Gerhard Richter - Marian Goodman - February 28 - July 24, 2020
Lise Soskolne - The Mandelbrot Set - Svetlana - July 9 - August 2, 2020
Park McArthur - Edition One and Two Fantasies - July 15 - August 21, 2020
Shadi Habib Allah, Kai Althoff, Marie Angeletti, Ei Arakawa, Merlin Carpenter, Leidy Churchman, Brice Dellsperger, Peter Fischli, Juliana Huxtable, Larry Johnson, Klara Liden, Jill Mulleady, New Models x Bjarne Melgaard, Ken Okiishi, Henrik Olesen, Josephine Pryde, Heji Shin, Josh Smith - The Sewers of Mars - Reena Spaulings Fine Art - July 11 - August 8, 2020
I've been reading Gary Indiana's Vile Days, a collection of his art columns from the Village Voice between 1985 to 1988. His fifth column, published March 26th, 1985, is on a show by Gerhard Richter at Marian Goodman and is an early example of his transition from photorealistic paintings to abstraction. On March 26th, 2020, Gerhard Richter again had a show at Marian Goodman, of abstract paintings that aren't substantively different. Indiana's article already discusses the historical context of the paintings, specifically on the distinction between doing Ab Ex in the 1980s versus in the 1950s, where what had one been a heroic act of self-expression had become an ironic gesture regarding the artist's burden of living up to the stature of the previous generation. Also ironically, he's been been doing these abstract paintings for 35 years, so we're about as far now from the 80s as the 80s were then from the 50s, and what once read as a commentary on an artistic legacy has become a legacy of its own.
There's not much point in describing the paintings themselves because I'm sure you already know what they look like, but it's easy to forget how good they are. 35 years on, his technique has improved, naturally (compare here), but it's impressive that he seems as engaged as ever with the same process. The composition is superb, and his ability to integrate garish shades of neon without calling attention to their garishness (i.e. the opposite of Richard Hawkins) is striking. There's an obvious comparison to be made between the paintings and the urban landscape, surfaces being constantly graffitied and painted over, scraped off, graffitied and painted over, etc., but they aren't about that, they're about paint. Color is applied and removed so densely in so many layers that it negates any sense of a brushstroke, which is a decisive difference between Richter and his 50s predecessors. He doesn't care about the individualist brushstrokes of the Artist, he cares about paint. His resistance to anything that could possibly pass as even the vaguest Rorschach figuration is essential as well. Whereas figurative work can often recall abstraction and abstract work can recall figuration through their respective formal structures, these paintings somehow manage to bring to mind artists from the era where the discipline of painting was being stretched towards abstraction but had not yet abandoned figuration, such as Klimt's densely two-dimensional dresses, or Turner's seascapes. But like I said, there's not much point in talking about the paintings. Everyone knows Richter is good.
On the same day I saw the Richter show, I also went to the Lower East Side and saw The Sewers of Mars at Reena Spaulings, Edition One and Two Fantasies by Park McArthur at Essex Street, and The Mandelbrot Set by Lise Soskolne at Svetlana. I didn't do my usual short reviews with a star rating for these, not because the shows themselves were particularly difficult, but because I found it impossible in our current state of compulsory isolation to evaluate art in the way I usually do. Rating something implies a comparison between the thing and others within the same context, but contemporary art is presently suspended and without a context. I saw these shows and understood them, but it felt close to impossible to come to any kind of conclusive statement about their quality.
Lise Soskolne's show is a collection of six of her uniformly non-uniform paintings, only two that include fractal patterns have any clear relationship to each other. The accompanying book pulls back the veil on the lack of cohesion, as it's a selection of excerpts from her scrapbooks of vintage magazine clippings. Each painting has been lifted wholesale from a scrapbook image aside from the two fractal paintings which combine two images. Soskolne paints, but by painting already existing images the paintings become concerned not with paint but with the reification of the relationship between the artist's identity and their images, as well as valorizing of the creativity of ad designers who, in spite of our collective disdain for commercials, are able to generate imagery even if artists are not. As a result, in spite of the immediate appeal of the paintings themselves, the show feels somewhat impotent, begging the question of what exactly Soskolne is supposed to be doing.
Park McArthur's exhibition in its entirety consists of a sculpture made from a stack of used ventilator filters in plastic casing and fifteen identical framed prints of the labels on an incentive spirometer, a breath measurement device. Her neo-conceptual minimalism creates work that is nominally "about" breathing, at least according to the New York Times, but what does this "about" actually signify? I don't recall if I thought about breathing while I was at the gallery, but if I did, it was only because of the literal reference, or maybe because the door to the gallery was left open. The work itself didn't provoke any reflection on the nature of breathing. A painting of a table is not "about" tables, it does not lead one to a contemplation of tableness. Maybe it does if you write criticism for the Times, I don't know. In this sense, McArthur's show is not about breathing, it is about the minimalist tradition she works in, applied to objects in her life as source material. Conceptualism is a mode of working, not a method that automatically generates profound reflection on universal themes. If anything, the show made me think about her breathing, and the implied fragility of her health. To be perfectly honest, I found the work boring, but instead of feeling critical I worried about her well-being, and wondered if the show was lacking because her physical state is inhibiting her ability to produce work. I have no idea if this was part of her intention, and I also have no idea how, if it were, it would affect my judgment of the work.
Reena Spaulings is literally packed with work from the 18 artists included, most of it good, though I've never understood the appeal of Henrik Olesen. The effect is something like a psychedelic fever dream, an overcrowded assault on the viewer as they try and fail to make the experience cohere. This, I should add, is clearly intentional and executed well, but as a result the show is not actually about the artwork because it's almost impossible to process any of it discretely. Instead, the focus is the incoherent delirium of the present, dozens of ideas shooting off in all directions without resolving. The eye bounces from painting to sculpture to photograph, trying to pay attention while multiple videos blare in the background. The result is all very funny, but in the end it's just trolling the viewer, which when well-done, as it is here, is far from the worst an art show can do. But still, how much are we supposed to applaud art that's overwhelming and frustrating, even if that is the point?
I'm being harsh, but I don't fault the artists themselves. Making art felt pretty senseless in January, let alone now, and Richter is an unfair standard to hold anyone to. There's a formal gap, however, between him and 2020 mid-career artists of relevance that begs examination. Richter's paintings exist as objects, these other works are experienced primarily in the mind of the viewing subject, as a critique, a concept, an assertion that attains relevance when considered in relation to the wider context of culture and the art world. Instead of asking a question about something somewhere else, Richter's question is immanent: What is this object? What is this paint? Rhetorical questions such as these are where art becomes utopian, in its proper definition as "no-place". A materially beautiful work encodes a glimpse of a perfection that does not exist and cannot. A Veronese can make us imagine for a moment the space outside its canvas, the world of gods and goddesses in their vibrant finery, etc. If we were innocent we might believe life in the Renaissance or Veronese's personal life were as beautiful as this painting, but the image has always been an illusion. Utopia is not limited to the perfect and the beautiful, naturally, but only implies the dream of an experience commensurate with our desires, unconstrained by the ceaseless mundanity of life and its disappointments. Marguerite Duras speaks about the writing of her story, Summer 80, in relevant terms: "The sea in Summer 80 is something I never experienced myself. It's something that happened to me but that I never experienced, something I put into a book precisely because I couldn't have lived it." The story centers around a journal recording the daily changes of the sea, a idyllic image of a personal engagement with the passage of time, but the reader and author are equally alienated from that idyll. Artists are not more connected to their work than their viewers, and if anything they are often more distanced by their inability to enjoy the finished product from an outside perspective.
Returning to Richter, his subject is his medium, his immersion in the quality and expression of paint in and of itself, which is not exclusively the case with abstraction. It wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that it was possible to conceive of a painting where the subject was not paint, but now it's difficult to find artworks that are not preoccupied with subjects outside of themselves. Adorno describes the aspiration of art as "saying nothing eloquently," which is the opposite of the contemporary status of art. Every work is so concerned with what it is saying that there is no room for eloquence, a constantly enforced neurotic search for formal meaning that impedes the development of refined expression. By establishing a rhetorical content that distances the viewing subject from the art object, we become alienated from the artwork's actual potential to trigger an experience through an engagement with the materially existing qualities of the work. Art is not about something, it is something. These criticisms aren't to shame contemporary artists themselves, as the problem is not that they've simply misunderstood the ramifications of art itself and made a mistake. It is nearly impossible to make work that is contemporary and simultaneously says nothing. The Reena show in particular knowingly reflects this crisis of meaning without escaping it. I don't have any answers for this dilemma, but I'm just a critic, not a polemicist. Still, there is a line in the sand to be drawn between those who still think art is a virtuous medium to be utilized for the articulation of ideas, and those who know that it is much simpler (and much more complicated) than that.