New York

Anni Albers, Robert Beck, Cady Noland, Joan Semmel, Nancy Shaver

Mitchell Algus Gallery

How to deal with the art of the past—especially the recent past? As we fumble around for alternatives to the old do-away-with-dad modernist model (passive-aggressive postmodernism—i.e., replicate, don’t wrestle—was a nice try), three current shows take the lead, serving up yesterday three different ways.

As ever, context is everything. Joan Semmel looks like two different artists in the group show (“Anni Albers, Robert Beck, Cady Noland, Joan Semmel and Nancy Shaver: Black and White Photographs 1975–77”) curated by Robert Gober at Matthew Marks and in her jewel of a solo (“Joan Semmel: Self-Images”) at Mitchell Algus. Algus has earned a certain cachet mounting gently revisionist shows of left-out artists like Paul Feeley, Nicholas Krushenick, and Robert Stanley; here you see Semmel’s paintings the way you might have seen them back in ’78, in an intimate space on the fringes of SoHo. At Marks, Semmel and Shaver are thrust into the present by Gober’s grouping and the insistent nowness of the clean and monumental flagship Chelsea venue. Marcus falls somewhere in between, presenting a straight-up survey, “Nancy Shaver: Overall, 1975–1999.”

Semmel’s self-portraits (three canvases at Algus and two at Marks, all dating from the mid- to late ’70s) take on the traditional, objectified female nude. More complexly, she also plays on modernist flatness, long associated with a masculine mode of intellect and rigorous empirical refusal. Semmel assertively models her body’s curves and rolls, choosing poses that push depth; in On the Grass, 1978, she props herself up with one arm, looking down at the perpendicular ground. And while she began her nudes in the early ’70s in monochrome colors—purples, blues, etc.—by the time we reach the works on view at Algus, she is using a flagrantly naturalistic palette. (In her current work, she abandons that palette, working in a figurative, but more fanciful vein.)

If Semmel’s older work asks to be reseen in the light of younger artists such as Lisa Yuskavage, so Shaver’s resonates with the work of artists like Kiki Smith, Mike Kelley, and Gober himself (and, curiously, she comes off in some sense as an early appropriator). While Gober fills the second room at Marks with Shaver’s 1975–77 photos, flatly depicting found children’s clothing, primarily T-shirts emblazoned with labels and slogans like “Stinker,” photos that are both conceptually witty and visually engaging, the work on view in Shaver’s semi-retrospective at Curt Marcus is uneven. The better pieces combine found objects to capture an abstraction: For example, in The Civil War, 1989, she covers a rectangular support with blue and gray striped fabric, pulling and distorting the cloth at its north and south sides. But I don’t like the many pieces (such as Figure #6, 1997) that consist of the stuffing and wrapping and stacking of sacks and boxes. Here Shaver tries too hard to be pathetic yet auratic, combining the unrelievedly leftover and the fondly regarded.

Why these shows of neglected artists now? This generational kink all makes sense in light of Gober’s brilliant installation at Marks. Seen from the artist’s perspective, Anni Albers’s weaving Black-White-Grey, 1927, becomes the repressed homemaker; Robert Beck’s video Untitled (The Spike Buck), 1995, the stolid, violent father; with Cady Noland’s Stand-In for a Stand-In, 1999, stuck in between. On either side, two Semmel couples bracket this tug-of-war. The second room holds the Shaver series, and in a tiny third room, the whole show is encapsulated: a study for the Albers, one Shaver tiny tee, and Semmel’s painting Bathing Andy, 1975, a huge little boy, naked.

Semmel has never looked weirder. The famous Intimacy-Autonomy, 1974, looks cold and blue here, more autonomous than intimate: The little space between the figures seems like a gulf, echoing that between the Albers tapestry and the Beck buck. Gober, curator of the recent past, has intervened. Noland’s puritanical device is an after-the-fact maquette of her 1993–94 series of aluminum stockades. This “stand-in” (and you have the feeling the Noland is standing in for Gober himself here) doesn’t open, implying a figure forever trapped. Gober’s own family romance, to which he has occasionally alluded in his work, intersects with the historical romance of art, and while he critiques the narrowness of the former, he restores a certain breadth to the latter.

Marcus presents a standard, responsible survey, but Algus and Gober give us something more complex. All three are valid ways to see the art: biographically, historically, and critically (respectively). Algus pays homage to the artist and the past, Gober to the viewer and the present.

In a culture driven relentlessly by change, we need to be reminded that generations coexist; unlike butterflies, one group of human beings does not disappear when a new one emerges. There is a shortage of mid-career artists who have received the attention to maintain a serious oeuvre: critics set them adrift, and then complain when the career meanders. So let’s see more of artists we’ve seen before—more of the recent past. Some will claim that, with these historical shows, galleries are usurping the function of museums, but perhaps the trend will force museums to acknowledge the rights and the wrongs of their own recent history. That would be interesting. And in any event, it’s nice to see a little now-and-then, now and then.

Katy Siegel is an assistant professor of contemporary art history and criticism at Hunter College, CUNY.