At the New Museum, the Empire Strikes Back

At the age of five, John Akomfrah nearly drowned at a beach in Accra, Ghana, where the Atlantic Ocean laps the coast in treacherous tides. The experience bred a healthy respect for the sea. “It almost claimed me, you know,” Akomfrah said when I met him at the New Museum, which hosts this season a major exhibition of his film-based art. “But for the bravery of two fishermen, I wouldn’t be here. So I understand its force.”

Akomfrah was born in Ghana in 1957, the same year that country gained its independence from Britain. But he grew up in London, where his family moved when he was still young; he studied film in Portsmouth, and made his career as an artist in the United Kingdom. His family belonged to that swelling wave of immigrants to Britain from its former colonies who came to supply industrial labor, nursing, and social services, and — though this part would require struggle to get recognized — the feedstock ideas and experiences of a new cultural politics.

Today, Akomfrah is a fundamental figure of that art and politics, as it has evolved from the battle years of Thatcherism to the stitching together — not always easy — of humanist and anti-racist culture work across the Atlantic, putting theories and aesthetics to the test of local particularities. And to the overwhelming global present moment, with its money lust, race panic, and pyromaniacally inflamed tribalisms careening against the backdrop of digital saturation and imminent environmental doom.

Installation views of John Akomfrah’s “Vertigo Sea” at the New Museum

Akomfrah’s body of work includes some forty extended pieces of “lens-based” art: Among these are some features and documentaries, but the bulk are in a personal language of art film that blends original shooting, archival footage, photographic stills, interstitial text, and music in multi-channel composites that unfold like symphonic collages. It all amounts to as solid an oeuvre as exists to chart how our “western” and/or “multicultural” societies got to where we are, and offer clues about a way further.

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But few are those who have seen it all, beyond the artist and his longtime collaborators, the producers David Lawson and Lina Gopaul. These are museum works, mostly shown in exhibitions and screenings, almost none for sale (let alone streaming). They are long, relative to most film and video-based art, often stretching half an hour or twice that. A complete retrospective would be an unwieldy thing.

This season, the New Museum has chosen a different approach — one that works elegantly. It has devoted its entire second floor to Akomfrah’s work, but made a tight selection of four film pieces, each of which shows in a generous space, like its own movie theater. The largest room goes to Vertigo Sea, Akomfrah’s lavish, unabashedly emotional ode to the oceans, to marine creatures, and to the humans who have journeyed at great peril across waters, of their own volition or otherwise, and those who ended at the bottom of the sea. First screened in the 2015 Venice Biennale, and now in its New York premiere, it unfolds on three channels side-by-side across the wide wall.

Rounding out the multiplex are smaller rooms that show Transfigured Night (2013), a less-known two-channel work that meditates on the ambitions and failings of postcolonial states; The Unfinished Conversation (2012), an intimate yet socially capacious three-channel work that tracks the life of the late British-Jamaican scholar and activist Stuart Hall; and, jumping back to the beginning, Signs of Empire (1983), by the Black Audio Film Collective, which Akomfrah and six other Portsmouth Polytechnic students formed in search of a politically and artistically autonomous voice.

Installation view and still from “Transfigured Night” (2013)

The film was made of an ingenious montage of slides from multiple projectors beamed together — a choice dictated by aesthetic and penury, as they could not afford film — fading together sequences of archival images, along with text, radio tape, and original music. It unpacked the tropes of imperialism — the explorers, civilizers, natives. The juxtapositions and repetitions brought out the psychodynamic aspects of colonialism: the delusions, the venality, the anxiety.

The whole exhibition, which the New Museum has built out in a way that nearly eliminates any room-to-room audio bleed, makes a rich experience, worth devoting about three hours to (the works range between roughly twenty to 45 minutes each). It amounts, at this moment in social discourse, to a kind of invigorating cleanse. Akomfrah’s method is creatively satisfying, while his subject matter and the way he applies materials and techniques are profoundly humane. The work is more romantic than didactic; attentive to the idea that a vision of society is as provisional as it is necessary.

I met Akomfrah in late June, soon after the exhibition opened. He was juggling obligations before his flight to London and was apologetic about the short window he had for the interview. A youthful 61, Akomfrah is affable and funny; he speaks at once carefully and casually, nice long sentences that touch on theory and literature, but more like an investigator than an authority.

This querying, humble mode echoes the humanistic thinking of Hall, a mentor whom Akomfrah first sought out in 1981 while making a film about the Handsworth riots in Birmingham. Hall had arrived from Jamaica to study in Britain in the 1950s, and went on to become a founder of the New Left Review and a progenitor of the field of cultural studies. He was instrumental in expanding British progressive thinking beyond a hide-bound Marxism, in ways that accounted for race and ethnicity, as well as media and representation, without losing sight of economic struggle.

Hall once defined identity as “the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” It follows not only that knowing ourselves requires thinking about the past, but also, since the present is constantly accruing, that we can reliably self-define only in the unstable now, while our sense of becoming is provisional.

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When we met, Akomfrah was still taking in the particular juxtaposition that the New Museum assembled. “The weird thing in making long-form pieces that in a way feel like they sit somewhere between the gallery and the cinema, is that when you conceive them, they are — in potential — isolated pieces,” he said. “I never thought that The Unfinished Conversation and Vertigo Sea would play together. It never entered my head that someone would go, ‘OK, let me survey what you’ve been doing in the past decade.’ It seems just daunting enough to make them.”

Still from “Signs of Empire” (1983)

Over the years, Akomfrah has been able to access resources he could not imagine as a scrappy oppositional artist in the Thatcher era. The BBC’s nature film production unit collaborated on Vertigo Sea, affording Akomfrah the use of spectacular ocean footage — schools of fishes, marine mammals, scenes from the Arctic, and the like. From these and other sources, he weaves into the work narratives that surge and mingle like currents. There is whale-hunting, which supplies some of the toughest scenes. There is sea travel and migration — the refugee crisis is heavily evoked, but in visually indirect ways (no migrant porn of overcrowded capsizing rafts), and through sampled news narrations. There is ecological depletion, the melting ice caps, the inexorable waters rising. There is also pure beauty: fish in shimmery dance, frothy wave caps out to infinity.

It makes for a kind of heavily augmented, highly problematized take on the nature film. “I love nature films, natural history films,” Akomfrah told me. “I watch them religiously. But at some point you are struck with the question of what keeps that natural history at bay and offstage, which is our complicity in the drama of our own making. Lions eat zebras, but we on the whole don’t spend time talking about how we kill lions.”

What he has reached, from his starting point addressing immigrant and working-class life in industrial England and struggles for dignity amid the rise of neoliberalism, is not so much an abrupt turn to environmentalism as it is an integration of fates. Understanding our threats to nature should help us understand how we threaten each other, and ourselves.

“The approach is to involve a broad range of subject positions, human and non-human,” Akomfrah said. “That’s a very important point for me. Ethically, part of the reason I have to do what I have to do is, once you’ve accepted the implications, that the theater of being is a stage where humans have held pretty much all the space, it becomes incumbent to find ways in which discreet subject positions can have conversations.”

“It is as important to me that you care about the fate of the enslaved African, thrown overboard, as you do about the sperm whales that are harpooned to death in the most gruesome fashion, essentially drowning in the sea.” These things are not the same, of course; different audiences might come in with different priorities, but that isn’t the point. “There may be hierarchies — but not ones that I’m insisting are important for perception.”

Installation views from “The Unfinished Conversation” (2012)

Woven into Vertigo Sea, per Akomfrah’s habit, are original passages he shot, plus archival texts in written and spoken form. Short readings from Moby-Dick and To the Lighthouse appear, as do old drawings. Akomfrah shot some parts in a chilly-looking waterfront setting that turns out to be the Scottish Hebrides. Some of the archival art shows a distinguished Black man in eighteenth-century garb; in the Hebrides sections, we see a lone actor, looking out to the water. These are references to the remarkable historical figure Olaudah Equiano, the enslaved Igbo man who bought his freedom and became an abolitionist in England. But Akomfrah also evokes a migrant archetype that could be any African currently crossing the Mediterranean — or the artist himself.

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“I’m exactly the figure who, if they came now, might be separated from their parents,” Akomfrah said, now alluding to the harsh practices in effect on the U.S. border. “Like most people who migrate, my parents did it for a reason; and the reasons, it seems to me, are always utopian. No one leaves to go anywhere with the hope of causing trouble or being a burden.”

While Vertigo Sea is the centerpiece, and Signs of Empire the foundation, the show is worth absorbing in full for the connections it sparks. Transfigured Night builds off newsreels of visits by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of independent Côte d’Ivoire, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria, to John F. Kennedy in the White House. There is pomp, parades, and a palpable sense of pride in the new leaders and solicitousness from their American hosts. Akomfrah then uses past and present vistas of the Lincoln Memorial and shots of individuals in lonely settings — a room high up in a glass-and-steel downtown, for instance — to offer a meditation on hopes and alienation that is ambiguous but emotionally charged.

The Unfinished Conversation, another three-channel work, functions as an art piece but also a biographical sketch of Hall’s life, augmented by generous archival material — Hall gave Akomfrah broad access — and audio of Hall speaking. (Akomfrah also made a television documentary about the thinker, The Stuart Hall Project.) The images, from the Jamaica of Hall’s childhood memories and adult visits to the hulking factories and gray northern English towns that he visited as a young activist, present less a theory than an ethos.

Akomfrah derives his own method from Hall’s teachings, which he sees as healthy for any period, and certainly today’s atmosphere of great flux and political tensions. “He was always in this space of, ‘I worry about the moment,’ ” Akomfrah says. “His value still lies in that ability to say to people: Think about the new times you’re living in. Think about how the baggage of critical reflection that you’ve inherited from the past can be applied to that. And when new times and a theory don’t fit, rethink the theory.”

John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire
New Museum
235 Bowery

Through September 2


ART ARCHIVES Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Six Shows to Get You Cultured This Spring

In anticipation of the spring and early-summer exhibition seasons in New York, we’ve put together a preview of six shows that are worth the trip.

The opening of “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last September was a revelation: finally, a thoughtful, scholarly exhibition with real popular appeal that focused on a period of cultural history that was almost completely unrecorded in conservative, mainstream surveys. Just up at the Brooklyn Museum — its only East Coast venue — the show includes more than 260 works by more than 120 artists from 15 countries that underwent tremendous political upheaval in the mid-twentieth century. Those contexts — of American military interventions; dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere; and the rise of Black Power movements around the world — inspired artists like Anna Maria Maiolino and Victoria Santa Cruz, two of the most compelling artists in the show, to radicalize modern art to political ends. During our own moment of political turmoil, this is a timely and important exhibition. The Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn,, through July 22

Bring Down The Walls will be located at Firehouse, Engine Company 31 in Lower Manhattan.

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Creative Time’s latest project, “Bring Down the Walls,” is more about social justice than about art in the accepted sense, but the distinctions matter little to the artist and organizer behind the exhibit, Phil Collins. Each weekend in May, the Firehouse, Engine Company 31, a decommissioned fire station on Lafayette Street, will become a hub for discussions on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. More than a hundred collaborators, including formerly incarcerated people, activists, and educators, will lead workshops and talks and offer free legal advice. In the evenings, the station will be converted into a nightclub, which Collins designed as a nod to the days when such venues were places for not only music and dance, but also civic and political engagement. The Firehouse, Engine Company 31, 87 Lafayette Street,, opening May 5

Georgia O’Keeffe “Waterfall, No. I, ‘Īao Valley, Maui” (1939); Georgia O’Keeffe on Leho‘ula Beach, near Aleamai, Hāna,
Maui], 1939

Meanwhile, in a completely different setting, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx will present “George O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i”, which charts the artist’s nine-week stay in the state in 1939. That year, aged 51, O’Keeffe was sent on commission by the Hawaiian Pineapple Company to design images for a promotional campaign. During her stay, O’Keeffe made a series of paintings, seventeen of which will be displayed at the garden. There will be twenty total pieces on display. The pictures — which haven’t been exhibited in New York since their 1940 debut at the gallery of O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, on Madison Avenue — will benefit from the garden’s conservatory, where examples of the Hawaiian fauna O’Keeffe painted — birds of paradise, ginger, and hibiscus, among others — can provide additional context. Although O’Keeffe is well-known for her floral paintings, a show like this can remind viewers how closely she looked at her subjects, something that’s difficult to convey in a gallery that has only white walls. The New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx,, May 19–October 28

Antonio Canova, “Primo Pensiero for George Washington” (1817), “Modello for George Washington (detail)” (1818)

Just one month after the Frick Collection closes a beautiful and insightful show of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, it will open Canova’s George Washington, another small, focused exhibition that digs deep into a specific historical episode. In 1816, the North Carolina State House, on the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson, commissioned the Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova to create a full-length statue of Washington, which was installed at the state house in Raleigh in 1821. Ten years later, a fire tore through the building and destroyed the work (the one in North Carolina now is a duplicate). Canova’s preparatory plaster version, which remained in Italy, is the centerpiece of this exhibition, which may uproot our expectations of the artist’s style. For the most part, the public knows him as one of the most naturalistically graceful sculptors of his time. Canova was an artist who was remarkably sensitive to touch; he could make marble look as soft as flesh with seemingly only the mildest exertion. But such grace takes great effort, and this show aims in part to pull back the curtain on Canova’s process. The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street,, May 23–September 23

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Maren Hassinger, “Study for Monuments” (2018)

Harlem will be the place for those looking to see art outdoors. In June, the Studio Museum in Harlem will present “Maren Hassinger: Monuments, which includes eight new sculptures, in Marcus Garvey Park, by the artist, who has a long association with the museum (she was an artist-in-residence in 1984). Similar to some of her previous works, the new sculptures will be made from tree branches that Hassinger found around the city, and which will be fashioned into objects, with help from New York high school students, just prior to when the exhibit opens. This sort of civic engagement has long been on the artist’s mind. In 2015, during a retrospective of her work in Atlanta, she said she wanted to get back to the ideals of the civil rights movement, and “to concentrate on issues and environments where we all have a common interest.” What better place to do that than in a New York City public park? The Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street,, opening June 16

John Akomfrah, “Vertigo Sea (still)” (2015)
John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire

Since the early 1980s, the Ghanaian-born, British artist John Akomfrah has been making films and video collages that examine the violent legacy of colonialism. For many viewers, his breakthrough came in the 2015 Venice Biennale, where he presented Vertigo Sea, an unsettling three-channel video that portrayed the oceans as sites of true savagery. In one extended section, there is horrific documentary footage of whalers destroying an animal with harpoons. This summer, John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire will be his first U.S. survey. Akomfrah is an artist of real power. Compared to the various exhibitions from other artists coming to New York in the coming months, Akomfrah’s show has the most potential to overwhelm. The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery,, June 20–September 2

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Raymond Pettibon Transcends His Punk Roots

On the New Museum’s lobby wall, high above the elevator bank, Raymond Pettibon has painted an inscription of sorts to be read by all who enter: “I have been rewriting ‘that modern novel’ I spoke of to you…On th’ whole it is a failure, I think, tho nobody will know this, perhaps, but myself…iyt is a simple story, simply told. And yet iyt hath no name.” This particular story may not have a name, but it does have a title — “A Pen of All Work.” In this buzzing, illuminating exhibition — Pettibon’s first significant survey in New York City — the current tale’s told across 800-plus drawings, as well as a selection of paintings, videos, zines, album covers, posters, and flyers. (A triumph of the show: proving that even a mind-bogglingly prolific artist isn’t un-surveyable.) Here, think of the tens of thousands of works he’s created over three decades as an ongoing narrative — and think of Raymond Pettibon as one of the great American novelists or, more precisely, a novel-ist, a storyteller in a form of his very own design.

Pettibon was born Raymond Ginn in 1957, his now-surname once just a funny nickname given to him by his father after the football player John Petitbon. Ray Ginn: a bummer of a homophone during the Reagan era, which is exactly when he began to make a name for himself as an artist. His older brother, Greg, was the guitarist for the seminal punk band Black Flag, and Pettibon first became known for designing their iconic logo and creating their album covers, in addition to flyers for a raging music scene that included Fear, the Circle Jerks, the Minutemen, and more. Although his became some of the most iconic images of the era, Pettibon himself was more ambivalent about punk than legend would have it. Sir Drone, his comical, clunky video from 1989, stars two of SoCal’s best loved Mikes — artist Kelley, and Minuteman Watt — as aspiring musicians holed up in a dingy Hollywood apartment, writing crap lyrics, ham-jamming on electric guitar and bass, and trying to come up with a band name. (Two options: “Chairmen of the Bored” and “The Men From P.U.N.K.L.E.”) “I play real. I play myself,” Kelley defensively whines when Watt suggests that he learn some real chords. Through Pettibon’s lens, self-expression without craft just sounds like a lot of self-important noise.

This isn’t to say that Pettibon didn’t share in the spirit of the age. Like Kelley and others of his generation, he digested what the world fed him, only to spit it back out with equal parts tenderness and bile. Like any great writer, Pettibon is first and foremost a great reader, a mapper of the subcutaneous, that which lurks beneath the skin — of bodies, of myths, of systems political and cultural and otherwise — and even beneath images themselves. (He sometimes reproduces photos and scenes taken from television or movies or news or cartoons; other times, his visions are all his own.) His drawings are intense and uncomfortable and hilarious because they’re the products of a clear-eyed angst. Strange scenes, with an immediacy and indeterminacy akin to stills pulled from an unknown film, feature druggies, hippies, punks, roof jumpers, ocean surfers, world leaders, baseball players, superheroes, cartoon characters, mushroom clouds, soldiers, torturers, hearts (as in bloody organs, not frilly valentines) — each upended somehow, each punctured. In Ray’s world (most of his work bears the title “No Title”), Gumby’s got a boner; Superman’s a fascist; a fetus holds a sign that reads “Legalize Abortion”; Ronald Reagan’s asshole portends our future; Nancy Reagan inspires sexual fantasies; a father, son, and grandson swing side by side from a tree.

No title <i>(The war, now...)</i>
No title (The war, now…)

What has always distinguished Pettibon from certain of his predecessors — from Honoré Daumier to R. Crumb — is the way in which he sets words and images together, and apart. Text doesn’t simply describe or clarify image, and image never simply illustrates the text. Rather, they graze each other — at once marking and feeding off each other, charging the space between them, making meaning an oddball, almost offhanded thing. What more genuinely American gesture than to entwine visual and verbal cultures? “Paint the All Unutterable” he inked in 1990. It follows then that one must also utter the un-paintable.

“For a Long Time I Used to Go to Bed Early,” Pettibon quotes from Proust in a 1999 drawing, the phrase written across from the head of a wailing baby. Is the baby the reason the speaker isn’t sleeping? Or are these words “spoken” by the baby? Or or or? These pairings are like funny acts of ventriloquism, voice throwing, only who’s the dummy — who’s the mere mouthpiece — and who’s the author is to some degree muddy, muddled. In many cases, the words are Pettibon’s own, but in some, as above, they’re borrowed scripts. On display in “A Pen of All Work,” in two vitrines, are clips the artist/novel-ist has cut from books and newspapers and kept as source material, to quote from or to revise as he sees fit. Balzac, Shakespeare, and James Joyce are just some of the writers who appear throughout his work. As it turns out, Pettibon’s a true literary sort after all.

One of the revelations of this exhibition (for this viewer at least) is this plasticity of Pettibon’s voice — or rather, the fact of his many voices, his ever-shifting “I.” This artist/novel-ist is present too, always, if more complicatedly so, burrowing beneath many skins. In a self-portrait from 1990, he presents himself in a black-and-white drawing with a tear streaming from his left eye. Written below: “My Heart Tells Me That You Will Not Listen to My Words and This Is the Cause of My Tears and Cries.” We (the “you”) are now the subject of his heartbreak too, though we’re reading Pettibon’s words loud and clear.

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work
The New Museum
235 Bowery
Through April 9


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‘The Keeper’ Fills the New Museum With Trash and Treasure

Blame late capitalism for America’s longstanding obsession with clutter. If not too long ago people gathered around their TV sets to gawk at episodes of Hoarders, these days they’re going glassy-eyed for Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Trash and treasure, by all accounts, are always in the eye of the beholder, and with “The Keeper,” the New Museum weaves a rich and ambitious exhibition of a wide array of creators practiced in the art of collecting and preserving the odds and ends of the world. At its core, the show is also a meditation on what can propel a creative process and what determines an artwork’s essential value — its magic.

There are those artists moved by visions they need to heed. Arthur Bispo do Rosário believed that God wanted him to decide what and who should be redeemed on Judgment Day. He spent years in an asylum fabricating tapestries, clothes, and installations, believing himself the gatekeeper of what in the world could be saved. Vanda Vieira-Schmidt believes that she can save the earth from evil by drawing talismans of her own invention, sometimes making as many as five hundred a day. Begun in 1995, her project to date comprises over half a million drawings. Hilma af Klint, who considered herself a medium, made occult paintings so mesmerizing, one might think she was very right about her channeling powers.

Preservation is a motivation too. The tiny terrarium-like sculptures of Yuji Agematsu are made of bits and pieces of refuse he collects on his daily walks around New York City — dropped toys, a slice of lemon, hair, insects, lint, papers — and displays inside the plastic wrapping taken from a cigarette pack. (Each artwork equals a single day’s worth of detritus.) Shinro Ohtake preserves found materials, too, in bulging Technicolor scrapbooks into which he pastes and paints over
magazine clippings, stamps, wrappers, comic strips, and more. The compositions explode off the page, and each book looks as though it will burst at the seams, spilling his visions of the world into ours.

There is also art that springs from trauma. Hannelore Baron’s family escaped Nazi Germany, but not before having their business and personal possessions stolen. Her somber assemblages are animated by the question of what survives such trials, and how, and how legibly. Emir Maurice Chehab rescued as many of the antiquities from the National Museum of Beirut as he could when the front lines of the Lebanese Civil War were drawn outside its front door. These objects — here displayed as slides — may have been saved from extinction, but most were marred by the violence: melted, burned, misshapen, transformed into war memorials of a different kind.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the monumental installation Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002) by Ydessa Hendeles, an object-essay on the creature comforts we manufacture and embrace to soothe childhood fears and ward off the inevitable passing of time. Inside of rooms built to resemble a two-story library, the artist has hung more than three thousand photographs of people and their teddy bears alongside antique versions of the ever-popular stuffed animals. The installation is so dense and dizzying — the eye struggles to land inside the space — that any feelings of nostalgia or solace are replaced by vertigo.

When the exhibition falls flat — when a work lacks the uncommon aura we’ve come to want and expect — it’s invariably around a contemporary artist. Why? Walking through the museum’s galleries, one feels the distinct difference between an artist who has a belief and one who has a concept — whether a creator-collector is guided by obsession, compulsion, or passion, or by a certain professionalism. In the parlance of our era, the low-frequency question of authenticity, that greasy, double-edged standard of aesthetic value, hums around some of the art on view. (Again, blame late capitalism.) Although “The Keeper” does well to point to the many registers of creative production, it also winds the mind around the poles at either end of the “great art vs. successful art” debate.

Take Aurélien Froment’s video Pocket Theater (2007), in which a magician procures and prestidigitates an encyclopedic array of images of objects onscreen, arranging and rearranging them in midair. The work is a delight, a visual confection about the ways in which jpegs fuel (and fake out) the eye, giving us an illusion of presence, of possession. An astute point, for sure, yet when compared to the well-worn pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s notes on butterfly wing patterns, or the sparkling mysteries of theorist Roger Caillois’s collection of stones, or the proposed universality of composer Harry Smith’s stockpile of string games (selections of all of which are installed directly across from Froment’s video), his feels didactic, lacking the tender propeller of personal pleasure.

Or Ed Atkins’s video The Trick Brain (2013), a visual essay on André Breton’s apartment, which the Surrealist meticulously stuffed floor to ceiling with his massive collections of art, books, and other objets. (Collecting will be compulsive, or will not be at all!) Atkins’s video is mostly composed of shots of Breton’s apartment appropriated from footage by French filmmaker Fabrice Maze, who’s uncredited for his material. (The exhibition’s catalog and wall text refer to it only as “archival footage.”) Over these images, Atkins adds a monologue he wrote on the subject of collection-as-corpse in prose so punishingly “poetic” it gives one the distinctly unpleasant feeling of having been waterboarded by a thesaurus. (“Slimed, as if freshly birthed through a gaping trepanation bordered with amniotic marmalade.”) One can argue that these moves all support Atkins’s concept, but in the context of this show, his piece feels lifeless and arch.

And yet these artists are authentic signs of our times, reflecting a relationship to collection and creation that’s disconnected from rawer impulses, now made strategic, self-conscious, or, more dispiritingly, market-ready. (Not to mention feeding the darkest side of collecting: the advent of art as an investment commodity, to be flipped, or put into long-term storage, until deemed ready for the auction block.) The most invigorating moments of “The Keeper” immerse us in expressions and gestures born of urgency, of an unfettered mind freed to follow its bliss or its dread and compose the world as it sees fit. If feeling overwhelmed as you wander the galleries, take Kondo’s advice: Keep only what sparks joy.

‘The Keeper’
The New Museum
235 Bowery
Through September 25

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Apothecary Action: Simone Leigh Gives Healing a New Frame

“The Waiting Room,” Simone Leigh’s show at the New Museum, is both a direct response to a horrific event and a metaphor for resistance in impossible circumstances: It points to the story of Esmin Green, a 49-year-old woman who was forcibly admitted into Kings County Hospital in 2008, when her pastor saw her in emotional distress and called 911. She was left untreated in the waiting room for 24 hours, during which time she fainted and died. Hospital staff failed to act when Green collapsed and later forged the reports of her death.

The exhibition, up at a time when we’ve witnessed the individual, familial, and collective trauma of ever more black lives ended by police, can be read as a poetic reply to its surroundings: a way to expand, humanize, and re-politicize healing. As the curatorial statement argues, “Carving out a space for health care in its absence may be best understood — historically and in the present — as an act of civil disobedience.”

Leigh has realized such a space in the fifth-floor education center of the museum, installing a row of cushions, a sampling of video work, and an apothecary. The most traditional pieces in the show are the video works. 9 o’clock. Try and be pretty (2016) is a wry found clip from the sitcom Julia, in which a white male employer demands that Julia, his new black female hire, meet his (white-centric) standards of beauty and professionalism. Meanwhile, video documentation of Leigh’s “Free People’s Medical Clinic” (2014) shows a set of care sessions in Bed-Stuy, part of the Creative Time exhibition “funkgodjazz&medicine.” It’s a revealing pairing: 9 o’clock highlights the struggles of black women in the workplace, while the other shows how free clinics and experimental spaces might offer a needed counter.

“Free People’s Medical Clinic” and “The Waiting Room” mark something of a new direction for Leigh, who is mostly known for her sculptures. Her signature busts, adorned with flowers and shells, build a black, female iconography; the minimally described features of the women suggest that they stand in for many. Leigh reaches into history to find resonant objects and materials like raffia, terra-cotta, porcelain, and stone — an archive of shapes and senses.

Leigh’s attention to the tactile carries into “The Waiting Room,” which challenges the idea of an exhibition for the eyes alone. The fifth floor becomes a space for embodiment: sitting on the cushions to meditate, smelling the canisters of dried herbs. It’s a place to converse and listen. More than a display of fixed objects, the exhibition is defined by the experiences that will take place within it: a series of discussion groups, acupuncture sessions, massages, lectures, and classes all focused on marginalized forms of knowledge. Herbalist Karen Rose will lead a six-week course on herbal healing; taiko master Kaoru Watanabe will teach drum-making and drumming to LGBTQ youth; performance artist Lorraine O’Grady will answer an audience’s questions about aging.

The project stretches the New Museum’s galleries: The rose petals and smudge sticks, spiritual healers and singers, contrast starkly with the cold concrete and drywall. It’s a productive tension, bringing warmth, color, and smell to the white cube, and one that will continue: This is the first annual “R&D Summer” focusing on art and social justice.

And it’s a worthwhile experiment. Alongside organizing and mourning, what could be more essential (or radical) than a deeper attention to the recuperative practices and knowledge of black women in America? In citing Esmin Green’s story, Leigh sounds a haunting reminder: Until government structures center and value black life, communities will need to practice healing within and for themselves.

Simone Leigh: ‘The Waiting Room’
New Museum
235 Bowery
Through September 18


Take It From Albert Oehlen: His Paintings Are Stupid

The New Museum’s exhibition of Albert Oehlen’s muddy paintings of ectoplasmic chaos is obscure, plodding, and irritating, yet it can be difficult to identify the exact sources of this artist’s premeditated vexations. One clue lies in the German’s admiration for the counterculture’s favorite musical satirist: He self-identifies as the Frank Zappa of painters. Like many of the Mothers of Invention ringleader’s high-concept albums, Oehlen’s far-out canvases haven’t aged well. Today neither would seem out of place in a Williamsburg novelty shop alongside gag gifts, scented soaps, and hand-painted signs that say “Bless This Mess.”

It’s odd to begin a review with a confession, but I wish I liked Albert Oehlen’s paintings more. There’s a lot to admire: his stubborn defense of painting during the hidebound conceptualist 1970s; his penchant for excess as a visceral reaction to serial outbreaks of cultural constipation; the frankly improvisatory nature of his work and his admitted reliance on crassness to bulldoze through art’s prissier prohibitions. But there’s also an unavoidable nails-on-chalkboard screech to these fussbudget canvases. Despite the rowdy entertainments therein, navigating a roomful of Oehlen’s paintings can feel like being stuck in an elevator with Zappa’s Jazz From Hell playing on endless repeat.

[pullquote]There’s an unavoidable nails-on-chalkboard screech to Oehlen’s fussbudget canvases.[/pullquote]

Those who like their art with a large helping of ironic reverb will find much to love in this tidy show of 26 paintings by the 61-year-old faux-expressionist. Titled “Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden,” the exhibition provides a neat précis of the artist’s lengthy career (the works date from 1983 to 2011) while offering a glimpse of key artistic developments that occurred in Germany between the triumph of American culture, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rudderless Love Parade that ensued.

Part of a second wave of German painters that trailed better-known figures like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Jörg Immendorff into the conceptual-art breach, Oehlen became best known early on as a nerdy Garth to Martin Kippenberger’s raucous Wayne. The pair spent much of the 1970s and ’80s enacting Germany’s brush-and-canvas version of a “Bohemian Rhapsody” flail. Together they climbed on tables and pulled down their pants in front of adults while, according to Oehlen, “making asses of ourselves and making everyone hate us.” Eventually both art delinquents stumbled upon their own bumptious versions of “bad painting.” Kippenberger, a terminal narcissist until his death in 1997 at age 44, elevated his monumental insincerity into self-portraiture. Oehlen, ever the wingman, turned to abstraction to launch a mock-serious raft of attacks on painting as a convention.

Albert Oehlen, <i>Untitled</i>, 1989, oil and enamel on canvas, 94.5 by 78.75 inches
Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 1989, oil and
enamel on canvas, 94.5 by 78.75 inches

The purveyor of a “sham Expressionism” (in the words of critic Hal Foster), Oehlen has cultivated a deliberate practice of lackluster, ham-fisted work on canvas ever since declaring, on a 1988 trip to Spain, his intention to be a failed painter. A dilettantish approach that has invariably come to be seen as masterful — like politicians and whores, painting styles gain respectability simply by being around long enough — Oehlen’s example has more recently exerted widespread influence on younger generations of art slackers. Painting culture, it appears, was long ready for its lip-sync battle. Before formalist “zombie” abstraction, the impulse to paint shoddily feasted on a vast menu of cultural antecedents (Ennio Morricone instrumentals and kung fu films among them). In our bandwagon-jumping age, all it takes is one Quentin Tarantino type to collapse the gap between copycat kitsch and “bad art” that truly ventures something.

At the New Museum, Oehlen’s earliest and ugliest abstract paintings date from the period between 1988 and 1992. Though all of these works are untitled, the artist has described them as “post–non-objective paintings,” using contrived artspeak to ironize about their mix of abstract and representational motifs (the term “non-objective” is a common synonym for abstraction). Several such canvases contain traces of figuration — including eyes, cartoonish faces, body parts, and symbols — often layered in thin brushstrokes atop dark, muddy grounds. Rather than look spontaneous, his paintings resemble a watery gumbo. “Basically,” he told one interviewer, “the word ‘abstract’ for me should be something like degenerate, perverted, unfinished, turned out badly.”

According to a catalog essay by the show’s curator, New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, Oehlen has long strived to become, above everything else, “as stupid as a painter.” A phrase drawn from the anti-retinal quiver of proto-conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, this rhetorical arrow has pointed the way forward (or back, depending on your own estimation of the results) for the artist’s entire production. His wan black-and-white “computer paintings,” for instance, pioneered the use of Texas Instruments drawing software to “paint” and silkscreen pixelated marks onto large canvases. Similarly, his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink “switch-paintings” indiscriminately layer inkjet scribbles, silkscreen, spray paint, and bits of brushwork to achieve toxic-looking paint pools the artist has dubbed “electric mud.” Talk about truth in advertising! Tellingly, Oehlen’s love of studied daftness hasn’t deterred him from reaching for formalist painting’s ultimate scale: corporate-lobby large.

Art critics have made big, unsubstantiated claims for Oehlen’s paintings since this show opened a month ago — that he is painting’s heavyweight champion for the Instagram age, and, more absurdly, that he is the foremost painter of an era that saw the medium decline inexorably. On the evidence of this dreary exhibition, it’s all hogwash. Dumb and dumber are no way to revive painting as a self-reflexive medium. As Frank Zappa said, there is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe. But that doesn’t mean it’s right to call it oxygen.

‘Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden’
New Museum
235 Bowery
Through September 13

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Doubledowner: New Museum Retrospective Gives Too Brief a Look at Sarah Charlesworth’s Work

“Art is not defined by the medium it employs, but rather by the questions that it asks,” wrote Sarah Charlesworth in 1983. More than 30 years later, the New Museum has organized “Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld,” the first major New York survey of her work. The exhibition presents a selection of her photographic series, each of which centers around certain questions regarding photography. By turns intelligent and romantic, stately and ethereal, utterly genteel and unabashedly seductive, Charlesworth’s photographs are both a salve and a challenge to the ways in which we see.

Like contemporaries Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Jack Goldstein, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince, Charlesworth, who died in 2013 at age 66, is lumped into the loose collection of conceptual artists known as the “Pictures Generation.” Making images versus taking images, media versus messages: These were the shared interrogations for a distinct group of artists who, in late-1970s–early-1980s New York, recognized what lurks beneath the image surface. Charlesworth’s earliest works were pictures of pictures, decontextualized and rephotographed to see what information popped out when an image was piled up on itself. About fellow Pictures Generation artist/rephotographer Sherrie Levine, Donald Barthelme once wrote: “She steps in the same river twice.” Charlesworth, however, honored the inimitable flow, dipping into the endless slipstream of images, placing the specimens she caught under her lens for closer inspection.

On view in its entirety for the first time in New York is Charlesworth’s harrowing and transcendent “Stills” (1980), a series of fourteen images of people falling, or perhaps jumping, from buildings. Appropriated and rephotographed from news sources, the works are printed a bit larger than human scale so that our bodies more directly confront these imperiled counterparts — some identified, most anonymous — surrendered to gravity, momentarily seized by the camera before their fate is met. Here the message is clear: Photography can stop time — preserve life, in a sense — yet it’s somehow always in cahoots with death.

Less disturbing, but no less pointed, are Charlesworth’s sumptuous “Objects of Desire” (1983–1988), a series the artist crafted by meticulously cutting images of objects from magazines, books, and other sources, and photographing them against laminated color paper. A black leather harness, a geisha’s face, a movie star’s satin evening gown, a Buddha statue: These and other fetishes float against rich, monochromatic backgrounds, returned from the flat image world as seductive, lickable surfaces. Consumption, erotics, spirituality: Is it the object, its image, or the artwork that most fully entwines these?

It may escape the notice of a post-Photoshop eye that Charlesworth’s images were created in-camera, without the assistance or manipulation of computer software, though she was acutely aware of the changing times. Perhaps feeling the limits of appropriation and rephotography — the artist claimed that every two years she immersed herself in a new question, a new strategy regarding art-making — in the early Nineties she began to make the subjects for herself. “Being in the wane of the age of photography, I was trying to talk about the age in which the world became organized through photography,” Charlesworth once explained about her 1995 series “Doubleworld.” For these photographs, she arranged tableaux of nineteenth-century antiques in a painterly manner, to perform as symbols for the means of seeing and knowing the world.

In Doubleworld, the series’ titular image, two stereopticons stand side by side, a slide portrait of two women clipped to the front of their lenses. The image obviously nods to a kind of voyeurism — an experience of double vision — yet there’s more here than meets the eye. Charlesworth created the photograph by means of double exposure — she could only find one stereopticon she didn’t think was “cheesy” — and the slide is a prop she made from a single found photograph.

There is an icy theatricality about this series, which prevents the photographs from creeping into oddball nostalgia. “I’m also very interested in the question of ‘What is time — what is this thing we call the past?’ ” she said in 1998. “How is it knowable, and is it actually knowable, and is it possible to transcend it for a moment, and if so, how?” In the ghostly pictures of “0+1” (2000), the subjects appear and recede, almost like vapor, alluding to time and its fragile, earthbound documents. As though in counterpoint, the auratic photographs in her final series, “Available Light” (2012), are bold and vivid, transforming light into near-solid matter, capturing moments when camera, object, eye, and sun all line up in harmony together.

Though stunning and inarguably considerate, the New Museum exhibition is, at the same time, brief and blunt — Charlesworth’s work is wrapped up too neatly, too tightly — especially in light of the fact that this will undoubtedly be her only hometown retrospective for quite some time. Part of the show’s lack of stretch and breath may be due in part to the exacting rigor of Charlesworth’s practice, yet the curators add little to the artist’s own prescriptions for the work. Is this approach a sign of respect, or complacency? This kind of party-line presentation isn’t uncommon in museum exhibitions of contemporary art, yet it’s clearly a slippery angle considering the private interests that continue to wind their way around the spaces for public art education. This isn’t to suggest a retrospective is an opportunity for aggressive puncturing. Rather, it should be an opportunity for nuanced and rigorous thinking alongside that of the artist herself.

There is an interesting challenge — an irony — that Charlesworth and others of the Pictures Generation pose to the form of the retrospective. These artists were and are keenly aware of the economy of images, understanding that pictures always accrue or lose interest over time. Images never go extinct, but their meanings can shift when references are lost or conversations change. To freeze these works, particularly Charlesworth’s early works, inside a singular, solid narrative is to inhibit their natural progression or erosion. To somehow articulate or activate the distinct half-life of the photograph would have been well worth the effort, particularly for Charlesworth, an artist devoted to the art of questions, a photographer for whom there was always something more to see.

Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld
New Museum
235 Bowery
Through September 20, 2015

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IDEAS CITY, a biennial festival, brought more than 50,000 people to the Bowery for each of its past two runs. Did those people leave the festival enlightened? We can’t know for sure, but we can say that, at the very least, it got lots of people thinking about the roles they play as urban residents in New York and beyond. The festival consists of talks, performances, screenings, art exhibits, and other activities that take place over a three-day period. Each event tackles the subjects of art, civic life, politics, the environment, technology, or architecture — or some interdisciplinary combination of these. For example, at “Wasted Food x Wasted Space” on Friday morning, conferences about waste management take place over a breakfast of “rescued” food in a garden pavilion made entirely of garbage. The entire festival is the brainchild of the New Museum, so you know you are in good hands.

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The New Museum’s ‘Surround Audience’ Delivers the Same Old Same Old

When violent revolutions struck Europe and Latin America in the 1840s, a French newspaper editor named Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr summed up the craze for newfangled
social, political, and cultural forms with
an enduring phrase: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

That saying applies to our digital revolution (as well as to its wildly inflated byproducts like Google Glass and atemporal painting). The latest instance of starry-eyed cultural hype is “Surround Audience,” the much-anticipated, digitally inspired 2015 New Museum Triennial.
If a few optimists thought the exhibition would finally shift the artistic conversation away from market chatter and toward real-world subjects, the actual results
register yet another disappointment.

A display of work by 51 artists from 25 nations that (according to the exhibition literature) probes “the social and psychological effects of digital technology,” the show represents a grab bag of trendy ideas. One explanation for the exhibition’s manifest immaturity is the Triennial’s insistence on only featuring artists 35 and younger — there’s nothing more conservative in our time than youth culture. Another indicator of its artlessness: Most works were commissioned specifically for this youthennial. A curatorial and
artistic gamble, the strategy risked callowness and incoherence — and that’s mostly what it yielded.

Organized by curator Lauren Cornell and filmmaker Ryan Trecartin, “Surround Audience” takes as its starting point Trecartin’s Smurfs-meet–Michael Alig videos. These, we are told, are
expressions of “a world in which the
effects of technology and late capitalism have been absorbed into our bodies and altered our vision of the world.” Perhaps a better way to trumpet Trecartin’s presence at the helm would be to declare that his is the “Extreme Diet Coke & Mentos Experiment” that fizzes the venting of this arty generation.

Despite the curators’ attempts to justify the inclusion of related artworks that
deliberate “politically about the issues of our times” — Onejoon Che’s photographs of Third World Soviet-style monuments built by a contemporary North Korean art studio, for instance — most of the work
intersects not with life but with its highly attenuated, alt-bourgeois, digitally
enabled avatar. One example is Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s virtual rainforest environment; another is the show’s flagship sculpture, Juliana, Frank Benson’s hyper-realistic, life-size 3-D print of the transgender artist Juliana Huxtable (who’s also represented in the exhibition by photographic self-portraits in far-out purple and green). After one is done
considering the gee-whiz technology
that produced Benson’s LGBTQ-era mannequin, there’s not much left to do but gawk. Insert emoji here.

Other works that confuse high-tech
vacuity and convolutedness for real
commentary: Josh Kline’s installation Freedom; and Casey Jane Ellison’s digital animation of her “self-objectifying”
persona as the host of Ovation TV’s “all
female, no explanation” talk show Touching the Art, episodes of which welcome viewers via a flatscreen on the first floor.
If Kline’s immersive sculpture and video installation circles global techno-political shifts it never nails — in his words, “the digitization of identity, the voluntary and involuntary dissolution of privacy, and the political consequences of this way of living” — Ellison’s flat affect and Valley Girl whine bowdlerize the sincerity necessary for most audiences to actually care.

“Surround Audience” does much better with painting and collage, as well as the odd installation. In that last camp there’s Eva Kotátková’s Not How People Move but What Moves Them, a Surrealist-inspired tableau that includes drawings, furniture, and female performers who put their heads or feet in metal cages. In the 2-D realm are excellent grayscale paintings
by Avery K. Singer — SketchUp-aided
de Chiricos — as well as gorgeous mixed-
media mash-ups by Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Finally, consider Antoine Catala’s newly rebranded symbol for “empathy.” The best of the Triennial works that insert themselves into real-life circuits, Catala’s logo is presented in a fish tank covered
in live coral, yet also exists outside the
museum as a communication campaign,
a website and a GIF.

Viewed soberly, the proliferation of “free” information and endless commercial gadgetry that “Surround Audience” celebrates has come at a cost of millions of real-world jobs and a hollowed-out collective imagination. This Triennial, barring a few works, is proof of that. Change in our time does not necessarily produce cultural revolutionaries. Sometimes it just manufactures new opportunities to cement the status quo.

Correction published 3/5/15: The original version of this article misidentified the creator of the Juliana sculpture as Frank Webster. The above version reflects the corrected text.


Chris Ofili’s Long-Overdue Retrospective at the New Museum Is NYC’s Comeback of the Year

The Web’s Urban Dictionary has two definitions for the verb “to giuliani.” The first, predictably, is “To sodomize with a plunger.” The second, more usefully, reads, “To shamelessly take advantage of tragedy for one’s own personal gain.” Riffs on the man who served as New York City’s mayor from 1994 to 2001, these meanings underscore the crippling effect of scandal on the great majority of artists. History has taught us that confronting political power usually results less in progressive culture-war victories (like Robert Mapplethorpe’s) than in lasting abuse (like Abner Louima’s).

In September 1999, Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-decorated Holy Virgin Mary — part of the Brooklyn Museum’s controversial “Sensation” exhibition — was scapegoated by New York’s lame-duck mayor during his unsuccessful Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton; Giuliani called the painting “blasphemous” and “sick stuff” and threatened to pull city funding unless it was removed from the show. After multiple tabloid headlines, the Brooklyn Museum’s First Amendment cause prevailed, but at an important cost to Ofili — who virtually disappeared from the American scene. Fifteen years later, the disappointment of seeing this English artist’s work only infrequently in the city has been substantially remedied, thanks to a vibrant New Museum survey that includes hundreds of his lyrical paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Much like the current Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Matisse cutouts, this sparkling display constitutes a sensational NYC comeback.

Titled “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” the New Museum’s offering represents the London-born artist’s first major American solo museum exhibition. A Turner Prize winner in 1998 and the U.K.’s 2003 representative at the storied Venice Biennale, Ofili is still largely misidentified in the U.S. as a second-generation identity artist. As this retrospective shows, that characterization shortchanges his remarkable accomplishments. Beginning with his lushly confrontational Afrocentric Pop paintings in the 1990s, Ofili’s vision grew exponentially: Constant experiments with subject, materials, color, and style make his canvases crackle with rare electricity. Consequently, this two-decade show celebrates a genuinely unique achievement. It also provides a moment to reflect on what might have been, had Ofili’s older hip-hop cousin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, anticipated some of the Englishman’s exquisite control, ripe sensuality, and outright doggedness.

The New Museum’s curating team of Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton have deftly arrayed 30 major paintings, four sculptures, and 181 watercolors over three floors. Featuring several distinct bodies of work, “Night and Day” charms and enraptures by turns yet doesn’t flinch at presenting the very paintings that gave Ofili tabloid name recognition. Among these are powerhouse canvases like Affrodizzia and Monkey Magic — Sex, Money and Drugs, mixed-media portraits made from a signature combination of acrylic, oil, resin, map pins, glitter, and the aforementioned dung (a material the artist picked up after a residency in Zimbabwe). Also included among 10 other paintings that represent the artist’s output from the contentious 1990s is The Holy Virgin Mary herself: an icon-like image of a large-lipped, wide-nosed black Madonna draped in a blue tunic on a gold background, with putti made from collaged female bottoms, plus clumps of pachyderm shit that make up the Virgin’s exposed right breast (as well as the painting’s feet). Far from defacing Ofili’s Madonna, the turds turn her body voluptuously earthy. In case anyone is still shocked, it’s worth recalling Rembrandt’s 17th-century job description: “I find rubies and emeralds in a dung heap.”

A batch of related works Ofili made for the 2003 British Pavilion in Venice marshal similar painterly elements. Made using the restricted palette of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the five paintings on view here create an immersive environment that pulsates in shades of red, black, and green. An abridged version of the pavilion designed by Ofili’s friend David Adjaye, these canvases feature jungle landscapes populated by embracing couples, tropical greenery, and a repeating starburst motif — as seen in works like Triple Beam Dreamer and Afro Love and Envy. What Ofili depicted in these pictures is a 2-D vision of a pan-Africanist Eden. What he aesthetically engineered is an enveloping experience akin to hearing bass-heavy reggae with surround-sound speakers turned up to 11. In comparison, most contemporary pictures from the era look like the synesthetic equivalent of Kraftwerk.

The last of Ofili’s works to incorporate painted dots, map pins, and elephant dung, the Venice Biennale series signified a major triumph, but also a profound shift. Change came in two ways. First, Ofili left London for the Caribbean heaven of Trinidad in 2005. Second, he quit the image sampling and magpie ornamentation that characterized his previous canvases in order to make “less complex” work that tapped into “a process of looking that was slower.” The results — contrary to sunshiny expectations — were his blue paintings: nightscapes loaded with blue-black shapes and figures that literally drift in and out of visibility. Hung in a darkened gallery on the museum’s third floor, these paintings vibrate dramatically according to the viewer’s movements. For the minimalist-minded, there are connections to be made to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings and Rothko’s black-on-black monochromes. I, for one, prefer to think of these pictures as closer to viewing Monet’s water lilies — by moonlight.

The museum’s topmost, fourth-floor galleries are given over to Ofili’s more recent works, which feature dramatic color combinations in sinuous compositions depicting elongated Matisse-like figures disporting against Art Deco–like backgrounds. Bright, fluid, flat, and often gauzy, Ofili’s newest dreamscapes engage mythological narratives and religious figures — subject matter the artist has incorporated into his work in much the same way he once used dung and clippings. Paintings like the knockout Ovid-Destiny and Ovid-Actaeon were made for a joint commission for both the U.K.’s Royal Opera House and the National Gallery; their theme is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Other works, like the orange, teal, and purple Raising of Lazarus, take on art history directly, with a veteran’s confidence. An image that not only echoes past versions of the painting, from Rembrandt to van Gogh, Lazarus and other works like it in “Night and Day” appear to literally embrace and consume all of art history.

El Greco, Les Fauves, Gauguin, Picasso’s Blue Period, late Matisse, German Expressionism, Yves Klein, Romare Bearden, Robert Rauschenberg. Like lessons learned during Giuliani-time, this artist train is not in vain, but rather marks stages in the development of a painter who, as this retrospective amply demonstrates, became a modern master. Any remaining Ofili detractors ought to have their eyes examined.