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Jibade-Khalil Huffman

Downstairs Projects
1713 8th Avenue, Brooklyn
May 19–July 20

Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Figuration (A), 2017, single-channel video, color, sound, 20 minutes.

“Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” This disclaimer, lifted from Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller video, serves as the epigraph to Figuration (A), 2017, the title work of Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s exhibition. The single-channel video is a mediatic dumpster dive through the not-yet-historical past, its fantasia of purloined images flowing to an interruptive, channel-surfing logic. A petite Darth Vader superimposed on a young Seth Rogen’s audition tape; the opening credits of the 1980s African American sitcom Amen; Rick James’s appearance as a plaintiff on Judge Joe Brown; Damon Dash and Cam’ron debating the (now-disgraced) Bill O’Reilly on the merits of rap: All are woozily doubled and played backward and forward, spasmodically dissolving into pink fuzz and throbbing triangles.

The anxiety and violence percolating between the nostalgic comforts of 1990s television boil over in First Person Shooter, 2016. As the video’s title suggests, the relevant structure here isn’t TV but videogames, and the struggle for black lives its political condition. Positioned in the driver’s seat, the viewer navigates through a nightmare Sim City besieged with cops and exploding digital kitsch.

For all the accessible humor, pop imagery, and antiracist politics of Huffman’s work, its poetic excess of aesthetic, cultural, and semantic input accumulates into an opaque mass, overwhelming expedient readings. But the lyrically suggestive text interpolated throughout First Person Shooter’s high-octane surrealism hints at a possible bicameral meaning between the likelihood of a “black fantastic” and a cosmic pessimism contained in the notion of “freedom as a condition for slavery.” Anxiously vibrating between these two modalities, Huffman’s monster mash of cultural refuse puts a materialist accent on the occultism Michael Jackson invoked and immediately repudiated—a haunting not by paranormal forces but by history.

Chloe Wyma

Maira Kalman

Julie Saul Gallery
535 West 22nd Street, Sixth Floor
June 1–September 16

Maira Kalman, Cream Teas, Sherborne Castle, 2017, gouache on paper, 12 x 9".

The county of Dorset in southwest England is characterized by rolling hills, rugged coastline, and wooded valleys. It’s this idyllic landscape that serves as the subject for Maira Kalman’s current show of ten gouache-on-paper paintings in the gallery’s project room, which focus on the gardens and domestic curiosities of the region’s stately, ancestral houses. (In the main space is a separate exhibition of paintings from Kalman’s 2005 edition of Strunk and White’s classic guide to writing, The Elements of Style.)

With illustrative flair and fondant-fancy colors, Cream Teas, Sherborne Castle (all works 2017) shows a Hyacinth Bucket–esque table setting in an elegant room, replete with plates of delicacies. In Hear a HA HA, Kingston Lacy, several women tour manicured pink flower beds, while in Who Didn’t Love This Place, Smedmore House, a tweed-clad gentleman and his dog walk away from a group of cows relaxing before steep, seaward land. But no bucolic setting, however tranquil, is all that it seems, nor can it be a comprehensive reflection of its human denizens. What lies beneath polite surfaces is a recurrent theme in British culture, providing the basis for television series such as Miss Marple (1984–92) and Midsomer Murders (1997–), set in seemingly benign English villages that are home to treachery.

Redolent of the rose-hued intrigue in Barbara Cartland novels or the protagonists of the board game Clue, the apparent Stepford cheerfulness of these works causes unease as to how safe the summer frosting is. Who is the food laid out for in that parlor? Why are all of the faces so solemn, unsmiling? What shadowy deeds are masked by the picturesque vistas and dainty treats of English country life—indeed, by the civilized facade of anyone’s?

Darren Jones

Ellen Berkenblit

Anton Kern Gallery
16 East 55th Street
May 25–July 7

Ellen Berkenblit, Witching Hour, 2017, oil and paint stick on linen, 63 1/2 x 77".

Animated by frenzied bursts of vibrant color, splashing patterns, and succulent forms, Ellen Berkenblit’s recent paintings capture moments of stillness in broad, energetic strokes. Through her sumptuous canvases, caked with creamy paint stick and occasionally bedecked with quilted calico fragments, we follow a scattered sequence of minutely shifting portraits: a beribboned bay pony moving restlessly between Untitled and Lilac (both 2016); a massive outstretched hand with Kool Aid–hued nails trying to pinch a tulip-like flower (Alef Bet, 2016, and Witching Hour, 2017); and a woman with an almost toothless grin meeting the surprised gaze of a bird (Scruffs, 2016).

Her works are made and hung with filmic repetition—it feels as though we are experiencing a slideshow interspersed with the white of gallery walls. Berkenblit’s characters are in some kind of luxurious state of deceleration: Fingers subtly reach and retract; a horse gently backs away and approaches. Berkenblit’s execution—by turns languidly graphic and emphatically expressive—further confuses this temporality. The movements from a cartoon version of Manet’s Olympia in V, 2017, are infinitely protracted by the weight of heavy outlines and her grayish-pink coloration, while in I Don’t Object If You Call Collect, 2017, the sleepiness of lowered lashes is shaken by the energetic designs of a patchwork background. Playing her mark-making against the elusive narratives of her subjects, Berkenblit tests the supremacy of content over form, suffusing instances of quiet with a sense of imminence and possibility.

Nicole Kaack

“Body, Self, Society: Chinese Performance Photography of the 1990s”

The Walther Collection Project Space
526 West 26th Street, Suite 718
April 14–August 19

View of “Body, Self, Society: Chinese Performance Photography of the 1990s,” 2017. From left: Cang Xin, To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain, 1995; Ma Liuming, Fen-Ma Liuming Walks The Great Wall, 1998.

A major performance-art exhibition opened in Beijing on February 5, 1989, with a bang—the young artist Xiao Lu pulled out a pistol and fired two shots at a mirror in her own installation, prompting her arrest. Thereafter, the government cracked down on all unauthorized public performances, a move that was exacerbated by the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which started only two months later.

The artists’ colony that formed in the wake of these events (called the Beijing East Village, after their New York counterpart) used private performances to illustrate the political situation and recorded them on camera, perhaps to be exhibited later in a less rigid world. In 1998, Ma Liuming’s gender-fluid alter ego, Fen-Ma, trekked naked along the Great Wall, donning lipstick and, eventually, bleeding feet—an illegal body traversing the most grandiose symbol of China’s state rule. In Cang Xin’s photograph To Add One Meter to An Unknown Mountain, 1995, ten nude artists are piled atop one another, organized according to weight. Per the video of the work’s execution, another collaborator used a tape measure to verify the bodies’ collective form as one meter off the ground of Miaofeng Mountain, where the artists were able to address their surroundings by their own methods and systems, west of their censored city.

East Village member Zhang Huan once said, “The body is the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me. The body is the proof of identity. The body is language.” These artists documented their work to comment on the interaction between their bodies and the social and natural landscapes they struggled against. If performance and its photography were radical and unsettled genres in the West, their presence in this context takes the political power of such image-making to an unprecedented level.

Blair Cannon

Ivana Bašić

Marlborough Contemporary | New York
545 West 25th Street
May 25–June 24

Ivana Bašić, I will lull and rock my ailing light in my marble arms #1 (detail), 2017, wax, glass, breath, weight, pressure, stainless steel, oil paint, silk, cushioning, marble dust, 126 x 128 x 14".

Ivana Bašić’s recent exhibition centers on two sculptures of humanoid creatures with beautiful gold glass placentas encasing their drooping heads: I will lull and rock my ailing light in my marble arms #1 and #2 (all works cited, 2017). They are being born out of chrome shells à la Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, 1486, as envisioned by H. R. Giger. Elsewhere, two head-size chunks of pink alabaster are rhythmically pulverized by silvery robotic hammers (A thousand years ago 10 seconds of breath were 40 grams of dust #1 and #2). Particles accumulate on the floor.

There is no high or low in contemporary culture—but there are light and dark sides of the moon. Full illumination saps a culture that seeks interpretation. The dark side’s total obfuscation suggests potential. Not since Charlie White’s memorable project Understanding Joshua, 2001, has there been a show that connects to the collective science fiction consciousness with so little mediation and such brightness. But the incandescence dims as we begin to take in Bašić’s extravagantly visceral sensibility and realize that these pieces are their own gestating form of terror, more werewolf than alien. They are becoming part of the cyclic, driven, and threatening primal world that we are hell-bent on destroying.

Now that people in this country are feeling the End Times approach—like Bašić’s ruthless hammers—Orwellian is trending, and Philip K. Dick has gone from kook to prophet. Bašić knows where our speculative fictions are headed. Her work suggests that we have not yet tasted the trauma we have envisioned. We are merely testing its reality.

Matthew Weinstein

Maureen Gallace

MoMA PS1
22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue
April 9–September 10

Maureen Gallace, January Flowers, 2004, oil on panel, 11 x 12".

I would like to die inside of a Maureen Gallace painting. The New England of her intimately scaled canvases and panels—full of solitary beach shacks and desolate coastlines, summer homes, Christmas cottages, flowers, and trees—is irradiated by an endless midmorning sun. Her world is beautiful, sumptuous, yet just out of reach—every barn or verdant hedge seems dangerously close to being swallowed up whole by its vanishing point. The artist’s tableaux call to mind Paul Cézanne’s obsessive looking, the domestic surrealism of Lois Dodd, or Jane Freilicher’s rural poeticism. But the mood Gallace evokes is undeniably chilly. Her entire palette feels shot through with white. Though the months of July, August, September, and October show up in her works’ titles, the artist’s picturesque scenes are keenly touched by some kind of inescapable winter.

“Clear Day,” Gallace’s retrospective here, offers up more than twenty-five years of her brutally focused thinking and making. The show is spacious and elegantly appointed, but it’s hard not to feel anxious as you make your way through it. Gallace is a merciless editor of her own work, and some of these paintings have probably seen the business end of a scraper on countless occasions. It’s difficult to figure out the sweat equity of January Flowers, 2004, for instance, a delicate still life of three preternaturally lovely blooms (yellow roses? golden peonies?) resting in a clear glass vase. Its breezy facture is deceptive—it could’ve been made in one day or over the course of two thousand.

Gallace expertly suspends time for our luxurious perusal as well: The Woods, 2007, features Monet-tinged blossoms of the palest periwinkle hovering over a creamy field of lush foliage; Roses, Beach, 2008, depicts a wide-open sky streaked by a gossamer pink—the titular flowers gaze up in astonishment. In Summer Rainbow, Cape Cod, 2006, bands of prismatic color slice through an unusually dolorous firmament—necessary light to cut a grim heaven.

Alex Jovanovich

Marguerite Humeau

C L E A R I N G | New York
396 Johnson Avenue
May 25–July 23

Marguerite Humeau, HARRY II (BODY), 2017, high-density foam, fiberglass, resin, paint, spray-painted steel, glass, rubber, plastic tanks, artificial human blood, audio equipment, sound, dimensions variable.

Dystopian daydreams and arcane myth collide in Marguerite Humeau’s particle accelerator of an exhibition. The French artist probes mass surveillance and modern warfare through sleek new sculptures made of synthetic media, including eight gargantuan polystyrene masks that crowd one room. Their white wrinkled faces are grotesque, pinched and puckered like those of hare-lipped chimpanzees. They grimace, snarl, and stick out their tongues. Behind each mask, a milky-pink sci-fi cylinder emits a pulse. These heartbeats merge with the surge of jet engines in the following room to create a soundscape simultaneously urgent and hypnotic. There, a single imposing sculpture titled HARRY II (BODY) , 2017, dominates the space. Six semitranslucent slabs containing artificial blood flank a central totem. They suggest hospital beds or sacrificial altars, conjuring unseen casualties. The conjoined heads of three carnivorous birds framed by one pair of wings are mounted above them. The mutant predator presiding over the piece feels both futuristic—the freakish result of a cloning experiment gone wrong—and fantastical. The raptors evoke not only aerial warfare but imperial heraldry and insignia, recalling the eagles of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the Third Reich, and the United States. The hook-beaked birds also resemble vultures, reinforcing Humeau’s ominous, ambiguous commentary on conflict and its costs. Below the birds, spiky forms sprout from the base of the sculpture like three-dimensional fractal renderings of the barbed biohazard symbol.

The show, with its chilly, clinically presented content, contrasts with Humeau’s recent, more viscerally affecting exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. Where there was pathos in Paris, one finds dispassionate restraint in Bushwick. The shift suits the subject matter, however, with Humeau’s detachment effectively emulating that of the lethal drones, chemical attacks, and airstrikes suggested by her sculpture.

Zoë Lescaze

“El Helicoide: From Mall to Prison”

Center for Architecture
536 LaGuardia Place
May 9–July 13

Pietro Paolini, Terraform, 2012, photograph mounted on board, 21 x 31".

El Helicoide (The Helicoid) stands in the Caracas landscape layered like the world’s most extravagant cake. Conceived by architect Jorge Romero Gutiérrez in 1955, the reinforced-concrete edifice was supported by Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s military junta. Its double-helix ramps were slated to include over three hundred shops, offices, and a hotel, all topped by a geodesic dome. While a number of South American countries constructed massive modernist structures during pockets of socialist-leaning politics, this was not the case in Venezuela.

This concise exhibition mainly illuminates the building’s conception. A vitrine of marketing paraphernalia and paper models shows how this piece of visionary architecture was used to aggrandize Venezuela’s image abroad. It embodies all the postwar values of speed, materialism, and national pride. One CMYK line drawing of El Helicoide shows the eight dizzying loops one must make in a car to climb the entire thing (Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya [Helicoid of the Tarpeian Rock], ca. 1958–60). Other promotional materials show a day of shopping: illustrations of guests arriving in haute couture and stopping their cars in front of their favorite shops.

Construction came to a halt in 1961, following the fall of the dictatorship in 1958, and banks disputed the building’s finances. The structure was only used as a shelter for landslide victims, in 1979, then since 1985 as police-intelligence headquarters. Only a handful of photographs present show El Helicoide today. Surrounded by a tawny shantytown, the settlements push against the concrete monster, a token of past promises and megalomania.

Nolan Boomer

Alex Katz

Timothy Taylor 16×34
515 West 19th St
April 27–June 30

Alex Katz, Man with Newspaper on the Subway, ca. 1940s, black ink on paper, 5 x 8".

Even with the phenomenon of “manspreading” or the impending L train apocalypse, the New York subway-riding experience nevertheless continues to evince a gritty nostalgia among the city’s embattled daily commuters. Such sentiments are sure to be piqued by “Subway Drawings,” an exhibition of forty exquisite pencil-and-ink sketches by artist Alex Katz. Dating to the late 1940s, all of the illustrations—originally bound in small notebooks—were made by Katz during his commute on the E train from his childhood home in Queens to the East Village, where, at the time, he was a student at Cooper Union. Uninterested in the models provided by the school, Katz, the story goes, took to the subway and its straphangers for inspiration.

In Man with Newspaper on the Subway (all works ca. 1940s), a seated passenger, blithely reading, is unaware of the protruding belly that threatens to impede upon his momentary idyll. In this sketch, as with others in the show, Katz’s economy of line, matched by his eye for subtle details (a barely hinted-at five-o’clock shadow, a rumpled dress shirt), results in mordant depictions of an urban mise-en-scène reminiscent of George Grosz’s drawings of Weimar-era denizens, albeit missing Grosz’s penchant for the grotesk.

Elsewhere, in Crowd on Subway, the occupants of a packed train car include women in their sartorial finery (no athleisure apparel back then) and a bespectacled rider gazing downward, while in Subway Scene Couple, Katz captures a duo unawares. To be sure, there is a voyeur’s delight on Katz’s part, and his quick-handed, on-the-sly drawings, in many ways, presage the appearance of transit-oriented sites such as Instagram’s @hotdudesreading. However, Katz’s voyeurism seems to be less interested in fetishizing the other than in connecting with it. Indeed, what better place to encounter the breadth of humanity than the E train during rush hour?

Joseph Akel

Pooh Kaye

Shoot The Lobster | New York
138 Eldridge Street
May 12–June 25

Pooh Kaye, Climb, 1976, digital transfer from Super 8, color, silent, 1 minute 11 seconds.

Sometimes you just want to shimmy up a pole. Jump on a bed. Fold yourself into a small space. Writhe naked atop a table. Or bury yourself. Don’t you?

In the private performances she staged for the camera from 1975 to 1980, Pooh Kaye did all of the above. The five digitized Super 8 films gathered for this exhibition, curated by Josephine Graf, are documents of post-Judson dance (for several years, the artist worked with seminal choreographer Simone Forti) and contributions to experimental cinema. A jumpy frame rate renders them almost like stop-motion animation—Kaye’s moving body, the clay—or early film. The end of Going Out, 1980, which sees a magic carpet pulling the artist around wildly to different corners of her loft, is straight out of the films of special-effects pioneer Georges Méliès, or the short comic vignettes of Thomas Edison.

But Kaye eschews the neatness of a punch line, favoring quixotic tasks that can never be satisfactorily completed. In Swim, 1977, she drapes herself across a chair, supported only by its arms, and mimes swimming as best she can through air. In Climb, 1976, the artist makes a SoHo loft a site of inspiration and torture as she frantically tries to ascend a column wearing only a grass skirt. There’s something undeniably funny about this athletically challenging activity—it’s in the spirit of vaudeville. Kaye’s humor mixes with and loosens up the seriousness about repetition and corporeal investigation associated with Forti and Yvonne Rainer. In Climb, a dog comes out of nowhere, a welcome interloper, disturbing the austere setting.

Nicholas Chittenden Morgan

Mike Mandel

Robert Mann Gallery
525 West 26th Street, Floor 2
May 11–June 30

Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, Untitled, Evidence (detail), 1977, silver print, 10 x 8".

The shared blunders of Richard Nixon and our current leader are obvious, but there’s one stark difference between the two presidents: Nixon, who loved classical music and reportedly wanted to throw liberals a bone during the Vietnam War, demonstrated strong support for the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1971, its budget was doubled. By the end of the decade, the number of working artists in the country had increased by 81 percent.

“Good ’70s” is a fitting name, then, for this exhibition of Mike Mandel’s work, all from projects made over the course of that decade. It was a productive period for the artist—the recipient of several NEA fellowships—and his images reflect the protean identity of photography at the time. At a glance, the twenty-one black-and-white snapshots of barbershops, airports, shop fronts, and other public spaces appear commonplace—until you spot Mandel himself, lurking in the periphery or grinning goofily next to his subjects. Are they self-portraits? Sure. But they lack the genre’s forced introspection, and they cheekily eschew street photography’s air of detachment as well.

Also on view are Mandel’s best-known projects, The Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975, and Evidence, 1977. They, too, forged new territory. Spoofing the art world’s competitive atmosphere and photography’s growing status within it, Mandel shot 134 well-known photographers—each posed comically with bats, mitts, and balls—then crafted a baseball card for each of them, complete with stats, quotes, and complimentary chewing gum. He sold the cards to museums in packs, igniting a collecting frenzy. It’d be a prank if it weren’t so subtly high concept. Ditto Evidence: After receiving one NEA grant, Mandel and his long-term collaborator, Larry Sultan, used proof of their federal funding to gain access to the archives of government agencies and assembled a collection of images depicting esoteric procedures and scientific sites. It’s too beautiful, the government paying to showcase its own photographs. But work is, ultimately, all about the money.

Juliana Halpert

Sylvia Plimack Mangold

Alexander and Bonin
47 Walker Street
April 29–June 24

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Summer Maple 2013, 2013, oil on linen, 60 x 45".

In a kind of durational performance, Sylvia Plimack Mangold has painted the trees surrounding her home in Washingtonville, New York, for the past thirty years. Her painting routine, like tree growth, is seasonal. In winter, she paints from inside her studio; otherwise, she paints outdoors. Not merely relying on shadow and sunlight, Mangold creates depth and volume through variations in leaf color and multiple vanishing points. The artist enters her paintings, she declares, as if she were a “flying creature,” perhaps a hummingbird or a gnat. Early in her career, Plimack Mangold painted deadpan trompe l’oeil of her wooden floor. While Mangold’s tree and floor paintings share a material interest, they’re also both studies in spatial anatomy. Here, The Winter Maple Tree, 2016, feels like a composite, made from a row of trees stealthily lined up behind it. In The Pin Oak 4/13, 2013, a watercolor, fluffy leaves (think of Helen Frankenthaler’s gauzy, watery blots) drift into a soft, flat sky (not too unlike the atmospheric gradients rendered by Jules Olitski). Mangold’s treatment of genre is also subtly cheeky. While Conceptual artists subjugated form to content Mangold playfully but rigorously back-pedaled to recognizable, Romantic-era subject matter. Declining to make work that hews to manufactured and biannually shifting theoretical categories, Mangold’s subject, she writes, is “painting with nature as my source and focus. . . . This experience of being in one place, studying the same forms over and over sounds repetitious, but, in fact, it feels expansive.”

Haley Markbreiter

Elaine Cameron-Weir

New Museum
235 Bowery
May 3–September 3

View of “Elaine Cameron-Weir: viscera has questions about itself,” 2017.

Elaine Cameron-Weir’s current exhibition, “viscera has questions about itself,” feels like the laboratory/dressing room of a cyborg goddess. Five otherworldly garments and seemingly sentient accouterments occupy the gallery, titled with chopped and spliced phrases such as “subcutanean tantric the skingrip palpable, it” and “body conduit (dish of) psyche’ dissolved” (all works 2017). A long bolt of enameled crocodile-like skin, Snake 8, is draped down to the floor. In the middle of the gallery is a chain-mail garment with metal breasts and spine, subtly echoing Snake 8’s sinuous verticality. Another piece features two mysterious death baguettes nested in twin beds of white sand that are themselves cradled by troughs that look like a pair of extra-long, lace-up slippers. Inside the work’s shoestrings, little pans cook a thick black liquid—labdanum resin that vaporizes a hint of musky perfume.

Toward the rear of the gallery, the sleeves of a parachute-silk tunic hug a blue-neon tube (Lamp with Garment). Elsewhere, a spherical heating mantle on a ring clamp bolted to a rod contains a glass clamshell (Vault). In this work, uncanny metal jaws, labeled a “dental phantom,” are perched atop something that resembles a beaker stand. Cameron-Weir’s objects conjure both the dark romanticism of sacred keepsakes and the sinister functionality of technical devices ready to spring into action. Indeed, modular elements such as electrical conduit tubes and generic sandbag weights temper the moody affect of more sensual materials. This merging of body and machine is characteristic of a paradigm shift toward hybridity that has occurred over the past several decades. As new ontologies and ideas of non-brain-based intelligence gain traction, perhaps we will listen more closely to our viscera’s questions about itself.

Vanessa Thill

David Novros

Paula Cooper Gallery | 534 West 21st Street
534 West 21st Street
April 27–June 30

David Novros, Untitled, 1975, oil on canvas, 117 x 168 x 2".

David Novros’s current exhibition comprises four paintings and four works on paper from the 1970s. All postdate his first site-specific fresco from 1970, which was commissioned by Donald Judd for his Spring Street residence in New York City. Novros, so much more than a Minimalist, is interested in continuing the tradition of painting as an immersive, site-specific experience—as it is in Paleolithic cave art, Byzantine mosaics, and Renaissance frescos—one that can profoundly alter its surrounding architecture.

Untitled, 1975, is a large-scale work painted with luminescent monochromatic blocks assembled into two unconventionally shaped canvases evoking basic post-and-lintel construction, or a fragmented pictorial rectangle. His palette is restrained and often evokes the richness of earth and unpolished stones, as in the tripartite Lent Painting, 1975, which is full of glossy blacks, dusty reds, and greens.

Novros understands that paintings are objects, as have many in the generation of artists with whom he came of age. But he also senses the importance of allowing painterly intuition to take control. Perhaps the most important thing he shares with his Minimalist peers and the lineage of in situ art to which he responds is the desire to activate the viewer as he or she takes in the work. For example, in Untitled (Frog Altar), 1975, the work changes, tonally and physically, as we walk from one side of the piece to the other—as do we, phenomenologically speaking. This bodily engagement through the artist’s reductive painterly facture is the reason Novros was one of the handful of painters Judd supported, and it is also what makes Novros relevant today.

Alex Bacon

“Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
April 15–August 13

Běla Kolářová, Five by Four, 1967, wood, paint, metal paper fasteners, 56 x 39 1/2".

Though it feels like a side gallery, this exhibition is more than a side note of inclusion, thanks to curators Starr Figura and Sarah Meister and assistant Hillary Reder’s thoughtfully pared selection from the museum’s holdings. There are few surprises but some terrific anomalies in these five rooms, grouped roughly by theme (Gestural Abstraction, Geometric Abstraction, Reductive Abstraction, Fiber and Line, and Eccentric Abstraction). To wit: Helen Frankenthaler’s Trojan Gates, 1955, opens the show with a hardened enamel luster and feels like an entranceway to something other than her most famous muted stains. Many paintings in this early field, including Elaine de Kooning’s scrappy Bullfight, 1960, and Joan Mitchell’s magisterial Ladybug, 1957, hint pointedly at these doyennes’ fierce struggle for acceptance without any asterisk.

Things cool off in the next room, in which geometric precision takes over from gestural impulse. The stripe shadows of Gego’s stacked iron sculpture Eight Squares, 1961, is a wonderful complement to Gertrudes Altschul’s photographs, which compose abstract geometry from everyday objects. A discovery for me: the unexpected, severe beauty of Běla Kolářová’s Five by Four, 1967, with the punctures and twists of its gridded metal fasteners. Anni Albers’s Free-Hanging Room Divider, 1949, is used to do just that in a hallway of textiles, ceramics, and Lina Bo Bardi’s iconic Poltrona Bowl Chair, 1951. The corridor opens into the clean Minimalism of Jo Baer, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Eleanore Mikus, Bridget Riley, and Anne Truitt.

Yellow Abakan, 1967–68, a magnificent ten-foot sisal wall sculpture by Magdalena Abakanowicz, who just passed away, appears in my favorite room, with Ruth Asawa’s great suspended wire sculpture (Untitled, ca. 1955) and Lenore Tawney’s Little River Wall Hanging, 1968, whose delicate linen streams form the shape of a coffin. With a collection this strong, there’s no excuse not to make more space for these artists to hold their own in the main fourth- and fifth-floor painting and sculpture galleries.

Prudence Peiffer

“The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin”

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
March 17–August 6

Mary Reid Kelley, Charles Baudelaire, 2013, ink-jet print, 22 x 16".

For Walter Benjamin, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, not only a center of cultural production but a capital as metaphor—a metonymy for modernity more generally. The contrast between its chaotic street life and the orderly arcade passages that framed its shop windows became the structural concept for his last work, the unfinished Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940. This compilation of quotes and original writings is, in turn, the organizing principle for this show combining wall texts by Kenneth Goldsmith and works by Walead Beshty, Andrea Bowers, Nicholas Buffon, Cindy Sherman, Mungo Thomson, and others.

Benjamin’s book is organized into chapters he calls “convolutes,” with headings ranging from “The Theory of Knowledge” to “Idleness.” Curator Jens Hoffmann has matched each of these with an artist. Thus, four photographs from 2009 to 2011 titled New York City by Lee Friedlander are grouped under “Convolute M: The Flâneur.” Friedlander’s camera captures mannequins glimpsed through shop windows. The interior layering with the cityscape is captured in reflection—an equivalent to how Benjamin’s flâneur might have seen the arcades of Paris. “Convolute J: Charles Baudelaire” is represented by a Mary Reid Kelley ink-jet print portrait of the poet (Charles Baudelaire, 2013). If Arcades had a hero, it was the ragpicker, a person who Baudelaire championed as the custodian, and curator, of Paris: “All that the city has rejected, all that it has lost, shunned, disdained, broken, this man catalogues and stores. He creates order, makes an intelligent choice . . . he gathers the refuse that has been spit out by the god of Industry.” The conversation, literal and ironic, between these widely varied works and Benjamin’s text is an argument for W. B. Yeats’s claim that “the living can assist in the imagination of the dead.”

Zachary Sachs