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!