Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The New Whitney Museum

By Charles Kessler

Seventh floor terrace of the New Whitney Museum (New York Review of Books, image by Nic Lehoux).
I hate the museum that Renzo Piano designed for Harvard, a ponderous bunker of a building, and his addition to the Gardner Museum rudely dominates the original museum (see below); so I was suspicious of all the acclaim his design for the new Whitney Museum was getting.
On the left: Renzo Piano's new Harvard Museums, view from Prescott Street; on the right: Renzo Piano’s addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with the original Venetian-style palazzo on the right.
I'm not going to take back anything I said about his other museums (here and here), but the Whitney is the best new museum I know of since the Getty Center in 1997 and the Yale Gallery in 2012-13. And in some ways it’s even better because the new Whitney is unique among museums in that it succeeds in creating a welcoming and convivial atmosphere.

The new entrance to the Brooklyn Museum aspires to be a welcoming space, but it's so uncomfortable, awkward and discordant that it almost feels hostile.
The Rubin Pavilion entrance to the Brooklyn Museum. 
And the new proposal for yet another MoMA expansion, this one by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is also trying to be "engaging and welcoming," but it looks more like a department store, and it has been universally panned for its "market-driven populism."
 Diller Scofidio + Renfro's proposed new entrance to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 
(A better way for MoMA to be engaging and welcoming would be for them to remove that obnoxious wall on 54th Street that blocks the view of their sculpture garden.)
Wall along 54th Street blocking the view of MoMA's sculpture Garden. 
With colorful outside seats and tables, and food trucks nearby, the new Whitney entrance is as festive and leisurely as an Italian Piazza.
Plaza outside the Whitney entrance.
The Whitney has this same gracious and inviting air on the inside too.
Cafe on the eighth floor deck
I don't know if it was a matter of having a better client, or Piano just got better as an architect, but the Whitney is about as different from the Harvard Museums as it could possibly be.  The Harvard building, with its solid, blank wall, is obnoxiously hostile to the street and its neighbors.
The exterior of Harvard Art Museums. Photography by Peter Vanderwarker.
But the decks and exterior stairwells of the new Whitney visually open the building up to its surroundings and integrate it with the nearby High Line. From the street below, the people climbing the outside stairways and looking out from the decks of the Whitney seem to be the vertical equivalent of the people promenading along the High Line. 
I wasn't able to take a good photograph myself; however, I got this excellent one from photographybykent.
The entrance to the Harvard Museums is so insignificant I thought I'd mistakenly come in through a side entrance, whereas the Whitney's entire ground floor is glass and visually open to the street. As if this isn't enough, Whitney employees give you a warm welcome when you enter. 
Ground floor entry of the new Whitney Museum. 
Piano's signature interior stairways, which look so corporate and cold at the Harvard Museums, are lively and fun here, mainly because of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's witty stairwell installation.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1994.
Outside stairways and decks.
At the Harvard Museums a lot of space is wasted with a disproportionately grandiose five-story atrium – something that unfortunately has become obligatory for new museums. I'm pleased to report that there's no wasteful atrium here. This was undoubtably the decision of the Whitney board who chose not to have a gigantic ostentatious space for fundraising galas, but instead to use more space for the display of art. They will probably have their galas in the galleries, a more appropriate space for a museum anyway. 

And what beautiful galleries they are! Art looks fresh and alive in them. The rooms are high and light, and, since the walls and lights can be moved, different size galleries and configurations of the space are possible. Whatever the size of the galleries, they still feel intimate, and they don't distract from the art in any way.
Seventh Floor gallery.
Eighth floor gallery
Fifth Floor Gallery

Seventh Floor gallery, Alexander Calder's Circus, 1926-31.
The Whitney also has an all-purpose 170-seat black box theater (a neutral theater space with a movable seating area, a movable stage, and a flexible lighting system), and it's a beauty. They've had music and dance concerts there already. 
The Susan and John Hess Family Theater. 
And finally, one small but telling thing: at a time when museums are taking away seats to make more room to push crowds through, they considerately provide several pleasant places to sit and enjoy the view, or watch the parade of people, or to just rest up. 
Chairs were designed by Mary Heilmann to "encourage visitors to interact with one another and the cityscape beyond."
Seating area overlooking the High Line.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Retrospective Reflections

By Charles Kessler

As I wrote in the previous post, I quit painting about eight years ago and was about to throw away all the art I had in storage when I was offered a retrospective. I've been reluctant to write about the work itself because, while it isn't unethical to write about one's own work, there's something about it that makes me uncomfortable. But it's easier to write about it knowing I'm not doing it to advance my career (I quit, remember), and I'm not making any money on the show (100% goes to Art House Productions). Besides, the insights I got from seeing 30 years of my paintings in one space might be of interest.

Some things were a complete revelation, but mostly I was surprised at the extent to which certain themes appear in my work. Here is a representative sampling of the works in my retrospective supplemented with other work that, for various reasons, was not included, and some brief commentary about what I learned.

One thing that should have been obvious but was a revelation to me: my work started out large (the oldest painting in the show is 74 x 160 inches) and generally got smaller and smaller until I was finally making work that was only about 2 or 3 inches. 
Indian Forest Backdrop, 1979-80, acrylic on paper, 74 x 160 inches.
As large as Indian Forest Backdrop is, it was part of an even larger tableau:
Indian Forest Tableau, 1979-80, room size,  22 x 24 feet, Jan Baum Gallery, Los Angeles. I was heavily influenced here by an exhibition I saw of very theatrical Northwest Coast Native American art. 
Below are paintings from 2000-2004 that vary in height. 
From the left: 9 inches, 10 inches and 3 inches high.
Toward the end of this post I discuss the last work I ever made. They're called "Pocket Paintings," and are even smaller, 2 - 3 inches.

My work also became simpler, more elemental and more abstract.
Trainscape, 1988, acrylic on jute, 55 ½ x 36 inches (Photo: Vincent Romaniello). This is one of the first works in which I cut out the shapes and glued them to the surface, butted up to each other like a puzzle. 
From the left: 1992-N, 1992, acrylic on wood, 30 ¾ x 7 inches, 1993-J, 1993, alkyd on linen, 35 x 6 x 3 ½ inches, and 1993-G, alkyd on wood, 36 x 6 x 4 ½ inches.
I always knew I was influenced by two very different artist that I was friends with in Los Angeles, Ron Davis and Charles Garabedian, but I was surprised by how pervasive their influence was. From Davis I derived three-dimensional illusions of geometric objects and a vivid color sensibility. 
1989-C, 1989, acrylic and grit on wood, 7 x 90 inches. Over the years I’ve made quite a few wide skinny paintings like this one. I like that they can be installed in unusual spaces like above doors and windows.
I love rich, bright color, and I'm especially pleased when the colors brighten and enliven each other.

I was influenced by Garabedian's muscular, aggressive drawing, and, even more important for my work, the raw physical way he uses materials.  
Untitled, 1984, acrylic, glitter, grit on bamboo shade, 64 x 48 inches. 
My interest in the physical, tactile qualities of painting has been there from the beginning, and became more and more prominent, even in my abstract works.
Color Slabs, 1980, acrylic on styrofoam, 17 x 30 x 7 inches. Styrofoam is easy to cut and shape, and, best of all, it looks as if the color goes all the way through – as if it's a slab of solid color. 
I knew there was a playful quality to my art, but I didn’t realize that it's in almost everything I did. 
Puzzle Painting, 1990, acrylic and oil pastel on wood, 12 x 12 inches (photo by Stephanie Romano courtesy of JCI). Each puzzle-like piece can be removed and can function as a separate, stand alone painting, like individuals in a not too dysfunctional group. 
I've always been concerned with how art is displayed, but this retrospective made me realized that it has actually been one of the main subjects of my work.
1993-G, alkyd on wood, 36 x 6 x 4 ½ inches. 
About these paintings, Janet Koplos, in Art in America (May, 1994) wrote “Turning commodity art upside down, Charles Kessler presents the individual brushstroke as a displayable and purchasable thing. ... Clearly, for him, paint is an easy sell – a wondrous substance of entrancing surface and glorious hue, no matter where it's found.” 
 1994-L, 1994, acrylic on linen, 38 x 18 inches. 
The thing about abstract painting is it can seem pre-determined, like minimal abstraction, or random and arbitrary, like action painting. In both cases it doesn't seem as if the artist made a decision. (I'm not saying that's in fact the case — it's just experienced as if it were.) I wanted to make work that is experienced as a deliberate act. (I was influenced by Clyfford Still's paintings in that respect.) By cutting out the loosely painted colored configurations and laying them down side by side onto the surface, like a mosaic, as I did in 1994-L (above) and many works like it, I make it apparent that a willful decision was made.

My main conscious concern had been to make paintings that are experienced over time, rather than taken in all at once like the art of the  LA Cool School, or Frank Stella's black paintings. At first I went about it by making paintings that were large, dense, and complicated; later I evolved many simpler and clearer ways to that end.

In the painting reproduced below, 1988-C,  you can only see a little at a time as you scroll down, so it's actually a good way to experience it. 
1988-C, 1988, acrylic on wood, 91 x 7 ½ inches (photo: Vincent Romaniello).
I think of these paintings as abstract narratives — the experience changes as you scan over the different shapes, colors and textures, one image affecting the way another is experienced, like in music, or a Chinese hand scroll.

In a more literal way Open Book, 1998, is experienced over time. 
Open Book, 1998, acrylic on canvas on wood, hardware, 42 x 74 x 29 inches. This is one painting made up of five moving panels.
Another view of Open Book, 1998. Each of the central images on every panel has been cut out and inset into to the background. 
Some work not included in the retrospective:
Two sides of three separate Pocket Paintings, all 2006, acrylic on wood, approximately 1/2 x 2 or 3 inches
(Photos: Jim Geist).
Pocket Paintings, the last work I ever made, encapsulate almost everything I’ve tried to do in my art. They exist in our space – real, not illusionistic, space; they're tactile – you literally touch them; the experience changes over time as you turn them; and they're playful – instead of reading or playing with an iPhone while waiting in a line, or on the subway, you can take one out of your pocket and look at art. They weren't in the retrospective because I only made about 20 of them, and I don't want to part with the ones I have left.

Dancing Wu Li, 1980 (below) is another very large early painting. It was not included in the retrospective because in the early 1990s I gave it to Grace Church, a local church where I curated many art exhibitions. I don't know what ultimately happened to it, but for many years it was prominently exhibited behind the altar.
Dancing Wu Li, 1980-B, acrylic on styrofoam, 88 x 183 x 3 inches.
Embedded Painting, 1995, acrylic on wood, shelf standards, 48 x 96 inches. It's made up of twelve separate paintings that interact with each other. 
Detail: Embedded Painting, 1995. The colored configurations were painted on linen, cut out, and embedded into the slabs of wood.
Embedded Painting was in a Bennington College exhibition that Saul Ostrow organized in 1996, but I never retrieved it after the show.

And there are a few, like the "Pocket Paintings," that for one reason or another I just want to keep:
1990-A, 1990, acrylic on wood, 10 x 15 inches.

Candide, 1988, acrylic on wood, 27 x 11 inches.
1994-K, 1994, acrylic on linen on wood, 12 x 12 inches.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why I Quit Painting

By Charles Kessler

For 12 years I divided my time between continuing my work as an artist and leading a campaign, as a volunteer citizen activist, to save and develop a ten-block area of historic warehouses in Downtown Jersey City where, at its peak, there were hundreds of artists.
A couple of blocks in The Powerhouse Arts District, Jersey City in 2002.
It was named the Powerhouse Arts District, and it was succeeding better than I ever expected. An historic district was created to protect the buildings, several buildings were restored, and some infill buildings were constructed that were compatible with the old warehouses. All residential had to be live/work loft spaces, and 20% of all spaces was set aside for low-income artists. Even the developers were happy because they were making money since, they discovered, loft spaces are desirable (duh).

Then a new mayor was elected who not only allowed these historic buildings to be demolished, but encouraged it by re-zoning the area for 60-story buildings. Most heartbreaking was the demolition of the Lorillard Tobacco Warehouse, 111 First Street, which, at its peak, housed 7 art galleries and had more than 200 artists working there. It was the center of activity for hundreds of other artists in the area, including me.
111 First Street, the Lorillard Tobacco Company, Jersey City, January 2002. 
When the dream died, I became angry and alienated, not only from Jersey City government, but also (unfairly) from the admirable and caring community of citizen activists working to make the city better. Even worse, I lost my art community and felt isolated as an artist. Without interaction and feedback from artists and other people I could relate to, I found making art lonely and boring. (That's probably the reason artists have always lived and worked near other artists.) To top it off, my gallery went out of business, having been priced out of what had become the trendy Meatpacking District.

I took pride in my identity as an artist, and I was reluctant to give it up. It wasn't until I found other things that I was able to let it go. My wife and I gradually became involved with the community created by Art House Productions, a local performing and visual arts group that we had come to love. I also became more and more engaged in the supportive, open and collegial atmosphere of the Bushwick art scene. And, best of all, I started this blog.

Until recently, I still felt bad about my art. I felt it was worthless, that it all had been a waste. I was about to get a dumpster and get rid of the art I had in storage when Robinson Holloway, the director of the Village West Gallery in Jersey City, proposed one last exhibition – a retrospective. (She suggested I could make a big bonfire after the show, if I still wanted to.) I liked the idea of a last hurrah, and I thought it would be fitting if 100% of all sales, if there were any, go to Art House Productions. Robinson generously agreed.
Installation view: Charles Kessler: 30 Years of Painting,  The Village West Gallery, May 18, - June 5, 2015.
This retrospective stirred up a lot of these good and bad feelings, attitudes, and memories, and it turned out to be the final stage of healing. For one thing, I am no longer soured about my art. After not painting for 8 years, I had forgotten I did some really good work. I now value it again; and I'm gratified to learn that other people also value it (a lot of work has already sold). My work is finding a home with people who care about it – so no bonfire.
Opening reception of Charles Kessler: 30 Years of Painting, The Village West Gallery, May 18, 2015 (Photo: Jim Kafadar)
Will I ever go back to making art?  No. But when I quit writing forty years ago, I never thought I'd go back to it, and, forty years later, here I am. We'll see what the next forty years will bring. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015


By Charles Kessler

Readers of this blog know I hardly ever write about dance, even though I love it and go to at least one or two dance concerts every month; and I've never written about opera. But Norte Maar's dance concert CounterPointe3 and LoftOpera's production of Lucrezia Borgia have inspired me to stretch a bit. 
Standing Ovation for LoftOpera's Lucrezia Borgia.
LoftOpera is a small company – small for an opera company, that is. Their recent production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia had 20 performers including 6 in the chorus, a 24-member orchestra, and 16 people listed in the program under production, but I’m sure there were a lot more people involved that weren’t credited. And tickets were only $30 to $50 (vs. $160 average for the Met). 

The company is young and enthusiastic, and it plays to a mostly young and enthusiastic audience. They have been staging full operas in various temporary spaces in Brooklyn for a couple of years now. (I saw their Barber of Saville last year.) And they're great! They've gotten raves in the Times and other places and have become so popular that all their productions not only immediately sell out, but people are actually scalping their tickets. 

A great deal of their popularity, aside from the first-rate music, is due to their casual, unpretentious and intimate presentations and settings — and that's probably why they appeal to a young audience. The spaces are large lofts that seat 200-300 people, usually in the round, so everyone is close to the singers. 
Nikhil Navkal as Gennaro and Joanna Parisi as Lucrezia Borgia.
The singers moved in and out of the the audience. One time, had I not ducked, I would have been hit in the head by a large table when they moved it. (We were warned in advance.) And talk about casual – beer is served before and during the performance, and every once in a while you can hear a bottle roll on the floor. 

At this performance the audience was so exhilarated that at intermission they got up and excitedly talked to each other and the performers. I struck up a conversation with Cody Rowlands, one of the trumpet players, who told me that he thought the experience of this production was probably more like it was in Donizetti’s time. He has a point. Donizetti operas played in large, opulent opera houses like the Met, but unlike the staid, hushed opera audience of today, his audience was raucous, loudly cheering and jeering the singers. While the LoftOpera audience didn't interrupt the performance, I imagine we had a sense of engagement similar to what the 19th-century audience experienced because of the intimate and casual setting of this production.

One little thing that I think exemplifies why it was so great: the hanging globes were occasionally lowered, and the singers every once in a while got smacked in the head by one, but that didn't phase them – nothing did. They were so focused, so intense and so all-out in their singing that you couldn't help being taken along for the emotional ride. 
Lucrezia Borgia (Joanne Parisi) pleading with her fourth husband, the evil Duke of Ferrara (Matthew Anchel) to save Gennaro (Nikhil Nevkal), who, unbeknownst to the Duke, is secretly her son.
Lucrezia Borgia is a ridiculous melodrama with a particularly farfetched ending: Gennaro, who is poisoned (for the second time – don't ask), tries to stab Lucrezia because she caused him and his friends to be poisoned, but she stops him by revealing (spoiler alert) that she is his mother (gasp!). Lucrezia begs Gennaro to take the antidote (again) but he refuses, preferring to die with his friends. 
The prologue to LoftOpera's Lucrezia Borgia – Joanne Parisi as Lucrezia recognizing her long-lost son.
But as ridiculous and unbelievable as the final scene is, Joanna Parisi, who starred as Lucrezia, sang it with such a frenzied passion that it brought some of us to tears. The closing aria is the famous and very demanding "Era desso il figlio mio."  Donizetti’s star soprano insisted he write it for her in order to showcase her vocal agility. (Donizetti later removed it because he thought it made the ending unbelievable, as if that would make a difference.) Parisi was awesome (and I mean that literally). She put her all into it and sang with such bravura, it brought the audience to their feet. 

And that's another thing about opera in general, but especially as experienced in a small, closeup environment like this: the sound coming out of the singers is uncanny — so powerful, and preternaturally beautiful it seems superhuman. I mean, real human beings aren't supposed to sound like that. It's magical. 

Intermezzo, choreography by Julia K Gleich. Dancers: Izabela Szylinska, Łukasz Zięba, Ahmaud Culver. (Photo courtesy Gleich Dances and Norte Maar.)

CounterPointe3 is the third annual series of dances choreographed by women for women en pointe – i.e., ballet. Women invented modern dance – Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham in the United States and Mary Wigman in Germany, to name some of the main creators; and women still predominate in the field. Sadly, it's not so with ballet. It's not surprising, then, that most of the choreographers for CounterPointe3 had more experience with modern dance than ballet. As a happy result, the dances integrated of the power, angularity, weight and expressiveness of modern dance with the weightless grace of traditional ballet.  

The dancer and choreographer Kayla Harley in her dance run-on sentences of I miss you … is a case in pointe (sorry). She doesn’t have the typical willowy body of a ballerina, but her compact energy, speed, precision and ability to quickly snap into odd angular positions and hold them rock steady, brought to ballet the type of expression found more often in modern dance. 
run-on sentences of I miss you ... (work in progress), choreographed and danced by Kayla Harley.
Quilll/t by Julia K. Gleich, one of the organizers of CounterPointe3, incorporated a mesmerizing video projection by David Chang, showing the hand of a calligrapher writing the word "quill/t" multiple times; and the amplified sound of the pen on the paper contributed to the score. Quilll/t was a complicated dance with intricate patterns of movement that were clarified and pulled together by apt arrangements of arms and legs. My favorite move (and Kayla Harley was superlative at it) is when the dancers would quickly snap into a 90 degree bent-over position, with their backs arched and their elbows akimbo – not a move one would ordinarily see in a traditional ballet. This was a riveting dance that required, and rewarded, my full concentration.
Qull/t choreographed by Julia Gleich and Lynn Parkerson with music by Ranjit Bhatnagar and video projection by David Chang. The dancers are Kayla Harley, Savannah Lee, Miku Kawamura and Christine Sawyer. 
Once again, a magical experience. Real people (okay, they're in better shape than normal) become weightless, fly, and move more quickly and with more grace than mere mortals. And they get into positions and postures that human beings just can't do. These are just some of the reasons I'm so awed by dance, and why I love it so much.

Jersey City dance news: this year Julia Gleich will be one of the curators for the fifth annual Your Move dance festival; and Nimbus Dance Works will be appearing at BAM on May 8 - 9. I saw a rehearsal, and it is terrific.