Gallery Chronicle (May 2018)

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Gallery Chronicle (May 2018)

THE NEW CRITERION, May 2018

Gallery Chronicle

On “Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth” at The Broad, Los Angeles, “James Little: Slants and White Paintings” at June Kelly Gallery, “John Bradford: Hamilton, History, Lincoln and Paint” at Anna Zorina Gallery & “David Hockney: Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing]” at Pace, New York.

Jasper Johns is the minor artist with the major reputation in post-war American art. This outsized status has been the inverse of his achievement. His fame has grown just as his art has diminished, from his mid-century debut of ontological “flags” and “targets” into largely self-referential boilerplate. “I look at Johns’s career as pretty much a downhill slide from a not very high point to begin with,” Hilton Kramer once observed. Yet Johns now ranks among America’s top-selling artists. His early creations, embalmed in encaustic wax, can trade for nine figures. He nearly tops the list for most expensive living American artist at auction, second only to Jeff Koons. Just as he has turned flags and targets into “flags” and “targets,” Jasper Johns’s most notable, and bankable, creation has long been that of “Jasper Johns.”

The full extent of this self-creation will go on view in 2020 in an unprecedented, and sure to be hagiographic, two-part retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For now we have “Something Resembling Truth,” a smaller survey of some 120 works that opened at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and concludes its run at The Broad, Los Angeles—that new, private ossuary of Eli and Edythe L. Broad, the cultural pharaohs of Southern California.1

  Installation view, “Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’.” Photo: Pablo Enriquez

Installation view, “Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’.” Photo: Pablo Enriquez

Centered around the Broads’ own holdings by the artist, including a Flag from 1967, the first-floor exhibition serves as the foundation for the couple’s starry collection of contemporary art above, reached through the marrow of their gray cement building by way of a tunneling escalator. The exhibition leans heavily on Johns’s iconic early themes, with rooms full of flags, targets, and numbers—the symbols of his most valuable identity.

Whether “neo-Dada” or “proto-Pop,” Johns’s reputation came out of a turning-away from the New York School, and its intrinsic art-for-art’s-sake heroics, towards an art of the extrinsic, with work that was encoded with ready-made symbols and personal sentiment. His technical innovation was the incorporation of encaustic—in his hands, the rather clumsy introduction of beeswax mixed with pigments on a hot plate. Used in his first Flag of 1954–55—made of sewn-together bedsheets when he was twenty-four years old, and two years out of the Army—encaustic became the trademark of the brand. Applied to his paintings of flags, of targets, of maps, of numbers, the medium served as the scare quotes and embalming agent for his signs and symbols—positioning his early work in a gray zone of meaning somewhere between flag and “flag,” or five and “five.”

With a saturnine personality—a flip side to the logorrheic Robert Rauschenberg, his one-time partner in art and life—Johns was the perfect cypher for such games of identification. Working with “things the mind already knows,” Johns set out to “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” “A picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator,” he said in an early interview. “I don’t know how to have thoughts,” he revealed more recently to TheGuardian.

This vacuity has served him well in his career, but less well in his art. In the marketplace, Johns has left the space for his promoters and investors to impute the hard meaning of cash value into his work, beginning with Leo Castelli, the trash-to-treasure dealer who went on to supply the helium for Pop. “That son-of-a-bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them,” De Kooning famously complained of the dealer. When Johns heard the remark, he bronzed two “ale cans,” and Castelli did just that.

Yet in the studio, such emptiness has been far less enriching. Since the 1980s, the ready-made symbol to which Johns has most often returned is “Jasper Johns.” From the Delphic smears of his “Catenary” paintings to his extensive visual quoting of his own greatest hits, Johns has indulged in a murky studio practice that was never all that interesting beyond the initial ideas that informed it. The series of “Seasons” from the mid-1980s contains over-wrought and under-painted self-portraits. Ventriloquist, from 1983, incorporating his green, yellow, and black flag from the late 1960s, signals a fondness for quotes of quotes of quotes ad infinitum.

Protected by a garrison of wealthy patrons, Johns, now eighty-seven, lives off the derivatives of his early ideas as the man in the high castle, secluding himself among the gentry of northwest Connecticut. One day, there may be a reckoning of a legacy that has derived only diminishing returns from initial mid-century investments. “Something Resembling Truth” is far from that tough-minded reevaluation. From someone resembling a master, exhibiting in something resembling a museum, perhaps we should expect nothing more.

  James Little , Apache,  2017 ,  Oil on stained linen ,  June Kelly Gallery .

James Little, Apache, 2017Oil on stained linenJune Kelly Gallery.

There is nothing embalmed in James Little’s use of wax. A master of the volatile medium of encaustic, Little creates living, breathing abstractions of oil and wax on canvas. Now at June Kelly Gallery, he returns to the diagonal, with interlocking stripes arranged in vertical bands.2 The forms have a dynamic, rotational quality, enhanced by an immersive sense for color. The satin-like wax surfaces, brushed clean, serve as tactile skin.

Framed by two large abstractions, Democratic Experiment (2017) and Temporary Fixation (2018), one green and one red, the exhibition is interspersed with smaller compositions. On one wall, diagonals of a similar but smaller design draw viewers in with surface variation. Raw pigment replaces oil and wax for a more aqueous finish. On the opposite wall, Little surprises with abstractions on stained linen of a very different feel. Here, white screens of paint are punctuated by ovals. The mysterious, tessellated forms act as small windows onto deeper layers of ovals and colors. Stencils? Masks? Resists? Unlike the perfected surfaces of Little’s diagonals, these roughened appearances invite speculation as to their manufacture, hinting at, but not revealing, their particular processes of creation.

  John Bradford , Publication of the Declaration,  2017 ,  Acrylic, oil on canvas ,  Anna Zorina Gallery.

John Bradford, Publication of the Declaration, 2017Acrylic, oil on canvasAnna Zorina Gallery.

It may be natural to see “Hamilton, History, Lincoln and Paint,” John Bradford’s exhibition now at Anna Zorina Gallery, in light of other recent efforts to update the American past in the idioms of the cultural present.3 In Bradford’s case, this means processing such scenes as Hamilton Chasing Benedict Arnold (2017) and Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation (2017) through the modes of expressionistic painting.

This kind of effort rises or falls on the convictions of technique. History, as passed through a modern mode, can become easily mannered, or at the very least ill-suited. Bradford plays it straight. Paint gets built up, smoothed over, roughed up, and scraped away. His scenes have the uncanny ability to come together or fall apart depending on one’s distance from the canvas. The dense crowds of Publication of Declaration (2017) up close dissolve into daubs of paint. The play of surface and depth encourages movement as history comes in and out of focus.

Drawing on some of the styles of folk and outsider art, these paintings seek to depict not just American history but also our collective memory of history. Far from anachronistic nostalgia or postmodern gloss, the paintings have something to say: that history can still be felt.

  David Hockney , Still life,  2017 ,  Oil on canvas, Pace Gallery.

David Hockney, Still life, 2017Oil on canvas, Pace Gallery.

Through his recent retrospective at Tate Britain, the Centre Pompidou, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painter David Hockney may have surprised even his detractors with a survey that proved to be as deep as it was wide. Perhaps most surprising was the octogenarian’s innovative latest work that employed shaped canvases and enveloping perspectives. Now at Pace, Hockney continues his experiments of color, angle, and light with “David Hockney: Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing],” an exhibition that delivers on its promise(s).4

Hockney may be best known for his choice of subject matter—he is that Yorkshire son who found succor in the canyons and pools of the American West. But the question of perspective has long been an equal focus, so to speak, in his color-rich body of work. Nearly two decades ago, Hockney made a sensation with his studies into single-point perspective and his claim that the Old Masters employed lenses, mirrors, and camera-like optics in constructing their work. In his own, meanwhile, Hockney has often experimented with compositions that employ multiple perspectives. His arresting photo collages of the 1980s assembled single scenes from multiple photographs taken at different angles from the same location. Each snapshot has its own vanishing point, with the matrix of assembled images taking on an inhuman appearance—fish-eyed and bug-eyed at once.

Painting can do what the camera still cannot: assemble an image of multiple perspectives into a coherent and seamless whole. For his knockout show at Pace, Hockney draws on a wide range of influences while also offering his own perspective on the history of perspective (as well as some perspective on his own history of perspective).

Annunciation II, after Fra Angelico from “The Brass Tacks Triptych” (2017) plays off the isometric colonnades of the Quattrocento Florentine master. Grand Canyon I (2017) returns Hockney to one of his recurring subjects while also referencing the efforts of nineteenth-century painters to communicate the grand scale of the American landscape. Meanwhile, Still Life (2017), with mountains rising out of gridded surfaces in oversaturated rgb fields, seems most connected to the computerized space of today’s “Minecraft”-like games. Rounding these out are two large “photographic drawings” of the artist in his studio. Cut up, recombined, and marked up in the digital darkroom, they call to mind those photo collages from the 1980s.

Several of the canvases here are shaped in ways that cut off their lower corners. “The indentations paradoxically widen the sense of space and invite all sorts of fresh lines of sight,” Hockney writes in a text on the gallery wall. What appear as strange objects from afar help direct the eye up close to focus on the different lines of sight. The format brings to the frame the artifice of perspective while also enhancing its immersive qualities.

Painting is not always a window onto fictive space, after all—and perhaps the development of single-point perspective will prove to be the variation rather than the dominant theme of the history of art. Passing through twentieth-century modernism, Hockney’s sparkling paintings are a bridge between the panoramas of the nineteenth century and the virtual realities of the twenty-first.

1 “Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth” opened at The Broad, Los Angeles, on February 10 and remains on view through May 13, 2018. The exhibition was previously on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (September 21–December 10, 2017).

2 “James Little: Slants and White Paintings” opened at June Kelly Gallery, New York, on April 12 and remains on view through May 15, 2018.

3 “John Bradford: Hamilton, History, Lincoln and Paint” opened at Anna Zorina Gallery, New York, on March 29 and remains on view through May 5, 2018.

4 “David Hockney: Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing]” opened at Pace, New York, on April 5 and remains on view through May 12, 2018.

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Gallery Chronicle (April 2018)

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Gallery Chronicle (April 2018)

THE NEW CRITERION, April 2018

Gallery Chronicle

On “Stephen Shore” at the Museum of Modern Art, “California Landscapes: Richard Diebenkorn | Wayne Thiebaud” at Acquavella Galleries, and “Sean Scully: Wall of Light” at Mnuchin Gallery.

In the mid-1970s, Hilton Kramer took note of an inflection point in art, with painting and sculpture on the one side and photography on the other: “At a moment in our cultural life when the imperatives of formalism seem to be on the wane in the discussion, if not in the actual practice, of painting and sculpture, a vigorous restatement of the formalist position has come from a surprising quarter—from the world of photography.”

The development was curious, even “rich in irony,” as Hilton observed. Formalism, the belief that the ultimate subject of art is art itself, would seem to go against the very nature of photography. After all, photography, more than any other artistic medium, needs an exterior, something “out there” to reflect the photons that pass through its lenses and mirrors to be imprinted in recorded light. Such directness, this facility for reportage, is for many the promise of photographic technology.

Yet photography is also an art, even an alchemy, with a process of creation that is as magical and strange as oil on canvas. Since its invention, photography’s seeming simplification, which has placed point-and-shoots and now digital optics in the hands of the world, has only masked its increasing complexity.

Flush with an emerging confidence in their medium, photographers such as Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, wrote Hilton, found ways to turn the lens on these complexities: “The kind of campaign that was once waged, and waged successfully, for abstract painting is now being waged for ‘abstract’ photography.”

For the current generation, no one has faced the challenge of creating a photography of itself quite like Stephen Shore. This photographer who came of age in the 1970s, and has tracked the medium’s radical evolution to the present day, is now the subject of an extensive and enthralling survey at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.1

  Stephen Shore, Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974, 1974, Chromogenic color print, the Museum of Modern Art.

Stephen Shore, Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974, 1974, Chromogenic color print, the Museum of Modern Art.

Stephen Shore is a textbook photographer. Which is to say, his photographs could illustrate a textbook on the medium of photography. Born in New York in 1947, his earliest work was in the darkroom, at the far end of the photographic process, developing his family’s Hawkeye Brownie negatives when he was six. He sold his first photograph to moma when he was fourteen, and had his first survey show at the Metropolitan Museum in his early twenties. Carried by a youthful curiosity and an autodidact’s sensibility, through an extensive body of work Shore has illuminated the wondrous “how” a picture is made as much as the “what” being taken.

A photographic journeyman, Shore has traveled through the widest range of camera technology, from a children’s Mick-A-Matic through a Rollei 35mm, an Arca Swiss 8-by-10, and an iPhone 5s, with stopovers at a Stereo Realist (for color 3-Dphotographs), a Grafted Crown Graphic 4-by-5, a Deardorff 8-by-10, and any number of Leicas, Nikons, Canons, Olympuses, and Hasselblads. “I’m not interested in developing a style and playing it to death,” he says. “I’ll change the medium, or I’ll go to a different camera, just to be confronted with new problems or new possibilities.”

Yet far from settling into an arid academicism, Shore has used these technological changes to look for the essence of just what photography can record. This is the takeaway of “Stephen Shore,” organized by moma’s chief curator of photography, Quentin Bajac, along with Kristen Gaylord. Working with a point-and-shoot Rollei 35mm, with its unusual bottom-mounted flash that flattens depth into layers of relief, Shore looked to the patterns of everyday materials in his early 1970s series “American Surfaces”—such as in the mesmerizing wallpaper and water fountain of Rolla, Missouri, July 1972. Working a few years later with an Arca Swiss 8-by-10—something that resembles a nineteenth-century box camera but takes a photograph of intense detail—he moved from surface to depth. Through photographs such as Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974, he made haunting images that function more like dioramas, with space you can enter into, without any particular point of focus.

Through his finely tuned sensibility for light, color, and framing, processed through various photographic equipment, Shore has captured the vibrations in visual experience—in particular, American visual experience. Through these photographs of the ordinary, he elevates life to the extraordinary, using new technology to valorize the commonplace and the everyday.

His photographic journey, which he connects to visual archeology, has taken him into the Holy Land and the humble homes of Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. And the exhibition “Stephen Shore” is far from the final statement on Stephen Shore. Through daily Instagram posts, he now perpetuates a five-decade-long project by sending his latest quotidian moments into the luminous digital cloud.

  Installation view, “California Landscapes: Richard Diebenkorn | Wayne Thiebaud” at Acquavella Galleries.

Installation view, “California Landscapes: Richard Diebenkorn | Wayne Thiebaud” at Acquavella Galleries.

Two years ago, an exhibition pairing the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn and Henri Matisse, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, became the must-see show of the season. I hopped the last train to Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station on its final weekend and was not disappointed: in a masterly way, Diebenkorn inhabited the lines and colors of Matisse’s Parisian visions to create his California abstractions.

Last month, at New York’s Acquavella Galleries, Diebenkorn was paired with another master: the nonagenarian Wayne Thiebaud.2 Best known for ice-creamy still-lifes, Thiebaud has long applied a sweetened palette to his own landscapes of California. On view at Acquavella, these confections were paired with the famous “Berkeley” and “Ocean Park” series of Diebenkorn, Thiebaud’s friend and influence, who died in 1993.

Thiebaud met Diebenkorn, two years his junior, in 1964 as they were each preparing etchings with the printmaker Kathan Brown for Crown Point Press. Diebenkorn was a leading light of the Bay Area Figurative School, switching from abstraction to figuration in a cross-border move he made more than once throughout his varied career. Thiebaud was likewise known for his now-iconic still lifes that combine the buttery textures of Giorgio Morandi with a dusting of his own confectioner’s sugar—cakes and cookies illuminated in the post-war glow of American neon. Both were consummate painters who rose above labels and movements, whether it be Ab Ex or Pop.

As with Diebenkorn and Matisse, the revelation of “California Landscapes” was how the dialogue between Diebenkorn and Thiebaud evolved through decades of engagement. And again, as with Diebenkorn and Matisse, this is a conversation that only became understandable once their works were paired together by an intelligent curator, in this case Acquavella’s Emily Crowley.

The wet, muddy sediment of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley #21 (1954) flows through the swollen river of Thiebaud’s Brown River(2002). The prismatic light of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #40 (1971) shines through the faceted angles of Thiebaud’s Green River Lands (1998). A shared palette and sense for composition combine in their approaches to the open landscapes of the American West, which they each show from multiple elevated and often aerial perspectives.

Thiebaud has been painting landscapes since the 1970s. The early examples at Acquavella, such as Ripley Ridge (1977) and Urban Freeways (1979), seemed most indebted to his own still lifes with their diminutive reductions of space. What changed for Thiebaud in his landscapes of the 1990s and 2000s was the incorporation of Diebenkorn’s sense for structure, with angled rays acting as both abstract lines of force and illusionistic lines of sight.

Such structure has become even more crystalline in Thiebaud’s approach to landscape in the current decade. Now ninety-seven years old, Thiebaud is a living legend of American painting. He is also painting some of the most powerful and distilled compositions of his astonishing career. Mountain Split (2011–17) cracks his canvas right in two, while Blue Mountain Bluffs (2017) depicts the fertile steppes at the end of the earth, or, at least, at the edge of California. These paintings to Diebenkorn’s landscapes to Matisse’s compositions are but a step, or two, away.

  Sean Scully , Night,  2003 ,  Oil on linen ,  Mnuchin Gallery .

Sean Scully, Night, 2003, Oil on linenMnuchin Gallery.

Sean Scully is that rara avis: the abstract painter who has flown to the heights of the vaulted empyrean of the contemporary art market. Just why may have less to do with form and more to do with the formulations of the marketplace, which favors steady output and the repetition of set compositions. Serial work removes the issue of uniqueness and its requisite connoisseurship, and therefore creates more reliable price points in the tracking of works of art as tradable commodities. Ergo: the market’s favor for Josef Albers, and for Sol LeWitt . . . and for Sean Scully.

Yet such commercial interest does not necessarily diminish the critical relevance of an artist or a particular body of work, and Sean Scully is, indeed, a fine painter. Born in Dublin in 1945, educated in England, Scully rejected the histrionics of British painting for the post-minimal abstraction of 1970s New York. Through Minimalist seriality combined with an expressionistic touch, Scully paints block-like compositions that recall the dry stone walls of the Aran Islands. Much like those mortarless walls of fieldstone, the details are in the edges, with glimmers of color and light often peeking around the stony forms.

Two exhibitions now on view allow a closer look at the melancholy beauty of these compositions at different scales. Through April 14, New York’s Mnuchin Gallery is showing several large paintings, along with smaller watercolors and pastels, from Scully’s “Wall of Light” series. Meanwhile, through May 28, the Edward Hopper House—the childhood home of the famous American painter in Nyack, New York, which now hosts contemporary programs in dialogue with its historic setting—is showing the more intimate work of Scully’s “Doric” series.3

Whether inspired by the stones of Ireland, or of Mayan ruins, or of ancient Greece (as Scully has variously claimed), all of these paintings are opus quadratum laid by the same painterly hand. What change are the colors, and the moods, of the final compositions, which can shimmer in reflected light, as in Desire or Desired (2007), or obscure a light beyond, as in Night (2003).

What connects them all is the mystery of what they refuse to show: rather than the windows of traditional illusionistic art, these paintings are walls, built up and bricking over an unknown distance beyond. The blocks may be lush passages of wet-on-wet brushwork, but their surfaces conceal rather than reveal the compositions’ greater meaning. The exhibition at Mnuchin, elegantly curated by Sukanya Rajaratnam, even includes a selection of Scully’s own photographs of Aran walls, connecting his abstract paintings to one of their source forms.

At his studio in Tappan—a former television broadcast facility that is a stone’s throw from the Hopper House in Nyack—Scully keeps another source: a work on paper from the gray middle period of Philip Guston. Following the lush abstractions of the 1950s, the 1960s were a decade of fog for Guston. In the 1970s the fog lifted to reveal the didactic figuration of hobnailed boots and Klan hoods. The revelation proved to be a sensation. Still, I have long felt that Guston’s more interesting paintings were those middle, foggy ones, which maintained their mysteries.

Scully undoubtedly shares a similar affinity. Depths are often best when left hidden.

1 “Stephen Shore” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on November 19, 2017 and remains on view through May 28, 2018.

2 “California Landscapes: Richard Diebenkorn | Wayne Thiebaud” was on view at Acquavella Galleries, New York, from February 1 through March 16, 2018.

3 “Sean Scully: Wall of Light” opened at Mnuchin Gallery, New York, on February 28 and remains on view through April 24, 2018. “Sean Scully: No Words” opened at the Edward Hopper House, Nyack, on March 9 and remains on view through May 27, 2018.

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