Monday, December 29, 2014

Richard Hunt at the Chicago Cultural Center

Richard Hunt has had two careers. Immediately upon graduating the School of the Art Institute in 1957, he embarked on a career as a gallery artist that culminated at the age of 36 in an unprecedented retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Thereafter, he became the most prolific public sculptor in America, with over 160 commissions over the last 45 years. Over that time, the Artworld has grown ever more elite, confrontational, and distant from the world of public art, making Hunt’s upbeat, acrobatic, aspirational  expressions more suitable for a street corner than a gallery of contemporary art. But his non-public work, as revealed in this exhibit, has not lost a beat, even as he enters his eighth decade. In work that has now become more triumphant than defiant, his virtuosity remains stunning. Has anyone else ever drawn space with welded steel as apparently effortlessly and spontaneously as ink might be brushed on paper? He appears to have an endless appetite for balance, tension, and ever-erupting energy. In contrast to the strategies of conceptual art, there appears to be  one obvious explanation for his production: his virtuosic ability to do it. It’s work that is quite independent of his reputation, as it would likely stand out in any un-attributed collection of welded metal objects.

But it’s also work that thrills more than  satisfies. He has dedicated his career to the flame-like intensity that he picked up from one of his teachers at the Art Institute, Egon Weiner. But unlike Weiner, and Weiner’s generation of figure sculptors, mass, weight, character, history, and narrative have not been his concerns. His abstract pieces still feel figurative, like dancers balanced on one toe with both arms in the air.   But they don’t feel like members of an historic, human community. They’re more like daemons or spirits that belong in some other realm. In this, he stands apart from the primary concern of so much African American art that preceded him (Charles White) and followed (Kerry James Marshall).  And though public works sometimes enhances their sites, his pieces may appear to emerge in spite of them. (or - at least that's my response to the piece installed at the northwest corner of the Cultural Center)

As an artist, just like each of his pieces, he stands wonderfully and triumphantly alone.

(Matt Morris's politically more correct panegyric  is published here )

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Joe Steiner at ARC


Joe Steiner at ARC Gallery, through June 21

The painter, Joe Steiner,  has been his own  favorite subject for the past 50 years,  though he has addressed his personal image with more curiosity  than satisfaction.   “Who is that man in the mirror?” he always seems to ask.   Answers have ranged from “cute young dude” (age 25) to “wizened old  sage” (age 75).  Humor and bewilderment characterize the  intervening years, and he’s more than a little chagrined by the aging of his sagging body.


His work is less about the expressive possibilities of painting. But though he’s self taught, he has become much more adept than those who are limited by the photographs that  they copy.  He paints spatial relationships as they appear from a single point-of-view,  so his paintings  naturally display a one-point perspective.   This  can be rather dramatic when painting his standing body as reflected from a  mirror  high up on the wall. He also looks at 20th C. art, so he enjoys a sense of expressive freedom.


His earliest efforts, though a bit  awkward, still could be quite expressive.  A dual portrait, standing in profile behind  his father, reveals what must have been a difficult transition to independent adulthood.  Like humorous cartoons, the expressive human figure is the focus of each and every painting.  The eye is not encouraged to linger and enjoy colors or forms,  nor is  the mind encouraged to linger over puzzling ideas, other than his biography.  Each painting just tells us “I am what I am”, with no hint of where he would like to  go or what's happened to him,  and no sense of transcendence into a larger scheme of things.

And yet – over the past 50 years, his painting has consistently gotten better, with progressively greater control over space,  more energy in the design, and a greater sense of mystery.  His latest self portrait doesn’t even seem to be about him so much any more. He now is making the best paintings of his life.

This is a man who  knows how to age well.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rebecca Gray Smith at Bert Green Fine Art, through June 21

In 1391,  Gaston Phoebus, the brilliant , warlike Count of Foix,  was hunting in the hills of  his mountainous domain,   when he stopped for lunch and dropped dead as a servant  washed his hands.  That was death in the pre-modern era: universal and often inexplicably, unpredictably  sudden.  In the following centuries, that became the theme of danse macabre – those quaint depictions of grimacing Death rudely interrupting medieval life, from peasant’s hovel to prince’s palace.. Over the past 20 years, printmaker Rebecca Gray Smith, impacted by the Aids epidemic,  has updated that theme to contemporary life.  Death is still a malicious joker, but sometimes it is preventable, and that is the message that Smith presents in her alphabet of morbidity: G is for guns, N is for Narcotics, E is for education (about Aids)  etc.  But while she’s free associating,  there are other kinds of  issues she would like raise: H is for Harlots and Hookers, P is for Petroleum , and B is for Banks, Bailouts, and Baseball.   Baseball ?  --   what’s wrong with Baseball ?  Is she a Cubs fan ?  And what’s wrong with “L” (Law)  or “T”(time) If everything is already in the grasp of Death’s bony hand, why be concerned about anything at all?   So though this project  bears some resemblance to the passionate, skull-filled  social satires of the great Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada  (1852-1913),  it’s theme  is more universal – and more despairing.  “C” is for Crucifixion, but “R” is definitely not for Resurrection.   The universe is a big cruel joke at our expense – all presented in the grim,  gray light of a netherworld.  It’s as if the artist never recovered from the demise of  her youthful idealism.  But at least, some images are funny – like the violins serenading the exit of the poor dunce who’s just lost her job in “F” (Fired).  And  there’s plenty of life in the variety of Smith’s compositions.  If one thing refuses to die, it’s the Classical traditions of perspective, anatomy, and  design that this artist employs almost well enough to give  a convincing reason to live.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool at the Art Institute of Chicago,
 through May 11

Deep-pocket collectors of contemporary art like to be annoyed, puzzled, and intimidated.    And they have an appetite for nihilism – which must play, for them, like a kind of horror movie. Terrible things may be happening up on the screen, but they are safely ensconced in plush, comfy seats at the theater. Christopher Wool has been serving that market well for thirty years.

Art museum professionals must accommodate such collectors, but their tastes are likely to run wider and deeper. They have probably loved historical art their entire lives – which is why they chose that career in the first place. So they want to be pleased as well as puzzled, and prefer understatement, or even minimalism, to more aggressive kinds of contemporary art. The Art Institute of Chicago has run big shows for Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, and its directors have shown a special affection for Ellsworth Kelly. But no such attention has been paid to Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or Richard Prince.

Which might also explain the decorative and calligraphic “Gray Paintings” of Christopher Wool. They appeal to lovers of traditional art – which might even include the artist himself, and stand quite apart from the text paintings that deliver messages you don't want to read with typography you don't want to see.

They’re large enough to dominate the walls of Regenstein Hall – just like the Baroque tapestries that hung there two years ago – but  have the dramatic spontaneity of a single hand snaking bold but casual lines against a blurry background. An entire room full is a thrilling and refreshing oasis from the rest of the large retrospective. The Jasper Johns “Gray” show, in 2008, never looked this good.

Unfortunately, it only took about two years, 2007 – 2008, for the artist to purge whatever lyricism afflicted him. Thereafter he returned to the  obliterations, blotches, and frustrated scrawls  that are just as annoying as his text paintings.

It makes you wonder what he might done had the contemporary art market not valued  pleasure so much  less than pain.

(note:  I really like this review that New City printed )

Ed Clark

Silver Screen, 1956

Ed Clark at the Art Institute, through March 9

Ed Clark is an African American artist, but he’s not primarily about African American identity. He’s an Abstract-Expressionist, but he’s not primarily about angst, creativity, mental processing, or other kinds of self exploration. So he doesn’t really fit into the world of contemporary art. He’s more of an early Modernist like Kandinsky – or even earlier – like JMW Turner, in connecting himself to the powerful forces of nature. But unlike Turner, Clark’s forces are more tectonic than atmospheric.

This current show only consists of three paintings, all done in the 1950’s. But it’s enough to demonstrate the artist’s willingness to go wherever the forces take him – in one case erupting beyond the rectangular edges of the panel, establishing him as one of the pioneers of shaped-canvas painting. But in that piece, as in the other two, he seemed far more interested in the forces from within than in the shape from without. In all three, he seems to have consistently asked himself “how can I crank up this energy just a little bit more”

These are paintings that could be altarpieces in some kind of post-religious church that celebrates big-bangs or the other cosmic events that left our universe in its wake. Because not only are Clark’s forces powerful, but strong and clear colors emerge from their dark and violent interaction. The results are beautiful, full of hope and promise.

The current show coincides with his receipt of the Art Institute’s “Legends and Legacy Award” an honor recognizing living African American artists.. Some day, hopefully, a full retrospective of Clark’s 60 year career will acknowledge that his achievements have a much broader scope.

Untitled, 1957

Untitled, 1953

Silver Screen, detail


postscript: I wasn't the only one to love this show!

Here's what Barry Schwabsky had to say in the Nation:

"For me, though, the great revelation was at the Tilton Gallery, where the artist David Hammons curated “Ed Clark: Big Bang,” an aptly titled dose of explosive energy from a remarkable second-generation Abstract Expressionist born in 1926. Until recently, Clark has been almost criminally overlooked—
including by me, I must admit. When I was first gobsmacked by one of his paintings, at the uneven “Blues for Smoke” exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year, this African-American artist was just a vague name to me. Now, suddenly, with the Art Institute of Chicago having recently devoted a little room to three of his works from the 1950s, and the Tilton exhibition of eight of his paintings from 2001 through 2012 alongside one from 1959, Clark can no longer be sidelined. He is, simply, one of the best living painters.

Like his contemporaries Norman Bluhm, Al Held and Alfred Leslie, Clark developed his painterly gesture on a grand scale. No mere brush seems big enough for him—
photographs show him pushing paint around with a broom—but the results are not empty bluster. Clark revels in the subtlest interplay of will and accident, painting wet-into-wet to coax suave modulations of color out of the bluntest, even seemingly most slapdash concatenations of matter. (He appears to take particular pleasure in transforming blue into brown.) It’s almost indecently voluptuous, and yet rigorously structured. Paint as a literal, physical presence and as a trace of the artist’s mental and physical activity becomes inseparable from the evocation of the glory of light."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung at Corbett Vs. Dempsey

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung casts a wide net, a net which is itself depicted in this show, capturing a blurry, bright-green butterfly. She draws intermittently from an entire art school’s curricula of techniques, theories, and art history, but especially from the anarchic, experimental sexuality of its student body. Some of these paintings build intensity by meticulously measuring space with small, evenly spaced marks - others release it with an orgasmic splash and drip – and yet others seem to be the moist, relaxed, chromatically fading afterglow. It all feels so erotic – even her collage with an upside down 1856 American flag - firmly flapping away even as its colors seep into the cloth beneath. There are unexpected, spontaneous qualities in every piece, and that’s why her shows are so exciting, but also a bit disappointing. Her work is about discovery, not resolution

And MZH is a context builder. For her 2012 show at the MCA, her paintings were accompanied by a wall papered with faux-serious “95 Theses of Art Theory”. This time, the only verbiage is found on the covers of the exhibition catalog: nonsensical or naughty variations on the name of the show and artist. Instead of an essay, the catalog shows her photographs of studio clutter and whatever else she might find fascinating. Quirky, raw personality, rather than critical ideas or ideals, has unapologetically taken center stage.

Cora Cohen, "Little  Nomad 5", 2013

 But above all, she has accompanied her current show with “Sensitive Instruments” , a nine-women group show that she curated herself. Most of the pieces share her abstract-feminist-queer-expressive genre. But not all. Jennifer Packer, currently artist-in-residence at Harlem’s Studio Museum, is an observational realist of African American life, while another distinguished New York artist, Cora Cohen, is more of an heroic, old-school abstract expressionist. Diverse in age, location, and ethnicity, all that these nine chosen artists have in common is that they’re American women pursuing careers in contemporary art, demonstrating that social networking is yet one more net that can be thrown.

Dana DeGiulio, untitled, 2013

 Nothing in either show feels as permanent, profound, and timeless as iconic art from historic patriarchies. With a few exceptions, self expression stands above any conceptual, aesthetic, or narrative concerns. But many of the pieces are attention grabbing, and the contrasts between them are fascinating, with the geo-form, white-on-white understatement of Dierdre O’Dwyer hung between the over-the-top chaotic sensuality of Suzanne Doremus and a blurry but still succulent female torso by Dana DeGiulio.

 These girls just like to have fun!