Richard Shiff

  • passages November 05, 2014

    Nan Rosenthal (1937–2014)

    I HAD THE PLEASURE of Nan Rosenthal’s friendship for about thirty years. Her wit and witticisms remain with me, as fresh as ever. We often consulted on art-world matters of shared interest, over a landline phone or in person. It was hard to keep our attention on the job rather than drift off into a laughing match, following one ironic observation with another. Some of the laughs were silly, others not so silly. The best bits of humor—the not-so-silly laughs—usually came at the expense of illustrious colleagues, and maybe unfairly. We didn’t think it was unfair at the time. Perhaps more than

  • “Frank Stella 1958”

    “FRANK STELLA 1958” is a prequel. It extracts twenty-one works, some rarely or never before exhibited, from the genetic soup of a remarkable evolution. Your degree of interest may hinge on how invested you are in the outcome: 1959, the “Black Paintings.” Viewing Stella’s brightly striped canvases from 1958, it’s hard to avoid mental comparison with the absent dark ones. But life doesn’t conform to the calendar, and Stella was making “Black Paintings” toward the end of his evolutionary year of color. It remains a matter of discrimination, both aesthetic and critical, as to what’s black (the

  • Drawing Modern: Works from the Agnes Gund Collection

    Drawings aren’t what they used to be—they’re better. No longer cabinet pieces for connoisseurs, they’ve become full-scale exhibition wonders.

    Drawings aren’t what they used to be—they’re better. No longer cabinet pieces for connoisseurs, they’ve become full-scale exhibition wonders. A theme developed on paper, Jasper Johns’s Savarin, for example, stands up to its relations in oil or bronze. Techniques applied on paper have amazing flexibility, encouraging imaginative liberties and novel kinds of finesse. Agnes Gund’s collection includes radiant collages by Anne Ryan and Ellsworth Kelly—one pictorial, the other structural. Chuck Close’s color separations and Richard Serra’s densely pressed Paintstik each push the paper medium further,

  • “Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond”

    “The newest trend and the art scene are unnecessary distractions for a serious artist,” Agnes Martin stated in 1989, aged seventy-seven. She ought to have known, having seen the trends come and go, outliving and outperforming each of them. Embraced by admirers of Minimalism in New York during the '60s, she countered that her grids were Abstract Expressionist. Expressionist? What can a grid “express”? “Innocence,” she said. Now she's reached ninety in New Mexico, titling her works Little Children Playing with Love and the like. Minimalism and Expressionism have passed into history. Martin's art

  • Gego

    “Gego” impresses itself on the memory: two short syllables and a single, repeating consonant (pronounce it halfway between Geh-go and Gay-go). With “Gego,” Gertrudls Goldschmidt (1912-94) converted her German name into sounds appropriate to her adopted Venezuela. Both witty conceit and tough professional strategy, this was only one of her many acts of engineering. Her four-letter fabrication connotes a structural efficiency befitting her identity as an architect trained in Stuttgart, she practiced in Caracas after emigrating in 1939.

    Gego claimed she never regarded herself as an “artist,” yet

  • Leo Steinberg

    EVERY LEONARDO NEEDS A LEO STEINBERG. Every critic of expansive vision and intellect, every Leo Steinberg, needs a Leonardo—or a Michelangelo, Borromini, Velázquez, or Picasso (Steinberg’s choices): an artist sufficiently profound to repay a lifetime of looking and sustain the critical response. Steinberg’s writing explores human emotion, retrieves arcane cultural signs. finds humor and wisdom intertwined, gathers up the fullness of experience. All inclusive, it suits Leonardo’s immensity.

    Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, which reworks and extends an essay Steinberg published in Art Quarterly

  • The best books of 2000

    Linda Nochlin

    Molly Nesbit’s Their Common Sense (Black Dog Press) isn’t exactly an art book—it’s not exactly a book even, in the usual sense. But in the unusual sense, Nesbit’s tome is a marvelous document, swinging briskly between the teaching of mechanical drawing in French schools and the arcanery of Duchamp & Co. It begins in very big print with Antonin Proust’s proposal that all French schoolchildren learn to draw and ends with a memorable still from Pabst’s Joyless Streets. In between? Children’s drawings (not the cute, creative ones, but disciplined, drafting lesson productions), some

  • “1900: Art at the Crossroads”

    THINK ART IN THE YEAR 1900: the young Picasso, the aging Cézanne, Gauguin in the South Seas. Add technology and urbanism: early cinema, electric lighting, motorized subways, the automobile—all brilliant illumination and accelerated movement. Then ask yourself the inevitable question: Was modern art challenging sensory habits analogously, perhaps even as technology's rival?

    One hundred years ago, you might have attempted to answer that question by visiting the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where the most modern of achievements in creative engineering and fine arts went on exhibit for a

  • Brice Marden

    PEOPLE ARE DRAWN TO BRICE MARDEN’S PAINTINGS, but I’m not convinced they know why, even his collectors and curators. They share in the fascination, but without much understanding. I too like Marden’s art. The situation is a credit to the material beauty of his surfaces, “that heavy earthen kind of thing, [turned] into air and light,” as Marden himself describes painting’s wonder, alluding to alchemy and transmutation. His aesthetic magic is powerful enough to mask significant formal tensions and contradictions, which would otherwise attract a more analytical engagement than his work usually

  • ALLOVER YOU: THE ART OF CHUCK CLOSE

    LONG AGO, SOMETIME DURING THE ’70s, I heard that Chuck Close kept the TV on while painting. He didn’t actually watch it, but he listened to it, the sounds of game shows and soap operas.1 This didn’t surprise me. Since Close was thoroughly occupied in his studio, he needed no entertainment, but rather distraction. During long hours of meticulous rendering, the sounds of television—the flat, utterly boring sensory effect of formulaic daytime programming—could serve Close’s art by muting whatever irregularity or shock the sounds of the world might generate. Once the rest of existence was reduced

  • L’empreinte

    The strange objects assembled by the exhibition “L’empreinte” (the imprint, imprinting) compelled me to think creatively, so I silently thanked organizer Georges Didi-Huberman and cocurator Didier Semin for the occasion. But “L’empreinte” often failed to coordinate the materials on view with the concepts elaborated in the accompanying catalogue. From room to room (with nearly 300 items), I thought repeatedly, Why include this object?

    Much more coherent than the exhibition is Didi-Huberman’s catalogue essay. It attaches theory to his twentieth-century oddities and provides some history as well to

  • Lucian Freud

    Look at Lucian Freud’s grand image of the late Leigh Bowery: perched on a box or table, his body extends, tapers, reaches (pictorially if not physically) up to a skylight, graceful in its awkward pose. Full frontal nudity. There’s a penis, but also a face, feet, and hands—all given the same degree of detail. Is this uninhibited realism, or artistic indecision? If it’s hard to tell, perhaps the painter is waging psychological war against philistines and aesthetes all at once. Freud’s portrayal of Bowery—a performance artist renowned for costumes, cosmetics, and prosthetics, not nakedness, and

  • “Negotiating Rapture”

    How do you negotiate, or come to terms with, rapture? Shouldn’t rapture be felt, rather than contested, adjudicated, or philosophized? To inaugurate the Museum of Contemporary Art’s grand new building, curator Richard Francis has created “Negotiating Rapture,” an entrance into the realm of the exalted, the sublime, the transformative. Like the term “rapture” itself—much less familiar than the overworked concept of the sublime—nothing about this exhibition is easy or expected.

    Eleven artists, belonging to several of the generations active during the postwar era, appear in the following order:

  • JASPER JOHNS: ALLEY OOP, 1958

    FAMILIARITY OBSCURES ORIGINS. I doubt I’ll ever remember precisely when I first encountered Jasper Johns’ Alley Oop, a touchstone for my thinking about physicality and process. Along with Johns’ flags, targets, and numerals, Alley Oop instituted a new class of painting, at least in my experience. It was neither illusionistic like traditional representation, nor expressionistic like works of the New York School, nor purist, constructivist, or formalist like other symmetrically disposed compositions of its time. A narrative lay hidden in it—an episode of the comic strip Alley Oop—yet this painting

  • “Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975–1995”

    BECAUSE MANY OF Howard Hodgkin’s paintings look like abstract arrangements of brilliantly colored bars, arcs, waves, and dots, it may come as some surprise to learn that he intends them as renderings of people, situations, scenes, or events—and further, that each painting represents the artist’s effort to convey a state of emotion associated with a particular moment. In his own words, Hodgkin paints “representational pictures of emotional situations.”1 It would be wrong, though, to conclude that he is concerned with a generalized thematics of emotion. Instead, Hodgkin tells us that his paintings

  • CRITICAL REFLECTIONS

    WHEN, ABOUT A DECADE AGO now, I started to make my way from academic philosophy to art writing, the book of the time that most impressed me was Richard Shiff’s Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (1984). Cézanne’s paintings have been so much discussed, Shiff argued, that we cannot really see them apart from the commentary on them. And since the way commentary is understood depends upon the interests of the interpreter, the interpretation of writing on paintings inevitably becomes “an end in itself.”

    In posing this philosophical problem, Shiff, an epistemologist of art history, was a true disciple

  • Richard Shiff

    HAPPY RETURNS

    I like art that repays long, extended looking. Having seen SYLVIA PLIMACK MANGOLD’s current work twice this year—a truncated version of her retrospective in June at Brooke Alexander and the full exhibition in September at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery—I found that I would have needed to rearrange my day, even my week, to absorb it all. A painting by Plimack Mangold immediately slows my fast, impatient viewing. Her recent trees in particular require extra time. Maples and elms? Can garden-variety trees be painted compellingly in 1995 without configuring them as

  • Focus: “Franz Kline: Black & White, 1950–1961”

    “You instinctively like what you can’t do,” Franz Kline said in a 1958 interview, referring to the precise yet ethereal style of Fra Angelico. Like many other statements of the period, Kline’s remark was probably coaxed forth by the interviewer (in this case, Frank O’Hara) and may even be an invention. Yet it holds true to the painter. Kline wanted what he couldn’t do. He desired the kind of difficulty he didn’t experience in the world outside the studio, where things generally came easy to him. Everyone liked Kline: he had great looks, an engaging manner, effortless charm and wit. He was Kline