Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Art News

By Charles Kessler

Tsuris at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA):
Your Essential Guide to MOCApocalypse 2012 by Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic art blog, is
the best summary I've found about the MOCA shipwreck. The post contains links to the most important articles about this on-going fiasco. 
Jeffrey Deitch's stewardship wouldn't be such a catastrophe if there were more alternatives in Los Angeles.There's nothing wrong with a graffiti or a disco show, or a show curated by James Franco, unless it's to the exclusion of more challenging exhibitions. Unfortunately, LA still doesn't have enough contemporary art venues to fill the void. When the Guggenheim turned populist under the direction of Thomas Krens and did shows like The Art of the Motorcycle, it wasn't to the exclusion of other contemporary art exhibitions in New York. In fact the Guggenheim's shows added variety to the art scene and stirred up controversy (always a good thing). As big as the LA art world has become, it will be devastating if MOCA continues the way it's been going, or worse, retrenches or closes.

New York collector Robert Owen Lehman, son of the prominent banker, gave the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston 34 rare West African Benin sculptures that he collected between the 1950s and the 1970s. But the Huffington Post recently reported that the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria is demanding the return of 32 of the pieces which it says were looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897. Is there a statute of limitations?
Commemorative head of an Oba (King), Benin kingdom, Edo peoples, Nigeria, late 16th century. Copper alloy (Robert Owen Lehman Collection).
Two chronicles of 70's and 80's New York art:
Whitney Kimball's interview with Alan Moore for the art blog Art Fag City gives a taste of the East Village in the early eighties. This is the first of several future interviews with people involved with ABC No Rio, the trailblazing East Village alternative space. If the interview peaks your interest, check out ABC No Rio Dinero, a book Moore co-authored with Marc Miller.
Alan Moore standing beside Becky Howland's Real Estate Show poster (©1980 Becky Howland. All rights reserved).
And the David Zwirner Gallery finally published the exhibition catalog 112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974) about the influential Soho alternative space that some consider the first. The Times reviews the catalog here.

Gordon Matta-Clark preparing works at 112 Greene Street in 1972 (photo by Cosmos Sarchiapone).

Arts Graduates Find Their Way to Jobs and Satisfying Lives
Who knew? A study of more than 36,000 arts alumni of 66 institutions in the United States and Canada shows people with arts degrees are generally satisfied with their educational and career experiences. 82% were satisfied with their ability to be creative in their current work; only 4% of respondents report being unemployed and looking for work; and 86% of those with a master’s degree in the arts as well as 71% with a bachelor's degree have worked as professional artists.
A view of the ancient citadel in the heart of Aleppo, Syria (via flickr.com/stijnnieuwendijk)
On a sad note, Hrag Vartanian, the energetic publisher of Hyperallegic, reports UNESCO is alarmed at the threat to the place of his birth, the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, a World Heritage Site since 1986. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Color Picture Now: Feeling Foremost

By Carl Belz

Into our modern era the job of color in painting was to articulate the visible world, which it did anew with eye-opening freshness and authority in the hands of the Impressionists, only to have their successors advance the case that color could be shorn of its descriptive function and employed expressively, to embody feelings not otherwise visible. Thus liberated, emphatic personalized color provided, during the past century, the engine that drove the Brucke and Blaue Reiter expressionists in Germany, the Fauves in France, and, following World War II, the Post Painterly Abstractionists of the New York School. What the latter gave us—what Rothko and Still and Newman and Hofmann, Frankenthaler and Louis, Noland and Olitski and Stella, gave to the art of our time—were pictures as visually arresting and emotionally moving as any produced by moderns and modernists alike since the middle of the 19th Century.

Postmodern sensibilities that germinated in the 1970s haven’t generally endorsed the value judgments guiding that synopsis of color picture history. Disillusioned by the failed promises of the previous decade—a reaction quickly transferred to 20th Century modernism generally—they’ve opted more for cultural deconstruction and critique, for irony, and for detached, anti-aesthetic interest than for quality and conviction. From such a position, the tradition extending from Matisse to Stella, say, is seen less as a pictorial achievement than a decorative art historical sidebar, an assessment echoing a concern that was initially voiced decades before, most notably by Marcel Duchamp, who, in the face of the Fauves and Cubists, declared the new art mere visual pleasure—in a word, retinal. As a corrective, he called for art to restore ideas to itself, the implication being that it would otherwise devolve to comprise objects lacking meaningful content, objects, that is, which were indistinguishable from ordinary things in the world, things that could only nominally be considered art, like bottle racks or bicycle wheels, for instance, instead of the real McCoy, like the things in museums. And so was born conceptual art—art that equates content with ideas.      

Conceptualism’s critique notwithstanding, the colorist equation of content with feeling continued to figure prominently—as it had figured prominently since the late 1940s—across our visual culture’s increasingly pluralistic stage during the later 1960s and the 1970s. Which is when the three painters presented here—Ronnie Landfield, Sandi Slone, and Darryl Hughto—were coming into their early maturity. Each was fully schooled in modernism, and each absorbed from the start the ways and means of Post Painterly Abstraction, in particular its primary emphasis on a personal and expressive use of color, but also its techniques of paint application, staining and pouring among them, methods of getting paint from the can or tube and onto the canvas that minimized paint’s physicality on the one hand and indulged it on the other, but in either case suppressed the gestural handling of it in order to allow color its maximum impact. Each has now been painting for more than four decades, and each has in the process periodically made ambitiously large pictures, as well as pictures that are frankly and unapologetically beautiful, candid in celebrating color as a vehicle of emotional content, intuitively smart in structuring its deployment to assure the content’s credibility. Regularly inspired by their modernist past, yet at the same time unburdened by it, each has also looked periodically to nature, not in opposition to abstraction, which was the charge presented against painting nature in the 1950s, but as a resource for enriching it.

In that context, here is Ronnie Landfield:
My inspiration has been my conviction that modern painting is fueled by the combination of tradition and the realities of modern life. Spirituality and feeling are the basic subjects of my work. They are depictions of intuitive expressions using color as language and the landscape…as a metaphor for the arena of life. The revelation of a primal image that delivers an immediate response in the viewer is my goal. 
Here, Sandi Slone:
The recent works do not describe nature. They attempt to imitate the processes of nature in the way they are made, relying on the fluidity of chance and rigorous control that is rooted in exploring the unexpected and the unknown.
And here, Darryl Hughto:
My absolute favorite motif is the imaginary landscape, usually just consisting of a horizon, sky above and land or sea below, maybe a blob or two on the horizon reading as islands or clouds. With this format I am the most free with color and paint handling. It puts more pressure on the color, and the simplicity of the drawing allows the viewer to relax and just feel it. I can have my cake, as I had it when I was totally geometric and painting diamonds, and eat it too, great savory hunks of paint swimming in buckets of puddles and pours. 
Ronnie Landfield’s signature paintings generally comprise stained fields of light-breathing color bordered by a single color geometric band along the lower framing edge and sometimes one or two additional bands rising along the sides of the picture. The bands represent a formal element he first employed in minimalist paintings of the 1960s in response to Donald Judd’s quarrel with painting’s inherent spatiality and part-by-part relationships—his claim being that painting was flawed by illusion, that it wasn’t its literal self—so Ronnie Landfield added the bands as a way of reminding us of painting’s flatness. All of which probably sounds kind of academic, even a little preposterous from the distance of nearly half a century, but such were the issues informing critical discourse at the time—they were immediate, they felt genuinely urgent, and they occasionally found their way into the studio, just as their counterparts do today.
Ronnie Landfield, For John Keats, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 93 inches.
Ronnie Landfield, Joseph’s Coat, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 88 x 81 inches.
But you don’t have to know all about that discourse when you look at the pictures themselves, you just have to know that what the bands might have meant in the past isn’t necessarily what they might mean now. I, for one, find the bands highly effective. They lend structure to the paintings but without suppressing them, without imposing their will upon the range and spontaneity of feeling that’s lyrically articulated within them or the exhilarating release we experience in looking at them. Concomitantly, the freedom that is expressed and celebrated within the paintings, and that is identified with our response to them, is acknowledged as existing within limitations—which is how freedom invariably exists in lived experience, for it would otherwise be not a reality, but a hollow concept. The bands’ meaning in these paintings thereby becomes timeless.
Ronnie Landfield,  The Deluge, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 inches.
Ronnie Landfield,  On the Threshold, 2008, 44 x 29.5 inches.
Ronnie Landfield,  Blue Wall, 2010, 44.5 x 53 inches.
Sandi Slone is clearly sensitive to the bonding of freedom and limitation in citing her reliance on the “fluidity of chance” in tandem with “rigorous control”. What I especially appreciate in the statement about her current working procedure, at the same time, is the urge whereby chance and control enable her pictures to “imitate nature in the way they are made”. The urge is certainly evident in her recent pictures, which appear as phenomena that have come into being entirely on their own, like celestial or aquatic torrents, brilliantly illuminated from within, that sweep through space without human agency or intervention, without being shaped or composed, as if obeying rules of their own—like natural forces.
Sandi Slone, Tiger Eye, 1976, oil and acrylic on canvas, 69 x 80 inches.
Sandi Slone,  Rasputin, 1984, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 inches.
To an extent, that effect has been present in Sandi Slone’s pictures from the outset: in the earth-color masses abutting in her 1970s broom paintings, in the cascading and pooling washes and stains in her pictures from the 1980s and 90s, in the minimally, yet visibly stroked circles of the past decade that seem, like a crack of lightning, to have happened out of nowhere in an instant. It’s an absorbing effect that stimulates a wide spectrum of feeling, wide and full, like the bounty of nature itself. In the face of it, I’m reminded of what modernism is all about, how it’s about creating worlds and how to go about the process of shaping their character—as it has been since its beginning. Which in turn reminds me of what Flaubert said at the moment of that beginning: “The author in his book must be like God in the universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible.”
Sandi Slone, Fire Wave, 1990, oil, acrylic and sand on canvas, 60 x 126 inches.
Sandi Slone, Sky, Field, Lips, 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 inches diameter .
Sandi Slone, Vast, 2011, oil and acrylic on canvas, 18 x 14 inches.
Darrly Hughto’s painting format in the 1970s comprised diamonds within rectangles or squares, sometimes centered and aligned with one another, sometimes askew. It sustained an effective run of pictures through the decade, but the work then slackened, whereupon he tried working en plein air, he cast about and wrestled with himself, and, by the later 1980s, he emerged as a landscape/still life/figure painter. He wasn’t alone in radically shifting gears during a career in full stride. David Park and Philip Guston had both famously done so out of dissatisfaction with abstraction and the urge for a more outwardly focused kind of pictorial content. But Darryl Hughto wasn’t after a new kind of content.
Darryl Hughto, Saint Gingerbread, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 78 inches diagonal.

Darryl Hughto, Radiance, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 58 x 81.5 inches
He harbored no argument with modernist abstraction, far from it, but neither was he out to demonstrate the kind of virtuosic, many-voiced performance—already a postmodernist trope at the time—whereby a solo show of new work looked for all intents and purposes like a group exhibition. Rather, what I think he was looking for was a new format, one that would anchor and extend anew his reach into the color-as-feeling territory he’d been inspired to explore all along. Which he found in landscape more than anywhere else, as his own words clearly acknowledge, and as the chromatic splendor and emotional exuberance of his pictures surely attest. He’s referenced both German Expressionism and the French Fauves in connection with his newer pictures, bringing to mind Kandinsky and Matisse. I’d personally add Nicholas de Stael, from the 1950s School of Paris, whose luscious physical color reminds me of Darryl Hughto’s sensuous “hunks of paint.” As you probably know, French painting back in the 50s was regarded as the kind of painting our Abstract Expressionists didn’t want to make. It was too French, too arty. Today, however, the deep satisfactions of Darryl Hughto’s paintings enable us to see in the present the pictorial exuberance that was being overlooked in the past. Good art can do that, it can make you rewrite art’s history.
Darryl Hughto, Pillar Point, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 52.5 x 68.5 inches.
Darryl Hughto, Great Spruce Head Island Sunrise, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 57 x 47 inches.
Darryl Hughto, Cherry Island, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 29 x 36 inches.
Paintings I really like I think about living with, like the paintings of Ronnie Landfield and Sandi Slone and Darryl Hughto. The worlds they take me to are generous and accommodating, pleasured by art that is meaningful in and of itself, art that is justified simply by being, like nature. I like to think there’s room in my own lived world—even in the lived world at large—for that kind of experience. I share Matisse’s dream of “an art filled with balance, purity and calmness…a spiritual remedy…for the businessman as well as the artist”—even though I’m no businessman or artist myself.

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Blue Coat. 1965.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, translated by Ralph McCarthy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1911. (This review was originally published in Art New England (April/May, 2012).)

By Carl Belz

When I assumed my post as director of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, in 1974, my first task was to move the collection from a handful of makeshift sites scattered around campus to a proper storage vault that had recently been added to the museum itself. It was a great opportunity so see just about every painting and sculpture we owned—prints and drawings, mostly unframed, would come later—and I was excited by the chance to handle the objects, feel their heft, study their condition, and read the labels on the stretcher bars to see whence they’d come to the museum. To greater and lesser degrees, I was familiar with the artists they represented, some widely acclaimed, some lesser known, and some whose names meant nothing at all to me. There was a woman’s coat, for instance, it was entirely covered with visually buzzing, aqua- and black-striped cotton phallic protuberances that gave off a weirdly disturbing sexual vibe. A registrar’s tag identified it as having been made in 1965 and accessioned in 1967, which meant it had been acquired by William Seitz, the Rose’s second director. Bill had been a curator at MoMA and had come to Brandeis shortly after mounting “The Responsive Eye”, an ambitious international survey of Op Art, a passion I assumed he brought with him when he came to Waltham. For me, that provided a handy context for understanding the dress itself and its presence in the collection, and with that I was pretty much satisfied.

Little did I know. Little, in fact, did a lot of people know, unless they’d hung around New York’s downtown art world where Yayoi Kusama set up shop and operated from the late 1950s through the 1960s, in which case they would have known the coat wasn’t just a one-hit Op Art wonder, known it also referenced Pop Art’s celebration of common objects and their sometimes surrealist transformations, known it demonstrated the gripping formal effect of Minimal Art’s modular repetitions, and known it signaled the first tremors of the women’s revolution that would erupt at the close of the decade and affect art’s history into the new millennium. They’d further have known how the phalluses—or, in some cases, Kusama’s signature polka dots—could proliferate, spread from an article of clothing to nearby tables and chairs to surrounding walls and thereby generate whole obsessive environments, sites for Kusama Performances and Kusama Happenings that she dedicated to peace and love. At the same time, they probably wouldn’t have known the full meaning, for the artist, of her friendships with Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd, yet they did probably wonder whatever happened to her when she left New York in 1973, returned to her native Japan, admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo in 1977, and, for the most part, dropped off everybody’s cultural radar screen.

But they surely know now: Through the many major exhibitions, starting in the later 1980s and continuing at the moment I write, which have celebrated her achievement in cultural centers around the globe; and through Infinity Net as well, her generously personal autobiography, which was first published in Japanese in 2002 and is now available in a 2011 English translation. It’s a terrific read, packed with information—about her life, her art, her career, her vision—that I’ve merely glossed here, because what especially fascinates me about it is how similar it is to her visual art—and yet how different. Similar in what I would call Kusama’s minimalism, her use of simple, modular units, the spots and dots of color and light in her installations, for instance, units that pair comfortably with her penchant for unembellished sentences and the direct, matter-of-fact literary voice of her autobiography. At heart, the art and the writing proceed with a steady and absorbing rhythm. It’s when the elementary units begin to accumulate that each medium begins to yield its separate and distinct aim. The installations become visually cacophonous and disorienting, reaching for the heavens, dissolving our selves among the stars, while the prose feels earthbound and determined, directing us inward to know ourselves in the here and now. Heaven and earth: pretty impressive, especially from an artist I initially identified as an eccentric seamstress.

(Editor's note: A major exhibition of Yayoi Kusama can be seen at the Whitney Museum of Art until September 30, 2012.)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Art News

By Charles Kessler

I’m going away for a week (the Berkshires — nature, yecch) and I only have time for a brief post, but I’m really excited by these shows. The best contemporary art in NYC right now can be seen in Bushwick, all in one building — 56 Bogart. Bogart Salon is exhibiting breathtaking wrap-around colorfield paintings by Shingo Francis.
Shingo Francis, Bound for Eternity, 2012.
Theodore:Art has one of the best shows of small abstract paintings I’ve seen in a long time. It includes work by such well-known artists as Harriet Korman as well as several vital looking newcomers like Chris Baker, Mel Bernstine and Gary Petersen.
Gary Petersen, Untitled S5, 2012.
Chris Baker, Bewindan, 2012.
Studio 10 has a group show, another in a series of excellent group shows. This one is called Text, and it consists of work that relates to the written word and the materiality of paper. It includes work by John Avelluto, Mary Carlson, Audra Wolowiec and Meg Hitchcock who has some of the most intense paintings you’ll ever see. She cuts up a text, letter by letter, usually from religious books, and reassembles it, letter by letter, to form a passage from another religious text. The painting below isn’t in the show, but it’s representative of her work and is the best reproduction I was able to get.
Meg Hitchock, Mantras & Meditations
Finally, Slag Gallery is showing installations by Claudia Chaseling, one of the most exciting new artists to come on the scene. Chaseling spends half her time in Germany and half in Bushwick, and she’s been doing these powerful, exuberant and somewhat disturbing works in both places.
Claudia Chaseling, INFILTRATION,  2012 - installation view.