Friday, January 29, 2010

Los Angeles Art of the Sixties

The Los Angeles “Cool School” is getting a lot of attention lately. It's a loose group of about a dozen artists working in Los Angeles in the sixties, famous for very refined surfaces (“fetish finish” was one term applied to them) and very simple, minimal work that often dealt with light. It’s possible all this new interest was triggered by “The Cool School,” a 2008 movie, but maybe there’s something about the uncomplicated beauty of the work that’s refreshing today -- or most likely, it’s just a coincidence. Whatever, there are three or four places (depending on who is included in the “School”) showing this work now:

David Zwimmer , “Primary Atmospheres: Works from California 1960-1970.” It includes work by Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Laddie John Dill, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, De Wain Valentine, and Doug Wheeler.

Franklin Parrasch, “Ronald Davis monochrome painting from the 60's.” Parrasch has focused on LA art of this period over the years, exhibiting Joe Goode, Ken Price, Peter Alexander, Billy Al Bengston and others.

PS1, as part of their encyclopedic exhibition “1969,” re-created a 1969 MoMA exhibition of new acquisitions by Larry Bell, Ron Davis, Robert Irwin and Craig Kauffman.

And a show of the much under-appreciated artist of an older generation who usually isn’t associated with “The Cool School” but has some similar concerns, John McLaughlin at Greenberg Van Doren, recently review by Roberta Smith. I haven’t seen it yet, but he’s one of my favorite California artists.

When I lived in LA, I didn’t much care for “The Cool School.” I thought it was too provincial and kind of thin. And even when the work had more substance (Irwin and Kauffman), I felt the miraculous beauty was a little cheap. I mean, of course you're going to be amazed by Irwin’s floating disk -- very Zen and all. I was also put off by the artists (not Irwin) who, for the most part, acted like anti-intellectual, macho, art stars. (One of these artists once told me, “I don’t look at art, I just make it.”) I wanted something more substantial, tougher both intellectually and emotionally. For me, at the time, the best artists in LA (Diebenkorn excepted -- who wasn't really considered an LA artist) were Davis and Charles Garabedian (a topic for another post). (LA also had an exciting art-architecture scene inspired by Frank Gehry.)

Ronald Davis, “Monochrome Painting From The 1960's”

Franklin Parrasch Gallery, January 6 – February 20, 2010

I never thought of Davis as fitting into the LA “Cool School,” but the Parrasch show changed my mind. Not that I now realize Ron was an anti-intellectual jerk and his art was thin. Not at all. I loved this show. Davis wasn’t particularly friendly with these artists, and certainly wasn’t considered to be part of “the cool school,” but the sensual silky surfaces of this work, and the ethereal color -- still gorgeous 45 years later -- make me think there is some connection. Of course Davis went in a very different direction -- to illusionistic work done in 3-point perspective -- work just hinted at from the two point linear perspective of this work.

Richard Tuttle, “Constructed Relief Paintings, 1964 - 65”

Peter Freeman, Inc. Gallery, 3 November 2005 - 28 January 2006

Richard Tuttle’s “Constructed Relief Paintings” of 1964 and 1965 were made about the same time as Davis’s paintings, and they have a lot in common. Tuttle, like Davis, worked on relatively thick stretcher bars; they both made shaped paintings; they both applied many coats of paint to get the surface just right; and both used peculiar colors -- colors you can’t really put your finger on. Tuttle even showed at Nicholas Wilder, Davis’s gallery, in 1969. Of course Tuttle’s work was more concerned with the hand-drawn edge of the reliefs and Davis, as I noted, was concerned with 2-point perspective, but there was still a lot in common. Most likely, Davis and Tuttle were both influence by Frank Stella’s shaped paintings.

An interesting side note: the Peter Freemen gallery in Soho had an excellent show of Tuttle’s “Constructed Relief Paintings” four years ago, and I remember trying to decide if the top edges of the paintings were painted a lighter shade or it was just the lighting. Roberta Smith walked in and I mentioned it to her. When we asked the director of the gallery about it, she took a painting down to see it in another light (it was Roberta Smith after all), and we still couldn’t decide. I recently asked Tuttle about it (next post) and he had an interesting answer. The work was painted all the same color, but where the wood stretcher bars pressed against the canvas, the texture was subtly changed and reflected light differently. So once again, everything counts!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More Good Old Days

A friend of mine emailed me this photo from the home page of the Franklin Parrasch Gallery. I immediately knew it was Ron Davis’s work from the mid-sixties and I also easily recognized Ron Davis standing in the right foreground. But neither of us could place where it was. I figured because of the small space and the dressy clothing, it had to be some uptown New York Gallery. When I went by the Parrasch Gallery to see the show (more on that later) I was astounded to learn it was the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles.

The more I looked at the photo the more I remembered about the Wilder gallery and that time in Los Angeles. I was a student at UCLA’s Graduate School of Business and was in the process of transferring to the Art History Department (a story for another time). I was passionately interested in contemporary art and would get into intense arguments with my fellow students about such sophomoric things as “is there good and bad art,” or “the importance of the framing edge.”

I’d take a couple of buses (I was the only person I knew in LA without a car) to go to La Cienega Boulevard for the Monday night “Art Walks”. Eventually I met Nick Wilder who took me under his wing and taught me about contemporary art. He would pull out work from his back room and talk to me about it; he’d tell me about books and articles I should read; and he’d introduce me to artists, including a young student wunderkind, Bruce Nauman. He even took me and my wife to Laguna Beach once to meet John McLaughlin -- one of the high points of our lives in LA. And he introduced me to Ron Davis, who at the time was one of LA’s most famous artists. His work was on the cover of Artforum with an article by Michael Fried , and he showed with Leo Castelli.

Ron and I became good friends. I remember going to his home/studio in a scruffy part of LA, and later (when he became more successful financially) in Malibu where he had a house and later a studio designed by Frank Gehry (yet another story). He kept trying to talk me into becoming an artist. He said the way I wrote about art was the way an artist thinks about it. When I told him I couldn’t draw a straight line he told me that’s what rulers were for. We’d talk until 3:00 in the morning and, driving back very late (I was married and had a car by then) I remember telling my new wife that I wanted to be an artist and that if I wasn’t successful in five years I’d give it up. (That only lasted one year when I told her I couldn’t give it up successful or not).

Once, when Ron came by my studio and saw some drawings and tentative works on cheap paper I was doing, he told me if I wanted to make drawings I should continue doing what I was doing, but if I wanted to make paintings, make paintings. But the most important things I learned were from watching him paint. I learned that even the best screwed up, but really good artists (like carpenters) knew how to deal with their screw-ups -- including using them.

I’m writing this not just because it’s fun to reminisce (okay, that’s the main reason), but because I don’t think it’s possible for kids to have this kind of access and mentoring anymore. (And I haven’t even begun to relate all the other opportunities I had then.) I think the art world is just too big and too stratified, at least in New York and Los Angeles. Kids may be better off in a city like Philadelphia or Seattle where they might have more access, but access to whom? Would they be exposed to people of the ambitiousness, ability and knowledge, let alone generosity, that I was lucky enough to be exposed to? Artists have always gravitated to one city or another; I don’t think I’m being a provincial snob (although I am one) to say that the best artists (in the United States, anyway) want to be in New York or possibly LA.

And yet… and yet… young artists are so much smarter, talented, ambitious, hard-working and connected than I remember ever being. So who knows!!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Richard Tuttle’s Influence

Artists not only influence other artists, they also influence curators, art dealers and collectors. Since Richard Tuttle’s retrospective at the Whitney four years ago, I’ve been seeing more and more work in galleries and museums that relates to his art. I’m not saying that Tuttle necessarily influenced the artists (in some cases the work precedes him) -- all I’m saying is there’s a lot of work being shown lately that may not have been shown had it not been for Tuttle's increased popularity.

Feature Inc. Gallery’s group show skulture is almost a catalog of Tuttle's influence (see photo below). Would work as fragile, goofy and subtle as this be exhibited five or six years ago? Maybe, but there's a lot more now.

Installation view: front: Josh Podoll; mid: Jerry Phillips (detail); back: B. Wurtz

The Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in the Lower East Side (btw, they're in a new space -- 21 Orchard Street) just closed a group show, ALMOST” , curated by Lance Goldsmith that was, to quote the press release, an exploration of suspension and fragility…. It included early work by Tuttle and the recently (and happily) revived veteran Alan Saret as well as several younger artists. The thing is, would Saret’s work look relevant now, after all these years, without Tuttle? Would there be interest in his work? Would it be shown?

In their small front room, Knoedler is exhibiting tiny works by James Castle, an outsider artist born in 1899, obviously not influenced by Tuttle, but the work looks fresh and relevant now, I believe, because of him.

James Castle, Untitled, not dated. Found paper, color of unknown origin 2 ⅜” x 3 ½”.

On Tom's Urs Fischer Post

I'm posting instead of commenting on Tom's piece below because I wanted to include a larger installation photo that I think illustrates Tom's point; a point beautifully summed up in his title: "When Attitude Becomes Immaterial."

Imagine if any one of the photos on the side of one of Urs Fischer's boxes were hung on a wall -- there would be a sense of the photographed object existing in space. Silkscreened to the chrome boxes however, the photos flatten out to the point of immateriality.

--Charles Kessler

Sunday, January 24, 2010

When Attitude Becomes Immaterial

When Attitude Becomes Immaterial
Urs Fischer at the New Museum
From 10/21/09 until 2/7/10

Tom McGlynn

The Urs Fischer show at The New Museum displays what a psyched -out Michael Fried might call present -less grace. Fried’s more recent ideas about images created “to be looked at” (or what I would call “looking-ness”) point to a certain post modern histrionic preening before an ironic mirror that reflexively inoculates us from cynically eyeballing art and saves us from reaching a creative dead end.

The work in this show and its presentation are evidence of a dearness towards objects in a physical world quickly becoming distilled evaporate. The residue of experience lies in the souvenir of art. The insistent reference to the substance of objects in Fischer’s work is a paradoxical study in the phenomenology of that which is disappeared.

The large “Untitled” aluminum castings on the fourth floor of the Museum float anachronistically like the hippo ballerinas in Disney’s Fantasia. The tour -de -force fabrication of these pieces is fore grounded but is (perhaps too) knowingly undercut by the formlessness and offhand origins of their making. They were scaled up from hand squeezed clay sculptures but the form they take when transmogrified into pneumatic lumpy figures sometimes resemble gigantic twisting Venus de Willendorfs or even giant animal scat. They are curiously lacking in phenomenal presence though, and this is where I think the artist’s work becomes interesting. How does a dialogue between the monumental object become a phenomenal black hole? I think all of the artist’s poetics resides inside this lack of weight and present-ness. His sculptures make Koon’s feel like Rodins in comparison.

This show is wildly uneven though. A few precious pieces ruin the vibe established by the aluminum blobs and the spectacular mirrored photo-archive of pathetic objects on the 2nd floor. The corny illusionism in The Lock 2007 or “subway seat, bag birthday cake piece” is just dumb, but in a bad way. Or Cumpadre 2007, A hanging croissant with a precious butterfly alighting upon it that is saccharine beyond belief. The same goes for his floppy purple piano. These are the kind of things collectors just eat up, but this artist is definitely in need of an assistant who can tell him when his stuff actually stinks.This kind of cheeky poetics is for the birds.

The aforementioned cubistic/ minimalist photo silk- screened archive, entitled Service a la Francaise, is of very specific objects that the artist has chosen to assemble into a striking ensemble work. It recasts the emptiness of the aluminum blobs. Initially I read the work as an update on the shiny pop logic of Koons’ mirrored bunny married with a left- handed Swiss kozy kitsch. There are elements of this blend, but a more extended experience with the room yielded a more sad and truly witty specificity that touched a real longing in me. Perhaps the artist’s choice of objects related to my own inclination to project pathos onto pop detritus such as a CD Cleaner Kits or obsolete computers. These objects are recent garbage of once cutting edge technology, therefore chillingly dead- present in their insistent obsolescence. The entire installation of differently scaled souvenirs, hardware supplies, bic lighters, rotten pears, arcane Italian Novels, broken, fake -Meissen obelisks, emanates a collective sigh of melancholy at the passing of the reality of these things.

The canny idea of printing of top and side views of these things on mirrored steel cubes underlines the immateriality of their objecthood. I was reminded of Cady Noland’s similarly blank sculptural aesthetic in her aluminum cut outs of American myth. There is something real here, a longing for present-ness together with an awareness of its futile pursuit in our present moment. The pathetic impulse toward stuff overwhelms our capacity to feel it. The re-photographed and wallpapered image of one of the museums galleries in -situ recalls the work of conceptual/ minimalist artist William Anastasi, a progenitor of Fischer’s who probably had a very different take on the immateriality of experience.

Fischer is an interesting artist in that he seems to be very aware of the nature of the art object as contingent in a world where our post modern self is so thoroughly parsed out of being, where the sculptor is a lonely hunter because his prey no longer exists.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

LES Gallery Update

Basically good news -- more galleries opened than closed last year, but things are still a bit shaky:

Anastasia Photo
166 Orchard Street (and Stanton)
They’ve been around for a year or so, but I’ve been conflicted about including them since they’re a documentary and photo-journalism gallery, not an art photography gallery. But, what the hay.

Blackston Gallery
29C Ludlow Street (between Canal and Hester)
They weren’t opened Wednesday when I went by, but they had a sculpture show that closed January 10th so maybe they were installing. On the other hand, their very rudimentary website doesn’t mention anything about an upcoming show, so there is some cause for concern there.

102 Allen Street (just above Delancy on the east side of Allen)
This is a small space and according to their website: ChinaSquare is committed solely to the promotion of Chinese contemporary work, and only Chinese artists.

Forever and Today
141 Division Street (where it intersects Canal)
NOTE: open Thur-Sun 12-6pm
They are a non-profit with a very small space and small staff. I must confess that I never saw any of their shows. When I finally located them it was a Wednesday, and they were closed. According to several dealers that told me about them, their shows have been really good; unfortunately no shows are posted on their website for 2010.

Lesley Heller Workspace
54 Orchard Street (below Grand)
This is a very professional gallery. Their first show, Catherine Howe, is a bit slick for my taste, good, but too facile. The really exciting thing though is in their back room. They will be having curated shows -- and very professional ones indeed. Their first, curated by Jason Andrew, is Wells Street Gallery Revisited: Then and Now. The Wells Street Gallery was a cutting-edge gallery in Chicago in the 1950’s. They showed such artists as: John Chamberlain, Robert Natkin and Aaron Siskind. This exhibition demonstrates Chicago was doing a lot before the Hairy Who.

Robert Natkin, Earth Quake, 1957
Ludlow 38
38 Ludlow Street (near Hester)
NOTE: open Fri-Sun 1-6pm
Ludlow 38 is the downtown satellite for contemporary art of the Goethe-Institut New York. They’ve been around for a couple of years but I didn’t include them because of the limited hours, but again -- what the hay.

Feature Inc.
131 Allen Street (below Rivington, on the west side of Allen)
Anne Doran does the invaluable Lower East Side Galley Guide that’s published by Feature Gallery and distributed free in most of the galleries. She’s been a great resource on new galleries.

Feature’s new space is smaller than other ones they had, but the proportions are very comfortable and the work looks great there. They have an encyclopedic, 21-artist, sculpture show up now (skulture, until January 23rd). The work relates to Orozco (see my post) but I feel it’s simpler, more playful and inventive. I was particularly impressed with B. Wurtz (see photo below).

B. Wurtz, Untitled, 2007 (courtesy of Feature Inc.)

Luxe Gallery not only moved but changed its name to:
Stephan Stoyanov Gallery
29 Orchard Street (between Hester and Canal)

Participant Inc.
253 E. Houston (between Norfolk and Suffolk

Nicelle Beauchene
21 Orchard Street (Between Canal and Hester)


Michali Fine Art, 45 Orchard Street, closed as I predicted last Spring. (

Smith-Stewart Gallery,
Amy Smith-Stewart unfortunately closed her space (I heard because of crime on the block), and has been curating shows at various spaces. This was a really good gallery; I hope she finds another space soon.

Sunday LES
237 Eldridge ((just below Houston)
The website address isn’t a mistake; they changed their name to Horton Gallery.

Janos Gat Gallery
195 Bowery, 3rd floor (at Spring)
It's now by appointment only.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

MoMA: Bauhaus, Orozco and Burton

I went back and, as predicted by the MoMA guards and information desk staff, it was indeed less crowded. It’s now more like a sale at Bloomingdales rather than rush hour on the Lex. In other words, like it’s been since the Taniguchi renovation. Aside from a comprehensive and enlightening Bauhaus exhibition (through January 25th), I don’t think it’s worth fighting even these thinner crowds.

Joseph Albers, Set of Stacking Tables, c.1927

It’s surprising that MoMA hasn’t had a survey of the Bauhaus since 1938 because MoMA’s aesthetic has been so Bauhaus. But it may have been worth the wait. One of the best things about this show is that Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, the curators, included many lesser known artists, and, as a result, you can see how communal the aesthetic was, but also how diverse. In fact there’s very little of the severe, minimal, mechanical sensibility that I associated with the school. Maybe we have so adopted the Bauhaus sensibility that now some of the work looks downright cozy.

Btw, the Modern has organized an all day Bauhaus symposium on January 22nd. Participants include the curators and a half a dozen major scholars. Tickets are only $5 to $12 and you can reserve them on line here.

Mexican, more accurately, International, art star Gabriel Orozco’s retrospective (until March 1st) is insightful for other reasons. Some artists (e.g.Wallace Berman) are helped by retrospectives, and others look thin and lame. Orozco (no relation to José Clemente Orozco) unfortunately is the latter. The hit or miss quality of his art works better in galleries than a museum -- maybe because less is expected of it. He does hit sometimes though. His La DS, 1993, a Citroen with its middle third removed and re-assembled, is one strange and beautiful sculpture -- a piece Orozco’s reputation has been coasting on for some time now.

Gabriel Orozco, La DS, 1993 (modified Citroen)

Finally, there’s the wildly popular Tim Burton show (through April 26th).

Tim Burton, Untitled (Boy series), 1980-90

The average person sees hundreds, maybe thousands, of movies and TV shows a year. They care about them, discuss them, and have built up a sophisticated knowledge that far exceeds anything in the other arts. Likewise, movie-making attracts some of the brightest, most ambitious and creative people. So it’s not surprising that movies are the reigning medium of our time. And Tim Burton is one of the most creative and best movie-makers around. He is wildly inventive and incredibly prolific.

So why did I not like the show? I don’t think it’s because of the popularity itself -- I love Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh shows -- or that it is accessible to the masses -- I liked the Guggenheim motorcycle show. I’ll admit to being a snob, but I really don’t think that’s it, or at least all of it. I think I’m put off by the simple-minded, often cute, illustrational quality of the work. There’s a lot of work like that around now, and I’m put off by that too, but it’s usually tougher and more personal than Burton’s work. There’s something manipulative and contrived about Burton’s work This might work in movies, but it’s very suspect when it comes to the visual arts.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wallace Berman at the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

Wallace Berman, Untitled, 1971, glass photo collage on wood,

7.625 x 7.75 inches (Courtesy Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery)

For someone like me, who came of age as an artist and art critic in Los Angeles in the 1970’s, Wally Berman (1926 - 1976) was an enigmatic legend. There wasn’t much of his work around to see because Berman was notoriously shy about exhibiting; but what I did see stayed with me. They were haunting, dark, creepy and fragile objects, redolent of mold. His work was somewhat in the vein of the much better known Edward Kienholz, but more mysterious, gentle and poetic.

Sadly Berman’s work pretty much disappeared over the years, but happily it was re-discovered a couple of years ago because of the exhibition Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle at the NYU Grey Art Galley. Since then Berman’s work appeared in group shows here and there, and now we have a show of his work at the very hip Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, 526 W. 26th Street, #213, (unfortunately this Saturday is the last day) -- so I guess Wally Berman’s work will endure.

Two things about this exhibition struck me. The first was Berman’s rapid-fire collage film, Aleph, 1956-66. Seeing it projected full scale was powerful stuff. It looked surprisingly cutting edge, reminiscent of the videos of Klaus vom Bruch . After seeing the original silent version, I didn’t think any sound track could possibly work, but John Zorn’s new jazz score for the film actually improved it.

The other revelation should have been obvious, but I never really realized it until now: Berman’s work is patently hand-made. I recently blogged about Mondrian’s work in that respect, and how touchingly human it is. What Mondrian did with impersonal geometry, Berman did with photography and other mechanical mediums. Berman tears, scratches, paints and stains the photos, film or prints -- he does everything he can to make it plain that a human being made them. The result is these fragile, poetic human things -- things perhaps too vulnerable to exhibit in public.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More Kandinski

At the exhibition I overheard several intelligent, animated conversations about the work by YTJ types. That, and the kind of play the exhibition has been getting in the blogosphere, makes me think that Kandinski will be influential in the next year or so. How, I don't know.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Guggenheim Kandinski Retrospective

Dominant Curve, April 1936

I’ve never been a great fan of Kandinski -- and I’m still not, despite the terrific Guggenheim retrospective (ending January 13th). I admire him and his work in an intellectual way, but it never gets to me the way Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian do. Strange because I’ve always been interested in art that’s experienced over time, the way we experience music (and Chinese landscape painting). In fact, if you try to take in a Kandinski all at once, it’s a jumbled mess -- you have to scan it from one pictorial riff to another to make any sense of the work.

I think Kandinski never breaks away from traditional easel painting (the idea of the canvas as a window into a separate world) mainly because he centers his pictorial incident, avoiding the edge of the canvas -- the area of a painting closest to the viewer’s real space. Kandinski paintings are a spacey (outer-spacey) staging area for a lexicon of psychedelic, cutesy abstract (or semi-abstract) images flying all over the place, where figure and ground shift, and objects become fields of color. But it is a world that’s separate from ours -- one we observe through the frame. (See my post on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon for a comparison)

Lyrical, January 1911

It’s too bad Kandinski chose not to go in the direction of his early, Matisse-influenced, Blaue Reiter paintings. That work had the physical presence and immediacy we have come to expect of painting for the last 100 years.