PRINT December 2008

Bob Nickas


1 Abstract painting With a new book under way, I’ve spent as much time in studios as at exhibitions this year. Among some memorable visits: Charline von Heyl, where I spent three hours (I left only because I had another appointment); Carrie Moyer (ditto); Daniel Hesidence (looking over my notes, I found the word virtuosic, which, trust me, I have never, ever written before); David Ratcliff and Monique Prieto in Los Angeles (her painting with the phrase IS THAT FOR HERE OR TO GO? should be at every art fair); Bernard Frize in Paris (which was like a retrospective—the man seems to have kept most of his own best work); and Tomma Abts in London, whose show at the New Museum in New York was terrific too. I also saw stellar exhibitions from Daan van Golden (his first ever in New York, at age seventy-two) and Dan Walsh (radiant optical mandalas), and mesmerizing canvases from Xylor Jane in a smart group show at Deitch Projects in New York. All in all, a great year for abstraction, and one that bodes well for the year to come.

2 Urs Fischer, You (Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York) Is Fischer the only artist today who would even think to propose the almost total excavation (and with it, the destruction) of a commercial gallery? And is Gavin Brown the only dealer who would actually welcome it—and sell it? One can’t help but think back to the repudiation of the gallery system in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when artists ventured away from exhibition spaces and studios to make works that were virtually uncollectible. Radical in its time, the notion of the “empty” gallery was here laid to rest: Fischer reduced those earlier negations to utter rubble, reminding us that nihilism—or its perception—is not without a degree of real mischief and poetry. Both the view and the gesture were sublime.

3 “Wolfgang Tillmans: Lighter” (Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin) I was unlucky to arrive in Berlin a week before the opening of this show, but lucky to run into Tillmans as he finalized its installation. He’s very much his own curator; his powers of visual thinking extend from the pictures to the rooms in which they’re shown. When you’ve known an artist’s work for a long time, you’re bound to ask—especially in a major retrospective—if the artist is done; if you are; if you’ve seen enough. But with all Tillmans’s openness to the beauty of life, and to human and political engagement, his show was a reminder that our interactions with one another continue not only to unfold but to surprise.

4 Bridget Riley (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) This dazzling overview of Riley’s career, organized by Anne Montfort, was a time-released high whose effects lingered all afternoon. The perfect wave.

5 Alex Rose, “Deathrow Workshop” (Envoy Enterprises, New York) You’ve never heard of him, and he probably prefers it that way. Rose belongs not to the art world but to his own. He creates hauntingly beautiful drawings and collages that are mysterious, psychedelic, and at times disturbing. He often ritualistically burns and buries his work. Rose is a visionary. He bought a book of writings and drawings kept in 1872 by a fifteen-year-old named Richard Haynes, and added to the sketches in order to communicate with the boy. He may have succeeded.

6 Trisha Donnelly (Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia) Strange attraction, energy fields, vibration, the power of perception, and the human voice.

7 “Philip Guston: Works on Paper” (Morgan Library & Museum, New York) Talking to younger abstract painters today, I find the name that comes up most frequently is Guston’s, and it’s the later figurative work that’s important to them. He represents the need to have a free relation to what you do. The Morgan’s two galleries—where this show was installed—would be perfect for a body of work quote-unquote divided in half, and yet there was no serious sense of a split here between early and late as there would be in a survey of Guston’s painting. The exhibition focused instead on the feeling and quality of line, and Guston’s is very much painted and drawn. In his mark making and image making the line is alive, full of emotion and pure imagination. Brush and pencil are simply extensions of his hand.

8 Louise Lawler, “Sucked In, Blown Out, Obviously Indebted or One Foot in Front of the Other” (Metro Pictures, New York) The standout in this great show was clearly Spoils, 2004/2008, a picture of the floor beneath Maurizio Cattelan’s Not Afraid of Love, 2000—the sculpture of a baby elephant hiding in plain sight under a big white sheet. The shadow of the work looks like a spill of some sort, and in it Lawler has inserted the words IRAQI OIL. Her pointed title says it all. The spoils of war, and the war? The elephant in the room.

9 John Armleder and Olivier Mosset (Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis) Who could have predicted that geometric abstraction would lead to silver Christmas trees, pour paintings with glitter, and sculptures based on antitank barriers—and Toblerone chocolates? Two great masters of the perverse, in an exhibition instigated by Anthony Huberman, made it seem like that’s exactly how it should be. That’s why they call it abstraction.

10 TOPTEN: 1998–2008 (No Input Books) Edited by James Hoff, this “celebration of the column’s tenth anniversary”—Artforum adopted the current Top Ten format a decade ago—is the best bootleg ever. With all the images blacked out—a sly nod to Marcel Broodthaers’s 1969 piece Un Coup de dés . . . —the written word becomes more like oral history, and you wonder, Shouldn’t people write the way they speak? You can’t top that.

Independent critic and curator Bob Nickas has organized more than sixty exhibitions since 1984. A collection of his essays and interviews, Theft Is Vision, was published earlier this year by JRP-Ringier. He is currently preparing a show titled “Every Revolution is a Roll of the Dice,” which opens next month at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.