Monthly Archives: March, 2017

“The Whitney Biennial’s Political Mood,” By Peter Schjeldahl

Painting makes a striking comeback: Dana Schutz’s “Elevator” (2017).
Courtesy Dana Schutz / Petzel Gallery and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin; Photograph by Bill Orcutt

“The Whitney Biennial’s Political Mood”
The show already feels nostalgic—most of the works were chosen before last year’s Presidential election. Remember back then?


The first Whitney Biennial at the museum’s two-year-old downtown digs (owing to the move, it comes a year late) aims “to gauge the state of art in America today.” The result, which is earnestly attentive to political moods and themes, already feels nostalgic. Most of the works were chosen before last year’s Presidential election. Remember back then? Worry, but not yet alarm, permeated the cosmopolitan archipelago of new art’s creators, functionaries, and fans. Now there’s a storm. The Age of Trump erodes assumptions about art’s role as a barometer—and sometime engine—of social change. Radicalism has lurched to the right, and populist nationalism, though it has had little creative influence so far, challenges sophisticated art’s presumption to the crown of American culture. The crisis makes any concerted will to “resist” awkward for those whose careers depend on rich collectors and élite institutions, sitting ducks for plain-folk resentment. Of course, artists are alert to ironies. The near future promises surprising reactions and adaptations to the new world disorder. But, for now, all former bets are off. The ones placed by the Biennial’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, preface an unfolding saga in which, willy-nilly, all of us are characters.

The show is winningly theatrical in its use of the Whitney’s majestic new spaces. Lew and Locks sensibly show far fewer participants than in the 2014 Biennial—sixty-three, down from a hundred and three—given the futility of trying to comprehend the ranks of serious artists, swelled by the field’s wealth and glamour, who have come to number in the many thousands. The curators have opted for depth over breadth, affording many of the artists what amounts to pocket solo shows. The criteria seem to be technical skill and engaging subject matter, with formal aesthetics taking third place. Most substantial, on all counts, are the works by several painters, in a striking comeback for a medium that was often sidelined in the Biennials of the past two decades. The revival may reflect a market that is ever avid for things to adorn walls, but I think it also fulfills a desire for relief from our pixelated ambience. Dana Schutz is a new master, with subjects that are frankly goofy—people and giant insects piled together in an elevator, for instance—but which she renders with powerfully volumetric, big-brushed forms that are at once lyrical and monumental. Jo Baer, famous half a century ago for her minimalist abstractions, astonishes with perfectly scaled, sensitive paintings, on gray fields, of mingled artifacts, buildings, and landscapes that are redolent of cultures ancient, medieval, and modern.

The work in the Biennial that you are most apt to remember, “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes” (2017), by the Los Angeles artist Samara Golden, marries technique and storytelling on a grandiose scale. Golden has constructed eight miniaturized sets of elaborately furnished domestic, ceremonial, and institutional interiors. They sit on top of and are mounted, upside down, beneath tiers that frame one of the Whitney’s tall and wide window views of the Hudson River. Surrounding mirrors multiply the sets upward, downward, and sideways, to infinity. To reach a platform with a midpoint view of the work, you ascend darkened ramps, on which ominous hums, bongs, and whooshes can be heard. Concealed fans add breezes. Politics percolate in evocations of social class and function, with verisimilitude tipping toward the surreal in, for example, a set that suggests at once a beauty parlor, a medical facility, and a prison. But the work’s main appeal is its stunning labor-intensiveness: sofas and chairs finely upholstered, tiny medical instruments gleaming on wheeled carts. Golden is the most ambitious of several artists in the show who appear bent on rivalling Hollywood production design, with a nearly uniform level of skill. I’m reminded of a friend’s remark, apropos of the recent New York art fairs: “I thought I missed good art, but that’s always rare. What I miss is bad art.”

Political causes register in mostly understated ways, as with suites of photographs or videos pertaining to racial, ethnic, and gender identities. Again, you will seek bad art in vain, unless you count the crude-on-purpose banners by the California-born Chicago artist Cauleen Smith, with their perfunctory design and messages of laconic anguish. (One reads, “No wonder I go under.”) Also rugged, quite effectively, are the satiric paintings and drawings by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles, whose targets range from narcissistic leftists to the crowd at a Trump rally (the latter is subtitled “And some of them I assume are good people”). L.A. is also represented by two much discussed artists: Rafa Esparza, who has created a room of handmade adobe bricks, as a shelter for works by other artists, and Henry Taylor, who offers a stark painting, in his more usually infectious Expressionist manner, of a black man killed by the police.

Staggeringly beautiful, in image and sound (including an orchestral version of “Stormy Weather” that just about made me cry), is a documentary video shot on an Aleut-populated island in the Bering Sea, by Sky Hopinka, a Native American from Washington State. The show’s most strident agitprop is “Debtfair” (2012-17), an enormous installation by a largely New York-based group, Occupy Museums, which emerged from the Occupy Wall Street campaign. In text and in a mélange of mediums, the piece expounds on the plight of contemporary artists burdened by financial debt, mainly from student loans, relative to the profiteers of the booming art-as-asset economy. Incorporated works are for sale, at prices related to how much the artists owe.

Ecological activism has an inning with “Root sequence. Mother tongue” (2017), by Asad Raza, who is from Buffalo and divides his time between New York and Brussels. The piece is composed of twenty-six trees in progressive stages of budding, leafing, and blooming, in the accelerated spring of a gallery that has a sunrise-facing glass wall. On-site caretakers will inform you, in eager detail, about the varieties: cherry, birch, persimmon, and others. You may find it hard to tell the forest from (forgive me) the twee, the piece is so wholesome. It’s pretty, though. For a savage antidote, nearby there’s “Real Violence” (2017), by the shockmeister Jordan Wolfson, who caused a stir at the David Zwirner Gallery, last year, with a huge robotic mechanism of chains and pulleys that dragged and slammed around the room a life-size puppet with a face like Howdy Doody’s and pleading video eyes. Here Wolfson provides virtual-reality headsets for a video of him bashing the head of another man with a baseball bat, on a street lined with office buildings, to the accompaniment of the sung Hanukkah prayer. Your discomfort is first abetted and then abated by the continual twitching of the victim, whom a single blow should have quieted. How Wolfson made what is in fact an animatronic doll appear real is a mystery typical of new art’s galloping technological novelties, and one likely to become old hat in short order. (I don’t know about you, but V.R. makes me feel less transported to another place than eliminated from it.)

As jazzy as many of the works in this Biennial are, there’s an air of complacent calm: so many tasks superbly completed, so many social issues responsibly advanced, so much professionalism in evidence. Engineers sometimes say that a machine works with maximum efficiency just before it breaks. That’s my feeling about this show’s beamish collegiality, and it might have been the same, only less painfully, were Hillary Clinton in the White House. Times of social upheaval throw artists back on reconceiving their purpose and on choosing whether to address public affairs or to maintain refuge from them. Anguish is assured. Conflicts are probable. The next Biennial bodes drama.

Whitney Biennial 2017
March 17-June 11, 2017
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

By Peter Schjeldahl, Reprint from The New Yorker, The Art World, 27 March 2017 Issue, © 2017 Condé Nast.

Video art: “Richard Mosse: ‘Incoming’ review – white-hot misery of migrant crisis,” By Sean O’Hagan

Powerful viewing … a still from Incoming by Richard Mosse. Photograph: Richard Mosse/Jack Shainman Gallery/carlier|gebauer

Video art: “Richard Mosse: Incoming review – shows the white-hot misery of the migrant crisis”


Barbican Curve, London
The Irish artist follows migrants with a thermal military camera as they flee Syria, Iraq and elsewhere,
turning them into a teeming mass of ghosts

Two years ago, Richard Mosse and his cinematographer, Trevor Tweeten, stood on a hillside on the border between Turkey and Syria and watched a battle unfolding in the Syrian town of Dabiq, 10km away. “We were able to see entire buildings on fire beneath glimmering minarets, the slow arc of mortars launched, rockets tracing the sky,” recalls Mosse. “By following the missile’s path, we could detect hidden artillery positions, and watch columns of fighters spreading out across fields, utility pickups with armoured turrets and the twin black flags of Isis.”

The military camera that enabled them to see the fighting close-up is designed to detect thermal radiation, including body heat, from a distance of over 30km. It is sanctioned as a weapon under international law because it is used for long range surveillance, and often connected to advanced weapons systems to lethally target enemy positions. It is this weapon that Mosse has adapted and used to trace the journeys of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Senegal and Somalia.

‘To enter Mosse’s vast triple-screen installation is to be transported to a world both alien and familiar’ … Incoming at the Barbican, London. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

‘To enter Mosse’s vast triple-screen installation is to be transported to a world both alien and familiar’ … Incoming at the Barbican, London. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

To enter Mosse’s vast triple-screen installation, Incoming, in the Barbican’s Curve gallery, is to be transported to a world both alien and familiar; a spectral place where all that we have seen of the refugee crisis in the media – overcrowded boats, rescue teams, refugee camps, lifeless bodies washed up on tourist beaches, discarded lifejackets – is rendered more visceral but more unreal.

In tonal monochrome, humans appear as ghostly figures, their faces glowing eerily as the camera records traces of sweat, saliva and moisture. The world around them, whether the vast undulating sea or the makeshift streets of the “Jungle” camp in Calais, teeming with displaced humanity, seems Ballardian in its relentlessly grey otherness. It is a world not so much turned upside down as inside out: the dancing flames of a campfire on a mountainside seem almost liquid, the smoke bubbling like water; the moon ripples in the sky like a circle of silk amid fabric clouds; a man douses his head in milk-like water.

It takes a while to adjust to the disorienting otherness of Incoming – the vast screens that overwhelm you with their imagery and the ominous ambient rumbles and drones created by electronic composer Ben Frost. The ghostly figures that pass before your eyes seem weighed down by gravity’s pull until you realise that the camera records everything at a slightly slowed-down speed. The narrative loosely follows the refugee trail from east to west, but Mosse is a master of constant, jarringly disruptive shifts in tone, echoing the confusion and desperation unfolding on screen.

Teeming humanity ... a still from Incoming. Photograph: Richard Mosse/Jack Shainman Gallery/carlier|gebauer

Teeming humanity … a still from Incoming. Photograph: Richard Mosse/Jack Shainman Gallery/carlier|gebauer

The film moves between the dreamily meditative (a lone man praying quietly to Mecca) and the horrific (children being hauled off a rescue dingy like limp dolls). There are interludes in which you glimpse the nature of modern warfare: men fixing Hellfire missiles to a fighter plane on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf, the heat of the plane’s engine glowing like an augury of destruction.

More affecting are the moments of human drama, such as the terrible confusion of a makeshift field hospital as medics try to resuscitate hypothermic children pulled from the sea off the coast of Lesvos. In textural close-up, the camera recorded the imprints left by the heat of living hands on cold dead flesh. It is an image that lingers long afterwards, as does the sound of increasingly agitated voices as the screen falls into darkness.

Later, we witness an autopsy in close up as doctors remove the humerus of a child whose decomposing body had been washed up on a shore after weeks at sea. The bone will be ground down and used to try to identify the victim by matching the DNA with blood samples taken from survivors and people living in the region from which the victim fled.

Textural close-ups ... a still from Incoming. Photograph: Richard Mosse/Jack Shainman Gallery/carlier|gebauer

Textural close-ups … a still from Incoming. Photograph: Richard Mosse/Jack Shainman Gallery/carlier|gebauer

In all of this – as with Mosse’s previous project The Enclave, which used an infrared night camera to render the war-torn landscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in vivid pink – one must ask the inevitable question: does an artwork that sets out to challenge documentary tropes end up aestheticising human suffering by rendering it mere spectacle? The tension between the wilfully unreal textural beauty of the film – and it is pure texture, from start to finish – and the human tragedy it records is undoubtedly part of its power, making it uncomfortable viewing in the context of an art installation.

Mosse writes in the accompanying book that he “listened carefully to the camera, to understand what it wanted to do – and then tried to reconcile that with these harsh, disparate, unpredictable and frequently tragic narratives of migration and displacement.”

The astonishing intensity of his film means he has succeeded. This, Mosse reminds us, is a human tragedy – our human tragedy. We are all implicated in its unfolding. I was left with the image of a lone man praying in the darkness, his luminous calmness echoing against the confusion and chaos around him; his aloneness, for a few moments, his sanctuary.

Richard Mosse: Incoming is at Barbican Curve, London, until 23 April. A book, Incoming, is published by MACK.

By Sean O’Hagan, Reprint from TheGuardian, 15 February 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

“Howard Hodgkin, Whose Paintings Were Coded With Emotion, Dies at 84,” By William Grimes

Howard Hodgkin in 2010, in front of a detail from his painting “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play” (2001-2007). Credit Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“Howard Hodgkin, Whose Paintings Were Coded With Emotion, Dies at 84”


Howard Hodgkin, a British artist whose lush, semiabstract paintings, aquiver with implicit drama, established him as one of the most admired artists of the postwar period, died on Thursday in London. He was 84.

The Tate Galleries announced his death but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Hodgkin was a relative latecomer to fame. A slow, methodical worker who could spend years building up a painting’s surface, he did not have a solo show until he was 30, and for years thereafter toiled against the grain, his work at odds with prevailing fashion.

His globs and stipples and smears — seemingly brisk and impulsive, but painstakingly applied and endlessly revised — ravished. On the Tate’s website, Nicholas Serota, the departing director of the museums, called Mr. Hodgkin “one of the great artists and colorists of his generation.”

But his coded emotional settings seemed elusive, even baffling, as did his stylistic relationship to current art. In Britain he was seen as an abstract painter, in the United States as representational — a puzzle.

“I never expected anyone to be interested in my pictures, and there were years when I couldn’t even get my friends to look at them,” Mr. Hodgkin told The New York Times in 1990.

His paintings in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1984 propelled him into the top echelon of international artists. Seductive and arresting, they showed an artist at the height of his powers, and audiences responded.

“Not since Robert Rauschenberg’s appearance at the Biennale 20 ago has a show by a single painter so hogged the attention of visitors, or looked so effortlessly superior to everything else on view by living artists,” the critic Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine.

He added: “Here the wearisome traits of much contemporary art, its honking rhetoric, its unconvincing urgency, its arid ‘appropriations’ of motifs, are left at the door, and the slow-surfacing complexities of mature, articulate painting greet the eye.”

“Going to America,” 1999.  CreditHoward Hodgkin, All Rights Reserved

“Going to America,” 1999.
CreditHoward Hodgkin, All Rights Reserved

Link to New York Times slide show:

Mr. Hodgkin won the Turner Prize a year later, and as major gallery and museum exhibitions in Britain and the United States followed, one after the other, his distinctive blend of bravura brushwork, emotional depth and sense of mystery began to hold sway. He came to be seen as a highly original interpreter of the dramas that unfold in intimate, interior space, an heir to Bonnard and Vuillard.

“On the subject of sitting rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and balconies neither Hodgkin’s eye nor his hand has ever failed him,” the critic John Russell wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1990. “He is all-seeing on the subject of hotels, restaurants, private collections, public parks, costume jewelry, human exchanges of all kinds and day-to-day weather reporting. Manners and mores, ups and downs, ins and outs — all have their place in his paintings.

“He can make a wet afternoon in summer feel like the most blissful thing that ever happened,” he continued, “and when he summons up the quintessence of a restaurant (in London, by the way, not in Paris) he makes us want to stand up and shout for the menu.”

Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin was born in London on Aug. 6, 1932, to a Quaker family with an illustrious pedigree in the arts and sciences. His father, Eliot, was a manager at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and a well-known horticulturalist. His mother, the former Katharine Hewart, daughter of the Lord Chief Justice of England, Gordon Hewart, was a homemaker and botanical illustrator.

With German air raids looming, Howard was evacuated in 1940 with his mother and sister to Long Island, where he stayed with family friends for three years.

After returning to Britain, he attended a variety of expensive schools, including Eton, and ran away from most of them, finding little encouragement for his determination to become an artist — his goal since the age of 5.

He painted on his own, and during a return visit to Long Island in 1947, he began going to galleries and museums in New York City, looking closely at the work of Matisse, Degas, Bonnard and Vuillard. One of his earliest works, the 1949 gouache “Memoirs,” served as a marker for the themes that would preoccupy him in the coming years.

Judith Higgins wrote in Art News in 1985, “Highly stylized, fiercely outlined and angular, humming with erotic currents, ‘Memoirs’ announced the subject of all Hodgkin’s subsequent work: the great tradition in French painting — figures in an interior — transmuted, in Hodgkin’s case, by memory.”

In 1949 he gained admission to the Camberwell School of Art in London, where he studied briefly under Victor Pasmore and William Coldstream, the leading figures in the Euston Road School. He spent four years at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, where he studied with Clifford Ellis.

“Chowpatty Beach,” 1990-1991. Credit Howard Hodgkin, All Rights Reserved, via Gagosian

“Chowpatty Beach,” 1990-1991. Credit Howard Hodgkin, All Rights Reserved, via Gagosian

In 1955 he married Julia Lane, a fellow student at Corsham. They later separated. He is survived by their two sons, Louis and Sam.

Mr. Hodgkin was given a one-man show at Arthur Tooth and Sons in 1962, but for years he depended on teaching to make a living. In the mid-1950s he began lecturing at Charterhouse School. He later taught at the Bath Academy of Art and the Chelsea School of Art.

He produced mostly small-scale works until late in his career, on canvas at first but, beginning in the late 1960s, only on wood, usually old boards scavenged from London antique shops. In violation of the tenets of American abstraction, he embraced the frame, emphasizing its presence by painting on it directly, or including framing rectangles in the painting.

The strongly geometric forms of the early painting evolved into looser, brushier images that teased the idea of figuration. In “Jealousy” (1977), a red mass, barely human, coils angrily within a frame-like rectangle. The leaning, spotted rectangles in “Dinner at Smith Square” (1975-79) suggest, just barely, two people conversing over a table.

“I am a representational painter but not a painter of appearances,” Mr. Hodgkin told the critic David Sylvester in 1976. “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.”

His reputation grew. He had his first show in New York in 1973, and in 1976 Mr. Serota organized his first museum exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. In 1995 the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the traveling exhibition “Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975–1995,” and in 2006 Tate Britain mounted a 50-year survey of his work.

If Mr. Hodgkin never quite rose to the celebrity rank of Lucian Freud or David Hockney, by the time he was knighted, in 1992, he stood at the threshold of “living treasure” status.

“To be an honest artist now, you have to make your own language, and for me that has taken a very long time,” he told Mr. Sylvester for the catalog to “Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, 1973-84,” a traveling exhibition that incorporated many of the paintings from the Biennale.

Mr. Hodgkin was an interviewer’s nightmare, notoriously reticent about his work and unhappy analyzing its meaning. He made it clear that art was a slow and painful business. At the same time, he confessed to feeling a sense of exhilaration in his final years.

“I don’t care a damn about what happens when I’m dead, but I do have a sense of increased urgency,” he told The Guardian in 2001. “And I think it’s made me more courageous.”

By William Grimes, Reprint from The New York Times, 9 March 2017, © 2017 The New York Times Company.

David to Picasso … Ashmolean charts rise of Modernism (By Mark Brown)

Degas’s Après le bain, femme s’essuyant la jambe 1900–5. Photograph: Private Collection

“David to Picasso – stellar cast helps Ashmolean chart rise of Modernism”

Ursula and Stanley Johnson’s remarkable collection of more than 100 works goes on public display whole for first time in Oxford


Drawings and paintings by artists including Degas, Cézanne, Manet, Monet and Picasso are to go on display for the first time in the UK in an exhibition telling the bumpy, complex story of the rise of Modernism.

More than 100 works by more than 40 artists are part of a show opening on Friday at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, all from the private collection of the Chicago art dealer Stanley Johnson and his wife, Ursula.

It is the first time the works have been shown in the UK and the first time anywhere that the collection has been exhibited as a whole.

The museum’s director, Xa Sturgis, said in some ways the show was telling a well-known story, “a story of extraordinary artistic invention and experiment” in the 150 years leading up to the second world war.

A detail Picasso’s Étude pour ‘Les trois Musiciens’ (Le Guéridon blanc). Photograph: ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

A detail Picasso’s Étude pour ‘Les trois Musiciens’ (Le Guéridon blanc). Photograph: ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

“What is exciting about this show is that though the story might be familiar, very few of the works themselves are. There are so many exciting discoveries to be made within the exhibition and that is because it is told through the prism of a private collection.”

Referring to the exhibition, Ursula Johnson said for her and her husband it was like they were seeing the works for the first time.

“Because they are hung so differently, the light is different, the relationships between the works are so different. I am making connections and thinking, ‘How did I never see that?’” she added.

German-born Ursula Johnson met her future husband, American-born Stanley, in 1957. They were students in Paris in the 1960s when they began collecting what are some of the biggest names in art.

Delacroix’s Madame Cavé 1846. Photograph: Private Collection

Delacroix’s Madame Cavé 1846. Photograph: Private Collection

Some works were affordable, others less so. “We actually worked one full year in order to be be able to afford that little thing,” she said, pointing to a small but dramatic and violent Géricault watercolour of a lion fighting a tiger.

The remarkable collection has been steadily built up by the couple. “The discerning eye is a big part of the deal,” said Stanley Johnson. “We are dealing with European art so who are our competitors? They are European dealers, European collectors, so we had to beat them at their own game. We had to be more sophisticated, more knowledgable and have a better eye.”

He said it was always the collection that decided what was going to be bought next.

Géricault’s Charging Polish Lancer c 1818. Photograph: Private Collection

Géricault’s Charging Polish Lancer c 1818. Photograph: Private Collection

“People might say what a wonderful collection you have but we wouldn’t see it that way. We’d see it as a collection of works in which there is one horrible, hideous, ugly, gaping hole which must be filled … so now we are beating the pavement finding the work that we need to have to fill the hole.”

The exhibition aims to plot a course from neoclassical and romantic artists such as David, Ingres and Delacroix to impressionists and post-impressionists such as Degas, Monet and Seurat – and then on to the wild and game changing experiments of Braque and Picasso.

Léger’s Contrastes de forms 1913 . Photograph: Private Collection. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

Léger’s Contrastes de forms 1913 . Photograph: Private Collection. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

The David drawings include one of an old man and a young woman which was once owned by Henry Moore; while the Picasso works include an early study for his monumental Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which hangs in MoMA’s permanent collection in New York.

• Degas to Picasso, Creating Modernism in France 10 February to 7 May.

By Mark Brown, Reprint from TheGuardian, 9 February 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies..