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  critic's notebook

by Walter Robinson  

Leo in
The Man in the Iron Mask
Why go to art galleries in the middle of the summer? Because you might run into Leonardo DiCaprio, like I did. The teen heart-throb was on a whirlwind tour of the July painting shows at Max Protetch, Matthew Marks and Pat Hearn with art dealer Patrick Callery and a slim brunette who was definitely more interested in talking on her cell phone than looking at art. After Callery introduced me as a "person doing big things on the web," DiCaprio expressed interest and I gave him my ArtNet card.

"I'm making an official Leonardo DiCaprio website," he said with a touch of self-mockery, "and I'm going to have some art links." So, hello handsome! I asked him whether he'd seen anything he liked and he mentioned the George Condo painting on view at Marks.

Afterwards I was kicking myself for playing it cool and pretending he was a regular guy. I actually was looking at the art in the middle of our conversation! Being star-struck is definitely not one of the Secrets of Art Success! I should have said, "Gee, you're tall!"

George Condo
Photo Alex Atevich

George Condo
Big Red
Speaking of George Condo, I went to see Condo Painting, a 90-minute film on the artist by John McNaughton, a real Hollywood director who made Mad Dog and Glory and Portrait of a Serial Killer. The movie traces the evolution, over a period of months and through at least three almost-complete reworkings, of a single painting, called Big Red. If you want to know about Condo and his work, this is the place to start. Condo is charming, and looks kind of like a brunette David Spade.

Condo's musings on his trademark "antipodal" creatures -- most recently, a bug-eyed, bulbous-nosed guy with a thick handlebar mustache -- are wackily interesting. He considers himself a kind of clairvoyant who can't help but to channel these beings into our world. Clearly, George is the art world's leading contemporary Surrealist and his paintings are essentially glorified -- and glorious -- doodles.

The film also contains some of the last-ever footage of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg -- Ginsburg is eerily seen posing in a black outfit while Condo paints a life-sized skeleton right on it -- worth the price of admission in itself. Making such monographic movies of contemporary artists is a great idea, even if their potential audience is minuscule. Condo Painting is due to be released by October Films this fall.

The postcard for Whatever
I don't know why, but I consider it my responsibility to keep track of the roles that art is given in Hollywood movies. One of the best parts of the super-hyped The Truman Show (remember Truman?) was the Magritte motif used in the ending. I missed my chance to catch the "indie" Ally Sheedy junkie movie, High Art, and couldn't get into the screening of John Waters' forthcoming Pecker, about a Nan Goldin-ish photographer.

But I did catch Susan Skoog's Whatever, a first feature about a high-school junior who looks to art school -- Cooper Union, as a matter of fact -- as her escape from the boring small-town, male-chauvinist life that has ensnared her mother. Teenage actress Liza Weil is touching as the lead, who suffers various dark humiliations before riding off on her bicycle triumphantly at the end of the picture. It's kind of a feminist Kids -- life is so tough for these girls that all they have to do is survive to become an inspiration.

Frederic Forrest is great as the corny but enthusiastic art teacher who truly believes in art's redemptive qualities. Skoog's inspiration -- did someone say she went to art school before hitting Hollywood? -- must have been during the early 1990 "abject" period of feminist theory. I must say I like the simple positive-negative opposition, and the way that art wins out in the end.

Pierre Bonnard
Young Women in the Garden

Pierre Bonnard
ca. 1938-40

Wally Cox as Mr. Peepers
Lots has been written about Pierre Bonnard, the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. His colors have the translucent and crackly quality of cellophane candy wrappers, even if his paint-handling is so clumsy as to be proto-abject! He was "a piddler" like Picasso said, as New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman took pains to remind us. Bonnard's subjects are all close to home -- things on his dining-room table, the view out his backyard window, and his wife, nude, in the bathroom.

The key to Bonnard's practice is the single painting, Young Women in the Garden (1923/1945-6), in which Bonnard basically depicts his wife Marthe, grumpy and off to the side, and his girlfriend Renée, smiling gaily at the painter. In the acoustiguide, curator John Elderfield explains that Marthe forced Bonnard to break it off with Renée, who then committed suicide. She also tried to make him throw out all his paintings of her (this one got away).

The next-to-last gallery is devoted to Bonnard's self portraits, many of them done with the bathroom mirror, as if he were standing there shaving. These make it quite clear that Bonnard is Mr. Peepers. I think Marthe kept him on such a short leash that he couldn't do anything but focus on "observations of daily domestic life," as the curatorial art-speak puts it. In his own words, Bonnard defined the artist as one who "spends a great deal of time doing nothing but look." He was so hen-pecked he didn't have any choice.

Do you remember Mr. Peepers? It was a very early television show starring Wally Cox as a bespectacled milquetoast, a characterization that was translated to the big screen by Don Knotts in the estimable The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), among other films. Of course, since then "Mr. Peepers" has become a generic term for the cloistered onanist -- just do an Internet search and see all the porno sites that come up. As for Bonnard's famed perceptual approach -- what else but the view during orgasm!

Pousette-Dart sculpture

Whitney garbage
Last week Hilton Kramer wrote in the New York Observer that the Whitney Museum "has been woefully lacking in both curatorial leadership and curatorial independence" and that "the current exhibitions devoted to Richard Pousette-Dart and Louise Nevelson are models of how not to treat the work of significant artists."

Pretty standard stuff for Kramer, but in a moment of optimism I tried to ring up Whitney permanent collection curator Adam Weinberg to hear what he had to say. But he's on vacation. So I hauled my sorry carcass up to the museum to take another look for myself.

As everyone must know by now, the Pousette-Dart show is a recreation of his jam-packed studio, complete with easels, brushes and work tables, storage spaces and fake eaves. It's kind of cool and funky. Up on one shelf is a plaster sculpture that looks like the inspiration for Charles Long's last show at Tanya Bonakdar.

The Nevelson show is interesting mostly because all these sculptures and wall reliefs -- you know, fairly neat and rectilinear conglomerations of boxes and scrap lumber, painted black -- seem to be gifts to the museum either from the artist, Pace Gallery or Jean Lipman, a big Whitney patron while she was alive, or the American Art Foundation, whatever that is. What a trove, about 20 sculptures, just dumped into the permanent collection.

The best part of my visit was that I ran into the artist and writer Eduardo Costa, who hates Nevelson! "She's empty, vulgar, pretentious -- and it shows!" he exclaimed in an animated whisper. "Look at that," he said, gesturing at one particular passage of black-painted scrap wood. "It's stupid! It reflects her consciousness, and there's nothing there! It's awful!"

Me, I can't tell whether this stuff is good or bad. It all looks like kitsch to me, all Abstract Expressionism does, a bad-taste '50s idea of what "modern art" is supposed to look like. I confess I got this idea from In Defense of Abstract Expressionism by T.J. Clark in October 69, summer 1994.

Outside, we saw a workman loading some packing material into the trash, and meditated on whether it was worse or better than the Nevelsons inside. Ho ho ho, were we ever funny.

Logo of the new
Milwaukee Art Museum
Some months ago, the Milwaukee Art Museum sent its energetic director, Russell Bowman to town to tout the museum's new $50-million expansion by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava -- even though it's not scheduled to be unveiled until mid-2000. The new wing will add 28,000 square feet of gallery space to the original 1957 building, designed by Eero Saarinen, and the 1975 addition by Milwaukee architect David Kahler.

Calatrava's design is extreme. It suggests a boat or ship (the museum's on Lake Michigan) and has a soaring, 90-foot-high "apse" that's shaded by a brise soleil, a moveable sunscreen that opens up like wings! I can't imagine making it work -- and in fact, the model on view didn't.

Lunch at Bolo, a restaurant in the East 20s, was great! And in his presentation, Calatrava did some simple drawings on a big newsprint pad. They were still there when I left -- I wish I'd grabbed one.

Yayoi Kusama at MoMA

Kusama curators Lynn Zelevansky (l.)
and Laura Hoptman

Kusama's plastic mirror balls

John Mendelsohn

Mendelsohn's studio
At the press preview of the Yayoi Kusama show at the Museum of Modern Art, I noticed the wacky dot-meister herself sitting alone at one of three tables set up by the press brunch. She seemed to be concentrating on a bit of crumpled cloth in her hand, and the assembled throng, including co-curators Lynn Zelevansky and Laura Hoptman, were standing back, goggling at the tiny artista from a distance. Only a surprisingly portly Jasper Johns suddenly approached, registered his good wishes, and just as abruptly vacated the scene.

Well, I've never liked seeing an artist all alone at her own opening. So I went and sat down, and proceeded to make earnest conversation just to be polite. Welcome to New York, I said. How was your trip from Japan? Have you seen the show? How do you like your dots and webs next to Tony Smith's black cubes? Did you bring a pad to make drawings? Will you be doing any performances while you're here? Will you tour the city to see how it's changed since the '60s?

Various Japanese women hovered about (three had accompanied her to the museum), and an unspeaking Caucasian cameraman was taping the entire thing. Me, I didn't know what I was doing.

As for Kusama, she got up and moved to another table!

Speaking of Kusama, MoMA's very nice show of her abstract paintings and phallus-covered sculptures from the 1958-68 period is suggestive of one thing in particular -- that abstract art only makes sense today when it's a consequence of some obsessive or even psychotic system.

Remember when abstraction was emblematic of utopia, philosophy or perceptual science? No more. Now, in our abject, pathetic, neurotic time, it means crazy -- suitable to Kusama, who has voluntarily lived in a mental institution in Japan for years. Obsessive abstraction as a painting style is still relatively serene and nice, compared to the sick sadomasochism of work by artists like Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

This notion is not mine but rather comes from John Mendelsohn, a painter (and occasional reviewer for ArtNet Magazine) whose Tribeca studio I visited not too long ago. Artists who are finishing a new body of work are inclined to invite their friends (plus any dealers they can find) over for a look. I've known Mendelsohn since college, when we met in a studio class taught by the late abstractionist Adja Yunkers. John was by far the star of the class!

He's completed a series of stain paintings on cotton, using green and fluorescent orange pigment to create hypnotic galaxies of swarming, glowing dots. My first reaction was that stain painting, a la Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler, is out of fashion, even though I've always loved it. After that, I didn't know what else to say. So I asked him what he thought.

John said painting was "like a drug." That's when I wondered whether Kusama, who was in New York during the heyday of Fluxus and Happenings and all that '60s flower-child stuff, was a casualty of the LSD era. Did she take a lot of drugs, or was she just naturally hallucinogenic? When you visit the Kusama show, be sure to watch the 24-minute, 16mm film, called Kusama Self-Obliteration, which has a trippy naked sex orgy scene.

David Hammons
African-American Flag

Lining up at MoMA
Why is MoMA the best contemporary art museum in New York City? It's the new acquisitions (stupid)! The current show of new stuff in the Project galleries proves how much exciting art there is out there to buy.

Highlights include a red, black and green African-American Flag by David Hammons and a huge collage-painting by Ellen Gallagher festooned with her googly eyes and hot-dog-lips motifs. There are two important Conceptual Art pieces from the 1970s, a row of penciled numbers on the wall by Mel Bochner and a set of four photographs of Adrian Piper dieting. And who wouldn't want the bright yellow fiberglass, biomorphic moderne Orgone chaise by Australian designer Marc Newson. Other works are by Tom Friedman (a tiny fly), David Moreno, Helio Oiticica, Bill Traylor, Kara Walker and Steve Wolfe.

The museum is packed. A visit on a recent weekday morning found long lines of people waiting to get in -- about 10 minutes on average. And though admission can be pricey, the "family plan" lets in one adult and up to four kids for $11. Now that's thinking of everything.

Richard Feigen
We blondes, even graying ones, look good in a tan, one of which I was lucky enough to have the other day at the opening of "Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery" at the Equitable Gallery. More about this fantastic exhibition, organized by Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs, will be posted on ArtNet later.

In the meantime, I have to say I was happy to have been introduced at the show to uptown superdealer Richard Feigen. We were talking about the Whitney Museum of American Art, and I only put my foot in it a few times ("So, Mr. Feigen, do you show any American artists?"). For his part, Feigen noted that the idea of a nationalistic museum "of American art" had been anachronistic since World War II, and seemed to propose that the museum shorten its name to cure the problem. This was the first time I'd actually heard it said out loud.

But on my way home, I was really thinking that Feigen had been tan, just like me, and maybe had thought to himself, "Hmmm, we must be alike, he and I."

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of ArtNet Magazine.