NO. 84: 15 JULY 2009....THIS ‘N’ THAT..... Once again, it seems that I have so much art stuff to report upon that I can’t take space to deal with politics at length. I’m just going to say, in the most general sort of way, that Barack Obama is finding the Presidency no bed of roses. Cross your fingers, his address to the Moslem world from Egypt did seem to calm the roiling waters of the Middle East a tad, but Iran is just as difficult to deal with since its highly-disputed election as it was before that election. The U.S. military is not finding the going easy in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and it’s anybody guess how peaceful Iraq will stay, after U.S. and other foreign troops move out. On the home front, the energy bill isn’t nearly as radical as Obama’s most left-wing supporters had hoped. As to universal health care, Congress is just beginning to realize that it’s going to be pretty damned expensive. Duh. I could have told them that a long time ago. As for the economy, unemployment is still rising, even if the stock market is also going up (a bit). It’s no good telling everybody that the unemployment rate is a “lagging indicator,” and that it keeps going up even after other segments of the economy are on the mend. People still want to know why they’re the ones who are out of work. The bright spots seem to be the facts that at least some banks are rebounding, and Sonia Sotomayor is holding up well under Republican pounding. That’s all I’m going to say about politics. Now we turn to Art, and two pairs of terms that have recently come my way.
THE LATEST CODE: “HISTORICAL” V. “CONTEMPORARY”
Recently, a nice friend who isn’t knowledgeable about the art scene arranged for me to submit a story proposal to a friend of his on a hard-copy magazine that sees itself as trendy. I did. The proposal related to Greenberg & art currently being made by artists of the baby boomer generation working in his tradition. The proposal was rejected, the editor explaining that it was “historical,” whereas she was committed to “contemporary” art. Evidently “historical” is the current postmodernist code for “modernist” or “Greenbergian.” Doesn’t matter that the work is being made in the present, and in some cases could only have been done at this point in time; the hostility to it is such that it still must needs be kissed off as “historical.” “Contemporary” seems to be code for what used to be called “postmodernist,” and which is really anti-modernist, the now-hoary neo-dada tradition of objects, literature masquerading as the visual, time-based creations and/or the deliberately ugly. By all this, I am reminded of that priceless quote from Picasso on neo-dada that I cited in my last column: “Same old thing. They’ve simply changed the wrapping paper.”
WISER PAIRING: CURIOSITY & RESPECT
Another duo has come my way, courtesy of Arthur Yanoff. He extracted it as a pair that can lead otherwise intractable art lovers to abstract art. His experience has primarily been with people who appreciate traditional representation, but can’t see abstraction. If they have curiosity enough to look at abstract art, and willingness to respect what they see, they may in time (and sometimes, with the aid of multireferential imagery) become able to respond to it. At first, I thought it was only this kind of art lover for whom the pairing might apply, but lately I have concluded that it’s also relevant for the wise guys who think that “contemporary” has to be neo-dada (even if fifth-generation neo-dada, which is pretty much what we get in the galleries at this late date). Such people think that they’re open-minded, but the fact is that if what they see in a gallery doesn’t fit into some standard mold of Chelsea, curiosity cuts off, and with it goes any pretense of respect. I’m not saying that I’m perfect in this matter. A lot of the time, I have to remind myself to go into a gallery or even a museum “wanting to like” (as another friend once recommended). But I can be, and have been, happily surprised.
QUICK ROUNDUP: THE GALLERIES
Having been marketing my book, I haven’t haunted the galleries since my last column. Not only did I see no evidence in the New York Times of any hot new “trend,” but also as June turns into July, galleries hang group shows, which may have individual pieces of merit, but fail to produce a coherent impression. Here are what I saw, guided sometimes by invites, sometimes by brief writeups in the Times, sometimes by wandering past a gallery & seeing something through the window that looked inviting.
In Chelsea, then, I saw 1) “Gary Hume: Yardwork” at Matthew Marks; 2) “Kim Dorland: Super! Natural!” at Freight and Volume; 3) Saul Becker: Vistas and Vacant Lots,” at Horton & Company; 4) “Luke Gray: Deep Skins” at Gary Snyder/Project Space; 5) “Artists’ Choice” at Lohin Geduld (through July 18); 6) “Point of Convergence” at Stephen Haller (through August 8);and 7)“Forces of Nature” at Danese (through August 21). I found the Becker moderately appealing, consisting of drab but carefully-painted scenes of deserted seaside with decayed evidence of human habitation (concrete redoubts, fragments of piers, etc). Danese combines paintings, mostly abstract, with photographs, mostly of trees. Among the paintings, I found “Dry Tides” by Andy Harper, vaguely interesting, a study of seaweed; among the photographs, I liked “200 Yards (The Apple Tree, After Atget),” by Vik Muniz, and “Nick’s Trees,” by Tom Bamberger. I chanced upon the Haller as it was being hung; its focal point was a fine 1968 Larry Zox, “Esso Lexington,” with characteristic diamond shapes in vivid black, rust, greens and orange. The second-best painting was also a Zox, though not as fine as the first. It was “Paytokootha” (1992).
I saw three shows in Brooklyn, two in Dumbo and the third in a still unhippified part of Greenpoint. My trip to Dumbo was prompted by a desire to see the new HQ of A. I. R., whose director is Katherine Griefen (daughter of John) and whose current shows are “Joan Snitzler: Momentarily” and “Nivi Alroy: Fruiting Bodies” (both through July 19). Leaving A.I.R, my eye was caught by brightly-colored abstract paintings visible through the windows of nearby Amos Eno. The show was “Syn-Chronic: new works by Kim Brickley,” and its five larger paintings were, in one way or another, named for body parts. “Kidney,” the best, was a tall, lively vertical, with orange, white, yellow and mauve the dominant colors, and the use of pouring obvious. Its media and ground were plastic resin, Kool-Aid, and wood glue on coated Styrofoam. Also good were “Skin” and “Brat (Angry on the Inside).” The accompanying artist’s statement explained that this show was not only about medical imaging, but also Kool-Aid dust that “fascinates and disgusts” the artist, while “Syn-chronic” refers to how bodily function “eventually falters into sickness and degeneration.” Brickley was born in 1980, and received her MFA (from the University of Pennsylvania) this year. She would probably be horrified to learn that an elderly formalist liked any of the work in her show.
The Greenpoint show was “Inside Abstraction,” at Janet Kurnatowski, curated by Vered Lieb. It had 30 small to medium-sized pieces, mostly 2-dimensional. I confess that despite the obvious sincerity and hard work shown by most of these artists, I found it hard to warm up to almost any of them. The overall texture of the show was somewhat choppy – harsh, not mellow – certainly not anti-modern, but at the same time lacking the sweetness & poetry of the true modern. Still, choppiness & harshness are the sensibility that dominates the art scene in the Big Apple these days, and of this type, there were a number of reasonably attractive pieces in this show. “Dancing With Ronnie 8,” by Srule Bachman, a 9" x12" composition of biomorphic shapes made with oil stick on canvas, was very deftly done in brilliant colors (lime, yellow, orange), but the paint application was awfully heavy, and this trait is all too common on the art scene today. “The Big Unknown,” by Scooter Flaherty, was a lovely 9" x 18" oil on wood, with five broad vertical stripes in muted medium dark blue or medium dark green, but its waxy surface and dull coloration made me think of Brice Marden encaustics from the 60s. “Blue Drawing,” by Sam Fryer, was a larger work on paper, 24" x 19", colorful and pleasant in its use of the three primaries, but the hatching of black & red lines reminded me overly of Jasper Johns. The one picture that I found really fresh was “Morning in Madrid,” by Chris Martin, also small (16" x 12"), and made with “mixed media” on canvas. Specifically, it has wrinkled, darkened and shiny but still lovely rose leaves sprinkled atop a shiny gloppy field three-quarters sky blue at the top and one-quarter dark brown at the bottom. Apparently the shininess is accomplished with Galkyd, an alkyd based resin painting medium excellent for glazing.
THE LOWER EAST SIDE
I checked out 3 shows written up in The New York Times & clustered around The New Museum’s relatively new building – an area where a number of galleries have recently sprung up. The first show was “Lisa Beck: To Everything,” at Feature, abstract paintings mostly in black and white, with bouncy pop-oriented shapes. Primitive by comparison with painters I like, but then primitive is in vogue. The second show was Katrin Sigurdardottir at Eleven Rivington, a boring installation, but then again, installations are in vogue. The third show was “As Small As It Gets,” at Art Since 1969. The gallery itself was only slightly larger than a large walk-in closet, and almost all the work was tiny, mostly little objects set out on a long table. “Crude, silly, at best unpretentious,” my notes read. “Novelty art with a vengeance.” None of these shows were as good as those at Danese and Kurnatowski, but then the Times isn’t into quality, it’s into “newsworthiness.” Even if none of the art in these three Lower East Side shows deserves more than a passing glance, the Times has to show that it’s all up to date on this whole new gallery neighborhood.
THE MILLENNIALS: REINVENTING THE WHEEL
At the center of the action is The New Museum. It played host this spring to “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus,” an ambitious exhibition of 50 artists from 25 countries, all born since “roughly around 1980,” and therefore even younger than Christ was when tacked up on the cross by those nasty Romans (by most accounts at age 33). Supposedly this show is to become a triennial, therefore a challenge to the Whitney Biennials, and by a museum that sees itself as more daring than the poor old Whitney. But daring is as daring does, and to me, this show looked like déjà vu all over again.
Nor am I alone in this opinion. Even Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker, and Holland Cotter of the Times, arguably our two most ardent defenders of what I suppose we must now call “the contemporary,” couldn’t manage to claim that any wild new frontiers were being reached. True, Schjeldahl argued that there was a “distinctly fresh attitude of much of the work on view,” but attitudes alone don’t add up to any distinctively new art. Cotter was even less enthusiastic, pointing out that nowadays many dealers are promoting artists fresh from art school, and art fairs have rendered the cachet of “international” pretty stale. “So it’s no surprise,” he continued, “to find that, even with the introduction of some new names, ‘Younger than Jesus’ feels familiar, like a more-substantial-than-average version of a weekend gallery hop in Chelsea and the Lower East Side, right down to the token Asian and African imports.”
Both critics focused on the videos and performance art in this show, choosing the performing arts over the visual arts as evidence of whatever “breakthroughs” the show might be making. I leave movies & theater to full-time movie & theater critics, and found the painting dreary, but I did see two artists whose work I liked. The first was LaToya Ruby Frazier (b. 1982 in Pittsburgh), a photographer whose strong, simple portrait of “Gramps on His Bed” reminded me of Walker Evans (in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”) or Dorothea Lange. The second was Liu Chuang, a Chinese conceptual artist (b. 1978) who displayed three examples from his “Buying Everything On You” series. In each case, he’d approached somebody in the street, offered to buy every single thing that person had on them, then arrayed the results on pure rectangular white plinths, including clothes (right down to undies), shoes, spectacles, jewelry, purses and/or backpacks, together with the contents of same, right down to credit cards, pens, pins and even a sanitary napkin. It sounds crass, but everything was so neatly set out, so rigorously aligned on a grid, and with such pretty colors, that it looked clean and bright, reminding me of the ‘60s, when this whole idea of object art was still fresh and new.
MORE OF THE SAME
Of course, it’s debatable whether Liu Chuang can best be described as an artist or as a collector, and the same applies in spades to the creator of a much more elaborate – but much less appealing – conglomeration of objects by another Chinese conceptual artist. This can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art, where “Projects 90: Song Dong” is on view (through September 21). The show, organized by Barbara London and Sarah Suzuki, fills the museum’s central atrium with hundreds & even thousands of objects amassed by the mother of the artist over the course of 50 years in her one small house (the artist himself initiated the collaboration with his mother in order to help her get over her grief at the death of his father; she then died before the work went on display here). A skeletonic version of the house rises above the nearly endless array of pots, pans, magazines, timber, empty soda pop bottles, clothes, used toothpaste tubes, bottle caps, empty10-liter oil flasks, etc., etc. Everything seems dusty or dingy or faded; all are sorted into separate spaces (a legion of pop bottles, for instance, or a sea of tied-up bundles of magazines). Paths through the midst of the morass enable museum-goers to stroll through.
Sociologically speaking, I guess, this is all very interesting (certainly, the highflown wall text would have you think so). Esthetically, it struck me as inferior to Liu Chuang’s “Buying Everything On You,” though since Song Dong was born in 1966, 12 years before Liu, he may have had this idea of stacking a lot of objects together first. Then again, maybe many conceptual artists in China have been doing this same sort of thing for decades: one hardly knows what goes on in these distant climes. It may simply be that I like clean better than dingy. Or maybe what these two artworks show is that being first isn’t a guarantee of superior quality; maybe (as with some marriages) the second time around is when the thing really works. Then again, it may simply be that I responded with more enthusiasm to “Buying Everything On You” than to “Projects 90:Song Dong” because I saw it first, the element of surprise being crucial to humor. Even if you burst into a hearty laugh, the first time you hear a joke, it’s difficult to do more than force a smile, the second time you hear it.
Occasionally, the Times reviews shows that I want to see, and wouldn’t have known about without the Times to tell me. Such was the case with “Alice Neel: Nudes of the 1930s” at Zwirner & Wirth (on the Upper East Side) and “Alice Neel: Selected Works” at David Zwirner (in Chelsea). I’ve been a fan of Neel’s for years. In 1974, I did an article on her for ARTnews, for which I interviewed her. Don’t remember much about her, but I did like these two shows. The uptown show was the slighter of the two, with only 4 oils, plus 5 watercolors & 3 drawings. Mostly, they showed single female figures, though 3 of the watercolors showed a man and a woman and one of the large oils showed two women. The style was likeable & already distinctive – angular, idiosyncratic, with formulaic Matissean breasts but individualized hips, complete with pubic hair (probably still shocking in the 30s). The downtown show was 16 portraits, dating from 1943 to 1982 (2 years before Neel died at the age of 84). Some showed individuals, some, family groups. Such interesting-looking people! Quintessentially hip New Yorkers and their children. Seemingly quick and even intellectual, with long, neurasthenic hands, mostly equally narrow faces, and not infrequently, long narrow bodies. The children all had subtly haunted expressions. This was definitely a grownups’ world that Neel painted, with a variety of races, genders and degrees of formality, from Hubert Satterfield, a black Communist writer, in a red & black lumberjack’s shirt, to Ron Kajiwara, a stylishly dressed graphic designer for Vogue, with long black hair, carefully combed, and not excluding bouncy Annie Sprinkle, a porn star and performance artist depicted as a dominatrix. Neel’s technique was simple: cagily drawn outlines, filled in (or not completely filled in) with color.
POMO AT THE MET;
JENKINS AT WIGMORE
I don’t know quite why I spent so much time at “The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through August 2). I could have spent the time far more pleasurably, I’m sure, had I gone to see “Paul Jenkins in the 1960s and 1970s: Space, Color and Light” at D. Wigmore (through September 25). Frankenthaler, to my way of thinking, had no more enthusiastic admirer than Jenkins, though I note that the entry on him, in the catalogue for the Clement Greenberg collection, speaks of indebtedness to Morris Louis instead. At any rate, he was a painter in his own right, too, and is apparently still going strong at 86. Roberta Smith gave him a very nice writeup in the NYTimes. .
Maybe my problem with “The Pictures Generation” was just that it’s so large, and I have this compulsion to take notes all through most museum shows I see, even if they go on (as this one does) seemingly forever. Organized by Douglas Eklund, the show features more than 160 works by 30 artists, and chronicles what the press release calls “one of the most important art movements of the last quarter of the 20th century,” with “some of the key figures in contemporary art: Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, David Salle, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein, James Welling and Troy Brauntuch.” The short form here is that this show is all about representational art, gussied up and made acceptable for postmodernist fetishists by relying primarily on video, performance, photography & collage, plus a lesser number of suitably crude drawings & paintings, while “appropriating” (i.e. copying or borrowing) imagery from advertising, movies, and other mass-audience sources (like “appropriations” was a new idea in the 70s, when in fact it was the modus operandi of neo-dada in the 50s and pop art in the 60s).
The show is noisy, with all the sound tracks of all the videos vying with one another. On the day I was there, it was drawing predominantly younger viewers, which I suppose it why it was conceived in the first place, just to show how everything is up to date in Kansas City. Admittedly, these younger viewers didn’t seem to be taking much time to look at the art on display. Mostly, they were just cruising through the galleries, searching for God knows what. Better art, maybe? Maybe they were just looking for the exit, since this show debouches onto another mass-appeal type show, “The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion” (through August 9). Organized by Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan, this particularly glitzy show is devoted to “the reciprocal relationship between high fashion and evolving ideals of beauty,” with darkened walls, blinking lights, rotating display platforms as well as stationary ones, a sound track of old popular songs, and (naturally) lots of mannequins wearing outre fashions and lots of photographs of famous models. I liked “The Model as Muse” better than “The Pictures Generation,” maybe for the same reason that I prefer Warhol to Johns. I know that Greenberg used to prefer Johns, but my feeling is that if you’re going to be vulgar, why not be really vulgar, instead of pretending that you’re making high art?
ELDERLY LADY FORCED TO DANCE
Not everybody agrees with me. Holland Carter was delighted with “The Pictures Generation.” To him, it showed that the Met is “no longer a fusty backwater for contemporary art.” In his opinion, “the museum should involve itself more fully with new art in the years to come...” Never mind the fact that MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Whitney are already giving us a surfeit of “new” art; the Met should follow the herd. Such opinions won Cotter a Pulitzer Prize: the willingness to inject “newsworthiness” into art criticism, and apply political standards to it (in a subsequent article, he faulted even “The Pictures Generation” because it didn’t have enough women and minorities). His attitude seems to be, the hell with Rembrandt, Titian, Bruegel. Why don’t you hike up your skirts, little old lady, and dance to the latest tune? Well, I’m elderly myself, and, while quite capable of hiking up my skirts (on those rare occasions when I wear them) & have to run to catch a bus, I’m not interested in acting like a teenager full time. I think I’ve learned something over the years. Sure, I’m always interested in what the young have to say, but I feel that the idea that they’re always right is a cultural artifact left over from the ‘60s, not an eternal truth. Such is my vanity that I think the young might even benefit from listening to me (as opposed to critics more nearly committed to perennial adolescence).
For one thing, younger viewers might find something more satisfying if they’d stray off the beaten track. They can (though this is still pretty much the beaten track) take in the Met’s other big show of recent art, “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective,” curated by Gary Tinterow of the Met and Chris Stephens of Tate Britain (the show has already played the Tate and the Prado in Madrid; it’s on view at the Met through August 16). Bacon (1909-1992) can be seen as a worthy craftsman in the earliest part of this retrospective, which (except for one exquisite small 1933 “Crucifixion,” in the entry hall) begins during & just after World War II. I find the brutish, distorted faces and twisted, contorted and fragmented bodies in his paintings (especially the later ones) unattractive, but the word “impressive” can be applied to the large “Painting” (1946) owned by MoMA, with its purple, black & white full-length beef carcase out of Rembrandt, and its howling human face under an umbrella. Also impressive are the papal studies (1949-1953) based on Velázquez’s “Portrait of Innocent X” (1650). After that, the show began to lose me. I couldn’t work up a sweat over the grotesque & glutinous “portraits” of Bacon’s Soho friends from the ‘60s, and the quality of the painting began its long decline at this point. I suppose that once the Met has committed itself to a full-dress retrospective, it feels obligated to follow its subject clear through to the bitter end, but this isn’t the first time that the end has been bitter indeed.
The Met is still at its best when it isn’t trying to be “contemporary” – which Bacon is, despite his dates & retrograde medium of paint on canvas, because of the sordidness and ugliness of his images. This is negativistic pomo philosophy, not at all unlike the “mix of cynicism, anxiety, and nostalgia” that Cotter pegged as the common attitude toward American culture shared by the artists in “The Pictures Generation” AND “Younger Than Jesus.” Plus ça change, and all that jazz. The fundamental cynicism here, which again begins in the 50s with neo-dada, is caused by the step BACKWARD from multireferential into uni-referential. From that fundamentally reactionary step, all else flows. A young person who wants a real change of pace might like to stroll through the small and uncrowded but ingratiating show of “Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (through November 15). This modest exhibition, curated by Thayer Tolles, shows off the museum’s own holdings of works by the pre-eminent American sculptor of the later 19th century. Even better, right by the entrance to it, is the all-but-deserted Frank Lloyd Wright Room, one of 19 period rooms that the museum has lately re-furbished and put on permanent display. Designed by America’s greatest architect for Mr. and Mrs. Francis W. Little of Wayzata, Minnesota between 1913 and 1915, this room is a little oasis of truly modernist shady calm, horizontality and decision.
Another mini-exhibit that I found rewarding (though crowded) is “Michelangelo’s First Painting” (through September 7). Organized by Keith Christiansen, this showcases an enticing little oil and tempera on panel, “St. Anthony Tormented by Demons,” together with a replica of the engraving by Martin Schongauer that inspired it. Measuring only 18½ “ x 12½ , this painting has been dated around 1487 or 1488. If it was painted by the creator of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it would have been done when he was only 12 or 13, and still apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, a Florentine master particularly celebrated for his frescos. The fact that Michelangelo made such a painting has been known for centuries, but not all scholars even today agree that this is it. When Sotheby’s offered it at a London auction last year, the catalogue merely attributed it to the Ghirlandaio workshop. Nevertheless, a New York dealer named Adam Williams had seen it in an earlier exhibition and was convinced that it was a Michelangelo, so he bought for $2 million. Then he took it to Christiansen, who had the Met’s conservator of paintings clean it. Once the centuries of dirt and varnish were removed, Christiansen, too, became convinced that it was a true Michelangelo. Sad to say, the Met just then was all committed to buying other art (maybe a Bacon or something out of “The Pictures Generation”?). But Claire M. Barry, chief curator of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, heard about the painting, came to the Met to see it, and lured Eric McCauley Lee, director of the Kimbell, into looking at it, too. The Kimbell wound up buying it for $6 million, according to Carol Vogel in the New York Times. The Met is being allowed to show it temporarily.
WHAT ELSE AT THE MET?
A further trio of temporary shows at the Met might I suspect deserve a visit. Among them are “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” (through September 20), “Napoleon III and Paris” (through September 7); and “Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages” (through August 23). I regret that I didn’t get to these shows, but I can’t spend all my time at this great museum; there were too many other shows at other museums that I wanted to see. I will say that merely strolling through the permanent collection at the Met (on the way to or from the temporary exhibitions) is a pleasure in itself, and I discovered a gallery new to me that is sheer delight. This is the Greek and Roman Study Collection, housed on a mezzanine that can only be reached from the stairs (or elevator) at the southern end of the building, and that was formerly occupied by offices. This practically-deserted gallery is just large glass case after large glass case, displaying all the vases, statues, jewelry and other works deemed not important enough to exhibit in the ground floor Greek and Roman galleries, but nevertheless delicious to contemplate – particularly since they don’t require any reading. Although each case has a title lettered on the glass (such as “Sports” or “Religion”), none of the individual works have little labels next to them, depriving the viewer of any distractions from enjoying all these marvelous examples of PURE FORM.
Two exhibitions worthy of note represent opposite ends of display opportunities. On June 4, LCOR, a real estate development and investment company, formally unveiled a series of handsomely shiny, translucent purple, orange and yellow sculptures made of cast resin by Willard Boepple in the lobby of 545 Madison Avenue (actually, the lobby is entered from East 55th Street). Boepple was chosen through a national competition that drew submissions from 20 artists, and the award was richly deserved. The sculptures form a most harmonious ensemble that enriches the space, displayed as they are against mellow golden-brown walls. The display is a permanent one, in a building recently renovated by LCOR, which signed a 75-year ground lease for the site in 2006. Whether the Boepples will be left in situ for the full seventy-five years is (needless to say) problematic, but anyway they will be there for far more than the average gallery run.
Meanwhile, an exhibition of approximately 20 paintings done in oil and enamel on canvas and paper by Michael Filan are on view at 150 West 30th Street, in the 14th story offices of TAI, a teaching and consulting firm, through August 28. Viewing is by appointment; those interested should call (212) 924-8888, ext. 160. Filan is a decade or so younger than Boepple, having taken his BFA from Pratt only in 1975, and beginning his voluminous exhibition history only in the 80s – a decade notoriously unsympathetic to modernist abstraction. Nor can I honestly say that I liked all the paintings here. The show covers a period from 2003 to 2009, about half done between prior to 2009, and half done this year. Most of the paintings prior to this year are larger & done on canvas; most from 2009 are smaller & on paper. The larger paintings on canvas were done on the wall, with the paint coursing down them or sprayed onto them. The smaller ones on paper were mostly done on the floor, with paint poured onto them from the can. In both cases, Filan uses both matte and shiny enamel, and one can see how in at least some cases that he has worked from all angles, controlling the drips and pours. I couldn’t warm up to any of the larger, earlier work, but most of the newer, smaller paintings were spirited and at times even exciting. Especially, I liked “Bonnard Inspired,” “Yellow Excavation,” “Pink Singe” (really a knockout) and “Yellow Equator.”
A TRIP UPSTATE
Knowing how antipathetic the artistic climate in the Big Apple is toward modernism, the modernist critic is well advised to travel. In June, I took the train up to Albany, reveling in the spectacular cloud effects over the Hudson River and misty mountains beyond it as I went, and thinking of how David Smith had traveled the same route, and sketched the same view as preparation for his great “Hudson River Landscape” (1951). Lured by an unusually attractive exhibition catalogue, I was going to see “The Essential George Hofmann” at Martinez in Troy, NY, a city that closely abuts Albany, the artist’s home. The next day, I traveled on up to Salem, NY, for a visit with Craig & Mary Barnes, and a chance to look at some of Craig’s paintings. While I was there, the Barneses also took me down from the hill where they run Slate Hill Farm, a flourishing daylily business, to visit a nearby landscape painter, Harry Orlyk. His trenchant little scenes of the surrounding countryside will be on view at Carrie Haddad in Hudson, NY (July 30-August 30).
The Hofmann show was uneven but fascinating, some good early work but the most recent paintings the real pleasure & surprise (12 out of the 20 paintings in the show were begun in 2007 or since). These looked a bit like gestural paintings at first, but only at first. Actually, they were lighter, airier, and made very differently from those of de Kooning’s disciples in the 50s. This, however, is not the place to discuss how they were made, as I feature Hofmann in the supplement to the DeLuxe edition of this issue, and discuss his techniques there. Here I shall merely say that the dominant mode of the recent paintings on view was large, loose sweeps of pale color, lush yet wispy, brash and seductive, bold but restrained. The best picture was also the largest, “Bay” (2009), with blues, red and purple laid out horizontally, and a green swath in the upper right hand area, partially applied with circular strokes. In its complexity, “Bay” was unsuitable for reproduction. You had to see it in the gallery or not at all. Almost equally lovely was “Rain, Sun” (2008-2009), which was reproduced on the cover of the catalogue and is by me. Other fine pictures included “Incoming, Shrouded” (2007/2008), “Breaking Joy” (2008/08), “Blue, In” (2008/09), “A Last Look Back at Tiepolo” (2008), and “Blue, Green” (1960). In a class by itself was “Niger’ (1988), a powerful but distinctly Olitskian composition done at the Triangle Artists’ Workshop in Pine Plains, NY.
AND OUT TO THE HAMPTONS
Last year, I missed “Arthamptons: The International Fine Art Fair, 1900-Present,” held on the grounds of the Bridgehampton Historical Society, but I heard that work by Roy Lerner and Ronnie Landfield was on view. This year, I got there, accompanied by a kind friend who has a house in Southampton & is still learning about art (albeit from the vantage point of curiosity & respect). According to Rick Friedman, the founder & executive director of this fair, about 65 galleries from all over the U.S. and Europe were offering maybe $200 million worth of art. I found none by Lerner or Landfield, but ran into Lerner himself making the rounds. He steered me toward the booth of Spanierman Modern, which was exhibiting cheerfully-colored shaped canvases from the 60s by Neil Williams. This work looked a lot like the 60s canvases of Larry Zox, but turned out to have been oriented in its heyday more towards Frank Stella and John Chamberlain than Kenneth Noland (I thought the two large Williams canvases nice, but the small colored drawings on graph paper more sensitive & telling). I myself was more interested in locating the booth of Gary Snyder/Project Space, since Snyder had told me he was bringing a much more recent canvas by John Griefen to display. It turned out to have been made early in the 21st century, and consist of a black half and a white half, divided vertically down the middle (reminding me, sad to say, of a black & white cookie). Like so much of Griefen’s work, this painting was radically minimal, but done with the same soft broom technique that leaves the human mark on the canvas, and elevates it above those much more mechanical canvases in which Ellsworth Kelly has used black and white. Griefen is more distinctive when he covers a whole canvas with some more offbeat but lustrous hue (putting Kelly’s straight-from-the-can colors in the shade).
“But is it art?” my friend asked me afterward, in a worried voice. I gave her the standard Duchampian answer, that anything can be art if the artist says it is. I also tried to explain that putting paint on a canvas is about as artistic as you can get these days, but this explanation lacked opportunities for demonstration at Arthamptons, since the trendies of Chelsea were giving it a miss. No blinking lights, peculiar objects, videos or performance art. Not even any installations, unless you count the display of Warholian images of Michael Jackson, in the booth of East Hampton’s own Vered, who according to my friend is a local celebrity known for Bohemian stunts. Elsewhere practically everything was sedate paintings, drawings, occasional discreet collages and mostly carved or modeled sculpture. Abstractions, while not absent, were in the minority, with little in the way of the messy-gestural style so popular in Chelsea. No Milton Resnick, no Joan Mitchell, praises be. Instead, Margot Stein of Lake Worth FL was showing two good-sized, later paintings by Robert Goodnough, together with 4 dandy little gouaches (ca. 1940) by Rolph Scarlett, one of the courageous few who were already carrying the ball for abstract art in America way back in the 30s. Donna Schneier Fine Arts of Palm Beach FL had a third (1979) Goodnough on view.
Elsewhere, almost all was representational, and tended to older masters and/or artists both successful in New York & residing or having resided part or all of the year in the Hamptons: Fairfield Porter, Jane Wilson, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers. Lots of Milton Avery around, even though he summered in New England. Peter Marcelle of Southampton devoted most of his booth to temperas and watercolors by another New England painter, Andrew Wyeth. The Wyeths were priced from $350,000 to $10 million, and my friend was very much drawn to them, finding their facial expressions haunting. Godel & Co. Fine Art, an Upper East Side Manhattan gallery, was displaying earlier American art: Reginald Marsh, Charles Burchfield, Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, William Glackens (very Renoirish), and a small but pretty New Mexican landscape by Marsden Hartley. Galerie Bale from Marion, Massachusetts and Paris was one of the few essaying mainstream modernism, with a lovely Matisse drawing of a woman’s head, an Emil Nolde seascape, an early Thomas Hart Benton crayon & pencil Synchromist composition, and a small Berthe Morisot. Lori Bookstein had a sweet small watercolor landscape (1935) by Louis I. Kahn, the architect, and a nifty drawing (ca. 1930) by Stuart Davis of a harbor scene, with boat.
How to explain such overall conservativism? Partly, I think, the area, where most people (in spite of the artists in their midst) are relatively conventional, and think of art primarily as nice, inoffensive pictures that will hang quietly on the walls of their homes. Beyond that, the sorry state of the economy, which means that even more sophisticated & knowledgeable buyers are drawing back from the speculative stocks (new art) and investing instead in the blue chips (older art). Chelsea has been touched by this, too, as witness the two-gallery show of Alice Neel described above, and the late Picasso show at Gagosian that I discussed in my last column. Two “Musketeer” paintings, of the type featured in the Gagosian show, sold for very respectable prices in this spring’s auctions (one for $14.6 million at Christie’s in New York in May, the other for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in London in June).
NOW, TO 8 MUSEUM SHOWS WORTH SEEING
BEGINNING WITH 3 AT THE MORGAN
Currently, The Morgan Library & Museum has three excellent shows. You can do them all in one day, and if you see them in the order that I did (and you share my tastes) you should find yourself with a gradually ascending level of pleasure. I went initially to “Pages of Gold: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan,” organized by William M. Voelkle (through September 13). This show presents 50 of the museum’s finest individual pages that have, at some point in their long lives, become detached from their original context and are therefore presented as individual works of art. Since these manuscripts were illuminated, I anticipated many jewels of color, and decided I wanted to see this more than the obviously closely-related medieval drawings show at the Met. When I got to the Morgan, however, I found myself put off by all but the most beautiful illuminations. There an awful lot of writing in most pages to accompany only relatively small amounts of illumination, forcing me to focus and CONCENTRATE more than I really wanted to. Also, the labels were irritating. Approximately one-third of their text is devoted to the iconography of the image. Okay, at least that directs the viewer’s eyes to the art, but the other two-thirds are the most tedious “social history,” all about who bought each work, who cut them up, etc. Maybe gallery goers who care more about money than art will like these labels, but they offered me no help in looking at the art. It was sad to see vandalism thus exonerated, and beautiful things cut to bits, but to be completely immoral, the ones I liked best were some of the historiated capital letters that had been cut out of full pages of lettering, and mounted individually. Because of their simplicity, they appealed to modern eyes like mine. I especially liked the “Two Prophets, in the initials S and V” (made in Florence, 1392-99), and the full page with a historiated capital S, in which “Christ and the Virgin Mary Fed by Angels” is inscribed (also Florentine , ca. 1470-80). What makes this page extra-special is the gracefully flaring lines on the border, resembling a curving vine with flowers & fruits on it.
Leaving this show, I noticed across the hallway “Creating the Modern Stage: Designs for Theater and Opera,” organized by Jennnifer Tonkovich, with the assistance of Elizabeth Nogrady (through August 16). As I’ve said, I’m neither a movie nor a theater critic, and take a dim view of Marcellian attempts to turn art into show biz, but hey, I was there, I had time to spare, and–to make a long story short – I went in, and speedily decided that I liked this show even better than the illuminated manuscripts. Again, the labels played a major role. They were much more helpful– two-thirds iconography (what’s depicted, for what play, etc.) but up to one half (sometimes) formal commentary with observations on the most telling visual components. Result: time after time I found myself exclaiming, “Now I get it!” Everything was on paper: graphite, charcoal, watercolors, gouache, etc., lending again a light, airy, unpretentious mood. And, because I’m a modernist, the larger, simpler compositions of these set designs were easier to take in. This simplicity enables the viewer to luxuriate in their overt theatricality – especially overt in the first third of the show, with designs from the early 20th century, labeled “Origins of Modern Scenic Theory.” This begins with Edward Gordon Craig and the looming, echoing spaces of Edwardian Shakespearean sets. The middle part of the show is devoted to “The Russian Avant-Garde,” and here the work attains the level of high art. A standard is established with a fabulous, very simple 1910 set design by Léon Bakst for the Diaghilev ballet, “Les Orientales,” and carried on with an extremely abstract, constructivist “Construction for a Tragedy” by Alexandra Exter (ca. 1925), plus an equally abstract set design in black and white for a satire on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by Nicolai Pavlovich Akimov (ca. 1930). The weakest part of the show is the last third, devoted to American stage designs from the 1920s and 30s. I saw some goodies here, but most of the work hovers between modern and moderne, which is to say flaccid, high-class kitsch.
I was just leaving the museum, but couldn’t help noticing the sign pointing upstairs to the third show, “New at the Morgan: Acquisitions Since 2004,” featuring approximately 100 old master & modern drawings, literary and music manuscripts, illuminated texts, photographs, memorabilia & so forth. They had been chosen from more than 1,200 recently acquired works in a show co-ordinated by Isabelle Dervaux (through October 18). Heck, I said to myself, this is going to be all writing of various kinds, manuscripts, letters, musical scores, whatnot, but since I was there, a mysterious force propelled me upstairs, and was I glad that it did! The first thing I saw was a photograph by Irving Penn of one of my idols, T. S. Eliot, taken in 1950 and showing the poet fully clad in suit, tie, even vest, looking extremely dignified. In the glass case next to this portrait, however, is a very funny letter from Eliot, written in 1929 to an old school chum, and indulging in ribald (and politically incorrect) doggerel. Also incredible is a Diane Arbus photo taken in 1964 of Marianne Moore and W. H. Auden, two craggy old monuments. Weird is the word for a “magic realist” crayon-and-graphite study by Paul Cadmus, “Jealousy: The Eighth Sin” (1982), showing a green-faced figure literally eating his own heart out. There’s a warm & moving Frankenthaler “Mauve Bag” (1979), with rich, horizontal sweeps of pink, gray & purple acrylics on a brown paper bag. Up at the front of the gallery, a docent was boasting about the letter from Van Gogh to Gauguin, and a Warhol, but I was more interested in the massive but fluid elegance of “Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park” (1828) by Samuel Palmer. Oh, there’s some dross in this show: I could do without the Bruce Nauman and the Robert Morris, but I suppose even the Morgan has to kowtow sometimes to pomo taste. It’s just a blessing that so many other memorable works have come through, not excluding a dulcet little Rembrandt pen-and-ink drawing of “Four Musicians with Stringed Instruments” (ca. 1638) and even such curiosities as a 46-page letter written by William Randolf Hearst, probably in 1905, describing his summer auto tour of Spain and Portugal and illustrated with snapshots. In 1905, both car & most likely photos would still have been the preserve of the very rich.
2 SHOWS WORTH SEEING AT THE WHITNEY;
1 MORE ONLY IF YOU FEEL YOU MUST
Duty bound, I headed to the Whitney Museum of American Art to see “Dan Graham: Beyond,” billed as “a landmark retrospective” of “one of the pioneering figures of contemporary art.” Co-curated by Chrissie Iles of the Whitney and Bennett Simpson of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, this show has already played MOCA; it remains on view in Manhattan through October 11 (thereafter to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, October 31 to January 31, 2010). As the press release says, this show “examines Graham’s extensive body of work in photographs, film and video, architectural models, indoor and outdoor pavilions, conceptual projects for magazine pages, drawings, print, and writings.” Born in 1942, he seems to have been making “art” since the late 1960s, but I suspect he didn’t really make it big until the 70s, as I myself was all gung-ho for conceptual art right up until November 1968, and I don’t remember him as a major player then.I did stroll through this show. It did nothing for me, except make me think how very pompous conceptual art has gotten to be in its old age, with its long, pretentious labels, academically correct catalogues & bogus claims of being so “democratic” (it’s “democratic” only in the sense that no matter how poorly equipped and prepared to appreciate fine art you may really be, you can still feel smugly that you are able to relate to the art of the museums because you can respond on a literary or entertainment level to such art).
Back in the ‘60s,conceptual art – and pomo in general– was a lot simpler, and a lot more fun. This thought of mine, however, didn’t surface until after I’d taken in another show at the Whitney, one with much more to recommend it. It’s actually three shows, with slightly varied titles, but all three revolve around Claes Oldenburg, and will be on view through September 6. This veteran comic (b. 1929) was one of my first discoveries, after I started writing the Art page for Time in January ‘67. By May, I was already saluting him in print as “by far the most frabjous funnyman in town;” in August ‘68, I would propose that Time do a cover story on him. All I got out of that proposal was a major article, with a full-page photo of him amid his celebrated soft sculptures, but he remains in my memory as one of the highlights of my term on Time. The opening gallery of the Whitney’s multi-named presentation includes a goodly sampling of the amusing kind of mid-60s work that I first saw by him. There are the “Giant Fagends” (1967; huge cigarette butts, made out of canvas & urethane foam, piled in their own huge ashtray ), a “Soft Toilet” (1966; gracefully wilted blue & white vinyl), the giant “French Fries and Ketchup” (1963; vinyl & kapok), and so on. Wonderfully diverting. Many drawings on the walls are also from this period; some depict the artist’s equally droll proposed “colossal monuments,” such as a skyscraper in the form of a Chicago fireplug (1967).
I wasn’t as enthusiastic about Oldenburg’s gigantic mechanized ice bag (1971) in a back gallery, or any of the more recent sculptures or drawings done in collaboration with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009), but I really cracked up at the displays in the little gallery on beyond the ice bag. These are from Oldenburg’s first great success, The Store (1961). Originally set up in the artist’s street-level studio on the Lower East Side, The Store displayed deliberately crappy-looking sculptures made out of plaster-dipped muslin over chicken wire, and painted with bright, sloppily applied enamel – recreating all manner of food stuffs & clothing on sale in the shops and on the push carts of that still-plebeian neighborhood. The hefty black girdle with garters on a green background, and the equally hefty white “braselette” (a waist-long brassiere) are especial hoots, the brushwork a scathing satire on the pompousness and pretentiousness of second-generation ab-ex on the de Kooning model, then in its senescent stage. And the Happenings! For once, I went into the Whitney’s Film & Video Gallery, where viewers are surrounded by 8 screens running film clips of 15 or 20 of these goofy events, staged at various venues from 1960 to 1965. All the people in these old movies were doing silly things with completely straight faces: some pushing each other, a lady in a bathing suit with balloons tied to her legs, an old-fashioned portrait photographer trying to take pictures of 3 people who kept flopping over, as though dead, etc. The freshness and humor were irresistible: I chuckled over and over again.
The second show at the Whitney that I’d recommend is “Hopper in Paris,” a boutique exhibition of only 9 paintings made by Edward Hopper between 1906 and 1910, on his trips to Paris, and donated to the museum by his widow Josephine. These Paris visits were as close to Hopper’s “avant-garde” moment as he ever got, and it wasn’t even close, when compared to contemporaries like Patrick Henry Bruce or Max Weber, who were indenturing themselves to Matisse. In exploring the impressionism of thirty years previously, Hopper adopted the loose brushwork and urban topics but not the heightened palette of Monet and Renoir. Paradoxically, the greys, browns and creams he employed instead in the four charming small street & house studies from 1906 on view anticipate the silvery tonalities of Analytic Cubism. The largest & finest painting in this show is “Soir Bleu” (1914), an eerie horizontal study of the balcony of a cabaret by night, with silent figures (including a clown) at tables, Japanese lanterns overhead, and a mysterious woman with rouged lips and cheeks standing guard. It’s doubtless familiar to Hopper fanciers, but well worth a second look.
WHISTLER AT THE FRICK
The summer show on Fifth at 70th Street is “Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in The Frick Collection” (through August 23). This exhibition includes all the work in the museum’s collection by the sometime dandy, wit and center of controversy, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). The show was organized by Joanna Sheers, Caitlin Henningsen, and Senior Curator Susan Grace Galassi; it has five oils, three pastels, and 12 prints (one etching, 11 etchings with drypoint). In the Oval Room hang the oils: four full-length portraits, centering around “Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean”(1866), a quiet, elusive and melodious seascape painted in Valparaiso, Chile. Of the portraits, the best known and most developed is “Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland” (1871-74), with a dress of three colors (pink, white, crimson), a spray of blossoms and varied colors in the rug and floor. Mrs. Leyland’s husband was one of Whistler’s most prominent patrons. Of almost equal biographical interest is “Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux” (1881-82). A onetime actress who’d married into the aristocracy, Lady Meux wears a satiny pink and white costume, plus an expression that can be read as either defiant or petulant.
Extremely tall and slender is the figure in “Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac” (1881-82). Said to be the model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus, the count faces the viewer with head cocked and a quizzical expression. The fourth portrait is, as painting, least interesting of the four, but the subject is the most modern: an artist herself, and lover of Whistler’s agent. “Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder” (1876-78) shows her wearing the tailored jacket & loose skirt of 19th century professional women; she stands boldly, head up, shoulders squared. The pastels & prints (in the Cabinet gallery, next to the bookshop) date from 14 months that Whistler spent in Venice in 1879-80. Given a commission for 12 etchings from London’s Fine Arts Society, he wound up making approximately 50, plus 100 pastels – delicate, intimate views of the city, caught from odd angles & sometimes populated by little people. All the pictures here are magical, but four stood out for me: “The Piazzetta,” “The Palaces,” “Little Venice,” and “The Traghetto, No. 2.”
A REAL CROWD-PLEASER:
ENSOR AT MOMA
I feel sure many people will enjoy “James Ensor” at the Museum of Modern Art (through September 21). Therefore I will try to be as kind to it as I can, although the fact is that, in my heart of hearts, this is really not my thing. According to MoMA, it’s the first exhibition at an American institution to feature the full range of this Belgian artist’s media in over 30 years. Organized by Anna Swinbourne, Susan M. Canning, and Jane Panetta, the show includes approximately 120 of Ensor’s paintings, drawings & prints, most dating from 1880 to the mid-1890s, the period of the artist’s creative peak. Ensor (1860-1949) was a native of Ostend, a port in the northern, Flemish part of Belgium, and as such not surprisingly in the bizarre tradition of Bosch & Breugel. True, Ensor left his home at the age of 17 to attend art school for three years in French-speaking Brussels, and met a number of very congenial avant-gardists there. However, he returned to Ostend at the age of 20, and spent the rest of his life there, in his family’s home and presumably right above the family business, a souvenir shop that sold puppets, seashells, and above all masks to wear at Mardi Gras revels (he did make some trips away from home, though, to Brussels, Paris, London and the Netherlands).
The first three galleries of this exhibition show the young Ensor amazingly proficient in landscape, cityscape, figure studies, even portraits. Still, although the wall text describes this as “early modernism,” the often dull & murky colors are to me more like academic painting than impressionism, or perhaps an homage to The Hague School (a mildly adventurous Dutch mid-century variant on academic painting). Facing the entryway is “The Scandalized Masks,” (1883). It shows 2 men in masks, one sitting, the other standing. Although not as powerful as “The Drunkards” (also 1883), it presages the artist’s obsession with masks and grotesquerie that would last throughout his life. In the fourth gallery, we find Ensor beginning to experiment more & more with mystical, quasi-religious subjects. On view are the first two of a series of six huge, cloudy charcoal drawings entitled collectively “Visions: The Aureoles of Christ or the Sensibilities of Light.” These drawings mark a move away from the naturalistic, and the balance of the exhibition is dominated by symbolic or fantasy scenes in which masks and/or monsters play key roles. Ensor’s masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889" (1888) is not in this show. Doubtless the Getty Museum, its owner, considered it too large and fragile to travel, but many other well-known Ensors are here, including his “Tribulations of Saint Anthony” (1887), with its evil little demons and curious scribbles of paint that appear to anticipate the “action painting” of the 1950s.
Brightly-painted, simplified pictures of figures with masks appear again and again, as well as strange little satires on law or medicine, plus a variety of other subjects, but, although Ensor’s style could vary widely, it never again returned to the naturalism of his early years. Rather, his shapes and faces become imaginative or schematic designs that have been seen as forerunners to 20th century German Expressionism & even surrealism. To me, they suggest outsider art, which would attract the interest of early 20th century moderns from Picasso to Kandinsky, then degenerate in the 1930s into a style collected by wealthy Americans as an easy way to appear “modern” without going “all the way” to abstraction. Crudeness or primitivism remains still viable in Chelsea today, practiced not only by genuine outsiders (mental cases, artists from uneducated backgrounds) but also by experienced artists in Chelsea who have simply learned that to paint too well can be fatal. Thus it’s not only because Ensor presages Expressionism and surrealism that this show will be popular; his status as a proto-outsider tells in his favor as well. I must say that the last Ensor in this show is the most effective work in the show. It’s “Self-Portrait with Masks” (1899), and shows the artist in a floral hat with a feather on it, staring out at the viewer from a sea of singularly grim masks– alloverness before its time. The colors are bright, but not garish; the style, quaint and semi-crude, with practically no modeling or shading. Lots of red, browns, whites, touches of black, little green or blue; its ornate golden frame becomes it. Interesting that Ensor should have been so obsessed with masks, with their heavy symbolic potential. A mask suggests to me the artist (painter or writer) as poseur, presenting to observers only what he (or she) wants them to see/read.
FINALLY, THE SHOW I LOVED MORE THAN ANY OTHER
SUPREMELY GORGEOUS DRAWING
In honor of its golden anniversary, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has turned over its entire rotunda, plus two of its annex spaces, to the architect who designed that renowned (if stubbornly intractable) edifice. “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward” was co-organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and includes more than 200 architectural drawings by Wright (plans, elevations and perspectival renderings), newly commissioned models, animations, slide shows and oral histories (so says the press release, though I can’t recall any oral histories in the show myself). After it closes here in New York (on August 23), the exhibition will go on to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain (October 6 through February 2010 – I hope that people from all over Europe come to see it). Now, there was a segment on Wright in the art-humanities course that I taught at Columbia many years ago. It introduced me to what a great architect he was, but the slides I projected in class, I now see, showed only a fraction of the famous buildings he’d built , from the Robie House (1908-10) and Fallingwater (1935-37) to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1913-22), the S. C. Johnson Building (I936-50) and the Guggenheim itself (1943-59). How much we missed! That is one reason why this show is such an eye-opener. One gets to see all the other stunning buildings Wright built, like the Beth Sholom Synagogue (1953-59), with its soaring tent-like glass pyramid; Roux Library at Florida Southern College (1941-42), with its long, low lines; and Wright’s own gracious, land-hugging residences, Taliesen (1911, 1925) and Taliesin West (1937-59).
But that’s only the beginning, for the show also includes dozens of drawings for projects that were never realized – projects that were in many cases even more visionary than the ones that did come to fruition. Working my way down the ramp (in my customary fractious way), the first set of drawings I came upon were those for Greater Baghdad (1957). Especially wondrous were the drawings for its opera house, to be built on an axis toward Mecca and topped with a mighty ziggurat that paid equal homage to Moslem minarets & ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. The project was never built, but God! The drawings for it are sublime: elegantly traced & only lightly colored, but powerful beyond belief, even if made with only graphite, colored pencils and ink on tracing paper. Now that architects use CAD (computer-aided design) programs, I don’t suppose we’ll ever see the like of these Wright drawings again, so run-do-not-walk to the Guggenheim, where you may enjoy so many of Wright’s incredibly imaginative inventions. The man could see so far above and beyond the ordinary, every-day order of construction and even belief, nor did he ever throw away a good idea. The germ of the Beth Sholom pyramid can already be seen in the enchanting black & white plan and elevations for the unbuilt Steel Cathedral (1927). The ancestor of the Guggenheim’s spiral construction is the design for the unbuilt Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium (1924-25). And so it goes. Down in the lower level of the Annex is a small adjunct show that is almost as engaging. Called “Learning by Doing,” it exhibits photographs, plans and models of 20 teeny-tiny residences made by students between 1937 & 2009 at the still-functioning Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. “Learning by doing” is one of the basic tenets of progressive education, as invented by John Dewey, and I think Dewey and Wright go together like salt and pepper or bread and butter: two great thinkers who emerged from Chicago in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century.
ANNOUNCEMENTS: At Scott in Edmonton, “Peter Hide: New Works” (only through July 7, alas); at The Gallery, Winchester Discovery Centre in Winchester (UK): “Frank Bowling, OBE, RA: Paintings”(through August 2); at The Lakes Gallery at Chi Lin, in Meredith, NH: “Lauren Olitski: Water Paintings”(August 7 through September 13).... Joyce Weinstein, a painter in her own right, as well as the widow of Stanley Boxer, has sent me the schedule for “REMEMBERINGSTANLEYBOXER – A Museum Survey, 1946-2000.” The show will be at the Joel & Lila Harnett Museum of Art at the University of Richmond, VA (August 20 through October 4); at the Housatonic Museum of Art of Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, CT (February 11 to March 28, 2010); & at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida (April 20 to June 13, 2010)....
Bennington College, where Jules Olitski taught between 1963 and 1967, is starting a Jules Olitski Scholarship Fund. Unlike other liberal arts colleges, progressive Bennington has always placed the visual & performing arts on an equal footing with other disciplines taught there. Its art faculty has consistently been composed of practicing artists, creating their own art while passing their knowledge & technical know-how on to their students. The Jules Olitski Scholarship will provide this distinct educational experience to a talented & exemplary student who would not otherwise have the financial means to study there. Bennington is a 501 ( c ) (3) tax-exempt organization and all gifts to the college are fully tax deductible. Should you wish to donate (funds, securities or art), contact Paige Bartels, vice president for external relations, Bennington College, One College Drive, Bennington VT 05201; phone 802-440-4336; email firstname.lastname@example.org
BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS.... The Fall 2009 catalogue for Lund Humphries arrived in my mail box. It lists “John McLean,” by Ian Collins, with 176 pages & 162 illustrations,150 of them in color ($70) “John McLean (b. 1939) has been likened to British art’s secret weapon,” says the catalogue, “a self-propelled missile whose long career has been an unfettered exploration of abstraction and a unique journey into color.” Also listed is “Anthony Caro,” a 3-volume set with “Anthony Caro: Drawing in Space,” by Mary Reid; “Anthony Caro: Interior and Exterior,” by Karen Wilkin; and “Anthony Caro: Figurative and Narrative Sculpture” by Julius Bryant ($120 for the set; each volume also sold separately at $60 apiece).... As an author myself, I come in contact with other authors, not all of whom are deeply involved in art. That doesn’t make what they write any less entertaining – or, for that matter, any less educational. Earlier this spring, I attended an “event” promoting various aspects of French culture, not least an enticing little book by Jamie Cat Callan entitled “French Women Don’t Sleep Alone: Pleasurable Secrets to Finding Love” (Citadel, 194 pp., $12.95) I first met Callan (who is only French on her mother’s side) at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts four years ago, but we’ve kept in touch because she’s lots of fun, a good writer & a very sensible woman. This little book of hers, while not directly addressing any immediate problems of mine, is filled with sage advice about enhancing one’s life style and getting more enjoyment out of even the most routine elements of the day. Buy it for a young female friend of yours, then read it before you give it away......As to my own book, I am heartened by the number of friends and relatives who have so far bought it. I’ve received a very nice review in TLAS, the Time-Life Alumni Society Newsletter. They report that "the book is personal, revealing and frank," and that "Any editors, writers and researchers who worked at Time in the 1950s and 1960s could well find themselves in the pages of this book, their behavior and foibles described in sometimes embarrassing detail." Then the review summarizes my rise from research trainee to writer, a job that "many of the men thought was too tough for women". I can also report that David Cohen has posted a 5,000-word excerpt from my book at his artcritical webzine, also that it’s listed for sale on the web by quite a number of online booksellers, including Border’s in the U.S., Amazon in Canada, the UK and Japan as well as the U.S., also flipkart, an Indian vendor.
TO REPEAT:: the supplement to the DeLuxe edition of this issue features George Hofmann ................(© Copyright 2009 by Piri Halasz)
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