Tom Phillips’s approach to creating the strikingly luminous images in A Humument is by now a familiar one: He takes each page from W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document (a long-dead Victorian novel) and via collage, painting, and drawing, he turns them into voluminously embellished Concrete- or Language-inspired poems. When he happened upon the book nearly fifty years ago on a bargain rack in a London warehouse, he bet his rummaging companion that day, R. B. Kitaj, that he could turn it into “a serious long-term project.” And, indeed, with five different editions of A Humument printed and published, in addition to sundry objects and even an opera, Irma, 1969, all inspired by the artist’s transformation of the original text, it has become its own universe—endlessly generative, mysterious, and immersive.
Though color copies from different versions of A Humument frustratingly make up too much of this exhibition, twenty-six actual collages spun off from the project appear, using scores from Irma as well as tiny square- and diamond-shaped pieces that the artist refers to as “Fragments,” 2010–13. The copies tell us what the images “look like” in various permutations, but it’s in the originals where we can truly locate the weird and complex decision making that goes into the construction of every single collage (so tidy and Protestant in facture, yet numinously perverse in nature).
“She seized the gun. Shot through the air wreathes of smoke from her shining silver rifle as a rosy gold bullet with bitter ejaculation struck shooting him to sleep the big sleep,” reads one hard-boiled excerpt from an Irma score, tightly kerned and placed next to a square with a neatly burned-out center that says “bang.” Phillips’s imagery, wit, and considered sense of play call to mind the works of William Burroughs, Lewis Carroll, John Dee, or Syd Barrett, other dark and psychedelic fabulists whose imaginations have transformed our collective one for the better.
The island is a premier existential metaphor, and the works in “onthisisland,” Jack Pierson’s exhibition of some sixty-plus ephemeral oil and watercolor paintings, graphite drawings, and driftwood assemblages, offer new and fluid insight into the artist psyche. Pierson created the series during a four-month stay on the Floridian island of North Captiva, and the works, mostly small in scale, expose the poetics of process. Pierson practices his own variation on automatic drawing—he’s dubbed the results “Anagogic Paintings”—based on the Surrealist method. At once lushly abstract and confidently nonspecific, the works convey the topographical patterning of subliminal urges: Impasto belts of sand-thickened oil paint in acid-washed hues gently whirl around small canvases, taking forms alternately sexual (such as the pinkish, roselike form at the center of Nativity, 2015) and playful (the more staccato Deluges of Lethe, 2015), while dusky watercolors (all Untitled, 2014–15) sensuously pack together repetitive marks that look as though they’re still wet.
Pierson is known for his wistful, sensual photographic portraits and word sculptures composed of found sign parts—works that channel nostalgia and romance while accentuating the pathos evoked by gaze, body, and relic. In distinction, these new works directly take on the internal world, at once foregrounding the artist himself and forcing a Rorschach-like response of psychic and physical identity.
Thirty-two years ago, the Bauhaus-schooled artist and textile designer Anni Albers made Study for DO II, (1973), a shimmering mélange of small parallelograms and triangles. Colored in with shades of either silver or yellow gouache on blueprint paper, the work seems preparatory, almost casual: lines appear unruled, and shapes vary in size and skew. Brushstrokes haphazardly emerge and recede into flat color. One year later, Albers refined this pattern and christened it Eclat, which was subsequently manufactured and sold as an upholstery fabric by the design firm Knoll.
In 2009, Ellen Lesperance painted 1921, Annie Fleischmann Demonstrates Simultaneous Contrast Herself with the Help of a Knitted I-Cord Necklace: It Would Be a Year Before Even Meeting Josef Albers, a rendering of a knitting pattern that corresponds to a sweater she saw Albers wearing in an old photograph. This work and Albers’ Study for DO II are neighbors in this group exhibition, “Common Thread,” and they accompany fifteen contemporary paintings—all made by women—that employ pigment to imitate fabric. Sarah Harrison paints an intricate, pointillist detail of a Persian rug; Summer Wheat’s Twin Bed, 2015, drizzles loopy acrylic daisies atop a black canvas in a perfect evocation of a knotty yarn blanket. Angela Teng and Leslie Wayne venture further into the physical realm: The former crochets dried acrylic paint into a rigid cloth the size of a hand towel, and the latter molds oil-painted panels into the shapes of hanging rags, their ripples and curls eternally frozen into topographic simulacra.
By adapting properties of textile design to the conventions of painting, the works in “Common Thread” expose the restrictive power of our categories for artistic production. For many artists, it is an important theme; for others—the countless women who have been relegated to the domain of arts and crafts—it is the center of their practice.
Adam Golfer spent much of the last decade working commercially, taking pictures for magazines and newspapers. His current exhibition centers around A House Without a Roof, 2011-, his new monograph and the half decade worth of research and travel through which it was envisioned. It includes a 2014 film, Router, but the show’s core is a series of ten large-scale digital C-prints culled from Golfer’s four years of travel and interviews in Israel and Palestine. Although the artist is a careful reader of spatial theory (especially Goldsmiths’ Eyal Weizman), here the pictures elide didacticism, yielding a body of work that oscillates between the panoramic and talismanic.
These pictures radiate desert light but convey a desolated surrealism: One shows a scale-model “museum” into which one enters standing on a plastic chair. Elsewhere, David Ben-Gurion’s library is brought into stark relief with the aid of a well-deployed flash. The medium-format photographs in A House Without a Roof are formally stirring—even beautiful—but their true strength is their capacity to cut through the rational layers of a contested history, visualizing it in small moments and sidelong glances. Some have argued, of course, that aura can create a gulf between viewer and object. But here, Golfer uses it to draw us nearer to a topography that thrums in minds of many but so often seems beyond our grasp.
In “Mon Ame,” 1897, an early poem celebrating his own genius, Raymond Roussel declares: “My soul is a strange machine.” It certainly produced some of the twentieth century’s most peculiar novels and plays: word-game phantasmagorias that prized fantasy over reality. Much to Roussel’s surprise, they were critical and commercial flops (he felt destined to outshine Victor Hugo). But the eccentric writer became a cult hero to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who even brawled defending his works. This sophisticated and transporting exhibition assembles a wealth of rare and previously unseen archival materials, charting Roussel’s work and those it continues to inspire.
The show opens with images of Roussel as a young boy dressed in costumes that augur his later, scandal-sparking theater productions, as well as a vitrine of early influences, including volumes by Jules Verne and the astronomer Camille Flammarion. A photograph of Roussel and the woman his mother hired as a public companion for her homosexual son hangs nearby. When the poet John Ashbery was researching Roussel, she cut herself out of the picture and sent him the half with Roussel. (Ashbery eventually reassembled the image and introduced Roussel to the US in the 1960s.) This idea of a ruptured, enigmatic record, pieced together by a passionate few devoted to Roussel, resonates throughout this scholarly show. The torn photograph is visually echoed in Joseph Cornell’s collages, which complement the ephemera, along with artworks by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marcel Broodthaers that riff on themes including dreams, exoticism, and travel. That this gallery, with its roster of contemporary contenders, has chosen to inaugurate its New York space with such a resurrection is a telling gesture, one that feels like a foil for Roussel’s fate. Discouraged and financially ruined by his lack of acclaim, the artist killed himself in 1933 at the age of fifty-six.
Abigail DeVille’s Haarlem Tower of Babel, 2012, is a steel tower that has had the top lopped off. It’s in two pieces, both of them choked by rusting metals, broken branches, and bits of cloth and paper that seem to shed like snakeskin. Babel is the centerpiece of a group show curated by Jane Ursula Harris, and DeVille's motifs—assemblage, foliage, the growl of defunct technologies—seep outward like nuclear waste until each piece glows with green-grey apocalypticism. Doom registers in the punch-click of Luther Price’s Light Fracture, 2013, an old-school slide projector casting images of smashed insects and bubbling paints on the wall, and each slide change marking time slowly, methodically. Foreboding, too, is Julie Schenkelberg’s Hearsay, 2013, a booth composed of bashed doors and household objects that slumps in the corner like a battered fort—home, destroyed.
So perhaps what’s being worked out here is how to shove the question of environmental collapse into the dainty vase of Art. Miniatures and models abound, like Christain Holstad’s Flotsam, 2012-2013, a fabric and metal work that reproduces, in microscopic scale, the vast island of trash floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. But for all the fantasy and bricolage, the works that seem boldest, the most regal in their mourning even as they traffic in chaos and dread, are LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The shots are a grid of perpendiculars, buildings propped up like stage sets but still settling into dust. Braddock is a steel town that was swallowed by the Rust Belt, and these photographs, less “contemporary” than current, sum up the show’s sensibility: they’re about memory and relics and ruin, and yet they carry with them a portent, some chilling prophecy of a future of pitted landscapes and empty space.
Laurie Simmons recalled encountering a trove of unfinished work in Sarah Charlesworth’s studio shortly after her death: “There was more green than I had ever seen in one art project . . . and that was how Sarah left us, with this beautiful—the green of springtime, the green of promise, and the idea that things weren’t ending, that there was a new beginning.” That verdant sense of imagination suffuses “Doubleworld,” Charlesworth’s first major survey in this city, and quite unlikely her last. Immersing oneself in more than forty years of this artist’s strange and searching eye, one is witness to a dexterous mind that could combine the seductiveness of the photographic surface and space with an inexorably Conceptualist rigor.
Elegantly and quite frequently, Charlesworth used photomontage as an illusion-breaking device to interrogate the junkyard of overlapping imagery and meanings within the histories of art, photography, and popular culture, culminating in tableaux that could look like hybrids of outdoor advertising, fashion spreads, and National Geographic. One sees this most pointedly in Gold, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1983–88, which reads like a flowchart of conspicuous consumption throughout history, a survey of this precious metal’s various incarnations and perversions, from pre-Columbian death masks and medieval tchotchkes to 1980s designer wristwatches and a gold lamé swimsuit.
But the didacticism of a lot of these dyed-in-the-wool Pictures-era works utterly melts away when we come to later series such as “0+1,” 2000, and “Available Light,” 2012, spacious and metaphysical bodies of work that are studies in the colors blue and white as luminous, palpably physical experiences. Make no mistake—these aren’t sentimental, late-in-life studio dalliances. Charlesworth’s meticulousness, even ruthlessness, as a thinker and maker is in high gear throughout these images. After all, unrepentant beauty is rarely for the weak of heart.
As suggested in the exhibition’s title, “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997” launches a conversation between two discrete time periods. Curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the presentation begins with paintings from the era following India’s independence from Britain, primarily by those involved in the seminal Progressive Artists’ Group that jumpstarted modernism in India. These artists’ interest in diverse media beyond painting—output that is rarely exhibited—is worth noting. See F. N. Souza, who used diluted printer’s ink and magazine paper to create what he dubbed “chemical paintings” in 1969, and Tyeb Mehta, who produced the sixteen-minute black-and-white film Koodal (“Meeting Place”) in 1970.
Two standout contemporary artworks that marry material experimentation with social commentary are Asim Waqif’s By-Construction and Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice, (both 2003). Exploring art-world consumption, the former is an ingeniously built sprawling structure composed entirely of trash generated by the exhibition itself, such as shipping crates. The latter is inspired by the inaugural speech of the newly formed and independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Kallat transcribed each letter of the address with rubber adhesive that he then set aflame. Given that the work was constructed a year after the sectarian riots in Gujarat, the charred letters and the buckling of the mirror from the heat powerfully suggest that Nehru’s wishes for India were unfulfilled. Overall, the highlighting of experimentation with materials throughout the exhibition prevents the show from being weighed down by context—a chronic problem for display of “Indian” art —while not eschewing it either.
Countering Richard Serra’s famous Verb List of 1967–68, Anne Wilson’s To Weave, to Wind, to Knot, to Twist, to Push, to Pack, to Press, 2010—a light box of tools used for “women’s work” and reconfigured in glass—stresses the action embedded in this exhibition’s title. “Pathmakers” assembles more than one hundred objects by forty-two artists in a broad survey of historical and current practice. The show is divided into two floors: The “midcentury” galleries open with a cluster of Ruth Asawa’s dangling wire sculptures, ca. 1950–72, dramatically lit so that their shadows appear like the transparent fabric tapestries in their company. A floor below, “today” is anchored by projects from 2014: Michelle Grabner’s bright paper weavings and enamel paintings, and Polly Apfelbaum’s exuberant marker-on-silk pendants.
Curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales have chosen nine lesser-known figures for longer explanatory labels, including Alice Kagawa Parrott. Her unisex Hanten Jacket, ca. 1960, was a favorite of artists such as Agnes Martin, whose own version is on display. (I would have loved to see some connection to Gabriel Ann Maher’s Garment and accompanying video _Design, both 2014, which explore the role of gender in how we dress.) One emergent theme is the shaping of space. Textile pioneer Dorothy Liebes’s subtly luminous Room Divider for United Nations Delegates Dining Room, ca. 1952, finds its contemporary parallel in Hella Jongerius’s Knots & Beads Curtain for UN Delegates Lounge, ca. 2012. Like Eva Zeisel’s whimsical Belly Button Room Divider, 1957, Jongerius’s curtain carves our environment and filters how we see it.
If certain historical and geographic contexts go unexplored—with everything from showerheads to gravy boats on hand, how could they not?—“Pathmakers” charts a postwar trajectory for women artists that includes corporate collaborations and individual experimentation, without hierarchy of genre. The show celebrates making as discovery. There’s no better illustration than Zeisel, whose work we surprisingly encounter again on the contemporary floor: In 2008, at the age of 102, she decided to try her hand at lighting.
If you saw the Whitney’s recent cycle of permanent collection shows uptown, notably Carter Foster’s “Real/Surreal” and Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf’s “Sinister Pop,” you’ll be well primed for the shrewd, unpretentious, and often winningly provincial exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s on-the-money new home. The show’s early galleries think past boundaries of media—Imogen Cunningham’s double-exposed portrait of Martha Graham hangs next to a Charles Burchfield sunburst—and of race and gender, most persuasively via the juxtaposition of a blah abstract totem by Robert Laurent with a better 1931 bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an artist of the New Negro Movement. Folk artists such as James Castle and Bill Traylor complicate the progressive modernist story, though sadly not the postwar one.
“America Is Hard to See” succeeds most by looking askance at American claims to cultural advancement, whether in Woodrow Wilson’s time or Mark Zuckerberg’s. America’s theft of the idea of modern art in the late 1940s is scrutinized rather than celebrated; it takes guts to make your anchor painting a Hedda Sterne. Minimal developments in the 1960s get blown away by informel collages and assemblages—hands down the best room in the show, juxtaposing Jack Smith’s groovy short film Scotch Tape, 1959–62, with menacing works by Lee Bontecou and Bruce Conner and an eerie painting of a bat by the underrated Los Angeles mystic Cameron. Eventually the sting of the late 1960s (in Peter Saul’s churning Saigon, 1967, or Faith Ringgold’s collage Women Free Angela, 1971) and the anger of the first AIDS years gives way to the Hellenistic nonchalance of the present. But any complacency in the Whitney’s last galleries should be countermanded by the views they afford: to the Piketty-validating glass towers arising in west Chelsea and to a Hudson River that, within our lifetimes, will rise high enough to regularly flood the neighborhood.