Tomorrow Real Art News, In the Meantime, I’m With the Dogs on This One

My interpretation of every dog that lives within six blocks of me.

I’ve only lived in New York since last summer and I love it.  I love my apartment building and my neighborhood, Chelsea.  I love the subways, the shopping, and of course the art.  But I have never seen so many dogs in my life.  Not just at one time.  I mean cumulatively.

There is a time near evening when the population of 6th Avenue is transformed from its daytime mix of shoppers and students and moms and street vendors into something far different: a horde of just-got-out-of-work-professional-men-still-in-their-business-suits-walking-the-dogs-that-their-wives-and-girlfriends-just-had-to-have.

These are tiny dogs with bouffant hairdos on pink leashes with rhinestones.  These are grown men saying things like, “Just wee-wee already, Princess.  Daddy is tired.”  And, “Come ON, Killer, poo-poo.”

The dogs strain against their leashes no matter which way the men turn, and then suddenly lurch to the side to tangle in the legs of strangers.  They sit down, mid-crosswalk, causing cabs to honk ($350 fine, but worth it).  They want grass, in a city in which grass lives behind bars.

They do poop eventually, leading to the classic plastic-bag lean-and-scoop maneuver.  This is not always performed cleanly and efficiently, to the detriment of innocent passersby.

One presumes that it is love for a woman that causes men to behave like this, since it is certainly not love for a dog.  Their expressions of embarrassment and resignation make that clear.

Somewhere nearby, safe at home, is the real pet owner: a woman who says all too often, “Honey, would you take her for a walk, just this once?”

Thanks, Clay

My brother is two years older than I am and has never stopped teasing me.  Ever.  When I was much younger and thought I would be a writer, he told me that the less successful I was when I was alive, the more successful I would be when I was dead.  And that dying young would help.  (“Emily Dickinson,” he would say, looking at me pointedly.)

Then I turned to art and got the same message.  (“Vincent van Gogh,” he would shrug.)  He also assured me that in the future my work would be authenticated by DNA analysis of the cat hairs caught in the layers of my paint.  Okay, that’s probably true.

I just wanted to say thanks to him.  Little did he know that he was telling me something valuable: fame and money are not success.  I’ve had Henry Darger on the brain this week, along with other artists who worked years in solitude without recognition.  What kept them going?

It wasn’t critical appreciation or sales.  It wasn’t validation of any kind.  So it must have been the drive to create, the striving to make it right, and the joy when it finally (and so rarely) works.

I was in the studio this morning, at a slight loss like most Mondays, when I remembered what was important.  I am lucky to be an artist.

So I tell myself: Make something.  Anything.  And then make the next thing.  It’s enough.

Sharon Butler at Pocket Utopia

I stopped in at Pocket Utopia this afternoon (Sunday) and was lucky enough to meet gallery owner Austin Thomas when she had a few minutes to spare for me.  What a refreshing change she is from the gallery greeters who look through me, or worse, look directly at me with a sneer as if I’m wasting their precious and rarefied oxygen.  Why do they assume I’m not a collector?  I’m not, of course, but if I were, I would dress exactly the same.  Maybe even worse.

Sharon ButlerInstallation View

Sharon Butler
Installation View

Sorry.  Off topic.  I went to Pocket Utopia to see Sharon Butler’s new show Precisionist Casual.  I first met Sharon last fall, when she came to SVA as a visiting artist and gave me a wonderful critique of my paintings.  I’ve always liked the images in her work.  They’re not pictures so much as schematics, or hints of pictures to come, or (my favorites) her subject matter distilled into clean lines, chalky colors, and subtle tone-on-tones.  They expertly straddle the line between figuration and abstraction.

Sharon ButlerParking Gate

Sharon Butler
Parking Gate

One more thing that makes Sharon’s art special is that it takes the question of art beyond subject matter, shape, and color and also raises questions of modernism and post-modernism while she plays with her painting supports.  Some paintings are on traditionally stretched canvases, but the staples are all showing.  Some paintings are on raw laundered canvas.  There are some on cheap canvas boards, and one in which the staples are on the wrong side of the stretcher bars.  There is even a pile of paintings leaning together against the wall. It’s quite deliberate, so what is she saying?  There are paintings which create space and others which do not.  And yet put on flat canvas versus dimensional stretchers, the space created becomes arbitrary.  She could remove it at any time.  So she is reminding us that painting is an illusion, and she, not you, is in control of it.

Sharon ButlerWasher, andBlue Fences

Sharon Butler
Washer, and
Blue Fences

The images are simple and engaging.  The titles are provocative.  The F train drops you practically on the doorstep.  So go.

Chelsea Afternoon

This afternoon wasn’t exactly a random walk around the Chelsea art district, although as many times as I got turned around and began to retrace my steps, random might have been an improvement.

Henry Darger Triptych

I especially wanted to see the Henry Darger Show at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (529 W 20th).  Darger is one of those artists whose personal story adds layers of meaning to his artwork.  A lifelong janitor, solitary at home, his voluminous artwork was discovered after his death: the thirteen volume illustrated history of the innocent Vivian Girls and their nemesis the Glandelinian Army.  The story is violent, and the illustrations are naive, yet compelling in their unschooled perspective, atmospheric colors, and the occasional nude androgyny of the main characters.  His personal demons aside, the paintings are beautiful and haunting.

Kelley Walker

At Andrea Rosen (525 W 24th) an interesting group show called Cellblock II  captured my attention.  I was drawn especially to Kelley Walker’s silkscreened brick walls.  The irony of being drawn in to an image of what keeps me out was particularly provocative.

El Anatsui

El Anatsui




Jack Shainman Gallery (513 W 20th) is showing large works by El Anatsui in which the artist manipulates thousands of pieces of metal in order to make flowing fluid shapes, turning hard cutting edges into soft hems.  This is work that first grabbed me from across the gallery, and pulled me closer and closer to see how it was made.  Like most good art, it works at any distance.  Up close it bears a slight resemblance to the gum-wrapper chains I made during boring junior high classes, but step back just a bit and you see regal golden robes, world maps, and scarred landscapes.

Keith Sonnier

I very much enjoyed a quick stop at Luhring Augustine (531 W 24th) to see Glenn Ligon’s text-based neon work, and a moment at Mary Boone (541 W 24th) to see neon works by Keith Sonnier from 1968-1970.  Just walking into the main gallery made me smile.  That’s not a bad thing for art, is it?

My final stop of the day (getting dark, getting tired) was at the newly refurbished and reopened Winkleman Gallery (621W 27th).  It was wonderful to see Ed and Murat in their beautiful new space, since my last memory of their showroom was damp and powerless post-Sandy destruction.  The show that opened at Winkleman today was a series of large drawings by artist Michael Waugh, who creates his images with handwritten lines of text outlining, crossing, and shading his varied subject matter.  As if drawing isn’t hard enough by itself.  These works are another excellent example of art that rewards you from across the room and satisfies you up close.

Michael Waugh

Michael Waugh

I saw lots more great art, but those were the standouts for me today.  I was happy to see so much two-dimensional work, since installation and conceptual art seemed to dominate the galleries last fall.  No doubt the ebb and flow will continue, as it should.

Mickalene Thomas and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt

Reminder to self: the pictures in newspapers and art journals are no substitute for looking at real art.

I finally made it to Mickalene Thomas’s show Origin of the Universe at the Brooklyn Museum (closing January 20th, so hurry).  I would have been there sooner, but first I had to find Brooklyn.  (Sorry, new to the city.)

I got to Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s retrospective Tender Love Among the Junk at MoMA P.S.1 in December (it runs through April 1st).

The work of both artists is layered, flamboyant, colorful, sparkly and shiny, with an undercurrent of the sadness that comes from betrayal in childhood, institutions that have disappointed us, and growing up into a world that is difficult.

That very sadness makes the sequins and the hard work and the passion of each artist poignant and brave.  They are not whistling in the dark, they are lighting the dark and creating joy where there was none before.


Ann Hamilton’s the event of a thread

It is rare that an art installation inspires exuberance in viewers, but also rare that an installation so involves viewers in participating and creating the art.

After a too short run, this show just closed.  I saw it right at the end, but next time Ann Hamilton is at work in my area, I will rush to see her work so that I can go back and back and back.

It was such genius that I forgot it was art, forgot that it had taken an amazing lot of work to install, and just thrilled to swinging and watching the swings move the curtain, while the curtain moved the swings, and the earth spun perfectly in harmony.


The Invention of Abstraction at MoMA

František Kupka
Localization of Graphic Motifs II

For those of you who think that Abstract painters are taking the easy way out compared to figurative artists (the “my kid could have made this painting” school of thought), I have one piece of advice: try it.  Try to create the illusion of space without reference to nature.  Or harder, try not to create space at all.  Try to make compositions that engross and delight and perplex without including nudes or flowers.  Paint polka-dots without accidentally turning them into tablecloths.  It’s really difficult.  I know – I keep trying.

The current MoMA show Inventing Abstraction is an encompassing look at the origins of abstract art.  For a complete rave review, read Roberta Smith in the New York Times:

I’m only disappointed that the show doesn’t discuss why individual artists across Europe and Asia suddenly began abstracting their paintings in 1910.  This is as revolutionary as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz inventing the calculus separately at the same time.  Where did abstraction come from?  What caused men and women to abandon figuration in favor of something so incredibly new? (And I don’t include Cubism in the new.  Cave paintings are cubist.  They came from the natural instinct to depict objects as we know them instead of as we see them.  Ask any six-year-old artist who puts 4 legs on every dog, no matter his point of view.)

I’ve always assumed abstraction came from the wave of revolutions that swept through Europe, but those were mid-19th century.  Surely the artistic response would not have taken 60 years.  And I’d like to blame the Russian Revolution and World War I for giving artists a new and bleak view of the fracturing of the world.  But those occurred several years after the beginnings of abstraction.  I’ve been told that it was our ability to see the world from the sky: hot air balloons and the Eiffel Tower.  But they also predate the paintings by a wide margin.  Some people say that abstraction was a reaction against photography, but again the timeline doesn’t work.

Perhaps it was the intellectual building-up of what turned into the first World War.  Perhaps it was artists seeing the world around them as out-of-sync with their experiences of inequality, and the growing feeling of monarchy as archaic.  Perhaps abstract art was not the result of World War I, but a reflection of what caused it. Maybe abstract art made revolution possible.