A well-established figure in the history of experimental cinema, Len Lye’s stature in art history, especially as a crucial link between the early avant-garde of animation and mid-century modernism, has not been properly championed in the United States. This new exhibition makes significant strides towards rectifying that, as well as introducing a body of drawings, paintings, and memorably mysterious photograms never before exhibited, along with documentation of his kinetic sculptures. The foundation of Lye’s practice, which began in the 1920s and continued all the way until his death in 1980, was to visually convey the feeling of motion, primarily constructed with lines, as in his series of eleven small pencil drawings, “Sketch for Motion Composition,” 1938. Bold, unfussy marks congregate and crosshatch, elongating into dervish-like forms with each successive drawing, in tune with his fantastical sketches for monumental sculptures nearby encased that had to wait for technology to catch up to their ingenuity.
A looping selection of the artist’s short films takes over the downstairs gallery. Anticipating Stan Brakhage by decades, films such as A Colour Box, 1935, and Trade Tattoo, 1937, pioneered direct filmmaking with their complex printing, color grading, and direct-drawing techniques. In the latter, utilizing black-and-white outtakes from the British General Post Office’s Film Unit’s documentaries, Lye transforms through sprightly editing, racing patterns, and a Cuban orchestra score what was once excess footage of labor into a superb modernist work. The film is an exuberant declaration of the accumulative beauty and civic virtue of industry circulating across land and sea, flashing such declarations as “The rhythm of trade is maintained by the mails” before cutting to a train speeding by in the night, abstract shapes bopping and dashing across the composition, and colors exploding like fireworks. With straightforward intentions and a clear premise, Len Lye created work far ahead of its time and deserving of ours now.
Polished pictures of a floating world, Sarah Charlesworth’s series “Objects of Desire,” 1983–88, once aptly injected beauty where it didn’t belong—deconstruction, postmodernism, Conceptualism—and inspired her peers and later generations to do the same. The images have aged very well. Today, these key works by the late artist come together as potent omens for our decontexualized image glut and herald her own long-standing interests—gender, politics, myth, and magic. Cut out from various books and magazines, the fragments are isolated on viscous, searing Cibachrome backgrounds and range from David Bowie as Golden Boy on black to a Black Woman on white, and are paired in lacquered frames of the same color that often touch and overlap, as in Figures (all 1983–84), where Marlene Dietrich’s silky gown against black is compared and contrasted with a satin bondage body suit on red—conscious meets subconscious.
At once collage and color studies, the series feels painterly and sculptural at the same time that it deeply roots Charlesworth as a photographer, a role that she always treated as a problem rather than simply adapting the medium as her métier and subject. Most of all, the work serves as a somber reminder of just how ahead of her time she typically was. Charlesworth divorced these images from their contexts not only to abstract them from how they would be normally seen, but also to tap into their alluring symbolic meaning. They leave a lasting mark in one’s mind, as did she.
In “Iodine Poisoning,” Andrei Koschmieder presents a body of beguiling works that suggest a young artist ready to realize museum-scale ambitions. Stacked against one wall of the gallery are his corrugated metal boxes, tricky sculptures (or paintings) that may resemble steel heating units or perhaps just evoke “industry.” Their striking realism and rusty patina invites closer viewing with a readymade’s fetishistic appeal. But keen observers will quickly note their material lightness: Constructed from paper, these fake steels are sturdy, but their rusty exteriors are hand-painted facades. In place of the cockroaches that inhabit aging city infrastructure, Koschmieder populates his metal boxes with shrimp, a kind of oceanic vermin. The artist’s shrimp are also constructed from paper—ink-jet prints treated with a clear resin finish, which Koschmeider has deployed in previous works. On another wall, he postures his fake steels side by side like paintings. There they appear so stiffly crowded against one another that a subtle, sardonic humor emerges. The works seem to be whispering something about contemporary abstraction.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is another large wall installation that similarly rewards with a redeeming, jocund lightness emerging from of an initially perceived heaviness. Call it a nitrous-oxide high. The wall, completely wallpapered by the artist, presents a cluster of heavy, black ink clouds. The clouds give way to a series of monoprints created with the ink-coated body of a real squid. The method evokes Gyotaku printmaking—an eighteenth-century technique used by Japanese fishermen to document the size of more impressive catches. Koschmieder's biggest catch might be his ensnared audience—drawn in to the heaviness of abstraction, which the artist swiftly disperses—like a squirt of ink in a corrosive, unsympathetic sea.
One can spy the first objects in this exhibition from the street: a beanbag chair and a marble table decked with an elaborate floral arrangement, like the collision of a condominium lobby and a basement rec room. Only, the marble is laminate, and the struts holding it aloft are not polished brass, but cheap trophy components, while the beanbag, for its part, has been carefully, even lovingly tiled—a mosaic technique that Rocklen has plied in the past on a gamut of domestic cast-offs, from old mattresses to ratty rugs.
In the main space of the gallery, this disposition to preserve domestic life has taken on mausoleum proportions. The artist has cast the contents of his closet: neatly folded shirts and slacks in porcelain, which are hung around the perimeter of the gallery, as well as several pairs of copper-plated shoes placed casually beside a door in the center of the room. The door has been heavily graffitied on the far side and each tag inlaid with gold or silver leaf so that the double-speak of the signature (“I was here,” and “I am here no longer”) shimmers out of this threshold to nowhere. Finally, there is Brian, 2004, a life-size terracotta figure in overalls, suspended inside a scaffold made from more trophy parts. Winged victory, ever more modestly scaled in a culture where every kid gets a trophy, crowns the achievement. A wry response to Charles Ray, perhaps, who immortalized Rocklen in the buff for his recent Matthew Marks exhibition, Brian is the gisant to this place where the stuff that makes up a life—our small expressions of individual taste, our little victories—can find a home. A place, in other words, between basement and foyer, personal hideaway and uninhabited space, otherwise called a tomb.
An eponymous poem by Rebecca Horn is the unseen backbone to “The Vertebrae Oracle,” the artist’s first solo show in New York since 2011. Honoring what would have been her friend Méret Oppenheim’s one-hundredth birthday, the poem describes an androgynous oracle—“circling / pulsing / bird-proud”—protected by stars but exposed to elements. Activated by motion detectors, Horn’s kinetic sculptures—along with paintings—carefully reprise both her poem’s narrative as well as quintessential imagery and themes of her work. The series embodies a fresh, quiet focus, and the paintings, scrawled with text, together create a landscape of shimmering marks that convey the artist’s fascination with the airy, structural lyricism of a spinal chord freed of connective tissue.
Light and motion are explored in Marcel Duchamp’s Montgolfiere, 2014, a wall-mounted grouping of mirrored discs that cheekily orbit under a spotlight around one of Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs. The sculpture casts a shape-shifting shadow while reflecting ellipses of light around the room, recalling Horn’s earlier mirror installations. Periodically, the light illuminates a vitrine resembling a terrarium, Metamorphoses between Rock and Butterfly, 2014, which houses a reproduction of the titular insect, perched atop a volcanic formation; tiny rotating gears mimic the joints of flapping, iridescent blue wings with the calibrated exactness of a Swiss watch.
A Bourgeoisian idea of the protective cage also carries through Horn’s sculptures: A centerpiece, Revelation of a Tree, 2014, sprouts a nest of winding branches from a low platform. Nine large brass needles affixed to the branches slowly close to meet at a perfect point, like a sea anemone guarding its mouth. Containing natural and motorized elements, three nearby sculptures performatively mimic the tides and movements of nature, perhaps suggesting that all life is a series of gears whirring in unison. By opening cages and separating connective tissue, Horn compels an awareness of machinelike order, crystallizing the power of her folkloric Vertebrae Oracle—and, indeed, of Horn herself.
You can leave your antihistamines at the door. “Allergies,” the title of Sanya Kantarovsky’s first solo exhibition in New York, might best be taken like the old pharmakon: an irritant in the largely bloodless body of contemporary painting that acts, marvelously, as a philter. The eighteen works here are huge in ambition and gratification. Kantarovsky’s work was formerly mood driven, vignettes centered around a dandy in states of creative duress. In these recent paintings, the artist has plunged headfirst into the headiest relations: power struggles between genders and classes, and art-historical confrontations between French modernism and Agitplakat. Strange Eyes, 2014, a figure group rendered in oils, watercolor, and pastels, measures the distance he has come: Where once there was one, now there are many characters, barnacled around a young man. The repertory thus assembled is so stylistically disjointed—including a moony wraith, a red-faced Capitano, and a death’s-head that looks to have ambled out of James Ensor’s crowds, plus a parrot for good measure—it gives Kantarovsky’s palette a run for its bold money. Veering from lilac to acid green, in scrapes and stains and buttery strokes that build rigorous compositions even as they loosen the spatial logic, his surfaces swell with formal intelligence.
The repertoire in question is no less motley than the players. This suite of paintings travels from Matisse’s seraglios to Gauguin’s yellow meadows to Saint Petersburg’s streets, peopling them with Slavic illustrations and saltimbanques alike, along with a set of props from woven peasant slippers to MacBooks. Art-historical gallimaufry may be as old as modernism itself. But if Kantarovsky has taken a page from Manet’s playbook, his scenarios mesh the old scenes with the “ob-scene,” a history of de-Stalinization and spate of social anxieties that have laid beyond the frame. It’s a real shot in the arm.
In his monumental book, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, the social theorist Niklas Luhmann explored the cultural fusion of intimacy and matrimony, analyzing economic and political influences on love’s changing role in society. Jorinde Voigt’s airy, diagrammatic drawings are a reflection on Luhmann’s writing: Playful and associative, they are a poststructuralist response to his structuralist text, interpretatively assigning a set of visualized systems to codify Voigt’s own experience studying Luhmann’s book. In doing so, Voigt's works seem to reference an ebullient jumble of science metaphors: Using iotas of text—specific phrases and graphemes that resonate with her on an intuitive level—she builds pictorial information chains, which she in turn compounds into matrices. The result is a series of vast, graceful images that embody nuanced conversations between the components.
Voigt is known for her lyrical sensibility as well as her calibrated approach to creating artwork. She is a classically trained musician from a family of scientists. If in past series, her imagery has specifically conjured graph-like linear systems—based on such exact references as musical scores, sound waves, linguistic structures, and mathematical algorithms—then these new drawings, inspired by Luhmann’s nonlinear writing, evoke a more biological take, as they track the evolution from one literary moment to the next. Voigt collages metallic leaf in varying tones alongside swaths of marigold, coral, and azure to create unusual floating forms with an illustrative impishness; the resulting pictures resemble space-age landscapes occupied by mercurial creatures. Her works are innately didactic: She carefully structures the bulbous shapes, framing each with a draftsman’s delicate, curved lines and handwritten text annotations. Ultimately, her drawings function as cognitive maps, as meaning multiplies from passages of text and grows into webs of association. As Voigt regards Luhmann’s discourse on societal structures enabling love, her drawings delineate her own way of reconciling information through whimsical interpretation, shaping an elegant visual reality from the tangles of language.
The premise of “Wet Light,” Bill Jenkins’s second solo show with Laurel Gitlen, establishes a lofty, almost fantastic goal: the transfiguration of light into a malleable, containable substance. Taking on the primary element of Brian O’Doherty’s white cube, Jenkins sets a glittering prelude, with twisted metallic sheets in the gallery windows, and he offers his viewers a disclaimer for his poetic intentions: “Technically it’s not going to work very well.”
Apprehension aside, his initial goal materializes in a series of vents, which Jenkins calls “ductwork,” unceremoniously duct-taped under inky masses of black plastic sheeting, which lead to a utilitarian-looking basin on the far-right wall. A soft, eerie glow draws the viewer to this would-be pool, where three sculptural apparatuses release the light siphoned from the installation in the gallery windows. The middle piece is especially noteworthy, a cylindrical metal tube that deposits its electromagnetic cache in a dazzling array of patterns on the floor of the basin.
On the other end of a narrow cinder-block hallway is a second cistern, a small room enclosed floor to ceiling in opaque plastic sheeting, which glows from a skylight and transposes the same eggshell brightness of the first basin on the entirety of the space. While the contrast of this overtly luminous Cistern 2, 2014, is aesthetically pleasing, it lacks the grandeur and transformative ambition of its caliginous cousin. In the end, it is the fluidity of “Wet Light” that bests Jenkins’ infrastructure, with his alchemic aspirations delivering some compelling moments of visual and conceptual poetry.
Kristan Kennedy’s New York solo debut is a tour de force of painterly process. Kennedy works on unstretched, unraveling expanses of raw Belgian linen—soaking, machine washing, scrubbing, and occasionally brushing sumi, dye, and pigment into the tawny, textured material for months at a time. Within their final state, color and form swirl and fade, melting before our eyes into an atmospheric vision punctuated by flimsy skims of gesso and bits of road-crushed aluminum that cling to the surfaces like scabby jewels. The work’s intense dialectic of beauty and repulsion mirrors the artist’s philosophical struggles—we sense that both artist and artwork have gone through the wringer—together—to achieve the hard-won grace so palpable in the work.
In past exhibitions, Kennedy has draped the paintings over walls and furniture, allowing them to spill across the floor—speaking to the work’s domesticity. But here, the artist pushes the work into new territory, exploring the armature as a means for activating its indigenous kineticism, allowing them to bend and shift, grazing one another. The works are untethered, changeably formless objects in a resting state that brings to mind the question of their next iteration.
In the exhibition’s most engaging grouping, three paintings (E.P.R.S.N., 2014; B.O.M., 2014; and W.R.D.R.M.R.N.G., 2013) hang over the thin, protruding arms of a fine brass “rack” installed directly into the gallery walls. The adjustable rods allow Kennedy to reposition the paintings at will throughout the run of the show. At times they hug the walls, at other times they protrude into the space, creating little nooks large enough for a person to hide inside. Enveloped by the paintings, their emotional intensity becomes strangely reassuring, as though part of a larger story or theatrical narrative. Kennedy often titles her works with enigmatic anagrams, drawing our awareness to the more private and literary aspects of their distressed and sensual evolution.
José Esteban Muñoz’s scholarship catalyzed academics and artists alike around the utopian possibilities of queer world-making. His 1996 essay “Ephemera as Evidence” argued for “traces, glimmers, residues, and specks” as affirmation of minoritarian lives. The essay provides the titular inspiration for this Visual AIDS exhibition, cocurated by two of Muñoz’s former students, Joshua Lubin-Levy and Ricardo Montez. The timely show pays tribute to Muñoz, who passed away unexpectedly in December, through its curatorial emphasis on the performative and pedagogical models at the heart of Muñoz’s thinking.
Queer acts of performance and their material traces figure prominently. Jack Waters and Peter Cramer’s À la recherche du temps trouvé, 2014, is an ecstatic set-piece installation replete with costumes and trinkets that will house performances during the exhibition. Also on display are materials from the archive of the infamous party scene the Clit Club (1990–2002), including an original uniform, a safer-sex handbook for lesbians, and cassettes of DJ sets from the festivities. These indexes—both archival and activated—evince queer worlds and support Muñoz’s conception of their radical potential.
Students from Ricardo Montez’s New School course Queer Art and the Legacy of AIDS have also assisted in curating a significant portion of the intergenerational exhibition. A standout of this pedagogical approach is the up-and-coming Kia Labeija, who curated a display by Jessica Whitbread and also has her own photographs included in the exhibition. Two of Labeija’s stunning self-portraits intimately grieve the loss of her mother to AIDS-related complications: In Mourning Sickness, 2014, Labeija lies huddled in a bathroom staring sorrowfully, while in Kia and Mommy, 2014, Labeija leans in her bedroom with a similarly anguished gaze, clutching a photograph of her mother. Though a palpable sense of loss hangs over the exhibition—evoking Muñoz as well as those who have passed in the wake of the AIDS crisis—the art and ephemera displayed here stands as enduring witness to these vanishings.
Southern comfort comes at a cost. Or at least, so suggests Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Vegan Arm, 2006, a skeletal limb offering up a pail of what looks like Pepto Bismal at the entrance to “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South.” The group show of thirty-five artists subscribes to the Southern Gothic notion of a land of patched roofs and porch swings, where imagination is as fertile as the soil, and artistic production can be directly tied to visions. The danger with fetishizing the South as a spiritual intoxicant, however, is that those who drink too deeply risk indigestion.
Hancock’s sculpture is part of the artist’s elaborate self-scripted mythology around “Mounds,” human-plant hybrids threatened by the evil race of “Vegans,” but his is only one of the visionary universes glimpsed within the exhibition, which surveys such “outsider” artists as Minnie Evans, Bessie Harvey, Marie “Big Mama” Roseman, and J. B. Murray. The last, for instance, an illiterate farmer from rural Georgia, produced thousands of calligraphic scrawls—“the language of the Holy Spirit, direct from God”—after an eagle appeared to him. Other manifestations are contaminated by a murky undercurrent of voodoo, detectable in works by John Outterbridge, David Hammons, James “Son” Thomas, Rudy Shepherd, and even Ralph Lemon, who photographs eerie, animal-masked figures in low-income interiors. The exhibition is at its richest when it embraces the erotic permissiveness associated with the Deep South. Witness the sloppy pansexuality permeating drawings by Henry Speller and his wife Georgia; the grinning hijinks of the pastel, Pokémon-like creatures populating Frank Albert Jones’s “Devil Houses”; or Patricia Satterwhite’s sketches of potential QVC commodities, with their lurid, TV-ready taglines.
That said, the show buckles when it tries to force inspiration, as with the calculated spontaneity of Xaviera Simmons’s The Favorable Outcome of Every Navigation, 2014, and Courtesy the Artist’s 24-Hour Ballad, 2013–14, which invited friends and collaborators to offer their own interpretation of the folk standard “Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair),” to mixed results. The thing about a Southern drawl is that one can always tell when it’s affected.
As New York lurches out of a punishing winter into a temperamental if not completely aborted spring, Jason Loebs focuses his second solo exhibition at this gallery on the evanescent properties and manifestations of heat. In a briskly poetic essay on the topic—distributed at the gallery—Loebs meditates on the symbolic harmonies between thermal energy and Bataille’s notions of Marxian surplus value, networked economies, and hot microprocessors mining exotic cryptocurrencies, thermographic imagery, and recycling programs for “waste” heat.
In the back room, Loebs turns mats of carbon-heating film—electricity-powered sheets of plastic installed on spa floors and under domestic floor tiles—into freestanding, cylindrical sculptures. With a light touch, he transforms technology that lends perambulatory comfort to something that demands to be walked around rather than over, at once charting new motions for both visitors and the air, which invisibly rises as it is heated. In the main gallery, a new suite of abstractions substitute black thermal paste for oil paint—a material used to conduct heat out of engaged CPUs into copper heat sinks. Rather than cooling busy circuitry, these works absorb ambient thermal energy and transfer them to inert, indifferent white canvas supports—a pessimistic model, perhaps, for today’s accelerating, socially driven, and exchange-oriented culture of art collecting.
In this theater of thermodynamic motions, it’s easy to find oneself strangely stilled in front of the show’s most powerful work. Near the gallery entrance, a museological arrangement of various precious and semiprecious ores used to manufacture computer equipment suggest astral origins but belie a patrimony of online overseas merchants. The artist’s only modification of these rocks is a light application of security ink, something used by nation states (and counterfeiters) to authenticate or “sign” monetary notes and legal documents. While historically an artist's signature asserts authenticity and indelible origin, Loebs's signatory gesture rather implies one state in a chain of material trafficking.
There’s an unsalutary air about Nancy Grossman’s wall-bound assemblages: a sense of impaction or suppurated swell like a beetle squished then left to harden. For all their blunt materiality, her bas-reliefs, produced between 1964 and ’67, invite metaphor. Elaborated on canvas reinforced with plywood, each consists of leather artifacts—gloves, jackets, boots, harnesses, and so forth—which Grossman has deconstructed and collaged with bits of mangled wood, metal, rubber, and rope. Color is subdued, restricted to reddish browns and black acrylic, which coats the scavenged debris and canvas ground: here, a desultory splotch; there, a faux-AbEx drip. The results, hung alongside a selection of drawings and three freestanding forms, straddle painting and sculpture.
Consider Mummy, 1965, a buckled accretion of tubing, sheet metal, and machine parts atop canvas. Scabrous, peeling, and aggressively odd, Grossman’s miscreation seems a direct counter to the steel geometries of David Smith, to whom one of the show’s assemblages is dedicated. If Smith’s process of welding mimed that of industrial facture, Grossman’s channels the economy’s underside: the discards of the machine age, made archaic by the economy’s incipient transition from industry to information. Though rusted and disused, her materials are strangely vital. Their animism is heightened by the work’s title, which names a mass of embalmed flesh imagined to possess the uncanny ability to come to life.
Grossman’s art is often read as a landscape of psychic pain: an exorcism of childhood traumas, of the sort that rhymes more with AbEx anguish than 1960s cool. As the slang for mother, “mummy” does little to dispel such readings. Discomfiting, tortured, raw: Such adjectives cast Grossman as a feminist action hero, enacting the violence of Vietnam (1965 marked the deployment of American combat troops overseas) in material form. Piling up junk with suffocating density, her assemblages perform dystopia not through destruction, but through manic, heaving construction. There’s apocalypse here and fascination in the aftermath.
“With Hidden Noise,” a sound installation curated by artist Stephen Vitiello and organized by Independent Curators International, benefits greatly from its location just outside Manhattan, nestled in a quiet public garden in the Bronx. The exhibition consists of just a few speakers in an otherwise empty space, looping a selection of work by some of today’s leading sonic artists, such as Michael J. Schumacher and Pauline Oliveros. Yet the installation also encompasses the surrounding architecture, the shifting levels of natural light, and the competing white noise. The wall text asks visitors to listen “with ears they may not know they had”: to focus not only on the nuances of each piece but the act of that sense itself. This is an exhibition about listening, wherein Vitiello traces a lineage for contemporary sound art in the charged silences of Fluxus performances, as in John Cage’s seminal 4'33", which forced audience members to acknowledge the sounds of the concert space or of their own restless bodies.
In the spirit of Fluxus, close listening and curiosity are rewarded throughout a diverse selection of works; we search for the origins of sounds, be they borrowed or invented, digital or analog, scored or spontaneous. Several pieces foreground contrast: Jennie C. Jones’s Piccolo Largo, 2008/2011, sets the titular instrument’s high, extended siren against a fast-paced tuba score. Steve Roden’s ambrotos, 2011, creates an ambient soundscape through patient repetition. In the curator’s own contribution, Yellow (from Four Color Sound), 2008, sharp, metallic currents blend with organic instrumental tones. Throughout each piece, noises jump between channels, circulating from one speaker to the next and revealing the inherently spatial quality of sound.
Gone are Kara Walker’s signature decal-flat silhouettes; no longer, in her latest show, do viewers confront two-dimensional, Rabelaisian scenes replete with characters ambiguously propositioning, fondling, dancing, and otherwise interacting with each other. Commissioned by Creative Time, Walker’s latest installation is scaled up, monumentalized, and experienced in the round. Its centerpiece, a thirty-five-foot-tall, seventy-five-foot long black woman, is constructed from sugar and posed like a sphinx. Her mien appears both seraphic and perturbed as she holds court, her status as a “mammy” accentuated by a smattering of cherubic figures made from brown sugar and porting baskets of sucrose, who seem to alternately conjure blackamoor figurines and the folkloric character of the tar baby.
Often, postindustrial spaces register as invisible tabula-rasa backdrops for contemporary art, or at most sites whose rough edges enhance the material and formal concerns of the work. (Take the minimalist offerings of Dia:Beacon, a former Nabisco cardboard-printing outfit.) But here Walker explicitly ties her cavernous and dilapidated site—the condemned Domino Sugar Factory—to the specifics of a historical economy predicated on exploitation: the Caribbean sugar-plantation model and the transatlantic slave trade that sustained it. In light of the stereotypes of black women that stem from such rankling chapters of history, the overt, almost august sexuality of Walker’s sphinx is particularly fraught. Visitors leaving the installation come face-to-face with her exposed vulva—while a sign, placed vexingly nearby, encourages viewers to post photos of the sphinx online. Walker once spoke of her work’s preoccupation with “attempts to steal power away from others.” By goading visitors to interact with her sphinx (whether by taking pictures or sneaking daubs of sugar falling from her toes, as someone did the day I visited), Walker has in effect enacted one of her bawdy trademark tableaux. Only now, many of her actors are flesh and blood, and they’re equipped with the tools of social media.
“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.
Supports/Surfaces, the radical painting movement that began in the South of France in the late-1960s, comprised a group of artists that opened works to the spaces around them by decoupling or merging painted surface and physical support. Composition entailed folding, cutting, rolling, staining, or stamping, and materials were drawn from a range of traditional and unorthodox sources. This show, the first of its kind in the United States, finally allows a view onto the group’s efforts to break painting down to its basic structures, procedures, and materials, amid the political and intellectual upheavals following May ’68.
Individually, the exhibited works can seem meager, but together they convey the force of the artists’ bid to maintain painting’s intellectual relevance in the face of challenges from Minimalism and Conceptual art. Claude Viallat’s 1972/108, 1972, superimposes identity and difference with serial hand-painted shapes in ink on fabric that approximate a grid. In Pliage, 1973, Patrick Saytour combines folding and staining to generate a seemingly infinite series of visual permutations. In another work also titled Pliage, André-Pierre Arnal folds his canvas to impress a grid that is unrelated to its surface composition of yellow and green shapes, which have been spray-painted on, leaving us to wonder whether the relationship is a byproduct of the process or its intended result. Striking a humorous and performative note, Louis Cane offers a self-portrait composed of his name and the words ARTISTE-PEINTRE stamped repeatedly in different colors and orientations across the surface.
The Supports/Surfaces artists displayed their works both inside and outside traditional galleries—a gesture that reinforced their objective to open their paintings materially and spatially to the increasingly precarious struggles for political progress unfolding around them. While this connection belongs to history, their challenge to individualism is recognizable in the deconstructive call-and-response between works that might otherwise recede into decoration.
Louise Lawler’s exhibition “NO DRONES” traces the forms of some of her most cited and contested photographs, exchanging color and shadow for reedy, suggestive black lines that interrogate an image’s construction and potential for reading. As Lawler’s prior works have acquired a comfortable aura of notoriety and value within the presentational and commercial apparatus they critique, the artist pivots back onto these referents, reconstructing them as phantom pictures.
Hand On Her Back (traced), 1997/1998/2013, an inkjet print on vinyl adhered to a wall, directly confronts viewers passing through one of the gallery’s aluminum-lined thresholds. It delineates Lawler’s photograph of a cast sculpture depicting Aphrodite on casters at the New York Academy of Fine Arts. The print’s spare, languid marks elegantly toy with viewer desire, as if to reference what remains of the original photograph’s subtle critique after it collected critical acclaim and commercial appeal. This image also returns in a number of smaller, framed prints on which the artist has colored in some outlines with gouache. Covering the entirety of another wall, Pollock and Tureen (traced), 1984/2013, traces one of the artist’s most celebrated images—a domestic scene in which a floral tureen foregrounds the Jackson Pollock drip painting behind it—with baroque grandeur. Here the massive, imposing scale of installation approximates the 1984 work’s considerable position within art history and elevated exchange value. Marking its reappearance largely through absence, the vinyl image’s spectral, monochrome quality strikes a seductive visual paradox worthy of interpretation.
In representing some of her most recognizable works, Lawler makes space for more to be seen. While today’s effluence of images renders pictures increasingly disposable, here the artist subversively continues extending the life span of her photographic work to reengage critical analysis. Living past their previous incarnations, the tracings are indeed like ghosts in the gallery: haunting, seductive, mercurial, evasive.
“Slip” acts as a sort of pharmaceutical downer, sedating our immediate realities into a meditative blur. Brock Enright’s Secret 3 (all works cited 2014) exists as a pair of immaculate Dorito chips sheathed in gold leaf and accompanied by three equally luminous Doritos “flavors.” Here, snack-food banality is sculpturally propelled into extraordinary circumstances, gratifying the most fantastical potential of an otherwise lackluster commodity. A corpse of an actual house cat is installed on the rear wall of the gallery—appearing curiously tranquil despite its gaping stomach cavity and grotesque leathery skin. Aside from this untitled work, Michael E. Smith also presents Bobby, a propane tank with adhered piping, the barbeque necessity turned minimalist ready-made.
Contributions by Alex Da Corte and Rochelle Goldberg exist somewhere between IKEA functionality and altarpieces. Da Corte’s Star Trap (with Bird of Paradise), is a large fuchsia rug with a trapdoor opened to reveal utter darkness, while the hollow metal frame in Goldberg’s sculpture, Horizon in Recline, mimics the form of a living room sofa but has been voided of anything remotely comfortable. Monochromatic paintings by Graham Collins are left obscured behind dilapidated wooden frames and visible only through small slits between torn window tint. Peter Sutherland litters the gallery with his mesmerizing crystals and geodes that blend elements of photography with natural geological formations, which like the adhered photographs, are also records of time passed. Similarly, these and the array of accompanying works are only remnants, corporeal artifacts from the borderland between reality and imagination.
Of the nearly fifty photographs by Hervé Guibert on view here—the largest assembly in the US to date—all but a few exceptions are captured within intimate, directionally lit interiors. As a photographer, journalist, theorist, and AIDS activist, Guibert documented his relations with his friends, lovers, and the social energies around him. His journals—recently translated into a nearly six-hundred-page tome—and photographs showcase a meandering, vigorous subjectivity: insatiably observant, emotionally porous to the forces of everyday life, while seemingly uncaring of his own lyricism.
Guibert frequently photographed within hotel rooms, driven by a desire to testify his presence across temporary settings, and his lover, Thierry, is often depicted within these neutral, homely interiors. Some photographs follow his travels through Palermo, Amsterdam, and Rome. One example, Sienne, 1979, shows a man’s naked back collapsed over a cleared desk. Gleaming rays of light pour in through the open casement windows facing the body and cast a moody aura beneath illuminated, hovering smoke. Guibert approached self-representation evasively, often by photographing the accouterments of his workstations, such as in Table de travail (Worktable), 1985, or in Les lettres de Mathieu (The Letters of Mathieu), 1984, as a shadow peering over a bed strewn with journals and folded letters.
Guibert’s daily writings detail a fixation on disappearance, which stayed with him until his death in 1991 due to complications from an attempted suicide and AIDS. One year prior, he captured Autoportrait de Lieu et Date Totalement Oubliés (Self Portrait of Place and Date Totally Forgotten), 1990—an auguring, overexposed, and icily blurred self-portrait devoid of any surrounding context. After his friend and mentor Michel Foucault passed away in 1984, Guibert photographed his apartment and described the process as “not a pact of forgetting but an act of eternity sealed by the image.” This can be extended to Guibert’s own legacy, which becomes increasingly visible as one observes his photographic records and countless pages of affective notes. In spite of all efforts at self-erasure, his voice remains—too singular to be forgotten.
For his debut at David Lewis, Lund presents only two of his in-demand abstract canvases. These works are an elaboration of earlier efforts at pushing low-quality iPhone photos of iconic works (by Daniel Buren and Martin Kippenberger, in this case) through several layers of distortion and final material realization via silkscreen. One of the work’s more interesting details is how the unprimed, raw canvas below the layers of paint restrains the tonal pop that might push the work into a cloyingly seductive direction.
Lund is an artist whose name appears more often in cynical, link-bait journalism about secondary-market auction results than it does in critical reflections on the output of a patient, slow-burn artist gamely wandering the once-fertile wastelands of historical painterly minimalism. It’s an unfortunate truth that reflects a moment when visibility for young artists is increasingly linked to the profits generated by creepy art flippers who see work not so much as material facts to be lived with than as tokens of value to be traded in and up.
All which makes Lund strangely subversive: Dressed down and desaturated, these works flirt with the contemporary moment’s vogue for historical painterly abstraction. However, failing to deliver a fast gratification to the eye, the works instead draw viewers in a little closer, for a little longer, into something a little weirder. The second half of the show presents a number of sculptures outfitted from roughly human-scaled freestanding silk screens. Coated with the binary photo emulsion that would otherwise guide paint pushed through them in the artist’s studio, Lund’s screens instead guide only the light that enters the gallery’s bank of east-facing windows—complicating, in the process, some of the sight lines and wall-focused visuality of his canvases.
In “Novelty Court,” Emily Mae Smith presents paintings that employ a personalized iconography as a means toward unabashed self-assertion and its liberatory effects. For the most part, the motifs in these canvases are proprietary, culled from sources ranging from the Art Nouveau trade bulletin The Studio to Disney’s Fantasia, and they are fed by the artist’s robust interest in the history of design. Ghost Writer (all works 2014) is an extreme case, a painting which repeats the letter E five times in black paint on a white background; the middle bar of the letter, which would complete the character, has been replaced by a two-hued blue wave. Here, Smith alludes to herself through a corporatized logo, reformulating the spirit of Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” series in the corporate graphic parlance of Microsoft’s Windows.
One conspicuous element that appears in three small paintings features a man’s toothy rictus as a framing device. The mouth reads as male because there is a handlebar mustache painted directly above it, and because of the gaping Chiclet teeth centered above and below the picture. For instance, in The Inspector, the teeth circumscribe a simplified image of a cartoonish backside. Hovering above the right cheek is a monocle, which brings to mind eyeglasses and other sight aids deployed by artists—from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Jasper Johns—as iconographic code to mock myopic art critics. In this case, Smith adds a wry jab at the insatiable male gaze. Are we all really so obtuse and ass-hungry? Maybe. This type of graphic sophistication and screwball humor forms an incisive critique in its own right as it circumvents any dominant mode of picture-making in favor of singular intelligence and eccentricity.
Probing the relationship between historical preservation and individual memory, Patricia Esquivias’s film 111-119 Generalísimo/Castellana, 2014, traces stories around a 1950s housing project in Madrid’s current-day financial district. Much of the film focuses on ceramic murals originally installed for the balconies of the buildings; each mural depicts a different city around Europe, the intent during Franco’s reign being to project an image of Spain as a thriving, international state. Many were removed over time, some salvaged pieces of which are on view along with photographs and texts in this exhibition that, together with the video, constructs a historical narrative that oscillates between what is personal and what is factual.
The film depicts the artist’s laptop screen, showing her opening and switching between various image files. The disjointed slideshow establishes that her interest in the housing development hearkens back to time spent with her father, hinting that her concern with facts is also viewed through a lens of rekindled childhood imaginations. One narrative references a refashioned marble wall element that appears to have originally resembled a seashore—the artist jokes that perhaps residents’ fond memories from holidays at the beach will instigate the piece’s restoration. In a printed text, Esquivias retells how a renter decided against destroying his ceramic mural after hearing of the artist’s interest in the object.
Documents displayed on tables further illustrate the artist’s efforts to uncover the buildings’ histories, which included meeting with families of the architects and thwarted attempts to photograph more tiles. The artist’s anecdotes and research foretell how objects and surroundings receive value through circumstances perhaps as fickle as they are personal. Esquivias’s own instructive approach mirrors this condition as it seamlessly shifts between fact and childhood speculation, made believable via a puerile charm.
The fragrance from Sophy Naess’s eight hanging soap slabs pervades this small white-boxed gallery, where curator Lumi Tan has presented works by three artists. Embedded in Naess’s soaps are tiny things: Pieces of weeds and flowers float next to funny trash items and found treasures. The contents are carefully arranged, whether suspended in color blocks or scattered just beneath the soap’s surface, and each tablet depicts a different landscape of secret meanings and spells. A take-away printout lists the ingredients in two clean yet crowded columns, with items ranging from “EYE OF HORUS” and “OCCASIONAL MELANCHOLIA” to “FRANK’S SEASHELLS” and “BROKEN LOCK ON SIDEWALK.” There’s a cosmological bent in the milky and wistful layers comprising each slab: Over time, the soap changes, warping and bending, responding to the climate with sweat and discoloration.
Ryan Mrozowski’s repeating patterns of floating orange orbs have an almost sinister effect against Naess’s organicism. The visual weight of these paintings is tempered by their strange flatness, where orange moons and shadowy green leaves cover each canvas in striking matte designs. Sara Magenheimer’s Radio Feeling Table, 2014, comprises a white-tiled platform that hosts an odd array of objects, arranged according to graphic and formal qualities: cosmic blue and pale green lie like powder along the surfaces of two painted-white peanut shells; a wiry metal toy rests on a ripped blue rubber glove, resembling the SPLAT! in comic strips. Each artist’s idiosyncratic engagement with order attributes an unexpected sensorial complexity to everyday forms, where it becomes clear that viewing is both sensing and sensemaking.
In its latest show, the collective BFFA3AE has erected two parallel walls that cut diagonally across the gallery’s main room, sandwiching a handful of Mylar balloons, each emblazoned with a cheerful special-occasion message, an image of One Direction’s Niall Horan or iCarly’s Miranda Cosgrove. BFFA3AE—made up of Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand—is perhaps somewhat better known for Internet-based work, but here the group takes a thorough turn toward art IRL. Its recent output seems to celebrate the eager-beaver impulse to amass and admire that’s shared by distinguished art collectors and enthused middle-schoolers alike, as Niall and Carly’s mugs appear alongside pieces bursting with strains of Fluxus, Dada, and other art movements past. A monitor obscured by sheets of seaweed (a piece by Durand), for example, sits near a found soap dispenser in the shape of a lady’s shoe.
Across the room, rags by Chew are framed and decorated with stains, screenprints, and laser-cut lettering. Their titles (e.g., Look #15: Printed ‘trompe l’œil’ shirt - Printed ‘trompe l’œil’ skirt - Stretch linen thigh high boots, 2014) seemingly allude to both the cyclical transience of fashion and the semipermanence of collected art. Which leads us to the jumble of videos and paraphernalia—placemats, potting mix, and keyboards—in the gallery’s foyer. The room, we’re told, is BFFA3AE’s “retrospective.” When taken as a comment on the pace at which the art world consumes young artists, it’s not much. But considered as a hoard that represents both nostalgia and possibility to someone starry-eyed, it means everything.
What if Kynaston McShine’s landmark 1966 presentation of objects, “Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors,” had been global in scope? This is the question driving Jens Hoffmann’s inaugural two-part exhibition at the Jewish Museum, which brings together artists from South America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe whose pared-down works share formal and conceptual affinities with those of their better-known contemporaries featured in the foundational show, such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris.
Dialogues between past and present, Western and “other” abound throughout this elegantly mounted exhibition. Geometric sculptures of varying sizes, shapes, and colors are flanked by blown-up black-and-white archival photographs of the original exhibition, which serve to extend the current installation in both time and space. In one arrangement, for instance, Argentinean artist Norberto Puzzolo’s Virtual Pyramid with Exterior and Interior View, 1967, a series of incrementally sized triangular frames made of painted wood, is set to face an image of Sol LeWitt’s No Title, 1966, a six-foot modular wooden cube. When seen together, these serial, nonreferential works offer a global reassessment of the complex visions and radical new approaches to sculpture in the 1960s.
However, the most inciting pieces resist, rather than mirror, the tenets of canonical “abc art.” The mixture of the modestly scaled, suspended mobiles of Polish Edward Krasiński, Brazilian Hélio Oiticica, and Venezuelan Gego in one room, or the subtle yet continuously bubbling, tubular machine of Filipino David Medalla in another, are but a few examples. Although this exhibition is a response to rather than a strict recreation of its predecessor, it culminates with an arresting, ten-foot-tall dollhouse—a painstaking model of the museum as it stood in 1966, complete with vibrantly colored Minimalist trappings—which provides a contrast to the achromatic photographs on view and allows one the chance to peer into a history nearly fifty years past.
In “Pleh,” three very different artists—Gobby, Nick Buffon, Allegra Crowther—take up the onanistic tedium and thrills of obsession and boredom in dispirited urban desolation, a context familiar to New Yorkers resigned to spend long summer weeks in the city. Curator Alexander Shulan, who directs STL—the austere Chinatown satellite of Chelsea's Martos Gallery—presents a witty salon-style hanging of industrious and psychedelic comic-book illustrations and alluringly sloppy sculptural tableaux. The exhibition weirdly reminisces a certain generation of 1990s cable television cartoons—Rocco’s Modern Life or the more adult-oriented Duckman that present often-doomed, neurotic characters as disempowered subjects in a mechanistic, indifferent universe.
The drawings by Gobby (who has a cultish following in experimental music circles), frequently feature Shamus, an alter ego who seems never to have any idea of what’s going on around him. In the latest narrative, which has drifted in style over the past two years into more abstract and fantastical directions, we see Shamus journey to an oozing, allegorical fantasyland where the protagonist discovers his own corporeal desire—or is it decline? Fastidious and awkwardly sensual, these works take inspiration from mainstream Japanese anime, American underground comics, and Internet porn. They are the exhibition’s fast-talkers.
Nick Buffon’s sculptural tableaux, on the other hand, talk slow: they depict unremarkable urban architecture and depressing, messy interiors populated by empty beer cans, weedy and unattended vegetation, and forgettable abstract canvases. His works are abundant with slapdash detail and horny, locker-room humor. Gobby and Buffon have collaborated with set designer Allegra Crowther to create three video works—in the best, a green muppet wakes in some Bed-Stuy–ish apartment and goes about a happy, if humdrum, day: masturbating in bed, using the bathroom, playing music, and finally, partying on a roof—forever alone, of course.
A time-based media crackerjack, the late Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010) seamlessly roved between the disciplines of experimental film, theater, television, radio, opera, and performance art. In the charged atmosphere of 1968, at the age of eight, Schlingensief had already directed his first work, a twenty-minute short in which a farmer waves a handcrafted flag to German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s renowned Wedding March—the film’s eerie political undertone and focus on a specifically German context would come to define his entire oeuvre. A champion of a post-Brechtian attitude, Schlingensief often tried to assault his audience out of complacency, tackling gritty subject matter such as neo-Nazism and the unification of Germany with anarchic verve. A household name in his native country, he is still little known in the United States.
This is thus a timely overview of an inimitable career. Featuring documentation of approximately two dozen performance works, the exhibition comes head to head with the complexities of presenting such a prolific, ephemeral practice. The subversive qualities of this enfant terrible’s provocative output are best communicated in the interactive displays. Highlights include Animatograph, 2005–2006, a pulsing, dark, rotating tree house meets postapocalyptic bunker in which viewers confront disturbing films and props as they climb up and around the fun-house installation. See too Talk 2000, 1997, the peculiar talk show Schlingensief founded in the basement of the Volksbühne (People’s Theater), which is shown here on two cubic television monitors on a revolving platform arranged like a living room with sofas, side tables, and lamps.
The exhibition also shines in its simultaneous presentation of The Germany Trilogy, 1989–92, and 120 Days of Bottrop—The Last New German Film, 1997, in a darkened chamber on the museum’s second floor. The cacophonous clatter—an alarming mixture of rumbling chainsaws, shrieks of terror, and gasps of pleasure—that bounces between the jutting, angled walls is true to Schlingensief's unruly spirit.
Charles James’s life wasn’t all debs, soigné parties, and Slim Keith. By the time of his death in 1978, after a lifetime of striking up bad business deals and alienating scores of friends and supporters, the visionary fashion designer was living in sheer squalor in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel: sick and a pauper, months behind in rent. Despite having a small coterie of minders (or nightclubbing fans who occasionally borrowed some of his renowned frocks to party in), he died alone.
But James was far more than your average fashion-land burnout, and in this bravura retrospective, put together by the Costume Institute’s curator in chief Harold Koda and adjunct curator Jan Glier Reeder, we experience a man who posed and dallied with some of the early twentieth century’s wealthiest American and European bluebloods, but produced garments that only a sharp and stealthy avant-gardist could’ve dreamed up.
James’s confectionary ball gowns deceive the eye. They are, at first glance, stunning examples of ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s chic. But closer inspection (offered via mobile digital cameras and screens that provide extraordinary details of how each dress was constructed) reveals a love of asymmetrical structuring, unusual combinations of materials and, frankly, feats of painstakingly adroit jerry-rigging. James was notorious for fussing over his garments past the point of finishing, sometimes adding as many as twenty layers of fabric within a dress until it met his exacting standards of proportion. And some of these dresses, despite weighing as much as fifteen pounds, would just float on the wearer’s body, a result of James’s intuitive sense of mathematics, spatial dynamics, and architecture (he never received any institutional training as a dressmaker). Though James has always been referred to as an “obscure” designer, one can see his influence in the work of so many, such as Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Vivienne Westwood, or John Galliano. But thanks to this comprehensive, intelligent, and luminous exhibition: the shadows, no longer.
Zoe Beloff based her latest exhibition, “The Days of the Commune,” on the eponymous, little-known play Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1947 to commemorate the rise and fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, considered by many to be the world’s first proletarian revolution. Over the course of spring 2012, the artist directed a motley crew of professional and amateur actors, activists, and artists to perform Brecht’s drama at sites across New York City that loosely correspond to settings from the play. Throughout, the last dregs of Occupy Wall Street played an omnipresent role—invisible and unacknowledged yet felt everywhere.
The film and its attendant props, costumes, storyboards, and drawings on view here give a cumulative picture of three moments—1871, 1947, and 2012—that in their different ways represent both the last gasps of revolutionary fervor and the looming understanding of a battle already lost. The deliberately anachronistic manner of acting and stage design takes its cues from Brechtian theater, which forwent historical continuity in order to consciously overlap incongruous times and spaces. In Beloff’s case, nineteenth-century Paris is mapped over twenty-first century New York, emphasizing the artificiality of the performance while drawing attention to the present environment. The drawings of Zuccotti Park are emblematic of this tension: For Beloff, drawing is a manner of thinking in time. Her deployment of the medium in the face of the camera-ready protests demonstrates a different approach to the movement. Not beholden to the documentary tradition in photography, Beloff’s sketches are unencumbered by our need for instantaneous images, and this instead allows political imagination to take over.
“Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism” features barely any “original” works of art. As its title suggests, the exhibition—an investigation of the postwar West German phenomenon of Capitalist Realism—consists of reproductions, prints, and multiples of archival ephemera: invitation cards, flyers, press releases, brochures, guest books, letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles, neatly assembled in large, gray display cabinets. Even the forty-some-odd paintings included—most of which were modeled after advertisements and publicity photographs of consumer products—are not the virtuoso oil-on-canvas originals but true-to-scale photographic facsimiles.
In many ways, the exhibition captures the spirit of Capitalist Realism, the name of which was introduced in 1963 by the Düsseldorf foursome (Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter) to parodically counter the mandated Socialist Realism of East Germany and to respond with a sense of skepticism to the Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”) of the West. Despite its text-heavy character, the show is visually dynamic and easy to navigate, with more than a decade’s worth of information (1957–71) arranged chronologically in sections that are bracketed by mural-sized black-and-white photographs of such key events as Richter and Lueg’s infamous 1963 Happening in the furniture store Möbelhaus Berges, or the group’s impromptu 1964 exhibition in the snow-speckled garden of Galerie Parnass.
The invitation to American Conceptual artist (and cinephile) Christopher Williams to frame the exhibition with a selection of films could not have been more discerning—after all, Williams is not only a professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where the artists whom the show addresses met, but, more to the point, his photographic practice both revisits the Cold War and critically comments on the conventions of advertising. Presented on adjacent flat screens, the works he has chosen range from such art-house classics as Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1973) to popular flicks such as Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), creating a continuously changing kaleidoscope of images that brilliantly speak to our late-capitalist, media-prescribed condition.
Biological and psychological ritual are the backbone of Matthew Ronay’s latest exhibition, which presents a series of intimate gouaches rendered in a palette of vivid blues, purples, and reds. These amorphic exercises in what Ronay refers to as “muscle memory” were composed daily and focus, as does the practice of meditation, on the undulating of the human respiratory system. Unlike some of Ronay’s previous work, the erotic component of this series is nonexplicit, the focus instead on the intersection between the stimulating and the spiritual. There is the delicately sexual 12.10.13, 2013, which calls to mind the moment of conception, and 01.23.14, 2014, an intricate meandering of pale pink through tears in tissue-like red.
Of the one hundred works made as part of this series, only thirty-four were put on view, and the empty space creates a sense of drama, causing the viewer to wonder why certain days were omitted. The pieces are set irregularly in two rows, surrounded by barely visible gray-washed shadows of identical size, which are standing reminders of Ronay’s other visual meditations. The psychosexual symbology within these works coupled with the tension between the gouaches and their ghostly counterparts ignites questions of self-censorship. “Wavelength” is an elegantly curated reminder that ritualized creation has a strong history in both the visual and spiritual.
KNOCK KNOCK. Jerry Kearns’s latest show beats down its own door and invades the gallery walls with acid-colored expressions printed in large-scale comic-book bubble letters. Their onomatopoeic allusions—SKREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!—vibrate, animating the space and engulfing one in the narrative that unfolds in five wall murals and eight large paintings. The show simultaneously flattens and disbands Kearns’s layered, nuanced so-called psychological Pop paintings, which build on the American Pop tradition of painting begun by Roy Lichtenstein. Combining screenprinting and handpainting, the works bizarrely fuse American twentieth-century imagery relating to hero/villain archetypes, Christian zealotry, the Wild West, and the Bronze Age of comics. Our protagonist, Jesus, is rendered here as a campy, crown-of-thorns-bearing savior, galloping from one scene to another on horseback. Dressed as a slightly ditzy cowboy, he hopelessly confronts tricky, goblin-like outlaws—always, it appears, on the brink of ambush as he looks the wrong way.
The characterization of Jesus as semihero in an American Hero’s clothing speaks to the paradox of a Bible Belt mentality that celebrates Christian values of Good Shepherd peace and simultaneously parades violent ideals such as free gun commerce. Building on Kearns’s ongoing exploration of soft and hard power dynamics as well as gender stereotypes, these new works intertwine historic paradigms of American masculinity, the tomboyish aesthetics of 1970s animation, and the covert manipulation of “sublime landscape” paintings (which, as Kearns has noted, were originally produced as propaganda for notions of Manifest Destiny). Here, Kearns compels us to interrogate the ethics undergirding societal values using the age-old carrot-and-stick strategy: on one hand deploying subtle overlapping of culturally charged imagery that rewards deeper analysis, and on the other hand leveling us with the punch of cartoonlike murals that blast aggressive afterimages into viewers’ minds.
Here today, gone tomorrow. If last year’s overnight whitewashing of graffiti haven 5Pointz in Queens revealed anything, it's 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.
The two-part exhibition “Ultrapassado” exclusively includes the work of female geometric abstractionists. Taking its name from the Portuguese term for transcending, the show in its second iteration comprises multimedia works that do just that; they go beyond the normative conventions of Rio de Janeiro–based Neo-Concretist art of the 1960s that sought to overcome its inheritance of European rationalism. Instead, work by artists Paloma Bosquê, Rosemarie Castoro, and Lydia Okumura illustrate that lyrical geometric abstraction continued and still continues to be explored in New York and Sao Paulo, broadening the scope and scale of this movement’s imposed geographical and formal limitations.
While Castoro’s drawing Y Feet, 1965, clearly addresses the jostling framework of Hélio Oiticica’s “Metaesquema,” her miniature sculptures speak to an entirely different relationship. The result in Two Walls Wired, 1976, for example, joins two facing white slabs of gesso and marble dust by bent strands of steel wire, suggesting that open-ended space rather than the conclusively hard-edged is the connective force that binds geometric abstraction. The sculpture even establishes a direct connection with a work included in the exhibition’s back room, Bosquê’s site-specific installation Ruído (Noise), 2014, which trades miniature walls for Carl Andre–like steel slabs on the floor and bent wire for threads of poured resin and buttermilk.
Okumura’s installation Different Dimensions of Reality II, 1971/2014, arranges nine white aluminum plates that seem to stagger up the gallery’s main parting wall. Upon further inspection, as the work reaches the confines of its room, the white panels turn gray, and the sculpture turns into painting.
Fifty years ago, architect Philip Johnson invited the edgy up-and-coming artist Andy Warhol to produce one of ten commissions for the facade of the World’s Fair New York State Pavilion—Warhol’s first and ultimately last public-art project. Working in the midst of his “Death and Disaster” depictions of car crashes and race riots, while taking his initial photobooth strips of socialites, friends, and, of course, himself, Warhol devised a work for the pavilion that would merge the profane and the portrait: blown-up silk-screened mug shots of the thirteen most-wanted men taken straight from the City of New York’s police department. As the story goes, someone in power had objections, perhaps to its coarse aesthetics, thinly veiled homoeroticism, or simply the banal subject material. By the time the World’s Fair opened on April 22, 1964, the 13 Most Wanted Men was covered in a thick coat of silver paint (a proposal to replace the work with twenty-five identical panels of a beaming World’s Fair President Robert Moses was, alas, rejected out of hand).
The making of the work, its quick demise, and its afterlife in Warhol’s oeuvre make up this meticulously researched and precisely installed exhibition. The fascinating murder mystery of the Men unfolds chronologically, weaving in appearances by potential culprits Philip Johnson, Robert Moses, Nelson Rockefeller, and most enigmatic of all, Warhol himself. Nine silk-screened portraits of the Men that were made the summer after the debacle form the core of the exhibition, which is supplemented by an array of other works by Warhol, such as Little Electric Chair, 1964–65, and Nelson Rockefeller, 1967, and archival materials documenting Warhol’s year of production on the pavilion, the World’s Fair exhibition, and the reception of the controversial destruction of the work. By the end of 1964, for Warhol, “Death and Disaster” had transformed into a Flowers elegy and the Men had mutated into the screen-test series 13 Most Beautiful Boys, 1964–66. What remains in this exhibition are the relics of an astounding transitional moment in the artist’s work.
This retrospective, which takes over the second floor of PS1, reveals James Lee Byars as a peripatetic showman whose work engaged some of the most compelling artistic questions of his time. Included in his variegated oeuvre is a collection of letters—the majority addressed to Joseph Beuys, Byars’s hero and most obvious influence—that evince the artist’s desire for creative correspondence. But, these letters, written in Byars’s intricately ornamented “star script,” evince a simultaneous fascination with gnomic indecipherability, as in all of his work. This conflicting set of impulses is equally evident in his “book” sculptures, which, in their irregular shapes and illegible typefaces, seem to flaunt their unreadability. Tropes of communication bleed into a sort of communion in Byars’s multiperson garments, such as the Pink Silk Airplane, 1969, which can accommodate one hundred simultaneous wearers. These call to mind contemporaneous works by Franz Erhard Walther, though the idea of the artwork’s activation through participation was already present in the interactive paper sculptures that Byars made after spending time in Kyoto. His World Question Center project, also 1969, was dedicated to compiling America’s “most interesting” questions—Byars’s response to Beuys’s contention that “everyone is an artist”—but left them conspicuously unanswered.
In Byars’s most original works, the opulent sculptures he produced from the 1980s on, his desires to show and to shroud are reconciled by embracing a Jodorowskyesque theatricality. Byars would interact with these works, which combine blood-red silk, gilded marble, and dramatic spotlighting, in temporal actions he called “plays.” The retrospective ultimately succeeds by presenting all of the artist’s work in such terms, with the galleries’ walls painted black and luminous gold, giving the impression of a black-box theater turned gnostic temple.
Nancy Rubins is known for her large public works composed of airplane parts, boats, televisions, mattresses, and other detritus mined from the boneyards of industrialized consumerism. Here she presents four sculptures formed from conglomerations of aluminum animals typical of fairground rides and children’s playgrounds—horses, ducks, and elephants among them—tightly bound together by wire cables. Three floor-based works rise from pedestals, expanding into multicolored cornucopias, while the largest piece, Our Friend Fluid Metal, 2014, also the name of the exhibition, emerges from a wall like zoological ectoplasm, billowing into the room above the viewer.
The brightly painted expressions of Rubins’s infantilized animals were once perhaps intended to augment the rider’s carnival experience, but with their redundancy, the paralyzed smiles and battered carcasses evoke hollow bewilderment rather than warm nostalgia, so that these works function as funereal totems to long-gone childhood pleasures.
While lacking the volume to inspire awe, or many of the other superlatives commonly applied to Rubins’s work, the sculptures do possess density and mass—qualities which strike an ominous tone. The creatures are so pitifully compressed and restricted in their suspended cages that they become not only a representation of detachment from youthful freedoms, but also a conduit for notions of seizure and abuse, relating less to animals than to the materials that Rubins’s menageries are made of. Although these structures are built from reconstituted metals, the greater suggestion is of a Benjamin Button–like societal regression should we continue to plunder and discard our finite resources.
Trisha Brown’s choreography is notoriously difficult to capture, with its swift turns and continuous transitional phrases. In early works such as Roof Piece, 1971, seen through the able lens of Babette Mangolte, multiple dancers transmit simple movements to one another across New York City rooftops, invoking both the performers’ and viewer’s capacities for recall. With each performance, Brown anticipated the way her work would be seen, questioning the disappearance so often ascribed to dance. The photographs, short films, videos, and ephemera that comprise this exhibition record Brown’s performances for posterity, in turn influencing Brown’s own practice. Mangolte’s exhilarating film Watermotor, 1978, shows Brown performing the eponymous dance in real time. It’s then slowed down by half—perhaps best evidencing what Craig Owens once called “mechanical inscription,” or the multiple perspectives and temporal freeze/flow of film and photography registered in the dancing.
Since the 1970s, Brown and her company have investigated the terrain of lower Manhattan—whose buildings, seen from the windows of the space, provide an apropos backdrop and real-time reminder of context. Curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, and conceived by Sam Miller, this deceptively compact show foregrounds the conflation of site and sight, particularly in the “Equipment Pieces.” Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970, uses gravity to defamiliarize ordinary movement: rigged to a harness, a performer descends down the facade of 80 Wooster Street. Photographed from below by Peter Moore, the figure is dwarfed by the architectural surface, whose pictorial flatness causes the vertical surface to appear nearly horizontal—“site-specificity” might here extend to the event’s relationship with its documentation. An iteration of Man Walking forty years later is included in a grid of color photographs documenting the company’s reperformances—yet Brown’s symbiotic relation to reproductive media, and her photographers’ collaborative voices, become lost to the digital, high-resolution ennui of contemporary image-making. In this survey of her practice, Brown’s play with the fugitive nature of movement is strongest when the process of seeing dance itself is illuminated.
Including several series which have never before been on public display, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1979–1989” takes a rare glimpse into the early work of the Los Angeles–based artist’s forty-year career. The exhibition fills a crucial gap in understanding his development: In the formative years of Conceptualism, Gaines—a longtime colleague of Sol Lewitt—created a complex, rule-based approach to his two-dimensional gridwork, which consisted of numerical sequences in pencil or ink on large sheets of gridded paper. Those familiar with Gaines’s more recent work may be surprised by the lack of any visible mention of the politics behind this seeming painstakingly developed methodology, epitomized by the nonrepresentational numerical sequence “Regression,” 1973–74.
Gaines’s foundational interest in systems-based abstraction as an implicit ideological critique over explicit political sentiment is showcased through these early works. In each work in his twenty-six part series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” 1975–2014, Gaines represents a barren walnut tree three ways: as a black-and-white photograph, a drawn outline of the tree, and a numerical sequence mapping the distance of the tree in relation to all the trees represented before it, in effect creating a numerical orchard. Here, impartial mathematical sequences provide an alternate logic for viewing the world. At the same time, the outline of the tree bears traces of the artist’s hand, which lends a touch of the spontaneous in an otherwise orderly mathematical formality. Finally, the mapped tree orchard is indicative of Gaines’s stake in both duration and the effect of time on perception. His commitment to revealing systems of representation is repeated in other series—including portraiture in “Faces,” 1978, and the human body in “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance,” 1981—each deploying systems that skirt politics to land on identity.