"You don’t return my calls" is hardly the greeting I like to hear at art openings, especially since the absence of any communication, in our eternally immature age, should be a clear message in itself.
The plaintiff was Janos Gat, veteran of the great Squat Theater of the 1980s and now an art dealer, who for ten years has had a gallery in Manhattan, showing the likes of Julian Beck, Hans Richter, Paul Thek, Wolf Vostell and several Hungarian modernists. A while ago he moved his gallery from a small apartment at 1000 Madison to two luxurious floors in a new condo tower at 195 Bowery at Prince Street.
Janos was going to great lengths to sell me on Judit Reigl, a Hungarian-born, Paris-based Abstract-Expressionist who is now 86. Janos had given her three exhibitions, and published a catalogue for each one. "She’s the greatest artist in the world," he exclaimed. I was not convinced, but as a great believer in the motto, "Say yes now, you can always say no later," I had promised to see the show.
In fact I had gone by, but nobody was home. I didn’t call ahead, and was more than a little tardy, but still I had gone.
As it turned out, Janos was way ahead of me, anyway. A month before he had sold a Reigl painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now her 1956 Outburst abstraction, an attenuated but dynamic explosion of paint that looks like it was put on the canvas by beating the cloth with a rod, hangs cheek-by-jowl with Willem de Kooning’s Woman (1944) and Isamu Noguchi’s Kouros (1944-45).
If anyone is tallying up gender representation in the Met’s 20th-century galleries (hello, Jerry Saltz!), here’s one for the femmes.
"Then you don’t need me," I said upon receiving this news, with some relief. No go. Giving me his best Hungarian hangdog look, Janos insisted, "I need you, I need you." Despite his sale to the Met, Janos is closing his gallery, a victim of the economy, following his current show of works by Dennis Oppenheim, which includes an amazing eight-foot-tall sculpture of a burning contract, an emblem for our time. Dennis is 70 years old, and as productive as ever. Janos Gat Gallery is to live on, privately and online.
All this chatting took place at another gallery across the road, BLT Gallery on the second floor of 270 Bowery, where "Wiser than God," Adrian Dannatt’s witty exhibition of works by artists who are at least 83 years old, is now on view. Artists, if you think you’re a failure at 25, you should go see this show and imagine what it’s like to be one at 80. By far the best work in the exhibition is Party, a 60 x 90 in. collage-painting from the early 1960s by Herbert Brown. Back in 1999, Janos had given him a show. Ahead of me again.
Party is an example of Brown’s "Subway Posters Overpainted," which were originally exhibited at Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York in 1965. It starts with what looks like an advert for gin, with a hostess and four guests at a cocktail party. Leaving their top halves more-or-less untouched, Brown has painted their lower regions nude and aroused, graffiti-style. It’s like those early Tom Wesselmann collages, but with more raw sexual guts. He wants $200,000 for it, or thereabouts.
Begging at least makes a poor critic feel wanted. Last month the painter Jennifer Reeves resorted to Facebook to beseech me, with a certain comic dementia, not to say obsession, to go see her show at Ramis Barquet in Chelsea.
"I looked in the window, does that count?" More than 20 years ago when I was art critic for the East Village Eye, I had reviewed a painting show in this fashion, earning the eternal enmity of the humorless paint-slinger. Jennifer satisfied herself by calling me a "torturer" several times on Facebook’s "wall-to-wall" function.
Later she told me that although Ramis had sold out her previous exhibitions he had had no such luck this time around -- maybe it had to do with the painting right on the wall of the singing bird with white paint dripping down like pigeon poop. Otherwise, her things are fantastic, weird photo-painting-sculpture hybrids, photos placing creatures made of chunks of paint and 3D brushstrokes into landscapes, with more paint added on.
They have titles like Quest for the Big Untangle, which sounds like something I might put to good use.
Best of all for a critic’s self-esteem are dinner invitations, like the one that came from Haunch of Venison for its stellar exhibition of new and old works by the elegant, estimable 79-year-old Italian "Zero" painter, Enrico Castellani. The meal was at the tony Core Club in midtown Manhattan, the walls hung with avant-garde art from the collections of its mogul members (including one of those huge "Red Sea" paintings by Boesky Gallery artist Barnaby Furnas).
The food was so rich my date almost passed out, and conversational highlights included a comically spirited trashing by a Christie’s muckety muck of the Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso offerings that had done so poorly at Sotheby’s auction house a few days before. Gallery proprietor Harry Blain, recently over from London, made a fine toast, while the artist himself, famously laconic, said nothing.
As for the show, it is excellent, of course -- one might even say historic. Castellani’s silver and white monochromes have a sublime dialectic -- a brutally material structure giving rise to an ineffable optical effect.
The lovely paperback catalogue boasts a thoroughgoing essay by exhibition curator Adachiara Zevi, with plenty of info on the historical development of the Zero movement and Castellani’s art. In the early 1970s, when Italian society was in turmoil, he mysteriously had to move to Switzerland.
Otherwise, I did see a couple of shows that I wanted to take note of. At Claire Oliver on West 26th Street in Chelsea is an installation of new paintings by Gosha Ostretsov, whose work I had first seen during a 2006 visit to Moscow, when he was represented by the now closed Marat Guelman Gallery (and when he went by Georgy instead of Gosha). At the Art Moscow fair, Ostretsov had decorated the stairways and entrances with murals of the top Russian contemporary art dealers rendered as comic book superheroes, and then splattered them with colored paint, an energetic combination of Roy Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollock.
His show at Oliver, complete with mannequins and graffiti, centers on a chamber whose walls and ceiling are made of Marvel-style paintings of space monsters being defeated by nude female superheroes -- an appealing turn on the artistic tradition of the academic nude. Though favored by the Saatchi Gallery, Ostretsov’s work remains undervalued here, with major paintings priced at $20,000 or so.
Around the corner at Yvon Lambert, the front gallery contains several humble objects by a young artist named Michael Brown -- a couple of office chairs, a dustpan, a pair of brooms, a standing rotary fan, a mop and bucket. It turns out that everything is made of black vinyl, that is, records, which the artist heats up and then molds into the everyday shapes.
Thus, one chair is constituted entirely from Bob Dylan records, the other from Neil Young records. Elvis and Aretha are the mop and bucket, the dustpan is the Who, the brooms are Johnny Cash and Patsy Kline, and the fan is the Ramones. Fabrication is not difficult but is time consuming, Brown said. Why these musical artists? Because they’ll "always be great," he said.
Envoy Enterprises at 131 Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side held a one-day exhibition of photos of devil-possessed or otherwise stressed-out kids (okay, they’re still cute) by Martynka Wawrzyniak, who is the wife of photog Richard Kern. Kern himself, who is about to embark on a tour of seven cities in 21 days (with good models at each stop), currently has a show of "Photos 1980-1999" on view at Rental, June 4-July 5, 2009.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.