Pioneering Performance Artist Joan Jonas Takes Flight

“I think of myself as a kind of medium for information to pass through,” Joan Jonas once said of herself. Since the late 1960s, this pioneer of video and performance art has channeled information and ideas with a deep sense of and sensitivity to how they manifest differently between one medium and another, and to how space — theatrical, televisual, conceptual — is broken open by the eye of an artist. A show by Jonas is always a grand occasion, and her latest, “What Is Found in the Windowless House Is True,” covers three floors of GBE’s sprawling new gallery space on 127th Street, presenting for the first time in the U.S. two of her most recent major installations.

Jonas was born in 1936 and came of artistic age in the late 1960s, when she began to make performances. She studied dance with Trisha Brown and performed with Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. The sculptor Richard Serra, with whom she would collaborate on two short films in 1971, recalled seeing one of her earliest pieces in her loft in 1968. “The personality of Joan was long gone, a fiction,” he explained of her altered presence. “In her place was a magical invocation.” Ritual and folk culture suffused her work from the get-go. (A favorite biographical detail: Her stepfather was an amateur magician.) In 1972, she incorporated live video into her performances, a new space to generate aura and magic. The black-and-white video Vertical Roll, from that same year (considered Jonas’s first masterwork), made use of a common television glitch — the rolling bar — as a frantic frame within which to perform, to present herself. Since then, she has created a luminous and trenchant body of work quite unlike any other.

In the first-floor gallery, laid across wooden tabletops, is a selection of her props: masks, wooden animals, toy houses, stones, and other objets that may appear and disappear throughout her work. Here, too, is a series of body drawings she makes during performances by placing a large piece of handmade paper over her torso and tracing it in charcoal. On the opposite wall is a series of sweet, loose-handed watercolors of birds, plucked from the past two years of her practice.

Up a flight of stairs there’s Reanimation (2010/2012/2013), which the artist devised in collaboration with the MacArthur grantwinning composer and musician Jason Moran. The work exists as both a performance and an installation. (A video document of the performance gets the flatscreen-and-headphones treatment on one wall, while the installation fills the room adjacent to it.) Taking both inspiration and segments of text from Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness’s 1968 Under the Glacier, Jonas’s glimmering, mesmerizing, fraught piece deals in part with the unnatural fate of nature when left in our hands. It’s one of Jonas’s greatest achievements.

Reanimation isn’t a taut narrative; it’s an unfolding, a refraction of moving images and sounds across four screens that face one another at off-angles, like walls of a house that’s been blown open. Roving footage of snowy mountains; driving through frozen tunnels; a seal half-immersed in water; a goat, sweet-eyed and curious, in a barn; Jonas’s shadow cast over the ice-covered earth. There are also static, in-studio shots, a camera hung overhead to record hands making drawings — Rorschach-like blots — by pushing ice cubes around in small puddles of ink. Dozens of crystals hang from a knee-high steel grid placed before one of the projectors: They cast shadows over the images while also reflecting the light as prisms. Over all this and more, we hear the resounding voice of Sami yoik singer nde Somby; Jonas’s strange sound effects; and Moran’s graceful yet frenetic piano, which together can either sound like a shamanic healing ritual or blare like a warning signal, an urgent siren.

“Time is the one thing we can all agree to call supernatural,” says Jonas, quoting Laxness. In one of the videos, we watch as she paints a figure in the snow. This, too, shall melt, it seems to say. Reanimation traces the traces we leave behind, the marks — whether art or otherwise — that may or may not last into the future.

Given the art and the artist’s position regarding time, the exhibition causes an itch around the question of posterity, particularly where Jonas’s performances are made available as videos. Video documentation is useful as proof and as reference, of course, but far less so as an experience — as a work of art unto itself. The purists among us (and I confess that I teeter into this category) would stump for some breathing room between the performance and the installation. In other words: Let what is live be live; honor the ephemeral by consenting to its power as a fleeting presence, and allow the video installation to tease out its own sensations in its audience at its own scale and speed: of time looped, rather than lost; of rattling, full-body confrontations with images of icy landscapes; of shifting qualities of light; of Jonas’s performance gestures.

The same might be said for the objects displayed on the first floor. In theater, props just take up space until they’re taken up by the performer, in whose hands they find their best, most potent use. Displaying Jonas’s lovely curiosities here in the “real world” is certainly an educative move — we can see close up what might otherwise remain a bit inscrutable onscreen — but it does divest them of their magic.

On the fourth floor of the gallery is stream or river, flight or pattern (2016/2017), a contemplative, lightly melancholy installation of three projected videos entwining footage shot during the artist’s travels to Vietnam, Italy, and Cambodia, at her home in Nova Scotia, and in other places, too. Hung along the gallery walls are drawings of birds done in china marker; from the ceiling hang paper kites made by hand, which look like birds, or planes, abstracted. Across the videos, Jonas continues to play with her images’ depths of field, at times quite literally: Performers are filmed in front of projections of images from nature both moving and still, so that they in effect become moving screens; at other times, they block the light like shadow puppets, silhouettes interacting with vibrant landscapes. A regal bird in a cage, dancing, preening, then coming toward the camera for a closer look; caressing close-ups of ancient mosaics; celebratory paper animals burned; Jonas painting in a cemetery: All this and more joins the whirl, as nature unnatural. A favorite moment: Jonas, wearing sunglasses and a funny mesh helmet, with both arms and one leg stuck straight out behind her, posed as though a bird in midair. It’s a gesture that stretches beyond broad imitation. It’s desire, perhaps, a funny dance, yes — but it’s also a portrait of an artist in full flight, at the height of her powers.

Joan Jonas: ‘What Is Found in the Windowless House Is True’
439 West 127th Street
Through June 11


Exploring the Rise of the European Far Right at MoMA P.S.1

The recent defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential runoff offered a break in the tide of political ugliness that has surged in recent years in Europe. But, given how deeply hatred and confrontation now pervade public life in much of Europe, any respite can only be temporary. That’s the overwhelming message of “New Nationalisms,” an exhibition of up-close video that the Slovakian artist Tomáš Rafa has made since 2009, traveling across Central and Eastern Europe, getting in the fray with fascists and antifascists, riot cops and refugees, queer and Roma activists, football hooligans, and others facing off in public spaces. On view at MoMA P.S.1, the show is intense, loud, brutal — and necessary.

“A few years ago far-right groups were on the boundaries of society,” says Rafa, 37, speaking via Skype from Bratislava. “It’s been growing exponentially since maybe 2012. It’s everywhere now.” His work as activist and documentarian has followed. Initially a sculpture student at an art school in Slovakia, Rafa was moved to act when towns in his country began putting up walls to segregate Roma settlements. He organized a soccer match with Roma youth next to one of these walls, filmed it, and put the video online. “It started discussion,” he says. “And I saw that this could be the role of the artist.”

Next came clashes between queer activists and neofascists in Bratislava; skinheads versus antifa in Brno, in the Czech Republic; and a roster of incidents stretching from Ukraine to Switzerland, eventually taking in the 2015 refugee crisis, which Rafa filmed in intimate detail, running with refugees through cornfields on the Croatia-Slovenia border, crowding with them at the entrance to Hungary, seeing them herded onto buses at the Budapest train station as skinheads approached, and filming the confrontation between the fascists and riot police. In the process he put into effect his second graduate degree, from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under Grzegorz Kowalski, a celebrated Polish experimental artist. The theme of Kowalski’s studio was “audiovisual space,” Rafa says. “It gave me good experience with video art and political critique.” He is now a teaching assistant at the academy.

A principle of Rafa’s practice is to make his work accessible: The videos are archived on his website ( and YouTube channel, and you can find a collection of stills on Flickr. The video sequences typically range from five to fifteen minutes, with relatively few cuts, the camera moving with the flow of events. At P.S.1, however, the organizers — chief curator Peter Eleey, museum director Klaus Biesenbach, and curatorial assistant Oliver Schulz — stitched together six longer films in collaboration with the artist, creating a viewing experience meant to both draw in and unsettle the viewer.

Five of the films run on monitors set around a small room. One focuses on xenophobic protests against the Roma, another on neofascist aggression toward refugees and Muslims; one follows refugees trying to cross southeastern Europe to get to Germany; one documents the Euromaidan protests in Kiev and the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The last one offers a measure of reprieve: It shows the painting workshops Rafa and fellow artists have organized for Roma children in Slovakia every year since his initial football match initiative. These longer films, lasting between 26 minutes and close to an hour and a half, run with the sound on, creating a purposeful din. “We didn’t use headphones,” says P.S.1’s Schulz. “You’re in a kind of cacophonous space that in some ways gives you a physical relationship to what it’s like to be surrounded by that kind of intensity.”

The sixth film is the pièce de résistance, including elements from several of the others. Titled New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe, it runs in an adjacent area on a wall-size screen, with several rows of comfortable cinema seating to encourage viewers to watch the full 52 minutes. It is harrowing stuff. It opens with Slovakian nationalists rallying at the grave of Jozef Tiso, leader of the fascist Slovak Republic during WWII; next come several sequences of virulent Czech demonstrators screaming anti-Roma slurs and fighting with riot police. Later comes a long series of very difficult scenes involving refugees; anti-immigrant demonstrations in Poland; men in Slovakia surrounding and threatening a Muslim family; demonstrators holding mock trials and executions of actors playing “suspects” such as George Soros. Racial slurs fly, along with sexual taunts and references to gas chambers. The insults draw on deep wells of grievance. “You occupied us for two hundred years, as the Turks!” the harassers shout at their cowering Muslim victims.

In keeping with the precepts of cinema vérité, Rafa offers no narration. “I am not commenting,” he says. Still, he makes decisions that consistently humanize the work and anchor it squarely in the antifascist camp. At times, he pauses for interviews with, for instance, volunteers who are trying to supply refugees with basic necessities amid squalid conditions. He lingers, too, on truth-tellers, such as the elderly Slovakian Jewish man who confronts the demonstrators in the name of his mother, who gave birth to him in Theresienstadt concentration camp. (“The Holocaust affected Slovaks the most,” someone shouts back. “Not only Jews!”) The close shots reveal affecting detail — witness the bewilderment of young border guards faced with a roiling tide of refugees in evident pain. By contrast, the smirk of complicity that one neofascist gives to a cop who is telling him to back off is downright sinister.

Getting into this tangle isn’t for everyone — being a young, white man with an all-purpose scruffy look, Rafa can get close without standing out too much, but riled-up neofascists have a way of spotting the interloper. “It’s about experience, and also adrenaline,” he says. “It’s dangerous, but it’s important to keep calm and focused. Of course there have been situations; I’ve been injured a couple of times. It’s good to know where are the limits.”

The work has carried other costs, too, in the loss of friendships with peers who have fallen prey to the ambient xenophobic discourse. “A lot of friends are antagonists now,” Rafa says. “This populism is everywhere — anti-Islam, anti-refugee, anti-Roma. People see this attitude on official TV news, and it’s impossible to discuss.” On the other hand, he says, artists are mobilizing: “There are more and more artists and culture institutions standing against far-right ideas, when three or four years ago there were just a few.”

Rafa says he holds out hope for nonviolent resolution to what ails European societies, but he is worried. “We may be beyond the crossroads of polite discussion,” he says. He hopes that staging his work in the United States will send Americans a message about forces that are at work here too. “I’m showing results: This is what’s happening in Europe,” he says. “This is reality. This is history. It’s a message, and it’s also a warning.”


Tomáš Rafa: New Nationalisms
MoMA P.S.1
22-25 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City
Through September 10


Animal Magnetism: A New Exhibition Channels Orwell (and the Eighties Art Scene)

In our increasingly Orwellian world, there’s something apropos about calling an exhibition “Animal Farm.” That, anyway, was painter Sadie Laska’s thinking when she was asked to curate a show at the Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut. And, given the
bucolic setting, it was a better fit than 1984. “My Amazon account kept suggesting this book,” she says of George Orwell’s 1945 allegory of a barnyard gone Bolshevik. “It seemed to really capture the anxiety everyone in my community feels at the moment.”

But the show isn’t meant to be a downer. Instead, Laska wants to put artists of her generation — like the painters Joe Bradley and Josh Smith — in conversation with major painters from the 1980s, like Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring, who are all well represented in the foundation’s collection. “We were growing up when those guys were the most famous artists around,” she says. “I remember looking at them in Interview magazine. For me, it’s a way to create a path through the Brant Foundation to these younger artists.”

The show includes about thirty painters who have been reciprocally beneficial to one another’s careers.
In the 1980s, when Schnabel became famous for his plate paintings, he opened the door for artists like Thornton Dial (also in the show), who had long used found materials in his work. “The vibe of the show is very folky and funky,” Laska says. “I want people to feel good about the creative spirit” — a worthy mission for these Orwellian times.


Martha Cooper Captures the Transient Splendor of Eighties-Era New York Graffiti Art

In the wake of recent calls to “delete Uber” — spurred in part by the app’s lowering of surge prices during a taxi workers’ strike at JFK airport amid the January protests against Donald Trump’s immigrant ban — the company’s San Francisco employees launched a guerrilla PR campaign. They took to the streets to spray-paint the message “#undelete” on city walls, pausing, of course, to snap a photograph kneeling before their handiwork, all smiles and jocular start-up swagger.

A welcome antidote to this image — which was posted, reposted, and ridiculed online — can be found in an exhibition of Martha Cooper’s photography, on view at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea through June 3. The show, which centers on a thoughtfully curated selection of her output from the early Eighties, serves as a reminder of a time before street art went corporate, before it even had a marketable, and thus appropriable, genre.

In the late Seventies, Cooper, then in her mid-thirties and working as a photographer for the New York Post, became interested in what New Yorkers, in varied tones of admiration and contempt, called graffiti. In that day there was no Banksy or Shepard Fairey, and although some of the pieces Cooper photographed would later accrue art-market value — Keith Haring’s Pop murals, for example — that wasn’t true of the majority of the looping, freeform drawings and names (or, simply, “tags”) spread across lampposts, buildings, and train cars.

Most wouldn’t even survive into the next month or year, let alone the next decade. And, indeed, visitors accustomed to the look of today’s subway system may be surprised by images that depict MTA trains as they appeared over three decades ago, covered wall-to-wall in thick paint that obscured windows and doors. Photographs taken in Queens and the Bronx, where subways emerge above ground, show trains spray-painted with block text in sunny pinks, yellows, and greens — bright bullets rocketing past rows of dull-brown apartment buildings.

Subway exteriors and interiors were delectable spots for graffiti artists and, in turn, a favorite subject of Cooper’s. The exhibition includes one of her most iconic photographs, of Dondi, the aerosol virtuoso responsible for inducting her into the graffiti scene; set in a train yard, the image presents Dondi spraying in a hero’s pose, straddling two subway cars, his lithe figure silhouetted against a soft and misty sky. A shot from two years later, in 1982, catches a young boy as he runs buoyantly across parked trains. Another picture taken that same year features Lady Pink, a rare female graffitist, perched on a subway bench and smirking in front of her freshly applied tag; her hands are still clenched around a spray can, her white Keds stained by a film of sidewalk grime.

Hung on the gallery’s backmost wall are highlights from Cooper’s ongoing series of global, contemporary street artists at work, a complement to the older portraits that shows how younger generations — including Fairey and other bold-name graffiti artists like Space Invader and Swoon — expanded upon the form Dondi and Lady Pink helped pioneer. But these photographs, constrained by their purpose of documenting graffiti’s past and present, prove far less memorable in composition than the images of ordinary New Yorkers merely going about their daily routines.

<i>South Bronx Wasteland, Bronx, New York </i>(1979).
South Bronx Wasteland, Bronx, New York (1979).

If, as Susan Sontag wrote, “to photograph is to frame,” then what Cooper did throughout her early series was an act of framing squared. One of the extraordinary things about what we now term “street art” is its ability to envelop unaware passersby in its narrative, and Cooper had an incisive eye for the moments when graffiti lent particularly surreal or droll character to everyday life. Meticulous shots capture adults made captive and complicit in the feverish, often adolescent, fantasies of the city’s young artists. A subway conductor peers out of a car spray-painted with the video game character Luigi, turning the workday into a game of Mario Kart. At the 96th Street station, a middle-aged woman boards a train decorated with a hyper-curvy and orgasmic blonde — the sort of dirty cartoon that would send a kid to detention if doodled in the margins of a pop quiz.

Cooper also recorded instances when commuting bodies interrupted or altered graffiti’s effects. A businessman buried in his newspaper, photographed through the sliver of closing doors, embodies a sense of profound calm at odds with the frenzied energy of the subway’s outer-shell mural, his focus a gently funny testament to the absorptive power of reading. At 180th Street, the outlines of people waiting in the shadows on the subway platform make black imprints on the multicolored train stopped on the opposite side of the tracks.

Cooper distinguishes herself from other street-art chroniclers by operating not only as a documentarian or a photojournalist but also as a street photographer in the tradition of such New York greats as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. This is evident in both her New York subway scenes and in a suite of black-and-white pictures shot between 1978 and 1980, among the earliest works included, which explore children using the city landscape in imaginative play: leaping across puddles and out of fire escapes, or racing across the now-vanished West Side piers. Street-art diehards will cherish Cooper’s exhibition for the rich graffiti archive it comprises, but these silver-gelatin prints offer the key to a second interpretation: namely, that the show is as much about graffiti as it is about youthfulness — its creativity, its rebelliousness, its wisdom, its folly.

Martha Cooper
Steven Kasher Gallery
515 West 26th Street
Through June 3



In Todd Webb’s Mid-Century Photographs, the Sidewalks of New York Come Alive

In the new exhibit “A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945–1960” at the Museum of the City of New York, there’s a photograph titled simply 123rd Street, Harlem. It’s an exterior shot of a storefront window with a handwritten sign that reads as follows: tailor is dead. H. Reid. but business will be carried on as usual by son. W. Reid.

Of the 135 photos on display, so many teeming with urban bustle, a quiet moment like this is easy to overlook. The picture is not, for one, sentimental. Life merely goes on. But it is personal, deeply so — a human gesture from the kind of mom-and-pop neighborhood operation that helped make this city great — and this empathic touch is very much in line with Todd Webb’s worldview, one that took him to a postwar New York awash in optimism.

Webb was born in Detroit in 1905 and became serious about photography only in his thirties, after attending a seminar given by Ansel Adams, one of the progenitors of the “straight,” or “pure,” style. The years just following would see Webb deployed to the Pacific theater as a Navy photographer; after the war he settled in New York and set out upon what might have been the most substantial phase of his career.

“I call it the wide-eyed, passionate experience of a newcomer to New York,” says Sean Corcoran, MCNY’s curator of prints and photographs, who organized the exhibit. “Photography was his excuse to explore the city, to meet people, to understand what the city was. Ultimately, when you look at his pictures, what makes them so extraordinary, to me, is that he’s interested in the humanity of the people in the city.”

Webb may have been extraordinary, but his name doesn’t necessarily come to mind when you think of memorable New York photography, whether from fellow purists (and friends) like Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott or from the MoMA-championed 35mm stars of the decades to come — the Winogrands, the Friedlanders. That may change with this triumphant show.

“I think Todd Webb’s work should be better known,” Corcoran says. “Within the photography community, he’s known, but I think more people in the general public would be impressed with the work if they actually had a chance to see it.”

Lexington Avenue near 110th Street, 1946

Now they will, and though there isn’t a catalog to accompany the exhibit, Thames & Hudson will publish a volume of Webb’s work at the end of the year. His own long-out-of-print 1991 collection, Looking Back: Memoirs and Photographs, reveals a man enthralled with his adoptive city — especially Manhattan, whose look, feel, secrets, people, and neighborhoods he described in his diary. The city, he wrote, was “like a series of small towns”; in 1948, he referred to it as “my lovely New York.” (As a third-generation New Yorker, I can’t recall ever hearing that word used to describe this town.)

Webb schlepped around a large-format 5×7 camera and a tripod, later upgrading to a Speed Graphic (a handheld, maybe, but still a handful). He was open to discovery — a Chinese New Year celebration; two stout, wary Italian nonnas on Mott Street; a black child, unconvinced during the Thanksgiving Day Parade — and he had his favorite spots. He photographed the corridors of power in the financial district and the cut-time rhythm of Sixth Avenue in midtown. (One of his best-known pieces, included in the show, is a transfixing panel of eight prints between 43rd and 44th streets.) And despite all his cool artist friends — and there’s an entire section devoted to their portraits, from Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe to Gordon Parks and Helen Levitt — he didn’t ignore other classes or circles.

Webb began his New York experience in Harlem — crashing with his friend the photographer Harry Callahan, for $38 a month — and he documented uptown life with seriousness and affection. The Lower East Side, to which he was also drawn, was, he wrote, “a very potent section of the city for me. The buildings are old and…the layers of paint on the storefronts give a good feeling to the eye….The people are mostly poor, I think, but somehow they have a dignity that you do not expect to find….It seems to be an area of different ethnic groups. I saw Spanish stores, Greek coffee houses, Italian and Polish shopping centers.”

He found inspiration, too, in a mid-century New York on the cusp. Some of what he shot would soon be gone: the streetcars on 125th Street; the Third Avenue El, that exposed vein coursing through the city; Lüchow’s, now, like the Palladium — another 14th Street emblem of a different era — an NYU dorm.

Yet his work remains free of the schmaltz that often smudges windows into the past. Webb may have had good days in New York — productive, transformative ones — but his careful output doesn’t represent the “good ol’ days.” It is, like that image of the Harlem storefront, subtler than that, more finely shaded, a loving look at the New York that once really was.

A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945–1960
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street
Through September 4


The Met Trots Out an Irving Penn Centennial Exhibition for the Instagram Age

Short of a full-dress redux of Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball, few events appear less appropriate for modern-day New York than “Irving Penn: Centennial,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest shot at a tourist-friendly blockbuster. Lavish, elegant, and congenially retro, the exhibition consists mainly of black-and-white photographs of mid-century icons — among them Marlene Dietrich, Cecil Beaton, and Richard Burton. Were Penn alive today, he’d likely be flummoxed at the celebreality of Kylie, Kanye, and Kim.

If certain artists are greatly appreciated in their time, others may be, posthumously, appreciated too much. This is the case with Penn, the photographer whose studio-based pictures gave the original Mad Men era its darkly simmering appearance, which presently radiates little heat. For over six decades, Penn’s association with Vogue and corporate giants like General Foods kept his simplified graphic style squarely in the public eye. No matter where you looked, the photographer’s handsome commercial photos stared out from magazine covers and printed Jell-O ads. For a similar sense of image saturation, consider the everywhereness of food porn.

Best known for his fashion photography, Penn boasted a repertoire that ran the gamut of conventional emulsion-on-paper genres. These included youthful snaps of odd-looking store signs, images of gorgeously angular women in impossible hats, modernist-inspired pileups of food, theatrically grave portraits of creative greats, a visual taxonomy of regular working stiffs, travel essays that aspired to ethnography, headless but curvy nudes, and, finally, various kinds of still-lifes of found objects, including cigarettes, bones, bottles, and food containers, among other studiedly gritty detritus.

Yet throughout his long career, and regardless of subject matter, the objects of Penn’s attention received a uniformly classicizing treatment. For the Plainfield, New Jersey–born photographer, making pictures wasn’t so much about capturing the way real things and people actually looked, à la his more documentary-minded colleagues Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Klein. Instead, it was fundamentally about repeating a set of studio-bound, eye-pleasing patterns — i.e., folding the rough edges of objects and sitters neatly into an austere, stylized, four-sided envelope.

The Met’s current retrospective is the most comprehensive to date of Penn’s oeuvre (the institution put on two exhibitions of the artist’s work previously, one in 1977, the other in 2002). It features more than two hundred photographs spanning seventy years of camerawork, from the early street photography he made as a tyro shutterbug while working as an assistant to legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch to his geometrically inspired campaigns for companies like Issey Miyake and L’Oréal in the 1980s and ’90s. Like the 2002 show, “Centennial” is preceded (or perhaps propelled) by a promised gift to the museum. Consisting of a large cache of prints tendered by the Irving Penn Foundation, both the donation and the show contrive a reverential argument for the photographer’s importance on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Alas, in art as in life, good looks aren’t everything.

Penn was blessed as well as cursed by his ability to churn out product on commission for a multitude of clients. A frustrated oil-on-canvas artist who became a photographer, he occupies that awkward subaltern cultural space — along with few chefs and even fewer reviewers — Baudelaire generally characterized as “the refuge of all failed painters.” Rather than endure what the exhibition catalog calls “the lonely life of the imagination,” Penn excelled at Vogue, where he began as a cover designer but quickly graduated to photographer, precisely because the magazine demanded efficient collaboration and a negotiated knack for applying creative approaches to real-world design problems. Though Penn eventually complained to a group of students that his broodingly spare commercial work had become “very slick and suspect,” it’s unlikely he would have become a celebrated artist without schlepping for years at a fashion magazine.

Part of the problem in assaying Penn, of course, is that there is no clear division between his commercial and his artistic work. Like the acorn, his magazine output contains both the seed and the oak of his photographic labor. At the Met, his recognizably clean, meticulous style comes through in black-and-white photographs of models wearing Dior dresses and puffy Balenciaga sleeves. In the late ’50s, he transferred that same reductivist approach to magazine portraits of the culture’s new postwar royalty — actors, writers, artists, and film directors. His most famous works by far, these images still thrill owing to the photographer’s spartan economy of means.

<i>Cigarette No. 37</i>, New York, 1972

Penn literally cornered famous subjects like Spencer Tracy, Salvador Dalí, and Igor Stravinsky between two stage flats to amplify the drama of their poses. In other pictures, he underscored the artificial nature of the studio by throwing old carpet over boxes on which his sitters sat or leaned. One print in the show features a fortysomething Alfred Hitchcock perched on a carpeted promontory like some overstuffed British relative of the mynah bird. Another presents a weirdly vulnerable image of Joe Louis: Pinned into a corner, the champ’s narrow shoulders and humongous feet call attention not just to his rare physical imperfections but to the foreshortening of the photographer’s lens.

But if this is Penn at his best, much of his other output had serious trouble sustaining the same solemn humanist note associated with his so-called “existential portraits.” In hindsight, his repeatedly cramped allusion to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit went pear-shaped when he also used it to animate The Twelve Most Photographed Models, New York — a lineup of exquisite human mannequins that ran in Vogue in 1947. Ditto for the pictures of butchers, bakers, window washers, and mailmen Penn equivocally pegged “Small Trades” in 1950.

Later portraits of Peruvian highlanders in indigenous garb and naked African girls in the guise of Dahomeyan Amazons only served to emphasize the limitations imposed by Penn’s classical blinders — he posed bare-chested black adolescents in highly patterned headdresses and skirts, in echo of an infamous event at Paris’s 1899 World’s Fair. Unlike other photographers of the era — his more socially engaged competitor Richard Avedon, for instance — Penn let his hard-won stylization get in the way of fully humanizing his subjects. Those miscues, along with his triumphs, are now on view in the Met: Pictures that once seemed the definition of striking and fresh have, in time, turned decorative, tasteful, vintage.

Because few photographers established the rules for fashion photography like Penn, the temptation exists to apply dusty qualifiers like “eternal,” “ageless,” and “timeless” to these prints. But a great many of his photographs, though iconic, appear well past their sell-by date. “Irving Penn: Centennial” is likable enough but needs a fresh critical look. In my view, it’s hard to get past Penn’s buttoned-up classicism and his ill-timed reprise of portraiture uncomplicated by ugliness, controversy, or period politics without venturing the following thought — this is art according to one very successful dead white male.

Irving Penn: Centennial
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through July 30


The 1:54 Fair Surveys the Multicultural — and Multifaceted — State of Contemporary Art in Africa

When Touria El Glaoui founded the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, the first international fair with a focus on Africa, the market was still reeling from the collapse of prices for Chinese art, as well as a similar phenomenon in India.

“People asked if it was a bubble, like the Asian market,” says El Glaoui, a banker turned arts entrepreneur who launched 1:54 in London in 2013. “But we’re past that now. We’re seeing a constant evolution in awareness of what’s happening with African artists from the continent and the diaspora. It’s not a bubble; it’s just very good art.”

The 1:54 fair has become a showcase for this dynamic. It is now an annual event in both London and New York, where it opens its third local edition this weekend at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. Featuring nineteen galleries, it is small as fairs go, certainly relative to the sprawling Frieze art fair that comes to town the same weekend. It can capture only a slice of the production taking place in emerging art scenes on the continent — such as Dakar, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi — and in creative hubs like London and Paris, home to vibrant immigrant communities.

El Glaoui welcomes the curatorial challenge. “In such a limited space, it’s important that the galleries are putting up the best show they can,” she says. “And we have to have very strong galleries each year.” 1:54’s roster ranges from established specialists including Paris’s Magnin-A and London’s Jack Bell to Mov’Art, a gallery in Luanda, Angola, that made the transition from pop-up shows to a fixed location just a few months ago.

With a program of talks, organized by Cameroonian curator Koyo Kouoh, along with special exhibitions — devoted this year to Malick Sidibé, the great Malian photographer who died in 2016, and the pop-inspired Moroccan portraitist Hassan Hejjaj — the fair has become a one-stop immersion in African creative life. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says the Nigerian painter and installation artist Victor Ehikhamenor. “1:54 has created a space for us to have our own dance, our own swagger, to bring who we are.”

African contemporary art is a term that artists and curators employ despite misgivings. Africa is, after all, a continent comprising 54 countries (hence the name of the fair) plus far-flung diaspora communities, all of which resist generalization. For some established artists, El Glaoui says, being labeled “African” can seem limiting. “But for younger, less visible artists, it’s something that can give them visibility and that they can use as a strength.”

“There’s no such thing as African art, but I need something to call my gallery,” says Ayo Adeyinka, director of the Tafeta gallery in London. He has three young artists in the fair, all Nigerian: Babajide Olatunji, whose hyperrealist portraiture examines the dying practice of tribal facial markings; Niyi Olagunju, a veteran of the Iraq war whose metal sculptures question the African art trade and the mining industry; and Temitayo Ogunbiyi, a U.S.-born artist who moved back to Lagos several years ago and produces drawings, collage, and installations with a conceptual bent.

Another London-based gallery, 50 Golborne, has one of the fair’s edgier rosters, with Dakar-based ceramics and installation artist Cheikhou Bâ; Olalekan Jeyifous, who lives in Brooklyn and makes collage, sculpture, and digital art inspired by manic and futuristic urban architecture; the Nigerian-American artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji, who works partly on drawings that incorporate thread stitching and partly in video and public performance; and Emo de Medeiros, from Benin, who crafts enigmatic objects from found materials, fabric, and technological detritus — some with video or musical components — and who involves local artisans in his process.

“We have artists who live between continents, just like the modern world,” says Pascale Revert, 50 Golborne’s director. “And there are young collectors who are very interested in their work. We are very far from Africanism or Orientalism, the search for the exotic. This is contemporary.”

A small number of African artists have achieved high selling prices and major exhibitions: El Anatsui, the Ghanaian sculptor and installation artist based in Nigeria; Julie Mehretu, the Ethiopian-American abstract painter; Nigerian conceptual artist Yinka Shonibare. Newest in this circle is Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who lives in Los Angeles; her works mix painting, drawing, and collage to produce textured, emotionally rich depictions of Nigerian domesticity and daily life. In March, one sold at Christie’s for $3.1 million.

Yet even this top tier is underpriced compared to superstar European and American artists, says Adeyinka, who notes that African art is “cheaper and often better.” And outside the vanguard, the disparities can be even more glaring. “You have established artists in their sixties on the continent who get at most $50,000, which some emerging artists in the West get in their twenties,” El Glaoui says. “That is a gap we definitely need to bridge.”

For Mov’Art in Luanda, 1:54 marks its first time showing at an international fair. “Angola is relatively isolated, so the value is seeing what other artists are doing and having that exchange,” says manager Lauren Pereira. The gallery is presenting just one artist, Angel Ihosvanny Cisneros, known as Ihosvanny, who makes mixed-media work that draws on Luanda’s busy cityscape. Crucially, local collectors have emerged. “Most of our clients are Angolan,” Pereira says.

This development is central to the long-term growth of contemporary art on the continent. “My collector pool is largely Nigerians, and I’m excited about that,” says Ehikhamenor. “We have to realize that we have this market to build. If you don’t build the market, it fizzles out.”

Holding 1:54 in New York builds ties to a major art marketplace, of course, but also to specific segments — Africans working on Wall Street, for instance, as well as African-American collectors. “New York is an amazing window for us,” El Glaoui says. Coming up on her calendar is 1:54’s first-ever edition in Africa, early next year in Marrakech, Morocco. “We still need to accelerate getting people engaged with contemporary African artists,” El Glaoui says. “If we get to a scenario that is aligned with the rest of the world, then our mission will be complete.”

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair
May 5–7, Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn
Day ticket: $20. Info:


Sublime Shacks: The Vivid Enigmas of Maureen Gallace’s Pastoral Visions

What are we actually looking at in a memory? How do we see the breeze we feel on our skin? Where is the divide between vision and viscera?

Such imponderables might come to mind as you wander P.S.1’s quarter-century survey of Maureen Gallace’s small-scale scenes of sea and country. A glance into the opening gallery reveals the seemingly narrow range of subjects in the 69 paintings gathered here: quiet vistas of shoreline, scrub, flowers, and sky, along with houses, barns, and beach shacks, which are often featureless save for the occasional door or window.

One first impression is that Gallace (born 1960) is a dead-on colorist. How many hues make up a sky? A painting aficionado studying Roses, Beach (2005) might think back to Constable’s nineteenth-century visions of gradated clouds over England’s blessed plot. And in Gallace’s breakneck brushwork that same viewer might recall the roiling beauty of John Singer Sargent’s gestures at the dawn of the twentieth century. But it’s her wicked-smart formal aplomb that grounds Gallace’s work in the present. A flower — a swift dab of pink pigment, to be exact — in the foreground of Roses, Beach seems to contain the exact ratio of light and color as the blushing expanse of sky behind, as if the petals had been ground down and distributed evenly across the background. This spectacular dilation proves emotionally startling, thoroughly out of proportion to the painting’s nine-inch-high by twelve-inch-wide dimensions, a size within an inch or two of just about all the works here.

One of the earliest pieces in the show is from 1992, two stark white buildings in darkling woods, which channels the mix of gravitas, naïveté, and intimacy found in colonial artworks. Gallace went to art school amid the 1980s conceptual hurly-burlies of appropriation, irony, identity politics, and that era’s version of painting’s demise, and so was well aware that she was embarking on a “practice a little out of step,” as she told an interviewer last year. With the exception of a few portraits, people and fauna exist only outside the frame, but they are not missed — over the decades her palette has become more animated, as structures and environments meld in lively compositions.

I sometimes do critiques with students in the graduate art program that Gallace oversees at New York University, but she and I have rarely discussed her own paintings. She is fully aware of the abyss between visual phenomena and the words available to describe them, and so would rather use our conversations to handicap the Yankees’ playoff chances. I do know, however, that Gallace has long photographed the Connecticut coast and inland environs around where she grew up. A photograph may marinate in her studio for ten, fifteen years, besmirched with rings from a turpentine jar, as degraded as any memory. She allies her references with an incisive eye, often returning to places she knew as a child. Like Pop art, Gallace’s imagery is instantly recognizable, but — as in only the very best of Pop — recognition quickly segues into a compelling matrix of abstract grace inextricably bound to evocative materials and expansive content.

In Christmas Farm (2002) we immediately take in three red sheds rising from the snow and punctuating a distant green tree line. One slow-burning question might be, What season is this? The trees are too rotund to be evergreens, and so too full for Yuletide. A peaked roof is asymmetrical, cheated to the right. This dollop of dissonance draws the gaze in: The snowy field shifts into four rectangles of juicy white paint in line with the dark structures — geometries as syncopated, abstract, and radiant as a Mondrian grid. That modern master spent decades distilling the perceived world into wholly nonobjective constructs; Gallace’s conceptual alchemy combines both realms, creating an almost magical tension. The effect is of constant shape-shifting — nature reflected in the smooth surface of a pond suddenly fractured by ripples before steadily, gracefully reverting to serendipitous representation.

Gallace applies paint with a tightrope walker’s finesse. The writhing strokes depicting a shadow on a roof in Rainbow Road, Martha’s Vineyard (2015) give the impression that the leaves above are blowing about in a stiff breeze — leaf, roof, and shadow fused in paint. The off-kilter geometries of the gray barn in October (2013) are shot through with variegated flashes of light and dark, as ominous and gorgeous as a gathering thundercloud.

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There are rare missteps in Gallace’s high-wire performances. (I’ve heard her mention how often she “wipes out” a painting she’s been working on before leaving the studio for the day.) Rainbows are the overwrought spectacles of nature, chromatic extravaganzas literally wrung from clouds by sunshine, and with a blackened sea contrasting multi-hued arcs, Summer Rainbow, Cape Cod (2006) feels like a tripped circuit breaker in nature’s high-wattage display, perhaps already too abstract to abstract. But she discovers keening beauty in a pair of telephone poles in Surf Road (2015), the nearest cross rising in wavering grays, the more distant a pale negative, both adulterated by wetly abutting the scene’s sand, scrub, and sky. Angled clouds, an off-center road stripe, and an orange flower in the extreme foreground converge with the poles to conjure forces as unseen but as inexorable as the curve of the earth. The klieg-light-bright wall of a nondescript shack might be too over the top for a Spielberg film, but in this heightened reality it’s just another day at the beach.

Gallace’s paintings of the Atlantic subsume postwar nostalgia into a sort of Jungian collective memory of lazy seashore days — these shacks looked in 1947 or 1977 pretty much the way they do now. Her illuminating hues recall Kodachromes of lingering coming-of-age memories, when emotions race fresh and selfish in advance of understanding or wisdom, but her hard-won formal virtuosity insists on an acceptance that past and present are forever interwoven even as they are constantly unraveling.

Beach shacks live by the sea, paintings live on walls, and Gallace long ago made the crucial decision not to frame her work. Her white pigments are luminous, often brighter than the walls the works are hung on, and curator Peter Eleey has cannily poised some panels on the divides between painted white brick and smooth white support columns. Gallace’s lithe yet unified surfaces radiate beyond image, and, once on the artist’s wavelength of unsentimental observation, a viewer can become so immersed that the shadows depicted in paint and those underlying a thick brushstroke mingle with the shadows the canvas itself casts upon the wall.

Gallace is a painter’s painter in the best sense of the phrase — secure in tradition even as she expands on it, keeping this most ancient of visual media relevant after more than thirty millennia. To complacent viewers her work might look too simple, even coarse. Such folk might be the descendants of those who reviled Philip Guston’s first exhibit of cartoon figuration, in 1970. But no less an expert than Willem de Kooning said to his old abstract-expressionist colleague at the time, “Well, now you are on your own!” For over two decades, Gallace has been blazing her own path to a sui generis domain where journey and destination are inseparable. This concise, moving, and dazzling survey simply brings the rest of us up to speed.

Maureen Gallace: Clear Day
MoMA P.S.1
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City
Through September 10



Celebrating 100 Years of the Mighty Irving Penn

Irving Penn took his time. Whether shooting still lifes or celebrities, the photographer — whose centennial is being celebrated with a lavish exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through June 30 — approached his work with a classical rigor and playful curiosity that chipped away at the walls between fine art and commerce and helped define the visual vernacular of mid-century America.

<i>After-Dinner Games</i>, New York, 1947<br>
Originally trained as a painter, Penn returned to the still life throughout his career; in fact, his first cover for Vogue, in 1943, depicted a bejeweled glove, wide belt, and leather purse. Unlike in his portraits, which he tended to shoot in black-and-white, Penn embraced color in his shots of food, flowers, party favors, and other good-time detritus.

As far back as 1958, fifteen years after he shot the first of his 165 covers for Vogue, Penn was being celebrated as one of the world’s greatest living photographers in the pages of Popular Photography magazine. But Penn’s vision extended well beyond high fashion. A son of working-class New Jersey, Penn invested tradesmen and artisans with the same grace and nobility as foreign dignitaries and Hollywood icons. He photographed many of the stars and cultural icons of the twentieth century — Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Langston Hughes, Grace Kelly, Truman Capote, Joe Louis, Audrey Hepburn, John Updike, Carson McCullers, David Bowie, Jessye Norman, Zaha Hadid, Steve Jobs — but he also shot Peruvian peasants and New Guinean tribal chiefs. His still lifes of flowers or even cigarette butts are rendered with the same care as advertising campaigns he shot for L’Oréal.

<i>Rochas Mermaid Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn)</i>, Paris, 1950<br>
Irving Penn made his name as a fashion photographer, shooting for Harper’s Bazaar and then, famously, for Vogue. But of all his many subjects, none compared to Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish stunner widely considered the first supermodel. Penn married her in 1950, the same year he took this portrait.

Toward the end of his life, Penn described how he wanted his ideal viewer to experience his work: as if it were a journey “through many countries, through years of time, in the presence of lovely women and brilliant men…among inanimate objects, foods, drawings, paintings, amusements, and seductions.” All of that is on display at the Met, and Penn captured it with a coolness and restraint that revealed more vulnerability than status. His images are not nude, exactly — though he did nudes, too — but they are naked, self-consciously spare and free from distraction. For seventy years, Penn gracefully — and pioneeringly — negotiated the increasingly porous borders of art, editorial, and advertising. He did it all, basically — and with style.

<i>Truman Capote</i>, New York, 1948<br>
In the late Forties, Penn enjoyed shooting subjects such as literary enfant terrible Capote in claustrophobia-inducing environs, as if they were literally cornered by his camera. “This confinement surprisingly seemed to comfort people,” Penn noted. “It soothed them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against.” <i>Naomi Sims in Scarf</i>, New York, c. 1969<br>
Along with fellow mid-century pioneers such as Richard Avedon and David Bailey, Penn helped elevate fashion photography to the realm of high art, influencing everyone from Helmut Newton and Peter Lindbergh to David LaChapelle and Terry Richardson. Today Penn’s work can be seen in museums throughout the world. <i>Single Oriental Poppy</i>, New York, 1968<br>
Visitors to the exhibition at the Met are greeted by two of Penn’s still lifes, one depicting a watermelon, the other the ingredients for a salad. For viewers accustomed to the photographer’s signature black-and-white palette, the ravishing mastery of color comes as a shock.

<i>Two Miyake Warriors</i>, New York, 1998<br>
Few photographers were better equipped than Penn to capture the structural
and architectural qualities of high fashion. A direct line can be drawn between the tribal warriors from Papua New Guinea he shot in the Seventies to these couture- clad “warriors” from the photographer’s later years.


Fearless Girl Is Not Your Friend

When the “Fearless Girl” statue first appeared in Bowling Green the day before International Women’s Day on March 8, staring down the “Charging Bull” statue on Wall Street, it did so through a city licensing program that issues temporary permits for commercial activity in public space. It’s the same program that regulates the blight of cookie-cutter “street fairs” and under which, last August, a giant walk-in Prego Pasta Sauce jar was erected in Chelsea to raise public awareness about the company’s new line of “Farmer’s Market Sauces.”

This makes lots of sense: “Fearless Girl” is its own exercise in corporate brand-burnishing, the product of a campaign conceived in the New York offices of an enormous multinational advertising conglomerate, McCann, working on behalf of a worldwide financial colossus, State Street Global Advisors, an arm of the 225-year-old State Street Corporation, which currently manages an estimated $2.5 trillion in assets.

As the investment management division of State Street Corporation, which also includes a custodial bank administering $28 trillion in assets, State Street Global Advisors devises customized investment strategies for institutions with a lot of money to deploy — pension funds, universities, major charitable foundations — and builds mutual funds and exchange-traded funds for ordinary investors.

State Street’s last appearance in the headlines, in January, was occasioned by the company’s settlement of a suit brought by the United States Department of Justice, which alleged that it had defrauded its own customers by charging them secret commissions. In exchange for a deferred-prosecution agreement, State Street agreed to pay a $32.3 million fine to resolve the charges and offered to pay the same amount as a civil penalty to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fearless Girl’s carefully choreographed debut coincided with SSGA’s announcement that it would begin pressuring the 3,500-odd companies in which it invests to install more women on their boards of directors. State Street’s public statement couched its argument in narrowly economic terms, noting that “companies with strong female leadership generated a return on equity of 10.1 percent per year versus 7.4 percent for those without a critical mass of women at the top, which is a 36.4 percent increase of average return on equity.”

TV cameras and photojournalists surrounded the Fearless Girl statue last month, awaiting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that she would stay opposite the bull into 2018.
TV cameras and photojournalists surrounded the Fearless Girl statue last month, awaiting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that she would stay opposite the bull into 2018.

In the weeks since Fearless Girl was rolled out, a growing parade of ordinary citizens and politicians have celebrated the installation as a powerful work of public art and a symbol of a critical issue of our day. Pilgrims come to Bowling Green to take selfies with the statue, among them Senator Elizabeth Warren, who paused in her crusade against the unregulated excesses of the financial industry to caption her own tweeted statue-selfie with the slogan “Fight like a girl.”

Misty Allen, a 47-year-old from Portland who works in tech, was so moved by the Fearless Girl that she had it and the bull tattooed on her arm. The sculpture feels like a testament to the sexism Allen has encountered in her own career: “It’s a reminder to myself to put my hands on my hips and open my mouth and stand up for myself,” she told the Voice.

For some, Fearless Girl carries extra significance in the age of Trump, the perfect embodiment of the overlap of financial avarice and violent sexism. “Right after [the election], this miraculous girl appears and created such a powerful sensation because she spoke to the moment,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio last month, announcing that he had interceded to allow the statue to remain in place beyond the limits of its commercial permit. “Sometimes, a symbol helps us become whole, and I think the Fearless Girl is having that same effect.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio posed with the statue for the cameras March 27.
Mayor Bill de Blasio posed with the statue for the cameras March 27.

The statue’s fans thrill to her apparent gesture of challenge and resistance to the Charging Bull, Arturo Di Modica’s 1989 love letter to the wild, surging energy of Wall Street and finance capitalism, installed as the market worked to recover in the wake of the “Black Monday” financial collapse of October 1987. In its conception of the newer statue, McCann brilliantly appropriates the iconic image of the ballerina dancing atop the bull, created by the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters, that became a foundational symbol of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. The notion that Fearless Girl is positioned in opposition to the bull has been reinforced by Di Modica himself, who is driven to distraction by this recontextualization of his statue, spitting out a steady fusillade of angry press releases and threatening to sue State Street for what he considers a profound alteration of his work. “I put it there for art,” Di Modica told the New York Post and MarketWatch last month. “My bull is a symbol for America. My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength.” The spectacle of an old man raging against an upstart girl for adulterating his celebration of capitalism has only helped cement the perception that the girl and the bull are in conflict. “The sculptor is annoying & the combined image is refreshing & complex,” Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, tweeted recently.

A poster that ran in Adbusters magazine in 2011 helped set off Occupy Wall Street.
A poster that ran in Adbusters magazine in 2011 helped set off Occupy Wall Street.

But if the dyad of girl and bull has been cleverly staged to evoke a thrilling frisson of opposition and dissent, that is emphatically not what the company that commissioned it is actually selling. Fearless Girl is intended “as a complement to the charging bull, which represents economic strength,” said Lynn Blake, an executive vice president at State Street Global Advisors, at a press conference at City Hall last month. “She’s not even defiant. She’s not raising her fist against the bull. She’s there to represent her role as a leader, to stand on equal footing and to play a powerful role in expanding economic prosperity for the world.”

Kristen Visbal, the sculptor who created Fearless Girl, also emphasized the statue’s conciliatory ambitions. “She is strong, but not belligerent,” Visbal said at the press conference. “She is proud, but not confrontational.” Visbal echoed an argument at the center of State Street’s campaign: that companies with more women on their boards of directors make more money for shareholders. “Together we make this wonderful contribution,” Visbal said, “these better decisions that result in increased profits.”

The genius of Fearless Girl, then, is that it siphons the growing groundswell of resistance to worship of the golden bull and all it signifies, and redirects that enthusiasm back into a channel of assent. The bull and the girl are not in opposition. They are, in fact, on the same side, two faces of the same thing: capitalism, presented both in its raging, china-shop-obliterating aspect and in its approachable guise, the one that promises that anyone — even a girl! — can aspire to preside over this energy from the Olympian heights of a boardroom.

Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a picture of herself with the statue, along with the words “Fight like a girl.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a picture of herself with the statue, along with the words “Fight like a girl.”

Let’s leave aside State Street’s own recurring trouble with the law, which includes not only this year’s episode but the great Magnetar pit-trap of the pre-crash bubble, a famous scam in which State Street sold more than $1.5 billion in mortgage derivatives without telling its customers that the product had been designed by a hedge fund poised to profit if the product failed. When the dodgy mortgages underlying the product inevitably went belly-up, State Street’s customers took a bath, and the hedge fund, Magnetar Capital, cashed in its short bets.

Let’s leave aside as well the question, itself the subject of much debate, of whether or not the best application of feminist energy is the Lean-In project of helping already wealthy women ascend the final rung of the ladder to sit on the boards of multinationals, or whether that effort is better spent pursuing economic and labor reforms, like equal pay or maternity leave, that would benefit a wider circle of more vulnerable women, but which might not mesh as seamlessly with corporate profit-seeking.

Let’s table, too, the fact that State Street’s commitment to its stated corporate-feminist goal is transparently thin, considering its own corporate leadership is a catastrophically unreconstructed sausage-fest in which 82 percent of its senior executives and all but three of its eleven directors are men.

With its Fearless Girl, State Street seeks credit for intervening in the amoral logic of the market to pressure companies it invests in to install more women in corporate leadership. But seeking plaudits for pursuing a moral agenda invites ethical scrutiny of the rest of State Street’s behavior, which will lead to some dark and destructive places.

Misty Allen, of Portland, Oregon, was so inspired by the Fearless Girl she had it tattooed on her arm.
Misty Allen, of Portland, Oregon, was so inspired by the Fearless Girl she had it tattooed on her arm.

State Street invests its clients’ trillions across virtually every sector of the investment universe and offers them innumerable investment products, most of which are passive funds constructed to meet some investment goal — regional diversification, say, or tracking the overall performance of given market sectors. In this respect, it’s no different from other investment giants like BlackRock or Vanguard. The grand Wall Street tradition is chasing profits wherever they may be found, a pursuit outside of moral distinctions. (Exchange-traded funds, by definition, mirror the activity of the stock exchange itself.) What these companies also have in common is that, with the exception of a handful of small funds designed to eschew particularly ethically unsavory industries, their financial products are all generally designed to fulfill a single purpose: make money.

Through its funds, State Street is deeply committed to an industry whose entire business model is taking as much carbon as possible out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere. As of the end of last year, State Street owned $18 billion worth of ExxonMobil, $14 billion worth of Chevron, $1.8 billion of Valero, $2 billion of Kinder Morgan, $2 billion of Anadarko, $2.8 billion of Occidental Petroleum, and $3.2 billion of ConocoPhillips.

And if there is money to be made from tools of war, State Street will make it that way as well. The company owns $12 billion of Lockheed Martin and $5 billion of Northrop Grumman, $4 billion of Boeing and $2 billion of General Dynamics, so it makes money from Tomahawk missiles, Paveway bombs, ICBMs and submarine-launched nuclear missiles, and all sorts of attack helicopters and warplanes, including the one that dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan this month. Through Northrop Grumman, State Street makes money keeping America’s nuclear missiles ready to rain hellfire anywhere our president may direct them. It owns $1.7 billion of Raytheon, which makes missiles, depleted-uranium weapons, and a microwave gun — for use against crowds — that makes its targets’ skin feel like it’s boiling. A recent Intercept report spotlighted three major defense contractors poised to profit from Trump’s push to fortify the border with Mexico. State Street has a stake in all of them, to the tune of more than a third of a billion dollars.

State Street owns $5 billion each of Philip Morris and Altria, and $1.8 billion of Reynolds American, which means it makes money from an addictive drug that kills nearly half a million people a year in this country alone. State Street looks at an industry with a six-figure body count and sees a revenue stream, a valuable component of a diversified fund.

Pepsi pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner after controversy erupted over its co-option and commercialization of protest imagery.
Pepsi pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner after controversy erupted over its co-option and commercialization of protest imagery.

This is not to say that State Street’s executives take actual pleasure in the cancer wards full of smokers, in the slow-rolling annihilation of climate disaster. More likely they view those things as incidental, dissociated through the gray calculus of exchange-traded funds and well-balanced portfolios. It’s a safe bet they view the Fearless Girl in the same way: not as a virtuous cause, but as just another means to the one and only end.

It’s possible that popular resonance of the Fearless Girl can somehow wrest the master’s tools from his hand and re-inscribe the statue with a more hopeful and promising meaning than its creators intended, one that stands outside the closed loop of passive complicity in the status quo. For that matter, it’s conceivably possible that the recently controversial Pepsi commercial — which enlisted a denatured simulacrum of street protest as the backdrop against which Kendall Jenner demonstrated the power of carbonated high-fructose corn syrup to soothe a glowering riot cop — could yet be repurposed in the service of a global movement for social justice. But that sort of jiujitsu is no easy thing. Works born of cynicism have a way of staying stickily cynical. We are better off making our own art, seeking out symbols unburdened by the entanglements that perpetuate the suffering we wish to overcome.