News Intelligence Analysis
From the New York Times
April 21, 2006
Artists in Midcareer and Beyond Are Showing That Experience Matters
By HOLLAND COTTER
DON'T trust anyone over 30" was the street wisdom I grew up with.
I still find that excellent advice. But my faith in youthful inspiration has been tested recently; by art, of all things, or rather by the art world's fixation on barely-out-of-school talent.
Not that my interest in new art has in any way diminished. It hasn't. Still, these days I find my attention drawn to the not-so-new, to artists who are in midcareer and beyond, sometimes far beyond. Many such artists are in evidence in galleries and museums this month, and I'll mention a handful below, among them a posthumous hero, a poet-turned-artist, an octogenarian debutante. They have one thing in common: their work has developed over time and maintained its presence for a number of years. In a fast-food culture, as capricious in its erasures as in its rewards, that's the vote of confidence that counts.
Midcareer is a flexible category, defined partly by age, partly by time on the job. Sherrie Levine, a New York-based Conceptual artist who has a fine show at Paula Cooper Gallery, qualifies on both counts. Now just shy of 60, she had her first gallery solo in 1974, and came into her own in the 1980's with the wave of East Village "appropriation art," work that lifted images from art history and popular culture to comment on history and culture themselves.
Ms. Levine's initial borrowings were from male modernists. She re-photographed Walker Evans photographs and presented the copies as her own to question what labels like "original" and "classic" meant, and why they were always applied to art by men. Her references have since expanded to literature and social history. Her shows have become free-associational ensembles, complex, witty, difficult to parse.
The Cooper show, which combines photographs of Spanish colonial religious paintings and Edward S. Curtis shots of Native Americans, with bronze casts of phrenological heads, human jawbones and hunting dog figurines, is no exception. It is at once an extended still life, a personalized collection and an essay on art, myth, politics and devotion. In it, Ms. Levine is doing basically what she was doing 20 years ago. But without changing her signature non-signature style, she has advanced and deepened her range. From questioning the original, she has become an original.
Gary Simmons is on a similar track. At 42, he has already had a midcareer survey, which recently came to the Studio Museum in Harlem. And his art is in the process of subtle, logical change. He is best known for his wall drawings of racially charged cartoon images, done in smudged white chalk on a dark ground. Rude but super-elegant, they're like graffiti art by Tiepolo.
The three new, king-size drawings that make up his solo show at Bohen Foundation, titled "1964," apply the same style to what appears at first to be neutral content. The images depicted Philip Johnson's ultra-Modernist Glass House, the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens; and the repeated form of a swinging chandelier from the Alfred Hitchcock film "Marnie" are, in Mr. Simmons's view, symbolically related.
Johnson, who had a history of fascist enthusiasms, designed the New York State Pavilion, at the invitation of the fair's president, Robert Moses. Moses was the man responsible for a slash-and-burn redesign of New York that all but destroyed certain working-class neighborhoods. The swinging chandelier, from a film about deceit and psychic instability, is intended as emblematic of a year that saw both the first stirrings of protest against the war in Vietnam and the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi. It was also the year Mr. Simmons was born. All that information is burning away on a slow fuse in his art.
Although drawing is the medium of the moment, Mr. Simmons has been a superb draftsman for years, as has another midcareer figure, Manuel Ocampo, now having his first New York solo in some time. Born in the Philippines, he turned out sardonic riffs on Spanish colonial religious art through the 1990's. In his new paintings, which are basically drawings, he turns a satirist's eye on the art world itself in scatological allegories that skewer every value it holds dear. Mr. Ocampo's gallery, Gray Kapernekas, which specializes in artists who first gained notice in the 1980's and 90's, celebrates its first anniversary with his show.
Félix González-Torres, another artist from those decades, grows more celebrated by the year, but is not around to enjoy the acclaim. He died of complications from AIDS at 39 in 1996. The honors usually awarded midcareer artists are piling up: he will represent the United States at the 2007 Venice Biennale; a book on him, with an essay by the Biennale's director, Robert Storr, will appear next month; and a retrospective will open in Berlin in September.
New Yorkers can see the beginnings of that retrospective in the slender, scrappy but evocative show "Félix González-Torres: Early Impressions," at El Museo del Barrio. Organized by the art historian Elvis Fuentes, it largely presents examples of the work done between 1978, when the Puerto Rican-born González-Torres was still in school, and the late 1980's, when he moved to New York. Much of the material is collaborative and ephemeral; almost all of it is politically sharp.
If you know González-Torres only from his late installations of candy and lights, you will have the pleasure of meeting the funny, voluble, vampy performer of the early videos. You will also encounter the elegiac artist of absences in a series of photographs of footprints in sand. And you will learn that this piece and others like it were inspired by the populist poster tradition of the artist's island homeland, where he began his creative life as a poet.
"I am a poet by vocation." The words might have been his. In fact, they were written in 1963 by Carl Andre, an artist who is closely identified with Minimalist sculpture, but who has always been on a path very much his own. Although his reputation has been somewhat overshadowed by that of his contemporary Donald Judd, Mr. Andre, at 71, remains the darker, more intense, more interesting figure, and you get some sense of that in his current solo show at Paula Cooper's second gallery space.
The show has several new pieces, but the real draw is early work, notably a selection from the 1972 series of poems titled "Yucatan." Arranged in blocky chunks, with words taken from a 19th-century account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the poems are fractured, loquacious, the typographical equivalent of stutters and screams. And they find an ideal complement in two of the artist's sectional floor pieces, which seem to spread from corners of the room like oil spills or water from a rising tide. Altogether, they make a persuasive reintroduction to a major but undervalued artist.
Other significant late-career figures are getting fresh introductions. Thomas Bayrle, a Pop-era artist influential in Germany, is having his first American show in a quarter-century at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in the West Village. An early colleague of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter and a teacher of Martin Kippenberger and Tobias Rehberger, Mr. Bayrle has a background in typesetting and weaving, and this comes through in his graphically crisp images of faces (Mao Zedong, Stalin, Orson Welles) and objects (chairs, cars, city buildings) composed of dozens of smaller faces and objects.
Stylistically, the pattern-intensive results look back to M. C. Escher and forward to Andreas Gursky and digital art. They're like products of an ornamental nanotechnology. And the sociopolitical thinking behind the work about the interdependence of the individual and the collective, and how positive or perilous that can be is almost more interesting than the pictures themselves.
Mitchell Algus Gallery continues its invaluable rescue of overlooked careers with a sampling of work by the Japanese-born, New York-based Takeshi Kawashima. The show isn't large, but it's extensive. It encompasses both Mr. Kawashima's eye-jolting red-and-black paintings from the 1960's and his recent, candy-colored "Kaleidoscope." Both look good, and both are right in line with current trends in a Japanese pop art that has become a global favorite.
Contemporary African art is also gaining international notice. This is the intention behind "Another Modernity: Works on Paper by Uche Okeke," a modest show at the Newark Museum. It's a vivid snapshot of the career of one of Nigeria's most influential senior figures, now in his early 70's.
The show traces his rapid-fire progress from academic realism in the 1950's to a calligraphic style based on indigenous art forms and myths in the nationalist 1960's, to his Expressionist responses to the Biafran civil war of the 1970's. Like many artists with a long-sustained work life, Mr. Okeke has been an important colleague and teacher, and even a partial list of his illustrious associates Bruce Onobrakpeya, El Anatsui and Olu Oguibe is sufficient to indicate the rich history here.
Mr. Okeke has capped his career with abstract work, though others have consistently worked in that mode. One is the Brooklyn-based Arlington Weithers, who was born in Guyana and had his first solo in 1973. His paintings were high points of "Open House: Working in Brooklyn" at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago, and his new pictures at AFP Galleries, with their gemlike colors and fissured textures, are fabulous.
Among American abstract painters of a still earlier generation, Jack Youngerman, 80, deserves far more attention than he has received. In the 1950's, he lived at Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan with Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin and produced a body of gorgeous paintings. Suggesting hallucinatory flowers and eruptions of light, they exuded a brushy, European-style sensuousness that was out of favor at the time but looks fresh and attractive now. The 159 small paintings on paper in his current solo at Washburn include just such images, along with other more recent work, demonstrating the consistency and variety of this admirable artist's work over half a century.
A show by Mr. Youngerman's slightly older near-contemporary, Jules Olitski, 84, at Paul Kasmin is, technically, a midcareer event, with work from the 1970's. As one of the art critic Clement Greenberg's pet Color Field artists, Mr. Olitski gained wide exposure with spray-painted abstraction in the 1960's. In the following decade, he changed styles, beefing up his surfaces with slathered-on paint the color of ghee and molasses, and turned his hand to sculptures that looked like Serra's "Torqued Ellipses" in the bud. Mr. Olitski was in his 50's at the time. He had done a lot; he would do a lot more. It was a vital moment.
The vital moment came later for Florence Pierce, 88, who is making her New York solo debut at Howard Scott Gallery. Born in Washington, she studied in New Mexico in the 1930's with Emil Bisttram, one of the Taos Transcendentalists. She settled in Albuquerque, raised a family and continued to make art in various media.
It wasn't until the 1990's, when she discovered a technique for using resin on reflective surfaces, that she came to what she considers her mature work: the low-relief abstract paintings, in whites and light-refracting aquamarines, in the show. As Ms. Pierce puts it, it took her a lifetime of activity to arrive at an art about contemplation, and then she did so only by chance.
So wisdom comes with age after all. And what can it tell young artists ready to dash out of school? Don't just do something; sit there. Art takes time. Let your brilliant career have a middle, and a late period, and an end. Let it be long.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
Correction: April 22, 2006
A review in Weekend yesterday about the work of midcareer artists misstated the birthplace of Félix González-Torres, who died in 1996. It was Cuba; he spent several years in Puerto Rico before moving to the United States mainland.
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