Unquiet Americans

Peter Saul installation at Venus Over Manhattan

Peter Saul installation at Venus Over Manhattan

From Pop to Punk: Peter Saul

February 25th – April 25th, 2015
Venus Over Manhattan
980 Madison Avenue, FL 3
New York, New York 10075

Peter Saul, who will be 81 this year, has been happily making trouble for over 50 years. Marginalized by the mainstream art world, he is a role model and an inspiration for many artists who have followed. So there is much to say about a career this long, and Roberta Smith covers a great deal of it in a long, thoughtful New York Times review of his current show at Venus Over Manhattan, including the import of Saul’s first and long time dealer, the late Allan Frumkin.

The paintings and drawings in From Pop to Punk bridge a critical early period when Saul switched from oils to acrylics. Common now, acrylics were a relatively new medium in the 1960s, with the water soluble version first made available for use by artists in 1955. Introduced as an alternative to oils, many artists to this day attempt to replicate their look and feel, a goal that often ends in lackluster results. For Saul, acrylic’s slicker surfaces and acidic color range offered an exciting expansion of painting’s vocabulary and syntax. The advantages of this new medium for Saul are immediately apparent. Looking at Superman and Superdog in Jail, an oil painting from 1963, we see that most of the artist’s pictorial vocabulary is already present. The use of cultural icons, highly elastic (apparently boneless) figures, social commentary, and humor are all front and center. The paint application is loose and mottled, with the color bright and off kilter; Superman’s blue costume has turned a tarnished green. Affinity to the Bay Area Figurative Movement is still present (Saul was born in San Francisco and attended the San Francisco Art Institute) and it would not be difficult to imagine Saul developing in the vein of fellow native Californian Wayne Thiebaud.

Peter Saul Superman and Superdog in Jail, 1963 Oil on Canvas 75 x 63 inches

Peter Saul
Superman and Superdog in Jail, 1963
Oil on Canvas
75 x 63 inches

But it was the 1960s: Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, Angela Davis was at UCLA, and the Vietnam War was escalating. Saul was engaged in social commentary from the beginning, as Superman and Superdog in Jail shows, but this hardly prepares us for what comes next. For with his adoption of acrylics, sly allusion gives way to a scathing caricature and political satire on par with Honoré Daumier or George Grosz. (I specifically mention these two precursors because the number of artists who successful made political art is a very small group indeed.) Whether Saul’s conceptual leap was inspired by the acrylic’s unique qualities, or his adoption of the acrylics was motivated by his developing political vision, one need only look at The Government of California, 1969, to see how wild and wildly effective is this marriage of medium and message.

Peter Saul The Government of California, 1969 Acrylic on Canvas 68 x 96 inches

Peter Saul
The Government of California, 1969
Acrylic on Canvas
68 x 96 inches

It’s almost as if Saul turned a knob and everything that was fuzzy and indistinct popped into razor sharp focus. Where the figure of Superman is faceless in the previous work, here the faces of Reagan and King are as unmistakable as the Golden Gate Bridge and city of San Francisco in the background. His paint application, previously loose with clearly visible brushstrokes, is now completely sublimated in favor of the narrative. Drawn lines are no longer indistinct, but sharply delineated, as are the artist’s politics. And if we’re still unclear, Saul literally spells it out for us with words embedded throughout the composition.

Peter Saul The Government of California, 1969 (Detail) Acrylic on Canvas 68 x 96 inches

Peter Saul
The Government of California, 1969 (Detail)
Acrylic on Canvas
68 x 96 inches

These works have a intense, manic quality that is actually heightened by the artist’s tight control over the composition; our eye is forced to be in constant motion over the canvas because every area is activated with either line or color (or often both). Indeed the color is exceptional on multiple levels. First and foremost, Saul’s colors are aggressive, hot, and bright in a way previously unseen in painting. They are also, thanks to the particular substances found in certain acrylic colors, extremely unnatural. By that I mean, they can contain not only the natural earth colors found in most oil paint, but also those derived from synthetic chemicals, for instance phthalocyanine. Secondly, they are, I believe, intimately tied to the artist’s sense of moral outrage. One cannot escape the observation that many of Saul’s paintings contain extremely prurient images; nudity, rape, torture, graphic violence are all in ample abundance.

Peter Saul Pinkville, 1970 Acrylic on Canvas 90 x 131 inches

Peter Saul
Pinkville, 1970
Acrylic on Canvas
90 x 131 inches

Yet in using such an incredibly acidic palette, Saul would exact payment from the viewer. Yes, the colors pull your attention in like a neon sign, but extended looking actually hurts your eyes. They’re just too hot; it’s almost like trying to stare at the sun.

Saul’s (underground) comic book inspired caricatures bite deep, his wit is razor sharp, his political critique dead on. But the ingredient bringing these works to critical mass is Saul’s absolutely merciless palette.

One more thing.

After viewing the Saul show, my daughter and I headed over to the Metropolitan Museum to see the exhibition The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. While weaving our way through the museum we came upon the new installation of Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today mural from 1930. The Regionalist movement, in which Benton played a major part, has largely fallen from our contemporary consciousness. Superseded initially by the Abstract Expressionist art of Pollock – Benton’s most famous student – and his contemporaries, and the endless parade of contemporary movements that followed. But looking at America Today it is hard not to see a connection, to see Benton’s  portrayal of striving Americans reaching out across the decades to Saul’s struggling Americans forty years later, two unquiet Americans in conversation.

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975). City Activities with Dance Hall from America Today (detail), 1930–31. Mural cycle consisting of ten panels. Egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels with a honeycomb interior

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975). City Activities with Dance Hall from America Today (detail), 1930–31. Mural cycle consisting of ten panels. Egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels with a honeycomb interior


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Brave the cold!

January in New York,  but with the temperature below twenty degrees, it feels more like Chicago. Fortunately, there are any number of exhibitions opening this month that are worth seeing. With that in mind, I wanted to do a quick post about a few shows opening in Chelsea, Thursday night, January 8th:

Holly Miller Bend #13, 2014 acrylic and thread on canvas 36 x 36"

Holly Miller
Bend #13, 2014
acrylic and thread on canvas
36 x 36″

There are two solo exhibitions at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. In the large space is Holly Miller: twist, bend and rise…, and in the small space William Carroll: manhattan. There is a catalogue for Holly’s show, for which I wrote the essay (and with which I am particularly pleased). Bill continues to document his walking tour of New York City, which I have written about previously for artcritical.com. Although these are two solo shows, both artist’s works offer very personal observations on the passage of time.

William Carroll new york #69, 2012 spray paint on canvas 11 x 14 inches

William Carroll
new york #69, 2012
spray paint
on canvas
11 x 14 inches


Meanwhile, group shows I plan on seeing –

At Morgan Lehman Gallery is Rough Cut a group show curated by Jennifer Samet and Elizabeth Hazan featuring the work of Hazan and eight others who use stencil technique to create their works.

At Margaret Thatcher Projects is Reconfigured with four artists, including one of my favorites, Meg Hitchcock.

At Lennon Weinberg is a work on paper show, Salon du Dessin, featuring represented and invited artists.

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Sundays in the Arbor with Gladys

Gladys Nilsson
October 23 – December 6th, 2014

Garth Greenen Gallery
529 West 20th Street – 10th floor
New York, NY 10011

Gladys Nilsson A Girl in the Arbor #8, 2013 Mixed media on paper 29 3/4 x 41 1/2 inches

Gladys Nilsson
A Girl in the Arbor #8, 2013
Mixed media on paper
29 3/4 x 41 1/2 inches

How happy I was to walk into Garth Greenan Gallery this past Saturday and find that the exhibition of large works on paper by Gladys Nilsson, which was supposed to have closed on December 6th, was still up. As Garth explained, “Roberta told me I should leave the show up until we closed for the holidays”. I had wanted to see the show all along, but family obligations limited my time for getting out and about over the fall season, and I had already missed a number of shows including, so I thought, this one. Thanks to a wise recommendation by Ms. Smith, and a bit of serendipity, I was granted a second chance. And because I do not believe that one stops thinking about an artist just because their show is over, I wanted to say a few words about the show and Nilsson.

I am from Chicago originally, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, and so naturally very familiar with Chicago Imagism – a local and specific manifestation of Pop Art – and all of the subgroups named for a series of fantastic (in every meaning of the word) artist organized exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center in the 1960s. This included The Non-Plussed SomeThe False Image, Chicago Antigua, Marriage Chicago Style, and the one that in 1966 started them all: The Hairy Who, which included Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Jim Falconer, Art Green, Karl Wirsum, and Gladys Nilsson. Linking these artists together were a number of shared aesthetic proclivities: a taste for scatological and sexual humor, a rejection of pure abstraction in favor of imagery, a blue-collar inspired selection of source material – comic books, pin-ball machines, burlesque shows, professional wrestling, etc. – for inspiration, an omnipresent sense of horror vacui and, more than anything, a relentless formal inventiveness.

Gladys Nilsson A Girl in the Arbor #10, 2013 Mixed media on paper 29 3/4 x 41 1/2 inches

Gladys Nilsson
A Girl in the Arbor #10, 2013
Mixed media on paper
29 3/4 x 41 1/2 inches

Thirty years ago, in 1984, I curated a mid-career retrospective of Nilsson’s work at Randolph Street Gallery, a not-for-profit in Chicago. She had already been showing for twenty years but had not been given a retrospective in her own home town. The reasons then, as now, for her being under appreciated related in small measure to her primarily using the medium of water-color on paper, albeit masterfully, and to a greater degree, as Rob Storr underlines in the catalog for the Greenen exhibition, being a woman. A woman and, one can add as well, Jim Nutt’s wife and a mother to boot. So, water-colorist, woman, artist’s wife, mother = 4 strikes. Archaic notions perhaps, but still overly prevalent and an undeniable drag on Nilsson’s career (and any other woman). Oh, and let’s not forget that she’s a Chicago artist who never lived in New York.

Nilsson has a certain import for me, because it was while curating Gladys Nilsson: Greatist Hits from Chicago, Selected Works 1967 – 1984, that I first became aware of how few works one actually holds in one’s mind when thinking of an artist’s oeuvre. Think about any artist, and perhaps you will pull up four, five, maybe seven works at most to represent that artist’s work. Pushed, you might come up with a few more representing different periods. A disservice to any artist, but especially when the artist is as pictorially inventive as Nilsson. Three decades later, walking into Garth Greenen Gallery, viewing Nilsson works from the past three years, this realization was once more brought home.

 Gladys Nilsson A Girl in the Arbor #1, 2013 Mixed media on paper 41 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches

Gladys Nilsson
A Girl in the Arbor #1, 2013
Mixed media on paper
41 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches

In the main room are thirteen large works from the Girl in the Arbor series, a mix of vertical and horizontal layouts comprised of water-color and collage. In the side rooms are smaller, essentially black and white works from the Plant series, comprised of ink, graphite and collage. They are all immediately recognizable as Nilsson’s work, yet far different than the work shown in her last New York solo exhibition only six years ago. The whimsical quality so much a part of her work is still evident, but something all together tougher has been added to the mix as well.

Perhaps it was motivated by the addition of the collage elements, whose density and resolution would contrast awkwardly with Nilsson’s previous application of water-color. In these works, however, the artist visually counter weights the collage by applying the colors in bolder ways, replacing her graduated modulations in a single form with solid colors.

Gladys Nilsson A Girl in the Arbor #7, 2013 Mixed media on paper 41 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches

Gladys Nilsson
A Girl in the Arbor #7, 2013
Mixed media on paper
41 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches

This has the effect of intensifying the figure ground relationship as well. In earlier works, the cast of characters would often blend in with the landscape, figure and foliage treated in similar manner. No such confusion in these works. Nilsson’s heroine in each piece, along with her chair/throne, stands starkly apart from her surroundings, no matter how much they might weave around and over her. The character’s confidence, and Nilsson’s, is evident; partially dressed, boudoir askew, no matter – the tiny figures clamoring on every side do not even rise to the level of pests. Rob Storr in his essay refers to the central figure as a giant, and against the other tiny figures, one can see why. But I would note that the chair and foliage are in scale to Nilsson’s protagonist and suggest that it is not that she is so large, but that those around her are so small.

Nilsson has, when speaking to me at least, always shrugged off the way she was so often treated as somehow lesser to her male peers. Still, it can’t have been fun. Yet if the exuberant works in this exhibition are proof of anything, it’s that Gladys Nilsson continues to have the last laugh.

Gladys Nilsson Plant #2, 2010 Ink and graphite on paper collage 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches

Gladys Nilsson
Plant #2, 2010
Ink and graphite on paper collage
11 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches

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Modern Love

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Museum of Modern Art
October 12, 2014–February 8, 2015

Henri Matisse The Swimming Pool (La Piscine) late summer 1952 (realized as ceramic 1999 and 2005) Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper (Partial installation view)

Henri Matisse
The Swimming Pool
(La Piscine)
late summer 1952
(realized as ceramic
1999 and 2005)
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper
(Partial installation view)

Perhaps you are wondering if this show of late Matisse cut outs is worth it?

Rather than writing a lengthy explanation of why, YES!, it most certainly is worth it, I compiled a short list of reasons which you can read below (and then run out and see the show!):

1. If you were looking for what Modernism, an experiment that began at the end of the 19th century and culminated in the middle of the 20th century, was seeking to achieve visually, it would be hard to find a better example than these late works by Matisse.

Henri Matisse Two Dancers (Deux Danseurs)  1937-38 Stage curtain design for Rouge et Noir Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, notebook papers, pencil, and thumbtacks (partial image)

Henri Matisse
Two Dancers (Deux Danseurs) 1937-38
Stage curtain design for Rouge et Noir
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, notebook papers, pencil, and thumbtacks
(partial image)

2. Speaking of late works, the cut outs show the kind of refined innovation possible when an artist has decades of experience to draw upon. Matisse was already seventy when he started working seriously on cut outs as works in their own right.


3. “Shit, he can cut paper better than I can draw”. Watching the two short films in the exhibition of Matisse cutting out his hand colored paper is just totally kick-ass to watch.

4. The exhibition is fantastically comprehensive. It should go without saying that when one takes into account the size of the works, their obvious fragility, and the increasingly high insurance costs involved, we are unlikely to see such a full a presentation of the cut outs again anytime soon.


5. The show outlines quite clearly Matisse’s own slow realization and subsequent embrace of the cut outs as a full art form in their own right.

6. If you need yet another reason to be impressed, keep in mind while you’re looking at some of the larger, wall size pieces, that most of the works in this show were done after the artist was no longer able to stand and confined to a wheelchair:


7. Inevitably, because of the fragility mentioned above, all but one work is behind glass. Happily, there is one very large piece that is not behind glass, and it is a potent reminder that while we have become enured to viewing images on flat-screen TVs and computer monitors, there is something wonderfully tactile and rich about looking at something unmediated by glass between it and us. Reproductions really fail to convey the true texture or import of scale in these works.

Henri Matisse The Sheaf (La Gerbe) 1953 Maquette for ceramic (realized 1953) Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas (detail)

Henri Matisse
The Sheaf
(La Gerbe)
Maquette for ceramic (realized 1953)
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas

8. Finally, a warning: do not plan on viewing other artwork immediately after viewing the Matisse show. Anything else is bound to seem like very weak tea indeed.


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The Alchemist

Whitney Museum of American Art
June 27 – October 19th, 2014

Rem Koolhaas: “But is there a Machiavellian part of you?”

Jeff Koons: “Some of it is there. I guess it is harder to recognize that, because I think people look at that notion negatively rather than as a tool of communication.”

Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Opinions Differ

I like Jeff Koons’ art.

Not everyone agrees. This has been the case since he first began showing at the end of the 1970s. But his current Whitney retrospective has elicited particularly strong responses in both directions from the critics. Roberta Smith in the New York Times found it “gripping”, while Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker calls him “the most original, controversial, and expensive artist of the past three and a half decades”. In the negative column, Barry Schwabsky brings a Marxist perspective to aver in the Nation why “the work fails me”, while Saul Ostrow writing for Artcritical finds the works psychologically “insignificant”. Jed Perl lets out all of the stops in The New York Review of Books to declare that the entire retrospective is nothing but a big “vacuum”. That Koons can still evoke such strong reactions after showing for over thirty-five years is interesting in itself. That each critic felt the need to go into great detail explaining the reasons for their acclaim or derision is a testament to the problems, aesthetically and intellectually, Koons work presents for critical analysis. The thing is that, as diametrically opposed as these critiques are to one another, Koons work is so incredibly slippery that it is difficult to argue that any of them are outright wrong. Critically, trying to draw a bead on Koons is like trying to shoot Schrödinger’s cat.

Jeff Koons  Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White and Pink Bunny), 1979 Vinyl and Mirrors

Jeff Koons
Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White and Pink Bunny), 1979
Vinyl and Mirrors

Everyone Starts Somewhere

It is notable that all of these reviews share the opinion that, for good or bad, Koons is regarded as one of the most important artists working today. This is so pivotal to understanding where each is coming from that it is easy to forget that Koons was not viewed as a superstar when he first began showing. In fact, if I recall correctly, Koons left one of his first New York dealers because they were not willing to give him a solo exhibition, at least not as soon as he wanted one.

Nor did his very early work radically stand out from his peers. Much of the art dialog of the 1980s was defined by artists working with Readymades, corporate critique, and appropriation. Besides Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ashley Bickerton, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine, to name but a few, were equally active participants in this conversation. This is in not to make less of the works that comprise “The New”, “Equalibrium”, or the “Luxury and Degradation” series, just a reminder that Koons was a mere mortal once like the rest of us.

It was as in 1988 – in between the stock market crash of 1987 and the disastrous Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction of 1989 – that Koons unveiled the Banality series and began to truly set himself apart.

Viewers having fun at Jeff Koons: A Retrospective

Viewers having fun at Jeff Koons: A Retrospective

The Banality of…

Koons had played with pure kitsch earlier in the Statuary series. But those works are cast in stainless steel and, in spite of their lowbrow source material, have an undeniable formal elegance.  The Banality series transforms the original source material only by increasing its scale – a fact emphasized by the artist’s statement that, as with the inspirational tchotchkes, traditional German and Italian craftsmen made these too. There is no eluding their content through transformation, and if Koons previous content could be puzzling, some of the works in this series are absolutely baffling. Notoriously, there is the white Michael Jackson with his pet chimp Bubbles, but also the girl in the bath tub with the snorkel (and also the couple on the bench holding puppies that brought on a copyright lawsuit which Koons ultimately lost). Yes, there was the usual insistence by the artist that these works incorporated an excruciating level of attention to detail and quality control, but to what end? The trans-formative veneer of formalism has been removed, and we, or rather Koons high end collectors, are being asked to spend a great deal of money to buy an exceedingly large tchochke and put it in their home. Which, in fact, they did.

As the question of what Koons is up to increases exponentially from this point in his career forward, it is worth taking a moment to remark on the one major piece that is rarely if ever discussed: the character called Jeff Koons.

Jeff Koons Walrus (Blue Green), 1999 Chrystal glass, mirrored glass, carbon fiber, foam, colored plastic interlayer, and stainless steel

Jeff Koons
Walrus (Blue Green), 1999
Chrystal glass, mirrored glass, carbon fiber, foam, colored plastic interlayer, and stainless steel

I Am the Walrus

Throughout the 1980s, Paul Rubens appeared only as Pee Wee Herman. Andy Kaufman maintained character to such an intense degree that to this day some people believe he faked his own death as one of his “works”. For both of these performers the line between themselves and their creations was so fuzzy, so confounding, that something exciting, even dangerous, was engendered in the gap between what was real and what was fake. It is obvious that Koons artworks play with our uncertainty about their sincerity. But what of the artist himself? Is Jeff Koons for real?

This question, which underlies so many others concerning the artist’s work, was arguably pushed to its limits with the Made in Heaven series.

Made in Heaven was first shown in the 1990 Venice Biennale, and critical response was, to say the least, poor. If we are being generous, we might give the artist a pass on this entire series as works created under the stress of a failing personal relationship. But that is in hindsight, and an assumption at that. Koons, at least “the artist Jeff Koons”, spoke at the time of the works offering viewers a chance to reclaim their sexual innocence, to once again experience Eden. He spoke of erasing barriers, moving beyond censorship, freeing our minds. What viewers got were explicit photo-realistic paintings and sculptures of Jeff Koons and Italian porn star Illona Staller, his girlfriend and soon to be wife (and then ex-wife), having sex.

As I said, I like Jeff Koons art, but this particular body of work fails on so many levels. First and foremost, it must be noted that Illona Staller, whose stage name is Cicciolina, had already created an identity and narrative almost identical to the Made in Heaven series. It might be debatable whether or not Koons adoption of Staller’s narrative falls short of outright plagiarism. That he gave her no credit at all is simply unacceptable.

Equally disturbing are the images themselves. Pornography depends, at least to some extent, on the anonymity of the actors, on the ability of the viewer to place themselves in the image. Because Made in Heaven depicts images of two extremely well known people, it is the opposite of this. In fact, standing in a public gallery space looking at celebrities able to have sex in front of you – something the rest of us absolutely could not do – seems like an act of immense, unbridled, in-your-face privilege.

How well I remember walking into a back viewing space at Sonnabend Gallery in 1991 during the Made in Heaven exhibition and seeing an extremely large painting of a photographic close up of Jeff Koons penis inside of Illona Staller (displayed in the “adults only” section of this retrospective and too graphic to put on this website). And I thought, okay, I now know more about Jeff Koons than I ever needed or wanted to know. He’s finished for me.

Jeff Koons Puppy, 1992 mixed flowers, transparent colour-coated chrome stainless steel, 43' high

Jeff Koons
Puppy, 1992
Mixed flowers, transparent color-coated chrome stainless steel, 43′ high


After Made in Heaven it appeared that Koons star was in retrograde, that he had flamed out. As the current retrospective has shown, there are always those ready to dismiss him and his work. Some took the fact that he was not invited to Documenta 9 in 1992 as confirmation of his fall from grace. And for many artists after crashing and burning in such a spectacular manner, recovering their careers to any degree would be a remote possibility.

So one cannot dismiss the fact that for many, the most memorable installation at Documenta 9 was not, in fact, in Documenta 9 but at the nearby Arolsen Castle where Koons had convinced three of his dealers to pay for the creation of 43 foot high flowering Puppy.

It might be odd to use the words balls and puppy in the same sentence, but it is necessary to understand Koons achievement on both levels; that he had the nerve to risk such a major statement after such a devastating (for most) fall, and that the resulting work was such a wonder to behold, even in reproduction. The fact that it followed Made in Heaven can still give one aesthetic whiplash thinking about it. That Koons could go from failed porn to flowering puppy did more than hit the reset button for his career, it elevated it to another level. One simply could not, can not, pigeon hole or make assumptions about what Koons is doing or what the work is ultimately about. It was at this moment that I became convinced that Koons work is for real.

Also, it is impossible to think of Puppy and not smile.

Jeff Koons Gorilla, 2006-11 Granite

Jeff Koons
Gorilla, 2006-11

Nothing is What it Seems

Koons work is for real, but the world is not. One of the major themes of his work is that surfaces are deceiving, that nothing is what it seems. The water holding the basketballs in suspension in the Equalibrium series is not simply water. The stainless-steel tchochkes in the Statuary series are neither tchochkes any longer nor the valuable silver they visually promise. Made in Heaven does not depict sexual freedom or bliss or a new Eden.

Often Koons goes a step further: things may even be the opposite of what they appear. The inflatables in Seal Walrus (Trashcan) are not fragile plastic filled with air about to be punctured, but hard aluminum. Play-Doh is also aluminum, and the apparently cheap molded plastic Gorilla is actually made from granite.

Which must lead us inevitably back to the artist’s creation of “Jeff Koons, the artist”.

Jeff Koons Cat on a Clothesline (Aqua), 1994-2001 Polyethylene

Jeff Koons
Cat on a Clothesline (Aqua), 1994-2001

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Koons often speaks of his work in happy terms, promoting it as if each piece was emotionally intended to be a version of Puppy. He speaks of the unbelievable attention to detail and scrupulous craft that is involved in making every work. These points are most often the things related by collectors and curators talking about his work as well – one need only read the accompanying wall labels and catalog for the current retrospective. To listen to Koons, one might conclude that his work is only about surfaces, and only meant to reflect back his collector’s rose colored view of themselves like one of the mirrored pieces in the Easyfun series. To no small degree, this might be why so many artists and critics think Koons and his work as the equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

But I think of Francis Picabia. During WWII, after the Germans entered France, Picabia made a unique body of works, completely different from everything he made before the war and after, which may be typified by Women with Bulldog, 1941. The astounding thing about these works is, for the Nazi, they appeared to fit perfectly into their warped idea of representational beauty, while for everyone else they appear as an acidic commentary on the perversity of Nazi vision. One assumes that Picabia never spoke of this, as to do so would be to give away the game.

So it is, I believe, with Koons. “Jeff Koons the artist” appears to be a courtier, making art with the highest attention to craft and workmanship, just as his (super) wealthy collectors would expect. But he’s filling their homes with monstrous treacle, gigantic kittens playing peekaboo from hanging stockings. They see gold, we see dreck. For this to succeed, Koons can never break character.

Jeff Koons is not the Emperor’s New Clothes. Jeff Koons is the tailor.

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Dead Enders

Umberto Boccioni Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, Bronze

Umberto Boccioni
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913,

“Italian Futurism, 1909 – 1944: Reconstructing the Universe” at the Guggenheim Museum, February 21 – September 1, 2014

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” at the Neue Galerie, March 13 – September 1, 2014

Will we ever again see the unrestrained excitement and propagation of new art movements that were born at a breathless pace one after another during the 20th century?  One would be foolish to try and predict such an unknowable future, but if the first decade and a half of the 21st century proves indicative, it would seem the age of unrelenting innovation is taking an extended break.  At least for the moment, it appears that art that looks like other art is what collectors crave and galleries feature.  Not that newness is essential to art being good.  Indeed, I think that the idea that all art must be avant-garde has little merit.

And yet what a time for new ideas the 20th century was!  In its first decade everything, in every field, was in a state of white-hot flux; Einstein, Freud, Lenin, Madam Curie, Edison, Georges Méliès, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Wright brothers were all fervently at work.  Many of the ideas from that time continue to define the world we live in today.  Some ideas about art from those early decades proved enduring as well – one can draw a fairly straight line from Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades through Andy Warhol’s soup cans to Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners.  However, whatever their promise seemed to be at the time, the majority of them faded as quickly as they appeared.  Even two of the most spectacular movements – German Expressionism and Italian Futurism – turned out to be dead ends, albeit for very different reasons. Reasons fully illuminated in two great and scholarly not-to-be-missed exhibitions, each ending its run this month.

Otto Dix  "The Trench" 1923, Oil on Canvas

Otto Dix
“The Trench”
1923, Oil on Canvas

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” at the Neue Galerie is not the first time that Hitler’s infamous traveling exhibition has been partially recreated. In 1991, in part as a response to the reunification of Germany, a larger and more comprehensive exhibition, “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” was put together at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by Stephanie Barron and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago. It did not travel to New York and, in any case, it is a story worth retelling for every generation, so 23 years later we are fortunate that Olaf Peters organized this new iteration for the Neue Galerie.

While as noted above the LACMA show contained more works, the current exhibition includes works by the Nazi’s artists of choice for comparison. In a particularly illuminating pairing, the triptych “The Four Elements: Fire, Earth, Water, and Air” a banal Neoclassical by Nazi favorite Adolf Ziegler hangs next to Max Beckmann’s enigmatic and overwhelming triptych “Departure”.  Talk about being hoist with one’s own petard, these two works alone are enough to bring home the point that it wasn’t just that the Nazi’s hated the great contemporary art flourishing all around them, it was also that what they liked, publicly at least, was kitsch dreck and, worst of all, boring.

George Grosz "Portrait of the Writer Max Hermann-Neisse" 1925, Oil on Canvas

George Grosz
“Portrait of the Writer Max Hermann-Neisse”
1925, Oil on Canvas

But of course, boring art or, more to the point, an art that did not ask questions was what the Nazi’s wanted, needed. As they ramped up their war machine, they most certainly did not want artists like Otto Dix, with paintings like “The Trench”, reminding the German people that war is not noble and heroic but dark and horrible. Nor, for that matter, could their ideology accept George Grosz praising in portraiture the writer, and definitely non-Aryan, Max Hermann-Neisse.

As history and this exhibition attests with a display of empty frames, the Nazi’s were not interested in intellectual debates but actions – they sought to reconfigure German culture through force.  Along with their infamous book burnings, they removed thousands of artworks from museums – over 600 Kirchner paintings alone were removed – expelled artists from academies and schools, and worked tirelessly to destroy careers and reputations through their official publications. The havoc they created effectively crippled one of the most vital art movements in Europe, with the effects lasting long after the war ended. For although the Nazis lost, the war changed everything about the world that followed. Art collectors, the majority of whom tend to be conservative by nature, were happy to replace the heat and passion that engendered the German Expressionist movement with the distanced cool of Abstract Expressionism.

Italian Futurism, as the voluminous exhibition at the Guggenheim shows, was an all together different undertaking. Organized by Vivian Greene, Senior Curator of 19th and Early 20th Century Art at the Guggenheim, and a team of advisers, “Italian Futurism, 1909 – 1944: Reconstructing the Universe” is breathtaking in its completeness. With the exception of Giacomo Balla’s “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash”, it appears that every major work of Italian Futurism is in the exhibition. Winding your way up the spiral ramp (admittedly one of the few times I have actually walked up instead of down) one starts with a room devoted to one of the three greatest artists of the movement, Umberto Boccioni. Along with his other sculptures, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” from 1913 is so ahead of its time, and for many, myself included, so iconic, that it gives instant legitimacy to the movement as a whole. Unfortunately, Boccioni’s career was cut brutally short when he died serving in the Italian Army during WWI. Which brings up one of the ideas that will eventually doom the movement: they did not only worship the future, but the idea of war as a means of achieving that future. Like all fascists, they were utopians with a very dark streak.

So they loved machines, but also tanks.Which makes for some very disturbing if interesting works, such as one of the better paintings in the exhibition, Gino Severini’s “Armored Train in Action,” 1915.

Gino Severini, Armored Train in Action, 1915, Oil on Canvas

Gino Severini,
Armored Train in Action, 1915, Oil on Canvas

Beautiful, almost lyrically formal, it none-the-less shows soldiers and cannon firing out from a moving train. But in its completeness, the exhibition reveals another weakness of the Italian Futurists, for after naming Balla, Boccioni, and Severini, the level of talent decreases precipitously. For every Giacamo Balla “Street Light”, there are dozens of far lesser works.

Giacomo Balla "Street Light"  1911, Oil on Canvas

Giacomo Balla
“Street Light”
1911, Oil on Canvas

There is something else very strange about the Italian Futurists; they idolized machines, war, and an idealized tomorrow, but largely eschewed more modern means of art production – there are few photographers overall, and hardly any filmmakers at all.  Like their fascist counterparts in the north, they were overall a conservative movement technically – they overwhelmingly favored traditional techniques like oil painting – and in their thinking. For as the century progressed, their fascination with the future fixated on flight, but not flying itself. Instead of thinking about how airplanes changed the way we move around the planet, they found themselves illustrating what one sees from above. In short, while the rest of 20th century art history was invested in expanding our ideas about what art can be, the Italian Futurists were locked into ever diminishing considerations until finally, like the Guggenheim upward ramp, it ends up in the air with nowhere to go.

Both shows end this Monday, September 1st. If you haven’t seem them, I urge to do so – you will not again see the likes of either anytime soon.

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Joan Mitchell x 2

Joan Mitchell: Trees
May 15 – August 29, 2014 at Cheim & Read


Joan Mitchell: The Black Drawings and Related Works 1964 – 1967
May 8 – June 28 at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) is often referred to as a “Second Generation Abstract Expressionist”, a group which includes Alfred Leslie, Grace Hartigan, and Michael Goldberg among others, and which, ostensibly, separates her and her peers in some supposedly relevant way from the so called original Abstract Expressionist of Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Klein, Clifford Still, etc., born ten to fifteen years earlier.  Perhaps it made some kind of sense at the time, but now it is an arbitrary and critically meaningless separation.  Set aside for the moment that all of these artists showed together in the seminal “Ninth Street Art Exhibition” in 1951, rendering “who’s in which group” discussions somewhat moot.  The far more important criteria for any group conversation is always: did the artist in question expand our understanding in a deep and original way.  So, asked this way, does Joan Mitchell deserve to be thought of as an important Abstract Expressionist?  Yes.

One needn’t take my word for it for, as a happy coincidence would have it, there are currently two Joan Mitchell exhibitions nearly across the street from each other on 25th Street.  The larger exhibition at Cheim & Read presents eight paintings and three works on paper spanning the years 1964 to 1991.  Over at Lennon Weinberg there are twenty-three works on paper and only one painting; it is a smaller, more intimate, and the arguably more important exhibition.

Not that the works at Cheim & Read are unimportant.  Indeed most are very good, and a couple, First Cypress, 1964, and Red Tree, 1976, are knockouts.

Joan Mitchell, First Cypress 1964

Joan Mitchell, First Cypress 1964

Joan Mitchell, Red Tree 1976

Joan Mitchell, Red Tree 1976

Unfortunately, there is simply not enough connecting works for a viewer to follow Mitchell’s thinking as she moves from one period to the next.  Whatever the loan possibilities or decision making that lay behind this show, having only one or two works representing an entire decade makes for an unsatisfying experience.  One might just as easily called this exhibition: Sometimes Joan Mitchell Liked to Paint Trees.

Meanwhile, over at Lennon Weinberg are a group of never before exhibited works on paper from the artist’s pivotal early years in France.  While there is no written evidence providing proof positive that these drawings were made specifically in preparation for Mitchell’s so called “Black Paintings” paintings of 1965, visually there can be little doubt.  Along with the paintings, these works on paper present a maturing artist less indebted to her New York peers, moving with careful assurance toward a more personal, more mature style.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964 c.  Charcoal, Oil, Watercolor on Paper

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964 c. Charcoal, Oil, Watercolor on Paper

These works, many from her personal sketchbooks, give an intimate, upclose view of an artist pushing out, experimenting, creating a path as she goes.  For the most part physically small works, the one just above is only 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, they read large – an excellent proof that our perception of monumentality is based in psychologically rather than physical scale.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964  Charcoal and Watercolor on Paper

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964 Charcoal and Watercolor on Paper

They are also striking in how completely they describe and encapsule the fullness of Mitchell’s future thinking.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964  Charcoal and Pastel on Paper

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964 Charcoal and Pastel on Paper

Indeed, in the work above, we can isolate each mark and appreciate the artist’s decision to weave in the red pastel to give the structure depth.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1967  Charcoal on Vellum

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1967 Charcoal on Vellum

The fact that we are first seeing these works 50 years after they were made does not change our larger understanding of Mitchell’s work.  That she was tough, uncompromising, and visionary in a time when women paid a heavy price for being an independent thinker is no secret.  But these intimate works, each a small masterpiece in itself, increase expotentially our ability to see into the nuance and sophistication of her inner thoughts.

Joan Mitchell: Trees runs through the end of August.  Joan Mitchell: The Black Drawings and Related Works 1964 – 1967 closes today.

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A few things to take note of this weekend…

I’ve been busy with a couple of things, and working on a longer post about the Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe exhibition at the Guggenheim and the Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 exhibition at the Neue Galerie, but I wanted to mention a few things coming up this weekend that I think are definitely worth seeing:

Opening tonight and running through May 3rd is Rackstraw Downes at Betty Cuningham Gallery. One thing to keep in mind viewing these stark panoramic landscapes is the fact that Downes always paints outside, on location.

Across the street is the opening for Roy Dowell at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.. This is Dowell’s second solo show at the gallery, and this time he presents paintings and sculptures that somehow manage to be straight forward and slightly uncanny at the same time.


Roy Dowell, Untitled #1057, 2014,
24 x 36″, acrylic on linen

Also opening tonight and running through April 23rd in Dumbo at 111 Front Street is remains to be seen with Meg Hitchcock, Michael Kukla, David Opdyke, Armita Raafat, and Ester Ruiz.  I’ve written about Meg Hitchcock before, and look forward to seeing how her work appears in context with the other artists in this show.

Tomorrow night there is an opening for Oliver Wasow: Studio Portraits at THEODORE:Art. Wasow is a photographer who shows rarely, but is always interesting. And I am not exaggerating when I say that his ongoing postings of found photographs on Facebook is one of the main reasons I still go on that site.


Oliver Wasow, Christa and Josephine, 2013; archival pigment print edition of 5, 20 x 25 inches

At Anton Kern Gallery this Saturday, April 5th, between 2 and 4 pm, will be a book launch and signing for Ellen Berkenblit Paintings 2011-2014. I’ve written about Berkenblit before too, and am excited that her gallery has put this book out on her recent paintings, which have been nothing short of amazing.


Finally, opening Saturday night between 6 and 8 pm at Galerie Zürcher, is a show curated by and including the irrepressible, the one and only, Peter Saul.  The show’s title is If you’re accidentally not included, don’t worry about it.  Which should be enough reason for anyone to go, but you might also want to see work by some of the other 19 artists, including Judith Linhares, Polly Apfelbaum, Steve DiBenedetto, Mark Greenwold, and Karl Wirsum.


Karl Wirsum, Some Underwear Over the Rainbow, 2013, acrylic on panel, 39 x 47 x 1.25 in – Courtesy of Derek Eller


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And now a word from our sponsor…

Today is the end of the art fair week in New York, at least until part two arrives in May with Frieze and its satellite fairs.   If you moved through one cavernous space after another as I did, then no doubt you, too, found that it continues to be a mixed blessing.

On the upside, there was the art.  Lots and lots of art.  A good deal of it at every show was uninteresting but, as usual, there was plenty worth seeing everywhere. Continuing its resurgence from sleepy outlier to show of shows, the ADAA Art Show once again had the most things worth looking at, including a few brilliant little gems: a Joseph Stella from 1913 at Menconi + Schoelkpf; an H.C. Westerman painting from 1959 at Lennon Weinberg; and a glowing green Joseph Albers at Brooke Alexander.

Over at Volta, where the mix favored predominantly emerging artists, I was still pleased to discover the paintings of Pose at Jonathan LeVine’s booth; Dan Coombs at New Art Project; as well as an artist I already know and admire, Meg Hitchcock at Studio 10.  The small, quirky Independent Art Fair provided the most interesting layout, but was almost more an exhibit of interesting galleries – such as David Lewis and Broadway 1602 – than art.  And in spite of the Armory Show continuing to lose ground critically, there were many stand out artworks and galleries there as well, including two of my favorites from Berlin, Loock Galerie and Galerie Thomas Schulte.

On the downside, I was reminded once again how art fairs have come to function less and less as temporary salons, and more and more as roving commodities trading floors.  At this point it can have escaped absolutely no one’s attention that there is a great deal of money flooding the art market.  The gallerist Edward Winkleman in his blog, Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine, and Roberta Smith in the New York Times have all written about their good reasons for bemoaning this turn of events.  The gist of this being that the apparently unlimited deluge of gold threatens to drown not just what is good in a sea of mediocrity, but even our ability to tell the difference.

This fear is well founded.  It is simply impossible to stand in front of any work of art these days and exorcise completely any thoughts of market value.  If the work is obscenely expensive, a small part of us can’t help wondering if it is really that good.  If the work is ridiculously inexpensive, a small part of us wonders if it is really that unimportant.  Yes, obviously, neither of these thoughts have anything to do with aesthetic criteria.  Yet because of the way money permeates our culture, it unavoidably works its way into our subconscious calculations.

It does not help that even in the best of circumstances it is so difficult to describe precisely what qualities makes an artwork great, versus merely good or bad.  Visual art by its nature does not translate easily into language. Robert Musil has a chapter in The Man Without Qualities where the protagonist describes with humorous consternation how the word genius, because it represents something beyond the understanding of most, slowly loses its specific intellectual context and becomes interchangeable with great.  Thus you are able to move from a thinker of genius to a boxer of genius.   Then, predictably, once genius can be thought of in terms of physical prowess, it is only a short time before one is reading of a racehorse of genius. It is not just the words that slip their meanings, but the ideas we associate with them as well.

This is compounded, and made exploitable, by our culture’s current algebra.  Previously the relationship between art and money might have been expressed like this:

A (Art) + B (Value/Critical Awareness) = C (Value/Money) = D (greater B+C).

But about 30 years ago, finance and marketing experts realized that the elements can be rearranged and still worklet’s call it the Saatchi algorithm.  This formula is expressed as:

C (Value/Money) + A (Art) = B (Value/Critical Awareness) = D (greater B+C).

The key realization is that adding money value to art has the effect of implying critical value.  Which is just another way of saying that, like everything else in our culture, money has the power to make things, including art, seem important.

It’s just the way things are, and I’d add that it’s not the end of the world either.  Especially when we remember that before some people came to treat art as a commodity, it was primarily treated by most people as a luxury good. Which brings me back to the question: how can we at least try to think about art without thinking about money?

I remind myself of the following 3 things:

  1. The people who decide which art is to be commodified and traded are very, very, very rich, but not the most important curators, critics, and artists.  If they were to tell me how to invest my money, I might be foolish not to listen to them.  But their opinions on the art itself?  Not so much.
  2. Thinking about how expensive an artwork is, whether the price is absurdly high or not, has no practical meaning, at least for me.  Seriously, if I was only going to think about art I could actually buy, I’d only be looking and writing about things that were a few hundred dollars.
  3. Remember to engage.  Something is art because of the extreme amount of information that has been packed into it by the artist, which can then be unpacked by the viewer.  The only way to know this is to actually engage with the work.  Reading the price tag offers nothing to that process.

And if all else fails, think of Tulips.



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Fred W. McDarrah: Save the Village at Steven Kasher through March 8, 2014

I first happened on Fred W. McDarrah’s work in Steven Kasher’s booth at AIPAD in 2001, before Kasher even had a public gallery space.  Amongst that ocean of photographs, McDarrah’s straight ahead, black and white images immediately jumped out at me.  I had not heard of McDarrah, yet there was something familiar about them, and not just the subjects.  There was, to be sure, a young Dustin Hoffman at a protest rally, John Lindsay talking to a crowd, and Warhol with his Factory circle of players.  But also images in bars, on the streets, and in artist studios as well.  They were familiar, Kasher explained, because McDarrah was the photographer for the Village Voice.  In fact, he was their first photographer, and the only staff photographer they ever had.  It was McDarrah who shot most of their images from the late 50s through the 80s.  And, if asked, he would say he was not making art, he was not an artist, he was a photojournalist.  So, interesting photographs, but not art.


Demonstrators in Front of Stonewall Inn, Christopher Street, June 29, 1969
Copyright Estate of Fred W. McDarrah, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York

Four decades later, viewing McDarrah’s work with the distance of time, does that assessment still ring true?  Is it only a somewhat interesting record of its time, or is it more than that?  Is it artifact or art?  What criteria should we consider when we ask what makes a photographer’s work art?

That McDarrah was a master of his technique is obvious: each photograph is clean, articulate, without areas lost in shadow or washed out.  His subject is always clearly presented, whether he was taking a portrait or shooting a protest march.  His camera of choice, a 35mm Nikon F2, was relatively new to photojournalism, supplanting the iconic large format Speed Graphic used by Weegee and the smaller but also popular Rolleiflex 2 1/4 inch that McDarrah had started with in the 50s.  The 35mm was small, light, and able to work with high speed film that rarely need a flash, perfect for fast moving times.  And although he stands off to one side to document, he is, culturally speaking, at the center of his times.  He was already part of the scene enough in the 50s to hear about the Village Voice starting up and get hired, formally selling advertising, and informally as their photographer.  He would shoot pictures and pitch them to the editors, and if they liked one, they’d would run it. Occasionally people would call the paper to come shoot something or someone, but most of the time McDarrah selected his own subjects.

Or sometimes selected him. People, as Warhol often did, would call him directly. McDarrah knew the artists, poets, musicians, and writers of New York intimately, he was one of them. When he shot a portrait of the artist in their studio, you can see that they are relaxed, unafraid to be themselves in front of McDarrah. When the riot at Stonewall happened, he was there the next day (he recorded the date he shot all of his images in an ongoing ledger) with the protesters. On the night the original Cedar Tavern closed in 1963, that legendary hangout for the beat poets and Abstract Expressionist painters, McDarrah was there. And because he actually knew everyone there, he also was able to subtly compose the images he took: look there, in the middle of the crowd with his unmistakable high forehead and hawk nose, is the poet Frank O’Hara.


Jack Micheline, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Allan Kaplan and Abram Schlemwitz, Closing of Cedar Tavern,March 30, 1963
Copyright Estate of Fred W. McDarrah, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York

His interests and unique vision were a perfect match for the Voice, which in turn was an active participant in arguably New York City’s most dynamically fervent moment – politically, artistically, and intellectually. Looking back, it is clear that his goal was to know everyone and everything about this special time and place, and compress it into an indelible record. Which is what any great artist does. That McDarrah didn’t think of himself as someone making art is simply irrelevant to whether his work is art or not. Just as the world is full of examples of how the reverse is also true: someone calling themselves an artist does not, unfortunately and often painfully, make what they do art.

So this distinction no longer holds.  Turn of the century Paris had Eugène Atget, and much of what we know visually of the Parisian cultural milieu between the Wars is thanks to Brassai and André Kertész. For the pure pulp palpability of New York’s gritty street-life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, nothing quite beats the indelible photographic images created by Weegee with his iconic Speed Graphic and flash. And, whether you realize it or not, if you close your eyes and recall images you remember from Greenwich Village and New York City in the 60s and 70s, you are more than likely recalling one of the hundreds of photographs shot by Fred W. McDarrah. Any doubt you may have on this subject is bound to be overcome by the current McDarrah exhibition of over 140 works at Steven Kasher Gallery.

Steven Kasher Gallery – Fred W. McDarrah: Save the Village



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