Critics’ Picks

  • Exhibition view of “The Wooster Group,” 2019–20.

    Exhibition view of “The Wooster Group,” 2019–20.

    The Wooster Group

    carriage trade
    277 Grand Street 2nd Floor
    November 7, 2019–January 26, 2020

    Negotiating posterity is a weird task for theater artists. Live performance may be impermanent by nature, but there’s limited virtue in being completely lost to time. Which is why this compact yet potent show from the archives of the mighty Wooster Group is so gratifying and compelling: It gives audiences glimpses—both onstage and off—into some of the most essential, influential, and ingenious productions from their nearly fifty-year run as a company.

    Vitrines offer up ephemera for the browsing: performance stills, Playbills, scribbled-in scripts, meticulous set drawings, and correspondence both dryly officious and uncomfortably personal. Oddball props are displayed as though lifted from a cabinet of curiosities: Of what use was a bottle of glycerin from the Bran-Win Pharmacy? Did the gun ever go off? (I didn’t check what object came from which show, finding it more fun just to stare and giggle and wonder.) Video documents of select productions are also on view, among them Brace Up! (1991/2003), a transfiguration of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and House/Lights (1998/2005), a mash-up (of sorts) of Gertrude Stein’s libretto Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights (1938) and Joseph P. Mawra’s sexploitation film Olga’s House of Shame (1964).

    Of course, nothing here claims to substitute for the performances themselves; all is rather more a portrait of the time and minds that went into making them. One exception: the eerie video re-creation of their seminal Rumstick Road (1977), a gorgeous, aching performance spun from the suicide of the mother of Spalding Gray (1941–2004), one of the group’s founding members. Made in 2013 by the company’s director, Elizabeth LeCompte, in collaboration with archivist Clay Hapaz and filmmaker Ken Kobland, it is a composite of various footage (including Super 8 film, audio recordings, slides, and photographs) taken at, and from, the show. Gray is now long gone—so too fellow performer Ron Vawter (1948–1994)—but this piece is no mere souvenir: It is a haunted house of mirrors, recovering and animating so many disappearances to create a profoundly present work of art.

  • Clare Grill, Snail, 2018, oil on linen, 15 x 12".

    Clare Grill, Snail, 2018, oil on linen, 15 x 12".

    “New Skin”

    Monica King Contemporary
    39 Lispenard Street
    December 13, 2019–January 25, 2020

    “New Skin,” curated by Jason Stopa, is a five-part ensemble featuring a dozen paintings by Clare Grill, Juan Logan, Michael Berryhill, Shirley Kaneda, and Stopa himself—most of whom have been showing in New York for more than ten years. The press release reinforces the division between representation and abstraction, and insinuates that artists trafficking in the latter are somehow more radical. However, these works eschew such pat categories to instead celebrate what Albert C. Barnes called “the qualities which all particular objects share, such as color, extensity, solidity, movement, rhythm.”

    Upon entering Monica King’s recently opened gallery in TriBeCa, I was greeted by Grill’s Lot, 2016, a verdant patchwork of diminutive forms that alludes to a forest’s mossy carpets as well as the nap of woven fabric. On an opposite wall hangs Stopa’s Interior Pleasures, 2019. Adapted from a small study, its opaque ground is populated with descending vertical lines and calligraphic shapes that recall early Jonathan Lasker, though mixed with Patricia Treib’s one-shot gestures and Bernard Piffaretti’s sloppy precariousness.

    Three of Kaneda’s pieces glisten nearby. Hectic Emptiness, 2018, depicts a Tetris-like formation of polygons tightly bracketed by undulating gradients that stand before a lavender background. Another, Summer Cold, 2019, positions a pair of similar gradients to the left of horizontal stripes one might find emblazoned across swatches of wrapping paper, or decorative throw pillows. While Kaneda’s canvases are the obvious standouts for their imposing scale, boisterous hues, and graphic flatness, I spent the most time with the exhibition’s outlier: Grill’s Snail, 2018. Located to the right of a large oil by Berryhill (Author, 2019), the painting’s brooding blacks, umbers, and sordid pinks offer an intriguing counterpoint. I felt like Alice peering through the looking glass, drawn into its indeterminate pictorial world of soft objects encircling an abyss; color, solidity, and movement reach a crescendo.

  • Duane Michals, The Illuminated Man, 1968, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24".

    Duane Michals, The Illuminated Man, 1968, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24".

    Duane Michals

    The Morgan Library & Museum
    225 Madison Avenue
    October 25, 2019–February 2, 2020

    Duane Michals is a drama queen. Best known for black-and-white photographs featuring hand-scrawled marginalia, Michals’s fantastical images—staged, unabashedly gay, and frequently revealing of the mechanisms involved in their creation—eschew photographic veracity in favor of folly. And now, in what feels tantamount to a last act for the eighty-seven-year-old, Michals plays curator for a retrospective exhibiting his own work alongside items the artist has chosen from the Morgan’s permanent collection, in what is nothing short of a grand epilogue.

    “Illusions of the Photographer” spans six decades of the artist’s work and is divided into ten categories—among them, “Nature,” “Time,” and “Immortality.” Michals, ever the stage director, heralds each change in theme with varying wall colors. Included in the “Love and Desire” section is Michals’s Chance Meeting, 1970, a grid of six photographs that reenact a scene of back-alley cruising. Hanging nearby is Charles Demuth’s Study for Two Acrobats, 1918, a pencil sketch depicting two male performers passing one another as they glide through the air. Taken together, the works—of bodies propelled by gravity and desire—offer a wry meditation on homosocial interactions. Elsewhere, Michals’s The Illuminated Man, 1968, an intentionally overexposed portrait that transforms the subject’s head into a radiating orb of light, is shown alongside theatrical set designer Eugene Berman’s Curtain Design, Bearded Man, 1945, a gouache study of a man’s head whose features are hidden by an abundance of hair, à la Cousin Itt. The pairing, in Michals’s “Illusion” section, brings to mind Schopenhauer’s quip: “No one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.”

    Taking his cues from the greatest tragedians, the artist ends the exhibition with “Death.” Self-Portrait Asleep in a Tomb of Mereruka Sakkara, 1978, depicts the somnolent Michals inside the fabled Egyptian tomb, surrounded by ancient murals dedicated to the vizier of King Teti. Monumentality and pageantry, central to Egyptian funerary practices, seem to suit the artist’s eye for theatrics and, ultimately, make for the perfect exit.

  • Ragen Moss, Senior Borrower (with Mezzanine Borrower), 2019, acrylic, polyethylene, aluminum, and steel hardware, 53 x 30 x 22".

    Ragen Moss, Senior Borrower (with Mezzanine Borrower), 2019, acrylic, polyethylene, aluminum, and steel hardware, 53 x 30 x 22".

    Ragen Moss

    Bridget Donahue
    99 Bowery 2nd Floor
    November 10, 2019–January 26, 2020

    There is something peculiar about the beginning of a party, the conspicuous amounts of empty space fostering an ambient anticipation of what will come, who will arrive, and how I, you, or we will respond. It’s this sort of social anxiety that one encounters here, where Ragen Moss’s bulbous, anthropomorphic sculptures are currently on view.

    Constructed with polyethylene, aluminum, steel hardware—and adorned with acrylic paint—Moss’s forms, which hang from the gallery’s ceiling, are both bionic and voluptuous. Indeed, the works’ bodily contours are exaggerated precisely through the rigidity of the materials employed (however, a number of their indentations suggest a certain malleability as well). À la Umberto Boccioni, her characters seem transitory, both full of air and not, inhaling and exhaling. Although they encourage a certain fasciation with surface tension, Moss’s sculptures are spatially dynamic. Senior Borrower (with Mezzanine Borrower), all works 2019, for example, features a range of felicitous decoration—including stars, a Lamborghini logo, and written text—that partially obscures a world behind its translucent plastic skin. “Interiority” becomes hypostasized, no longer a metaphysical inwardness but rather the spatial sediment of Moss’s sculpting.

    Not all the sculptures should be considered individually, however. Some, like Puritan (with hellcat Heart) and Hellcat (with puritan Heart), are physically linked, their swapped hearts suggesting an amorous entanglement as well. Unteachables I (with double Hearts) and Unteachables II (with double Hearts) serve as the show’s more established couples, each pair gently swaying next to each other. The gallery becomes the arena in which these relationships play out, Moss’s sculptures carving out space both social and physical, beyond and within their evocative forms, charting this party’s beguiling cartography.