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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."



The kind of show that appeals to feature writers on the Times is the incoherent mess of bamboo stalks assembled by Doug & Mike Starn on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of far more visual satisfaction is “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. You get three chances to guess which of the two I prefer (the first two chances don’t count, as we used to say back in the Renaissance when I was a child).

The Burchfield show (through October 17) was at least curated by Robert Gober, famous for sculptures of lifelike legs sticking out of the wall & other peculiar assemblages, so it does have that claim to pomonian credentials. Nevertheless, I suspect that what appeals to Gober about Burchfield (1893-1967) is not what appeals about Burchfield to me. In a pinch, one can describe Gober’s objets d’art as fey and whimsical, and the same adjectives can be applied to many of the watercolor landscapes created by Burchfield between 1914 and 1917, and again from 1943 to the end of his life. But between those two periods, and especially in the 1920s, he was known for “American Scene” painting: gritty, honest, monumental & straightforward views of the city of Buffalo & its industrial environs (where he lived). For me, it’s the finest of these sometimes truly magnificent works that really show Burchfield at his best, better than such better-known American Scene painters as John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, indeed approaching in excellence Edward Hopper (who admired him & wrote about him).

The whimsical watercolors, in which trees look somehow humanoid & houses have windows that resemble eyes, aren’t bad. Indeed, when I was writing my dissertation, and again in one of the magazine articles that I got out of the dissertation, I pointed to Burchfield’s abandonment of American Scene painting, and fresh embrace of fantasy in the mid-40s, as evidence of a turn in American painting as a whole toward the more subjective, more inward-turning and more symbolic. I saw it part of a general trend that led away from the hard-edged, matter-of-fact realism of the 20s and 30s, and toward more emotional, subjective and increasingly abstract art that would culminate in abstract expressionism around 1950. But at that point I knew Burchfield’s work only in reproduction, and only in isolated examples. Seeing a lot of these pictures together and in the flesh gave me an entirely different perspective on them.

You, dear reader, may feel differently about this, so don’t let me dissuade you from going to see this show. Also, don’t let yourself be distracted by the mountains of memorabilia that pad it out, including letters, journals, doodles, books about Burchfield & even yellowing copies of Time & Life from the 1930s, when the artist’s best work was being celebrated by all-American patriots for all the wrong reasons, and Alfred Barr was setting himself off from this “common herd” by mounting a show at MoMA of Burchfield’s earlier whimsical paintings. I’m afraid that to me, these fantasy paintings look rather dated, just like the wallpaper that the artist designed, as part of his day job. The Whitney has misguidedly papered an entire gallery with this wallpaper, but fight against the claustrophobia it may induce, because in this gallery are also hung many of the top paintings in the show. The final gallery, of late work, attempts to synthesize the fantasy of the early years with the enhanced scale and dignity of the American Scene painting. One has to respect the artist’s ambition, and as a whole, the attempt is impressive, but when you study the pictures individually, only a few come off. If I have at least a tentative conclusion to draw from this exhibition, it may be that realism wears better than whimsy.


The Starn twins’ site-specific installation is “Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop” (through October 31, weather permitting). It’s billed as 50 feet wide and 100 feet long, 30 feet in height at its inception & under continuous additions, so it should be 50 feet high at its conclusion. At floor level, it’s like a little forest of vertical bamboo sticks, lashed together with nylon ropes. Visitors can walk around under it (when I was there, most were as usual posing their friends & relations for photographs, under the bamboo canopy, or with it as a backdrop if they were standing on the portion of the roof not covered). The view from that roof garden is fabulous, the park below ringed by skyscrapers, but many people were ignoring this in favor of the Starns’ conglomeration.

Besides posing with it, the other thing you can do with it is climb up inside it, through stairs & inner passageways. Tickets to this are free, but requirements for ticket-holders are almost as stringent as those for the armed services. You must be able to walk without assistance, no wheelchairs, canes or crutches (except for canes with wrist-straps carried by the visually-impaired, and service animals are allowed). You must weigh less than 400 pounds, and children must be at least 10 and at least 48” high. You cannot be under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicants. It’s not recommended if you have a heart or respiratory condition, are pregnant, have a history of seizures, impaired mobility or back, limb or joint injuries, acrophobia, vertigo, claustrophobia, or simply “balance problems.” You must wear flat, rubber-soled shoes with a closed toe & closed back or back strap (no flip-flops, sandals, barefoot, high heels or leather-soled shoes). Photo ID is required for tickets, and you must sign a “day of tour certification & agreement.” All this, of course, contributes to the pleasurable thrill of danger which is such an essential element of dada, as is the emphasis on method & lack of visual appeal.

Visitors taking this tour gather at the ground level of the museum. They proceed to a locker room, where they must store their bags and all other personal items (including purses, cell phones, cameras, food & beverage containers, umbrellas, hats, “personal entertainment devices,” etc.). They may bring eyeglasses, sunglasses and “necessary medications.” I saw one group being admitted to one of the entries to the upper reaches of the edifice. Almost all were between the ages of 10 and 30 (I noticed only one older person). I would imagine that most people fascinated with this artwork are younger rather than older, and mostly unaccustomed to using their eyes to evaluate paintings & sculpture. They probably feel a bit ill at ease when confronted with a work of art that doesn’t require them to do anything except respond to its visual appeal(as opposed to thinking about its subject matter, reading any writing there may be on it, or playing with it in one way or another). But the Met – like every other museum in town – is worried that it doesn’t do enough to attract young people. It’s got to build, build, build its audiences (just like any moviemaker or website). Therefore museum officials tend to accept the judgment of such young people as to what is good & what’s bad, what art they themselves should show & what they don’t have to bother with. In one form or another, this has been going on with MoMA, the Whitney & the Guggenheim for decades. Now the Met feels it has to do the same.

The fact that the Starns’ edifice is so poorly organized & unappealing to contemplate, unfortunately, also guarantees it critical acclaim. It’s of a piece with two articles in the New York Times for Friday, September 3. On the fourth page of the “Weekend Arts” section was one by Erik Piepenburg on the Museum of Bad Art in at three locations in the Boston area, as well as other displays of the sort of kitsch “collectibles” so often featured on “Antiques Roadshow.” Piepenburg isn’t a regular art critic – his previous contributions to the Times have mostly been about showbiz – but his attitude is consistent with that of Roberta Smith, the Times’s chief art critic. Consider her review on the front page of that same “Weekend Arts” section of “Dalí: The Late Work” at the High Museum in Atlanta (through January 9, giving you plenty of time to get there). Every example of late Dalí that I’ve seen was empty, bombastic, academic and pretentious, which is to say, pretty bad, nor did Smith succeed in revising that opinion with the reproductions that accompanied her piece. But hey, as far as she’s concerned, this is great stuff, and she gives us a little lecture on how shows like this are “loosening the grip of canonical European and America painting and sculpture” to make art history “bigger, messier & truer,” just as previous shows of late Picasso, late Kirchner and late Renoir have already done. The trouble is, we are not really loosening the grip of a canon, we are merely substituting one canon for another, the modernist canon of the superior being replaced by a postmodernist canon of the inferior. It’s been a long, long time since Smith has rhapsodized over Mondrian, Analytic Cubism or Pollock, to say nothing of all the more recent modernist painters & sculptors she ignores. But basta! Enuf!


Over the sultry months, Peg Alston Fine Arts has been showing “Iké Udé: Midsummer Expressions.” (now on view only by appointment; call 212-663-8333). This Nigerian-born artist is at once a painter, collagist, photographer, editor/publisher & writer. Online his talents can be seen in aRude, a high-style magazine that combines haute couture with culture. His photography has been featured in many shows, including photographs of himself in various costumes, portraits of other people, and experimental imagery. His most recent book is “Style File: The World’s Most Elegantly Dressed” (HarperCollins, 2008), and all the copies offered at the opening of the current show sold out. The show itself features brightly-colored paper cutouts of leaf forms on equally brightly-colored fields, and quieter, paler small oil pastel abstracts..... (© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)

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