In recent years some of our big Chelsea galleries have given us what are basically museum shows. From Gagosian, a while back, came an invaluable retrospective of Piero Manzoni, followed by a survey of late Monet paintings that felt like an impossible dream. David Zwirner now enters the modern-old-masters lists with “Ad Reinhardt,” a trenchant centennial tribute to a classic American artist, and one of the best exhibitions in or out of a gallery this fall.
Of the canonical figures still routinely lumped under something called Abstract Expressionism, Reinhardt is one of the few I feel a real connection to, even affection for. Maybe this is because he avoided barroom soul-baring; or because he saw beyond local to global in art; or because he loved art with an acolyte’s ardor but also clearly recognized it as a contrivance around which ego and celebrity could and would be spun.
The Zwirner show, organized by Robert Storr, critic, painter and dean of the Yale School of Art, manages to touch on all of these aspects. It’s installed in three rooms, one devoted to his relatively little known graphic designs, another to his photography, and a third to his magnetic last paintings. At a glance, the three different kinds of work seem to have no obvious connection; they could be by three different people. But they were all his and all ran together, on parallel tracks for most his life.
Born in 1913 in New York City, a child of German immigrants, Reinhardt started painting young and took art history courses with Meyer Schapiro as an undergraduate at Columbia, where he also got involved in radical politics. After college he supported himself as a cartoonist and graphic designer, mostly for leftist newspapers like New Masses and P.M., and kept taking assignments for decades, even after he became a teacher, a professional painter and an international traveler.
The graphic work is the news here: nowhere near this much has been exhibited before. The earliest material is politically topical, with critical jabs at European fascism and America capitalism. But after World War II, when the art of the American avant-garde, of which he considered himself a member, began to attract mainstream notice, he turned his focus in that direction. In a series of 1946 cartoon-and-collage spreads on the subject of how to look at art, done for P.M., he initially balanced humor with public service-style advocacy. One of the first entries, “How to View High (Abstract) Art,” has a mildly booboisie-mocking tone but does what it says it will do: It explains, through analogies to music and natural sounds, how abstraction could be understood.
After doing a few hand-drawn strips like this one, Reinhardt began to produce collages. Several of his original paste-ups are in the show, and their cut-and-paste contents, with sources ranging from contemporary ads, to 19th-century science books, to Albrecht Dürer prints — gives a sense of his eclectic, erudite interests.
As time went on, the sources broadened even further, and the subject matter of the collage work, along with its critical targets and intended audience, changed. By the end of the 1940s, Reinhardt was seeing the American art vanguard, which he had helped promote, become a marketing phenomenon, a source of public entertainment, with a few careers lavishly rewarded, others ignored. In stinging satirical collages, some published in ARTnews, he went on a tear, firing away at everybody — curators, critics, dealers, fellow artists — and naming names. It’s important to remember that he was not a sniper taking potshots from afar. He was a terrorist self-embedded on his own turf.
His attacks were attributed at the time, and since, to sour grapes: His career as a painter, which he kept entirely separate from his design work, was far from soaring. But the outrage was coming from someplace else: wounded ideals. Reinhardt was one of the few artists in what would become the Abstract Expressionist milieu to have been an abstract painter from the start. To him abstraction was not a genre or style; it was an ethos.
It represented a free zone set apart from, and against, the commercialism that was becoming the postwar American norm. It was also a space that, by Reinhardt’s cosmopolitan lights, was open to cultural influences that an isolationist America knew virtually nothing about. “Why is there no world history of modern art?” he asked more than 50 years ago, and did his part to search out such a history.
“Ad Reinhardt” continues through Dec. 18 at the David Zwirner Gallery.
On Sunday morning, I rose early. I had decided the night before to go to the ocean, so I slipped a book and a bottle of water into a sack and caught a ride to Rockaway Beach. It felt like a significant date, but I failed to conjure anything specific. The beach was empty, and, with the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy looming, the quiet sea seemed to embody the contradictory truth of nature. I stood there for a while, tracing the path of a low-flying plane, when I received a text message from my daughter, Jesse. Lou Reed was dead. I flinched and took a deep breath. I had seen him with his wife, Laurie, in the city recently, and I’d sensed that he was ill. A weariness shadowed her customary brightness. When Lou said goodbye, his dark eyes seemed to contain an infinite and benevolent sadness.
I met Lou at Max’s Kansas City in 1970. The Velvet Underground played two sets a night for several weeks that summer. The critic and scholar Donald Lyons was shocked that I had never seen them, and he escorted me upstairs for the second set of their first night. I loved to dance, and you could dance for hours to the music of the Velvet Underground. A dissonant surf doo-wop drone allowing you to move very fast or very slow. It was my late and revelatory introduction to “Sister Ray.”
Within a few years, in that same room upstairs at Max’s, Lenny Kaye, Richard Sohl, and I presented our own land of a thousand dances. Lou would often stop by to see what we were up to. A complicated man, he encouraged our efforts, then turned and provoked me like a Machiavellian schoolboy. I would try to steer clear of him, but, catlike, he would suddenly reappear, and disarm me with some Delmore Schwartz line about love or courage. I didn’t understand his erratic behavior or the intensity of his moods, which shifted, like his speech patterns, from speedy to laconic. But I understood his devotion to poetry and the transporting quality of his performances. He had black eyes, black T-shirt, pale skin. He was curious, sometimes suspicious, a voracious reader, and a sonic explorer. An obscure guitar pedal was for him another kind of poem. He was our connection to the infamous air of the Factory. He had made Edie Sedgwick dance. Andy Warhol whispered in his ear. Lou brought the sensibilities of art and literature into his music. He was our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.
As my band evolved and covered his songs, Lou bestowed his blessings. Toward the end of the seventies, I was preparing to leave the city for Detroit when I bumped into him by the elevator in the old Gramercy Park Hotel. I was carrying a book of poems by Rupert Brooke. He took the book out of my hand and we looked at the poet’s photograph together. So beautiful, he said, so sad. It was a moment of complete peace.
As news of Lou’s death spread, a rippling sensation mounted, then burst, filling the atmosphere with hyperkinetic energy. Scores of messages found their way to me. A call from Sam Shepard, driving a truck through Kentucky. A modest Japanese photographer sending a text from Tokyo—“I am crying.”
As I mourned by the sea, two images came to mind, watermarking the paper- colored sky. The first was the face of his wife, Laurie. She was his mirror; in her eyes you can see his kindness, sincerity, and empathy. The second was the “great big clipper ship” that he longed to board, from the lyrics of his masterpiece, “Heroin.” I envisioned it waiting for him beneath the constellation formed by the souls of the poets he so wished to join. Before I slept, I searched for the significance of the date—October 27th—and found it to be the birthday of both Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath. Lou had chosen the perfect day to set sail—the day of poets, on Sunday morning, the world behind him.
Christopher Wool is one of many painters who have experimented with bringing their medium to extinction. They strip it of familiar attributes like imagery, brushwork or flatness, often ending up with some kind of monochrome that suggests the last painting that could possibly be made.
Again and again, these works make viewers ask, in effect: Are you kidding me? That’s a painting?
In the postwar years at least, these endgame artists have made their supposedly last paintings and then done one of three things. Some, including most first-generation Conceptual artists, move on to other mediums (although some have circled back). Others, like Robert Ryman, with his endlessly varied white paintings, or Daniel Buren, with his repurposed striped awning canvas, stay put, finding plenty to do despite the seemingly reduced circumstances. Still others work their way back from the brink, toward complexity; a prime example is Frank Stella.
Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Wool, now 58, flirted with extinction at the beginning of his career, initially making thin-skinned paintings using rubber stamps and house-painting rollers, following the hands-off tradition initiated by Jackson Pollock’s dripped canvases and Andy Warhol’s silk-screen images. But then he did something slightly different, keeping his work narrow while expanding it with a few carefully-arrived-at techniques and motifs used in increasingly complex combinations. That circumscribed expansion is basically the plotline of Mr. Wool’s handsome, challenging survey of paintings, works on paper and photographs at the Guggenheim Museum.
His bold, often graphic works, which are predominantly black and white, belong to that amorphous category of art that looks great in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral rotunda. Yet the show is not without problems. It can seem padded, especially with three series of dark, grainy photographs that make the gritty urban sensibility behind the work explicit but don’t need five bays of wall space to do so.
Worse still, there is no sign of Mr. Wool’s brief span of early work, namely vaguely neo-Expressionist cream-and-black figurative work and monochromes he exhibited in New York in his first two solo shows at the Cable Gallery on lower Broadway in 1984 and 1986.
This gives his art a sprung-from-the-head-of-Zeus suddenness that shortchanges everyone — Mr. Wool, the viewer and especially younger artists, who always learn from a glimpse of first steps.
Generally, however, this exhibition is an elegant experiential treat, one that can teach a lot about pictorial power, the act of looking as exploration and the simple physical innovations that are basic to painting’s evolution. With Mr. Wool, the recurring question becomes not only “Is that a painting?” but also “Is that actually painted?” And the answer often is: No, not strictly speaking.
In recent years, he has made paintings of the no-hands variety, using both silk-screen and digital printing, often of images of previous paintings. He warns us right up front about this possibility with a large painting of a big Abstract Expressionist splash of loud pink that hangs alone on the ground level of the rotunda. It is actually a silk-screen of a much-enlarged splash of enamel printed on four sheets of paper that were then glued to a canvas. (The seams are quite visible.)
Mr. Wool made his name in the late 1980s, when the excesses of Neo-Expressionist painting were waning and a more satirical, hard-edge, commodity-conscious kind of art called Neo Geo was ascendant. By then, he had switched from oil on canvas to enamel, usually black, on aluminum panels painted stark white. Borrowing from Neo Geo hardness and Conceptual attitude, he eliminated painterly touch and emphasized randomness and a dystopian vision. At the time, these works looked unremittingly Minimalist, and skeptical in a way that painting hadn’t looked for a while.
Some feature banal patterns of vines or trellises applied with either the rubber stamps or the rollers incised with repeating motifs, used by house painters to simulate wallpaper cheaply. (They can resemble refrigerator doors that someone tried to decorate.) Other paintings from this period are more confrontational, freighted with harsh language and potentially explosive emotions. Their images are simply big stenciled capital letters that resolve into compressed words and phrases that Mr. Wool had been collecting, mostly from movies and record-album notes, with no particular goal in mind.
These paintings conflate the act of seeing, reading and even speaking as you tease and sound out the meanings of their run-on or awkwardly broken words. Best known is “Apocalypse Now” (1988), which starkly announces, “Sell the House, Sell the Car, Sell the Kids,” a line from Francis Ford Coppola’s movie of the same name. (It is represented here by a small study, since its owner, a private collector, has decided that now is a good time to put it up for auction.)
Sometimes the phrasing is deliberately enigmatic, as with a later word painting that says, “The Harder You Look, the Harder You Look.” Sometimes, letters are missing. One early painting here is the 1989 “Trouble,” which renders its title as a very big four-letter word: TRBL, arranged in letters stacked two over two. As with many endgame paintings, these made you wonder what Mr. Wool might do next.
His solutions unwind up the ramp in fairly strict chronological order, gaining strength as they go. Works from different decades are mixed together only at the very beginning, in the museum’s High Gallery, and at the very end, in the gallery off the sixth level of the ramp, forming short summations of his range. Throughout, we see an artist who has picked sparingly from the art around him, not only from Minimalist painting and Conceptual art, but appropriation art and street graffiti, too.
An earlier version of this review included outdated information about the owner of Mr. Wool’s “Apocalypse Now.” While it had been owned by a former hedge-fund manager and Guggenheim trustee, he no longer owns the painting and it is another collector who has decided that now is a good time to put it up for auction.
In the mid-1990s, the word and rollered paintings were followed by cheerful found images of flowers, enlarged and silk-screened in increasingly complex layers, sometimes canceled with swaths of black or white only to be silk-screened again. The buildups yielded messy clotted centers and telling details at the margins: stems, petals and flowerpots but also bits of the rollered patterns.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Wool guardedly reintroduced overt hand making in the form of looping lines of black applied with a spray gun. With these, he further defaced the flower paintings while also making paintings of the tangled loops alone, suggesting a freshman graffiti artist. Soon he was making digital prints of these tangles and gluing them to canvas, and then realized that all his previous paintings were fodder for future work.
He also began wiping away the spray-gunned lines with rags and then brushes soaked with turpentine, creating atmospheric shades of gray with black lines lashing in and out. The works that result from this process, found at the top of the ramp, often have a tremendous scale and an unexpected exuberance. They hark back to Abstract Expressionism airily, without angst.
Mr. Wool and Katherine Brinson, the Guggenheim curator responsible for the show, have taken care to juggle works in ways that encourage us to see distinctions among them, juxtaposing the same motifs in printed and painted form that stand alone or are buried between layers of other patterns and images. Some works are all hands, others are no hands, some are both. Figuring out which is which and what difference it makes is up to us.
In many ways, Mr. Wool has rendered moot the distinction between original and copy where painting is concerned without sacrificing complexity. His primary aid has been transparency: the ease with which we comprehend the layers of deliberation and chance that give visual life to his surfaces. How a painting is made has long been part of its content — before Pollock for sure, and even before Manet. Mr. Wool contributes to that continuum.
“Christopher Wool” is on view through Jan. 22 at the Guggenheim Museum
Everything Is Explored, Though Little Is Voiced: Bill Callahan’s ‘Dream River’
By Ben Ratliff | Photography by Hanly Banks
Published: New York Times September 19, 2013
Bill Callahan may be easiest to describe by what he isn’t quite: a folkie; a country singer; a cloistered, primitivist weirdo with a four-track recorder; a poet or some other kind of words-only artist. Over the last 23 years, on a string of records made almost exclusively for the Chicago label Drag City, you sense that he’s walked past those doors, revising his ideas, waiting, looking for something.
He’s found it. Listen through his astonishing new album, “Dream River,” and you will hear, lined up neatly, his trademarks. They’ve been floating around in his work recently, though perhaps not so deliberately; they didn’t seem like trademarks until now. But “Dream River” is evidence of a system, a working formula.
Here is Mr. Callahan’s baritone voice, floating lightly in middle range and making quick and confident deep dives, putting strange bends on a phrase. Here is an image of a man alone in a hotel room; images of eagles and water — in fact, of an eagle flying over water, “alive and enjoying the ride.” (The idea of motion for its own sake is another Callahan trademark.) A rippling phase effect on Mr. Callahan’s rhythm-guitar strumming, like Waylon Jennings had in the mid-’70s. A small band with minimal percussion — sometimes only congas and clave sticks — playing spacious and ominous live arrangements in waltz or habanera, through songs that pause and turn in strange places. Words or expressions ritually expressed in twos or threes. And a narrative action first described and then imitated, like this, from the album’s first track, “The Sing”:
The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you
Mr. Callahan is now 47 and has been based in Austin, Tex., for almost a decade. In the frequently scrappy or bitter music he made under the name Smog beginning in 1990, and then since he started using his own name on records in 2007, he’s been changing ensembles, sounds and strategies, making his work more country or less, more minimal or less, more disruptive or less. His work has suggested a great struggle to make songs that are both emotionally affecting and explosions of implied meaning: a kind of semantic-epistemological-metaphysical event. He seems to want to put everything in them now: love, death, fear, patience, transfiguration. He just doesn’t want to say any of it outright.
This level of subtlety is not common in pop. Plenty of songwriters are oblique, but Mr. Callahan wants to connect. His records are literary without having a lot of words; they’re methodical slow drips of charged ideas that settle in the brain like a long poem or a novel. This one in particular is almost transparent: a wind blows through it. With a group of Austin musicians that has become more stable over the last few albums, he’s made a complex procedure sound easy.
Mr. Callahan’s introverted voice, refined as it has become over the years, may never lose its essential awkwardness; he can still use it perversely. (This record’s final song, “Winter Road,” has a smash closer on paper: “I have learned when things are beautiful/ to just keep on.” Yet he stretches out “are” and “just,” the two dullest words of the couplet, into long froggy croaks over an F-minor chord; it’s a weirdly flat-footed move at an important moment.) He has a unified band sound now, and has let his lead-line instrumental players take major roles in it: Beth Galiger on flute brings a hopeful sound to a heavy-hearted scene, and Matt Kinsey, on electric guitar, is miraculous. Using echo and delay pedals and a tremolo bar, Mr. Kinsey keeps creeping in, bursting like a pink sky, and slipping away. His work on this record feels like one continuous performance, and one of the best by anyone I have heard this year.
Mr. Callahan has said that he cares about putting a kind of buried story line in his records, from song to song. I don’t know about that, but there is a single consciousness that holds together “Dream River.” There’s always a force threatening to drag the narrator under in these songs: an icy road, a storm, a mate’s deep sleep, gravity. His characters are confused without admitting it, and they’re infantile around love, abjectly grateful for its power, seeking or offering it impulsively. On “Javelin Unlanding” he sings:
Don’t die just yet
And leave me
Alone alone alone
On this journey
’round the sun
Love is central to the record anyway, through all the subterfuge and indirection. This is an album in which a song that’s actually about flying (“Small Plane”) is, one level deeper, about a trusting relationship, and possibly an even better song about sex. Yet the next song, “Spring,” is explicitly about sex (the key couplet is “All I want to do is to make love to you/ in the fertile dirt”), but points to something else, something bigger and darker.
What is it? Disappointment, decay. “We call it spring, though things are dying,” he sings. Then he rights himself: “The true spring is in you/ the true spring is in you.”