A video, an empty stage, and you: These are the things that make Ed Atkins’s show go. For this sparest of installations—which feels radical next to the overbearing clusterfuck exhibitions so au courant these days (Mike Kelley they ain’t)—the artist puts the sprawl where his mouth is and delivers a rollicking, multipronged poem. The video, titled Performance Capture, 2015–16, is a CGI anthology of more than one hundred people tag-teaming parts of a sharply enunciated monologue delivered by a single head and a pair of detached forearms, all floating against a white background. Ostensibly male, the face and hands fade in and out of focus, gesticulating with the flow of the video’s language and changing its facial expression with the subtle intelligence of a true thespian. The face isn’t anyone’s—it’s a composite of all those tensely articulating actors thinking aloud, far and wide, which, again and again, returns to human bodies, animals, digital images, fat, and the rendering they are subjected to.
They exclaim: “My body is precisely NOT here,” and their face looms large, grimacing. They murmur, “if marrow were a grammatical device or a literary mode,” and tiredly remember “getting the feathery cross-hatching around the face bone bits.” We need to make “animals into more useful stuff,” through “a rendering process yield[ing] a fat commodity.” A factory farm renders animals into fatty edibles, or other things we want that can’t bite back. Artists, too, can render any extra fifteen pounds—or minutes—they find lying around into another kind of excess, which can be traded for capital or sent for gutting on the art market’s slaughterhouse floor. But, to paraphrase the video, true rendering is concerned primarily with the look of love.
The small earthenware objects arranged on plinths in Guðmundur Thoroddsen’s show “Dismantled Spirits” evoke a garbled ancientness, a mishmash of Paleolithic, Sumerian, and Greco-Roman styles united by a scatological and phallic throughline. Pinocchio noses and double-headed dildo forms emerge from lumpy, daubed-together urns placed next to what look like rough-hewn tools and obelisk-type things. Hot Dog Mask, 2015, is a mini-monument to grossness: an imperfect green-glazed Doric-like column, interrupted by a diarrheaish cloud of Caucasian-colored clay just above its base and topped with a turd-cock (in the same fake flesh hues), reaching for the heavens. The “dismantled spirits” of the exhibition’s title are the loose ends of a transhistorical patriarchy in crisis.
Airy and magnetic works on paper elaborate this pregnant, semifictional scenario, depicting fragmented narratives of antisocial behavior—destruction, conflict, racist violence, and explosions—through rudimentary depictions of male figures in profile, often with their dicks out. In most of them, a featureless (but carefully shaded) sausage shape floats above the action like a numb deity. However, in Angry God, 2016, it grins on the floor while a giant ghoul drawn in graphite pops out of a trapezoid like a jack-in-the-box. While this work, with its Captain Caveman humor, engages in a patrilineal tradition of patheticism , it also refreshingly brings to mind other, more scathingly crude work. One thinks of Carol Rama’s brilliantly lewd drawings of snakes, tongues, shoes, and shit, and senses an homage to Nancy Spero’s urgent Vietnam War–era drawings, which deploy both ancient and childlike representational techniques to protest military atrocity and technologized male violence. Thoroddsen, in a similar style, celebrates the spectacular dissolution of all that horror ’s symbolic bedrock.
Beauty has often been in the eye of the patriarchal beholder. Frequently, where the male gaze is concerned, women are weak—their delicate (and delectable) bodies meant to fuel desire and consumerism. A “beautiful” woman, by Western standards, is defined by the Aryan trifecta: blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. She is soft, fragile, helpless. And her tearful face divulges a constant need to be saved and cared for.
With imagery sourced from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Anne Collier’s photographs of women remind us that misogyny is not just found in the fine print of policy, or within a GOP debate. It is a deep-seated cultural phenomenon that pervades everything. The restaging of these found photographs—tricks of advertising that manufacture counterfeit emotions—is a scathing critique of imposed standards of beauty and femininity.
For instance, take the photograph Woman Crying #8, 2016. It depicts a “sincere” tear at the start of a sinuous journey down a woman’s cheek. This tender scene, however, is shattered by the reflection of the photographer’s beauty dish in her iris that no amount of mascara or fake lashes can hide. Hanging nearby is Quality Control, 2016, a magazine advertisement that pairs a camera lens with a picture of a seductive-looking nude woman, poolside, with her ass in the air.
Collier’s work is more than a clinical survey of visual language. It’s a reminder that while scores of women in the past century have made great strides for their rights, the battle for gender equality is far from over.
Created by Dor Guez in 2009, “The Christian Palestinian Archive” invites the titular community to scan their family photographs, in an attempt to trace their histories and journeys. As part of this project, fourteen black-and-white photos tell the family story of Samira Monayer, the artist’s grandmother. These images, from a series titled “Scanogram #1,” 2010, were scanned multiple times and reassembled using a variety of digital programs to accentuate the original photos’ rips and tears. Guez, the inventor of the scanogram technique, seeks to emphasize the creases of time and convey the natural decay of these pictures as objects. In doing so, he deconstructs the images and therefore the past.
Nearby are five large scanograms of broken and vandalized Christian Palestinian graves from a cemetery in Israel (40 Days, 2012). The photos, shot by Guez’s grandfather, have been affected by time and humidity, and in the process have become colorful abstractions full of ghostlike forms, as if to indicate the instability of this dispersed populace.
In the back of the gallery is Sabir, 2010, a twenty-minute video about Samira’s life and journey. Raised in Jaffa, Samira and her family fled their home in 1948 and moved to al-Lydd, known today as Lod. Samira reveals her fascinating story in Arabic and Hebrew, generating a document of what today is considered a “controversial” history. In the video (Sa)Mira, 2009, Guez’s young cousin, named after their grandmother, shares how her Israeli boss asked her to change her Arabic name to the more common Israeli name Mira. By repeating this story over and over again, Samira gradually realizes the racist reality she lives in, and how it feels to be an Arab in Israel today.
“Life is not a dream / Beware! Beware! Beware!” So wrote Federico García Lorca after a night of fitful walking through Manhattan. But life is a dream, especially for Chicago-based photographer Kenneth Josephson, and a lovely one at that.
Multiple exposures, collages, time lapses, and doctored colors: Since he began working in the late 1950s–early ’60s, Josephson has used just about every available technique to question our accepted notions of reality. Which is to say that in his best work—much of which is on display at this greatest hits–style exhibition—formal experiments are really metaphysical provocations.
In Chicago, 1960, for example, pedestrians walk down a sun-drenched sidewalk, followed by a tangle of eerie, diaphanous humanoid shapes. Josephson exposed the photograph more than once, certainly, and somewhere along the line, shifted the frame. What we’re actually seeing, then, is the same group of people in different places. In another artist’s hands, this could be a pedantic effect. But by combining it with an exquisite gossamer texture, and conjuring a mood of ethereal solitude, Josephson persuades us that spirits are floating past the street. Similar otherworldly beings appear throughout his work.
Josephson often includes photographs within his photographs. Held in a free hand, lying in the grass, tacked on the frame as in a montage—their self-reflexive presence unsettles us like an LSD revelation. A revelation of what? Of the fact that our world, so intimate and heavy, might well be little more than a greater someone’s photo album.
At Yve Laris Cohen’s opening, people milled about carefully, minding the edges of the movers’ blankets on the floor. Like protective islands, they marked off space for their storied cargo—the disassembled set for Martha Graham’s 1958 dance Embattled Garden (which is this show’s title, too). The striking biomorphic décor—a floating harlequin-patterned platform and a stylized twelve-foot-tall tree, designed by Isamu Noguchi—was displayed with forensic elegance, like puzzle pieces. Or like wreckage: When the Hudson River flooded the far West Village during Hurricane Sandy, the Martha Graham Dance Company’s theatrical property, housed in the basement of the historic Westbeth complex, was among its art-world casualties. For his “Embattled Garden,” Laris Cohen, an artist with a background in dance and a part-time job as a production assistant for the company, is replicating the water-damaged set. Each day the gallery is open, for five weeks, he’ll clock in to construct a sanctioned knock-off.
This poetic, unfolding gesture of institutional critique—or something like it—collapses the role of the artist who renews the institution through a torch-bearing of ideology and craft with that of the wage laborer who rebuilds and maintains it materially. The collapse isn’t contrived, though; it’s one that occurs in real life all the time. Hooking viewers with the mystique of local avant-garde history, and the fascinating unofficial provenances of its beautiful artifacts, Laris Cohen makes visible the complicated tradition of artists daylighting in the arts—as installers, stagehands, studio assistants, and gallery attendants.
A few days after the opening, I found the artist working at a long table, laptop open and a delivery of fresh wood leaning against the wall. Things had shifted only slightly in the gallery as a result of his low-key ongoing performance, but perhaps, in the spirit of Graham, there will be moments of dramatic tension. (Like when, as per Noguchi, he skewers the charming structures with colored rattan rods?) I’ll check back.
For “Feather Belly,” Carlos Reyes’s solo exhibition here, the peephole in the gallery’s door has been reversed, allowing visitors to peek into the space before entering. What you witness gazing through it is a fisheye perspective on an ominous scene: An enormous, spiky deathtrap occupies the entire entrance floor. In a corner, an orb, colored black and blue like a bruise, shines a beam of white light in the direction of the peephole, signaling the work’s menacing presence to any potential voyeur. An anxiety-inducing sight, to say the least.
The scene unravels, however, once one is inside the gallery. What at first looked like a prop from the Saw franchise of torture-porn films is actually Feather Belly #1 (all works 2016), a sculpture composed of a smooth sheet of luminous steel (formerly the floor panel of a large utility van), pierced by spikes made of walnut. The emotional and intellectual trajectory of this work’s unfolding—from behind the door, then through it—is eerie, mesmerizing. It is a formally beautiful landscape that’s weirdly familiar and utterly foreboding.
The same uncanny transition happens with Feather Belly #2, the aforementioned round, light-emitting sentinel. In actuality, it’s a bowling ball with a small LED shining from one of its finger holes. Hanging on the gallery walls are Feather Belly #3 and #4, two unfired clay works resembling charred wood. The surfaces of these pieces—in deep, inky tones of purple, black, and blue—resemble reptile skin. Their psychedelic patina is derived from ordinary desktop-printer ink. Again, Reyes manages to successfully pervert the boundaries between the mundane and the otherworldly.
If photography is said to provoke factual recollection, painting aids memory’s embellished tales. John Houck’s recent photographs are made at the dizzying intersection between remembering and retelling. The secrets of their construction slip under the darkened edges of archival prints and the thick lines of paint they depict, where the flatness of each photograph’s surface betrays the layers hinted at within. The works take root in Houck’s “History of Graph Paper” series from 2013, in which photographic still lifes of personal relics serve as backdrops for those same physical objects, placed atop their printed reproductions, then photographed again. Now he’s introduced paint into his works as a quiet intervention—sometimes quite directly, on the surfaces of his prints, but mostly as rephotographed bits of trompe l’oeil. His “brushstrokes” snicker throughout the distorted layers of space and depictions of studio equipment such as sponges, tape, and a spray bottle. A cube painted on the cover of a book, depicted three times, twice open and once closed , seems to carve holes into its pages (Petals and Interleaves, 2016). The pale-blue cuff of a dress shirt is painted onto a mold of the artist’s hand, completing the illusion of an arm (Family Crest, 2016). Clear jars are smeared with red and positioned near the apparent culprit—an outline of a paint tube, also in red (Incidental and Intentional, 2015).
The exhibition is titled “Playing and Reality,” which is a way of saying the works are about the tumultuous process of creation. As the artist writes on a folded sheet of newsprint that accompanies the show, “Don’t ask what it means so much as where does it go. Drawn lines are sometimes representations, but they also lead somewhere.”
Buried in Ward Shelley’s Extended Narrative, v. 1, 2014—a chronological taxonomy of Western art since the Enlightenment—is a reference to its forebear: Alfred Barr’s famous 1936 diagram of the evolution of abstraction. While expressing modernism’s penchant for positivist, even teleological narratives, the comically swerving arrows of Barr’s history also point toward the absurd oversimplifications and elisions on which they are premised. This same ambivalence informs all the charts here, painted on Mylar and gathered under the exhibition title “The Felicific Calculus.” Named after Jeremy Bentham’s proposed algorithm for happiness, the works graph the history of our culture, ranging from art to the automobile, politics to pornography. Though meticulously researched, they suggest that information is not neutral, as their bright colors and allusions to natural forms—including a dissected frog—posit that data is the object of both cultural discourse and subjective judgments, aesthetic and otherwise. Furthermore, each chart is presented as the first of three possible versions, acknowledging that they’re merely iterations of a mutable truth.
The same open-endedness informs the other series on view, “The Last Library,” 2015–16, which riffs on Borges’s fantasy of a library containing all imaginable books. A collaboration with Douglas Paulson, these bookcases of titles that have not yet been written (e.g., Master a Fearful Rhetoric, by Newt Gingrich) are organized by whimsical criteria such as “books written at sea level” and are decorated with Carol K. Brown’s hand-painted knick-knacks and complemented by purpose-built wainscoting. Whereas the charts open up the past, the bookcases, like science fiction, open up the present by imagining an uncanny future. If the flip side of Bentham’s dream of better living through programming is the nightmare of total control (emblematized by his “Panopticon”), understanding that both the future and the past are up for grabs is a precursor of resistance.
From afar, Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s works look like big glossy Shrinky Dinks pressed against the walls. And up close, too, with their wavy, irregular Plexiglas edges and splotchy colored areas—especially the ones that evoke paper-doll clothes, such as the disembodied form in Dress (all works 2016), with its rainbow popsicle geometry, or Wolford Shapewear and Various Objects, which draws you in with its painterly lingerie curves in “nude” and a picture from a monograph on Chardin. But, unlike Dinks, Rafferty’s objects have an ethereal depth, achieved with layers of ink-jet printing and acrylic polymer paint. Screwed into the walls, these seductive collage-like pieces mix industrial processes and materials with office supplies. In FM FM 1990, a washy silhouette in a fuchsia shirtdress—maybe a mannequin torso—resembles a laminated ghost divided into a grid of wrinkled letter-size acetate sheets, the Hewlett Packard label still visible. Faintly printed, backwards text is hard to make out. The MOSCH of MOSCHINO, however, is unmistakable.
Brands, luxury and otherwise, are important here and appear as they might in dreams—internalized, filtered, and distorted, mixed with memories, aspirations, or notes-to-self. The show, titled “Dresses and Books,” literalizes how exteriors (covers, cases, clothes, and screens) can be both transparent and reflective, refracting their contents while mirroring their environs. It also captures the curious way apparel floats in blank space on webpages and in virtual shopping carts, awaiting our final decision.
Lionel Maunz’s fourth solo show with this gallery, “Fealty,” pushes creepiness outside of a general, and easily commodified, aesthetic experience. The title refers to, among other things, the bonds of family, and all the torturous shit that comes with it. Blood relationships—poisonous, petty, and horrifying—come to dramatic life with Maunz’s realistic graphite drawings of early twentieth-century incubators designed to keep newborns free of germs from filthy mommies in Obligation 1–3 (all works 2016). Vertical Chamber gives us an image from Harry Harlow’s “pit of despair,” one of the notorious behavioral researcher’s controversial apparatuses, used to cruelly isolate and observe infant monkeys.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Maunz comes from a dysfunctional family unit himself, having grown up in a religious cult somewhere in rural Montana. Whatever doomsday bunker mentality was imposed upon him as a child, he’s certainly exorcised it with the exhibition’s centerpiece, Mother My Body Disgusts Me, a grouping of poured-concrete boxes/tombs that display steel bars and funereal, mutilated-looking cast-iron figures. Maunz’s brutish metal sculptures viscerally detail all manner of physical trauma and decay—the artist uses an assortment of queasy images from medical texts as reference. As one can imagine, all the runny “mistakes” that occur during the making of these pieces only serve to amplify the gore.
In her landmark essay on the grid, Rosalind Krauss outlined the form’s reductive modernist ontology, and its exemplary capacity to align the work of art with its material support. In several diaries presented in Nasreen Mohamedi’s inaugural exhibition here, some of the artist’s supports are commercial notebooks, whose ready-made matrices she used to create linear inked compositions sometimes interwoven with strings of words that read like poetry.
The strong showing of Mohamedi’s signature drawings, which have been steadily gaining international attention, however, departs from Krauss’s reading. In these works, created with architectural drawing instruments that delicately distributed ink or graphite in millimeter-thin lines, the grid is deployed repeatedly, but in ways that resolutely resist the flatness of the picture plane. Instead, gridded lines tilt inward or are interrupted by geometric voids. The resulting optical effect is not one of illusionistic volume, exactly—it is more an intimation of unbounded space that the grid, in its strictest iterations, does not provide.
The survey also includes photographs in which, again, the line roams free of its supporting context: The separation of the beach and the ocean seem to be of gestural intention (Untitled, ca. 1960), while the markings on pavement appear to relieve the ground of its horizontality (Untitled, ca. 1970).
The curatorial narrative emphasizes Mohamedi’s suffering from the debilitating shakes of Huntington’s disease to mark a division between her landscape-based freehand abstractions of the 1960s and the rigorously precise works of the 1980s. Wall didactics and the show’s catalogue also note influences from Islamic, Sufi, and Bhakti traditions’ of geometric nonrepresentation and notions of emptiness. These contextual determinants are important for considering Mohamedi apart from other Minimalists with whom she is often cursorily lumped in. Each work’s obstinate space for attentive reflection simultaneously causes such cadres to recede toward an indeterminate horizon.
In the catalogue that accompanies this show, there is a photo of the artist David Hammons in Harlem in 1980. From behind a pair of sunglasses, he is reading Tales of Power (1974), a volume in Carlos Castaneda’s account of the teachings of an indigenous Mexican shaman. Though presented without comment, the photo is a winking nod to Hammons’s reputation as a kind of art-world sorcerer and also to his own anthropological interests: For five decades he has deployed conceptual jokes and everyday materials to reflect on the paradoxes and complexities of African American life. Although by no means exhaustive, this exhibition offers an important opportunity to survey the artist’s career, including his early “body print” Spade (Power for the Spade), 1969, and his sardonic riff on Minimalism, Untitled, 1989, a sculpture of fortified-wine bottles.
Inevitably reframed by the discourse around the Black Lives Matter movement, the show hits hardest with In the Hood, 1993, a severed hood of a black cotton hoodie—the supposedly “hood” garment that Trayvon Martin dared to wear while walking in a Florida suburb. Hung high on a wall, it connects contemporary black bodies to the histories of both lynching and trophy hunting, and suggests that art collecting itself is a blood sport. Though no stranger to success, Hammons remains elusive, and his work is marked by a similar resistance to being visually mastered: Veiling, hiding, and obscuring are rampant here, and the tension between presence and absence in works like In the Hood speaks to the dangers of both visibility and invisibility, in life as in art.
Displacement, dismantlement, and mirroring are at the heart of Oakland-based Zarouhie Abdalian’s first solo show in New York, “A Betrayal.” Despite a spare, poetic visual vocabulary, Abdalian’s site-responsive work reverberates with frustration and anger toward a failing political system and the violence of gentrification.
Close of Winter (all works 2016), a window gate taken apart into four sections that stand as spindly floor-bound sculptures, testifies to the broken nature of “broken windows” policing. The works, with their delicate, organic motifs—a contemporary response to Giacometti’s attenuated, existential figures?—call to mind the steel or wrought-iron fences one associates with dangerous urban neighborhoods. In one of the gallery’s windows flutters Interregnum, a sepia-colored print on mesh fabric that duplicates the view: Images of an old water tower and an ever-rising skyline blur with the real ones just beyond the sill, causing a subtle visual and psychic disjuncture. In One into two, plaster busts of the Roman god Janus face each other, eyes wide open. Rather than representing the past and future, these two heads illustrate an ahistorical echo chamber of clear-sighted—and closed-circuit—myopia.
Abdalian deploys sound as a type of psychogeographic material, much in the vein of Susan Philipsz or Susan Hiller. In 2013, she created Occasional Music, a sound installation of ringing bells that resonated across Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza (which was unofficially renamed the Oscar Grant Plaza by local Occupy protestors to memorialize Grant’s death at the hands of police officers in 2009). Here, the quiet of the space is punctured by Openings, a mortise lock embedded in the wall that clicks at irregular intervals. While not as politically specific as the Oakland work, this insertion of an interior fitting more often seen in sleek condos casts a mood of uncertainty over the gallery—one of the few midcentury art loft spaces still located on SoHo’s Broadway shopping corridor.
Hilton Als’s “One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie, and the Rest” is strung together loosely, just like the celebrated New Yorker critic’s personal essays. Voice is structure; memory comes in vivid rushes; friendship is a seismic force. This, the first phase of the artist’s six-month season at the Artist’s Institute (also the inaugural project of the Institute’s new UES address), is a dreamy paean to, as the artist writes, “various personages who lived in a pre-Transparent, pre-Caitlyn, pre-anything world.” Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, the figures named in Als’s title, were trans Warhol Superstars; but Bobbie, we learn, was not famous—just a luminous friend, represented here by a small image in a corner of this elegantly makeshift installation. In Bobbie, 2016, an old-fashioned projector shows vintage slides of an angelic blond, a gender-indeterminate young person. In one picture, they are standing in the sun on the street, almost smiling, gazing at a point slightly above an unknown photographer.
The gallery is kept dim, lit by all manner of budget mood lighting. In one room, colored bulbs with messy, exposed cords accent Judy Linn’s striking black-and-white portraits of drag legend Ethyl Eichelberger from 1990, while a loop of louche art films plays on an adjacent wall, as a disco mix made by Als pumps from little computer speakers. Elsewhere, a handful of flickering liquid tea lights sit on the floor, not too far from the piece Stormé, Bobbie and the Rest, 2016, in which a classroom overhead projector throws a faint image of Bobbie onto the wall—and onto Diane Arbus’s 1961 portrait of butch dreamboat and Stonewall hero Stormé DeLarverie.
This is not a photography show, though photos anchor it; and it’s not a group show, though many artists haunt it. This is curating as artistic practice, as shrine-making—a “one-man” exhibition that engenders so much more.
At the end of the catalogue for “The Responsive Eye”—the infamous survey of contemporary Op art that opened at MoMA in February 1965, marking the movement’s simultaneous debut and apogee—curator William Seitz asked, “What are the potentialities of a visual art capable of affecting perception so physically and directly? Can an advanced understanding and application of functional images open a new path from retinal excitation to emotions and ideas?”
These fifty-year-old questions, which Seitz did not venture to answer, have been taken up anew by “The Illusive Eye.” On its face, the show aims to expand the geographic and historical purview of Op, giving greater emphasis to the Latin American artists who developed a dizzying language of geometric abstraction from the 1950s to the 1970s. Many of these have since become critical and/or commercial darlings, including Julio Le Parc, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Carlos Cruz-Diez. But the show also has its surprises, exemplified by Norberto Gómez’s Untitled, 1967, a white grid of closed and open rectangular volumes that are stacked vertically but almost seem to cascade diagonally.
In a brief text, Jorge Daniel Veneciano, El Museo’s director, foregrounds a second, more philosophical aim of the show. As if replying to Seitz, he argues that Op’s abstraction is not an end unto itself but a vehicle for mystical experience, generated by groundless space, geometric patterns, repetitive movement, and the esoteric belief in mathematics as universal truth. The premise is provocative, and not only because of Op’s deliberate embrace of scientific principles and industrial forms and materials (a topic explored most recently by the art historian Pamela Lee). Though these terms may seem irreconcilable, the small number of kinetic machines in the show—which notably were excluded from “The Responsive Eye”—suggest that works such as Martha Boto’s Optique Helicoidial (Mouvement), 1967, offer an encounter with the technological sublime.
In the photographic diptych How to Look at Mexican Art, 1995, Silvia Gruner displays a punctured molcajete, or Mexican grinding mortar, atop bright-red plastic. Her hand grips the object from above in the first image and playfully penetrates it from below in the second. Not only does she juxtapose something typically associated with indigenous Mexican culture with a strictly contemporary material, but Gruner also inserts her body into her work to challenge assumptions about her artistic heritage. Similarly, in the adjacent film Centinela (Sentinel), 2007, the artist, her head shaved due to her recent cancer treatment, stares into the churning waters of a modernist fountain designed by Mathias Goeritz, Ricardo Legorreta, and Isamu Noguchi, a set of male modernist masters that the artist is confronting as much as she faces the imposing abyss.
Her early film pieces also centralize her body, poised between stasis and movement. In Arena (Sand), 1986, Gruner, naked, covers herself with a mixture of mud and pigment and repeatedly climbs up and tumbles down a dune on Cape Cod, in a Sisyphean loop that marks the surface of the sand. Cyclical repetition is also made visible in Re-Start, 2014, a brief stop-motion animation of the artist’s hands threading a knitting needle, yielding a kinetic set of tangled lines while subtly alluding to women’s association with craft. This more abstract engagement with feminist concerns is manifest in the show’s centerpiece, the two-channel video Hemisferios (Hemispheres), 2014, whose title conflates the artist’s psychic and physical spaces. Here we see Gruner’s assistant undoing two sets of yarn labyrinths that the artist set up in the front and back gardens of her home. One consists of a neat grid, laid out in thickly knitted red lines, while the other is a tangle of the same wool wrapped messily around tree limbs and stray objects. We watch as the two sets of fibers are respooled in real time, staging the tension between material permanence and ephemerality that permeates Gruner’s work, suggesting that artistic labor is always a process of doing and undoing.
Of the many delights in this survey, my favorite is Der Raupen wunderbare Verwunderlung (The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars) from 1679 by Maria Sibylla Merian—an ambitious volume as lovely to see as it is fun to say. Open to a single spread of text and illustration, the book contains fifty such copperplates depicting the life cycle of caterpillars in great scientific detail, along with, according to the work’s caption, “the fruits and flowers on which they feasted.”
The exhibition, curated by Madeleine Viljoen, is a wunderbar feast, celebrating the extraordinary efforts of generations of women (from creators to collectors to curators) without glossing over the adversity and sexism etched in acid bite onto the most bucolic landscapes. The works were originally assembled by Henrietta Louisa Koenen between 1848 and 1861 and are part of a collection at the library that has not been shown since 1901. Koenen’s husband was director of the print room at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and she quietly began her own personal collection, buying works by amateur and professional female artists from the sixteenth to nineteenth century.
Viljoen gathers a broad array of styles, skills, and subject matter: Here are prints by the first woman to sign her work in the sixteenth century and women signing their work simply “his wife,” women copying famous artists’ compositions (a common printmaking practice), and women depicting themselves in frank self-portraits (Angelica Kauffman’s casual pose is breathtaking, as is the scale of Thérèse Holbein’s image of her sketching in Alpine scenery). There are botany studies, calligraphy, and abstract lace designs particularly suited to the exacting lines of engraving. There’s a garlanded portrait of a woman who was earning her doctorate in 1680 (though we know that it was never bestowed).
Cutting history open, the wall labels have just the right amount of juicy detail. Look for references to heterodox ménages; the story of a print depicting a lounging lion and putti in the woods, given as a “suggestive gift” to Thomas Jefferson by its maker, Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway; delightful doodles of heads and horses by a seventeen-year-old princess practicing how to write her name backward to accommodate the etching’s printing; and the first female student at the University of Utrecht, who made the commanding Self-Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman, Aged 33, 1640. This, in short, is a banquet you will leave hungry for more.
With only twenty-two paintings produced over six decades, this Robert Ryman exhibition is a summa of the artist’s process, via the reduction and synthesis of the fundamental elements of painting. Different mediums, textures, and supports—canvas, paper, aluminum, fiberglass, Plexiglas—are used to investigate the luminous frequency of white in all its possible gradations. The artist has chosen to exhibit the paintings under natural light, and he is right to do so. I viewed the show when the sky was clear, then when it was cloudy, and then under artificial light. The last condition was decisively the worst, since it imbued the works with a very disturbing pinkish tone. Under natural light, however, the gradations of white appear in all their shimmering, pulsating richness, with vibrations of gray, blue, or black, on surfaces that are highly tactile or smooth, absorbent or polished.
Ryman has been investigating methods and structures of painting since the 1960s. Carrying out an operation of progressive subtraction, he eliminates the stretcher frame and instead attaches sheets of paper or canvases directly to the wall or subverts the axis of vision by propping works, supported on the floor with metal rods, against the wall. He also experiments with the potential of industrial materials by contrasting shiny aluminum surfaces with matte white paint or by using steel bolts on the paintings’ surfaces. And the abatement of tones to the minimum degree of whiteness provides Ryman with a limitless field of freedom. Varying the paint’s density and methods of its application, he regulates the absorbency or the refraction of light, sometimes applying a variety of colors beneath the white to instill the deceptively monochrome surfaces with warmth or acidity. The result is an articulate and complex symphony of minimal tones, much like Brian Eno’s compositions of ambient music. This show, a place of reflection and expansion, uses essential examples to describe Ryman’s research. With a kind of magic and rigor that few can match, Ryman catalyzes perceptual processes, remaining attuned to the objective properties of materials and to the pure evidence of paint and light.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.