Donald Kuspit

  • 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

  • “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

    “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

  • 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

  • Erró

    Comprised of thirty-four modestly sized collages and a pair of huge, panoramic paintings, Galerie Perrotin’s exhibition of works by the octogenarian Icelandic artist Erró was like a grand expedition across sixty-one years of his imaginative brilliance. Using his manic enthusiasm and inventive wit, he bombarded us with images from all quarters of high and low culture, often combining them to unusual effect. Léger Scape, 1984, an unexpected amalgamation of Fernand Léger’s Cubistic machine aesthetic with Joan Miró’s Surrealistic naturalism, was a refreshingly new creature, a Frankenstein monster

  • Keith Sonnier

    Red, yellow, and blue neon tubes were illuminated. Wires hung loosely and were expressively slack. A flat black plane, rectangular or square, was often thrown into the mix. Everything was finessed into the gallery’s smooth, white walls like a bas relief. The works’ finitude and self-containment were exacting, perfect: Such is the formula for Keith Sonnier’s technological constructions, which were arranged like altarpieces within Kasmin’s West Twenty-Seventh Street space in Manhattan’s Chelsea. The compositions have a peculiarly sacramental character, all the more so because their radiant colors

  • Man Ray

    An eye-opening survey of Man Ray at Di Donna—comprising thirty-two paintings and thirty-four works on paper—possessed what André Breton once called the “extreme degree of immediate absurdity,” a quintessential aspect of Surrealism. Man Ray, one of the movement’s undisputed masters, is well known for his photograms and solarized images, as well as for his fashion and portrait photography. He also produced various avant-garde films and conceptually driven pieces, such as the readymade Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed), 1923, an image of an eye snipped from a photo and attached to

  • Hyman Bloom

    Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning thought that Hyman Bloom (1913–2009) was “the first Abstract Expressionist artist in America.” In 1950, Bloom was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, alongside those two artists and Arshile Gorky. In Artnews that same year, Elaine de Kooning noted that Bloom’s paintings were almost totally abstract and declared that “the whole impact [of his art] is carried in the boiling action of the pigment.” Such freneticism, an immersion in nature at its most elemental and intense—or, perhaps more accurately, an impassioned identification with

  • Pierre Soulages

    In an homage to Pierre Soulages’s indomitable spirit, this mini survey at Lévy Gorvy featured twenty of the French artist’s oils made between 1954 and 2019. He is still amazingly productive and still obsessed with the color black, even at the grand old age of ninety-nine. At this stage of the human life cycle, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson has said, the only choice a person has is to either stagnate or to keep pushing along, full steam ahead. Soulages has clearly chosen the latter. He has never stopped being generative, despite the fact that his trademark hue is “a totally dead silence . . .

  • Kurt Schwitters

    Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) is renowned for his Merz collages and constructions, titled after an advertisement for Commerzbank he once cut up, dispensing with the German institution’s com and bank, and leaving only the nonsensical merz, which has an odd resonance with schmutz, or dirt. This is fitting, of course, for an artist who was a master of appropriating cultural schmutz—including, in his own words, “tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons, and old junk”—for his work.

    At Nahmad Contemporary, twenty-two of Schwitters’s collages, made between 1920 and 1947, were on display. Among them, Ohne

  • Leon Polk Smith

    This exhibition of fifteen small, intimate, and oddly fugitive works on paper—prints, drawings, and collages—by the late Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) gave the viewer a glimpse into the sundry phases of thinking and making that marked the long career of this twentieth-century painter. Smith tackled a range of movements that focused on abstraction, from De Stijl to hard-edge painting and even Minimalism. But such labels tell us little about his singular success in giving precise aesthetic purpose to geometrical form and vivid hues.

    Take Little Dogies at Night, 1942, which features an eccentric grid

  • James Nares

    James Nares’s eight ingenious and materially intriguing paintings at Kasmin Gallery—made from twenty-two-karat gold leaf applied to a ground of black Evolon, a microfilament textile—created a richly existential space with the most elemental of contrasts: light and dark, symbolizing life and death. The surfaces of his abstractions—stippled or covered with striations that vaguely resemble the hides of cheetahs, tigers, and other exotic cats—are resolutely flat, in the grand modernist tradition. Yet they are profoundly expressive, rich with personal and social meaning, as evidenced by the pictures’