Sunday, August 27, 2023

An American in London


The National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn are customary destinations for art buffs visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Recently, a stroll in the Smithsonian Gardens close by led me to the National Museum of Asian Art for a travel through time and places: Yemen, China, India, Japan,..., Hiroshige's landscapes, calligraphy scrolls, sculptures of Buddha,.... Wandering from gallery to gallery, the rather intriguing title of a wall text caught my attention: "Dirty Pictures". Furthermore, the paintings lining up the walls were definitively not Asian but Western art. I had reached the American art collection.  

The Freer Gallery of Art combined with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery "houses one of the premier collection of Asian art". It is also famous for its unique example of interior decoration in the Anglo-Japanese style, The Peacock Room painted by James McNeill Whistler in 1876-1877. Originally commissioned by the British shipowner Frederick Richards Leyland to display his china collection, subsequently acquired by the American industrialist Charles Lang Freer for his mansion, the paneled room was finally installed in the Freer Gallery of Art, opened to the public since 1923. In the 1890's Freer became patron and friend of Whistler and sought the artist's advice to build his Asian art collection. He was also the most important collector of Whistler's works, all bequeathed to the museum. 

Whistler, born in America in 1834, had a peripatetic childhood due to his father's occupation as a railroad civil engineer. He spent some time in Massachusetts, Connecticut, St Petersburg in Russia and London. After a stint at West Point, it became clear that art was his calling and he left the United States for Paris where he adopted a free spirited lifestyle. He was twenty one years old. Despite his prickly character, he nurtured enriching relationships with artists of all venues. His peregrinations brought him as far as Chile in 1866 during the Spanish-South American War and later on, he produced a trove of works during a fourteen-month stay in Venice.  He always came back to London, his favored city, where he died in 1903. 

"Dirty" was the adjective used by aficionados to describe Whistler's series of thirty two landscapes of London at night. During a flourishing Victorian era, he was known for his portraits, and the images of the city's unalluring side were a challenge for the critics and the public. Under the low light of the Freer Gallery, five small paintings generated an irresistible attraction. Nocturne: Grey and Silver- Chelsea Embankment, Winter  (Ca. 1879) features three small boats aground on the snowy bank of the Thames at the bottom of the painting. The vertical composition is filled with the grey of the icy river turning into a slightly bluer grey sky. In the background, the city's blurry shadow with its faint lights gleaming on the river underlines the menacing profile of cranes in the center, defiantly reaching the top of the painting. The silver and grey palette suggests the moonlight's reflection on the landscape.

 Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames (1871) is an horizontal composition filled with the calm river, a pale grey ribbon flowing between its banks. The painter brings us on a walk along the straight edge of the Thames, looking at an industrial site on the distant shore as a light fog blurs the contours of the land. A high chimney and puffs of smoke break the line of the horizon below a narrow strip of grey sky. The reflection of the industrial landscape in the water creates an inverted shadowy replica of a factory. Two ghostly ships drift far away. A closer look at the painting reveals a coat of brown underpaint seeping through the thin grey brushstrokes. From afar, the brown color melting into the grey gives depth and a subtle flow to the river. Whistler's butterfly signature at the bottom of the painting alludes to the influence of the Japanese masters on his works.

On a similar theme, Nocturne: Blue and Silver- Battersea Reach (1870-1875) is centered around the motionless river lined up along its banks by a row of cranes and the smokestacks of factories. The stillness of the water reflecting a bluish grey sky and the lack of life imply silence. The gloomy atmosphere defines a short time at dusk "entre chien et loup" when one cannot be distinguish a dog from a wolf.

Under a pale blue wintery sky, Nocturne: Trafalgar Square, Chelsea-Snow (Ca. 1875-77) depicts residential buildings around a square covered with dirty snow. A few yellow spots of light hint to the warmth of homes amidst the cold empty outdoors. At dusk, the trees become threatening shadows and mystery invades the abandoned city.

The scene of a naval battle witnessed by Whistler from the window of his hotel in Valparaiso, Chile, has become a key work of the artist's career. Eighteen sixty-six, the first date of  Nocturne in Blue and Gold; Valparaiso (1866/ca.1874) is proof of a timely and precise recording of the action. The assault on the Chilean harbor occurred in the morning of March 31 1866, and the first version was a landscape bathed in an early daylight. Back in London, almost a decade later, it became a Nocturne. Hardly distinguishable black shapes dissolved in a threatening dark mass fill the lower half of the painting. The abstracted rendering of the action contrasts with, above it, the  view of sailboats under full attack surrounded by smoke and fiery explosions and a detailed nighttime depiction of the harbor in the background. 

"By using the word 'nocturne', I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and color first." In this quote, Whistler states his goal: art for art. 

Two major exhibitions (last year "The Woman in White: Joanna Hifferman and James McNeill Whistler" at the National Gallery of Art and ongoing "The Artist's Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) show the interest for Whistler's portraits guaranteed to bring crowds to the museums. What about his Nocturnes, his "dirty pictures"? Greys, blues, brown colors were selected to create mood and atmosphere, more important to depict landscapes than reproducing reality.  Photography, electricity, factories, a new world of industrialization was in the making and for Whistler,  painting was not just copying a scene, but creating "an artistic arrangement". During the Ruskin trial about one of his Nocturnes, accused of messy work, quickly done and overcharged,  the painter famously replied: "... I ask it (two hundred guineas) for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

Why was I struck by the five paintings during my visit? Why these Nocturnes still feel so relevant? The artist transmutes the scenes in a romantic way, filled with untold, leaving room for the imagination and dreams of a wandering mind. The paintings triggered my memories of aimless walks along the river and left me filled with emotions. After several encounters with his works, for the first time, I felt a connection with Whistler.

photographs by the author:

"Nocturne: Grey and Silver- Chelsea Embankment, Winter", ca. 1879

"Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso", 1866/ca.1874

"Nocturne,: Blue and Silver-Battersea Reach", 1870-1875

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Stories and History: Whitfield Lovell at VMFA

a travelling exhibition, just opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. The solo show features works from Whitfield Lovell who has dedicated his practice to a chapter of American history covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Movement. The photographs of  anonymous African Americans collected over the years provide the medium from which he creates drawings with Conté crayons on salvaged wood or paper. At home and while travelling extensively from Europe to Africa and South America, Lovell was exposed to different artists and styles. Ultimately he chose to become a storyteller as illustrated throughout the exhibition which spans from his student years in the eighties until today. Displayed in a non chronological order on the lower level of the museum, the works include two major installations, series of drawings and assemblages.

Passage evokes loss and new beginning, change often accompanied by turmoil, and the entrance through a pair of black drapes is a theatrical introduction to Deep River and Flight from Deep River  (2013), an immersive installation about a treacherous journey, the crossing of the Tennessee River to reach Camp Contraband, a Union Army site. In the dimly lit gallery, spotlights illuminate fifty-six portraits of African Americans drawn on wood drums of different sizes set around a mound of fresh dirt. Enthralled by the video of a murky river with shining ripples projected on the walls, the earthy and woody perfumes, the chirping of  birds, it is easy to forget time and place and travel in the past. A slow walk around the installation allows to look at each portrait, sometimes full length. The tondi reveal the dignified expression and posture of the sitters with perfect hairdo wearing their Sunday best photographed for posterity, quiet presence in a scene staged by the artist. Gun, worn pair of shoes, kettle, trumpet, banjo,... a few of their belongings left on the tumulus, poignant remnants of their lives, add drama to the display. The everyday objects are now relics to remember thousands of enslaved people who crossed the river, symbol of their passage to freedom. The  powerful installation leads to the portrait of a man on a voyage, standing tall above piles of worn leather suitcases, a proper transition to a sample of the Kin series, eight portraits out of sixty works on paper displayed next in a small gallery. 

The object combined with each drawing contributes to the make up of a life's story: a model ship, a flask, a rifle target, flags,... and leave our imagination wander. The series made from 2008 to 2011 is followed in the next room by several "Tableaux" started earlier, in the 1990's. The mixture of installations, arrangements spilling on the floor, wall pieces, is visually challenging and confusing at first with nine works overcrowding the space. Still (1999) reveals the peaceful domestic life of a couple while two compositions stand out: America (2000) the full length portrait of a proud man with a bunch of American flags sticking out from his guts and You're My Thrill (2004) the drawing of a cool young man who could be the hero of a movie with his well trimmed mustache, slick hair, posing with a handgun behind a row of empty shell casings. In the same vein, Because I Wanna Fly (2021) seen further in the show features an ethereal woman with black birds circling around her like bad augurs. All reveal aspirations, dreams, human stories belonging to a past ghostly world. Five colored compositions made with oil sticks and charcoal on paper bring us back to an earlier surrealistic period of the artist. They are followed by more recent works like The Card Pieces (2018-2022) in which one portrait is matched with each playing card of a vintage deck. Who is the queen of heart? At first playful, the fifty-four works displayed in a monotonous alignment of black frames on the four walls become tedious. In contrast, the series of Reds (2021) made of relatively small size drawings on a background of red paper with a token found object, the prominent red sofa, the red chair and phone, in the next gallery painted black, allude to passion and drama. However the message remains ambiguous and the emotionless expression of the sitters does not reveal a clue. 

Visitation: The Richmond Project
is home. The immersive installation created in 2001 involved a thorough research by the artist in the local archives and refers to the struggles and ultimately successes of Jackson Ward, a thriving Black community now dispersed. A female voice reads the names of sixty-three of its prominent citizens as the visitor walks through an elaborate display about five chapters of the collective history: Battle Ground features a soldier in full uniform, Restoreth a matriarch and her healing potions, Our Best a group of fashionable gents and ladies, Coins wooden coins with portraits of locals, and Visitation: The Parlor a fully furnished living room with a musical component. The decor of the parlor recreated in its minute details with furniture and accessories of the late 19th-early 20th century, is an invitation to visit a couple's most inner sanctum and share a piece of the private life of two ghostly shadows drawn on the wooden walls. Their presence haunts the room lighted by a soft table lamp as a gospel fills the air.

Like a memorial, the comprehensive exhibition generates a state of reflection, and the respectful visitors whisper while going through the galleries. The quiet presence of the anonymous sitters is felt from start to end as we read their stories looking at their portraits and attributes while music and sounds heighten our emotions. The artist succeeds in his quest to make us "feel the spirit of the past". 


photographs by the author:

"Flight from Deep River", 2013

"Because I Wanna Fly", 2021

"Our Best" (detail), 2001

"Deep River", 2013                                                      

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Group Show at The Kreeger Museum

Paintings from the Washington Color School's artists are found in museums worldwide and their names belong to the history of modern art. Closely associated with color field painting, the movement placed D.C. on the art scene's map, even as most of the abstract expressionist artists contributing to a roaring post-war creativity lived in or around New York City. What is happening today in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, Virginia)? A visit at The Kreeger Museum is the occasion to get a glimpse of Washington's lively art scene. The private residence of collectors David and Carmen Kreeger built by renown architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster now hosts their collection of paintings and sculptures mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, displayed on two levels of the building and in the garden. In conjunction with the Hamiltonian Artists, the museum also promotes local artists through its program The Collaborative. The Hamiltonian Artists is a "career incubator program for emerging visual artists" which provides exposure for its fellows as well as more mundane support. The latest exhibition Doing The Work features creations from five Hamiltonian Fellows scattered within the permanent collection. 

Randomly, I started the visit in the library on the first floor where three photographs of Samera Paz are hung on the wood panels. At first, they seem disconnected: pages of an adolescent's diary, still lifes of beauty products or neatly folded cloths. The vivid compositions are made of objects gathered in the foreground leaving little space for the neutral background. They represent a personal history, and "I" included in each title is the link. Can they involve "Us"? Rebellious adolescence, loneliness, consumerism, pressure to fit in,... the gamut of  anxieties expressed through the accumulation of words or objects reaches a wide audience finding common ground. Activist and artist Samera Paz is known for her use of a different medium, menstrual blood. For the show, she simply exposes her vulnerability. 

A narrow passageway lined up with drawings and small paintings from masters like Paul Klee, Picasso, Kandinsky, leads to the next room. Surrounded by the lively colors and lines of the abstract works from Charles Hinman, David Urban and Thomas DowningKyrae Dawaun's piece is a surprise, on the floor. Combining copper nestled in a concrete square mound and a geometric structure made of pale bluish limestone framed by white oak, it appears indestructible. The title tells another story: a confluence toward an ill Delta (2023) evokes the fragile ecosystem threatened by climate change and human intervention. Under the playful rays of the sun, like an island on the parquet, the work found its place.  

An intimate parlor is the next stop to watch the three videos from Cecilia Kim. The South Korean artist now living in D.C. stays hidden behind a black screen to perform a slow ritual, her hands carefully handling small pieces of food found in traditional Korean dishes. Lasting twelve minutes to over one hour, the footages reveal the value of  "performed labor", title of the work (Performed Labor, 2021). With its implied respect for nutrients and cultural heritage, the slow repetitive activity leads to a state of quiet meditation, transforming manual labor into a spiritual endeavor. On the walls, still lifes from Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, including the famous Café de La Rotonde (1901) complete an inspiring display.

 The landing of the staircase is a perfect site for Ara Koh's installation gathering thirteen sculptures made of fired clay. Two to six feet high, they create a landscape evoking the Southwest of the United States. Like sculpted by the elements, their rough surface even shows some cracks, underlining the fragility of the natural world. Core Sample (2020) describes an arid ecosystem, a haunting desert. Through an intense labor, the South Korean artist leaves her marks on the clay to represent "geological time and metamorphosis".

 Matthew Russo's works are found between two major paintings, Flin-Flon XIII (1970) from Frank Stella and Cape (1969) from Sam GilliamPracticed Play, Iterations #1-3 (2023), a gathering of white and fluorescent colored sculptures looks like made of playdough. Set on the floor in the center of the room, the line up of small whimsical objects brings a playful distraction to the magisterial display. On the wall, Workplace Drawings #1-15 (2021), a series of fifteen blue and red drawings of surrealistic objects floating on a white background, reveals an infinite world of dreams. 

For most of us "work" evokes enforced prosaic labor, sometimes physically or mentally exhausting , mostly dull. It feels paradoxical to use the word in the title of an art show. Here, photographs, sculptures, drawings and videos are born from a labor transcended by the artists. Their creations spread among the masterpieces enhance the visit and rejuvenate the permanent collection, transforming The Kreeger Museum into a dynamic and nurturing venue.  

photographs by the author:

Ara Koh "Core Sample", 2020

Cecilia Kim "Performed Labor", 2021 (videos)

Matthew Russo "Practiced Play, Iterations #1-3", 2023

Frank Stella "Flin-Flon XIII", 1970

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

"Drawing in Space": Richard Serra at Glenstone


Located on 230 acres in Potomac, Maryland, Glenstone, largest private contemporary art museum in the United States, is a venue where architecture and nature blend in  perfect harmony. Curves and lines from the rolling hills and the minimalist buildings, design a landscape colored by patches of violet grass and yellow wild flowers. Birdsongs are an invitation to walk along the trails and discover the collection of outdoor sculptures. Spring is a perfect time for a visit. 

Among the artists, Richard Serra is represented by three sculptures closely intertwined with the history of the site. The planned addition of Sylvester, 2001, influenced the selection of material and shape of the Gallery designed by the architect Charles Gwathmey. Like an anchor, the massive sculpture permanently located near the building, was first displayed in 2001 at the Gagosian gallery for the exhibition "Torqued Spirals, Toruses, and Spheres". Named after the British art critic David Sylvester, the work, part of the famous Torqued Spiral series, offers a unique experience while walking around and in the sculpture. The entrance is a narrow triangular passage shaped by the unstable edge of the curled sheet of steel. The more than thirteen foot high walls with inward and outward twists allow the light to project like a ribbon in between, and create during the walk a succession of geometric shapes  born from the interplay between metal and sky. Visitors' voices and steps resonate in the claustrophobic space. In the heart of the sculpture, surrounded by the rough rusty metal, the only escape for the gaze is through an oculus filled with the blue-grey sky. Serra's comment "I am using a ton of steel to attain lightness" could not be more appropriate for this piece. 

The trails in the woods become a zigzaggy boardwalk set over a stream and a marshy field to reach a pavilion. Of small size, it is imposing due to its thick concrete walls and wide open dark entrance. The building was designed by the architect Thomas Phifer in collaboration with the artist to house Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, 2017. Inside,  the cold grey bare concrete of the walls and the floor is warmed up by the orangy-brown Cor-ten steel of the four enormous cylinders arranged in the middle of the space. A soft natural light shines through sheaths of transparent glass supported by the ceiling's massive parallel beams. The imposing cylinders of unequal height and circumference, are of same weight "82 tons - the heaviest form that a foundry is able to forge". Numbers do not matter, they are just huge. The walk around, through, back and forth the installation provides a physical experience of the work, representation of the idea of weight. It also allows to connect with the artist as we share the awe he felt looking at the metal while visiting a boat yard with his father and later working in a steel mill. Benjamin Buchloh's statement in his essay for the catalog of the exhibition "Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years" at MoMA in 2007, feels very pertinent after looking at the work, result from a perfect harmony between the industrial material and the Minimalist aesthetic: "the artist as a designer with a renewed celebration of the artist as an industrial worker".

 Lynne Cooke calls Serra's Contour 290, 2004, "one of his most mercurial works". The site specific sculpture ensconced between two hilly meadows can be approached from different paths but stays remote, a wavy line in the landscape, sometimes obscured by trees when seen from different viewpoints. Located exactly 290 feet above sea-level, following the topography of the land, it required a meticulous mapping and engineering to secure the massive structure (15 feet high, 223 length and 165 tons). Closely involved in the process, the artist walked through the site to plan for the work embedded with nature. It introduces a three dimensional view of the landscape and Serra "was more interested in a penetration into the land that would open the field and bring you into it bodily, not just draw you into it visually". In 2006, the scene was disturbed by changes brought to the trees' alignment. If the steel wall from Te Tuhirangi Contour, 1999-2001, in New Zealand appears in harmony with the site (from photographs), Contour 290 merely acts like an accessory to the landscape.

The term "architectural promenade" coined by Le Corbusier to describe "the intelligibility of a building  given less through axonometric drawing than through the ways one moves through the space", applies perfectly to the visit of Serra's three sculptures "not objects we inspect but arrangements of space in which we move" (Buchloh). Hubris has to be part of the process of creativity, motivating the artist to redesign and domesticate nature with metal. Nature is resilient and follows its own rules but the massive sculptures, which at first sight seem eternal, show some vulnerability with their rusty haptic surface damaged not by the elements or time but by the visitors. Minimalism is about redesigning the space, here Serra "drawing in space" redesigns nature and sky.  Does the sculptures' symbiosis with nature offer more than a casual walk? A spiritual experience? The artist makes his goal clear: "I don't think public sculpture is going to change the world, but I do think it might be a catalyst for thought. To see is to think and to think is to see." 

photographs by the author:

"Sylvester", 2001
"Contour 290", 2004
"Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure", 2017

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Kara Walker in Virginia



 Cut to the quick, 
an old idiom suggests physical and by extension mental pain. The title of Kara Walker's latest exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art gives a hint to the mood of the show about "slavery, sexism, violence, imperialism", themes which she started to  investigate early in her practice and keep being its mainstay. The fifty-three-year-old artist has gained international recognition and created one of her major work Fons Americanus, 2019, for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. The exhibition set in the main gallery of the museum, features more than eighty pieces from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and the Jordan D. Schnitzer Family Foundation

Why Virginia Beach? The resort, largest city in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area, is close to the site of the first landing of twenty to thirty enslaved Africans in 1619. A history refresher is recommended before visiting the exhibit which starts abruptly with scenes of the American Civil War. Twelve enlarged and revised prints of Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War, a two-volume anthology published in 1866 and 1868, feature stenciled silhouettes to complete scenes in which a whole group of the community had been omitted. At first confusing, Kara Walker's Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), 2005, (the series is made of fifteen lithograph and screenprints) offers a new outlook on history. The wall texts are explanatory. 

The scholarly beginning is followed by a display of more iconic works including a bronze relief portrait of a heavily featured African woman (False Face, 2017) and black cut-paper silhouettes on white background. The display is not in chronological order and a triptych inspired by Christian altarpieces, revisited through African and antebellum symbols, Resurrection Story with Patrons, 2017, is found next to An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010, a series of etchings introduced by a poem from Ciona Rouse. Hidden in a cubbyhole due to its graphic content, and easily missed, National Archives Microfilm M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road, 2009, is a 13 mn video depicting rape and pillage with cut-out black puppets on bright backgrounds, the only colors in the show. Testimony, 2005, five framed stills from the video complete the display. More prints of different sizes mainly of the late 1990's and a few short poems from Ciona Rouse all related to the themes listed above are lined up on the walls. The black and white monotonous display is complemented by small scale models of famous works like Fons Americanus, 2019, and The Katastwóf Karavan, 1997, set in glass cases on pedestals in the middle of the room. The former is an uninspiring bronze maquette of the magistral sculpture erected in the middle of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, while the latter brings back memories of the Prospect.4 Triennial in New Orleans where visitors got to share with the community a moment filled with emotions triggered by Kara Walker's installation along the Mississippi River. A playset in stainless steel describes lynching in a burning African village next to a smudgy lithograph illustrating the libretto of the famous opera Porgy and Bess published in 2013. Satiated by images of rape and pillage, the visitor is invited to rest and reflect in a dedicated space offering deep soft cushions, books, mental health resources, a communal journal and a video of the Emancipation Oak projected on a large screen. 

A brief reprieve is needed before tackling the series titled The Emancipation Approximation, 1999-2000,  where the subjects of rape and miscegenation are treated through mythological references. The succession of twenty six screen prints displayed in the narrow gallery tells a story filled with violent sexual acts between the swan (the white man) and Leda (the black woman). Black babies with white swan heads are born from the forced intercourse. Their silhouettes are drawn on grey backgrounds. The graphic series describing rapes and more sexual perversions is verging on obscenity. The accompanying wall texts about police brutality, health and wealth disparities, mass incarceration and today's nominal freedom of Black Americans, while raising genuine concerns, appear irrelevant to the work, so does its title. 

Hailed as a leading artist of her generation, Kara Walker was the youngest recipient of the Mc Arthur Fellowship at the age of twenty eight, and dedicated her career to producing "Black women's art". The eighty works spanning almost twenty five years are a testimony of her commitment. Over the years, she used various media while keeping the graphics of her iconic cut-out black silhouettes, and succeeded in reaching local as well as international audiences. However, her attempts to infuse spirituality to her works like in the triptych Resurrection Story with Patrons, 2017, or give them a mythical dimension, fall flat. Twisting history, she stated: "I'm fascinated with the stories we tell. Real histories become fantasies and fairy tales, morality tales, and fables. There's something interesting and funny and perverse about the way fairytale sometimes passes for history, for truth." At the end, her work, blurring reality and myth, history and tales, may confuse some of her audience and offers little hope. 

Betye Saar, one of Kara Walker's detractors, stated in the 1991 PBS series I'll Make Me a World:" I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment." It is ironic that the collector who sponsored the exhibition Jordan D. Schnitzer is the scion of a wealthy white family from Oregon.

photographs by the author:

"Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated): Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun Boats", 2005

"African/American", 1998

"Resurrection Story with Patrons", 2017

Monday, April 3, 2023

Philip Guston at the National Gallery of Art


After a two-year-long delay, the exhibition  Philip Guston Now  just opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Expectations are high following earlier showings at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Guston (1913-1980) disappeared more than forty years ago, and a retrospective of his career which spans half a century allows to take a fresh look at his work in today's context. Time has come to reassess the artist's legacy overshadowed by controversy. The exhibition assembles more than two hundred paintings and drawings from public and private collections, displayed in the temporary exhibition area near the auditorium of the East building designed by the architect Pei.  

Like advertisements, a video, two iconic paintings (Rug, 1976, and Painter's Table, 1973, from the National Gallery of Art's permanent collection) and a wall text, introduce the exhibit. The artist's short biography provides the thread for the show organized in chronological order, and includes at the bottom a warning about its content. At first glance it feels like being in the wrong place: Picasso? De Chirico? Max Ernst? and more... The self-taught artist ( Guston could not afford art classes) gets his inspiration from the bests and acquires a flawless technique producing works like Mother and Child, c.1930, or Female Nude with Easel, 1935. In Bombardment, 1937, a tondo about Guernica, Guston expresses the horror of the dramatic event with evocative images surrounding a fiery explosion. He finds work as a muralist, influenced by artists like Orozco and Siqueiros. Early on, the "student" introduces personal marks like a lightbulb in Nude Philosopher in Space-Time, 1935 or a hood in Drawing for Conspirators, 1930, rich in symbolism. 

The path of the artist veers slowly to abstraction with tight compositions like The Porch, 1946-1947 and The Porch II, 1947, followed by three dark red paintings made from 1947 to 1950 in which shapes are hardly visible, like fading hieroglyphs. Guston's move to New York City, where he reunites with his high school's friend Jackson Pollock and the group of abstract expressionist painters, appears to be a new beginning, and the next gallery is filled with colors from  paintings lined up on both sides: the pinnacle of Guston's abstract period is represented by about ten works starting with an earlier piece White Painting I, 1951, and ending with Fable, 1956-1957, and Voyage, 1956.  Guston rejected the fame brought by the exhibition of his works at the Guggenheim in 1962, and his black-grey self-portraits Smoker, 1963, Painter III, 1963, Head I, 1965, reflect his mood at the time. All along, the display of drawings combined with the paintings highlights the artist's reliance on the technique, foundation of his practice. In the late sixties, he literally went back to the drawing board. The artist's struggle comes to light through about twenty of his studies (1966-1968) organized on a wall, starting with a line, a shape then an object, followed by twenty five small images of painted objects (oil on panel) set in a narrow passage. From design to colors, lightbulb, iron, curtain, nail, book, shoes, ..., reach a "Gustonian" status and define his cartoonish alphabet. A sign at the entrance of a gallery on the right side warns the visitors about its content: the famous Marlborough paintings, at least some of them. In 1970, the exhibition at the Marlborough gallery with thirty new paintings represents a watershed in Guston's practice and life. Being surrounded by key works from Guston can be overwhelming: bigger size, pink color, content. It takes some time to look at The Studio, 1969, Caught, 1970, City Limits, 1969, ... more than ten paintings from the period next to each other. The omnipresent hooded figures, intellectually acceptable in Guston's context, remain culturally sensitive and the show's lay-out allows to skip the area filled with the paintings representing the crux of Guston's practice. 

Following the Cyclops series, which include the famous derisive self-portrait Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1972, the tone becomes intimate with the inclusion of Musa, his dedicated wife. Never the focal point, she is depicted as a remote but powerful presence, with on top of her head, a hairpiece like a sunset. The Ladder, 1978, depicts a touching scene in which the painter climbs a blue wall to reach Musa, a spiritual endeavor. Guston is facing aging and illness, torn between his roles as caregiver and artist. He holds his brushes tight while embracing Musa in Couple in Bed, 1977. The background is black and grey with a watch in the center of the painting. Time is running out. In a corner, a few drawings commissioned by the Navy and studies for murals made between 1936-1942 feel out of place as the exhibition progresses toward the last decade of Guston's career defined by  darker works like Flame, 1979, Talking, 1979 or Kettle, 1978, facing a series of smaller canvasses still lifes from 1980, on view for the show in Washington only. Before reaching the last gallery, the ominous hand of God emerges from a puffy cloud, drawing a line (The Line, 1978). Six more late paintings, three of them about the studio, make up the grand finale including a one hourlong documentary about the artist in the nearby theater.

The exhibition is flawless from the selection of works, to the wall texts and intermingled artist's quotes complemented by an essential catalog. It highlights the tight connection between Guston's life events and his practice and rejuvenates his paintings seen in a new social and political context. The visit of  his career's most controversial period is softened by appropriate wall texts and the plan of the galleries. Projecting his personal conflicts on the canvass, the artist makes himself vulnerable as he brings along a great dose of cynicism and humor. He does not shy from his personal demons which brought him to adopt a most reviled figure as his doppelganger: "The idea of evil fascinated me,..., I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil?"
 Another quote about the Vietnam war gives a key to his practice: 
"...What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything- and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?" Guston did not believe in art for art's sake. It appears that if his early years including his abstract expressionist period deserve attention, Guston really thrived when he became himself: a storyteller.


photographs by the author:

"Self-Portrait", 1944

"Dial", 1956

"The Studio" 1969

"The Street", 1977

Thursday, January 12, 2023

At the Rubell DC


With more than 7,400 works by more than 1,000 artists in its collection, the Rubell family has become a prominent mover of the art world, extending its reach from Miami to Washington DC with the Fall opening of the Rubell Museum DC in the Southwest Waterfront area. Ensconced in the heart of an African-American community, the Randall Junior High School building abandoned for decades was recently renovated to become an art venue, leading to the unavoidable gentrification of the neighborhood. The challenge will be to keep its soul despite its new purpose. From the entrance through the auditorium going up up and down the stairs of the three levels, corridors, classrooms (now galleries) are a constant reminder of its previous life. 

Bathed in the sunlight drawing shapes on the floor, the wide space of the auditorium is the perfect setting for four major pieces by their size and quality, two on each side. Kehinde Wiley's Sleep, 2008, and Another Man's Cloth, 2006, from El Anatsui are like magnets for the viewers as they walk in. The punchy introduction is followed by a visit of the first gallery (twenty four total!) where the viewers can immerse themselves in Keith Haring's cartoonish series Untitled (Against All Odds), 1989, dedicated to Don Rubell's brother deceased from AIDS, while listening to the music of What's Going On, an album from Marvin Gaye's, previous student at the school. The surprisingly small size of the rooms allows intimate solo or group shows. One of the galleries is dedicated to female artists with nudes from Mickalene Thomas, Cecily Brown, Marlene Dumas and Lisa Yuskavage, another to African-American male artists with works from Glenn Ligon, Rashid Johnson, Gary Simmons and Leonardo Drew who takes over the show with Untitled #25, 1992, a giant wall of cotton placed in the middle of the room, a feat in itself. The self-taught artist Purvis Young from Miami, gets two walls in a corridor for his paintings about funerals, protesters and pregnant women, and Hank Willis Thomas for his Unbranded Series, 2006-2008, in which he highlights the perverted use of black men's image in advertisement, a wall to wall display of photographs filling a gallery and an adjacent narrow passage.  It is the occasion to discover the caricatural portraits from Tschabalala Self empowering black females, accompanied by a wall text about intersectionality, and Sylvia Snowden's series Shell;Glimpses, 2010-2012, about her daughter's character depicted through an abstract expressionist vein with brash colors and heavy impasto. 

The list of artists goes on: Maurizio Cattelan, Carrie Mae Weems, Christian Boltanski, Danh VõCadyNoland,... Sometimes represented by one small piece lost among the overcrowded display like Kara Walker or Robert Colescott, the fifty artists selected for the exhibition are all "responding to pressing social and political issues" through their works as described on the museum's website. The walls are covered with  paintings, drawings and photographs, along the stairs, the landings, the corridors, leaving little space to take a step back. A few sculptures are located in the central halls on the first and second floor. The visit ends in the basement where three installations are relegated possibly due to their sensitive subject and shocking visual impact on some visitors especially children. Starting with the least controversial, a room filled with plastic detritus thrown among broken classical columns, all covered with imitation gold leaf. A refusal to Accept Limits, 2007, from John Miller invites the visitors to wander among  glittering piles of garbage. Next door, in contrast, three pieces from Josh Kline bring a miserabilist touch with a lighted shopping cart filled with various items and a too realistic female body lying on the floor in a fetal position, thrown in a transparent plastic bag. The long-winded wall text poorly printed about capitalism predicts a dismal future. Is Casja von Zeipel a provocateur? Post Me, Post You, 2022, her pornographic installation with all the props made a stir last Spring at the Frieze New York Art Fair and appears more appropriate for a sex-dungeon. Enough said about it and forget the selfies... gross. 

What's Going On, the vague title of the show, allows the inclusion of diverse works and a long list of artists, the ultimate aim being the presentation of the Rubell Family Collection for the benefit of the visitors (and the Collection). However, more can be less. 

photographs by the author:

John Miller "A Refusal to Accept Limits", 2007.

Tschabalala Self, "Two Girls", 2019

Cecily Brown "Black Painting 4", 2003