Means of Approach: New York Paintingby Joan Waltemath
KUNSTMUSEUM, BONN, GERMANY | MAY 14 – AUGUST 30, 2015
Thus philosophical truth is to be found in the presuppositions of language rather than in its express statements.
—Alfred North Whitehead,
Modes of Thought, 1938
Walking up the museum’s central circular stairway one can approach New York Painting, an exhibition that has been on view all summer in Bonn, through any of three possible entrances. Landing first in the empty gray and off-gray dancing fields of Amy Feldman, moving through the sleek doorways of Ned Vena or beginning with the exhibition’s singular solely figurative painter, Eddie Martinez, will result in radically different first impressions.
Feldman’s room is easy and inviting; her apparently quickly and brashly painted forms pop around as their figure/ground positions oscillate between one reading and the other; their gravity and staying power weigh in contrast to the upbeat effect that serves as her vehicle. It’s no wonder Feldman’s image has been used for the catalogue’s cover, and for the banner for the show.
Martinez takes a completely different direction. In his early pieces, the figures are unmistakably figures; in the later, larger works on the opposite wall, the beginnings of a dissolution of recognizable forms sets up the earlier work as fixed. The move away from the identifiable allows his shapes to elicit subjects ranging from a snoopy dog to a piece of raw meat, or whatever your vision concocts. Meanwhile his colors storm all over touching their opposites and everything in between—the antithesis of the patient training of color theory that inhibits certain choices and the cacophony of dissonance. It appears as neither strategic nor coherent; instead, Martinez’s color opens up his work in a straightforward way that escapes both a refined and a de-aestheticized read. The effect recalls the density and effervescence of folk or outsider art, yet Gorky meets Basquiat in his studied forms. He makes Joe Bradley’s work in the adjoining room seem pseudo-naïve.
A third possible approach is through the doorways of Ned Vena, whose unpainted paintings on standard-sized steel doors seduce with an illusion of movement and depth. Mounted on the wall with conventional hinges, they swing out or in to proffer numerous possible points of entry as they evoke painting’s rich metaphoric history with another classic permutation of the façade: namely, the window. Despite its current status as a kind of non-issue, Vena’s flirtation with illusion recalls its long-standing relevance to painting dating back to Plato. More complex than they initially appear, Vena’s works shift over time allowing thoughts that lie beyond his cold metal surface to emerge; in the context of Kunstmuseum Bonn’s investigation of the rich painterly tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, Vena’s riffs are deftly placed.
In the permanent collection galleries adjoining the New York Painting exhibition, two large 1980s-era paintings by David Reed are on view alongside his contemporaries both German and American. The trans-Atlantic dialogue that has evolved between painters in the last several decades provides a generational context for the younger American painters in the Museum’s special exhibition. Walking through these rooms at the Kunstmuseum, which has often revisited the subject of a German-American dialogue, brings certain pleasures; it is inspiring to see an acknowledgement of the American artists and a German perspective on the vitality of the New York scene. There is a scholarly depth to the selections of work both here and in New York Painting; work that takes time to grasp is embraced. The curators present what they see as reconfiguring in the post-“death of painting” dialogue, attempting to encompass its breadth and scope; gallery affiliation and market value are not the primary determinants.
Yet in Bonn, the few friends I spoke with were lukewarm, and I entered the exhibition with low expectations. Because the title New York Painting fosters an anticipation of finding works that will in some way represent painting in New York City, it sets up a certain expectation. The burden of this unspoken presumption dogged me as I wandered through the Museum’s generous rooms.
Returning to the younger generation, a somewhat unfamiliar voice is brought to international prominence with the lively, colorful, and directionally shaped placards of Ruth Root. They are moving, for the most part in one direction, often from left to right. Also shifting from plan to elevation orientations in a way that runs counter to how we read, they reinforce the multiplicity of our customary modes of apprehension. Two of her pieces have prepared fabric attachments that push off against the glossy painted surface. Root’s palette, in contrast to Martinez’s, is honed to specific two- and three-color intonations that allow the specific color harmonies within each piece to resonate quite hermetically. There is a specific look to Root’s work that is highly original and, since it has recently been on view in New York for the better part of the summer at Andrew Kreps Gallery, standing in her room fulfilled the expectations the show’s presumption generated. I observed how that disposed me favorably towards it.
On the other hand, Ross Iannatti’s sewn piece, for all its conceptual underpinnings and aesthetic appeal, initially looks like something seen innumerable times in recent years. With as much exposure in Europe and on the West Coast as in New York, his work didn’t fit my expectations about New York painting. The show’s handsome catalog gives a more balanced view of Iannatti’s output, but I was left wondering, “How can the artists included here escape the presumption the show’s premise sets up, a presumption that serves as a measure against which their work is inevitably judged?”
I think it is safe to say that few artists make work with the intention of representing their home base, in this case New York, so when this set of expectations is set upon a group of artists in order to determine whether “something” is going on in that particular locale, it makes for an encumbered experience with their work.
What we are looking for when we go to look at works of art determines, to a large extent, what and how those works will be seen and appreciated. Do we want the latest, the hip, the new, the sanctioned, the famous, the “as of yet undiscovered,” or do we look for craftsmanship, facility, intellectual rigor, creativity, a reflection of zeitgeist, historical relevance, market value, critical bite, or the unknown? All these and other conscious and unconscious criteria will inform the acceptance or dismissal of works of art and our estimation of their worth. (This may or may not have anything to do with the artist’s intent.)
Despite attempts to dismiss originality or render it dated, seasoned viewers often want to see something heretofore unseen, be it a perspective, technique, material, or content. Ryan Sullivan’s large, landscape-like views fit this bill. Dependent on an awareness of satellite imagery, Sullivan’s landscapes of fluid paint piles seem both familiar and distinctive. Sullivan has invented a way of painting an image that takes us deeper into the technological reality we live in while pushing an age-old material to new limits. These aspects, visible at a distance and at close range, respectively, engage the perceiver’s movement through space as the work is apprehended; in the process, one is bound to his/her present moment. When Sullivan’s work begins to unfold, he engages us in a journey of discovery: how do I locate myself in relationship to what I am seeing. Sullivan takes us to a familiar place we have never been before, lifting us out of the quotidian; if it’s with this intent that we enter the world of the museum, Sullivan’s work satisfies our need.
What does it mean if the reproductions of an artist’s work communicate more clearly than the works themselves—or when the opposite is true? Do we value those works that can’t be relayed through a photographic medium as more authentically painting, or do we champion those that can as more contemporary for opportuning on current conditions? Do we dismiss reproduced work if the actual object disappoints?
Antek Walczak’s labyrinthine linguistic diagrams provide relief from these questions in the form of seriously fun mind games. He leaves plenty of room for his audience to find what they are looking for, yet with enough clues to make the game real. Striking a balance between his thoughts and your engagement, a dialogue is born when stepping into his purview; the resulting unpredictability is a reboot. Walczak seems aware that one of the serious tasks of his generation is providing occasion for the processing and synthesizing of information and that it requires framing the indeterminate. In Bonn, he shares center stage with Amy Feldman, and their pairing highlights the difference in how these work communicate.
While the curators comfortably situate diverse means of approach and their accompanying modes of thought in this dynamic installation, as is often the case, there are territorial battles that ensue over such philosophical differences. Goethe, for example, was at pains to make clear in his polemic against Newton’s scientific method, how we see what we are predisposed to look for. Setting up conditions for the reception of works of art requires patience, thought, and reflection. There is no way to get it right, just the tempting possibilities for creating insight.
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.