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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



A number of shows that I’ve seen in the past month merit attention, mostly because of their quality (though sometimes for other reasons).

At the top of this list is “Divine Influence: Past and Present” at Wilmer Jennings (through December 31). Billed as “contemporary abstract art and items from the Merton D. Simpson Collection of Primitive Art,” it combines African tribal sculpture with paintings and other wall pieces by Jordan Betten, Stephan Fowlkes, Gregory Coates, Natalie Giugni, Naury Joaquin, Charlotte Kâ, Larry Compton Kolawole, Merton Simpson, Francine Tint, and Agni Zotis. All the wall-work is pleasantly rich in color, and some of the African sculptures are memorable, among them the Senufo bird from the Ivory Coast, and three masks displayed together, one by the Kuba/Nyibita and one by the Suku (both from Zaire), and one by the We (from the Ivory Coast). The paintings I liked best were “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Aurum,” both by Tint. I also liked four small square panels with black rubber tubing pressed into them by Coates.

A second show that I found really interesting, without being especially beautiful, is “Search for the Real: Drawings by Hans Hofmann and His Students,” at the Sidney Mishkin of Baruch College (through December 10). Curated by Christine McCarthy and Donald Beale, this show includes 7 good-sized drawings by Hofmann, two of which are real winners, and 7 smaller pieces on paper by him, along with 32 works on paper, mostly student drawings, by 22 artists who studied with him. Although a few of the more polished works by former students, including a lively sequence by Vaclav Vytlacil, were executed after the artists had attained their majorities, my attention (after I’d finished admiring the larger Hofmanns) was most held by the student drawings, almost all of seated models, in the gallery to the left of the reception desk. In terms of quality they were, well, student drawings, but it was fascinating to see how their creators must have been trying to incorporate Hofmann’s cubist injunctions into representational renderings. None of these drawings look anything like Hofmann’s. Though he is famous as an inspiring teacher, it seems to have been difficult to use his style as a jumping-off point. Better than average works on view are by Mercedes Matter, Paul Resika, Blanche Lazzell and Selina Trieff. Other “name” artists included are Giorgio Cavallon, George McNeil and Steve Wheeler. This show is an altered version of one originally staged at the Provincetown art museum. The original show also had work by Lee Krasner, Fritz Bultman, Wolf Kahn and Robert de Niro.

Recently concluded at Peg Alston Fine Art was “Arthur Simms: Two Thousand Ten: Drawings & Sculpture” (closed November 20). A native of Jamaica, Simms came to the US at the age of 7, took his BA from Brooklyn College in 1987, and now teaches at his alma mater. He has exhibited in many venues, including Sideshow’s “Merrie Peace” show of 2002, and his last big show, at the Clark Gallery in Lincoln MA, focused on his sculpture. This exhibition dealt more with his two-dimensional work, and in particular with paintings incorporating collage elements---bits of buttons, shirt studs, wire, feathers and black disks made of the artist’s own hair. I particularly liked the work in Alston’s front gallery, which combined such collage elements with cheerfully-colored abstract paintings. Among the most appealing were “Skowhegan by the Water,” “Jeff’s Joint Health,” and “Saturday Night in the Barn.”


E. Peter Schroeder is a friend of a friend of mine. That is why I went to the opening of his exhibition of “Paul Newman – The Early Years” at Leica, in Greenwich Village. However, I stayed not only because his photographs of the famous actor, with whom he went to college, are cool (in the best sense) and ingratiating, but also because of the show they accompany, “Leica Focuses on LIFE” (both exhibitions through January 8). Postmodernist art historians love Life (the magazine, that is). It confirms their suspicions that modernism was too upbeat to depict reality fairly, and allows them to think that dystopian postmodernist photography is truer to reality. I agree that Life was in love with America, and committed --- like all the magazines created by Henry Luce --- to an optimistic view of the world, but does this equate to “modernism” or just to Luce? (Who was in his way archaic as well as modern.) In any event, the pictures in this show mostly emphasize the happier aspects of humanity, as depicted by 15 of Life’s best known photographers, among them Margaret Bourke-White, Cornell Capa, John Dominis, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dimitri Kessel and Carl Mydans. There are a lot of famous images here, from Bourke-White’s massive turrets of Fort Peck Dam, which graced the cover of the first issue of Life in 1936, to the Beatles in 1964, fully-dressed & posed like gentlemen, or roistering in a Miami swimming pool (both shots by Dominis). My personal favorite is Mydans’ portrait of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, sitting with their poodle “Basket” just after the liberation of their home in southern France, 1944. What character in those two weathered faces! But the whole show is an upper. Go and enjoy.

Speaking of photography, there is currently what I am sure is a very fine photography show at the Met. It is called “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand,” and I do intend to get to it one of these days, but maybe not tomorrow, as it will be on view until April 10. Meanwhile, I saw another, superb photography show in an unfamiliar venue, the Seaport Museum New York, at 12 Fulton Street (where it constitutes part of the South Street Seaport complex). This is “Alfred Stieglitz New York,” curated by Bonnie Yochelson, and displaying 39 photographs taken between 1892 and 1937, borrowed from museums and private collections throughout the country (through January 10). There are so many wonderful—and classic---masterpieces here that I can’t begin to recount them all, but they chronicle the transition of Little Old New York from a city of snowbound horse-drawn cabs & streetcars to a cubist composition of piled-up, dramatically inset skyscraper hotels and office buildings. The installation is lovely, too, at least the first three-quarters of it, which have been set up to evoke the memory of two of Stieglitz’s galleries. The first two small, square, dimly-lit rooms recreate the serenity & modesty of 291, which lasted from 1905 to 1917. It is easy to visualize drawings or prints by Matisse, Cézanne or Picasso hanging here, as well as the famous Stieglitz photographs that are on view, and were taken between 1892 and 1917, including “The Steerage,” “The Hand of Man,” and all the rest. The third gallery, a long, narrow, lighter space, recreates An American Place, the gallery Stieglitz ran from 1929 to 1946. It contains Stieglitz’s strikingly modern and much less familiar views of midtown skyscrapers as stand-ins for cubist paintings, taken in the 1920s and 30s. A fourth gallery is devoted to other New York photographers of the same period. Some -- Lewis Hine, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Berenice Abbott --- are worth presenting, but I could have done without the kitschy picture postcards & other material of secondary esthetic interest. Still, this is a minor cavil. The remarkable appeal of the first three galleries in this show outweighs the commonplace approach of the fourth.

Picture postcards aren’t necessarily kitschy. Those that reproduce works of art from museums have been collected by artists for quite a while. They inspired the paintings featured in “Miró: The Dutch Interiors” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curated by that museum’s Gary Tinterow (through January 17). This vest-pocket exhibition is built around three paintings made by the Spanish painter in 1928, based upon postcards of two 17th century Dutch genre paintings, which are also on view at the Met (the show was co-organized by the Met and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and was on view there before it came to the Met). In its New York incarnation, the show is divided into three parts: a) Miró paintings made before he went to Amsterdam, saw the Dutch paintings; and bought the postcards of them b) the three “Dutch interiors” by Miró, with their preliminary studies, and c) two Miró paintings more or less outgrowths of the “Dutch interiors.” The “Dutch interiors” have never been my favorite Mirós. I find them overly detailed and with a hard, harsh facture, but the show helps to make them more palatable, and the surrounding materials are often inspiriting. I am particularly fond of the examples of “peinture-poésie” that precede the featured paintings, and the large, magnificent charcoal drawing of “The Family” (1924). Some of the preliminary drawings for the “Dutch interiors” are attractive, too.


At the Jewish Museum we have “Harry Houdini: Art and Magic” (through March 27). It explores the life, career, and lasting influence of this legendary magician (1874-1926). Organized by guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport, this show combines photographs, posters, broadsides, theater ephemera, manuscript material (including Houdini’s diaries), archival and silent film, to say nothing of the objects (original and recreated) that Houdini used in his many escape acts: handcuffs, shackles, straitjacket, milk can, packing trunk and the famed Water Torture Cell. The wall texts explain Houdini’s terrific popularity, among poor and immigrant people especially, by saying that his manifold means of escape reflected & symbolized the needs and desires of such audiences to escape from their miserable, downtrodden lives. My own interest in seeing this show was that Houdini was born in Budapest as Ehrich Weiss---in other words, he was a fellow Hungarian! His father, a rabbi, immigrated with his numerous progeny to Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1878, when young Ehrich was four, but shortly thereafter, the Weiss family relocated again --- to my own homeland, the East 70s in Manhattan. At that time, it was a working-class neighborhood, with a thriving colony of Hungarian immigrants (there are still a few Hungarian churches & synagogues & the occasional Hungarian food store in the area, though not nearly as many as there were when I was growing up). In other words, Harry Houdini was like a neighbor to me, so this show had more resonance than perhaps it might for other museum-goers. On the other hand, magic is always a fascinating subject & is well documented in this show. Houdini’s latter-day influence is less persuasively present. It seems to consist of memorabilia celebrating more recent magicians who admired Houdini & used some of his routines: David Copperfield, Doug Henning, etc., plus a smattering of “art works” by contemporary artists who (to apply the standards of Dorothy Parker) run the gamut of emotions from A to B. Most conspicuous is a room with a glass door by Matthew Barney, with assorted pictures on the wall & a flock of pigeons on the floor with big feathered ruffs around their necks. A label earnestly explains that these pigeons are being very well taken care of, but there is still a smattering of bird shit present. If you’re not too worried by a little bird shit, “Harry Houdini” might be just the thing to entertain a child tired of looking at adult art at the Met.

I fail to understand the Thomas Nozkowski mystique, except to the extent that it gives viewers something to feel superior to, to condescend to. Nevertheless, I determined to give him a second chance, and attended “Thomas Nozkowski: Recent Work” at Pace (25th Street branch, through December 4). The show consists of 19 small abstracts, roughly 22” x 28”, oil on linen on panel, each juxtaposed with a still smaller drawing-type image, roughly 8” x 10”, made of mixed media on paper. I asked if the smaller works on paper were preliminary studies for the larger works they accompanied, and was told that, no, these were “after” paintings. Most of the images are brightly-colored, but with very ordinary colors, and imagery wobbles back and forth between geometric (with straight edges) and biomorphic (with curvy ones). No definitive style here. I understand that some observers feel the show was poorly hung, that the larger & smaller pictures should not have been hung together. My feeling is that no other hanging would have made the work look any better. Cute, I guess, is the word for it. It may appeal to viewers who don’t like to feel overwhelmed. I myself find these paintings subtly irritating, perhaps because of the harshness of the facture combined with the vagaries of the imagery. Then again, since this is pomonian abstraction, maybe irritated is the way that I am supposed to feel.

Another overblown reputation is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that of a guru from California. The title of the show is “John Baldessari: Pure Beauty” (through January 9), and the show was organized jointly by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Tate Modern (both museums having already displayed it). The original curators (in LA) were Jessica Morgan and Leslie Jones, while the Met’s presentation was staged by Marla Prather and Ian Alteveer. The title (“pure beauty”) strikes me as sarcasm, or perhaps a bad joke, since none of the work on display can make claims to beauty, as I understand it. Of course, since Baldessari (b. 1931) is a conceptual artist, there are a number of “paintings” consisting of writing, especially near the beginning of the show, and the writing is admittedly clear and legible (though hardly in a class with the Chinese calligraphy in the other Met show in its special exhibitions area, that of the art of the Yuan Dynasty). Beyond that in the Baldessari show was a lot of photography, pedestrian by comparison with that of Stieglitz, and not even on a level with the photographs used by Barbara Kruger (who came along later, and is said to have been influenced by Baldessari). The caption material on the photos was again not as witty as that of Kruger, let alone that of Jenny Holzer (who might also have been influenced by Baldessari). Then there were videos of unlovely subjects. I have to confess, though, that I don’t know what any of these videos were supposed to be about, since none tempted me to linger in front of them. In fact, I found myself strolling rather rapidly through the entire show. The vibes I got were hostile, though they evidently didn’t bother any other one of the large numbers of people attending this show. Well, you gotta concede that it’s (sort of) clever & (within limits) intellectual & (in its way) figurative. Besides, it sure gives the cognoscenti a lot to prattle on about---as is demonstrated by its 333-page catalogue, with 2 forewords and 11 essays. The hardcover edition goes for $75, a bargain these days, and the paperback is only $45.
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