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.

“MIRANDA:
O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
PROSPERO:
‘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 xiaoluart.com

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.

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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 nighthawknyc.com
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  1. diplomat.com “China’s Art Market Is Booming…”
  2. time.com 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.

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.

Detail.

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. 

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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On Buying Art

For NighthawkNYC’s 2nd Anniversary, I decided to share some thoughts based on my experiences buying Art over 3+ decades. I hope they’re useful. My thank yous for year 2 appear at the end. 

Everyone should have something that speaks to them on their walls or in their space.

It could be something personal, something from your past, or, it could be a piece of Art. If you find both lacking in your space(s), I hope you’ll think about changing that and seeing what it adds to your life. If you choose something personal? You’re on your own. If you would like to try a piece of Art? I’d like to share my experiences and thoughts about it with you, for whatever they’re worth.

Todd Hido “Untitled #7910,” from “House Hunting,” 2012, seen at AIPAD, as I mentioned, here. It only took me 2 trips to see it to buy it. It’s me, right? Click to enlarge.

Of course, you could make something yourself. Most people take photos, so it might be worthwhile to get them all together and go through them and see if you have one you’d like to print and display. Or, you could create something from scratch- a Drawing, a Painting, a Sculpture, or…? While almost no one is a brilliant Artist right away, if you’re determined to create something that speaks to you and you feel proud enough of to display? With a bit of work, you might surprise yourself with the results. But, if you decide to buy something, there are some things to consider. Since I don’t know how much readers might be looking to spend on Art, I’m going to take the big picture view of it, to include as many cases as possible. If you haven’t bought Art before, it’s probably something you don’t want to rush right in to. While there could be a virtually endless amount to learn if you want to do this on a “serious” level, there are some essential things to keep in mind when you’re starting out that I think also apply to those with experience buying Art.

Of course, setting an amount you’re comfortable spending of your budget is essential. It’s too easy to spend over your means on Art and that might well mean having to sell it quickly, usually at a loss. I’ll call this budgeted amount “$X” since it varies by person. Once that amount has been determined, over many years, there’s one thing I’ve learned that, as far as I’m concerned, comes closest to being THE #1 “Rule” for buying Art-

ONLY BUY WHAT YOU LOVE.

Buying only what you love establishes your philosophical approach to buying Art. There’s a number of reasons I recommend this approach, most importantly the long term satisfaction with your purchase. If you love something, you’re going to enjoy it more than something you don’t, right?

Should I buy it? Umm…What is it? Is it Art? I think it’s actually an air vent for the 8th Ave Subway under it until some clever fellow decided to try to sell it for a cool 1.2 million. Maybe he was kidding? Well? I’ve been known to laugh at asking prices, too.

Of course, any time you spend more than a few hundred dollars on something, the investment aspect of it comes into play. Before you buy, look at comparable examples of the Artist’s work and see what they have sold for and when. After you buy the work, you should continue to do this- how often is up to you. But, in terms of buying Art purely because of what it’s value may be in the future? That’s an unknown. NO ONE knows what’s going to happen to Art prices in 5 years, or 50 years, or 200 years. Therefore, this can’t be your main reason for buying Art. Plain and simply, buying Art primarily for investment purposes is nothing but a crap shoot. The Art market has gone up and down during my lifetime, something that those who have only been in it for the past decade of rising prices can’t imagine. IF, heavens forbid, the Art market tanks, again…No. Not “IF.” WHEN the Art market tanks, again, and the piece you own becomes worth less than you paid for it, you can still get real value from it by enjoying it, IF you love it.

“Cos I don’t care too much for money
Money can’t buy me love.”*

They’re a bit more “bullish” on the “Art market” than I am.

I say “When the Art market tanks, again,” because the historical data shows that it’s VERY likely to happen. Sooner, rather than later. NOTHING goes up for ever- not even NYC real estate. Across the board, Art prices are as high right now as they’ve ever been. I look long, hard and generally fruitlessly to find any Artist who is “undervalued” today, and that includes many Artists who are not even in major museum collections yet. Is this sustainable? Very possibly not. Will prices go higher? Maybe. Will they go A LOT higher? I’m not convinced. I’ll put it this way- Right now, in my opinion, in general, there is far more risk that prices will go down than there is the chance they will go a lot higher (an increase of 40%, or more).

As strange as this might sound to say, I also believe that the Art market going through a substantial downturn might not be a bad thing all the way around. Yes, there will be a ton of pain. Many Art galleries and some institutions will no longer be with us, and many jobs will be lost. Many Artists will turn to other fields of endeavors. I may not have anything left to write about. None of these things are good, and I don’t want any of them to happen. Yet, it might also return some semblance of sanity to the Art market. If the investors are out of Art, only Art lovers will be left.

Ok. So now that I’ve gotten the negativity out of the way (i.e. the risk), let’s get back to why you want to buy Art- because you love Art. In the end? I think that people will always love Art. Some/many/most of them will want to have some in their spaces. Those are the people I’m talking to here. If you buy Art you love? Your risk is less than someone who buys it as an investment. As an Art lover, the good news is that even now you don’t have to spend a fortune to buy Art. There is Art for sale at every price imaginable. Set a budget and you’re good to go.

Whether you should, or shouldn’t buy something will rarely be this easy to know.

If you’re buying Art today, or in the future, here are a few things to keep in mind-

First, educate yourself as much as you can about the Artist, the piece, the medium it’s created in (Is it a Painting? A Drawing? A Limited Edition Print? Or…what?). Does it appear in any book on the Artist? If so, what does the author say about it (description, dimensions, year created, size, etc.). Does all of this match the piece you’re considering? If so, this is good, but it may not completely close the question of authenticity, forgery, or being “right” I’ll get to in a moment. The second part is to educate yourself on the Artist’s “market”- what is their work selling for. Selling for. Not what people are asking for it. What are people actually paying for it. People are free to ask whatever they want for it (like our friend with the air vent, above). But? ANYthing is ONLY worth what someone is willing to pay for it. How do you find all of this, and more, out? You have to dig.

Going up to dig. Once a week I climb these stairs to The Strand’s Art Book Dept on the 2nd floor. More often if I’m really stumped.

Second, is it genuine? This is a very sticky question that, unfortunately, rears it’s head in almost every Art transaction- or, it should. I will say that it seems to me that forgers seem to focus on Artists who have a certain status, and a well-paying market, but you never know. Pieces that are “not right” in some meaningful way (they’re damaged, repaired, mis-identified, stolen, “sketchy” is some other way, etc.) are more common in my experience, but it varies by Artist. You want to know you’re getting what you paid for. What does the Artist’s genuine signature look like? What are the telltale signs of his or her style, and on and on. Is it an original (one of a kind) piece, or is it a limited edition? If it’s a one of a kind- is it signed, dated or titled? Does it appear in the Artist’s Catalogue Raisonne, or other authoritative guide? If so, does it match the work in the picture of it? If it’s a Limited Edition- How many copies are in the edition, how many “Artist’s Proofs” are there, and what was the Artist’s involvement in making the print, are some of what I’d need to know. You may never get to be expert enough to replace the opinion of a real expert but it’s your money and you should know as much as you can about what you’re buying. I stay away from pieces that are not signed by the Artist. Why? Though they are, generally, (much) cheaper, I want to have that connection, and it means less chance of a forgery or an unauthorized edition. I also stay away from prints that are “open editions,” because, in theory, additional prints can be created indefinitely, and the larger number there is of anything out there, the less valuable it generally is1.

I KNOW this Raymond Pettibon Owl sketch & signature are genuine because he drew them right in front of me. “Obtained directly from the Artist,” is, also, the best provenance there is, though the hardest to get.

Third- What condition is it in? You may need an expert’s opinion on this, and you should get one if the work is over 50 years old or you’re spending substantial money on it, but you should look it, and whatever supporting documentation the seller has for it, over carefully yourself. If he doesn’t have it? That’s likely a deal breaker. I think you want to get in the habit of getting complete documentation for the Art you buy which may include a receipt, the provenance, a letter of authenticity from an expert or someone personally involved with the Artist, a condition report, and an appraisal for insurance purposes. Learning the terms of, and some of the ins and outs of the various mediums (Oil Painting, Acrylic Painting, Watercolor Painting, Drawing, etc) will help you and help you understand what the experts tell you. Old paintings may have been subject to restoration, cleaning, or even additional painting added to it by others, and these are very sticky waters for any Art buyer- even museums2. If you’re buying a piece that is already framed, it is possible the frame is hiding damage that could materially effect the value. At some price level, it becomes imperative the work be examined unframed, and the seller may, or may not, be willing to do this.

Pettibon, again. Very rare among Artists, his work is pretty easy to examine unframed at his shows, but any buyer of it should immediately take it to a framer. A view of part of the final room of “A Pen of All Works,” at the New Museum, includes work he created right on the wall itself!

Fourth- Who am I buying this from? What is their background and area of specialty & expertise, and is this Artist in that area? What is their connection to this piece, and to the Artist? Do they represent the Artist, or their estate? What is the provenance of the piece? I will not buy a piece without a known provenance, and ask it be spelled out in writing by the seller. Why? Whoever buys this piece from you will ask you for it, and it helps assure me the work is not stolen, and lessens the chance it’s a forgery (even knowledgable and reputable dealers, as well as museums, have been duped by forgers). How knowledgable is the seller about this specific work, and it’s condition? Anyone who knowingly withholds information about damage or something “not right” with a piece is not ethical, and shouldn’t be in business. But? They’re out there. It’s happened to me. They’ll claim they “missed it,” so? Buyer beware. What’s the return policy if something turns out to not be “right?” Ideally. you want to buy from someone who stands behind what they’re selling and what they’re saying about it. There are an unlimited number of people and places selling Art these days. I’m not going to recommend any one. (Oh, and for the record, no one sponsors me). However, I will say that I think if you’re buying Art for the first time, go and look at it in person. Buying Art online that you’ve never seen in person is hard for an experienced Art buyer, very hard for an inexperienced one, and something I highly recommend you avoid. For one thing you can’t get the full effect of the piece, in my opinion, from a photo, and you can’t assess things like condition and damage anywhere near properly enough from one. Terms vary by seller. Look over them closely before you commit to buying anything from anyone. Learn to develop your own terms- what you require and what you won’t accept regarding payment, paperwork, returns & refunds, authenticity, condition, etc. If you see something that doesn’t sound reasonable, or is against your terms, walk away. Keep in mind that where limited edition prints are concerned there’s a chance you can find the same item being sold by someone else, especially if it’s less than 10-15 years old.

Almost every window in this Photo is of an Art gallery on West 26th Street, which is full of them from 10th to 11th Avenues, as are many of the adjoining Chelsea streets.

It’s vital to get out there and look. Books and the internet can provide information, but there’s still no substitute for seeing Art in person, as I said, especially when you are forming your tates. Even if nothing is being offered for sale (as in a museum show), you’ll learn something every time you look. See what’s being shown and how your feel about it. Gradually, your tastes will come into focus. Wait until you get “that feeling.” You know- like when you fell in love. If you don’t? Keep looking, enjoy what you see, and learn about it. Another thing that’s become apparent to me is that I like Art that says something different to me every time I look at it (as I’ve mentioned in prior Posts). This has become an essential element I need to have in anything I actually buy because I’m going to be looking at it a lot for, hopefully, a long time. While I have never bought a piece I didn’t love, as in other types of “love,” I find it’s the piece you can’t live without that may be the piece to buy. Keyword- may be. Obviously, many other things are more important to life than Art- Shelter, food, health, and those things effecting survival come way before one gets to the point of considering buying Art. Art adds to and enhances life. But, no one ever died from not having Art, as far as I know. (Though, some people who live without Art may not be living!) So? Wait until you find a work that gets inside of you and won’t let go.

Looking is hard work. Quick- What do you see? A rabbit facing right, or a duck facing left? From Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations,” as reprinted in Errol Morris‘ superb “Believing Is Seeing,” which I recommend to everyone who looks at Art.

Fifth- What other expenses am I going to incur buying this piece? Tax, shipping, framing and insurance are the most usual ones. Packing and appraisal (which you may need for insurance if the value rises above what you paid) may be others.

Professional Art handlers and movers may be needed to handle large, heavy, delicate or unusually sized pieces, like these seen here during an installation earlier this year at Metro Pictures. Doing it yourself may risk damaging it. Damage= lower value.

Deinstalling Richard Serra’s “For John Cage” series at Gagosian last year. Hopefully your needs won’t be this involved.

Also, once you buy a work, you are then responsible for “curating” it- keeping it in as good condition as you bought it to maintain it’s value. If you are considering having a work framed? Go to an established pro who regularly does work for museum and gallery shows. I only use City Frame, in NYC. I have used many other framers and since I don’t believe in being negative here, I’ll simply say, call Corinne Takasaki at City Frame if you want something framed. They’re the best I’ve found. No. I don’t get a cut from them for saying that. If you’re buying a work on paper that is from before the days of acid-free paper be aware that you’re going to have yellowing to deal with over time going forward. Consult an expert about what this might entail before buying it.

The first stage of framing at City Frame. A photo about to be measured.

Sixth- So, if you’ve bought what you love? Hang it and enjoy looking at it each time it comes into your view. If, after time has passed, you’ve decided to part with it? Selling is a subject for a whole other Post (or 10). I will say this, though- In general, it takes time to sell Art for what it’s worth. I mention it now because it’s something to keep in mind. BEFORE you buy something. You should ask yourself- IF, and when I decide to sell this, what are my options? One thing many people fail to realize is that new & largely unknown Artists have one market- the dealer who represents them. Most likely, you are buying their work from them. When it’s time to sell it? They may well be your only option. They know the Artist’s market and his/her existing collectors. They’re going to take a piece of the sale price to do so. How much varies by dealer, but it’s something to keep in mind. Auction houses may not accept the work of Artists who don’t have a proven track record of sales. You can search for this online and it’s something you should do before you buy a work that costs more than $X (unless you’re prepared to lose this money). I applaud people who buy the work of “under-known” Artists because they love their work. You are helping that Artist survive, and make more Art. I’ve been able to actually buy Art directly from the Artist, which you might be able to do before they sign with a gallery to represent them and handle their sales. It adds a personal element that’s hard to forget, and hard to equal.

Christie’s, Rockefeller Center. The big auction houses rarely sell the work of Artists who aren’t “established.” On the other hand, living Artists don’t get a percentage of re-sales of their work at auction (though most auction houses get paid by both the buyer and the seller). Look! They have their own flag (center)!

ALL of this being said, you don’t need to spend a fortune on a piece of Art! Art is available at almost any price you can mention. Just remember everything I’ve said above still applies, and that buying even relatively inexpensive Art may require some of the additional expenses I mentioned earlier, or others I didn’t. Everything I’ve said is based on my own experiences over the past 30 some years. I make no “warranty.” This is by no means meant to be “advice” or a “complete guide.” In my opinion, there is no such thing.

It’s a good thing I don’t have one of those stencils.

Another thing I’ve learned from looking at a lot of Art is that I will never own 99.99% of all the Art out there in the world. I’ve come to terms with that. Sure, I want to take Hopper’s “Nighthawks” home and hang it here, though that’s incredibly selfish. Yes, I see things every time I look that I think about buying (with varying degrees of seriousness). But? That’s ok. I’ve learned to use shows as another room in my home. It’s like if I go to a show often it’s a bit like living with the work on display, which is kind of fun-and? It’s as close as I’ll ever get to really doing that.

I still walk around this show in my mind. “Nasreen Mohamedi” at The Met Breuer, 2016

25 visits was easier than getting one of these home. Ai Weiwei at Lisson Gallery, 2016

Another important consideration in buying Art that you love is timing. As I’ve mentioned, I believe the Art Market is (at, or) near a peak in value. As a result it becomes extremely hard to find Art that is “undervalued.” Far more Art is “overvalued,” in my opinion. Of course, there is no way for anyone to really know what Art is going to speak to, and be valued by, future generations. We can only make assumptions. One of those is- “If it’s spoken to people for x hundred years, why won’t it continue to do so?” Another is, “They’re not making any more Vermeer’s.” So, yes, supply and demand is always the key element. And that brings me to a final point. While “Contemporary Art” has a certain “sex appeal” that comes with being new, as I touched on earlier, most new Artists don’t have an established market. This is very, very risky, in my opinion for anyone buying their work for more than $X, which, apparently, many people are doing. It seems to me that most people, especially those new to buying Art, would be better off buying the work of Artists with (long) track records, which also allow a wider ranger of selling avenues, if/when the need arrises.

Henry Taylor & Deana Lawson shown together at this year’s Whitney Biennial, where they were among the “stars.” Being included, means it’s too late now to “get in at the bottom,” on either, but it’s still no guarantee either will “make it,” and their prices will rise substantially the next 20 years, since both are still in “mid-career.” Therein lies the rub, and the risk, in buying the work of good Artists who are beginning to “make it.” Are you now paying for the quality of their work, or it’s future price potential? At least the Artists get paid.

Going back to the Master of Delft, it’s hard for us to realize that Vermeer lived in obscurity after his death for many, many decades (like Van Gogh lived during his entire life).

Yes, that really is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at MoMA, or as close as I could get to it. I often wonder what Vincent would have made of his incredible popularity now.

It’s quite possible “another Vermeer” is out there waiting to be discovered right now. Carmen Herrera, who’s now 102 years young(!), had only one major show (in 1984) before being given a solo show at the Whitney Museum LAST YEAR (2016)!

Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight” at the Whitney Museum, January, 2016.

With all the Art that’s been created in just the past, say, 300 years, I think it’s a virtual certainty that someone major has gone over looked. So? If you get good at this, you go to see enough Art, know what to look for, and you have your eyes open? Who knows what you might find!

But? Don’t buy it if you don’t love it.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney, of The Beatles, published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

Two Years! This Post marks the Second Anniversary of NighthawkNYC.com. I can’t let it pass without saying “Thanks!,” first to Sv for pushing me to start it, to Kitty for research assistance above and beyond the beyond this past year, to all the fine people I’ve met who work in the galleries and museums I haunt who have answered questions, shared insights, helped, and especially for putting up with “him, again,” to all the Artists who have spoken with me this year, and everyone who has taken the time to check out the 150 Posts I’ve done so far. Thank you! Oh! And I almost forgot- to my two fine feathered friends, aka “The Birdies” of “On The Fence.” For those who have wondered “What the heck?”  They represent the random voices I hear commenting at shows, though, unfortunately, only I am to blame for what comes out of their mouths. Don’t worry- No actual Birdies were harmed in the making of that series. But? Their Photo has sure taken a beating!

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. I’m not speaking further about buying Photographs in this Post. From what I’ve seen, and learned, this year, that is a whole other topic.
  2. If you want to get an idea of HOW sticky it can get, or you want to see how world-class experts work, check out the Rembrandt Research Project’s controversial findings on all of the Master’s Paintings, here. Well, the ones they accept as being by the Master, himself.

“Only God Sees This”

As I continue to explore Contemporary Photography this year, I find I am increasingly drawn to the field of “PhotoJournalism.”

Is this the “Early Magnum: On & In New York” Show, or the Black Hole of Photography that has swallowed me whole in 2017. Or, both? Click to feel engulfed, like I do.

Or, what was called “PhotoJournalism.” As far as I can discern it was a term meaning using pictures to tell a story, report a story, or support a story. Was? Or is? It’s a term that I struggle to define today, in the dual print & cyber world. As I explore the field, I find that some Photographers have an issue with the term, too, while others still use it. Since I am someone who loathes “boxes” applied to work in any creative field of endeavor, or the creators, themselves, I’m going to use it (with those caveats) only for the sake of clarity, though I prefer to refer to the creators of this work as Photographers. For a number of reasons, I wonder if the term is on the verge of outliving it’s usefulness, though professionals, no doubt, may differ.

At a time when these Photographers are under seemingly ever-increasing threat, on many fronts, showing their work is one of the best means there is of combating that, and helping them because it brings this work more and more into the light and before more eyes. In making the rounds of shows and in doing my research, I’ve been surprised by the amount of Photographs I’ve seen documenting current and recent conflicts and crisis around the world- in gallery shows, at AIPAD, and in PhotoBooks. In most of these instances, they’re seen on their own, with almost no supporting text, save for the ever-popular small info card. This also makes me wonder- Without the “Journalism” (i.e. a text), is it still “PhotoJournalism?”

Speaking, without words. Dennis Stock of Magnum Photos, “Audrey Hepburn during the filming of ‘Sabrina,'” NYC, 1954. Standing there, it was hard for me not to think that she survived near-fatal starvation in Nazi Holland at the end of WW2, just 9 years before.

With all of that being said, I find I’m being drawn to “PhotoJournalism” for one overriding reason-

I believe these Photographers, especially those who work in what is called “Conflict Photography,” may well be the bravest creative people in the world today. To my mind, that gives them a leg up on being among the most compelling creators of our time. And, especially in these times, their work is critically, and increasingly, important. For all of us.

Robert Capa’s eight surviving photographs of Omaha Beach on D-Day (out of the 106 he’s said he took) were among the first works of what is called “Conflict Photography” to captivate me. Their story is tragic. I mean the story of his film being ruined, and only these precious few, now iconic, images surviving, is tragic. Yet, I’ve come to make peace with that, first, because there’s nothing to be done to change it, and second, because I’ve come to see them as symbolizing the larger experience- that not all of those incredibly brave fighting men who entered that living hell survived, either. They, and the ones that did survive, (though, with typical modesty, say otherwise in interviews), ARE Heroes, of what was the most important day of the 20th Century. That Mr. Capa lost his life almost exactly 10 years to the day after D-Day covering another battle in a far away land speaks to the dedication he had to his craft, and his life’s mission.

It truly was life and death to him. Every single time he stepped on to a battlefield- to do his job, “armed” with only a camera.

Giles Caron (APIS & Independent), 3 images from his “Vietnam War Series,” 1967. Mr. Caron was killed there 3 years later. Seen @ School Gallery, Paris, AIPAD Booth

But, before Robert Capa left us, he also left us Magnum Photos, which he was a co-founder of1, now the world’s leading Photo Agency. It’s a cooperative, an agency and an archive, owned by it’s Photographer-members. The list of past and present men and women who have been, or are, members is closer to staggering than impressive. Though of course, there are many Photographers who are not Magnum members who are doing/have done great and important work. Being as 2017 marks the 70th Anniversary of Magnum’s founding, I’m going to focus on Magnum Photographers, though begin with two “Independents,” the first, Giles Caron, above, who died in Cambodia at age 30 (I will note “Independent/Other Association” next to their names here).

Tony Vaccaro, center rear, seen with a wall of his masterpieces to his right. From the far right corner- Georgia O’Keefe (2), Picasso, “The Violinist” directly behind his head, Hitler’s Eagles Nest (top, in front of him) and a fallen GI (bottom), at Monroe Gallery’s AIPAD Booth, in March.

I can’t go any further without mentioning, again, having recently been in the presence of the the second, the “Dean” of Photographers, 94 years young Tony Vaccaro, at Morgan Gallery’s booth at AIPAD, because it still feels like I imagined it. Like Mr. Capa, Mr. Vaccaro is today known for many other genres of photographs, especially portraits, besides his classic World War II photos, (which are the subject of a PBS Documentary), examples of all lined the wall behind him that day. Looking at these, like looking at Robert Capa’s “other” work (after putting down “Robert Capa: This is War!”), is fascinating because it provides insights into the man and, once in a while, his life. Sometimes it’s hard to remember these Photographers, who shoot War and Conflicts, are real people, with real lives.

Flesh and blood human beings.

Smile! Werner Bischof’s “Magnum Photos office,” 1953. See that Magnum bottle of champagne on the left? That’s the inspiration for the name “Magnum.”

The recently ended show, “Early Magnum: On & In New York,” produced by Magnum Photos at the National Arts Club focuses on this “other” side, as we get to see Photos of NYC by Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Davidson, Cornell Capa, Erich Hartmann, Dennis Stock, Eve Arnold, Werner Bischof and others, along with candid early shots of the Magnum Offices in action.

(Another) Installation View of “Early Magnum: On & In New York” in the Grand Gallery of the National Arts Club, on Gramercy Park.

A good many of these are famous. As a group, they show the contribution Magnum has made to our culture in preserving memories and time, as well as to the Art of Photography by having so many terrifically gifted, and amazingly versatile Photographers as members. Their work is eternally of it’s time, timely for us now, and a good deal of it is still ahead of our time. There are pleasures, familiar and unexpected, throughout this well conceived and arranged selection, and it does a fine job of celebrating this part of Magnum’s achievement.

Dennis Stock’s haunting portrait of James Dean on Broadway in Times Square, in 1955, a block from Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, taken just months before his death that September.

While it was utterly fascinating looking at well-known images like this, or Sammy Davis in his hotel in 1959,

Cornell Capa (Robert’s brother), “JFK in NYC,” 1960, a month before the election.

or JFK campaigning in an open vehicle (poignant now, on it’s own) in an NYC Motorcade a month before the 1960 election by Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell Capa, it was images of people mostly forgotten to history that held me longest, like a group of shots from Bruce Davidson’s “Brooklyn Gang,” in 1959, which captures the lives of a Brooklyn gang so brilliantly that the images still look ahead of their time to me, like the second one below.

Styling. Bruce Davidson, center in 1959, with 2 members of the “Brooklyn Gang.”

Bruce Davidson, “Brooklyn Gang on the Boardwalk in Coney Island,” 1959, the gent on the right is also on the right in the previous shot.

I previously mentioned asking Mr. Davidson, who I revere as the living Master of NYC Photography2, how he was able to survive shooting “Subway” in the dark days of 1980. He said “Because I looked like a photographer.” Looking at these “Brooklyn Gang” classics, taken in yet another environment not welcoming of outsiders, I again marveled he survived. I mean, just look at how he’s dressed! Part of the answer, and his disavowal of the term “PhotoJournalism” for his work, can be found here-

While all of this shows that “other” side I spoke of earlier very well, meanwhile, on the “Conflict Photography” front, I wondered many other things looking through another PhotoBook, a new one, about conflict, revolution, it’s effects and aftermaths. It’s “Discordia” by Moises Saman, a Spanish-American PhotoJournalist who’s been a full member of Magnum Photos since 2014, and consists of Photographs he took over four years of the “Arab Spring,” from 2011 to 2014, edited, and with collages, by Daria Birang.

Moises Saman, “Discordia,” 2016, Cover

It’s cover shows a silhouetted figure who’s, possibly, just thrown something?, or has just been hit by something? Either way, he seems to be off his feet, as if picked up out of the world and transported somewhere else, and lost in the world he’s collaged in over part of a static-covered TV Screen. It’s not an image you’d see in the “real world,” and it’s not an image you’d see on TV. Right off, “Discordia,” the name of the Roman goddess of strife, seems to be announcing it is walking the line between document and Art. After my first pursuing of  this self-published book, I asked myself…

How does someone become Moises Saman? Who, in addition to being a Magnum member, is a world-renowned Photographer, who’s work appears regularly in the New York Times, Time, National Geographic, among other places, and is a winner of a 2016 “Picture of the Year” Award. (“Discordia,” won the 2016 Anamorphosis Prize.) Do you just get on a plane with a camera, go somewhere where there’s a battle or revolution taking place and start taking photos? And, being someone who almost broke both of his knees a few weeks ago photographing on the High Line (I’ll wait for the laughter to subside…)…How do you learn to survive?”

And, if you do?- “What drives you to keep going back?”

All of these questions come to mind before the key question at the heart of the matter of this book- How do you get such amazing photos in the midst of utter chaos, bloodshed, even death going on all around you?

When I saw this one, of nothing less than a bomb maker actually making a bomb in Syria, I was struck by a thought-

Moises Saman, Magnum Photos “A bombmaker working for the rebels mixes chemicals in a makeshift bomb factory in a rebel-held district, Aleppo, Syria, 2013.” (Quotes denote Magnum captions.)

“Who sees this?”

Yes, it raises questions that are beyond the scope of this site. So, I am not going to get into any of the “bigger” questions regarding the individuals photographed here. Hopefully, each viewer assesses the work for themselves and, after all, in a free society, that’s one of the key freedoms we have- to be able to do so. Another is the right to see such images. And that’s why whatever you call them- “PhotoJournalists,” “Conflict Photographers,” or “Documentary Photographers” (which Mr. Saman refers to himself as),  who’s jobs, and very existence, seems to get harder with every passing day, are so important to all of us. It will be up to the future to decide if it, like every thing else being created today, is “Art,” or not. For now, work that speaks (at least to me), and has importance, in my life, and the world, makes it “important” now. For myself, looking at this shot- the angle Mr. Saman chose, that light actually enters this room, and shines on the floor, the bomb maker himself- what he’s wearing and how he looks, what else is in the room. It’s familiar. It’s foreign. It’s everyday- (you want to think- “Ok. He’s preparing to paint the walls.”)..and it’s…not. It’s unimaginable. It’s impossible. And then? It’s unforgettable.

Or this? Moises Saman, Magnum Photos, “Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, son of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi photographed shortly before the fall of Tripoli, Libya, 2011.”

In looking through “Discordia,” the emphasis often seems so be on the posture and/or expressions of those depicted, which can be seen even on the cover. This brings a powerful human element to everts that often takes place in rubble, or completely or partially destroyed structures. We see leaders feeling the weight of their dilemma, fighters seen in the act, and, their families in the throes of dealing with their deaths, after. We see business people trying to maintain some semblance of “normal life,” traveling to and fro, one climbing over a wall with his pretzels to sell on his back, another navigating ever changing roads.

You think your commute is hard? Moises Saman, Magnum Photos, “Pretzel seller near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, January, 2013.”

These serve to remind that conflicts affect everyone in these towns, cities, or countries. Though “Discordia” documents 4 years of work, capturing the “Arab Spring” as it spread through the Middle East, there are no chapters separating one part of it from another. The effect is to show the basic nature of these revolts- their commonality. The struggle against and the resulting push back, before, during and after, and, most of all, the effect on lives. For those of us far far away from these lands we see the face of struggle, of revolution being born and fighting for life against the powers that be that want to remain being the powers that be. From afar, it seems as “alien” as the cover image. Mr. Saman appears to show us both sides, and while the names, places and background info he provides in the back of the book shed light on the photos, they’re still incredibly powerful without knowing any of this- just as pictures of people in a revolution, human beings in unimaginable circumstances, and in the process, presenting them this way “separates” the images from “traditional” PhotoJournalism,” especially since the only words to be found in the book are in a section in the back3. At least for me, this is a book about human beings, and their underlying humanity- the pain and suffering, and the struggle to overcome injustice, and the inevitable results of their actions, or the actions of others, in the midst of unbelievable situations and environments, that looks like another world.

Moises Saman, Magnum Photos, “Young protesters take shelter during clashes near Tahrir Square. Cairo, Egypt, January, 2013.”

Right from the silhouette on the cover, I was taken by the postures and expressions of those in the Photographs, which becomes a running theme in them, and, for me, their essence. Julian Stallabras, author of a book on Contemporary Art, “Art, Incorporated,” that I highly recommend, said, “Discordia shows the hopes, idealism and strength of rebellion against long-established dictatorial regimes, and also- with great clarity- the price paid for it.” Indeed. But what’s left (largely) unsaid, and not shown, is the price Mr. Saman paid. Only at the end of the plates, in a small section of text do we learn that the helicopter crash in 2014 that he shows us the aftermath of (below) was one that he, himself, survived! He makes no mention of whether he was injured, or not, and only shows us the reactions of others, that injured, or not, he kept on capturing!

Mosies Saman, Magnum Photos, “A boy whose mother was onboard the helicopter cries as he does not know the fate of his mother. (She survived.) An Iraqi Air Force helicopter on a rescue mission in the Sinjar Mountains crashed shortly after takeoff. Onboard the helicopter were dozens of Yazidi refugees stranded in the mountain for days unable to reach the safety of Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq. Sinjar Mountains, Iraq, 2014.”

If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about his commitment, nothing does.

Meanwhile, I also hear an undercurrent of talk about this work being “difficult” to look at, let alone buy or hang in homes. Is it because it’s a Photograph and not a Drawing or Painting? When I hear this, I’m reminded that many found Jackson Pollock’s work “ugly,” and while a good many, no doubt, still do, many more now accept it. With the number of excellent shows and PhotoBooks around, this may be changing for these Photos, too. Slowly. Renowned Photographer turned Photo collector, Harriett Logan, recently spoke to Magnum about building a collection of these works, which she started (I think astutely) only four years ago. It includes work by Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange and Matt Black, among others. She, through the Incite Project, supported the publication of “Discordia,” in return for prints by Mr. Saman. She said, “Like the tank man in Tiananmen Square, history stops at those still images, and the photographers that took those pictures did an incredible job of essentially isolating, for all of us, those moments of history.” Those isolated moments adds up. Ashley Gilbertson’s (of VII Photo Agency) “Refugees Disembark on Lesvos, Greece” at Monroe Gallery at AIPAD, provided “another chapter” to the story Ai Weiwei so movingly told in his show, “Laundromat,” about the Refugee Camps, which I wrote about recently. And there are others.

Ashley Gilbertson’s “Refugees Disembark on Lesvos, Greece, 2015,” at Monroe Gallery, AIPAD.

The always excellent Jack Shainman Gallery recently had a compelling show of Richard Mosse (a former Magnum member), and Sebastiao Salgado, perhaps the best known “Concerned Photographer” alive, just had a show of his extraordinary Photographs of the 1991 Kuwaiti Oil Fires at the Tagore Gallery,

The legendary Sebastiao Salgado at the opening for his “Kuwait 1991” show at  Tagore Gallery Show, March 30, 2017.

Sebastiao Salgado, “Kuwait, 1991,” at Tagore Gallery.

and, the Howard Greenberg Gallery had a show of the work of Magnum’s Alex Majoli, who’s chiarascuro  lighting has the power of a modern Caravaggio, with all the drama and theater of Grand Opera, without music or words, which included this-

Alex Majoli, of Magnum Photos, faced these Sao Paolo, Brazilian, Police in 2014, with just his camera, and took this Photograph. Seen at Howard Greenberg.

This past week, at the beautiful new show by the Artist Robert Longo, the Contemporary Master of Charcoal Drawing, I had a deja vu moment-

The Artist Robert Longo DREW this work, “Untitled (Riot Cops), 2016,” possibly inspired by a Photograph, in the safety of his studio, brought back memories of Mr. Majoli’s, above.

Or, two-

Robert Longo “Untitled (Raft at Sea)” 2016-17, (both works at Metro Pictures), totals 24 FEET wide. These are Drawings!

His show, “The Destroyer Cycle,” at Metro Pictures as I write this, consists of 12 powerful, typically brilliantly executed, black and white charcoal drawings. The press release states- “For each exhibited work, Longo has developed a technique that reflects the medium of the drawing’s source image.” Specifically about the one above, it says it is- “A composite image partially sourced from the cover of a Doctors Without Borders publication, the drawing depicts refugees on a raft amidst the vast, turbulent Mediterranean Sea.” Curious to learn more, I reached out to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, as they are known), who kindly provided me with what may be one of those “images partially sourced?” In any event, it’s an amazing photo in it’s own right, taken by Will Rose (of  Rose & Sjolander)-

Will Rose, of Rose + Sjolander, December 18, 2015

MSF provided this information about it-

“A Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and Greenpeace rescue team responded to a sinking rigid inflatable boat carrying 45 Afghan refugees crossing from Turkey to the north shore of Lesvos, Greece. On arrival to the scene, the poor quality inflatable was taking on water. The people on board were having problems with the outboard motor as it was poorly fitted and could not be restarted. It was soon obvious to the Greenpeace/MSF crew that the sponsons were rapidly losing air and the lives of the people were in immediate danger…The women and children were grabbed first and transferred into two Greenpeace/MSF boats that were flanking both sides of the sinking boat. All people were successfully rescued and transferred to MolyvosHarbour in Greece, where response teams were on standby.” 

Snapping a camera’s shutter freezes a moment in time for all time. Part of what remains from December 18, 2015, beyond the memories of those who lived it, is Mr. Rose’s Photo, and the ongoing effect, and possibly inspiration, it has on all who see it. With shutters being snapped billions of times each day, it becomes easy to be overwhelmed by the number of images before us. Billions of people also draw, but very few of those wind up speaking to people over hundreds of years. Time will judge the lasting import, if any, of everything created today. That it has importance to us living now is undeniable, and what matters most, it seems to me.

Robert Longo’s amazing drawings are, rightly, in many of the world’s great Museums, including MoMA, the Guggenheim, and Whitney Museums4. Alex Majoli or Moises Saman are not in any of them (as far as I know.)

Why not?

The movements of NYC Museum Acquisition staffs remains a mystery to me, so I can’t answer that. I do feel that they will be there one day. In the meantime, their work needs to be seen by us, the people they risk their lives for to show us what they see. We miss it at our own peril.

While “PhotoJournalism” strikes me as a term in flux, Magnum co-founder, and legendary Photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” That might be the “other” definition I was looking for.

“Before you board that plane
I owe you a bottle of cold champagne
Yeah, cold champagne
I don’t know if we have coffee cups
Or plastic cups, I think Sonny has the cups-
Tonite we’re drinking straight from the bottle.”*

Happy 70th, Magnum Photos.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Champagne,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda from “In The Heights,” 2008. Publisher not known to me.

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1. Along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour, George Rodger, William Vandivert, Rita Vandivert, and Maria Eisner.
  2. He spent FOUR YEARS shooting in Central Park in creating his classic book of the same name.
  3. You can see other work by Mr. Saman, accompanied by text, i.e. more traditional “PhotoJournalism” here.
  4. The Met owns a print of his, though I recall seeing a series of his works on view there in the Great Hall during their “Pictures Generation show in 2009, so they may own others.

NYC Art Shows 2016- Sheena Wagstaff Rules The Waves

This year past, Manhattan Art was largely dominated by two themes. There was a seemingly continual string of shows by many of the bigger names in Abstract Expressionism (i.e. AbEx), one after the other, and I wrote about every one of them, beginning with Jackson Pollock @MoMA, Lee Krasner, Philip Guston (two- here and here), Richard Pousette-Dart, Joan Mitchell and Mark Rothko, along with a few excellent satellite compilation shows, each in a different venue, which, apparently is continuing into 2017 with Jackson Pollock set to open at the Guggenheim, completing the circle, for now. It was also a year of Women Artists getting important shows. Patti Smith, Nasreen Mohamedi, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Marilyn Minter1, June Leaf, Carmen Herrera, Nan Goldin, Mary Bauermeister, Carrie Mae Weems, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Krasner and Mitchell were only some of the highlights. Still? Artists weren’t the only women making a big impact on the NYC Art Scene in 2016. In fact, for my money, the biggest impact of all was made by another woman, The Met’s Chairwoman of Modern & Contemporary (M&C) Art, Sheena Wagstaff.

As far as I’m concerned, no other single person had the impact on NYC Art, all year long, that Ms. Wagstaff and her department did.

Sheena Wagstaff was named Chairwoman of TM’s M&C Department on January 20, 2012. Four years later, her 2016 began with putting finishing touches on TM’s new “branch Museum,” The Met Breuer (TMB), the first “branch” The Met has opened since The Cloisters in 1926! No pressure there. As it was about to open, ostensibly as the showcase for The Met’s “new” M&C Art iniatative, The Times’ Roberta Smith put the situation perfectly into perspective, speaking about the task Ms. Wagstaff faced/faces-

“But the Met is huge and old, with a history of treating contemporary art as an afterthought. Getting it to change is like turning around an ocean liner.” Roberta Smith, NYT, March 3, 2016.

It sailed into it’s mid- March opening with 2 shows- “Unifnished: Thoughts Left Visible,” a veritable Museum in itself covering 2 full floors (the third and fourth), and, easy to overlook, tucked away on the second floor, “Nasreen Mohamedi,” the first American Retrospective of the Indian woman artist who passed away in 1990, aged 53. Wait…Who? Yeah. Me, too.

Met Breuer, Opening Lineup, March 8, 2016. 11 months on? The 5th Floor is now gallery space, the 1st Floor Gallery is now the Gift Shop. Those 2 shows? They live on, indelibly. Notice that for all of Art History that’s represented in “Unfinished,” the signature image chosen is by Alice Neel, a woman, of “James Hunter Black Draftee”

Vijay Iyer (piano, left) performs with his trio. Met Breuer, Member’s Opening Day, March 8, 2016.

The first members of the public get to see “Unfinished” on March 8, 2016. That tiny drawing on the far opposite wall is by Michelangelo.

After over 15 visits later, to my eyes, “Nasreen Mohamedi” was nothing less than 1) an epiphany. Here was an Artist who was a Major figure in Art in the 20th Century who’s name exists in not one Art History survey that I know of.

I now haunt these galleries, in my memory.

2) Therefore, it was easily one of the best shows of the year, and 3) the more I think about it, for many reasons, it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.

Most Memorable Art Work of the Year. Nasreen Mohamedi “Untitled,” circa 1970. When I first saw it, I thought it was a piece of fabric. Nope. This is a DRAWING.

Detail (about 10″ x 6″). Two amazing things about this- 1- The superhuman focus & manual skill on display. 2- The disease that would kill her would take these incomparable motor skills first, and shortly.

The subtlety, uniqueness and micro/macro impact of Nasreen Mohamedi’s drawings is seemingly without precedent. They speak to the “grand design” of the universe, while also giving the feeling that they are somehow familiar, though they are not.

 

Some call this work “The Seven Planes of Existence.” All her works were left untitled and undated, only 5 here were signed. Many were given to friends as gifts. She created most while dealing with an illness that would kill her family members, then rob her of her skills, and eventually kill her, as well.

Also an accomplished photographer, I find her photos every bit as wondrous as her work in other mediums. Each “Untitled,” ca. 1970

Closeup of the photo on the right. What exactly are we looking at?

I spent an hour sitting right next to Sheena Wagstaff at a “Nasreen Mohamedi Symposium,” at The Met 5th Avenue in June. After it was over, I had the chance to speak to her. All I could say to her was “Thank you,” for Nasreen Mohamedi, which gave me the chance to discover her. Then, I told her she had made “the perfect choice” to begin M&C Art at TMB.

Sheena Wagstaff, right, Met curator Brinda Kumar, center, and an Artist who’s name I didn’t get, left, at the Nasreen Mohamedi Symposium, June 3 at The Met. Ms. Wagstaff then sat down immediately to my right.

Six month later, I stand by those words.

Think about how much guts it took to make that call. How daring it was. TMB famously costs The Met 15 million dollars a year to operate. The Met, reportedly, ran a deficiet in 2016, costing jobs.  To say “a lot” was, and is, riding on the success of TMB would be an understatement. Not to mention TM’s world leading prestige. “Nasreen Mohamedi” was followed by “diane arbus: in the beginning.” Perhaps it would have been “safer” to have run Diane Arbus first. Maybe. Probably. I’m glad it was Sheena Wagstaff’s call (along with the rest of TM’s powers that be), and they chose Nasreen Mohamedi.

A page from one of her diaries. She blotted out much of what she had written. I wonder why. They left these patterns, reminiscent of her drawings.

The show was, apparently, a labor of love for Ms. Wagstaff. Hidden away in the very last gallery, in an iPad on the tables where visitors could peruse the now out of print and rare catalog, were some of the few extant photos from Ms. Mohamedi’s life. One of the last photos was a photo of Nasreen Mohamedi’s unmarked grave. I marvelled that someone had found it and photographed it. I looked for the credit to see who the photographer was. Sheena Wagstaff.

“Nasreen Mohamedi” was more than a terrific show. It was a statement. What was as easy to miss as the show itself was, as visitors made a bee line to see the copious treasures upstairs, it was more. It was the “answer” to the question about where Ms. Wagstaff was likely to steer The Met’s “new M&C initiative” going forward. As such, it was a shot over the bow of the future.

The future of M&C Art at The Met, and The Met Breuer, appears to be international, and inclusive. I expect more of the unexpected, more of the unknown and under-known. Bring it on. MoMA is running on all cylinders, putting on shows that are spectacular. It’s good for them, the Whitney, The Guggenhim, et al, to have some competition in M&C Art from The Met, and for us.

While “Nasreen Mohamedi” was blowing my mind on the 2nd floor, upstairs on 3 & 4, “Unfinished” was blowing everyone’s who saw it. Right off the elevator on 3, you make a right and in a small gallery you’re confronted by Leonardo da Vinci AND Michelangelo (all too rarely seen together in this hemisphere), AND Jan Van Eyck, and a few other works I can’t even remember because my mind was already overloaded. Oh yeah, some guy named Durer did one. This was TM “showing off,” as I read Ms. Wagstaff say in an interview. Boy, did they. The rest of the show had a roster that would make 90% of all other whole Museums in the USA jealous.

For a New York Minute, Michelangelo, left, and two Leonardos were on display in “Unfinished,” as the show opened. The triumvirate was soon broken up, no doubt due to the fragility of the works.

So? Ok. This was a “fail safe” show. Ms. Wagstaff was by no means finished.

Rembrandt & Velazquez- the two greatest Painters who ever lived, according to many, very rarely seen side by side.

After Nasreen closed, “diane arbus: in the beginning” came in on 2, with an installation unique in art & photography shows in my experience. Every piece got it’s own wall. Yup. You read that right. Over 100 pieces. Over 100 walls. Amazing. No beginning. No ending. The point being that it was all her beginning.

A rare shot of Tatsuo Miyajima’s “Arrow of Time,” on view in TMB’s first floor gallery. The only show to take place there before it became the gift shop.

After “Unfinished,” the year at TMB ended with another blockbuster success- “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry.” This is the kind of show that makes you wonder WHY it took so long for Mr. Marshall to be so recognized. He’s been creating at a very high level for a long time. It was only 3 years ago that he was showing at the always excellent Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. But? Not everyone was sleeping on KJM. Walking through this show it’s a sad feeling for a New Yorker to read the tags and see great work after great work that belongs to Chicago or Los Angeles. Not even MoMA has stepped up to a large degree with Kerry James Marshall. TM FINALLY got a major work of his last year.

The beginning of “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry.” In many ways, this was the show of the year.

Now? It’s probably too late.

This, unfortunately, highlights one area where much work remains to be done. The Met’s collection is sorely lacking the work of M&C Masters. As I recently pointed out, as far as I know, they own no work by Ai Weiwei. no work by Nasreen Mohamedi, and only one work (albeit a very, very good one) by Kerry James Marshall (and this was only acquired in 2015), to name but 3 cases. Frankly? I find this shameful. TM recently elected three new trustees, two of which are M&C specialists, so hope springs eternal for a little more wind to be added to those sails.

New York had until January 29 to enjoy seeing a lot of KJM in one place. (My piece is coming soon.) Now? It’s going to be a long wait. Los Angeles? You get your chance beginning March 12.

So? By my scorecard, that’s 4 shows in 9 months that will be remembered and talked about for a very long time, including no less than TWO that were major breakthroughs for the Artists- Nasreen Mohamedi and Kerry James Marshall2, putting both in the pantheon of the Artists who belong in our greatest Museums.

But? Ms. Wagstaff, who struck me as having so much energy, downtown NYC could have used her during the Hurricane Sandy Blackout, still wasn’t finished. Over at 1000 Fifth Avenue…(remember The Met’s Main Building?), she and her staff have also rehung TM’s M&C Galleries there, and done an amazing job.

While at sea, mind the lighthouse! Edward Hopper’s iconic “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,” 1929, receives pride of place in TM’s newly rehung M&C Galleries. Which reminds me- Sheena Wagstaff edited the Tate’s 2004 Edward Hopper Show catalog.

Works have come out of storage that haven’t been seen there in…?, and some, thankfully, have gone there in their stead. The arrangements are new, too. Themes take the place of chronological arrangements in many rooms, while the AbEx Galleries still remain largely together, but subtly ammended. We get to see, what I consider to be, a major work by Philip Guston that I never knew TM owned! Other works are given new prominence, notably Edward Hopper’s famous “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,” and Richard Pousette- Dart’s “Symphony No. 1- The Transcendental,” (photo, here, further down the page.)

In this one gallery, I was shocked to discover works by Pousette-Dart (“Path of the Hero,” 1950, right) and Philip Guston (left, and below) that I didn’t even know The Met owned because they haven’t shown them!

Philip Guston, “Performers,” 1947. WHERE has this been? With one foot in his past, and one in his future, for my money, this is one of the most important periods of Guston’s career, and very few works from it exist, after he destroyed most. A major Guston.

The result is a veritable breath, no, wind of fresh air throughout. More wind for the sails of that S.S. Met Roberta Smith wrote about.

Sheena Wagstaff had a great year, in my book. Here’s to her. May the wind be at her back. That sound you heard in January was my giving a major sigh of relief at the news that we didn’t lose her when the Tate Museums chose a new Director (Ms. Wagstaff was Chief Curator at Tate Modern before she joined The Met).

P H E W…

Elsewhere, in the big City…

Other Museums and Galleries, of course, put on shows that linger in the memory, and I would be remiss in not including them. In addition to Nasreen Mohamedi’s, another Retrospective tried to make the case for it’s Artist’s place in the canon on 20th Century Art History, and wildly succeeded, in my opinion- “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” @ MoMA  Though he spent some time early in his career in NYC3, he, and his work, were rarely seen here after, and as a result, seeing this broad & in-depth look at his accomplishment over a mind-bending number of mediums was nothing less than a bombshell in it’s impact on myself, and I suspect many other New Yorkers. The depth, the staggering detail in the work (most famously in his films, but we see here it was carried over in most of his other work in other genres.), the mediums he probably invented, (like the music video), techniques he created or mastered, and on and on. This show was a capstone on a great year for shows at MoMA. “Picasso Sculpture,” “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” were must see/won’t soon forget in their own right. Bravo, MoMA. Now? About that building and the new one on the way…

Picasso, “Owl,” seen in “Picasso Sculpture.” One sure way to make this list? Include an Owl in your show. ; – )

In the galleries, what lingers with me were Ai Weiwei’s return to NYC at long last with 4 concurrent shows, “Mark Rothko: Dark Passage,” “Patti Smith: 18 Stations,“Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark,” “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” at the Whitney, and “William Eggleston: The Democratic Forest” (mostly for the chance to study his work at length, which only made me want to look again). And, I always enjoy the chance to be captivated by someone I previously didn’t know, like the amazing Sydney Cash at Heller Gallery, or the up and coming Robert Currie at Bryce Walkowitz- both of who share a fascinating ability to make you see things that aren’t really there.

Sydney Cash’s “Split Selfie,” 2016, oversees two of his other works that no photo can “capture,” at Heller Gallery. See them better here. When you watch, remember all that’s happening is the viewer moves slightly side to side.

And finally, personally, the chance to meet Patti Smith and Sheena Wagstaff, or run into Chuck Close, were things that remain rich, as much for the opportunity to speak with them as for what I learned from each encounter.

All of these experiences reminds me that in the final analysis? Art is personal. For every one of us.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Andy Warhol” by David Bowie (who we lost this year, and who is Ms. Wagstaff’s fellow countryman, and an Art collector), from his classic album “Hunky Dory.”

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  1. in 3 shows- 2 in Manhattan, 1 at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of their “Reimagining Feminism” Series
  2. It must be noted that “KJM: Mastry” is a show organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, L.A. the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and The Met.
  3. when legend has it he was denied entrance to MoMA for the opening of a show that included one of his works.

Ai Weiwei’s Mute Witnesses

This is the second of two Posts about Ai Weiwei’s 4 recent concurrent NYC shows. Part One, about “Ai Weiwei: Laundromat,” at Deitch Projects, may be found here. This piece is on the other 3 shows. 

“Ai Weiwei: 2016: Roots and Branches,” Lisson Gallery, Chelsea

If there’s one thing I think NYC needs many more of, it’s trees. Given the extremely high rate of tree deaths here1, it’s always great when new ones show up. Even transiently. Ai Weiwei temporarily added to our tree population in 2 of his 4 shows, as only he could. Though it’s been over for nearly a month as I write this, I continue to think about this show every day, only partially due to the meditative properties of trees.

Click any photo to see it full size. Lisson Gallery, December, 2016, nicely nestled under the High Line.

Walking into the long rectangular space of Lisson Gallery on West 24th Street in Chelsea during “Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots and Branches,” you’re confronted by a “forest” of 9 massive tree parts (3 measure almost 16 feet each) situated among 4 newly exposed and equally massive columns for the High Line, which runs directly above the gallery’s ceiling. Along the seemingly endless right hand (western) wall, 16 rows of black and white graphic images fill it’s wallpaper. The other 2 walls remains stark white (the 4th wall being the doors). Natural light streams in from both sides of the long ceiling as if there really were a canopy of leaves and branches above the “trees” allowing only some sunlight in.

A “Zen Garden” of the beauty, and horror, man can create. 7 of the 9 sculptures are seen, or partially seen, along with a partial view of the wallpaper, right.

But, these tree parts show no signs of life, the ones that “stand” only do so due to placement. Or, is it dis-placement?

Though their arrangement invites walking around them and viewing them from all sides, a relevatory experience in itself…

9 views of the same piece- “Iron Root,” 2015. Seen larger, below-

it is viewing them from one angle in particular- directly behind, that one gains a unique perspective. Standing behind them (to their east, that is) you see them with the wallpaper behind them. The effect struck me as making them “mute witnesses” to the seemingly endless spectacle unfolding on the wall. The saga unfolding therein is about war and displacement. The displacement of countless thousands of refugees due to the war in Syria.

A view of just about all of the 200 x 25 feet (my estimate) of wallpaper.

The wallpaper is also designed to be looked at every bit as closely as the tree parts are.

A close-up. You’re not alone if you think you’re looking at real tree bark. Then again? I never get out of Manhattan. This is cast iron.

So encouraged, I returned again and again, continually seeing something “else” so often that after 15 visits, I stopped counting. The first thing that’s striking is it’s all in black and white. Looking a bit closer you note the poses, the lack of detail, and even some of the outfits call to mind the Ancient Greek Vases I’ve seen often at The Met, which is fitting since Idomeni, home of the camp in Ai Weiwei’s “Laundromat,” is in Greece.

About a third of the wallpaper. Each row seems to have it’s own theme.

There’s a lot to see. A detail of 12 of 16 rows in this section.

From bottom- 2 rows of the refugees in flight- by boat, by foot, by vehicle, while the third row depicts the reasons why. In the 4th row from the bottom, Ancient Greek soldiers march on the left, while their modern counterparts march to the right of the fighting animals. Directly above them in Row 5, Ai Weiwei’s iconic extended arm and middle finger looms as a repeating circular motif, which will appear again. To the left in Row 5, a backhoe picks up the clothes left by the refugees in the Idomeni Camp that would become the clothes in Ai Weiwei’s show, “Laundromat.”

Looking even closer, I realized that some of the motifs recur, except in the very middle! There, in what musicians call “the golden section,” some fascinating images appear. They include Michelangelo’s “Vatican Pieta,” and a variant of the image of Nour Al Khzam, the 24 year old Syrian woman refugee who Ai Weiwei had a piano brought to the Idomeni Camp for, (as I wrote about, and Posted a photo of, in Part 1)! We see her playing the piano, while others (including Ai Weiwei himself, seen from the back) hold up a plastic sheet to protect her from the rain that day. Yet, in the wallpaper, we don’t see rain. So? Perhaps they are protecting her from everything else that’s going on. Is this Ai Weiwei’s way of speaking about the value of protecting your creativity, no matter what’s going on around you? Or, protecting what’s most important to you? Or, does it speak to overcoming all over this and having a life after, like Ai Weiwei, himself did?

The wallpaper’s “Golden Section,” (the darkened center section) features Nour Al Khzam right smack dab in the middle of the entire 200 foot piece (rows 6 & 12). Also notice Michelangelo’s “Vatican Pieta,” just to the left of center in rows 3, 9 and 15. Elsewhere we see a huge explosion (rows 4, 10, 16) and a baby, perhaps abandoned, under trees (rows 1, 7 and 13).

A singular image. A close-up of the image of 24 year old Nour Al Khzam playing piano as Ai Weiwei (right) and others hold a plastic sheet over her. A photo of the event is here.

I was left to ask my friends, the trees.

If you were careful, you could stand inside the semi-circular “Iron Tree Trunk,” 2015. It felt like a hug.

I felt a terrible pang when this show ended on December 23, and I’ve missed it daily since.

Outside Lisson Gallery on December 26, “Iron Tree Trunk,” 2015, and a piece of the wallpaper still barely visible on the right. My tears are not shown.

Why?

Partially, it’s the beauty of these “trees.” They are contemporary sculpture at it’s finest, in my opinion. I could look at them endlessly. Partially it’s the wallpaper has sucked me in to trying to understand it’s every detail. Real trees spend their entire lives in one place. Something humans can’t imagine doing. Trees have been meditative objects for a thousand years in Zen Buddhism and elsewhere. They are that, here, as well. These “tree parts” were created from parts of dead trees brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, where Ai Weiwei found them and brought them to his studio.

Maybe the show reminds me of life in NYC, where the few trees we have stand alone as all the chaos and activity of this insanely busy City happens around them. Perhaps, Ai Weiwei, who lived here for 10 years, intends this. Perhaps not. But this is no story of City life unfolding up there, with each of those 16 bands telling a different part of it simultaneously, perhaps symbolizing that these events were happening to so many people simultaneously, each making their own journey, and each with their own experiences and story. It’s a story that begins with the horrors of war and it’s various instruments (including Ai’s trademark surveillance cameras), followed by the long, treacherous journeys, of (too) many refugees, to lands unknown, their lives in the camps, a story that, unfortunately, continues for who knows how many. Here we come face to face with man- at his best, as when he is creating Art, and at his worst, when he is killing and ruining the lives of countless innocents, who have no one to turn to for help. Taken as a whole, Ai Weiwei has created one of the most unique Zen-like “Gardens” ever seen. One that offers almost as much to ponder as a “real” Zen Garden.

“Ai Weiwei: 2016: Roots and Branches,” Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea

The new LEGO triple self portrait, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a LEGO version of his well-known work, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995, is seen in the background. Better view and details below-

Ai “was so much older then, he’s younger than that now.” And, “playing” with toys. Sorry, Bob. Ai Weiwei as seen in his recent LEGO version of his work, “Dropping a Han Dynasty,”1995

Besides “Laundromat” (the only show of the 4 with a different title), Ai Weiwei’s three other NYC shows, “Ai Weiwei 2016: Roots and Branches,” eshewed the use of his most renowned media- the internet, photography and words (seen to devastating effect in “Laundromat”) to focus on two other of his “signature” mediums- natural elements and ancient artifacts along with one newer medium- LEGO portraits, originally inspired by his son, who constantly plays with them. His LEGO works were previously seen in, perhaps, his most political show to date- “Ai Weiwei: @Large,” which took place at none other than the former site of one of the world’s most notorious prisons, Alcatraz. Ironically, Ai Weiwei, himself, was not able to attend that show as he was still living out the rest of his sentence following his 81 days of imprisonment, that saw him unable to travel internationally (because his passport was still held). At Alcratraz, the work, “Trace,” consisted of LEGO portraits of 176 people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations,” according to the show’s press release. This time, the LEGO Portraits on view at Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea (a few hundred feet west of the Lisson Gallery show), were confined to “Self Portraits.” These were juxtaposed with two works in wood- both “sculptural,” and both “puzzles” in their own way, while, again, one wall was lined with gorgeous, fascinating wallpaper, this time in gold.

“Tree” at Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea

In the main room, facing the LEGO triple self portrait seen above, a “Tree” was, again, the centerpiece This time it’s one, monumental “Tree,” 25 feet tall, that is constructed of actual weathered sections of dead trees that, according to the press release, “may be seen as a comment on the strength of modern China built from many ancient ethnic groups, or a determined attempt to create something new and vital from what is irrevocably lost.” In China, dead trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth, the realm between heaven and the underworld.2 It stands in front of another monumental wallpaper piece, this one I believe titled “Golden Age,” another graphic tour de force. This work is based on images from AWW’s life- from the ever present surveillance cameras, police chains and handcuffs, to cats- all depicted in a lustrous 3-D gold. For me, it stands for overcoming oppression and turning it’s artifacts into beautiful objects that are, now, just another part of his life, like his beloved cats.

“Golden Age,” detail, and reflection.

Situated on center stage, here, “Tree,” is, seemingly, another work that speaks to modern China being a blend of many ethnic groups, like “Map of China” is, see further down. That the parts making it are dead, as is the whole construction, of course, is something I cannot offer a comment about. I can say that I find it a compelling idea, and object, and one that some of it’s base parts seemed to bear a resemblance to the Iron Roots seen at Lisson.

Also on view here was the amazing “Treasure Box,” a sculptural piece of furniture made of ancient reclaimed huali wood, which is actually an intricate puzzle box of sliding and locking components3

Ancient & Contemporary puzzles. “Treasure Box,” sits in front of “Self-Portrait,” made of LEGO bricks.

This is, surely, an aspect of Weiwei’s work that, while not by any means new, deserves more attention and study. The Mary Boone, Chelsea show struck me as being “about” things not being what they seem. Being “more,” perhaps, and being “other.” There’s still one more show left to see…

“Ai Weiwei: 2016: Roots and Branches,” Mary Boone Gallery, Uptown

40,000 spouts broken from antique Chinese porcelain teapots are surrounded by “Finger” Wallpaper.

The final show, at Mary Boone’s Uptown Gallery may be his comment on all of this.

Detail of the spouts

“Finger” Wallpaper, and detail-

Yes, a variant of this wallpaper, too, is available, here.

As the world has seen these past 6+ years since his “Sunflower Seeds” Show at Tate Modern, London, brought him to international renown in 2010, Ai Weiwei is a man with a strong conscience. He’s not shy to share it with the world, whenever, and wherever he sees things that bother him. While it’s tempting to say that he’s turning his attention away from China after his arrest and 81 day imprisonment in 2011, he said to the Council on Foreign Relations in November

“When I fight human rights in China, I never think that’s human rights in China. I think that’s human rights everywhere. That’s first. And also, when I’m dealing with situation outside of China, I don’t even think that it’s not going to help China, you know? Human rights is the value which I believe is universal, it relate to everybody.”

“Garbage Container,” an elegy to five homeless boys who suffocated in a dumpster while trying to stay warm.

Summing up…

The meditative effect of all four shows was the common takeaway for me, vastly different from the meditative effect of “Mark Rothko: Dark Palette,” a few hundred of feet away from Ai Weiwei’s 2 Chelsea shows. While Rothko’s meditative impact is almost otherworldly, akin to standing in a door way open to…?, Ai Weiwei has us meditate on life, presence and absence, having roots and being rootless, what it is to be human, and what it should be to be human.

Speaking of “being human,” it almost looks like a hand. Or, maybe an extended arm and extended…hmmm…

For me, the shows seemed to flow into each other from south to north, beginning with “Laundromat,” the southern most, in Soho, to Lisson on West 24th, to Mary Boone, Chelsea, further west on 24th, and finally up to Mary Boone uptown. I have no idea if this was the intention, or not.  The Lisson show carries pieces of Laundromat, while the Mary Boone, Chelsea, shares the “tree” motif of Lisson, and Mary Boone uptown shares Ai Weiwei’s trademark extended arm and extended middle finger motif with Mary Boone, Chelsea, though it now is the overriding motif. It’s hard, for me, not to see this as Ai Weiwei extending his middle finger (and that of 39,999 refugees), now, to the “powers that be,” that have created and largely ignored this refugee crisis, while seemingly having little solution for the crisis to come. But? Your results may differ. Everyone is free to take from it what they will, or leave without taking anything from it. In this case, that would be a shame, and might be shortsighted. If it’s not “personal” for you now, it might be one day. There…but by grace, go I.

“Golden Age,” Detail. You, too, can hang (a variant) of this on your wall, here.

Of course, Ai Weiwei is not the only Artist who was a refugee. The 20th Century, for instance, is full of them. Some of them, like Marc Chagall, and the great composer Bela Bartok, created works of nostalgia for their homelands, not documentary works about being exiled. Then, there is Picasso, who created “Guernica,” in 1937, about the tragic bombing of that small Spanish town in his homeland, while he was living in Paris, where he would remain throughout the Nazi occupation that began a few years later, through the end of the Second World War, and after, in continuing exile from Spain. Perhaps the greatest artistic record of exile we have was created by a “young girl,”- Annelies, better known as Anne, Frank, the brilliant young writer who’s life ended at 15 at the hands of the Nazis, but who managed to write for the ages about her exile in her own country before she was discovered, and arrested in her “Diary of a Young Girl,” which has sold 30 million copies to date. While Ai Weiwei depicts, and documents, the Syrian Refugee crisis, he has only, as yet (as far as I know), documented his own exile in words. He’s spoken about it in interviews, and written about it in “Ai Weiwei’s Blog,” (which I will say, again, is the best place to start reading about him, so far). His words are chilling, unforgettable, and impossible for me to get out of my mind when I visited these shows. About the “earthen pit” his family lived in when he was 8 years old he said –

“…when pigs would run overhead, their bottoms would fall through our roof, making us all too familiar with the sight of swine nether regions….on one occasion, because there was no light in our earthen pit, my father was descending into our home and smashed his head on a roof beam. He fell immediately to the earth on his knees with a bleeding forehead. Because of this, we dug out a shovel’s depth of dirt, an equivalent to raising our roof twenty centimeters (about 8 inches).”4

While his mediums keep expanding (LEGO portraits), others, especially his sculpture and “furniture,” continue to evolve in wonderful ways. Yet no matter what he does, or what he creates with, his heart, mind, passion, and humanity- his core values, come through loud and clear. Not being one who’s given to compare creative beings, I still find it hard to think that this decade, that still has 3 years to go, is the decade of any other Artist. This is Ai Weiwei’s decade.

Like son, like father. Ai Weiwei says he was inspired by his son’s passion for LEGO to try them himself.

As this decade has unfolded, I find he reminds me of someone else. Another man from the East, who has lived in exile for a very long time. A man with a deep knowledge of the West, a man of compassion, wisdom and humanity. The Dalai Lama. One has written a book called “The Art of Happiness,” the other has done more than most others to bring compassion to those suffering, through Art. I make no comparison of them. I am simply saying that one brings the other to mind. In any event, there is no doubt that Ai Weiwei has gone from being an exile to being an unknown Artist and Art Student in New York for a decade to now having the eye, and ear, of a good part of the world. In doing so, am I alone in feeling that what he espouses about human rights and freedom sounds a good deal like what passed for “traditional American values” for most of my life?

A detail of the above. LEGO refused a bulk order from Ai Weiwei last year, which resulted in a furor that led to the company reversing themselves.

Artistically, these shows raised another question for me.

Even now, very rarely do I see his work on view in the museums here. Right now, The Met lists zero works of his in their online database of over 700,000 items (about 1/3 of their total holdings)! I do recall seeing 5 works of his displayed during the “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” Show there in 2014., including the one I photographed, below. It turns out that all five were lent to The Met. MoMA lists 12 of his works out of their 73,000 items currently online. Of those 12, 7 are photographs with his extended middle finger at various locations, 4 are books, and one is a magazine! I have to say I find it shameful that there is no major work of his in either The Met or MoMA! I would love for either, or both, to tell me why not.

Ai Weiwei at The Met! “Map of China” 2006, a work that speaks to the mosaic of fragments that is China today, made from wood salvaged from destroyed temples, as seen (on loan) in the “Ink Art” in China Show in 2014.

While we see the results of uprooting in both it’s natural and unnatural ways, at Lisson, Ai Weiwei turns uprooting into creative acts in using the felled tree parts as the basis for his sculptures and the travails of the refugees who’s journeys he shows us in “Laundromat” into what he depicts so beautifully on Lisson’s western wall, in trying to give them a voice, and make their experiences known. During my daily visits, I, and many of my fellow visitors, stood looking at, and contemplating, the complex images that seemed to stretch out endlessly before us on that wall. Like the lines of refugees must have looked like in transit. When I was alone in the gallery, I was like the the cast iron trees before me standing as “mute witnesses” to what was going on in front of us on the wallpaper.

Now that this unique show that was equal parts horror show, and equal parts astonishingly beautiful- depicting the best, and worst of what man is capable of, is over, it’s up to all of those who saw it to not remain mute.

Since Ai Weiwei lived in New York for 10 years? In my book, he will always be a New Yorker.

Welcome home, Ai Weiwei. Come back soon.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” by Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway, Ed O’Brien and Colin Greeenwood of Radiohead, as performed on “OK Computer.”

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. In my 25 years of living here, I’ve come to believe this is part of the reason for so many tree deaths. Not all of it. Part.
  2. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ai-weiwei-6
  3. It can be seen opened in the Royal Academy, London’s Ai Weiwei Exhibition catalog.
  4. “Ai Weiwei’s Blog,” P. 53

Ai Weiwei & The Value of One Refugee

Ai Weiwei returned to show his latest work in NYC for the first time since getting his passport back, making a splash to rival his last big show here (which he could not attend), the retrospective “Ai Weiwei: According To What?” (at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014), this time with no less than FOUR concurrent shows- one in Soho, two in Chelsea and one Uptown. With so much terrain to traverse, and with so much to see, it makes sense to adapt my approach to writing about them, so I’m going to cover the 4 shows over 2 Posts, as follows-

“Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots & Branches” @Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea
“Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots & Branches” @Mary Boone Gallery, Uptown and
“Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots & Branches” @Lisson Gallery, Chelsea in a second Post, here.
“Ai Weiwei: Laundromat” @Deitch Projects, Soho will be the subject of this one. 

“Ai Weiwei: Laundromat”-

Deitch Projects. Also seen in this Blog’s Banner.

Of the 4 shows, the centerpiece has to be “Laundromat” at Deitch Projects, an unprecedented Art show/installation, unlike anything I’ve encountered.

View just inside the front door. Click any image to see the full size photo.


Along with an upcoming documentary film, it’s part of the Artist’s response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis as experienced by the estimated 18,000 (at it’s peak) in the refugee camp at Idomeni, in Northern Greece, on the Macedonian border.



Ai Weiwei said-
“When we started filming in Idomeni, the first thing we noticed was people trying to change their clothes. These are the clothes they wore from Syria, wet and soiled from the difficult journey across the ocean, over mountains and through woods. They had no chance to wash their clothes until they were forced to stop in Idomeni. They would hand wash the clothes and throw it on the border fence to dry. There was nowhere else to hang dry their laundry. We photographed the clothes, but we did not, and could not, imagine they could later be included in an exhibition. The clothes were some of the few possessions they could take when they decided to leave their homes. There is not much else they could take. Off the coast of Lesbos, I found an abandoned boat drifting in the sea. Inside, I found a copy of the Bible and a baby’s bottle. You would also find small objects wash up on the shore. These objects were the most precious things a person could have, the last things they brought with them as they sought a new life.”

Merry Christmas

“Once the refugees were forced to evacuate to different camps from Idomeni, many of those possessions were left behind. Trucks came in and loaded these items up to take towards the landfill. I decided to see if we could buy or collect them so they would not be destroyed. Previously, my studio collected many life jackets from the local officials in Lesbos and made an installation with them at the Berlin Konzerthaus. My team negotiated with local officials who agreed to let us have the collected material. They were aware of our presence and were supportive. With a truckload of those materials, including thousands of blankets, clothes and shoes, all impossibly dirty, we transported them to my studio in Berlin. There, we carefully washed the clothes and shoes, piece by piece. Each article of clothing was washed, dried, ironed, and then recorded. Our work was the same as that of a laundromat.”1

Every item is hand tagged. These read “Baby Rompers.”

While Downtown New Yorkers are no strangers to acts of war and terrorism, catastrophic weather or blackouts2, one of the strange things about living through those events, for me, was that many people in other parts of the City, who were directly unaffected by them, lived in a certain level of oblivion about them. Many seemed completely disconnected from what was going on right in their own City. It can be easy to understand when you look at this, from the Hurricane Sandy blackout, which effected me, and all of downtown New York for 5 days to 2 weeks.  Now? At “Laundromat,” I was the “directly unaffected,” I had never heard of Idomeni, Greece, and knew little about the Syrian Civil War that’s led to 13.6 million refugees3 seeking to rebuild their lives elsewhere. That’s equal to the population of London. During my 5 visits to  it was easy to say now what others may have said about the Sandy Blackout- life gets to be so all-encompassing that few of us really know what’s going on in much of the City, let alone the rest of the world. It’s different when it’s personal.

I’m sure there are those who walked in and thought “This is Art? It looks like the Salvation Army.” I know what they mean. But? Yes, I consider this to be Art, and I consider it to be groundbreaking Art. “Laundromat’s” range of expression is formidable. Ai Weiwei is the master Artist of the electronic information age. Recently named “The Most Influential Photographer of the Past 10 Years” by complex.com (Cindy Sherman placed 13th, Annie Liebovitz 8th, and Sebastio Salgado didn’t place.? Yet, another reason I don’t believe in qualitatively comparing Artists.). Weiwei’s Blog was, perhaps, the first “essential” Blog of the 2000’s, before it was forcibly removed. Part of it has been translated and published and is still in print.4 Mr. Ai became the first Artist to have photographs “go viral” with his now infamous shot in the elevator with police after his arrest in 2009. Now, he has combined mediums (thousands of photographs, an excerpt from his upcoming documentary film and hundreds of internet articles and social media postings), with actual objects- the clothes and shoes left by the refugees in the camp. The clothes hang on racks. Washed, ironed and/or cleaned, they are “ready-to-wear,” tagged by hand and sorted by type, sex and age, near hundreds of shoes aligned in neat rows on the floor- about an equal number of matching pairs and singles. The shoes are of every kind imaginable, except high heels. (I saw only one pair with a very low heel.) Boots, low boots, sneakers dominate. I assume because their owner’s felt they were finished with crossing wet terrains or bodies of water. Both are present in mute witness to what they have seen and experienced.
What their wearers have experienced can never be washed away that easily. Many are, no doubt, still going through the experience of being a refugee and seeking an answer.

“Time to recharge my batteries” this shirt reads.

A Sea of Words. Hundreds of news and web postings seen in the “Newsfeed” section of the show, which fills the floor beneath visitor’s feet.

“Laundromat” is a deeply personal show for Ai Weiwei. On a number of levels. First, he seems to just naturally respond to humans in crisis, all over the world, be they individuals in the case of the Feminist Activist Ye Haiyan, as we saw in Brooklyn, in “Ye Haiyan’s Belongings,”  in 2013 (which recreated that photo verbatim, installing all of her belongings in a gallery in the Brooklyn Museum(!), something of a possibly precursor to this show), or his powerful documentary “Stay Home,” about the Aids activist  Liu Ximei, or by trying to put names and identity to the countless thousands lost in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, the subject of Backpack pieces “Remembering,” 2009, installed in Germany, and “Snake Ceiling” (seen in Brooklyn) as well as the monumental work “Straight,” 2008-12, which consists of 40 tons of rebar from the Sichuan quake that Ai recovered and striaghtened, It was powerfully displayed alongside the list-turned-wall paper, “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen’s Investivation,” 2008-11, in Brooklyn, photos of which I posted here. The amount of work he, his staff and volunteers put in to try and identify the dead children was nothing less than monumental. “Laundromat” is only the latest “piece” in Ai’s ongoing “work” regarding human rights. It, too, is monumental, in more ways than one.

I’m left to wonder- If he didn’t do this, who would? Would anyone?

First learning about this refugee crisis in 2015, after being freed from jail, but still unable to leave China, he dispatched two members of his staff to go see the camps and interview refugees. Once he got his passport back, he travelled to Germany, where he could get a much closer look at what was going on. Then he decided to go to Idomeni, and document it. “Laundromat” is the first result of those efforts. The documentary film, “Human Flow,” is next, scheduled to be released in 2017.

The second level of this being personal for Ai Weiwei is that he, himself, lived in exile for TWENTY YEARS! And? They began when he was an infant, in 1957.

He says-
“When I was born, my father (the great poet and intellectual), Ai Qing, was denounced as a ‘rightist’ and was criticized as an enemy of the party and the people. We were sent to a labour camp in a remote region far away from our home and so began 20 years in hard exile, which saw my father clean bathrooms and the family live in an earthen pit5.” This was after Ai Qing had been a friend of Chairman Mao (Ai Weiwei has spoken about handwritten letters from Mao being in their home), and had served as a representative of the Chinese government. “We carried almost nothing with us to the camp, only trying to survive. It was an extremely difficult time being seen as a foreigner in your own nation, an enemy of your own people, an enemy of those my father loved most. I know what it is like to be viewed as a pariah, as sub-human, as a threat and danger to society.”1. When the exile ended in 1976, and Ai Qing and his family returned to Beijing, many of his father’s readers had assumed he had died. Before he was all that he is today, Ai Weiwei grew up a refugee.
Now, he has turned the latest refugee crisis, coming after what the New York Times called “The Century of Refugees,” into a work of Art, giving voices to all of those who have not been heard. It’s impossible to walk through these clothes and shoes and not feel their presence- that there was a person for every single article here- especially the babies. Though cleaned, evidence of personal wear remains that is permanent, along with what is permanent, though now invisible- the experiences each of these items, and the person wearing them went through. You wonder “Did someone really make this trip wearing thong sandals?” You see many well-known famous brand names, like Adidas, famous images and icons, as well, including “Hello, Kitty,” even “Barbie.”
The clothes look like clothes you could see being sold right down the street, though many of the labels are unfamiliar (a classic way New Yorkers identify tourists), yet so much of what’s here is so common- everywhere in the commercialized world. and not all that different from the jeans t-shirt, sneakers and jacket I’m wearing standing among them. Though, of course, it’s very hard to consider the Idomeni Camp part of the “civilized world,” especially when you read accounts of it, like this one from International Women’s Rights Journalist, Jina Moore.
What are  you going to wear if your house catches fire and burns, or, you have to leave town, or state, or country…in a real emergency, or war?
A story could be told for each item here. Mr. Ai could have made a show with one item, and it would have been quite powerful, but it wouldn’t have been this show. As you walk among the clothes, or around the shoes, look at the thousands of photos on three of the 4 walls, and the hundreds of internet articles and posts on the floor beneath your feet, it is easy to become numb to the numbers, but the little bits of individuality each item retains reminds you of a more finite realm of experience. This is a group made up of people. Of individuals, like you, and me. 1+1+1+…= 18,000.


In the midst of ALL of this, the sea of humanity (not to mention the actual Seas surrounding Greece they crossed), the incredible hardships, suffering and deaths, there was one small part of this story, and this show, I found particularly interesting & revealing, though nothing about it is mentioned in the show itself! I only learned about it through doing my research. Ai Weiwei came across a 24 year old Syrian refugee named Nour Al Khzam, who’s photo I spotted (above) among the thousands on the walls, who is from Deirez Zor, Syria. She was trying to get to Germany to reunite with her husband. Before fleeing Syria she had been studying piano. Ai Weiwei arranged for a piano to be brought to the Idomei Camp so she could play it, as seen in the photos immediately above. I know he’ll be criticized for doing this, but I find it poignent because it speaks to a number of important things, including- going on with your life and realizing your creativity, even after being a refugee (which Ai Weiwei, himself did). It also speaks to something very important- What is the value of one refugee? How many great Artists, maybe an Ai Weiwei, great Scientists, or great people are among these refugees?

This image, above (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images) of Ai Weiwei, right, helping to hold a plastic sheet while Ms. Al Khzam’s plays in the rain that day is of particular importance, as we shall see next time. (Note- This photo was not included in the show.)
Though Idomeni is half a world away, there was a beautiful piece of New York City included in this show. Among the materials handed out at Deitch was a sheet containing “September on Jessore Road,” by “New York’s Poet,” as Ai Weiwei calls his friend, Allen Ginsberg, written after Ginsberg had visited the Bangladeshi refugee camps in 1971. Allen Ginsberg had come to know Ai Qing during a trip to Beijing. And with it, AWW adds poetry to the list of mediums included in this show.
Having lived through a few events that might have made me a refugee (the Hurricane Sandy blackout left me without means of getting off of Manhattan, except on foot), the inescapable feeling of “Laundromat” was “There, but by grace, go I.” If anything defines the 20th Century as much as the airplane, space flight, electricity and the atomic bomb, it’s the refugee. More of them were created in one century than at any time in world history.
“I cannot give them food or tea, or money, but rather I can let their voices be heard and recognized. I can give them a platform to be acknowledged, to testify that they are human beings. During the saddest moments in our history, mankind has had to prove their worth as humans to their own kind. Unfortunately, this has proven to be the most difficult task. As an artist, this is something I would like to take on1.”
Ai Weiwei reminds us here that in this new millennium we have yet to find a way to deal with this world wide question.

There- but by grace, go I.

“He wants to see how far an individual’s power can go,” Chen Danquing, a Chinese painter and social critic said in the Nw Yorker’s profile of Ai Weiwei in 20108.  Ai Weiwei doesn’t help all of people directly, as he said, that’s not within his means. Yet he, in the way he lives his life, and in his work, stands for freedom- Artistic freedom and human rights. He, and his work, continually remind us of the primacy of human rights in ways that are unique, powerful and unforgettable. As for an “individual’s power?” The more of his work I see, the more I read his words, and the more I see of his compassion and soul, I’ve come to believe that Ai Weiwei is one of the most important human beings of our time. He has become something of the “conscience” of the Art world. If not the world, itself.

As big a statement as that is, even beyond it, no one can leave this show without remembering that here is a man who has accomplished so very much in the world after he, himself, lived in exile as a refugee in his own country for 20 years (not to mention everything else he has had to overcome). Though he wasn’t able to help them all financially, etc. I think he understated the impact he may have had on them.

Ai Weiwei at the Idomeni Camp.

As much as every item in “Laundromat” speaks for those with no voice, Ai Weiwei, the man, is living proof a refugee can survive, overcome, and make a lasting mark on the world. I have a feeling his mere presence in Idomeni served to remind at least some of those he encountered of that, and possibly gave them hope. How do you put a value on that? Of course he chose to avoid mention of any such thing when he commented on what he could and couldn’t do for them.

I don’t have to.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “The Unknown,” by Acrassicauda, a heavy-metal band from Baghdad, themselves exiled by the Iraqi War, and the subject of the documentary “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” I had the honor to meet and hang out with Tony Aziz, their lead guitarist, in 2011, shortly after the band finally made it to the United States. Talk about overcoming, and continuing to follow your  dream…

(PS- Oh yeah…I still have THREE more Ai Weiwei shows to see…)

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1. Deitch Projects Interview, 2016.
  2. Hurricane Sandy caused a partial evacuation
  3. According to the UN., 6.4 million have fled the country. An additional 7.2 million are displaced within Syria.
  4. It may be the most essential book on Ai Weiwei, along with the Taschen monograph, which, though published in April, 2016, is already slightly dated as his career continually evolves. Perhaps the best way to stay current with Ai Weiwei is on his Instagram page. But, be forewarned- he almost never captions his photos there, like he does not for the thousands of them in this show.
  5. “Ai Weiwei’s Blog,” P.53
  6. Deitch Projects Interview, 2016.
  7. Deitch Projects Interview, 2016.
  8. May 24, 2010

About Banner #4…

Banner #4

which finds the Nighthawk Downtown outside of Deitch Projects, along the cobblestones of 18 Wooster Street, currently the home of Ai Weiwei’s “Laundromat,” which can be glimpsed through the larger window. I’ve been busy making the rounds of the no less than FOUR Ai Weiwei shows currently up. All 4 shows close on December 23.

Hurry!

In the meantime, here’s a Post from early on that reminisces about my visits to Ai’s last big NYC Show, 2014’s “Ai Weiwei: According To What?” at the Brooklyn Museum.

(More soon.)

 

Hold The Flowers- Ai Weiwei Gets His Passport Back…FINALLY! Then Uses It.

Each day for the past 600+ days flowers have been left in the basket of the bicycle outside of No. 258 Coachangdi, Beijing, China, the address of Ai Weiwei’s studio, by his fans and followers in solidarity with the great Chinese Artist & Activist until his passport, which was confiscated during his April 3, 2011 arrest on charges of “tax evasion,” is returned to him. Ai spent the next 81 days in prison (more on that coming up) until finally being released on bail on June 22, 2011, after he agreed not to leave Beijing for a year. Year up, he continued to be forbidden to travel to other countries…until…

Late last month Ai posted a pic on Instagram announcing the return of his passport, a great shot too long in coming, it can be seen, along with more details here.

At last…He doesn’t look particularly happy, though he looks well. I’d say he looks hopeful. Ai then quickly took a trip to Germany to rejoin his family, sparking rumors of his accepting a university post there.

Still, it’s Wonderful news that’s also a sad reminder that during the past 4(!) years Ai missed the many shows of his work held outside of China, the 2014 Brooklyn Museum Show “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” among them. Would what we experienced have been changed, modified or altered simply by his larger than life presence? We’ll never know, and we are all undoubtedly poorer for the lack of him. For me, though, it was still a rare chance to explore the many sides of Ai’s boundless creative spirit. Here are some pics I took of the show, in case you, like Ai, missed it.

“Stacked” 2014. The card refers to the minimalist approach to the bike- no handlebars or seat, suggests “that in China the individual is often undervalued and seen only as part of the whole.”

“Map of China”

I’ve been to bars that look like this at 3:45am. “Grapes,” Qing Dynasty Stools

It featured a selection of his work from the past 20 years, above, and a central gallery that included 2 monumental works, the 73 ton “Straight,” and “Sichuan Name List” Ai created in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed over 69,000 and left another 18,000 missing 1.

Ai’s “Straight” (on the floor) and “Sichuan Name List” (on the wall, left) are works about the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake that may have killed 90,000.

For me, the “showstopper” was the 2013 work “S.A.C.R.E.D.” (S upper, A accusers, C leaning, R ritual, E entropy, and D oubt) which consists of six 2 and a half ton iron boxes, each one shoulder height and measuring 5 feet wide and 12 feet long, one for each of the title’s letters. As you approach one, you notice a door near one exterior corner, then you notice slits in the iron that allow a glimpse of what’s inside. Yes, each box contains a diorama of a scene from his life during his 81 day incarceration after that 2011 arrest, while he was awaiting trial(!). Inside, we see TWO guards watching him sleep in one, eat in another, shower in another, and do his business in yet another(!)(not pictured)…It’s a chilling, unforgettable and shocking experience that gives the rest of us a little insight into the risks Ai takes every day, with every new work, and in just “being Ai.” It also reminds that many, many people, some of them artists, take incalculable risks every day in the name of freedom, and artistic freedom, or in just living their lives. Many admire athletes, and other so-called “role models.” I admire Ai Weiwei, and those like him.

Thinking about it on the F Train home, I couldn’t recall a more powerful recent work on this topic. My mind seeking an art historical reference, of which there are, unfortunately, too many, kept turning to Goya. First, for the absurdity depicted in his Caprichos, and then of the power and oppression of the state shown in his “The Third of May.” In the end, the lesson may be that, in spite of hundreds of millions of deaths in the intervening almost exactly 200 years, tragically, not much has changed in the world .

For more infö on and other’s pics of  “S.A.C.R.E.D” go here and here. An interview with Ai about it is here.

I consider Ai a New Yorker since he lived here for 10 years. Here’s hoping he comes and visits us, again, soon…and often!

 

For Ai’s story, I highly recommend the 2012 documentary “Never Sorry,” which has appeared on PBS.

*-Soundtrack for this post- “Freedom” by Paul McCartney published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

“I will fight, for the right
To live in freedom.”*

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right, for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.
This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com