[New York Peasant by Wilfrid: December 19, 2016]
A long time since I've written about art here, which is just my laziness. I did want to to mention a couple of surprises, especially since there's still time to see for yourselves.
The last painting
I rushed to see Agnes Martin in the main, snail-space at the Guggenheim, a major show for the artist, who died twelve years ago. My main exposure to her work had been at Dia:Beacon upstate a couple of summers ago. The spacious rooms of tranquil white-to-grey, meditative studies, an oasis from the bright sunshine outside, made for a perfect environment for viewing the work.
The Guggenheim less so. I've always said, it's a remarkable building but not a great place to show easel art. Not only must you stand at a slight angle to the paintings, it's a long haul up the slope for a show like this. Especially since Martin was such a late developer. (Yes, you can pause at "The Islands," a late group of works in the alcove near the foot of the slope.)
Martin was born in 1912. In the late '50s and '60s, she lived and painted in New York, and was steeped in the later stages of Abstract Expressionism to a degree which seemed to erase all individuality. I haven't seen these earlier (albeit painted in her forties) works before, and the resemblance to works of other contemporary artists, especially Barnett Newman, is unescapable. Had she ceased painting altogether in the late '60s (she took an extended break), she'd barely be a footnote to New York abstractionism.
Her distinctive creativity began in her sixties when she settled in Mexico. But she painted prolifically, voluminously, through to her death in 2004. That means the unusual spectacle of many paintings by an artist in her eighties, and even nineties. And they're none the worse for that, although the cheery Zenliness of the titles--"I Love the Whole World"--gets a little wearing.
I like Martin's late paintings--and almost all of the paintings worth looking at count, really, as "late." But the Guggenheim show could, I'm afraid, usefully have been edited.
On the other hand, I knew next to nothing about Kerry James Marshall, whose work is spread over two floors at the Met Breuer in a show called Mastry [sic], and I couldn't get enough. Set aside the forceful social and political message of this work (just for a moment), and what a breathtaking painter. It was depressing to hear gallery-goers muttering about Jean-Michel Basquiat (more or less a contemporary; Marshall was born five years earlier, in 1955, and is very much still working). Yes, Basquiat was a black artist who dealt with black themes. But honestly, Marshall paints rings around him.
Scenes of everyday life; very carefully staged urban themes with weighty layers of symbol and meaning; erotically charged portraits (here he does remind me of the younger painter Chris Ofili, especially Ofili's "dark" paintings): all executed with uncanny skill and vigor, and a dazzling palette.
If there's one show to see over the holidays, this is it. There's also a side gallery showing a revealing selection of works Marshall chose from the permanent collection. A modern master, and--be honest--how well known has he been?