Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Panel Discussions

By Charles Kessler

In the last two days I attended two panel discussions: one of the worst I've ever seen, Cindy Sherman, Circle of Influence at the Museum of Modern Art on March 26th (sorry, no link because the MoMA website apparently doesn't archive past events) and on March 27th one of the best, A Conversation with the Curators: American Vanguards at the New York Studio School.

The MoMA panel was made up of artists (George Condo, Kalup Linzy, Elizabeth Peyton, and Collier Schorr) who were supposed to discuss, to quote the program, “Cindy Sherman's influence on contemporary art practice, including issues such as feminism and identity.” Condo was first and he presented a muddled and vague talk, mainly about his own work. The little he said about Sherman’s influence amounted to noting they were of the same generation. And then the panel went downhill from even that low.

Elizabeth Payton showed about 30 slides of her own boring portraits and said literally NOTHING! She didn't even identify the portraits. NOTHING -- BUPKIS! Next came Kalup Linzy who’s known for performances where he takes on roles of different characters (sort of like Sherman, right?), but all he did was sing Cyndi Lauper's “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (I kid you not) and show a few slides of his work. Last came Collier Schorr who showed a mildly interesting video made up mostly of pictures of adolescent boys. That was it! The discussion that followed made no sense even though the moderator, exhibition curator Eva Respini, posed interesting questions.

Okay, I admit I’ve been to worse, but this was the freakin’ Museum of Modern Art, for God's sake. Wouldn’t you expect better? ... Jaw dropping!

The New York Studio School panel, on the other hand, far exceeded my (very high) expectations. For one thing, the panel was made up of some of the top art historians of 20th-century American art: William Agee, Irving Sandler and Karen Wilkin.

The main topic of the evening was the exhibition American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and Their Circle, 1927-1942 on view until April 29, 2012 at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY. (It was co-curated by all of them, but Agee and Sandler both agreed that Wilkin was the main curator.)

Here were three art historians with a masterful knowledge of the period. They not only supported their arguments with an impressive body of facts, but they gave you a deep understanding of how rich and complicated this period was. I loved that they kept interrupting each other (Sandler had trouble getting a word in) and enthusiastically and passionately arguing about such things as:
  • the “Americanness” of the work these artists did in the 1930’s (Agee: the exuberance and inventiveness definitely made it American; Sandler: no, they were still “disciples,” and even their mature work, in the 1940‘s, was New York art, not “American.” But they all agreed that being American and making American-type art was important to all of them);
  • the relationship of the artists to the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group (too dogmatic for them) and Surrealism (they liked Miro-type abstract surrealism but not the Dali-type -- although Stuart Davis claimed to reject both);
  • and the influence of the too-little known artist John Graham (they all agreed it was huge and that Graham was ”the glue that held them all together”).
Here are some of Graham's paintings that are in the exhibition:
John Graham, The White Pipe, 1930, oil on canvas mounted on board, 12 ½ x 17 inches (Grey Art Gallery, New York University).
John Graham, Blue Still Life, 1931, oil on canvas, 25 ⅝ x 36 inches (The Phillips Collection).
John Graham, Seated Woman, c.1942, oil on canvas, 48 x 35 ½ inches.
Christina Kee, the moderator, did an excellent job of reigning in these strong personalities and asking them fruitful questions. And unlike almost every other panel discussion I've been to, the questions from the audience were mostly good ones; and even the ones that weren’t were changed into good ones by the answers. All in all an exhilarating experience.

I love this city!!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

More Art News

By Charles Kessler

I take back what I wrote about flashy spectacles being so common that they’ve become stale. Here are two exciting and I believe profound ones: Adrian Villar Rojas's A Person Loved Me in The Ungovernables, the New Museum's otherwise tepid Triennial; and Jeff Koons's proposed public sculpture for the High Line.

A Person Loved Me was created on site for the Triennial by a team of six people from Argentina. It was made to crack as it dries and, ultimately, it will be destroyed at the end of the Triennial, on April 22nd. What I find so moving about it is the eerie anthropomorphism of the work. It's as if the sculpture was once an alive, partly organic robot or weapon from some alien futuristic world. You can experience this better close up:
Detail: Adrián Villar Rojas, A Person Loved Me.
 And The New York Times reports the Koons proposal is a full-size replica of a 1943 steam train suspended from a crane, possibly installed at the intersection of 10th Avenue and 30th Street. The Friends of the High Line are trying to raise $25 million to commission the sculpture, and I hope they can pull it off -- it would be thrilling. Here's a photo of the proposal taken from the Times:
Image by James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Jeff Koons, (courtesy of Friends of the High Line).
BTW, the article states that "CSX Transportation Inc. had agreed in principle to donate the third section of the elevated rail bed, allowing for the park’s completion." I hope CSX will be as generous to the Jersey City Embankment.

Other Art News:

The Times also gives a revealing peek into the way the Gagosian Gallery sometimes does business. Charles Cowles, former art dealer and erstwhile publisher of Artforum, in need of money, approached Larry Gagosian to sell his mother's Lichtenstein. Gagosian said he could get $3 million for it but, to quote the Times:
...  the gallery had offered the painting for considerably less to a collector, Thompson Dean, a managing partner of a private equity firm, telling Mr. Dean that he had an opportunity to get an incredible bargain. “Seller now in terrible straits and needs cash,” said a July e-mail to Mr. Dean from a Gagosian staff member. “Are you interested in making a cruel and offensive offer? Come on, want to try?”

The invaluable Art Newspaper has come out with worldwide art museum 2010 attendance figures. They break it down by the popularity of particular exhibitions as well as total annual attendance. The Louvre is number one with an attendance of an amazing 8,880,000; and the Met is second with 6,004,254, up from 5.2 million in 2010. The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Rio had the largest attendance for an exhibition -- 573,691 for "The Magical World of Escher."

Kyle Chayka in ArtInfo has a list of 20 "must-click" artist websites.

And finally, Tyler Green is as excited as I am about the new "Closer to van Eyck" macrophotography website I wrote about here.  Green points out a tiny blue jewel in a broach on which Jan van Eyck painted the reflection of the window in the chapel where the altarpiece is housed. Keep in mind a viewer wouldn't even be able to see it with the naked eye.
Broach, the Singing Angels' panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Art News

The first sign of Spring!
James Panero, managing editor of The New Criterion, makes a good case for the preservation of old art institutions like the Barnes and Gardner museums. Scroll down to the last third for the best of it.

Johnny Ramone was really into clothes. Check out this New York Magazine article adapted from Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone.

Finally someone agrees with me: Paddy Johnson, Werner Herzog's Hearsay of the Soul is Overrated.

Typically masterful and brilliant, T. J. Clark reviews Picasso and Modern British Art at Tate Britain and Mondrian Nicholson: In Parallel at the Courtauld Gallery: Almost all visual art made in Britain in the 20th century has the instinct of hiding (and good manners) built into its every move ... .

There are two completely different LES exhibitions near the New Museum definitely worth seeing: Not Vital at Sperone Westwater (until March 31);
Not Vital, Hanging & Weighting (2010).
and one of the wildest shows I've seen (and walked on) in a while, Franklin Evans at Sue Scott Gallery (until April 15). Below is only a small taste. 
Franklin Evans, Wallcollectionwallsystems, 2012, mixed media, 120 x 300 inches.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The 2012 Whitney Biennial

By Charles Kessler

I know it's weird, but I like Whitney Biennials. I like learning about new art and artists, and I especially like the arguments that arise from the shows. The main problem I’ve had with past Biennials, and large group shows in general (e.g. The Armory Show), is there’s so much art competing for attention that only flashy spectacles — usually expensive ones — succeed in getting our attention. But these kinds of extravaganzas are so common now that they’ve become stale. Not only is there none of that in this Biennial, but, to the credit of curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, this is a not a Biennial of blue chip artists from blue chip galleries. Instead the work seems sincere, unpretentious and intimate — intimate in that it’s hand-made, DIY work and thus more personal than art done by assistants or fabricated in a factory.

But, unlike Roberta Smith who thinks this is “One of the best Whitney Biennials in recent memory,” or Peter Schjeldahl who wrote it was “...decidedly among the best ever,” (sorry, no link — New Yorker paywall), I think this show is pretty lame. There’s plenty of okay work, but there’s very little that’s new or inspiring.

It’s possible that this kind of unpretentious and intimate art works best on a modest scale, and in a venue where the expectations aren’t so high — a place like the Dependent art fair, for instance. But off the top of my head I can think of several artists who would be better: Shane Hope, B. Wurtz, David Altmejd, Charles Garabedian, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Judy Pfaff, and videos by John Miller, Victor Alimpiev and Cliff Evans. And if they want to revive an artist or two or three, how about Alan Saret, David Park, John McLaughlin or the film-makers James Nares or Klause Vom Bruch?

The installation and performance art in particular (and there’s a lot of it) looks tired and self-indulgent. Los Angeles artist Dawn Kasper moved all her belongings to the third floor and will be using the space as her studio for the duration of the Biennial. This is an idea that has to go back to Lascaux. Marina Abramovic and about a hundred other artists have done it before. And Kasper's own work, at least from what I can see of it in the clutter, looks like warmed-over Los Angeles feminist art from the 1970’s. 
Installation view of Dawn Kasper (in the plaid shirt), This Could Be Something If I’d Let It, 2012 Whitney Biennial.
Judith Koether presented some truly awful 1980's-style East Village-type paintings around one of the Whitney’s signature windows forming an installation that I guess was to make them look avant-garde or something.
Installation view of Judith Koether, The Seasons, 2011, synthetic polymer and oil on glass.
And then there’s Joanna Malinowska who re-interpreted a Joseph Beuys performance into an American-Indian ritual and also converted Duchamps’s bottle rack into a stack of faux bison tusks. If there such a thing as sophisticated kitsch this is it.
Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial (photograph © Paula Court and courtesy the Whitney Museum)
The fourth floor is given over to the creation and rehearsal of dance performances by Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark. (For more on these dances check out Aaron Mattocks’s series of articles for Hyperallergic.) Are the Biennial curators claiming that the creation of art, the choreographing and rehearsal of a dance, is art in itself? If so, is it worth showing in a forum that’s supposed to include the best and newest art? Besides, let's face it, like most creative enterprises, choreographing a dance is a slow, deliberative, trial-and-error process and painfully boring to watch.

At the risk of being accused of being a Bushwick booster, I recently saw a better solution than watching live rehearsals, in a group show of Bushwick art called “What I Know” organized by Jason Andrew at NYCAM (New York Center for Art and Media Studies). It was an 8-minute video by choreographer Julia K. Gleich set to a score by Nico Muhly, entitled 14 Seconds. It condensed the development and rehearsal of a dance so that one could actually see the evolution. (This video can be seen by appointment at the Norte Maar gallery.)

(I noticed a minor but interesting problem. Because these dancers are not used to breaking the fourth wall, they studiously avoided eye contact even when they weren't rehearsing — not that I blame them; it’s embarrassing. But that’s the position they were put in — awkward all around. At least Dawn Kasper wasn’t bothered by it since she seems to be naturally outgoing.)

I guess you can call the two artist-curated exhibitions within the exhibition a type of installation art. Nick Mauss installed an eccentric section of art from the Whitney’s collection and, more successfully, Robert Gober presented the work of the self-trained, visionary artist Forrest Bess. This is nice and interesting, but what has it to do with the Biennial?  Are they saying curating, if it’s done by artists, is a new art form? And again, if so, is it worth showing in this forum?

One work getting universal acclaim is Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul, a five-screen digital projection of the landscape etchings of the relatively unknown 17th-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers. It is set to exquisitely beautiful music: a haunting hymn sung in the Wolof language of Sub-Saharan Africa; a Handel aria; and music by the Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger. Critics report they were moved to tears. I, on the other hand, felt manipulated. With that music, ANYTHING would be moving, and almost anything else besides five close-ups of landscape etchings would be deeper and more interesting. Why do we accept this kind of heavy-handed schmaltz on film or video but not with the other visual arts? Take a look of this clip of Ernst Reijseger chewing the scenery (overacting) to see what I mean. 

The painting, photography and collage selections are better, if also somewhat antiquated. And it’s to the Whitney’s credit that this time they offered enough space for a lot of work by each artist. But keeping the space open, supposedly to allow for the interaction of work by different artists, makes it difficult to focus on one artist at a time. Not surprisingly, artists with their own rooms, or at least a corner to themselves, have been getting raves — Nicole Eisenman, for example. 
Nichole Eisenman, mixed media monotypes, 2011.
But as impressed as I am with her facility, I can’t help feeling I’ve seen work like this that's been around since the 1920's (German Expressionism for example). And Andrew Masullo has also been getting praise, and I do like his work, but come on, hasn’t this type of abstraction been around since at least the 1940’s? And why is he arbitrarily limiting his pallet to tube colors?
Andrew Masuillio, installation view via ArtFagCity, 2012 Whitney Biennial
I really liked the tiny hand-made sculptures of Matt Hoyl, and although he didn’t have his own room or even a corner, I think because the work was so small they created their own worlds — worlds separate from the Biennial distractions. But even this work isn’t particularly unique. Donald Lipski (his early wall pieces) and others have done similar sculpture, and usually with more humor.
Installation view of Matt Hoyt, Component Objects, 2010. Mixed media. Collection of the artist.
Behind the space where the dance rehearsals were taking place is an installation I unreservedly loved: Wu Tsang’s Green Room, a replica of a green room in a Los Angeles Latin tranny bar (which also sometimes serves as an actual green room for the dancers). The installation includes a video interview with the owners of the bar and with some of the drag performers. The hot colors, dark, close quarters and over-stuffed interior made for an intense experience, and perhaps the only unique one at this Biennial.
Wu Tsang, Green Room, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Two Van Goghs Re-discovered

-- in the same painting!
"Re-attributed" Van Gogh painting: Still Life with Meadow Flowers and Roses, 1886, oil on canvas, about 39 x 31 1/2 inches (Kröller-Müller Museum ).

On January 22, 1885, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that he was painting "a big thing with two naked torsos, two wrestlers." That painting was presumed to be lost until researchers at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Holland, using a new technique, the impressive-sounding Macro Scanning X-ray Fluorescence Spectometry, were able to detect it under a still life in their collection -- a painting they “deattributed” to Van Gogh in 2003 but which now is proven to be authentic.

The Independent reports that  
Doubts about the still life were due partly to the canvas’s unusual size, at 100 x 80 cm. Van Gogh’s Parisian flower still lifes are generally smaller. Historians have now realised that the size of the canvas was a standard format for figure paintings at the Antwerp academy.
Macro Scanning X-ray Fluorescence Spectometry photograph showing Van Gogh's wrestlers.

Hotel Art

By Charles Kessler

Will Brand (Art Fag City) and Jerry Saltz have good posts (i.e., I agree with them) on the Dependent art fair which took place in a cheap Comfort Inn on the Lower East Side March 10th — in the same week as the mammoth Armory Show. The tiny rooms were used as galleries and the art was installed everywhere: bathrooms, beds, dresser drawers. It was crowded, and people were amiable and playful.
It reminded me of how the Armory Show has changed — and not for the better. The first Armory Show — not the very first 1913 one, the first art fair one — took place in a funky old hotel in Gramercy Park in 1994. There had never been an art fair in a hotel before, at least to my knowledge, and this was a blast. The rooms, hallways and stairways were packed with a lighthearted crowd. It was all very strange but all the more festive because of it. There was a sense that the art dealers were doing their creative best to promote their artists on a shoestring. Sure they wanted to sell art, but selling art didn’t seem like the ONLY thing. Now there isn’t even the pretense of anything else.

On a related manner, there's been a lot written about Damien Hirst manipulating the art market — one of the better posts is here. But one thing I haven't seen discussed as a contributing factor to the astronomical prices artists like Hirst, Richter and Koons have been getting is that there are more extremely wealthy people today then there have been since the age of the Robber Barons (many of whom were also art collectors). And the wealth of this group has gone up so much that the relative prices (of what they think is a scarce resource) have not increased all that much. To this growing number of billionaires, spending $3 million on a painting is like an ordinary person spending $300. This is what is driving the prices up, or at least is partly responsible for it. With a relative pittance, they can buy respect, power, prestige, whatever (or believe they can). It's a bargain!

Monday, March 19, 2012

An Ode to 29th Street

By Charles Kessler

One of the things I love most about New York and other great cities is the mind-boggling variety of visually interesting things you can see by just walking down a street: people, of course, mostly wearing black clothing, but enormous variety within that, Korean markets with their flowers displayed in front, ornate old churches, Art Deco bistros and thousands of businesses, every one different (unless it's a chain, and there are relatively few of those in great cities). (See Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities for the importance of diversity in big cities.) In addition, over time older cities naturally accumulate a great number of buildings with different architectural styles; and sometimes these styles are even mixed together in the same building; and sometimes they have decorated tops that can’t even be seen from the street.

To celebrate the abundance of this architectural diversity, I took photographs of several buildings along one of the many streets in Manhattan that yield unexpected delights — the eastern end of 29th (the western end of 29th Street is unfortunately pretty bleak). This isn’t a grand area like the Financial District, nor is it festive like Times Square or Fifth Avenue, and it isn’t quaintly beautiful like the West Village; in fact the street as a whole isn’t at all charming or even particularly different — but that’s what makes coming across these buildings such a joy.

Starting from the farthest west is this brick carriage house and next to it one of the rare wood clapboard buildings left in Manhattan — both on the National Register of Historic Places.
201 E. 29th Street
Here is a typical late 19th-century brick tenement you find all over the city, but this one has a silly, adorable addition in the front:
143 E. 29th Street
Next is the Belgian restaurant Resto. The facade is different stylistically from the rest of the architecture on the street, but it's all the more interesting because of it. I couldn't get a good picture so I'm using a photo from this food blog.
Resto - 111 E. 29th Street (Between Park and Lexington)
I'm cheating a little here since the entrance to this luxurious hotel is on Madison, but the entrance to the hotel's restaurant is on 29th, and you can best see the building from 29th Street.
The Carlton Hotel, Madison Avenue at 29th Street.
Lobby, Carlton Hotel
About a year ago I was thrilled to come upon this quaint church and garden (below) in the midst of a busy high-rise district, and the joy I felt at the time is the impetus for this post. 
The Church of the Transfiguration surrounded by high-rise buildings, 1 E. 29th Street.
The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as "The Little Church Around the Corner," is one of the most famous Episcopal churches in the United States. Established in 1848, its congregation has taken pride over the years in being welcoming and inclusive. The church has also been involved with theater for a long time -- it has been the the national headquarters of the Episcopal Actors' Guild since its founding in 1923. The interior of the church is dark and cozy and contains beautifully carved wood and some of the oldest stained glass in the country.

Marble Collegiate Church is another active and welcoming church on the street. Although its Sanctuary is currently undergoing renovations, people are encouraged to visit their 29th Street lobby. The colorful banners hanging from the fence represent prayers for the thousands of soldiers and civilians killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Marble Collegiate Church, 5th Ave. at 29th Street.
Next is the very hip Ace Hotel, and in it the John Dory Oyster Bar, The Breslin Bar and Dining Room, and the excellent Stumptown Coffee. Their lobby is open to the public and, despite being full of more people using MacBook Airs than you'll find at any Apple store, it's a pleasant place to drink your Stumptown coffee.
Stumptown Coffee at the Ace Hotel, 20 W. 29th Street.
And last, the grand finale, the bustling blocks around 29th Street between Fifth and Sixth with hundreds of small, some tiny, stores that sell ribbons, buttons, costume jewelry and notions of all kinds. This is the New York capitalism of legend, the capitalism of the old Lower East Side, where new immigrants open up small shops, hire family or other immigrants, work incredibly hard and (sometimes) make a better life for their children. I'm not talented enough to capture this scene in a photograph; you need to experience it in person. I find the area very moving.
29th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenues.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Art News

By Charles Kessler

First the good news:
Despite some doubts about the attribution, the J. Paul Getty Museum acquired what is almost certainly a major work by the 18th-century French painter Antoine Watteau.
Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, c. 1720, oil on canvas, 50 ¾ x 36 ¾ inches (J. Paul Getty Museum, #2012.5)
The other good news is that the trend to put art resources online is continuing:
  • Thanks to the Andy Warhol Foundation, Bomb Magazine has placed online more than 1000 interviews from the last 30 years including interviews with Laurie Anderson, Eric Fischl, Sol Lewitt, Christian Marclay, Dan Graham, Richard Serra and Sonia Delauney.
  • The Ghent Altarpiece can be seen in super high definition at a new website: Closer to Van Eyck. 
Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 - Detail of Eve.
  • If you missed this year's Moving Image Art Fair or didn't want to spend the time standing up to watch all those videos, at Art Fag City you can see some of them online in the comfort of your home.
  • The Getty Research Institute has made access to its collection of two million photographs a lot easier.
  • Art in America is supposed to have its archive online, but as of now I only find an occasional article and photos of the covers of issues from the 1980's onward. Watch for more.
Now for the bad news:
As a reminder: The original Pennsylvania Station, NYC, razed in 1963.
The Barnes Foundation had the gall to move the seminal Henri Matisse mural, The Dance, 1932-33, from its site in Dr. Albert Barnes's home in Merion Pennsylvania to the Barnes Foundation's new site in downtown Philadelphia. As Tyler Green convincingly demonstrates, Matisse made the mural specifically for that setting and was particularly interested in how it interacted with the green landscape outside as well as how it gave support to the easel paintings inside (“[My] decoration should not oppress the room, but rather should give more air and space to the pictures to be seen there."). In a 1934 letter to Alexander Fromm, Matisse wrote of the mural: "Architectural painting depends absolutely on the place that has to receive it, and which it animates with a new life. Once it is placed there, it cannot be separated."

Matisse's The Dance in it's original site:
An undated photo shows the Barnes Foundation and its world-renowned art collection in Lower Merion, Pa."The Dance," a mural by Henri Matisse is at left.  (AP Photo/Barnes Foundation).
Matisse's The Dance in its new site:

Finally, there are two noteworthy articles about the East Village in the eighties:
a Village Voice interview with Philip Glass, and a scorching and fun article by former Village Voice art critic Gary Indiana, One Brief, Scuzzy Moment.

Monday, March 12, 2012

In and Around Monochrome

By Carl Belz
(Note: Living in rural northern New Hampshire, I can’t jump into my car and do studio visits as I did while living near Boston. Nonetheless, I’ve become newly aware during the past couple of years of artists among my Facebook friends whose work looks good to me on my computer, like work I'd like somehow to engage, so I’m here beginning a series of “virtual exhibitions,” group shows based on themes and subjects and such that reflect what I’ve been seeing and thinking about. I hope you’ll enjoy them. –CB)  

We got a taste of monochrome painting in the 1960s with the early work of Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, and Frank Stella. None among them was a monochrome hard liner, none out to declare the end of painting or the dawn of a new age utopia—none the direct offspring of either Rodchenko or Malevich—and none operated from a theoretical platform of any kind. All of them, however, having been born in the 1930s, had come of age in a post-World War II culture where abstract art was not only widespread, it was just as widely celebrated for its expressionist freedom. It needed no defending, as it had needed defending in its beginnings, but it did need reining in—at least, that was the assessment of it by an emerging generation of artists who felt the urge to simplify and distill and systematically shape and set limits upon it in order to clarify what they wanted to say with it. Thus the appeal of monochrome painting in the 60s. Except it wasn’t called monochrome painting, it was called minimal art.   

Monochrome spawned no school or movement following its appearance in the early 1960s, but it has nonetheless remained a presence in the art of our time, its directness and simplicity periodically offering respite within a culture drenched increasingly by spectacle, while at the same time demonstrating anew abstraction’s capacity to secure meaning, even when self-imposed limits seemingly reduce its options to degree zero. In varying measures, its appeal has all along been visual and conceptual, a matter of body and mind together accounting for its integrity as art. And so it is—or so it looks to me anyway—with the artists whose work I’ve come to know individually via the internet and have brought together in this virtual exhibition: John Zinsser, Daniel Levine, Karen Baumeister, Jeffrey Collins, and Matt McClune. In mining a radical vein of modernist abstraction, they extend a century-old tradition; with their individual voices, they demonstrate its continuing vitality.   
John Zinsser’s paintings are self-reflective, they have a lot to do with the challenges that go into making paintings, with the process of getting paint the way you want it from the can onto the canvas, with the kinds of marks you mean to make with it once you get it there. The process is physical, the paint has substance, you can see how it’s moved around by brush or squeegee or trowel, you can see that it’s sometimes obdurate, sometimes yielding. The process is also deliberate, you’re aware that different kinds of marks connote different kinds of meanings and construct different kinds of pictures, sturdy and assertive pictures, for instance, along with pictures that are welcoming and serene, pictures that are fast, pictures that are slow. Thus does the process signal the pictures’ internal awareness, determine their character, and shape their meaning. Through all the process, however, there’s also pleasure, pleasure evident in the paint’s lubricious tactility, in the mark’s decisive sweep, in the choice of a picture’s identifying color. Which is where monochrome comes in: It’s not so much Zinsser’s subject as it is the framework for his enterprise, it’s an anchor, it functions as a constant against which we register and measure his art-making reflections and experience the wide-ranging and abundant pleasures they engender—for the artist, and for us as well.
John Zinsser, Quantity and Method, 2011, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.
John Zinsser, Manner of Illusion, 2010, Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 inches.
(Click to enlarge)
John Zinsser, Primary Nature, 2010, oil on canvas, 19 x 24 inches.
(Click to enlarge)

John Zinsser, The Waking Sky, 2011, Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 x 36 inches.
The pleasures that accrue to Daniel Levine’s paintings are of a different order, they’re delicate, ethereal. Their rarefied atmosphere is circumscribed by rigorously defined and scrupulously observed parameters: Levine paints only with primary colors and white, each monochrome is contained by a razor-sharp border of raw canvas, all of the pictures are minimally off-square. In a 2004 statement, he wrote, “I’m not motivated by objects, but by the idea of them.” In conversation with John Zinsser earlier this year, Levine referred to his own paintings as being “inherently internalized”, and he further acknowledged, “…my paintings aren’t ‘outwardly friendly’…” Asked about his influences, he referenced Philip Guston, John McLaughlin and Myron Stout as “…the ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Asked why he titled his pictures, he commented, “…people have names for God.” Yet, both his statement and his conversation are sprinkled with references to punk and popular culture, notable among them, Iggy and the Stooges and Tuesday Weld. In response to this devil-or-angel conundrum, I’d say the pictures’ significance is pretty clear. If I imagine being with one of them, in my home, say, I see myself in a private space, a space for meditation beatified by the painting’s austere and otherworldly presence, a space outside of which beckoning demons may hover, but they’re kept at bay by the radiant, life-giving light of the picture’s surface, leaving me at peace—with myself, with the world.  

Daniel Levine, O. M., 2007 - 2010, oil on cotton, 8 x 7 ⅞ inches (Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson).
(Click to enlarge)
Daniel Levine, Untitled #2, 2001, oil on cotton, 16" x 15 3/4".
(Click to enlarge)
Daniel Levine, Untitled #3, 2009-2010, oil on cotton, 9 x 8 11/16 inches (private collection).
(Click to enlarge)
Daniel Levine, Untitled #5, 2010, oil on cotton, 16 7/8 x 16 13/16 inches.
(Click to enlarge)
Karen Baumeister’s dignified monochromes return us to the world of everyday experience. She paints them in everyday light, which is also how she prefers having them seen, because she conceives of them as being lived with, in harmony with their everyday environment, responding to it as naturally as plants respond to sunlight. Her preferred format is square or close to square, suggesting still life paintings, images of everyday objects instead of human figures, which would be clearly vertical, or landscapes, which would be clearly horizontal. Her paint, generously and sensuously layered across canvas supports, accumulates visibly at the pictures’ edges and further underscores their physicality, their tactility, their referencing of objects we routinely handle. And her color, whether gray or green, red or white, is consistently muted and restful, neither thrusting at us nor tugging us in. Its unassuming tone reflects the pictures’ comfort about being in the world, content in allowing the monochromes to integrate and signal their individual identities. Thus do the paintings become, for us, objects of contemplation, hushed invitations to become absorbed in them and partake of their pleasuring content. But what kinds of everyday things do these monochrome still lifes comprise, what are we likely to find within them? Secrets, perhaps. Or maybe dreams. Or desires. Or memories. All of which are within and around us all of the time—common things right before our eyes in these uncommonly meaningful and satisfying paintings. 

Karen Baumeister, Grays Over Blackened Blue, 2011, 64 x 64 inches.

Detail: Karen Baumeister, Grays Over Blackened Blue, 2011, 64 x 64 inches

Karen Baumeister, Everchanging, 2010, 8 x 9 inches.
(Click to enlarge)

Karen Baumeister, Red, 2010, 64 x 64 inches.
I have an artist friend who periodically reminds me that art doesn’t have to be ugly to be sincere. I can’t remember what got him started saying it. It could have been when punk was the rage or when grunge came along, or it could have been in reference to the anti-aesthetic of California Funk or Neo-Expressionism or the YBAs. Whenever and whatever, it had to have been one of those characteristically modern moments when beauty gets questioned as being merely beauty, meaning merely decorative, out of touch with lived experience, inauthentic as art. But, behold, beauty has made a serious comeback since the start of the millennium, in painting and elsewhere—in my estimation, because a new generation of artists is emerging that’s often been deeply inspired by modernist abstraction and is fully informed of its achievement, but by dint of time and space, a lengthy span of postmodern irony, and an increasingly global perspective, is coming to maturity feeling unburdened by the baggage of what that abstraction may earlier have meant, and correspondingly free to make their own reading of it . In the context of monochrome, for instance, Jeffrey Collins bonds gestural abstraction with minimalist reserve, an unlikely pairing, to attain a delectable expressionism that is unique within the genre. 

Jeffrey Collins,  07-01-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 36 x 30 inches. 

Jeffrey Collins, 07-22-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 39 x 36 inches. 
Jeffrey Collins, 11-18-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 30 x 24 inches.

Jeffrey Collins, 02-17-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 25 ½ x 16 inches.
Matt McClune, by comparison, presents us with layered veils of color, fragile, alluring, astonishingly and irresistibly beautiful, which appear to have come into being on their own, without agency, as if they were forces of nature—monochrome highlighting not so much the process of their becoming as the autonomous state of their being. 

Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 53 x 39 inches. 
Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 35 ½ x 29 ½ inches

Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 35 ½ x 24 ½ inches.

Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 25 ½ x 22 ½ inches.
In greater and lesser degrees, these monochrome paintings, simplified and distilled and systematically shaped as they are, sometimes make painting look easy, as if the way it is is the only way it could ever have been, as if inspiration and its expression—regardless of the facts of their gestation—were born as one, effortlessly and simultaneously, in an instant. Really good art of any kind has a way of doing that, and the effect can be exhilarating—still, risk attends the urge to go for it. This Yeats knew:
A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.            

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