Manet and Degas as Realists

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Technically, Edouard Manet (1832–1883) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917 are not Impressionists; instead, they are Realists whose works owe a debt to Gericault, Goya, and Daumier and the invention of photography. Unlike Monet, who sought solace and inspiration in nature, which can be seen as a reaction to the urbanization associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie, Manet and Degas instead embraced the industrialization and urbanization driven by bourgeois economic interests. They were unconcerned with the dehumanizing effects of rapid technological advancement. Realism is aimed at depicting scenes and subjects based on the everyday lives of ordinary people.

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It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby

Left: Pablo Picasso, 1920. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Hannah Gadsby, 2018. (Photo: Alan Moyle).
Left: Pablo Picasso, 1920. @2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Hannah Gadsby, 2018. (Photo: Alan Moyle).

In our current era where historical and critical thinking are on the wane, one can’t complain about a show being ahistorical, but one can be faulted for lacking a cogent dialogue. Consequently, though mashing things together can produce interesting results, the parts must communicate with one another in a meaningful manner. Problematically, the exhibit, It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby at the Brooklyn Museum resembles Gadsby’s stand-up comedy routine—it rambles from subject to subject, and in this case, its cohesion relies on the audience’s attempt to understand how it is all connected to the red-herring Picasso. Considering Gadsby has been put in the position of playing auteur in a medium she is unaccustomed to, one which is visual and not language-based, it might have been a more interesting exercise in a post-way of thinking to present solely the exhibition’s wall texts, or conversely just the works themselves without commentary rather than clinging to the conventions of theme based exhibitions.

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Re-evaluating Ellsworth Kelly at 100

Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum IX, 2014, acrylic on canvas, twelve joined panels, © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Photo: Ron Amstutz, Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) is one of those artists whose status I’ve never understood. While he is held in high esteem by many, I’ve always questioned his significance. Don’t get me wrong, I like his work, but liking it doesn’t necessarily make it significant. His work is elegant, refined, and smart, and yet even in the 1950s-70s, it seemed conservative against the backdrop of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism. What made Kelly different from his peers was that when he was living and studying in Paris after World War2 on the GI Bill, while many of his fellow artists from the States were exploring lyric abstraction and L’informale, Kelly was looking at Art Concrete and had begun to make multi-canvas paintings.

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Adam Henry: Parts to a Whole

  Installation view, photo credit: Charles Benton.
Adam Henry, Installation view, photo credit: Charles Benton. Courtesy of Candice Madey gallery

Amongst a burgeoning market of retrograde art practices there runs an undercurrent of artists seeking to establish for art and its practices a new sustainable identity as a means of inquiry. What made his work different was that he was using painting as a platform primarily to explore the subjectivity and semiotics of perception—the polarity between painting as an optical event and a conceptual one. Taking his vocabulary from color theory, systemic and color-field painting, and cognitive science, his work focused on the difference between what a thing (materially) is and what it may descriptively represent. As with those works, Henry in his present exhibition at Candice Madey Gallery rejects at every turn the cult of individual expression, the magical thinking of transcendence, the pervasive appeal of accessibility, and spectacle. Instead with his present body of works, he reasserts his ambition is to use art as a means to engage his audience in speculative thought and self-reflection.

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Beyond the Digital at Venus Over Manhattan (uptown)


Installation view of "Beyond Digital", Venus Over Manhattan, 2022
Installation view of “Beyond Digital”, Venus Over Manhattan, 2022. Photo courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan

Artists have been working with technology since the beginning of the 20th Century. This represents an important moment in artmaking’s evolution, which until recently collectors and institutions haven’t wanted much to do with—the result is a lack of historical presence for such works. Without recourse to a history, every few decades promoters herald the emergence of an exciting new realm of expression or experimentation related to a new media, which appears to the uninformed to be without precedence—most recently it was the crypto-driven NFT market. It is this lack of a sense of history that makes it possible for the organizers of Beyond Digital to claim that this exhibition brings together pioneering artists whose works explore the possibilities of bridging the digital and physical realms. Problematically, this project is more than 50 years old and is built upon one that dates back to the start of the 20th century, when artists working in the modernist tradition started to adapt technology to art to produce light organs, slideshows and kinetic art.

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Impossible Failures at Zwirner

A photo of Pope.L in his studio, dated 2022
Pope.L, studio, 2022, photo courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery 52 Walker

When I heard about Impossible Failures it promised to be an exciting exhibition, in that it was to bring together Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978), a White post-Minimalist artist best known for his site-specific works of cutting through buildings and homes, and Pope.L (b.1955), a Black artist who used to describe himself as the friendliest Black man in America, and is known for his public performances and installations, which address Black racial stereotyping and other such hypocrisies. In a not un-interesting way, the resulting exhibition is a curatorial mash-up in which the works in it are overwhelmed. As such, this is not an exhibition where the works of each artist supply a context for the other, nor does it explore Matta-Clark’s legacy by focusing on Pope.L’s overlapping strategies. Instead it might be thought of as a collaborative installation authored by the curator Ebony L. Haynes.

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André-Pierre Arnal at Ceysson & Bénétière New York

Installation view, André-Pierre Arnal at Ceysson & Bénétière New York. Photo courtesy of Ceysson & Bénétière New York

With the advent of Modernism in the late 19th – early 20th century, differing movements, schools, and networks sprang up internationally—some were generative and sustainable, others dead-ended, though unbeknownst to most of us, traces of these persist or return. This cross-fertilization drove Modernism’s evolution until the post-World War II era the new art made in the U.S. came to dominate the narrative. The triumph of the NY School (AbEx) corresponded to the new political and economic order. In this scenario the vanguards that emerged from the rubble and detritus of the War such as C.O.B.R.A., Nouveau Realisme, Lettrist, Zero, Arte Povera, etc. were trivialized, marginalized, or came to be appropriated. To this day, the European artists whose works come to be acknowledged in the States tend to be those whose works are used to typify the whole of a critical discourse, or style. This has reduced post-War European art to a short list that includes Pierre Soulages, Antonio Tapies, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Gerhardt Richter, Anselm Keifer, etc. In this manner, the illusionary status of the U.S. as the cultural leader of the free world is sustained, while European art is made to appear to be broken, fragmented, or at best sporadically relevant, rather than constituting a network of competing histories, practices, and critical discourses.

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Another Fumble at the Whitney: no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

A group of people in a room with posters on the wall

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Installation view. Photo courtesy of the writer.

The exhibition no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria, though it includes 50 works by 20 artists, seems overwhelmed given it has been installed in an enormous space. With the exception of two lounge-like areas in which billboard-sized video projections are installed, most of the works, modest in scale, seem to be scattered through the space, or enigmatically clustered together. Ironically, where the Wake of Maria is sparsely installed and attended, the Edward Hopper NY exhibition, given its scale and popularity, would definitely benefit from more space than the half floor it has been jammed into. Another oddity is the disparity in the number and scale of works each artist is represented by. I can only suspect the budget of this show was insufficient to achieve its stated ambition of “presenting artworks made over the last five years by an inter-generational group of artists from Puerto Rico and its diaspora.”

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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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