At the Galleries
From a pairing of austere modern masters to dispassionate figure groups by an emerging painter, from ravishing investigations into the emotional resonance of color to abstractions haunted by memories of the body, and more, last season offered many rewards to anyone willing to make an appointment and turn up in a mask. Some recent work echoed the difficulty of the past year; some offered solace or a challenge. Through late March, at David Zwirner, in Chelsea, “Albers and Morandi: Never Finished” celebrated single-mindedness and concentration as manifested in Josef Albers’ nested squares and Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes. (The title comes from Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic as “a book that has never finished what it has to say.”) The show was noteworthy for offering a substantial number of works by both artists, a rare treat, since multiple examples by Albers and Morandi are rarely on view in U.S. museums despite their presence in many public collections here. Still, the question remains: why put Albers, an abstract painter, German-born and American-resident after 1933, who taught at such progressive institutions as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, and transformed Yale University’s art department, in proximity to Morandi, a painter of still lifes and landscapes, a lifelong resident of the same street in Bologna where he was born, who taught etching at his native city’s traditional Academy of Fine Arts? Admittedly, they were close contemporaries, although Albers, 1888–1976, outlived Morandi, 1890–1964, by more than a decade, possibly because he was not a heavy smoker whose modest, rarely dusted bedroom also served as his studio.
The elegantly minimal installation of “Never Finished” in Zwirner’s generous, elegantly minimal galleries, designed by Annabelle Selldorf, encouraged consideration of each work individually, but at first, seeing these clearheaded twentieth-century giants together emphasized their likeness. Parallels and affinities between the two emerged, starting with the obvious fact that both were disciplined, reticent artists who deliberately restricted the component elements of their work—Albers to the square, Morandi to a small repertory company of still life objects. Both dedicated themselves to a continuous, serial investigation of the subtleties of color, interval, shape, proportion, and surface, at a fairly intimate scale. Both artists transformed what could have been straightforward relationships into disquisitions on the universal.
The spare, widely-spaced installation at Zwirner combined an illuminating group of Albers’ paintings on masonite, from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, with a selection of Morandi’s canvases, prints, and a couple of works on paper that spanned 1915–1958, with some notable gaps. The severe, non-referential, frontal Alberses on view, most from the Homage to the Square series, underscored the inherent abstractness of the Morandis. We grasped the resemblance between a tightly pressed, centralized cluster of boxes and bottles in a Morandi and the generating square of an Albers Homage placed opposite it and noted, as well, similarities in color choices. But the show, at its best, transcended such “looks like” comparisons. As always, seeing many works by these supposedly repetitive artists made us more aware of specifics and idiosyncrasies than of reprisals: the way each painter shifted, opened, or compressed components or fine tuned nuances of hue; the difference between a wide or narrow band; small changes among a range of almost interchangeable, unnamable colors. If we spent enough time with the Alberses, we began to obsess not about the similarities among them, but rather about the often surprising variations in their structure and their orchestration of color. We noted the uniqueness of each Morandi still life, despite its repeated objects. We were captured by an infinity of whites, off-whites, and grays, or startled by the intensity of a blue. Small variations in the work of both artists became overwhelmingly important.
The thesis of “Never Finished” would have been even clearer if the show had included a group of Morandi’s truly serial works—his multiple near-repetitions of the same setup, subtly varied each time by adding or subtracting a bottle, moving a bowl forward, or tucking a box more tightly behind a vase, with the size and proportion of each canvas altered accordingly. A series of such closely related Morandis would have perfectly complemented the exhibition’s trio of Albers’ Homages—small, medium, and large—testing the effect of near-white and pale, acid yellow on each other. At Zwirner, only two closely related etchings suggested this important part of Morandi’s practice. But that’s a quibble. (And I know how difficult it is to borrow the Italian master’s works, no matter how worthy the exhibition.)
A little farther uptown, Jill Nathanson’s “Light Phrase,” at Berry Campbell, could be seen as a contemporary, more lyrical and free-wheeling version of Albers’ and Morandi’s exploration of the eloquence of delicately adjusted color relationships. Nathanson’s luminous abstractions play on our emotions, experience, and intellect, allowing us to revel in the meeting of unpredictable, just plain gorgeous hues, while allowing us to think about the history of the paintings’ making. Built of thin, translucent pours of specially formulated acrylic paint, these works can seem to have come into being almost magically, yet we were also very aware of Nathanson’s will and agency in constructing them. Generous planes of unexpected hues are arrayed and overlapped in sensuous, rhythmic expanses, unfolding sequentially like a classical frieze, sometimes solemn, sometimes flirtatious and playful. Suave curves confront blunt angles; intervals expand and contract. The overlaps create mysterious zones that now seem to belong to one adjacent color, now to another. This instability, combined with the advancing and receding properties of warm and cool hues, and the diverse associations colors provoke in each of us, animates and enlivens the progression of planes.
While in most of the works in “Light Phrase” the edges of planes carry the burden of drawing, in some, fluid brush marks and fragile surface inflections announced the action of the artist’s hand, adding yet another note. I use the word “note” deliberately. Confronted by Nathanson’s recent works, it was impossible not to think about musical analogies. The slow progressions of colored planes in horizontal paintings suggested complex chords, even orchestral crescendos, while the coiling, upward thrusts of the occasional vertical picture triggered thoughts of chamber music or virtuoso solo riffs. Or not. It was impossible, as well, not to consider Nathanson’s expansive, harmonious, and (that much maligned word) beautiful paintings, many made in 2020, as alternatives to our constricted lives and to the stresses of the pandemic. But whatever associations they elicited from us, Nathanson’s recent works seemed to me to be her strongest, most reverberant to date.
Downtown, on the Lower East Side, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, “Words Fail Me,” Medrie MacPhee’s recent collage paintings presented yet another kind of potent, richly associative abstraction. Her earlier works were often fairly specific, with elusive images hinting at the artifacts of a dystopian past or future. Her newer work seems to be about being human and lived experience—not literally, but by implication. Her large, dramatic paintings, made during the last fraught year, read at first as non-allusive, uncompromising compositions constructed with generous shapes. We were engaged by shifts in surface and texture—gritty passages of paint thickened with pumice, delicate edges, ridges, pleating—and realized that the entire richly inflected expanse was constructed by collaging. Paint challenged, contradicted, and sometimes even destroyed the character of the applied material. We began to focus on linear elements and rhythmic repetitions—a strip of narrow, regularly spaced, short rectangles or what seemed to be the residue of stitching—and then recognized a piece of waistband or a flattened collar. Our attention shifted, and we interrogated what was before us in a different way.
MacPhee, we discover, builds her works with deconstructed discarded clothing and gleanings from 99 cent stores. She begins with a “framework” of collaged fabric parts, unifying the disparate elements with a coat of gesso. The seams and overlaps create drawing and dominant shapes, now responded to, now ignored, that faintly hint at their origins, dislocated and transformed. The memory of the human body somehow persists, independent of the specifics of gender or reference. With time, we begin to recognize buttons, zippers, belt loops, and other fragments of actuality, detached reminders of the everyday that locate us firmly in the present but are transubstantiated by their new context. It’s testimony to the power of MacPhee’s paintings that we never fixate on the previous lives of these allusions to the quotidian, but continue to read them as autonomous drawing and punctuation. The origins of these snippets of the real world and their intimate connection to the human body are subsumed by the new invented worlds of the paintings they inhabit—worlds as compelling and convincing as the time-traveling dystopias of MacPhee’s earlier work. We were principally engaged by the syncopation of the vibrant color planes in Favela and captured by the surface variations and sinuous, sharply contrasting white “drawing” in the dark, mysterious Take Me to the River. Yet, on some perhaps subliminal level, we remained aware of the former identity of shirts and trousers, before they were dissected and reassembled. MacPhee’s recent works, made in 2020, can be read as modern-day memento mori, informed by the trauma of the past year, reminding us of the transience of things, even of life itself.
Back in Chelsea, Eddie Martinez’s “Inside Thoughts,” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, presented a different response to the vicissitudes of 2020. Martinez seemed to be taking stock of both his present living conditions and his past painting achievements, producing ample, bold, seemingly improvisatory canvases that fused drawing and painting, with a flavor of graffiti, late Jackson Pollock, and perhaps the CoBrA group. Two adults and a child faced us at a table; scrawled heads coalesced out of patches of clear, saturated color and then subsided into their surroundings; tabletops tilted toward us, loaded with a miscellany of not quite identifiable objects, sometimes suggesting an interrupted card game, some- times foodstuffs. The “interrupted game” image—for lack of a better description—with its variable centralized shape, surrounded by random- seeming events, appeared several times, most often conjured up with fresh, full-throttle colors: near-primaries made unpredictable by being set against powerful blues, both dark and light. A black-and-white version combined the immediacy of drawing with the visual weight of painting.
The antic energy of Martinez’s paintings, along with the speed of his bravura touch, made the works in “Inside Thoughts” seem cheerful and optimistic at first encounter. But their seriousness and ambition soon declared themselves in the generosity of the scale and the no-holds-barred way they presented themselves for scrutiny. With more attention, their seemingly casual, loose-limbed structure seemed more and more rational, as if echoing an underlying grid—or as if contained by the limitations of staying home. Martinez’s exuberant paintings seemed ready to burst their confines, like so many of us after the restrictions of the past year.
At Pace Gallery, Adrian Ghenie’s “The Hooligans” similarly showcased recent work by the Romanian painter, a current darling of the international market. The press release told us that, for Ghenie, “the idea of ‘hooliganism’ examines the crucial role of rebellion in an artist’s process, working to reject or ignore traditionalism to create the new.” If the equation of uncivil, destructive “hooliganism” with making art seems odd, we should remember that Ghenie, who was 12 when the USSR ceased to exist, may have absorbed an all-purpose Soviet notion of “hooligan” in his childhood. The question remains, however, of how crucial rejecting or ignoring tradition may be to making innovative art. T. S. Eliot would have strenuously objected to the idea; the genuinely new, he posited in Tradition and the Individual Talent, could only be achieved after thoroughly internalizing the achievements of the past. What’s even odder is that we were also told that work in “The Hooligans” was influenced by the Impressionists, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin. So which is it—rejection or embrace?
To add to the confusion, the most obvious influence on Ghenie’s work of the past year, Francis Bacon, remained unacknowledged. The painter has denied paying attention to the British bad boy but boasts of “stealing from everyone.” Yet in just about every work in “The Hooligans,” Ghenie turned faces into unintelligible, cartoon-like swirls, as Bacon habitually did, while rendering other details—oversized heads and hands, a shoe—with careful attention to appearances. Like Bacon, too, Ghenie often resorts to a kind of raw meat palette for body parts with local color for the rest. This became a predictable manner for Bacon, and it’s no more convincing in Ghenie. The influences itemized in the texts connected with the show are less evident. The most interesting painting in the show, The Impressionists, suggested a dark-clad figure leaning over a bed, with a reclining, possibly mutilated nude and a pair of silhouetted legs rising irrationally above. What it had to do with any of the Impressionists was debatable, but distinguished by its moody, almost muddy hues and a notable absence of raw meat passages, it was one of the few works that encouraged longer looking.
Alix Bailey’s exhibition of intelligent, straightforward paintings of figures, clothed and unclothed, made over the past few years, at The Painting Center, was about as far away from the Sturm und Drang of Ghenie’s works as one could get. Like Morandi, whom she plainly admires, she has a “repertory company,” not of objects, but of models whom we learn to recognize from picture to picture. A sense of amplitude and calm prevailed. Nudes reclined, and figures dressed in black or white sat erect on a sofa draped with pale linen, in a white painted room, with a white marble fireplace behind them. Bailey uses the same linen she paints on as drapery beneath her sitters, creating a fusion between the fact of her subject matter and the fiction of the painting, which she says she enjoys. Plants, red hair, mismatched socks, fabric printed with pale flowers, intensely pink drapery, and glimpses of tribal rugs provided a counterpoint of color and occasional pattern. Sculpture on the mantelpiece shifted the scale. Punctuation was added by a black cat, snuggled against one of the sitters in Alannah and Jared Diptych, a large double portrait of a young man and an androgynous young woman, both relaxed and confrontational. The presence of the cat, curved on the floor beside a slim reclining nude with sharply angled legs, staring out at us, somehow turned the generously scaled painting into an inversion of Edouard Manet’s Olympia. A group of small, brushy, loosely painted studies, some tenuously related to the large works, some apparently independent, provided clues to Bailey’s thinking and her process.
Alannah and B (the nude and cat painting), was among the most compelling works on view, in part because of its wash of cool light, in part because of the satisfying way the divisions of layered rugs, floor, and all the rest of it fit together, contradicted by those angled legs, and in part because of the dispute between the insistent vertical stripes of rug and mantel and the diagonal progression of the short dark arcs of cat, underwear, and fireplace opening. In Young Group, three of Bailey’s habitual models, all clothed, sat side by side, on the linen-draped sofa. A fourth young man, in a striped shirt, lay at their feet, his folded limbs made to enter into a dialogue with the geometric motifs of the rug. There was something a little uncomfortable about Young Group, which may be its strength. It took effort to discover the internal logic of the painting, which, even when found, seemed not quite as inevitable as the lucid relationships of Alannah and B. Perhaps that’s why Young Group demanded and held our attention with its paradoxical combination of ambition and modesty, intimacy and forthrightness. But so did all the large works in Bailey’s show.
Uptown, at Bookstein Projects, “Susannah Phillips: Paintings of a Model, 1998–2006” explored territory not unlike Bailey’s on a smaller scale and with a very different set of assumptions. Phillips’ economical, broadly stroked images of a reclining nude, in a restrained palette of grays, whites, and earth tones that sometimes flushed into flesh, seemed to be generated by the question of how much could be left out or barely indicated without compromising the studio theme. Figures were minimally but convincingly indicated with assertive gestures and sweeps, parsimoniously sharpened, on occasion, with judiciously placed drawing. Sometimes Phillips came close to her model, filling the small canvas with the horizontal body, under a wash of light that in one arresting image all but fractured the figure into luminous, clearly defined planes against a dark rectangle of background. In others, Phillips stepped back, overlapping the nude with the looming shape of the seated artist, played against the corner of the support. The most pared-down of these two figure compositions threatened to become abstract constructions, with the painterly physicality of their dryly brushed planes becoming a potent metaphor for bodily presence. Phillips can put on paint with deceptive ease and notable accomplishment. The small paintings at Bookstein Projects could read as if they had been dashed off, as spontaneous responses to perception. But the tension between allusion to a familiar image and the fact of paint on a surface strengthened the pictures and helped to cancel out that very familiarity. Ultimately, though, these tough little paintings refused to wrench themselves free of reference, returning us to Phillips’ engaging, fresh, and very personal version of her time-honored motif and, happily, distracting us, at least momentarily from our uneasy present.