Is there anyplace in the art world that's more fun than P.S.1 on a Sunday afternoon? On Feb. 15, the festive opening at the Museum of Modern Art affiliate began with Yoko Ono's huge musical boxcar sitting on a siding in the gravel-covered courtyard. In the packed ground-floor café the walls are lined with painted pastiches of works by Matisse and Picasso by perhaps 80 contemporary artists. In the second floor galleries are big set pieces by 10 young Japanese artists. And a thundering racket drifts down from the third floor -- gallery visitors are happily pounding on more than 100 drums made by stretching animal skins on old chairs and beds by the late Chen Zhen.
Yoko's Freight Train (1999), painted blue and riddled with bullet holes, is quite the imposing object, in its industrial hard-headedness possibly the most impressive sculpture ever made by the artist, who turns 70 today. A small placard on its side reads, "A work of atonement for the injustice and pain we've experienced in this century." Inside is a bright light that shines out the holes at night. Freight Train debuted in Berlin in 2000 and then appeared at the Yokohama Triennial.
P.S.1 supplied the artists with the 16 x 20 in. canvases for "After Matisse Picasso," the group show in the café. The various participants came up with some pretty interesting variations on the Modernist standards, like Rita Ackerman's demoiselles in chadors, and Daniel and Rosa Bozhkov's painting of a hand pouring a Starbucks coffee into Matisse's goldfish bowl. Even more interesting than individual contributions, the show as a whole represents a return of the kind of collaborative spirit that helped launch the alternative space movement back in the 1970s.
Up on the second floor, Mike Bidlo's Matisse Picasso: A Cross Examination presents the two famous portraits painted in black and white on adjoining walls in the light-flooded corner gallery. Eventually, as with Marlowe and Shakespeare, revisionist historians will cite these works as proof that Picasso and Matisse are the same person!
The ten Japanese artists, in town as part of a traveling biennial called "First Steps: Emerging Artists from Japan," was full of refreshingly audacious works that reinforce notions of a certain avant-gardist shtick. One hit was Chelin's little house, complete with table, chair and window, covered top to bottom with vanilla and chocolate patterned sugar cookies. Visitors don special cloth booties to enter -- the floor is covered with granulated sugar.
Among the several video projections is a scene of neurotically pacing animals in the Tokyo zoo by Mika Funaki and Satoru Tamura's tape of himself smashing plastic toys to smithereens with a golf club and a baseball bat. Motoi Yamamoto has built a long stepped wall out of salt bricks (baked in a microwave, the artist said), and Chiharu Shiota made a melodramatic room environment of a dense web of black string. The nude female figure sitting motionless on a cot in the heart of the nest with her back to the audience is -- probably -- a real person.
The grand finale is "Chen Zhen: A Tribute," a show organized by P.S.1 curator Antoine Guerrero that features several major works by the Shanghai-born artist who immigrated to Paris in 1986 and who died in 200 at age 45 after suffering from a rare blood condition called autoimmune hemolytic anemia. A medical epistemology runs through Chen's work, which is metaphysical object-sculpture not unlike that of Joseph Beuys.
The gym-sized set of primitivistic drums that so engages P.S.1 visitors, titled Jue Chang -- Fifty Strokes to Each (1998), was originally made for the Tel Aviv Museum, and embodies the notion that conflict can be cured by physical contact. Two other works are almost schmaltzy in their poetry -- Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (2000), a glass table set with sparkling blown glass models of the interior organs, and Inner Body Landscape (2000), a linked group of metal tables, each with a houselike structure made of colored paraffin candles.
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For at least 30 years the classicist artist William Bailey has been painting serene still-life tableaux of crockery and calm, doe-eyed nudes -- paintings whose appeal continues to grow, judging from his most recent efforts, currently on view at Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea. It hardly needs to be said at this point, but the 70-something Bailey (he was born in 1930) has the touch, as witnessed in the glow in the models' cheeks, their strong hands, the careful details of the window views. Together, Bailey's two subjects make a quiet joke about the ways to a man's heart, i.e., you can all but taste the cake that's underway in his friezelike still lifes of a bowl, pitcher, tin, containers for salt and oil, a pestle and an egg. The 30 pictures range in price from $40,000 to $165,000, with drawings going for $5,000. Three larger nudes sold or were put on reserve in the show's first week.
Also at Miller, for a little while longer anyway, is Yayoi Kusama's Fireflies on the Water (2002), a 12-foot-square room of mirrors and some 150 strings of colored lights that is the apotheosis of the Christmas Tree. Go see it, before it heads off to Site Santa Fe. Price: $200,000.
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Krazy Kat meets Rene Magritte in the show of new paintings by Steve Gianakos at Fredericks Freiser Gallery, especially Within Months They Moved In Together (2003), in which a lady with cankles hides behind a canvas of a winsome young nude. Gianakos draws in black paint on primed canvas, with some parts subtly painted with white. Another picture partakes of the edgy perversion for which Gianakos is known. Called Her Father Worked at Cape Canaveral (2003, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 28 in.), it features a chimp in a suit looking on as a rocket-like pike insinuates itself between the spread knees of a naked girl. A third painting is cryptic and effecting. It shows a frightened young lady with skinny legs wearing Mary Janes who has apparently fallen inside a large glass vase. "He's intensely moral," an art historian PhD who's working as an art dealer said at the opening. "She's wasting her talents," replied Gianakos. "I think doctors should cure people."
Liz Taylor Kiss My Ass is the mixed message of Kathe Burkhart in her show of paintings at Mitchell Algus Gallery on West 25th Street. All the pictures use a large cartoonish image of the great tabloid diva -- the artist's twin? -- combined with bits of concrete poetry that express a little, shall we say, frustration. "Shut the Fuck Up!" says one. "Lick Bush," says another. Of special interest is a giant painting of Liz inscribed with "Suck my dick" and bearing a real, black plastic dildo attached to the 2D crotch. The background of the image is a collage of charred and torn rejection letters, on the left from publishers and literary agents (Burkhart also writes books), on the right from art dealers and curators (including John Cheim, Anne de Villepoix, Ron Feldman, Ann Goldstein, Charlotta Kotik and Laurence Rinder). It's a tough life out there.
Luminous thunderclouds in beeswax and pigment made by Rima Mardoyan-Smyth fill the space at Axel Raben Gallery on West 26th Street. "It has to do with weather," Rima said at her opening, her first in New York in ten years (and with a record-breaking blizzard on the way). "Every stroke is a different temperature," she protested. "My hands and arms were scalded making these paintings." Of the 20 works, two of the large ones were sold on the first day at $22,000 each. Smaller ones, measuring only 8 x 10 in., are a bargain at $1,200.
The cosmic egg is the secret of Sheila Berger's paintings, done in encaustic and raw pigment, at Nicole Klagsbrun. A design from a Syrian wood block, suggestive of a pair of hands cupped in the sign of the vulva, provides the delicate, elaborate form that patterns the artist's 12 paintings, Berger, a world traveler, gives them names like Time and Will, Jain Temple and The Breach of Totality. The pictures have the colors of Middle Eastern spices, blood red and golden orange, a color and symmetry that's like Barnett Newman channeled through Matisse in Morocco. At the end of the show -- it closed Saturday -- most of the works were sold at prices ranging from $750 for a small single design to $9,000 for a large painting.
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It's the "age of acquisition" for photography, or so said Museum of Modern Art photo curator Peter Galassi at the Hilton Hotel two weeks ago. "In the 1970s all photos were worth $5," he said, with some hyperbole. The Getty Museum was able to establish a great photo collection in the 1980s overnight, he pointed out. "In another generation it's all going to be over. You won't be able to create a comprehensive collection no matter how much money you have."
He was speaking on a panel devoted to photo acquisitions by museums. His fellow panelists were Studio Museum in Harlem curator Thelma Golden, Whitney Museum curator Sylvia Wolf, ICP program director Brian Wallis and Metropolitan Museum curator Jeff Rosenheim. Quickly, a certain division became apparent between institutions with $100,000 to spend, say, on an Andreas Gursky -- the Met and the Modern -- and those with $100,000 to spend on programming for the entire year, as Golden joked.
Wallis noted that the ICP collection of ca. 100,000 photographs is 95 percent donated, and said he looks for "what you can do with less." ICP is working on a show of contemporary Chinese photography, for instance. "For the price of one of those Thomas Struths," Wallis pointed out. "You can have the greatest collection of Chinese contemporary photography in the world."
One surprise was discovering that the museums still maintain a regular "portfolio review" day, where photographers can drop off unsolicited photos for evaluation by museum curators. MoMA especially has a tradition of looking at and even buying photographs from portfolios (though Galassi said the volume had dropped off dramatically since the museum had moved to Queens). The practice does seem to be gradually fading -- the Met now does it only "seasonally" -- but all the curators attested to the high seriousness with which they attend to this aspect of their jobs. Wallis even called it an "integral part" of the ways the ICP looks at photography. "We favor the democratization of viewing that portfolio review represents." He added that for "Skin Deep," a forthcoming show exploring issues of race in photography, ICP had issued an open call for submissions and got 800 responses, some 150 of which are to be included in the exhibition website. Despite this evidence, it seems unlikely that works that come in over the transom will get very far in today's art world.
But it's also the age of deacquisition, at least for MoMA's photo department, which has held a series of sales of mostly duplicate works from its collection at Sotheby's over the last couple of years, raising almost $7 million for new purchases. When Rosenheim questioned the wisdom of Galassi's sale at auction of a unique Man Ray photogram from the collection of James Thrall Soby (for $339,500), Galassi bristled. "In recent months we've talked many times and you never said a word," Galassi protested. "Why now this ethical slur in front of hundreds of people?" Where Rosenheim sees a slippery slope, Galassi claims terra firma. "What could be more transparent that selling something at Sotheby's," he asked rhetorically. "I'm sure Soby would have deeply approved."
At the end of the panel the avid audience rushed to take in the three-day photo fair, which brought over 70 dealers to small booths on two floors of the Hilton's gray-carpeted exposition halls. Though fighting a losing battle in the contemporary market (for big color pictures buyers go to Chelsea or the Armory Fair), the photo fair is still good for vintage material, like the exquisitely delicate, photogram-like William Henry Fox Talbot print of Leaves of Asparagus for $250,000 at Hans P. Kraus Jr.
Paris dealer Serge Plantureux, at the fair for the first time, put on a stylish show with the theme of "Twelve Good Reasons to Come to Paris." His selection of material "fresh from Paris" included three nude self portraits ca. 1930 by Raoul Hausmann ("introspection") and a series of seven vintage fashion shots of Sophia Loren from 1965 titled Sofia Shops at Dior, and is received by Marc Bohan by Tazio Secchiaroli ("shopping"). Perhaps the prize, and a notable sale, was "the most ambitious 19th-century photographic project" -- a four volume album from 1857 by E.D. Baldus with 553 salt prints of the Louvre. It sold for something like 130,000 Euros.
Throckmorton Fine Art, which just moved into a new space above Hammacher Schlemmer on East 57th Street, brought several vintage images from the 1930s of Frida Kahlo, by Bernard Silberstein ($3,500), Nickolas Murray ($6,500), Diego Rivera ($3,500), Manuel Alvarez Bravo ($7,500) and Peter Juley (with Diego, $10,000). Throckmorton has just published an estimable new book of photos of the feminist icon, called Frida Kahlo: Portraits of an Icon, with text by Margaret Hooks, which can be had from D.A.P. for $65.
SoHo dealer Janet Borden was an exception to the 19th-century, black-and-white rule, filling her booth with abstract color photograms by 40-something German photog Hanno Otten, complementing them with a bowl of M&Ms on the counter.
Other eye-catching works included late Polaroids by Walker Evans, ca. 1973-74, including a sign used as target practice, for $6,000 at Laurence Miller; and a black-and-white anonymous image of Bettie Page, ca. 1950, for $500, at Henry Feldstein, a private dealer from Forest Hills (Feldstein also had a vintage dye transfer print of Bettie, ca. '55, for $3,000). Notable for their absence from the fair were veteran photo dealers Jane Corkin, Edwynn Houk and Ricco & Maresca.
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Good ideas never die: At Salander-O'Reilly Galleries on East 79th Street, a show of "19th-Century European Paintings" includes several Gustav Courbet seascapes that are fairly minimalist affairs, especially two titled simply La Vague (ca. 1869-70) and Waves (ca. 1870). They anticipate by over 100 years Gerhard Richter's monotone seascapes, which sell at auction for upwards of $2.5 million.. . . . At the Metropolitan Museum, a low-ceilinged, pink-granite-floored warren of galleries holds the big color photos by Thomas Struth, many of tourists in front of museum masterpieces. "What's new about this Struth thing," emails a grumpy art historian. "We already have etchings by Degas that show people at museums from the back gawking at pictures." Struth's photos speak all the more loudly of privilege, since these days ordinary people are forbidden to take their own snapshots of these publicly funded scenes.
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A favorite painting in "Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities" at the National Academy of Design Museum on Fifth Avenue and 89th Street is a 1940 painting of The Artist's Hand Holding Children's Drawings. . . . An overwhelmed Robert Indiana skipped his own celebratory dinner after his blue-ribbon opening at C&M Arts uptown. . . . Trouble-making bricoleur Tom Sachs is working on his own version of the space shuttle. . . . Dealer Susan Conde is moving upstairs from Christoph van de Weghe on West 23rd Street. . . . D.A.P. is publishing a new monograph on painter Su-en Wong. . . .
Last week's hot rumor had Palm Beach fair mogul David Lester buying Art & Auction with the money he got from selling his business to the Daily Mail Group; Lester is hotly denying any such plan.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.