Critics’ Picks

View of “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” 2014.

New York

Chris Ofili

New Museum
235 Bowery
October 29, 2014–February 1, 2015

Any account of Chris Ofili’s career will invoke the scandal around his rise to prominence in the 1990s, when he merged large-scale figuration with old-fashioned base materialism. His Holy Virgin Mary, 1997, was nearly banned when it debuted at the Brooklyn Museum, but his “afro lovers” and resin-coated elephant dung would reappear, including at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where he turned the British pavilion into a nocturnal redoubt.

Ofili’s American retrospective highlights his play of light and contrast and showcases a decade of new work, including forays into sculpture and theatrical design and refinements of earlier interests in drawing and portraiture. Many ’90s-era paintings are on display, and they are worth the price of admission. Widely circulated in reproduction, those paintings take on new power when encountered here. Larger than life, drizzled with resin, and festooned with map pins and glitter, their psychedelic landscapes are revealed as an intricate network of color and line. Curators now, as they have done in the past, try to read politics into the work, but Ofili’s skill as formalist is contribution enough.

Two galleries show the artist in maximalist mode: He flaunts his influences (Matisse, Bacon, Douglas, Warhol) but synthesizes them fluidly, aided by soft lighting that produces an ethereal experience of immersive looking. Nine oil paintings (2006–2014) nearly occlude their content, rendered in deep blues and hung like Rothkos; a garish suite of more narrative scenes hang on walls reimagined as the textile work of a scene shop. They blur the line between work and display, and utterly transfigure the New Museum’s blank surfaces. Ofili is off in new directions, and seemingly in grand modernist fashion.