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GOTHAM ART & THEATER
by Elisabeth Kley
 
The late Franco-Hungarian artist Simon Hantaï was temporarily blinded by diphtheria when he was only eight, and he never forgot it. In fact, Hantaï discovered a way to work with his eyes closed, using his sense of touch to paint areas of color that would ultimately reveal the shapes he couldn’t see.

Born in 1922, Hantaï abandoned Soviet-dominated Hungary and walked to Paris in 1948, where Andre Breton wrote a preface for his first solo exhibition of Surrrealist paintings in 1953. In 1958, he spent an entire year covering a 10 x 13 foot canvas with handwritten texts copied from books on religion, art, poetry, and philosophy, layering them until they could no longer be read. Language exhausted, he turned to abstraction, inspired by Jackson Pollock’s example of representing nothing but the tangible reality of colored liquids flung across fabric on the floor.

In 1960, Hantaï invented a more detached method of bypassing conscious decision-making, avoiding the pressure Pollock must have felt while allowing his unconscious to continually flow. Folding, tying, even stepping on his canvases prior to applying paint, Hantaï waited until they dried to unfetter them from bondage and free them to breathe, revealing unexpected images or patterns, as surprising as the arbitrary shapes that had fascinated Ellsworth Kelly in Paris a decade before.

Eleven of Hantaï’s "pliages," created between 1962 and 1995 and chosen by art historian Molly Warnock, are now on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery. The earliest works, made in the early 1960s, are dark and mysterious. Their heavily built-up, scratched and cracked surfaces in turquoise, ultramarine, grays and browns resemble insect wings, reptile skins, or dried-out terrain.

Space opened up in a 1968 series called "Meuns," airy monochrome compositions that bring Matisse cutouts to mind. A wonderful interplay between sharp and broken edges occurs among shapes reminiscent of jungle foliage, giant coffee beans or even rocks that bite. Next came a series called "Tabulas," gridded compositions resembling giant checkered, tie-dyed tablecloths. Diagonal rays of unpainted fabric shoot out from intersecting white areas that are often more active than the rectangles of flowing paint. 

Two works from "Laissées (Left Overs)," Hantaï’s final series, were created in 1994. Fragments of some monumental paintings he’d done in 1981 for a museum exhibition in Bordeaux were pasted over large blank canvases. No longer covering the entire rectangle, the shapes are like reflections cast by windowpanes filled with a forest’s dappled sunlight, shining on an empty wall.

In 1983, on the verge of worldwide renown, Hantaï refused a commission to decorate the ceiling of the Brussels Opera House. "The art market," he said, "is the greatest danger that modern art has to face. . . . money decides what art gets made. Our only defense is to refuse to participate." He ceased to exhibit in galleries, and died 25 years later at the age of 85.

Crumpling a canvas is almost an act of contempt, as if throwing away centuries of painted illusions drawn out of the sacrosanct rectangle. Turning absence into presence, Hantaï’s works ask viewers to look at their empty spaces as equal to their areas of paint. They are objects in themselves, representing nothing, not even abstract shapes -- simply fabrics holding traces of what they’ve undergone. For Hantaï, negation was a pathway to light. Now that he’s gone, the paintings can be acquired at prices ranging from $220,000 to $755,000. The exhibition is on view Mar. 19-Apr. 24,2010.

Eileen Quinlan at Miguel Abreu
The illuminated slippage between photograph as paper subjected to a chemical process and as abstract or representational image is the subject of "Nature Morte," Eileen Quinlan’s haunting exhibition at Miguel Abreu. Quinlan is known for analog photographs of still lifes set up in her studio, pictures of mostly flat surfaces -- mirrors, gels, fabric, paper, boards -- that sometimes reflect each other and are sometimes accompanied by smoke. Her straight-edged, often overlapping shapes seem to allude to the Russian Constructivist paintings of Liubov Popova, but instead of being areas of material paint, they are filled with illusions paradoxically achieved through classic photography techniques.

Two pictures of plants, one real and one artificial, provide themes for the set of variations that constitute the rest of the works in the show. The first, After Winter (2004-10) is an image of an eerie bunch of washed-out wildflowers that seem to be coated in ash. A few dead twigs and some traces of green vegetation and tiny red berries add a tiny hint of color.

Carved foliage, rather than real leaves, can be seen in You’ll never follow me (2008-10), a grainy close-up of a section of a tombstone overlaid with a streak of transparent turquoise. The limestone relief includes a flower and stalk, as well as ribbons dangling from a wreath intersected by a cornucopia. Ernest, the name carved into the stone’s lower left, could be a sidelong allusion to Oscar Wilde’s consistent theme of artifice. A tombstone’s eternity relative to living things also comes to mind.

This ghostly trace of a memorial turns back into a simple piece of photographic paper when it reappears in a still life called The Star on the Forehead (2010), reflected in rectangular mirrors whose outlines radiate from the center like the rays of a star. Other still lives feature an image of some ceramic roses (from a tomb in Pere Lachaise) with debris among their petals that makes them seem ready to corrode.

Some larger prints were allowed to degrade by being left in the water bath until their emulsion began to break down. An empty black field surrounded by sharp shapes that resemble the ice in a midnight arctic sea is spread over the surface of The Raft (2010), for example. And A Ground in the Air (2010) is dominated by a broken down area of sharp black and white that resembles an enormous torn paper silhouette of a side of beef dangling in a slaughterhouse.

A photograph of something is an object’s reflected ghost. When the photographic process becomes evident, the picture reverts to being an object in itself. The blurry areas in Quinlan’s images are reminiscent of the ectoplasm shapes in late-19th-century spirit photography, when real chemical processes were paradoxically employed to make falsified images of ghosts. A similar oscillation between honesty and fakery, representation and reality, and immortality, change and decay is what makes Quinlan’s work so fascinating. Prices range from $4,500 to $12,000 and the show is up until April 29.

Willie Cole at Alexander and Bonin
"Post Black and Blue," the title of Willie Cole’s latest exhibition at Alexander and Bonin, conjures up a myriad of associations, from bruises to the devastating lyrics of a song by Fats Waller recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1929:

How sad I am, each day I feel worse,
My mark of Ham seems to be a curse!
How will it end? Ain't got a friend,
My only sin Is my skin.
What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?
  
Sadness, of course, is universal. Samsara, a video playing in the back room, consists of three screens, each dominated by a series of close-up human faces -- male and female, black and white -- weeping. The title comes from the Buddhist term for the human cycle of birth, death and rebirth, when the soul is trapped in desire and the grief it causes. Looking at these people in tears, with liquid coming from eyes and sometimes nostrils, made me so uncomfortable that I took refuge in wondering what was making them cry. Were they acting, or thinking about past sorrows? 

Relief can be found in the front gallery, a romantic noir narrative of loneliness and conflict told through a series of black-and-white drawings. Titles are appropriated from more blues lyrics, the classic example of turning despair into art. An allegory of racial interaction may be found in the intertwining dialogue between black and white. Sometimes space, sometimes thing, sometimes mass, sometimes outlines, areas of ink and white paper continually reverse themselves, materials of representation rather than the colors of skin. Black or white objects against black or white grounds are made visible by their interaction.

Crossroads Blues (2009), for example, is an image of a kneeling black figure manifested in white outlines against a black ground. The only white objects are his shirt, the white gloves on his upraised hands, and the cross of four directions above his head. And in Midnight blues (2009), a man sits on the edge of a bed, as light coming in from the side illuminates his feature and the sides of his legs and then falls on his guitar. Small white spaces in the window’s painted ink sky turn into the moon and stars.

The idea of the body as a receptacle for past emotional baggage becomes concrete in a sculpture and a painting that are also in the main gallery. Hers (2010) is a pair of mannequin legs in high heels topped with a pile of seven suitcases labeled with dates, from 60-67 to 04-10. The male version is a painting on a large wood panel called His (2010). The numerous problems he carries are contained in a seemingly infinite pile of baggage delineated in black with white lines, heaped every which way against a white background.
   
Cole is known for his use of found objects. As metaphors for slavery’s branding and African American domestic labor, he’s dismantled electric irons and turned them into sculptures reminiscent of African masks, and heated them to make scorched paper diagrams of slave ships. More recently, he’s been assembling thrift shop high heels (presumably discarded after lifetimes of painful traveling). Standing near the gallery’s entrance, Shoe Bouquet (2009) conjures up lives filled with the rootlessness often referred to in the blues. Love leads to violence and loneliness, and someone is always getting ready to leave. Prices range from $7,500 to $25,000 and the show is up until April 24.


ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.