reviews

  • “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”

    MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

    FEW EPISODES IN THE HISTORY OF ART attract so many origin myths as the history of abstraction. As a plotline, it’s hard to beat—an intoxicating, utopian rhetoric of a revolutionary new beginning through art—and ever more entrenched now that it can be consigned to a distant past: After all, abstraction is more than one hundred years old. Marking that centenary, the ambitious exhibition “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925” provided no exception to that narrative, but offered a more nuanced and considered version that speaks very much to our own time and to current cultural anxieties (as

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  • Marisa Merz, Untitled, 2010, mixed media on paper, 98 1/2 x 59 1/8".

    Marisa Merz

    Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

    Marisa Merz’s name is better known than her work is, at least in the United States. A founding figure of Arte Povera and its only woman artist, she began to exhibit in Italy in the late 1960s, but her first solo show in New York—or anywhere in this country, for that matter—didn’t come until 1994 and was followed by a bare handful of repeats. Her last show in this city, in 2010, contained all of two pieces, and the one before that was back in 2006, so many in New York will have had little direct exposure to her. This may be in part her own doing: She has a reputation as an artist whose

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  • Helen Frankenthaler, Eden, 1956, oil on canvas, 103 x 117".

    Helen Frankenthaler

    Gagosian Gallery (21)

    In the days following Helen Frankenthaler’s death, on December 27, 2011, my Facebook feed teemed with JPEG memorials, makeshift tributes to a painter many had forgotten. The image I remember best was a photograph of the artist in her studio, taken by Douglas Banks for Life magazine in 1956; it shows Frankenthaler sitting on top of, and surrounded by, her canvases of the previous half decade, including the breakthrough Mountains and Sea, 1952, as if ensconced in a sort of aqueous dream-cubicle.

    Banks’s portrait of Frankenthaler is seductive, but also troubling: While ostensibly emphasizing the

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  • View of “Richard Serra,” 2013. From left: Equal (Corner Prop Piece), 1969–70; 5:30, 1969; V+5: To Michael Heizer, 1969; One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969.

    Richard Serra

    David Zwirner | 525 & 533 West 19th Street

    Richard Serra has a story he likes to tell—as he did recently to a group gathered for a preview of this magisterial, museum-quality survey of his works made between 1966 to 1971 mounted at David Zwirner’s imposingly soign. new digs on West Twentieth Street—about a formative moment in his life as an artist when, traveling around Europe while on a Fulbright, he encountered Las Meninas for the first time. His experience at the Prado was a revelation, he said, because he felt Vel.zquez had somehow managed to make him feel “implicated in the space of the painting,” something the fledgling

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  • Ted Stamm, 78SW-9, 1978, oil on canvas, 32 x 20".

    Ted Stamm

    Marianne Boesky Gallery

    In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Arts Magazine, now gone, published my journal entries, which, I hope, showed that criticism was not solely the articulation of issues lurking out there in some theoretical ether but also an activity sharply inflected by the social situation in which it was met. Among those blog posts avant la lettre was one devoted to Ted Stamm’s then all but unknown paintings. In that entry, published in May 1979, I observed his “lean, mean” racer build—one that belied the congenital heart defect that led to his death from a heart attack just five years later, at the age

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  • Catherine Murphy, Snowflakes, 2011, oil on canvas, 52 x 52".

    Catherine Murphy

    Peter Freeman, Inc.

    Peter Freeman’s new SoHo digs are high-ceilinged and capacious, and this inaugural exhibition of recent paintings and drawings by Catherine Murphy, her first with the gallery, afforded the work ample breathing room. Still, one is never quite sure where to stand or, more precisely, where one stands in an encounter with Murphy’s close-cropped, meticulously realist, bigger-than-life renderings of humdrum things and scenes. They admit only to rebuff, aping the usual vantages of perception just to implode under multiple, irreconcilable perspectives, and intimating depth in impossible tandem with

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  • Justin Matherly, Handbook of inner culture for external barbarians (we nah beg no friend), 2013, concrete, ambulatory equipment, 10' 1“ x 24' 7” x 3' 9".

    Justin Matherly

    Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

    The centerpiece of Justin Matherly’s exhibition “All industrious people” was a twenty-five-foot-long concrete sculpture modeled after several ancient stelae discovered in Turkey. Archival photographs of the rock-strewn site, thought to be the tomb of the Hellenistic king Antiochus I, appeared in large monoprints that lined the surrounding walls. It’s hardly surprising to find Matherly directly referencing archaeological digs, since for several years he has been excavating a singular ruin: sculpture itself.

    The same argument runs through each of Matherly’s pieces: Painting is periodically eulogized,

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  • Zach Harris, Hand Held the Shining Chroma Zones, 2012–13, water-based paint, wood, 30 1/4 x 18 3/4 x 1 5/8".

    Zach Harris

    Feuer/Messler

    Aesthetics, as Jacques Derrida famously observed, “presupposes a discourse on the limit between the inside and the outside of the art object, in this case a discourse on the frame.” A number of painters over the years have taken this discourse in hand, as it were: One thinks of Howard Hodgkin, Neil Jenney, or Christian Eckart, each in his own way an artist who has made efforts to unsettle the distinction between painting and frame, thereby leading us to wonder what, if anything, is intrinsic to the work. Another such painter is Zach Harris, a Californian who recently exhibited fifteen pieces in

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  • Robert Bordo, DWI, 2012, oil on canvas, 45 x 55".

    Robert Bordo

    Alexander and Bonin

    Born in Montreal, Robert Bordo has been a New Yorker for forty years, and his work a point of reference for painters here since his first exhibition at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in 1987. Does the title of his most recent show, “Three Point Turn,” signal a volte-face, a recantation? Thankfully not. But while Bordo hasn’t shifted into reverse, he has changed gears, as could be seen by comparing the eleven new paintings (from 2012 and 2013) exhibited on the ground floor at Alexander and Bonin with the eleven older ones upstairs (two from 1996, the rest from between 2007 and 2011). A telegraphic

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  • B. Wurtz, Untitled (bread quilt), 2012, plastic bread bags, wood, string, thread, T-shirt, shoelace, caution tape, 80 x 45".

    B. Wurtz

    Metro Pictures

    The work of B. Wurtz, which returned to the attention of the art world in the late 2000s and early 2010s after flying under the radar for many years, reflects an austerity more pragmatic than visual. The artist recycles things ordinarily thrown away, but—as he laid out in the text of a 1973 drawing that has now taken on the power of a manifesto—he limits those materials to items related to food, shelter, and warmth: plastic lids of yogurt or hummus containers, bread bags, buttons, the plastic mesh sacks used for produce, shoelaces, ribbon, along with objects not so readily identified

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  • Birgit Jürgenssen, Untitled, 1980, pencil, colored pencil, and oil crayon on paper, 15 1/2 x 20 1/2".

    Birgit Jürgenssen

    McCaffrey Fine Art | 23 East 67th Street

    Austrian-born feminist artist Birgit Jürgenssen produced a wide variety of work—paintings, photographs, performances, sculptures, collages, drawings, and clothing, among other forms and media—before her untimely death in 2003 at age fifty-four. Inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud, her oeuvre features classically Surrealistic juxtapositions that allude to the associative operations of the unconscious, and often seems abuzz with psychosexual energy. Her work marries this interest in Freudian psychoanalysis to a political optimism—“between ‘waking and dreaming’ we can learn ‘

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  • Walter Robinson, White Castle, 2013, acrylic on paper, 9 x 12".

    Walter Robinson

    Dorian Grey Gallery

    Among the fifty-six “Indulgences” displayed in Walter Robinson’s recent show were paintings of sandwiches, french fries, cookies, pinups, beer, and whiskey, along with those of daily medication, painkillers, and nasal spray. (One painting was from 1997, the rest from between 2009 and 2013.) All are presumably consumed by Robinson, suggesting that the paintings have an implicit “confessional” character. Together, they give the impression of having been created by a studious monk contemplating his sins, painting them in an act of aborted contrition. Many of the works are peculiarly “self-indulgent”

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  • View of “Richard Nonas,” 2013.

    Richard Nonas

    James Fuentes

    It is disconcerting to hear Richard Nonas refer to James Fuentes gallery, the site of his most recent solo show in New York, as an “uneasy, unsteady space,” until it becomes clear that this is a compliment. What he means is that the place has character; rather than the neutral background of a white cube, it offers the idiosyncrasies and imperfections that make a space worth engaging. Explaining further, Nonas describes himself as “fascinated by architecture but also upset by it”—fascinated by its power to shape space and thereby establish place, a fundamental concern of his own work, but

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  • Rico Gatson, Watts Painting #1, 2011, 48 1/2 x 49".

    Rico Gatson

    Ronald Feldman Gallery

    The five paintings in Rico Gatson’s series “Watts,” 2011, on view in this show, are adapted from aerial photographs of the Watts rebellion of 1965, in Los Angeles, and address the still raw and unresolved nature of the injustices that trigger urban violence, as well as the news media’s recursive tendency to produce the same kinds of oversimplified images of political unrest. In the approximately four-by-four-foot square panels, a textured crust of glitter overpainted in black indicates city blocks, while crisscrossing dark-gray lines represent the intervening roads. As in the source photos taken

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  • Larry Bamburg, BurlsHoovesandShells on an Acrylic Rake, 2013, wood burls, animal hooves, turtle shells, mollusk shells, acrylic, 105 x 42 x 40 1/2".

    Larry Bamburg

    Simone Subal Gallery

    At the edges of Larry Bamburg’s recent show of works made this year were two sculptures composed of the rounded deformations that sometimes appear on tree trunks—burls. Having sawed the burls from their tree host, Bamburg has stacked them, one by one, to form slender and precarious columns that reached nearly to the gallery’s ceiling, and then augmented these constructions with mollusk and turtle shells and animal hooves. The results are earthy edifices that recall the work of idle campers, or cairns marking a hiking path. Yet the slapdash nature of the works belies the challenges inherent

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  • Faith Ringgold, American People Series #9: The American Dream, 1964, oil on canvas, 36 x 24".

    Faith Ringgold

    ACA Galleries

    Faith Ringgold’s paintings from the 1960s stand alone and they have for some time. Long excluded from art-historical narratives, the canvases are frank and unforgiving in what they depict (racial conflicts, gender troubles), but they also have a rather curious way of being so. Ringgold constructs her pointed subject matter via anomalous means, deploying odd but successful color choices, imbuing figurative compositions with bold geometry, and implementing a wending of Matissian line. This body of work—which was culled by Dorian Bergen from the 2010 survey organized by the Neuberger Museum

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