The painter and sculptor Lars-Gunnar Nordström was a self-taught artist who began his career as a kind of cubist primitivist but soon moved on to a severe form of Concrete art. In 1949, he was the first artist in Finland to show abstract artworks. Today he is considered a Nordic classic.
During his formative years in the late 1940s and ’50s, Nordström divided his time between Finland and Sweden, often also spending time in Paris, where he met American artists including Ellsworth Kelly. Visits to New York in the ’60s brought him in contact with Stuart Davis, Josef Albers, and others. As this excellent retrospective shows, his subsequent works reflect American influences in their increased size and scale, both with multiple panels and shaped surfaces.
A typical Nordström painting is nevertheless a single panel composed of tightly interlocking forms with razor-sharp edges, painted with industrial enamels without visible brushstrokes—a bold, challenging work allowing the viewer to see its rhythmic and spatial dynamics, its swing. The result feels much like traditional jazz with its syncopated horns. Thus it is no surprise to learn that the artist had a collection of 11,000 jazz records and that he enjoyed playing (and teaching himself) the trumpet.
This exhibition is a strangely sympathetic dialogue between a pair of perennial rebels whose work transgresses and lampoons popular norms through approaches that surf seamlessly between mediums to critique and contaminate artistic conventions. Paul McCarthy and Georg Baselitz have both long been occupied with exorcising their devils in various stylistic expressions—the American a hysterical clown acting out the hypocrisy of a capitalist society, the German an angry antihero expressing the guilt of history.
The Sturm und Drang is introduced immediately by two monumental sculptures: McCarthy’s White Snow, Flower Girl, 2012–13, a voluptuous walnut sculpture of Snow White as mirror-image Siamese twins holding floral bouquets; and Baselitz’s BDM Group, 2012, three monolithic bronze figures portraying girls from a Nazi youth group rendered in featureless black surfaces that give the appearance of burnt, rough-hewn wood. On another floor, the artists debunk the myth of the romantic hero. Baselitz’s paintings Economy, 1965, and M. M. M. in G and A, 1961–66, are satirical caricatures of big mountain men with small heads, the former’s robust but useless manhood bursting from his lederhosen. Meanwhile McCarthy’s Alpine Man, 1992, mechanically humps a beer barrel. Elsewhere, an unsettlingly realistic dummy of McCarthy, Horizontal, 2012, lies on a table—in the tradition of a dead Christ painting—in front of Baselitz’s Eagle in Bed, 1982, a self-portrait mostly devoid of color. Here we understand how McCarthy, who likens performance to painting and sculpture to frozen performance, has made himself a character to act out rituals in search of catharsis—from facing the fear to being the beast. In that light, Baselitz’s works become disingenuous, even maudlin. The comparison is profound and comic, portraying the two artists as existential jokers wallowing in the abject so we don’t have to. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The exhibition “Dio Horia in Mykonos” marks the launch of a platform for reviving the Greek island of Mykonos—famed for its Kardashian-grade holiday scene—as a summer salon. Curated by Dio Horia founder Marina Vranopoulou, this inaugural exhibition brings together a vast number of works by international and Greek artists, across two floors. These include Honza Zamojski’s Father God, 2014, a large spectacle-wearing stone placed atop an elegant blue column; Aleksandar Todorovic’s Iconostasis of Communism, 2008, in which the history of Marxism is told in the language of Eastern Orthodox iconography with watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper; and a duo of ceramic figures by Dionisis Kavallieratos that includes a coy Death holding down his robe like it’s Marilyn’s skirt and Margaret Thatcher holding a scythe, standing beside Death like Sancho Panza. Many works were commissioned for the site: Atelier Arizona’s elegant brass appendage attached to the outside wall of the building, Untitled (“Stairway to Heaven”): An Architectural Landmark, 2015, takes its design from the windmills of Mykonos, while Selma Parlour’s blue color study Dio, 2015, was inspired by the particular light of the Aegean that Henry Miller once described as pure illumination.
There is indeed an unexpected weightlessness to the show that does not detract from the context at hand: the Greek crisis. But rather than cast shadows, the exhibition sheds light on an alternative view. Take Elias Kafouros’s hyperrealistic acrylic-on-wood compositions, in which aspects of contemporary life—such as a man with binoculars, a street stall with newspapers, statues of the Olympian gods, and wire fences—are used to compose mandalas. Form follows chaos.
Not long ago, I earned a well-deserved three Euros for sharing my thoughts on capitalism with what seemed to be a Stedelijk Museum employee facilitating Tino Sehgal’s “situation” This is Exchange, 2002. It was the fifth of the twenty or so situations that the Stedelijk is presenting throughout 2015, in the largest exhibition of his work to date. A week later, when I returned with a friend, the compensation had gone down to two Euros, as the budget didn’t reflect the overwhelming public attention the situation received—a convincing illustration of capitalist supply and demand.
Generally Sehgal’s situations come in two types: those in which the audience is spoken or sung to, raising awareness of socioeconomic and cultural issues (see This is propaganda, 2002, This is new, 2003, and This is so contemporary, 2004); and those that are self contained and create a barrier that only allows the audience to observe. These choreographed situations, which reveal Sehgal’s background as a dancer, are much more convincing than his Brechtian Lehrstücke (learning-plays) where, supposedly, the screen between performer and audience is lifted. In This is Exchange suspension of disbelief stops abruptly as you notice the museum employee is in fact an actor, and in This is propaganda, the tune just feels awkward.
The domain in which the artist most excels is the creation of highly intimate dances, as in: Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, 2000; Kiss, 2002; and Yet Untitled, 2013. In these, Sehgal shuts the viewer out, and the dancer’s concentrated movements and interactions sublimate reality.
Heavy with materiality, ornamentation, and pattern, the forty intricately woven wool tapestries by Hannah Ryggen in this exhibition have an odd, cartoonish aesthetic apt to send a snicker to the lips—all too often only to be choked back by the weight of her content. A left-wing pacifist, Ryggen spent most of her life working in the remote region of Řrlandet, Norway. Newspapers informed her of world events, which stirred her firm political beliefs into ambitious and powerful statements capturing key developments of her time. From her earliest major works, Ryggen addressed moral themes, and as the world tilted into political unrest in the 1930s her objections grew. It is in works such as The Death of Dreams, 1936—which depicts the Nazi imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky—that Ryggen’s jarring combination of nonfiction and visual humor brings home her message.
By the end of World War II, her somber subjects became interwoven with uplifting, playful themes such as love, nature, utopia, and portraiture. In these, the smiles piqued by Ryggen’s aesthetic compound the pleasant optimism and cheeky sense of humor radiating from the works. However, Ryggen’s political critique never subsided; American involvement in Vietnam motivated her final protest work, Blood in the Grass, 1966, which caricatures President Lyndon B. Johnson flanked by a tufted green lawn cut by lines of red.
Ryggen’s strongest pieces here pivot on their tensions—awkward and shocking, serious and amusing, at times optimistic, at others despairing, but always sincere and forthright.
This generous exhibition, which features works of thirty-six artists using sound, paper, video, photography, installation, and painting, ponders whether a museum can be a garden, by taking elements commonly found outdoors and inviting them inside. Covering two floors joined by a nearly hidden narrow stairway hosting the disturbing yet fascinating feminist sound piece Birdcalls, 1972–81, by Louise Lawler, where she mocks art-market gender inequity by twisting the enunciation of famous male artists’ names into birds whistles, the works filter the natural world by following their own art-historical questioning. Thus in both Mario García Torres’s A Brief History of Jimmie Johnson’s Legacy, 2006, a video narration documenting short museum trips taken by various visitors since the protagonist of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande ŕ Part (Band of Outsiders, 1964) ran through the Louvre in nine minutes and forty-five seconds, and Simone Forti’s Solo No. 1, 1974, a video showing her animal-inspired performance engaging her body from and with the floor,viewers are encouraged to reevaluate their own positioning within the museum walls—if not to run and crawl.
Paintings and works on paper tame any excess of spontaneity,as in Anselm Kiefer’s oil-on-canvas Landscape with arrows, 1974, depicting a sunny lake with mountains drawn over with graphic arrow lines, and in the series of minimal ink-and-pencil flower sketches surround a circle by Lourdes Castro, Sombras ŕ volta de um centro (Shadows Around a Center), 1980–84. Ultimately, by echoing the large-scale works from the permanent collection in the museum’s gardens, by artists such as Dan Graham and Richard Serra, this show reinforces a feeling of continuity between Conceptual art, architecture, and grass.
The real subject of Michael Snow’s retrospective—encompassing fifty years of the Canadian artist’s forays into film, sound installation, video, painting, and sculpture—is the viewer. Snow’s work reveals a genuine, open-ended interest in visual perception, especially as it relates to the two-dimensional plane. There’s a lot of play—with windows, projections of windows, reflection, opacity, and transparency. Powers of Two, 2003, features four enormous freestanding transparent photographs of a couple having sex, with the man turned away while the woman is staring, in frank absorption, at us. Circle around to the other side of the image, which everyone seems to do, and you will not be rewarded by the man’s expression.
Snow makes a clear distinction between video installations that are meant to be viewed in a gallery, like paintings, and those that require a seated commitment. Wavelength, 1967—a groundbreaking avant-garde film upon its debut—is an example of the latter and is screened only twice a day. The film is composed of a continuous forty-five-minute zoom shot that moves us from one end of a loft to a point on the opposing wall; people come in and out, day becomes night, there are sudden flashes of color, a death. But mostly it is a film of an empty room, or, more accurately, of how we perceive it. Through the slow, relentless tightening of the visual field, the work shows us how vision is impressionistic and multilayered, affected by emotional states, memories, and split-second sensory reactions.
The nearly two hundred works in this exhibition pay homage to one of Catalonia’s major abstract painters, Alfons Borrell. The curator of the exhibition, artist Oriol Vilapuig, created seven sections to highlight different aspects of Borrell’s work, such as “Color as Subject” and “Experiencing the Boundaries.” For Borrell, the way the sun colors the world orange at dawn, or green while one is walking in a forest, is not so different from how a painter applies hues to a canvas—both are about immersion.
The artist’s work is informed by close observation of nature, which becomes explicit in nine untitled drawings from 1980 shown in the “Repetition and Variation” area as well as in his only film, Aigua fosca (Dark Water), 1964, which follows the movement of water. In most of the paintings, though, recognizable motifs seem hardly relevant, as the quality of these pieces resides in the concentration of gesture and emanation of color.
In 1960, Borrell took part in an action staged by the group Gallot at the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, where several artists joined forces in painting expressive marks on a seventy-five-meter roll of paper. It was a radical statement of rebellion during the years of Franco’s reign. Most of Borrell’s works, however, if we look at them now, look rather reflective and contained as opposed to expressionist. His paintings show gradual changes in color, with thoughts or emotional content seemingly inscribed by marks or lines, as in 23.4.85, 1985, featuring green and black planes with some rougher brushstrokes providing the drama.