Editor’s note: 2020 is a year best forgotten. But let’s remember: it didn’t begin that way. Thanks to donations from readers like you, we overhauled the Squarecylinder website and laid out an ambitious editorial schedule, only to be stopped (with a few exceptions) by the pandemic in mid-March. Consequently, the number of exhibitions we covered in 2020 is a small fraction of those we usually review — and revisit — at year-end. That said, we summon some bright moments worth remembering.
Dawoud Bey @ SFMOMA. “The strength and beauty of his images convey a deeply American spirit, embodied in the resplendence of its citizens,” wrote Derek Conrad Murray of the artist’s retrospective, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Not surprisingly, the definition of “American” was central to Conrad Murray’s assessment of the show. “The aim,” he wrote, “should not be to honor the black subject, but rather to expand our understanding of who can be an American…The exhibition’s framing (even despite its acknowledgment of the photographer’s intent) sets a tone that overdetermines the black experience as embattled and peripheral. But there is nothing peripheral in Bey’s photography.” Everything in it feels vital, alive and very much in the present, with contents ranging from Bey’s Harlem street photographs and reconstructed historical narratives to his studio portraits and haunted landscapes, i.e., those traversed by slaves navigating the Underground Railroad.
Brad Brown @ Patricia Sweetow. “Whatever preconceptions you may harbor about conceptually driven painting, there’s a strong chance Brad Brown will upend them,” I wrote. “The artist lays down rules for himself, but rather than allow them to restrict the flow of ideas or circumscribe what can or cannot be achieved, his practice of slicing apart and recombining pieces of preexisting paintings and drawings generates a fascinating and seemingly endless library of forms. The result: thousands of works that have a beginning but no apparent end. Thus, the wall-length grid of 56 paintings on wood panels that forms the centerpiece of this exhibition is but a temporal view of a continuously evolving corpus whose components the artist reconfigures ad infinitum…Throughout, a gawky unity prevails. But the strength of the installation rests with the individual paintings, each the product of chance guided by decades of experience fitting together unalike forms: found, invented, and, quite often, modified years apart.”
Wayne Thiebaud @ Crocker. After more than 60 years of unending accolades, you have to wonder if anything new can be said about Wayne Thiebaud. Surprisingly, there is. The Crocker Art Museum, which gave the artist his first big break in 1951, organized this retrospective for the 100-year-old painter, and it’s packed with excellent examples from all phases of his career. Though Thiebaud’s recent (and scarcely seen) clown paintings are fascinating psychological studies of mortality, his San Francisco cityscapes remain his most significantinnovations. In these, I wrote, the artist “transforms the city’s hills into vertical monoliths, peppered by houses and apartment towers that sit both parallel and perpendicular to the picture plane. They both flatten and upend the topography, inducing feelings of vertigo, achieved through the condensation of multiple viewpoints into a totalizing vision that aligns with our physical experience of the place.”
David Park @ SFMOMA. Among the artists who formed the Bay Area Figurative group, Park stood out for how he used Abstract Expressionist painting techniques to vivify the figure, doing so in ways that “made his contemporaries “look ingratiating and excessively fussy,” wrote Mark Van Proyen. “The solidity of these figures is remarkable, as they look as if they…were carved from ancient marble; yet at the same time, Park’s treatment of them bespeaks a casual, everyday naturalism. And here is where we see Park’s great subject revealed, that being the revelation of archetypical forces undergirding everyday physicality.”
Andrew Schoultz @ Hosfelt. “Throughout his career, Schoultz has created abundant, densely patterned paintings and sculptures that address historical inequity, mythic struggles and the shortcomings of capitalism and imperial conquest,” wrote Glen Helfand. “As with his last show in 2017, he once again goes all-out, filling the gallery with everything from small drawings to large murals to freestanding sculptures made at an architectural scale. What jumps out most vividly are overheated colors. It’s tempting to see the show as a color-coded chart of cultural currents. The colors suggest flames with the wavy energy of heat expressed in Op-ish moiré effects…similar to those seen in paintings by Anoka Faruqee, another gallery artist. But since some of the works were created over four years (2016-20), it’s clear that what we see is less a reaction to current events than an expression of Schoultz’s consistent interests.”
Orlando @ McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. Is the fantasy that Virginia Woolf conjured in the novel Orlando — of individuals shifting frictionless from one gender to another without friction – now a reality? Works addressing this question – selected by Tilda Swinton and organized by Aperture with additions from McEvoy’s holdings — answer with a resounding yes. In them, gender fluidity isn’t merely a concept; it’s a fact, evidenced in works by Mickalene Thomas, Nan Goldin and Collier Shore, as well as lesser-known talents, including Jamal Nxedlana, whose photographs of an extravagantly costumed South African performance duo, mesmerize. All of which seems as fitting: As Maria Porges observed in her review, “Orlando may be the first literary instance of the use of their as a singular pronoun.”
Ron Nagle @ BAMPFA. “Nagle’s objects may seem fragile, but everything about them looms large. Potent, you could say,” wrote Glen Helfand. “They pack punches with color and texture, glazes that look like frozen pools of shiny fluid, and with dry, luminescent surfaces, flocked like lunar rocks lifted from a Barbarella pit-stop planet. They beg to be handled, licked and swallowed. Some of these confectionary forms recall the surface and scent of marzipan, while others evoke hearty breakfasts. Nagle’s California-native sensibility makes me think he composed a 1980s nouvelle cuisine tasting menu prepared by Wolfgang Puck.” Equally vital, Helfand noted, was the exhibition design: “Half the objects appeared in lit vitrines inset into two walls like jewelry box windows at Tiffany & Co: a presentation befitting one of the world’s most eccentric and original ceramic sculptors.
Clive McCarthy @ San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. His “electric paintings” employ small, custom-built computer systems that produce images rendered on flat screens with “paint” that is entirely synthetic. Result: “McCarthy,” wrote Justin Manley, “makes painters, not paintings. He does not place individual marks on the canvas, but in writing the computer programs that execute each piece, he determines the rhythm and logic of the brushstrokes, the pace and shifting attention of the creator. Each piece is a complete oeuvre that conjures a ghostly human presence.”
Dana Hart-Stone @ Brian Gross. In compositions made from vintage photos of the West, Hart-Stone turns recognizable pictures of people and things into seamless collages that, at a distance, appear to be geometric mazes, akin in appearance to tribal rugs. Up close, you can see that they were built from multiple photos of similar subjects, shot in a variety of sizes and formats over different decades, from the Victorian era to the 1970s. These troves of Americana operate on several levels: as studies of rural mores, condensed histories of photography and eccentric exercises in serialism.
Man Ray @ Gagosian San Francisco. Mark Van Proyen writes: “A few years before the time when Andre Breton published his First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the American-born Man Ray (né Emmanual Radinitsky) temporarily abandoned painting in favor of other artistic activities, the best-known of which were his longstanding series of photographic monoprints called Rayographs. After befriending Marcel Duchamp in New York in 1915, he went to Paris in 1921 and set up a Rue Campagne studio in the Montparnasse district. From 1921 to 1929, he made four short surrealist films in 16mm. Three are on view in this stunning, museum-quality exhibition, accompanied by a choice selection of Ray’s later found-object sculptures and a suite of pictorialist-looking photographs, almost all of which are still shots from the films.”
Stephen Kaltenbach @ Manetti Shrem. After becoming a sensation in the Conceptual Art world of the 1960s, the artist, in 1970, abruptly dropped out, claiming later that his departure was part of a carefully orchestrated plan. However, much the story strains credibility, it’s consistent with the persona he invented in which hoaxes, deceits, dodges, feints, poses and concealments of various kinds have long been his stock-in-trade. Gathered together and displayed chronologically, they form a beguiling and often contradictory portrait: Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and the End.
This meticulously researched and beautifully presented exhibition gathered representative samples from the essential phases of Kaltenbach’s career: the minimalist ceramic sculptures and architectural blueprints he made as a student, the Time Capsules that were the show’s centerpiece, his infamous series of Artforum ads, the documents detailing ephemeral and unrealized efforts and large-scale paintings and works on paper that point to the artist’s life-long obsession with mortality.
Almost Human: Digital Art @ San José Museum of Art. “The most provocative point of view — often articulated by self-described young ‘creatives’ in Silicon Valley — is that within their lifetimes, the fine art of the past, especially painting, will increasingly be seen as quaint relics of the past,” wrote Renny Pritikin. “Almost Human: Digital Art from the Permanent Collection does not address that point of view, but it does argue convincingly for the power and importance of digital forms and their centrality for the art of the 21st century. It also goes a long way toward discounting the frequently heard complaint that digital, video and internet- derived art is socially isolating. Many of the works in this exhibition are politically engaged, and others are deeply humanistic.” Gems pulled from the museum’s collection included those from the late Alan Rath (1959-2020), Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, Jennifer Steinkamp, Tony Oursler, Jim Campbell, Andrea Ackerman, Ian Cheng, Petra Cortright, Zara Houshmand, Tamiko Thiel, Jacolby Satterwhite, Diana Thater and Bill Viola.
Shoulda. Coulda. Woulda. Had the pandemic not upended our plans (and everyone else’s), we’d have likely included in the list above the following exhibitions: Lordy Rodriguez and Tim Hawkinson (Hosfelt); Leslie Shows (Haines); Hung Liu (Rena Bransten); Richard Pousette-Dart (Pace Palo Alto); Rosie Lee Tompkins (BAMPFA to July 18, 2021); Vanessa Marsh (Dolby Chadwick); and Vanessa Woods (Jack Fischer).
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Compiled by David M. Roth, editor and publisher.