by David M. Roth
When I tell people I haven’t visited New York in 20 years they stare in disbelief. I don't believe it, either. When I moved there 1984, I thought I'd stay forever. Fate had other plans, the details of which needn’t be recounted. Let’s just say that by the time I boarded a flight bound for La Guardia in early June, the trip had taken on the feel of a bucket-list proposition.
When I reached the Chelsea apartment that would be my home for the next two weeks, I set about vanquishing all such fears. I climbed the stairs to the Highline and walked north, from 23rd to 34th St., observing the beauty of the native plants lining this elevated railroad track-cum urban park and the profusion of strange new towers that had sprouted in my absence. It took awhile before I realized that what I was seeing was real and not a dream.
The biggest changes — at street-level — I soon realized, are more felt than seen. The city is safer. You can walk without looking over your shoulder, and you can travel underground without wearing “subway face,” the protective mask New Yorkers once donned reflexively. That aspect of New York – the specter of crime – nobody misses. But it’s hard not to miss is the 24-hour freak fest that the city once was, the carnival parade that made New York a place like no other. Artists, a key component, were long ago shoved out, along with the immigrant communities that preceded them. Even Brooklyn, once a refuge, has become pricey. It wasn't always so. In 1980, a former college roommate who I’d known since junior high subleased a 1,500-square-foot space in Dumbo for $450/mo. He subdivided the raw space, installed fixtures, and rented a small portion of his loft to me. Today, one- and two-bedroom apartments in that building, at 220 Water Street, sell for between one and two million dollars.
Progress, of course, cuts both ways. The city seems quieter than I remember and cleaner, too. Canal Street, near where I once lived in Soho with the woman who would become my wife, I remember as a deafening cacophony of car horns, curses and fumes — a pedestrian’s nightmare. It still is, but far less so. Galleries, once Soho’s biggest draw, are, of course, long gone, as was the case when I last visited in 1998. Now only a handful remain, Ronald Feldman, being the most notable among the survivors.
In the East Village, another former haunt, St. Mark’s Church, has had its pews replaced with hardwood flooring, its programming expanded, its Beat-era past (i.e. The Poetry Project) preserved and carried forward. Dan Lynch, the famous blues bar around the corner from where
I lived on E. 13thSt., is gone. But other landmarks remain. Veselka, the erstwhile Ukrainian diner at 2ndAve. and E. 9thSt. is spiffed up, but it's still ladling out borscht – 5,000 gallons a year according to its website. At Tomkins Square Park, once the scene of riots over gentrification, mothers push strollers through immaculately groomed gardens once haunted by crackheads. New York remains what it’s always been and will likely always be, a city of ceaseless change, ruled by money.
To be clear, my purpose in visiting New York wasn't to take the pulse of the city; it was to assemble a composite view of contemporary art. What I couldn’t have foreseen emerging from my whirlwind tour of galleries and museums — about 40 shows in all — was a connecting thread. The first signs appeared at MoMA’s biannual exhibition of new photography, a show I’d earlier crossed off my to-do list after reading a dismal review. So I opted instead to check out the Brazilian modernist painter, Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973), and the visionary Congolese sculptor, Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015). Both, in spite of the overwhelming summer crowds, dazzled. Tarsila (as she’s known in Brazil) for her tropically oriented “cannibalization” of European modernists, Leger in particular; Kingelez for his mash-ups of architectural history, seen in scale models of imaginary cities fashioned from paper, tape,
cardboard and everyday detritus. God, the artist claimed, dictated their content and shape, as well as the names he affixed to particular structures. Say what you will about such pronouncements. Kingelez made me a believer in the same way gospel music does. He saw architecture as a conduit to the soul. His show, City Dreams, runs to January 1.
Inside the photo show I earlier shunned, Being: New Photography 2018 (through Aug. 19), I was captivated by an installation called My Birth by Carmen Winant. It consists of 2,000 found images of women in labor. Arrayed floor-to-ceiling along the walls of a narrow corridor, they depict the birth process in every imaginable way, from pain-wracked close-ups to tender before-and-after shots. The display unnerved me. We speak a lot about sex and what follows, but of birth, the all-important event at which human life officially begins, we hear little. That may be why seeing so many such images displayed in public at so large a scale bought tears to my eyes. When I snapped a photo, the clock on my iPhone read 2:22, the time of my own birth. It was uncanny.
Each day during my two-week stay I logged between five and ten miles on foot, and the more I looked, the more I started to sense connections between the exhibitions I was seeing. A good many, as it turned out, dealt with matters pertaining to the body. The best — and the one around which all the others seemed to revolve — was Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body at the Met Breuer (through July 22). It shows how artists, from 1300 to the present, have blurred the distinction between life and art. Consisting of works from the Met’s own encyclopedic collection alongside other seldom-seen pieces on loan, Like Life charts the history such efforts. Equal parts morgue, freak show, wax museum, classical statuary display, surgical theater, wunderkammer and gallery of Christian martyrs, the exhibition touches on many pertinent issues: institutional racism and gender identity, life and death, mythology and the always-present tug-o-war between the fake and the real. One of the best features of the show is how it’s presented. Nearly all of the works are stationed on the floor and separated by thin curtains, which means your interaction with them (and with other viewers) is disarmingly intimate.
The show opens with a display of Renaissance copies of Greek and Roman statutes, the purpose of which is to demolish the notion that the artists of classical antiquity idealized whiteness. They didn’t. That misreading of history, propagated by the Western canon and museums everywhere, originated with Renaissance artists who had no way of knowing that the sculptures they so admired were originally painted. From there, the exhibition maps the intrusion of color and the controversies it ignited among those who held fast to the "ideal" of whiteness. From there the show branches out. Section headings (“Likeness,” “Desire for Life,” “Proxy Figures” “Layered Realities,” “Figuring Flesh,” “Between Life and Art”) only hint at what’s within. Highlights are everywhere, spread across two floors.
There’s a wax sculpture (1832) of Jeremy Bentham built around the philosopher’s skeleton by Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich; a 1991 self-portrait by Marc Quinn that features the artist’s head cast in blood, its frozen state maintained by a humming refrigeration unit; a ball-jointed Hans Bellmer sculpture (1972) with a penis head, which could serve as Exhibit A for Freud’s notion of polymorphous perverse; and a Greer Lankton papier-mâché (1986) bust of the performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, stripped to the waist, emaciated, smoking, defiant. Lucio Fontana’s glazed ceramic crucifixes (1950-2), with their kneaded Play-Doh textures, embody as well as anything on view the temporality of flesh; while a cheesecloth-and-wax figure by Kiki Smith (1992) has “skin” so translucent it all but bleeds. A waxwork, Sleeping Beauty (1765) by Philippe Curtius— reconstructed in 1989 — nearly erases the line between life and death with an embedded electronic apparatus that inflates and deflates the figure’s chest, making it appear to “breathe.” Duane Hansen’s hyperrealistic figures elicited double takes, as did an animatronic figure (2016) by Goshka Macuga at the end of the show. It spouts philosophical platitudes in a plummy British accent while mimicking the look and bodily gestures of a live human. If a single work captures the theme of this remarkable show it’s Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Pygmalion and Galatea (1890). The painting recounts the mythical tale of a sculptor who falls in love with a statue of his own making. Through the intensity of his desire It becomes animate, a lover.
Chaim Soutine’s show (through Sept. 16) at the Jewish Museum, Flesh, also focuses on bodies — those of animals butchered for food: cows, fish and fowl. The last time I visited the museum was exactly 20 years ago. It was here that I encountered Soutine for the first time, stunned by landscapes that looked as if they were made of melting wax. No one used paint as viscerally. He slathered it onto canvas as if possessed, which, in fact, he was. The artist was known to haul slabs of beef into his studio and keep them “fresh” by dousing them with buckets of blood. The neighbors complained of a stench. The police investigated. Soutine kept working. The raw gestural techniques he used in service of representation – using pigment as if it were flesh — would later become the lingua franca of Abstract Expressionism. He died in 1942 at age 50 of a perforated ulcer that could have been treated had he not been hiding from the Nazis.
En route to other destinations – the Met, (where I caught Thornton Dial in a remarkable show of visionary art called History Refused to Die); the Neue Gallery (where for the first time I saw Gustav Klimt’s 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer); and several blue-chip galleries located in multi-story townhouses — I traversed big sections of the Upper East Side, walking home by way of Central Park, where gardens flourish in a way I’d never seen there. To my eye this part of the city, the East Side, appears unchanged; however you can’t help but notice the explosion in luxury retail outlets. Traum Safe, whose website boasts “the world’s finest… jewelry safes for affluent families,” stands out – and not just for blending high-tech electronic security with old-world craftsmanship — but for shamelessly hawking it at a street-level outlet on Madison Ave. The store symbolizes the ever-widening gap between the superrich and everyone else. It and others of similar ilk begged a persistent question: What of the doormen, the delivery drivers, the maids, the cooks, the dishwashers and the dog nannies – the people who make the city run, and who crowd the trains coming into Manhattan everyday from Queens, the Bronx and who knows where else? How do they manage?
Several museum exhibitions appear to be reflecting on that question, and on the underlying issues and the inequities that pertain. None are as timely or as powerful as Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum (through July 22). Featuring works from 123 artists from 15 countries, it places political violence under the microscope of artists who, having witnessed it, present female bodies as both the targets of state-sponsored violence and the locus of resistance to it. You needn’t know the particular histories of places like Cuba, Peru,
Argentina, Chile or Brazil to understand the importance of what is being said; you only need know that each of these nations, at one time or another, has been under the boot heel of repressive governments that have, oftentimes with U.S. assistance, employed death squads and torture as a means to an end. In these countries, oppression wasn’t (or isn’t) simply a state of mind; it was (and remains) a physical fact. The evidence marshaled by the show can leave you reeling, both for the courage the artists summon and the material and conceptual inventions they’ve employed to convey, in the most personal terms,
what it all means. Some of the names (Ana Mendieta, Lygia Pape, Liliana Porter) are familiar. The vast majority, unless you’re a scholar of contemporary Latin American art, are not.
What they communicate is direct and self-evident. Take, for example, the grotesque figures in Antonia Eiriz’s drawing called Witnesses (1967). Their wildly agape mouths suggest unimaginable horrors. Ana Mendieta’s Glass on Body Imprints (1972) show the artist’s private parts photographed through glass panes, crushed and distorted. Gloria Camiruaga’s series of videos titled Popsicles (1982-84) point to links between sex and violence. They show young girls licking popsicles into which plastic toy soldiers are embedded and subsequently exposed. Just as chilling is Peruvian artist Johanna Hamann’s Bellies (1979-83), hollow plaster casts of pregnant women suspended from meat hooks. During the years the years of the Brazilian dictatorship, people referred to corpses dumped in the streets as Presunto or ham. That is the title Carmela Gross assigns to a huge burlap sack plopped on the floor in the middle of a gallery. Bulges beneath the cloth explicate the title. In The Hysterical One, (1968) by Feliza Bursztyn, spiraling coils of sheet metal jutting out from a wall give form to a psychoanalytic term, often applied by men to women believed to be behaving irrationally. It too, carries, sexual connotations, owing to the word’s derivation from the Greek word for uterus. If there’s a piece in this sprawling, emotionally wrenching exhibition that best sums it up it’s Delia Cancela’s Destroyed Heart (1964), a painting of a human heart with pieces cut out of it. Reimagined sculpturally, the pieces dangle from bows at the bottom of the frame, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. The show, however, bears no gifts other than offering a multitude of guideposts for viewing the struggle now playing out along the U.S.-Mexico border. That saga, as of this writing, had ignited protests across some 700 U.S. cities.
At the Whitney, two closely linked exhibitions – Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection: 1900 to 1960 and An Incomplete History of Protest – also offer sobering assessments of our current historical moment. But before I go on, I must tell you that the Whitney, in its downtown incarnation, is by far the most beautiful and inviting museum in New York. The exterior views rival those of the museum I consider to be the standard-bearer in this regard: the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice. There, floor-to-ceiling windows take in sweeping views of the Mediterranean and the city’s Habsburg-era mansions. The Whitney’s galleries, wonderful as they are, can’t compete with that, but its outdoor terrace and an adjoining upstairs café do. They, even more than the Highline, show the tapestry of the city’s old and new architecture.
Here, as at MoMA, the top attractions (Grant Wood and Mary Corse) were eclipsed by the above-mentioned shows, Where We Are (through Aug. 15) and History of Protest (through Aug. 27). Both examine the “American Century,” showing it to be the contentious and, at times, brutal epoch that it was. Topics touched on include WWI, labor strife, the Great Depression, WWII, McCarthyism, Korea, Vietnam, Civil Rights, Feminism, black power, urban alienation, industrialization, the Cold War, gay rights, AIDS and much else. Presenting both shows together is a curatorial masterstroke. Each informs the other in unexpected ways, and both come loaded with surprises. History of Protest, for example, opens with an Ad Reinhardt black painting, Abstract Painting (1960-66). A year after its completion, in 1967, Reinhardt came out in opposition to the Vietnam War. But the painting itself conveys no such position. Yet its position at the beginning of the show, surrounded by photos of the Japanese Internment, the Black Panthers (by Gordon Parks) and images of troubled teens (by Larry Fink), transforms it from an icon of Minimalism into a portentous sign. Contents of a nearby vitrine pick up the thread. It’s filled with correspondence describing battles between museum officials and community groups over the process by which the institution chose artists for exhibitions. The controversies are decades old, but the display feels revelatory: a big museum reflecting on its past, calling itself out. Within this context, the two exhibitions feel like an affirmation, both of where we’ve been collectively speaking, and where the museum stands on so many issues that matter.
The two shows also affirm abstraction’s ability to convey political messages. Melvin Edwards’ remake of a 1969 piece, Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid, consisting of strands of barbed wire, transforms a corner of a room into a foreboding geometric abstraction, intended to evoke imprisonment and/or exclusion. Directly opposite in the same room, Senga Nengudi’s Internal I, (1977), a taut skein of stretched pantyhose, brings to mind flayed skin. Neither piece depicts the body directly, but both imply it, positioning it as central to individual and collective struggle. More pointed allusions appear in a room dominated by a wall of anti-war posters. There are nearly 60 along with others from the 1980s dealing with AIDs, and still more from same period by the Guerilla Girls, made to protest the exclusion of women from museums. Here, too, you’ll find bodies: those of dead soldiers, evoked by military uniforms arrayed on the floor by Ed Kienholz in a piece called The Non War Memorial (1970).
Protest’s knockout punch comes from Ja'Tovia Gary. Her video, An Ecstatic Experience (2015), pulled me in with its Alice Coltrane/Pharoah Sanders soundtrack (Journey in Satchidananda, 1971), and then galvanized me with a storyline narrated by Ruby Dee. The actress portrays the adult child of a slave recounting the moment when her mother, overtaken by a vision, declared herself free — free, even, from the pain of the master’s lash. The film cuts between footage of riots, church services and Dee speaking. Her tear-streaked face is crisscrossed by fast-moving lines — physical cuts made by Gary into the celluloid that make for a crude (but highly effective) form of animation that amplifies the impact of the spoken words.
Works from Zhang Huan and Li Binyuan, two key figures representing different generations of China’s avant-garde, appear at MoMA PS1 (through September 3) in a show called Land, consisting of performance videos in which the artists employ their bodies and those of close associates. The pair — alone, together and in groups – engage in antics that might, in other hands, be seen as pranks. Here, an enchanting earnestness shines through, particularly in actions taken that are both futile and physically challenging. Most revolve around a single question: What can the individual do to change the world and/or the environment? Their investigations give little cause for hope, but they’re mesmerizing to watch. One shows Binyuan flinging himself repeatedly into a pond located on a parcel of land he inherited from his father. He repeats that extreme gesture of devotion and possession until he is exhausted. In another video, the artists assemble a group of friends, hoping to measurably raise
the water level of a reservoir by entering into it. (They fail.) In a similar effort, Huan, along with eight other artists from “Beijing East Village,” lay naked atop each other on a mountaintop. Their goal: raise the elevation of it by one meter. (They fall short.) In Drawing Board Binjuan holds a piece of plywood against a torrent of water flowing from a breached dam near his home. The repeated knockdowns he suffers demonstrate the futility of human efforts to shape or contain nature. Here I should note that PS1 deserves a full day to even skim what's on view. In addition to long-term installations from the likes of James Turrell, William Kentridge, Cecily Brown, Pipilotti Rist and others of equal stature, this outpost of MoMA, housed in former 19th century schoolhouse, is currently running ten additional solo shows — by Reza Abdoh, Julia Phillips, Gauri Gill, Sue Coe, Fernando Palma Rodriguez, Seth Price and Maria Lassnig.
Numerous gallery exhibits also made powerful statements involving the body. Among the most provocative and disturbing was Michal Rovner’s exhibition, Evolution, spread across Pace’s two Chelsea galleries. She employs images of bodies in prints and videos that appear to be addressing mass migration, portraying it not as the human tragedy that it is, but as a parade of anonymous data points. This comes across most strongly in the Israeli artist’s videos. Projected onto large LCD screens and other media including rocks and petri dishes, they show illuminated figures parading as miniscule silhouettes. They march, spin, dance in groups and perform calisthenics. In many instances, these electronic streams zip by so quickly, it is nearly impossible to detect that their
component pieces are human figures. Similar figures piled up in layers appear in the artist's black-and-white prints, large-scale works that, at a distance, read as hieroglyphics. They are an apt a visual metaphor for the current state of political discourse, particularly on immigration, the exhibition's ostensible subject. The show runs through August 17.
Paintings by Mernet Larsen at James Cohan and Geoffrey Chadsey at Jack Shainman made for two of the strangest gallery shows I saw. Larsen reproduces in two dimensions figures that look a lot like the totems Marisol once executed in wood. Ranging in size from gargantuan to Lilliputian, they appear in upsidedown rooms whose features are fantastically warped. Looking at these panopticon-like paintings, of bosses staring down subordinates from across foreshortened conference tables, may make you want to dive under a table yourself. The skewed power relationships they portray are universal, but the viewpoint they present is unique. Chadsey’s paintings of people possessed of male and female and sexual characteristics also unsettle. Their disjointed, stitched-together look conveys (with stylistic nods to Marlene Dumas) deep inner turmoil.
Not all of what I saw concerned the body; most, in fact, didn’t. So allow me tie up some loose ends. The most important involve big-name galleries that mount museum-quality shows. There are a lot of them. Hauser & Wirth devoted all three floors of its Chelsea space to the Sylvio Perlstein collection (though July 27). Consisting of 360 works by 250 artists, A Luta Continua traces the course of 20th century art, marking every important juncture with choice selections informed by exquisite taste and expert judgment, gleaned through Perlstein’s friendships with the artists whose work he collected. The collection’s main strengths are in Dada, Surrealism and in photography, Man Ray’s in particular. An alcove on the ground floor stands out for having been hung salon-style with hundreds prints, masterworks from the likes of Ray, Weegee, Josef Sudek, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Tina Modotti, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Lucas Samaras and many others.
The exhibition of Jean Dubuffet’s collage paintings at Pace was electrifying. Unlike the vast majority of collagists who glean their raw materials from print media, Dubuffet sliced up and reconfigured bits and pieces of his own works on paper. The compositions that emerged he called "Theaters of Memory." Each is frenzy of visual information that do for painting what William Burroughs did for literature. Michael Rosenfeld’s museum-worthy display of Claire Falkenstein revealed fascinating parts of the artist’s oeuvre I didn’t know. Most memorable was a pair of
Arp-like paintings on curved aluminum from the late 1940s whose reflective sheen and shape thrust them into Light and Space territory. Never mind that the movement was nearly two decades away. Falkenstein, from the start, was cosmically oriented, attuned to both science and futuristic thinking, a fact borne out by the gnarly wire sculptures for which she is best known, as well other works that appear to be in synch with those of fellow space/time traveler, Gordon Onslow Ford.
Bruno Munari was the subject of a wonderful retrospective at Andrew Kreps. He, too, covered the waterfront. He began as a futurist, but quickly branched out into Tinguely-like gizmos (“Useless Machines”) encased in glass, light projections, mobiles, photo collages and highly poetic abstract geometric paintings and sculptures that may remind you, alternately, of Lucio Fontana and Tony DeLap. John Baldessari has never excited me, but his transpositions of fragments of Picabia and Mondrian, occluded by his trademark white blockages, at Marian Goodman, feel brilliant. Part of what makes them so is his engagement in wordplay. Each painting is titled at the bottom with a word beginning with the letter Z (e.g. Zabaglione, Zealot, Zebra), a conceit that lends conceptual zest to visual juxtapositions that are already pretty jazzy.
Pattern and Decoration (P&D) finds its highest expression in the work of Robert Kushner. His current cycle of paintings at DC Moore, executed on textiles from India, Japan and Uzbekistan, was drop-dead gorgeous. Fusing the fabricated and the found into seamless “tapestries,” they make the case for beauty. Ursula von Rydingsvard’s towering wood sculptures, chiseled out of cedar, continue to amaze for how they convincingly mimic the look of rock outcroppings ripped from the earth, etched by eons of geologic activity. They were at Galerie Lelong.
An exhibition at the Whitney of Grant Wood, creator of American Gothic (1930), turned my head around, forcing me to rethink my opinion of him. Yes, he peddled a version of the American dream that history had earlier eclipsed, but his technical skills were unimpeachable. He could paint anything and make it look preternaturally real — e.g. Plaid Sweater (1931) — or just as credibly surreal, seen in the way he turned trees into strange ornamental objects and landscapes into near-caricatures. Both show the distance he travelled from his arts and crafts beginnings. Wood, as we also know, was a closeted gay man, evidenced by numerous paintings of chiseled men stripped to the waist; yet that feature of his oeuvre seemed to have slipped by (or been studiously ignored) by his admirers. Legions of them mobbed the show, looking like latter-day versions of the corn-fed people in his paintings.
Terry Winters @ Matthew Marks. Winters' paintings have always been built around grids, but back in the late 1990s, when I last saw them, the grids were less obvious, owing to surface marks were highly frenzied, as in the 1997 painting currently on view at the Met, Light Source Direction. The grids remain, but they are now composed of dots and blobs instead of wobbly lines. They bend, warp and swirl, making the canvases appear concave or convex. Each, depending on how the marks are placed, exerts a centrifugal or centripetal force you can feel at a distance. Physicality of a different, more direct sort played a role in Gutai, a short-lived, but highly influential movement in post-WWII Japan. I found it in a beautifully presented show at Fergus McCaffrey, featuring works by many of the artists (Kazuo Shiraga, Sadamasa Motonaga, Atsuko Tanaka, Toshio Yoshida) who figured prominently in the Guggenheim’s 2013 survey of the field, Gutai: Splendid Playground. In this show, Shiraga was well represented by numerous gestural paintings, as was Tanaka, by photos showing the artist creating (and modeling) her most famous creation, Electric Dress (1956), a wearable mass of cylindrically shaped light bulbs.
The title, Splendid Playground, also applies to my New York sojourn. The experience, from start to finish, felt a like a magic carpet ride, one I hope to repeat before another two decades fly by.
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David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.