Stuart Davis- The King of Swing

Try it yourself.

Walk into your local Art Museum and look for Stuart Davis. I bet they own at least one, and I also bet it’s on display. I’m making this wager based on my experience that every American Museum I’ve been to, including many smaller ones, owns at least one work by Stuart Davis, and that work seems to always be on view1. This is a testament to his wide, and ongoing, appeal. Stuart Davis’ Art still has a contemporary look and feel to it. Maybe that’s because so many Artists who have come after him, like much of “Pop Art,” have been influenced by him. Somehow, Davis is also an Artist who is rarely given a show. The last big one I know of was “Stuart Davis: American Painter” at The Met in 1991. It’s left me with years of longing to see more than one or two of his works at a time, so I was very excited when I heard about “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” June 10-September 25 at the Whitney.

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It turns out to have been worth the wait. With 75 works ranging from 1923 until his final work left unfinished on his easel the night he died in 1964, we get to see much, if not all, of his accomplishment. The 1991 Met show featured 175 works, 31 before the earliest work in this show. While I’m a bit disappointed the show is missing the first decade of his work, (the title “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” refers to his career being in full swing during the period of his work displayed), what’s included has been marvelously hung adding much insight into Davis’ process and development.

Davis' seminal 4 "Egg Beater" Paintings, 19__, rarely united

Davis’ seminal 4 “Egg Beater” Paintings, 1927-28, rarely united.

…I nailed an electric fan, a rubber glove and an eggbeater to a table and used it as my exclusive subject matter for a year.” Egg Beater No. 4," 1928

Breakthrough. “I nailed an electric fan, a rubber glove and an eggbeater to a table and used it as my exclusive subject matter for a year.2” Egg Beater No. 4,” 1928

Beyond this, it’s simply gorgeous to behold. Davis, the colorist, is  something not often  spoken about, and for me, is under-appreciated. His work needs to be seen in person, where his color makes a vibrant, stunning, often shocking first impression- even in 2016. Looking closer, it becomes apparent that though he uses relatively few colors and repeats them from piece to piece he is a master of color schemes. Has any American Artist used Yellows or Oranges the way Davis has?

"Cliche," 1955

“Cliche,” 1955

Having come out of the end of the era of  “Ashcan School,” Davis’s early work, often depicting street scenes of the greater New York area, shared their darker palette. Here and there he’d inject very bright passages of color, as in “Bleecker Street,” 1912. Soon, they would dominate as the influence of the Europeans, the Cubists 3, and Joan Miro took hold, his palette brightened. Matisse was also an early influence, and  even in the 1950s, Davis’ work features shapes that echo those found in Matisse’s late Cut-Outs.

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“Midi,” 1954

The title “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” is a double entendre, also referring to his love of Jazz- “swing” being the most popular form of the music in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Stuart Davis loved Jazz. As I wrote not all that long ago upon accidentally discovering where he lived for 20 years in Greenwich Village, it was, coincidentally or not, around the corner from some of the greatest jazz clubs in the world4.

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The plaque outside Davis’ home of 20 years where he created works that have “come home” to the nearby Whitney.

Looking at his work, it’s clear that he “gets” what it’s like to play Jazz, what goes on in the mind of the musician or singer, and it comes out of his hands, like it does for musicians, too.

Davis In Full Swing. "Swing Landscape," 1937

In Full Swing. “Swing Landscape,” 1938, over 14 feet long, the largest work here, originally intended for a Brooklyn Apartment Building.

Walking around, I spent quite a bit of time trying to associate Davis’ work with specific Jazz Artists. While I found there were many who came to mind for specific works, I came to feel that Davis’ work was ahead of it’s time, musically, as well as visually/Artistically. His shapes seem to anticipate the angular developments of Musicians like Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill. Standing in front of a work like “Swing Landscape,” 1938, an endlessly fascinating blend of nautical visual motifs in a riot of color, the feeling is like listening to a great Big Band. Take Duke Ellington’s or Count Basie’s classic Big Bands that were chock full of unique soloists. each one with a recognizable solo voice. When Lester Young soloed on Tenor Sax for Basie, there was no doubt who was playing. Same for Johnny Hodges, “Tricky” Sam Nanton, Ben Webster, or Bubber Miley with Duke, not to mention Duke and the Count, themselves. Looking at “Swing Landscape,” is like hearing a big band to me, a band comprised of unique voices (colors on shapes), each playing their own part, but still a part of the whole. There is an overriding feeling of joy, and life. But, there were other works that looked to me more like the music of non-swing Masters Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and even early Ornette Coleman. Though I mixed them in, and many others, I found myself repeatedly returning to Duke Ellington, one of the greatest composers of the century, in any style of music, who also continually pushed and evolved his style, taking the Big Band to many other places musically, like Davis did with Cubism, as the soundtrack for my visits.

Stuart Davis with Duke Ellington, 1943, from the show's catalog.

Let’s talk about Jazz. Stuart Davis with Duke Ellington at a Davis show, 1943, from this show’s catalog.

Also like a Jazz Artist, Davis returned again and again to earlier compositions and “riffed” on them, as Patricia Hills said 5. Davis re-interpreted his earlier compositions the way Jazz Artists reinterpret standards- using his original theme as a jumping off point to create something entirely new.

Progress in the Process. All 3 of these works are based on the center work from 192_. Left, 195_ and 19__, right

Riffin’ on a Theme. All 3 of these works are based on “Landscape, Goucester,” center, as follows.

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“Landscape, Goucester,” 1922…

"Colonial Cubism," 1954

Became this- “Colonial Cubism,” 1954

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And then, this- “Memo, #2,” 1956

In terms of Jazz in Art, I can’t think of another Artist who has a similar effect on me. Other Artists listened to Jazz, during the same time and later, but Stuart Davis’ work looks like Jazz to me. I get that feeling from isolated works by other Artists, especially that of Romare Bearden, who Davis told to visualize the relationships between jazz and art in 1940, though his works are primarily collages, not paintings, but Davis’s whole body of work, with rare exception, gives me that feeling6.

Blue Note. "The Woodshed," 1969, collage by Romare Bearden. The "Woodshed," or "Shed" is where musicians hone their craft.

Blue Note. “The Woodshed,” 1969, collage by Romare Bearden, at The Met Breuer.. The “Woodshed,” or “Shed” is where musicians hone their craft.

Yet, there’s more going on here than Jazz.

Revolutionizing the still life. “Super Table,” 1924. For me, the earliest masterpiece in this show.

We watch Davis breaking through and coming into his own in works like “Super Table,” 1924, and the “Egg Beater” series of 1927-28, which were revolutionary takes on the Cubist “still life,” that proved to be the jumping off points for all his future work that would see him develop his own approach to Cubism, becoming one of the very few outside of the inventors of the style to do so. While he built upon the influences of others, he was very influenced by place and environment as well. His 1928 trip to Paris crops up again and again in his later work. His summers along the water in Gloucester, Mass supplied a life long reservoir of nautical imagery, as did, NYC, while Jazz provided inspiration. Products appear in Davis’ work, possibly evolving out of the still life works of the Cubists, but quickly becoming his own. He then takes words, first seen in ads and on products, and uses them in new ways, sometimes referencing the “hip” jargon of the time, sometimes cryptically, that only he really understands.

"Odol," 1924, a bottle of mouthwash, presaging Warhol by 35 years.

“Odol,” 1924, a bottle of mouthwash, presaging Warhol by 35 years.

A walk through the show reveals that Pop Art, and a number of it’s leading lights were creating work that featured elements Stuart Davis began using way back in the 1920’s. In fact, after seeing it, you may never look at Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns or James Rosenquist quite the same again. Beyond his use of products, his use of words is something that many Artists since Davis, right up to Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer and Wayne White, have continued, some basing their entire Artistic output on them. While his influence is huge, it’s also interesting to me how different his work is from the work of the other Abstract Artists of his time, especially the Abstract Expressionists, who were then working right around him every day in NYC and it’s suburbs. Philip Guston speaks of knowing him 7. What about Jackson Pollock, (who was born, lived and work, then died during the time Davis was alive)? Did Davis know him? It would seem to me they must have met, especially since they both worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration). It’s hard to imagine two more different Abstract Artists.

The end. "Fin," 1962-64, as it was left on his easel when he died.

The end. “Fin,” 1962-64, as it was left on his easel when he died. The yellow-ish lines are masking tape Davis used as guides.

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“Arboretum by Flashbulb,” 1942

It must also be mentioned that Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney was a substantial, and early, supporter of Davis, in a number of ways, both financially (buying his Art and advancing him funds) and through the Whitney Studio Club, the precursor of the Whitney Museum, where he got his “big break,” 8 with a 2 week retrospective exhibit in December, 1926. 90 years later, Davis returns to the latest incarnation of the Whitney Museum, a few minutes walk from where he once lived, something of a “champion” of American 20th Century Art, himself. His influence is ongoing. His achievement is still being considered. Yet? All in Stuart Davis’ Legacy is not painted in the bright colors he used so masterfully in his work.

"Little Giant Still Life," 1950, a box of "Champion" matches

“Little Giant Still Life,” 1950, a box of “Champion” matches.

While the joy, beauty and insights this show provides will stay with me for a very long time, it’s impossible not to also be reminded of the fact that 90 works by Stuart Davis were discovered to have been “looted” 9 from the Artist’s Estate by Laurence Salander of Salander-O’Reilly Gallery, the long time dealer for Stuart Davis’ Estate, in 2007. The court ruled that Salander owes Earl Davis and the Estate $114.9 million dollars, but being as Salander is behind bars on Riker’s Island no one knows if and when any of that money will be repaid. As bad as that is, perhaps even more tragically, to this day, I’m not sure that all of Davis’ works have been accounted for. The case led to the creation of new laws pertaining to Artist/Gallery dealings. That is the saddest part of what is otherwise the great and ongoing influence that is the legacy of Stuart Davis, one of America’s greatest, and most influential, Artists.

Even his beautiful signature, boldly featured in many of his works, has the peaks and valleys, the ebbs and flow, of a Jazz solo.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, the title of which appears on Davis’ painting “Tropes de Teens,” 1956.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. I’m not wagering “anything” on this, so if you find one that doesn’t have a Stuart Davis, write me and let me know and I’ll send this Post to them to hopefully influence their future purchases!
  2. Stuart Davis “Autobiography” in “Stuart Davis” edited by Diane Kelder, P.26
  3. Davis, 21, was the youngest artist to be included in the legendary Armory Show of 1913, the first modern art show in America, which marked the arrival of Cubism in New York.
  4. His parents had lived in the Hotel Chelsea, 11 blocks north.
  5. “Stuart Davis,” by Patricia Hills, P. 19
  6. I am only talking about Artists who were/are Painters first, so I am leaving out Musician/Artists like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Tony Bennett, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, et al..
  7. Guston “Collected Writings” P.40
  8. according to Patricia Hills “Stuart Davis” P.73
  9. Artnews April 18, 2014

The New Whitney Museum- The Roofdeck of American Art

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“American Tune”
“We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune”*

Looking west on the 6th Floor Roof deck, Spring, 2016.

Looking west on the 6th Floor Roof deck, Spring, 2016.

Part 1- The New Whitney Museum…And I

We actually go way back…

All the way back to June, 1987 when I had a letter published in the New York Times in opposition to the proposed expansion plans of the Guggenheim & Whitney Museums, after it was announced that both Museums wanted to modify & expand their existing buildings. I was outraged. How could you change these two singular masterworks without ruining them? I closed saying that “branch museums were the obvious answer” to modifying these Artworks of Architecture, in the Guggenheim’s case, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece was, perhaps, the greatest work of Art it owns. I went to the Community Board Meetings, but wasn’t directly involved beyond this letter. Mine was apparently chosen over the head of the opposition committee’s letter, much to his displeasure, I heard.

My letter in the NY Times Op-Ed page opposing the & Guggenheim & Whitney modifications, June, 1987. I love the very fitting drawing they added.

Almost 30 years later (wow…really?), how did “we” do?

Well, BOTH Museums took my “advice” and opened branch museums. The Whitney had a few around town, one across from Grand Central, another in Soho, while the Guggenheim opened what is, perhaps, the greatest Museum building since Wright’s enduring 5th Avenue masterpiece…by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, Spain of all places. It’s a “place” now, a true destination for culture vultures. They showed a model of another Gehry masterpiece they wanted to build downtown in the East River at the Guggenheim Gehry Retrospective in 2000. I bought a poster of it but, after 9/11, it was never mentioned again. ? They went ahead and remodeled Wright’s masterpiece, anyway, which I will never accept, AND continue to open branch Museums around the world as we speak. The Whitney, on the other hand, did not renovate Breuer’s unique original. Instead, we got something I never saw coming- They moved out and built an entirely new Museum.

Wow!

So? On my scorecard? I am one and a half out of 2.

The New Whitney opened in May, 2015 in the Meatpacking District, right at the southern end of the High Line. I’ve made frequent trips there so far studying the building from every angle I could, at night, and yes, even in day light. (Oh, the sacrifices I will make in the pursuit of Art.) The inaugural, and as I’ve said very good, show, in the new Renzo Piano building, “American Is Hard To See,” came and went. I also wrote about both the Frank Stella Retrospective and a show by filmmaker Laura Poitras that came and went, too, along with quite a few smaller shows. So, a few months after the 1 year Anniversary, I think I’ve finally had enough time and experience with the new place, over 45 visits, to have some thoughts coalesce. As always, I have not read any reviews of either the building or the shows mentioned.

Part 2- Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum Building

U.S.S. Indianapolis. US Navy Photo

The U.S.S. Indianapolis, Why is this picture here? (U.S. Navy Photo.)

It’s only a year or so old, but I don’t think many will fall in love with the exterior of the building. I must say that in all my trips there so far, I have yet to see anyone else take a picture of it. Maybe (more) time will tell. In this City where location isn’t everything, it’s the ONLY thing, the new Whitney sits on a rather unique lot. How many places in Manhattan can you think of that have BOTH a River view AND a Park view? Situated directly across the West Side Highway from the Hudson River, to the west, and the southern end of the High Line to the immediate east, the Museum hit on a very rare Daily Double. Unfortunately for long time Whitney architect Piano, who came on board during the Museum’s “expansion” days, this lot has 4 sides. To the north, the rest of the block is occupied by one of the few remaining Meat Packing businesses that actually pack meat in what really was The Meatpacking District.1 Yes, trucks of raw meat park within inches of the Museum’s north wall every weekday.

Yes, meat is still packed in the "Meatpacking District." Whitney's north side seen from West Street.

Yes, meat is still packed in the “Meatpacking District.” Whitney’s north side seen from West Street.

And, seen from the High Line.

And, seen from the High Line.

The two story meat complex provides a nearly unobstructed view of most of the north face of the Museum, from West Street or the High Line. I wonder what people who don’t know it’s the Museum think it is. I wonder how many of them will look at it and say, “Ah. A Museum.” My guess is not many. Maybe it’s an office building with not enough windows and a couple of long smoke stacks? A prison? It’s pretty non-descrip, making the stair cases that protrude from the rear of the building seem, well, odd. For myself, and probably countless others approaching the New Whit from the north, this is the first view they’ll get of it. The one defining feature of this side of the building is the exterior staircases. A cascade of them.

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Outdoor stairs as seen on the 7th Floor

To the south, across Gansevoort Street is a large, renovated apartment building, that also has Hudson River views on it’s western side. To put it mildly, this is a classic “high rent” district. Facing Gansevoort Street, the Museum presents visitors with an almost unbroken face of grey steel. Upon closer inspection, it also includes the Museum’s almost hidden entrance, which, until a sign was added recently, was only marked “Whitney Museum” on a glass window. Still, I can’t help wonder how the residents of that building across Gansevoort feel about paying those very high rents to look out their windows and see-

This, is their view.

This, is their view.

In fact, seen from the south, the building is so large that none of my cameras were able to get the whole thing in a shot from Gansevoort, including using an iPhone in Panorama mode. I had to go out into West Street to get one, which I don’t advise doing due to traffic coming randomly from 3 directions, not to mention my back being literally on the flimsy chain link fence bordering the West Side Highway with cars & trucks zipping around the bend at 60mph. Not a smart place to be standing with a camera. But this points out something interesting- there is no place where one can easily stand to get a good shot of the Museum- except, possibly, from a substantial distance. In fact, most of the shots of the building on the Whitney www site were taken from the rooftops of adjacent buildings. Maybe this is why no one takes pictures of it. Or? Maybe they don’t like it. ?

The closest I've come do death this year. The West Side Highway is inches behind me.

NOT to die for. I risked my life getting this shot. Southwest corner.

As we move to the western facade, with the large windows seen above (which reminds me of Zaha Hadid’s Library in Vienna), the upper one juts out at an angle seen from the north that vaguely reminds of the Breuer building’s Madison Avenue upper window.

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But more problematically, is a large Department of Sanitation complex smack dab right in front of it! “Holy Refuse Pile, Artman!” Garbage trucks coming and going all day and evening are not exactly what gives a “Riv View” it’s cache. (Feel free to insert your own wry joke about contemporary art here. I’ll wait…)

View of the Department of Sanitation from the 7th Floor stairs, 2015.

Riv View. Looking out at the Department of Sanitation from the 7th Floor stairs, 2015.

Mr. Piano has done his best to “minimize” the damage from the “offending” Department of Sanitation, and eternally busy West Side Highway, by opting to minimize the exposure of the western facade leaving a very narrow patio where, typically, only a few chairs usually are to be seen. It sits a few scant feet from the West Side Highway, after all, so it’s hard to imagine many people wanting to sit there for long. 3 trees have been planted along the curb in hope that one day they will provide some camouflage.

View from in front of the western facade, July, 2015, Being a tree in NYC is one helluva hard job.

View from in front of the western facade, July, 2016, Being a tree in NYC is one helluva hard job.

Regardless of the difficulties in seeing the building close up, it can be seen, for many blocks, both, to the north and south along the West Side Highway, and from across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Thanks(?) to the High Line there has been a boon in building in the area, with some very big name Starchitects (including, as I’ve written, the late Zaha Hadid’s only NYC Building going up at 520 West 28th Street, among many others) having new or recent projects in the area- some successful, some eyesores already. No less than Frank Gehry, the greatest architect of his time, in my book, himself, has a fairly new building about 6 blocks to the north of the New Whitney along the Highway, the gorgeous IAC Headquarters at 18th Street.

Like a sailboat on the Hudson, Frank Gehry's IAC Building is a gorgeous vision.

Like a sailboat on the Hudson it faces, Frank Gehry’s IAC Building is a shining example of the visionary architecture NYC needs more of, IMHO.

But, say what you want about this new Museum (don’t worry…I will), one thing that must be said is that the building isn’t obsessed with competing with it’s spectacular neighbor. Well? Not that spectacular neighbor, anyway. If anything, it sure feels to me like it’s competing with it’s OTHER “spectacular neighbor”- the High Line.

Southern terminus of the High Line, circa 2009. The new Whitney now occupies the space directly behind the left side.

Southern terminus of the High Line, circa 2010, early in the construction of the new Whitney directly behind on the left side. And today, and tonite…

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That brings us to the east side of the building, the side that abuts the High Line. Renzo Piano also designed the High Line Maintenance & Operations Building,

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High Line Maintenance & Operations Building on the lot’s northeast corner.

which looks like it’s part of the Whitney, occupying the north eastern corner of the lot. Next to that are a rectangular bank of windows of the 5th Floor Galleries. The lowest rectangle is cleverly cantilevered over the lower floors in a way that vaguely reminds of Wright’s Fallingwater. Above it are more rectangular rows of windows on the other gallery floors, which are accompanied by roof decks and outdoor stairs between floors.

Eastern face with 1st floor restaurant seen from the High Line.

Cantilevered lower eastern face with 1st floor restaurant seen from the High Line.

And, these are what raise my suspicion about purpose. So much outdoor space, and outdoor stairs in a place with the climate of Manhattan could be seen as highly questionable design. They are going to be unusable a good part of the year, so why do them? Aesthetically, to my eyes, the stairs look uncannily similar to the High Line’s access stairs. I wondered- Is this a case of “art snobbery” by an expensive to build, expensive to enter Museum trying to “upstage” a free & public park- a poorly thought out game of oneupmanship? An attempt to “blend in” with the High Line? Or?

Whitney Museum Eastern Facade Exterior Stairs close up

High Line Stairs at West 20th Street

High Line Stairs at West 20th Street

Other questions festered. Back along the south face. I spent a long time trying to think of what the shape of this building reminded me of. Hmmmm…Then one day, it hit me- From the south it looks like one of the US Navy’s newest ships- the USS Independence. From this side, it looks like it’s ready to go out to sea, well, out to the Hudson River. This feeling is hard to shake when you are looking at the few windows that look a bit like portholes, the “military—like” grey coloring, and the slightly sloping (i.e. “stealthy”) look of the upper floors. Add the rear decks and stairs to the Independence and the effect is so similar, it’s down right eerie.

Ok, flip the cantilever to the rear, and...? Eerily uncanny, no?

U.S.S. Indianapolis, again, with my highlighting. Ok, flip the cantilever to the rear, and…? Eerily uncanny, no?

Photo from Renzo Piano Building Workshop website.

Photo from Renzo Piano Building Workshop website. Note that all of the “neighbors” have been removed, except for the High Line.

Part 3- The Roofdeck of American Art

Bring sunscreen.

Want a tan with your art? 6th Floor deck, Spring, 2016.

Yes, that is what I’m calling the New Whitney- “The Roofdeck of American Art.” I think the decks are what people will remember most about the building. I only hope it’s not what they remember most about their visit. That will be up to the Museum’s curators and staff. But? As I will get to, I think other forces are at work, too.

With 4 roof decks, I bet some will come only to enjoy the view and get some sun. The Museum turns the face the vast majority of visitors will experience most to it’s “rear,” to it’s east side facing the High Line. Doing so gives Mr. Piano a very convenient out of his Sanitation Department dilemma, “Riv View” notwithstanding, and allows a wonderful panorama of Manhattan, from Chelsea Piers to the north, the Empire State in the center and the Statue of Liberty, distantly, to the south. The decks allow space for dining (8th floor), sculpture (5th floor and the others), seating, and that 21st Century phenomenon- selfie sticks.

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8th Floor Deck.

It’s very nice. You’ll like it. Bring sunscreen.

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I promise that top ramp won’t be bent when you visit the 7th Floor Deck.

Part 4- Inside. “Hey look! They have art here…too!”

Inside, the first floor is the lobby, the most unsuccessful part of the entire interior- it’s an open space. The message here is “keep moving.” It’s about as unwelcoming a space as Moma’s lobby. (Actually, ALL of Moma, which for me stands for what it feels like- the “Mall of Modern Art,” feels unwelcoming!)

Welcome? No one will ever mistake the lobby for the Great Hall at The Met. Front door is opposite, where the black mat is.

Welcome? No one will ever mistake the lobby for the Great Hall at The Met. Front door is to the right of the nearest exposed column. Engineering made visible abounds. The free 1st floor gallery is to the immediate right, outside of the rope fence, which denotes you are in the Museum.

Once inside, here’s the routine I’ve settled upon, which probably sounds confusing- After entering as quickly as possible to minimize the time spent in the “lobby,” a short trip downstairs (don’t take the elevators- the wait is too long) brings you to the coatroom and the rest rooms (there are others restrooms on 3, 5, 7 and 8). The feeling here is 180 degrees from the lobby. This is completely designed. It makes you wonder what the hell happened upstairs. Take the stairs back to 1 and walk out past the rope line (keep your admission ticket handy) and visit the first floor gallery, which is free all the time. (Or, yes, you could visit the 1st floor gallery before paying to get in. I prefer to get my admission ticket first, which means I have to show it twice.) After that, show your ticket and get back in the Museum proper then take an elevator to the whatever floor you wish to see first- 3 (where the theater is for concerts, dance performances, etc), 5,6,7 or 8 (where the galleries are). Bear in mind there is no 2nd or 4th floor- they didn’t pay enough money to get those. No, at 422 million dollars, they did, but those floors are reserved for Museum staff and functions, so they’ve disappeared from the public elevator buttons.

5th Floor seen during the Frank Stella Retrospective, Feb, 2016. The smaller walls can be moved to provide countless configuration possibilities.

5th Floor seen during the Frank Stella Retrospective, Feb, 2016. The smaller walls can be moved to provide countless configuration possibilities.

00Inside, the building is very sharp, clean and neat with natural wood floors and new, white walls all around. As the rectangular shape belies, form mostly follows function, and 4 of the floors are given over to large, rectangular galleries. The open space allows for movable walls can be easily repositioned to allow an extremely wide range of configurations. Each floor is very well lit, (something that is continually a problem at The Met). With 3 sets of stair cases, there are plenty of stairs . None go all the way from 1-8, however. On the western wall, as seen below, stairs go from the 3rd floor to the 8th. To the east of the elevators, stairs run from 5 to the 1st floor. And, there are the exterior stairs on 6,7 and 8. The stairs are good to familiarize yourself with, since there is almost always a wait, the elevators are best used for going from 1 to 8 or from 5 to 1. The entire building, inside and out, is wheelchair accessible.

Western stairs, Spring, 2016. They seem to be dismantling the Sanitation complex. The Whit might be hoping a tower doesn’t go up in it’s stead.

Renzo Piano strikes me as a Master Engineer more than as a brilliant Architect. I got that feeling when I first saw the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with it’s engineering on the outside, and again with his New York Times Building (which he inherited from Gehry). Yes, he has done some beautiful buildings, but I repeatedly get the feeling of Piano, the Engineer, when I look at his work, and that shouldn’t be the primary feeling I’m left with. There is quite a bit of engineering being shown off, here too, much of it on the first floor, some in the exposed gallery ceilings, and some on the roof decks.

The 8th floor gallery lets in ambient sky light.

The 8th floor gallery lets in ambient sky light.

Now for the “nitty gritty.”

Given the luxury of having over a year to assess it, I’ve begun to wonder about the adequacy of the 50,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space, as nice as it is. “America Is Hard To See,” fit the whole Museum well, and showed it off to fine effect. Then, while the Frank Stella Retrospective was excellent, it only included 5 of his prints, and only 1 of his “Moby Dick” works. Was this because of hard decisions due to a prolific, 50+ year career, or due to a lack of space on the 5th floor? Currently, the otherwise excellent “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” show feels unmistakably truncated. It shares the 5th floor with the “Danny Lyon: Message To The Future” show, (which may be overambitious). By comparison, The Met’s Stuart Davis show in 1991-92 had almost twice as many works, including over 30 that dated before the earliest work in the Whit’s show, like some from his “Van Gogh” period. While these have been going on indoors, I’ve been underwhelmed by what’s been installed thus far on the outdoor 5th Floor exhibition space. As time goes on, I’m starting to feel the 5th Floor may turn out to be a design mistake. Part of it is cut off to allow an entrance and exit corridor for the outdoor space, which is generally in shadow, and results in leaving a small indoor gallery on the other side of the outdoor gallery access corridor, which feels lost, and most importantly cuts down the size of the congruent 5th floor space. The other floors with outdoor decks run right up to the door leading outside with no corridor, etc.

The 5th Floor is cut to allow this exit corridor to the Roof Deck Gallery, leaving a small gallery to the left that feels lost.

The eastern end of the 5th Floor gallery is cut to allow this exit corridor to the Roof Deck, which leaves the small gallery to the left that feels lost.

The Whitney says there is 13,000 square feet of outdoor space, over 25% of the amount of indoor space. I’m left to ask the age old question…”Did they create enough INDOOR space to display Art?,” the prime purpose of a Museum. Time will tell, BUT? If they didn’t? This will be a disaster reminiscent of Moma’s inexcusably horrible current/new building, where they somehow managed to create a massive multistory hole right in the middle of some of THE most expensive real estate on Earth, then claim they “need more space,” 10 years later!

You can’t make this stuff up!!!

5th Floor Deck.

5th Floor Deck with installation. Yes, the colored seats are the Art work.

If the Whit needs more indoor space, well, the roof decks seem easy to enclose, and voila, 13,000 square feet more gallery space.

Or? PLEASE don’t tell me they’d have to expand this new building north, or up. I’m done writing letters. Besides, as much as I admire and respect Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney and the collection built on hers, I have no attachment to this building.

And that brings me to this- Through it all, one thought stayed on my mind more than any other. I wonder what she would have thought of the place…

Part 5 – Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

“And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying”*

Portrait of Gertrude V. Whitney, 1917 by Robert Henri. Study for a Head for the Titanic Memorial by Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney, in the background from "America Is Hard To See," 2015

Portrait of Gertrude V. Whitney, 1917 by Robert Henri. Study for a Head for the Titanic Memorial by Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney, in the right background from “America Is Hard To See,” 2015

The founder of the Whitney Museum, as was beautifully demonstrated, remembered and honored in the first floor free to enter at all times gallery, where “America Is Hard To See” began was, also, a very accomplished sculptor2, in addition to being the greatest champion of American Art, perhaps ever. Immediately upon entering the first floor gallery, the first thing you saw was, fittingly, the wonderful portrait of her by Robert Henri that was perfectly placed facing the door, which also enabled it to be seen from outside the building, the only artwork that was. I wish it had been left right there. It wasn’t. As I write this, it’s upstairs as part of the “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection” show. One of my pet peeves in Museum re-designs is how often they fail to answer this, seemingly basic, question- “Where are we going to put such and such major masterpiece?” Moma failed this miserably- How many times have they moved Monet’s “Waterlillies”, or Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, in a vain attempt to find the right spot for each? This is unforgivable. While the Whitney has found a great spot for Calder’s Circus,

Calder's ingenious "Circus." When you go, be sure to see the accompanying video!

Home… at last. Calder’s ingenious “Circus.” When you go, be sure to see the accompanying video.

which was lost in the Breuer Building’s mezzanine, I’m left to wonder about Mrs. Whitney’s Portrait. Will it become their Waterlillies?

One of the very greatest figures in American Art History looks out on her domain, Portrait by Robert Henri, 1917. 1st Floor Gallery, seen from outside the building during "America is Hard to See," 2015. After? They should have left it right there.

One of the greatest figures in American Art History looks out on her domain. 1st Floor Gallery, during “America is Hard to See,” 2015. After? They should have left it right there.

Beyond her portrait’s place in the Museum, I wonder what she’d think of it. It’s still “her” Museum. They even, recently, put the name “Whitney Museum of American Art” on the southern facade. The new place is located a stone’s throw from the site of the first Whitney Museum that she opened in 1931 at 8 West 8th Street, and equally close to where Edward Hopper lived and worked on Washington Square. Edward & Josephine Hopper left their artistic estate to the Whitney, in honor of their long relationship with Mrs. Whitney. When the new Museum opened, there was a selection of Edward Hopper drawings from 1925 that he did at the Whitney Studio Club, which preceded the founding of the Museum, in the first floor gallery, adjacent to Henri’s Portrait of Mrs. Whitney, seen above. As time goes on, I think this gift will be seen as one of the greatest Art gifts of the 20th Century, even though it didn’t consist of many of Edward’s paintings. That’s when I try and forget the fact that the Whitney, tragically and unforgivably, discarded almost all of Josephine Hopper’s work that was included with it!

While we’ll never know what Mrs. Whitney would think of the new home of her collection, I know what I think.

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Oneupsmanship? “Hey you down there on the High Line- You think you’re high up? Ha!”

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I’ve spent a year wondering- Why put 13,000 square feet of outdoor space in a building in a place with a climate like NYC?

5th Floor roof deck with a Frank Stella Sculpture & reflection, Feb, 2016

5th Floor roof deck with a Frank Stella Sculpture & reflection, in the snow, Feb, 2016

Part 6- 5,000,000 Reasons

As I said, real estate in NYC is all about location. That applies to the Art world, too. The Met & The Guggenheim are in, or near, Central Park, and there is now talk of The Met creating a Central Park entrance as part of their Contemporary Art Galleries reconstruction3. Moma has the heart of midtown, and now the Whitney has the High Line. In my opinion, the location was selected, and the New Whitney is designed, to be a destination for High Line visitors- It’s roof decks are meant to beckon High Liners with an even better view since they are higher. That’s one explanation for the stair designs looking similar- imitation that’s designed to make High Liners feel the Museum is part of the High Line. And so? Location also pays off by providing a potential mass audience delivered right to your door. How much is that worth to a Museum? Given that the High Line currently draws over 5,000,000 visitors a year, it’s hard not to see this as a conscious decision designed to attract visitors for an even better view, and oh yeah, some Art. Once inside? I’ve already come to feel that the gallery size is limiting. As the collection grows (do Museum collections ever shrink?), I am left to wonder how quickly they’re going to wish they had some of that 13,000 square feet that’s sitting outside, inside.

But? If I’m correct about their motivation, the outdoors stairs & decks exist to beckon people from the High Line, which, is open year round, come rain, snow, or shine.

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“We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed”*

Overall? I’m displeased by the outward appearance of the new Whitney. Over a  year of trying to warm to it, of giving it yet another chance to speak to me later, I still find it downright strange. As an Art Museum, the inside is nice, with the above caveats. As far as the Art is concerned? I’m glad to have the Whitney’s pre-eminient collection of American Art back, and “America Is Hard To See” was a wonderful “Welcome Back” celebration of it’s return after the move Downtown. The Whitney is, also, to be congratulated for the guts they’e displayed in the choices of their early shows- giving Laura Poitras her first Museum show, featuring the great Cecil Taylor for a week, and having the retrospectives of modern master Frank Stella and the vastly underrated Stuart Davis (who Mrs. Whitney, herself, believed in and financially supported early on), among others, all have made the first year of the New Whitney Museum’s exhibitions quite memorable, and yes, very Artistically successful.

Yet? How long will the waters stay calm for the U.S.S. New Whitney Museum? The big question of long term success and long term viability remain to be answered.

Epilogue – The Whitney’s 422 Million Dollar Gamble

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The Whitney’s move downtown isn’t about moving nearer the “New” Art neighborhood of Chelsea or the “Older” Art neighborhood of Soho. It strikes me as being a a case of seeing an opportunity and taking it. They found a lot at one of the 2 ends of the High Line and saw their opportunity to move to a potential audience- the 5,000,000 current visitors to the High Line, and they took it. I believe that’s why their stairs look like the High Line’s, as I said.

For the Whitney, this is a $430,000,000.00 (the cost of the new building) gamble that the High Line is not a flash in the pan and it’s popularity is here to stay. If the High Line fails? Well? The City was about to tear it down anyway before it was turned into a Park.

But, if the High Line does fail (which seems unlikely at the moment), or visitors come in substantially lower numbers (much more likely), the Whitney may find themselves stranded, with an out of the way Museum that is not easily accessible by either bus or subway in a neighborhood that has a history of being “the wild west,” home to meat packing, prostitution, cutting edge music, and sex clubs (Madonna’s notorious book “Sex” was photographed almost 25 years ago at one 3 blocks away) not all that long ago, that has been remade with extra glitz and top of the market rents. And what about that neighborhood? What if the new glitz doesn’t stick? What if it all turns out to be wishful thinking on the part of landlords looking to make a killing after years of squalor? Walking around the past few months, the area seems to be having a bit of trouble supporting many of it’s ritzy new tenants at these prices. And? This is over a year after the Whitney added even more oomph to the now completed High Line being here.

Empty storefronts on Gansevoort, one block east of the Whitney, August, 2016

Empty storefronts on Gansevoort fill 3/4 of the block, one block east of the Whitney, August, 2016

Is the “Meatpacking District” a fad destination that is about to fade? If so, what effect will this have on the new Whitney? Can it survive in a “not so fab” neighborhood?

La Perla joins Alexander McQueen & Stella McCartney as former tenants of the Meatpacking District

Is the buzz over? La Perla joins Alexander McQueen & Stella McCartney as former tenants of the Meatpacking District who have moved elsewhere.

While collectors and investors throw unheard of sums at Contemporary Art these days (which strike me as “bets” given the largely unproven nature of the Art itself), here is a case of one of NYC’s “Big 4 Museums” placing an even bigger bet on a Park, that while it certainly is Contemporary Urban Art, hasn’t even been fully opened for TWO YEARS yet,. The Whitney placed their bet when the High Line was in it’s first of 3 phases. Phase 3, the final part, of the now completed High Line opened on September 20, 2014. This is not to mention that they bought in at the top of the market in a real estate market that (like the Art market) hasn’t seen a correction in over 25 years. Both will see corrections one of these days.

But when? This, is the 422 million dollar question.

“Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest”*

Around the corner on Washington Street, 4 now empty storefronts, one of which was the famous Hogs & Heifers Saloon (corner). August, 2016

In the Whitney’s shadow. Around the corner on Washington Street, 4 now empty storefronts in a row, one of which was the notorious Hogs & Heifers Saloon (where the white sign hangs). August, 2016

Well? If all of this goes south? They still stand a very good chance of being able to move back uptown in 8 years when The Met’s lease of the Breuer, their former home, is up. Given The Met’s own problems, it seems highly unlikely they’ll be extending that lease.

If the Whitney then wants to renovate it? It’ll be someone else’s problem.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “American Tune” by Paul Simon. Published by Universal Music Publishing Group.

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. In fact, the new Whit, itself, sits where one was.
  2. When will they have a show of HER work?
  3. Speaking of his vision in January, Met Director Thomas Campbell told the LA Times that “We are looking at an entrance, at terraces, at the roof garden.” Sounds like he’s visited the New Whitney.

Watching The Watchers With Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras is, perhaps, best known for her Documentary “CitizenFour,” a behind-the-scenes chronicle of Edward Snowden’s unprecedented classified documents release and it’s after effects. It’s the culminating work of her “9/11 Trilogy”. For Ms Poitras, and many others, Film is an Art Form1. I would agree that as a means of creativity and expression, Film as an art form is undeniable. In the bigger picture, Film, being 100-odd years old (depending on when you say it began), is still a relatively young Art Form to be considered “High Art.”

Does it belong in Museums yet, or is that premature?

Face to face with unspeakable horror.

Face to face with unspeakable horror. A screenshot of Poitras’ video “O Say Can You See” in her new show, “Astro Noise,” at the Whitney Museum.

While Film’s place in the front ranks of our popular culture seems assured to us now, it’s unknown what future generations will think, as is if it will speak to them. Of course, they could also reject Painting, Sculpture or whatever Artform that we accept now, but given a few thousand years of history to the contrary it at least feels there’s a better chance those will endure. Then, exactly what Film’s lasting works are, if any, also remains to be seen. If history tells us anything about Art it’s that what appears to be “Great” to the people of any given time often gets resigned to the dust bin by those that follow. No doubt that will happen to most of what’s been created in our lifetimes, but some of it may remain that speaks to those who come after us, even much after us. Consider that documentaries (one of my personal favorite genres of Film) are an even newer form, one that is continually evolving in both form and possibilities, and it may be somewhat surprising that Laura Poitras, one of the most respected Filmmakers and Documentarians working today, now her first solo Museum show, “Astro Noise,“at The Whitney.

Obviously, The Whitney Museum, like many other Museums & galleries around the world isn’t waiting for the future to judge what is or is not Art. In this case, I applaud their choice, and given the controversial nature of much of the show’s content, their guts. That, actually, shouldn’t be surprising. As Whitney Museum Director, Adam D. Weinberg says in the Foreword to the fascinating book of the same name accompanying the show, (which features a striking contribution from no less than Ai Weiwei), “(Whitney Museum founder) Mrs. Whitney’s early commitment to radical realist artists and her profund belief in the democracy of American art positioned her as a champion of free expression and the Whitney as a site for potential controversy2.”

“Is this “art?” I’d say Yes- As much in the presentation as in the work3. I’m not big on most of what I’ve seen done in video in galleries or Museums (William Kentridge being one exception off the top of my head). The pieces on view are beautifully conceived (individually and as a group), charged with meaning (for her, you and me, yet globally as well) and presented in a very artful way that regardless of what side of any political fence you may be on will give you pause to think. They force you to see the world around you, very far from you, and indeed, even hidden from you while showing how the world has changed since that fateful day almost exactly 14 and a half years ago. In “Astro Noise” it’s all plainly on view.

Poitras “Disposition Matrix,” 2016. “Don’t attempt to control the horizontal…the vertical…”

The first room features a double sided video screen, a fact not obvious until you walk to the other side of it, both sides showing her 2 channel video “O Say Can You See,” 2001/16, pictured above. At first you’re faced (literally) with watching people’s expressions as they view Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. For most Americans, these are the first days of a new world, and these people are both witness to what is before their eyes and the implications of it their mind’s eye also sees. In spite of the fact that 9/11 was one of the most photographed & filmed tragedies in history, this is something not many who aren’t named Laura Poitras took the time to look at. It’s the “right in front of us” element of this show. As someone who lived here that day, it’s something “familiar” yet seen in a new way, which is always something I value in Art, (and reminds me of the Man Ray quote I Posted recently.) As we may not know from her documentaries, which deal largely with “others,” this powerfully shows that Laura Poitras is also gifted at documenting what’s in front of us and largely missed.

From here, all becomes “movie theater dark” as we encounter the unseen and the hidden.

Walk around to the other side of the video screen and the ramifications begin to become all too real. We watch two prisoners being interrogated in Afghanistan shortly after. Two types of reaction to 9/11. From there, the show’s dark & winding trail continues with video of drones in various night skies around the world intermingling with the peace, beauty and serenity of the stars, which you watch lying flat on your back. Then there are banks of “peep show” like slots containing documents and videos from various government surveillance agencies around the world (See “Disposition Matix,” above and “Anarchist,” below), including ours, which, unlike in the first rooms, can really only be seen by one person at a time, making it personal. Finally “Astro Noise” leaves us with a graphic proof that we are all now being watched- even while we’re looking at this show.

While I was pondering the “Art” of this, I realized that her trials and travails that are a part of the genesis of this show, and of her work, reveal something I admire about Laura Poitras very much-

Her integrity is not for sale.

As such, she strikes me as something of a “throwback.” She’s a throwback to Artists, Musicians & Writers of yore- men and women who created because they had to. It’s as if their very lives depended on it, their raison de’tre.  If the public responded to their work and paid for it, the better to create more of it, but regardless, they were on a mission. They lived, breathed and died their art.

Laura Poitras is using art to show us “ourselves”- our collective selves. Me, you, the people in power- elected or not, and enabling us to “see” them and decide for ourselves how we feel about it all. That’s pretty much all any Artist can do. Say what you want about Ms. Poitras politically charged show, she’s on a mission.

“World peace is none of your business

You must not tamper with arrangements

Work hard and sweetly pay your taxes

Never asking what for”*

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Poitras “Anarchist,” 2016. Somebody in the U.K.’s tax money hard at work. “What for?”

“Astro Noise” creates the undeniable feeling that somehow along the way Post 9/11, in addition to all the horror that’s gone on here and around the world be it by terrorists or by trying to stop them, as the “cost” of it all continues to become apparent, as the unseen becomes visible, we’re seeing we’ve all lost even more than we realized or consented to. We’ve lost our right to privacy.

While Edward Snowden “tipped” Ms. Poitras to the NSA’s role in that sending her a file titled “Astro Noise,” this week, I saw a headline that read “You’re On File In China.” Yes, that’s another part of the story, though every bit as concerning.

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A surveillance camera surveils a sign warning it’s presence. How quaint. There’s too many cameras to hang signs anymore.

Closer to home, it’s enough to make me how much of our freedom we’ve lost, too ?

“World peace is none of your business

So would you kindly keep your nose out”*

Consider this- In a country where the law says a suspect is “innocent until proven guilty,” all of a sudden, we’ve ALL being treated like suspects.

Why?

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “World Peace Is None Of Your Business”s by Morrissey & Boz Boorer from his 2014 album of the same name. Published by Warner Chappell Music and Universal Music Publishing Group.

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

  1. I think of filmmaking as art...”
  2. “Astro Noise” by Laura Poitras, Published by the Whitney Museum, P.20
  3. Whether this will be “Art” and continue to speak to people generations from now or not is anyone’s guess.

Art Shows, 2015 – Who Keeps Your Flame?

“But when you’re gone,
Who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?”*

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January, 2015. Goya @The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Neither snow, nor 5 hours on a train kept the Nighthawk from the Front Door of Great Art. Click any image for full size.

Since I don’t believe in comparing creative work or creative people, AND I believe that “awards” for “Best” whatever among the Arts (and Sports) are absurd 1, I thought I’d do a “List In No Particular Order” of 2015 Art Shows I saw (some opened in 2014) that may or may not have closed for good, but still continue to open doors in my mind, and that’s more important than any award I could bestow.

“Oh can I show you what I’m proudest of?”*

“Goya: Order and Disorder” (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. No photos permitted.) AND “Goya:Los Caprichos” (National Arts Club, Gramercy Park, NYC)- Two concurrent, excellent shows, 250 miles apart, one huge, the other “small” showing two views of  Goya- one all encompassing, filling the whole lower level of the MFA, one narrowly focused on a rare, complete set of his landmark 80 print, “Los Caprichos,”(once owned by Robert Henri, who reappears below) combined to show the enduring power, importance, relevance and eternal influence of the Spanish Master. Many saw the former, far fewer saw the latter, tucked away in a dining? lecture? room on the second floor of the NAC (Behind hundreds of chairs on one of my visits!). An artist of nightmares, both surreal and all-too-real, the likes of which perhaps only Bosch can equal, who can then turn around and paint with the utmost lyricism, Goya was all about what it is to be human. Take your pick- portraits, historical pieces, landscapes, the otherworldly or the underworldly, children, tapestries, or his graphic works that hold their own with dare-I-say-Rembrandt, he’ll blow your mind.

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Goya/MFA on the show’s elevator entrance, overlooking Dale Chihuly’s Tree.

Remember My Name. Goya’s Self Portrait casts his all-seeing eye on us 215 years later.

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” from “The Caprichos.” So? Stay up!

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Neither blizzard, nor the furniture(!), kept the Nighthawk from seeing all of Goya’s incredible “Los Caprichos” at the National Arts Club, but I think they tried to.

“Richard Pousette-Dart” (Pace 510 West 25th, Chelsea)- I walked in and was completely captivated by “abstract” Art the way I haven’t been since the Mark Rothko Show at the “Old” Whitney in 1998, which was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. (That’s not comparing.) Don’t be fooled by the apparent geometric simplicity, there is an astounding subtlety to these works that at once feel microscopically considered, often freely rendered, yet globally cohesive. Pousette-Dart had a number of styles, and this show represented one, geometric style, from the 1970’s in both large oils and smaller drawings. For any of those who think that Abstract Expressionism is “easy” to do, go ahead and try creating one of these, the largest is almost 8 foot square, and then see if it has the “Presence” of Dart’s. The amount of work that went into each piece belies their seemingly “simple” composition, is matched by an extraordinary primacy of order, and second only to their transcendent impact. Here, we see Richard Pousette-Dart as the great, “under known” abstract artist. While Pollock & Rothko have grown larger in stature, Pousette -Dart’s name deserves to be right there with theirs. There is only one word to describe this show’s effect- Magical.

Then? There’s never a chair around when you want one. Pousette-Dart @Pace- “Presence, Circle of Night,” 1975-6, center, “Black Circle Time”, 1980, left and “White Circle Time,” 1980, 90″ square each.

“Imploding Black,” 1975, six feet square. Transcendent,

Detail.

“Cerchio di Dante,” 1986, six foot square

Detail of the left side.

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives
Who dies
Who tells your story?”*

“Richard Estes: Painting New York City” (Museum of Art & Design, NYC)- My favorite contemporary artist, and one of the greatest living realists, FINALLY gets an NYC Museum show, and it was worth the wait. A virtual time capsule of NYC from the mid 1960’s to 2015’s astounding “Corner Cafe,” showing the 83 year old Master is still at the height of his considerable power. Oh…Do NOT call him a “photorealist” in my presence! Estes shows us the world we live in as we do not see it, (more on this soon) and so follows in the footsteps of Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler in advancing American realism while, perhaps, being the first to include the abstraction that is also a part of the real world. A misunderstood painter, in my eyes, who is only just beginning to be really seen, finally.

“Horn & Hardart Automat” 1967. Not since Hopper has a work spoken to me of life in the City like this does.

“Columbus Circle, Maine Monument” 1989. 500 years ago, or 100, they came by ship. Now? They come by bus. Frozen in time, side by side.

“Times Square”, 2004. Nothing captures the experience of the place better than this, though Robert Rauschenberg is capable of giving me a similar feeling (See below).

“I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings
You really do write like you’re running out of time.”*

“Picasso: Sculpture” (MoMA)- If he had never done anything besides paint, Picasso would be considered among the all time Masters. But, noooooooooooo… Picasso was, perhaps, the most unique genius in (known) art history in that his genius was among the most restless. He almost never stopped creating, and he never stopped seeking new outlets for his creative vision. Consider- PICASSO HAD NO TRAINING AS A SCULPTOR! NONE. Yet, that didn’t stop him from becoming, perhaps, THE most revolutionary sculptor up to his time. There is so much great work to see in this show, I don’t even know where to start talking about it. “Picasso: Sculpture” shows us the naked face of endlessly creative genius the like the world has never seen. I’ll sum it up by saying virtually all of it is wonderfully selected, though some of the Cubist works here don’t stand up to his paintings, in my opinion, and wonder- When will we see his like, again? The “other” takeaway, for me, is- Oh…MoMA. I miss you. About as much as I miss your “old” building.

Standing “Figure” in Wire, 1928. Unprecedented. Astounding.

“Sylvette,” 1954. “I see you slightly folded…in steel, my dear.” Picasso must have said.

“America Is Hard To See” (Whitney Museum)- I’m saving my thoughts on the “New Whitney” Building, but the opening show in the new place was a wonderful “Welcome Back” to one of the first 3 of NYC”s Big Four Museums and a reminder of it’s world class (and first anywhere) collection of American Art. My personal highlight? The first floor gallery featuring a selection of Hopper Drawings done at the Whitney Studio which predated the Museum, and the absolutely mesmerizing portrait of Museum founder, the indomitable Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney (also an overlooked sculptor) that looked out at Gansevoort Street, and for my money? SHOULD HAVE BEEN LEFT RIGHT THERE- PERMANENTLY! It wasn’t.

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Frozen in time. Mrs Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney looks out on the new home of the collection she started.

Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by Robert Henri, 1917, with her “Study for the Head of her Titanic Memorial” from 1922, right. Yes. She was a sculptor, too.

Before the First Whitney Museum opened in 1931, there was the Whitney Studio Club, where artists came to draw from the model. See that guy to the left of center rear with the light shining on his bald head? That’s Edward Hopper, a regular. That’s why his estate was left to The Whitney. Litho by Mabel Dwight, 1931.

America is hard to change. Excellent, rarely seen, works by Grant Wood, “Study for Breaking the Prairie” 1939,…

…And Kara Walker, “A Means To An End,” 1995, struck me as serendipitous.

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America: Seen everywhere. Inside- Rothko’s “Four Darks in Red, 1958, Pollock’s “Number 27,” 1950, Chamberlain “Jim,” 1962 & Guston’s “Dial,” 1956…

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…And, Outside- sculpture from one of the countless roof decks.

“And I’m still not trough I ask myself,
what would you do if you had more time
The Lord, in his kindness
He gives me what you always wanted
He gives me more time.”*

I end this section honoring two endlessly creative American “painters,” featured in very very good shows. Like Richard Estes, these two artists also put that “more” time of a long life to superb use. Yes, despite evidence to the contrary, they both consider themselves to be painters. To me, the “lessons” of their lives, how they were able to survive following their star in this country for so long, may prove to be as important as their considerable artistic legacies.

Robert Rauschenberg- Anagrams, Arcadian Retreats, Anagrams:A Pun” (Pace 534 West 25th, Chelsea)- Presaging Photoshop, the late, great Mr. Rauchenberg continues to speak to our times though he, unfortunately, left us almost 7 years ago. Light years ahead of his times, throughout his life, “Anagrams…,” a show of Mr. Rauschenberg’s final development, shows that once again, his work will look “contemporary” for years to come, and more amazingly, I think it will be as relevant as what anyone else is doing at the moment! As I just said, he represents something of an American miracle- an artist who was able to spend virtually his entire life creating EXACTLY what he wanted to, answering to no one but himself. That sure must seem miraculous to today’s American artists. Interestingly, like Mr. Estes, the works here are based on Mr. Rauschenberg’s own photography, to very different results. Unlike Mr. Estes, Mr. Rauschenberg’s are directly transferred to the piece, though with such skill and subtlety they have the effect of melting into the others they’re surrounded by. A surprisingly fresh, visually rich, often beautiful show who’s spell will call me a few more times before it ends on January 16. And then, I will miss it, but it will have changed the way I see the world, like Richard Estes has.

Rauschenberg @ PACE. I just loved this show.

“Frank Stella” (Whitney)- An art mover’s nightmare of a show, the Artist’s helpful hand notated directional markings seen on some of the pieces notwithstanding, it must have been hard for Mr Stella, himself, to narrow his 50-some year career down to one floor at the New Whitney, handsomely displayed in the still-new space. With only one Moby Dick piece in sight, the take away for me is that here is a Triumphant overview of another rare American artist who continues to explore and evolve, fickle times and the “harpoons” of even more fickle critics & collectors be damned. Mr. Stella has devoted his career to the eternal pursuit of finding new possibilities, “new spacial complexities” 2, for the Art Form of painting. Some of these sure look like sculpture, but I’ll bow to what he says on one of the show’s signs- “Q- You still call these paintings? A- Yes. They are, in fact, paintings.” Remarkably, as he closes in on 80 this May 12, Mr. Stella continues to “start over,” as Richard Meier says on the audio guide, eternally following his muse, breaking painting out of 2 dimensions, to lord-only-knows-where-next. In this show’s case? The Journey IS The Destination. Mr. Stella strikes me as a master conceptualist with an endless font of making the unlikely, and especially the unthought-of, real. Forget this show’s afterthought of a catalog, for me, his value, “message” and influence lie in the sheer physical experience of his work- they simply must be seen, and often, walked around like sculpture to be fully appreciated. Who else “paints” like this? If you go, and you should, check out the great quotes from Mr. Stella on the wall signage- “What you see is what you see.” And then some. What I saw was a show to fire your creativity, and inspire you to see new possibilities in anything, if there ever was one. You still have a few days left to see it before it closes after February 7. Then, the art movers get to pack it up and move it out. I would pay to watch that.

50+ years of “starting over.”

“Toto, We’re Not On Canvas, Anymore.” Stella Busts Painting Out.

“Um..A Little Higher On The Right?”

And lest I forget…

 

 

Cubism (The Met No photos permitted.)- TM is on a mission to shore up it’s Modern & Contemporary Art holdings, as we will soon see at The Met, Breuer, but this show featuring works of a promised gift goes a very long way to solidifying TM’s Cubists holdings, and then some. So many strong works by the Masters of Cubism, Picasso, Braque, the underrated Juan Gris, and Leger abound, they made me wonder where TM is going to install them all when they finally get them!

Madame Cezanne (TM No photos permitted.)- Portraits are not the first thing most think of when they think of Cezanne. Many think of his groundbreaking landscapes and genius with color, but this show of his, no doubt long-suffering wife, says as much about this under known muse as it does about Cezanne. The hours she spent posing for him reminds me of “The Man in The Blue Shirt,” by Martin Gayford about sitting for Lucian Freud. The show is a striking look at another side of this master of impressionism, and gives us rare opportunities to see 4 versions of a painting reunited, and Cezanne’s actual sketchbooks. A rare treat for the lover of Impressionism, portraiture and great Art.

China Through The Looking Glass” (TM)- Except for Picasso: Sculpture and Goya’s Los Caprichos, the above shows are painting shows, my true love, but CTTLG is in a category all it’s own. ANY show that can get TM to stay open till Midnight has to make the Nighthawk’s list. After setting the bar high with “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” TM’s Costume Institute topped themselves with a spectacle that the 800,000 who saw it will remember almost as long, and which will prove quite a challenge for 2016’s “manus x machina,” or MxM, as I’m calling it to equal, let alone top. I predicted 1 Million will attend it, so GO EARLY (or don’t say I didn’t warn you) & Stay tuned!

“Francis Bacon- Late Paintings” – (Gagosian No photos permitted.) – with one work, a triptych selling for 142 million, I can’t fathom how much 28 are worth, but here was a chance to see that many in one show, focused on the seemingly contemplative, other-worldly “late” Bacon,

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especially after seeing the following (Rembrandt show) on the same day, which brought to mind subtle, fascinating convergences- self-portraits, multiple views, or states, for Rembrandt, diptychs & triptychs for Bacon, among them.

“Rembrandt’s Changing Impressions” (Columbia U.)- In lieu of the “big one” I missed (see below), this was a closer-to-home chance to see 50 or so prints by the Master and a rare chance to see various “states” (versions) of works side by side. A bit light on the most well known of Rembrandt’s etchings, but very worth 4 visits none the less.

Not a triptych. Rembrandt creates 3 masterpieces from one composition.

Chuck Close Recent Paintings” (Pace 534, Chelsea)- I met Mr. Close, briefly, but in spite of the fact that he is one of the greatest portraitists of the 2nd half of the 20th Century+, I know he won’t remember my face. He has Prosopagnosia. He’s ALSO paralyzed and in a wheel chair. I never cease to be absolutely astounded at what he achieves and what new ground he breaks. Already a Master before his brain aneurysm, which would have stopped 99.5% of anyone not named Chuck Close, he’s gone on to create ever new works that continue his life long exploration of his famous “grid technique.” These works add even new elements- new palettes, a new approach to focus and depth of field, and more.

Linda & Mary McCartney “(Gagosian Books)- If they had taken down all the title cards, removed the iconic shots among Linda’s, and you walked in without knowing which work was by who- Linda McCartney, or her and Paul’s daughter, Mary, you’d never know. That’s how amazingly symbiotic the eyes of the two photographers are. They see as one. Walking out, and I say this with nothing but respect, it really felt like Linda had never passed away. That her work continues. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

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The daughter reflects well on her famous mother.

 

George Caleb Bingham” (TM)- The year’s “sleeper” pick. I don’t know if he ever met Mark Twain, but if Mr. T. ever wanted an artist to illustrate “Huck” or “Tom Sawyer?” G.C.B. would get my vote. His work captured what it was to live on the River the way only Twain, himself, has, and makes a contribution to laying the ground work towards defining a truly “American” style of painting, and by the Mid-Nineteenth Century? It was about time! TM’s show reveals him to be something of a predecessor for that other great American 19th C. portraitist, Thomas Eakins, but with a style and a power of his own that still holds up.

“Araki” (Anton Kern, NYC)- He lost his wife…he gets prostate cancer…he says he no longer has sex…Nothing stops the indefatigable, legendary Araki. Don’t let the “casual” taping of the photos to the wall fool you- I found this show striking, poignant, meditative and moving. The images flowed one to the next, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in dissonance, but all of them speak with that sense that only Araki has. Some will say he’s a misogynist. I’m not a woman but I disagree. I see beauty and poetry in his shots of women. Reading some of the press materials on hand, I was struck by his comment that he had sex with most of his models. I couldn’t help wonder- Does that include Bjork? Live long, and much health, Araki.

 

Also lingering in my mind, tormenting me with what I missed, are the ones that got away-

“Late Rembrandt” (Rikjsmuseum, Amsterdam)- I agonized about going. For months. Like I agonize about Frank Gehry at LACMA right now! (Hello, Sponsorship?)

Bjork” (Moma)- Sold out when I went. Bad reviews be damned, I love Bjork.

Overall, it was a good, but not great year. Still, these 17 shows had real staying power and lasting influence. I’m grateful that in NYC, we still have so much to see. As I said a few posts back, I live in mortal fear of missing a great show- Like all those I missed this year because I never knew about them, and still don’t.

As I look back on 2015, the Idea of great Art is what lingers in the mind, inspires, even instructs. The experience, talent and creativity of a great Artist speaks to the highest & best of mankind, in ways the rest of us can, perhaps, relate to, learn from, and even aspire to. As Mr. Pousette-Dart cosmically said-

 

In these times of so much senseless hatred, violence and the worst of human kind on display, we need this more than ever.

*Soundtrack for this post is “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells  Your Story?” from the 2015 album I listened to the most, “Hamilton– Original Broadway Cast Recording,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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. Remember- Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock, Fellini, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick, among others, never won an Oscar for Best Director! I rest my case.
  2. as is said on the audio tour, #508

“Robert Rauschenberg: Anagrams (A Pun)” But No Joke

11 days after being here for the final day of the “Chuck Close: Recent Works,” I returned to Pace’s 534 West 25th Street Gallery to see “Robert Rauschenberg: Anagrams, Arcadian Retreats, Anagrams (A Pun),” on view until January 16, 2016. Up a few steps to the back office area where the show continues, a short video of Rauschenberg at work in on view. As the camera looks down from slightly above, I noticed that surrounding him all over his studio were numerous works consisting of seemingly chaotic collages of images. I couldn’t help wondering about the effect on a visitor’s brain of spending 8 hours in that studio, and what it would  feel like to then walk outside. I wondered what they said about the images playing inside of Rauschenberg’s mind all the time. Day in. Day out, for the 82 years he lived. It might be why there’s so much to see in even one of his works. This new show makes clear that it may be a long time yet until everything that brain, and he, created in his professional life from the 1950’s until he passed in 2008 is seen, fully appreciated and assimilated.

These works are dated 1996 and 97. Visually, his work presaged the visual chaos of the internet age, and the graphic print style of David Carson and others. Seen in 2015 it fits right in with the everyday chaos of NYC, both on the physical level, where pedestrians have to face a never ending life, death or injury battle with bikes, cars, buses, trucks and lord knows whatever else, simply to get from point A to point B, while being bombarded with every square inch plastered with ads, images or graffiti on the visual level.

The modern world makes me try to make sense out of it’s visual chaos- like Rauschenberg did so masterfully.

Visual chaos, 2015. Without the “Art.” By the way? Times Square was better before

“Anagrams, Arcadian Retreats, Anagrams (A Pun)” is a bit different from any Rauschenberg show I’ve yet seen. It’s concise yet catholic, coherent and sharply focused on these three series of works, which share working methods, making it very hard to tell which work is from which series. As such, it’s a rare opportunity to see a selection of late works. Pace’s release states the images are from Rauschenberg’s own photos, which continues a trend in recent shows of artists using, or basing their work on their own photographs (Richard Estes, Chuck Close). Rauschenberg appears to have been at the forefront of image manipulation, made possible by software like Photoshop, while adding “painterly elements.” Regarding exactly what these pieces are and how they were made, Pace’s press release says- to create these works, “he developed and perfected a powerful new technique combing dye transfer with novel supports including plaster, large-scale paper and polylaminate panels…The process produced an aqueous and fluid appearance, blurring the crisp edges of his photographs…The inkjet dye process also liberated Rauschenberg from the mechanical production of printing screens, allowing him to produce sheets exclusively from his own photography on an in-studio printer. In addition to a more painterly effect, these works reflect a more nimble and freer approach to image-making than earlier works which were bound by the limitations of the mechanical process.”

 

It’s tempting to “read into” the resulting images, some of which are repeated verbatim in other works, and take them as a visual language, to be deciphered for “messages,” even hidden meanings. That will take a lot of looking to compile. Though “Anagram” is a word about words, I don’t think I’ll be taking it that literally. I prefer to let the images speak, and this show is an orgy for the eye.

The works range from very large to large and a few of medium size. Two, including the largest, (one, I felt to be the most impactful piece in the show), are owned by the Whitney. Most of the others are not titled, detailed or described. Many feature images from different cultures around the world from the Sphinx and the Pyramids to traditional costumes, apparently from trips he had taken shortly before, which are juxtaposed with images from the western world, like construction equipment, firefighters, store fronts, junked cars, bicycles and soda bottles. Despite being combined, layered, even processed, the results don’t look like images produced in Photoshop. They look more like paintings, which I find somewhat remarkable, probably because I am so used to seeing Photoshopped Photographs. While he anticipated digital image processing and manipulation in works gong back to the late 1950’s, he continued doing things entirely his own way, and only selectively using technology when it suited his aims.

I previously saw some works from these series in the 1977 Guggenheim Rauschenberg Retrospective, but these were new to me. Seeing only works from these series brought home how wonderful they are. They’re different from what he had done earlier in his career, yet they have that undeniable “Rauschenberg” feel. In spite of being Photo based, they retain a “painterly” look, which I think is remarkable, and one of the things that sets his work apart from all those doing these types of works today. For me, Rauschenberg is kind of an American Picasso of the 2nd half of the 20th Century- his creativity and inventiveness knew no bounds. Like Picasso, he never stopped innovating and trying new things and techniques. Even 7 years after his passing, we continue to discover new facets of this work, which seems as fresh and contemporary as anything else around today. That will, no doubt, continue at the first full scale retrospective of his work since the Guggenheim’s 1997 blockbuster to be held next year at the Tate Modern, London.

These are wonderful works that reward repeated looks from a period of the Artist’s career that strikes me as being under appreciated. They seem so of the moment, it’s hard to think they’re going on 20 years old. In that sense, like their creator, they are ahead of their time, even now. I’m continuing to try and get the modern world to look like a Rauschenberg to me, to make that kind of sense, possibly even find the “Art” in it…that is when I’m not dodging bikes, cars, and the rest to actually feel safe enough in it to look around. That danger is what’s missing in these Rauschenbergs. Probably because he seems to be focused on the bigger picture, the dangers of the modern world to ancient cultures and ancient creatures. Including man.

On a bigger scale, like that bike I don’t see coming the wrong way on a one way street, the modern world is obliterating all that came before.

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*-Soundtrack for this post is “Crosstown Traffic,” by Jimi Hendrix.

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