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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
My interest in inviting Walead Beshty to exhibit at the Institute was rooted in the nature of his work and the questions it raises for the art historical field. Beshty’s commitment to exposing systems, the movement and handling of works of art and the evolving meaning of the art object engenders timely and critical questions that challenge how we interact with, write about, and historicize art.
I also felt strongly about showing an artist whose work offered a contrast to the regality of the Great Hall but still complemented it. The glowing television, cracked glass cubes and clicking printer bring three new forms—along with novel sounds—into the space, contrasting with the Hall’s decorative mirrors, figurative sculptures, and lavish chandeliers. Between their radical transparency and diligent deconstruction, the works become a metaphor for the task of the art historian: dissecting art to offer a new interpretation of what it means.
When the editors asked Eloise and I to write something about the exhibition, we were hesitant to produce a formal curatorial statement and preferred, instead, to facilitate a dialogue with the various people who have interacted with the works over the past month. As such, we embarked on the somewhat dangerous task of asking our fellow graduate students in art history—and one very special security guard—for their reflections on the show. Each impression was gathered during an informal conversation with the respondent and was impromptu. We wanted immediate reactions rather than formally-composed assessments. Both celebratory and critical, the following is what we heard:
In early October New York’s Onassis Foundation hosted a festival in its newly renovated Atrium and gallery to mark the reopening of its Cultural Center. The festival, entitled Narcissus Now: the Myth Reimagined, consisted of an unforgettable opening ceremony and art exhibition, followed by several talks and lectures by renowned scholars and professionals in a variety of cultural and artistic fields, all revolving around the concept of ‘narcissism.’ The festival’s opening event, which took place on the evening of Thursday, October 8th, featured a number of talented artists, musicians, choreographers and dancers who collaborated to create an interactive and multisensory experience that transcended genre and artistic medium.
The event utilized both floors of the Cultural Center, encompassing three different spaces for the exhibition of artworks linked together by a site specific performance, and music written especially for the occasion. Most striking among the exhibited pieces, the large scale work The Art Wall: I AMness by Angelo Plessas, 2015 was installed in the Atrium. Plessas is an Athens-based artist who works between traditional visual and avant-garde digital practices. The Art Wall: I AMness represents a still of Plessas’ characteristically graphic online interactive work I AMness, 2015. Consisting of a series of black and white stripes, the work features two central circles. Structured across a central divide, the symmetry of these circular forms engenders a dizzying mirroring sensation. With this simple compositional strategy, Plessas embodies the subject of narcissism through self-reflection. Through its repetitive, almost psychedelic graphics, the work also signals the internal conflict that narcissism can cause, as expressed in the relationship between the circles that meld together above and seem to tear apart below. Even more so than this large-scale mural, the original version of I AMness, which began as a website, dives even deeper on the issue of narcissism in the age of the internet by calling the viewer to take control over the work by moving the circles with his cursor changing how they merge and detach from one another.
On a curtain of vinyl strips are projected two reproductions of Henri Matisse’s painting La Danse. Even in their dematerialized, doubled state the dancers are instantly recognizable, but after several seconds they vanish, replaced now by a Warhol portrait of Mao that is paired with a Mondrian Composition. The sequence continues, a parade of Van Goghs, Cézannes, Kandinskys, and Klees all flashing across the curtain seemingly at random, as if they accompanied an absent art history lecture that disregarded all pretense of chronological or stylistic organization.
This work by Lea Lublin, Dedans le musée/Pénétration d’Images (1971), invites the viewer to behold these familiar works and then pass through the curtain, at once metaphorically entering their pictorial spaces and enacting their physical rupture. Appropriately, it enjoys pride of place at The Museum of Modern Art’s compelling, dizzying Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980, dominating a small gallery at the heart of a show that foregrounds a widespread ambivalence towards prevailing artistic trends shared by artists on both sides of the Atlantic, who sought not only to engage with such trends but ultimately reshape them.
A collaborative effort by curators Stuart Comer, Roxana Marcoci, and Christian Rattemeyer, the show is drawn almost entirely from the museum’s permanent collection, with nearly half of the three hundred works on display for the first time at MoMA. The majority of these are recent acquisitions that have come to the museum thanks to the efforts of C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives), an in-house initiative dedicated to pushing beyond the warhorses on view in Lublin’s installation to focus on comparatively understudied work from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Transmissions is the first major curatorial intervention to result from C-MAP and the latest in a recent line of MoMA exhibitions that, in welcoming new figures into a pantheon of twentieth- and twenty-first century art history, have found the museum playing a long overdue but much welcome game of catch-up. Latin America has recently been spotlighted in retrospectives of Lygia Clark, Horacio Coppola, and Grete Stern, with Joaquín Torres-García next in line; Central and Eastern Europe have been represented by Isa Genzken, Sigmar Polke, and Alina Szapocznikow.