NO. 87: 1 DECEMBER 2009....IN & OUT OF TOWN.... The pickings in the Big Apple this time around are slender. Three local museum shows are interesting, but the galleries are dismal – what I’ve seen of them, anyway. Out of town, however, are two magnificent exhibitions: “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” organized by Kristen Hileman, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, through January 3, and “Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective,” curated by Michael R. Taylor, and on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 10 (then at Tate Modern, February 10 to May 3, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, from June 6 to September 20). I’m starting with politics & the galleries, working up gradually to the high spots, but below is one of the highest: Truitt’s first mature sculpture, “First” (1961). It’s made of wood, painted white, so no need for color photography – black & white shows all you need to know.
FROM ART IN WASHINGTON
TO POLITICS (MOSTLY IN WASHINGON)
Most people like to give the good news first, then follow it up with the bad news, but chronologically, most of the bad news has preceded the good news this time around. First, we had the bad news of election day, November 3, when both Virginia and New Jersey moved from the Democratic to the Republican column in their choice of a governor, and New York City re-elected a real wart, Michael Bloomberg, as mayor.
Next, on November 7, we had some good news (or at least I think it’s good news): the House of Representatives passed its sweeping health care reform bill, albeit with major concessions to the right wing on abortion coverage. I say I think it’s good news because I really don’t know to what extent the financing for this program will have to come out of the purses of seniors on Medicare, but certainly it was good news for President Obama, as he’d made a major campaign issue out of health care reform, and if this enterprise comes to grief, he will have to go back to the voters with the stench of defeat upon him.
The next stage in this progression is that the Senate needs to pass its health care reform bill, and is in the midst of debating the measure. It now looks as though this debate will hang on through December, and we’ll be lucky to get a vote on it by Christmas. The problem here is that the Democrats need 60 votes to vote cloture in the event that the Republicans decide to filibuster against it, and it’s highly uncertain that they have them, since there are only 58 Democratic senators, and one or two of the more conservative Democrats are wavering over the issue of a “public option,” while independent Joe Lieberman, who also likes to think of himself as a member of the Democratic caucus, has said he’s opposed to the “public option.”
Liberal lobbyists like Move On are absolutely convinced that the public wants a public option plan. That is why they are so passionately agitating on its behalf. Republicans are just as equally convinced that the public doesn’t want it. This is why they are fighting it so hard. They must figure that if they can defeat the public option, this will win them many seats in the midterm elections of November 2010.
Actually, nobody knows what the public really wants. In the November 29 issue of the NY Times, Katharine Q. Seelye explained how it depends on the way that the question is asked. She quoted a survey conducted last April by the Kaiser Family Foundation which found that if people were told that a public option would increase their choices and lower their costs, they were all for it. But if told that a public option would give the government an unfair advantage over private insurance and might lead to a single-payer system, the support eroded. Obama himself is not all that committed to a public option, which places organizations like Move On in something of a bind. During the election campaign, they very enthusiastically supported him. Now they are trying to figure out how not to feel they’ve been double-crossed
Another area of friction between Obama and his liberal supporters is Afghanistan. After months of trying to decide how to deal with the deteriorating military situation there, he announced on national television on December 1 that he was going to send 30,000 more American troops over there – though he would also pull them out by the middle of 2011. The liberals wanted to hear about the pullout, while conservatives – Republicans now as well as Democrats – were more enthusiastic about a “surge” which bears suspicious similarities to the “surge” that President Bush enacted in Iraq during the latter part of his term in office, and that Obama harshly criticized on the campaign trail.
Given the relative peace and stability Iraq now appears to enjoy, even as U.S. troops are withdrawn, Obama is apparently willing to let himself be inspired by Bush, but what worked for Iraq might not work as well for Afghanistan, according to “news analysis” in the December 5 NY Times by David E. Sanger. In the first place, the situation in Iraq benefitted from the fact that a local Sunni movement called the “Awakening” rose up against the insurgents; second, Al Qaeda were looked upon as foreigners, and finally, although the Iraqi military was in a shambles, it was easier to reconstitute because there was a military tradition in the country. In Afghanistan, however, there is no such tradition, nor is there any group comparable to the Awakening, and finally the Taliban are native to Afghanistan, maybe even local heroes. .
The worst news that Obama has been up against ever since he took office is the lousy state of the economy, and what by autumn had become a double-digit unemployment rate. According to a CNN-Opinion Research Corporation poll released November 20, 38 percent of the public blames Republicans for the country’s economic problems, but that’s down 15 points from May, when 53 percent still blamed the G.O.P. The poll also reported that 27 percent now blame the Democrats, and that’s up 6 points from May (27 percent blamed both parties equally). According to the CNN Polling director, Keating Holland, “The bad news for the Democrats is that the number of Americans who hold the G.O.P. exclusively responsible for the recession has been steadily falling by about two to three percentage points per month. At that rate, only a handful of voters will blame the economy on the Republicans by the time next year’s midterm elections roll around.”
If you want my opinion, I think the bad economy is the single biggest reason that President Obama’s popularity is slipping. According to Adam Nagourney in the NY Times for November 24, polls by Gallup and Quinnipiac University both showed that the President’s job approval ratings were slightly below 50 percent. No wonder the Republicans scent blood! But never fear, there is also good news on the way....
FINALLY, THE BEST NEWS.
The best news is that the economy does seem to be rebounding, if ever so slowly and modestly. The stock market has continued to worm its way upward – the Dow Jones Industrials are now comfortably above the 10,000 mark. Productivity is also up (thanks to so many layoffs, employees remaining on payrolls have been forced to work extra hard). Increased productivity leads to bigger profits, which in turn (one likes to think) will go toward rehiring and capital expenditures as well as bigger bonuses for executives & fatter earnings for shareholders. In its latest regular report on economic conditions throughout the U.S., the Federal Reserve found that the economy continues to show “weak and sluggish signs of renewal,” according to Javier C. Hernandez in the December 3 NY Times. The Fed pointed in particular to indications of renewal in consumer spending, manufacturing and the housing market, although demand for loans, particularly from businesses, declined in half the country, and commercial real estate suffered from high vacancy rates and decreased rents. The very best news of all came the following day, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 11,000 jobs had been lost in November, so the unemployment rate had dropped from 10.2 percent to 10 percent. The news prompted the slumping U.S. dollar to its biggest one-day rally since January. Now, if everybody will just go out and spend, spend, spend for Christmas...
AND AT THE GALLERIES.....
LEADING OFF WITH TRACEY EMIN:
Poor Tracey Emin! The November 14 New York Times carried an interview with her by Eric Konigsberg in which she lamented the fact that ONLY 1,000 people turned up for the opening of her current show at Lehmann Maupin on Chrystie Street (through December 19). Seems that when she’s at home in London, her openings at White Cube draw 5,000 and 6,000 people – presumably hoping for a repeat of the installation shown at the Tate Gallery in 1999, consisting of her much-used bed, bedecked with bloody underwear, condoms and lubricant. Wooza wooza, as we used to say in my childhood, when commiserating with somebody whose woes were not that bad. Konigberg’s “interview” (which the artist asked to be conducted beside the hotel swimming pool, and for which she turned up in a bathing suit) reads more like an assemblage of Emin’s clippings. I must concede they are awe-inspiring, since by the age of 46 she has already rated retrospectives at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, as well as being chosen in 2007 to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. According to Konigsberg, she is “quite possibly the most famous living artist in England after Damien Hirst.” “And Damien’s not recognized like I am, everywhere I go,” she was quoted as saying. “In London I’m in the papers every time I blow my nose, essentially. I’ll be followed by paparazzi. I’m taught in the school curriculum in Britain.”
Curious to see what all the fuss might be about, I went to Lehmann Maupin on a recent Saturday. Except for a large, enthusiastic group accompanied by a guide on a gallery tour, the gallery was virtually empty. Lehmann Maupin’s other venue, on West 26th Street, might have ensured better attendance, but the galleries beginning to cluster around the New Museum on the Lower East Side have evidently not yet succeeded in luring the Saturday see-and-be-seen crowds away from Chelsea. Then again, the Emin show is vulgar without being particularly sensational (in either sense of the word). It consists of many monoprints and embroidered panels with crude images (especially female figures viewed from below, so that the crotch is prominently exposed) and crude lettered messages (such as “free + really wet”). Both images and lettering are executed in an even cruder style. Emin likes to call it “my salty Egon Schiele line,” but actually it’s only the faux naïf we see so much of in Chelsea and at the New Museum (though I guess in her case it should be called, “fausse naïve”). There are also a number of imitation Bruce Nauman neon messages (possibly in London they have never heard of Nauman, so the abject indebtedness goes undetected). The one which gives its name to the entire show is “Only God knows I’m good.” Voltaire said, “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” Emin has reinvented God in her own image. The pièce de résistance is the 20-minute animated film loop in the little room at the back of the gallery, showing another crudely-drawn reclining female, crotch front and center, bouncing around on her back as though scratching herself. I suppose this is meant to portray masturbation, and according to the tour guide, Emin’s fame is based in her use of “women’s work” (i.e. embroidery) and women’s issues (sex, lust, etc.) Please gents, don’t assume that this lady speaks for all womankind. She sure doesn’t speak – or act – for me.
....AND GERHARD RICHTER,
An out-of-town visitor recently reported to me, after spending two days in Chelsea, that “there isn’t any abstraction around.” He hadn’t, of course, thought to read my October column before he left home, so he’d missed the Noland, Christensen and Landfield shows. But beyond that, I know there are many other gallery exhibitions of abstract art. I occasionally see a few of them, and try to report on them when they rise above a certain level – which, I must confess, isn’t often. Most abstract painting that I see, in galleries I’m unfamiliar with, runs to complicated, hard-edged and rather shrill little compositions, or to large and messy-gestural ones, recapitulating the 1950s, with yet a third contingent presenting abstraction in the ever-popular faux naïf style. The shows I really want to see, and that I do like, are usually ones that I hear about from friends and/or receive announcements to, but I do, fairly often, also check out Howard Scott, Elizabeth Harris and Lohin Geduld in Chelsea, without knowing what I’ll see, as these galleries show a lot of abstraction and occasionally I like it. I also sometimes check shows of abstract art that I see reviewed in the Times, artcritical, or elsewhere. Still, there are literally hundreds of other galleries in Chelsea, and hundreds more elsewhere in the Big Apple. I can’t get to them all, particularly since many of the smaller galleries don’t list themselves in the Gallery Guide. I get little help from the NYTimes, too, as their critics seem to resent abstract art and devote most of their coverage to various sorts of figuration (including installations, videos and photography as well as representational painting).
On November 27, however, in a Christmas gift book roundup, the Times’s Roberta Smith recommended “Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting,” which she billed as “a lively survey by the independent curator and critic Bob Nickas.” Seems this book includes 80 artists, weighted toward young talent in NYC, especially artists whom Nickas has included in gallery shows he’s curated. Having never heard of Nickas, I googled him, and learned that some galleries with which he’s been associated are Feature, Team, Paula Cooper, Martos and Gresham’s Ghost. The first three I’ve occasionally visited in the past, but never found anything I wanted to write about; Martos is off the beaten track, on West 29th Street, and Gresham’s Ghost is one of those “pop-up” galleries that stage only occasional shows in divers locations. To Smith, not surprisingly, the Nickas book was to be thought of, “as a giant survey exhibition that didn’t – probably couldn’t, maybe shouldn’t – happen.” Why the hell shouldn’t it, I ask. Could it be because critics like Smith have trouble reviewing abstract shows? Do they find it easier and “newsier” to stick to figuration?
Then there are the “highbrow” critics, like Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine. Apparently, he likes to write about abstraction from time to time, as I learned through artblog.net, a lively website run by Franklin Einspruch. It told me that Saltz had been enraptured by “Gerhard Richter: Abstract Paintings, 2009" at Marian Goodman (through January 9). Although in 2002, I discussed Richter’s retrospective at MoMA in FMD, that show was mostly representational art, so I decided to see this Goodman show –indeed, I went back twice. Having slept on it, I report that three paintings in this show are not bad – not great, but above average. Considering that the checklist for the show totals 47 items, I’d say this percentage of 3 out of 47 doesn’t make Richter “one of the greatest painters alive” (as Saltz calls him). The situation is more like back in the early ‘80s, when neo-expressionism was enjoying its brief vogue, Greenberg’s associates (and most likely Greenberg himself) would say that all of these neo-expressionist painters had “a little something.” (David Salle, Eric Fischl, Georg Baselitz, even Anselm Kiefer, where are you now?) Richter, too, has a little something. Most of the 47 items on display verge either upon the slick & noisily colored (such as the 48-segment “Sindbad”), or upon the slick & murky (including the muddy pale colors of most of the large paintings on three walls of the north (entry) gallery, and the slick & murky darker colors of the series of eight smaller panels across the fourth wall of the same gallery – all of them simply titled “abstract painting,” together with a gallery number). The show also includes a smattering of the deliberately scrofulous (such as the bilious green “903-6" in the gallery next to the north gallery).
The three better than average are 1) “911-1" (2009), the muddily pinkish-grayish horizontal one, roughly 7' x 10', at the north end of the north gallery, 2) “910-2" (2009), a screechily black, yellow and orange 6-foot square on the south wall of the south gallery, and 3) “909-6" (2009"), a plum-colored, nearly monochromatic horizontal of roughly 5' x 7' on the west wall of the south gallery. I also looked at “September 2009,” a smaller print under glass that Saltz had singled out to reproduce, but although pretty, it was too reminiscent of the messy-gestural abstract expressionism of the 1950s to suit my taste. The other paintings that I found passable seemingly borrow their technique from more recent models, the sponges, squeegees, etc., that Olitski, Bannard and other modernist painters used in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but these Richters are more like debased or degenerate modernism than the genuine article. Many paintings in this show also reminded me of what I’ve heard about “academic cuisine,” or the “sauces and gravies” of 19th century Salon painting that Courbet and Manet rejected in favor of modeling themselves on Old Masters like Velázquez. Such paintings in this show are smeary without being organized; they’re depressingly haphazard. Another food metaphor that comes to mind is the “schmear” of cream cheese with which a New York deli anoints your bagel. I felt as though Richter was schmearing his paint on in an attempt to rival his modernist models yet conform to the cult of the “accidental” that defines pomo..
The size of this show is a tribute to the artist’s ego, if nothing else (also perhaps his marketability). You enter it on the north end of the 4th floor of the building and it extends all the way across the building to the south end, including a space that appears to be normally given over to the display & sale of prints. Moreover, it spills over into a small Goodman annex on the 3rd floor, where hangs the final “masterpiece” in this show: a piece of mirror, 5 feet square, and available in an edition of 8 plus 2 artist’s proofs for a mere 50,000 euros ($75,000). All the prices in this show are listed in euros (supposedly because of the artist’s preference). How’s that for a comment on the current status of the Yankee dollar? Beyond that, the mirror tells you the spirit in which the entire show is offered – less a serious expression of the artist’s inner feeling than the artist saying, okay, so they want abstraction? Then I’ll give them what they want, and they can see themselves reflected in their snobby taste. As a joke, it’s not a terribly good one, but it underlines the cynical pomposity that characterizes the rest of the show, a latter-day version of the overblown rhetoric that characterized ab-ex of the later 1950s, when dozens of mediocrities were filling the Manhattan galleries with de Kooningesque messy gesturalism, dozens of journalists were pontificating about its supposed beauties, and hundreds, if not thousands of puzzled art-lovers were asking (not without justification) what’s the point?
The answer they got was the same that I did, when I exited from the 3rd floor annex of Marian Goodman, on the south end of the building, and started along the corridor that leads back to the elevators on the north end. The only gallery open was Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, showing “Pamela Joseph: Wunderlust” (through December 23). I charged in and looked around, to see a wall full of paintings combining bright red, yellow, pink and black comic-strip images of women with segments from the deep green giant fern-like forests of Le Douanier Rousseau to create garish, overcrowded pictures in what looks like deliberate but cheerfully bad taste. Elsewhere were similar depredations committed on famous paintings by artists ranging from Dalí to O’Keeffe. Wow, what a pleasant change of pace! I practically laughed aloud. Naumann’s a scholar who’s written books on Duchamp and dada, and this show was pure neo-dada, pop art right out of the 60s – just the antidote that those puzzled art-lovers had been looking for, to counteract the stultifying pretentiousness of all that third-generation, third-rate ab-ex which had cluttered up the galleries in the ‘50s. No wonder pop caught on so fast and powerfully. If you read Joseph’s catalogue essay, by Eleanor Heartney, the “paintings” are really oil with collage on linen, culled from postcards, erotic magazines, etc., and they all have heavy political significance about the role of women & stuff, but my first impression had been of rebel artistic attitudes, and my revisit to the gallery did nothing to change that view.
POSTSCRIPT: Since the above was written, the New York Times on December 4 devoted almost all of its “”Weekend Fine Arts/Leisure” section to a look at the Manhattan galleries, flitting lightly from one exhibition to the next. Roberta Smith covered the uptown scene, predictably singling Richter out as a true heir to Pollock and ignoring the wonderful Noland show at Leslie Feely (through January 9). Ken Johnson covered the Lower East Side, “Home to the Young and Emerging” (according to the article’s headline -- but illustrated by a page-wide photograph of the Tracey Emin exhibition). Karen Rosenberg, covering the few galleries left in SoHo amidst the sea of cosmetics boutiques, clothing stores and eateries, reported on three exhibitions of abstract art, along with at least 10 other shows. Even Holland Cotter, given the plum assignment of Chelsea, sourly conceded that “Abstract painting is having a moment,” though he denigrated his prize exhibit of this, a group show of 22 abstract artists at The Kitchen, by observing that it feels like “1970s SoHo.”
A BI-NATIONAL ARTIST: DAVID HOCKNEY
Still, the Times isn’t wrong all the time in its choice of contemporary artists to feature. For instance, it published “Hockney’s Long Road Home,” by Carol King, in its October 18 issue, as a curtain-raiser for “David Hockney: Paintings 2006-2009,” at PaceWildenstein (both locations – through December 24.) The article, which (incidentally) observed that Hockney “is routinely referred to in his native country as ‘Britain’s most famous living artist,’” told how the 72-year-old painter, who first came to prominence in Swinging London of the ‘60s, moved back to his native Yorkshire in 2005, after having lived in Los Angeles, off and on, since 1964 (he still maintains a home in LA, and is keeping his green card). King described the landscapes of East Yorkshire that would be included in the show, Hockney’s first since 1996, and made them sound appealing enough to make me want to see them. First, I took in the 57th Street venue, which combines medium-to-large sized and brightly colored oils on canvas with somewhat smaller black-and-white charcoal drawings on paper. Subject matter falls into 2 groups. Some pictures show spring scenes, with picturesque flowering hawthorne trees in bloom, while others present fall or winter subjects: felled trees in piles and tree “totems” – tall stumps with all their branches cut off.
Colors in the paintings range from amiable to raw, amiable more in the spring scenes, with green foliage and pinkish-yellowish hawthorne blossoms, raw especially in the fall series, with tree trunks and roads rendered in vivid oranges, purples and greens. The flowering hawthorne trees are almost obscenely luxuriant, while sky effects and the barren trees of fall are sort of diagrammatic or schematic Van Gogh – albeit perfectly respectable paintings. I could, however, only warm up to one of the oils in each group – “#11 – Astray” in the fall series, and “#4 – Hawthorne Blossom near Rudston” among the spring canvases (#4 was somewhat marred by being so obviously a diptych). The drawings are virtually all excellent: Hockney may not shine as a colorist, but his draftsmanship is extremely good, and the blacks & greys of the charcoal cut the sickly sweetness of the colored oils. I especially liked “#2 – The Big Hawthorne,” and “#3 - Hawthorne Bush” among the spring scenes on paper, as well as “#17 - Cut Trees – Timber” and “#15 – Still There” among the fall scenes.
A week or so later, I saw the Chelsea half of the Hockney show, and liked it much less. The subjects are the same, but I didn’t notice any drawings, and the paintings are larger, even huge – which makes them appear more hip but also more vacuous. How many times have I noted that senior artists exhibiting in Chelsea seem to fall victim to the bloated & feeble elephantiasis of old age! If all I’d seen of Hockney was the Chelsea exhibition, I’d have thought he was a victim of that, too. Not least of the problems in the Chelsea show is that Hockney has done all of his really large paintings on a series of canvases, then tried to suture them together, a process that invariably leaves a grid of ugly lines across and up-and-down the entire picture. Another problem is that the flowering hawthorne branches, when blown up to gargantuan size, look even more like male anatomy – limp male anatomy at that. For me, this distracts from the bucolic innocence of the landscape imagery, though I daresay those “art-lovers” who groove with Tracey Emin might consider it a plus.
NEWS OF THE SALANDER CLAN
Another show that I’m prepared to give a modest thumbs-up to is “After Yupo: Ivana Salander” at Cameo in Williamsburg (through December 6). This exhibition consists of eleven gray wood planks, 5 feet long, 2 feet high and mounted horizontally 7 or 8 feet off the floor. These planks have been painted with delicate greyish-white floral patterns (leaves, grasses, etc.). Said to have been inspired by synthetic Yupo paper, all are quite graceful, but as is the way with all artworks, some are more graceful than others. Alas, there are no labels and no checklist, hence no way for me to report on which came off best. The exhibition space itself, located behind the Lovin’ Cup Café, is more a performance space than a gallery – a large, square room with walls and cavernous ceiling painted alternately black and white, while a high performers’ stage occupies half the floor space, replete with sound equipment of all kinds. I am sure that the opening reception, with a live performance by The London Souls, was a gala occasion, but viewing the exhibition in the cold light of a later rainy day, the magic was considerably dissipated. However, up-and-coming artists have to take their venues where they find them, and Ivana Salander is currently on view at another location as well. This is Phoenix Art of Millbrook, NY, which since May has been managed (though not owned) by her father, Lawrence B. Salander. He is out on bail and awaiting trial after being arrested & indicted on more than 100 counts of fraud and theft totaling $93 million for his activities at Salander-O’Reilly. Some artists who formerly exhibited with Salander-O’Reilly are among those who believe they have been defrauded by him, but at least a few others have received good treatment from him. I have no quarrel with him myself: he was one of the first subscribers to my print edition, and has never been in arrears with his renewals. On December 5, Phoenix Art will be opening “Group: 2009,” a show that, in addition to including art by Ivana and Lawrence Salander, will also display work by Stanley Boxer, Baron Corso, Annemiek Do Gersten, Tom Goldenberg, Perry Rollins, Paul Weingarten, Joyce Weinstein, and Pam White (through January 3).
AND, AT THE MUSEUMS....
THE MET: PAINTINGS THAT TELL A STORY
Another heritage of the pop art revolution of the 60s, besides the deflating of second-rate abstract expressionism, was a re-evaluation upward of second-rate earlier representational art. As early as February 1963, Life magazine was already running a story on the revival of “throb and sob,” meaning the art-world fad for sentimental and melodramatic Victorian art. When I chanced upon this article while researching my book, it confirmed a suspicion that I’d had since I was in graduate school – namely, that the “revisionist art history” that I was encountering at Columbia University in the 1970s (attempting to upgrade Salon painting to the level of avant-garde work) had been preceded & indeed prompted by the rise in popularity during the ‘60s of pop art (which esthetically was inferior to the best abstract painting of that period, although much more popular) and so-called popular culture (more accurately referred to mass-audience culture). I was reminded of all this when I strolled through “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 24; then at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 28 – May 23, 2010). This collection of more than 100 representational paintings, depicting ordinary humans (as opposed to landscapes, still lifes and fantasy subjects), was organized by H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt, both of the Met, in association with Bruce Robertson, of the LA County, and Margaret C. Conrads, of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It’s dedicated to the proposition that all of these paintings (to quote the press release) “tell compelling stories of life’s tasks and pleasures,” as well as recording and defining “the emerging character of Americans as individuals, citizens, and members of ever-widening communities.” Well, a press release has to say something, doesn’t it? And a catalogue has to say something, too.
Actually, as one works one’s way through this vast show, one can pretty well tell which among the 50-plus artists represented were more interested in making fine paintings than in telling stories, and which were more interested in telling stories than making fine paintings. Those artists who belong in the former category correspond pretty nearly to the 11 painters whom the press release singles out in its first paragraph for special mention: John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, John Sloan and George Bellows. These are most of the better – and correspondingly better-known – painters in the show. Apparently the way to becoming remembered by posterity lies in being more interested in painting fine pictures than in telling stories, although telling stories may be a surer route to sales in the immediate present. Oh, there are some exceptions. I’d concede that Mount, Bingham and (sometimes) Peale were probably very interested in telling stories, yet somehow all three miraculously managed to avoid the sentimentality that clogs so many of the other story-telling paintings in this show. And there are some fine painters and paintings which didn’t make that celebrity list. I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for Eastman Johnson, and he’s well represented here, especially by my favorite, “Sugaring Off” (ca. 1865). I’m also glad that Theodore Robinson made the cut – although his portrait of “The Wedding March” (1892) is anecdotal in origin, it rises above anecdote. Thomas Le Clear is a painter I’d never heard about before, yet his modest “Buffalo Newsboy” (1853) has a wistful charm.
There are, admittedly, the stinkers, including egregiously saccharine paintings by Lilly Martin Spencer, except for her amusing “Young Husband: First Marketing” (1854). Somehow Robert Henri and Maurice Prendergast managed to get omitted, though as painters they’re vastly superior to the two sappy cowboy artists who are included, Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel. (I suppose geographical distribution overwhelmed considerations of quality.) Whistler is only very inadequately represented, and if we’re going to be encyclopedic, where’s Edmund C. Tarbell and his genteel Boston dames? For the most part, however, this show affords pleasures, including the quaintness of Ralph Earl, John Lewis Krimmel and Christian Friedrich Mayr in the early part of the show, the many opportunities to savor Homer and Eakins in the middle part, and an extraordinarily warm and good-looking William Glackens, “The Shoppers” (1907-08) near the exit. I found paintings that I’d previously only seen in reproduction, and always been curious to see in the original, among them “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam” (ca. 1752-58) by John Greenwood (it’s painted on bed ticking, and I’d always wondered just how this would look, but it turns out bed ticking acts just like canvas). The largest, most enticing painting in the show is “Gallery of the Louvre” (1831-33), by Samuel F. B. Morse. A whole history of 19th century art appreciation lies embedded in this majestic work.
ADDENDUM TO AMERICAN STORY-TELLING:
TWO PANEL DISCUSSIONS AT ASA
While I was in Washington, to see the Truitt exhibition, I also looked in on two panel discussions, in the auditorium of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery/ American Art Museum, that were part of the annual conference for the American Studies Association. Couldn’t stay for all of the talks, but did manage to hear the four that looked most interesting in the program. I found three of them worth sharing with my readers. Although only one of the three speakers tried to establish claims for esthetic quality to her subject, actually the political cartoons from the past year or so, cited by the first speaker, and the 19th century photographs, cited by the third, were not bad from a purely esthetic point of view, and refreshingly free of the sticky sentimentality of so many “fine art” paintings at the Met.
The first two talks were part of the panel on “Black Man, White Man, Commander-in-Chief: Barack Obama in Popular Visual Culture,” and the first of these, delivered by Tanya Sheehan, of Rutgers University, concerned “How to Laugh in ‘Postracial’ America: Barack Obama in Political Cartoons.” Sheehan’s well-organized and comprehensive presentation included many cartoons of Obama from the past year or so, paired with earlier cartoons depicting African Americans and clearly racist.. She argued that all the cartoons of Obama, in way or another, were similarly racist, and seemed to take particular pleasure in identifying as “racist” cartoonists like Mike Lukovich who are well known for their liberal politics. Toward the end of her talk, I began to wonder a bit. Is it really, after all, “racist” to portray Obama with a toothy grin on his face, when in fact he does sometimes grin like that – and when both Franklin and even Eleanor Roosevelt were frequently caricatured with similar toothy grins? In my notes, I find cited the beginning of that great line by E. B. White, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process....” I also found myself reflecting that indeed there is little humor connected with the Obama administration: many comedians on TV are apparently so scared of appearing racist that they simply avoid the topic. This forces them to find other targets: David Letterman levels his biggest jokes at Sarah Palin, drags in John McCain from time to time, rings in South Carolina’s philandering governor, Mark Sanford occasionally, and repeatedly sneers at the short stature of New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg – all of this meaning that Republicans get a lot more air time on his show than Obama and the Democrats. I hark back nostalgically to the days when instead Letterman was ridiculing the overeating and sexual antics of Bill Clinton. He liked Clinton, and I liked Clinton, but that didn’t mean we had to treat him like a saint.
The second talk on this panel was by Wendy Wick Reaves, of the National Portrait Gallery itself, and titled, “Mashup as Icon: Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ Portrait of Barack Obama.” It was the only image among the talks I attended which was discussed from an esthetic standpoint as well as an illustrational one – not surprisingly, for the National Portrait Gallery now owns the original picture, a noble image which achieved saturation exposure during the 2008 election campaign, being reproduced on everything from posters to T-shirts and mugs. What I hadn’t realized until I heard this talk is that Fairey can legitimately claim to be a fine artist as well as a commercial artist, and started his artistic career as a punk or street artist as well. The original portrait, as one may not realize from merely glancing at posters or other replicas made from it, combines the image of Obama himself in bold, simple forms with a patterned background of newspaper clippings collaged together (the fine-art touch, reflecting such sources as cubism, Warhol and/or Barbara Kruger). Reaves also pointed out that the reds & blues in the picture suggest that the candidate was appealing to red-state sympathizers as well as blue-state ones, and that the bold, simplified image was particularly appealing to the youthful voters who contributed so largely to Obama’s victory.
The third talk that I responded to was part of a second panel, on “Frontier Encounters: Citizenship and Belonging in Western Photographic Portraits.” It was delivered by Elizabeth Hutchinson of Barnard, and titled “A Citizen of the World? Chang, the ‘Chinese Giant’.” Hutchinson is an art historian, but the photographs she used were primarily documentary (though also legible, straightforward, & handled with fine competence). The talk was about Chang Woo Gow, a man born in China in the 1840s who grew to a height of more than 8 feet, and toured many parts of the world as a sideshow-type of exhibit, either under the auspices of P. T. Barnum, other entrepreneurs or on his own hook, before dying in England in 1893. Hutchinson focused her coverage of “Chang, the Chinese giant” upon appearances that he made at Woodward’s Gardens in San Francisco, an environment billed as “family entertainment” and featuring animals, plants, art, etc. This focus enabled her to contrast the status enjoyed by Chang, as a privileged performer, with the dreadful living conditions and discrimination suffered by most Chinese in San Francisco, forced to live in the city’s overcrowded Chinatown, and prey to anti-Chinese riots. Chang, Hutchinson concluded, might claim to be “a citizen of the world,” but he still couldn’t be a citizen of California.
MAN RAY AT THE JEWISH MUSEUM
My introduction to Man Ray (1890 - 1976) came 41 years ago, at MoMA’s “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage.” I thought “The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows” (1915-16) an entirely respectable painting, clearly radical for its day, but also somewhat lacking in individuality – not offensive, as I dimly sensed both the work by Duchamp and Picabia to be, but also not overly personality-laden. The reason for this perception now becomes apparent at the Jewish Museum, where “Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” is on view (through March 14). As organized by Mason Klein, this show presents over 200 works, including paintings, photographs, sculptures, objects, drawings, films and a selection of the artist’s writings. The central theme is how Emmanuel Radnitzsky, born to a Russian Jewish immigrant family and raised in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, sought throughout his long career, first as a dadaist and later as a surrealist, to escape his roots and integrate himself seamlessly, in fact almost anonymously into a more cosmopolitan milieu -- first, that of Manhattan, later on, that of Paris. I could have done without some of the psychobabble in the wall texts, about the artist’s “unconscious need to blend in with the environment,” but this assimilationist desire (common to thousands, maybe even millions of Man Ray’s contemporaries) may help to explain why he was so much more successful as a photographer than he was as a painter: because the mechanical process that is photography casts, as it were, an impersonal spell over what it produces.
All of the clever objects appear to be present, including “Gift” (a 1958 replica of the 1921 original, the painted flatiron with tacks up the middle of its bottom); “The Enigma of Isadore Ducasse” (1920/1971 – the sewing machine tied up in grey felt and bound about with string); and “Indestructible Object” (1923/1965 – the metronome with a photo of an open eye glued to the strip of metal that wig-wags back and forth).There are also a few smaller 2- and 3-dimensional items with ingenious titles that reminded me of the comment made by Theodore Reff, one of my graduate school professors, when he was about to show us Duchamp: “He’s great fun to read about, “ Reff said, sourly, “but not so much fun to look at.” On the other hand, some of the photographs that Man Ray made are memorable, especially his most famous creation, “Le Violin d’Ingres” (1924), the double exposure showing a seated, turbaned female nude from the back, with a violin’s sound holes superimposed. Above all, I was surprised and delighted with all of the portrait photographs of Ray’s fellow Parisians and other celebs, including Elsa Schiaparelli (looking rather like Elsa Lanchester), Jacqueline Goddard (seen in a negative, not positive, with white hair, eyes and lips), Jean Cocteau (making a sculpture of his own head), Proust (on his deathbed, looking with his beard like a Christ), Sinclair Lewis (looking like a surprised rabbit, in fedora and overcoat), Lee Miller (Ray’s lover, an incredibly beautiful woman), and Gertrude Stein (a 1922 picture, showing her with Picasso’s 1906 portrait of her, and justifying the story that she protested, when Picasso painted it, that it didn’t look like her – to which Picasso responded, never mind, it will).
THE BAUHAUS AT MoMA
A worthy and exhaustive show at the Museum of Modern Art is “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity” (through January 25). Organized at MoMA by Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, this show of Germany’s most distinguished art & design school incorporates over 400 works that exemplify the modernist spirit in painting, sculpture, theater and costume design, ceramics, textiles, photography, graphics, architecture, furniture, home furnishings and industrial design. Among famous faculty and students represented are Anni and Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, Marianne Brandt, Marcel Breuer, Lyonel Feininger, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Lucia Moholy (first wife of László), Lilly Reich, Oskar Schlemmer and Gunta Stölzl. A different version of this show has already been seen in Germany, but this one appears to have been especially well-chosen, and is beautifully installed – divided loosely into the school’s three incarnations: the first in Weimar, the second in Dessau, and the third in Berlin. I wish I could work up more enthusiasm about it, but the truth is that my heart belongs to the fine arts, and the applied arts – however significant and exquisitely designed – seem to me mostly somehow lacking in soul, especially when fabricated from machine-made materials. This, of course, is what so endears them to postmodernists, who with Duchamp embrace the machine esthetic. All that said, the show impressed me in its opening gallery with the prominent display given to colorful if not very good paintings by Johannes Itten, Franz Scala and Feininger, as well the first Bauhaus “statement of purpose” (1919) with a very nice woodcut cover design by Feininger showing a cathedral – the original “gesamtkunstwerk.”
Nobody can complain that not enough items (18) are included by Kandinsky, even if most are only drawings or designs as opposed to finished paintings. Klee, too, is well represented, by 18 charming paintings, although they tend to disappear into the wall space behind all the three-dimensional objects (admittedly including 5 delicious – though reconstructed – Klee puppets). Moholy-Nagy looks especially strong here, particularly his constructions, though also in his paintings and photography. Albers is seen as a creator of stained glass abstracts (no paintings) and as a designer, most notably of a most appealing fruit bowl (1924) made of silver-plated metal, glass and wood. I adored working my way through Breuer’s evolution in chairs. It begins with the tall, narrow exotic “‘African’ or ‘Romantic’ Chair” (1921), carved in oak and cherry wood and incorporating elaborate brocade upholstery by Stölzl, and ends with the famous Club Chair (1933), stripped down to raw essentials of chrome-plated tubular steel and canvas. Gropius, the school’s founding father and first director, looks especially good, too, with the same sort of evolution in play. First, we see photographs of the surprisingly ornate Sommerfeld house (1920-21), designed in concert with Adolf Meyer, and then the startlingly simplified model of Gropius’s “Monument to the March Dead” (1921), followed by a model (done in 1999, by an unknown artist) of Gropius’s stripped-down design of 1925-26 for the Dessau Bauhaus Building.).
Aside from a graceful, radical cradle, however, designed by Peter Keler in 1922 out of wood, colored lacquer and rope work, this show didn’t bring many unfamiliar names to light for me. Rather, it reinforced my conviction that the big names to come out of the Bauhaus mostly deserved their reputations, but one surprising aspect of the Bauhaus is suggested by the floor-to-ceiling blowup of a photo-collage at the entrance. Made by Herman Trinkaus for Gropius when he left the school in 1928, the photo-collage shows young Bauhaus students perched happily by ones and twos in a grid of 18 boxes, and serves to convey the youthful energy and fun and camaraderie of the place. Gropius, after all, was only 36 when he founded the Bauhaus in 1919, Moholy-Nagy only 28 when he arrived in 1923. Klee and Kandinsky were older, but they would have been among the senior members of the group: Josef Albers was only 32 when he started at the Bauhaus in 1920. That photo-collage, and all the projects relating to theatrical design in the course of the exhibition suggest that the Bauhaus was what a flower child from the ‘60s might have called a “happening” kind of place, where a lot of the young live wires of the ‘20s wanted to be. This may help to explain why so many Hungarians came to the Bauhaus. They (if my father and his Hungarian relatives are any indication) have always been a sociable & with-it sort of people, and, although the largest contingent nationality represented in this exhibition’s checklist are, of course, Germans, the second-largest are Hungarians. They include not only Breuer and Moholy-Nagy, but also Alexander Bortnyik, Hajnal Lengyl-Pataky, Farkas Molnár, Gyula Pap and Andor Weininger (7 in all, as compared with 4 Swiss, 4 Austrians, 3 Russians, 2 Americans, and 1 each from Yugoslavia & Japan). There were so many Hungarians at the Bauhaus, in fact, that among the special events MoMA held in conjunction with the show was a day-long symposium on “Hungary and the Bauhaus.”
One of these Hungarians, Andor Weininger (1899-1986) is the subject of a private show (by appointment only) at the Hungarian consulate in New York, with about 60 oils, watercolors and preliminary sketches, as well as photographs of the artist with his Bauhaus colleagues (through mid-January). In November, the consulate staged a reception in honor of two new books about Weininger, who was born in what is now Croatia but was then part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. He led a nomadic life after he left the Bauhaus, which included stays in Berlin, Amsterdam, and Toronto, before he finally settled in New York in 1958. The first book, “The Stages of Andor Weininger,” by András Koerner, may be the definitive monograph; the second, by Oliver A. I. Botar, focuses on the artist’s Toronto period, and is entitled “A Bauhausler in Canada: Andor Weininger in the ‘50s.” Previous writings have treated Weininger’s Toronto period as a depressing one for him, but Botar argues that he was just as depressed in New York, while Toronto gave him his first (and only) solo exhibition, enabled him to teach his only successful course, and allowed him to publish his first independently written article. Tellingly, it was about “The ‘Fun Department’ of the Bauhaus.” Weininger was never an instructor there, only a student, but – as Koerner pointed out at the reception – he was a leader in activities that had more to do with play than work. He loved to dress as a clown, and as such, presided over opening celebrations of the second Bauhaus, in Dessau. He was also the founder and leading light in the Bauhaus jazz band, which performed not only at Bauhaus dances but elsewhere in Germany, and he contributed to other stage productions at the Bauhaus. At the reception, Koerner explained why Weininger was so welcome in such seemingly frivolous pursuits: because at the Bauhaus, both creative work and play were undertaken in the same spirit, so closely allied that it was impossible to tell where one left off and the other began.
NOW, FOR THE TOP GOODIES:
FIRST, GORKY IN PHILADELPHIA
I was a little apprehensive, going into the Arshile Gorky exhibition, at how the exhibition’s organizers would classify him. Everybody agrees that he belongs with The New York School, but does that really make him an abstract expressionist? He was born around 1904 and killed himself in 1948 (after the triple ordeals of suffering cancer, his wife leaving him and his studio burning down). But does this chronology make him the first of the abstract expressionists, antedating Pollock? Or does the fact that his paintings never really achieved the large-scale, integrated, iconic look of Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman, mean that he belongs more in the category of Moses, heralding the arrival into the Promised Land of ab-ex but not quite there yet himself? Accordingly, I was relieved to see that the introductory wall text billed him only as “the last of the great Surrealist painters and an important precursor to abstract expressionism.” That I can live with, and it enabled me to relax and enjoy the show.
Which I must add is a sumptuous presentation, with 180 paintings, sculptures and works on paper representing every aspect of this formidable artist’s output. Moreover, it is mostly very intelligently and splendidly installed (I could have done without the angular, disjointed bars of gray and white paint on the walls in the gallery devoted to “Surrealism,”: but that is a minor complaint). There is so much work on view that one really does get the impression of boundless energy, drive and enthusiasm, with work simply pouring out of Gorky at every phase of his career. I welcomed the chance to see both versions of his most famous painting, “The Artist and His Mother,” side by side (the Whitney’s version is dated 1926-36, that of the National Gallery, ca. 1926 - ca. 1942). It was also great to see all the major paintings in context. There are, for instance, both versions of “Garden in Sochi” that MoMA owns, plus three others (one from Atlanta, one in Boston, one from a private collection). There is “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb” (1944, fresh from its tour with “Action/Abstraction”), “The Water of the Flowery Mill” (1944), “The Plow and the Song” (1944-47 – three finished versions, plus two studies); also “The Betrothal” (1947, Yale), “The Betrothal I” (1947, MOCA, LA), and “The Betrothal II” (1947, the Whitney).
Along with all of this, inevitably some rather scattered, overly busy & drippy work also manages to creep in. I was particularly aware of this in looking at the Virginia landscape studies on the wall to the left of “The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb.” I also wonder whether it was a good idea to examine Gorky’s early work quite so exhaustively. Having passed in the 1920s and 30s through phases of assimilating traditional portrait representation, Cézanne, cubism and some more derivative forms surrealism, he took about 15 years to achieve his mature style around 1940, but does it really advance the show to include quite so much of this early work, or does it simply wear down the viewer before the really original stages in the show? I wouldn’t have wanted to do without the two large oil-on-canvas Newark Airport Murals, (1936-37, on extended loan from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to the Newark Museum). They are truly wondrous, but are quite so many studies for murals and other paintings in an essentially Picassoid idiom absolutely necessary?
Still, the joy of creating such a huge show also means that much unfamiliar work from the artist’s mature oeuvre can also be included, affording fresh excitement and pleasure. Besides being fascinated by MoMA’s two versions of “Garden in Sochi,” I was also very pleased to see – for the first time – a whole little alcove devoted to four or five paintings of waterfalls, from around 1943-44; at least two are perfectly lovely. Another high spot are the two striking pictures called “Nude” (1946) and “Study for ‘Nude’” (1946, on ink and paper). The elegant simplicity of this pair, with the image rendered mostly or entirely in plain through graceful black lines, and the canvas or paper left mostly bare, reminded me of Matisse. The percentage of successes rises markedly in the second- and third-to-last galleries – except for the final months of his life, Gorky kept getting better and better. And the two paintings that really freaked me out were both in one of these galleries and both painted in 1946, “Charred Beloved II” (owned by the National Gallery in Ottawa) and “Charred Beloved III” (from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Meredith Long). Both are very dark paintings, predominantly gray and black, with the merest touches of red – “dynamite,” my notes read, “ominous but moving.” I couldn’t figure out which of the two was the best, and was reduced to trying to figure out which of the two frames was most effective (I finally decided that the broad black one around “Charred Beloved III” made it look more like an Old Master).
TRUITT AT THE HIRSHHORN
Truitt (1921-2004) never liked being called a minimalist. She also seems to have resented being identified as a “color-field” sculptor. Then again, many and maybe most artists dislike being classified. I, being a critic, find classifications helpful, and the radical reductionism of Truitt’s sculptures definitely qualifies her as a minimalist – that is, if a distinction be made between modernist minimalism and postmodernist minimalism. Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt and Carl André all qualify as postmodernist minimalists, as did Frank Stella in his early phases. On the other hand, Darby Bannard – in his early phases – qualifies as a modernist minimalist, and so do two younger painters, John Griefen and Ann Walsh (it was exciting to visit Walsh’s studio recently, as she is working on easel-sized paintings now, as well as small ones, and even producing working drawings for monumental ones). Modernists were more likely to win the approbation of Clement Greenberg, although Greenberg’s endorsement, according to the catalogue for this show, was a drawback rather an advantage for Truitt because he himself was so unpopular, and a male chauvinist into the bargain. What other critic, one wonders, would have taken up her cause, and what other critic could or would have helped as much as he did? Michael Fried was more dismissive than Greenberg, and Judd (whose career as an artist was preceded by a career as a critic) attacked Truitt outright.
How does one distinguish between modernist & postmodernist minimalists? The differences are subtle, and not accessible to critics like Roberta Smith of the Times, who contemptuously kissed off Truitt as “Minimalism Lite.” Smith’s problem is that similar to Greeks who have never consumed any wine without resin in it – they are so accustomed to the turpentine-like flavor that they think wine without it (even Champagne) is too bland. The postmodernist minimalists have in common a sarcastic bite to their work – perhaps related to their hard, metallic finishes – that keeps the viewer at a distance. This is what critics such as Smith like: negatives as opposed to positives. Modernist minimalists have softer, more approachable finishes. Instead of closing the viewer out, he or she is welcomed in. Postmodernist minimalists proceed on the assumption that there is no relation between their work and the external world. But as Truitt said (in a 1987 interview quoted by both Hileman and James Meyer, in separate articles in the catalogue): “[My work] is totally referential. I’ve struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form.”
Both Hileman and Meyer emphasize that Truitt’s breakthrough into her mature style came after seeing work by Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt at the Guggenheim in 1961, but Meyer takes it further. He quotes Truitt’s original insight (recorded in her first book, “Daybook”): “The fields and trees and fences and boards and lattices of my childhood rushed across my inner eye....I saw them all, detail and panorama, and my feeling for them welled up to sweep me into the knowledge that I could make them.” “First” looks like a picket fence from the artist’s childhood in the town of Easton, MD, but as Meyer points out, if you look at it from the back, there are crossbars and a further pillar that make it a different sort of fence. Moreover, the irregular shapes and sizes of the three vertical “pickets” suggest not only a fence but also the silhouettes of different houses: those of the artists’s parents and the Friends’ Meeting House, which the artist, at the age of eleven, had explored in her travels all around Easton on a bicycle that her father had given her.”What had initially appeared a mimetic representation of ‘a’ fence,” writes Meyer, “is a condensation of all the fences in the town, and all of and all of Easton’s buildings and its streets....” Is it any wonder that Truitt responded positively to my ideas about multireferential imagery, when I sent my first article about it to her in 1983?
But enough about my theory. You will want to know what’s worth seeing at the Hirshhorn. I can report that it is a beautiful show with 49 wood sculptures and 35 two-dimensional works on paper, canvas and board, carefully selected (for the most part) and handsomely installed, with two to four sculptures grouped together in a series of low, flat curved islands, painted white, and allowing the viewer to see most of the way around most of the sculptures. The early work was the big surprise. I didn’t know of Truitt’s existence until 1979, when I was going to live in Washington on my Smithsonian fellowship, and Greenberg gave me her name and address. What I’d seen since was almost all the brightly painted, slightly larger-than-life size square or rectangular columns that she executed during the last thirty years of her life, but the early work varies more in shape and size. With the exception of “First,” much of it is painted very dark colors: blacks, browns, purples, deep greens. “Southern Elegy” looks like a deep green and black tombstone; “Seven” is a vertical rectangle, with seven alternating stripes of deep green and black. “Two” is a pair of columns, combining brown and black, and inspired by a friend who continued to mourn his twin brother, killed in the war. These sculptures are all handsome & moving, but “First” is the best of the lot, with all the crispness and freshness that accompany the thrill of discovery. A perfect piece.
The later columns are also very appealing, with brilliant colors. Some pieces are striped vertically, others divided into large horizontal areas of color and still others with narrow bands of contrasting colors across top and bottom. I confess that I couldn’t warm up to the two-dimensional work, which is so ethereal that by comparison Agnes Martin looks like a bull in a china shop. But I did notice the soft, welcoming surface of the “Arundel” series of all-white paintings, which make Robert Rauschenberg’s all-white canvases look dank and cold by comparison. I think maybe the last (11th ) gallery of this show, with more black sculpture, plus pieces of fringed black cloth arrayed horizontally in vitrines, could have been dispensed with. It’s a very large show anyway without it, and the preceding ten galleries require maximum concentration, as differences of proportion, size and color can be ultra-subtle and hard sometimes to distinguish. But these are lesser cavils. I strongly recommend this show.
BRIEFLY NOTED:...The Center for Visual Communication in Miami is mounting “Darby Bannard: The Miami Years, Then and Now” a retrospective celebrating Bannard’s 20th anniversary in Miami with the bold, color-saturated paintings he has made since his appointment as chair of the University of Miami’s Art Department (through February 16).... The Galerie d’Arts Contemporains in Montreal presents “L’Univers intime de Roy Lerner,” December 3-24....”Winter White” includes eight artists, among them Alexandre Guillaume, Michela Martello, Daniel Rosenbaum and Francine Tint, at Tria (new location, 531 West 25th Street), from December 10 to January 22.....Ameringer-McEnery-Yohe features Helen Frankenthaler, December 10 to January 23 (new location, 525 West 22nd Street)...
FEATURED IN THE DELUXE SUPPLEMENT TO THE PRINT EDITION: HILARY PRINCE....
.....AND FINALLY, A WORD (IN FACT, SEVERAL WORDS) FROM OUR SPONSOR.
Those of you who read me online, and aren’t already fatigued by what you’ve absorbed so far, might want to read some of the reviews that my book has gotten, at amazon.com and in hard copy publications. I’ve linked as many as I can to the heading “reviews” on the left-hand side of my home page (the part devoted to the book, just as the right-hand side is devoted to the column). For the past 13 years, I’ve been reviewing other people’s creative endeavors; now it’s my turn to get reviewed. It’s (shall I say) a very interesting experience, being on the receiving end for a change, & sometimes ulcer-producing, but hey, that’s the way it goes. Any reviews are better than no reviews, and the more reviews I get, the happier I’ll be. If anybody who reads this is inspired by it to write a review at amazon.com, I shall be most grateful to them – regardless of what they write. I welcome controversy, and have encouraged friends who were willing to contribute to amazon to give the rough along with the smooth.
Among the reviews so far published, you’ll find opinions from two artists, Darby Bannard and George Hofmann, as well as from a social worker, Carla Rich and a novelist, Pauline Hyde. Needless to say, I’m very grateful for people who have read the entire book and come away enthusiastic about all of it. But I know that I’m not perfect, and that my book, however hard I worked on it, isn’t perfect, either. As Moslems say, only Allah is perfect (or at least, so I was told as a child, this being the explanation for the one deliberate flaw that medieval Moslems always put into their intricate architecture). One thing in particular that I’m finding (both in print & conversation) is that many readers relate to one or another part of my book, and find the rest of it heavy going. In a way, I’m not surprised, because it’s very long & covers many subjects. Not everybody can be expected to care about everything that I care about, or be as familiar as I am with the particular topics on which I’ve developed some expertise.
Every reader (and every reviewer) is different. Each comes to my book with his or her own areas of expertise and ways of writing. Occasionally, my book has been read by somebody whose expertise enables them to appreciate qualities in it that I hadn’t thought about while writing it: for this reason, I find the critique by Hertha Schulze, a scholar familiar with the history of ideas, particularly exciting. Sometimes, on the other hand, a reader’s area of expertise or way of writing may lead him or her to evaluate the book in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. On such occasions, I say to myself (firmly) well, I as a reviewer also have my manner of procedure, and, as I consider myself entitled to mine, so too my reviewers are entitled to theirs. I don’t imagine that this column makes very palatable reading for all those art-lovers who place Duchamp next to God (or for any other artist whose creations I find less than totally brilliant). I also know it’s much too verbose for readers accustomed to Twitter and Facebook, so I must be philosophic about anything and everything that may get said.
I had expected, for instance, that my fellow graduates of Time would want to read about the experiences we’d shared, including my affectionate descriptions of how we put the magazine together every week, and the common problems we faced: antagonism from outsiders because of Henry Luce’s politics, competing with Newsweek in the 1960s over national issues like Vietnam, and so forth. But when Jeremy Main undertook to review my book for TLAS, the newsletter of the Time Life Alumni Society, he created what I might call a Time-style book review, commenting breezily on the high points of the book as he saw them: what I had to say about the sex lives of our mutual acquaintance, my mental problems, gripes I had about my editors and how I, a mere woman, could have made it up through the ranks of research to the level of writing. At first, I felt that such treatment made me sound like an airhead who cared only about dirt and blowing my own horn, but everybody I’ve showed the review to says it’s a very nice review. One woman who formerly worked in publishing even told me that it’s what people in publishing call “a selling review,” meaning that it may encourage people to buy the book, so on balance I’m very glad it was published.
Another review which had me steaming when I first read it appeared in the October 23 issue of TLS, The [London] Times Literary Supplement (only its print edition, not online). Although this review, by Keith Miller, has some reasonably favorable comments & information in the middle, the beginning and end of it are rather snide. Still, everybody I’ve emailed this review to says it’s a good review and is very impressed that the revered “Times Lit. Supp.” reviewed my book at all (particularly since it’s self-published, and they almost never review self-published books). One person who is more familiar with TLS than I am also suggested that it’s typical of this publication to take a lordly attitude toward books they are reviewing (unless they’re books by fellow TLS reviewers). So I would very much like to add this review to those that already appear at my website, and I would like to run it in its entirety, just as I’ve run all of the “reader’s reviews” that have appeared at amazon.com in their entirety. Whether I’ll be able to do this is another question. I’ve only excerpted the TLAS review because Time Inc. permits authors to quote only three or four sentences from an article under the “fair use” legal doctrine. After that, I have to pay, and there are limits to how much more I can afford to spend on this undertaking..... (© 2009 by Piri Halasz)
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