Diverse and Highly Wide-Ranging Work @ Wasserman Projects

 

Installation Image, Wasserman Projects, 2019, Image courtesy of DAR

The Wasserman Projects gallery opened a multi-faceted set of exhibitions on January 25, 2019 that is eclectically diverse. The work is divided into a solo show by Esther Shalev-Gerz, an exhibition that premiered at the Swedish History Museum, a group show, Portray, that includes fourteen artists from a variety of geographical locations that draws on previous artists represented by the gallery and includes new artists from Detroit, New York City and beyond.  In addition, there is a retrospective by the American-Israeli artist Felice Pazner Malkin, introduced up front and continues in the rear gallery with representational works of art.  The exhibition also leverages the space at Wasserman which has more square footage than any major gallery in the Detroit Metro area, providing the viewer with a feeling that elevates the work to a near museum-like ambiance.

“Part of Wasserman Projects’ mission is to provide a platform for artists to show their work and to connect with the creative community in Detroit. For our upcoming season, we have the opportunity to present several artists with whom we’ve previously collaborated, like Esther Shalev-Gerz, Ken Aptekar, and Matthew Hansel, among others, creating a continuity of experience and support,” said Alison Wong, Director of Wasserman Projects. “And at the same time, we are excited to introduce new artists to our community to further enrich and explore timely and topical dialogues within contemporary practice”

Esther Shalev-Gerz, An Answer to Jorge Luis Borges’ Text – The Scandinavian Destingy, 40 Minute Video, 2016, Image Courtesy of DAR

The Esther Shalev-Gerz selections from The Gold Room, are unique in that the artist invited five  individuals who recently found refuge in Sweden to speak to the personal importance of an object they brought with them when they migrated. The exhibition requires the viewer to slow down and understand the process where a golden square floats over the center of the screen.  The work is a combination of photo portraits and a video installation, and which depict some of the featured participants and objects with their faces obscured by a golden panel.

Installation Image, Susan Silas, Felice Pazner Malkin, Esther Shalev-Gerz, Wasserman Projects, 2019, image courtesy of DAR

As you move into the large open space and start to take in the Portray exhibition, it is hard not to notice the marble sculpture Aging Venus, where  Susan Silas photographed herself over the course of a decade and created a 3D scan of her changing body, which served as the basis for the sculpture.  She says, “As a child, my bedroom was covered with reproductions of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, torn from an art book in my parents’ library. It seems to me that at an early age, two of the core values that would inform me throughout my life and career had already established themselves—a love of beauty and love for the female heroine at the center of meaning. Later there were ample quotations from writings and rock and roll lyrics added to the walls. For me, image-making and writing remain intertwined.”

I have not experienced such a pristine marble full-figured self-portrait juxtaposed to a large screen video where the artist sings 1960 TV theme songs into a mirror, creating a double image of herself.  These theme songs include “Happy Trails” from the Roy Rogers Show, and other themes from The Mickey Mouse Club, Star Trek, Superman, Yogi Bear, and Bat Masterson, to name a few.  It does occur to me how that might be perceived based on one’s childhood experience and how that carries an emotional nostalgia for those of a certain age. As in our experience with all art, we bring our own individual experience to the moment.

Susan Silas titles the sculpture A Study for Aging Venus, and in reading her history of this work, one finds out just how much technology was used in its creation and her plans for a larger sculpture.

She says, “The body scan for Aging Venus has generated a set of 2D photographic studies and a set of photographic portraits, created by shooting stills within the 3D space. The object file was used to create a 3D model that stands 11 inches tall which will become an edition. The large-scale sculpture will be cut by a high performance robotized 3D scanner that cuts stone with laser technology. The stone will be Carrara marble chosen from a quarry in Italy and the carving will be done in Italy as well. After the cutting is complete, a traditionally trained sculptor will help me finish and polish the marble. The sculpture will stand roughly seven feet tall from head to foot.”

Susan Silas is a Hungarian-American national living and working in Brooklyn, NY.  She earned her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts.

Continuing with the female figure is the work of Bruno Walpoth, where the artist carves life-sized human figures from blocks of wood and finishes the sculptures with acrylic paint. He repeatedly covers and sands down the surfaces to mask evidence of the wood grain and achieve a translucent, skin-like appearance. The Italian sculptor is the son and grandson of wood-carvers, who grew up in a town known for its centuries-old carving tradition. He traces his inspiration even further back, to the deeply human portraits of early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. Within the context of figurative sculpture, it’s interesting and refreshing to see an artist reach back and create something so totally new, a metaphor for all visual art being made today.

Bruno Walpoth, Sara, Wood, Paint, 26 x 21 x 11″, 2015 (foreground) Adnan Charara, Masquerade, Acrylic and Oil paint, 60 x 60″ (background) Image Courtesy of DAR

In the background and nearby is the work of Adnan Charara, a Lebanese-American artist from Dearborn, Michigan who has lived and worked in the U.S. since 1982. His collage-like oil painting, Masquerade , assembles classical imagery that strikes a compositional balance using shape, line and color that draws the viewer into his imaginary figure. Adnan bought the historic Astro building in midtown in 2011 and developed it into a multifunctional space, including the Gallerie Camille, gift shop, two store-fronts and his sprawling subdivided studio.In his statement he says, “In general, my art should be viewed as a visual representation of the human condition. The realization of my thoughts and emotions through the creation of my art is a way for me to express my inner self. In turn, I understand that my inner self is merely a particular manifestation of the human condition that connects everybody, and so it may be said that by expressing my inner self and revealing personal truths, I am attempting to reveal truths about us all.”

Donald Dietz, Untitled, From a series Everything Changes, Digital Pigment print, 28.5 x 38″, 2018 Image Courtesy of Wasserman Projects

I was drawn to the photographic image by local photographer Donald Dietz, because it seems to transcend the bulk of conventional photographic work in a multitude of ways.  The translucent field of color seems to seep through the backdrop of this kneeling figure and the painting. The composition is based on this large space with objects that feel like drawings as bookends at the very bottom of the frame. It’s as if Dietz is holding up two images like a sandwich and creating a third image.  He says in his statement, “I love finding something that I think would make an interesting photograph and then doing what needs to be done to translate what I saw into the image I imagined it could be. I hope my work leads people to look at things they see every day, and take for granted, in new ways.”

Ryan Standfest, Factory Head No. 1, Archival Inkjet on paper, 30 x 30″ 2018 Image Courtesy of Wasserman Projects

Other than some prints at the Simone DeSousa gallery, a recent exhibition at Wayne State University ( THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE) was my introduction to the artist Ryan Standfest with a graphic arts approach to an Americanized Constructivist sensibility that seemed dominated by his Rotland MFG. Company motifs post World War I. These formal industrial constructions of paint, ink, and enamel on cardboard reminded me of the Russian Constructivism that rejected the idea of autonomous art. This photograph, Factory Head 1, came from that exhibition and is better explained in that review. For the Detroit Art Review, Glen Mannisto writes, “The diversity of Standfest’s art stretches to performance theater and is represented by an installation of three “masks,” called “Factory Heads,” that he employed in a performance at MOCAD with an accompanying musical composition of factory noise created by Chris Butterfield and Mike Williams. In a sense Standfest’s “Factory Heads” sculptures and performance, covers of Bolshevik agitprop theater, are again in the Russian Constructivist spirit modeled after machine-like factory architecture with smokestacks and are accompanied by a Standfest poem that delineates the abject evolution of the working class.”  He says in his statement, “My enthusiasm for obsolete print ephemera such as comic strips, tabloid newspapers, postcards, catalogs, manuals and advertisements, is intended to highlight the fugitive value of authoritative cultural currency as it advertises our vision of the ideal.”

Portray includes paintings, photography, sculpture, works on paper, and mixed-media installations by Ken Aptekar (New York/Paris), Adnan Charara (Detroit), Donald Dietz (Detroit), Matthew Hansel (New York), Robert Raphael (New York), Michael Scoggins (New York), Esterio Segura (Cuba), Susan Silas (New York), William Irving Singer (Detroit), Ryan Standfest (Detroit), Koen Vanmechelen (Belgium), Jamie Vasta (Oakland, CA), Bruno Walpoth (Italy), and Hirosuke Yabe (Japan).

Wasserman Projects was conceived by Michigan-native Gary Wasserman and opened its doors in a former firehouse in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market, one of the oldest and largest year-round markets in the U.S., in fall 2015. Wasserman Projects is guided by a spirit of collaboration, recognizing that artist projects are best realized and most meaningful when they engage a broad range of cultural organizers, community leaders, and the dynamic and diverse populations of Detroit. The organization works with artists from across disciplines and around the world, presenting exhibitions and performances that will spark a discourse on art, but also cultural, social, or political issues, which are particularly active and timely in Detroit.

Wasserman Projects three Concurrent Exhibitions run through March 23, 2019

 

Rosen & Binion @ Cranbrook Art Museum

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped and McArthur Binion: Binion/Saarinen, opens at the Cranbrook Art Museum

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped (installation view), 2017. Photo by Gary Zvonkovic. Courtesy the artist and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: I, 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

Two Cranbrook MFA graduates, Annabeth Rosen (81) and McArthur Binion (73), have returned to the Cranbrook campus at the Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM) as seasoned artists with exhibitions that provide a platform to exemplify their accomplishments. The exhibition opened November 17th, 2018 and runs to March 10, 2019, easily utilizing the spacious galleries, especially the Annabeth Rosen exhibit, which is nothing less than mammoth in its scope.

I’ve written about McArthur Binion before and seen his work representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017, so when this exhibition first came to my attention, I assumed Binion would be my focus.  But the exhibition of his work here at CAM is modest in comparison to the work of Rosen in both the Main and the Larson galleries.  Her work is the artist’s first major museum survey that archives more than twenty years of work. A critically acclaimed pioneer in the field of ceramics, Rosen brings a deep knowledge of the material’s history and processes to the realm of contemporary art.

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped (installation view), 2018. Photo by Detroit Art Review.

Rosen’s work is curated by Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston’s senior curator, Valerie Oliver, and surveys two decades of her ceramic additive work that has a derivative aspect found in abstract expressionistic art. Her studies at Cranbrook under Artist in Resident Jun Kaneko encouraged her to experiment with non-functional forms and separate her work from the traditional role of ceramics as functional craft. Much of Rosen’s work is assembled with already-fired broken parts which have been reassembled, re-glazed, and ultimately re-fired, adding wet clay to the process.

Rosen says, “I work with a hammer and chisel, and I think of the fired pieces as being as fluid and malleable as wet clay.”

Annabeth Rosen, Fired and glazed ceramic, Bundle, and rubber ties.

The ceramic work is divided up into categories: Mash Ups, Bundles, Mounds and Drawings.  Some of the Mounds are bound together by wire, and others are smaller shapes (Bundles) that have been bound using rubber that might be made from a bicycle inner tube. Rosen began vertically stacking these bundles of ceramic and mounting them on a steel frame set on four wheels.  Rosen has developed an acute interest in non-functional ceramic forms as abstract expressionistic sculpture along with painterly compositions of paint on paper.

Annabeth Rosen, Paint on paper, 2014

It would be impossible to ignore the works on paper as a major force that directly relates to the ceramic work.  These compositions that are constructed with a gestural stroke are both studies and stand-alone work that underpins a philosophical and conceptual driven force behind her sense of creation.  The process in the drawing and ceramic work reveals her hand is symbiotic, where one influences the other.  Rosen seems to muster strength in her drawings as inspiration and influence for the ceramic sculpture work that follows. All the drawings, which could easily be considered paintings, are created without the consideration of color and this seems to this viewer to place the emphasis on the compositional creation of line, movement, shape and space. All the work, ceramic and on paper, is a bi-product of her internal meditations and illustrates a unique utilization and application of materials, techniques and concepts.

Annabeth Rosen, Installation view, Fired and glazed ceramic, and steel baling wire.

Annabeth Rosen studied at Alfred University (BFA) and the Cranbrook Academy of Art (MFA), and has gone on to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Art Institute of Chicago. Since 1997 she holds the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at the University of California, Davis.

 

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: I, 2 – 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

In Cranbrook Art Museum’s North Gallery, the Chicago-based artist McArthur Binion says that he had a note pinned to his wall for decades that read “Binion/Saarinen”,obviously something that came from his graduate studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art during the early 1970s. This idea is obviously generated from literally living on the campus and being surrounded by the Finnish architecture of Eliel Saarinen who immigrated to America in 1923 after the completion of the Chicago Tribune building in 1922 and who went on to be a visiting professor at the University of Michigan before developing the entire Cranbrook campus for George Booth. Perhaps it was the grids inherent in these architectural structures that made a deep impression on Binion, a Mississippi-born African American who developed his own visual language-based graphic elements, particularly circles and grids.

He says, “My work begins at the crossroads—at the intersection of bebop improvisation and Abstract Expressionism”, and at times he has described his work as rural Modernist.Binion uses oil stick, crayon and, more recently, laser-printed images to create his lushly textured and colored geometrically patterned works. The work in the Cranbrook exhibition is produced on board with small photo printed images as a background field for this tightly knit grid produced with hard pressed oil paint stick. These carefully measured grids and hand-done hatchings cover tiny images that usually have some personal meaning to the artist. In the past, the work often incorporated biographical documents, such as copies of his birth certificate or pages from his address book.

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

These new paintings use autobiographical photo imagery of both Saarinen and himself in their early thirties as a background for his delicate squared-off grid that could be easily described as minimalist abstraction from a distance.  Upon close examination, this personal element attempts to bond the two together, at least from Binion’s perspective.  In addition, the gallery space includes painting, drawings and furniture by Eliel Saarinen.

McArthur Binion’s paintings are largely symbolic and achieve an expressive resonance that defies the reductive materialism of minimalism. They are formed out of an unlikely confluence of influences, including such Modernist masters as  Piet Mondrian, and Wifredo Lam, as well as his own southern African-American heritage, reflected in his mother’s quilts and West African textiles. Persistence and discipline fortifies Binion’s practice and his succinct, richly personal compositions.

His work is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

Binion/Saarinen: A McArthur Binion Project is organized by Cranbrook Art Museum and curated by Laura Mott, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art and Design.

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped and McArthur Binion: Binion/Saarinen, at the Cranbrook Art Museum runs through March 10, 2019.

 

 

 

 

W.C. Bevan @ Greenroom Gallery

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” partial installation view, All images – Ryan Standfest

Entering into the space of the new Greenroom Gallery for its second exhibition, “Contrast”, a collection of 24 black and white painted, printed and drawn works by W.C. Bevan, muralist, graffiti artist, printmaker and painter, one comes upon a seamless environment in which wall surface and the individual works presented on it, augment one another to resemble a brightly-lit cave covered with symbols and representations both prehistoric and futurist, of our time and outside of our time, vague and precise. There is a timeless music issuing forth from this chamber.

BLACK & WHITE

W.C. Bevan states that black and white is his “preferred mode of transport.” It’s usage suggest basic black ink on white paper, the foundation of a D.I.Y. print aesthetic cultivated in an underground Punk culture of fast and cheap photocopied zines, handbills and posters. But economic necessity also gives way to meaningful form, as high contrast lends itself to the graphically impactful, the immediate read from whatever distance. Color can carry with it nuance, emotional shading, a reading that depends upon one’s preconceived connection to a color. Whereas the simple combination of black plus white has no hidden agenda up its sleeve.

However, there is the presence of grey. When Bevan utilizes a can of black spray paint to adorn the walls of his exhibition space, he makes skilled use of the resulting overspray as a gradient, softening the image. He likens this to the mis-registration of a printed image, in which a layer of color slips outside of its intended target, accidentally lending further dimension. Indeed, there are also an abundant number of drips allowed to remain, unedited, that keep the space active, reminding the viewer of the performance required to manufacture marks.

Bevan’s methodology is a balancing act between exerting control and embracing chance. Upon an initial encounter with a space, a wall, a surface, a scenario must be devised in reaction to circumstance. Visual anchors are established using large scale icons. Connective threads between these anchors take the form of repeated visual motifs, adornments that form a flowing space to be read. Entering the Greenroom Gallery space, flashes of prehistoric cave art abound. As with the Paeolithic paintings found in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave, Bevan’s spray-painted marks respond to the various openings, contours and edges of the wall’s surface, making use of spatial shifts as an opportunity to animate his shapes and lines.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

These adornments comprise a lexicon, assembled from typographic symbols. Bevan’s walls have a strong hieroglyphic character, suggesting black and white pictographic texts. It is no surprise then, that his practice of black and white mural painting began with the 2015 project “True Meridian,” which adorns a large wall on the former Eastern Market location of the letterpress shop Salt & Cedar, on the East Fisher Service Drive. Proprietor Megan O’Connell and Bevan had envisioned the mural as a black and white “cathedral of type” in response to the idea of letterpress. The resulting image retained its ecclesiastical architectonics, but letterforms gave way to a dizzying pattern of abbreviated characters.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

Growing up in Cleveland, surrounded by examples of opulent turn of the 20thcentury architecture, much of Bevan’s wall-marking practice has been defined by a relationship with architectural ornamentation; the decorative repetitions that activate the façade of a building through the rhythmic accretion of detail. This visual language is on view in “Contrast.”  The Classical ornamental device known as “egg and dart,” which consists of an egg-shaped object alternating with another element shaped like an arrow or a dart, is echoed in the spray-painted embellishments on Bevan’s walls.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall with “Untitled” drawings and “Tire Poem” print, 2018

TIRES

The “contrast” of the title is not just black and white, but also the organic and the inorganic. One prominent text adorning a wall states “BIOILLOGICAL TIMES” (a kind of subtitle to the show) as a reminder of the uneasy relationship between the natural and the industrial.

The recurring motif of the exhibition is the automobile tire. It appears in a series of oversized visual anchors, in a smaller series of screen prints with poems scrawled in black oilstick, as piles in smaller acrylic paintings on canvas, and deconstructed as tread marks that reframe and elaborate a new, more playful architecture within the exhibition space.

W.C. Bevan, “Tires”, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 17.5 inches, 2018

In the series of small acrylic paintings depicting tire piles, the subject becomes a surrogate for bodies—slumped, disposed of. Bevan speaks of the tire as a thing that has gone places, that has been worn down while carrying us places, therefore having a history itself. The very idea of the tread has multiple meanings: to walk along, to press down onto the ground, to crush or flatten. In “Contrast,” tires themselves have been crushed and flattened, having carried themselves too far. The piles he depicts morph into less recognizable heaps and mounds, as they go treadless. Throughout the exhibition space, there is an unraveling of the tire, a peeling away of the tread—unspooled to become architectural pattern.

W.C. Bevan, “Wall Peeps”, acrylic on canvas, each 15.5 x 12.5 inches, 2018

Ultimately, the tire is not the subject. In fact, the tires are not just tires. For Bevan, the urban experience of the discarded tire, tossed into a field, piled, stacked, becomes an absurd totem. A deflated tragicomic sign of what has passed. Bevan’s tires are droopy, flaccid, out of shape. Having spent some time painting commercial signs populated by “hamburgers, liquor bottles and tires” for quick cash, Bevan has spoken of a fondness for hand-painted tire shop signage around the city of Detroit, that often represents the tire and or wheel as something misshapen. Unmoored by the refined craft of a trained artist, there is an clumsy earnestness to most of these signs with their straightforward deformation of what Bevan calls “the thing that keeps America moving.”

STREET

On screen printed works each titled “Tire Poem,” Bevan scrawls variant texts with a black oil stick, at the sides of each repeated, centrally printed tire image. The texts have a touch of the street to them, rough fragments drifting into the image nudging them toward something resembling a hand-painted sign:

LONG HISTORIC PIANO SONG

PIRATES MADE OF YOGA

GREAT FOR WALKIN’ MAN I’LL TELL YA

SUDAFED NAIL BED

MMAMA ALWAYS SAID LIFEE ISS GOOD THHEN YOUREEBORN A RAT

YOU’RE A PONYTAIL WOW

W.C. Bevan, “Tire Poem”, screen print with oil stick, 28 x 22 inches, 2018

The majority of the work in “Contrast” makes use of vernacular visual street language.  In conversation, Bevan points out a series of paintings depicting tires by the artist Art Green, who was a member of the Chicago-based Hairy Who—a group of artists producing work in the late 1960s to early 1970s that was a potent mélange of high and low tendencies culled from comic books, Art Brut, commercial advertising and popular illustration, resulting in fragmented and highly fluid, often sexually-charged work that was a deliriously absurd response to the times it was made in. Similarly, Bevan’s work constructs a “Rustbelt Absurd” with its own pictorial elasticity, erasing notions of high and low with a language both refined and unrefined, and a practice that bridges the street and the studio with mural painting and graffiti, printmaking and painting.

W.C. Bevan, “Hamtramck Memory Drawing”, acrylic on paper, 22.5 x 15 inches, 2018

There is a portrait, seemingly out of place in the exhibition, titled “Hamtramck Memory Drawing,” of a man, possibly of Eastern European extraction, partially cropped. Possibly working class. Possibly from the Poletown neighborhood Bevan has lived in since March of 2018. The drawing, executed with sprayed acrylic on paper, is a soft grey. It feels distant and contrasts with much of the hard-edged graphic work in the exhibition. In its quietness, it asserts itself as a reminder of the human dimension of Bevan’s work, the psychological lifeblood of a black and white Rustbelt vision, placing the everyday of the studio into the street, and vice versa, while summoning the abundant wall-painted symbols as dispatches from a landscape tread upon.

“Contrast: Black and White works by W.C. Bevan”
November 30, 2018-February 1, 2019
Greenroom Gallery Detroit
located within Emerson’s Haberdashery, 1234 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226
Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10-6pm
Closing reception on Feb. 1, 2019, 6-9pm

 

Charles White @ MoMA, NYC

Charles White: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY

Charles White (American, 1918–1979). General Moses (Harriet Tubman). 1965. Ink on paper, 47 × 68″ (119.4 × 172.7 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

If there’s a fearsome female gaze that can make Manet’s icy Olympia seem coy and puerile by comparison, it’s that of the determined Harriet Tubman, rendered in ink by Charles White during the height of the Civil Rights movement.  Famous for liberating hundreds of slaves during the Civil War, here she becomes a contemporary symbol for racial equality, and could, with little imagination, plausibly be seen among those marching on the front lines across Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  She’s emblematic of White’s work, which unfailingly depicted black America with strength, regality, and dignity.

Born in 1918 on Chicago’s South Side, African-American artist Charles White began his career inauspiciously as a sign painter; he would later become one of the most accomplished draftsmen of his generation.  His style had extraordinary reach, ranging from the gently abstracted figures that peopled his WPA mural paintings of the late 1930s to his tight and refined graphite and ink drawings of the 1960s.  Charles White: A Retrospectiveis a muscular show that snugly fills half of the MoMA’s third floor with over 100 drawings, paintings, and other ephemera.  White’s first major show in 30 years, this traveling exhibition champions the enduring appeal of figurative drawing, and his socially-conscious subject matter keeps his work uncannily relevant.

Arranged chronologically, the retrospective begins with his early paintings, produced when White was a freshly minted graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. His early mural Five Great American Negros is an early tour de forcethat established several of the tropes that defined much of White’s subsequent career. Painted when he was just 21 for a fundraiser for Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, the painting celebrates Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Sojourner Truth.   The mural’s heaving landscape and figural distortions rhyme with the regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, but, as ever, White’s work also spoke to contemporary social injustices.  He painted the mural in 1939, the same year that gospel singer Marian Anderson was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, and her inclusion in the work freights the painting with timely relevance and political weight.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Five Great American Negroes. 1939. Oil on canvas, 60 x 155″ (152.4 x 393.7 cm). From the Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.© The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

Charles White believed that artists had a moral obligation to contribute to social discourse, and to this end his work aggressively addressed racial injustice and economic disparity in America.  In the 1940s and 50s White produced soulful and moving works like There were no Crops This Year, a Steinbeckian depiction of a visibly distraught husband and wife; an empty sack which the woman holds is the only prop in the drawing, but it’s enough to tell their story.  And his poignant and incriminating proto-cubist Headlinesdepicts a visibly distraught woman flanked by a veritable blizzard of news headlines that reveal instances of racial inequality in America.  His use of collage and text mirrors the synthetic cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, but here White masterfully harnesses the vocabulary of cubism and channels it toward social protest.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Headlines. 1944. Ink, gouache, and newspaper on board, 20 x 16″ (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Collection of William M. and Elisabeth M. Landes. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

But while his works frequently addressed racial and economic inequality, White managed to avoid producing an oeuvre drearily burdened by politics.  His brightly painted Gospel Singers radiates joy, and the strong, pitchfork-wielding woman in Our Land (White’s witty response to Grant Wood’s American Gothic) radiates confidence, determination, and, above all, dignity.  

Music also played a significant role in his output, and he produced affectionate drawings of gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robertson, and Bessie Smith.  White created cover designs for a series of jazz albums by Vanguard Records, and in 1965 his illustration for Gould: Spirituals for Orchestra received a Grammy nomination for best album cover.  But the musical collaboration this show especially highlights is that of Charles White and Harry Bellefonte, whose recorded voice croons uninterruptedly throughout the exhibition space.  Bellefonte commissioned works by White, often including them on his television show, and White responded with several portraits of the singer, head thrown back, utterly abandoned in music.  Fittingly, because of the close relationship White had with so many musicians, the MoMA has thoughtfully assembled a Spotify playlist of music inspired by the show—there’s everything from old spirituals to gospel music and James Brown.

In the 60s and 70s, White’s work continued to address social justice and civil rights, but his style became increasingly crisp, a marked departure from his previous abstracted depictions of the figure.  It’s a stylistic shift made apparent in his 12-part series J’Accuse (“I accuse”), a series of confrontationally large ink drawings collectively named after Emile Zola’s open letter to the French government in which Zola famously defended Richard Dreyfus, a Jew wrongfully convicted of murder.  The series’ title equated American racial inequality with European Antisemitism, but the drawings themselves refrain from directly referencing any instances of injustice.  Rather, White gives viewers affectionate and sensitively rendered portraits of black Americans, often set against a stark white background, and allows for their innate dignity to speak for itself.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). J’Accuse #7. 1966. Charcoal on paper, 39 1/4 × 51 1/2″ (99.7 × 130.8 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

The final room in the retrospective includes several works from his acclaimed Wanted Posterseries, a cycle of 21 monochromatic oil-wash and lithograph works which emerged from White’s frustration at the slow pace of the implementation of civil rights in America.  Appropriating the imagery of old wanted posters for runaway slaves, all the works in this series mimic the texture of crumpled newsprint in arresting tompe l’oeil.  Barely-discernable stenciled-in words help the viewer navigate the meaning behind these ambiguous works; in one especially poignant image, a mother stands behind her son, both their faces registering utter sorrow; above her head hovers the form of an eagle and the word “sold.”

One of the final images viewers encounter is White’s iconic Black Pope. Closely resembling the Wanted Posterseries in its color and texture, the painting depicts a man wearing clothing reminiscent of priestly vestments, flashing what could be interpreted both as the peace symbol, or the sign Christ makes in icons while bestowing a blessing.  Barely discernable, “Chicago” is stenciled atop the image, and the figure wears a sandwich board which proclaims with calculated ambiguity: “NOW”– an all-encompassing call to action.

Installation view of the exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective.October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Robert Gerhardt.

Charles White: A Retrospective is a massive show made even more impressive when we consider that the overwhelming majority of these works are fastidiously rendered figurative drawings—there are no easy shortcuts to quickly fill wall space.  Furthermore, while his drawings are impressively large, they always reward close inspection with their varied stippled and hatched-in textures.  Today, his work hangs in many of America’s great museums—the Metropolitan, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Smithsonian, to name a few. But his legacy isn’t just the art he created, but the many students who emerged under his shadow, such as Kerry James Martial, who stated that Charles White believed that one’s work “should be in the service of helping dignify people.”  His work did exactly that, and this retrospective triumphantly speaks to White’s unflagging and determined mission to portray black America with the dignity it deserved.

Charles White: A Retrospective, through January 13, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY.

Obsession @ Met Breuer, NYC

Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection

The exhibition Obsession at the Met Breuer Museum in New York City is both a revelatory exploration of early 20th Century modernism and a fascinating study of frank portrayals of female nudity by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Pablo Picasso.  The Met Breuer is housed in a landmark building on Madison Avenue and East 75th street that was once the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1966 to 2015, and is now leased for ten years by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an attempt to provide needed space for contemporary exhibitions. The building was designed by Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer (1902 -1981), a former student and teacher at the Bauhaus who first specialized in furniture design and then went on to devote himself to architecture and immerse himself in the new developing technology of concrete and plate glass.

Gustav Klimt, Serpents II, (Women Friends), Oil on Canvas, 32 x 57”, 1906

These paintings, as in Water Serpents II, were considered unconventional for the times, depicting nude women together in attitudes of pleasure.  Many of Klimt’s paintings included small symbols, lines and objects and often used a metallic oil paint that sets the space around the figure in abstract fields of color and design.

Gustav Klimt, The Bride, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 75”, 1917

The oeuvre of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) consists of two hundred paintings and more than four thousand drawings, most of them devoted to women.  His fame as a draftsman rests on works executed after 1905 and his earliest depictions of the nude body was for the ceiling at the University of Vienna which already illustrated a break with conventions and taboos.  After 1912, Klimt made numerous independent drawings, including many erotic compositions showing lesbian couples or masturbating women.

Gustav Klimt, Reclining Nude with Drapery, Graphite on Paper, 1913

The drawing, Reclining Nude with Drapery, belongs to a group of fifty Klimt drawings showing women pleasuring themselves. With her eyes closed, the model seems unaware of both her surroundings and the viewer.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 1911

In the course of his brief life, Egon Schiele, (1890-1918) created more than three hundred paintings and some three thousand drawings and watercolors.  He was known to draw constantly and everywhere: in his studio, on trains, in restaurants and in nature.  He looked to Gustav Klimt as a friend and a father figure.  He became well known for his ethereal contour lines and made over 170 self-portraits between 1908 and his death in 1918.  In this early work, he reduced his already thin body to skin and bones, and poses naked in front of a large mirror in his studio. In these seemingly decaying bodies, Schiele is posed in a sexually exhibitionistic way, displaying his groin and genitals.

Schiele’s nudes are more explicitly and provocatively erotic in this exhibition.  In his insatiable curiosity about the female figure, he showed no restraint, sometimes veering toward the clinical as in the watercolor Observed in a Dream.

Egon Scheile, Observed in a Dream, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 1911

Contented after masturbating, the model keeps her vulva open with bejeweled hands. The exaggeratedly large genitals in a reddish-orange hue echoed in her nipples and generous lips, evoke a carnivorous plant.  From the title, she may have existed as an epitome of the sexual object, and the viewer is led to believe this is something that lived in a dream.

Egon Schiele, Standing Nude with Orange Drapery, Watercolor, gouache, graphite on paper, 1914

By 1914 Schiele had replaced the tense bodies with fuller and more relaxed ones as in this watercolor. He probably drew her while she was lying down, but the placement of his signature turns her upright.

The heavy graphite drawing depicts the titillating nude touching herself from a slightly elevated position.  During the final two years of his life, Schiele made hundreds of these drawings, mostly female nudes that appear more facile than his previous work.  His erotic drawings lost some of their intensity, and gradually his work became more baroque.  In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic that claimed 20 to 50 million lives in Europe reached Vienna. Edith, his wife, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October, followed by Schiele, who died only three days after his wife. He was 28 years old.

Pablo Picasso, Erotic Scene, Oil on Canvas, 1902

The earliest work in this exhibition is Erotic Scene 1902, an imaginary re-creation of Picasso’s sexual initiation in a Barcelona brothel. He made this work during what became known as his Blue Period, a bleak phase during which he painted the poor, outsiders and beggars.

Pablo Picasso, Youth in Archway, Conte crayon on paper, 1906

What followed in the years around 1906 were drawings that displayed bodies with ease and unselfconscious classicism.  Art historians trace the figure and the pose of this youth to antiquity as well as to Michelangelo. Although the boy’s features reappear in many other works, there is some disagreement about the intent of this pose.  Innocent nudity or strangely voluptuous?   Much, if not all of the work during this period took place in the remote village of northern Catalonia, high in the Pyrenees and close to the border with Andorra, at Gosol, where it was recommended he would find “good air.”  The artist visited the town with his lover at the time, Fernande Olivier and stayed at a lodging house surrounded by a romantic environment that influenced the work.

Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading Horse, Oil on Canvas, 1906

While Pablo Picasso’s work had been shown in the United States, Gustave Klimt and Egon Schiele were unknown in this country at that time, but eventually became known throughout Europe and then this country. Much of the exhibition is drawing, and these works on paper have rarely been exhibited because of the exposure to light over time.

The curators responsible for Obsession:Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are Sabine Rewald, Jacques and Natasha Gelman, all part of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso through October 7, 2018.