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WEEKEND UPDATE
by Walter Robinson
 
"A man who knows his proverbs canít be all bad," they say in the Audrey Tatou starrer Amťlie (2001), currently in heavy rotation on a Manhattan cable channel. This sentiment came to mind at Joseph Kosuthís recent installation at Sean Kelly Gallery, which turned the gallery into a literal maze of scholarship and allusion, with about 20 rooms and passages whose black walls were lined with 195 bon mots, aphorisms, maxims, quips and quotations, painted in a variety of typefaces, some done in neon. Titled "a labyrinth into which I can venture," a phrase used by Michel Foucault in The Archeology of Knowledge to describe his writing, Kosuthís installation takes the pleasure of ideas and turns it into one big art object.

"I read part of it all the way through," said Sam Goldwyn, no doubt echoing the reaction of most visitors. The installation is best at demonstrating the occasional brilliance of all of us amateur philosophers, such as Pablo Picasso, who said, "You invent something, and then someone else comes along and does it pretty." Other bits of wisdom seem to collapse when presented without any contextual armature. The extensive texts by Jacques Derrida, for instance, do little to dispel the impression that he talks nonsense, while the frequent quotes from the Austrian writer Robert Musil seem laboriously clever.

Overall, the format of the labyrinth is most amiable, allowing a visitor to walk and think at leisure like a continental philosophe (or perhaps like Sherlock Holmes with his pipe), awaiting the touch of inspiration that is so often absent while sitting at a desk.

The installation is also a retrospective of Kosuth works, ranging from Ein Schiller Labyrinth (1993), a precise drawing of a maze, priced at $8,000, to the large and impressive Mondrianís Work II (2006), which pairs a Neoplasticist design of black bars with a scattered statement of "the determinate" and goes for something like $400,000. The work as a whole is perhaps $4 million. Does that give the lie to at least half of Robert Gravesí remark that "Thereís no money in poetry, but then thereís no poetry in money either"?

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The pen-and-wash drawings of scenes from the New Testament by Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804), now on view at the Frick Collection, have an idiosyncrasy that seems perfect for our time. Made for no known purpose or client -- the series of 300 works was found in his studio after he died -- by a man in self-imposed retirement after the death of his father, Giambattista Tiepolo, with whom he painted glorious Baroque scenes of apotheosis and ascension, Tiepoloís New Testament brings an odd realism and contemporaneity to a Renaissance subject.

The guy had clearly forsworn the gaudy f/x that his dad had invented in favor of something way more down to earth. The best example is The Apostles Delivered from Prison (1786-90), in which a winged angel in a mini-cloud guides Peter and John out a prison door into a courtyard, a fairly straightforward escape that could just as easily have been effected by a mortal. Other drawings place Christ and his apostles in soaring brick rooms, as if in reference to the then-new Industrial Revolution.

More contemporary still is Domenicoís frequent use of arm-waving to add dramatic effect (the kind of histrionics that today we associate with silent movies), as if he were trying to achieve a Baroque pitch through authentic means. The outline in his drawings, too, isnít smooth but nervous and agitated. No hands folded in serene prayer here.

All this seemed somehow relevant to the recent exhibition of paintings by Barnaby Furnas (b. 1973) at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Specializing in rather adolescent subjects -- Civil War battle scenes, say, or rock-and-roll stage shows -- painted in a watercolor style with considerable verve (not to mention an excess of speeding bullets and splatters of blood), Furnas has now turned to religious subjects, as if in a quest for a gravitas to match his new-found success. But in the new works, typically, the Son of God just stands there, or perhaps has rays of light spilling in every direction, an icon of considerable power (even if he adds butterflies, a la Damien Hirst).

But perhaps a Biblical cycle is in the works. In Boeskyís back gallery were three mural-sized paintings of The Parting of the Red Sea, ranging in size from 10 to 14 feet tall, and from 20 to 30 feet long, in which artfully controlled washes of blood-red paint are put to good narrative effect, an entry in the lesser, alternative history of Abstract Expressionism that embraces literary (dare we say kitschy) content -- things like Robert Motherwellís "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" series from the 1950s, with their abstracted image of castrated bull testicles, or Pat Steirís more recent waterfall paintings.

The show also featured portraits titled Untitled Effigy I, Greedy Piggy and Heart Fucker, in which the artist burned holes in the picture surfaces and wrote curses on the canvas, "deeply personal and cathartic works that address greed and dishonesty in contemporary society," as the press release had it. Word is that the pictures portray the two collectors (including Estelle Schwartz) who sold their Furnas works at auction -- one small work, the 2003 diptych Blown to Bits, selling for an incredible $396,800 at Sothebyís in May 2006. The paintings at the gallery, someone said, ranged in price from $12,000 to $125,000.†

Though old news by now, itís still worth noting here that the gallery has moved into new custom-built quarters at 504 West 24th Street, a two-story structure with a faÁade of white brick and corrugated metal that looks like a Pentecostal church. Designed by Deborah Berke & Partners, the building reportedly includes two apartments on the second floor, one for Boesky herself.

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Anton Henning (b. 1964), on the other hand, gives the impression that a Dionysian force rules over his art, overwhelming any need to choose a subject. His exhibition of paintings, sculpture, furniture and other objects -- itís a complete package -- at Zach Feuer Gallery is rich with a kind of artistic mania, as if the artist couldnít wait each day to get up and go play in the studio. Thatís its own subject -- creativity as a timeless bacchanal.

Soaring scumbled skies dripping with lacquer share the space with funky linear abstractions, while curious Cuboid sculptures (ones Picasso and Braque forgot to make) stand in front of the mid-century nudes that Picabia never got around to painting. The space as a whole is filled with plinths and tables of Henningís design, and the walls, too, are painted in geometric patterns of solid colors bordered with white, a kind of Modernist version of a constantly repainted Hindu Temple. Like Gerhard Richter, Henning does have several trademark styles, including abstractions made from an illusionistically shadowed, awkwardly swirling, white curlicue line, and a trademark color -- a kind of orange, I think.

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Now a 30-year veteran of the New York art world -- Lord help him -- Stephen Lack still makes lush paintings of off-key subjects drawn from the headlines and his own wacky imagination, which was perhaps best defined by Hollywood -- which always finds the truth in its type-casting -- when it enrolled the artist-actor as star of Scanners in 1981 and, even earlier, in 1977, for the cult hit The Rubber Gun. Now, Lack has a show of new paintings, titled "The Rise and Fall of the Suburban Empire," at the new gallery opened at 550 West 29th Street in Chelsea by Christopher Henry, who formerly worked with dealer Fred Dorfman.

At 60, Lack retains his movie-star good looks and a bohemian prolixity that knows few boundaries. For years, I introduced Lack with an anecdote that eventually grew too stale to repeat, though allow me to repeat it here: Back in the East Village Eye days of ca. 1982-84, Carlo McCormick interviewed Lack for the monthly paper, an easy job, since he asked a single question and Lackís run-on answer filled the rest of the page and more.

Lackís subjects are often testosterone-soaked and haunted by Capital and its civilized excess -- hence, "the Suburban Empire." During a visit on the day of the gallery opening, Lackís studio was filled with colorful paintings of cars -- tumescent with an alarming potency -- and an assortment of brutal images of man, at war and at play. "Give me something erotic, something pro-life," I complained, and he rummaged through his stacks and pulled out a small nude, a painting of a woman lying on her back whose breasts were like mounds of pink ice cream with cherries on top. The problem with America is too many calories, indeed.

At the gallery are several large pastoral scenes in luminous colors, shot through with murderous undercurrents -- an image of the White House is one -- and a series of small paintings called "War Is Gay" that shows the homoerotic truth of "donít ask, donít tell." Lackís prices range from $3,000 for a small work to $18,000 for a large one.

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Despite what the art market may say, contemporary painting is not all about figuration. Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) seems to be entering a lyrical phase with his recent show of large abstract paintings at Luhring Augustine. Gone are the harsh computer-generated marks and clotted 3D geometries seen in earlier exhibitions here (this one is Oehlenís seventh). In their place is a perverse harmony of black spray-paint scrawls, idle drips and splotches, parts that are scrubbed out or whited over and awkward shapes in ugly colors like fuscha or salmon, all set against odd, unfinished areas of unpainted canvas.

Oehlen is a master of making art out of paintingís fag-ends -- leftover bits of the painterly vocabulary that are discarded by anyone with any sense. Or, as the gallery puts it, by "expanding the definition of what makes a painting formally successful." The surprising effect of this stylistic economy is to drain Oehlenís pictures of the sense of satire that animates the works of famous German artists like Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger, that distance from sincerity that seemed to be so necessary to so many post-war German artists, and replace it with an authenticity, a sense of noble purpose that flows from the effort of allegiance with the dispossessed. Could that be true? Prices for the works range from $90,000 to $400,000.

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Time to get photog Jill Krementzís new desk calendar for 2007. The Writerís Desk 2007 Calendar features 52 weeks worth of portraits of authors ranging from Elmore Leonard and Wendy Wasserstein to E.B. White and Kiran Desai (winner of the 2006 Booker Prize). Itís $12.95 from Barnes & Noble.

Market notes: Very popular large paintings of modernist buildings done frottage style in striking colors by Enoc Perez at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, priced at $90,000 or so. . . . Paintings on mylar by 29-year-old, Russia-born Dashia Shiskin at Grimm / Rosenfeld (so aptly reviewed in these pages by Jerry Saltz) are mostly sold at $5,000 to $16,000 each.

The Japanese artist known as Mr. has joined Lehmann Maupin Gallery, and is slated to have his first New York solo show in May 2007. . . . Pipilotti Rist is doing the "visual identity" for the Armory Show 2007, Feb. 23-26, 2007.

Artist Neil Goldbergís large color photos of peopleís faces, looking rather like Renaissance altarpieces, in a series titled "Missing the Train," are $8,000 each in an edition of three at Sara Meltzer Gallery. . .† Christa Maiwaldís embroidery portrait of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, looking fairly ferocious, sold for $1,200 at Florence Lynch Gallery.

Travels: David Ross and Pamela Auchincloss of the Artist Pension Trust on their way to India and China. . . . Damien Hirst in New York to buy two Andy Warhol paintings from Larry Gagosian. . . . Julian Schnabel eyeing a trip to Cannes with Le Scaphandre et le papillon, his new film on the interior life of a paralyzed Frenchman.

Painter Hulbert L. Waldroup set up an impromptu gallery and studio space for himself in the ground floor of a building on West 24th Street, next door to a taxi garage and across the road from Gagosian Gallery. His paintings of musicians, babes and the occasional mother-and-child range in price from $800 to $5,000. For more info, see www.hulbertwaldroup.com


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at Send Email