You gotta love those New York City museums -- they never stop coming up with the good stuff. The weight shifts a bit towards uptown this week, as three shows open in museums on the north end of Museum Mile.
Top favor goes to "New York: Capital of Photography" at the Jewish Museum, Apr. 28-Sept. 2, 2002, a survey of "street photography" through more than 100 mostly black-and-white photos of the city and its people, spanning the 20th century. The quality here is thanks to curator Max Kozloff, a photographer himself who first came to fame as one of Artforum's critics' row back in the 1970s. As a critic, Kozloff was apparently able to bring a level of intelligence to his task that eludes most museum curators, who more and more specialize in hagiography.
The guy's good eye finds life in the hackneyed genre of photojournalism, from classics like City of Ambition (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz and Wall Street, New York (1915) by Paul Strand to more recent images like Nan Goldin's Misty in Sheridan Square, New York City (1991), a reminder that contemporary art stars aren't wholly embroiled in creating postmodernist fictions.
Kozloff also brings standout intelligence to the wall labels, which embed the photos on view in a twin context of social history and technical developments of the camera. It's worth noting that the museum is very quiet, despite the additional dimension given to an already sentimental theme by the events of 9/11 -- in shameful contrast to the journalistic outcry that greeted "Mirroring Evil."
Note too that many of the pioneer street photographers -- Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Helen Levitt, Ben Shahn, Lisette Model -- are or were Jewish, though it's hard to tell who, or how much.
Another must-see is "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and 20th-century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection" at El Museo del Barrio, Apr. 28-Sept. 8, 2002. Highlights of the show are the seven self-portraits of the heavy-browed Frida, which are breathlessly good, and a group of abstractions from the 1950s and '60s by Carlos Merida (1891-1984). The show is curated by Robert Littman, director of the Vergel Foundation in New York, which holds the collection, and it's great to see it in the modest halls of New York's favorite Latin museum.
Telling in another way are the various portraits of the glamorous Natasha in the exhibition, portraits by Kahlo, Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Angel Zárraga and even David Alfaro Siqueiros. It makes for an amusing reminder of both artistic syncophancy and collector narcissism. (On this note, one wonders whether the administration of the
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid will have the nerve to remove the embarrassing portraits of the Baron and his wife in the building's lobby, now that the Baron has passed away). Comedy isn't entirely out of place here, since Gelman was agent for the Mexican actor Cantinflas, whose comic specialty was dropping his pants.
The third new uptown exhibition, "Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art," isn't really on Museum Mile, since it's at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Apr. 24-June 23, 2002. The museum is to be complimented for its continuing group shows of contemporary art, though this one, apparently assembled from an "open call" issued to predominantly middle-brow galleries of black art, is a good example of what the late critic Lawrence Alloway called "curatorial dim-out."
"Black Romantic" is really two shows in one, neither well-articulated and neither having much to do with romance. The majority of the works are earnest figurative paintings and drawings that clearly seek to claim a middle-class sensibility for black artists. These family portraits and genre scenes are a sort of "Cosby Show" reality that stands in stark contrast to the gritty urban scene outside the museum, with its African hair-dressing salons and vacant lots promising to become community centers. "Black bourgeoisie" is a powerful theme, though the show's organization does little to articulate it.
Also represented in the exhibition, though in a smaller number, are works that tend towards science fiction and fantasy -- a painting of a black man in two guises, for instance, one with angel wings and the other with devil horns. Here, the show is too restrained. Where are the over-the-top paintings of nudes on tiger skins and other such Pop icons of fertility and strength? Maybe next time. . . .
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There's a lot of bronze in Tom Otterness' new show at both New York branches of Marlborough, in Chelsea and on 57th Street, maybe 50 pieces all polished and glowing gold. Midtown are works based on fairy tales, commissions for a huge sculpture park by the North Sea, slated to open in 2003 by the Museum Beeldende an Zee in Scheveningen, The Netherlands.
Centerpiece of the show is a 37-foot-long bronze Gulliver, made in a single piece (which impresses other sculptors), while out on the sculpture plaza is a 12-foot-tall bronze Crying Giant. With several smaller works, including a bronze Ahab tangled up with Moby-Dick, a guy on the gallows and a hog-tied Bound Figure, the overall theme is very much the artist in chains. "They're all me," Otterness joked at the opening.
In Chelsea, Otterness gives us more works from the "Free Money" series, in which the namesake of the group, a nine-foot-tall bronze couple, dances atop a sack of pennies. Other titles, like Small Rich Visionaries, Rebellion to Tyrants and Embezzler and Cop, suggest a certain juridicial interest. Art lovers have had little taste for class warfare since the '80s art boom, and Otterness is almost alone in positing the central contradiction of the art enterprise, in the best Swiftian fashion.
Prices start at $18,000 and range to $350,000 for the large Free Money and $500,000 for Gulliver uptown. On the other hand, an Otterness coloring book can be had for $15, crayons included. The best bargain is a signed poster of the Gulliver figure tied down to Manhattan island, with the crying giant in the New Jersey background, which can be yours for $50.
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The latest history lesson at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at 24 West 57th Street is a compelling survey of works by Jay DeFeo (1929-89) titled "Ingredients of Alchemy: Before and After the Rose." Insiders know DeFeo as a Beats-era expressionist from San Francisco who showed at Los Angeles' Ferus Gallery in 1960 and whose magnum opus, The Rose, a massive abstraction of plaster and paint made between '58 and '66, is in the collection of the Whitney Museum.
The Rosenfeld show has both smaller abstractions that have expressionistic, 3D machine components, and several large-scale paintings that imbue simple iconic shapes with a female vibe, including a vulvic slab that is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's 1924 Wedge of Chastity. A $25 spiral-binder catalogue of the exhibition features an essay by Carter Ratcliff. Coming up at the gallery in early May is a show of work by Alphonso Ossorio.
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Anyone who missed the 1980s abstractions by Gerhard Richter in the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art had some succor in the show of "Paintings from the 1980s" at Barbara Mathes Gallery in the Fuller Building, where his cold, brilliant hues could be studied in their sublime glory. One suite of paintings, Frisch (1-3) (1986), is priced at $1.5 million. . . .
Kiki of Montparnasse was no beauty, though she did her thing with eyebrows and lips. The back room of Zabriskie Gallery is filled with her own works, including a graffito of two swordfighting cocksmen with a dog leaping over the blades. . .
Tripping out on the paintings by Stefan Kürten at Alexander & Bonin on 10th Avenue in Chelsea, mixing scenes from middle-class suburbs with a psychedelic fertility of life that is a long overdue exploration of territory pioneered by Charles Burchfield. The show is titled "Perfect Day," and the paintings are priced in the $3,000-$18,000 range. . .
Cal Arts dean Tom Lawson, who helped invent the 1980s when he wrote for Artforum and showed his paintings at Metro Pictures, is back in town -- a painting is, anyway -- at the hip ATM Gallery on Avenue B and 10th Street. Lawson gives us a world map with Scotland in the center; seems he's of the plaid persuasion. Price: $5,000. Gallery proprietor Bill Brady, an artist himself, underwrites the operation with fees from the working cash machine in the storefront. . .
At PS 122 Gallery on First Avenue at 9th Street, a giant lime-green keyboard that can be played to elicit notes from a semicircle of megaphones -- a work to warm a critic's cockles. It's by Brooklyn artist Lynn Koble, and titled Snare. For info call (718) 388-7516. . . .
Artnet Magazine's own Sherry Wong, exhibiting in the open studios show at Hunter College's facility at 41st Street and 9th Avenue, presented a candied cake in the shape of a mosque, that the undiscriminating gallery visitors were quick to consume. Trying to make the Moslem world more, or less, digestible?
Say it ain't so -- one of the hot sellers at the New York Armory Show this winter was a CD of the young artist Alex McQuilkin putting on her makeup while being rock-and-rolled from behind, a performance that took artistic practice rather closer to pornography than even the avant-garde should countenance. It was all pretend, they tell me now. Relieved? Sometimes transgression is better as theater. The CDs started at $550 and closed out at $1,200 each. Her new CD, titled An Indefinite Line Towards Becoming the Perfect SoHo Girl, starts at $650.
Ray Smith dog paintings decorating the windows of Fratelli Rossetti at Madison and 58th Street, courtesy Ramis Barquet. . . Coming up at Feigen Contemporary in New York -- photos by legendary big-bust-fetish photographer Russ Meyer, May 31-July 27, 2002. . .
David Zwirner has taken gallery space on West 19th Street in Chelsea and could open there as soon as October. . . . Claire Oliver Fine Art opens in the former John Weber gallery space on the second floor of 529 West 20th Street. Oliver hails from the West Coast; represents 2002 Whitney Biennial stained-glass artist Judith Schachter. . .
Petula Clarke performing at the New Museum benefit this weekend, singing a medley of oldies and finishing up with Downtown. Her date was Star Trek alum, Leonard Nimoy. . .
Ever wonder where the New York Post's celebrated Page Six gossip column gets its items? At least one came straight out of our own Artnet News column, as the Apr. 21 newspaper reprinted verbatim an Artnet report from five days before of Harold Stevenson's claims of a homosexual liaison with Jackson Pollock. . .
The Museum of Modern Art says it will show selections from the corporate collection of UBS PaineWebber when the new museum opens in 2003. Inquiring minds may care to know that the last time MoMA crossed that particular big-business line was in 1985, with an exhibition titled "Contrasts of Form: Geometric Abstract Art, 1910-1980" that came from collection of the Meshulam Riklis-McCrory Company. Now, whatever happened to them?
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.