In a second-floor gallery leading to a dark room where Nan Goldin’s epic slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1976–96, plays in a dedicated installation, vintage flyers from the artist’s archive highlight its start as an improvised and evolving performance staged in the long-gone clubs and alternative venues of New York’s downtown scene. This canonical masterpiece, shown here in its original 35-mm slide format, comprises nearly seven hundred images: fearlessly intimate snapshot-like documents of Goldin’s chosen family and a devastated demimonde at the height of AIDS. The photos—ordered in untidy categories such as couples, mothers, injuries, male nudes, and shooting up—are appropriately fleeting. Just as one recognizes Goldin’s luminous contemporaries (Greer Lankton, Cookie Mueller, and Mark Morrisroe, to name just a few), they’re gone. It’s impossible to absorb every charming or startling detail. And the enthralling parade is set to an eclectic sound track. You can imagine it playing in any of the cozily derelict East Village apartments or dive bars depicted.
Goldin has called her stark, bruised self-portrait, Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984, the “central image” of “Ballad.” In it, the powder-blue wall and curtain of her background complement the subconjunctival hemorrhage of her left eye and her perversely matching, carefully applied vermillion lipstick. Such bold self-exposure grounds her diaristic magnum opus, giving it a heroic credibility that will forever distinguish it from all the Goldinesque knockoffs made since. This image is not an aestheticization of violence—it’s a refusal to be shamed by it. Her photos are not glamorizing but often undeniably glamorous, simply because her subjects are. The pervasive longing that suffuses “Ballad” parallels our own desire to know more about a very different New York and the minutiae of brilliant lives cut short.
One of the highlights of Frieze New York last month was this gallery’s presentation of Abraham Palatnik, an octogenarian Brazilian artist whose “Kinechromatic Devices,” 1951–2004, helped to pioneer kinetic light art during the mid-twentieth century. Though included in venues such as the first Bienal de São Paulo in 1951, and the Venice Biennale of 1964, coming across one outside the artist’s studio today is rare: as with other kinetic works, their delicate mechanisms and elision from art-historical narratives keep them from view. Happily, they can be seen again in this show, where they are situated within the context of Palatnik’s long career.
A founder of abstraction in postwar Brazil through his involvement with Grupo Frente and Neo-concretism, Palatnik is primarily fascinated with the abstraction of movement itself. Inspired by the sight of a flickering candle, his light boxes display colors and forms that are in perpetual transformation. The crepuscular light and protean shapes defy easy identification, resisting the sublimation of sensual experience into language. And yet, like the sensing body itself, they are not without order: Most notably, some of them, like the Kinechromatic Device of 1969/1986, share our bilateral symmetry.
The same tension between order and disorder appears in Palatnik’s nonkinetic works, in which he exploits the inherent properties of his materials to create irregular yet balanced patterns. To make his “Progression Reliefs” of the 1960s and ’70s, he rearranged vertical strips of jacaranda wood, its natural grain suggesting a staccato contraction and expansion across the horizontal axis. Whether mechanized or not, the restless movement of his works affirms the desire of both art and technology to reorder the world, and our experience of it.
At the entrance to this exhibition, one is seduced by a real garden of yellow bromeliads and pulsating, patterned walls, inspired by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Burle Marx is known for his animated biomorphic designs, such as the graphic pavement along Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard, and the scintillating, verdant discotheque that is the Kuala Lumpur City Centre Park—gigantic modernist arrangements that simultaneously disrupt and compliment their surroundings.
Burle Marx’s site plans, such as Design for the Minister’s Rooftop Garden, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio De Janeiro, 1938, or Design for a Garden for the Grand Hotel, Pampulha (Unbuilt), 1943–44, are pragmatic documents that are also masterly abstract paintings. His archive is vast, and his distinct vision suffused many facets of his creative endeavors, from Cubist oil paintings and ink portraits to theater sets and jewelry.
Works by contemporary artists that engage Burle Marx’s legacy also punctuate the space. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s video Plages (Beaches), 2001, captures lively images of Copacabana Beach—and Burle Marx’s adjacent mosaic boardwalk—during New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2000. Juan Araujo’s Pavimento exterior del Banco Safra Casa Central (Exterior Pavement of Banco Safra Headquarters), 2015, is an oil painting based on a photograph of Burle Marx’s mineral roof garden for the titular bank. And Nick Mauss’s glazed ceramic plaque, Askew, 2016, is situated near Burle Marx’s own ceramic tiles. Burle Marx was a multihyphenate maker whose design “practice” was, really, a guide for an immersive, aestheticized lifestyle. His rich imagination directs us toward a charmed way of life.
Larry Walker is Kara Walker’s father, and it’s hard to resist reading this career-spanning show of his drawings and mixed-media paintings, curated by his famous daughter, through her work. You look for—and find—ways in which his practice, described by her in the press release as “the background hum of my life from infancy,” may have shaped her sensibility. Larry Walker’s use of silhouette, for example, is striking in its own right, but it’s particularly notable in light of Kara Walker’s brutal and exquisite cut-paper murals of plantation life in the antebellum South. Both artists share a tendency toward black and white, leveraging the graphic impact of their anti-palette while invoking the racialized rhetorical sense of the phrase “black and white” lurking in every description of their work.
In Larry Walker’s charcoal drawing Elegy for Michael: Passage Through the Valley, Metamorphic Series, 2010, Michael Jackson is shown in profile, turning away from us in a cowboy hat and surrounded by flame-like birds. His outline is filled not with his features but with a big misplaced eye and a sliced-up photograph of himself. This embellished collage element depicts the pop star morphing into a horse-demon. Larry Walker shifts gracefully, psychedelically, between figuration and abstraction––often within the same composition––to achieve an effect of lyrical interiority. But his use of found material and pop-cultural references breach the dreaminess. Some of his paintings feel gummed up by reality itself, with layers of advertisements and magazine pages. His “Wall Series,” a continuing body of work that began in the 1980s, includes a pair of sober diptychs on canvas, each cleaved by a hanging sculptural element. In the landscape-ish abstraction Secret # V (With Spirit Voices and W’s), 2009, a chain-wrapped piece of Georgia granite is suspended just below the painting’s edge by a black rope. Similarly, in the mostly black, elegantly spray-painted Secret # II, Wall Series (Extension), 2008, antique slave shackles hang dead center like a frozen pendulum.
This unusual survey show, a welcome introduction to the little-known artist, is an opportunity to reflect on intergenerational influence, on how things are not simply handed down but explored simultaneously, the work benefiting from a mutual “background hum” of intellectual-artistic osmosis.
After recently performing Samuel Beckett’s Not I (1972), actress Lisa Dwan wrote: “Only a few of us know what it is to hang in that darkness . . . till the curtain opens to let in the laser of light that fires the mouth and then to speak so fast you can’t think and think so fast you can’t speak . . . yet speak she must.” In the play, a disembodied mouth, illuminated by a single beam of light, spews an agitated text after a long silence. Save for this mouth, the room is pitch black, making the senses of those patrons in the dark acutely attuned to the language happening before them.
For Sam Lewitt’s first institutional solo exhibition in New York, “Less Light Warm Words,” the artist employs a similar tactic. Lewitt has removed the fluorescent lights from the main gallery and redirected the electricity to ten slim, floor-based copper heating circuits. Virtually illegible pairings of words, some of which derive from industrial vocabulary—“VACUUM SEALED,” or “DEFOGGED MIRROR”—are written out in the circuitry on the heaters, implicating language in the pathway of energy belonging to each piece. The gallery is temporarily bereft of its fluorescent lighting, housing both a host of high-temperature electro-glyphs and, consequently, a heat unbearable in Manhattan’s summer months. Like the purposeful monotony of a spotlit mouth in the void, Lewitt’s composition of space and the speech acts it contains are here subject to concerted focus.
The twelve artworks in Anna Sew Hoy’s show mostly stand apart from one another. But, via supports and sightlines, they are all inextricably intertwined. Cords are embedded in resin arms, while ovoid sculptures form frames around neighboring works. Oozy blue-jean tentacles creep into your peripheral vision. There’s really no place in the gallery to hide from Sew Hoy’s creations. The voyeuristic mirror-eyes of Invisible Tattoo, 2016—also the exhibition’s title—reflect all the dimensions of the surrounding pieces. The artist uses the mirrors as mute figures of surveillance, and each one is hugged by denim to weirdly amplify its sensuous, bodacious curves.
Sew Hoy’s everyday materials summon up the body—deformed, fragile, marvelous—cleverly, even viscerally. All three objects from “Utopic Accumulation (Arm Hook),” 2012–16, have electrical cables buried into their sickly amber limbs. Two of them hold Denim Worm, 2016, stuffed jean things whose varying lengths either skim or lazily rest entangled on the ground, depending on the number of Frankensteined pant legs they possess. These goofy creatures counteract the cerebral coolness of Bubble Space (Partially Buried), 2015, two fiberglass domes set in purple sparkly sand. It’s the only work that feels separate from the others. Maybe it’s because if you turn just so, it’s the only thing you’ll see without visual disruption in this deftly manipulated exhibition.
“Emo is on the verge of a comeback,” I told a friend not long ago. And wouldn’t you know it, the next day I heard the unmistakable wah-wah melody of Modest Mouse’s “Dramamine” thudding through my floorboards, courtesy of my neighbors. Though it is not exactly twee, we are living in a moment of confessional culture, bolstered by important discussions about the social consequences of identity. “Mirror Cells,” the first group show of contemporary sculpture in the Whitney’s newish building, acknowledges this personal turn. The exhibition brings together five artists who realize inner worlds through hands-on and collage techniques. As curators Christopher Y. Lew and Jane Panetta argue, this work contrasts with the art world’s recent obsessions with technology.
The sensibility at play is more hermetic than polemic. Win McCarthy’s low-relief tabletop installations loosely depict shabby cities in miniature. They recall Joseph Cornell in their ambition to capture a fleeting moment in time. They are adorned with newspaper headlines, voodoo-ish dolls, photos, poems in everyday language, and daily horoscopes (the artist was apparently born under the sensitive sign of Cancer). Elizabeth Jaeger’s nearly flat, cracked ceramic vessels on sawhorses, “Jack Jaeger,” 2016, pay homage to her grandfather. And yet, politics (of selfhood and otherwise) aren’t completely abandoned. Rochelle Goldberg’s installation No Where Now Here, 2016, evokes environmental disaster through animal forms coated with an oily glaze, staged on a sprouting bed of chia seeds. Four video sculptures by Maggie Lee, playing chapters from her experimental documentary about her mother’s sudden death, Mommy, 2015, hearken back to avant-gardists such as Nam June Paik but also call to mind the funereal shrines of various Asian cultures. Liz Craft, the oldest artist in the show, presents her creepy “Spider Woman” figures, 2014–16; a series of “Little Lips,” 2016; and speech-bubble sculptures. While some of the latter works are free of text, others contain searing messages directed at women—notably, Your Pussy or Your Life, 2015.
Curated by Murtaza Vali and Prajit Dutta, this exhibition features artists hailing from or affiliated with South Asia and the broader Middle East. It focuses on Minimalism as a capacious philosophical concept that draws together non-Western practitioners from different generations. The works end up defying this aesthetic categorization, however, as there is a subtle emotional tactility throughout the show that enables content—personal, political—that, of course, runs counter to chilly, textbook Minimalism.
Rasheed Araeen’s and Somnath Hore’s large bodies of work provide a historical anchor to this display. Araeen, who holds a degree in civil engineering, first began experimenting with Minimalist sculpture during the 1960s, after moving to London from Karachi. His simple yet dynamic structures, painted in bright colors, call to mind Sol LeWitt’s gridded sculptures but are more eccentric, playful. Hore’s cast paper series “UNTITLED (WOUNDS),” 1970–72, indeed, look like mortified flesh—they resonate quite palpably with horror and trauma.
Joël Andrianomearisoa’s sculpture of denim fragments hanging on a single nail, OKMARCLAURENT77MONDAY BOY, 2016, and Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s barely-there cityscape, Perspectives, Bank Junction, London, 2014, are quietly intense objects—traces or remnants of gestures and materials, carefully conceived, that make us question the veracity of sight as well as the conceptual definition and physical manifestation of “weight.” Abdullah M. I. Syed’s Tears II: 4 Midnight Blue and Black Squares, 2016, actually use the artist’s tears as a medium—it feels like a tenderer, more intimate version of Ad Reinhardt’s famous black monochromes. The artists in this show demonstrate rather beautifully that the making of “reductive” art functions most resoundingly when it carries a human touch.
Meg Webster’s Solar Grow Room (all works cited, 2016) centers greenery—lettuces, herbs, and assorted blooms—under LED grow lights that are powered by solar panels affixed to the gallery’s exterior. Equipment and edibles join in a self-sustaining (and sustainable) system that commutes between natural and electronic forms of energy. Disposed in nondescript planters, leaves and stems swell upward toward the lights in arrangements that suggest traditional still-life paintings, where botany often traffics in complex allegories of transience and decay. Yet Webster’s take is less downbeat than pumped up. The LEDs’ spectrum of syrupy reds and synthetic cyans lends the growth a vaguely lunar gleam, yielding the impression that the plants are fluorescing. Sheathed in Mylar, the walls amplify the lights’ effects. Space and skin emerge in hi-fi hues that loosen the installation’s claim on the organic. Animated by a power adapter’s low-level buzz, this is a radioactive landscape.
Considered after Solar Grow Room, the show’s remaining works, arranged in the gallery’s main room, present something of a non sequitur. An ovoid mound of salt, a rectangular crop of moss, and a circular tangle of twigs indulge in a poetics of materials that implicates mythologies of mother earth (as evidenced in the title of the first piece, Mother Mound Salt, whose contour Webster has compared to a pregnant belly). One wishes that Webster had lingered in Solar Grow Room’s uneasy hyphenations of nature, machines, and informatics. Instead, the trio prospects an escape from technology. Unaltered organic materials here claim a sort of utopian immediacy, exemplified by the bosky smell of peat. The results recall Carl Andre’s definition of sculpture as “matter mattering” and Donald Judd’s assertion of three dimensions as “real space.” At once naturalizing technology and technologizing nature, Webster’s Solar Grow Room begs the question of whether such spaces, “real” or otherwise, are still available.
In her New York gallery debut, Alicja Kwade presents a fun house of cerebral sculptures that play with and challenge perceptions of space. The artist displayed a similar sleight of hand with her recent commission for Public Art Fund, Against the Run, 2015, a street clock with a backward-revolving face that disorients passersby yet, nevertheless, gives the correct time. Here, Kwade makes efficient use of sculpted and ready-made materials to construct a series of works that portray objects at an impasse, oscillating between various states of being and meaning.
Three central sculptures—whose titles combine to form the exhibition’s title, “I Rise Again, Changed But the Same”—are arranged like room dividers in a tight cluster. Their steel frames operate as pathways, windows, and mirrors through which a dizzying labyrinth of views is created. In Changed (Fig. II) (all works 2015–16), a double-sided mirror reflects a stone on one side and its twin, cast in aluminum, on the other; from certain angles it appears as a single object divided neatly between two materials. In Incident (Trait Transference), Kwade performs a similar alchemical shift with four sculptures that pair up equal-size panels of mirror and Corten steel. Transmitted like a virus or fungus, the weathered steel’s rusted coating spreads over the mirror’s surface, supplanting the reflected image with a corroding double.
Kwade’s subjects are objects in crisis, divorced from their traditional functions or contexts. Time Machine is a scattering of fallen leaves, out of place in an otherwise pristine installation. The found set of keys in Wo oben zum Unten (Where Top to Bottom) is affixed to the ceiling, defying gravity and flipping our perspective. These two inconspicuous pieces go virtually unnoticed unless you’re really looking, which Kwade compels you to do, again and again.
Hilton Als’s “One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie, and the Rest” is strung together loosely, just like the celebrated New Yorker critic’s personal essays. Voice is structure; memory comes in vivid rushes; friendship is a seismic force. This, the first phase of the artist’s six-month season at the Artist’s Institute (also the inaugural project of the Institute’s new UES address), is a dreamy paean to, as the artist writes, “various personages who lived in a pre-Transparent, pre-Caitlyn, pre-anything world.” Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, the figures named in Als’s title, were trans Warhol Superstars; but Bobbie, we learn, was not famous—just a luminous friend, represented here by a small image in a corner of this elegantly makeshift installation. In Bobbie, 2016, an old-fashioned projector shows vintage slides of an angelic blond, a gender-indeterminate young person. In one picture, they are standing in the sun on the street, almost smiling, gazing at a point slightly above an unknown photographer.
The gallery is kept dim, lit by all manner of budget mood lighting. In one room, colored bulbs with messy, exposed cords accent Judy Linn’s striking black-and-white portraits of drag legend Ethyl Eichelberger from 1990, while a loop of louche art films plays on an adjacent wall, as a disco mix made by Als pumps from little computer speakers. Elsewhere, a handful of flickering liquid tea lights sit on the floor, not too far from the piece Stormé, Bobbie and the Rest, 2016, in which a classroom overhead projector throws a faint image of Bobbie onto the wall—and onto Diane Arbus’s 1961 portrait of butch dreamboat and Stonewall hero Stormé DeLarverie.
This is not a photography show, though photos anchor it; and it’s not a group show, though many artists haunt it. This is curating as artistic practice, as shrine-making—a “one-man” exhibition that engenders so much more.