The take-away from the Armory Show week in New York in early March was not the art fairs, each merging into the next. The Armory Show at the Piers had a better layout and a tighter mix of exhibitors than in prior years. The Independent made a very worthwhile presentation. However, the truly memorable viewing was at the museums.
Among the plethora of pleasures was the Cindy Sherman Retrospective at MOMA. The exhibition is an enthralling chronicle of identity and representation, manifest in 170 photographs over thirty years. The images move from the nostalgic to the grotesque, from the fantasy of youth to the attempt at preserving it in later years. Among various issues, Sherman has spent her career examining gender and the politics therein. As a female, I can project myself into the photograph of a teenage girl staring at the telephone, waiting for it to ring. I can stare at the late photos and recognize a woman of a certain age, staring back. I can look at other women viewing the show and see them having a similar experience. Does a male looking at the photographs have a very different experience? Whatever your gender, it’s a Do Not Miss, through June 11 and then travelling.
There were so many great shows at the Metropolitan Museum, it was a lavish buffet awaiting my consumption. Following the MOMA show, I resumed the contemplation of portraiture with “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini”, an astonishing show of rare international loans. For example, the image above is the earliest surviving Italian double portrait in a domestic setting. The show surveys early portraiture, beginning with the first portrayals of specific individuals in Florence in fifteenth-century Italy. It chronicles the development of style and technique. Prior to this period, achievement of artistic likeness in sculpture far exceeded that of painting. Like Cindy Sherman’s photographs, the paintings depict and communicate the values of their time, the social status of their subjects, the concepts of power and of beauty separately relegated to men and to women. Visual metaphor and understated signifiers abound.
I then traversed the museum to the Department of Islamic Art where I luxuriated amidst the Art of the Arab Lands (Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and South Asia). These fifteen galleries reopened after an eight-year renovation in November 2011. Here one can momentarily forget the alleged nuclear aspirations of Iran and focus on the glory of the culture that has resided in this part of the world for millenia. The pottery, textiles, calligraphy, jeweled artifacts, carpets and architectural elements, as well as re-created rooms, are superb. Pieces date from the seventh century all the way up to a room of recent painting and sculpture featuring signature work by contemporary luminaries like Monir Farmanfarmaian and Parviz Tanavoli.
I had already seen “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at SFMOMA. I wished I had time to see it again. What a fabulous story of the intertwining of life, art, taste, and politics. Another Do Not Miss. I did a quick walkthrough of the newly reconfigured American Wing, now 30,000 square feet offering one of the finest collections of its kind in the world. And I always do the Contemporary collection. Time for a cappuchino!
The John Chamberlain career survey, “Choices”, spirals around the Guggenheim Museum, celebrating and exploring the artist’s transformation of Abstract Expressionism into three dimensions. Marvelous pieces a few inches tall give way to totemic works on a grand-scale. In addition to the crumpled aluminum works that move from the monochromatic to the florid, there are lesser-known works made from urethane foam, mineral-coated plexiglass, galvanized steel and even treated paper. Chamberlain used a phrase called “articulate wadding” to describe his technique in creating the paper sculptures. That phrase seems to encompass his entire ethos in sculpture – an intention of purpose guided by unpredictable gesture, all put together by a formidable intellect. John Chamberlain passed away on December 11, 2011, so the show functions as a tribute as well as a retrospective.
The Whitney Biennial and the New Museum’s Triennial, “The Ungovernables” are both huge shows with multiple artists of very divergent concerns, materials and methods. I have become disenchanted with most of these sorts of exhibitions. Too many voices, too little context, too demanding to consume amidst the crowds and distraction. The Whitney exhibition is heavy on performance and video. In that regard, I did admire Wu Tsang’s “Green Room”.
The New Museum show relies heavily on installation work. Since I favor object painting and sculpture, I took note of Julia Dault, who had an echo of Chamberlain. I admired the intense paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakeye. The best installation piece for me was actually unrelated and next door to the New Museum at Salon 94 Bowery. There Jon Kessler showcased “The Blue Period”, an encompassing experience of visual intrigue. Those folks standing are simulations, not real people.
For pure video, I enjoyed Moving Image, the art fair devoted exclusively to contemporary video art selected from an international group of galleries and institutions. The showstopper was “The Snail and The Razor” by Jesse Fleming. As the snail mounts the razor’s edge, slithering over it in a ballet of exploration and imminent demise, no eyes dared leave the screen. Unbelievably, the snail completes its’ sojourn unscathed. The edition of five sold-out, including one copy acquired by the Whitney Museum.
If Armory Week was not on your calendar and you still yearn for the Fairs, the Frieze fair of London is debuting its first New York presentation from May 4-7. NADA will also have its first NYC fair, along with other satellite presentations.
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