If you’re at The Jewish Museum to visit the Vuillard show, don’t miss the chance to see a side exhibition of a single work – Sanford Biggers and Jennifer Zackin’s memorable video ‘a small world’ from ’99 – ’01. Zackin grew up in a New York Jewish American family and Biggers an African American family in LA; the video piece pairs home movies from each artist’s family side by side. Similarities between their experiences beg the question of how viewers might expect race and geography to influence a middle class upbringing. (Extended through October 14th).
Image credit: © P.A.R. Photo by Marc Domage
Picasso may be one of the 20th century’s most influential artists, but the jury is still out on the value of his late works. ‘Mosqueteros,’ an exhibition of nearly one hundred paintings and etchings at Chelsea’s Gagosian Gallery is the first major U.S. effort since a 1984 Guggenheim show to change the prevailing perception that the late master had lost his touch by the time of his death at age 91 in 1973.
In a great blast of energy, Picasso spent the final years of his life creating hundreds of paintings after canonical works by Velasquez, Goya, Delacroix and other old masters. Adapting images of soldiers, prostitutes and performers to his trademark, fragmented and twisted style, Picasso seemed to be grappling with his own position in art history. At the same time, the works’ title, ‘Mosqueteros,’ or musketeers, referred to the non-paying rabble at the theater and hinted at the artist’s status as an onlooker as contemporary art rejected abstraction.
Response to the Guggenheim show was underwhelming. New York Times critic Michael Brenson praised Picasso’s energy more than the work itself, while the less gracious Robert Hughes opined that the work showed only fragments of Picasso’s talent.
So why try to change the record now? John Richardson, curator of this show and Picasso’s biographer, says he’s ‘avenging’ Picasso of the poor response to his work; more interesting to a contemporary art audience, he also explains that he intends the artist to, “…look like a brand new painter.”
Portraits like Buste (1970), a character whose feline face is created with pools of dark paint punctuated by a phallic or key-like orange monocle, immediately make the case for Picasso as a forerunner (albeit distant and far more dignified) to young, expressionist-inspired artists like Jonathan Meese and Andre Butzer. Though the character’s terrible, black-eyed gaze ties him to Picasso’s other harrowing portraits, Picasso eschews the sketchy outlines he uses in many of the show’s other works, and composes using blocks of color in a style that enhances the mystery of his shadowy personality.
In 1984, Hughes noted the speed with which Picasso painted, and condemned the artist for making his painting process more important than the final product. Nowadays, that’s accepted practice in any media, from Josh Smith’s paintings, to Fia Backstrom’s performance/installation work to Walead Beshty’s photography and sculpture.
Picasso’s late paintings aren’t likely to be direct precedent for any of these artists. But given the popularity of mining 20th century avant-garde art history (think camera-less photography, constructivism, 60s and 70s performance), it’s fascinating to see evidence of the reverse process – a canonical artist who seems to have deliberately pointed several ways forward. As evidence that he was a wellspring of ideas until the end, this exhibition will doubtless have the legacy-effecting impact it deserves.
After he moved to Shanghai from New York in 2005, Chinese art star Zhang Huan hired a huge staff to man a factory-like studio; the enormous installations that fill PaceWildenstein’s two downtown galleries give ample evidence of the scale of his industry since. But the new work lacks Zhang’s signature risk-taking, making it feel safe, easy to consume—and fashionably “Chinese.”
The show’s centerpiece, a nearly 60-foot-long “painting,” is as interesting for the technique used to create it (carefully spread ash from burnt temple offerings) as for what it depicts: an ambitious Mao-era canal project with potential correlations to ambitious contemporary undertakings such as China’s massive Three Gorges Dam. Zhang’s recycling is also conceptually engaging—using highly symbolic spent materials to create something new, which, in turn, refers to the past. But in light of the artist’s past performance-art pieces, for which he coated himself in fish, oil and honey in a public latrine, or donned a “muscle” suit made of raw meat, the ash paintings lack any sense of transgression.
Likewise, a series of “Memory Doors”—intricate carvings made over historical photos adhered to ancient wooden doors—are beautifully crafted, but their subject matter (peddlers overloaded with wares, farmers loading a truck) is more illustrative of China’s shifting economy than particularly illuminating in an art sense. Ironically, the show’s most ambiguous piece—a pregnant giant, covered by animal hides and slumped as if heavily burdened—might symbolize China’s imperiled natural world, but it could also stand in for the unfortunate taming of one of China’s most provocative artists.
Delia Brown paints subjects we love to hate. In the past, she’s depicted herself and her friends in a manner blatantly intended to arouse jealousy—flaunting their youth, sexiness and supposed wealth. Her latest series still unfolds amid the trappings of (borrowed) luxury, but adds cute kids as props in saccharine portraits of the artist and other women (none of whom have children, according to the gallery statement) playing happy mom. As tidy and controlled as her earlier scenes were louche, Brown’s vision of motherhood is as irritatingly unrealistic as it is incisive in exposing unattainable ideals.
Brown has claimed Mary Cassatt as an influence, but even Cassatt occasionally pictured a feeding or diaper change, labors that Brown ignores. Instead, cooperative children are seen lounging with carefully preened moms on cozy beds or couches in immaculate homes; it’s unclear whether the little darlings are “precious” for being themselves or for serving as must-have possessions.
Brown may have intended some sort of meditation on class and parenting, but the absence of affection between mothers and kids, and the sterility of their settings, are more evocative in revealing how hard it is to step into someone else’s reality. What starts out as another provocation turns into a confession of self-doubt, a 180-degree turnaround from the cockiness of her earlier work. Poignant and decidedly less frivolous, these latest panels signal that Brown is perhaps moving in a more personally risky—but meaningful—direction.