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by Abraham Orden
Claude Monet was "just an eye," said Paul Cézanne, "but good God, what an eye!" Was he the last of the mono-organed species of painter to roam the earth? The question occurred to me uptown at Wildenstein and Co., where a Monet retrospective that would be at home in a museum of any caliber, replete with masterpieces and also a beautiful display of the artist’s over-the-top, pining love letters, is packed into four small galleries Apr. 27-June 15, 2007.

Painters still look, as Monet looked, but there aren’t many around who look and nothing but. Painting is no longer just painting; now it is always "painting after" something, as in "painting after photography," to which a small and attractive contribution has been made by Devin Leonardi, whose acrylic on paper works at Guild & Greyshkul in Soho, May 19-June 23, generate a lush fantasy past from vintage photos both iconic and obscure.

Wayne Gonzales, showing now at Paula Cooper, May 5-June 30, throws his effort into this sub-history as well. "Forget photography," declare his emptied out, deadpan new works, "this is painting after ‘pics.’" Gonzales culls his images of crowds, grouped here as "cheering crowds" and "waiting crowds," from the internet. The low resolution of the source provides Gonzales with a cool esthetic, and an opportunity to refresh and redeploy Jasper Johns’ pensive but effulgent approach to brushwork.

Which brings us to "painting after Pop," embodied at the moment in Takeshi Murakami’s stellar new creations at Gagosian Gallery, May 1-June 9, which count as paintings insofar as they are acrylic on canvas, but which stretch the meaning of the word to encompass a process more akin to designing and manufacturing a car than to the labors of Monet.

And on the other, messier and more human side of this Warhol coin, David Ratcliff, an artist in Los Angeles who is having his first New York solo show at Team Gallery, May 3-June 9, pushes stencil-based painting to the extreme, producing large-scale monochromes -- "painting after abstraction" -- from collages of tattoo flash art, cartoons and other sundry, uncategorized but provocative images. Apparently the stencils take weeks to cut and apply, and about 20 minutes to paint. In image and process both, then, it’s downright sexy work, and like many things you will see at Team, it’s skeptical, even cynical, about what painting -- or rather art at large -- is supposed to be.

One finds no such pessimism in that true believer Richard Tuttle, whose gospel has spread across this land like wildfire in the past few years, sparked by the massive traveling survey of his life’s work. Here in New York, Sperone Westwater is exhibiting a new body of work by the artist, May 3-June 30, coinciding with the opening of his big show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, its sixth and final destination. That exhibition, which covered the heartland as well as the coasts, with stops in Chicago, Dallas and Des Moines, in addition to New York, San Francisco and L.A., does a good job of evincing the breadth and utter unconventionality of Tuttle’s output over the past 40 years, and here in New York a new chapter in that story is unfolded.

For this tightly focused show the artist has developed an armature-bound form of sculptural drawing that would reveal its deep formal eccentricity if it weren’t so prepossessingly refined. On view are upwards of 60 jewel-like pieces, precious in scale, made of cheap stuff like balsa wood and richly textured fancy watercolor paper, but transmuted by Tuttle’s alchemical vision and his Midas touch. Akin to but not recycled from his previous work, each piece in this series is the genesis of a self-contained language, but all these tongues are equated by their uniform support, which projects the thing off the wall and activates its cast shadow as a sculptural element.

These tchotchkes are of the highest order; weighing in at $45,000 apiece, they pack the punch of an artist who affects culture on the grand scale. I’d wager that Tuttle’s humble efforts to make works of art which look like nothing but themselves will end up changing the way everything looks, as the next generation of artists, especially architects and designers, learn new ways of seeing through him.

Tuttle himself has said -- I paraphrase, of course -- that his purpose in making art is to try to push beyond appearances to have a look at reality itself. This puts me in mind of an artist with whom he appears on the surface to share little if any connection, Tim Hawkinson, who in recent years has also been the subject of an impressive traveling survey himself, and who is also having a solo show of new work at the moment at Pace Wildenstein, May 3-June 9, with another installation at Nyehouse, May 2-June 16.

Hawkinson’s most important artworks are all attempts to recode either his experience of time or his own body, and by thus recoding them, to understand them, to draw back the curtain of appearance and render these modes of subjectivity both visible and legible, even if only for a moment. Like Tuttle, Hawkinson seems to go at this with a kind of desperation, but where Tuttle pursues something abstract, idealized and Platonic, Hawkinson is after something physical, morbid, informe; and so they look nothing alike.

Hawkinson’s show at the Whitney, which traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was the culmination of two decades worth of such desperation, vetted and tailored by curator Larry Rinder to present an artist with a consistently exceptional capacity for invention. The Pace show doesn’t live up to this standard; here are a few museum-quality works -- that is, things that really make you think -- among other items that are mostly as flat and formally driven as decorations.

But rather than having the image created by the Whitney exhibition dispelled here at Pace, we are given a glimpse of what Hawkinson’s past achievements have required in the present tense, namely, a lot of amazingly crafted failures, like the luscious but inert Foot Quilt (2007), and a lot of half-baked ideas, like the inventive but rather too cutesy Gimbled Klein Basket (2007), which replicates a 3D computer model in real space, creating a conceptual redundancy feedback loop, or Sunrise (2007), in which Hawkinson forces his scanner to act as a camera, doing its best, and failing, to capture and evoke a romantic beachscape, like a robot who just can’t understand what "human’s call ‘love’." This latter piece, the best in the show, is still too technical, too much about the machine and not enough about the body running it, to be considered among Hawkinson’s best works -- but it is good enough to reassure us that all of those masterpieces are not behind him.

Unfortunately, such confidence has not been inspired by Jason Meadows, another Los Angeles-based sculptor whose current exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar, May 10-June 16, his fourth with the gallery, deflates the anticipation that greeted it. Meadows is a major talent who established himself in the late 1990s; that is no longer up for debate. And the talent has not evaporated. Meadows still looks like the greatest disciple of Charlie Ray, with whom he studied. He still does sculpture so serious that it can dispense with abstract gravitas and instead go pop-punk in its imagery. He still has it, in other words -- but the hunger looks to be missing. Where the past shows the artist produced for Bonakdar each grew out of a single, central innovation in his practice -- as Tuttle’s new work does -- here we have a greatest hits compilation: In five new sculptures and three new wall-based works, there is not one new idea to be had.

Can you fathom an excuse? Imagine the fashion designer who decides that for this season’s collection, he’ll just take the best things he’s done in each of the past five years and re-present them on new models. There is really no question about it; he’d be finished. Far better to fail trying, like Hawkinson, or to sit out that season and concentrate on cultivating something new, if it hasn’t come along on its own. The art world, especially the rich art world, is sometimes too forgiving, and Meadows, who at 34 years old is hardly past his prime, will have to do better than this if he is to rise to the heights he is capable of.

Let’s step out of Chelsea, and head south to Tracy Williams Ltd, where Barbara Bloom’s exhibition, titled "It Takes One to Know One (Absence-Presence)," May 4-June 22, provides one of the more complex art experiences available at the moment. The central element of the installation is a backlit screen which bears the shadows of eight types of stand, including a music stand, an easel, a tripod for a camera, and some others I’m afraid I couldn’t place. (This is a display method that Bloom invented years ago for showing chairs at the MAC Museum in Vienna.)

Portrait-sized rectangles of the opposing wall have been painted in sherbet hues reminiscent of John Baldessari, who is perhaps an important reference point for this befuddling work (others could be Joseph Kosuth, Richard Prince and Sophie Calle). Coming round to the back side of the screen, one finds the stands themselves, naturally; these are accompanied by eight photographic works, each cued to a particular stand -- sheet music, a picture of someone painting, etc. -- and also corresponding with a section of painted wall on the other side.

We gather that it is all about what is missing here, that the content at issue is what the stands would hold, but that the presentation of only its supportive apparatus and an attendant representation engenders a special type of contemplation which can only occur in this way. Upstairs in two other galleries, the point ruminates in displays of mirrors, footprints and gloves, all in dialogue with photography.

That’s heady stuff! And one knows one has found it’s antidote, if it is desired, as soon as one crosses the threshold of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, where the first thing one lays eyes on is the side of one of Anselm Reyle’s new paintings, May 19-June 23, in which the work’s support -- not simple canvas but a screamingly ugly leopard print fabric -- is visible. Stepping around to the front, the viewer is presented with one of the show’s five matte black monochromes, which look to be painted with a rake, in a substance that resembles cake frosting made from old tires. These paintings, which range from portrait-sized up to the Rothko-esque, are matched with some other wall-bound inventions in foil paper, aluminum and in one case internal lighting, and a few sculptures in concrete, steel and black mirror. 

Reyle is like a new Julian Schnabel -- but he’s a neo-minimalist, instead of a neo-expressionist. Decadent times seem to open the door to these "neo" movements, and this show is a suitably sexy, coked-out send-up of the somber parents of the style, a party on its grave where loosened values and lost ideals give the notion of art for art’s sake a new and debased meaning. It’s tacky as hell, and political in its hedonistic way.

Politics should have the last word today; not just because we have spent the last few years in a botched war, but because right here in the midst of the debacle, a major museum like the Whitney can, in a gesture that could either be called smug or ditzy, put on a show called "Summer of Love," which focuses on the moment of our last such pratfall while barely representing it. Then as now, bad governance cost lives; the Whitney had the opportunity to present us with that basic co-incidence and to provoke a little debate, which might rekindle just a smidge of that former era’s belief in the possibility of a change which comes from citizens and percolates upward.

Instead, the show works in the opposite direction. "Summer of Love" doesn’t present the past, it projects the present past-wards, pretending that the culture of the ‘60s was like today’s -- consumable from tip to root, but never homegrown. It’s a light and cloying history they’re feeding us at the Whitney, like giving cotton candy to the starving.

ABRAHAM ORDEN is a New York art critic.