ART GALLERY AMBLE
For those who prefer to look at art in townhouses rather than warehouses, the Upper East Side of Manhattan has outdone itself this fall, with the galleries on and off Madison Avenue presenting more blue-chip shows of modern and contemporary art than ever.
Damien Hirst at L&M Arts
At L&M Arts on East 78th Street is "Damien Hirst: the Complete Medicine Cabinets" (closing tomorrow, Dec. 11, 2010), a show that may well rate as the first museological treatment of the artist’s work, where it’s viewed through the lens of historical scholarship, as opposed to being just so much new product. (This, as it happens, a mere eight months after Hirst’s show "The End" at Gagosian Gallery nearby, which supposedly marked the close of several of the artist’s signature series.) But in truth it’s only the beginning: Soon he’ll be knighted, and it will be Sir Damien.
Apparently among Hirst’s first works, dating from his days at Goldsmith’s College of Art in the late 1980s, the medicine cabinets -- what is he saying, that art is a drug? -- are displayed with formalist precision, like so many white-painted Donald Judd boxes filled with drugstore items by Haim Steinbach. The boxes of Prothiaden (depression), Droleptan (anti-psychotic), Volterol (body pain) and myriad other medications hint at the naive human wish to be cured of all ills, regardless of the side-effects.
Upstairs is the Ur-cabinet, Sinner (1988), which was "filled with drugs from my grandmother’s medicine cabinet that she gave me before she died," a revealing portrait, perhaps, not quite so shadowed by the corporate medical establishment as the other twelve, which are all titled with the name of a song from Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
Almost all works in the exhibition are from museums or private collections, with one from Zurich dealer Bruno Bischofberger. As for values, well, in 2006 a medicine cabinet, Never mind (1990-91), sold for about $1,250,000 at Sotheby’s.
Neil Jenney at Barbara Mathes
A bit further uptown, Barbara Mathes Gallery is presenting "Neil Jenney: New Work/Old Work" (through Dec. 18), a welcome and focused survey of the career of the dapper, baseball-loving SoHo resident. As its title might suggest, the show juxtaposes works from Jenney’s famous "bad painting" series of 1969 -- a liquid world of dualisms, painted fast and loose, in transition -- with his more recent, precise studies of natural phenomena. In Risk and Hazard (1969), a stark white car (a ‘60s Lincoln Towncar?) glides down a country road, with paint strokes activating the squared-off vehicle, grass and dirt road.
Morning and Evening, a diptych done apparently two decades apart (1988 and 2006), are pendant works, atmospheric, cool and warm renderings in heavy black frames that are inscribed with the works’ titles, another Jenny signature. The frames have grown in size in relation to painted space, or so this exhibition would suggest. The tightly rendered North America Divided (2001-09) has a feeling of something irrevocably lost, with its fallen tree and a black and white stripped street barrier at the painting’s edge.
Prices for early works are $400,000-$450,000, and the more recent paintings are marked not for sale.
Enoc Perez at Acquavella
A block south on East 79th Street, Acquavella Galleries has mounted an exhibition of works by Enoc Perez, a new addition to the stable (he had previously shown at Mitchell-Innes & Nash) (through Dec. 10). Perez of course finds his core imagery in the monuments of architectural modernism, which he has until now done with a distinctive, clean-edged hand that didn’t in fact involve brush or pencil (his method was more akin to frottage).
But spurn classic craftsmanship at your own risk! The show’s catalogue notes that the artist, after 17 years, has reintroduced the brushstroke, with the smaller paintings in the upstairs gallery suggesting in particular that it was a liberating decision. A work like Hotel Jaragua, Sao Paulo, Brazil has an almost Johnsian tactility. Color, saturated red grounds, a range of blues tonalities, and at times wads of pigment support a break with this artist’s earlier, more literal renderings.
Unsurprisingly, real estate magnates like Aby Rosen have acquired Perez’s work, which makes the formal geometries of modernist structure that much more, well, collectible. Prices for Perez’s new paintings are in the $120,000-$275,000 range, with most sold during my visit some weeks ago.
Jenny Holzer at Skarstedt
Next door at Skarstedt Fine Art is "Jenny Holzer: Retro" (to Dec. 18), a selection of three series of works from the late ‘70s to ‘80s, including granite benches, enamel wall signs and her familiar electronic LEDs, all the better to absorb the artist’s aphoristic messages as they flash by. Does content vary according to its materialization? Texts on Holzer’s benches from "The Survival Series" (1983-85), their dark reddish color suggestive of dried blood, and arranged in a circle here as they were at the Guggenheim Museum in 1989, are minimalist ruminations on mortality.
White benches from "The Living Series" (1989), flecked with black that makes reading a challenge, deal with harsh day-to-day realities, while the dark black benches from the "Under a Rock Series" (1986) tell of violence and human frailty. I can’t say that any of them invite sitting, even if you’re at the end of a long and tiring gallery round.
Most amusing are Holzer’s early enamel signs from the "Living Series" (1981), which date from the period when she collaborated with the witty English artist Peter Nadin, (Living Series, 1981) are the most amusing, full of sagacious advice. "It takes a while before you can step over inert bodies and go ahead with what you are trying to do," says one, though in all capitals. The benches are $350,000-$400,000, and the enamel signs are around $40,000.
Judith Bernstein at Alex Zachary
At 16 East 77th Street is Alex Zachary, which puts itself on the map with a massive (or as she describes it in the press release, "humongous") installation by the veteran feminist artist Judith Bernstein (to Jan. 15, 2011), celebrated oh these many years for giant images of gloriously vigorous spinning phallus-screws. At Zachary the artist has executed her signature in swirling charcoal, her last name along the wall on the top floor, her first along the stairs leading to the lower level (the former Lesley Heller Gallery space.
Though Bernstein’s perhaps excessive efforts on the drawing led to a broken elbow, she was nevertheless signing posters at the opening, with her right arm in a sling. The marvelous film The Horse’s Mouth, starring Alec Guinness as the eccentric muralist Gully Jimson, is being shown downstairs during the exhibition, as a testament to the indomitable spirit of artists who will stop at nothing to get their confrontational, politically charged work into the public arena.
Several or Bernstein’s early, raucous works on paper are available for sale, ranging in price from $18,000 to $22,000. A wall signature, for your home or office, is $60,000.
John Currin at Gagosian
You can’t go uptown without stopping in at Gagosian Gallery to see the new paintings by John Currin (to Dec. 23) and this is Currin at his most homoerotic, as viewers get a peek at a couple of men primping in front of a mirror as well as a bevy of fleshy females. It’s Norman Rockwell after hours, with Town & Country types relaxing, posing for friends, and playing with each other’s private parts, as in The Women of Franklin Street (2009).
I wouldn’t say it’s not entertaining, nor is it salacious enough to make me wince (or stop staring), but some of the proportions of these poseurs are rather extreme -- women with oversized hands and undersized heads, for example, as in Big Hands (2010). That is, I suspect, part of Currin’s come-on: get you staring and then smack you with a left hook. The paintings are for the most part precisely rendered, with a control of luminous skin tones that is remarkable.
The gallery won’t disclose the prices, though Currin’s $5.5 million auction record certainly must make them easy to sell for, say, $2 million apiece? An exhibition catalogue, maybe with a centerfold(?!), is promised.
Jasper Johns at Leo Castelli
Over closer to Fifth Avenue is Leo Castelli Gallery, which is presenting "Jasper Johns: Drawing Over" (to Dec. 18), which focuses on a lesser known technique in Jasper Johns’ arsenal of practice: the print transformed into a work on paper. I’ve often preferred Johns’ works on paper to his paintings, especially from the early years, when the paintings could appear, for all their physicality, a bit too perfect. Of course it’s always a challenge for any artist to make paintings that are as fresh as drawings, but, in Johns’ case, it’s clear from this exhibition that he had an awareness of the difference from the beginning, and things coalesced or collided later on.
According to Pepe Karmel’s catalogue essay, the sequence of developing an image for Johns, for example, from painting to print to drawing, can take place over years and even decades. Much of Johns’ iconic vocabulary is here for perusal, from the austere numbers, targets and flags, through the artist’s later scavenging in his "allegories" of classical and modernist sources.
Culled from Johns’ studio and private collections, the work on display covers 50 years of graphic production, prints reconfigured with acrylic, watercolor, ink, gouache, pastel and more. Complex and layered are the two almost identical, reanimated The Seasons (1989/1990), acrylic over intaglio, and Land’s End (1979/1989), pastel heavily reworked in, you guessed it, the primaries.
Johns’ "Untitled" series from1987/2008 features a carnival of imagery, including a watch hanging from a shadowed nail (a la Georges Braque), staring eyes with watch reflections, bright red lips and a floating moustache, images apparently referencing "a drawing by a schizophrenic girl that Johns found in any essay by Bruno Bettelheim." Johns borrows and steals, but always (unlike most appropriators) converts the content to enhance his unique vision.
Johns is due to receive the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011. As Willem de Kooning was purported to have said to Philip Guston about his career changing show at Marlborough Gallery in 1970, "it’s about freedom."
Besides the drawings from private collection, prices are set by the artist’s studio. Barbara Castelli patiently explained that some collectors don’t quite get that these are fully realized works on paper, not just prints with some sketching on top, thinking they should be "about 20-25 percent more than the price of a print."
Timothy Washington and
Brenna Youngblood at Tilton
Tilton Gallery takes more chances than most Upper East Side galleries, presenting shows by younger or newer or non-mainstream artists, and the gallery’s current show of two Los Angeles artists, Timothy Washington and Brenna Youngblood (to Dec. 23), is no exception. Washington’s attenuated, totemic figural sculptures are rooted in the L.A. assemblage movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and an ongoing dialogue with area artists David Hammons, Betye Saar and John Outterbridge.
Inspired in his youth living near Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Washington makes a practice of gathering found objects, embedding them in long, lean plaster torsos (part traditional African sculpture, part Louise Bourgeois), which suggests a spiritual or ritualistic content. There is humor, and also a sense of place expressed in his use of the detritus of a population always driving somewhere. Washington’s etched aluminum plates from the early ‘70s, eerie portraits meticulously rendered in fine lines, represent another facet of his inventive use of materials. The sculptures are priced at $25,000-$50,000, while the etched metal plates are not for sale.
Youngblood’s wall sculptures and collaged paintings have a raw, direct approach that makes her work feel like it’s in transition, coming into being or falling apart. Her playful use of found materials and back-and-forth between 2D and 3D suggest Robert Rauschenberg, a beloved muse. Hand-made, chain-link fence structures are a recurring image in her work, as if she wants to keep the viewer at a safe distance from what’s beyond.
This kind of restraint is compelling; in NYT (2010), simple black shapes painted briskly on a gray ground are both still and in movement, abstract and human, resembling perhaps a shirt with a large collar and a wide belt, or perhaps not. Prices for Youngblood’s works are in the $12,000-$25,000 range.
Monika Sosnowska at Hauser & Wirth
For her first solo show at Hauser & Wirth (through Dec. 18), the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska has installed a group of sculptures, once-functional objects (inspired by structures seen during a residency at Artpace in San Antonio) that have been bent, twisted and torqued, converted into distorted, collapsed figments of their former selves. Painted in a glossy black and manufactured by the artist, a balustrade, bench, a fire escape and a spiral staircase, all transformed by their compression, recall the methodology of sculptors like Claes Oldenburg and John Chamberlain without imitating their work.
Either perched on the wall, or writhing on the floor, Sosnowska’s work is animated, their former practical identities now converted, the poor things, to post-formalist pieces of sculpture. The spiral staircase upstairs is pure magic, as it melts before your eyes. The sculptures in the exhibition are priced at $90,000-$120,000.
John Walker at Knoedler
The veteran British abstract painter John Walker has always made his canvases a battlefield where paint and image wrestle for supremacy, only to have to settle for a draw. In his new works on view at Knoedler & Co. (through Dec. 30), inspired by the landscape near his home in Walpole, Me., Walker builds up a surface gradually with washes and thick pigment. Like Johns, Walker has of late been conjuring up image references from earlier works, including his Goya-inspired "Alba" form, emerging ghostlike in Black Tidal Pool (all works from 2010), and allusive references to twisting Oceanic forms in Yellow Sky and African sculpture in Coastal Cross.
The dense smaller paintings, feeling like they were done on the spot, are both dark and luminous, with either birch trees or twin brush fires counterpoised against the horizontal land and water. It’s a strong body of work from the Birmingham lad. The paintings are priced at $30,000-$200,000.
Giacometti at Eykyn Maclean
Large photos of Alberto Giacometti at work set the mood for "In Giacometti’s Studio: An Intimate Portrait" (through Dec. 18), an impressive exhibition of works lent by the artist’s family. Intimate is the word: the artist’s workspace was a modest 12 x 15 ft., which he rented behind Montparnasse in 1927 and kept for nearly 40 years, the remainder of his life. And not just worked, inhabited, with his wife Annette (she got a small room in the back, after they married) and devoted brother Diego, who was also responsible for casting and bronze patinas.
Both wife and brother seem to have been eternally patient subjects, along with other family members, of much of the work displayed here. Small drawings and portrait studies of friends and fellow artists line the wall at the gallery entrance. Together a who’s who of Paris intellectual bohemia, individually the portraits represent Giacometti’s attempt to capture the existential moment on paper.
His sitters included Matisse, Jean Paul-Sartre, Stravinsky, Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara and biographer James Lord. Also on hand is an unfinished but intense painting of poet Jacques Dupin, who had befriended Giacometti and speaks plainly about him in an interview in one of the two books that accompanies the exhibition "He expected his models to stay very still and to look at him very directly in the eyes the whole time. If you moved the tiniest bit, he would get very upset and start groaning and shouting, ‘Ah, there you go, you’ve moved again’."
Upstairs of the third floor is a series of sculptures of the standing or seated woman, arranged by height rather than chronology. Even in the tiniest scale, Giacometti achieves a clarity of form that holds an intangible sense of identity or personality. As with all of Giacometti’s work, one medium feeds another.
Despite the studio’s cramped quarters, Giacometti seemed to thrive, finding space to draw and paint sitters surrounded by sculptures, wall drawings, stacks of canvases and paint brushes, all covered by plaster dust. No wonder that any color in Giacometti’s paintings seem to emerge from a gray haze. He said of his studio, "I planned on moving as soon as I could because it was too small -- just a hole. But the longer I stayed, the bigger it grew."
Most of the nearly 100 works are on loan from the family of Giacometti’s nephew Silvio Berthoud, who died in 1991, and are not for sale. Included in the show, among other masterworks, is the sculpture Grande Tête Mince, another edition of which sold for more than $53 million in May at Christie’s.
ROBERT G. EDELMAN is an artist and critic.