Abstraction & Politics @ UMMA

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4, ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Visitors stepping out of the University of Michigan’s Taubman Gallery (currently paying host to a punchy and politically-charged exhibition of art of the African diaspora) who then wander in to the adjacent show, Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s,will perhaps find themselves in a gallery space austere by comparison, containing four allusive abstract paintings and sculptures.  It’s a highly conceptual micro-exhibition comprising works by Helen Frankenthaler, Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, and Louise Nevelson.  In spite of the show’s title, as political statements, their significance isn’t self-evident (something perhaps tacitly acknowledged by the interrogative opening line of the show introductory text: Can abstract art be about politics and identity?), but what the artists in this tactfully assembled ensemble have in common is their defiant refusal to conform to the art-world’s expectations of what their art should be.

Viewers first encounter a geometric abstraction by Al Loving (one of Detroit’s own, though he later lived and worked out of New York City). Influenced in the 1970s by the hard-edge color squares of Josef Albers, Loving’s Bowery Morning is a simple yet disorienting network of shapes which could be read variously as an ensemble of polygons or cubes.  Loving created the work in 1971, the same year he participated in the Whitney Museum’s highly controversial Contemporary Black Artists in America, a show which acquired notoriety when fifteen artists withdrew to protest the decisions made by the show’s mostly white curatorial staff.  But conspicuous by its absence in Loving’s work was any commentary on the social or political issues of his day.

Al Loving, Bowery Morning, 1971, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The same could be said of the work of Sam Gilliam, who in the 1970s began experimenting with abstract fabric constructions (as Al Loving himself increasingly began to do). Inspired by seeing laundry hung out to dry, Gilliam liberated his canvasses from their wooden frames, transforming his paintings into fully sculptural objects which hung elegantly from the wall like giant curtains, sails, and banners, a contribution to Abstract Expressionism that occurred long before Frank Stella began producing his own sculptural paintings which burst from the wall and crashed into the viewer’s space.  Here, Gilliam’s attention-grabbing Situation VI-Pisces 4,an abstract painting displayed like a massive banner incised with with deep drapes and folds,nearly fills an entire gallery wall with a blaze of crimsons and yellows, and it’s hard not to consider this as the show’s visual centerpiece.

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4 (detail), ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Directly across from Situation VI, Louise Nevelson’s stately and characteristically enigmatic Dark Presence seems subdued and restrained in comparison.  Dark Presence is exactly that, a mostly rectilinear scaffolding of individual wooden forms which, all painted black, coalesce into a unified whole.  A work by the second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler completes this ensemble.  Her Sunset Corner is a representative color-field painting applying her “soak-stain” method, for which she covered the canvass in nearly translucent washes of water-thin paint.

Abstraction and Politics is a challenging exhibition that certainly doesn’t patronize its patrons, and the political applications of these four works is admittedly difficult to find without the helpful explanatory text which introduces the show.  But what these diverse artists have in common is their shared refusal to adhere to expectations regarding what African-American art or Feminist-art (choose your hyphenation) ought to look like.  Nevelson’s works in particular– in part because of their imposing scale and subdued color– gleefully bucked pervading stereotypes of sculpture by women, even eliciting sexist reviews by stunned critics, incredulous that such work could be executed by a female.  The show’s theme certainly works if we view self-determination as a political act, and if we approach these artists’ defiant refusal to conform to expected narratives as a reaction against the cultural climate in which they lived, then it’s possible to view these works as an understated form of protest.  To borrow a phrase from Sylvia Plath: through their art these artists simply asserted their right to live and work on their own human terms.

University of Michigan Museum of Art   Abstraction and Politics –  Through September 29, 2019

Charles Pollock: Modernism in the Making @ Broad Museum, Michigan State University

Charles Pollock: Modernism in the Making, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Image: Eat Pomegranate Photography

We all know of Pollock, the aspirant artist who studied under Thomas Hart Benton in New York, gained experience painting murals commissioned by the depression-era Works Progress Administration, and became an acclaimed Abstract Expressionist.Or do we?  After all, most of us are likely more familiar with his younger sibling, Jackson, who also studied under Benton in New York, also made paintings for the WPA, and also worked in Abstract Expressionism, following the course laid by his older brother, Charles.

Through December, Michigan State University celebrates the work and legacy of Charles Pollock, who taught at MSU for almost 30 years (1942-1969) and retired 50 years ago.  Charles worked in abstraction, though unlike his brother, his work bends more toward color-field painting, occasionally evoking the misty canvasses of Mark Rothko.  Pollock was well connected with the driving artists and personalities of the postwar New York School, and he used his connections to acquire works of art and bring artists of America’s avant-gardeto campus.  Along with the paintings, drawings, and correspondence of Charles Pollock himself, this intimate one-room exhibition also offers a cross-section of the many artists and personalities that encompassed his broad social circle.

Before turning toward abstraction, his early work carried thick Social Realist accent.  Somber lithographs like After the Drought, portraying an eerily smiling cattle skull set against a bleak and unpeopled desert-scape, could easily serve as concept art for a film adaptation of a Steinbeck novel.  Similarly, his Man at the Well (1933) is hardly an optimistic portrayal of America as the land of opportunity; the empty bucket and the grim expression the on figure’s face together imply that this well has run dry.  Pollock also worked in graphic design, and it’s no surprise to see that he made the cover for an anthology of William Falkner, whose Sound and Fury viscerally gave the lie to the notion that America was a new-world Arcadia.

Pollock came to Michigan while working for the Works Progress Administration, and it was a set of mural assignments for the Lansing Water Treatment Plant and Michigan State University’s Fairchild Auditorium that brought him to Lansing.  Here, viewers can see an early sketch for his Fairchild mural; the completed work, conceived as a triptych, is still on view in the Auditorium.  The heroic imagery reveals the influence of Benton; implausibly muscular workers go about the business of making America great though brawn, brain, industry, and resourcefulness.

Charles Pollock, #95, 1967. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, gift of George F. Schwelinger in memory of Ella Schwelinger.

In the 1940s, Pollock turned toward abstraction.  Unlike Jackson, whose splashy drip-paintings seemed to suggest a haptic attitude of devil-may-care spontaneity, Charles’ paintings are, by comparison, orderly and restrained.  His #86 fills the canvass with a grid of vertically oriented rectilinear color swatches, recalling the vertically-oriented color field paintings of Barnett Newman.  And his #95 similarly offers viewers a serene grid of color fields, whose soft borders are suggestive of the color-field paintings of Rothko.

But the lion’s share of the gallery space highlights the artist’s connections with Abstract Expressionism’s famous personalities, many of whom he brought to Michigan State.  On view are photographs and correspondence  which reveal the extent of his reach, such as an invitation to famed art-critic Clement Greenburg, who came to MSU to deliver a talk.

Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1950. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, gift of Clement Greenberg.

There is also an impressive selection of paintings and sculptures by names synonymous with the postwar American art scene: Kenneth Noland, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, and others.  With the exception of an untitled metallic sculpture by Italo Scanga, consciously evoking a reductive human face, all the works on view are rooted in pure abstraction. The earliest work in the show is an untitled thickly-impostoed painting by Helen Frankenthaler from 1950, created just when Abstract Expressionism was enjoying its meteoric ascent in New York.  It’s scrubbed-in gestural tangle of circular forms shows the influence of Jackson Pollock, recalling some of his messily-painted figurative work prior to his development of drip painting. Frankenthaler become a driving force in the development of Color Field painting, influencing the likes of Kenneth Noland, represented here with a typically Noland-esque lozenge-shaped arrangement of concentric squares emerging from the center of a canvass.

Charles Pollock: Modernism in the Making, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Image: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Modernism in the Making is a small exhibit, but it brings together an impressively muscular cross-section of A-list postwar artists, offering a snapshot portrayal of the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Admittedly, it’s hard not to walk away just a touch disappointed that Charles never managed to procure for Michigan State a drip-painting by Jackson Pollock himself.  Put perhaps it’s for the best; the other Pollock has received plenty of attention—too much, really– and Charles and his circle certainly deserve their moment in the spotlight.

Broad Museum Michigan State University

Charles Pollock, Modernism in the Making runs through December 30; more information can be found here.

Beyond Borders @ UMMA

When colonial powers carved up the African continent, borders were drawn that indiscriminately sliced through culturally similar people-groups, and the inhabitants were subsequently viewed by Europeans to live in distinct, monolithic “tribes,” each of which lived in relative isolation.  Beyond Borders: Global Africa, on view in the University of Michigan’s spacious Taubman Gallery, emphatically makes the point that cultural exchange across African societies and between Africa and the West is and always has been fluid.

Gleaned largely from its own collection and supplemented by works on loan from the Mott-Warsh Collection in Flint, the art on view ranges from 19thcentury through contemporary, and spans across a diverse array media.  Collectively, as Laura De Becker articulates in the exhibition catalogue, they “illustrate moments of encounter throughout history, complicating the colonial idea that the African continent is made of up ethnic groups or nations with starkly defined, impermeable boarders, or that it stands at one end of a dichotomy comprising Africa and the West.”

Artist unrecorded, Kongo peoples, Vili group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Nkisi(power figure), ca. 1800, wood, tukula powder and kaolin. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern, 2005/1.180.

Several sets of carved sculptural objects demonstrate thematic similarities that transcend colonial-era borders.  A selection of Minksi (Power Objects), though varied in form—ranging from representational to highly abstract—demonstrate the widespread belief that the sculpted figure could be spiritually potent and even intercede on behalf of the living.

Many of these works synthesize local traditions with European elements.  A pair of ceremonial shoes decorated with beads, for example, alludes to trade between Nigeria and Europe (most beads were imported from Venice). Furthermore, the beads create a mosaic of the British Crown, and it’s ambiguous if the reference, ingloriously appearing as it does on shoes, is understood to be a respectful homage or a wry and subtle insult to the colonial power.

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-57, gelatin silver print.

European faces make cameo appearances, carved into a Chokwe chair, for example, and European coins are inventively repurposed to decorate carved boxes and wooden figures.  Commerce and cultural exchange are addressed directly in a series of black and white photographs by Seydou Keita, hailed by many as the “father of African photography,” depicting anonymous residents of Bamako, Mali, posed with imported consumer goods that reveal the country’s rising middle class in the latter half of the 29thcentury.

Omar Victor Diop, Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805), 2014, pigment inkjet printing on Harman by Hahnemühle paper. Courtesy of Mott-Warsh collection, Flint, Michigan and MAGNIN-A Gallery, Paris, © Omar Victor Diop

In a powerful pair of confrontationally large photographs, Omar Victor Diop recreates images of historically significant figures from the African diaspora.  Like the ever shape-shifting Cindy Sherman, Diop stars himself in his works, assuming varied roles.  Here, the artist recreates Samuel Miller’s portrait of Frederick Douglass, but modernizes it by brandishing a plastic referee’s whistle.  Sports paraphernalia invariably appears in his work, addressing the discrepancy between the celebrity status African athletes enjoy in Western countries and the xenophobic attitudes expressed by people in those same nations.  In a second photograph, the artist recreates a painting by Trison, posing as Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave who won his freedom after service in French army, and subsequently became a vocal abolitionist.  The soccer ball Diop poses with serves as a foil to his otherwise convincing 18thcentury regalia; just the same, the image, replete with the subject’s gentle contrapposto, really does seem uncannily as if a portrait from the Louvre has nearly come to life.

A painting by Kehinde Wiley lends a jolt of young and energetic star-power to this exhibition.   Known for his paintings that present works of art from the Western cannon reimagined to star black protagonists, here the artist borrowed the pose of a statue of Chief Obafemi Awolowo—a key figure in securing Nigerian independence from Great Britain—and transforms the figure’s outstretched hand into a black power salute.  Wiley’s work consistently manages to be emphatically contemporary, giving a fresh spin to the old masters, and giving the lie to the notion that traditional figure painting is dead.

Kehinde Wiley, On Top of the World, 2008, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Aishti Foundation, Beirut © Kehinde Wiley

Beyond Borders succeeds in offering a cross section across mediums and across time, demonstrating in small part the extent to which cultural exchange happened in Africa and continues to occur today through its diaspora.  Furthermore, the national conversation in recent years has increasingly placed borders (and walls) at the forefront of political discourse, giving the show a timely relevance.

UMMA  –  Beyond Borders runs through November 24.

Mirrors and Intersections @ Grand Rapids Art Museum

Anila Quayyum Agha (American, b. Pakistan 1965). Intersections, 2013. Laser-cut wood, 6.5 x 6.5 x 6.5 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha’s ethereal sculptural installation Intersections is likely the most photographed work of art in Grand Rapids at the moment, surpassing even the city’s iconic, blazing-red Calder.  At Artprize 2014 (the city’s annual public-art festival), Intersections won both the People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice awards, and now, through the end of Summer, it returns to the Grand Rapids Art Museum where it made its auspicious debut.  It was a work calculatedly fashioned to appeal across social and cultural demographics, and if Instagramability is a worthy criterion of a work’s public appeal, then the artist certainly succeeded.

The work is the star of a pair of closely related solo exhibitions on view in adjacent gallery spaces, one showcasing Agha, and the other featuring Iranian artist Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian. There’s a thematic continuity between their distinctive styles that make the pairing work almost as a single show. Both artists apply sophisticated tessellations and kaleidoscopic patters so characteristic of visual culture in the pan-Arab world, and both artists explore the visual possibilities of reflected light and cast shadow.  Their works are also both—to some degree– participatory and interactive.

Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian, Installation image, Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum

The first exhibition space contains Mirror Variations, Farmanfarmaian’s luminous glass sculptures which represent an inventive fusion of traditional Persian art mixed with the American abstraction the artist encountered during her formative years in New York between 1945 and 1957, where she met art-world luminaries like Willem de Kooning and Louise Nevelson.  (In 2015 her work came full circle; New York’s Guggenheim awarded the artist her first solo American show—perhaps a curiously late honor for an artist and socialite of such import that she and her husband once played host to President John and Jackie Kennedy in Tehran.)

Inspired both by Arabic architecture and by principles of Sufi geometry, Farmanfarmaian’s work applies repetition and progression of simple shapes.  Like mosaics in 3D, her sculptures comprise tens of thousands of individual glass components which reflect light, diffusing fragmented geometric shapes across the gallery walls, ceiling, and floor.   One pentagonal sculpture—though prohibitively stowed behind glass on a pedestal—reflects light onto the ceiling and into the viewer’s space, directly involving the GRAM’s architecture into her work.  The lack of artisans in the United States able to help execute such detailed cut-glass work as this is partly why the artist eventually returned to her home country in 2004 after over 20 years of exile initiated by the Iranian Revolution.

Monir Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, b. 1924). Tir (Convertible Series), 2015. Mirror, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood, 63 x 63 x 6 inches

These stately, ordered sculptures might seem the polar opposite of the often noisy, raucous world of the Postwar New York School, but some of her hanging sculptures invite a certain relinquishment of control that seems to parallel the likes of Robert Rauschenberg—particularly his playfully interactive Synapsis Shuffle (incidentally, a series of paintings which the GRAM exhibited in this very room back in 2012). Her Convertible series explores the myriad of varying geometric possibilities that can be created with a set of identical, interlocking shapes.  Each polygonic component is a fairly complex work in its own right, but the specific way they are arranged on the wall remains entirely fluid, ever-changing wherever they happen to be installed.

The second major gallery space is entirely devoted to Agha’s Intersections.  The work is a suspended black cube (about 7 feet square) crafted out of laser-cut wood, and inside a high-power bulb blasts the form’s intricate geometric shadows onto the gallery’s walls, ceiling, and floor, transforming every cubic millimeter of the space.  Its patterns derive from architectural elements of Spain’s Alhambra,the famed 14thcentury Nasarid dynasty palace and fortress.   It’s visually striking, but the work is conceptual as well.  Agha states that growing up in Pakistan as a female, she was not allowed to enter mosques, and with Intersections, wished to create a work which was open and accessible across all demographics.  Indeed, there’s something democratic and participatory about seeing yourself silhouetted on the gallery wall alongside the shadows of other visitors, all invariably with phones drawn, ready to share the moment on social media.

Video interview with Agha

In an auxiliary exhibition space, viewers confront a final bit of shadowplay.  A circular sculpture comprising  hundreds of identical triangular shapes is affixed from a wall and tactfully illuminated from three different angles.  The shadows it casts resemble a mash-up of a Venn-diagram and a series of tessellations by M.C. Escher.

Together, Mirror Variations and Intersections both manage to tactfully translate centuries-old Arabic visual culture into the language of 21stCentury abstraction.  And both artists manipulate light to transform a gallery space, creating works that transcend the beautiful and perhaps approach the sublime.  Their works slow us down—even in an art museum, after all, one is tempted to rush through to take everything in, spending, according to one study, less than 30 seconds in front of each painting.  But here the artists invite us to linger, and these exhibitions suppress our impulse to hurriedly move on the next thing.

Grand Rapids Museum  – through August 26, 2018

Gertrude Kasle Collection & See Through @ UMMA

Exercising the Eye

Robert Rausehnberg, Intermission(Ground Rules) Intaglio, 1996

In 1965, Gertrude Kasle established a gallery in Detroit’s Fischer Building with the intent of introducing the New York School of abstract expressionism to the Midwest.  The gallery lasted for 11 years, during which she acquired and exhibited works by luminaries such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Grace Hartigan.  An alumnus of the University of Michigan, Kastle subsequently donated her muscular collection of American postwar art to the university’s art museum, and through July 22, Exercising the Eye celebrates Kasle’s visionary, connoisseurial eye.

Jasper Johns, Savarin, Color Lithograph on Paper, 1977

Exercising the Eye comfortably fills the UMMA’s large Taubman Gallery with a veritable Who’s Who of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art of the 60s and 70s, alongside a generous selection of works by artists perhaps underrepresented in the typical art-history survey.  An impressive spread of Rauschenberg’s works fills an entire wall, including diminutive aquatints and lithographs, a reminder that Rauschenberg produced far more than the “combines” for which he became famous. Nearly running the length of another wall is a suite of immersive,  large paintings by Grace Hartigan, a staple among America’s abstract expressionists and friend of Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and the de Koonings.  Hartigan worked both in abstract and figurative imagery, challenging Clement Greenberg’s vocal and uncompromising championing of pure abstraction, and here her immersive Tarzana applies frothy scribbles and uninhibited swaths of smack-you-in-the-face color to deliver the fleshy exuberance of a Renaissance Bacchanal translated into the vocabulary of postwar expressionism.

Other artists represented include Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Jasper Johns, and Philip Guston (the later represented with an original pen drawing advertising a show if his own paintings at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery).  Exercising the Eye perhaps suffers mildly  from a lack of thematic continuity beyond its works having been collected and exhibited by Gertrude Kasle, shrewdly perceptive as she may have been.  But its strength rests on the admirable willingness of Kasle to acquire and exhibit works by worthy artists that had yet to attain household-name status, and this exhibition is a markedly inclusive reflection of the climate of postwar American art, which often seems mischaracterized almost as a sort of boys-only club.

The Treachery of Images

Elliott Erwitt, Cracked Glass with Boy – Colorado, Gelatin Silver Print, 1955

Concurrent with Exercising the Eye, the UMMA is also presenting a show of pictures in its photography gallery which collectively aim to “expose the contingent nature of reality” through a series of visually beguiling photographs, each guaranteed to procure a double-take from the viewer.  The exhibition, See Through: Windows and Mirrors in Twentieth-Century Photography, brings together an eclectic selection of images that visually pun on the nature of the image and in which nothing is quite as it seems.  It’s as if the visual devilry of Rene Magritte has been transposed into photography, and, impressively, all of it prior to the advent of photoshop.

Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Savannah, Gelatin Silver Print, 1936

Walker Evans, generally known for his soul-wrenching portraits of down-and-out Depression-era families of the American South, is here represented with an uncharacteristically lighthearted set of illusory images that seem to portray special depth where there is none.  A wry photograph of a mirror in a hotel lobby, for example, seems to open up a portal in the picture plain that leads to another room; of course, there’s nothing in front of the camera but wall and glass.

Several images make playful use of distortion caused broken glass.  Carl Chiarenza’s  Bat Windowpresents a smashed window, its break forming an ominous angular black hole resembling the shape an abstract bat; the encroaching field of black recalls the schematic of a Robert Motherwell painting.  And Algimantas Kezys’ fragmentated reflection of two silhouetted male forms staring into a shattered mirror seems cubist, like a much paired down version of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Such a theme as this naturally opens the door to moments of subtle humor.  Robert Doisneau’s wonderfully mischievous  La Dame Indignée (“the indignant woman”) captures the moment a Parisian woman passes by a storefront window displaying a lascivious and revealing picture of a nude woman and gives the work a fiercely disapproving scowl.  The picture was part of a series for which Doisneau stealthily photographed the varying reactions of passers-by, with this indignant woman on one end of the spectrum, and a visibly enamored man craning in for a closer look, on the other.

See Through is a small exhibition, fitting in its entirety on two perpendicular walls on the UMMA’s third-floor atrium.  Nevertheless, While the primary draw of the show is visual, there’s a cultural resonance to these photographs which whimsically distort reality.  After all, the alarming spread of pseudo-news on social media has demonstrated that a provocative image divorced from context can easily pass itself off as truth, and this exhibition serves as a gentle reminder not to instinctively take images at face value.

University of Michigan Art Museum

Exercising the Eye:The Gertrude Tase Collection, through July 22, 2018

See Through: Windows and Mirrors in Twentieth-Century Photography, through September 23, 2018