THE NEW CRITERION
by James Panero
On “Philip Guston: Painter, 1957–1967” at Hauser & Wirth and “The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman” at the New-York Historical Society.
Are galleries the new museums? The “mega-galleries” would certainly like us to think so. Those four or five commercial empires upon which the sun never sets, and which cast an ever lengthening shadow over the global art trade, now look to confer prestige on their artists by mounting their own “museum-quality” exhibitions. For this they can deploy their museum-sized venues. They can bring in one-time independent scholars and former museum professionals to secure high-end loans and publish voluminous catalogues. They can create a market, usually for name-brand artists with overlooked (and therefore undervalued and available) bodies of work. The business plan is often similar: at Gagosian, the biographer John Richardson with “late Picasso,” or the esteemed moma alumnus John Elderfield looking at Helen Frankenthaler beyond Mountains and Sea. The firewall that at one time separated museums from the commercial art trade has become a revolving door—hello, Jeffrey Deitch—or at the very least a popular and lucrative means of egress.
But is this all such a bad thing? Not for the biggest galleries, at least—that’s business. Not for the museum people—finally free of the funding squabbles and baroque progressivism that has come to define institutional culture. Not even for the public—since this can really lead to “museum-quality” shows, free to see and, at least, more free of political baggage than many of today’s museum exhibitions. One need only contemplate the recent rehanging of the American floor at the Brooklyn Museum—where didactic wall texts regard art as little more than examples of massacre, genocide, and environmental devastation—to realize that our museums now often treat their collections with all the nuance of how “decadent” art was once presented in the Soviet Union. In contrast, free of mercenary fundraising concerns papered over by a circus of neoliberal acrobatics, the galleries can still present art as is, cleanly and visually, without textual over-determination.
The latest big museum–gallery shakeup has been the forced 2012 departure of Paul Schimmel from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—hello again, Jeffrey Deitch—and his arrival a year later at the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth. This past March the international conglomerate, with locations in Zurich, London, Somerset, and New York, opened its latest venue, called Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel, in a 100,000-square-foot former flour mill in downtown Los Angeles. Boasting “museum-style amenities,” the gallery offers 30,000 square feet of exhibition space, roughly equivalent to the old Whitney Museum.
Back in New York, Schimmel has now brought this gallery’s full commercial might to bear with “Philip Guston: Painter, 1957–1967,” at Hauser & Wirth’s 23,000-square-foot Chelsea space on 18th Street (itself a temporary location as a new building goes up on 22nd).Expertly deployed over the gallery’s four large exhibition rooms, label-free and optimized for visual discovery and investigation, the exhibition is truly of museum quality, if museums are even still the measure of such qualifiers.
The Guston “narrative” is by now one of those origin stories of contemporary art. A painter of glittering abstractions in the 1950s, Guston re-emerged in the 1970s as the creator of cartoonish and nightmarish imagery, of Klan hoods, hobnailed boots, and bare bulbs. These works have become shorthand for the turn away from overly serious abstraction to the “new imagism” of “bad painting” that has come to dominate the contemporary art scene. That Guston’s 1970 coming-out at Marlborough Gallery was slammed in The New York Times by none other than Hilton Kramer as a “mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum” has itself become a part of the mythology, an indication of saintly status, and a central aspect of a marketing strategy. To defend Guston against Kramer’s now sacrilegious statements is itself a settled precept of the contemporary art catechism.
But of course, Hilton was right. Guston was the ultimate insider, a tenured don of the New York School when he came out as a schizoid caricature of the “bad” outsider artist. He employed the kind of imagery that might be dreamed up by the insane, scrawled on some asylum wall, but, as Hilton observed, Guston’s facility as a painter was the giveaway of a more controlled calculation. Calling the transformation a “pseudo-event,” Hilton wrote:
In offering us his new style of cartoon anecdotage, Mr. Guston is appealing to a taste for something funky, clumsy, and demotic. We are asked to take seriously his new persona as an urban primitive, and this is asking too much. . . . The very ease with which he has adapted this slang to his own elegant usages is itself a measure of its established place in the pictorial vocabulary of our time.
The intelligence of the current Hauser & Wirth show is how it looks exclusively to Guston’s experimental transition years of the late 1950s and 1960s, focusing on the subtle visual shifts Guston tested out during this period while only hinting at what was to follow. Yes, we already know what came before and what comes after. If this were a museum, didactic imperatives would have mandated the inclusion of some early lyrical Gustons to sing to us at the start and some sinister Klan men to clobber us at the end.
Schimmel says more through their absence. He signals that here is not just a period between two others, each better known (and more highly sought-after—again, this is a mega-gallery out to promote a name-brand artist with an undervalued body of work). These middle years were instead open-ended, poignant, and charged, argues this exhibition—and worthy of their own appreciation outside of the story arc (while still indisputably framed by it).
For all the facility and over-determination that I find in both early and late Guston, middle Guston indeed strikes me as the one period where he seems truly adrift. The work therefore seems most vulnerable, moving in fits and starts, and unsettled. Beginning with the Rite and Fable II of 1957, Guston’s bright lyricism, his “Abstract Impressionist” palette seemingly of melted crayon, darkens in shade. Out of his white ground surrounding his Crayola shapes emerges an occluding mist. Over the next few years, this increasing density subsumes his forms, swirling and mixing and clouding his canvas. Out of the murk, more ominous shapes finally emerge: a bloody square in an untitled painting from about 1959, the shadowy legs of an easel, or the artist, in Painter (1959), here on loan from the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Schimmel divides the gallery rooms up by color, creating immersive environments of Guston’s haunting purples, grays, and pinks. Meanwhile increasingly darker, more defined forms come to the foreground. With our knowledge of late Guston, it becomes easier to see that there was always some visual source code informing Guston’s filtered impressions—he was never a pure abstractionist. This exhibition ends with a wall of forty-eight drawings, simple scratches of charcoal and ink on paper. Here is the coda to the middle period, the moment from 1967 through 1969 when Guston finally stripped out his last abstract fittings to reveal the underlying armatures upon which he would hang his new, stumbling, 1970s self.
Unlike the modernists of Paris who looked to Africa for their “primitive” influences, the sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882–1946) largely drew on the rich folk traditions of his transplanted home in America and their deep European roots. Born in Poland to a middle-class Jewish family, Nadelman found early artistic success in the avant-garde circles of Munich and Paris before immigrating to the United States in 1914. In 1926, he and his wealthy wife, Viola Spiess Flannery (1878–1962), created the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts on their estate in Riverdale, The Bronx, which came to house some 15,000 objects. Spanning six centuries and thirteen countries, this first museum of its kind traced the origins of American folk art while inspiring Nadelman’s own penetrating sense for plastic form.
Suffering financial reversals following the stock market crash of 1929, the Nadelmans were forced to close their museum and, in 1937, sold what remained of their collection to the New-York Historical Society (where Elie for a time served as its curator). Now with “The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman,” and an accompanying scholarly catalogue published by D Giles Limited, the n-yhs has mounted a survey of this singular collection that draws on new research into its creation and influence over Nadelman’s own body of work.
If Nadelman is recognized today, if he is known at all, it is through his two colossal white marble statues that flank the grand promenade of the Koch (née New York State) Theater at Lincoln Center. Manufactured some twenty years after his death, based on his tiny, mangled figurines that lined the tables of his Riverdale home at the time of his death, these two sculptures came into being through his curatorial champion, Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder of the New York City Ballet who had mounted a major Nadelman retrospective. Credit also goes to the artistic sensibilities of the theater’s architect, Philip Johnson, and the folk-art interest of the Rockefeller family, which had first collected the models for these particular sculptures in 1931 and purchased a selection of Nadelman’s folk art in advance of the n-yhs sale for Colonial Williamsburg. (It also so happens that Governor Nelson Rockefeller controlled the theater’s development as an extension of the state’s involvement in the 1964 World’s Fair. It was no small undertaking for Johnson to tap a new vein of pure Carrara marble from the same quarry used by Michelangelo and ship the two massive blocks to
Kirstein saw the challenge of maintaining Nadelman’s reputation as “the fate of artists strongly attached to tradition in crisis.” Nadelman was one of those rare moderns who looked to tradition over progress. “The art of today has neither past, future, nor ambition to be compared with other art of long survival,” Kirstein observed in his Nadelman monograph of 1973, still the best book published on the artist. “Nadelman’s craft was rooted in continuity he wished to extend, adapting rediscovery to new considerations of scale, material, and use, suiting his own time, seen not as a fading year, but as one fixed date.” Here, through his obsession with the arts of the everyday, we can see how, in Kirstein’s choice words, Nadelman was always “salvaging the monumental by the miniature.”