Artistic License at the Guggenheim Part: 2

Curated by Cai Guo-Quiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince and Carrie Mae Weems, May 24, 2019–January 12, 2020

Carrie Mae Weems, “What Could Have Been”, installation shot

(Isn’t this one of the most beautiful installations ever? I’ll get to it last.)

Such an interesting show that I’ve decided to cover it in two parts. May I also suggest that you visit it now—even though it will be up until January? That way you can go back with friends as I plan to do and discuss the various strategies that the artist/curators have employed to sift through the collection.
Last summer (or was it the summer before?) MOMA put up a hastily assembled show of women artists, black artists, etc. (See, we do have “Others” in our collection!) and it had great artists and great works but no coherency. I appreciate the Guggenheim for not pretending the past was other than it was.

 

Georges Mathieu “Untitled” (1957), Georges Mathieu, “Black and White Abstract”
(1959), Martin Barre “Greenwich” (1957)

Richard Prince’s primary aim in Four Paintings Looking Right is to show that postwar abstraction was a worldwide phenomenon and not an American invention. Among many other “rhetorical” (as he puts it) questions, he asks,

“Why is it that similar compositional formats, like a kind of horizontal scaffolding, appear across cultures and artistic movements active during the 1940s and ‘50s?”

It is a very interesting idea—it had never occurred to me that it might be a compositional invention from that time, but it must be. Inventions in painting have always travelled, well before the internet and before photography too. Prince’s show provides an interesting rejoinder to Non-Brand, the theory that artists explore an idea together.
A problem in the show itself is that all this scaffolding from around the world doesn’t look that good together—proves the point but has a flattening effect.
And the amuse bouche of Stuart Sutcliffe—two paintings, though they do have a scaffold, are later and don’t add anything to the discussion.

However, there are two beautiful Guston drawings:

Phillip Guston, “Drawing No. 19” (1954) and “Untitled” (1950)

 

Norman Lewis, “Reflected Moon” (1954)

And Lewis’ Reflected Moon fits the theme while doing something completely different.   From the first glance and after studying it for a while, it always seems to be coming into focus and never does. It is one of the oddest paintings I’ve ever seen. Lewis was a first-generation American Ab-exer and not actually an outlier, born in NYC, studied at Columbia University, exhibited with Tobey and Rothko and worked in the WPA. He simply wasn’t noticed or collected in the same way. Maybe his skin color had something to do with it?

When I think about a global art world I’m kind of torn. I think it is just as interesting to think about what made CoBrA different from American Ab-Ex as it is to discuss their similarities. Being in the same place at the same time is important for artists, wherever they come from. And the “American” Abstract Expressionists were a diverse crowd in some ways—many of them were refugees—they might be “Dreamers” today: Guston was the child of Ukrainian Jews and born in Montreal, Gorky was born in Armenia, De Kooning was Dutch, Rothko was born in Latvia, and even those born in the USA travelled from unlikely places: Kline, a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania; Pollock, Wyoming. Even Lee Krasner, the only American-born child of Russian Jewish immigrants, had to cross the Brooklyn Bridge—that trip should not be underestimated.

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” (1962)

Julie Mehretu, Cry Gold and See Black has focused her selection on the post-traumatic work following WW2. It is perhaps the most open-ended of the selections and raises the question of whether it is really understood how art deals with trauma. That is, how the artist works with it and how the viewer uses it to deal with their own trauma. Personally, I won’t watch a horror movie but my primary sensation in front of Three Studies… is how beautiful it is. And it’s not even shocking—it is utterly familiar.

(Alternately, the movie Sullivan’s Travels, directed by Preston Sturges, praises comedy in a traumatic situation. A film director who wants to make serious work about the Depression is thrown in prison. When a Disney cartoon is shown, he is astonished by the laughter and then he joins it. It’s the misery that makes the laughter so explosive.)

Asger Jorn, “A Soul for Sale” (1958-9)

Mehretu also points out that abstraction itself might have been a reaction to the war years—a turning away from the horror of reality. That makes sense too. Working from life (even from a still life) can sharpen the powers of observation in an unbearable way.

 

Reading Carrie Mae Weems statement What Could Have Been, I cringed and prepared myself to be schooled.
“While the Guggenheim Museum owns many wonderful, jewel-like objects, it lacks the complexity of truly diverse representation in its holdings.”
And on her choice to start with Beuys’ school desk, Virgin (1979), she explains:
“Emulating a classroom, the installation suggests a space for contemplation, a location dedicated to learning and analysis. What then is being taught or questioned?”

The museum collection lacks diversity and that is an incalculable loss. Still, I don’t find “wonderful jewel-like objects” to be a fair description and it doesn’t feel right for Virgin to be used in this way.

But, BAM!
Nobody has ever made the bays of the Guggenheim look better than this. The choices and the way they are hung are dropdead gorgeous and all the work in it looks alive and meant to be together.

 

Martin Puryear, “Bask”, (1976) and Ana Mercedes Hoyos, “Atmosphere” (1978)

It works so much better than Holzer’s choice to show only the women. By concentrating on black and white works and mixing up time (and space), she does show what might have been (and what may be).

For example, Bask sets up a horizon that places the tender, soft-focus Atmosphere in the distance in an uncannily beautiful way and the two works relate effortlessly to Giacometti’s Spoon Woman and Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Gray) in the bay before it. (see above).

Jean Tinguely, “White Moving Forms on Black Background” (1957), Armando Morales, “Landscape” (1967), Piet Mondrian, “Composition no. 1: Lozenge with Four Lines” (1930)

Perhaps on my return visit, I will contemplate, learn and analyze. This time I simply felt a mad excitement.

—CNQ