With the massive hack of Sony’s e-mail servers this month and the canceled release of The Interview, a bro comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the threat and the mania of North Korea has once again entered the terrain of culture. This timely exhibition of propaganda and fine art (the distinction here is meaningless) from the world’s most terrifying country therefore deserves scrutiny: Look hard, think hard, and don’t write these images off. The dozens of posters here, dating from the 1960s to today, have none of the formal innovation of Soviet propaganda, though many replicate Soviet image-making techniques—intense color, bold captions, workers and soldiers leaning forward against incongruous backgrounds—in lifeless, cynical plagiarism. Their force derives from the intensity of their delusion or deception: the grand falsehood of a grinning factory laborer, an infantryman attaching a bayonet to his machine gun, or men of all races hoisting a gleaming book that reads “Juche,” the political philosophy of Kim Il-sung.
None of the posters’ artists are named, nor are the painters of the twelve canvases also on view in this show, which range from kitschy to awkwardly compelling. Many of the paintings come from the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, which employs some four thousand artists, making it one of the largest art-production facilities in the world. The soft-focus paintings of a pansori drummer before Pyongyang’s bombastic Arch of Reunification (Performance I, 2011) and of a smiling female conductor of a military band at the Mass Games (Gymnastic, 2011) are dreary to look at in isolation. However, placed against the more explicit propaganda posters, these works offer a bizarre taste of individualism in a country with no space for it. They also reveal the creepy use of female bodies in the government’s iconography. Inspection, 2012, sees a dozen female soldiers lined up before a giant bronze military memorial, each with lips pursed and eyes fixed, cannon fodder for a regime we mustn’t laugh at.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, the narrator recounts testing grown-ups by presenting them with a drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Most adults recognize it as a hat, causing the drawing’s maker to never again discuss “boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars” with them, but instead “bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties.”
Judith Scott’s sculptures give a sense of shape-shifting between things like hats and processes like boa constrictors swallowing elephants. They are typically amorphous forms—mostly large yet small enough that they could still be cradled by an adult—that were produced by tightly binding and weaving fibers, generally multicolored yarn and fabric, around clusters of common objects. In a few instances, the underlying, often industrial materials—plastic tubing, wooden sticks, and clothing, for instance—poke out. More commonly, however, different things come to constitute a unified entity that is completely strange, but perhaps all the more so because it retains a sense that there is something we know very well hiding inside.
Scott was born with Down syndrome; she spent her life nearly deaf and was unable to speak. In her forties, Scott joined the Creative Growth Art Center, an art studio in Oakland for artists with developmental and physical disabilities, and her entire body of work was produced during the following eighteen years. Rather than pathologizing the artist, or divorcing these astounding artworks from their maker, this posthumous retrospective at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art prompts a reading of her work that is informed by ideas shared by feminism and the growing field of disability studies: that an art object is both connected to and dependent upon not just the lived experience of its producer but also a surrounding network of equally embodied subjects that are an integral, albeit frequently unrecognized, part of both making and the making of meaning.
“Four shoulders and thirty five percent everything else,” is a series of black-and-white gelatin silver prints of images shot within the desert landscape of southern Utah. Some pieces contain two, three, or four photographs in one print, three to five inches across or so, clustered together and bordered by the thick black of fully exposed photography paper. They were taken in an area marked by sight lines that delineate the field of vision between two facing cameras. Hubbard’s body moves throughout the picture planes, standing up, lying down, dressed, partially undressed, present, and absent. By transferring her body from her queer New York milieu and setting it against the backdrop of southern Utah, where society does not weigh so heavily on what our bodies can and cannot do in space, Hubbard recuperates alternate narratives and new possibilities for the body.
The photographs are miniature, but Hubbard’s presence in the frame creates scale, communicating the vastness and stillness of her surroundings in relation to her lithe movement. In one triptych, Four shoulders (the size of it) (all works 2014), the artist faces in three directions, one per image, and her arms are outstretched as if holding up an imaginary piece of paper or framing a future photograph. Her full arm extension is swallowed by the desert without so much as a thought, a position punctuated by several other key works, namely I/eye, a forty-by-fifty-inch gelatin silver print of an endless noonday Utah landscape with a tiny, spindly black camera on a tripod in the center, as insignificant as it is jarring.
Throughout the late 1970s, Samuel Fosso—born in Cameroon and now based in the troubled Central African Republic—used leftover film from his day job as a studio portraitist to shoot his then-teenage self posing awkwardly in white briefs or sporting oversize sunglasses with hearts on the lenses or dolled up in bell-bottoms and ready to boogie. These images were not meant for public circulation (he sent them to his grandmother), and they came as the monstrous dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa—who appears on a printed tank top in one 1976–77 self-portrait—crowned himself emperor. By day, things were bad. By night, in the studio, you could make your own life.
Fosso’s penchant for dress-up has led to a lazy, trivializing shorthand designation of the artist as “the African Cindy Sherman.” Yet where the American artist disappears into unstable archetypes for her film stills, Fosso foregrounds his disguisements, either as visual articulations of his own chosen identities or as political tributes and critiques. “African Spirits,” his large-format series from 2008, sees Fosso dressed up as Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Haile Selassie, and Malcolm X (he looks really hot in the last, a leather fedora cocked low over his face), yet his most trenchant work of disguise is his most recent. In The Emperor of Africa, 2013, Fosso stands before a cheesy cloth backdrop of a beach, clad in a long flared jacket and a mandarin collar shirt: a black Mao Zedong gazing into the middle distance and ready to conquer. The image serves as a worthwhile corrective to the illusion that destabilized gender and sexual categories are enough on their own to bring about social change. At best, such self-fashioning offers only a temporary respite from the violence outside your studio door.
In a 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace noted our present culture lends the “freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” which is also say, the liberty to be very alone. This is certainly the case for the figures depicted in the work of Tai Ogawa: The Tokyo-based artist paints people in watercolors and then cuts each of their bodies out of the page like paper dolls. He adheres them to sheets of paper that he has sprayed with DayGlo hues; eight of these works are on view in his US debut, along with over a dozen watercolors. Some have houses and skyscrapers with figures zipping about on motorcycles. Others are more abstract—Technicolor dreamscapes where faces float with fishes in an endless sky (see Cattle Mutilation, all works 2014). Cars, boats, trains, airplanes, and buses are everywhere. Everyone seems very busy, and everyone has a place to go.
The actors of Ogawa’s world never interact. They are gods of themselves, as bright and as oblivious as ever to the isolation of their self-sufficient worlds. Ogawa once said that human interaction makes a life real, and that the people in his work are atomized, which essentially means they lack life. In Escape from New York, each figure is flanked by a shadow, which drains the neon out of the neon background in the shape of a body. Death lurks at each person’s heels, while zest and color masks a fatal proposition: What does it means to die while still alive? The walls of the gallery have been painted black like a cave, and the show is titled “Edge of Life.” The moral seems clear: Be careful not to amplify the life out of life. You will be left with nothing but a body.
This vest-pocket exhibition of two dozen photographs offers a valuable opportunity to see how quickly the terms of image perception are changing: how the period eye must now be measured not in centuries but in years. See the artist’s early, excellent black-and-white New York photographs—a predesecration 2 Columbus Circle (58th Street at 7th Avenue, Midtown, New York, 1978) and then West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York, 1978, which depicts a pre-gallery neighborhood full of low-slung Chevrolets. During the Met’s last outing of Struth in 2003, you still might have been happy to see the grit go, believing New York’s best days still lay ahead. In post-Bloomberg New York, where the crime-gripped 1970s city can seem a prelapsarian Eden, Struth’s unpopulated photographs feel closer to Eugène Atget’s images of pre-Haussmann Paris than to the typologies of his professors Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Struth’s most enduring and difficult works remain his museum photographs, whose depictions of dedicated art lovers or aimless tourists in Europe’s palaces of culture waver between faith in and doubt of aesthetic experience. A more contemporary reading of them might begin with a simpler observation: not one of the tourists is holding a camera or a phone. In the 2003 retrospective, these photographs offered a sly view of an ossified European culture. Ossification: We should be so lucky. Earlier this month, the Met’s newly appointed chief digital officer told the Wall Street Journal that the museum plans to track visitors’ movement throughout its exhibitions and permanent collection; if you pause for a moment in front of Madame X or the Etruscan chariot, your smartphone will ping with “an instant coupon for the catalog, or a meal being sold at the cafeteria that’s based on it.” Even the encyclopedic institution now treats its holdings as data in the service of profit, while the mass tourism Struth photographed decades ago looks bewitchingly unsullied: a last gasp before art’s pitiful reduction to shareable content.
As Congress considers a bill that would introduce artists’ resale rights, also known as droit de suite, to the United States, the timely group show “The Contract” promotes the bill’s underlying notion that artists should benefit from the price appreciation of their work. By requiring all sales of work on view here be subject to the 1971 Projansky contract—which stipulates that artists receive resale royalties—this exhibition suggests that, given the frenzied pitch of the contemporary art market (in which access is highly coveted), artists may now have sufficient power to demand resale royalties as part of their sales contracts.
Hans Haacke, the contract’s most famous adherent, and Maria Eichhorn, who interviewed Haacke and the contract’s authors, Bob Projansky and Seth Siegelaub, for her project The Artist’s Contract, 1996–2005, are grouped with Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda, Wade Guyton, Park McArthur, R. H. Quaytman, Carissa Rodriguez, and Cameron Rowland. McArthur’s Social Security, 2014, a desktop computer tower used by the artist from 2008 to 2013 and still replete with her personal files (of which no backups or copies were made), alludes to the relationship between artist and collector, characterized by vulnerability and trust (for the artist) and responsibility (for the collector).
Likewise referencing the complex and often compromised power dynamic between author and owner, Quaytman’s painting depicts a still from Andrea Fraser’s Untitled—the infamous 2003 surveillance video of Fraser’s sexual encounter with a collector—where the sales contract generated the work itself. Rowland's 49–51 Chambers Street—Basement, New York, NY 10007, 2014, a circular wooden table purchased at an auction of government property, evidences the endemic trend of privatization. Only by making the conditions of exchange central, even intrinsic, to the artwork itself, “The Contract” argues, can artists wrestle control.
The sweeping arc of Western art history is the subject of this voluminous exhibition, which consists of hundreds of photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, books, and other ephemera. The project begins with a presentation of Salon de Fleurus, a meticulously researched yet extemporized re-creation of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon, surreptitiously located on Spring Street in SoHo, which has been managed by an anonymous doorman for the last two decades and closed last spring. This is followed by a series of five galleries that have been temporarily erected, each devoted to exploring a defining moment in the story of art: in reverse chronological order, they include the 1855 Exposition Universelle (the first large-scale contemporary art exhibition); the establishment of the Louvre and the Musée National des Monuments Français, during the French Revolution (the origins of the modern museum); the publication of Vasari’s Lives, in 1550 (the introduction of the artist biography); and Apollo in the Belvedere Romanum sculpture garden around 1503 (the secularization of art). Two didactic panels flank each gallery—one a historical summation of the room’s contents and the other an allegorical once-upon-a-time narrative of emperors and kings.
If this description comes off as unwieldy or strange, it is not the only off-kilter element. Together this meta-museum is based on a lecture first presented in Guangzhou in 2011 by Walter Benjamin, who has been dead since 1940. “The Unmaking of Art” circuitously reveals not just how fictionalized the tale of art history is but how its attendant tropes of authorship and originality remain central in our seemingly decentered contemporary art world. Traditional Chinese music wafts through the entire exhibition, awkwardly clashing with the European narrative and further hinting at all that is left out from this story.
Kathy Halbreich’s world-shaking MoMA retrospective of the slipperiest artist of the postwar era contained no less than 265 works. They’re all in London right now, and yet somehow there are still enough Polkes around to fill three simultaneous New York gallery shows: a photography showcase at Paul Kasmin, photocopier works at Fergus McCaffrey, and this nine-painting exhibition focusing on the artist’s use of fabric. In the 1980s, Polke delighted in ugly wallpaper (think of the floral-print Seeing Things As They Are, 1991, the anchor for Halbreich’s show), and several paintings here feature bisected grounds of patterned wallpaper overlaid with expressionistic daubs, or else cartoonish, pseudo-anthropological markings. Later works, with printed images recalling both his early raster dot paintings and his concurrent photocopier experiments, play with art-historical precedents. An untitled 1993 painting has the bottle and wine glasses of a modernist still life; a 2002 artwork intermingles a coral circle-patterned quilt with what appears to be a rejigged rococo tapestry.
In a 1977 text, Polke likened the experience of art to “not being able to defend yourself . . . or the desperate effort not to want to.” That is the effect of a painting such as The Raven, 1996: It includes a ground of both plaid and nautical-themed fabrics and a Gothic sketch of man and bird that is partially painted over in an uncontrolled skim of white oil paint. The work calls into question his sincerity and intelligibility—and our own desire for the same. Nevertheless, these smaller Polke shows have the (perhaps unavoidable) tendency to make Polke easily defensible. The genius of Halbreich’s MoMA retrospective was that, for all its rigor, it insisted that Polke was in fact uncontainable. This show and the other two on view in New York now have their reasons to pin Polke down, but I suspect he’ll slip away again.
Any account of Chris Ofili’s career will invoke the scandal around his rise to prominence in the 1990s, when he merged large-scale figuration with old-fashioned base materialism. His Holy Virgin Mary, 1997, was nearly banned when it debuted at the Brooklyn Museum, but his “afro lovers” and resin-coated elephant dung would reappear, including at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where he turned the British pavilion into a nocturnal redoubt.
Ofili’s American retrospective highlights his play of light and contrast and showcases a decade of new work, including forays into sculpture and theatrical design and refinements of earlier interests in drawing and portraiture. Many ’90s-era paintings are on display, and they are worth the price of admission. Widely circulated in reproduction, those paintings take on new power when encountered here. Larger than life, drizzled with resin, and festooned with map pins and glitter, their psychedelic landscapes are revealed as an intricate network of color and line. Curators now, as they have done in the past, try to read politics into the work, but Ofili’s skill as formalist is contribution enough.
Two galleries show the artist in maximalist mode: He flaunts his influences (Matisse, Bacon, Douglas, Warhol) but synthesizes them fluidly, aided by soft lighting that produces an ethereal experience of immersive looking. Nine oil paintings (2006–2014) nearly occlude their content, rendered in deep blues and hung like Rothkos; a garish suite of more narrative scenes hang on walls reimagined as the textile work of a scene shop. They blur the line between work and display, and utterly transfigure the New Museum’s blank surfaces. Ofili is off in new directions, and seemingly in grand modernist fashion.
The current, malign vogue for wearable gadgets could have panned out so much better if Nam June Paik were still around, there to remind us to interrogate, to laugh at, or to disrupt technology rather than accept it wholesale. His TV Bra for Living Sculpture, 1975, a pair of screens sported by a nude Charlotte Moorman, or TV Penis, 1972, a sort of television condom worn during a performance at The Kitchen, imbricated technology and the human body, but not into some cyborg third term. Even with his TV Cello, 1971, which Moorman played in a kind of carnal embrace, new media was used to enable new forms of human eroticism and potentialities, rather than to subordinate bodies to machines, or worse, corporations.
In this way, Paik—trained as a composer—might be much closer to Richard Wagner, the original tech-obsessed erotic mastermind of “the artwork of the future,” than to his alleged successors using tech for tech’s sake. This selective exhibition, the first in New York since Paik’s death in 2006, revalorizes Paik's sculptural works (notably the early radio-controlled assemblage Robot K-456, 1964) and reemphasizes his views of new media, which were, like Wagner’s, prescient but ultimately too romantic. Long before the rise of the Web, Paik saw television as not a one-to-many transmission, but a more plural affair in which individuals could intercede and reconstitute the mechanisms of broadcasting. Younger artists or anyone still naively confusing technology with progress would do well to heed Paik’s words from 1965: “Cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important.”