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Aki Sasamoto

44-19 Purves Street
September 19–January 2

Aki Sasamoto, Shoelightbox, 2016, shoe boxes, LEDs, ink-jet prints on tissue paper, dimensions variable.

Lodged in the cavity of a commercial-grade washing machine in Aki Sasamoto’s installation Washer (all works cited, 2016) is a copy of the Book of Insects (1921) by nineteenth-century entomologist John-Henri Fabre. The volume is open to a passage on the life and labors of the dung beetle, which is recited off-camera by the artist in the single-channel video Birds, Dung Beetles, the Washer looping overhead. “The peasant of Ancient Egypt,” it reads, “as he watered his patch of onions in the spring, would see from time to time a fat black insect pass close by, hurriedly trundling a ball backwards.”

This humble creature, which folds its filth and food into a spherical mobile home, provides the central parable for “Delicate Cycle,” Sasamoto’s solo exhibition here. In the installation Shoelightbox, viewers reencounter Fabre’s text, this time printed on wadded-up sheets of tissue paper visible through peepholes cut into a wall of designer shoe boxes. Through shifts in color and scale, the beetle’s fecal loaf becomes something immaculate in The Ball, an enormous boulder of white cotton bedsheets blockading a vaulted corridor. Laundry motifs continue upstairs, where crisp white sheets hang ethereally from a clothesline in the courtyard (Laundry Line) and an old-time washboard, suspended by a leather harness, doubles as a kinky surrealist object (Washboard Belt-Maidrite). On some level, these works are about the cyclic, mundane labor of maintaining and reproducing the self—the compulsory hygiene of our bodies, clothing, and habitats. But there’s also an obdurate materiality to Sasamoto’s sculpture that resists metaphorical elevation. According to Fabre, once celebrated as the “Homer of insects,” the ancient Egyptians believed the dung beetle’s ball to be “a symbol of the earth” and that the beetle’s actions “were prompted by the movements of the heavenly bodies.” Be that as it may, it’s also an animal that makes things out of shit, and that logic of agglutination is what drives Sasamoto’s earthy pleasures.

Chloe Wyma

Valerie Hegarty

Burning in Water
317 10th Ave.
October 6–December 5

View of “Valerie Hegarty: American Berserk,” 2016.

Rotting, wounded, smiling—watermelons, in Valerie Hegarty’s latest exhibition of paintings and sculptures, are depicted as sentient objects: carnal, threatening. Several wedges of the fruit, done in ceramics, rest on a plinth, their pink flesh resembling gums and growing teeth, tongues, ribs, stalagmites, barnacles. They make one think of the chemically modified watermelons that spontaneously exploded across fields in China in 2011—a warning about the perils of mutant capitalism.

The title of Hegarty’s exhibition, “American Berserk,” comes from Philip Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral, where the writer describes the darker aspects of this idyllic genre. Hegarty intelligently references Raphaelle Peale, considered the first painter of still lifes in America, in a number of her grim watercolor works, such as Watermelon Gothic 1, Fruit Face, and Picnic Body (works cited, 2015). In the latter pair of edibles-as-people pictures, one can’t help but see homages to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the sixteenth-century Italian painter whose portraits of notable Renaissance figures, rendered as agglomerations of vegetables, fish, and books, among other items, are more horrifying than charming.

Like Roth, Hegarty is drawn to this country’s damaged history, its warped psyche. Her watermelons are the stuff of colonialism, racist stereotyping, US avarice, and gluttony. Her fruits aren’t juicy, they’re bleeding—a lacerated bounty. The show, divided into four sections, feels a bit fragmented, as each area could be its own exhibition. But these separations only aid in reinforcing our sense of distance between the idealism of the American past and its sad, corrosive present.

Heidi Harrington-Johnson

“WOUND: Mending Time and Attention”

41 Cooper Gallery at Cooper Union
41 Cooper Square
October 13–November 11

View of “WOUND: Mending Time and Attention,” 2016.

The word wound is one of the English language’s most powerful and contradictory homographs. As a noun it means bodily damage, a rending of the flesh or psyche; and as the past participle of wind, to have twisted something up. Artist Caroline Woolard defines her social-practice project WOUND, started in 2013, as the latter—like what one does to a clock. And yet “Mending Time and Attention,” an exhibition and a series of workshops organized by WOUND, seeks to heal the pain inflicted by late capitalism’s compartmentalization and commodification of time.

Conceived as a study center, WOUND is best experienced in the context of events headed by like-minded artists and collectives. In the first week, the events included legendary feminist artist Linda Mary Montano’s Art/Life Counseling Sessions, originally performed once a month at the New Museum from 1984 to 1991; Project 404’s Protocol of Attention and Adaptation, 2016, which required participants to contemplate and discuss a single image on their phones over a two-hour period; and Calling in Sick, 2016, led by Taraneh Fazeli, a member of the Canaries, a collective of artists who live with autoimmune diseases and chronic illness. There’s a rich collection of objects on display as well, including paintings by Dave McKenzie and Matthew Buckingham. Relaxing on ladder chairs designed by Woolard, one can take in Rose Window, 2010–12, a beautiful alpaca rug created by the late Paul Ryan for his relational “Threeing” protocol; Yoko Ono’s Question score from 1962; and taisha paggett and Ashley Hunt’s mirror piece #10, from the series “Par Course A,” 2009, which asks viewers to frame themselves in the outlines of outstretched hands or a radical raised fist.

Wendy Vogel

Tomas van Houtryve

Anastasia Photo
143 Ludlow Street
October 4–November 23

Tomas van Houtryve, Suspect Behavior, 2014, gelatin silver print on Baryta paper, 40 x 60''.

Four months ago, the Obama administration released its first public report on drone-related civilian causalities. A total of 116 noncombatants were killed by US drone strikes over the past eight years. Empirically speaking, far more civilians, plus armed forces, die in a single year of on-the-ground combat. But the murder of those 116 people haunt us: Their deaths are a moral disgrace, and the Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve tells us why.

Since 2013, van Houtryve has been traveling across America with his camera attached to a small drone. The places he visits—beaches, malls, gated communities—are familiar and innocent enough on the ground. But seen from the air, they appear at once dangerous and vaguely unbelievable. It’s as if the world has been reduced to data. We see unsuspecting citizens but process them as targets. We see low buildings and wonder what’s hidden inside. Our territory has turned into a map. In the eerie midair silence, you almost expect to hear bombs fall.

Which is not to say that quotidian reality has totally disappeared. The day-to-day continually asserts itself but is always deformed by perverse national security drama. Suspect Behavior, 2014, for example, shows a group of people practicing yoga on a beach. The deadpan title works in two ways. On the one hand, it’s a straight geopolitical inflection: From a distance, the exercisers look like Muslims kneeling to pray. On the other hand, van Houtryve makes a more general point: For the drone pilot, all behavior is suspect behavior. This is the metaphysical violence that drone warfare conducts on humanity, and this is why it transcends empiricism. Van Houtryve has held up a dark mirror to the American government—it should take a long, hard look.

Ratik Asokan

Oto Gillen

Eli Ping Frances Perkins
205 East 125th Street
September 30–November 6

Oto Gillen​, Kentucky Coffee 1, 2016, UV-cured ink on toughened glass, adhesives, cardboard, wood, 34 x 55 x 1".

The five photographs that make up Oto Gillen’s solo show here—Kentucky Coffee 1 and Honey Locust 1–4, all 2016—are tough to crack. These large, richly colored images of seedpods, printed on Corning’s state-of-the-art Gorilla Glass, are extremely durable—it’s the same material used for the iPhone’s screen (the inexpensive honeycomb cardboard to which Gillen has affixed them, however, is not). The pods are shot in close-up, which gives you very little sense of their surroundings or context.

Just as Karl Blossfeldt, nearly a century ago, made nature utterly alien by focusing his lens on singular specimens of flora so does Gillen. It’s hard to see any familiar qualities and functions represented in these forms without some understanding of seed biology—perhaps one can dub them botanical abstractions. Gillen seems to posit the plant world as something to which humans cannot plausibly relate. Maybe it’s the busyness of our lives that makes the continual rhythms of nature seem so uncanny.

Ultimately, Gillen’s concerns lie with the concepts, abstractions, and contradictions we humans narcissistically inhabit in daily life. And that narcissism is exacerbated when technology becomes life’s primary mediator—taking a picture of a flower, a bird, or a painting with your smartphone, before engaging it face to face, does not make things new, sophisticated, modern. Gillen shot his images (not with an iPhone) while in Manhattan—the very heart of the connected world. And, like the careful flaneur he is, he narrowed his focus on things quite ordinary, yet totally ineffable, face first.

Nathaniel Lee

Victor Burgin

Bridget Donahue
99 Bowery, 2nd Floor
September 8–November 6

Cristin Tierney
540 West 28th Street
September 8–October 22

Victor Burgin, UK 76 (detail), 1976, archival pigment print, 40 x 60''.

Victor Burgin premises his art on misalignment. His early work commutes among image, narrative, and theory, pleasuring in the friction among disjointed forms of meaning. Exemplary from this period is UK76, 1976, a suite of eleven black-and-white photographs of workaday scenes: a supermarket, a sidewalk, a factory. On display at Bridget Donahue as a pendant to two digital projections at Cristin TierneyMirror Lake, 2013, and Prairie, 2015—each photograph is contoured by text cobbled from structural Marxism, promotional copy, and Burgin’s own aphorisms. Pasted directly to the wall like street advertisements, these composites of image and glyph anticipate their own disuse. Their presentation upends our sense of space, bringing the gallery’s outside, inside. We especially feel this in Burgin’s extensive suite of books, from Between (1986) to Some Cities (1996), where excerpts from UK76 appear. Such locational drift befits Burgin’s mode of ideological critique, which finds meaning not behind representations but between them, spaced by layers of allusion that disallow any stable authorial position.

Consider the depiction of a working-class suburb in one of the images from UK76. Captured in straight documentary style, the photograph reports an asphalt landscape where anemic plots of grass preface nondescript homes. Two pedestrians interrupt the scene, like the umbrella-bound figures of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris streets, indifferent to one another’s presence as well as to the dog in the foreground. A gloomy sky expresses the mood as clouds slouch over power lines and taper into the composition, calling to mind the conventions of one-point perspective. Yet while perspective aims to construct a coherent pictorial space, Burgin’s textual overlay, either a quotation or a parody of an exotic travel brochure, dislocates the scene. Couched in all-caps, its closing line—“Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday”—grafts present and past onto a counterfactual future. Looping fantasy and reality, the work attests to Burgin’s expanded understanding of the image as a phenomenon whose implication in discourse and desire exceeds the strictly visual.

Courtney Fiske

“Total Proof: The GALA Committee 1995–1997”

Red Bull Studios | New York
220 West 18th Street, Street level
September 30–November 27

The GALA Committee, Target Audience, 1995–97, paper, steel, plastic, pigment, 18'' diameter.

If primetime is the ultimate venue for product placement, then shouldn’t it also work for plugging art? So wondered Mel Chin, who in 1995 contacted the set decorator of the sexy Los Angeles soap Melrose Place with an offer to make props for the show. She agreed, and Chin, with a network of artists collaborating under the moniker “The GALA Committee,” began a two-year project of churning out artworks for the series. In return for their unpaid labor, they demanded just one thing: the license to respond, subtly, to social issues.

In “Total Proof,” more than ninety-four of the group’s pieces are on view for the first time in New York, staged in rooms built to resemble the original sets. TV monitors scattered throughout the galleries add to the Universal Studios effect and screen clips of Committee items in their natural habitat––peeking out from behind Heather Locklear’s blond mane, or clasped in the well-manicured hands of her costars.

Like the show’s different plotlines, the works range in drama and intent. RU 486 Quilt, 1995–97, a blanket embroidered with the abortion pill––made for a character grappling with an unplanned pregnancy––issues a bold political statement. Other objects are far more tongue-in-cheek: When the show’s creators requested “optimistic, California-lite” paintings for a budding artist introduced during the fourth season, the Committee delivered Hockney-style canvases based on archival police photographs of famous Angeleno crime scenes. Some of the cleverest props took aim not at current events but at TV itself. A dartboard titled Target Audience, 1995–97, features only numbers between eighteen and forty-nine, in reference to the program’s target age demographic––it’s the same group that, for a time, became unwitting consumers of Conceptual art.

Hannah Stamler

Art & Language

Carolina Nitsch Project Room
534 West 22nd Street
September 9–November 5

Art & Language, Paintings I, No. 7, 1966, archival inks printed on Hahnemühle paper mounted on wood, 30 x 59". From the series “Paintings I,” 1966.

Fifty years separate the two series of work on view here by Art & Language, the fiercely Conceptualist collaborative that originated in 1966 and began to publish its namesake journal in 1969. Four works from “Paintings I,” 1966, a characteristically text-based series of ink on paper adhered to wood, span two walls of the diminutive gallery. Nearby is “These Scenes,” 2016, comprising five framed works that visually summon Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 monochrome Black Square. Like the 1960s works, “These Scenes” extends the spare aesthetic and rigorous intellectualism that formed Art & Language’s historic model of critique. This authorial structure—one of commanding textual provocations—appears consistent over half a century later. Can the same be said of today’s viewers?

“The situation now is more complex and expanded,” reads Paintings I, No. 7, 1966, in thickly printed ink. The quote is from Robert Morris’s seminal “Notes on Sculpture,” written that same year, in which the artist attempts to essentialize the genre through capacities of form and scale. One textual component of “These Scenes” also underscores a kind of discursive shift—printed opposite a black square, it marks institutional critique as the “sine qua non of institutional power, a negative condition that drives the search for autonomy.” Artistic freedom, something Malevich also stressed in his Suprematist manifesto of 1927, is referenced here repeatedly, like a harbinger of wisdom. It makes one wonder: Is redemption the sine qua non of critique? Scholars such as Jacques Rancière and Bruno Latour offer a bleaker view on the promise of enlightenment, assailing the position of critics (and necessarily that of the audience) as themselves belonging to the age-old structures of domination and subjection. For all these works’ emphases on epistemological shifts—their probing of critical assumptions—it’s striking how they uphold a rather familiar authoritative pedagogy.

Nicolas Linnert

Sara VanDerBeek

Metro Pictures
519 West 24th Street
September 15–October 29

Sara VanDerBeek, Quilt Collage I, 2016, acrylic on fiberglass-reinforced plaster and water-based reactive dye printed on cotton voile, 48 x 12 x 12”.

Sara VanDerBeek’s work mirrors the changing techniques and cultural status of photography. A decade ago, her practice was broadly curatorial, especially as a partner in the artist-run gallery Guild & Greyshkul. We saw this in her museological photographs, too, which brought together cultural artifacts from pre-modern eras to today. Now, she has turned inward and observational, tracing the perceptual effects of light and time on simple sculptural forms. In “Pieced Quilts, Wrapped Forms,” VanDerBeek zeroes in on the geometric vocabulary of textiles. She returns to her palette of daybreak pinks, hazy purples, and twilight blues, taking them to decidedly hypersaturated ends of the spectrum. VanDerBeek’s six photographic works, three of which are diptychs, include ghostly patterns of diagonals, triangles, and curvilinear designs, created through an analogue-meets-digital process. She shoots shadowy medium-format images, scans the negatives, and collaborates with digital colorists to finalize the prints: a contemporary version of the creative partnership required in quilting.

VanDerBeek’s allusions to women’s work are intensified by historical references. The eye-popping magenta-on-magenta photograph Camino Real, 2016, features a field of rectangles against an even more high-key background. The title is borrowed from Anni Albers’s textile commission––a patchwork of red triangles, from blush to burgundy––for Ricardo Legorreta’s 1968 landmark Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City.

Along with the photographs, the main gallery contains three modular sculptures in brilliantly pigmented concrete that hug the floor. The back of the space, however, feels like a storeroom, with fifteen totemic sculptures crowded together, made of wood or plaster and painted white. This excess is a mistake, as it makes it easy to overlook a delicate new invention for the artist: prints on gauzy cotton voile, which cover several of the objects. The most intriguing oddball of the group is Quilt Collage I, 2016, an irregular form under a tightly pinned textile densely patterned with polka dots, loose grids, and other motifs.

Wendy Vogel

Lillian Schwartz

Magenta Plains
94 Allen St
September 18–October 30

Lillian Schwartz, Olympiad, 1971, video, color, sound, 2 minutes 33 seconds.

The 1970s art world was, in general, skeptical of the computer’s artistic value. Fittingly, The Artist and the Computer, a 1976 documentary on Lillian Schwartz’s work at AT&T’s Bell Labs, possesses the corny vibe of an educational after-school special. The movie alternates between clips of Schwartz’s computer-generated films and footage of her explaining the skill and artistry behind them. In one scene, she flips through a book on nineteenth-century art (before a roaring fire, naturally) and pauses for an aside on modernism’s debt to science and technology. The camera, Schwartz reminds the audience, was useful to Impressionist facture, and color theory informed pointillism.

This earnest appeal to acknowledge the computer’s place within art’s unfolding history feels utterly quaint today. But the documentary, shown at the entrance to this exhibition, reinforces just how groundbreaking the artist’s oeuvre was. Perhaps it also explains why many of her films, displayed here on loops in the gallery’s basement, read as takeoffs of past artistic movements, demonstrating the computer’s capacity not only to mimic better-established art forms but to supercharge them. In Olympiad, 1971, tessellated outlines of human figures run in Muybridgean arcs. Enigma, 1972, featuring flashing bands of colored light, is Mondrian on psychotropics. And in Fantasies, 1973, circles and rectangles swirl and meet in formations that recall stained glass. Though other works pull from chemistry and biology (such as Apotheosis, 1972, developed from pictures of cancer radiation treatment), Schwartz’s ability to put a mesmerizing, often painterly spin on digital imagery is consistent throughout her work and indeed makes her a pioneer of the form.

Hannah Stamler

Ieva Epnere

Art in General
145 Plymouth Street
September 17–November 5

Ieva Epnere, Sea of Living Memories, 2016, three-channel HD video, sound, color, durations variable.

Memories are shape-shifting narratives that time can ruthlessly mold and alter. Much like the sea, they are a force to be reckoned with, and if we are not cautious, they can drown us. To an image maker, memories can be extraordinarily useful weapons, as they have the power to dismantle the lines between fiction and reality.

In Ieva Epnere’s video Sea of Living Memories, 2016, Latvians remember when their small country was under Soviet rule, which started in early World War II and lasted until 1991. Military maps, footage of the sea, black-and-white photographs, and the aged faces of citizens suffuse this work. The accounts we hear, especially those from former soldiers, are cut through with world-weariness, despair, and occasional moments of brightness. After all, what are these fighters left with but their recollections, once the battle is over? For the veterans who stayed and built lives on these shores, tales are a refuge.

Among them is Ivans, a man who worked as a cryptologic technician for the Soviet army, disguising information so that it could not be intercepted. As he muses about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, his tone fluctuates—we detect a strange excitement as he relives this dangerous bit of history. The Baltic Sea fills the screen with its grayish-blue hues, which reminds us that the vastness and unpredictability of such a large body of water can break lives. Beneath its serene surface, the sea carries its own strange codes and secrets, faint whispers trapped in waves, rippling across time.

Lara Atallah

Phil Collins

The Met | Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
December 11–November 6

Phil Collins, How to Make a Refugee, 1999, video, color, sound, 12 minutes.

At least three exhibitions on view this fall on the Upper East Side telegraph, in divergent ways, historical instances of statelessness. These include Zoe Leonard’s affecting pictures at Hauser & Wirth, incorporating aged snapshots of her family who fled Poland in the wake of World War II; Phil Collins’s mesmerizing video How to Make a Refugee, 1999, at the Met, which was shot during the Kosovo War; and Karin Schneider’s show at Dominique Lévy, with its recent Artforum advertisement placed on the floor presenting a child in a refugee camp in Serbia. Of these, Collins’s short work is the sleeper hit. Tucked in a back corner of the museum, it is a quiet triumph that aptly scrutinizes what we mean when we say refugee crisis—a term that should be credited to political, hegemonic powers and not to displaced human beings.

The video commences with a photo shoot centering around a boy in Macedonian refugee camp. He removes his shirt to show a scar on his stomach, while a reporter parlays questions to him via a translator, ostensibly about his wound. Providing little information and no subtitles—though a nearby wall text informs that the boy is a Kosovar-Albanian refugee—the work is suffused with emotive detail, particularly when his family joins him at the end for a portrait. Throughout, Collins’s roaming shots, as if captured by a spy camera, contrast sharply with what he describes as the “rational or sensational standards of journalism,” offering a contemplative moment away from the noise to look and think about statelessness—a phenomenon that may be at its worst today but, as Hannah Arendt argued, that has been the result of every significant political event since the end of World War I.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Caitlin Keogh

Bortolami Gallery
520 West 20th Street
September 8–October 29

Caitlin Keogh, Renaissance Painting, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 63''.

Caitlin Keogh’s current show, “Loose Ankles,” an antique term for a ligament injury exacerbated by high heels—and the title of a 1930 precode romcom—destabilizes conventional female constructs with demure criticism. Keogh, a sure-footed painter, renders mechanomorphic ladies into easy-on-the-eyes pictographs, though their innards are often exteriorized, severed. For Interiors (all works 2016), an invisible, tasseled sash slices delectably through a beheaded mannequin. We also have the distinct pleasure of eyeing a vacant suit of armor modeling female hormonal glands in Renaissance Painting. A looping intestine, or a snake, penetrates another headless torso in Correspondences. Disturbingly diagrammatic, alluringly mannered, and tantalizingly inhuman—Keogh’s femme fatales are, to quote a fellow viewer, “so wrong, but so right.”

These cheeky but twisted representations (part death drive, part sexual attraction) have increased in art-historical specificity, too: Ad Reinhardt’s sepulchral blue sneaks into the background of Wuthering Nephron; P&D permeates everything; and agreeable pastels restrained by precise lines, with notes of Warhol, John Wesley, and de Chirico, traffic in a darker subplot. The “Dior Fragments” series, on mirrors and glass, features excerpts from the fashion mogul’s autobiography. The paintings, however, are the more convincing mirrors, refracting disfigured selves across pools of warped allusions.

An ambivalence toward art history as “lifestyle” fodder is a source of rich, generative texture in this perverse pageant, and the exhibition seems to subtly indict the art world for synchronizing itself with fashion’s clock. Attention can waver, but Keogh exposes something steadfast lurking in all her tender arabesques and deliberately polished surfaces.

Margaret Kross

Charles LeDray

Craig F. Starr Gallery
5 East 73rd Street
September 9–October 29

Charles LeDray, Daisy Chain, 2013–14, fabric and human bone, 1 x 16 1/2 x 15 1/2''.

Charles LeDray’s miniatures are as enchanting and magnetic as panoramic Easter eggs or the Stettheimer dollhouse, but without the whimsy or windows to peer into. Though, actually, there is an austere glass case displaying treasure among the mysterious objects in this spare, dimly lit installation of his work. Chic little vases or urns—made on a doll-size potter’s wheel, one imagines—fill the glass shelves of the vertical vitrine. There are fourteen hundred black porcelain vessels in Throwing Shadows, 2008–16, each one unique. LeDray meticulously fabricates his work without assistants, and the time necessary to complete this intriguing sculpture is palpable.

Other works are skillfully and laboriously carved or hand-stitched. Daisy Chain, 2013–14, has a whiff of the macabre about it, even before you learn that the brittle white flower crown, laid out on a creased black fabric square, is made from human bone. Mourning Coat, 1991, is a beautifully tailored Lilliputian garment displayed like a pressed flower or pinned butterfly. Overcoat, 2004—a handsome doll’s trench shown upright and open to reveal a cascade, or “body,” of even smaller clothing—is charming, and a little horrifying. Shrunken menswear, buttons, the tiniest teacups, and stuffed bears are recurring ingredients in LeDray’s condensed, ambiguously antique arrangements. Like the realm of child’s play, the almost narrative world of his art does not conform to a uniform scale. Decontextualized elements, rendered in varying degrees of smallness, all make believe together. The fey, particular behemoth who painstakingly created and arranged these objects into fantastical situations feels strangely absent, far away in space and time. But LeDray’s commitment to his queer vision suffuses the show. Its quietly strident handmadeness is simultaneously invisible and overwhelming, a totally magical effect.

Johanna Fateman

Alma Thomas

The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
July 14–October 30

Alma Thomas, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 48 × 48".

Among her kaleidoscopic abstractions of botanical and celestial phenomena, a statement by Alma Thomas is stenciled on the museum wall: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” Taken axiomatically, this might read as Pollyanna denial or cool aestheticism. But in their claim to universal subjectivity and transcendent beauty, there’s an indisputable if paradoxical politics in the paintings of the late Washington, DC, abstractionist, who—at the age of eighty, in 1972—became the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum.

With their ribbons, wheels, and allover patterns of abbreviated brushstrokes, Thomas’s paintings are romantic but not mystical, emotive but not sentimental, pretty but not precious. In Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, Fauve-style garlands of tessera-like gobbets of paint shuttle up and down the canvas. A torrent of feathery brushstrokes against a blue-black ground, the dreamy, disco-pink Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, recalls Monet’s woozy, horizonless lily ponds. One of several NASA-inspired paintings, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970, riffs on aerospace as a source of abstraction, estrangement, and galactic sublimity. The planet—viewed from some astronomical distance—becomes fiery bands of red, orange, and yellow, suspended in a gaseous poppy-colored field.

For a modernist humanist such as Thomas, art transcended spatial, temporal, and political exigencies. “Creative art is for all time,” she insisted, “and is therefore independent of time . . . of age, race, and nationality.” Though resistant to identitarian politics and social dramas, Thomas’s art was unavoidably entangled in them. They impelled her late-in-life break into the Whitney, following activist demands for the inclusion of African American artists. Two oil sketches depicting the 1963 March on Washington—in which she participated as a septuagenarian— give historical texture to Thomas’s astral abstractions, grounding them in ongoing, unresolved antinomies of abstraction and representation, universalism, and difference.

Chloe Wyma