Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art" at Yale

By Charles Kessler

Installation view, The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art. In the foreground is John Mason's Untitled, Vertical Sculpture, 1961, glazed stoneware, 30 x 15 3/4 x 7 3/8 inches; and behind it to the left is Willem de Kooning's Untitled XIII, 1975, oil on canvas, 87 x 77 inches. (Photo: Yale Art Gallery). 
A major exhibition of ceramic art is unusual in itself, but what makes The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art (Yale University Art Gallery, through January 3rd) really extraordinary is that it places ceramic art in the context of other art of the period. The exhibition was co-curated by Jock Reynolds, the director of the gallery, and Sequoia Miller, a Pd.D. candidate in Art History at Yale. It contains about 100 clay objects (20 from Yale's own collection and 80 from the Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection) plus about 150 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings from Yale. In addition, like the great educational institution it is, Yale organized a two-day symposium in connection with the show. I'll be reporting on the symposium in another post.
In the foreground is a 1961 glazed stoneware sculpture by John Mason; behind it is a sculpture by Manuel Neri; and clockwise on the wall are paintings by David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Elmer Bischoff.
It’s been more than 60 years since Peter Voulkos and others had their breakthrough making ceramics a viable art. [See my post on that subject.] It’s time for their work to be included in the same room with paintings and sculpture of the period, instead of being isolated in decoration and design galleries as is done at MoMA, or allocated a separate, usually minor, space, such as the Met's glass cases along the balcony over the entrance hall.
In the foreground is Peter Voulkos, Cadiz, 1998, wood-fired stoneware; right background is David Smith, Bec-Dida Day, 1963, painted steel. According to co-curator Sequoia Miller, Voulkos admired David Smith and often visited him in his studio in the 1960s.
Fortunately this seems to be happening.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has already integrated ceramics into their collection, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is starting to show ceramics with sculpture and painting of the period (although even they still have galleries where ceramics is segregated along with design and decoration).
Installation view of a gallery in the contemporary art wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On the right are ceramic cups by Ken Price.
Even MoMA might be changing. According to a Times article, after their Picasso Sculpture exhibition closes, they'll be reinstalling their permanent collection, and curators from different areas will be collaborating on the installation.

One surprising result of integrating ceramics with the rest of art is the ceramics doesn't seem precious, as it sometimes does when displayed by itself in glass cases or on shelves. Even work that plays with preciousness, like that of Ken Price and Ron Nagle, seems edgy in this context.
On the table from the left are sculptures by John Chamberlain, John Mason, cups by Billy Al Bengston, a colorful sculpture by Jim Melchert behind the cups, and three John Mason plates.
Nor was the work in this exhibition crammed together so it looks junky, as is often the case when it's shown in galleries:
Installation view, Paul Clay, Salon 94 Gallery, June 23, 2011–August 12, 2011. At least the Salon 94 gallery regularly exhibits ceramic art.
Of course there will always be disagreement about what should or should not be in any exhibition, but Yale owns one of Viola Frey's best pieces, and at the symposium the curators were roundly criticized for excluding her.

Her omission is especially egregious since there were so few women in the show, and, putting salt on the wound, Frey's sculpture could be seen from the exhibition, in an adjacent room segregated with design and the decorative arts, thus contradicting the main message of the exhibition.
Viola Frey, Resting Woman #2, 1989, glazed ceramic, 40 x 102 x 49 inches (Yale Art Gallery, photo: Mara Superior Instagram).
On the other hand, some artists don't belong in the show, and including their work also confuses the issue. I feel the ceramic artists based in England (e.g., Ruth Duckworth, Magdalene Odundo, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie), beautiful as their work is, are still in the functional craft/design tradition. While it's possible to make a case for exhibiting craft and design objects with fine art, that isn't the point of this exhibition, which is to put ceramic art on the same level as painting and sculpture of the period.
Hans Coper, Bottle with Disc and 4 Cycladic Forms, ca. 1970–75. stoneware, ranging from 4 1/2 × 3 3/4 × 3 1/2 inches to 11 3/4 × 2 × 1 3/4 inches (Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection. © Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts).
And aesthetically this work doesn't go much beyond ancient Asian vessels.
On the left: Lucie Rie, Vase, ca. 1967, glazed stoneware, 15 3/4 x 6 3/8 x 6 3/8 inches (Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection. © Lucie Rie / Courtesy Yvonne Mayer); on the right: Trumpet-Mouth Vase, Chinese, Yaun dynasty, c. early 14th century longquan ware (Yale Art Gallery, 1955.4.64).
The curators' attempt to relate these ceramicists to Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, and Agnes Martin is far-fetched, to say the least. But, as Jock Reynolds, the co-curator of the exhibition and director of the gallery said, this exhibition was the "first word, and hopefully not the last word.”

Monday, December 14, 2015

More on Picasso's Sculptures

By Charles Kessler

As I stated beforeThe Picasso Sculpture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (through February 7th) is like a huge (159 works!) group exhibition of a dozen great sculptors. The guy was a monster – some kind of freak.

On a recent return visit, I was struck by the various ways Picasso used the base for his sculptures. (I am deliberately using the term base, because pedestal and stand imply more of a separation between the sculpture and its support than is usually the case with Picasso.) His bases, when he uses them at all, set off the work, but they also become a part of it. I'm not making a claim that Picasso was the first to do this – it was probably Brancusi, or maybe Giacometti – but I'd like to point out some brilliant examples.

In his Reclining Bather, 1931 (below), the base of the sculpture is whatever it is the bather is reclining on (grass? sand? dirt?).
Reclining Bather, 1931, bronze, 9 1/16 x 28 3/8 x 12 3/16 inches (Musèe national Picasso).
Similarly with Woman Reading, 1951-53, the base is the bed or platform that the woman is reading on.
Woman Reading, 1951-53, painted bronze, 6 1/8 x 14 x 5 1/8 inches (Centre national d'art et culture Georges Pompidou). 
Picasso sometimes sinks his figures into his bases, analogous to the merging of figure and ground in his paintings.
Cock, 1932, bronze, 25 13/16 x 22 15/16 x 15 9/16 inches (Tate).
And the surface of the bases in these sculptures are worked in a similar manner as the figures.
Bather, 1931, bronze, 27 9/16 x 15 13/16 x 12 3/8 inches (Musèe national Picasso).
Many of Picasso's bases are small and thin relative to the sculptures, so the sculptures appear precariously, and expressively, top heavy, which gives a sense of great weight to the figures. In these cases Picasso often makes a clear distinction between the sculpture and base.

The smooth, round disc of the base in Head of a Woman, 1931, and many similar sculptures of this period, sets itself off from the rougher treatment above it. And this rough area seems to extend into the smooth, rounded (and quite phallic) neck and head.
Head of a Woman, 1931, plaster, 37 13/16 x 12 5/8 x 19 1/8 inches (Musèe national Picasso).
Even more extreme (in more ways than the base) is The Orator, 1933-34, in which the sculpture is supported by a pole anchored to a large stone. The figure is presented like a flag or a sign, and the base acts as a soapbox for the absurd orator.
The Orator, 1933-34, plaster, stone, and metal dowel, 72 x 26 x 10 5/8 inches (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).
The Bathers, 1956, wood (Staatgalerie Stuttgart).
Detail closeups of the stands for The Bathers, 1956 (above). 
The Bathers have stands, but they're too flimsy for the job they need to do. There must be a plate under the gravel that attaches to Picasso's sculptural ensemble, otherwise they'd just fall over. Again, Picasso uses clearly inadequate bases to create an expressively precarious work, and, in this case, to emphasize the frontality of the figures.
Fountain Man, The Bathers, 1956, wood (Staatgalerie Stuttgart).
By the way, the figure in the middle background, Fountain Man, is a man urinating. Once The Bathers were cast in bronze, Picasso intended a water pipe to be installed in it to provide a stream of water. It's unclear from the exhibition catalog if this was ever carried out.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Selection of Bushwick Exhibitions – Part 2

By Charles Kessler

I'm really impressed by Christian Ruiz Berman's striking show at Outlet, 253 Wilson Ave., Brooklyn, NY, 11237 (through December 6th). Like heraldry or icons, Berman's work seems to have some esoteric meaning, however cryptic.
Installation view of the work of Christian Ruiz Berman at Outlet.
With its bright, luscious colors, and materials such as porcupine quills and Macaw feathers, there's an exotic quality about the work that references South American kitsch – but, of course, this work is refined and sophisticated.

Christian Berman, Dos Mantras, 2015, acrylic, gouache, feathers, porcupine quills, metal screen on panels, 24 x 18 inches.
Christian Berman, Zaïde's Offer, 2015, oil, acrylic, wood, cement, sisal rope, and macaw feathers, 112 x 49 inches.
These are finely constructed objects made of separate pieces put together like marquetry or large jigsaw puzzles.
Close-up detail of Christian Ruiz Berman, Zaïde's Offer, 2015.


Installation view of Days Have Gone By at Galerie Manqué.
Galerie Manqué  (I love the name), in the 56 Bogart building, is a tiny "pop up" gallery that has been doing some interesting shows. Their last exhibition consisted of photographs of disconcertingly human-looking robots – moles, wrinkles and blemishes included. Their latest, Days Have Gone By (through December 6th), guest-curated by artist and poet Andy Misteralso has to do with realism – this time realistic depictions of other images. For example, Thom Stevenson, Piranha II, 2015 (below), is an oil enamel painting that's painstakingly rendered to look like a silk screen. 
Thom Stevenson, Piranha II, 2015, oil enamel on canvas, 40 x 30 x 1.5 inches.
And Chris Oh's Sirens, 2015 (below) is a highly realistic depiction of a beat-up 1992 album cover of the R&B band Chic. 
Chris Oh, Sirens, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches.


Installation view of Lat and Long, an exhibition by Karen Oliver (photo: Fresh Window). What look like the hollow centers of the cinder block wall are actually mirrors inserted in the openings that reflect the other objects in the room.
Lat and Long, an exhibition by Karen Oliver at Fresh Window, 56 Bogart, Brooklyn, NY, 11206 (through December 6th) makes abstruse reference to the many places she has lived. (I assume the title of the show refers to latitude and longitude.) It doesn't matter if we get the references; what matters are the compelling objects her intention inspired. 


Installation view of Gradual Kingdom by Meriem Bennani at Signal. The actual exhibition is a lot darker than this photo. 
Unlike most galleries in Bushwick, which tend to be small, the Signal gallery, 260 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11206, is large with high ceilings. They generally show big sculptures and room-size installations. Their current show is Gradual Kingdom, site-specific video installations and other works by Meriem Bennani (through December 20th). 

I was hoping to review exhibitions in Bushwick that I hadn't covered in an earlier post, but several of the galleries I wanted to visit weren't open when I went, and others were just too out-of-the-way for this trip. Another time.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Rewind and Reflect: John Goodyear

By Carl Belz

John Goodyear, Up and Down Movement, 1966, 24 x 24 x 4 inches (Berry Campbell Gallery, New York).

[Author's Note: I wrote the following text for a John Goodyear exhibition at David Hall Fine Art, Wellesley, MA in 2012. It is reprinted here in conjunction with the exhibition, John Goodyear, Perspectives/Six Decades, at the Berry Campbell Gallery, 530 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011, Nov. 25, 2015 - January 2, 2016.]

The 1963­-64 academic year was for me eventful, even memorable. Fresh out of graduate school with my PhD, I started my first teaching job, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I taught a seminar on Marcel Duchamp that fall, and later that year I was able to interview him in New York while we sat across from one another at a chessboard with pieces designed by Man Ray, who had been the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I also met and talked with celebrated vanguardist John Cage when he was invited to campus for a performance, an uncanny experience that felt, on the heels of Duchamp, as though it was destined by chance, like one of those encounters celebrated in the Dada and Surrealist handbooks I’d been studying in connection with my thesis. Then, too, I met Bob Dylan, backstage before the spring concert he delivered in the packed UMass field house where he sang Mr. Tambourine Man, which he hadn’t even recorded yet, but which we all recognized as a tour de force, totally magical, surrealist­-type poem if ever there was one. And last yet at the same time foremost in this litany of personal encounters – foremost, because it bore abiding rather than ephemeral significance – I met John Goodyear, artist and art department colleague, who knew, as I would soon come to know, more than a little about Cage’s chance and Duchamp’s ambiguity and, as much as anything else, the poetics of everyday experience.

The art department at UMass comprised three art historians and six artists, a personnel roster that was totally new to me. At Princeton, where I’d earned both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, the Department of Art and Archaeology comprised only art historians. An artist­-in-residence position had been created in the mid­-1950s, presumably to acknowledge studio practice, but the appointment was mostly honorific, requiring the artist to teach only two pass/fail courses a year, neither of which was required in the departmental curriculum. Art making in Princeton’s ivory tower, in other words, had largely to be imagined, like a virtual reality. At UMass, by comparison, I was interacting with practicing artists on a regular basis, and I responded to them with natural interest and enthusiasm, I felt at home in their community. In particular, I responded to John Goodyear, whose work hovered somewhere between painting and sculpture, possessed moving parts that invited viewer participation, and yielded optical sensations that were refreshingly new to my pictorial experience, while in the process additionally radiating a rich spectrum of ideas. So John and I began interacting and talking about his art, I watched his progress in the studio, I tracked his thought, and I got inspired to write and have published an essay about what he was doing – my first essay about an artist making art in the here and now. Though trained in the scholarly methodologies of art history, I found via my John Goodyear experience an abiding passion for working directly with living artists in and of our time.
John Goodyear, Blue and Brown Kinetic Construction, 1964, acrylic on wood and canvas, 24 x 24 x 5 inches (Berry Campbell Gallery, New York).
The optic­-kinetic constructions John Goodyear was making in the mid-­1960s registered quickly on the contemporary art radar screen. In 1965 alone his work was included in The Responsive Eye at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Art in Science at the Albany Institute of History and Art, and Kinetic and Optic Art Today at the Albright-­Knox Gallery in Buffalo. With visual dazzle on the one hand and technological know­-how on the other, Op and Kinetic exhibitions promised ever­-expanding horizons for artistic expression, while in the discourse surrounding them – in images, for instance, of research teams at work, not in studios but in laboratories – impersonal objectivity hovered as a guarantee of the new art’s authenticity. And thus was rehearsed a periodically recurring theme in 20th Century art, namely, its urge to secure credibility by grafting onto itself the methods and procedures and look of science. But science was neither the source nor the goal for Goodyear’s art, nor was credibility ever an issue, not then, and not now. His kinetic effects, for one, required no technology to speak of, just the touch of a finger, the tilt of a head, even a casual walk-­by; while, secondly, whatever the resulting visual dazzle, it was just a prelude to the meditations that followed – about how and where real and virtual space connect, about images coming and going and being at once here and there, about paradox and ambiguity, about chance, about indeterminacy. If there was a model for such an art, its locus was not in the lab but in and around the ways of Cage or Duchamp.
John Goodyear, Red, Yellow, Blue Construction, 1978, acrylic on wood and canvas, 28 3/4 x 29 1/4 x 6 inches.
It goes without saying that John Goodyear’s art possesses a way of its own, a way I would describe as modest and unassuming, a way accessible in regularly referencing everyday experience, a way gently prodding thought while also being quietly informed by humor, a way generous in the openness and ease of its invitation to participate in its sensory and cerebral pleasures – as easy and accessible and natural, for instance, as looking out a third-­floor window and all at once seeing the art in the tiled plaza you walked across but unknowingly missed because you were preoccupied with the quotidian business of meeting your appointment at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Piscataway, New Jersey. John Goodyear’s way not so much makes art as allows art to happen, as if art were somehow there all along, as if latent, awaiting activation. Within the rhythm of this way, art experience and lived experience intersect and are continuous with one another by virtue of constantly informing one another. Within their interaction, at the same time, they are not the same, not interchangeable, for the identity of each – its viability in doing what it does and meaning what it means – is ever grounded in an acknowledgment of the separateness of the other, a separateness in which they are finally bound. Such, for me, is the way of John Goodyear’s art.

John Goodyear, Food for Thought, 2011, acrylic on wood and canvas, 96 x 39 x 6 inches.
John Goodyear, The Indicative, 2013, acrylic on wood and canvas, 24 x 27 x 2 1/2 inches (Berry Campbell Gallery, New York).
John Goodyear, Women of Art, 2014, acrylic on wood and canvas, 72 x 36 x 3 inches (Berry Campbell Gallery, New York).
John Goodyear, Figurative Abstraction, 2015, acrylic on wood and canvas, 36 x 36 x 6 inches (Berry Campbell Gallery, New York).

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Frank Stella Retrospective at the Whitney Museum

By Charles Kessler

There is little I can add to Roberta Smith's enthusiastic review of Frank Stella: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through Feb. 7th), and there are many good reproductions of the work on the Whitney's website. What I can do here is provide some additional installation views of the exhibition so that you can get an idea of the tremendous scale of this extravagant, innovative, outrageous, sometimes completely bonkers art. I also provide some close-up views to show the variety of textures and layers.
Paintings from 1958-59, the earliest work in the exhibition.
Panoramic installation view of Stella's earlier work.
Click to enlarge. 
Stella uses colors arbitrarily, to distinguish one shape from another. His colors don't resonate, interact or harmonize the way, say, Matisse's colors do. But that's asking Stella to be something he is not.
Frank Stella, Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III), 1970. alkyd on canvas, 120 × 600 inches (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; museum purchase funded by Alice Pratt Brown).
The Whitney's walls are not curved; this distortion typically happens with panoramic images.
Panoramic installation view of work from Stella's middle periods.
Click to enlarge.
St. Michael's Counterguard, 1984, mixed media on aluminum and fiberglass honeycomb, 156 x 135 x 108 inches (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Close-up side view of St. Michael's Counterguard, 1984.
On the left, Raft of the Medusa (Part I), 1990, aluminum and steel, 167 × 163 × 159 inches (The Glass House, A Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).
Close-up detail, Raft of the Medusa (Part I), 1990.

In Stella's later work, he employs bright color, vigorous brushwork, and rhythmic line to enliven things; often these paintings are so active and aggressive they feel like an attack. The later work is very public, i.e., not intimate; it's meant for large public spaces like corporate lobbies or museums – abstract Pop Art, if you will. It's just that seeing a lot of them together is exhausting.

The reproduction below is of a huge, sixty-seven color print!
The Fountain, 1992, woodcut, etching, aquatint, drypoint, collage and airbrush, (printed and published by Tyler Graphics, Ltd., Whitney Museum of American Art).
Close-up detail,  The Fountain, 1992.
Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3], 1999. acrylic on canvas, 144 × 486 inches, (private collection. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York).

Close-up view of Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3], 1999.
On the left, K.81 combo (K.37 and K.43) large size, 2009. protogen RPT with stainless steel tubing, 180 × 192 × 120 inches (private collection. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York). I didn't get information on the painting on the right. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

John Lees at Betty Cuningham Gallery

By Charles Kessler

I've known John for at least forty years, but I don't love his art just because we're friends. As with Charles Garabedian, I loved John's art, so I made it a point to get to know him, then we became friends.

An exhibition of his relatively recent paintings and drawings can be seen at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side (through November 28th). I say "relatively recent" because John will work on a painting or drawing for years, decades sometimes – Man Sitting in an Armchair, for example, is dated 2008–2015.
Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches.
He builds up the paint, scrapes it off, sands it down, and works into it again and again, piling up the paint so much that it becomes a palpable physical presence. The result is a crusty, fragmented image embedded in the rough, craggy paint surface. 
Side view of Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015.
Memory is frequently the subject of John's art, or, more accurately, he paints the experience of remembering. Man Sitting in an Armchair, for example, is a memory of his father; and, like a memory, the images are fleeting and hazy, slowly coalescing to reveal more and more detail the longer you stay with it.
Detail of the lower left of Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015.
Lees's drawings are particularly remarkable because one doesn't expect this much physicality in a drawing. 
In the Park/Early Morning, 2009-15, graphite, ink on paper, 11 x 9 ⅛ inches.
His drawings are worked and re-worked, erased until threadbare, patched and worked again. And like the paintings, the drawings are physically part of the paper the way the images in his paintings are physically part of the paint.

You can see this better in this photo of a drawing from an earlier exhibition:
 River Landscape (For Bas Jan Ader), 2003; 2005-2007; 2009, ink, conte, sanguine, chalk and gouache on paper, 25 3/4 x 43 1/2 inches.
John is a good old-fashioned painter's painter, and very much a man of the 1930s and 40s, even though he wasn't even born until 1943. He enthusiastically talks about books, music, movies, and other things that happened then as if they were yesterday. So it's not surprising that the show contains several drawings and paintings with the words "42nd Street," referring to the 1933 movie directed by Lloyd Bacon.
42nd Streeet (Tesserae), 2015, oil on canvas, 24 x 32inches.
Behind the words "42nd Street," or, more accurately, superimposed on a grid embedded into the words, is dialogue from the movie in which an old actress gives over her starring role to a young actress. The painting encapsulates the movie and these words as if it's the physical embodiment of them.
Detail: 42nd Streeet (Tesserae), 2015.
This is a fabulous show – one of the rare exhibitions of art that evokes meaning in a powerfully visceral way.