Friday, December 04, 2009


Two & one-half days is not long enough to spend in New York City, particularly since Krishna & I hadn’t done a trip there by ourselves in a long while. Sans kids? Maybe 20 years. Mostly I’m going up for readings or she’s going up with friends or for conferences, the other one at home to care for the nest. But our hulking 17-year-olds don’t feel much need these days. So we borrowed the flat of some friends & headed out to see what we could see, hear what we could hear, eat what we could eat.

Two places where we had better-than-great meals were Back 40, on Avenue B between 11th & 12th, and Bombay Talkie on Ninth Ave just up from 21st Street. At Back 40, we listened to some nice bluegrass over the sound system while the party at one table next to us talked about the scene at the Nuyorican Café & the party at the other table was discussing Gary Snyder. Add to this the best roasted Brussels Sprouts I’ve ever had, perfectly grilled trout (tho they could have been more generous with the chickpea puree that comes with it), and a chocolate bread pudding that we shared, but still took enough home to snack on for the next two days! At Bombay Talkie we shared the Baighan Bharta – I’m an eggplant addict -- & five-spice shrimp. I needed the mango lassi, two in fact, just to keep from bursting into flames. We walked 2.5 miles each way to get to Back 40, but it was well worth the trip. Plus we ran into Lewis Warsh at the market on the way back.

The first part of Saturday was spent looking at galleries in Chelsea. By far, the most wonderful show was Bill Viola’s Bodies of Light at James Cohan Gallery, pictured above. Viola has been around for quite a few years, but his work has an integrity that never gets old, and when accumulated into a gallery-wide installation, it’s just overwhelmingly beautiful, meditative, erotic & sad all at once. We didn’t get to nearly as many galleries as we’d planned on simply because we were transfixed by these pieces. In the installation pictured above – the last (or perhaps deepest) one – a pair of teenagers walk slowly up toward the camera on parallel screens on the wall to the left. They’re blurred at first, virtually without color, until they slowly come through a falling sheet of water you didn’t even realize (unless, of course, you’d seen the rest of the exhibit, where this motif is repeated several times) was there. In the photo above, you can see the young woman reaching her arms out as she penetrates the waterfall, while the guy, with pure teenage male energy, just crosses his arms & wades right in. It’s apparent that the young woman has trained as a dancer – even with her clothes soaking, she’s powerful & fierce. In the screen at the back a naked couple – he’s Asian, she’s European – pierce the waterfall more or less together & react to what they see or imagine. Whatever it is, it’s very different for each. These videos are done in slow motion, tho what really gives them their power is the infinite dignity of the performers.

Time & familiarity with an artist’s work can have mixed results. I liked the Joseph Raffael watercolors of flora at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery, a side of his work I’d not seen before, a lot. But Ronnie Landfield’s intense color field paintings at the Stephen Haller Gallery made me want to see the Jules Olitski and Sam Francis originals. Deep sigh. Likewise I found Enrique Chagoya, an old favorite of mine from the Bay Area, predictable & making easy jabs at US culture.

Somebody who makes much more powerful and politically pointed use of cartoon culture in paintings, sculpture &, so help me, wallpaper, is Robert Williams. His show, “Conceptual Realism in the Service of the Hypothetical” at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery shows that this old Zap Comic artist (you can still find 19 of his works available through Last Gasp) has lost none of the fire that drives the best of lowbrow art. Next to Viola, this was the other must-see exhibit I came across Saturday.

Later that afternoon, we took a walk through – or is it on? Highline Park, New York’s latest great idea (and one of the few that really is a good idea), a converted el route that has been planted with what look like native grasses and some sturdy wooden benchware and just turned over to the wandering masses. On our way there, we ran into Eileen Myles & Michael Friedman & his missus, just starting their own Chelsea tour from the southern rim of the nabe.

We saw one other show while we were in the city, the Georgia O’Keeffe abstractions at the Whitney Sunday morning. If all you know are the calla lilies, tulips & dried cattle bones, this is a must-see, must-do show. It’s big – all of the third floor – and chronological, starting with her student work in 1916 right up to the point where macular degeneration made it impossible for her to see well enough to continue painting. There is also one relatively small room of Alfred Stieglitz photos of her, including some nudes just to remind us (a) of her tenuous social position as the young lover of a successful artist 23 years her elder, and (b) that she wasn’t always the elderly wizard of the Southwest with whom so many of us grew up.

One thing is clear immediately, looking at the very first painting in the exhibit. Whereas abstraction in Europe meant straight lines & hard edges, the arrival of geometry & the rule of the protractor, O’Keeffe’s work is really about registering the movement of the hand: waves, curves, swoops are all possible. To Stieglitz, who probably knew as much at that point about European art developments as any American not actually living across the pond, the distinctness of O’Keeffe’s approach – she had not yet even settled on a career in painting – must have been apparent.

O’Keeffe’s work over the next decade is often brilliant, but it still seems searching & not entirely sure of itself. Then, in 1926, everything clicks. From this point forward, O’Keeffe is a master thoroughly in control. And, with the exception of a couple of late pieces – portraits in theory of her house in New Mexico that appear to be more in dialog with the painting of Josef Albers & maybe Hans Hoffmann – her style is unmistakable. It’s a moment almost as pronounced as Williams’ Spring & All, which wasn’t really the instant his work took off, tho it is the one when the shift into a newer, higher gear became impossible to ignore. So too ’26 & O’Keeffe.

One thing to avoid, tho, is the audio-program headset that comes free with your Whitney admission. It’s egregiously stupid, at one point (#308 on your clunky headset dial) getting the direction of O’Keeffe’s painting completely backwards in order to make some analogy between her abstractions & sexual symbolism. One sympathizes with O’Keeffe, who kept her abstractions to a minimum precisely because they seemed to permit critics to make gushing pronouncements about eroticism in her work. Nearly 40 years after her big retrospective at the Whitney cemented O’Keeffe’s reputation as a painter of the first rank, she still is being mishandled even there.


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