Top panel: Charles White ”Five Great American Negroes” (1939) Oil on canvas The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY./ Leonor Fini’s “La Peinture et l”Architecture (1938-39) Oil on panel/ Lower left: Robert Gober *Untitled” (2000-2001) Willow, wood, beeswax, human hair, silver plated cast brass and pigment/ Center: Charles White “Headlines” (1944) Ink, gouache, and newspaper on board / Lower Right: Louise Bourgeois “Nature Study” (1984) Bronze, silver nitrate patina and steel. All from David Zwirner’s “Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art”, New York, NY.
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
In his monumental painting from 1897, the artist Paul Gaugin poses the question “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” After surveying a spate of recent gallery and museum shows, and reflecting upon the mass of material referencing the figure, this artist is visited by that same question.
Whereas Gaugin rejected a European standard of beauty in search of a new ideal, artists today, blow the field wide open to explore identity and humanity amid color lines, sexuality and mortality. Via collage, wax, oil paint, LED light, running water – and even human hair – artists still ask “Where do we come from? What are we? And where are we going?”
Physicality versus Impermanence
Works exhibited in David Zwirner’s “Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art”, Levy Gorvy”s “Intimate Infinite” (now closed), “Charles White’s: A Retrospective” and “Bruce Nauman’s: Disappearing Acts”, address the need for permanence and significance.
Above left: Brucer Connor’s “Psychedelicatessen Owner” (1990) Collage of found Illustrations 8 x 5 1⁄2 in./Above right: Francis Alys “London” (2005) Oil on canvas on panel.
Bruce Connor’s faceless figure in “Psychedelicatessen Owner” (1990) gives the feel of arriving from another century. A plethora of intricate patterns, it is reminiscent of a mandala. Intimate, the piece is small in scale and forces the viewer to examine the work up close. Surreal, “Psychedelicatessen Owner” offers an enigmatic world of imagination with a figure composed entirely of curlicues and arabesques. Francis Alys’ “London” (2005), however, is a whisper of a painting. A sort of one-liner, it’s monochromatic palette is comparable to an X-ray. A ghostly skeleton walks past with its’ forearm in tow and the chalk outlines impart an aura of impermanence. In a gallery chock-full of animated paintings, “London” seems content to fade away.
Louise Bourgeois, “Nature Study” (1984) Bronze, silver nitrate patina and steel. The David Zwirner Gallery, New York
Work by sculptor Robert Gober has a way of discombobulating viewers and “Untitled” is no exception. A free-standing sculpture, “Untitled” brings to mind the biblical story of the baby Moses hidden in papyrus. The warmth of the wicker basket dissolves immediately, when the viewer inspects its’ contents to find parts of a torso enmeshed within wax – a breast here, a breast there, male chest hair, an abandoned boot and an occasional soup can. Any whiff of humanity disappears when seen in proximity to a kitchen sinkhole. “Untitled” encapsulates loss, waste and displacement.
Sensuality is rife in Louise Bourgeois’ undulating “Nature Study” (1984). The figure is composed of three sets of mammary glands and exudes life and fertility. The sensuous S-curve engages the eye and one is drawn to the demanding mass of sheer physicality.
Who are we?
Not all artists portray anonymous figures but publically reference well known historical figures and people from various walks of life as is the case for Charles White. White is the current subject of a brilliant retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. He uses his craft to uphold social justice and showcase black suffering and pride. His degree of mastery in painting and breadth of history is astounding.
Painted during the Federal Acts Project, ”Five Great American Negroes” (1939) highlights five of the most important figures in African American history, including Soujourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Marian Anderson. He employs movement and the use of warm ochres, browns and blues to show narrative. A consummate draftsman, White was conscientious of his audience and viewed making art as an act of altruism:
“An artist must bear a special responsibility. He must be accountable for the content of his work. And that work should reflect a deep, abiding concern for humanity. – Charles White
Above: “Preacher”(1952)Pen and ink and graphite pencil on board. The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In “Preacher” (1952), White portrays the singer-turned-activist Paul Robeson mid-eulogy in an assertive stance with bold gestures. The artist explained:
“Too often the Negro minister has been portrayed as a buffoon and not reflecting the dignity, strength, and concern for the basic problems of living that face his congregation. “Preacher” emphasizes these qualities through the meticulous depiction of this formidable man and his eloquent oratory gesture. However, White did not disclose that this drawing is a portrait of the singer-turned activist Paul Robeson whose affiliation with the Communist Party had led to persecution by the United States government; his passport was suspended and he was banned from appearing on American television. With this drawing, White celebrated Robeson’s fight for racial equality and social justice while subtly navigating contested political terrain” – Statement, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
“The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain”
Leonor Fini “Les Peintures et l’Architecture (Painting and Architecture) (1938-39)” Oil on canvas
Artists are not shy when it comes to voicing their role as creatives. Works spanned the gamut from romantic ideal to utilitarian. Leonor Fini illustrates an embodiment of “painting” as a Renaissance figure with palette in hand. Painted in charcoal grey and presented within a frame, she brings to mind classical figures reminiscent of Titian.
Fast forward thirty years later and conceptual artist Bruce Nauman dispels the myth of the artist as romantic figure but refers to the artist as makeshift sink:
Video: Bruce Nauman “Venice Fountains” (2007) Wax, plaster, wire, sinks, faucets, clear hoses, pumps, and water /“The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain” (1966) Graphite and ink on paper
“Twin columns of water spurt from the mouths of concave human heads, cast from life in plaster and wax and turned to face the wall. The cascades splash into utility sinks with plastic buckets underneath – the kind of furnishings found in the artists’ studio. Water travels up from the pails through surgical tubing and cycles down again, serving as a crude circulatory system for a makeshift body.
The fountain as a sculptural motif dates back to classical antiquity, and Nauman draws upon its wealth of art-historical associations…For Nauman, the fountain has long been tied to myths of artistic genius. “The true artist is an amazing luminous fountain” states a 1966 design for a Mylar shade that hung in the window of his storefront studio. Made forty years apart, both works point to the impossible standards set for artists, who are expected to be fonts of endless creativity.” – Statement, the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In Nauman’s “One Hundred, Live and Die” (1984) the artist encapsulates existence instantaneously via a collection of succinct neon captions. Bereft of any reference to the physical or spiritual, the light show expounds on functionality communicated via three to four word sentences. Spare and devoid of personality, “One Hundred, Live and Die” is a sad indictment on the state of the human race and speaks to a generation raised on the internet and texting. The neon light show mimics impersonal light fixtures from strip shows even radiating the z-z-zapping noises that accompany them.
Blase functionality is carried on in “Seven Figures” (1985) as faceless neon outlines perform fellatio and cunnilingus in one long unbroken line. Again, the artist eschews the need to identify any single persona but prefers to use general outlines to symbolize human beings.
Bruce Nauman’s “Seven Figures”(1985) Neon light fixture
Above left: Allison Zuckerman (2018) Acrylic and archival CYMK on canvas New York. Right: Sandro Botticelli “Primavera” ca. 1480 Tempera on panel, Italy
Debauchery and hedonism
Fast forward eleven years and cynicism has given way to outright debauchery and pleasure as evidenced in “Game at Twilight” (2018). Is it a frat party? It’s no holds barred as cartoon-like figures celebrate bacchanalian style, au natural, playing cards, and eating cake. Disney-style birds twitter about while musical notes signify a jam. Theresa Chromati cuts to the chase in “Foreplay” as organic bulbous shapes implode in a sensual slip and slide. She captures riotous sex by employing explosive glitter and vinyl. Couture meets Sesame Street as “Oscar the Grouch” revels in a garbage can embossed with the Gucci logo. Everything is up for grabs as the iconic Pink Panther sprints headlong amid Scotch tape dispensers in Katherine Bernhardt’s “Untitled” (2018). Conceptual and existential discourse has given way to evasive and lighthearted fare.
Top left: Theresa Chromati “Foreplay” (2018) Acrylic, gouache, glitter and vinyl on canvas / Top center: Trevor Andrew aka GucciGhost “Oscar the Grouch” (2018) Acrylic house paint and spray paint on canvas / Top right: Katherine Bernhardt “Untitled” (2018) Acrylic and spray paint on canvas
From meditative collages and spartan sinkholes to exuberant paintings, one generation of artists forgets the other. Each work of art speaks from a unique vantage point and culture. Could it be that Zuckerman and her contemporaries have seen the future and chose to respond by evading the implications altogether and instead, painted frou-frou? If so, they’ve done it quite skillfully. What’s it all about? Will 2019’s crop of artists be as giddy and irreverent? Will the mood resemble an insouciant Pink Panther sprinting headlong into the future? Only time will tell!