Tag Archives: Museum of Modern Art

Arts

A Little Room to Breathe

Installation is the presentation of works of art. The following is a look at museum installations in New York, London, Edinburgh and Louisville that all work well in different ways.  In great installations the sequence and juxtaposition of art objects presents a silent argument, making a case for the richness or provocative value of the works laid out in a gallery.  Great installations give maximum value to the artworks and exploit, to that end, lighting, wall color, spacing, explanatory labels and the placement of pedestals and gallery furniture. Great installations also require that the selection of works be judicious and sustain attention and engagement. Too often exhibitions are weakened by the inclusion of mediocre work: better the A work by the C- artist than the C- work by the artist with an A reputation. Failure to consider ways of breaking open the canon of received opinion and the inability to make surprise a component of gallery arrangements are also common shortcomings.  So what works?

‘Action Painting I’, Gallery 403, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photograph: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Installation view of Action Painting I (gallery 403), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

The Museum of Modern Art, newly re-opened in October after a major expansion, sidesteps the common pitfalls.  There is an increase in the white space between works; the re-hang gives precedence to artists neglected earlier, especially women, artists of color, and artists from parts of the world other than Europe and North America.  The Haitian artist Hervé Telemaque adds to the understanding of Pop Art as an international phenomenon, and the Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen expands the definition of Minimalism.  In the first gallery devoted to Abstract Expressionism, the viewer is greeted by Pollock, deKooning, and David Smith – but also by Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Pat Pasloff, Lee Krasner, Isamu Noguchi and Beauford Delaney: four women, a Japanese-American, and an African-American.  The matrix of art history is loosened, media are no longer separated (photography or film almost omnipresent), and masterpieces are de-emphasized in favor of a more searching exposition of the human imagination and the range of expressive solutions. The lock-step march of isms has been replaced by a meandering and discursive path.  Ironically, in many instances, it is also an arrangement that fosters a situation of clear visibility – that is, a hang that makes the masterwork heroes more heroic, enhancing their aesthetic impact, while giving the supporting cast members larger roles.  Picasso’s 1907 Demoiselles D’Avignon is juxtaposed with Faith Ringgold’s image of racial conflict, American People Series #20, executed in 1968. Ringgold’s image references Picasso’s Guernica, and the label asserts that the comparison intensifies “the questions Demoiselles raises about representations of women, power and cultural difference.”  Success!  Demoiselles acquires added complexity and the Ringgold competes very well indeed next to the early Cubist breakthrough painting. 

Best of all, one-third of the MOMA galleries will be re-hung or shifted around every six months, which means a complete re-hang every 18 months.

Another model installation is the new Islamic Gallery at the British Museum, opened in the fall of 2018, which celebrates the way in which Islamic artifacts of all kinds match form to decoration. Even humble clay water filters feature elaborate geometric piercings. The uses of calligraphy, the arabesque interweaving of plant and animal forms, the multiple elaborations of geometric patterns – all are presented with a clarity that surpasses the earlier, rival Islamic art installations at the Louvre and the Met in New York. The lowest levels of the cases have ancient Persian animal figures to engage children, and there are a variety of please-touch items supervised by a museum educator at a low table. And, to add to the pleasure of the Gallery, when I visited there was an adjacent halal café with grilled figs and a spectacular lavender honey tart.

The smartest installations are often the ones in which curatorial responsibility is turned over to the artists. At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh some ancient Pict and Celt artifacts are installed against backgrounds devised by the artist Andy Goldsworthy – mud, pieces of slate and, most effectively, wooden sticks to set off the 600 B.C.E. Ballachulish figure, an Iron Age fertility figure or goddess. 

Which brings us back to Louisville and Southern Indiana.  Three recently opened galleries have ambitious programs and intriguing spaces which lend well to very satisfactory viewing spaces. Quappi Projects at 517 East Market Street in Louisville has high ceilings, excellent lighting and elegant proportions.  The Moremen Gallery, on the second floor at 517 East Market Street, makes excellent use of the former glass walled offices and conference rooms for modestly scaled one-person shows. The Kleinhelter Gallery at 701 East 8th Street, New Albany (Indiana), is housed in a 19th Century brick building that offers the option of hanging on plain or brick walls. The loser in the newer gallery sweepstakes is the collection-rich Filson Historical Society (Louisville), which did not allow for adequate exhibit space in its recent expansion. The primary galleries are cramped, awkwardly lit, and require a staff member to accompany visitors who wish to visit the exhibitions.

Installation View, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950. (1590)

More intriguing in terms of installation is the contrast between the current exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum and KMAC (Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft). At the Speed, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 has a whopping 162 works on view, at least 140 of which depict the equine stars of the race course and breeding industry.  The majority are extracted from Kentucky  collections.  From a museum-strategy point of view, the subject gave the Speed an excuse for access to Bluegrass holdings that would otherwise remain behind closed doors. 

Documentary but also laden with a romanticizing self-regard, the carefully delineated champions’ confirmations are emblems of the horse owners’ prestige:  the nobility of the animals imply by extension their owners’ lofty status.  Artists were partners in the thoroughbred and saddlebred businesses, and the story is told with panache in Tales from the Turf.  In addition to paintings there are prints, silver trophies, artists’ tools, a map of the Bluegrass, a circular pedigree diagram, an example of the actual purse that was presented to a winner in the 19th Century, and a bronze masterpiece of a jockey and rider by the art moderne sculptor Wilhelm Hunt Diederich, who employed a simplifying cubist geometrification.

The introduction to the show includes three paintings by the greatest 20th Century equestrian painter, Sir Alfred Munnings.   In Going Out at Epsom from 1929-1930, Munnings’s alla prima brushwork, especially in the clouds that surmount the scene, complements the energy, excitement and nervousness before a race.  The three Munnings paintings are real zingers, and placement opposite the entrance to the show provides an upbeat introduction.  The gallery-goer is then carried along by six different wall colors, from pale to dark blue, and a sequence of mauve-eggplant hues.  Wall texts, wall text illustrations, varied rhythms of spacing of pictures on the wall, and the piped in sound of clopping horses’ hooves – all keep attention at a high level despite the show’s repetitiveness.  There are also some great curatorial mysteries to be solved, for example, the detection of an American horse altered to appear to be English. In Edmund Troye, the show has a major master whose place in the pantheon of great American painters needs to be more widely acknowledged. The show concludes with three newsreels of Kentucky Derby races from the 1940s. 

A complete contrast is the KMAC installation of “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville.” It is remarkably understated. The walls are off-white, the pictures are lined up with little variation, and labels are remote, printed out on plasticized sheets. The show consists of three galleries, a timeline, a video about the founder of the Musée Picasso in Antibes, France, and photographs of Picasso at work by Michel Sima.  The first gallery has a reproduction of Picasso’s 1946 Joy of Life, a painting which shows Picasso in a playful, relaxed mood after the horrors of the war years.  The rest of the gallery is devoted to preliminary studies for the Joy of Life, and still lifes from the same year. In this period Picasso was visiting Matisse every two weeks, and the interchange with the older master is apparent.  Picasso, as he had done repeatedly throughout his career, took on the mantle of classicism: the spare graphite studies are of a centaur and several fauns, many playing the regional duale double barreled flute. They are accompanied in the studies by extraordinarily zaftig nymphs with ballooning breasts.  But these mythological fantasy drawings are not easily dismissed on sexist grounds:  Picasso’s lyrical line and the taut compression of his contours imply acrobatic vitality and a division of space that activates every sheet.  

Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum

A second gallery has a selection from Picasso’s Vollard Suite, installed in a flat-footed manner, eight vertical prints followed by eight horizontals. Turn the corner and there is Picasso’s portrait of the maestro art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned the suite that preoccupied the Spaniard from 1931 to 1937. Picasso makes his viewers complicit in his male gaze: we are voyeurs witnessing the gaze of the middle-aged males in the prints.  The linear contours of the female nudes in these prints have their clearest precedents in Greek vase painting. Sexuality, death, aggression, evil and innocence are some of Picasso’s themes: in effect, Picasso addresses the tissue of human relations, love and antagonism, with classicizing men and women, horses and Minotaurs.  Blind Minotaur Guided through a Starry Night by Marie-Thérèse with a Pigeon, aquatint, drypoint, and engraving, executed in 1934-1935, encompasses the emotional extremes Picasso invested in the Minotaur, symbolizing lasciviousness but also guilt; violence but also despair.  

Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum

The last gallery is reached from a corridor with a very informal Picasso timeline, a nice contrast to the buttoned-up installation of the rest of the show.  A selection of prints done between 1952 and 1956 demonstrate Picasso’s experimental approach to printmaking and include lithographs, silkscreen and aquatint.

So ultimately does installation matter? In the case of the Picasso show at KMAC, the underplayed arrangement is a plus, allowing black and white drawings and prints to command center stage.  The curatorial problem remains: how do you make the work of art mean more? How do you make the work of art more present and more accessible?  How do you sustain attention?  Each exhibition and each exhibition space demand different solutions.

Tales from the Turf: the Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 , Speed Art Museum, 2035 South Third St., Louisville, KY, 40208.  Closes March 1st.

Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville, KMAC Museum, 715 West Main St., Louisville, KY, 40202.  Closes March 22nd.

Arts

“Duane Michals: Sequences, Tintypes, and Talking Pictures,” Carl Solway Gallery

This review published with permission from AEQAI.

“Old age should be a reward, not a punishment,” declares octogenarian Duane Michals. “I must recommend getting older.” 1

Duane Michals, “The Journey of the Spirit After Death”, 15th in sequence, 1971/c. 1971, 27 gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, photo #15,3 3/8” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7” x 9” (framed)
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

With his vigor, creativity, and capacity for impishness to poke at the sacred cows of the art world, he’s a great advertisement for old age.

As part of FotoFocus, Carl Solway Gallery is presenting three bodies of Michals’ work: “Sequences” from the 1960s and 1970s; “Tintypes” of 2012-2013; and his most recent, “Talking Pictures.” He writes, directs, and acts in what he calls “mini-movies.” They are a logical development from his “Sequences,” where a story is told through a series of silver gelatin prints, some with text written in his own hand. They were described as “evocative mime fables” in the press release for the 1970 “Stories by Duane Michals” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. With “Talking Pictures,” Michals has added a soundtrack.

Duane Michals, still from “What Is Real” © Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Born February 18, 1932, Michals grew up in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He’s from a working-class Catholic family of steelworkers and is proud of his blue-collar roots. He remembers them going to work and doing their jobs, and “on Christmas, you have a shot of whiskey and a beer. You know like that. I liked it as a kid, and I still do.” 2

He’s come a long way from McKeesport, which also produced Andy Warhol, and from a home where the only book in the house was “maybe . . . a phone book.” Now his favorite author is the “eternally amazing” Jorge Luis Borges, and the painters he loves are Giorgio De Chirico, René Magritte, and Balthus. He listens to classical music exclusively and is “a huge fan of films like A Room with a View, L’Atalante, or Zero de Conduite by Jean Vigo or Repulsion by Roman Polanski.” 4

That might have been foretold when at 17 with money from his paper route, he bought his first book of poetry–Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It was a time when he was struggling with his Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality. 5

As a teen Michals took art classes at the Carnegie Institute and then continued his education at the University of Denver, studying art education to please his parents. After graduating with a B.A. in 1953, Michals spent the next three years in the army. “The army was the worst time in my life. Whatever problems I have to face now, I always tell myself that at least I am not in the army.” 6

Released—or perhaps one could say “liberated”—from the service, Michals moved to New York in 1956 to study graphic design at the Parsons School of Design; although he didn’t complete his studies, he did work as a graphic designer.

Michals came to photography by chance, and has no formal training for which has always been grateful since he never had to “unlearn the rules.” He had been designing promotional materials for Time Inc. magazines and in 1958 during the Cold War was given a unique opportunity to go to the USSR. Thinking he should take pictures as souvenirs, he borrowed a camera from a friend who also offered to lend him a light meter. “I refused because that meant I would be expected to take nice, serious pictures!” Instead the friend explained to Michals how to shoot in available light. 7

His decision to use only available light affected his entire career; 90% of the time that’s all he uses. But that has not impeded his career as a professional photographer. He “still managed to do major commercial jobs,” everything from the Paris collections to the 1968 Olympics for the Mexican government to ad campaigns for Elizabeth Arden and Pampers. Michals never eschewed commercial work, as it allowed him to do what he calls “private” work.

When Michals returned to the U.S., he interviewed for a job with “graphic guru” Henry Wolf. He brought a dummy magazine with his portraits of people in Minsk. (He had quickly learned the Russian for “May I take your picture?”)  “When I showed it to him, he said, ‘Who took these pictures?’ and I said I did, and he said that I should be a photographer instead of a graphic designer.” 8

With no formal training—learning as he went along—Michals uses rather basic photo techniques such as underexposing and overexposing, burning and dodging, long and multiple exposures, and sandwiching negatives to create the otherworldly effects seen in his photos. He continues to shoot film (Tri-X) with his 35 mm Canon cameras, using a computer only occasionally.

Michals is celebrated as a photographer, but his preferred sobriquet is “expressionist.” “I’m not a photographer or a writer or a painter or a tap dancer, but rather someone who expresses himself according to his needs,” as he told James A. Cotter in a 2004 story in photoinsider.” 9

Duane Michals, “Molly Bloom”, 2013, tintype with hand-applied oil paint, 8 ¼” x 6 3/8” © Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Before considering Michals’ “Sequences” and “Talking Pictures,” let’s dispatch with the “Tintypes.” In these he painted vividly colored abstract shapes over 19th-century studio portrait tintypes. The nonobjective additions don’t enhance his dour subjects or even seem related to them. This isn’t the first time for him to try this artistic ploy.

In the 1980s, he painted on his prints and those of others, including Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Back then he was adding “carefully rendered objects.” 10  But Michals candidly confesses that that work got terrible reviews.” 11 In my view, the more recent effort doesn’t fare much better.

So back to the “Sequences.” In these he uses a series of staged black-and-white photos to tell the story. They are not large by today’s standard; none shown at Solway are larger than 5” x 7”. “I always said I want my photographs to whisper. Whereas a lot of photographs shout to get attention. Now there are big eight, seven-foot photographs—that’s shouting. A little print you have to come up to—‘Say what? Tell me?’ It’s a whole different experience.” 12

Originally this work wasn’t well received by the photographic community. In a 1968 show in the funky 10th Street Underground Gallery run by Norbert Cleaver, Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand walked out with Winogrand dismissing the work as “not photography.” 13

And it got worse. Around 1974 Michals began handwriting or printing on the prints like one might in the margins of a book. A teacher at the School of Visual Arts “asked me, very alarmed: ‘What is this thing of writing on photographs?!’ The idea has always been that an image is worth a thousand words, and to have to write something to support or explain an image could only mean that the image had failed . . . But photographs fail all the time and all I did when I started writing in my pictures was to respond to the limitations of the medium. I’ve always thought that photographs don’t tell you enough. They describe very well. But when I write, I am pointing at things that can’t be seen. All this came from the frustration I felt about the silence of the still image.”14

There are five pieces from Michals’ “Sequences” on view at Solway. I’m conflicted about describing the photos. I don’t want to use a thousand—or even just a few hundred—words to tell what each picture looks like.

So instead of that, here are the eight photos from The Fallen Angel.

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Duane Michals, “The Fallen Angel”, 1968/1968, eight gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 3.25” x 5” (each image), 5” x 7” (each paper), 7.25” x 9.25” (framed).
© Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

The story is simple to “read.” A nude angel awakens the girl/woman, but in satisfying his carnal need, loses his divinity. With remorse he clothes himself as he must give up heaven for an earthly existence. The piece is dated 1968, six years before Michals began to add more explanatory and/or confounding text.

As an art historian, I want developments in an artist’s oeuvre to proceed in a neat linear fashion. You can draw a straight line between the “Sequences” and the “Talking Pictures,” but it took 50 or so years to get there. Michals’ mime fables now have a spoken script but address the same issues: life, death, sex, lust, love, grief, fantasy, reality, spirituality, metaphysics.

There are also visual links between the still photos and films. Some of the effects Michals used in his black-and-white photographs, such as double exposures, layering of images, and fades, show up in the color films.

Duane Michals, still from “Double Talk” © Duane Michals.  Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

In Tickets to Heaven, Dr. Duanus (Michals) wears crudely lettered sandwich boards advertising tickets to heaven for $5.00 plus tax. Stationed in an alley and using a megaphone, he accosts a man dressed in black. The good doctor is so anxious to make the sale that he knocks off the tax, reduces the price, and offers to throw in the secret grip and the password needed to get past St. Peter: applesauce. Questioned about why “applesauce,” Dr. Duanus lays it out in the simplest terms: “Adam, Eve, snake, apple.” The man, who finds that the scam has a “certain charm,” gives Dr. Duanus a dollar, which he accepts as a down payment. As he passes the huckster, he acquires wings and becomes twinned apparitions on his way to heaven. After the credits, Dr. Duanus reappears, declaring he doesn’t sell tickets to hell, but you can get them from the Republicans down the street.

On the occasion of the 2014 Carnegie retrospective “Storyteller,” Eugene Reznik asked Michals how he felt about his success in his 80s. Michals responded: “I don’t have to prove anything anymore. I’ve defined who I am with the work, so it’s nice. It’s nice and my timing is good. If this had happened when I was 60, or whatever, it would have been quite different. Sometimes it’s bad to peak too soon. That would have been peaking too soon. I’m right on schedule in terms of peaking.” 15

“Duane Michals: Sequences, Tintypes, and Talking Pictures,” Carl Solway Gallery, 424 Findlay St., Cincinnati, OH  45214, 513-621-0069, fax: 513-621-6310, info@solwaygallery.comwww.solwaygallery.com. Hours: Mon.-Fri., 9 am-5 pm; Sat. 12 pm-5 pm. Through January 21, 2017.

FOOTNOTES

Jim Provenzano, “The Poet’s Eye,” The Bay Area Reporter Online,” July 5, 2007.

Eugene Reznik, “Interview: Duane Michals on 50 Years of Sequences and Staging Photos,” American Photo, November 12, 2014.

Ibid.

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, “Showing the things we cannot see, an interview with Duane Michals,” http://selfselector.co.uk/2013/12/11/showing/-the-things-we-cannot-see-an-interview-with-duane-michals/ Originally published in BuffaloZine, issue 2 [http://buffalozine.com/]

James A. Cotter, “Duane Michals” feature story, PhotoInsider, 2004.

Muñoz-Alonso.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Cotter.

10 Rebecca Robertson, “Duane Michals: Fighting Against Photography,” ARTnews, summer 2013.

11 Kristine McKenna, “Picture Imperfect: for maverick Duane Michal, a photo is worth far less than a thousand words when the questions are about the very meaning of truth,” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1993.

12 Cotter.

13 Reznik.

14 Muñoz-Alonso.

15 Reznik.