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Sims City

THE NEW CRITERION, September 2018

Sims City

On the ignominious removal of a Central Park monument.

Like something out of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, a black sign now appears in place of a statue that had stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street for over eighty years.

By order of Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC Parks has relocated the statue of Dr. James Marion Sims to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sims is buried. Plans are being developed to commission a new monument on this site.

So a statue is gone from Manhattan, its online record wiped clean. James who? Doctor of what? Few noticed its presence; fewer now may notice its absence. The handful who wanted it gone—“by order of”—were louder than the many who did not care whether or not it stayed. And most are fine to leave the story there. But in an era out to prove its revolutionary impermanence, a case should be made for the history of a forgotten figure and the permanence of his small monument. The past deserves its say.

In defense of a statue—

The Central Park monument to J. Marion Sims was, until recently, one of a string of statues and plaques that adorns the park’s outer wall. Like the Ninety-first Street memorial to William T. Stead, a journalist who distinguished himself for bravery by sacrificing his life during the sinking of the Titanic, and the 101st Street monument to Arthur Brisbane, the “editor and Patriot,” the Sims statue existed in the civic background, largely overlooked, if not entirely forgotten, by the city that hosted it.

That changed on April 17, 2018. In a public event organized by the Mayor of the City of New York, as protesters, surrounded by a ring of media trucks, chanted “Marion Sims is not our hero,” a forklift raised the bronze statue from its base and deposited it on the back of a Parks Department pickup. With its head covered by a blue tarp, a yellow cable wrapped around its neck, the statue rode off to the shouts of the crowd and the clicking of the cameras. The statue has not been seen since.

Following the deadly August 2017 conflagration in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a national reckoning with monuments to the Confederacy, few might have predicted that Dr. Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” would be the New Yorker ultimately destined for ignominious denouement. But such are the capricious politics of our modern iconoclasm and the unexpected opportunities it presents for displays of scolding and shame. Following a widening pattern of censorship, one that has quickly moved beyond Confederate memorials, a fever call for “social justice” has sought to redress history through public acts of effacement. Born out of a toxic relationship with the past, this frenzy should be alarming to anyone concerned with the intricacies of history and its record in material culture. In the case of Sims, the public verdict, issued without representation for the defendant, may have dishonored the legacy of an innocent and even heroic man.

Surgeon and philanthropist. Founder of the Woman’s Hospital State of New York. His brilliant achievement carried the fame of American surgery throughout the entire world.”

The inscription, carved into a roundel, is still in evidence beneath the cut bolts of what remains of Sims’s monument. It speaks to the historical sentiment behind his memorialization. Created by Ferdinand Freiherr von Miller in 1892, the bronze statue of Sims was first erected in Bryant Park. In 1934, the statue moved uptown to a new base facing the New York Academy of Medicine, which has occupied its current six-story building across Fifth Avenue since 1926.

In the case of Sims, the public verdict, issued without representation for the defendant, may have dishonored the legacy of an innocent and even heroic man.

That Sims was a pioneering surgeon in the area of women’s health is beyond dispute. His innovative surgeries became the basis for curing what were thought to be irreparable reproductive injuries, paving the way for the modern therapeutic practices and instruments that today benefit women worldwide. “In recognition of his services in the cause of science & mankind,” as a second roundel still reads, “awarded highest honors by his countrymen & decorations from the governments of Belgium, France, Italy, Spain & Portugal.”

The challenge for Sims has been our interpretation of his early research work around his home in Montgomery, Alabama. Between 1845 and 1849, Sims performed experimental surgeries to repair the vesicovaginal fistulae of twelve enslaved women, three of whom we know from Sims’s records by first name: Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey. This surgery was conducted without anesthesia on a population for whom the law did not compel personal consent. In recent decades, medical historians have cast these actions as unethical, if not abhorrent. With a record of experimentation on slaves, without anesthetic, Sims can easily come across as a Dr. Mengele of the antebellum South, and therefore ripe for condemnation.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 1993, Durrenda Ojanuga Onolemhemhen calls Sims’s surgeries on “powerless Black women” a “classic example of the evils of slavery and the misuse of human subjects for medical research.” In particular, Sims has been labeled an “anesthetic racist” for not practicing proper pain management on his enslaved patients, even as he performed multiple unsuccessful surgeries before perfecting his operating procedures.

When New York mayor Bill de Blasio convened a special commission last year to review “city art, monuments, and markers,” the panel arrived at similar conclusions. Arguing that “there is no question about the abuse of the women he experimented upon,” the commission wrote that Sims “has come to represent a legacy of oppressive and abusive practices on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate, and exploitable in service to his fame.”

The commission’s recommendation to remove the statue from a neighborhood that “largely consists of communities of color, predominantly Latinx [sic] and Black” was met with the forklift a day later—a record turnaround for city work. The panel had served its political purpose—giving the mayor a pass on similarly controversial yet much more popular city monuments, including those of Christopher Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt, by targeting a lesser-known work.

While protest groups, including an organization called the “Black Youth Project 100,” had been staging graphic spectacles in front of Sims—young women have appeared wearing hospital gowns soaked in fake blood—“no person or group wrote or testified to request that the Sims monument remain in its current location.” By this, the commission therefore showed that the removal of Sims (unlike the Italian Columbus) would not upset a large bloc of city voters.

Yet, there are researchers who have long proposed a counter-narrative to the condemnation of Sims. Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2006, L. Lewis Wall, a doctor in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, one who has been honored for his work on behalf of African women with vesicovaginal fistulae, offers a different understanding of Sims’s achievements. Dr. Wall notes the horrific long-term effects of vesicovaginal fistula, a tragic condition that results from crushing complications of labor and fetal death, and leaves a woman with a permanent hole between bladder and vagina, resulting in a loss of urinary and often fecal control and a befouling of the reproductive organs.

Records maintain that Sims did, in fact, gain patient consent for his procedures, argues Wall. Moreover, the sensitive nature of the surgery would have required a patient’s willingness to proceed. The surgeries also had a known therapeutic outcome—curing, for the first time, a horrific long-term affliction. As for the charge of “anesthetic racism,” it should be noted that the use of anesthetic ether was not first demonstrated until October 16, 1846, in Boston, a year after Sims began his operations in Alabama. Even then, its adoption was not immediately universal, and it carried its own complications; surgeons trained before its advancement often continued to practice without it, as Sims did later on both his black and white patients.

Taken as a whole, such an interpretation portrays Sims not as a monster, profiting off of sadistic experiments on “the Black body,” but as a surgeon who championed corrective intervention for a disregarded and, indeed, powerless population suffering from severe injury. We may never know what truly happened in his operating theater, but given the ultimately therapeutic outcomes Sims achieved for Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey, and the other women he cured, it may very well be that the only subject in this story operated upon unjustly and without consent is the statue of J. Marion Sims.

Such a fate reminds me of the story of “The Burghers of Calais,” here turned into postmodern farce. Besieged by the English in 1346, so the legend goes in its telling by the medieval writer Jean Froissart, the city of Calais was spared by Edward III for giving up six of its leading citizens—“burghers,” or bourgeois—presumably destined for execution. Headed by the first volunteer, Eustache de Saint Pierre, these local leaders sacrificed themselves to save their city during the Hundred Years’ War.

Through a commission from the French port, Auguste Rodin famously immortalized these men in his sculpture of 1889, portraying the local leaders not as divine heroes composed on pedestals but as ordinary, downtrodden, and, indeed, besieged figures. Their clothes are torn and their bodies are bound as they carry out the keys, and their duty, for the salvation of the town.

Today, such sacrifice is not immortalized in bronze. Rather, it is bronze that must be immortalized in sacrifice. Pushed from the gates of Manhattan, the statue of J. Marion Sims was besieged, and finally sacrificed, for New York’s supposed racial salvation. Such symbolic destruction may serve to connote a phantom catharsis. But, ultimately, the only real-world change is the destruction of the symbol itself through a spectacle that may only perpetuate historical injustice. Unlike those burghers of Calais, the mayors, governors, and institutional leaders of today will eagerly wrong the symbols of the dead, along with the complexities of history, to protect, and enhance, their own righteous living.


Gallery Chronicle (June 2018)


Gallery Chronicle (June 2018)


Gallery Chronicle

On “The Unbroken Line: Old and New Masters” at Robert Simon Fine Art, “Paul Resika: Geometry and the Sea” at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects and Bookstein Projects, “Marc de Montebello: Recent Work” at W. M. Brady & Co., “Sculpture 56” at 56 Bogart Street & “LES YES!” at The Storefront Project.

Stoked from dying embers, painting’s classical revival—a rediscovery and return to traditional technique—has been burning underground for decades. Last month the new masters emerged to exhibit with the old in “The Unbroken Line,” at Robert Simon Fine Art, on New York’s Upper East Side.1

One of our best Old Master dealers, Robert Simon has a history of rediscovering lost masterpieces—he’s the one who owned and helped re-identify the Salvator Mundi as a painting by Leonardo. Now working with the teachers and students of the Grand Central Atelier, the classical art school in Long Island City founded by the painter Jacob Collins, he helps us discover the next master painters. “The Unbroken Line” exhibits a selection of Old Master work alongside paintings by Collins and his current and former students, the best of whom have gone on to become the faculty of his growing school.

When it comes to revivals, living matter does not necessarily come to life from dead tissue. The thesis of “The Unbroken Line” is that a knowledge of classical painting, as it was once taught in the academies and practiced in the salons, never fully died out in the style wars of the last century. It was preserved by a handful of painters—and in the masterly work that, at least for now, continues to hang on the walls of our museums, and in galleries such as Simon’s own.

The revelation of “The Unbroken Line” is that this must be true. Or, at least, it has become true as a new generation of painters, many of them only in their thirties, breathe new life into a reviving practice. It would be a challenge for anyone to go through Simon’s survey of forty-eight works and distinguish, with total accuracy, which are from the seventeenth century and which are from the twenty-first. This is in part due to the freshness and depth of Simon’s own collection of Old Master paintings and drawings. A Performance from the Commedia dell’Arte set in a Piazza, by Gherardo Poli (b. 1676), can hang naturally alongside the wonderful drawing of Santa Maria Maggiore, by Anthony Baus (b. 1981), with an archaic street scene fancifully interposed with someone walking a bicycle.

  Will St. John , untitled,  2018 ,  Oil on linen ,  Robert Simon Fine Art.

Will St. John, untitled, 2018Oil on linen, Robert Simon Fine Art.

It is inspiring, and eye-opening, to see still lifes by Sebastian Stoskopff (b. 1597) and Joris van Son (b. 1623) living next to ones by Justin Wood (b. 1982). Portrait of a Young Man, by Simon Vouet (b. 1590), and Christ Blessing, by Vittore Carpaccio (b. ca. 1465–70), settle down inconspicuously among portraits by Collins himself (b. 1964)—one of which, called David, Collins touched up just days before the opening. Emotive figures by Rachel Li (b. 1995) and Will St. John (b. 1980) give the side-eye to a Portrait of a Boy from the Bolognese School of the seventeenth century. (I understand that St. John gave his painting a final coat of varnish once on the wall, in what Simon says was his first literal vernissage.)

Delicate portraits by Colleen Barry (b. 1981) convey a Flemish intimacy. A self-portrait by Edward Minoff (b. 1972), an accomplished painter of seascapes, radiates the classical profile of a Renaissance medallion. Just steps from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this exhibition has introduced a new field of collectors and curators to a generation of young painters; the great Frederick Ilchman, a curator at the mfa Boston and a savior of Venetian art, was on his way up just as I was heading down. The work, old and new, comprises two sides of the same coin. Robert Simon has done a good turn by bringing them both into more common currency.

Now entering his ninetieth year, the latitudinal painter Paul Resika has sailed the seven seas of artistic influence. More than sixty years ago, he embarked from the New York School and his apprenticeship with Hans Hofmann for a rendezvous with the Old Masters, on to the distant shores of De Chirico, Carrà, Sironi, and points unknown. With his latest exhibition, “Geometry and the Sea,” spread across two New York galleries last month—Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, on the Lower East Side; and Bookstein Projects, now on East Sixty-sixth Street—Resika brought home his many far-flung discoveries in angular, poetic compositions, where paint serves as both water and light.2

At Bookstein’s new uptown location, the open gallery room invited comparison of these connected compositions, all from the past three years. Among the circles and triangles, the sea and the sky, Resika finds a great range of feeling in shapes and tone. Rose Dawn (2017) crackles in a morning sun. Red Dunes, Green Sea (2016–17) bakes in a sun-scorched afternoon glow relieved by the sea water pooling into a triangle below. The yellow sun of The White Sky (2017) breaks through a damp mist, while Red Sun (De Chirico) (2017), with its vertical symmetries, conveys the meridian sun with a nod to the surrealist master. Meanwhile, Blue Night (2017) turns day to night with the coolness of moon-shade, as pyramidal forms grow ever taller in the dream-lit air.

  Paul Resika , Blue Night,  2017 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Bookstein Projects.

Paul Resika, Blue Night, 2017Oil on canvas, Bookstein Projects.

In his intimate downtown space, Steven Harvey looked to the poetry of Resika’s mysterious forms and their spare surroundings. A Quiet Romance (2017) features a circle and a shell in conversation over a field of blue. The White Moon(2017), Celadon Sea (2017), and Blue (2017) convey Resika’s interest in sensuous, mottled color. In a gallery filled with natural light—as it must be, for Resika’s colors—the illumination from the storefront window highlighted the textures of Resika’s layered surfaces. These latest paintings are often painted over older work, and the pentimenti add to the mystery of the compositions. Self-Portrait with Rag (2017) depicts Resika emerging from the color-rich mist. The great painter looks out as both an abstract vision and a concrete form.

Marc de Montebello may have a recognizable surname. Yet his descent from Jean Lannes, the First Duke of Montebello, the famous marshal of the Napoleonic Wars, should not be held against his own successes. Last month, at W. M. Brady & Co., de Montebello showed the achievement of his recent work—landscapes of diverse locations with a unifying interest in surface and depth.3

Using planes of color, de Montebello carves out sculptural space. The approach is spare and often intriguingly minimal. While certain works experiment with fog, de Montebello flourishes in the bright light of day, with direct sunlight sharpening his shapes in reflection. A room of intimate works, some of casein or oil on paper, brought to mind the spare vision of Louisa Matthíasdóttir, where a field of green might be punctuated by a mere dot of red.

  Marc de Montebello , View of Jodhpur,  2015 ,  Oil on canvas ,  W. M. Brady & Co.

Marc de Montebello, View of Jodhpur, 2015, Oil on canvasW. M. Brady & Co.

Two large canvases reveled in the rooftop geometries of Jodhpur, the “blue city” of Rajasthan, dominated by its fifteenth-century Mehrangarh fort. Yet the chromatic values of these paintings were so varied, and the effects of light so wide-ranging, that they might be mistaken for two different views—especially as they were wisely divided between the two main gallery rooms.

In the familiar light of Los Angeles, where de Montebello keeps his studio, he seems most at ease. Here he finds interest in simple rear-window walls and a series of seascapes—which is his most daring—conveying an infinity of depth with a minimum of surface detail.

The dozen or so galleries of 56 Bogart Street, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, have arguably evolved into the single best concentration of artistic venues anywhere in New York. No doubt this is due to the galleries’ proximity to one another —and their separation from everything else. In the late nineteenth century, the economist Alfred Marshall described certain places as “having ideas in the air,” where knowledge “spills over” from one person to the other. The central corridor of this one building, packed with serious galleries and the people who create them, has become the Main Street of New York’s alternative art scene.

  Julia Kunin , Green Bismuth Head,  2013 ,  Ceramic ,  Honey Ramka.

Julia Kunin, Green Bismuth Head, 2013, CeramicHoney Ramka.

Spread over six weeks, these gallerists came together to organize “Sculpture 56,” their first building-wide exhibition, with eleven venues showing various takes on contemporary sculpture.4 Highlights of this exhibition included a bespoke stack of Jersey barriers in “Noah Loesberg: Remote Barrier Storage,” at Robert Henry Contemporary (the co-director Henry Chung was an architect of the exhibition series). I also enjoyed the many examples of contemporary ceramics at Honey Ramka, where Julia Kunin’s unsettling Green Bismuth Head (2013)was my best in show. At Slag Contemporary, Dumitru Gorzo piled old two-by-fours like matchsticks into square towers. Their natural precariousness said more to me than the scumbles of paint added to their surfaces—I wonder if a more minimalist application would have had greater effect. Meanwhile Tom Butter, at Studio 10, constructed an eleven-foot-tall kinetic sculpture, where a mechanized spool of foam cord unwound from a lattice tower onto a pile on the floor. For all the elegance of its construction, I doubt the resulting forms quite justified the elaborate setup.

Spread over two floors at 56 Bogart Street, the dense, multi-gallery exhibition, much of it showing work at a high level, commanded attention. I hope it hints at collaborations to come.

  Meryl Meisler ,Mr. Katz was mugged by two kids who found him dozing in front of his TV in his living room,   1978 ,  Photograph ,  the Storefront Project.

Meryl Meisler,Mr. Katz was mugged by two kids who found him dozing in front of his TV in his living room,  1978, Photograph, the Storefront Project.

The photographer Meryl Meisler arrived in New York City in the mid-1970s. Surrounded by decadence and decay, she looked for the humanizing touch in the wreckage, the sleaze, and the schmaltz of the struggling city. Through a 1978 ceta Artist grant to photograph Jewish life for the American Jewish Congress, she turned her lens on the Lower East Side. Continuing our rediscovery of Meisler’s rich body of work, these photographs are the subject of “les yes!,” an exhibition at The Storefront Project, a gallery on Orchard Street at the heart of a neighborhood that has transformed in the four decades since Meisler captured it in black and white.5

Meisler has an eye for character. In her photographs, often shot in fifty millimeter with heavy flash, great expressions come into bloom for her welcoming lens. Bright-faced rabbis, soda jerks, and garmentos pop out of their darkened shuls, diners, and apparel stores. There are a few striking images of degradation —a drunk lying across the bleak median of Photographing on the Bowery (1977), with a second figure snapping away from the side of this captivatingly framed image. Yet, mostly, Meisler looks for the life of the street and those struggling to keep living in it. In particular she finds Morris Katz, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Grand Street,” who appears in several images. Looking out from two black eyes, Katz describes “how he was mugged by two kids who found him dozing in front of his TV in his living room,” as one of the images is titled. Resolute and resigned, he does not let his cigar drop from his mouth or his bow tie come undone. The old neighborhood is in decline. He was there to see it through. Thankfully, in the dying light of the late 1970s, Meisler was there as well to find what could be preserved.

1 “The Unbroken Line: Old and New Masters” opened at Robert Simon Fine Art, New York, on May 11 and remains on view through June 1, 2018.

2 “Paul Resika: Geometry and the Sea” was on view at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, New York, from April 18 through May 20 and at Bookstein Projects, New York, from April 19 through May 26, 2018.

3 “Marc de Montebello: Recent Work” was on view at W. M. Brady & Co., New York, from May 9 through May 24, 2018.

4 “Sculpture 56” was on view at 56 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, from April 13 through May 27, 2018.

5 “les yes!” opened at The Storefront Project, New York, on May 3 and remains on view through June 3, 2018.


Gallery Chronicle (May 2018)


Gallery Chronicle (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.