Photographer Jimmy DeSana made a career of defamiliarizing the domestic. He troubled suburban interiors with nude models in precarious poses, recasting everyday objects as BDSM props in his spare, elegant tableaux. He also used outlandish color—saturated effects often achieved with gel-covered tungsten lights—to make normal things lurid, clubby, better. “Remainders” is a modestly-sized show of small-scale works, images that have not been exhibited for more than two decades, in which the figure is mostly absent and objects are uncannily abstracted. In Spools, 1985–86, the titular threadbare posts are not immediately recognizable; DeSana’s framing renders their scale ambiguous. They could be spooky, featureless towers, looming pale in the greenish night. Other pictures provide items that are easier to identify—argyle socks, a baseball—but we’re not reassured. DeSana’s isolated positioning of them in murky settings seems perverse.
The artist, at forty, succumbed to AIDS in 1990—these photos were taken shortly after his diagnosis. In this light, the body’s absence is telling. When faced with one’s own mortality, the relative permanence of things like spoons and aluminum foil is perplexing, even cruelly arbitrary. Perhaps DeSana’s stylishly unsettling depictions of the quotidian obliquely reference his HIV status. With a characteristic dash of dark humor, the artist deals with the specter of expiration more directly in Birds, 1985. A background of intense scarlet threatens to overwhelm the silhouette of a man in a black suit and top hat. An aerial view of a small flock of doves huddling together obscures his face almost entirely. Via a gorgeous double-exposure trick, the magician disappears himself.
Enter the claustrophobia of the greenhouse, complete with the cloying, damp humidity and the clawed, ecstatic growth of tropical plants. In the alternate reality to Martha Stewart’s “Container Garden Ideas for Any Household” blog, Simran Johnston has curated a show that marries sculpture to function. But this is no IKEA, and it ain’t no country club, either. In operations variable in their complexity, twenty-four artists carry out their tasks dubiously, adding an asterisk to Martha’s assurance that plants will “purify your home.”
Ryan Oskin’s Amazon Lights (all works cited, 2016) doesn’t elaborate on the traditional potted houseplant any more than a handful of insect-repellant incense sticks driven into an unsuspecting root system. Corey Rubin gives us a new spin on the seeds-in-the-coffee-tin trick with Pepsi Native Sometimes, where a tender shoot seeks out the narrow tab on the titular soda can. Other schemes are more complex, like Sean Gerstley potting his plant in something not unlike those walkers that allow toddlers to orbit around living rooms (Oval Funnel Planter). Charlotte Patterson’s Autonomy in Restructure stacks vine-clad cinderblocks by resistance, while Cody Hoyt’s Four by Four Palm raises his plant in a puzzle of interlocking wooden arms.
Many of these designs are tantalizingly cruel toward nature: Priscilla Jeong’s flower precariously rests in the shallow water spill of FlaqueD’eau; Eric Pietraszkiewicz smothers his plant between faces of the concrete tiles in Paver Table. The reflective Mylar of Maggie Wong’s Room to Grow shimmers through the transparent walls of B. Thom Stevenson’s Growth Fund—both works seem to happily favor the chilly, synthetic verdure of the green screen over the steaminess of the jungle. These sadistic gestures are appropriate to a society that would rather bring nature indoors instead of venturing outside to enjoy it.
The floor of Kristin Smallwood’s busy multimedia exhibition “IUD” is papered with clippings from straight porn magazines and women ripped from fashion glossies. She sneaks some photographs of herself into the messy X-rated collage, too. These images are decidedly glum—mug shots, not beaver shots. Smallwood merges the genres, sort of, in a video that loops on a small wall-mounted monitor. The Perfect Woman (all works 2016) shows the artist in close-up lip-synching, deadpan, to Whitney Houston’s soaring 1992 ballad “I Will Always Love You,” her face transformed by the ingenious superimposition of a vagina. The artist’s nose, replaced by a clitoris, becomes a stretchy beak; her mouth ghoulishly misaligns with the opening of the so-called birth canal.
Birth control is a theme here. Throughout, Smallwood plays with the iconographic qualities of the T-shaped copper-coiled intrauterine device—it’s totally phallic and almost a crucifix. Baby Mobile, a delicate kinetic sculpture, incorporates IUDs and wire hangers, conjuring pregnancy’s prevention as well as a horrific manner of its termination. The mostly bubble-gum pink painting Deity of Infertility 1 shows a horse with the device protruding from its body like an erection. There’s another horse on view, a stuffed toy hanging from a fuchsia noose, with dildos emerging from the ends of its legs. Perverse but still cute, the customized toy also appears in the video I Thought We Were Adults. It comforts Smallwood, distraught on a bed, dressed in baby-themed fetish wear (pigtails, thigh-highs, and a lingerie-onesie hybrid). The piece’s audio is a clandestinely recorded break-up discussion in which the artist’s abject “other woman” status is painfully spelled-out by a male voice. Using the discomfiting depiction of her own failure—as a romantic/pornographic object, as a reproductive vessel—for a springboard, Smallwood finds fertile terrain in sarcastic absurdism and fantastical sexual counter-imagery.
Gabriel de la Mora cleverly reconfigures collections of found objects scavenged from flea markets in Mexico City, where he lives, into pristine minimal installations that uncannily give form to experiences, processes, and forces that are otherwise nearly invisible. His current exhibition fills the space’s back wall with what initially appears to be a salon-style hang of small-scale monochromes, two small maroon panels, and the occasional glint of gold punching through a monotony of blacks, tans, and grays. Upon closer inspection, these works are revealed to be fabric screens from old speakers. The display is mirrored along a central vertical axis on the main wall and continues in a neat row along each flanking wall. Its symmetry wittily echoes that of traditional stereo technology.
Each matching pair is marked with a distinct imprint, the afterimage of a sustained encounter between the specific architecture of the speaker that housed the screen and the countless sounds that passed through it over decades of regular use. While the variety of textures, weaves, colors, and sizes of the fabric reveals the rich material history and shifting trends in stereo speaker design and technology, the display’s clinical precision tempers any simple nostalgia for its golden era. These are mute witnesses, visual inscriptions of collective aural pasts. Each is also a portrait, a biography of its user(s) told through the traces of their listening choices. The accidental forms sometimes cohere into a face or mask, suggesting a spectral presence.
With little in the way of didactics, the installation remains almost illegible as an archive—it is, however, more intelligible through other faculties. It challenges us to glean meaning and information from deposition patterns of particulate matter shaped by vibrations, waves, rhythms, and melodies, to begin to comprehend other syntaxes and grammars that, though imperceptible, are definitely present and consequential.
Landscapes can be deceitful. The city park you thought was a haven of innocent wonders is, at night, swarming with sexual activity. Parking lots, which Joni Mitchell considered the opposite of paradise, are sometimes used for religious ceremonies. And a refurbished kitchen—domestic landscape—that so impresses a dinner guest might actually feel like a prison cell to its owner. So how can we know what a landscape means to its inhabitants? Susan Sontag noted that understanding “starts from not accepting the world as it looks.” Taking these words to heart, Finnish curator Ilari Laamanen has assembled photographs from various countries and time periods that question our relationship to the built and regulated habitats we live in.
In Parking Lot Hydra, 2009, for example, Estelle Hanania shows Bulgarian men in yak costumes celebrating Kukeri, a ritual intended to ward away evil spirits, in an empty parking lot. On one level, her photographs dramatize the spatial meeting of tradition and modernity, of past and present. But on another, they also call attention to the general power that humans have to metaphysically transform, or even hallow, their physical surroundings. Those transformations are often negative, as in Kohei Yoshiyuki’s grainy, Moriyamaesque shots of nocturnal voyeurs spying on couples in Japan’s public parks. Here, the park is an erotic arcadia for lovers, but something between a gallery and a prison for Peeping Toms. Iiu Susiraja’s indoor self-portraits critique gender roles with a mordant humor that puts housekeeping magazines—and men—to shame. In Training, 2008, Susiraja rides a treadmill wearing a knitted hat with loaves of bread protruding from it like pigtails. Exercise and cooking: How liberated the modern multitasking woman is!
Sontag’s critique of visual complacency was actually part of a diatribe against photography. But by expanding and, indeed, perverting our associations with commonplace sites, Laamanen’s exhibition returns curiosity and suspicion to our eyes.
In “Caza,” three contemporary female artists—Rochele Gomez, Margaret Lee, and Alejandra Seeber—examine an intimacy not often explored: that between the home and an artwork. Curated by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, this exhibition interrogates the sundry ways art can infiltrate interior spaces, both physical and psychic, and what it means to create works born of personal expression, idiosyncrasy, or obsession.
Hernández Chong Cuy complicates the ways in which the home can become a locus for issues of class, labor, and value. Gomez’s sculpture The Hour of the Star (all works cited, 2016), a window constructed from brooms, serves as an instrument for observing one’s own dwelling as a display. Lee’s painted photographs W.D.U.T.U.R #1 and W.D.U.T.U.R #2 examine ostensibly refined AbEx stylings—drips, slashes, and splashes produced through the filter of high-end shower fixtures. They are markers of a kind of care—aesthetic and hygienic—that only some people can afford. Seeber’s painting Knit on Perspective, with interweaving patterns that throw perspective into disorder, examines decor misaligned from the sphere of interior design. The exhibition allows viewers to partake in discerning what happens to a home when placed under the scrutiny of those living outside of it, while also experiencing the comfort it offers.
Light can be terribly cruel. Excessive amounts can damage eyes and burn skin. Think of José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), a story about a bright-white sightlessness that inexplicably afflicts an entire city, causing violence and horror. Or the Old Testament God: an incandescence who was severe and punishing.
One could easily assume the light depicted in Lauretta Vinciarelli’s numinous watercolor paintings is healing and warm. The architect and artist—who died of cancer on August 2, 2011, her sixty-eighth birthday—studied Eastern philosophy and was especially devoted to the eleventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching, which discusses the importance of nothingness. Indeed, the rooms and spaces in Vinciarelli’s works are empty, save for her various streams of light. But this luminousness is circumspect. It rarely suffuses. It peeks around corners and walls from unknown sources and pours itself carefully out of windows, doorways, and skylights. It is controlled, discriminating—a radiance refusing to illuminate all.
For ten years, the artist and Donald Judd were romantic partners. The cube-like forms of Vinciarelli’s Pond Water (Study 1) and (Study 2), both from 2007, overlap formally with Judd’s stack sculptures. But her exquisite renderings, in moody gradations of emerald, are funereal, spectral—dark sisters to Judd’s polite and businesslike objects. The most arresting pieces in Vinciarelli’s show are from her 1996 “Night” series. They appear to be pictures of bridges, temples, or cenotaphs—tombs without bodies—subtly lit and mirrored from below as if by pools of water. Their symmetry and clean lines pull from the vocabulary of modernism, but their spirit is rooted in something far more unknowable, and much older. Maybe they’re structures of the underworld as imagined by the ancient Greeks, built by the damned, to welcome us ruefully at the end of this long and tiresome journey.
Moving deftly through all the major stages of Danny Lyon’s work to date, “Message to the Future” touches on police brutality, civil rights, sexual ambiguity, wayward masculinity, violence heaped upon immigrants and the working class, and the strange, shifting sands of democracy in the United States at a time of near-frantic discontent. It is, in other words, timely and prescient in ways that no one involved probably imagined it would be in the summer of 2016.
The artist’s emotional range here is vast and volatile: In one image, Stokely Carmichael smolders in anger. In another, James Baldwin turns up a defiantly proud nose. In another still, National Guardsmen nearly rip the photographer Clifford Vaughn to pieces. In Lyon’s longest, most trenchant film, Willie (1985), a broken man plops down on the ground in his underwear to sing old country gospels with the saddest grain of worry in his voice.
Lyon has never really been canonized because he never really played by the rules. He got too close to his subjects and strayed too far from home. He was indifferent to Susan Sontag and detested the magazine Life. Early on, Lyon named himself an heir to Walker Evans and Robert Frank. He emulated James Agee and internalized Jean Genet. “There is a job to be done and that is to continue the work of Evans and Frank in a changing and beautiful country,” Lyon wrote in 1964, at the height of an election season as alarming as our own. This exhibition gives viewers more than 175 ways to work through it—via prints, films, and collages set against a contemplative ground—and the resolve to do better.
2013: too recent to be nostalgic about, but long enough ago to feel like another lifetime. The Surrealists thought they could harness the latent energies of outmoded objects to revolutionize society. In contrast, the artists in this group exhibition, curated by Matthew Flaherty, find potential in the barely obsolete. The key to the show is, perhaps, in its title: “Daydream from 2013.” These makers prefer dreaming while awake, as that diaphanous membrane guarding the unconscious becomes looser, closer, and probably looks a lot like the fabrics and shiny resins of Olivia Erlanger’s wall sculptures, or Anna Glantz’s Waiting for Paul Revere (all works cited, 2016), a painting of a hunky male visage floating near a startled geezer in a nightcap. They’re both trapped in a digital-looking rectangle while hovering over an amorphous ground.
Rose Marcus’s photos are like weirder Louise Lawlers: interrogations of museological structures that, in their odd angles and futuristic frames, also feel supernatural, as if you’re tripping through the Met’s modern wing in a fugue state. Libby Rothfeld’s Option #1, offers up a salmon-colored shopping basket full of potatoes on top of a tiled base. The base carries detritus likely sourced from a restaurant supply store on the Bowery: doll-size cups filled with what appears to be clear liquid, and miniature straws. The potatoes have enormous roots, like ratty lengths of knotted hair. Among them rests a tenderly wrought crown of clay, and sculpted into the crown and base are human faces, which give Rothfeld’s shrine a strange, oneiric feeling of sentience. The artist deftly submerges the mystical in the material—like everyone else here—unleashing extraordinary sensations from seemingly ordinary images and things.
Among her kaleidoscopic abstractions of botanical and celestial phenomena, a statement by Alma Thomas is stenciled on the museum wall: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” Taken axiomatically, this might read as Pollyanna denial or cool aestheticism. But in their claim to universal subjectivity and transcendent beauty, there’s an indisputable if paradoxical politics in the paintings of the late Washington, DC, abstractionist, who—at the age of eighty, in 1972—became the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum.
With their ribbons, wheels, and allover patterns of abbreviated brushstrokes, Thomas’s paintings are romantic but not mystical, emotive but not sentimental, pretty but not precious. In Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, Fauve-style garlands of tessera-like gobbets of paint shuttle up and down the canvas. A torrent of feathery brushstrokes against a blue-black ground, the dreamy, disco-pink Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, recalls Monet’s woozy, horizonless lily ponds. One of several NASA-inspired paintings, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970, riffs on aerospace as a source of abstraction, estrangement, and galactic sublimity. The planet—viewed from some astronomical distance—becomes fiery bands of red, orange, and yellow, suspended in a gaseous poppy-colored field.
For a modernist humanist such as Thomas, art transcended spatial, temporal, and political exigencies. “Creative art is for all time,” she insisted, “and is therefore independent of time . . . of age, race, and nationality.” Though resistant to identitarian politics and social dramas, Thomas’s art was unavoidably entangled in them. They impelled her late-in-life break into the Whitney, following activist demands for the inclusion of African American artists. Two oil sketches depicting the 1963 March on Washington—in which she participated as a septuagenarian— give historical texture to Thomas’s astral abstractions, grounding them in ongoing, unresolved antinomies of abstraction and representation, universalism, and difference.
Two glowing television sets play different channels, illuminating the fluorescent green faces of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles printed on a bedspread. Rain buckets wait on messy floors beneath water-damaged acoustic ceiling tiles; clothes burst from dresser drawers; and mass-produced art—a scene of fiery fall foliage, a ship in rough seas—hangs on the walls. These are some of the poignant, portentous details captured by Brandi Twilley’s beautiful, moody oil paintings in “The Living Room.” With each medium-size horizontal canvas, she offers a different view of the same titular space, where one (and then, later, maybe two) children sleep. We never see the people who live here, though. The passage of time is marked by sundry changes, such as the addition of a pulled-out trundle bed or holiday decorations. Multicolored globes on a starless tree reflect the scant light of the cluttered interior in Christmas Tree, 2015.
Three breathtaking paintings show the room on fire. Bright white and gold flames leap up from the floor and bed in Fire and TV, 2016. A gap in the blaze shows us a dark, forlorn television up against a far wall—it cannot be rescued. Twilley’s images of fire are rendered with urgency, and these moments of smeary Impressionism provide a compelling counterpoint to the otherwise lucid, semirealistic style of her domestic inventories. The show’s subject matter, not surprisingly, is very personal. When the artist was sixteen, in 1999, her childhood home burned down. “The Living Room” is a speculative re-creation of that lost space, synthesized from Google searches, surviving Polaroids, and memory. Twilley’s searching hand, an alternately softening and sharpening filter, makes this show feel uniquely truthful—an unfixed and incomplete account of an era and place, the result of a singularly rigorous and melancholy process.
Grandpa, kids, the rich, serial murderers: Everybody collects! Freud said it has something to do with toilet training—that losing one’s shit, quite literally, can be a traumatizing experience, and collecting is a way of cauterizing that early-childhood wound. That’s stupid, and deeply ungenerous. It doesn’t explain the eerie profundity of self-described “super-medium” Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s Weltrettungsprojekt (World Rescue Project), 1995–, a small edifice comprising more than three hundred thousand drawings created to save humanity from supernatural forces of doom, or The Sketchbook from Auschwitz, ca. 1943, a handheld catalogue of horrors illustrating life at the most infamous of Nazi death camps, rendered by a phantom known only as “MM.” These works appear in “The Keeper,” a sprawling group exhibition that interrogates the impulses behind creating and, more specifically, amassing. There are plenty of trenchant offerings from sharp contemporary makers, such as Carol Bove (with Carlo Scarpa), Ed Atkins, Henrik Olesen, and Aurélien Froment. But really, the show belongs to the “outsider artists” (such an irritating appellation), whose obsessions and sorrows emanate freely—even suffocatingly—from their gorgeous, haunted objects.
Arthur Bispo do Rosário spent the majority of his life institutionalized, fashioning sublime sculptures and ecclesiastical garments from all manner of castoff in anticipation of the Last Judgment; Hannelore Baron’s delicate, scorched-looking Wunderkammern feel as though they were salvaged from hell; and the modernist quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, made by descendants of slaves (Loretta, Quinnie, and Missouri Pettway here) are cold comfort pieces, borne of ingenuity, certainly, as well as a great deal of suffering. First-wave Conceptual artist Howard Fried, however, might win the prize for Most Startlingly Tender . . .and the Creepiest: The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe, 2014–, a memorial display of the artist’s dead parent’s clothes, shoes, and handbags, fastidiously organized and entombed behind glass. Through a byzantine selection and authorization process, you can get several pictures of yourself taken by Fried while wearing the deceased matron’s togs and, later on, attend a “celebratory event” in her honor. Filial adoration with a light powdering of necrophilia—moms aren’t easy to please.
The painting at the entrance of the gallery, Elektrischer Stuhl (Electric Chair), 1960, sets the tone for this offering of A. R. Penck’s early work. A baby-faced man sits strapped in an electric chair while an anonymous crowd looks on. In the front row, a woman covers her face with her hands in agony. Hands and heads form visceral motifs in this exhibition, where the artist’s trademark stick figures and symbols are already present as sophisticated visual agents tracing a history of violence.
In Untitled (Group), 1961, a small being is flanked by two towering men. The man on the right, with a distinctly erect penis, is cracking a whip over the tiny subject, while the other man raises an enormous finger, like a shrill pedant. The latter holds up a framed depiction of the scene that the (possibly?) sadomasochistic pair is trapped in, which causes a subtle mise en abyme of confusion and terror. Systembild (System Image), 1966, shows conjoined twins, one of which is writing the letter A, with other beings who display the letter as if it were unimpeachable law.
The darkly political underpinnings of Penck’s pictographs don’t go unnoticed. A room full of his sculptures, many of them named “Standart-Modell” (“standart” being a portmanteau of the words standard and art) and most created between 1972 and 1973, are composed of mundane objects, like aluminum foil, painted glass bottles, and boxes. The materials, seemingly fashioned to highlight their commonness or ubiquity, were the only items readily available to Penck as a nonestablishment maker in the former German Democratic Republic.
A loose inspiration for Hermes Payrhuber’s multimedia installation Ode to the Rope with a Knot with a Hole, for Thomas Bernhard, 2016, is the titular author’s 1971 novella, Walking. The book, which is about a man triggered to madness by a questionable set of trousers in a storefront, contains frantic and labyrinthine monologues on perception, experience, and the state. Walking is an apt metaphor for this show, which seeks to corrupt the white cube’s displacing capabilities, despite the modern exhibition’s attempts to divorce viewers from realities beyond its parameters.
Martin Beck’s one day after another, 2014–15, reproduces his notes and philological meditations regarding the words exhibition and display on letter-size pigment prints. They confront the show’s overarching theme: Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976), a text examining the history and atemporalizing effects of this (by now) very familiar context for art. Judith Barry’s video installation They Agape, 1978—depicting two female architects talking against a sound track with songs by Gang of Four and the B-52s—comes to life via a motion sensor, forcing spectators to complete a piece projected across two adjoining walls. Similarly, Beck’s appropriation of his own writings highlights what O’Doherty calls the “flow of energy between concepts of space articulated through the artwork and the space we occupy.” Beck literally reframes his texts within the idiosyncratic gallery, while Barry employs silence, punk rock, blank walls, and the mundanity of architectural work to reveal the labor of spatial production, and, more pointedly, the erasure of women in said production by the very institutions of representation.
To be a fly on the wall at Meriem Bennani’s first institutional solo show is to adopt her perspective of contemporary culture. Her video installation FLY, 2016, mimics the mosaic structure of a fly’s eyes with a patchwork of projectors, creating an immersive experience. Resembling a concept room that a first-year architecture student might draft in SketchUp, the irregular, multiscreen theater requires the viewer to construct a strategy for digesting the seventeen-minute film. Seating is not a problem; Bennani provides benches.
The story centers around a wedding set in Bennani’s native Morocco. A fruit fly that resembles Clippy, the Microsoft Word mascot, serves as a guide for the peripatetic narrative that skips from genre to genre, scene to scene. The insect addresses the audience directly, pausing only to sing a baby-voice ballad hardly recognizable as Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better.” The short, something like a music video, is a reconstitution of television tropes. The young artist interrupts her Travel Channel–worthy shots of the souk with reality TV–style confessionals, blooper noises, and other cartoonish interventions. Pixelated flames lick unharmed actors—her family and friends—as they dance their way into the night. Reality and the virtual commingle.
A nod to the input streams that compete for our attention both on and offline, the kaleidoscopic installation accepts the oscillating gaze of the metamodern state and builds upon it. Looping in perpetuity, FLY invites allusions to Morocco as a developing nation caught between past and present. Bennani has a reverence for high and low culture, and the artist’s fluency across media allows her to make something that, though not entirely subversive, is universally enjoyable.
In a curatorial move akin to a Sadie Hawkins dance, this exhibition asks women to flex their female gaze and depict men. Thirty-two artists present varying perspectives on the male form—from neutral, detached portraits to ones steeped in obvious desire. Many offer up their sitters in attitudes historically reserved for female subjects, as come-hither nudes or odalisques. Others catch them in private moments of sleep or self-love, both literal and figurative, as in Grace Graupe-Pillard’s painting of a young artist mid iPhone selfie, hand curled in a manner that recalls Dürer’s Self-Portrait in Fur Coat, 1500.
The phallus persists throughout, though this emblem of masculinity is recast in the service of female pleasure or made delicate, even feminized. Celia Hempton haloes supple, skin-toned paintings of erogenous zones with pale blues, and Louise Bourgeois’s 1964 sculptural ode to male anatomy is cheekily titled “little girl,” or Fillette (Sweeter Version), 1968–99, a joke Lynda Benglis takes further in Smile, 1974, a smirking double-sided bronze dildo. Who needs men when we’ve already manufactured their replacements? Benglis’s comment on female self-sufficiency is echoed in Jenny Holzer’s marble bench, the sole nonfigurative work, engraved with “Men don’t protect you anymore.”
But hewing to gender roles can sometimes be fun. A 1965 Diane Arbus photograph brilliantly captures a teen couple in gendered self-fashioning playing at man- and womanhood. The girl raises dark, heavily penciled lids at the camera. Her boyfriend looks sidelong in studied aloofness, his hand on his belt loop and legs splayed in what this generation of female observers would unhesitatingly dub a manspread.
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.
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.