Two at the Albright-Knox

Two at the Albright-Knox

One is fast fun, the other benefits from slow perusal

Clyfford Still, 1957-D-No. 1

Clyfford Still, 1957-D-No. 1

Photos courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

 

Art, it might be said, is like wine. College students in search of a quick buzz may favor Carlo Rossi—the Thomas Kinkade of the vine—but with experience and knowledge, they learn to appreciate the complexity of fine wine. It’s the same with challenging art. Two vintage blends now on view at the Albright-Knox should please art lovers, though one needs time to breathe.

Defining Sculpture 

 

Organized by chief curator emeritus, Douglas Dreishpoon, and comprising work from the museum’s collection, this exhibition goes down pleasantly, though you might wonder why it wasn’t titled Redefining Sculpture, since it features postwar and postmodern works that expand previous definitions of the term.

Fittingly, you enter the exhibit through the work of two pop artists, Marisol and Claes Oldenburg. Pop was the escape portal from modernism’s restrictive confines, and artists soon swarmed through it. Two whimsical Marisol favorites, Baby Girl and The Generals will be familiar to any regular visitor to the gallery. Though, if you haven’t seen those blockhead generals atop their barrel-body horse since it was conserved in 2013, you have a treat in store; the work’s long lost musical component is restored.

Leaving the pop room and entering the main gallery, no one escapes the magnetic pull of Polly Apfelbaum’s Reckless. The installation stretches the definition of sculpture into the realm of painting even as it stretches across the gallery floor. It looks like a postwar expressionist work that slid off the wall and is spreading like a New York school virus. The sprawling “sculpture” of dazzlingly dyed fabric snippets lies flatter than some oil paintings, demonstrating, as the artist puts it, “a reckless disregard of history and categories.”

By contrast, Carl Andre’s minimalist floor piece, Lead-Copper Plan seems a little cheerless. It might be unfair to compare the inert checkerboard arrangement of lead and copper squares to Apfelbaum’s rollicking composition, given minimalism’s inherent denial of expression and conventional aesthetic appeal. But visitors are deprived of one of the most important aspects of Andre’s work, a characteristic that lends it immediacy: it’s meant to be walked on. Direct contact between viewer and art is an essential part of the complete Andre experience, yet after decades of allowing visitors to undergo the unnerving sensation of stepping onto a work of art in full view of museum guards as the artist intended, it’s now inexplicably surrounded it by stanchions and cable. In a show about changing perceptions of sculpture, it’s perplexing that the most radical and egalitarian minimalist of all is given a shot of unintended aloofness.

Thankfully, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Telephone Time did not suffer the same fate. This boundary-pushing work swaps sculptural tradition for office furniture. It comprises a desk, chair, lamp, and sixties-style phone suspended on an expanding scissors arm, inviting visitors to sit and listen on the phone to a brief recorded conversation between one of the artists and a mathematics professor turned Buddhist monk. The utilitarian nature of the components provides ironic contrast to the metaphysical tête-à-tête. In the same side gallery, Tara Donovan’s Untitled (Mylar) is another eye-catching floor work that explores unconventional materials. Donavan exploits Mylar’s inherent reflectiveness and flexibility to create volumetric forms that seem somewhat unearthly. The modular half-spherical structures of different sizes are arranged such that they suggest something like a moon colony or alien mineral deposit.

The exhibition also includes a neon word sculpture by Joseph Kosuth, a plastic and aluminum word piece by Roni Horn, and stacked shelves of neon words by Jason Rhoades. All three make it quite clear that text has been as ubiquitous in sculpture of the last half-century as it has been in two-dimensional art.

clockwise from left: Mark Bradford, Shade (2016); Clyfford Still, July 1945-R; Mark Bradford, Butch Queen (2016)

Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford

Organized by senior curator Cathleen Chaffee, this is a more complex show than Defining Sculpture. Initial reactions depend largely on your appreciation of Still, whose large-scale abstract expressionist paintings have appeared often in various combinations in the museum. There are over twenty here, forming the core of the exhibition. In adjacent rooms, Bradford’s monumental mixed media abstractions have been largely created specifically for the show as part of an “ongoing conversation” with Still’s work, an artist he “deeply admires.”

At first glance, several things about the concept seem off. Some viewers will experience frustration at the lack of side-by-side comparisons between Bradford’s and Still’s work. This is, however, the unavoidable result of terms Still imposed on the Albright-Knox as a condition of his 1964 gift of thirty-one works. The artist required they be given their own gallery when on view, and not be exhibited alongside other art. But side-by-side comparisons might have further spotlighted another troubling first impression; Bradford’s work seems fundamentally different than Still’s.

The artist adheres layers of black, white, and muted colored papers onto canvases. Then he aggressively cuts and peels through the layers to create lusciously rich and visually complex compositions. Duck Walk, for instance, is so vigorously manipulated that Bradford slashes through the canvas in places. The resulting frenetic lines and forms seem more stylistically aligned with Pollack or de Kooning than with Still’s studied exactness.

Perplexingly, Bradford, who is African-American, injects race into the conversation, connecting Still’s fondness for black in his paintings to the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. This leads to some pretty odd wall quotes: “… in the ’50s there was this determination to champion abstraction, devoid of figuration, at a time when the country was being shaped by civil rights, which was essentially figurative.” Is Bradford saying that the struggle to end racial segregation and discrimination was fundamentally a nonabstract form of artistic visual representation? In response to a quote by Still, in which the artist extols the virtue of black paint, Bradford says “… such affirmative references to blackness were nonetheless unusual for a white Abstract Expressionist artist during the 1950s and 1960s, when America’s struggle for civil rights was so often interrupted by racist violence.” Maybe so, but Still began making predominantly black paintings a full ten years before the civil rights movement began. And he also made paintings that were mostly red, yellow, blue and white; what of these?

Here’s where you should take a cue from wine lovers and give the show time to breathe and open up a bit. The exhibition includes a video about Still’s work narrated by Bradford. It’s not long, and Bradford speaks with passion and eloquence. In it he walks back his statements about race a bit: “You don’t know if [Still] was being political.” There are also comfortable chairs with digital tablets nearby that contain additional instructive information. It’s a good place to sit and think for a while, then take another look.

The flat serrated shapes in Still’s paintings often appear as if layers of color have been “ripped” off the canvas, revealing other layers underneath, something Bradford does literally. And Still often paints in thick impasto resulting in rough textured surfaces, which Bradford achieves with paper. As you look for more similarities between the two artists, you may note things about Still’s work that you overlooked previously: mottled variations within color areas, lines that look like fabric tears, and the imperious grandeur of his larger work. Isn’t this sort of reflective observation the point of such comparisons?

Then there are Bradford’s paintings. Put simply, they’re often gobsmackingly beautiful. They frequently have you wondering in awe how he arrives at these crackles, marble-grains, tree-bark textures, and dappled tones. But while Still’s work is steadfastly nonobjective, Bradford uses abstraction as a vehicle for examining sociopolitical issues. In one work from the museum’s permanent collection, he invokes the debris-laden floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina by layering materials collected from the streets of New Orleans, and etching rhythmic lines through them with a saw. Reminiscent of a Japanese seascape print, it’s a brilliant mix of skill and cognitive agility. No wonder Bradford was named the US representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

The exhibition needs some time to fully reveal its essence. But it finishes long.