David Blatherwick's videos fill a church with bird calls.
This is a detail from David Blatherwick’s installation called “I Wish I Knew”, in St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto. Blatherwick videotaped five members of the church’s fine choir as they whistled transcriptions of real bird song, then mounted the results in various corners of the sacred space. (Click here to see video of the piece.) When you first enter the building, you think a small gaggle of songbirds has somehow got trapped in the church. And when you spot the little video monitors showing the singers, that impression doesn’t much change: We’re so used to humans who make human sounds that birdsong never quite seems to come from their lips, even when we see it coming forth. For centuries, European composers played with the idea of incorporating bird song into their music. (The clavecinistes of the French baroque were especially keen on the idea.) Blatherwick does without the music, and finds enough pleasure just in the birds. Saint Francis would have been proud.
His Black Paintings are too lovely not to also be jokes.
The last in a week of 1960s Black Paintings by Ad Reinhardt, inspired by the show now at David Zwirner in New York. As I hope has been clear from the images (if not the texts) of my weeklong celebration, Reinhardt’s paintings are, among other things, gorgeous to look at. Arrayed in orderly series around one of Zwirner’s deluxe white-walled spaces, they are all you could ask for in elegance and grace. I can’t imagine any lofty condo that wouldn’t look better with two or three on the walls. And that’s one of the pitfalls of these pictures, and of pictures in a similarly “spiritual” vein by the likes of Rothko and Agnes Martin: Their artistic substance can easily sublimate into stylish but vaporous design. Reinhardt’s black-on-black paintings often seem to slide into the same register as the lovely black-on-black crepes of a classic Armani suit – but without the extra heft that function always lends to fashion.
That’s why I’ve spent this week stressing the conceptual side of Reinhardt. If we imagine his paintings as both beautiful, visually, and more than a bit absurd, conceptually, I think that can keep them, and us, a bit off-balance, as the Black Paintings and their viewers must have been in the 1960s.
One art historian I know took exception to the way I’ve been implying that Duchampian art (and therefore what I’m claiming as its Reinhardtian progeny) is made up of immaterial and un-visual, or even anti-visual, gestures. He’s pointed out that the specifics of what a readymade is – the shape and size and nature of the object the artist selects – mattered to Duchamp, and ought to matter to us. I completely agree: I’ve written about how, to understand Duchamp’s “Fountain”, we need to understand the original meanings of porcelain urinals, which came closer to being deluxe than abject or common. But I still think that what Duchamp made clear is that such readings are destabilized – made richer than the usual propellers-are-beautiful line – when the objects we are reading also seem absurd and almost arbitrary. When we believe that Duchamp might as easily have chosen another piece of plumbing (but didn’t) and when we imagine that Reinhardt could have juggled different blacks (but didn’t), we are made to look and think longer and deeper. Reinhardt’s surfaces are stunning, but they’re better for the guffaw underneath. (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchase, with funds from The Lauder Foundation, Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Fund, ©2013 Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London)
Reinhardt's subtlety makes us look until we can't look any more.
Yet another picture from my week-long study of the Black Paintings of Ad Reinhardt, now being celebrated at David Zwirner in New York. This canvas was painted in 1960.
So far this week, I've been stressing the conceptual, even anti-retinal side of Reinhardt's project, but it would be crazy to go too far in that direction. The extreme subtleties in his paintings do demand the closest of looking, to be made out at all: The less there is to see, the more work we must do to see it. But as I sat there staring and staring and staring at Reinhardt's modulated blacknesses, something strange started to happen: I couldn't see them, or much of anything, anymore. The strain such looking put on my entire perceptual system, from eyeball to retina to cortex to mind, brought it close to a point of collapse. Staring at an almost-black square, brightly lit on a white wall, has some of the same blinding effect as staring too long at a black dot on a sheet of white paper: Generalized dazzle replaces the details of vision, to the point where you can't tell what's an illusory spot thrown up by your exhausted eyes and what's a real feature of Reinhardt's painting. This means that a painting that, more than most, invites close contemplation also sets out to foil it – which of course is as much a conceptual gambit as a sensory one.
Reinhardt's game of sensory exhaustion reveals something else: Paintings that seem to be all, and only, about the details of their surfaces – paintings that seem entirely self-contained, within the limits of their frames – are actually hugely interactive with their environments and their viewers. (To use Michael Fried's famous language, they seem "absorptive", like a Frank Stella, but turn out to be "theatrical", like a Donald Judd.) The Black Paintings change radically as the lighting on them changes; they change as we move side to side in front of them, and as we move close and then retreat, and as we grow tired then refresh ourselves. And they seem to demand such changes and displacements, across both space and time, to fully reveal themselves.
Reinhardt's Black Paintings demand to be seen in their magical flesh.
"Abstract Painting, No. 34", from 1964, is the third of my week's worth of Pics devoted to the Black Paintings of Ad Reinhardt, now on view in his centennial show at David Zwirner in New York. Compared to the others in the series, this almost-blue painting is so garish you might even be able to make it out in digital reproduction.
But here's the thing: Reinhardt's paintings don't really work except in the flesh. This is not, as is usually said, because of their sensory subtlety – that's only part of the story. Although their extreme refinement can make them seem almost immaterial, these paintings need to assert a direct, true, historical connection to their maker that only an encounter with their original matter can guarantee.
I recently argued in the New York Times that, in terms of sensory and semantic content, a forgery or copy can be as useful as an authentic work of art; since Reinhardt's abstractions are so pared-down, copies ought to be especially easy to make and should work as fine surrogates for the authentic pictures. There's so little there in a Black Painting, in the first place, that there's not all that much to get wrong in copying one. But I think that just because of their paring-down, the pictures are more than usually about the act of their making instead of any visual effect they produce. They get a lot of their meaning, that is, from being the product of an absurd – or at least unlikely – act or gesture of one man, at one watershed moment in history, who chose to produce hand-made objects that barely register as any human's production. Only the originals have a true, if impalpable, connection to that man and that moment of making. Actually, it's the impalpable nature of that connection that demands an encounter with the original objects; the connection doesn't reside in any sensory features that could be captured in a copy.
The great Black Paintings are handmade, but refuse to show it.
This is a second of Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings in the current Zwirner show, from the week’s worth that I’ll be Daily Pic’ing. If you were looking at it in good lighting, you’d be able to tell that it was different from yesterday’s choice, but it wouldn’t be easy. Among other things, Reinhardt insisted that his pictures show no trace of their maker’s hand – traces that had helped differentiate and personalize other abstractions of his era. But he also seemed absolutely keen to make each picture himself, with his own two hands.
If the Black Paintings were about absolutely pure perceptual effects, as critics often imply, Reinhardt might have got better, cleaner, purer results by having them mechanically printed. Handpaintedness is important to these pictures, however, because they want to be in close and complex dialog with all the notably, aggressively handpainted pictures that came before – they want to be seen as part of the same old conversation. The refusal of the mark of the hand, that is, has more rhetorical power when that refusal is made via the hand of a painter; the abnegation of expressive mark-making is more impressive when such marks are an obviously available, desirable, even inevitable option. (A horny monk resisting sex is more impressive than a eunuch doing so; some medieval monks and priests slept with gorgeous naked youngsters, to test their own powers of resistance. In the 1950s and 60s, that was what it felt like for Reinhardt to take up a paint-laden brush, and then produce an untouched surface.)
The fact of the handmaking of these pictures, which is such an important part of them, is hardly perceptible in their presence. Does that mean that their handmadedness is yet another of the conceptual facts and ploys backing up these apparently perceptual artworks, as per yesterday’s Daily Pic? Or does it mean precisely the opposite: that the paintings demand you do the work of looking and looking and looking – and only barely finding – the traces they preserve of the hand that made them, and that worked so hard to hide itself. The eyes take in that hiddenness in a way the mind alone never could.
In the 1960s, the great abstractionist reveled in making absurdist pictures of (almost) nothing.
If you can barely make out this image, that's as it should be. It's one of the black-on-black Black Paintings made by Ad Reinhardt between 1960 and 1966 and now on view in the important survey of them at David Zwirner in New York, where I spent a solid four hours the other day. In honor of Reinhardt's centennial, I'll spend all week indulging in the absurd gesture of commenting on one Black Painting daily, even though the differences between them are likely to be invisible.
The absurdity of my gesture is, I think, vital to understanding these pictures. They are usually treated with the utmost sobriety, pondered as great works of formalist – even spiritual – exploration. They are read as being about blackness, as both color and mental state, or even as metaphysics. But I think the Black Paintings are also funny, even whacky, or maybe just mean: What's not to laugh about in a picture that's so barely there, it can barely be seen? I think that Reinhardt's Black Paintings are meant, in part, as a poke in the eye of the art world and its pretentious, overprecious art appreciators. The room just before them at Zwirner is full of the zany, often vicious cartoons that Reinhardt published to lampoon that art world, and I think this Mad Magazine spirit needs to cross the threshold into the gallery that holds his abstractions.
In making the Black Paintings, Reinhardt may have been as indebted to Duchamp as to Malevich and Barnett Newman. (Although Malevich was probably more Duchampian than we realize.) What could come closer to the anti-retinal position of Duchamp than paintings so dark they can barely impinge on our retinas? The gesture of putting one black paint on top of another has to be as much about trying out a crazy, impossible artistic idea as it is about seeing what aesthetic dividends that idea pays. At Zwirner, there's a case full of vintage New Yorker-ish cartoons that poked fun at Reinhardt's Black Paintings; I can't imagine that Reinhardt wasn't expecting, and inviting, that response to his work from his cartoonist colleagues.
In 2003, Marshall painted a nautical scene that echoes a picture by America's most recent Old Master.
“Gulf Stream” was painted by Kerry James Marshall in 2003, and is now in his small solo show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The gallery points out that the painting is clearly related to Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” from 1899, in the Metropolitan Museum collection. The Homer shows a shipwrecked black man whose little boat is surrounded by sharks, and that precedent adds an undercurrent of angst to a Marshall that might otherwise seem perfectly cheery. But another comparison that seems equally apt to me: Down the road at the Corcoran museum, there’s "Ground Swell", a 1939 painting by Edward Hopper, which, in colors very much like Marshall’s, shows a bunch of white people out for a day’s sailing in the most yar of yachts. I think there’s a sense that Marshall is trying out what it might look and feel like to insert African Americans into a cheery world and culture that they’ve never had a place in. (The fisherman’s net around the edge of Marshall’s picture evokes the ersatz New England of a bad lunch spot in the Hamptons.)
Of course, if you buy Alexander Nemerov’s reading of the Hopper, which says that it’s a picture about the gathering clouds of war, then Marshall’s two sources aren’t that far apart.
Bruce Nauman, our greatest artist, tries a feline focus.
A still from Bruce Nauman’s “Pencil Lift/Mr. Rogers”, one of the videos in his current solo at Sperone-Westwater gallery in New York. At its best, Nauman’s work is brilliantly, unutterably peculiar – and the new pieces qualify. Nothing he does is easily turned into a pat paraphrase, but the new series is all about fingers and the tricks they play: counting and touching and holding pencils aloft by their tips. The idea of the “digit-al” came into my mind, with the digit-y cat feet in the background representing the normal domestic space that Nauman’s work seems to take place in. It’s as though he’s telling us that his work isn’t so much about the world of art, as about the weirdness that’s there in all the places we know.
The Daily Pic: Mike Kelley equates insanity and creativity, then negates the equation.
This image shows Mike Kelley’s “Pay For Your Pleasure”, from 1988, as installed in his retrospective at MoMA PS1 in New York. The piece consists of a series of huge portraits of great cultural figures, inscribed with things they said about the links between madness, crime and art. So there’s Veronese saying “We painters claim the license that poets and madmen claim” and (William) Blake claiming that “those who constrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be constrained.” At first the piece could read as a celebration of these ideas – Kelley himself had a Dionysian side, and took his own life – but there’s lots to make us read it the other way around. After all, the portraits themselves are aesthetically stolid (I’d bet Kelley paid some hack to paint them) and some of the speakers don’t quite exemplify their own quotes: Veronese for instance was hardly a radical. And then there’s the fact that that tiny image we see at the end of the installation is a work by a genuine criminal that Kelley asks to have installed each time the piece is mounted. And it is definitely, absolutely no masterpiece.
The Metropolitan Museum rehangs its Old Masters, and Andrea Schiavone comes into his own.
For the last "Met Monday" at the Daily Pic, here's an all-time favorite of mine, the "Marriage of Cupid and Psyche", painted in about 1550 by the Venetian artist Andrea Schiavone. (Meaning "Andrew the Slav", because he came from one of the Venetian possessions on the Dalmatian coast. The Met also has great holdings of his works on paper.)
These Monday pics have been about celebrating the rehang of the Metropolitan Museum's Old Master holdings, and few pictures have profited from it as much as this one: I loved it even when it was hung high over a door in a tucked-away corner, as it was for many years, but now curators have brought it down to eye level, where it can really sing. It's not just about the wild serpentine forms that Schiavone borrowed from Mannerist painters based further south. Now we can see the wonderful looseness of his brushwork as well. (Click here to zoom in, then take a look at the bottom hem of the topless Psyche's dress.) I'm convinced that Schiavone is an important missing link between Titian and Tintoretto, and that he deserves to get his reputation back as a serious rival to both. (Also, since my son got married on Saturday, I couldn't very well resist this picture today.)
Two problems with my theory: First, I once went on a pilgrimage to every Schiavone in Venice, and most of them were infinitely weaker than his "Cupid and Psyche". (Although I have a feeling that many of those pictures were falsely attributed to him, at a time when he was the grab-bag name that got attached to every lousy mannerist painting in Venice. Could it be that the number of bad pseudo-Schiavones actually gives a sense of how influential he was on lesser artists?) Second problem: This painting was originally meant for a ceiling, so you have to wonder how much of its bravura could ever have been seen. But that's a problem with almost all Renaissance pictures, given the terrible lighting they would once have been viewed in. I think that pictures were meant to be excellent in their execution, and maybe in a patron's first glimpse of them, and then further visibility was much less important. In that, Renaissance pictures may have preserved some of the qualities of Medieval relics, whose simple existence mattered almost as much as any contact they had with worshipers.
Steve McQueen's movie can seem sold-out, but maybe that's what its subject demanded.
This still from Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" captures what I noticed most about it: That it had most of the trappings of a standard Hollywood costume drama, in the fundamentals of wardrobe, decor, cinematography, lighting, dialogue, plotting, cutting and music (which was especially manipulative and full of cliche). Only its tremendously important and compelling subject makes "Slave" stand out.
That's a disappointment to me, since I had the huge pleasure of seeing the full survey of McQueen's earlier work as a video and film artist in Basel's Schaulager art center last year. In those pieces, he kept his viewers off-kilter with innovative, complex works that happen to present moving images, and sometimes tell a scrap of story, but which begin where Hollywood leaves off. The first thought that came to mind with "Slave" was that McQueen had simply sold out, or caved to Hollywood's blinkered vision of what film can do. Then my artist wife suggested another possibility: That McQueen had the absolutely overriding goal of telling the harrowing, shameful story of Solomon Northup's enslavement to as many people as he possibly could, given that such stories have stayed almost entirely untold in mass-market movies. Only by embracing Hollywood cliches could he attract the widest possible audience, which is now addicted to them.
But there's one other possibility: That if what McQueen cares about is the content, rather than the form, of his work, then he has to aim for a kind of transparency that only cliches can offer, since they are by definition unmarked and content-free. Artists have tended to think that taking a "straightforward", unadorned documentary approach to an image is the way to avoid style and transmit a subject at its most pure. McQueen may have realized that that, too, yields a kind of artiness that distracts. Only by giving viewers precisely what they know already, in terms of form, can you give them new content that they'll take in for itself.
As the festival wraps, Ragnar Kjartansson's boatload of musicians play its closing notes.
The Venice Biennale ends Sunday, and this is my final shoutout to it – an image of the mariner musicians hired by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson to perform for the duration of the event, in a piece called S.S. Hangover. Back and forth they’ve been sailing, day in and day out, repeating the same elegiac fragment of music for brass as they cross a small pool at the far end of the Biennale grounds. My photo was taken in early June, on opening weekend, but a video uploaded this autumn shows that not much has changed. Kjartansson’s piece provided a lovely, wistful coda to any day’s visit to the exhibition. Now, however, as the grand festival closes for good, the musicians and their audience will have still more to feel poignant about.
At Performa, Shana Lutker revisits a wild Dada play that featured a nose and some lips.
This is a study for props and costumes in "The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm", a piece by Shana Lutker that I saw staged last night in New York as part of this year's Performa festival, and that is playing again tonight. Lutker's piece revisits the events of July 6, 1923, when Andre Breton, future leader of the Surrealist movement, came to blows in a Paris theater with some adherents of the rival Dada group, led by Tristan Tzara, who that night was premiering his new play called "The Gas Heart". Lutker's directing and script both need lots (and lots) more work, but the historical material she unearthed is fantastic, as are the costumes for the characters in "The Gas Heart", the play within Lutker's play, whom Tzara named Mouth, Eyebrow, Ear, Neck, Eye and Nose. Apparently last night's outfits were "inspired" by the originals of Sonia Delaunay, but I've got a feeling that Lutker used some wonderful poetic license in giving us a few of these body parts.
At the Venice Biennale, Sharon Hayes gets young women to ponder sex.
This image shows a moment from a video by Sharon Hayes that's up at this year's Venice Biennale. (The show closes in five days, and therefore seems to warrant a parting Pic or two from me.) Hayes's video involved putting straight-ahead questions about sexuality to 36 students at an elite all-women's college in New England. (Click here to see some clips, along with comments by Hayes.) This Biennale included a fair dose of art with spiritual aspirations, so Hayes's encounter with the real was a brave and useful counterweight. That may have been what won it a Golden Lion prize.
Gerard ter Borch made headlines, while his rival in Delft was painting maids with earrings.
Here we are again, on our regular Monday visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This picture was painted in around 1658 by Gerard ter Borch, and is now on display in the Met's newly rehung Old Masters galleries. It is by Vermeer’s much more famous and successful contemporary, and lacks much of what we moderns love in Vermeer: His proto-photographic light, his cryptic, event-free subjects, his wide-angle deep space. That “lack” may be precisely why pre-modern Dutchmen so preferred ter Borch. As I’ve argued before, we may want to put ourselves in their eyes, and redress the balance between the two artists.