Art

Blue Chip Chelsea: Keifer, Rauschenberg, Sugimoto + Surprises

Yesterday afternoon, I ventured out into the bordering on bad weather and braved the gray skies to bring you the latest on Chelsea this November. The gallery district is probably much as you remember it, with high-end galleries showing off their blue chip stables and smaller spaces skipping to keep up. Yet there are still pleasant surprises to be found in the warehouse-strewn streets, from lesser known painters that include (gasp!) a ceramicist to commercial shows that may as well be museum retrospectives. Continue below for the blow-by-blow of my blue-chip Chelsea trip.

Hiroshi Sugimoto at Pace Gallery

One of Sugimoto's lightning works (image fron NYTimes.com)

Let’s start off with the show that made every piece in it look like a movie star. Recasting Pace’s gallery space into a chamber by chamber showcase for his photographs, Hiroshi Sugimoto shows a series of works that use lightning and electrical sparks as a kind of drawing medium, exposing the light onto large negative surfaces. The resulting photographs take something from Chinese scrolls and traditions of miniature paintings, with tiny spikes jutting from each tentacle of the spark. The pieces were as sensual as they were scientific; as a protean “mad scientist” figure, Sugimoto has retaken something of the artist-as-naturalist role, an investigator into the visual mysteries of electricity.

That’s all great, but though the pieces are beautiful, there’s still something missing from them. I had a tough time getting a hold on these works because their surfaces were so relentlessly slick, the photographic paper so glossy that the lightning strikes’ violence and spectacle are almost negated. There’s a grace to how well Sugimoto makes the electricity dance, but it doesn’t always make for a powerful piece. I’d like to see the next exhibition that the artist incorporates these ideas into; it’s a work in progress.

Brice Marden at Matthew Marks

Brice Marden at Matthew Marks (photo by author)

After the artist’s insanely impressive Museum of Modern Art retrospective of a few years ago, it’s nice to see Marden’s work in a complete show but it’s also hard not to compare the artist’s current quieter output with his stone-heavy but neon-light abstract paintings produced earlier in his career.

The current exhibition at Matthew Marks gallery shows a protean Marden turned mandarin. The paintings display a facility with their medium that’s obvious given the artist’s career but that turns out slightly boring. The paintings’ soft colors jive perfectly and their side borders, delicately shaded like the edges of scrolls, make the compositions immovably balanced. These are still, un-dynamic canvases that would be great for above the couch. Drawings in a smaller gallery argue a better case, calligraphic watercolors that do a better job of displaying the artist’s serenely confident hand.

Adrian Piper at Elizabeth Dee

Adrian Piper at Elizabeth Dee (photo by author)

In the artist’s exhibition at Elizabeth Dee, Adrian Piper presents a social critique so cogent and so contemporary that it may as well be posted on Gawker’s Jezebel blog. The artist appropriates the male- and white-dominated glossy images produced by Hollywood that supposedly represent the era of their making and turns them on their head, forcing viewers to violently reconsider the media they’re bombarded with. Grainy, black and white images of movie stars are blown up into standing signs and slapped with a “Forget” label while the base narratives of everyday community are narrated in monumental form, the artist’s mother and father slowly dying from cancer. This is a powerful show.

Robert Rauschenberg at Gagosian #1/2

Robert Rauschenberg, “Untitled (Spread)” (1983) (image from gagosian.com)

Rauschenberg is probably best known for his combines, Duchamp’s concept of the readymade blown up to a contemporary scale with contemporary objects. The scraps and ephemera collected in an enormous retrospective at Gagosian Gallery that would do comfortably on MoMA’s top floor display Rauschenberg consistently outdoing himself in turning the everyday into pure visual and artistic magic. Here, cardboard boxes covered in sand become Egyptian architecture. There’s a bike stuck to one side of that sculpture, too. For fun. Sheer bed sheets are screenprinted and propped up on bamboo sticks, someone’s laundry line turned into something fleetingly poetic. This is unmonumental before it was cool, and before the concept got mired in kitsch. The smoothest piece at Gagosian is an art shipping box, plain and brown, stamped with “work of art” labels. Rauschenberg pried open one side and installed a Plexiglas door to show off the Bell Telephone logo he had placed inside. Work of art, indeed.

David Thorpe at Casey Kaplan

David Thorpe's tiles at Casey Kaplan (photo by author)

Thorpe’s Peace not Pacifism was far and away the highlight of my Chelsea trip. The artist, whose early work engaged with collage, here concentrates almost exclusively on pattern and ornament, taboo topics in the strictures of Modernism but obviously fair game with the rise of Postmodernist contemporary art. Yet Thorpe’s use of pattern isn’t in irony, a sarcastic joke, or conceptual play. Rather than poking at our the inherent biases in our eyes for symmetry, Thorpe indulges them, creating ceramic tiles works whose patterns recall Etruscan murals and the flat quality of Greco-Roman vase painting. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, Thorpe works with craftsman to produce these pieces that are almost shocking in their lo-fi approach to consistency and quality. It’s like Finish Fetish, but for real.

Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian #2/2

Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian Gallery (photo by author)

Kiefer’s new show at Gagosian was the one I looked forward to most on this trip, after seeing the artist speak not long ago. But then when I heard that the exhibition’s works were nearly all encased in glass vitrines, I started expecting the worst. As it turned out, the show was probably the biggest disappointment of the day. Sure, the artist’s hallmarks were all there, the tar-like neo-expressionist brushwork, the self-referential and self-mythologizing symbolic code, the pallets sprouting wings. Yet the fact that these fascinating sculptures were behind glass basically killed them. The knotty texture of Kiefer’s materials was totally downplayed in favor of the shine of the glass, a barrier that divorced me from further engaging with the actual sculptures. It’s like collectors realized stuff was falling off of their paintings and demanded that the detritus be protected.

The transparency of the glass vitrines also lends to the show’s problematic feeling of being overstuffed. Kiefer’s work is best taken in small doses, at most a few powerful, massive pieces at a time. Just because Gagosian’s 24th street garage can fit dozens of huge glass vitrines doesn’t mean as many of them as possible should be crammed into the show. The visual noise depressingly interfered with any attempt to concentrate on the piece in front of you. Aren’t vitrines over already? I mean Terence Koh does that shit.

The High Line

The High Line park (photo by author)

On your way back from Chelsea after a long, hard day of art-looking, I highly recommend checking out the High Line at night. Looking back over the gentle swaying grasses and out onto Gehry’s shiny condo is a refreshing respite from all the white cubes. Plus, no buying required!

  • Hiroshi Sugimoto’s The Day After continues at Pace Gallery (545 W 22nd Street, Manhattan) until December 24.
  • Brice Marden’s Letters is on at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 W 22nd Street, Manhattan) until December 23.
  • Adrian Piper’s Past Time: Selected Works from 1973 – 1995 at Elizabeth Dee Gallery (545 W 20th Street, Manhattan) is showing until December 11.
  • Robert Rauschenberg at Gagosian Gallery (522 W 21st Street, Manhattan) is on display until December 18.
  • David Thorpe’s Peace Not Pacifism is open until December 18 at Casey Kaplan Gallery (525 W 21st Street, Manhattan).
  • Anselm Kiefer’s Next Year in Jerusalem at Gagosian Gallery (555 W 24th Street, Manhattan) is on until December 18.
  • The High Line park is open from 7 AM to 10 PM daily. Last entrance to the park is at 9:45 PM. It runs between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues between Gansevoort to 20th Streets.
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