By: Re'al Christian

A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s is currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s fine art museum. The exhibit was drawn from the Charlotte Moorman Archive housed at Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. With more than 300 items on view, ranging from film clips, performance props, musical scores, photographs, audio recordings, and vintage posters, this marks the first major exhibition devoted to a groundbreaking, yet under-recognized figure in the post-war avant-garde.

View of the exhibition "A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s", Grey Art Gallery, New York. Photo: Nicholas Papananias.

View of the exhibition “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s”, Grey Art Gallery, New York. Photo: Nicholas Papananias.

Along with works by Moorman, the exhibition includes pieces by some of her frequent collaborators, including Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi, Jim McWilliams, Joseph Beuys, and Giuseppe Chiari, many of whom created works for Moorman to perform. While she is often remembered as Paik’s muse, Moorman -or the “topless cellist,” as she was known- was dedicated to both performing and promoting the innovative work she and her colleagues would create. Moorman later remarked: “With all of my formal training at Juilliard, I feel I know the rules. That’s something that is very important if you are going to break them.”

Vin Grabill, Charlotte Moorman performs Num June Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture on the roof of her loft, 62 Pearl Street, New York, July 30, 1982. ©Vin Grabill.

Vin Grabill, Charlotte Moorman performs Num June Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture on the roof of her loft, 62 Pearl Street, New York, July 30, 1982. ©Vin Grabill.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1933, Moorman began her career as a classically trained musician. After earning an MA in music from the University of Texas at Austin, she moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music while building a career as a freelance classical musician. After attending a concert by fellow Juilliard student Kenji Kobayashi in spring 1961, in which Kobayashi played Cage’s 26’1.1499″ for a String Player a “non-musical” score with sounds of the performer’s choosing-, Moorman began to shift focus. Kobayashi introduced Moorman to the downtown avant-garde arts scene, where composer La Monte Young, artist Yoko Ono, choreographer Simone Forti, and others were experimenting with new interdisciplinary art forms.

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, April 11, 1976. Unidentified photographer, reproduced courtesy Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, April 11, 1976. Unidentified photographer, reproduced courtesy Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Moorman went on to organize fifteen avant-garde festivals from 1963 to 1980 (which are also documented in the show), where she was able to cultivate a strong community of hundreds of artists, filmmakers, dancers, poets, musicians, and festival goers who wanted freedom from the constraints of concert halls, galleries, and museums. Over the years, these festivals migrated from traditional performance venues to public spaces, setting a precedent for future large scale multimedia festivals of this kind.

Charlotte Moorman, Bomb Cello,1965 (left) Bomb Cello, c. 1990 (right) Paint and mixed media on metal, 48 x 10 x 10 in. each Courtesy Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin.

Charlotte Moorman, Bomb Cello,1965 (left) Bomb Cello, c. 1990 (right) Paint and mixed media on metal, 48 x 10 x 10 in. each Courtesy Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin.

A typical performance could include playing a cello made from a practice bomb (i.e. non-explosive), frying an egg or mushrooms, drinking Coke, letting air out of a balloon, breaking glass, or reading passages ranging from a newspaper article on the Watergate scandal to instructions on a box of tampons. Combining classical training with pop culture, Moorman once pointed out: “I don’t feel that I’m destroying any tradition. I feel that I’m creating something new.”

As an artist, Charlotte Moorman subverted traditional notions of beauty and society’s obsession with the female form by referencing the very sources from which these notions began. It is nearly impossible to look at images of Moorman performing and not be reminded of classical paintings of inexplicably nude women lying in repose in scenic landscapes.

One of the many highlights of the show is a video of Moorman performing Yoko Ono’s iconic “Cut Piece” in 1982. The artist sits before a large crowd gathered at the roof of her Manhattan loft. The guest, good-spirited and a little drunk, really give the party life. But the occasion is marked by a solemn tone. It takes place only a few days before she was to have a lump in her breast biopsied, three years after having a mastectomy to remove the other breast.

Kenneth Werner, Charlotte Moorman performing Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece with Nam June Paik, Galerie Aachen, Aachen, West Germany, 1966. Chromogenic color print, Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries.

Kenneth Werner, Charlotte Moorman performing Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece with Nam June Paik, Galerie Aachen, Aachen, West Germany, 1966. Chromogenic color print, Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries.

As each guest approaches to cut a piece from her gown, Moorman exhibits her characteristic stoic sensibility and poise, traits that distinguish her as a master of her craft. Barbara Moore, an art historian and friend of Moorman’s, noted that the artist kept all the remaining scraps of clothing from her numerous performances of this work “packed into heaps of shopping bags, the ultimate dossier,” epitomizing her endless dedication to her work. “Don’t throw anything out” were Moorman’s dying words as she succumbed to her illness in 1991 at the age of 57. The result, the Charlotte Moorman Archive, allows us to trace the prolific career of one of the most provocative artists of the 20th century.


A Feast of Astonishments will be on view at the Grey Art Gallery until December 10.

Also on view: Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive, at The Fales Library, Tracey/Barry Gallery, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, Third Floor.

“I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.” — Diane Arbus, July 1957

With more than 100 never-before-seen photographs, the Met Breuer’s Diane Arbus: In the Beginning explores the early work of a photographer considered by many to be one of the most influential and provocative artists of the 20th century. The exhibit focuses on the first seven years of the artist’s prolific career, from 1956 to 1962, the period in which she developed the idiosyncratic style for which she is now known. The majority of the photographs included in the exhibition are part of the museum’s vast Diane Arbus Archive, acquired in 2007 by gift and promised gift from the artist’s daughters, Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus. The works are intentionally presented neither in sequential nor thematic order, allowing the viewer to wander through the maze-like exhibit any way they choose. That is to say, with no beginning and no end.

Diane Arbus, The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Diane Arbus, The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Born to an affluent New York family in 1923, Diane Arbus was fascinated by photography even before she received her first professional camera in 1941 at the age of 18, a present from her husband, actor and photographer Allan Arbus. She photographed intermittently for the next 15 years while working with him as a stylist in their fashion photography company, which gained such notable clients as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour. In 1956, however, she quit the commercial photography business, and began taking classes at the New School under photographer Lisette Model, the artist’s mentor and lifelong friend. That same year, Arbus numbered a roll of 35mm film #1, as if to claim to herself that this moment would be her definitive beginning.

Diane Arbus, Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C. 1956 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

In addition to Arbus’s photographs, also on view are works by her two biggest influencers, Lisette Model and portraitist August Sander, as well as some of Arbus’s contemporaries. The exhibit also presents photographs from the artist’s only portfolio, A box of ten photographs. Among these images are some of Arbus’s most iconic works, such as Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967; Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York, 1970; and A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966. Like so many artists, Arbus only achieved real fame after her death in 1971 at the age of 48 when she took her own life. She did exhibit in major venues during her lifetime, but even then, her work was often polarizing. Young Man in Curlers was notably spat on during a group exhibition at MoMA in 1967. A print of this work sold at auction in 2004 for $198,400.

Diane Arbus, Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Diane Arbus, Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

In her work Arbus explores the fine line between fact and fiction, the candid and the posed, revealing something fundamental to human nature. We behave differently when we are being observed—we tend to perform for one another. In fact, many of Arbus’s subjects were performers, from “female impersonators” to circus acts and cartoon characters who straddle that oh-so familiar line between real and imaginary.

While reading the gallery copy of the exhibition catalogue, I happened to sit down next to Patricia Bosworth, journalist and author of a 1984 biography on Arbus. Mrs. Bosworth was having a lively conversation with her husband about the show. They lamented over a lack of “honesty” in the show, as well as the absence of her biography and Arthur Lubow’s recent biography in the museum’s pop-up bookstore, which only sells books published by Phaidon. As for the lack of “honesty,” I believe Mrs. Bosworth was referring to the fact that the museum glossed over some of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the artist’s life, from her open marriage and active libido to her lifelong struggle with clinical depression, details which both Lubow and Bosworth include in their biographies. It is no coincidence that Arbus quit commercial photography during the rise of counterculture in the 1950s and 60s–she documented this culture as much as she was a part of it.

Diane Arbus, Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, Grand Opera Ball, N.Y.C. 1959 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Diane Arbus, Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, Grand Opera Ball, N.Y.C. 1959
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Arbus once said “Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it.” A photograph only represents a split second in time, but in these small moments Arbus was able to capture the humanity in her subjects in a way that many others cannot. You stand in front of them and they return your gaze, asking you to consider the reality of their lives. Whatever conclusions you may draw about these subjects or the intentions of the photographer, it does not take away from one simple truth. At least you know they exist.

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is on view at the Met Breuer through November 27, 2016.

As politically minded as he was self-reflective, Thornton Dial (1928-2016) was difficult to pin down. Since the early 90s, the artist has been featured in exhibitions at museum’s across the country, and over the years his work has been acquired by major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, the MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum, and the Hirshhorn in DC. Inspired by his upbringing in Jim Crow-era Alabama, much of Dial’s early work focuses on issues of race and class, and how the identity of the “outsider” played into national consciousness. The agonized expressions of the figures in Raggly Flag confront us with the contradictory message of unity the American Flag is meant to convey in a nation where many are still treated as second-class citizens. In his later work, Dial began exploring a more universal struggle, while never failing to address the nation with its own problematic history. As the first exhibition in New York since the artist’s passing earlier this year, We All Live Under the Same Old Flag at Marianne Boesky Gallery represents this change of perspective, along with Dial’s ability to capture a wider audience through his use of Americana style and appropriated consumer culture.

The Raggly Flag, 1989 Enamel on wood 48 x 96 inches 121.9 x 243.8 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

The Raggly Flag, 1989 Enamel on wood 48 x 96 inches 121.9 x 243.8 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

As a self-taught artist, Dial began his sculptural style of painting by compiling found objects and scrap materials from his job as a metalworker. He was able to transform old tires, chains, twigs, and rusted tools into highly textured and often expressionistic wall reliefs, paintings, and works on paper. His practice of weaving used fabrics together harkens back to the tradition of African American quiltmaking, seen in Negro History, a relatively recent work made from carpet, metal, putty, oil, enamel, and spray paint on wood.

Negro History, 2003 Carpet, metal, putty, oil, enamel, and spray paint on wood 50 x 49 x 3/4 inches 127 x 124.5 x 1.9 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

Negro History, 2003 Carpet, metal, putty, oil, enamel, and spray paint on wood 50 x 49 x 3/4 inches 127 x 124.5 x 1.9 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

Thornton believed in the individual interpretation of his work, but his titles are often times highly charged and specific to the black community and experience, which the gallery refers to as “a secret language of symbols that convey strength, survival, and freedom – important to the dialogue of the black experience.” The extent to which this language is “secret” can be left up to the viewer; nevertheless, Negro Story is an apt title for a work that takes something old and worn and uses it to create something beautiful.

We All Live Under the Same Old Flag (Installation Views) Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2016

We All Live Under the Same Old Flag (Installation Views) Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2016

As Dial shifted his focus to wider national histories of oppression and equality, his work became more simplified in form, material, and color. In the weeks following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the artist worked almost non-stop on large-scale paintings and sculptures in an attempt to capture a national ethos. The resulting works incorporate the expressive quality of his earlier works, but are more focused on scale and composition. Winter Jackets, a beautiful painting featuring a figure in the grasps of a ghostly form, represents this newfound sensibility.

Winter Jackets, 2007 Clothing, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood 80 x 66 x 2 inches 203.2 x 167.6 x 5.1 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky.

Winter Jackets, 2007 Clothing, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood 80 x 66 x 2 inches 203.2 x 167.6 x 5.1 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky.

Dial left behind a visually and historically rich body of work that tells anything but a singular perspective. “Art is a guide for every person that is looking for something,” Dial said in an interview with the New York Times. “That’s how I can describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something.”

Thornton Dial: We All Live Under the Same Old Flag closes Saturday, June 18, 2016.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Watercolors and Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection is currently on view at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, featuring 30 never before seen watercolors, prints, and drawings. The exhibit focuses on Kirchner’s development as a draftsman from the establishment of the German Expressionist group, Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905, to his personal and professional downfall with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, his subsequent exile to neutral Switzerland, and his eventual suicide in 1938 at the age of fifty-eight.

Kirchner once said, “Ecstatic drawing is the foundation of the new art.” Fittingly, many of the drawings presented in the exhibit are the result of quick, fifteen minute studies in which both the artist and the model were constantly in motion. In an essay that accompanies the exhibition, Kirchner is quoted as saying, “My painting is a painting of movement…I find the observation of movement especially inspirational. From this comes a heightened feeling for life, which is the origin of all artistic creation.”

Two Dancers, 1927. Pen and ink, watercolor and graphite on thin cream wove paper. 8 3/8 x 6 1/4 (21.3 x 15.9 cm). Formerly collection Robert Lehman.

Two Dancers, 1927. Pen and ink, watercolor and graphite on thin cream wove paper. 8 3/8 x 6 1/4 (21.3 x 15.9 cm). Formerly collection Robert Lehman.

Along with Kirchner, Die Brücke was founded by Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who were later joined by Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. Neither Kirchner nor the other three founding members of the group had much formal training in art. They did, however, share a belief in the transformative power of art, as well as a contempt for bourgeois society. Artists working in Europe were drawn to the perceived innocence of so-called “primitive” arts of colonized and developing countries, a concept that has been analyzed more critically in recent decades. The Brücke artists, then, had a retrograde view of society in which people were uninhibited by the decorum of European society.

Standing Nude Woman with Folded Arms (Gerda Schilling) 1913-14. Pen and ink on thin cream wove paper. 6 7/8 x 5 (17.5 x 12.7 cm). Formerly collection Robert Lehman.

Standing Nude Woman with Folded Arms (Gerda Schilling) 1913-14. Pen and ink on thin cream wove paper. 6 7/8 x 5 (17.5 x 12.7 cm). Formerly collection Robert Lehman.

Kirchner has been called the “quintessential Expressionist,” a label the artist himself rejected. The term “Expressionism” is difficult to define, but came from an exhibition catalogue from around 1910 which featured works by painters such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and André Derain. The influence of these artists can be seen in much of Kirchner’s work, especially his woodcut printing, which he admired for its ability to imitate tribal arts in Africa. Expressionism, as opposed to Impressionism, refers to a kind of art that looks beyond surface appearances, resulting in a highly subjective, often distorted perception of the world. Although there are phases of extreme abstraction in the artist’s body of work, Kirchner never completely abandoned recognizable subject matter, believing that, “All art needs the visible world and will always need it…because, being accessible to all, it is the key to all other worlds.”

Frau Professor Goldstein (Kohnstamm Sanatorium) 1916. Woodcut on blue blotting paper. 18 x 9 1/2 (45.7 x 24.1 cm).

Frau Professor Goldstein (Kohnstamm Sanatorium) 1916. Woodcut on blue blotting paper. 18 x 9 1/2 (45.7 x 24.1 cm).

While Kirchner was inspired by his association with the other artists in Die Brücke, as well as other contemporary movements like Cubism in France and Futurism in Italy, Kirchner’s pervasive fear of modern civilization had a perceivable effect on his artwork, especially during his time in Berlin. One of the prints included in the exhibit, Gentleman with Lap Dog in Cafe (1911) represents the isolation he felt during his Berlin years. The titular man sits at a table with another figure who sits with his back to the viewer. The gentleman’s face is contorted into what looks like a grimace, while his companion’s head is almost completely cut off. A third figure, that of a woman, ambiguously lingers in the background, but her face is obscured by a black shadow. The stylization, sharp angles, and heavy contrast between light and dark are characteristic of German Expressionism, as is the feeling of uneasiness we are met with while observing them. Moreover, the print conveys Kirchner’s paranoia in a society increasingly occupied with social diversion and good taste.

Gentleman with Lap-Dog at the Café, 1911. Woodcut in two colors on textured heavy cream wove paper. Signed, upper right. 7 1/8 x 9 1/4 (18.1 x 23.5 cm). The only known impression; hand-printed by the artist. Gercken 441. Private collection.

Gentleman with Lap-Dog at the Café, 1911. Woodcut in two colors on textured heavy cream wove paper. Signed, upper right. 7 1/8 x 9 1/4 (18.1 x 23.5 cm). The only known impression; hand-printed by the artist. Gercken 441. Private collection.

The end of Die Brücke in May of 1913 only furthered the artist’s sense of alienation as he found himself alone in the crowded streets of the Berlin metropolis. Nevertheless, this was a productive time for the artist, as he was able to create a series of drawings and paintings that captured the frenetic spirit of modern life, but in a way that allowed him to remain distant from his bourgeois compatriots. The outbreak of World War I, however, left the artist feeling stifled, and eventually caused him to move to Switzerland after suffering a mental breakdown and a decline into alcoholism shortly after enlisting in the army. He found refuge in a Swiss sanatorium, and was inspired by the landscape outside of his window.

Sertig Valley, Davos, 1936. Crayon and graphite on thin off-white wove paper. 6 1/4 x 5 1/8 (15.9 x 13 cm). Formerly collection Robert Lehman.

Sertig Valley, Davos, 1936. Crayon and graphite on thin off-white wove paper. 6 1/4 x 5 1/8 (15.9 x 13 cm). Formerly collection Robert Lehman.

With Hitler’s election in 1932, Kirchner’s worst fears were realized, as he faced the critical rejection of his work, the moral downfall of modern civilization, and the threat of a catastrophic war. In 1937, the Nazis staged their Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich, which included Kirchner’s work, as well as that of his former Die Brücke colleagues. He died the following year, no longer feeling safe in his new country and disillusioned by the world around him. Although they were never officially married, his widow, Erna, was able to obtain the legal rights to the artist’s last name and kept his estate. The majority of the works on view in the exhibit were purchased in 1959, two decades after the artist’s death, on behalf of Robert Lehman from a gallery in Germany. Kirchner strove to capture what he often referred to as “the ecstasy of first sight,” or the feeling evoked by a first encounter, a feeling that is very well captured in this exhibit. “Sometimes,” he explained, “the great secret that lies beneath all the happenings and things in our environment becomes fleetingly perceptible…We can never express it concretely, but only give it symbolic form.” In other words, “make visible the invisible.”

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner will be on view at the Galerie St. Etienne until July 1, 2016. The gallery will also be participating in Art Basel in Switzerland June 16-19.

See also: Munch and Expressionism at the Neue Galerie in New York, closing soon.

Louise Bourgeois: No Exit is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Bourgeois (1911-2010) is best known for her large-scale sculptures, one of which is located in the museum’s sculpture garden. However, with twenty-one works, including drawings, prints, and sculptures, the exhibit provides an intimate look into the mind of a truly remarkable artist as she contemplated themes of life, death, domesticity, and womanhood.

The French-American artist was born to a prosperous Parisian family in 1911. Her family owned a gallery in Aubusson, the tapestry producing region of central France and home to Bourgeois’s mother’s family. The artist spent part of her childhood working in the gallery where her family sold and restored antique tapestries, helping repair them by filling in worn areas, using lines to indicate where stitches should be made. These experiences made a lasting impression, as displayed in Bourgeois’s early works on view in the National Gallery’s exhibition. The images recall the cascading rivers and mountain peaks of Aubusson, while simultaneously recalling the interweavings of textiles.

Louise Bourgeois, La tapisserie de mon enfance–Mountains in Aubusson (The Tapestry of My Childhood), 1947. Brush and black ink and gouache on cream paper: 19 x 12 in. (48.3 x 30.5 cm)Corcoran Collection (Gift of William H. G. FitzGerald, Desmond FitzGerald, and B. Francis Saul II) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, La tapisserie de mon enfance–Mountains in Aubusson (The Tapestry of My Childhood), 1947. Brush and black ink and gouache on cream paper: 19 x 12 in. (48.3 x 30.5 cm) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

She began her long and prolific career as an artist in the early 1930s after being introduced to the Surrealists, whose ideology centered on the creative potential of the unconscious mind. After marrying the American art historian Robert Goldwater and moving to New York in 1938, she became reacquainted with the European Surrealists who were exiled during the war. Yet, the artist herself denied the label of a Surrealist. “At the mention of surrealism, I cringe. I am not a surrealist.” Still, it is difficult to separate the whimsicality and bizarre juxtapositions of her work from that of the Surrealists, or even their predecessors, the Dadaists. The works in the show bring to mind Francis Picabia’s mechanical portraits, Max Ernst’s collages, or Joan Miró’s landscapes.

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 7, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 17.78 x 13.65 cm (7 x 5 3/8 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 7, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 17.78 x 13.65 cm (7 x 5 3/8 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Instead Bourgeois preferred the label of existentialist, admiring the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit, from which the exhibition takes its name, is the story of three recently departed souls on their way to hell, anticipating the physical torment they are about to endure. As it turns out, the pain they experience in hell is not physical, but psychological. Their hell is being trapped in a room from which there is no escape for all eternity with the people they despise the most, each other just imagine going to a dinner party with all the people you’ve ever blocked on Facebook, and then multiply that feeling by infinity. As Sartre famously says, “Hell is other people.”

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1952. Painted wood and plaster, overall: 161.9 cm (63 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1952. Painted wood and plaster, overall: 161.9 cm (63 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

While Bourgeois draws her inspiration from Sartre, her personal hell seems to be the absence of other people. The nine engravings and enigmatic parables that volume He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947) show Bourgeois at her most Surreal. The subjects, ranging from a little girl who buried her coveted candy in the ground, only to find that it has been ruined by the damp soil, to a man who cuts up his wife and serves her at a dinner party, represent what the artist referred to as “tiny tragedies of human frustration.” The characters of her story show indifference, or even cruelty towards one another, conveying the deep sense of isolation that often embodies Bourgeois’s work. We are left with a sense of ambivalence towards them, they commit acts that signal both internal and external conflict. One plate tells the story of a loving but overbearing mother, and a son “of a quiet nature and rather intelligent,” but who is indifferent to his mother’s love. The prodigal son leaves, and later the mother dies without his knowledge. Three haunting, elongated figures occupy the space, prompting us to wonder who the third figure could be. The feeling we are left with is one of remorse and sympathy for the mother, but also for the son. The print could be semi-autobiographical, Bourgeois lost her mother at 21 years old, around the time she was beginning her career. This loss had a profound effect on her artwork, seen especially in her series Maman, and again in what could be seen as a companion piece, M is for Mother (1998). The latter, on view in the exhibit, is a drawing of an imposing letter M that conveys both maternal comfort and control. With such a conflict, Bourgeois forces us to question our relationships with those around us.

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 9, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 22.54 x 10 cm (8 7/8 x 3 15/16 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 9, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 22.54 x 10 cm (8 7/8 x 3 15/16 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Like Sartre, she believed that free will was the essence of existentialist thought, but unlike Sartre, she also believed that our pasts inform our future. Deeply fixed memories inspired her oeuvre over the course of a remarkably long career. This reluctance to let go meant that she rarely considered a work finished, generally leaving open the possibility of a future iteration. One of her later books, the puritan (1990), deals precisely with this theme. This bound volume of eight hand-colored engravings on handmade paper takes place in New York, and is a story of lost love. “With the puritan,” Bourgeois explained, “I analyzed an episode forty years after it happened. I could see things from a distance…I put it on a grid…I considered the situation objectively, scientifically, not emotionally. I was interested not in anxiety, but in perspective, in seeing things from different points of view.”

Louise Bourgeois, the puritan (4), 1990. Engraving in black with additions in gouache on Twinrocker handmade paper with Japan gampi chine collé. Plate: 42.55 x 27.31 cm (16 3/4 x 10 3/4 in.) Sheet: 65.72 x 50.17 cm (25 7/8 x 19 3/4 in.) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, the puritan (4), 1990. Engraving in black with additions in gouache on Twinrocker handmade paper with Japan gampi chine collé. Plate: 42.55 x 27.31 cm (16 3/4 x 10 3/4 in.) Sheet: 65.72 x 50.17 cm (25 7/8 x 19 3/4 in.) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

A number of sculptures are included in the exhibit as well, ranging from her small but recognizable cast Germinal (1967), to the life-sized sculptures the artist referred to as “Personages.” These sculptures, Bourgeois said, were made to be exhibited at ground level so that they could be interacted with “like people.” While they exist in our space, they also stand isolated and detached. Made from modest, often discarded materials and employing simple methods of construction, these totemic figures reflect a wartime sensibility of salvage and reuse in a damaged environment.

Louise Bourgeois, Mortise, 1950. Painted wood, overall: 152.4 x 45.7 x 38.1 cm (60 x 18 x 15 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, Mortise, 1950. Painted wood, overall: 152.4 x 45.7 x 38.1 cm (60 x 18 x 15 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Bourgeois’s work asks a timeless and essential question: in periods of conflict, uncertainty, or hostility, can we live meaningful lives? It seems to me that Bourgeois would say that it is in these moments that we are at our most authentic, and that the greatest struggle we have to overcome is not external, but internal. This is, however, a question Bourgeois would want us to answer for ourselves.

Louise Bourgeois: No Exit is on view until May 15, 2016.

I recently got back from a short, museum-packed trip to Washington, D.C. for spring break. Do you remember the museum scene from Passport to Paris? It was a little like that, except unlike Mary-Kate and Ashley, I had a blast. Among the multiple Smithsonian institutions I visited, one of my favorites was the National Museum of African Art (not to be confused with the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening this September). The seemingly small but uniquely designed museum first opened its doors in 1964. At the time it was known as the Museum of African Art, located on Capitol Hill in a townhouse that had been the home of Frederick Douglass. In August 1979, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution. It is now located on the National Mall (which, by the way, is full of cherry blossoms this time of year, in case you’re planning your own “wanna get away” trip).

Emandulo Re-Creation (detail)

Robbin Ami Silverberg (b. 1958, United States) and Kim Berman (b. 1960, South Africa), Emandulo Re-Creation (detail), Johannesburg, South Africa: Artist Proof Studio, 1997 Edition 6/30

Among other exhibits, now on view is Artists’ Books and Africa. The twenty-five books included in the exhibition are either by African artists or feature traditional African themes, and all come from the permanent collections of the museum and the Smithsonian libraries. Through the books, the exhibition explores African history and cultures by embodying collective memory and reclaiming cultural heritage and storytelling. The show features fine art books as well as those employing multiple formats, materials and techniques by predominantly contemporary artists.

Bruce Onobrakpeya (b. 1932, Nigeria), Bruce Onobrakpeya Portfolio of Art and Literature (detail), Lagos, Nigeria: Ovuomaroro Studio & Gallery, 2003, Edition 19/75

The books range in theme from personal narratives to reflections on the human condition. The sprawled out pages of Atta Kwami’s (b. 1956 in Ghana) Grace Kwami Sculpture (1993) resemble the form of a spider, drawing upon the African folklore of Anansi, the mischievous but knowledgeable spider known for his cleverness and skill, to tell the story of the artist’s mother, Grace Kwami (1923–2006), who was also an artist. Each of the book’s “legs” show pictures illustrating Grace’s life, creating a metaphor between the skillfulness of the spider and the creativity of the artist’s mother (my mind immediately went to Maman by Louise Bourgeois).

Atta Kwami (b. 1956, Ghana), Grace Kwami Sculpture, London: Atta Kwami, 1993, Edition 6/32

Another artist, Judith Mason (b. 1938 in South Africa) and poet Wilma Stockenström (b. 1933 in South Africa) use the book to visualize pain, or more specifically, a woman’s pain. In their book, Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou (Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman), Mason uses lithographs of pencil illustrations and collages of torn paper as the background for Stockenström’s enigmatic yet thought provoking words. Written in free verse Afrikaans, Stockenström contemplates the role of women in society, as well as other existentialist themes such as death and the afterlife.  The ripped pages signify a kind of trauma presumably felt by all women, whether from childbirth, intercourse, or menstruation. The poetry is not fully translated into English, but even without textual reference, the message of the powerful and often visceral images is clear.

Judith Mason, Wilma Stockenström, Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou (Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman) (detail), Pretoria, South Africa: Ombondi Editions, 1988, 2010

The versatility of artist books shows how their form and structure often supercede their content. Inspired by the “power to the people” mindset of the 1960s, inexpensive artists’ books referred to as “democratic multiples” are made to be distributed to as many people as possible, and typically convey social or political messages. South African artist Luan Nel’s (b. 1971) piece Paper: An Installation by Luan Nel at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet takes the form of a tiny deck of cards. Looking at the cards feels like taking a Rorschach test as the small, ambiguous figures gradually create stories and sequences the longer you engage with them. The images are playful, but also veil the experiences of the artist’s life, addressing his homosexuality, Afrikaans heritage, his upbringing in the strict Dutch Reformed Church, and being drafted by the South African army during the era of apartheid.

Luan Nel, b. 1971, South Africa, Paper: An Installation by Luan Nel at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet (detail), Cape Town, South Africa: Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet, 1997

The books are beautiful, surprising, darkly humorous, and at times bizarre. At first glance they seem to be purely aesthetically driven, but each page reveals something about the artist who created it. Artists’ Books and Africa will be on view until September 11, 2016 at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Glenn Ligon has always had a preoccupation with the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality. Ligon’s two exhibitions What We Said The Last Time and We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, in which the artist illustrates his engrossment with these subjects, are occurring simultaneously at Luhring Augustine‘s Chelsea and Bushwick locations.

What We Said The Last Time features a series of seventeen enlarged prints from the paint-splattered pages of the artist’s well-worn copy James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” from Notes of a Native Son (published 1955). Written during a stay in a small settlement in Switzerland, “Stranger in the Village” examines race as a social construct. “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came,” Baldwin writes as he documents his experiences as a gay black man visiting the small Swiss town as a way to better understand the African American identity. Also on view is Entanglements, a curatorial project by Ligon that examines how artists use the studio as a base from which to engage momentous cultural shifts and political events in both direct and oblique ways.  

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 2016, 71 x 49 inches (180.3 x 124.5 cm)

Beginning in 1996, Ligon has used Baldwin’s essay as the basis for his “Stranger” series, which includes prints, drawings, and paintings made from oil slick and occasionally coal dust that nearly obscures the text. While working on this series, Ligon kept copies of Baldwin’s essay on his studio table for reference, and over the years they accumulated a large amount of black paint, oil stains, and fingerprints. This show marks the first time Ligon has used the entirety of Baldwin’s essay in his career. Like so much of Ligon’s work, the resulting prints illustrate the role of intertextuality in contemporary art, and how one medium can simultaneously inform and contradict another. The use of Baldwin’s seminal essay attests to the power of language and ink on paper, but Ligon’s pseudo-redaction of the text tells us something different. One page has the page number and top right corner completely ripped off and thick drops of paint cover sections of the text, but we can still see his quick annotations, contrasting Baldwin’s ruminations with the artist’s own spontaneity.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 2016, 71 x 49 inches (180.3 x 124.5 cm)

We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is in Bushwick opened January 16 and predominantly features Ligon’s Live (2014), a silent video installation based on the 1982 film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. This is not the first time Mr. Ligon has engaged with Pryor’s work. The artist’s text-based paintings often incorporate references to Pryor’s stand-up, most notably in a series of gold-colored paintings beginning in 1993 based on Pryor’s groundbreaking material from the 1970s. The installation is set up in a circle of six large screens and a smaller screen in a corner. On the smaller screen, we see the unedited version of Pryor’s original performance, while the other screens zoom in on specific parts of Pryor’s body as they appear in the original footage: his head, his shadow, his right hand, his left hand, his mouth, and his groin. The projected images are visible from both sides of the screen, so the viewer can encircle the installation and almost always be confronted by Pryor’s captivating stage presence. Each screen is illuminated only when their designated body parts appear in the original film, so the screens sporadically flicker on and off as your eyes jump around the room to catch his image.

Installation view, We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, Luhring Augustine Bushwick

Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording in 1982, and is still widely considered one of the best comedy albums of all time. Throughout his illustrious career and chaotic personal life, Pryor was anything but shy about his views on sexuality, social injustice, and drug use. On the night on June 9, 1980, for instance, Pryor notoriously lit himself on fire with nothing but a bottle of rum and a match after freebasing cocaine, an incident that undoubtedly accounts for his flame red suit and yellow boutonniere (he also begins his act by asking the members of the audience “Anybody got a light?”)

Installation view, We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, Luhring Augustine Bushwick

By fragmenting the footage, Pryor’s body parts seems to move independently from the others. His rapid gestures seem second nature to him, but his expression shifts seamlessly between deadpan and animated throughout the film. The lack of audio is particularly jarring when we see Pryor erupt into fits of emotional gestures and cursing. These moments are often followed by brief periods of complete silence and darkness as the camera temporarily leaves the comedian’s body.

Installation view, We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, Luhring Augustine Bushwick

Ligon, Pryor, and Baldwin all share an obsession with the idea of black masculinity, but by drawing on this idea rather than readily subverting it, all three were able to contrast the narrative of blackness with its reality. By cutting up Pryor’s image and muting his voice, and by blacking out Baldwin’s text, Ligon illuminates their vulnerability. This installation subtly critiques the social constructs of race and masculinity, but also emphasizes the limits of language in expressing ourselves to one another. The artist forces us to contemplate the ways in which we represent ourselves, both voluntarily and unconsciously. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he also conveys the fact that to be marginalized either as a group or individually means to be silenced, or to essentially be rendered without language. If we do not have language, how do we communicate? Some say that actions speak louder than words, but it seems that Mr. Ligon does not believe the two should be separated.

What We Said The Last Time at Luhring Augustine in Chelsea is on view until April 2, 2016We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is at Luhring Augustine Bushwick is on view until April 17, 2016.   

March 17, 2016

Let’s Talk About Green

nd In the words of Spanish Golden Age dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca, “Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.” In the words of Oscar-winning actor/environmental activist/heartthrob Leonardo Dicaprio, “green is my favorite color. It’s the color of nature and the color of money and the color of moss!” In honor of St. Patrick’s day, let’s talk about green! The color has been associated with everything from nobility (think Mona Lisa’s dress) to the pastoral, and commonly symbolizes rebirth, renewal, and balance. With spring just around the corner, it seems to be an appropriate topic.

Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Ruth Asawa, and Frank Stella are famous by abandoning conventions such as figuration and pedestals, and by incorporating sleek, simplified forms, and emphasizing the most fundamental aspects of art: line, form, and of course color. James Turrell’s light-based sculpture Stuck (Green) could be one of the highlights of the notion. Back in 1966 working in Santa Monica, CA, Turrell began experimenting with light and its ability to artificially define a space. Unlike some other light-based artists, Turrell creates spaces that seem immersive, allowing the viewer to not just see, but also experience color.

James Turrell, Juke, Green, 1968.jpg

James Turrell, Juke, Green, 1968

Whenever I see a Turrell, I cannot help but be reminded of color field painters like Mark Rothko and his “multiforms” or Barnett Newman. Even though Minimalists like Turrell were reacting against the theatricality of the Abstract Expressionists in favor of a reductive aesthetic, I believe Turrell’s work is in many ways a continuation of the color field painters’ attempt to create the illusion of vibrating colors in space. He accomplishes this feat in Struck (Green) as you do feel as though the dim color situated in the corner of a pitch black room slowly begins to radiate outward and envelop you. Whether you find this experience soothing or jarring, the light demands attention and lets you interact with color in a way that you would not be able to in the natural world. Would you expect anything less from a Minimalist?

Skip to toolbar