Women in Abstract Painting

 

The King Is Dead (Hamilton?)

Grace Hartigan, The King Is Dead [Hartigan said The King is Picasso]

The Denver Art Museum hosts this show of over a dozen women artists, from San Francisco and New York, primarily.  Some are quite well known (Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner), others less so (Perle Fine, Mary Abbott) but all are impressive. Each gets a space of her own. Each has 4-6 paintings judiciously selected.  The placards downplay, if they mention at all, their connections with male abstract expressionists, rightly so, since the work clearly stands on its own, and may, in fact, in cases such as Frankenthaler’s Color Field paintings, have influenced other women, and men, as much as Rothko or Still influenced the women.

Of course there is a publication with all the paintings and there is a quite good 15 minute film that has interviews with the women in the show or those who knew them. The candid photos the women in their studios and at play suggest that were  “out there”: smoking, partying, working hard and having clear, engaging thoughts about their work and the work of others.  Several state that San Francisco was a far less macho, discriminatory work for women than New York City.

Perle Fine 2

Perle Fine’s small abstraction. Most of the work in the show is quite large.

It may not be possible to “pop” over to Denver but if you find yourself here, it is a terrific show. And right next store, in the Clyfford Still Museum, is a room dedicated to work he made in San Francisco while a teach at the San Francisco Institute of Art where he served as a mentor for some of the women in the show, someone to learn from but hardly imitate as these women artists found voices of their own.

Frank Gehry’s Bilbao

This is truly an impressive work. After seeing Sydney Pollack’s doc on Gehry where they mainly interact and Gehry talks about his career, I came away more convinced than ever that it is one of the great architectural achievements of modern times. And Pollack is generous enough to give screen time to Hal Foster who plays the Blue Meanie: it’s just not that good, not that important, and if it were, it’d be too important because museums are about the art. He should have told that to Frank Lloyd Wright before he built the original Guggenheim with its insane spiral gallery that has proven a wonder ever since!

But enough on Meanies. What struck me is the balance and proportionality of it, and the intricacy of the surfaces that curve, bend, fold and refuse to obey the rectilinear dictates of most architecture. In fact, a vast number of columns, including staircases and elevator shafts as well as the more thematically inspired columns that soar upward from the central open space within, are freestanding: they do not begin at the ground level or end at the ceiling but usually do just one or the other, or neither. It gives the whole thing a lightness and giddiness that belies its monumental size.

And the curves seem to mimic the enormous gallery of Richard Serra’s great freestanding steel sculptures that also appear unanchored in any traditional sense. See this photo below of Gehry’s sculpted space and compare it to the permanent installation of Serra. It’s just one of the many ways in this museum is a true gem and will remain so for a long long time.

Bilbao 45

Bilbao Serra

Coit Tower and Its Murals

Workers of the WorldHere is a small detail from the great murals of Coit Tower, San Francisco.  A tribute to the firemen of the city, and designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, or other things more phallic if one prefers, the tower would be merely a tourist attraction were it not for the murals.  Created during the Great Depression by a group of local artisits who were, for the most part, friends or students of Diego Rivera, the murals capture the harshness and diversity of American life in stunning panoramas of great proportion.

The first two images below contrast the news of the day with the information that makes fortunes, and the well-heeled who absorb it. The news isn’t happy making but the library provides little joy either, it seems.

The third below, of a family panning for gold, washing clothes and of the daughter(?) sawing an enormous log, probably for cooking, contrasts this sample salt of the earth group with the leisure bound family of gawkers above them who stand near their car taking in the “picturesque” scene, as some who stroll by the murals today still do.

Cars are less a means of transportation than a threat to human life for the masses, it seems and the fourth image–all these shots are but segments of quite large murals–captures the horror of an automobile accident and the carnage it causes.

To the right of it is a man on the dock. He sits looking off to the left, waiting, hoping, expecting? We can’t tell but the large ship behind him is clearly of less interest than something yet to be seen, and perhaps done, something that will transform this world of contrasts and contradictions, misery and privilege.  Like him, it seems we’re still waiting.

News, Dreary News in Hard Times
Boys and Their Books, away from the newspapers
Tale of Two FamiliesDeath Comes, as it must to allOn the Dock

Letters to Afar: Peter Forgacs’ New Installation

The Opening

To say that this installation, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, is amazing is to scratch the surface.

Made up of 13 screens, all large–some on scrims that let the image pass through 3 or 4 layers of cloth before finally fading into nothingness, sone on screens, some on the museum walls, some in horizontal diptyches, some in vertical ones, some with vocal accompaniment, some without–the images are both pedestrian and astounding. Shot by visitors to Poland in the 1920s and 30s, and intended as home movies, they are far from the usual cute pictures only of interest to the family they capture. The visitors are returning. They are Jewish-Polish immigrants who became Jewish-American success stories, men who could afford a camara and even, sometimes, a cameraman. They are returning to their places of origin and the extended families that dot the Polish landscape. From Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw to dozens of shtetls, they shot images of the life and people they have left and need to remember.

Their images create an archive of a lost world, though the archive itself persists at YIVO in New York city. Forgacs went through the vast inventory of home movies and selected about 6 hours of footage to organize into the installation. Most screens or clusters of screens feature footage from a single location: a major city or shtetl. People go about their daily lives; people look at the camera and often pose for it; people live their middle European lives in the period between wars as if it will go on forever. There is immense vitality and joie de vivre in what they do and how they represent themselves. Forgacs has skillfully given us a sense of a culture that possesses enormous strength, diversity, confidence and zest.

How could it disappear? How much diabolical work had to go into making that happen? This installation makes clear that no small effort would suffice. It would have to be a genuine catastrophe, a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Such an event is nowhere to be seen in the installation but it lives in our memories and hearts and when those memories of what will happen next confronts this testament to what went before, the result is dumbfounding. Beauty and joy hover near the wings of a maelstrom that is soon to descend. We can only rejoice at this reclaimed world and mourn its horrific passing.

a Forgacs triptych with 3 viewers

Alcatraz and Ai Weiwei: The Scene of the Crime

You get the idea that this is a bad place right away.

Alcatraz with Angel Island in the background.

Alcatraz with Angel Island in the background.


Discarded, but a black and white reminder of just how stark this place can be.

Discarded, but a black and white reminder of just how stark this place can be.

Set like what should be a jewel in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, the island, is nothing but rock and Alcatraz, the prison, nothing but misery. The free audio tour, with the voices of former guards and prisoners, recreates what it would be like to an inmate and it’s not a pretty picture. Cells are tiny, places to roam or exercise or read are miniscule to non-existent.

Ai Weiwei has been to jail. In China. For alleged tax-evasion. The two documentaries about him, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, give a vivid sense of his art, politics, humor, decency, integrity and status as a thorn in the side of a near totalitarian government. He can’t leave the country but this exhibit exploits that fact. He has created an installation of multiple works that remind us how international and relentless the pressure on political dissent is. From the colorful dragon that snakes through half of the building where prisoners were allowed to work to the Lego-based images of scores and scores of political prisoners around the world, Weiwei draws us into a world we would rather forget and reminds of just how high a price dissent, protest and militant activism often entails.

The dragon's head wlecomes us to the former prisoners' "work" area.

The dragon’s head wlecomes us to the former prisoners’ “work” area.

A reminder of  the thin line between in and out, free and captive, liberty and oppression.

A reminder of the thin line between in and out, free and captive, liberty and oppression.

The Lego images are of far more people than most of us have heard of; Weiwei has culled them from around the world. The small pieces of interlocking tessera reassemble people whose lives have been torn apart, whose existence has been minimized and whose identities have been demonized. Some are prisoners no longer such as Nelson Mandela, while others, like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden occupy liminal spaces within or beyond prison walls. Weiwei gives them a vivid, fractured presence that we must actively reassemble and integrate in our own minds as we wander in this desolate workspace, a void in the spirit world of life.

One of the large arrays of images in the work space. There are five such arrays in all.

One of the large arrays of images in the work space. There are five such arrays in all.


Chelsea as she might be seen today were she not in prison for helping expose the secret acts of our government's war on civil liberties and privacy in the name of a war that seems to perpetuate the very thing it seeks to eliminate: terrorism.

Chelsea as she might be seen today were she not in prison for helping expose the secret acts of our government’s war on civil liberties and privacy in the name of a war that seems to perpetuate the very thing it seeks to eliminate: terrorism.

Alcatraz: Nowhere To Go

Alcatraz: Nowhere To Go

Keith Haring at the de Young

The de Young museum has a powerful collection of Keith Haring’s more political work. His familiar style can sometimes mislead one into thinking it’s a “one look fits all” type of work but these images grab the viewer by the lapels more often than not.

One of the best known of Haring's political images

One of the best known of Haring’s political images

Striking is their scale and simplicity. Often made on tarpolins with store bought paint, and many dashed onto vacant advertising panels on New York subway trains, the images are stark and mesmerizing. Like the Aboriginal dream paintings that his repetitive use of symbols and icons resemble, the images transport us to a dream, or nightmare, world where ordinary humans are sujected to endless tortures, dismemberments and death at the hands of large, looming figures that are animalistic or machine-like more often than not.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring's figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring’s figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

It can be easy to think of Haring as an “easy” artist: easy on the eyes, easy on the mind, easy, sometimes, on the pocketbook with his accessories, knockoffs and mass produced items, but a political motif runs vividly through this show, if not his oeuvre. He clearly finds little solace in the Great Society or the war in Vietnam, or Reagonomics or the continuing, and still continuing, racism, exploitation and media circus that surrounds him and that he both cultivated and subverted.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

The museum gift shop is chock full of Haring-abelia for the acquisition minded, but the real gift is in the work itself. It haunts and moves and provokes and reminds us that there is a dignity in the gesture of resistance, of a great refusal of that which is everywhere celebrated and normalized… until it isn’t.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

Palm Springs Museum of Art

The sculpture captures the feel of a waterfall, in metal, which seems apt for a desert setting

The sculpture captures the feel of a waterfall, in metal, which seems apt for a desert setting

I stayed in Palm Springs to go to the Indian Wells tennis tournament and see the top players in action so wandering over to this museum was an afterthought but an inspiring one at that.

The museum reminds me of how much good to great art is outside the hallowed walls of our uber-institutions, our cultural meccas like the Louvre or the Met. PSMOA, to abbreviate, has an excellent collection of modern/contemporary art with not just examples from Anselm Keifer and Henri Matisse, or from Mona Hatoun and Deborah Butterfield, but they have situated in a site that is supremely well designed for its display.

A site specific work in the sculpture garden

A site specific work in the sculpture garden

Located just a block away from a vastly touristic main street the museum invites a return to something more enduring and engaging than the routine souvenires and predictable snack foods. A full-blown commentary on many of the works are needed to do justice to the museum’s achievements, but this post is merely a whet-the-appetite sort of thing so that if you happen to be in the Coachella Valley you can see for yourself what a treat this museum is.

Positioned at the top of the staircase to the second floor, this work causes a lot of double takes and creepy feelings.

Positioned at the top of the staircase to the second floor, this work causes a lot of double takes and creepy feelings.

Deborah Butterfield creates  animal figures from driftwood

Deborah Butterfield creates animal figures from driftwood

Part of a large set of panels, this is one of my favorites

Part of a large set of panels, this is one of my favorites