Wirsum 1984

I’ve been thinking a lot about Karl Wirsum lately. As luck would have it, a selection of his work titled Mr. Whatzit: Selections from the 1980s is currently showing at Derek Eller Gallery through October 8, 2017. What follows is a review I wrote of Wirsum’s work that was originally published in the New Art Examiner, Summer Issue, 1984. Because the original NAE closed pre-Internet, this review has been unavailable to read online. Coincidentally, this review includes Martian Arts Made with Pre-War Rubber, which is also in the show at Derek Eller Gallery.

Karl Wirsum
Cat Burglar Kicking Out the Jams (Preliminary Drawing), 1984
Colored Pencil on Paper

Karl Wirsum at Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago

The rich playfulness, multi-layered nature and intimate size of Karl Wirsum’s work has, for some people, obscured its recognition as great art. But for me, the unassuming freshness and seemingly effortless spontaneity of the work, its inventive design and craftsmanship, coupled with a precise abstract vocabulary, make Wirsum’s art defy the machinations of the art history game and truly achieve higher ground.

Wirsum’s recent exhibit of 25 paintings and drawings was his fourth one-person show since his Museum of Contemporary Art sculpture retrospective in 1981; he has exhibited regularly since the mid-sixties. His recent work displays those same qualities that earlier distinguished Wirsum from most of his contemporaries: craftsmanship, variation on a theme, and depth of content.

In the drawing Cat Burglar Kicking Out the Jams a large fellow, clad in red thermal under-wear and a mask, dons a pair of blue checked pants (Note: the image used above is not the actual drawing, but the preliminary drawing). It is not clear whether the mask is covering just his eyes or another determined looking and larger mask. The pants are disheveled, and the thief balances on one leg while kicking his other leg through the pants, thus “kicking out the jams”. The red thermals are drawn with a firm contour line, given even weight by very subtle hatch marks which merge into a soft, overall rubbed-in red. The thermals are further defined by an assortment of curved lines depicting seams, wrinkles, and muscles. In stark contrast, the blue checked pants have no hatch marks or rubbed-in color – the check pattern is drawn boldly. The wrinkles in the right pants leg form a sine wave, which is opposed by the single outward curve of the right knee. If, for a minute, we assume the image to be metaphorically autobiographic, an interesting narrative unfolds: twice masked, dressed in thermals (for protection) the (hidden) artist attempts to put on an uncooperative pair of pants (covering/facade) and is “caught with his pants down” by us, his viewers. The unpretentious subject matter of Wirsum’s work often belies the beauty of his drawing as well as the complexity of his content.

The diptych drawing Fat Ternal Twins, whose title is one of Wirsum’s more revealing puns, is a nice example of his virtuosity when composing variations on a theme. Two jolly fat boys, drawn entirely of curves, sit in identical poses with their hands on their laps. One of them wears a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a very wide tie, his hair parted on the side, and pursed, smiling lips. The other wears a T-shirt, has a crew cut, squinting crossed eyes, and is sticking his tongue out. Wirsum has rendered both “twins” in a similarly open manner, with the minor variation primarily in the schematic abstraction of the feet, knees, hands and forearms. Both figures are as obviously the same as they are different, revealing Wirsum’s tightly controlled vocabulary of line and shape; there is no room for arbitrary marks. The abstraction does not alter the form of the twins, but their personalities.

Karl Wirsum
Martian Arts Made with Pre-War Rubber, 1984
Acrylic on canvas (with painted wood frame),
58.5 x 42.375 inches

Wirsum has used the bilaterally symmetrical single figure as a cornerstone in his work since the beginning. Martian Arts Made with Pre-War Rubber is perhaps an example of Wirsum at his most complex. His major theme – linking a myriad of fantastic, playfully exciting personages and objects with our matter-of-fact world – is presented here as a wonderful Mouse-from-Mars inflatable toy. The title places it outside our time and place, freeing it from our sedentary realities. At the same time, the object it purports to be, an inexpensive inflatable toy from the 1930-40s, is familiar and easily accessible to the viewer. This gives the image the springboard it needs to gain entrance to the viewer’s subconscious, where it can deliver its punch.

Wirsum’s work, unlike much of contemporary art, is free of melancholia. Like Isaac Bashevitz Singer’s simple but honest hero Gimpel the Fool, Wirsum’s goofy characters often inhabit a dangerous, unpredictable territory. Yet, like Gimpel, they manage, whether from divine intervention or sheer luck, to find a happy ending.

Posted in Don't Miss, Reviews, Thinking About | Leave a comment

Death and the Critic

For me, the difficulty writing about visual art starts with my struggle to describe the open-ended and visceral experience of looking within the far narrower limitations of language. Prose writers complain about the information and nuance lost when their work is translated from one language to another, but at least it still follows the rules of language on both sides of the translation. Add to the linguistic struggles the vagaries of individual visual acuity – perception of color, line, depth, etc. – between viewers and you begin to have some idea of how difficult it is to share something meaningful about an artwork in a few hundred, or even a few thousand words.

Beneath my struggle to write cogently about art is the far broader and slippery problem of subjectivity. As everything we perceive is passed through the filter and processor of our brain, it’s simply inevitable that who we are as individuals colors all of our thoughts. This fact is so ingrained in our thinking that for most of us it is all but invisible. Neither is it news; contemporary culture has created all sorts of terms in the public sphere attempting to foreground this insight. And truthfully, because subjectivity is our natural state of dealing with the world, we make do. Unless we can’t.

Four years ago my sister died and then, starting about two years ago, all of these people I loved died during a 12 month period in the following order: my mother-in-law, a very close friend’s spouse, my father-in-law, my mother, and one of my closest friends. Having gone through this, I think I can say with some certainty that those who have lost people close to them can understand what a list like this means, while those who have not can not. In short, the world, and by extension art, is forever transformed by this experience.

During the time these illnesses and deaths were happening the only writing I completed were eulogies. For months and months afterward, exhibitions were only of faint interest to me, writing art criticism impossible. I was aware that the lens through which I viewed art was changing, and mourning was keeping my thoughts from coalescing. I was disinterested in expediting the process. In the end, two entire years passed between my last published piece and my next, when I was finally able to put together my thoughts on first one exhibition, and then another. The “problem of subjectivity” seemed to recede into the background, while the persona of formal analysis graciously and reassuringly once more took center stage.

Or so I thought, for in the event, just weeks after posting my essay on Picabia, I walked into an opening that offered proof positive that I was mistaken in this assumption. The paintings in the show were by an artist I have followed for many years and, that being the case, have expectations about the forward trajectory of her work. Initially a representational painter, her style has evolved over the past decade into a strange and wonderful hybrid, a roiling frisson of personal image and pure abstraction fighting for visual dominance, resulting in artworks as unexpected as they are satisfying. And, in point of fact, there were a few paintings that continued brilliantly in that direction.

Most of the works in this new exhibition, however, diverge from this path. Where the paintings leading up to the current show present puzzle piece layers of body parts and vibrant colors, these new works feature simple compositions. Images – horse heads, flowers, flags, ribbons, an umbrella, a tightly cropped hand, a foot, the torso of a woman – take up nearly the entirety of each canvas, indeed flow over the edges. Abstract shapes are added sparingly and used to settle the viewer’s eye rather than disrupt it. The spare palette, applied in buttery, dream-like strokes, is comprised primarily of velvety browns, lavender purples, and mid-night blacks, although there are small appearances, here and there, of deep green, bright red, and pink. Of the just over a dozen works, nearly half feature a horse’s head. As with the other images they are presented to us in profile, mostly browns and blacks with intense black circles for eyes, and drawn in a child-like manner that belies the sophistication of the painting process. They stare out at us, alive but mysteriously still.

It takes little effort to describe these paintings formally, and yet so much more went through my mind as I moved through the exhibition. Forefront in my thoughts was the knowledge that the artist had lost both of her parents only weeks apart the preceding year. Which brought back fresh thoughts of my own mother’s recent passing. A big fan of painting, my mom would have loved this show. This in turn reminded me of a conversation I had had years earlier with the artist’s father, how astute he had been about her work and, as my mom had been for me, how supportive. The paintings, it appeared to me, were speaking directly to these thoughts and memories: A hand plucking a single flower, beautiful but now cut off from life. A woman in a field of purple flowers, her head cut off by the top of the painting, moving away. A lone umbrella offering meager shelter from a deluge of purple rain. The overall prevalence of black and purple, funerary in mood and tone, created a narrative atmosphere so heavy with emotion that it was difficult not to picture each of the somber horses pulling a shrouded hearse in its wake. But this is not to say that I found the paintings morose, for their affect was quite the opposite: a transcendental feeling of joy. Sadness as well, yes, but sadness rooted in the memory of something so wonderful – a parent’s love – that it was transformative; deep grief transmuted by paint into beauty. Going up to the artist to congratulate her, I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears.

So, as a critic I ask myself: Does the art actually speak of these things? Did my own recent and still clearly raw experiences of death and mourning color my perception so strongly as to render my insights too unique to be critically relevant? Does speaking of these things risk coloring, warping even, a neutral viewers experience of these paintings? Or did my own grieving, coupled with my knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the creation of these works, give me a heightened sense of awareness and the ability to tune into a deeper current of embedded meaning worth sharing and, in doing so, opens up the possible interpretations for others?


Posted in Notes on..., Thinking About | Leave a comment

The Whitney Biennial: This, That, and the Other Thing

The 2017 Whitney Biennial

The seventy-eighth installment, March 17 through June 11, 2017

Pope. L aka William Pope. L
Claim (Whitney Version), 2017
Acrylic paint, graphite pencil, push pins, wood, framed document, fortified wine, bologna with black and white photocopied portraits

People have expressed problems with the this year’s 78th Biennial, as one can assume they have since the very first one in 1932. It is, once again, too much of one thing and too little of another, although of course which things are under or over represented depends on who you ask. To my eye, it appears that didactic works are too heavily represented, with verbose wall labels giving even the abstract paintings a shove toward being overly literal which, in turn, gives the show a somewhat juvenile quality at times.

Occupy Museums, Debtfair, 2017

For instance, the artist collective Occupy Museums’ installation quoting Larry Fink, CEO of Goldman Sachs, commenting on the vast amount wealth invested in art (and real estate) and literally peeling back the wall with examples is both visual uninteresting and painfully obvious: rich people control the art market. Who knew? I would add that Occupy Museums seems to have appropriated Hans Haacke’s ideas about the conflict of interest between museum boards and collectors without, unfortunately, adopting his tightly honed aesthetic sensibility.  (Compare this with Pope. L’s wonderfully sly Claim (Whitney Version), 2017, which is, literally, a large room covered inside and out with baloney.) Yet any complaints, my own included, are not really all that damning when we remember that shows of this broad scope and size are realistically next to impossible to curate, and that there are still plenty of interesting artworks worth seeing. This includes an unusually strong showing of paintings which, when compared to previous Biennials, are for once installed and lit exceedingly well.

Indeed, it was a painting that caused the most controversy. At least when the show opened, that is, for by the time of this writing that has all but blown over. The painting,

Dana Schutz
Open Casket, 2016
Oil on Canvas

Open Casket, 2016, by Dana Schutz, is based on an historic photograph of Emmett Till in his casket, a fourteen year old African-American who had been kidnapped, horribly tortured, and murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. On the opening day an African-American artist named Parker Bright stood in front of the painting wearing a gray tee-shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” written on the back in protest. This was followed by an open letter written by Hannah Black, a British artist, and co-signed by about two dozen others, demanding that the painting be removed and destroyed. Which in turn was followed by a number of thoughtful articles on censorship before ultimately sinking into the quotidian foam that has come to envelope our 21st century culture.

Yet Open Casket bothered me as well, although not for the reasons of those who protested. I don’t believe in censorship in general, and I certainly don’t believe any group can claim exclusive rights to an image. If you think about it, telling artists that they don’t have the right to portray others is the same thing as saying that they’re only allowed to make images about their own group and no other. I believe most would agree that this is an absurd proposition.

No, the problem with Schutz’s Open Casket is in its aestheticization of its subject. Look at the black and white photograph the painting is based on:

Emmett Till


Now ask what Schutz’s painting does to capture that horror. Does her artful abstraction of Emmett Till’s gruesome dis-figuration make the crime against a fourteen year old committed sixty-two years ago more urgent or tangible? Or does the painting’s lush colors and fastidious paint handling sanitize and domesticate it?

For comparison, consider another painting in the Biennial, The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough!, 2017, by Henry Taylor. A very large acrylic painting it, too, would have us bear witness to the unjust killing of an African-American. And similar to the Schutz painting, the figure is horizontal, and the predominant colors are ochre yellow, green, brown, black, and white, with a small bit of red.

Henry Taylor
The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough!, 2017
Acrylic on Canvas

Taylor’s subject, however, is the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile, a thirty-two year old school cafeteria worker, with the image captured from Castile’s girlfriend’s cell phone. We see the policeman’s hand with clutched gun entering from the left side as on the right Castile stares into space, dying. Where Schutz depiction of Till is horizontal and therefore static, Taylor tilts the scene so that the left side is raised and the line of the car door runs diagonally down, inevitably down, to Castile’s head, ending as a short black dash of paint that is the dying man’s pupil. In contrast to Schutz’s buttery oil paints and heavily worked surface, Taylor’s flat acrylic medium appears to be urgently applied – the shapes are barely sketched in, details are at a minimum, and the ochre paint filling in the car windows splatters across Castile’s white tee-shirt in lieu of blood.

One might argue from a traditional painting standpoint that Schutz’s Open Casket is better painted than Taylor’s terse The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough!, and no doubt many would. The problem, for me at least, is that while Taylor’s technique seems to be in service to and inseparable from his content, Schutz’s content appears tacked on, an attempt to add meaning to an extremely facile but otherwise not very challenging painting. She is, in short, using the idea of Emmett Till to give her work a weight that it does not possess on its own.

This is, of course, a subjective analysis, but for me it has nothing to do with Dana Schutz being white and Henry Taylor being African-American. It’s that Open Casket is a good painting while The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough! is good art.


Posted in Reviews, Thinking About | Leave a comment

The Chimera

Francis Picabia at La Maison Rose, Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, 1922

Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction

Museum of Modern Art, New York
November 20, 2016 – March 19, 2017

Problem Child

Francis Picabia’s art continues to confound. To simply read the reviews for the recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art confirms this assessment. No matter whether the writer’s views lean toward the positive or the negative, the critiques are alike in adopting an unusually cautious tone. Some critics search the artist’s life seeking answers, while even the most enthusiastic of the reviewers refrains from postulating a unifying philosophy, unless one counts Picabia’s utter refusal to define himself. For he will not. Not stylistically. Not technically. Not conceptually. In spite of having produced so many highly influential works, it is hard to deny that the artist’s stylistic flippancy is not just enigmatic but unnerving. Even grouping his works in rooms by time period, as they were in this exhibition, gives no hint as to how he leapt from one work to the next. Six decades since Francis Picabia died and we’re still left asking: What was he thinking?

Let us briefly pause to note that by the early 20th century it was not unusual or even necessarily considered problematic for artists to frequently change styles; witness that Picasso and Matisse did so with impunity. Of course in the case of these two the motivation for their constant change in styles was (or at least appears to be) self evident: aesthetic innovation, distillation, refinement. This was not an argument one heard from Picabia or on behalf of Picabia. His motivation was (or at least appears to be) to provoke, disrupt, and undermine our aesthetic expectations.

Which his work continues to do. For regardless of Picabia being a lifelong playboy born into wealth and privilege, the fact remains that he was exceptionally talented with a keen intelligence and created fascinating, sublimely beautiful artworks. It’s just that there appear to be veritable chasms of non-sequitur separating his stylistic shifts.

So we accept Picabia’s various style periods à la carte, as it were. We pick and choose what we like and ignore the rest.  And what a large menu we are given.

Francis Picabia
The Spring, 1912
Oil on Canvas
98 1/4 x 98 1/8 inches

Maker of Multitudes

That Picabia was a gifted draughtsman and painter is not in question. By his mid-twenties he was producing very good if not ground breaking Impressionist paintings. In 1910, at the age of 31, Picabia met Marcel Duchamp, who in turn introduced him to Guillaume Apollinaire, and the conceptual aspects of his work began to rapidly evolve. In short order he eschewed both observational imagery and classical perspective to produce a series of muscular Cubist landscapes which just as quickly leave landscape behind and move toward pure abstraction. By 1915 he is producing his Dada works, the first of his stylistic periods where he is clearly an innovator. The paintings during this time (Picabia was also working with film, producing magazines, drawing, and working with collage) feature machine imagery, intentional flatness, allusions to advertising illustration and mechanized reproduction, and artificial color.

Francis Picabia
Amorous Parade, 1917
Oil, Gesso, Metallic Pigment, Ink, Gold Leaf, Pencil, and Crayon on Board
38 x 29 inches

Although the Dada works were much lauded at the time and continue to be today, by 1921 Picabia felt he had exhausted its potential and publicly announced his separation from the movement, declaring “One must be a nomad and traverse ideas as one would travel through countries and cities” and “Dada will live forever!…and I will stay Francis Picabia!”. Casting aside the machine imagery, Picabia began experimenting with figuration, a time that included the creation the simple, elegant, and ever so slightly demented “Spanish Woman” series of watercolors.

Francis Picabia
Spanish Woman (Spanish Woman with Cigarette), 1922
Watercolor, Gouache, and Pencil on Paper
28 3/8 x 20 1/16

This relatively suave period ended with Picabia again pirouetting stylistically toward a significantly coarser, more abstracted figuration. These paintings, often of embracing couples, with their bright colors, bold strokes, and heavy outlines such as can be seen in Idyll, 1925-27, appear brutish relative to the “Spanish Woman” works. They are vaguely reminiscent of the Fauve or Blue Rider Group, but considerably more disconcerting in their compositional irreverence.

Francis Picabia
Idyll, c. 1925-27
Oil and Enamel Paint on Wood
44 5/16 x 32 1/2 inches

From here, Picabia’s rate of change only accelerated. Tacking once more toward refinement, he produced the series known collectively as the “transparencies”, typified by Atrata, 1929. Making use of the sophisticated drawing skills and minimal palette displayed in the “Spanish Woman” series, Picabia layered multiple images and compositions to create a true hybrid of abstraction and figuration, forcing the viewer’s eye to continuously move back and forth between the larger abstract composition and figures floating within. Monumentally influential to contemporary artists, David Salle and Sigmar Polke to name but two, this period is now seen by many as his most significant, a status formerly held by his Dadaist period works.

Francis Picabia
Atrata, 1929
Oil and Pencil on Wood
57 7/8 x 36 1/4 inches

While the artist continued to overlay images for the next ten years, the imagery moved from the sublime integration and restraint of Atrata to the more overt composition and colors of Woman and Face, 1935-38, or eerily proto-Pop Art Superimposed Heads, 1938.

Francis Picabia
Woman and Face, c/ 1935-38
Oil and Enamel Paint on Wood
33 7/16 x 27 9/16 inches

Francis Picabia
Superimposed Heads, 1938
Oil on Wood
28 3/4 x 24 13/16 inches

At this point, one could assert that the artist gave stylistic choice no more weight than switching media. He could produce boldly graphic works like Superimposed Heads and simultaneously more traditional, if disquieting, works like Portrait of a Woman, 1935-38. The question arises: has any other artist shown such apparently total indifference to the concept of an identifying style conveying something important about meaning? And if in answer, we arrive at the works done during the time of the German occupation of France, the time of the Gestapo and Vichey, the Resistance and collaborators.

The “War” Paintings

While one might debate whether Picabia’s Dada works are more influential than his Transparencies or vice versa, few have made any case at all for the paintings made during the war; in fact, quite the opposite. Produced while Picabia was living and working in Golfe-Juan, a small fishing village on the French Riviera near Cannes, and coinciding very closely to the time period between the German’s entering and leaving Paris, no works have caused critics and historians to question the artist’s aesthetics and personal beliefs more than these. If, as stated above, Picabia’s perplexing stylistic shifts allowed his admirers the freedom to choose from his prodigious output à la carte, in the case of the “War” paintings the choice has most often been to try and ignore them. A series of soft-core kitsch paintings closely based on soft-core porn photographs, we might be forgiven for thinking that the artist’s apparent goal was to see if, by rendering them in garish colors and including overtly sexual props, he could produce works even lewder and more embarrassing than the source materials on which they are based. And it could even be argued that if this was his goal, he succeeded wonderfully – or should we say horribly?

In painting after painting done at this time, scantily clad or completely nude women cavort on beds with dogs, pose with tropical flowers artfully covering their privates, or bathe in sybaritic abandon by the sea. Even when the subjects are conservatively clothed, for instance in Portrait of a Couple, 1943-43, floral scenery none-the-less overflows with prurient color while lovers frolic in the background.

Francis Picabia
Portrait of a Couple, 1942-43
Oil on Board
41 5/8 x 30 1/2

Viewing the “War” paintings, perhaps it is inevitable that we question whether the evidence before us reveals nothing less than a brazen attempt by a pampered playboy artist to sell out to his new Nazi overlords.

Yet to hold this view necessarily requires an assumption that our contemporary opinion of these works, our persistent faint revulsion, was not shared by Picabia and his audience at the time. But how likely is it that the same sophisticated artist and viewers of Modern Art that appreciated the artist’s previous works would not feel the same way we do? Not likely at all. One might even posit that no one except those holding the same perverse Nazi aesthetic would find these paintings beautiful.

So the dichotomy found among viewers of Picabia’s “War” paintings can be expressed as follows:

First, anyone who shares the twisted aesthetics of the Nazis can only see in Picabia’s “War” paintings something beautiful.

Second, anyone uninfected with the Nazi’s perverted vision see these paintings as kitsch.

Third, this dichotomy is intentional. Picabia uses the Nazis own aesthetic to camouflage his repeated accusations of their moral bankruptcy; a damning critique hidden in plain sight.

Francis Picabia
Women with Bulldog, c. 1941
Oil on Board
41 3/4 x 29 15/16 inches

The disadvantage of a protest art of this type is that it requires a certain level of ambiguity to succeed, and therefore depends on the intellectual acuity of the viewer to discern its double-sided nature. There are other notable examples of protest art of this kind, for instance Our Grand Circus by Iakovos Kambanellis, written and performed in Greece during the period of the military dictatorship, extolled the importance of the Greek history favored by the Junta while simultaneously delivering a blistering critique  of the regime unnoticed by the Colonels themselves. How much easier though, if less subversive, for an artist to wear their outraged protest on their sleeve.

On the other hand, the advantage of Picabia’s form of protest art is that, precisely because it is psychologically obscured from the subject of its derision, it is not censored but allowed to enter into the culture. Once embedded, it continues to broadcast its critique to all not blinded by the warped aesthetic of those in power.  If we accept this analysis of Picabia’s “War” paintings, then we must also necessarily shift our view of them and the artist, moving them both from the category of  collaborator to that of resistor.

An Invisible Thread

If this understanding of Picabia’s intention and ability to compress conflicting messages into his “War” paintings is true, might we next ask how this insight illuminates the artist’s overall body of work? Let us assume that the “War” paintings, rather than representing a particularly disappointing moment in the artist’s vast and wildly dissimilar stylistic oeuvre, represent Picabia at his most conceptually clear-eyed. More than that: the “War” paintings represent a culmination for Picabia of his aesthetic investigation to explore art’s ability to hold layered and contradictory ideas in a single image.

Francis Picabia
Portrait of a Woman, 1935-37
Oil on Canvas
28 3/4 x 23 5/8 inches

Working our way in reverse, through the artist’s earlier works, can we find this thought consistently expressed? In the somber Portrait of a Woman, 1935-37, we become aware that the black dots are not simply a visual oddity, but a physical manifestation of the growing anxiety over European life in time of Hitler and Mussolini. Portrait of a Woman is an image of distress superimposed over an image of beauty.

With compression of multiple concepts as the main idea rather than style, we find that the “transparencies” paintings have more in common with the Superimposed Heads than we originally thought. Not only can the same can be said of Idyll, but it might be asserted that because Picabia was fixated on exploring art’s ability to hold and present multiple overlapping ideas in a single artwork, the development of a given style would belie, even undermine that understanding. So, rather than an inability to stick with a particular way of painting, Picabia is intentionally switching out styles to explore how different approaches to image making impact how compressed information can be accessed and understood. In the same way, perhaps we need to understand that rather than confuse our expectations by switching styles, the artist was underlining the point – don’t stop at the surface, look deeper. And indeed, we find that we can continue to follow this thread going back even further. The “Spanish Woman” series pushing figuration and abstraction into a single image. Amorous Parade layering a colorful if flat mechanical illustration on top of lines meant to convey three-point perspective. The early bold landscapes like the Spring merging multiple ideas about nature, abstraction, and motion into a series of singular images. Even the earliest impressionist works foreground idea over image in that many were painted not from nature but found postcards.

The cover of the catalogue for this exhibition features Picabia’s strange and wonderful The Cacodylic Eye, 1921. It is a collage of a few small photographs, painted images, and dozens of signatures by other artists besides Picabia.

Francis Picabia
The Cacodylic Eye, 1921
Oil, Enamel Paint, Gelatin Silver Prints, Postcard, and Cut-and-Paste Printed Papers on Canvas
58 1/2 x 46 1/4

A one-off piece, it yet beautifully encapsulates the artist’s emerging concept of idea compression; it makes an abstract totality out of individual signatures and images, it questions the role and importance of the individual in the artwork, it makes a sly joke about the value an artist’s signature confers upon a work (if an artist signature confers value, then a painting with dozens of signatures must be dozens of times more valuable). The Dada movement, of which Picabia was a key player, for the first time brought ideas to the forefront of what visual art can and should be about. Whether consciously or not, Picabia saw early on that ideas could be combined the same way individual brush strokes can create a image while still retaining their meaning as brush strokes.

In the end, we see that Picabia’s work is only confusing, the chasms between periods only insurmountable, if we limit our dialog to simply discussions of style. Conceptually, as the “War” paintings reveal, Picabia pursued a single, deepening investigation from 1910 forward. You just have to know how to stand in more than one place to see it.

Posted on by Deven Golden | 1 Comment

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


Posted in Don't Miss, Reviews, Thinking About | Tagged | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Don't Miss, Mentions | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Notes on..., Reviews, Thinking About | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Don't Miss, Mentions | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Don't Miss, Reviews, Uncategorized | Leave a comment