Donald Kuspit

  • Dorothy Dehner, Burst #5, 1953, watercolor and ink on paper, 15 3⁄4 × 20 1⁄2".

    Dorothy Dehner

    One of many exquisite pieces in this gorgeous exhibition of abstract drawings and sculptures by Dorothy Dehner (1901–1994) was Garden at Night, 1957, a linear bronze-and-steel tableau that has a playful yet primeval quality to it, as though it were based on imagery from the walls of Lascaux. To my mind, it bears a resemblance to Arshile Gorky’s 1944 painting Garden of Wish Fulfillment. But Dehner’s flourishing patch of flora signals joie de vivre, while Gorky’s canvas is woebegone and deathly—it speaks to misery, to the futility of life. The little black star in Dehner’s piece is a sign of hope

  • Juan Uslé, Soñé que revelabas (Hudson Blue) (I Dreamed That You Revealed [Hudson Blue]), 2021, vinyl, dispersion paint, and dry pigment on canvas, 120 × 89 3⁄4". From the series “Soñé qu revelabas,” 1997–.

    Juan Uslé

    “When we estimate nature as being dynamically sublime,” Immanuel Kant once wrote, “our idea of it must be fearful. . . . Bold, overhanging rocks which seem to threaten us, storm clouds piled up in heaven . . . a high waterfall in a mighty river . . . reduce our power of resistance to impotence as compared with their might.”

    Juan Uslé’s quartet of abstract, vertically oriented canvases in “Horizontal Light,” his solo exhibition at Galerie Lelong, felt as imposing as Kant’s great waterfalls. Three of them were ten feet high and roughly seven-and-a-half feet wide, while the fourth was similar in

  • Tim Wilson, Perfume, 2021, oil on paper mounted on linen stretched over panel, 22 1⁄2 × 18".

    Tim Wilson

    Arguing that avant-garde art was “behind the times,” Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that motion pictures appeared on the sociocultural scene at roughly the same time as Cubism did in the early twentieth century, but that cinema’s “techniques of multiple perspective, varying focus, and tricks of cutting”—bringing the awareness that different aspects of an object could be seen at the same time—were derived from, and an elaboration of, filmic innovations. The movies, Hobsbawm argued, are a more sophisticated and communicative form of art by dint of their technological ingenuity, well

  • Brassaï, Au Monocle, un couple (Fat Claude and her Girlfriend at Le Monocle), ca. 1932, gelatin silver print, 13 3⁄4 × 10 3⁄8".

    Brassaï

    Once one gets past Brassaï’s sometimes sensationalizing accounts of his own art—that he “was eager to penetrate this other world, this fringe world, the secret, sinister world of mobsters, outcasts, toughs, pimps, whores, addicts, inverts”—one realizes that the photographer was making portraits of singular human beings with whom he empathically identified. His pictures are trenchant psychological studies of individuals who lived life as they wanted to (or, in many instances, had to). Brassaï felt at home in Paris’s underground, a realm of the alien and the alienated, because he, too, was an

  • Samson Pollen, Contract Killer on Cemetery Hill, Stag Magazine, 1973, gouache, acrylic, and mixed media on illustration board, 16 × 25".

    Samson Pollen

    Pulp is the raw material used for manufacturing paper, making it the ideal substrate for the pulpy men’s magazines for which brush-for-hire Samson Pollen (1931–2018) created his lovely, lurid illustrations. All of the modestly scaled drawings (made of gouache, acrylic, and mixed media on board) in this exhibition invariably and redundantly featured slim, pretty, and big-breasted women: mass-produced femme fatales that likely countless men have fantasized about in masturbatory admiration.

    Pollen’s female subjects are artificial dummies worthy of Madame Tussauds. From the psychoanalytic perspective

  • Luisa Rabbia, Mitos, 2018, colored pencil, pastel, and acrylic on canvas, 118 × 53".

    Luisa Rabbia

    Across nine exquisite and meticulously executed paintings—made with media such as oil, acrylic, colored pencil, and pastel—at Peter Blum Gallery, Luisa Rabbia offered up an original vision of the human body rapturously transfigured. Her works give off an “oceanic feeling,” as French writer Romain Rolland characterized the effect, or, as Sigmund Freud called it in response to Rolland, a “primitive ego-feeling,” a sensation preserved from infancy, when the ego has not yet come into its own and is only beginning to emerge from the id. The imagery in Rabbia’s show, according to the press release,

  • Joan Brown, Model with Reflection in Window, 1972, acrylic, ink, and graphite on paper, 36 × 24".

    Joan Brown

    “Drawn from Life: Works on Paper, 1970–1976” was a modest but illuminating survey of drawings by the late Bay Area painter Joan Brown (1938–1990). The eighteen works featured at George Adams Gallery—done primarily in ink, acrylic, and graphite—highlighted a major turning point in the artist’s career: namely, the transition Brown made from creating heavily impastoed and expressionistic figurative paintings to producing flatter and more stylized depictions of women—images that are implicitly self-referential and, for the most part, nude. Many are conspicuously linear, not to say deftly Minimal,

  • Jess, Mystic Writing XI, 1955, wax crayon on paper, 10 3/4 × 9 3/4 ".

    Jess

    In 1974, the artist Jess (1923–2004) had an exhibition of oil paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by the institution’s legendary Kynaston McShine. The imagery and texts for the works were derived from a seemingly random variety of sources—including popular magazines, snapshots, and trading cards, along with quotations from Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, Wassily Kandinsky, and Gertrude Stein, among many others. Accentuating the personal, evocative, and fantastical character of each piece, the poet Robert Duncan, Jess’s lifelong lover, emphasized that they were “related to

  • Congo, 22nd Painting Session, 1957, oil and pastel on paper, 10 1/2 × 15 1/2".

    Congo and Jackson Pollock

    In 1975, Joseph Beuys declared that “every person is an artist.” If the paintings created by Congo—a male chimpanzee who began his career in 1956, the year Jackson Pollock died—are works of art, then it seems that every living creature can be an artist . . . or at the very least a painter.

    English zoologist (and Surrealist painter) Desmond Morris wrote that he used Congo as a tool for research into “the origins of aesthetics,” which proved that “the chimpanzee brain is capable of creating abstract patterns that are under visual control.” A fanlike arrangement of strokes and/or lines was Congo’s

  • John Marin, Brooklyn Bridge and Lower New York, 1913, etching and drypoint on paper, 6 3⁄4 × 8 1⁄2". From “New York, New York.”

    “New York, New York”

    In a 1965 interview with critic Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp declared—with characteristically ironic nihilism—that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Well, we know he took to its sanitary installations, as his Fountain, 1917, makes clear. (Having lived in Paris in 1953 and having experienced the holes in the ground that passed for urinals, I perfectly understand the artist’s adoration of Uncle Sam’s pissoirs.) But he never did make (or should I say appropriate?) any bridges. I think he would have admired the elegant lines of New York’s Queensboro Bridge,

  • Kimber Smith, Kup’s White Diamond, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 94 × 65 1⁄4".

    Kimber Smith

    “Cosmically we find that matter organizes around centers, which are often marked by a dominant mass,” the gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim once said, but “we cannot be grateful enough for living in a world that, for practical purposes, can be laid out along a grid of verticals and horizontals . . . the Cartesian grid.” In two early works by the abstract painter Kimber Smith (1922–1981) at Cheim & Read—Untitled, 1965, a modestly sized gouache on paper, and Kup’s White Diamond, 1970, a large acrylic on canvas—the center is utterly conspicuous. In the former, it is a pale, luminous void edged

  • View of “Joanna Pousette-Dart,” 2020. From left: 2 Part Variation #3 (After Pierrot), 2015; 3 Part Variation #6, 2013; 3 Part Variation #12, 2017.

    Joanna Pousette-Dart

    “Strong experience of nature . . . is the necessary basis for all conception of art,” Paul Cézanne wrote in 1904. And in 1949 Clement Greenberg surmised that “Western painting has continued somehow to be naturalistic despite all appearances to the contrary.” The critic also went on to say that abstraction began “when Braque and Picasso stopped trying to imitate the normal appearance of a wineglass and tried instead to approximate, by analogy, the way nature opposed verticals in general to horizontals in general.” Similarly, Joanna Pousette-Dart’s paintings in her exhibition at Lisson Gallery “