Tag Archives: Pace Gallery

Putter and Dabble: The Art of Robert Ryman

Ryman InstallationInstallation of Robert Ryman’s paintings at Pace Gallery.

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The following review was originally published in the June 28, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Robert Ryman: Recent Paintings at Pace Gallery (until October 26).

Robert Ryman has never been as approachable as he is in the exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, the first devoted to his works on paper.

Mind you, I said “approachable” with a proviso: If you’re of the opinion that Mr. Ryman’s 40-odd-year investigation of the color white has been an exercise in futility, don’t expect to undergo a change of heart. Blum’s exquisitely appointed show can’t conceal the fundamental skimpiness of the Ryman aesthetic. Stepping off from Philip Guston’s abstract impressionist phase, Mr. Ryman took its constituent parts–in particular, the fleshy slurs of oil paint–and distilled them until they became shells of their former selves. He operates under the assumption that style is a buffet from which you pick and (barely) choose. He mistakes puttering for painting, dabbling for the real thing.


Robert Ryman, Untitled (2010); photo: Bill Jacobson, courtesy of Pace Gallery

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The works on paper are more of the same. A bit of green here, a piece of masking tape there, a wallpaper sample, a scratchy grid and an abundance of white–these are artful maneuvers, clumsily stated yet unfailingly elegant. The pieces do benefit from a modesty of scale and demeanor. They date between 1957-1964, the years Mr. Ryman was settling into his signature style. The inquisitive playfulness is welcome. You even forgive him the use of his signature, childlike and teetering to the right, as a pictorial element–it gives the eye something to hang on to.

It doesn’t hang long, though. Why should it? Mr. Ryman intimates relationships but can’t bring them to fruition. The work is all beginnings, loose ends and no tension. The exhibition is recommended to people who profess a love for art but don’t much enjoy looking at it. The rest of us can attend to more important matters–doing the laundry, putting out the cat, that kind of thing.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Matta at Pace Gallery


Roberto Matta, Untitled (c. 1983), oil on canvas, 74-3/4″ x 80-3/4″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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The Chilean painter Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren, subject of a dizzying exhibition at Pace Gallery, has a distinct hold on the history of 20th-century art.

Invited to join the Surrealists by ringleader André Breton, at the behest of Salvador Dalí and Federíco Garcia Lorca, Matta (as he is commonly known) became a direct link between European modernism and the American art scene. Matta was among the European artists who came to the United States at the onset of the Second World War. The Surrealist principles he espoused during a 10-year stay in New York, from 1938–1948, proved decisive for the developing oeuvres of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. The New York School is inconceivable without Matta.

What is almost as inconceivable (at least, for some of us) is that Matta’s life and career extended beyond the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Not a few veteran art world observers did double takes upon learning that Matta died only a few years back—in 2001 at the age of 91. The 21st century! Matta’s hold on history is less fixed than we thought. The uncanny thing about his expansive brand of Surrealism has always been how it presaged virtual space before the notion became a commonplace.

Matta, Comment une conscience se fait univers (peut être) (1999), oil on canvas, 10′ 1/8″ x 15′ 4-1/4″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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Matta: A Centennial Exhibition is a rare opportunity to acquaint yourself with this discursive, eccentric and unclassifiable artist. The paintings are big—a couple are huge. Each is a slurry of pictorial tics gleaned from automatism, Futurism, graffiti, pictographs, high modernist dogma, post-modernist caprice and the loopier precincts of science fiction. Imagine Star Wars meeting Miró and Kandinsky in a back alley of the Aztec empire under the influence of hallucinogenics; then immerse it within a floating, fractured and bodiless space not unlike that which we encounter on our computer screen. A more quixotic painter you couldn’t come up with; Matta is a visionary of singular and contrary gifts. This is an exhibition that shouldn’t be missed.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 28, 2011 edition of City Arts.

“Hands On”; The Sculpture of Alexander Calder

Installation of Alexander Calder’s works at Pace Gallery

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The following review originally appeared in the November 18, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Calder 1941, an exhibition at the 57th Street outpost of Pace Gallery (until December 23, 2011).

The American artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is best known for his mobiles—hanging sculptures fashioned from impeccably poised lengths of wire and thin metal plates, usually colored black and red. Taking direct inspiration from Miró, Calder distilled the Catalan master’s biomorphic vocabulary to the point at which Surrealist portent became happy caprice. The mobiles don’t need wind currents to set them into motion; they’re already lighter than air.

You’ll see Calder invent the mobile at roughly the midpoint of Alexander Calder: The Paris Years; 1926-1933, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was a transformative moment prompted by a move to Paris. Upon arriving in 1926, Calder delighted in the city’s convivial atmosphere and often saucy entertainment—the performer Josephine Baker was a favorite. Calder ingratiated himself with luminaries like Miró, Léger, Man Ray, André Kertész and Mondrian.

Alexander Calder, Josephine Baker IV (1928), wire; courtesy Centre Pompidou

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A trip to the Mondrian’s studio was life-changing: “This single visit gave me a shock … I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.” The resulting paintings are humdrum reiterations of neo-Suprematist principle. But then there are the sculptures: looping tabletop armatures, all sprung wire, wooden spheres, motors and balance—always that delicately calibrated balance. The excitement inspired by Mondrian is palpable. Calder’s light bulb goes off; our hearts start beating faster.

And then it’s downhill from there—or so The Paris Years suggests. It isn’t because the gravity-challenged pieces in the final gallery disappoint. It’s because the work leading up to the mobiles evinces a facility that’s almost alarmingly preternatural. When an artist makes a medium his own—discovering its peculiarities, possibilities and how it becomes congruent with individuality—it’s a revelatory moment. But wire for Calder? It’s as if it had forever been waiting for him. There’s no revelation here—just magic gleaned from the ether.

The Paris Years begins with a dizzy and seemingly insurmountable introduction: A stellar array of portrait heads. Friends, artists, celebrities and Herbert Hoover—they’re caricatures given uncanny dimension. “Drawing in space” is a shopworn Modernist trope typically applied to Constructivist sculpture, but Calder’s wire caricatures are the real deal. Jennifer Tipton, whose regular gig is lighting for the theater, has done a superb job emphasizing this aspect of Calder’s art. The portraits don’t cast shadows; they reveal facets—often more profound than we might expect from this artist—that otherwise might have remained unknown.

Alexander Calder in his Paris studio, 1929; photograph by André Kertész

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The remarkable thing about Calder’s wire pieces is how they address volume.  These are sculptures in the round. They encompass and encapsulate space with breathtaking speed and ease: Jimmy Durante’s shnoz, Josephine Baker’s breasts, acrobats in midair, a pot-bellied bobby and a monkey-limbed John D. Rockefeller playing golf are all bodies. Calder may have employed diagrammatic means, but he made the insubstantial monumental. In not altogether surprising ways, the work recalls that of Rodin.

Gesture, too, is unerringly put into place: the forward trot of The Hostess (1928) betrays her snobbery. But notwithstanding its softball acidity, the sculpture is indicative of Calder’s defining graces: Sociability and showbiz. Playing to the audience powered his fancies and his sense of invention. Calder delighted in the circus—yes, the Whitney’s mainstay Calder’s Circus (1926-31) is here—not least because it was a metaphor for his own temperament, strengths and vision. He thrived on applause.

Calder made toys for children, but all of his work—or, rather, his best work—are toys. The biggest difference between the early wire sculptures and the mobiles-to-come is that the latter lent themselves to public display; the former, to intimacy. “Hands-on” is the key to Calder’s winning and ineluctable genius. The Paris Years makes that distinction abundantly and delightfully clear.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Li Songsong at Pace Gallery

Li Songsong, Couple (2011), oil on canvas, 11′ 9-3/4″ x 9′ 10-1/8″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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Contemporary art doesn’t come more soulless than the paintings of the Beijing-based artist Li Songsong, who is having his American debut at Pace Gallery.

OK, that might be a stretch. The competition is, after all, pretty stiff. Songsong isn’t any less professional—that is to say slick and superficial—than any number of artists whose names you could rattle off. But Songsong’s gargantuan, multi-panel paintings are fairly egregious in that they are unrelentingly pro forma. Whether Songsong is proud or oblivious to this fact is difficult to parse.

There’s not an iota of Songsong’s art that can’t be traced with a straight, steady line to another artist or genre. Here is an artist for whom appropriation isn’t a transgression or a prank, but an established tradition. He is, in other words, an academic, and when academicism reaches this pitch of handsomely overbearing blandness, you’ve got art that’s guaranteed not to put a crimp in your day.

Poaching upon the ubiquity of the photographed (or filmed) image, Songsong paints scenes drawn from contemporary events and personal snapshots, rendering them in stucco-like slurries of oil paint. The work’s political bent is patent, but made vague and palatable through a risk-free manipulation of material, format and image.

The paintings are impossible to imagine without Social Realism, China’s state-sanctioned style of painting, but its influence is no less oppressive than that of Gerhard Richter, say, or Sean Scully and Chuck Close. Songsong touches innumerable artistic bases without transforming any of them. This is Significant Art as pure style.

Songsong’s art is notable primarily as an example of how the world’s largest communist state has embraced avant-gardist art as an international marketing tool—a sociological fillip that cultural historians will have a heyday unraveling. Art historians will have an easier time of it, filing Songsong’s achievement as another blip amongst the novelties that power the marketplace, if not the life of art itself.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 12, 2011 edition of City Arts.

Tara Donovan at Pace Gallery

Drawing (Pins)

Tara Donovan, Drawing (Pins) (2010), gatorboard, paint and nickel-plated steel pins, 72″ x 72″ x 2-1/2″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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Tara Donovan–like, wow. Zillions of pins, man. Did she, you know, pin every one? The things, they’re kind of big bang. Spacey and light and all. Cosmic. From far away they look like pictures made with a pencil or something. When you get close: those pins–buttloads of them! Must’ve been a pain to do. Maybe she hired some people to do the grunt work, like Rubens, that old guy, or the soup can dude with the wig. That’s cool. Heard a guy at the gallery tell some other guy at the gallery that the stuff is “ecological” and that, um, Tara “repositions perceptual experience . . . ‘in a practice that has appeared until now largely materially driven and in the service of organic allusion'”. Something about computer screens, I think. Technology and shit. Deep.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Lucas Samaras at Pace Gallery

Pose 0216

Lucas Samaras, Pose 0216 (2009), pure pigment on paper, 32″ x 18″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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Art world navel-gazing doesn’t get more egregious than Poses/Born Actors, an exhibition of photographs by Lucas Samaras.

Samaras is best known for his AutoPolaroids and PhotoTransformations, portraits wherein the manipulation of photo emulsions resulted in images marked by chilly contrivance, unnerving distortions and fetishistic self-regard. For the current show, the 76-year old artist has taken photos of pals and players–among them, the collector Leonard Lauder, MOMA director Glenn Lowry, former MOMA President Agnes Gund, Whitney director Adam Weinberg and artists like Cindy Sherman, David Byrne and Jasper Johns–in order to reveal concealed vulnerabilities and personas.

Actually, that’s the press release talking.  From the sound of it, you’d almost think Samaras was a portraitist.  But Poses/Born Actors is an essay in anti-portraiture, particularly given Samaras’s spook-house lighting; theatricality genericizes the lot. The work doesn’t explore the depths of the soul. It indulges in blatant gimmickry–“the old man discovers PhotoShop” as a friend put it–and celebrity. Celebrity as it applies to Chelsea, anyway.

That Pace doesn’t provide a hand-out identifying names for what is, essentially, the 25th Street equivalent of The Hollywood Walk of Fame is an annoyance.  The isolated wall label is of little help and Samaras’s titles, numbers all, are willfully evasive . Maybe the artist and the gallery assume that everybody, just everybody, recognizes the “actors”.  At which point, the project’s exclusivity (let’s not call it “incestuousness”) becomes clear. After all, no one’s looking at the things because they’re art, are they?

This much I do know:  The poser pictured above is Alex Katz.

© 2010 Mario Naves