Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Parable by Carl Belz

I went outside this morning and was struck by the realization that all of my neighbors are writers. It happened again at the post office when I saw my acquaintances from around town, they were writers too, every one of them. Even people I didn’t know—I could tell they were writers. On I went to the market where, to my astonishment, everything seemed to have changed overnight. I was assaulted by a whole new battery of signs: Discount Words—The Writers Paradise! Check Our Metaphors Bin, A Cornucopia Of Verbal Images! Buy One Alliterative Triad, Get One Free! Create Your Own Words With One Of Our DIY Syllable Packs! Grab A Handful Of “2Ways,” Nouns that Double As Verbs!

My mind was spinning. I retreated to the parking lot. It had begun to drizzle, just lightly at first, just consonants, but the precipitation quickly became mixed with vowels and before I knew it words were raining upon me, pooling and streaming at my feet, forming here and there what appeared to be phrases or the beginnings of sentences, but mostly they piled up in incomprehensible clusters. My footing was becoming unsteady, but I wanted to linger, maybe put together a few words of my own, leave a comment or message for one of my friends, or maybe pocket a few to use later—but when I scooped them up they were pale and limp, as if lifeless, they came apart in my hand, and the letters slipped through my fingers and were swept away, useless. I’d experienced in the past words coming from out of the blue, but they were invariably fresh and vital and clearly articulated in concert with inspiration, or enlisted to serve an urge toward meaning. In contrast, these words were exhausted—they appeared even to have been abused—and their sheer volume, their gaudy abundance, was like nothing I’d ever seen, making me cringe and turn away from their lurid spectacle.

What was happening? Had these words been denigrated for refusing to participate in tiresome clichés? Had they been hawked to excess by the marketer’s pitch? Had they—for irony’s sake—been dangling for too long in the ambiguous space between saying and meaning? Had they suffered the indignity of the poor carpenter’s maligned tools? I sat in my car, sadly watching the words settling around me, coating the streets, running into the streams that run to the rivers that empty into the sea, and their silent message gradually surfaced in my consciousness, comforting me with the assurance that they’d be there after the storm to verify my world, just as they’d been there to verify it before it forever changed.    

 Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Art Obsessive’s Guide to Washington Museums

By Charles Kessler

Washington D. C. Museums
If you read my last two posts (here and here), you know I spent two exhausting days in Washington scrupulously touring the museums. I think it’s possible, with enough stamina and planning, to see most of the Washington museums in one day, at least if you’ve been there before and don’t need to spend a lot of time with the permanent collections. You should at least be able to check out all the important special exhibitions in one day. There's no reason to see everything -- no sane person needs to be as obsessive about this as I am.

Transportation should cost about $100 round trip if you’re careful which Amtrak train you take, or about $40 if you take the Chinatown bus. Amtrak doesn’t have wifi yet, like some of the buses, but they usually have electric outlets, half decent bathrooms and a snack bar; and it's pretty comfortable and reliable.

Here's the Amtrak website for buying tickets. The cheapest Amtrak ticket I found is $49 each way. One of the $49 trains departs New York Penn Station at 7:17 a.m. (Newark Penn Station at 7:33 - same price), and arrives in Washington Union Station at 10:40 a.m. (3 hr, 23 min). There’s another $49 ticket for you slackers that departs at a more civilized 8:10 a.m. (Newark at 8:26 a.m.  - same price) and arrives 11:29 (3 hr, 19 min), but you’ll miss an hour and a half of museum going.

A Metro fair card with about $4 or $5 on it should cover your subway transportation. Don’t buy food in the museums or on the Mall unless you’re really strapped for time  — it’s relatively expensive ($5 for a hot dog at a stand!) and not very good. Union Station has a large food court in the basement; a quick lunch or dinner there when you arrive or depart would probably be better. Or bring a lunch and eat it on the train — it’ll save time.

The best day of the week to go is Thursday because The Phillips Collection stays open until 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays; the other museums close between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The National Gallery of Art (NGA)
Go here first because it closes the earliest, 5 p.m., and it's the nearest to Union Station -- and it's the best. It’s an easy 15 minute walk from Union Station via Louisiana Ave. to the National Gallery East Wing. It’s about 0.8 mile and goes through a park and, toward the end, along a highway; or take a taxi from in front of Union Station (about $7 including tip).

The American Indian Museum is directly across the Mall from the National Gallery.
The Hirshhorn is just a couple of blocks west of that. (Closes 5:30 p.m.)
A block and a half further west is the African Art Museum.  (Closes 5:30 p.m.)
And a half a block more is the Freer/Sackler Museum.  (Closes 5:30 p.m.)
The Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are in the same building. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the Freer. Go north on 9th Street past the National Gallery Sculpture Garden to F or G Street (about 7-8 blocks), turn right for a block to 8th Street. (You could take the Orange and Yellow Metro lines, located in front of the Freer, to Metro Center and change to the Red line to Gallery Pl/Chinatown, but that seems like a lot of trouble and probably wouldn’t save any time.)
Keep The Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum for later in the day since they close at 7 p.m.
Relevant section of the Washington Metro Map
The Corcoran Gallery  (Closes 9:00 p.m., admission is $8 - $10)
 500 Seventeenth Street NW. The main entrance is located on Seventeenth Street between New York Avenue and E Street NW.
The Corcoran is just a few blocks away from two Metro rail stations: the Orange/Blue lines (located right in front of the Freer) to Farragut West (four stops), exit 17th street; or take the Red line (located near the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum) to Farragut North (two stops), take the K Street exit. From either station, walk south on Seventeenth Street to the Corcoran.
The Corcoran Gallery and Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection  (Closes 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission to the permanent collection is by donation, but they charge $10 - $12 for special exhibitions.)
1600 21st Street NW, near the corner of 21st and Q Street.
Take the Red Line to the Dupont Circle station. Make sure to use the Q Street exit from the station to avoid several minutes of extra walking. At the top of the escalator, go left (west) on Q Street to 21st Street.

You can make the best use of your time by keeping the Phillips for last when the other museums have closed. After you’re done here you can go back to Dupont Circle and take the Red Line Metro to Union Station to get the train back home.

The only $49 return train I know of fortunately leaves at a good time, 8:45 p.m. Union Station is a terminal, the trains start and end here, so you don’t have to worry about getting a seat. If all goes well, you should arrive at New York Penn Station at 12:10 a.m. (Newark Penn Station, 11:52 p.m.).

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Washington — Day Two

By Charles Kessler

FREER/SACKLER Museums of Asian Art
What a classy museum the Freer is! It's the only museum I went to that didn't have hundreds of school kids traipsing through, or tourists doggedly fulfilling their cultural obligation. There were no people making fun of the work either, like I encountered at the Hirshhorn and American Museums. (Why these people bother going to art museums I’ll never understand.) Instead the people at the Freer were knowledgeable lovers of Asian art.

The Freer is quiet and well lit, and the galleries are orderly without being repetitious. There are even comfortable chairs you can rest in under a shady loggia overlooking a beautiful courtyard. Like I said --- classy.
The Courtyard of the Freer Gallery of Art
My only complaint is most of the hanging silk paintings are covered with glass that makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to see the older, dark Chinese paintings without being distracted by reflections.

But what a collection! They have some of the best Chinese bronzes I’ve ever seen, and they’re in pristine condition — pretty amazing considering they’re thousands of years old. Look at the detail of this owl:
Detail: Ritual Wine Container (You), Shang dynasty, 13th century B.C., bronze (Freer/Sackler Museum)
They also have more than one thousand works by James McNeill Whistler (yes, that Whistler — the Whistler of Arrangement in Grey and Black fame), including The Peacock Room, a lavish London dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77.

Whistler’s art was heavily influenced by Asian art and he encouraged Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, to collect it; hence the connection.
James McNeill Whistler, The Peacock Room, 1876-77
The Sackler part of the museum isn’t as genial as the Freer. It’s newer, below ground, claustrophobic and somewhat of a labyrinth. Most of the larger temporary exhibitions are installed there, like:

The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan (until July 31st)    
These caves were one of the great achievements of the 6th century Northern Qi dynasty. They once contained monumental Buddhas, divine attendant figures, and crouching monsters that were carved into the mountains of northern China. Tragically, they were destroyed in the first half of the twentieth century when the sculptures were chiseled away and sold. With the aid of 3D imaging technology and several fragments of the sculptures on view, this exhibition captures some idea of what this awe-inspiring devotional site must have been like.

From one of the best museums, the Freer, to one of the worst. I don’t mean the collection, which isn't great (Hirshhorn was infamous for seeking bargains) but has some good things. It’s the building I have issues with — it’s bad even by the low standards of modern art museums. In addition to my earlier complaints about a boisterous atmosphere, poorly proportioned, odd-shaped rooms, and a distracting and wasteful atrium, the building is doughnut-shaped so it feels like you’re walking down an endless corridor rather than viewing the work in separate rooms. (The de Young Museum in San Francisco has the same problem, but that’s a rectangular space so they have even less of an excuse.)  To make matters worse, the interior wall is all windows (looking out over a dreary courtyard), and as a result, the galleries are so busy and distracting it’s almost impossible to focus on the work.
They have five major Clyfford Still paintings in their permanent collection, several given to them by Still. Thankfully they’re hung in their own, relatively private, room.
Clyfford Still, 1948-C, 1948, oil on canvas, 81 x 69 in. (Hirshhorn)
Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977  (Until May 15th)
This is the first retrospective of German abstract artist Peter Schwartze, aka Peter Heisterkamp, probably best known by the name his teacher, Joseph Beuys, gave him: Blinky Palermo.
Installation view, Blinky Palermo Retrospective, 1964-77
Even though this work is conceptual and minimal, there’s a nice, free-wheeling spirit to his exploration of decoration and modernism. It’s sad he died so young (33) — it would have been interesting to see where he’d go with all this.

This show is composed of works from the Hirshhorn's collection and is supposed to “explore the ways in which color has been an essential tool for artists, regardless of medium,” to quote from the catalog. Half the work in the show is black and white (or may as well be) — enough said.

The Freer, Sackler and African Museums are interconnected, and the Sackler and African museums, except for their entrances, are completely underground. It's almost impossible to get your bearings in these spaces. (To make matters even more confusing, the Ripley Center International Gallery, a multi-purpose building including the Discovery Theater, is also under ground and connected to the others.) 

They supposedly have a great collection of African art originally collected by Paul and Ruth Tishman and sold to Disney for its Epcot Center but never installed there. Ultimately Disney gave the collection, all 525 objects, to this museum. I was not able to find it, and I couldn't find anyone to help me either. I really have no idea what this museum is about. The shows I saw were a mishmash of contemporary art and traditional (what we used to call "Primitive") art, jumbled together by some flimsy theme like “Technique and Object” or “Movement and Gesture.” I think Holland Cotter had a good point in his recent Times piece about how contemporary African, Chinese and Indian art is supplanting traditional art. That is certainly the case here.

One interesting installation piece I stumbled on was by Henrique Oliveira, a Brazilian artists of all things. There was no justification for it being at this museum as far as I can tell, but it was an impressive piece.
Henrique Oliveira, Bololo, wood, hardware, pigment, site specific installation (National Museum of African Art)
The American Indian Museum is mainly a cultural museum like the American History Museum, and it is another example of Holland Cotter’s argument. If you’re hoping to see some Northwest Coast Indian art, or other American Indian traditional art, you’re better off going to The George Gustav Heye Center in the old Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, in New York.

The American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery share a block-long, historic, beautiful building with a large covered courtyard. They’re located a few blocks north of the National Gallery, in the heart of the hip and bustling Downtown.
I must confess that I had never been to either of these museums. I had an entirely wrong impression of them. I thought they would be filled with dark and dreary 18th and 19th century American portraits, boring landscape paintings, and silly, pompous history painting — but was I ever wrong. There was some of that, of course (see below), but both museums have much more modern and contemporary art than I expected, maybe about a third of the art exhibited. (Cotter’s point again?)
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, The Adams Memorial, modeled 1886-91, cast 1969, bronze
Contemporary highlights of the collection include Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway (reproduced in the last post); impressive large-scale work by Alfred Jensen, Sean Scully, Edward Kienholz, and James Rosenquist; and this unusual room-size work by David Hockney. It changes color when different colored lights are shined on it:
David Hockney, Snails Space with Vari-Lites, Painting as Performance, 1995-1996, oil on two canvases, acrylic on canvas-covered masonite, wood dowels, overall: 84 x 260 x 135 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum
The museum also gives a chance for lesser known but deserving American artists to get shown, artists like Paul Wonner whose work is best illustrated in a close-up detail.
Detail, Paul Wonner, Model Drinking Coffee, 1964, oil on canvas
Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow (until May 8th)   
The American Museum has organized Rockman’s first major survey, and it includes 47 paintings and works on paper from the mid-1980s to the present. I don’t think this survey does him any favors; seeing his work in quantity makes me realize how much like illustration it is. Rockman built his career around environmental issues, and they’re good environmental illustrations, beautifully painted and all — but illustrations nonetheless.

As one would expect of a portrait museum, art isn’t the major issue here. There’s just as much or more emphasis on the sitter (presidents, famous actors, historic figures, etc.) as there is on the artist. Nevertheless, there is a lot of great art to be seen here. I forgot how many contemporary artists have made portraiture a major part of their oeuvre. Off the top of my head, there’s Chuck Close of course, but also Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, David Hockney, Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, and the way over-rated Elizabeth Peyton. And these are just the painters; there are a lot more photographers.
Alice Neel, Self-Portrait, 1980, oil on canvas, 53 x 40 in (National Portrait Gallery)
Alexander Calder with his portraits of Edgar Varese (c.1930)
 and unknown man (c. 1929), 1963 photo by Ugo Mulas
Calder’s Portraits - A New Language (until August 14th)
This exhibition was the last one I saw, and one of my favorites. Calder's wire portraits are an absolute delight: inventive, playful, masterful caricature. Even the shadows they cast were considered and fun. Calder clearly enjoyed doing these, and he continued to do them even after he moved to abstraction in the 1930s.

Next post: A day trip to the Washington Museums -- tips and details.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Washington D. C. -- Day One

By Charles Kessler

There’s not a bit of art to see in New York so I thought I'd go down to Washington for the day and see Gauguin, Maker of Myth at the National Gallery (until June 5th), and Philip Guston, Roma at the Phillips Collection (until May 15th).  I soon realized I'd need at least two days to see all the other shows in Washington now. And of course there are the permanent collections of all those great museums. It was an exhilarating and exhausting two days!  Here are some brief thoughts and a photo diary of some highlights of my tour.

But before I start there's something I'd like to get off my chest — something I find both baffling and exasperating. Why is contemporary art almost always shown in spaces that are noisy, too brightly lit and too big, not just in Washington, but practically everywhere. Some art may be able to handle this, but not most. Walking from the West Wing of the National Gallery, where the Old Masters are, to the modern collection in I. M. Pei's East Wing, is to go from a quiet, genteel, orderly space to an assault of bright lights and noise -- a chaotic cacophony of oddly shaped rooms, arbitrarily arranged and way out of scale. 
National Gallery East Wing Atrium

Could it still be the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim after all these years? That might also explain why museums of modern art are usually surrounded by high blank walls outside, and distracting, wasteful, atriums inside. What are they thinking?

Okay, I feel better now.

I spent almost half of my time here because, in addition to the Gauguin show, there were so many other exhibitions to see: Gabriel Metsu, 1629–1667 (until July 24th); Lewis Baltz: Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit (until July 31st); Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals (Until May 30th); Larger Than Life: Ter Brugghen's Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene (until May 15th); and In the Tower: Nam June Paik (until October 2nd). Plus the National Gallery's permanent collection has some of the best art in the world, including this bit of perfection best seen close up as illustrated in this detail:
Detail, Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra Benci, c.1474-78, oil on panel, 15 x 14 9/16 inches (National Gallery).
Several of the 19th century French galleries in the main part of the museum are being renovated, but don't worry, most of that art is downstairs in an exhibition of the Chester Dale Collection, a major collection of mostly 19th and early 20th century French painting given to the museum in 1962. It’s installed in a lower, more crowded space mainly used for changing exhibitions of prints and drawings, but the work is so great it hardly matters. One of the many treats was seeing two great large group portraits, Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques and Manet's The Old Musician, displayed on opposite walls.
Edouard Manet, The Old Musician, 1862, oil on canvas, 73 3/4 x 97 11/16 in.
Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, oil on canvas, 83 3/4 x 90 3/8 in.
Gauguin, Maker of Myth
This is a big show — 120 paintings, drawings, prints and ceramic and wood sculptures. Despite his prominence, Gauguin isn't the easiest artist to like. His colors are acidic and wishy-washy — even his major exception, Vision of the Sermon, is so bold only because it was supposed to be seen in a dark church. In addition, the space in his paintings is disjointed, and his drawing and shapes are graceless.
Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888,
oil on canvas (National Gallery of Scotland).
Even more damning, there's something dry and inauthentic about his work. This whole savage, primitive, Tahiti baloney was just a calculated PR campaign to promote his work. I agree with Philip Kennicott's objection to the post-modern analysis espoused in the catalog:
...but Gauguin still awaits a proper understanding, a reckoning that is both artistic and moral. The worst thing about phrases such as "narrative strategies" is that they reduce biographical data to a post-modern stew of moral relativity: Fraudulent self-promotion becomes "self-mythologizing"; theft becomes playful appropriation; the repeated rape of a child - for what else can you call sex with a girl who wasn't mature enough to consent or economically or socially powerful enough to refuse - becomes something grouped under the theme "fictions of femininity."

Nevertheless, or maybe as a result, this is powerful and disturbing work — a dark and troubling lost paradise, hauntingly evoked.

In the Tower: Nam June Paik
I would have thought video pioneer Nam June Paik might be one of the few artists that could handle the East Wing ruckus, and that it would be a waste to put his work in the tower, a more intimate and secluded space, but the show, 20 videos and a few works on paper borrowed mainly from Paik's estate, worked beautifully there. I guess video is a private (as opposed to public) medium.

Paik is very well represented in Washington. In addition to this show, there are several major works on display in the Hirshhorn and American Art museums, including this popular favorite:
Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway, 1995, 49-channel closed circuit video installation, neon, steel and electronic components, approx. 15 x 40 x 4 ft., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist
The Phillips Collection is open until 8:30 on Thursdays so I was able to go there after the National Gallery closed. (I’ve developed sturdy gallery legs over the years.) Maybe it's because they don't show much contemporary art, but the Phillips is very much an exception to the obnoxious MOMAs I was complaining about. Even their new additions maintain the intimacy of the original Phillips' home, and it's a pleasure to look at art there. (That’s why I so despair for the Barnes.)

Philip Guston, Roma
In 1970 Guston received a lot of negative criticism for an exhibition of his new work at New York’s Marlborough Gallery. The work was painted in a clumsy, cartoony style and dealt with political satire and allegorical narratives.  It was a radical departure from his popular Abstract Expressionist paintings, and stunned the art world.
Philip Guston, Residue, 1971. Oil on paper. (Estate of Philip Guston; image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, NY.)
Rome was a good escape for Guston, and inspiring. During the six months he spent as artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1970–71, he was able to study the old masters and explore new possibilities for his art away from the art world. This show brings together for the first time 39 paintings from this period. All the work is small, no more than studies really, but exciting to see because they are precursors of the themes and images he would pursue later in his larger paintings.

David Smith Invents
This show was a real surprise to me. I thought I knew Smith’s work well, but this is work that wasn’t shown, or hardly ever shown. The work is a transition from the anthropomorphic, figurative works in the early 1950s to his famous large-scale steel abstractions. It is the most painterly work of his I've ever seen, not only because he literally painted these sculptures, but because they are as frontal as paintings. Greenberg must be turning over in his grave.
David Smith, Black Concaves, 1960, painted steel
There were also many of his paintings and drawings in the show. Typical of sculptors, Davis stayed away from the edge, usually centering his shapes or lines. 
David Smith, White Egg with Pink, 1958,
oil and metallic paint on canvas (Hirshhorn Museum)

Some favorites from the permanent collection:
Albert Pinkham Ryder, Dead Bird, 1890's, oil on wood, 4 3/8 x 10 in
Dead birds seems to be a Phillips specialty. They have some by Braque, Soutine, and several by a contemporary artist I can’t remember.

A very late Cezanne landscape that's more like one of his watercolors:
Paul Cezanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, c.1906, oil on canvas, 26 x 32 in (Phillips Collection)
Check out this close-up of it I was allowed to take:
Detail: Paul Cezanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, c.1906
After the Phillips closed I had a late dinner and walked around the Dupont Circle area where the Phillips is located. The weather was glorious and the outside cafes were packed. I don't know if it's Obama or the same urban gentrification that occurred in New York, but Washington has become very young, prosperous and hip, at least around Dupont Circle and Downtown near Chinatown where the Portrait and American museums are, and where I spent part of the next day. More on that next post.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

25th Street Painting

By Charles Kessler

If you love painting, 25th Street in Chelsea is the place to go. In one block between 10th and 11th there are four shows of sensual, masterful paintings. No Post Modern irony here — these are real painters' paintings.

Joan Mitchell, Lennon Weinberg Gallery, 514 W. 25th Street (until April 18th). 
Joan Mitchell, Untitled, c. 1959-1960, oil on canvas, 69 x 65 inches

It’s fitting that Mitchell is the first show on the block because she and her fellow Abstract Expressionists in many ways advanced this type of painting.  The paintings in this show are from the fifties, her first mature work, and they demonstrate what a true master of the gestural brush and lush color she was from the beginning. It’s hard to believe that this work, a visual delight today (to the degree that some even consider it suspiciously decorative), looked so raw and ugly when they were made.

Elizabeth Murray, Painting in the Seventies, Pace Galley, 534 W. 25th Street (until April 30th).

Elizabeth Murray, Parting and Together, 1978, oil on canvas, 111 x 39 in.
Murray achieves a nice balance between formal innovation and painterly sensuality in this period (the 1970s). Bulbous shapes push against and twist the edges of the paintings -- the elements in the paintings are so compressed that they fly apart. Lines playfully pass through shapes and in and out of space. Figure and ground are confounded.  The green in Parting and Together, for example, especially at the corners of the painting, can be seen sometimes as foreground and sometimes background, somewhat reminiscent of the way Clyfford Still played with figure and ground. This is joyous, funny, sometimes silly painting, with a lot of fun surprises.

Juan Usle, Cheim & Read, 547 W. 25th (until May 7th). 
Juan Usle, SOLARIS (VACIO), 2010, Vinyl, dispersion and dry pigment on canvas, 18 x 24 inches
Usle’s forte is brightly colored, open, airy and translucent paintings. His work avoids the decorative because there’s always some discordant element -- an unexpected quirky image or configuration that’s a visual contradiction.

John Lees, Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 W. 25th Street (until May 14th).
 John Lees, COURTYARD (OVAL), 1989-2010, Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 inches
Like Charles Garabedian, John is a friend, but I honestly believe that has little to do with why I love his paintings. Perhaps I've paid more attention to his work over the years than I would ordinarily have done, and that may have predisposed me somewhat. But I've known an awful lot of artists in my 67 years, and I don’t feel this way about very many of them.

The more you look at one of his paintings, the more detail you see. Things become more three-dimensional and rounded; colors glow and become brighter. And because he works on a painting for years (Bathtub is dated 1972-2010!), the surface is built up so thick that strange things happen with space. The built-up paint sometimes acts like bas relief reinforcing the spacial illusion; other times it plays against the illusion (see detail of Courtyard, for example).
 Detail, upper left, COURTYARD (OVAL)
 You need to downshift to get into Lee’s world -- these are slow, intimate paintings you can savor.

James Siena in Pace's other 25th Street space, 510 W  25th Street, doesn't quite fit here because, IMO, his work is more conceptual and minimal than what I understand to be painterly painting. Some will disagree. Decide for yourselves — it’s on the same block.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

New York Art Notes

By Charles Kessler
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, 1639, Etching State I of II (Fondation Custodia)
Rembrandt and His School, The Frick Collection (through May 15th). 
There’s so much going on in New York now that it’s actually possible to miss this — a show that would be a blockbuster anywhere else. Don’t miss it.

I was lucky enough to see a similar exhibition at the Getty Museum last summer called Rembrandt and his Pupils (it ended Feb 28th). That exhibition was more didactic than this. It had lots of educational videos and slides and explanatory labels that compared drawings done by Rembrandt with drawings of the same subject done by his pupils. I wrote about here.

The Frick's show is more straightforward: 30 works on paper by Rembrandt, and 36 more by his most prominent pupils including Ferdinand Bol, Jan Lievens, Nicolaes Maes, and some rare drawings by Carel Fabritius.  Most delightful were several self-portraits in melodramatic poses that Rembrandt must have had a lot of fun doing. The show works well in the  Frick's relatively low and small basement space because it adds to the intimacy of the experience.

Cezanne’s Card Players, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 8th).
We blogged about this show already here and here, but I want to make one more general point about how I perceive Cezanne’s paintings and watercolors.

Maybe it's just me, but I've never experienced Cezanne's paintings as massive, rounded, solid forms. Instead I perceive them as elusive, evanescent, unstable forms of glowing color so gaseous I feel I can put my finger into them.

Take Seated Peasant, c. 1892-96, for example. The grays of his pants and jacket, while boldly drawn, appear to be swelling with glowing gray light, and the reflections on his face and hands seem to shimmer and flicker. Things shift in space (to me anyway). His eyes  blink, his mustache and mouth shift, his chest expands as if he’s breathing. 

Paul Cézanne, Seated Peasant, ca. 1892–96, Oil on canvas; 21 1/2 x 17 3/4 in. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The mind seeks symmetry and balance, and when it’s not there we put it there -- even if it means making things appear to move or glow or change color. With Cezanne, some changes are from simultaneous color effects; others are the result of tensions described by Erle Loran as early as the 1920’s. And there’s a lot of movement because everything is both set in space and pushed forward — the figure of course, especially his hands, but also the book and box on the lower left; the chair is tilted up as is his hat; even the wall in the background attaches itself to his hair and clothes. Forms in space are flattened because they’re placed side by side and fitted together like a puzzle; likewise, even the brushwork is frontal, and strokes are placed side by side like a mosaic.  


Unlike other neighborhoods where there are a lot of art galleries, there isn't much else besides galleries in Chelsea, so if the art stinks it can be a long, depressing day.  Unfortunately, this month there aren't many shows in Chelsea I'd recommend. There are some though.

DAVID ALTMEJD, The Swarm, 201, mixed media, 102 1/2 x 244 x 84 1/2 inches (Andrea Rosen Gallery)
David Altmejd at Andrea Rosen (through April 23rd).
I remember seeing his work in the last Whitney Biennial; it stood out even in that environment, reminding me of the excitement I felt the first time I saw Matthew Barney’s sculptural installations. Altmejd's work is fresh, ambitious, intense, bizarre and sometimes hauntingly beautiful.  They’re sort of like a Judy Pfaff or Sarah Sze installation in a room-sized plexiglass box — but that plexiglass box is significant. Diaphanous colored threads, gauzy sheets of cloth, and transparent shapes are painstakingly attached, one thread at a time, to holes drilled in the plexiglas. Placement, as a result, is very deliberate. Then he mixes in representational solid plaster images of angels, wings, and other weird stuff, some made of plaster molds of hands.  Very disconcerting, but it keeps the work from being purely decorative, unlike...

Tara Donovan at Pace (until April 9th). (The Pace website is so bad I can’t give you a direct link to the exhibition — search for it here if you’re interested.)  
This is NOT a show I liked, but it’s getting so much favorable attention I feel it’s important to state my objections. Basically, I believe, she takes no chances but goes directly for empty beauty. I feel about her work the same way I feel about the revered ( not by me, obviously) Robert Smithson — the work is just humble materials made into very large decorations.

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2011, Mylar (Pace Gallery)
Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks (through April 16th).
I was frankly getting bored with Kelly, who seems to have been making the same basic painting for 40 years or so, at least the same basic idea. And that hasn’t changed in this show. But the new work the 87-year old Kelly has shown here is so refined, so simple and elegant, that it completely won me over.

Maybe part of the reason is all the work is black and white. Kelly never really used color as color anyway, but like Stella (and Picasso for that matter) he used color mainly to distinguish one shape from another. I’m exaggerating, but their colors rarely breathe, resonate or glow like Matisse or Morris Lewis for example. Kelly, like the others, is mostly interested in drawing, and nothing is more clear than black and white when it comes to drawing.

Gary Hill at Barbara Gladstone (through April 23rd).
I liked this eccentric show, and I’ve liked Hill's work in general, but I don’t have anything interesting to say about it. The gallery press release, however, is a masterpiece of art world jargon. Here's a taste. Enjoy:

...Hill has continuously offered multilayered investigations into the phenomenological nature of how we perceive the world through a network of visual, aural and linguistic signals. Exploring the cognitive and sensorial conditions that underlie our discursive modes of communication, Hill experiments with the material and sonic properties of language to offer provocative meditations upon the production of meaning within our everyday contexts. Since the early 1970s, Hill’s use of video has occupied a central role in his artistic practice, using the medium as a formal site and structure to both examine and deconstruct the power of the image. Concerned with an increasingly homogenized visual culture, Hill disarticulates the primary communicative function of electronic media by playing with sound, speed, and sequence, to produce not only radical ruptures within our normative processes of perception, but also new ways of encountering meaning.

I particularly like "disarticulates."

BTW, Hill has one of the best artist websites I’ve ever seen. It really helps you get a feeling for his work.


In addition to art galleries, I also attended a couple of talks. One was John Elderfield on de Kooning at The New York Studio School this past Wednesday, March 30th. Elderfield is one of my favorite art historians and curators. He’s working on a major de Kooning retrospective scheduled for 2011 at The Museum of Modern Art.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XII, 1985, Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 inches
I feel vindicated that Elderfield likes de Kooning's late work from the 1980’s. I've always felt that period was his strongest, but people would say he was drunk and gaga when he did them, if he did them at all. Some claim his assistants really did them. Elderfield says de Kooning got no more assistance than other artists and that essentially he did the work; and even if he suffered from dementia during this phase, all it means is he was able to focus more intently on the thing he knew best -- painting. An examination of these paintings should be proof enough. The way a line becomes a ribbon, becomes a shape, becomes a field, becomes a contour, all the while twisting in space and changing colors, is painterly brilliance. Simple, elegant, efficient — a great example of an artist's late phase.

“Split of Light: Experimental Media,” a panel discussion at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) about creating, distributing and presenting experimental film and video. Panels are usually boring because the panelists tend to wander all over the place, but this one was efficiently moderated by Rebecca Cleman, EAI's Director of Distribution, who got them to stick to the topics. One thing I was particularly interested in was a discussion of the difference between experiencing a film or video in a theater vs. a gallery. I had just seen the documentary “Bill Cunningham” at Film Forum (great film, BTW) and was thinking how different seeing it on Netflix would have been. There’s something about watching a movie with other people that makes it funnier, more dramatic, more moving, sadder, etc.


Finally, here are some links of note:

From the Times's ArtsBeat Blog: As part of the Festival of Ideas for The New City, a series of arts and civic events that the New Museum and several other downtown cultural institutions will conduct from May 4 through May 8, well-known artists have been recruited to create paintings that will soon start appearing on roll-down gates along the Bowery, from Houston Street to Canal Street. 

Randy Kennedy of the Times writes about Eric Fischl bringing Terry Allen's 1979 song "Truckload of Art" to reality. Here's the song courtesy of YouTube:

And it took the Wall Street Journal to get access to Larry Gagosian for this revealing article.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914

Pablo Picasso, Guitar and Cup of Coffee, spring 1913, Cut and pasted wallpaper and colored paper, charcoal and chalk on colored paper, 25” x 14 ½ “ (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

By Kyle Gallup

“Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, is a bridge into the past. Walk into the exhibition and be immersed in Picasso’s creative process. Here, Picasso is thinking and working like an inventor. 
I’ve always been most drawn to Picasso when he approached his work through his extraordinary skill and originality as a draughtsman. During this period, I see him thinking and drawing his way through a new kind of space and his relationship to it, making it his own. The fluidity of his collage-drawings with their variety of shapes, lines, materials and subject matter, tells me that Picasso was having a very good time. Guillaume Apolinaire sums it up best in “Modern Painting,” from Der Sturm on February 20, 1913: At times Picasso has renounced ordinary paints to compose relief pictures made of cardboard, or papiers collé’s; he was guided by a plastic inspiration, and these strange, coarse, and mismatched materials were ennobled because the artist endowed them with his own delicate and strong personality.

Pablo Picasso, installation in the artist’s studio, Paris, December 9, 1912 or later, 
Gelatin silver print, 3 ⅜ “ x 4 ½ “ (Private Collection).

The exhibition should be a special treat to all working artists who consider experimentation and exploration in our studios to be highly important in making the best art that we can. Picasso does it with gusto and freedom, unafraid of the new territory he is staking out. I enjoyed seeing all the work but what I especially relished were the photographs that Picasso took of his works-in-progress. In one large photograph of his studio, paper scraps and glue pot are left sitting on a bed as he takes the photo. There is also a huge roll of canvas leaning against the back wall, three charcoal drawings, four collage drawings incorporating Le Journal scraps, and other papers and his constructed cardboard guitar. This photo shows he was looking for many different ways to spatially represent the guitar that he had just constructed out of paper.  He was trying to make his process as real as possible and photographing his work helped him distance himself from what he was creating. 
Pablo Picasso, Photographic composition with Construction with Guitar Player and Violin. Paris, on or after January 25 and before March 10, 1913. gelatin silver print, 4 ¼ “ x 3 ¼ “ (Collection Clark Winter)
Photography was integral to Picasso’s process. He used photography as a tool to gain perspective and as a way to manipulate his images. In the exhibition there are four small photographs of a composition that Picasso set up in the corner of a room—a sort of installation. In the first snapshot, he set up a small round-topped table with a wine bottle and teacup. A wall poster with large letters partially revealing his name hangs on the wall near some stretched canvases. On the back wall hang a guitar, collage drawing and paper scraps partially covering it, integrating the real and the constructed. In each of the four photos, Picasso alters the picture. 

Pablo Picasso, Photographic composition with Construction with Guitar Player and Violin. Paris, on or after January 25 and before March 10, 1913. Cropped gelatin silver print with ink, 3 1/16 x 2 5/16" Private collection. Photo: Objectif 31 © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Two of the four images are very surprising and if you aren’t paying close attention, you might miss their significance. In one, Picasso uses his photograph of the still-life he set up and cuts it into a shape and re-photographs it on a white background. There is also a small sepia-colored snapshot [above], tiny at 3 1/16” x 2 5/16,” and titled “Photographic Composition with Construction with Guitar Player and Violin.” Again, it is the still-life composition that he has been working with, only this time Picasso uses ink to make a drawing on top of the photo that responds to the composition he has created in real life. It may seem like a minor thing, but to me it shows that Picasso was trying in every way he could imagine, to expand his sense of what this new space could be. Though it would be decades before it became common practice to draw or paint on top of a photograph, here is Picasso, determinedly stretching his creative possibilities almost one hundred years ago.
When I consider all that Picasso accomplished in his lifetime—the tremendous breadth of his undertakings—I feel dizzy, like I’m standing on shifting ground. When I viewed this exhibition, it prompted me to pause and imagine him sailing through time clutching a fine, silver-meshed net in his fist, combing the starry sky. This exhibition shines a spotlight on Picasso’s innate abilities, intelligence, and the exceptional creative spirit that propelled art forward into a new and expanded universe.

Kyle Gallup is an artist who works in collage and watercolor.

Pranks in the History of Art

To acknowledge April Fool's Day, ARTINFO gathered eight funny practical jokes played by artists over the years. One of my favorites (even if the post is an April Fool's joke) is this:
Illustration by Jaclyn LoRaso

Among the greatest art pranks of the 20th century was the once infamous but now forgotten incident of Jackson Pollock's "Woman" painting. In the early fifties, spurred on by their respective critical champions, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Pollock and Willem de Kooning became embroiled in a legendary, acrimonious rivalry. There were drunken insults at the Cedar Tavern and near fights on the beach in East Hampton. The enmity reached its apex in 1952, shortly after de Kooning began showing his seminal "Woman" paintings. At the time, Pollock was the reigning Abstract Expressionist (or action painter, depending on whose camp you were in), but the "Woman" series catapulted de Kooning to the forefront of avant-garde art. Although not remembered for his sense of humor, Pollock set out to puncture the Dutchman's ego.

Visitor's to a fall group show at the Sydney Janis Gallery were surprised to find included a remarkable painting called "Woman V (My Mama)." The work was attributed to de Kooning — but which had been in fact been cooked up by a drunk Pollock the night before. The canvas depicted, in de Kooning's typically brutal style, a gap-toothed hag with long, pendulous breasts, strawlike hair, a black eye, and a hideous deformity of the genitals. Word got around town that de Kooning had finally gone too far. Eventually, of course, the august artist made his way to the gallery — during a cocktail party, where, it so happened, Pollock was also in attendance. The diminutive Dutchman stalked over to his bald colleague and jabbed a finger toward the painting.

A partial transcript of the ensuing exchange survives:

"This, this excrement is not my mama," de Kooning thundered at Pollock in his heavy accent. "I know, it's yo mama."

"What did you say about my mama, partner?" Pollock muttered.

"She is hideous, yo mama."

"Yo mama. That ain't my painting. It ain't American type."

De Kooning, red with rage, sweating up at the balding man: "That turd is yo mama."

"Don't be talkin shit about my mama, Bill, or I'll knock that cap off you."

Witnesses described de Kooning attempting to kick Pollock in the shins, and being subsequently shoved by Pollock so that he fell into a coatroom. It has been theorized that this incident led de Kooning to begin an affair with Ruth Kligman, Pollock's paramour until his death.


And, unless this is another prank, there's this, also from ARTINFO -- if I'm understanding it right, the Guggenheim and the Brooklyn Museum are selling artists' prints. Isn't there something wrong with that???