Tag Archives: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

“Agnes Martin” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

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Agnes Martin in her studio (1960); photo by Alexander Liberman

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“Agnes Martin,” a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum of the Canadian-born painter who died in 2004 at the age of ninety-two, has the misfortune of being mounted concurrently with “Mark Rothko; Dark Palette,” an exhibition at the Twenty-fifth Street branch of Pace Gallery. The comparison between Martin and Rothko would be inescapable even if the shows weren’t simultaneously on display. Both painters pursued an art of distillation, exploring just how much could be jettisoned from the art of painting without altogether relinquishing its particulars. Martin was vocal in her admiration of Rothko, extolling how he had “reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth.” Her early work, with its sparely applied geometries and gently stated means, owes a clear debt to Rothko’s mature paintings: those hovering fields of color that radiate heat, light, and mystery. At early points in their respective careers, each painter dabbled in Surrealism and, not coincidentally, sought to uncover archetypes of symbol and form. Though less than a decade separated them— Rothko was born in 1903, Martin in 1912—we think of Martin as belonging to a different generation: Minimalism following on the heels of The New York School.

Stylistic categories are often more convenient as journalistic pegs than as accurate quantifiers, but comparing “Dark Palette” and “Agnes Martin” does underscore the difference between the heroic, if fitfully achieved, ambitions of Abstract Expressionism and the deadening certainties of Minimalism. The former approach dramatically foreshortened, but did not expunge, the allusive capabilities of art; the latter put illusionism—and, with it, metaphor—out to pasture, abjuring poetry for literalism. Whatever one may think of Rothko’s tastefully deployed vision, the paintings in “Dark Palette” register as visual experiences of a high order; his exultations of color, at once portentous and otherworldly, are hard to dismiss. Martin’s art is more retiring in temperament, sparse in means, and, in the end, takes too much for granted, not least the viewer’s interest. “Paintings,” she wrote, “are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” The rub is that paintings are meant to be seen. Otherwise, why bother looking at them in the first place? The gulf that exists between Rothko and Martin lies in the distinction between close-to-nothing and almost something. If Rothko “reached zero,” then Martin aspired to less.

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Agnes Martin, Untitled #2 (1992), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60″; courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum/© 2015 Agnes Martin.Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Agnes Martin” includes close to 120 pieces, beginning with Mid-Winter (ca. 1954), a lumpish array of shapes reminiscent of the American abstractionist Arthur Dove, and culminates with canvases and works-on-paper dating from the last year of the artist’s life. After flirting with biomorphism, Martin settled into her signature groove: patterning—typically, grids or horizontal stripes—laid out with underplayed concision. The color palette, from the get-go, is limited. Grays and off-whites predominate, so much so that when other colors are introduced—a wan array of purples, pinks, and blues—they register as after-images. Martin’s touch is most apparent in the way she handles graphite, ruling out pencil lines that all but imperceptibly stutter across the weave of the canvas or catch on the tooth of a sheet of paper. Washy runs of paint are employed late in the game, as are triangles, trapezoids, and squares—solid forms that are, in the context of Martin’s pictorial equanimity, gratifyingly rude. Symmetry is the rule and the formats square. Rhythm is maintained at a lulling pace. “I paint,” Martin averred, “with my back to the world.” The problem is that the world is where the rest of us spend our time. Martin, we realize, was painting for an audience of one: herself. It is a consummate but exclusionary body of work.

Writing in the catalogue, Briony Fer, the Professor of History of Art at University College London, notes that “to see a painting by Martin, as it is to look at a Mondrian, is to understand how repetition begets difference.” After ascending the Guggenheim’s ramp to follow the trajectory of Martin’s oeuvre, it’s worth popping into the permanent collection to consider Mondrian’s Composition 8 (1914). Repetition did guide the artist, but did it define the art? When putting brush to canvas, Mondrian remained open to the give-and-take of the medium; repetition gives way to, and is enlivened by, the particularity of relationships. For Martin, compositional variety was hostile to the equilibrium she sought to codify. She likened her paintings to sensations engendered by contact with the natural world; meditative awe was the objective. Sweeping expanses of gray acrylic can serve as antidotes for the chaos of life, but for how long and how effectively? Repetition can get, you know, repetitive. To glean “difference” from the paintings is to parse aesthetic matters so fine that it’s hardly worth the effort. Only those who mistake sameyness for satori could sit in front of a Martin canvas without constantly checking the time.

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Installation of “Agnes Martin”; photography by Hiroko Masuike/courtesy The New York Times

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“Zen” is a description that pops up regularly in discussions of the work. Martin did, in fact, have an abiding fascination with Eastern modes of thought, particularly that of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu. His concept of wu wei—roughly translated as “action without action”—lends itself to a temperament that believed “sought out suffering is a mistake/ But what comes to you free is enlightening.” But “zen-like” is a phrase best kept at arm’s length; too often it is employed as an alibi for art of undernourished means and overblown pretensions. How well did Martin apply principles culled from Taoism and, for that matter, a Calvinist upbringing to life? Very well, it seems: she left the hurly-burly of Manhattan in 1967 for New Mexico, where she spent the rest of her days in relative isolation and quiet satisfaction. In that regard, Martin’s example has ennobled her to any number of contemporary artists. The worry is that her work has done the same. Art that operates within such a rarefied compass admits more readily to low expectations than possibility, infinite or otherwise. Martin’s art carries with it a stringent integrity, absolutely. But those seeking to tap into “the innocence of trees” are advised to pass on the Guggenheim and head to Central Park, where a stroll through its manicured environs will provide pleasures of a more expansive sort than seen in “Agnes Martin.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the January 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

Francesca Woodman at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1976); courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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For 30-some years, Cindy Sherman has played dress-up in front of the camera in pursuit of “mortification of the self” and “the exploration of identity.” The photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), who died by her own hand at the age of 22, took a lot of self-portraits as well, and for related reasons: “female subjectivity” and “photography’s relationship to both literature and performance.” That the Guggenheim overview of Woodman’s oeuvre is running concurrently with MoMA’s Sherman retrospective is a fortuitous opportunity to compare and contrast.

To Sherman’s detriment, you can’t help but conclude. True, Woodman was no less prone to theatricality and adolescent notions of self-expression (taking into account, of course, that Woodman barely lived past adolescence). Depending on one’s taste for melodrama, her weakness for the picturesque—dilapidated buildings served as backdrop for many of the photos—and pat religious allusions are likely to strike one as precocious rather than earned. The work’s eroticism is part and parcel of an overweening narcissism and is less appealing because of it.

But Woodman knew how to take photographs—photographs that are rich with texture, isolated blurs of movement, ghostly sweeps of light and rare moments of washed-out period color. Sherman? She doesn’t know a photograph from a deconstructionist hole in the ground.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York (1979-1980), chromogenic print, 8.6 x 8.9 cm.; courtesy George and Betty Woodman

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An early, tragic death is an all but insurmountable hurdle for aesthetic contemplation. Anyone who has seen The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis’ devastating documentary of a family rendered dysfunctional by art, knows how inextricably Woodman’s vision is tied to biographical particulars. We do the artist no favors by overinflating (or romanticizing) a flawed but diverting achievement.

The Guggenheim, to its credit, does right by Woodman in setting out the work with jewel-like sobriety. Any serious artist would welcome such an approach. Viewers should welcome it, too.

© 2012 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of City Arts. Related articles can be found here and here.

Jackson Pollock at The Guggenheim Museum

Jackson Pollock, Abstract Painting (1943); courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is an exhibition that manages two remarkable feats. It rescues Pollock the man (1912-1956) from the mythos of the hard-drinking, antisocial and self-destructive cowboy, and it liberates Pollock the artist from his worst tendencies as a painter.

Curator Susan Davidson achieves both by focusing on Pollock the draftsman. Pollock was never much of a painter, really; line was his sole strength. The frustration that defines his oeuvre can be traced to a psychological root, but it can also be seen as a reaction to the challenge of constructing pictorial space. Seven “paintings” on paper on view toward the end of the show are typical: Looping skeins of paint congest and ultimately deaden the surfaces. Pollock rarely endowed his paintings with a convincing illusion of space; instead, he strong-armed them into being. Rage and exasperation don’t equal heroic expression.

One of the unique benefits of drawing is that we instinctively read the surface of the page as “containing” space, freeing the artist from needing to compose space as he would in a painting. Pollock came to relish the freedom of drawing, though the realization did not come immediately.

Early on, he tussled—at times painfully—with the paintings of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton. He also struggled to learn from Native American art, El Greco, Miró and Picasso—always Picasso. Round about 1943, the figurative impulses that would never completely leave Pollock’s art became engulfed in electric fields of scratchy line work. Five years later, he finally got it. In a trio of silvery drip pieces from 1948, we see his line discover—and thrive upon—a vital independence. It’s a revelatory moment, brilliantly underscored by the Guggenheim.

The late works on paper are Pollock’s crowning achievement. The ready space of the blank page transformed an inchoate sensibility. There’s an ease to Pollock’s automatist calligraphy—a deeply felt lyricism—but there’s discipline as well. Forget Jack the Dripper: The pictures are resolutely composed. The tension between spontaneity and control is energizing.

The best of the bunch is an untitled ink-and-watercolor drawing from around 1951, on loan from the Menil Collection. A punchy array of recognizable markings—eyes, an arrow, numbers and the artist’s name—are orchestrated within a field of swooping lines, stabbing marks, dots and dabs. The most surprising thing is the gentleness with which Pollock coaxes the elements into fruition. No pain, no strain—what an unexpectedly lovely dénouement. No Limits, Just Edges is far too macho a title for the lilting poise of the mature drawings. Jackson Pollock: Happy Man—that’s more like it.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 2, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

David Smith at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

David Smith, The Royal Bird (1947), bronze and stainless steel, 22-1/8″ x 59-3/16″ x 8-1/2″; courtesy Walker Art Center

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David Smith (1906-1965) is generally considered the most significant American sculptor of the 20th century. Certainly, Carmen Giménez, curator of David Smith: A Centennial, has bet the farm—or, rather, the better part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—on the “melancholy solitude,” “independence” and “grandeur” of the “Blacksmith of Space.”

In thrall to Smith’s protean gift for absorbing the lessons of Modernism—Surrealist portent and Russian Constructivism no less than the sculptural innovations of Picasso and Julio González—Ms. Giménez has laid out an appreciative and perhaps definitive accounting of the oeuvre. Smith’s adventures in welded-steel sculpture, derived from the Cubist-inspired practice dubbed “drawing in space,” are given a generous airing. So, too, are his robust sense of humor and his surprising lifelong dedication to the human form, however obscured or distilled.

Clement Greenberg asserted that Smith was “higher than any sculptor since Donatello”—for such a stringent critic, Greenberg was prone to wild hyperbole. Whether or not Ms. Giménez would agree is less important than the dignity she affords the sculptor’s work. In its attention to pacing and aesthetic principle, the installation is a model of its kind. The Guggenheim has rarely been such a pleasant place to visit.

Or so sobering. As a retrospective should, David Smith: A Centennial illuminates one artist’s contribution to culture, but the light it shines is less flattering than one might have anticipated. Notwithstanding the scope of Smith’s ambitions or the heady propulsion that motivated the sculptures, the artist who emerges at the Guggenheim seems never to have mastered his métier. The pieces get ample room—many are placed in the rotunda’s walkway, allowing visitors to move around them. Yet this tack only underscores how ineffectively Smith engaged with actual space. For a sculptor, that’s some shortcoming.

In fact, Smith failed to understand the dimensionality of sculpture. Too often, the sculptures seem like physical transcriptions of pictorial ideas. As a consequence, the pieces can be flabby. Blackburn, Songs of an Irish Blacksmith (1949-50), can’t even work itself up to meandering; its juxtapositions lack contrast, rhythm and rationale. Smith’s hokey figurative allusions are reminders that he was a Surrealist before he was anything else. Scale has little import—when the work is big, there’s no discernible reason. Materials are a drag on Smith’s remarkable talent; they’re never completely transformed. In the end, he comes across as a painter working in the wrong medium.

Absent is the lilt of Miró, the gravity of Giacometti, the grace of González, the brute magic of Picasso—all pivotal influences on Smith’s art. Instead, we get an earnest but fussy resolve that’s not exacting enough to merit great-sculptor status. To be sure, there are fine pieces on view—The Royal Bird (1947-48) melds the primitive and the industrial to impressively tensile effect—but even the best work doesn’t much transcend pastiche.

Ultimately, it’s Smith’s influence that is his true legacy. Richard Stankiewicz, Sir Anthony Caro and Mark di Suvero are all followers. Their art, while not necessarily as rich or as complex as Smith’s, is more sculpturally true and, as a result, more aesthetically justified. David Smith: A Centennial highlights a wide-ranging but deeply flawed accomplishment. Excitement buzzes around its edges, but less because of the actual art than the possibilities it set into motion.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 19, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.