Impressions

Impressions: Lygia Clark, Other Primary Structures, Mel Bochner, and more

Some notes on exhibitions at the MoMA and the Jewish Museum.

Driven by cabin fever (I’ve been cooped up in the home studio rendering video for three hot days) and hungry for inspiration, I met up with NM and visited the MoMA and the Jewish Museum of New York. The shows we attended were excellent. I couldn’t be happier with our selections.

Lygia Clark wearing Máscara abismo com tapa-olhos (Abyssal mask with eye-patch, 1968), a work made of fabric, elastic bands, a nylon bag, and a stone, in use. Courtesy Associação Cultural "O Mundo de Lygia Clark," Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Sergio Gerardo Zalis, 1986 // Source: moma.org.

Lygia Clark wearing Máscara abismo com tapa-olhos (Abyssal mask with eye-patch, 1968), a work made of fabric, elastic bands, a nylon bag, and a stone, in use. Courtesy Associação Cultural “O Mundo de Lygia Clark,” Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Sergio Gerardo Zalis, 1986 // Source: moma.org.

Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988
Museum of Modern Art 
Through August 24, 2014

  • The curatorial premise of the show is that the Brazilian artist started off as a Modernist painter of geometric abstraction, transitioned into making interactive sensorial objects, and finally left art to practice psychotherapy. (This seems unusual, as the default curatorial impulse is to historicize and affirm the importance of an artist within art history.)
  • The size, texture, and visuals of the early paintings reminded me of Constructivism. However, Clark expanded beyond the rectangle and engaged in a reflexive investigation. (NM and I wished to shape our own practices around questions more, as open-ended inquiries.)
  • A room of black and white, 2-D, Neo-Concretist compositions had a lot of energy—lots of visual tension and concision. I especially loved the wall text explaining how Neo-concretism differed from the Concretist aim to rid all external referents, acknowledging that (We are always embodied!):

“the work of art is a projection of the body”

  • The final room invites interaction with replicas of her iconic mirror goggles, and instructions for actions, including a surprisingly delightful Möbius strip activity. This is a rare participatory space in a museum that is completely authentic and appropriate. 
  • Clark met resistance in art and psychotherapy—as a wall text explained, “her work was an abyss, an absence pointing to open, unresolved questions in both disciplines.” (Art is presumed to take all kinds, but then why is it so uncomfortable when projects become too akin to other realms? I think Clark is totally underrated, and I hope the exhibition and substantial monograph act to remedy this.)
  • Installation notes: [Sometimes I wish I could turn this habit off, as it detracts from my experience of the art; on the other hand, I hope it hones my exhibition-making craft.] Most of the work is installed very high on the wall—I’m guessing on a 66″ centerline. I felt like I was craning my neck to look at the pictures. The last room, however, featured projections flush to the floor, so maybe the height was designed to emphasize Clark’s evolution to participation. 
Edgardo Antonio Vigo. Hazlo (Do it). 1970. Photo: David Horvitz // Source: moma.org.

Edgardo Antonio Vigo. Hazlo (Do it). 1970. Photo: David Horvitz // Source: moma.org.

The Unmaker of Objects: Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s Marginal Media
Museum of Modern Art
Through June 30, 2014
View the exhibition site.

“This exhibition celebrates the mail art, visual poetry, performative works, and publications of the Argentine artist Edgardo Antonio Vigo (1928–1997).” —MoMA site

  • Gorgeous typography. Much of the ephemera was beautifully produced letterpress or woodcut prints with custom cutout shapes. Hailing from the late 1960s, it was stylish, exuberant and not overly complicated. It wasn’t on fancy paper with a pronounced de-boss, or dream-of-the-1890s-hipster-baroque. It was tasteful and original. In my thinking about simple gestures and conceptual works, I tend to recall Stanley Brouwn’s scribbled scraps or Fluxus’ typewritten  instructions. However, elemental/conceptual gestures can be accompanied by killer graphic design, too.
  • One piece of paper, one cutout, two words = more than most art achieves.
  • Many of the works bore prompts or procedures. I’ve wanted to improve my atrophied Spanish skills, and this became one more reason.
  • Installation notes: Four vitrines in a mixed-use atrium. Not the most ideal venue, but the display inside was great. The ephemera was laid out on wool or some other non-woven fabric, and the grey texture contrasted the paper nicely, grounding it in everyday usage.
An unfortunately small thumbnail of an installation view of Other Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald/The Jewish Museum.  // Source: thejewishmuseum.org.

An unfortunately small thumbnail of an installation view of Other Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald/The Jewish Museum. // Source: thejewishmuseum.org.

Other Primary Structures
The Jewish Museum
Through August 3, 2014

  • Jens Hoffman, formerly of the Wattis Institute, restaged the seminal Minimalist exhibition with non-Western artists.
  • The physical space was challenging—ornate architecture, small rooms. But Hoffman bent the space to his will with his stylized, almost aggressive exhibition-making. Reproductions of the original exhibition loomed on billboard-sized temporary walls. They crowded the small spaces, and positioned the actual physical works in a more literal relationship to the original show.
  • There was a surprisingly great amount of tension in the show. The works were present, palpably.
  • The minature model of the original show, fabricated by Bay Area artist Andy Vogt, is a treat.
  • Museum notes: The Museum’s identity is being re-designed by Sagmeister…. Jon Sueda and Jens Hoffman were an unstoppable duo, IMHO. Also, the way the Upper East Side building had been selectively renovated as a contemporary museum reminded me of places like the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK. Being reminded of such history in physical spaces makes totally-white cubes seem boring.)
Mel Bochner, Going Out of Business, 2012, oil on velvet, 93 ½ × 70 ¼ in. (237. 5 x 178.4 cm). Private collection, New York. Artwork © Mel Bochner. // Site: thejewishmuseum.org.

Mel Bochner, Going Out of Business, 2012, oil on velvet, 93 ½ × 70 ¼ in. (237. 5 x 178.4 cm). Private collection, New York. Artwork © Mel Bochner. // Site: thejewishmuseum.org.

Mel Bochner: Strong Language
The Jewish Museum
Through September 21, 2014

  • I’ve been a huge Bochner fan since seeing his retrospective at Whitechapel.
  • This is another great exhibition. See it! Reproductions of Bochner’s text paintings do not do them justice!
  • Bochner’s exhibition reviews—including Primary Structures—dating back to the 1960s are also on view. It’s not often that artists’ critical writing practices are acknowledged alongside their gallery work.
  • Bochner has talked about his love of graph paper—numerous drawings attest to his usage of printed grids of all sorts as a medium for sketching and expanding the conceptual bounds of portraiture.
  • Installation note: In the final room, three subtle text paintings use interference paints (reflecting light in different colors), but it’s nearly impossible to tell they way they are installed.

Excellent venues, exhibitions, and curatorial vision are bountiful, if you know where to look, or find them with good luck and/or persistence.

 

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Impressions

Claes Oldenburg @ MoMA

Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store 
Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing
April 14–August 5, 2013
Museum of Modern Art, NYC

It’s likable. Dive in.

Claes Oldenburg. Pastry Case, I 1961—62 Burlap and muslin soaked in plaster, painted with enamel, metal bowls, and ceramic plates in glass-and-metal case. 20 3/4 x 30 1/8 x 14 3/4" (52.7 x 76.5 x 37.3 cm). The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 1961—62 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, Kate Keller. // Source: moma.org.

Claes Oldenburg. Pastry Case, I, 1961—62. Burlap and muslin soaked in plaster, painted with enamel, metal bowls, and ceramic plates in glass-and-metal case. 20 3/4 x 30 1/8 x 14 3/4″ (52.7 x 76.5 x 37.3 cm). The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 1961—62 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, Kate Keller. // Source: moma.org.

I’ve found that there are two common ways of responding to Pop art inspired by familiar objects. The first is skeptical: viewers resent low culture intruding in high museums, and/or presume an underlying oppositional agenda when none is proffered. The second response is more open and instinctual; viewers delight in identifying with common objects and enjoy the humor in the familiar made strange.

For me, Claes Oldenburg’s works in The Store are imminently likable. The objects are ultra quotidian: hats, men’s dress shirts with ties, canvas lace-ups, ice cream sundaes. They are rendered in drippy, cragged plaster covered in vibrant gloss enamels. The forms are rough and exaggerated; the effect is both grotesque and comical.

Some of the genius in these sculptures comes from Oldenburg’s selection of common yet iconographic sources. Traces of the early 1960s appear, but do not pervade. For example, the 7-Up logo and other trademarks are obsolete. And I surmise that the preponderance of sundaes may correlate to a midcentury ice cream parlor vogue. But most others objects—such as burgers, shoes, and pants—have not changed much in the past five decades, and they remain current and relatable. Indeed, the shiny enamel is beautifully preserved (or probably, simply durable), and still conveys commerce’s exuberant newness.

Oldenburg’s project expanded the boundaries of art, helping to merge high art and low commerce. The exhibition also makes other equivalences clear too. This is exemplified by a vitrine containing a model plane, a salad, and a man’s hat. It suggests that food and possessions are alike as objects of consumption. They call us with our desire for them and reaffirm us as reflections of our identities.

From a historical perspective, the show allowed ample opportunities to think about zeitgeists and simultaneous developments. Oldenburg’s display cases full of pies (or tartines, created for a show in Paris) recall the luscious frosting-like paintings of Wayne Thiebaud. An oversized wall calendar made of stuffed, sewn fabric numbers brought to mind Jasper Johns’ number paintings. Neither comparisons diminish said works.

Claes Oldenburg. Floor Burger 1962 Canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, painted with acrylic paint. 52" x 7' x 7' (132.1 x 213.4 x 213.4 cm). Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchase, 1967. © 1962 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: Sean Weaver. // Source: moma.org.

Claes Oldenburg. Floor Burger, 1962. Canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, painted with acrylic paint. 52″ x 7′ x 7′ (132.1 x 213.4 x 213.4 cm). Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchase, 1967. © 1962 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: Sean Weaver. // Source: moma.org.

Oldenburg’s monumental soft sculptures provide a nice climax for the show. Floor Cone, Floor Burger, and Floor Cakewere designed for a spacious gallery that was meant for the display of luxury cars. This use of scale brilliantly addresses the massive spaces that have become so common today, while remaining totally appropriate to the works (in contrast to many contemporary works’ use of monumental scale to convey power and wealth). These individual portions of dishes at preposterously large scale, in sewn and stuffed painted canvas, exude comfort and welcome. They suggest an invitation to play, if not literally, than imaginatively. Taking a nap on one might be an entirely reasonable way to relate to it. I appreciated that these floor-specific works were actually exhibited on the floor, not on white plinths that keep viewers at bay. The Street, in an adjoining gallery, is installed this way, with ample space, which formalizes the seemingly-abstract cardboard shapes and seems remote from the original inspiration—colorful 1961 Lower East Side. The works fall flat in a disappointing compromise between a lively street-level feel and the MoMA’s staggeringly-trafficked museum needs.

Also on view are Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, two exhibition halls housing found, readymade and created objects, developed for Documenta in the 1970s. The wall text explains that Oldenburg demonstrates an equivalence between creating and collecting. The installation seemed to reward prolonged viewing. The more you look at dissimilar objects, such as the children’s toys, sex toys, gloves, and food sculptures in Mouse Museum, the more similarities you’ll see. The longer you look at similar objects, such as the gun-shaped things in Ray Gun Wing, the more acute the differences become. A brief look was like an insight into Oldenburg’s thought process. But the nature of the long queues for these structures at MoMA made it seem indecent to linger for long.

Oldenburg’s plaster-and-enamel sculptures of everyday commodities has been an important reference point for me for several years. They signal a way to think about merging art and life, embracing the everyday non-art materials and subjects around us, and the viability of artist-initiated exhibitions (Oldenburg exhibited The Store as an immersive installation in his studio). MoMA’s and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien’s decision to exhibit precisely these seminal works is a testament to the mandate of these collecting, preserving and presenting institutions, for which I am grateful.

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Sights

see: Cindy Sherman @ MoMA

If you’re in New York this weekend, you’re probably going to the fairs (Armory, Scope, Volta, Independent, etc), but if you can, do yourself a favor and get to the MoMA for the Cindy Sherman retrospective.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #466. 2008. Chromogenic color print, 8' 1 1/8 x 63 15/16" (246.7 x 162.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Robert B. Menschel in honor of Jerry I. Speyer. © 2011 Cindy Sherman. Source:MoMA.org.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #466. 2008. Chromogenic color print, 8' 1 1/8 x 63 15/16" (246.7 x 162.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Robert B. Menschel in honor of Jerry I. Speyer. © 2011 Cindy Sherman. Source:MoMA.org.

I liked Sherman’s work before, though I always thought of her in the context of the Pictures Generation. Now, after seeing this world-class exhibition of her work, I’m convinced about her unique position in 21st-century contemporary art. There are many bodies of works in the exhibition, and a few—Untitled Film Stills, the history paintings, and the more recent grand dames—alone would make fantastic accomplishments for one artist’s lifetime. Some little-seen works really add to the visit, too. Sherman is an incredible photographer and artist, and I left feeling very inspired to be prolific, think big, and take risks.

(For example, I’ve been daydreaming about a forthcoming series of large collage/posters, envisioning a series of 10. Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills knocked my socks off—all 69 of them. Time to up the scale of my ambition, and do work!)

(Also, female self-portraitists, cliché of art schools: Bring it or quit it! Sherman’s A-game comes at risk to her, and the viewers benefit with immense rewards. Making vulnerable self-portraits in a very general way about “the gaze” can be like working on your punching form by hitting the air. It’s how you start, but sooner or later, you either step into the ring, or move on to Zumba.)

Cindy Sherman is on view at the MoMA through June 26. If you can’t make it, there’s a nicely organized exhibition website, though it’s just a sampling of the pictures and details you’d see in the exhibition. (Typography nerds will appreciate the fluctuating typefaces for this identity-upending show.)

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Art & Development, Citizenship

Kempinas, Happiness, Democracy

Zilvinas Kempinas’ Double O (2008) at the MoMA

Zilvinas Kempinas. Double O. 2008. Installation view at MoMA as part of On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century. Photo by Jason Mandella

Zilvinas Kempinas. Double O. 2008. Installation view at MoMA as part of On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century. Photo by Jason Mandella. Source: MoMA.org

Zilvinas Kempinas’ Double O (2008) at the MoMA is a mesmerizing, extraordinarily simple installation in which fans suspend two loops of VHS tape in their intersecting currents. Have a look at the video on the MoMA site. The examples of Kempinas’ work that I first encountered seem like larger-than-life explorations of form and optics. Double O is a miraculous combination of simple materials, which prove to be just as effective as labor-intensive, perfect installations.

And the Pursuit of Happiness
A panel in the Live from NYPL! series and the Walls and Bridges Festival

This Franco-American panel of theorists and artists was a mishmash of languages, somewhat esoteric areas of academic research (via French Revolution specialist Sophie Wahnich and Ancient Greece expert Barbara Cassin), American common sense (no-nonsense artist/illustrator Maira Kalman), and likable, self-effacing irreverence (the author Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket). The Americans seemed like they couldn’t hang with the intellectual rigor of the French academics, while the French seemed oblivious to the idiomatic phrases and physical cues that made the Americans seem warm and entertaining to the audience of New Yorkers.

Unintended absurdity, evident investment in the topic, and the chance to see and hear examples of Kalman’s and Handler’s work and process kept me in my seat. However, at the end, I could hardly contain myself. The concluding question was “What makes you happy?” and nearly all of the respondents talked about losing oneself in skilled activity–yet no one mentioned Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.

Further, Handler divulged that happy conditions don’t inspire him to write. Italo Calvino’s short story, “The Adventure of a Poet”—which I wrote a post about a few days ago—is exactly about how much easier it is to represent the mundane, while the transcendent often begets cliché.

I was also interested to hear Wahnich discuss the centrality of the political self in the search for happiness. If I understand her—or her interpreter—correctly, she explained that the freedom to act politically—not necessarily in the civic sense as an activist or voter, rather the basic liberty of movement, speech, thought, and action—is fundamental to the pursuit of happiness. Handler said that the Declaration of Independence is a statement about how democracy must be homegrown; it cannot be installed by foreign powers, and it must be fought for by the people. Still, no one on the panel connected this talk about self-determination and the struggle for democracy with the grassroots democracy movement in Egypt today.

While the Declaration of Independence sought liberty for some men, and the struggle for civil rights in this country is far from over—gay marriage being the most obvious liberty, to me, that the state ought not deny its citizens—its passage on happiness and building democracy seems worth remembering at this time.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

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Research

Surprises at the MoMA

I visited the MoMA yesterday, on the last day of The Original Copy: The Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today. Working with studio-based compositions of sculptures and sculptural arrangements, Brancusi’s suite of beautiful b/w photos featured glints of light, while Jan de Cock [see his innovative website]‘s Studio Repromotion series were unaffected, curious color 4x6s. Cyprien Gaillard‘s Analogous Geographies (a series of groups of sixteen random Polaroids, all shot at 45 degree angles, and arranged to create composite landscapes) had a neat presentation (the photos were lain on a concave matboard-like surface in deep frames set at a low angle). Robin Rhode‘s Stone Flags (in which the illusion of flag-waving is carried out in a kind of live-action stop-motion hybrid, using real stones and a real figure) captured the heavy burden of statehood on personal identity. I was also happy to be introduced to Brassaï‘s Involuntary Sculptures, large b/w macro shots of materials like balls of dust or smeared toothpaste. The questioning of the nature of sculpture, and the embrace of chance, seems very contemporary. The cherry on the cake, though, was one of Duchamp’s valises of miniatures of his sculptures and paintings.

Still, while I toured other shows around the museum, I was most affected and impressed by three videos. This is a rarity for me. I haven’t got anything against video, it’s just that I don’t often have the patience it takes to watch enough videos to see the great ones. In this case, all three were very powerful, shared some similarities, yet are completely different.

Glenn Ligon‘s The Death of Tom (2008) is elegiac. It’s impressive because it seems to convey no content, yet ample clues point the observant viewer towards a very specific historical and cultural moment. [It’s so good I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll add a SPOILER ALERT here. Skip to the next graph if you don’t want to know.] The short film consists of unintelligible streaks of white light; a hazy, nebulous, shifting blur creates sort of a monochromatic, animated Rothko. It’s unclear what you’re looking at, and when, if ever, the video will start. Yet a beautifully-recorded piano accompanies the light; its riffs and rhythms allude to vaudevillian tunes. The composition is nostalgic and playful and yet, interpretive, heavy, burdened and woeful. Being familiar with Ligon’s work, and his interest in race and the representation of Black Americans, I surmised a connection to blackface and the co-mingled feelings of liberation and weight. It’s a very powerful piece that connects strongly to Ligon’s paintings about illegibility and misreadings. Jason Moran, the pianist and composer, provides clues, context and grace in equal measure. It’s on view through May 9, 2011.

In a prime example of the multi-polarity of artists of color and ways of working, unflinching Vietnamese documentarian Dinh Q. Lê and his collaborators present a completely different video that concerns racial and national politics as well. Their giant, three-channel video is at times emotionally heart-wrenching, bombastic, borderline propagandistic, and completely unnerving. The Farmers and The Helicopters (2006) features interviews with a handful of survivors of the Vietnam War and their experiences with helicopters: elderly ladies who were terrorized as children, a militia man who fired on them, and a perplexing, passionate, self-taught mechanic, who, enthralled with helicopters and their utilitarian and humanitarian potentials, built a helicopter from scrap metals with a farmer. Le Van Danh’s and Tran Quoc Hai’s handiwork is on view in the gallery adjacent to the video. It’s massive, white like an angel, and mind-blowing. The Farmers and The Helicopters is on view through January 24, 2011.

The third video I liked was features only color fields, similar to Ligon’s black-and-white-blur, yet is aggressively gripping like Lê’s. Paul Sharit‘s Ray Gun Virus (1966) is a film consisting of rapidly interspersed fields of color, accompanied by a loud, brain-invading mechanical drone. Finding the screening room empty, I proceeded to break all normal viewing protocol: standing in the projection throw, observing the awesome retinal after-images (or colors) that occurred, and generally zoning out. I thought about looking straight into the projection when more visitors came in, and I resumed my normative viewing role. A structuralist filmmaker, Ray Gun Virus was Sharit’s first “flicker” films which aimed to alter consciousness. He succeeded. See a visitor-created YouTube video. Also on view through May 9, 2011.

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