Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center

Above: Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

By Jonathan Goodman

Terry Winters, one of our very best abstract artists, quietly achieves a genuine difference in effect in his works on paper, beautifully on show now at The Drawing Center. It is quite difficult to characterize this bit of originality available in the works, which manage to be both geometric and organic at the same time. Perhaps it has to do with an organizing intellectual principle that shows up regularly in the the body of work. This has been remarked upon before; the design, then, of the images tends to read rationally even more than we see the pattern as an intuitive construction. Working like this, generally within the idiom of the New York School, makes Winters look analytically perceptive in a field that doesn’t always take such a point of view to heart. At the same time, this body of work brings up conceptual notions of pattern and organization that we don’t associate at all with the expressive abstraction that has come, more or less, to take over much of the recognized image-making available in New York. Indeed, it is best to understate the long arm of the New York School, which, tentacle-like, has established a domain that many may feel constrained by. This has nothing to do with the genuine achievements of the style, but its current ubiquity has a lot to say about the vagaries of the market, which everyone downplays but no one can afford to ignore.

But, even so, even if we acknowledge the unusually strong achievement by an artist like Winters–and we should do so–we also need to recognize the need for a new idiom, one that would neither supplant nor replace what we already have, but would rather add to the tightening conditions that have resulted from the obligation to promote sales and maintain the market. What the details of this new style might be seems impossible to imagine ahead of its time; one might argue for a hybrid recognition of figuration and abstract insight. But this is only a guess, and our chief focus here is the very good work of Winters, whose combinations of styles and patterned phenomena begin an argument for difference–even when we acknowledge his late stage of lyric abstraction. This kind of work, like all the abstraction we see today, has its origins in the consequences of modernism and its investigations into a language that would resist realism yet be visually stimulating within the innate paradigms of the genre: color, shape, line. Winters’ work is so very good it can be thoroughly enjoyed even though it is not committed, on a conscious level, to a visual idiom that repeats thinking in love with the past, nor does it demand social equity, the major focus of much art today.

The task facing the New York art community–artists, curators, gallerists, and viewers–is to engender a language that will not plummet in the face of already established visual vernaculars. The same is true in poetry–which offers a sorely needed expressiveness that is ignored because of its inability to generate assets that could yield profits greater than the high two figures! We are all more or less in a standstill in the arts, but that doesn’t mean imagery and language can’t continue to develop. Still, it is extremely hard to cut a path out of so deep, and so monetarily oriented, a forest. Some work making use of comic-book imagery, as happens in the art of Robert Williams, offers an alternative to the stranglehold of gestural abstraction, and it is also true that ambitious artists such as Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz are establishing a striking, if also highly idiosyncratic, style whose rawness rejects almost all historically established approaches in realism. In counterpoint, Winters clearly seems content to work out a point of view that is both intuitive and analytic, with a conceptual edge directing the overarching design he submits his individual elements to. It is the conceptual edge–a form of analytic intelligence–that saves Winters from the vapid repetition characterizing so much contemporary abstraction. It is clear he is smart, and it is clear that his intelligence saves him from a romantic emotionalism–now, sadly, keyed to the bank.

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Terry Winters, Untitled (Page), 2011, Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

In one 2011 work, Untitled (Page), consisting of graphite on paper, the patterns are particularly evident. Looking overall like a flower, the image is composed of small diamond-shaped forms arranged in slightly curving rows. They elaborate an image of true elegance and vibrancy; the center of the bloom bulges slightly, giving the image its three-dimensional cast. This kind of drawing is deliberately arranged, so that its composition relates to systems theory as well as natural phenomena, like a beehive, that present an ordered facade. Images such as this one play with differing means of organization, both tight and free. In many of these drawings, Winters does lean toward imagistic cohesion resulting from an organized architecture. Usually, we think of lyric abstraction as something intended to be emotionally free–even liberating for a studious audience. But good art can also belong to rational procedure, which can stabilize emotion so that it does not turn wild. Perhaps we can build a point of view that serves as an opposition to the supposed liberation of feelings focused on alone. In this case, the imagery would be influenced by moderation and restraint–virtues that are suggested, if not overly weighted, in Winters’ art.

Schema57

Terry Winters, Schema (57), 1985–86. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 1/2 inches. Private collection.

But the argument for a rational outlook can only be taken so far. It is as much a wish as it is a perception; the extravagance of feeling often seen in art of the New York School cannot be evaded in the way Winters works. In one recent drawing, Schema 57 (1985-86), we see a dark sphere whose surface is covered with equally spaced, darker holes. Above it is a quincunx of sorts–five dots, each a different color, surround an outline of a circle. There is little overarching organization–merely a suite of dots just above a rough ball of an image. We are hesitant to openly determine meaning in this case, or in the rest of works on paper. Visual abstraction, fervent or muted, cannot have its message unpacked like a symbolist poem. It exists on its own terms, without a visible social reality accompanying it. Critics can try to socialize the conditions of formalism, but it looks like this movement is best considered on its own terms, rather than being politically contextualized.

Untitled2

Terry Winters, Untitled (2), 1999, Gouache on paper, 44 1/4 x 30 1/2 inches. Private collection.

The last image to be discussed in this review is Untitled (2) (1999), a stack of four horizontally oriented lozenges, outlined and partially filled with thin lines that are drawn on a monotone ground. It is a fine, resolutely nonabstract image–one that asserts the primacy of esthetic independence. Maybe Winters’ autonomy underlies the strength of his art; he is not easily joined to other artists’ styles. The best art both reflects and transcends the Zeitgeist, and perhaps this is the case with regard to the work we see here. To summarize, Winters is important to contemporary art, but his competence–indeed, his excellence–also indicates how stuck we have become in the protracted pursuit of a style that, like all styles, is constrained by a limited trajectory. If this point has been repeated a bit too often, it is because the need to move on is reflected in the history of the New York School–Sean Scully’s merger of abstract expressionism and minimalism is a good example of a painter’s refusal to walk the same terrain. So it can be done. Winters looks original still, but within a history we know exceedingly well. We may have had too long a romance with newness for its own sake, but this is the demand we currently place on the imagination. Winters’ very fine show demonstrates the real need to make use of a language that not only looks backward but ahead.

View Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions at The Drawing Center through August 12, 2018.

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Jonathan Goodman is an art writer based in New York. For more than thirty years he has written about contemporary art for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and fronterad (an Internet publication based in Madrid). His special interests have been the new art of Mainland China and sculpture. He currently teaches contemporary art writing and thesis essay writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

 

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Women Photographers in Exile: A Conversation With Curators Christina De León and Michel Otayek

Images by Kati Horna, “Bombed! Shelled! Besieged for two years – but Life goes on!,” The Weekly Illustrated, December 3, 1938 [author unknown]. Private collection, New York.

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

I had had this event on my calendar for weeks, looking forward to unofficially celebrating the election of our first woman president at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, coinciding with this wonderful panel discussion on the topic of women photographers in exile. When the night of November 8th turned into the morning of November 9th , and election results were in, there was a different somber attitude across New York City than I’d ever seen before. As shocked and devastated as I was about the results of the election, I decided that I needed to go to the event that I had been looking forward to for so long. When I headed toward the subway to go uptown, the weather outside was grey, drizzly, and dark, and then the energy inside the subway car felt like that of a funeral. But when I got to this panel event put on by Americas Society in the gorgeous ornate colonial building of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts on 5th Avenue, celebrating the work and accomplishments of these incredibly powerful women photographers during wartime during the earlier parts of the 20th century, I was absolutely uplifted and inspired again in a way that I really needed to be at that moment. It was a night of applauding courageous and creative women who broke boundaries, fought for what they believed in and revealed acute insights on dark times with their art and activism.

In the following interview, I sat down with the curators of both the panel discussion and the exhibition, Michel Otayek and Christina De León, to speak about their motivation and inspiration behind shining the spotlight on incredible talents Kati Horna (Hungary), Lee Miller (United States), Grete Stern (Germany), and Margaret Michaelis (Austria-Hungary; Poland), among others. Each have such an incredible story that I have linked to their Wikipedia pages, but in short, from what I’ve gathered, all of these women, in face of the political turmoil of Europe mostly in the 1930s including the rise of Nazi-ism and the Spanish Civil War, fled from and moved between different countries, in regions including Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and the U.S., to take action photographing in often treacherous zones. They produced images for everything from mass publications like Vogue, to activist anarchist propaganda in Spain, to art photography which also sometimes included shared common interests in both surrealism and architecture.

8_-helen-escobedo-1960

Kati Horna, Helen Escobedo, 1960; gelatin silver print, 8 x 8 in. Private collection, Mexico City.  © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What led to your focus on Kati Horna? What most intrigued you about her work at the onset, and what were some of the most interesting things you discovered about her through your research putting this show and panel together?

Michel Otayek: Kati Horna’s work during the Spanish Civil War was the subject of my master’s thesis at Hunter College a few years ago. My doctoral dissertation at New York University, currently in progress, takes a more expansive view at her trajectory by means of a comparative analysis between her work, before and after exile, and that of Grete Stern. Early on in my research about Horna, it became clear to me that the meaning of her images was inextricable from their circulation in print. Throughout her career, she produced work specifically for the press. In a way, the true medium of her practice was the printed page, rather than the photographic print. In the pages of print materials, text and design bring to bear on what we are to make of photographic images. At the same time, one must also consider of the specificity of the audience (for whom is this magazine crafted?) when thinking about the sense-making power of images. Our exhibition at Americas Society stays close to these ideas. By presenting a rather eclectic array of print materials in dialogue with a selection of vintage prints, we argue that Horna was keenly aware of how circulation determines meaning—a circumstance she was sometimes able to exploit to great effect.

Christina De León: I was familiar with photographs by Kati Horna’s that were mostly taken in Mexico, however I was not aware of her earlier career in Spain with anarchist publications and through research for this exhibition I came to discover the story of a deeply complex and fascinating photographer. What most intrigued me about Horna’s work were her portraits, specifically of women, because she never relied on sensationalism or angst.  Her photographs invited viewers to look deeper into their own reality and served as a reflection of human conditions that encompass all of us. She also displayed an extraordinary depth of field for real-life phenomena generally viewed as banal or otherwise routinely overlooked, which she often captured with a clever sense of humor. Our archival research uncovered an incredibly diverse amount of photographic work, much of which will probably never be seen, because it is not associated with her formal production, but it’s an interesting insight into her practice and how she maintained herself financially. For instance she took wedding photographs, society portraits, images for popular photo-novela magazines, and she took innumerable picture of animals—there are many amazing photographs of cats.

Artifactoid: For the panel presentation, you discussed Horna’s work in the context of several other female photographers from the perspective of mobility and exile, including Lee Miller, Grete Stern, Margaret Michaelis, Marianne (Gast) Goeritz. What would you say is the single most outstanding quality about each of these artists, and what would you characterize as some of the most important threads between them that connect and amplify each of their bodies of work?

MO: I try not to reduce a photographer’s practice to a single, characteristic trait. I think there’s more to Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, than the decisive moment, or to Robert Capa than battlefront intrepidness. As a remarkably versatile craft, photography gave women such as Kati Horna and Grete Stern a great deal of mobility—across national borders, most obviously, but also across communities of artists, intellectuals, and political activists. There are significant commonalities in the work of these two Jewish women, including the fact that both learned their craft from photographers specializing in advertising work (József Pécsi and Walter Peterhans), which I think gave them a sense of photography as a tool to construct images rather than just document reality. Having lived in Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, both were led to exile by the rise of National Socialism. But whereas Stern left Europe for Argentina in 1936 and was celebrated early on as a pioneer of modernist photography in her adopted country, Horna’s involvement with the anarchist fringe of the Spanish Civil War resulted in a much more precarious exile to Mexico, where she arrived in late 1939—and into which culture she struggled to assimilate for a long time. For a variety of reasons, while Stern has long been part of the canon of modern Argentine photography, Horna’s work continues to be, in my opinion, unfairly underappreciated, even in Mexico.

CDL: It’s difficult to point to a single outstanding quality for each of these photographers, because there are so many! But an interesting commonality among all of them was their ability to seize the opportunities offered by the growing field of photography as a means for personal, political, economic, and artistic emancipation.

Artifactoid: Since you focus on foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, I wanted to ask you, what are some of the biggest risks and dangers that these women faced in doing what they were doing, during the time they were doing it? What were some of the biggest challenges they had to overcome that may not be obvious at first glance?

MO: In addition to Horna and Stern, I am also currently researching the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall, both of whom arrived in Venezuela in the late 1950s. Though a generation younger and having arrived in Latin America two decades later than Horna and Stern, Brändli and Segall also had to carve out their own spaces, as émigrés, in an occupational field still largely dominated by men. Something I find in common among all four is somewhat of an inclination towards the countercurrent. What I mean is that in their trajectories one notices either an engagement with themes ignored by the greater culture or, conversely, a disinterest in some of the topics most conspicuous in the work of other photographers in their adoptive countries. For example, between 1958 and 1964, Grete Stern committed herself to the production of an extensive photographic record of the indigenous communities of the Argentine Great Chaco. Driven to photograph the living conditions of these communities by a personal desire to help improve them, Stern was later greatly disappointed by she perceived as a generalized indifference towards the plight of Argentina’s indigenous cultures by the country’s elites. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that in Mexico, a country with a robust tradition of folklorist photography, Horna should have remained largely unconcerned with popular and indigenous traditions—themes that have fascinated generations of photographers there, from Hugo Brehme to Graciela Iturbide.

12d_-un-mariage-chez-les-oeufs-a-marriage-of-eggs-1936

Kati Horna, Un mariage chez les œufs [A Marriage of Eggs], 1936; gelatin silver print. Private collection, Mexico City. ©2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most surprising photographs taken by any of these artists?

MO: Much of Kati Horna’s work speaks to her refined sense of humor. The more of it one looks at, the more sensitive ones becomes to her penchant for infusing even the soberest or most mundane series with an understated layer of comicality. Oftentimes, the humorous streak of her work is not immediately apparent. But on occasion, she produced series that were downright hilarious. Such is the case of a delightful photo essay about city fashions such as bulky mini-skirts, published in July 1962 in the Mexican weekly Tiempo, in which every photograph is taken from the ground looking up, monumentalizing the subjects’ rears while keeping most of their upper bodies invisible. We were not able to include this series in our exhibition at Americas Society but it is certainly one of my favorites. While we are in the subject of personal preferences, one of the works by Bárbara Brändli I like the most is her 1981 book Los páramos se van quedando solos, in which photographs and interview transcripts document the vanishing rural communities and linguistic patterns of the Venezuelan Andes. While not a bold statement of design such as the celebrated 1975 photobook Sistema Nervioso (produced collaboratively by Brändli, John Lange and Roman Chalbaud), Los páramos se van quedando solos manages to convey the melancholic allure of agrarian life in the highlands of Western Venezuela. It is a visually austere but surprisingly sublime photographic pastoral.

CDL: I think I would say I was more inspired than surprised by the photographs taken by these artists.  In viewing these images it’s obvious that they did not hold back and you can see the urge to push further and go beyond conventionality. Their work reflects a raw individuality and a complexity that mirrored their lives.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest curatorial challenges that you faced when putting this presentation together, and how did you overcome them?

CDL: When organizing an exhibition it’s always a challenge conveying a person’s life’s work through a small and subjective selection of pieces. The goal is always to highlight key moments in a manner that is both engaging and thoughtful, but when you enter an artist’s archive the decision process can be daunting. While our exhibition is focused on Kati Horna’s relationship with the illustrated press, it was important for us to show her professional and personal transitions, as well as her vast networks in Europe and in Mexico, which was something we kept in mind throughout the entire process. Conveying Horna’s images within a framework that spoke to her political ideas, artistic curiosities, and deft eye was crucial to understanding the work we selected. In addition, it was essential to show the circulation of her images and their ever-changing contexts. For us the exhibition design and the display devices played a paramount role in helping to create a dialogue among the images and publications on view. The design was especially important because many of the images were printed in a small format and we wanted visitors to engage with its intimate nature. In many museum and gallery settings there is a tendency to keep a distance from the work, but in this case our intention was for the public to get close and become familiar with Horna’s images and her photographic practice.

Artifactoid: What new meaning, if any, is added to how you view these photographers and their work, in the context of our current, intense global political situation right now? Is there anything about their work that you see in a new light, due to current events? And, which current artists, if any, would you say could be considered modern equivalents of the photographers you focused on in this exhibit/panel?

MO: Perhaps we should put it the other way around. Thinking about what a handful of truly remarkable women were able to do with their cameras as they traversed some of the great upheavals of the 20th century has given me solace as we wake up to a global state of affairs in which, suddenly, it seems acceptable again to disparage minorities, and influential figures feel emboldened to express their contempt for the equal dignity of women. As you know, our panel at the Institute of Fine Arts about women photographers in exile was held the day after the presidential election in the United States. Many of us in attendance were shocked and deeply pained by the election’s results. The timing could not have been more apt for an evening of serene, almost therapeutic conversation about talented, courageous women and the challenges they had to overcome in their own times. Their careers can be looked at from so many different angles that one could establish pertinent comparisons with numerous artists working today. Someone that comes to mind in regards to Kati Horna is Zoe Leonard, whose phantasmagoric photographs were recently on view at an exquisite show at Hauser & Wirth, just a few blocks from Americas Society. Although conceived to operate within very different parameters of public display and circulation, Leonard’s work is concerned with preoccupations that come through in some of Horna’s most personal series: the condition of statelessness and the need to reconstruct personal history.

CDL: In light of the current political unrest, I think its clear that although there has been significant progress, women continue to face many of the same challenges and prejudices they did seventy or eight years ago. Nevertheless, women are still pushing ahead and working to defy stereotypical notions about what kind of work they should or shouldn’t be doing. This defiance has been happening throughout centuries and endures today. The objective for us as a society is to continue to shed light on their work and integrate these women within a greater canonical narrative and not refer to them just as historical anomalies.

View the exhibition of works by Kati Horna, “Told and Untold,” at Americas Society through December 17th, 2016.

About Christina De León and Michel Otayek:

Christina L. De León is a doctoral candidate at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. From 2010 to 2016 she was the associate curator at Americas Society where she worked on modern and contemporary art exhibitions and publications. She co-curated the shows For Rent: Marc Latamie (2012), Cristóbal Lehyt: Iris Sheets (2013), and Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press (2016). She contributed to the catalogue Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela 1940–1978 and has written articles for Review and Americas Quarterly periodicals. De León held previous positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. She holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Michel Otayek is an art historian and doctoral candidate at New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He holds a degree in Law from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and an M.A. in art history from Hunter College in New York. Otayek’s research addresses the role of practices of visual culture, including photography, in the articulation of discourse. His work is particularly concerned with collaboratively produced cultural artifacts such as illustrated periodicals and photobooks. Currently in progress, Mr. Otayek’s dissertation undertakes a comparative analysis of the work in exile of photographers Kati Horna in Mexico and Grete Stern in Argentina. As part of his interest in foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, he is also at work in research projects pertaining the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall in Venezuela.

What Makes a “Keeper”? New Museum Curator Natalie Bell on Collecting as Art

Original article published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art

The New Museum’s current show The Keeper, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, pushes the boundaries of the definition of art by exploring practices of collecting and preserving objects as the subject of a museum exhibition.

The Keeper features expansive collections of items compiled by artists, scholars, collectors and hoarders over the past century which provide viewers with opportunities to muse on how the things that people amass and safeguard speak to their identities. How does what we decide to keep reflect upon who we are? Themes of memory, struggle, loss, the need for comfort, and the passing of time also pervade the four-story exhibition.

keeper2Installation view of The Keeper, featuring a sculptural installation by Carol Bove and Carlo Scarpa, and paintings by Hilma af Klint

Included are works like Canadian artist-curator Ydessa Hendele’sPartners “The Teddy Bear Project” (2002), which comprises more than 3,000 antique portraits of people and their teddy bears, Shinro Ohtake’s manic collaged scrapbooks (1979-2016), and Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie” (2007-2008), an audio work sounding the voices of the speakers of twenty-five extinct or dying languages.

While many of the collections of items included in the show are impressive and thought provoking, it’s not difficult, as a viewer, to wonder: Is simply compiling a quantity of something enough to call it art? Jose Falconi, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, critiques:

“Some of the pieces, most notably Ydessa Hendeles’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” are pieces which do not have much more merit than the mere act of collecting itself. An act that is, as we all know, one of the most basic tricks in the artist book: any object starts acquiring new meaning when they are collected — just as any object starts acquiring a new meaning when they are rendered in a different scale (very big, very small). In that way, The Keeper does very little to show that there is anything beyond putting into motion such a trick and conflating many different possible readings of the works gathered in it. What is, for example, the critical difference between hoarding and collecting? Is one simply the result of an impulse gone astray?

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 Installation view of Ydessa Hendele’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002)

Supposedly the show is about showing that behind such repetitious acts there is something else lurking around, but I didn’t see it; the exhibition almost presents as mere celebration of collecting without any criticality. In other words: it suffers from what it is trying not to show.”

The answer to the question of the validity of collecting or amassing objects as art may certainly be up for debate, but one idea that seems to be paramount in understanding the value of a show like this, according to Writer and former New Museum Technician Matthew Blair, could be considering curating as the art form itself:

The Keeper either raises the status of curating to a form of art-making, or blurs the lines between collecting and creating; between curating and art-making. The curators at The New Museum have always had an interest in mounting shows that tend to [utilize] more than just content and juxtaposition. They organize shows that put more of the onus on the curators — changing the role of curating to being the dominant mode of exhibiting.”

Therefore, in part, it could be said that it is The New Museum’s commitment to allowing for experimental curatorial practices that is one of the elements most on display in The Keeper, more so than any individual work.

keeper4Shinro Ohtake, “Scrapbooks” (1979-2016)

keeper5Reproduction of drawing from “The Sketchbook from Auschwitz” (original drawing included in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), (ca. 1943) 

In the following interview, New Museum Assistant Curator Natalie Bell, who collaborated on The Keeper with Mr. Gioni provides further insight on collecting, identity, and explorations of preserving and protecting as art.

Artifactoid: From your perspective, what do you think are some of the most important things that The Keeper reveals in regards to how collecting objects relates to our identity? Are there any works that you think make some of the biggest statements? Which ones and why?

Natalie Bell: Well, almost by definition, any collection is going to reflect its collector, whether it’s merely a matter of taste or representative of a unique philosophy or set of beliefs.  In this show, of course we were interested in collections that tell a story about someone’s beliefs, or an unlikely faith that certain objects and images could prove or validate an otherwise irrational or obscure idea, which is not true of everything in the exhibition, but is a significant recurring feature of many of its “keepers.” The first that comes to mind is Roger Caillois, a French theorist who collected rare stones because he believed they could reveal a shared cosmic history — which is not such a far-fetched thought if you think about the cosmic scope of geological formations. Or Wilson Bentley, who pioneered microphotography and amassed over five thousand negatives of snowflakes to prove his hypothesis that no two snowflakes are alike. But these are instances in which collecting relates to identity, if identity is understood as one’s beliefs, which is not always how we think about identity.

keeper6Oil on canvas paintings by Hilma af Klint (1914-1915)

Which works make the biggest statements? An important footnote to Hilma af Klint’s luminous abstract paintings from 1914-15 is that she had stipulated, at the time of her death, that they be withheld from the public, or basically kept secret until twenty years after her death. So essentially she believed that her work, which was not so well received in her lifetime, would only be truly appreciated in the future. But maybe the most powerful work for me is one that combines a belief in a future discovery and an enormous moral imperative to bear witness, which are the drawings from an author known by the initials “MM,” which were found hidden in a bottle in the barracks near the gas chambers at Auschwitz and are among very few images made in Auschwitz that actually depict the atrocities of abuse, torture, and mass extermination. Clearly, the artist who made these knew the severity of punishment he would encounter if he was caught making these images, and he took enormous risk to document what was so impossibly horrific and was otherwise being assiduously hidden by the Nazis.

Artifactoid: In what ways is the idea of collecting and quantity important in art? When we call a collection of things art, what, in your opinion, are the effects or significances of that?

NB: Personally I don’t think quantity or collecting are virtues in themselves, but one way to think about how collecting or quantity have importance in art is that a dedicated accumulation of anything reflects someone’s passion, and maybe at times, their obsession — and alongside that, we tend to regard an artist’s zealousness or compulsiveness as a creative virtue. In a sense, this exhibition is maybe guilty of exploiting the legacy of romanticism, but the effect is perhaps visitors come away from the show with a new way of thinking about what it means to be creative. But it wasn’t a particular agenda of ours to anoint these bodies of work or collections as “art,” but rather to reflect on what is essential and universal about our emotional attachment to things, and how forming bonds with things helps us cope with our mortality.

keeper762 consecutive annual studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, collected by photography collector Tong Bingxue, (1901-1963)

Artifactoid: When considering the compiling of objects as art (which I was speaking about with Jose Falconi about), are there some important distinctions in your opinion about the practice of collecting versus hoarding?

NB: There are important distinctions, some of them arguable, but first of all I think you could call collecting a practice in the sense that it’s intentional and a collector might have to make decisions about what to acquire and what not to acquire, what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth keeping. Hoarding, on the other hand, is regarded as a pathological condition, and people who hoard have a compulsion to keep everything and suffer enormous anxiety about parting with anything. In other words, it comes down to being judicious about what you surround yourself with and having a capacity to refine one’s collection, rather than just keeping everything.

But in the framework of our thinking about the show, maybe the matter of preserving and protecting opens up something more contentious — which is that people who hoard often believe that they’re preserving the things that they keep for some future opportunity, and that their guardianship is essential. And there’s also maybe a shared psychological impulse in which amassing things can be a way of coping. But the arguable difference in my mind is that if you hoard, you’re constantly compromising your capacity to actually take good care of the things you have. That, and the fact that no one wants to become a hoarder. It’s considered a condition for good reason!

Artifactoid: There was a connection of several of the works to World War II and the Holocaust. Who decided to include multiple of those works, and why do you think that the idea of “collecting” is important related to that period in history?

NB: There are a few works that may stand out because of their relationship to the Holocaust, but I don’t think the idea of “collecting” is more related to that period in history than to others. Of course, it’s interesting generally to think about people’s relationship to material culture vis-a-vis larger historical events. It can manifest as a pragmatic approach, like how many Americans who came of age during the depression and remember the rationing of WWII have a tendency to reuse and salvage things that we might otherwise consider disposable. But this is more a trauma of poverty or scarcity that spurs collecting as a preventative measure. In other words, is my grandpa’s drawer full of golf pencils the product of his emotional attachment to these objects? Not really, considering that he has the same attitude toward saving ketchup packets from fast food restaurants.

keeper8Detail from Henrik Olesen’s “Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870″ (2007)

keeper9The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser (1993-2008)

But, that said, in this exhibition we weren’t so interested in the idea of collecting in a broad sense, but in something quite specific, which is a desire to preserve and protect and care for certain objects and images, so rather looking for instances where there’s a certain desire or love that’s motivating someone to action. This is a very different sort of mandate — and one that’s as subjective as it is emotional. But to return to the parts of the show that touch on the Holocaust, I think that there are potentially a lot of connections to collecting. Obviously, collecting as a form of bearing witness takes on a real urgency when there is a genocide that attempted to leave no evidence of mass exterminations, but on an emotional and psychological level, forging emotional attachments to objects is a common way of coping with the trauma, so it should be no surprise that WWII and the Holocaust stand out as something of a focal point in a show whose historical scope includes the last century.

Floors 1-3 of The Keeper will be on view at The New Museum (235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002) through Sunday, October 2nd, 2016. The fourth floor of the exhibit will be open through Sunday September 25th.

The Austrian Cultural Forum New York: A Hidden Treasure near the MoMA

For the first time, I recently visited the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City’s midtown. Situated on 52nd Street and 5th Avenue, it is close to the MoMA and is a special cultural site in an area filled with mainly retail stores and corporate offices. If you are in the area shopping, visiting the MoMA, or the south side of Central Park, I would recommend stopping in at ACFNY.

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The ACFNY is a multi-faceted destination that offers many more than one reason to visit. First of all, the physical building stands at 24 stories and is a unique and known architectural achievement in the city. It is a very deep yet narrow building that soars high with walls of windows that provide a sweeping view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which will remain, because the air rights between the two structures are privately owned by a prominent New York family. To note, the building was originally a smaller, townhouse-style structure but was eventually re-done. Co-curator Prem Krishnamurthy of current ACFNY show “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” comments,

“The ACFNY is a sliver of Austria inscribed within the complex real estate relations of Manhattan. The building is significant architecturally, as it negotiates a narrow 25-foot wide site and multi-tiered program. It’s the particularities of this architecture — both positive and challenging alike — that inspired the specific approach of the show I worked on there.”

Secondly, the ACFNY was founded in 1942 by Austrian Jewish families who fled Austria during World War II and were seeking to establish an institution to preserve Austrian culture in a place where it could flourish. In addition, there are a network of Austrian Cultural Forums globally, and the one in New York is a member of this group. I personally feel strongly about the survival of the arts during World War II, specifically the perseverance of Jewish artists who were persecuted or the recuperation of artworks seized by Nazis, like Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” which I mentioned in my previous article about Jewish Czech artist and concentration camp survivor Jan de Ruth, of whom I own a work titled “Daydream.”

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But, the ACFNY is anything but a cultural relic from the 1940s. The institute is currently showcasing two contemporary art exhibitions, including Ulrike Königshofer, “Sense and Record,” on view until 7/28, and the previously mentioned “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” put together by internationally revered curators including Krishnamurthy (of P! and Project Projects) and Walter Seidl, on view through 9/5. And, believe it or not, the next concert being held in the ACFNY’s petite, clean and modern theater will be a house music performance in September.

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Additional features of the ACFNY institution include a full library filled with preserved Austrian literature (if you are a lover of “old book scent” like I am, this is the place for you!), and a friendly, engaging and passionate staff led by ACFNY Director Christine Moser. For a free guided tour of the space and current exhibits, stop by on a Wednesday at 4PM.

Wynne Greenwood Spent Seven Years as All Three Band Members of the Activist Punk Rock Trio, “Tracy and the Plastics”

Many of you might have seen Jim Shaw’s recent multi-floor show, “The End is Near” at the New Museum, but what I’m hoping you had the chance to check out was queer feminist artist Wynne Greenwood’s smaller exhibit, “Kelly” which was open simultaneously on the fifth floor. Greenwood is an inspiring and unique creative talent who works with performance, video, object-making and music to practice what she calls “culture-healing.” From what I gathered at the exhibition, the idea of “culture healing” has to do with disrupting/debunking harmful, commonly held cultural beliefs that divide or misrepresent people, with the goal of healing relationships between different types of people.

Specifically, “Kelly” (which was also a 6 month artist residency for Greenwood at the New Museum) comprised Greenwood’s works from 1999 to 2015, during which time she concepted and acted out a variety of distinct characters for live performances and video recordings. To execute this, Greenwood would create partially improvised/partially scripted dialogues for these characters, generating profound conversations that questioned common beliefs and behaviors related to identity, gender and sexuality, and were frequently set to original music.

Greenwood’s main three works included in “Kelly” were Tracy and the Plastics (1999-2006), Strap-On TVs (2010), and her most recent project, More Heads, which she is still working on. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to shine the spotlight on the fascinating Tracy and the Plastics.

Tracy and the Plastics  is a three-member punk girl band, created by Greenwood in her basement in 1999 in Olympia, Washington (birthplace of the Riot Grrrl movement). The Tracy and the Plastics project was presented at the New Museum in the form of a series of music videos displayed across about 20 individual TV screens.  In terms of the band members, Greenwood would play all three of them herself (she would pre-record two of the band members and display them to either side of her on television screens – or project them onto the walls next to her – during performances). You can check out some official Tracy and the Plastics videos here and below to get a real idea of some of the interesting themes Greenwood brings up in the project and see it in action.

To note, Tracy and the Plastics went on tour in 2000, was featured at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and joined forces with other bands and artists including Le Tigre, Bangs, and Fawn Krieger for a variety of shows, before it later “broke up” in 2006.

One of my personal favorite things about Tracy and the Plastics is that Greenwood developed complex relationships between each of the band members, Tracy (vocals), Nikki (keyboard), and Cola (drums), which resulted in potent conversations brought about in often subtle and unexpected ways regarding identity, perception, sexuality, and more. In addition, the dynamic between Tracy, Nikki, and Cola was never boring: like any rock band, the three members often had disagreements or misunderstandings, and would sometimes hurt each other’s feelings. For example, per written materials authored by New Museum curators Johanna Burton, Stephanie Snyder and Sara O’Keefe:

…while setting up for a show, Cola spray-paints the name of the band on a wall and then asks, “Hey Tracy, does that look straight?” When Tracy confirms that it does, Cola, concerned rather than reassured, spray-paints two women’s symbols beside it, in an attempt to make it look “less straight” after all.

In 2013, seven years after Tracy and the Plastics’ 2006 dissolution, Greenwood realized that she’d wished she’d documented all of their performances, so both privately and over the course of an artist residency, she completed recreating and documenting the majority of all of the Tracy and the Plastics performances so that they could be shown as they are in exhibits like “Kelly.”

A final point that I found interesting was that at the New Museum, “Kelly” was situated within the context of a larger exhibit called “Histories of Sexuality.” This was an interesting and enriching curatorial choice because the museum placed Greenwood’s work among that of other artists in the past who had worked with similar ideas about sexuality and gender, ultimately providing viewers with the possibility of a more full-circle experience of Greenwood’s work.

The two former New Museum programs that “Histories of Sexuality” focused on included: “Homo Video: Where Are We Now” (1986-87) curated by William Olander, and New Museum Founder Marcia Tucker’s “Bad Girls” exhibition (1994) curated by Cheryl Dunye. According to the New Museum’s archives, these programs:

…attempted to redress the reductive representation of homosexuality and gendered subjects that their curators perceived in art as well as in culture at large. Both were characterized by works concerned with the texture of individual subjects and communities rather than celebrating some uniform, idealized fantasy of either gay or female liberation.

In other words, with works like those featured in “Kelly,” Greenwood carries on the conversation about these critical ideas that Olander, Tucker and Dunye focused on in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Greenwood’s additions amplify and electrify the full conversation when compiled in one unified exhibit with the other artists’ works.

For more information about Greenwood, I encourage you to check out her official website. For more information about current exhibitions at the New Museum, click here.

Knockdown Center: Why You Should Go to Queens for Art That’s Not at PS1

Strangely enough, I had no idea that I was going to Knockdown Center until I arrived. A talented friend of mine (artist Serban Ionescu) let me know that he was having an opening on a Saturday afternoon around Halloween. I love to support him and check out his work whenever I can, so I decided to trek to whichever address he’d provided me with. I was up for an adventure!

From Manhattan, I took the L to the Graham stop, where I got on the Q54 bus and headed about 10 stops toward Queens.*

I got off the bus in a deserted suburban area and walked down a few blocks of broken sidewalk until I reached an industrial archway hovering over the entrance to an expansive parking lot. I had arrived! But where was I?

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The art show I’d traveled to see that day was playfully titled Things With Claws, and featured unique works created by Serban and a group of 5 other sought-after contemporary artists including, J McDonald, Carlos LittleOlga Sophie Kauppinen, John Furgason and Jonah Emerson-Bell.

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The gallery space for Things With Claws was a simulated living room inside a one-of-a-kind mobile trailer parked in a corner of the parking lot. The trailer is a work of art in and of itself, created by J McDonald for his project, A Way From Home. McDonald constructed the trailer using “an industrial steel tank from a local defunct furniture finishing factory, and pre-fab cheap housing materials like fake brick and engineered siding.”

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McDonald also added details like a sculptural doorway, flower boxes filled with a curious mixture of live and plastic plants, and a hearth. Not exclusively constructed for Things With Claws, the A Way From Home trailer was intended to house multiple art installations, and even has its own residency at Knockdown Center.**

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While I’d planned to visit for only an hour, I ended up staying for four. Not only was Things With Claws worth the journey to Queens, but I discovered the actual Knockdown Center event space which was the large, anonymous, low-rise brick structure that the parking lot belonged to.***

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Inside Knockdown Center that day, there was another incredible exhibit going on called Sous Observation/Spaces Under Scrutiny, created in partnership with Quebec Digital Arts, NYC, which featured noteworthy pieces by eight Quebec artists: Free-Fall of Possibilities (2009-2010) by Catherine Béchard, & Sabin HudonTourner de l’œil [Spin-Off] (2014) by Martine CrispoObjets de cris et de vents [Objects of Cries and Winds] (2014) by Manon LabrecqueTV Tracker (2015) by Lorraine OadesDérive (2010-2015) by François Quévillon, and Coincidence Engine One: Universal People’s Republic Time (2008) by [THE USER] Thomas McIntosh & Emmanuel Madan. I highly recommend clicking your way through the above links if you’d like a fuller idea of some of the fascinating work coming out of the Quebec Digital Arts, NYC group.

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One memorable highlight of my day included experiencing [THE USER]’s Coincidence Engine One: Universal People’s Republic Time, and later discussing it with J McDonald. According to [THE USER], this project:

consists of a precisely fabricated expanded polystyrene foam construction whose form evokes an amphitheatre. Within this structure, twelve hundred clocks of identical design are arrayed in concentric arcs. These battery-powered timekeeping devices are among the most generic mass-produced analog clocks available, purchased in wholesale quantity from their manufacturer in Fuzhou, China. A single spectator/auditor participates most fully in the work by standing at its centre, entirely surrounded by the clocks and immersed in their sound.

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After viewing the piece, I spoke with J, who noted that with Coincidence Engine One, [THE USER] is “dematerializing time.” I don’t recall the exact words of our conversation, but they were along the lines of: “even if all of the clocks are set to be the correct time, they are all slightly different. Therefore, time disappears; it becomes superfluous.” What an amazing thought!

I didn’t think that my day could get any better, but then, I got to experience art via Oculus Rift for the first time (thanks to François Quévillon’s Dérive). Petite Mort.

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Moral of the story? Don’t only go to Queens for art at PS1. Knockdown Center is currently showing the tail ends of BLOCH and Temporary Allegiance, as well as Suspended Forest by artist Michael Neff (on view through January 31, 2016). I wouldn’t hesitate to return repeatedly to this hidden gem of a culture hub, and after you make your first visit, I don’t doubt you’ll feel the same!Knockdown12

Notes:

*If you’re a Brooklyn neophyte planning to check out Knockdown Center via public transit, be aware that the trip is worth it but it’s not glamorous.

**The “A Way From Home” trailer is on view at Knockdown Center through January 13th, 2016, now featuring Nick Normal’s Temporary Allegiance flag workshop for the Autonomous Nation of THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU.

***As you may be able to tell from the photos in this post, the inside of Knockdown Center is a gorgeous industrial-style loft space.