April 21, 2014

Work That I Liked at the Whitney Biennial: 6 Artists

Ricky Swallow, Reversed Pitcher 1, 2013; patinated bronze, 10 x 6 x 7 1/2 in., unique.

Here is a little tour of the Whitney Biennial, one that is very personal; only work that made me take out my camera with an "ahh, I love this" is included, so the list is very short. I find myself with less patience for work that doesn't interest me, less patience to try to understand it, find a way into it. I suppose that's a failing, but it's also a prerogative of age. On the fourth floor of the museum I wandered through a couple of large galleries and then into the smaller space, where I was immediately struck with joy at seeing the small sculpture by Ricky Swallow. Perfectly elegant in form, but ordinary in material––or so I thought––they sustained intense looking.

Ricky Swallow, Skewed Arches/Tall 1, 2013; patinated bronze, 36 x 9 x 7 in., unique.

It turns out that these modest sized pieces, seemingly made out of cardboard (and you can imagine how much that interested me with my use of cardboard for prints) were actually bronze casts from cardboard. The use of bronze might have disappointed me, but it struck me that the idea of using an ordinary material, not disguising it but turning it into something more permanent, is a way of honoring it. And the fact that each piece is unique is important: each one is itself, an individual and not a replica.

Ricky Swallow, Chair Study/Ripple (soot), 2013; patinated bronze, 25 x 9 x 2 1/2 in., unique.

The simplicity of the curves of Chair Study were beautiful in front of the trapezoidal Marcel Breuer window. (Oh, how I will miss this building when the Whitney moves!)

Ricky Swallow, Z Sculpture with String, 2014; patinated bronze, 3 1/2 x 10 x 5, unique.

This piece, with its rich color, its sense of folded tension in the interior creases, all held together by a simple string: what a delight. There's not much to it, yet at the same time the work feels emotionally complex and compelling.

Ricky Swallow, Stair with Contents, 2013; patinated bronze, 22 x 35 x 22, edition 1/1 plus 1AP.

This last work from Swallow is quite different, an accumulation of strange and interesting forms, somewhat reminiscent of Giacometti's early sculpture, with a touch of the surreal, of ordinary objects transformed. Just wonderful work.

Paintings by Etel Adnan

Another artist previously unknown to me whose work I loved was Etel Adnan, a Lebanese painter and poet living in California for many years. Her small paintings are vibrant with touch and a very personal sense of color.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 11/16 in.

Shapes pile one on another, jostling for space in a place that seems to be toppling but is firmly held in place.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 11/16 in.

Colors are always surprising, subtle mixtures of hues next to those of more brilliance.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 9 7/16 x 11 13/16 in.  

Many of the paintings reference landscape, sometimes obliquely and sometimes, as here, very clearly. But it is a landscape of the mind and of paint juicily applied, of forms found in memory. 

Peter Schuyff, Sans Papier, 2004-2014; carved pencils and sticks. 

These giddily turned pencils were a real surprise, coming from an artist known for his large geometric paintings. I loved learning from the museum label that he carves the pencils and sticks while watching television, holding a knife in place and moving the pencil along it, not looking at what he's doing. What results is a wild variety of forms, though closely related; seeing a large group of these carvings was a treat.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

A long shelf held numerous vessels of porcelain, smaller and larger, flaring and straight, covered with marks painted with a light and fluid touch. Kusaka, a Japanese artist living in Los Angeles, makes modestly sized vessels that are beautiful in groups.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

Her forms, colors, marks of the brush are engaging, tied to a tradition yet full of personality. I love the slight wavering of the tall black vase alongside the also not-perfect form of the tall blue; the bulbous yellow makes a threesome of odd body shapes.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

Simple organic geometries play off against solid colors, each form wavering yet marvelously present. Ceramics such as these by Kusaka are modest objects that seem sculptural to me in their explorations of form.....

John Mason, Blue Figure, 2002; ceramic, 59 x 23 3/4 x 23 3/4 in.
Spear Form, Soft White, 1999; ceramic, 66 x 28 x 28 in.
Vertical Torque, White, 1997; ceramic, 58 3/4 x 12 x 12 in. 
The Wall, 2010, ceramic.

....and that feeling is enhanced, not lessened, by seeing the large ceramic pieces by John Mason at the Whitney. These are dramatically shaped works full of energy, of tilting planes. I especially love Blue Figure with its curves and large diagonals, its outlines like a Seurat woman in a park. There is a brief video of Mason on the Whitney website in which he says that whatever surrounds us becomes part of our exploration, "like pages in a book". And that "what we see, we also feel". And then he says something, that you have to walk around the sculpture, that opens to a complaint I have about this show, which is that some of the installation is awful. With Mason's work on a platform against a corner wall we cannot walk around it. There is a room with very strong painters––Dona Nelson, Jacqueline Humphries, and Amy Sillman––and you cannot see the work because it is crowded together, and too similar in tone. These are only two examples of poor installation. I think I would have liked more work if it had more room to breathe, but then of course there would have had to be fewer artists in the show. 

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#14-13), 2013; oil on canvas, 101 x 101 in. 

Another painter whose work I hadn't known and really liked was that of Rebecca Morris, another Los Angeles artist. Her paintings are a marvelous amalgam of funky and formal, of various kinds of marks: lines and blobby shapes, all freely handled with transparent layers of paint.

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#15-13), 2013; oil on canvas, 119 x 97 in. 

 A central image is surrounded by a patterned frame, like in a Persian or Indian miniature; the use of patterns throughout seem to point to miniature painting. The shapes inside allude to a kind of narrative, with #14-13 having the stability of the receding planes of classical landscape and #15=13 looking more like a deluge, an upending of elements. There's a serious lightheartedness to these paintings that I truly enjoy.

When I spend several hours looking at galleries I feel I've had a good day if I've seen 2 or 3 or 4 shows that I like, so I feel quite happy with my visit to the Whitney with liking the work of 6 artists, all new to me....what could be better than that?


  1. Thank you. Marvelous post. It makes me squirm a bit when you criticize the curating- but I suppose that's legit and I don't actually know the curator. But I do know that curating is fraught with issues that the curator doesn't always have so much control over. Love the Shio Kusaka porcelain and the Etel Adnan paintings in particular. Imagining them in a room together, although you don't say that. I can see it though, in my mind's eye. Oh yes, and the cardboard sculptures cast in bronze- exquisite! I can't be there so I'm happy to see it through your eyes.

    1. Thanks, deborah. I don't know how much the curators had to do with the installation choices but some of them were truly terrible, and disrespectful to the work in my opinion. I've never done any curating, but have hung my own shows and helped with those of friends, but I can imagine it was a very difficult task. And no, the Kusaka and Adnan works were not at all near each other; they were on different floors, selected by different curators.

  2. That was fun. Thanks!
    We've been looking at WPA murals here in san francisco, and today saw Arthur Szyk's wonderful Haggadah -- all 48 plates, kind of persian in their tininess and narrative and portraiture.

  3. Altoon, thank you for the marvelous tour. You've inspired me to look at everything a bit differently today.

  4. These choices are so reflective of your taste and your own work in various ways - so it is interesting to realize they are not near each other in the museum. I am most taken with the ceramics; those lovely splashes and grids.

  5. By far my favorite piece was Ricky Swallow, Reversed Pitcher 1. Such a pleasure to run into!

  6. Thank you for looking and for your comments, Anon, Lauren, Ms. Wis., and Bruce. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.