The first painting I saw in 2016 was “Cockman Always Rises Orange” (2015): we can’t say we weren’t warned.
It was the second Saturday night of the year, January 9th, and I had just walked into the opening of Dicks of Death, Judith Bernstein’s solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery on West 24th Street. “Cockman Always Rises Orange,” was hanging immediately to the left of the entrance, and it wasn’t about to be ignored. Measuring seven by seven feet and emblazoned with the words “Portrait of Schlong Face” in the lower right, it was a major statement about what — at the time — seemed nothing more than a fleeting political phenomenon.
Nevertheless, “Cockman Always Rises Orange” and its companion portrait, “Cockman Always Rises Gray” (also 2015, and similarly designated “Schlong Face” in the same corner of the canvas), were executed with as much fury and urgency as everything else in the exhibition, which presented Bernstein’s savage anti-Vietnam War mixed-media works and her giant “Screw Drawings” of the 1970s alongside paintings fresh from the studio.
And the “Cockman” portraits were as freshly painted as you can get. On December 21st, exactly 20 days before they debuted in Boone’s cavernous Chelsea space, Donald J. Trump, at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, mocked Hillary Clinton as having been “schlonged” by Barack Obama in 2008. The remark has since been all but forgotten in the torrent of vulgarity that spewed like a broken sewer from Trump’s campaign over the ensuing eleven months, but Bernstein caught it and immediately entered it into the private demonology she has developed over the course of her remarkable career.
As I wrote in my review of the show, “Cockman is the arch-American demagogue, the embodiment of jingoism, racism, and sexism,” a caricature composed of a penis for a nose and a ball sack for cheeks — identical to but predating Philip Guston’s Nixon drawings — “derived from the graffiti Bernstein uncovered during her excursions into the men’s rooms of Yale University, where she attended graduate school in the mid-1960s”:
But, then again, Bernstein’s images, as made manifest in this show, are signifiers that have less to do with a specific moment than with the perpetual cycles of war, power, sex, and death. Cockman can be Donald Trump or George Wallace — the subject of “Cockman #1 (Alabama’s Governor George Wallace)” from 1966 — or both, or neither. It doesn’t matter. He’s Cockman and, as the title says, he “Always Rises.”
And in exactly 20 days from this article’s publication date, he will be sworn in as president. I’m not going to attempt to draw a line between perspicacity and prophecy, or to puzzle out whether, for artists who have had their ear to the ground for as long as Bernstein has, there is a line at all. But by investing her artistic capital, in terms of materials and time, into her resurrection of Cockman, she evidently saw in Trump not a narcissistic buffoon but an impending catastrophe on the scale of LBJ’s Vietnam and Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” If he is a caricature-made-flesh, he is also a caricature who will, not to put too fine a point on it, be sworn in as president in exactly 20 days.
(On a related note, I will be holding a public conversation with Bernstein at the Swiss Institute four days after the inauguration.)
William Powhida, almost three and a half decades younger than Bernstein, has in recent years broadened his vivisections of the microcosmic politics of the art world to the macroeconomic politics of the real world, most pointedly in Derivatives, his 2011 solo exhibition at Postmasters that included the epic-scaled drawing “Griftopia” (2011), based on Matt Taibbi’s 2010 book Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America.
Now that “vampire squid” has reentered the lexicon with the advent of Goldman Sachs glitterati filing into the inky darkness of the incoming administration, Powhida’s powerfully complex, five-by-ten-foot drawing has proven as prescient and timely as Bernstein’s Schlong Face. But in July, the future seemed a good deal brighter, so much so that when several of Powhida’s Trump-centric drawings appeared in a group show at Postmasters called Grayscale, I wrote a piece about them (“The Shelf Life of Political Art”) that questioned whether the transient nature of topical art made it art at all. Regarding the drawing “Is Donald Trump an Existential Threat? Or Just A Major Asshole…” (2016), I asked:
The drawing’s formal sophistication coupled with its levels of meaning and layers of context remove it entirely from the realm of political cartooning, but where does it land? And how will we address it once the threat of a Trump presidency (presumably November 9th) is over?
The question now, appallingly, is how do we address drawings like this when the threat of a Trump presidency suddenly becomes a reality? The note of fatalism concluding the review was meant to take the long view, but it’s a sentiment that now seems far from certain or clear:
If anything, the layering of credulity and incredulity, dubiousness and polemic complicates if not obviates the artworks’ shelf life. The cast of characters may change, and we hope quickly, but not the ambition and guile they represent. Improbable as it now seems, there will one day be another election cycle, and these drawings will migrate from the immediate to the reflective, manifestations of nightmares avoided or sustained.
Politics, which has become synonymous with pessimism, made itself felt in less direct ways in other shows through the course of the year. The German artist Maria Bussmann, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Vienna, presented a selection of drawings at Frosch&Portmann derived from a concordance to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which sometimes literal, sometimes far-flung associations with individual words are rendered pictorially.
Such an approach, as I wrote at the time, “may sound dry and forbidding, but it’s not,” given the warmth, humor, and humanity of the artist’s vision. Moreover, “as a German who currently spends most of the year in Vienna, Bussmann is acutely aware of the scourge of history and the insidious uses to which the science of thought can be put.” Her drawings, though linguistically based, are shadowed with intimations of surveillance, refugees, and gathering storms.
In his show ICONS at Studio 10, Adam Simon presented abstract paintings based on corporate logos. During a conversation held at the gallery with the filmmaker Keith Sanborn, Simon mentioned that the paintings expressly eschewed politics, and in my review I underscored the idea that “Simon’s prime motivation is visual (he referred at one point to his paintings as landscapes) and his formal moves follow from there.”
But intentions eventually give way to context. As a nakedly corporate state is thrust upon us, the insidious inferences of Simon’s abstractions transform them into a different kind of emblem. At the end of the review I wrote, “Simon’s paintings represent the degree, in the globalist era, to which we are willing to acquiesce or resist — a core question about cultural drift that’s not going to go away,” little suspecting that the drift would suddenly turn into a plunge.
Three group exhibitions noteworthy in their own right — Paradise: underground culture in NYC 1978-84 at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84 at 205 Hudson Gallery, and As Carriers of Flesh at David & Schweitzer Contemporary — took place concurrently with the election and its aftermath, which endowed them with a wholly unanticipated edge.
The first two shows, set mostly in the Reagan era, offer a way forward, reflecting “the natural-born, scuffed and scruffy resistance of young artists to the reactionary politics foisted upon them (as well as the culture wars to come), refusing to be stunned into silence, doing everything they could to be seen and heard,” while the grotesqueries running through As Carriers of Flesh, which might have originally been meant to signify “a singularly unhinged moment in American politics, [have instead] inadvertently envisioned an uncertain and potentially terrifying future.”
In times like these, formal pleasures can take on an uncommon level of comfort, and they were in particular abundance this year, starting with Ways and Means: a new look at process and materials in art curated by Jason Andrew at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery, a mammoth group show that shot for “the wow factor time and again without skirting the more meditative aspects of process art.”
Other exhibitions reveling in the purely visual, appropriately held in the summertime, included Splotch, a two-gallery extravaganza at Sperone Westwater and Lesley Heller Workspace, and Construction Site at McKenzie Fine Art. A fresh perspective on Minimalism’s material range and emotional scope was provided by 1970’s: 9 Women and Abstraction, which is on display at Zürcher Gallery through January 15.
There were also eye-filling and thought-provoking explorations of abstract painting by Ivo Ringe at Hionas Gallery, Jonathan Lasker at Cheim & Read, Monique Mouton at Bridget Donahue, and Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann at Gallery Nine 5, while two of Minimalism’s most radical sculptors were responsible for two of the year’s most impressive shows, Richard Serra at Gagosian and Fred Sandback at David Zwirner.
And then there were the dazzling mashups, hybrids, and outliers: Paul D’Agostino’s “Chromatic Alphabet” paintings and “Floor Translation” drawings at Life on Mars; Audra Wolowiec’s sound installations, slide-projected poetry, punctuation-based musical scores, unreadable texts, and perfume bottles at Studio 10; Tim Spelios’s interbreeding of collage, photography, and gestural abstraction, also at Studio 10; Judith Bruan’s obsessively symmetrical abstract and text-based drawings at McKenzie Fine Art and Simuvac Projects; Jeff Schwarz’s ceramic paintings in slip, glaze, and clay at Outlet; and Rachel Beach’s adjacencies of sculpture, photography, and video at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (on view through March 17).
A group show that brooked no difference between abstract and figurative, historical and new, blue-chip and emerging, was Cosmic Connections at TOTAH on the Lower East Side, where the inclusion of names more commonly associated with Chelsea or the Upper East Side — Giorgio de Chirico, Agnes Martin, Bruce Conner, Joan Miró, Roberto Matta, Julio González, Joseph Cornell, Ed Ruscha, Wim Wenders, and Edward Hopper — offered “further evidence of the increasingly blurred boundaries among Manhattan’s art districts.”
The year also saw more than its share of spectacular museum exhibitions. Although I covered relatively few of them, each was a standout in terms of its curatorial achievement and cultural/historical backstory: Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest at the New Museum (on view through Jan. 15); Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss, and the Cycle of Life at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia (through February 20); Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at the Met Breuer; Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918 at the Neue Galerie; and Anri Sala: Answer Me at the New Museum.
The trend of high-end commercial galleries presenting in-depth historical surveys has proceeded apace, with two at Sperone Westwater, Otto Piene: Sundew and Selected Works 1957–2014 and Painting in Italy 1910s-1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art.
Modern Italian art was also the subject of Fausto Melotti at the uptown outpost of Hauser & Wirth, while in Chelsea the gallery offered two large-scale examinations of the work of Philip Guston: the Nixon drawings (Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975) and Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967, which traced the artist’s struggles between pure abstraction and looming figuration, a conflict that led him to abandon painting for two years, working exclusively in charcoal and ink before bursting into his late figurative style and the wildly scabrous Nixon drawings.
And speaking of Nixon (again), the painter William Buchina, whose 2015 exhibition, Time to Speak a Human Language, mined the origins of our current plight in the conspiracies and thuggery surrounding the Nixon presidency, returned at the tail end of winter (and in the heat of the primaries) with the next stage in his excavations, a solo show called In and Around the Water at Slag Contemporary.
The sweeping, cinematic scope of the six paintings in the exhibition, which formed “a panorama of a full-immersion baptism-cum-freak show,” crammed with outlandishly costumed and masked characters, created a dream-logic account of “the late-‘80s transition from the Reagan Era — deemed The Worst Years of Our Lives in the title of Barbara Ehrinreich’s book, published in 1990 (if she only knew what the coming decades held in store) — to the inexorable rise of the Bushes”:
Using the razor-tipped tools of a satirist, Buchina offers one artist’s vision of where we’ve come from and what we are, but without a hint as to where we might be heading. That’s the electorate’s job, and it’s not going well.
Another artist imparting a vision of where we’ve been and where we’re going, not with a set of new works but through the revelation of an under-the-radar career, was Juanita McNeely, “a 79-year-old painter who was barely out of high school when she was given six months to live” and subsequently “faced down cancer, disability and sexism [to create] a body of work that resonates with the screw-it-all truth-telling of a genuine survivor.” Her show at Mitchell Algus, composed of six canvases dating from 1975 to 2014, was filled with extremes, from distorted nudes to mad dogs, but rendered with such “gorgeous color and sensuous brushwork [that it becomes] a trap laid with honey.”
Fred Valentine, the artist and curator of his eponymous gallery in Ridgewood, offered another over-the-shoulder glance with a series of charcoal portraits from the late 1980s and early ‘90s in a solo show at Schema Projects; with their mix of classicism, collage, layering, and defacement, these powerful, haunting, deeply felt works hardly seemed 25 years old, demonstrating instead “an urgency that consolidates current strains of thought on content and intentionality, materials and medium.”
With the Trump ascendency, there has been much talk about the idea of community as a solace and defense, and two moments out of this tumultuous year embodied that ideal, in two very different ways.
Recharging the Image: Selections from the Mott-Warsh Collection at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, organized by the Center’s curator, Mary Birmingham, presented 24 works from more than 600 (representing 183 artists) collected by Maryanne Mott and her late husband, Herman Warsh.
The exhibition brochure states that Mott and Walsh “set out to make a difference in [Mott’s] community of origin, Flint, Michigan, by facilitating meaningful engagement with art. Troubled by the steady decline of art education in public school systems across the United States and noticing the lack of art by people of color in many of the nation’s fine art museums, they decided to establish a collection of art by artists of the African diaspora and others who reflect on it.”
These works have been presented “in public institutions in the city of Flint and beyond — non-traditional art venues, such as the public library, the health department, and local churches, as well as cultural and educational institutions.”
The exhibition was not, as I noted in my review, a “series of teaching moments,” but a selection of enigmatic and sometimes troubling imagery — ambitious works by major artists (Carrie Mae Weems, Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Whitfield Lovell, among others) “that can confound and challenge just as easily as they can enlighten and inspire.”
The second moment was not an exhibition but just that, a moment: a visit one morning in early June to the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico — the celebrated subject of such American Modernist icons as Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and Paul Strand — where the members of the parish alongside local volunteers were engaged in the church’s annual enjarre — the reapplication of the adobe structure’s mud exterior.
Clay was dug out of a parishioner’s property and trucked to the church’s courtyard, where it was mixed with water and straw. Damaged areas of the exterior were scraped away and patched with a “scratch coat” followed by a smooth topcoat. What seemed to matter as the workers went about their tasks was not the celebrity of their monument, but that it was their own:
The process was carried out in almost perfect silence: only a few words were passed among the workers as their hands, legs, and backs moved ceaselessly in a harmony of effort, a communal act of devotion played out in the baking sun.
Happy New Year.