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From the Archives: The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History at Worth Ryder Art Gallery

Today from our archives we look back to exactly one year ago, to M. Rebekah Otto’s review of The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery in Berkeley, California. Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information.

Adam Harms. Performing the Torture Playlist, 2012; found digital video; 59-minute loop. Courtesy of the Artist.

Adam Harms. Performing the Torture Playlist, 2012; found digital video; 59-minute loop. Courtesy of the Artist.

The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History posits that the eponymous detention facility on the U.S. military base in Cuba closed permanently in 2012, and a museum subsequently opened on its premises. The fictive museum, conceived and created by Ian Alan Paul, intends to “remember the human rights abuses that occurred while the prison was in operation.” [1] The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History Satellite Exhibition curated by Paul and recently on view at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery of the University of California, Berkeley included works that evoked the awe, indignity, and sorrow of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility (Gitmo). For example, in Adam Harms’s Performing the Torture Playlist (2012), amateur performers sing karaoke-style renditions of the American pop songs used to torture Guantanamo prisoners.[2] While such constituent works of the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History are compelling, they are not predicated on nor directly address the supposed closure. Instead, they feel more relevant to a prison that’s still active than to its remembrance.

Museums that memorialize tragedy are rhetorical spaces that rely on certain tropes to elicit our emotions and reinforce the horrible circumstances of a particular catastrophe, event, or time period. Exhibition designers transmute mundane objects into relics, weighting them with history. [3] The Guantanamo Bay Museum, which exists as a website and as satellite exhibitions, lacks the emotional artifacts that substantiate tragedies in our national imagination. Nor does it engage in the hagiography that we anticipate from such sites: framed quotes from heroic leaders, statues and portraits of victims, or even basic biographic details. Where are the detainees themselves in this museum? (We see only shadows of prisoners in Jenny Odell’s All the People in Centinela Federal Prison [2012].) While the most direct impact of the prison’s closure would be on the 164 detainees still held there, the museum oddly does not address what may happen to them or what has happened to the detainees who have previously been freed.

There are many efforts by activists, journalists, and scholars to confront the savagery of Gitmo and the global war on terror in general. The Guantanamo Docket chronicles and humanizes the 779 prisoners. Vice has published Molly Crabapple’s intimate sketches of the detainees and their guards from her trips to Gitmo. On April 21, 2013, the London Guardian published a moving op-ed by current detainee Shaker Aamer, detailing his eleven years in detention and the legal Gordian Knot that he’s tied in. These attempts are unafraid to confront the materiality of the prison and its terrible impact. They are our testaments to an active institution that the museum cannot commemorate in its aspirational state.

The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History Satellite Exhibition was on view at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery of the University of California, Berkeley from September 25 until October 29, 2013.  The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History is an ongoing project.

M. Rebekah Otto lives in Oakland, California. She grew up in Chicago. Her work has been published in The Believer, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is currently the Content Manager at Dictionary.com.

[1] Other projects employ a similar approach, notably Eames Demetrios’ Kcymaerxthaere, which claims to be a parallel universe with an alternate version of modern history that touches our world at various points, marked by bronze plaques and other historical signifiers.

[2] Another evocative piece also on view, Carling McManus and Jen Susman’s Arrows to Mecca (2013) replicated the arrows painted throughout the grounds of the prison to orient detainees toward Mecca for daily prayers. In the series, small, benign arrows made of water adorn a parking lot, an office floor, the aisle of an anonymous store, a suburban street, and other ubiquitous sites of the American landscape.

[3] Examples of these objects in iconic memorial museums include a charred pocketbook at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, a “Coloreds only” water fountain at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C., and the shoes of the deceased at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Beer with a Painter: David Humphrey

Intended

David Humphrey, “Intended” (2011-2014), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches (all images courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser, NY, unless otherwise stated)

What I hoped to get from talking to David Humphrey were answers. The images in his paintings are zany, raunchy, and wild: a girl in a lawn chair holding monkeys by their scalps; a woman absent-mindedly marking another woman’s buttocks with daubs of paint; cats sitting beside slices of white bread partially spread with peanut butter. I wanted him to explain what it all meant.

We met in his Long Island City studio before the opening of his current exhibition at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery. At one point, I asked him about a word he had used, and he explained it was a “neologism.” It occurred to me that Humphrey relishes that: the need to create new language to describe what is nevertheless indescribable. He has been a prolific writer on art for decades, and in his own writing, he creates turns of phrase with words that are not usually combined, like “fizzy nimbus” and “tangled geodesics.”

David Humphrey in his studio, Long Island City, New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

His paintings and sculpture are similar: improbable juxtapositions of elements that touch. The couplings and connections are aspirational but unresolved. Highly specific characters — men and women, horses and pets — conspire with abstract, painterly passages. Humphrey’s work revels in these ambiguities, in the knowledge that there is always something impenetrable.

Humphrey was born in 1955 in Germany and lives in New York. An exhibition of his recent work is currently on view at Fredericks & Freiser. He has had solo exhibitions at the McKee Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York; Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami; and the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati. His work is in public collections including the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. He is currently teaching in the MFA programs of Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. An anthology of his art writing, titled Blind Handshake, was published in 2010.

*   *   *

Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Pittsburgh. What was your early exposure to art? Did you draw or make art as a child?

David Humphrey: My father worked in advertising. He wasn’t quite a Mad Man, but he was somewhere in that orbit, around mid-century. He was also a Sunday sculptor – a stone carver. He loved Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Arp and Brancusi, and he made smooth, simplified shapes. The one thing that my dad said — he didn’t have an overly elaborated aesthetic theory — was that a sculpture needs to make sense from all sides. That is one of those ancient truisms that I still abide by.

I love the idea that the sculpture reveals itself in time as you move around it; that each movement you make reveals something else in the form, and that that becomes a narrative. Paintings are the same way, but there is the illusion that they reveal themselves at a glance. The image is an instantaneous thing, which then, as you move in relationship to it, or pay attention to different parts, unfolds.

My father had materials in the basement, so I made some sculptures as well. I took chicken wire and made shapes, dipped burlap into plaster, and covered the shapes. My fantasy is that they were like Franz West; they were modern art blobs.

Puppies

David Humphrey, “Puppies” (2014), paper pulp, hydrocal, plush 24 x 36 x 28 inches

I always imagined I would be an artist but I didn’t do much about it until I went to Maryland Institute College of Art. My greatest enthusiasm as a preteen and teenager was popular music, more than art. It seemed like everything that mattered was coming from music.

Song structure is a vernacular form, which delivers lyrics and tends to be idiomatic, generic. You have a three and a half minute song, a rhythm section, the verse, the chorus. Somehow the form is still turning out fresh material that speaks to people’s deepest longings and anxieties. People make sense of it intuitively without thinking about the harmonic structure. In some ways, the equivalent is making a portrait, or a figure in a landscape. It is a picture of a person with a face sitting somewhere. And it may have some relationship to how the viewer is feeling.

JS: You had a very complicated series of educational influences. After the Maryland Institute you studied at the New York Studio School. And after that, you got a Master’s from New York University, where you studied film theory.

DH: The New York Studio School interested me because I was fascinated by Philip Guston and the New York School. Guston was on the school’s masthead, so I thought I could study with him. He never showed up. But it threw me into New York and into the Hans Hofmann tradition. I was carrying a lot of content baggage in my work at that time. I was also in love with Beckmann and Picasso.

At that time at the Studio School, the whole point was to move towards abstraction, and it planted an abstraction superego into me. I was also interested in plein-air painting. I thought plein-air painting was about the relationship between the body and the sensorium. There is a moment when you turn away from the tree and you look at your palette to apply it to the canvas and you’re painting from memory. This opens the door to a more porous, open-ended, associative relationship to the subject. That was my argument to myself at the time: you aren’t really painting from life; you are painting from memory.

On The Couch

David Humphrey, “On the Couch” (2014), acrylic on canvas 72 x 60 inches

I studied with Nicholas Carone and he had a metaphysical, Cubist-Surrealist ethos. Part of his unusual pedagogy was that he would become more evasive as you got closer to understanding him, introducing yet another fuzzy and peculiar layer. You would think that drawing a lot of orthogonal lines while standing in front of the nude was an analytic process. Then it emerged that it wasn’t really analytic, it was metaphysical. What did he mean by that? I never figured it out. It created a set of anxieties and productive appetites. He had enough charisma to pull it off. He had lived through Cubism and Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, so he was connected to traditions that were all in books for me, as a young artist.

This was during the early days of Post Modernism but the Studio School would have nothing to do with that. When I went to New York University, critical theory was being translated and showing up in cinema studies. Identity politics and feminism became part of the language of contemporary art. Painting was being interrogated for its masculinist commodity status. For better or worse, it introduced a self-consciousness that put pressure on artists to account for themselves. Some artists became more pinched, and for others, it raised the stakes.

I felt that it was liberating. Painting could reflect what it was to be a person in contemporary life. You are going to the grocery store, buying things, thinking about your girlfriend, dreaming about other things. All of those layered contents could be addressed or reflected directly in the painting: the idea that the painting has the ability to reflect consciousness in a certain way — maybe in the way poetry can — in this peculiar language of colors arranged in a certain order.

JS: What you speak about is a background that reflects a duality of abstraction and representation; it seems that this duality is constantly expressed in your work.

DH: I hope that there are a variety of languages – different pictorial languages that work with each other dynamically. They might strain the coherence of the thing, but they also become part of a theatrical narrative. I often set up situations in which I am performing in a collaborative relationship to some split-off part of myself. It might be an automatist gesture or photo-projection, and then I zoom out and try to find a way to reenter it.

I have been doing life drawing with a group of artists at Will Cotton’s studio. I start with a translucent sheet on which I’ve done an abstract painting. Then I have to find a way to connect the figure to the abstraction. I thought the figure drawing sessions were a side activity – like going to the gym: improving your chops. But the modes I set up for myself turned into a model for constructing a painting: hybridizing semi- arbitrary abstract elements with normative representational features.

JS: Your paintings are full of wild images. I wonder how you conceive of them and how they develop. Can you talk about this process?

 

DH: Almost every painting has a complicated itinerary that is unique from the others. Sometimes a painting will be generated from a little sketch that I’ve developed in a bright responsible way with studies. Other times, the paintings take a lot of turns.

I planned to do a painting of a factory set-up and had a source image, but was looking to re-cast the characters. I trolled the Internet to find alternative workers. I found this image of a hipster guy with a hat and facial hair. He worked his way into the painting. But I kept thinking I didn’t really do him justice, so he became a hybrid: the face and his body are from images of two different people.

Tara

David Humphrey, “Tara” (2014), acrylic on canvas, 54 x 44.5 inches

 

At some point, I decided that what was missing in the studio was a painting with a single protagonist: an old-fashioned portrait. So the character from the factory became the painting “On the Couch” (2014), and then I felt like he needed a friend. I painted “Tara” (2014). She was the other worker. In some weird way, they walked out of one painting to have their own role in another. Maybe that was the idea of the factory painting: that a person could have a peculiar autonomy within a constrained role.

As I was working on “On the Couch”, there was a series of relays and developments. I traced the image from the Internet. Then I superimposed my tracing on other bodies. I did drawings of those tracings. I worked in Photoshop and stretched one face horizontally onto this other guy and printed that out. But I try to wipe my tracks. I don’t want the painting to be burdened by all this past.

At the same time, I like the patched-together quality. That is what it’s like to be a person in the world. We evolve out of dependencies and contexts. We are, in some ways, patch jobs: fragments that constitute a whole with some effort. There is an echo of that theme in the painting language, the means. I am always trying to pulverize the image. I like the idea that the painting is at risk of falling apart.

“Posing” (2014) shows two women with their arms around each other, posing for the photographer who was originally represented on the right. The photographer got eliminated and turned into floating atomized squares. In a way, the technology becomes the spectator, and might have even been set up by the women to take the picture. Digital representation is related to the ideas inherent in Post Impressionism and Divisionism: the image can be made of little units.

Posing

David Humphrey, “Posing” (2014), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

JS: Is this related to the art historical idea that if the image is unfinished or made up of component parts, it is the viewer who puts it together?

DH: I like the conceit of a dialogue between the spectator and the works that is more than just passive. In the 1980s, I made paintings that were awkward or that didn’t hang together. I was thinking that ideally spectators would have a vicarious relationship to it. They would have a sense of what it would be like to make the painting.

JS: Your paintings often involve doubles, pairs, and you even explore interspecies relationships. What do these couples signify for you?

DH: The dyad, or the pair, echoes the relationship between the spectator and the work, which is a proto-dyad. We are born into interdependency, thrown into the world as not quite singular. Our origins are blurred with others and we obtain singularity with great labor, and only partially.

Campfire (3)

David Humphrey, “Campfire” (2014), paper pulp, hydrocal, wood 46 x 48 x 22 inches

Interspecies relationships are a way to allegorize interpersonal relationships. Pets represent a desire to connect. Pets have always haunted the imagery in my paintings. In 2001, I was in a new relationship and happy about it, and my girlfriend was really into cats. I made a painting of two cats. I was also collecting cute ceramic figurines of animals. I thought I would crawl inside of a fantasy of what other people like, and then try to find my own tangled desires through that.

It was an early acrylic painting, and it felt really thrilling and dumb to me. I had this idea that it was a “normotic” painting; it was pathologically normal. Its specialness was accidental. It tried to be normal but it failed, and its failure was something special. A normotic painting is made with what I imagine is the intention of an amateur working from a family snapshot, that “I love my kid, and I am going to make a painting of my kid,” but something else creeps in, unbidden, that makes it very interesting and moving.

JS: This makes me wonder about your feelings and connection to Pop Art. You have been connected to Surrealism, but I’m not sure about Pop Art.

DH: When I first showed my work, I was labeled a Neo-Surrealist. Branding things as Neo was the thing to do in the early eighties. It was a micro-beat after Neo-Expressionism, and just before Neo-Conceptualism. But the whole time, I had an itch about Pop Art. I had a strong appetite to fold features of popular culture, mass culture, commodity culture into my imagery, but without the detachment and coolness of Pop Art. I was interested in the possibility that there would be a way to articulate subjectivities in the language of the commodity.

An image creates a genealogy that speaks to other paintings and the history of other images, and tries to make a story out of that. I’d like to think that after thirty years of painting, those kinds of stories are unconscious. It is part of being a painter — it is partly a burden and partly an enrichment — that there is such a huge tradition of image-making.

Puppies, Campfire

Installation view of “David Humphrey: Work and Play” (2014) at Fredericks & Freiser, New York

The challenge is that the overwhelming tide of images on the Internet is shattering and complicating that other, pedigreed image repertoire. The Internet can count a random selfie as equivalent to a Rembrandt self-portrait. It equalizes images. We can’t really stop it. I am living it and throwing my own paintings back into it by posting them on Facebook and Instagram. I posted a picture the other day, got a bunch of likes and that pleased me. But I’d like to think we can slow down the torrent of images and navigate it, by means of painting. To pause, select out what matters. I would like that to be a vital part of the paintings.

Matisse’s Garden of Problems: The Cut-Outs at MoMA

Henri Matisse, “The Swimming Pool (La Piscine)” (late summer 1952), maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper. Overall 73 x 647 inches. Installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 136 inches high. Frieze installed at a height of 65 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Bernard F. Gimbel Fund, 1975 © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The much-heralded exhibition of Matisse cut-outs currently at the Museum of Modern Art was previously at the Tate Modern, with a few less items than here, but it broke all attendance records and was open all night in its final days.

At MoMA, in the first rooms of the exhibition, where smaller works dominate, there is an attempt to arrange some of the compositions as they were situated by Matisse’s assistants, under his direction, in his apartments. This is followed by the extraordinary blue nudes, which this exhibition (here as well as at the Tate) collects together for the first time. One then proceeds to the refurbished “The Swimming Pool” (1952) that once wrapped around three walls and over the doorway of one of the artists’ rooms in the Hôtel Régina in Nice.

In this section, there are photographed illustrations of how the burlap backing that also functioned as a border was restored to its original color. As one enters the “Swimming Pool” room, reconstructed to the exact proportions of the apartment, one expects a bit of a color jolt from the cobalt of the swimmers against the ochre of the burlap, but the contrast seems a little off. The cut-paper figurative elements look faded mostly on the far right end as you enter the room (as laid out in the catalogue double-fold-out it’s on the far left).

The final rooms hold the largest works, transferred, after Matisse’s death in some cases, from the hotel walls to canvas. Here, glass panel protectors, not a problem earlier, are intrusive, distancing the viewer from the larger works. The final study, “Large Decoration with Masks,” from 1953, is particularly distorted by the large gap between it and the viewer as well as the impossible-to-ignore seams in the glass panels. This was unexpectedly dismaying because I remember first seeing it installed in its permanent home at the National Gallery a number of years ago and it took my breath away.

In Washington, as I remember it, the work was at the top of a stairway, hung high and open. I was able to have a visual and physical relationship with the slight changes of surface taking place between the pieces of cut paper, paper background and canvas mounting. In any case, it breathed.

 

The variations in color, shape and pattern shifted slowly, kinetically, as I took in the rock-solid construction of this monumental, ephemeral… thing. It is listed as a study for a ceramic wall but registers as a fully achieved mural-sized picture, realized at around the same time that mural-sized paintings were beginning to appear in Jackson Pollock’s studio in the U.S.

Henri Matisse, "Large Decoration with Masks (Grande Décoration aux Masques)" (1953), preliminary maquette for ceramic. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and ink on white paper, mounted on canvas. 139 ¼ x 392 ¼ inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1973.17.1. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Henri Matisse, “Large Decoration with Masks (Grande Décoration aux Masques)” (1953), preliminary maquette for ceramic. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and ink on white paper, mounted on canvas. 139 ¼ x 392 ¼ inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1973.17.1. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

All the work is strange. Joy, as Peter Schjeldahl observed, was Matisse’s sole idiom. This remarkable simulation of it was produced by a driven, enormously intellectual sensibility that has willfully surrendered to the sensual. According to Marcelin Pleynet, Matisse “took as his point of departure the irrationality that he declared was constitutive of painting.”

No artist was more constantly aware that a painting is a surface of reflected light. Matisse was the master of tactile color as it intersects with airy light. As in his paintings, color is here transmitted via the brushy gouache surfaces of the paper cut-outs (assistants painted the paper in the later works) permitting light to come through.

Clement Greenberg characterized Matisse’s paint surfaces as “indifferent,” a blandness that undergirded his radical experiments with pictorial color, pattern, and representation. Matisse’s touch carried color carefully, varying saturation, speed and character. He stated that brush marks in painting could be considered a decorative element. Even when bare canvas was re-exposed through rubbings out, the light and texture of the support were of use to him. One hardly ever detects a demonstrative flourish. Matisse’s emotion was transmitted through his interpretation of what he was painting.

So there seems to be a logic to Matisse’s advancement to cut-paper. From his codification of the impersonal brushstroke mark to the introduction of a mediating tool like the scissors, his work comprises a further obliteration of the boundaries of color and drawing. Matisse’s use of scissors anticipates Pollock, Hans Hartung, Simon Hantaï, Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, among others, in the use of an intermediary process (such as pouring paint or folding the canvas) in order to distance the artist’s hand and brush from the picture.

Greenberg also observed of Matisse, “Great artists are just as unaware of their strengths and weaknesses as the rest of us.” Interestingly, one of Matisse’s first forays into establishing the cut-outs as a viable form was a disappointment to him. Where previously he had used painted paper to work out his Barnes mural commission (1932-33) and a stage curtain design for the Ballet Russe production of Rouge et Noir (1939), and utilized it in designs for several book covers, his next project in colored cut paper, Jazz (1947), a book of stencil-printed pochoir plates, he deemed a failure.

The originating cutouts showed the working process: the pinholes; changes in color intensity due to uneven application of gouache onto sheets of paper. In the published book, all the slight alterations in the ground, which brought a “sensitivity” to the fore, were absent. The problem of how to interpret these colored paper compositions as works in themselves put Matisse in a position similar to where James Bishop found himself some years later. Bishop said he found that his works on paper were more complex than his paintings.

But Matisse continued, and not, I suspect, because his invalid state did not allow him to paint, but because the odd patches of perforated, brushed and cut papers were in fact the stuff of painting by other means. The works are filled with Mediterranean air and light, reflecting the place where he discovered his forms. In an interview published in 1943, he said to Louis Aragon, “An artist’s importance is measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into plastic language.”

The inventiveness and innovation on display at MoMA is astounding. Technically, it is also somewhat surprising that each cut-out is unique. Matisse really was painting with scissors. The longer one looks, the painterliness and Impressionist light arrives. The cuts do not follow the form; they surround mass and locate it in atmosphere. In the blue nudes there is fluidity between background and figure, buttressed by shards of inexplicable space. Here Matisse was continuing to merge traditional European oil painting with elements from other cultures, Islam being particularly in evidence.

Henri Matisse, "Blue Nude II (Nu bleu II)" (spring 1952). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, mounted on canvas. 45 ¾ x 35 inches. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Purchase, 1984. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Henri Matisse, “Blue Nude II (Nu bleu II)” (spring 1952). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, mounted on canvas. 45 ¾ x 35 inches. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Purchase, 1984. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Incidentally, from this perspective, moments in this show simply look racist. Four pages of the accompanying catalog are devoted to studio shots of a cut-out figure of Josephine Baker semi-abstracted into an oversized “Amazonian,” as the catalog refers to it. These images as well as such compositions as the carefree, grass-skirted “Creole Dancer” (1950) make one cringe.

And of course his Orientalism is everywhere, originating in his enormous debt to Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers” (1834). Matisse’s entire career was spent unpacking this painting. The lassitude, the availability of the women of the seraglio, the African servant, the patterned draperies and garments, the textures of flesh against fabric, shining metal and Mediterranean light appear throughout his career, finally synthesizing into a concept of the picture as a piece of decorative cloth. When that decorative cloth seems about ready to drift off its stretchers, the cut-outs take over.

As is always the case with Matisse, serious study yields ample rewards. But for all of Matisse’s subsequent influence, one wonders at the same time what exactly is the legacy of these late cut-outs.

The scuffing on the surface of some of the cut papers, as in “Blue Nude II” from 1952, for example, makes the piece look as contemporary as a Wade Guyton. The circulation of the book Jazz informed later work by the New York School of graphic designers such as Paul Rand and Ivan Chermayoff, as well as the film titles of Saul Bass. It’s a safe bet that Barnett Newman looked closely at these collages when they were first shown at Pierre Matisse gallery in 1949. The clean edges and clear jumps from one color field to the next in these works were found nowhere else at this time.

The Côte d’Azur-based Supports/Surfaces group of artists benefitted most directly from the legacy of the late works. Active largely in the south of France, they saw them earlier than Paris-based painters. Also, Matisse’s final act — applying the efficacies of fifty years of painting at the highest level to a social project like the Vence Chapel(1951) — set an important precedent for the political and social engagement of the young group. In addition, Matisse’s work with cloth, tapestry, vestments all pointed toward the beginnings of the deconstruction of the painting object. Jean Fournier, the most artistically influential postwar French gallerist, who handled some members of this group, is said to have remarked after seeing some of Matisse’s cut paper shapes pinned to a cloth background that they were an awakening to his understanding of where painting could venture.

Closer to home, the two artists most credited as being influenced by Matisse’s late work are Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Tuttle. It seems somewhat ironic that this most painterly of painters would be interpreted by artists who are both essentially polychrome sculptors.

Tuttle’s work, for all of its beauty, is made up of a collection of details, and no composition by him has ever approached the generality of emphasis that unifies the pictorial-ness of each of Matisse’s later cutouts. But both of these artists are post-utopians, problematizing the unity of these pretty patches of cut color. Tuttle realized an art of sequences, fragments, openness and contradiction, utilizing the lessons of Matisse when it suited him, almost like an apprentice chef with his own ideas.

With Kelly, whom this writer has long admired, this show seems to have forced a referendum on the porousness of the surface that so distressed Matisse upon discovering that it had gone missing in the plates of Jazz. In contrast, Kelly’s paintings, reliefs and freestanding sculptures take Matisse’s disjunctive color cuts into a realm of solids. As Harold Bloom observed, the artist must misread the great work that preceded him in order to move on. Bloom called this a “correction.”

Kelly, as demonstrated by recent exhibitions of his collage-studies, is aware of the immediacy and expressiveness of this methodology, but chooses to recast them in grander mediums. One of the many interesting things about Matisse was how very little of his production involved changes in scale, projects, and translations from one medium to another, the chapel being the biggest exception. His general avoidance of this activity points to his attention to how paintings and drawings speak to the sense of touch through the eye.

In both Tuttle and Kelly this frontality, this direct engagement with the individual beholder that remained of such importance to Matisse has been discarded. Tuttle’s work is performative: every element is present in a non-relational way. Composition is not his concern, only presentness. Kelly on the other hand, while seeming to adhere so closely to the cut-outs, returned them to painting with mixed results. While there seems to be a complete experience when looking at a Tuttle, with Kelly there appears to be something lacking, especially as the work moves closer to the present. The reliefs, perhaps unique to Kelly as a genre, seem to transmit an idea about the pictorial without embodying it. They appear derived from a cut paper fragment, perhaps derived from an organic form.

Kelly chose to make these works on subtly shaped canvases or steel with uninflected opaque color. If Chermayoff and Co. translated the simplified forms of Jazz and other works into a corporate typography, Kelly appears to be making emblems that convey a nostalgia for the Matisse of the cut-outs. Once again, thinking of Kelly, one realizes that there is very little of Matisse that relies on sheer elegance, but with Kelly it’s a mainstay.

It took Blinky Palermo to ‘correct’ Kelly’s Matisse-collage color bands into his Stoffbilder (Cloth Pictures), which are so influential to current painting. If you’re looking for the great, great grandfather of the so-called provisional painting movement, with its interest in materiality, spareness and unity, his works are hanging on the walls of the Modern right now.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 8, 2015.

“Tormented by Several Devils”: Théodore Rousseau’s Wild Styles

Théodore Rousseau, "Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset" (ca. 1846), oil over charcoal with white heightening on paper, mounted to canvas, 9 5/8 x 13 1/4 inches. Private collection (all images courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)

Théodore Rousseau, “Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset” (ca. 1846), oil over charcoal with white heightening on paper, mounted to canvas, 9 5/8 x 13 1/4 inches. Private collection (all images courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)

Consider “Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset,” a work in oil and charcoal on brown paper by Théodore Rousseau, the 19th-century French painter now under scrutiny at the Morgan Library & Museum. Although it was done between 1845 and 1850, it feels like something Anselm Kiefer might come up with for a 12-foot-wide canvas: a controlled chaos of bare, twisting tree limbs in slashes of paint as dark and smoldering as charred bitumen.

Rousseau’s study is just an inch or two larger than a piece of typing paper, but it captures the bleak, commanding presence of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where it was made. Its scraggly oaks emerge from the sepia-colored ground amid smears and stipples of charcoal, filling the sheet’s wide horizontal midsection with black, oily strokes. Blue-gray flecks of sky breaking through sulfuric clouds and isolated patches of pearlescent sunlight sink the paper’s burnished, autumnal glow into a dank, biting chill.

The image is blunt and raw, especially when compared with the limpid, fluidly brushed oil paintings that make up the opening section of the Morgan’s neatly compact exhibition, The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon. Like many works in the show — most of them exquisite and all of them on paper — Rousseau, in all probability, believed that this study would be seen by his eyes only. An absence of viewers’ expectations might account for the restiveness in his materials and imagery, which change like the weather from one sheet to the next. Working onsite and surrounded by his subject, the notion of a unified style would take a back seat to his spontaneous response to the environment — or so you would think.

In his review of the Paris Salon of 1846, Charles Baudelaire counted Rousseau among the exhibition’s “most celebrated absentees,” deploring the “setbacks and underhand plotting” that kept him out of the running, and his consequent status as “a man but little known to the multitude.”

Baudelaire writes that Rousseau’s talent “is as difficult to interpret […] in words as it is to interpret that of Delacroix,” but he does a splendid job nonetheless:

His painting breathes a great sigh of melancholy. He loves nature in her bluish moments—twilight effects—strange and moisture-laden sunsets—massive, breeze-haunted shades—great plays of light and shadow.

In a piece on the Salon of 1859 (which did include Rousseau’s work), Baudelaire goes a little deeper. Comparing him to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, whose paintings were also in the salon, Baudelaire notes that Rousseau “is perpetually restless and throbbing with life—if Rousseau seems like a man who is tormented by several devils and does not know which one to heed, M. Corot, who is his absolute antithesis, has the devil too seldom within him.”

As evidenced by the fine selection on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rousseau’s finished paintings, albeit to a lesser degree than his works on paper, shift abruptly from brooding romanticism (most notably in the canvas, dated ca. 1846–67, that’s based on “The Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset”) to crystalline, almost storybook naturalism. They are unified solely by their “great plays of light and shadow.” For Rousseau, it seems, style is emotion set free.

The Barbizon School, cited in the exhibition’s title, was a mini-flowering of French painting that bridged Romanticism and Realism. It was named after a town near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where artists gathered during their seasonal painting trips into the woods (Rousseau, a fierce advocate of painting out of doors in all kinds of weather, actually moved to Barbizon in1848 and lived there until his early death in 1867, at the age of 55).

The Barbizon painters, with their practice of direct observation and emphasis on light and atmosphere, were among the first mid-19th-century dissidents to undermine the ”despotic” classical ideal of beauty, in Baudelaire’s famous term, which was imposed on officially recognized art by the French Academy.

Rousseau Rocky Landscape Fontainebleau

Théodore Rousseau, “Rocky Landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau” (ca. 1835-40 [?]), oil on paper, mounted on board, 12 1/2 x 17 inches. Private collection.

Rousseau’s jarringly expressionistic “Study for The Forest in Winter at Sunset” and ”Rocky Landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau,” an oil-on-paper possibly done between 1835 and 1840 — two of the most memorable works in The Untamed Landscape — represent one end of his emotional range, while paintings like the serene ”A Village in the Valley” (ca. late 1820s) are on the other.

In between we find the Turner-esque ”Landscape with Cows and a Fisherman” (no date), in which the clouds, riverbanks, trees and stream all seem to quaver on the point of dissolution, and ”Landscape at Lavigerie, Santoire Valley, Auvergne” (1830), whose slab-like mountainsides could have been painted by Cézanne.

And then there’s the spookily quasi-Symbolist ”Sunset in the the Forest of Fontainebleau” (ca. 1848-50), done in oil and graphite: its composition, funnelling from the gloom of the forest to the half-circle of the sun, glimpsed from a clearing as it dips below the horizon, is entirely drained of color, yet every brushstoke is suffused with the unnatural light of a day-for-night movie shot, a landscape strangely glimmering with the pallor of death.

Rousseau’s stylistic zigs and zags at times venture into less satisfying territory. Some of his pictures, like those of devout peasants or sailboats moored at Granville and Normandy, can be sentimental, fussy, and a bit of a bore. The most roughly made work in the show, “Waterfall in Thiers” (1830), with its hurriedly knifed-in, ill-placed strokes of oil paint, goes markedly slack as your eye moves from the cascading white water to the indifferently brushed-in townscape above. But it also feels seven or eight decades ahead of its time.

It’s intriguing that the most experimental and riveting works in the show were done in the Forest of Fontainebleau, the place Rousseau called home. In ”Rocky Landscape, Forest of Fontainebleau,” mentioned above — another picture that called Kiefer to mind — the image of a blasted-looking field features neither a conventional focal point nor an interplay between major and minor shapes, and in ”Landscape Study, Fontainebleau” (ca. 1855-65), the wildness of the thickets counterpoised by snatches of sky and shimmering swamp water is pushed up a notch by a bizarre, pastel-blue wash isolating a single bush, a flight of invention that seems to come out of nowhere. In the midst of the forest, Rousseau lived what he painted and painted what he lived — a consonance, perhaps, that enabled him to trust the volatility of his vision.

The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 18, 2015.

Matt Borruso: Wax House of Wax at Steven Wolf Fine Arts

Today from our partners at Art Practical, we bring you a review of Matt Borruso’s recent solo show Wax House of Wax, which closes today at Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco. Author Danica Willard Sachs notes, “Like a Surrealist, Borruso manipulates the banal, challenging viewers to see the horror underlying the everyday.” This review was originally published on October 23, 2014.

Matt Borruso. Forming, 2012–14; installation view, Wax House of Wax, 2014; plastic, Plexiglas, glass, mirrors, cut paper, ceramic, unfired clay, silicone, wax, talc, lenticular photographs, holograms, wood, tape, rubber bands, linen, concrete, steel, elastic, books, magazines, airbrush paint, inkjet prints, transparencies, posters, wallpaper; 120 x 42 x 61 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.

Matt Borruso. Forming, 2012–14; installation view, Wax House of Wax, 2014; plastic, Plexiglas, glass, mirrors, cut paper, ceramic, unfired clay, silicone, wax, talc, lenticular photographs, holograms, wood, tape, rubber bands, linen, concrete, steel, elastic, books, magazines, airbrush paint, inkjet prints, transparencies, posters, wallpaper; 120 x 42 x 61 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.

In Wax House of Wax, on view at Steven Wolf Fine Arts until October 25, Matt Borruso invites viewers into his carefully constructed house of horrors. Borruso transforms everyday objects into sinister forms in his sculptures and collages. He has equated his painting practice with the making of Frankenstein’s monster, cobbling together disparate parts to create an ambiguous portrait, and he extends this approach to his new body of work, making banal objects uncanny.

Two surreal collages greet viewers upon entry to the exhibition. On the left, Macramé Pot Hangers (2012) is composed of four copies of the same magazine page overlaid with a duplicate image of a brick-and-tile fireplace and mantel. As a whole, the arrangement of the pages in the collage works kaleidoscopically, moving the viewer’s focus toward the center of the frame. A mess of intersecting and repeating geometric patterns makes it hard to distinguish the borders between the pages. Hanging to the right is Borruso’s Dark Energy (2014), which depicts a B-horror-movie character, Maniac Cop, wallpapered over magazine clippings showing opulent interior spaces with transparent furniture and mirrors. Seen individually the two collages do not immediately have any relationship to each other. Borruso’s clever pairing, however, lays the foundation for the rest of the show. By creating equivalence between the two works through their placement next to each other, Borruso suggests a kind of terror underlying the simplicity of a macramé plant holder.

Read the full article here.

Where Folk and Fine Art Meet

Joseph Cornell, Untitled, Gift of Mrs. John A. Benton. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled, Gift of Mrs. John A. Benton. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. (All images courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art)

What did John Frederick Kensett, a 19th-century artist part of the Hudson River School, have in common with Thomas Matteson, a blanket chest-maker from Vermont?

According to the brochure for an intriguing new show about material culture at Williams College of Art, “[Kensett] portrayed American wilderness as both symbol and resource, depicting the taming of forested land as an indicator of manifest destiny. [Matteson’s] blanket chests, made from local timber, are products of this process … ”

The idea that “fine” and “folk” art result from the same culture and so carry similar impulses drives Material Friction: Americana and American Art, an exhibition that includes 80 works from the private collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding — most which have never been exhibited before. They include decorative and utilitarian objects like 18th-century needlework samplers and scrimshaw corset busks (whalebone corset stiffeners that seamen bestowed on their brides), as well as paintings by academically trained and untrained artists.

Among the artists featured in the show, the worlds of folk and fine art converge most directly in the work of Joseph Cornell. “There is a craft element about his boxes, roughly made with found objects,” curator Kevin M. Murphy told Hyperallergic via email. “Like many of the folk portraitists, Cornell was at once of the art world of his time and apart from it … [his works] seem more remote than work by his contemporaries somehow, even though he is using everyday objects and images from popular culture.” Murphy explained that the same holds true for one mid-19th century stenciled drawing of two puppies by an anonymous artist; it’s based on a well-known color lithograph from which the artist traced the dogs.

The question of whether such works should be displayed in museums together or separately underpins the show and its curation. To explore the answer, Murphy divided the works into three galleries. In the first, he exhibited a collection of folk objects in chronological order, grouping them together according to their utilitarian functions. In the next two, he arranged folk works and objects alongside art by traditionally schooled artists. A group of art history students at the college are currently studying the subject, and the exhibition will be reinstalled in early November to reflect their own research.

“The incredible range and quality of the Fielding’s collection make possible multiple curatorial strategies,” Murphy explained in the press release. “We wanted to explore the sympathies and antiphonies that occur if we displayed works across time and media.”

Take a look at some images from the show.

John Frederick Kensett, "Lake George," 1853, oil on canvas. (Gift of Mrs. John W. Field in memory of her husband)

“‘Lake George’ (1853) by John Frederick Kensett and the surreal watercolor and stencil of the two puppies (below) show two artists glorifying the American landscape.” curator Kevin M. Murphy said. “For Kensett, his concern is a idealized, tamed wilderness.”

The painting by Kensett and the surreal watercolor and stencil of the two puppies show two artists glorifying the American landscape. For Kensett, his concern is a idealized, tamed wilderness. For the unknown artist of the puppy painting, the combination of the giant, but carefully fenced in, dogs, large spray of flowers, and mill building in the background continues the idea of mastery over nature — and with the mill, harnessing it for economic purposes," Murphy said. (From the collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, photo by Arthur Evans)

“For the unknown artist of the puppy painting, the combination of the giant, but carefully fenced in, dogs, large spray of flowers, and mill building in the background continues the idea of mastery over nature — and with the mill, harnessing it for economic purposes,” Murphy explained. (Photo by Arthur Evans)

Samuel Miller, Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn, ca. 1840, oil on canvas. The collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding.

“The detail, color and pattern in ‘Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn’ (ca. 1840) by Samuel Miller is full of detail, color and pattern, reflecting the equally rich material culture of rural America during the 19th century, which extended to furniture and textiles, as well as paintings themselves,” Murphy said. “[Osborn] died shortly after Miller painted her, so what was a portrait of a carefree girl on the cusp of adolescence became a memorial.”

Sheldon Peck, Little Girl in a Windsor Arm Chair, ca. 1827–32, oil on panel. The Collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding.

In Sheldon Peck’s “Little Girl in a Windsor Arm Chair,” painted between 1827 and 1832, the “tripartite organic design on the girl’s hem is matched by a similar pattern on the fancy Windsor chair,” Murphy said.

Installation view (Photo by Arthur Evans)

Installation view of “Material Friction” at Williams College Museum of Art  (Photo by Arthur Evans)

Installation view (Photo by Arthur Evans)

Installation view of “Material Culture” at Williams College Museum of Art (Photo by Arthur Evans)

Material Friction: Americana and American Art, an exhibition that includes 80 works from the private collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, continues at the http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Material-Friction-HOME.jpg (15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Ste 2, Williamstown, Massachusetts) until November 2.

Frick Garden and Watts Towers Listed Among Most Endangered US Art Landscapes

70th Street Garden New York, NY Photograph © Navid Baraty, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

70th Street Garden at the Frick Collection, New York (photo by Navid Baraty, 2014) (all images courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation)

The Frick Collection’s Russell Page–designed garden, planned for destruction as part of the Manhattan museum’s expansion project, is one of 11 land-based art pieces announced as under threat this week by the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). The organization’s annual compendium, Landslide 2014: Art and the Landscape, lists the Frick’s 70th Street Garden along with other works in the United States that TCLF says are at risk of disappearing, because of development, poor maintenance, or natural decay.

The Works of Athena Tacha, Green Acres Trenton, NJ Photograph by Athena Tacha, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Athena Tacha’s “Green Acres” in Trenton, NJ, another one of the land-based artworks under threat (photo by Athena Tacha)

Charles A. Birnbaum, founder and president of TCLF, wrote an article on the Page garden for the Huffington Post earlier this year. In it he says:

Frick officials have the opportunity to acknowledge the importance of this garden and honor the artist who created it, landscape architect Russell Page. They should embrace it as a valued and unique part of its collection, and find a solution that addresses their programmatic needs and protects this important work of art.

Page’s work, like many of the others on the Landslide list, is easily overlooked, and illustrates the problem faced by much land-based art: people eventually want to fill the land with other things. TCLF’s 11 endangered sites for this year were selected from over a hundred submissions, and include more contemporary work that was never intended to be permanent. Leo Villareal’s 25,000 LED “Bay Lights,” draped on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, were only meant to be illuminate through March 2015; a campaign has been formed to make that through 2026. The list also features large-scale art projects like Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project in Detroit, which has experienced repeated arson in recent months, and Harvey Fite’s Opus 40 in Saugerties, New York, a huge environmental sculpture made of bluestone that was heavily damaged and destabilized in Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.

Other sites are examples of the difficulty of just conserving massive art projects when budgets and staff are limited, like the Watts Towers in Los Angeles or the White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater in Dallas; the latter, a wildlife viewing area by artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, has had its funding cut, leaving its poles rusting and solar-powered elements dark. Then there’s the Wells Petroglyph Preserve in New Mexico, where, due to recent drought and erosion, the ancient art that’s been viewable on its stones for so long is in danger of disappearing.

You can read narratives about each of the selections on the TCLF siteLandslide also includes new photography that shows the current state of each place, selections of which are presented below.

The Bay Lights San Francisco, CA Photograph © James Ewing, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Leo Villareal, “The Bay Lights,” San Francisco, CA (photo by James Ewing, 2014)

Greenwood Pond: Double Site Des Moines, IA Photograph © Judith Eastburn, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Mary Miss, “Greenwood Pond: Double Site,” Des Moines, IA (photo by Judith Eastburn, 2014)

The Heidelberg Project Detroit, MI Photograph © Dave Jordano, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI (photo by Dave Jordano, 2014)

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture Joshua Tree, CA Photograph © Liz Kuball, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, Joshua Tree, CA (photo by Liz Kuball, 2014)

Opus 40 Saugerties, NY Photograph © Thomas H. Hahn, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Harvey Fite, “Opus 40,” Saugerties, NY (photo by Thomas H. Hahn, 2014)

Untitled (Johnson Pit No. 30) SeaTac, WA Photograph © Allen Russ, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Robert Morris, “Untitled (Johnson Pit No. 30),” SeaTac, WA (photo by Allen Russ, 2014)

Watts Towers Los Angeles, CA Photograph © John Lewis, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Watts Towers, built by Simon Rodia, Los Angeles, CA (photo by John Lewis, 2014)

Wells Petroglyph Preserve Mesa Prieta, NM Photograph © Richard Fenker, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Wells Petroglyph Preserve, Mesa Prieta, NM (photo by Richard Fenker, 2014)

White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater Dallas, TX Photograph © Allison V. Smith, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater, Dallas, TX (photo by Allison V. Smith, 2014)

From Goya to Ab-Ex in a Series of Brushstrokes

Installation view, 'Dana Saulnier: Stacks and Traps' at First Street Gallery (image courtesy First Street Gallery)

Installation view, ‘Dana Saulnier: Stacks and Traps’ at First Street Gallery (image courtesy First Street Gallery)

Dana Saulnier’s ostensibly expressionist canvases at First Street Gallery carry a bravado reminiscent at first glance of mid-century abstraction. Yet they flaunt an obvious distance from their Action painting precursors by the employment of allusive figural references. Even among the growing number of painters inspired by a mingling of spatial illusion and surface event, Saulnier reveals an acute sense of impunity in his work. More than any paintings of recent memory, Saulnier’s merge painted illusion and painterly gesture into a compelling vision that embraces 19th-century articulation without definitively describing anything.

Light, mass, and atmosphere, all fabricated through the artist’s considerable skill at the easel, are melded into scenes that prove both mysterious and physically credible, while refusing to specify their more dynamic elements as human, flora, or fauna. In this regard they share a sense of secret symbolism with the early, Surrealist-inspired canvases of proto–Action painting’s ideographic period (1945–48), just prior to that generation’s expansive and decidedly flat look. But, in reaching for the large brush and the bold gesture, Saulnier does not actually follow through with Abstract Expressionism redux; instead, he reaches back a century and a half to Francisco Goya.

Dana Saulnier, "Picnic" (2013), oil on canvas, 72.25" x 63.25” (all artwork images courtesy the artist)

Dana Saulnier, “Picnic” (2013), oil on canvas, 72.25″ x 63.25” (all artwork images courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Modelled in dark, muddy tones, sparked at significant passages with impasto whites and judiciously applied notes of intense red, Saulnier revisits the nightmare environs of Romantic melodrama with imagery that seems to twist itself into gravity-defying mayhem. Wrestling forms hover over horizontal planes affecting a dystopian atmosphere of indeterminate scale. Sometimes landscape, sometimes still life — this toying with scale allows him to tie the early Romantic sublime to the more shallow pictorial ether of modernist abstract painting.

The ambition Saulnier demonstrates in bridging such a wide cultural synapse is at first startling, though further consideration reveals that the implied chronological markers are not as detached as one might think. The ideographic picture of the mid-1940s that preceded Abstract Expressionism applied the visual dialect of Surrealism, which had evolved from French Symbolist poetry, which in sensibility evolved from Baudelaire, whose birth and whose subsequent taste for decadence correlates with Goya’s late work. We do well to remind ourselves that the fluid that nourished modernism’s long evolution toward unfettered expression was fundamentally poetic. In his 2003 biography of Goya, Robert Hughes characterized the artist’s eccentric late paintings as “seem[ing] like freakish, vivid precursors of modernity” because, as Hughes suggests, Goya chose to “bypass explicit symbolism” — in other words, he predicted modernism by choosing to bypass the chief characteristic of academic art: identifiable narrative.

Dana Saulnier, "A Month’s Mind" (2012), oil on canvas, 76" x 90”

Dana Saulnier, “A Month’s Mind” (2012), oil on canvas, 76″ x 90”

As with Goya’s Black paintings, Saulnier’s canvases at First Street derive much of their visual power from the fact that they can never be fully deciphered. “A Month’s Mind” hints at monsters struggling over a vast landscape, their teeth (if that’s what they are) clenched in mortal combat. In “Untitled,” one of the more clearly delineated of the canvases, a pair of what may be wine bottles protrude from what appears to be a net resting on the floor of a cave — or perhaps the sea floor, in a nod to environmental issues (the operative word being perhaps) — while the light illuminates what could be a debarked tree trunk or the flayed limb of a more sentient creature. Each canvas provides more than enough visual information to stimulate the imagination without becoming literal, allowing for a fusion of essences and emotions ranging from the ordinary to the macabre.

Several studies hanging in the smaller, rear gallery are easily matched to the larger canvases in the other room, indicating that Saulnier’s process involves a sophisticated control over whatever spontaneity initiates the imagery itself. That he can maintain a level of painterly abandon while keeping the structure of each composition within predetermined limits illustrates a willingness to harness the offspring of his improvisation and keep it within the requirements of each painting’s unique disposition.

Tempering what could easily become an affectation of historical appropriation (I could not confirm this at the gallery, but the dull, greenish tone of the larger paintings appears to be the result of an overall glaze), Saulnier manages to maintain a sense of painterly invention. He achieves a wonderful balance of control and abandon, avoiding the fussiness of laborious style raiding while making the most of an early-19th-century look. His atmosphere, though superficially indebted to Goya’s palette, does not pander to the older painter, nor does it caricature Romanticism’s darkness. His vision is as distinctive and as personal as Goya’s, or Turner’s, or De Kooning’s, for that matter.

Dana Saulnier, "Untitled 9/12" (2012), oil on canvas, 56" x 70”

Dana Saulnier, “Untitled 9/12″ (2012), oil on canvas, 56″ x 70”

What is most refreshing here is that the historical reference is not the point, but merely an aspect of the painter’s vision. It is a tool used in achieving that vision. To paraphrase Robert Motherwell, who was something of an expert on French Symbolist poetry: all painters carry in their minds the pictures they have seen. Saulnier’s paintings add a new sense of freedom to the potential implied in that sentiment, a freedom poets, novelists, and filmmakers use without reluctance.

Dana Saulnier: Stacks and Traps continues at First Street Gallery (526 W 26th St, #209, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 1.

In Maryland Wizard Statue, Some See Salve for Recession Woes — But Not All Are Enchanted

Illustration from "Goethe's Werke" (1882) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration from “Goethe’s Werke” (1882) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

An eight-foot-tall sculpture of a wizard in a couple’s front yard has sparked a debate in the village of Oakland Mills, Maryland, about what constitutes appropriate neighborhood statuary, who has the power to decide what is and isn’t art, and whether or not the towering sorcerer could help lift the community out of economic depression.

When Debbie and Roger Matherly of Macomber Lane decided to do away with a rotting pine tree in their front yard, the Baltimore Sun reports, they called in local chainsaw carver extraordinaire Evelyn Mogren (the “Pine Picasso“) to transform their stump into something magical. The resulting sculpture depicts a tall, bearded, and cloaked sorcerer clutching a tall staff, with an owl perched on his shoulder and a fox obediently seated at his feet.

As the Matherlys’ next-door neighbor Lamont McKenzie told the Sun: “It looks like that guy from the Lord of the Rings.”

But the village’s Residential Architecture Committee proved immune to the wizard’s spell, and the Matherlys were directed to explore ways of moving the sculpture into their backyard. They appealed that decision, taking their case to the Oakland Mills Village Board, where it raised questions not only about what constitutes art, but also about how closely the village’s covenants — which date back to the community’s founding in 1968 — should be adhered to, especially when the rejuvenation of the town hangs in the balance.

“With all of the vacancies of properties out there, we need something to attract people to want to buy in our area,” Tawania Williams, a member of the village board, told the Sun. “If the neighbors weren’t complaining about it, my thought was, ‘Why make these really nice homeowners move it to the back?’”

Rather than force a decision that might set a dangerous precedent for future yard art cases, the Matherlys suggested a new guideline whereby, so long as seven of the nine nearest neighbors approve of the artwork, it can stay. Though the village board has yet to vote on the approved guidelines, many see the wizard sculpture as an attraction that could bring some magic back to a community that’s fallen on hard times.

“The recession has really taken a toll on the older villages,” Oakland Mills board member Kay Wisniewski told the Sun, noting the delapidated state of an abandoned home on the same cul-de-sac as the Matherlys’ property. “This is a violation of covenants like crazy, but we apparently are helpless to do anything about that. And you continue down the street and you see this lovely statue that this community feels is important to us. This is our spirit, and if there’s one thing we need in Oakland Mills, it’s more spirit. I’m more concerned about that than an outbreak of front-yard art. So, I gritted my teeth and I said ‘yeah, I’m voting for it.’”

DIARY: The Giving Tree

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Artforum.com

Opening a Gallery in a Contemporary Art Desert

Central Features, with Jami Porter Lara's ceramic "bottles" in the foreground and Patronio Bendito's digital prints along the back wall (all images courtesy Central Features)

Central Features, with Jami Porter Lara’s ceramic “bottles” in the foreground and Patronio Bendito’s digital prints along the back wall (all images courtesy Central Features)

ALBUQUERQUE — Writer, curator, and (now) gallery owner Nancy Zastudil summarized her experience opening a commercial art gallery in Albuquerque with one Facebook post: “When opening Central Features, approx 90% of the people I told in ABQ asked if it was a gallery of my own artwork.” She later told me that several other people also asked if the gallery was her studio.

Inherent in these questions is a little clue to New Mexico art commerce: many artists run studio-galleries open to the public, and they’re banking on personal interactions to sell their work. This leads us to a second, perhaps more obvious, revelation: a commercial gallery is hard to find in Albuquerque, least of all one that focuses on social engagement.

Central Features opened on September 27 with paintings by Petronio Bendito and sculptures by Jami Porter Lara. By design, the show includes one visiting artist (Bendito) and one local artist, and both of them, Zastudil explained via email, present work that is “considered and polished, yet addresses some messy issues.”

“We are interested in artists who use their artworks to address/present ideas about social progress and the inherent value of the creative act,” Zastudil wrote.

Gallery owner Nancy Zastudil (click to enlarge)

Gallery owner Nancy Zastudil (click to enlarge)

Before opening Central Features, Zastudil and her partner, Ian Goebel, were “looking for a reason to stay” in Albuquerque. They had considered moving to the Northwest, to live closer to the water, but she admits that “Seattle is not know for its commercial artwork either.” In the Duke City they saw not only a good challenge, but also a place that could stand to be challenged. With a recent push for downtown (re)development and the lack of historical restraints (like the obsession with O’Keeffe in Santa Fe), Zastudil says Albuquerque is still creating itself, “and that’s what I find exciting.”

“At the moment, the downtown energy is vibrant and people are responding,” she continued over email. “There are few commercial galleries in ABQ, and for artists living here, it’s currently not a place for them to be competitive in the art market. We are trying to change that, but to do it in ways that also draw attention to global issues, outside of the art market, and the positive roles that artists play in those issues.”

Before committing to opening the gallery, Zastudil and Goebel “tested the waters” with a series they call Show Up, Show Down. It’s a month-long set of weeklong exhibitions that originally appeared last winter in a pop-up gallery, but will now take place at Central Features. These exhibitions contain photos of site-specific projects by artists who are engaging built environments for positive change. The success of the project — from building the advisory committee and raising funds to actually getting people out to the site — gave Zastudil and Goebel the encouragement they needed to proceed with Central Features.

On opening night, Lara’s collection sold out. New Works consists of ceramic vases that mimic disposable plastic containers, which she describes as “reverse archaeology: digging into the present — and the future — using tools of the past.” Unfortunately, one piece shattered when a friend’s excited gesture sent it flying to the floor. Zastudil deemed it a christening of the occasion, but one could also see it as an ironic gesture, pitting the breakable art object against its everlasting progenitor.

Lara’s work went for around $350 a piece. Priced in the thousand-dollar range, Bendito’s collection, Natural Disaster Color Series, didn’t fly out the door quite so easily. (Remember, this is a town with very few commercial contemporary art galleries; I actually can’t think of another one off the top of my head). It’s hard to imagine the gallery succeeding financially if some of it doesn’t sell. An artist, activist, and educator, Bendito uses color theory to transform photos of natural disasters into abstract digital color prints. “China Flood: 2007” (2013), for instance, draws on the contrast between the bright orange worn by rescue workers and the dark earth tones of the scene, creating two forms that mimic the action.

Patronio Bendito, “China Flood: 2007” (2013)

Patronio Bendito, “China Flood: 2007” (2013)

The gallery is booked through the spring, with a group collage show running alongside a Hillerbrand + Magsamen collection in November and December. New York–based company ImageThink will run a series of workshops with Central Features in January 2015. Company founders Nora Herting and Heather Willems are graduates of the University of New Mexico art department, and Zastudil hopes the collaboration will show local business owners “the value and practical applications that artists can bring to their companies,” while showing artists that they have some options for making a living.

Central Features is, after all, a business. It’s a for-profit commercial gallery with a social mission, largely dedicated to helping artists continue to do their work. Zastudil was inspired by her experience as the administrative director of the nonprofit Frederick Hammersley Foundation. Hammersley, it turns out, put away money specifically for other artists to develop their work. Zastudil also comes from a family of what were called “self-starters” when she was growing up, she says, so she easily embraces the contemporary nomenclature of “entrepreneur.”

The gallery “is a selfish endeavor, honestly, because I wanted to open and run a business, [and] I’m familiar with the arts,” she says. “The two had to come together in a way that I felt would ‘make a difference,’ embracing all the related clichés.”

Central Features (109 5th St SW, Albuquerque) is open for Downtown Professionals Day until 6pm today. The gallery’s opening exhibition, with Petronio Bendito and Jami Porter Lara, continues through November 1.

NEWS: Director of Andy Warhol Museum Joins Artists' Legacy Foundation Board

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NEWS: Director of Andy Warhol Museum Joins Artists' Legacy Foundation Board

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NEWS: Director of Andy Warhol Museum Joins Artists' Legacy Foundation Board

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NEWS: Director of Andy Warhol Museum Joins Artists' Legacy Foundation Board

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See the Sun Set Over Casablanca in Bushwick

Installation view of Selina Grüter+Michèle Graf, "Watch the sunset 5 Helsinki" (2014) (all photos courtesy the artists)

Installation view, Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, “Watch the sunset 5 Helsinki” (2014) (all photos courtesy the artists)

The Swiss artists Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf are bringing every hue in the color spectrum to Signal gallery for Exchange Rates Bushwick.

For their exhibition Horizons But Multiple Horizons, co-presented by Zurich gallery Up State, the duo will showcase two iterations of ongoing projects: a series of fêtes where they screen footage of sunsets around the world as the sun sets over Zürich and a program custom-designed to project every possible color, in sequence, over the course of an exhibition. Both works showcase the duo’s interest in slippages between mediated and real time, and how the subtlest displays of light and color can easily shift from figurative to abstract and back again.

Selina Grüter+Michèle Graf, still from "Watch the sunset 6 Casablanca" (2014)

Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, still from “Watch the sunset 6 Casablanca” (2014)

“Since we chose to exhibit in Signal’s black garage, we already have two opposite spaces as a starting point, our black box versus Daniel’s white cube,” Grüter and Graf told Hyperallergic, referring to the concurrent exhibition of fellow Swiss artist Daniel V. Keller‘s work in Signal’s main space. “This kind of space and anti-space is very much related to our thoughts and works. We like to think of contradiction and its resolution as an overlapping hybrid.”

Selina Grüter+Michèle Graf, "Exactly or as present #4 and #5 and #1" (2014)

Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, “Exactly or as present #4 and #5 and #1″ (2014) (click to enlarge)

Over the course of a full year (begun earlier in 2014), Grüter and Graf are hosting 11 “watch the sunset” screening parties in Zurich, at which gatherers watch footage of the sun setting over a different city — including Buenos Aires, Casablanca, Helsinki, and New York — while it goes down in real time before them. As part of this project, they’ve taken high-resolution screenshots of the sunset footage, cropped the images, and printed them onto polyester sheets. The resulting banners, hung in the gallery, are practically abstract, like ghostly records of a long-ago, far-away sunset. The works at Signal feature images take from the sunset over Casablanca.

“The panels ‘Slide away between day and night’ (2014), which will be shown [at Signal], embody exactly this kind of relation between the fields of appearance, extension, representation, 3D, 2D, materiality, space, transmission space, imagination, etc,” the artists explained. “Then in the whole installation there are various forms of blurring horizons, although behind a horizon will always appear another horizon.”

Selina Grüter+Michèle Graf, "Coming closer and won't close" (2014) in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland

Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, “Coming closer and won’t close” (2014) in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland

The pair’s other piece at Signal, “Coming closer and won’t close” (2014), involves specially calibrated software and projectors scrolling through every possible color. The result is a very, very slow color gradient that viewers may not even notice to be changing if they don’t put in the time. A previous version of the piece, staged in the Swiss city of Kreuzlingen earlier this year, unfolded over the course of five hours. At Signal, the work takes 78 hours to go from red to green to blue to purple and back again. But if you can’t wait for that crepuscular shade of mauve to come around the bend, you can always take a break and look at the sunset.

Selina Grüter+Michèle Graf, "Coming closer and won't close" (2014) in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland

Selina Grüter+Michèle Graf, “Coming closer and won’t close” (2014) in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland

Selina Grüter + Michèle Graf: Horizons But Multiple Horizons continues at Signal (260 Johnson Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through October 26. It is part of Exchange Rates Bushwick, of which Hyperallergic is the media sponsor.

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NEWS: Director of Andy Warhol Museum Joins Artists' Legacy Foundation Board

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Solemn Protest Against Public Art Reactionaries as McCarthy Goes Chocula in Paris

Place Vendôme (detail)2

At the AICA-organized rally in support of Paul McCarthy’s “Tree,” recently deinstalled from the Place Vendöme (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

PARIS — About 60 artists and art critics allied with the French chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) gathered in the Place Vendôme at mid-day Friday near where Paul McCarthy’s once mighty butt plug–based inflatable “Tree” had once stood and stooped. McCarthy himself was absent.

Curiously, we not were there to protest the official censorship of the smirky-smutty shape. After all, French president François Hollande has stood solidly behind the artist. As has the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and the deputy mayor of Paris in charge culture, Bruno Julliard. Indeed, the state strongly condemned the damage to “Tree” and the attack on the artist, who was slapped several times by unknown assailants.

ad for chocolate “Tree”

Paul McCarthy’s chocolate edition of “Tree,” now on sale for 50 Euros (image via sortiraparis.com)

So this anti-censorship campaign was, for once, not directed against the authorities: “Tree” received all necessary approvals: the Prefecture of Police of the City of Paris and the Ministry of Culture, in conjunction with the Vendôme Committee. No. This flash mob protest was directed abstractly against the unknown assailants responsible for the attacks on the épater la bourgeoisie artist and his public art, work that was perhaps perceived as war-on-Christmasy.

And, I might surmise, a bit of the demonstration could be seen as directed against Paul McCarthy himself, for throwing in the towel so quickly. McCarthy passed on re-inflating (or moving) his “Tree,” saying something like he does not want to be involved in this type of confrontation and physical violence.

McCarthy has been busy capitalizing on the media storm, belaboring the Place Vendôme incident with a new scandalous post-Divine art joke: an eatable chocolate “Tree” (le chocolat de Noël, 70% dark chocolate, pure cocoa butter) produced by Damiens chocolate as part of McCarthy’s exhibition Chocolate Factory. It sells at the Paris Mint Chocolate factory, at the Colette boutique, and at Galeries Lafayette for 50 Euros (~$63) a plug.

Rather than protesting classical top-down artistic censorship, this flash mob, with some orchestration from the performance artist ORLAN, affirmed the right to freedom of expression and artistic creation. We did so by displaying amass color images of the missing Vendôme “Tree” for the public and the camera.

It was a quiet and dignified affair.

Place Vendôme flash mob

Place Vendôme (detail)1

Eduardo Chillida, From Within (1953)

2014-10-22 08_Fotor

It hangs like a chandelier designed to throw shade. You cannot walk beneath it without speculating on your own death. And it’s made of iron, technology of another age.

The view’s not so great from this angle, but the form echoes a swastika. And that would be a treacherous swastika with a half yard long stake attached. It threatens like the Sword of Damocles.

This too hung by a thread. In legend, it was a single hair from a horse’s tail. But Chillida has used a near invisible length of what looks like fishing line. It sure hooks you.

And since the Iron Cross was a teutonic symbol and a military decoration during the Third Reich, Chillida might be reflecting on the inherent danger of usurping power.

At the time of making the Basque sculptor was living in his native region and Spain was a dictatorship. There would have been many who would have liked to cut that slender wire.

Or course, this might as usual be reading too much into a formal exercise. From Within is a piece that can also be enjoyed as a spatial conundrum and a source of abstract tension.

But formalism is political too and the title of this piece makes me think of a German painter like Franz Marc, on show nearby. He too is said to have found inspriation ‘within’.

Marc wrote: “The great shapers do not search for their form in the fogs of the past. They plumb for the innermost true centre of gravity of their own times.”

And Chillida has surely created a complex form which not only defies gravity but, in its emptiness and angularity, draws the eye away from the earth. It does so even as we flinch from its latent threat.

From Within can be found in a gallery devoted to Chillida as part of the current show: The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

The third floor of the exhibition, featuring both Chillida and Marc, runs until 23 January 2015. The quote comes from one of the expressionist painter’s 1914-15 Aphorisms (#32).

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500 WORDS: Glenn Kaino

Glenn Kaino discusses his latest installation for Prospect New Orleans

PICKS: Niki de Saint Phalle

09.17.14-02.15.15 Grand Palais, Paris, review written by Anne Prentnieks

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NEWS: Protesting Administration's Handling of Sexual Assault Case, CalArts Students Stage Walkout

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

In Düsseldorf, West Germany, amidst the tumultuous aftermath of the Second World War, two German artists—Heinz Mack and Otto Piene—founded Group Zero in 1957. Later joined by fellow German artist Günther Uecker in 1961, the three sought to reinvent art in the post-war era and create a vision towards a transformed future through myriad artistic forms—performance, painting, sculpture, exhibition, publication, film, and installation. In the years following 1961, Group Zero rapidly spiraled outward to encompass a remarkable network of international collaborators including the likes of Lucio Fontana, Yayoi Kusama, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Jesús Rafael Soto, Jean Tinguely, and Herman de Vries.

Illustration from ZERO 3, July 1961, design by Heinz Mack. Courtesy Heinz Mack.

Illustration from ZERO 3, July 1961, design by Heinz Mack. Courtesy Heinz Mack.

Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s, currently on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (and two others, opening in 2015 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam), is the conclusion of a three-year research project undertaken by the Guggenheim, Stedelijk, and the Zero Foundation in Düsseldorf. Due in part to the exhaustive research efforts of the Guggenheim, Stedelijk and Zero Foundation, Group Zero’s extensive network, and the ambitious material, social, and conceptual scope of their vision, the Guggeheim iteration of the exhibition is vast and informative.

Lucio Fontana. Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1959; synthetic paint on canvas, olive green; 125 x 250.8 cm. Courtesy of David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

Lucio Fontana. Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1959; synthetic paint on canvas, olive green; 125 x 250.8 cm. Courtesy of David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

The Guggenheim, as a large-scale exhibition space is dynamic, inspiring, and wholly unwieldy. Seeing exhibition after exhibition confront the drama of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda with renewed vigor reminds one of the importance of forgetting and of starting anew. Group Zero itself, an ungainly yet remarkably influential and hopeful constellation of artistic activity, is, at least conceptually, perfect for the Guggenheim. What better venue for Group Zero than one of Modern Architecture’s most famous and ambitious structures, which, further still, was finished in 1959 during the very formation of Zero?

Günther Uecker. The Yellow Picture (Das gelbe Bild), 1957–58; nails and oil on canvas; 87 x 85 centimeters. Courtesy of Nic Tenwiggenhorn.

Günther Uecker. The Yellow Picture (Das gelbe Bild), 1957–58; nails and oil on canvas; 87 x 85 centimeters. Courtesy of Nic Tenwiggenhorn.

In a notably smart gesture, Zero opens in the High Gallery—a small offset space recessed at the beginning of the first twist of the rotunda—with a restaging of the 1959 exhibition Vision in Motion—Motion in Vision, work by Group Zero affiliated artists that originally took place at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp, Belgium. The Vision in Motion exhibition was an important starting point for Group Zero, and the restaging, complete with black walls, paintings, and sculptures that hang from the ceiling on thin wires, demarcated by the artists’ names written on the floor, opens Zero quite dramatically.

Jef Verheyen. Untitled, 1961; soot on paper; 70 x 53.5 cm. Courtesy of Herman Huys, courtesy Galerij De Vuyst

Jef Verheyen. Untitled, 1961; soot on paper; 70 x 53.5 cm. Courtesy of Herman Huys, courtesy Galerij De Vuyst

As one continues up the rotunda, works by Tinguely, de Vries, Fontana, Klein and numerous other artists are displayed in small vignettes that detail the new stylistic tropes and forms Group Zero was working to define—monochrome, serial structure, works made with fire and smoke, small kinetic and light sculptures, and three dimensional sculptural painting that often included grids made from nails, corks, and thread.

Otto Piene. Light Ballet (Light Satellite) (top) and Light Ballet (Light Drum), 1969; chrome, glass, and light bulbs, sphere diameter: 38 cm; drum height: 45.7 cm, diameter: 124.5 cm. Courtesy Moeller Fine Art, New York

Otto Piene. Light Ballet (Light Satellite) (top) and Light Ballet (Light Drum), 1969; chrome, glass, and light bulbs, sphere diameter: 38 cm; drum height: 45.7 cm, diameter: 124.5 cm. Courtesy Moeller Fine Art, New York

As the exhibition winds upwards, in seeming unceasing spirals, these small vignettes—which also incorporate ephemeral material, documentation, and short films—begin to benignly overlap and wash one another out, leaving only the truly vibrant and strikingly kinetic works in the mind. Among these standouts is Günther Uecker’s New York Dancer I (1965), a totemic standing sculpture made from white cloth with long nails punctured through the surface with their sharp points protruding out, draped over an electric motor that activates every few minutes to shake the nail laden cloth to create an incredible cacophony— simultaneously musical and chaotic yet almost functional and utilitarian in nature.

Heinz Mack. New York, New York, 1963; aluminum on wood;160 x 100 x 20 cm. Courtesy Heinz Mack

Heinz Mack. New York, New York, 1963; aluminum on wood;160 x 100 x 20 cm. Courtesy Heinz Mack

Yves Klein’s impossibly visual Pure Blue Pigment (PIG 1) (1957), recreated for the exhibition, was astounding. The work is a bed of pure Klein Blue pigment laid directly onto the floor of a recessed section of the upper-most level of the rotunda. The recessed floor, covered evenly in the pigment, is slightly angled; the point furthest away from the viewer is slightly higher than entrance. The combination of Klein’s blue pigment and the off-white walls of the Guggenheim made the work wholly engrossing.

Pol Bury. Punctuation (Ponctuation), 1959; wood and electric motor; diameter: 70 cm. Courtesy Patrick Derom Gallery, Brussels

Pol Bury. Punctuation (Ponctuation), 1959; wood and electric motor; diameter: 70 cm. Courtesy Patrick Derom Gallery, Brussels

 

The high point and conclusion of the exhibition, literally and figuratively, is the recreation of Light Room: Homage to Fontana (Lichtraum: Hommage à Fontana), which was originally presented at Documenta 3, Kassel, West Germany in 1964. Light Room is composed of nearly a dozen moving installations and sculptures made of wood and metal that incorporate movement and light. One work in the Light Room, titled Punctuation (1959), incorporates a flat wooden wheel, standing nearly seven feet tall atop a wooden plinth like a solid rounded pinwheel. As the motor-driven wheel slowly turns, small slivers of light and shadow dance on the walls through a series of small holes carved in the face. The room, set like a stage, is filled with works like Punctuation, which turn on and off in unison a few times per hour. They emit a suite of lights and shadows that dance—swinging and tapping—along the curved, slightly cave-like wall in the gallery, offering a final bit of performance for the viewer who so laboriously climbed the rotunda’s path. Importantly, this room includes the only two works made collaboratively by the trio of Piene, Mack, and Uecker—a fitting culmination for an exhibition about the art movement instigated by the three.

Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s is a cacophonous and highly illustrative view into an often-overlooked and unheralded art movement. While the exhibition doesn’t fully convey Group Zero’s ideas, and becomes monochromatically muddy at times, it does extol the importance of Group Zero and its fundamentally hopeful, ambitious, and creative platform.

Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York though January 7, 2015.

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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NEWS: Stanford's New Art and Art History Building Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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