Catherine Murphy’s Dreams

After months of Photography shows…Hark! I see a flag and a light that portends some State of the Art American Painting & Drawing in 2018 within.

Fellow lovers of Painting, fear not. I’ve surfaced from my year long deep-dive into the world of Contemporary Photography, finding equilibrium just as the new year looks like it’s being Painted with a new brush. First, there were the unexpected wonders of “Edvard Munch: Between The Clock and the Bed,” at The Met Breuer, the fascinating “Figuratively Speaking” at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and now with “Catherine Murphy,” the long awaited show of recent Paintings & Drawings by the singular and influential Artist and Educator1 at Peter Freeman, Inc., I can positively feel the wind of great Painting blowing through my hair once again. Well, at least my eyebrows. “Long awaited” as Ms. Murphy’s last show, “Catherine Murphy: Working Drawings” at Sargent’s Daughters, was in 2016, but the last show of her Paintings and finished Drawings, also at Peter Freeman, Inc., was back in 2013.

Over a career that now extends more than 50 years, though her style, focus, and her choice of subjects have evolved, there is one constant- an extraordinarily high level of accomplishment. It’s hard to think of another Artist who’s Paintings AND Drawings are among the finest created in each medium over that time. Both bodies of work are marvels. And, at least her more recent pieces are inspired by her dreams. Her new show, which focuses on this more recent work, is a visual tour de force- in more ways than one. No less than Artist Rod Penner told me in the Q&A I did with him last year that, in his opinion, Catherine Murphy “is in a class of her own,” among Artists he feels have been overlooked and/or are “important” today.

Installation view of part of the first gallery. All Photos by Kenn Sava, courtesy of the Artist and Peter Freeman, Inc. Click any Photo for full size.

As I moved through the galleries I was struck by something I hadn’t noticed as a focus of her work before. Unlike, say, her early landscapes, many of the pieces on view shared the common theme of seeing & perception. Take for example the first Painting in the show, “Cherry Pie,” from 2104. It’s obviously a pie, yet even a quick look reveals it’s a Painted pie, not a “photorealistic” pie.

“Cherry Pie,” 2014, Oil on canvas, 38 x 45 1/4 inches

No matter how close, or far, you stand from it, the work remains just out of focus, as if seen at a glance or in a slightly blurry photograph, but the level of artistry brought to bear in the entire work is staggering. The crust is open, missing one section. Strange. You’d expect a slice to be missing. Looking closer I was enraptured by what I saw.

The cherries, for instance, seem to have taken Cezanne’s immortal still lives to a different level. (Not “better,” I don’t believe in those kinds of comparisons. Different.) Look at how finely the highlights and the shading are done on each one. Then look at the broken edge of the pie crust to the left- each flake is carefully and sharply delineated in a way that is positively surreal. When have you seen real pie crust look like this? Their sharpness is in contrast to the overall blurriness, as if they are the point of focus for the absent camera. Then, there’s the pie tin. It’s countless folds appear to be almost individually colored as the light plays off them so magnificently, echoed in the wonderfully realized cast shadows underneath. If we take the pie tin for a “ground,” the work strikes me as a Painting that strives to go beyond two dimensions. It wants to, at once, lie above the surface, on it, and under it- all while drawing us inside of it. These questions of seeing (What do you see? What do you expect to see?) and looking into, though a painting is a flat, thin surface, recur repeatedly in this show.

“Shift,” 2016, Oil on canvas in two parts, each 37 7/8 x 45 1/8 inches.

Directly across the room from it is another pie-related work, in two parts. This time, what is apparently the top of the crust is an entirely separate work, displayed next to the empty pie crust. If these were hung separately, Would we think they are a pie crust and it’s top? They could be one of Edward Burtynsky’s aerial landscape Photographs of some distant land and an aerial shot of a crater in an icy land. Still, even in this context, shown together, it seems strange. It’s hard to not see the apparent top being on a pie. I kept thinking about what’s under it. Nothing but the surface it’s laid on. As for the pie crust, itself, we’re left to imagine what’s going to go inside, while we ponder the top now being a surface instead of a top and the empty space of the pie drawing us into a space, which is in reality, flat.

“Flat Screen,” 2016, Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 19 1/4 inches.

Adjacent to the previous two works is “Flat Screen,” a work that depicts a lovely, Painted, sunny, outdoor scene on the titular flat screen monitor. Perhaps, it’s a screen saver given the partial text on the lower right. The window behind it is blank being mostly covered by what appears to be a window shade. The light that does come through around the shade mimics the black border around the monitor’s screen. I wonder…wouldn’t we expect see the reverse- a blank, or grey, computer screen, and the sunny outdoor scene outside of the window?  It might be technology taking the place of experiencing nature via a live feed from outdoors, except that we see it’s a Painting. Is it the scene outside the window? We’ll never know. Continuing the spacial relationships, it also reminds us a monitor is flat and presents us with the illusion of 3 dimensions, like a Painting does.

“Float,” 2015, left, “Becalmed,” 2017,  right, both Oil on canvas, 72 x 54 inches and 54 x 72 inches ,

In the main gallery, are two works that might seem descendants of late Monet- both depict scenes taking place on bodies of water with trees nearby. In both, we are left to ponder, and admire, the surface, what’s on top of it, and what’s being reflected on it- all handled masterfully.

“Float,” 2015, Oil on canvas, 54 x 72 inches.

The one above, “Float,” 2015, is over the top, literally and figuratively. It continues the line of her early landscapes, which were painted outdoors. In 2013, she said, “Any Painting that you see is outdoors is a really slow Painting. Because I have to wait for the sun. I have to wait for the weather…2” “I got very interested in things that look spatial, but are not spatial,” she said in 2014. As you look at “Float,” it’s a bit like looking down the rabbit hole. I almost wondered if I was underneath the water looking up at the surface and the foliage above it, but the yellow leaves would seem to indicate we’re looking down on it. The floats and the leaves floating on the water provide a fulcrum between the two worlds- outer and inner. Again, she has created a scene of extraordinary depth on a simple, flat canvas, a bit like the feeling I got from “Cherry Pie.”

Don’t fall in. It’s only an inch or so “deep” and there’s a concrete wall behind it.

Then, “…I started dreaming Paintings, and thinking about Paintings differently. It was the beginning of a whole thing, giving myself permission to do it in a new way. that is really what stops everyone in the world: because of an idea of who you are you’re afraid to break your rules3.” So, more recently, she’s moved to scenes that are “smaller” closer, or more intimate, like those seen in most of this show. She says that after being inspired by her dreams, she then sets up the scene in her studio.

Half the show is devoted to Catherine Murphy’s amazing Drawings, all of which are these indoor scenes. And, I mean amazing. Like this one-


“Studio Floor,” 2015, Graphite on paper, 28 3/4 x 31 3/16 inches.

Again, the mastery of rendering surfaces is just stunning- the shading of each wire mezmerizes. Then, there’s the beautiful wooden floor- all Drawn in graphite. Once again, the feeling of depth is present. We can’t tell how high the pile of wire is from that floor. Is it one insanely long cable, or more? If it’s more, despite the yards of spare cable lying around, those two ends are never going to reach each other. It’s a very daring piece. If you want to test your technique, and your eye? Take a shot at Drawing something like this.

Catherine Murphy, long seen as a champion of figurative/representational Art, surprisingly said she’s “a compulsive Abstract Expressionist.” While I think she may have been referring to the technique of applying paint, I filed that in the back of my mind, though yes, there are passages here and there in this show that do qualify. Perhaps, none more so than “Studio Wall,” 2014, Graphite on paper. Without it’s title or the name of the Artist, one might think it’s by Cy Twombly. The more I looked at it the more I couldn’t believe it’s ONLY graphite on paper.

“Studio Wall,” 2014, Graphite, yes, Graphite on paper, 32 3/8 x 34 3/8 inches.

Standing in front of it for the longest time, it looked for all the world to have been Painted. So, I asked Catherine Murphy through the gallery how the background was done. She said, “I just keep adding graphite until the tone is correct.  There is not much actual “white” (although the wall I was drawing from was painted white).  What “white” there is, is the paper.” The fact that there is so little white of the paper left is what amazes me. The shading is so brilliantly done that no matter how close you get to it, the background looks like Paint.

Since she said that her dreams inspire many of her works these days, I asked her if she dreams in color, or black & white, as the resulting works are in both. She replied, “In the dreams the color suggests itself, but I could be dreaming color for all I know. Some things have to be in color and some things have to be in black and white.  But one way or another they are both about color.” Her Drawings are unique, whole works unto themselves that have nothing to do with her Paintings. They stand alongside her Paintings as “different but equal,” so to speak. Well? Except for this one-

“Painting Drawing Painting,” 2017, Oil on canvas, 51 x 72 inches.

In “Painting Drawing Painting,” 2017, she seems to be playing with that, though, blurring the boundaries between the two medium. Again, making us question what we’re seeing- What’s “Drawn?” What’s Painted?” Being oil on canvas, it’s all Painted, but much of it “looks” Drawn. It’s also fascinating that she’s left part of it, apparently, unfinished, while another part, along the right white border, appears to have been erased or removed, something she doesn’t do in her “real” Paintings.  My takeaway was that in this work, she’s giving Drawing the same “status” as Painting, which is traditionally the more valued medium, which also serves to reinforce their importance in her oeuvre as equals.

“Stacked,” 2017, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches.

“Stacked,” 2017, one of the three newest Painting on view (“Painting Drawing Painting” being another, “Becalmed,” seen further on, the third), creates the optical illusion that the stacks of books are suspended in mid-air. When I saw this, I wondered if Catherine Murphy had seen my apartment in her dreams. Then, alas, mine haven’t levitated. Yet.

“Floribunda,” 2015, Oil on canvas, 66 1/16 x 41 1/8 inches.

“I’m avoiding the comfort of realism. The pillow you know. The bottle you know. The landscape you know…I want to confront,” she said in 2013. The masterful, knock-out, “Floribunda,” 2015, is a classic example of that. It also speaks to what we see. What, exactly, are the broken dishes lying on, or seen against? The two patterns of whatever it is and the dishes are so similar it takes effort to see where one ends and the other begins as the eye moves across the canvas. It’s almost M.C. Escher-esque. Yes, they, positively confront each other. A detail that caught me in this, among so many others, is the “marrow” of the broken yellowish cup in the lower left corner.

Catherine Murphy has always followed her own star, regardless of what the rest of the Art world was doing or favoring. Marketing ploys, like “photorealism,” have proved to be an albatross around the necks, and careers, of any number of Artists, which has only served to delay (hopefully not permanently) the proper assessment of their work and accomplishment. Modern & Contemporary Realistic, Representational and Figurative Art has been slowly coming back, mostly in the galleries, and in museums elsewhere, but not the NYC museums, beyond, Kerry James Marshall in late 2016, early 2017.

Looking at their websites, Catherine Murphy is in, at least, 3 of NYC’s “Big Five” Museums (as I called them recently). The Met’s site shows 2 Paintings (acquired in 1986 and 1991), The Whitney’s shows 1 Painting (acquired in 1973), and 2 Drawings (acquired in 1993), and MoMA’s shows 2 Drawings, (acquired in 1987 and 2004). It’s a start, but one that hasn’t been followed up on in 14 years, plus. Of those three, only MoMA lists Catherine Murphy’s work as having appeared in an exhibition, both times in group shows, once when she was selected by Artist Vic Muniz, the show’s curator.

“Studio Floor,” 2015, left, “Chairback,” 2016, Graphite on paper, center, “Studio Wall,” 2014, right.

Yes, many have put her in the category of “Realism,” “Representational” and “Figurative” Art, I know, but Catherine Murphy’s work seems to me to stand aside of all of those categories because there are bits and pieces of any number of influences, periods, and styles going on in her work. Interestingly, she said in 2013 that there isn’t a style of Art she doesn’t like, because there is always someone doing something good in it. Elsewhere she has shown a familiarity with contemporary Photographers Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. I have a feeling along with not being afraid “to break your own rules,” as she said, it’s that range that helps her stand apart.

While shows like the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum “Triennial” are major events in the Art world that draw big crowds and gain instant recognition for a number of their younger participants, it seems to me that the time has come for such a show that features established Artists that have, as yet, not received their due in a major Museum show. The point is not to “shame” the Museums, but to give these Artists some of the exposure, attention and recognition, I for one, feel is long overdue.

Casting around for recommendations to be included in such a show (not to mention a Retrospective of her own), you need to look no further than Catherine Murphy.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Time Passes Slowly,” by Bob Dylan from “New Morning.” Catherine Murphy has said that her Paintings are about the passing of time. In lieu of the album version I would like to include, Mr Dylan may be seen and heard performing an early version of it, with George Harrison, here.

My thanks to Catherine Murphy, and Alexander Whitehead of Peter Freeman, Inc.

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  1. Catherine Murphy was the Senior Critic in Painting & Printmaking at Yale’s School of Art for 22 years, followed by being the Tepper Family Endowed Chair in Visual Arts at Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts, where she was followed by Kara Walker.
  2. Here.
  3. Here.

Michelangelo, Rodin, Joseph Cornell & David Hockney: Good Neighbors

In all my years of going to The Met (TM), I can’t ever recall FOUR major or important shows going on at the same time LITERALLY within feet of each other.

Until this moment in one section of The Met’s 2nd Floor.

My cup overfloweth. Part of the southwestern section of The Met’s second floor, Friday evening. To the far left, make a right at the grey wall and you’ve entered the Joseph Cornell & Juan Gris show. David Hockney, straight ahead, Michelangelo, to the right. To the far right, that lady has just emerged from the Rodin show, which starts about 10 feet behind her. Click any image for full size.

While the once in a lifetime “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer” is on pace to top 650,000 visitors1, “Rodin At The Met,” “David Hockney” (a retrospective), and the newly opened “Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris,” are drawing crowds, too.

At the back of the line in the gallery now occupied by the Joseph Cornell/Juan Gris show on December 29th. That whole, long hallway, seen above, still to go- after I make it to the hallway.

Over the holidays, the line to get in to see the Michelangelo or Hockney shows extended all the way down that long hall in the first Photo, and then all the the way through the gallery where the Cornell/Juan Gris show is now.

I know where they’re going. With one week left to go, it’s too late to beat the crowds. So, um, take a moment and get dressed, first.  The spiffy poster for  “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer” seen in the gift shop.

650,000 would put it in the range of the number of visitors who’ve seen The Met’s more popular fashion shows, like “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” and might even place it in their all-time top 10 most visited shows (3 of which I’ve seen). I’ve now made 10 visits to the Michelangelo show, which closes on Feb. 12th, half as many to Hockney, which will be up two weeks longer (to Feb. 25th). Rodin closed today, Feb 4th, as did the excellent “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” at The Met Breuer. Phew…

Hi, neighbor.

Each show is so dense, with so much to see in every work that what may be missed is the interesting connections between them. You have two of the greatest Sculptors, ever, born 365 years apart, here separated by mere yards. Then, there are two world renown Arists, who both happen to be, or were, gay, born almost 500 years apart separated by a few more yards. I’ll leave those assessments for someone else. I’m more interested in what this adds to the picture of Michelangelo we have at the moment, and the treasure trove of work that’s never been shown here.

At this point, I will be writing about “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer,” which took me 6 trips to see in it’s entirety (12 galleries & 17 sections). Since I’m famous, or at least notorious, for writing about shows after they’ve ended, I’m Posting this as fair warning.

Back in December, I told you this was a great time to join The Met!

You’ve got a week left to see something you’ll never see again.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “I’ll Miss You” by Ween. Because I will.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for
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  1. which I extrapolated from The Met’s January 22nd press release, which says they reached 500,000 visitors- 7,000 a day, with 22 days remaining.

Cig Harvey- The Miracle of A Moment

In 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson famously gave us the “decisive moment1.” It’s a term that’s been variously interpreted in the intervening 65+ years by countless Photographers, (Cartier-Bresson, himself, re-interprets it, here). Magnum Photographer Stuart Franklin sums it up saying, “all the elements come together: timing, composition, geometry and the situation as I wanted to remember it.” I’ll go with that until I understand it better. As seen in her latest show, “You an Orchestra You a Bomb,” at Robert Mann, Cig Harvey gives us such “decisive moments,” and a few that almost seem “miraculous.”

“Sky Lantern,” 2017, Chromogenic dye coupler print. Photo- Cig Harvey/Robert Mann Gallery. Click any Photo for full size.

“I hear babies cry
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll ever know.”*

 We live our lives never knowing when a moment is going to be “miraculous,” though, if you think about it- EVERY moment is a miracle. How many do we have out of the millennia of existence? As we go through our lives seeing each moment with the “camera” of our eyes and brain, these moments get recorded as memories, which you are free to hold on to and revisit them as you will. You can’t see someone else’s memories, or tap into their “live stream” (Yet. Thank goodness. Well, as far as I know.), unless that person is a Photographer who captures the moment and then prints the results. Luckily, Cig Harvey is one such Photographer, and beautiful moments abound in this show.

A first walk through of Cig Harvey’s show leaves the impression you’ve walked into a dream. It’s the most personal of dreams, especially since the subject of choice in a number of her Photos is her young daughter, Scout, seen in “Sky Lantern,” above. A muse for the Artist, who, in turn is creating a unique love letter to her daughter the likes of which few children of Artists have received. But, the images are much more.

Each moment, fixed with chemicals on paper, hangs in the air suspended in the ether of being, now given a “life” of it’s own in physical form, ripe with poignancy. In the act of capturing the moment, printing it and hanging it, the moment becomes lasting for as long as you choose to look at it. Ahhh….if only life were like this!

Alas, life, of course, is made up with all kinds of moments. Good, bad, neither good nor bad, some that are portentous, some who’s import is unknown…until later. Looking further, the work has the “deceptive simplicity” seen in her earlier books. Then, I realized it was another case of what Jerry L. Thompson wrote about Walker Evans2, “…he worked hard to make pictures that show deceptively simple facts.” In Cig Harvey’s case, she said that does not mean using Photoshop. Along with these Photos, Ms. Harvey’s writing is brought to the fore, in the book for this show, and on the walls of the gallery where they provide insight and counterpoint.

Both word and image show Cig Harvey is still in touch with being a girl, being a young woman, while being a mother. She’s also well aware of what’s going on in the world, and right around her. Though her work features the gorgeous moments in life, this body of it was born out of another type of moment.

“I see skies of blue
And clouds of white
The bright blessed day
The dark sacred night
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.”*

“Blizzard on Main Street,” 2017, Chromogenic dye coupler print. Photo- Cig Harvey/Robert Mann Gallery.

Cig’s decisive moment happened on Aug 15, 2015 at 7:40. “Somebody drove into me. I was absolutely fine, physically,” she said on January 27th. “The ideas of what could have been sort of played on my mind.” Her car was totaled but, miraculously, only her outlook has been bent/refracted.

Cig Harvey’s Artist Talk, January 27th.

I wasn’t aware of what had occurred in 2015 when I first looked at this work. Being a “survivor,” myself, I was drawn to the celebration of the moment I see in her work. In this show, Cig Harvey’s love for life is to be seen everywhere you turn, and that comes across more than anything else. Surviving teaches, I believe, not taking life for granted any longer. Even if you think you didn’t. You realize how lucky you are to have a beautiful moment…a good friend…love…a healthy daughter…life. You feel like a different person. And, you don’t see the world the same way any more. In her Artist’s Talk at Robert Mann on January 27th, she said much the same thing as the genesis for this body of work.

“Sparks, Lake Meguntacook, Maine,” 2016, Chromogenic dye coupler print. Photo- Cig Harvey/Robert Mann Gallery

This was printed on the wall under “Sparks, ” which Ms. Harvey singled out as being one influenced by her accident.

While they are certainly a celebration of youth, beauty, being a girl, being a mom…being alive. The body of work she calls “You an Orchestra You a Bomb,” may, also, be Cig Harvey’s way of holding the “other” kind of moments- the “bad” ones, at bay. Fill your life with the beautiful moments and memories of them and how they made you feel. Yes, moments can bring beauty, or they can bring disaster. Hold on to the good ones, for as long as possible.

A Photograph helps.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “What A Wonderful World,’ performed by Louis Armstrong, written by Bob Thiele, George Weiss and George Douglas. Speaking of beautiful moments, Louis performs it here in 1967-

My Posts on Photography may be found here.

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  1. What’s the “decisive moment?” In his classic book of the same name, Henri Cartier-Bresson says, “To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.” Cartier-Bresson was a founder of Magnum Photos, and you can read more from them on this ambiguous term, here.
  2. in “Walker Evans At Work,” 1982, P.10

Art In China Since 1989: O Brave New World

Talk about “digging a hole to China.” This one’s right through the Guggenheim’s ground floor! Wang Gongxin, “Sky of Beijing,” 2017, Color video installation with sound.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
‘Tis new to thee.”
(Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1)

The International world of Chinese Art is a dichotomy, it seems to me. On the one hand you have record prices being paid for Chinese Art all over the planet (particularly in the tightly controlled domestic Chinese market1), to the point that China is now the largest, or second largest, Art market in the world, depending on who you read (as of the latest figures, 12/31/2016). Meanwhile, a large part of the Western world is sitting back with absolutely no idea what is going on, who these Artists, not-named Ai Weiwei, are, and what all the fuss is about. Some of this market explosion may be due to a slumping Chinese stock market, some due to limited investment options in China, and some is good ol’ interest in Art. (Of course, prices being paid for any Art, or anything, are no indication of quality or “importance.” Regarding buying Art, my thoughts are here.)

Chen Zhen, “Precipitous Parturation,” 1999, Rubber bicycle inner tubes, fragments of bicycles, toy cars, aluminum, silicone and paint. Though living in Paris, Chen returned to his native Shanghai in 1999, one year before he passed away, where he saw signs that read “By the year 2000, 100 million people will have their own cars.” In response, he created this huge snaking dragon, largely from bike parts, especially the countless rubber bike tires that form it’s body. It’s pregnant belly is opening to reveal a load of toy cars. One older mode of transportation giving birth to the next.

That crack in the iceberg of the lack of broad Western exposure you heard on October 6th was not another artifact of global warming. It was the opening of the Guggenheim Museum’s monumental, and already historically important, show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” the long-overdue comprehensive NYC Museum introduction to what’s been going on in the Art of China since that apocryphal year of 1989. It’s the biggest show of Contemporary Chinese Art yet in the U.S.A.

Detail of the “bursting belly” full of tiny toy cars. I can’t help but recall that both Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg featured bicycles in their works. They are the two Western Artists I was reminded of the most in this show- whether or not they were influences on the Artists.

“Apocryphal” may be putting it mildly to characterize 1989…Empires fell (the communist’s in Eastern Europe). New ones were born (the first commercial internet service & the first written proposal for the world wide web), and other empires trembled- 1989 was the year of a protest involving 1 million Chinese calling for “government reforms and accountability2” that lasted 6 weeks and 6 days centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, (which means “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” named after the Tiananmen to it’s north, separating the Square from the “Forbidden City”). The protests (Plural. They took place in many cities in China) culminated in the  “Tiananmen Square Massace” (or “June Fourth Incident,” locally), in which 10,000 people are said to have been killed, with many more injured.

“It crystallized the spirit of the revolt,” Stuart Franklin, says on the verso of this 2015 Print issued by Magnum of his 1989 Photo, “Protestor in Tiananmen Square,” which he signed on the front. “It was a movement for freedom of expression, for basic rights, and against the outrage of official corruption,” he added. From my collection.

The iconic “Tank Man” Photo was taken by Magnum’s Stuart Franklin on June 5th. A tragic end to the decade of the relaxed “Reform-era,” begun in 1978, 2 years after the death of Mao Zedong. Marked by the “lifting China’s long-closed borders on the world and allowing for socialism’s planned economy to adapt to limited free-market principles3,” it served to stimulate both experimental and avant-garde Artists as well as students to question the status quo and seek other possibilities. Smack dab in the middle of this period, Robert Rauschenberg arrived in China in 1982, his experience inspired him to return and mount the “ROCI CHINA” show (for Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative), in the country’s most prestigious venue, Beijing’s National Art Gallery, in 1985, which more than 300,000 people visited in the three weeks between November 15th and December 5th!

Robert Rauschenberg, Poster for “ROCI CHINA,” 1985, Offset lithograph, featuring Photos Rauschenberg took in China, as seen at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” at MoMA, 2017 (apologies for the glare). The show moved to Lhasa, Tibet after Beijing.

The exhibition “confounded and inspired viewers, whose exposure to Western Art had been limited to reproductions within catalogs, and whose understanding of art had largely been confined to academic Painting, Sculpture, and Printmaking4.” For me, at least, it’s hard to not see that there may be at least some influence of that show here. At the very least, Robert Rauschenberg (Duchamp, etc.) may have inspired Artists with a broader range of possibilities, as he has countless other Artists in the West. At the same time, however, many Chinese Artists were rejecting the “New Wave,” and all outside influences, focusing on finding their own answers and their own way forward. After June 4th in Tiananmen Square, radical economic reform came in, experimental Art was no longer “sanctioned,” all backed by strong suppression of any mention of what had happened on June 4th in the press, media, online, or in history books, that continues to this day, as do the international sanctions that the rest of the world responded with.

The scene outside the National Art Gallery during “China/Avant Garde,” with it’s famous “No U-Turn” Sign. From this moment on, there would be “no turning back.”

Four months before that horrible end, another event took place that has had lasting impact-inside and outside of China. The “China/Avant-Garde” Art Show opening on February 5th, 1989, which is seen to be the “official” start of Contemporary Chinese Art in some quarters, and marks the beginning of the period covered by this show. “China/Avant-Garde” was “official,” in more ways than one. First, it was officially sanctioned, as hard as it may be for most Westerners to believe, as the “China Modern Art Exhibition,” on one condition- that there would be no performance Art, and second, it was held in the National Art Gallery, Beijing, where Rauschenberg’s show had been 4 years before.

The “Official sanction” didn’t last long. Two hours after it opened, Artist Xiao Lu fired a gun at her own work, “Dialogue,” and the police shut the show down for breaking the ban on performance Art. It opened and closed a few times (once for a bomb scare, which might have been a “performance”), before running it’s scheduled allotted length of time. By then it had made history- Artistically, culturally, historically, and influentially. While many Artists wound up leaving the country after the climate changed, a good deal of that experimental creative spirit and energy remains. Regardless of where the Artists may be now, the range of creativity on view at the Guggenheim was unceasing, eye-opening, and a good deal of it was operating on multiple levels simultaneously.

Xiao Lu fires a pistol at her work “Dialogue,” Custom-made telephone booth, Photograph, red telephone, glass, mirror, on February 5, 1989, 2 hours after “China/Avant-Garde” opened causing the immediate shutting down of the show. Photo from

With so many Artist options and so much time to cover (27 years), any number of alternate shows could’ve been mounted, but I think that what made it into Frank Loyd Wright’s rotunda and the two adjoining galleries, was, on the whole, exceedingly well chosen, with the caveats that, yes, that with 71 Artists included there should’ve been more than nine female artists included- a little under 8%, and, it felt to me that there was a plethora of video and installation Art, at the expense of other mediums, like Painting and Photography.

Lead curator Alexandra Munroe sums up the “post-Reform” environment- “Historical turbulence has given rise to an intelligentsia with a profound sense of skepticism towards governing ideologies and a predisposition to pragmatism in the absence of enduring meaning.” This extended to Artists working post-1989. “They produced works that questioned systems of truth and ideological formations…Eschewing Western humanist avant-garde ideals…experimental Artists approached ‘contemporary art’ as a new ‘other’ space outside the Western and Chinese Art words5.”

Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995, 3 Gelatin silver prints and “Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo,” 1993, left, Paint on earthenware.

For me, a classic example of this is Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 3 Gelatin silver prints, from 1995, is a prime example of letting go (sorry) of the past, it’s influence, and the “baggage” the past brings with it for Artists to “live up to,” or to continue what has been done before.

Many are undoubtedly familiar with those Ai Weiwei works. Not being able to include everything else on view in this piece, I’m going to focus on what stood out to me in Painting, Drawing & Photography, along with a few other works in other mediums I just have to include. The works are not listed in any particular order.

Huang Yong Ping, “The History of Chinese Painting And A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes,” 1987, reconstructed in 1993, Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp and glass. The original was a work displayed at “China/Avant-Garde,” in 1989.

Huang Yong Ping, “The History of Chinese Painting And A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes,” 1997, Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp and glass, begins this show with a strong statement that the past is over. History, as written in these two Chinese Art History Books, needed to be cleansed. The result is illegible, and so stands as a metaphor. Here is an Artist struggling with the question of how to become “modern” without becoming Western. Will studying Art History lead to something truly new, or will it just be recycling what’s been done? On one hand, the pulp though having been washed, is dirty. But, the slate has, also, been wiped clean since the books are now illegible. As Joe Strummer said, “The future is unwritten.” After this work, (which was shown in the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” show), it was. As such it stands as an ideal starting point for this show. Let’s see what was “written” after.

Wang Xingwei, “New Beijing,” 2001, Oil on canvas. In this work Wang Zingwei reimagines a well known Associated Press news photo by Liu Heung Shing, “Beijing- Rushing students to hospital,” 1989, taken on June 4th during the Tiananmen Square tragedy, where heroic bicyclists were shown rushing off with some of the wounded/injured, or deceased. Everything is as it is in the Photo, except Wang Xingwei has substituted 2 Emperor Penguins- animals not native to China, and therefore devoid of the political import Painting 2 wounded (or dead?) students would have had, while those helping are pulling together in ways that Chairman Mao espoused.

Wang Guangyi, “Mao Zedong, Red Grid No. 2,” 1988, Oil on canvas. Daring, and shocking, even 12 years after the death of Mao, given the omnipresence and power of his image in China. Unlike Andy Warhol’s “Mao as celebrity” series on the early 1970’s, Wang Guangyi has placed the former Chairman in a grid. It almost looks like he’s behind bars. It looks like it was done by (or influenced by) Chuck Close. The grid being one way Artists, including Close, have traditionally transferred images from one medium to another, but here it feels like there’s a different kind of transferring going on. Wang Guangyi painted this in 1988, 12 years after the subject’s passing, when it’s “meaning” is something else, something less fearful, something almost as neutral as the color he’s painted in, where it looks more like an old black and white Photo, and as such, it’s an image now locked in the past.

Liu Zheng, “The Chinese,” 1994-2002, 120 Gelatin silver prints. Among the Photography on display, these examples from the series of 120 stood out. Having worked on the state-run “Worker’s Daily” newspaper, his images go beyond the social realism they favored into a realm that isn’t quite “Street Photography,” and is significantly different from Robert Frank or Diane Arbus’ work, though the title is reminiscent of Frank’s “The Americans,” 1958. The rawness of the image is matched by the Photographer’s approach, which varies in each memorable shot.

Zhang Xiaogang, “New Year’s Eve, 1990,” Oil on canvas with collage of cloth and playing cards. After being hospitalized due to a bout with alchoholism, Zhang emerged from a dark period in his life in 1985 and joined the New Wave movement. This work has a haunting isolation to it. All we can really see are the figure’s left hand and his head/face. It’s as if he’s disembodied. In front of him lie 2 playing cards an unlit candle and a knife. Has the candle gone out? Is the knife for protection or self harm? This work was Painted after Tiananmen Square and refers to the beginning of the New Year. A black cloth hangs over the subject’s head, like a black cloud, with a red lining, possibly referring to additional raining of blood. The eyes stare straight out from the canvas, but not at the viewer. His glance doesn’t seem to make it out of his eyes.

Zhao Bandi, “Young Zhang,” 1992, Oil on canvas. One of the more popular Paintings in the show, judging by how many selfies I’ve seen taken in front of it online. It’s effect goes beyond it’s unorthodox off center hanging. Zhao shows us a young worker, living in a cramped space with few belongings beyond his embroidered comforter and a TV. Rising from sleep, he puts on his glasses and grabs a cigarette and stretches as he begins his day in his life in post-Reform China, where the economy is now booming, though the fruits of that may be slow to reach all levels of the workers.  This work was painted with a model in the Artist’s small room, on his bed. The title “Young Zhang” could really be “Young Everyman,” with Zhang being one of the most popular surnames in China.

Lin Yilin, “Safely Maneuvering Across Linhe Road,” 1995, Still from Performance video, CITIC Plaza, June 3, 1995

Lin Yilin, “Safely Maneuvering Across Linhe Road,” 1995, Color video with sound 36 minutes 45 seconds. Living in Manhattan, where pedestrian safety is an ever-increasing concern, there was no way I could leave this work out.


Here, the Artist constructs a wall of cinder blocks on a road, then moves it block by block, column by column, across all 4 lanes until he reaches the other side, safely.  At the show, all 36 minutes of it were looped. While I immediately related to the issue of trying to cross any street safely, Katherine Grube, who spoke with the Artist, said “Mr. Lin’s objective was to create a ‘movable wall,’ animated by his own efforts that would interrupt the steady flow of traffic…and call attention to the unnatural, inhuman pace of urbanization and the human dislocations necessary to, and inseparable from such monumental environmental change6.”

Ai Weiwei, “June, 1994,” Gelatin silver print

Ai Weiwei, “June, 1994,” Gelatin silver print- A while back in these pages I called Ai Weiwei the “Artist of the Decade,” even though there were three years left to run in it. I still feel good about my choice. He was named the #1 “Most Influential Photographer in the World,” among 50 selected in 2013, and by now he is, or will soon be, the most Photographed Artist in Art history. Still, it’s now obvious that he’s not the only important Chinese Artist of the past, let’s call it 3 decades. While his works, “Fairytale,” 2007, and “Citizen’s Investigation,” 2009-10, both “multi-media,” for lack of a better term, were also included, I picked this one because Ai Weiwei was in New York in June, 1989, when Tiananmen Square happened. He took this in Tiananmen Square on the 5th anniversary. It features his future wife, Lu Qing, center, while two soldiers walk casually behind her, another woman has her back to her right behind her, and, at the moment Ai shot this, a pensioner driving a powered cart, with his or her crutches visible, drives into the frame. Mao overlooks the whole scene. in the distance. What I haven’t seen mentioned, either on the wall card, or in the show’s catalog is that beginning the next year, 1995, Ai Weiwei began his famous “Study of Perspective” Photograph series, that lasted until 2003, where he flipped off important monuments around the world, including Tiananmen Square. Perhaps, learning from his experience with “June, 1994,” he opted to create a similar “affront” to “power” through means that required less “production,” and therefore, allowed him more control over the final result. Yes, it can be said he, therefore, stripped it down, even further than here, to it’s bare essentials.

Liu Dan’s “Splendour of Heaven and Earth,” 1994-95, Ink on paper. 196 by 75 inches. Photo- Liu Dan, Guggenheim Museum.

Liu Dan, “Splendour of Heaven and Earth,” 1994-95, Ink on paper. Besides Ai Weiwei, Liu Dan is the other Contemporary Chinese Artist that has captivated me since I discovered him at The Met’s “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” show in 2013. A close look at the incredible detail in his (often) huge works, reveals the man is a magician. I have since tracked down every book of his work I can find. Each of his larger works have the look and feel of being part of a giant scroll, with no “beginning” and no “end.” They seem to be influenced by ancient Chinese landscape Painting and the study of “Gongshi,” or “scholar’s rocks,” which have the abstract qualities of fantastic 20th Century sculpture. Still, I have absolutely no idea how he creates such incredible Paintings/Drawings, this one is almost 16 1/2 FEET long! Now living in the USA, he is gradually receiving the attention he richly deserves (witness “Ink Unbound: Paintings by Liu Dan,” where he reimagines classics of Western Art, which closes on January 29th at the Minneapolis Institute of Art). It might be too late for latecomers, though. His work already fetches large sums at auction, making it hard for it to find it’s way into public collections.

Liu Xiaodong, Two works from “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” 2004, Oil on canvas.

Lio Xiaodong, “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” 2004, Oil on canvas, 18 panels. Liu Xiaodong created a series of 9 diptychs of portraits of soldiers stationed on islands that are contested by China and Taiwan, Painting one soldier in each army in a pair. After Painting each portrait, he asked the subject to Paint their name, age and birthplace on the work. The result makes it hard for outsiders to know which army each soldier represents, and brings home the fact that though the soldier on the left, above, is 20, they all look very young, and the series quickly becomes a powerful meditation on…well, that’s up to you. For me, the two sides look indistinguishable. I can’t tell which side is which. About all that’s obvious is that these are young people with their whole lives ahead of them…unless war cuts them short.

Gu Dexin, 2009-05-02, 2009, Mounted on the top of the surrounding walls, Paint on 72 wood panels, Yang Jiechang, Lifelines I, 1999, On center pillar (and below), Ink and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, as seen at the Guggenheim.

Gu Dexin, “2009-05-02,” 2009, Paint on wood, (Originally consisting of ) 74 panels, concrete and red lacquer, color video installation. Its’ fitting the show ends with Gu Dexin’s work, “2009-05-02,” At the Guggenheim, it consisted of a frieze surrounding the space who’s panels contain 11 sentences, unbroken, unpunctuated and repeated, which read, “We have killed people we have killed men we have killed women we have killed old people we have killed children we have eaten people we have eaten hearts we have eaten human brains we have beaten people we have beaten people blind we have beaten open people’s faces.” These sentences are said to evoke the revolutionary writer Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary,” from 1918. The work bears the same title as the show at which it debuted, as seen below, where it consisted of three components- a video of white clouds in a blue sky looped on video screens mounted over the gallery’s windows, above the 74 Painted panels. At the center of the gallery’s floor was a concrete plinth bearing a single sentence: “We Can Ascend To Heaven.” The show was up during the 20th Anniversary of the June 4th Incident in Tiananmen Square.

Gu Dexin, “2009-05-02,” installed at it’s premiere, Galleria Continua, Beijing, May, 2002, with the concrete plinth with red lacquer, below, and the video screens, above, from the show’s catalog.

During the run of the “2009-05-02” show, “Gu Dexin declared that ‘2009-05-02’ would be his last Artwork. He then proceeded to retreat entirely from Art and the Art world, which he understands as having become complicit in a political, cultural, and moral system which he refuses to accept. This refusal, more than any single object or image, may be his most enduring work of Art…He is, in singular ways, the conscience of his generation7.”

Yang Jiechang, “Lifelines 1,” 1999, Ink and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas. 236 x 91 inches.

At the Guggenheim, Gu Dexin’s “2009-05-02” panels were installed surrounding Yang Jiechang’s “Lifelines 1,” 1999, in the final gallery at the top of the 6th floor. Of “Lifelines 1,” which Yang Jiechang created for the 10th Anniversary of Tinananmen Square, Alexandra Munroe says, “”It recalls the pathways volunteers made in Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations to ferry hunger-striking students to the hospital8.”

I’ve never been to China so I have to see this show through Western eyes. Overall, I find Chinese Contemporary Art to be one of the most interesting and fresh realms of Contemporary Art anywhere9. I’m not sure exactly why, but it seemed to me that even the most “avant-garde” works were not as obtuse as much of what I see around NYC, and most of what I’ve seen in my lifetime. While I’m not big on Art that meeds to be “explained,” given the differences in language and culture, I took a different approach here in an effort to “meet the work halfway.” Almost every time I did, I found the work not only made sense, I became aware of different levels the Artist was working on. Of course, it should be said that though Shakespeare’s “Tis new to thee” applied to me, with the two noted exceptions, most of these Artists have been long established both in China and Internationally. As I said, however, it would have been possible to mount any number of alternate shows given the universe of Artists to choose from. As a result, the only possible way to look at this show is that it represents “the tip of the iceberg” of Contemporary Chinese Art.

Therefore, trying to sum up this show is as pointless as trying to  sum up China itself. The strength of the show lies in the diversity of its vision, that so many unique, strong voices are at work creating impressive, and interesting, work right now is what counts. At those times when I wonder where the next big breakthrough will come from I see I need to cast a much wider net. It’s out there. And it’s probably going on right now out of the gaze of most of us.

“It’s new to thee,” indeed.

If this work can come out of/be born of repression? There may be more hope for the world than I feared.

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” is my NoteWorthy show for December. 

My previous Posts on Ai Weiwei, covering his NYC shows in Brooklyn in 2014 and four Manhattan shows in 2016 may be found here.
My look at Cai Dongdong’s recent show at Klein Sun Gallery may be found here

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Brave New World” by Iron Maiden, released in 2000 on the album of the same name, which was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s novel.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for
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  1. “China’s Art Market Is Booming…”
  2. Tiananmen Protester Wang Dan
  3. “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” Exhibition catalog, p. 23. The show’s exceptional catalog is one of the best I’ve seen, for any show, in many years. It’s much more than a guide to this show. It also includes extensive documentation on the history of Contemporary Art in China, including an in-depth look at all previous larger shows of Chinese Contemporary Art, internationally, biographies of Chinese Artists & Artist Groups, and a guide to reference texts on the subject by year, all of which will make it a standard reference on the subject in the USA for the foreseeable future.
  4. UCCA, “Rauschenberg in China,” 2016
  5. Exhibition Catalog P.25
  6. Exhibition catalog, P. 157
  7. Alexandra Munroe, Philip Tinari, Exhibition catalog for this show, P. 286.
  8. Exhibition catalog, P.35
  9. While keeping an eye on Africa.

Charles White & Leonardo da Vinci…at MoMA!

“I am a traveler of both time and space
To be where I have been
And sit with elders of the gentle race
This world has seldom seen
Who talk of days for which they sit and wait
When all will be revealed”*

In all the years I’ve been going to MoMA, which pre-dates the 1980 Picasso Retrospective, this is one of the most unusual shows I’ve seen there. “Charles White-Leonardo da Vinci. Curated by David Hammons” consisted of two works. Well? Four works if you count the two Vedic astrological charts included. Two works of Art…both masterpieces, separated by more than four and a half centuries.

The Exhibition Brochure folds out into this cosmic poster. Click any Photo for full size.

Here each was separated by only tens of feet, installed facing each other across the gallery.

Installation view…of the whole show. Leonardo da Vinci, “Drapery of a kneeling figure,” c.1491-4, Brush and black ink with white heightening on pale blue prepared paper, left, Charles White’s “Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man),” 1973, right. Vedic astrological charts for both Artists center.

They were brought together by one man- the curator of this show, Artist David Hammons, who also commissioned Vedic astrological charts for both Artists, seeking connections that extend beyond what’s on the walls. What’s on the walls are Charles White’s “Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man),” 1973, Oil wash on board, from MoMA’s Permanent Collection, right, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Drapery of a kneeling figure,” c.1491-4, Brush and black ink with white heightening on pale blue prepared paper, here on loan from Queen Elizabeth’s collection. It’s a study for the kneeling angel in his “The Virgin of the Rocks,” in the National Gallery, London, that I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience with in February, 2012.

Charles White, “Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man),” 1973, Oil wash on board.

Wait. Leonardo da Vinci in The Museum of Modern Art? That, alone, made this something to see. It’s only the 3rd time a da Vinci has been shown at MoMA.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Drapery of a kneeling figure,” c.1491-4, Brush and black ink with white heightening on pale blue prepared paper

Closer. Who was the genius that decided to mark THIS with the “E R” tag on the lower right corner? Seriously? Isn’t the notation on the accompanying card that it’s in Queen Elizabeth’s collection sufficient?

But, don’t sleep on Charles White. His is a name that’s increasingly being brought up by Artists, acknowledging his influence, and/or his direct instruction. I have a feeling that as time goes on, his Art, too, will be increasingly part of the conversation. “Black Pope,” 1973 is considered one of his masterpieces. It’s haunting presence and mysterious message- his left hand giving the “Peace Sign,” the sandwich board reads, simply, “NOW,” as the figure moves under the word “Chicago,” emblazoned on the lower half of a skeleton, wonderfully executed, is a work that immediately impresses as “important.” The first thought turns to the war in Vietnam, which would not end for another 2 years, in 1975. Somehow, I don’t think it’s that simple. As it continues to haunt me, it also serves to make me want to see much more of his work.

The mercurial and elusive David Hammons was one of Charles White’s students. Though he chose a different stylistic path from his teacher’s realism (like, infamously, selling snowballs one winter’s day), he retained the latter’s activist stance, and has steadfastly held on to his “outsider” position. As a result, it’s somewhat surprising to see his name as the curator for this museum show. Another reason this was a must see show. Mr. Hammons has come up with a fascinating idea. In trying to understand his concept and intentions, I looked at MoMA’s recently published book on Charles White’s “Black Pope,” written by Esther Adler, Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints at MoMA. In it, David Hammons, who sought Charles White out in 1968 as a teacher, is only quoted once. He says that “He (Charles White) is the only Artist I really related to1.”

Then, there’s this, in the exhibition’s brochure-

Inside of the exhibition brochure. Written by David Hammons..? No one is credited.

Beyond that, the wall tag reads, in part, “Hammons…asks us to consider commonalities between these two artists.” Ok. Let’s see…

On the surface the two Artists couldn’t seem to be more different.

Born 460, or so, years apart. Half a world apart. Leonardo was illegitimate (“a social disadvantage that was nearly impossible to overcome…2”  at the time). Charles White was a black man, born the son of a steel worker who was a Creek Indian- not exactly “favored” social standing. One fantasized about manned flight and his Drawings of it are still studied today. The other, born in 1918, grew up in the early days of real manned flight, and died in 1979, 10 years after man first set foot on the moon. One spoke Italian and wrote backwards, the other’s major concern was “to be accepted as a spokesman for my people3.” But, there are similarities that become more apparent as you look, and, yes, even more.

The first thing that becomes obvious, at least to me, is that they are both Masters. Fear not, Charles White holds his own, a remarkable achievement for any Artist.  The second is that they are not at all at odds with each other, nor do they look jarring alongside each other, at least to my eyes. Obviously, they both valued the craft and Art of Drawing. Going further, they were both born in the first half of April. Leonardo on April 15, 1452, Charles White on April 2, 1918. Hence the idea of commissioning Vedic Astrologer Chakrapani Ullal to create charts for each.

Ahhh…It was all written in the stars. The first page of da Vinci’s Vedic astrology chart, left, and Charles White’s right. If only I could read them. I do note that “Ke” is in the upper right quadrant of both.

“Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace
Whose sounds caress my ear
But not a word I heard could I relate
The story was quite clear”*

Both Artists “taught” Drawing- Leonardo’s dedication to the technique of Art has been exceeded by few, if any Artists before or after him. He “taught” drawing, directly, to his apprentices and ever since his death, his voluminous Notebooks have been excerpted into a number of texts on technique, that, along with his few Paintings and many Drawings have served to inform and inspire countless Artists down through the centuries. As Leonardo is a “tree” from which countless Artists have become branches, Charles White now has his own tree. He taught directly, in person, with numerous students over the years, at Dillard University, then most notably later in his life at Otis Art Institute, from 1965-79. It was while he was at Otis Art Institute , that David Hammons sought him out to study with in 1968. Kerry James Marshall closely studied Charles White’s work from a distance during his formative years, finally deciding in 7th grade that he would take his class and study under him. “In high school, Marshall sneaked into Otis and sat at the back of Charles White’s evening art class, hoping to remain unnoticed. “I didn’t have any business being in there in the first place, and then there was a naked person in there, so that was even more of a factor, you know,’ Marshall recalls, laughing. White noticed the youngster and approached him, saying, ‘You can’t see nothing from back here.’ He moved Marshall to the front and taught him how to draw a head in profile. He could come back anytime, White said4.” Marshall, fresh off his monumental, traveling retrospective is, at the moment, the most prominent member of Charles White’s influence tree, and he has continually spoken of his debt to Charles White.

Looking further, both Artist’s work is “representational,” though Charles White does touch on realms considered abstract. Still, standing in front of the Leonardo, and looking towards the very next gallery, filled with Surrealism, I wondered what he would think of this, which was in it’s direct sightline-

Yves Tanguy, “Mama, Papa Is Wounded!,” 1927, Oil on canvas

Interestingly, in Charles White’s “Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man),” 1973, we see the figure from, apparently, right above his knees (though the skeleton of a lower body looms above him5). In Leonardo’s Drawing, we see the figure’s lower body. Between the two works of Art, we’d have one whole human body (half female, half male). Looking at it another way, it’s as if Leonardo’s is providing the foundation-figuratively and literally. Both have a fair amount of beautiful drawn “drapery,” or clothing, the folds and nuances of shading is something that Artists have long prided themselves on mastering- Leonardo, a supreme Master of it, gives us a classic example of one such exercise here.

Leonardo’s work is a study for the Virgin of the Rocks, a work that seems to focus on Saint John the Baptist, a prophet. Charles White’s “Black Pope,” also appears to be something of a prophet, but “saying,” or “foretelling” exactly what, is not clear. Both works are surrounded in mystery as to exactly what is happening.

“Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails
Across the sea of years
With no provision but an open face
Along the straits of fear.”*

Perhaps, Mr. Hammons has some personal insight from Charles White about Leonardo and his influence on him, but that is not shared here. Leonardo is one of the most respected and revered Artists in Western Art History. Is Mr. Hammons putting him, alone, in the same room with Charles White his way of saying that Charles White, “the only Artist he related to,” is comparable for him to how Leonardo is held by the larger, and largely white, Art world?

I think Kerry James Marshall may have summed it up best- “When I looked at his (Charles White’s) work it seemed as good as something anyone else ever made, and better than a lot of things other people made, but how come he’s invisible to Art history?” 6

Getting back to “Black Pope,” the Artwork, MoMA’s new book on the piece does an excellent job of tracking down some of Charles White’s possible visual references. Though they located newsphotos that appear to be closer to Charles White’s composition, I was, also, struck that among them is the fold out cover for Isaac Hayes album “Black Moses,” released by Stax Enterprise Records, 1971.

Isaac Hayes “Black Moses,” Foldout Lp Cover, Stax Enterprise Records, 1971.

Charles White’s influence is already well-established through his illustrious and important students. Art history may, also, be slowly beginning to catch up. It turns out that this show is something of  an “appetizer” for MoMA’s “Charles White: A Retrospective” which opens next year. It’s an overdue show that could go a long ways in finally solidifying Charles White’s place as an important Artist.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Kashmir” by John Bonham, Jimmy Page & Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and which was recorded on “Physical Graffiti,” 1975, 2 years after Charles White created “Black Pope.” A great performance of it is here.

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  1. This “Charles White-Leonardo” show, upcoming at the time, is mentioned in a footnote.
  3. charles
  4. Sam Worley, Chicago Mag, 3/29.2016
  5. Remarkably reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s X Ray in his 196 7work, “Booster,” created at Gemini G.E.L., where Charles White was also working at the time.

About Banner #8

Banner 8. Looking east across Madison Square Park from West 24th Street & 5th Avenue. Click any Photo for full size.

“WHERE was Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” set?”

Edward Hopper, “Nighthawk,” 1942, Oil on canvas

For many years, that question has been lingering somewhere in the back of my mind. Every day, as I walk around the City, any time I see a triangular corner, I wonder, “Could THIS be it?” The excellent website, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York did a 4 part series analyzing each and every possible location they could find, which is, still, the most thorough search I know of. Part one is here.

It could well be a place Hopper imagined. It could be based on a few different locations. Or, it could be a place that is now long gone. But? Many other Hoppers were painted in places well known, even all these years later. Some years ago, I spent the night in a small hotel in Cape Cod solely because Hopper had Painted it in a work called “Rooms for Tourists.” Being one, and looking for a place to stay, I immediately recognized it- it still looked exactly like the Painting. Gail Levin’s book, “Hopper’s Places,” revisits many of these places, and so, makes me feel that the locale of “Nighthawks” MUST exist.

In 2013, at the time of  their excellent “Hopper Drawing” show, (which included the original “Nighthawks”) the Whitney Museum said the following on a wall card-

“A resident of Lower Manhattan for most of his adult life, Hopper was certainly familiar with the Flatiron Building. The unique curve and dramatic glass facade of the “Nighthawks” diner has led art historians to cite the building’s prow as one of Hopper’s architectural inspirations for the iconic building.”

“Well I don’t really care
If it’s wrong or if it’s right
But until my ship comes in
I’ll live night by night.”*

So, for Banner #8, I chose this scene because it’s one block north of the “Prow” of the Flatiron Building (speaking of “ships”), at the corners of 23rd Street and Broadway and 5th Avenue. I’ve opted to move “Eddie’s Cafe,” to just off of Madison Square Park, looking east across it from 5th Avenue at West 24th Street. You can see the New York Life Building, at 51 Madison Avenue, with it’s famous gold pyramid, left, the Metropolitan Life North Building, a very cool 30 story Art Deco geometric abstraction at 11 Madison Avenue, center, and the Met Life Tower, right, the world’s tallest building from 1909 to 1913.

If they’re right about the Flatiron, this scene would have been just out of the frame of the Painting to the left. I picked it because all of these buildings were standing when Hopper painted “Nighthawks” in 1941-2 (except that rectangular, mostly dark, building immediately behind my head to the left.) The buildings behind the cafe in the Painting are long gone and what’s there now appears to have been moved further back from where they are in the Painting.

So? It’s as close as I could get to setting “Nighthawks,” now, with buildings that were standing when Edward Hopper Painted “Nighthawks,” a block away…IF he was using the Flatiron’s Prow as the scene. It becomes a window back to that time.

Personally, I remain to be convinced about the Flatiron. The “Prow” is too small to have housed an actual cafe, so that means it would have been one of his inspirations. So, I remain hopeful that an actual place will be discovered at long last, though I’m not expectant. Until that ship comes in, I’ll do what I always do- live night by night…

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Night By Night,” by Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker (R.I.P. September 3, 2017) of Steely Dan and recorded on “Pretzel Logic,” 1974.

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Cai Dongdong: Guns & Shutters

Cai Dongdong “Aiming at the Camera,” 2017, Gelatin silver print, Russian camera(!), wood. Photo courtesy Cai Dongdong and Klein Sun Gallery. Click any Photo for full size.

On October 6th the NYC Art world was permanently changed with the opening of the monumental “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” at the Guggenheim. Filling all 6 floors of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rotunda and spilling over into two of the side galleries, it was as close to encyclopedic as any show of it’s kind could ever hope to be. Having closed on January 7, I’m still processing my thoughts about it. This much I can say- In it’s wake, the training wheels are now off. The flood gate of what’s been going on in Contemporary Art in China has opened and we’re officially in the deep water.

And it’s about time.

The 71 “key Artists and groups” as the show’s site calls them were remarkably well chosen, in my opinion, divided between historically important Artists and works, and those of the moment. Still? In a country of 1.4 Billion people, it’s impossible to include everyone. Many deserving Artists were missed, especially with only 9 women represented. (My Post on it is here.) While big on video & installations, almost completely missing was Photography, Ai Weiwei’s famous “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995, being one of the few works included.

Cai Dongdong, “Splashing Woman,” 2016, Handmade color photo, knitting, in Artist’s frame. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like this.

If you are among those left wanting to see more, see what other Contemporary Chinese Artists are doing, or see what Contemporary Chinese Photography Artists are doing, I strongly encourage you to check out some of the fine and daring galleries around town that specialize in Contemporary Chinese Art. With a 10 year history of representing and showing Chinese Artists who are, largely, in the process of becoming better known in the USA, Klein Sun Gallery on West 22nd Street is among the leading galleries in the field. Gallerist Eli Klein speaks with both passion and experience about the Artists he, and his gallery, represent, but, also about “the difficult concepts and social commentary portrayed by some of our artists,” as he told me.

The latter is exactly what makes Klein Sun a must visit gallery on my rounds. Mr. Klein comes by his passion naturally. He is the son the late, extraordinary, women’s champion, Janet Benshoof, who passed away on December 18th.

Installation view of the first gallery.

In all the years that I’ve been going to Klein Sun, this is a particularly good time to go. Their current show, “Cai Dongdong: Photography Autocracy,” through January 18, is an eye-opener, full of pushing-the-envelope creativity, in works that will linger with you after they upend your preconceptions. Mr. Dongdong’s work, which is centered on Photography, is rife with commentary, divided between themes including the military, the act of seeing and being seen, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous “Decisive Moment.” But it’s the universality and humanity of his work as a whole that impresses me the most. Though the faces are Chinese, they could be anyone. For western eyes, there are echoes of Man Ray, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell in works that are “Photo-Sculptures,”as he calls them, but decidedly different from Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines.” Unique among all the Photographers I spent last year seeing, Cai Dongdong, also, constructs the beautiful stands and frames he uses himself, ala Joseph Cornell or Holly Lane, creating an all in one experience in which the Photograph plays one part. The Artist, who turns 40 this year, has a bit of a unique background. He joined the People’s Liberation Army- as a portrait Photographer, a post he remained in for about a decade. This served to have a lasting influence on him, as one might suspect, as one side of his subsequent Art incorporates these Photos, while another side uses found images, (selected from an archive that Phil Cai, Mr. Klein’s Associate at Klein Sun, told me numbers over 600,000 images), but in all his work, he combines Photographs in ways that defy the “Autocracy” of the image to force it to say “something else,” always unexpected.

Cai Dongdong, “The Photographer II,” 2015, Handmade color photo, photographic lens in Artist’s frame. The lens goes right through the work.

Going beyond Photographs with his passion for Photography, a number of these works contain camera lenses inserted right into the piece, making the viewer the subject. Many others contain mirrors or reflective surfaces, and one, seen at the beginning, and below, puts you at the place of the Photographer- if you dare.

Cai Dongdong “Aiming at the Camera,” 2017,

Through mirrors and lenses, he also puts the viewer in the work, reminding us of our complicity by looking and seeing, most poignantly they’re included in a number of nudes on view, including one that replaces the model’s head with a round mirror, all ready for your face.

Cai Dongdong, “Back from Target Practice,” 2017, Gelatin silver print, LCD Light box. These harmless looking smiling armed ladies are returning from target practice. Or? Are they coming for us? Interestingly, the piece is mounted about head high for many viewers, making it personal.

The central element, for me, in his work is the humanity that runs through it. In “Aiming at the Camera,” 2017, the Artist, literally, puts you in his shoes when he took this Photo. In “The Association of the Cannon,” 2016, a cannon goes off expelling a harmless and lovely nude. Right next to it, in “Back from Target Practice,” 2017, a group of armed young women walk towards the viewer, making you feel that even women, the givers of life, when armed, can pose a real danger to you-particularly when they’re coming your way. These Photos have a “journalistic” feel that’s turned into something else in the whole, something the Photo may, or may not have originally intended. Hence, the Photo’s “Autocracy” in the show’s title is subject to Artist’s intervention. The Artist is the one with the unlimited power to control what it says.


The role of guns (rifles and cannons) is a recurrant theme in the Artist’s work that was also a memorable part of his last Klein Sun show, “Fountain,” 2015. Here, guns alternate between being a threat and being “defused.” The two shows mirror each other beautifully, down to their success, with “Fountain” selling out, and “Photography Autocracy” getting very close to it. (A word to book collectors-  The Artist created an extraordinary book for “Fountain,” in a limited edition of 500 signed & numbered copies, the stack of available copies at the gallery dwindled each time I visited, partially my fault. For someone who has been buried, literally up to his neck in Art & PhotoBooks, as anyone who has seen my apartment this year could swear to in court, I was shocked to see the intricate details that have been painstakingly included in this book. It’s gorgeous. Another example of the extreme care and craftsmanship that goes into Cai Dongdong’s Art.)

Cai Dongdong, “The Guerrilla on Hunghu Lake,” 2017, Gelatin silver print, wood. This is just an extraordinarily beautiful Photograph, in addition to being a powerful image. The background is ravishing, which serves to bring another level of meaning to the “action” of the approaching guerrillas in front of it. The idea of setting this in a hand made boat is just brilliant, in my opinion.

It’s fascinating to look for evidence of his experiences in the Army in these works, but it’s unknown (to me) which Photo Mr. Dongdong took and which he found. In the end, it matters not. Some of the end results, however, have a “day dream” effect, where I picture the Artist in his Army job, armed with his camera, fantasizing about whatever scene is going on in front of him. “Wouldn’t it be great if a beautiful lady came out of this cannon right now instead of a shell?”

Cai Dongdong, “The Association of the Cannon,” 2016, Gelatin silver print in Artist’s frame. Right out of Max Ernst, a work I might have expected from John & Yoko, seems to sum up this show.

I think it’s exactly that that makes this show so successful and so popular- it’s very easy to relate to the humanity in the work, regardless of your culture or background.

“Road,” 2016, Gelatin silver print in Artist’s frame. The Photo of the “road” in the upper right is collaged on and extends out from the surface, curved on the side nearest the lady.

Regarding his background, I asked the Artist a few questions, through the gallery since he lives and works in Beijing-

Frist- What inspired you to become an Artist?

Cai replied, “A rain when I was born.”

And- Who influenced your Art?

Cai- “My kids.”

Cai Dongdong, “Obstacle,” Gelatin silver print in Artist’s frame. Notice the ridge where the print is folded about 2/3 to the right. Photo courtesy of Cai Dongdong and Klein Sun Gallery.

As Phil Cai pointed out to me, looking at it from the right, the lecturer is cut off by the ridge made by the folded print…as the solders are cut off from him on the lefl.

I also asked Mr. Klein how he discovered Cai Dongdong. He said, “I first saw his work on a chance Studio visit in Beijing. His studio was close to one of another artist I was visiting and was told I shouldn’t miss it. Quite frankly I was blown away. It was such pure art, no bullshit, no trying too hard, not showing off. It was just Real. Cameras and parts all over the place, wood that he was using to make his own frames. A unique mix of installation, old and new photography, mixed media, collage, sculpture and compelling cultural commentary. I had to pursue representing him and knew that very quickly. His demeaner and dedication were also very clearly defined which is indicative of a better potential for a long and successful career.”

Cai Dongdong, “Big Harvest,” 2017, Silver gelatin print in Artist’s frame. Phil Cai spoke to me of the influence of China’s “Collectivsim,” in this work, that they are “gathering themselves.” When I see it, I see the succeeding smaller figures representing future generations.

Mr. Dongdong’s work speaks to the larger “cultural commentary” than to one that’s specifically Chinese, in my opinion.  These are works that end up expressing the universal experience of being human- even in a “collective.” People can be “trained” to move and operate together, but it’s harder to control their thoughts, imaginations, fantasies, and Artistic impulses. Yes, guns can be dangerous. Yes, nations are continually preparing for war. But, these nations are made up of human beings who are living their daily lives, too. Here are works about the experience of being human- from basic events like being seen naked, being seen at work, being seen serving your country, that every human being experiences. In Cai Dongdong’s Art, the world becomes a little smaller, and that’s one of the best things Art can accomplish. It also looks like he has fun creating it, and that comes through, too.

Time will tell if Cai Dongdong achieves the stature of Gu Dexin, Alec Soth or Ai Weiwei, but in the meantime he’s creating beautifully made objects with their own point of view, a decidedly unique way of seeing the world, each one overflowing with humanity. That’s certainly a recipe that’s stood the test of time, for a long time.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney, and recorded by The Beatles on “The White Album.” (No, It’s not a drug song, as you can hear John say, here.) In lieu of their version, Gavin DeGraw does it here-

This Post is dedicated to the memory of Janet Benshoof. 

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R.I.P. Tim Rollins- A Remembrance

Tim was a miraculous being.

“I’m Blessed,” he always replied when I asked him how he was. Indeed, he was. Certainly, now, too.

Rarely in Art History, if ever, has there been an Artist who gave of himself so completely to his students that he put their names on the work they created and considered them collaborators. Right now, at The Met, you will look long and very hard at the work of Ghirlandaio for signs of the hand of his young apprentice, Michelangelo, in their blockbuster show of the latter’s work. Elsewhere, it’s the same with Verrocchio’s work for signs of the young Leonardo da Vinci. Would they put their apprentices names on their work? Never!1 Ditto for the apprentices and assistants of almost ANY Artist in Art history, right up through today.

Not Tim.

Each and every work he created is signed “Tim Rollins & K.O.S.,” for “Kids of Survival,” as his group of young students named themselves early on. While most Artists who collaborate do it for a short period, he did it for 35 years- his entire career! A career that has ended, now, way too soon with his passing on December 26th.

Beginning in 1981 at I.S. 52, an NYC junior high school, he took students from beginners and taught them about Art, Literature, discipline, technique, about what it took to succeed at anything, including Art, and, most importantly, about life. But, these were no ordinary students. These were “at risk” youths in the South Bronx during one of the worst times in recent New York City’s history! Tim’s was no after school babysitting Art class. His was the real deal. “Today we’re going to make Art, but we are also going to make history,” he famously told them.

And? They did.

He took classics of Literature, from Shakespeare through Malcolm X, and had the students read and study them. They then distilled the book down to an essence, which they each created images based on their own interpretation & experiences. These were then collaged over actual pages of the book.

Talk about making history? This one’s in MoMA’s Permanent Collection

“Tim Rollins, K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) with Angel Abreu, Jose Burges, Robert Delgado, George Garces, Richard Lulo, Nelson Montes, José Parissi, Carlos Rivera, Annette Rosado, Nelson Ricardo Savinon ‘Amerika VIII,’ 1986-87, Watercolor, charcoal, synthetic polymer paint, and pencil on bookpages on linen, 70 x 14”. That’s how the wall card read when I saw this work at MoMA’s “What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection” in 2007. This work is based on Kafka’s “Amerika,” a key work for the group. MoMA Photo.

Imagine how it made the students feel to see this? Regardless of the commercial success they subsequently achieved, the notoriety and all the trappings of “Art fame,” that they got grief about, you can’t put a price on that kind of support for young people. In my opinion, what really matters is that quite a few of them have gone on to college and to Art careers themselves. Tim left his teaching post in 1987 and established a Studio with the group in Chelsea as the area was becoming a center of Art in NYC.

I met Tim some years later and had the privilege of speaking to him at length numerous times. He was very encouraging. “Recognize the creative glimmer in others,” was one of his mantras that he lived. He saw and encouraged mine. We talked about a huge range of things, from the Old Masters to current shows and developments. Contrary to many Artists who are focused on their current project at hand, Tim was aware of seemingly everything going on in the Art world. Was The Met’s determination that  Velazquez’ “Portrait of a Man,” was really a Self- Portrait correct? We both felt it most likely was. What about the small Michelangelo “Young Archer” that’s now in the center spotlight at their Michelangelo show- What it REALLY his? When it first arrived at The Met, where it has been virtually ignored for most of the past decade by most visitors, sure enough, Tim had seen it and we discussed it at length. He introduced me to the work of Joseph Beuys. I was endlessly impressed by his awareness, the breadth of his taste and the depth of his knowledge. He was a true student of Art History as well as of Literary History. The last two times I saw Tim, we spoke about the Rauschenberg show at MoMA. He had gone to see it on May 28th, and I ran into him on his way back. I could tell his mind was full of thoughts, and reactions to it, and he asked if I was going. Busy finsihing up other pieces, I went for the first of 18 times 3 days later. Then, he said quietly- “I knew him.” Instantly, I asked him if I could get a quote from him about Rauschenberg for my piece that I knew I was going to write, and he agreed.

I ran into Tim, for the last time, on July 31st, and again, we spoke about Rauschenberg, this time comparing notes on the show I was devouring room by room. I showed him my new at the time Raymond Pettibon Posts, and we spoke about him and his work. I told him I had blocked out the entire summer to research and write what turned out to be 3 Posts on the MoMA Rauschenberg show and the 4 satellite shows going on around town.

I have no excuse, but I never got around to writing him for a quote for those pieces. I was scrambling doing so much reading and researching I plum didn’t get around to it. But, I did hope he’d read them and we’d have a talk about them and how I did. Now, I dedicate all three pieces to his memory.

Tim on his Birthday in 2011, with three of his “Kids,” including Artist & Photographer Rick Savignon, to Tim’s left.

Over the years, I also became friendly with Rick Savinon, a wonderfully talented Artist & Photographer, who is one of the first Kids of Survival. After having known them both for a few years, I discovered the excellent Documentary, “Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins & K.O.S.” WOW! Tim as a young(er) man! Rick as a VERY young man! It was like watching private family films, except this “extended family” was living a “quasi-public” life as their work was being shown in major gallery and museum shows, AND being filmed for a documentary! Award winning, it’s still the best introduction to Tim and the “Kids,” though I prayed for years it would be updated. I still hope it will be. I was also present after Tim received the draft of the retrospective monograph, “Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History,” which he was proofreading, and  which was published by MIT Press in 2009. It was the size of a MASSIVE phone book. I remember thinking that I had no idea how prolific he had been in his career (which would have another 8 years to go). A traveling Retrospective followed it’s release, which appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle. Ostensibly marking 25 years of work, there seemed to be so much vitality around Tim, and so much more still to do.

Tim Rollins had an extraordinarily kind and giving spirit- In many ways that I experienced first hand. When I ran into him, I could never tell if he’d had a bad day- he was extremely even tempered, and he always lived in the moment.

The Chelsea District of Manhattan is now known for it’s Art galleries and Artist’s studios. Tim Rollins is one of the people who made it what it is today. More importantly, his spirit, congeniality, supportiveness, creativity, and his firm guiding hand made many friends, and most of all, he taught at risk “kids” that Art could be a way to learn about life, and in the case of a number of them, a way to college, to a career, and a better life. I’m not surprised one bit that any number of the K.O.S. become longtime, even lifelong friends of Tim’s.

Also an Art Practice faculty member at the School of Visual Arts, Tim left a legacy that I hope countless teachers study, learn from and incorporate. And? I hope that NYC names a School of the Arts after Tim Rollins.

I prefer to think of Tim’s passing this way. Here, he (in the sharp Blue jacket) walks away, leaving me pondering our Rauschenberg conversation on May 28th, after he had seen the MoMA Rauschenberg Retrospective. I don’t know why I took this Photo. Something just told me to. I prefer to think he’s gone to his next meeting and we’ll talk again.

Tim taught me a lot, and in doing so gave me a tiny bit of the feeling of what “his kids” got from him. I’ll never forget his kindness and his supportive & encouraging words.

“Ask me how I’m doing
I’m blessed, yes
Living every moment, no regrets
Smile up on my face, I’m like, oh yes
I’m blessed, yes
I’m blessed, yes”*

“I’m Blessed,” too, Tim. I was Blessed to know you.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “I’m Blessed,” by Charlie Wilson.

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  1. In fact, at the time, the apprentices paid for the priviledge of learning form the master, though they were often put to work helping him earn money.

Art In Manhattan, 2017- And Then There Were Five

It was a year of discovery. A year where I discovered some great Artists I previously hadn’t known, finally caught up with some I knew about but hadn’t gotten to see much of their work, and got lost exploring some remarkable Retrospectives- for Raymond Pettibon and Robert Rauschenberg, both accompanied by memorable satellite shows. Most of these are represented in my monthly NoteWorthy Show selections throughout the year. But? There was more! So, I’m going to take this moment to pause and look back at the revelations of 2017, look at some memorable shows I didn’t write about at the time, and finally, highlight a pair of men who, I feel, had an exceptional 2017 in Manhattan Art.

No doubt about it- the biggest discovery this year was a long overdue deep dive into the world of Contemporary Photography. From seeing well over 100 Photography shows, to spending five long days at “AIPAD: The Photography Show” (with well over 120 galleries from all over the world showing work), to going through hundreds of PhotoBooks, and meeting many Photographers, legendary, famous, or not quite yet, along with the staffs of two of the world’s leading Photography organizations- Aperture and Magnum, both celebrating major anniversaries this year. Rarely did a week pass when Photography wasn’t in the the picture. Of course, in a world were there are now more cameras than people it’s impossible to get to see everyone who’s doing great work. As happens each year, NO matter WHAT I do to prevent it, this year too, there were shows I didn’t find out about until they closed. UGGGH!!!! Along the way, there were quite a few revelations, and a good many other things solidified…at least for the moment.

First, the revelations. In Photography, particularly by those younger than 50 (I say 50 because I seem to know/have heard of many of those over) and unknown to me, Gregory Halpern was the biggest revelation I had this year. His book “Zzyzx” won the prestigious Aperture Best Book Award for 2016, but I didn’t know that when I discovered his work at Aperture’s booth at AIPAD. I had never heard of him.

Gregory Halpern, “Untitled,” 2016, from his “Buffalo” series. Click any Photo for full size.

The work, “Untitled,” was a Photograph Aperture had run in the Spring, 2017 issues of it’s excellent quarterly magazine, in a pictorial by Mr. Halpern, titled “Buffalo.” I didn’t know that then, either. I simply saw the work, and then couldn’t get it out of my mind. It now hangs a few feet away. Out of everything I saw at AIPAD, particularly by those younger than 50 and unknown to me, this work grabbed me and didn’t let go. I went home that night with one thought on my mind- “WHO is Gregory Halpern?” After researching him most of the night, (including finding his incredibly honest and insightful answer to one very important question), serendipitously, I got to meet him the next day, and spoke to him about his book. It turned out to be a classic case where some things are better left unexamined. Gregory was so forthcoming in his answers about specific images I came too close for comfort to losing some of their mystery.

Gregory Halpern standing next “Untitled,” at Aperture’s Booth at AIPAD, March 31st.

In addition to being, in my eyes, one of the most talented Photographers of his generation, he is, also, one of it’s best writers. He’s the co-author of one of the most popular and respected Photography Manuals of 2017, “The Photographer’s Playbook,” and his occasionally published articles always enlighten and leave me wanting more. A Harvard grad, he’s now a professor in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology for some very lucky students. As if all of that isn’t enough, his wife, Ahndraya Parlato is, also, one of the revelations of the year as a Photographer. Her Photographs “glow”- in one way or another. Her most recent book, “A Spectacle and Nothing Strange,” is ethereal…mesmerizing…magical.

Leaving aside age or era, the work of Fred Herzog was, also, unknown to me. Early pioneers of color Photography have taken decades coming to the attention they deserve, such was the disdain color held among the Photographic cognoscenti for color Photography. With the publication of “Fred Herzog: Modern Color,” in February, 2017, an Artist who was fairly well-known, and appreciated, in his native Canada finally began becoming wider known in the USA. His work was memorably shown by Equinox Gallery of Vancouver at AIPAD this spring, where, I felt, it stood out.

Fred Herzog, “Main Barber,” 1968, seen at Equinox Gallery’s AIPAD booth.

Fred Herzog considers Saul Leiter THE master of early color Photography, and even with a giant like William Eggleston to consider (who’s 1976 MoMA show, “Photographs by William Eggleston,” which can be “visited” here, is widely credited with making color Photography “acceptable” in the world of “Fine Art”), it’s hard to argue with him. No Photographer new to me, regardless of age or period, had a bigger impact on me this year than Saul Leiter.

Saul Leiter, “Through Boards,” Circa 1957. This image appears (cropped) on the cover of the now classic book, “Saul Leiter: Early Color,” 2006, which launched the “Saul Leiter Renaissance.” It’s, perhaps, my very favorite Photobook. Sadly, now out of print, it would take real diligence to find a very good copy for less than $100. But, there are many worse uses of time. Photo by the Saul Leiter Foundation.

It took until 2006 for Saul Leiter to be recognized- FIFTY EIGHT years after he started taking color photographs. As with William Eggleston, Mr. Leiter was, also, a devoted Painter. I can see it in both of their work, and I believe it’s part of the reason their work speaks to me, perhaps, more than the work of any other Photographer of any period. It was his friend, no less than the great Artist Richard Pousette-Dart (who’s also an under appreciated Photographer), to encouraged him to pursue Photography.

“Walk with Soames,” 1958, This was 20 YEARS before William Eggleston’s ground breaking MoMA show “legitimized” color Photography in the Art world! Photo by Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Mr. Leiter saw and used color in his Photography in ways no one else has, achieving effects that today’s finest digital manipulators can only dream of. Saul Leiter didn’t need Photoshop to get his results. As very good as his Black & White work is, like Turner or Van Gogh, Saul Leiter was a true Poet of color, perhaps the greatest Master of Color in Photography, though it’s, of course, impossible and pointless to qualitatively compare.

“T,” Circa 1950(!).Photo by the Saul Leiter Foundation. Daring. Gorgeous.

A number of established Photographers had terrific shows in NYC in 2017 that I didn’t get to write about here. Among them are Mark Steinmetz, Mike Mandel, Raghubir Singh (though marked by controversy), Richard Avedon, Herman Leonard, Michael Kenna, and Edward Burtynsky. But, I’m going to address one I simply can’t let pass, because I continue to think about it.

Richard Misrach’s Photo, “Effigy #3, near Jacumba, California,” 2009, Pigment print mounted to Dibond, right rear, with Guillermo Galindo’s Musical Instrumet/Sculpure “Effigy,” 2014, center2014. Barely visible are two strings between the forearms. The grey rectangle on the lower left side of the pedestal is where a speaker is mounted.

“Richard Misrach: Border Cantos,” (at Pace, 510 West 25th Street), was an utterly remarkable and serendipitous collaboration between renowned Photographer Richard Misrach & Composer/Sculptor Guillermo Galindo on the subject of our southern border, those protecting it, and those trying to cross it. To accompany Mr. Misrach’s large, atmospheric Photographs, Mr. Galindo created a whole orchestra of Musical Instruments out of objects found along the border, and proceeded to compose and record a 4 hour score that was looped in the show’s back room to meditative effect, ingeniously installed so that the music being played was coming from speakers mounted inside the display of the specific instruments that were playing at any given moment. (The Artists have an excellent website for this show where you can, also, hear these remarkable instruments.)

Instruments, like this. Guillermo Galindo, “Tortillafono/Wall Vibraphone,” 2014, Metal. The discarded metal cap of an electrical box from the failed SBInet (Secure Border Initiative) surveillance program was turned into a mallet and string instrument sits in front of Richard Misrach’s “Artifacts fround from California to Texas between 2013 and 2015,” 2013-5, 86 x 57 inches, Pigment prints mounted to Dibond. Photos of items found along the border.

And this- Guillermo Galindo, “Teclata,” His description- “On this keyboard, empty cans, bottles, and a plastic cup act as piano strings. The surface of the instrument is decorated with Border Patrol ammunition boxes.”

The surround sound effect was like sitting in the middle of a small chamber music group. The instruments, themselves, were beautiful as sculpture, and the music, which sounded to me like a cross between Harry Partch (who, also, made his own instruments) and John Cage, on instruments that looked like Rauschenbergs, had me asking if it had been released on CD. Why not?

Richard Misrach, “Playas de Tijuana #1, San Diego,” 2013, Pigment print mounted to Dibond, 42 x 160 inches.

Mr. Misrach, who has spent forty years working in the American Desert on his renown “Desert Cantos” project, showed a remarkable selection of images taken since 2004, but more intensely since 2009 (the collaboration with Mr. Galindo dates back to 2012), that told the story in slices. The effect of the music, the images and the sculptures (musical and non) was hypnotic, and ultimately meditative on the situation, the people protecting the border, and the refugees, while at the same time, even for those directly untouched by this story, the show spoke to a larger sense of walls, borders and refugees, and resilience. The Artists found, or created, beauty in this situation, reflecting the very perseverance that is at the essence of survival.

Richard Misrach, “Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona,” 2014, 68 x 84 inches, Pigment print mounted to Dibond

On the Painting & Drawing front, the most important Painting/Drawing gallery show I haven’t addressed was Kara Walker (at Sikkema Jenkins and Co.). Before it opened the buildup was downright intense. First, these posters began appearing, which certainly raised eyebrows until you notice (along the lower left side) that the text was written by the Artist. The show was also featured in a cover article in one of the last print issues of the Village Voice. I can’t remember the last time an Art show made the Voice’s cover, but this was the last time one did.

 Kara Walker sounds a bit weary in the poster, and particularly in the “Artist’s Statement” that appears on the show’s page on the Sikkema website.

“Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit),” 2017 Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen, 18 feet long, seen in the show’s first room. A “bottomless quagmire” is what the history of and current state of race and gender relations does feel like at this moment in time.

In the lower right side, this almost submerged head seemed to echo Ms. Walker’s weariness in her Artist’s Statement. “But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.'”

After all the anticipation and buildup, at the packed opening, Ms. Walker, herself, was only to be seen for a little while, at least while I was there.

Kara Walker at the opening, September 7, 2017, with part of  “U.S.A. Idioms,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, almost 15 by 12 feet, in the background.

While she continues to create her signature Silhouettes, showing a gorgeous 2017 work titled “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” that’s almost 18 1/2 feet long, the bulk of the show consists on her ink and collage works, that have increasingly come to the forefront of her shows as time has gone on, most recently in her Cleveland Museum show, “The Ecstasy of St. Kara,” 2016, and at MoMA’s “Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection,” which closed on July 30, 2017, where her “40 Acres of Mules,” a Charcoal Drawing on 3 sheets totaling almost 18 feet long that was acquired by the Museum the year before, was on view in what was something of a one-work preview for her Sikkema show.

“Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” 2017, Cut paper on canvas. For me, one thing Ms. Walker’s Silhouettes all seem to ask is “Why do you see, what you see?”

Whereas it’s hard for me to imagine the care, patience and deliberation it must take for Ms. Walker to create one of her silhouettes, her Drawing & Collages look like they are done in bursts of raw energy and passion. At times the images approach the quality of a caricature of an event. No matter the differences in creation, when you see her Silhouettes and Drawings side by side they’re unmistakably by the same Artist.

While the Silhouettes, mostly, seem to leave quite a bit to the imagination, including the race of each character, her Drawings & Collages do not, especially when it comes to violence. Nothing is held back, hinted at or hidden. In the Drawings and collages, she has taken away the curtain inherent in Silhouettes in depicting racism and gender crimes. We see the faces, skin color, eyes, and what each one is involved in doing.  You can choose to look away, but otherwise, it’s pretty hard to “miss” what’s going on. The results are shocking, though they have precedent going back to Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” and “The Disasters of War,” and Daumier through Warhol, as well as in the work of Photojournalists and “Conflict Photographers” from all over the world. In Kara Walker’s work, though, the time is centered between 1788, when slavery was legalized in the US, through post Civil War “Reconstruction.”  Where the Silhouettes present a shadow of the figure, and the actions, the Drawings shine direct light. In fact, there are almost no shadows in her drawings- there’s no where for the perpetrators to hide.

“The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, Almost 12 feet long.

Eugene Delacroix, “The Death of Sardanapalus,” 1844, Oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris. Kara Walker is, also, an astute student of Art History. In her work, Sardanapalus lies horizontally near the upper left corner, apparently, taking no interest in the orgy of death going on, as he does, lying arm on elbow on a huge red bed in Delacroix’. Her Ed Kienholz reference is a bit harder to track down, but it might be this one.

In “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” 2017, the ground is, also, gone. The figures hang in the space of the paper, though some sense of perspective remains- as you get closer to the top of the sheet, they get smaller.

“Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, 140 x 196 inches.

In this work, Ms. Walker’s figures cut across time, with some appearing to be contemporary. To the right of center, a figure “rocks the mic.” In the lower center is a figure that appears to be a modern riot trooper, in a helmet with face shield and body armor. He appears to have clubs in each hand. Right next to his left hand is what appears to be a black head, in a hoodie, on a platter, being carried by a woman, who looks away, while others nearby watch, some with shock on their face, some pointing to the scene. Just behind them, an extended arm holds and American flag, while above them a figure gives a Nazi salute with one hand while holding a Rebel flag with the other. Up top, a lynched figure hangs from a tree branch while women on either side of him perform acrobatics, with Klansmen standing next to them. In front of that naked black women are attacked by a group of men, while, again, others see what is going on. In the center of the work, the decapitated hoodied head looks straight across at a Civil War soldier pointing a gun at him, across time. Is this 1863? Or 2016?

“Storm Ryder (You Must Hate Black People as Much as You Hate Yourself),” 2017, Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen.

The primacy of Drawing in her work was reinforced with the recent release of one of Ms Walker’s Sketchbooks from 1999, when the Artist was 29, as a book appropriately titled, “MCMXCIX.” It contains Drawings that, in style and subject, visitors to the Sikkema show will immediatley recognize. Interestingly, as Raymond Pettibon does in his shows (the latest concluding on June 24th, shortly before Ms. Walker’s opened), she prefers her larger works be tacked to the walls.

“Future Looks Bright,” 2017, Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen.

Kara Walker may be growing tired of being a “role model,” of being “a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche,” (as she says in her Artist’s Statement referenced above). Of course, I can’t imagine being Kara Walker, but I can understand that it gets to be “too much.” I’m not sure, however, what her other choice is. I mean, I’m sure she COULD do something else if she REALLY wanted to. After seeing all the work and passion she put into this show? I guess I’m just not convinced that she really DOES want to do something else. Yet.

Finally…Looking back on 2017… Last year I wrote that I felt Sheena Wagstaff had the best year in NYC Art. She’s had a very good 2017, too. But, this year, I think that The New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni & Gary Carrion-Murayari. had special years, highlighted by the truly exemplary, and revolutionary, “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work” retrospective, which they then remounted simultaneously in Maastricht and Moscow. I feel it was “revolutionary” because totaling an unheard of 800 works, including brand new works created by the Artist for this show (some on the very walls of the New Museum), they gave an exhaustive look at Pettibon’s career, yet the show never slowed, never failed to keep and even raise interest. It even included work Pettibon did as a small child that he has now ammended in his own, unique style. Word has recently come that Gary Carrion-Murayari, who kindly answered my questions on the Pettibon Moscow show he co-curated, has also been named as a co-curator for the New Museum’s 2018 Triennial, so he could be ready to have another “big” year. Stay tuned!

The end result is that Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and the New Museum have served to put the “Big Four”1 Manhattan Museums on notice that, on their 40th anniversary, we are going to have to get used to saying the “Big Five.”

A Special “Thank You!” to all the Artists who gave me their time and shared their thoughts with me in 2017, and to David White & Gina Guy of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gary Carrion-Murayari and Paul Jackson of the New Museum.
“Thank you!” to the Hattan Group and Kitty for research assistance, and to The Strand Bookstore for being open until 10:30pm seven nights a week. R.I.P. Owner, Fred Bass this week.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Heroic Elegy, Op. 36,” (1918), by Ernest Farrar, in honor of the 100th Anniversary of WW1, which was featured in another memorable show, “World War 1 & The Visual Arts” at The Met this year, as a way of honoring it, and all the Artists, and Musicians, lost during it. Shortly after “Heroic Elegy’s” premiere, Second Lieutenant Farrar was ordered to the Western Front. Two days after he arrived there, he was killed at the Battle of Epehy. He was 33. I first heard it while I was driving in Florida on September 11, 2002. The classical station there played it in honor of the first anniversary of 9/11. So taken with it was I that I pulled over and listened to it with my eyes closed, then immediately set about researching it’s composer. Though he wrote other fine works, “Heroic Elegy,” is special. It’s lightning in an 8 minute bottle. As beautiful as it is, there’s a quality, a confidence, in it that seems to promise so much more to come that he, tragically, never got the chance to give us, like the other Artists & Musicians lost far too early in this most senseless of wars.

On The Fence, #17, The Good Riddance” Edition.

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  1. With all due respect to The Frick Collection, who the powers that be that came up with “the Big Four” left out.

Ellen Harvey’s Global Beautification Project

A few weeks back, I walked across West 22nd Street after visiting Gary Hume’s show, “Mum” at Matthew Marks, lost in the whirlwind of emotions, past and present, it elicited, barely cognizant of the traffic, weather, or time. Luckily, Thanksgiving week in NYC tends to be on the quiet side. As I crossed the street, bright lights, like those seen in a carnival, beckoned from inside the front window of Danese/Corey Gallery. Reaching the sidewalk, I could see the lights made a sign that was attached to the frame of a wooden shack. They read “ARCADIA.”

The view from the sidewalk outside Danese/Corey. Click any Photo for full size.

Hmmm…”Arcadia.” A word that evokes simple pleasures. In need of some cheer, I stepped inside. While I can’t say I found “cheer,” I found Art.

Installation view from inside the “shack.” An extraordinarily imaginative vision, stunningly well realized.

The show was “Ellen Harvey: Nostalgia.” Inside the wooden framed shack, the carnival-like atmosphere of the sign outside quickly faded into darkness, pierced with lines of white light. Looking closer, the lines turned out to be etched on mirrors lit from the back. The light they emitted was reflected back by more back lit mirrors on the opposite side of the shack, as was the viewer, which made the design they held frustratingly hard to see. It was like “seeing” through a haze, a bit like walking around Times Square (I hear). Taken by the beauty I knew was there, I wandered around the space, enthralled and puzzled. Scenes of buildings, waves, and sky lined both sides culminating in a large panel showing the moon over the sea. Making my way to the gallery’s desk, I found that the work, titled “Arcade/Arcadia,” 2011, contains 34 hand engraved mirrors mounted on light boxes to form a 360 degree panorama of the town of Margate, England as seen from the beach. Hmmm…

Intentionally hard to see the amazing engraving on the mirrors.

Then same mirror, without anything in front of it. From the show’s catalog.

Unable to get the work out of my mind while I was looking at other shows, I went back to Danese/Corey later and bought the monograph, “ Ellen Harvey: The Museum of Failure1,” which has the backstory and images of the mirrors without reflections, (which, while defeating the point of the installation, allows appreciation of her amazing technique). I learned that the project was commissioned by the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, England for it’s opening in 2011. The shed is a remimagining of JMW Turner’s London gallery (in 3/4 size) and the mirrors are arranged in the way Turner displayed his work- “salon” style, as seen in George Jones  “Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works,” 1852. Along with another Painting George Jones did of it after Turner died, they are the only records we have of what JMW Turner’s gallery looked like.

George Jones “Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works,” 1952, Oil on canvas, Ashmolean Museum. Hmmm…George Jones believed in capitalizing “Artist,” like I do.

Turner loved Margate and lauded it’s natural beauty. So inspired, he is believed to have created around 100 Paintings of it, possibly including this one, given that he began using Margate as a second home around 1830.

JMW Turner, “Margate(?), Seen From the Sea,” c.1835-40, on loan from the National Gallery, London and seen in The Met Breuer’s “Unfinished” show in 2016, which I wrote about, here. Possibly one, of hundreds, of works he did depicting Margate.

In addition to finding inspiration, he, infamously, “shacked up” with his landlady there. The town eventually became a tourist mecca which led to it’s (over?) commercialization. When it fell on hard times, the amusement park, called “Dreamland,” (who’s sign Ms. Harvey pays homage to in her “Arcadia” sign, using the same font), closed and became a blight on the natural beauty which led so many to want to come there in the first place. In the piece, Ellen Harvey depicts a more recent view of Margate as seen from the beach, in apparent complete desolation.

The work is like an onion in it’s many layers. There’s the Turner layer, the Margate/nature layer, the Dreamland/commercialization layer, the mirror layer (with it’s funhouse effect, seen earlier), and the layer of light being distorted, which could be a reference to the light that Turner loved, and what’s become of it, with the addition of so many electric lights and buildings blocking sunlight. There’s, also, the layer of the styles of the two Artists, Ellen Harvey and JMW Turner, in dialogue. With the large shadow of no less than Turner looming, this is, certainly, a daring undertaking. Ms. Harvey’s mirrors contain many passages of sky and sea, crescendoing in the large center rear panel, that can’t help but remind today’s viewer of the English Master, though in decidedly her own style. Though “Dreamland” has recently reopened, the metaphor, and the warning, in the work is powerful, and both specific and universal. Experiencing it was a highlight among all the Art I’ve seen in 2017.

The rest of the show impressed me just as much. Adjacent to “Arcade/Arcadia,” was a Painting that depicted what looked to be a rough surface that seemed like it should be in relief, but was, in fact, flat. Hmmm…Is this the same Artist who just gave us all those meticulously engraved lines on those 34 mirrors2? It was closer in style to the Photographs of Aaron Siskind than the style I’d just seen. When I saw the title, I got it. “Crack/Craquelure.” Craquelure is a term referring to the cracking patterns seen in many old Paintings. “Nostalgia,” in another sense.

‘Crack/Craquelure,” 2017, Oil on wood panel.

There are other instances of “nostalgia” for the craft of Art in the show, like “Picture(esque),” 2017, Antique “Claude Glass,” float glass mirror, hook and plywood. A “Claude Glass,” (or “Black Mirror”) is an 18th & 19th century device, which Ms. Harvey is fond of.

“Picture(sque),” 2017. The “Black Mirror” was, also used for magic, particularly for seeing the future. Ellen Harvey’s work often contains images of ruins & destruction…images of a dark future.

They have been used by landscape Artists aiming for that special quality achieved by the great landscape Painter, Claude Lorrain (c.1604-1682), who it’s named after.

Claude Lorrain, “Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna,” 1639, seen at The Met. A classic example of the much admired, and copied, “dark” landscape, which inspired the “Claude Glass.”

Beyond the other themes present in this diverse show, there is the theme of mirrors. Since Robert Rauschenberg, I can’t think of another Artist who uses mirrors as frequently to such wonderful effect. Hand-engraved, without engraving, or with “Black Glass,” above. I asked the Artist about her use of mirrors, and specifically when it started. She replied, “I’ve always loved mirrors — but the first mirror piece I really made was in 2005 for the Pennsylvania Academy — aptly titled “Mirror” because I wanted to show the space and comment on their collection of paintings…and then I got hooked. Before that, I was all about Polaroids.” She’s referring to her monumental installation where she reinvisioned the entrance hall of the landmarked Furness and Hewitt Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art Building, Philadelphia, as a ruin, using video and four 9 by 12 foot hand-engraved mirrors. Ruins are part of the “dark future” Ellen Harvey believes we are destined for. Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Last Judgement” was the first painting she fell in love with. “That red-hot sword is coming for us all,” she said3, referring to what looms above Christ’s left hand. If it’s coming, I hope it gets here before I have to file my “new” taxes.

Further on, “Nostalgia” takes on more of a traditional meaning in “Ghost of Penn Station,” 2017, Oil on wood panel, where we see the tragically lost Architectural masterpiece, rendered in oil, as if seen through a haze or in a dream. Whereas Ms. Harvey has created a number of works showing existing buildings (even creating an “Alien’s Guide to the (future) Ruins of Washington DC“) in ruins, this is a rare case where a building that was ruined is shown before, in all it’s glory. In the rear gallery, “New Forest (The I.R.S. Office Reforested),” 2013, Gesso, oil, acrylic, and varnish on wood,  about 13 1/2 feet long, shows a part of the I.R.S. offices (speaking of taxes) in a deserted state with the area in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Interestingly, the I.R.S. bought a sister work on the same subject, titled “Reforestation,” that, also, depicts their new offices in ruins, being reclaimed by nature, rendered in mirrors which, now installed, reflect those very offices! Fact is stranger than Art. When I asked Ms. Harvey about this, she replied to the effect that they have a, surprisingly, good sense of humor.

“New Forest (The I.R.S. Office Reforested),” 2013, Black gesso, oil, acrylic, varnish on 20 wooden panels. Overall- 13 1/3 feet long by 7 3/4 feet high. There is a social/political/economic conscience, or awareness that runs through Ellen Harvey’s work that I find most tastefully handled.

Finally, there is another, spectacular, engraved mirror work, the fascinating “On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset,” 2017, 16 Hand-engraved plexiglass mirrors, 16 Lumisheets, plywood. Ms. Harvey lets the wires for the light boxes dangle down in front…Yes. In front of the work,  another way of adding an obstacle to the “pure” appreciation of her image. They fall to a jumble of power strips on the floor, where they look as intricate as the engraving above them. Perhaps they’re a metaphor for the huge effort it took to get this close to the “impossible” task she refers to. (In earlier engraved mirror works (like “Destroyed Landscape (Cloudy Moon),” 2012, she scratched over the finished engraving, graffiti-like, making it almost impossible to see the underlying composition.)

“On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset,” 2017, 16 Hand-engraved plexiglass mirrors, 16 Lumisheets, plywood.


As I considered “Nostalgia,” over multiple visits, this work became something of a touchstone for me as I learned (and still learn) about her work. In it, her gorgeous technical achievement becomes subservient (in a way) to her “larger point.” Across her career, it seems to me that that “larger point” is her vision. About this, she said-

“What is it that all these viewers might want in this situation? That’s really where all of this work comes from. It comes from my desire to take particular situations, either physical or social, and say, ‘What is it that people want from Art in this situation?  What can Art do here?’ And of course the answers are often completely ridiculous. When you think about it what people dream of, it’s like falling in love with someone, it’s all projection. It’s a sort of mad fantasy that’s very hard to understand.” 4

“495 West 37th Street at Ninth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, From The New York Beautification Project,” February, 2001, Oil on Wood(?) Wall. Close-up, right. Photos from, which has it’s backstory.

This “What can Art do here?” approach can be seen all the way back in 1999, in her remarkable “New York Beautification Project.” In it, the Artist hand painted 40 five by seven inch oval oil paintings on top of existing graffiti, over the course of 2 years! During the project, she was mugged once, and had encounters with the NYPD. While her remarkable Paintings were influenced by classic (and classical) landscape Paintings (WHAT could be MORE out of place in the world of NYC graffiti?), what floors me is the map of the locations she created them.

Map of locations of the Paintings in Ellen Harvey’s “New York Beautificalion Project,” 1999-2001. From

She almost circled the entire City! Ok, she did this without permission, or renumeration, as the works were affixed to non-movable locations, to the displeasure of gallerists, which might make you wonder…”WHY???” I chalk it up as an early sign of the scale of, the dedication to, and persistence of her vision. It was a taste of things to come.

Her “What is it that people want from Art in this situation?” reached, perhaps, it’s ultimate expression when only a short time later she got a chance to do public art “for real.” Actually? Two chances. The NYC MTA commissioned her to create the Art for TWO NYC Subway stations. She is one of the very few (perhaps, the only one?) to have been commissioned to do more than one. In 2005, she created “Look Up, Not Down,” in 2,000 square feet of the Queens Plaza Subway Station. This MTA video provides a look at it, and the backstory, and also includes rare glimpses of the NY Beautification Project’s Paintings, which are now long lost.

Then, in 2009, she was commissioned to do the Art for the (new) Yankee Stadium Metro North Station. Typically, she took a Yankees ad logo, “The Home of the Stars,” and flipped it in a way everyone could relate to- Yankee fan, or not.

Someone once said that mosaics are the most durable medium. There are gorgeous examples in The Met from 200 AD. So, it seems fairly likely that her work in the subway (at least) will last for at least the next 100, if not 1,000 years. I’ve lauded the MTA on their choices of Artists to create Art for the Subway before. Here is another case where I think they made an excellent choice. Both of these works are related to the sky and stars theme that continues in “Nostalgia.” Well? I’m not sure even Ellen Harvey is going to find a bigger stage than the stars.

Regarding her statement about giving the viewers what they want, I remain to be convinced that many, if anyone else, sees the world as Ellen Harvey does. It seems to me that she takes spaces (or materials) and reimagines them in ways visitors might enjoy, but, perhaps, don’t quite expect, and I doubt anticipated. Her work seems to cut across and through periods, schools, styles- abstract or realistic, to speak to people, and so, it “gives the people what they want.” That’s a pretty rare gift. Christo & Jeanne Claude come to mind as Artists who are/were capable of similar things. Her projects often require her to bring an extremely wide range of talents to bear, in an equally wide range of mediums and scale, to create her visions, though like Rauschenberg, she has said she considers herself a Painter. A Painter, who loves Painting dearly, though she has real doubts about it’s ongoing relevance given many of it’s original functions having been replaced by other mediums. For my part, it seems Painting was in trouble in the 90’s, but I’ve seen any number of very good (and relevant) Painting shows recently, especially this past year. Since Painting is, still, my favorite medium, I remain hopeful.

Looking through the 300 plus pages of “Museum of Failure” it’s very hard not to be amazed at the daring of her work, it’s diversity, as well as the consistent quality of it. In two instances she has taken on Painting reproductions of the bulk of the collections of two museums(!)- the Whitney and the nudes in the Bass Museum, Miami, and rendered them exceedingly well- regardless of the style or period. Yet Painting is just one of the many mediums she works, and excels, in.

With “Nostalgia,” one of the best shows of the fall season, you might think that Ellen Harvey would be satisfied. But, no. On December 13, ANOTHER show, including new work, “Ellen Harvey: Ornaments and Other Refrigerator Magnets,” opened at the Children’s Museum of Art downtown.

The CMA show continues her exploration of ornamentation (a subject near and dear to my heart), which, gets it’s own section on her website, showing work going back to at least 2002. It’s a show that, hopefully, will inspire and instill a love of ornament in a young audience that will grow up to bring it back to a world that sorely needs it. In it, another of her themes, seen in her 2014 installation, “The Unloved,” at the Groeninge Museum, Bruges, Belgium, comes to the fore- the forgotten/overlooked/yes, unloved, in Art. These days? Not much is more unloved than ornamentation in Architecture.

“Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humour to strike

What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?
All this useless beauty”*

Appropriately, and prominently, placed around the show were various editions of Austrian Architect Adolf Loos’ essay collection, “Ornament & Crime,” as if saying “Ornament is NOT a crime!”

Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime,”a collection of essays, including the title piece, a lecture given in 1908, appropriately displayed on a lovely, ornate pedestal.

Featured is her 2015 “Metal Paintings for Dr. Barnes,” in which she painted every piece of metal work installed at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, on 826 wood panels with magnets inset then mounted on steel panels so they could be endlessly rearranged, unlike those in the Barnes.

“Metal Paintings for Dr. Barnes,” 2005, Oil on 826 wood panels with inset magnets, steel panels, overall, 25 by 15 feet, left, and “Mass Produced,” 2017, Metal hardware, screws, plywood, and plastic frame.

More recently, much of her work with ornaments has been inspired by her visits to the  American Wood Column Company, in Brooklyn, founded in 1916, and their collection of over 6,000 antique molds. On view was a 48 part visual catalog of samples of their work, which Ms. Harvey had photographed by accomplished Photographer Etienne Frossard, who has been working with her since 2012, in a new work titled “Mr. Lupo’s Collection,” in honor (in a sense) of this man and his company’s devotion to currently unloved work that may be on the verge of being lost.

“Mr. Lupo’s Collection,” 2017, 48 Framed Photographs, individually photographed by Etienne Frossard. (Apologies for the glare in my photo of them.)

Ornaments made by American Wood Column Company were featured in a large, new work that brings them right into the 21st Century. Not being satisfied with creating Art in two Subway stations, here, “Ornaments for the Subway,” 2017, goes further. It attempts to beautify that universal blight of all Subway stations- the ads. The card says, “It used to be that public spaces were covered with architectural ornaments rather than advertising….Here the Artist imagines taking back the public space from which they have been removed.” Bravo.

“Ornaments for the Subway,” 2017, Pressed glue ornaments made by the American Wood Column Co., plywood panels with inset magnets, subway posters and 20 steel panels.


I spoke with Ellen Harvey at the opening, and she turned out to be exceedingly gracious, generously walking this complete stranger around her new show, pointing out all kinds of subtle detail that would take me many visits to discover. Here again, some of the themes I’ve seen in her other works are on display- a critique of Art, museums, and the rich, her passion for giving the viewers what they want, more use of mirrors (as mirrors this time!) and yes, “nostalgia,” is a theme, here, too. This work with mirrors includes people I know I’ve seen somewhere before.

“All That Glitters,” 2017. Card and detail below.

Detail of the lower right corner of the right side shows Mr. Putin, right, and Mr. Trump, above to the left of center, who’s wife appears elsewhere.

I titled this piece “Ellen Harvey’s Global Beautification Project,” because looking through her projects to date, they’ve taken place around the world, from California, to Miami to Philadelphia to Ghent, Bruges, Margate, Vienna, Warsaw, and of course, NYC, including the 2008 Whitney Biennial and the two Subway Stations. Together, they make part of a map of the world that will soon start to look like a global version of the map of her New York Beautification Project.

Before I left CMA, I came across “Walk In,” 2005, Oil on plywood and gilded frame, a booth to allow visitors to pose in glamorous surroundings, as if walking into a painting.

“Walk In,” 2005, 005, a work designed to be a background and frame in one for a do it yourself portrait.

Inspired by her work, and her approach, it was at that point that I decided to be a visionary, myself. “Hmmm….What does this picture need? What would the people like to see here?,” I asked myself.

The very gracious Artist graciously poses for yours truly in her “Walk In,” 2005.

And so, “My Portrait of Ellen Harvey” ends…with one.

“Ellen Harvey: Nostalgia” is my NoteWorthy show for November. 

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “All This Useless Beauty,” by Elvis Costello from the 1996 album of the same title, publisher not known to me. It’s rendered here.

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  1. A new edition, which features “Arcade/Arcadia” on it’s cover, is the most complete book on her work and is recommended. Ellen Harvey’s website, is, also, a goto resource.
  2. The first question I asked Ellen Harvey was about engraving those mirrors- “What happens when you make a mistake?” “It happens often. I press on,” she said!
  3. “Ellen Harvey: Museum of Failure,” P. 299.