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.

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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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Slowing Down the Museum

Selfie stick: in hand. Move through the museum; photograph any object that piques one’s interest; apply filter; glance at wall labels if conveniently nearby. Some artworks become sites for group portraits while others—contours carefully (or not) framed within the familiar rectangle of the iPhone screen—warrant a photograph of their own. Lack of discrimination is fine: 16GB of storage can surely hold this many digital files. Move on.

The experience is a familiar one, one certainly known, if not first hand, through inadvertent observation. The facility of digital photography, via the ever-present smartphone, has accelerated the act of looking in the museum. The discourse around this phenomenon is often presented in negative terms, terms frequently indebted to Walter Benjamin’s essay on mechanical reproduction, terms which remind us to be self-critical about the cultural baggage of outmoded concepts like the “original” or “authentic,” and to consider carefully the status of the replica.

Ken Okiishi’s Frieze Projects 2013 installation in London. Image courtesy Frieze Projects.

The medium of painting, sitting comfortably atop the hierarchy of artistic production, is an obvious lodestone and conceptual linchpin here. To take a single work as an example, artist Ken Okiishi’s commission for Frieze Projects London in 2013—a Perspex walled space with windows on all sides containing visitor-activated paintball guns spewing fuchsia and saffron orbs—was conceived to function both in temporary installation as well as in endless proliferation on the web, as representation. As Okiishi put it:

On a technical as well as on a formal level, it’s a piece that is designed to be photographed, posted and reposted rapidly and with great enthusiasm […] These explosions and smears and drips that happen will become very desirable to be photographed, to be videoed, to be sent on Instagram or Vine or whatever.

As two poles of a conceptual spectrum (unique site of creativity on the one hand; ultimate proliferator on the other), painting and the screen become, paradoxically, easy bedfellows. In the Frieze installation, paint splats multiply across transparent windows and layer atop those on the walls behind; the screen of a smartphone creates yet another layer. Meaning is both lost and gained. Click and run.

This summer, two museum shows grapple more broadly with the implications of repetition, the archive, and digital technologies of replication. The Jewish Museum’s Repetition and Difference (on view through August 16, 2015) and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ salt 11: Duane Linklater (on view through August 2, 2015), open up for questioning, from two different angles, the ontology of the museum object vis-à-vis artistic techniques of replication, whether eighth-century BCE or contemporary, analog or digital. Most striking is the extent to which both shows welcome the issue of replication—understood as both material process and conceptual construct—as an opportunity to be transparent and self-critical about aesthetic assumptions, colonial influences, and, ultimately, collecting biases. Said differently, repetition, sameness, difference, and authorship are bared as the gatekeeper’s invisible hands.

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Rauschenberg’s Stoned Moon Lithographs: “Nothing Will Already Be The Same”

The words are Robert Rauschenberg’s, stripped-in alongside a photograph of Apollo 11 clearing its launch tower: “NOTHING WILL ALREADY BE THE SAME.” Oriented vertically, the typewritten phrase mimics the upward thrust of the rocket, setting it apart from all else within the composition of the page; it is one of twenty mock-ups of the artist’s never-realized Stoned Moon Book (1969), on loan from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Conflating past and present by altering the idiom’s familiar uttering, Rauschenberg collapses the extraordinary long game of the space race and its attendant technological advancements with the instantaneousness of the liftoff. A presidential promise, made in 1961, is here loaded into the few anticipation-ridden seconds during which millions of Americans held their breath at exactly the same time.

Rauschenberg was one of them. NASA invited him, along with seven other artists, to Cape Canaveral in July 1969 to observe the launch of Apollo 11. Since 1967, Rauschenberg had been working with Los Angeles-based artists’ workshop Gemini G.E.L. (and making prints elsewhere since 1962). His familiarity with the printed medium and relationship with Gemini allowed him to continue that collaboration to produce an impressive suite of prints that reflected upon his experience—he was granted unrestricted access—of NASA’s astronauts, complex machinery, and sprawling facilities for the occasion of the first manned flight to the moon.

A single-gallery show at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, “Loose in Some Real Tropics: Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Stoned Moon’ Projects, 1969–70” (on view December 20, 2014 through March 16, 2015), exhibits thirteen of the thirty-four lithographs in the series, alongside rarely-seen archival material including photographs of Rauschenberg in the studio, notes he took during his visit to Florida, and twenty of the aforementioned collaged book pages. Taken together, they provide welcome access to the artist’s working process and state of mind. The show benefits from the clear focus of its curator, James Merle Thomas, who enables viewers to hone in on a discrete moment of intersection between artistic production and the shared experience of a monumental historical moment. The lithographs on view, in their varying degrees of abstraction, likewise represent a range of content, intelligibility, and what one could imagine as approximations of onlookers’ sensory impressions. The Stoned Moon works’ relative obscurity makes the Cantor’s a refreshing and gladly received showing, offering an even-keeled selection of the full series’ sensibility and iconography, even if it omits prints in the series that showcase the raw power and dynamism of the liftoff, that snapshot that best conveys the erupting anticipation of the Apollo mission. (It seems, indeed, that excitement was what Rauschenberg was after.) Missed in this regard, then, is a print like Waves (1969), whose vast surface is half-dominated by the enormous force of Saturn 5’s thrusters, surrounded by vapor-like exhaust that Rauschenberg inked in loose, brushy strokes.

Left: Robert Rauschenberg, Waves (Stoned Moon), 1969; lithograph, 89 in. x 42 in. (226.06 cm x 106.68 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gemini G.E.L. / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; published by Gemini G.E.L. Image courtesy SFMOMA. Right: Robert Rauschenberg, Sky Garden (Stoned Moon), 1969; lithograph and screen print, 89 in. x 42 in. (226.06 cm x 106.68 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gemini G.E.L. / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; published by Gemini G.E.L.  Image courtesy SFMOMA.
Left: Robert Rauschenberg, Waves (Stoned Moon), 1969; lithograph, 89 in. x 42 in. (226.06 cm x 106.68 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gemini G.E.L. / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; published by Gemini G.E.L. Image courtesy SFMOMA. Right: Robert Rauschenberg, Sky Garden (Stoned Moon), 1969; lithograph and screen print, 89 in. x 42 in. (226.06 cm x 106.68 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gemini G.E.L. / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; published by Gemini G.E.L. Image courtesy SFMOMA.

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Light, Smoke, and Acid: John Van Hamersveld on His Psychedelic Posters

On January 8, 2015, IFA PhD Candidate Elizabeth Buhe sat down with John Van Hamersveld in his Rancho Palos Verdes studio to discuss his work as a graphic designer, and, in particular, his 1960s psychedelic posters designed for Pinnacle Productions. 

ifacontemporary John Van Hamersveld in his San Pedro Studio January 2015
John Van Hamersveld in his San Pedro studio, January 2015. Photograph by the author.

EB: To start, why don’t you tell me a little about your artistic formation.

JVH: I was guided into graphic arts and communication of American and worldwide design at Art Center. At Art Center I would go to this store in Westwood called Flax, and they had an international magazine stand there. I was able to see even further how typographical design, photographs, and the communication process were European and went back to the Bauhaus. But then—boom—you know, it was something that was very contemporary and everywhere with Life Magazine and all that.

EB: So what years are we talking about here?

JVH: That’s in the 50s, from the 50s going into the 60s. 1961 I go to Art Center. The second part is that I leave Art Center early, one year after my education there, and I’m taking off the summer. My father gets me a job at Northrop Aviation. Between the director and himself, they guided me into publication making. They would make these books up that they’d show to generals on all the secret information on developing and testing. So at home, I decided after learning all that I can do my own surfing magazine. So I created a surfing magazine in my bedroom. I gathered up people from around the community and made the stories up, and then basically put it all together in my bedroom and took it down the street and had a printer—just an ordinary store-front printer—print it. So out of that, all the sudden, I was at Surfer Magazine. And then I was at another magazine called Surf Guide. So there’s three magazines that I’d been designing over a three-year period of time. I decided that I’m going to go to Chouinard, and get back into my art education. So I go to Chouinard, which is just turning into CalArts, and changing all of the sudden. At Chouinard I was anticipating becoming a painter, and I showed my canvases there. This was in 1965. The counselor who starts me out says you can take photography, you can take film, you can take video, and you can take animation. You can take all these other things that would be complementary to your communication classes of graphic design. So all the sudden it was like art! But it was media art. That was then developed into a thing called Pinnacle, which was this big promotion that I was able to do.

EB: Right. Before we start with Pinnacle, can we go back to some of your earlier influences?

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Blowing Up                                                   The Koons Effect

The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.
The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.

Adding to the ever-increasing influx of (add preferred noun here: airtime, hype, prestige, simple volume of written or spoken words) about Koons’s work in the wake of the Whitney’s current retrospective, the joint IFA-Whitney symposium, The Koons Effect was a game participant. Unlike much of the other dialogue around the show, however, The Koons Effect aimed for tough methodological questions from the start; indeed the symposium could be said to have centered on the question of whether Koons’s work proves itself beyond the pale of established historical interpretative frameworks and vocabularies, warranting something “new.” Two points were immediately clear: facile and default recourse to models (like the commodity fetish) or to figures (like Duchamp and Warhol) bear little fruit in the collective effort to advance the discourse on Koons, and the lighter the reliance on the artist’s own manicured explanations and language of self-presentation, the deeper the insight.

Rather than synopsizing the conference here, however, what follows are abbreviated summaries of four of Friday’s eight presentations, in part to signal their diversity (I consider only part two of the event, the September 12 proceedings, which were fully recorded and are available online). The challenge of precisely summarizing any individual talk points not only to the complexity of the ideas grappled with and the lines of inquiry opened up, but—and maybe more importantly—the supremely unresolved state of current thinking on the artist. Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf’s show is revelatory for bringing the full trajectory of Koons’s production into view, enabling—unbelievably—for the first time what one hopes will be a spate of ambitious art historical work based on direct experience and study of the objects.
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Wade Guyton: X is to Y as

Left: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 90 × 53 in. (228.6 × 134.6 cm). Collection of Mark Grotjahn and Jennifer Guidi. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org. Right: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 89 × 54 in. (226.1 × 137.2 cm). Private collection. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org.
Left: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 90 × 53 in. (228.6 × 134.6 cm). Collection of Mark Grotjahn and Jennifer Guidi. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org.
Right: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 89 × 54 in. (226.1 × 137.2 cm). Private collection. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org.

Wade Guyton is, in many ways, an art historian’s artist. He engages with the questions that get us going: questions of aesthetics, medium specificity, and the iconography of modernism itself, not to mention the very directness with which he prompts his viewers to wonder what’s “relevant” in art today. Lots of ink has been spilled attempting to define Guyton’s artistic practice, and many have asserted his status as a painter. A painter who, despite his use (primarily) of Epson inkjet printers and tabletop scanners, tips his hand both by very consciously employing that ur-signifier of painting—canvas plus stretcher bar—and by articulating the limits of his medium. Guyton’s current retrospective at the Whitney (on view October 4, 2012 to January 13, 2013) gives us an opportunity to re-examine these interpretative strictures and consider the work through the varied art-historical lenses that it demands. Continue reading “Wade Guyton: X is to Y as”

Locality and Multiplicity at Documenta 13

View of Kassel’s Orangerie and Karlsaue Park through Rahmenbau by Haus-Rucker-Co (1977)

Nowhere does art feel more global than at the biennials and exhibitions that happen at such regular intervals that their devotees can confidently book their hotel tickets up to five years in advance. Certainly this is true at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany—a place with no particular history of strong artistic production in its own right, albeit a site with a very significant role in history itself. Yet in this global arena (this year’s Documenta includes physical or conceptual sites in Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff in Canada), a theme amongst the disparate works is a sense of place, a groundedness within the local—within the issues of the artist’s particular time and place—and one that is often framed within the larger historical scope of war. Though one theme among many (the exhibition included nearly 200 artists), this investigation of specific, localized moments in cultural and political history strikes a particular chord in Kassel, a tiny city smack in the center of Germany that was badly damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. The exceptional quality of the art on view and the panoply of locations from which they came make the associations, possible through the works’ juxtaposition, all the more striking and layered. Continue reading “Locality and Multiplicity at Documenta 13”

Robert Morris in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection

The large-scale Robert Morris sculptures grouped in a bright room at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the members of the Panza Collection Initiative (PCI) told us, were there for one reason. Derelict, fragile, or compromised in some way, they were gathered as part of the PCI’s ambitious project to preserve and conserve the Guggenheim’s large holdings of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptual works, many acquired by the Guggenheim in 1991 and 1992 from Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. What are the questions we face in considering the collection, preservation, and display of works borne out of the innovative artistic practices of the 1960s?

When we think of Morris’s large-form sculptures, it is easy enough to conjure them in the mind’s eye: L-beams, boxes, frames, and hovering platforms, especially as pictured in the well-known photographs of the Green Gallery and Dwan Gallery shows from the mid-1960s. But to say specifically what these works are made of is more difficult. Plywood, fiberglass, aluminum? Yet in looking at two iterations of Morris’s Untitled (Warped Bench), the difference in material is palpable: the later one (2004), made of painted plywood, has a crispness of edge lacking in its earlier (1965) fiberglass counterpart, a difference resulting from the exactness of facture possible with each material.

Exhibition at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1966.
Image courtesy Catherine Grenier, Robert Morris, exhibition catalog (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995): 227.

In front of Warped Bench, and only minutes into the discussion led by Jeffrey Weiss, Ted Mann, and Anne Wheeler, it was already becoming clear just how complicated the PCI’s task is, given the tangled web of historical and technical considerations relevant to Morris’s work. Continue reading “Robert Morris in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection”