Sara Cwynar: Gilded Age, ArtReview

Posted 09/18/19


‘The new is already on hand so we don’t even need to wait / But does newness have any mean- ing at all if it brings no new truth in its wake?’ This is one of many handwritten lines of text scrawled across Sara Cwynar’s archival pigment print A Rococo Base (2018), which explores how our immersive (digital) image culture instils and feeds our search for newness – a nearly meaningless term today, with ‘new’ lasting merely minutes. Drawing on the excess of the late-Baroque era, the print depicts a densely layered collage of neon Post-it notes, pictures of fashion sneakers and jewellery, makeup advertisements mixed with three-dimensional makeup tubes, hotel keys, phone cords, perfume bottles, pens, paperclips, pictures of models posed in studio, red roses, slices of artworkby Rubens, Koons and Picasso, and images of ancient sculptures, all against a bright green background. Woven between these references is Cwynar’s handwriting, lines of media theory mixed with her own, such as the observation, ‘Baroque is the closet to our current time, there is stuff everywhere’.

For those familiar with Cwynar’s prints and videos, this work is recognisable for its expres- sion of surplus – visual-verbal sensory overload that captures how the visual language of commercial advertising cultivates an almost nos- talgic desire for an ephemeral newness. Gilded Age brings together a diverse range of her work, including her earliest work, the artist book Kitsch Encyclopedia: A Survey of Universal Knowledge (2014), prints from her ‘Avon Presidential Bust’ (2017) and ‘Plastic Cups’ (2014) series, her wallpaper 72 Pictures of Modern Paintings (2016) and a selection of her films exploring Western beauty standards such as Tracy and Me & Xtina V.2 (both 2019). Her work smartly engages in a constant loop of signification, images of images that convey the referent-less nature of internet culture; it is not the thing itself that matters, but the image of the thing.

For an artist whose work is rooted in interrogations of digital desire, Cwynar’s process is surprisingly analogue. She prints out enlarge- ments of her source images or her own studio photographs, lays them on the floor and places objects and other printed images on top, writing directly on these surfaces as she goes. She then photographs these physical collages, sometimes with several rounds of rephotographing and printing. Sometimes she enacts a similar process using a magnetic board – the evidence of which in which metal corner magnets cast shadows across the added images.

Cwynar is often visible in her films, moving in and out of the frame, rearranging props and people. Me and Christina (2019) depicts a photo- shoot with Christina Aguilera lounging in a classic odalisque pose against a green drop cloth. Playing in the same loop of short videos is Me
& Xtina V.2, a split-screen video that includes excerpts from Me and Christina alongside a video of Cwynar behind the camera. While Me and Christina is over 18 minutes long, V.2 is just over a minute. And while it may appear at first that we are getting a look behind the Aguilera shoot, Cwynar stands by a red curtain, and as the camera angle pans past the curtain, we see Cwynar filming herself in a mirror, a behind-the-scenes of the artist making a video we are not shown.

It creates a sense of authenticity to her work that is in fact at odds with her subjects, and is itself manufactured. Cwynar’s work offers the illusion of seeing behind the curtain only to reinforce the multitude of ways that our increasingly satu- rated and manufactured image culture belies the truthiness of images we continue naively to look is visible in 141 Pictures of Sophie 1, 2, and 3 (2019), in which metal corner magnets cast shadows across the added images.

Cwynar is often visible in her films, moving in and out of the frame, rearranging props and people. Me and Christina (2019) depicts a photo- shoot with Christina Aguilera lounging in a classic odalisque pose against a green drop cloth. Playing in the same loop of short videos is Me
& Xtina V.2, a split-screen video that includes excerpts from Me and Christina alongside a video of Cwynar behind the camera. While Me and Christina is over 18 minutes long, V.2 is just over a minute. And while it may appear at first that we are getting a look behind the Aguilera shoot, Cwynar stands by a red curtain, and as the cam- era angle pans past the curtain, we see Cwynar filming herself in a mirror, a behind-the-scenes of the artist making a video we are not shown.

It creates a sense of authenticity to her work that is in fact at odds with her subjects, and is itself manufactured. Cwynar’s work offers the illusion of seeing behind the curtain only to reinforce the multitude of ways that our increasingly satu- rated and manufactured image culture belies the truthiness of images we continue naively to look for.


The Constellation of Frank Stella, T: The New York Times Style Magazine

Posted 03/18/20


STARS — THE KIND that appear in the cosmos — have coordinates, not addresses, and the same is true for certain earthbound luminaries, too. One gloomy November morning, I follow my GPS to an anonymous set of buildings in the Hudson Valley. The rain buckets down forebodingly, but I know I’m on the right track when I make out a set of immense cast-aluminum and stainless-steel sculptures by the side of the road, a few of them distinctly stellar in shape. For good measure, the name “Stella” is spray-painted on a piece of wood indicating the entrance.

This hangar-like structure, about a 90-minute drive north of Manhattan, has been Frank Stella’s studio for the past two decades. The vast space, more easily traversed by golf cart than on foot, is divided into rooms for both fabrication and display. Here, I find more star variations: The grandest has 12 points and is made of glossy black carbon fiber. At over 20 by 20 feet, it’s puffily imposing and gently comic. Its neighbors are a pair of cleverly interlocking wooden stars, one in teak, another in birch, the humble quality of the carpentry a counterpoint to their complexity of form, reminiscent of da Vinci’s illustrations of the Platonic solids. More futuristic are two slightly smaller ones made from polished stainless steel; they’re what might have resulted if Buckminster Fuller had created cat toys for giants. When I look closer, I notice that some of them have built-in bases on their bottommost points that resemble little shoes: These stars have their feet planted on the ground.

As does the man himself. Stella, dressed in khakis and a blue fleece zip-up that has “Team Stella” stitched on it in white, is now 83, but he’s retained the scrappy, unpretentious persona he’s famous for, as well as the curly hair and glasses. This is the man who, nearly six decades ago, gave Minimalism its great tagline by proclaiming: “What you see is what you see,” his words a rallying cry for what art could be, and, equally, could do without. A fixed light in American art’s galaxy since the 1960s, he has arguably influenced visual representation as powerfully as Andy Warhol.

Unlike many mid-20th-century artists who rose fast only to seemingly collapse under the pressure of their own reputations, Stella kept pushing himself by using new forms, materials and technologies. When he felt he’d reached the limits of the flat canvas, he built out from it in reliefs inspired by “Moby-Dick” and Polish villages. In the 1980s and ’90s, he made metal sculptures that looked like race cars or jet engines turned inside out, as well as unwieldy canvases covered in Pop-colored riots of form — operatic assemblages of cones, pillars and graffiti-like brushwork, like something Charlie Sheen’s character might have had in his home in the 1987 film “Wall Street.” That the godfather of Minimalist painting turned into a progenitor of the contemporary baroque has always flummoxed critics.

Perhaps the secret to his longevity, his decade-upon-decade habit of creating, is again a matter of balanced forces, the measures he’s taken to temper his bright-burning ambition. When we meet, the artist has just celebrated the arrival of his fifth grandchild, Sophie. (Stella, who has five children, has been married to Harriet McGurk, a pediatrician, since 1978, and they live in the same house in Greenwich Village he’s owned since the 1960s; his first wife was the art critic Barbara Rose.) He seems to lack any real self-destructive impulse; he never succumbed to matters of lifestyle. When I ask him if he has any vices, he dodges. “You have to ask my wife,” he says dryly.

He has (at least) two, it turns out: cigars and fast cars, both of which have informed his work in various ways, from sculptures based on three-dimensional representations of his own smoke rings to his use of technological innovations derived from the auto industry, like carbon-fiber skin over steel or aluminum frames. In 1982, he was caught driving his silver Ferrari 105 miles per hour in a 55-mile-per-hour zone on the Taconic State Parkway, and in lieu of jail time, he delivered public lectures on his painting. His racing days are now long over, and he can no longer do much of the physical labor involved in art-making. And so it might seem he’s come full circle, returning to the deceptively simple geometries he was making six decades ago, only now expanded into three dimensions.

Tentatively scheduled to open in May, a new show at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., “Frank Stella’s Stars, A Survey,” will focus on Stella’s use of the form at both ends of his career. Many artists have become fixated on the creation of a particular shape or motif throughout their lives: Jasper Johns and flags; Pablo Picasso and guitars; Louise Bourgeois and spiders. The ceaseless exploration of one form helps create an artist’s aesthetic universe, and Stella is part of this tradition. Stella means “star” in Italian, but the artist’s interest in the shape — in geometry, the star polygon is recognized in both two and three dimensions with varying numbers of points — is spatial, not narcissistic. He initially made star drawings in the 1960s (a set of lithographs from 1967 titled “Star of Persia I; and II,” first exhibited at the Aldrich in 1969, will be included in the show), though the majority of the exhibition will showcase the more recent sculptural work I observed in his studio, a study of the potential of the star in different materials, scales and formal variations, never repeated in the same way. “Even with something as stable and as knowable as the star, Stella is able to reinvent it every time he approaches it and make you look at it in a different way,” says Richard Klein, the Aldrich’s director of exhibitions.

Star polygons have long been bound up with all sorts of human metaphysical projection, used as religious symbols and in ranking systems. As motifs associated with honor and glory and jobs well done, they decorate everything from national flags and sheriff’s badges to toilet-training charts. But most of all, they symbolize the limits of human understanding, their geometric representation inseparable from their existence as celestial objects, luminous spheres of gas held together by their own gravity. Their lyricism aside, stars are our most archaic form of navigation as well as our best clues to the dimensions of the universe. Because light travels at a finite speed, the glow of a distant star is perceived by our earthbound eyes long after it has ceased to exist. Similarly finite, perhaps, is the rate of human understanding: In art history, we’re continually revising the past based on our relative position to it; the importance of an artist or an entire movement might become visible only in retrospect. So what, one wonders, is left to say about a man who has been famous now since the 1950s, and all the more so at a time in which figuration and portraiture have made comebacks, and when we’re all questioning art’s relevance in a scary new decade?

STELLA NEVER WENT to art school, but from an early age, he had a no-nonsense relationship with a paintbrush: His father, a gynecologist, paid his way through medical school by painting houses, with Stella as his young assistant. “My father would make me sand the floor; we had to do the sanding and scraping before you could hold the brush and then paint on the wall. So it was that kind of apprenticeship and familiarity,” he says. While repainting the porch of their fishing cabin in New Hampshire — Stella grew up in the Boston suburb of Malden — his mother, a fashion illustrator and homemaker, decided to make a Jackson Pollock on the floor, dripping the paint in swirls. “And my father had to explain to her that maybe it was good in art, but it wasn’t going to work as a floor covering because we didn’t have any sealer.”

A story in one of his mother’s Vogue magazines, featuring models posed in front of a painterly Franz Kline-esque Abstract Expressionist backdrop, provided him with an early clue that art wasn’t only about figuration. At Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., in the early ’50s, when European abstraction was a prevailing force in studio art, Stella was especially influenced by the work of Hans Hofmann, a kind of proto-Abstract Expressionist from the ’40s, and the Bauhaus color theorist Josef Albers. “I had no mimetic ability,” Stella tells me, “but I was never interested in finding one, or cultivating one. No, I worked directly with the materials, actually. The big deal in postwar American painting was ‘its materiality,’ and so that was heaven for me.”

He started painting more seriously at Princeton, where he played lacrosse and wrestled, majored in history and studied art with William Seitz, who would become a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and with the painter Stephen Greene. After graduating in 1958, Stella moved to New York. “When I left school,” he says, “I wanted to see what it was like to paint all the time. And at that time, it was between the Korean War and Vietnam, and we still had selective service. My induction exam was in September, so I thought, ‘I’ll go to New York [in the meantime], get a place, and I’ll just paint and work and do odd jobs, and see what it’s like to do nothing but paint for three or four months.’ And then, unfortunately — or rather, fortunately — I failed my induction exams. And when I called up my father, I said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to go back to New York, I failed the exam.’ He said, ‘Too bad, it would have made a man of you.’ The most important thing for them was that I shouldn’t be a burden on society.” He pauses. “And we know what they meant by ‘society.’”
Stella was only 23 when his work was included in a group show, “Sixteen Americans,” at MoMA in 1959. His “Black Paintings” — bands of matte enamel (he used house painter’s brushes and house paint) separated by pinstripes of exposed canvas — startled critics for their extremity of reduction, their intentionally flat affect, their refusal to appease. Cool, clever, and somehow less angstily reverential in feel than the Abstract Expressionist era that it helped supplant, Stella’s work is now widely seen as a crucial evolutionary link in modern art, and a catalyst for the Minimalist movement to come. His emphasis on two-dimensional surfaces was a clear rejection of the idea of painting as a window into a three-dimensional space.

His participation in the MoMA show, alongside Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Louise Nevelson, launched his career — four of his paintings were included in the exhibition — but his first gallery show, with New York’s Leo Castelli a year later, resulted in few sales. Stella eked out a living painting houses, renting cold-water flats and sharing studio space with Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton, his friends from Phillips Academy, but listening to him, it’s impossible not to feel nostalgia for a time in which you could arrive in Manhattan, these days largely a gated community for the wealthy, and simply go about making your art.

“THERE’S AN ELEMENT of luck and things like that to it, but the fact of the matter is that the system was pretty supportive,” says Stella when I remark on how he seemed to be exactly the right artist at exactly the right time. In New York, he was granted a sense of license to do whatever he wanted with paint, inspired by the artists he revered, among them Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Pollock. Stella found his own canvases growing larger — large enough to have to be placed on the floor. “They were no longer easel paintings,” he says. “Basically, I was standing up in front of a painting that was a little bit bigger than I was, and that was the working on it, like the way you would paint a wall in a house. And that was the kind of thing that I felt comfortable with.” He singles out the abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler, who studied under Hofmann, as the artist he believes was one of the most undervalued in her lifetime. “They were always interesting, always good, and very, very difficult paintings she made, and she was lucky if she could sell any of them,” he recalls. Early in his career, she proposed a trade with him, but he was too intimidated to take her up on it.

When I ask him if he’s in touch with anyone from that time, he shakes his head. “No. The problem now is everybody’s dead or dying. I’m in the category of ‘Is he still alive?’ artists. Yeah, you laugh, but I can show you a letter — a guy was asking if I was still alive because he liked my work so much.”

By the end of the 1960s, Stella had lost interest in flat surfaces. He started making constructions of felt, paper and wood that protruded from the surface of a stretched canvas in a relief. He named these works, like 1971’s “Chodorow II,” after synagogues destroyed by the Nazis. In a way, the work could be seen as a kind of inverse of the type of painting that had dominated Western art since the Renaissance, which drew viewers into the canvas. “The idea behind it all was to build a painting rather than paint a painting,” says Stella. “If I built it first, it was all mine, and then I could paint on that — and that’s all.” The simple story would be that the Minimalist turned Maximalist when the former wore out its usefulness.

On many occasions, material experimentation offered a pathway forward: “That’s a kind of necessity, because you get bogged down, you get worried. You’re always looking for something, as they say, a way out of the darkness. And it’s inevitable that you look to things. You look to what other people are doing, and you look to what’s available, and you can’t help looking for things. Mostly you look within the art world, but that seems like a limited vision, so you have to look outside. You have to get with the real world eventually.”

In at least one such moment, Stella found himself compelled to look back in order to move forward. He used his 1982-83 residency at the American Academy in Rome to delve into the legacy of Caravaggio and Rubens. That research led eventually to “Working Space,” his 1986 book derived from a series of lectures that he delivered at Harvard in the early ’80s, in which he framed his new work as an answer to a crisis in abstract painting. Stella’s “Moby-Dick” series, which he began that year and continued until 1997, considered abstraction’s ability to illustrate narratives, with silhouettes alluding to waves and ships. The ’90s and early aughts were critically tough for Stella’s hectic forms, and yet many works from this time — his mural-size “Moby-Dick”-inspired 1992 print, “The Fountain,” for example, or his underrated work in rugged painted metal, especially 2004’s “Ngebat,” a twisted construction of stainless steel and carbon fiber — now seem freshly exhilarating. You could argue that every artist working in Europe and America today has, in some fashion, been unconsciously influenced by Stella, and there are those who more explicitly credit him as an influence, such as the assemblage artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins and the abstract painter Sarah Morris.

Before I leave, Stella takes me on a tour of recent work, leading me behind the curtain hanging in the back of the studio. “So, now you’re going into the space where no women are allowed,” he jokes. And lo, there I behold Stella’s industrial sander, his spray-painter, as well as a glimpse of new work being fabricated for a private collectoIf entropy is the natural direction of all things — the laws of physics, anyway, as well as contemporary art — some things in our universe do, in fact, remain constant: Stella’s star, at least, built on the principles of space, light, speed and seemingly infinite expansion, is unlikely to dim from art history anytime soon. “Basically, everything is about being an artist,” he says as we part ways. He pulls out a cigar as I thank him and gather my coat and umbrella. “You’re welcome,” he smiles. “And don’t say anything about the smoking.”

It’s an open question just how well Stella’s ethos has fared over time. Once so thrillingly radical, Minimalist painting has inevitably lost some of its charge over the years; at a time in which art is often wrapped up in social and political questions, shunning pictorial representation and symbolic meaning for the essentials of color, shape and composition can feel oddly safe, something everyone can get behind: colorful geometries that could be printed on an Ikea duvet. And yet the sheer scale and panache of Stella’s early work are undeniable. At the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, I often observe tourists stopping dead in their tracks in front of “Hatra I,” one of the first “Protractor” paintings Stella made beginning in 1967, which consist of sweeping, intersecting arcs, the shape of the canvas echoing that of the paint. Glowing with bright acrylic and measuring 20 by 10 feet, it still imparts a contact high. Sitting in Stella’s presence and revisiting his work with him, I think what a misunderstanding it is to consider Minimalism as soulless or academic, a mere visual palate cleanser. On the contrary, it seeks feelings less easily named, an almost somatic response, a full-body awareness. What you see is what you see, but what you feel has always been important, too.


Zoë Sheehan Saldaña’s Hand Sanitizer Bridges an Understanding of Conceptual Art, The Observer

Posted 03/18/20


“So clean yet so gnarly!” exclaims Brooklyn artist Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, churning swelled Carbomer, which she made by combining acrylic gelling agent overnight with water, into her ethanol and water blend. Working outside at Bushwick’s Cooper Park, we are steps away from concocting a batch of hand sanitizer, the emblem of our global survival strategy amidst the Coronavirus outbreak, which has taken its toll over the art world itself as much the industries it heavily relies on, such as tourism, air travel and manufacturing.

In fact, Sheehan Saldaña has been busy making disinfectant gel for years, and had some available for public use at least since last November, months before Covid-19 led to abrupt global closures for the foreseeable future. That batch of handmade sanitizer was created to be exhibited in and used her solo exhibition, “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here,” that was on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum until it too closed. In that show, Sheehan Saldaña installed a usable hand sanitizer dispenser, alongside other mundane objects she patiently handmade. “I am not a masochist, although I may seem like one,” she humorously explains. For her, it’s a sort of investigation into the everyday craftsmanship we take for granted, and making art that “functions as fake, but a real fake.” I.e. how does your estimation of what’s in a Purrell bottle change if you find out it’s not Purrell but rather painstakingly handcrafted? How has your understanding of a Purrell bottle changed even in the last few weeks?

The exhibition’s introductory text is applied onto the wall with an ink the artist created by mixing oak gall with gum arabic. From Mop, 2012, a hand-spun cotton cord mop, to Paper Towels, 2009, individually embossed and folded paper towels created at Brooklyn’s Dieu Donné Papermill, the artworks in the exhibition, organized by Glenn Adamson, demurely hide their meticulous hands-on processes. Their uncanny resemblance to mass-produced objects almost beg to be used—but they’re changed through the labor one understands has gone into their making.

Milkweed-fiber fluff-filled vests, titled Life Jackets, 2008-2009, or Strike Anywhere, 2007-2008, a polar wood, wax, and gelatin matchstick created in collaboration with a CUNY chemistry professor, evoke familiar senses of urgency; however, no object taps into our current yearning for survival perhaps as much as Hand Sanitizer, 2010.

Hung unassumingly near the exit, the participatory dispenser was recently joined by numerous “real” hand sanitizers the museum placed across it’s galleries to prompt public hygiene, before shutting down due to the virus’ rapid spread. “Art institutions are for the public to gather and contemplate, so it’s hard for us to keep our doors closed,” the Aldrich’s executive director, Cybele Maylone, told Observer.

Maylone had been observing visitor reactions for Sheehan Saldaña’s sanitary dispenser shift during its run since fall. “The work has changed meaning, from experimentation to urgency—people were initially disinfecting out of curiosity, but lately it was a result of need.” During its closure, the museum hopes to remain accessible through its surrounding public sculptures, including another bitterly-appropriate piece by Tom Friedman: Hazmat Love, 2017, showing two figures in anti-hazard suits engaging with one another in shock and ambiguity.

Sheehan Saldaña made her first hand sanitizer a decade ago, after experimenting with homemade moonshine using corn, barley and wheat. “After reading about the need for hand sanitizer among the troops overseas, I realized I could use the same recipe to create disinfecting gel,” she remembers. Fascinated by the idea of the “generosity economy” and people sending out care packages to military, she replaced the sanitizer inside generic Purell bottles (which were somewhat designed to resemble grenades) with her own handmade batch and “let the beast make its way into the world for the first time.”

In many ways, Sheehan Saldaña’s work is made for moments like now. “My work exists outside gallery or museum walls, so it’s often challenging to exhibit inside a white cube,” she says. “When will the audience stop considering the life jacket on the wall as art and actually use it?” While a life jacket-requiring flood at the Connecticut museum is unlikely, the relevancy of her hand sanitizer installation today strikes a chord. Though no one is able to reach the work at the museum, the artist has a new plan for getting this art out into people’s hands (literally), as she explains while finishing up the big batch she showed me how to make while we maintained an appropriate distance in the park. “I am a believer of trade economy, especially in this climate—I am happy to trade my sanitizer with anyone in exchange of bourbon,” she says, giving the mixture a last whisk before decanting it into portable tubes.


When Art Captures the Wind and the Rain—and a Bit of Ourselves, NRDC

Posted 03/18/20


The next time you turn on the Weather Channel or search an app for the weekend forecast, consider the role that you, the consumer, play in the weather report you seek. In the time it takes to read this paragraph, for example, the average person will breathe approximately four liters of air, a gaseous mix consisting of about 20 percent oxygen and 0.5 percent carbon dioxide. Yet when we exhale that same breath, according to Richard Klein, the exhibitions director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, its gaseous composition changes to include 15 percent oxygen and 5 percent carbon dioxide. Our lungs and circulatory system take in what they need and expel what they don’t. Eventually, the air we breathe back into the atmosphere tens of thousands of times a day is absorbed by the leaves of plants and trees, which fall to the forest floor, yielding carbon-rich soil that nurtures our food.

In other words, we don’t just live in the earth’s ever-evolving atmosphere, otherwise known as the weather; it also lives in us. That’s one point of focus of “Weather Report,” a new exhibit that brings together works by 25 artists who share a preoccupation with the influence of wind, clouds, storms, drought, and other meteorological phenomena on the human experience. “Weather doesn’t only affect us physically,” says Klein. “Our immersion in the atmosphere and its various moods has a profound impact on our imaginations.”

Inside the museum’s galleries in a small-town New England setting, “Weather Report” is a major atmospheric disturbance—of thoughts, materials, and artistic methods. Along with traditional representations of the esthetics of weather in painting and photography, the show presents sculptures, music, science-informed installations, and performance projects. The sampling of artists is also diverse, from internationally known Andy Goldsworthy and Nick Cave, whose large, fabric-covered Tondo overlaps Doppler radar images of a cyclone with brain scans of African-American youth suffering from PTSD because of gun violence, to Sara Bouchard, a university instructor and composer who arranges weather data collected in New York’s Central Park into lyrical musical sequences recorded on old-fashioned punch cards that are then played on a hand-cranked music box.

Ephemeral by nature, weather and the variable conditions that create it appear in formats both monumental and disturbingly intimate. California artist Pat Pickett, for example, experiments with delicate drawings that capture the wind’s movement through trees. She creates them by attaching colored markers to tree branches and positioning paper on a sturdy tripod next to them. The results—such as Sugar Pine—1 Hr. Santa Susana Mountains. October 29, 2015—have an almost journal-like quality, chronicling the raw reactions of a plant in a challenging environment.

As the wind blows, the tree at the center of Sugar Pine sketches a complex mesh of short strokes. Pickett, whose practice combines the study of aerodynamics with an appreciation of the highly evolved mechanisms by which trees survive, says the drawings illustrate what a tree does “to save its life.” It chooses to bend rather than break. They also reveal the powerful force of wind, which is otherwise invisible. Hanging nearby is one of the exhibition’s showstoppers, Storm Prototype by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. Suspended from the ceiling, a pair of huge metallic storm clouds, shiny but imposing, evoke the “terrible beauty” traditionally associated with representations of weather in Western art, but in the context of the global forces that shape society across political borders. Based on data from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, the seemingly weightless forms are miniaturized scale models of an actual supercell thunderstorm that traveled over the Midwest in 2000.

Manglano-Ovalle has also made films of climatic events around the U.S.–Mexico border to highlight natural phenomena that occur over artificial but highly politicized boundaries. He became interested in weather systems like this one—which originated with El Niño in the Pacific Ocean thousands of miles to the south—as a metaphor for social, political, and economic climates as well as global migration, which is often connected to weather and climate conditions.

Several other works in the exhibition take direct aim at the premise mentioned by Klein, that “by merely breathing, we participate in the atmosphere.” You see it expressed explicitly in Ayumi Ishii’s The Breath From Which the Clouds Are Formed, a series of 50 cloud and cloudlike images arranged in a grid. Half of the images are photographs of real cloud formations, while the rest are fluffy white impressions made by the warm breath of the artist on special heat-sensitive paper. She has literally contributed to the atmosphere, and she reminds us that, in the Anthropocene period, when human activity is the dominant destructive force on the planet, we all have.


Getting Your Weather Report at the Art Museum, Hyperallergic

Posted 02/18/20


Climate-themed art has never seemed more visible or timely. At the 2019 Venice Biennale, for example, the Lithuanian Pavilion received the Golden Lion award for its beachy dramatization of our species’ climate anxiety, Sun & Sea (Marina) (2019), while The Brooklyn Rail organized a massive eco-themed satellite group exhibition at Venice, Artists Need To Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum. The greater New York region, my own beat, has seen no shortage recently of ambitious eco-art group exhibitions: Storm King Art Center’s 2018 Indicators: Artists on Climate Change; Wave Hill’s 2018 Ecological Consciousness: Artist as Instigator; the Princeton Art Museum’s 2018-19 Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment; the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s 2019-20 Nature Triennial. In each case, the curators did an excellent job tailoring the show to the unique location and mission of its host institution.

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s ethereal group show, Weather Report, organized by Exhibitions Director Richard Klein, is similarly felicitous in its design. The Aldrich was founded as a collecting museum in 1964 by fashion designer and art collector Larry Aldrich, but deaccessioned its permanent collection in 1981 to become a Kunsthalle-style venue for showcasing work by emerging and under-recognized contemporary artists. Just as a Kunsthalle’s programming can serve as a barometer of an art scene, Weather Report implies that a group show can serve as a barometer of a given subject or theme, in this case earth’s climate. Yet the title also implies a level of timeliness — a regular update on conditions — unavailable to large group exhibitions, which can require years of involved planning to realize. The artworks in Weather Report confront their own untimeliness, in news cycle terms, through appeals to a deeper, more cosmic, sense of space and time, as well as the incorporation of the scientific tools that humans use to apprehend the planet’s atmosphere.

The row of Byron Kim’s beguiling, blue-and-white Sunday Paintings (2001–present) in the entry hallway sets a ruminative, airy tone. Each canvas in the ongoing weekly series offers a porthole-sized glimpse of one Sunday’s sky, overlaid with a diaristic handwritten paragraph overlaid. Kim’s deceptively simple play on hobbyist painting contrasts the quotidian vicissitudes of terrestrial life with the heavens’ gauzy indifference. Upstairs, Ayumi Ishii’s gossamer “The Breath from Which the Clouds are Formed” (2015) and Jitish Kallat’s shapeshifting Rain Study series (2017) also turn on subtle contrasts between above and below. The latter look like straightforward drawings of astronomical charts but the artist incorporates rainwater filtered through stencils to depict nighttime stars as splotches of negative space. The former artwork consists of a grid of 50 soothing digital prints, each apparently depicting a wispy cloud against a clear blue sky. However, only half the photographs depict actual clouds; the other half are of Ishii’s breath on paper treated with thermochromic pigment. The indistinguishability of the two subjects from one another posits the human breath as a pervasive, if modest and invisible, component of the planet’s atmosphere.

The interplay between earth and sky, human and non-human, heaviness and lightness, is even more pronounced in other works. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s “Storm Prototype” (2007) renders data on supercell thunderstorms as two bulky, brain-shaped metallic abstractions that hang from the ceiling; the sculptures’ reflective aluminum leaf surfaces give them a buoyant sheen yet their visual solidity, as well as their proximity to the floor, bespeak heft The prickly, multicolored swirls of Nick Cave’s circular mixed-media wall hanging, “Tondo” (2018), also convey unease: the work’s hurly-burly abstraction derives from Doppler radar images of cataclysmic weather combined with brain scans of black youth suffering from gun violence-related PTSD. Barbara Bloom’s Some flawed place in the iron dark of the world. (McCarthy) (2015) lowers empyrean weather near to the ground by translating novelist Cormac McCarthy’s description of a thunderstorm into braille bumps on a hand-tufted, charcoal-colored wool carpet.

Feats of literal and figurative translation are everywhere in Weather Report, and they are of particular importance in representations of scientific data and imagery. In “First Look at the World’s Weather” (1973), for example, Nancy Graves renders a weather satellite global photomosaic as a black-and-white pointillist composition; the Rorschach-esque result, which looks like standard issue abstraction until you know its referent, hints at the tug-of-war between appearance and informational content in artworks about science. This same tension manifests in scientist Amanda Bunce’s under-aestheticized “Tree Sway” (2019), the exhibition’s lone contribution by a non-artist. In it, a video monitor livestreams footage of a white pine tree on the museum’s campus, whose movements are measured by an inclinometer. The inclusion of a purely scientific work makes sense, given the exhibition’s theme, but the feed’s glacial pace and dry, technical information — “[ 41 .27770, -73.4958]” — may feel off-putting to some viewers.

Weather Report thus raises the question of how art can best to communicate information about the planet’s climate. It’s a question whose implications extend beyond the realm of aesthetics. However dazzling, artworks that show a bird’s-eye perspective— a crowd-pleasing sub-genre of landscape art — that includes work by contemporary artists such as Ed Burtynsky and Zaria Forman — increasingly feel dissatisfying. For example, segments of Ellen Harvey’s enormous, painstakingly detailed black-and-white painting, in acrylic and oil, of Florida Coastline, “The Mermaid: Two Incompatible Systems Intimately Linked” (2019) — designed to span a 100-foot-wide wall in the Miami Beach Convention Center as part of the Miami Beach Art in Public Places Program — impress simply by virtue of their size. But, at least when installed in a geographically distant gallery, the painting’s impersonal vantage point minimizes the coastal region’s imperiled, ground-level climate realities.

Humor can perhaps convey a more effective sense of the distance between our ant-like human lives and the larger climatic forces threatening the viability of those lives as we’ve known them. Smartly situated in the same room as Graves’s and Harvey’s paintings, Swedish duo Bigert & Bergström’s sculptures, “The Russian Campaign 1812” and “Teutoburg Forest 9 CE” (both 2017), depict weather events that influenced the course of military history as pop-camp versions of weather report graphics. The shiny and colorful painted stainless steel objects—a group of Shamrock green bars from which dangle apostrophe-shaped raindrops; silver, asterisk-shaped snowflakes clustered on the floor—playfully send up the way in which meteorology’s visuals abstract weather from its harshest historical and experiential consequences.

Josh Callaghan’s Chicago Snow (2013) series portrays one such human-scaled consequence with understated humor. The small, jagged foam sculptures are coated with resin, sand, and other materials to resemble partially melted clumps of polluted snow. Encountered on a gallery floor rather than a city sidewalk, the lifelike clumps are droll, uncomfortable reminders of urban pollution’s normalization. Similar to Ishii’s nearby cloud/breath grid, Chicago Snow commingles the celestial with the terrestrial, the natural with the anthropogenic; however, unlike “The Breath from Which the Clouds are Formed,” there’s a conspicuous contrast here between weather in its pristine state and weather covered in our species’ grimy fingerprints.

Like Chicago Snow’s depiction of pollution’s traces, numerous other works in Weather Report also operate by means of the trace, suggesting that art’s capacity for poetic indirection helps convey climate subtleties that might elude purely informational modes of address. For example, Pat Pickett’s scraggly collaborative drawings with trees — in which the artist affixes pens to branches, which mark up nearby, tripod-mounted paper when the wind blows — capture a surprisingly agitated record of tree branch movement that is more visually evocative than “Tree Sway.” Sara Bouchard’s “Weather Box” (2014), which represents New York City weather data as punch card scores playable on a music box, transforms prosaic meteorological data into poetic plinks and echoes. Hitoshi Nomura’s “Time Arrow: Oxygen -183° C” (1993) consists of a glass flask whose steamy, blueish interior captures the visual effects of liquid oxygen’s evaporation process. Bryan Nash Gill’s somber wood relief print of a tree trunk cross-section, “Ash” (2003), presents a trace (the internal rings that constitute the tree’s record of aging) by means of a trace (the print’s inky impression).

As poetic intimations of time’s passage, aesthetic traces are well-suited to depict not only weather’s quotidian ups and downs but also climate change’s seismic and harder to fathom consequences. Part of what makes anthropogenic climate change a wicked problem — the social planner’s term for a problem whose incomplete, contradictory, or changing nature makes it difficult to recognize, let alone solve — is that many of its most harmful effects take place on long-term time scales that human beings can’t easily account for in our short-term decision making. Even if you understand, intellectually, that disposable coffee cups cause gradual harm to others across space and time, it can be hard, emotionally, to care about those intangible consequences when you’re tired and without other options for caffeine.

Weather Report’s artworks confront us with the insidious depth and extent of such climate entanglements. Nowhere is this dizzying interconnectedness more succinctly illustrated than in Colin McMullan’s “Clouds Filtered through Trees” (2019), which consists of an almost-seven-foot tall water cooler that resembles a laboratory beaker and dispenses rainwater captured from the museum’s roof and filtered through white pine tree sapwood. “NOTICE,” warns a text affixed to a nearby window, “RAINWATER MAY CONTAIN/ UNRECOGNIZABLE TRACES OF/ Ancestral indigenous land stewardship/ Tap water with elevated lead from municipal neglect/ Mercurial soot from coal fired power plants.” In both form and content, McMullan’s artistic water cooler serves, fittingly, as a conduit between earth and sky, human and non-human. Just as fitting, its tainted contents taste indistinguishable from all the other water we unthinkingly consume.

Weather Report continues at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (258 Main St, Ridgefield, CT) through March 29.


Ellen Harvey’s Mural Depicting A Slice of South Florida Travels Abroad, The Art Newspaper

Posted 12/7/19


The Miami Beach Convention Center is looking sharper than ever for this year’s edition of Art Basel, thanks in part to a series of new artist commissions installed this spring and officially unveiled this week. Among them is Ellen Harvey’s monumental glass mural Atlantis—a black-and-white slice of the South Florida map, from the Everglades wilderness to the west to the ultra-developed Miami city grid on the east—located upstairs near the entrance to the new Meridians section.

Those not in Miami this week can still see a version of the work at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the British-American artist is currently showing the hand-drawn aluminium panels that were the basis for the permanent work, in the atmospheric group exhibition Weather Report (until 29 March 2020). That iteration is alternatively titled The Mermaid: Two Incompatible Systems Intimately Joined, because, the artist says, “it is literally a half-human, half-natural hybrid”.

The work will also travel to Margate in 2020, when the British-born, New York-based artist will have a solo show at Turner Contemporary. The Disappointed Tourist: Ellen Harvey (23 May-6 September 2020) is centred on a new project launching later this month in which the artist asks visitors to submit a place they would like to visit, but cannot, because it no longer exists or is otherwise inaccessible. “People feel these things really personally, but they need to realise it happens to everyone; they aren’t alone in their loss,” Harvey says.


Best Art of 2019, The New York Times

Posted 12/6/19


Unexpected Delights

1. MoMA’s Reopening

For New York, the signal event of the year was October’s reopening of the Museum of Modern Art with its newly expanded, improved building and more inclusive, historically accurate permanent collection hang, which fleshes out the epic of Modernism with works by women, artists of color and non-Westerners. There are more creature comforts: lots of chairs by Jean Prouvé and sofas by Charlotte Perriand in the lobby, for example. And for the occasion, all other exhibitions on view were also drawn from the permanent collection, with the latest show from the “Artist’s Choice” series being especially notable. Titled “The Shape of Shape,” it was chosen by the New York painter Amy Sillman, who orchestrated a dense installation that compared and contrasted work by around 70 artists. The result was a visual feast that might also be read as a reminder to MoMA’s brainy curators that pleasure is its own form of knowledge.

2. ‘Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory’ at the Met Breuer

This ravishing retrospective traces the changing expanses — waves, night skies, desert floors — over six decades, illuminating the artist’s penchant for revealing the infinite in the intimate (and vice versa) while pitting perception, philosophy and patient process against one another. An impressive argument for her greatness, the show also emphasized the strengths of Marcel Breuer’s landmark building in a rare collaboration of artist, curator and architecture.

3. Leonora Carrington at Gallery Wendi Norris of San Francisco, in New York

This pop-up exhibition offered further evidence that some of the best Surrealist paintings were made by women working in Mexico. Surveying the art by the well-born rebellious Brit Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), it revealed a fantastical imagination influenced in part by myths learned as a child from her Scottish mother and nanny. There were several showstopping canvases, especially “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur” (1953), which MoMA acquired and put on view as a centerpiece in its reconfigured Surrealist gallery. It depicts an orange-robed female Minotaur and a pale flowerlike creature greeting two children in black perhaps as they return from school, with a lithe spirit trailing behind them. A genre scene it is not.

4. ‘John Dunkley: Neither Day Nor Night’ at the American Folk Art Museum This exhibition (organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami) introduced the work of the self-taught Jamaican artist to American audiences. Part folk artist, part Surrealist, Dunkley (1891-1947) was best in luminous landscapes in which strange trees, outsize plants and sudden waterfalls cast a hypnotic spell.

5. ‘Amy Sherald: The Heart of the Matter,’ at Hauser & Wirth

The relatively unknown Ms. Sherald shot to fame in 2017 when she was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Michelle Obama’s official portrait, and soon after achieved representation by a blue-chip gallery that quickly scheduled her New York debut. Ms. Sherald, who is 46, rose to the occasion, holding down an enormous space with just seven new portraits, also of black subjects, that took her formally distinctive, beautifully painted realism to a new level.

6. ‘A Specific Eye: Seven Collections’ at Demisch Danant This Greenwich Village design gallery invited several art-related sorts — artists, photographers and art dealers — to display some of their most cherished objects on furniture designed in the 1960s by Maria Pergay (still working at 89). The resulting arrangements had a cabinet of curiosities intensity. This could be a biannual event. A trove of 3,000 quilts by African-American artists is surely one of the most transformative museum gifts of the late 20th-century. Among the riches of the Eli Leon collection are over 100 dazzling quilts and other textile works by Rosie Lee Tompkins, (1936-2006), one of the few women in the top tier of American outsider artists. The collection will form the basis of a major retrospective that opens at BAMPFA on Feb. 19, 2020.

7. Eli Leon Collection at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

A trove of 3,000 quilts by African-American artists is surely one of the most transformative museum gifts of the late 20th-century. Among the riches of the Eli Leon collection are over 100 dazzling quilts and other textile works by Rosie Lee Tompkins, (1936-2006), one of the few women in the top tier of American outsider artists. The collection will form the basis of a major retrospective that opens at BAMPFA on Feb. 19, 2020.

9. ‘Simone Fattal: Works and Days’ at MoMA/P.S.1

The first museum exhibition devoted to this Syrian-born Lebanese artist (who has lived for many years in the United States and Paris) revealed a polymathic talent interested in painting, drawing and film, but best represented by a profusion of mostly small, roughly improvised glazed ceramic sculptures dizzying in their suggestions: of animals, figures, ancient artifacts, religious rituals, tourist souvenirs, desert structures ruined by war, and, always, of life lived and the encroachments of time. The variety, carefreeness and layered meanings added up to a body of work with few equals in the realm of ceramic sculpture.

10. The Art World Mourns Okwui Enwezor, Virginia Zabriskie, Takis, Leon Kossoff, Matthew Wong, Carolee Schneemann, Ed Clark, Francisco Toledo, Bruce W. Ferguson, Mavis Pusey, Lutz Bacher, Robert Ryman, Gillian Jagger, Joyce Pensato, Mary Abbott, Charles Ginnever, Marisa Merz, Claude Lalanne, Ronald Jones, Ingo Maurer, John Giorno, David Koloane, Huguette Caland, Jill Freedman, Robert Frank, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Dan Robbins, I.M. Pei, Stanley Tigerman, Douglas Crimp, Hildegard Bachert.

Visions and Revisions

1. Bad Money

The most radical museum events of 2019 were the many individual protests aimed at questionable sources of art patronage. Nan Goldin called for institutions to cut ties with the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin; Decolonize This Place demanded the ouster of the Whitney board’s vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, whose company, Safariland, manufactures tear gas; the Guerrilla Girls went after the Museum of Modern Art trustees Leon Black and Glenn Dubin for their business relationships with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; several activist groups targeted a third MoMA trustee, Larry Fink, over his company’s investment in the private prison industry. But, goes an old argument, hasn’t art always been bankrolled by bad money? Sure, goes the new thinking, but why should that be O.K.?

2. A Historic Biennial

The 2019 Whitney Biennial made history: Of its 75 artists, a majority were nonwhite, and half were women. That the art chosen by the curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, complicated identities, rather than narrowing them down, added to the show’s politics of resistance.

3. A Museum Under Revision

On the occasion of its reopening, after a $450 million, 47,000-square-foot expansion, MoMA took steps, cautious but significant, toward rethinking the obsolete white, male, nationalist version of Modernism that has long been its brand. The obvious difference now is the presence of “difference” itself in the form of art — a lot recently acquired — from Africa, Asia, South America and African America, and an unprecedented amount of work by women. Is the rethinking foundation-shaking or skin-deep? Time will tell. The museum promises a complete rehanging of the permanent-collection galleries every 18 months, and all eyes will be on the first rotation. With much to admire and much to argue with, the general direction feels right.

4. A Plus

Exhibitions celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the budding gay liberation movement were widespread last summer. There were several in New York, and, as commemorations tend to do, they felt simultaneously resurrecting and entombing. The exception was the very lively “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” at the Brooklyn Museum. About to close (it is on view through Dec. 8), it’s a survey of new art that carries the story of liberation forward into the L.G.B.T.Q.+ present and into realms of gender fluidity that sometimes found a chilly reception within the gay movement itself in the L.G.B.-only days of 1969.

5. Breaking News From the Past

The most innovative historical show I saw last season was “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It took the classic ancient-art-survey model, with its chronological lineup of archaeological treasures, and filtered it through 21st-century realities. Several of the sites considered — Palmyra and Dura-Europos in Syria, Hatra in Iraq — have in recent years been subject to campaigns of ideology-driven destruction, disasters that the show addressed directly and throughout.

6. True Monuments

Contemporary public sculpture has an iffy track record, but we got sterling examples this year. Simone Leigh’s “Brick House,” a 16-foot-tall bronze figure of a black woman merging with an African architectural form sits commandingly on the spur of the High Line that bridges 10th Avenue. Four luminous bronze female figures by Wangechi Mutu fill the once empty sculptural niches on the Met’s Fifth Avenue facade. And, in an extension of Siah Armajani’s traveling survey at the Met Breuer, the Public Art Fund installed that artist’s ineffably poetic “Bridge Over Tree” on the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

7. Retrospectives, Finally

In 2019, museums trained a spotlight on important but little-known artists in retrospectives of work by Alvin Baltrop at the Bronx Museum; Harmony Hammond at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn; Mrinalini Mukherjee at the Met Breuer; and Zilia Sánchez at the Phillips Collection in Washington (and now at El Museo del Barrio in New York). For me, the most stirring survey of all was an informal one. On a visit to Medellín, Colombia, I was taken into the storage area of the city’s Museum of Modern Art, where the director, Emiliano Valdés, pulled out rack after rack of paintings by the great Colombian political artist Débora Arango (1907-2005).

8. Gallery Solos

Outstanding, among the short-term sightings of the season, were Alex Katz’s big, dark, deep landscapes at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise; William Powhida’s exquisitely incisive, connect-the-dots dissections of art and politics (including the Kanders affair) at Postmasters; and a David Hammons solo at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles which, blocks away from one of the country’s largest urban homeless encampments, included its own tent city.

9. A Bigness Problem

Hauser & Wirth was one of a handful of international gallery franchises — Gagosian and David Zwirner are others — busy hoarding artists and real estate. Zwirner made interestingly offbeat things of its imperial power in two excellent group shows: “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,” put together by the critic Hilton Als, and “The Young and Evil,” organized by the artist and writer Jarrett Earnest. Gagosian, by contrast, continued to calcify into utter predictability. It is now often the equivalent of a luxury car showroom and an art bank.

10. Losses

In October, New York City’s much-admired cultural affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl, who knows local art and its history better than anyone in town, abruptly resigned from his post. In July, the blind poet and East Village legend Steve Cannon, founder of the journal A Gathering of the Tribes, died, and with him went the spiritual archive of an irrecoverable New York era.

11. Moving Up

This year, as in most years, I looked to smaller museums and university galleries for unusually inspiring and instructive shows. I found a gem in “Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal” at Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Assembled by two scholars, Jinah Kim and Todd T. Lewis, it uses objects to tell a tale of the little-studied traditions of a popular religious art in the Kathmandu Valley, an art that is devotional, intensely social and inevitably political, and one that takes the pursuit of do-no-harm generosity as its subject, creed and goal.

Art for Our Moment

1. ‘Sun & Sea (Marina)’

Their names are Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte — and these friends from Kaunas, Lithuania, the immensely deserving winners of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale, created an unforgettable performance whose even temper cloaked an ecological sucker punch. In “Sun & Sea (Marina),” an opera staged continuously on an artificial beach, bathers sang blithely of package holidays and disposable water bottles, and faintly sensed that the seasons are coming unstuck. In November, Venice’s worst flooding in half a century shuttered the Biennale and inundated Saint Mark’s Basilica, just as the populist-led regional government rejected a raft of climate measures. But some of the Lithuanian pavilion’s sand has been recycled, to bulk up an island disintegrating into the lagoon.

2. Okwui Enwezor

Some deaths feel like the end of an era — but the example of Okwui Enwezor, the most significant curator of the last 30 years, will govern for decades over the global art world he helped forge. In exhibitions like the ravishing “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale,”which opened at the Haus der Kunst in Munich just before his death in March, the Nigerian modeled a broader artistic discourse nourished by politics, economics and current events, and affirmed that African artists were as “contemporary” as their Western counterparts. If it now seems self-evident that an exhibit with new art only from the United States and Europe is provincial, that is because of Okwui, who in art and in life made cosmopolitanism an ethical duty.

3. MoMA Turns South

Among the inaugural offerings at the larger, nimbler, hardly perfect, much improved Museum of Modern Art, the most important is “Sur Moderno”: a stupefying showcase of more than 200 midcentury abstract works from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. These gifts from the collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros make essential viewing on their own; when they later get integrated into MoMA’s refreshed collection displays, they will reshape a museum approaching fluency in Spanish and Portuguese.

4. ‘Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey’

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exquisite exhibition of these architectural images of the 1840s — including the first photos taken of Athens, Cairo and Jerusalem — was one of the finest shows of early photography I’ve ever seen. Its intertwined themes of technology, colonialism and wanderlust still resound in the time of Google Street View.

5. New Old Masters …

Three museums reclaimed undersung heroes of European art of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Brussels’s Center for Fine Arts, known as Bozar, brought out the paintings, prints and tapestries of the all-media monster Bernard van Orley; the Palazzo Reale in Milan revived Antonello da Messina, the Sicilian savant; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington went to bat for Verrocchio, the artistic paterfamilias of Medici Florence. Add to these a new show of the Renaissance women Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and old canvases are looking mighty fresh.

6. … and One (Leonardo) Reborn

The Musée du Louvre’s “Leonardo da Vinci” took a decade to organize, with loans uncertain until opening day. But the curators Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank pulled off a benchmark achievement in cobwebs-clearing, which sloughed off celebrity and conspiracy and returned Leonardo to us as a genuine artist. The very archetype of a scholarly blockbuster.

7. ‘Matthew Barney: Redoubt’

Mr. Barney’s return to his birth state of Idaho inspired his greatest film since the “Cremaster” cycle, infused with a new agility thanks to the intrepid dancer and choreographer Eleanor Bauer. His freer gaze on American exceptionalism and environmental degradation was also channeled into electroplated etchings and ambitious multimetal sculptures, now at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

8. Lee Ufan

In Beacon, N.Y., the Dia Art Foundation has been undertaking a quiet but considerable broadening of its collection — and made its most profound new addition this summer, with an impeccable new display by Lee Ufan, Korea’s most significant sculptor. In the company of Mr. Lee’s delicate contrapuntal arrangements of sand, rope and boulders, Dia’s American and German all-stars suddenly seemed a bit ponderous.

9. Christodoulos Panayiotou

If you think institutional critique is a joyless enterprise, two heart-stopping shows by this Cypriot artist reveal the romance in mining the museum. At the Camden Arts Center in London, Mr. Panayiotou took the doors off their hinges and replaced window panes with pink glass to equate two sundered islands: his own Mediterranean homeland and Brexit-divided Britain. And at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, he evoked the wreckage of time through the most subdued gestures, like a Rodin installed backward and a carpet exhumed from the museum’s trash.

10. The Paris Fire Brigade

History tumbles toward oblivion, yet still heroes rush in. The blaze that engulfed Notre-Dame on April 15 came much closer than first acknowledged to annihilating the 850-year-old cathedral. It stands, roofless but intact, thanks to the 600 lionhearted firefighters and engineers who risked their lives for the world’s cultural patrimony. The motto of Europe’s largest fire department befits our ecological era: “Sauver ou périr,” save or perish.


10 Must-See Hudson Valley Art Exhibits for December 2019, Chronogram

Posted 12/1/19


Why would an artist make an edition of 500 perfect replicas of a wooden match—from scratch, starting with cutting down a tree—given the fact that utilizing the art for its original purpose would cause it to go up in flames? Sheehan Saldaña’s match and approximately 50 other question-inducing works are on view at the Aldrich, where she reveals herself to be the master of the ready-remade. Beyond clever, her work touches on the anxiety implicit in the matter-of-factness of everyday objects in “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here.” Through May 17


Discover How Artists Are Grappling with the Issue of Climate Change, Art Basel

Posted 12/1/19


Magnetic blue waves hitting Tulum shores have long turned murky brown with surges of massive seaweed mats occupying the Caribbean Sea; brutal fires in the Amazon rainforest have destroyed wildlife and flora at grave scales. In addition to raising their voices on social matters such as justice and identity, many contemporary artists and institutions refuse to remain silent about pressing environmental issues, particularly in reaction to the current government’s perpetual disregard of the subject’s alarming urgency. Aware of environmental decline’s long-term effects on future generations, a growing number of artists underline the importance of altruism for catastrophes impacting remote parts of the globe as much as those with direct hurdles in their daily lives.

Environmental decay in the Caribbean Sea is also the subject for the group exhibition ‘ALLIGA’ at Tulum’s SFER IK (an interdisciplinary, avant-garde exhibition space), where works by Cecilia Bengolea, Sissel Tolaas, Ernesto Neto, and Aki Inomata meld into the museum’s mesmerizing architecture that mixes wooden log paths with winding concrete walls. Berlin-based Tolaas created a scent piece smeared across the museum’s two separate walls, where smells extracted from the region’s clean and seaweed-contaminated waters urge viewers to face environmental decline firsthand. ‘We created conditions of seaweed overgrowth with insufficient sewage systems, Amazon fires and unconscious agriculture,’ explains exhibition curator Claudia Paetzold, who plans to raise public awareness with workshops on sargassum growth throughout the exhibition. The seas’ central role for life in and outside water is also emphasized in Swiss artist Claudia Comte’s underwater installation The Cacti Series, following a TBA21-Academy residency at Alligator Head Foundation in Portland, Jamaica. The artist installed her durable concrete sculptures in East Portland Fish Sanctuary to allow coral growth and accommodate underwater habitat, including divers who are the sole human viewers of the exhibition, which delivers a striking commentary on biodiversity in marine life.

Recent MacArthur Fellowship winner Trevor Paglen’s focus has been to draw attention to the impact that human effort can have on the environment despite the smallness of our species in the larger scheme of the cosmos. The Berlin-based artist collaborated with the Nevada Museum of Art to launch satellite Orbital Reflector into the nocturnal sky on December 3, 2018, with strictly artistic purposes. The $1.5 million ‘sculpture’, made of polyethylene plastic coated with titanium dioxide, added a not-so-subtle commentary into the orbit to remind us of our formative role in this universe, until it fell out of radar range and disappeared in space.

Among artists utilizing poetic touches to address this urgent subject is San Juan-based artist duo Allora & Calzadilla, whose recent Gladstone Gallery exhibition, ‘Cadastre’, included a wash of bright yellow flowers from Tabebuia chrysantha. The duo chose the South American tree species to convey the risk that awaits the Caribbean forests due to a range of causes including colonization and global warming.

And The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum studies changes in depictions of nature in art from romantic landscape paintings to alarming commentaries on deterioration with the group exhibition ‘Weather Report’, up now through March 29, and which includes a vast array of artists such as Nancy Graves, Andy Goldsworthy, Jitish Kallat, and Jennifer Steinkamp. The intergenerational roster of works ranges from Graves’ 1974 watercolor, graphite, and gold leaf painting Untitled (Heat Density Measurement of a Cyclone), based on early infrared satellite imagery of weather conditions, to Nick Cave’s Tondo (2018), which concocts wire, bugle beads, wood, and sequined fabric into a hypnotizing circular sculpture of the cosmos. The museum’s exhibition director, Richard Klein, organized the show upon realizing the relationship between the Earth’s weather and climate change. ‘Once my focus changed from specifically climate change to the larger and more complicated subject of the weather, the project became much more holistic, opening up to artists whose work reflected on the atmosphere in more complex and nuanced ways,’ Klein says about the necessity of an overall approach to an all-encompassing subject like climate change.

This article was originally published in Art Basel Miami Beach Magazine, available in select locations in the US.

Top image: Claudia Comte, Underwater Cacti Series, 2019. Installation view at East Portland Fish Sanctuary, as part of the artist’s TBA21–Academy residency at the Alligator Head Foundation in Portland, Jamaica. Photo by F-Stop Movies, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and TBA21–Academy.


New Aldrich Exhibit Explores the Concept of Safe Spaces, The Ridgefield Press

Posted 11/21/19


“Safe space” is a loaded term these days yet artist Zoë Sheehan Saldaña astutely mines this concept in all its paradoxes to create an exhibition that explores ideas of safe spaces and self-reliance. “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here” will be on view Nov. 24 through May 17 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield.

Sheehan’s work is a study of self-reliance through works of art that focus on creating safety, or rather, the illusion of safety. That the Brooklyn artist painstakingly made all the artworks here by hand from life jackets to “Strike Anywhere” matches that all look as authentic as their mass-produced counterparts adds another layer of meaning to the idea of self-reliance. The objects on view also examine the paradox of utopia/dystopia.

“People are clamoring for enclosure and protection, implying that these things, generally speaking, are in short supply,” writes exhibition curator Glenn Adamson in his catalog essay. “As soon as you enter [the exhibition], you find yourself in what could be called an ‘insecurity closet,’ filled with items you might seek out in an emergency: a flotation life vest, a ball of twine, hand sanitizer, a roll of bandage, a match, even a bottle of homemade ketchup,” which would be just the thing you’d want, Sheehan hypothesizes, when the apocalypse comes.

The attention to detail in her artworks is admirable. Working with only a few collaborators and learning many new skills in the process, Sheehan harvested milkweed fluff as filling for her “Life Jackets” artwork, spun twine, distilled and compounded alcohol to make sanitizer, tin-plated pins, worked with a chemist to make a flammable material for her matches, and personally collected salt in Death Valley.

“There is definitely an idea about self-reliance but there is also an understanding that self-reliance at some point is a myth — one is never wholly self-reliant,” Sheehan said. “There is a kind of futility in the gesture. At the same time you try and try and try but you always need other people.”

The exhibition alludes to issues that incite concern and fear in America today from climate change to politics. Contrasting themes run throughout the exhibition: dark vs. light, comfort vs. danger, fight vs. surrender. A comfortable hammock invites visions of lazy days while a towel seemingly carelessly thrown on the gallery floor could be a metaphor for giving in, literally “throwing in the towel.” A precisely-stacked pile of tin-plated brass pins comprises the artwork, “Wealth of Nations,” and were assembled in the method written by Adam Smith when he describes a visit to a pin factory in his book The Wealth of Nations.

Creating handmade objects for this exhibition reflects the artist’s keen interest in handmade art, not out of a sense of nostalgia but rather to allow viewers to slow down and carefully study each piece of art. “I think it slows awareness down in a way. It slows down the time that you are paying attention to something and that is really a very useful moment for me,” she said.

Sheehan’s artworks echo self-reliance yet point out the futility of acquiring commodities and possessions, which cannot provide a “way out of here” or out of what Adamson describes as a culture of fear. The exhibition’s title itself is a refrain of the opening line of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” song.

Sheehan herself admits some of the artworks will be hard for people to wrap their heads around and some of the more abstract pieces — such as a dropcloth, a single screw and a bottle of handmade ketchup — may leave some viewers scratching their heads if they are expecting to see paintings or sculptures.

“I don’t have particular ambitions for what people take away, I just hope they have an experience and they have the space to have that. Maybe there is a moment where ideally a week later they are thinking about it again and in some way they start to see the world differently around them,” Sheehan said. “That would be my hope that something stays with somebody long enough to then reflect or ripple back out into the world.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalogue, the artist’s first. The catalogue’s cover is printed with ink handmade by Sheehan.

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Life Imitates Art: 4 Colorful Examples, Galerie

Posted 11/18/19


Left: Contemporary photographer Sara Cwynar’s highly stylized pictures reinterpret the glamour and sentimentality of classic images. In her work Red Rose (2017), a blossom’s lush petals become otherworldly when displayed against an artificial felt background. Her first East Coast solo show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, ran through November 10. Right: Prada creative director Miuccia Prada found inspiration in Romantic motifs from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the atelier’s fall/winter 2019 collection, which reimagines the text through the symbolic feminine floral prints and larger-than-life adornments.