By Monday, the reality of the mandated reductions in government spending, otherwise known as sequestration, had begun to sink in. For its part, the New York Times announced, to no one’s surprise, “the split between American workers and the companies that employ them is widening and could worsen in the next few months as federal budget cuts take hold.”
There were two graphs on the inside pages; one, charting corporate profits from the late 1940s until the third quarter of 2012, resembled a sly, skeletal smile, while the other, which traced personal income for the same time period, was its embittered inversion. Together they formed the masks of 2013’s economic comedy and tragedy, reduced to a Cheshire grin and its symbiotic frown.
The article, which was written by Nelson D. Schwartz, went on to report:
[…] although experts estimate that sequestration could cost the country about 700,000 jobs, Wall Street does not expect the cuts to substantially reduce corporate profits.
The next day, as if on cue, the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached an all-time high of 14,253.77, which seemed to confirm the impression, as Schwartz wrote on Monday, that we are living through a “golden age for corporate profits.”
On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg opened the Armory Show — the art fair that takes its name, though not its location, from the artist-run exposition that brought Modern Art to a wide American public.
That legendary event, which signaled the beginnings of a global shift that ultimately moved the center of the art market to New York after World War II, took place, as we know, 100 long years ago.
The Armory Show and the other art fairs opening across town this week are of a different order, which the Mayor characterized as “a lot of fun and great for the economy.”
Chelsea galleries, in turn, have mounted a full-court press to engage the 66,000 visitors expected to turn out for Art Week, opening notable shows that, despite their quality, can be every bit as overweening, overhung and overhyped as the fairs themselves.
Even the sparely installed Dan Flavin/Donald Judd twofer on the first floor of David Zwirner’s new five-story, 30,000-square-foot West 20th Street building cannot escape the prevailing excess, as works of classic minimalism compete with the gallery’s sprawling — and surprisingly bland — poured-concrete architecture.
But there are still a couple of oases from the art glut and its attendant chaos and commodification, where you can get a handle on what it means to put yourself in the presence of art and let it work on you the way it should.
First, head uptown to the Frick Collection, the marble palace that has long served to obscure the virulent anti-union history of its founder, Henry Clay Frick, for Piero della Francesca in America, a show of seven paintings, six from a single altarpiece, filling the Oval Room. Piero’s time may have been every bit as bloody and corrupt as Frick’s or, for that matter, our own, but each picture stands out as a radiant miracle.
There is one to note in particular, however: “Saint Augustine” (1454–1469), done in oil and tempera on poplar panel, from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. “St. Augustine” is the counterpart to the Frick’s own “St. John the Evangelist” (1454–1469) also in oil and tempera with traces of gold on poplar.
Each painting was made to fill one panel of the altarpiece; consequently, they share a sense of scale as well as certain pigments, such as the intense sky-blue enclosing their heads and torsos. Neither figure looks relaxed, with both exhibiting a stone-like solidity revealed in crystal-clear, ambient light.
The similarities, however, end there. Where the simply rendered “St. John” is virtually ascetic in his adornments (if a flowing red robe and an embroidered undergarment can be considered ascetic), “St. Augustine” pulls out all the stops.
Sheathed in a bishop’s mitre and cope like a bullet head and full-metal jacket, the saint’s severely geometric form is nonetheless a detailed compendium of Christian iconography, with the life of Christ depicted in scenes trailing up and down the open edges of the robe, and the resurrected Redeemer emblazoned on the center of Augustine’s hat.
The rich black and sienna floral pattern covering the outer portions of the cope is remarkably graphic, its delicate traceries of line embossed on the surface like Japanese lacquer. The exactitude of this feature is riveting, but even more astonishing is the contrast it strikes with the freely painted individual scenes — the Annunciation, the Flight into Egypt, the Agony in the Garden and so on — whose slips and swatches of the brush would not be out of place in “The Arch of Constantine and the Forum, Rome,” painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in 1843, on view in the adjoining room.
The tiny images-of-images — paint impersonating tapestry, which is in turn arrayed like a vertical, wearable predella — if it were done today, would be viewed as a meta-commentary on modes of representation and presentation. Similarly, the juxtaposition of the illusionistic scenes with the lacquer-like embossment might be taken as a consideration of a painting’s dual status as an object in space and the conveyer of a communal narrative.
Add to this such whimsically Boschian inventions as the crystal shaft of the gold-topped staff that Augustine holds in his gloved and bejeweled hand, and we are confronted with a work of art deeply enmeshed in the credo of its time — a statuesque saint literally invested with the life and death of Christ: the embodiment of rock-solid faith — that also, in postmodern hindsight, intersects vastly disparate periods and cultures, a contradiction that only accentuates the absolute stillness at its core.
Now take the #6 subway downtown (and across 530 years) to the New Museum, currently occupied by the clangorous NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Skip straight to the fourth floor, avoiding the video loops, junk-art assemblages and naked mutants crammed into every other corner of the building.
If you enter the shadow-shrouded fourth floor via the stairs instead of the elevator, the first thing you will experience is the texture of the soft carpet under your feet and the sound of Kristin Oppenheim’s audio piece, “Sail on Sailor” (1993), composed of the artist’s voice singing breathy, half-remembered snatches of a Beach Boys song.
Just over your shoulder, to the left and high on a narrow, double-height wall, is Robert Gober’s haunting “Prison Window” (1992), a deep-set, cutout square divided by three vertical forged iron bars, and behind it, an artificially lit, illusionistic backdrop of an auroral sky.
To the right, a warm, soft glow spills over the wall-to-wall carpet (dyed the color of an orange alert) and across Zoe Leonard’s large, black-and-white photographs from 1990, in which she depicted museum displays of antique female anatomical models. The carpet is actually one of Rudolf Stingel’s materials-based redefinitions of painting, an untitled work first produced in 1991 and refabricated in 2012.
Follow the luminescence around the corner and you will stop short in front of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled (Couple)” (1993), a floor-to-ceiling string of incandescent light bulbs, perfectly placed in the northeast quadrant of the room, with Gonzalez-Torres’s two-part billboard from 1992–1993 covering the south and west walls.
The billboards — grainy black-and-white photos of the sky, each with a lone seagull suspended in midflight — descend into pitch-blackness at the corner where they meet, diagonally opposite “Untitled (Couple).” The splendor of the installation’s simplicity takes your breath away.
To leave the largest room in the museum virtually empty is a bracing curatorial act, especially in the context of an otherwise busy, information-driven show. The interrelationship of the artworks — the melancholy of the prison window and the isolated gulls; the starkly enigmatic, oddly comforting ascendance of the light bulbs; the mortality implicit in the anatomical model; the heated agitation of the orange carpet; the innocent, inescapable rhythms of “Sail on Sailor” — risks becoming a programmatic tool, but it is a risk worth taking. The installation’s instinctive unity and eloquent indirection create an unforgettable collective memorial to the devastation of AIDS, which took Gonzalez-Torres’s life in 1996.
Here again we encounter a sense of absolute stillness — a sloughing off of what doesn’t matter. And you realize that what doesn’t matter encompasses an awful lot.
Piero della Francesca in America continues at the Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 19.
NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 26.