Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Jasper Johns, Something Resembling Truth @ Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958
As I entered the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Academy, I was so excited that I could almost hear my heart beat. Johns is an artist whose work has deeply engaged me over decades, and the prospect of a full retrospective was more than my anticipation could handle. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of entering a space to be greeted by Flag, 1958 or Target, 1961 there in front of me, in the flesh, after seeing them so often in reproduction. As I wandered through the first couple of rooms including that filled with grey numbers, I was mesmerized. Johns’ paintings are more intellectual than emotional, often playing on words, colors, undercutting what we think we know, and the history of painting. But in the first rooms, I was carried away by the thick and luscious, if truncated, brushstrokes as they danced over newspaper, and I experienced the joy of being together with Johns' fastidious crafting of the painted surface, and his complicated use of stencils.
Jasper Johns, Map, 1962-63
Once I came down to earth, and was able to take it all in, I ultimately found the exhibition to be disappointing. This wasn’t the failing of Johns’ great art, but the curation didn’t capture the complexity of the artist’s thinking and the sophistication of his work. The paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings work on so many levels, as playful games that can have a viewer roaring with laughter, as treatises on the history of art, as modernist explorations of the very definition of painting, as philosophical reflections on life and identity, as searing critiques of American politics, and the list goes on. But at the Royal Academy, these works by arguably one of the greatest living painters, are reduced to a series of somewhat simplified themes: paintings as objects, changing dimensions, words and voices, time and transience, and so on.
Jasper Johns, Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981
I hear critics and art lovers alike dismissing Johns after 1980. I agree that the late work is not consistently outstanding, but I am not one of those people who write off late-Johns. I happen to think that the Catenary works of the 2000s are among the most sophisticated paintings in his oeuvre, and some of the most complex paintings produced this century. In them the catenary string, as the most perfect modernist form, is consistently cut short, embedded in encaustic paint, hung from side panels with the excess at its side; it is manipulated in all manner of ways to comment on and critique painting from the Renaissance through Modernity as the measure of what painting can and can’t do. No one else alive is doing this with the same level of intensity in painting. I also believe the later cross hatch works, their fascination with form and their connections to the fragmented body, music, dance, and the great masterpieces of high modernist art are at the centre of his oeuvre. That is, their concerns recur and are developed in the later lithographs and screen prints especially. However, the paucity of these media and the insistence on a limited set of themes in the exhibition mean those connections are not shown.
Jasper Johns, Catenary (Jacob's Ladder) , 1999
There’s also the title: Something Resembling Truth. Of course, given the title of my forthcoming book — The Truth is Always Grey — I wholeheartedly approve of the title. However, nothing in the exhibition leads the viewer towards an understanding of what the title means. Or indeed, how the museum is using the title to explore Johns’ work. I also really enjoyed the non-chronological juxtaposition of works from different periods in his career. But as far as I could see, aside from the thematic groupings, there was little that came of the juxtapositions. I think back to the Richter exhibition at Tate Modern when unlikely juxtapositions gave us a sense of how the artist’s fascination for color and form, for example, are explored in still life and abstraction at the very same moment. In the Richter exhibition, the curation allowed us to see Richter’s mind in motion on and between canvases. But juxtaposition in this Johns exhibition merely showed him as dexterous in the use of materials and the variety of his concerns. When grey paintings and the brightly colored canvases are placed next to each other, we learn nothing about his use of colour. Or when the cross-hatches from the 1980s are placed in the same room as Painting Bitten By a Man from 1961, we learn nothing of Johns’ preoccupation with surfaces, bodies, repetition and uniqueness. It’s in these ways that the depth of his thinking was placed secondary to images that happened to look nice together.
Jasper Johns, Painting Bitten by a Man, 1961
The angry and funny young man who made flags and bullseyes, placed casts of his body parts as the framed extension of the canvas, hung cutlery, painted over the red white and blue flag in a gamut of greys and made the map of America fall off the canvas, as the country was on its way to Vietnam, is not here at the Royal Academy. Visitors will luxuriate in the visual density of Johns’ oeuvre, but they won’t learn about its intellectual complexity or experience its emotional depth. I believe that it is possible to look at Jasper Johns’ extensive body of work and see everything there is to learn about art and its trajectory over the past fifty years. But the lessons are probably not going to be learnt from a visit to the Royal Academy this Fall. Johns’ admirers and critics will be awed by the well-hung works in the flesh, but newcomers might not give them the attention they warrant.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Thomas Ruff. Photographs 1979-2017 @ Whitechapel Gallery, London

Thomas Ruff, Machine 1390, 2003 
For the second time in the last few months I have seen an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery that has refused the ideologically suspect curatorial narrative of chronology. And in the case of the new Thomas Ruff retrospective, this choice is not only innovative but it invites us to see the German photographer’s body of work as it should be seen. Ruff’s photographs are always made in series, both connected through their process of production and presentation, as well as, in their conceptual concerns. Each photograph as a unit unto itself makes no sense. For this reason, it takes a little time to acclimate to the exhibition and its logic, but after the first couple of rooms, I realized how provocative, rich and misunderstood the work would be if seen in any other presentation. 
Thomas Ruff, Nacht/Night 5, 1992

Ruff’s photographs always reproduce not the historical event seen in the image — which we may or may not recognize — but they manipulate and re-present the way that the photograph was used either to record the event itself, or in the historical moment that it took place. Thus, for example, in the series, Nights (1992-96), we see multiple images of the empty streets of Düsseldorf through the same surveillance night vision cameras that were used in the fighting of the Gulf War carried out a year earlier. The photographs of Düsseldorf are beautiful, aesthetically very pleasing to the point where we do not recognize the streets of Düsseldorf in the images, but rather are drawn to their photographic representation. We recognize in them the distinctly hazy outlines produced in very early photographic images, thereby infusing them with nostalgia. Indeed, Ruff reproduces images of a Düsseldorf that we do not recognize. Factories, industrial buildings and structures such as chimneys, storage facilities, empty and silent streets are not those we would associate with northern Germany’s wealthy business hub.

Thomas Ruff, Negative-Artists 01, 2014
In all of Ruff’s photographs, the production process involves not only a series of intricate technical strategies, but the multiple strategies always lead to a transformation. In a particularly powerful example, Ruff’s Negatives, 2014 involve a process in which Ruff scans positive 19th century photographic prints, digitally reverses the tones from sepia to blue, black and white, so the images appear as negatives. Not only do the series of photographs remove the works from their historical narratives, but by inverting the positive/negative photographic print, they also invert the political implications of the images. Thus, in an image that might have been an otherwise benign documentation of a 19th century collector surrounded by his possessions, the image becomes a politically charged commentary on the historical era of the original photograph. The face of the collector becomes that of a colonizer, however, he and the figures of his statues and paintings now have black faces instead of white. In such a photograph, the whole discourse of colonialism that we are reminded of as we see these images is completely reversed through Ruff’s process of production.
Thomas Ruff, Haus Nr. II III, 1990
Ruff is also interested in the interstice between photography and other media. In a recent series, w.g.l.07, 2017, Ruff takes archival images of a 1958 exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s abstract works in the Whitechapel Gallery. Ruff’s photographs of Pollock's paintings are reproduced in black and white with the carpet and the suspended ceiling in brilliant colour. Thus, where Pollock’s paintings caused quite a reaction on the artist’s London debut in 1958, in Ruff’s images, the paintings are black and white decorations of a radical architecture. Ruff’s photograph transforms the architectural space of the gallery into the most interesting aspect of the image. In addition, we find ourselves standing in the very same place in the gallery that appears in the photographs, thus Ruff challenges the line between reality and illusion in the photographic image: photography represents architecture as dwarfing painting, and both in turn are represented as a re-presentation when placed within the gallery in which we stand. However, when we realize the gallery has been changed since its appearance in the 1958 reproduction, we see the space in which we stand as no more than a representation.
Thomas Ruff, Interior 1A, 979
In a series entitled Interiors (1979-83), Ruff raises another set of concerns that will stay with him throughout his career. He photographs the interiors of homes of his friends – corners, the edge of a wall, the taps without the full sink. There is the odd intimate object, but what’s striking is the lack of humanness in these images. They may be the living spaces of his friends, but they are modernist compositions, attendant to the form, framing, color, the vertical and horizontal lines of shelves, cupboards, pictures and wallpaper seams. The significance of the objects is not explored, but their presence nevertheless creates intimacy. The photographs are both intimate and not, nostalgic and not. In addition, like Ruff’s other series, the works may be placed on the same wall, but they are only related to each other through their process of production: the photographs may be taken in different houses, some of them may be taken in the same house, it’s impossible to say. But like all of the series, what’s important is not that we find logical connections and meaning in the content of the images but in the fact that they are placed in a line on the wall.
Thomas Ruff, Photographs 1979-2017
Installation View @ Whitechapel Gallery
Lastly, a word on the curation which I found compelling. The pictures are not placed chronologically and neither are those in one room all the same size, or necessarily all using the same processes of production and transformation. Small c-prints are placed opposite oversized works that are literally ten times their size. Thus, like the logic of the works in their series, they make meaning next to and opposite each other, rather than in any kind of traditional narrative unfolding.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Brice Marden, Gagosian Grosvenor Hill London

Brice Marden, Sennelier (2016-2017) and Holbein, (2016-2017)
Installation view
I can’t remember ever having fallen in love as if for the first time with paintings of an artist whose work I have been looking at for so many years. Everything about the Brice Marden exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s expansive, light drenched new London gallery left me breathless. The paintings are luscious, the space is everything that London architecture is not—open, light, reflective—and the two together make for an exquisite exhibition. I realize that not everyone will find beauty and joy in abstract painting, but I do think visitors to the Grosvenor Hill space will find it mesmerizing.
Brice Marden, Rublev Antica (2016-2017) and Rublev Verona (2016-2017)
Installation View
I have written an entire book on why paintings, even if they claim to be a single color, are never monochrome. Although it’s not an assertion that I make in the book, until yesterday, I was convinced that there was no such thing as monochrome painting. Marden’s new work undoes all expectations about color, about monochrome, about the need for variegation on a surface to ensure that painting makes sense.

The exhibition consists of ten identically sized canvases (244 x 182.9cm), each of which is painted with a terra verde manufactured by a different company. In turn, each painting takes its title from the manufacturer of its particular terra verde. The names and titles themselves already remind us of the long history with which Marden engages: Holbein, Rublev Antica, Vasari Ancienne, Old Holland, and so on. I assume that each canvas is primed in the same white ground, before layer upon layer upon layer of terra verde is applied to create a thick, dense colour field. The surface is then flattened with a palette knife to ensure the removal of the brushstroke. A band of thin color, presumably made by a single layer, fills the bottom of the canvas, creating a transparent, luminescent, field of what looks to the human eye to be an entirely different color. It is in fact the same  terra verde as the top of the canvas, in its “authentic” hue. Unlike the upper portion of the paintings, the surface of these lower bands might be evened out by the palette knife, but the density of the paint is not even. Drips from the application of paint in the upper section fall on these translucent areas to create tears.


The number of levels of meaning and affect in these paintings is almost equal to the number of layers of paint applied to thesurface. The first question that I am still wrestling with is whether or not these works are monochromes. Yes, Marden uses the same paint on a single canvas, but the effect of the paint application and its working over creates two different greens on each painting. Immediately, we are pushed to keep questioning what we know about color. Not only is the vast difference between each of the terra verde in the otherwise repeated canvases suggesting that the names we give to color are inadequate—how can all these different colors be the same color?—but the single color made by one manufacturer is not even singular. It doesn't take long before we realize that the words used to designate color can never be equal to the nuances of that color when it is applied to the canvas. Similarly, language can never really approach what an artist like Marden does with color.
Brice Marden, Rublev Antica (2016-2017) 
The mirror like effect
Marden also intervenes in a narrative on the history of art, a narrative that reaches well beyond Holbein. I remember seeing the terra verde works of Paolo Uccello in the cloisters at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In the renaissance, artists typically used the iron silicate/clay pigment of terra verde as the base to balance flesh tones. But for Uccello, terra verde was elevated to the entirety of the painting as a way to emphasize the pomp and circumstance of parades on horseback. Vasari claims Uccello uses green to transform painting into the illusion of sculpture, but I am not convinced. For me, the cloister horses are infused with movement through the use of the green pigment. And movement lies at one end of the spectrum of Marden's paintings’ connection to art history. That is, they push paint to do something beyond itself: to represent movement. At the other end, surrounded by the paintings in the vast open space of the Grosvenor Hill gallery, they are unmistakeably landscapes. The green and the innate transparency of the terra verde encourage our minds to wander and conceive of them as deeply connected to the most traditional of genres: landscapes. And yet, they are also inverted. The “sky” is at the bottom, and the dense green fields fill the top of the images.  

Gagosian Grosvenor Hill Brice Marden 1
Brice Marden, Installation View, Gagosian Gallery
Some of the top sections are worked up and over so much that the surface has become a mirror in which we get to see ourselves looking. This is a familiar Marden strategy that  I always think of as a pushing the spectator away to ensure she doesn’t get too close. This is the coldness that encouraged Marden to soften his painted surfaces in the 1980s. But unlike the earlier works, the ten terra verde are also inviting: the bands at the bottom are open, light and filled with an air that we cannot resist. Thus, first is the repetition of terra verde from one painting to the next, a repetition we find is filled with differences. And second, is a repetition within Marden’s oeuvre, a repetition that is, nevertheless, also developed and complicated by difference.

Brice Marden's Studio, Tivoli, NY, June 2017. Photo by Eric Piasecki

In another, more pressing layer of representation, the removal of the trace of the artist through the use of a palette knife transforms the surfaces into one that has the look of the industrially produced. And so, as if it is not enough for these breathtaking works to examine the substance of painting as well as its history, they converse with reproduction in addition to repetition within the world. The endless game of these doubling mechanisms, where one meaning is immediately withdrawn by its opposite, make me want to be with modernist abstract painting always. And when this is done in the vibrant, everchanging greens of Marden’s multiple terra verde, abstract painting is irresistible.