Unpacking Frank Lloyd Wright @ MoMA

Installation view of Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 12–October 01, 2017. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

The holdings of the Frank Lloyd Wright archive, jointly acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Avery Architectural & Fine Art Library at Columbia University in 2012, are vast—no surprise, since Wright’s career spanned a seventy-year trajectory. The archive’s holdings comprise 55,000 drawings, 125,000 photographs, and well over a quarter-million sheets of correspondence, not to mention models, architectural fragments, films, and other multimedia. If the celebrated 20th century architect were alive today, he’d be 150, and to commemorate his sesquicentennial the MoMA’s exhibition Unpacking the Archives presents over 400 works from the archives, offering an illuminating thematic and chronological survey of Wright’s career.

Installation view of Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 12–October 01, 2017. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

The show’s title wittily puns on both the content of the exhibition, all gleaned from the newly-acquired archive, and on the show’s organization, for which twenty MoMA curators take an object of their choosing and explain (“unpack”) its relevance within the context of Wright’s career. This curatorial decision offers a refreshingly new approach to a survey of Wright, since some of his most iconic works (the Robie House, for example) are conspicuously absent, and viewers are introduced to some of Wright’s lesser known projects, such as his unrealized plans for Rosenwald School and his utopian Davidson Little Farms Unit.

Each of the exhibition’s fourteen galleries focuses either on a specific theme (ornament, ecology, circular geometries, and urbanism, to name a few) or an architectural structure (starting with the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and culminating with the Guggenheim). Some gallery spaces reinforce some of Wright’s most characteristic attributes, such as his compulsive obsession with total design. Not content to merely design a structure, Wright famously maintained absolute control over all the interior furniture and furnishings, going so far as to show up uninvited on the doorsteps of prior clients to ensure sure that the totality of his interior design scheme remained unaltered.

Other galleries playfully stray from the conventional narrative arc of Wright’s career. One room, devoted to studio drawings, displays drawings by Wright’s own hand juxtaposed with drawings from studio assistants, making the point that the studio’s more refined and aesthetic “perspective drawings” were generally rendered by specialists, such as the manifestly talented Marion Mahony. Perhaps the most surprising and satisfying original drawings on view, simply because they burst with spontaneity, were the sketches Wright made on a napkin as he was working out some design problems posed by his mile-high skyscraper.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). Fallingwater (Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pennsylvania. 1934–37. Perspective from the south. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 15 3/8 × 25 1/4″ (39.1 × 64.1 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved

The exhibition is heavy on two-dimensional architectural layouts, floorplans, and perspective drawings, but there are also some examples of the furnishings Wright’s studio created, ranging from art-glass windows, furniture, tableware, rugs and drapery. Also on view are the elaborate sculptural models Wright produced to help pitch ideas to his clients. These include a model of his iconic Guggenheim, flanked by an early perspective-rendering of the building, reminding us that the structure was once to have been an alarmingly garish pink.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. 1943–59. Model. Painted wood, plastic, glass beads, ink, and watercolor on paper, 28 x 62 x 44″ (71.1 x 157.5 x 111.8 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.

Wright at 150 directly acknowledges Wright’s Michigan connection in its display of an elaborate layout Wright drafted for Kalamazoo’s Galesburg Community, known as “The Acres,” originally to contain a network of homes on twenty-one circular-shaped lots, though in the end only four were built. The exhibition also devotes significant space to his Usonian homes, the comparatively inexpensive do-it-yourself (in theory, anyway) home-kits Wright’s studio produced, intending to make quality architecture available to the middle class; the Detroit area boasts of three such homes: the Turkel House (Palmer Woods), the Smith House (Bloomfield township), and the Affleck House (Bloomfield Hills). And some of Wright’s textile patterns on view (such as his March Baloons, depicting an elaborate network of intersecting circles) have been adopted by Ann Arbor’s Motawi Tileworks, which produces a handsome line of Wright-inspired ceramic decorative tile.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). March Balloons. 1955. Drawing based on a c. 1926 design for Liberty magazine. Colored pencil on paper, 28 1/4 x 24 1/2 in. (71.8 x 62.2 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.

Spread across a generous suite of galleries on the MoMA’s third floor, this exhibition at first glance seems perhaps austere (just one floor up, after all, are the reliably crowd-pleasing combines of Rauschenberg displayed alongside some of the zany 1970s kinetic works produced by the organization Experiments in Art and Technology). By contrast, Wright’s stately and geometric architectural plans on view in Unpacking the Archive seem emphatically cerebral, in some cases even displayed on mock-draft tables. But his ideas were revolutionary for his time, whether it be the need for sustainable architecture or for quality housing for all social classes, rather than just the proverbial 1%. And this cross-section of the Frank Lloyd Wright archive offers revealing and unprecedented access into the agile mind of an architect whose ideas remain uncannily relevant today.

 

Museum of Modern Art    Exhibition runs through October 1, 2017

 

Epicenter X @ Arab American National Museum

Exterior, The Arab American National Museum, Dearborn Michigan, 2017, All images courtesy of the AANM

Epicenter X is a small exhibition, but as the Michigan’s first significant show of contemporary art from Saudi Arabia, it carries some cultural weight. Featuring works by 20 emerging and mid-career artists, this traveling show, supported by Saudi Arabia’s newly established King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, has already worked its way through six other venues as it travels across the country; future stops include New York and Washington D.C. Through October, Epicenter X can be viewed at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a city famously home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arab Americans.

In the exhibition catalogue, Devon Akmon, director of the AANM and curator of the show, writes that although Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally of the United States in the Arab World, little is known in America about its people or its culture. Redressing this, Epicenter X seeks to challenge stereotypes of Arab culture by amplifying the voices of contemporary Saudi artists with a particular emphasis on the exploration of “urbanization, globalization, religion and the impact of American popular culture in Saudi society.”

Ahmed Angawi, Wijha 2:148 – And everyone has a direction to which they should turn, 2013, Digital Lenticular Print mounted on Aluminium

The exhibition features photography, graphic design, performance, video, sculpture, and painting, frequently delivering traditionally Arabic forms (particularly calligraphy) through modern media. While much of the art on view is clearly rooted in hundreds of years of Arabic visual culture, other works are emphatically contemporary, making conceptual, politically-charged statements on current issues like immigration, Guantanamo Bay, or the 2011 Arab Spring (its reverberations still echoing in Syria today).

Qamar Abdulmalik’s Asylum of Dreams, for example, presents viewers with a functional mechanical-claw arcade game filled, not with toys or plush animals, but passports from several dozen countries; they’re teasingly on display, yet, like political asylum itself, frustratingly unattainable for many people. The work is a poignant metaphor of the plight of those with no state-established identity– people who, as Abdulmalik movingly states, “are homesick but have no place to be homesick for.”

Qamar Abdulmalik, Asylum of Dreams, 2017, Crane Machine installation with printed passports

Similarly addressing a serious issue with understated humor is Musaed Al Hulis’ Ideologies for Sale, a vegetable cart ironically equipped with a prominent mihrab, the ornamental architectural element found in any mosque which indicates the direction of Mecca, toward which all the world’s Muslims pray. In this wry juxtaposition of a fixed point with a mobile pushcart, Al Hulis criticizes “cheap ideologies, seasonal beliefs, and lack of direction…toying with compliant minds, solely in the pursuit of power, supremacy and profit.”

Musaed Al Hulis, Ideologies for Sale, Mixed Media on Wood, 2013

Many works on view inventively translate traditional Arabic culture into a 21st century visual language, such as Nugamshi’s visually hypnotic “calligraffiti.” There’s a calligraphic work created on site in the show’s primary exhibition space, but a video on the AANM’s second level shows the artist at work on other projects, and his process is thoroughly mesmerizing. Nugamshi spreads canvass on the ground and enacts a sort of dance with a large paint-loaded brush (which looks like a broom), which he gracefully swoops across the canvass in rapid strokes while somehow maintaining absolute control over the subtle variations in the value and thickness of each calligraphic swipe. The result is something which has both the curvaceous elegance of traditional Arabic script and the raw intensity and large scale of street graffiti.

While Epicenter X is intimate in scale, there’s an impressive variety of media and diversity of participants (among the artists include a dentist, an architect, and a Facebook developer). The show comes with a helpful complimentary exhibition catalogue (available online), itself easily worth the $8 price of admission, but to get the most from the experience, perhaps time your visit to correlate with the culinary walking tours the AANM offers of the surrounding markets. Many of us too often treat the pan-Arabic world as a monolith, and in adding even just a bit of nuance and texture to our understanding of Arab culture, this show fosters increasingly-necessary cross-cultural dialogue, and serves its purpose well.

Arab American National Museum

 

 

 

Kara Walker @ Toledo Museum of Art

Kara Elizabeth Walker is an African American painter, silhouettist, and print-maker, who  explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. This exhibition is Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War.

Kara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

In 1866, the magazine Harpers Weekly published its Pictorial History of the Civil War, a hulking two-volume set which anthologized its prior five years of war reportage, replete with over a thousand illustrative woodcuts. American artist Kara Walker, known for her unsettling and often violent depictions of the antebellum South, “annotates” fifteen illustrations from the series by superimposing silkscreened silhouettes atop the unfolding dramas depicted in the original woodcuts, interrupting the narrative and re-contextualizing the images.

On view at the Toledo Museum of Art until October 22, this small but worthwhile exhibition features all fifteen silkscreens from Walker’s Annotated Pictorial History of the Civil War (2005), newly acquired by the TMA. There’s a helpful curatorial statement on the wall introducing the series, but from that point onward, viewers are just given the title of each work, so each image must be confronted on its own terms. Furthermore, they’re intentionally displayed without any obvious beginning or ending point, subverting any chronological narrative structure.

Tara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

Walker’s calculated use of the silhouette harkens back to the antebellum-era popularity of the silhouette portrait in genteel society. But the silhouette is also loaded with associations of physiognomy; Walker’s silhouettes typically confront 19th century racial stereotypes though heightened exaggeration, caricaturing the caricature. Her silhouetted forms and figures also conscientiously reference Rorschach tests, the interpretations of which are fluid and in which there’s continual interplay between positive and negative space. In these lithographs, this interplay is dramatically heightened since the negative space consists of dramatically enlarged images from Harper’s Pictorial History.

Here, Kara Walker combines her art with characteristic wit and verbal irony; her “annotations” in this case are the silhouetted figures which place in the foreground that which was marginalized in Harpers–of the Pictorial History’s 1,000+ illustrations, just over a dozen contained any African-Americans, and only three images referenced slavery (possibly more, depending on what constitutes as a reference). Yet Walker’s annotations do the exact opposite of what we would expect of a marginal note, confounding, rather than enhancing, the narrative of the original woodcuts. Her figures sometimes mask out the entirety of the original subject. Other times, they re-shape the original narrative. Some even interact with, react to, or participate in the events portrayed.

Her annotations are allusive; neither side in the conflict is framed as having the moral high ground. In one instance, a silhouette seems brutally torn apart by the cannon-fire from the Union artillery in the original woodcut. In another, Union troops triumphantly march in parade-formation into Alexandria, Virginia, greeted by cheering figures, but Walker inserts figures of her own in the foreground; one shakes its fist at the sky in what might be exasperation or rage. Another seems to try to scurry away and hide.

Kara Walker, Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

These images aren’t flippantly dismissive of the many lives that were indeed lost during the Civil War, rather, they challenge the visual narrative of the conflict as presented by Harpers. Some of its depictions of African-Americans (such as Cotton Hordes in a Southern Swamp) stoop to cruel and abusively dehumanizing caricature.   This is especially disconcerting when weighed against the book’s claim in its preface (which appeared in both volumes) of authenticity and impartiality. For reference, incidentally, featured in this exhibit are an original copy of the 1866 Harpers text and a screen which allows us to compare Walker’s annotations with the original illustrations from which they derive.

One should enter this show ready to be unsettled and at times disoriented. Yet we can always confidently approach Kara Walker’s work assured that she’ll have synthesized both fine craftsmanship with a well-thought out concept, reminding us along the way of the sad ironies so tragically present in America’s history. And her work has continued relevance– competing political narratives vocalize ever more shrilly in print and electronic media, but Walker’s Annotated History suggests we not accept any unscrutinized narrative, de facto, as truth’s final word.

Toledo Museum of Art    Through October 22, 2017

 

Rodin @ Flint Institute of Arts

An Exhibition from the Gerald Cantor Foundation

Installation Image Flint Institute of Art

Fresh out of the army, in 1946 Gerald Cantor purchased a bronze version of Rodin’s The Hand of God, thus beginning what he called his lifelong “magnificent obsession” with Rodin. Today, with over 750 sculptures and drawings in its collection, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation boasts of the world’s largest private collection of works by the artist, the majority of which have been gifted or loaned to museums throughout the world. Rodin, The Human Experience, on view at the Flint Institute of Arts, is a muscular exhibition of 45 sculptures on loan from the Cantor Foundation, offering an impressive survey Rodin’s artistic career. Expect to see more Rodin in one place than nearly anywhere else this side of the Atlantic.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840-1917, Large Hand of a Pianist, modeled 1885, Musee Rodin, cast 9, 1969

Rodin possessed an uncanny knack for creating emphatically expressive sculpture, even when the sculpted forms were merely a clutching hand or straining torso. They surge with energy, and the surfaces of his figures were left calculatedly rough, so as to catch the light and imbue a sense of movement. They need to be seen in the round, and, thankfully, nearly all the works on view are thoughtfully displayed for viewing from multiple sides.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Narcisse, modeled about 1882,enlarged and retitled 1890; Musée Rodin, cast 8/8 in 1985, Bronze, 32 × 13 × 12 1/4 inches. Lent by Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

The exhibition comfortably fills the spacious Hodge Galleries with works both large and small. Some of the most interesting sculptures, in fact, are the wispy, diminutive studies Rodin made—never intended for display—which reveal how he worked out compositional problems. These offer a glimpse at his working process.

The Gates of Hell was his breakout masterpiece, and the teeming cascade of figures which writhe on its surface served as inspiration for many of his subsequent works, like The Thinker, which in its original state, was perched high on the doors, meditatively and dispassionately contemplating the inferno below.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Three Faunesses, modeled before 1896; Musée Rodin, cast in 1959, cast number unknown, Bronze, 9 1/4 × 11 1/2 × 6 1/2 inches. Lent by Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

Several studies for Rodin’s triumphant posthumous monument to Balzac are on display; one of his most iconic works, Rodin obsessed about getting the likeness correct, going so far as to arrange for Balzac’s tailor to make a suit of Balzac’s dimensions; this was worn by a model who was a dead-ringer for the author himself. In the end, though, Rodin sculpted Balzac shrouded the monk’s robe he famously wore as he wrote.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Bust of Victor Hugo, modeled 1883; cast number and date unknown, Bronze, 17 × 10 1/4 × 10 3/4 inches. Lent by Iris Cantor

There are several studies for the Burghers of Calais, a project that now seems ideally suited for Rodin, though it was poorly received at its unveiling. The emotionally charged ensemble depicts a group of citizens of Calais about to sacrificially offer themselves to the English, who during the Hundred Years War, had laid siege to the city. Each man reacts differently; one, clasping his head, seems distraught. On the face of another we read steely determination. Their entire bodies viscerally respond to the emotional weight of certain death, and the ensemble allowed Rodin to fully explore sculpture as a vehicle for expressing emotion.

Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 – 1917, Fallen Caryatid with Urn, modeled 1883, enlarged 1911-17; Musée Rodin, cast 4 in 1982, Bronze, 45 1/4 × 36 3/4 × 31 1/8 inches. Lent by Iris Cantor.

When Sixteenth Century art historian Giorgio Vasari described Michelangelo’s sculptures as terribilita (“terrible,” in English), he certainly wasn’t insulting them; the word then meant what we might today describe as “awesome,” like a fearfully powerful thunderstorm.   It’s hard not to experience a streak of the same sensation as you stand in these rooms full of Rodin’s sculptures; they’re absolutely sublime.   The forty-five works which comprise this exhibition are an infinitesimally small fraction of Rodin’s prodigious output; nevertheless, they’re more than enough to support the assessment, made by many, that Rodin was, without question, the greatest sculptor of his time.

Flint Institute of Art   This exhibition has been organized and made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. On exhibition through July 30, 2017

 

Suspended Disbelief @ Broad Museum, East Lansing

Transported Man Exhibition opens by New Director

Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

I once entertained aspirations of being a professional magician (I was never good, but at one point I could make all the faces of a deck of cards disappear, using a trick deck, admittedly). It’s likely for the best that I never pursued that career, but the Broad Art Museum’s Transported Man suggests that perhaps the world of art and that of magic aren’t that different. Both, after all, inexorably rely on the viewer voluntarily suspending disbelief.

The Broad’s new director, Marc-Olivier Wahler has a tough act to follow. The museum’s grand opening in 2012 featured works by art world heavyweights Andy Warhol, Joseph Albers, Anselm Kiefer, and Damien Hirst. The building’s architect Zaha Hadid even made an appearance. But, with over 400 exhibitions under his belt, Wahler capably delivers a conceptually interesting and visually arresting debut exhibition. His first show is an ambitious exploration of the relationship between art and viewer, and it brings together over 40 international artists, some quite familiar (Duchamp and Magritte) and others either emerging or mid-career.

The Transported Man derives its title from the magic trick of the same name, as depicted in the novel (and movie) The Prestige. Using magic as a motif, the exhibition, broadly speaking, explores the mutability of perception. Mundane items—magically—become art objects once placed in a museum. Furthermore, the exhibition tests the limits at which art can fool us. It certainly works. By the time you’re done on the second floor, you’ll have seen so much trompe l’oeil wizardry and visual sleight-of-hand that you’ll be thoroughly confounded as to what’s real and what’s illusory. The Broad’s counterintuitively shaped spaces, replete with walls that slant every which way, make the experience even more disorienting.

The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Stepping into the first level exhibition galleries, visitors will be met with a wooden table hovering in air; it’s propped up by a fan set within the floor (there’s no attempt at hiding that), yet how the air current so firmly holds the table in place remains a mystery. But the elephant in the room is, quite literally, the elephant in the room. It freely hangs with its trunk clasped around a rope affixed to the ceiling. Possessing all the convincing texture of an actual elephant, it’s actually a polyurethane resin, polyester, steel, and fiberglass sculpture by Daniel Firman. There’s something strangely beautiful and visually satisfying about the suspended creature so improbably defying gravity. (Look up Firman’s elephants on the internet; they’ve appeared in all sorts of places).

Perhaps the most disorienting work in the show is Synchronicity, an experimental work by Robin Meier and Andre Gwerder. It’s a big, black tent inside a big black tent. Step inside both and suddenly you’re walking on (and smelling, quite strongly, in fact) soil and grass, the atmosphere has suddenly become hot and extremely humid, and it’s very dark. Real crickets happily chirp away (afterhours, the lights within turn on, mimicking natural daylight, and the crickets, cicadas, and fireflies erroneously think it’s day). The work explores how we can manipulate nature through electronic stimuli. Small electronic LED lights stimulate actual synchronistic fireflies, which under the impression that it’s a hot, muggy night, flicker in a pulsating rhythm. While far from the point of the installation, I couldn’t help but reflect on our own susceptibility to electronic stimuli/media which we increasingly accept at face-value as truth.

Upstairs, the visual and sensory theatrics continue. In the corner of one gallery space you’ll find weeds sprouting improbably from the floor. They’re actually steel sculptures by Tony Matelli, and seem so convincingly real that you really do have to fight the urge to reach out and touch them…just to check.

The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

One subtext of the show is the uncanny transformation of mundane objects into works of art. The point is most explicitly made with Piero Manzoni’s Magic Base—Living Sculpture, a wooden pedestal upon which people are supposed to stand, thus momentarily turning themselves into art objects (for this exhibition, however, viewers are asked to kindly refrain from turning themselves into art objects, and thus help preserve the original base, now over half a century old). This also seems to be the point behind the many non-functional air ducts installed throughout the museum by Charlotte Posenenske, and the plywood plank (by Robert Gober) leaning against a wall. Visually, these works are uninteresting, but they nevertheless foster conversation about the nature of art, and in this respect they advance the goal of the exhibition.

The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

 

Perhaps ironically, the most conceptual part of the show may very well be The Transported Collection, a playfully inventive adjacent exhibition of works from the Broad’s permanent collection. About forty paintings and drawings hang on a wall in one of the Broad’s lower galleries, but without any obvious reference to their corresponding artists. The viewer is left in a quandary: which of these works are, in fact, generally recognized as great works of art? Stealthily tucked in the corner of the room are some laminated explanatory cards which identify the artists. I cheated and peaked; the list is impressive– Van Dyck, Picasso, Delacroix, Matisse, Giacometti, and others. But some of the most compelling works on view were by artists I’d not heard of, such as Federico Castelluccio, who fools the eye with a convincingly illusory painting of a torn up, wrinkled postcard of a Titian portrait which seemed to be taped back together and affixed to a wooden background. This small exhibition wittily questions the subjective process by which we determine what constitutes great works of art.

Jonathan Monk, Second Hand Daily Exchange, 2006 The Transported Man, all images courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Picasso famously said that art is a lie which points to the truth. He was right; after all, the overwhelming majority of art history is comprised of artists trying to fool us into seeing three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. But it’s while looking at illusory paintings that we’re made acutely aware of the beauty of the actual world…or the shortcomings of human nature, as the case may be. Art’s deception has a purpose; to paraphrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it holds up a mirror to nature, and within that mirror’s distorted reflection, we’re more able to see ourselves.   So while the playful theatrics and visual punning makes The Transported Man an eminently enjoyable and accessible show, there’s substance behind the visual magic that speaks to art’s ability to nudge us toward beautiful, enduring– sometimes uncomfortable– truths

The Transported Man at  the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University