Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The New Whitney Museum

By Charles Kessler

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Retrospective Reflections

By Charles Kessler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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