Been there, seen it (or so I thought)

This gallery contains 16 photos.

I write this post with full awareness of my snobbery and privilege, though I know that doesn’t necessarily make it okay. Nonetheless, I can only write from my own point of view. There is much excitement over the Portland Museum … Continue reading

A Repentant Return

Just over two months since my last post – completely shameful. It’s been a combination of not setting aside time and not having much to write about.

On Saturday I went gallery/museum hopping in Portland. Some highlights:

1) A lovely conversation with Andy, the owner of Aucocisco Galleries, which represents many of the more interesting Maine-based artists I’ve come across thus far, including some friends of mine, and including Katherine Bradford, whose work the Bowdoin College Museum of Art will show this summer. He is in the midst of a suite of shows called DOUBLE DOZEN, a series of twelve, one-week long, two-person shows; in this iteration, Josefina Auslender and Tanya Fletcher. It’s an innovative (and I imagine stressful to organize and hang!) format.

2) Two shows at Space Gallery:

2a) Sophia Narrett: I Was Dreaming ThisThis 2014 MFA Candidate from RISD makes enticing works out of embroidery thread – some of it woven together to create well-modeled forms and figures, some of it just tangled and hanging loose from the bottom, top, or sides of the picture plane (though these pictures are not rectangular, nor of course are they flat). My companion, painter and printmaker Mary Hart, noted that this was an interesting feminine/ist contrast to the very masculine paintings of Danish artist Per Kirkeby, currently on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The point is well made: large versus small, aggressive versus delicate, fine art versus craft, abstract and anti-narrative versus vaguely fantastical. Narrett creates pastoral scenes with a variety of figures, some male, some female, some nude and some clothed, sometimes engaged in some cooperative endeavor, though it may not be clear what that i—a woman’s response to Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. But while the feminine/ist connotations were important to my understanding and interest, I worry about over-stressing them, because the work has a power apart from that – an aesthetic power (they’re beautifully and skillfully made) and a psychological one that I believe anyone can relate to.

2b) Surface Tension, a group show curated by the Bowdoin Museum’s former Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Diana Tuite (and a title I was hoping to use for my upcoming surrealist photography show! hrrrrumph). Most intriguing were the photographs of an artist who had figured out how to stop a printer from drying ink; he would hang portraits after he printed them and let them drip – a fascinating and mesmerizing process that could also be viewed in a nearby video.

surface tension

3) MFA and BFA graduates in the galleries at MECA (Maine College of Art). Apparently something art students there don’t necessarily learn is careful editing. Much of the work was just an accumulation of junk – which is already such a much used aesthetic that there needs to be a good reason for it, and here I couldn’t see much of one. Interestingly, the BFAs (in June Fitzpatrick’s adjacent gallery) were better at focusing their collections of stuff on a particular topic, theme, or medium, making their work seem much more sophisticated than their supposedly more experienced counterparts. In one gallery of MFAs the work was so close together it was hard to tell where one person’s junk ended and another’s began. My favorite was an artist who use words in her works in punny ways: for example, a clock with M’s at the cardinal points, with a second hand with an O on the end of it, constantly respelling MOM. But she, too could have used better editing – the works would have been more affective/effective if there’d been fewer of them, and they hadn’t been interspersed with other things (what’s this large abstract photo doing in the middle of these?); as installed, it was a bit of a confused jumble.

4) At Rose Contemporary, a show of faculty from Southern Maine Community College, including two friends – Mary Hart, mentioned above, and Cassie Jones. This was the first time I’d seen Mary’s paintings in person: tiny, detailed paintings of objects, framed together in evocative pairings: a wedding band and a rubber band; two views of a chestnut, one male, one female. I recently paid Cassie a studio visit, an experience as joyful as her works are – brightly colored drawings and paintings of abstract patterns, on pleasingly tactile materials such as a vellum-like paper, and stuffed felt. She has a trampoline in her studio! This explains so much.

5) A Taste for Modernism: The William S. Paley Collection (from MoMA) at the Portland Museum of Art… in my next post (hopefully in the next few days).

The ’80s at last

Long ago, I announced my desire to see This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, an exhibition that began at the MCA Chicago and was coming to the ICA Boston, put together by a curator whose work I greatly admire, Helen Molesworth. I mentioned it in the context of my interest in a Canadian trio known as General Idea, whose Robert Indiana-inspried AIDS wallpaper was included in the show, as well as in a theoretical exhibition I’d designed in graduate school. As I explained, the banner image used in exhibition publicity was not dissimilar from my own installation.


Installation by General Idea in "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s" at the MCA Chicago

Installation by General Idea in “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” at the MCA Chicago


My theoretical exhibition, as designed in Google SketchUp, , which you can view in more detail and navigate in 3D here

My theoretical exhibition, as designed in Google SketchUp, , which you can view in more detail and navigate in 3D here

I believe the publicity image above must have been of the exhibition in its Chicago iteration; in Boston, where I finally saw the show on its last day, General Idea was given less prominence. One side of a freestanding wall had the wallpaper on it, but it was covered with works by other artists, not by General Idea.

Despite this slight misleading, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, as art of the 1980s has been one of my primary interests. The exhibition was a great combination of very famous and expected artists and artworks, and since forgotten (at least by most) names, treating similar themes.

One work that made both literal and figurative great impact in person as opposed to in an anthology of ’80s art was David Hammons’ How Ya Like Me Now?, a wall-sized, whitened and blondified portrait of Jesse Jackson with those words graffitied across his shoulder. Something I hadn’t known about the work was that when it was first exhibited outdoors, black teenagers attacked it with sledgehammers, reading it as racist, rather than as opposed to racism–a telling dynamic in and of itself. Brilliant artist that he is, Hammons has highlighted this ever since, exhibiting the piece surrounded by a fence-like arrangement of sledgehammers, the evidence of their damage on the piece still visible.

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988

Beyond that particular highlight, I’m not sure I have much else to say about the show, as it was enjoyable but not surprising to someone well-versed in the era. Walking through it was like going down a checklist–“there’s one of those, there’s one of those…” It was well-organized by theme, well-selected, and I’m glad I saw it. One of the interesting issues about such art is how didactic and contextual it is. Without foreknowledge of the work, reading the label is usually necessary–the texts were at times overly long, and occasionally the interpretations a bit overblown.

Such is the legacy of the art of that era, at the height of postmodern theory. It’s extremely fascinating to me, but I often have trouble explaining why that is to even those within my field, much less those without.

CAA Interlude 3: Morgan Surrealism

I may have alluded to, and I will now specifically say, that I am working on a show of surrealist photography for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, likely to take place next spring. This will be the first exhibition in a museum that I’ll have been the lead curator on. Neither photography nor surrealism are topics I am already expert in, and so I have been reading up in my spare time (which hasn’t been much). It is timely, then, that an exhibition on surrealist drawing that originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art came to New York, to the Morgan Library and Museum, a fact I discovered when I was given the catalogue for Christmas.

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia's Olga, 1930

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia’s Olga, 1930

I must say that drawing is the medium that least interests me, at least since college when I studied studio art. After having to redo the same drawing exercises in multiple classes, I was desperate to graduate to painting; I so much prefer color to line, and the potential effects of a few easy brushstrokes to the conscientiousness that must be put into pencil and charcoal. My recent work at Bowdoin has increased my exposure and therefore interest in both prints and photographs, but drawing still eludes me somewhat.

And so at first my reaction walking into the exhibition was somewhat detached, but the more I saw the more invested and fascinated I became. The exhibition takes a broad view of drawing, and surrealists of course transcended traditional boundaries between media. Included are photographs, photograms and photocollage, all of which will be important aspects of my show.

Despite the fact that aesthetics was not a primary concern of the surrealists–they were more interested, at times, in provoking the perverse attraction that accompanies disgust, rather than using the seductive power of beauty, though the female nude was a constant subject–many pieces were visually arresting. Some artists used rubbing as an automatic process that thereby gave reign to the unconscious; one of the most stunning was a blue painted rubbing of wood grain by, I believe, Max Ernst (it’s not illustrated in the catalogue or online, and I didn’t jot it down, so I can’t be sure).

The great dada and surrealist master Man Ray–known for his photographs though he considered himself more of a painter, at least initially–is represented not only with an aerograph (a painting made by airgun) and rayographs (also known as photograms, these cameraless photographs are made by laying objects on photographic paper and exposing it), but with actual drawings, a medium I do not associate with him. They are precisely and skillfully drawn (more so than his paintings) and have an at first straightforward appearance that seduces the viewer into the image’s strangeness, achieved using just juxtaposition: a giant safety pin hanging in air above a quaint countryside. These drawings inspired the surrealist writer Paul Eluard’s text, Les Mains Libres [The Free Hands].

This is to point out what were to me the two most memorable works out of a show rich with intriguing and unfamiliar works.

A note on revisionism: in this show, in the Abstraction show at MoMA, and the Gutai show at the Guggenheim, there is clearly an effort to familiarize viewers with an international roster of artists who in the past have been overlooked by a Eurocentric, even just France-centric, view of modernism. I wrote about how the MoMA show was organized geographically but emphasized an international network of artists, writers, composers and dancers; and that unlike many I had already learned a good deal about Gutai, a major modern movement that took place in Japan. Likewise, the Morgan show intersperses among the major Western European and American players, Eastern European, Japanese, South American and Mexican surrealists. Given the still-relevant critiques of the Western-centric bias of art history, it is heartening to see that such commentary is actively being taken to heart–canons are being revised, in the best possible way (at least in these cases).

A note on the didactics: the wall texts highlighted notable artists, vocabulary words and concepts by bumping up their size and setting them in a variety of modern and playful fonts. I thought this was a great way to make the texts accessible to those not versed in the material, and who may want to skim but still learn and enjoy, rather than take a reading test.

A note about the building: this was the first time I had been to the Morgan since it was renovated. I know this renovation was critiqued for remaking the Morgan in the guise of any other museum: you now enter through a modernist atrium, rather than stepping into what was a turn-of-the-century mansion designed by Charles McKim, who also designed the Bowdoin Art Museum. The Isabella Stuart Gardner recently underwent a similar transformation, though I haven’t visited it since then. I certainly bemoan the loss of enchantment, the sense of stepping immediately into a different time. It’s hard, however, not to feel comfortably at ease in the spacious, skylit entryway–we’re so used to such anesthetized spaces (though the Morgan atrium is not without character).

Coming up: what I’ve been reading, some fantasy exhibitions, and a long overdue post about repatriation issues…

CAA Interlude 2: Guggenheim Gutai

I’d say even among art people I know more than most (who aren’t Asian art specialists) about the postwar Japanese movement Gutai. A college art history professor included it as part of the narrative of “modernism and the neo-avant-gardes,” as the class was called; and last year I attended a symposium at Harvard that served as a workshop for the exhibition now on view at the Guggenheim, Gutai: Splendid Playground.

The opening reception of CAA was held at the Guggenheim and offered a preview of the show, but I opted out of this in favor of dinner with my family. I wasn’t sure I’d get another chance while I was there, and thought I would have to make a special trip back to the city before it closed, but I ended up with a friend in town on Saturday afternoon and enough time for us to go on an art adventure.

To quote the Guggenheim’s description, the members of the Gutai movement

explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an “international common ground” of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities.

The typical narrative has them inspired by the example of Jackson Pollock’s action painting, and while this may be true to a degree, scholars no longer want to give all the credit to western influence, citing the movement as growing out of/reacting against previous Japanese art and the postwar political climate. Nonetheless, a certain creative misreading of Pollock can be useful to explain their modus operandi, just as it can be used to explain Helen Frankenthaler’s stain technique or Allan Kaprow’s happenings.

Often more interested in chance processes and performative actions than final products, Gutai artists made paintings with their feet, remote-controlled cars, vibrators, glass bottles of paint thrown and smashed on the canvas. They made works of art by wrestling with mud and smashing through paper screens. Several of their key exhibitions took place outdoors or in other found spaces, where atmospheric and ephemeral artworks required the viewers’ participation to be activated.

Gutai 2nd Outdoor Exhibition, Ashiya Park (1956)

Gutai 2nd Outdoor Exhibition, Ashiya Park (1956)

Many of their artistic activities were somewhat violent in nature–several labels in the Guggenheim mention cuts, bruises and concussions sustained by the artists–thereby signaling a break with the past, one that so recently included two atomic bombs. But the movement maintained an overall playful tone, one that the Guggenheim generally conveys well, and not just with the exhibition title.

You enter the rotunda to a recreation of Motonaga Sadamasa’s Work (Water), 1956.* Made of polyethylene tubes filled with colored water, the original work was hung from trees in one of the first Gutai exhibitions, which took place outside. Though this same work hung in the rotunda does set the right tone for the show, I found myself wishing it was as enchanting as it must have been outside, with the sunlight gleaming through. Similarly with Yamazaki Tsuruko’s Work (Red Cube), 1956: stepping inside this red canvas cube with the sunlight lighting up the space and the top open to the sky must have been quite an experience; to do so in the gallery was a big shrug.

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water), 1956, recreated for the Guggenheim

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water), 1956, recreated for the Guggenheim

This ended up being a common theme, in which the museum-ification of the work got in the way of its original, participatory and playful intent. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell), 1955, is a network of bells installed throughout the gallery, designed to go off when the museum visitor chooses to press the button; but the museum had guards standing over the button, only allowing it to be pushed once every 40 minutes, so as not to irritate visitors. Gutai Card Box, “an interactive vending machine that dispenses original artworks in the form of hand-painted cards,” was originally created in 1962 and is reactivated here with artworks made by the surviving Gutai artists, and when those run out, by other contemporary artists. Unfortunately, it’s only in operation during specific hours on Mondays and Fridays. Yoshida Minoru’s Bisexual Flower, 1969, is I believe contained within a giant white inflatable environment; I can only guess, because visitors weren’t being let in to see it. (The review in the New York Times, by the way, mentions all these works without their museum-imposed interruptions. Clearly reviewers get the preferential experience.)

Of course it is challenging to represent in a museum context ephemeral works and performances that took place many years ago, and the museum does so to varying degrees of success. A long composite image of Murakami Saburo smashing through paper screens perfectly captures the movement and brings the action back to life, whereas Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud, 1955, represented in some smaller photos and one large one tucked away in an ill-traversed corner, remained static–a historical fragment rather than a present artwork.

I remember Caroline Jones, an art history professor at MIT, lamenting at the symposium that the exhibition couldn’t give her Tanaka Atsuko in her electric dress; true, but to see it in person even on a mannequin, in color and periodically lit up rather than in a black and white photo, was well worth it.

Tanaka Atsuko wearing Electric Dress (1956) at 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition

Tanaka Atsuko wearing Electric Dress (1956) at 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition

Tanaka Atsuko, Electric Dress, 1956 (refabricated 1986)

Tanaka Atsuko, Electric Dress, 1956 (refabricated 1986)









So too were the paintings, which were quite stunning to behold. Though at times the product mattered little in comparison to the process, at others the artists were extremely interested in materiality, “the scream of matter itself” (the word Gutai means “concreteness”). The unusual production methods and materials show in the works’ presentation–juxtaposed areas of gloss and matte, fragments of glass, torn supports–enlivening the medium in ways that contemporary painters should take note of. The processes too were, when possible, represented with videos, on small monitors on the floor that pleasantly did not distract from the paintings themselves, for once more mesmerizing than the moving image.

Shiraga Kazuo, Wild Boar Hunting II, 1963. Oil, boar hide, and spent bullets on wood panel,

Shiraga Kazuo, Wild Boar Hunting II, 1963. Oil, boar hide, and spent bullets on wood panel.

A note on the wall texts: there’s always a struggle in museums, particularly when showing work that requires a lot of background in order for someone not versed in modern and contemporary art to understand, between making texts overly didactic or patronizing, or obscure and art historical/jargon-y. The Guggenheim did an excellent job explaining the concepts in a straightforward, understandable manner–accessible but not dumbed down.

Another note: that the website for this exhibition is very poorly designed and difficult to navigate; this compared especially to MoMA’s exhibition websites (like that for Inventing Abstraction), which are always stellar (despite how confusing their homepage is). Ann Temkin, a curator at MoMA, was speaking on a panel at CAA about curatorial work and how it’s changed. She mentioned the interesting fact that MoMA gets 3 million visitors at the museum each year, and 21 million on their website. As such, she said the website can’t just be the “5%” of the workload that gets done after the exhibition and catalogue are taken care of. Unfortunately, that is the way my museum has been operating. Though we are lucky to be at college with an IT department that can do web development for us, they’re swamped and so are we, and “after the fact” is usually the way exhibition websites get treated, if at all. We certainly can’t continue on like that, and we’re trying to work on it, among a million other things.

*I have done names as the Guggenheim did them: in the Japanese style, with the family name first.

Next up (hopefully by late Saturday or Sunday), Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library…

CAA Interlude 1: MoMA Abstraction

There are SO MANY amazing shows in New York right now; it was stressful trying to fit in the conference, my family and friends, and just the tip of the iceberg of the amazing art on view, but I managed to squeeze in my top priorities. Since it was a block from the conference hotel, I started at MoMA, with the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.

Going into a much-discussed, much-reviewed show, one generally has an impression going in, a consensus that has been established: the one I’d heard about this show was quite simply that there are many beautiful things to see. That was true, but of course there was more to it than that.

It began with a giant chart, a reworking of the famous flow chart made by the first MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the cover of a book on Cubism and Abstract Art, diagramming the relationships and influences between various avant-grade movements. The revised chart did away with the ossification of clearly defined movements, focusing instead on the myriad connections woven throughout an international network of artists, as well as writers and composers.


Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 1.18.03 PM

The exhibition then uses these regionalisms as an organizing principle (though the transnational dialogue is never lost), divvying the artwork into niches by country, showing the distinctive styles in each and demonstrating that abstraction emerged simultaneously in multiple locations, like synchronous scientific discoveries. This international approach gives weight to players who have been previously marginalized by the canon, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Britain.

In addition to these intellectual revelations were a great many visual ones. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when I glanced behind me, only to see in the next gallery a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International (complete with moving parts!), heretofore only known to me (and most others) through historic photographs.

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 1.24.01 PMScreen shot 2013-02-18 at 1.28.51 PM

I’m a huge fan of the work of Piet Mondrian; the series of works used to represent his progression into abstraction and his mature style were not so inspiring, but a model of a stage set that he created for a friend’s never-produced play actually got my heart racing.

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One of the most visually stunning paintings was by Giacometti, known mostly for his sculpture. It was made up of clusters of thick flowery globs of paint and gold, the colors of a spring dress.


There were a great many other visual surprises I noted, but I won’t go on listing them here. Included were other arts similarly engaged in an increasing interest in “abstraction,” whatever that meant for their discipline: dance, music (though I wish this had been more audible), film.

The only thing that confused me was where/when the exhibition ended, and why. When is abstraction “done” being “invented”? This show may only be about abstraction’s advent, but the story goes on, through Jackson Pollock’s drips right up to minimalism’s cubes and beyond into conceptualism. Of course the show most focus in, but at a certain point the visitor is just deposited out of the exhibition, without a sense of a conclusion. What’s special about the year 1925? We don’t find out.

Next up, the post-war Japanese movement Gutai, at the Guggenheim…

Prints. PrintsPrintsPrintsPrintsPrints.

Bruce Brown, independent curator and former director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), recently noted (in a panel about printmaking, in conjunction with a show he did about Maine printmakers) that the Maine art world this season has been all about prints. My season has been no exception.

Two shows at my own museum, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, have been about prints. The first, Fantastic Stories: The Supernatural in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Prints, focuses on the presence of ghosts and supernatural beings in gorgeous, hyper-colored, intricately-patterned Japanese woodblock prints. (On view til March 3rd)

The second, which I worked on more extensively, is a memorial exhibition to David Becker, a ’70 Bowdoin alum, print collector/curator/scholar, and extremely generous donor to the museum. Between his gifts and the bequest of his estate (he died in 2010), the Bowdoin Art Museum received 1500 artworks from him, mainly prints. And among the prints are absolute masterpieces: from fine, early impressions by Dürer, Rembrandt, Parmigianino, and Piranesi, to contemporary prints by Jim Dine, Elizabeth Murray, and Kiki Smith, and everything in between. To capture just the tip of the iceberg of these diverse riches in an exhibition of about 80 prints, it was decided (before I arrived) that the show would be organized by letters of the alphabet, each representing a theme, and was titled Printmaking ABC: In Memoriam David P. Becker. As the name suggests, the themes would introduce some of the techniques of printmaking (L for Lithography, W for Woodcut), but also take on thematic subject matters that were well-represented in Becker’s collection, because they were dear to his heart (A for Alphabet – he loved writing manuals and typography, another layer to the appropriateness of the show’s organization; P for Political Activism, T for Trees).

As part of the three-person curatorial team at BCMA, I was extensively involved in deciding what the themes would be and which prints would be in the show (though those two processes were reversed), and then writing texts for certain groupings. Through this, I now know the difference between various printmaking processes – knowledge I did not previously possess.

Hung in clusters by theme, on rich saffron-colored walls, the show looks great. We’ve only received positive feedback thus far, including in a guestbook that has been very actively used, inviting those who knew Becker to reflect on his legacy. There will also be an event on January 31st and February 1st, a two-day symposium of major print scholars and friends of Becker, that will do just that.

The biggest drawback to the show is that there’s just too much there: the prints are rich, small, intimate, detailed, and there are so many of them. Becker was all about close-looking and this show rewards that, but one can only do so much of it. Focusing on the whole of the show, I feel even I haven’t done the kind of intimate looking these prints deserve; when I do, I still find things I’m surprised by. I live with it everyday, and I don’t think I’ll be able to really absorb it all by the time it closes, on March 24th.

I mentioned a print show curated by Bruce Brown: I am referring to Prints: Breaking Boundaries, at the Portland Public Library, sponsored by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The explores the ways contemporary Maine printmakers are moving beyond traditional printmaking techniques, incorporating collage, assemblage, installation, three-dimensional surfaces and other supports, and digital printing.

The panel discussion, also mentioned above, that accompanied the show included three artists from the exhibition: Adrienne Herman (a Smithie, like me!), Karen Adrienne (confusing, isn’t it?), and Damir Porobic. The most interesting point that came up in their discussion was that with the increasing hybridization between the various visual arts, the constantly emerging new combinations of media, printmaking is escaping its perhaps once inferior position among them.



Another Bruce Brown print show up in Maine now is Dorothy Schwartz: Evolution of a Printmaker, at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. She is also a Smithie, and the wife of a former music professor at Bowdoin. I plan to check out the show this Friday during the Portland art walk. I’ll let you know what else is of note!

A Chelsea Misadventure

Just after Christmas, wary of the frankly insane tourist crowds at the New York museums, I went with a few friends, including an artist who is generally knowledgable about these things, to Chelsea… where nearly every gallery was closed: some were between shows, others may have been closed for the holidays, and it could be that some were still recovering from Sandy.

We only went in one gallery – Cheim & Reid, for a show of the Israeli-born, Copenhagen-based painter Tal R. I’d heard his name but not seen his work before. He has a colorful, intentionally-naive style that at first seemed a little out-of-date – as in early twentieth century – but that grew on me. I thought it worked better in his more geometric works than the figurative ones, but those grew on me too. His paintings rewarded prolonged looking, as their compositions are more complex than they first appear.

Tal R, THE SHLOMO, 2011

Tal R, THE SHLOMO, 2011

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After our lack of art-viewing, we went to a cafe for a protracted conversation about art theory.

I have one more New York art experience from my vacation to relay – a visit to the Museum of Arts and Design in Columbus Circle… coming soon.

“Have you ever seen a bad Picasso?”

…I pondered out loud to my mother, in Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim.

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (Femme couchée lisant), 1960

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (Femme couchée lisant), 1960

Well, have you? Yes, there may be ones you don’t personally care for, and perhaps some that are not as GREAT as others, but have you ever seen one that was truly BAD? I’ve seen many bad Matisses, bad Pollocks, but bad Picassos? I don’t think so.

To be fair, I said this towards the top of the ramp as we worked our way down, thus going backwards through the exhibition chronologically and so starting with his late work, when his experienced hand, no matter how lazy it got (works were mostly completed in one day, though I’m not necessarily claiming that as a barometer of laziness), could do no wrong. Every stroke was a masterpiece, not one element of a picture out of place. My mother quoted a label from the Museum of Bad Art that jokingly cites a mediocre painter’s “triumph of self-confidence.” Each late Picasso is such a triumph, except in his case it’s justifiable, rather than deluded.

And, to slightly amend my earlier bold assertion, as we progressed (regressed?) to earlier work, one could definitely see the more uncertain efforts of the younger Picasso – more trial and error, compositions with barely or badly masked earlier outlines.

Pablo Picasso, The Charnel House (Le charnier), Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1944–45

Pablo Picasso, The Charnel House (Le charnier), Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1944–45

This was the rare show in which my primary mental activity was contemplating the compositional merits and demerits (though not much of the latter) of each work, rather than the concepts underlying each work or the exhibition as a whole. I’m not sure that the curators really demonstrated their argument–“Claiming that color weakens, Pablo Picasso purged it from his work in order to highlight the formal structure and autonomy of form inherent in his art” (if so, why did he also do so many works with so much color?)–but who really cares? It’s a bunch of Picassos at the Guggenheim – is anyone going to deny the broad appeal of such a show (as evidenced by the surging crowds, bolstered by the holidays and bad weather)?

And so, with an exhibition premise that didn’t mean much except as an excuse to show a bunch of Picassos, we were free to just look at the art, except when we were distracted by the odd gamut of frames–from Spanish colonial to Dutch baroque to American folk to modernist blond wood–nearly all of which distracted and detracted from the work in some way.

It was fun to debate Picasso’s intentions, particularly in regard to those old marks that he made little effort to hide: did he not care? did he not consider the work finished? did he think these palimpsests added something to the composition? There was another perhaps unintended but now unavoidable compositional element on canvases that may have once been white and are now yellow, adding color where he may have wanted none (though many works did incorporate color highlights), and making white brushstrokes stand out where they were meant to blend in.

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

It’s always worthwhile to go see some Picassos you haven’t seen before. But maybe wait til after New Year’s, when the tourists retreat. Coming soon, a Chelsea misadventure

Regarding “Regarding Warhol”

If you follow my blog closely, you’ll probably notice that my most active posting periods are when I’m home in New York, mostly holidays and summers. As such, you may have been expecting a break in my radio silence, and here it finally is.

I went to the Met on my first full day home (Sunday). There is much to see there (what else is new), and I may go back, but there were two shows in particular I wanted to catch before they closed: Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (this had taken on new importance for me as I am beginning research on surrealist photography for a possible exhibition), and Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years. I’m not sure I have much to say about the former – I will think on it and post separately about it if I do – but I have much to say about the latter.

I will start by disclosing that my expectations of the Warhol show were measured by negative responses I’d heard. Some thought it was completely expected, with no surprises, which I can easily understand. The show is about Warhol’s influence on the art that has come since. This is by no means an under-discussed topic–it is, in fact, rather obvious, which makes it all the stranger that there hadn’t yet been an exhibition about it.

The other criticism I heard, second or third hand, was that there wasn’t enough Warhol in it; since I thought there was plenty Warhol alongside his descendents, this sounds like a complaint from someone who perhaps doesn’t realize that the show is not meant to be primarily about Warhol.

In fact, the show may have been used as an excuse to show some Warhol pieces, even if their specific influence was not demonstrated. One example was a room with his helium-filled silver mylar clouds, which visitors could tap and push around. It’s hard at any age not to be enchanted by such an interactive experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But there was no other corresponding interactive installation from a later artist that might have demonstrated that Warhol was an early executor of a now frequent art practice (though not interactive, in its intimate enjoyment and focus upward it reminded me of the rainbow room in the Dale Chihuly exhibition at the MFA Boston in Summer 2011). The only causal link between this room and other work in the show was its neon cow wallpaper, which corresponded with an installation of Takashi Murakami happy-face daisies.

Warhol's silver clouds and cow wallpaper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Warhol’s silver clouds and cow wallpaper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Daly Chihuly at the MFA, Boston, Summer 2011

Daly Chihuly at the MFA, Boston, Summer 2011

Takashi Murakami in "Regarding Warhol" at the Met

Takashi Murakami in “Regarding Warhol” at the Met

But I digress. I would say my main critique of the show was that it did not cohere into more than the sum of its parts. Despite the themes it attempted to organize itself by, there was not a shape or a story or a rhythm to it. You started, went along through looking at what was on display, until there was no more work to see and it ended (as always, but more jarringly because it’s just too perfect, with a gift shop). There was no particular logic to the progression or the endpoint.

My mother’s complaint was that, compared to Warhol, the artists that came after were completely uninteresting. At first I disagreed (we generally have differing opinions on the art that has come since). And yet, when I said I enjoyed seeing what was in the show, and was asked what that included, the only works I could remember were Warhol’s; they did seem to make a more lasting impression, which may indeed speak to their higher quality and impact, thereby reinforcing his importance–as this show is meant to demonstrate.

For example, at first I tended to gloss over the expected colorized portraits of celebrities – Mao Zedong, Jacqueline Kennedy – their over-reproduction on tote bags, etc., making me presume that they had nothing new to show. But on closer inspection, they are more painterly than I expected; this is not the Factory Warhol, but one whose child-like play with color and brushstroke over silkscreen display artistry that counteract his consciously constructed, and often too accepted, claim that he was a machine.

Andy Warhol, Nan Kemper, 1973, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Andy Warhol, Nan Kemper, 1973, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Another just stellar, and unexpected, portrait was one of Jean-Michel Basquiat. This was exhibited as part of the theme, “Queer Studies, Shifting Identities,” which I thought was an important inclusion (and a seeming continuation of Warhol’s prominence in Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture), given that “Warhol’s importance as an artist who broke new ground in representing issues of sexuality and gender in the post-war period” has often been overlooked.

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Seeing the Brillo Boxes made me realize that I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen them in person before. They’re far more ragged, aged, and imperfect than reproductions would have you expect (my mother the conservator points out that that’s true of all art, Old Master paintings included). They oddly had 4 in a straight row, all from one collection, some more yellowed than others, and then one more from a private collection, set off at an angle, and contained in plexi as its owners must’ve stipulated – why include this odd-one-out?


Andy Warhol_Brillo Soap Pads Box

After stressing that this was a show about Warhol’s influences on others, I of course have thus far only talked about Warhol works–again, they were the most memorable. Most numerous in representation after AW was, unsurprisingly, Jeff Koons, with major works from each of his most famous series. This brings up an important issue that this show did not attempt to tackle, difficult though it may be: whether artists like Warhol or Koons who exploit popular imagery and the mechanisms of the marketplace are complicit in the commercialism which they may, or may not, be critiquing. Is there a difference between the two, both of whom eventually mass-produced their own works seemingly only for the sake of profit? Since Warhol did this first, is his a more important conceptual gesture, whereas Koons is just a sell-out? Is Murakami, with his for-profit corporate arm and his Louis Vuitton bags conversely less culpable, because his commercialism is so out in the open it must be tongue-in-cheek? Perhaps this is such a rabbit-hole question it deserves its very own show – or multi-volume book.

In the museum’s description of the section of the exhibition that might have treated this issue, curators white-wash it with the rather separate issues of collaboration and spectacle:

“No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle”—the final section of the exhibition—examines Warhol’s interest in artistic partnership through filmmaking, magazine publishing, music, and design. Also foregrounded is his fascination with creating environments that envelop the viewer entirely. Warhol’s frequent use of decorative motifs, such as flowers, are part of this practice, and are contrasted with similar work by artists such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.

For a show on a topic so long overdue for its own exhibition, Regarding Warhol was a missed opportunity, an accumulation of things rather than what should have been an articulated and possibly quite provocative argument.

I hopefully shall be writing soon on Picasso: Black and White at the Guggenheim (or as it was recently and amusingly autocorrected, the googly mogul).