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How It Got That Way

How It Got That Way
June 16, 1966

Most shows that are “about” something are boring even when the works in them are interesting. Such exhibitions usually are the bright ideas of museum functionaries who see it as their duty to educate or otherwise to molest the public. Of late the favored “thematic content” has been all Art History, and the criterion of selection generally has been somebody’s notion of “significance.” The typical catalogue piece is quick to establish the art’s pedigree above all else, perhaps excepting its novelty. The current paradigm demands that a work be at once fairly old and very new.

It’s a crazy situation. What makes it crazier is the docile way the new historicism lies down with the equally modish rage for identification of Cultural Phenomena. A presumed Development in the arts is seen as ipso facto a commentary on and an expression of the times (and how is YOUR sensibility coming along?), often before the paint on it is dry. Thus is the barn door flung open to the popular phrase-twirlers and it’s every man for himself. The slick magazines invented Pop five years ago and have mostly succeeded (with the help of general disarray and hysteria in critical ranks) in keeping obscure the essential differences between Batman posters and the great and good art of Warhol, Lichtenstein, et al. The same hackers have maintained the Myth of Op first promulgated by the publicists of the Museum of Modern Art, that is, the myth that Op actually exists as a discrete motive in art, against tons of evidence to the contrary. All this is bound to make discourse on historical point and order seem a little unreal, though in fact it makes such discourse a prerogative of just anybody. After all, everyone should be concerned with his times, n’est-ce pas? and the current conviction that art is a fail-safe barometer to the times makes art and the artist seem public utilities.

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A Bit Uneasy

Naturally, people who have imbibed this mythic hash but still (as ever) know nothing about art tend to get a bit uneasy. This is where the shows “about” things come in — instant short courses in one or another Right Idea about what’s happening (or about what has been or was or will be happening), in which the student need never so much as admit his ignorance: He has the perfect alibi of having come to a museum to look at paintings.

But what, meanwhile, has happened to those paintings? Mainly, a grid has been dropped between the work and the viewer automatically selecting and enforcing the Insight that has been concocted for his edification. Witness the Modern’s Turner show (a kind of apotheosis), “Illusion and Reality” — Everyman an Art Historian — “Look, ma, imitations of abstractions!” It should perhaps be possible to ignore the pedagogy and just to look at the works, but it’s easy to prefer the museum’s superb snack bar to the effort. And now I see by the Modern’s prospectus that its upcoming Matisse retrospective is going to “stress… the qualities of ‘ecstasy and tranquility’ which he continuously sought.” Unbelievable!

People (non-artists, non-students, non-patrons) used to resist fine art; now they flock to it — by every available short-cut. Not that I’m “against” this. In the words of Ted Berrigan, “Get the money!” Meanwhile, however, the fact of boredom remains, as does the cold fact that you get out of a work of art exactly what you bring to it.


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Before they got totally out of hand, the above reflections were meant as an introduction to an interesting exhibition which continues at the Finch College Museum (64 East 78th Street) until June 30. Its called “Art in Process” and it’s “about” “the steps these artists have taken to develop their work,” to which end the museum has bolstered with drawings, models, and related material an accumulation of finished works by 18 artists, many of whom were presented in the Jewish Museum’s latest Significant-type show, the “Primary Structures” melange. It seems an especially timely idea. “Conceptual art” (roughly, art visualized before it is executed) has a way of seeming fortuitous, no one’s responsibility. This quality may be nicely astringent, and in fact indispensable to the art’s aesthetic, but our curiosity about the work as personal manifestation is not eradicated through not being served. Now here we are offered documentation of how the stuff got to be the way it is. We might expect to be grateful.

As it turns out, the show fails in its ambition to instill a sense of “process.” But it does instill, almost accidentally, a lively sense of art. In effect, the big, finished works, some of them marvelous, are seen in relief against the mostly bland little drawings, hen-scratched notebooks, etc., which, if they ever make their presence felt, generally do on their own steam. The effect is a heightened appreciation of the finished product. When you look from Don Judd’s ho-hum sketch to the huge red galvanized-steel wall construction that, somehow, proceeded from it, you get a notion of what “genius” is. You’re left, in the end, to reflect that the essential steps in a creative process are almost always invisible — by any account, enough Truth for one summer month. All museum exhibitions should fail so benignly.

There is, however, at least one exception. The presence en masse of Will Insley’s drawings and cardboard and masonite models — the cardboard models on a flimsy paper shelf, the bright-colored masonite “stand-ups” on a big table designed by he artist — is terrifically impressive. They’re all so GOOD! Even the tiny cardboard things, with their faint evocation of rainy-day handicraft, are exquisitely realized dialogues of line and plane among other things, and the drawings positively jump with the energy of ideation. What comes across is not so much “process” as a thoroughly classical belief in the uniform viability on all levels of the artistic impulse, which, however, naturally aspires to grandeur. Had one of Insley’s really big works been present, he might irretrievably have stolen the show.

As it is, a couple of other things hold their own (along with Don Judd’s, already mentioned). Notable are the “minimal” (s0-called) constructions of Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt. Morris offers a pristine off-white tetrahedron, stuck in a corner so as to offer only one oblique face to the room. You feel it before you see it, a simple and emphatic tic in the environment, a quirk in the order of things — as inevitable as the weather but more beautiful, because you can touch it. LeWitt’s absolutely rectilinear, booth-shaped framework of black wood assumes a sullen center stage. It is unapproachable, a trifle ugly, strong and very funny. It seems designed to freak out the other works near it.

Which is precisely what Dan Flavin’s yellow, diagonally hung fluorescent light (eight feet long) does to the other works in the room devoted to neon sculpture. It is so handsome and curiously moving (as sign and gesture), it makes its complex neighbors seem hopelessly lurid and confused.

No one general impulse can be said to dominate this polyglot congregation, but for me the reductive tendency, toward the very barest of statements, comes off best. The seemingly more “ambitious” works (excepting maestro Insley’s and those, for sure, of Richard Artschwager and Lyman Kipp) often are only too well served by the supplementary material. Their conceptions creak. They seem somehow cooked-up, marriages of dubiously matched ideas, impure, if only under the diamantine aspect of Morris, Flavin, et al. There is a powerful mythic quality to this art of the minimum (perhaps “of our time” but I wouldn’t know), an image of the artist at once nutty and heroic — the artist doing a single, vaguely hieratical thing almost “whether he likes it or not,” running the lifelong risk of boring himself to death in quest of the irreducible that happens to please. The absolutely accurate shot in the dark. One guesses the idea will never get so popular as seriously to tempt the curators, this being all to its honor and to the general good.


On Long Island, Keith Sonnier Trips the Light Fantastic

The Dan Flavin Art Institute in the tony hamlet of Bridgehampton is a temple to formal piety. On the second floor of this former First Baptist Church, originally built in 1908 as a firehouse, nine of Flavin’s minimalist fluorescent sculptures snap to invisible grids to align cleanly with hardwood floors and austere white walls. They have been here since 1983, installed as a permanent shrine according to the artist’s vision. (Flavin oversaw the installation with an architect, Richard Gluckman.) The mood is reflective, sacrosanct. Purity is key. Outside, the lush landscape is blocked out by scrim that cloaks windows. Inside, the sculptures demand the kind of humble absorption familiar to churchgoers. In a back gallery, atop a worn lectern, an old Bible sits open for any sympathetic reader.

“Deux Pattes” (1981)

But on the ground floor of this Dia branch, past a closed door and into a darkened room, there is a small installation of blinding, flashing lights, neon dust, lumpy geometric sculptures, and black light that brazenly spoils the cleanliness of Flavin’s chapel. The work, Dis-play II (1970) by Keith Sonnier, comes on strong — too strong, in fact, and the glaring light and clashing colors quickly become exhausting — but it nevertheless works as a succinct introduction to his work, which is the subject of a selective and impressive career survey at the nearby Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. (The Dia presentation is a tie-in; the foundation has operated the institute since its founding.) Instead of Flavin’s elegant, minimalist zeal, Sonnier is after “dirtier,” uglier, more audacious sorts of inventions, ones that draw freely from the detritus of the world, and that traffic in the noise and fizzle that the orthodox minimalists wanted to keep out.

“Passage Azur” (2015/2018)

Passage Azur (2015/2018) is the first work at the Parrish and it announces Sonnier’s intention boldly. Down the museum’s narrow long central corridor, hanging from the tops of the walls, are a series of neon squiggles of electric light — reds, blues, yellows, purples, and greens, some in tied bundles of tubing, others curving wildly alone, all of them held up by steel cables that run from wall to wall across open space. It’s a boisterous scene of light, seemingly drawn freehand in space, and it’s made even busier by the installation of Quad Scan, a 1975 work, just below. In that piece, Sonnier tunes a radio scanner into the local weather station, and if you listen closely enough, you’ll get reports of conditions and patterns in the nearby Little Peconic and Mecox bays.

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Sonnier traces his restlessness to his upbringing in Louisiana. He was born in 1941 in the tiny town of Mamou, where he grew up surrounded by a carnivalesque culture. “We have a very old-fashioned Mardi Gras that’s done on horseback and the costumes are out of the ordinary,” he said in 2016. “They’re made almost to look like fantasy ghouls or elements from another world but made out of very simple materials.” Mamou’s annual parade, the Courir de Mardi Gras, has no determined path, and “capture[s] the very essence of Sonnier’s free-range artistic production,” as the architecture critic Martin Filler notes in the exhibition catalogue. 

“Catahoula” (Tidewater Series) (1994)

Sometimes his free-range approach leads down problematic paths. Sonnier — a late modernist in his heart — has the westerner’s vaguely troublesome relationship with foreign cultures. Seeking ideas from afar, he has travelled widely — Japan, Brazil, India — and worked with artists he has admired and learned from. Through the process, Sonnier has built for himself a storehouse of visual ideas and skills that are the building blocks of some of his best his works. Ganesh (1981), from his “India” series, is a handsome, wall-mounted bamboo piece with a protruding staff that mimics the trunk of the Hindu god Ganesha, who is depicted as an elephant. This sculpture succeeds through specificity: We understand what we’re seeing and the sources of its charm. But sometimes, Sonnier seems to consolidate otherness too efficiently, in a way that looks distasteful today. In the catalogue, we read that another series, “Exotic Works,” inaugurated a “new formal language, evoking another culture and steeped in its craft tradition.” Which culture exactly?

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This may be more a problem of language than of art-making; perhaps it’s not the work that’s at fault, but the words we use to describe it. And anyway, all artists, in one way or another, benefit when they look near and far, and must then distill their complex experiences into useful, perceived essences. An abstract way of seeing is crucial, even if you are not an exclusively abstract artist. This is one of the most delightful surprises of the show: how often Sonnier condenses into clever formal games things we already know from everyday life. Circle Portal A and Circle Portal B (both 2015) each make silly, sympathetic frowny faces in multi-color neon; Sitting Abri (2000) is an aluminum ladder leading up to a balcony; and several sculptures in the show include castaway garbage such as bottles of antifreeze and household cleaner, which today look like comments on climate change, even if this wasn’t Sonnier’s intention.

“Ba-O-Ba I” (Ba-O-Ba Series) (1969)

These works aren’t “characteristic,” precisely because Sonnier has no “style” to speak of. This fact has always been to his credit. He is a promiscuous sculptor. He can bounce from objects made of poor materials — such as an unassuming, ten-foot long, satin-covered, bulbous, foam-rubber log, made shortly after he graduated from Rutgers University with an MFA in 1966 — to Ba-O-Ba I (1969), the first work in a series in which neon tubes sit restlessly atop sheets of glass. And somehow — in a way that is continually surprising and practically without precedent — he never loses his individual touch. You can still always recognize a Sonnier.

“Mastodon” (Herd Series) (2008)

And this, in the end, is his real success. Sonnier is not unlike many of the other excellent artists who coasted in on the waves of post-minimalism. In their own ways, Eva Hesse, Rona Pondick, Nancy Holt, David Hammons, and Richard Tuttle, among others, each developed consistent and cohesive bodies of work while persistently refusing a signature touch. Sonnier is the same: a drifter with purpose, who surely surprises himself as much as he surprises everyone else. What remains steady throughout is a sense of delight. Mastodon (2008) is one of the best examples: a joyful set of streaking, neon curves fixed to a solid steel base as strong as a mammoth, but with all the playfulness of a child’s outsize toy. It may be the best sculpture in this convincing show, and perhaps the richest expression of Sonnier’s keen and impudent eye.

‘Keith Sonnier: Until Today’
Parrish Art Museum
279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, New York
Through January 27, 2019

Keith Sonnier: Dis-Play II
Dan Flavin Art Institute
23 Corwith Avenue, Bridgehampton, New York
Through May 26, 2019


James Brooks and Dan Flavin at Greenberg Van Doren

Although the CliffsNotes version of postwar American art trumpets the antagonism between macho abstract expressionists and later generations of artists, there were actually a number of affinities across the stylistic divides. James Brooks (1906–92) was a seminal ab-ex painter whose carefully considered, collage-like placement of forms led to more contemplative compositions than the visual Sturm und Drang expounded by his colleagues Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The drippy grid in a 1974 acrylic drawing by Brooks segues from dense cobalt to pale blue to cool white against buff paper, a marriage of the nebulous and the evocative that resonates with the work of Terry Winters and Amy Sillman today.

But painters naturally influence one another; more intriguingly, this exhibit reveals how much the minimalist master Dan Flavin (1933–96) admired Brooks’s graceful nuances, as in the subtle textural shifts of the burgundy polyp dangling amid a black-and-white expanse in a 1974 lithoprint. Just as rock ‘n’ roll king Elvis Presley highly respected the Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin, Flavin found kinship between his own radiant fluorescent light sculptures and his elder’s virtuoso blend of emphatic form and supple color.

In 1984, Flavin curated a show of Brooks’s drawings, and some of those works are on view here, such as Lido I (ink and gouache on paper, 1965), a lush black field that fragments as the brushstrokes ascend the page. While Brooks and Flavin were separated by age and tectonic upheavals in the formal dynamics of American art, their friendship was based on the artist’s most elemental task: transmuting base material into transcendent form. Two of Flavin’s sculptures—part of a series dedicated to Brooks and his wife, the painter Charlotte Park Brooks—dominate the gallery’s entrance, their plumes of color illuminating one path through the roiling history of American art’s postwar triumphs.

Ray Parker: ‘Simple Paintings From the 1960s’

With his love of jazz and admiration for Matisse, Ray Parker (1922–90) embodied the second generation of abstract expressionists. He worked in the shadow cast by giants such as Pollock and de Kooning, and once said of his own era, “Painters were dedicated to the idea that they could surprise themselves.” Parker’s large, scruffy ovals and rectangles, painted in earthy, richly modulated colors, seem to float across these otherwise blank, roughly six-foot-square canvases. His insight was to make shapes so big in relation to their compositions that they can be read as both figure and ground, their close proximities presaging a touch of the absurd intimacy found in Philip Guston’s cartoon paintings. Surprising stuff indeed from half a century ago. Washburn, 20 West 57th Street, 212-397-6780, Through January 28.

Cinthia Marcelle

Part of a group show of artists from Latin America, Marcelle’s five-minute video Cruzada (2010) focuses on a red-dirt crossroads shot from on high. Tilted to form an “X” in the frame, the axes soon host foursomes of marching musicians segregated by yellow, blue, red, and green uniforms. As they stride toward one another, one might think of the spatial separation and clashing tonalities of a Charles Ives symphony, but then, as if in a Busby Berkeley movie, they deftly rotate and merge into a smoothly syncopated column, having apparently found harmony rather than the devil. Galerie Lelong, 528 West 26th Street, 212-315-0470, Through January 28.

Dawn Clements

Last year, Dawn Clements sent some of her sumi-ink drawings (a few based on movie stills) to sculptor Mark Leuthold and then made new drawings of the resulting sculptures, the forms becoming ever more abstract in the process. She also created scores of 8×10 drawings depicting various parts of a worktable covered with Leuthold’s small sculptures and then taped the sheets together into a 25-foot-wide mural, which hangs in the gallery. This merry-go-round of image-object-image has been conceptually amplified by placing the actual table and Leuthold’s sculptures directly below the sprawling depiction of same. In other drawings, derived from freeze-framing Turner Classic movies, Clements builds up noir imagery through truly obsessive ballpoint-pen striations, setting off a vivid oscillation between graphic rendering and lovely abstraction. Pierogi, 177 North 9th Street, Brooklyn, 718-599-2144, Through February 12.


Yuichi Higashionna at Marianne Boesky Gallery; Autochromes by Stieglitz and Steichen at the Met

The Japanese multimedia artist Yuichi Higashionna has written that his work is influenced by fanshii culture, which he defines as “kitschy, girlish, and tacky.” Although his DIY aesthetic can certainly be seen as tacky, don’t expect a Takashi Murakami vibe of perverse cuteness here. Higashionna, born in Tokyo in 1951, creates sculptures from those round fluorescent rings familiar from many a Lower East Side kitchen. Dozens of these fixtures, lashed together with cable ties, hang from the ceiling in Chandelier 14 (2010). Exposed wiring cascades to the floor and plugs into a spread-out jumble of transformers like a root system providing energy for the flamboyant display high above. Elsewhere, 22 of the rings climb the wall, a radiant chain raggedly stitched together by black and white power cords.

Like Dan Flavin, Higashionna considers the whole gallery space an entity to be filled with a unified perception rather than simply a venue for displaying discrete objects. He illuminates his black-and-white-striped paintings with fluorescent tubes laid on the floor, a strong light source that emphasizes the canvases’ lack of Op Art perfection. The edges of the stripes fade to misty gray as they fold around the stretcher bars, a motif of bedraggled precision echoed by rolls of off-white wallpaper unfurling crookedly across the broadest wall. Stapled to this background, a diamond grid of black elastic bands, loose ends dangling like paint drips, conjures the notion of a gateway or portal. Nearby, another entrance—or exit—is implied by a large oval cut from the wall and covered by a black mesh curtain, which shimmers from the glow of a bank of orange fluorescents.

Higashionna’s installation of these off-the-shelf materials unveils something numinous lurking within the luminous.

Autochromes by Stieglitz and Steichen

Included in the big “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum are facsimiles of five original color Autochrome photographs by the two elders of the trio, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and Edward Steichen (1879–1973). A complicated, multi-step process invented by the Lumière brothers in 1907, an Autochrome consists of a glass plate coated with minute grains of potato starch individually dyed either red, green, or blue. Light reflected from the photographer’s subject would pass through the RGB starch, which acted as filters to create a wide gamut of realistic hues on a color-sensitive emulsion, all the layers finally sealed with varnish or glass. Autochromes are exceedingly fragile and fade quickly when exposed to light, but extensive testing has determined that the images are partially protected from fading when displayed in an oxygen-free environment, allowing the Met to exhibit the originals for six days, concluding this Sunday, January 30.

Would the average viewer be able to perceive the difference between the actual potato grains and the pixels of the facsimiles? Probably not, but knowing that you’re viewing the real thing may change your contemplation of these objects. Whether it was Steichen or Stieglitz who, in 1907, exposed an Autochrome of Stieglitz’s younger sister, Selma, sheathed in a golden dress, has been lost to history; nearly identical plates of this high-resolution image were found in both estates. Regardless, the bouquet of flowers at her breast gives some credence to Steichen’s hyperbolic praise of the new format: “One must go to stained glass for such color resonance, as the palette and canvas are a dull and lifeless medium in comparison.” That swipe at painting returns us to an age when photography was struggling to be taken seriously as fine art, a campaign that was eventually won through images such as these, which are indelible in spirit, if not in reality. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave, 212-535-7710,, January 25-30. Main exhibit through April 10

Esteban Vicente

The Spanish-born Vicente (1903–2001) displayed Pop flair in a 1956 collage that included a Campbell’s Soup label, beating Warhol to that particular punch by six years. Works from 1953 display a de Kooning–esque sprightliness, but a stark black-and-white conglomeration of bold letters gathering like sediment at the bottom of a page and the colorful torn edges in a collage redolent of Hawaii’s air and fauna reveal the broad range of this seminal Abstract Expressionist. Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, 212-998-6780, Through March 26


David Zwirner’s ‘Primary Atmospheres’ Is California Sweet

Minimal art—let’s face it—is a bore. With all the cheerfulness of a leper’s bell, it proposes that its preachy abstemiousness is somehow good for us. The 20th-century art movement that best echoes Puritanism, minimalism channels Cotton Mather across the ages. Instead of chafing wool, wood-plank architecture, and bans on graven images, we get rows of fluorescent fixtures, stacks of metal boxes, piles of cloth, and, most infamously, a mason’s brace of cold bricks laid end to end. Regular folks hate it, and who can blame them? When I go to the supermarket, I hardly expect to celebrate empty shelves.

The purported benefits of minimal art are all about what its chief practitioners (Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre) told us we couldn’t have. In New York, where the movement set up its HQ in the 1960s, this temperateness meant scissoring out art’s heart plus a lung along with dreaded ornament. What high-church minimalism prescribed was the perfectly machined object—mute, weirdly antiseptic, and expressive as a Viking stove. In the post-Pollock laboratory of shiny surfaces, only the husk of content need apply.

Over time, minimalism became our official public art. A vessel emptied of meaning that accommodates all comers, minimalist sculpture matched America’s fuzzy relativism to a T. Given mounds of earth or tons of black granite, minimal sculpture could tolerantly—democratically, even—say one thing as well as another. Take the Vietnam Memorial, for example—that Death Star of content-crunching monumentality. Excepting the names of the poor fuckers chiseled into it, the austere pile hallows America’s war dead just as easily as it might extol the athleticism of the Bataan Death March.

So we are grateful for a galvanizing (and literally) enlightening January exhibition at David Zwirner gallery. A show that makes clear that minimalism’s New York crew never did, in fact, possess the last gospel word on the aesthetic of reduction, this expert survey of what has alternately been called “California Minimalism,” “Light and Space,” and, condescendingly, “Finish Fetish” charts a key decade in the development of another pared-down strand of minimal art. This time, rather than obscure theory and stacked slabs of concrete, we get perceptual meditations on light and hedonistic color. Put into Jay Leno–speak: In the separated-at-birth sweepstakes, the gang profiled in this exhibition are, most definitely, the sunny, laidback ones.

Narcotically titled “Primary Atmospheres: Works From California, 1960–1970” and curated by Tim Nye and Kristine Bell, this otherwise snappy collection of physical artworks and luminous sleights-of-hand offers the most radiant portraits possible of what Will Self has called “the surly gravity of L.A., pickled in its own nastiness of pollutants.” Among other things, the show endorses the working cliché that much art looks a lot like the place it was made. If East Coast minimalism was all 1965 Soho lofts, square rooftops, and dying blue-collar businesses, its West Coast relative instead tripped out on Venice Beach haze (incredibly, there were oil rigs out there until the 1970s); the slick chrome and plastic surfaces of the city’s signs and cars; and, most especially, L.A.’s artificially enhanced, at times comic, ability to pin a flaming halo on even the turdiest urban blight. Pacific light was the thing here—as filtered, mind you, by the Moloch of American industry.

It is appropriate, then, that one of the first works encountered in “Primary Atmospheres” should be Doug Wheeler’s “light painting” of 1969. A large square of plastic with white neon embedded along its inside edges, this artwork blurs the distinction between its armature and the white walls enveloping it, while immersing the viewer in a visual sauna of steamy light. A nearby painting—a strangely glowing piece by the doyen of light and space art, Robert Irwin—reminds one that many of these artists (like most sculptors and art critics, though pas moi) were painters until their canvases, often quite literally, fell off the walls. What at first glance appear like staid dots of patriarchal oil on canvas, shimmers like lime jelly if stared at hard enough, acquiring the solidity of a relief.

The next significant perceptual payoff comes in the shape of light installations by another ex-painter turned Cali visual philosopher, James Turrell. A sort of King Midas of the phenomenological set, Turrell—when he isn’t off chasing his own personal Moby Dick round the lip of Roden Crater—has long been famous for making forms appear when, speaking plainly, there is nothing actually solid there. Simple light projections reprised in two separate galleries, these ghosts resolve themselves into glowing, voluminous triangles—one mantis-green, the other bright garnet. Absences that turn taunting presences, these geometric phantasms provoke the Doubting Thomas in everyone to stick a finger, hand, or leg in it.

Eye candy of a less apparitional sort are what the other artists in the show are after, chiefly through the exploration of the kind of industrial materials that effortlessly draw our infinitely subdivided attention to strip-mall trash and flash: RVs, skateboards, and fast food signs, among other detritus. Stuff this West Coast bunch fingered for the first time as material for art, such elements became—in these and other works—perfect conduits for reverse transformations of “light, space, and color into material form.”

“Primary Atmospheres” contains gems too numerous to mention. There’s Peter Alexander, whose experiments with blocks of polyester resin cast pink transparencies ethereal enough for a meathead like Frank Gehry to compare them (favorably) to “pussy”; the vacuum-coated glass boxes of Larry Bell, which change color and opacity with every angle; and the back-painted wall-reliefs of Craig Kauffman, like Hall’s lozenges oozing interior radiance.

And then there’s John McCracken. The absolute nutter of the worldwide minimalist movement, this devotee of UFOs and astral projections has spent a lifetime making 2001: A Space Odyssey monoliths that embody color with the transcendence of reliquary blood. Fiberglass planks he polishes into alchemical totems, they materialize what Turrell, in a moment of verbal genius, referred to as the “self-reflexive act of looking at your looking.” Which just goes to show: Sometimes less is not a bore, it’s just plain magic.


Tom Schmitt

The four orange squares in Quad (2005) are divided by a gray grid; the transition between the two colors is as smoothly elusive as the intersections of colored light in Dan Flavin’s fluorescent-tube sculptures. Although these small works are wrought with a computer and Epson printer, they convey a physicality that calls to mind Rothko’s mystical joins of oil paint. While tools and materials change, there’s no substitute for a patient eye, and Schmitt’s been a painter for more than 40 years. Unlike most images disgorged from circuitry nowadays, these have the imposing beauty that comes only from experience.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: Sept. 24. Continues through Oct. 4, 2008


Dan Flavin: Light White, Light Heat

JFK is a year in his grave, Vietnam is escalating, Warhol’s elegiac flowers are on view at Castelli, and the Velvet Underground is coalescing from the dark recesses of downtown deviance. December 1964 conjures a Gotham both on edge and brilliantly edgy, so it’s really no surprise that this re-creation of Dan Flavin’s breakthrough solo show from that far-off month is the freshest, most challenging and uplifting exhibition in town. First, take a long look at the sketches that Flavin executed for visualizing the placement of his fluorescent lights in the original Green Gallery space, especially a see-through floor plan in pencil. It’s fascinating to see how the artist’s vision adjusted once his luminous works were actually in place—four vertical lamps have been edited completely out of one piece. Then there’s the work itself, pure light handled with a painter’s aplomb. Depthless grays are manifested in the center of A primary picture, a rectangle constructed from red, yellow, and blue light tubes. In another piece, differing temperature tints of “daylight” and “cool white” bulbs radiate from five white diagonals; where these tones meet and fade across the white wall, they create an enthralling limbo. Get in tight on Red and green alternatives to see how the darker tubes reflect the lighter ones (the Flavin estate periodically commissions large batches of discontinued hues from G.E.). The colors drift across these plain industrial fixtures like spray paint, flickering where they collide and recalling the numinous joins in a Rothko canvas. Although most of these seminal works hang on the wall like paintings, one spreads across the floor—not simply sculpture, but something beyond retinal stimulation and volume. Call it manufactured spiritualism.

Doris Lee

Part faux-naif, part knowing modernism, these charming, bold paintings (1930-50) reveal an artist with the design chops to illustrate spreads in Life magazine and a hand lithe enough to splash out a marvelous nocturnal abstraction of palm trees. The tiny oil painting Summer Souvenirs recollects, through simple shapes and scumbled colors, the happy lassitude of collecting bugs in a jar and July 4th festivities. The View, painted in Woodstock in 1946, captures a bucolic vista of vegetable garden, cottage, and verdant mountains, the contours of the landscape drawn with undulating lines fluently synched to roof shingles, fence posts, and other homey compositional elements—a scene so inviting that one could easily yearn to live there, even if in the yellow outhouse. D. Wigmore, 730 Fifth Avenue, 212-581-1657. Through April 5.

Artforum ad

In addition to quoting a reader’s missive decrying Artforum‘s “stuffiness [and] boring articles,” Tim Griffin acknowledges in his current Editor’s Letter that the magazine is so bloated with ads that he’s become weary of “Adforum” quips and snide comparisons to Vogue. But he lauds the frisson that arises from running dense critical essays cheek-by-jowl with fashion ads and reams of gallery announcements. Be that as it may, the slick graphics and hot typography are enticing, even if the advertised exhibitions too often fall flat. So here’s hoping that artist Peter Coffin can live up to the legendary illustrator he hired for the ad for his Andrew Kreps exhibit: Al Jaffee. Riffing on the classic Mad magazine fold-in (which the now-87-year-old Jaffee initiated in 1964 as a parody of Playboy‘s foldouts), the page features astronomers surveying the stars and is captioned with such verbiage as “We’ll follow the way of the Griffin and release the balloons!” But line up the tabs and what you get is a flattened, dazed skateboarder. Opening March 22, Andrew Kreps, 525 W 22nd, 212-741-8849.

Caroll Dunham

These ’80s paintings on wood throttle space and shake it like a dead cat. Brain Secretes Thoughts is spanned by a dozen variegated horizon lines smudged by carefully orchestrated drips and roughened by passages of sanded pigment and pencil scrawls. As the title implies, Dunham is after more than just gorgeous abstraction—a purple phallus droops down from the top edge as if sniffing after two globular nodes obtruding from the right. Swarming chromatic donuts and bilious portals of high-keyed color create a primordial soup from which Dunham’s scatological cartoon creatures heave themselves into the light. Skarstedt, 20 E 79th, 212-737-2060. Through April 5.

Rashid Johnson: ‘The Dead Lecturer’

Johnson’s personal ad—”Young artist seeks audience . . . Must enjoy race mongering, disparate disconnected thoughts and sunsets (really) . . . Ability to hold conversation using only rap lyrics . . . a must”—is the funniest thing I’ve read in a press release in ages. OK, so that bar isn’t set particularly high, but still, Johnson flags conflicting emotions in his huge 2008 sniper-scope sculpture, Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, fabricated from blackened gun-metal steel and a Public Enemy song. A five-foot-wide mirror spray-painted with the word “RUN” perhaps asks who’s running from whom among art’s predominately white audience. A massive shelf unit slathered with black wax supports vessels filled with yellow blobs of shea butter, an urn splattered with gold paint, and such tomes as The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and Powers of Healing, evoking a sense of enervated alchemy. And a golden rectangle, thickly spray-painted onto one of the gallery’s rusty windows, is strangely moving, bling as ghostly grace note. Nicole Klagsbrun, 526 W 26th, 212-243-3335. Through March 29.


Spring Art Preview: Kerry James Marshall’s Black Whole

“You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility,” Kerry James Marshall told a curator in 2005. “You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers’ headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my development years and not speak about it.”

When Marshall spoke at MOMA last year, he began with the Supreme Court’s pro-slavery Dred Scott decision and its relation to the current administration’s embrace of the “Full Spectrum Dominance” doctrine (which asserts a U.S. right to do anything necessary to maintain unilateral military supremacy of the world). Not your standard artist’s slide talk, but it was vintage Marshall, lifting historical moments up to the light to expose how the powerful build Potemkin villages of legality to enforce their dominance, whether over individuals, races, or countries. Discussing his 1998 “Mementos” installation of sculpture, painting, and printmaking at the University of Chicago, which portrayed murdered ’60s activists as disparate as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he pointed out that marching for civil rights “got you killed as quick as being a black nationalist would get you killed.”

Marshall’s historical, political, and racial subjects are as far-ranging as his media (which also include film and comic books). In a recent e-mail interview with the Voice from his Chicago studio, he explains: “There is such scant representation of the Black body in the historical record, that I believe I have a duty to advance its presence using every means at my disposal.” That body confronts you in 1986’s Invisible Man, a warm-toned black figure (with white eyes and teeth) on a cooler black ground, a minimalist riff on Ralph Ellison’s book. Compare this to Malevich’s 1918 oil painting Suprematist Composition: White on White, that famous white square on a white ground that occupies pride of place at MOMA. Marshall notes that abstraction is not an avenue truly available to him, because “non-representational work does not address this important problem” of the black figure’s absence from most of art history. He continues: “An unrequited love of art history haunts me, and I believe, most Black artists, who know deep down they will never achieve the status, in history, of a Jackson Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, or Jeff Koons. . . . It matters that the history you are compelled to acknowledge reinforces notions of your inferiority with the absence of any meaningful achievement contributed by people who are like you.”

And yet Marshall does not let polemics obscure his art. “I don’t sacrifice the beauty quotient in order to make a point,” he emphasizes. In his mid-’90s “Garden Project” series, huge paintings depicting Chicago housing projects such as Rockwell Gardens and Wentworth Gardens, Marshall dealt with the irony of these pastorally named warehouses for the poor by amping up the color and jamming the canvases with text, graphics, and inspired paint handling—flowers drip down a chipped brick wall—to convey vibrant, if circumscribed, lives.

Marshall’s powerful compositions represent a tough hide stretched over deep emotional and intellectual matrices. He once wrote and drew a complete comic book, Rythm Mastr, which features a black hero (a rarity in mainstream comics) who combats lawlessness with drum beats that unleash secret powers from within African sculptures. Marshall taped the printed broadsheets to the glass panes of museum vitrines, using the light shining through his lively, double-sided layouts to create a mural veering between literally layered narratives and abstract collage.

His upcoming “Vignette” paintings depict couples in bucolic poses cribbed from the pleasure grounds of Fragonard and other French purveyors of decadent leisure. But Marshall has leached the color from his scenes; rather than riding swings in leafy glades, his lovers make do with flirting across chain-link fences. In Vignette #3, wan pink hearts flutter in the air, forming a compositional link to grisaille flowers, while a young girl’s hoop earring is echoed in a series of arcs and loops that cascade bewitchingly throughout the composition—something lovely in a denatured idyll. Jack Shainman, May 22–June 21, 513 W 20th, 212-645-1701.

Spring Art Picks

‘Dan Flavin: The 1964 Green
Gallery Exhibition’
March 6–May 3

Minimalism is getting long in the tooth. This uptown space is setting the Wayback Machine to late 1964 to recreate an installation of Flavin’s fluorescent sculptures that took place at the legendary Green Gallery, where director Richard Bellamy showcased seminal pop and minimalist artists. The original show was a turning point for Flavin, who had previously mounted his light pieces on painted wood; for the Green show, he used only the fixtures themselves, transforming commercial products more familiar from seedy showrooms or hospital corridors into transcendent art. Zwirner and Wirth, 32 E 69th, 212-517-8677

Rob Conger
March 13–April 12

You wouldn’t expect a technique handed down from Grandma to be cutting-edge, but Conger’s large latch-hook-rug portraits of 20th-century inventors transforms knots of yarn into pixels. In the image of Dr. Robert Adler, inventor of the remote control, the scruffy texture imparts a homey static to the scientist’s cadaverous mug. Other works spotlight current media mavens—Tim Russert’s florid face is rimed with purple highlights—and there’s also a pop-up book, Blow Your Wad, a primer on financial dysfunction. Mixed Greens, 531 W 26th, 212-331-8888


Devorah Sperber: ‘Mirror Universe’
March 20–April 26

Although the press release discusses “how consciousness and the act of seeing create the illusion of a stable, predictable, singular universe,” what you really need to know is that this exhibition is based on the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror”—the one featuring a “savage parallel universe,” replete with evil Dr. Spock and scheming Captain Kirk. Sperber uses threaded glass beads of varying opacities to simulate that “Beam me up, Scotty” moment, and shaped mirrors to transform distorted figures into the familiar icons. For TNG fans (you know who you are), the holodeck has been re-created from 9,600 spools of thread. Caren Golden, 539 W 23rd, 212-727-8304

McDermott & McGough
March 21–April 26

Is that Tippi Hedren wedged into a wood-paneled corner, eyes upturned in terror? (Note the staccato rhythm of her red nails.) Judging by the POV placement of the hand in another canvas, Late Night #3: Lizabeth Scott, 1967 (2007), it’s you who’s holding the lit match for the femme fatale inside that console TV with the shiny knobs. These slick new oil paintings from a duo famous for ransacking the past—and for their Victorian toggery—channel both the studio system’s contract sirens and those bygone days when broadcasters first began downsizing the big screen for the late-late show. Cheim & Read, 547 W 25th, 212-242-7727

Lots of Things Like This
April 2–May 10

Curated by McSweeney’s mastermind Dave Eggers, this show gathers 50 works by artists who make crude images with funny texts appended. No, it’s not a rejection collection of cartoons from The New Yorker, but stuff hanging on the wall. One example from Tucker Nichols: a childish painting of a pistol accompanied by the block letters “HEY LADIES.” And another: Kurt Vonnegut’s silkscreen of a tombstone that reads “Life is no way to treat an animal.” apexart, 291 Church St., 212-431-5270

‘Frederick Kiesler:

April 18–July 24

Philip Johnson called Kiesler “the best-known non-building architect of our time,” and this collection of vibrant drawings and schemata for work ranging from avant-garde stage designs to an egg-shaped “Endless House” is a chance to see one of the 20th century’s most fertile design heads in action. Kiesler (1890–1965) was born in Austria but did much of his work in America, including the biomorphic open-air plan for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery and a “Vision Machine” for Columbia University, which attempted to demonstrate the process of perception. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster, 212-219-2166

‘New York Cool’
April 22–July 19

One of the Grey Art Gallery’s typically erudite exhibitions, this show focuses on the various movements swirling through New York in the 1950s and ’60s. Here are Frank O’Hara’s beautifully scrawled poems, illuminated by Norman Bluhm’s splashy gouache strokes; Ilya Bolotowsky’s and Robert Goodnough’s Mondrian-inflected geometric abstractions; Seymour Lipton’s lively, biomorphic crayon drawings; Nicholas Krushenick’s chromatically intense “Iron Butterfly” prints; and a large, gestural canvas by Elaine de Kooning. Add a Milton Avery seascape and a big Louise Nevelson wall relief, and this group reminds us that there was more than ab-ex and pop happening in Gotham back in the day. Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, 212-998-6780

‘Double Album’
April 23–July 6

The press release for this show, featuring Mexican Daniel Guzmán and Canadian Steven Shearer, promises an investigation of “the pitfalls and appeal of prolonged male adolescence.” (Appeal?) Both artists were born in the ’60s, and their work shares a fascination with the music of their youth. Shearer’s octagonal, wood-paneled Activity Cell With Warlock Bass Guitar is filled with plush red cushions and looks groupie-ready; Guzmán’s red skull on a paint-spattered can forms a striking totem. The duo’s wide-ranging visual dialogue will take over the museum’s entire second floor. New Museum, 235 Bowery, 212-219-1222

‘Jeff Koons on the Roof’
April 29–October 26

Here is kitsch writ large for the Met’s inviting roof garden, courtesy of Mr. Sincerity (despite the porn shoots with his ex-wife, you get the impression that Koons truly loves the aesthetics of childhood). One piece to be wary of: Balloon Dog (Yellow). This huge stainless-steel canine may make you laugh or cry or bark like a dog. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave., 212-535-7710

Kadar Brock
May 1-31

Brock’s kick-ass abstractions combine slathered planes of acrylic flashe with neon-bright spray-paint grids that race over the edges, implying a larger space beyond—but still part of—the canvas. This is high-energy stuff, exuberantly conveyed, and while he cadges everyone from Howard Hodgkin to Mel Bochner, this young painter distills the visual tumult of his own age into something other than a goddamned video game. Buia, 541 W 23rd, 212-366-9915


Hilary Harkness
May 1–June 28

This is one for the boys, or at least those who think like them. Harkness’s models on stilettos are rough trade indeed, leggy doms and subs cavorting in harm’s way in meticulously detailed oil paintings of crowded submarines, battleships, and other homo-erotic interiors. The latest piece features a mining camp where the lusty hijinks continue in sluices, outhouses, and covered wagons bathed in tawny light. Mary Boone, 745 Fifth Ave., 212-752-2929

‘Eminent Domain’
May 2–August 29

A group of contemporary photographers shoot New York at the margins: In Thomas Holton’s photo of the Lam family’s ramshackle Ludlow Street apartment, detergent bottles, plastic clothes hangers, and a bouquet of roses in a stained bathtub vie for attention; a passenger plane seems ready to land on the shingled roof of a Queens house in Bettina Johae’s Meadowmere; and the striped façade and gray warming trays heaped with potatoes and punctuated by naked lightbulbs create a formal smorgasbord in Zoe Leonard’s Red and White Restaurant. New York Public Library, Fifth Ave. at 42nd, 212-930-0830

Greg Drasler
May 15–June 27

Drasler often depicts the insides of things—rooms, steamer trunks, cars—giving his paintings a vaguely voyeuristic feel. Green Screen (2007) features a bulbous sedan with the passenger door removed and the rear wide open, exposing the broad seats; the roof has been cut away to allow movie studio lights to illuminate the interior. Painted in bright colors, Drasler’s empty spaces are unsettling, as if waiting for private encounters that all the world will see. Betty Cuningham, 541 W 25th, 212-242-2772

Anthony Patti
May 15–June 14

When you learn that Patti grew up in Jersey and was trained as a custom car and boat mechanic, a sculpture such as 2005’s Born to Run—a six-foot-long fiberglass hot rod with an engine so bloated it obscures any view through the windshield—seems just the ticket. The tumescent curves, high-gloss-orange paint job, and thrusting exhaust pipes embody testosterone rage. Prolonged male adolescence indeed! Virgil de Voldere, 526 W 26th, 212-343-9694


Digital Dynamite

I remember my first word processor with nostalgia. It was a Kaypro, bought around 1985. No hard drive, no graphics. Suddenly a wizard sat on my kitchen table. Via certain keystrokes, I could select and move blocks of luminous green text around the very small, dark screen! The portable machine (the size of a square metal suitcase) presaged an unimaginable technological future. Who marvels that much now? Upgrade to Apple’s OS 10.4 and get a Tiger on your desk? Ho-hum. And, of course, the more complex computers get, the harder they are to master, and the more that can go wrong.

The Kaypro popped into my mind, not for the first time, when I saw Laura Peterson’s I Love Dan Flavin and read, in her original project description the words “retro-futurism.” Her ingenious, witty little piece both honors and pokes fun at the glowing visions we had back when the neighbor’s kids were going wild with Atari. Dan Flavin’s installations of glowing neon tubes captured the zeitgeist. Set against walls washed with colored light, they pitted pseudo-functional austerity against gleaming, candy-bright sensuality. The words “I love Dan Flavin” rise up in thudding, growling, roaring, techn-pop music by the German group Kraftwerk (with additions and manipulations by Jorge Cousineau).

Cousineau has transformed Dixon Place’s tiny performing area into a Flavinesque site: a white ceiling, two abutting white walls, and a red floor, with the audience sitting along one side and one end. Low black barriers containing white fluorescent tubes define the space at floor level. Other lights periodically saturate the shorter of the two walls—turning it green, blue, red, magenta, lavender, and often rendering the performers as silhouettes.

The dancers (Eun Jung Gonzalez, Christopher Hutchings, Katie Harris, and Peterson) look like robot-astronauts in their sleek black outfits with silver trim (Costumes by Charles Youseff). Abruptly and rapidly, they semaphore their straight arms from the shoulder joints and twist them at their sides in a fiendishly clever sequence. Staring straight ahead all the while, they look like arcade-game warriors ready for the coin to drop and set them battling. Peterson, with her doll-like face and large, pale eyes, suggests a high-tech Coppelia.

Even when the dancers strike out in space, they preserve, for the most part, their abrupt, mechanical dynamics. Hutchings shoves the seated Peterson forward so that one of her straight legs jams into a Dixon Place pillar, then pulls her back in order to shove her again and again. While crazed taped voices count falteringly in German, English, and French, the dancers punctuate their stepping and their turns to face new directions by dropping into deep pliés and falling backward.

Repetition is a major element. Peterson, soloing, builds a string of varied movements in place, eliminates some, then reclaims them. She and Harris gradually advance cross the red arena by jolting into a sit and rolling into a push-up position, getting visibly tired and moist. Aerobics, too, are a product of the ’80s, and there’s a calisthenic insistency to quite a bit of the choreography. Flamboyance also plays a role. Smiling vivaciously, Hutchings launches into leaps and spins, while the blank-faced women form a jerky back-up chorus. All four performers take turns imitating another sort of robotic phenomenon: the runway strut.

Peterson has designed a smart, severe, oddly moving work. As the music grinds along, and the figures pump away under the lollipop-colored lights, you can ponder the moral vacuum at the core of our technological universe.