“Three Cups Fragrance” takes its name from tea consumed in three successive brews of the same leaves. The précis offers tasting notes about this tea without a hint of further commentary. Routine, privately comforting, to recycle drink while savoring its transformations is not the action of one struggling to impress a visitor. But to watch the quiet concept of this show divide along a group of formally distinctive works is mesmerizing in its humorous light touch.
Oto Gillen’s portrait of a helicopter (Untitled, 2014), overdressed in double matting and a frame of sculpted corrugated cardboard, is one of several photographic pieces here whose figurative straightness contrasts with conspicuous concern for its support. The banged-up backing of Kyle Thurman’s gridded equine trade photos (A Possible Cast, 2014) echoes the images’ ephemeral utility, while Tom Humphreys’s crowning Untitled (Radiant Striped Edge, Man in Blue Jacket), 2014, absurdly monumentalizes a pedestrian whose shirt and jacket match the color of his iPhone, on a ceramic reproduction of a paper plate.
From here, the show performs a flip that’s reminiscent of a lens’s inversion of its intake, with traditionally mounted photographs whose textural focus brings them almost to abstraction, as in Moyra Davey’s playful 1979 triptych Tattoos and Elizabeth Atterbury’s gorgeous documents of staged sculptural environments, which could even be mistaken for photograms (especially Black Beach, 2014). A lone work in the round sits at the center of the gallery: Lukas Geronimas’s Custom Tub, 2014. This graffiti-etched fixture feels right at home, a culmination of the surrounding artworks’ sculptural desires. Layered with graphite, its rich silver looks as if it might have just come from the inside of a photograph. One thinks less about what it is doing here than how photography, with its chemical baths, became as intimate and necessary as our own bathing and cups of tea.
Hundreds of cutouts from a 1960s Italian book series featuring masterpieces of sculpture have been propped up on a round table that spans eighteen feet in diameter in Geoffrey Farmer’s latest exhibition. There is Desiderio da Settignano’s Bust of a Young Woman, Giambologna’s Appennino, Constantin Brancusi’s Maiastra, Michelangelo’s David, and Antoine Le Moiturier’s hooded monks, nudes, medieval saints, small children, and tiny animals. Part of the installation Boneyard, 2013, the paper figurines stand as sculptures would, intimating the flatness of being Photoshopped in spacea slideshow of Western sculpture from antiquity to modernism in the round.
In the next room, a more traditional slideshow, Look in My Face; My Name Is Might-Have-Been, I Am Also Called No-More, Too-Late, Farewell, 2013, shuffles through political snapshots, anonymous portraits, ethnographic studies, and then-genre scenes of work, leisure, agriculture, and industry. A history is told by the shifting film stock—sepia to Kodachrome; black-and-white to dye transferthe tonal qualities reflecting the technological changes in film as new methods for printing enter the mass market. The clamor of disjointed percussion accompany the slideshow, alternating between a synced pattern with the images (footfalls on the stairs) and random sounds guided by a computer algorithm.
Farmer’s subject matter is time, he states, cut and reordered. This nonlinearity entices a contemplation of the looming past alongside a suspended present, which is made acute by the juxtaposition of cacophonous noises and the disquieting muteness of the photographic artifact.
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.
Starting a fire by striking a man’s face—is it a feminist idea? Match-bust, 1973, looks like a big matchstick with a human head for a tip. It’s twenty inches tall, but still you can imagine dragging it along a brick wall or a curb, rubbing off the nose and brow to get a light. This poetic piece by Birgit Jürgenssen (1949–2003) is one of a handful of early, Surrealist-influenced sculptures grouped in the center of the gallery. Another great one, Untitled (Horse), 1973, looks like a child’s hobbyhorse—except that a wavy dick sticks up from the seat of its hand-sewn velvet saddle. The phallic horse is echoed in a later work, Unicorn, 1991, a grid of photos that includes images of a table-saw blade, a solarized flower, and a serious woman posing in a unicorn costume. Most of the works on view are from the 1980s and 1990s, and employ experimental photographic processes: Jürgenssen painted with developer and fixer, scratched her prints, and used multiple exposures, photograms, and cyanotype in her dark, dreamy compositions.
She is best known for her participation in the Austrian feminist art movement of the 1970s. Along with her contemporaries, Jürgenssen protested art-world sexism and made works such as the iconic Housewives’ Kitchen Apron, 1975, for which she photographed herself burdened by a cartoonish oven around her neck. None of her mid-1970s pieces that so explicitly attack gender strictures are included in this exhibition, and the accompanying press release notes with ambivalence that the artist’s feminist reputation may have overwritten the complexity of her oeuvre. It’s sobering to consider that this aspect of her artistic-political identity might constrain an understanding of her diverse practice. This smart estate show provides a sampling not of “feminist art” but rather a sampling of three decades of elegantly caustic work by an overlooked feminist artist.
The area on the outskirts of painting, photography, and graphic design is a rocky place to set up camp, but Sara Greenberger Rafferty does just that, deftly, with the multivalent works in her latest show. On view are largely ink-jet prints on acetate—the product of variations on a technique that the artist has explored since 2012. Upon certain pieces, the artist has poured paint and solvents, and then mounted the cracked, shiny results onto Plexiglas.
The elements of each artwork oscillate between order and entropy, as if salvaged from a postapocalyptic world and then preserved in their sorry states. Some of their Plexiglas surfaces are punctuated by a constellation of screws: violent moments of humor. Frequently, a single representational element—usually boldly graphic, often implying a human presence—appears amid an abstract environment of drips and swaths of paint. Untitled, 2014, for instance, features the “woman” Isotype (found on bathroom doors) floating about shades of mauve. Curtain, 2014, depicts a drooping microphone at waist height: Against a silk background that’s entirely white, the instrument could be a prop held by an invisible comedian acting out a dick joke.
There are both finish fetish echoes and Pictures generation concerns trickling through the show—a fascination with the materials that make up surface, and a tongue-in-cheek treatment of mass-market imagery. But in the end, the works are wholly contemporary: Rafferty carves new ground, taking a wry, sideways look at portrait-making traditions widely embraced to this day.
Matt Hoyt’s sculptures resemble stones, sticks, shells, and geometric curios individually not much larger than a golf ball or quail egg. He presents these pieces in tidy museological arrangements of two or three (sometimes more) and rests the groupings on flat, hand-cast sheets of MDF and polyurethane bases that have been dyed in muted hues to amplify the objects’ organic-seeming patinas. Speaking in the historical vocabulary of the objet trouvé, these small sculptures are bits of sly fiction. What appear to be pebbles or exotic sea shells are actually constructions of various putties, tempera paint, and the occasional cameo of other materials—bits of metal, plastic, or wood. These mediums are intimately handled in their process of becoming sculpture: Hoyt often spends months carefully laboring over, revising, and living with each one. Likewise, the finished works themselves invite handling and affective caress, offering a sympathetic surface that absorbs that most effervescent of earthly energies: the human touch.
In his latest presentation, Hoyt for the first time shows his works and their flat, colored bases on freestanding tables that he also designed, allowing visitors 360-degree access to the works (previously, the works were presented on wall-bound shelves). With unconstrained visual access, viewers can now explore the many crevices, recesses, and details of each work. A pearl-white, hollowed-out protrusion (with a mysterious slit) seems to have been the home of some imaginary deep-sea mollusk; a sun-stained pebble seems to tell the story of the deep Southwestern canyon where it was formed millennia ago. In this liberalized mode of display, the works now more than ever seem to resemble evidentiary material from fictive natural processes in the stories they tell—stories that are, in fact, only the hushed voice of a patient and subtle artist at work.
It’s said that it takes two decades for cultural nostalgia to solidify; after this time, past trends can revive as ironic countercurrents to the present fashions. In “Gold Diamond Park,” Gabriele Beveridge’s debut solo exhibition in New York, the artist juxtaposes sculptural elements to self-consciously question the criteria for trading and exhibiting ideals of beauty. Her work simultaneously evaluates the processes by which aesthetics fade out and return as cultural currency.
Exemplary is a series of seven tableaux of perforated metal panels that the artist took from the ceiling of a library in East London, where she lives and works. Their time-worn surfaces appear as aloof, wall-fixed minimalist grids encased in voguish iPhone 5–style lime, lemon, and pale-blue borders. Framed differently, these offhand historical references take on the look of what is currently salable, implicating the markets of high and low culture in a mutual reprocessing.
In Gold Diamond Park [Silver] (all works 2014), plastic hoops hang like gymnastic rings above a mannequin holding a feather to a crystal ball. Here, divination reflects uncertainties surrounding investments of the present: How will this artist, this body of work, the weight of this idea measure up in the future? A clue: No Questions exhibits a sun-bleached beauty advertisement and tie-dyed T-shirt on shop-display fittings behind a pane of glass. Like the faded affiche’s promise of an ideal look, this psychedelic garment––an accoutrement of 1970s counterculture cool, later resuscitated as a ’90s fad––is here preserved as acquirable high art. Wait long enough, and even forgotten kitsch could one day be worth its weight in gold.
“The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the coming of the dusk,” Hegel wrote in 1820, which is to say, before the world ends, no critique is possible. There is no flight to be seen in Ann Lislegaard’s cool, enigmatic 3D animation of animatronic owls, their faceted white feathers in glistening high definition, and not much Minervan clarity either. The birds in Oracles, Owls . . . Some Animals Never Sleep, 2014, seen earlier this year at the Nineteenth Biennale of Sydney, are antiprophets who speak simultaneously in indecipherable bursts that are interrupted with sonic glitches. A few phrases borrowed from the I Ching can be made out through the static and feedback: “building relationships,” or “destroying machines.” Fragments that once prophesied change or fortune now just recede into our perpetual feed of blips and bloops.
Lislegaard, one of numerous Norwegian artists now winning international prominence, has a long-standing interest in science fiction. Oracle, Owls references Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and its dystopian character carries through to her other black-and-white video here. Dobaded, 2014, takes its name from a word coined by the experimental Japanese sci-fi writer Chiaki Kawamata in his novel, Death Sentences, where characters fall into a realm beyond consciousness after getting the word stuck in their heads. Lislegaard’s 3D animation takes place in a similar dream state, floating through domestic spaces whose dimensions seem to vary with each passage. Along with a blatant shout-out to J. G. Ballard, whose work appears on a bookshelf, the ghost of Duchamp hovers: There’s a spinning wheel, and the camera gets caught in a web of string recalling his 1942 sixteen-mile tangle. Then the owl appears again, auguring a future not of wisdom but of emptiness.
Daniel Gordon locates his photographs through a triangulation of painting, collage, and cutout. His C-prints compose still-life fare in complex tableaux, which he lights in-studio and captures on large-format film. Sourced from the Internet and cut freehand from printer paper, each element is inserted in a topography that makes little effort to disguise its seams. Plants sport skeins of hot glue; vases build up from clipped geometries; and apples resemble disused origami. Paper figures as a material at once volumetric and planar, drawn into space through facets and folds or collapsed into flatness by an abruptly scissored edge.
In Summer Fruit (all works 2014), Technicolor edibles occupy a field of clashing dots, checkers, and stripes. If the still life has historically been keyed to imaginative consumption, presenting spreads for the viewer to fictively digest, Gordon’s scene precludes the same. His watermelons are conspicuously shrink-wrapped, his strawberries an unculinary cyan. Nature is made luridly artificial, as if to parody the still life as an art-historical cliché, wherein foodstuffs become vehicles of symbolic elaboration: a peach for fecundity, a peeled lemon for transience. Like the other photographs on view, Summer Fruit courts overdetermination. Apples and artfully rumpled tablecloths recall Cézanne’s late still lifes, while jars with doubled, upturned lids invoke Cubism’s signature mode of de- and recomposition.
This is to suggest that, for all their disjuncture, Gordon’s C-prints are deeply familiar. Photographic space is dispersed only to be consolidated under the sign of modernist painting and papier collé. It’s a seductive gesture, though one whose implications, both for photography and for modernism, are not entirely clear.
Two silhouettes cut from sheet vinyl, one black, one butterscotch, hang from two coat hangers that are looped through wire to the canvas’s upmost edge. Slung against an acrylic gradient (pink-rimmed azure melted in lavender), each silhouette traces the contours of a body once full but now flayed: an enervated membrane, all surface and no sex. Sterile yet strangely seductive, like moltings from a space being, they treat the body as schema or sieve, limp and radically inorganic.
The piece, Hanging, by Kiki Kogelnik was made in 1970 as part of a series of cutouts traced from human forms and executed in silky, slick resins. A transplant to New York from Austria, Kogelnik settled downtown in 1962, where she befriended Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Carolee Schneemann, among others. (Claes, not on view here but made the same year as Hanging, takes the soft sculptor’s body as its template.) Her early art informel–style paintings quickly yielded to work that indexed the city’s emergent Pop aesthetic, grafting its concerns with high-tech materials, synthetic color, and transfer techniques such as silk-screening and stenciling onto her commitment to militant feminism.
Spanning 1964 to 1971, the twelve works on view mine the possibilities of the human in the age of Sputnik and spectacle. Scissors emerge as Kogelnik’s tool of choice, which she conceived of as both a surgical implement and a feminist weapon, in the manner of Valerie Solanas or Hannah Höch. Women’s Lib, 1971, shows a silk-screened Kogelnik, her skin a martian shade of green, wielding a pair of oversize scissors over a tangle of hangings. It’s a fitting self-portrait for an artist who considered the body a schizoid thing, disjunct and always desiring.
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.”