Saturday, December 17, 2016

Norman Lewis at Chicago Cultural Center

March on Washington, 1965

Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis at the Chicago Cultural Center


Like many American artists of his generation, Norman Lewis (1909-1979) began with social realism in the 1930’s and switched to Abstract Expression after the war. As the artist once wrote  “the development of one’s aesthetic  abilities suffers by an emphasis on social conflict – the content of creative painting develops automatically with the choice of forms and colors, for the combination of composition and color is the content.. “ Yet this retrospective serves best as a chronicle of social conflict.   “Police Beating” (1943) is the most compelling image in the show,  and not just because the subject is as relevant as ever.  Taking an aerial view, as he would throughout his career,  Lewis presents a fallen black man beaten bloody by a white cop while another white man grins and a third stops to take a look.  It ironically meshes horrific subject matter with the pleasant color graphics of a Sunday newspaper’s comic strip.


Apparently it was Post-war Jazz that inspired Lewis to work with  Abstract Expression.   Be-Bop was the most dynamic eruption of  spontaneous  improvisation America had ever seen, and it was born in Lewis’s African American community of  New York.  Obviously Lewis identified with the musicians who stood up on stage and blew with all the pent up emotion they could muster. His paintings share the intensity of  great jazz solos,  but his compositions are not especially melodic,  pursuing   diversity of mark making more than unity of design.  They are not appealing, but once you enter them, the possibility for exploration among the details seems endless.



Among other painters of the period, Lewis drew closer to the delicate ambivalence of Wolfgang Paalen than the heroic display of Gorky or DeKooning.  Paalen had introduced a technique of fumage (candle smoke ) to create the kind of blurry,  nebulous form that Lewis would use in contrast to the  sharp edges and calligraphic marks that straddle the threshold of recognizability.   As suggested by the title of one of his pieces from 1948, “Rhododendrons in Winter”, many of his pieces  from that time depict a kind of somber, resilient faith and melancholy defiance.


But his spirit was raised, in both anger and hope, as he entered the 1960’s and the quickening of the Civil Rights Movement.  The strongest piece from this period is “American Totem” of 1960.  It’s title recalls a famous essay by Paalen (“Totem Art”, 1943) while its white on black image resembles the hooded garb of the Klu Klux Klan.  As history progressed, Lewis’s field of expressive marks began to resemble crowds and processions of people on the march. Eventually his gatherings were clearly celebratory, as in “New World Acoming” (1971) and “Aurora Borealis” (1976)


Outside the context of African American history, the paintings of Norman Lewis are well made, but not exceptional.  His talents lay more with calligraphy. As he once wrote: “The whole thing in a sense became calligraphy, which made me pay more attention to Chinese Art--- everybody going someplace and nobody getting anywhere”  That’s a good description of any art practice that focuses on discrete elements of detail.  Lewis’s details are comparable to the Chinese characters of the great 11th Century calligrapher, Su Shi.  And his work is all the more remarkable for having originated from his own life rather than a tradition that was already a thousand years old. 

Police Beating, 1943

Jazz Musicians, 1947

Too Much Aspiration, 1947

Rhododendrons in Winter, 1948

American Totem, 1960

Aurora Borealis, 1976

Aurora Borealis (detail)


Su Shi, "Cold Food Observance" (detail), (1084-1086)


Regarding other reviews of this show:

Stan Mir reviewed the Norman Lewis exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for Hyperallergic.  He questions why Lewis has never been included in surveys of Abstract  Expressionism, even though he was friends with Ad Reinhardt and was photographed with some of the other players.  Apparently he has not noticed that Lewis' paintings look very different. Not every abstract and expressive painting made in  that time and place belongs to the New York  school.

Stephen F. Eisenman reviewed the Chicago Cultural Center show for New City.   He has picked up the melancholy mood of Lewis' work  from the forties but apparently missed the celebratory works from the 1960's and 1970's.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Shai Azoulay at Zolla Lieberman

Shai Azoulay, "Rhombus", 2016

Despite the title of this exhibit, “Pupil”, the artist, Shai Azoulay, is already a master of line and color.  At a distance,  you see stick figures;  moving up close, there appears the delicate expression of figurative structure and gesture.  Sometimes his color is so remarkable, it’s difficult to think about anything else.   He arranges clear, strong hues to maximize the effect of each .

 The narratives are puzzling in the way that cartoons in the New Yorker can be.  Design makes the ambiance whimsical and sophisticated, while meaning can be elusive.   A few pieces feel like puzzling fables from the Arabian nights. One is set in a Middle Eastern souk. Often he presents a solitary figure in a vast desert.  That sense of isolation and child-like wonder recalls that classic of children’s literature, “The Little Prince” by Saint-ExupĂ©ry. Like its solitary hero, the artist is still exploring  the world beginning with himself.  He often includes what appear to be self portraits with a gentle, bearded face.   That face is the focus of attention in “Bus #69”, where a circle of people, young and old, are interconnected by glowing lines of thick, orange paint.  Are they his parents, friends and family?  In “Mingling”, that same face, now disembodied, is one of many mask-like heads on strings that comprise a Middle Eastern beaded curtain.  They must be the people who live and work in his neighborhood.


No sacred meta-narrative connects the depicted community, as it does on the facades of medieval cathedrals. There is a furtive quality in his painting of precious, small figures set against a thinly brushed void. It suggests that just as everything has quickly come together in a charming way – it may also vanish just as suddenly.  You might call it a nostalgia for the present.   Those who follow current events can guess why an Israeli artist might feel that way. He spells it out in “Study 2016”.  Two men face each other on a tight rope above an abyss.  Each carries a long pole for balance .  Or is it a weapon?  Neither is likely to reach the other side.


David Leggett at Gallery 400

David Leggett, "I Feel Threatened", 2016
Several streams of American visual culture flow together in David Leggett’s recent work. As with abstract painting, careful attention has been given to how color, line, and texture interact on a flat surface. Subtlety, however, takes a back seat to attention grabbing sentiment, just as in mass marketed toys.  The artist’s own collection of Walmart tchotchkes accompanies the exhibit, as does a pointy nosed portrait by Jim Nutt. Leggett has professed admiration for Chicago’s  cartoonish provocateurs from the sixties.  He also admires the hard hitting racial agitprop of Kara Walker. Her nightmarish drawing, “the N Word”, also accompanies his exhibit. 


Mostly, Leggett’s art recalls topical stand-up comedy, like that of Richard Pryor, one of whose album covers is also on display.  Each piece is a joke – not the kind that makes you laugh out loud, but the kind that rattles around in the brain until it draws an inner smile of recognition – or not.   It makes sense to accompany text like “All lives Matter” with the image of a dopey white kid standing beside a smiling purple gum drop.  But why accompany “HELLO HATER” with an image of Elvis Presley?  Who is the hater?   Elvis, or those who need no evidence to accuse a Southern white rock-n-roller of racism? 


Despite the themes of social justice, Leggett is mostly looking inward, showing us how those themes flicker on his screen of self awareness .  A disembodied self-portrait floats throughout the exhibition, from one painting to another.  Sometimes a Polaroid selfie, usually it’s a strongly drawn cartoon of himself as a strong but gentle, wise but innocent, man-child.


Consistent with challenging hierarchies of taste and power, the artist does not appear to have set standards for what he will show.  One piece, “WASH YA ASS”, is more appropriate for a grade school washroom than an art gallery. Other pieces should to be considered for any group show of strong young painters who explore coming of age in America.  Overall, the show is more about the person than his painting. He’s an enjoyable person to meet.


Here is a review of his next show at Shane Campbell.  Though the show opened only four months later, it does not include the same pieces.  Perhaps this new work is less self centered and more mature.  Or perhaps the critic just chose to write more of a promotional fluff piece - which is the only kind of art criticism that New City will publish when social justice is the issue. 


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Reality Check at U.I.M.A.

The text  that follows was published here on the New City website . The editor chose to radically contradict it with a headline that read "Artists Hold On to Modernism in a Fractured World". I appreciate his ideological commitments and feisty sense of humor, but for the sake of clarity, would like to replace it with:

Artists Abandon Modernism in a Fractured World

What do Ukrainian artists do when liberated from Soviet oppression and freed to connect to Ukrainian history as well as international contemporary art? Artists associated with the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art have been addressing this query for more than four decades. Although often referencing ethnic and religious traditions, they have proclaimed the individual freedom and high spirits of a secular new world—they have held fast to Modernism.

The current exhibition, “Reality Check: Directions in Contemporary Art since Ukrainian Independence,” also involves artists who live far from Eastern Europe. But having recently checked “reality,” they decided that a brave new world isn’t so credible any more. Yulia Pinkusevich, a California artist with both Russian and Ukrainian parents, has created a massive image of destruction and conflagration. Its wall-size cinematic fury recalls the twenty-five-feet Kamakura scroll “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace.” It stands alone as a powerful painting, but to invoke “the aesthetics of protest,” it was stretched directly on the wall and connected by cables to sandbags stacked in the corner. Natalka Husar, an American-born Canadian, has applied a cold, flat style of newspaper photojournalism to illustrate the covers of a proposed series of noir pulp-fiction about those who “behave like Russians. They represent an urban nightmare of gangsters, glaring lights and dead-end lives.” Raymond Chandler would feel right at home in these paintings.

Explanatory signage accompanies both of the above, though it’s not really needed. The work eloquently presents dystopia all by itself. Explanations are, however, required for the rest of the show. Visuality has taken a backseat to concept, even when that concept is to “celebrate the balance and harmony found in nature.” Anna Bogatin’s geo-forms may be repetitive and tedious enough to participate in contemporary abstract discourse, but they lack the formal tension to evoke what she calls “beauty’s ability to evoke happiness.”

Other works may be of interest only to those engaged in contemporary art theory, as formal power is never allowed to distract the viewer from epistemological investigation. Ukrainian-American artists are apparently losing their visual idealism, just as the young Ukrainian state stands at the brink of dismemberment. (Chris Miller)

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Theaster Gates at Richard Gray

A Review of Theaster Gates at Richard Gray

Theaster Gates has cut a path somewhere between the West African traditions that his work resembles and the European Modernists who also drew from that tradition. His sculpture does not offer the ethereal transcendence of African pieces like the Great Bieri at the Met, but it does address the spiritual life of his community. It does not offer the formal power of the early Modern masters, but every piece is strong. He is not ambivalent about space; he seizes and manipulates it. Like European artists of the past two centuries, his work does not serve a social, transformational, or religious function. It has been directed toward sophisticated collectors of contemporary art in a two-year project in collaboration with this upscale gallery. Every piece has been carefully mounted on a well-chosen plinth of wood or stone.

  Despite that beautiful presentation, the show offers a bleak view of contemporary Black America. At its most hopeful, there are youthful, though disembodied, heads. Facial scarification expresses wide-eyed curiosity. At its most discouraging, there are the oppressive qualities of roof tar and chains. One slouching figure, his waist pulled down to his knees, has been wrapped in a dark fabric shroud and buried in mud that still clings to it. It is a sharp portrayal of lost identity similar to that expressed by several Afro-Cuban artists in a current show at the DuSable Museum.

Between those extremes, subtle differences in facial expressions offer a variety of neighborhood folk like the menacing old codger or the many-faced woman. There is also a kind of stiff, androgynous full figure that’s about to awkwardly fall off its 19th-century pedestal, and emerges again, nearby, in cookie-cutter multiples from a thick chunk of clay. What we don’t see are representations of brilliant, joyful, or balanced individuals. Theaster Gates’ figures will never walk the vibrant city streets of Romare Bearden or dance in the nightclubs of Archibald Motley. They cannot rise above their circumstances. Descendant rather than transcendent, the installation sinks beneath the present into the horrible depths of the past. There are no success stories here, other than the project’s highly inventive aestheticization of failure. (Chris Miller)

Through November 20 at Richard Gray Gallery, 875 North Michigan


Though edited and approved, the above was pulled from publication.

No explanation was offered, but one might guess that something like "political correctness" was at play.

The exhibit, as well as my review,  involves the kind of racial politics that are so important in the contentious 2016  U.S. presidential campaign that ends next Tuesday.

The following line may have been judged too problematic:

"the installation sinks beneath the present into the horrible depths of the past."

Below, the editor and I discuss it:

Anyone who pays attention to the news would understand that the present is just as rife with objectifying violence against black bodies as there were in the "horrible depths of the past." To deny this is to be complicit in the prevailing racism of our time. 

Chris Miller:
I certainly agree that police need to be better vetted and trained - but I do not agree with an ideology that equates trigger-happy police with the institutionalized Jim Crow, lynching, and constitutionally established slavery of the past.

I subscribe to the idea that mass black incarceration, racially biased policing, and deeply entrenched social-economic disparity between black and white communities is effectively a new Jim Crow, complete with the legal protections and violence of the old ways.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Kerry James Marshall at the Museum of Contemporary Art

 “All my life I've been expected to acknowledge the power and beauty of pictures made by white artists that only have other white people in them; I think it's only reasonable to ask other people to do the same vis-a-vis paintings that only have black figures in them. […] My work is not an argument against anything; it is an argument for something else.
”.. Kerry James Marshall

Race is an open wound in American society.  Kerry James Marshall addresses it head on, and more often than not, the paintings in this thirty-five year retrospective achieve what the artist calls “existential authority”.  They command attention for how they look, not just for the issues that they raise.  His abstract, cut-paper collages from the early eighties are dynamic and engaging..  Concurrently, he was beginning to develop a figurative style. In one transformative piece from 1986, he painted both genres side-by-side, declaring the personal goal of moving beyond conventional abstract self-expression and defiantly asserting black identity with figurative art. Forecasting the direction he would take, the face was highly stylized and leering.  His subsequent success in large scale narrative figures in pictorial space over the next decade is especially remarkable considering that his techniques were self-taught.  The old masters of heroic European painting learned to compose with proportion, perspective, and anatomy from living masters, but Marshall had to study the past. He quotes a variety of historic painters,  not all of them figurative,  from Medieval icons to Cy Twombly.  The strong diagonals of his recent 38-foot mural may have come from Tintoretto. With a tireless work ethic, an endlessly inquisitive mind, and an enormous chip on his shoulder, in ten years he created  a fascinating and unique style of monumental narrative figure painting.

His projects are the most successful when they put a positive spin on the life and places he has personally known.  The failed dream of inner-city housing projects are an easy target for racial resentment – but Marshall paints them as places where lives, like his, could grow and eventually prosper. “Many Mansions” was the first Marshall painting that I ever saw,  twenty-five years ago, back when major museums, like the Art Institute, were beginning to acquire his work.  It delivers a strong sense of time, place, and hope for the future. It was the first contemporary ‘American Scene’ painting that the museum had acquired in over fifty years.   But anger and  resentment seethe throughout his entire career.  He straddles the boundaries between ideal and irony, sweetness and saccharine, homage and parody, strength and stiffness.  Some of his most charming images depict romantic couples. But when lovers remove their clothes, the artist draws and even labels them as monsters: “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”.  An articulate spokesman, the artist has raised the concern that “white figures in pictures representative of ideal beauty and humanity are ubiquitous.” But figuration has not been exclusively white in museum collections of 20th Century art, and what kind of alternative has Marshall offered?   Often his bodies feel as stiff as robots, conflating the slave race from the past with the mechanical slaves of the future.  It’s quite a contrast with the lyrical figuration of earlier African American masters like  Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Archibald Motley.  He rhetorically scourges the racist race at least as often as celebrating his own ethnicity, depicting Blacks as he imagines Whites see them. At the miserable extreme, he toys with memorializing the Caribbean servant who inexplicably slaughtered Frank Lloyd Wright’s family at Taliesin.

His contemporary figures live in the commercial world of Sunday newspaper supplements.  Their clothing is clean, starched, and colorful.  He may have designed it himself,  but it appears mass produced, and impersonal.  Other than those who resisted slavery, he does not depict  famous African Americans. Other than artists or hair stylists, he does not represent people at work. The faces he depicts do not express minds anywhere near as brilliant as his own, and he seems ever more ambivalent about the world of high culture which he has conquered. . But whatever the limitations of his subject matter and mission, he is the first artist to fill the entire top floor of the MCA with great figure painting.  And he does not focus on degradation like many other contemporary African-American artists who have been promoted into the academic artworld  (Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Rashid Johnson)

Gallery signage mentions the artist's use of egg tempera, but ignores the elephant in the room. In this painting, and all that follow,  Marshall quotes the American tradition of blackface minstrels. It's how white Americans, in the hey-day of Jim Crow, liked to think about African Americans.

The grin on this mask is somewhat sinister.  He could be a prankster.  He could be a serial killer. He could be an artist striking a disruptive but acceptable pose.

I wonder if the artist was doing janitorial work at that time to pay the bills?  I'm guessing that Marshall came up the hard way, working odd jobs to support himself until a big east coast gallery discovered him.  Without an MFA, he did not begin teaching until his gallery career had already been established.

I'd like to see a complete exhibit of his early abstract collages.  They 're quite enjoyable.

Here's the abstract and figurative genres side-by-side.  It's amazing how far he advanced beyond this in the next seven years.

This is a nice painting - but I'm not disappointed that he soon left behind all this hoodoo mumbo jumbo.

One of my early favorites, I've seen this painting many times.  The Smart Museum was quite smart to acquire this when they did.

A wonderful piece with an unusual subject matter.   It's hard to find  heroic celebrations of a vigorous and healthy heterosexuality in contemporary painting these days.

A fine vision - regardless of its strange notions of the human genealogical tree.
When was the last time a contemporary American artist depicted  Adam and Eve ?

One of the best American Scene paintings ever done -- and then he topped it twenty years later with "School of Beauty" that hangs on the opposite wall in this exhibit.

I am so glad he didn't pursue this kid-stuff direction any further.

How many paintings could go into a museum of contemporary art -- and also be reproduced in a boy scout handbook?

This is the painter's golden period, as far as I'm concerned.

The Art Institute bought this painting in 1995 and immediately put it up in a temporary display where casual museum visitors, like myself, might stumble upon it.

I was thrilled.

There is something so sad - and real - about this middle-class interior.

Another one of my favorites -- this room size cityscape feels exactly how Chicago's  West Side feels to me on a too-sunny day.

KJM developed many abilities -- but drawing a moving figure has not been one of them.

This piece is a disaster.

Doesn't this belong on the wall of a Door County supper club?  These parodies of popular art seem such a waste of his talent.

Unusual - and effectively dramatic.

An over-sized cartoon.

As my New City colleague has written:

But in consistently seeing the color black as presence rather than absence, Marshall neglects its power of negation: “the blackness of Blackness.” Seen in this light, Marshall succeeds best where his pictures are least agreeable, for example in the difficult (its forms barely discernible) “Black Painting” (2003-6). It shows a bedroom, a figure on a bed, and a copy of Angela Davis’ collection of prison writings “If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance.” “The offense of the political prisoner,” Davis wrote, “is his political boldness, [and] his persistent challenging—legally or extra-legally—of fundamental social wrongs.” At his best, as here, Marshall is equally bold in challenging the social fact of racism.

There is certainly no denying the "power of negation" for a certain kind of intellect.

But there's not much to look at here.

This parody is not so attractive as a painting - but would work well as a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The artist has succeeded in escaping the run-down city, but not in escaping a picture post card mentality. Is this meant to be ironic?

Bride of Frankenstein, indeed.

That colorful chair seems like a homage to Gerhard Richter or a similar artist.

ouch. A rather negative view of masculinity.

Does  this mass-murderer have a mischievous look?  Was it any less mischievous of the artist to label this a portrait of a fictional actor?

A handsome painting,  though it does suggest that the most distinctive quality of it's subject, Beryl Wright the art museum curator, was her blackness.

I  can't  follow the argument on the signage that accompanies these generic portraits of black artists.

How can they "paint themselves into existence" by doing paint-by-numbers ?

If Marshall was intending to make his large abstract paintings annoying and unpleasant, I believe he succeeded.


Here are some other paintings which feature black faces:

The most lyrical come from Ajanta, dating back at least 1500 years. The women are all beautiful - but they may represent monsters in disguise -- waiting to devour those who cannot distinguish appearance from reality.

Andre Pierre

Here's a Haitian painting that offers a similar folkloric feeling

Hale Woodruff

Woodruff's  1930's murals from the Talladega College library traveled to  Chicago a few years ago - and they offer a similar focus on African Americans-- though their skin is not universally black.

Here's Woodruff's depiction of a slave revolt on the Amistad.  It's violent enough - but there is not a drop of blood -- and one might say it was done in a major rather than minor key.  It reminds me of 16th C. Mughal battle scenes.

Archibald Motley

This piece offers an interesting contrast with Marshall's scene of a nude woman before a mirror:

I love this painting!  It's another one of his great ones.

Kehinde Wiley

Here's a contemporary painter that also works with African American subjects and historical European styles.

But his commitment to marketing seems way above any concern for the aesthetics of painting.
( I reviewed his Chicago show here )

William H. Johnson

By coincidence, the above painting is currently on display at the Art Institute in a special exhibit of American painting from the 1930. According to the signage, the artist was well trained, lived in Europe, and returned home to "paint his own people".  This piece looks pretty good -- it's too bad most of his recognition has been posthumous.

Ed Clark

By the way, however rare black faces may be on the walls of American art museums - the work of African American abstract artists is even  more  rare.

I had never seen one until the Art Institute gave a brief and small exhibit to Ed Clark, which I discussed here.

When Marshall decided not to continue as an abstract painter in the 1980's, he was making a good career move.

Peter Schjeldahl has reviewed a similar show at the Met Breuer.  The same paintings were on display, but apparently the signage was different. And instead of offering a reading room of popular magazine depictions of black people, it offered a "show within a show", curated by Marshall himself, of selections of art from the Met. As Schjeldahl puts it:

The gesture confirms him as the chief aesthetic conservative in the company of such other contemporary black artists as David Hammons, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson, who are given to conceptual and pointedly social-critical strategies. Marshall’s untroubled embrace of painting’s age-old narrative and decorative functions projects a degree of confidence that is backed both by his passion for the medium and by the authenticity of his lived experience.

And as yet another aesthetic conservative,  I strongly agree!  

But Schjeldahl did not experience the anger and ethnic conflict that I did.  Instead he gives the show a more positive spin: "An exhilarating retrospective at the Met Breuer is not an appeal for progress in race relations but a ratification of advances already made."

Though he did note, as I did, that the most prominent and one of the few depictions of white folk in the show is the bloody head of a slave master severed by Nat Turner..

My favorite work in the show is the Fragonardesque “Untitled (Vignette)” (2012), in which a loving couple lounges in parkland made piquant by a pink ground, a dangling car-tire swing, and an undulating musical staff in silver glitter, with hearts for notes. Marshall’s formal command lets him get away with any extreme of sweetness or direness, exercising a painterly voice that spans octaves, from soprano trills to guttural roars.

Yikes! This  was Schjeldahl's favorite piece ? I am totally puzzled by his reaction.

 I would like to share the optimism of his concluding sentence:

Marshall’s “Mastry” has a breakthrough feel: the suggestion of a new normal, in art and in the national consciousness. ♦

But that reaction applies to only one of the directions taken by the artist.  Unlike Horace Pippin, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Charles Wilbert White ( the African American artists whom he chose for the tribute section of this exhibition), Marshall is not content to visualize a social ideal. He also likes to participate in contemporary academic art discourse.

Apparently  Schjeldahl does not care much for the other things that he does.  And neither do I.

Robert Colescott

Schjeldahl's review introduced me to this artist.  Hope he gets a show in Chicago some day.


Here is Barry Schwabsky's review of the exhibit at the Met 

Here is Hovey Brock's review of the exhibit at the Met:

Indeed, one of the most satisfying aspects of Marshall’s paintings on a technical level is the faces and bodies of his subjects, confidently worked out in a gorgeous, velvety matte black.
Using this formula for depicting black subjects, and by extension black subjectivity, Marshall has mined the implicit normalizing codes of Norman Rockwell-like single and group portraiture to great effect.