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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