Barkley L. Hendricks, 1945-2017

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama, 1969. Collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City.

I cannot let the passing of painter Barkley Hendricks go by without a few words. Hendricks was arguably the greatest portrait painter of African-Americans in the late 20th/early 21st centuries – among painters only Kehinde Wiley comes close. But although his subjects are black men and women, Hendricks is able to stand with portraitists regardless of the race, gender, or what-have-you of their subjects. Hendricks created portraits that are part of the great stream of art history. Look at the gold background in Lawdy Mama, above; it harkens back to the gold of icons and medieval manuscript illumination, while the subject is, even after 40+ years, as modern as the world around us. Great portrait painters are rare in this technological age, and so Hendricks will be particularly missed.

Sometimes you wonder what they were thinking

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The image above is the cover to George Saunders’ 2001 book, Pastoralia, as published in the UK by Bloomsbury. This image is a little on the yellow side, but it’ll do.

A little digging brought up the source of the artwork: art by Walter Popp for the June 1952 issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine. You can see how clumsily the magazine’s logo was adapted into the book title, and how removing the man and the woman’s firearm have left her with awkwardly positioned hands. I am sorry to see the bat-creatures vanish; perhaps someone could asked Mr. Saunders to rewrite the book a little. More books should have giant bat-creatures in them, don’t you think?:

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My question is: why? I suppose it’s cheaper than paying an artist for new work, and, as Popp was long dead, there may have been no royalties to pay. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what about alteration?

(Thanks to my brother Robert for tipping me off to this.)

The Whitney Biennial 2017

After a three-year hiatus, in which to settle into the new building, the Whitney Museum of American Art resumes its Biennial exhibition. So, naturally, I had to go. Before I dive into the art, a few words about the building, which I haven’t reviewed to date. I was never enamored of the previous building, designed by Marcel Breuer and now on long-term lease to the Met, which is showing Modern and Contemporary works therein. The Breuer building interiors always seemed dark and slightly claustrophobic to me. The new building from the outside looks a bit of a hodegpodge, but the interior spaces are bright and tall, with enough windows to feel connected to the city, but not so many as to interfere with installing the art. Now, on with (and to) the show!

The ostensible goal of the Whitney Biennial is to somehow capture the state of American art in the last two years. This is close to impossible; for the audience, it is about how the curators try to achieve or even acknowledge that goal. In all, 2017 curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks (read about them here) have done a good job. The state of art today is too amorphous and polymorphous to be captured – let’s set that aside and consider it instead as a series of snapshots: bits and pieces from the artistic life of the last two years, with context left up to the catalog (I bought it, and will be reviewing it later).

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As a painter, I found the painting selection to be tepid, and disappointing. Although I have already blogged about Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, I found another painting by her, Elevator (2017, shown above) to be far superior. A commanding picture, with people and more squashed into an elevator in a Guernica-like jumble, it was confident where Open Casket was muddled, and amusing where the other was annoying/infuriating. Interesting that they were not hung together.

Another painting highlight was Frances Stark’s Ian F. Svenonius’s “Censorship Now” for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a series of 8 selections from punk musician Svenonius’s treatise in favor of censorship, with selected sentences/phrases underlined. Svenonius pulls no punches, and his fire is surprising considering punk’s reputation for tearing down barriers. This has been described by others as a very political Biennial, and Svenonius’s words bring chilling premonitions of the Trump administration.

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Raul de Nieves satisfied the need for eye candy and then some in his collection of figures (costumes, perhaps) made of yarn, beads, cardboard, costume jewelry, and more, stood in front of a “stained glass” (actually acetate sheets) window. The colors and textures are dramatic and gorgeous. Don’t take my word for it – look at the detail above.

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Jessi Reaves has several pieces of creatively upholstered/assembled furniture, which left me with mixed feelings. The most creative-looking works were not comfortable; the most conventional of them (shown above with the author in repose) was also the best to sit in. The piece above was one of two in a room otherwise filled with paintings by Carrie Moyer. Unusable but interesting were Kaari Upson’s faux furniture made from urethane foam.

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KAYA, a collaboration between painter Kerstin Brätsch and sculptor Debo Eilers (above) were also eye-catching and demanded closer inspection. I find it hard to summarize just what they are doing or why, and that’s okay. Brätsch’s contribution drew the eye in to half-hidden details; Eiler’s sculptural elements commingled assemblage and AbEx gestures.

Soundtracks to video works in contemporary art can vary wildly from the serene to the obnoxious; it was nice to hear Kamasi Washington‘s jazz suite, Harmony of Difference, which was not only pleasant to the ears, it was the point of the work. The video accompaniment is in support of the music, not the other way around.

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Another: Casey Gollan and Victoria Sobel created Reflections (above), text on windows. Perhaps not the most creative work in the show, but on a Spring day with the sunlight coming in the viewer wants to stay and read every word.

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Samara Golden created an installation (above) that is…well, let me describe it. You stand at a railing. Looking down from a bay of west-facing windows, you see reflections of rooms; looking up you see the same. The reflections come from mirrors above and below. The rooms being shown – a bar, what might be a hospital or nursing home, etc., are small-scale models on either side of the space. The models mounted on the floor are reflected in the upper mirrors; the models mounted to the ceiling are reflected in the lower mirrors. The spaces are very lifelike, and the change in scale is not noticeable. What you do notice is that there are too many rooms for the amount of real space, and the absence of people. The rooms have no relation to each other, yet you see them as a whole. The effect is quite fascinating. Mea culpa: I forgot to write down the title, and the catalog reads “As Yet Untitled.”

I could go on, and discuss why I did not watch Jordan Wolfson’s VR installation, or dissect the rather blah quality of most of the painters (only one of which I really disliked; the others I was just indifferent to) but this is about highlights. The Biennial is well worth a visit – it runs until June 11 – and if the day is fine, follow up with a walk along the High Line, which begins right opposite the museum.

That painting

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Here follows a discussion of the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket” (2016), shown above,  which is currently part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City.

DISCLOSURE: I have yet to see Schutz’s painting in person, so my comments on its surface are naturally limited and open to question.

The painting shows the disfigured corpse of Emmet Till, a 14-year old boy who was brutally murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, in 1955. Bryant’s wife lied  about an interaction with Till, (and did not recant the story until decades later), which led to the murder. At his mother’s request, Till’s casket was left open, to show the severity of his injuries. Today, when violence against black men is at the forefront of discussions on human rights and race relations, painting the scene was bound to attract attention.

The controversy is well summed up in the first sentence of an essay by  Josephine Livingstone AND Lovia Gyarkye in The New Republic: “Is Dana Schutz allowed to paint Emmett Till in his coffin?”

To which I reply, “Who grants permission in this case? Who, outside of the artist, is allowed that sort of power?”

DISCLOSURE: In general, I dislike Schutz’s work. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Samuel Johnson, “”Your painting is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” Her work to me is more style than substance, and ill-suited to such a topic. Schutz’s debt to Picasso is clear: look at the flattened triangles of Till’s shirtfront in the painting, how it oddly adds an element of Cubism to an otherwise heavily worked surface. Another debt is to Francis Bacon: the distortion of Till’s face reminded me immediately of Bacon’s portraits, such as this triptych below:

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Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963,
Museum of Modern Art, New York
The William S. Paley Collection
Copyright © 2017 Estate of Francis Bacon / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Image from Wikipedia

The strongest voice against Open Casket comes from artist and writer Hannah Black, who wrote an open letter to the Whitney – you can read it as part of this Artnews article. She starts by asking the Whitney “…to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.”

Naturally, I would never endorse the destruction of art.

She continues, “In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.”

The overall sentiment I will leave for others to debate. “Profit and fun” is an odd pairing; Schutz has already announced that Open Casket will not be for sale, but fun? Even fans of her painting must find it hard to label such a work “fun.”

Whitney Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks issued a statement about the controversy. They wrote, “For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance.”

Well, yes, which is why they had to write this statement in the first place – or was that not the emotional resonance they meant?

“By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”

All well and good, but as defense of curatorial decision-making this is a trite, boilerplate effort.

The thought that an artist should be barred from addressing certain subjects because of the color of her skin is a troubling one. No one, in my estimation, is qualified to do such a thing. This allows the artist to make whatever choices she wishes, even bad ones.

Having said this, if I were a curator, I would not have selected Open Casket for the show, not only from my opinion on Shutz’s work in general, but on its own mediocre merits.

POSTSCRIPT: How did I miss the chance to call this “When the Schutz hits the fan?”

 

Two Books

I promised to review the last two books of John Berger‘s work issued before his death, and here you are about to read those reviews. I’ll deal with them chronologically:

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Landscapes is the second of a two-volume collection spanning almost all of Berger’s work, compiled and edited by Tom Overton, who catalogued Berger’s papers for the British Library, where they now reside. Somewhat broader in scope than its much larger companion, Portraits (reviewed here) Landscapes deals with more than just art, including literature and politics. It is significantly shorter than Portraits, and offers plenty of rich material, but I would like to have seen a few additions, specifically:

Twelve Theses On The Economy Of The Dead (1994), an essay well described by its title, and rather indescribable otherwise. Berger included it in two books, the poetry collection Pages Of The Wound (1994), and the prose collection Hold Everything Dear (2007); I’ll leave it to you to decide which form it is. Fortunately, you can hear Berger read it here.

Will It Be A Likeness? (1997), an essay/radio play included in his book, The Shape Of A Pocket (2001), and available to listen to here. As with some of his best work, Berger moves from art to personal anecdote to political commentary with ease and deeply observant thought. I will treasure it, if for nothing else, for giving me the phrase “a kind of Switzerland of perception.”

This sort of best-of collection is designed to show the author in the best light, while at the same time aspiring to some sort of comprehensive survey. So kudos to Overton for not shirking when Berger missteps – a rarity, to be sure, but he did blunder now and then. His 1958 essay, “The Biennale” (pp. 155-58), manages to show Berger almost completely wrong in his criticism, yet he does so with firm convictions, and you cannot in the end blame him. Berger’s tastes in art leaned toward the representational, and the emergence of someone like Jasper Johns, whose groundbreaking Flag paintings made their Venice debut that year, leave Berger at a loss. The artists he championed have not fared so well, whereas Johns is an iconic figure in 20th Century art. Well, not even Berger could be right all the time.

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Confabulations was published just before Berger’s death in November 2016, and represents his last collection of all-new material. Inexplicably, some four months after his passing, this book has not been issued in the United States. I had to order the British edition, published by Penguin. I’m quite glad I did. Get with it, US publishers!

Confabulations shows no signs of senescence, nothing to mark this as a final book. Berger’s insight are as sharp as ever. (I find myself inevitably referring to Berger in the present tense; his writing seems to encourage this.) The highlight of the book is the long essay, Some Notes About Song (for Yasmine Hamdan), which begins as a freewheeling letter and proceeds from there along a path that is circuitous without meandering, touching on art, music, dance, language (spoken and gestural), and more. Its sprawling purview reminds me of what I see in Berger at his best: he does not isolate art, but always sees it in a myriad of contexts; he sees art as part of life, rather than an academic specialty to be examined in isolation. In this Some Notes About Song reminds me of his other long essays, particularly one of my favorites, A Story For Aesop (1986),  from his 1991 book, Keeping A Rendezvous – also absent from Landscapes, which is making me doubt Tom Overton’s skill as an editor.

The final essay, How To Resist A State of Forgetfulness, is particularly appropriate to these days, when the Trump administration is working hard to pervert the definitions of normal and true. Berger, though he lived for decades in France, was a keen observer of US politics. As with art, as with everything, he knew that looking closely was the way to understanding. Alternative facts do not stand up to scrutiny, and resistance needs precision of language to bring out the deep and deeper truths. The art world will miss John Berger a great deal; the entire world should miss his careful eye.