evan moffitt


François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles


Published in Issue 186 of frieze, March 2017

‘Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed into other bodies,’ Ovid famously wrote in Metamorphoses. Like the bard I found myself bewitched by bodies in transformation when I visited Kelly Akashi’s show at François Ghebaly, ‘Being as a Thing’. A singular alchemist, Akashi seems to smelt her sculptures in a furnace much older than mankind.

The show centres around four blonde-lacquered shelving units, Arrangement I-III and Activity Table (all works 2016), dripping with candle wax and gooey glass sculptures, like altars for some New Age religion. Arrangement I is laden with lumpy glass balloons in brown, blue and pink; I imagined Akashi inflating their molten cores like Jean Simeon Chardin’s Boy Blowing Bubbles (ca. 1734). The table’s legs break its surface, extending up several feet, where they are garlanded with candles – some lit – like bunches of drying herbs. On Activity Table, the candles assume even wilder forms, twisting like hideously gnarled tubers or cascading over corners like skeins of silken hair. The glass balloons reappear here, one resembling a burnt-out Edison bulb, resting atop a rye-dark purple cake of soapy wax. Other, more even forms lend the arrangement their placid presence; one, a ribbed glass cucumber, glistens like a brand-new dildo.

At sundown each night, the candles are lit, and Akashi’s precious craft begins to liquefy. By the time I visited the gallery, two weeks into the run of the show, table legs were caked with drips of hardened wax. The air was filled with a sweet, organic fragrance. The ice blue core of Wax Candle (North) had burnt a mottled purple, difficult to distinguish from the bronze cast candle that held it in place – two coiled, nesting turds. As Wax Candle’s flame snaked up towards the ceiling, an ashy bruise grew on the white gallery wall, and I imagined for a moment that its scorched plaster might embalm me there alive.

Two large cracks in the gallery floor have sprouted bronze-cast weeds, covered in hand-cut and etched copper leaves. Tall Weed and Hairy Weed are meticulously finished works, but like the melting candle wax they refer to an entropic drive in Akashi’s work. What is a weed but a maligned imperfection? These sculptures celebrate the beautiful chaos of the wild – those parts of the natural world that art, for most of its history, has tried to pacify. A series of ghostly chromogenic photograms, resembling the wormhole in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, are like microscopic cross-sections of these unruly organisms. Akashi revels in nature’s asymmetry. Her small labours reveal a deep love not for part, but for whole. She worships not just the flower, but its entire messy ecosystem.

In its title, ‘Being as a Thing’ at once recalls Martin Heidegger and the mind-body problems of cognitive philosophy. What would it be like to exist as an unconscious object, a mute mineral or fruit? Akashi’s sculptures hint at the answer. Her passion for materials imbues each with a kind of soul, animating their forms. Be Me (Japanese-Californian Citrus), a stainless steel cast of a pockmarked orange with a jolly top-knot, sits in a square window cut in one of the gallery’s walls like a kind of self-portrait, its title referring to the artist’s Japanese-American heritage and upbringing in California. Two loosely-packed stacks of bricks, ways of being (arched, extended) and ways of being (figure), offer small votive objects in wax and iridescent molten lead, dripping between the cracks, quietly thriving in small spaces. Animal, vegetable, mineral – each malformed in different ways, each beautifully and uniquely imperfect, each in a state of continual transformation.



Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal


Published in Issue 185 of frieze, January 2017

In Jean Genet’s 1956 play Le Balcon (The Balcony), the patrons of a brothel hire prostitutes to help them fulfil fantasies in which they occupy traditional positions of power: priest, general, executioner. Though the relationships are not physically consummated, each man takes a role that, in the real world, routinely fucks the disempowered. They perform as though for an invisible audience, transforming the brothel into a burlesque stage; at the same time, a real revolution outside its walls turns its balconies into theatre boxes, from which the patrons observe the unfolding drama. ‘It’s the most artful, yet the most decent house of illusions,’ the madame proclaims of her keep. Genet was always interested in the pageantry of desire; if all sex is about power, and sexuality is also performative, then power, too, is a kind of performance – one that stuns its audience into submission.

‘Le Grand Balcon’ (The Grand Balcony), the 2016 edition of La biennale de Montréal, is named after the brothel in Genet’s play – and, like that work, it contains both performance and spectacle. Curator Philippe Pirotte has organized an exhibition around the balcony as an ambivalent metaphor: voyeuristic and exhibitionist, interior and exterior, it is a space of both public address and private confession. Balconies gird political pronouncements and Shakespearean trysts alike.

During the press conference, Pirotte described the balcony as a defining feature of Montreal’s residential architecture. As far as I could tell, it has no particular vernacular significance there, unlike the spiral staircases detached from every facade. A staircase might have been a more apt spatial metaphor for this biennial, which its organizers hope will be a catalyst for a somewhat provincial art scene. With works by 55 artists and collectives from 23 countries, distributed between eight venues around the city, it is the most international iteration of an exhibition that has historically been nationally and regionally focused. In previous years, the biennial has received generous grants from the Canadian Council for the Arts, who assess eligibility according to a recipient institution’s support of national content. While the availability of public funding in Canada is truly enviable, such provisions can create a hermetic environment for the circulation of stale, like-minded ideas – particularly in one of the least dense countries in the world (by population). It seems clear that Pirotte, a native of Belgium and a resident of Germany, has opted for starry, institutional names in order to thaw this cultural climate and encourage cross-border dialogue. There is much cause to hope that he succeeds.

The biennial’s main exhibition, at the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC), opens with one such star: two paintings by Nicole Eisenman (Shooter 1 and 2, both 2016) threaten the viewer with cocked pistols, or duel with a vitrine of Brian Jungen drawings, more quietly installed across the room. Jungen’s contribution is one of two in the biennial from an artist of First Nation descent; his caustic pen-and-inks of classic Canadian signifiers (snowsports, Mounties) critique racial fetishism and nationalist sentiment, while unashamedly probing the artist’s queer desire. The following gallery reveals the show’s most elegant juxtaposition: the last hanging strand of Elaine Cameron-Weir’s scintillating, tripartite ceramic tile sculpture (SNAKE, 2016), seems to slither between Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s lush paintings (Cassava Garden, 2015) and (Thread, 2012). Across the room, though, Luc Tuymans’s mostly monochromatic, milquetoast paintings of Doha museum interiors (Doha I–III, 2016) seem misplaced, like abstract cyanotypes in a jungle diorama.

A number of works grapple with the legacy of modernism and its relationship to contemporary capitalism. In The Five Wives of Lajos Bíró (2016), one of three tapestries by Shannon Bool produced from digital collages, Malagan patterns from Papua New Guinea have been superimposed onto the bodies of mannequins in a photograph of a commercial design pavilion at the 1925 International Exhibition in Paris. Modern art and design were driven forward by cultural appropriation of colonized cultures that Europeans considered retrograde. The expressive patterns’ contrast to the smooth and featureless mannequins also nods to the ways the West has used other cultures to assuage its own capitalist anxieties. Another Bool tapestry, Looshaus (2016), depicts a silver-skinned mannequin standing in the doorway of Adolf Loos’s famous Vienna building. The shiny, featureless planes of Loos’s architecture are doubled by the figure, suggesting a loss of individual identity within the modern sublime. (There are echoes of Loos in one of the biennial’s satellite spaces, a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed petrol station, hidden in a leafy suburb.)

Bool’s collaged imagery consigns the modernist project to what Thomas Hirschhorn once called the ‘capitalist garbage bucket’. In a nearby gallery, Isa Genzken’s Schauspieler II (Actors, 2015) mannequins live in that very same rubbish bin, window-dressed in culture’s leftover scraps. Genzken’s actors perform a sham individuality that falls away to reveal skin-level sameness. An essential element of our postmodern malaise is the fear that originality is no longer possible; Genzken’s work is, ironically, an original take on this anxiety. Mere feet away, Cady Noland’s Cart Full of Action (1986), a shopping pram stuffed with automotive junk, could be the mannequins’ precious haul; although the pairing risks caricaturizing homelessness, it underlines the link between industrial capitalism and our contemporary modes of self-expression.

Postmodern malaise was unavoidable in Anne Imhof’s Angst 3 (2016). The final performance in a trilogy that began this summer at Kunsthalle Basel opened the biennial in MAC’s basement. There, on a raised platform, a row of sleeping bags lay between live, snoozing falcons in leather masks; packs of cigarettes sat by tubs of Vaseline and crates of Diet Pepsi. As the gallery filled with artificial fog and tobacco smoke, the performers wandered listlessly, cracking open cola cans and singing softly to the audience pressed against the walls. As its title makes clear,  Angst 3 is aware of its own malaise; the four-hour performance was as dreary and aimless as the prospects for many of today’s teenagers, facing a future of debt, fascism and climate change. Still, it seemed inappropriate to subject live animals to the windowless gallery’s thick air. (Are disaffected youth really birds of prey, choking on greenhouse gases?) In one scene, the performers lathered their partners and slowly shaved them to the sound of speeding racecars. It was the one anxiety-inducing instance when Angst 3 lived up to its name, although the shaving might have served better as a more focused performance, like the buttermilk transfer in Imhof’s DEAL (2015).

The popularity of Angst 3 with attendant Instagrammers testified to the enduring power of spectacle and spectatorship. One of the first works in the show, David Tretiakoff’s film A God Passing (2008), documents the transfer of a 12th-century BCE Rameses statue from the Cairo train station to the new Egyptian Museum. The film opens with shots of crowds gathering to watch the pharaoh pass, recording the event on their cell phones, and we first see the statue in grainy news footage, on a television monitor perched in the corner of a cafe. The Rameses spectacle threatens to eclipse the millennia of history to which it belongs; Tretiakoff suggests that the real event is the recorded one, when our memories turn to static and we have nothing left but video footage.

The biennial’s star work is another film: Moyra Davey’s latest project, Hemlock Forest (2016), is an homage to Chantal Akerman that reproduces a number of shots from the late auteur’s films, narrated by one of Davey’s hallmark, self-reflective texts and interspersed with banal domestic imagery. Davey copies a shot down a New York subway car from Akerman’s News from Home (1977) while voicing the anxiety she felt surreptitiously filming strangers on a train, in a position of intimate distance. Davey draws links between the concerned letters Akerman received from her mother, Kathe Kollwitz’s artistic response to the death of her youngest child, and Davey’s own relationship with her adolescent son. She pores over her literary sources while her camera gazes at a family of bluebirds, fluttering around a fractured egg.

‘Le Grand Balcon’ has plenty of good work, but it’s nearly impossible to glean a specific curatorial thesis without didactic assistance; Genet is nowhere to be found. Pirotte is a hands-off curator but his open-ended approach can easily become vague. A certain amount of precision is crucial in our dire sociopolitical climate, even if the issues raised prompt more questions than they provide answers. After all, can a strategy of opacity ever effectively respond to clear and present danger? Being opaque is also an exercise of power, allowing curators to retreat behind undefined positions. Although an important gesture for Canada, the biennial’s sum is weaker than its parts. Like a balcony, caught between interior and exterior, public and private, it refuses to pick a side.


Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York


Published in Issue 183 of frieze, November 2016

Kitty litter and coffee mugs, painted fur and tyre scraps: the materials lists for Jessica Stockholder’s sculptures read like the home inventory of a mad packrat. For three decades, Stockholder has taken as provocation that cliché ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ – incorporating even plumbing into anarchic assemblages that resolve as astonishingly balanced compositions. Exuberantly colourful and formally promiscuous, her work is deliriously enjoyable to look at.

Stockholder’s ambitiously architectural show at Mitchell Innes & Nash, ‘The Guests All Crowded into the Dining Room’, features a selection of new works scattered around a wooden platform, sensuously curved to admit the gallery’s prominent support column, which ascends to a viewing balcony for a display of drawings mounted on geometric wall sections painted bright orange and pink. Several of the works continue Stockholder’s series of ‘Assists’, or sculptures that cannot stand up on their own. In Assist: Smoke and Mirrors (2016), two slender steel beams, supporting a cut of blue tarp and a mass of tangled copper wire, have been cinched to a lumpy beige sofa lounger by a bright green ratchet strap from the US Cargo Control hardware shop. The ‘Assist’ – the lounger – is interchangeable and not considered part of the work, though it felt like a wholly intentional, comic pairing with the sculpture’s airy, industrial materials. The term ‘assist’ will be familiar to football fans and, in light of the recent Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the sculptures reminded me of disabled athletes who, despite relying on prosthetics, often outmatch the grace and physical prowess of their non-disabled counterparts; see, for instance, how the heavy metal grille in Assist #4 (Carved Spaces) (2016) curls up towards the ceiling, like a gymnast on a pommel horse.

The ‘Assists’ are also nods to the supports of classical sculpture: recall the knotted trunk awkwardly glued to the right calf of the Apollo Belvedere or the creepy cherub dangling from the toga train of the Augustus of Prima Porta. Art history’s muscular marbles would crumble without these ungainly braces. Stockholder slyly upbraids the masculine pomposity of such sculptures by propping up her own with commonplace furniture: items that, as symbols of domesticity, can be both objects of affectionate care or anchors that arrest social and political mobility.

The works engage with art history on multiple levels. Security Detail(2016) consists of a satchel bag slathered in thick lilac oil paint, strung from steel cables on an open metal frame that, in turn, rests on a forlorn wooden footstool. One arm of this open frame, capped in a large red Lego brick, hovers over a wall-mounted panel painted a matching, fiery shade. ‘Kissing the wall’ (to borrow one of Stockholder’s favourite phrases), Security Detail refuses to break free from that fundamental flat support, cleverly commenting on sculpture’s shifting relationship to architecture since the classical era. This is neither a Renaissance bronze made for a frontally viewed tableau nor a fully freestanding sculpture. As Miwon Kwon has argued, Stockholder’s is an art ‘between the two-dimensional, pictorial flatness of painting and the three-dimensional spatiality and scale of architecture’. Stockholder has acknowledged this ‘confusion of boundary’; her work shows us how fun it can be to muck up the canon, with its dreary insistence on fixed categories.

‘Collision’ might be more appropriate than ‘confusion’ for such carefully considered work and, on an art-historical collision course, things are bound to get messy. At the show’s climax, on the end of the scaffolding, the smallest sculpture rests on a plinth: a pile of scalloped shells, punctured through with copper wire, atop a stack of sky-blue ice cube trays, like eggs smashed in their carton. In Stockholder’s hands, the sloppy aftermath of a kitchen fumble feels as enduring as an ancient bronze.


The Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut


Published in Issue 181 of frieze, September 2016

The modernist philosophy of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and their contemporaries was democratic and utopian – at least until it was realized in concrete, glass and steel. Despite its intention to produce affordable designs for better living, modernism became the principle style for major corporations and government offices, for the architecture of capital and war. Are its original ideals still a worthy goal?

I found myself asking that question at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, while watching Modern Living (2016), the latest work by choreographer duo Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly. As I followed the sloping path to Johnson’s jewel box, pairs of dancers dressed in colourful, loose-fitting garments, mimicking each other’s balletic movements, appeared in emerald folds of lawn. With no accompaniment but the chirping of birds and the crunch of gravel underfoot, I could’ve been watching tai chi at a West Coast meditation retreat. The influence of postmodern California choreographers, such as the artists’ mentor Simone Forti, was clear.

When the Glass House was first completed in 1949, Johnson was criticised for producing a voyeuristic domestic space in an intensely private era governed by strict sexual mores. Like a fishbowl, the house gave its inhabitants nowhere to hide. But if Johnson invited the gaze of others, he also gave himself a space to perform before their eyes. That suburban domestic ideal – the middle class ‘American dream’ – was unattainable then for gay men. In the Glass House’s ‘theatre in the round’, heteronormative behaviour is revealed to be a set of learned and habituated gestures, which Johnson amplified to absurdity in a kind of drag performance. The house thus provides a perfect stage for Gerard & Kelly’s exploration of queer bodies within the legacy of modernism.

Johnson was a camp appropriator, famous for inhabiting the styles of other architects and designers in exaggerated fashion. His Glass House refines the elements of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House to extremity; his 1984 AT&T Building in Manhattan, with its oppressively weighty Chippendale roofline, merged the historical pastiche of postmodernism with 1980s corporate bombast, perversely turning a macho office building into a gigantic closet. As the primary space of queer life that lies at the dark heart of the home, the closet is not simply a rhetorical device but links (domestic) interiority with (public) appearance, personal secrets with dress and social behaviour. Structurally and materially, the Glass House embodies this paradox; fully transparent yet exceptionally private, the building gave Johnson and his partner, David Whitney, exactly what they could never have beyond the property – the freedom to be openly intimate without fear of assault.

As rain began to fall, the dancers entered the living room, where their movements grew less synchronized. Like human clocks, each performer announced the ‘arrival’ of an hour, their awkwardly staggered voices suggesting a gradual temporal slip. These were followed by brief personal memories associated with each hour: ‘eleven’ for some meant ‘sweeping the floor’; for others, ‘the taste of coffee’ or ‘holding him close’. As more bodies gathered in the house, their recitations thickened into a palimpsest which recalled that tender tribute to romantic disconnection, Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991). Gerard & Kelly borrowed the move from their 2014 performance Timelining, but at the Glass House it took on new meaning: modern life cages bodies in the vicious clockwork of daily labour – a mathematical system that cares little for our subjective experiences of time. As dancers slowly merged and separated, the erotic magnetism of their movements left me somewhat melancholic, reminded of how difficult it can be to find real love when ‘matches’ are determined by dating-app algorithms.

With no score, Modern Living is organized around three maxims, which the dancers chant in unison at regular intervals throughout the 70-minute performance. The first (‘clockwork, clockwork, relationships like clockwork’) captures the quiet violence our daily routines inflict on those we love. The second (‘the home is a mathematical equation’), recited by dancers seated at Johnson’s dining table, is a paean to the stiff precision commonly associated with middle-class propriety. And the third (‘the family is a system of regeneration’) ascribes the sole purpose of procreation to the nuclear family, explicitly denying queer people its graces. This last axiom was spoken outside, as the dancers extended their arms rigidly out or up towards the sky and twirled together in dense clusters, like skyscrapers of human flesh.

At the climax, dancers assembled around the coffee table in black tailored suits to perform a hybrid goose-step and vogue to Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1945), a suite inspired by the sight of marching Nazi soldiers, here remixed live by an audio technician. It seemed a clear excoriation of Johnson’s crypto-fascist politics and refusal to come out during the AIDS epidemic, when he turned a blind eye to a gay community in crisis and built lavish office towers for the homophobic barons of Wall Street.

As I left the Glass House, I recalled that ‘utopia’ means ‘no place’. Gerard & Kelly traced Johnson’s development from modern purist to corporate hack, but they also revealed the fallacy of a one-size-fits-all architecture. If the modernist project can be resuscitated to accommodate queer bodies, it won’t be by doubling down on its high ideals, but by acknowledging those principles as just another performative gesture – another manifestation of style.


MoMA PS1, New York, Studio Museum, Harlem, and ICA Philadelphia


Published in Issue 181 of frieze, September 2016

In three concurrent museum shows that feature more than a decade’s worth of painting, textile, sculpture and video work, Rodney McMillian examines what happens between the sheets; in that intimate space where the sexual, potentially violent co-mingling of bodies reveals the deeper parts of the human psyche and our broader social fabric.

For ‘Landscape Paintings’ at MoMA PS1, McMillian has used bedsheets to frame the body as a kind of landscape. The marbleized red and purple paint layered atop the sheets’ surfaces could depict aerial views of muddy river deltas, bright with algal blooms, or the topography of scar tissue. Sticky globs of latex house paint pile up on these makeshift canvases like shed harlequin costumes, and in some works – such as Site #3: stumps in plain sight (2008-14) – they take on unnervingly human profiles. Many of their names make these allusions plain: fleshy pink paint extrudes from the surface of Untitled (tongue) (2014), lapping the gallery floor. The black lips of a Mouth: and the galaxy within (2012-15), speckled with bright colours, cast the body as a universe of spoken language or a constellation of physical pleasure. Sweat, blood, cum, tears: sheets claim the fluids that affirm our biological humanity. Here they pulse in dozens of exuberant hues, like the joyous secretions of a waking dream.

McMillian’s ‘Landscape Paintings’ mark a preoccupation that has long defined his career. An iconic textile piece opens ‘The Black Show’ at ICA Philadelphia: the glistening black vinyl surface of Untitled (target) (2012), visibly stitched with white string, greets viewers with its gaping maw not unlike a Lee Bontecou sculpture. A star of flayed fabric radiates from this orifice like flesh flapping at a wound. Black vinyl’s appeal is multivalent: it is cheap yet glossy, both nightclub décor and sexual fetish wear. McMillian provokes with abstraction, using bodily materials to evoke the violent and erotic charge of our own skins.

‘Views of Main Street’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem features readymades hauled from Los Angeles curbsides – household furniture left to rot in poverty-stricken streets. (The objects recall Noah Purifoy’s works of reclaimed rubble from the 1965 Watts riots.) Chair(2003) splays its woolly guts onto the gallery floor. The icebox door of Untitled (refrigerator)(2009) bears a gaping hole like evidence of domestic abuse. McMillian has sutured his sawed, battered Couch (2012) with a strip of cement, as if to suggest that nothing can truly mend a broken home. These ‘street views’ are also intimate artefacts of lives ravaged by home foreclosures, unemployment, and urban neglect  – forlorn forms bringing to mind the disproportionate poverty and incarceration rates of black men in the US, and families torn apart.

In his move from textiles and sculptures to video works, McMillian shifts from using materials that invoke absent bodies to using his own body as material. In Shelter (Crawl)(2015) at the ICA, a response to William Pope.L’s Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), McMillian crawls on his stomach through a South Carolina field while croaking the chorus from The Rolling Stones classic, ‘Gimme Shelter’ (1969). At the Studio Museum, the darkly comicNeshoba County Fair (2012) uses puppets to restage an infamous ‘race-baiting’ speech Ronald Reagan gave in Mississippi in 1980. Here Reagan is a soul-singing velociraptor, silver-tongued and poison-clawed, fomenting racism for political gain.

McMillian endows simple objects with affecting political resonances. This material relationship surfaces most poignantly in a single video at PS1 (Untitled, 2005): in it McMillian, lit by a spotlight, struggles to escape from beneath a large white bedsheet. His frenetic movements could be a dance or a more sinister struggle; the fabric resembles both a child’s Halloween costume and the white garb of the Ku Klux Klan. Sheets smother and conceal, but they also comfort; they mask hatred and swaddle love. Cast-off bedding can carry marks from tender trysts or violent recriminations. McMillian indulges this paradox with such sensual energy that his textiles assume the tactility of human skin: beaten and bruised, kissed and caressed. There is anger in them, but there is hope too.


SFMOMA opens in a San Francisco Transformed


Published on frieze.com, May 2016

I used to imagine that, long ago, the US tipped over, and all of the country’s misfits tumbled from its eastern shore across the Great Plains to San Francisco. John D’Emilio once described the city as a kind of Rome for gay men and lesbians. Not long before, in her 1967 essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, Joan Didion called it a site of ‘social hemorrhaging’. But if the latter description is still true, it’s certainly not as Didion intended. Today’s San Francisco bears little resemblance to the hotbed of deviance and counterculture that it once was. Surging dot com wealth has transformed it into a glittering capitol of 21st century industry, a technological utopia high on New Age spiritualism scrubbed of its radical zeal. Now social haemorrhaging occurs at the city’s physical margins, where its native communities have been forced by surging rents in the country’s most unaffordable real estate market.

If San Francisco is a city transformed, its newly expanded Museum of Modern Art is already an outdated affair. Designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, the towering, pleated pearl-white extension was funded by barons of retail and finance. Three of its elongated floors house the extensive Doris and Donald Fisher collection, amassed by the founders of the Gap – old money, in American terms. (According to the bequest, three-quarters of all works in the new building must come from the Fisher collection, and the museum must mount a Fisher-exclusive show once every ten years.) The new building’s cleanly functional, if repetitively linear galleries are pleasant spaces for viewing the major new Fisher acquisitions, from Gerhard Richter’s greatest paintings to rooms of stunning Ellsworth Kelly works. But conventional arrangement of the inaugural exhibitions presents a stale vision for a rejuvenated museum. On the sixth floor an all-male, all-white lineup of similarly aged, mostly German artists eschews broad art-historical narratives for a slice of the Fishers 1980s and ‘90s blue chip taste: witness a procession of exemplary Gerhard Richters followed by Georg Baselitzes, Sigmar Polkes, Anselm Kiefers, Thomas Struths and Andreas Gurskys. Even on lower floors, where a greater temporal range might permit other forms of diversity, abstract expressionist, pop and minimalist artworks testify to art history’s reigning patriarchy. A cramped, octagonal room crammed with Agnes Martin paintings – their chromatic subtlety bleached by harsh fluorescence, their insistent grids clashing with a scalloped ceiling – seems to say, tucked discreetly in a corner, that women have been brought along for the ride yet consigned to the back of the bus. The museum has also hung their permanent collection to mirror the Fishers’, so lesser works by the same artists appear in the same order; I left wondering what SFMOMA owns from other places and periods – to say nothing of Californian art. What’s more, Snøhetta has attempted to preserve the museum’s original Mario Botta building – a stripey marble and granite fortress completed in 1995 – by removing the central atrium’s zig-zagging staircase, leaving behind a spineless architectural skin. Now effectively deboned, the much-beloved Botta feels like an awkward annex to the new building, its spatial logic incompatible with Snøhetta’s rectangular galleries.

The city became world-renowned for a counterculture that flourished in geographic and cultural isolation from the older, Eastern coast. Now its appeal to global capital relies on the accumulation of the same high-cultural signifiers one might find in London, Dallas or Dubai. Although the Fisher collection was initially amassed in San Francisco, its presence in a new modern building – the largest modern art museum in America – designed by a Scandinavian architecture firm only heightens the impression that the city is no longer content to run on local pride. San Francisco wants the world on its doorstep.

And the world is now happy to oblige. A number of New York galleries have recently opened outposts there, to a flurry of outsider interest. Gagosian’s inaugural show in its newest space – a sampling of disparate, though impressive, works by marquee artists, from Pablo Picasso to Bruce Nauman, with only one Bay Area artist (David Ireland) included – feels baldly commercial across the street from SFMOMA. Pace’s new showroom, with a single James Turrell ‘Wide Glass’ installation on view, is located in the upper-crust suburb of Palo Alto, known for its competitive preparatory schools where the children of tech scions are groomed for postgraduate education at nearby Stanford. What could be a more transparent appeal to America’s new class of Silicon Valley billionaires? The surge of commercial interest in the San Francisco art scene has little to do with the art of the Bay Area, and more to do with the region’s shift from a place where art is made to a place where it is bought.

San Francisco’s newest scions camouflage their corporatism by coopting the language of the artistic avant-garde, singing a ‘gospel of disruption’ that transforms radical politics into a string of meaningless buzzwords. But despite their insistence on ‘creativity’ in the workplace, the tech crowd appears relatively uninvested in art. Will Mark Zuckerberg start buying Light and Space art? Will Sergei Bryn fund museum education programs? In order to fundraise effectively, SFMOMA must appeal to the Silicon Valley crowd, just as Gagosian and Pace hope to do. Recently, the museum announced that mobile phones will be at ‘the forefront of its engagement strategy’, through an interactive app that will ‘break down the boundaries between art, entertainment and learning’. At their best, such strategies can engage visitors with little prior interest in art beyond Instagram; at their worst, they exacerbate digital distraction by promoting mediated viewership, rather than first-hand observation.

A number of long-running local institutions have decided to ignore the tides altogether and continue producing top-notch programs. In her new show at the Wattis Institute, California College of the Arts’s kunsthalle-style exhibition space and study centre, Laura Owens has covered the gallery walls with an intricate screenprint collage that combines motifs from earlier paintings – checkerboard patterns and colourful strokes from a digital paintbrush – along with fragments of spam emails from online horoscope generators and self-help guides. Floating through the checked patterns like faintly discernible data in a sea of vibrating pixels, the emails prophesy good and bad fortune in the language of Bay Area yoga cults. Two speakers amplify disembodied voices’ stilted answers to questions texted by gallery visitors to a mysterious number, adding a foreboding layer of technological omniscience to the show. I sent the service a number of questions about surveillance – such as ‘Are you watching me?’ and ‘Do you have access to my personal data?’ – that received predictably cagey responses (though the voice did confirm it will vote for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming presidential election).

If Marcel Broodthaers and Joseph Beuys had shared a vacation home in the Mission District, it might have been at 500 Capp Street, the longtime residence of artist David Ireland, where I found myself one morning breakfasting under a pair of wall-mounted antelope horns. During the three decades that Ireland lived there, he continuously lacquered the walls until they turned the tawny colour of over-steeped tea and as shiny as polished glass. The modest rooms were filled with curious sculptural objects: piles of painted sardine tins, transistor radios tuned to static, a swinging blowtorch chandelier. Quotidian accidents that left scrapes or dents in the walls and floorboards were commemorated with brass plaques. In the artist’s bedroom lay a small shrine to the house’s prior owner, an accordion maker: cutlery stubbornly jabbed in cement lumps excavated from the building’s foundations, and a slice of 40-year old birthday cake in a sealed glass jar, unrecognizably brown with mold. After Ireland’s death in 2009, collector Carlie Williams saved the house from imminent demolition and established the 500 Capp Street Foundation, dedicated to the preservation and study of Ireland’s work, much of which is housed onsite in a brand-new basement-level archive. The house fiercely guards its whimsy, hard to come by in today’s San Francisco of luxury condos and Soul Cycles.

Just as the city today is a case study in gentrification, it has also prompted productive solutions to such problems. A dozen younger and more established galleries have moved shop to the Minnesota Street Projects, a newly renovated warehouse in the Dogpatch district, where pristine white spaces ring a central atrium complete with a high-tech welcome desk, like a museum or a shopping mall. Collective offices, a kitchen and restrooms free up square footage for art in the galleries. Older players such as Anglim Gilbert have joined artist-run spaces including Capital and Et Al, giving the project much-needed variety, though its uniform architecture tends to flatten one’s approach to the work on display. (New York galleries Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern have also teamed up with a collaborative group show in a temporary space here.) Minnesota Street Projects is a fundamentally philanthropic venture, and its tenants rent their spaces at significantly below market rate; some of their artists will soon occupy studios across the street. Though laudable for fashioning a viable alternative model for galleries threatened by skyrocketing rents, Minnesota Street Projects is a somewhat archaic response to a figurative and literal invasion. The dramatic retrenchment of a dozen galleries from far-flung neighbourhoods to a single building trades a physically and geographically diverse scene, capable of engaging directly with different public audiences, for a one-stop shop. It remains to be seen what kind of crowds the project will draw, and whether its economic model can be successfully reproduced in other rapidly gentrifying cities.

Its unclear how SFMOMA will grow into its new building, or how San Francisco’s new galleries will fare in the local market. But one thing is clear: these recent developments aren’t aimed at longtime locals, who will struggle to pay steep $25 museum entrance fees, atop dramatic rent spikes. (The costly privatization of public spaces extends from museum to street: the San Francisco Department of Parks and Recreation notably declared last week that it would begin accepting paid reservations – for as much as $260 – for patches of grass on the public lawns of much-beloved Dolores Park.) In a city marred by acrimonious battles over rising inequality, San Francisco’s new public and private galleries are riding the tidal wave of wealth that threatens to washing away local culture – a development hardly offset by noble efforts like 500 Capp Street or the Minnesota Street Projects. If the Bay Area’s class of collectors and museum donors grows to include tech scions, its unclear whether institutional power structures will change for the better or worse; in the meantime, the economic gulf will likely widen. In her 1967 essay, Didion proclaimed that ‘the centre is not holding’. If it ever did in San Francisco, it has long since fallen out. Then again, perhaps the centre was always an illusion in that boom and bust town, now the seat of a new Gilded Age.


Race, Sexuality and Portraiture


Published in Issue 179 of frieze, May 2016

Twenty-five years ago, a portrait sparked a national debate about sex, artistic expression and censorship that galvanized the cultural politics of the United States. That portrait was Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit (1980), a close-cropped photograph of a black man’s penis hanging exposed from his open fly. It was a key piece of prosecutorial evidence in an obscenity trial filed by the City of Cincinnati over the exhibition ‘The Perfect Moment’, which had travelled to the Cincinnati Art Museum after its planned run at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. was cancelled by Republican congressmen. The photograph was not the only controversial work on display there but, unlike the others, it managed to offend everybody, from white religious conservatives to black gay liberals.

Mapplethorpe framed and lit all his subjects – from flowers to sadomasochistic sex acts – so they appear abstract and pleasing to the eye. Both rose and rectum received the same refined classical formalism. In the Cincinnati trial, curator Janet Kardon described Mapplethorpe’s Lou, N.Y.C. (1978), a photograph of a man sticking a finger into his urethra, as a work of artistic value because: ‘It’s a central image, very symmetrical, a very ordered, classical composition.’ The consistency of this approach also constituted its radicalism, at a time when alternative sexualities were less accepted and, in some states, homosexuality was still censored and criminalized.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Cincinnati trial and the ‘culture wars’ that followed, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have jointly acquired a bulk of the photographer’s archive from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Its arrival in Los Angeles was celebrated by ‘The Perfect Medium’, a sweeping dual museum retrospective that opened in March. But, 25 years later, it isn’t the photographs’ sexual charge that unsettles most. Many critics and historians who failed then to see their problematic racial dynamics can clearly identify them now. So, what has changed?

In the early 1990s, homophobic anti-sodomy statutes and brutal ‘broken windows’ policing ravaged the gay black body; black people mostly appeared in the media as perpetrators of drug violence or victims of AIDS. Now, white gays enjoy widening presence in film and television, while black men – gay and straight – consistently appear on the nightly news as victims of police brutality and (according to figures released this year by the Centers for Disease Control) 44 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the US are among African Americans, though they comprise only 14 percent of the population. Not much, it seems, has changed. The principal aim of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to insist in response to these tragedies that, as Judith Butler put it, black bodies are ‘bodies that matter’, deserving of the same legal protections and access to healthcare that whites enjoy. But the lifeless bodies of Michael Brown, Laquan MacDonald and nearly a dozen others, seen in the photographs and video footage of their deaths used as court evidence, mattered little to the jurors who acquitted the cops that killed them. The question of representation has rarely been as urgent as it is today.

The Republican politicians who denounced Man in a Polyester Suit believed the openly gay photographer’s emphasis on male sex, if not sexuality, qualified the picture as ‘homosexual smut’ and an assault on Christian values. Black gay artists and critics were more conflicted: Kobena Mercer recognized an object he desired, but one whose metonymic capacity to stand in for an entire body perpetuated a racist stereotype. He quoted Frantz Fanon: ‘One is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis; the Negro […] is a penis.’ The cheapness of polyester suggests that even when wearing a suit, the uniform of bourgeois white culture, the black man doesn’t fit in. Glenn Ligon responded to this sexual objectification with his photographic installation Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), a display of Mapplethorpe’s anthologized black male portraits annotated with quotes from figures such as Fanon, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

If Man in a Polyester Suit is a failed attempt to make part stand for whole – a penis for a man – then Mapplethorpe’s other portraits of black men are successful attempts to make whole stand for part: in them, the entire figure becomes a phallus. Take Jimmy Freeman (1979), for example: the subject’s folded pose turns his body into a pinwheel that spins on a genital axis. The tensile, athletic body of Thomas (1987), posed in a Vitruvian circle, seems ripped straight from a Greek amphora; his muscles are as obdurate as stone. The close cropped buttocks of Derrick Cross (1983) are as voluptuously abstract as a Constantin Brâncuși bronze. By riffing on a canon familiar to white, museum-going audiences, Mapplethorpe’s photographs suggest they deserve the denomination of ‘Art’ in spite, and not because, of their supposedly ‘troubling’ subject matter. Yet, this aestheticization of racial difference censors the historic violence inflicted upon black skin.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a Nigerian British photographer and contemporary of Mapplethorpe’s, produced a dazzling but little-known body of work just a few years before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989, some of which were shown in New York earlier this year in a compact exhibition at Syracuse University’s Palitz Gallery. Fani-Kayode’s studio portraits of nude black men elegantly meld Western Europe and West Africa, black and gay culture – a syncretism that highlights the challenge of marginalization on multiple fronts (sexuality, race, nationality). Unlike Mapplethorpe’s classical black and whites, the colour photographs in Fani-Kayode’s last series, ‘Nothing to Lose’ (1987–89), are sumptuously baroque: chiaroscuro, velvety shades of umber and scarlet, drapery, flowers and fruit all recall the paintings of Caravaggio. In the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic and a resurgence of political conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic, Fani-Kayode and others – from Andres Serrano to Derek Jarman and Madonna – incorporated baroque aesthetics into their work as a way to uncover the perverse, queer desire hidden not just within the canon of art history, but the dominant social, political and cultural institutions that shape it. If Mapplethorpe’s quotations are retrograde, Fani-Kayode’s are subversive.

In the arresting photograph Gold Phallus (1989), a crouched figure wears a Venetian plague doctor mask, a 16th-century emblem of the reaper. His penis, painted gold, mirrors the mask’s ghoulish proboscis, while a string tied around its shaft seems to tug it in two directions. By focusing our gaze on the golden phallus of its title, the photograph recalls Man in a Polyester Suit; but, unlike that violently close-cropped image, Fani-Kayode exposes the crime of objectification by including the figure’s full body in the frame. Gold Phallus depicts a man enslaved by white desire, which the mask suggests is a kiss of death.

In Fani-Kayode’s earlier black and white Union Jack (1987), the male model’s muscular thighs in contrapposto could belong to Derrick Cross, were it not for the fraying British flag that hangs from his left hand, like the ornamental drapery that lends structural support to marble sculptures. Its corner snags on his foot, disguising a gesture of defiance to imperialism as one of classical repose. The flag’s placement recalls a towel in a men’s locker room, removed by an exhibitionist; it no longer shields the black body from view in the name of public decorum.

Such ambiguous symbolism reflects an ambiguous relationship to photography. As a gay black man, Fani-Kayode was doubly invisible: subject to white gay men’s racism and black Africans’ homophobia. In the 19th century, Europeans employed photography as an extension of phrenology to justify colonial subjugation. Photography has long been used to marginalize and to solidify binary ways of thinking. Fani-Kayode’s work acknowledges that photography can never fully capture black gay diasporic experience, since nothing truly can. The photographs lay no claim to truth but, instead, fashion a self-aware fantasy.

Like ‘Nothing to Lose’, Lyle Ashton Harris’s 1994 series ‘The Good Life’ toys with racial and sexual fantasy. In it, intersectional subjects parody tropes of black and queer identity. For Venus Hottentot 2000 (1994), fellow photographer Renee Cox posed with prosthetic breasts and butt as a millennial Saartjie Baartman, the 19th-century Khoi woman paraded around Europe as the ‘Hottentot Venus’. Cox’s dark body pads stand out against her lighter skin, but she poses with pride, as if to say that no stereotype can define her. In another photograph, Saint Michael Stewart (1994), Harris himself dons a cop uniform and red lipstick, queering historically discriminatory, macho police forces while canonizing Stewart, an unarmed black graffiti artist who died mysteriously in New York Police Department custody in 1983. (Stewart’s arresting officers were all acquitted, a poignant fact in light of black activist Sandra Bland’s unexplained death in a Texas jail cell last year, and the subsequent lack of indictments.)

At the 1983 African-American Day Parade in Harlem, Lorraine O’Grady helmed a parade float bearing a massive gilded picture frame and a skirt emblazoned with the performance title Art Is … down New York’s Seventh Avenue. At various points along the parade route, O’Grady and fellow performers bearing empty picture frames jumped off the float and invited members of the crowd to pose inside them. Photographs documenting the event show joyful people eager to become works of art. O’Grady’s performance acknowledges the frame’s ability to restore the power of self-representation to those historically deprived of it.

Portrait photography exemplifies a principle contradiction of its medium: it claims to capture the essential qualities of its subjects more accurately than painting or sculpture, while also being highly contingent on the styles and techniques of its practitioners. But is a portrait ever not a fiction? Man in a Polyester Suit makes this failure plain, though that does not make it a fatal flaw. Perhaps it’s unfair to demand that Mapplethorpe’s portraits honestly and accurately portray their sitters; photography is not a ‘perfect medium’, as the LACMA and Getty shows’ title suggests. But that’s why framing matters, especially in portraiture, where human bodies are at stake. Mapplethorpe’s framing reduces subjects with complex histories to coveted erotic objects. The portraits by Fani-Kayode, Harris and O’Grady, on the other hand, constitute a different form of photographic exchange – one in which power lies not behind the camera but in front of it. By giving their models the agency to perform freely before their lens, they rescue photography from its racist, sexist and homophobic past. Their portraits refuse to show us who we want or expect to see.


Met Breuer, New York City


Published on frieze.com, March 2016

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s certainly true of the home that Marcel Breuer designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art, a brutalist cinderblock slotted between the neoclassical facades of New York’s Madison Avenue. When it opened in 1966, the Breuer building was reviled: critics called the inverted concrete ziggurat ‘oppressively heavy’ (Emily Genauer), ‘gloomy’ and ‘stygian’ (Ada Louise Huxtable). But it has weathered well the tempests of time and taste. After nearly two years of renovations, the building reopened last week as Met Breuer, home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s contemporary collection and programming. The high temple of art now has an outpost in postmodernism’s impregnable fortress.

The Met has performed a subtle facelift on the building, refinishing floors and restoring minor details to their original (if slightly enhanced) state. Their respectful treatment of a controversial landmark makes clear its architectural importance. Breuer’s cramped, dark galleries may be poor spaces for viewing contemporary art, particularly as it grows to match swollen egos, but the building is an elegant work of art in its own right. Compared to the voluptuous curves favored by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, Breuer’s blocky concrete façade seems radical in its plainspoken severity.

In just the past decade, contemporary art has enjoyed a tremendous surge in interest and The Met is only the latest historical institution jockeying for a piece of the action; Tate may have set the trend when it opened its dedicated modern and contemporary outpost, Tate Modern, in 2000 (it now receives nearly 6 million visitors a year). The Met’s takeover of the Breuer building, though bold for a typically cautious institution, is a clear gamble to satisfy visitor expectations and expand its donor base. Cosmetics mogul Leonard Lauder, who promised his renowned collection of cubist paintings to the museum in 2013, was a chief supporter of the move.

The Met is a leviathan, its institutional history and reserves as hulking as its stone edifice. These blessings can be burdens when it comes to contemporary programming that favours smaller, nimbler spaces. But the quiet and pristine Nasreen Mohamedi retrospective, one of Met Breuer’s two inaugural shows, avoids this problem altogether.

Born into a Muslim family in pre-partition Pakistan, Mohamedi attended London’s Central St. Martins in the 1950s but spent much of her career in Bombay, where she produced a vast body of work, mostly hard-edged abstract drawings. Her delicate yet precisely layered graphite lines form complex spatial geometries that recall (yet predate) 3D mapping technology. Their overlapping transversals are especially beautiful in the Breuer building’s refurbished third-floor gallery, where they echo the woodgrain in its famous parquet floor and the rigid joints in its concrete coffered ceiling.

The show includes a range of other media: a number of photographs on view document Mohamedi’s travels across the subcontinent, their abstract subjects ranging from ebbing sea foam to shadows cast by camels. One particular image, Untitled (1972), seems to graft Mohamedi’s graphite grids onto the real space of sunken courtyards in the former Mughal capitol, Fatehpur Sikri: the photograph’s high horizon focuses attention on water channels, paving stones and the pencil-thin shadows at their points of intersection. In another photograph from 1967, also called Untitled, a few granaries stand against a cloudless sky, their alien industrial forms a possible nod to Bernd and Hilla Becher. An intoxicating abstract sensibility coheres somewhere between these black and white photographs, early expressionistic paintings and Mohamedi’s better-known drawings. Even without consulting the wall text, her vision shines through clear as day.

The exhibition is a perfect reflection of the Met’s academic and global strengths. Introducing Western audiences to historically important artists excluded from the Euro-American canon is exactly what Met Breuer should be doing; it’s the most contemporary thing about the new museum.

Upstairs, though, the Met’s curators handle the building’s mute, stubborn spaces with less aplomb. ‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible’, a sweeping five-century survey of allegedly unfinished or ‘non-finito’ artworks, opens in Venice with The Flaying of Marsyas(c.1570), one of Titian’s last paintings, alongside striking works by Tintoretto and Jacopo da Ponte. Their ‘unfinished’ effect comes from rough patches of paint: in Agony in the Garden (1558–62), Titian’s lantern flame is an ejaculatory stroke of brilliant white, reminiscent of the fleecy décolletage on Rembrandt’s final portraits. (With loans like these, as with the two entrancing preparatory sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Jan van Eyck in the next gallery, the Met is flexing its institutional muscle.) At times, artistic abandonment produces utterly weird results: a 1775 portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs depicts a faceless aristocratic lady holding a section of unpainted canvas shaped like a dog, her hair and costume rendered in crisp detail. A painting Degas quit in 1897 shows a fallen jockey impossibly lying beneath the galloping horse that bucked him. In later galleries, it’s not clear that the works on view are actually unfinished at all; most historians believe that J.M.W. Turner’s famous late landscape paintings, filled with startlingly abstract bursts of white, brown and orange, to be complete works, finished when the painter’s eyesight was failing.

On the fourth floor, the exhibition makes conjectural leaps as it jumps through time to cubism and beyond. Many works there, from an oversized Luc Tuymans still life to a Piet Mondrian tape-on-canvas study, are not so much ‘unfinished’ as they are liberal with negative space. While browsing this latter half of the show, I couldn’t help but wonder what the featured artists would think of their inclusion. Does Yayoi Kusama really consider her precise and repetitious paintings non-finito? Is Sol Lewitt’s fugal installation Incomplete Open Cubes (1974/82) really a collection of partial objects, as its title suggests, or variations on a geometric theme central to the sculptor’s practice? What, if anything, is missing from Hanne Darboven’s series Letters and Indices to 24 Songs(1974)? The minimalist paintings of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, when falsely characterized as unfinished, look like effects of laziness rather than rigorous transcriptions of painterly theory. Whatever few aesthetic similarities can be gleaned from a quick scan hardly relay differences in content or context. They also unintentionally invite derision: what makes many of the iconic artworks of the last half-century ‘contemporary’, it seems, is their slapdash appearance.

What, for instance, justifies grouping a Felix Gonzales-Torres candy spill together with Zoe Leonard’s desiccated fruit sculptures and Robert Smithson’s Mirrors and Shelly Sand(1969–70)? A wall label proposes the theme of ‘entropy’ – are the curators suggesting that the works aren’t ‘done’ until they’ve disappeared completely? Leonard’s and Smithson’s works are static objects, and Gonzalez-Torres’s candy gets regularly replenished. Entropy does not simply mean physical decomposition – it is a transmission of matter from one state to another. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that this transmission is cyclical; the energy expelled by deteriorating bodies gets absorbed and reused by other matter. The exhibition presumes that artistic process is always oriented toward an end goal – but what if that process is itself the end? If a work is designed to ceaselessly change its shape, can we really declare it ‘unfinished’?

In both its strengths and weaknesses, ‘Unfinished’ is just what you’d expect: a dazzling parade of Old Master paintings chased by a disorienting jumble of postmodern art. The Met still excels at the older stuff; but with contemporary art it faces a steep learning curve. Met Breuer will succeed if those who manage it value contemporary art for more than just visitor figures. The historically conservative institution may never show the kind of ‘new media’ art that shocked and awed at last year’s New Museum Triennial, but it can be contemporary in its ideas: not fresh names but fresh analysis. It would have been far more provocative, for instance, to juxtapose modern and premodern, new and old. Perhaps the splashy gestures of Pollock’s Number 28 (1950) would read differently if hung beside the scintillating figures in Rubens’s unfinished history painting, Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry (1630). What would happen if you put Mengs’s faceless woman opposite the disembodied head in Lucien Freud’s 1965 self-portrait? Or Turner’s late pale, blotchy seascapes next to the muted white impasto of a Ryman?

Of course contemporary art is a tiny capstone on the pyramid of history – just a recent cultural blip of the anthropocene. Trawling through 5,000 years of art history while programming contemporary exhibitions is a formidable challenge, but one the Met can surely handle as well as any institution on the planet. Looking forward by looking back: this is Met Breuer’s paradoxical task. It must use the old to interrogate the new. Until that happens, it has unfinished business to attend to.


Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City


Published in Issue 178 of frieze, April 2016

‘Fred Sandback’s work is an art of objects without shadows,’ Andrea Fraser said of the artist’s acrylic yarn sculptures in a 2006 lecture at Dia Beacon. She was right – at least until the end of Sandback’s life when, in 2002, the artist had an epiphany in the presence of a shadow. It was cast on the wall of a convent church in Mexico designed by the iconic postwar architect Luis Barragán. El Convento de Tlalpan, completed in 1960, is a spiritually moving place even to the most agnostic of aesthetes. With screen-like yellow walls of windows, Barragan sanctified the grid – a ubiquitous modernist motif – by highlighting its cruciform structure. In the chapel, floor-to-ceiling glass casts stippled rays of natural light onto a large wooden cross whose shadow stretches across an opposing wall. Sandback was not a religious man (Barragán was), but he was struck by how the cross’s material form was superseded by its ghostly impression.

‘Los propriedades de la luz’ (The Properties of Light), organized by Proyectos Monclova in partnership with the Fred Sandback Estate, has realized a posthumous collaboration between these two creative minds, who differed greatly in visual vocabulary but shared many ideas about perception, light and space. In addition to six sculptures shown in a traditional gallery exhibition, several Sandback works installed in three Barragán-designed houses in Mexico City are perceptible only by their shadows. At Casa Gilardi, a private residence Barragán completed in 1976 and the only house open to the public, the blue yarn of Sandback’s Untitled (Sculptural Study, Two-part Cornered Construction) (1982-2006), strung across a blue corner above a reflecting pool in the dining room, vanishes as soon as it appears, giving dimension to a dead space while simultaneously flattening the corner into a color-field painting. Along the hallway, lengths of yellow yarn joining the wall and floor in acute angles (Untitled [Six-part Leaning Construction], 2002) dissolve in the tawny light that pours through onyx windows. It is, quite literally, a match made in heaven.

Light assumes a physical presence in Barragán’s architecture that is greater than paint or plaster. Diffuse sunlight, channelled through carefully measured windows, bounces off brightly painted walls, endowing whitewashed hallways, reception areas and dining rooms with the luminous, chromatic intensity of a multi-room James Turrell installation. The houses crack natural light into the component colors of its spectrum, each hue’s changing vibrancy reflecting the arc of the sun. At Gilardi, cerulean meets fiery-red in crisp contrast, their reflected tones just barely comingling on a dimly lit wall across the hall. In the foyer of Barragán’s personal residence, a wall painted in the architect’s signature pink meets a floor of black volcanic rock, and the adjacent white plaster pulses with both shades. At every possible turn, the eye is directed – towards a window of unusual height or a doorframe that opens parallel to a roof beam – to maintain a sense of visual consistency and order in a house where no two spaces are alike.

Such was Barragán’s singular genius: finding symmetry in difference. His precise orchestration of linear geometries and sightlines might be an architectural analogue to Sandback’s favorite forms. Like yarn, which is soft but strong enough to cut clay when taut, Sandback’s sculptures have dual natures: at once flat and volumetric, interior and exterior, forceful yet barely even there. Their long strings float like 3D lines in space – the materialization of a stray mark on a draftsman’s sketch – tracing volumes in space. In the domestic environment of Barragán’s houses, they fully reflect the artist’s desire to make an art ‘anchored in everyday, pedestrian space’.

There is a touching similarity, too, between both men’s relationship to material. Both architect and artist disavowed monolithic materialism; they didn’t need to erect skyscrapers or a concrete Stonehenge in Marfa to interrogate the body’s relationship to objects in space. They did so with house paint, wood, plaster and string – timelessly elegant and brutally effective in their simplicity.

As I departed Gilardi, midday sun began to stream through the skylights, stretching the patterned shape of the windows along the dining room wall. For just a moment, they seemed to merge with Sandback’s strings, glowing in unison as a single beam of light. ‘By removing himself to the extent that he did,’ said Fraser, ‘[Sandback] made a place for me.’ I stood in that place and wished I didn’t have to leave. Its beauty was far from pedestrian.



Published on frieze.com, January 2016

Growing up in Los Angeles, as I did, could be at times an exercise in collective self-pity. ‘LA is a teardown city,’ my architect mother used to say with sarcasm – a place where minimum construction spends would result in blandly functional temporary structures, easily replaceable when their occupants could no longer turn a profit. Outside critics have long bemoaned the ‘inauthentic’ nature of the city, characterizing key architectural movements like Spanish Revivalism as little more than an Epcot model of imported pastiche. Most locally produced art, however good, stayed local, limiting LA’s international profile to a place for blockbuster films and aerospace technology – a perceived provincialism in fine art terms that has made it difficult for the city’s missionaries (like myself) to sell its charms abroad.

2015 was LA’s year of positive self-realization. It was the year the city’s artistic community woke from a long siesta of self-doubt, prodded awake by a surge of new residents and a fetishistic media frenzy. The New York Times, which has served Southern California snark for a century, ran repeated editorials this spring labelling LA a ‘bohemian paradise’ and a ‘Paris Amid the Palms.’ (Though these were accompanied by sensationalistic coverage of the record California drought and resulting wildfire season, suggesting the traitors fleeing Manhattan for Manhattan Beach were kindling on a parched pyre.) Major events packed the LA cultural calendar, bringing in more than the usual international art crowd. A blockbuster contemporary art museum (The Broad) opened its doors, and another one (MOCA) won back local support with major institutional reforms. A major blue chip gallery (Maccarone) christened their new downtown LA branch, while two others (Sprüth Magers and Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel) prepared theirs for early 2016. Dior director Raf Simons joined his Saint Laurent colleague Hedi Slimane as a part-time LA resident, and German designer Bernard Willhelm relocated his Paris studio to Beechwood Canyon, at the foot of the Hollywood sign. Furious, unprecedented debate raged over the released renderings for Peter Zumthor’s demolition and redesign of LACMA’s campus, which prominently featured a building bridging Wilshire Boulevard – what critics dubbed ‘the freeway overpass.’

At the Getty Center, ‘Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World’ featured dozens of stunning, rarely exhibited ancient Greek and Roman bronzes, most fished from the bed of the Mediterranean and painstakingly restored. The well-researched show provided visitors with extensive information about Hellenistic bronze-casting techniques as well as the sculptures’ presumed origin, appearance, and function. The Getty exhibition title could have described Ode to Santos Dumont (2015), the last work Chris Burden completed before his passing on 10 May. Exhibited at LACMA after preliminary test flights, the semi-translucent dirigible turned circles around the museum’s vast Resnick Pavilion, its hull catching flashes of sunlight in a soaring testament to Burden’s creativity.

Eli Broad and Michelle Maccarone shared top billing in September, when the former’s jewel box museum and the latter’s warehouse gallery opened within days of each other. At Maccarone, towering translucent resin paintings by Alex Hubbard inaugurated the pristine space, catching generous sun from skylights in acknowledgement of Southern California’s greatest natural asset. Elizabeth Diller’s design for The Broad similarly embraced the sun with a vast open gallery floor topped by angular skylights. But the museum’s ostentatious opening (firework displays, a star-studded red carpet, press buffets and multi-day street closures), and the sanitizing decadism of its curation (pairing David Wojnarowicz and Julian Schnabel, for example) distracted from this architectural accomplishment. Across the street, in contrast, MOCA’s new Chief Curator, Helen Molesworth, rehung a selection of the museum’s permanent collection to feature scores of non-white and non-male artists in inspiring arrangements both clever and subversively queer.

MOCA also lent its institutional backing to the fledgling The Underground Museum, a storefront art space founded by artist Noah Davis – who passed away in 2015 – in the working class neighbourhood of Arlington Heights. Davis’s exhibition there last year, ‘Imitation of Wealth,’ showcased famous contemporary master works that the artist had replicated. Like the Sturtevant retrospective that travelled to MOCA that season, ‘Imitation of Wealth’ critiqued the art world’s racial and economic exclusivity. The knockout William Kentridge show that followed brought the ‘real thing’ to audiences that might not often make it to MOCA’s hallowed halls. Similarly Art + Practice, a pet project of artist Mark Bradford, transformed a Leimert Park storefront into an exhibition space, bookstore, and centre for foster youth. With support from the Hammer Museum, Art + Practice inaugurated its space with work by Bradford and Charles Gaines, followed by stunning shows of works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby and John Outterbridge. Both projects demonstrate that ‘giving back to the community’ is not a trite philanthropic sentiment but an important and attainable goal for art institutions. That charge is being lead in South Los Angeles.

It was also refreshing, in 2015, to see a new crop of projects in unusual and nimbler spaces. The gallery Arturo Bandini – named after the dejected LA writer in John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust (1939) – held its inaugural show in a temporary shed on the roof of a parking structure. Another ‘shed show,’ a group exhibition curated by Bolivian collective Grupo Anan called ‘Joe’s Cantina’, brought me to the dusty multi-acre hilltop plot of Cudayh, a new outdoor art and performance space overlooking downtown. Climbing the cactus-strewn road up to the titular cantina, its cracked asphalt too dangerous for cars, I felt as though I could be somewhere else entirely; though it was clear I was nowhere but Los Angeles. I drank mezcal at the bar, a corrugated aluminium hut, and watched dry ice smoke rise from the inside of a white wooden cube, upon which the show’s works had been hung. The quirky (and clearly illegal) ‘art bar’ reprised an earlier effort, by four Austrian artists-in-residence at the MAK Center, to turn one of the carports in Rudolph Schindler’s modernist, Mid-City apartment building into an approximate replica of Vienna’s Adolf Loos-designed American Bar. ‘Los Bar’ was, for the month or so it was open, my favourite place to drink in Los Angeles. Cramped quarters encouraged conversation between strangers squeezed up against the plywood bar and its blue pool noodle bumper. (There was blessedly no cell reception, and thus freedom from digital distraction.) Meanwhile, the Schindler-designed Bethlehem Baptist Church in Compton hosted a spare and serene solo show by Robert Barry. Clear vinyl letters covered the white walls, spelling words only legible from an angle in the chapel’s ample daylight.

Though far from small, the strangest exhibition space of all was 9800 Sepulveda Boulevard, which gave its name to the jam-packed November exhibition ‘9800.’ Organized by J. Shyan Rahimi in collaboration with seven fellow independent curators – Ana Iwataki, Courtney Malick, Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Mara McKevitt, Mebrak Tareke, Charles Teyssou, and Marion Vasseur Raluy – the show occupied seven floors of a disused modernist high-rise office building on LAX airport property (built in the 1950s to house Ford Motors’ West Coast headquarters). Art found eerie company installed on dull blue-gray carpets under flickering fluorescent ceiling lights – used after its closure for police drills, the building’s walls are riddled with bullet holes. In the teller booths of a wood-panelled lobby bank, writer Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal cheekily installed text on glass panels and small video monitors detailing a lengthy investigation of the online psychic business, Oranum.com. The building’s creepy and cavernous basement featured dozens of works, including artist collective Encyclopedia Inc.’s revelatory installation dissecting Colin Powell’s false UN testimony prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Illuminated by a dim spotlight, in a windowless room with walls yellowed by age, the installation’s hanging banners and static audio vividly recalled the later horrors of Abu Ghraib.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favourite shows outside of Los Angeles. The Guggenheim’s elegant On Kawara retrospective coiled the artist’s quotidian practice and the museum’s architecture together in a spatio-temporal Möbius strip. Camille Henrot’s wacky, working phones at Metro Pictures (cue reference to Drake’s hit 2015 single, Hotline Bling) made my eyes well with tears of laughter on not one, but two visits. Dr. Seussian wall-mounted cord phones offered users creepily soothing advice on how to deal with frustrated, techno-illiterate fathers; disobedient dogs; philosophical and existential crises; and unfaithful lovers. Jim Shaw’s dizzying New Museum retrospective surprised, shocked, and amused in equal turns; it was unclear whether the contiguity between Shaw’s own work and his vast collection of Seventh Day Adventist memorabilia, also on display, was due to Massimiliano Gioni’s curatorial decisions or the artist’s aesthetic obsession for cultish arcana.

The past year was, for me, a tale of two cities as I moved from Los Angeles to New York toward the end of the year. 2015 certainly had its Dickensian highs and lows: record winter storms struck the East Coast while a record drought hit the West. Two venerable art schools – Cooper Union and the University of Southern California Roski School – were embroiled in controversies that raised fears about the future of arts education. A city with half a dozen premiere MFA programmes, Los Angeles has rarely doubted the security of its schools – but when in May all but one of Roski’s MFA students dropped out in protest of unilateral changes to the curricular and funding model of their programme, the whole city snapped to attention. Part of what makes LA great is the collegiality of its arts community; more often than not, big-name artists will happily discuss their work at openings with their younger peers. The increasing professionalization of art schools and the skyrocketing cost of higher education in America threatens to commercialize Los Angeles into, not a place for making things, but a place to make it.

It could be tempting to classify gentrification as a growing pain, part of LA’s rise as a global cultural capital. But the experimentalism that attracts so many young ‘creatives’ there is the very thing threatened by their exodus. The cycle they may well bring is familiar, perhaps even inevitable: as prices rise to meet demand, people are displaced, and neighbourhoods slowly change their character. If there has been an awakening in Los Angeles, some of it has been rude. Artists have seen rent become unaffordable in, ironically, the Arts District, where developers sold the presence of studios as hip credibility to new tenants of hulking mixed-used housing developments. Developers’ intentions are not malicious (just capitalist), but the effects of their labour could be described as the re-whitening of LA’s urban core. To love LA for its ‘teardowns’, for what it already blessedly is, may be to love what is soon no longer.