Though in her heyday she was more prominent than fellow bronze sculptor Alberto Giacometti, Germaine Richier has not had an exhibition in New York since 1957. This two-gallery retrospective rectifies that lapse in decisive fashion, reestablishing Richier (1902–1959) as one of the most pivotal figures in avant-garde European sculpture in the decade following World War II. The forty-six works here, from early nudes to strange late polychrome experiments, foreshadow a whole postwar generation:: the Nouveau Réalisme of Niki de Saint Phalle, the melancholy humanoids of Lynn Chadwick and Hans Josephsohn, and the body-centered work of Alina Szapocznikow. Yet even as Richier’s sculptures scream their influence, they also stand utterly autonomous, with a force and gravity that belie their age.
Richier, classically trained when such education was not easy for women, left wartime France for Switzerland in 1939. She began creating patinated bronze figures of humans and insects—ants, grasshoppers, cicadas—whose rough surfaces bear scars and indentations, and whose bodies often have bloated stomachs or stand tangled in linear webs. Often read as an index of wartime trauma, the brutalized, pockmarked surfaces also destroy expectations of female delicacy and beauty. They testify to a European civilization at its frailest, and evoke not only the existential impressions of Jean-Paul Sartre (a Giacometti advocate) but also a more general Christian “man of sorrows,” whose scars bespeak an unbridgeable division between body and soul.
Richier’s art is less elegant and far more disquieting than Giacometti’s sculptures, and her works don’t fit into the easy categories of textbooks and permanent collections. Her obliteration, however, of the borders between academic and modern or sacred and profane has not lost any of its power in these intervening decades. And while her continued relevance should be read as an artistic achievement, it’s also an indictment of our failure, seventy years later, to build a society any more virtuous than the one that ground Richier’s Europe to dust.
A pair of solid wooden doors with small brass knobs acts as the physical portal into “Snow,” Kon Trubkovich’s latest show. Opening them feels illicit, like entering a home without knocking. This intimacy is the base layer that connects the works inside: A film assembled from home-video footage and a series of eight oil paintings and mixed-media works visually layer the pixelation of CRT screens with feathered imagery of memories. Trubkovich has said that in his work, “the pause is the abstract gesture.” In “Snow,” the cinematographic paused moment is isolated and transmitted through the hand-worked processes of painting and drawing, rendering freeze-frame images that both celebrate and obliterate the nature of gesture, recalling a lineage of Gerhard Richter.
The film—Snow, 2014—begins and ends with quiet footage of snow falling through trees. This drifting, soft visual brackets ephemeral parcels of imagery: Snow White in the magic kingdom; a family gathering; an urban street blurrily viewed through a windshield. Over the music of slow, low-octave piano notes, each sharpens into focus and then fades out of view. Trubkovich drew directly onto the film with paint, rendering a shape-shifting texture of New Age–y color splats that dance across the surface of each moving image.
This collapsing of layers—suspended individual moments, film, and the viewed surface—creates a sense of delayed déjà vu as one regards the image through seemingly multiple exposures and planes. The camera’s lens becomes fused with the picture plane in canvases and mixed-media works such as Aeroport and Koltsevaya, both 2014. Diligently reproduced from film stills, the paintings capture each pixel in a staccato brushstroke, and the images feel intensely personal. And yet this intimacy is obscured by the flutter of TV fuzz—the snow, as it were, or static—in silent stasis: memory, elusively captured, a gesture in time.
“For Forgetting,” Laure Prouvost’s solo museum debut in the United States, is a messy, cacophonic installation that latches onto the visitor’s subconscious ambitions and desires only to rashly relinquish hold moments later. The artist affirms her dark-horse win of last year’s Turner Prize by creating a dense sensorial experience, turning the New Museum’s ground-floor gallery into a three-room maze plastered with sculptures, videos, drawings, paintings, office furniture, printed e-mails, knockoff handbags, and crumpled dollar bills, among other items.
The installation can be read through a web of art-historical references: The artist’s well-known interest in Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau 1923–37 is apparent in the chaotic collaged mural encircling the gallery; in several videos, Prouvost’s face is concealed behind a mask reminiscent of those made by Marcel Janco for the Zurich Dada; and the peephole through which visitors peer into a beachscape video montage can only allude to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés 1946–66. Yet perhaps the best way to approach Prouvost’s confounding practice is as a form of aesthetic homeopathy—she treats our cultural afflictions by inserting a diluted form of its cause into her work. It’s pop-culture self-help modus operandi with a twist. Before we even enter the packed space, we face the words IDEALLY THIS SIGN WOULD REMEMBER YOU. The affirmative paired with the conditional and the askew marked here is replicated throughout the exhibition, particularly in the interspersed videos that mock seemingly magical acts of will.
The centerpiece of the installation is the film How to Make Money Religiously, 2014. It histrionically directs us to remember a series of increasingly frenetic images with grandiose enticements of wealth and station. JUST HOLD ON TO THE IMAGES, the artist proclaims, knowing full well the inherent impossibility of such a command. With these words, Prouvost taps into a cultural chord much greater than the illusionary promises of an ever-hustling popular culture.
For his debut at this gallery, Ken Okiishi has painted brushy abstractions over the surfaces of eleven high-definition flat-screen monitors. The Samsung screens have been rotated ninety degrees and mounted on the walls; on each, recordings of television broadcasts play in loops, tinted and obscured by Okiishi’s energetic paintings. The videos deliver glimpses of a bygone era of television: a smiling Barbara Bush, or the endlessly scrolling listings and cosmetics ads of the TV Guide Network. Staticky passages, a result of degraded VHS source tapes, interrupt and abstract the footage, intertwining with the streaky and often translucent paint scattered overtop. The paint of choice is primarily Olio HD, a recently released line of thirty oil colors by the Italian paint manufacturer Maimeri that was inspired by hues produced by backlit images on digital screens (names include “Hacker Black” and “Reset Green”).
The paint marks both obscure and respond to the onscreen movement and partly for this reason, the objects need to be considered individually, and in-person: Though predicated on digital-screen technology, these artworks don’t translate easily into .jpegs. Throughout this exhibition the weightiness of the history of painting (the press release points out references in Okiishi’s facture all the way from Monet to AbEx) is joined with the fleeting contemporariness of the HD monitor in an unstable bond. What will these objects look like next season? In ten years?
For a precedent to this kind of mash-up of gestural painting and time-based media, one might turn to Rauschenberg, who memorably concealed three live radios beneath the surface of the Combine painting Broadcast, 1959. When the radios were first switched on in the studio, “the painting went dead,” Rauschenberg recalled—the liveliness of the sound had made the painting feel static by comparison. The opposite is true of Okiishi’s screens, where the looped recordings over-stimulate the paint splayed on top: The greasy brushwork, which jerks back and forth horizontally across the plastic exteriors, twisting in and out of opacity, stroked and strobed by the video underneath, feels ill at ease in foreign quarters, but definitely not dead.
An unlikely art-historical accident anchors Sreshta Rit Premnath’s mind-bending exhibition. On a pair of windows of an apartment turned gallery and then studio in Warsaw two artistic signatures—Daniel Buren’s 8.7-centimeter painted vertical stripe and Edward Krasinski’s 20-millimeter horizontal band of blue Scotch tape—overlapped. Both artists envisioned their interventions as conceptual gestures and not artistic objects, pointing to the surrounding architecture while maintaining their own material and semantic neutrality. But what happens to the simple equation between gesture and object when two gestures coincide? Do both remain gestures or become objects? Or do they oscillate incessantly between these two ontological conditions?
In lieu of definite answers Premnath rehearses this encounter, documented in a somewhat unexceptional archival photograph, using strategies of entanglement, negation, abstraction, and substitution, all wittily encapsulated in the show’s homophone-laden title, “Knot Not Nought.” And he adds his own artistic signature, introducing materials and motifs that remain resolutely liminal. True to Krasinski, blue tape circumscribes the walls, but it is painted over in white, a ghostly horizon line, ever present but not always visible. The dimensions of the original window are echoed in Performance # 25 and Gradient, both 2014. In the former, a black linen tarp is carefully bleached to recreate Buren’s alternating vertical stripes. In the latter, nine clear Plexiglas strips lean against a wall, their lower halves painted in a gradient that shifts from chroma-key blue to chroma-key green, colors commonly used as backdrops in the television and film industry to create screens of absence that enable the projection of infinite presences. Set off by a sprayed black outline, the tape links this arrangement to an enlargement of the original photograph on the adjacent wall, the abstract gesture invading the print.
Elsewhere, perched atop this invisible horizon are two groups of selections from “Zettel,” 2014, a series of loopy, wormy doodles—whose title and size are borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book of philosophical maxims—created by dropping bleached twine onto black C-prints. Each is a variation on the mathematical form of the “zero knot”—a continuous loop that appears as infinite entanglements that all resolve to zero—and the red and yellow tints the bleach reveals introduce endless complexity into the absolute of black and white.
Here today, gone tomorrow. If last year’s overnight whitewashing of graffiti haven 5Pointz in Queens revealed anything, its that the fleeting form of graffiti tags is as susceptible as ever to the whims of property owners and real estate speculation. All the more prescient, then, was artist Martin Wong’s vision to amass his extensive collection of graffiti works on canvas, wood, Masonite, doors, and any other conceivable writing surface. Aspiring to be the “Albert Barnes of graffiti,” Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994—“City as Canvas” is the first selected display of these materials.
One of the earliest items exhibited is Wicked Gary’s Tag Collection from 1970–72. Compiled during the nascent years of graffiti’s ubiquity, the gridded display features the distinct signatures of almost one hundred pioneering writers. Among the more legible signatures indexed are Super Strut and Flint, For Those Who Dare; the posturing and bravado of both are a staple of the spirit of graffiti tagging. By 1981, the Metropolitan Transit Authority heightened police measures and installed razor-wire fences and guard dogs in train yards as initial efforts to “clean up” the city. Lady Pink, notable as one of the few female graffiti writers, foreshadowed the eventual effects of these developments in her 1982 self-portrait, The Death of Graffiti. The artist stands nude atop a mountain of spray cans pointing mournfully to a whited train as a graffiti-marked train passes behind it, the stark contrast emphasizing what has been covered in the first; a stifling feeling of inevitable gentrification pervades the scene.
Indeed, in 1989, New York City mayor Ed Koch declared the subway “graffiti-free” as a result of the cleanup efforts. That same year, Wong founded the Museum of American Graffiti in the East Village to bring archival attention to what he deemed his “aerosol hieroglyphics.” The project proved short-lived, closing within a year due to financial pressures. Yet the museum—the first of its kind in the United States—provides a lens into Wong’s sustained preservation efforts. An original vitrine from the museum’s inaugural exhibition is on display here. Covered in chain-link fences and signature scrawls, the case provides an appropriately urban, idiosyncratic display for a similarly alternative collection from a nearly bygone era.
“Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism” reminds us of the moral balance required when retroactively documenting the AIDS activist movement: how to historicize the activist community’s inventive spirit while simultaneously accounting for the expanse of desperation that incited political action. Making this more challenging is that much of this struggle was never recorded. The exhibition draws heavily on the attractive, graphic tactics of groups such as Gran Fury and ACT UP. The latter’s parodic “Wizard of Oz” poster series from the 1990s is on display, which teases politicians by comparing them to imperfect characters from the film. Rudy Giuliani, redrawn as the Tin Man, laments, “I’d fight AIDS if I only had a heart.” James Wentzy/DIVA TV’s video footage of “Day of Desperation,” on January 23, 1991, shows the wild demonstrations against the government’s funding of the Gulf War rather than AIDS relief. Thousands of protesters flooded Grand Central Station; especially emblematic is the moment in which activists attached a large banner emblazoned with the text MONEY FOR AIDS NOT FOR WAR to a mass of helium balloons. When the balloons were released, the banner rose, floating beneath the Main Concourse’s vaulted ceilings.
Amid the gallery’s gaudy hot-pink displays and carpeting are more sobering accounts of the crisis. Late 1980s health records from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an early AIDS prevention center and counseling hotline, painstakingly document an AIDS victim as “model client,” exhibiting optimism and strength. Handwritten records on the victim from seven months later report, “The dying process has begun.” Excerpts from Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993) reveal Reverend Charles Angel’s reaction to his HIV-positive status: “I’m shocked. I’m scared. I’m numb.” Such moments demonstrate the fear that accompanied rousing political action, and suggest the other innumerable voices that were never recorded. For this community—which saw demands for justice as a social obligation—hope and grievance occupy the same space.
In this small show, titled “Condition Report: Deregulation,” Sean Micka’s dense, cerebral paintings depict complex changes in three landscapes: the Antarctic Ocean, the Amazon River Basin, and a Saudi Arabian desert. Micka based his work on images from Landsat, a NASA spacecraft program that since 1972 has obtained millions of highly detailed satellite imagery of Earth. Launched just as government deregulation initiatives were gaining momentum, Landsat has historically alerted scientists to changes in natural resources, demographics, and landscapes through specific visualizations of landmasses. Micka has used the same information to create his own visualizations, translated through paint and nearly forty years of perspective.
Though the paintings in fact correspond to archival images from the 1970s and ’80s—which foreshadow breaking ice, rainforest destruction, and expanding deserts—they can also be read as abstractions: Each gives a representation of phenomenological effects beyond human sight. Micka’s color-coding imitates the false color of multispectral photography used by these satellites. But his palette of red, yellow, and blue calls close attention to the building blocks of color and painting. The parallelogram canvases mimic the shape of Landsat images, and, arranged in a row, they feed into and off one another in the gallery setting.
Each canvas is accompanied by a “condition report” on matching colored paper, detailing where and when the image was captured and five to six scientific conclusions drawn from it. These points each have three corresponding coordinates, which can be located on color-coded grids painted onto the adjacent walls; the colors can then be found in the painting. The grids, which explain how to look at the paintings, act much like a wall text; the reports, too, play at a kind of provenance or press material. Through such simulations, Micka’s tiny exhibition not only deals with environmental, political, and surveillance issues, but also suggests the ways that deciphering scientific data can be much like looking at art.
Many of the artists in this expansive exhibition place an emphasis on the physicality—or lack thereof—of photography rather than on its capacity to represent the outside world. As a whole, “What Is a Photograph?” might be taken as a diagnostic inquiry, with the title reading as a rhetorical question. Curated by Carol Squiers, the exhibition includes twenty-one artists, ranging from Gerhard Richter and James Welling to Liz Deschenes and Eileen Quinlan, and has tasked itself with surveying the medium since the 1970s.
The work of both Matthew Brandt and Letha Wilson exhume a long-standing tradition of American landscape photography with fresh invigoration. In Brandt’s large-scale Grays Lake, ID 7, 2013, Technicolor abstractions stem from an actual processing bath in the depicted lake waters, while Wilson’s monolith Grand Tetons Concrete Column, 2012, employs industrial concrete to sculpturally engage her iconic views of the American West. Draped through the gallery’s foyer is Mariah Robertson’s 154, 2010. This single photograph measures one hundred feet in length and has been meticulously hand-processed by the artist in a highly toxic photochemical environment. The remarkable result validates its production, as every inch of this dangling photograph reveals a labyrinth of glowing hues and pictorial intricacies.
Parallel to romanticizing the darkroom are the several artists who wholeheartedly embrace the more conventional, digitalized avenues associated with the medium. Travess Smalley’s Capture Physical Presence #15, 2011, exploits the imaging systems of a flatbed scanner to manipulate his collages into what he describes as mind-numbing “feedback loops.” Kate Steciw’s approach in Apply, 2012, takes advantage of a Google-based research method, purchased stock imagery, and sculptural tack-ons that recall the slick advertisements of commercial photography. Elsewhere in the gallery, a wall text accompanying Jon Rafman’s eerie and unadorned busts reads, “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, Something for the modern stage / Not, at any rate, an attic grace.”
David Altmejd, The Flux and the Puddle, 2014, Plexiglas, quartz, polystyrene, expandable foam, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, resin, synthetic hair, clothing, leather shoes, thread, mirror, plaster, acrylic paint, latex paint, metal wire, glass eyes, sequin, ceramic, synthetic flowers, synthetic branches, glue, gold, feathers, steel, coconuts, aqua resin, burlap, lighting system including fluorescent lights, Sharpie ink, wood, 10' 3/4“ x 21' x 23' 1/2”.
Aesop’s arboretum meets laboratory in “Juices,” David Altmejd’s latest exhibition, where three monumental works show life expanded by metamorphosis. The show’s centerpiece, The Flux and the Puddle, 2014, is a layered vitrine-like installation that spans more than twenty-four feet across the gallery and reaches nearly eleven feet into the air. It reads like an abstracted hologram that twists into focus as one approaches: Walls of mirrors surround and weave through the towering Plexiglas grid that outlines a seemingly alive terrarium-like ecosystem coursing with parades of insects, fruits, and fauna. Though often grotesque, Altmejd’s figures are tenderly embellished with quartz crystals where their skin, modeled in clay with the dimpled surfaces of Medardo Rosso sculptures, has split open. Transformation is shown through sequential progressions: From dark, abstracted human forms emerge businessmen, birds of prey, and apes. Hardened murky liquids in semenal white and black and light-fluorescent chemical hues drip and pool around the environment; this movement is repeated in cotton-candy-like looms of pastel threads that draw contours through the space.
The cosmic brilliance of The Flux and the Puddle contrasts with The Eve, 2014, a smaller, sparser vitrine: Like an inverted crucifixion of Rodin’s The Thinker, a single bisected male figure is suspended upside-down at an invisible table, his head carved out in small holes as if it were burrowed into by moths. A pair of hands pushes through the small of his back like a hatching larva. In a third room, Untitled, 2014, vertically reflects the same sculpted face twice over an axis of deep-set glass eyesan isolated motif of symmetry and rebirth that unlocks the larger presentation.
“Juices” tells a story of metamorphosis, but also of reincarnation: The double face in Untitled implies both an ending and another, fated, beginning. Mirrors blocking and reflecting one’s views through The Flux and the Puddle render a fractured-infinity effect, suggesting a Hellenistic inevitability that carries through the show. As creatures transform and multiply, the Plexi cage grows around them like a tridimensional graph, asserting the mathematical interconnectedness of each living thingtheir shared juices, categorized like science projectswhile protecting and celebrating a delicate process of material and biological evolution.
In 1966, Marie Cosindas became the first artist who worked exclusively with color photography to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art—it was also her first-ever exhibition. The forty four-by-five-inch Polaroid prints displayed then and on view here look less like photographs than miniature seventeenth-century Baroque still-life paintings. Each features dense arrangements of food piled in abundant arrays in gleaming ornate bowls, which rest on heavily patterned tablecloths next to glassware that is barely visible, save for highlights on rim and chalice and stem—all suffused with an amber glow against a background of shadows.
Also on view are a number of similarly baroque photographs that have never been seen before as well as portraits of people who appear painted into their surroundings. Most remarkable is the quality of light and color that Cosindas achieved with filters and temperature manipulation. In Floral with Peter’s Brass Vase, Boston, 1965, the nearly black background is warm umber; highlights suggest the vase more than describe it. The effect simultaneously flattens the composition and creates extraordinary depth and gradation of color.
It’s notable that in 1962 the Polaroid Corporation asked Cosindas to test their new Polacolor sheet film. That request and her exhibition at MoMA are remarkable benchmarks for any photographer, let alone a female practitioner. Since the 1980s she has fallen from public view: Her brand of pictorialism—with its references to bygone styles of European painting—waned with the rise of the Pictures generation and then digital photography. It makes sense that her work is being revisited: Cosindas’s interest in the physical capacities of the photographic machine is shared by a number of younger artists—Talia Chetrit, Walead Beshty, and Michele Abeles, among others—who are less interested in the medium’s social function than in its technical possibilities.
That just one artist produced the five decades’ worth of graphic art that constitutes Art Spiegelman’s first retrospective is baffling. Beginning with depictions of geeky guys and pinup babes that he created as a preteen and concluding with Open Me . . . I Am a Dog, 1997, a book he created for his children about a book that believes it is a puppy, his oeuvre can seem ideologically irreconcilable. Formally, too: The spiky geometric lines in his early comix are at odds with the soft curvy characters that pervade his later work. Greater gulfs loom between the smorgasbord of boogers and barf in the cult-childhood “Garbage Pail Kids,” a series of collectable cards the artist began in 1985, and the harrow of Maus 19811990. The affect of this masterpiece memoir is only fortified by Spiegelman’s puckish and socially critical satire. See his collection of New Yorker covers, which mainly share the theme of intergenerational failure; an especially great cover from 1966 shows a family portrait of an elderly beatnik couple with their graying hippie kids along with a punk progeny, and, finally, an infant awaiting a counterculture vocabulary.
While Spiegelman might mock the hubris of youthful rebellion, his work is driven by a coherent set of tensions, which might be best understood through questions: Is he an ideologist or a nihilist? Does he embrace hedonism in its most classic sense—sex, drugs, and misanthropy—or are these motifs a guise for a fight for a gentler and fairer society? These unresolved contradictions are at the fulcrum of his practice and act as its unifying force. This expansive retrospective does everything to confirm Spiegelman as one the most significant commentators on the history-shaping events of the twentieth century. Ultimately, however, it is an intimate portrait of a man who has spent a life grappling with the cosmic by creating a visual record that is as torturous as it is humorous and is, above all, human.