Tag Archives: painting

Tangible Visuality: Stuart Davis, Carmen Herrera, and Hilma af Klint

Three exhibitions currently on view in New York City–Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, and the Hilma af Klint exhibition that is secreted within The Keeper exhibition at the New Museum–provide object lessons on the necessity of seeing “in person” artworks that in reproduction appear flat and graphic in a way that stays fixed at the level of an image with no scale so that when looking at the images most people, particularly those brought up entirely within the regime of Instagram would not see why they should see the works and, further, might not be able to see the work when in front of it because many people now see exclusively through the lens of their smart phone.

The Stuart Davis show and the Hilma af Klint show close this weekend. Sunday September 25th is the last day of each show. I hope that my readers in New York City will make a point of seeing both shows. It would be a shame to miss them.

As usual and in the case of all three exhibitions I will leave it to museum wall text, Wikipedia, and other reviewers to go into the historical background of the artist, and will focus on my experience in front of some of the key works in the exhibitions, beginning with the shows at the Whitney.

Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is an exuberant and joyful survey of the work of an original American modernist artist whose work demonstrated how an artist can be of his time and yet be original and predictive, anticipatory of works that followed him. I was immediately struck by how different the works are in person than in reproduction, where they appear so flatly graphic. This flatness may diminish their interest for people who see them in pictures as representatives of a style, or for people (like me) who see the works as part of a family of artists from Fernand Leger to Raoul Dufy, Miro and Matisse to Lichtenstein and Warhol–these particular associations actually might not be a positive recommendation because of over-familiarity or dislike in some cases. A Google image search of his work may in fact appear noisy to the point of being nauseating, an impression erased when in the presence of the works and also by examining the works close up so that you can focus on details, each work offering paintings within paintings, and on the way they are painted.

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When you see them “in person” their physicality and painterliness as well as their scale creates a different and vivid impression, often more intimate than you might imagine, in some of the early works, such as the Lucky Strike paintings from the early 1920s, which have a tremendous sense of delicacy and intimacy in the details of what seem like works about advertising and commercial signage.

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If such early works have a precisionist care in how they are painted that recalls early Renaissance painters like Pietro Lorenzetti or Domenico Veneziano, as much as they do product advertisements and packaging design from the 1920s, later works offer a bolder more sculptural approach, and suggests a whole other range of range of artists who followed Davis, including Elizabeth Murray and Al Held.

Among these are Memo and Memo#2 from 1956 in which the color is pared down to red, green, white and black, each with a quadrant of the painting a diagrammatic drawing in black and white, in contrast to more brightly hued and often more representational or symbolic areas, with fragments of objects and language on the bottom left of the work. While responding to the boldness, simplicity, and clarity of the composition of these Memo paintings, I was struck by a relation that they suggested to black and white works by Myron Stout such as Number 3, 1954 from 1954 (in the collection of MoMA). Stout’s work is incomprehensible or, rather, radically misunderstood if you see it in reproduction only, since its intensity and action comes from the indecision betrayed in the pentimenti at the edges, the borderlines between black “ground” and white “figure,” a borderline that Stout in some cases may have spent a decade battling over.

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Davis’ paintings betray no such hesitancy yet he did use masking tape to determine shape and placement before deciding on the final configuration and composition. This process is most poignantly evident in his final work, left “unfinished” the night he died. This painting would have made a perfect companion to the unfinished work by Mondrian included in the Met’s recent excellent exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. It was exciting and incredibly contemporary to see the tape and the push pin marks left on and in the surface where Mondrian had perhaps temporarily placed bits of colored paper. To see traces of Mondrian’s process again emphasized the handmade quality of works whose familiarity as images is so ubiquitous that fashion accessories and regularly copied from them.

In Davis’ painting, Fin, dried out strips of tan masking tape create a grid pattern over one section of the work while lines of black tape are used to rehearse placement of black lines to be painted onto the composition. The painting surface is very dry and often sketchy. The medium is casein rather than oil, a dry surfaced medium which it is possible that Davis used for underpainting, to be covered by oil at a later stage of the work. The surface and the bright colors make this look like the first layer for a 1940s movie poster, yet it is completely finished, as Davis perhaps intuited when he wrote the word “fin,” end, which he had just seen on TV at the end of a French movie–he died later that same night. The work is vibrant both in color and in composition, a restless vivacity, and a tremendous sense of optimism.

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At the bottom of the paining is a green, red, black and white parallelogram that reads like the future of painting: ten years later the character and form of this detail would reappear  freshly conceived in works by artist such as David Reed, Mary Heilmann, and Elizabeth Murray, and other artists from the movement that is the focus of the exhibition catalogue High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975. You see in its the beginning of Murray’s work, or Thomas Nozkowski‘s, and the abstractions–paintings and collages–of Richard Tuttle.

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In my notebook at the exhibition I wrote of this last work, “one of the most inspiring paintings I have seen in some time.” While it may seem that I am fetishizing incidents of painterliness rather than focusing on a dryer analysis of the role in which Davis is fixed as a somewhat maverick American modernist addressing commodity culture and language, I am responding to the aliveness of these incidents within the painting and to the expanding family of painters that individually and together give me the sense of optimism about artmaking that is essential to its continued practice.

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I have in recent months expressed exasperation at the recent phenomenon in the artworld of finally giving old, very old women artists–100 is the new 70–“their due,” with the current exhibition of Carmen Herrera’s work a prime example. I don’t think I am alone in not having heard of Herrera’s work until her work became an instance of this phenomenon and, seeing her work in reproduction with no previous experience of it, the flatness of the work combined with the formal reductiveness did not appeal to me. However “The Blanco Y Verde Series, 1959-1971, a group of nine white and green paintings, handsomely installed in the central room of the show, offers yet another proof of the necessity of seeing in person abstract work which may appear so flat and graphic in reproduction that it does not convey the need to see the actual work. This is one of the works from the series, as reproduced on the museums website. Here are two pictures of it I took, one close up.

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Herrera’s work is indeed extremely flat and for the most part without surface incident that would betray the trace of a hand. Only if, out of professional curiosity, you look very closely you can see in rare instances some traces of how the paint was applied. Yet in some of the work, notably the Blanco Y Verde series, a group of nine large easel size canvases with flat white surfaces crossed by delicate green darts or shards meeting at sharp finally balanced points of tension, there is a weight that comes from the totality of the surface of each work as well as the group of paintings as a sculptural installation.  Something  happens at the sharp points where green and white intersect and abut that interacts with the viewer’s scale, and the surfaces’ very dryness creates a kind of blank haze that the thin green darts punctuate. As is so often the case with paintings that involve a flatly applied geometric design, reproduction leaves out the objectness of the canvas, something that Herrara has carefully considered: the paintings are not framed or edged with wood as was the convention in that time period, and one painting has one side or edge of the stretcher painted green (the other edges are white).

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The question of objectness, presence, and facticity is also relevant to the rare and amazing installation of paintings by Swedish early 20th century artist Hilma af Klint now on view as part of The Keeper exhibition. Sunday September 25th is the last day. RUN to see it if you are in New York, otherwise plan a trip to the Moderna Museet in Sweden.

A friend, artist but not painter, warned me that I might be disappointed by Hilma af Klint’s paintings because they were not very well painted. Having seen her work before I wasn’t too concerned. But upon walking into the exhibition my friend’s response was intriguing and important: not well painted in relation to what? according to what standard?

Klint’s surfaces are generally very dry and mostly flat though each painting may have large or small areas that are brushy or have a clearly demarcated section of impasto. I recommend walking around and around the installation, trying to not look at the sculptures by Carol Bove and others that are for some unfathomable reason plopped in front of the continuous row of paintings that are hung on three walls of the fourth floor. Perfectly fine sculptures in a range of materials from steel to plastic, they nevertheless seem placed there to deliberately test the viewer’s ability to not look at them so that they can concentrate on the paintings they obscure. Luckily the paintings sing out and overpower any such artworld interference.

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My first round began to the right of the elevators. I stopped at  Swann#18, a series of uneven concentric circle of deep black, red, blue and yellow hover on a red earth ground, brushy and uneven. Three dart like shapes pierce through the ovum of the black circle, and while everything is very precise, the edges of the forms and lines are uneven, but the brushy patchy earth red ground and the slight imperfections of the lines don’t give an impression of weakness or failure or lack of interest on the part of the artist. Each surface, each transparency or opacity is considered and is part of the meaning of the work. This is not decorative or about painterliness or figure/ground, they are “about” a space and a theory which is real to her and it then operates effectively to create space. At the same time the contrast between the dense blackness and the light filled thin red ground serves to give the work a very contemporary feeling. In fact it blows out of the water similar works that came after in the conventional timeline of  modernism. Look at Swann#18 and think about Kenneth Noland. No difference in surface or scale. [Trigger warning, his website has music, it is kind of hilarious and fun.]

These works were done between 1914-1915. Think of the abstractions being done around Europe at that time, many of them small and even clumsy and half-hearted or half-assed in their approach to pure abstraction–I’m talking about you Robert Delaunay–and I am bringing this up because when MoMA organized their 2012 survey exhibition, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, they included Delaunay, but not Klint, of which exclusion more later.

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I went round and round the room, focusing on how the works were painted, looking at the whole work, at the room, slowing down my tour, and shifting from a clockwise to a counterclockwise direction so that as many small details and incidents of painting as possible would spring into focus. I looked closely at the surfaces, taking great joy out the myriad shifts of application and scale within the work while enjoying their size: scale plays a great role in the work, because the works themselves are large and they address the viewer’s body as an equal, they have a declarative confidence.

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But within the larger field, marks and grounds are painted as needs be, thick and thin, delicate and contingent, abstract and narrative. This makes them so much fun, they are not dour at all, and they are not constrained by Greenbergian rules eliminating the incidental representational vignette or the diagram which flows with the flatness of the painting field while interrupting it and creating some illusion of depth. They do not suffer from dogmatism.

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There is a relationship to radiance and to the impact of dry white impasto that af Klint shares with her contemporary Florrine Stettheimer who followed a similar path from traditional academic training and familiarity with a contemporary artistic milieu and an unconventional deeply personal path–Steittheimer is the queen of white and pale pink impasto, creating an uncanny sense of ethereal materiality–as well as with later abstract artists whose work was both of and beyond their time, such as Jay deFeo, whose The Rose is sister to Hilma af Klint’s radiant white orbs.

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I ran into many friends while at the exhibition and we all seemed to be in a state of joyfulness. Finally I ran into a friend who had her two and half year old daughter in her stroller. Unaccountably instead of napping as planned, the child became electrified by the atmosphere in the room. We took a milk and snacks break downstairs and then returned for one more tour. The break, the false departure, and the temporary return to the presence of the works allowed me to feel more strongly than ever the relationship between the dry surfaces and the relation that the works establish between the ethereal and memory. I took many pictures with my poor little phone camera, but the works’ presence is a necessary ingredient to their further life in my mind.

I thought we would just walk around and around, as in a park, and so the mother might get a bit of a chance to spend some more time with the painting and the child might be soothed by the movement but she sang louder and louder, repeating a sentence that I could not decipher, which was just about the moment when I was able to concentrate on the detail of the origin of these works that most likely caused MoMA to not include her in Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, namely that af Klint, although an academically trained and skilled artist in a more conventional representational mode, did these extraordinary works under the influence of spiritual visions–the tour guide at the New Museum said that she painted landscapes during the day, and these glorious abstract paintings at night when perhaps she could communicate with less interference with the otherwordly non-dimensional spirits who dictated her forms to her–that is that, precisely during this key historical period, she claimed to paint as a medium. Like  Mondrian, she was interested in Theosophism, but apparently for MoMA and the art historical establishment there was a difference in how Mondrian could be absorbed into the grand narrative of modernist abstraction and how she did. The whiff of the outsider or crazy artist was too much to bear and my own inculcation into the values of high modernism are such that I had been trying to block  that aspect of her inspiration until the child sang and I finally read the wall text which included the word “medium.” I decided that the otherwordly force or being directing her painting was a damn good artist that any other modern artist would have wanted on their side, and, anyway,who knows where greatness comes from.

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At the center of the central silver sphere of Dove#12 there is a tiny globe within which two angels do battle, black sword and red sword clashing in an X mark at the center of the painting. There is a relationship between the symbolic and the celestial in keeping with a medieval world view, yes, perhaps that doesn’t fit into Alfred Barr Jr.‘s philosophy.

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But the uncategorizable is not nevertheless less great, that someone with traditional training having arrived at something so sophisticated with such command of visual language, painterly articulation, and spacial authority is way beyond an outsider artist [casting no criticism on great outsider artists]. She was not by any accounts crazy, just non-conforming. And, wisely, she knew that the category of “101-year old woman artist getting her due,” was not for her should she live. She left instructions that her work should not be exhibited until twenty years after her death, which came in 1944. It has taken another four decades since then for her due to begin to dawn on people, though the doubt and suspicion of Otherness that kept her out of MoMA’s survey of 20th century vanguard abstraction may still linger. But, still, perhaps, according to my view that women artists are trapped between two paradigms, of  “still too young” and “not dead enough,” perhaps she is finally dead enough.

Or is she? during the run of this show, which ends tomorrow, you could not find the presence of Hilma af Klint’s work on the Whitney Museum’s website if you ran a search for her name.

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Let her have the last word, her heart and her inspired vision of a double helix,

or,

I

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Hilma

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for more images of and information on Hilma af Klint’s work, here is a good video, from Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen, the much more comprehensive exhibition of her work, held at the Serpentine Galleries in London in Spring 2016 (please note that the video will not play in your email program, only on the blog itself viewed on a browser).

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One Art Work in a Spinning World

In attempting to capture the impact of one modest artwork, seen in a museum outside a major metropolis, it is first necessary to fight one’s way through the tidal wave of images of art works that circulate daily, on Instagram, Facebook and dozens of major and local websites devoted to art and to the art market. It is overwhelming and impossible to try to come to grips with the sheer volume of works and of images of works, many of which look “good”–at least as images. The fact that many look and may even in actual physical space be “good”–and good here is meant to cover a wide range of possibilities of success, from aesthetically pleasing, formally clever to intelligent, even possibly intellectually challenging, or emotionally charged and weighted–is as disconcerting as the many that are just outright bad, the glittery flotsam seen at fairs, and also the temporal toys and copies, attractive but intellectually and emotionally empty product, what my mother, with the rolling rrs of her rich Eastern European accent, would dismiss with a sniff as “merrrchendise.” This is so partly because aesthetic criteria have gone underground, more a factor of subterranean custom and multiple, group-specific agreements, less the subject of intellectual debate and argument. As an example, this is what the “zombie” in “zombie formalism” is about, the sense that works that at first glance look like mid-twentieth century abstract art, c. 1949-1979, were not arrived at through the aesthetic and existential struggles of the earlier models they resemble but are more emotionally remote, seamless simulacral replicants, merely shifting around signs from those earlier forms of abstract art.

From this phantasmagoric swirl of images, I walk into a room and discover a work, unassuming yet riveting, nearly anonymous in its style and fakture yet unique and uncannily specific.

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This is an untitled turned wood sculpture by the Swiss-born artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943), included in Everything Is Dada at the Yale University Art Gallery. The exhibition is curated from the Gallery’s collection, notably from the works that were gifts of the Collection Société Anonyme, an art group founded in 1929 by Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. Included in the exhibition are works by the most iconic artists of the movement such as Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, but also very interesting works by lesser known (or, rather, previously unknown to me or forgotten by me) artists such as Morton Livingston Schamberg, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and John Covert.  I came upon Taeuber-Arp’s object in the last room of the exhibition, in the company of works by her husband Jean (Hans) Arp and also a number of works by other women artists from the period including Chef d’oeuvre accordéon, or Accordion Masterpiece, 1921, a bold painting by Suzanne Duchamp that is focused around a silver-leaf oval head-like shape, cut in by collaged elements that relate to aspects of Taeuber-Arp’s work.

Taueber-Arp’s wooden object has a humorous, cartoon-like appearance–a contemporary resemblance may be found to the way the character of the pre-schooler Ike is drawn on South Park, with a slit for a mouth–and, in fact, it is said to be in part based on the peaked cap wearing German puppet-theater character Kasperle, or “Kaspar,” about whom Jean Arp wrote a poem, “Kaspar is Dead” –“oh god our Kaspar is dead/and now there’s no-one to steal away with the burning flag/snap it everyday in the dark cloud’s braided hair.”

Yet the object has an anonymous aspect to its form, it resembles and I believe it references the shape of nineteenth-century machine tooled hat molds that informed the works of many of the Dada artists who looked to industrial forms and techniques at the same time as they appreciated, in the manner of their contemporary and colleague Walter Benjamin, earlier objects of popular culture and practice from the late 19th century. The use of turned or lathed wood creates a network of connection between early instances of mechanized craft, the colder more mechanized aspects of industrially produced objects in the 20th century, and the Bauhaus interest in linking these two strains together via craft. Other works by Taeuber-Arp also reference machine-tooled mannequins, forms and subjects that appear in works by contemporaries including de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses (1917) or in dance costumes by fellow Dada artists Oscar Schlemmer.

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Taeuber-Arp’s piece raises questions of anonymity versus signature style–a painted wood bas-relief work by her husband that is hung on the wall behind her freestanding piece points to the importance of a signature style in fixing an artist in history: Arp’s plain, flatly colored simple biomorphic forms are instantly recognizable, while Taeuber-Arp’s works are more part of a general stylistic school, with some works similar to works by Annie Albers, others to Oskar Schlemmer, others still to Paul Klee, and so forth, yet all in their way excellently crafted intelligent examples of the genre. I remember being deeply moved by an exhibition of Taeuber-Arp’s work at MoMA in 1981–which according to the catalogue included the Yale turned wood object though I don’t specifically remember seeing it then–in part because it was at the time a very rare almost unique example of an exhibition devoted to a woman artist. I vaguely remember feeling a sense of unfairness, in fact I altered the memory and placed the show in the summer, a fallow time in the museum’s schedule. But that memory was inaccurate and merely symbolized my sense that Taeuber-Arp had been both honored and yet vaguely disrespected. Or perhaps simply I felt the sadness of seeing excellent work by a woman artist who nevertheless did not have a signature style and was not that widely known and and who had died tragically in mid-life. One might here compared her trajectory to that of Sonia Delaunay, a pioneer of abstraction, with a signature style, nevertheless sharing many material interests and formal elements with Taeuber-Arp, and who enjoyed a long, prolific, and successful career that took her so much closer to the feminist art history agenda of the 70s, which then helped maintain her in the mainstream history of twentieth-century modernism.

But the question of anonymity of style is particularly pertinent to a work from the Dada period. In the exhibition there are a number of groupings that seem to address and toy with the viewer’s expectation of uniqueness or signature style. Thus three works in sequence that each appear to be works by Picabia, with the signature appearance of machine tooled forms and text.

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Well, no, perhaps a bit too tame and regular–this is by Painting, formerly Machine, (1916), by Morton Schamberg. So maybe this one is by Picabia,

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No, this is Young Woman,by Ribemont-Dessainges.

Finally, the sequence of this part of the installation ends with Picabia’s Prostitution Universel, 1916-17.

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The question of anonymity versus signature style as it is articulated in these works and others in the exhibition is representative of the dual views of technology of that era, where critical awareness of the destructive aspects of modernity and dehumanizing aspects of industrialization in the Post World War I period was matched with a continued fetishization of machine forms and technology innovations.

Returning to Taeuber-Arp’s sculpture: its size and shape are not identical to the functional objects that it recalls and the incisions that Taeuber-Arp has made into the shape serve no discernible human purpose of functionality or representation. Despite its nineteenth-century quaintness, the object has a bit of a science fiction quality to it, a depiction by some being of some being that is not human. The interventions into the form, the cuts at different angles creating completely different identities depending on one’s placement in relation to it, are what send the viewer into orbit around it: it is one of the most totally three dimensional objects I have encountered, because it is not just that it looks interesting from more than one vantage point, but that one is spun around it to try to experience and then re-experience these points of view. Yet, however much you try, you can never find yourself in exactly the same relation to it as you walk around it, so you must go round again.

Having taken the first picture (above) of my first view of the work, I took one other, having moved a few degrees to the east of it. The deeper cut at this longitude alters the cartoon head reference, and the finish of the incised planes of wood appear less golden, their surfaces are rougher as they cut into the grain of the wood.

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I decided that I should draw several views from my orbit because I always feel that drawing embeds an aesthetic experience in the body, but my juggling of colored pens and notebook caught the attention of a guard who helpfully brought over one of those ineffectual little pencil stubs that you use to take multiple choice tests.

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Frustrated in my drawing trajectory, my reluctance at returning to photography seemed to influence my camera which could not return to the correct light but I continued my orbit around the work.

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An object that forces another entity into orbit around it has a force of gravity, it has a density of matter and content that can hold its own against the phantasmagoric multiplicity of art objects that swirl around us, it proposes the possibility of an antidote. And that is something to reckon with, even after one must regretfully leave the room.

Now that Kaspar is dead, as Jean Arp concludes his poem, “non-one to teach us monograms in the stairs/his bust will adorn all truly noble firesides but there is/no snuff & comfort for a dead head.”

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The first post on A Year of Positive Thinking, “Looking for art to love in all the right places,” appeared April 28, 2010. This is a slightly belated anniversary post, after a long hiatus.

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A Necessary Man: Leon Golub / Riot @ Hauser & Wirth

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”

The thrill of opening the door of a gallery and immediately seeing a masterpiece. Just hanging there. No fuss. The thrill begins at the threshold, you are not fully into the room but the painting already fills your field of vision and the disruption between the elegant quiet street you are stepping in from to the drama depicted in the painting, performed by the painting, happens in a flash.

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In the room, the painting representing two men, naked, one living, perhaps victorious, the other mortally wounded, his guts spilling into a dried caked pool of cadmium red deep or caput mortem paint.

Victor and vanquished are both flayed to the bone by the complex violent painting technique of the artist, abstract strokes construct the figures and atomize their surface at the same time. The faces are in a rictus of pain and emotion, they show their teeth.

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The teeth provoke a violent interruption in the viewing, an angry thought: Fuck you if you don’t get it or think it’s overly emotive.

Why does that defensive/combative thought occur? Because Leon Golub was a widely known and respected artist and yet often found himself in a contested situation, his incredibly impressive vitae belied by anecdotal knowledge of disrespectful treatment of him and his work to the end of his life and by review of some important American museum permanent collections and exhibition records. Paranoid imagination? Well, let’s take as a current case in point, “Raw War,” the chapter of the Whitney Museum’s current inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, of work dedicated to the Anti-War movement in the United States. Where is Leon Golub? The museum’s collection does include one Vietnam era war-related drawing by Golub. And where is Nancy Spero in the same installation? It’s hard to see how you can not include them in that specific context. They were pivotal figures in the anti-war movement within the art community in New York. So why?

There is strong emotion in Napalm 1, from 1969.It is an overdetermined scene. One could call this work expressionistic though Golub relied on appropriative methods: this painting among others from this time period is influenced by ancient Greek sculpture, as well as based on Golub’s extensive archival files of war imagery from which he worked–a fond memory of Leon sitting on a little stool in his studio cheerfully cutting clippings from all kinds of magazines sources including magazines for mercenary soldiers  like Soldier of Fortune–a current code word for a certain kind of academia-supported art is Research, much maligned because of its occasionally proscriptive aesthetic ideology, but what Leon was doing was research also, research is not reserved to any one type of artist or mode of artmaking.

(note for my subscribers that receive this post in an email, you will not be able to see this video in your email program, you must watch on YouTube or on my blog online).

The painterly style also emerges from expressionist painting movements of the time, including CoBrA Group and Art Informel, important movements in art in Europe near the time Golub lived in Paris, and abstract expressionism lurks in the strokes and the scrapes too. Golub is a painter. He is a political painter, consciously so. He strives for the heroic, via the anti-heroic, but irony is not his calling card and materiality, flayed scumbled paint on unstretched raw linen, is the embodied expression of his moral vision of the world. His sources are often photographic, but the body of marble aged by millennia, of paint applied expressionistically in action painting, are the means of communication. He is our Delacroix, our Gericault, our Courbet, not our Duchamp, our Warhol, or Koons, nor even our Haacke, but we have preferred to honor the artists who it is felt by some as having fulfilled the narrative of institutional critique, commodity culture, new imaging technologies. Despite everything that has happened since abstract expressionism, we still seem to be in a Greenbergian revolt against the political in painting, especially if it takes place within the language of abstract expressionism, of old fashioned painting. This gets close perhaps to the source of the curious case of Leon Golub, famous and honored yet not honored as he should be in his native land. End of diatribe.

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Upstairs two men fight to the death in Le Combat VII (1963). They are barely delineated. The painting is a delicate haze of shattered pink flesh. Pink is the color of femininity and delicacy and of shattered flesh. Golub is the IED, the improvised explosive device. The painting’s edge is peeling from the device meant to hold it to the wall: it is a contingency in the exposition of a contingent art work. Golub’s canvases are tough, resilient, but also unprotected by standard methods of support for painting. The peeling corner may provide a bit more information than the gallery would wish, but its revelation of the work’s contingency means something, it provides an intimacy with the artist and the work even if he isn’t there to fix it himself.

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In the next room, a larger than life-size figure crawls along the wall. This is a figure with barely any ground to speak of except the gallery wall and our space, the one we the viewers occupy. A Fallen Warrior (1968), he is on his knees, injured, barely alive but, slightly larger than we are, he is also monumental.

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Upstairs in a room suffused with daylight are some of Golub’s small works on paper, many of these works from near the end of his life. They are almost undefined in some cases, delicate but also defiant, infused with gallows humor.

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They are also youthful and gleefully sexual,

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For a while the title of this blog post shifted from A Necessary Man to a fragment of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now,” because really, how would you know the age of the artist from this work. I reverted to “A Necessary Man” because in the years since he died Golub’s absence is actively missed by anyone who knew his work and his political activism.

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On the way out, Napalm 1 is seen again, near the plate glass front window of the gallery. Interesting that Hauser & Wirth chose to place Golub’s sometimes large rough skinned works into its extremely refined Upper East side townhouse sized room, a gallery large through accretion of rooms and floors but not incomprehensibly humongous like their downtown space. This in the scale that early large scale abstract expressionist era paintings were intended to function in, where a large though not enormous artwork could dominate the space and fill the viewer’s field of vision. The work is not forced to inflate itself to compete with the space while crushing the viewers humanity in the process.

These combatants ask us, What is victory in a war? One is dead or mortally injured but both are naked, both have the flayed flesh characteristic of Golub’s work.

I wanted to take a picture of this work seen from the street, to imagine the impact on passersby walking their miniature poodles or going to lunch, but reflection renders the painting invisible. They would only see themselves. One has to open the door and walk over the threshold into the room to have the experience.

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Leon Golub: Riot at Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, New York NY 10021
Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm , through June 20, 2015

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“The Ground”

I’m delighted to have “The Ground,” a text about my work, published in the current issue of Cultural Politics, a Duke University Press journal

Issue cover, detail of Mira Schor, Conditions of Contemporary Practice, 2013. Ink & oil on gesso on linen, 24 × 45 in.

Issue cover, detail of Mira Schor, Conditions of Contemporary Practice, 2013. Ink & oil on gesso on linen, 24 × 45 in.

The full text online with color reproductions is here (scroll down to “figures” and click on “view larger version” )

The PDF of the text as it appears in the hard copy is here (reproductions in b/w)

Special thanks to the journal’s editors and to Arts Editor Joy Garnett for inviting me to contribute an artist’s project

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From Joy Garnett: Announcing the arrival of:

Cultural Politics Volume 10.3

Featuring cover art and an essay by Mira Schor, this entire issue is available open access, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Cultural Politics (ISSN: 1743-2197) is an international, refereed journal that explores the global character and effects of contemporary culture and politics. It analyzes how cultural identities, agencies and actors, political issues and conflicts, and global media are linked, characterized, examined and resolved. In doing so, the journal explores precisely what is cultural about politics and what is political about culture. It investigates the marginalized and outer regions of this complex and interdisciplinary subject area.

Edited by:

John Armitage, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK
Ryan Bishop, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK
Douglas Kellner, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Mark Featherstone, Book Reviews Editor

Joy Garnett, Arts Editor

Each issue includes essays and projects by visual artists solicited and edited by New York artist Joy Garnett. Contributing artists include Stephen Andrews, Paul Chan, Christos Dikeakos, Gair Dunlop, Yevgeniy Fiks, Zoe Leonard, David Humphrey, Dominic McGill, Julia Meltzer & David Thorne, Arnold Mesches, Carrie Moyer, Richard Mosse, Steve Mumford, Sarah Peters, Mira Schor, Nancy Spero, and others.

Cultural Politics is published by Duke University Press. Access all articles online. Artist contributions are freely available (pdf and html) courtesy DUP.

Additionally, an archive of artist contributions can be found here

 

 

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Nights and Days of Chris Ofili and Benny Andrews

In recent days I have posted on Facebook galleries of photos from recent exhibitions I’ve just seen, with a brief text which I typically write quickly, just enough to give readers a quick sense of the work. Since Facebook’s algorithm is notoriously unreliable, I thought I would republish two such brief reports, about works I saw in the past two days, especially since the works presented here propelled me into the studio, an effect of art work that I particularly noted when I began this blog. As is often the case, happenstance unexpectedly reveals thematics. This is a case in point.

Sunday December 21 * Here are some pictures of my visit to Night and Day, the Chris Ofili exhibition at the New Museum. I should say my first visit because I intend to go again, this is a show it is a pleasure to spend time with and the works make you spend time. I very much wanted to see the show although/because I haven’t seen that much of Ofili’s work, and my attitude was in a sense neutral because on the one hand I am not necessarily a fan of a kind of stylized style of figuration and yet I love cartoon figuration. Same duality about vivid color. So, needle set at neutral but looking forward to and anxious to see.

It’s a great show and by far the best use of the New Museum’s awkward cold space I have ever seen. Each floor tells a story and each room is not just a space to stick some work, but to consider a body of work. Important to go in order, second floor, third floor, fourth floor, and fifth floor for small exhibition of his work for ballet.

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On the second floor, first thing you see coming out of the elevator is an installation of works from Ofili’s series Afromuses, 170 small framed watercolors (looks like watercolor and ink) of silhouetted heads of African women and men, emphasizing the abstract design of hairdos, patterned textiles of clothing and jewelry. These works, a selection of a larger series, emphasizes the importance of drawing–these were works that the artist did every morning for about 10 years for about fifteen minutes as warm ups for painting, and they serve here as a warm up to the rest of the show.

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One experiences them twice, as you loop back to them after going around the corner first into a large space with a great group of large paintings from the 90s, including the notorious Holy Virgin Mary of Mayor Giuliani fame.

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These paintings have a great sense of scale, and the fact that each rests on a ball of elephant dung adorned with the title of the work rather than being hung on a wall keeps them at the level of the viewer’s body. They are intensely surfaced, vividly pigmented, very funny–at one point I started thinking about the Simpsons–and very moving: particularly striking from across the room as well as directly in front of is No Woman, No Cry about the mother of a black teenager killed in a racially motivated assault in London. This painting’s use of the ball of dung is particularly striking, as a piece of jewelry which is also a weight, a scar, a tumor, at the core of the painting.

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So already two impressive groups of works, but the show really gets impressive when one walks into the next room, lit slightly differently, with large paintings which share a color scheme of green, black, pink, red, and white, and a lush sexuality and sensuality.

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At this point in the show looking at these works I also felt strongly that these paintings were made by the artist, that he was engaged in the painting, even though these are not conventional paintings–there is neither brushwork, ton smooth flatness, the surfaces are complex, textural, layered, constructed, but they are convincingly by one person making decisions as he goes along

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The next floor is dedicated to a darkened room with dark paintings which at first are nearly unreadable, somewhat like figurative Ad Reinhardts. Strangely my iPhone camera was able to pick out forms that my eye could not. The darkness hides dark subject matter including a lynching. It is a room I particularly want to return to, must return to, to see what more I can see.

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The next floor (4th fl of the museum) is the total opposite, an emotional reversal: a knockout of color and sensuality, yet painted much more flatly than the first large paintings. No more stippling, no more varnish and glitter, no more elephant dung, in some cases figures appear to be drawn on the linen with charcoal. They bring to mind William Blake (an important artist to Ofili) and Nabis and early 20th century Viennese Orientalism, and also a lot of mid-twentieth century European artists, Matisse’s cut outs, late Picabia, Chagall even. The walls of the room are painted a light violet and blue floral pattern (based on images from Powell and Pressburger‘s movie Black Narcissus–a movie about Western sexuality repressed by religiosity and unmoored by its encounter with the exotic eroticism of the Himalayas–and painted on the wall by a team of professional scenic painters, according to the guard we spoke to). This helps transform the scale of the room in a way that is humanizing and welcoming, a large public space that one wants to spend time in, go back to, a vivid Botanical Gardens of painting.

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The way I’ve described the show here is to give a sense of the experience floor by floor. There are some critical issues, or issues one could have a discussion about: how do these work somehow radiate a sincerity opposite from works from the New Expressionist period that share some of the same references to between the World Wars European stylization of the figure? Is the role and critical reception of stylized figuration, vivid pigmentation of painting, vivid patterning and gaudy surface different when the artist is a person of color with ties to Africa , now living in the Caribbean? How is the reception different if similar images are presented by a male artist or a female artist? The work itself resists these, often unspoken problematics, and this is part of their strength and affirmation.

Monday December 22 *

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I went to MoMA yesterday and saw this really interesting painting by Benny Andrews: it is large, bold, arresting. Not a perfect painting–what appears to be a mutilated body covered by a crumpled American flag is awkward, not just disturbing, which it is, but awkwardly drawn, with strong foreshortening and the crumpled three dimensional cloth of the flag intruding into our space, and yet the painting, No More Games from 1970–is all the more powerful because of that awkwardness, a smoother painting would not be as effective, would be a contradiction. Each element means something, in the way that everything means something in a Northern Renaissance painting, there is iconography going on here, but iconography that is invented and adapted to speak to a desperate situation, a broken dream, the desperation of rebellion perhaps. Iconography is an important terms because in fact the painting also has a strong biblical reference, the painting is organized around a tree of knowledge and of patriotism that has been ravaged, leaving only the stump and the snake. Eve has been murdered for her sins–not sure about the sexual politics of this painting because its overall politics seem mainly about something other than sexual politics–and Adam sits with the body. Is it his crime?

 

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The sun shines bleakly on bare canvas, it has burned the background away to a stark empty apocalyptic desert, and the figure of the man, “Adam” has a shade, a flat black shadow silhouette who springs from the same pair of high tops as the figure. This figure is very inventively painted and very sculptural, both representationally and literally, wearing a real T-shirt stuck on him like clothes on a paper doll.

No More Games. What a title for this moment, what a day to see it, when the senseless massacre of cops in NY arrives to devastate and demonize a budding civil rights movement.

A really strong painting, it would be nice if the museum saw fit to put some more lights on it, though the lower light on the right hand side and the fact that the painting is right off the escalator, in the hallway, means one comes upon it, the way you discover something powerful in the subway or on a street wall. By the way, the hallway seems to be the installation spot of choice for–often figurative (and perhaps not coincidentally often political)–paintings by “others,” Alice Neel, Robert Colescott near the bathroom a few months ago. No More Games is by far the painting that remains with me from all the paintings I’ve seen in the past few days, it is a political essay–a trying something out, as a painting it is trying something out in painting: Rauschenbergian–that is, post-War, use of the real on a flat modernist picture plane, within a Renaissance representational program, to speak to a political history that is rarely faced, especially within painting.

The painting is on the third floor, just outside a really good installation of late 60s/70s painting, sculpture, and video. The painting’s installation outside of the illuminating historical presentation is both insulting and fitting, given its subject matter, which cannot be properly contained within the institution.

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