rugs at a bazaar.

Minimalism? Check: Matt Connors is represented by an immense three-panel work in sharp, non-primary hues of red, yellow and blue. Purposefully made so tall it can only lean against the wall, it evokes everything from Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” painting to Richard Serra’s steel plates.

Painting as deconstruction? Check: Dianna Molzan’s piquant explorations of canvas, stretcher and paint improve upon the French Surface/Support group of the 1960s.

Abject-art deprivation and the trendy “de-skilling”? Check. Richard Aldrich’s elegantly offhand works, one of which has strips of painted wood and canvas at right angles to the canvas.

His spare works face the excessive but smooth-surfaced paintings of Michael Williams, whose crazed, partly printed tapestries of color, cartoons and airbrushed lines make the digital and the handmade all but indecipherable. Mr. Williams ends the show on a very promising note.

There’s one way that “The Forever Now” is something of a landmark: Nine of its 17 artists are women. A large-group show that is over 50 percent female is beyond rare and sets a standard for other museums (and commercial galleries) to match.

Less cheering is this demographic detail: With one exception, all the older artists are women, all the younger are men. And only three are not white.

And yet it’s not just about numbers. This show also reminds us that a more open art world allows male and female artists alike to have inflated reputations, which I think is the case with Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl and Ms. Mehretu. They’re perfectly good painters, but no better than, say, Joanne Greenbaum, Dona Nelson, Sadie Benning and Katherine Bernhardt, any of whom might have disrupted the conversation here a bit more.

Another possibility would have been the irrepressible Mickalene Thomas. It’s great to think of her extravagant depictions of proud black women in this well-done but too-safe show.

It makes you wonder what’s so scary about surveys of current painting.

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CHRISTIE’S

10 questions about contemporary painting

10 questions about contemporary painting

Florence Waters quizzes Laura Hoptman, the curator of MOMA’s newest exhibition

A new MOMA exhibition, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, takes the pulse of painting right now, and explores how new techniques are colliding with old ideas and vice versa. Art Digest asked the curator, Laura Hoptman, what she’d learned from working with the show’s 17 carefully selected contemporary painters.
1. What is the first painting we see in the show?

Laura Hoptman: ‘The show begins with a display of a group of paintings by Joe Bradley, juxtaposed with two Cosmic Slop paintings by Rashid Johnson, and two mural size paintings by Michaela Eichwald. The first works one actually sees are a group of nine large paintings called Blocked Radiants by Kerstin Bratsch that serve as a kind of explosively beautiful introduction to the show and are located in the entrance area.’

2. Which painter from art history feels most present in the show?

‘I can’t say one, but certainly artists from the Modern period: from Kazimir Malevich and Picasso during his Cubist period, through the era of the 1960s hard edge abstraction.’

3. Can you sum up the thesis of the show in 10 words?

‘An exhibition of work that reminds us of many eras past, and because of that, offers a very contemporary take on the culture of the ‘aughties.’

Julie Mehretu. Heavier than air (written form), 2014

Left: Nicole Eisenman, Guy Capitalist. 2011.
Right: Oscar Murillo, 6, 2012-14.

4. That’s 26 words but we’ll let that slide. Is expressionism dead?

‘Of course not!’

5. Ok, so is painting having a moment?

‘Artists are always painting, and the public is always looking at what people paint. Painting might be having a moment in the art market, but I wouldn’t say that there are any more (or fewer) artists making wonderful, life changing paintings now, than say, 10 or 15 years ago.’

6. Are painters currently looking inward or outward?

‘That’s the beauty of an atemporal cultural universe. You’ve got it all: inward, outward, Warhol, Pollock, Picasso, Polke, all at the same time.’

Michaela Eichwald, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, 2012.

Left: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013.
Right: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012.

7. Does painting now always require paint? We’re thinking of Hockney’s iPad pictures in particular.

‘Of course not, though in this show, everyone touches the canvas at least a little bit.’

8. From your discussions with the painters, could you write a new dictionary of painting — the ‘i-brush’, for example?

‘Using technological means to ‘paint’ goes back almost 30 years to Paintbox technology that was developed in the 1970s. Some artists use airbrush on their paintings, and this is a similarly old technology, one brought to great heights by automobile, motorcycle, and surfboard makers.’

9. Are these ‘future directions’ directions of aesthetic beauty?

‘I think so. Others are free to disagree.’

Mary Weatherford, La Noche, 2014.

10. Finally, did any thematic contradictions arise?

‘Sure; some artist re-enactors are also re-animators. Some who use so-called ‘primitive’ imagery are also deploying it in very complex ways that are in no way like cave painting. These are just two examples. There are plenty more. The show is meant to be porous and inquisitive. It is an argument but not like one that is presented in a court of law.’

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is at MOMA, New York from 14 December to 5 April, 2015

Main image: Installation view of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photograph by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art

Julie Mehretu. Heavier than air (written form), 2014. Ink and acrylic on canvas. 48 x 72 ins. (121.9 x 182.9 cm). Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and carlier | gebauer, Berlin. Copyright Julie Mehretu. Photograph by Tom Powel

Left: Nicole Eisenman, Guy Capitalist. 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas. 76 x 60 ins. (193 x 152.4 cm). Collection Noel Kirnon and Michael Paley. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer
Right: Oscar Murillo, 6, 2012-14. Oil, oil stick, dirt, graphite, and thread on linen and canvas. 86 1/4 x 72 13/16 ins. (219 x 185 cm). Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photo: Matthew Hollow

Michaela Eichwald, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, 2012. Synthetic polymer paint, oil, crayon, and lacquer on cotton. 109 15/16 × 51 3/16 ins. (330 × 130 cm). Private collection, Rome. Courtesy dépendance, Brussels. Photograph by Gunter Lepkowski

Left: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013. Flashe paint, synthetic polymer paint, and oil stick on canvas. 115 3/8 x 119 7/8 ins. (349.3 x 304.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Enid A. Haupt Fund. Photograph by Jonathan Muzikar
Right: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36 ins. (121.9 × 91.4 cm). Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photograph by Andy Keate

Mary Weatherford, La Noche, 2014. Flashe paint with neon lights and transformer on linen. 117 3/8 × 104 1/4 × 5 7/8 ins. (298.1 × 264.8 × 14.9 cm). Collection Mandy and Cliff Einstein, Los Angeles. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen

Autonomie Projects (Los Angeles) press release for “A Book as a Work of Art for All” opening 4.17.2015

Altered book works DM-sinner Jodi Harvey-I'll Dress You in Morning 3 hagop-outsider Johnson_Buena HISTORY'S DISCONTENT-TRUTHS REVEALED- 72dpi Karen Chu_TTT2-1 Karen Kinney, "Plaid," 2010, mixed media on book cover, 6" x 9" From The Book Of Dreams Series: Betty & The Keys Steven_Jones_Stack_of_Books_2013_Oil_16_x12_ S Briand-photo-livreouvert-3-1

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact:
March 14, 2015

Vincent Johnson: 818-430-1604
Chelle Barbour: 424-274-1512
Autonomie Projects, Los Angeles, CA
autonomiela@gmail.com

autonomieprojects.com

A Book as a Work of Art for All
A group show of books turned into art
LOS ANGELES, CA — Autonomie Projects, which is located in the Mid-City area of the burgeoning new gallery corridor, along West Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles is pleased to present its spring 2015 exhibition, A Book as a Work of Art for All. Each artist in the exhibition explores their remarkable capacity to transform a book, which in itself is a found object and a contemplative objet trouvé that is altered and transformed into an extraordinary conceptual art piece. The works are beautifully well-crafted and may appear to perform as fantasies coming to life and seeming to be conjured from the book’s inner pages.
The exhibition includes distinguished artists from around the globe whose works have been exhibited in prominent museum and gallery exhibitions worldwide.
The historic significance of books as an art form can be traced back to the early 1970s Book Arts movement and further, to ancient Greece where scribes created an innovative reusable surface on the manuscript made from animal hide, which facilitated the production of new texts (sometimes the previous text would surface, creating a palimpsest). In the Victorian era, people pasted ephemera such as magazine images, family photographs and other personal treasures they wished to preserve. The exhibition A Book as a Work of Art for All, offers Los Angeles a rare opportunity to see the cultural production of leading artists working in the book arts genus of contemporary art, and emerging artists venturing into new territory in this expressive and invigorating art form.
Reception: Friday, April 17, 2015 Exhibition runs April 17, 2015 through May 16, 2015.
Beverage Sponsor: Jai-Ho Beer, Houston, TX

Participating Artists:
Banoo Batilboi (Mumbai)

Chelle Barbour (Los Angeles)

Vincent Johnson (Los Angeles)

Adrienne DeVine (Los Angeles)

J Michael Walker (Los Angeles)

Buena Johnson (Los Angeles)

Derrick Maddox (Los Angeles)

Glen Wilson (Los Angeles)

Servane Briand (San Francisco)

Karen Kinney (Los Angeles)

Jody Harvey-Brown (New York)

Dawn Rosenquist (Los Angeles)

Karen Chu (Los Angeles)

Jacqueline Rush-Lee (Hawaii)

 

Nicolas Jones (Australia)

Hagop Belian (Los Angeles)

Steven Jones (Illinois)

Heisue Chung (Los Angeles)

Colin Roberts (Los Angeles)

A. Mimura (Portugal/UK)

Madison Webb (Los Angeles)

Autonomie Projects Los Angeles’ Upcoming Exhibition is Inspired by Great Art Made from Books opens April 17, 2015

Emerging artist gallery Autonomie Projects in Los Angeles is inviting artists from all corners of the globe to participate in their exciting upcoming exhibition The Book As A Work of Art for All

The exhibition will include an online component as well as an electronic catalog. Visit http://www.autonomieprojects.com for complete submission and exhibition details.

The exhibition is curated by Autonomie Projects director Chelle Barbour and The Book As A Work of Art for All exhibition project co-curator Vincent Johnson.

Exhibition dates are April 17, 2015 – May 16, 2015

Thanks for your interest in this upcoming important Los Angeles exhibition.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer, author of Fireplace Chats art blog

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me at vincentjohnsonart@gmail.com

 

 "Alexander Korzer-Robinson’s amazing antique book art." http://livingdesign.info/tag/antique-books/

“Alexander Korzer-Robinson’s amazing antique book art.”
http://livingdesign.info/tag/antique-books/

Guy-Laramie-Bookscapes4

Guy-Laramie-Bookscapes4

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Book art by Brian Detmer

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“Artist Brian Dettmer created this book sculpture from an altered set of encyclopedias.” http://www.popsugar.com/home/photo-gallery/6066753/image/6066758/Artist-Brian-Dettmer-created-book-sculpture-from-altered-set

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“Kyle Kirkpatrick is a British artist who is creating topographical landscapes out of old texts.” http://ukylawlibrary.blogspot.com/2012/02/books-as-sculpture.html

Book art by Robert The

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Book art by Nicholas Galanin.

 

 About the co-curator and artist Vincent Galen Johnson:
Inline image 1

Vincent Johnson is a Los Angeles’ based artist and writer, and co-curator of Autonomie Projects.

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. His work in both photography, painting and sculpture engages unnoticed or forgotten histories. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. His work has been reviewed in Artforum, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Art in America. He has shown at Soho House (curated by ForYourArt) and at Palihouse (curated by L.A.N.D.) both West Hollywood, and most recently at Another Year in LA gallery, West Hollywood. Johnson’s work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011); the PS1 Museum, New York; the SK Stiftung, Cologne; the Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART; Las Cienegas Projects, Los Angeles; Boston University Art Museum; Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona; Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen; both Lemonsky Projects and Locust Projects, Miami; Banff Center, Canada and Plug ICA, Winnipeg. Johnson’s work has been published in a dozen exhibition catalogs. His work was most recently exhibited in the inaugural Open Project exhibition at the Palace of the Inquisition, Evora, Portugal.

In early 2015 Johnson will show work at the Incognito benefit exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

LA Artworld Now 2015 and Its Beginning – articles collection

 

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Eli Broad’s Love Affair with Art


Anselm Kiefer’s Deutschlands Geisteshelden (Germany’s Spiritual Heroes), 1973, another of the Broads’ works by the artist, is painted on burlap mounted on canvas

Eli Broad with a piece from his collection—Maginot, 1977–93, by Anselm Kiefer, an acrylic and emulsion woodcut mounted on canvas.
The Broads’ collection also includes Anselm Kiefer’s Laßt 1000 Blumen Blühen (Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom), 1998, which uses mixed media on canvas

Much like the collection of paintings he has so carefully amassed, Eli Broad’s passion for contemporary art and the city of Los Angeles has certainly not lost its luster. Talking with the larger-than-life, self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist is like being at a one-man TED conference titled, “The history of art since the 1970s, and why LA is the best.” The collector has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern and contemporary art history and is a fascinating storyteller, recounting not only the inside dish on which artist almost went bankrupt (revealed only off the record) but also how Downtown’s Grand Avenue continues to transform the cultural landscape of the entire West Coast.

Although Broad could be seen as just another wealthy trophy hunter, spend a little time with him and it’s immediately clear his obsession is much more about culture than commerce. He has famously rescued local institutions LACMA and MOCA from the brink of financial ruin and is currently in the midst of building his own museum, The Broad (on—you guessed it—Grand Avenue). As the fall art season of annual events heats up, we sat down and talked to Broad about losing his innocence with MOCA, why Los Angeles is currently white-hot, and the excitement surrounding the highly anticipated 10th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) next month.

You and your wife, Edythe, made your first major art acquisition of an 1888 van Gogh at Sotheby’s in 1972. Was this the catalyst for everything that was to come?
There was no catalyst—it was sort of a progression. If one looks at art and looks at various periods, you move from one period to the next for various reasons. [After the van Gogh], we also bought a 1933 Miró—a very large Miró that had belonged to Nelson Rockefeller—that we still have. So it was a great progression. In 1979 my innocence ended as a collector. Why? Because I became the founding chairman of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA).

Why do you say your innocence ended then?
[Former New York Governor] Nelson Rockefeller once said, “I learned my politics at the Museum of Modern Art.” When you’re dealing with a diverse group of trustees from all kinds of backgrounds— some are very nice ladies who have never been engaged in an organization and never attended the meeting of a board—you try to keep everyone happy, and I find it to be quite a chore.

You, Maria Bell, and Jeffrey Deitch have done unbelievable things at MOCA. It’s the darling of the art world right now.
If you go back and look, MOCA had lost its way. We weren’t showing a permanent collection and so on. So three years ago, the attendance got down to 148,616. This year it will exceed 400,000—triple what it was. We’ve had balanced budgets in 2009 and 2010, with no debt. We’ve added about 25 new and returning trustees since December 2003 and raised some money. David Galligan was at the Walker Art Center for 17 years, and he is now here as executive vice president and COO, allowing Jeffrey to do all the things he’s good at, which is being an impresario for visiting artists and collectors, doing what he does down at Art Basel Miami Beach, and all that stuff.

Can you expand more on the progression of your personal collecting?
After several years—this is going back now 27 years—our walls were filled at home. And we became art addicts and wanted to keep collecting. So I said, “You know what? We are going to create a foundation. And it’s going to be a lending library for museums and universities throughout the world.” And as you may know, we’ve made more than 8,000 loans to nearly 500 institutes worldwide.

And you’re building the new museum now to house your collection, correct?
Yes. For years we said we’d rather find a place where we can have most of the storage and archives together in climate-controlled conditions. The building is 120,000 square feet with 50,000 square feet of galleries, which is more than the Whitney. And we had an architectural competition for it.

So why were Diller Scofidio + Renfro chosen to design the museum? I mean, why not, say, Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA or Sir Norman Foster?
What was the challenge? We’re right next to Walt Disney Concert Hall. How do you do something that doesn’t clash but isn’t anonymous? [Diller Scofidio + Renfro] came up with a fascinating idea, this veil type of building. It’s an interesting answer—a complex answer.

Is starting your own museum rather than giving the collection to another art institution about having as many people see the collection as possible?
Absolutely. In fact, I talked to Glenn [Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art] and I said, “Glenn, if I gave you our collection what would you do?” He said, “Don’t give it to me. I’d only show 20 or 30 things—the rest we’d put in storage.” The same thing would be true at any other major museum. I’ve been involved in Downtown for a long time—MOCA since 1979, then Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. I got involved after many people thought it was dead and would never happen.

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The Broads’ collection also includes Nürnberg (Nuremberg), 1982, in which Anselm Kiefer introduces straw to add visual complexity to his piece

Eli Broad in front of another of Anselm Kiefer’s works, Alarichs Grab (Alaric’s Grave), 1969–89
The Broads’ collection of Anselm Kiefer pieces includes Das Balder-Lied (The Balder Song), 1977–88, a photograph superimposed with mistletoe and mounted on treated lead

You are referring to the Grand Avenue Project?
Grand Avenue, yes. I created the Grand Avenue Committee together with people from the city and the county and others saying, “We need to have a master plan for all of this or else they’ll screw it up, piece by piece.” I finally got the city and county, who do not like one another, to form a joint-powers authority.

You wanted your museum to be Downtown because of critical mass?
I believe every city in world history or today needs a vibrant center for the same reason people from the other boroughs come to Manhattan from Connecticut or Westchester or New Jersey or wherever. It’s because there is only one place where you have sports, entertainment, culture, etc. And by the way, Los Angeles has the performing arts—no one has a better symphony or symphony hall than we do. We have more theatrical productions than New York or London. So Grand Avenue is the place. And on Grand Avenue within three blocks, there are going to be works by [architects] Wolf Prix, Frank Gehry, Arata Isozaki, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and a couple blocks away, Thom Mayne. I can think of no city in the world with that.

It is amazing. And what is the date for the opening of your space?
[It should open in] 2013.

You say you only attend three art fairs—Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, and Frieze Art Fair. For someone as passionate about art as you, why do you attend only those three fairs? Every city in every country seems to have some kind of art show now—what does ABMB specifically have that attracts you?
The difference is quality. There are so many fairs nowadays that you could travel for an entire year just going from fair to fair, but they’re not all created equal. It’s important to focus. The Art Basel fairs and Frieze Art Fair have strong material and sophisticated participants.

And you started going to ABMB from the beginning, 10 years ago?
From the beginning.

What is it that you love about ABMB? How do you think it has differentiated itself from all the other fairs?
There is a lot going on. It’s a party town, and I love going to see Martin Margulies (The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse) and other collectors when I’m there, and everyone has dinners, and so on. It’s a way to get reacquainted and have fun. It’s a big social event.

Do you attend the parties?
We go to some of the parties. The beach concerts held at The Raleigh are the most consistently impressive. This year MOCA LA will present a performance at The Raleigh by 2manydjs and their band, Soulwax. Jeffrey Deitch is a great impresario, and he can always be counted on to put on a spectacular event.

Is The Margulies Collection your favorite of the private collections?
Yes, the Rubell Family Collection also. They’re the two—oh, and also Norman Braman’s collection.

Have you ever purchased a piece at the show by an emerging artist you weren’t previously acquainted with?
Not that we weren’t totally acquainted with. We bought a Roxy Paine from James Cohan’s gallery. We just loved the work.

Do you have a favorite program, like the artist conversation series? Or do you go to the satellite fairs?
Some, if we have enough time. I haven’t spoken at the artist conversation series in a few years. I was on a panel with David Rockefeller a number of years ago selling Los Angeles as the new contemporary art capital.

I think you were the perfect person to do it!
That was fun.

Read more at http://la-confidential-magazine.com/personalities/articles/eli-broad-las-most-famous-art-collector?page=2#Xfkwyuf8J6ZW9KIM.99

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LA TIMES
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Paul Schimmel and Hauser & Wirth pick downtown spot for arts complex
This early 19th century old flour mill building on east Third Street will be renovated to become the new Hauser, Wirth and Schimmel Arts Center in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
By Deborah Vankin contact the reporter

Paul Schimmel, formerly of MOCA, joins with Hauser & Wirth to plan an arts complex for DTLA
Art, events, food, coffee; an immersive experience. That’s what’s planned at a seven-building compound in DTLA

Former Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel and international gallery powerhouse Hauser & Wirth will officially announce on Friday the location for their ambitious, multidisciplinary arts center: a former flour mill complex in the downtown Los Angeles arts district.

The 100,000-square-foot, seven-building compound at 901 E. 3rd St. — which includes a Neoclassical bank building, a five-story mill structure and a 20,000-square-foot interior courtyard — will open as Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in January with a two-month pop-up group show before closing for renovations. It’s scheduled to reopen permanently in early 2016, offering “a new paradigm for the 21st century art gallery,” organizers said in a statement.

Hauser & Wirth, which shows contemporary and modern art and has exhibition spaces in London, Zurich and New York, has long been planning a Los Angeles outpost. Last spring it signed Schimmel as a partner and set about scouting for a location.

The arts center will be a for-profit business with intimate rooms as well as wide-open warehouse spaces for what organizers said will be “museum-caliber” exhibitions, at which art will not be for sale, as well as commercial art shows, project spaces for art-making and public events. A restaurant and bar will be on site.

The center foresees three to five exhibitions on view at any one time, turning over multiple times a year, by artists from around the world and not necessarily affiliated with Hauser & Wirth — though the gallery will also show its own artists, including a heavy L.A. contingency.

“More of our artists live in L.A. than in any other city. They’re a diverse, multigenerational group whose work informs our international program and shapes contemporary dialogue,” said the gallery’s president and owner, Iwan Wirth. “It seems particularly fitting to launch our third decade by creating Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and pioneering a new gallery model in the city known around the world as a place for imagination, reinvention and new forms of cultural expression.”

Schimmel, who will run the L.A. arts complex, spoke about his vision and programming plans for the space, which he calls “a magical place that time has not touched.”

Why did you choose this particular neighborhood for Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, and did you look elsewhere?

The neighborhood, I have to say, was the center of where we were looking. It’s remarkable the changes that’ve been going on there, a real groundswell of people moving into these live-work spaces and the creation of this sort of Lower Manhattan. It’s transformed, almost overnight, into this serious urban center. It’s also a couple of blocks from the Gold Line. But we looked all over, on both sides of the river, in West Hollywood, the Wilshire Corridor.

First on my mind was to find a unique space where we could show different kinds of work, simultaneously. Here there are seven different buildings, built over a period of 40 years and built around a courtyard. That meant a great deal to me. Artists love the idea of sitting outside and having coffee and looking at something. It was really the unique assembly of buildings — and there were simply more of them in this area.

You envision the arts center as a sort of exhibition-gallery-event space hybrid with free admission. What would you compare it to, physically and programming-wise, in Los Angeles right now?

I’d compare it to the Geffen, in terms of scale and that it’s downtown. It’s a little like Mass MOCA [in Boston], one of the children of MOCA, in that it’s in an industrial area in different buildings. It’s of that lineage.

Hauser & Wirth is a major international gallery with a very strong representation of L.A. artists, so that’s one kind of programming. The commitment is to do both historical exhibitions, like you’d see in museums, that really explore things thematically, generationally, conceptually. It will also be a space that will invite artists with whom Hauser & Wirth has no affiliation, or maybe have never even shown in L.A., to come and make projects, so it’s a project space too. It’s a facility that’s really a destination — a strong educational component, with exhibitions, events, a restaurant and bar, and places for people to linger and experience art in a more casual manner.

Will it be anything like Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the arts complex set to open in southwest England next month?

There are similarities. But Hauser & Wirth Somerset is very bucolic, two hours from London. It is the romantic 19th century version of this, which is, in some ways, coming out of the early 20th century industrialization.

Tell us about the debut show planned for January, prior to renovations. Will it include Hauser & Wirth artists such as Mark Bradford, Paul McCarthy and Sterling Ruby?

It’s a group show, artists who have emerged in the last 15 years. There may be some lesser-known names and quite a few well-known names. There will be five or six artists, and each will have their own building. So five or six gallery-sized, one-person exhibitions, with people from the gallery and people who have never shown with Hauser & Wirth previously. But all with a connection to L.A. I wanted to start with work made by artists working here and now. I wanted it to be relative to the 21st century, rather than, say, the 1980s.

I remember when PS1 opened years ago in New York. It was quite special that they invited artists to come in and make works that would go on display in a building that was untouched, a raw space. [In January] we will have made none of the improvements to the space yet. It will have 100 years of history in it. We’ll put up lights and it’ll have security and the art will be safe from the elements, but other than that, it will be untouched, the way it looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What’s the commitment, financially?

It’s a very substantial commitment in terms of the capital improvements to the facility. And it’s a very serious, long-term commitment overall. We have a 10-year lease with two five-year options after that. So it’s something that will evolve, organically, over many years.

You’ve described the courtyard as one of the largest in downtown L.A. What do you plan to use it for — and will you commission new art for the space?

It will start with Day One. There will be sculptural works there, some amazingly large-scale works. The first one is new; I’d describe it as a small temple, but I can’t say who it’s by. I suspect you’ll see a beautiful, Louise Bourgeois spider there and possibly a Paul McCarthy monumental bronze work.

I think the courtyard will be both part of our exhibition program and sometimes it will stand alone. It’s surrounded on all four sides by buildings and it’s quite large, like a courtyard in a monastery, so it has a kind of wonderful, isolated meditative quality. Who knows — maybe one day we’ll have a sound piece with nothing to look at, just art to listen to.

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ART REVIEW LONDON

LA’s Art Wave

Upgraded spaces, secondary spaces and new galleries, Jonathan Griffin reports on Los Angeles’s growing contemporary art scene

By Jonathan Griffin

Things move fast in Los Angeles. Enterprises bloom, seemingly overnight, and then wither without warning. Careers too. The city is in a perpetual state of emergence and disintegration; a young settlement that is already older than people imagined it would ever be when they perched their stilted wooden homes on dusty hillsides in the early decades of the twentieth century. Someone recently told me that the hundreds of towering Washingtonia palm trees that were planted to prettify the city for the 1932 Olympics are now at the end of their natural lifespans, and will start keeling over any minute. A compelling image; also totally untrue, it turns out. LA was built on imaginative fictions, and they continue to be the city’s major export.Los Angeles’s art community is eyeing the eastern horizon with a mixture of anticipation and scepticism. We are witnessing an influx of commercial galleries and midcareer artists, many arriving from New York. Two significant new institutional hires – Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, and Philippe Vergne, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art – relocated from the East Coast. (Butler has ties to the city, having served as curator at MOCA from 1996 to 2006.) The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.

The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.

Plenty is happening from within, too. Three of LA’s prominent galleries – David Kordansky GalleryMichael Kohn and Various Small Fires – have chosen 2014 as the year to upgrade to bigger – and/or better-placed – buildings, adding to the gallery district that has emerged in Mid-City around Highland and La Brea Avenues. Across Grand Avenue from MOCA, in Downtown, the distinctive latticed ‘veil’ designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro for philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad’s museum is now mostly in place; the porous structure will provide a foil to its brash and shiny neighbour, the Frank Gehry-designed 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall, when the Broad opens in 2015. Fans of the city’s irreverent new art fair, Paramount Ranch, organised by newbie gallerists Alex Freedman and Robbie Fitzpatrick with artists Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen, are waiting to see whether it will become a regular fixture in the art calendar.

To equate Los Angeles’s short-term, mercurial dynamic with the abundance of chutzpah among its creative and entrepreneurial classes would be to see only half the picture. Rarely has a city developed with such scant regard for its own future. The institutions that flourish here – and I include certain successful commercial galleries alongside art schools and major museums such as LACMA and the Hammer – do so because of their farsighted commitment to the ongoing cultural life of their community. It was not always thus. LACMA’s atrocious Art of the Americas building was completed in 1986 in a half-baked attempt to augment its existing galleries; it is already in a state of dilapidation. The museum recently unveiled a proposal by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to bulldoze most of its campus and replace it with an elevated black building whose liquiform footprint rhymes with the site’s prehistoric tar pits.

Drivers are still confused by signs around Downtown pointing to the Temporary Contemporary – the huge warehouse space adopted by MOCA in 1983 and renamed the Geffen Contemporary in 1996, after it proved too popular among artists and visitors to relinquish. Hopes are high – though cautious – that Vergne will shore up the museum’s financial and scholarly foundations after they eroded under previous directors Jeremy Strick and Jeffrey Deitch. Both discovered, to their grave cost, that LA’s philanthropic class is not easy to mobilise in the service of high culture. At the lowest point of Deitch’s leadership, commentators looked on in anguish as even the museum’s own board hesitated to part with the necessary funds to save the institution. Following desperate discussions about the possibility of subsuming MOCA within another, more solvent institution, the endowment soared, passing $100 million in January this year.

Noncollecting, kunsthalle-style nonprofits have traditionally been LA’s weakness. In January of this year, attempting to redress this deficit, curator Cesar Garcia opened the Mistake Room, an exhibition space in a warehouse south of Downtown that pledges to focus on underexposed artists working outside the United States. Hearts sank when Oscar Murillo was announced as the first artist to get a show. Such slavish adherence to current market trends has been the failure of other nonprofits, such as LAXART (where Garcia used to work). The Santa Monica Museum of Art, the region’s foremost kunsthalle, will move into a new and expanded building when a light-rail station, connecting the east and west sides of the city, opens at the redeveloping Bergamot Station Arts Center in 2016.

Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city

Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city, many of them secondary spaces for galleries established elsewhere. Sprüth Magers, of Berlin and London, will open an LA gallery helmed by Sarah Watson – formerly director of the defunct L&M gallery that opened in Venice, California, in 2010 – towards the end of this year. Alongside local hero John Baldessari, who is unrepresented in his hometown, the gallery already boasts a range of West Coast artists, including Thomas Demand, who recently relocated here from Berlin. This spring, Martos Gallery will complement their current New York programme by opening a gallery on LA’s Washington Boulevard, next to Michael Thibault Gallery – where Jose Martos’s project Shoot the Lobster presented monochromes by the fictional artist Henry Codax in January.

Gavlak Gallery, which has operated from Palm Beach, Florida, since 2005, will move in June to a building on Highland Avenue, directly between Regen Projects, Redling Fine Art and Hannah Hoffman Gallery. Founder Sarah Gavlak will return to her Palm Beach space during the busy Florida winters, but will benefit, for the rest of the year, from being nearer to the numerous Angeleno artists on her roster, Lisa Anne Auerbach and Mungo Thomson among them.

Construction is already under way on Michele Maccarone’s LA outpost, a large warehouse next to 356 S. Mission Rd, the gallery opened by Gavin Brown specially for Laura Owens’s blockbuster solo show in January 2013, now operated jointly by Brown and Owens. (Maccarone’s choice of location echoes her decision, in 2007, to move next door to Brown in the West Village.) She is following two of her artists, Oscar Tuazon and Alex Hubbard, who recently moved to California, and aims to open in spring 2015. Team, also from New York, plans to open an LA space in September 2015 with shows by Cory Arcangel, Ryan McGinley and Gert & Uwe Tobias.

The really big news, of course, is that the widely respected Paul Schimmel – chief curator at MOCA until he was unceremoniously ousted by Deitch and Broad in 2012 – will himself be partnering with Zürich-based gallery Hauser & Wirth in 2015. Although details have yet to be announced, Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel is expected to set up shop in the district of Downtown close to the Box, the gallery owned by Paul McCarthy and run by his daughter, Mara. McCarthy is thought to be a major reason for Hauser & Wirth’s expansion westwards, alongside other locally unrepresented gallery artists Thomas Houseago, Rachel Khedoori and Sterling Ruby (the last of whom also happens to be affiliated with Sprüth Magers).

Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise

Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise. One could even cast as far back as 1948, when artist William Copley and his brother-in-law opened a gallery in Beverly Hills showing surrealist art by Man Ray, Max Ernst and René Magritte. Due to the indifference of the local customer base, it closed the following year, as did the nearby Modern Institute of Art – an underresourced, proto-MOCA that lasted only two years and makes the latter-day museum look like a financial triumph. During the late 1980s, Luhring Augustine had a short-lived foothold in Los Angeles, in partnership with Max Hetzler. Between 2005 and 2007, New York dealer Zach Feuer ran an LA outpost, partnered with local gallerist Niels Kantor. Last summer, L&M closed its Venice space after just three years in the city. Most recently Perry Rubenstein, who moved his entire New York gallery to a large, handsomely renovated space on Highland Avenue in 2011, filed for bankruptcy in March this year. These enterprises all failed for subtly different reasons, but the moral remains: LA’s promise of boundless opportunity may simply be another one of those fictions that it is so successful at exporting.

None of the gallerists I spoke to claimed to be moving for commercial reasons; although there are serious collectors in California, there are not enough to support even a fraction of the businesses located here. Galleries sell their wares far and wide in order to maintain bricks-and-mortar programmes under the SoCal sunshine. Meanwhile, their clients also travel far and wide in order to build international-quality collections. There is nothing chic about provincialism.

Rather, galleries want to be close to their artists. Inexpensive real estate, skilled fabricators and a low-key (though intellectually serious) social scene provide near-perfect conditions for artistic production. Not to mention the magnificent landscape and great food. Those artists who move here – whether to study or teach, to step into the limelight or out of it – rarely seem to leave. Made in LA 2014, the second of the Hammer’s biennial exhibitions, this time curated by Michael Ned Holte and Connie Butler, will open in June. It promises to reveal what Dave Hickey, reflecting on the California Minimalism of the 1960s and 70s, describes as ‘a flowing stream of interests, passions, proclivities, and occasions – a fluid micro-chronicle of the artist-as-citizen, coping with paradise [… with] a sequence of tactile, visual solutions to specific visible occasions that take place at the blurred interface of the artist and the world.’ That flowing stream, today, seems more like a river delta.

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue. 

==

WALL STREET JOURNAL

Arts & Entertainment

The L.A. Art Boom

How pomegranate-juice magnates, billionaire museum builders and celebrity-packed boards are turning the city into a world-class art center

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  • Updated Oct. 29, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET
    On a crisp evening on Wilshire Boulevard, pop star Christina Aguilera is leading the parade down the red carpet. Tom Hanks and his wife follow, along with actor James Franco, reality TV fixtures Nicole Richie and Kim Kardashian, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger and Hollywood power broker David Geffen.They aren’t here for a film premiere. The crowd is celebrating the opening of a new building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, named after the Fiji Water and POM Wonderful billionaires who donated $45 million to Lacma in 2008.

    The L.A. Art Boom

    The $54 million structure, designed by Renzo Piano, the go-to architect for major museum commissions, is the latest symbol of Los Angeles’s art boom.

    It’s an art world with its own unique structure and rules. Billionaires don’t just donate to museums, they build their own. Hollywood agents, media personalities and studio executives pack museum boards, alongside traditional philanthropists. And contemporary art—a market that’s fluctuated wildly in recent years—is the only art that really matters to many top collectors and museums.

    New art buildings are springing up around the city. Lacma has added about 100,000 square feet of gallery space since 2007 and increased attendance by 50% to 905,000. Nearly 7 miles away is the site of a new museum that art collector Eli Broad is creating to display pieces from his collection of 2,000 artworks. Art dealer Larry Gagosian has doubled the size of his Beverly Hills art gallery and recently bought a midcentury-modern glass house once owned by Gary Cooper for $15.5 million in nearby Holmby Hills, where he will host an art party to coincide with next year’s Academy Awards.

    The Los Angeles Power List

    “L.A. is more than catching up to New York—in some ways, it’s moving past it,” says Agnes Gund, a prominent New York-based art collector who used to run the board of trustees at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and served on the board of Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Trust for 12 years until 2006.

    In June, Jeffrey Deitch, one of New York’s most powerful gallery owners, relocated to Los Angeles to become the director of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a rare move from the private art-dealing sphere to the museum world. The owners of the Armory Show, New York’s largest art fair, are putting together a major art fair to debut in downtown L.A. next fall.

    “The art world is a very fluid place, but there is no question that L.A. is very hot at the moment,” says Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

    To be sure, L.A.’s transformation into a world-class contemporary art city is an overnight sensation several decades in the making. It has long been bolstered by rich cultural institutions like the museums of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and by its leading art schools. The city still doesn’t possess the extensive collections of older art found in New York, Paris and London, but it does boast a cadre of notable contemporary artists and powerful collectors.

    One of the most active figures in the art scene is Mr. Broad, the 77-year-old billionaire who revived MOCA in 2008 with a $30 million infusion after it teetered on the edge of a financial crisis. In August, Mr. Broad announced that he would build a museum in downtown Los Angeles to display works from his art collection, which includes a 22-foot-tall Richard Serra torqued ellipse and a nearly 12-foot-high Jeff Koons balloon sculpture. Designed by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the museum, called the Broad Collection, will boast 36,000 square feet of gallery space—more than the entire Whitney Museum in New York. A spokeswoman for Mr. Broad said that the new museum will help make his works accessible to the largest possible audience.

    Building a museum of one’s own is also in keeping with local tradition. In the past few decades, private collectors like industrialist Norton Simon and petroleum magnate Armand Hammer have opened some of the area’s most prominent museums—long after families like Whitney, Frick and Morgan launched a golden museum era in New York.

    The directors of L.A.’s museums have been moving aggressively to tap into the wealth of collectors in the entertainment and tech industries. These days their boards look quite different from those of their New York counterparts, which are largely composed of traditional philanthropists and established financiers.

    Since Michael Govan moved from New York’s Dia Art Foundation in 2006 to take over Lacma, he has added 30 trustees to the now-49-voting-member board, transforming its makeup with new additions like Dasha Zhukova, the girlfriend of Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich; fashion designer and restaurateur Eva Chow, and David Bohnett, the Internet entrepreneur who created GeoCities.com. He has also added Willow Bay, the newscaster wife of Mr. Iger, and Terry Semel, former head of Warner Bros. and Yahoo.

    Maria Bell, the head writer of the daytime soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” became co-chair of MOCA’s board of trustees last summer and immediately began working with Mr. Broad to recruit new members. MOCA has added 19 new trustees since December 2008, including London diamond dealer and art collector Laurence Graff and newsprint mogul Peter Brant, who lives in Greenwich, Conn. Last year, MOCA raised more than $4 million from a gala where Lady Gaga performed. Next month, it will host another gala, curated—down to the food—by video artist Doug Aitken with contributions from musicians Beck, Caetano Veloso and Devendra Banhart.

    Eli Broad at home in L.A. (Johns) “Flag,” 1967 copyright Jasper Johns/VAGA, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection

    Ann Philbin, who moved to the city a little over a decade ago to run UCLA’s Hammer Museum, took in just over $100,000 at the museum’s 2002 fund-raiser. Now, the event raises more than $1 million each year. Her board of overseers numbers five executives from major talent agencies, including Bob Gersh of the Gersh Agency and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment’s George Freeman, who represents Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe.

    In the auction world, Christie’s says consignments from the Los Angeles region have tripled in the past year. Next month, Christie’s plans to auction three major L.A. estates, including those of actor Dennis Hopper and art dealer Robert Shapazian, a collector of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol who helped Mr. Gagosian build the L.A. outpost of his gallery. This past spring, the auction house sold the estate of “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton for $93.3 million, including a flag painting by Jasper Johns that sold for more than $28 million. Some in L.A.’s art world have complained that collectors here are more likely to have their estates auctioned off than to bequeath them to museums.

    Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, says he used to travel L.A. three or four times a year to pay visits to clients. In the past year, he flew here twice as often. “After Manhattan, L.A. is my top priority,” Mr. Porter says.

    Lacma’s Resnick Pavilion Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal

    Still, Los Angeles has yet to develop its own auction scene. After opening a salesroom in Beverly Hills in 1997, Christie’s closed the outpost two years ago, finding that its auctions there weren’t generating significant revenue. Now, it focuses on consigning works from L.A. collectors to sell at its other salesrooms.

    “Rather than putting together a $5 million sale twice a year, it made more business sense to nurture collectors and go after $50 million worth of art to sell elsewhere in the world,” says Andrea Fiuczynski, president of Christie’s, Los Angeles.

    Los Angeles collectors overwhelmingly focus on contemporary art, and the city’s art scene owes much of its rapid ascent to the upswing of prices for the genre, which soared during the art market’s boom years. In 2000, Sotheby’s sold $157.8 million worth of contemporary art world-wide. That figure rose to $1.48 billion by 2008 before falling to $442.8 million in 2009, after the art market crashed. Prices are now stabilizing, although industry experts say that they likely won’t return to astronomical precrash levels.

    The volatility of the contemporary art market—as well as the overall economy—shook up some institutions in L.A., in particular MOCA. MOCA’s 2008 federal tax returns showed that the museum had drained about $24 million of its reserves to cover operating expenses after a spate of overspending. It was saved by Mr. Broad’s donation.

    A Nancy Rubins sculpture outside MOCA Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal

    Still, as prices for contemporary art rose, so did the value of art created by many of the elder statesmen of L.A.’s art scene. Pop artist Ed Ruscha, a MOCA trustee known for his deadpan images of parking lots, gas stations and L.A. architecture, now sells pieces for $3 million to $6 million at auction; he didn’t come close to crossing the $1 million barrier before 2002. Works by John Baldessari, a conceptual artist and former UCLA instructor whose signature style includes overlaying historical images with opaque colored dots, now fetch more than $1 million.

    The city also boasts an ascendant community of younger artists, many of whom came to Los Angeles for the city’s art schools. Michigan-born Mike Kelley moved to L.A. to attend the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with Mr. Baldessari, and decided to stay on. Now his pieces, from comic-book-style drawings to sculptures that incorporate found objects like plush toys, are shown in museums like MoMA and the Whitney in New York.

    “You cannot talk about contemporary art today without taking into account what is happening in L.A.,” says MoMA’s Mr. Lowry.

    L&M Arts, a blue-chip Manhattan gallery that sells work by artists from Picasso and Matisse to Warhol and Rothko, opened its first Los Angeles space last month on Venice Boulevard, a central thoroughfare in L.A.’s beach neighborhood. It was a big shift for a gallery that in New York resides in a classic-looking townhouse on the Upper East Side.

    MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and artist Doug Aitken at Mr. Aitken’s Venice Beach studio. Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal

    “In New York, we largely did prestigious historical shows, but we wanted to be more involved with living artists,” says Robert Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker who co-owns L&M. So far, the gamble has paid off: Within a week, all the Paul McCarthy sculptures on view at its inaugural exhibition were snapped up. The sculptures cost between $2 million and $5 million apiece.

    Matthew Marks, another New York dealer, plans to follow suit. Mr. Marks, who last year purchased a house in the Hollywood Hills to accompany his new gallery space, says many artists on his roster—which includes Ellsworth Kelly, Peter Fischli and David Weiss—rarely showed their work in L.A. in the past and now seek more exposure there.

    Veteran L.A. dealers Timothy Blum and Jeff Poe say they have also profited from the explosion of demand. The duo opened their 500-square-foot gallery, Blum & Poe, in 1994. “Back then, there was no market here to speak of,” says Mr. Blum. “The change has been tectonic.” Blum & Poe currently occupies a 22,000-square-foot building in Culver City.

    While contemporary art is booming, other sectors still lag behind. That is why Lacma’s Mr. Govan, after a spate of building projects and contemporary acquisitions, has branched out to areas like costumes, Oceanic arts and tribal art.

    “We’re done growing,” Mr. Govan says. “We’ve done the quantity. Now it’s about quality.”

    ==

    NYMAGAZINE

    • 12/11/2014 at 11:19 AM

    Maurizio Cattelan’s L.A. Art Tour, With a Stop at Jim Carrey’s Painting Studio

    Maurizio Cattelan with Jim Carrey at the actor’s art studio in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.

    Fueled by kombucha, sprouted raw almonds, Whole Foods sushi, and chocolate-covered espresso beans with a very special ingredient, we traveled all over Los Angeles visiting nine artists and 14 galleries in four-and-a-half days while the majority of the art, fashion, and PR worlds flocked to the other side of the country for the annual mayhem that is Art Basel Miami Beach. After dodging the initial inquiries — Are you going to Miami? So, you’re not in Miami? Why aren’t you in Miami? — we began our quest in earnest to see what happens in L.A. when “everyone” is in Miami. (Our expedition was from November 30 to December 4.) The answer: artists inspired by Hollywood, anarchy, pop culture, the body, animals, vegetables, minerals, and a recurring theme of Surrealism, which reinforces the notion that anything goes in L.A., a city where artists feel free to take risks, fail, and experiment without the dark cloud of the market hanging over them.

    Day 1
    Our first stop (directly from LAX) was New York artist and gallerist (47 Canal) Margaret Lee’s exhibition at Team (bungalow) in Venice. The second exhibition at the gallery’s new West Coast outpost featured one chrome banana and one rose atop a chrome plinth set on softer-than-soft alpaca. It was raining, an extremely rare, newsworthy event, and it continued to pour for most of the week. During a brief respite from the weather, we popped in on Venice locals Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen at their home/studio compound. They showed us around their gallery space, Paradise Garage, and Nathalie Jones’s installation in the window on the back alley. Craft gave us a sneak peek of her new, life-size marionette-like ladies that she’ll be showing at the hip, new gallery Jenny’s in Silver Lake next year and her giant bronze teepee with eyes in the yard. During the visit, Mexican artist and Venice local Gabriel Kuri stopped by with his kids for a play date and some pizza. Craft and Monkkonen are both sculptors who met while studying at UCLA (she was his TA and their teacher Charles Ray played matchmaker) and are key figures in the L.A. art scene as artists, gallerists, and co-founders of the coolest art fair ever, Paramount Ranch, which runs from January 31 through February 1 of next year and takes place on an old Western movie set in the Santa Monica Mountains.

    Margaret Lee, “Do You See What I See (Banana and Rose)” 2014. Steel, chrome, plastic, platinum rose, alpaca fur; 2 pedestals, each: 16 x 16 x 57 inches. Photo: jwpictures.com. Courtesy of the artist and Team (bungalow).

    Day 2
    The next evening we popped in to see painter Alex Becerra at his Venice studio where he had been laying down some tracks with a friend. Becerra recently had his first solo exhibition of his so-bad-it’s-good, gooey, and irreverent paintings at L.A. gallery LTD and there were several finished or nearly complete paintings in the studio including one of a naked lady playing the tuba, an office chair on a studio floor, and the tour de force Rex-Goliath (2014) depicting a naked black man lounging in a pose reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia, his orange-and-yellow robe splayed open, an empty bottle of Rex Goliath wine on one side. The figure lies on a white ground built up with thick gobs of paint over two years. Becerra also showed us his handmade tattoos that he applies himself (except for hard-to-reach areas) and that cover his legs, arms, chest, and elsewhere. Becerra compared them to prison tattoos — very DIY — and told us how he started out as a self-taught tattoo artist and referred to the crude style as “bad lines, good intentions.” He also showed us a giant book of his sketches — scanned, copied, and bound at Kinkos; thick as a phone book — that featured every good, bad, weird, and funny drawing he’s made in the past few years — a taste of his process and source imagery for the paintings.

    Jim Carrey in his art studio, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.

    Next stop was Jim Carrey’s studio. Yes, that Jim Carrey. He’s been drawing and painting since he was a kid. And for several years now, Carrey has been making art that is as expressive and emotive as his work as a talented funnyman. One technique he has devised involves applying wet paint on top of a layer of dry paint and then scraping it off — it creates the look of a silkscreen from the lifting of the bottom layer of paint and remnants of the top layer. His imagery ranges from portraits of women to self-portraits, as well as pop icons like James Dean as a child, a baby gorilla, a mad elephant, and more. He often incorporates text and occasionally disrupts the paintings with slashes that he later stitches back together. His energy is boundless, and he’s clearly having fun testing the boundaries of painting and sculpture. Carrey is also gradually inserting his art practice into his Hollywood persona — if you didn’t catch it, he debuted a new piece, a Jeff Daniels puppet, on Jimmy Fallon, and it’s a must-see moment.

    Jim Carrey with his puppet of Jeff Daniels. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.

    After visiting Jim, we stopped by LACMA to see the sublime Pierre Huyghe show, a mind-blowing exhibition, filled with evocative beauty and wonder. The show is also quite groundbreaking for its open floor plan and meandering installation, which left us a little starry-eyed (L.A. will be its only American venue). And we caught Larry Sultan’s inspiring show, which reveals a master lensman’s ability to capture lives that exist behind closed doors.

    Day 3
    Despite the heavy rain, we started off with a visit to L.A. native Aaron Sandnes, who showed works in progress incorporating bullets, gleaming auto-paint paintings, bullet-wound drawings, and even a custom motorcycle. Very relevant. The studio is a boy’s dream come true — it’s filled with toys and weapons. Sandnes was bursting with ideas for ambitious works like a spinning-neon-hands sign. Definitely someone to keep an eye on.

    Next up was a visit to Jonas Wood’s exhibition of large paintings of ceramic pots and plants at the new home of David Kordansky Gallery in mid-city. We almost didn’t get inside because of the rain (leaking was a prominent theme of the trip — keep reading). In typical L.A. fashion, we drove across the street to what is arguably the city’s most beautiful gallery, Kayne Griffin Corcoran, to see Mark Handforth’s sublime exhibition of new sculptures, including an old-school telephone-receiver light sculpture, a turquoise star and giant coat hanger in the courtyard, among other works. Gallery partner Maggie Kayne set us up in the James Turrell perceptual cell for a little dose of Zen and then took us on a tour of the gallery’s back room where we saw new resin works by Romanian artist Daniel Knorr.

    Next, we ventured to the new downtown gallery scene (actually more like east of downtown, not an easily named district). First stop, Night Gallery to see the new show, “Paris de Noche,” featuring new Michael Jackson–face wall reliefs and truck paintings by Monkkonen (the exhibition’s curator), Amy Yao ladders, and Andrei Koschmieder’s corrugated fence paintings. A few buckets that could have passed for art revealed yet another leaky roof. Across the parking lot (this time we walked), we visited Francois Ghebaly Gallery (more leaking) to see the partially de-installed exhibition by L.A.-based artist Sayre Gomez with works in the back by another local, Joel Kyack. One highlight — his truck-nuts chair, which we tried on for size. We continued our journey through the rainy streets of industrial warehouses to see Christina Forrer’s brightly colored, hand-woven tapestries at the new gallery Grice Bench (co-founded by artist Jon Pylypchuk). Here the leak came from under the front door, so buckets were useless. Forrer’s weavings featured varying textures demonstrating her unique take on the traditional craft with startling imagery of dark fairy-tale-like imagery of girls and boys behaving badly and a portrait of a gypsy woman, among others.

    Maurizio Cattelan with Frances Stark (left) and Ali Subotnick (right) at Stark’s studio. Courtesy of Frances Stark.

    Then a visit to Frances Stark’s Chinatown studio; we met up with Stark and her muse/protégé Bobby Jesus. After an adventurous and drenched trip to Little Tokyo for lunch, which culminated in two flat tires, Stark showed us works around the studio and we watched her recent video of photos from her Instagram feed (What Goes on @threalstarkiller, 2014) as well as parts of her revealing video Osservate, legette con me (2012), which features Skype conversations between Stark and online paramours, set to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. And before calling it a day, we stopped by to see the “Support/Surface” exhibition at 356 Mission Rd. (more buckets) and got a preview of Jay Chung and Q. Takeki Maeda’s show of new photos in the basement gallery. The space, which pioneered the new downtown scene and is run by Laura Owens with Ethan Swan and others, is one of the most active, dynamic, and exciting venues in town, featuring exhibitions and programs that rival the local museums. Legendary book- and art-wares shop Ooga Booga set up an outpost in the front of the space so we couldn’t help but browse the merchandise. We also met up with Joel Kyack, who, because his studio in the building next door had been flooded, gave us a run-through of his work via a slideshow on his laptop that he made for a recent talk at Pomona College. He showed images and recounted his outlandish performances, several fountain pieces, videos, and multimedia paintings. The works are multilayered, humorous, boyish, and complicated, mixing survivalism and Surrealism in unconventional ways.

    Day 4

    Kaari Upson holding the mattress she is going to cast for Cattelan, which will be a hanging sculpture made entirely of silicone. Courtesy of Kaari Upson.

    After a visit to the Hammer Museum to see shows of Robert Heinecken, Jim Hodges, Frances Upritchard, Yuri Ancarani, N. Dash, and Mario Garcia Torres, we made a drive-by visit to Marilyn Monroe’s burial site across the street, Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, where Farrah Fawcett, Don Rickles, Truman Capote, John Cassavetes, and Heather O’Rourke (of Poltergeist fame) were also laid to rest. Heading east, we stopped at Matthew Marks Gallery to check out a couple of flower drawings and two new sculptures by artist and UCLA professor Charles Ray (stainless-steel sculptures of a mime on a cot and a compacted car). We touched the art. Then we headed to the Koreatown studio of Kaari Upson, whose stellar show is currently on view at Lower East Side gallery Ramiken Crucible. Upson made us green tea and pumpkin pie and showed us her molds for her recent work. With her large-scale installations, esoteric videos, layered narratives, soft sculptures, and intuitive drawings, Upson could be the bastard child of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, with a strong feminist bent. As the rain became lighter, we headed to Silver Lake to see Max Hooper Schneider’s new show at newish gallery Jenny’s. Inside we found a popcorn trolley turned aquarium filled with live snails, a retrofitted ’80s treadmill with snakeskin printed on leather, and intricate drawings of amoebalike shapes in bright colors, sandwiched in Plexiglas and suspended from the ceiling. The show is entitled “The Pound” and is a precocious, strange, and compelling work.

    Max Hooper Schneider, “Aral Spring Trolley,” 2014. Modified popcorn trolley, live freshwater ecosystem, genus Pomacea snails, submersible filter. Photo: Michael Underwood/underwoodpix.com. Courtesy of Jenny’s.

    Moving on, we headed across town to the Culver City gallery district (no buckets there). We started at Susanne Vielmetter to see Dasha Shishkin’s new large-scale, strange, and colorful drawings of people from another world and time, reminiscent of the turn of the last century (you can almost taste the absinthe) as well as new abstract paintings by Angel Otero. We drove (rain clouds hovering) to L.A. powerhouse and Culver City pioneer Blum & Poe, to look at new photographs by Florian Maier-Aichen — more fantastical imagery with impossible landscapes and digital drawings. We then walked (!) to Cherry and Martin to see new video/paintings by Brian Bress (Surrealist inspiration with a mix of Hollywood, humor, and art history) and discovered, whilst strolling down La Cienega, Jeff Colson’s tromp l’eoil overfilled storage unit, Roll Up, at Maloney Fine Art. New York–based UCLA grad Sanya Kantarovsky’s new video Happy Soul (2014) at nonprofit LAXART brightened things up with its infectious soundtrack and inventive animation projected over a wall with a painting, which plays an essential role in the video. Next, we saw an eclectic group show about collage, “Saying Yes to Everything,” organized by former Hammer curator Corrina Peipon at Honor Fraser Gallery, and we finished the tour at China Art Objects Gallery, where new paintings of semi-biblical semi-mythological scenes, ethereal landscapes, and abstracts by JP Munro (husband of Christina Forrer) were on view. Whew!

    Day 5
    Our journey culminated in a visit with Dan Finsel. His studio walls were filled from floor to ceiling with large drawings of two-by-fours, photo stands, and an organic, exotic image of something like a pear with a butt and a vagina. Finsel showed us some video clips and detailed his plans for his upcoming show at Richard Telles Fine Art. The work stood out for its weirdness, originality, and intensity.

    A view of Dan Finsel’s studio. Courtesy of Dan Finsel.

    What did we learn on this expedition? The rain was gone, the sun was out, and the bright-blue sky returned the city to its normal state of endless summer. L.A. is teeming with inventive, creative minds exploring universal issues, telling stories — fictional and not — and sharing their trippy worldviews with the rest of us. Who needs an art fair?

    Dan Finsel and Maurizio Cattelan. Courtesy of Dan Finsel.

    ==

     HOLLYWOOD REPORTER

    About Town

    Art Scene Booms in Hollywood: Inside L.A.’s New Gallery Row

    Industry collectors are flocking to the art world’s burgeoning Hollywood epicenter as it matures with a major new player, LAXART, and a 2015 booming with blockbuster shows

    Akil (left) and Firstenberg were photographed Jan. 2 at LAXART’s new Hollywood digs. Inset: The building’s exterior features a work by Daniel Joseph Martinez.
    Claudia Lucia

    This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

    When Phil Lord — co-director of The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — isn’t busy creating box-office hits, he finds time to serve as co-vice chairman on the board of LAXART, one of Los Angeles’ most innovative art spaces (7000 Santa Monica Blvd.). Now he’s among a high-powered group of supporters who have donated to launch a new chapter for the exhibition hall, founded in 2005 by director Lauri Firstenberg. “LAXART fills the gaps between larger art institutions and the for-profit gallery scene, presenting new and original work that often wouldn’t be supported otherwise,” says Lord.

    Read more ArtBasel Miami Beach Opens With $3 Billion of Art and a Booth Designed by Baz Luhrmann

    On Jan. 10, LAXART, known for commissioning pieces by on-the-rise contemporary artists, will open in a former Hollywood recording studio, Radio Recorders, where Billie Holiday and Elvis Presley sang. The quirky space — built during the late 1920s and housing a warren of rooms perfect for staging multiple shows — is more than double the size of LAXART’s former home in Culver City.

    Oysters by Lily Stockman; her Gavlak show opens Jan. 10.

    The nonprofit’s arrival in Hollywood adds a player to L.A.’s latest hot arts district, clustered within a few blocks of the intersection of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Long populated by film production offices, the area now is home to 20,000-square-foot gallery Regen Projects, which moved from West Hollywood in 2012, Various Small Fires, Hannah Hoffman, Redling Fine Art, Gavlak and Kohn Gallery, which opened in the spring with a blockbuster Mark Ryden show. The neighborhood lacks a proper hipster coffee shop but boasts a landmark artwork: a colorful abstract mural by Sarah Cain alongside the headquarters of public-art nonprofit LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division). Nearby restaurants include Trois Mec, Mud Hen Tavern, the Mozzas and Ammo. “Regen Projects is amazing — it’s like a small museum,” says Brillstein Entertainment Partners manager JoAnne Colonna, an avid collector. “And I like this artist, Amir Nikravan, that Various Small Fires recently showed. The area is going to be a real destination.”

    Regen Projects is exhibiting the works of British artist Gillian Wearing through Jan. 24.

    See more LACMA Art + Film Gala: The Top 10 Best-Dressed

    LAXART — whose shows have included a buzzy interactive Walead Beshty installation in which visitors walked over safety glass, creating a cracked reflective landscape — will reopen with a suite of exhibits, including one that will look back at the influential L.A. art collective Deep River. Says LAXART board member Mara Brock Akil, creator of BET’s Being Mary Jane: “LAXART is a place where new voices can be discovered and validated. It’s also a safe place for established artists to try something new, that allows them out of the box that commerce sometimes forces them into.”

    ==
    KCET

     

    Los Angeles
    January 8, 2015
    Art of The Possible: A Reappraisal Of The Eugenia Butler Gallery
    Matt Stromberg
    JB4_580

    For a few years at the end of the 1960’s, Eugenia Butler exhibited some of the most exciting and important artists of the period. Between 1969-1971 her eponymous gallery on N. La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles was a cradle of non-object oriented and conceptual art, showing pioneers like John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth, Allen Ruppersberg, and Richard Jackson among others. Despite her brief but cutting-edge career, her name is seldom mentioned when discussing this period. If it is, it is often with a mythical reverence based more on her larger-than-life persona than on real knowledge of her actual contributions. Her influence and continuing legacy on the L.A. and international art scene is revealed through interviews with artists and others who knew her, as well as archival research.

    Born in Bakersfield, CA in 1922, Eugenia Louise Jefferson grew up in Los Angeles. During WWII she became a nurse sergeant in the Marines, where she met her future husband James G. Butler who was a fighter pilot. After the war, James went to law school on the GI Bill and became a prominent lawyer, handling many high profile class action suits, including cases involving thalidomide and airline crashes. The two were committed to civil rights. “They were considered extremely left wing at the time,” remembers their daughter Cecilia Dan, and Jim helped found an NAACP chapter in Compton where they lived when they were first married. As Jim became more successful, they moved into a stately house on South Rimpau street and had eight children. Although they appeared on the surface to be the picture of the post-war American Dream, the Butlers were interested in pushing boundaries — social, cultural, and artistic — and shared a passion for challenging art. Eugenia Butler’s future business partner Riko Mizuno recalled the important role that art played for the couple when they were courting, before Jim became successful. “She told me they used to date, but didn’t have much money, so they’re going to museums, galleries,” Mizuno said. “That’s how she loved art, so that’s kind of beautiful.”

    The L.A. art scene of the 1960’s was much smaller and more intimate than it is today. Curator Hal Glicksman noted in 2011 that “there was so little audience, outside of the artists and a few collectors, and so little money and so little support, that the artists formed a self-supporting community. It wasn’t all done with an eye on the market, or on the critics either for that matter…things here were just what artists and their friends wanted to do, support each other.” New York City was the center of the art world then, which gave artists in L.A. a certain amount of freedom. “One of the nice things about that period was that L.A. was so intimate. The lines between dealers and collectors and artists were permeable because everyone was making it up as they went along and they didn’t have a bunch of established predecessors…like in New York,” notes writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. The community of serious collectors was just beginning to form, so sales were not expected. “It was fun in the sense that money was not an issue, and the joke used to be that if anybody sold anything you must be doing something wrong,” remembered artist John Baldessari in 2011.

    There were only a handful of galleries of L.A. at the time, but the one that is perhaps best known is the Ferus Gallery, which was active from 1957 – 1966 on N. La Cienega Blvd. Founded by Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz (who would soon be replaced by the suave salesman Irving Blum), Ferus brought to L.A. the kind of serious art that was being shown in New York and Europe, including Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns, as well as kick-starting the careers of a number of L.A. artists. These ranged from assemblage artists like Kienholz and Wallace Berman, to So Cal light and space artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell. The Ferus scene was glamorous, cool, and macho. They expanded the boundaries of what was being shown in L.A. at the time. But in a lot of ways, they were still adhering to a conventional model of showing and selling painting and sculpture. By the mid-1960s, a few forward thinking artists and dealers were showing work that was not confined to physical objects. One of these was Eugenia Butler.

    Galleria del Deposito, Genoa, Italy

    Galleria del Deposito, Genoa, Italy

    Beginnings: Galleria del Deposito, Riko Mizuno and Gallery 669

    Although her gallery was only active for a brief period, Butler had been involved with contemporary art for a number of years. In the mid-1960s, she served on LACMA’s Contemporary Art Council and New Talent Award Committee, through which she met many young artists, and began collecting art. Her interest in the cutting edge drove her to look beyond the confines of the small L.A. art scene at the time. “The special thing about Eugenia and her husband Jim is that they were avid collectors, but both extremely intelligent, extremely articulate, and they wanted more from art than what was being given to them here in L.A. at that time,” recalls gallerist Rosamund Felsen. “So they went to Europe a lot and intellectually and conceptually the Europeans were further ahead that what was going on in L.A.”

    On her European trips, she was introduced to the Genoa-based artist collective Galleria del Deposito (1963-1968) whose members included Lucio Fontana, Victor Vasarely, and Eugenio Carmi among others. In their opening newsletter from 1963, they proclaimed their intentions: “These people have got together in a kind of co-operative society; by forming an association of this type they mean to stress the fact that the gallery is not to be run on a profit-making basis. The common purpose is to bring the public’s attitude to the modern visual arts up to date.” According to LAND director Shamim Momin, this sort of un-orthodox model proved attractive to Butler: “Deposito is interesting because it was kind of like an artists-run collaborative so to speak, making art more accessible to the public, and they were in an old ice factory or warehouse of some kind, and really predicated a lot of artist practices, and she of course with similar kind of prescience, just kind of understood that this was a great vein in which to move.” In 1966, she became an L.A. representative of sorts for Deposito. Later that year, she briefly worked for trailblazing gallerist Virginia Dwan.

    Butler then partnered with gallerist Riko Mizuno, who had been running Gallery 669, located at 669 N. La Cienega Blvd., for about a year. As Mizuno recalls, it was people associated with LACMA, specifically then-curator Maurice Tuchman, who suggested the two would make a good team. Both women were interested in work that wasn’t then being shown in Los Angeles. Butler’s boundless energy would prove to be a foil for Mizuno’s reserved nature. “Riko Mizuno was an unusual dealer,” recalled the late artist Jack Goldstein in the 2003 book “Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia” by Richard Herz. “She never did anything; she sat in the back and drank coffee. She had an interesting persona, somewhat inscrutable with her broken English, and was very laid back.”

    Mizuno remembers Butler’s enthusiasm: “She’s very active, alive. I used to tease her, ‘you look like vitamin’… I never met a person like that, so much energy. I’m sleeping behind the gallery, I have a kind of apartment, so she knocked on door from early in the morning ‘Get up, get up!'” In 2011, John Baldessari summed up a sentiment repeated in a number of interviews: “Incredible energy, incredible enthusiasm, I can’t remember her ever sitting still.”

    The pair presented a number of important exhibitions, showing L.A. mainstay Ed Kienholz, as well as then unknown painter Richard Jackson (who would later become Butler’s first gallery assistant). The gallery was best known for Joseph Kosuth’s groundbreaking 1968 exhibition “Nothing,” the pioneering conceptual artist’s first solo show in the U.S. Before the year was out however, tensions between the two women led to the dissolution of the gallery. “I think if you knew the two of them, you would know it would not work. They’re just too independent,” recalls Felsen. Mizuno even broke out with a bad case of hives that she attributes to their conflict. Mizuno kept the space, renamed the Riko Mizuno Gallery, and Butler opened her own gallery just up the street at 615 N. La Cienega. According to Mizuno, the two never entered each other’s galleries after that.

    Installation view of "Joseph Kosuth: Nothing," at Gallery 669, October 1968. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Installation view of “Joseph Kosuth: Nothing,” at Gallery 669, October 1968. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    The Eugenia Butler Gallery

    Right from the start, Butler was dedicated to showing work that explored new directions, that was in opposition to trends of the time, work that she felt passionately about regardless of its financial viability. “She was brilliant, she had energy, she was fearless,” said Felsen, “and this is what she thought should be done, and she went ahead and did it and it was challenging, and it was challenging for her, challenging for the viewer.” Butler was not interested in the more established painters and sculptors of the Ferus scene. Instead, she was attracted to a number of artists whose work would come to be labeled conceptual art. Curator Anne Ayres offers an excellent description of conceptual art in an essay from “Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible,” a 2003 Otis College of Art and Design catalog to an exhibition of work of Butler’s daughter, also named Eugenia Butler, who often worked in this vein: “In fact, pioneering conceptual art was the very definition of exhilaration — passionately argued, greatly contested, and thus never monolithic, as the following partial list indicates: language propositions; detailed record keeping of personal activities; serial and other pedestrian formats; all sorts of documentation, graphs, and photographs; erasure of individual touch, the pretense of artist anonymity, and the elevation of the viewer as part of an expanding environment; social and political deconstructions; concern with space, time, duration, absence, removal, and invisibility; a search for new materials (words, electricity, gasses, steam, light, odors, mental operations, and so forth) – while erasing (dematerializing) the (visual) art object (perhaps better to say the devisualization of the art object) as a locus of aesthetic delectation.” Butler was not limited to exclusively showing conceptual art, but her focus on dematerialized and non-object oriented work prefigured much of what was to come, both in L.A. and worldwide.

    “When you look at work that comes out of L.A. in the early 70’s…it’s intellectually oriented, it’s conceptually oriented, it’s photographs, it’s text, it’s the antithesis of what happened in the 60’s,” remarks Drohojowska-Philp. “It’s all about non-retinal art, art that’s about ideas, art that’s about experiences.”

    Absence, the void, performance, interaction, the invisible, the temporary — often with a dash of irreverent humor: these were the hallmarks of the Eugenia Butler Gallery. She opened the gallery by giving Allen Rupperberg his first solo show for which he presented “Location Piece” (1969). “There was nothing in the gallery except the address of an old office building on Sunset Boulevard where I’d installed a big theatrical sculpture,” the artist told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.

    Later that year James Lee Byars — an enigmatic artist who was a favorite of Butler’s — built a wall around her office, separating it from the rest of the gallery. The work was called “Shutting up Genie.” According to the press release: “Her name comes down from the front of the building, and ‘Shutting up Genie’ is lettered in red on the wall directly behind the Gallery window, visible from the street. Eugenia Butler is forbidden by the artist to enter the Gallery exhibition space during this five-day period.” For his piece “Wall Shadow,” Eric Orr built a cinder block wall in front of the gallery, painted its shadow on the ground and removed the wall, leaving only a trace of the light it blocked. For a 1970 exhibition Robert Barry simply locked the gallery doors and put a sign up that read “From March 10 through 21, the Gallery will be Closed.”

    Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
    Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Butler was also one of the first gallerists to show the work of then-unknown conceptual art godfather John Baldessari. She held his second gallery exhibition ever in 1970 after he left his previous dealer Molly Barnes. Their relationship was also significant for the fact that Butler was the first person to sell one of Baldessari’s photographs. It is typical of her vision that she ignored the traditional distinction between high art and photography, then considered a lesser artform.

    “At that moment, photography and art were pretty much ghettoized. I mean photographs were shown in photography galleries but not shown in art galleries. They were literally two different worlds, and very distinct art histories for both,” recalled Baldessari in 2011. “So I had some documentation of a work, called the “Ghetto Boundary Project.” I remember her calling me, she said, ‘You won’t believe what I’m going to tell you, I sold the photographs.’ You don’t get it now, but you didn’t sell photographs at art galleries. That was my first breaching of boundaries I guess.”

    One of the most notorious exhibitions at the gallery was Ed Kienholz’ 1969 “Watercolors” show, commonly referred to as “The Barter Show.” Each hand-printed work stated on the face what Kienholz wanted in exchange for it. These ranged from various monetary amounts, to a Rudi Gernreich dress, a Timex watch, an artwork by Baldessari, and so on. They were otherwise identical, the same size, each framed the same, and authorized with Keinholz’ thumbprint. It was “an early acknowledgement on the cult of celebrity and the commodification of art” reads the exhibition text from the 2012 LAND exhibition, “Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler.” The work directly addressed the very notion of art as investment — and confronted collectors with this idea — in a way that meshed with Butler’s love of controversy.

    Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
    Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    “She wanted art that would make people mad, and it was a perfect fit with the Kienholz watercolors. He knew that they would make everybody angry… yeah they should have, that’s what they were for,” recalled Glicksman in 2011. “They weren’t for Dwan or for Ferus or for any other regular gallery, that he had to have someone who was really up for strange ideas…well because it’s under this heading of institutional critique. People weren’t used to that, of having their face rubbed in the idea that they were collecting art because it would become worth money.” According to rumor, the city tried to shut the show down, arguing that the barter system evaded sales tax.

    Even more groundbreaking than Kienholz’ barter show was Swiss/Icelandic artist Dieter Roth’s 1970 exhibition “Staple Cheese (A Race).” Although Roth had been exhibiting in Europe since the early 1950’s, this was his first U.S. gallery exhibition. Roth filled the gallery with 37 suitcases full of cheese, leaving them to rot in the L.A. summer heat. As the show progressed, the smell filled the gallery, wafting out into the street. Maggots and flies filled the gallery.

    Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
    Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    “Everyone talked about it, it was probably one of the more talked about exhibitions in town. People were a combination of outraged and intrigued by it. My reaction to it was wow,” recalled artist Ed Moses in 2011. “It was very powerful and as I said as you walked along this alley into the gallery, you could smell it from La Cienega and it was a good hundred yards back to the gallery.”

    The health department tried to shut the show down, but Butler’s husband, the class action litigator, successfully argued to keep the gallery open on the grounds of the work’s artistic merit. Although the L.A. art community was small at the time, it would prove to be an influential show to all who saw it.

    “The Dieter Roth show was just important to see, period, and to see one of the European artists that you admired, to see a work here, and have it be such a memorable and important work,” remembered Ruppersberg in 2011. “I think it’s one of the main works that was ever shown here in L.A., period, and certainly is in all the memories of the artists who were there at the time.”

    In addition to exhibitions at the gallery, Butler organized important shows off-site, such as 18’6″ x 6’9″ x 11’2-1/2″ x 47″ x 11-3/16″ x 19’8-1/2″ x 31’9-3/16″ held at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969. The group exhibition included many of the seminal practitioners of conceptual and non-retinal art: Michael Asher, Robert Barry, James Lee Byars, Eugenia Butler, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner among others. The work featured in the exhibition was consistent with Butler’s gallery program in its radical break with previous forms of art-making. Often this involved gallery staff creating the works based on instructions from the artists, as described in a printed supplement to the exhibition. Byars played a tape loop on speakers outside the gallery on a certain day. Exhibition texts note that Stephen Kaltenbach “submitted a series of proposals. The one chosen by the gallery staff was carrying out of Mr. Kaltenbach’s proposal to paint the south wall of the gallery gray…The wall was painted gray.” Jim Rudnick blocked out the skylights and gave out flashlights for visitors to use. Barry Le Va drew a line from the gallery office door to the SE corner of the space. The area to the west of the line was sprinkled with flour. Eugenia Butler (the younger) simply “requested that the plate reading ‘Congruent Reality’ be placed at the entrance to the empty gallery on two alternative Wednesdays.”

    “Congruent Reality,” 1969, Time-based Perceptual/Conceptual Event, (Conscious Presence within the Continuum of Time), text on aluminum plate, | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Eric Orr, "Wall Shadow," 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Eugenia Butler as Art Dealer and Count Giuseppe Panza

    More than simply championing and exhibiting challenging, conceptual art, as a dealer Butler created a market for artwork that was often represented in the physical world by nothing more than a certificate. The idea that you could sell air, or an experience, or an energy field was radical. She counted among her clients the L.A. haberdasher and collector Monte Factor, and influential Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza, one of the first Europeans to seriously collect postwar American art. Panza’s impressive collection covered abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism, and conceptual art. He was an early supporter of art in L.A., visiting the city twice a year to find new artists and new work. He remarked to the Los Angeles Times in 1985 that “history will regard Los Angeles as a great center of the art of this century.”

    A letter dated January 22, 1970 reveals that Butler sent Panza information, prices and visuals of work by a number of artists she showed including Douglas Huebler, Baldessari, Stephen Kaltenbach, Kosuth, Robert Barry, Paul Cotton, Eugenia Butler, and James Lee Byars. From this selection, Panza ended up purchasing four works of Huebler’s composed of photographic documentation of actions and signed descriptions of the works. The description of” Duration Piece #12″ (1969) reads:

    In March, 1969 a small quantity of sand was removed from the ocean beach at Venice, California and taken to the ocean beach at Plum Island, Massachusetts.

    There it was placed where it would be carried into the Atlantic Ocean by the outgoing tide. A similar quantity of sand was, at that time, removed from the Plum Island location and taken (May 1969) to Venice where it, in turn, was carried into the Pacific Ocean.

    Another exchange will mark the same sites in 1979 and so on: once every ten years until a total of eleven markings have been made at which time (2069) the piece will be complete. (It will be the responsibility of the owner to arrange for the next ten such exchanges).

    One photograph of each site and this statement constitute the form of this piece.

    Huebler’s original action, while certainly poetic, was distinct and finite. By holding the purchaser responsible for the fulfillment of the work, he stretches this singular act well beyond the lifetimes of artist and collector, and at the same time calls into question traditional roles of creator and consumer. This is typical of the kind of challenging work that Butler promoted. It is significant that she not only exhibited work like this, but was able to place some of it into one of the most important collections of the 20th century.

    "Congruent Reality," 1969, Time-based Perceptual/Conceptual Event, (Conscious Presence within the Continuum of Time), text on aluminum plate, | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    “Congruent Reality,” 1969, Time-based Perceptual/Conceptual Event, (Conscious Presence within the Continuum of Time), text on aluminum plate, | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Art, Life and Performance

    For Butler, art was not just something to be looked at and collected, but a force that permeated every aspect of life. To the intimate L.A. art community of the time, the Butler family house on South Rimpau provided a sense of community and support. It was as significant a gathering place for artists and art lovers as the gallery itself. It became one of a handful of important social spaces for artists, along with the homes of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein (who had founded legendary printmaking workshop Gemini G.E.L.) and noted collector and dealer Betty Asher. “Eugenia and James’ house, that was a social hub, that and the Grinstein’s house,” remembered Baldessari in 2011. “I even think sometimes they competed with each other [to see] who could throw the biggest party.”

    The line between party and performance was often blurred. One such occasion was a fashion show Butler hosted featuring works by designer Rudi Gernreich, whose clothes she wore almost exclusively. Gernreich was perhaps most famous for the topless monokini he designed, often seen on his muse Peggy Moffitt. “I remember one party she had for a fashion designer, Rudi Gernreich, where these people came down the staircase nude and that was quite a radical thing in the fashion world,” recalled Moses in 2011.

    “She was wearing these Rudi Gernreich clothes that were outrageous,” remembered the late Stanley Grinstein in 2011. “It’s like good art, sometimes you say, ‘what the hell is that?’ and you gotta get used to it. She was that far ahead.”

    The dissolution of the barrier between art and life that Butler’s gallery embodied was also celebrated in the work of Paul Cotton, who would often dress up in outlandish outfits for performances, including a bunny costume with the crotch cut out. He was arrested at the opening of the LACMA’s Art & Technology show in May 1971, at which he arrived with Butler. He had planned to present museum visitors with marijuana joints on a platter as part of a performance, but was denied entry. “There were real joints on the tray and I intended to go into the show and just be there as a sculpture for people to take joints if they wanted to and experience it as a living sculpture,” he recalled in 2011. Much of Cotton’s work dealt with relationships between people, not simply the visual experience of looking at a static piece of art. “I think that the whole civilization is a dysfunctional family. Part of my impulses is to heal that dysfunction. One of the dysfunctions I see is seeing people as objects, and seeing art as objects to be bought and sold. The two things go hand in hand, is to only see things of value in terms of their commodity,” he said in 2011. Cotton had one of the last exhibitions at the gallery.

    After the Gallery

    The Eugenia Butler Gallery closed in mid-1971. As artist Barbara T. Smith recalled in 2011, the rent had been raised on the space. Compounding this, the Butlers’ marriage was unraveling and James Butler had withdrawn his financial support of the gallery, according to their daughter, Cecilia Dan. Larger economic forces were also at play. Although the avant-garde conceptual art that Butler exhibited would continue to be a vibrant part of the L.A. art scene for years to come, there was a growing fiscal conservatism in the city that extended to the art world. In a 1971 Los Angeles Times article, critic William Wilson attributed this to national economic woes, and described a new attitude “not now attuned to the exhilaration of risk.”

    Butler continued to be involved with art, however. Instead of promoting the art of others she passionately believed in, she worked to turn her life into a kind of performance. It was around this time that she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She staged a “living wake” at her house, and invited all of her friends to participate in a performative funeral. “We lent her a limo here for her wake-up her funeral, when she got the cancer originally, so she did a whole thing at her house of a funeral, and she called it the wake-up,” recalled Grinstein in 2011. “We lent her the limo, we had a black caddy limo with big fins.”

    She began an affair with Cotton and moved with him to the Bay Area, leaving her family behind. In 1972, she arrived at Documenta, the influential art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, riding a white horse, in the nude. It was there that she impersonated her daughter Eugenia, and tried to pass the younger Butler’s work off as her own. Periods of mental instability and familial turmoil would characterize her life for the next thirty years. Although she never had another gallery, what she accomplished in a few short years would have an outsized impact on the L.A. art world and beyond. As Drohojowska-Philp notes, “L.A. really was a hotbed for the development of conceptual and non-object oriented, dematerialized art throughout the 70’s, the validation for that in part could be said to be in part with Eugenia Butler who endorsed it.”

    Installation view of "Ed Kienholz: Watercolors," at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March - April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Reframing Everything: The Legacy of the Eugenia Butler Gallery

    Despite the seminal role Butler and he gallery played, her influence is under-recognized today. “Once you start to make the connection you realize ‘all the shows I cared about, that I learned about, were at her gallery, but I don’t know her name.’ Isn’t that so incredibly strange,” says LAND’s Momin. “Looking back, turns out that she was probably one of the most important galleries, certainly up there with Ferus who we keep talking about, but it turns out she should have had equal billing,” noted Baldessari in 2011. The conventional narrative of 1960’s art in LA is dominated by the Ferus Gallery and their roster of hyper-masculine painters and sculptors. One reason for this is that Irving Blum, the suave New York transplant who ran Ferus with Walter Hopps, was a consummate salesman and promoter. The glamorous “cool school” image he promoted for himself and his artists was a tidier, more digestible story than Butler’s complicated and problematic narrative. “It’s a very complex personality and that doesn’t always parse so well for historical telling,” notes Momin, “especially for women.” In a 2012 LA Weekly article, writer Catherine Wagley cautions against letting the drama of Butler’s life divert attention from her contributions to art: “Focusing on the Butler mythos threatens to pigeonhole her, to turn her legacy into the short-lived, haphazard achievements of an eccentric.” Further complicating her history is the absence of her archives, which were destroyed by James Butler, and later by herself, after they divorced.

    To correct this historical omission, Butler’s granddaughter Corazon del Sol and LAND’s Momin put together a 2012 exhibition, “Perceptual Conceptual,” as part of the Getty’s massive Pacific Standard Time initiative. The show began with one box of archival material that del Sol came across, (“It’s just like a cardboard box and it says like ‘archives’ on it. It had two boxes of slides, a few super 8 films, a few small artworks,” she notes), and grew as they conducted extensive interviews with artists of the period. They also utilized the archives at the Getty Research Institute to piece together the timeline and events surrounding the gallery. It was an important step in restoring Butler’s legacy. “I felt so happy that I put my grandmother back in the world because she’d been written out of history…because she was crazy or she was a woman,” said del Sol, “when in truth her story kind of reframed everything.”

    The work that Butler championed was about finding the exceptional in the everyday, finding meaning in space, in words, in actions. “It’s all art of the possible. It changes you,” says del Sol in Wagley’s 2012 article. Counter to the notion of conceptual art as being heady and opaque, “these projects are really silly and sincere and about trying to figure out how to communicate things…this was conceptualism that was very human,” says Wagley. Barbara T. Smith recalled in 2011 a scene from an Easter party at the Rimpau house after the Butlers had divorced. Eugenia had returned from Documenta and was planning a performance at the party. “A fat woman with pink teased-back combed hair wearing a tight baby blue double knit suit complained that her life was utterly empty. With great focused intensity, Eugenia turned and said, ‘You have to look for it. It’s there all the time.’ Pink hair then said, ‘I’ve been searching.’ Then Genie said ‘I don’t mean search, I mean see. You put your own clouds over your eyes.'”

    Dieter Roth, "Staple Cheese, A Race," 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
    Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Tokyo, Japan, March 1970. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.

    Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Tokyo, Japan, March 1970. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
    Installation view of "Perceptual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler," at LAND, January 25 - April 21, 2012.

    Installation view of “Perceptual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler,” at LAND, January 25 – April 21, 2012.
    Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Berkeley, CA 1971. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate

    Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Berkeley, CA 1971. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate

    References:
    Ayres, Anne. Eugenia Butler – Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible. Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design, 2003. Exhibition catalog.

    Baldessari, John (artist). Interview with Corazon de Sol, March 25, 2011.

    Barry, Robert (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, July 27, 2011.

    Cotton, Paul (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, April 13, 2011.

    Dan, Cecilia (daughter of Eugenia Butler / art dealer). Interview with the author, Malibu, CA, May 29, 2014.

    del Sol, Corazon (granddaughter of Eugenia Butler). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 6, 2014.

    Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter (writer / art critic). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 22, 2014.

    Edge, Doug (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, May 18, 2011.

    Felsen, Rosamund (gallerist). Interview with the author, Santa Monica, CA, April 19, 2014.

    Galleria del Deposito. Mostra N. 1 – Sedici Quadri Blu, November 23, 1963.

    Glicksman, Hal (curator / preparator). Interview with Corazon del Sol, September 14, 2011.

    Goldstein, Jack. “Chouinard and the Los Angeles Art Scene in the Late Sixties,” in Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, by Richard Hertz, 18-28. Ojai, CA: Minneola Press, 2003.

    Grinstein, Stanley (founder, Gemini G.E.L. Graphic Editions Limited). Interview with Corazon del Sol, April 5, 2011.

    Kavanaugh, Gere (designer). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, March 1, 2014.

    Kienholz, Lyn (art organizer / ex-wife of Ed Kienholz). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 17, 2014.

    LAND. Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler. Los Angeles: LAND, 2012. Exhibition text.

    McKenna, Kristine. “ART : ‘Stuff’ Is His Middle Name : Conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg surrounds himself with odd books, strange posters and other knickknacks. So how does all this ‘stuff’ help him make sense of the world around him and then become art? It just does,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1993. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-11-21/entertainment/ca-59231_1_conceptual-art
    Mizuno, Riko (gallerist / former partner). Interview with the author, West Hollywood, CA, April 21, 2014.

    Momin, Shamim (curator / LAND director). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, March 18, 2014.

    Moses, Ed (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, August 16, 2011.

    Newhouse, Kristina. She accepts the proposition: Women Gallerists and the redefinition of art in Los Angeles, 1967-1978. Los Angeles: Sam Francis Gallery, 2011. Exhibition text.

    Ruppersberg, Allen (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, May 19, 2011.

    Smith, Barbara T. (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, June 1, 2011.

    Sommer, Danielle. “Eugenia is Coming: LAND shows off Eugenia Butler in ‘Perpetual Conceptual,'” Daily Serving, January 31, 2012. http://dailyserving.com/2012/01/eugenia-is-coming-land-shows-off-eugenia-butler-in-perceptual-conceptual/

    Tran, My-Thuan. “Giuseppe Panza di Biumo dies at 87; art collector legitimized MOCA.” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2010. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/local/la-me-guiseppe-panza-20100425

    Wagley, Catherine. “Eugenia Butler: How a Wacky Gallerist Inspires the L.A. Art World Today.” LA Weekly, February 16, 2012. http://www.laweekly.com/2012-02-16/art-books/Eugenia-Butler-Perpetual-Conceptual-LAND/

    Wagley, Catherine (writer / art critic). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 12, 2014.

    Wilson, William. “Is L.a. The Place For More Panza Works?” Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1985. http://articles.latimes.com/1985-02-06/entertainment/ca-4546_1_giuseppe-panza-di-biumo

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    Top Image: ©Malcolm Lubliner, 2015
    Art of The Possible: A Reappraisal Of The Eugenia Butler Gallery
    About the Author

    ==

    ===

    Los Angeles Stakes Its Claim as a World Art Center

    Axel Koester for The New York Times

    Frederick Eversley’s untitled work, left, and “Red Concave Circle” by De Wain Valentine, right, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, part of the massive Pacific Standard Time art festival.

    LOS ANGELES — For the next six months, Southern California will be awash in celebrations of Southern California art: close to 170 separate exhibitions at 130 museums and galleries stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Pacific Standard Time, as this festival is known, is an exhaustive accounting of the birth of the Los Angeles-area art scene, but it is also a statement of self-affirmation by a region that, at times, appears to feel underappreciated as a serious culture center.

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    Ed Ruscha’s “Standard Station, Amarillo” at “Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970,” an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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    “Freeway” (1966), a canvas by Vija Celmins, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

    Courtesy of artist, Asco,1972/Harry Gamboa., Jr.

    “Birds Wave Goodby” (1972), by the Chicano performance and Conceptual art group Asco, in a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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    This multi-museum event, in all of its Los Angeles-like sprawl, suggests a bit of overcompensation from a city that has long been overshadowed by the New York art establishment, a place that — arguably unfairly — still suffers from a reputation of being more about tinsel than about serious art, and where interest in culture starts and ends with movie grosses and who is on the cover of Vanity Fair.

    “It’s corny,” said Dave Hickey, an art critic and a professor in the art and art history department at the University of New Mexico. “It’s the sort of thing that Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time. It is ’50s boosterish, and I would argue largely unnecessary.”

    Still, for many Los Angeles artists and critics, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, is a long-needed accounting of the emergence of the region as an art capital in the same league as New York, Berlin and London. Indeed, Los Angeles these days has more than its share of ambitious museums, adventurous art galleries, wealthy collectors, top-notch art schools and — perhaps most important — young artists drawn here by relatively cheap rents, abundant light and an atmosphere that encourages experimentation.

    “Since 1980 the art world has become global — New York is not the epicenter,” said Peter Plagens, a painter and essayist who has worked extensively in Southern California and who was here for some of the openings. “So L.A. is kind of doing this joust: ‘We want our art history to be in the books.’ ”

    The shows cover the postwar outpouring of art from the Southern California region. The festival will run for half a year, and just as well: art enthusiasts intent on seeing all the exhibitions are approaching this as the art world equivalent of an Ironman Triathlon.

    “I am going to treat it like a graduate course in art history,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

    For less determined mortals, highlights can be seen at the Getty, which features works by Los Angeles sculptors and artists like Ed Ruscha and George Herms, from 1950 to 1970; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with an exhibition of California-inspired modern furniture design and a retrospective of work by the Chicano performance and Conceptual art group Asco; the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, with a light and space exhibition; the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, with a display of prints; and the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, with work by local African-American artists.

    In many ways, this multi-museum extravaganza goes against type, or at least stereotype. “It’s a coming of age for a city that sometimes doesn’t think of itself as having an art history,” said Michael Govan, the executive director of the county museum.

    That novelty alone seems likely to feed curiosity about what is taking place here. “Los Angeles just presents itself as a fresh and new story — people will be interested in hearing some different narrative they haven’t heard before,” said Thomas E. Crow, an art historian. “And because so much of the art is really, really good, that will sustain the interest in these new narratives.”

    No one is suggesting that Los Angeles is about to supplant New York as an art capital; it is not lost on people here that the executive directors of three of the four biggest museums in Los Angeles came here from New York. James Cuno, the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which is financing the event, noted the abundance of galleries, auction houses and money in New York.

    “It’s understandable that artists and collectors would find their way there,” he said. “In the art world, the world tilts to New York. New York has been dominant and held our imagination since the late 1950s. That has cast everyone else in the shadows.”

    There are certainly obstacles here to the establishment of a thriving art scene. The sheer sprawl of the city means that it is hard to have the kind of concentrated art district that has characterized New York over the last 50 years, though there has long been an influential colony of artists out in Venice. And there are obstacles that come with living in this part of the country: Curators talk about the difficulty of encouraging people to walk indoors for anything but a movie in a city that has glorious weather so many months of the year.

    But increasingly over the decades, there has been an abundance of art produced here and no shortage of people who want to see it, even if it is not necessarily the old masters exhibition your parents might have taken you to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A show devoted to graffiti at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown set a record for the institution by drawing 201,352 visitors before it closed in August. A Tim Burton show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has also brought overflow crowds.

    The draws for young artists are particularly compelling now, including renowned art schools, among them California Institute of the Arts; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. And the sheer size of the city means that there are plenty of large spaces to rent for relatively little money.

    “I drove around Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, and a lot of this reminds me of New York in the 1970s, where artists lived in real interesting neighborhoods near each other, and the rents aren’t really that high,” said Mr. Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Compared to New York City, compared to London, the rents here are affordable. A studio space that in Brooklyn would be $6,000 a month you can get here for $1,000.”

    “There is now enough critical mass of galleries, of places where artists meet, blogs, magazines,” he added. “There is enough of a strong community in places for artists to see each other’s work that it now makes sense to be here. L.A. is increasingly central to the art dialogue.”

    Mr. Cuno said his perception was that people in Los Angeles did not really spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of them. “I don’t feel or hear any ‘second city’ mentality here,” said Mr. Cuno, who came from Chicago, where that kind of talk is common. “People in Los Angeles are pretty happy with their position in the world and needn’t get the confirmation from elsewhere.”

    This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

    Correction: October 14, 2011

    Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about the Pacific Standard Time art festival, at 130 museums and galleries in Southern California, misstated at one point the name of the Los Angeles museum where Jeffrey Deitch is the director. As the article correctly noted elsewhere, it is the Museum of Contemporary Art, not the “Los Angeles Modern.” (There is no museum by that name.

    ==

    KCET

    The Brockman Gallery and the Village

    “Success always leaves footprints” is a statement famously attributed to Booker T. Washington. In 1967, two years after the Watts uprising in Los Angeles, artists and educators Alonzo and Dale Davis realized this dictum when they opened the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood affectionately referred to by residents as “the village.” The Brockman Gallery was founded during the heyday of the so-called Black Arts movement. Though numerous galleries opened in Los Angeles and across the country in the 1960s and 1970s with the aim of advancing the notion of a black art form, the Brockman Gallery — a commercial gallery in the midst of community focused ventures — was unique for the time period. Through their gallery Alonzo and Dale Davis provided early exposure to a number of artists who today are widely acclaimed, including Betye Saar, David Hammons, and John Outterbridge.These artists, along with other Southern California artists of the era, were included in the notable 1989 exhibition “19 Sixties: A Cultural Awakening Re-evaluated,1965-1975.” Recently, a renewed interest in black Los Angeles artists active from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s has spawned their inclusion in a variety of noteworthy exhibitions.Growing Up in the ‘Old South’Alonzo and Dale Davis grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, a small southern community of self-made residents not necessarily tethered to the more traditional jobs held by blacks in larger northern or western cities. The history of entrepreneurship among African Americans is inextricably intertwined with the history of segregation and Jim Crow laws, which limited black people’s mobility and restricted their access to services. As children, the Davis brothers were greatly influenced by the pervasive attitude of self-reliance that was commonplace in the tight-knit college community where they lived. Higher education and self-sufficiency were highly valued at Tuskegee Institute, a place where one could witness numerous manifestations of black achievement. Founded by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute was a model institution held up by the U.S. government, as well as major corporations, to illustrate that blacks could excel in American life if given the opportunity — even under segregation. Despite a dark smudge on its history — the notorious syphilis experiment executed in the 1930s by the US government 1 — the institute became world-renowned as the training ground for the Tuskegee Airmen, another government-sponsored experiment, and served as a bastion of higher education and an example for the many dignitaries from different parts of the world, especially those from African and Caribbean nations, who made frequent trips to the campus.Alonzo Davis was born in Tuskegee in 1942, just one year after the famed Tuskegee Airmen took to the air. 2 Dale was born in 1946. The Davis brothers grew up on Bibb Street in a community of educators who worked at the institute. Their father taught psychology, and their mother was a librarian at the college library. During the final years of the war, the boys left Tuskegee for St. Paul, Minnesota, where their father completed his Ph.D at the University of Minnesota. When they returned to Tuskegee, their father was made dean of the Education Department. Alonzo remembers a childhood of privilege, summers spent lying in the shade of a stretching magnolia tree in the mid-1940s in front of his house, participating in campus-sponsored activities such as swimming and tennis, and lounging on the flat clay soil at Dead Man’s Peak, a popular meeting place for the community children. Renowned entertainers and other luminaries frequently visited the campus. The institute was an insular community, aware of but situated away from the demeaning Jim Crow laws in the town of Tuskegee.

    Interior view of the library reading room at the Tuskegee Institute ca. 1902 | Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

    Interior view of the library reading room at the Tuskegee Institute ca. 1902 | Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

    When asked about the influences that contributed to his artistic and entrepreneurial sensibilities, Alonzo recalls that his first job was collecting and selling pop bottles back to the Flakes Store and coat hangers to Reid’s Cleaners. On Saturday mornings Dale worked at sweeping out Le Petite Bazaar, the small women’s clothing shop owned by Mrs. Dawson, the wife of William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), the celebrated composer, choral conductor, and professor. Dale also liked fishing and befriended local fishermen, selling them worms and crickets so that they would take him out with them. Away from his friends, Alonzo grew zinnias because he liked their bright colors. His friends teased him when they found out, so he began tending his zinnias on his way to play baseball — a move that quelled some of the teasing. Working with zinnias made Alonzo more interested in color and inspired him to take art classes from Elain e Freeman (Thomas), who later became chair of the Art Department at the institute. Freeman’s father, who was paralyzed, painted with his toes. Alonzo and Dale often visited Freeman’s family home to look at his work and watch him paint. Alonzo remembers his most rewarding art experience taking place at the institute’s Chambliss Children’s House School, an elementary school where practice teachers taught classes on everything from drawing to gardening to the children of the institute’s employees as well as the townspeople’s children. Winning an award there for a landscape painting encouraged Alonzo to pursue art.

    For Alonzo, artistic endeavors were just another part of an active childhood, mixed in with the 4-H Club, the Boy Scouts, and Saturday-morning visits to the ROTC shooting range to fire a .22-caliber rifle. His schedule of varied activities was typical of most institute boys in this academic yet rural environment, often described by the college staff as “a ship in a rural sea.” Alonzo and Dale also had many experiences unheard of for other black youth.

    By the time Alonzo was ten years old, the Tuskegee Airmen had made a name for themselves, and he was taken for a ride in a Piper airplane flown by Charles “Chief” Anderson, famous as the first instructor of the Airmen and for taking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for a plane ride in 1941 (Alonzo boasts that since then, he’s never feared flying).

    Because their father held such an esteemed position at the institute, Alonzo and Dale had ample opportunities to meet dignitaries and be exposed to people from the African and black diasporas. Visits from these international figures often resulted in invitations for students from their home countries to study at Tuskegee, so the Davis brothers were accustomed to mingling with foreign students from a young age.

    In addition to their exposure to people from the African and black diasporas, the Davis brothers met members of Tuskegee’s Jewish faculty, many of whom had fled the Nazis before settling in the United States. Historically black colleges and universities worked with various organizations to place recently emigrated Jews in colleges and universities around the nation, regularly opening their doors to the displaced scholars. This was especially evident in the art departments on these campuses. Artist and art historian Samella Lewis has discussed the important role played by Viktor Lowenfield in the art department at Hampton University in Virginia, and artist Mary Lovelace O’Neal has likewise stated her respect for Ronald O. Schnell, who was recruited from Stuttgart, Germany, in 1959 to the art department at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.

    At Tuskegee Institute, a diverse group of writers, musicians, and other creative people visited and worked on the campus, including Dawson, who Alonzo insists made him “listen to another voice,” the creative voice in his head. Alonzo came to view Dawson as a kindred spirit, someone who understood “creative spirits — those of us who were into other things besides baseball and football.” He continues, “I wasn’t academic in the way my dad was, and Dawson picked up on that right away.”

    Like one of his friends, the painter Aaron Douglas, Dawson was interested in the development of African American musical forms. His Negro Folk Symphony had its world premiere under the direction of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, the same year that Douglas painted his Aspects of Negro Life murals at the New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch in Harlem. Both composer and artist explored parallel themes in these works. Dawson’s symphony was composed of three symphonic movements (“The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O Let Me Shine”), while Douglas’s mural consisted of four oil-on-canvas panels (“Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting,” “An Idyll of the Deep South,” “From Slavery through Reconstruction,” and “Song of the Towers”).

    Portrait of William Levi Dawson ca. 1926. | Photo: Courtesy of Emory University

    Portrait of William Levi Dawson ca. 1926. | Photo: Courtesy of Emory University

    Influenced by the nationalistic views of Anton Dvořák, Dawson traveled to West Africa in 1952. His exposure to African music inspired him to revise his symphony to include African rhythms. 3 Dawson’s interest in African culture was proudly displayed in his home, just a few houses down from the Davis home on Bibb Street. There the Davis brothers enjoyed Dawson’s personal collection of African and African American art, including works by Douglas, August Savage, and Hale Woodruff. Beyond their neighborhood the Davis boys had several other opportunities to view artwork, from the George Washington Carver Museum (named for the famous scientist and artist who was an important presence on the Tuskegee campus) to Lifting the Veil of Ignorance, Charles Keck’s monumental public sculpture of Booker T. Washington with a kneeling former slave. “One of my most memorable experiences was spending time in the George Washington Carver Museum looking at the brightly colored vials containing samples of his experiments and displays of his work,” Dale remembers. 4 A local gallery specializing in ceramics — a medium that would become an early focus for Dale’s art practice — also fueled the brothers’ desire to pursue art.In 1956 Alonzo and Dale’s parents separated, and the boys took the Super Chief passenger train from Chicago to Los Angeles with their mother. In 1948 restrictive real estate covenants had been lifted in Los Angeles, allowing black people to buy property west of Western Avenue. The Davis family did so, though moving into the new neighborhood was a cultural shock for the brothers. In Tuskegee the Davis brothers had lived in a closed community of black educators. The area where their family settled in Los Angeles was much more diverse. Alonzo remembers the student population at the new school: “It was comprised of black kids whose fathers worked at the U.S. Rubber Company, white kids [whose] parents worked at USC and wanted them to ‘toughen up’ in public school, and Japanese kids [who] had been in internment camps.” 5 In Los Angeles the Davis boys were exposed to a more racially diverse group of children than they had experienced in the predominantly black and insular Tuskegee.

    Both of the Davis brothers entered and graduated from colleges in Los Angeles. Alonzo remembers that while in college they never learned anything about Africa or African Americans. For them, the seeds of their African heritage — a heritage that would later inform the naming of their gallery — had been firmly planted during their youth in Tuskegee. “We had spent our formative years in what people now refer to as ‘the Old South’ — Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta, and Durham, North Carolina. These were places we visited with our family, and even though young, we were very aware of the issues of segregation confronting the South,” says Dale. 6 By the time they began giving serious thought to opening a gallery, Alonzo had graduated from Pepperdine University, and Dale was an art student at the University of Southern California.

    In 1966 they embarked on a cross-country road trip along I-20 in a Volkswagen Beetle, stopping off to visit with local artists along the way. Reconnecting with their southern roots, they visited colleges and universities, found vibrant art programs, and talked to students and faculty. In Washington, D.C., they met Topper Carew, who opened the New Thing Art and Architecture Center in the late 1960s. Carew inspired the brothers’ vision of a gallery as a place to at once enliven the black community and generate revenue. Before leaving the East Coast, they drove to Philadelphia and met with Romare Bearden in New York City, circled back to upstate New York, and continued into Canada, returning to the United States through Detroit. They returned to Los Angeles in 1966 after participating in the Meredith March, billed as “a march against fear,” which Alonzo says “test[ed] [our] resolve and commitment to be a part of a national response to the racism issues of the time.” 7 Within nine months of returning to Los Angeles, Alonzo and Dale found a building in Leimert Park Village. After talking with family members, who discouraged the brothers from doing it, they spoke with a lawyer and leased the building. While the brothers both taught art in high school, their main focus was on opening their gallery. Alonzo was twenty-four and Dale was twenty.

    The corner of Degnan and 43rd in 1968, 1 year after Alonzo and Dale Davis opened Brockman Gallery. In the background the art deco Leimert Theatre, now the Vision, originially designed by the architectural firm Morgan, Walls & Clements | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

    The corner of Degnan and 43rd in 1968, 1 year after Alonzo and Dale Davis opened Brockman Gallery. In the background the art deco Leimert Theatre, now the Vision, originially designed by the architectural firm Morgan, Walls & Clements | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

    The Village

    Opening in a location on Degnan Boulevard, the main commercial strip in Leimert Park Village, the Davis brothers felt that they had secured a commercially viable space in a growing black community. Leimert Park is a village at the foot of the “Hills” — including View Park, Baldwin Hills, and Windsor Hills — which offered sweeping views of the Los Angeles basin and the Hollywood Hills to the east and the north, as well as Marina del Rey, Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu as they stretched to the Pacific Ocean on the west. Leimert Village, with its small triangular park at 43rd Place, is one and a half miles square, bordered by Crenshaw Boulevard, Leimert Boulevard, 43rd Street, and 43rd Place. The village was developed by Walter H. Leimert in 1928 and designed by Olmsted and Olmsted, brothers and sons of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), one of the two designers of Central Park in New York. They designed two-story Mediterranean-style buildings — a favored style for many communities in Los Angeles — for the commercial strip running through the center of the block.

    Leimert envisioned his village as a self-sufficient community for upper-middle-class families with comfortable accessibility to schools and churches. The tree-lined streets and hidden utility lines created an oasis — an ideal atmosphere for families. It was no secret that a legal provision forbade selling property in this ideal family enclave to black families. In 1947 the neighborhood made headlines when the bisected and mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, the victim of the notorious Black Dahlia murder mystery, was found in a vacant lot in the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue. The area was in the news again one year later in 1948, this time for the lifting of the racially restrictive covenants that had prevented blacks from moving to the neighborhood. Free to move farther west, black middle-class families began settling between Western Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, soon to be a core area of black business achievement of the sort that was previously found near Central Avenue. Wealthy black Angelenos gravitated to Leimert Park and to the Hills. Leimert Park Village became one of the first communities in Los Angeles to have a homeowners association. To maintain an integrated community, blacks and Asians — with a few whites — founded the Crenshaw Neighbors Association in 1964. The Davis brothers believed that this community of black wealth was ripe with patrons for their gallery. As more black families moved into the area, whites moved farther west.

    In 1965, a few years before the Brockman Gallery opened and in the midst of increased white flight, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) separated from the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art (founded in 1913) on Exposition Park and moved to the Miracle Mile neighborhood on Wilshire Boulevard. This left many blacks with few options to see and experience fine art from other parts of the world. LACMA’s move to Wilshire Boulevard meant that most of the communities of color that encircled Exposition Park had to travel farther to see artwork. Residents of communities in the Hills, many of whom were already patronizing shops on the far west side of Los Angeles, generally embraced the move.

    A Spanish style apartment house in Leimert Park. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

    A Spanish style apartment house in Leimert Park. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

    The homes in this tree-lined neighborhood — typically furnished with Provençal furniture and grand pianos — created a comfortable environment for wealthier blacks, in stark contrast to life in the sprawling black communities farther east and south in Los Angeles. Before the Davis brothers embarked on their cross-country journey, in 1965 the Watts uprising erupted, and the National Guard set up a no-cross line on Crenshaw Boulevard at the foot of the hill communities. The residents of Leimert Park, situated on the east side of Crenshaw Boulevard, must have felt a pronounced sense of vulnerability. Alonzo was in Europe, sitting in a Paris café, when he heard about Watts. He recalls people he met in Paris asking him: “You’re from Los Angeles. What are you going to do about this?” 8

    In retrospect, Davis observes that it was for the best that he wasn’t there at the time, since he was “hotheaded” and likely would have found himself in trouble. Of course, he knew many artists who actually lived the experience, watching Watts and South Los Angeles burn as fires continued to spread, with no end in sight. Many artists were livid about the destruction, the police brutality, and the poverty that sparked the uprising, and in the aftermath of the rebellion their frustrations manifested in their work. The Davis brothers met a number of these artists before the uprising — including Noah Purifoy, Judson Powell, and John Riddle — when their work was exhibited at the Watts Recreational Center, the site of the Watts Summer Arts Festival.

    Alonzo met artist Dan Concholar in a park where he often went to read. With so many contacts in the arts scene, a lack of local venues in which to experience art (resulting from LACMA’s move), and the artists’ passionate desire to do something in the aftermath of the Watts uprising, the Davis brothers had all the motivation and resources they needed to open the Brockman Gallery. Alonzo notes: “After the Watts riot, there were a lot of artists doing works that were politically significant. They were making statements that were social. We filled a gap and a void there. We just opened a window that had never been available, especially on the West Coast.” 9

    The Brockman Gallery opened in 1967 at 4334 Degnan Boulevard in the center of the Leimert Park Village shopping district. The gallery was named after the brothers’ grandmother Della Brockman, whose maiden name was also Dale’s middle name. Della Brockman’s father was from Charleston, South Carolina, and was of mixed race, the child of a white slave master and a black female slave. He was indentured, and when he left the plantation, he married a Cherokee woman in the Charleston region. The family has never been sure why, but it is known that he eventually returned to the plantation. In the late 1960s, as blacks and African American organizations actively adopted African names, the Davis brothers decided to use the name Brockman in honor of their great-grandfather, the mixed-race slave who married the Cherokee woman. By celebrating their southern roots rather than their more distant African ones, they hoped to display that they were comfortable with their family’s history and felt no need to deny their slave and racial heritage. Such an outright embrace of a slave name ran counter to the position of some black nationalist groups. “When we adopted Brockman as our name, we took heat [for the] slave name because it was a time of Black Nationalism in Los Angeles. We were respected [for our efforts] but we had a slave name,” recalls Alonzo.

    Starting the gallery in 1967 was not easy. Alonzo was teaching art at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles on Figueroa Boulevard, less than fifteen blocks from where Dale was completing his undergraduate degree in art at the University of Southern California. Recognizing a need in their community and driven by a longing to go into business for themselves, they established the gallery as a private enterprise rather than a nonprofit entity. Even though they were community-minded, they viewed this opportunity as a career path and from the beginning focused on selling art as a commercial venture. They joined the Art Dealers Association of Southern California and received help and ideas from the professional organization. A number of people in the art business at that time were members of the Jewish community, and they wanted to see Brockman Gallery succeed. One such person was Benjamin Horowitz, who founded the Heritage Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles and was well known to the Davis brothers because of his early promotion of works by Charles White, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. In 1965 Horowitz authored Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, a text that helped make Charles White wildly popular. 10

    Alonzo Davis with printmaker Ruth Waddy | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive

    Alonzo Davis with printmaker Ruth Waddy | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive

    Another of Alonzo and Dale’s allies was Joan Ankrum, founder of the Ankrum Gallery, established in 1960 (to 1990), also on La Cienega. She showed the work of Bernie Casey
    for many years. Both Horowitz and Ankrum sensed that while the Davis brothers lacked a working understanding of the art business, they possessed a strong desire to fill a void in their community. Alonzo and Dale also credit William “Bill” Pajaud, artist and curator of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Art Collection, as an “active participant in the growth of our experience as gallerists — he was very focused on our contributions [to the black arts community] and challenged us to maintain a very professional business model — Bill was [a] dynamic and forceful challenger,” according to Dale. Alonzo remembers, “[We] learned by the seat of our pants — bookkeeping, consignment, and setting up a business account, sales and recordkeeping — [we] had no formal education.” Both brothers contributed to the daily management of the gallery, including conceptualizing and implementing the diverse programming that became a signature of the Brockman Gallery.

    Alonzo and Dale found themselves caught between the model of community involvement embodied by Topper Carew and the strictly business model informed by lessons they were learning from other art dealers. Shortly after the Brockman Gallery opened, Suzanne Jackson opened Gallery 32 on North Lafayette Park Place near MacArthur Park and the Otis and Chouinard Art Institutes, not far from downtown Los Angeles. Jackson’s approach to running a gallery differed from the approach favored by Alonzo and Dale Davis. Her gallery, much like Carew’s space, was a vehicle for community activism and change, a place where artists gathered to discuss politics and society. As young entrepreneurs running a for-profit business, the Davis brothers made difficult business decisions that some community-minded artists did not favor. Frequent comparisons were made between the commercial example of the Brockman Gallery and the nonprofit example of Gallery 32; the former was often derided for pursuing a business model, while the latter was celebrated as a site where social change could be effected. Despite such criticisms, the Brockman Gallery hosted the Black Artists Association (BAC), offering a forum for dialogues on the work of black artists. Nevertheless, the Davis brothers experienced some backlash from artists represented by the Brockman Gallery who felt that Alonzo and Dale were taking advantage of them.

    Interior of Brockman Gallery, unnamed John Riddle sculpture and <em>Portrait of Paul Robeson</em>, by John Scott | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive

    Interior of Brockman Gallery, unnamed John Riddle sculpture and Portrait of Paul Robeson, by John Scott | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive

    Some artists believed that the brothers should share more of their profits. Artists who thought that they should receive more than the standard percentages that other art dealers were awarding began to sell their work independently of the Brockman Gallery, although the Davis brothers continued to promote the artists’ works. Some artists, however, were endowed with a keener understanding of the art world and the challenges faced by the Brockman Gallery; in any case, the Davis brothers had no shortage of talent to represent. John Outterbridge recalls many of the artists who came through the Brockman’s doors, including Timothy Washington, Ruth Waddy, and Samella Lewis. Lewis and fellow artist Bernie Casey also founded Contemporary Crafts Gallery in 1970, and Lewis opened the first African American-owned art book publishing house, Contemporary Crafts Publishers, Inc., in the gallery.

    As a result of the Watts rebellion, more attention was focused on LACMA’s need to service a broader community with its programs. In 1968 the BAC, founded by its black employees, advocated for and organized a black cultural festival in conjunction with the exhibition “The Sculpture of Black Africa: The Paul Tishman Collection.” In 1972 Robert Wilson became their first black board member, and in 1976 LACMA became one of the first museums in the country to organize an exhibition of the work of African American artists: “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by artist and art historian David Driskell. Also in 1976 Samella Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art in the May Company Department Store building on Crenshaw Boulevard, just blocks from the Brockman Gallery, and the California African American Museum, chartered by the state in 1977, opened its doors in its new forty-four-thousand-square-foot building designed by black architects Jack Haywood and Vince Proby during the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Exposition Park, the same park where LACMA once operated.

    List of artists who exhibited at the Brockman Gallery or participated in Brockman Production programs | Courtesy Brockman Gallery Archive

    List of artists who exhibited at the Brockman Gallery or participated in Brockman Production programs | Courtesy Brockman Gallery Archive

    These new institutions signaled the promise of a healthy black cultural scene for Los Angeles. After opening the Brockman Gallery, Alonzo left his high school teaching job to enter graduate school at Otis Art Institute. Though it had been difficult to sustain the business, the Davis brothers calculated that by 1970 the gallery could survive on its own. But the challenges from the black arts community continued to swell, ultimately obstructing the brothers’ desire and ability to fully implement the business model they had developed. Finally, they decided to form a nonprofit. As a nonprofit, the Brockman Gallery could receive grants from the city, state, and federal government for programming and educational projects. While the Brockman Gallery focused on exhibiting artwork for sale, Brockman Productions was established to address the social and artistic needs of the community. Brockman Productions received funding for film festivals notable for a number of important screenings, including “Child Resistance” by UCLA film student Haile Gerima, and one of the earliest screenings of Larry Clark’s film “As Above, So Below.”

    In the 1970s Brockman Productions screened the films of UCLA film student Ben Caldwell. Caldwell and fellow film student Charles Burnett, director of “To Sleep with Anger,” joined forces to focus their cinematic attentions on L.A.’s black communities, setting up shop in Leimert Park Village. With other creative professionals moving into the area, the neighborhood soon became a black cultural Mecca. The Brockman Productions mural program included muralists such as Richard Wyatt, Judy Baca, Kent Twitchell, and Frank Romero. The Brockman music component introduced the music of instrumental group Hiroshima and offered frequent music happenings with Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra at free concerts. When the Brockman Productions programming became successful, the Brockman Gallery began to attract emerging artists from other parts of the state and beyond: Mildred Howard, Carrie May Weems, Joe Sam, Maren Hassinger, and Martin Payton, among others. Many established black artists also exhibited there, including Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden. Dale attributes Brockman’s success as a nonprofit to a cultural shift that offered new, broader opportunities to cultural centers in the area. The Davis brothers’ exposure to art and culture as young children impacted their view of the art world, their sense of aesthetics, and their investigations beyond image-based art. In the gallery, they offered high school and college students internships to help them learn the business of art and become familiar with some of the issues associated with community-based and for-profit galleries.

    Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive

    Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive

    Initially, events put on by Brockman Productions were not actively promoted; the Davis brothers mistakenly thought that they were in a financially stable neighborhood and assumed that if they developed events, the population in the Hills and beyond would support them. However, the wealthier Hills residents were looking westward, and that is where their income went.

    Though some collectors purchased from the Brockman Gallery and attended Brockman events, their support was limited. Realizing that they could not rely solely on the black community to sustain themselves, Alonzo and Dale expanded their support base, reaching out to Hollywood and Jewish communities that in turn brought in another group of clients and made residents in the Hills community more responsive. Like Gallery 32, the Brockman Gallery featured black artists — though not exclusively. To expand their support base, the Davis brothers also featured Hispanic, Anglo, and Japanese artists who had grown up in the area and had gone to school there and were still part of the surrounding community. While Alonzo was at Otis, he convinced his artist colleagues to exhibit at the Brockman Gallery, which was viewed as an alternative exhibition space. Because of the diverse roster of artists promoted by the Davis brothers, a community joke circulated that the Brockman Gallery showed non-black artists more than the white galleries showed black artists.

    After Dale married in 1980, he became less involved at the gallery. Though he continued to marginally participate in gallery activities, he became much more active in the nonprofit side of the business, Brockman Productions. Later Alonzo left the for-profit side of the gallery in 1987 to become the interim director of the public art program for the city and county of Sacramento:

    Part of leaving Los Angeles and relocating to Sacramento was trying to find my identity as an artist and move from other artists pulling at me, wanting more of my time and resources for community-oriented programs — [as an artist] I wanted to do my own thing. The community was so hard and expectations were so great and you were only seen in one direction and not as a multi-directional person — it just wasn’t working.

    Debbie Byars, a former student of Dale’s, became acting director while Alonzo was away. As an artist and administrator, Alonzo continued to pursue his personal interests. After his stint in Sacramento, he was awarded a six-month fellowship at the East/West Center in Hawaii. On his return, Alonzo realized that the gallery was failing and that his and Dale’s interests lay elsewhere. In 1990 they decided to close the gallery. They turned over their lease to Mary and Jacqueline Kimbrough, who opened Zambezi Bazaar. Mary and Jacqueline come from a politically active family and, along with their brother Alden, collect books, ephemera, and recorded music, as well as many other objects that help tell the story of blacks in America. At the time, the Brockman Gallery consisted of four storefronts: for twenty years the Davis brothers had worked to build an artistic village, and they had several artist-in-residence spaces. Dale remembers their creation as an icon of cultural pride, entrepreneurship, and the power of vision, common purpose, and determination.

    A close up view of Alonzo Davis and Brockman Gallery as part of the historical tableau (alongside Horace Tapscott and Richard Fulton of 5th St. Dicks) on the mural behind the Vision Theater | Photo: Alvaro Parra

    A close up view of Alonzo Davis and Brockman Gallery as part of the historical tableau (alongside Horace Tapscott and Richard Fulton of 5th St. Dicks) on the mural behind the Vision Theater | Photo: Alvaro Parra

    In the 1990s, just after the Brockman Gallery closed, “the village” experienced a cultural rebirth, with new businesses popping up in Leimert Park. Along with the Kimbroughs’ Zambezi Bazaar, the new crop of businesses included Brian Breye’s Museum in Black (specializing in the exhibition and sale of African art and artifacts and of black memorabilia), Marla Gibbs’s Vision Theatre Complex (formerly the Leimert Theater, built in 1930 as a joint venture between Walter H. Leimert and Howard Hughes), Gibbs’s Crossroads Art Academy (a provider of arts programs for youth), Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn (a club that relocated from Central Avenue to the Village), Kaos Network and Project Blowed (which offered creative adults and young people a meeting place and focused on new media technology; it was created by Ben Caldwell, who had worked at the Brockman Gallery in the 1970s), and Kamau Daaood’s World Stage (a venue for spoken word readings, jam sessions, workshops, and performances, founded in 1989 by drummer Billy Higgins). The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, established in 1961, continued to be an active cultural presence in the village.

    Although homeownership in Leimert Park remains high, many businesses in the village, a
    prime piece of Los Angeles real estate, are leased. Village rents steadily rose, and many businesses lost their leases between 2000 and 2010. New cultural footprints have begun to take hold in the area. Artist Mark Bradford has opened a street-level storefront studio in Leimert Park on the site of his mother’s hair salon (where he was a stylist before going to art school at the age of thirty). In 2010 Eileen Harris Norton founded the Leimert Project, a promising new space, next to the Zambezi Bazaar in one of the same storefronts occupied by the Brockman Gallery during its years on the block. 11

    Today Los Angeles is experiencing a resurgence of interest in its art scene, and artists every-where — including black artists — increasingly participate in a transnational art dialogue. Decades ago Alonzo and Dale Davis planted an entrepreneurial cultural seed that continues to manifest in Leimert Park Village. That seed germinated many miles away in a small, predominantly black college community founded on Booker T. Washington’s affirmation of the virtue of self-reliance, a notion that was reinforced by the boundaries of racial segregation. Though society has come a long way since the days of Jim Crow, the story of the Davis brothers reminds us that it is more important than ever to acknowledge how viable community examples and business models can nurture desired outcomes and affect the way a community thinks about itself.
    Author’s Note

    Although Alonzo continued his art practice, it has suffered due to the time he has devoted to running a private gallery. After closing the gallery, he reestablished himself as a visual artist without, as he says, “having the chain of the gallery holding me down.” He was an artist-in- residence at Lawrence University and then became a visiting artist at San Antonio Art Institute in Texas before taking a position from 1993 to 2002 as academic dean at the Memphis School of Art in Tennessee. He had gained a great deal of business and nonprofit work experience with the Brockman Gallery, so arts administration was an easy transition, and he was at ease in a creative environment where fresh and innovative ideas could flourish without the restrictions of racial expectations. He has also been a fellow several times at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and now serves as one of its advisers. After leaving Memphis he continued his entrepreneurial activities, opening his own artist residency, AIR, in the artist community of Paducah, Kentucky. Most of the year he spends his time in his studio at Montpelier Art Center in Laurel, Maryland, and he exhibits widely. Dale still resides in Los Angeles, not far from Leimert Park Village and the site of the former Brockman Gallery. Dale taught art at nearby Susan B. Dorsey High School in Leimert Park until he retired from teaching in 2002. His mixed-media art practice has continued without interruption, and he is exhibiting more due to the renewed interest in LA artists. He also continues to be involved with Brockman Productions as a board member.

    ____________________________

    Notes

    1 In 1932 the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute
    enrolled four hundred poor black men in a project to study untreated syphilis, known in the local community as “bad blood.” The men actually had syphilis.

    2 According to the Tuskegee Airmen website, “The black airmen who became single-engine or multi-engine pilots were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Tuskegee, Alabama.”

    3 See Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: Norton, 1983), 419. Dawson knew Douglas, and when I visited Dawson in the early 1980s, he had examples of Douglas’s art in his home. Southern states, “According to the composer, a link was taken out of a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent into slavery.”

    4 Dale Davis, pers. comm., February 28, 2011. Additionally, George Washington Carver, the scientist and artist, is known for his cultivation of amaryllis bulbs, which he shared with the institute community. He also developed printers ink from surplus
    peanuts. The ink was of particular interest to the campus print shop.

    5 Alonzo Davis, interview by author, March 27, 2011.

    6 Dale Davis, “Brockman Gallery,” photocopy, February 2011.

    7 The Meredith March was named after James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi after federal courts ruled that blacks could not be denied entry based on their race. Meredith continued his graduate studies at Columbia University, and on June 5, 1966, he and a few companions began a “march against fear” walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to register black voters. On June 6 he was wounded by a shotgun blast.

    8 Alonzo Davis, interview by author, March 27, 2011.

    9 See Jeannette Lindsay, dir., Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles, 2006.

    10 See Heritage Gallery, www.heritagegallery.com/horowitz.obit.html (November 23, 2011).

    Special Thanks to Duke University Press. You can find the article in its original form here:

    Lizetta LeFalle-Collins, “Planting A Seed: The Brockman Gallery and the Village,” in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Volume 3, no. , pp. 4-15. Copyright, 2012, Nka Publications. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyrightholder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press.

    www.dukeupress.edu

    ===

    LATIMES
    Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice to bring art, social services to Leimert

     

    Carolina A. Miranda

     

    ntemporary art gallery, opened its doors on the same block.

     

    The eastern side of Degnan Boulevard and West 43rd Place in Leimert Park at first glance seems like just another crestfallen Los Angeles block. Doors are closed. Gates are shut. Plywood obscures the windows on an ornate Art Deco-era structure topped by a stupa-like tower.

    But walk closer and you’ll hear a hive of activity in storefronts along the block as workers sand, paint and debate where the light switches will go. A singular art and social services collaboration is being constructed.

    Art + Practice, as this unusual project is called, will showcase museum-grade contemporary art exhibitions, while also offering services for youth in the city’s foster care system.
    Art and Practice: Eileen Harris Norton and Allan DiCastro
    Spearheaded by artist Mark Bradford, Art + Practice will bring a unique combination of contemporary art, as well as social services for foster youth, to Leimert Park. A+P co-founders Eileen Harris Norton, left, and Allan DiCastro check in on construction of a gallery space. (Christina House / For The Times)

    “This is the bookstore,” says Allan DiCastro, the organization’s interim director, as he walks through an empty Degnan Boulevard storefront being lined with wood panels. “We’re adding a second floor right there — that’s where the lectures will be. And we’re adding oak shelves. It will have a nice, warm feel.”

    Behind him follows noted art collector and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, one of A+P’s founders, who on this brisk Friday afternoon stops to admire the day’s work. “It’s going to be an incredible space,” she says, as she takes it all in.
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    When it opens in February, A+P won’t be a typical community arts center. The Hammer Museum is providing curatorial muscle to stage exhibitions. The RightWay Foundation, which moved its headquarters in August to A+P, provides job training and mental health services to foster youth. And the bookstore is the venerable Eso Won Books, which will leave its Degnan Boulevard space for a storefront in the A+P complex.

    Providing inspiration and guidance throughout is co-founder Mark Bradford, whose work has been shown at the Hammer, New York’s Whitney Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Bradford is also a 2009 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

    “No one in L.A. County has a program like this,” says RightWay founder and director Franco Vega. “In fact, I don’t think anyone in the country has a program like this. There’s a program in Boston that mixes sports and mental health services, but not art.”

    A+P is a result of the concerted efforts of Bradford, DiCastro and Norton, a close-knit, easygoing crew. DiCastro and Bradford have been a couple since the late 1990s. And Norton met Bradford in the early 2000s, just before the artist’s the historic 2001 exhibition “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
    Art + Practice Street View
    On South Leimert Blvd., A+P is teaming up with the RightWay Foundation to offer job training and mental health services to L.A. foster youth. (Christina House / For The Times)

    “I was the first to buy from him,” she says. “He was a struggling artist. He’d finished CalArts but was still working at [his mother’s] hair salon. I had my hair done by him — back when I still had hair.”

    A+P is a long-held dream for Bradford and DiCastro.

    “For years, Mark and I have been talking about how we can do something that crosses volunteerism and art,” says DiCastro, who has a banking background and for nearly a decade helped run the Mid-City Neighborhood Council. “So much of what happens has to do with kids not having enough to do. So how can you change that?”
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    When the Art Deco building at Degnan and West 43rd Place went on the market a couple of years back. DiCastro says they found their place: Leimert Park, around the corner from where Bradford’s mother once operated her hair salon and where Bradford long maintained the studio where he began to produce the expressive, abstracted works for which he’d become known — works that, in their early days, contained the paper end wraps used in perms.

    Once complete, the A+P campus will consist of half a dozen buildings housing not just the art gallery, bookstore and RightWay offices, but space for artist studios.

    Bradford and DiCastro supplied a majority of the seed money to launch A+P, which has allowed the organization, a privately operated 501(c)3 foundation, to purchase some of the real estate it is occupying — including the graceful building at Degnan and West 43rd Place that will serve as the art gallery.

    The project is also covered, in part, by a $600,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, as part of a Hammer initiative to create programming and increase arts access to residents of African American communities in South Los Angeles.
    No one in L.A. County has a program like this. In fact, I don’t think anyone in the country has a program like this. – Franco Vega, founder and director, RightWay Foundation

    “Almost every department in our museum is engaged in the process,” says Hammer director Annie Philbin of her institution’s relationship with A+P. “Whether it’s administrative helping with a budget or public relations supporting them on marketing and publicity. The expectation is that we will support and guide them in not-for-profit practices, but it also brings the museum out beyond our four walls.”

    Bradford, unavailable to join DiCastro and Norton on this day’s tour, adds in a short statement, “Annie has been a supporter of Art + Practice since the inception.” He also notes that it’s a natural collaboration with an institution that has shown his work for almost 15 years. (The museum also honored him at its annual gala in October.)

    DiCastro and Norton took me on a tour of the in-progress spaces. The gallery that will be housed in the Art Deco building is still raw and un-primed, with wires and pipes poking out dangerously from an uneven cement floor. (They are awaiting permits from the city to begin construction.) But the social services offices — a couple of well-appointed storefronts on South Leimert Boulevard — are not only complete, they are already in use, boasting a tidy computer lab and a training center.

    For DiCastro, one of the most crucial aspects of the project was getting the social service component just right. He and Bradford conducted extensive research on what sorts of services the neighborhood might need.

    “In doing our research, we realized that in this ZIP Code, there is an epidemic of kids in foster care,” he says. “So it became important to us to focus our efforts there.”

    In fact, L.A. County has the largest foster youth population in the nation (almost 30,000 kids), says RightWay’s Vega. A lot of that population resides in South Los Angeles. Dorsey High School and Crenshaw High School, both less than two miles from A+P, have the city’s highest concentrations of foster youth.

    Vega, a former foster child himself, says that when he was approached by A+P, he was intrigued by the model — which not only has the potential to expose foster youth to art but the art world to the challenges faced by Los Angeles’ foster youth.

    “I remember, [Mark] called me about a meeting,” he says with a chuckle, “and I was like, ‘Who is Mark Bradford?’ But we had the most relaxed conversation ever. He was asking me, ‘What do you want do do?’ ”
    Mark Bradford at Hammer Gala
    For years, artist Mark Bradford maintained a studio in Leimert Park, where he is now involved in establishing A+P. He is seen here in October at the Hammer Museum gala in his honor. (David McNew / AFP/Getty Images)

    The next day Bradford approached him about meeting with the A+P board. Vega says the session went so well he not only decided to participate, he moved the RightWay Foundation’s headquarters to A+P’s Leimert Park campus. Since late summer, the organization has been providing life-preparedness classes for foster youth at its A+P location, which has a new computer lab. RightWay’s service include clinical counseling, resume building and job training. (The organization regularly places foster youth in jobs at places such as the Staples Center and USC’s Galen Center.)

    “Everything they have promised us has come through,” Vega says. “And you couldn’t pick a better location. When the Metro is finished in 2019, you won’t be able to make it easier for youth than this.”

    The bonus: RightWay gets two years’ free rent as part of the deal.

    The Hammer’s Philbin says that the time and care that A+P has put into finding strong partners has been important to the museum, too.
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    “Mark and Allan are very serious and thoughtful,” she says. “They’ve done a lot of research on foster care issues and their approach is not springing out of nowhere.”

    Equally important to all of this is Leimert’s Park history as a center of African American culture.

    The neighborhood, home to Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and other important African American figures, is where brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis ran the Brockman Gallery, L.A.’s first African American-owned commercial gallery. It was part of the community from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. And for a time, Norton ran a space on Degnan Boulevard called Leimert Project. Last February, Papillion, a contemporary art gallery, opened its doors on the same block.
    Eso Won Books space
    Longtime Leimert Park culture outpost Eso Won Books will have a new store within the A+P space. Eso Won owners James Fulgate, center, and Thomas Hamilton, right, visit the under-construction shop on Degnan Boulevard with members of A+P. (Christina House / For The Times)

    “I have a foundation, and the issues I’ve been concerned with are families in underserved communities,” says Norton. “But the art component is very important to me, too. This area has so much history. Brockman helped bring them all in. This helps keep the arts here.”

    As part of its mission, A+P will provide studios to three artists in residence, terms that already began in August. Among the first artists to participate: Dale Brockman Davis, founder of the famed Brockman Gallery, who is using the space to work on his archive.

    The public lecture space will be programmed in collaboration with the owners of Eso Won Books, James Fulgate and Thomas Hamilton. Since the 1980s, their bookshop has been a gathering place for African American authors and the community. (In 1995, the shop played host to a little-known activist by the name of Barack Obama, who was promoting his book “Dreams From My Father.”)
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    And, of course, there’s the exhibition program, which will include a wide range of shows managed by Hammer Museum curators. The first exhibition, opening Feb. 28 in A+P’s remodeled, two-room gallery space on South Leimert Boulevard, will showcase new work by L.A.-based conceptual artist Charles Gaines. This show will be in conjunction with a Hammer survey of early works, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989,” which goes on view at the Westwood museum on Feb. 7.

    “It all fell right into place,” says Norton. “He’s local and he’s having a big show at the Hammer and he was very enthusiastic. It was an opportunity to show some new works.”

    Among the new pieces at Gaines’ A+P show will be a 12-part series that combines a 1911 Manuel de Falla opera with a 1964 speech by Black Panthers activist Stokely Carmichael. Gaines will combine music and text to draw attention to class and race issues.
    In the A+P computer lab
    A+P co-founders Norton, left, and DiCastro, stand inside the computer lab operated by the RightWay Foundation at A+P. The lab allows underserved youth to check email, apply for jobs and do research. (Christina House / For The Times)

    Subsequent A+P exhibitions will feature L.A. assemblagist John Outterbridge and mixed-media artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby.

    Michelle Papillion, who operates Papillion gallery, couldn’t be more thrilled by A+P’s imminent debut.

    “People want culture,” she says. “They want things that they can participate in and go to in their own neighborhood. And then go home with that information and continue to sort it out in conversation in their own circles.”

    DiCastro’s hope is that A+P can honor the history of Leimert Park, while offering its residents fresh moments of discovery.

    “The idea is to enhance what is already here,” he says. “Mark has spent so much time here. This is his way of giving back.”

    ==

    NYTIMES

    Photo

    Mark Grotjahn Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

    LOS ANGELES — It started out as a lark. After long days in the studio making his labor-intensive “Butterfly” paintings about a decade ago, Mark Grotjahn would unwind by taking empty supply boxes or beer cartons and gluing on toilet-paper tubes as noses. Then he would paint crude eyes and mouths.

    The cardboard sculptures offered him a chance to “get dirty and messy, to be expressive in a different way,” he said, unlike the densely layered “Butterfly” canvases, which have been compared to Barnett Newman’s “zips” for their focus on a single abstract motif.

    He did not intend to exhibit what he called his masks and gave several away as gifts. The bathroom humor was obvious.

    But intentions can change; the art world has a soft spot for a certain amount of nose-thumbing irreverence; and these days, even Mr. Grotjahn’s clownish sculptures — now cast in bronze before being painted — are getting serious play.

    Early works from the series, introduced at Gagosian Gallery in New York two years ago, were bought by the Guggenheim and Broad museums, among others. Newer and larger examples are now heading to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for Mr. Grotjahn’s first museum exhibition of sculptural works, opening May 31.

    Photo

    Works in Mark Grotjahn’s studio headed to the Nasher Sculpture Center. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

    “I think the masks are fascinating objects and also important as painting surfaces that allow for tremendous freedom and experimentation,” said Jeremy Strick, director at the Nasher. “You could see it as a way for Mark to give himself license to do things he wouldn’t ordinarily do, to paint in different ways.”

    On May 1, Blum & Poe, his longtime gallery in Los Angeles, opened a space on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a survey of the “Butterfly” paintings, through June 21.

    The May shows represent two extremes of this artist’s work that are not always easy to reconcile. What is a rigorous abstract painter doing making funny faces out of leftover Heineken cases, works that he himself compares to grade-school art projects? Has he lost his way as a painter, or discovered an important second act as a sculptor?

    What becomes clear from a recent visit to his sculpture studio is that Mr. Grotjahn has found a second act in his personal life, having stopped drinking about a year ago. And he has begun giving back to the art world, donating money to the Mike Kelley exhibition now at the Museum of Contemporary Art and joining the board there as its youngest artist-trustee, at 46. The move surprised many who didn’t see him as much of a joiner, and Mr. Grotjahn, who is married to the painter Jennifer Guidi and is the father of two young girls, called it a personal first.

    Sitting in his studio, a large space that used to be an embroidery factory, he looked fit and relaxed, with his graying beard neatly trimmed and his pale blue eyes clear. “I was a binge drinker; I drank when I traveled,” he said with a bit of a surfer-dude drawl and some expletives for emphasis. “From what people say, I look a lot better and a lot younger than I did. It’s a completely different way of living your life.”

    Photo

    “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)” in his “Circus” series, 2012. Credit Douglas M. Parker

    Mr. Strick, director of the Nasher, said what strikes him about Mr. Grotjahn right now is “his amazing productivity,” as he works on several new paintings and sculptures spread out over two studios.

    One room of the sculpture studio is filled with a small army of the boxy, rough-and-tumble figures heading for the Nasher. Many look as if they were attacked with pencils or knives, poked and ripped, before being cast in bronze and painted.

    Most are finger paintings, though done with gloved hands for protection.

    Of the sculptures’ primitive look, Mr. Grotjahn said: “I think my masks reference artists who reference primitivism. They’re not directly connected to tribal arts. I think they look more like third-grade art projects.”

    “There’s obviously a lot of phallic humor and toilet humor,” he added, looking at a tall, skinny bronze mask smeared with red and yellow paint. “But it also comes out of some of the art I was thinking about when I first moved to L.A.: artists interested in the pathetic,” he added, mentioning Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.

    Photo

    “Untitled (Orange Butterfly Blue MG03) #1”  in his “Butterfly” series, 2003. Credit Douglas M. Parker

    “And just because the masks started out casually or were fun personally doesn’t mean they’re any less serious,” he said.

    The masks have been growing more complex, featuring double noses or incorporating some tools used in lost-wax casting into the structures. They are also becoming more painterly, with one mask in a loose, Impressionistic style that makes Mr. Grotjahn think of Monet’s water lilies, he said. He sees echoes of Cy Twombly and Julian Schnabel in the dense looping scrawls on another. Others recall Jackson Pollock.

    Today, Mr. Grotjahn’s paintings often surpass the million-dollar mark at auction (with a record $6.5 million for a work bid up by Mr. Gagosian at a charity auction). And selling one “Butterfly” painting from his own stock enabled him to make a down payment on a house in Los Angeles.

    But he was hardly an overnight success. Born in 1968 in Pasadena, Calif., he grew up in Mill Valley, a suburb of San Francisco “that was all hippies back then,” he said. “We were dirty kids on dirt bikes.”

    After getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art, he settled in Los Angeles in 1996. For a year or so, he ran an art gallery in Hollywood with a friend from the University of California, Berkeley.

    Photo

    “Untitled (African, Gated Front and Back Mask M34.b)” is a 2014 bronze based on a cardboard box and tubes. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

    He also pursued his own art projects. For one series, he replicated the signs of small businesses in the area and then gave business owners his painted signs in exchange for their real ones. For another, he began drawing or painting perspective lines converging in a way that made the surface itself seem to bulge and recede.

    He had his first solo shows with Blum & Poe, then a promising small gallery in Santa Monica, in 1998 and 2000. He remembers selling only one artwork from the second show, pocketing $1,750.

    “Selling only one piece for a year and a half of work was a bit of a whipping,” he said, noting wryly that Jeff Poe, one of the gallery’s owners, called the show “a critical and financial disappointment.” Mr. Grotjahn turned to poker for income, spending the next 10 months playing Texas Hold ’Em in a casino in the nearby city of Commerce. “I played like an addict, maybe 13 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said, picking at a snack of vegetables on a tray. “I wasn’t playing to win but to lose myself.”

    During this period, he began the “Butterfly” paintings, so named because of the way their lines radiate from a central, vertical axis. The first one started as a colorful perspectival painting in which nested V’s radiate from the horizon line, like a sunset and streetscape.

    But he wasn’t happy until he flipped the canvas 90 degrees: “I found that rotating it took all the landscape out, so it became a nonobjective painting.“

    Douglas Fogle, an independent curator who organized the “Butterfly” exhibition for Blum & Poe, calls this series Mr. Grotjahn’s breakthrough work. He notes that the artist’s off-kilter, hand-painted geometry — unlike the hard-edge look created by applying and peeling off tape — places him in “a tradition that goes back to early abstract painting by Mondrian and Malevich,” adding, “I see his ties with Constructivist painting.”

    Mr. Grotjahn stopped painting the “Butterfly” works in 2008, after tearing his rotator cuff and breaking a shoulder bone in a ski accident. He found he couldn’t paint for more than two hours at a time. Since then, he has discovered physical therapy and looser, less intensive ways of painting. One resulting series, the “Face” paintings, feature almond-shaped, Picasso-like eyes peering out from wild skeins of color. When reviewing the work in 2011, New York magazine’s art critic, Jerry Saltz, responded to the images’ untamed or “shamanic” power, calling it “the best show by a midcareer painter that I’ve seen in a long time.”

    Mr. Grotjahn has since turned his attention to the so-called “Circus” paintings, which are close in spirit to the “Faces,” though the ropes of paint look even more tangled — almost braided — and the almond eyes have morphed into larger leaflike structures. These new paintings will be shown starting May 16 at the Kunstverein Freiburg, a swimming pool turned exhibition hall in Germany.

    He painted both the “Face” and “Circus” series on cardboard mounted on linen, a clear link to his cardboard sculptures. “It’s all connected,” he said. “When I started the masks, I left them in my studio where I painted. I looked at them all the time. And now, I’m watching them become more like traditional paintings. I think you’ll see them influencing my painting in the future. I’m sure of it.”

    Correction: May 18, 2014
    A picture caption last Sunday with an article about the visual artist Mark Grotjahn referred incorrectly to the titles of three of his works. The painting in his “Circus” series is “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)”; the painting in his “Butterfly” series is “Untitled (Orange Butterfly Blue MG03) #1”; and the bronze sculpture is called “Untitled (African, Gated Front and Back Mask M34.b).” These works were not untitled.

    ==

    The sculptor Thomas Houseago was practically bouncing off the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art late last month as he toured some of the treasures on the first floor. He unleashed a torrent of praise — “insane,” “unbelievable, “crazy,” “weird,” “wicked” — as he pinballed from an ancient Greek grave stele to a striking series of squatting Aztec and Maya figures.

    The British-born Mr. Houseago lives in Los Angeles but knows the Met’s collection well, and some of the Central American pieces directly inspired one of his best-known works, “Baby,” a huge crouching figure in plaster, wood and iron that was shown in the Whitney Biennial in 2010.

    He stopped in front of a 19th-century wood house post figure from the Indonesian Sentani people with a wide, carved grin. “He’s smiling at death,” said Mr. Houseago, whose bright blue eyes were blazing beneath his fiery red hair. “Sculpture beats death.”

    Coming from him, it made sense: the high-energy Mr. Houseago (pronounced HOWZ-a-go), 42, sculpts as if his life depended on it.

    Photo

    Works on the wall at Thomas Houseago’s studio in Los Angeles. Credit Sam Comen for The New York Times

    And according to him, it does. “My practice sustains me,” he said. “If I don’t work, I get socially bizarre and agitated. I need my practice to kind of keep me good with the world.”

    His intensity has propelled him on an unusual path, from a modern version of a Dickensian childhood in Leeds, England, and then 15 years of struggle — from bankruptcy to boozy binges and a car accident that had him “hanging off the edge of a cliff,” in his words — to art world success.

    As late as 2006, he was working in construction to make ends meet in Los Angeles; now, he is represented by two of the most powerful galleries, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth. And he tore through a succession of other top dealers to get there. This week, Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea debuts a single large installation, “Moun Room,” which Mr. Houseago calls his “first truly American piece” — he holds dual citizenship — and his “first proper New York show.”

    Mr. Houseago made his name with towering, hulking figures and masks that draw on ancient art as well as the tradition of Picasso, Rodin and Brancusi. The plaster pieces have rough-hewed surfaces, with the iron rebar that holds them together exposed in places, giving his work a sense of vulnerability at odds with their size. Wood and other materials are also incorporated, and he often draws on the sculptures.

    But “Moun Room,” an architectural installation rather than a figure, is something of a departure for him.

    He called the work, a 36-by-45-foot environment with 12-foot-high plaster walls and a progression of different spaces, “a visual maze with a spiritual dimension.” In this case, the gallerygoer who enters it provides the human figure, not Mr. Houseago.

    The name is meant to blend a reference to the moon — the walls have bas-reliefs and voids in circular shapes — with the name of his girlfriend, Muna El Fituri, a writer and translator. Mr. Houseago is getting a divorce and has two children, and he said that his new relationship had opened a chapter for him. “ ‘Moun Room’ is a piece about light and life,” he said. “The future.”

    With its rough, primitive air, “Moun Room” is of a piece with Mr. Houseago’s earlier work. His friend the actor Julian Sands, who is also from the Leeds area, said, “I expected to meet the Minotaur in the center.” Mr. Sands, who went through the piece when it was assembled in Mr. Houseago’s Los Angeles studio, added, “It was like walking through the Labyrinth.”

    If the details get sorted out, Mr. Houseago said, he hopes to debut a large, long-planned work at Rockefeller Center next spring: a series of five large masks that the public can walk through, in the same location as Jeff Koons’s recent “Split Rocker.” Few artists work big as Mr. Houseago does. “It might be the reason you like the work, or the reason you hate it,” said Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles who has written about Mr. Houseago. “It could feel like aggrandizement.”

    She admires the way “his work at a big scale has the intimacy of drawing.”

    When it comes to materials, Mr. Houseago is fairly old school. He usually sculpts in clay and then casts the pieces in plaster or bronze, or both. “I started working with clay because it was cheap, but there’s something about making sculpture from the earth,” he said. “There are so many religious and ceremonial associations.”

    Mr. Houseago works with a crew of about 20 people to make the sculptures, which are so large they sometimes fall apart as they are born — which he said he did not mind.

    “I believe in these broken sculptures,” he said. “I love that. Sculpture is a constant dance with gravity. In my case, anyway.”

    The blustery sincerity in Mr. Houseago’s work and approach makes him an odd man out in today’s irony-rich art world. The South African artist Marlene Dumas, one of Mr. Houseago’s tutors from his time at the Amsterdam art school De Ateliers, wrote in an email that her former student “makes warm work in cold times.”

    “Art without a face-lift,” she added.

    She contrasted him with Mr. Koons, a comparison other critics have also cited. “Thomas works like a force of nature,” she wrote. “If Koons is (clinical) Culture, Houseago is (disastrous) Nature.”

    A childhood surrounded by poverty and violence in Leeds took Mr. Houseago to the edge of disaster many times. “It left me with a fight-or-flight response to the universe,” he said.

    But Mr. Houseago declared himself as an artist at an early age, and by the time he attended Jacob Kramer College (now the Leeds College of Art), he was already testing the limits of expression. “I had a Chris Burden-esque phase,” he recalled, referring to the artist who had himself shot. “I went into the forest, set myself on fire and then leapt into water, and photographed it.”

    Photo

    Thomas Houseago’s “Baby” (2009-10) at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times

    He attended Central St. Martins College of Art in London at the time of the “Young British Artists” phenomenon, though he felt at odds with their polished approach. When he saw a show of late Picasso work at the Tate in 1986, something clicked. “I came away thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Mr. Houseago said. “I saw the cosmic freedom that comes from a life dedicated to art.”

    After studying at De Ateliers, he moved to Brussels. It was a hard-partying period he described as “eight years of lost weekends.”

    Having had little luck making a career of art in Belgium, Mr. Houseago ended up in Los Angeles, where he eventually found the first dealer with whom he found success, David Kordansky, and his first serious patrons, the Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell. The Rubells, known as tastemakers in the art world, showed up in a studio that Mr. Houseago had borrowed. “The work was incredibly powerful, and we bought the entire contents of the studio,” Mr. Rubell said.

    Ms. Rubell said they were taken by his fearlessness. “Thomas takes on all of history, with a vengeance,” she said. “He doesn’t apologize. He says, ‘I’m going to stand up to Picasso, and sit at the table with all the greats.’ And he does.”

    The same ambition that fueled what Mr. Houseago acknowledged was a “violently fast” rise also incurred some casualties, like his relationship with Mr. Kordansky.

    “He went through a whole bunch of galleries,” said Mr. Kordansky, who is now close to Mr. Houseago again. “That can be perceived as a game of steppingstones. But he wouldn’t even deny that. Only a few galleries can work with monumental sculptures. He wants the best for his art, and that’s something I respect.”

    Mr. Houseago said that being represented simultaneously by Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth was “extremely complex,” and that he often self-funds his large pieces. “I have a new power I’m enjoying,” he said. “It’s my work, I paid for it. And it’s the privilege of having a market.”

    His “Moon Figure I,” a bronze, sold for $269,000 at Christie’s last year. Hauser & Wirth says that his figurative sculptures sell for up to $1 million. The fact that large pieces rarely make a big profit, since they are particularly time consuming, does not deter Mr. Houseago. “It’s physically difficult to be a sculptor,” he said. “So if you’ve already made that leap, you’re already really comfortable with the absurdity.”

    He added: “The tradition I’m coming from is not pleasure. It’s a certain shamanistic excess.”

    He was smiling broadly as he said it.

    =======

     

    NYTIMES

    The New Dealer

    David Kordansky might not be the biggest player in the L.A. gallery scene, but his manic enthusiasm and seemingly genuine determination to draw attention to underappreciated artists make him the most interesting by far.

    Photo

    <strong>INNER CIRCLE</strong> Kordansky (center) with several artists he represents, from left: John Mason, Rashid Johnson, Kathryn Andrews, Jonas Wood, Mary Weatherford, Elad Lassry, Anthony Pearson, Ricky Swallow, Thomas Lawson and Lesley Vance.
    INNER CIRCLE Kordansky (center) with several artists he represents, from left: John Mason, Rashid Johnson, Kathryn Andrews, Jonas Wood, Mary Weatherford, Elad Lassry, Anthony Pearson, Ricky Swallow, Thomas Lawson and Lesley Vance.Credit Elena Dorfmann

    There is little in the world that David Kordansky enjoys more than talking about art. According to the artists he represents and the collectors to whom he sells, this is his gift. The artist Rashid Johnson, whom Kordansky has represented since 2009, said he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he and Kordansky have spoken about sales. There is no doubt that Kordansky, who is 37, can sell art like few other dealers, but he prefers to leave the closing of the deal to his staff. The venality of the current art business dismays him. Even in the 11 years since he opened his first gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, the market has become bloated beyond recognition, he said, especially in the auction houses of New York and London. “I believe in art much more than I believe in the art world,” he told me last summer in the kitchen of his home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, the artist Mindy Shapero, and their two young children.

    DESCRIPTION

    RELATED
    10 of David Kordansky’s Top Cultural Influences

    As he christens his new space in Los Angeles, he shares his creative touchstones — including several artists he doesn’t represent but admires nonetheless.

    In person, Kordansky is almost compulsively candid, by turns hectoring and vulnerable, outspoken and shy. “He wears his heart on his sleeve,” is the phrase I heard over and over again from the people who know him best. Candor can, of course, also be a form of performance. Collectors who enjoy the company of artists appreciate his eccentric, intimate manner, which make them feel like the chosen few.

    Beneath his gym-fit, boyish exterior and positive, Californian outlook, his persistence and gritty ambition are evident still. He may disdain aspects of the art market, but the success of his business is obviously a source of pride. “I didn’t come from money. I’ve bootstrapped every step of the way,” he said.

    Kordansky’s latest gamble is on a 12,705-square-foot gallery — designed by Kulapat Yantrasast, head of the architecture firm wHY — which recently opened in a nondescript midcity neighborhood halfway between the L.A. art hubs of Highland Avenue and Culver City, where his last two spaces were situated. With its bow-truss ceilings and abundance of light, the former martial arts studio and car dealership now exudes an ambience of cloistered calm. Comprised of two equally sized galleries, a viewing room and on-site art storage, the space also boasts a lounge for artists and their families, and private gardens for staff. Kordansky has always aimed to create “a culture of ownership” among his gallery’s employees. In return, he receives a degree of loyalty rare in the notoriously factious and gossipy gallery world.

    Kordansky was born in Biloxi, Miss., to American Jewish parents; his father was a doctor and his mother a family therapist. In the late ’90s he was accepted at the small but esteemed Hartford Art School. In 2000, he moved to the West Coast to study in the graduate art program at the California Institute of the Arts under conceptual artists including Michael Asher, Charles Gaines and Martin Kersels. (Kordansky now represents the painter Thomas Lawson, the dean of the art school.) After college, he continued to make installations, perform and curate exhibitions of friends’ work with his classmate, Jeff Kopp. From the outset he approached running a gallery as a creative project, perhaps more like an artist than a businessman, and soon became known as the primary dealer for what has been called “the post-Mike Kelley generation.”

    • SAM GILLIAM
      Washington, D.C.-based artist whose paintings, spanning the 1960s to the present day, had been much neglected prior to Kordansky’s interest. ‘‘Wide Narrow,’’ 1972. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    • ELAD LASSRY
      Israeli-born artist who often appropriates or digitally modifies images, transforming them into something more like sculpture. ‘‘Untitled (Boot A),’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    • JOHN MASON
      One of the Californian artists whose work helped bring ceramics to museums in the late 1950s. Sculptures from the exhibition ‘‘Crosses, Figures, Spears, Torques,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    • JONAS WOOD
      Known for his colorful, flat interiors, often depicting his own Los Angeles studio, as well as for paintings of boxers and basketball and baseball players. ‘‘Kitchen with Aloe Plant,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    • RASHID JOHNSON
      Artist who refers to aspects of African-American culture in paintings and sculptures made from materials such as black wax, mirrors, zebra skins and shea butter. ‘‘Un-American Idol,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    • MARY WEATHERFORD
      Painter whose abstract works, made by building up thin washes of paint and attaching strips of neon, are inspired by California’s coastal landscapes. ‘‘Neptune’s Net,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    • RICKY SWALLOW
      Australian-born artist who casts his small sculptures, made from cardboard and rope, in painted bronze. ‘‘Magnifying Glass with Rope No. 1,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    • LESLEY VANCE
      Los Angeles-based painter whose small-scale, luminous abstract paintings are inspired by traditional still lifes and landscapes. ‘‘Untitled,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
    Full Screen

    Stories abound from those early days of Kordansky’s limitless, sometimes maniacal enthusiasm for his artists. The collector Mera Rubell remembers meeting him in 2006. Kordansky was determined to show her and her husband, Don, the work of a young artist he was representing, Aaron Curry, while Curry was on vacation. Reached by phone in Hawaii, Curry gave them permission to break into his studio, where Kordansky was soon pulling sculptures out of boxes and expounding on the artist’s ideas. The following morning — at 6 a.m., while shuttling the couple to the airport — Kordansky took them to meet Thomas Houseago, another sculptor he had recently begun to champion, who laid out his work in a studio borrowed for the occasion. Rubell says she was “blown away.” She and her husband later invited the two artists and their dealer to visit their museum in Miami. The trip was an inspiring and formative experience for the three men, who stayed up late into the night, drinking and arguing about Picasso, classicism and figuration in sculpture.

    Kordansky’s passionate nature has not always worked in his favor. His professional relationship with Houseago buckled under the weight of its own intensity in 2009, when the artist left David Kordansky Gallery — a loss Rubell described as “a huge wake-up call” for the young dealer. Houseago finally settled with the international powerhouse Hauser & Wirth in 2011. “There was this abundance of youthful energy bouncing off each other that, in the end, was bigger than both of us,” Kordansky said ruefully. (Houseago agreed, but noted, “I can confidently say my career would not be where it is now without him.”)

    The majority of his artists have stuck by Kordansky, however. His very first exhibition in Chinatown included Matthew Brannon, Patrick Hill, Will Fowler, Lesley Vance and William E. Jones, all of whom continue to show with the gallery. Brannon told me that Kordansky’s often blunt manner can be an asset, despite artists’ often fragile egos: “My therapist loves Dave. He says, ‘You always know where you stand with this guy; he treats you right, he’s telling you the problem.’ ”

    Photo

    Kordansky (seated at center) with a group of his artists in Los Angeles.
    Kordansky (seated at center) with a group of his artists in Los Angeles.Credit Elena Dorfmann

    Kordansky now represents over 30 artists and counting, hence the need for space. He is still far from being the biggest fish in the L.A. pond — nor, perhaps, would he want to be. He prefers to avoid competition with his neighbors, who include Regen Projects near Highland Avenue, Blum & Poe in Culver City, Overduin & Co. in Hollywood, Marc Foxx, also a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the power players Gagosian, Matthew Marks and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, the last of which will take over a former flour mill in Downtown in 2015. When asked which galleries he feels a kinship toward, he instead looks across the Atlantic: to Johann König in Berlin, Standard (Oslo) in Norway or Herald Street in London. The art world loves youth, and Kordansky currently occupies the sweet spot between blue-chip establishment and cutting edge.

    In contrast to his imposing new gallery space, Kordansky’s home is modest, perfectly scaled to a family of four and designed for living, not for entertaining. Kordansky grows kale, Meyer lemons and Persian cucumbers in the garden. He gave me the tour with the eagerness of a child showing off new toys. Succulents exploded from earthy ceramic planters made by Robert Maxwell and David Cressey on the deck outside the kitchen. In addition to pieces by artists Kordansky represents — Valentin Carron, Larry Johnson, Elad Lassry — the interior was furnished with Brazilian and Mexican Modernist pieces in rosewood and leather, and ceramics were displayed beside rows of art books on floor-to-ceiling shelves. A painted sculpture of a nude trapeze artist by the Japanese Pop artist Keiichi Tanaami sat on a coffee table, and drawings of outlandish figures by the Chicago Imagist Karl Wirsum hung on one wall.

    Kordansky appreciates the Californian tendency to disregard hierarchies between creative disciplines; his gallery represents artists such as Ruby Neri and the Geneva-based Mai-Thu Perret, who both work in the tradition of John Mason, one of the Californian artists who, in the late 1950s, first brought ceramics into contemporary art galleries. (Mason, now 87, joined David Kordansky Gallery last year.) About half of his roster is made up of Angelenos, and a Californian sensibility infuses the program — not only in its emphasis on the region’s art-historical legacy, but also, more broadly, in its bias toward esoterica and marginalia, domestic themes and profane materials.

    Kordansky likes to talk about “curating one’s life.” Shouldn’t we consider the architecture, the objects we handle, the furniture we sit on and the artwork we look at all as part of a unified aesthetic experience? He showed me a shelf of tiny Doyle Lane vases, each glazed a different color and texture. He would always rather stand in front of an object than look at a screen, and is particularly skeptical about what has recently been labeled “post-Internet” art — work made from Internet memes, online avatars, stock photos, patents and 3D scans. “We don’t even want to talk about the world any more,” he said. “We’re disconnected from core emotionality.”

    In other places, talk of lifestyle is always related to an embarrassment about class, but in L.A. it’s an ongoing philosophical discussion. “The exterior of my life kind of runs itself,” Kordansky admitted over a lunch of grilled chicken and kale salad. “Now it’s about the interior, the spiritual. It’s about getting at the core of my existence — which is about my family.” There is little distinction in his mind between his professional and personal lives, or between his tastes in art and his philosophy of being. “It’s about having an open, holistic view rather than a myopic view,” he said. “Here culture is more attached to nature.” The greenery beyond the wide window, the home-grown salad and the stoneware planters seemed to reinforce his point.

    Two years ago, Kordansky undertook a pilgrimage to the D.C. studio of Sam Gilliam, an 80-year-old African-American painter of the Washington Color School. Gilliam never achieved the level of recognition that his peers from the 1960s such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis did, in part because the art establishment didn’t know what to make of a black artist who refused to make work about race. Kordansky had been a fan of Gilliam’s radically innovative, unstretched, stained canvases for years, and had shared his enthusiasm with Rashid Johnson when they first met in 2009. (Johnson, who didn’t know many dealers — let alone young white dealers — who were interested in Gilliam’s work, was impressed, and agreed to join Kordansky’s gallery himself.) The pair asked Gilliam to do an exhibition in L.A., which Johnson would curate. They feared they were overreaching, and when they put their proposal to Gilliam in his studio, they thought he was laughing at them. In fact, they realized, he was crying.

    As Kordansky told me this story, I saw that he was also close to tears. Since first working with Gilliam, he has placed his paintings in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts. Without Gilliam, he said, the new gallery would probably not have been possible. There is nothing Kordansky is prouder of than having been able to bring him back into the spotlight. “The work has done for other people what it did for us,” he said. “There is no money in the world that can buy an experience like that.”

    Correction: September 21, 2014
    An article last Sunday about the Los Angeles art dealer David Kordansky, which recounted the key role he played in bringing the paintings of the 80-year-old African-American artist Sam Gilliam back into the spotlight, erroneously included a product among the types of things Gilliam bartered his work for at a lower point in his career. While he exchanged art for services such as dental work, he never traded art for laundry detergent.

    ==

    NYTIMES

    The L.A. Art Invasion

    Sun-soaked isolation seems just the thing to spark inspiration.

    Photo

    From left: <strong>Sam Falls</strong> at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, “Untitled (Venice, Palm 4),” 2014. <strong>Jordan Wolfson</strong> at David Zwirner, “(Female Figure),” 2014.
    From left: Sam Falls at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, “Untitled (Venice, Palm 4),” 2014. Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirner, “(Female Figure),” 2014.Credit Right: courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

    When Thomas Demand and Ryan Trecartin relocated to Los Angeles in 2010, they added momentum to the city’s burgeoning status as an art capital to rival New York, London and Berlin. Of course, its abundant light and space have always drawn a certain kind of artist — members of the Light and Space movement, for instance, like Bruce Nauman and James Turrell. But now, with new gallery neighborhoods in Hollywood and Downtown, the endless expansion of LACMA and the impending arrival of the esteemed FIAC art fair, it seems that everyone, major figures and young guns alike, wants to call L.A. home. In the past two years, David Benjamin Sherry, Sam Falls, Gabriel Kuri, Silke Otto-Knapp, Amalia Ulman and Jordan Wolfson have relocated to the Southland, while others, like Liz Craft and Amy Yao, have returned, choosing its sprawl over more cosmopolitan art meccas.

    L.A.’s appeal lies in “the possibility of disappearing,” says Ulman, an Argentine who previously worked in London and Spain. “I’m so autonomous here,” Wolfson adds. “I have my studio, my house and my small life.” Both artists create work that explores isolation: Ulman shoots selfies in airplane bathrooms and five-star hotels; Wolfson’s scantily clad robotic dancer at David Zwirner caused a sensation this spring. “In L.A., artists can test things out without the glare of the spotlight,” says Ali Subotnick, a curator at the Hammer Museum, who moved from New York in 2006. “The proximity to the entertainment industry guarantees that the art world will never be the main industry in this town, so artists are able to work on the sidelines.” Anonymity has become its appeal: Like no other place, L.A. offers artists the ability to be alone, together.

    A Primer on L.A.’s New Arrivals

    Photo

    <strong>Liz Craft,</strong> “After Dark,” 2014.
    Liz Craft, “After Dark,” 2014.Credit Courtesy of the artist and Nathalie Karg

    Liz Craft
    Arrived from: New York City
    L.A. gallery: none
    Style: Craft’s fantastical, dreamlike sculptures often veer in the direction of nightmares: they include glossy, upended spiders, functionless house-like constructions, goopy unicorns, baby carriages and assorted monsters.

    Sam Falls
    Arrived from: New York City
    L.A. gallery: Hannah Hoffman Gallery
    Style: Falls creates sculptures and paintings that he exposes to the elements, then takes photos of them to document how they change over weeks, months and sometimes years.

    Photo

    <strong>Gabriel Kuri</strong> at Regen Projects, “Credit Becomes Retail,” 2014.
    Gabriel Kuri at Regen Projects, “Credit Becomes Retail,” 2014.Credit Brian Forrest, courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles

    Gabriel Kuri
    Arrived from: Brussels
    L.A. gallery: Regen Projects
    Style: Kuri’s playful sculptures repurpose materials from the manmade and natural worlds, combining them into forms that frequently comment on the role of commodities in society.

    Photo

    <strong>Silke Otto-Knapp</strong> at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, “Stage With Boats (blue and silver),” 2013.
    Silke Otto-Knapp at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, “Stage With Boats (blue and silver),” 2013.Credit Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

    Silke Otto-Knapp
    Arrived from: Vienna
    L.A. gallery: none (shows with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York)
    Style: Otto-Knapp applies soft, ethereal layers of gouache and watercolor to produce muted representations of performance and place.

    Photo

    <strong>David Benjamin Sherry</strong> at Salon 94, “Climate Vortex Sutra,” 2014.
    David Benjamin Sherry at Salon 94, “Climate Vortex Sutra,” 2014.Credit Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

    David Benjamin Sherry
    Arrived from: New York City
    L.A. gallery: OHWOW
    Style: Sherry photographs grandiose American landscapes and tweaks them with vivid, monochromatic tints.

    Photo

    <strong>Amalia Ulman</strong> at LTD Los Angeles, from left, “Catastrophe #1,” “Catastrophe #2” and “Catastrophe #3.”
    Amalia Ulman at LTD Los Angeles, from left, “Catastrophe #1,” “Catastrophe #2” and “Catastrophe #3.”Credit

    Amalia Ulman
    Arrived from: London and Gijon, Spain
    L.A. gallery: LTD Los Angeles
    Style: Ulman has riffed on contemporary decorations: Ikea paintings, aphorisms spelled out in romantic scripts and those wavy willows people stuff into vases. Lately, she has also documented cosmetic procedures via social media.

    Jordan Wolfson
    Arrived from: New York City
    L.A. gallery: none (David Zwirner in New York and Sadie Coles HQ in London)
    Style: Wolfson makes films, videos and installations that merge a cartoonish love for aesthetic variety (and cartoons themselves) with an underlying nihilism. This year, his animatronic stripper wearing a witch mask has become an art-world lightning rod.

    Photo

    <strong>Amy Yao</strong> at 47 Canal, “Skeleton, no. 2 (basic needs and the right to the pursuit of a good life),” 2013.
    Amy Yao at 47 Canal, “Skeleton, no. 2 (basic needs and the right to the pursuit of a good life),” 2013.Credit Joerg Lohse, courtesy of 47 Canal, New York

    Amy Yao
    Arrived from: New York City
    L.A. gallery: none (Canal 47 in New York)
    Style: Yao’s work spans virtually all mediums: painting, sculpture, photography, performance. But it’s her objects — umbrellas adorned in funereal garb or a top hat and sequins; folding fans with attached pearls or cigarettes; brightly colored sticks with equally brightly colored hair extensions — that offer a through-line in their crooked anthropomorphic qualities, suggesting serious jokes about contemporary life.

    Correction: September 3, 2014
    An earlier version of this post misspelled the surname of a curator at the Hammer Museum. She is Ali Subotnick, not Subotnik.