Culture Vulture: Saturday afternoon at MOMA 1-23-21

January 26, 2021

Last week’s expedition to the Metropolitan Museum was so nourishing that Andy and I decided to hit the Museum of Modern Art Saturday afternoon. The big show I had my eye on was Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, which I understood to be largely centered on Russian Constructivism. I did my best to fill Andy in on what I could remember about Mayakovsky and Malevich, the politics of Constructivism and its aesthetic relationship to Cubism, which all turned out to be pretty accurate. But the show also includes art and artists associated with the Dada movement (the subject of my only visual art class in college), including the great Kurt Schwitters.

The MOMA show also undertook the mission of spotlighting how this movement welcomed women artists, thinkers, and creators, including the likes of Fre Cohen, a name new to me.

The atrium currently hosts a bunch of beautiful, whimsical, enormous sculptures by Korean artist Haegue Yang that look vaguely like animals and/or robots, each one on wheels and covered with tiny bells. At scheduled intervals, art handlers come out and move the sculptures around so viewers can hear them jingle-jangle-jingle. We didn’t get to hear them but I’d go back just for that.

I like how MOMA is cycling through its permanent collection, bringing out stuff that is rarely seen. I enjoyed this Martin Kippenberger piece that inevitably invites life to imitate art and a huge Seth Price wall piece whose ideal form is a PDF you can download online at home.

We sat and watched some of Cao Fei’s fascinating film Whose Utopia, a documentary about a light-bulb factory in China.

In the first-floor lobby, we enjoyed Philippe Parreno’s Echo, especially the overhead piece near the 54th Street exit.

After this visual feast, we went home, made dinner, and I found myself giving Andy a multimedia introduction to Phoebe Snow, about whom he declared, “She was the real deal!”


Photo diary: Saturday 1-16-21

January 18, 2021

Walk to the Metropolitan Museum.
Walk through the Metropolitan Museum.
European paintings. Gold figures pointing. Japanese sculpture. Islamic calligraphy.
Walk to the West Side through the Rambles.
Walk through Lincoln Center Plaza.


Culture Vulture: Christmas Eve at the Whitney Museum

December 24, 2020

A dreary overcast Christmas Eve turned out to be a perfect day for a stroll through the Whitney Museum (first time there since the onset of the pandemic). We started on the top floor with Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, a community new to me of photographers who chronicled civil rights activism, culture heroes, and everyday black life in the ’60s and ’70s — wonderful shot of Sun Ra.

Next: Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019, whose high point is Liza Lou’s beaded Kitchen, but I also loved Jordan Nassar’s mesmerizing A Lost Key (above) and Jeffrey Gibson’s Birds of a Feather (below).

We poked our heads into Cauleen Smith: Mutualities and watched some of her film Sojourner in which a group of sisters in dazzling outfits take in a recorded lecture on black feminism.

The main attraction at the Whitney these days, though, is Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, which runs through January 31. The show focuses on three artists — Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco — and the impact they had on their contemporaries. I’ve always loved Siqueiros’s paintings, which seem psychedelic to me, and I made a pilgrimage to the house in Guanajuato where Rivera lived with Frida Kahlo for a time (it’s now a museum).

I was surprised and fascinated to see a bunch of figurative (pre-drip) paintings by Jackson Pollock directly influenced by Siqueiros’ dreamy shellacked surfaces (Landscape with Steer, above) and Orozco’s death-obsessed iconography (the two images below, both called Untitled (Figure Composition).

Also intriguing to learn that Philip Guston got his start studying with Siqueiros in Los Angeles and absorbing his politically charged mural work, as in this sectional model of a piece for the University of Michoacán.

And, as dessert, Kahlo’s beautiful, tender, funny self-portrait Me and My Parrots.


Quote of the day: DEMAGOGUERY

December 7, 2020

DEMAGOGUERY

We must never forget that the spellbinders, the rabble-rousers, the potential Hitlers are always with us. We must never forget that it is very easy for such men to turn an innocent orgy into an instrument of destruction, into a savage, mindless force directed toward the overthrow of liberty. To prevent them from exploiting crowd intoxication for their own sinister purposes we must be perpetually on our guard. Whether a world inhabited by potential Hitlers on the one hand and potential herd-poison addicts on the other can ever be made completely safe for rationality and decency seems doubtful, but at least we can try to make it a little safer than it is at present. For example, we can give our children lessons in the elements of general semantics. We can tell them about the frightful dangers of intellectual sin. We can make their flesh creep by reciting to them the disastrous consequences to societies and to individuals of the rabble-rouser’s oversimplification, overgeneralization, and overabstraction. We can remind them to live in present time and to think concretely and realistically, in terms of observable fact. We can unveil the absurd and discreditable secrets of propaganda and illustrate our lectures with examples drawn from the history of politics, religion, and the advertising industry. Would such a training be effective? Perhaps – or perhaps not. Herd poison is a very powerful intoxicant. Once they get into a crowd, even upright and sensible men are apt to lose their reason and accept all the suggestions, however nonsensical or however immoral, that may be given them. All we can hope to accomplish is to make it more difficult for the rabble-rouser to do his nefarious work.

–Aldous Huxley, “History of Tension,” 1956


Culture Vulture: Jacolby Satterwhite and David Byrne

October 31, 2020

I’m pretty sure the first time I laid eyes on Jacolby Satterwhite’s work was when it appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in the form of “Reifying Desire 6,” an eye-popping animated video (above) densely populated by writhing black male figures, words, phrases, and a kaleidoscopic meteor shower of images and objects. It was sexy, psychedelic, groovy, and unforgettable.. I couldn’t wait to see more. Happily, he’s super-prolific so there’s been lots to follow. I knew he had a show this fall (his Instagram kept reminding me), and by chance I wandered onto his website just in time to realize it was closing the next day. So I hopped on my bike and in less than half an hour I was at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in Chelsea walking through “We Are In Hell When We Hurt Each Other,” a luscious visual, aural, trippy, intellectual bombardment.

It comes at you from so many angles. One launching point for the show was the album of dance tracks the artist put together (with collaborator Nick Weiss) based on original songs his beloved mother Patricia (who lived with schizophrenia and died in 2016) sang a cappella into a cassette recorder. The songs serve as soundtrack to an 18-minute virtual-reality film that one viewer at a time could watch at the gallery; I came too late to get a crack at the headset, but selected scenes were projected onto the gallery: a tribe of CGI fembots (modeled on the artist’s own body but decked out as Grace Jones-like warriors) inhabit a video-game landscape of menacing orbs and other intruders whom the figures easily vanquish. (The artist has said he got into the video game Final Fantasy while being treated for cancer as a kid.)

Present as a sort of goddess-matriarch figure in many iterations is the legendary fashion model Bethann Hardison, still looking magnificently regal at 78 (above); the ritualistic battles she oversees resolve into the final image of a floral shrine to Breonna Taylor.

Then there’s a multimedia sculpture called Room for Doubt – four larger-than-life nude male figures (again modeled on the artist’s body) in the midst of some kind of cryptic healing ritual involving golden ropes tied around their heads.

As Patty Gone wrote in her review for the online magazine Hyperallergic, Room for Doubt reimagines Caravaggio’s 1603 painting, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” in which the famous non-believer dips a finger into Christ’s wound. In Satterwhite’s version, four life-size nudes mimic the poses of Jesus and company, their torsos containing small screens showing a performance in which Satterwhite grimaces as he drags his body across a floor. There’s no messiah or disciple here, only shared sacrifice. Stillness creates room to behold another’s pain.” On the floor in the shape of animal hides are papyrus-like scrolls with rough drawings and notes (not unlike the note-to-self scribblings Jean-Michel Basquiat would include in his rich collage-landscapes).  

A version across the room, called simply Doubt, is one of several works in neon, including a kind of hilarious, witty neon version of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Picasso’s rendition of which formed a key moment in the emergence of Cubism as a modern way of seeing and making art.

Besides drinking in these heady, color-saturated works, the high point of my visit was meeting the artist, whom I instinctively knew would be there. (Where else would an artist want to hang out?) He turned out to be friendly, handsome, and chatty, the kind of artist whose temperament lends itself to effortlessly discoursing about his work, where it comes from, what dots he’s connecting, etc.

You could happily entertain yourself for some time disappearing down the rabbit hole of his videos and interviews, enumerated on this page.

He told me I could watch the video in extra high-def on YouTube at home, and I scanned the QR code but couldn’t find the video later. Instead, Andy and I wound down from the crazy week by watching Spike Lee’s film version of David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO Max. It was great revisiting the show, which we saw and loved on Broadway for the design, the lighting, and the exuberant performances. Spike Lee clearly had fun capturing Annie-B Parson’s fluidly inventive choreography from all angles, including backstage and Busby Berkeley-like aerial shots.


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