From the perspective of artist Leonor Antunes, the gallery is a complete volume. Every inch of the floor, ceiling, and walls plays an active role in narrating the histories reworked by the artist. Newly commissioned for SFMoMA, A Spiral Staircase Leads Down to the Garden, 2016, mines the creative trajectories of pioneering women autobiographically tied to midcentury California but obscured from the era’s modernist cannon, such as architect and interior designer Greta Magnusson Grossman and artists Anni Albers, Kay Sekimachi, and Ruth Asawa. Their outputs are the sources for a series of sculptural pieces that hang, roll over, and illuminate the white box of the museum’s dedicated new-work gallery.
Cork panels cover the entire floor, punctuated by reflective brass rectangles that replicate a pattern from Albers’s 1946 weaving With Verticals. Points from the design also dictate the positioning of leather ropes snaked on the ceiling. Although interested in architecture, Albers was barred from the program at the Bauhaus because of her gender and instead studied textiles. Grossman was also denied formal architectural training, although it did not stop her from creating buildings in California and Sweden. As such, Grossman’s renderings cite her as the “designer,” a fact that made research behind the exhibition a challenge. Large suspended geometric wall partitions inspired by Grossman’s signature lamps cut across the room, casting shadows. Surrounding the visitor, Antunes’s skillful maneuvering of space, material, light, and texture allow the voices of a feminist history largely unsung to resound and become anew.
Lauren Marsolier’s photographs are unreal. Or perhaps too real. The LA-based artist deconstructs and then reassembles photographs of various places—including industrial sites, gardens, roads, and office parks—to create fictive places. The seven composites on view defy the laws of nature: impossibly bright, but few shadows. More Citizenfour (2014) than film noir, these pictures promise transparency but reveal nothing. Even the messy evidence of humans is curiously sterile: Stained mattresses outside a building in Two Roads (Diptych) and spray-painted plywood in Empty Pot and Shadow, both 2015–16, are emptied of physical substance.
Like Lewis Baltz’s 1970s industrial parks, Marsolier finds aesthetic satisfaction in sharp corners and sparse landscaping. This visual pleasure is undercut by an eerie anonymity. What happens in these buildings? Baltz said they could be manufacturing anything, “pantyhose or megadeath.” Today, the blank stare of white stucco and black windows suggest drones and other covert ops.
Marsolier’s technique is flawless. The composites form a convincing, if uncanny, picture of the world, while the high-resolution prints seem to disappear behind Water White glass in an experience of unmediated vision.
The gallery also presents fourteen unique gelatin silver prints by San Francisco–based Rachelle Bussières. The chemical colors and hard edges recall Alison Rossiter’s cameraless experiments with expired photographic paper, but Bussières’s images begin with negatives. “Strata” refers to the geologic features that Bussières photographs and to the darkroom manipulations that give these images a collage-like feel. In contrast with Marsolier’s cut-and-paste fictions, Bussières layers a fairy-tale realm on top of the real world. Together, the two shows test the limits of photographic realism.
“Grace Jones is everything I ever wanted to be as an artist . . . an experimental, progressive, avant-garde shapeshifter,” Xaviera Simmons asserts in one of this show’s wall labels. Contextualized by original album covers, fashion shoots, and music videos, the exhibition examines the influence of the model, actress, and singer on twelve contemporary artists. The powerful beauty and bold sexuality of the transgressive pop star defied heteronormative gender conventions and celebrated blackness during the 1970s and ’80s, when many of these artists were coming of age, and the works in the exhibition range from idolizing Jones to reclaiming agency over her sometimes contradictory persona.
The strength of the image in the digital age resonates in Cauleen Smith’s Living Grace’s Life in the Google, 2013–16, a slideshow of photographs of Jones collected from the Internet, and in Harold Offeh’s Covers: Arabesque, After Grace Jones, 1978, 2008–2009, a humorous one-minute video of the artist trying to re-create the physically impossible pose Jones adopted (with the help of photo-editing) on the cover of her 1985 album Island Life. Several works engage with sexualized posthuman cyborgs presaged by Jones, such as Jacolby Satterwhite’s CGI-animated futuristic narratives in an excerpt from En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance: Track #1: Healing in My House, 2015, and Wangechi Mutu’s collaged hybrid forms in Sick Planets, 2013. Other artists consider the paradox of Jones, who both embodied and subverted stereotypes. Rashayla Marie Brown’s photograph The Island Pose, 2013, perhaps best sums up the complexities of Jones’s legacy. Like Offeh, Brown attempts Jones’s graceful arabesque, but here she is dressed in tight white garments and photographed against a green screen, holding a copy of The Black Atlantic (1993) by Paul Gilroy and standing on Black Popular Culture (1992) by Michelle Wallace.
The community of artists and writers revolving around salonièrre Mabel Dodge Luhan’s compound in Taos, New Mexico, in the early twentieth century provides the fulcrum for this sprawling exhibition. Works by well-known artists, such as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, occupy space alongside pieces by more obscure figures, including Rebecca “Beck” Salsbury James, Dorothy Brett, and Agnes Pelton. Many artists and writers traveled to Taos at the behest of Luhan, a prolific writer herself. Her fourth husband, Taos Pueblo Indian Antonio Lujan, opened the community to artists and writers, thus fostering a creative exchange between modernist and native traditions.
A highlight of the exhibition is an upstairs gallery where Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh’s watercolors and Brett’s vivid paintings depict native dances. The exhibition repeatedly refers to Luhan’s own complicated relationship with New Mexico’s multicultural heritage; her relocation to Taos was partly motivated by what she believed was a need to “save” the Pueblo culture endangered from American encroachment. Luhan’s exhibition of “primitive” (her term) devotional objects as modern art in a New York exhibition in 1919 likewise points to Luhan’s—as well as many modernist artists’ and audiences’—difficulty accepting the art of non-Anglo cultures on its own terms. A striking visual example of this complex dynamic between modernism and Hispanic art is on view in another gallery, in which Luhan’s own Hispano santos, which she donated to the Harwood after she was criticized for her treatment of the paintings in a 1925 essay she wrote, appear with Hartley’s own riff on a santo. The juxtaposition underscores the ways in which modernist artists often appropriated other cultures’ works, emptying them of original meaning yet creating new meaning as well.
The haunting Invisible Man, 1986, stands near the exhibition’s entrance, its most perceptible elements the whites of a pair of eyes and a Cheshire cat–like grin. Kerry James Marshall’s signature ink-black skin tone against an equally black background dematerializes the figure, emphasizing notions of invisibility. The work strikingly contrasts the proceeding paintings in this arresting career retrospective, titled “Mastry,” which celebrates African American visibility in part through figures almost Greco-Roman in their solidity and stoic tranquility.
Protected, private, or personal spaces are frequently backdrops for the scenes on view. Barbershops and beauty salons, in the style of Dutch and Flemish history paintings, are replete with haunting anamorphic vanitas images; sweeping pastoral tableaux depict the Nickerson Gardens in LA, where Marshall grew up, as well as multiple public housing projects in Chicago. Rococo scenes of romantic bliss follow, splayed with glittery flocking and unfurling festoons, while comfortable middle-class interiors are lined with winged portraits of Civil Rights martyrs, including John F. and Robert Kennedy as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
In a recent portraiture-driven phase that illustrates his preference for capturing the complexity of his subjects and the fullness of their lives, Marshall painted Harriet Tubman on her wedding day and Fred Hampton in the dark morning just prior to his assassination. Both works distill intimate and poetic moments surrounding the decisive ones that make up their reputations.
For more than three decades, Marshall has been replacing visual culture’s objectified, obfuscated, or sensationalized representations of African Americans with thoughtful, empowering ones by systematically reworking the art-historical canon. Beyond visibility, or even inclusion however, this exhibition’s crowning achievement is the tracking of Marshall’s evolution from an artist experimenting with literal legibility in Invisible Man to one exposing the privilege inherent in illegibility in subsequent works. His portraits of Tubman and Hampton are prime examples, foregoing mainstream narratives and received reference points in favor of something more multifaceted and mysterious. By romanticizing the banal, radicalizing the domestic, and humanizing the revered, “Mastry” manages to simultaneously resist and reshape convention.
“Mercy Hospital,” an intimate exhibition of Ida Applebroog’s work, creates a narrative both poignant and bitterly ironic about illness and institutions. The series “Mercy Hospital,” 1969–70, comprises her private diary created over a six-week stay in a San Diego psychiatric ward. As an alternative to conventional therapeutic methods, Applebroog rendered abstracted images of limbs or alien-like womb forms in pencil, ink, and glowing washes of watercolor. To these she added phrases such as “Not made in America” and “Upside-down Appelbaum”—the latter incorporating her maiden name. (She legally changed her surname from her husband’s, Horowitz, to Applebroog in 1974.) Several large drawings on Mylar, from her 2012 “Catastrophes” series, depict hospital waiting rooms and sinister interactions between patients and doctors.
The exhibition also includes “A Performance,” 1977–81, a series of three staple-bound books Applebroog created as mail art. Related to the Pictures generation’s obsession with the freeze-frame, Applebroog’s books contain simple drawings repeated page after page that gain their power from captions that seem to contradict the ostensible truth of the images. One of the volumes, It Doesn’t Sound Right, 1977, includes static illustrations of a woman in a mourning pose—hands folded over her chest, standing beside an empty bed. Interspersed are pages of text that trace a dramatic arc of a woman’s complaints fatally ignored: “She says, ‘You are killing me,’” “It doesn’t sound right,” “Nobody ever dies of it.” In The Sweet Smell of Sage Enters the Room, 1977, the titular phrase follows repeated images of a man striking a woman kneeling on the ground. These stripped-down stories suggest the mundanity and horror of living under patriarchy and the military-industrial-medical complex.
“Itasca” draws a through line from current global trade systems to that of the early beaver fur trade between Lake Superior and Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, to assert the combined dependence on animals and slavery at the root of labor worldwide. Some more obvious approaches, such as Duane Linklater’s The State That I Seek to Name, 2014, where a mink pelt hangs from a dress rack beside a trapper’s bag, give way to the more subtle, such as Hermione Spriggs’s Stanford Map of the River Thames, Lechlade to Richmond, 2016, a video of the needle of a player piano roll whose notes follow the shape of the Thames. The sounds tumble, raucous and dissonant, while on an adjacent wall a paper piano roll of the Mississippi is on view. The two waterways are linked through the acculturation of the beaver pelt into the gentleman’s eighteenth-century top hat, then commonly worn in London.
At the opening of this show, Cameron Gainer performed Shot, 2005–, on a snare drum as projected snapshots of trophy antlers sped by. Fleeting are the bonds of items traded and treaties signed in Nadia Myre’s Orison, 2014, and Nyeema Morgan’s Untitled, No. 1 (I, Rhinoceros), 2014. Orison is a black-and-white digital print of the knots tied at the back of Myre’s beading over the text of the 1876 Canadian Indian Act, revealing only a succession of white lines as if omitting classified text. Morgan’s piece displays three mass-produced ceramic lamp bases tilting slightly downward as they emerge from the wall, each held by one large black resin hand. Their fingertips barely grasp at the bases, creating anxiety that one will slip and shatter across the floor, echoing the precarious conditions of globalized labor.