Monthly Archives: December, 2016

“Simon Starling: Modernism Gazing Into the Past,” By Jason Farago

Masks and Video From “Simon Starling: At Twilight,” an exhibition at Japan Society.
Credit Richard P. Goodbody/2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via DACS, London


“Simon Starling: Modernism Gazing Into the Past”

By JASON FARAGO, 29 December 2016


“Modernism is our antiquity,” the historian T. J. Clark wrote in “Farewell to an Idea,” his 1999 eulogy for the art of the last century. By which he meant: As Greece and Rome served as the base line for Western culture from the Renaissance onward, modernism itself had become our model and myth, to be reinterpreted at will but never really understood. Spend half a day in Chelsea, and you will see few gods and heroes — but you will trip over archives of failed utopian collectives, photos of crumbling tower blocks, rebooted avant-garde dances and all sorts of fragments of the recent past. Ulysses may be dead, but “Ulysses” endures.

Few contemporary artists have wrestled with the legacy of modernism as consistently as Simon Starling, a Scottish artist based in Copenhagen, whose previous projects have involved melting Bauhaus chairs down into beer cans or chucking a replica of a Henry Moore statue into Lake Ontario. Now, in an airtight but gratifying exhibition at Japan Society — his first at a New York City institution — he turns to William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound, two modernist writers who had their own ornery gazes on the past. Yeats’s “At the Hawk’s Well,” a 1916 one-act play indebted to both Irish folklore and Japanese drama, provides the tonic note for Mr. Starling’s “At Twilight,” a forking meditation — featuring both his own art and significant historical loans — on modernism’s cross-cultural power and contemporary resonance.

This is a rare outing for a non-Japanese artist at Japan Society, and it has been curated by Yukie Kamiya, the director of the institute’s art gallery. It opens with a dark, spotlit gallery featuring exquisite lacquered masks, of the sort used in Japan’s highly ritualized Noh theater, attached to charred tree trunks. (The masks were newly made from Paulownia wood by Yasuo Michii, an artisan with whom Mr. Starling has collaborated before.) Rather than recreate the props of “At the Hawk’s Well,” Mr. Starling riffs on its creators and their colleagues in wartime Dublin, Paris and Tokyo. One mask depicts Yeats with a swoop of lustrous white hair, his jaw shut by knotted strings. The one depicting Pound, who served as Yeats’s secretary and translated Noh dramas, is all white and angular, repurposing the bust of the poet sculpted by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1914. Already, then, Mr. Starling is both channeling Yeats’s original play and improvising, to create a remake that chases its own tail.

Yasuo Michii’s “Mask of Nancy Cunard (After Constantin Brancusi)” in the Simon Starling show at Japan Society. Credit The Modern Institute/2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via DACS, London

Yasuo Michii’s “Mask of Nancy Cunard (After Constantin Brancusi)” in the Simon Starling show at Japan Society. Credit The Modern Institute/2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via DACS, London

There are other masks. A gilded one has just two slits for eyes; it represents Nancy Cunard, the hard-drinking heiress who opened her home to Yeats’s performers and whom Brancusi sculpted in a similarly abstract way. Another draws on Jacob Epstein’s “The Rock Drill,” a classic of Vorticist machine romance that later came to symbolize the brutality of World War I. A stern bronze mask with long animal hair depicts Michio Ito, the Japanese dancer in “At the Hawk’s Well”; he played the title bird, who protected a well of immortality. (You may have seen the dashing portrait of Ito on the poster for “Human Interest,” the Whitney’s current show of American portraiture.)

A video features the alluring Thomas Edwards, of the Scottish Ballet, in a hawk costume, as he reimagines the play’s largely undocumented choreography. He swoops his arm down, in flight; he lunges backward, pushing his head to the ground; he bobs left and right, like a disco dancer, against a score of cymbals and horns that charges harder than the flute and drum backdrops of Noh. You can later see his ravishing steel-gray costume, which Mr. Starling designed with a Tokyo atelier.

Mr. Starling, who won the Turner Prize in 2005, first presented “At Twilight” in Glasgow, where the masks were used in a three-night performance of a new play whose characters included Yeats, Pound, Ito, Cunard and Mr. Starling himself. (A critic for the magazine Frieze called the performance “as much theatrical lecture as play.”) At Japan Society, the new masks and costumes are instead placed in conversation with impressive archival materials from Yeats and his circle: letters from the poet detailing the preparations for “At the Hawk’s Well,” on loan from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; “The Rock Drill” from the Museum of Modern Art; and a newly cast edition of Brancusi’s Cunard bust.

Half a dozen Noh masks from the 14th century, and woodblock prints of Meiji-era Japanese actors, reintroduce the theatrical tradition that Yeats and his collaborators — with the confident universalism that we later generations can find suspicious — actually understood rather poorly. And, a bit weirdly, there is a stuffed Eeyore, A. A. Milne’s depressed poetry-writing donkey; Yeats and Pound waited out the war in the Sussex forest where Milne set “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“At the Hawk’s Well (Grayscale),” a mask by Yasuo Michii. Credit The Modern Institute/2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via DACS, London

“At the Hawk’s Well (Grayscale),” a mask by Yasuo Michii.
The Modern Institute/2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via DACS, London

In other, more nervous hands, the kind of archival project that Mr. Starling has undertaken could become defensive, an easy way to buttress one’s own position in an art history that can seem infinite. (When everything’s been done, isn’t it safest to rework an older masterpiece?) What makes this project more engrossing — beyond the beauty of the masks and the elegance of the filmed dance — is Mr. Starling’s understanding of historical modernism as a transnational condition, indeed the first such transnational style, which an Irish playwright, an American poet and a Japanese dancer could share even if they understood it with slight differences. That promiscuous approach is one the globe-trotting Mr. Starling adopts in “At Twilight,” though here Noh theater and Irish legend have been supplanted, as source materials, by modernism itself: The recent past is our own mythology.

And yet gazing on Mr. Starling’s masks and on the photos and letters from a century ago, I felt that the distance between the two bodies of work was not so great. The idea that modernism may be our very own kind of antiquity emerged in the 1990s during a moment of relative peace and permanence that some thought signified the end of history. Two decades later, the themes of Yeats, Pound and other modernists — themes of alienation, decay, a world in fragments — feel more current than anyone expected.

Correction: December 30, 2016
An earlier version of this review was accompanied by a picture whose caption referred incorrectly to the work shown, “Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima).” It is not part of the show at Japan Society.


Simon Starling: At Twilight
Through Jan. 15 at Japan Society; 212-715-1258, japansociety.org.

A version of this review appears in print on December 30, 2016, on Page C19 of the New York edition with the headline: Ah, the Ancient Classic Works of 1916!


Reprint from The New York Times, ART & DESIGN | ART REVIEW, 29 December 2016, © 2016 The New York Times Company

“Modern art breaks free of the old borders,” By Jane Morris

Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress (1956), on display at Munich’s Haus der Kunst
(Photo: © Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association; courtesy of Haus der Kunst)


“Modern art breaks free of the old borders”
New generation of curators and patrons expands the canon to encompass the world beyond the US and Europe

By Jane Morris, 14 December 2016


Even as globalism appears to be going into reverse, major museums are pressing ahead with efforts to broaden the canon and internationalise art history. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York recently announced a gift of more than 100 Latin American works that will change the balance of its collections. Meanwhile, the Haus der Kunst in Munich (a non-collecting institution) is presenting one of the most important reappraisals of the post-war period.

Marwan Rechmaoui's Beirut Caoutchouc (2004-08), on show at the new Tate Modern (Photo: © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Marwan Rechmaoui’s Beirut Caoutchouc (2004-08), on show at the new Tate Modern (Photo: © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

“We have become habituated to seeing the history of post-war art through the lens of America and Europe,” says Okwui Enwezor, the Haus der Kunst’s director. “But there is a new reckoning happening in our field.” The Munich exhibition, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-65 (until 26 March 2017), considers the effect on art of the geopolitical transformations that followed the Second World War, from the liberation struggles of Africa to the divisions of the Indian subcontinent.

Museums including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Guggenheim in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) are also expanding their Modern collections to include work from Africa, Asia and beyond. In the process, they are changing the accepted version of Modern art history.

Curators identified the need to revisit the canon as far back as the 1990s, prompted by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil, and the rise of the internet and cheap travel. Now, museums are devoting unprecedented resources to the endeavour, at least partly thanks to wealthy patrons such as the Latin American art collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Pamela Joyner, whose stated mission is to put African-American abstract artists on the museum map.

The inaugural installation of the new Tate Modern, which opened in June, offers one of the most radical examples of this approach. Curators divided the collection into thematic sections, acknowledging a loose timeline but cutting across geographies. Carl Andre’s floor sculpture Equivalent VIII (1971), for example, is shown alongside works from the 1990s and 2000s by the Chinese artist Liu Jianhua, the Pakistan-born, London-based Rasheed Araeen, and the Brazilian artist Jac Leirner—all of which reference Minimalism and architecture—rather than alongside his fellow US Minimalists.

Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, says the initial decision to acquire work by contemporary artists from around the world “wasn’t really a decision—we just started acquiring”. But as plans for the expansion progressed, curators also began to reconsider art by earlier generations. “We started to realise, if we were rethinking history…how strange it was to only rethink part of that history,” Morris says.

In some ways, the Tate has turned a negative—its patchy collection of Western European and US art, which cannot match that of the Pompidou or MoMA—into a positive. Top examples by Cubists and Abstract Expressionists are largely out of reach, but this is less true of pioneering work from other regions. “We’ve a strong research project connecting Japan, Eastern Europe and Latin America through the framework of the Bauhaus, for example,” Morris explains.

The Tate’s strategy has been to set up a global network of acquisition committees. Morris describes it as a three-part process: securing the help of collectors with strong ties to the region, establishing curatorial networks—often working with in-country adjunct curators—and meeting artists.

Collective memory loss

MoMA’s challenge is rather different: to integrate new narratives into a stellar European and American collection. Ironically, the New York institution was an early advocate of global Modernism. Under its first director Alfred Barr, “the geographic and topical breadth was much wider than the clichéd version of our history now presents,” says Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture. Until the 1950s, the museum frequently acquired work from Latin America, India, Poland and Japan. “That focus was lost in the second half of the 20th century, and from the collective memory too,” she says.

Recently, MoMA has returned to its international roots, organising major surveys on the avant-garde in Japan, Eastern Europe and Latin America. This month, the museum will bring together 300 works in the exhibition A Revolutionary Impulse: the Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde (3 December-12 March 2017).

Behind the scenes, the big investment has been in C-MAP, a research initiative focusing on Asia, Eastern and Central Europe, and Latin American art, involving 50 members of staff. “The museum has committed a great deal of money and staff time to educating ourselves,” Temkin says. Unlike the Tate and the Guggenheim, MoMA does not have in-country adjunct curators. “We want the expertise locked into the fabric of our museum,” she explains.

However, MoMA occasionally recruits specialists. Luis Pérez-Oramas has been its curator of Latin American and Caribbean art for the past decade, a post funded by the collector and art historian Estrellita Brodsky—signalling the willingness of wealthy patrons to drive the agenda forward. “We are part of a much bigger circle of art historians who are realising that the linear narratives that were satisfying to previous generations are not satisfying to us,” Temkin says.

Going local

Lacma’s director Michael Govan says that the local audience was a major driver in the museum’s push to diversify its collection. “During the 60s, 70s and 80s, we were a local museum, and we did the first shows of local artists, like Robert Irwin and Ken Price. As Los Angeles has grown and diversified, we’ve tried to keep pace.”

Reflecting the city’s large Hispanic population, the museum has built a substantial programme devoted to Latin American and Latino art. Now, the emphasis is on Korean and Chinese art, too. (California is home to the largest Korean-American and Chinese-American populations in the country.) In 2019, Lacma will present the first survey of Korean calligraphy outside Korea, spanning 2,000 years.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art re-opened in May with a presentation of the biggest names in American and European Modernism, thanks to the Fisher collection. But its photography holdings are more global. Highlights from its collection of post-war Japanese photography are on show until 12 March.

Audiences’ reactions to this new approach are difficult to measure. Still, in cities as diverse as London, New York and Los Angeles, visitors are likely to be receptive. How this new art history will play to the heartlands of Trump and Brexit is a more complicated question.

New frontiers: who is collecting what

Sharon Neshat's Speechless (1996) (© Shirin Neshat, courtesy of Gladstone Gallery; photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Sharon Neshat’s Speechless (1996) (© Shirin Neshat, courtesy of Gladstone Gallery; photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Middle East
Lacma is building up a significant collection of Middle Eastern artists to complement its historic Islamic collections. Recent acquisitions include works by Shirin Neshat, Abdulnasser Gharem and Youssef Nabil. It is also focused on buying work by Iranian artists ahead of a 2018 show.

Magdalena Abakanowicz's Embryology (1978-80) (© the artist; photo: Marcus Leith; courtesy of Tate)

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology (1978-80) (© the artist; photo: Marcus Leith; courtesy of Tate)

Eastern Europe and Russia
Tate’s current hang shows commitments to Eastern European women, including the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz and Romanian performance artist Ana Lupas. It is also focused on early 20th-century Eastern European photography and the Moscow Conceptualists. MoMA has focused on Fluxus and is currently researching Russian art.

Sam Gilliam's 10/27/69 (1969) is in MoMA's collection (Photo: courtesy of MoMA)

Sam Gilliam’s 10/27/69 (1969) is in MoMA’s collection (Photo: courtesy of MoMA)

African-American art
Both the Tate and MoMA are seeking to expand their holdings of Modern works by African-American artists, including Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten and Norman Lewis. The Tate curator Mark Godfrey is planning a major exhibition of work by 1960s and 1970s African-American artists next year.

Instant Mural (1974) by the Asco collective (© Asco; photo: Harry Gamboa Jr; courtesy of LACMA)

Instant Mural (1974) by the Asco collective (© Asco; photo: Harry Gamboa Jr; courtesy of LACMA)

Latino art
Lacma has focused on Chicano artists, including the Asco group. Recent acquisitions include works by Laura Aguilar, Ruben Ochoa and Mario Ybarra. With the launch of the Getty-funded initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA in 2017, which focuses on Latin American and Latino art, interest is likely to spread.


Reprint from The Art Newspaper, 14 December 2016, © 2016 The Art Newspaper

“Richard Pousette-Dart: Transcendental Expressionist,” By Jack Kroll

Richard Pousette-Dart, Blue Amorphous #4, 1962, oil on canvas. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate
© ESTATE OF RICHARD POUSETTE-DART/ARISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY


“Richard Pousette-Dart: Transcendental Expressionist

By Jack Kroll


With Pace Gallery having opened a centennial exhibition of Richard Pousette-Dart’s work earlier this week in New York, we turn back to the April 1961 issue of ARTnews, in which Jack Kroll wrote about why the artist’s paintings had been unjustly lumped in with those of the Abstract Expressionists. Below, Kroll’s article follows in full. Unfairly overlooked among pioneer Abstract Expressionists, his show this month again reveals his unique vision of symbols in form. (“Richard Dart: Transcendental Expressionist,” By Jack Kroll, April 1961)


Richard Pousette-Dart’s work has always had a share of recognition, but it has never had the natural (and sometimes unnatural) superfluity of share which appears to be the portion of those artists who form the convivial—in the root sense of the word—academy of the age. He has never had one on the house from the Zeitgeist. Because he is a sensitive man, he is not unaware of the painfulness of this situation. Born in 1916 in St. Paul, Minn., Pousette-Dart has had at least fifteen one-man shows in the past twenty years and has had his niche in many representative exhibitions by type of art, age of artist and other such dragnet operations which automatically bring in most of the local suspects. But somehow he has never been invested with that perpetual aura of cultural candidacy which has sprung up around so many of his contemporaries. And since he is an excellent, idiosyncratic and particularly American painter, the reasons of this deserve looking into.

In 1951 the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition of “Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America,” covering a period of almost four decades, or back to the Armory Show of 1913. The paintings were grouped under five headings; Pousette-Dart came under “Expressionist Biomorphic,” along with among others, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and William Baziotes. Among the characteristics of this kind of painting, as defined by Andrew C. Ritchie in the catalogue, were: “Irregular-shaped forms and calligraphic interlacings bearing, if any, a relation to organic or anatomical forms; composed usually in dynamic, symbolic or emotively suggestive relationships; often showing evidence of automatist or ‘doodling’ origin,” and its origins were Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism. The point is that if a similar exhibition were held tomorrow, Pousette-Dart would probably still be found among the denizens of “Biomorphic Expressionism,” while the unisolated but now historically decisive category of Abstract-Expressionism would claim his more powerful colleagues in that transitory collocation. In the 1940s there as a certain family resemblance between the works of Gorky, Rothko, Gottlieb and even Pollock, and Pousette-Dart; the explosion, the liquefying of an inchoate gaseous energy into the high-octane fuel of Abstract-Expressionism propelled the “significant” American painters right out of Pousette-Dart’s neighborhood and into a brand-new fighting-gang: most of the Sharks became the Jets.

Thus the wrenching violence of the historical trajectory has left Pousette-Dart “behind,” and has given him something of the appearance of a cantankerous and even “eccentric” American original. His work has been amazingly of a piece from the very beginning, and speaking about it, which is not easy for him, is made doubly difficult by an insistence on the part of the questioner concerning influences, dates, chronology, development, and the rest of the historical-analytical apparatus that many painters find quite logical and even congenial. He thinks of his work as unified by a consistency of impulse and motive, and he has no interest at all in the kind of technical discussion which separates the methods and techniques of painting from the matrix of concept and execution which to him is the indissoluble tissue of art. The inexorable growth of a sense of technical crisis, shared by so many of the most seminal American painters who are roughly his age, is something which is so alien to his outlook as to induce in him an almost agonized suspicion that is more than anything else a measure of his distance from their concerns.

Richard Pousette-Dart, Presence, 1956, oil on canvas. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate ©2016 ESTATE OF RICHARD POUSETTE-DART/ARISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

Richard Pousette-Dart, Presence, 1956, oil on canvas. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate
©2016 ESTATE OF RICHARD POUSETTE-DART/ARISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

Pousette-Dart thinks of himself as a religious painter—“religious in a passionate sense.” Harold Rosenberg, in his 1952 article in ARTNEWS which baptized the “American Action Painters,” spoke of the “new movement” as “essentially a religious movement.” But, although the work of both Pousette-Dart and the other Action Painters may be said to concern itself in one way or another with myth, the genetic and generative background of religion, the weight and force of these myths could not be more different. The myth of the Action Painters is the birth of a hero; the myth of Pousette-Dart is the life of an oracular poet. It is perhaps this difference which has given the contemporaneity of the Action Painters much more of a glittering cutting-edge than that of Pousette Dart; the cultural impasses and traffic-jams of our time have made the heroic aspect of the artist’s personality and operation much the most compelling one both for himself and his communicants. Pousette-Dart speaks of his work as a “reflection of being”—this phrase establishes both the closeness and the distance that separates him from the still-being-measured electrical charge of Abstract-Expressionism, which also has a great deal to do with “being,” but whose most representative works are attempted procreations of chancy “new” beings rather than reflections of a transcendent being beyond the arc of human engendering.

Cassirer, in Language and Myth, says: “Myth, language and art begin as a concrete, undivided unity, which is only gradually resolved into a triad of independent modes of spiritual creativity. Consequently, the same mythic animation and hypostatization which is bestowed upon the words of human speech is originally accorded to images, to every kind of artistic representation … The image … achieves its purely representative, specifically ‘esthetic’ function only as the magic circle with which mythical consciousness surrounds it is broken, and it is recognized not as a mythic-magical form, but as a particular sort of formulation.”

Richard Pousette-Dart, Yellow Amorphous, 1950, oil on canvas. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate ©2016 ESTATE OF RICHARD POUSETTE-DART/ARISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

Richard Pousette-Dart, Yellow Amorphous, 1950, oil on canvas. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate
©2016 ESTATE OF RICHARD POUSETTE-DART/ARISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

Pousette-Dart’s symbolic iconography is a language of such formulations. The success of his art will depend on the rightness of the esthetic strategy, as it deploys the rationales of the artist’s craft to intercept in loving forays the continuous flux of unconscious imagery, so that the “magic circle” is broken and re-formed in a constant choreography of raids on the transcendent. Pousette-Dart makes no preliminary sketches or drawings. “Each work is the whole experience from beginning to end within itself. My intention is never the surface but always the inner expression. I strive for the poetic, musical spirit of form through line. All of my work is an attempt to make a structure which stands up by the presence and significance of its own mystical meaning. It is a thing within itself, mirroring different things to different minds.” In this statement, originally referring specifically to a painting of the early 1950s, White Garden, we see clearly the transcendental, in an almost Emersonian sense, nature of Pousette-Dart’s art of religious passion, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency of the individual as an index of the multiple (and even inexhaustable) efficiency of the artist who successfully creates his mystical, musical structure. Pousette-Dart has said: “A painter can paint for the satisfaction of his soul, but he can mean it for everyone.”

White Garden is one of a number of paintings from the early 1950s which are “drawings of lines and rubbing with ordinary lead pencil and titanium white pigment on canvas. It is drawn over and over again until suddenly it contains itself to my feeling.” These paintings are perhaps the least successful he has done; they are reminiscent of the pitfall of the sentimentality of process into which Mark Tobey has now and again fallen, they are like the gestures, the outward forms, the rehearsals, of Pousette-Dart’s characteristic rituals without the final, celebratory fanfare of his exfoliated sacrament. Although Pousette-Dart has used white effectively as a costume for his symbiotic drama, he has achieved his most beautiful effects with color, for which he has a direct and natural feeling both as a “body” for his forms and as an emotional code for the terrain of his iconography. He conceives of the use of color as the central phase of a passage “from white to white,” the record of a metaphysical duration, a Dionysian traversing of poles, “like an area of ground where much dancing has occurred.” This reminds one of Eliot in the Four Quartets: “The complete consort dancing together”—Pousette-Dart has a similar sense of the materials of poetic gesture which can interlock to form a network of meanings in movement with the entire unity (in the case of the painter) shimmering in a sort of amniotic bath of color, that serves to loosen any adhesions of poetic correspondence which might have coarsened the symbology and weakened its plastic provenance. In Penetration, a work of 1958, the passage is from the comparatively uneventful neutrality of color at the periphery of the canvas inward to a “bull’s-eye” climax of yellows, reds, oranges, blues and mustard, with the building up of the paint giving an effect as of a pulverized mosaic, a fused, vitreous Rosetta Stone of lyric gnosticism, a simple calmly achieved success of Pousette-Dart’s quiet but unmistakably genuine reach for ecstasy in the apprehension of relationships among the incunabula of mythic mind.

Richard Pousette-Dart, Blue Scroll #2, 1958, oil on canvas. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate ©2016 ESTATE OF RICHARD POUSETTE-DART/ARISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

Richard Pousette-Dart, Blue Scroll #2, 1958, oil on canvas. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate
©2016 ESTATE OF RICHARD POUSETTE-DART/ARISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

The art of Richard Pousette-Dart seems very much in the line of American “home-made” eidolonian transcendentalism. He is a natural abstractionist in somewhat the same sense that Hart Crane was a natural composer of “abstract” poems—in both cases the complete saturation of the artist in words or signs, produces, through a kind of volitional automatism, a verbal or visual artifact which at its most successful has the compelling power release in the beholder the double sense of the procedural and substantive potency of images formed by the constantly functioning sense of the ineffable as it informs and penetrates the time-bound continuity of our senses. Th dangers of this kind of art, the hermetic numbness that may ensue when the reach fails and the forms parade in juggled dissonance rather than musical articulation, the aborting of the thrust toward complete visualization from the amorphous unconscious, the overly static fenestration of symbols when “family delight” overwhelms poetic renewal—these menacing whirlpools Pousette-Dart, an unusually prolific artist, avoids with remarkable frequency. He has a freshness of approach from picture to picture, a sometimes the approach can become almost an attack, as in a painting calls Savage Rose, where a massing of tall longitudinal forms of ravishing color, sweetened and savaged by the use of drip, bodies forth, not for only time in his work, an instinct for the barbarism of a complex naïveté, one might say explosively provincial, the heady ritual mead of a Whitman-esque Klee, with no desperation to know m to be, but only the unremitting desire to trumpet one’s primal love of the particularized universal.


Reprint from ARTNEWS, 9 September 2016, Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. All rights reserved.


“Altered States: The Etchings of Richard Pousette-Dart”
Extended through January 13, 2017
Del Deo & Barzune, New York
http://bit.ly/2hFAmz5

“Abstract Expressionism”
Until January 2, 2017
Royal Academy of Arts, London
http://bit.ly/2hFJaEV

“Richard Pousette-Dart: The Centennial”
Until Nov 18, 2016
Pace Gallery, New York
http://bit.ly/2hSiiof

One of the Best Shows of the Year — Francis Picabia Retrospective at MoMA

Francis Picabia, Aello, 1930, oil on canvas, 66½” × 66½”.
©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/PRIVATE COLLECTION


“Monster Mash: MoMA’s Retrospective of the Shape-Shifting Provocateur Francis Picabia is One of the Best Shows of the Year

By Andrew Russeth


The history books have always favored artists who are dependable, who show up on the scene at just the right moment, ready to do their thing, and then do it. It is easy to picture Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Georgia O’Keeffe marching through the years, steadily developing their projects and having their shows. Life, of course, rarely works like that. We change, the ground gives way beneath us, and we start again. Life is inconsistent. And artists with inconsistent careers tend to find acclaim only later on, if they do at all. When it does happen, only certain bodies of work, easy to canonize, tend to make the cut. These artists circulate quietly, as rumors or secrets, pictures and stories shared among artists and specialists. Francis Picabia is one of those artists.

If his stories are to be believed, Picabia made copies of his father’s paintings as a boy, and sold the originals to fund his stamp collecting. As a young artist, in the first years of the 20th century, he painted Impressionist pictures from photographs, scandalizing artists and critics by thumbing his nose at the open-air orthodoxies of the school. Then he dove into abstraction, just one in a series of artistic shifts that would place him, at various points, ahead of his time, willfully behind it, or far off to the side. Feeling that consistency was the hobgoblin of small minds helped determine his way of life. “A conviction is a disease,” he once quipped. He wasn’t one for movements. He took up with the Dadaists, but then broke with them, writing “my colleagues annoyed me more and more, some because they believed themselves to be important, others by their sheer stupidity.” He spurned the Surrealists’ invitations. He put together lavish parties on the French Riviera with names like “Thursday Boxing Gala” and “…? And Some Sun,” one featuring live lions and panthers. He had love affairs, painted from soft-core pornography, and, late in his career, made mysterious near-monochromes. His third wife claimed that over the course of his life he had owned more than 100 cars. He signed some of his poems, “Picabia, cannibal, prankster, and loser.” The most famous of them begins: “I am a beautiful monster / who shares his secrets with the wind / What I love most in others / is myself.”

Francis Picabia, Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) (Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance]), 1913, oil on canvas, 9' 6¼" × 9' 10⅛". PHOTO: ©CENTRE POMPIDOU, MNAM-CCI/GEORGES MEGUERDTCHIAN/DIST. RMN–GRAND PALAIS/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/CENTRE POMPIDOU, MUSÉE NATIONAL D’ART MODERNE – CENTRE DE CRÉATION INDUSTRIELLE, PARIS, PURCHASED BY THE STATE, 1948

Francis Picabia, Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) (Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance]), 1913, oil on canvas, 9′ 6¼” × 9′ 10⅛”.
PHOTO: ©CENTRE POMPIDOU, MNAM-CCI/GEORGES MEGUERDTCHIAN/DIST. RMN–GRAND PALAIS/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/CENTRE POMPIDOU, MUSÉE NATIONAL D’ART MODERNE – CENTRE DE CRÉATION INDUSTRIELLE, PARIS, PURCHASED BY THE STATE, 1948

The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” which opens to the public on Monday, captures the artist’s madcap genius in all its glory. It is one of the most exciting, most vital museum exhibitions to appear in the city in the past few years, and the United States has literally never seen anything like it: it’s the first Picabia retrospective in this country since 1970, and by far the most comprehensive.

When it comes to Picabia, comprehensiveness is no mean feat. His art sprawled out—wildly, messily, and thrillingly—for more than half a century. Curated by Anne Umland, of MoMA, and Cathérine Hug, of the Kunsthaus Zurich, where the show opened earlier this year, with MoMA’s Talia Kwartler, the show presents the full range of Picabia’s practice—as a painter, a poet, a letter writer, a party planner, and (not least) an insatiable gadabout—but more than that, it definitively establishes him as one of the key artists of the past 100 years, a figure whose influence, at once comic and manic and dark, continues to reverberate.

Picabia was not yet 30 when he began his mischief. Hanging just beyond the entrance to the exhibition, alongside a handful of other pleasant enough Impressionist scenes, is one that is more than 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It shows trees with thick leaves overlooking light-blue water, sailboats off in the distance. This is Pine Trees, Effect of Sunlight at Saint-Honorat (Cannes), 1906. Picabia was in his mid-20s when he painted it, living in Paris, the only son of a Cuban-born Spanish father who was a diplomat and a French mother, both wealthy, and he was quickly making a name for himself in the once avant-garde, now popular style.

Some critics swooned at Picabia’s pictures, but others registered complaint, one declaring them “a studio trick done by rule, and without any real observation of or reference to Nature.” Which was pretty much true: tossing aside the Impressionists’ commitment to painting outdoors, Picabia was working from photographs, in the comfort of his studio. The resulting canvases are well painted—and decidedly unoriginal. In a superb catalogue essay, art historian Gordon Hughes shows that Picabia even copied the exact locations and angles of older paintings by other artists, like Sisley.

Francis Picabia, Idylle (Idyll), ca. 1925–27, oil and enamel paint on wood, in a frame by Pierre Legrain, framed: 44¼" × 32½" × 3". PHOTO: ©MUSÉE DE GRENOBLE; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/MUSÉE DE GRENOBLE, GIFT OF JACQUES DOUCET, 1931

Francis Picabia, Idylle (Idyll), ca. 1925–27, oil and enamel paint on wood, in a frame by Pierre Legrain, framed: 44¼” × 32½” × 3″.
PHOTO: ©MUSÉE DE GRENOBLE; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/MUSÉE DE GRENOBLE, GIFT OF JACQUES DOUCET, 1931

Picabia had stirred up trouble—and he was just getting started. “Each artist is a mold,” he would declare some two decades later. “I aspire to be many. One day I’d like to write on the wall of my house: ‘Artist in all genres.’ ” The skilled hack was about to rush to the forefront of the vanguard.

In the heady Paris art scene of the 1910s, Picabia shape-shifted into a wildly inventive abstractionist. Angular shapes and curves—like brushy Kandinsky marks somehow gone solid—dart and tumble about these canvases. They look chaotic at a glance, but one senses strange patterns, a disquieting order, beneath all their tumult. (They prefigure, to my eye, some of Julie Mehretu’s most energetic moments.) In 1913 he headed to New York for the Armory Show—he’d been hanging out with Marcel Duchamp in Paris—where he met the American modernists and proved himself something of a publicity hound. “We must devote ourselves to setting down on our canvases not things but the emotions produced in our minds by things,” he told the New York Times.

I would argue Picabia never quite painted a masterpiece—no single, grand picture springs to mind when one thinks of him—and suspect that he would take that as a compliment. Rather than struggle to create iconic showstoppers, he focused on generating a river of images—a sensibility that now makes him feel deeply contemporary. The closest he came to a chef d’oeuvre was probably a pair of large, freewheeling abstractions he made in 1913. Udnie and Edtaonisl, each almost 10 feet square, look roughly how Stravinsky’s most rhythmically sophisticated compositions sound. The MoMA show’s curators have hung them together, and they practically explode off the wall, showing how far Picabia had traveled in just a few years. In a few more, he would go even further.

The ensuing years, when he was associated with the Dada movement, are the ones for which Picabia is best known. (No art history survey of the time is complete without his 1920 combined portrait of Cézanne, Rembrandt, and Renoir as a stuffed monkey, though it has been lost, which is perhaps fitting for so elusive an artist.) He palled around with fellow Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara, writing poems, designing and publishing journals, and drawing and painting his mechanomorphs, depictions of nonsensical machines that double as witty portraits. That period receives a large room in the MoMA show, which proceeds chronologically; it is just crowded enough with artworks to convey the freneticism of the moment without quite overwhelming viewers. A sound system pipes in a voice reading Picabia’s writing, as well as his lone musical piece, The American Nurse (1920), which consists of three plunking piano notes.

Francis Picabia, Parade amoureuse (Amorous Parade), 1917, oil, gesso, metallic pigment, ink, gold leaf, pencil, and crayon on board, 38" × 29". TOM POWEL IMAGING/©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/NEUMANN FAMILY COLLECTION

Francis Picabia, Parade amoureuse (Amorous Parade), 1917, oil, gesso, metallic pigment, ink, gold leaf, pencil, and crayon on board, 38″ × 29″.
TOM POWEL IMAGING/©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/NEUMANN FAMILY COLLECTION

Picabia’s mechanomorphs were prescient, highlighting how even supposedly cold, rational machines contain traces of the body, of personality, of sex. They are also moving, memorializing friends and colleagues. A 1918 portrait of critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire that Picabia most likely drew after his friend was killed in the war shows him as a kind of tightly locked container, and carries a caption from Horace: “Tu ne mourras pas tout entière.” (“You shall not die completely.”) Another, from 1915, has the perspicacious photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz as a sleek camera. These pieces point directly to a wide swath of artists concerned with the sneaky anthropomorphism of objects, from Konrad Klapheck to Mark Leckey to Josh Kline.

It was in 1921, when Picabia split with the Dadaists, that his art began to get truly weird. He satirized the broad move toward Neo-Classicism at the time in various works (one stunner features a urinating dog: don’t miss it), and in the mid-’20s, using commercial Ripolin paint in shocking colors, he painted figures that range from frightening to funny. In one, a green-faced figure with one huge eye and a white suit shows off some lovely pink gloves. Titled at various points as a man and a woman, the figure’s gender is uncertain, but there’s no doubt it would make a fine villain in a Marvel comic. In others, couples kiss ravenously, seeming to consume one another’s faces. Clichéd scenes are pushed beyond any conceivable extreme and then pumped up with heavy doses of hallucinogens. These are often referred to as Picabia’s “Monster” paintings, and they would seem to anticipate various “Bad Painting” moments that would come later—from Magritte’s Vache period in the late 1940s to the work featured in the New Museum’s 1978 “Bad Painting” show, to so much of what gets made by young artists today. Picabia does not so much make a mockery of taste in these works as defenestrate it.

It is tempting to read Picabia’s relentless juggling of styles as a sign of cynicism, or even nihilism, but spending time in MoMA’s show, it becomes clear that neither charge is correct. His works are at once awful and awe-inducing. He executed his silliest ideas with great panache. “He is a great painter because he refuses to be a great painter,” is how a newspaper reviewer put it in the 1940s. He edges dangerously close to sincerity, but reliably finds a way to ruin the moment. He was a skeptic, one who favored indulgence over restraint.

Francis Picabia, Aello, 1930, oil on canvas, 66½" × 66½". ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/PRIVATE COLLECTION

Francis Picabia, Aello, 1930, oil on canvas, 66½” × 66½”.
©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/PRIVATE COLLECTION

It is difficult to look at some of Picabia’s works from between the wars and not get the disturbing sense that he was depicting a culture in stasis, awaiting disaster. In his “Transparencies” of the late ’20s and early ’30s, men and women wearing somber expressions are painted in layers, creating dense tangles of images. These figures are borrowed from centuries of European art, as are other elements in the pictures, like plants, architecture, and the odd Lamb of the Apocalypse. The “Transparencies” are, perhaps, portraits of a psyche, illustrations of the myriad things that come to mind when one views another’s face.

As the forces of war gathered in Europe, Picabia dipped into popular culture for source material, painting movie stars from posters and models from soft-core pornographic images. In some, his figures look sunny, oblivious. The women, all white, often nude, could almost be Third Reich–approved art, the curators note. Today, these paintings unsettle. In other works, the darkness is more direct. In a 1941–42 piece, hands reach greedily for a calf wrapped in a blue cloak, a shadow falling across its face, and in a 1940–41 canvas, a woman seems to derive an erotic charge from a hanged Pierrot, the Commedia dell’arte clown; her eyes closed, head tilting to the side, she is lost in ecstasy.

Francis Picabia, L’Adoration du veau (The Adoration of the Calf), 1941–42, oil on board, 41¾" × 30". PHOTO: ©CENTRE POMPIDOU, MNAM-CCI/PHILIPPE MIGEAT/DIST. RMN–GRAND PALAIS/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/CENTRE POMPIDOU, MUSÉE NATIONAL D’ART MODERNE – CENTRE DE CRÉATION INDUSTRIELLE, PARIS

Francis Picabia, L’Adoration du veau (The Adoration of the Calf), 1941–42, oil on board, 41¾” × 30″.
PHOTO: ©CENTRE POMPIDOU, MNAM-CCI/PHILIPPE MIGEAT/DIST. RMN–GRAND PALAIS/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/CENTRE POMPIDOU, MUSÉE NATIONAL D’ART MODERNE – CENTRE DE CRÉATION INDUSTRIELLE, PARIS

Picabia yoked together sex and death, exploring the malignant corners of human nature, but as much as one might want to understand these works as overt critiques of authoritarianism, the artist actually expressed support at some points for Benito Mussolini and Philippe Pétain, the chief of state of Vichy France. He also made anti-Semitic statements, and after the liberation of Paris, a warrant was issued that accused him of “relations with the enemy,” though it seems nothing ever came of it. (During World War I, he had also used family connections to avoid military service.)

Francis Picabia, La Révolution espagnole (The Spanish Revolution), 1937, oil on canvas, 63¾" × 51¼". PHOTO: COURTESY ARCHIVES COMITÉ PICABIA; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/COURTESY THOMAS AMMANN FINE ART AG, ZURICH/PRIVATE COLLECTION

Francis Picabia, La Révolution espagnole (The Spanish Revolution), 1937, oil on canvas, 63¾” × 51¼”.
PHOTO: COURTESY ARCHIVES COMITÉ PICABIA; ART: ©2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/COURTESY THOMAS AMMANN FINE ART AG, ZURICH/PRIVATE COLLECTION

At the end of the war, Picabia, in his mid-60s, did what he always did: he ripped it all up and started again. He declared that figurative art was over, and returned to abstraction. Executed largely in dark colors, some of these paintings have just a few dots against a single-color background, while others depict what look like overlapping symbols or abstract sculptures. They are quiet and elegiac. He died in 1953, in the home in Paris where he was born.

Francis Picabia Lâcheté de la barbarie subtile (Carte à jouer) (Cowardice of Subtle Barbarism [Playing Card]), 1949, oil on board, 30" × 20½". © 2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/COURTESY GALERIE MICHAEL WERNER, MÄRKISCH WILMERSDORF, COLOGNE AND NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION

Francis Picabia Lâcheté de la barbarie subtile (Carte à jouer) (Cowardice of Subtle Barbarism [Playing Card]), 1949, oil on board, 30″ × 20½”.
© 2016 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK AND ADAGP, PARIS/COURTESY GALERIE MICHAEL WERNER, MÄRKISCH WILMERSDORF, COLOGNE AND NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION

“I play baccarat and I lose, but more and more I love this empty and sick atmosphere of the casinos,” Picabia once wrote. He was reckless, tempestuous, and easily bored. These are not great qualities in a person—in an artist, though, they are a kind of engine. Picabia was hell-bent on trying out new ideas, always ready to throw caution to the wind. He questioned everything. His work is a testament to the pleasure of living in the world in that way.

In 1939 Picabia wrote in one poem, “…I am perhaps / my own disciple.” I imagine him saying that with a mixture of pride and sadness—his originality knew no bounds, true, but he also had no followers. (Who could possibly keep up with him?) Look around today, though, and Picabia is everywhere. His hopscotching practice can be seen ricocheting through those of artists like Martin Kippenberger, Frances Stark, and Brian Belott, to name just a few who have followed his lead. Meanwhile, his work still overflows with fiery weirdness for others to discover and absorb.

One image from MoMA that keeps coming back to me is, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the man himself rather than one of his works. It’s from Entr’acte (1924), the film that René Clair made based on a number of Picabia’s absurd ideas. In one scene, Picabia is dressed in formalwear, chasing with a crowd of people after a hearse that has broken free of its reins and is flying down the street. He is giving it his all, running hard, but for just a moment, he looks away from the road and toward the camera, shooting us all a little smile. He is having the time of his life.


Reprint from ARTNEWS, 17 November 2016, Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. All rights reserved.


“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”
November 21, 2016–March 19, 2017
Museum of Modern Art, New York
http://mo.ma/2g9Azsc