Recently, there has been a lot of handwringing about declining visitor numbers at New York’s art galleries. Why might people not be making the rounds? There’s the lure of other entertainment options, of course, but almost certainly as formidable a competitor is social media, which can give on the illusion of surfing through art neighborhoods with the swipe of a finger. Happily, though, there will always be artworks that defy any attempt at reproduction—and right now those tend to be the most exciting ones.
Lush, large-scale, you-had-to-be-there video had a strong showing in New York galleries as winter turned slowly into spring. At Gladstone, the French artist Cyprien Gaillard screened his seductive 3-D film Nightlife. Taking a late-night flight above the Olympiastadion in Berlin, where Jesse Owens competed in 1936, the camera navigated through exploding fireworks; outside Ford Rhodes High School in Cleveland it surveilled a hulking oak tree given to Owens by Hitler. In the Los Angeles basin, it caught huge nonindigenous plants swaying violently, hypnotically. (Myron Stout’s 1950s landscape drawings at Washburn were an intriguing parallel: nature rendered as abstraction.) Gaillard’s soundtrack was snippets of Alton Ellis’s dub classic “Blackman’s Word” reverberating through the gallery, the clarity of the recording dropping in and out—it felt like being underwater. The effect was of histories churning away, unstoppable, pummeling you.
While Gaillard plumbs darkness for the sublime, Doug Aitken finds it in the 21st century’s rapidly metastasizing communications regime. His latest video, New Era, shown at 303 Gallery (and now on view at Eva Presenhuber in Zurich), was a three-screen installation that started with the 89-year-old engineer Martin Cooper recalling how he placed the first public cellular telephone call, in 1973, on a street in Manhattan, and then offering a brief meditation on the double-edged effect of the phone’s present ubiquity. To a pounding techno track, Aitken sprints through shots of sprawling highways and cell towers before kaleidoscoping them—a dizzying effect multiplied by floor-to-ceiling mirrors lining the gallery.
By stark contrast, the full-wall video in Alex Da Corte’s exhilarating exhibition at Karma, “C-A-T Spells Murder,” was a glacially paced distillation of pure terror. The singer St. Vincent stares down the camera, petting a cat as a game of billiards is superimposed on her face. What sounds like a recording made outdoors accompanies the shot, and it slowly morphs into a horror-movie soundtrack. Any moment, you sensed, something horrible was about to happen, and soon enough it did: a ball rested over her mouth and St. Vincent let out a high-pitched, synthesized scream.
Why? It was left unexplained. The rest of the installation was classic Da Corte: red carpeting bathed in pink fluorescent lights, a huge sculpture of an upturned cartoon cat, and neon wall pieces showing open windows—perhaps portals into this Technicolor daydream. Some people get on Da Corte’s case for his blinding color (his shows look too good in photos, it seems) and his tendency to coast on nostalgia (one of his early hits incorporated Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”), but those jabs miss the point. His art puts everyday objects and cultural lodestars under a microscope, revealing them as alien beings and allowing them to reign as alluring, menacing descendants of Pop.
Speaking of alternate realities, at the Chinatown space of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Jacolby Satterwhite unveiled his most intricate CGI fantasy yet with Blessed Avenue—a universe in which Satterwhite appears as an indefatigable dancer in a hybrid sci-fi dungeon dance club factory. Pleasure and pain intermingle in his delirious world (here and there are glimpses of sadomasochistic activities), but just as it becomes too much, the video shifts to scenes of Satterwhite dancing in the real world (whatever that is) as curious passersby gawk at—or try to ignore—him. Satterwhite revels in the freedom afforded by the imagination, and it’s infectious. Adding a sentimental element was a little shop constructed within the gallery selling T-shirts and pencils bearing renderings of inventions conceived by his mother, Patricia Satterwhite.
In the tournament of impossible-to-reproduce works, Sean Raspet won easily with his tour de force at Bridget Donahue, which consisted—visually speaking—of just ten electronic oil diffusers, white boxes with little screens and control panels that resemble forward-looking medical equipment. Each emitted a different potent scent at intervals determined by some obscure formula. Practically rubbing my nose atop the diffusers, I found myself scribbling notes like “rose cantaloupe,” “sterile warmth,” and “sweet sugar, ozone, lightly burned wood.” Though this is hardly Raspet’s point, his work underscores how dramatically little we know about describing—or even paying attention to—our sense of smell.
Prevailing uptown at the Artist’s Institute during Madeline Hollander’s string of performances there was not scent but heat. Hollander choreographed a complex dance for four women—part pugilism, part Pilates, part Fordist labor—whose goal was to raise the temperature in the room enough to activate a row of air conditioners. The dancers got breaks when the machines turned on, but those only lasted until they shut off again a few minutes after. It was an entrancing display of endurance that went on for six hours.
If three shows make a trend, I have one word for you: water. It was flowing in two fountains that Robert Gober showed for only five Saturdays in a light-filled studio space on West 20th Street, one of which burbled in a wax sculpture of a woman’s body beneath the floor, visible through the bottom of a worn wooden box. Gober’s fountains spoke of hidden passions and buried traumas, and put me in mind of that line of Aeschylus that Robert Kennedy once quoted: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Water in a large plastic jug set atop a velvet-lined blazer featured in Quay Quinn Wolf’s spare, promising exhibition at the ascendant 315 Gallery in downtown Brooklyn. Barely visible magenta-colored carnations floated on the water, spreading color as they disintegrated.
And finally, at Andrew Kreps, in a show called “E/either e/Either n/Neither N/neither,” Darren Bader conjured the universal solvent as pure language, through a bit of a 1970 Grateful Dead jam looping through a desktop computer’s speakers: “And it’s just a box of rain/I don’t know who put it there.” That second line is a fitting one for Bader, who’s left behind his idiosyncratic readymades (lasagna and heroin, a person sitting in the passenger seat of a car, a French horn and guacamole) for outrageous sprawls of objects and words. Texts in Lawrence Weiner–style fonts lined the walls (GET YOUNG OR TRY DYING; THE SAME BLACK LINE THAT WAS DRAWN ON YOU WAS DROWN ON ME) and a hulking vintage piano stood dead center, like an actor unspooling the cackling riddles littering the room. Crucial bits of information appeared to have gone missing. A floor piece read, “Roy Moore’s filing cabinets are in your _ _ _ _,” and a dictionary search on the computer for “ingo” had turned up no answers. Google search results depicted on one wall all included snippets of nearly identical descriptions of a Bader work, alluding to algorithms jetting forth with the violence of water breaking through a dam.
Bader’s show also came with a mannequin and other scattered objects (soap bars, plastic ribbon)—an homage, or at the very least, a nod, to the redoubtable Isa Genzken, who had her own show up a few blocks south, at David Zwirner gallery, a true-to-form, if somewhat predictable display of her signature cement sculptures and eerily-deployed mannequins in doctored couture. For sui generis German mayhem, though, one could head a few blocks east, to Petzel, where Cosima von Bonin treated us to a group of tall plastic fish sculptures (as well as a plush whale accompanied by a bottle of—yes—water), outfitted in patterned fabrics, armed with guitars, and positioned in a circle such that they seemed to be engaged in some cult ritual centered on a giant can of pet food high above labeled Authority Purée, which periodically let off puffs of smoke. The whole tableau was pure Dada and laugh-out-loud funny.
In fact, there was a mood in the galleries this past spring that we could all use a lot more of: joy. In Donahue’s backroom, for a show titled “Addict Distract,” Jeanette Mundt offered a long line of sumptuous, unabashedly attractive drawings and paintings on paper of skulls, models from Sports Illustrated ’s swimsuit issue, fish, stills from TV shows (Twin Peaks, True Blood), and pink flamingos that combined the breezy ease of early illustrator Warhol with the sly mischievousness of 1980s German Neo-Expressionism. For her rare ability to select subjects that get at the weird feel of being in the United States right now (where threats of violence, media spectacle, and sex-tinged consumerism commingle), and for her canny way with paint, Mundt is one of the best we’ve got right now.
But no show was quite as unrepentantly joyous as David Hockney’s at Pace, despite its worrisomely ambitious title, “Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing].” There was none of Hockney’s preening or overreaching here, just a bunch of shaped canvases on which he was absolutely letting the color rip and the lines flow. The best were the hexagonal ones of the type that he debuted at his recent Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective, in which space seems to ebb and flow, hilly landscapes, valleys, and even de Chirico- or Escher-like tableaux (sans the dread) bending toward us and then pulling us into their background. Giant photos, stitched together on computer, of the artist amid the canvases on display were the cherry on top.
On a dramatically smaller scale than Hockney, Joanne Greenbaum was also letting the good times roll. Better known for her masterful abstract paintings, Greenbaum displayed dozens of colorful clay sculptures—none of them bigger than a cantaloupe—on a castle-like set of shelves in the pint-size gallery 56 Henry. The pieces nod to Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Lynda Benglis, Jeff Koons, and Lygia Pape, all while tripping out in their own special way.
Intense emotion—if not quite joy—was also present in two one-night performances, one by Georgia Sagri at the Emily Harvey Foundation in SoHo, the other by the New York Labor Chorus at Essex Street. Both underscored the vital roles that galleries play as cultivators of communities. Sagri hosted a dinner party modeled on a post-opening one held for the late, great artist Ben Patterson decades earlier. While guests worked on their entrées and an audience looked on from the wings, Sagri began chanting the kinds of bromides one hears at openings, along with sharper-edged phrases, like “I love to say no.” It was in equal measures frightening and hilarious.
And Fred Lonidier and dealer Maxwell Graham marked the closing of Lonidier’s exhibition—a display of whip-smart and very relevant photos and text documentation of union members in the 1980s—at Graham’s Essex Street gallery with a performance. Members of 20 unions in the New York Labor Chorus sang songs like “Solidarity Forever” and, from Les Misérables, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The mood was ecstatic.
Finally, fittingly, Tilton Gallery had an exhibition as celebration of the late Jack Tilton, a dealer who spent his life bringing people together to experience art. Tilton, who died last year at age 66, was known for a program that emphasized diversity. “In Tribute to Jack Tilton: A Selection from 35 Years” took full advantage of the Upper East Side town house gallery he ran with his partner in life and business, Connie Rogers Tilton. Potent little abstract paintings on Styrofoam by Richard Tuttle lined the wall along the staircase, and a beautiful ramshackle painted construction by artist and dealer Betty Parsons (Tilton’s first boss, in the 1970s) hung near the door. There were paintings and drawings by Nicole Eisenman, Francis Alÿs, Xu Bing, and many more. David Hammons’s inclusion was heartbreaking: a white balloon that floated for weeks at the ceiling of the gallery before descending to the floor, where it sat, deflated.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 94 under the title “Around New York.”