A Critic's Diary

November: Ripped Paintings, Auctioned Paintings, a Sculpture Disassembling, a Chapel

A sculpture of Katy Petty by Urs Fischer, on view at a storefront in SoHo.

‘We don’t often see a large crowd here except for a few large murder cases,” the presiding judge, John A. Agostini, tells the crowded courtroom, as the hearing begins in Berkshire County Superior Court. Even though it’s not a murder trial, there’s no shortage of tension as Judge Agostini proceeds to question the parties opposed to the sale with extreme skepticism. Those people are asking that the court enjoin Sotheby’s from selling the Rockwell paintings and other works until the cases can be decided. It does not look likely. Nevertheless, the Rockwells’ lawyer, Michael B. Keating, is a magnetic presence, talking about the artist’s deep connection to Western Massachusetts and how the museum’s plan has “ripped this county apart.”

Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950, by Norman Rockwell, on view at an auction preview at Sotheby’s New York.

Back in the city, the auction houses are readying their big November sales. While I, of course, look askance at such gauche spectacle, I love attending the previews, spending time with works that may never again see the light of day in my lifetime. Sotheby’s has an admirably unpleasant Francis Picabia “Transparency,” a sherbert-colored Milton Avery town scene, and a great early Lee Bontecou, plus some of those Berkshire Museum works. Standing near Rockwell’s Blacksmith’s Boy (1940) I hear one older women explain to another, “I get a kick out of him, I just think he’s terrific. Some people put him down, but I just think he’s great.” I agree. The work is estimated to sell for as much as $10 million.

Christie’s, for its part, has a radiant Suzanne Duchamp abstraction, a David Hammons Kool-Aid drawing that is typically covered with a towel, a juicy tabletop adorned with cherries by Philip Guston, and a curiously wan portrait of the son of God that has been attributed to Leonardo after copious restoration. On the 15th, it sells for a $450.3 million, the most ever paid for any artwork at auction, much to everyone’s bafflement. Jason Farago sums up the work best, in the Times: “This Jesus, far from saving the world, might struggle to save himself a seat on a crosstown bus.” As the hammer hits, I am at home at the time, having a cheeseburger and a beer, waiting for my colleague Nate Freeman to file from the sale. The Berkshire Museum works end up not being sold. At the 11th hour, a Massachusetts appeals court judge halts their sale, and they are replaced in the showroom by other works. Opponents of the deaccessioning live to fight another day.

A work by Keith Haring, and 1,000 children, on view outside an under-construction skyscraper in Hudson Yards.

The award for most peculiar auction preview goes to Phillips, which hangs from 15 Hudson Yards a 90-by-30-foot mural of the Statue of Liberty that Keith Haring made in 1986 with 1,000 children. (The house is planning to sell it privately to benefit the CityKids Foundation.) It takes me more than 30 minutes to find it! I circle what I think is the correct building, looking all over Hudson Yards, but the only artwork I can see is Thomas Heatherwick’s horrible $200 million Vessel, which is currently under construction. It is a tower of stairwells, and it is the worst thing I have ever seen.

There are two big-ticket shows this month. One is the Laura Owens retrospective at the Whitney, which disappoints. In small doses, Owens’s work—especially her magisterial later work—sings, but in such a vast display I feel like I am watching the same funny television show over and over again. However, the Toyin Ojih Odutola show at the Whitney is superb. The texture of Ojih Odutola’s huge drawings of fictional Nigerian aristocratic families feel truly sui generis—the start of something new.

Chloe Wise, emerging from what appears to be a Wise painting, held by artists Matthew Thurber and Brian Belott at Abrons Arts Center.

The other big event is Performa, which is in full swing. On the 10th, I go to Abrons Art Center to see a smorgasbord of an absurdist performance called People Pie Pool, helmed by the indefatigable Brian Belott. The show has it all. Curator Jens Hoffmann appears onstage in a burgundy blazer, black bowtie, and a blonde wig from which dust explodes when he shakes it. He introduces himself as Johnny Cash, a guitar is slung around his neck, and then he says, “Maybe I’m not Johnny Cash, but I always wanted to say this on stage.” A physicist, Peter Steinberg, talks about the Large Hadron Collider, a realtor named Patrice Derrington talks deals. Things keep happening. A basketball team dribbles on and off stage, two small marching bands march through, and at one point an auctioneer is selling off paintings—by Katherine Bernhardt, Chloe Wise, and others—though various people (including Wise herself!) keep bursting through them, Saburõ Murakami style. As the stage is bathed in red, Raúl de Nieves appears in one of his full-body, almost-architectural costumes, screaming demonically. A lot of it is unintelligible, but I can make out this: “Your sins will not be forgotten!” [One video and another.]

Installation view of Will Stewart’s show at 321 Gallery.

Shows seen: classic Sam Gilliam drape paintings, one of the highlights of the still young season (Mnuchin); “Delirious” (Met Breuer); “Ileana Sonnabend and Arte Povera,” curated by Germano Celant (Lévy Gorvy); “Contingencies: Arte Povera and After” (Luxembourg & Dayan), a great pairing of historical works from that Italian movement and works by artists inspired by them today (Arte Povera is red hot in commercial galleries this season); Albert Oehlen (Nahmad Contemporary); Alexander Calder and Cady Noland “Kinetics of Violence” (Venus Over Manhattan), a spare pairing that works perfectly; Martin Kippenberger’s “Hand Painted Pictures” (Skarstedt); Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas (Edward Ressle); a strong selection of Neil Jenney paintings and drawings (Park & 75); Rudolf Stingel (Gagosian); Arshile Gorky (Hauser & Wirth); John Stezaker and Jose Pardo (Petzel); the Salon Art + Design (Park Avenue Armory); Tony DeLap (Franklin Parrasch Gallery); Alfredo Volpi (Gladstone 64); an elegant three-person outing with Nina Canell, Milford Graves, Benjamin Kunkel (Artist’s Institute); Sam Moyer (Sean Kelly); David Claerbout (Sean Kelly); David Hockney (Kasmin); Lee Krasner (Kasmin); Keith Mayerson (Marlborough Contemporary); Roy Dowell & Richard Kalina (Lennon, Weinberg); Jimmie Durham (Whitney Museum); the always-excellent Jacqueline Humphries showing a batch of new paintings (Greene Naftali); Lee Mullican (James Cohan); Gerard Byrne’s singular video installation from the recent Skulptur Projekte Münster, which I’m glad to be able to revisit (Lisson); Shirazeh Houshiary (Lisson); David Smith (Hauser & Wirth); Geta Brătescu (Hauser & Wirth); Arshile Gorky (Hauser & Wirth); Gilbert & George (Lehmann Maupin); irresistibly charismatic Nayland Blake drawings (Marks); Gary Hume (Marks); Katharina Fritsch (Marks); Wolf Kahn (Ameringer McEnery Yohe); Ellen Harvey (Danese Corey); Michelangelo Pistoletto (Luhring Augustine); Nina Chanel Abney (Mary Boone and Jack Shainman); and Zanele Muholi (Yancey Richardson).

Cecily Brown, A Day! Help! Help! Another day! (2016) at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.

And more: Richard Avedon (Pace); Jim Shaw (Metro Pictures); Richard Prince (Gladstone); Dean Levin (Marianne Boesky); Jessica Jackson Hutchins (Boesky); Joe W. Speier and Abby Lloyd (Gern en Regalia, a little art studio-turned-project space in Ridgewood Queens); “The Long Run” (MoMA); “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” (MoMA); Hayv Kahraman (Jack Shainman); Carrie Mae Weems (Edward Hopper House); David Hockney (The Met); “We Go as They” (Studio Museum in Harlem); “Their Own Harlems” (Studio Museum in Harlem); “Fictions” (Studio Museum in Harlem); Gordon Matta-Clark (Bronx Museum of the Arts); Susannah Ray (Bronx Museum of the Arts); Angel Otero (Bronx Museum of the Arts); Patty Chang (Queens Museum), “Never Built New York,a really exciting show about architectural projects that were proposed and never constructed (Queens Museum, which uses its beloved New York City Panorama to present models of some of the projects); a very promising exhibition by Sable Elyse Smith (Queens Museum); Will Stewart (321 Gallery); an Urs Fischer sculpture of a huge Katy Perry head, made of multiple colors of clay (beneath a gray surface), which all-comers are invited to pull apart and use for new purposes (in a random retail space in SoHo); charming Duncan Hannah paintings (Invisible-Exports); Whiting Tennis (Derek Eller); Phil Birch (Lyles & King); Ai Weiwei (various places around New York, organized by the Public Art Fund); Jean-Marie Appriou and Harold Ancart (Clearing); Ashley Lyon & Jane Bustin (Jane Lombard); Nikolas Gambaroff (The Kitchen); Guo Hongwei (Chambers Fine Art); Rachel Libeskind (Tanja Grunert Gallery); “Figuratively Speaking” (Rosenfeld); Howardena Pindell (Garth Grennan); majestic Richard Serra sculptures (Zwirner); Aria Dean (American Medium); Hassel Smith (Washburn); Douglas Gordon slicing and dicing his 24 Hour Psycho into new configurations (Gagosian); Andrei Koschmieder and Robert Gober (Cooper); Cecily Brown (Cooper); Michael Hurson (Cooper); Thomas Hirschhorn (Gladstone); and Bob Dylan (Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum).

Installation view of The Oscar Wilde Temple, by David McDermott and Peter McGough at the Church of the Village.

Two more highlights: On the 5th, I run the New York City marathon, and it is probably the most fun I have ever had in my life. For four hours, I sweat and swear along the streets of the five boroughs, very moved by the huge crowds in every single neighborhood. The 26.2 miles also happen to provide a pretty good tour of New York art history, or at least my experience with it. The race starts near the house of the storied photographer Alice Austen on Staten Island, then passes by studios I have visited in Sunset Park and (the painfully yuppifying) Industrial City in Brooklyn, MoMA PS1 in Queens, more studios in the Bronx (like that of John Ahearn), and finally down Museum Mile in Manhattan. After finishing the run, I head back home from the Columbus Circle subway stop, pausing for a photo in front of Sol LeWitt’s incredible permanent installation there. For days, I can barely walk.

By the end of the month I have thankfully recovered, and I pay a visit to The Oscar Wilde Temple, which David McDermott and Peter McGough have built in a chapel of the Church of the Village on West 13th Street. It is a beautiful installation, with paintings of the writer throughout his life and a small statue of the man himself on a pedestal, framed by flowers and candles. It’s rainy the night I’m there, but a few other people are present, quietly paying their respects. On a table is a framed quote from Wilde: “EVERY SAINT HAS A PAST, AND EVERY SINNER HAS A FUTURE.”

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