After last week’s post on Phyllida Barlow’s solo turn (now closed) on the fourth floor of the New Museum, it seemed apropos to mention the exhibition one flight down, which is devoted to one of her better-known students from London’s Slade School, Tacita Dean: Five Americans (open through tomorrow).
Five Americans features film portraits of Merce Cunningham, Julie Mehretu, Claes Oldenburg and Cy Twombly. Also included in the show are a set of five graphite-colored gravures inspired by Twombly (brightly isolated on a long wall in the otherwise darkened gallery) and a photographic series depicting Leo Steinberg’s hands (apparently a southpaw) writing on a pad, with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo” propped up, out of focus, in front of him.
Although Dean has been on the international radar since she was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1998, this is the first large selection of her enigmatic body of work that I’ve seen firsthand. Given the specificity of its focus, however, it may not be the most opportune introduction.
The films are Frederick Wiseman–style fly-on-the-wall documentaries. They are all, inarguably, exquisitely done. The camerawork, pacing and editing are fluid and captivating, and the choices of where and what to shoot are for the most part offbeat and refreshing.
Still, the museum-ready combination of vintage artists captured on vintage film stock (Dean is an ardent advocate of 16mm) lends the enterprise an air of preciousness. While it is both exhilarating and poignant to watch Cunningham creating a dance in a stunning locale (an empty, light-filled factory in San Francisco), especially now that his company has disbanded forever, are we gaining insights into his process or merely basking in his aura?
In these works, Dean is turning institutional critique on its head and engaging in a benign form of hero worship. She is paying homage to, rather than interrogating, her elders, who happen to be four white men, two now deceased. (Julie Mehretu’s section, due to its brevity — two silent films running concurrently, three and four minutes each — and the diminutive scale of its two suspended screens, unfortunately feels like a demographic afterthought.)
While the conceptual wispiness of these offerings need not hinder their enjoyment, it does pose a problem that goes beyond the question of whether there is anything intrinsically interesting about watching Claes Oldenburg obsessively dusting his collection of antique tchotchkes, other than that it is Claes Oldenburg doing it.
The problem resonates most strongly in “The Line of Fate” (2011), a set of four black-and-white photographs and one in color depicting the hands of the late art historian, Leo Steinberg (1920–2011).
According to the wall label, Steinberg permitted Dean one hour of his time, during which she took dozens of photographs. Once she started going through the images, she realized that the pen Steinberg held in his left hand, thanks to the camera’s shifting point of view, created a diagonal that carried through five shots, from the top left to the bottom right.
She related this coincidence to Steinberg’s seminal essay “The Line of Fate in Michelangelo’s Painting” (1980), in which he argues that a top-left-to-bottom-right diagonal appears in the Renaissance master’s works from (in reverse chronological order), “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” (completed in 1549), “The Last Judgment” (1536–1541), the three frescoes depicting Eve on the Sistine Ceiling (1508–1512) and “The Manchester Madonna” (ca. 1497).
This is no mere formal contrivance but a structural imperative freighted with autobiographical significance, especially in “St. Peter” and “The Last Judgment.” Steinberg’s description of the latter — in which Michelangelo’s self-portrait as St. Bartholomew’s skin serves as the exact midpoint between the apex of heaven and the depths of hell — is particularly mind-blowing, both in the modernity it ascribes to Michelangelo’s self-awareness as the author of his work and in the consummate planning it took to pull off such a precise placement in the patchwork medium of fresco on a 45-foot-high wall.
Steinberg embeds his analysis with historical, theological and biographical references that underscore pictorial art’s encyclopedic range and expressive power. And in doing so, he manages to look at the most picked-over corpus in the history of Western art in a radically new way, trusting his eyes rather than centuries of accounts written by others.
“The Line of Fate in Michelangelo’s Painting” also contains perhaps the pithiest explanation ever of signification in visual art:
The work’s ultimate meaning flows in the geometry of its structure.
Put up against Steinberg’s incandescent and far-reaching essay, what are we to make of Dean’s “Line of Fate”? It is clever. A pun. And that’s about as far as it goes. Even so, it is a pun that Steinberg, who was as witty as he was brilliant and irascible, may well have appreciated. But his “Line of Fate” so far outmatches Dean’s that the only thing they have in common is the words in their titles.
Am I taking the comparison too far? Yes and no. Although Dean cites the Steinberg essay, she isn’t setting her work in parity with it. But I can’t help but relate this work, as well as the other portraits in the exhibition, to research-based art about art, which relies on the significance it borrows from other artists and artworks to make its point.
Steinberg’s essay, as one good example, shows us how transformative a discovery based on experience and backed by erudition can be. Another good example is Phyllida Barlow’s installation, siege, which was upstairs through last Sunday. While steeped in history, Barlow’s sculpture is foremost an expression of volume, space, texture and color; its antecedents and references register as echoes rather than placards or footnotes.
If the works in this show are about art — including the abstract print series “More or Less” (2011), whose title is a quote from Twombly about whether painting makes him happy (“More or less” was his response) — they are also subtle, organic, moving and beautiful.
Being homages, these films and photographs do not swing wildly into the unexpected, nor do they attempt to cast their subjects in a new light. But by lionizing the diverse careers of five singular individuals, in an obverse way Dean reminds us of the necessity of great art, whether it was made in 1549 or 2012, to jar us out of our complacency.
Tacita Dean: Five Americans continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 1.
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