Emily Mae Smith: Heretic Lace at Petzel

Emily Mae Smith, Heretic Lace, 2019, Oil on linen, 48×37 inches

Walt Disney has taught us that cartoons can be used to distract us while conveying the most serious of subjects. Understanding this Emily Mae Smith in 2014, introduced into her developing iconography an anthropomorphized, androgynist broom consisting of a featureless phallic shaft attached to a twig brush. This broom, a descendant of the demonic mops portrayed in sorcerer’s apprentice section of Disney’s Fantasia (1940), has become a signature image in her work. Joined with icons associated with desire and fear, Smith has used this figure as both a male and female trope, as well as an alter-ego. To greater and lesser degrees Smith uses her glossary of icons in some cases to engage in heady meditations on such topics as death, vanity, desire, history, etc. and at other times to enigmatically introduce such subjects with little or no commentary.

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Some last words on the Whitney Biennial as a cultural labyrinth

Photo from the Whitney 2022 Biennial

I would hate to think I have become an old and conservative critic who believes our best days are behind us. I would rather believe that my structuralist perspective is capable of evaluating contemporary emerging practices and recognize the social, cultural and political value of these tendencies. What brought this on is having recently seen the 1962–64 exhibition at the Jewish Museum. This show examines how artists living and working in New York during this three-year period responded to rapidly changing social and cultural conditions, by questioning what was considered to be art’s normative forms and subjects. This post-AbEx generation was concerned with creating aesthetic configurations that would result in novel perceptual modes and political subjectivities.

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Shirley Jaffe: An American Woman in Paris at the Pompidou Center

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Shirley Jaffe, installation view, Pompidou Center, photo courtesy of Helene Mauri

It might be said for the most part, given the dominant ideology of Modernism, Shirley Jaffe has been overlooked for the standard reasons—her work was out of step with the times, it was derivative of Henri Matisse and Stuart Davis, it was too French, or too American—all according to who you speak with. Yet the gorilla in the room is she was an American woman of the post-war generation who had stayed on after almost everyone had gone home, who sought to get a foothold in the male dominated Parisian art world. Despite this, she persisted and gained respect and support among multi-generations of artists. As such she developed a reputation as an artists’ artist, yet despite her boosters and the fact that she is now being acknowledged with a retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou, Jaffe remains one of the best kept secrets of post-War abstract painting in France and remains unacknowledged in the States.

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The Agreement: Chromatic Presences – Funky and Formal at Zurcher

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 Installation view of The Agreement: Chromatic Presences, curated by William Corwin at Zürcher Gallery. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy of Zürcher Gallery NY/Paris.

I’ll start with a question: does a critic have an obligation to propose a solution to an enigmatic puzzle an exhibition might pose? What has led to this, is reading William Corwin’s catalog essay for The Agreement: Chromatic Presences, in which he ignores recounting the history of sculpture and color—deemed for a very long time to be irreconcilable like fish and cheese. It is now common knowledge, sculpture till the time of the renaissance was largely polychromed, but a neo-classical notion of purity and essentialism came to be imposed upon it to differentiate it qualitatively from painting. As a result, sculpture came to be limited to the colors of its materials—marble, bronze and wood. In the West, this formalism was institutionalized by the Enlightenment’s and was the excepted norm until the mid-20th century, when art’s traditional forms began to morph. Consequently, we must ask if there is a more contemporary issue concerning color and form at the heart of Corwin’s The Agreement: Chromatic Presences, and if so, what might it be?

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