“A Self-Portrait,” an exhibition of paintings by Lamar Peterson, is at Fredericks & Freiser gallery for just a few more days, through April 8. Peterson intends the works to serve, in aggregate, as a metaphor for contemporary black male identity. He’s credited his predilection for bright landscapes to none other than PBS’s Bob Ross: “When I was a kid, I used to paint along with him, and he always painted a mountain scene. I imagine that as being the perfect scene … that most people can relate to. In a sense, people see that mountain scene as being an ideal kind of thing, so I keep coming up with images like that.”
Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Kyle Chayka revisits Anselm Kiefer’s Velimir Chlebnikov.
The summer before I went to college, in 2006, I worked as a guard at the Aldrich Museum, a contemporary-art museum an hour from where I grew up in the Connecticut woods. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I’m fairly certain it always will be. For ten dollars an hour—a royal sum for a teenager whose only other gig had been making cider donuts at an apple orchard—I and five or six other guards, some retirees and others fellow students, stationed ourselves in the airy galleries to make sure none of the guests touched or collided with the art on display. Mainly, our responsibility was to have conversations with visitors reassuring them of the validity of the curatorial decisions: Yes, this is art. When there was no one around to question contemporary aesthetics, we sat on foldout stools and read, drew, or knitted. (In this way, I made my way through most of Haruki Murakami’s oeuvre.)
That summer, one of the galleries on rotation—we switched locations on the hour, so over the course of a day every guard got a full tour—was a two-story-tall corrugated-steel pavilion built on a cement plinth outside on the museum’s grounds. The pavilion was a work by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, a painter and sculptor known for the gnarled surface of his huge canvases as well as for his gothic sensibility: an atmosphere of fallen historical grandeur pervades his work. Inside the rectangular pavilion’s towering metal doors, the two side walls were hung with thirty paintings arranged in grids, covering every inch. Read More
Lois Dodd’s early paintings (1958–66) are showing at Alexandre Gallery through March 18. Dodd, who is eighty-nine, helped to found New York’s artist-run Tanager Gallery in the fifties, when it was one of a series of downtown spaces redefining how work was shown and sold. She said of her paintings in 2012, “They could be much more descriptive, but I don’t want to do that. In that sense, one always puts the blame on the abstract painters. That’s what I looked at and loved. I don’t want to get too descriptive. You can go so far and stop. I can just feel when to stop.”
Jack Whitten’s art—canvasses built up with what he calls “tesserae” of acrylic paint, at once minimalist and ornate—is an excellent analog for his manner. He speaks in units: measured, often deliberately repeated phrases that build to constellations, opaque and revealing, abstract and grounded. With influences and interests ranging from astrophysics to sports—missing matter and Muhammad Ali are equally compelling as eponymous subjects of recent paintings—Whitten is a gregarious conversationalist. At seventy-seven, he’s sprightly and regal, full of wonder and enthusiasm. In a conversation that touched on octopuses (“they are so good to eat!”) and on “modern technological society,” he displayed the restless curiosity and joie de vivre that have made his work—painting, drawing, and sculpture, the latter now showing in New York for the first time—such a marvel.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Whitten came to New York City in 1962. “I was one of the first artists in Tribeca,” he said, though, after forty years in the neighborhood, he’s decamped to the quiets of Woodside, Queens. He studied at Cooper Union and metabolized downtown and uptown currents to create a distinct vision that speaks to art history even as he transcends it.
Early in February, Whitten walked me around his first show at Hauser & Wirth’s space on West Twenty-second Street. “The space was just made for these paintings,” he observed with obvious pleasure. He spoke of the lasting legacy of his time as a pre-med student at Tuskegee Institute, the importance of materials, and the joys of spending the summer “sculpture season” on Crete. Read More
“Temple Tomb Fortress Ruin,” an exhibition of paintings by John Wellington, is at the Lodge Gallery through March 5. Wellington embraces the formal tactics of the old masters to depict a bleak, surreal, new world order—seemingly both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western—animated above all by a kind of perverted militarism. His work fixates, as his gallery writes, on “lost worlds, passing empires, false prophets, unlikely heroes, and the allure of idolatry.”
To fight Trump, look to the vulgar style that’s long ruled American art.
In 2014, the National Gallery in London acquired their first American picture, George Bellows’s Men of the Docks (1912), in which hulking workers loiter in the dead of winter. White horses join the dockworkers just as the scene cracks with the faintest suggestion of activity. The ship and the city are an imposing frame for an otherwise bleak, bathetic subject. The work, when it comes, will be toil. But it’s better than the idle cold. This little drama never ends, really. Bellows leaves the men trapped somewhere between hope and despondence. It’s a vulgar scene.
If the Ohio-born Bellows walked through the National Gallery today, he might recoil at the gauntlet of gentility that lay before him. The Gallery doesn’t have an American wing. Instead, Men of the Docks hangs chronologically alongside the Gallery’s Impressionist and Modern masterpieces, standing out like a sore thumb alongside the l’art pour l’art of Cézanne and Van Gogh. It’s an even ruder departure from the National Gallery’s standard fare, where scarcely a room passes without a meditation on Ovid, a Madonna and Child, or a court-commissioned history painting. To an American of a certain persuasion, this all seems like a powder keg of Whig history. Bellows’s is the first and only painting whose figures appear unfazed by that history’s watchful eye. Read More