The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2015

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MAR 2015 Issue

Seeing It Now

Julie Mehretu. “Heavier than air (written form)” (2014). Ink and acrylic on canvas. 48×72 ̋. Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and carlier | gebauer, Berlin. Copyright Julie Mehretu. Photo: Tom Powel.

On View
Museum Of Modern Art
THE FOREVER NOW: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World
December 14, 2014 – April 5, 2015
New York

Kerstin Brätsch, “Blocked Radiant.”Before you even go in, on either side of the doors, you encounter this oxymoron: the doors are not blocked, but they are surrounded by panels designated as “blocked.” Wow.

Right away inside, having semi-digested that blockage, you encounter a Cosmic Slop. Very engaging title for a series. And in fact, the two Big Black Soapy things are indeed engaging, particularly the one on the right-hand wall, the very beautiful “Black Orpheus” of 2011, full of incisions and low-key protrusions, some golden-black. Rashid Johnson pours this black soap (made out of West African ashes of cocoa pods, palm tree leaves, or shea bark) mixed with tree oils, into a frame and stirs it with a broom handle. And it becomes a dialogue with AbEx but seen through the lens, as the wonderfully informative wall text reads “of African history.” So we aren’t just thinking of that 1959 film by Marcel Camus about the festivals of Rio during Carnival time, but of so much else. For a terrible example, the “Berlin Conference” of 1884 – 85, where the European powers formalized the colonization of Africa. Something else indeed, a trifle less beautiful.

On with the engaging titles: try Joe Bradley’s Schmagoo series, of which about eight (I forgot to count) are placed atop and alongside each other: simple black and white pictographs, like minimalist drawings, they make way for interpretation. Archetypal symbols of the universal unconscious, my favorite being “On the Cross”of 2008, with its bottom unclosed, that is, the two verticals remain right there unended. Like a sacrifice unending, I guess, but here’s what the title indicates: both the slang for heroin, and, as the artist puts it, “shorthand for some sort of Cosmic Substance … Primordial Muck.”

Very un-mucklike are Mark Grotjahn’s Circus works of 2012 and 2013, lively bright loud oils on linen, during the construction of which the painter hung on his studio wall that most wonderful Seurat’s “Circus” of 1891. Now that’s the kind of dialogue that we also see in:

Julie Mehretu’s inscribed polymer paintings, with her “Heavier than Air” (2011), writing dark against a light background, facing her 2014 “Campaign”with its writing—Twombly-like, too—on a dark ground. More dialogue and again in:

Richard Aldrich’s 2010 rethinking of his earlier works, like his very un-sloppy title “Two Dancers with Haze in their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of ‘One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings.’” Yup, he is reusing one of his previous paintings, with a thick brown shape as the ground for the figures dancing upon it. It gives a new sense to the ideas of adaptation and painting over.

There’s more: his reuse of John Cale’s head, taken from the “Portrait of the Velvet Underground Writing a Song” (2002). There’s the “Angie Adams/Franz Kline” (2010 – 11) during which the artist thought he heard, that is he misheard Angie Adams singing in Kanye West’s song “Runaway.” Makes me reevaluate the term “misremembering…” and hope I am not misremembering some of these works in my enthusiasm.

On a final note, the four paintings making up the four walls of Amy Sillman’s work were a total joy. The “Still Life” of 2013 – 14 with its green and purple and black and white and lavender gives off a kind of certainty, while the “Still Life” of 2014 with the bottle and sketched outlines was as convincing as the Juan Gris still lifes in the Leonard Lauder bequest to the Met. No more need be said.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2015

All Issues