For more than a month I’ve wanted to do a roundup of the gallery shows on Madison Avenue, so last Saturday, after staying in bed till noon (this art critiquing is exhausting), I took myself off to do just that, not bothering to eat (for someone my age, eating tends to be frowned upon). Would hunger darken my usual cheerful outlook? As Peter Schjeldahl might say, let’s see.
The first stop, though not on the itinerary, was up the hill from my apartment: the Park Avenue Armory, whose banner promised a show of bicycles decorated by artists for Lance Armstrong and his LiveStrong charity -- Shepard Fairey, Mark Newson, Yoshitomo Nara, Damien Hirst, Kaws and Kenny Scharf. Armstrong actually rode these machines on the 2009 tour -- he broke his collarbone on KAWS’ bike.
Workers were setting up the International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show (which opens today), but otherwise the place was dark -- the bike show is open, free, but only on weekdays. The benefit auction is scheduled for Nov. 1, 2009, at Sotheby’s New York. No word on what the prices might be.
Next it was off to my old college buddy Adam Baumgold’s new gallery space at 60 East 66th Street, a brownstone ground floor not all that different from his former home on East 79th. He had period collages from the 1970s by Tulsa School poet Joe Brainard (1942-1994), celebrated for his indelibly bohemian "I Remember" poems as well as for his adoption of Ernie Bushmiller’s cartoon character Nancy as his artistic muse.
The collages glory in idle creativity, and have a relaxed wit that suggests warm feelings towards the world of images, a sentiment that was on its last legs, soon to succumb to the hard-hearted rationality of "Picture Theory." Back in the ‘70s, Brainard had exhibited several hundred of these collages at Fischbach Gallery, priced at a pittance. Now they’re $8,000-$14,000.
In the back garden, Baumgold has a two-headed bronze caterpillar by Tom Otterness, segmented so that it can be positioned in several different ways. It’s $175,000 -- cheap at the price.
Over at 754 Madison Avenue at East 66th Street, in a cozy third-floor walkup, is Higher Pictures, the photo gallery opened several years ago by Kim Bourus, a veteran of Magnum Photos, among other things. Last year, Higher Pictures gave the first show ever to "Younger than Jesus" discovery LaToya Ruby Frazier, and ended up selling about 40 of her photos; a book is in the works.
This time around, the announcement card for the September show at the gallery was a photocollage of a small figure of a nude man in the foreground facing the open legs and dark hairy sex of a giant female nude. Somehow it tickled my memory -- was this some Jungian ur-image?
The name of the artist, Alfred Gescheidt, was certainly familiar, and -- Bourus provided the clue -- back in the 1970 he had regularly published his "Erotic Humor" series in Oui magazine, which I may have looked at once or twice. Born in 1926 and still living in Manhattan, after the war Gescheidt pioneered this kind of photo work, but found himself laboring in the advertising field, doing "let your fingers do the walking" illustrations and such like.
In 1964 Gesheidt published his own book of humorous photos, called 30 Ways to Stop Smoking, now very rare. Many of the originals are on view here, with prices beginning at $4,000, a bargain for a piece of history. My favorite -- speaking as someone who stopped with the cigarettes about 20 years ago and am only now suffering the onset of asthma -- is the determined fellow lighting up with a stick of dynamite.
From Higher Pictures I dashed over to James Graham & Sons, which was featuring paintings, drawings and collages by Syracuse U. MFA Mary McDonnell that are, according to the pick in the Village Voice, more thoughtful that the usual run of "half-assed abstract painting these days." Thoughtful or not, I thought they were basically about the brushstroke, which is always interesting (though more contemporary painters, like James Nares and Josh Smith, do it without seeming quite so old-fashioned).
Many of McDonnell’s pictures are pared down, horizontal and landscapey, others are denser and more veil-like, and a brown-and-black one seems positively aggressive, an expressionistic up-and-down scrawl. Prices range from $1,600 for a gouache on cardboard, very nice, to $20,000 and up. Downstairs is a pair of pictures done with what looks like blue writing ink, also very nice. And on the second-floor landing, an unlabeled Poussiniste painting, courtesy of Graham’s closed-on-Saturday neighbor, Didier Aaron, an extra benefit.
I live on East 67th, and Tilton Gallery is on East 76th, so it’s easy to find, for me at least. On view since early September are some smart paintings by Simone Lucas, who was born in 1973 in Germany. Are her paintings, then, "German"? Their idea is as simple as it is ingenious, and involves infiltrating black-and-white images taken from 19th- and early-20th-century photographs with colorful designs suggestive of the pictorial avant-garde of the same historical period, colorful spheres, checks and other geometrical designs.
A group of Victorian-era lady art students, their hair in buns, sit sin a class before easels with canvases covered in painted diamonds and stars, while a young woman poses in a floor-length dress that has been overtaken by red checks, as red-and-white polka dots spread across the wall behind her. Several were marked with red dots; the utterly charming paintings on paper were only $1,500, while prices for paintings ranged from $3,850 to $15,400, which sound like they’re converted from Euros.
Around the corner on West 77th is the Michael Werner Gallery, which always impresses, not only for being in Leo Castelli’s old space but also for the shelves of bound volumes that line the entryway, sort of like a real-world version of Sigmar Polke’s famous early painting of his own imagined "Complete Works." On view in the actual gallery space is "New System Paintings" by A.R. Penck. One side of the room holds large, densely pictographic works with titles like Free Speech, New Old World and New Structure, while the other has canvases filled with abstract shapes, titled Direct Connection, Convergence and Balance.
I’d always thought Penck’s work was rather unsettling, but it’s actually kind of fun, what with its gesticulating space-alien figures, often with weapons in their hands and standing around campfires. One of the pictures even has an alligator and a clock in it, sort of like Peter Pan. Is that Smee? (Don’t tell him I said that!)
Around the corner again I went, to Acquavella Galleries on East 79th Street, which has an exhibition of "Grands Formats" paintings from the early 1950s to the ‘70s by Jean Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), Canada’s answer to Jackson Pollock. These pictures came to Acquavella almost 20 years ago, said Eleanor Acquavella, who happened to be sitting at the front desk reading art magazines, when the gallery partnered with Sotheby’s to buy the contents of the Pierre Matisse Gallery.
Brightly colored and densely painted with a palette knife, some of the pictures, like the Fifteen Horsepower Citroën (not actually made with the car itself, but merely inspired by it, much to my disappointment) have a manic feeling like confetti at a parade, while others display much more of a crude and clotted Art Brut sensibility -- neither conceits that Americans went in for, and thus pretty much absent from the fourth and fifth floors of the Museum of Modern Art. Prices here range for $950,000 for a triptych to $3.3 million.
On the way to Acquavella, I stopped in at Gagosian Gallery’s new street-level shop at Madison Avenue and 77th Street. The window display promotes Richard Prince’s new book, Bettie Kline, which conflates Bettie Page and Franz Kline. The store is amazing, if only for the posted prices, which seem notably high in what should be an ordinary retail context -- in particular, Prince’s comic Nurse Hat Chair from 2008, in an edition of seven, is $175,000.
Less pricey are the Franz West lawn chairs, made of welded steel with plaid mesh seating, which caught my eye in the window (as well as the attention of master glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, who also happened to be passing by) and which are $6,000 each, while a Jeff Koons white glazed porcelain vase in the shape of a puppy from 1998 is $7,500 -- what were they ten years ago? $400?
Downstairs is the Other Criteria shop, filled largely with glorious dot prints by Damien Hirst, several with golden backgrounds, priced between $4,400 (edition of 150) and $9,500 (edition of 45). They looked pretty.
And right next door, apparently, is a show by Banksy, in a storefront now being taken over by Keszler Gallery. It was closed for the weekend.
The final stop on my Madison Avenue tour, at least for this day, was Gerald Peters Gallery, where my old friend Mike Glier is having a show of his new paintings -- colorful, neo-Cubist works made during his journey along the 70th longitude, of all things. Peters was dark, closed for the weekend, but I happen to know a thing or two about Glier’s paintings already.
His year-long project has taken him to four places: the Inuit village in Pangnirtung, Canada, in the Arctic circle; the Jatun Sacha Reserve on the Napo River in Ecuador; St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands; and New York City. The 40 paintings in the series were all made on the spot, and share the tradition of the Modernist landscape of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley or Stuart Davis, according to the artist.
Glier’s not done yet. He went to Botswana this summer, and is headed next for Hawaii. With this coming weekend’s bad weather, that seems a particularly good idea.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.