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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



So sorry not to have passed around the good wishes right on the holiday, but my life has been rich & full lately. I do have some last thoughts about the old year to impart, specifically….

On December 10, I was invited by Stephen Achimore of Syracuse NY to look at some of his recent paintings in a viewing space in Chelsea, and was very encouraged by what I saw. Achimore has evolved into a fresh, winning idiom, related to but distinctly different from the painting he was doing when I profiled him in the supplement to my deluxe print edition two years ago. The paintings, though still built around raised wedges of acrylic & gel, now feature more of them, more completely integrated with one another, and more actively employed. The paintings now often work best horizontally as opposed to vertically, and the colors have become more vivid, without losing individuality. Although Achimore had twenty or twenty-five paintings to show me, none duplicated each other, indicating that he should be able to explore this vein without exhausting its possibilities for quite a while yet. All in all, a most enjoyable experience.

On December 18, I also took in “Spectrum,” the December group show at Stephen Haller (closed on January 11). It included “Rotation B,” a Grade A Larry Zox, done in 1964, and featuring a sizzling center of orange, with complementary yellow, pink and blue around the edges. Also in the show was “What Gauguin Saw,” a pleasantly typical landscape-y abstract by Ronnie Landfield, with his trademark flat band of red across the bottom (1998)…..I also checked out “Next Year in Jerusalem” at Gagosian, the latest all-star production of Anselm Kiefer, who is most assuredly a master showman, though not a master artist (closed December 18). From the crowds surrounding me, it was obvious that I’m in the minority in not hymning him to the skies, but to me, this show was bombastic, pretentious, overly theatrical and hollow. It was, of course, a triumph of stagecraft, but the sets, being cardboard, were lifeless. The predominant color was a tasteful gray, with touches of black, silver, brown, and white—Jasper Johns would have loved it, I’m sure, as would Kiefer's mentor, Joseph Beuys, and it also shares its ever-so-fashionable grayness with ‘60s Robert Morris.

The works on view were huge assemblages (in the center of the gallery) or outsize collages (along its walls). Nearly everything had writing on it, was housed in enormous glass vitrines, up to 20 feet high, and contained (according to the press release) references to a 19th century Peruvian rubber baron, Kabala, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann and a 2nd century Gnostic theologian named Valentinus (among much else). To me, they only looked like so much exquisitely marshaled detritus, including a tarnished airplane fuselage, dingy dresses, a rusty bathtub, shattered glass, dried shrubbery and trees, together with heavily-brushed paintings of outsized eagle’s wings, such as I’ve seen before in other Kiefer exhibitions. The gallery-goers seemed to be wearing mostly black, gray and brown, so they went right with the artwork. Doubtless the appeal of having their own taste in clothing reflected in all the vitrines enhanced the work’s appeal for them. (I was frightfully out of place with my aqua down coat, but then you already know I don’t always follow the crowd.)


I visited a gathering of the tribes, the combination art gallery & publishing headquarters of Steve Cannon, “the professor of the East Village.” The gallery show was “A Tempered Equilibrium: Joy Mancini” (curated by Christina Mallie; through January 14). Though accompanied by another one of those ambitious press releases, the show itself is far more sincere than Kiefer’s. It’s divided into paintings, mostly oils, and sculptures, mostly carved out of marble, alabaster or soapstone. The two-dimensional works are shy and retiring; the three-dimensional ones are a lot more assured; despite their modest scale, they have real punch and presence. Mancini was born in New Jersey, to a family that owned a funeral monument business, and her early memories include watching her father design such stone monuments. She took her B.F.A. at Parsons in 2006, and is an admirer of Louise Bourgeois, who carried surrealism into the 21st century. The press release stresses Mancini’s affinity with surrealism’s interest in the unconscious, but the sculptures are more muscular and abstract than the surrealism, say, of Giacometti. Mancini’s milky colors and fluid shapes carry many rich underwater associations, however. Most impressive is “Sun God,” one of the largest sculptures on view, though it’s only maybe 15” high. Made of yellow marble, it has a lovely swooping feeling, but some smaller pieces – 6” to 8” long-- are also good. Among them I especially liked “Shell Foot” and the whimsically titled “Winged Penis.”


…is the building that started it all, the four-room complex designed more than a century ago by McKim, Mead and White for J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), the multimillionaire banker who not only founded the family fortune but also amassed the original collection of books, manuscripts, jewels, art and so forth that is housed in the Morgan Library & Museum today. (Morgan’s son, J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943) turned the Morgan Library into a public institution.) This original complex was opened to the public on a part-time basis when the new wing designed by Renzo Piano opened five years ago, but now it has been fully restored and is open full-time (one still has to get a free pass determining the actual hour of one’s visit, when buying one’s ticket to the museum). This newly-restored complex is entered through the central Piano open space, and consists of a) the founding financier’s study (or West Room), b) the rotunda joining the other three rooms, and with the original entrance to the street c) the original library itself (East Room), and d) the North Room, which was the office of Morgan’s first chief librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, who later became the museum’s first director.

The decor is all very grand and very impressive, with lavishly-decorated floors and ceilings as well as walls, so be sure to look up and down as well as sideways, and at the furnishings & walls as well as in the display cases. You can also find displayed many, many precious paintings, sculptures, jewelry, seals, cuneiform tablets & and other objets d’art as well as a generous assortment of the library’s most famous books, manuscripts and other papers. Among them -- when I visited --- were the Lindau Gospel (among the most beautiful books ever made), one of the library’s three Gutenberg Bibles, the life mask of George Washington used by Jean-Antoine Houdon while creating his full-length portrait of Washington for the State Capitol in Richmond, the manuscript of “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, manuscripts of music by Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc., but --- well, you get the idea. It’s all very handsome & there are benches in the East Room and the Rotunda for those among us who get museum feet easily....If you hustle, you may also be able to get to "Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks," a tiny but delightful exhibition housed in the Morgan's boutique Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery (through January 23) (© Copyright 2011 by Piri Halasz)
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