A Critic's Diary

February: The Unabomber, a Dance Legend Performs, a Runway Show, the Big Easy

Mark di Suvero, Eppur si Muove, 2014–17, at Paula Cooper Gallery.

February in New York: it’s a rough time. But this year it brings forth two of the season’s most hotly anticipated museum shows. First up is a retrospective by master strategist Danh Vo at the Guggenheim. On the 8th, Jamie Sterns and I go to the opening for the show, which generally impresses both of us. Vo has placed his deathly readymades—like Ted Kaczynski’s typewriter and a chair used by Kennedy cabinet members—along the ramp in a spare but unfussy configuration. It is a nuanced case study in American international adventurism—and the nation’s death drive. Most striking are letters from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the New York Post theater critic Leonard Lyons during the Vietnam War that Vo has backlit and displayed along one wall. Kissinger writes, mischievously, in a thank you note for Hello Dolly tickets: “I also appreciate your sending me information on the ballet and your attempts to satisfy my appetite for it. But I warn you, I’m insatiable.” The only unpleasant note are the lifeless (apparently vegan) canapés, and so Jamie and I repair to a nearby stalwart, Earl’s Beer and Cheese for just those things.

At the New Museum triennial, works by Wilmer Wilson IV at back and a sculpture by Diamond Stingily in front.

The other eagerly awaited exhibition is the the fourth edition of the New Museum’s triennial, “Songs for Sabotage,” which arrives the week after Vo. It’s curated by an intriguing duo: the New Museum’s Gary Carrion-Murayari, a reliable hand, and Alex Gartenfeld, the chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, who ran the widely influential West Street Gallery, over on the West Side Highway, from 2010 to 2012 with Matt Moravec. But despite my high hopes—also raised by an artist list of names mostly unknown to me—it is an oddly wan affair. Nevertheless, there are some fine moments, like the matchup of Wilmer Wilson IV’s bewitching paintings—tall portraits covered with staples—with great Diamond Stingily’s playground sculpture, a brick placed precariously above its lone swing. The remarkable paintings that Manuel Solano, who is blind, makes with his hands are great, too, as are the Colescott-channeling ones of Janiva Ellis, and the darkly themed, brilliantly colored cartoon video by Wong Ping. But on the whole, the show feels strangely empty, filled with knockoffs of good ideas, and it never coalesces.

Simone Forti performing on February 9, 2018, at Castelli’s Midtown space.

Between the debuts of those two exhibitions there are a some phenomenal events. On the 9th, the legendary Simone Forti performs on a floor of a Midtown office building on West 40th Street amid a series of “Obstructions” by Robert Morris—slices and rolls of felt in black, red, and white. The audience—including Simon Lee dealer James Michael Schaeffer, Yvonne Rainer, Phyllis Tuchman, Jeffrey Weiss, Metro Pictures dealer Alexander Ferrando, and many more—surround her space. Forti holds a microphone for part of the show, her hand shaking as she speaks, at some moments so quietly I cannot hear what she’s saying. “The change is bringing global connections that have never been before,” I hear and, “It swims across the Atlantic and every eon the passage gets longer.” She gingerly moves pieces of felt and crawls on the ground for a bit. The whole effect is riveting. She says at one point, “There’s an idea of the universe. I don’t worry about the universe.” [Video]

The next afternoon, Eckhaus Latta shows its latest line—effortless, casual chic—in a cavernous event space in Bushwick next to Honey’s, which provides all comers with bags of popcorn. In the audience: Josh Kline, Nate Freeman, Anicka Yi, Hayley K. Silverman, and hundreds more art and art-adjacent types. On the runway: adviser Thea Westreich Wagner, artist-designer Susan Cianciolo, and a number of other models. It’s raining, but that doesn’t stop fashion photographers from snapping people coming to and going from the show. [Video]

Later in the month, I decamp to New Orleans to catch the tail end of Prospect 4, which has been organized by Trevor Schoonmaker of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. I missed the first edition of the biennial-that-became-a-triennial, in 2008, but I caught the second and the third, and I intend to see the rest of them since there is no city more enjoyable to visit than the Big Easy, with its incredible admixture of music, art, food, cocktails, and history.

Works by Barkley L. Hendricks installed at the New Orleans Museum of Art as part of Prospect 4.

Schoonmaker’s show takes up themes of migration, cross-cultural influence, and how histories are written and intertwined, and it has no shortage of beautiful moments: the ground floor of the city art museum’s lobby filled with Barkley L. Hendricks portraits; a three-channel Kahlil Joseph video; Louis Armstrong’s collages (heretofore unknown to me); exquisite, effervescent Mardi Gras costumes by Darryl Montana; characteristically winning paintings by Njideka Akunyili Crosby; and a series of flags of geometric abstractions that Odili Donald Odita is flying at sites of historical importance—from a jazz club shuttered long ago to the location where Homer Plessy was arrested in 1862 for defying segregation rules aboard a train to the elementary school that Ruby Bridges desegregated in 1960. The flags provide an alternate map of the city, one charted by the lives of some of its pioneering residents.

Jason Moran performing on Kara Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan at Algiers Point in New Orleans on February 23, 2018.

The best moment of Prospect, though, belongs to Kara Walker, who presents Katastwóf Karavan—a steam-powered calliope harbored within a wheeled cart—at Algiers Point, a wide-open slice of land looking out onto Downtown New Orleans that was once the location of a slave market. It’s a short ferry ride across the Mississippi River, and Lauren Ross, Tom Finkelpearl, Nato Thompson, and quite a few other familiar faces are all aboard. For the performance, a woman holds an umbrella over Jason Moran as he plays the hulking instrument with a keyboard, making the thing squeal, scream, and sing. It’s a triumph of engineering, of art, and of sheer will, and Walker surveys the action while wearing earphones (it’s loud!). She’s programmed the device so that it can also play “black protest and celebration,” as she’s put it—spirituals, “We Shall Overcome,” “What’s Going On?” [Video] A number of performances are scheduled, and I wonder if I’ll be able to hear them from across the Mississippi while wandering through other parts of the city. Later in the day, the steamboat Natchez, which also has a calliope aboard and which served as a counterpoint, for Walker, cruises down the river. It’s blasting “Dixie.”

A work by Jayne Country at Participant Inc.

Also seen: Mark Verabioff (Team); Hannah Black and Precious Okoyomon (Real Fine Arts); a sublime Mark di Suvero sculpture holding center stage (Cooper); Cristina Iglesias (Goodman); “Fields of Color” (Yares); a suite of Kathe Burkhart’s classic paintings of Liz Taylor (Boone); “Principia Mathematica” (Pace); Celso Renato (Mendes Wood DM); an off-the-charts selection of Saul Steinberg drawings (Adam Baumgold); very Heimo Zobernig Heimo Zobernig shows (Petzel); heartbreaking early window shade paintings by Robert Moskowitz (Starr); Terry Adkins’s assemblages and constructions, which have the feeling of spiritual objects, including Native Son (Circus), 2006–15, an array of cymbals on a timer that scare the hell out of me when they burst to life (Lévy Gorvy); a trio of disturbingly (but also humorously) clinical paintings of naked women by Kurt Kauper (Rech);  “In Part / Writings by Julie Ault” (Buchholz); the blockbuster Michelangelo exhibition, on the final day, where I join countless tourists and a few nuns in being knocked out by the master (Met); “Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris,” an exemplary show that Deborah Solomon reviews incisively in the Times (Met); “Yard Show” (Shrine); Allen Glatter (Rawson); Dave McDermott (Grimm); Dietmar Busse (Fierman); Mariah Dekkenga and Ioanna Pantazopoulou (Situations); a cerebral and impressive exhibition called “Five Sculptures” (Essex Street), with yellow mushroom night lights by Ghislaine Leung; “We Indict! Unraveling Structural Racism in Germany” (Ludlow 38); “Monotypes with Friends” (Entrance); Demetrius Oliver (Klaus); “25 Years – Part 2: Abstraction” (Algus); Akira Ikezoe (Brennan & Griffin); and Hayley K. Silverman’s spectral riddles in a show that is an easy frontrunner for one of the season’s best (Bodega).

An installation view of “Alex Da Corte:    C-A-T Spells Murder” at Karma.

And more: Maryam Jafri (Matsumiya); Mark Reynolds (Pierogi); “Talon Rouge” (Proxyco); Gianna Commito (Uffner); Arcmanoro Niles (Uffner); Jayne County (Participant Inc.); Jesse Darling’s Cady Noland-goes-to-the-hospital sculptures (Chapter NY); “Dinner that night” (Bureau); Jacques Monory (Richard Tattinger); flashy Hans Hartung paintings (Perrotin); Keegan Monaghan (Fuentes); Hervé Guibert and Luther Price (Callicoon); Elizabeth Karp-Evans (Shoot the Lobster); a top-notch group show with whimsical sculptures of stick-figure old men in suits, with wide stances, by William King, plus Annabeth Marks, Annie Pearlman, and Rachel Eulena Williams (Eller); Michelle Lopez (Preston); Chris Dorland (Lyles & King); “Paroikia – Παροικία” (Company); some absolutely major Thornton Dial paintings (Lewis); engrossing, ramshackle exhibition maquettes by Jean-Luc Godard (both Abreus); Scott Treleaven (Invisible-Exports); “Club 57: Lost Flyers” (Alden); Pearl Blauvelt (Kerry Schuss); “Indian Drawings,” selected by Jane Kim and Alexander Gorlizki (33 Orchard); Ray Parker (Washburn); Martí Cormand (Bienvenue); Michael Goldberg (Rosenfeld); Victoria Gitman (Greenan); Gil Batle (Ricco/Maresca); Bruce Conner (Cooper); Robert Grosvenor (Cooper, where a wild 1969 Hans Haacke is on view, a map of New York where people had been asked to stick pins showing where they were born and where they live); Jonathan Borofsky and Mandy Harris Williams (Cooper); joyous Giorgio Griffa paintings (Kaplan); a limited-run Nicole Eisenman show, with some charismatic beach scenes (Kern); Ellen Gronemeyer (Kern); Julian Hoeber (Blum & Poe); early Allan Kaprow paintings (Hauser); Bruno Dunley (Nara Roesler); “Inflatable Tear” (Ceysson & Bénétière); Georg Baselitz (Werner); Eddie Martinez sculptures, a few sporting guano, since he made them outside (MIN Uptown); Ser Serpas and Bri Williams (Queer Thoughts); “Without God or Governance,” curated by JAG Projects (Marinaro); “Mature Themes” (Foxy); sexy Ilya Lipkin photos (Svetlana); Ilana Harris-Babou (Larrie); Women’s History Museum (GBE); Sarah Faux (Tilleard Projects); Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho (47 Canal); Tabaimo (Cohan); and “A Queen Within” (New Orleans Museum of Art), a fashion-related show that includes, among its objects, a small Raúl de Nieves figure covered with majestic beads.

Sculptures by Nairy Baghramian in the ADAA Art Show booth of Marian Goodman Gallery.

Alex Da Corte’s show at Karma becomes a breakout blockbuster due to the potent power of social media, and thank goodness: it’s a beauty, with a giant sculpture of a cat, a chilling, alluring video of billiards being played across St. Vincent’s face, and some great neon windows. Apparently it’s become so popular that people are queueing outside on the street by the time the gallery opens in the morning.

That’s not the only unexpected event of the month. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office reaches an agreement with the Berkshire Museum that will largely allow the institution to sell off its works, so long as its prized Rockwell goes to an unnamed buyer who has offered to acquire it. Opponents of the museum’s sell-off are stunned, given that the AGO had previously expressed skepticism about the plan.

And because of a peculiar miscommunication, the ADAA Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory happens to run a full week before the Armory Show does for the first time that anyone can remember. It’s one of the most beloved openings of the year, since the food is bountiful and tasty. The art is good, too, with Hirschl & Adler giving its full booth to the diffuse output of the great Antiguan Frank Walter, Marian Goodman doing a show of smooth, curvaceous, almost plush-looking sculptures by Nairy Baghramian, and Peter Freeman showing some brushy, funky-fresh abstract paintings on shaped on canvas by Mel Bochner. I will never understand people who purport to despise art fairs: there is no quicker way to see all sorts of unexpected art.

A mural based on a work by Carmen Herrera, painted by students at M.S. 244 in the Bronx.

As the Armory fills up, I head over to National Sawdust in Brooklyn to catch a set by Yo La Tengo, and they play through most of their understated new album, There’s a Riot Going On. The next afternoon, the 28th, I am up at the Middle School 244, the New School for Leadership and the Arts, for a celebration for a new mural that the students have painted based on a work by the great Carmen Herrera through the Publicolor program. The walls outside the auditorium are filled with great pieces—sharp-edged abstractions, cartoons, and politically charged text works, including ones reading, in block letters, BOYCOTT and FIGHT FOR JUSTICE. At the ceremony for the project, art historian Estrellita Brodsky, artists Laurie Simmons and Tony Bechara, and others speak to the rapt students. Simmons quotes Herrera: “You don’t have to talk about art—you have to art about art.” She says that, for her, that means, “You have to look at things, make things, and see what happens.”

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