Cecily Brown at The Drawing Center

Tucked away in SoHo, New York, The Drawing Center is a small museum founded by Martha Beck in 1977, explicitly dedicated to the medium of drawing. For the last few years, the creative minds behind The Drawing Center’s events and exhibitions have been working towards pushing beyond the traditional understanding of the term drawing, and opening it up to various applications and interpretations. Cecily Brown: Rehearsal, organized by the chief curator of the museum, Claire Gilman, is one such exhibition. It calls the viewer to contemplate the medium of drawing; from its materiality to its role in the artistic process of an acclaimed artist, Cecily Brown, which as a result creates a sense of intimacy throughout.

Cecily Brown, Untitled (after Bosch and Boldini), 2015. All photographs by the author.
Cecily Brown, Untitled (after Bosch and Boldini), 2015. All photographs by the author.

Brown is a British artist known for her tactual paintings, for which she draws influence ranging from old masters to the expressionism of the 50s. Drawing is a lesser known part of Brown’s practice and has not been seen before in the scale and context of a solo museum exhibition. The works on display inform on Brown’s practice by giving the viewer the opportunity to observe how the artist visits existing drawings again and again, each time unpacking something new until, as she notes, she understands it completely. In a talk that took place in the museum, Brown discussed how her drawings are fairly independent of her painting practice, serving a purpose of their own. The works in Cecily Brown: Rehearsal were selected, among other reasons, so as to accentuate this special role in her overall practice.

Drawings of various sizes and the two vitrines containing Brown’s personal notebooks combine nicely inside the exhibition space. In between clusters of smaller ink and pen works, which belong to the same series, are large-scale, more colorful ones. In some cases, such as in Drawings after Jimmy Hendrix’s ‘Electric Lady’ Album, only a small selection out of countless studies of the same theme is shown. Brown and Gilman worked together to choose the ones that are the most telling of Brown’s repetitiveness in her studies of various imagery. One can clearly see the exact areas that were revisited and how often, whilst mapping the gestural movements that interested her in the originals she was drawing from. The placement of these smaller drawings was also done so as to lead the viewer to understand this peculiar artistic process. Additionally, in the examples like the Drawings after Hieronymus Bosch, the viewer can trace how the smaller drawings are being repeated inside the larger ones, even when they are exhibited far apart, say, on the opposite walls of the room. For instance, Animal figures in the Drawings after Hieronymus Bosch can be spotted in larger drawings situated a few feet to its left, while similarly, female figures of Drawings after Jimmy Hendrix’s ‘Electric Lady’ Album across the room. The more time spent in front of the drawings, the more it becomes apparent that Brown’s revisits to a single image, as part of her process to understand it, is much like a rehearsal of a performance: each is an attempt to understand the whole through individual parts.

The Drawing Center, Gallery view.
Exhibition view. The Drawing Center.

The decision of the word “rehearsal” was born out of a discussion between the curator and the artist, which is stated in the main wall text, and is further demonstrated with the practice of the works exhibited inside the space. The layout of the exhibition certainly assists in understanding Brown’s drawing process and revisitations. The larger drawings juxtaposed with the smaller ones reveal a distancing from a simple attempt to understand  the work they were drawn from and moving closer towards a reconstruction of an entirely new image. Brown has revealed that her large-scale drawings were actually created after her first meeting with the curator of the show. She took to ink, pen, paper and pastel, and experimented with her drawings on large sheets of paper. In the end, she remarked, these drawings are different from the smaller ones in that they incorporate layering and re-formatting, bringing them closer to her painting practice than to that of drawing. Brown’s drawings reveal another interesting aspect, notably what Gilman refers to as “anti-finality.” A painting is often perceived as in a more finite state in comparison to a drawing; it ends with the form it takes when exhibited, or sold. Brown’s drawings on the other hand feel like repeated brief encounters with the same work, as though small moments of recognitions which perhaps need to be viewed in their thematic groups. Each smaller drawing in the exhibition communicates something about the image it refers to, and together they create a more general understanding of said image.

Exhibition view, works from the series Cecily Brown, Carnival Lent (after Breugel), 2007. The Drawing Center.
Exhibition view of works from the series; Cecily Brown, Carnival Lent (after Bruegel), 2007. The Drawing Center.
View of the green gallery area with drawings from the series Cecily Brown, Combing the Hair (after Degas), 2013. The Drawing Center, photo by author.
Exhibition view of drawings from the series; Cecily Brown, Combing the Hair (after Degas), 2013. The Drawing Center.

The curatorial approach emphasizes the sense of intimacy as I previously mentioned, which stems from all that is communicated through the artist’s drawings. The show compels the viewer to engage in close-looking, while simultaneously conveying the artist’s own close-looking, her studious and idiosyncratic process, and maps how the idea goes from Brown’s mind, to her hand, to her paper. Upon entering the exhibition space, the viewer is engulfed by the works that come to absorb the entire room. The visitor is immediately overcome by a sense of inwardness from being surrounded by these drawings and more so as he or she becomes further aware of being allowed a deeper and more private glance into the artist’s mind and practice. While talking with Claire about the show, she mentioned the importance this intimacy played in her curatorial process. In fact, this was emphasized by the colors used on the walls of the gallery space. The entrance walls are painted in a “Forest Green” where the boudoir scenes are hung, creating a sense of also entering one, or an equally private space. The rest of the drawings are hung against a light pink shade that, as Claire notes, is more artificial, thus promoting the idea of having fully accessed into the realm of Cecily’s drawings. Deep in the middle of the room are vitrines placed in such a way as to allow one to freely move around them while communicating with the drawing pads inside that further emphasizes a feeling of intimacy with the artist’s works.

Close-up of one of the vitrines in the center of the exhibition space, The Drawing Center. Photo by author.
Exhibition view. Close-up of one of the vitrines. The Drawing Center.

Overall, Cecily Brown: Rehearsal is a wonderful exhibition that walks the viewer through the mind and works of a renowned female contemporary artist. Brown’s paintings have been admired, collected and studied for years, and yet, with this show, Claire Gilman has revealed even more about her practice and process, which leads me to wonder how much more there still is for us to discover about Brown.

Editor’s note: Cecily Brown: Rehearsal at The Drawing Center closed on December 18, 2016. However, those who are interested can access and purchase an online catalogue from this link: https://issuu.com/drawingcenter/docs/drawingpapers128_brown.

The James Gallery: The House of Dust

CUNY’s James Gallery at The Center for the Humanities ushers in the fall semester with an exhibition based on Alison Knowles’s 1967 conceptual work The House of Dust. The show seeks to encompass the many limbed and generative nature of Knowles’s artwork by showing how it continues to stimulate other artists to explore its themes of translation, permutation, intentionality and inclusivity, bringing to light the work’s enduring relevance.

The House of Dust is a computer generated poem written in the programming language FORTRAN, which generates verses by randomly combining elements from four lists pre-determined by Knowles: each verse consists of four components including, and always beginning with, “a house of,” followed by a location, then a material, and finally a category of inhabitants. The poem repeats after 400 verses. In 1969, based on one of the verses, “A HOUSE OF PLASTIC/ IN A METROPOLIS/ USING NATURAL LIGHT/ INHABITED BY PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE” Knowles constructed an actual “house” in Chelsea. The house was moved to Burbank, California when she took a teaching position at CalArts in 1970. Knowles also orchestrated several other projects using computer programs, involving students and community members with her house as the nexus.

Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor first confronts the instantiations of Knowles’s The House of Dust, and is asked to consider within the inherent confinement of a gallery space a work that was never meant for traditional exhibition. As per the checklist, the gallery is divided into three spaces, each representing a different “house,” or verse from the poem. Inside this introductory “house,” named after the foundational House of Plastic, the visitor is prevented from seeing directly into the rest of the gallery by the placement of several temporary walls. A printer on a pedestal in the center of this introductory space prints Knowles’s FORTRAN poem onto continuous stationery which then cascades down behind the pedestal and settles accordion style onto the floor. Its familiar mechanical chatter creates an auditory background to the whole exhibition. This “house” presents images of Knowles’s architectural structure, a vitrine of archival materials, and a wall presentation of “gift objects” collected from the artistic community which were intended to be adhered to the surface of the structure after an unrealized move to Minneapolis. 

typewriter - gift objects
Printer displaying an exhibition copy of Knowles’s poem House of Dust, originally written in FORTRAN, 1967/2016 (Left). Exhibition view of Gift Objects to The House of Dust, 1979-80 (Right). All photographs by the author.

This section of the gallery gives the visitor a sense of Knowles’s motivations and the character of her project. At its core, The House of Dust sought to dismantle the computer generated systems that began to impose themselves on society in the 1950’s. Knowles translated computer programming language into written language (poetry) which she then translated again into architectural form. In this project, physical architecture represents the antithesis of the intangible virtual  framework of an algorithmic logical system. Although both, in a sense, contain human presence, within Knowles’s architectural structure is implicated the physical presence of the human body, which in its blatant materiality cannot be computerized. The James Gallery has taken on a difficult task: corrall the many crisscrossing narratives of The House of Dust into a coherent exhibit, conceptually available even to the casual passerby. The gallery approaches this task by dedicating most of its space to the work of contemporary artists who have responded to or reframed Knowles’s poem.

Moving further into the gallery, the visitor is introduced to “The House of Stone,” an array of contemporary art that responds to Knowles’s work. The synthesized voice of Katarzyna Krakowiak’s sound work Oh no, please don’t mingles with the chatter of the printer and creates a sensory bridge between the first and second sections. Work in “The House of Stone” loosely explores translation between language and architecture. Knowles used architecture to highlight the difference between physical and simulated inhabitation or presence, and the artists in the show reframe this aspect of The House of Dust to explore themes of inclusion, exclusion, and displacement. Keren Benbenisty, for example, has rendered in CAPTCHA sentences from the Tower of Babel in Genesis and projected them in a darkened and curtained off section of the gallery. More socially focused examples, Alan Michelson’s Cherokee Phoenix Printshop and Home in the Wilderness, combine familiar architectural forms with written language to force the viewer to contemplate the displacement of the Cherokee people. A vitrine in this section further emphasizes connections between The House of Dust and architecture by representing conceptual artists who, like Knowles, have tried to divorce architecture from its emphasis on practicality and permanence. In this section, works are also presented that primarily explore serial progression, directive score, and the readymade. On the right hand wall unfolds Nicholas Knight’s Taxonome IV painting, for which he designed an algorithm to guide its creation. He adopted Knowles’s categories of location, material, and inhabitants, effectively removing aesthetic choice from his process. 

A gallery visitor in front of Nicholas Knight, Taxonome IV Study, Taxonome IV Color Chart, Taxonome IV, Taxonome IV Brush Swabs, Taxonome IV Masking, 2002.

The final section of the exhibition is titled “The House of Paper.” This section highlights the conceptual aspect of Knowles’s work that addresses the relationship between the visual and the verbal. The House of Dust places itself in the conflictual division between art and language. Knowles has aligned herself with other artists who explore artistic intention, and their art has a particularly slippery relationship with language; even an object that resists artistic intention is necessarily subjected to human choice as soon as it is described verbally and its conceptual breadth is limited to the relative rigidity of vocabulary. The James Gallery conveys this subtle yet crucial aspect of Knowles’s projects through the work of other artists who explore translation, not only between the visual and verbal but between the visual and auditory, or the visual and tactile. This section prominently features Nina Safainia’s interpretation of the quatrain: A HOUSE OF PAPER/ ON AN ISLAND/ USING ALL AVAILABLE LIGHTENINGS/INHABITED BY PEOPLE SPEAKING MANY LANGUAGES WEARING LITTLE OR NO CLOTHING. The visitor is invited to walk into its low walled structure constructed of stacks of today’s newspapers and two Graduate Center publications based on the exhibition. Visitors are encouraged to take copies of these CUNY publications. Within and around this structure are other works by Knowles from the 60s into the 00s, which help contextualize The House of Dust within her oeuvre. 

Exhibition view of Nina Safainia, A House of Paper, 2016.

In Knowles’s work, the human vocabulary is mimicked by a computer to create a score, which is then translated into a physical architecture that reaffirms and celebrates human presence and generative ability. Since the built “house” reflects just one verse, one randomly generated set of conditions, it stands in for all the theoretical structures that could rise from these permutations. The James Gallery takes this generative potential a step further, renewing the conceptual relevance of Knowles’s work through its reinterpretations by contemporary artists. Knowles’s manifesto against a computerized society was in a sense triumphant. The computer program is rigid, the score it creates prescribed, but Knowles met this reductivity with subjective interpretation, physical response, and community collaboration. Today’s viewer wonders, however, at how much more complex the algorithmic directives have become since the work’s inception in 1967. These programs contain human presence so completely that we struggle to extricate ourselves. How separate, for example, are our identities on Facebook from the ones we present physically? For the sake of building a database, Facebook enforces a specific approach to self representation and the way people relate to one another, becoming so universal that it occludes other possibilities. Knowles’s work is premonitory; perhaps she recognized the early stages of what we are now unable to disentangle or even perceive clearly, as computers direct our lives in ways even beyond our consciousness.



Editor’s Note: The House of Dust at The James Gallery at CUNY Graduate Center closed last Saturday, October 29. For those who are interested, a related, off-site exhibition A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s is on view at the Grey Art Gallery, NYU through Saturday, December 10.  

The Limits of “No Limits”

Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55) 1955 Oil on canvas 76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm) Private collection, Switzerland ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard
Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55)
Oil on canvas
76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm)
Private collection, Switzerland
©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard

At the entrance of the exhibition floats Zao Wou-ki’s painting Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (1955), a large canvas cloaked in fluid patches of startlingly limpid aquamarine, rust, and warm cream. The abstract work appears to conceal something underwater. Perhaps it is the ancient Chinese poet of the title, who, after being exiled, drowned himself in the Miluo River. The concentration of reddish color in the center hints at an object, yet the iridescent ripples make it difficult to identify.

No Limits: Zao Wou-ki, currently on view at the Asia Society Museum, is the artist’s first-ever retrospective in the U.S. Zao (1921-2013) is perhaps best known as the Chinese painter who moved to Paris after World War II, where he worked alongside the French Informel painters, while also maintaining a dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Zao was not singular in his global career: many post-war painters enthusiastically communicated with an international network of artists and traveled around the world. The exhibition curators Dr. Melissa Walt, Dr. Ankeney Weitz, and Michelle Yun characterize modern abstract painting as defined by this “dynamic cross-cultural circulation of ideas and images.”

Yet if we take this “global scope of modern abstraction” as the starting point of the exhibition, the repeated curatorial emphasis placed on Zao’s artistic fusion of Chinese and Western influences seems too reductive an analysis. The show presents the artist’s oeuvre chronologically, indicating an intensifying progression towards this multicultural ideal. This particular narrative, however, makes it challenging to appreciate Zao’s earlier works on their own terms, as they can be perceived merely as stepping-stones towards his final large canvases, such as 22.11.2002-10.12.2003 (2002-2003). While visually attractive, the chronological curation positions these hazy abstracted mountainscapes and harbor scenes as the East-West culmination of Zao’s oeuvre, embodying both the atmospheric Chinese landscape and more Western abstract painting styles.


Sans titre (Untitled) 1972 India ink on paper 26 3⁄16 × 47 1⁄16 in. (66.5 × 119.5 cm) Private collection, Switzerland ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Antoine Mercier
Sans titre (Untitled)
India ink on paper
26 3⁄16 × 47 1⁄16 in. (66.5 × 119.5 cm)
Private collection, Switzerland
©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Antoine Mercier

Another point of concern is the heavy emphasis on Zao’s late-career forays into Chinese ink painting, several examples of which are on view in the exhibition in marked contrast to his colorful oils. Though the swelling ink blots, dots, and slashes in works such as Sans titre (Untitled) (2007) reveal his understanding of ink’s properties, they do not have the enthralling animation present in  many  of Zao’s earlier, creeping black lines. The exhibition draws much attention to these late ink paintings, perhaps due to their obvious Chinese influence, but ultimately to the disservice of his mid-career works.

The journey towards those powerful works of 1950s and 1960s does follow a more traceable progression. Zao grew up practicing calligraphy and ink painting in a well-to-do household in Nantung, near Shanghai. He eventually trained in oil painting at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, around which time he began saving postcards and magazine pages featuring works by Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. In 1950, at the age of 29, he discovered the fanciful world of Paul Klee.


Sans titre (Joueurs de tennis) (Untitled [Tennis players]) 1945 Oil on muslin 10 5/8 × 13 3/4 in. (27 × 35 cm) Private Collection, Switzerland ©Photography by Dennis Bouchard
Sans titre (Joueurs de tennis) (Untitled [Tennis players])
Oil on muslin
10 5/8 × 13 3/4 in. (27 × 35 cm)
Private Collection, Switzerland
©Photography by Dennis Bouchard

A small side gallery presents Zao’s earliest works from 1942-1953 – there, the homage paid to pre-war modern European artists is clear. Paysage (Landscape) (1951) immediately recalls the magical colors and whimsical lines of Klee, and perhaps the intricate sketches of imagined cityscapes by the French artist Wols. Take a step back, however, and an overarching development across this first decade is Zao’s growing mastery over color. Under his initial motifs of stick figures, trees, animals, teapots, and other representational elements, you can make out the foundations for his later abstract swaths, washes, and dollops of oil paint.

In the first of the main galleries of the exhibition, spanning 1953 to the 1960s, we see Zao’s colors free from figurative elements, but occasionally interwoven with spindly black lines and symbols. Much of the wall text addresses these lines, linking them to calligraphy, and especially to ancient Chinese symbols carved in rock and bronze. While they may visually evoke these ideas, they also can be seen as a continued dialogue with Klee’s lines. Zao’s black lines from this period ultimately do not function as a written language like calligraphy, but rather, as a means to structure the composition of his canvases.


Water Music 1957 Oil on canvas 20 × 28 in. (50.8 × 71.1 cm) Chao 2000 Trust Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012
Water Music
Oil on canvas
20 × 28 in. (50.8 × 71.1 cm)
Chao 2000 Trust
Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012

The novelty of these “Chinese” lines in a Western oil painting, however, is likely what sparked Zao’s initial popularity. He was awarded his first exhibition at Galerie Creuze in Paris in 1949, and the New York gallerist Samuel Kootz (who was also the dealer of prominent artists such as Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning) began representing Zao in 1957. The Asia Society exhibition follows that initial fascination to a certain extent, with a focus on the cross-cultural elements in the oeuvre of a Chinese artist working in the West. While this hybridity is essential to understanding Zao’s formative years and an important premise of the retrospective, the contemporary viewer should be wary of using this cross-cultural dynamic to both launch and conclude interpretations of his paintings.

To extract oneself from this bind, detailed visual analyses of Zao’s works can prove illuminating. Several formal characteristics suggest less linear, but more interesting, threads that run through Zao’s career. Beginning with the aforementioned Hommage à Chu Yun, an overall sense of something – nature, landscape, reflection, movement – remains present in his work. His earlier paintings from the 1950s and 1960s utilize those spindly black lines to hint at the mass of an object.

In Mistral (1957), a somber painting punctuated with a spark of vivid orange, Zao’s overlay of crackly black patches and veiny webs of black lines emerge from within textured washes of black and muted brown. The organic spread of lines suggests a creeping movement or creature more than a gust of Mediterranean wind referenced by the title. Zao’s technical craft warrants much further attention, and carefully observing his use of material is a formal key to appreciating his subtle contributions to post-war oil painting. Stand closer to any canvas, and the range he achieved with his materials is striking: he seamlessly incorporated multiple pale washes of color with slabs of opaque – occasionally shiny – pigment. The thick patches in Mistral sparkle as their crevices catch the light.


05.03.65—Pour mon frère Wu- Wai (05.03.65—For my brother Wu-Wai) 1965 Oil on canvas 26 × 39 in. (66 × 99.1 cm) Chao 2000 Trust Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012
05.03.65—Pour mon frère Wu- Wai (05.03.65—For my brother Wu-Wai)
Oil on canvas
26 × 39 in. (66 × 99.1 cm)
Chao 2000 Trust
Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012

In other works, such as Traces dans la ville (1954), Zao physically gouged lines into the painted surface. Other times, it appears he held a waterlogged brush over the canvas, letting the droplets dilute perfect circles into the paint. Often, the interplay of light and dark colors resembles the finish of ceramics or the swirls of marble. Later on, his black lines become brushier, as if windswept, and eventually fade away entirely. The colors in 05.03.65—Pour mon frère Wu-Wai (1965) seem to splash or blow around the picture space without a distinct black skeleton, affecting the viewer instead with a mesmerizing whirlwind of movement.

In his late-career paintings, however, this movement of color and careful manipulation of paint fade. These works return to more plainly representational landscapes, and directly draw in Eastern elements. His final years clearly centered more on carefree experimentation in different media, imagery, and cultural references – not on the meticulous craft and cohesive composition visible at the creative climax of his career. Zao painted Décembre 89-Février 90-Quadriptyque (December 89-February 90-Quadriptych) (1989-90) in massive abstract strokes on four gold canvases joined to resemble a Japanese screen; 27.02.98 (1998) recalls a pit of smoldering embers and, if you look closely, some of the black lines here take the shape of “火,” the Chinese character for fire. While these works remain balanced, they lack the whirlwind dynamism of works like Hommage à Chu Yun or Mistral. By escalating towards these later works, the curatorial narrative of the exhibition feels out of sync with the true arc of the artist’s oeuvre – the visitor thus concludes the show a little confused and underwhelmed.

The exhibition does too much to highlight the progress towards this final “fusion” in Zao’s oeuvre. In 1988, Zao admitted to “the ever-present fear of repeating myself. I paint my own life but I also try to paint an invisible place, that of dreams, somewhere where one feels in perfect harmony, even in the midst of agitated shapes or opposing forces.” One can argue that invisible places and places of dreams cannot be anchored geographically; they are neither influenced nor impacted by a fusion of East and West. Perhaps the show could have proposed that Zao’s artistic legacy is most alive in works from the 1950s-60s, where to avoid repeating his artistic idols and to escape culturally pigeonholing his creations, he uprooted his practice from both Chinese and Western identities by composing those harmonious – yet still agitated – dream worlds.


No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki runs until January 8, 2017 at the Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Ave, New York.


Alma Thomas: In Space, In Time

In lock step with a series of cross-country exhibitions showcasing the marginalized work of African American abstract painters (Sam Gilliam at David Kordansky and Norman Lewis at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, to name two) The Studio Museum in Harlem has mounted a much needed, if small, monographic show titled, simply, Alma Thomas (on view July 14 – October 30, 2016). Alongside urgent contemporary debates spotlit by Black Lives Matter, such a recasting of (art) history challenges the hermeticism of academic discourse, art magazine glosses, and white-walled galleries; indeed, a New York Times feature story brought the trend to the attention of a broader public late last year. Timely, even-keeled, and sensitive without descending into hagiography, Alma Thomas presents the paintings of an artist who has emerged as a latter-day star, with her tangerine and carmine Mars Dust featured alongside Elizabeth Murray and Cy Twombly in the Whitney Museum’s inaugural downtown exhibition, and with a sunny mid-1960s circle painting on view in the White House dining room. As such, she exemplifies the latent power of repressed or silenced narratives.

Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photograph by the author.
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. All photographs by the author.
Installation View 2
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Alma Thomas unfolds over the period of 1959 to 1976, roughly apace with the artist’s career. Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891, Thomas’s family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1907 due to increasing racial tensions in the southern United States, and she remained in the capital until her death in 1978. Thomas’s commitment to education exceeded her own academic pursuits: after receiving a fine arts degree at Howard University, an MA at Columbia Teachers College, and an MFA at American University, she worked as an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School. Only upon retirement in 1960 did she turn her attention wholly to her own practice. Although almost entirely comprised of abstract work, the exhibition includes two early representational paintings, both titled Sketch for the March on Washington (c. 1964). In them, white rectangular forms atop a cool-hued mass of standing figures read almost as blunted mountains in an otherwise innocuous landscape. Only upon realizing that they are, instead, wordless protest posters do the paintings’ gravity and titular historical referent register.

Alma Thomas, Sketch for the March on Washington, c. 1964, oil on canvas board.
Alma Thomas, Sketch for the March on Washington, c. 1964, oil on canvas board.

This solemnity is offset by the joyful tone of the remaining works in the show, which addresses Thomas’s output in four thematic sections: Move to Abstraction, Earth, Mosaic, and Space. In the first of these, End of Autumn (1968) inaugurates what would become her signature style: short brushstrokes of varying lengths stacked one atop the other in linear sequences, packed tightly across the canvas. It is a tentative, uncertain painting, as if Thomas is testing out new ideas. In it, a field of fleshy peach daubs is interrupted by a hovering circular form, replete with rainbow-hued vertical stripes. More often than not, she seems to have begun her strokes from the top, pulling her paint downward. This is difficult to confirm, however, as closer scrutiny reveals that Thomas took a smaller brush loaded with a white acrylic (here as elsewhere of a slightly different tone from that of the primer) and painted over, and across, the multicolored upright bands. The overall effect is twofold: up close, it amounts to slighter, more bifurcated, and more jagged forms, while from further away it adds to the central motif a craquelure reaching inward from perimeter to center, like asymmetrical wheel spokes. Graphite lines peeking through (and sometimes on top of) Thomas’s clustered forms confirm that she laid down a preconceived compositional map. Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968) demonstrates Thomas’s transposition of these same techniques onto a rectangular, rather than circular, format. It is one of many places in the exhibition where we feel we can see Thomas thinking via formal experimentation.

Alma Thomas, End of Autumn, 1968, acrylic and graphite on canvas. Detail of Title.
Alma Thomas, End of Autumn, 1968, acrylic and graphite on canvas. Detail of End of Autumn.
Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, acrylic on canvas. Detail of Title.
Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, acrylic on canvas. Detail of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers.

Save for the earliest four paintings on view, Thomas works in acrylic throughout. Given her longtime role as an arts educator, this puts me in mind of the jugs of like paint crammed in junior high classroom closets. Indeed her handling has nothing to do with that of her contemporaries, Washington Color Field painters like Thomas Downing, Sam Gilliam, and Kenneth Noland, who soaked diluted acrylics into unprimed cotton duck without ever touching brush to canvas. In so doing (according to their ringleader, the critic Clement Greenberg) painting could subvert illusionism’s unsavory implication of space and therefore absence (of the figure), opting instead for utter flatness and an attendant metaphysics of presence. Thomas’s marks, by contrast, sit resolutely atop a primed layer, the foremost among them cohering into a perforated curtain that appears to conceal another space behind. Her paintings reward close and sustained looking, but her vertical stripe works, especially, defy the “one-shot” motifs—polka dot sequences, pours, chevrons—of the artists listed above, instead edging closer to Gene Davis’s even-width stripe paintings. (In fact, my drawing such comparisons at all only underscores the extent to which Greenbergian discourse was erected for and around those painters exclusively, and reifies it in turn.) One senses that Thomas paid little heed to Color Field’s narrow strictures; her paintings could even be said to define themselves against such doctrines in a measured vote of defiance or non-participation.

Alma Thomas, Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, acrylic on canvas. Detail of Title.
Alma Thomas, Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, acrylic on canvas. Detail of Cherry Blossom Symphony.

The early 1970s paintings included in the Studio Museum’s Earth section are the most masterful in the show. A gallery label informs us that Thomas first realized her commitment to abstraction while watching light shift through tree leaves in her garden, an anecdote that emboldens associative readings encouraged by oft-botanical titles but likewise frustrated by the works’ seeming nonobjectivity. In these pictures, such as the knockout Arboretum Presents White Dogwood (1972) or Cherry Blossom Symphony (1973), foreground and background swap roles: the shimmering veil of vertical brush marks becomes monochromatic (here, white and bubblegum pink, respectively), with the previously-vacant ground now full of chromatic variety, like a luminescent magical world only just hidden from view. Careful scrutiny of a columnar passage near Cherry Blossom Symphony’s right side demonstrates a nearly uniform application of pink, punctuated by short horizontal blues, here confounding the relationship between fore- and back-ground within a single painting. With brushstrokes in diagonally a- or de-scending sequences—so no adjacent brush stroke breaks at the same point as the one next to it, but instead toward its neighbor’s middle—these two paintings have the astonishing effect of an optical flicker or of vertical movement, like film strips reeling up or down at varying speeds. The late 1970s heralded a breaking apart of Thomas’s linearly-stacked forms into constellated zones interspersed with glyphs and squiggles, as in Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish (1976). These so-called Mosaic paintings are the latest in the show, truncated by her death in 1978.

Alma Thomas, A Glimpse of Mars, 1969, acrylic on canvas.
Alma Thomas, A Glimpse of Mars, 1969, acrylic on canvas.

A final, smaller section, Space, groups works resulting from Thomas’s fascination with air travel and NASA missions. Departing from the chronological sweep of the main gallery, this group dates between 1969 and 1972, and has the most interpretative potential. With titles like A Glimpse of Mars (1969), Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset (1970), Apollo 12 “Splash Down” (1970), and Starry Night and the Astronauts (1972), Thomas’s circle motifs obtain new valences, reading as planets seen from afar; her fragmented verticals as cratered soil crusts. Contemporaneous with the famed 1972 Blue Marble photograph of the earth seen from outer space, these paintings hint that Thomas was inspired by photographic documentation over and above her imaginative capacities alone. This is instructive because it validates realms of experience (like photography) otherwise not present in her works proper. Thomas’s interest in space travel, with its facility to decenter subjectivity and make room for new subject positions, strikes a chord with discourses of racial justice otherwise absent from the works. One wonders if Thomas’s yoking together via abstraction these two spheres of experience enabled her to bypass the demands placed on black artists for social content in their art, while not  discounting it completely. (There is little irony in remembering that by 1969, the Studio Museum had declared abstraction irrelevant to black American life and essentially banned it from its galleries, insisting instead on figuration as a way to liberate audiences from the limited perspectives of white representational art.) In a brilliant and salutary move, Thomas shifts discursive registers, effectively speaking one language to make available another. All the while, her paintings maintain an optimism: a belief in the universal legibility of abstraction over figuration’s more limited range.

Throughout, Thomas’s paintings burst with ebullience, hopefulness, and verve. In 1970, Thomas proclaimed that “through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” She was a trailblazer through and through: the first person to graduate with a fine arts degree from Howard, and the first African American woman to receive a retrospective, in 1972, at the Whitney Museum. Her resurgence today comes when our country needs different voices—whether young or old—more than ever, a struggle that haunted Thomas, too. As she put it in 1972, “one of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”

Performing Intimacy: Lee Mingwei’s Sonic Blossom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A soprano’s voice echoes through the museum’s quiet halls. Inside the Metropolitan’s main gallery for contemporary art, the singer stands before a large, rapt audience but performs only for one. Moments earlier, she approached an unsuspecting viewer with an offer of the “gift of song”; now accepted, the soprano delivers a moving rendition of a Franz Schubert lied—a short operatic solo derived from German poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—to the chosen visitor seated several yards away. In deference to the intimacy of the performance, onlookers quietly move towards the periphery of the gallery. The visitor, seemingly lost in the soprano’s stirring song, begins to cry. After three brief minutes the lied ends and the palpable bond between performer and visitor is broken. What remains, however, is the memory of an experience that transcended mere recital or performance art to strive for something deeper and more consequential: a meaningful, if fleeting, moment of communion between strangers.

Sonic Blossom performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ® Julia Cervantes for The New York Times, 2015
Sonic Blossom performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ® Julia Cervantes for The New York Times, 2015

Organized through the Metropolitan Museum’s Concerts and Lecture series, this brief exchange was one of many—each incorporating new vocalists, audiences and one of five different lieder—enacted over the course of ten days in November 2015 as part of Lee Mingwei’s performance art piece Sonic Blossom. The work has been presented several times before, including at museums in Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and, most recently, in the United States at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Yet it strikes a particular cord in New York, a city known for its skepticism, impatience and toughness. New Yorkers have learned from experience to be wary of those approaching them wearing odd clothing with promises of ‘gifts’. Staged elsewhere in Manhattan, say in a local park or subway terminal, the performer would have been met with considerable distrust. But in the cultural setting of the Metropolitan, the only museum in the city to house both a fine art and musical instrument collection, visitors are primed for just this kind of unusual artistic behavior.

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Some Thoughts After Attending the Art on Paper Fair

What is known as “Armory Week” took place early March in New York. The roughly seven-day-long art extravaganza takes its name from the 1913 Armory Show—America’s first large-scale exhibition of modern art, which took place in the Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. Every year, Armory Week encompasses numerous art fairs and events across the city, providing excellent opportunities to not only look at art and meet artists and art world professionals, but also to practice observing the art market and predicting forms it could take in the foreseeable future. On March 6, I attended the Art on Paper Fair. As many will likely admit, time at art shows goes by quickly and is never quite enough. Thus, I focused my visit on new, alternative uses of the paper medium, observing the gamut displayed, speaking with artists and dealers, and gauging the visitors’ reactions.

Hideho Tanaka, Vanishing and Emerging Wall, 2009, paper, 87 x 102 x 11 in, browngrotta gallery, photo by author.
Hideho Tanaka, Vanishing and Emerging Wall, 2009, paper, 87 x 102 x 11 in, browngrotta gallery, photo by author.

One thing that became noticeable early on, while walking around the space, was the number of conversations concerning the apparent two-dimensionality of most works exhibited at the fair. Such observations were offered with a tone of disappointment, as though the future of paper, as presented here, had circled back on itself and was, once again, non-sculptural and flat. Despite the public’s generalizations about the prevalence of age-old applications of pencil, ink and paint, this year’s fair was actually marked with works that pushed far beyond tradition.

There were numerous instances of artworks that toyed with both two and three-dimensionality. A fascinating example was found in the offerings of Canadian artist and author Cybèle Young, represented by Forum Gallery, whose works are sculptures trapped in a frame. Elsewhere, Browngrotta gallery exhibited only non-flat works. Of particular note was “Vanishing and Emerging Wall,” 2009, a round textile by Japanese artist Hideho Tanaka woven out of squares of paper, painted with stripes and hung in such a way as to create vertical folds. Similarly, Owen James Gallery exhibited small paper pulp sculptures by Adam Frezza and Terri Chiao. The sculptures’ whimsical colors, glitter, and coral-like structure created a playful atmosphere that made them alluring to fair-visitors of all ages. Overall, encountering works that experimented with unique applications of the paper medium made the whole visit far more lively than one could typically expect of these fairs—like a treasure hunt of art on paper.

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When the Signal Becomes the Noise

To get to the Whitney’s 8th floor exhibit Laura Poitras: Astro Noise, I stood in line for about twenty minutes, taking note in the museum’s glass exterior of my reflection and those of other visitors waiting in line to see the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. I thought about Poitras’s past documentaries, including the Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR, and wondered how her exhibition would reflect on her chief topic – the United States in the post-9/11 era – in ways that her documentaries could not. Watching my reflection slowly inch forward proved to be a fortuitous entrance to the immersive exhibit, which, according to the program, “asks viewers to actively consider their position and responsibility in the ‘war on terror.’” Indeed, Astro Noise implicates and arranges viewers in “immersive media environments” that compel active looking and embodied contemplation.

I stepped out of the elevators and into the first “immersive media environment” (the program’s reinvention of the word “room”). The space is split in half by a single screen, onto both sides of which are projected videos that respond to 9/11. Titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016), this two-channel digital video bifurcates the room, a setup that divides viewers into opposing groups that face each other as they face the central screen, as if an audience reflected in a mirror. Playing on side A of the screen are slowed images of the faces of New Yorkers as they look upon the remains of Ground Zero days after the attacks. Here viewers confront, and perhaps even remember firsthand, the emotions of that terrorist event: disbelief, shock, fear. These same feeling could be registered on the faces of viewers looking at the other side of the screen, where uncovered U.S. military interrogation videos of two prisoners in Afghanistan, Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdam, represent the Bush Administration’s response to the attacks.

View from “second” side of O’Say Can You See.  Photography: Connor Hamm
View from “second” side of O’Say Can You See. Photography: Connor Hamm

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Saltz Does the Armory

Taking a deep breath as I stepped through the entrance doors to the Armory Show, I braced myself for the inevitable feeling of art overload I was about to experience; for me, each booth merges with the next, resulting in a shopping mall vibe that seems anathema to a productive viewing experience. But, let’s face it, this is exactly what an art fair should be, right?

According to Jerry Saltz, a self-proclaimed lover of all things art-related, art fairs aren’t about the art at all. They’re about the people. So he claimed in a talk entitled “LIKE, SWIPE AND DOUBLE TAP: Visual Criticism in the Digital Age,” moderated by Benjamin Genocchio, Executive Director of the Armory Show. Leave it to Saltz, known for never pulling his punches, to alleviate some of the commercial art world ridiculousness … or so I thought. The following is a response to one of the most ludicrous ‘talks’ I’ve attended in a long while. (Disclaimer: Devoted Saltz fans should stop reading now, if only to save themselves the indignation for more important battles, like social media censorship.)

When asked to describe my feelings about art fairs I usually reply with general disdain, laced with stronger feelings of actual disgust. I know many art historians, perched on our intellectual high horses, feel the same way about the overt commodification of art. Such fairs seem to suggest that artworks are best marketed as swank luxury goods or smart financial investments but not cultural treasures. Is this a just assessment? Probably not, given that we are all, even those members of the hallowed academy, proponents of the art market, whether we intend it or not. My morality may also be somewhat compromised for even attending the fair (though I did so on a free day pass; heaven forbid actually paying to go!).

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Painting, Blind

Tucked amidst a spate of current shows featuring work in a particular vein of modernist painting—Stella, Olitski, Noland—Paul Barlow’s paintings, primarily of colorful frames, might seem little more than over-literal riffs on the medium’s ontology: canvas, stretcher bars, paint. And they are, undeniably, all those things, but close scrutiny reveals something else besides.

Linne Urbye, Untitled (1), Untitled (4), and Untitled (12), all 2015, Flashe (vinyl) and oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. All photographs by the author.
Linne Urbye, Untitled (1), Untitled (4), and Untitled (12), all 2015, Flashe (vinyl) and oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. All photographs by the author.

Blind Spots (on view January 14 – February 20, 2016) at Ana Cristea Gallery is a thirteen-work show of modestly-sized canvases by two painters: British artist Barlow and Norwegian artist Linne Urbye, both of whom are exhibiting in the United States for the first time. Urbye covers her canvases with repeating, often empty, abstract forms—chevrons, overlapping arcs, fleurs-de-lis, quarter-moons—in cool blues, greys, and whites. Often, her paint application discloses a prior composition below, laying bare the material’s twin function as both veil and window while simultaneously marking the support as a palimpsest of gestural maneuvers. These operations entail a certain resistance of vision on the part of the viewer, who must double down to visually excavate the logic of the marks beneath the uppermost layer. Through the interlocking arches, filled in to varying degrees in Untitled (12) (2015) we catch a glimpse of process, and wonder if we are seeing the work in an unfinished state. This transports the viewer from the space of the gallery to the space of the studio, a shift in register from the optics of viewing to the haptics of making. It is Barlow, however, who seizes most productively on the exhibition’s titular blindness as an operative term. This review, then, focuses primarily on his work.

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Walid Raad Curates Art and History at MoMA

In the first minutes of Walid Raad’s Walkthrough, a performance given throughout the run of his survey show at MoMA, the artist appears approachably nervous. Dressed down in jeans, a black t-shirt and baseball hat, he prefaces his hour-long talk by confessing that he suffers from panic attacks that often lead him to pace back and forth while speaking. Vulnerability suggests sincerity, and the works in this show—full of facts and figures about topical political and cultural issues—support the viewer’s first impression of earnestness. Nearby, an elaborate, colorful tableau visualizing years of research into the history of art in the “Arab world” uncovers connections between the Artist Pension Trust (ATP), a private enterprise offering financial security in the fickle commercial art world, its parent company MutualArt.com, and Israeli military intelligence. All of this data, part of an ongoing project called Scratching on things I could disavow (2007- ) is verifiable, Raad assures us. Yet he says the links revealed are so expected and banal that they are undeserving of an artwork. Oscillating between researcher and artist, Raad not only blurs distinctions between fact and fiction, but also implies that distilling truth from storytelling is entirely beside the point: the real end is engendering a greater awareness of the means by which history is constructed.

Walid Raad, MoMA, Exhibition view. Photography: Kara Fiedorek
Walid Raad, MoMA, Exhibition view. Photography: Kara Fiedorek

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