PRINT December 2014

Daniel Birnbaum

View of “Elements of Architecture,” 2014, Central Pavilion, Venice. Fireplace display. From the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo: Francesco Galli.

1 “KANDINSKY, MALEVICH, MONDRIAN: THE INFINITE WHITE ABYSS” (K20 KUNSTSAMMLUNG NORDRHEIN-WESTFALEN, DÜSSELDORF; CURATED BY MARION ACKERMANN AND ISABELLE MALZ WITH ANSGAR LORENZ) In a nice twist to the ubiquity of the modernist black square, this excellent show explored the use of white in the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian. The monochrome labyrinth of the exhibition space itself conveyed the sense of walking around inside a monumental Mondrian painting. Iconic works were given ample space presented alone on individual walls, while four compact laboratories introduced a productive density: One could dig for hours through philosophical and archival material covering themes relevant to these artists’ longing for a fourth dimension beyond everyday perception, including color, occultism, science, film, and architecture. And then back out into the white maze, with Malevich’s words ringing in the ears: “Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you.”

2 LYGIA CLARK (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY CONNIE BUTLER AND LUIS PÉREZ-ORAMAS WITH GEANINNE GUTIÉRREZ-GUIMARÃES AND BEATRIZ RABELO OLIVETTI) A brutal way to put it is that Clark attempted to leave art behind for a kind of therapeutic charlatanism. Thank God she failed—and instead created one of the most beautiful bodies of work of the late twentieth century.

3 TRISHA DONNELLY (SERPENTINE GALLERY, LONDON; CURATED BY EMMA ENDERBY WITH MICHAEL GAUGHAN) Donnelly normally offers no key or support to seeing her work; curator Hamza Walker once claimed that the elusive artist genuinely has no medium. Or perhaps evasion is her medium.

4 14TH VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE: “FUNDAMENTALS” (VARIOUS VENUES) Rem Koolhaas’s assertion that his curatorial turn in Venice had produced an exhibition “about architecture not architects” could be interpreted to mean: no other architects except for me. But this unusual show’s monomaniacal vision worked: an entire biennial as one big artwork-cum-house, with attention paid to every form and function therein. Who knew door handles and toilets could be so fascinating? (Well, Duchamp.)

5 SPENCER FINCH, TRYING TO REMEMBER THE COLOR OF THE SKY ON THAT SEPTEMBER MORNING (NATIONAL SEPTEMBER 11 MEMORIAL MUSEUM, NEW YORK) One of the subtlest colorists has created a conceptually convincing and poetic memorial at the most politically charged site in the Western world. The 2,983 unprotected squares of fragile paper handpainted in as many different hues—one attempt for each person killed on 9/11—create a huge rectangular representation of a clear sky. Successful seems a misplaced descriptor considering the assignment, but this is a visually powerful, respectful, and in every sense major contemporary work of public art where few expected that to be possible.

View of “Ed Atkins: Bastards,” 2014, Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Ribbons, 2014. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

6 SHARON EYAL, BILL (ROYAL SWEDISH OPERA, STOCKHOLM, VARIOUS DATES, APRIL–NOVEMBER) I contemplated leaving at intermission: What could possibly follow the program’s showstopping opening number, William Forsythe’s classic 1984 Artifact, perfectly performed by thirty-six dancers, confirming that the work is the exhilarating endgame of modern ballet? Resisting this urge, I stayed, and the rest of the evening proved me very wrong. Eyal, a former member of the Batsheva Dance Company, has created a weirdly elastic cosmos of dancers in identical skin-colored bodysuits moving to club music in ways that thwart any existing dance vocabulary. Is Bill an homage to Bill Forsythe or a kind of Kill Bill? Either way, the original Bill loved it too, applauding enthusiastically.

7 MARCEL DUCHAMP (CENTRE POMPIDOU, PARIS; CURATED BY CÉCILE DEBRAY WITH VALÉRIE LOTH) The late art historian Ulf Linde, who fabricated some of the central objects in this grandiose exhibition, believed that his friend Duchamp remained a member of the early-twentieth-century Section d’Or group until the bitter end. The others—Fernand Léger, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, et al.—got bored with geometric speculation, but Duchamp continued his mathematical painterly practice in mysterious ways. Linde would have loved this show, which assembles all of the artist’s seemingly clumsy oils and creates links to works across centuries.

8 MARK LECKEY (WIELS CONTEMPORARY ART CENTRE, BRUSSELS; CURATED BY ELENA FILIPOVIC) This was a timely survey of the artist’s key works, from his breakthrough video, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999, up to recent explorations of our contemporary condition, in which things, images, and selves seem to morph into one another. Works Leckey created a decade ago continue to have enormous impact on emerging art (and the thinking around it). Who would have imagined that the inner monologue of a freezer from a black Samsung fridge could become a central source for a new generation?

Co-organized with the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, Naples, and Kunsthalle Basel.

9 ED ATKINS (PALAIS DE TOKYO, PARIS; CURATED BY REBECCA LAMARCHE-VADEL) I overheard someone say that Atkins’s installations are hard to like but impossible to forget. It’s not often that contemporary art scares me—but this sure did.

10 ANNE TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER, VORTEX TEMPORUM (THÉÂTRE DE LA VILLE DE PARIS, APRIL 28–MAY 7, 2014) As analytic and attuned to the body as surgery yet inexplicably emotional, De Keersmaeker’s productions are my continued obsession. This one begins with seven members of musical ensemble Ictus performing Gérard Grisey’s 1996 composition Vortex Temporum on a bare stage. Then seven dancers take their places and execute a version accompanied solely by the sounds bodies produce when in motion. The piece culminates with the musicians reentering and all the dancers orbiting a brightly lit piano like planets around a sun lost in space, performing a spiraling and ecstatic dance. Right now, De Keersmaeker is excelling at the highest possible level of her discipline, outshining everything else in European dance.

Daniel Birnbaum is the Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where next summer he will co-organize, with a multi-institutional team of curators, “After Babel,” a polyphonic exhibition about art, poetry, and translation.