(An Appropriate Distance)
FROM THE MAYOR'S DOORSTEP

by Piri Halasz

 

 

 

 

NO. 89....1 MARCH 2010...MINI & MAXI... (going to press on March 13-14). Well, folks, since my last column went to press (over January 23-24), I’ve been to about a dozen shows that I want to mention, because of their quality or because of their lack of it. The largest, in terms of square footage, was probably the Armory Show, held in New York’s 750-foot long Piers 92 & 94, with booths of 267 dealers from 31 countries, each displaying anywhere from, say, 5 to 20 works. Then again, perhaps the display area of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda (including its ramp) is larger in square footage, albeit commandeered by only a single artist, Tino Sehgal, for his two pieces of “performance art.” In any event, the smallest show was only eleven recent paintings by John Griefen at Gary Snyder Project Space, on view in a single modest Chelsea gallery (and its adjacent office). The principle which thus emerges is that the bigger the show, the sorrier the art, and the smaller, the more copacetic. Which is not to say that all six of the monster shows that I attended were a total waste of time. From one I derived at least 50% pleasure (or even a bit more). In two more, I found occasional delights, but I had to wear out a goodly amount of shoe leather in order to find them, and in three out of the six it was shoe leather largely if not entirely gone to waste. Except, of course, in a purely sociological sense. I’m not one of these people who feels obligated to see “Avatar” in order to keep posted on mass-audience culture. I don’t even feel obligated to see “The Hurt Locker,” to find out what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences considers prize-worthy highbrow cinema these days (I get upset by onscreen violence, and can’t take any movie depicting battle fronts more recent than those in “War and Peace”). However, I do feel a slight need to keep vaguely posted on the follies that constitute 98.9 percent of the market in contemporary visual art today – although, as an artist whose paintings I admire once remarked – looking at bad art is hard work.

 

MAXI, MINI IN WASHINGTON, DC

 

The maxi-mini rule also seems to apply in Washington, if in a different way. The principle here seems to be that maximum amounts of Presidential haranguing, Congressional maneuvering and printed verbiage are going into health care reform legislation that – even if enacted – seems less & less likely to produce any significant result (at least – if Paul Krugman, in the NY Times for March 12 is to be believed – for people who already have health insurance coverage through their jobs, though it may prove a boon to people without it). It’s true that previously I overstated the case when I suggested that the Obama administration hadn’t accomplished anything. It’s true that the $787 billion stimulus package enacted in February 2009 has put millions of workers back in jobs and seems to have cushioned the worst of the Great Recession (let us keep our fingers crossed on that, but at the moment, the stock market seems to be doing reasonably well, retail sales are on the upswing, and the unemployment rate seems at least to have stabilized). But this health care business has gone on far too long. Whatever widespread public support it ever enjoyed has drained away as its enemies gained strength – galvanized initially into action by the high price tag on the stimulus package & the mushrooming deficit it seems to portend, these enemies argue that we can’t afford to toss more billions into another entitlement program. At this point, it seems like the whole health care project has hit a giant bottleneck through which it appears almost impossible that anything truly productive can pass. Supposedly there will be a vote during the third week of March, but during this (second) week in March, the bills in Congress remind me of nothing so much as the problems I’ve been having with my bathroom sink. It stubbornly refused to empty out. I put Drano down the drain (twice) but that only made it worse. Finally, I asked in the super. He used a plumber’s tool called a “snake” that pushed & pushed until all the accumulated grease & hair & God knows what else in the narrow pipe beneath my sink had been forced out of it & into the much bigger main pipe in the belly of the building, which was able to whoosh it away so that now my sink drains like a dream. I wish somebody would apply a snake to Congress & force this health care legislation out into the world. Maybe the metaphor I’m really looking for is the midwife or obstetrician hauling a baby’s head out into the world, thereby allowing the rest of the body to follow through the birth canal. Whatever. My private life, I’m sorry to say, is closer to drains than babies.

 

MONSTER SHOW #1: NEW WING IN CHICAGO

 

The first monster show that I covered wasn’t exactly a temporary exhibition: instead it was the permanent collection housed in the new $294 million, 264,000-square-foot Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, designed by Renzo Piano and opening last May. I saw it as part of my visit to Chicago, where I was attending the annual conference of the College Art Association, and I attended four sessions at the conference, too. I flogged my book, handsomely on view in the Book Exhibits, and attended two pleasant reunions, one for Columbia University graduates (with gourmet buffet lunch), the other for former fellowship recipients of the Smithsonian Institution (with hearty breakfast buffet). Three of the four sessions that I attended were given by art historians, on 1) American art, 2) 20th century art, and 3) “(Mis) Remembering the Sixties.” None were noteworthy, except for the undistinguished quality of the art illustrated (with the sole exception of a Noland chevron, introduced in the 60s panel because it supposedly epitomized “60s cool,” and enabled the speaker to lance a few digs at formalism). But undistinguished art at CAA panels predates the inundation of postmodernist “theory” in the 80s I remember one speaker at a CAA conference from the 70s projecting the worst painting by J. M. W. Turner that I’d ever seen on the screen, so that he could expound on its iconography. I have attended sessions devoted to earlier art at CAA where truly beautiful work was displayed and discussed. I don’t know what the problem with the modernists is, but fortunately it wasn’t shared by the participants in the fourth session I attended. This one was devoted entirely to “The Origins of Color, and Color Theory and Practice,” and it was given not by art historians but by exhibitors at the conference, i.e. paint manufacturers & vendors. The whole session was riveting & S. R. O. (unlike any of the other sessions). The five papers were by Beth Bergman of Wet Paint (a retail art supplier), Ed Brickler of Canson, Inc., Richard Frumess of R & F Handmade Paints, George O’Hanlan of Natural Pigments, and Mark Skalka of the National Gallery of Art (although Skalka’s paper was read by Mark Gottsegen, the moderator, as Skalka had been unable to fly to Chicago from Washington, due to blizzard conditions in Washington). I attended initially because the program said that Mark Golden of Golden Artist Colors would also be speaking, but although he was present, he functioned more like a second moderator. The most exciting of the four talks for me was Frumess’s on “Color in Ancient Greek Art.” Did you know that the four primary colors used by ancient Greek painters were not red, blue, green, and yellow, but only black, white, red and yellow? How amazing that even with only those four, Zeuxis could paint cherries so realistically that the birds came to peck at them!

 

The new Modern Wing of the Art Institute is a big, gorgeous & very airy building, with off-white walls, pale blonde wood floors and much glass. To be sure, the downstairs lobby provides lots of room for people to mill around in, which reminds me of the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, by I. M. Pei, but then isn’t that a realistic way of dealing with the mobs who come to modern art museums, and, if truth be told, are more interested in milling around than in looking at the art? The earlier 20th century art is on the 3rd Floor, and the art since 1945 is on the 2nd, which (sad to say) is as far as most Chicagoans apparently get. This is too bad, because with very few exceptions, the post-1945 art in that museum is mostly your basic pomonian novelties, with special galleries set aside for Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Gober, among others. Still, even the post-1945 art has one large, wonderful masterpiece, “Excavation,” by de Kooning, and it’s set very conspicuously at the entrance to this whole floor. The pre-1945 collection is full of wonders, headed up by the large & great Matisse, “Bathers by a River,” and including in its initial gallery Picasso’s famous “Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler,” one of the masterpieces of Analytical Cubism. From here one passes to the generous selection of Kandinsky and other German Expressionist paintings, donated to the museum by one of Chicago’s premier collectors, Arthur Jerome Eddy, author of one of the first books to try and explain the mysteries of modern art & abstraction to a doubting public. Chicago has always had many great collectors, which helps to explain its marvelous collection of Manet and the impressionists as well as the modern art that stretches throughout the remainder of the new wing’s third floor. It’s really too bad for Chicago that Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman, a longtime resident of Chicago, should have chosen to donate her collection of abstract expressionists and color-field painters to the Met in New York, but on the other hand, Lindy and Edwin Bergman, two Chicagoans whom I met many years ago, donated their huge surrealist collection to the Art Institute, and it is superbly installed, as is a stellar collection of sculptures by Brancusi, displayed in a light-filled gallery with one wall composed entirely of picture windows that overlook Millennium Park below. My only other complaint is that I understand the Institute also has a fine collection of early American moderns, donated by Stieglitz and/or O’Keeffe, but I didn’t hear about it until after I’d come back to New York, and was told that they’re housed in another wing of the museum, remote from the modern work in the new wing to which they are so clearly related. Nevertheless, this is a monster “show” not to be missed (when you’re next in Chicago).

 

BACK IN THE BIG APPLE: GOODIES AT JACOBSON HOWARD & LESLIE FEELY

 

Returning home, I checked out the mid-winter “gallery selections” shows at two of my favorite galleries, Jacobson Howard (through March 18) and Leslie Feely (through April). I can’t guarantee that visitors who go there now will be able to see what I saw, but what I saw pleasured me. At Jacobson Howard, first I was confronted by a thickly-crusted, mellifluous Poons, “The Ultimate Canto” (1988). There was also a lovely early minimalist Bannard, “Seasons #1" (1965), with a mint-colored field and two multi-colored, tripartite blips slightly but decidedly placed off-center. There were two paintings by Dzubas, a charming ‘60s hard-edge number, “Lone Blue,” and a large, elegant mature painting, “Chenango,” in the office at the back of the gallery–deep reds, misty dark greens, and grays. I also noted a handsome latter-day cubist collage by Motherwell (I974), two very free small, loose brushed alkyd resins on paper by Bannard (both 1959), and the first Norman Bluhm I’d seen that I really liked, “World #3" (1961). Normally his soapy, sprayed-on swoops of paint don’t do much for me, but this one seemed better than most. In addition, there was a beautiful, slightly earlier & more thinly painted Poons, “Oway” (1982), a small “Open” study by Motherwell, and at least one Hofmann (though not my favorite one).

 

At Leslie Feely, there were two more Motherwells, another collage (1973) and a smallish, Japanese-y painting (1996). For lovers of the figurative, there was “Fair Triumvirate” (n.d.), a small, appealing pastel of three women by Jan Müller (1922-1958). Other highlights included a narrow horizontal Noland from his pale, horizontal stripe period, “Hunch” (1969); a tall, dynamic Olitski, “7th Loosha,” very fluid, showing how he was evolving from the spray paintings of the later ‘60s to the gel panoplies of the 70s & 80s;and finally, “Foen” (1974), a huge (84 x 206), magnificent Dzubas, lushly painted in browns, blacks, greens, grays, purple, blue, and red. Dzubas’s native language was German, and “Föhn,” in German-Swiss dialect, means the warm wind that comes in the spring. I never can look at this painting without thinking of that verse from Christina Rossetti: “Who has seen the wind?/ Neither you nor I: /But when the trees bow down their heads/ The wind is passing by.” I am really sorry that these two worthy galleries are located on East 68th Street. I mean, it’s more convenient for me, and I suppose for the collectors who are able to buy such stellar work, but it also means that younger painters hardly ever get there. The reason, I suspect in my cynical way, is that although they are always looking for topnotch work from which they might learn something, they are also looking for galleries that might be willing to represent them, and such galleries are more likely to be found in Chelsea than on the Upper East Side.

 

TWO MEDIUM-SIZED SHOWS WITH A COMMON THEME

“AFRICAN AMERICAN ABSTRACT MASTERS” AT ANITA SHAPOLSKY

“ABSTRACTION PLUS ABSTRACTION” AT WILMER JENNINGS/KENKELEBA

 

The original impetus for this pair of exhibitions, as I understand it, came from Anita Shapolsky, whose gallery is on the Upper East Side. The gallery has made a name for itself with its exhibitions of abstract American artists, especially (though not exclusively) drawn from the second generation of abstract expressionists. Shapolsky wanted to do a show of African American abstractionists in honor of Black History Month 2010, and invited Mary Anne Rose to curate it. Rose is a scholar married to Herbert Gentry, an abstract artist whose work is included in “African American Abstract Masters,” but who had also been exhibited by Shapolsky in a group show in 1987. Shapolsky then enlisted the expertise of Corrine Jennings, who has exhibited many African American abstract artists at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery of Kenkeleba House on the Lower East Side. The result is two exhibitions, both of which run through April 24. The one at Shapolsky features 10 artists, born between 1914 (Thomas Sills) and 1937 ( Betty Blayton). Jennings features 19 additional artists, born within a wider parameter, from Alma Thomas (1891) to Richard Hunt and Al Loving (both, 1935). A further showing is planned at the Opalka Gallery of the Sage Colleges in Albany NY (November 5 – December 12, 2010).

 

No doubt because there are many more artists included in the downtown show than in the uptown one, I found more to like downtown, but I was impressed by a number of artists at both venues. Only four artists are in both shows: Frank Bowling, Sills, Frank Wimberley and Ed Clark. Bowling and Clark in particular stand out for me, especially Bowling’s moving, richly-textured “Thank you Graham Mileson” (1987), and the very likeable purple, aqua and white 1979 lithograph by Clark being offered at a truly competitive price of only $1,000. Both of these are at Shapolsky, as are the very dark brown “Composition” (1960) by Bill Hutson, and the bold, cheery “Study in Black and White” (1964), by Sam Middleton. At Jennings, my eye was first caught by “Composition Verte” (1964), a vigorous veridian composition with vertical sticks of chartreuse, painted by Larry Potter, a painter who died at the age of only 40 in Paris in 1966. (I was to see a second canvas by him in the booth of June Kelly at “The Art Show” in the Park Avenue Armory). I was also intrigued by one of the two paintings by Hale Woodruff, a small untitled oil on canvas from 1947. Having so recently seen earlier work by him in the “Cézanne and America” show in Montclair, I was happy to see that after having related to Cézanne in the 1920s and cubism in the 1930s, he was able to move with the times and be right in phase with the abstract expressionism of the 40s. I was also taken by the tantalizing pastel, “Atmospherics II’ (2003) by Mildred Thompson, with its wavy aqua strips and circles on a field of lighter greens and yellows. I also liked “Untitled (Dragon)” (1997) by Joe Overstreet, a black free-style design over what looks like a painting of blue alligator hide, and the graceful untitled Al Loving from 1981, with many colors, softly sprayed on, and three widely-spaced, narrow spiraling strips of contrasting color superimposed.

 

MONSTER SHOW #2: TINO SEHGAL AT THE GUGGENHEIM

 

Performance art is hot stuff this season, if you believe the New York Times. Thus, when the 34-year-old British-German Tino Sehgal inaugurated his eponymous show at the Guggenheim, the Times’s Holland Cotter devoted a long article to it on February 1, describing not only his own visit to it but also the long-winded ideology that surrounds it. The gist of Cotter’s argument seemed to be that this form of art disappears after it’s presented, leaving nothing for a museum to buy or display, yet even this ecologically-virtuous claim was disproved by a third article the Times produced, on March 14. In a roundup devoted to the popularity of performance art at MoMA, as well as the Guggenheim, Carol King reported that MoMA had paid a reported $70,000 for an edition of “Kiss,” a piece of performance art by Sehgal which was then “loaned” to the Guggenheim, where it became part of its exhibition of his work. The second Times article, by Alicia Desantis, dealt on March 13 with the 300 or so people of all ages who’d been hired to participate in “This Progress,” the other performance piece by Seghal in the Guggenheim show (the three curators for this show were Nancy Spector, Nan Trotman & Katherine Brinson, in other words one more curator than there were works in the exhibition). Some of the 300 people discussed by Desantis “greeted” visitors to the museum on the lowest level of the ramp by trying to engage them in conversation about “progress,” then accompanied them up the ramp, making conversation all the way – even though the ramp had been stripped of all paintings, sculpture, graphics, photography and any other visible art. At a certain point, each group was then handed over to other hired people to conduct them further up the ramp, accompanied by yet more conversation, and the relays continued until the top of the ramp was reached.

 

These hired conversationalists were paid in various ways, according to Desantis: children got only a hat, bag and museum membership, while teenagers got the legal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, and adults got $18.75 an hour. This last, I would guess, is the wage paid to the Guggenheim’s guards, though probably its docents work for the fun and prestige of it, so actually hiring all these 300 hired conversationalists must have cost the museum as much as they’d have had to pay for a show of visible art, with its charges for handling, installation, and insurance. When I was there, however, I didn’t even realize I was supposed to follow after these paid conversationalists; as is my custom, I took the elevator to the top of the ramp and walked down, nor did anybody try to stop me or direct me toward the hired conversationalists. What I saw, on my way down the ramp, was a lot of people strolling up & down the ramp, talking amongst themselves, and occasionally accompanied by people whom I thought were docents (doubtless, I thought, giving some long-winded explanation for why the ramp was bereft of art). None of this struck me as anything out of the ordinary, as I am accustomed to the plethora of museum visitors at other shows (in the Guggenheim & elsewhere) who don’t care that much about any art on view anyway, and simply stroll down past it, engaged in their little chats. Indeed, this was the perfect kind of show for all the many people who want to be able to say that they’ve gone to a museum, but don’t care squat about the art. As for “Kiss,” this consisted of two fully-clothed dancers (a he & a she) going through what could been a dance or simulated sex or something somewhere in between, writhing & groping & (so I read) occasionally striking poses imitating art by Rodin, Courbet and Jeff Koons (how’s that for a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous?). The only trouble was that the whole routine (performed by professional dancers working 3-hour shifts) was done in slow motion, depriving it of any semblance of enthusiasm, let alone passion. I found myself thinking how much better performances Victor Fleming managed to wrest from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, with Rhett carrying Scarlett up that long flight of stairs. I also thought longingly of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant embracing & kissing in “To Catch a Thief,” where Alfred Hitchcock had enough sense to simply let the camera pan up above them to show fireworks going off in the night sky. Somehow suggestions of the sex act can be so much more effective than any attempt to depict it directly.

 

The best thing I saw at the Guggenheim was the earlier half of “Paris and the Avant-Garde: Modern Masters from the Guggenheim Collection” (level 4, I think, of the Annex; through May 12). Curated by Tracey Bashkoff and Megan Fontanella, this display of works from the earlier part of the 20th century – often kept in storage – includes four (count ‘em, 4) large and magnificent sculptures by Constantin Brancusi: “Adam and Eve” (1916, 1921); “Little French Girl” (ca. 1914-18); “King of Kings” (ca. 1938); and “The Sorceress,” combined with “Watchdog” (1916-24). Also a neat little Gris still life, “Cherries” (1915), and other lovelies. The later half of this show, covering a period up to1953 and located at Level 6 of the Annex, is a lot less interesting, but the Brancusi display is – zowie!

 

MONSTER SHOW #3: THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL

 

I don’t have a whole lot to say about “2010,” as the 75th edition of the biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art is called. Curated by Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, it will be on view through May 30, should any of my readers wish to attend, though I must say that only one of the 56 artists listed in the announcement & presumably included in the show rang my chimes, even faintly. In fact, the most impressive thing about the show is the labels – long, scholarly ones not only offering tortured rationales for the work on view but more importantly, complicated descriptions of how the work was made. Let nobody say that today’s hot stuff isn’t labor intensive. If only the results were as impressive as the methods used to create them! One gallery is largely devoted to the handiwork of three minimalist abstract painters, Suzan Frecon (b. 1941), Sarah Crowner (b. 1974), and Tauba Auerbach (b. 1981). Here the Artspeak on the labels was unusually noticeable because the paintings themselves were so dull. Crowner’s work, for example, was said to “reference the work of Bridget Riley.” How irksome is this use of “reference” as a verb which means “imitate,” though pretentiously trying to suggest that it merely means “refers to.” More latter day op, in other words. Yawn. Then we have Auerbach’s practically blank paintings, in which a complex way of applying synthetic polymer to canvas leads to images that look like nothing more than empty, rumpled canvases. These are described as “elegant, methodical compositions” which “deconstruct the conventional ways that visual and perceptual information is conveyed.” I understand that in philosophical circles, Jacques Derrida is yesterday’s newspapers, but “deconstruct” lives on in labels such as these, evidently intended to add that subtle touch of class.

 

One other gallery is devoted primarily to painting, this time representational instead of abstract. Its star is Verne Dawson, one of Gavin Brown’s stable, with a huge, whimsical and entertaining oil on canvas showing a landscape with lots of little fantasy figures floating around on it – a witch on a goose flying in front of a moon, a female nude to one side of a huge sun, an upside-down Santy Claus in another yellow solar disc up top, etc. Really cute. Here the label was devoted to a detailed exposition of the symbolic importance of all of these little figures, iconography as dry as anything to come out of Academe. You’ll enjoy yourself more if you just look at the painting, though stylistically it owes a lot to Chagall. Beyond that, there are one or two latter-day Elizabeth Peytons, with little, little representational paintings, plus a large assortment of installations, assemblages, photographs and videos. None of the stationary work in these four categories moved me, and as I’m not a film critic, I don’t consider myself qualified to pass judgment on the videos, but I did find myself sitting in some of those darkened little video rooms simply because they had benches where I could sit down. Therefore I can report that one has vast flat landscape views, one has a woman trying to tear down the walls of what appears to be a closet in which she is imprisoned, and one has what looks like a very gay guy doing a very energetic dance. Two galleries with installations were due to become the settings for “performances,” but the “performance” for one was scheduled for Saturday and another, for Friday, and, since this was Thursday, I didn’t get to see them. This is always the problem, is it not? For ephemeral art.

 

MONSTER SHOW #4: “1969" AT P.S. 1

 

When “1969" opened last fall at P. S. 1, I thought it might be fun to see how my recollections of that pivotal year in my life compared with those of MoMA (P.S. 1's parent organization). Since moreover the show would be running until April 5, I wasn’t in any hurry to get there. Imagine my surprise when I did! This show wasn’t even supposed to be a recreation of what was really going on in 1969. According to the wall text, it was supposed to be only a portrait of MoMA’s holdings, either of work purchased in 1969 or dating from that year. The beginning of the show, curated by Neville Wakefield, hewed more or less to this line, although it was obvious to me from the start that Wakefield was choosing only to include those 1969-related works that corresponded to MoMA’s interests in 2010. Since MoMA has been fixated on minimal art, conceptual art, process art, installations, video and photography for quite some time, it became necessary to include that and pretty much that only throughout the opening galleries. Despite the fact that there was a lot of painting in New York in 1969, and that Henry Geldzahler organized a huge exhibition of such painting at the Met in that year, the only painting in “1969" that I’d want to have in my home (or in any museum that I might direct) was “Commune” (1969). This is a large, ultra-simple and dynamite Frankenthaler, with one large single grey-blue form floating in a raw canvas field.

 

As I progressed through the show, I moreover realized that Wakefield had embellished his franchise to include works that he only wished MoMA owned, such as a print of “Blue Movie.” This is Andy Warhol’s ode to the activity indicated by the movie’s original title, “F---ing” (and intended as a companion piece to movies entitled “Sleeping” and “Eating”). A print of this film, loaned by the Warhol Foundation, was playing continuously at P.S. 1. I really freaked out in 1969 when I saw a few instants of it in the offices of Time, where it was being breathlessly viewed by large numbers of the staff as “research” for a cover story that Time was planning to do on “Sex in the Arts.” Deciding to give it another try, I watched for a few more instants at P. S. 1, seeing that it presented a male and a female actor in an intimate setting (actually, the Greenwich Village apartment of David Bourdon, art reporter at Life). I’m sure that at some point (or points) this couple has sexual intercourse, as I saw the self-conscious smirks of people emerging from the viewing later on in the afternoon, but when I was there, the couple was just lying down together and engaging in period chitchat about JFK and Vietnam. I stopped back later in the day, hoping to catch the actors in flagrante delicto, but this time, they were still just talking, not in bed but in a bathtub together (which was where I’d seen them during the instants that I watched in 1969).

 

There’s also some “art” that wasn’t even around in 1969, including the “Custom Transitional Utility Object (Morris Mover),” created in 2009 by Stephanie Syjuco, a MoMA employee, and used by her to pack art objects being moved from MoMA to P. S.1 for the show. Seems that (as displayed) this is a substitute for a piece of process art made by Robert Morris back in the ‘60s, and consisting of strips of gray felt piled against the wall or slopped on the floor. “The original Morris could not be shown” another one of those illuminating labels explains, “due to the felt’s tendency to attract dirt, dust, and moths.” Syjuco’s substitute apparently avoids such problems by being quilted and bound around the edges, but it nonetheless (to quote the label again) “keeps similar concerns at the forefront, namely, making transparent the labor and process involved in its creation.” Yeah, right.

 

MONSTER SHOW #5: “THE ART SHOW” AT THE PARK AVENUE ARMORY

 

This was one of the monster shows where a lot of secondary art was accompanied by a goodly smattering of first-rate work. “The Art Show,” organized by the Art Dealers Association of America, billed itself as “America’s longest-running national fine art fair,” now in its 22nd year. It included the booths of 70 dealers, many of whom chose to focus on just one or two artists, but rarely displaying less than 10 to 15 works (go figure: this means 700 to 1050 pieces of art). The most conspicuous (and presumably most expensive) booth, right at the entrance, was that of Marian Goodman. It was built around the harsh black & white images of William Kentridge, who is in the news just now, being featured both in a current MoMA retrospective and as the designer & provider of videos for a new production of “The Nose,” an early opera by Shostakovich being presented by the Metropolitan Opera. For me, though, the best of the booth displays built around just one or two artists was the remarkable show staged by Galerie St. Etienne, of works on paper by Klimt and Schiele, mostly renderings of nudes (and occasionally naughty). Many booths were devoted to big-ticket “contemporary” favorites, but I also saw lots of earlier (& often better) art, clear back (in the case of Acquavella) to a Courbet “Portrait of Countess Karoly”(1865). Menconi & Schoelkopf showed a lot of late, representational Marsden Hartley, including a highly symbolic 1938 painting of gulls & fish, commemorating the deaths at sea of some Nova Scotia fishermen who had been dear to the artist. The same gallery also had an exquisite little Marin oil of Weehawken, NJ, ca. 1915. John Bergruen of San Francisco had some nice Frankenthalers. Zabriskie devoted itself to a display of “291,” the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, with work by painters & photographers whom Stieglitz exhibited, including Abraham Walkowitz, Oscar Bluemner, Edward Steichen, O’Keeffe, Clarence White, and himself.

 

A number of galleries, mostly on the uptown side of the Armory, were showing Milton Avery, whom nobody dares to knock. Modernists like him because, despite being representational, he’s good. Traditionalists like him because he was representational (and incidentally, good). Riva Yares, of Scottsdale/Santa Fe, showed an especially abstract Avery, “Sandspit and Gulls” (1959), as well as an atypical but beautiful Morris Louis, “Blue Column II” (1960), tall & narrow but with a blue/green veil, not stripes. Yares also had a good-looking Hofmann, “Summer Jubilee” (1958). Knoedler had Pousette-Dart, the first Judith Rothschild that I’ve liked, and the splendiferous Pink Lady” (1963), a Frankenthaler that I’ve admired before in print. In the show as a whole, I saw a lot of smaller and/or less pricey art, including a number of small Léger oils, some charming works on paper by Matisse & some less charming but still quite frequent works by Dubuffet.

 

WHAT A RELIEF! A MODERATELY-SIZED EXCURSION INTO THE PAST:

“ARTS OF ANCIENT VIET NAM” AT THE ASIA SOCIETY

 

Exiting from the Park Avenue Armory, I was only three blocks south of the Asia Society Museum, so what could be more natural than to sink happily into a reasonably-sized show devoted to “Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea” (through May 3). Co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (where it has already appeared), this show is the first U.S. exhibition to address the historical, geographic and cultural contexts of pre-colonial Vietnamese art in depth. It was guest-curated by Nancy Tingley, an independent scholar, with Adriana Proser as the in-house curator for the New York show, and includes about 110 objects dating from the first millennium B.C.E. through the 17th century C.E., garnered from ten Vietnamese museums. Most of the works in the show have never been seen in the U.S. before, and many have only been excavated in the last few decades. Together, the Asia Society argues, these works made of metal, ceramic and stone illustrate uniquely Vietnamese characteristics combined with iconography and decorative motifs derived from cultural interaction with India and China, trading partners of the ancient Vietnamese civilizations. My remnants of scholarly education make me wonder just how much in these works is distinctively Vietnamese, and how much is borrowed or derived from external sources, but I’m not likely to get any answers to my speculations in the immediate future, and meanwhile, the show has much to recommend it purely in terms of visual delight.

Beautifully installed on the museum’s second floor, the exhibition is divided up into five parts, corresponding to the five stages and different locales of successive Vietnamese cultures. First and second come the earliest cultures, Dong Son in the north and Sa Huynh in central and southern Viet Nam (1st millennium B.C.E. to 2nd Century C.E.). Third comes the Fu Nan culture of the Mekong River delta in southern Viet Nam (1st to 7th century). Fourth comes the central coastal kingdoms of Champa (5th to 15th century), and last comes a section on trade and exchange in the port of Hoi An (16th to 18th centuries). Certainly, the larger and more spectacular carvings don’t appear until the mammoth stone statues of Hindu gods and guardian figures of the Cham, and the most fantastic stoneware is the pair of Nghe figures in the gallery devoted to Hoi An. But as my longtime readers know, with me earlier is so often better, especially in Asian art, so I responded most powerfully to the huge, intricately decorated bronze drum, the small dipper, and the little chicken-headed ewer in the Dong Son gallery. I also lit up upon seeing the huge ceramic burial urn and delectable little bronze pangolin in the Sa Huynh gallery (a pangolin being a small nocturnal animal with scales and a tail, sometimes called the scaly anteater and valued in Asian medicine for the magical healing power of its scales). I don’t know whether you prefer early or late, gentle reader, but irregardless, if you value a rewarding visual experience, this show may just be for you.

 

MONSTER SHOW #6: THE ARMORY SHOW ON PIERS 92 & 94

 

As I eat my vegetables before proceeding to dessert, I tackled Pier 94 of "The Armory Show" first, that being the one devoted to “contemporary” art. Featured at the entrance was a shiny Acura Advance. My note reads “can’t tell the art show from the auto showroom.” Next came a booth where little bottles of something called “Spray to Forget” were on sale for only $25. What a bargain! Next, a gallery from Istanbul and another from Paris, the latter displaying a turgid example of Russian academic style by Serban Savu, depicting a peasant with an axe. Around me, as I strolled ahead, I noticed L.E.D. signs, neon writing and fluorescent tubes. Also large “interesting” objects, such as two outsize beach umbrellas. Lots of photography, videos, young people looking (and, if the Armory Show press release was to be believed, even buying). Two statues of classical-style Greek maidens, hung together upside down from a chain. Turner’s “Burning of the Houses of Parliament” superimposed in a light box upon 300 images of contemporary London. Occasional abstracts, either small messy-gestural (Josh Smith) or large and semi-mechanical, all-over dots (Yayoi Kusama). A small painting of a penis, a large statue of a transexual. Am I supposed to be shocked? There seemed to be a dearth of big names here, but plenty of knock-offs of big names. I noticed knock-offs of Claes Oldenburg, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Robert Indiana, Donald Judd, Duane Hanson, Joan Mitchell, Andreas Gursky and Barnett Newman (this last, by Antony Gormley, a red painting with a white zip down the middle). An odd painting mimicking the 17th century candlelight effects of Georges de La Tour, but featuring a child with its ass bared, and a sign beside it prominently stating “SOLD.” A real Alex Katz, maybe even a couple of them at different booths. A misty Thomas Ruff photo of a nude blond woman masturbating. Ho hum. In the booth of a Düsseldorf gallery, a strawberry pink metal statue by the German Thomas Kiesewetter, whom I wrote about years ago when he had a show at Jack Tilton. He still looks good by comparison with what else is here. Peter Blum has one of the better exhibits, including four small passable abstracts by Richard Allen Morris, dating from 1986-87, plus 22 vivid black-and-white documentary photos entitled “Koreans” (1957), taken by Chris Marker, the French film-maker and multimedia artist. Concluding notes to Pier 94: “Fewer big names than in previous years, more knock-offs.”

 

Pier 92 was called the “modern” pier (as opposed to “contemporary”). Right away I got the feeling of more solidity, even if it was only because Marlborough, right near the entry, was displaying paintings by Richard Estes – not the greatest artist in the world, but at least distinguished by a sturdy style and making everything on Pier 94 look kinda lightweight by comparison. Allan Stone had an interesting small oil on paper by Wayne Thiebaud, a landscape instead of the usual food studies. Displayed by E. & R. Cyzer of London was a good-sized & memorable “Paperbride” by Zeng Chuanxing (b. 1974). Employing a Chinese academic style, it depicted a sweet-faced little Asian bride, all decked out in an elaborate bridal gown & headdress made from sheets & sheets of elaborately folded white paper. Michael Schultz, from Berlin, Seoul and Beijing, had a huge – maybe 7-foot-square – diamond plaid painting by Noland, “Inweave” (1973), with a soft yellow field, a white center, and pale stripes. Awesome, but difficult to see clearly, as there wasn’t enough space to stand back from it. Jacobson Howard had the best display. It had a wild Dzubas from 1959, “Polaris,” and the same Norman Bluhm that I’d admired earlier at its uptown headquarters, as well as a small Frankenthaler, plus a very narrow, vintage untitled Poons (1981), with soft greens, pinks and grays coursing down in rivulets. Also displayed at the Jacobson Howard booth was a second, somewhat striking but atypical Bluhm that I thought at first was by Al Held, also a minimalist Noland (1964), with an egg-shaped “eye” in the center, rather than a circular “target,” and a very free, rough Motherwell “Open” from 1973, not at all like the”Opens” from 1969. A gallery from Helsinki had the cleverest novelty in the Armory Show, a sculpture of two linked ovals upon which was projected a video loop which made it look as though human eyes on it were opening and closing, while a human mouth was talking. This piece from 2004, entitled “Silverloc,” was by Tony Oursler, a real comedian. Scott White of San Diego exhibited “Via Pale,” a 1968 Noland with elegant pale pink and beige horizontal stripes, also a Bluhm that I didn’t care for. There was an effective later Frankenthaler, and a brilliant Louis stripe painting, “I-73" (1962). On this canvas, the descending stripes were placed decisively to the left of the canvas, and the raw canvas to the right, a strategy which worked because it was so obviously intentional, not accidental. Another gallery with interesting work was Jerald Melberg of Charlotte NC, who had some small works by Motherwell, as well as drawings by Gorky, Bluemner, and other work by Milton Resnick & Harold Shapinsky. By this time, I’d reached the far end of the pier, where the café was located. After buying a cup of tea, I sank gratefully into a chair and was just raising the cup to my lips when the guards starting hollering that they’d be closing the show in 10 minutes. I had to hustle on my way back – speedily passing Gary Snyder’s Project Space, with its display of lesser ‘60s color-field painters, even though Ken Johnson in the New York Times had commented favorably upon it. I did notice a graceful painting of a nude with another sweet face by Horacio Torres in the booth of Cecilia Torres, the artist’s widow, who runs a gallery of her own in Soho. Chowaiki & Co. had one of those enchanting Matisse gold silkscreens on rough linen entitled “Océanie, le ciel” (1946), with its little cutout designs of flowers & birds. Hollis Taggart had a large & wild, totally atypical Morris Louis, “Doubt” (1959), with a huge swath of blue on the left, and yellow on the right. Also on view at the same booth were three paintings by Stamos, including two real winners, especially “Migration” (1948). Summing my impressions of Pier 92, I have to say that Joan Mitchell no longer seems to be so In – she was not nearly as ubiquitous this year as last. Frankenthaler, on the other hand, seemed to be more popular, though I’m not ready to say that the vogue for messy-gestural second-generation abstract expressionists like Mitchell (and unlike Frankenthaler) has come to an end. For one thing, Milton Resnick seemed quite well represented, and for another, Norman Bluhm seemed to be quite in demand. I’m not sure how I feel about Bluhm myself. The first painting I saw by him in this go-around, I liked a lot, but the second I liked less, and the third I didn’t like at all. Either he was a very uneven painter, with low spots as well as high ones, or his work simply doesn’t stand up to prolonged consideration at all. In the pop generation, Wesselman is less popular than he was last year, but Lichtenstein was all over the place. How all these lads come – and go!

 

SHOW OF SHOWS: JOHN GRIEFEN AT GARY SNYDER

 

The best exhibition in this issue is also the best solo exhibition at a gallery in the current season, and perhaps last season, too. Even at the museums its only competition for the title of “best solo exhibition” this year is Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, and, while Kandinsky was admittedly a towering figure, he did his best work nearly a century ago, whereas John Griefen is fighting on the barricades for beauty & quality even now. “Recent Paintings” is on view at Gary Snyder’s Project Space until May 1, so anybody who didn’t get to the opening has plenty of time to get to the show, and see where modernism is at right now, who is pushing the envelope these days. Griefen’s work has been called “minimalism,” and Snyder, for one, is particularly reminded by it of the all-black canvases of Ad Reinhardt. Down in Miami, Darby Bannard may be thinking, well I’ve been through a minimalist phase, and so have a lot of other people. Do we have to go through all that again? My feeling is that no two minimalists are alike. In spirit, Griefen seems to be at an opposite pole from Reinhardt, thinking in terms of adding in as opposed to taking out. And nobody with an eye could mistake a minimalist Bannard from the early 60s for a 21st century Griefen. Here are two strong & very different personalities expressing themselves as individually as only they can.

 

I can’t say what exactly was going on in the heads of all the painters who led the way to “post-painterly abstraction” in the early 60s, but my suspicion is that at least some of them wanted to strip away the heavy bindings of the overwrought brush and the gestural stroke associated with the leadership of de Kooning in the ‘50s. In that sense, the movement was a reaction against what had gone on before, but Griefen’s feeling for his most recent influence or father figure differs. That influence, Olitski, was one he admired and wished to assimilate before moving on, so in other words we are dealing with evolution here, not revolution (as in the ‘60s). The gel Griefen still (I believe) uses, and the raised brush stroke that is his hallmark, both derive from Olitski, however gentled and submitted to rigorous self-examination they may be. It’s been a long, slow process but even since Griefen’s last show, at Salander-O’Reilly in 2004, there has been progress (from what I can tell). I don’t recall nearly as much variation in size, shape and color among the canvases in that show.

 

This show is like a textbook lesson on how to shape and orient different canvases, depending on their different colors, and it’s been cannily hung by Snyder himself to dramatize the artist’s range. Diagonally across from the entrance, on the most prepossessing wall, are the two biggest paintings, one deep purple vertical and one pale lavender horizontal that go together like love and marriage. To the left of this wall and facing the entrance are three paintings, beginning directly across from the entry with a strong orange vertical, followed by a narrow soft, soft pale green horizontal. and finally a smaller, very dark green painting that almost looks black. Opposite this dark green painting, on the wall to the right of the entrance, hangs a somewhat larger vertical that echoes that darkness of the green with a combination black & orange (the orange is apparently painted underneath, and only occasionally gleams through). To the right of the black & orange is a long narrow horizontal in a tasty lemon yellow, while a similarly shaped bright blue-green painting hangs alone on the fourth wall (to the left of the entrance). But don’t stop there. Snyder has three more Griefens hanging in his little office space, around the corner from this fourth wall. There is hung a smaller bright green diamond, a bigger & bolder royal blue vertical, and, over the long, cream-colored sofa, a long, cream-colored painting (officially called “white.”) The whole show is characterized by such variety and beauty that it gave me a terrific high. I can only hope that at least some people will really want to look at art such as this, instead of discussing “progress” on a stroll around an empty museum.

 

CORRECTION

 

In my last column, I reviewed a show by Peter G. Ray in which the artist, in two large pieces, integrated elements of assemblage (postmodernist) with painting (modernist). I quoted Kenworth Moffett, who liked those two pieces, saying that with them, Ray had “managed to integrate the postmodernist achievement.” Although Moffett doesn’t dispute having said this, he feels that it doesn’t fully represent what he meant to say, and has written me, asking to correct the quote. In his email, he says that “I was trying to convey that Peter G. Ray’s synthesizing of highest level modernism with postmodernism is an extraordinary achievement.”

 

I am happy to make this correction.

 

ANNOUNCEMENT

 

I’ve just received a handsome catalogue for “Friedel Dzubas: Paintings of the 1950s,” an exhibition to be held at Jacobson Howard from March 18 to May 15. Opening reception: Thursday, March 18, from 6 to 8.

 

 

AND ELSEWHERE: In London, “Poussin Review 2010: New to Sight” at Poussin, features six artists, among them Frank Bowling and John Hoyland (through April 17)....In Calgary, Newzones is exhibiting paintings by Jonathan Forrest (through April 17); its next show will be devoted to William Perehudoff (April 24-June 12)....In Fayetteville, NY, Darryl Hughto and Susan Roth will be opening the gallery at Limestone Art with “Recent Works” (through April 23; Artists’ Talk March 20 at 1 pm).

 

FINALLY, FEATURED IN OUR DELUXE PRINT EDITION: ROBERT AUSTIN SCOTT

 

... (© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)

 

 

 

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