Arts Review

Arts Fairs Plus, New York 2020

For a large swath of the art world, the approaching end of winter is signaled by the cluster of art fairs in New York at the end of February and beginning of March. Uptown, The Art Show, organized by the Art Dealers Association of America, brings together selected ADAA members in the vast Seventh Regiment Armory at Park Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. Just to make things confusing, The Armory Show, named for the legendary 1913 exhibition that introduced European modernism to Americans, occupies two Hudson River piers in the west 50s. (The 1913 exhibition was installed in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets, hence the name.) There are satellite, sometimes improvisational fairs elsewhere in the City, populated by less established galleries often from exotic and/or distant places, and there’s a works on paper fair in a particularly inaccessible pier on the East River. Collectors, curators, art critics, artists, art dealers, and aficionados from all over flock to the City for the fairs, tirelessly walking down the aisles of booths, doing business, gossiping, negotiating, posturing, and sometimes just looking. This year, by chance, rather than design, the fairs ended a week before New York closed in an effort to contain the coronavirus. The only sign of panic was elbow bumping and the occasional Namaste gesture, in lieu of embracing and air-kissing.

The Art Show usually features particularly high quality works from all periods. This year’s version, however, seemed to have more solo shows of (not very compelling) contemporary art than usual. “There are too many art fairs,” a curator friend suggested. “Everything is picked out or over-exposed.” But there were some happy exceptions. Jill Newhouse Gallery, which specializes in nineteenth-century works on paper, presented “A Contemporary Perspective: The Origins of the Modern Landscape 1820–2020,” an impressive gathering of works on paper and canvas of outdoor scenes by Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Victor Hugo, some Barbizon painters, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre Bonnard, paired with work by current artists investigating similar themes. A late Cézanne watercolor conjuring up monumental trees and rocks with minimal touches of the brush was hard to beat, while a fresh, casually stroked Bonnard of red tile roofs and exuberant foliage entered into a provocative conversation with Cecily Brown’s washy improvisation on spring greens. Some searching pencil drawings of slender trees by Corot found companionship with a wonderful willow tree by the late British artist Tom Fairs, a marvel of varied pencil strokes, stabs, and touches. In recent years, Newhouse has made a specialty of this kind of revelatory “now and then” installation at the Art Show. It’s always fascinating.

John Marin, Little Fir Tree, Deer Isle, 1921, watercolor on paper, 16 ¾ x 13 ¼ inches, Courtesy Menconi + Schoelkopf

Notable among the ADAA booths dedicated to single artists was Menconi + Schoelkopf’s wide-ranging selection of prismatic watercolors and oils by John Marin. Ricco/Maresca, specialists in self-taught artists, presented obsessive colonnades and railway arches by Martín Ramírez, while Cheim & Read offered a miniature survey of early works by Alice Neel, including a haunting portrait of her demon lover, the film critic and photographer Sam Brody, at the start of their tempestuous relationship. Elsewhere, individual stellar works announced themselves in various places, such as an agile little wire and cloth acrobat from Alexander Calder’s Circus series at Meredith Ward, along with a luminous Marin oil of a Cubist-inflected expanse of sea, and some very good little Stuart Davises. A confrontational 1941 improvisation on a New York City streetscape, based, as was typical of Davis, on images from about a decade earlier, was notable for its geometric planar buildings, fragments of calligraphy, and freewheeling patterns, and affirmed the artist’s gifts as a colorist, with its bold cinnabar reds and luminous turquoise. A seductive Ken Price ceramic sculpture, its delicately speckled, insistently patterned surface tugging against its swelling, ambiguous form, demanded attention at another booth. So did an uninhibited 1957 Helen Frankenthaler, Homage to Chardin, one of the many paintings she made throughout her entire life in response to the work of artists she admired; an expansive shape of a particularly French blue evoked Chardin’s genre paintings without the slightest suggestion of a literal reference.

The following week, further downtown, the more manageable section of the Armory Show, at Pier 90, mostly lived up to expectations, with notable works by such diverse artists as Adolph Gottlieb, Kenneth Noland, Fausto Melotti, and Gerhard Richter in various places. It had its share of pretentious texts, as well, accompanying, for example, a section titled “Focus: Another time, another place.” Anointed by a curator from the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, works listed under this heading purported to “consider artists’ relationships with truth as a received form of knowledge.” If you ignored the rhetoric, Robert Nava’s fantastic beasts, roughly brushed in intense hues, at Sorry We’re Closed Gallery, Brussels, had charm and power. So did Kyle Staver’s quirky, updated versions of mythological and biblical stories, at Zürcher Gallery, New York. Large canvases populated by agile, sinuous figures in eerie light—the enigmatic but entrancing Venus and the Octopus, a babe embraced by coiling tentacles, and a St. Sebastian bristling with arrows shot by a mass of hostiles below—were punctuated by fresh, washy studies for the paintings and small relief versions of the compositions, which Staver makes to study the way light falls on her imagined scenes. (Nicolas Poussin is supposed to have done the same thing.) Staver’s solo show at Zürcher, which opened soon after the Armory Show ended, included a glowing Ophelia clad in luminous green, floating among black swans, a Susanna in a hammock accompanied by tigers like surrogate elders, and an athletic Miss America on a spotted bull, plunging toward us. Talk about continuing the tradition of history painting!

Ophelia, 2020, Oil on canvas, 50 x 68 in / 127 cm x 173 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Zürcher Gallery, NY / Paris

Similarly outstanding, in another group of works selected by another ICA LA curator under the rubric “Platform: Brutal Truths,” was Summer Wheat’s vast Sand Castles, presented by Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles. Wheat continued her celebration of the role of women, historically and today, in a bold, tapestry-like expanse of flexible, contorted figures amid jazzy patterns, conjured up with brilliant hues and rich texture. Once again, the strength of the work cancelled the overwrought meanings attached to it by the text.

Summer Wheat, Sand Castles, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles.

There were surprises at the Armory Show, such as a group of Pierre Soulages’s lush black on black gestural paintings at Archeus/Post-Modern, London, infrequently seen in the U.S. Faintly shiny, rhythmic strokes contrasted with matte expanses in vigorous works made last year, when Soulages turned 100, accompanied by a few earlier examples.

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 130 x 165 cm, 2 décembre 2017. Courtesy of ARCHEUS/POST-MODERN

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the San Francisco gallery, Hackett Mill’s, survey of the late David Beck’s weird and wonderful, meticulously crafted constructions mixing the precious, the exotic, and the found—a particularly single-minded cabinet of curiosities. Beck’s birds and animals, both current and extinct, along with insects, architecture, and pure inventions, often in miniature and on elegant bases, are alluring on their own, but become even more so when their amazing animating devices are turned on. A life-size, elegant, dark brown Flamingo Flamenco, with a sinuously coiled neck, raised one leg on command, and when a primitive looking key was inserted, the back feathers lifted, revealing a tiny, dangling flamenco dancer. The obsessiveness was fascinating, the craftsmanship astonishing, the wit and whimsy endearing. The San Francisco-based Beck, who died in 2018, is something of a cult figure, shown occasionally in New York at the eclectic Allan Stone Projects, so this wealth of his uncanny objects was a treat.

David Beck, Flamingo Flamenco. Courtesy Hackett Mill, representative of the Estate of David Beck

Hollis Taggart’s booth made an effort to focus attention on Michael (Corinne) West, a little-known female member of the Abstract Expressionist generation, a student of Hans Hofmann’s, who was close to Arshile Gorky. She used “Michael” to combat the art world’s prejudice against women in her day, just as Grace Hartigan briefly used “George.” West’s energetic, rather generic gestural Ab Ex canvases were set among a selection of Hofmanns, from the 1940s to the early 1960s, presumably to contextualize her. Unfortunately, the former teacher eclipsed the student.

Michael (Corinne) West, Dancing Figure, 1962. Courtesy of The Michael West Estate and Hollis Taggart.

Further along, large woodblock prints by Helen Frankenthaler, collaborations with a traditionally trained Japanese ukiyo-e master, seduced us with just plain gorgeous color while, nearby, Wayne Thiebaud’s modest black and white images of food asserted his ability to encapsulate the American vernacular with economical, expressive draftsmanship.

Shigeki Kitani, Hinamatsuri (Dolls’ Festival), 1963. Oil, ink, and colored paper on canvas, 31½ x 39¼ in. Courtesy of Thomsen Gallery, New York

At Erik Thomsen, powerful, layered works by the late Japanese Gutai artist Shigeki Kitani, bridging the gap between the intended and the serendipitous, were paired with some of his near-contemporaries, described as vanguard calligraphers. The relatively intimate, richly textured, straightforward Kitani quietly overwhelmed the overscaled gestural works.

Elsewhere in the City, before everything shut down, “From Géricault to Rockburne: Selections from the Michael and Juliet Rubenstein Gift” at Met Breuer and “Judd” at the Museum of Modern Art were high points of the season. The former is a highly personal collection of (mostly) works on paper that cut across time and country of origin, subject, medium, and mood, lovingly assembled over many years by the architect Michael Rubenstein and his wife, Juliet van Vliet Rubenstein, and continued by her husband, after her death. About fifty works from a promised gift of 160 were on view at Met Breuer, with nudes and figures dominating one wall, landscapes and references to nature another, interspersed with abstractions of different types. The installation sometimes generated provocative conversations. Grouping some choice pencil drawings of bathers by Bonnard, a prone figure by Balthus, and two relaxed reclining models by Henri Matisse allowed for interesting comparisons in attitudes toward the female body, enriched by the nearby presence of a male nude by Théodore Géricault. On the opposite wall, modest Arthur Dove watercolors that distilled the natural world into spare shapes coexisted with a loosely brushed Milton Avery seascape that teetered on the brink of abstraction and a dazzling Graham Nickson skyscape, all lush color and crackling contrasts. Philip Guston was represented by a terrific, ambiguous web of wristy gestures in ink, plus a stunning gouache with knots of muddy primary colors wrestled out of a sea of brushy grey, and a cool later canvas. A spectacular work by Rubenstein’s friend Dorothea Rockburne—one of several from different periods—competed for attention with the Gustons, challenging his rumpled, casual images with the crisp planes and edges of folded and unfolded brown paper and assured, slender arcs of varied colors. It was impossible to decide which of these compelling works was more potent.

Part of the pleasure of the Rubenstein Gift was discovering the unexpected—a lyrical abstraction by Esteban Vincente, a Louis Kahn travel drawing, a subtle Anne Ryan collage, a vigorous Franz Kline, a pared-down Alice Trumbull Mason, a refined but sturdy Juan Gris still life in pencil, a direct David Row with a flicker of blue shifting the space, and more. For those of us fortunate enough to have seen the collection densely lining the walls of the Rubenstein apartment, it was a surprise, too, to see the works elegantly arrayed and amply spaced. Personal favorites, besides those already mentioned? An iconic late Giorgio Morandi watercolor with a row of his characteristic objects suggested as much by absence as by a few tellingly placed patches of transparent color, and an irresistible sketchbook drawing by Eugène Delacroix combining studies of cats and human feet on a single page—further examples of the Rubensteins’ highly individual, undogmatic taste. The unpredictable character of the collection is part of its fascination. As in the Morandi, what isn’t there is perhaps as significant as what is. But everything that is there speaks to intense, passionate looking by discriminating, informed eyes.

The beautifully installed survey in MoMA’s “old” sixth-floor temporary exhibition galleries we are told, the first retrospective devoted to Donald Judd in three decades. Organized by MoMA’s Ann Temkin, it’s a well-chosen, lean but comprehensive selection of paintings, drawings, prints, and three-dimensional objects, both freestanding and wall-mounted, but the artist, who died at 65 in 1994, might not have approved. He disliked temporary exhibitions, maintaining that the relationship of a work to its setting was crucial and should be permanent—witness his installations at the Chinati Foundation, the abandoned army base in Marfa, Texas, that he transformed into a permanent home of his work and that of some of his friends. But the rest of us should welcome the chance to see Judd more or less whole, from his early construction-like paintings and rather tentative early structures, through the geometric works for which he is best known, to his flashy last works. Between 1959 and 1965, Judd was a plain-spoken, uncompromising reviewer of New York exhibitions and, in the early 1960s, a maker of declarative, plain-spoken, surprisingly physical paintings. The heart of the show, of course, are the deceptively simple three-dimensional structures—boxy rectangular volumes, wall mounted stacks and strips, repeated serial forms, and the like—that Judd began to make and have fabricated in various materials beginning about 1963. The exhibition ends with the polychrome assemblies made toward the end of his life.

Judd, perversely, always denied that he was making sculpture. He rejected, too, the adjective “minimal,” preferring to call his works “specific objects”—manifestations of his desire to emphasize general shapes and avoid internal relationships, which he saw as inherently anthropomorphic and reactionary. The art historian and critic Michael Fried, in his definitive essay “Art and Objecthood,” termed Judd’s constructions “literalist,” and “theatrical,” arguing that they were inert and dependent upon their relationship to the viewer and their setting, rather than having a self-sufficient existence created by the very kind of internal complexity of part to part that Judd rejected. Whether one is a Judd enthusiast or not, the irony is that the MoMA installation (and the most impressive of the installations at the Chinati Foundation) seems to contradict Fried’s reading. They underscore the individuality of particular works, the importance of the materials from which they are constructed, their variousness, and their internal complexities.

Judd claimed materials and color were “givens,” their intrinsic character existing before he combined them into his rectangular solids, wall mounted stacked trays, or serial arrangements. Yet the contrast between materials, between—say—shiny aluminum or brass and colored, light-sensitive Plexiglas—is often crucial, as is the relationship of part to part. We discover how different a set of generous, open, square frames, painted turquoise, is when seen from the side or when we peer into its end at its sturdy layers. Each of a series of twenty-one shallow, exquisitely crafted stainless steel boxes, made in 1976–77, has different sides open or closed, a differently angled top, a different kind of enclosure. Spread on the floor before us, they mesmerize us, as we try to work out the unsystematic orchestration of individual components. The multi-part work is like an intimately scaled version of the vast 100 pieces in mill aluminum installed in two light-filled former artillery sheds in Marfa; there, too, we become fascinated by the apparently endless variations of openness and closings, along with the positions of planes inserted in some of the works; we mentally measure one unit against another, trying to remember the ungraspable sequence of unrepeated possibilities. Measurement is crucial, too, to Judd’s wall-mounted horizontal pieces, in which the sizes of the suspended elements and their spacing are determined by a Fibonacci sequence. And more. Judd may have claimed to strive for a kind of non-art neutrality, but there’s actually a lot to look at, to consider, and think about.

I was less convinced by the wall-hung stacks, which may be Judd’s best known works. Made of different materials, sometimes with Plexiglas tops that create ephemeral spills of colored light, they seemed expedient and decorative. I had trouble, too, with the assemblies of brightly hued flanged boxes made in the 1990s. I understand Judd’s commitment to ready-made color, but in these structures, the ready-made color seems arbitrarily combined. Maybe that was the point. Judd said he chose the flat, intense Cadmium red with which he painted many of his early works because the saturation of the color made edges seem specially crisp and clean. I kept going back to an early Untitled piece, dated 1963-1973, in which a pair of chest-high rectangles are held apart and/or connected by seven bars stretching between them at a descending angle. Everything is that wonderful matte Cadmium red except a shiny purple center bar, which suggests that emphasizing edges was not the only reason for the choice of hue. Maybe I’m just a sucker for internal relationships, but that piece and the twenty-one stainless steel boxes, like the 100 aluminum pieces in Marfa, seemed to propose something more interesting than Judd’s avowed intentions. I’ll have to re-read Art and Objecthood.