Heidi Bucher began using liquid latex in the late 1970s upon her return to Zurich after a spell living in Southern California. She most famously used the medium to produce what she called Häutungs or “skinnings.” Applying it atop fabric that had been carefully pasted onto the surfaces of buildings—most often but not exclusively the interiors of structures she had inhabited—Bucher would let the latex dry and then peel it off, producing a supple rubber sheath literally embedded with traces of the past, a physical transcription of the memory and history of the space. Somewhat presciently, Bucher’s process suggests that the past is not adequately accessible through narrative alone: The passing of time is also material—a near-geological process of molecular sedimentation—and this requires novel tools. That Bucher, who died in 1993, is not more widely known is a strong indication that the project of feminist art history is far from over. Her pathbreaking work presaged such iconic nineties work as Rachel Whiteread’s House, 1993, and Do-Ho Suh’s The Perfect Home, 2002, and she justly deserves the attention she is currently getting.
Delicately suspended from threads, the “skinnings” that make up Herrenzimmer (Study), 1977–79, are arranged so as to recreate her father’s study, allowing one to walk into what feels like a ghost of that room. Parquet Floor of Study in Winterthur–Wüflingen, 1979, a wall piece, alludes to a dialogue with Minimalism. The crisscross pattern of the first surface is clearly visible across the forty-two identically sized sections of the piece, which, when not on display, can be neatly stacked and put away in the accompanying monogramed antique chest. Having developed a sculptural method that seems to seize time, Bucher, in later works, used latex to arrest another flow—that of water. In Jetzt Fliesst das Wasser Aus der Vase (Now the Water Flows Out of the Vase), 1986, water pours out of a levitating purple vase, collecting in a long pearly pool across the floor. Ultimately, the real strength of these works may be entirely unintended. The cured latex, yellow and stiff with age, heightens their abjectness—the end of the pool of water looks like a dried-up condom. Time has triumphed after all, hardening Bucher’s skins into hides.
“Wonder,” the title of Kiki Smith’s latest New York exhibition, suitably describes both the excitement in first encountering Smith’s garden of earthly delights and an astonished curiosity at their craft-intensive processes. Smith’s output has always been an ascension up the ladder of her own cosmology, and this show evinces how singular her references are.
This new body of work, four years in the making, once again employs her alphabet of female nudes, plants, and animals. However, these motifs are emboldened by their rendering in a rich catholicity of mediums, which in this display count cast bronze, stained glass, fine silver, Jacquard woven tapestries, and ink-jet prints among them. If her Brooklyn Museum show in 2010 was a peek into a latticed, domestic realm, then this show opens the doors to nature rushing in at a suitably dwarfing scale, such as in the enormous stainless-steel sculpture Hoarfrost with Rabbit, 2014. Its perpendicular sheets, modeled after the phenomenon of cyclically crystalizing water vapor, occupy the galley’s center and include a camouflaged steel rabbit perched atop one angular slab. The gentility of its gait and features belie the fierce weight of its material, a generative metaphor for strength in vulnerability.
Three nearly ten-foot-long tapestries, all 2014, make the grandest gesture in the exhibition. Portraying almost Edenic scenes of a nude girl and a fawn, as in Congregation, or spiderwebs flecked with gold and silver leaf among shooting plants in Spinners, the medium is dusted off and made contemporary by virtue of the vibrantly abstract, cut-up collage borders. Translated into a crisply precise (and a forerunner of digital technology) Jacquard weave, they reflect the heterogeneous textures of Smith’s drawings and set these extraordinary works apart from any mere nostalgia or worship of antiquated forms.
Here’s what the frenetic pace of a price-tagged art world has wrought: Justin Lieberman’s “Squeezed Reliefs” recycle unsold sculptures tacked onto canvases, topped off with paint that recounts the artist’s financial ruin. The artist makes clear in a statement that the black-and-white chicness of these eight works (all 2014) is meant to be a capitulation to what’s in style. One wonders if to enjoy these paintings is to also take part in the unforgiving cycles that led the artist here.
Pieces of sculptures drown under the paint, their original meaning has been co-opted by their worthlessness—at least by market standards. A stray wire hanger, a mannequin, bowls, and handicap signs all stick out desperately from the canvas’ surface. Most of the works’ titles come from archaic torture devices—Brazen Bull (an ancient Greek roasting), Leng tch'e (Chinese slow slicing), Peine forte et dure (stones placed on the chest until confession or death). Warped, white painted text, however, communicates past-due bills, an eviction notice, termination of service, and bad poetry (is there a difference?). In The Judas Cradle a slanted text begins, “You are in danger of losing your home,” its stylish skewedness somehow making the message less grave. Similar admonitions of “You must respond . . .” or “You are in violation . . .” mask the dregs of older works in the crowded frame. These newer, more aggressive amalgams compete for dominance with the ghosts of underlying narratives.
Two sculptures accompany the hanging works, including Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahme (job-creating measure), a glass vitrine packed with art of friends, letters to collectors, fliers, exhibition cards, and some of the artist’s own work. The tight and anxious display mocks the frenzy of creating and supporting, and, in doing so, makes another work. Everything eventually becomes a part of another paycheck, as collected art-world ephemera become works, and old works get compressed into the new. In all these pieces, art has been reduced and reduced again until it’s something opposite: It’s a bill.
“Witness,” as its title proclaims, is a bold admixture of radical voices attesting to the spirit and conscience of the 1960s. The decade has often been revisited as a period when artistic earnestness and social efficacy prevailed in spite of an increasingly commercialized market. Rarely has the result been as intriguing as in this exhibit, which brings Pop art, Abstract Expressionism, neo-Dada, and the Black Arts Movement into conversation.
Outliers of canonical movements command center stage, from Robert Indiana’s brash The Confederacy: Alabama, 1965, to Norman Lewis’s Double Cross, 1971. Sam Gilliam’s Red April, 1970, is a shimmering curtain of pastels punctuated by splashes of blues, yellows, and a prodigious use of red. Part of a series about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed, Gilliam’s large painting lures the viewer into its fluid veil of color only to press discomfort with the violent application of vermillion. Philip Guston’s return to figuration in works such as City Limits, 1969, whose comically charged Klansmen have been dually interpreted as symbols of protest and apolitical reflections of the artist’s inner self, makes sense in this context. The slick oil residue of a body lingers on David Hammons’s The Door (Admissions Office), 1969 a symbolic threshold of Jim Crowism.
The stars of this show are rarely seen works that include Melvin Edwards’s Chaino, 1964, Pauline Boty’s Countdown to Violence, 1964, Jack Whitten’s Birmingham, 1964, Jae Jarrell’s Urban Wall Suit, 1969, and Joe Overstreet’s Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace, 1969. Reminiscent of scholarly reassessments of ’60s art in the ’90s, the exhibition, curated by Teresa Carbone and Kellie Jones, manages to incorporate works that are often marginalized because they do not fit neatly into established art-historical movements. Here, however, elegant visual connections, such as those between Elizabeth Catlett’s 1969 lithograph Negro es Bello II, and Indiana’s Black Yield Brother 3, 1963, allow familiar formal idioms—seriality and the use of popular signage among others —to reemerge in light of a shared engagement with the central issues of their time.
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.
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 images 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.”
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.