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.

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Frieze Fair New York 2015: Images, Reports and reviews + Satellites

 

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 THE DAILY BEAST /LILLIE CROCKER
Frieze Art Fair in New York City
Price Point05.16.156:55 AM ET
Welcome To Frieze, The Art Fair That Drives The Rich Insane
The wealthy and well-dressed flock to Frieze, New York’s most glamorous contemporary art fair. But do they know, or care, what they are buying?

The annual Frieze New York art fair is generously stocked with women in their 50s and 60s, shouting out three figure prices and authoritatively mispronouncing artists’ names.

They mill around the tent on opening day, buzzing and squawking at the thrill of spending their husbands’ money.

Dressed in their finest, their faces nipped and stretched taut like a snare drum, they look more labored over than most of the art on display.

“I love this. How much? Around $60K?” one woman shrilly asks a gallery attendant, eyeing an aluminum sculpture by a Danish art collective. The attendant quietly and politely corrects her: $100K.

“In New York people steal everything,” the prospective buyer remarks half-heartedly, seeking reassurance about her purchase. “They’re not going to steal this,” the attendant promises, securing a sale.

It’s a Kobuki dance I’ll witness again and again at Frieze. Indeed, there’s an amusing tension between the unbearably pretentious art world natives and the Real Housewives, who don’t speak the language of art.

They point at works on display like children in a toy store, referring to artists’ methods and materials as “this” and “that.” These clueless collectors have democratized art fairs, where there are fewer snobby intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals.

But then they would never be allowed in without oversized Birkin bags.

In a clear indication that Frieze knows its audience, the fair is distributing free copies of the Financial Times. The booths themselves are prohibitively pricey: $815 per square meter.

At the Parisian gallery Mon Charpentier, installed in one of the fair’s smaller, peripheral booths, a young foreign woman is assured that she’s looking at a “very, very important piece.”

The buyer cares less about its cultural significance than she does about how it will look in her living room. “Can it be built on site?” she asks.

But she cares less about its cultural significance than she does about how it will look in her living room. “Can it be built on site?” she asks.

Meanwhile, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise—one of the larger booths and more well-known galleries—artist Jonathan Horowitz was commissioning Frieze visitors to participate in his work, 700 Dots.

Fair attendees are asked to paint a black circle eight inches in diameter on a 12-by-12 inch white canvas, instructed on their technique and told to spend at least 30 minutes on their masterpiece. Each square is then mounted on the wall in groupings of 100, priced at $100,000.

Participants are paid a $20 profit, but their black dot is worth $10,000.

When I pressed Brown about the artist’s vision, he mumbled that Horowitz was “exploring a way to make a painting,” and that each dot is a “self-portrait.”

“High art is labor,” he adds, begrudgingly. “And here he has distilled a painting down to its elemental particles. Despite the very straightforward, reductive template, each one is unique. “Inevitably, when you ask someone to make a perfect geometric circle, it’s not going to be perfect.”

By Thursday afternoon, they had already sold three or four groupings, Brown told me.

Collectors are quite literally paying for the Frieze 2015 experience. But in contemporary art, the concept is never as impressive as the Gavin Browns of the world make it out to be.

It’s the interactive art that draws the most attention at Frieze, along with the most shocking, the largest in scale, and the most of-its-time. Gagosian reserved its entire booth for Richard Prince’s uninspiring, $90,000-a-piece New Portraits—blown-up ink on paper screenshots of other people’s Instagram posts that he has commented on.

Gallery owners like Gavin Brown, aloof and enigmatic, are sought after by both artists and collectors.

In the contemporary art world, there is no benchmark for what’s “good.” There is only a social structure, an attitude, that determines which works and names are most valuable. And, of course, all that taut skin, decoratively clothed, pointing at “this” and “that”—the women knowing not what they want, but that they want something. They’re shopping, after all.

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LUXURY

  • GIUSEPPE PENONE, Verde del bosco, 1986

    Picture: Marian Goodman
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Frieze New York 2015: old, new and some participation too

Frieze New York has come of age with some heavy-hitting, historical art; without losing its contemporary and participative roots, says Louisa Buck

By Louisa Buck

May 15, 2015 18:01
Richard Prince instagram picturesRichard Prince instagram pictures
Giuseppe Penone, Albero di 10 m, 1989 and Verde del bosco, 1986Giuseppe Penone, Albero di 10 m, 1989 and Verde del bosco, 1986
Emily Mortimer and the staff of Madrid gallery Travesia CuatroEmily Mortimer and the staff of Madrid gallery Travesia Cuatro
American artist Jonathan Horowitz asks Freize attendees to paint a freehand, eight-inch circleAmerican artist Jonathan Horowitz asks Freize attendees to paint a freehand, eight-inch circle

It is only in its fourth year but Frieze New York has already become a Big Apple fixture. Even the notoriously bridge-averse Manhattanites have stopped moaning about its rather remote (for them) location on Randalls Island between Harlem, the Bronx and Queens and everyone now agrees that the fair’s trademark long, curving, naturally lit tent is a triumph, showing off the 190 participating galleries to their best advantage. The fact that visitors are also serviced by pop-up versions of some of the city’s favourite eateries – from Dimes in Chinatown to Frankies Spuntino from Brooklyn – also helps.

And then there’s the art. Proof positive that the Frieze NY has come of age is the fact that, for the first time, New York heavy-hitters Pace Gallery, Matthew Marks and Acquavella have all deigned to take part, with the latter presenting a booth bedecked with top-notch Picassos. Overall, the fair feels lucid, elegant and considered, with more galleries putting on solo artist shows as well as an increasing tendency to enrich the mix by combining the contemporary with the historical. This can take the form of a clutch of Philip Guston paintings on the McKee Gallery stand, or Alison Jacques from London showing vintage feminist works by Lygia Clark, Hannah Wilke and the little-known Czech artist Maria Bartuszova alongside a pair of show-stopping surrealist paintings by Dorothea Tanning, the last wife of Max Ernst.

Embracing the past with the present has been actively encouraged by the fair itself. Harnessing the popularity of London’s Frieze Masters, Frieze NY has cannily inserted one of its mature sister fair’s most popular sections, Spotlight; in which galleries present a significant 20th century artist who is ripe for a new airing. Notable inclusions in this category are the octogenarian Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi – the first African artist to be given a retrospective at Tate Modern – showing his distinctive fusions of modernist abstraction and Arabic calligraphy on Vigo’s stand, and Carolee Schneemann: influential pioneer of bodily performances who has a classic New York action of 1966 documented in photos, drawings and film on the booth of Hales Gallery.

Another stand-out historical highlight is David Zwirner’s inspired pairing of recently-deceased sculptural maverick Franz West with Minimalist John McCracken. Also extraordinary is a solo show by Italian Arte Povera giant Giuseppe Penone, whose wall of fragrant dried bay leaves, along with tree-bark rubbings, tree trunk carvings and an astonishing billboard-sized graphite work based on his own wrinkled skin, all combine to transform Marian Goodman’s stand into an uncanny glade that is worth the trip to New York alone.

But Frieze New York is first and foremost a fair devoted to the contemporary, and this year finds even the most high-end galleries prepared to let their hair down and take some risks. Hauser & Wirth is hanging its costly wares on walls vividly roller-painted by Martin Creed in green, red and blue crosses and stripes; while Gagosian has an entire booth devoted to a procession of Richard Prince’s giant, vacuous prints of Instagram portraits, against which a constant stream of fair visitors are in turn busily Instagramming themselves.

Audience participation seems to be all the rage this year. In one of the fair’s bespoke art projects, Mexican artist Pia Camil persuades visitors to parade through the tent in her specially designed ponchos (which they can take home afterwards). A more restful site-specific project comes in the form of Bangkok-born artist Korakrit Arunanondchai’s massage chairs, upholstered in his trademark tie-dyed denim, which are dotted throughout the fair, doling out gentle pummellings to prone and weary visitors. On the opening night even the celebs were put to work, with actress Emily Mortimer on the stand of Madrid gallery Travesia Cuatro handing out flowers from the exuberant sculptural ceramic containers of Mexican artist Melana Muzquiz.

But Gavin Brown took visitor involvement to a new level with all the art on his booth created in situ by the visiting public. Over the first two days of Frieze an eager throng of fairgoers were given a 12-inch square canvas and some black paint to carry out the task set by the American artist Jonathan Horowitz: painting a freehand, eight-inch circle (not as easy as it sounds) in return for a $20 cheque signed by the artist. Each piece then formed part of a collective grid of 700 black circles lining the booth; but what each batch of 100 was ultimately selling for the gallery would not disclose. It was certainly more than the $2,000 labour charge; although the individual cheques are already likely to be worth more uncashed as artworks in their own right.

This participatory tendency has been given official endorsement with the best booth prize for Frieze New York 2015 being awarded to Galeria Jaqueline Martins, a young gallery from Sao Paulo for its solo project by Martha Araujo entitled “Para un corpo nas suas impossibilidates” (For a body in its impossibilities). This involves intrepid Frieze visitors donning special jumpsuits patched with Velcro and then launching themselves onto a Velcro-covered skateboard ramp and attempting (but often unsuccessfully) to adhere. And who said that the art world was stuck up?

Frieze New York runs until Sunday 17 May

Frieze New York
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by Andrew Stefan Weiner

May 15, 2015

Frieze New York

FRIEZE ART FAIRNew YorkMay 14–17, 2015

Far above the North Atlantic, a plane is flying from Venice to New York. Most of the passengers in business class sleep comfortably in their lie-flat seats, but one stays awake sipping complimentary champagne. His voice barely audible above the jets’ white noise, he muses: “Is there even any difference between biennials and contemporary art fairs?” The knee-jerk answer to his question would be, Of course. Biennials are typically organized by curatorial teams who engage in protracted research to stage thematic arguments. Whereas they ask their visitors to look and think, art fairs tell them to buy, or at least window-shop. Venice notwithstanding, most biennials exist in relatively peripheral locations and often target non-art audiences, while fairs are built to serve the needs of the global 1 percent who comprise their clientele. But another, more pertinent answer might be, Less and less, or even, Was there ever? As the sociologist Olav Velthuis has shown, aesthetic and commercial modes of exhibition have been indissociable throughout the history of the Venice Biennale. For its first 70 years, the Biennale had a sales office that worked on commission. Following the protests of 1968, it adopted new practices that spawned what Velthuis has called “the Venice effect,”(1) wherein the putative independence of the Biennale comes to serve the needs of the market. The pretense of purity is often a smokescreen for covert business arrangements, even as it is belied by many artists’ dependence on dealers to finance their production costs. In a perverse but perfectly logical twist, the symbolic capital accrued by a biennial’s “autonomous” validation of an artist can readily be converted into increased exchange value.

More recently, the inverse of this dynamic has taken hold as prominent art fairs strive to resemble biennials. In what might be called “the Frieze effect,” fairs have increasingly incorporated discursive or participatory elements; they have also emphasized site-specific commissions and educational programs. The most obvious explanation for this shift is that it functions as a fig leaf, politely disguising the shameless promiscuity of the ever-tumescent contemporary art market. Yet as with biennials, the semblance of autonomy is a potent means of value production. Biennial-icity adds a veneer of intellectual sophistication, allowing work to be marketed as “critical.” It also allows a fair and its exhibitors to align their brands more strongly with the global contemporary, a now-ubiquitous category that invokes an abstract, near-empty universality. Given that this universality is in many ways indistinguishable from that of neoliberal capital, we might conceive of the global contemporary as a potent aesthetic ideology. Within this fantasmatic structure, the fair assuages its patrons’ fear of missing out even as it indulges their desire to discover (then flip) the next Oscar Murillo. The links between these imagined affinities and the conventions of pricing are at once indirect and indisputably real.

While the commercial success of Frieze New York is sometimes ascribed to the moribundity of its competition, it likely also derives from its canny application of the biennial formula. Though New York still fancies itself the center of the global art world, its connections to the biennial and fair circuit have been rather belated and indirect. Such conditions have surely increased the appeal of the Frieze brand, with its cosmopolitan, sophisticated connotations. The 2015 edition traded on this cachet by convening a team of international curators, a number of them with biennial experience. Not surprisingly, the majority of the fair’s more impressive offerings were in the stalls that had effectively been pre-curated. Shanghai’s Antenna Space exhibited a sharp suite of works by Liu Ding, “Karl Marx in 2013” (2014), one of which turned on the artist’s confrontation with Chinese tourists at Marx’s grave in London. Warsaw’s Le Guern Gallery showed compelling selections from C.T. Jasper’s photomontage series “In the Dust of the Stars” (2011). The Spotlight section, advised by Adriano Pedrosa, was a quiet revelation amidst the overweening vulgarity of the fair. Some of the artists shown there, like the marvelous Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, presented in London’s VIGO booth, have received major shows in Europe but remain largely unknown in the U.S. Others, like Geta Brătescu, whose drawings and collages were on view at Bucharest’s Ivan Gallery space, spoke to the formidable, largely uncharted range and depth of Eastern European conceptualisms. Such practices are still often treated as isolated curiosities despite their exposure to (and transformation of) Western models; one fascinating example of such an encounter was Natalia LL’s series of performance photos from 1977, “Natalia LL at LGBT Demonstration in New York,” shown by Warsaw’s lokal­_30.

Elsewhere, and despite its more high-minded aspirations, Frieze New York is largely a crass spectacle of predictably conspicuous consumption. Finance bros in Gucci loafers rubbed shoulders with fashionistas, fashion victims, and the occasional celebrity; walking through the fair was a numbing, enervating experience rather like speed-reading the ads in Artforum. It became clear that “the global,” at least in this context, is a site of massive structural imbalance, even if exhibitors tended to revert to a much more superficial conception of global contemporary art: oversized photos of airport runways; displays of time-zone clocks; countless map collages and globe sculptures. Prominent displays were given to veterans of the biennial circuit, like Isaac Julien and Yinka Shonibare MBE; the most affecting was Allora & Calzadilla’s Intervals (2014) at Paris’s Galerie Chantal Crousel, which refashioned transparent plastic lecterns into odd plinths for dinosaur bones. Numerous galleries seemed intent on selling NYC-themed art to international buyers; the most diligent of these was New York’s Skarstedt, with iconic works by Warhol, Sherman, Holzer, and Haring, any of them perfect for your new luxury Tribeca pied-à-terre. With a fittingly gargantuan display of Richard Prince’s obnoxious Instagram paintings, Gagosian ventured the depressing proposition that global is just a fancy word for “lowest common denominator.” In fact the overwhelming majority of exhibitors were from the North, with hardly any from the MENASA region, Africa, or the Pacific. Those from the center could choose, though few did, to showcase their cosmopolitanism, as with Berlin’s Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, which brought works by Slavs and Tatars, Guan Xiao, and Katja Novitskova. In contrast, it was as if the galleries from the periphery were expected to showcase their own difference in a kind of compulsory self-exoticization. Athens’s The Breeder was outfitted with carpets, columns, and Byzantine-esque icons for Andreas Angelidakis’s Crash Pad (2015). Madrid- and Guadalajara-based Travesia Cuatro set itself up as a kind of tropicalist flower shop by Milena Muzquiz, complete with gallerinas in matching floral dresses. The one exception to this tendency was Mumbai’s Project 88, with Sarnath Banerjee’s “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” a group of 36 drawings by that incisively satirized Western stereotypes of postcolonial provincialism.

The few exhibitors who tried to resist this pervasive tendency did so by combining historically and geographically specific work with analogous contemporary practices. Paris’s Galerie Frank Elbaz assembled a stellar showcase of art from the former Yugoslavia, with memorable contributions from Josip Vanista, Mladen Stilinović, and Julije Knifer. Bogota-based Casas Riegner showed subtle, thoughtful contributions by Carlos Rojas, Bernardo Ortiz, and Johanna Calle. Berlin’s Galerija Gregor Podnar paired terrific, seldom-seen 1970s work from Ion Grigorescu, Irma Blank, and Goran Petercol, with strong recent pieces by Tobias Putrih and Anne Neukamp.

I left the fair with the impression of a massive embarrassment of riches, in both senses. On the one hand, it was possible to see more good art in a few hours than in a typical season in Chelsea. On the other, it was impossible to ignore the glaring contradictions of its very existence. These were perfectly encapsulated in the fair’s site: a multimillion-dollar bespoke tent with multiple VIP sanctums, located next to Icahn Stadium (named after the 1980s pioneer of corporate raiding, leveraged buyouts, and “asset stripping”) and just across the river from the South Bronx, home to the poorest congressional district in the U.S., where over 250,000 live in poverty. Inside this stylish white bubble, members of the global elite could be entertained by Amalia Pica, John Bock, and Geoffrey Hendricks’s reconstruction of George Maciunas’s Flux-Labyrinth (1976/2015), originally an attempt to develop an anti-capitalist aesthetics. Many eagerly lined up to participate in Wearing-watching (2015), a commissioned project by Pia Camil, in which they could don smocks modeled after Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés from the 1960s (first designed in conjunction with residents of Rio de Janeiro’s Mangueira favela). Upon leaving the bubble, visitors were whisked back to lower Manhattan by a private water taxi. With the South Bronx quietly receding from view, they were free to ask themselves whether they had just been to a fair or a biennial, when and where the next big event might be, and whether such questions were even worth worrying about.

(1) Olav Velthuis, “The Venice Effect,” The Art Newspaper Magazine (June 2011): 21-24.

Andrew Weiner is Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU-Steinhardt.

View of Frieze New York, 2015.

1View of Frieze New York, 2015.

View of Antenna, Shanghai, at Frieze New York, 2015, with Liu Ding's “Karl Marx in 2013,” 2014.

2View of Antenna, Shanghai, at Frieze New York, 2015, with Liu Ding’s “Karl Marx in 2013,” 2014.

View of Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw at Frieze New York, 2015, with C.T. Jasper's "In the Dust of the Stars," 2011.

3View of Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw at Frieze New York, 2015, with C.T. Jasper’s “In the Dust of the Stars,” 2011.

View of Vigo Gallery, London at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Ibrahim el-Salahi.

4View of Vigo Gallery, London at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Ibrahim el-Salahi.

View Ivan Gallery, Bucharest at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Geta Brătescu.

5View Ivan Gallery, Bucharest at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Geta Brătescu.

Natalia LL, "Consumer Art" series, 1974.

6Natalia LL, “Consumer Art” series, 1974.

View Gagosian Gallery at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Richard Prince.

7View Gagosian Gallery at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Richard Prince.

View of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin at Frieze New York, 2015.

8View of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin at Frieze New York, 2015.

Andreas Angelidakis,  Crash Pad, 2015.

9Andreas Angelidakis, Crash Pad, 2015.

View of Travesía Cuatro at Frieze New York, 2015 with Milena Muzquiz's, Untitled, 2015.

10View of Travesía Cuatro at Frieze New York, 2015 with Milena Muzquiz’s, Untitled, 2015.

Sarnath Banerjee, “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” 2014.

11Sarnath Banerjee, “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” 2014.

Josip Vanista, "Déposition," 1986.

12Josip Vanista, “Déposition,” 1986.

Anne Neukamp, Untitled (Transfer #3), 2015.

13Anne Neukamp, Untitled (Transfer #3), 2015.

Geoffrey Hendricks, Upside Down Forest, 1975/2015.

14Geoffrey Hendricks, Upside Down Forest, 1975/2015.

Pia Camil, Wearing-watching, 2015.

15Pia Camil, Wearing-watching, 2015.

  • 1View of Frieze New York, 2015. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
  • 2View of Antenna, Shanghai, at Frieze New York, 2015, with Liu Ding’s “Karl Marx in 2013,” 2014. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
  • 3View of Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw at Frieze New York, 2015, with C.T. Jasper’s “In the Dust of the Stars,” 2011. 26 pairs of framed magazines, 80 x 56 cm each. Courtesy Galeria Le Guern, Warsaw.
  • 4View of Vigo Gallery, London at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Ibrahim el-Salahi. Courtesy of Vigo Gallery, London.
  • 5View Ivan Gallery, Bucharest at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Geta Brătescu. Courtesy of Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and the artist. Photo by Matt Grubb.
  • 6Natalia LL, “Consumer Art” series, 1974. Original color print, unique piece, 51 cm x 61.5 cm each. Courtesy of lokal_30, Warsaw.
  • 7View Gagosian Gallery at Frieze New York, 2015, with work by Richard Prince. © Richard Prince. Photography by Robert McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
  • 8View of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin at Frieze New York, 2015. Left to right: Slavs and Tatars, Guan Xiao, and Katja Novitskova. Image courtesy of the artists and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. Photo by Matthew Boot.
  • 9Andreas Angelidakis, Crash Pad, 2015. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of The Breeder, Athens.
  • 10View of Travesía Cuatro at Frieze New York, 2015, with Milena Muzquiz’s, Untitled, 2015. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Travesia Cuatro, Madrid and Guadalajara.
  • 11Sarnath Banerjee, “Liquid History of Vasco da Gama,” 2014. Series of 36 drawings. Charcoal and pastel on A4 sheets, 8 x 11 inches each. Courtesy of Project 88, Mumbai.
  • 12Josip Vanista, “Déposition,” 1986. 12 black and white photographs on archival paper, 24 x 24 cm each. Edition of 3. Courtesy of galerie frank elbaz, Paris. Photo by Zarko Vijatovic.
  • 13Anne Neukamp, Untitled (Transfer #3), 2015. Acetone transfer on paper, 100 x 70 cm. Courtesy of Galerija Gregor Podnar, Berlin.
  • 14Geoffrey Hendricks, Upside Down Forest, 1975/2015. Tribute to George Maciunas’s Flux-Labyrinth (1976/2015), Frieze Projects, Frieze New York 2015. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
  • 15Pia Camil, Wearing-watching, 2015. 800 pieces assembled and sown by hand, made from leftover fabrics or discards from local factories in Mexico City and distributed freely to fair visitors. Frieze Projects, Frieze New York 2015. Photo by Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze.
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T MAGAZINE, NEW YORK TIMES

At NADA, a Fresh Crop of Young Talent

  • The Los Angeles-based M+B Gallery is among the spaces exhibiting at this year’s NADA fair, featuring photographic works by Mariah Robertson (left wall) and Phil Chang. Courtesy of M+B
  • “Salton Sea,” 2015, is one of several new photographic works by the artist Matthew Porter at the Invisible-Exports booth. Courtesy of Invisible-Exports
  • In conjunction with NADA’s opening, Daata Editions launched its web-based platform dedicated to the promotion of artists who work specifically with sound, video and the Internet. In addition, limited-edition works, such as Ilit Azoulay’s photographic still “Object #1,” pictured here, will be for sale. Courtesy of Daata Editions
  • For his space, the Cologne-based gallerist Berthold Pott chose to exhibit works by two artists, including Max Frintrop’s “Untitled (‘Seeworld’),” 2015. Courtesy of Berthold Pott
  • The triptych of paintings that make up Josh Reames’s installation at the Johannes Vogt Gallery booth.
  • The Berlin-based gallery Duve is exhibiting works by Maximilian Arnold, Vera Kox and Roman Liska.

With all the commotion of Frieze New York playing out uptown on Randall’s Island, it might be easy to overlook the action unfolding at the decidedly downtown New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) fair. Now in its fifth year, the New York arm of NADA (the other fair takes place in Miami) once again returns to Pier 36, exhibiting 100 galleries in a cavernous warehouse space bordered by the Lower East Side and the East River. Billed as a nonprofit arts organization with the aim of promoting new and emerging artists, NADA has gained a reputation as a go-to destination for art world insiders and collectors looking to take the pulse of the next generation of artists.

Fair highlights include the exhibition mounted by the New York-based Johannes Vogt Gallery, a series of three paintings by Josh Reames. With images of cigarettes, an erotically tinged neon light and a grinning skeleton, Reames’s choice of imagery channels the über-cool aesthetic of the fair’s attendees. “Introducing new artists is what the spirit of NADA stands for,” Vogt, a longtime veteran of the fair, says. A similar sentiment was expressed by his fellow NADA alum Risa Needleman, the co-founder, along with Benjamin Tischer, of the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, which is exhibiting works including vibrant photomontages by Matthew Porter — sure to please NADA visitors who, as Needleman is keenly aware, “expect young and exciting work.”

For first-timers, the fair is a unique opportunity to gain exposure — and importantly, access — to an often-exclusive segment of the art world. “The best way for young European galleries to enter into the U.S. market is through NADA,” Berthold Pott, owner of his namesake Cologne-based gallery, says. Among Pott’s exhibited pieces, large-scale ink-based gestural works by Max Frintrop call to mind the likes of the Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler and her watery fields of color. Meanwhile, another first-time gallery, the New York-based Queer Thoughts, looked to be in for the ultimate NADA experience. Having just arrived at the fair, the megawatt curator and writer Hans Ulrich Obrist and the Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf were overheard declaring the gallery’s exhibition of Darja Bajagic’s “Ex Axes – Larissa Riquelme (2015),” an ax bearing the photograph of a despairing young woman, to be the highlight of NADA. Talk about making the cut.

NADA New York is on view through May 17 at Basketball City, 299 South Street, newartdealers.org.

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Opening day of Frieze New York 2015 – in pictures

Now in its third year, the art fair has arrived at Randall’s Island in New York City, with the world’s most eminent artists showing their wares in a giant tent

Frieze New York review – navigating the maze of art fair’s eccentric fun
Just how well dressed are New York’s art lovers?

 

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HYPERALLERGIC

Galleries

Painting According to Frieze New York

Wilhelm Sasnal, “Untitled (car)” (2015), oil on canvas, 40x40 cm at Foksal Gallery Foundation

It’s been about a hundred years since Kazimir Malevich supplanted all imagery in painting with iconic shapes that point not to this world but to one he thought would come. It was around the same time Marcel Duchamp put a handlebar mustache on the Mona Lisa and titled the work “L.H.O.O.Q.” — or “She is hot in the arse.” It was a time of agitation that proved critical to painting’s history as methods of filling up the canvas split, for the most part, in two directions: one of abstraction or non-objectivity; and another that held ground representing “things of the world,” however absurd or beautiful. This year’s Frieze New York art fair on Randall’s Island shows artists using both methods in collision or collusion in a struggle to find firmer artistic footing.

The need for footing comes from a growing restlessness with riffing on 20th century abstraction and the inability to sustain irony, a once-dominant theme in recent representational painting, since it is more of a pretense of not caring rather than a risk of vulnerability. These methods may be losing their effectiveness, and, since painting never dies, new ways of pushing forward emerge.

Patricia Treib, “As-of-yet-untitled” (2015), oil on canvas, 66 x 50 inches at Wallspace Gallery

Patricia Treib’s “As-of-yet-untitled” (2015) in Wallspace Gallery‘s booth either is abstractly figurative or figuratively abstract — complete and without tension. The relaxed, abled gestures and colors of Matisse suggest a sense of place and life of leisure, without giving us the goods or robbing us of their pleasure. Paul Heyer’s “Burnout,” an acrylic and oil on silk painting tucked around the corner of Night Gallery‘s booth, presses ordered black splotches against a facile rendering of flowers painted in watery pastel colors. The bold and abstract interruptions provide both a tension between types of picture-making and compositional stability, a structure holding all elements into place.

The multiple ways in which artists at Frieze mine the languages of both the abstract and representational traditions, in their multiple iterations however broadly conceived, remind us that every mode of working has a time, place, and specific motivation. From sublime geometries and Freudian dreams to fits of anxiety seeking universal expression and commercially-produced homogenous batches, all artistic fabrications have a context. So when today’s artists seek stability, erasure, or obfuscation by combining image-based content with abstract impulses, these visual inheritances and borrowings are transparent enough to put in high relief the strengths — and weaknesses — of artists’ imaginations.

Johannes Kahrs, “OT (green fingernails)” (2015), oil on canvas, 44.4 x 48.2 cm at Zeno X Gallery

Johannes Kahrs’s “OT (green fingernails)” (2015), in the booth of Antwerp’s Zeno X Gallery, is sexy without substance. The reproduced image, sourced from a photograph or video, uses seediness in the lives of others to convey a sense of raw experience, like a short-cut search for authenticity. Figuration or “the real” is here depleted through cropping and blurring, a splicing effect that flirts with obliteration. George Shaw’s painting “She Had an Horror of Rooms” (2014–15) in the Wilkinson Gallery booth, of wood scraps resting in leaves, could be the remains of a discarded project or hobby, or a realist painter’s examination of failed Bauhaus ideals.

George Shaw, “She Had an Horror of Rooms” (2014–15), Humbrol enamel on board, 56 x 74.5 cm at Wilkinson Gallery

In the Taro Nasu booth, Simon Fujiwara’s “Fabulous Beasts” brings “the real” into abstraction, sewing and stretching together swaths of shaved fur coats for a result that’s close enough to painting for me. Possible associations include Dadaist sculpture and linear abstract painting. Jens Fänge’s assemblage on panel in Galleri Magnus Karlsson‘s booth recalls early Cubism and mid-century photomontage.

Portia Zvavahera, “I Can Feel It in My Eyes [16]” (2015), oil-based print ink and oil bar on canvas, 209.5 x 163.5 cm at Stevenson

The most accomplished paintings at this year’s Frieze are by Zimbabwean artist Portia Zvavahera. Her “I Can Feel It in My Eyes [16]” (2015) is one of several beatific visions of corporeal entanglement nearly lifting themselves off Stevenson gallery’s booth walls. With the strength of Marc Chagall’s spiritual interiority, she envisions a world of romantic longing hardly seen since Gustav Klimt.Anna Bjerger, “Halo” (2015), oil on aluminum, 50 x 40 cm at Galleri Magnus Karlsson

Anna Bjerger’s “Halo,” also hanging in Galleri Magnus Karlsson’s booth, features luscious, buttery paint that in its own right commands attention. But in the painting’s facile slips and turns, a remarkable articulation of a woman, lit from the back, appears with the same sense of seduction. More cold in feeling, but likewise straddling the abstract-representational divide, is Wilhelm Sasnal’s “Untitled (car)” in the Foksal Gallery Foundation booth.

Kon Trubkovich, “A heart with an iron lining” (2015), oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in at Marianne Boesky Gallery

The most prominent example of strategic collision is Kon Trubkovich’s “A heart with an iron lining” (2015) at Marianne Boesky‘s booth. Rather like video and paint in conflict, the work, all in oil, is more cerebral than enticing. Zhang Hui’s “Pearl 2” (2015) at Long March Space is more tactile, inviting touch and wondrous questions. Like the modernist method of “all-over painting,” whereby the entire canvas is covered and never lets the viewers’ eyes rest, Mircea Suciu‘s “Iron Curtain” (2015) at Zeno X Gallery covers the “subject,” all over, in suffocating plastic.

Peter Davies, “Come Hither” (2015), acrylic on canvas, 59 13/16 x 48 in at The Approach

Peter Davies’s “Come Hither” (2015) at The Approach‘s booth is geometric abstraction waving its hand or growing from the ground and reaching into the air. The black masses, all joined, fill the canvas plane to create a sense of activity within the flattened space. In the Modern Institute‘s booth, Urs Fischer channels Willem de Kooning to confront an aged photograph of a stool and magazine rack, setting a replica of mass produced images and articles — light fare — against the self-serious ethos of Abstract Expressionism. A comparatively older work at the fair, yet one that is resolutely contemporary, is Larry Bell’s “Big Mirage Painting #53” from 1991. By introducing to a reductive abstract composition various reflected lights, kaleidoscopic and variant in intensities, Bell gives represented “materials” a sense of non-objectivity, a kind of constructed non-space. That White Cube chose to show the piece here highlights the singularity of Bell’s work.

Exceptions prove the rule at Frieze, even though there are no rules in what artists here are doing. That openness to potential, space, and means ready for invention — or possible lapses into pastiched mimicking — makes the fair exciting and gives reason to believe that painting around the world is turning a corner.

Larry Bell, “Big Mirage Painting #53” (1991), mixed media on canvas 89 9/16 x 70 3/8 in at White Cube

Urs Fischer, “Free advice is usually worth what you paid for it” (2015), aluminum panel, aramid honeycomb, two-component polyurethane adhesive, two-component epoxy primer, galvanized steel rivet nuts, acrylic primer, gesso, acrylic ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, acrylic paint, 96x72 inches at The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd

Mircea Suciu, “Iron Curtain” (2015), oil, acrylic, and mono print on linen, 156 x 121.8 cm at Zeno X Gallery

Zhang Hui, “Pearl 2” (2015), acrylic on canvas, 180 x 116 cm at Long March Space

Jens Fänge, “The Inner Wedding” (2015), assemblage on panel, 112 x 75 cm at Galleri Magnus Karlsson

Simon Fujiwara, “Fabulous Beasts” (2015), shaved fur coat, 115 x 65 cm at Taro Nasu

Frieze New York continues in Randall’s Island Park (Randall’s Island) through May 17.

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HYPERALLERGIC

Photo Essays

Close Readings from a Cozy Art Fair

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As part of the frenzy of Frieze Week, Zürcher Gallery is hosting Salon Zürcher, a more intimate fair featuring both emerging and established artists. In its tenth edition, the Salon once again positions itself in opposition to the other large–scale, superstore–style fairs and offers a two–room gallery filled with unique and thoughtfully curated pieces. Six galleries are present: Galerie L’Inlassable, Galerie Mathias Coullaud, and Galerie Isabelle Gounod from Paris; Cathouse FUNeral from Brooklyn; Amsterdam outfit The Merchant House; and hosts Zürcher Gallery. Below, I’ve collected some of the highlights.

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French artist Éric Rondepierre has been using movies as his medium of choice for many years, and recently made the transition from working with traditional celluloid film to digital film. These four images are video screenshots from classic movies that Rondepierre streams on his computer; he stops and captures moments where the file is buffering due to poor connections, freezing the image as it struggles to resolve, sometimes caught between two different frames. In Rondepierre’s screenshots, the pixels and eerie colors become reminiscent of painterly strokes, recalling the gas–lit figures of Degas’s interior scenes.

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Marcella Barcèlo, a 22–year–old artist, creates “embedded collages” by layering Japanese paper; she covers up her drawings with successive sheets, sometimes sandwiching other elements like printed paper, until the pieces become thick and sculptural. Ghostly drawings of mythological characters, like the devil, a drowning woman, and religious icons, are trapped under paper. Behind swathes of watery colors, the barely perceptible lines of her underdrawings add dimension and depth, and, on the outermost layer of paper, disembodied arms grasp and gesticulate as if tenderly and anxiously holding the paper sheets together.

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Farideh Sakhaeifar who had a solo show at Cathouse FUNeral earlier this year had two series on display in the gallery. In “ISIS/NASA” she culls images from ISIS bombings and NASA spaceship launches, using Photoshop to conflate the two, and thus explores the dual themes of spectatorship and nationalism (and of course the similar formal appearance) present in the two types of images. The postcard–sized images are seemingly arrayed as tourist souvenirs.

In her other series, “Workers are taking photographs,” Sakhaeifar had 200 Iranian, male, working class laborers take their own photos. She stood directly behind them, holding up white backgrounds that framed their heads and upper bodies. The white background decontextualizes their bodies, catapulting them into the space of the sterile, white gallery.

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For each of her pieces in “The Folds Series,” André De Jong spends years building the thickness of the paper through successive applications of ink, gesso, and charcoal. When the paper is ready, he shapes it, folding it to produce cracks and reveal the white paper underneath the color. The folds read as expressive, white chalky lines, producing sculptural drawings, and as De Jong told The Parool, “The destructive act [of the fold] is necessary to infuse life into these works. A remarkable thing about this type of object is that it retains the traces of this act, and that they are in fact decisive in determining its beauty.”

Form, as articulated through the handling of paper, is essential to De Jong’s cracked paper just as it is to Barcelo’s translucent drawings, while Rondepierre and Sakhaeifar grapple with the production and dissemination of the digital image. With these pieces, the ones that stood out to me at Salon Zürcher, the viewer can leave an art fair having contemplated the act of artistic creation.

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Salon Zürcher continues at Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, SoHo, Manhattan) through May 17.

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VOGUE

New York City is Frieze-ing! What’s Happening at This Year’s Fair

While half the art world is still coming down from the magnificent high of the Venice Biennale, the other half is reveling in the first billion-dollar week of sales at Christie’s. And right on the heels of both high points comes Frieze New York, which has better food, better lighting, and better ponchos (more on that later) than any other annual fair in this city. Here, a rundown of the interesting things happening out on Randall’s Island this weekend.

Frieze New York Art Fair
Solo booths are looking good
Bringing one artist’s work to a fair usually makes for a more compelling booth than a random assortment. Showings from David Kordansky and Pace Gallery are evidence enough, but Gladstone Gallery’s T. J. Wilcox takeover is the best example. In addition to a reworking of “In the Air,” Wilcox’s 2013 Whitney show, Gladstone is showing his specially commissioned video for the Metropolitan Opera’s The Tales of Hoffmann. A combination of stop-motion animation and more traditional cartoons—think an operatic version of Space Jam—it is a total delight.
Photo: Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery
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Articles

HYPERALLERGIC

A Contemporary African Art Fair Arrives in New York

The entrance to 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It may at first thought seem odd that the newest addition to Frieze Week in New York is a fair devoted to contemporary African art. How could one expect to cover the ground of a whole continent in a single art fair, and an exceptionally small one at that? Is “African art” a useful category?

But the bigger problem may be that it doesn’t seem all that strange, accustomed as we are, in the US, to seeing the many countries of Africa stereotyped and lumped together as one big, general place. That contradiction is in fact built into the name of the art fair: 1:54, whose numbers stand, respectively, for the one continent of Africa and the 54 countries it contains. “To share and give visibility to the diversity of the African art scene,” is how 1:54 founder Touria El Glaoui described the goal of the fair to Hyperallergic — “to be a player in the international scene.”

The fair seen from above (click to enlarge)

El Glaoui, the daughter of Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, founded 1:54 two years ago in London, timing the first edition to Frieze Week there. She is now testing the waters of New York, though it sounds like it was something of a last-minute decision: El Glaoui told me she had six months to plan the fair’s trans-Atlantic voyage. 1:54 landed on the shores of Red Hook and is moored for the weekend at the multipurpose arts center Pioneer Works.

The fair features only 16 galleries, half of them from Africa and half from other countries but showing work that falls under the admittedly vague rubric of “African.” The layout is standard, as far as fairs go: big, tall white walls carve up the cavernous industrial space into pristine booths. These mini-showrooms are quite big, a decision that gives the art plenty of room to breathe but also has the unfortunate effect of eating up any potential free space on the building’s ground floor — so that you may end up feeling (as I did, at times) like you are little more than a murine aesthete lost in an art market maze.

Happily, the art you’re trapped with is largely very good and largely by people whose names are not yet well worn in the art world. “It’s also about where the artists are in their career,” El Glaoui told me. El Anatsui, for instance, isn’t at 1:54 because he “doesn’t need to be here.” William Kentridge is, his work greeting you immediately upon arrival (at the booth of David Krut Projects), but along with Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta (two of the most famous photographers in African history, both at Magnin-A gallery), Kentridge is an exception. 1:54 is mostly focused on bringing new artists to the attention of New York audiences.

Peter Clarke, "Black Cowboy" (1982), gouache collage on paper, 50.5 x 65 cm

New doesn’t necessarily mean young, though, and one of my favorite discoveries of the fair was the work of Peter Clarke, a towering South African artist who died last year at the age of 85. Clarke, who was forcibly uprooted from his home when he was young because of apartheid, made art his whole life but only received recognition “later, due to the political situation,” explained Marelize van Zyle, associate director of SMAC Gallery. “He depicted Cape Colored life, life in that community.” Zyle brought two pieces of Clarke’s work that she thought would resonate with American audiences: one, a gentle gouache showing a branch of KFC in a poor Cape Town neighborhood in the 1980s (the company was one of the only international chains that did not pull out of the country during the economic boycott), the other a brighter imaginary scene inspired by Spaghetti Westerns. Featuring a stylish black cowboy painted in gouache, the work also contains a collaged Jack Daniels label at the center, on which Clarke hand-wrote a text that ends: “Only, the westerns never show that in real life the cowboy hero was sometimes a Black Man … ”

Wall of photos from Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall's studio at Axis Gallery's booth (click to enlarge)

Perhaps predictably, questions about identity ripple through the fair, connecting much of the work on view and coloring many of the conversations I had when I visited. Axis Gallery‘s wall of dazzling photographic portraits by Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall — who established what Axis curator Gary van Wyk called “the first color photography studio in Africa” in 1961 in Durban, South Africa — resonates with a number of more contemporary works at the booth of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, among them Fabrice Monteiro‘s sumptuous photograph of a woman dressed as a signare, as the lawful wives of colonizers in the 18th and 19th centuries were called. These little-remembered women were “covered with fashion and jewelry” and “extremely emancipated,” said Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, the gallery’s director. Hanging catty-corner in her booth is an arresting black-and-white, composite self-portrait by Ayana V. Jackson that features six versions of the artist dressed in different Victorian outfits and posed together as in a family photo. “If, at the time of slavery, it were egalitarian and equal — if there were no slavery, what sorts of costumes would the black body be wearing?” Ibrahim-Lenhardt asked, by way of explaining the impetus for the work.

Work by Fabrice Monteiro at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery's booth, showing a signore

Work by Ayana V. Jackson at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

Billie Zangewa, "Ma vie en rose" and "Homecoming" (both 2015), silk tapestries, at Afronova's booth (click to enlarge)

Both of these pieces, in turn, seem to be distant cousins of a couple of beautifully assured silk self-portrait tapestries by Billie Zangewa, at Afronova’s booth, and more closely related to a series of costumed self-portraits by Omar Victor Diop at Magnin-A. For the project, Diop researched “Africans sent to various parts of the world, either as slaves or as representatives of their kingdoms,” many of them since “left out of the history books.” He then found images of them and photographed himself modeled after them, adding the occasional contemporary touch like a soccer ball or a whistle. The series is indebted in equal parts to Kehinde Wiley and to Keïta, but the results possess a potent agency that the works of Diop’s predecessors lack.

Omar Victor Diop's series at Magnin-A's booth (click to enlarge)

“As African artists, of course we don’t want to be locked in an African ghetto,” Diop said when I asked him about the idea of an African art fair. “But if you don’t speak, you let others define what an African artist is. You’ll always be from somewhere. You can’t change your Africanness, but you can change the perception.”

Those remarks contrasted sharply with the words of Lavar Munroe, an artist showing disturbing and surreal collaged renderings of animal and human figures with NOMAD Gallery. “I’ve always resisted the label” of African artist, he said, explaining that he initially refused to participate in the fair but was persuaded by his dealer. “Why the fascination [with African art]?” Munroe asked. “I think it has to do with the notion of the other, exhibiting the other.”

Work by Lavar Munroe at NOMAD Gallery

Most of the gallerists I spoke with (who were almost exclusively white) seemed far more at ease with the label, probably because they know that successful selling generally requires successful branding. But perhaps one of benefits of using such a broad term as “African” to describe a category of art is that it can be widely applied, so that Voice Gallery founder Rocco Orlacchio — who told me, “I don’t like very much labels” — could show work made in Kenya by a Japanese artist living in Morocco (a country that itself raises more questions of identity because of its location in the north of the continent and its uniquely hybrid identity).

“In the most ideal world, you would have no 1:54,” El Glaoui acknowledged, “but the truth is 0.05% of African artists are represented anywhere at any given moment.

“The best death of 1:54 will be that you don’t need it anymore.”

A sculpture by Nidhal Chamekh at Primo Marella Gallery

Lawrence Lemaoana, "I didn't join the struggle to be poor" (2015), fabric and embroidery, 155 x 110 cm, at Afronova's booth

Conrad Botes drawing his installation at Bennett Contemporary

Olu Amoda, "Medium Sunflower iii" (2014), blind revert, steel belt, mild still pipe, 52 x 52 in, at the booth of Art Twenty One

Work by Eric van Hove and Younes Baba-Ali at VOICE Gallery

Work by Edson Chagas at A Palazzo Gallery's booth

Looking down on one of the booths

Sammy Baloji, "Raccord #5," at Axis Gallery's booth (click to enlarge)

The entrance to 1:54 art fair

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through May 17.

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FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

The Art Market: big spenders in the Big Apple

  •   New York ‘Auction-tigue’; Frieze looks to the past; Giacometti show for Shanghai
‘Swamped’ (1990) by Peter Doig©Christie’s

‘Swamped’ (1990) by Peter Doig

“Fair-tigue” gave way to “auction-tigue” this week in New York, with a logjam of evening sales triggered by the changes in Venice Biennale dates this year. Crammed into the week were four evening sales plus a swathe of day sales: as we went to press, nearly $2bn had been splurged on the art of the 20th and 21st century in a seemingly unstoppable paroxysm of spending. Records tumbled across the categories: Peter Doig’s Swamped (1990) sold for $25.9m at Christie’s; Polke ($27.1m at Sotheby’s); Christopher Wool ($29.9m at Sotheby’s) or Soutine ($28.2m at Christie’s).

Christie’s emerged the clear winner, having clocked up an eye-popping $1.36bn by Wednesday night in two evening sessions alone. In a knockout blow to the opposition, its curtain-raising Monday sale scored $705.9m for “Looking Forward to the Past”, a “curated” sale of 34 lots which mixed categories, from early 20th century to contemporary art. Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version O)” (1955) sold for an estimate-pulverising $179.4m (presale expectations were $140m; estimates don’t include fees: results do), while Giacometti’s “L’homme au doigt” (1947) made $141.3m — setting auction records for a painting and a sculpture.

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However, the sale was heavily guaranteed with half of the lots backed by Christie’s or third parties — which was the case for the Picasso but not for the Giacometti. As a result, the auction was curiously unexciting, with most bidding on the telephone and little action from the room — except to applaud the prices. “It was like watching a piece of theatre because ultimately so much was presold,” said one dealer. Guarantees also littered the catalogue at Sotheby’s the following night, but to a lesser extent, with 19 of the 65 lots so covered. Six of them were irrevocable bids announced during the sale, presumably because guarantors were encouraged by Christie’s results. That Sotheby’s sale made $379.7m with a Rothko taking the top spot at $46.4m; one disappointing result was for Lichtenstein’s “The Ring” (1962), which made just $41.7m, going to a private Asian buyer. It was estimated at about $50m and guaranteed, meaning a possible loss for the auction house. Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale had been held the previous week, raising $368.3m.

Then Christie’s blasted back on Wednesday night with a sale of contemporary art that racked up another total of $658.5m, led by a Rothko which made a stunning $81.9m. And a record was set for Lucian Freud, when his fleshy “Benefits Supervisor Resting” (1994) just topped its high target at $56.2m.

. . .

‘L’homme au doigt’ (1947) by Alberto Giacometti©Christie’s/Alberto Giacometti Estate

‘L’homme au doigt’ (1947) by Alberto Giacometti

The interest in mixing modern with contemporary art, as exemplified by Christie’s Monday night sale, was also evident at the Frieze New York fair, which opened this week on Randall’s Island. The organisers had sought out “blue-chip” dealers and encouraged them to bring more traditional art — “contextualising”, as this is called. So among the newcomers this year are a clutch of blue-chip galleries. They include Skarstedt, McKee, Pace, Matthew Marks and Acquavella — with some showing more established names alongside their contemporary artists. Pace is holding a solo show of Richard Tuttle, while Acquavella has a couple of million-dollar Picassos along with Brice Marden and Ed Ruscha. “I have clients who started with contemporary art, and now their attention is being taken by earlier works,” says Michael Findlay of Acquavella, “and the prices are so high for contemporary now.”

Among the successes of the fair was Vigo gallery, with Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi: New York museums bought a number of his works (priced between £250,000 and £650,000) and the collector Beth DeWoody another two. Frieze finishes on Sunday.

. . .

The $141.3m paid for Giacometti’s “L’homme au doigt” is a just reflection of the significance of the Swiss sculptor. And now that peace has broken out between the previously warring Giacometti foundation and association, the foundation’s new director Catherine Grenier is pressing ahead with a number of projects.

This week she and the Chinese/Indonesian collector and museum owner Budi Tek announced that they will stage the biggest exhibition yet of Giacometti’s work, from March next year in Tek’s Yuz Museum in Shanghai. It will comprise 240 works, including drawings, original plasters, sculptures and paintings, all from the foundation and displayed in a 2,000-sq metre gallery. “Giacometti has influenced Chinese artists for a long time,” says Tek. “And yet this is the first exhibition of his work in China.” Grenier says she has known Tek for some years, and that the project “was born very quickly after my nomination”. Tek is supporting the Institut Giacometti, an outpost of the foundation to be used for research and exhibitions, due to open next year. This Friday, “Beyond East and West”, a talk between Tek and Alexandre Colliex, development director of the Giacometti Foundation, will be held at Art15; the fair opens on Thursday in London’s Olympia.

. . .

‘Untitled’ (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat©Christie’s

‘Untitled’ (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which realised $13.6m at Christie’s on Monday

“Filthy Lucre” is the title of an immersive new work by contemporary artist Darren Waterston which goes on show in Washington’s Freer Gallery of Art from Saturday. The installation is a reinterpretation of Whistler’s Peacock Room, originally designed in 1876 for the London home of the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland.

The commission proved poisonous: Whistler and his patron had a bitter falling out, both because the artist gave full rein to his creativity while Leyland was away and because he demanded the vast sum of 2,000 guineas for the work. Leyland paid just half that, and Whistler finished the room by painting battling peacocks on one wall — with a poor artist/bird being attacked by the patron/bird. Whistler exacted further revenge by painting vindictive portraits of Leyland — one entitled “The Gold Scab — Eruption in Filthy Lucre”.

Waterson’s work recreates the room in a state of disrepair, its porcelains cracked and broken, shelves sagging, its central female portrait decaying and disfigured.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

Photographs: Christie’s; Christie’s/©2015 Alberto Giacometti Estate/Vaga and ARS, New York

 

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INTERVIEW MAGAZINE

Josh Faught, Issues, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley Gallery.

Faught’s large-scale quilt is not the kind you’d receive from your grandmother. Although it might seem haphazard in construction, there is a method to his madness: Faught references themes that touch upon domesticity and sexuality, resulting in charged works that are, ironically, very much home-spun.

 

Jonathan Horowitz, 700 Dots, 2015. Photo: Marco Scozzaro, courtesy of the artist, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and Frieze.

Audience participation is one prevalent theme throughout this year’s fair. For his installation, Horowitz paid visitors 20 dollars each to paint black circles on white canvases. A clever inversion of the fair business model or a fantastic advertisement to draw in new collectors? Your choice.

Dashiell Manley, It and Another Other, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery.

Manley’s minimalist works first caught my eye at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The young Los Angeles-based artist engages with the environments in which his works are staged, referencing the movement of the viewer while also playing with light and reflection.

 

Tom Sachs, Big Tits, 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.

Ever since Sachs took over the Park Avenue Armory in 2012 for his mega-installation Space Program: Mission to Mars, a staged DIY NASA-inspired expedition to the titular planet, we’ve been a huge fan. A common characteristic of Sachs’ creations, as with this boom box, is his use of bricolage- the incorporation of found objects and everyday materials in the construction of works. Fully functioning, it also happens to play the intro sample from Dre and Snoop’s hit “The Next Episode.”

Jordan Wolfson, Untitled, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist and Sadie Coles HQ.

Wolfson’s masked dancing anamatronic stripper that was exhibited last year at David Zwirner freaked us out, but in the best way possible. Living up to his reputation as an artist who shocks his audience, Wolfson’s work this year somehow reminds us of the once ubiquitous tabloid fixture, Bat Boy.

Giuseppe Penone, Albero di 8 m, 2000 and Albero di 10 m, 1989. Photo: Marco Scozzaro. Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and Frieze.

If we’re going for sheer size, nothing seems to rival Italian artist Giuseppe Penone’s installation. Works include a wall of mesh-encased panels containing laurel leaves, as well as denuded tree trunks. The monumentality of Penone’s works beg the viewer to pause and marvel amidst the madness of the fair.

Richard Prince, New Portraits, 2014. Photo: Robert McKeever, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

One of the biggest names from one of the biggest galleries, Prince’s appropriation of Instagram posts belonging to other users is representative of several high-profile artists at the fair this year. Many works on view engage with issues surrounding social media and the Internet. Make sure that selfie looks its best; your feed may be next.

 

 

 

 

GUARDIAN LONDON

Frieze New York review – navigating the maze of art fair’s eccentric fun

There are massage chairs and the opportunity to stick to the wall in a Velcro suit – but the real thrill is discovering great artists beyond the blue-chip names

An artwork at Frieze New York made with hundreds of crushed beer cans.
Kader Attia’s Halam Tawaaf, an artwork at Frieze New York made with hundreds of crushed beer cans. Photograph: ddp USA/REX Shutterstock/ddp USA/REX Shutterstock

There was a new ingredient on the first day of this year’s Frieze New York: the sun came out. Three years in a row it rained at the opening of the American cousin of Britain’s most important art fair, and I’d grown used to the very English grey sky over the art fair’s custom tent, a cunningly sinuous thing designed by the Brooklyn firm SO-IL. It looked better than ever this year with light streaming through, and still affords better sightlines than any fair this side of Paris’s FIAC, which has the unfair advantage of being housed in an Art Nouveau masterpiece.

Frieze New York is ticking along – the fair that once seemed a British invasion is now a major Big Apple event, as much a pleasure palace as an art fair. The ferry up the East River to Randall’s Island, the fair’s unlikely home, is an indulgence for locals and foreigners alike. The aisles are clogged as ever with dealers, curators, hangers-on. The food is still a major draw – chia pudding from a popup version of Chinatown hangout Dimes seems to be the big ticket, to be washed down with a $7 latte with a Brooklyn pedigree. Real art fair pros, though, bring their own granola bars.

In its first edition, in May 2012, galleries went out of their way to establish Frieze New York’s commercial bona fides. It’s not that blue-chip trophies are not in short supply this year: multiple Anish Kapoor discs are yours for the taking. But even the largest galleries are playing a little faster and looser than before. Hauser and Wirth has mounted a winningly anarchic booth whose walls have been painted by Martin Creed in various patterns of blue and black stripes – against which paintings by Rita Ackermann, sculptures by the late Juan Muñoz, and photographs by Roni Horn look positively groovy.

Art therapy at the Gavin Brown stall.

Pinterest
Art therapy at the Gavin Brown stall. Photograph: Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze

Over on Gavin Brown’s booth has the look of an art therapy class: long folding tables, which fairgoers are hunched over in uncommon silence. Have a seat and someone will offer you a canvas, some brushes, and black paint. Your task, as set by the American artist Jonathan Horowitz: paint an eight-inch circle at the centre of your canvas. For your effort you’ll be paid $20 (a handsome price, if your technical skill is as pathetic as mine), and your black dot will take pride of place in a collaborative grid whose irregularities surpass any coloured circles from the Hirst factory.

Then there is the stand of uber-gallery Gagosian, given over, I’m afraid, to Richard Prince’s ho-hum prints of Instagram screenshots. Prince is a great artist when he wants to be, but lately he’s been leaving comments on cute girls’ selfies, then reproducing the image and the comment at wall-holding scale. (When they first appeared last year, the New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl heroically described his response as “something like a wish to be dead”.) How dull are they? So dull that they are outshone by the floor that Team Gagosian has custom installed: a plywood deck that proves even the cheapest materials can turn luxe with the right framing.

Martin Creed’s wall paintings at the Hauser & Wirth

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Martin Creed’s wall paintings at the Hauser & Wirth. Photograph: Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze

As always, the best reason to come to the fair is to see art from galleries outside New York, and ideally from outside the big-ticket western consensus. The Zimbabwean painter Portia Zvavahera has been given a solo presentation by Cape Town gallery Stevenson, and her churning, disquieting paintings of couples embracing or asleep seem haunted by public history as much as private nightmares. Galerie Frank Elbaz, from Paris, has put together the most impressive group presentation under the big top: a showcase of Croatian avant-garde artists pushing the boundaries of fine arts in the midst of the cold war. The painter Julije Knifer embraced stark abstraction in the form of meandering fat lines; the trickster Mladen Stilinović took white out to a dictionary page, then added in, over and over, the word “pain”.

Galeria Jaqueline Martins, a young gallery from São Paulo, deservedly netted the fair’s best booth prize for a solo presentation of Martha Araújo, whose 1985 project Para um corpo nas suas impossibilidades (For a body in its impossibilities) consists of a quarter-pipe, the sort of thing you see in skateboarding parks, covered in black Velcro. The gallery proves jumpsuits covered in Velcro straps, allowing participants to clamber to the top or hang upside down. For you, reader, I suited up. I bounced to the top of the quarter-pipe, smushing the front of my body against the wall. Naturally I came crashing down. Someone took a photo. I jumped up again, this time in the other direction, but instead of sticking all I did was hurt my back. More photos. The dealers were laughing at me, but I got the hang of it on my third go, and clung to the wall like a not very ambulatory spider.

The funhouse atmosphere continues in the noncommercial section of Frieze New York, for which half a dozen invited artists have created new works. Korakrit Arunanondchai, best known for belting out Thai rap music while sucking on light-up e-cigarettes, has installed a bunch of massage chairs upholstered in bleached denim and speckled with paint; an easy gesture, and a forgettable one. Rather better is a choose-your-own-adventure maze created by the young Japanese artist Aki Sasamoto, an absurdist personality test in three dimensions. Hanging from two white doors are baskets full of coffee or tea – pick your preference. I’m American; it was coffee for me, and walked through that door to a chamber with another pairing, and then another, until at last I had to choose between two toilet rolls, one unspooled from above, the other from below. I picked the first one, and a kind young man was waiting for me behind the door, proffering a pin with my personality type on it: “Into Big”. And this before they asked any questions about my sex life.

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Our Mega Guide to all the Fun at Frieze New York
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We hope you’re well rested, because this is one incredible week for art fans in New York City.  The FRIEZE art fairhas been building momentum for the past three years, and this year’s edition on Randall’s Island won’t disappoint.  Plus there are tons of satellite fairs — including an “invasion” of our turf by the folks from Art Miami — and gallery openings, auctions, pop-ups and much more.10168c4eddbc0ae503e4dc07366af2ee4c92e650.jpgFRIEZE New York opens for “invite only” VIPs and collectors on Wednesday, May 13th, and then it’s open to the public for four days starting on the 14th.  Over 190 galleries are exhibiting in 2015 and, as usual, there are cool side-projects including a “Tribute to Flux-Labyrinth 1976/2015” where contemporary artists will construct a maze of narrow corridors and obstructed spaces for you to explore.  Elsewhere, look for several “clandestine rooms” by Aki Sasamoto and “underground environments” by Samara Golden.  If you need to chill after these mysterious challenges, look for one of the free massage chairs placed around the venue by Korakit Arunanondchai.  There are also daily talks including one called “Ask Jerry” with New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz on Saturday at noon and a talk-show panel hosted by the artist/comedian and 2015 Paper Beautiful Person Casey Jane Ellison on Friday at noon.  A single day ticket is $44 and the hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, except Sunday, when things shut down at 6 p.m. The full schedule is HERE.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 4.18.21 PM.pngMaripola X

For the first time, the folks behind Art Miami – that city’s longest running art fair — will host a New York spin-off on Pier 94 (12th Avenue at 55th Street) with over 100 galleries showing works from May 14th (VIP Preview) to May 17th.  FRIEZE VIP cardholders get in free and there’s also a courtesy shuttle service from the FRIEZE ferry dock on East 35th Street.  It’s open from noon to 8 p.m. daily, except Sunday until 6 p.m. A single day ticket is $25.  On Saturday, May 16th, 3 to 6 p.m., photographer and designer, Maripol, will sign copies of her limited-edition book MARIPOLA X  in booth #B19.  The book includes unreleased photos and poems chronicling the early-80s NY underground. Also: NYC’s Keszler Gallery is showing several works by UK artist Banksy and The New York Academy of Art has a special exhibition of alumni work curated by Natalie Frank.

Gerard-Quenum-La-Cour-du-Roi-2013-acrylic-on-canvas-130-x-170-cm.jpgGérard Quenum, ‘La Cour du Roi’, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 130 x 170 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Art Twenty One

Another fair making it’s NYC debut this year is the “1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair
happening out in Red Hook at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn) from May 15th through May 17th.  The fair was founded in London in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui to showcase emerging contemporary African art. Sixteen galleries will be on hand with works by over 60 artists.  The award-winning London architecture and design studio RA Projects will do the lobby and exhibition spaces for the fair.  A single day ticket is $10 and it’s open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. (6 on Sunday).

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 4.42.08 PM.png

NADA returns to Pier 36, Basketball City (299 South Street), for the fourth edition of their New York fair. The not-for-profit collective offers a great mix of global galleries and special projects including a fashion show on Thursday, May 14, 7 p.m., featuring limited-edition clothing designed by artists including Cheryl Donegan, Amy Yao, Sarah Braman, Bjorn Copeland and Daniel Heidkamp.  Richard Haines will be on-hand to document the show with his drawings.  This is a collab between NADA and Print All Over Me and was curated by Sam Gordon.  Admission to this fair is free and it’s open to everybody, so check it out on Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., or Friday thru Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (5 on Sunday).

The fifth LIC Arts Open runs from May 13th to May 17th with tons of open studios, exhibits, music etc. happening throughout Long Island City.  The complete list is HERE. Flux Factory (39-31 29th Street, LIC) is participating with a BBQ, artist talks and an exhibition by Roopa Vasudevan on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Sixty-one exhibitors are showing at the Spring Masters New York art and design fair at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue).  This fair opened last week, but you still have a chance to check it out before it closes at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 12th.  Tickets are $25.  Acclaimed architect Rafael Vinoly did the booth layout.

4928h.jpgBerndnaut Smilde,”Nimbus”

NeueHouse (110 East 25th Street) is once again the official VIP partner for FRIEZE and will host the VIP lounge with music, food and cocktails; plus artist talks including David Salle in the fair lounge on Sunday, May 17, 11 a.m., and Stephen Posen and his son, Zac, on Tuesday, May 12, 7 p.m., in their 25th Street location.  Also at 25th Street, on Wednesday and Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde will present “Nimbus,” creating artificial indoor clouds.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 4.51.08 PM.pngThe local auction houses are hosting their contemporary art auctions this week with Bonhams on May 11, Sotheby’s on the 12th & 13th,  Doyle on May 12, Christie’s on May 13 and Phillips on May 14th & 15th.  Swann Auction Galleries (104 East 25th Street) hosts theirs at 1:30 p.m. on May 12th and it includes several items in what we like to call the “never throw anything away” category.  There’s a 1984 invitation to Keith Haring and Larry Levan’s “Party of Life” at the Paradise Garage that’s estimated to go for between $1,000 and $1,500.  Haring printed the invite on a cloth handkerchief.  Also up for bidding is a leather jacket from the collection of a “door girl for the Danceteria VIP room Congo Bill” that includes tags by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Futura 2000, Fab Five Freddy, Ad-Rock and many other downtown notables.  It’s estimate is $5,000 to $8,000.  You can check out all the cool items in this auction HERE.

FRIEZE week also overlaps with NYC X DESIGN, New York City’s official celebration of everything design related, featuring hundreds of showcases, fairs and events all over town from May 8 to 19.  These include the Collective Design Fair which runs from May 13th to the 17th at Skylight Clarkson Square (550 Washington Street); WantedDesign in Brooklyn at Industry City (274 36th Street, Brooklyn, from the 9th to the 19th and also in Manhattan at 269 11th Avenue from the 15th to the 18th; plus ICFF, the “luxury/high end” furniture fair at Javits Center from May 16th to 19th.  Check out the massive list of events HERE.

If you’re looking for an alt-fair experience, we suggest the FRIDGE Art Fair running May 14th through the 17th in the Retro Bar & Grill in the Holiday Inn (150 Delancey Street).  Their opening on Thursday, 6 to 9 p.m., benefits BARC (Brooklyn Animal Rescue Coalition) and is sponsored by Heineken, Zevia, Perrier and Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery with a raffle, performances, surprise guests and more. Tix are $20. And would you like a portrait of your fave pet?  Bring him/her by on Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. to be photographed and then painted by the fair’s founder Eric Ginsburg. Prices start at $1200. A portion of the proceeds go to BARC.

Picture 97.pngphoto from FLUX by Shahram Entekhabi

Harlem’s first contemporary art fair, FLUX, runs from Thursday through Sunday in The Corn Exchange Building (81-85 East 125th Street @ Park Avenue). Works by over 50 international artists will be on view, and the fair’s curator’s have tried to focus on the theme of “the 21st Century artist as a nomad.”  It’s open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Sunday when things close down at 6 p.m.  Tickets are $20.  If you’re going to stop by FLUX, you should also check out THIS list of events during the inaugural edition of Harlem EatUp! — “A celebration of food, culture and spirit” — put together by Marcus Samuelsson and Herb Kalitz.

RISD hosts a private reception on Sunday evening at the WantedDesign fair in Industry City, Brooklyn, with RISD President Rosanne Somerson.  RSVP only.

8921d146-a290-4486-b24a-cf39fcbc48e4.jpgAby Rosen and Vito Schnabel are hosting a pop-up exhibition called “First Show/ Last Show” on Saturday, May 16, 5 to 8 p.m., in the old Germania Bank (190 Bowery).  That’s the former home of photographer Jay Meisel, recently purchased by Rosen’s RFR Realty for a reported $55 million.  Schnabel curated the show featuring artists including Harmony Korine, Julian Schnabel, Mark Grotjahn, Ron Gorchov, Jeff Elrod, Joe Bradley and Dan Cohen.

main.gifMoMA PopRally (11 West 53rd Street) presents “Serendipity,” featuring the films and photography of Awol Erizku on Sunday, May 17, 7 to 10 p.m.  This includes the premiere of the LA artist’s new film; plus a sound performance by MeLo-X, a DJ set by Kitty Cash, open bar and access to the museum’s latest contemporary art exhibition: “Scenes for a New Heritage.”  $25 tickets are HERE.

W Magazine and Stefano Tonchi celebrate their May art issue at the “premiere” of Ian Schrager’s newest hotel, The New York Edition (5 Madison Avenue) on Tuesday night with Q-Tip spinning the tunes.  Invite only.

Maiyet, Conscious Commerce and Milkmade host a cocktail party on Wednesday — also at The NY Edition — with Alexandra Richards on the decks.  Again, it’s invite only.

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 1.50.19 PM.pngSunglass Hut (496 Broadway) and Mr. Brainwash launch their new collab collection on May 14th.

mccarrenrachel.jpgRachel Libeskind and Swaai Boys present “Ancient Baggage: Recent Discoveries in Ritualistc Objects” on Thursday, May 14th, 8 p.m., in the Sheltering Sky lounge at the McCarren Hotel & Pool (160 N. 12th Street, Brooklyn). This is Libeskind’s performance piece that deals with “the rituals imposed by the suitcase” in a colab with experimental music from Swaii Boys.

aligleighbowery.jpgLeigh Bowery by Michael Alig.

The SELECT Art Fair (548 West 22nd Street) runs from May 13th to the 17th in the old DIA building in Chelsea. Several floors of galleries — including “one entire floor of Brooklyn-based galleries” — will be on hand; plus there’s an exhibition of Michael Alig’s prison artwork. Check out the daily rooftop parties in a maze structure called “You Are Here” designed by the art duo TROUBLE, featuring DJs, bands, performances etc. including Blondes on May 13, Jungle Pussy on the 14th and James Chance on the 15th.  A day-ticket is $20.

Peter Brant, Interview Magazine, Paul Kasmin Gallery and 1stDibs celebrate FRIEZE with a private cocktail party on Thursday evening.

TUMBLR hosts a private “unveiling” of Richard Phillips’ new studio in LIC on May 14th, 7 to 10 p.m. Invite and RSVP only.

The Standard High Line (848 Washington Street) and High Line Art host a private cocktail party on Tuesday for Rashid Johnson’s “Blocks” commission on the High Line.  Invite only.

Denis Gardarin Gallery  has a pop-up exhibit by French artist Mathieu Mercier from May 13th to the 16th, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, at Skylight at Moynihan Station on West 33rd Street.

DM-FLYER3 copy.jpgCanadian artist Daniel Mazzone has a pop-up called “Torn Apart” on Thursday, May 14th, 7 to 11 p.m., at Carriage House Center (149 East 38th Street).  Mazzone’s “collage portraits” of historic figures often incorporate personalized elements relating to the subject.

SAVETHEDATE_HP.jpgR & Company (82 Franklin Street) has a solo exhibition by LA-based designer David Wiseman called “Wilderness & Ornament” featuring cast bronze works and porcelain decorative walls.  Check it out during their normal business hours all week.

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The Van Alen Institute hosts their “Celebrate Spring” benefit party and their on-going auction on Wednesday, May 13, 6:45 to 11:30 p.m., at the Surrogate’s Courthouse (31 Chambers Street) with a seated dinner and performance by My Midnight Heart; plus DJ David Pacho and the “dystopian funk super group” LA-BAS.  You can get tickets HERE and bid on auction items now through May 20th via Paddle8. There are lots interesting things up for bidding including a “hot tub roundtable” with architect Charles Renfro at his fab Fire Island beach house and a private fitting with menswear designer Patrik Ervell in his NYC studio.

Several art jewelers and street artists have hooked-up to create some unique works that will be on view starting Saturday, May 16th, 6 to 8 p.m., at The Gallery at Reinstein Ross (30 Gansevoort Street) in a show called PLACEMENT.  Some of the artists participating are Skullphone, Logan Hicks, CYRCLE, ASVP, Arthur Nash and Tara Locklear.  Have a look before the end of June.

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No Longer Empty will present a big multi-media group show called “Bring in the Reality” at the Nathan Cummings Foundation (475 10th Avenue, 14th floor). The exhibition features works that “speak candidly, freely and boldly…works that speak truth to power.”  Participating artists include John Ahearn, Mel Chin, Tim Collins and K.O.S., Dread Scott, Nari Ward and many more.  The opening is May 12th, 6 to 8 p.m. and you should rsvp to exhibits@nathancummings.org if you plan to attend.  It’s on view through the summer, but, again, you should make an appointment via the same email address.

And check out some recs from our friends over at the Mirror Cube, a new events site where artists suggest their favorite happenings in NYC and LA.:

Nathan Hoho of the band, Walking Shapes, recommends checking out the Garth Greenan Gallery at Frieze, which is focused on giving established artists greater visibility: this year, they will be showing minimalist ’70s color studies from Howardena Pindell, which she painted during her years as a MoMA curator. “I’ve only recently been exposed to the gallery but was blown away by the last show I saw there,” Hoho says.

Lyz Olko, the designer behind clothing label Obesity + Speed, suggests stopping by the 303 Gallery, which is known for championing contemporary artists like Stephen Shore, who got his start documenting the goings-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory at the tender age of 17. This year at Frieze, they will be showing 3D mixed media works from Israeli artist Elad Lassry.

Both photographer Natalie Neal and artist/PAPER Beautiful Person Chloe Wise recommend Foxy Production, a NYC-based gallery that’s new to the fair and will be showing manipulated photography from Sara Cwynar and a video installation from Petra Cortright. “Petra’s unique vision mixes technology, ready-mades, and femininity in an unforgettable way,” Neal says. “Every piece she shows is a piece you don’t want to miss seeing in person.”

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Articles

Your Concise Guide to Frieze Week 2015

Inside the Frieze Tent at Frieze New York 2014 (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)

Have you finally recovered from Armory Week? Are you ready to do it all again? Too bad, because it’s Frieze Week in New York City! This year’s lineup features one exhibition and eight fairs — three of which are making their New York debuts — spread between Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Randall’s Island, where Frieze New York and its 200 exhibitors await. For those trying to make sense of it all, here is our primer on all the fairs, including notable special projects, talks, performances, and panels.

Also, don’t forget to follow Hyperallergic on Instagram for pics from the fairs all week.

 

 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair

When: May 15–17 / Friday, Saturday: 12–8pm; Sunday: 12–6pm ($10)
Where: Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn)

Far and away the most interesting addition to this year’s Frieze Week lineup, the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair is bringing 15 galleries either based in Africa or that specialize in African contemporary art to Pioneer Works. Among the former will be Art Twenty One from Lagos, Afronova from Johannesburg, and Marrakech’s VOICE Gallery.

The London-based fair’s first New York outing also includes an impressive schedule of panels and talks, among them a discussion between artists Hank Willis Thomas and Lyle Ashton Harris on the importance of the term “diaspora” to their practices (May 15, 4:15pm) and a panel on the importance of “cultural specific curating” at major institutions that will feature Christa Clarke from the Newark Museum, Thomas J. Lax from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Franklin Sirmans from Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (May 16, 1:15pm).

Art Miami New York

When: May 14–17 / Thursday: 5–9pm; Friday, Saturday: 12–8pm; Sunday: 12–6pm ($25)
Where: Pier 94 (55th Street and West Side Highway, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan)

If you’re experiencing Armory Week withdrawal and looking for an excuse to trek back to the Hudson River piers, Art Miami New York — which boasts the most geographically confusing art fair name since Paris Photo Los Angeles — is the fair for you. It is bringing 100 galleriesto Pier 94, most of them from Europe and North America, as well as a handful of outliers from Uruguay (Piero Atchugarry), Bogota (Galería Casa Cuadrada), Hong Kong (AP Contemporary), and elsewhere.

Art Miami New York’s schedule of talks and panels will be particularly compelling for those interested in the art world’s commercial side. It includes a talk by collector and art financier Asher Edelman on the use of art in real estate developments (May 15, 3pm) and a panel on art collector faux pas (May 16, 3pm).

Collective Design

When: May 13–17 / Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday: 11am–8pm; Friday: 11am–9pm; Sunday: 11am–5pm ($25)
Where: Skylight Clarkson Sq (550 Washington Street, West Village, Manhattan)

A presentation at the 2014 Collective Design fair (photo by Sarah Archer for Hyperallergic)

Frieze Week’s lone design fair — whose “design council” features designers, architects, and Oscar-winner Julianne Moore — Collective Design boasts 29 galleries specializing in everything from 20th century modern furniture (New York’s BAC and Stockholm’s Modernity), jewelry (New Jersey’s Gallery Loupe and Hudson’s Ornamentum), Mexican modernism (ADN Galería), silver (Madrid’s Garrido Gallery), and modern and contemporary children’s design (New York’s kinder MODERN).

The fair’s special programming includes an exhibition by the lighting designer Ingo Maurer, a special section devoted to Italian design and its global impact on the field, and a site-specific installation curated by Noguchi Museum Senior Curator Dakin Hart. Notable talks and tours include a walkthrough of the fair with Museum of Arts and Design director Glenn Adamson (May 14, 2pm), a talk on the function of nostalgia in contemporary jewelry design (May 16, 11:30am), and a panel on the intersections of craft and digital design (May 16, 4pm).

 Flux Art Fair

When: May 14–17 / Thursday–Saturday: 11am–8pm; Sunday: 11am–6pm ($20)
Where: Corn Exchange Building (81 East 125th Street, East Harlem, Manhattan)

Another one of this year’s Frieze Week newcomers, the Flux Art Fair foregoes galleries to match up artists and curators. Its inaugural lineup features 57 artists including Willie Cole, Lina Puerta, Sol Sax, Ai Campbell, Ivan Forde, and others. The curators include New York Foundation for the Arts’s David C. Terry, No Longer Empty founder and chief curator Manon Slome, and RaúI Zamudio, one of the co-curators of the 2013 El Museo del Barrio biennial.

 Frieze New York

When: May 14–17 / Thursday–Saturday: 11am–7pm; Sunday: 11am–6pm ($44)
Where: Randall’s Island Park (Randall’s Island)

With just under 200 galleries split into four sectors — the main fair, the Spotlight section for solo booths, the Frame section for galleries established since 2007 showing one artist’s work, and the Focus section for galleries founded in or since 2003 — Frieze New York is a monster fair. Luckily it is also sited on a verdant stretch of Randall’s Island inside an airy and bright tent and boasts the best food and drink options of any art fair this side of the Atlantic.

This year’s Projects program of site-specific interventions includes a recreation of the “Flux-Labyrinth,” a 200-foot-long labyrinth originally conceived by George Maciunas and other Fluxus artists in 1975, a subterranean environment by Samara Golden, and secret interrogation rooms peppered throughout the fair in which Aki Sasamoto will conduct personality tests on visitors. The highlight of the program of talks and panels is a discussion between Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden and outgoing Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman (May 15, 4pm) in which they’ll attempt to answer the question: “Whom do museums serve?”

NADA New York

When: May 14–17 / Thursday: 6–8pm; Friday, Saturday: 11am–7pm; Sunday: 11–5pm (free)
Where: Pier 36, Basketball City (299 South Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

Looking down on NADA New York 2014 (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

The week’s second-biggest fair, NADA New York‘s 2015 edition features 106 exhibitors —76 of them with traditional booths, 30 of them presenting solo projects. In addition to the usual set of Lower East Side galleries (Nicelle Beauchene, Callicoon Fine Arts, Regina Rex, Essex Flowers, etc.) there will be plenty of out-of-towners, including Detroit’s What Pipeline, Rome’s UNOSUNOVE, Dubai’s Carbon 12, and Springsteen from Baltimore.

The fair’s lineup of talks and performances includes a lecture and slideshow by artist Joshua Smith titled “You inspire me with Your determination And I Love You, Tracey Emin!” (May 15, 2pm) and the intriguingly titled panel “Cloud Based Institutional Critique” with Orit Gat , Zachary Kaplan, and Mike Pepi (May 16, 12pm). Perhaps most intriguing, however, is Melissa Brown and Where’s project “Eyes in the Sky Hold ‘Em,” a high-stakes poker game to be held off-site and streamed live at the fair in which artists will wager their own works in a winner-takes-all Texas Hold ‘Em tournament.

Salon Zürcher

When: May 11–17 / Monday 5–8pm; Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 12–8pm; Wednesday: 12–4pm; Sunday: 12–5pm (free)
Where: Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, SoHo, Manhattan)

The 10th edition of the little fair that could, Salon Zürcher, features six galleries: Galerie L’Inlassable, Mathias Coullaud, and Isabelle Gounod from Paris; Cathouse FUNeral from Brooklyn; Amsterdam outfit The Merchant House; and hosts Zürcher Gallery. Expect a range of works and media, from an installation by Tim Simonds (courtesy Cathouse FUNeral) to paintings by Regina Bogat (from Zürcher Gallery), and drawings by Anne Deleporte (shown byGalerie L’Inlassable).

 Select Art Fair

When: May 14–17 / Thursday, Friday: 2–10pm; Saturday: 12–10pm; Sunday: 12–6pm ($20)
Where: Center 548 (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan)

The entrance to the 2014 Select Art Fair (photo via Hyperallergic/Instagram)

The Select Art Fair has come a long way and seems poised to make the jump to a major satellite fair this year with its impressive lineup of 44 galleries — 19 of which hail from Brooklyn and will occupy their own floor of the fair — extensive schedules of rooftop musical performances, talks, and performance art. And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, Rebecca Goyette’s “Dentata Umbrella Lounge” definitely will — metaphorically and actually.

Seven

When: May 13–17 / Wednesday–Sunday: 12–6pm (free)
Where: The Boiler (191 North 14th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn)

Don’t call it a fair, Seven is a collaborative exhibition organized by seven New York City galleries — bitforms, Metro Pictures, Momenta Art, Pierogi, Postmasters, PPOW, and Ronald Feldman — under the title Anonymity, no longer an option. Surveillance-themed works on view include pieces by Addie Wagenknecht, Trevor Paglen, Suzanne Treister, and Katarzyna Kozyra, though the main attraction is undoubtedly “The Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument 2.0, AKA The Snowden Statue” (2015), the sculpture bust of Edward Snowden that was illegally installed in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park last month.

Camille Henrot’s Mind Altering Visual Poetics: Reviews, Images and Texts

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Camille Henrot: Grosse Fatigue

Versatile, solitary, talented, the French artist brings an encyclopaedic video on the history of the universe to the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale, which awarded her a Silver Lion at the event.

Art / Federico Nicolao

Versatile, solitary, talented. Born in 1978. For several years now, French artist Camille Henrot has been exploring the multiplication of the illusion of power versus the actual control that is contained in the way we look at the world. Until now, she has done so from the position that France’s art world reserves for its non-militant female artists, which is to say the most uncomfortable one there is.

 

Women artists receive no forgiveness in this country lying just over the Alps from Italy — nor perhaps do they in most of “Latin” Europe. People smile, often with a bit of arrogance, at their projects, but had they been the work of male artists, they would cry out in marvel. And whenever women artists do finally receive recognition (often from foreign curators from other hemispheres or from northern Europe) people sputter about how their work is becoming weaker — no longer what it used to be when they started out.

 

Luckily, there are women who continue their work without allowing themselves to be pushed to the margins. If anything, they use the borders of where they have been confined to concede themselves total freedom to explore the fields that interest them most, which are often the most topical and least trite. They travel and often work abroad. They read. Their tastes meet those of the common people. They study. Very rarely do they become polemic.

Top and above: Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, installation view at the Arsenale on the occasion of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale

The list would be long. For one thing, it would bring us to think that the fall of French art on the international market is to be attributed exclusively to the unbearable insistence with which no one dares defend and promote women artists in France. So much so that Louise Bourgeois, vernacular and refined at the same time, has been the only great artist in the last decades to be recognised both intellectually and commercially. It’s not as if things are much better in the rest of the world, but it explains why the broad public of art exhibitions does not know much about Camille Henrot, despite that her several projects in recent years.

 

Almost as soon as she started working, Henrot decided to “penetrate” into the atelier of the architect-artist-utopian Yona Friedman, but she did it from the point of view of her dog. Then, when she began sculpting strange tribal forms, she made them from plumbing joints and water pipes or airplane wings. In one film projection, she overlapped the three King Kongs of cinema history — Peter Jackson’s 2005 movie, John Guillermin’s 1975 version and the 1933 original, creating a fascinating hybrid that led to a new film, populated by images that were at once in harmony and continuous contrast. These are simple yet powerful ideas, experiments undertaken in answer to the question: What happens when we experiment? To what degree does our conscience become refined and profound? And contemporaneously, how much are we losing attempting?

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

In recent years, Henrot’s projects have all been courageously diverse, defying the constant obstacle of the marketplace. She makes sculptures, films, installations, drawings, pictorial intentions for the future and, recently, even ikebana. The latter became a surprise hit of the last Paris Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo. A trace of each has remained in her “encyclopaedic” video Grosse Fatigue (2013) — about the history of the universe —, which won this year’s Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale.

 

Grosse Fatigue is a curious hymn to foundation and creation, but above all to death and extinction. The soundtrack was composed by French DJ and composer Joakim Bouaziz — Henrot’s companion — who leads music label Tigersushi, and includes a text that Henrot co-authored with her friend, poet Jakob Bomberg. All combine in what becomes a strange cauldron of myths and thoughts on the state of the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Like all self-respecting artists, Camille Henrot has two traits that irritate a certain type of art critic and spectator. These traits excite other non-prejudiced people. She has no problem with using popular codes. The use of rap in the prize-winning video at the Biennale receives a mix of enthused and negative reactions. She has no problem with quoting (sometimes explicitly, sometimes cryptically) complex, difficult books that are not read by the broad public but by sophisticated intellectuals. Here, she is demanding (for herself, and thus for artists in general) the right to break open the codes of academic citations in order to allow books to come alive without excessive complications. People have difficulty accepting this from a young woman who is the first to say that she has not yet found what place knowledge and instinct can occupy in the context of art. But that’s a mistake.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Grosse Fatigue is a meditation on creation. Who knows if rap aficionados not used to such unusual clips will like it? Thirteen minutes recount the birth of the world and its risk of dying. What does our desire to make a picture of the world bring us to? In a predominantly philosophical manner, Henrot answers this question by overlapping and intersecting different computer pages on one screen. Among other things, she invents a new way of looking at what happens when we navigate different roads on the same desktop.

 

Here, she does not play Jean-Luc Godard’s card of emotive fusion, but that of cataloguing and separation — of splicing. This time, Henrot is influenced as much by Matisse and his papiers découpés as by the Coupé-Décalé dance; by myths and humans’ compulsive obsession to catalogue the world. Jean Starobinski and his lucid, dramatic examination of the encyclopaedia is not so far away from Henrot’s universe with its Dionysian dismembering, the taking to pieces of the world by means of discovery, the interruption and caesura that become the orgasmic (here masturbatory) sexual love of those who are watching and reflecting upon themselves in the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

What collection are we part of and why do we, in turn, collect? What do we accumulate and how long does what we accumulate live? Each of us is a succession of cross-sections of the world. But what happens to our life when we explore it and reveal it, from window to window? Moments of joy, festivity, colour, but also exertion and death. With love and desperation, Henrot filmed the wonderful and sinister embalmed animals of Paris’s Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute, where she spent broad swaths of time. Camille Henrot will continue to elicit excessive approval and instigate discussion. And that’s a good sign. Federico Nicolao

Camille Henrot at the awards ceremony of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale. Photo by Italo Rondinella

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Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox

28 February — 13 April 2014, Chisenhale Gallery, London

By Louise Darblay

French artist Camille Henrot has received much attention since she won the Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale for her film Grosse Fatigue (2013). Translated as ‘great exhaustion’, it consists of a 13-minute video in which a rap voice attempts to tell the story of the universe, combining mythical, religious, historic and scientific narratives, while a flow of images flash by simultaneously on a desktop computer.

Taking over the Chisenhale Gallery, Henrot builds on this previous work to create The Pale Fox, in which a similar narrative unfolds, but into space rather than on a computer screen, and that turns the feeling of exhaustion into a meditative and enveloping experience. The walls and carpet are coloured in a deep soothing blue reminding of Yves Klein’s monochromes, while atmospheric, ambient music plays in the background, periodically punctuated by coughing sounds. In this enclosed cosmos, Henrot presents what seems to be her very own universe, including found images, objects such as books, educational CDs, digital tablets, coloured feathers and a snow globe, some of her ink drawings and sculptures, as well as a polymorphous set of undulating aluminium shelves that run across the walls. Creating an uneven visual frieze, the images and objects cover the gallery walls, occasionally overflowing on to the floor, on which a radio-controlled snake slithers around.

Dogon mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative

Behind this apparent chaos lies what Henrot calls a ‘crazy schematic map’ which, drawing on different systems of knowledge, apparently describes the cyclic creation of our universe. The disparate objects are there to represent both a point on the compass and one of the elements, one per wall. This spatial map also corresponds to stages in the development of human life, technological progress or mythological genesis.

The north wall for instance relates to the element water – the artist informs us in the press release – where objects and images are gathered that are associated with creation and fertility such as gourdlike calabashes, an apple, or Gabagunnu, the womb matrix of the world, as featured in Dogon mythology. Frequently referred to throughout the installation, this West-African mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative.

Further on, there is the unfolding and evolution of human life, bringing about technological progress, as symbolised by the tablets and the accumulation of photographic images, and which leads to photographs of sunburnt bodies, a metaphor for man’s overexposure. Elsewhere a newspaper cutting, on the archaeological discovery of a Greek statue, hangs next to biblical crosswords, while a Silver Surfer Marvel comic is placed alongside an image of a Buddhist ritual.

The logic is sometimes hard to follow, and the references not always easy to decode without a press release to guide us through. Although captivating and absorbing as an environmental installation, it is the different layers of meaning and symbolic references interwoven together that make this complex work interesting, even when those references are cryptic and reliant on the viewer having some familiarity with Griaule and Dieterlen’s anthropological study of Dogon mythology, Leibniz’s philosophy or Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue.

That being said, once you have read the artist’s statement, Henrot does manage to make these overlapping narratives work together in one great cycle, without them seeming contradictory. She reminds us that disorder and entropy are the origin and condition of creation and evolution, just like the ambivalent figure of the Pale Fox in Dogon mythology is both destructive and creative. In a world where we are constantly overwhelmed by images and information, Henrot’s installation is an impressive attempt to make this excess and chaos productive again.

7 April 2014

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MOUSSE

ISSUE 35

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Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs?, installation view at La Triennale “Intense Proximity”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris. Photo: Alexandra Serrano

Relations de Traduction

by Cecilia Alemani

Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers? This enigmatic question is the title of the latest project by Camille Henrot, and it is the practice of Ikebana that removes any reservations about the floral passion: an entire library is translated in arrangements; the reciprocal positionings, the Latin names of species that speak perceptibly of trade, pharmacological properties and history.
Cecilia Alemani meets with the artist to talk about the translative qualities of her work, ranging through anthropology, archaeology and sociology.


Cecilia Alemani: In the last two years you have been focusing on the practice of Ikebana. How do you relate botany and floral decoration to contemporary sculpture?

Camille Henrot: Flowers belong to a time that is not secular (like history) but seasonal.
They address two major expectations of our time. Creating continuity in an era of ruptured temporality, they act like an antidote to the anxiety of living “in history.” At the same time they represent renewal as we wait for change. That’s why I called the project Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?).
My initial attraction to Ikebana had to do with how it corresponds to the idea of a healing object. The practice of Ikebana has the role of creating a ‘privileged space’ just as much for the person who views the arrangements as for the person who composes them.
By translating books into flower arrangements in a single gesture, the aim is to concentrate in one object the entirety of a thought, brining together disparate fragments—reconciling opposites in a whole of global dimensions. The approach finds a cohesion (of sorts) in the presentation of several Ikebana. The aim is to build an ‘environment’ within the image of a library that would be simultaneously out of time and connected to the Western fascination with knowledge and its expectations for a revolutionary change.

CA: Your work is bound up with systems of organization and taxonomy. Your Ikebana sculptures are each visualizations of books in your library and your videos often deal with the construction of racial identity. Can you talk about some of these aspects in your work?

CH: I like the serenity brought about by the image of an organized system, but I don’t like simplification and authority. I’m fascinated by unifying systems because they are fragile and appear like ordered complexity.
Regarding categories and racial identities I am interested in ‘Taboo’ objects, the use of which is coded; these can stir a lot of misunderstanding because they continually defy categorization. The idea of culture as “translation relationships” (relations de traduction) was my starting point. We could see the history of Art as a history of misunderstandings. That history would follow the same schemes and patterns as intimate relationships: desire, possession and miscomprehension.

My practice of Ikebana—even though it belongs to a current that is itself non-traditional (the Sogetsu school)—contains interpretive mistakes and naiveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project—and more generally of the whole of my work.

I often think of that quote from Frantz Fanon: “As soon as I desire, I am asking to be considered. I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. (…) In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.”

Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (L’entretien infini), 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: Anthropology, archeology, and sociology all seem to play a role in your work. How do you see your role as an artist in relationship to these disciplines?

CH: I am very interested in the ‘status’ of objects and the ideas of people like Viveiros de Castro, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, Monique Jeudy-Ballini, Pascal Picq, Roger Bastide… I find these writers inspiring and sometimes disruptive.

In the case of anthropology, I am compelled by certain almost incompatible desires and undercurrents within the discipline, which for me are also quite present in the artistic process and experience. In this regard, I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.

I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias. Somehow one could say I have developed a ‘cargo cult’ for anthropology. (The ‘cargo cult’ originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behavior that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.)

I am not equating myself with anthropologist; I do not want to claim that authority. I am more interested in the character of Marcel Appenzzell, the anthropologist in check, mentioned in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I know that when I’m in Vanuatu, for instance, I am a ‘white man’ above all, and I am conscious of what this means: the vanity of my motives, the voyeuristic aspect of my attitude, the guilt, the self-disgust and self-mockery, which are actually all the subject of the “Tropics of Love” drawings I started after that trip.

CA: Rites of passages and initiations have a strong presence in your work, such as in Coupé/Décalé and in The Strife of Love in a Dream. Can you tell us a little more about the background for these two videos, how they were realized, what was the subject?

CH: The Strife Of Love in a Dream was a project commissioned by Centre Pompidou in Paris for an exhibition about India. I was pretty afraid to go to India and tried to understand why.

The film’s title comes from a book written in the Middle Ages, Hypnerotomachia.
One of the stories, named “The Strife of Love in a Dream” tells of a monk who crosses The Dark Forest and finds himself facing a dragon. He is tempted to escape, but were he to turn back, the adventure would be over. This tale emphasizes the film’s central notion: the necessity of facing one’s fears.
I was struck by the paradox of India being often imagined as a cure against the Western world’s feverish agitation and at the same time being the number one manufacturer of psychotropic drugs. I imagined the film like a series of hallucinations that would create physical sensations and psychological imprints while showing very physical aspects of reality (the manufacturing of anxiolytics).

Regarding Coupé/Décalé, the project started after I found images by coincidence on the web of the Naghol ritual or “Land Diving,” and it made me think of Le Saut by Yves Klein. Thirty years ago this ritual had inspired bungee jumping and is now practiced as a “performance” for tourists visiting the island attracted by the similarity they see with a practice they connect to modern way of life (and need for strong emotions). There’s a ‘back and forth’ movement within the gesture of the ritual itself as well as in its history. But how to escape archetypes when you bring images back from the other side of the world?
I wanted to tackle that issue by creating a rough patchwork of deconstructed hybrid images in which the idea of ‘reparation’ is visual. The process implemented here is illustrated by the title Coupé/Décalé (literally “cut/offset”).

Camille Henrot, Coupé/Décalé, 2010
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: You have just started a fellowship at the Smithsonian that deals with systems of knowledge and organization of information; can you talk about it? Can you explain your approach to the research for new works and in general the importance of research within your practice?

CH: As an artist, I have the freedom to browse through ideas with the curiosity of the amateur. I’m allowed to have an irrational approach to knowledge, which is a privilege I appreciate a lot. I see the world as a fragmented ensemble and that fragmentation is harrowing. Through the research implied by my projects, I can establish some continuity.
The more you progress in research the more categories appear to be arbitrary and oppositions collapse. That’s why Zen irrationalism and thirst for knowledge are not contradictory in the end. I think the starting point of a new research or project should always be too broad. That way the research process is not only about aiming at a goal but also about being open to what you can learn by accident, new opportunities of new findings.
My research will be focused on all-encompassing projects meant to achieve an image and/or a history of the universe compressed into a singular object, a total contraction of knowledge within representation.
To my mind, there is a form of over-communication and over-saturation in our efforts to gather and structure knowledge into a completely globalized worldview, which, by all appearances, as subjectivity inevitably creeps in, seems to finally resemble an artistic goal or artistic project. Even though such processes and intentions might border on the irrational, I do feel that they are necessary for an understanding of what (and who) we are. This global approach and aspiration is to me ultimately parallel to a kind of subjective structuring of knowledge—what John Cowper Powys calls “a personal philosophy of solitude”—where the totalizing or universalizing image perhaps bears more the individual desires and consciousness of the one who attempts to complete it.

(01/09)
To the top

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The Wall Street Journal

Life & Culture

Arts & Entertainment
Camille Henrot: An Art World ‘It Girl’
Inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, a solo show opens at New York’s New Museum

RESTLESS ART Camille Henrot says she’s inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, among other sources, for her videos, like ‘Grosse Fatigue,’ above. © Camille Henrot/ADAGP/Silex Films/kamel mennour, Paris
By Ellen Gamerman
May 1, 2014 11:01 p.m. ET
0 COMMENTS

Turtles figure prominently in artist Camille Henrot’s ambitious video chronicling the history of the world in 13 minutes. She sees the creatures as symbols of a prehistoric past and a burdened future. “The turtle, she’s slow because she is carrying this massive round thing—it’s like a figure of Atlas,” she says.

Thinking hard about reptiles—and most everything else—is a hallmark of the 35-year-old French intellectual’s work. On the heels of that video, “Grosse Fatigue,” which won her the Silver Lion award for most promising young artist at the recent Venice Biennale, the artist is unveiling her first comprehensive U.S. museum exhibit. “Camille Henrot: The Restless Earth” opens Wednesday at the New Museum in New York.

The show features her abstract video telling the story of humankind through quick cuts of images like turtles and eyeballs, dead birds and oranges, fizzy water and the cosmos. Other pieces on view include her works on paper and a new installation of literature-inspired Japanese ikebana flower arrangements.

This spring, the New Museum is dedicating separate floors to three young artists rather than doing a group show. “It’s a way to give exposure, to show the artists who are changing how art is being made,” says curator Gary Carrion-Murayari. “Camille was a very easy choice for us in that respect.”

Ms. Henrot created “Grosse Fatigue” during an artist fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington last year. She scoured the collections, filming employees opening drawers of exotic-bird specimens, flipping through files filled with dead bees, and so on. The film advances quickly through time by using overlapping windows on a computer desktop—search results from the Smithsonian’s database. She incorporated her own footage and studio shots of brightly painted fingernails—a nod to her discovery that even the weightiest words in a Google search often seem to match the name of a nail polish.
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It wasn’t a solitary effort: Ms. Henrot worked with a cinematographer and film editor, as well as a makeup designer, models and production assistants. A writer created the text, which is performed like a spoken-word poem, and her partner, a musician named Joakim Bouaziz, created the score.

Ms. Henrot finds inspiration from disparate sources including eBay, where her purchases range from firemen’s boots to nude vintage photographs. Sometimes she buys an item just because she likes the picture of its seller. After moving from Paris to New York in late 2012, she says the cargo container with all her stuff was held up by authorities for months—she suspects because its contents were so weird.

As a child, she wanted one day to have a “real job,” eager to distinguish herself from her mother, an artist. Nevertheless, she attended art school in Paris, studying animated film. She took a job in an advertising agency, where she learned tricks like how to shoot a piece of cake to make it look more delicious (blow it with a hair dryer so it seems fluffy). Along the way, she was making films on her own, including an inventive music video for the band Octet in which the musicians were rendered as half-real, half-animated bodies. The film was shown in a 2005 exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, a contemporary art center in Paris, and her career as an artist was launched.

Ms. Henrot didn’t grow up traveling—she says her mother was afraid of flying—but now her experiences in foreign cultures feed directly into her work. The videos featured at the New Museum include “Coupé/Décalé,” an experimental film illustrating a coming-of-age ritual on Pentecost island in the Vanuatu archipelago where young people jump into a void while being held by liana vines around their ankles.

Sometimes her images can be hard to watch. Those turtles in “Grosse Fatigue” are featured with close-ups of their slick tongues and stony eyes. Ms. Henrot, who as a child had a pet turtle named Zoe that escaped through a window of her Paris home, shot the creatures during a vacation in the Seychelles. She filmed a little girl giving a huge turtle a banana and included the footage in her video. “I was interested in the stupidity of man feeding wild animal,” she says.

Ms. Henrot brought home a souvenir from that trip: A scar on her hand from a turtle that bit her when she too tried to feed it.

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FRIEZE

Issue 161 March 2014 RSS

Known Unknowns

Monograph

Useful mistakes, ikebana and messy cultural assumptions in the work of Camille Henrot

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Sunburns, detail from the exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’, 2014. Previous pages courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, kamel mennour, Paris, and Johann König, Berlin

One of the marvels of the universe is that it makes amateurs of us all. Educational qualifications are only a measure of the negative space of how much you don’t know. Expertise is defined by an expert’s limits. Your art history PhD has taken you to a profound level of understanding about abstract expressionism – you can even tell us what bourbon Jackson Pollock liked to drink for breakfast – but you’re a numbskull around runic alphabets. Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, is pretty vague about runes too, but he’s the go-to man for particle physics. Higgs can wax expert about the origins of the cosmos, but can he name the players in the French squad who won the 1998 FIFA World Cup? Neither can I, but one of the team at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can probably rattle off those names without recourse to Google. Unfortunately that same scientist falls into awkward silence when it comes to cocktail-party conversation about tuning systems in Javanese gamelan music. The composer Steve Reich could tell you a thing or two about gamelan because it’s been a major influence on his work, but he’d be a dead loss in a pub quiz about ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. I have some back-of-an-envelope knowledge about ikebana only because it’s an aspect of the work made by Camille Henrot, who practices Sogetsu school ikebana. The French artist knows little about me, beyond my job, but knows a tonne more than I do about ikebana. However, she does admit that her approach to it ‘contains interpretive mistakes and naïveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project – and, more generally, of the whole of my work.’1

The ‘whole’ of Henrot’s work is a project about the impossibility of ever knowing the whole – the whole universe, the whole story, the whole of you, me, us and them. It’s about the impossibility of plugging the hole in the doughnut. Her project is shaped by alterity, entranced by cultural disconnections and a little gleeful about the shortcomings of anthropology. Her films tell us that a mess of cultural assumptions, projections, fears and desires gets churned around in the unlit spaces between anthropologist and subject, producer and audience. The artist knows that we know that she knows this, as she once said in an interview: ‘I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.’2

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Coupé/Décalé (Cut/Offset), 2010, 35mm film still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

Fig. 1, Coupé/Décalé (2010): 35mm film, duration five minutes 20 seconds. Made in a style that could have been lifted from a 1970s ethnographic documentary – rich colours, a little verité camera shake, a conflicted feeling of voyeuristic fascination and armchair guilt compacted by having little clue about what’s being filmed – Coupé/Décalé is shot on Pentecost Island in the Vanuatu archipelago. It shows young men, their ankles tied by liana vines, jumping from a tall wooden platform. This rite is said to have inspired bungee jumping, and is now performed largely for the benefit of tourists, modified according to Western fantasies of Melanesian culture. The film’s title translates literally as ‘Cut/Offset’, and the image is ‘cut’ into two halves, with the left-hand side of the film running a fraction of a second faster than the right-hand side – the ‘offset’. That slippage is the key to the work: it’s the gap between what we see and what we know – always a step behind the action. Things get even more interesting when you learn that Coupé/Décalé is also the name of a dance originating in the Ivory Coast and imported to Paris by Ivorian immigrants. In Ivorian slang, the title means to cheat someone and run away. Pentecost Island is a long way from the Ivory Coast, even further from Paris. Henrot’s ‘cheat’ is to dress her film in the vestments of anthropological documentary, to ‘run away’ with the aesthetics of the form and repackage them with her own concerns. But it’s more complicated than that. As a white European wielding a camera in the South Pacific, she’s subject to just the same ethical quandaries about the gaze, race and the inscription of identity as the filmmakers that interest her. (Robert J. Flaherty, who bent a few truths in making his beautiful 1934 documentary Man of Aran, is currently a touchstone for Henrot.) It’s less a film ‘about’ anthropology than a film made inside anthropology, operating a couple of clicks out of phase with the discipline itself. And, like the figure of the anthropologist that Henrot tries to emulate, she will never be properly assimilated with the objects of her study.

Is ‘emulation’ the right word? Not quite. Nor is ‘critique’, which affects moral distance. ‘Act’ is better. There is a knowing pretence at play here; acting a part in order to pull focus on a certain aspect of human behaviour. ‘I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias,’ she says. ‘Somehow one could say I have developed a “cargo cult” for anthropology. The “cargo cult” originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behaviour that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking, sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.’3 Henrot understands the original meaning of her sources perfectly well; she takes them and assigns new roles to suit her own purposes. She uses the symbolism of ikebana arrangements to describe books she’s read (the series ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing), pulls pictures from eBay to build a delirious essay on the Western imagination’s persistent fascination with ancient Egypt (the silent slideshow Egyptomania, 2009), and fakes anthropology films in order to make a film about anthropology (Coupé/Décalé). For her exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’ (2014), Henrot has used a specific work of anthropology as her starting point: Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s eponymous 1965 book, which explains, in great depth, the cosmological beliefs and creation stories of Mali’s Dogon people. (Controversially, it argues that the Dogon possessed detailed knowledge about the orbital patterns of Sirius before Western astronomers did.) Henrot makes associative leaps of imagination using objects and images of eggs, planets, turtles, foxes and flexing biceps. She turns Griaule and Dieterlen’s book inside out, showing that the work of the artist and the anthropologist are not so different: both are looking to find meaning in the world, whether or not it exists there.

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Femme allongée et dents de requin (Woman Lying Down and Shark Teeth), from ‘Collection préhistorique’ (Prehistoric Collection), 2009, c-type print, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

The promiscuous moves that contemporary visual art pulls on other cultural disciplines make it the most syncretic of the arts, and these days we’re all-too-used to hearing artists tell us how they’re ‘interested in’ this, that or the other. With all her talk of ‘cargo cults’, we could dub Henrot’s work a form of syncretism, creating new rituals from discrete belief systems. Syncretic religions can evolve for a number of reasons: the trace memories of long-gone civilizations; a means of forging cultural alliances or attracting a broad base of followers; a tool of assimilation used by an evangelizing or colonizing power. A cynic might accuse Henrot’s ikebana and quasi-ethnographies of dilettantism. I’ve always liked what Brian Eno has to say about dilettantes: ‘For me the great strength of dilettantism is that it tends to come in from another angle […] an intelligent dilettante will not be constrained by the limitations of what’s normally considered possible; he won’t be frightened, he’s got nothing to lose.’4 Everyone is an amateur at something, and the amateur is, in some respects, a far more liberated figure than the professional.

Fig. 2, ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’: mixed media, dimensions variable. (The title is borrowed from Leninism under Lenin, written by Marcel Liebman in 1973. The Belgian historian went on to answer his own question by arguing that: ‘You start by loving flowers and soon you are seized by the desire to live like a property owner, stretched out lazily and reading French novels in a hammock set amid a magnificent garden while being served by obsequious servants.’ Liebman must’ve been a laugh at parties.) Ikebana is a highly codified art form, based upon the idea of objects consoling the soul. It’s a complex interplay between the shape of container, stem heights, the angles at which flowers or branches stand, and the harmony of lines created by the plant materials and their arrangement. Over the past two years, Henrot has made more than 100 arrangements, some of which she then exhibits and photographs, reassigning traditional ikebana codes in order to make a series of homages to books in her library. (‘To make my formal language I use the Latin and common names of the flowers, the names designed for their commercial exploitation, their pharmacological power and sometimes even the history of their travels.’)5 It is an act of translation, of recoding literature and giving it a form that privileges impermanence, the everyday and the domestic. Her approach to ikebana has been one of mastering codes, then breaking them in order to make the arrangements her own.

Anthropology has been a hotbed of arguments about essentializing difference, about controlling the Other, so isn’t it dangerous to start making the codes of that discipline one’s own? Let’s move to fig. 3, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream (2011): video, duration 11 minutes 40 seconds. Shot in France and India, the film braids vivid imagery of pilgrimages and ritual theatre with comic books, statues and pharmaceutical laboratories synthesizing anti-anxiety drugs. A work about fear, including Henrot’s own anxieties about visiting India, its soundtrack marries serpentine drones to thunderous kettledrums, evoking atmospheres of dread and climaxing in hedonistic abandon. Throughout, the snake is used as a metaphor to symbolize both fear and healing. We see snakes crawling across rocks, snakes represented in classical sculpture, snakes wriggling through hands, snakes sliding through Tintin books and Fritz Lang’s Indian Tomb (1959).

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Heart of Darkness, 2012, from ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing, ikebana arrangement, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Opening with psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s line that ‘India is the unconsciousness of the West’, Le Songe de Poliphile … at first seems to herald a troubling Orientalism both old and new, as ‘spiritual’ India is juxtaposed with scenes of technological, business-minded India. (The country is one of the major suppliers of psychopharmaceuticals to the West.) In some respects, the film skirts a lyrical universalism that privileges generalized similarities over the specific historical, economic or cultural conditions under which a group of people are acting. Henrot produces an entrancing parade of images, ‘assembled in a network of meanings, somewhat based on the principles in Mnemosyne [1924–29] by Aby Warburg, by merging them into an atlas of images of different cultural and worldly references, all according to the principle of elective affinities’.6 Magnetic as the imagery is, the experience of watching Le Songe de Poliphile … is a dangerous seduction. The audience is never allowed to know what kind of rituals we’re looking at, what pharmaceutical drugs are being made or where the snippets of found source material come from. Only Henrot knows its inner workings. Le Songe de Poliphile … is about privileged knowledge. It moves and feints as if it were documentary, but it conceals risky subjectivity.

But artists who are working with risky subjectivities strike me as far more interesting than those picking over land that has been thoroughly mine-swept by scholars and dealers alike – those who collect the metadata that enables them to predict patterns and relationships. ‘If you like Arte Povera then you’ll love Mono-ha!’ ‘Customers who bought Francis Bacon also bought a large Caribbean island.’ Who knows what, and who you tell it to, is the name of the game in 2014. Measuring, listing, annotating, networking, storing, referencing rather than producing: the quantified world seeks to turn our subjectivities into objectivities of data sets, from which can be extrapolated behaviour patterns. Knowing how to game the knowledge industry and lighting firewalls around personal knowledge – rather than giving up to the world, like spoiled narcissists, information about what’s on our playlists – is a political act. As Morrissey put it in The Smiths’ ‘Cemetery Gates’ (1986): ‘There’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose, who knows.’

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Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired), 2013, video still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Right now, that big nose is Big Data. With that in mind, there is something poignant about watching fig. 4, Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired, 2013): video, duration 13 minutes. Set entirely on a computer desktop, Grosse Fatigue begins with a Final Cut Pro file being clicked open against a backdrop photograph of the Milky Way. Two windows pop onto the desktop: each shows a large coffee-table book on a yellow tabletop – one depicts native tribespeople, the other a contemporary art catalogue – being leafed through by a woman’s hands wearing bright green and red nail varnish. The scene cuts to a young woman in a grey institutional corridor opening a locker. The corridor is in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In the top right of the screen appears another window showing the phrase ‘the history of the universe’ being typed into Google. A kick-drum punches in groups of three and a voice-over begins: ‘In the beginning there was no earth, no water – nothing. There was a single hill called Nunne Chaha.’

There follows an elegant dance of windows popping in and out, layered and scaling back and forth on top of each other. They open onto a succession of extraordinary images shot in the Smithsonian’s collections: drawers full of neatly arranged toucans and macaws, ancient fertility statues, X-rays of seahorses. We see turtles burrowing into sand, naked bodies showering, ostrich eggs being peeled, a frog sat on an iPhone, a man looking at the inside of a bomb then a telescope photograph of the universe, a glass eye, eyedrops falling onto a real eyeball, a woman masturbating, someone doing calligraphy, an iguana, a man falling over, the back of a bald head, a zebra, a boulder, an angry chicken, paintings of fish, a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald doctored to make it look like he’s in a band with his murderer Jack Ruby, an orange, an inflatable Earth. The voice-over continues over sparse hip-hop rhythms. It synthesizes creation narratives from all over the world, moving chronologically from the beginning of time to the origin of planets and life, through to their death. Each vignette is framed by a computer window. There to be stopped, started, opened or closed, these windows represent knowledge packaged flat – the reference not the thing.

Grosse Fatigue is a powerful work about the vertigo of information, about how too much knowledge turns it weightless, turns it into image and evacuates experience and substance. It is profoundly of the moment, and profoundly sad. But what do I know?

Camille Henrot is a French artist based in New York, USA. In 2013, her work was included in the 55th Venice Biennale, where she was awarded the Silver Lion, and she had solo shows at the New Orleans Museum of Art, USA, and Slought Foundation, Philadelphia, USA. Her solo exhibition, ‘The Pale Fox’, is at Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, until 13 April. It will then tour to Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark; Bétonsalon, Paris, France; and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Munster, Germany. Her exhibition ‘The Restless Earth’, is at the New Museum, New York, US, from 7th May to 29th June.

1 Cecilia Alemani, ‘Relations de Traduction’, interview with the artist, Mousse, issue 35, October–November 2012
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Brian Eno, ‘Interview’, from the album From Brussels with Love, 1980, Les Disques du Crepescule, Brussels
5 Camille Henrot, talk given at the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 3 December 2012
6 Camille Henrot, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream, director’s note for 2011 Cannes Film Festival

Dan Fox

is co-editor of frieze and lives in New York, USA.

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-yerba buena san francisco

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APOLLO MAGAZINE

Mar 30, 2014

'The Pale Fox' (2014), Camille Henrot. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2014.

In Pursuit of an Idea: Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery

French artist Camille Henrot’s first solo UK exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery is like asking a question and receiving a million answers. She’s trying to get to the bottom of things – the show is full of references to origins – but this seems at odds with the dizzying array of stuff that fills the gallery space; abstract sculptures, glossy images torn from magazines, second-hand books, tacky postcards, puzzle pens, kitsch mugs, stacks of National Geographic, retro movie posters, a remote controlled snake. A deliberately overwhelming and seemingly random installation, the result is an excessive theatricality. It’s a hoarder’s paradise and a minimalist’s nightmare.

The title of Henrot’s show, The Pale Fox, is borrowed from a 1965 anthropological study of the West African Dogon people, whose complex mythology – incorporating astronomy, mathematics and philosophy – informs Henrot’s own convoluted study. Here the artist is anthropologist, only her subject is the whole of human evolution, the universe, knowledge itself. This whistle-stop tour through the history of the world takes in art and culture, science and myth. Here are books, the internet, babies, eggs, foxes, wolves, cities, global warming. Wikipedia gone mad.

Yet this totalising project and its chaotic barrage of objects and images – made more fractured by the discordant, looped soundtrack – is not without structure. Each wall corresponds to an element and there’s a timeline of sorts that sees objects arranged along a constructed metal grid. So in the midst of chaos is an evolving order, albeit with many knowing narrative asides.

In this way, Henrot looks to the archive and its attempts to categorise and make sense of the world. In Grosse Fatigue (2013), the film that won her the Silver Lion for most promising young artist at the 55th Venice Biennale, Henrot attempts to process the overwhelming collections held in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC – one of the largest museums and a vast repository of knowledge. Her almost childish desire to capture it all means bombarding the viewer with a mix of quick-fire spoken word and disparate, disconnected imagery. No wonder it’s titled Grosse Fatigue; it must be a tiring experience trying to tell the story of the world’s creation in just 13 minutes.

Both this and The Pale Fox obsess over how we store information, how we retrieve it, and how we understand the objects around us. And in Henrot’s storytelling there are no hierarchies; she exhaustively admits multiple thought systems and accepts myriad ways of comprehending the world. The archive, it seems, is much more productive in its very falling apart.

So if Grosse Fatigue is the script then The Pale Fox is the performance. In the Chisenhale, the thoroughly immersive experience of seeing Henrot’s work is made more intense by the blue paint that covers the gallery’s walls. Like being underwater or in the sky, it feels endless. And blue is often associated with calm, which is a necessary antidote to the jumble of disparate works assembled here. It’s also impossible not to think of Yves Klein, and in fact Henrot is deliberate in her references to creativity and art history. Her abstract brush drawings conjure Picasso and in the midst of the second-hand images and eBay purchases are Henrot’s own bronze and ceramic sculptures that draw inspiration from both tribal art and 20th-century modernism. If she turns to creation myths she also looks to the act of creation more generally, to that elusive and age-old creative impulse. It reminds me of how it feels to write – to frustratedly attempt to say everything and to capture something totally.

I write down a quote from a page that Henrot has torn out of one of the National Geographic and stuck on the wall: ‘I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts.’ Written by journalist Paul Salopek, it refers to his journey retracing the route taken by ancestors who discovered the Earth 60,000 years ago. Salopek’s desire to return to the beginning and his compulsion to connect with a world that is now defined by speed, technology and inattentiveness seems also at the heart of Henrot’s project. In attempting to unravel the history of the universe, we are left with just that – an unravelling. A blue room that, in the end, throws up more questions than answers. It’s a lot to take in. But that, it seems, is the point.

‘Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox’ runs at Chisenhale Gallery, London until 13 April 2014.

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The Pale Fox. Camille Henrot

Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_09When Heinrich Wölfflin makes concluding observations on the nature of history in Principles of Art History (1932), in spite of himself, he cannot help reaching for images of complexity. How do we account for cessation and recommencement of art historical periods? ‘Only a spiral would meet the facts,’ he writes. How do we speak of the relations between art of different nations? ‘Not the line but the web of lines,’ he admits. ‘Not the established single form but the movement of form.’ There is tension between linear ways of telling and complex, multiple being. The old and the new, the historian tells us, ‘dovetail’.
These are a few of the ‘big questions’ — unfashionable in contemporary art — French, New York-based artist Camille Henrot poses in her exhibition The Pale Fox, installed at Chisenhale in London’s East End. With The Pale Fox, a commission that developed out of her film Grosse Fatigue (2013) (for which she was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for most promising young artist), Henrot poses perhaps the biggest question of all: ‘what is creation?’ From the macro to the micro, the artist’s studio, to the universe, how do things come into being, live, and die away?
The title of Henrot’s exhibition is taken from an influential anthropological study of the Dogon people of Mali, co-authored by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, and published by the latter in 1965. Through his multiple initiations by an elder, Griaule exposed the Dogon’s world view, cosmology, and philosophical system with unparalleled completeness. For the Dogon, he learnt, a creation myth served as a blueprint for all facets of society. Within this myth a fox, borne of thwarted intercourse with the earth, represents disorder and chaos but also creation, bringing about the formation of the sun.
At Chisenhale Henrot has painted the walls a rich blue; these are matched in colour by the carpeted floor. For Henrot the blue references Yves Klein and his eponymous tone of blue, but also, as a ground, enables an ambivalent relation between intimacy and universal distance. Upon entry ambient music envelops the viewer, initiates them into this total environment. (Sinologist François Jullien on blandness comes to mind: blandness is ‘the embodiment of neutrality… at the point of origin of all things possible’.) Following the space’s walls is a band — a more or less continuous structure — that twists, turns and flattens out into shelves. Uneven accumulations of E-bay found objects, loose Chinese ink drawings, ‘primitive’ Surrealist bronze and ceramic sculpture, and digital prints and images, often by Westerners looking at non-Westerners, displayed on tablet devices cluster at the foot of the shelves, or are displayed on its polished surfaces.
The shelf is a timeline, activated to represent periods in cosmic and human history according to Henrot’s alignment of the gallery to points of the compass. Each point is further associated with the four Classical elements of air, water, earth and fire. The West wall Henrot names ‘The principle of being (air): How things start.‘ The North wall, immediately in front as you enter the gallery, ‘The law of continuity (water): How things unfold.’ The East wall is ‘The principle of sufficient reason (earth): Where the limits are.’ And, finally, the South wall is ‘The principle of the indiscernible (fire): How things disappear.’ ‘I decided that there would be a different age of humanity attributed to each of the different walls,’ Henrot explained in the gallery interview. ‘I was already very interested in how the age of humanity can be related to the age of the universe.’
Henrot’s accumulation of objects and images achieves a global image willfully reminiscent of the great museum collections of the world. However, against an accumulation that might dedifferentiate, produce a kind of ambivalence to things, Henrot seeks to particularise, to emphasise unresolved complexity in heterogeneity. There is a will for objects and images to retain their aura, their special powers within a field of others. ‘Synthesis,’ Henrot says, ‘is never really interesting, it’s almost like a bourgeois solution. It’s the dynamic between thesis and antithesis that is interesting.’
For Henrot the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the fold is an ideal image of complexity. Speaking of the fold Deleuze invokes a world of superabundance, with no boundary between the organic and the inorganic. Each folds into the other in a continuos ‘texturology’. Henrot’s assembly of images and objects — her art — is able to evoke a span far exceeding the limits of art history’s knowledge, while, irresistibly, holding a mirror to contemporary Western society.

Jonathan P Watts

The Pale Fox by Camille Henrot
Chisenhale Gallery, London
Through April 13
Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_00 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_01 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_02 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_04 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_05 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07b Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_08 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_10 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_12 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_13 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_14 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_15 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_16 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_17 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_18
Camille Henrot, The Pale Fox, 2014, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Bétonsalon – Centre for art and research, Paris and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster. Courtesy kamel mennour, Paris and Johann König, Berlin. Photo: Andy Keate. © ADAGP

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A Savage Mind: Camille Henrot’s Primitive Thinking

Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue (video still), 2013

By Anna Watkins Fisher, as published in Camille Henrot, éditions kamel mennour, 2013.

There is something ‘out of time’ about the world of Camille Henrot, something the artist readily admits. “My relationship with reference has always been very traditional. I’m sorry!” she says, adding with Latourian irony: “I should be more modern.”

The artist’s œuvre visualizes an acute and resplendently beautiful sense of historical dislocation, her syncopated aesthetic conveyed through a set of representational paradoxes that repeat across her intermedial recombinations of film, sculpture, photography, performance, and drawing. Such work formalizes Henrot’s steadfast embrace of old-world craftsmanship recast with high production value and a cool attention to detail. Its disjunctive effect is also largely the result of her persistent examination of non-Western subject matter through an optic of polished cosmopolitanism.

Her soft spot for expressly utopian projects, like Esperanto or Henri Van Lier’s anthropogénie, is apparent in her recent films (especially Psychopompe and The Strife of Love in a Dream), which were inspired by French experimental filmmakers like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Abel Gance and the idea of cinema as a ‘total art.’ It should come as no surprise then that Henrot spent her tenure as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow in Washington, D.C. working on what she describes as “a project about everything.” The result was Grosse Fatigue, a 13-minute short film the artist made for the 2013 Venice Biennale International Exhibition. A mashup of cross-medial forms — part film, part slideshow, part computer animation — the project draws on her extensive research into the various strategies that African, Western, Melanesian, and Asian cultures have sought to tell nothing less than the history of the universe. Grosse Fatigue visualizes this impossible task in its explicit enactment of screenal psychosis. The film intercuts images of artifacts from the Smithsonian collection and everyday objects (e.g. chromatic scales, early personal computers, sponges, a glass eye) with oversaturated images that highlight procedures of archiving, systematizing, and exhibiting (online databases, screenshots, image searches)1. Unleashing the infinite capaciousness of the historical catalogue, Henrot gives us a taste of the archival sublime in the ecstatic age of digital media.

Her engrossment with the “total work of art,” however, should be read less as an interest in the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (the comprehensive or all-encompassing capacity of the work), than an imaginative attachment to systematicity as utopian fantasy, as a “timelessness” and “spacelessness” that could accommodate incommensurable orders. One perceives her aesthetic preoccupation with such zones of contact or sites of mutual attachment in works like the Janus-headed Arrivals/Departures or Tevau. Her mischievous testing and breaching of epistemological boundaries may be most apparent in Tropics of Love and Collection préhistorique. In both series, the artist splices up and reassembles images from ethnographic archival imagery and pornography — signifiers of geography, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and special difference — for her drawings, multimedia collages, and photographic still-lives. These works visualize Henrot’s preoccupation with the nature/culture divide, particularly with the increasingly ambivalent status of nature in our hypertechnologized moment as what we mean by ‘natural’ has become ever more uncertain.

Some grappling with her deconstructive approach to totalizing systems is crucial for resolving the postcolonial politics of her work. Her practice explores an aching desire for cross-cultural connection, across geopolitical differences and platitudes, historical epochs and orders. The artist has said that she finds methods of knowledge acquisition that tend toward globalizing or universalizing “both absurd and moving”2. With this in mind, her art practice would seem to be indistinguishable from what she has described as her abiding attachment to objects. Camille Henrot doesn’t like to throw anything in the trash3.

These works are typical of her process: research-intensive and ambitious, yet winning. Henrot — an obsessive researcher, collector, and bibliophile — strikes a balance between the epistemophilia and archivistic inclination that drives her. Approachable and unaffected, her work rests at the interstice of erudition and naïveté. For each new work, she produces copious notes — diagrams of intellectual histories and genealogies of the mythological, historical, literary, and philosophical themes she sets out to explore. These rhizomatic “thought drawings” constitute an important, if undisclosed, archive of her artworks.

Given her inclination toward aesthetics of abundance and forms of seriality, it is fitting that the only stand-alone piece that Henrot, a self-described accumulator, has made is nevertheless a replica. Upon seeing a small anthropomorphic sculpture of Le Balafré in the Louvre, the artist felt a strong urge to possess it. Knowing this was not possible, she decided to make one for herself, only to find that she was disappointed by the result because it looked nothing like the original. Touching it more forcefully, she began making marks with her fingers on his face and torso, only to realize that these imprints captured what the original sculpture was about in the first place: “Balafré means ‘the scarred,’ a person who has a scar on the face… The scar has been made by a very important goddess [who decided] not to kill him but just to make him weaker, to teach him to be less powerful… I kind of like this kind of ‘in-between’ solution,” she says. “I like that it is a small man. It reminds me of a photograph of Matisse in his bed that I love. He is in his bed, and he is making a very small woman.”

Concerned with epistemological practices, Henrot’s works attest to a relationship to knowledge that is characterized by an unquenchable desire for more. Her interest in accumulation is, in many ways, a countervailing force to her fascination with totality. The drive toward a total work is never finished and perhaps more accurately reflects her investment in the work of failure in impossible projects. For the artist, a good work has to be extremely difficult, close to impossible, “or maybe even better if it’s impossible.” “I like approaching anthropology in a critical way precisely because anthropological thinking, in its somewhat tenacious aspiration to connect different cultural spheres or knowledges seems to me to index a ‘pensée sauvage…” she has said4.

The keystone to Henrot’s aesthetic philosophy, the concept of pensée sauvage is one she imports from the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of modern anthropology, who argued, contra progressivist dogma, that “primitive thinking,” rather than a pre-logical stage, is profoundly rationalist5. What is most striking about her yearning for the mythical potentialities of totalizing endeavors — such as those exemplified in postcolonial critiques of the discipline of anthropology — is how the artist seems to have found, in her aestheticization of these, a counterintuitive point of entry into an important conversation about the ambivalent forces of postcolonial fantasy (developed by figures like Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant with respect to the French context). Moving between Paris and New York City, Henrot is attuned to the cultural differences that have marked the reception of her work and most significantly, the relatively wider institutionalization of postcolonial critique in the United States.
When I first showed [Coupé/Décalé in France] few people really understood what it was about. People were telling me ‘Oh the music is good,’ ‘Oh the images are beautiful,’ ‘It’s a nice film you shot of Africa.’ The film was not shot in Africa but in Oceania. This idea of the vision from the outside and the construction of the identity of the other… I was thinking it was a little too obvious.

Her practice may thus be described as one of recontextualizing and disseminating Lévi-Strauss’ insights into a contemporary visual vocabulary — coupage et décalage. Her appropriation of pensée sauvage from the anthropological lexicon encapsulates the artist’s conceptual stake in the interdependence between man and things and compulsion to explore the structuring causality that links actions and events in the world6. Anthropology is thus the structuring ethos of her artistic praxis, and “primitive thinking,” or the idea that everything has a meaning, is the ethical imperative of her work (one that remains consonant with her interests in Eastern philosophy and the posthumanist turn).

The French title of Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée sauvage (1962), which many consider to be his most important work, contains a pun that is untranslatable in English. The Savage Mind fails to capture the polysemy of the French pensée, which means both ‘thought’ and ‘pansy,’ the flower, whereas sauvage translates less equivocally as ‘wild,’ ‘savage’ or ‘primitive.’ The French edition still retains a flower on the cover, and Lévi-Strauss is said to have suggested Pansies for Thought for the English title, a reference to a speech by Ophelia in Hamlet. The problem of failed translation offers an insight into an artist who appears to thrive in the space of the untranslatable. Henrot has said, “I think it is always good not to be understood very well. Especially for people like me who have a tendency to complication, it’s better.”

In 2011, Henrot began Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?, a two-year-long intensive period of making ikebana, a virtuosic Japanese practice of meditative and studied floral arrangement. Henrot describes the project as an elegiac ritual that she invented in response to the deaths of several loved ones. The artist, who claims she is a bad cook, was tasked instead with organizing flowers for the bereavement. As a result, she grew to feel revolted by what she calls “the consoling power of flowers.” “They are consoling you,” she explains, “but why should we be consoled? Maybe we should just be angry, you know?” The project’s title — a reference to Marcel Liebman’s book Leninism Under Lenin in which one of Lenin’s lieutenants asks, “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?” — alludes to this compensatory promise of flowers.

Around the same time as the funeral, Henrot became interested in ikebana. She had just moved to New York and ikebana seemed a way for her to remain connected to the books from her personal library still in Paris. Over the course of two years, she composed 150 ikebana arrangements, paying tribute to volumes such as Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, André Gide’s L’immoraliste, and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. She also made ikebana inspired by books that she hadn’t yet read, such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit.

For Henrot, the flower — with its manifold significatory power (as a symbol for vanitas, revolution, beauty, mystery, and so on) — symbolizes the ambiguity of aesthetics, as subversive potential and/or apolitical consolation prize. “I don’t mean I want to do revolution and stop making bouquets,” she explains. “I just want people to be aware also that beauty has this perverse effect. You think it is nice, but maybe it’s not nice. Maybe you should just not look at art or flowers and you should just be acting against something.” For the artist, a good work of art resembles a flower in that it “has to be like a prism, like a fan. It has to be as open as possible.” Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers? thus maintains the ambivalence that the project explores as an open question: “You can think it is ironical and you can think it’s not and this is good because flowers can be seen as a luxury, a capitalist symbol, but they can also be seen as a symbol of revolution…,” she says alluding to a number of civil resistance movements that have adopted the flower as their symbol (e.g. the Jasmine Revolution, the Carnation Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Tulip Revolution, etc.).
“One ikebana is consoling (it is the sacred ritual to do one ikebana in the house), but what happens if you have many ikebana in just one single room?” Taking Lévi-Strauss at his word, Henrot literalizes pensée sauvage in her intensification of the elegiac dimension of ikebana, turning it into something else, “something more obsessive.” Not interested in just one ikebana, she creates rooms full of them. Her manic accumulation actualizes the pun of Lévi-Strauss’ title. Bringing together flowers and thoughts (ikebana and her personal library, the intimate ritual of mourning and the public practice of art making, nature and culture, East and West), she engages in primitive thinking as an exquisite work of untranslatability.

1. Camille Henrot, Email to author, 30 April 2013.
2. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 Mars 2011.
3. Camille Henrot, Interview with author, Skype, 3 April 2013.
4. Ibid.
5. Alan Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, “Claude Lévi-Strauss,” Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Routledge, p. 335, 1996.
6. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 March 2011.

Image:
Camille Henrot
Grosse Fatigue, 2013
Vidéo (couleur, sonore) / Video (color, sound)
13 min
Musique originale de / Original music by Joakim
Voix / Voice by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh
Texte écrit en collaboration avec / Text written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg
Producteur / Producer : kamel mennour, Paris ; avec le soutien du / with the additional support of : Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris
Production: Silex Films
Lion d’argent – 55e Biennale de Venise / Silver Lion – 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
Projet développé dans le cadre du / Project conducted as part of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship Program, Washington, D.C.
Remerciements particuliers aux / Special thanks to: the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
© ADAGP Camille Henrot
Courtesy the artist, Silex Films and kamel mennour, Paris

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BROOKLYN RAIL

CAMILLE HENROT The Restless Earth

NEW MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART | MAY 7 –JUNE 29, 2014

Camille Henrot’s solo exhibition The Restless Earth made full use of the New Museum’s second floor, leading viewers through a loop of rooms with diverse characters, plots, and settings. A sharp contrast to the gestalt experiences presented by Ragnar Kjartansson and Roberto Cuoghi on the surrounding floors, Henrot covered broad expanses of time and space in four videos, 46 flower-assemblages, a 135-plate adaptation of a jewelry auction catalogue, numerous mixed media drawings, engravings, and two sculptures. All works were accompanied by extensive wall labels that traced and analyzed each project’s evolution, providing facts and details usually absent from the works themselves that added useful layers to a progressive unfolding of meaning. Without names, dates, and places, our assumptions and associations run wild, as they are wont to do in today’s media landscape where seductive pictures are often detached from, or misaligned with, factual information.  Consider Google image searches, Facebook, Instagram, and even NYTimes.com, where a slow load or a pop-up ad might obscure or stagger our absorption of the most reputable journalism. These questions of how stories are told, how information is gathered and assembled into knowledge, and how rapidly this process is changing, are central to Henrot’s project.

Camille Henrot, “Coupé-Décalé,” 2010. Video (color, sound), 3 min 54 sec, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

“Grosse Fatigue” (2013), which earned Henrot the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Biennial, is an epic film compressed into 13 minutes. Its title, translated as “Dead Tired,” is shared with a 1994 French satire about celebrity identity theft. In Henrot’s opening sequence, the phrase “in the beginning” introduces a torrent of interwoven creation myths presented in response to a Google search: “the history of the universe.” This dream-like composite is accompanied by a succession of images: flowing veils of ink, rushing water, the Milky Way, a “Buddha’s Hand” citrus fruit, all of which send us thinking back eons in pursuit of the ultimate beginning. The familiar Biblical phrase repeats again toward the middle of the film while an image of an early computer lingers on screen. Here, “the beginning” is connected to a cumbersome machine that feels as ancient as an early species. This artifact illustrates the origin of the digital age, which has accelerated in its relatively short history, and will only accelerate more. Even the Energizer batteries neatly lined up by fingers with matching blue-polished nails are like an archival display, once marketed to “keep going and going” on a scale that shrinks in comparison to today’s unbroken connectivity, at least for parts of the world’s population.

Camille Henrot, “Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?” 2012. Installation view. Courtesy New Museum, New York, 2014. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

But Henrot is no stranger to other parts of the population. Many of her films are set in locations remote to Western society where rates and patterns of acceleration are different. “Coupé/Décalé” (2010) records a tribal ritual on 35mm film, giving it the appearance of historic footage. While watching N’gol land-diving (a precedent to Western bungee jumping), the viewer is lead to make many half-conscious assumptions about the subjects and the environment, all of which are called into question when a girl in a T-shirt and jeans with a digital camera comes into view. “The Strife of Love in a Dream” (2011) offers a similar moment of surprise, when a bonfire ritual begins and hundreds of glowing screens pop up to document it. Only when assumptions are refuted do we become aware of them: why do Western viewers often confuse distant places and distant times? And what happens when we realize, as we must, that one or the other is not so distant after all? Most of the exotic objects showcased in “Grosse Fatigue” are in fact located right here in our nation’s capital at the Smithsonian Institute, where Henrot held an Artist Research Fellowship last year. The debris shown resting at the bottom of the ocean off the Vanuatu island Espiritu Santo, which couldn’t be farther from our shores, was actually left by American troops during World War II.

Notions of otherness are further complicated in “The Strife of Love in a Dream” as the footage, shot in the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu in 2011, offers conflicting associations. While crowds climbing a mountain for a ritual seem set back in time, factory workers packaging the anti-anxiety drug Atarax feel flung into a dystopian future. These scenes have the eeriness of a science fiction film: all characters covered entirely in white except for their eyes; gloved fingers operating controls on plastic-wrapped dashboards; larger-than-life machinery; masses of white pills; expressionless faces. The factory, shown in fast-moving, clinically anonymous fragments, recalls the immaculate outer-space interiors of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the line between human and machine famously dissolves.

Camille Henrot, “Grosse Fatigue,” 2013. Video, color, sound, 13 min. Original music: Joakim; Voice: Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh; Text: written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg; Producer: Kamel Mennour, Paris, with the additional support of Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris; Production: Silex Films. © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist, Silex Films, and kamel mennour, Paris.

2001 was made in 1968, a prophecy of the future that is now the past. That same year, Leo Steinberg gave a lecture at MoMA introducing the “flatbed picture plane,” a change of “psychic address” in which the painted surface was “no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature, but of operational processes.”* He cited newspapers, maps, tabletops, and studio floors as models of pictures that collect data instead of representing worlds. This theory may be as easily applied to “Grosse Fatigue” as to Rauschenberg’s work of the early 1950s, only we might now replace the flatbed with the screen, our new interface that addresses the body from any position. By moving between the physical desktop (with drawing tools, rulers, and X-acto knives) and the computer desktop (with icons, folders, and windows, and windows, and windows), Henrot explores this same matter of “psychic address” and its relation to perception. Phones, GPS devices, tablets, and TVs address the body/mind at increasingly close range. With the rise of Google Glass, the “desktop” (or picture plane) merges directly with vision itself. Data-collecting surfaces have evolved and proliferated since Steinberg, and Henrot shows us the results in 2013: somewhere between euphoria and madness, empowerment and exhaustion.

Upon entering The Restless Earth, one is immersed in an installation of flower-assemblages that translate texts from Henrot’s library into the language of Japanese ikebana. It is a poetic play on the shifty relations between text and object; to identify the logic of each match demands close reading and looking, which might be Henrot’s mandate for all forms of interface.

 

Fantasy Formalist Painter Nicole Eisenman: Interviews, Images & Texts

 

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W magazine

Culture » Art & Design » Nicole Eisenman: Brushes with Greatness

Eisenman with works in progress.

Nicole Eisenman: Brushes with Greatness

One of eight women artists who are storming the boys’ club.

“I take downtime seriously,” Nicole Eisenman says over the phone from her summer house on New York’s Fire Island a week after the seasonal hordes have cleared out. “It’s lovely when no one’s here.” For the Brooklyn-based painter, the moments between exhibitions are often when her brain opens up to new strategies—like when, in 2009, she traded elaborate storytelling in the form of classically painted scenes of, say, a convivial beer garden for simpler, masklike works similar to those included in the MoMA show. “For me, it was really a different approach,” Eisenman, 49, says of the paintings, which hover somewhere between figuration and abstraction. “These portraits are about color, shape, balance, symmetry. It’s as close to pure formalism as I’m probably ever going to get.” Not that she’s entirely forsaken narrative: Recently, Eisenman moved out of the Williamsburg house she shared with her then-partner and their two children—whose bedroom there is covered with murals she did years ago—and into an apartment nearby. “The kids have a whole new mural now.”

The Jewish Museum


Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder at the Jewish Museum

View of Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder, The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder at the Jewish Museum

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder
On view through August 9, 2015

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd St
New York, NY 10128w.thejewishmuseum.org

In the latest installment of the Masterpieces & Curiosities exhibition series, Nicole Eisenman’s Seder (2010), a painting commissioned by the Jewish Museum as part of Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism (2010–11), is presented with portraits and objects from the institution’s vast holdings. Eisenman infuses her work with dark humor, contemporary fears and desires, and knowing critiques of pop culture and art history. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view Eisenman’s Seder in context with seldom-seen yet important collection works that help illuminate her painterly approach and her chosen subject. Paintings by Leon Kossoff, Hyman Bloom, Raphael Soyer, and Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, among others, complement an array of Seder plates from the 18th century to the present, two of which were created by Eisenman for this exhibition. Also on view are two paintings by the artist’s great-grandmother, Esther Hammerman, on loan from the Eisenman Family. Through this varied display of artworks and historical objects in dialogue, Eisenman’s Seder can be seen as both responding to and advancing a storied visual and material tradition of Jewish culture.

Nicole Eisenman was born in Verdun, France, and received her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2005, she and the artist A. L. Steiner cofounded Ridykeulous, an artist-run collective that focuses primarily on queer and feminist art and produces exhibitions, performances, and publications. Eisenman was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 2013. Eisenman lives and works in New York.

Public programs

A Closer Look gallery talks
March 30; April 6 and 20; May 4 and 18; June 8 and 22; July 6 and 20; August 3

This in-depth exploration of select works of art in the exhibition galleries occurs Mondays at 1pm.
Free with museum admission. Find out more here.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder is organized by Joanna Montoya Robotham, Neubauer Family Foundation Assistant Curator. The series is organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Daniel S. Palmer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.

Public programs at the Jewish Museum are made possible by endowment support from the William Petschek Family, the Trustees of the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation, Barbara and Benjamin Zucker, William W. Hallo, the late Susanne Hallo Kalem, the late Ruth Hallo Landman, the Marshall M. Weinberg Fund, with additional support from Marshall M. Weinberg, the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Foundation, the Saul and Harriet M. Rothkopf Family Foundation and Ellen Liman.

Additional support is provided by Lorraine and Martin Beitler and through public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

ART IN AMERICA
Jun. 15, 2012

Nicole Eisenman’s Prints and People

Nicole Eisenman working at Harlan & Weaver, New York.

Eight months ago, Nicole Eisenman locked her paints away and turned exclusively to prints. Operating feverishly in four different workshops, both alone and in collaboration, the Brooklyn-based artist has produced a trove of works in various mediums—etching, lithography, monotype and woodcut. Her large, inventive monotypes—colorful works focusing a big head, or on a single figure or two in playful combinations—were her contribution to the most recent Whitney Biennial, often singled out for praise in reviews of the show. Eisenman is currently exhibiting her prints in all mediums at Leo Koenig Gallery in New York, through June 30.

Eisenman first achieved notoriety in the early 1990s for her graphic brilliance, as demonstrated in drawings that she produced in profusion, at small and grand scale. The irreverence of her content—what was newly being called “queer” art—was at that time something unprecedented. Drawings ranged from one-off sight gags on tiny scraps of paper to giant murals depicting all-female scenes—shipwrecks, desert islands, an under-water film shoot—replete with sex and violence. In a wall drawing at the 1996 Whitney Biennial, she depicted the destruction of the Whitney Museum itself. While over the years she has tempered the excesses of her subject matter, Eisenman has returned to graphic exuberance in her recent prints. Her tone has darkened in these works, but she is no less experimental in her exploration of form and content.

With one of her collaborators, Andrew Mockler of Jungle Press, Eisenman took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum and looked at dozens of historical prints. One senses the ghostly presence of printmaking artists from the past—Beckmann and Picasso, Goya and Munch—in the works on view. But, as Mockler observes, “she’s just able to digest all that stuff and make it an Eisenman.”

A.i.A. caught up with Eisenman on the heels of her Koenig opening.

FAYE HIRSCH: I remember a conversation you and I had a few years ago about prints. You were getting ready for a collaboration at Yale—Rochelle Feinstein’s program of getting an artist and a master printer to collaborate.

NICOLE EISENMAN: Yeah, I was asked to pull some prints out of the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection and talk about them to the students. Then there was a separate visit—they invite artists to make a print in the print shop, and then the printer gets one, the artist gets one and Yale gets one, which is a brilliant idea. I don’t know why every school doesn’t do that. And they got [master printer] Craig Zammiello to come do the etching.

I’d toyed around with etching here and there. I learned how to do it in college when I was in Rome—really basic cross-hatching techniques and stuff like that. But it takes a concentrated effort to get to know a material as complicated as any of these processes are.

Especially lithography: still after nine months of doing it, I am as at much of a loss as I was when I first started. Etching I get. You throw acid on the metal and it burns the metal. But try to explain to me how water and oil etch a rock. I don’t get it. I can’t even frame my questions about it.

HIRSCH: I am very struck by how, with each of those processes, you do something completely different. And also by how historically savvy they are. Do you think about Beckmann or Munch?

EISENMAN: I do. As I started this project I read a lot of books and made trips to museums. Andrew took me to the print collection at the Met. I was getting a crash course in the history of printmaking. Munch is someone I looked at a lot, and Picasso was absolutely the number one man for etching. I can’t get enough of Picasso’s etchings. You don’t really understand how fucking brilliant they are until you try to do it yourself. It’s a little bit of the frustrating thing about printmaking—it kind of looks easy, and it’s really not. The level of density he gets—it came as a beautiful surprise.

HIRSCH: You really made a decision to concentrate on printmaking for a period of time.

EISENMAN:  I’ve been working in my studio for seven years painting, but in August I packed up my oil paints in a big strong box with a lock. I whitewashed the walls and the floor. And I scrubbed and disinfected every inch of it. So I had this beautiful white cube, and I started a yearlong works on paper and prints project.

HIRSCH: Why did you decide to do that?

EISENMAN: I don’t know. I think I went to the [IFPDA] print fair [in New York], I don’t know. I’m trying to remember where it came from.

HIRSCH: It seems like such a natural fit.

EISENMAN: That’s what it is. I like works on paper. My origins, back in the ’90s, were in works on paper. I was going back to that place, but not directly. I would have these processes sort of mediate the drawing.

HIRSCH: You’ve also been working at workshops—in lithography with Andrew Mockler at Jungle Press in Brooklyn, and in etching with Felix Harlan and Carol Weaver at Harlan & Weaver on Canal Street. Those are really high-end collaborators. What about the monotypes?

EISENMAN: I did those myself at the amazing Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, in upstate New York. I rented time on their press. It’s a women’s collective, just beautiful. Anyone can go there, and they give grants to some people so they don’t have to pay anything. It’s a good old-fashioned women’s collective, really well run, with really good equipment. I made the monotypes I’m showing at the gallery there. The ones at the Whitney I did in Brooklyn on a press I rented from [artist and master printer] Lothar Osterburg.

And there’s another press I’ve been working with in Brooklyn on the woodcuts, called Ten Grand Press, which is Marina Ancona’s—she’s kind of a new kid on the block. She has a great little shop.

HIRSCH: Those woodcuts are incredible. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

EISENMAN: Really? That’s so nice.

HIRSCH: How did you and Marina get those strange colors? The values are close, but the hues so unexpected.

EISENMAN: All this stuff is so much a result of collaboration.

HIRSCH: Did that draw you to prints specifically?

EISENMAN: Part of the appeal of prints for me was getting out of the solitude of my studio. I was going through a difficult breakup. Being able to go to a shop—having standing appointments with three different shops and three different sets of people three times a week—really kept me going through the fall and winter.  Having that company, that distraction and camaraderie, was kind of a life-saver.

HIRSCH: Technically those prints are amazing, and you have always just known how to draw. But I did find the subject matter to be rather dark—even though there’s still all this clowning around and playfulness, especially in the monotypes. It seems a lot about loneliness, about going out to bars and crying.

EISENMAN: Part of this came from looking at Picasso’s prints. He was able to siphon raw feeling—his reactions to a drama he created, really, between his mistress and his wife. He poured it all into his Suite 156 etchings. They’re so gorgeous and heartfelt and heart-wrenching. And looking at those I felt free, like permission had been granted  to let it be as personal as I needed it to be.

HIRSCH: Well it definitely works. Have you found you work very differently in the different studios?

EISENMAN: The personalities definitely affect what’s going on. When I work alone, or with Marina, it’s easier for me to open up the queer and sexual subject matter. But what all three have in common, which is so much fun, is the willingness to experiment, to push the limits. Harlan and Weaver were just incredibly patient; there’s such a learning curve in etching. The stuff I did at the beginning was pretty straightforward, but the last—that beer garden—there are a lot of complex, different processes going on in that print.

All the shops present different atmospheres. Each is really a reflection of its [proprietors’] hearts and brains, and you’re walking right in and making yourself at home. Harlan and Weaver have a really beautiful, almost gentle, old-world style—so gorgeous and civilized. We have lunch everyday at noon, and all the interns, everyone working there—we all eat together. They touch a different era. Andrew is just a nut, he’s really fucking hilarious, he sings a lot, and the atmosphere at Jungle Press is fun and goofy.

The tough part is that you’re working in front of people; there’s an awkwardness of having to think on the spot. That’s why there are a lot of scenes of people drinking.

HIRSCH: What do you mean?

EISENMAN: When you don’t know what to do, draw people drinking. [Laughs] It’s become a never-ending subject matter for me, with all sorts of variations—something I’ve been doing for a long time. There used to be a little more violence than there is now. People are not cutting and stringing each other up as much as they used to, but they’re drinking together, which is nicer. Though it’s the same idea.

HIRSCH: When I see your bar and dinner scenes, I think about the “Café Deutschland” paintings by Jörg Immedorff. I think of your beer gardens, which have portraits of your friends in them, as a latter-day society of creative people that you’re a part of, an homage to that queer, bohemian culture.

EISENMAN: The pictures of people drinking together show an aspect of a community I feel part of, but it’s also a fantasy showing the best of times. There is something that already seems past tense about those scenes—they are a nostalgic fantasy, which is a feeling I get sometimes even in those moments [when we’re together].

I was looking at Bonnard a few years ago. All those beautiful paintings where the centerpiece of the painting is this big white dinner table. That was a big inspiration.

HIRSCH: You’ve also mentioned—much to my surprise—Renoir.

EISENMAN: He was my favorite Impressionist by far, if I had to pick a favorite. His paintings are really gorgeous. There’s just something joyful about showing people celebrating together.

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(The following is a conversation between Butt Johnson and Nicole Eisenman.  Butt underwent the grilling process by David Kennedy-Cutler, who had been previously grilled by Ruby Sky Stiler, who had been interrogated by Talia Chetrit, who was thrust into the spotlight by yours truly, Johnny Misheff.  You see what’s going on here by now, right?  Yes, you’re right!  Eisenman will now get to pick someone to interact with about whatever she chooses.  See?  It’s FUN!)

AUGUST 2010

I first met Nicole Eisenman when I was an undergrad at RISD….she gave a talk about her work and I was immediately drawn to her sense of humor and the way she was able to use a myriad of techniques to create different images and ideas. As an impressionable young artist I found her approach liberating but also saw a sincere commitment to a thorough exploration of painting — I’ve been an avid follower of her work ever since. Her recent show at Leo Koenig seemed to me to exemplify this, and I really felt the impact of that as a bold statement about making paintings in the contemporary art world. So when she agreed to be interviewed about her work, I decided to jump right in: 

BJ: Do you see the act of painting as an intellectual pursuit, and does the object of virtuosity interest you? Do believe in the idea of the masterpiece? 

NE: I’m not that interested in virtuosity. That makes me think of Michelangelo’s David… couldn’t care less, Sir! I do believe in The Masterpieces though, like this or these: 

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NE: (continued) Virtuosity (we’re talking about the ability to handle paint here) can help to make a masterpiece but it’s not a necessary element. There are lots of different elements that make a masterpiece in various combinations like humor, touch/texture, pattern, conception, color, passion – for starters. Yes, painting is an intellectual pursuit; it’s also an emotional and spiritual pursuit, a kind of reckoning with the infinite possibilities of the universe. The pursuit is for an understanding of the deep patterns that make up our lives and that go beyond intellect and into the realm of the body – via paint. It’s the internal reacting to the external; the paint expresses the former and representing the latter. The payoff is the moment when you bring something to life that has never existed before anywhere else.

BJ: I’m with you that masterpieces can take many (or any) form (and love Picabia)…it’s such a weighty concept, was curious to hear (or see) your thoughts. Looking at your work over the years, you have hit so many different directions in how you paint, I think in asking about virtuosity I was trying to get at ways you are able to switch it up – seems to me that your skills as a painter have helped you really nail some ideas and generate such powerful images because you can work in all these different languages.  Is that something you think about?  Or maybe you just feel comfortable taking risks in your studio and kind of winging it that way? 

Some examples:

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NE: That’s a pretty great compliment.  Thanks, man!  I’ve put the focus in the last few years on buffeting homogeneity in my work and only in the last 2 or 3 years has it come together. I had a mini retrospective a few years ago at the Kunsthalle Zurich; it looked like a totally disjointed group show!  I realized that the slipperiness of my so-called style was at the heart of the show and it was interesting bouncing around all these differing realities.  I began thinking about how within a painting, different things want to be painted different ways.  I can’t imagine its very FUN to continue to work at a process you’ve gotten comfortable with or mastered, so you push into unknown territory to work out new ideas.  Paintings inevitably get good when you give up hope, then it’s easy to take a risk because there’s nothing to lose. It’s all about ruining shit and thus saving it from predictability.  Not to say I don’t have a studio overflowing with broken paintings that are beyond redemption.

BJ: How do you think about the idea of the one liner in your work… (i.e. Jesus Fucking Christ, Alice in Wonderland) lots of jokes in paintings of yours from the 90s and maybe less so in newer paintings. Is that something you have thoughts about? 

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NE: Yeah, at some point around ’01-’02 I got tired of jokes, of trying to be funny.  I wanted to focus on painting.  Painting isn’t a great medium for jokes.  It can be, to an extent.  Kippenburger made funny paintings.  Maybe some of my paintings are slightly funny but it’s a different kind of humor, not one-liners.

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BJ: and a follow up — how does that mean you are now able to explore more complex themes?  Or be more open about your interior life in your work?

NE: Maybe I am more open, who knows?  In the 90’s I was often the subject of my work, I really put myself out there.  Now the paintings feel more connected to my subconscious and dream life, and the themes are more personal and complex — actually they’re so complex I don’t know what they are half the time. The emotional range of my early stuff is fairly one dimensional; it was all about anger.  Now my anger is punctuated by rage… and joy and sadness and whatever else there is. 

BJ: You grew up in Westchester right?  As a former suburbanite, have ideas about the “city” entered your artistic consciousness in a way you ever think/thought about?  How has your perception of NYC and yourself as a New Yorker affected your work over your career?

NE: Yup, I grew up in the suburbs.  I was born into that universe and as a kid, as far as I knew, it was good.  When I was old enough to come into the city to hang out, I immediately hated the bullshit agenda of the suburbs.  I guess I was 15 when I started checking out the art world, the clubs, music… it was a fun and raw scene in the east village in the 80s; I became enlightened to the possibilities.  I guess the city wrenched me out of my cocoon of childhood.  Well, it depressed me too, because the difference between normative suburban culture and freaky punk fucked-up city culture where there seemed to be this amazing smorgasbord of ideas was stark!  Such was life before the internet.  Now everybody has access to everything.  There were obvious advantages to being in NY after college, I met a lot of artists and curators who where hugely influential.  It’s hard to sort out what the city’s influence has been on my work, it’s like asking what the temperature’s influence is on my work.

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BJ: Yeah, true, I guess it could be chalked up to an “everything in life” type thing – but was wondering how/ if you see yourself as a NY artist — especially because you’ve been painting scenes from the city recently — seems like its become a subject in your work? 

NE: I don’t really see myself as a New York City artist.  That makes me think of the Ashcan school or Abstract Expressionists.  I draw so much from European painting, I see myself more aligned with German art culture.  However, yes, the city (mostly bars in the city) turn up in my work.  I have been painting stuff from my life, people I know, places I frequent. 

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BJ: You had a pretty well-read blog (ha, or I read it in any case) in the early wild west days of blogging, but ended it in like 2006(?) or so…how did blogging affect your work and do you miss that presence? 

NE: Oi, the blog.  I loved that activity… at first.  Creating a little zine for a handful of friends who were mostly blogging as well was amazing; we’d have these hilarious conversations with each other.  In its own little way it caught on and I realized the extent to which I was exposing myself so I pulled back.  I enjoyed scouring obscure corners of the Internet, but that hobby wore itself out.  It gets tiresome reading and forming opinions on every damn thing: what’s cool, what’s interesting, what’s pathetic… this movie, that piece of trash on the ground, who cares.  Right? 

BJ: Ha!  Well if your opinions are good and you post interesting/funny things, people will read it…especially if they are bored and at work…  And facebook?  Does that scratch some of those itches but limit it to your friends? 

NE: That’s funny.  While all my blogger friends were doing it at their soul sucking jobs (which is totally reasonable), I was doing it instead of painting!  The problem with FB is it’s SO socially complicated!  I’m always struggling with who to accept/ignore while trying to hold on to a small shred of privacy.  I’m self-conscious on FB so I end up limiting how much I use it.  The anonymous audience on the blog was freeing.  That’s funny that you read my blog.

BJ: So how do you see the act of making oil paintings in a digital era — with an infinite amount of images circulating on the internet?  Do you think about the digital life/afterlife of your paintings?

NE: The over abundance of disposable and meaningless images gives oil painting more value.  It’s shocking to go to a museum now and be reminded of the power a painting can have after surfing the internet all day.  A good painting completely resists assimilation.  90 years after Monet painted the waterlillys at Giverny, they still confound me – I was looking at those recently.  Painting carries within it the spirit of the painter; it is an artwork’s physicality through which a deep connection with the viewer occurs.  It’s the realization that you’re not just looking at a painting, say, Van Gogh made, one can actually commune with his spirit, just by looking, and time collapses.  Sometimes when I look at paintings I love I almost feel like I’m breathing through my eyeballs.  Does that ever happen to you?  Also, the paradox of not having that connection is interesting as David Humphrey said in his brilliant book Blind Handshake…”The lack of connection between the artist and the viewer must be part of the artworks enduring and distinct appeal. The Paradox of detached connection might have fetish-like powers that could help explain the persistence of such an inefficient form of pleasure.” 

BJ: Yeah I’ve had sublime experiences when looking at paintings for sure, I’ve fallen prey to big grey Agnes Martin grids in such a way, the Rothko chapel in Houston shut my brain off completely the first time I went, and there’s some Edward Hopper maneuvers in painting sunlight on the sides of lighthouses that I carry around in my head with me every day… 

Speaking of detached connections… do you think your paintings as they exist in jpeg form are “diluted” then?  Or do you see them as inhabiting a different kind of environment? 

NE: Yes, it’s a different environment and I have no control over it.  It’s definitely diluted.  Computers can’t represent texture, subtleties of color, the affect of scale etc… You can never see how thick a painting is painted and if you can, then you can’t see something else, like the whole image at once.  That said, once the image enters into the sea of images on the internet, it has a life of its own, but it’s not art anymore.  I pull images off Google all the time and mess with them and those images end up back in circulation, an endless loop of corrosion/creation.  And of course there are plenty of paintings I’ve only seen in reproduction some I chase down to see in real life.

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Notes on Queer Formalism


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In a recent conversation with Amy Sillman at the opening of Leidy Churchman’s provocative solo show, Lazy River, at the Boston University Art Gallery, I asked Sillman about the state of painting. In 2011, Artforum considered the “The Ab-Ex Effect,” thereby attempting to take the pulse of a simultaneously revered and reviled hallmark of modernism in the visual arts. Where had painting come since then? It was a question that had plagued me ever since my first encounter with Nicole Eisenman’s paintings, prints, and sculptures.1 Eisenman’s investment in art history, when combined with her penchant for absurdity and subversion, seemed to upend everything I knew about contemporary art. The same shock occurred when I thought about Sillman and her inscrutable mixture of pigment and perversion—and iPhones. With Amy Sillman: one lump or two opening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, and Nicole Eisenman appearing in both the 2013 Carnegie International and Nicole Eisenman: In Love with My Nemesis at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2014, it seems that we are on the verge of a new definition of artistic practice.

I had attempted for a while to characterize this charged moment, but it was not until Sillman answered, “It’s almost a queer formalism” that I found the necessary words.2 The phrase captures something revolutionary, a sense of palpable anticipation for much-needed transition that is just around the corner. The move toward queer formalism prefigured by Sillman and Eisenman, as well as artists Elise Adibi and Leidy Churchman, cannot be fully explained in a single article or with one analytical lens. It is my hope here to offer a set of disjointed thoughts that will coalesce into a question or a basis for further investigation, but never an answer.

1. Queer formalism is a paradox. Formalism requires the centrality of an object, whereas queer rejects authorship and universal concepts. Queer subverts singularity while the medium requires it. To find meaning in the internal factors of the medium is to invest in its selfhood, its ability to signify. But isn’t this what queer accomplishes? Is this not what we have fought for—the ability to express one’s self, to speak, to be legible to others as a unified agent? Queer rejects unification, however. It advocates for a “queer subject” while attacking the notion of “subjecthood.” Where is the balance?

2. It is exactly in the immiscibility of the terms queer and formalism that queer formalism finds its power. Queerness “represents” an unsure mixture of singular embodiment and a passionate ownership of one’s identity with the refusal of singularity.3 So too does the medium.

3. If the medium is the “essence” of the art object, its internal logic, it becomes a sort of aesthetic identity politics. Formalism’s investment in the medium has, throughout art history, suffered from a limited historical awareness and a tendency to privilege normative patriarchal values. Clement Greenberg’s assessment of Jackson Pollock, a legacy Sillman and her contemporaries have inherited, is exemplary of the mid-century valorization of medium specificity and artistic heroism. Paint became analogous with the (straight, masculine) psyche of the artist, his authority to express himself. Hence the urgent need to move toward conceptualism and institutional critique, right?

4. Still, being an artist requires a direct engagement with a medium. I firmly believe that art is not purely a product of external constructs, no matter how forcefully (and rightfully) it has been used to expose capitalism, commodification, and institutionalized oppression. In some indefinable sense, art is resistant to the outside. We cannot escape materials, and while it should not be venerated, technical skill (or an intimate connection with one’s brush or sponge or pencil) should not be discounted as not “postmodern” enough. Likewise, we cannot escape the medium of our bodies, even as that medium has become increasingly described in terms of social construction, artifice, and performativity.

5. Queerness and the medium are thus parallel. They never meet, but the path they carve out engenders an incredibly productive landscape for discussing identity and the visual arts.

6. In working toward an understanding of queer formalism, it is essential to engage with the modes of being, description, and expression unearthed by “queer.” Most obviously, it is a slur that has been “reclaimed.” Some find it shamefully unspecific; others consider it beautifully and necessarily open. Queer is in-between; that goes without saying. Formalism is, in some circles, a dirty word that is reminiscent of many years of a masculinist, heteronormative tendency in modernism. Being a formalist, however, does not place anyone in danger.

7. One cannot “queer” things. No matter how fervent your search for a gay character in Othello, you are not “queering” Shakespeare. Queer is not the grafting of a theory upon an unreceptive source, and queer formalism is not the queering of formalism or the formalism of queers. Queer does not require someone to “interpret” or “find” it. But if no one does, who will?

8. Queer is not a catch-all term to rack up points for political correctness, though it does touch many more people than one might expect. It affects and engages with issues of race, class, imperialism, and politics. Its function, however, is not endless; it must be tethered somewhere. But where?

9. Queer is not something beyond gay or lesbian or transgender, nor is it more “enlightened” than the identity politics of gay liberation or second wave feminism. Queer is informed by history; it is at once conceptual and contemporary and the product of countless years of physical work. We vainly consider it a product of our present moment, but it belongs to no moment.

10. The phrase “queer community” is both necessary and deeply fraught with exclusionary tendencies. Community implies accord, and has often effaced essential differences that unwittingly perpetuate institutional biases. However, the only people who can understand a specific form of oppression are those who have lived it, and finding a community is essential for many people’s coming out process.

11. Eisenman’s Beer Gardens series is exemplary of queer formalism’s brand of solidarity, which she described in an interview with Brian Sholis as a diverse, anti-utopian group of misfits: “Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life…It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked up place. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.”4 Queer formalism does not exist for itself. It lives for others while retaining a precarious independence.


Nicole Eisenman, Beer Garden, 2007
Oil on canvas, 65 x 82 in (165.1 x 208.3 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York.


Amy Sillman, Williamsburg Portraits, 1991-92
Ink, gouache, and pencil on paper
Set of 32: 8 x 11 inches each
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

12. Queer is within and outside the masculinist, homophobic confines of our world, phenomena to which the art object is not immune. Queer requires a not-queer, or “straight,” in order to exist. Homosexuality has been understood as not only a perversion, but also an inversion—what appears when you lift the mossy rock of proper social relations and look at the terrifying flora and fauna underneath. Queer defines itself in opposition to not-queer, but it need not always be in a state of antagonism.

13. Queer is not a mode of being or a means of deconstruction, and one who is queer need not constantly be in a state of rehearsing or living their sexuality. Queer is not always against; sometimes it just wants to sleep in and cuddle on a Sunday morning. Sometimes the pressure is too much to handle. It is, at times, deeply frustrating to “be” queer, a nuisance even. Must I always explain myself?


Amy Sillman, Untitled Cartoon from Amy Sillman: Visiting Artist, 2002
Ink and gouache on paper
9 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

14. Queer necessitates bodies, but it also rejects the solidified nature of bodies. It insists on specificities, even as it acts as an ever-expansive force. Queer is bounded by skin, but not contained by it, like the ink, pencil, and gouache in N & O v3 (2006). Sillman’s marks bleed and seep within and among bodies, yet the image retains a particular morphology, epitomized by the architectural forms that emerge from the sitters themselves. Or maybe, conversely, the bodies originate in Sillman’s scaffolding. Sillman’s bodies somehow subsume and resist the gesture, prompting an unanswerable question – Where does the medium begin and corporeality end?


Amy Sillman, N & O v3, 2006
Ink, colored pencil and gouache on paper
17 x 14 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

15. Queer is a connective force and a merciless severing, a relational action and a rejection of the world outside the self. The medium can be made to serve both purposes as well; it is both intimate and filled with lonliness. As Helen Molesworth said of the works in Amy Sillman: one lump or two, there is an element in Sillman’s work of “trying to connect with a thing that we cannot connect with.”5 Sillman echoes this sentiment, “I’m so interested in things that split in two.”6 Like the explosion of energy that results when atoms join or break apart, Sillman’s interest in pairs transforms the body, the gesture, and the structure of the medium into a conjoined power source. She depicts art and identity at a moment of simultaneous recombination and destruction.

16. In Shade, for example, paint becomes the body and delineates the body. True to its function, paint flows and mixes, but Sillman arrests its motion. She leaves paint destitute; its final iteration is two figures devoid of individuality. Though the figures perhaps desire to lose themselves in each other, they cannot reach across the expanse of the canvas. Sillman’s paint becomes Lot’s wife, doomed to live forever as a pillar of salt for doubting God.


Amy Sillman, Shade, 1997-98
Oil and gouache on wood
50 x 60 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens


Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011
Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 in (99.1 x 121.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

17. Queer can be a deeply held conviction, a passionate self-appraisal that informs one’s daily, bodily, erotic life. Still, queer expands into culture, and in Sillman’s work, it becomes implicated in the artistic process itself. Sillman drew various couples she knew and reimagined the drawings as abstract paintings on canvas, such as C (2007). C approaches the realm of concept and limitless expressivity while maintaining the outlines (not confines) of “real” bodies. As Ewa Lajer-Burcharth points out in her text to accompany Amy Sillman: one lump or two, “Through repeated re-presentation, figuration was transformed into abstraction, bodies—reduced, voided—turned into shapes, lines, colors, and forces,” an operation that one can see throughout Sillman’s and Eisenman’s careers.7 Sillman presents a kind of painterly sadomasochism. Though the body is reduced to pulp, its integrity remains. The (queer) body is reincarnated as paint.


Amy Sillman, C, 2007
Oil on canvas
45 x 39 inches
Collection of Gary and Deborah Lucidon
Photo: John Berens

18. It follows that queer is both immaterial and corporeal. It is conceptual and reliant on the medium. It is deconstructive and authorial. It is the Self and the Other, together in perpetuity but not mapped onto each other. It is a multiplicity of media that lack a hierarchy, but it is not post-medium. The oeuvre of the queer formalist, like queerness itself, is invested in the interspace between and among paradoxes. Sillman has said, “I’m interested in simultaneity—the copresence of abstraction and figuration, deep space and shallow space, high and low, recognizable, literate, narrative, mythic things and dumb, vernacular, kind-of-stupid, jokey things—all these dialectics.”8

19. After all these attempts at a definition of queer, can we predict what results when “queer” and “formalism” collide?

20. To begin, in the same way that queer does not require “coming out” or “identification,” queer formalism need not exteriorize itself, or expose its contents to the world. It is somewhere between discovering and proclaiming itself and investing in what Lajer-Burcharth calls “intangible, unlocalizable interiority.”9 What might it mean to “come out” in the medium?

21. Androgyny or fluidity cannot capture the emotional, historical, sociopolitical, and artistic plenitude of queer formalism. The term androgyny advances a monolithic vision of queerness that relies upon normative visual decidability. Queer is not a project of counting the number of figures in a work of art whose gender is indeterminate. Fluidity is as bad as androgyny when used as a weasel word to give the illusion of progressive scholarship. Queer formalism is not about scrambled gender roles. For some queer people, gender roles are central to their sexual experience. Furthermore, gender/sexual identity can be as important as life itself—trans* pioneers have taught us that. Fluidity, when used irresponsibly, can negate lived experience.

22. Assessing the sexuality of the artist is not enough to establish queer formalism, though it may be a relevant factor. Queer formalism does not only apply to “queer” artists, and it is certainly not equating art made by queer artists with “queer art.” Moreover, sexuality is not something that must be constantly embodied by an artist. While it is a moral imperative to acknowledge gender and sexuality (the personal is political, and it always will be), the character of an artist must not be imprisoned by biography. One might create a work of art “as” a gay artist one day but not “as” a gay artist the next.

23. Elise Adibi, who does not identify as queer, has worked to understand, appraise, and take apart the monolithic history of the grid by assaulting it (or paying cautious homage to it?) with dripped paint, plant oils, and rabbit skin glue. She combines long-entrenched modernist discourses, such as the expressive gesture and the determinist grid, that are as consecrated as the gender binary itself. In so doing, Adibi points to the possibility of the Self and Other coming together without the specificities of either being extinguished. Adibi approximates a space described by Gayle Salamon in Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, that is, “the place where I confront the otherness of the other without annihilating or canceling that difference or replicating the other in my own image.”10 Is this not a project of queer formalism?


Elise Adibi, Aromatherapy Painting, 2013
Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint and blue tansy essential plant oil on canvas
20 x 20 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Churner and Churner
Photo: Heather Latham

24. Brief intermission. Is queer formalism only conceivable to queer critics? Is it morally tenable to discuss queer formalism if and only if the historian or critic is queer? I hope not. Am I only writing this because I myself am gay? I have no privileged access to issues of gender and sexuality. No one does, irrespective of one’s gender or sexual expression.

25. Queer formalism is tragic and destructive and vile; it wrecks our understanding of respectability and order. It is dangerous and sexy and angry and spiteful and ridiculous. In the July 3, 1906 edition of the Lewiston Daily Sun, the author reports on a lethal train crash:

Salisbury, Eng., July 2 — The embalmers are busy tonight and by tomorrow the majority of the bodies of the score of Americans who lost their lives in the wreck of the Plymouth express Sunday will be prepared for their return for burial in the land they so recently, in the fullness of life and hope, left . . . The inquest today was a prolonged and tedious formality . . . a strange proceeding to the many Americans present but which is thought to be due to the queer formalism that seems characteristic of such cases in this country.11

Queer formalism is exactly the opposite of formality, but it is not frivolous or secondary to “serious” criticism. All honest scholarship is based in passion, desire, rage, and obsession; it is always ready to brush with death, perhaps its own destruction. According to Bob Nickas, “Doubt, then, is one of [Sillman’s] most reliable and trusted subjects.”12 This is not, however, tentativeness or timidity. Indeed, queer formalism’s insecurity is a radically courageous act, a fearless celebration of the precariousness of life. Love, bodies, paint, paper, and canvas all disintegrate only to be reborn.

26. Sillman assaults her chosen medium and its support, be it paper, ink, oil paint, canvas, or an iPhone touch screen, in order to access its internal logic or confusion. Returning to Lajer-Burcharth, who describes a series in the late 1990s and early 2000s that combines humanoid figures with abstraction, it is evident that Sillman locates this (queer) physicality within the medium itself:

Violence is implicit in both the final form of these paintings—bold, sweeping, rectilinear trajectories of chroma cutting through the representational field—and the preparatory drawings showing bodies deformed by the slashes of black ink, to say nothing of the very logic of subtraction, or evisceration, that defines the process Sillman adopted in this series.13

27. Likewise, in his video project Painting Treatments (2010), Leidy Churchman equates canvas and body bag, sculpture and corpse. For Churchman, everything is a kind of medium—skin, office folders, tree branches. Bodies and paint bleed together, at times creating a beautiful sculpture, but more often a cluttered, fecal mess. There is no room for idealism in Painting Treatments—aesthetic, sexual, or otherwise. Pollock’s immortalized ejaculatory dance becomes an unassuming display of flippant eroticism that is simultaneously arousing and sickening. Sillman recalls,

They [Churchman and his associate Anna Rosen] did excessive, polychromatic things to our bodies, like dipping a banana into a can of orchid-lavender paint and pressing it against our asses, or dragging a rake with green and brown paint in its combs across our legs, or letting chrome-yellow enamel dribble off random pieces of plywood onto the smalls of our backs, or tossing some green-gray grit on us.14

Queer formalism is messy while maintaining a perverse beauty. It acknowledges the uncertainty of artistic discourses and of life itself. It is not afraid to cry or get beat up. Like my mom always said, if you’re not bleeding, you’re fine. There’s something wonderful about queer formalism’s ability to be not fine, to hurt, to expose the abjection inherent in both the paintbrush and the body.

28. Queer formalism understands history and pays homage to it. It has its own history; it fought for its own history, but in doing so, destroys history. Sillman evokes the legacy of camp in relation to Abstract Expressionism:

I would argue that this is because AbEx already had something to do with the politics of the body, and that it was all the more tempting once it seemed to have been shut down by its own rhetoric, rendered mythically straight and male in quotation marks. AbEx’s own deterioration into cliché was a ripe ground, a double-edged challenge that, to quote [Susan] Sontag again, “arouses a necessary sympathy.” AbEx was like a big old straight guy who had gone gay.15

29. Eisenman, also deeply aware of the history of art and culture, pointed out the absurdity of classical heroism in her contribution to the 2013 Carnegie International. Sometimes you have to take a break from posing and have a smoke. Standing on a pedestal all day must be tiring. Additionally, in the Beer Gardens, Eisenman draws on the style of French impressionists, her brush creating a swirling optical event.16 Despite her homage, she is no flâneur, and this is not Bal du moulin de la Galette. Free of the pretentious spirit exhibited by much of contemporary art, Eisenman plays with art historical truisms with a strange combination of reverence and frustration.


Nicole Eisenman, Prince of Swords, 2013
Plaster, wood, burlap, ceramic and crystal, 77 x 46 x 27 in (195.6 x 116.8 x 68.6 cm)
Photo: Greenhouse Media
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

30. It is not clear, however, if queer formalism is “campy,” though it does engage with the legacy of camp as Sillman astutely theorizes. We live in an age entirely run by irony, wonderfully gaudy performativity, and cultural naïveté—a veritable campy culture industry. Pop culture icons from Lana Del Rey to Lady Gaga have come to embody the neuroses of the Millennial generation, whose difficulty creating a culture of its own has left it permanently adrift in the Digital Age. Camp has become as entrenched within American culture as the capitalist regime itself, and may have thereby lost its subversive quality. In the spirit of 30 Rock, it is hip to be an outrageously uncool, yet somehow enviable, outsider. But Sillman is nevertheless spot-on. Camp retained its revolutionary sincerity in queer formalism when, all the while, camp became mainstream. Queer formalism is neo-camp and post-camp.

31. Queer formalism is not entirely theoretical, but it knows theory like the back of its hand. “Theory” is largely anti-feminist and anti-queer, but queer formalism must engage with theory in order to take it apart. Even Freud would love the grotesque, bitterly hilarious psychosexual vision in Eisenman’s Sunday Night Dinner.


Nicole Eisenman, Sunday Night Dinner, 2009
Oil on canvas, 42 x 51 in (106.7 x 129.5 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

32. Queer formalism can be represented both at the level of subject matter and at the moment of signification. It falls somewhere between representation and theory, sociopolitical effects and aesthetic origin. For example, Sillman’s Me and Ugly Mountain (2003) is perhaps a representation of the baggage of many years of “feminine hysteria” or “homosexual inversion,” as well as the reflection of those biases in the visual arts. Still, queer formalism represents the opportunity to ease that history when it becomes a burdensome assumption about the “meaning” of an artwork. One must look beyond an initial interpretive assumption about content without rejecting what is “represented.” Queer formalism is childishly truthful, but is nevertheless filled with lies, dreams, and possibilities.

33. Alongside its personal, embodied, human aspects, Me and Ugly Mountain also recalls the tumultuous erotics of paint itself. At once an abstraction and a landscape, the mountain is filled with orgiastic ideas, lines, and colors. It literally erupts on the face of the most essential mark—the horizon line—like a newly formed pimple. As a result, the mountain is not just a personal, psychoanalytic representation, but also a disruptive force buried within and essential to the material constructs of the scene.


Amy Sillman, Me and Ugly Mountain, 2003
Oil on canvas
60 x 72 inches
Collection of Jerome and Ellen Stern
Photo: John Berens


Nicole Eisenman, Conscious Mind of the Artist
(Subconscious Decision and Actions in Progress)
, 2007
Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 in (99.1 x 121.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

34. Above all, queer formalism is not limited to one artist, group, or medium. It represents the possibility of a new way to discuss art in a nuanced, inclusive fashion. Art history and criticism require reinvigoration, and Sillman, Eisenman, Adibi, and Churchman, among others, are at the vanguard of a necessary transformation that is decades in the making. All queer formalism requires is a willingness to listen and see and feel. Venturing into the unknown is a terrifying process; queer formalism asks us to embrace unfamiliar ways of relating to our bodies and those around us. It begs us to think critically about how we define ourselves. A willingness to begin that journey, however, can have exciting and unexpected results.


Amy Sillman: one lump or two is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston until January 5, 2014. Nicole Eisenman: In Love with My Nemesis will run from January 24, 2014 to April 13, 2014 at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis. Elise Adibi: Metabolic Paintings is on view at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA until December 20, 2013. The author would like to thank Amy Sillman, Nicole Eisenman, Leidy Churchman, and Helen Molesworth for their overwhelming kindness. This article has especially benefitted from conversations with Elise Adibi, whose passionate dedication to the arts has been a source of inspiration.

[1] For a further discussion of Eisenman’s evolving relationship to lesbian identity politics, please see my essay “’Queered in Every Sense of the Word’: Sexual Multiplicity in Nicole Eisenman’s Beer Gardens“, published in Tuesday Magazine, Spring 2012.
[2] Literary scholar Eric Savoy has used the term queer formalism to describe the work of Henry James and the nuanced relationship between sexuality and criticism. See, for example, Savoy, Eric. “The Jamesian Turn: A Primer on Queer Formalism.” In Reed, Kimberly and Peter Beidler, eds. Approaches to Teaching Henry James’s Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2005. “Queer formalism” has also been employed by Robert Sulcer to describe the ambivalent, shifting nature of the gay male critic in nineteenth century literature. See Sulcer, Robert. “Ten Percent: Poetry and Pathology.” In Dellamora, Richard ed. Victorian Sexual Dissidence. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. The usage of the term in the context of literary studies is certainly worthy of further consideration as it relates to the visual arts.
[3] The role of ownership with regard to gender and sexuality was brought to my attention by Ashley Temple and Stephanie Garland.
[4] Eisenman, Nicole and Brian Sholis. “Nicole Eisenman.” Artforum (6 September 2008).
[5] Molesworth, Helen. Press preview for Amy Sillman: one lump or two. ICA/Boston, 1 October 2013.
[6] Conversation between Amy Sillman and Helen Molesworth, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston. 21 November 2013.
[7] Lajer-Burcharth, Ewa. “The Inner Life of Painting.” In Molesworth, Helen ed. Amy Sillman: one lump or two, exh. cat. New York: Prestel Publishing; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2013. 85. See also Molesworth, Helen. “Amy Sillman: Look, Touch, Embrace.” In Molesworth, Helen ed. Amy Sillman: one lump or two, exh. cat. New York: Prestel Publishing; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2013. 51, 53.
[8] Richards, Judith Olch ed. Inside the Studio: Two Decades of Talks with Artists in New York. New York: Independent Curators International and Distributed Art Publishers, 2004. 247.
[9] Ibid, 91.
[10] Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010. 140.
[11] Accessible via Google news archive.
[12] Nickas, Bob. Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 2009. 224.
[13] Lajer-Burcharth, 85.
[14] Sillman, Amy. “AbEx and Disco Balls: In Defense of Abstract Expressionism.” Artforum, Summer 2011.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Eisenman and Sholis.


– See more at: http://www.bigredandshiny.com/cgi-bin/BRS.cgi?section=article&issue=150&article=2013-11-13-081432510247154195#sthash.bOj3Ysja.dpuf

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. ♦

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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.

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

====

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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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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.

==

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

The New Museum Triennial 2015 New York City – exhibition photos and reviews

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‘2015 Triennial: Surround Audience’ Exhibit Features Artists Not Afraid of 3D Printing & Contemporary Technology

logo (2)An edgy exhibit at New York City’s New Museum truly has a realistic idea of what’s going on in contemporary art and design today — as they make a statement about the future — featuring compelling evidence as to how technology like 3D printing gives many artists and designers new ways to experiment as well as manufacture their own designs for prototyping and selling.

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The artists being featured are early in their artistic careers, and will have their work displayed in the exhibit, titled 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience. Spanning the globe with artists from 25 countries, 51 young creators have work in the show, including Josh Kline, Juliana Huxtable, and Oliver Laric, whom we have covered previously regarding a show he did with 3D Lincoln Scans at the Usher Gallery.

“Many of the works in the show look really closely at our present moment, a time when culture has become more porous and encompassing,” explained New Museum Curator Lauren Cornell, who is co-curating the exhibit with artist Ryan Trecartin. “The metaphor that Ryan [Trecartin] and I use is, ‘Surrounded.’”

While the show has a comprehensive mix of political and social statement, 3D printing certainly made its presence known as a new and viable medium, and was centered especially in Frank Benson’s Juliana. Benson, a New Yorker himself, chose to make a stunning statement with his entirely 3D printed piece, which is the third in a series of nude sculptures. Juliana is a striking statement with Benson’s use of 3D printing coupled with the complete nudity of transgender artist Juliana Huxtable — who is also featured in the show as an artist, with her self-portraits in the exhibit.

Full-sized, iridescent, and pushing boundaries with both technology and sexuality, the piece was originally not planned as a nude, but Benson wrote and asked her tentatively if she would consider allowing him to portray her like so.

“I was nervous of what she might think of that, so I sent her this intense email full of historical references,” said Benson.

Benson made sure to convey Huxtable’s personality, even in the buff, paying special attention to her braids and makeup.

Juliana

“I want the sculpture to exist as a completely finished entity inside the computer,” Benson says. “The 3D model is its ultimate version and the print is the real-world manifestation of it.”

3D printing features extensively in the exhibit, with a mind-blowing display of creativity and mastery of various mediums, as well as technology. These artists are not just painters or sculptors, but true craftsmen and artisans with technical skill. They are building artworks, installations, and entire rooms of mixed media impressions and concepts.

Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s work, Phantom, also integrated the Oculus Rift into his work as viewers entered a virtual reality 3D forest. Casey Jane Ellison made a 3D printed USB containing her stand-up comedy routine, which has with a surreal slant. Artist Josh Kline made use of 3D printing for props in a dramatic installation featuring a room filled with riot police bearing Teletubby faces.

Aleksandra Domanović mixed up media to use 3D printing for the Belgrade Hands, robotic hands, in her installation, SOHO (Substances of Human Origin). Again bordering on surrealism and horror, the design is from robotic prostheses straight out of the movie Demon Seed.

“Technology has changed all of our lives so dramatically, and really changed how art is being made, too,” said New Museum Director Lisa Phillips.

Have you used 3D printing in any artwork or mixed medium pieces? What do you think of the ideas behind the exhibited pieces? Tell us your thoughts in the 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience Exhibit forum over at 3DPB.com.

phantom

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VOGUE MAGAZINE

Meet Juliana Huxtable: Star of the New Museum Triennial

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Photo: Courtesy of Juliana Huxtable / @julianahuxtable

Tuesday night, amid a sea of black beanies that constituted the crowd at the opening of the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, one cotton candy–color fur bomber jacket stuck out like a fabulous sore thumb. Its oversize chrome buttons, shaped like the letter “J,” stood for Juicy Couture, but they also announced the woman who was wearing the piece—the photographer, painter, poet, DJ, and downtown sensation Juliana Huxtable.

Huxtable is by turns the subject and author of five separate works installed at the second-floor galleries of this year’s Triennial, “Surround Audience,” which was collaboratively curated by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin. Four inkjet prints by Huxtable herself (two poems and two self-portraits from her lyrically titled series, “Universal Crop Tops For All The Self Canonized Saints of Becoming”) hang in front of a new 3-D Frank Benson sculpture for which Huxtable is the model. (It’s called Juliana.) Since the show opened Wednesday, both Juliana and Juliana have become Insta-sensations, hinting that we might see as much of them on social media this spring as we saw of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety last year. The New Museum also chose one of Huxtable’s self-portraits, Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm), as the Triennial’s holding image on the museum homepage. To put this in Hollywood terms, an analogy not unbefitting today’s art world: If “Surround Audience” were a film, Juliana Huxtable would be its star.

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Photo: Benoit Pailley; Courtesy of The New Museum, New York

Born to a Baptist family in what she describes as a “conservative Bible Belt town in Texas,” Huxtable has been drawing, collaging, and painting since a young age but only began a career in art after graduating from Bard in 2010. “I’ve always kept a notebook,” Huxtable says, “but it was never a cultivated practice in the way that people studying studio art develop.” Brought up as a boy named Julian (Huxtable has transitioned in adulthood), she drew pictures that “were always high-drama, high-fantasy images of idealized women—like angels flying through the air,” she explains. “Now, I’m becoming those women.”Operating out of a “diaristic impulse,” Huxtable’s work uses her own life experience as a point of departure. Her best known pieces, including the two self-portraits in the Triennial, depict Huxtable as a character derived from imagery of the Nuwaubian Nation. (Nuwaubianism, which Huxtable describes as “technically a cult,” was a religious organization inspired by Islam, Ancient Egypt, and extraterrestrial theories. Huxtable has no affiliations with the group.) “From the standpoint of mythology,” Huxtable explains, “I think it’s brilliant. It was like the Animorphs before there were Animorphs.” Painting herself in toxic shades of sage green and violet, Huxtable makes photographs that blend the visual languages of comic books and hip-hop in a way that looks like an Internet meme made by aliens.

Huxtable describes her pieces as “self-imaginings” and, it seems clear, views her art in the first person. “My works are avatars for the constantly growing list of references in my head,” Huxtable explains. “Some of them are political ideas, some of them are aesthetic ideas, but to me the clearest way I can translate them is through portraiture and through text.”

Frank Benson saw a photograph of Huxtable’s first Nuwaubian persona two years ago and asked her to model for him around that time. “Actually, that is how my body looked about a year and a half ago, when I got 3-D-scanned,” Huxtable says, describing Juliana. “The proportions of my body have changed at a rapid pace. Frank’s sculpture is a sort of pastiche of me at different points.”

It would have been hard for Huxtable to imagine this moment four years ago. In 2011, she was working as a legal assistant for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program and keeping up a number of side hustles—hosting parties, baking and selling marijuana edibles, and DJing—to make ends meet. Most tellingly, she was part of the catering staff for the New Museum’s 2011 Spring Gala honoring Gilbert & George. These days, Huxtable still models (for DKNY last year and Eckhaus Latta this past season) and DJs—“I don’t see that as unrelated [to my art]”—but now also fields offers from dealers and collectors, in whom she doesn’t seem to have much interest. “Being in this show,” Huxtable says of the Triennial, “I never thought in a million years it would happen. It doesn’t have any sense of finality, but it definitely feels like a big step.”

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Trans Artist Juliana Huxtable Is Owning the New Museum Triennial

Huxtable New Museum

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Pictured, above: Untitled, Juliana Huxtable (2014)

Photographer, painter, poet, DJ, and OUT100 honoree Juliana Huxtable has created a series of artworks currently on view at the New Museum’s Triennial. The 27-year-old artist, who transitioned into a woman in adulthood, is in turn the author and subject of five pieces displayed on the second floor of the museum.

Huxtable New Museum

The centerpiece of the installation is a 3D sculpture by Frank Benson entitled Juliana. It represents Huxtable nude, revealing her breasts and penis.

Juliana Frank Benson

Huxtable, who’s been vocal on her blog about the discrimination she’s faced as a trans woman, was also recently featured in Vogue and the Wall Street Journal.

Frank Benson saw a photograph of Huxtable two years ago and asked her to model for him around that time. “Actually, that is how my body looked about a year and a half ago, when I got 3D-scanned,” Huxtable told Vogue. “The proportions of my body have changed at a rapid pace. Frank’s sculpture is a sort of pastiche of me at different points.”

In addition, the New Museum features one of Huxtable’s photographs, Untitled, on its website home page.

New Museum Triennial, on view through May 24, 2015. NewMuseum.org

Photo: Courtesy of New Museum

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New museum feature
Art

The New Museum’s Triennial Forecasts a Bleak Future

By Sehba Mohammad on February 25, 2015

Considering the New Museum’s technical savvy, one would expect its third triennial exhibition, Surround Audience, featuring post-internet, emerging artists tapped into global culture, to be rife with emoji art, glitchy videos of internet porn, and at least some of the 2014 Whitney biennial’s shock tactics. Especially since the triennial’s co-curator Ryan Trecartin is an artist known for his campy, over the top artworks which have been likened to Facebook having a nightmare. Instead the five floor exhibition,  featuring 51 artists from 25 countries , is understated and idea driven, consisting of muted works with dark undertones.

Most of the works on view traverse perceptions of the body in today’s technologically saturated, globalized world.

Middle Eastern artist Sophia Al-Maria’s three channel video installation Sisters (2014), shows ghostly repressed bodies freeing themselves through dance. Paranoia about militarism and regimes of control, most apparent in Josh Kline’s installation Freedom 2015, including sculptures of Teletubbies dressed as policemen, credit card trees, and a computer generation of Obama, are also prevalent.

The future, however, is the triennial’s most dominant feature. A considerable number of the show’s sculptural installations, as well as the abstract digital prints and Middle Eastern videos works that intersperse them, are portents of what could be. Their subjects vacillate from dystopian and suspicious to utopian and hopeful, presenting various imminent realities in the guise of art. Here, then, are the most futuristic works from the New Museum triennial.

Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s Phantom, 2015

Daniel Steegmann Mangrane

Tucked away in the second floor is Catalan artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s Phantom, 2015. From afar, the virtual installation seems simple: an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset dangles unassumingly in the middle of two concentric circles. Once you put on the headset things get exciting. The artist used 3D laser-scanning software to map a lush spot in Brazil’s endangered Mata Atlântica rainforest. The work allows viewers to explore the forest as if they are walking through it. As you move around, look up and down; different elements of the indigenous Brazilian landscape reveal themselves, albeit a grainy, colorless, digitized version of the forest. The artist’s pervasive viewing experience highlights the idea that reality is dependent on people’s perspectives. It also makes one ponder on the future of nature and how new ways of seeing and experiencing the world will effect our reality.  

Nadim Abbas’ Chamber 664 KubrickChamber 665 Spielberg, and Chamber 666 Coppola, (all 2014–15)

nadim abbasi

Three grey bunkers, sealed by screens, protrude from the gallery wall. Rubber gloves protrude in and outside a clear vestibule which resembles incubators for quarantining hazardous bodies. The bunkers are filled with familiar domestic objects: toilet rolls and pillows; making them inviting, alarming, and unbearably intriguing. Created by Hong Kong-based artist’s Nadim Abbas the works have an element of post-apocalyptic Hollywood to them, touching upon popular dystopian themes of biological warfare and highly contagious diseases. They are also a personal comment on modern day intimacy.

Juliana Huxtable’s Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm), 2015

JULIANA HUXTABLE NUWAUBIAN

Perhaps the most colorful works on display are inkjet self portraits by artist, DJ, and performer Juliana Huxtable or the “cyborg, cunt, priestess, witch, Nuwaubian princess,” as she calls herself. The prints belong to the artist’s series “Universal Crop Tops for all the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming,” depicting the queer, former legal assistant in guises based on black mythology. Surrounded by surreal landscapes with fantastical color palettes, she effectively mixes club kid aesthetics with deeper poetic insights. Her works are precursors of an emerging identity in which categories such as gender, race, sexuality, and age are fluid and open.

Ed Atkins’ Happy Birthday!!, 2014

Ed Atkins' Happy Birthday!!, 2014

This eerie six minute video centers around a melancholy computer-generated avatar with 2016, and other dates, tattooed to his forehead. He utters mysterious numerical phrases and his body continuously degenerates. The work is a meditative piece on our increased immersion with life-like digital images and how this alters what we know of ourselves and the material world. It reminds us to take note before it is too late; that realistic HD images no matter how exact, don’t really exist.

Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel (2014-15)

Antoine Catala's Distant Feel

The French video artist, previously preoccupied with incorporating human traits such as confusion and humor into machines, created an advertising campaign for a basic human emotion instead of a product, an act that seems logical in our increasingly commercialized world. In collaboration with agency Droga5, the artist created a a new symbol for empathy—EƎ, two E’s facing each other. A sculpture of the symbol, meant to be a generational update on the peace sign, is submerged in a fish tank with live coral growing on it, an attempt to inject life into the work.  Catala’s new project has an accompanying website  with more details

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Adam Lehrer Adam Lehrer Contributor

I write about New York’s art gallery system and museum structure.

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Lifestyle 2/25/2015 @ 11:00PM 2,045 views

Six Pieces That Stuck Out at the New Museum’s Triennial

The primary criticism towards the New Museum’s Triennial is that it it, quite simply, A LOT to take in at once. This criticism is fair, but it also might be missing the point. As I skulked around the opening last night, snapping photos on my sad point and shoot camera, I was overwhelmed with sensory and hyper aware of the setting. Trying to navigate through swarms of people, from young New School students to the elder statesmen of the art world, was like trying to escape from a straight jacket. The venue was packed, and there were hundreds of good looking artsy types adorned in fashionable clothing of one style or another that were clearly feeling the density of the production as well. Attendees were more often found schmoozing and boozing then taking in any single piece for any length of time.  It was a little uncomfortable, a little unnerving, and perhaps that was the entire point.

Scenes from the Opening of the New Museum Triennial

“Surround Audience” was aimed towards exploring the way we live in this mega-connected and technological world. And in this world, we are overwhelmed constantly. Even if we wanted to unplug, most of our jobs wouldn’t let us. It’s hard to appreciate beauty when you are plugged into the Matrix. The exhibit explores that notion teetering on sensory chaos. That being said, there were some pieces that sucked me right out of the pandemonium. Curators Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin could certainly have kept the exhibit tighter; showing 51 artists at once is no easy accomplishment. But these six pieces took me out of the chaos; for a moment I could look closely and appreciate.

Frank Benson “ Juliana”

Frank Benson, "Juliana"

Judging from some of the press, it appears that the Virginia-based artist Frank Benson’s “Juliana” is a crowd favorite at the Triennial and with good reason: the sculpture of Benson’s friend, transgendered artist Juliana Huxtable, is beautifully rendered and clearly made in loving homage. Perched in the center fold of the museum’s second floor, the image cuts through the crowd. It’s dazzlingly life-like. Those that don’t know the subject of the piece before looking at it find themselves shocked when they look up and down the beautiful female form only to find a penis between the object’s legs. The piece forces you to recognize the world’s changing standards of beauty.

Josh Kline, “Freedom”

Josh Kline, "Freedom"
Philadelphia’s Josh Kline thinks about the way humanity has been commodified and controlled through various means of technological surveillance, and judging from his piece at the Triennial, he has a lot of fun doing it. “Freedom” consists of sculpted and life-like stormtrooper-looking police each equipped with their own screens attached to their bellies. Almost as if the guards are protecting him while watching the audience, a screen projection of an Obama lookalike giving a speech plays in the background. Standing from the corner of the room, it looked as if the museum attendees were blended into a crowd with the cops.

Antoine Cala “Distant Feel”

Antoine Cala, "Distant Feel"

French artist Antoine Cala examines the gadgets of the information age and illuminates their decay, darkness, and essentially, their life. In his piece, “Distant Feel,” he examines the issues he’s interested in with humor, with an object that resembles a fish tank. Of course, there are no fish. But looking at the piece you get the sense that life exists within the space. It’s bright neon colors highlight the ugliness and rotten appeal of the mold growing within the tank. I’m always a sucker for neon.

Aleksandra Domanović, “SOHO (Substances of Human Origin)

Aleksandra Domanović, "SOHO (Substances of Human Origin)

Conceptually, I couldn’t quite grasp the statement being made in Yugolsavian artist Aleksandra Domanović’s, “SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), but I loved looking at it and walking through it. Apparently, she was making a statement on the history of the Internet in her country and celebrating the women who helped make it happen. The installation, with prosthetic limbs derived from the model of the Belgrade Hand (the first robotic hand) and gorgeous rafters that must be walked through to get to them, takes on a life of its own.

Avery K. Singer, “Untitled”

Avery K. Singer, "Untitled"

Benjamin Sutton is one of my favorite art critics these days, but his statements about New York’s own Avery K. Singer and her piece, “Untitled,” couldn’t be more unfounded in my opinion. How could something so beautiful only be meant to take up wall space? The fact that her monochrome paintings stuck out to me more so than the larger-scale installations speaks to the piece’s striking beauty. Singer is a painter that uses technology as a tool rather than a medium: she uses Google SketchUp and projects images onto a canvas and then uses spray paint to bring the piece to life. The results are gorgeous; shadowy figures floating in an infinite space.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby “And We Begin to Let Go”

Njideka Akunyili Crosby "And We Begin to Let Go"

Nigerian painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s “Thread” strikes personal for me. For one, I love to see an artist just show his/her talents for painting and collage. I still believe that few objects can be more evocative than a gorgeous painting. In this painting, we see Crosby kissing her American husband’s back in bed. The husband is painted realistically, while she is made up of a collage of Nigerian imagery. Being in a relationship with a woman of a different cultural background myself, I certainly empathize with the sentiments at hand. Through the act of kissing, Crosby imparts her husband with her knowledge, experience and identity. Together, their two cultures form a new identity. A new way of viewing the world. Bi-cultural couples are not a new idea, but are not often explored enough contextually. There is no better way to spread culture than through the act of intimacy and love.

NY MAGAZINE

‘Digital’s Bitches’: The New Museum Triennial

By

DIS, The Island (KEN), 2015. Photo: Heij Shin/New Museum

Some inventions are mastered instantly. The earliest adapters of oil paint, including Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, are still among the best who ever lived. After the invention of the electric guitar, early recordings confirm that Les Paul, T-Bone Walker, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (followed soon thereafter by Jimi Hendrix) were immediate maestros, and some say the novel has never gotten better than Don Quixote. But the internet is not like these inventions or genres. We are 25 years in and we still have no van Eyck, van der Weyden, Hendrix, or Cervantes. In part, that’s because nothing endures online; commerce and novelty topple all idols (even new ones); and today’s links are already decaying and may be useless in the near future. But we have no new masters also because digital technology is more than an invention, tool, or genre. It is a whole new landscape, a new biology, one that is changing us as much as we are changing it — and could one day live on the moon or inside us. Either way, we are digital’s bitches.

And have been for a while. Since everything changes but the avant-garde, art exhibitions about digital technology date back to at least 1968, and London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts’ “Cybernetic Serendipity” examination of “computer art. Most such shows are spectacles of interactive keyboards, whiz-bang effects, listening stations, impossible-to-navigate websites that do little more than give visitors who touch them colds, and wearable helmets that project distorted cyberscapes. Now comes the New Museum’s generously plentiful, frustrating but worthy-of-attention 2015 triennial, “Surround Audience.” This is the museum’s third triennial, each of which is devoted to “early-career artists” and is meant to be “predictive, rather than retrospective.” This year’s building-filling extravaganza is devoted to current art by newer artists who examine “the social and psychological effects of digital technology.” The exhibition has been adroitly co-curated by the New Museum’s Lauren Cornell, who made me happy when she said “media lounges have failed,” and happier still when she said she loathes “techno gimmicks.” Her co-curator is one of the best artists of his generation, 34-year-old Ryan Trecartin, someone who has narrowed the space between objects, images, digital manipulation, cultural narrative, millions of colors, and layers of sound to a supercharged splinter.

“Surround Audience” purports to examine “a world in which the effects of technology … have been absorbed into our bodies and altered our vision of the world … visual metaphors for the self and subjecthood.” Before you bristle — Excuse me, all art does this — not only are there no keyboards, workstations, or websites here, and only one helmet (Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s fantastically alluring depiction of layered linear space), there are, thankfully, no darkened rooms with portentous videos that make you wonder if curators are human beings aware that they’re spending fortunes while abusing the curiosity, patience, and humanity of their audience. That’s a big leap for the art world. These curators understand, finally, that there’s no such thing as “digital art” (certainly no variety that could be defined by the machines it’s made of and through), only art that might be inscribed with its ethos. And while the show includes a tad too much arty-adolescent apocalyptic dystopianism, there’s, happily, no annoying, New Age–y, utopian-Zeitgeist babble.

More important, it is full of artists thinking past objects of the digital era and addressing the much weirder experience of actually living in it and recognizing, all the while, that this landscape is already authored by and is us anyway, that there’s little distinction anymore between inside and outside, and that engaging with technologies doesn’t have to involve a computer, mouse, or iPhone. Even William Gibson, the man who invented the term, recently wrote, “Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere … Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical.”

I knew only a small percentage of the 51 artists and artist-collectives on hand, which is refreshing when many exhibitions look like they’ve been concocted in the curator-industrial complex, where all shows are made to look similar. Cornell and Trecartin abandon the lockstep curatorial love of preapproved, postconceptual academic practice, meaning installations with a little text, possibly photography, video, a sound file, booklets, and/or found objects displayed haphazardly or carefully in a vitrine or on a shelf. (This default international curatorial style not only marred the 2012 triennial, it infects most museum shows of contemporary art.) In many of the artists they’ve chosen to highlight, we glimpse a generation coming to terms not just with technologies that they’ve been immersed in since childhood, but with what it means to try to create change from within a system only to see that system closed back down again. These are artists comfortable with reconfiguring information and refusing refuge in vaunted Romantic terms like timelessness or cynicism.

Take Josh Kline’s epic third-floor installation, which includes replicated elements of Zucotti Park, benches, Teletubbies riot police standing guard, and communication towers, which suggest that all of this is being monitored and broadcast at all times. The work is titled Freedom and contains one of the most far-reaching videos I’ve seen in some time — a digitally manipulated President Obama delivering his first 2009 inaugural address, as reimagined by Kline and former Obama administration speechwriter David Meadvin. In this version, the words heard are those dreamt of by tens of millions of people for the two years leading up to Obama’s 2008 election, and we see Obama sharply taking aim at those who deny global climate change and calling for immediate action, pointedly holding corporations responsible for the financial collapse, calling out cynics and pundits who profit from fearmongering, and challenging bigots, homophobes, racists, and sexists. On the night of Obama’s 2008 election, thinking about how the politics of “hope and change” might be gutted by governmental dysfunction and pragmatism, I wrote on my Facebook, “A generation must now learn to be disappointed in new ways.” That did not happen.

After this vertex, don’t miss Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who enlisted Cairo sheikhs to deliver real sermons about noise pollution; it’s fantastic to listen to the religious tenets of the Koran used to understand adverse effects of noise. (A sub-theme of the show is how the organism of the internet landscape allows old systems and filters to be adapted.) Also excellent are Lena Henke’s large, three-dimensional JPEGs, which make you grasp how artists are using old tools to dig deeper into new ones. To see a steel frame wrapped in a transparent photo, and have that clunky thing become a thing with no dimensions at all, titillates. Casey Jane Ellison takes the old form of stand-up comedy or talk shows to explore states of hypervisibility on social media and the earnest failed ways we try to communicate; Frank Benson presents a hyperreal rendition of the trans body of one of his fellow “Surround Audience” participants, Juliana Huxtable, which includes her breasts and penis. To be both bodies at once, to unveil the enigma and beauty of both, is radical vulnerability, while the new sculptural persona achieved via scanning and what looks like 3-D printing turns this most physical thing vividly, paradoxically immaterial. Speaking of which, also get a load of Steve Roggenbuck’s mad poetic video ramblings of a self looking inside and outside at the same time.

As probing as these and other works are, I won’t recommend seeing this show without a serious warning and complaint. As with the last triennial, “Surround Audience” has way too many lengthy wall labels explicating multi-level backstories, histories, sciences, rationales, philosophies, various lores, myths, art history, and personal narratives. Wall labels like these are epidemic in museums. The problem isn’t reading. It’s that what the text claims the work is “about” is rarely actually in the work itself, and is only on the wall label or in the artist and curator’s flimsy imaginations. The label next to Velázquez’s Las Meninas is a tiny fraction as long as those accompanying most contemporary art in museums. Long labels like these are a triumph of pedagogy over the object, a breaking of faith with art and its audiences. Worse, they evince institutions and artists armoring themselves in ridiculously obtuse, implacable language to hide the fact that their ideas are skin-deep, masturbatory, lazy, and banal.

And it’s not just labels. The art world as a whole is enamored with work that withholds some backstory — intellectual, biographical, material, or influence-based — to be delivered only upon request, through conversation with a gallerist, a curator, or the artist him- or herself. It’s really elitist. When one is told the secret, we are meant to feel a tingle of personal insight (“I see. His mother was kidnapped.”), even when the story doesn’t add up to much or seem to be actually present in the work. While the phenomenon isn’t entirely new, it does connect with the logic and language of the internet, which is this triennial’s subject. Namely, the way the internet prizes secret or arcane understandings — links that only you’ve found, cults that you visit while still in your bedroom — even while making all information instantly accessible, though often without real understanding. The internet may radically flatten hierarchies of knowledge, but it also builds little tribal moats around particular ideas. Most important, it doesn’t even recognize either of the paradoxes or contradictions contained in that approach. (See most Zombie Formalism, and much of the above-mentioned neo-conceptual practice.) As good as it is in places, I left “Surround Audience” convinced that museum labels shouldn’t be longer than three inches. With that in mind: Only read the last two lines of any label, rejoice in curators gleaning the digital as a new landscape, garner activism inside disappointment, and don’t miss “Surround Audience.”

*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

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NY MAGAZINE

Slide Show|7 Photos

‘Surround Audience’

 

It is early 2009. Hope and change are in the air. President Obama stands before the camera delivering his Inaugural Address, but within seconds something seems off. The speech is not the pragmatic one he gave on that cold January day but a fiery message in which he excoriates “peddlers of hate whose stock-in-trade is xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism and isolationism, and who define America by our differences rather than our common bonds.”

As he speaks, his face seems to be slipping digitally — and disturbingly — around his skull, and you suddenly realize it is not the president but an actor who has had the president’s portrait software-mapped uncertainly to his own face. The video is the creation of Josh Kline, an influential 35-year-old New York artist. And his Philip K. Dick vision of an alternate past wishfully conjuring an alternate present provides a fitting window onto the ambitions of the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, a show that will take on the widely debated and often misunderstood ideas of “posthuman” and “post-Internet” art as squarely as any American museum has.

Opening Feb. 25, the exhibition includes Mr. Kline and 50 other artists and collectives from more than two dozen countries, many of whom have never shown in the United States before and whose work casts a queasy science-fiction eye onto an ever more digital, more automated, more omniscient society. The show, the third iteration of the museum’s emerging-art triennial, has been highly anticipated in part because of its two curators — Lauren Cornell, a former director of Rhizome, the Internet-focused art organization; and Ryan Trecartin, one of the most admired artists of his generation, whose video work has always seemed to exist at least a dozen years in the future, where identity, language and humanity itself have become as gleefully anarchic as a 14-year-old’s social-media feed.

The triennial is titled “Surround Audience,” Mr. Trecartin’s effort to capture that sense of a wired world in which, as Ms. Cornell puts it, “technology and late capitalism have been absorbed into our bodies and altered our vision of the world.” For many of the show’s younger artists, the Internet and the digital revolution are no longer just the tools and delivery system for their work but the air they breathe and the world they see before their eyes. That also means that while the digital might not be formally present at all in some of the work, it still hovers sociologically and politically on every side.

“I think I look at the way things are changing more from an optimistic standpoint, and Lauren tends to see it more from a dystopian one, but the older I get the more complicated my own views get,” said Mr. Trecartin, 34, who told The New Yorker last year: “Everything we do is going to be captured and archived in an accessible form, whether you want it or not. It’s going to change all of our lives. We are a species that can no longer assume a sense of privacy. It’s not an individual decision, and I feel that’s exciting to explore — or something.”

In an essay for a show last year called “Art Post-Internet” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, the curators Karen Archey and Robin Peckham tried to find some consensus about the kind of art that Mr. Trecartin and other young artists have brought to attention in recent years, writing that “post-Internet refers not to a time ‘after’ the Internet but rather to an Internet state of mind — to think in the fashion of the network.”

And by that definition, most of the artists in the triennial seem to be fully in a “post” world, one without much abstract painting (there is none in the show) but lots of representations of bodies yearning to leave human form, in ways that science-fiction novelists and philosophers have been imagining for years. The posthuman has become more prevalent in pop culture, too — in movies like “Her” (man falls in love with operating system) and “Transcendence” (man becomes one with the Internet), but 21st-century artists can move with a nimbleness that often puts them in touch with the implications of technological change before the culture at large.

Casey Jane Ellison, a Los Angeles stand-up comic and artist in the triennial, creates video routines using digital avatars that vaguely resemble her but sometimes look more like Max Headroom. Antoine Catala, a French artist working in New York, has made previous work consisting of drones that fly around a space, analyzing the images in it and reciting descriptions of them in a mechanical voice. Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, a Spanish artist working in Brazil, has conceived an installation in which New Museum viewers will wear a version of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset and be transposed into a representation of the rapidly disappearing Mata Atlântica rain forest in Brazil.

There will be paint on canvas in the show, though most of it by artists deeply immersed in the digital, like Avery K. Singer, a figurative painter in the South Bronx who often depicts comically simple robot-like figures that she creates in virtual 3-D space using a SketchUp animation program.

And there will also be work by artists that addresses the technological revolution only by seeking to deny it as thoroughly as possible. Eduardo Navarro, an Argentine artist who has worked with meditation and trance, is creating a work called “Timeless Alex,” in which a performer will meditate for days to try to enter the mind-state of a turtle and then wear a handmade turtle shell and creep across the city. Mr. Navarro, who describes turtles as “the opposite of the Internet,” explained one recent morning in a studio adjacent to the New Museum, where he has been creating the turtle shell, that part of the aim is to suggest a conception of time probably always inconceivable to humans but now certainly so.

“If it’s boring to watch, I think that will be better because watching a turtle can be very boring,” he said, speaking quite slowly, as if already trying to get on reptile time. “I like the idea that turtles are not even aware of their own longevity.”

In a recent interview at the museum, after travels that took her, non-virtually, to more than two dozen countries in search of emerging artists, Ms. Cornell, 36, said: “I think there is this kind of expectation, because Ryan and I are the curators, that the show is going to be all holograms and that we’re going to fly in on U.F.O.s. But it’s because there are still pretty simplistic ways of thinking about art in the digital age. That kind of online-offline binary that used to exist about art made with technology or the Internet as a factor doesn’t really exist anymore.”

Mr. Kline is one of many artists in the show who plumb the darker depths of contemporary society — surveillance, identity theft, government coercion, the commodification of “the most literally intimate aspects of life,” as the show’s catalog says — with an unabashed political edge. For “Hope and Change,” his Obama-inauguration piece, he hired David Meadvin, a veteran Democratic speechwriter and strategist, to rewrite the address in a way that imagines change from within the political system being possible.

Calling his creation a “kind of simulated open-source Obama,” Mr. Kline said: “Obama campaigned as a transformational candidate and once he got into office, here was this very pragmatic, efficient technocrat. This is definitely about trying to actualize the presidency that people voted for.” For the triennial, Mr. Kline has also created a piece in which he uses face-mapping software to morph off-duty uniformed police officers, whom he hired for the occasion, so that they come to look like civilians. In this transfigured state, the officers recite words from the social-media feeds of the civilians they have been made to resemble, as if their job entails not only monitoring the lives of others but also almost supplanting those lives. Similarly, Nadim Abbas, an artist working in Hong Kong, has built a artwork, commissioned by the New Museum, in the form of a kind of biohazard bunker that feels like a cozy apartment, an attempt to show how “violence has been sublimated into the fabric of the everyday,” as he said in an interview.

But others in the show play around the idea of an emergent Big-Brother-capitalist-military state in much more ambiguous ways, making it tough to tell which side they are on — or suggesting that sides are just so depressingly 20th century. K-Hole, a New York collective that makes work in the form of brand research (in 2013 it coined the term “normcore,” which took the fashion world by storm) has made its work for the triennial in the form of an advertising campaign for the show itself, which will soon begin showing up on buses and the streets.

The ad slogans, written with input from Mr. Trecartin, tweak the suspicions and fears many people seem to harbor about the kind of art the show will feature: “No Past, No Present, No Problem” and “Nothing Lasts Forever” (Mr. Trecartin’s suggestions included “Meaning Needed,” “Triennial Season 3” and “Pay Me in Feelings;” he wrote to K-Hole explaining that the aim of his slogans was to “get high school and middle-school kids to come see the show on their own inspired terms.”)

Probably the most visible and provocative piece in the show, in the glassed-in lobby gallery, will be by the New York collective DIS, which over the last four years has pushed questions of where art ends and fashion and merchandising begin to a kind of breaking point. The triennial work will be an installation in the form of a surreally combined kitchen and bathroom, made by the collective in collaboration with the high-end German fixture manufacturer Dornbracht.

“We like that it is going to be extremely confusing — some people are going to read this as a product showroom,” said Lauren Boyle, one of the collective’s members, who explained that the group became interested in the company after seeing its “hyper-real imagery” on Pinterest. “Google brought us to Dornbracht through Pinterest, in a way, through this weird sort of feedback loop. And so I guess we wanted to create another kind of feedback loop and bring the actual thing into the art world.”

A performer in the kitchen-bathroom will shower as visitors watch, merging the role of performance artist and showroom model. But Ms. Boyle, evincing no hint of irony, said the group also dreamed of inviting Gwyneth Paltrow to take part in the project, to add to it in ways they could not imagine. “Basically to do anything she wants to do,” Ms. Boyle said, beaming, “because she’s amazing.”

The phrase “Surround Audience” sounds like it could be the name of an EDM party, a function in a home theater system, a Quickmeme caption, or Michael Fried’s worst nightmare. It is actually the title-cum-motto-cum-slogan of the 2015 New Museum Triennial, which at first glance appears to be some mixture of these descriptors. The current Triennial, curated by Lauren Cornell and the artist Ryan Trecartin, is the third installment of an event that has quickly realized its ambition of becoming New York’s leading exhibition of on-trend global contemporary art. As if this weren’t enough, the current Triennial aspires to expand into a kind of aggregative platform: hosting performances, publishing a poetry collection, and sponsoring residencies, research projects, and a web series.

Visitors to the Triennial will indeed feel themselves surrounded, even overrun by competing appeals for their attention. These bids are so numerous and elaborate that at times the show seems less like an art exhibition than a tech convention or a curated Tumblr. To be fair, such heterogeneity is endemic in biennials, which tend to be at cross purposes in trying to craft a cohesive, timely statement from disparate works chosen for divergent reasons. Depending on one’s age, taste, and stimulus threshold, this tension might be a distracting nuisance, or perhaps a problem worth reflecting on. Those of selective, delicate, or “critical” dispositions should by all means visit the Triennial, but are advised to regard it as three more or less separate exhibitions; these are described below in ascending order of their presumable appeal to such an audience.

The first of these is loud, shiny, cool, and young. It basically amounts to a trend forecasting report, which is not surprising given the participation of the soi-disant collectives K-HOLE and DIS, which unapologetically compare or even equate their art to consulting, advertising, and merchandizing. This ploy arguably has less to do with Warhol, who flirted with tragic irony, than with the more purely cynical Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. K-HOLE’s ad campaign, which is somehow more inane than their pseudo-trend normcore, features slogans like “HATRED OF CAPITALISM,” which in this context is so ludicrous as to almost be an insult to capitalism. While the ads are easily enough ignored, at least once inside the museum, the same can’t be said for the DIS contribution, The Island (KEN) (2015), in which a stress-relieving luxury shower will doubtless serve as a popular selfie station, as well as a platform for the Red Bull-sponsored DIScourse (sic) of invited theorists, some of whom openly identify as Marxist. #accelerationism #srsly?

In a feat of curatorial legerdemain, this part of the Triennial showcases post-internet art without actually using that now unfashionable term. If this art and much of the debate around it were deservedly criticized as forms of self-promotional branding, they also promoted the McLuhanite fantasy that The Internet Changed Everything, ignoring the ways that digitalization has reinforced existing socioeconomic divisions. The problem was not that post-internet is a utopian notion, but rather that its dystopianism was merely atmospheric or gestural. It is one thing to surround an audience with reminders of its immersion in techno-spectacle; it is another to explore why this matters.

As an artist, Trecartin has taken such inquiries further than some critics realize; the scrappy, Ritalin-addled character of his work can disguise its perverse genius. As a curator, he and Cornell have chosen some works that can’t quite live up to his example. Daniel Steegmann Mangrané uses a VR gaming headset to immerse viewers in a laser-scanned rendering of an endangered Brazilian ecosystem (Phantom, 2015) without seeming to register the flagrant contradiction between these environments. Josh Kline does some clever things with face substitution software, only to brandish it clumsily in an installation that recalls the overtness of Ed Kienholz (Freedom, 2015). The most interesting and problematic of such practices belongs to Juliana Huxtable, whose four prints from the series “UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING” (2015) are coupled with a life-size 3D-printed sculptural avatar of her body by Frank Benson (Juliana, 2015). While Huxtable’s work provocatively integrates the histories of Afrofuturism, black militancy, and cyber-feminist theory with the contemporary efforts of transgender activists, it also exemplifies the contradictions of a post-Fordist identity politics in which self-styling, no matter how radical, can simultaneously produce value through the commodification of difference.

The second “exhibition” within the Triennial, while much less conspicuous, forms the bulk of the show and consists mainly of work by emerging artists born outside the North Atlantic. Given that New York remains the most provincial and self-obsessed of the art world’s major centers—witness the New Museum’s 2013 show “NYC 1993”—this is welcome, even subversive. That said, the selection skews toward artists working in the EU and within familiar, market-sanctioned modes. Beijing-based Guan Xiao juxtaposes repurposed camera equipment with constructed artifacts to track the emergence of new techno-animisms in The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture (2012). The Indian artist Shreyas Karle has mined the Bollywood imaginary to produce the Daniel Spoerri-esque Museum Shop of Fetish Objects (2012), which casts a sly eye back on the exoticizing impulses of its host institution. Georgian-born Ketuta Alexi-Meskishvili contributes a captivating suite of semi-abstract photographs; these stand out in a show where abstraction, painterly or otherwise, is noticeably absent. However, although such works are perfectly well executed, they often fail to problematize their status within the emergent, increasingly dominant category of Global Contemporary Art, in which artworks tend to present their own singularity in paradoxically generic or universalizing terms.

It is only in our third hypothetical show-within-the-show that such contradictions are engaged thoughtfully and productively. One can imagine re-curating the Triennial into a tighter, more powerful exhibition featuring the work of about a dozen artists. Some pieces would engage new technologies from a position of critical immanence. These would include Li Liao’s Consumption (2012), in which Li worked 5 weeks of 12-hour shifts at a Foxconn plant, earning just enough to buy one of the iPads he was helping to manufacture; Aleksandra Domanović’s SOHO (Substances of Human Origin) (2015), which proposes an alternative genealogy for technicized embodiment through 3D-printed sculptures patterned after the Belgrade Hand, an early prosthetic developed in 1960s Yugoslavia; and Exterritory’s Image Blockade (2014), a research project based on neurobiological experiments with conscientious objectors from an elite Israeli military intelligence unit. (One can’t help but notice that this piece, easily the most confrontational one in the Triennial, is installed in what must be the most inaccessible location in the New Museum, in the far corner of the topmost floor.)

A second strand would comprise moving-image work made in speculative or essayistic modes. While such an approach is hardly uncommon, especially in Europe, its still-considerable potential is demonstrated by artists like Nicholas Mangan, who re-narrates the recent history of resource extraction in Micronesia from the perspective of a limestone pinnacle (Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World, 2009), or Oliver Laric, who locates a surprising degree of pathos in the transformation of animated characters, updating classical myths of metamorphosis in a moment of Tindr romance and imposed vocational “flexibility” (Untitled, 2014­–2015). Especially noteworthy is Basim Magdy’s marvelous short film The Dent (2014), which nods to Alexander Kluge in its parabolic style and its subject (circus elephants), interweaving references to ecology and biennialization with lustrous double-exposed shots of clouds, forests, and construction equipment.

The last group one might wish to extract from the Triennial includes artists working in a more poetic mode, favoring obliquity, facture, and restraint. Olga Balema exemplifies this orientation in her untitled contributions: two large plastic sacs containing rusting rebar, decaying images, and water (both 2015). It is easier to trip over these unprepossessing floor sculptures than it is to grasp their quasi-abstract, semi-organic form, which seems to equally recall tidal pools and IV bags. Kiluanji Kia Henda’s prints combine the idioms of conceptual photography and traditional Angolan sona drawing to suggestively indicate the vicissitudes of global development (Rusty Mirage (The City Skyline), 2013). And in one of the Triennial’s most memorable pieces, Not How People Move But What Moves Them (2013–ongoing), the Czech artist Eva Kotátková has covered a large wall with pottery, architectural fixtures, and wire sculptures of unclear origin and function. These elements become props in a obscure and bewitching tableau vivant, which transforms the precedents of Jirí Kovanda and Rebecca Horn into a compelling drama of constrained movement. In such moments, the phrase “Surround Audience” assumes a markedly different connotation, one that the Triennial only intermittently endorses. Here, it is not a meme or a brand; rather, it becomes a problem, an injunction, and above all a point of departure.

Andrew Weiner is Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU-Steinhardt.

View of "Surround Audience," New Museum, New York, 2015.

1View of “Surround Audience,” New Museum, New York, 2015.

View of DIS, The Island, 2015.

2View of DIS, The Island, 2015.

View of K-HOLE, Extended Release (detail), 2015.

3View of K-HOLE, Extended Release (detail), 2015.

Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, Phantom, 2015.

4Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, Phantom, 2015.

Josh Kline, Freedom (detail), 2015.

5Josh Kline, Freedom (detail), 2015.

Juliana Huxtable, Untitled (Destroying Flesh), from the series "UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF-CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING," 2015.

6Juliana Huxtable, Untitled (Destroying Flesh), from the series “UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF-CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING,” 2015.

Guan Xiao, The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture, 2012.

7Guan Xiao, The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture, 2012.

Aleksandra Domanović, SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

8Aleksandra Domanović, SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015.

View of "Surround Audience," New Museum, New York, 2015.

9View of “Surround Audience,” New Museum, New York, 2015.

(Left) Nicholas Mangan, Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World, 2009. (Right) Nicholas Mangan, Dawiyogo's Ancient Coral Coffee Table, 2009-2010.

10(Left) Nicholas Mangan, Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World, 2009. (Right) Nicholas Mangan, Dawiyogo’s Ancient Coral Coffee Table, 2009-2010.

Basim Magdy, The Dent, 2014.

11Basim Magdy, The Dent, 2014.

(Left) Olga Balema, Untitled, 2015. (Right) Olga Balema, Untitled, 2015.

12(Left) Olga Balema, Untitled, 2015. (Right) Olga Balema, Untitled, 2015.

  • 1View of “Surround Audience,” New Museum, New York, 2015. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.
  • 2View of DIS, The Island, 2015. Mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.
  • 3View of K-HOLE, Extended Release (detail), 2015. Advertising campaign, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York.
  • 4Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, Phantom, 2015. Virtual environment and Oculus Rift DK2, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, and Esther Schipper, Berlin.
  • 5Josh Kline, Freedom (detail), 2015. Mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.
  • 6Juliana Huxtable, Untitled (Destroying Flesh), from the series “UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF-CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING,” 2015. Inkjet print, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York.
  • 7Guan Xiao, The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture, 2012. Mixed-media installation, three parts, 230 x 280 x 210 cm each.
  • 8Aleksandra Domanović, SOHO (Substances of Human Origin), 2015. Mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.
  • 9View of “Surround Audience,” New Museum, New York, 2015. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.
  • 10View of “Surround Audience,” New Museum, New York, 2015. (Left) Nicholas Mangan, Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World, 2009. HD video, sound, color, 12:27 minutes. (Right) Nicholas Mangan, Dawiyogo’s Ancient Coral Coffee Table, 2009-2010. Coral limestone from the island of Nauru, 120 x 80 x 45 cm. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.
  • 11Basim Magdy, The Dent, 2014. Still from super 16mm film transferred to full HD video, sound, color, 19:02 minutes. Image courtesy of Gypsum Gallery, Cairo.
  • 12View of “Surround Audience,” New Museum, New York, 2015. (Left) Olga Balema, Untitled, 2015. Water, steel pipes, acrylic paint, dimensions variable. (Right) Olga Balema, Untitled, 2015. Water, steel pipes, acrylic paint, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.
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HYPERALLERGIC

MuseumsWeekend

Quickly Aging Here: The 2015 Triennial

After six years and three installments, is the New Museum’s Triennial entering middle age? An odd question for an exhibition devoted to “early-career artists,” as the museum’s press release describes them. But compared with its predecessors, the latest rollout, which is called Surround Audience, frankly isn’t all that audacious.

There’s a lot to see — the exhibition, which was organized by New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and the artist Ryan Trecartin, feels crowded in spots — but that doesn’t translate into the knockabout energy that characterized the earlier versions. This may be a byproduct of the curatorial focus, which grounds the show in a context of technological interconnectedness. From the press release:

We are surrounded by a culture replete with impressions of life, be they visual, written, or construed through data. We move through streams of chatter, swipe past pictures of other people’s lives, and frame our own experiences as, all the while, our digital trails are subtly captured, tracked, and stored.

The statement puts contemporary culture at a remove from reality (“replete with impressions of life”) as it underscores the distractions that derail us from true engagement with art or each other. Accordingly, as if not to crack the veneer of a network thrumming with interrelated ideas, most of the artworks seem content to reside on the periphery, surrounding the audience but not grabbing attention for themselves.

The air of reticence, even politeness, encountered here feels like a deliberate step away from the rambunctiousness of the earlier iterations, The Generational: Younger Than Jesus in 2009 and The Ungovernables in 2012. That may be a sign of maturity for the Triennial as well as for the artists (more than one have already breached the age of 40), but it doesn’t really make for an exciting show.

Paradoxically, the emphasis on daily life’s immersion in technology as a curatorial premise seems to work against the exhibition’s cutting-edge intentions. Technology is so much a part of who we are, regardless of age, that to remark upon its ubiquity at this point feels dated and even a little clueless. Video, photography and digital devices may abound in this show, which also features lots of sculptural objects and a handful of paintings and drawings, but its look and feel aren’t markedly different from other surveys.

Which is another reason why the exhibition seems middle-aged. The first two Triennials, by dint of their age restrictions, felt front-loaded with a sense of discovery. While the current show is filled with just as many fresh faces, the work on display appears more generic, more tried and true, as if it belongs in the Whitney Biennial instead of the distinct niche that the New Museum has carved out for itself with the Triennial. Even the title is bland and hard to grasp, unlike the artist-centric handles of the previous two. Priorities have shifted, it would seem, from the individualistic to the atmospheric, the unruly to the phlegmatic.

A case in point is “The Island (KEN)” (2015) by the collective DIS, which, at the press preview, featured a performance by a fully-clothed woman who lay beneath a horizontal shower stall for about ten minutes before silently emerging, soaking wet, to turn off the faucets.

This piece may be among the most arresting in the show, but it felt like a retread of Chu Yun’s far edgier “This is XX” (2006) from the first Triennial, in which volunteers (after ingesting what was described in the wall text as “sleeping aids”) would lie in bed asleep during viewing hours, creating a discomfiting power imbalance between the conscious and the unconscious — an aesthetic experience inextricable from voyeurism.

Still, thankfully, the dreariness afflicting the last couple of Biennials is nowhere in evidence. There is enough variety to sustain interest, even if the assortment does not ultimately hold together, let alone add up into a sum greater than its parts.

Among the more fractious works are Geumhyung Jeong’s video “Fitness Guide” (2011), which includes an attempt by the artist to outrace an out-of-control treadmill; Nadim Abbas’s isolation chambers dedicated to three American filmmakers: Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola; Shreyas Karle’s fetish objects; and Juliana Huxtable’s incantatory poetry and quasi-mythic self-portraits, which are installed in dialogue with Frank Benson’s meticulously rendered sculpture of the transgendered Huxtable’s nude body.

Like the earlier Triennials, there is at least one breakout work to fix the exhibition in memory. And like such showstoppers as LaToya Ruby Frazier’s searing domestic photographs and Keren Cytter’s demonic video “Der Spiegel” (2007) in The Generational, or Adrián Villar Rojas’ towering sci-fi golem from The Ungovernables, Eva Koťátková’s performance/installation “Not How People Move But What Moves Them” (2013) is a confluence of personal and cultural histories, a repurposing of selective traditions into a bracing new configuration.

Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Rachel Wetzler describes Koťátková’s art as ingrained with elements of Czech avant-garde theater, Art Brut and Surrealism, set against a backdrop of the failed states of Communist Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring.

“Not How People Move But What Moves Them” is composed of a large yellow wall outfitted with a door and shelves, and hung with framed collages. The shelves hold a variety of sinister/funny objects made from wire, steel, thread, terra cotta, leather and other materials, all of which will presumably be “activated,” to use the term found in the piece’s wall text, by performers at various points during the run of the exhibition. Larger examples of these structures, all of which are meant to constrain the body in some way, sit on the floor.

The objects are both props for the performers, who silently pose — standing or lying on the floor — with the pieces attached to their bodies, and persuasive works of sculpture in a funky-Minimalist mode. The collages, which are squarely — perhaps a little too squarely — in the mold of John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch, depict painfully fanciful applications of the objects on variously deconstructed human bodies.

The catalogue entry states that Koťátková’s sculptures derive from “disciplinary systems as a point of departure, ranging from those found in the family home and schools to psychiatric institutions or prisons.” These repressive tactics are conjoined with a highly specific art historical lineage that evokes the prewar work of Alberto Giacometti, such as “The Cage” (1930-31) and “The Palace at 4 A.M.” (1932); the infernal machine from “The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope” (1983) by the great Czech animator Jan Švankmajer; and the Eastern European Surrealist dread suffusing the Quay Brothers’ “Street of Crocodiles” (1986), a stop-action animation freely adapted from the stories of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

What is most compelling about Koťátková’s “Not How People Move But What Moves Them” is that it is activated not only by the performers, but also by the viewers’ imaginations. What will be done with the clay pots, we might ask, and why is there an undulating wire construction resembling an elephant’s trunk attached to a hole in the door? And why is the door leaning against the wall rather than set into a jamb? One question leads to the next, as the mysteries embedded in each detail draw us deeper into the piece.

“Not How People Move…” represents the kind of interactivity — not digital, but intellectual, physical and emotional — that many of the works in the Triennial lack. It doesn’t attempt to surround the audience; instead, its tough materiality and formal elegance inch their way across the threshold of consciousness until they lodge, uninvited, in the brain.

2015 Triennial: Surround Audience continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side) through May 24.

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

New Museum Triennial: Art for a Digitalized World

New Museum Triennial exhibition highlights wide range of ‘exuberant’ works by young artists

A performers in the activation of Eva Kot’átková's work ‘Not How People Move But What Moves Them’ at the 2015 New Museum Triennial. ENLARGE
A performers in the activation of Eva Kot’átková’s work ‘Not How People Move But What Moves Them’ at the 2015 New Museum Triennial. Photo: Mark Abramson for The Wall Street Journal

On a recent morning in a studio on the Bowery, talk-show host Casey Jane Ellison had a pressing question for a panel gathered in advance of the New Museum Triennial opening Wednesday.

“What is the most insane thing about art?” she asked her guests, two other artists and a patron. “Is it the money? Is it the content? Is it the people?”

Her tone suggested that she thought it was all three—and that insanity might be a virtue.

Special episodes of Ms. Ellison’s web series “Touching the Art,” now in its second season online on the Ovation network, will screen on a loop in the lobby of the New Museum, as part of its triennial exhibition titled “Surround Audience.” They are among works by 51 young artists and artist collectives hailing from 25 countries.

The show defines art broadly, including sound, dance, comedy, poetry, installation, sculpture, painting, video, and yes, a web-based satirical talk show. Half the pieces were commissioned for the exhibition, which runs through May 24.

Artist Casey Jane Ellison is projected on a monitor as she hosts her talk show ‘Touching The Art,’ part of her exhibition at the New Museum Triennial. ENLARGE
Artist Casey Jane Ellison is projected on a monitor as she hosts her talk show ‘Touching The Art,’ part of her exhibition at the New Museum Triennial. Photo: Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

At the shooting for a particularly reflexive episode of Ms. Ellison’s show, the topic under discussion was the significance of triennials and biennials—curated roundups of new art—in an age of abundant, often hypercompetitive art fairs.

“What is a triennial?” asked Ms. Ellison, 26 years old, in a deadpan manner that signaled her sometime persona as a standup comedian.

“It’s kind of like a sports competition, definitely not like the Super Bowl,” said the artist K8 Hardy.

“What is the Super Bowl?” Ms. Ellison asked.

Visitors preview artist Josh Kline's new installation ‘Freedom’ (2015), at the New Museum Triennial. ENLARGE
Visitors preview artist Josh Kline’s new installation ‘Freedom’ (2015), at the New Museum Triennial. Photo: Mark Abramson for The Wall Street Journal

The exhibit, said co-organizer and New Museum curator Lauren Cornell, is “very exuberant and very surreal.”

In it, artists address life in an increasingly digitized, hyper-aware world through topics such as virtual reality, drones, avatars, product design and advertising. One work by the artist collective K-Hole takes the form of an ad campaign for the triennial, doubling as both genuine marketing and conceptual critique.

Other chosen works poke provocatively at notions of gender, race, nationality—and the relationship between artists, their identities and their audience.

“We were thinking about people who are assuming a spot in their own audience or allowing for different vantage points to come at their work that they didn’t intend,” said video artist Ryan Trecartin, who co-curated the triennial along with Ms. Cornell.

New York-based Juliana Huxtable, for one, said most people who know her “are aware of me as a night life and Internet figure, so I’m happy [the curators] understand all the aspects of what I do and the connections between them.”

Artist Juliana Huxtable poses in front of her artwork at the New Museum Triennial. ENLARGE
Artist Juliana Huxtable poses in front of her artwork at the New Museum Triennial. Photo: Mark Abramson for The Wall Street Journal

The exhibit includes self-portraits of the 27-year-old transgender artist posed in digitally enhanced settings with fantastical colors and editing effects that make her look, at times, like an online avatar.

Is she excited to move her art off the Internet and onto museum walls?

“I think I’m really excited,” Ms. Huxtable said. “It’s not about privileging that over other ways of creating, but it’s an opportunity to translate the work I do for different people. Not everyone relates to or understands the world of Tumblr or social networking.”

José León Cerrillo, an artist from Mexico City, achieved a different effect with a minimalist sculptural installation that plays tricks on the mind and the eye. The works, which define space with a skeletal metal framing, greet viewers right off the elevator, arranging the room with what seem like visions into extra dimensions.

“I think of them as screens into the act of looking,” Mr. Cerrillo said. “The idea was to point into the void.”

For a series of dance performances that will be presented throughout the triennial, Niv Acosta —who grew up in Washington Heights and the Bronx and now lives in Brooklyn—drew inspiration from the portrayal of the black American experience in science fiction.

“I’ve been thinking about…how it’s translated into being like an alien culture,” said Mr. Acosta, 26. “Often the people in these projections are female-bodied or female-presenting, bodacious and dancing.”

Artist Niv Acosta performs an excerpt of ‘DISCOTROPIC’ in the Sky Room at the New Museum. ENLARGE
Artist Niv Acosta performs an excerpt of ‘DISCOTROPIC’ in the Sky Room at the New Museum. Photo: Mark Abramson for The Wall Street Journal

For his piece, Mr. Acosta and three other dancers will take over the New Museum’s theater and gallery spaces to interpret “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” originally made for network television in 1978, and now viewable online.

He said his favorite scene features the African-American actress Diahann Carroll singing inside a machine called the Mind Evaporator.

“It’s a super-pervy but also majestic moment,” Mr. Acosta said. “It’s exciting for people who are queer-identified and also black to think about what our lineage is in the terms of sci-fi and disco. These are our ancestors in a way.”

The exhibition, in all its analytical energy and cultural commentary, is particularly suited for New York, said co-curator Mr. Trecartin, himself a Los Angeles native. “It’s so much a city for showing things in their final state…a place for things to go to be presented and judged, and I like that there’s a city so exhaustingly all about that.”

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ART OBSERVED

New York – The New Museum Triennial: “Surround Audience” Through May 24th, 2015

March 3rd, 2015

Frank Benson, Juliana, via Art Observed
Frank Benson, Juliana, via Art Observed

If the New Museum Triennial is to be believed, 2015 might in fact be the year that artists put the pervasive notions of “cyber-dread” to death in the contemporary discourse.  Curated by Ryan Trecartin and New Museum Curator (and former Rhizome head) Lauren Cornell, the exhibition combines aspirational commodities, linguistic play and digital microcosms into a fascinatingly deep exhibition, one that feels particularly appropriate as the 21st century turns 15.

Works by Anna Graff, via Art Observed
Works by Ana Graff, via Art Observed

Trecartin’s particular blend of digital maximalism was jarring by nearly all accounts when it first breached the art world over ten years ago, but as his breakneck editing and hyper-commodified landscapes gained a certain degree of palatability in recent years, so too did the work of his contemporaries: the Dis collective, poet/artist Juliana Huxtable, critic and writer Brian Droitcour, and a range of other artists in the orbit of the downtown New York art community, each of whom took their own respective viewpoints on the development and embrace of contemporary life within hyper-mediated spaces.

Josh Kline, Freedom (2015), via Art Observed
Josh Kline, Freedom (2015), via Art Observed

Verena Dengler, via Art Observed
Verena Dengler, via Art Observed

The Triennial, as a result, feels like something of a victory lap, a recognition of their particular approach to capital and consumption in the millennial era.  Throughout, mechanisms of production are bound up with their distribution and practical use, or perhaps vice versa, as illustrated in the marketing and social media campaign devised by K-Hole, including a selection of social media “stickers” users are invited to adorn Instagram photos and share, and a lighthearted poster series with phrases like “I’ll Triennial Once,” that invites publicity as a space of play and innovation.

Eloise Hawser, The Bride's House, via Art Observed
Eloise Hawser, The Bride’s House, via Art Observed

Performers at Eva Kotatkova's installation, via Art Observed
Performers at Eva Kotatkova’s installation, via Art Observed

A certain sense of generative practice sits at the heart of much of the work, embracing new modes of expression within older forms as a point of departure.  One highlight is the dizzying glow of Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel, a new emoticon and website platform developed by the artist as a method to express empathy online (expressed as “E3″).  Placed in a tank, the immense scuptural rendering of the icon is used to grow coral and other sea-life, a space for the maintenance and sustenance of new life within the cold linguistic confines of the digital.  On the ground floor, Dis has produced a gleaming horizontal shower/fountain, complete with a beverage tap, in which a performer lies down, inside its clean lines, fully clothed, while enjoying what appears to be a mint julep from.  The sheer excess of the work walks a fine line between critique and fetish. One wonders if the object merely pushes luxury beyond practicality, assuming the role of art object, or if is this goal merely propels it to a new level of commodity capitalism.  Several floors up, artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has created a sonic environment exploring the critical noise pollution of Cairo, where cabs, bustling markets and mosque sound systems have created one of the most densely sonorous spaces in the world.

Lena Henke, via Art Observed
Lena Henke, via Art Observed

Guan Xiao, via Art Observed
Guan Xiao, via Art Observed

In other works, this same sense of playfulness and exploration turns its eye towards the archive.  The work of Eva Kotatkova, for instance, places performers among a selection of sculptures that vaguely reference early twentieth century surrealism, but are placed into interactions with a pair of performers, turning their intersections into a constantly shifting relationship with the works’ own historical references.  On the fourth floor, spatial intrusions by José Léon Cerrillo, Verena Dengler and Tania Pérez Córdova interact to create a drastically reformatted flow of movement, utilizing pop imagery and familiar sculptural forms to reformat the space of the museum as one of physical encounter.  Close by, Oliver Laric’s hypnotic video, depicting copied transformations of characters in varied animated television programs worldwide, proved an early favorite, inviting meditations on the structure and definition of bodies in media representation, and the willful desire for fluidity among them.

Dis, The Island (KEN) (2015), via Art Observed
Dis, The Island (KEN) (2015), via Art Observed

Yet the exhibition doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of digital modernity, either.  In the ground floor gallery, bitingly close to Dis’s aforementioned installation is Consumption, Chinese artist Li Liao’s performance work in which he assumed a position at a Foxconn-operated plant, creating components for iPhones and iPads, finally saving up enough after 45 days to buy an iPad himself.  The sheer scale of labor to merely own this icon of digital consumption is sobering.  But for sheer shock, few works can escape Josh Kline’s Freedom, a dystopian environment populated by shock troop mannequins, all masked with the faces of Teletubbies.  Nearby, the artist’s face-mapped performance as Barack Obama features a speech the artist longed for the president to give during his tenure, decrying corporate greed and calling for citizens to take back their government.

Li Liao, Consumption (2012), via Art Observed
Li Liao, Consumption (2012), via Art Observed

At times sprawling and surreal, at others powerfully concise, the New Museum’s current exhibition is a deep look at a disparate series of practices, united by material and political concerns that gradually emerge throughout the show’s five floors.  Almost impossible to properly summarize, the Triennial takes the polymorphic formats of digital circulation and places them into a free-flowing exchange, one which shifts from every perspective.

Surround Audience is on view through May 24th.

Aleksandra Domanovic, via Art Observed
Aleksandra Domanovic, via Art Observed

— D. Creahan

Read more:
“Review: New Museum Triennial Casts a Wary Eye on the Future” [New York Times]
“New Museum Triennial: Art for a Digitalized World” [Wall Street Journal]
“The 10 Most Interesting Works From the New Museum’s Triennial” [Bloomberg]
“Meet Juliana Huxtable: Star of the New Museum Triennial” [Vogue]
“Where Virtual Equals Real” [New York Times]
New Museum Triennial [Exhibition Site]

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travel & leisure

 

Travel Blog

Advising the Curators of the New Museum Triennial

 

The 2015 New Museum Triennial<br />
Not So Charmed

The 2015 New Museum Triennial:
Not So Charmed

Does the third edition of the New Museum Triennial, Surround Audience, struggle amidst curatorial conceits? Brienne Walsh reports

For the third edition of its triennial showcase for early-career and emerging artists, the New Museum claims a light curatorial touch. Entitled Surround Audience, the show professes to explore the tension between new forms of freedom in contemporary culture and threats to such freedom — embodied by social media, extremist states, the corporate sovereign entity, and the cult of self, to name a few examples. What the exhibition emits in execution is a sort of self-driven approach to both art making and curatorial practice.

Exploring themes such as sexuality, racism, nationalism, and consumerism, most of the works — by 51 artists from 25 countries, many of who identify as poets, dancers, designers, writers, and filmmakers rather than artists — are highly personal. But instead of connecting with one another, the pieces stand within the museum walls as cloistered units, reading like individual manifestos. The effect is somewhat like reading a blog composed of posts examining completely disparate topics. ‘It was really important to encourage the artists to do what they wanted to do, and not impose too much,’ says video and performance artist Ryan Trecartin, who co-curated the show with New Museum curator Lauren Cornell. ‘I just drop out of that shit if someone tries to do it to me.’

Casey Jane Ellison, IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO SEEM WONDERFUL, 2015 (still).
Video, sound, color. Courtesy the artist

Antoine Catala, Distant Feel, 2015. Production still

Staging a show that reads like an art fair, where many exhibitive displays are offered in a single forum, wasn’t the intention of the curators. According to Trecartin, the museum was meant as a ‘jumping off point into the world rather than a place where things are put into.’ In the context of other exhibitions, such as Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,which closed at the Brooklyn Museum last month and truly did extend off-site with works such as Pimp My Piragua, 2009, a coco helado cart that artist Miguel Luciano drove through the neighbourhood during the course of the show, Surround Audience is fairly unexceptional.

The show’s pervasive sense of alienation is introduced by Casey Jane Ellison’s Touching the Art, 2014. Presented on a television in the museum lobby, the ongoing series of videos features the artist in discussion with various cultural workers on the state of the art world. ‘I’m in a death metal band, and I’m only in the art world by accident,’ states musician and performance artist Kembra Pfahler. ‘I think we all are,’ replies Ellison.

DIS, Studies for The Island (KEN), 2015. Codesigned by Mike Meiré. Courtesy the artists and Dornbracht

Frank Benson, Juliana, 2015. Digital renderings of painted Accura® Xtreme Plastic rapid prototype. 54 x 48 x 24 in (137.2 x 122 x 61 cm) (approx.). Courtesy the artist; Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; and Sadie Coles HQ London

Freedom, 2015, by Josh Kline well embodies the cult of self that runs throughout the Triennial. In a black box, life-size figures dressed in riot gear sport Teletubby heads and stomachs implanted with screens offering remarks on the culture’s proliferation of violence sourced from social media. These surround an HD video that depicts a digitally rendered version of President Barack Obama giving an inaugural address authored by the artist. ‘People who love the country can change it,’ says the facsimile, echoing a sentiment that galvanised the 2008 presidential campaign, now deemed as rhetoric unable to survive 21st-century political realities. As a dream of what could have been in the face of what is, the work reads as naïve rather than insightful.

Despite wanting to shed the label of artist, all of the show’s practitioners are keenly accomplished at creating art objects. There isn’t a work in the exhibition that doesn’t appear entirely at home in the museum galleries. The Island (Ken), 2015, by the collective DIS is a mash-up of kitchen and bathroom fixtures designed by the German luxury goods manufacturer Dornbracht. Commenting on the confluence of high-end design and fine art as systems that rely on one another to appeal to potential consumers, the piece will be the site of various performances including product demonstrations, cooking lessons, and a lucky few participants taking actual showers. Without its interactive component, however, the work, which resembles a tanning bed, remains quietly hermetic. Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel, 2015, is a pair of facing letter Es constructed from living aquatic plants encased in an aquarium. Pulsating with life, the work is the result of a collaboration between Catala and the advertising agency Droga5 that attempts to re-brand the concept of empathy. Regardless of its conceptual intent, its hard not to see it simply as a mind-numbingly beautiful object.

Left: Juliana Huxtable, Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) from the “UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING” series, 2015. Inkjet print. Courtesy the artist; Right: Juliana Huxtable, Untitled (Destroying Flesh) from the “UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING” series, 2015. Inkjet print. Courtesy the artist

And aesthetically, the show appeals. Frank Benson’s Juliana, 2015, is a regal, nude statue, painted in shimmering tones of green and purple, of artist Juliana Huxtable, who is represented by her own self portraits as a comely female force with whom anyone would be lured into reckoning. Museum Shop of Fetish Objects, 2012, by Shreyas Karle, is a cabinet of curiosities that examines the culture of Bollywood with the clinical air of an anthropologist. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s And We Begin To Let It Go, 2013, is a collage of thread, Xerox transfers of advertisements and women’s fashion images, and paint, that depicts the artist kissing the back of her husband. One could potentially spend hours before it, detangling its many references.

With people taking to the streets globally to protest injustice, the Triennial’s stab at cultural commentary will likely have little lasting impact. It reflects rather than leads, which is a shame given the potential for art to shape perceptions in society. ‘For some, it will be more traditional than expected, and for others, it will be a lot weirder,’ says Trecartin. The stance of being impervious to the reaction of others might be necessary for an artist to take to make bold work. But if Surround Audience is any indication, curatorial indifference to viewer experience only has the effect leaving both artists and visitors cold.

Main image: Frank Benson, Juliana, 2015. Digital renderings of painted Accura® Xtreme Plastic rapid prototype. 54 x 48 x 24 in (137.2 x 122 x 61 cm) (approx.). Courtesy the artist; Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; and Sadie Coles HQ London

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THE GUARDIAN LONDON

New Museum’s Generational Triennial: wired for the future

The 51 young artists in the New York gallery’s show are exploring the frontiers of digital technology, from the surveillance state to gaming culture

Surround Audience
Surround Audience: digital worlds explored. Photograph: Benoit Paley/New Museum

“Almost everybody wakes up and does something they don’t like – we can do better than this! … You are going to die: Make something beautiful before you die!” Screaming manically, alone in a damp Maine forest, the euphoric intensity of internet poet Steve Roggenbuck is balanced with humour in his 2012 video Make Something Beautiful Before You Are Dead. Roggenbuck embraces the cosmos and encourages us to do the same: “Back in my grandfather’s day they didn’t have #yolo! We have #yolo! We have to harness this gift,” he yells.

He is one of the 51 artists and collectives included in Surround Audience, the New Museum’s third Generational Triennial, which opens on Wednesday. The exhibition is hotly anticipated, largely because of its two curators: Lauren Cornell, a former director of Rhizome, a New Museum-affiliated organisation that has been promoting digital art for almost two decades, and Ryan Trecartin, the artist wunderkind whose work has been received rapturously by critics since he emerged on the scene in 2006.

Surround Audience

Pinterest
Frank Benson’s Juliana in the installation foreground. Photograph: Benoit Paley/New Museum

Because of their shared engagement with new digital technology, the exhibition is expected to be future-focused (“predictive, rather than retrospective”, according to New Museum director Lisa Phillips). People are eagerly awaiting the outcome of Cornell and Trecartin’s shared endeavour, which brings together artists from countries including Jordan, Qatar, South Korea, China and India, as well as Europe and America: “We’re expecting to be wowed by the breadth of interesting new work,” says collector Mihail Lari, who, together with his partner Scott Murray, has provided support for the exhibition.

“I think we are lucky to have a lot of artists in the world right now who are truly trying to invent and establish a unique creative freedom. Artists are reaching,” Trecartin says. Most of the artists in the exhibition are digital natives, born into an age of rapid technological change. While artists have always used the tools available to them, those in the triennial are particularly agnostic about medium. Their work is a mash-up of different materials and digital platforms, from PVC, nail polish, jade powder and oil paint, to works incorporating 3D printers, Google Earth and HD video.

Surround Audience
A performance on the first night of Surround Audience. Photograph: Benoit Paley/New Museum

For many of the artists, the medium is merely the means of expression, not the subject. The exhibition focuses on artists who, Trecartin says, “are creating new realities through their transformative thinking. They aren’t concerned with the somewhat parochial thinking about what an art practice can or should encompass right now. It’s hard to meditate on potential futures when we are still transitioning out of a period that has been culturally obsessed with defining the past through acts of rejection or fetishization. There are many artists today who are not only looking past older entrenched ways of thinking about art, they are actually behaving past it.”

The wired ways in which we receive information today – a lot of it all at once – is suggested both by the kaleidoscopic range of influences evident in the exhibition, and their compression. The artists eddy around a swell of subjects from art history to sci-fi fiction, from the surveillance state to gaming culture, from racism in America to issues of self-identity – with their evident paranoia tempered by a healthy dose of humour.

Surround Audience

Pinterest
Dowiyogo’s Ancient Coral Coffee Table by Nicholas Mangan. Photograph: New Museum

Many of the artists in the show express a sense of invasion, whether by technology, political systems or the effects of late capitalism. Several deal with the environment, such as Lisa Tan’s Waves, which uses Skype footage, HD video and Google’s virtual Art project. Taking Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel as its cue to explore language and consciousness, the work is also “a poetic imagination of how technology affects the planet,” Tan says. Meanwhile, Australian artist Nicholas Mangan’s Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World is based on his expeditions to Nauru, a once-booming, phosphate-rich Pacific island that has been mined to the point of destitution. “A lot of my work is about finding materials that open up stories – stuff to do with our human mark on the world,” he says. His work is far removed from digital technology. “I’m totally against social media. I find it exhausting. I guess I’m making a considered decision to move in the opposite direction. I’m much more interested in tree-ring dating – it’s like Google in reverse.”

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Other artists use new media to address centuries-old concerns, such as German artist Peter Wächtler. His work, whether stop-frame animation, charcoal or video, centres around the existentialist problems of being human. Sweetly melancholic and slightly absurdist, Wächtler’s art deals with “change and the impossibility of it, the lie of it and the idea of another self”, creating “a looping environment with characters fixed and paralysed by the wish for personal change, unable to perceive that you are still the same idiot watching a different sea.”

The search for self, or loss of self, manifests in different ways: the intricate still-life works by Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby speak to the liminality of the immigrant experience; Avery K Singer’s figurative paintings of robot-like people created with a Sketch-Up animation program suggest a sense of disassociation with the body; the avatars in Ed Atkins’s videos point to the post-human possibilities long imagined by the sci-fi fiction community.

Gender identity and body politics are the focus for artists including Frank Benson, showing a 3-D sculpture of the transgender DJ and artist Juliana Huxtable (who is also a Triennial artist), or trans dancer Niv Acosta whose Discotropic performance will deal with race and queer identity.

Other works simply ask us to imagine being somebody else. A twice-daily performance piece by Luke Willis Thompson will take visitors on walks, pursuing one of his cast members and collaborators through New York in choreographed routes. “You never really know which narrative you’re going to be immersed in,” says the New Zealander. “Some of them lead home, or to an idea of home, while others are designed to disorientate the audience.” The work emerged from time spent visiting New York. “When I first came Michael Brown was still alive and when I left he wasn’t, so there is this sense of social change the cities are going through which I felt strongly had to be part of the work.”

The quest for meaning leads to new connections, and this is really what the show is about. Bringing together scores of artists from around the world, the meshing of so many ideas and intentions mirrors the way in which we consume information and create meaning. Indian artist Shreyas Karle, who is creating a museum-within-a-museum dedicated to fetish objects, which is about the impact of cinema on Bombay (and vice versa) and the idea that censorship and licentiousness are “two sides of the same coin”, is looking forward to the exchange. “My wife keeps telling me to focus on my own work, but I’m not really like that. Being asked to exhibit in the triennial, it’s less about me than it is about being part of something dynamic.”

Armory Art Fair Week New York 2015 articles

LA MAGAZINE

Art Attack: L.A. Galleries are Invading New York

The city has a stronger showing at this week’s major East Coast art shows than ever before

March 5, 2015 Art Add a comment

New York City is gearing up for the arrival of thousands of pieces of modern and contemporary art (and perhaps just as many gallerists and art collectors) from around the globe, as the city on the Hudson will be playing host to several major art fairs all at once over the next several days. Although west coast dealers have always been willing to brave Manhattan’s freezing temperatures in order to place their artists’ work in front of new eyes during “Armory Week,” Los Angeles gallery representation at the city’s annual March shows is more extensive than ever this year.

The biggest of the Armory Week fairs is the The Armory Show (March 5-8) itself, with 199 total participating art galleries, including 15 from Los Angeles, showing work at Piers 92 and 94 on the west side. “The L.A. art community is really having a moment right now,” suggests the Armory Show’s Executive Director, Noah Horowitz, “from a flourishing gallery and institutional scene to a huge number of artists who have recently taken up residence throughout the city. [Our] exhibitor list this year absolutely reflects that trajectory.”

Although the Anat Ebgi gallery, situated on La Cienega Boulevard’s gallery row, has participated in other New York art fairs before, gallery director Paolo Di Stefano says the “much broader scope” of the Armory Show, where it will be exhibiting for the first time, “opens us up to be seen by a lot more people. It’s not just for young, emerging galleries and young, emerging artists.” Ebgi, Hollywood’s Various Small Fires, and M+B of West Hollywood are among 21 international galleries less than ten years old that are showing work by one or two represented artists in the Armory Presents section of the fair.

Several prominent Los Angeles galleries are bringing work to the Armory Show’s main Contemporary venue. “New York brings a lot of collectors from all over the world,” Cherry and Martin gallery director Michelle Pobar affirms,“ and a lot of them are excited to see what’s coming from Los Angeles these days.” Even OHWOW, which has generally eschewed art fair participation in the past, will be showing up for the first time. “Face time with collectors in New York is important,” acknowledges OHWOW partner Al Moran. Otherwise, “some people don’t even see the work [they buy] until it gets to their homes.”

Marc Selwyn Fine Art and Louis Stern Fine Arts are representing L.A. in the Armory Show’s Modern section, showcasing twentieth century art. A veteran Armory exhibitor, Louis Stern says “it’s always been a positive experience. We’ve always left the fair with a lot of optimism.”

Just a few blocks south of the Armory Show, the SCOPE New York art fair’s 55 exhibitors will include six Los Angeles galleries. Described by co-founder Alexis Hubshman as “the X-Games of the art world,” the SCOPE franchise, which includes fairs in different cities throughout the year, defines its mission as “tapping into the cultural psyche to present only the most pioneering work across multiple creative disciplines.”

Soze Gallery director Toowee Kao describes this weekend at SCOPE as a “sneak peek” at the seven or eight artists who will be having solo shows in Soze’s West Hollywood space in the coming year, though all of the pieces she’s bringing to New York “were made specifically for this fair.” Gallerist Lawrence Cantor, based on West Adams, describes his participation at SCOPE as an opportunity “not so much to make money as to meet people. It gives me a voice in a cutting edge, young market.”

Further downtown, in the Chelsea art gallery district, Independent New York is “a little funkier” than some of the city’s other fairs this weekend, suggests Kurt Muller of the David Kordansky Gallery on South La Brea. “It’s a great way for us to show something more atypical or radical” to the New York art world, “something unexpected.” The Hannah Hoffman Gallery and The Box will also be there.

Four L.A. galleries will be showing work at Volta NY on Pier 90, right next to the Armory Show. Distinguished in part by its emphasis on one- and two-artist exhibitions, the Volta event is not quite as slick, not quite as polished as other fairs in town, according to participating Santa Monica gallerist Richard Heller. “The people there are super cool, and it’s all a bit more collaborative.”

Other Armory Week art fairs with a Los Angeles presence this year include PULSE New York, where Venice’s De Soto Gallery will be in attendance; Art on Paper, with Edward Cella representing L.A.; and the tony Art Dealers Association of America event at the original Park Avenue Armory site, where the Kohn Gallery is showing work by California artists.

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