Can the Modernist Canon Please Make Room for a Woman?

Picasso, Dubuffet, Braque: The circle of avant-gardists in Paris during the first half of the 1900s is so mythologized within the history of art, that its members have become mononyms. Baya Mahieddine — an Algerian artist who inspired all three of these men, and whose early gouaches are at the Grey Art Gallery — seems, in this sense, ready for entry into the Modernist canon. Throughout her career, she went by her first name only, and her biography, too, is the stuff of lore.

Born Fatma Haddad in 1931 near Algiers, Baya was orphaned at five and sent to live with her grandmother on a farm belonging to the Benhouras, a wealthy Algerian family. She displayed an early aptitude for art, and often drew and sculpted in the sand — a habit that caught the attention of Marguerite Benhoura, who, the exhibition’s catalogue notes, remembered Baya as a “wild and barefoot child making fascinating small animals and strange female figures out of dirt.”

Baya at the Galerie Maeght in Paris during her exhibition, 1947.

The French-born Marguerite Benhoura was an avid art collector with close ties to Paris and encouraged Baya to take up painting, later adopting her and introducing her to prominent gallerists and dealers. In 1947, at just sixteen, Baya showed work in Galerie Maeght’s “Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme,” curated by André Breton. Later that year, the same gallery mounted a solo exhibition of her gouaches and ceramics. Its success prompted the Madoura ceramic studio to invite Baya to Vallauris, southern France, to work as a summer artist-in-residence alongside Picasso. She spent the summers of 1948 to 1952 there; in 1953, a year before the Algerian War of Independence, Baya returned to Algeria and married El Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine, a musician thirty years her senior. She began making art again in the 1960s, and continued exhibiting in North Africa until her death in 1998.

“Baya: Woman of Algiers,” curated by Natasha Boas, is the artist’s first exhibition in North America, and is admirable for attempting to find her a suitable place within the well-trod narrative of Modernism — one that can feel stultified and remains, despite recent interventions, largely Western- and male-dominated. The twenty-odd paintings on view — all from the period around her Paris debut — prove that Baya was an artist of exceptional vision. Her images of bright, bold, swirling women would pair nicely with works by Braque, Dubuffet, and especially Matisse. And they hold their own beside — and in fact, surpass in quality — several Picasso ceramics from the Grey’s permanent collection, included here to suggest the work he did with Baya at Vallauris. (Baya’s own ceramics are, unfortunately, not displayed.)

“Femmes et orangers fond blanc (Women and orange trees on a white background),” 1947

But is such loose juxtaposition the best means of capturing Baya? Movies have the so-called “Bechdel Test” to affirm whether a filmmaker has met minimum feminist criteria. While there are many Bechdel variants one might propose for curating an art exhibition, leaving “Baya: Woman of Algiers,” I wished particularly for one with a Modernist spin. Call it the “Baya Test”: Can an exhibition on twentieth-century art reference at least one female artist, and can it elevate her work without showing how it “inspired” that of a male Modernist? “Baya: Woman of Algiers” passes the first part with flying colors — literally, if one considers Baya’s spectacular patterns and palettes. But in featuring Picasso so prominently it falters in the second. All the more so given how assiduously Baya seems to have avoided any hint or trace of men in her artwork: With the exception of one landscape, all the paintings in the exhibition are of female subjects, alone or in pairs, their serpentine bodies curving majestically from the edges of the canvas. Not a man is in sight. Instead, the figures are often surrounded by natural motifs. Woman with a basket and a red rooster (1947) shows a young woman flanked by a black butterfly and a rather flamboyant, peacock-like rooster. In Women and orange trees on a white background (also from 1947), a mother and daughter frame a cross of orange-dotted branches.

“Femme attablées (Women at table),” 1947

Although each of Baya’s women looks distinct, they share a set of basic, stylized features: lips of two conjoined squiggles, turned up into a haughty smile or down into a swollen pout, masses of hair in different hues that ooze from the scalp like inkblots, and darkly lidded, narrowed almond eyes. They also all wear long dresses inspired by Algerian Kabyle textiles, suggesting that Baya wished to paint a world in which specifically Algerian women — that is to say, colonized women — could move and gesture freely.

Telling a story of twentieth-century art without male Modernists is hard. (As hard as trying to write a review without them.) It is rather like being asked to tell a story without any prepositions, or conjunctions, or adjectives. Especially so when the story in question is an introduction, for which some measure of context and familiar background is needed. A bit of Picasso is forgivable in this initial glimpse of Baya, but one hopes it will not set a precedent. Though Picasso, Braque, Dubuffet, and others wished to claim Baya for their own, in the end, Modernism may be a wrong — or at least, unnecessary — lens for “Baya-ism,” as she liked to call her style. Could we give Baya an exhibition that, like the women she painted, seems unencumbered by Western art historical and colonial baggage?

Like any great first encounter — and there is no doubt Boas has, overall, achieved something great — “Baya: Woman of Algiers” electrifies but leaves you wanting more.

‘Baya: Woman of Algiers’
Grey Art Gallery
100 Washington Square East
Through March 31


Roxy Paine Will Warp Your Brain

‘What produces a present as different, and how does a present focus a past in turn?” A simple question asked in convoluted academic patois, the query kicks off Hal Foster’s introduction to The Return of the Real, at one time a massively influential treatise on contemporary art. Published in 1996, the book articulated art’s postmodern (and some say rightward) turn toward anti-enlightenment critique. Rather than continue the “metaphorical” tradition that ran from Picasso through Pollock, Foster strategically fomented the kind of (purportedly) “realist” analysis — deconstruction, demystification, discourse debunking, etc. — that specialist critics like him applied to (supposedly) cerebral artists like Duchamp and Warhol. The idea was to promote the triumph of theory over metaphor. If shows like “Denuded Lens,” Roxy Paine’s trompe l’oeil exhibition of meticulously carved wood sculptures at Chelsea’s Marianne Boesky Gallery, are any indication, that idea has finally tanked harder than Jeff Bezos’s 99-cent Amazon phone.

See also: Roxy Paine’s Mind-Blowing Wooden Realism

A problem-rich exhibition of the
claptrap-free variety, Paine’s current collection of hand- and machine-tooled objects needs zero critical theory to be understood but plenty of close-up looking to plumb its eye-fooling secrets. The exhibition’s title suggests a connection to photography but also to seeing things without certain meddlesome habits of mind, including jaded skepticism, received opinion, and blinkered ideology. In his new show, Paine basically establishes his own investigatory bona fides — like, say, J.J. Gittes in Chinatown. That’s great news for viewers and critics alike; his art has long been about confecting enduring visual mysteries. In this artist’s hands, seemingly familiar objects routinely turn compelling, strange, and noir. (Full disclosure: I wrote an essay for a pamphlet that accompanied another exhibition of Paine’s work in Chicago last year.)

Take the lathed wooden “machines” Paine locates near the entrance to the gallery like bouncers at the entrance to the Stork Club. Full-scale objects made entirely from unfinished maple, they mimic certain industrial components while at the same time ghosting the utility they so convincingly fake. The first such work, Scrutiny, consists of a solid tabletop overwhelmed by a load of counterfeit devices: a clip-on light, several cameras, a microphone, a calculator, and a telescope, all made of wood. The second, Machine of Indeterminacy, presents an assembly-line component whose levers, plugs, chutes, and conduits, all expertly carved from maple, fail to add up to any discernible functionality. A question lingers: If not pitch-perfect copies of things in the world, what are Paine’s surrogates about? In an interview with the Brooklyn Rail, the artist reluctantly describes his sculptures as reminders of the way “a human can be subject to scrutiny from every possible angle.” More to the point, Paine’s beige objects constitute knotty but capacious metaphors for the idea of “control.”

Sculptures that feature a great big question mark at their core, these and two other artworks installed in the gallery’s third space present a kind of foreword and afterword to the exhibition’s main attraction (about which more later). Titled Intrusion and Speech Impediment — the former features a chiseled pinball machine crossed with a jagged topography, while the latter marries a carved chainsaw with a facsimile of a bullhorn — these two fantastical objects operate according to the same enigmatic logic that animates the exhibition’s other stand-alone sculptures. Juxtapositions of one or more unrelated elements rendered with rare precision, they function principally by stretching the limits of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge cannily called the willing suspension of disbelief. This is Paine assuming the role of the artist as a storyteller. A sculptor in radical Borges mode, he also clearly relishes the idea of letting the viewer freely complete his strange sculptural fictions.

If Paine’s sculptures consistently interrogate their forms and materials, the exhibition’s centerpiece proves an inquisition: It takes the elements the artist harnesses in discrete pieces and puts them through the wringer. A Natural History Museum-type diorama of an airport security area — complete with full-body scanners, X-ray conveyor belts, plastic trays, and trash cans for liquid containers larger than 100 milliliters — Checkpoint moves beyond the precision of wayward replicas into a meticulously wood-carved parallel universe of anamorphic and cognitive distortion. Not only are materials like metal, plastic, and glass transformed into wood, but, thanks to the alchemy of forced perspective, some 80 linear feet of space are scrunched into 18 feet. The effect is a mind-blowing trip to
Pleasantville. Employing computer modeling and uncanny realism, Paine has rendered an anxiety-inducing, product-of-
our-times environment into something appropriately warped and colorless. Could there be a more apt scenario in which to take issues concerning perception and how we frame information and knowledge and subject them to the third degree?

A truly useful question about art’s place in the world today might ask: How can visual art advance crucial cultural, social, and philosophical ideas? Roxy Paine’s answer involves independent thinking, sleight-of-hand construction, and works that are rich in metaphorical depth. That’s critical realism, all right — but for real this time.


Art for Film’s Sake: Celluloid Characters, Real Paintings

In 1992, I owed a favor to a production designer in the film industry, and he asked me to create a series of paintings for the character of a penniless artist in a feature co-written by a little-known director from Taiwan. One summer day, a gaggle of assistants arrived at my Queens studio and stretched half a dozen canvases while I read the script. The lines written for “Wei-Wei” conjured a scrappy young Chinese woman who was steeped in the painting practices of two cultures, and who was also desperate for a green card. Her work needed to combine the calligraphic sinuousness of Chinese brush painting with clashing hues and jagged compositions, emphasizing her quest to succeed in the birthplace of postwar abstraction, as well as anxiety over her immigration status.

I enjoyed this detour from my own white-male head, as I tried to imagine how Wei-Wei might interpret the New York School, 40 years on. Although filmed in a Brooklyn loft, Ang Lee’s Wedding Banquet garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and I received a liberating lesson in fiction as visual goad.

Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert’s new book, The Dark Galleries (subtitled “A Museum Guide to Painted Portraits in Film Noir, Gothic Melodramas, and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s”), begins with a 1931 Picasso still life featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941). No one was more aware of the rift between the realistic perspective of the camera and the theatrical artifice of movie sets than Hitchcock, but when we see a policeman gazing at Picasso’s cubist fracturing of space, it seems an incongruous detour in the film’s narrative flow. Later, however, in an echo of Picasso’s web of dark lines, Cary Grant strides through a latticework of shadows to deliver a glass of what might be poison milk — a deadly still life on a tray — to his wife. Another prominent painting in the film, a portrait of the wife’s father, glares with patriarchal disapproval upon his playboy son-in-law.

See also: An illustrated comparison between the scene in Suspicion and Picasso’s Pitcher of Fruit

Jacobs and Colpaert’s book delves into the ways that a painting in a movie is often presented as a “character in its own right. Other characters treat the portrait as a real person, looking, talking, shouting, or even throwing things at it. In films, painted portraits invite the same reactions as human beings do. They are valued, cherished, and loved but also hated and destroyed.” Noir films are crammed with pictures of the dead, the missing, and the ghostly, all of which apply to the portrait of Gene Tierney used for the title character in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This famous image anchors a tale concerning a disfigured murder victim, presumed to be Laura, and a policeman investigating the crime, who falls in love with her portrait. Preminger was not happy with the original painting and ordered a second version (which is reproduced on the cover of Jacobs and Colpaert’s book). The new rendering was actually an enlarged photograph lightly brushed over with paint; as Tierney herself once said, “It is one of the curious facts of moviemaking that paintings seldom transfer well to film.” This is not surprising when you consider that motion pictures, like photographs, are inherently flat, which strips painting of the gestural physicality your body — beyond the information about color and shape entering your eyes — responds to when engaging with a great painting.

During the 1940s and ’50s, modern art was considered suspect by Hollywood barons wary of making audiences feel like rubes. Murder and adulterous sex you could understand, but in Man in the Net (1959), an expressionist portrait is destroyed by its subject, a woman having a nervous breakdown — the implication being that the painting is as mad as she. And it was not only the sitters who acted out. The artists who painted them were generally neurotic, lecherous, and often murderous, such as the character played by Humphrey Bogart in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). His grotesque rendering of his wife (the alluring Barbara Stanwyck) as an emaciated wraith was actually painted by John Decker, one of the few artists who was credited during this period. (Producers preferred using anonymous studio employees or outsiders working under verbal agreements.)

Decker, who in his youth studied with an admitted forger, once said of himself that he could “paint like any other painter,” be it old master or modern innovator. A serious carouser who partied with such legendary boozers as W.C. Fields, Decker was perhaps the ideal artist for the movies because he understood both the de facto fiction of painting — think of Magritte’s depiction of a pipe, labeled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe — and the double duty of narrative and character development that filmed paintings must deliver to moviegoers.

Another of the rare credited portraitists was Robert Brackman, who provided the title work for Portrait of Jennie, a 1948 film starring Joseph Cotton as an artist who unknowingly paints a ghost. Barraged by opinionated memos from producer David O. Selznick concerning the painting’s progress, Brackman finally responded, “One of these days I shall accept every suggestion offered to me, then I shall paint the perfect picture.”

The Astonishing Works of John Altoon:
Charming, haphazardly handsome, and a diagnosed schizophrenic, the Los Angeles–based painter John Altoon (1925–1969) was described by Picasso as “the most precocious drawing talent” he had ever seen. Beautifully reproduced on these wide-format pages, Altoon’s sketches of nude maidens, sometimes cavorting with frogs or cowboys and Indians, are done with exuberant contours and tactile shading. His paintings — radiant, biomorphic abstractions — exude a carnal, hedonistic warmth.

This elaborately designed catalogue brims with period photographs and glued-in facsimiles of heartfelt reminiscences that Altoon’s friends wrote after his early death from a heart attack. The painter Ed Moses compared the mercurial Altoon to literature’s most sublime artistic rogue, Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth), then added, “We imitated your manner of how a painter should be and act and demonstrate himself. We found your mad behavior so compelling.” Perhaps these lush reproductions will encourage the powers that curate to bring a full-dress retrospective of Altoon’s Pacific passions to our gloomy burg.

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Rothko’s Pre-Breakthrough Watercolors On View at Pace Gallery

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) desired for painting what priests want for religion: transcendence of material fact into a realm of luminous deliverance. If you’ve ever spent time in a gallery surrounded by Rothko’s mature canvases, with their blurry bands of sensitively tuned color layered in atmospheric washes of oil paint, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s done the much better job of it.

A clearer appreciation for how those truly affecting entities came into being can be gained through this exhibition of watercolors, which the Russian immigrant painted in the years leading up to his breakthrough work of the late 1940s and early ’50s. In a 1943 letter to an art critic, Rothko and a colleague, Adolph Gottlieb, asserted, “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.” In the sandy-hued horizon lines and biomorphic figures of some of these works from 1942 to ’46, you can see Rothko fighting through the influence of Picasso — who, we sometimes forget, was a living, producing, protean presence looming over the Abstract Expressionist generation. But while these are engaging pictures on their own, Rothko’s searching forms have little of the panache of born draftsmen like the Spaniard or de Kooning.

Then, in 1946 and ’47, Rothko insightfully began dispensing with drawing, and his shapes started to disintegrate: A 30-inch-wide vision throbs with the Stygian dynamism of a subway to Dante’s inferno; a tall figure (the ghost, perhaps, of a Greek statue) dissolves into three horizontal blurs. In these advances, we feel the classics-besotted Rothko, who ultimately viewed himself as a painter of ideas rather than of things, embarking toward that unknown world he would soon make all his own.


William Powhida Christens the “Overculture”

It’s not often that an art show comes with its own witheringly on-the-button neologism, but this is the case with William Powhida’s jaggedly serrated, caustically hilarious, darkly informative exhibition at Postmasters gallery in Tribeca. Titled simply “Overculture,” this show of 25 paintings, sculptures, drawings, lists, and charts provides a name for the platinum-plated zeitgeist that’s recently been giving the art world’s thinking classes conniptions. To paraphrase Brian Eno, sometimes christening a thing is even more important than inventing it.

A pinpoint exercise in timely taxonomy as well as in plucking ideas from the muddled air, Powhida’s efforts have long lampooned contemporary art’s more absurd pretensions. Even when skewering name-brand artists, curators, collectors, museum directors, and critics (including yours truly), he has routinely diagrammed the tangled webs that neatly network the art game’s players. An equal-opportunity deflator, Powhida has also wickedly exposed power to the thing it loathes: the light of fiery criticism. Like William Hogarth in 18th-century Britain and Ad Reinhardt in the New York of the 1940s and ’50s, the fortysomething Powhida has in due course become the most formidable satirist of our billionaire-dominated, blinged-up, $ellebrity age.

After the post-2008 recession hijacking of art by big money — rumor is, art’s ethics are currently lost somewhere over the Indian Ocean — the Brooklyn contrarian has turned even more rigorous. As most artists and the majority of critics scratch their heads, Powhida has effectively conceptualized several novel ideas and forms to better illustrate our confounded present. In that spirit, Powhida makes art out of the normally utilitarian press release, where he defines “overculture” as “a small cultural group (artists) within the larger culture, often affirming the beliefs or interests of the ruling class (collectors),” and also as “a negative or ambivalent feeling about culture often in relation to socio-economic conditions.” Take away the term’s mock lexicality (itself a parody of artspeak) and you have a staggering précis of today’s top-down creative churn. This is one artist who won’t be mistaking Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” — “I just want a Picasso, in my casa/No, my castle” — as an expression of an underprivileged subculture.

Powhida, ever the showman, provides not one but two exhibitions inside Postmasters’s cavernous space. In the first, he deploys his trademark acerbic wit in the form of graphite on paper drawings that trace schematized intangibles like Value Exchange and Things We Are Outraged By or Concerned About, as well as oil-on-canvas lists of career rules he dryly titles, for instance, How to Make an Auction Ready-Made (among its colorful maxims are “err on the side of too little, it’s never too late for minimalism” and “one more time just a little bigger shinier”). In the second, the artist presents several trompe l’oeil canvases representing heavily redacted or blank pages, as well as a set of realistic aluminum sculptures. Metal sheets of various sizes made to look like giant pieces of crumpled paper, they literalize the frustration that ensues when Powhida’s sardonic postulates, despite their absurdity, are taken seriously.

Powhida’s current show, in fact, has a great deal to do with the disappointment many artists feel today when they con themselves into believing that they should avoid challenging ideas and hew instead to accepted recipes for crafting meaning (read: reflective abstract paintings or yet more titillating pics of girls in their underwear). From the first, elaborate drawing in the exhibition, titled How to Look @ the Contemporary Art-Industrial Complex in America — it reprises the palm-leaf motif and compositional scheme of the relentless Reinhardt in his 1946 cartoon “How to Look at Modern Art in America” — to a gridded color palette the artist dumbly reproduces as a perfect conceptual painting, Powhida foregrounds two key elements as this decade’s potential art lifesavers. These are, first, content, which American artists are finally starting to embrace again after a long period of daft formal copycatting. And, second, the resurgence of biting social commentary, this time marshaled in the service of a renewed idealism. It goes without saying that this period-defining artist and this pioneering show exhibit both in spades.


The Propeller Group Take on the Art World’s Celebrity Fixation

“Are celebrities the new art stars?” asked a Newsweek cover story in July. A few months later, certain windy developments (or popcorn farts) that passed for world-shaking events on TMZ and CNN answered in the affirmative. In the wake of Miley Cyrus’s art-inspired twerking and Jay Z’s bombastic Picasso-grubbing, it appears no better representatives of art’s embrace of commodity status exist today than folks who have morphed into commodities themselves. For them and their millions of Twitter followers, art is now the ultimate bling.

Take Leonardo DiCaprio. A famous face who is new to collecting, the star recently raised an incredible $31.7 million at an art auction for an environmental charity (making it the highest-grossing such charity event). Internet speculation abounds that he is a lost relative of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and that he may also—in rumor if not in actual fact—soon headline a gazillion-dollar Hollywood biopic about the former Russian leader. What better idea, then, than to celebrate the union of one of the planet’s top actors and the historical figure who inspired the world’s greatest number of concrete monuments (they are also, conversely, the mostly toppled)—through a series of uniquely cast, hand-embroidered, and gold-plated objets d’art? Call it Sellebrity Suprematism.

As unlikely a starting point for an art exhibition as commissioning George W. Bush paintings of Arab sandals, that turns out to be the relentless conceit for “Lived, Lives, Will Live!,” a terrifically well-timed exhibition of anti-celebrity art by the Vietnamese-American art collective The Propeller Group. In town for its first-ever solo New York show, this mixed-media posse has become expert at portraying the results of global culture under the influence. A group that has already demonstrated a local proficiency in matters of art, politics, and communications—their contribution to the Guggenheim’s current show of art from Southeast Asia is a poker-faced Madison Avenue-style ad campaign extolling the benefits of Communism—they have also smartly chosen Chelsea as the perfect location from which to parody art’s current binge of starfucking.

Consisting of paintings, sculptures, and photographs that, according to the gallery press release, “form a new strategy where hip-hop and Hollywood converge as historical and political resurgence,” the exhibition features three kinds of spectacularly kitschy works that would fall as flat as fettuccine if fame-trolls George Condo and Marina Abramovic weren’t the art-world rule instead of the exception. (See for yourself their “collaborations” with Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film” on YouTube). An ironic but earnest take on the sycophantic state of the art, the young collective’s work tartly comments on both 24-karat fame and its cubic zirconia failings. Satire, after all, has a moral backbone. Not for nothing has it been called punishment for those who deserve it.

Consider in this vein The Propeller Group’s six canvases that neatly weave hairpieces inspired by DiCaprio’s film roles onto vintage depictions of Lenin that once hung in Communist Party headquarters across the Soviet Union. Mostly sourced through eBay, the appropriated, made-over works make up a hilarious gallery of “if they mated” portraits—less Lenin or DiCaprio, they project instead a single, supersized persona. There’s Lenin with DiCaprio’s floppy haircut in Titanic; the Marxist revolutionary with the actor’s pomaded locks in The Great Gatsby; Lenin the gulag inventor as Django Unchained‘s plantation dandy. In every case, the result is the same with slight variations. The paintings constitute coiffed spoofs of colossal hubris; rugs slapped on hammy likenesses made years ago by career flatterers not unlike today’s fame toadies (take a bow, Elizabeth Peyton).

Other works in the exhibition include a gold-plated head of Lenin that has been turned into a pendant as big as the Ritz (in an edition of five), and photographs of the largest Vladimir Ilyich statue ever erected (in Volgograd, Russia). Together they make up an ongoing project: an attempt to raise a new giant effigy of Lenin with a Rick Ross–style selfie necklace. It constitutes an unfinished but darkly comical monument to past fame, its future, and its mammoth consequences.


America First: MOMA’s Homegrown Modernism

Although the Museum of Modern Art garnered prestige (and occasional derision) by bringing such European exemplars as Picasso, Cézanne, and van Gogh to the New World, the institution did not forsake homegrown talent, including the 50-plus artists gathered in this survey of American Modernism from 1915 to 1950.

The wall label for Edward Hopper’s Night Windows (1928) claims that the scantily clad woman bending her butt toward her open apartment window is “unaware of any viewer’s gaze.” Don’t buy it—this is one wildly sophisticated and deeply twisted painting. How sophisticated? Note the cascading triangles of light enlivening the image like flappers doing the Charleston, and how a billowing curtain and the round thrust of the architecture both echo the woman’s posterior. How twisted? Anyone living hard against New York’s elevated train tracks knows that an open shade invites fleeting thrills for both peeping straphangers and second-story exhibitionists. And why is the right-hand window blazing red? Fire? Crimson boudoir décor?

Hopper was 46 when he painted this slow-burning vision of the Roaring Twenties, an era infamous for speakeasies, free love, and Tammany Hall corruption. By employing a surreally heightened palette and slyly abstracted composition, this taciturn sphinx of kink created a naturalistic tableau shot through with mystery and innuendo.

Even more formally contrived, George Ault’s New Moon, New York (1945) leavens a Constructivist palette of red, yellow, and black with gradations that soften its Precisionist angles. Ault once referred to New York as “the inferno without the fire,” and he stripped doors, windows, and people from this street scene, which recalls one of de Chirico’s existential plazas. One detail Ault did include—nested squiggles of green neon—reverberate with the title’s jazzy poetry.

Divergent impressions of the era’s tastemakers can be seen in artist and art patron Florine Stettheimer’s painting of her family communing with gargantuan flowers and Arthur Dove’s bizarre Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz (1924)—an unabashed abstraction of the prominent photographer and art promoter cobbled together from a mirrored glass plate, coiled spring, and other utilitarian materials. As the freshest medium on the cultural block, photography featured prominently in America’s take on the new age, including Margaret Bourke-White’s close-up of complex machinery, Walker Evans’s tiny prints of urban geometries, and Clarence John Laughlin’s picture of skyscrapers reflected in a bulbous car fender (The Fierce-Eyed Building, 1938).

Add Jacob Lawrence’s dramatic series recounting African-American migration from the Old South to the industrial North (painted when the artist was in his early 20s and all the more astonishing for it), and this incisive exhibition reaffirms that American art was the real thing long before the postwar New York School forced the rest of the world to take notice.

Stuart Sutcliffe: ‘Yea Yea Yea’
Harper’s Books
87 Newtown Lane, East Hampton
Through October 14

For those decamping to the Hamptons for Labor Day and beyond, word has reached us about an exhibition worth checking out. Stuart Sutcliffe (1940–62) is famous as an “almost” in rock music’s pantheon: Befriending John Lennon in art school, he served as the Beatles’ original bass player.

The stylish youngster quit the up-and-coming band to return to his first love, and these images reveal an art prodigy barreling through such influences as abstract-expressionist grids, pop-inflected collage, and Nicolas de Staël’s thick paint slabs. It’s easy to wonder where Sutcliffe’s obvious talent might have led had he not died from a brain hemorrhage at age 21. Perhaps, with his precocious grasp of rhythmic graphic design and his naturally lyrical forms, his legacy might be some of the best album covers that never were.



Why would a painter choose to portray the world in black-and-white if he had all the most vibrant colors at his disposal? Because he’s Pablo Picasso, that’s why. The Guggenheim’s new exhibition Picasso Black and White takes a look at the Spanish artist’s least colorful work from 1904 to 1971 through 118 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. Aside from his exemplary uses of isolated black, white, and gray hues, this exhibition also includes his early monochromatic blue and rose paintings, gray-toned Cubist canvases, and neoclassical portraits and nudes.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Oct. 5. Continues through Jan. 23, 2012


Pablo Picasso & Francois Gilot: Paris-Vallauris 1943-1953

Pablo Picasso’s life and art took a dramatic turn at the age of 61 when he fell in love with a beautiful 21-year-old artist named Françoise Gilot, sparking a 10-year love affair. Now, for the first time, the Gagosian Gallery’s exhibit “Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris–Vallauris, 1943–1953” brings together the work of these two artists, a collaboration between Gilot (who is now 90) and Picasso’s biographer John Richardson. Creating a dual discussion of their visual and conceptual ideas, the exhibit is an in-depth look at their decade together. Picasso’s new inspiration from his lovely muse led to passionate portrait paintings, such as Femme au collier jaune (1946) and Femme dessinant (Françoise) (1951), as well as works depicting their two young children (Claude and Paloma) at play. He also experimented with new mediums, including lithography, ceramics, and sculpture. Some of Gilot’s paintings on display show the dichotomy between her work and Picasso’s. Though inspired by Picasso, her admiration of the Cubist painter Braque left a visible imprint on her works as well. “One of the things we want to establish is how she bounces off him, but how he bounces a little bit off her, too,” Richardson recently told Vogue. “She drew very well, and she was a serious and extremely professional painter.”

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: May 2. Continues through June 30, 2012



Some of the most influential taste-makers since the Medici, the Stein clan—Gertrude, Leo, and Michael, plus his wife, Sarah—collected Cézanne, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among other groundbreaking artists, and introduced Picasso to Matisse, initiating a lifelong friendship and rivalry. The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde will include life-size photos of the Stein’s Parisian apartments, allowing wistful members of our own Lost Generation of unemployed college grads to imagine themselves at one of those legendary Saturday-evening salons listening to Gertrude’s take-no-prisoners critiques. For an afternoon, at least, you can live your own little Midnight in Paris.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Feb. 28. Continues through June 3, 2012