The Daily Pic: From 1966, pure form that's built around letters.
Al Held made “Upside Down Triangle” in 1966, and the work is now in “Al Held: Alphabet Paintings”, a lovely show of the artist’s Color Field pictures at Cheim & Read gallery in New York. As the show’s title makes clear, however, the pictures don’t really fit into the Color Field category, except at first glance. Many of the paintings seem instead to be massive, cropped enlargements of a sign-painter’s letterforms, complete with shadowed “edges” included to give the letters depth. This picture isn’t actually titled after the letter it shows, as some of its brethren are, and it’s hard to decide on any one character it might represent – but the reference is there nevertheless. That pulls it out of the orbit of Kenneth Noland and late Barnett Newman and other Greenbergian abstractionists and into the stranger, more interesting worlds of Ed Ruscha and even of Garry Neill Kennedy, the Canadian conceptualist. By sourcing his abstractions in script, Held gives up on the utter freedom of purely non-figurative art and instead seeks the grounding and limits imposed by the reality around us.
The Daily Pic: Alfredo Jaar sketched all the portraits he could think up for Antonio Gramsci, master and martyr of the Italian far left.
Alfredo Jaar, best known for his rigorous photo-conceptual work, made these and many other recent sketches of Antonio Gramsci in the wee hours after his assistants went home. They are on view in the group show called “Cleaning Up”, curated by Samuel Draxler for Johannes Vogt Gallery in New York. Draxler tells me that Jaar draws these portraits of the great Italian communist, a hero of his, “to try to capture all of the traits of Gramsci’s character and the nuances of his vision.” That doesn’t feel completely right to me. It feels more like making the portraits is in itself an act of worship, meant to give flesh to a remote figure known mostly in disembodied form, the way a kid raised on radio shows might have tried many different renderings of the Lone Ranger or the Green Hornet. The portraits also strike me as akin to the many faces of Christ permitted in a single Christian devotion, not in conflict with each other because they each reveal a different aspect of His nature. Or maybe the portraits’ irreconcilable variety bears witness to the actual irrelevance of appearance, personality and biography in dealing with a man such as Gramsci, who matters only for his thoughts (which, of course, are about things such as the power of art and images).
The Daily Pic: After years of figuration, the artist goes fearlessly abstract.
Exactly one week after praising the inspired ugliness in Kandinsky’s first abstractions, here I am with “A Child In Winter Sings”, by the veteran American artist Jim Dine, which is one of the new paintings by him that I saw at Pace gallery in New York. Like Kandinsky, “Child” marks a turn away from representation, although here coming at the end of a career rather than the beginning. Either way, both “turns” show an artist avoiding easy compositional or chromatic or linear solutions, and aiming instead for a mess that barely holds together. It’s all part of Modernism’s brilliant failure of coherence, found in Cezanne and Picasso and Warhol and Nauman, when they are at their best, but only rarely in such artists as Matisse, Pollock, Lichtenstein and Judd.
The Daily Pic: Vermeer's picture has been put on the streets to earn its keep.
This, of course, is Johanes Vermeer’s iconic (if only as of recently) “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, which was seen by 758,266 people in a Tokyo museum last year, in a “Treasures of the Mauritshuis” show that was the best-attended exhibition of 2012. And that’s a very bad thing – a tremendously precious object risking the inevitable wear-and-tear of travel, to grace a Greatest Hits extravaganza that has no point except to get turnstiles turning and tickets selling. To be further convinced of the evil of such things, read my diatribe on the exhibition-industrial complex, which hit the Web today. (Some of you may also be interested in news about me that’s in the very last line of the piece.)
The Daily Pic: A magpie artist breaks out of a cage.
Two of the “Fetish” sculptures by the artist known as B. Wurtz, from his solo show now at Metro Pictures in New York. Wurtz’s pieces ought not to work: Found-object assemblage is one of the most tired modes in the art world today. Maybe the reason Wurtz’s do work is because he came to that mode before most others and has pursued it with more dedication, and because the trouve-ness of his objets feels almost incidental, rather than the single point and device of his work. It feels as though Wurtz simply uses his trash as an art supply that he’s mastered, the way another artist might master oil paint or carved wood. Of course, oil paint and wood have a harder time calling up images of little girls with bows in their hair, without ever depicting them.
The Daily Pic: Yevgeniy Fiks looks back at our Red and Lavender scares.
I saw this piece in the recent solo show by Yevgeniy Fiks at Winkleman Gallery in New York. The project documents the paranoid conflation of the commie and the queer in 1950s America, by combining images and quotes. That content would be funny if it weren’t so painfully evil and dumb. (Actually, it’s funny despite being evil and dumb, or because it is.)
Of course, as the Supreme Court contemplates gay marriage, the queerbashing may soon be a thing of the past. If only knee-jerk commiebashing would head the same way. I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the communist party … but it sure was useful to have some kind of pro-worker option, however empty and symbolic, to keep the capitalist running dogs afraid and in line. Now they simply run, unleashed, and trample everyone else.
The Daily Pic: The Chicago artist gives commuters an old-fashioned thrill.
I saw this performance designed by Nick Cave, the Chicago artist, in Grand Central Station today. Cave's "Heard NY" was brought to us by Creative Time and MTA Arts for Transit, as it will be for another week, twice a day. Thirty raffia-costumed dancers cavort around the space as "horses" while harps and drums egg them on.
These kind of performances could easily be panned as pseudo-primitive spectacles, full of a romanticized, urbanized yearning for a simpler, more direct, more symbolic, more "authentic" culture. But watching Cave's performance, and the enthusiastic reaction of the Grand Central audience, it occurred to me that what I was seeing was a fully "authentic" expression of the culture of modern times – not because we moderns want and seek some kind of deep, mystical, shamanistic communion with the animal world, such as our ancestors are supposed to have got through their dancing. But because, in an atomized age of TV and the Web, we simply want shared, live, impressive spectacles, of almost any kind, without expecting much more from them than an instant frisson and shared thrill. And it could be that, even in so-called "simpler" cultures, "ritual" dance may have as much to do with its surface spectacle as with the deeper meanings that anthropologists insist on finding in it. That is, the rigorous anthropologists may be the romantics, in their search for symbolic depths they view as missing from their own lives, whereas the "primitive" dancers and spectators, in their sheer pleasure in the act of communal dance (and disregarding whatever they report to the PhDs) may actually be behaving rather like their commuting peers in New York.
The Daily Pic: Abstraction's pioneer avoided easy good looks.
This is “Impression III (Concert)”, by Vasily Kandinsky, and I think it is very ugly – gloriously, importantly ugly. I saw it again today, on my fourth visit to “Inventing Abstraction” at the Museum of Modern Art, and was impressed once again by how much it stood out from the other art on view. The problem with abstraction is how very easily it turns into a set of easy, decorative tropes. I was marveling today at how, within months of trying abstraction on for the first time, the great Czech artist František Kupka managed to perfect a self-contained, coherent, and absolutely stylish personal idiom and manner – almost as though Parmigianino or Schiavone had come directly after Giotto. Whereas Kandinsky’s first pictures manage to stay much more difficult than that, never following any recipe or becoming easy on the eyes.
I think that’s because they are trying to capture the extreme, persistent difficulty of the radical music, by Arnold Schoenberg, that influenced him, and his early pictures. I was struck by how pleasant it was to look at all of the abstractions in this show – and by the way its recordings of Schoenberg’s music still feel like they present an intellectual and emotional challenge.
THE DAILY PIC: In the late artist's pairings, it's not easy to say what's abstract and what's a representation.
These two paintings by Alan Uglow, who died at age 70 in 2011, are in his solo show at David Zwirner in New York. I love how he creates one abstract painting that seems to be about painting (it could almost be read as a realist image of the back of a stretched canvas) and then makes a huge silkscreen print, in a full-blown realist mode, that seems to be an angled perspectival view of the abstraction – except that, on close study, it isn’t. Even those little blocks of wood the artworks sit on are great: They seem close cognates to the little blue rectangles in the corner of the abstraction, and then are shown again, as actual wood blocks, in the realist print. It’s M.C. Escher, without the schmaltz and with philosophical rigor, or it’s Robert Ryman in a less intuitive moment.
The Daily Pic: Vintage Jewishness through a new Bauhaus Lens.
This photo of Jewish schoolchildren in the town of Mukacevo, now part of Ukraine, was taken by Roman Vishniac sometime between 1935 and 1938, when he was documenting the sorry state of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe – which was about to get so much worse. The image is now in his show at the International Center of Photography in New York. The exhibition makes clear how much Vishniac’s “simple” documentation owes to avant-garde art and photography from earlier in the century. That’s doubly clear when you look at the much straighter photojournalism by Chim that’s on view one floor up at the ICP, and that was done at precisely the same time. I have to admit that the stylishness of Vishniac’s vision helps sell me on his subjects – even though his Orthodox subjects often resisted the modernity he represents.
For a full visual survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.
The Daily Pic: In 1963, Stephen Antonakos made works that refuse to be pigeonholed.
This “Pillow” sculpture was made by Stephen Antonakos in 1963, and I spotted it recently in his show at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in Chelsea in New York. It helps demonstrate how much the standard art-historical narratives cut out of the real story of art. Where do Antonakos’s pillows fit in the scheme of things, as we’ve all learned it? They don’t even fit into the standard story of their maker’s art, since he’s known for works in neon. On the other hand, what’s even more weird is how few works don’t fit our standard narratives: People complain that art has to be about more than “mere” novelty, but novelty of any kind is surprisingly hard to achieve. Hence my interest in these unsettling pillows, more likely to cause insomnia in a poor art historian than to cure it.
The Daily Pic: A Spanish fresco captures the fearless Middle Ages.
This 13th-century fresco of a lion was painted near Burgos in Spain, probably by an itinerant English artist from Winchester. I just saw it on the wall at the Cloisters, the Met’s medieval department far uptown in Manhattan. For me, this fresco represents medieval art at its best: Ferocious and unforgiving, with ties to its barbarian and pagan past that are as strong as its ties to the ancient and Christian Mediterranean. The painting comes from a monastery, but could as well be from a castle wall. (And let’s not forget that most monks were members of the warrior aristocracy.) As the Met’s wall text informs us, several medieval documents insist that “images of animal, birds, serpents and other things are for adornment and beauty only.”
The Daily Pic: The great photojournalist Chim registers recovery.
This fabulous and iconic picture, by the great photojournalist known as Chim, was taken in 1947 on Omaha Beach, in Normandy, where massive slaughter had been seen just a few years before. It’s now in a show called “We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956 by Chim”, at the International Center of Photography in New York. This is just about the most lyrical image that Chim ever shot, and there’s something especially great about his rare use of color film for it. We mostly think of this era, and its horrors, as having happened in black and white, so it’s lovely that an image of recovery should glow, Oz-like, in soft polychrome.
The Daily Pic: Sjoerd Vroonland crosses a chair and a coatrack.
This piece is called “Extension Chair,” designed by the young Dutchman Sjoerd Vroonland for the Moooi company. It’s currently in a show called “The Next Wave: Industrial Design in the 21st Century” in Washington D.C., curated by Douglas Burton of Apartment Zero. I love the way “Extension Chair” indeed “extends” the aesthetic principles of a classic work, and thereby makes it feel entirely contemporary – much more of our time than all the sleek, futuristic designs that, shockingly, still pass as contemporary.
The Daily Pic: An artist imagines her paintings are woven.
“Grey stripe 006” is a very recent painting by Michelle Forsyth, now showing at Mulherin+Pollard gallery in New York. As is pretty clear, Forsyth, though trained in fine art, recently began to do weavings as well. (She cites the influence of Anni Albers). Though some of Forsyth’s new paintings are actual weaving diagrams, this one is more an impression of loomwork than a recipe for it. What I like is how the over-and-under principles of weaving seem to have been transferred direct to painting, as though the mechanisms of one craft could be used in another. They can’t – stripes of paint can only cross, they can’t interweave – but the attempt, and failure, interest me, as a late-in-the-day revival of systemic painting.