A Critic's Diary

January: A Battleground, a Quartet, a Play, Lasers, Skiing, an Avocado, a Hidden Show

Ryan McNamara’s Battleground, 2016, being performed at the Guggenheim on January 10, 2018.

Even in the dead of winter, the New York art world does not rest! And January this year is marked by major gallery shows, ambitious performances, and not a few big social occasions. I start 2018 by spending an unusually large amount of time at the Guggenheim. On the 7th, I finally catch “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” its much-debated show of contemporary art from China. Before it opened, the museum removed three works depicting or including animals, including the Huang Yong Ping installation (of a cage filled with reptiles, insects, and other living things) that provides the show’s name, citing safety concerns after threats from activists—a dispiriting, and ominous, decision. I wish I had come earlier in its run because it’s overflowing with work, capturing the frenetic energy of the nation’s art scene over the past 30 years, about which I am largely ignorant. Its “Josef Albers in Mexico” exhibition is also a treat, showcasing photo grids that I had never before seen.

And then, on the 10th, Ryan McNamara reprises his 2016 performance Battleground in the Guggenheim’s auditorium, turning that oddball space into the digitally inflected sci-fi dance club that it was always supposed to be. Three trios of dancers—sporting uniforms printed with their faces—shimmy and shuffle, robot dance and crawl, competing for the admiration of the crowd. It is awesome. [Video]

A painting by Jamian Juliano-Villani at JTT.

The next night, Jamian Juliano-Villani has her second show of wry paintings at JTT on the Lower East Side. Those arriving at her opening are understandably confused to enter and find only a small room with gross white carpeting and canvases tagged with graffiti. It turns out that the one reading “TOYS CAN’T HANG” is actually a door that slides to the side to reveal her actual show, in which she is pushing her menageries of images into strange new grounds.

As the crowd swells builds, I rush over to Greene Naftali in Chelsea, to catch the debut of Richard Maxwell’s new play, Paradiso, which begins with a white Chevrolet pickup truck pulling into the gallery. The piece—whose actors include a robot on wheels that speaks in a computer voice, with a camera as its head—is a disjointed masterpiece, but loosely concerns a kind of semi-dystopian American future where families are enduring all kinds of loss and anger. The darkness is tempered by glimmers of light: “The nice thing about the play,” the robot says at one point, “is that it makes a place wherever we gather.”

Back downtown, the dinner for Juliano-Villani occurs at the Little Italy standby Forlini’s, the backroom filled with fellow artists (Annie Pearlman, Brian BelottBilly Harper, Nathan Fielder, Jesse Greenberg) and her family. Jasmin Tsou, JTT’s proprietor, toasts her artist, saying that, when one dreams about becoming an art dealer, “you dream that you would have this many friends who would want to eat with you and drink with you, and to have such an amazing show and to have so many people love the work. Thank you, Jamian, it’s really an honor.” Midway through the festivities, a cake is delivered to rousing cheers for JJV’s birthday.

David Zwirner, toasting 25 years, at the Top of the Standard on January 13.

Two days after that, David Zwirner stages a 25th-anniversary celebration for his gallery across all of his Chelsea spaces, with work by every artist on his roster. As I watch Jordan Wolfson’s deeply funny video The Crisis (2004) on a television screen, in which Wolfson appears as an artist discussing his intense love for art, I suddenly become aware of someone whispering right behind me, reciting every line in unison. It’s Jordan, naturally, doing it all from memory, and he proceeds to crank up the volume on the TV.

At the ensuing party at the Top of the Standard, Zwirner take a microphone and gives a gracious speech, thanking his staff, his wife, Monica, collectors, and all sorts of other art-world denizens for their work and support. He recalls the early years, when “we thought emails were weird” and the art world “was about 10 percent of the size it is right now.”

“I’m a lucky guy, for a few reasons—maybe first and foremost that I was born into a family where culture, and especially visual culture, was front and center,” Zwirner says. “I’m just so proud and happy that my father, Rudolf, is here to celebrate.” “I brought myself!” Zwirner père yells from across the bar, to laughs. Zwirner fils talks about first coming to New York and falling in love with the city. “This place is where it’s at when it comes to the visual arts,” he says. “I mean, there is no place like New York. It was the center then, it is the center now.” Hear, hear.

At Club Rhubarb, top to bottom: Ken Tisa’s Poisoned Tears (1999) and When Nature Became Fashion Totem (2018), by Ken Tisa, Paula Hansen, John Mollet, Raina Hamner, and Tony Cox.

All sorts of surprises pop up. Tony Cox stages an eclectic group show called “Digging for Diamonds in the Disco” at Club Rhubarb, sited in his Chinatown apartment; the inspiring nonprofit Recess, which works with minors involved in the court system, toasts the opening of its new location on Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill and its Doreen Garner show; Robert Blumenthal Gallery puts a big self-portrait of Maggie Lee up on a billboard by the Manhattan Bridge; Bloomberg Philanthropies throws a book-release party for the Met’s Artist Project video series at its tony Upper East Side address, where I meet up with Natalie Frank; my friend Kendra Patrick stages a show under her Harrison gallery moniker with Iván Argote, Rosa Menkman, and Kenya (Robinson) at Bortolami; and Tania Bruguera reprises her storied installation Untitled (Havana, 2000) at MoMA, which was censored at the Havana Biennial that year. It’s a long, dark room with four naked men just barely visible, rubbing their arms and scratching themselves. On a small television on the ceiling, footage of a robust Fidel Castro plays. Standing inside the dark space, which is strewn with sugarcane bagasse, is one of the only times I have ever been truly unnerved in an art museum.

Rita McBride, Particulates, 2017, at Dia.

Also seen: “The Mark Inside” (Signal), which features Kristin Walsh‘s giant metal machines that harbor incredible illusions, like a die that hops about as if by magic and an avocado that spins while floating in the air [video]; Claudio Parmiggiani (Bortolami); Rita McBride‘s out-of-this-world laser light show, which someone should make permanent (Dia); the inaugural group show at Clearing’s new Upper East Side space; “Cosmic Communities: Coming Out Into Outer Space – Homofuturism, Applied Psychedelia & Magic Connectivity” organized by Diedrich Diederichsen and Christopher Müller at Buchholz; “Unholding” at Artists Space; Daniel Gibson (New Release); Sondra Perry (Donahue); Katherine Bernhardt (Canada); Dana Lixenberg (Grimm); Dave McDermott (Grimm); John Miller and Aura Rosenberg (Teen Party, an apartment gallery run by Scott Indrisek and Ariela Gittlen); the great LaToya Ruby Frazier (GBE); “Trigger” (New Museum), an ambitious exhibition of outré-minded art by Johanna Burton; paintings of beautiful women and all sorts of lovely-looking debauchery, plus some sculptures, by Joseph Geagan (James Fuentes); “Approaching the Figure” (Skarstedt); “This Synthetic Moment,” curated by David Hartt (Nolan); Peter Campus (Cristin Tierney); Robert Indiana (Kasmin); Tina Barney (Kasmin); Richard Hawkins (Greene Naftali); Sally Ross (Fergus McCaffrey); Hassan Sharif (Gray); “Racers: Larry Poons and Frank Stella” (Loretta Howard Gallery); Byron Kim (Cohan); “Sidelined” (Lelong); Eddie Martinez (MIN in Chelsea); Barry McGee (Cheim & Read); Rita Ackermann and Carol Rama (Marlborough Contemporary); and Survival Research Laboratories (Marlborough Contemporary).

Fabio Mauri, L’Espressionista, 1982, at Hauser & Wirth.

And more: Robin Lowe (Lennon, Weinberg); Thomas Nozkowski (Pace); Serge Alain Nitegeka (Boesky); Kasper Bosmans (Gladstone); David Maljkovic (Metro Pictures); “Of Earth and Heaven: Art from the Middle Ages” (Luhring Augustine with Sam Fogg); Tom Wesselmann (Gagosian); Stefanie Heinze (Boone); Cristina de Miguel (Fredericks & Freiser); Leigh Ruple (Morgan Lehman); Joseph Yoakum and Robyn O’Neil (Inglett); “New Vision/New Generation” (Julie Saul); Elizabeth Glaessner (P.P.O.W.); Laurel Nakadate (Leslie Tonkonow); Michael Stamm (DC Moore); “Women are very good at crying and they should be getting paid for it” (Kaufmann Repetto); great historical Barbara T. Smith pieces (Kreps); Zhang Enli (Hauser & Wirth); Fabio Mauri, where a man is performing, walking around on skies (Hauser & Wirth); François Morellet (Dia); “The Onrush of Scenery” (Sikkema); Andrew Cannon (White Columns); Richard Hell (White Columns); Ben Morea (White Columns); Rebecca Watson Horn (White Columns); and Michael Welsh (Interstate).

At the Julius Eastman concert at the Knockdown Center on January 28.

The end of the month is marked by both good events and bad ones. First, the bad: Laura Raicovich, the politically engaged director of the Queens Museum is forced out, reportedly because of clashes with her board over the museum’s hosting of an event by Israel, where Vice President Mike Pence served as a speaker.

And then, the good: On the 28th at the Knockdown Center, a sprawling arts center in a former glass factory in Maspeth, there is an unforgettable performance of works by the great radical Post-Minimalist composer Julius Eastman, who’s finally receiving his due a quarter-century after his death. It’s part of a concert series organized by the Kitchen, in conjunction with a pair of smart shows its hosting about his legacy.

It is a freezing night, but the audience is huge, surrounding a stage with four pianos for two of his masterpieces. Evil Nigger and Crazy Nigger (both 1979). The latter, a roughly 50-minute composition of rapid-fire, slowly evolving repetitions closes the evening. [Video] About three-quarters of the way through, it slows down, and all eyes are on the pianists. Nine more players emerge from the audience and join the quartet on stage, tapping keys and delivering the odd chord so that it sounds like bells are peeling in towers across the city—whole cathedrals resounding at full force. It is unlike anything I have ever heard, so many voices shooting off in different ways but all coordinated together. It is transcendent, and when the pianos go silent, the applause continues for a long time.

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