Friday, March 31, 2006

William Wegman

William Wegman, Stormy Night, 1972. Gel silver prints. 14" x 10-3/4".

William Wegman is a master of incongruity, applying a childlike fixation with wordplay, intellectual puzzles, and subtle manipulations of perception to seemingly-ordinary scenes. He defies expectations and rewards the attentive viewer with deadpan wit, jovial humor, and at times, startling profundity, with a highly economized language of expression. Wegman’s variety of humor is both accessible and specific, allowing for a wide appeal based in solid artistic concepts, delicately toeing the line between kitsch and austerity in a novel and sophisticated way.

Stormy Night of 1972 is a methodical formal investigation of the relation between a grey dog and white rectangular prisms. Arranged in a 9-piece grid of gel-silver prints, Wegman mimics the repetitive permutations of objects in space, as seen in conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt, mitigated by the body of a dog in profile. Wegman avoids some of the more hermetic or didactic tendencies of conceptualism, however, by sublimating his work with a unique level of accessibility and humor. The viewer laughs first, and then finds there is substance beyond visual punning or a one-line joke. In Stormy Night, the dog embodies the motion and energy of the inquisition, a biological stand-in for the viewer’s imagination trying to negotiate the alterations in form. The top row shows a prism laying flat and low, the second on its side and mid-height, the bottom with the rectangle upright, forming a vertical that seems difficult to surmount. Each column shows the dog with its front legs on the block, then both legs, and finally only its back legs. The arcs, dips, and planes within the dog’s muscular body are quite complex, forming a second system of sequential movements which is simultaneously inviting, playful, and intellectually stimulating. Because the viewer is able to experience the sequence through a body, the pay-out on the incongruity of form is refined and precise, without contrivance. Using as familiar a surrogate as man’s best friend, Wegman imparts warmth and curiosity to otherwise cold, impersonal motifs, while maintaining photographic rigor and flawless technical detail, particularly in lighting. In another bout of seeming incongruity, this image is equally at home on a greeting card and a museum wall, underscoring its universally-relatable qualities.

Wegman’s subtle clarity of expression is one of his strengths, very effectively demonstrated in ink and pencil drawings similar at times to those of Raymond Pettibon. The literalness with which Wegman treats some subjects, and the clever, canny abstraction of others, contributes a jarring sense of a surreal state. In No Fun Sleeping Under a Picture Like This of 1975, a man is seen in profile in his bed, covered with a lumpy blanket indicated with what appears to be one long stuttering brushstroke trailing across the page. Above him hangs a framed image of an octopus, askew on the wall and signed by Wegman in pencil in the lower right corner. The drawing is captioned in the fashion of a comic panel or political cartoon, its title completed with an exclamation point, and a second signature appears on the lower right, beneath the man’s pillow. By framing a picture within a picture, Wegman forces viewers to contemplate our experience of drawings and images, a level of meta-experience which makes the questions asked more personally specific: would it be any more fun to sleep under this picture than the octopus depicted? While a simple device, the point is driven home more clearly, opening a dialogue about the place of conceptual, or more broadly, “meaningful” art in the home, questioning motivations toward acquisition of objects of purely retinal or formal pleasure. Still, this image is compelling, as are many of his deceptively simple drawings, such that Wegman strikes a balance between using the materials in service of a message and instilling the message in artfully-employed materials. He does not stray into a propagandist territory of overstatement, nor is it arbitrary hand-painted fluff. By distributing priority throughout the levels of experience, Wegman provides fodder for a variety of critical responses with enough open-endedness that multiple readings are viable and, it seems, encouraged.

The hanging of this retrospective was sometimes baffling, complicated by the eccentricity of thematic, rather than linear groupings of pieces. With repetitions of wall texts, two sets of the same videos, and most of the Weimaraner Polaroids relegated to one annex, it is unclear which version of Wegman viewers are supposed to come away with. The piercing soundtrack of a 2004 Nokia DVD reel, featuring short dog-infested scenes accompanied by accordion or circus music inter-cut with ticking clocks and an alarm, punctuates the sense of dreaming and startling to wakefulness. At times it seems this is a purposeful challenge to thinking about Wegman – jarring clichés of a silly man with exceptionally well-trained dogs by presenting disturbing, angry, and frustrating videos rife with indignation, compulsion, and annoyance, as in the tone of Log Cabin Cinnamon Toast and several other video pieces. Intellectual or overly-formal readings are challenged by playful, extravagant paintings incorporating picture postcards into imaginative landscapes. Wegman is consumed with the need to make things fit, forcing the exterior parameters of size, scale, and feasibility, to comply with internal picture logic. So many of Wegman’s sleight-of-hand, aggressively witty pieces deliberately complicate ordinary objects or scenes, pictorially and conceptually re-imagined and made purposefully incongruous, such that “everything is familiar but not quite in the right place.”


- William Wegman: Funney/Strange at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn NY
- Wegman World
- Wegman in Art:21
- "Beyond Dogs: Wegman Unleashed by Roberta Smith in the NY Times

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Deliberate Simplicity of Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, The Sea, 2003. Acrylic and graphite on canvas. 60"x60"

In a letter from 1981, Agnes Martin wrote, “We live a short time in this life and then we are gone from it without a trace, like last summer’s leaves.” In her series of geometric abstractions and grids dating from 1957-2004, Martin achieved an elegant reduction of formal issues in painting, consolidated into intelligent, reposeful meditation. Martin’s work serves as a corrective to current issues of careerism, visual hyper-saturation, and gimmicks in contemporary painting. While using a deliberately simple trick, Martin thoroughly explores the gamut of expressions, resulting in a surprisingly robust personal language of deceptively minimal elements.

In observing the surfaces of Martin’s paintings, there is nothing immediately remarkable, save for the restraint with which delicate washes of colors are barely applied. The cleanliness of ruled graphite lines and the orderly compartmentalization of canvas areas, perhaps with masking tapes, speak to the sort of dull control sometimes found in problematic geometric abstractions. Martin, however, makes no apologies for method and reveals her materials and technique with a lucid honesty. What is first taken for absence in the works becomes a form of clarity, an opening-up and revelation of sensitive, intuitive expressions operating simultaneously on a literal and unconscious level, a veritably transcendent visual philosophy of startling poignancy.

In the case of Happiness (2001-2003, 60”x60”, acrylic and pencil on canvas), Martin does not describe the exuberant, effusive happiness of gratification or ecstatic frenzy so often depicted in fluorescents and curvilinear assaults. Instead, this happiness is a distillation of experiences and memory, thoughts, reflections, and the spaces between events which comprise everyday life. The canvas has a clean structure, divided nearly in half by three horizontal bands of a faint, washy blue. The top half contains fifteen alternating stripes of a creamy light yellow overlaid with faint blue washes, and the lower half is similar, with thirteen stripes. Pencil lines harmoniously coexist with wobbly edges of washes, such that they are neither truly divisive nor fully integrated –they simply are.

Faint pulses of a deeper greenish yellow hum under the surface like whispers, recalling momentary pleasures just as one closes her eyes in afternoon sunlight, remembering. The trembling fluid energies are so barely present that the shallow depth created by tonal shifts seems to be an illusion or a flickering of vision as the viewer breathes in and out, yet the central lighter region glows as a consequence, as if lit from within.

The piece speaks to impermanence, the fluttering instants in life, the intense fragility in human existence, but above all the quiet and contemplative joy found in it all. Though Martin said we leave without a trace, she has provided many glimpses and traces to her truth, unclouded and pure. Martin shows that to understand, a person need only see, and in turn, be among the elements of this world, where so much beauty thrives in such simple things.

If Happiness is a logic which required quiet, Martin’s Untitled 1957 piece (#16 – 51½” x 38”, oil on canvas) requires complexity, and in turn complicity. A white field washes over graphite triangles, settling into varying soft shades of grey. Two columns reflect over a central axis to reveal a sequence of triangles (1, 3 rows of 3, 16 rows of 4, 3 of 3, 1) which spread outward like wings or an expanding diaphragm taking a breath. Ten triangles in the upper left are outlined with graphite over the oil, along with partial sides of other triangles which dissipate like incomplete thoughts or meditations trailing off into silence. The shifting opacities of the white overlay render the triangles like optical scattering despite their orderly arrangement within an evident grid. With rows recalling gravestones or calendar days, the triangles take on a quality of reflection, and in their fleeting presence, allow viewers the pleasurable uncertainty of whether they see something actual or remembered, not unlike retinal illusions or optical challenges issued by other artists in garish neons or harsh intensities.

Martin’s surface is remarkably energetic in spite of its static and compulsive regularity, calling attention to the subtle richness of detail and variety in marks made by the human hand. By keeping everything about the painting muted, Martin encourages a meditative study, an involved contemplation beyond observation or reluctant acknowledgement of a system. The ideas do not batter us or force themselves upon us : they sink under the skin and seep into our breath with tiny pulses and intriguing invitations to look, then look again.

The work functions both as a geometric system and a field, with levels of interest that range from rolling hills to blades of grass, and in this thoroughness of language and complexity of grammar, Martin gets the viewer speaking in her tongue, thinking through her logic, even breathing in the cadence of her breaths. This is not abstraction read by the mind, rather felt in the body, understood in an interactive, visceral, yet quiet way.

Agnes Martin is not all tranquil washes of color and airy space. In The Sea (2003, 60”x60”, acrylic and graphite on canvas), she takes us to a darker, more foreboding place. A thick black field is shattered with broken white lines that read like incisions. The irregularity of the piercing white intimates some activity within or underneath the surface, such that this sea is not of a quiet depth, rather a tumultuous chaos described in light glinting off ripples of waves. The black is modeled in its application, adding a disruptive energy to an otherwise oppressive organization of 74 white horizontal lines in five vertical bands with four central columns reiterated with 37 short horizontals between. A 2-inch thickly-painted white band surrounds the black square, serving as both a visual relief and a confining mechanism which renders the rhythmic lines all the more exhausting and tense. The symmetrical widening of the columns from the center outward reinforce the disruptions of the short lines, heightening the jagged and precarious sense of falling-off threatened where sectors meet, the darker open areas appearing as precipices into which these lines have rapidly plunged. The intensity of repetition invokes infinities and an awareness of space and time. Contained in such an analytic and haunting way, this dark and complex sea of thought, information and energy becomes totemic, anachronistic, and in some ways arcanely symbolic, as if we have just come upon an ancient tribal description of a universe that cannot possibly be taken in all at once. In a dizzying and more overt way than in many of her other works, Martin reveals the duality of existence, uncovering frightening murky abysses with the same disciplined level of control and restraint characteristic of her work, yet reinvigorated in this peculiar level of involvement, the shadowy foil or more meaningful negative to a 1957 graphite study of horizontals in a similar composition.

Agnes Martin is an effective and concise painter, saying neither too little nor too much with a confoundingly limited vocabulary. In spite of – or more likely because of – such simple formal language, Martin achieves a wide range of emotional and ideological content bordering on the semiotic or mystical. With meditative compositions, Martin recalls heartbeats or counting breaths, creating images which are decidedly calm, but with a pulse. Claiming to express “pure emotion” without excessive explanation, Martin’s controlled utterances explicitly say what so many painters have said wrong, said too loudly, and said a thousand times yet rarely said with the clarity and effectiveness of a well-chosen and simple statement.

Martin’s work gives pause, both literally in its presence and metaphorically in the conversational space it occupies, and though it is quiet, it is not a silence. The tightness and precision with which Martin ascribes and adheres to order provides the formal framework upon which a surprisingly breadth of complex ideas are explored, elegantly executed in the seemingly unlabored and devoted state of a true believer sharing her insight. To modern viewers, Martin may not be as immediately seductive and alluring as our regular fare, but once we enter into Martin’s world, we find a refined intelligence and rare sophistication of formal elements capable of satisfying and eliciting the most discerning appetites, providing an uncommon level of evocative intrigue.


- Agnes Martin: Closing the Circle: Early and Late at Pace Wildenstein, New York NY
- Agnes Martin biography and selected works
- Agnes Martin obituary, The Washington Post

Friday, January 27, 2006

Experience of Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31, 1950

Jackson Pollock, One:Number 31, 1950. Oil and enamel on unprimed canvas. 8' 10" x 17' 5 5/8" (269.5 x 530.8 cm)

At first I approach the painting with trepidation. The way it is hung, it seems double my height and so long I cannot hold it all in view at once, except from far away. I move closer to make sense of it and find a seductive intimacy forming. I peer through the layers of paint to the pale raw canvas and feel like I am seeing skin through lace, a sensation of strange derelict contradiction. I know this piece is about paint and the way it is handled, yet I am looking through it, imagining each layer untangling from the surface and withering away. I think about what Pollock saw, looking at this fabric, and I try to visualize the dances that he did to move the paint in this way, the cadence of his steps among the first syncopated spatters, now obscured beyond identification. I wonder if he hesitated, how long he moved before pausing to examine what had been done.

I find my hand unconsciously moving from the wrist as my eyes trace the lines and drops, hearing the sounds of wet paint spraying on the ground. I follow several harder black lines to the left side, where I notice a series of verticals and arcs that make me think of leafless trees, thickets or brambles with horizontals forming branches receding in the distance, splatters making thorns. I think of grasses, fields of sorghum with pheasants hiding low, and when I turn to look down the expanse to my right, I see the rolling cascades of rivers and the ocean. I think of sand and pebbles in the current, gritty silt mixing in the paint and catching on the canvas tooth. I think of Pollock painting on the floor and begin to interpret this piece as a form of reverence, a poetic exaltation of the natural world with its simultaneous complexities and pervasive, simple order. The longer I stand looking, the more I am consumed with this painting’s order – I find myself alone in it, separate from the museum or the people around me and again feel complicit in something with it, as if I’m leaning in to hear fervent secrets whispered relentlessly.

I think about the smell of enamels and house paint, my nose instinctively wrinkling at the metallic taste in my mouth. I remember the dull headache I had for days when I first used enamels without a respirator and sigh with the memory of the breathless air in my studio. But I also remember the chemical delirium, the stink of something synthetic and fertile with possibilities.

I want to run my fingers over the smooth rivulets, feel the sleekness in the sticky-looking black, the surprising coolness. I want to feel my nails catch on the pasty white, pick at it, feel it flake off the canvas in my hands. I think of the roughness of the whole piece and again of the bare canvas like grooves between wires or stucco. The paint looks wet, but I know how hard and inflexible it would be, despite its sometimes plastic sheen.

I try to view the work again as a whole, noticing its edges and the top, trying to imagine the edges stretched around the back. In thinking about what I cannot see, I begin to sense the rhythm and undulation of the field of paint. I can’t resist the feel of a landscape, as if I’m looking through a picture window, but for the first time I see in this piece things I haven’t seen before: an interior landscape emerges, the constellations of lines forming neurons and dendritic branching, synapses in the raw spaces. I begin thinking of neurotransmitters released at the firing of action potentials and see this work as something more personal than I ever have. Pollock is transmitting – his ideas sparking and forming electric currents out of such humble materials. I imagine the white fluorescing under ultraviolet light, the painting moving toward me in hasty arcs, scribbling energies around me to construct an environment I can crawl into and move about in.

I feel like I have gotten inside.

I have always appreciated this painting historically and sense there was something special about it. This time, I felt it slip under my skin, extend a thin hand around my wrist to pull me close, and then it hissed urgently, exposing itself to me. We became allies, and I felt I finally understood it on the visceral level I require to truly love a piece of art. At that moment I realized it had stolen my breath.


- Museum of Modern Art, New York City
- One: Number 31, at MoMA
- Fractal Expressionism, by Richard Taylor, Adam Micolich & David Jonas, in Physics World magazine, October 1999

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bluemner's Androgynous Mind

Oscar Bluemner, Venus, 1924, watercolor on paper.

Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938) was an important and influential, yet underrepresented figure in the Stieglitz circle and American modernism. An immigrant from Germany in 1892, Bluemner began his career as an architect, developing his style of painting from one of hard-lined, calculated architectural sensibilities to deeply personal, heartfelt abstractions. His work became most formally successful the closer he came to a melding of masculine and feminine aspects toward an androgynous mind.

The exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art spans Bluemner’s career, charting his development of a personal painting language. His paintings of New Jersey factories from 1913-1915 reveal meticulous planning and a structuralized outlook on the world. Watercolors and drawings, such as the 1914 charcoal Study for Expression of a Silktown, New Jersey (Paterson Centre), were made from close study and observation, faithfully translated into fields of color in the oil painting of the same name. The composition does not vary between study and painting – it is as if it has been translated as a cartoon to a fresco – the rich language of marks and tonality transforms into corresponding predominantly red buildings offset by light blues and teals. While an exacting and precise method, Bluemner did not leave himself much room for discovery, and as such, some of these works stagnate when they rely exclusively on color to energize the picture plane.

Bluemner’s work began developing through logical formal changes as he implemented fracturing planes to reorganize space. He formed a devotion to Asian art and abstraction, stating “Art is Vision and Imagination . . . faithful representation is not art.” A dramatic turn occurred when Bluemner’s wife Lina died in 1926, plunging him into a deep state of grief and despair. Looking inward, he sought spiritual comfort, engaging in an existential dialogue with nature. The “Suns and Moons” series exhibited in February 1928 achieved new depths of emotional poignancy and sincerity. The works in this series use a similar schema : organized with a centralized celestial orb dominating the sky, trees or mountainous shapes, and occasional houses forming the lower valley or basin of the plane. The suns and moons, fundamentally archetypal and evocative forms, radiate with spiritual energies and ambient suggestions. Using color as a major expressive tool, Bluemner regarded these works as “symbols of the universal creative spirit,” exploring polarities of “body and soul, life and death, ecstasy and terror, and male and female.”

The elements Bluemner juxtaposed in his “Suns and Moons” are some of the most fundamental archetypes of the unconscious and correlate with Asian concepts of yin and yang, commonly associated with the “light” and “dark” in familiar symbolism. To this extent, Bluemner uses remarkably appropriate yet unexpected color relationships, such as captivating crimsons in Sun Storm (1927, watercolor on paper) surrounded by pale blues, rich greens, and navy, set off against grey-brown undulations of the land. In Sunset on the St. Lawrence (1927, watercolor on paper), the rich orange of the sun is circled by a light lavender ring, bleeding out to a dark turquoise sky, with a touch of sienna where the sun touches the horizon. The grey mountains are not the jagged hard lines one might expect, rather lush and curving, as if just flowing into place, an ingenious and contemporary use of watercolor evocative of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Canyon” series or Arthur Dove’s landscapes.

As in Eye of Fate (1927, watercolor on paper), Bluemner demonstrates the consequence of cathexis, staring so intently at one point that all others become distorted and pushed to the sides of consciousness. The deep reds, which Bluemner associated with masculinity, passion, and aggression, fight against the deep turquoise sky. Crimsons, browns, and purples form rings of atmosphere which overwhelm the sky, drawing stronger contrast from the greys of the bowing warped rooftops and a curved blackish-brown telephone pole.

Bluemner used this series to transition into a new view of nature and landscape, applying psychological projection to panel paintings. He wrote, “analogy and imagination are freely used to transpose things into other shapes of life by way of association of ideas.” Later works explored “Ego,” “Nonego,” and “Unego” in a sophisticated modern way. His paintings became about human nature, more personal while investigating the universal. Using motifs of a house, a tree, and a sky or a canal, Bluemner created theatrical compositions describing all the complexities of modernity, while remaining sincere and personally significant.

Oscar Bluemner is a modernist painter deserving of more consideration and attention. By combining the unconscious elements of the psyche with the specificity of landscape elements and precisely-focused motifs, he developed an original and effective painting style, as well as a unique method for exploring the world around him. His paintings achieve a balance of androgyny, inhabiting important places in modern art and thought through fusion of archetypal polarities.


- Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
- John Haber on Bluemner, Haber's Art Reviews

Monday, November 14, 2005

Schiele's Skin

Egon Schiele, Girl with Black Hair 1911, watercolor & charcoal on paper. (left)
Mother and Child, 1910, watercolor & charcoal on paper (right)

To say that Egon Schiele’s show at the NEUE Galerie in New York City goes skin deep is actually saying a lot – in this large show of paintings and drawings, Schiele uses the skin as a window to the idiosyncrasy of character and the individuality of a moment.

Much of Schiele’s brief career revolved around the display of skin, with allegations that his sexually-charged erotic images were indecent and obscene. In his treatment of skin’s surface qualities with a unique sensitivity to what the skin reveals, Schiele transcends the pornographic or base to create formally-stimulating, genuinely original depictions of the body and his subjects.

In his 1910 Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovsek, Schiele uses the skin to convey exhaustion, weariness, and the strained life of a fellow artist. The redness of the eyelids and the pink tinge of Zakovsek’s lips contrast starkly with the languid pallor of his cheeks, neck and exposed chest. Hairs jut through awkwardly, intimating the rough texture his right hand meets when leaning his chin on his arm, the armrest invisible. The skin becomes more corpse-like and foreboding, as the exaggerated elongation of the left hand extends the composition to the lower right of the canvas in a vertiginous diagonal. The grey fingers point nearly straight down, the knuckles and cuticles uncomfortably rendered in exquisite detail. Zakovsek’s skin is so close in tone to his grayish-brown suit that one cannot help regarding him as a living spectre of death, despite his apparent youth as Schiele’s contemporary.

By ruthlessly overstating the world-worn translucency of Zakovsek’s skin, Schiele’s portrait is not just one of the external, but it bridges into the psychological and spiritual world of his subject, engaging the viewer into the unique situation of this sitter. By placing him as if floating in a deliberately vacant background, Schiele has defined his focus and allowed himself an opportunity to intricately explore a complex formal language, rendering flesh and fabric equally consequential as costumes of something more human underneath.

While it is the substance of Zavovsek’s skin which makes it significant, it is the blankness of his nudes that make them seductive and alluring. Particularly evident in the armless skirt-raised figure in the watercolor Girl with Black Hair from 1911 and others made for a circle of collectors of erotic art, the skin of young female nudes is marked by absence – simple charcoal lines form the contour details of anatomy, washes suggest hair or details of the fabric of her skirt. The only major marks to indicate skin quality are the flushing of the cheeks and labia, creating a blank space for projection of fantasy and evocation of the erotic without explicit participation or statement, harkening to a form of Eros associated with life-force and divine - rather than purely sexual - drives toward beauty and ecstasy. Despite Schiele’s talent to capture the very essence of character through every surface nuance, he chooses the tabula rasa of blank white thighs or an expanse of face broken with narrowed eyes, slashes for eyebrows, and rouged lips to create the illusion of innocent seduction, a woman naturally aroused for her viewer rather than the exploited child she may actually have been. It is a person reduced to a motif to allow for the highest gratification, yet preserving much of the spirit and individuality of the models in the distinction of features.

Unlike the sparsely-marked skin of his erotic nudes, a series of women drawn in an abortion clinic from 1910 explores skin in a lush, intrigued way. In Mother and Child, a rather lovely woman exposes her back, coyly turning over her left shoulder to show batting eyes and the contour of her cheek. Her black hair responds in a curved element compositionally balancing the hard lines of opaque black stockings which come mid-thigh, the figure cut off at the knees by the bottom of the paper. She seems held up or supported by the child figure, a twisted body echoing the curve of his mother’s spine, dark hands awkwardly poking in two curves below the ribs and above the pelvis. The child’s face is obscured from view and incongruously shrouded in sepia tones, which continue to his bare feet. The mother’s skin is loosely painted, following the masses of her body, at first glance appearing as fabric rather than her nudity. Her anatomy is personally specific while remaining formally generalized, the nipple on her left side forming a stylized symbol for a breast, her face seemingly a separate entity from the thick, almost grotesque fluidity of the flesh of her neck and the skin between her shoulders. By a simultaneous reductive and additive process of addressing the skin and the subject’s flowing form, Schiele releases her from judgment or misinterpretation, involving the viewer in a formal exploration charged with the peculiarity of this woman’s individual situation.

Where Schiele truly pulls no punches is in self-portraiture, perhaps the most intense and intriguing of the works in this exhibit. Two in particular stand out – Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head, 1910, and Self-Portrait with Red Eyes. Using a full-length mirror, Schiele forms a dialogue with the skin he is most familiar with, greens and sallow tones incriminating and accentuating his exaggerated features, particularly his sharply protruding ribcage. Schiele comes off as defiant and more than a bit deranged, hair raging out of his skull, wild eyes standing out sharply in contrast with the dark facial skin. His hands are the darkest, betraying indiscretions with a sense of guilt or perceived personal shortcomings, filled with the intensity and conflict of a man staring unflinching into himself. His red eyes speaks to vice, corruption, exhaustive and tireless passionate living, but with the stubbornness and impunity of youth that only the truly precocious could get away with.

Schiele presents a very modern vision of humanity at the turn of the century. In light of his dubious reputation as a pornographer or exploitative corrupter of the innocent, Schiele has created a remarkable depth of work with unique sensitivity and attenuation of detail to the most essential and viscerally significant. His work is simultaneously erotic, sexually-charged, and formally enlightened, preserving much of the dignity and grace of humanity in the face of its pathetic material reality trapped in the skin.


- NEUE Galerie, New York City

Monday, October 24, 2005

Van Gogh's Winter Garden

Vincent Van Gogh, Winter Garden, March 1884, pen and ink & graphite on paper.

The exhibition of Van Gogh’s drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrates the ten-year inquiry, development, and stylization of a brilliant self-taught career. While full of lively drawings with staccato line work and intense descriptions of form, a series of five earlier pieces stand out for their potency of emotion and sincerity.

Van Gogh sought to “draw as easily as writing,” which he achieved when he discovered the reed pen in Arles and ‘curlicue ciphers’ which became a speedy and effective shorthand for thoughts about light, color, shape, and perspective.

However, prior to developing this energetic style that characterized later work, Van Gogh labored extensively in the Netherlands. His concerns were heavy with the influence of social realism and magazine illustrations, particularly in the gravity and idiosyncrasy of rural peasant life. Following a commission to document the Hague and a series of the “heads of the people,” he turned to the bleak winter landscape of his father’s vicarage. Here he found a somber and elegant metaphor for the vulnerability and hardship of life dependent on the land in leafless pollard birches and wind-blown winter hedges. These five drawings from the beautifully melancholic series of seven present perhaps his most poetic and heartfelt works on paper.

All from March 1884 and using a deliberate language in pen and ink, these vicarage drawings possess an emotional depth, communicating Van Gogh’s fascination and intrigue with the setting. Of the Winter Garden, he wrote, “the garden sets me dreaming.” A common theme in the approach to nature at the time, this sentiment was echoed by his friend Paul Gauguin, who wrote “Art is an abstraction – derive it from nature by dreaming in its presence” in 1888. Centralizing the focus on angular bare trees stiffened by winter cold, the starkness of the flat, empty fields becomes more pronounced. The scratching, forceful quality of line work reduces the complexity of tangled branches to a graphic potency. This is particularly apparent when set against the ephemeral, atmospheric cross-hatching in the sky, which gracefully describes diffuse shifts in cold light. With a touch of the macabre Van Gogh depicts a black-cloaked peasant as a grim specter – perhaps related to the building which appears to be a church on the horizon – inflecting this image with a possible foreboding spiritual meaning befitting his Dutch Reformist upbringing.

In a second, vertical rendering of Winter Garden, Van Gogh clarified the focus and drew more precise attention to the tree with vertical sets of parallel lines flattening the ground and surrounding fields. The language in the tree is refined from thick, forceful strokes in the trunk to hair-thin tapering in the upper branches. The sophistication of mark extends to graphite used evocatively in conjunction with ink work in the sky. Together with Behind the Hedges, these two drawings are sensitive, at times slow and calm, others restless and frenzied, yet always controlled, with tight, disciplined line work and subtle tonality.

The intellectual meaning in this series becomes more explicit in Pollard Birches and The Kingfisher, drawings executed with more specific pastoral and poetic references, though perhaps slightly less of the emotional conviction of the first three.

Van Gogh wrote, “If one draws a pollard willow as if it were a living being, then the surroundings follow almost by themselves.” Ambient scribbled horizontal lines are used behind the trees in the sky and to define planes of the ground. The gnarled trees appear as thick knuckles, with a concentration of density in the whirled knots of their trunks. The deliberate, massive pollards appear particularly vital and defiant when juxtaposed with the spindly tree at the left side of the picture, whose sparse leaves contribute to the sense of merely incidental surroundings, a spring life in suspended animation.

The Kingfisher is the least immediately seductive of the set. Highlighted with chalky opaque white, the subtlety of contrast is broken in an unnatural way. When using the lightness of the paper as his highest light, Van Gogh successfully communicated a wide range of ambiance and light, but this superimposition undercuts the image as a whole. It pierces and overpowers the murkiness of the luminous sky and reflections in the river, two of the drawing’s strongest parts. Nevertheless, the drawing manages a simplicity and economy of expression in lines which become nearly abstract at the right side of the image.

These five drawings demonstrate Van Gogh’s contemplative concern for the land and its people, showing how he was “always more at ease drawing landscapes,” despite a persistent goal toward portraiture or later concern with the colors and textures of the French countryside. This series carries forward the serious demeanor of a formative artist working out basic issues of drawing, yet tackles a concise and potent metaphor rife with emotion. Dark, sincere, heartfelt, and intriguing, they feel more private and intuitive than his later sketches or presentation drawings. They are perhaps all the more potent for their self-conscious absence of the buoyancy and enthusiasm of a stylized artist recognized by his peers, giving access to a more meditative and starkly honest place in the artist’s mind.


- Van Gogh: the Drawings
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- NY Times multimedia presentation

Monday, October 10, 2005

Natural Consciousness in "Russia!"

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, oil on canvas, 1850

“I assure you, gentlemen, that to be too acutely conscious is a disease, a real, honest to goodness disease.” –
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground, 1.2, 1864

Looking at the restraints placed on Russian artistic consciousness, seen in the Guggenheim’s “Russia!” one cannot help experiencing a weary exhaustion, taking up the struggles for expression and a hyper-aware national identity as so many peasants labored over the unending expanse of the oppressive motherland. In nature, Russian artists find a subject capable of tempering and challenging the force of totalitarian rule, as well as a source of inspiration to endure the bleakness of social currents and political turmoil.

How can something so beautiful and uncorrupted as the landscape of Russia’s glory present such overwhelming, staggering weight in place of the awe and giddy exhilaration one might anticipate? Pavel Peppershtein’s Flag in the Landscape (oil on canvas, 2005) consolidates centuries of history into a simple, desolate scene: stark white chill extending over three large panels in an arduous, all-encompassing and insurmountable expanse which dwarfs the seemingly-insignificant far-flung details of lone cottages, a single tree heaped with snow, a mounted rider perhaps in uniform, and at the most extreme distances tiny sprawling cities like remote islands. Instead of the corresponding white or grey sky one might expect for such a cold monolith of Siberian dominance, the viewer is assaulted with gaudy cerulean skies, choppy defiant brushstrokes rendering an even more detached harshness, punctuated with a thick red flag imposed at its horizon. In light of the foreground details so tiny they seem obscured, this flag becomes epic, consummate, occupying one’s vision with a disproportionate potency for its actual pictorial space.

So too does the domineering force of the Russian flag hulk over the minds of her artists, eclipsing and subverting identity into massive super-consciousness, too acutely aware of exterior pressures to the point of disease of consciousness, a uniquely Russian, pervasive epidemic.

Throughout the history of Russian art presented in this show – inextricably viewed in the context of national political and cultural history – a plague of suppression and subversion of identity spreads. Whether struggling to keep up with the French under Catherine the Great or attempting to work within the strict confines of Socialist Realism as mandated by the Communist Party, Russian artists have often faced an officially-prescribed doctrine of thought and agenda of visual culture. A conundrum arises as -- having relinquished the personal or idiosyncratic -- the sensitivity of national ego, the inherent pride or love for the land, or indeed the confounded imprisonment of so much of mankind in its service, fails to fully unseat the artist’s sense of personal awareness, yet captivates in national hyper-awareness.

Some of the most successful answers come in turning to nature, an indigenous path which arose in the late 17th century icon painting – artists sought and found a space to ask questions, a terrain for thought, a place to project outrage or confusion, or even a force greater than any politics of man. Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave (oil on canvas, 1850) is an unsettling, dramatic and tempestuous scene of men hopelessly clinging to the mast of a sunken ship amidst colossal surging waves in the eerily beautiful sea back-lit to gorgeous transparency by an ambiguously eventful pink and yellow sky such as one may dream of in a vision of the heavens, either the most welcoming sunrise after the treachery of a night in turmoil or, more likely, the departing rays of a seductive and rapturous sunset sure to be the last vision of earthly beauty emblazoned on the minds of men about to be abandoned to the tortures of the night and certain death. This visage of man’s struggle is as horrifying as it is captivating, incorporating the most moody and awe-inspiring aspects of Romanticism with the wholly Russian introspection of a prescient self-awareness, a national consciousness drowning in its own tides of change and unrest, carrying all the weight of history against an airy optimism for the future, the fervent faith in spring which surely makes survival through the winter even remotely possible.

The undeniable and unequivocal importance of nature and the land – either as prison or salvation for the spirit – most poignantly surfaces as a status indicator of consciousness and identity throughout the tiresome and suffocating history of Russia. While at times bleak and cold, it shines through enough to demonstrate the true health and vitality of Russian visual culture; honestly, potently, lushly, cruelly, it is there, and it is real, acutely aware and always with an eye on the horizon, however historically manipulated or diseased.


- Russia! at the Guggenheim, New York NY
- Constructivist Criticism by Mark Stevens for New York magazine
- The" Russia!" art lovers should know by Roberta Smith for The New York Times

Monday, September 26, 2005

Cristina Iglesias & the Sleight of Hand

Cristina Iglesias, Double Pavillion Suspended in a Room, 2005, braided wire, steel cables - 50 screens, each 72.80 x 47.25 in.

Cristina Iglesias’s new installations at the Marian Goodman gallery are best experienced through an investigation of what they aren’t, achieving a rare level of the semiotic quality in sculpture that simultaneously seduces and excludes, an articulation akin to the most alluring yet cryptic prose in literature.

Iglesias uses industrial, unforgiving materials, casts an alchemical spell to transform wire into sumptuous braids which resemble reeds or rattan in Double Pavilion Suspended in a Room. Their identity is further compounded by welding marks or a near-decorative pattern of elaborate patina which unifies the braids into sections of open basket-woven panels, suspended by steel cables in a shape that evokes ancient temples, prayer spaces, or even the pagoda-shaped mall kiosk.

The shadows mark mysteries on the walls and floor, and in peering between the layers of the panels, a complex archetypal geometry forms itself into obscured letters, teasing yet another implication in the space. A temptation arises to be inside the room created, which looking outward reveals a sanctuary, a hidden place imbued with the serene sense of protection. In this way, Iglesias engages the whole body in a participatory, complicit sense, both creating and fulfilling visceral longing in an intellectual, distantly spiritual connection.

The disconnects begin when the viewer detaches from his corporeal integration – sudden breaks of logic and sensation quiet the spells and create an overpowering disengagement as the reality of what the work is not begins to condense. Following the steel cables upward, there is a jarring realization that this work is not magically or ephemerally suspended; it is brutally honest in that it is simply screwed into the gallery ceiling. What appeared as a unified construction reveals itself as fifty modular screens which do not even touch each other. Looking again at those magical and enchanting shadows, one sees what they are cast upon: the vulgar white walls and standard grey floor. In such hard disorientation, one could even become distracted by the construction just outside the window, scaffolding echoing the intriguing shapes, it too shrouded in a mesh of craftily deceptive material.

Here in these breaks, the concavity flexes back out into convexity – the optical illusions of completeness reassemble – and the true capability and adaptive nature of Iglesias’s transformation reappears in a startling fullness, made more intense by the separations and jolts of actuality. She has made both of these worlds real in the same place.

A similar effect occurs in the South room installation Pasillio Vegetal III, where fiberglass, polyester resin, and patinated bronze powder are transfigured into teeming vine-like surfaces, lush and writhing with vitality. Thirty-eight panels become a massive serpentine corridor, reminiscent of a very organic Richard Serra. As the viewer is captivated by the depth in the range of muted greens and browns, he is drawn in to the surface, pulled through the doorway into what seems to be an inviting, if slightly intimidating, secretive place.

Suddenly it stops – the walls curl tightly into a claustrophobic cul-de-sac, and what was once the threshold of possibility tightens into captivation and domination. The scale of experience shifts dramatically to suffocation, as if a wrong turn led down a well. The white rabbit cannot be far off.

Emerging back out, the transformative power of this space is disorienting, especially when considered in view of the long white hall that led into it. How can a space change so quickly from an intriguing gracious hostess to a hulking, leering trap? Herein again lies the power Iglesias has to involve the whole body and through it, our most open and genuine relation to the work. With subtle intensity and fascinating twists, a surreality is both fabricated and deconstructed before us, addressing and confounding our bodies with illusion and detailed surface, while distorting, disrupting, and startling our grasp on the moment with a well-played sleight of hand.

Cristina Iglesias activates new possibilities in aesthetic experience, through masterful illusory use of materials and space and clever exchanges with the body. Dynamic, complex, and wholly beautiful even when it disintegrates (or perhaps because it disintegrates), her work engages the entirety of the viewer, providing an unforgettable encounter with the unreliability of perception and a lasting wariness for searching only at face value.


- Marian Goodman Gallery, New York NY
- Slideshow, Double Pavilion, The New York Times

Monday, September 12, 2005

Strength of Conviction at "Remote Viewing"

What impressed me most in the “Remote Viewing” show at the Whitney was not the scale of Matthew Ritchie’s installation, nor the level of detail in DiBenedetto’s octopus-like sprawling paintings; rather, in this show of eight contemporary artists was intentionality. The precision and specificity with which ideas were expressed altered perceptions and introduced interior mindscapes in ways so seductive, so singular in their focus, that the exhibition could adequately live up to its “Invented Worlds” subtitle.

In abstract painting and drawing, it is often difficult to evoke an exact desired response – viewers are faced with cryptic titles, statements which hint at powerful complex themes, yet seem mismatched with wholly unrelated imagery or scattered visual ejaculations. In this case, for a refreshing change of pace, the ideas coalesce with the artists’ intents, and the images are not out of left-field but rather honed, articulate choices, which despite some tendencies toward “visual exhaustion” as Ritchie laments, remain potent, vital, palatable, and real.

Terry Winters presented three large abstract oil paintings accompanied by a set of drawings. Using remarkably simple color and downright capricious painting in places, an essence came through: lines teemed into blastospheres and multiplying cells, organic and molecular shapes addressed the physics of creation and existence.

Perhaps the most deliberate and effective pieces were those of Alexander Ross, whose large, seemingly photorealistic untitled oil paintings of plasticine-molded biomorphic shapes stood apart as the mysterious alien beauty in the sci-fi flick – the intimidating and slightly haunting prescience of dangerous, sexy things to come in what I can only hope to be the future of exquisite abstraction. With calculated color gradations and paint thickly applied in controlled strata, strange green forms come to life in teeming, vibrant ways. Set adrift on flat sky-blue backgrounds, the forms seem all the more threatening and detached from the comfortable and ordinary, yet with a level of crisp rendering, they recall intimate portraits of favorite toys; they are engaging, intriguing, and above all intentional. Ross’s more abstract pieces, without an external environment and incorporating elements of translucency, reveal that the efficacy of this work is no accident. His steady color palette and fixated subject matter underscore a true mastery and fluency in his personal painting language, a self-assured thrust which hits its mark every time.

Line played an important role in many of the other works in this exhibit, from the comic- and illumination-referencing intricacies of Ati Maier, the exhausting map-like descriptions by Julie Mehretu, to the frenzied expressionistic use in Franz Ackermann and Steve DiBenedetto’s psycho-surrealist paintings. Matthew Ritchie’s intense meanderings particularly hit upon an effective conveyance, deploying Sharpie lines over smooth layers of dissociated imagery, both enhancing one’s awareness of the immediate gesture and gently pushing the subtler areas to recede into alternate dimensions of visual space and reality. The specific shapes and curves of his central installation which ran onto the walls and ceiling brought to life an elaborate sequence of scribbled journeys, wrought with such a tireless obsession that one cannot doubt the artist’s serious concern for every linear nuance. I was desperately curious to examine the shadows cast upon the floor, and while at first disappointed that they could not be seen against the black-brown polished tiles, I found the much subtler effect of dissipating dark on dark to be equally if not more alluring, completing and anchoring the imaginative space in the murky recesses of the unknown.

The only work which seemed out of place in such a lush and fertile landscape of originality was that of Carroll Dunham, who in this context seemed stale. Lacking the elaborate use of line and elegant challenges of color and form as in the other pieces, Dunham’s detached, flat scenes employed one or two colors with mostly black and white, and seemed over-simplified, disengaged, and oddly uninviting.

As an expression of the current conscious- (or unconscious-)ness of painting and drawing, this show is hypnotic, dynamic, and exciting. The works presented give access to an inner world of tumultuous and evocative imagery, made real by devoted representation of unreal things and controlled, forceful technical superiority. Presenting work with the integrity to stand behind itself to completely actualize contexts and imaginary worlds, the Whitney has convincingly portrayed a very much alive-and-well world of painters doing what they do best, with visually stunning and intellectually satisfying pieces as testaments to the health and spirit of experimental tenacity and skillful execution.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Alexander Ross at the Whitney

seen at Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing, Whitney Museum of American Art, June 2-October 9, 2005

Alexander Ross, Untitled, 2002, oil on canvas, 65 1/4 x 96 1/4 in.

Painter Alexander Ross is arguably one of the most brilliant artists alive today.

His meticulous paintings are copied with rigorous detail from photographs of abstract hand-sculpted plasticine forms which recall organic, biological, primordial, algal, plant-like, and alien shapes. Using a strict color palette of primarily greens and light blues, the paintings are striking, captivating, and create an utterly seductive harmonious experience. Standing before them, the viewer cannot look away.

While portraying such evocative yet strange shapes, Ross strikes at something deeply and fundamentally human, located in the collective unconscious, which reminds us of humbler single-celled beginnings in tide-pools and soups. In this visual return to origin, questions are simultaneously asked and answered, coalescing into a beautiful, harmonious, powerful and timeless sentiment.

These paintings are also in many ways frightening, intimidating – massive in presence and rendered with such detail that one might suspect mechanical layering of paint strata – the peculiar character of the imagery is reinforced, unsettling the comforts of an otherwise return-to-womb state of mind. The viewer’s placid meandering about the field is disrupted with chasms and deep curves, dark areas which halt tranquil undulations or smooth planes. To regard the hulking mass of green form as it floats detached from the background, brings a haunting sense of nothingness or a no-man’s-land drifting into subconscious musings. It is a delicious interruption, a startle, a recall to reality and a conscious state. As Ross’s forms describe the fantasy imagery of our collective archetypes, they bring the shadow of our repressed thoughts to light, confronting the viewer with the things we’re afraid to think about. When reminded of how natural, mortal, fragile, and insignificant we are in the continuum of time and evolution, we cannot help feeling smaller, threatened, and at times shaken to the core.

The duality of these images is remarkable. At once, Ross soothes, entices, and tantalizes our sense of vitality, and challenges our very existence, reducing the proudest or most socialized psyche to its tiny constituent parts, exposing its vulnerability and its conflicting imprisonment and emancipation in a molded and elegant form.

To view Ross is an experience in immediacy: a stop-everything compelling look which envelops and engages relentlessly. The more abstract paintings are hypnotic, with translucent layers suggesting the passage of time and development, gradual and barely-perceptible changes and shifts. It is akin to an hallucination while meditating on the subject of the primordial, as areas move in and out of focus, seem to come alive and bring a sense of vibrant determinism forward, then recede into the darkness of the unconscious as soon as the viewer begins to grasp the image.

Ross may be the cutting edge of revitalization of the American Naturalist movement of the 1930s and 40s. Striking similarities exist in the planes of Ross’s forms and the curvilinear abstractions of Arthur Dove, as if Ross brought Dove into the third and fourth dimensions. Ross echoes the gentle touch and seductive paint-handling of Georgia O’Keeffe and the organic exaltation found in the photography of Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. Ross is not only aware of the history of organic abstraction, but carries it forward in a unique and self-possessed way – owning the images from inception through every stage of development and realization, he is truly inventing and embellishing his own world and context, elaborating upon an otherwise stark and flat space seen in pale blue backgrounds and milk white skies.

For such a stringent set of limitations on his subject matter and style, Ross is intensely innovative, challenging, and emotionally-charged. To do so much with such a simple strategy exhibits the most elegant of creative process, equaled only by natural order itself.

I feel Alexander Ross is required viewing for any painter or developing artist, as he opens the possibility of how much can be done with so little, expanding our very concept of painting making images today.


- Whitney Museum of American Art, New York NY
- Alexander Ross at Kevin Bruk Gallery, Miami FL
- Jerry Saltz on Alexander Ross, artnet magazine

Monday, August 01, 2005


Art has the power to alter, enhance, or completely transform a person's existence. The ideas and images presented in a powerful work can single-handedly influence a generation, and by the imaginative vision of one single mind, the world becomes a different place. Art colors our lives, electrifies our moments, and alters raw existence into phenomenal, emotionally-charged experience.

Why then, considering a force so intrinsically linked to the very essence of being a creative human, do we pay so little attention? I am not referring to funding or collecting or prominence, rather one simple question:

Why don't we think more about art?

This series of essays endeavors to address this question, approaching art as visual philosophy, and investigating it through a critical, analytical, and creative standpoint. It is based on primary research, visceral reactions, and artistic investigation to get at the soul of the art in question, to give it the thoughts and consideration it deserves.

It is my hope that by showcasing what I consider challenging and worthwhile subjects of inquiry, I can encourage others to develop opinions of their own, to perform their own research, and above all, to really think about art and why it exists in the world.
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