BLT Gallery, May 27 – July 31, 2009
It takes a long time to become young. –Pablo Picasso
It might be called generational sparring that Wiser than God, a show of octogenarians, opened at the BLT Gallery right across from the New Museum’s catchy Younger than Jesus exhibition unveiled last April. On view through the end of July, Wiser than God was conceived by Adrian Dannatt after attending the New Museum’s press conference, and co-curated with the painter Jan Frank. Although one might initially draw similarities between the two when entering either exhibition and encountering a wall full of quotes, their divergence soon becomes apparent.
Wiser than God starts off with the dynamic and pulsating contrasts in Jack Youngerman’s “Crucifer” (2008) radiating out from a center point. Floating yellow chevrons define a black void cross iconic enough to tread at the edge of “goth”, before the red and yellow stripped outer edges draw the eye back out. “Crucifer” needs a lot of space and is given its due in this group exhibition, which is carefully hung; smaller drawings and prints are grouped together for intimate viewing while the larger works are given room to be seen from a distance.
Hanging by the large front windows at the BLT gallery, a medium sized oil on canvas, “Still Life With Pink Coat” by Hyman Bloom reads almost like a landscape with its strangely hovering, flowing pink drapery. The first Bloom I’ve seen, and perhaps the strongest piece in the show with fluid gestures that move and are moving, it gives evidence for the cult following this gestural master enjoys. At the other end of the gallery, Edwin Ruda’s arabesques in charcoal over oil form a dense, if expansive, network of lines that are also in motion.
Delicate and precise, a print of a sleeping dog by Lucien Freud hanging high up in the center of the gallery calls attention to itself for its clarity and its simplicity. Herb Brown’s sizable tableau of a party dominates the far end of the gallery. Large protruding dicks outlined on several of the male figures in his oil on poster on canvas remind us that the breakdown of taboos leading to present day freedoms in both materials and content began in the 60s.
A Paul Jenkins wash drawing “Petrel” (1958), deep and winding inwards, carries a sense of risk absent from a recent painting by the artist hanging next to it and so gives evidence of the promising beginnings of the artist’s career.
Other highlights include a Louise Bourgeois lithograph on fabric depicting the artist’s hand, red on tableture, Nancy Spero’s text piece “Air. . . Portfolio” (1975) and Jonas Mekas’ “I am America” playing in the back where monographs on many of the artists give ample opportunity to catch up on lesser known artists, some of whom were at one time staples.
There is no stylish coherence to the show, no preference for either abstraction or figurative works: the focus is, rather, on longevity. All artists included were born before 1926 and are still active. In relationship to the generational exhibition across the street, it is possible to make a few observations: It is clear in the BLT Gallery that all artists invested themselves without reservation in the communicative possibilities of the object, whether it be a painting, sculpture or video. Across the street at the New Museum, only a few examples, such as Kerstin Brätsch’s large scale oil on paper pieces, Kitty Kraus’ light bulb and mirror boxes commanding large areas of the third floor and Tala Madani’s small scale oil paintings evidence a similar confidence in the object as a vehicle. More in keeping with the New Museum’s generation are performative works like Liu Chang’s portraits consisting of “Buying everything on You” (2006/8) and laying it out on a large low-lying pedestal; Liz Glynn’s ambitious “The 24 hour Roman Reconstruction Project or Building Rome in a Day” (2008-9) with all its attendant hubris, collaborators, and debris; or the environmental chaos of Ryan Trecartin’s “Re’Search Wait’S” (2009). In these works, the value resides in the experience of the whole rather than in any of the things it consists of per se, which is not to say the components are without value.
These two exhibitions show works deeply entrenched within their respective paradigms. As the form/content dialectic migrated to “becoming form”/context, the appearance and nature of works of art radically shifted. Object has become project and the focus is more often turned toward the outer world. Wiser than God asks us to consider whether the advantage of perspective is an advantage in our time.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.