JohnsonRoadProjects Summer 2015 exhibition: The Red, Green and Yellow Show by Los Angeles based artist and writer Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings - Orange Summer

The October Paintings – Orange Summer

The October Paintings - Grey Sea

The October Paintings – Grey Sea

The October Paintings - Red Bottle in Green

The October Paintings – Red Bottle in Green

JohnsonRoadProjects is the new artist run space and curatorial inquiry by Los Angeles based artist and writer Vincent Johnson

Vincent Johnson’s The Red, Green and Yellow Show at Johnson Road Projects in Los Angeles – Summer 2015 exhibition

Art Aragon Golden Boy Bail Bonds
Art Aragon Golden Boy Bail Bonds, color photograph by Vincent Johnson
The Green Bug (2010), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
The Deville
Deville Motel Downtown Los Angeles (2002), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
Southern Gents Private Club (South Central Los Angeles) (2002), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
New York Hostel Kitchen (2003), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
LA artist Vincent Johnson
Miami Beach Public Telephone (2014), color photograph by Vincent Johnson
Figueroa Hotel Parking Sign (2013), color photograph by Vincent Johnson

Welcome to the 2015 summer exhibition of Los Angeles-based artist and writer Vincent Johnson at Johnson Road Projects in Los Angeles. Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Painting and Critical Theory from Art Center College of Design. His work has been exhibited in major institutions in the U.S., Germany, Canada and Portugal. His work have been sold in art fairs in Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Portland. Johnson’s works have been reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Vincent Johnson most recently presented his research on Belgian Congo copal painting media at Theaster Gates Black Artist Retreat [B.A.R] in Chicago. Johnson also recently interviewed artist William Pope L. at his nine part exhibition at MOCA in Los Angeles for FROG magazine.

This thematic exhibition is curated from the artist’s extensive body of works and is based solely upon the presence of the colors red/or green and/or yellow being found in the works. The exhibition includes both photographs and paintings that engage and capture iconic objects found in the American urban landscape. Each work appears to embody one of the three primary colors named in the exhibition’s title. The exhibition provides exposure to the works of these artists across the span of three months; additional works will be added to the exhibition over the duration of the show.

Thomas Hirschhorn: Interviews

Philosophical Battery

Listening to Thomas Hirschhorn talk about art, it’s hard to resist the sensation that all other artists have got it wrong. Not that he’s critical of their work — in fact, I’ve never heard him mention another living artist by name. It’s more a matter of getting caught up in his enthusiasm. Thomas Hirschhorn is a fanatic. His ardor for the thinkers after whom he names many of his works — Ingeborg Bachmann Kiosk, Deleuze Monument, Bataille Monument, and, most recently, 24h Foucault — is evident not only in these works’ devotion to their subjects’ writings but also in the sheer volume of material deployed toward this end.

Viewers must be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the amount of verbiage in Hirschhorn’s displays. How can they be expected to absorb all of it? How can they be expected to absorb ANY of it?

The answer is that they’re not. Whenever he’s given the chance, Hirschhorn reiterates that his works are not about education or the betterment of the viewer (“I am not a social worker”). Nonetheless, specialists in the fields of philosophy and museum education are, not surpsingly, unimpressed by what they see as his forays into their departments. By their standards, his artworks are failed attempts at didacticism. And what’s more, those works don’t show their lofty subjects the respect they are due.

Herein lies the crucial distinction in Hirschhorn’s work: namely, the distinction between fanaticism and fundamentalism. As Terry Eagleton wrote recently, “Fundamentalism is a textual affair. It is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of Words.” In his ardor for the writing of Spinoza and Bataille, he reproduces their words in staggering quanitity, stacking them in towers of photocopied sheets or using them to wallpaper entire sections of a gallery. Moreover, he mixes them with the debris of everyday modern life: discarded beverage containers, fake washing machines, shop window mannequins. He has, in other words, dragged these writings out from their “gold standard” vault and mixed them with the dross of material reality in the most irreverant manner imaginable.

For Hirschhorn, telling someone HOW to adore is every bit as wrong as telling them WHOM to adore. Hirschhorn is hardly bothered if institutions don’t approve of the direction his mania takes him. What matters is the adoration he feels for his subjects.

Craig Garrett: Every one of your exhibitions is an accretion of excess: an excess of materials, of concepts, of voices and points of view — almost like a battle or a shouting match. Looking at your works, it’s funny to think that you came to art via graphic design, a field based on the clear expression of ideas.

Thomas Hirschhorn: But I do want to be precise, and I want to clearly express my ideas! With my work I try to be absolutely clear and absolutely precise. I want to take absolute decisions and I want to work out the absolute truth. Truth is excess, and I want to work in strictness and be overwhelmed. Art is affirmation in excess, and I must risk transgression to give form to this excess. I have to be excessive and precise at the same time. I want to assert form and I want to give form. That I want to give form does not mean that I want to make forms. I want to answer the question: what is my position? I want to do it with and through my work.

CG: Your work quotes the vernacular aesthetic of protest marchers’ placards, beggars’ signs, and temporary memorials. What draws you to this visual language?

TH: I love the power of forms made in urgency and necessity. These forms have an explosive density. They are untameable and rebellious. These forms are very far from “over-design” and “over-architecture” everywhere! The legitimacy of these forms comes from commitment, from determination, from the heart. These forms do not want to impress by overeducating aesthetics or by mainstream aesthetical concerns, and these forms are not subject to changes of lifestyle. These forms have nothing to do with fashion.

CG: That’s interesting, because you live in a city of fashion — Paris. More than any other city, it represents the extreme cultivation of quality, luxury, and style. Yet it is also a city full of people who have come not for luxury or style but for life’s most basic needs: work, freedom, security. How has your relationship to these two faces of Paris changed over the years?

TH: I’ve been living in Paris for more than twenty years now. I came to Paris for work, as you said. I did not come to Paris for quality of life, for calm, for luxury, or for style. I did not come to Paris for culture, and I did not come to be an artist. But this city gave me time, anonymity, measure, encounters to develop my work. Here in Paris, in isolation, I understood how important at was to me. This is why, as an artist now, I can stay in Paris. Paris is a very big city, a metropole among others, so it is a good place to work. And I love the ordinary everyday life in Paris.

CG: Could you explain your 24h Foucault project, which will be shown at the Palais de Tokyo for Paris’s all-night art festival, La Nuit Blanche? If I’m not mistaken, it will be your most temporary work so far but also one of the most ambitious, in terms of scale and materials.

TH: 24h Foucault is an artwork made to celebrate the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who died twenty years ago. It is a homage made without respect but with love and with ambition. I share with Marcus Steinweg the idea that philosophy is art. So 24h Foucault is the affirmation that philosophy is art and that there is friendship between philosophy and art.

24h Foucault is an artwork with different elements: a twenty-four hour auditorium, a library and documentation center, the Peter Gente archive, an audio and video library, an exhibition, a shop, and a bar with a newspaper publication. 24h Foucault wants to be a battery charged with beauty, complexity, and thinking. I want to connect my brain with this Foucault battery. I want the public to be inside a twenty-four hour brain in action. 24h Foucault wants to produce urgency, listening, confrontation, reflection, resistance, and friendship. 24h Foucault will be done in collaboration with Daniel Defert, Philippe Artieres, Marcus Steinweg, and Guillaume Desanges.

CG: You’ve said many times that your artworks employ philosophy as just another material, like tape or cardboard. Where, then, can it be found in your work? Obviously recorded lectures or photocopied essays are not philosophy — they are merely its physical shell. Can you point out a way in which Foucault’s thinking shaped the way you create art?

TH: But precisely, philosophy is also material. The texts by Marcus Steinweg are philosophical theory and material aswell, and he agrees that I use it as material. He has the liberty and takes the freedom to give me his theory as material. So in my last two works, Unfinished Walls and Stand In, I tried to work with this material by cutting, enlarging, reducing, and extracting from it.

With Marcus Steinweg, we do not work together; it is not a collaboration. Each one is responsible for what he is doing. This work is based on friendship and responsibility between philosophy and art. I try to do something new. I do not need philosophy as an artist — I need philosophy as a human being!

I love the faithful philosophy — the pure, the powerful, the cruel, the sad philosophy of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze, Foucault. Concerning Foucault, I do not understand his philosophy, and I think that I don’t have to understand philosophy in general. I am not a connoisseur. I am not a specialist. I am not a theoretician. But I want to confront, fight and be affected by philosophy in general, and I love Foucault’s refusal to speak for the other.

CG: That brings up another point. Among the people critical of your work, there seems to be a feeling that you incorporate these historical thinkers in a parastic fashion, that you rely on their intellectual stature without contributing to a better understanding of their ideas.

TH: My work definitely cannot avoid misunderstanding, incomprehension, and inattention. I have to accept this, and I have to work with this. I do not complain. I want to judge, and I want my work to be judged. I want to make affirmations in and with my work, and I understand that these affirmations meet incomprehension. I disagree with differentiation, criticism and negativity because I want to work beyond criticism and negativity, and differentiation is only negative, and criticism doesn’t risk anything — it just wants to delimit and exclude. I want to work as a fan.

A fan is someone who shares with other fans the fact of being a fan, not the object of his love. Love is important, not the object of love. I want to be a fan in order to speak directly through my work from one to another. I want to fight against resentment and nihilism, the dictatorship of morality, indifference, and cynicism. I want to act freely in my practice and with what is my own. I don’t have to communicate, to explain, to justify, to argue for my work. My work allows itself to fight against the culture of powerlessness, weakness, depression, and good conscience. I am against the inconsiderate pretentiousness of narcissistic self-fulfillment. I want to act, I want to hope, and I want to be happy!

CG: This past spring, how did you manage to convince the Centre Pompidou to lend so many irreplaceable artworks for the Musée Precaire Albinet, including paintings by Mondrian and Leger? Surely the name of he project [precaire = precarious] must have set off some alarm bells in their collections management department.

TH: I asked the Centre Pompidou to lend original artworks in order to integrate their active part into the Musée Precaire Albinet. The active part from every artwork is the part that wants to change the spectator, that wants to establish the conditions for a direct dialogue from one to the other. That’s why I needed the original artworks. I did not ask for the originals for their heritage value. And I asked with the legitimacy and the expectancy of the housing complex Cité Albinet because the inhabitants wanted the original artworks!

With the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, producer of the Musée Precaire Albinet, I explained the absolute will of the project to the Centre Pompidou, the idea and the aim of the project, as I suppose everyone wanting to borrow work does. We of course had to present guarantees to the museum (insurance, transportation, and humidity and preservation conditions) like everybody. It was not easy to convince them, but it was not impossible either. I think that the implication of the people of the Cité Albinet, their understanding of the project, their acceptance and capacity to accommodate, finally convinced the museum to lend the original artworks. There was a real demand; there was a real project. There is no mission impossible in art. And why should original artwork only be lent to museums in Zurich, London, New York, or Tokyo?

CG: After your three most public undertakings (Deleuze Monument, Bataille Monument, and Musée Precaire Albinet) what is your assessment of the general public’s appreciation of intellectualism? Did your experiences with them alter your faith in the reflective capacities of society at large?

TG: Those projects do create a lot of difficulty, complexity, and beauty. Definitely I know there is a place for art in every person’s brain, and I know that art possesses the tools to enter this space.

CG: Several of the historical artists whose work you included in the Musée Precaire Albinet did not anticipate the effects that time and entropy would have on their works — the cracks in the surface of Mondrian’s paintings, the stains of the facades of Le Corbusier’s buildings. But failure is an element designed in to your work. What do you think is the main difference between your outlook and theirs?

TH: I am not interested in failure. I do not want to fail, but I do not exclude that I can fail, that my work can fail. But it is not an obsession for me. I am interested in energy, not quality. This is why my work looks as it looks! Energy yes! Quality no! I do not want to intimidate nor to exclude by working with precious, selected, valued, specific art materials. I want to include the public with and through my work, and the materials I am working with are tools to include and not to exclude. This is what makes me choose the type of materials I use. It is a political choice. I want to work for a non-exclusive audience because art can only, as art, be open to non-art. Art can only, as art, have a real importance and political meaning.

by Craig Garrett

[originally published in Flash Art no. 238 (Oct 2004)]

copyright 2004

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Thomas Hirschhorn by Abraham Cruzvillegas

Thomas Hirschhorn

by Abraham Cruzvillegas

Intensif-Station, 2010, K21, Düsseldorf. Photo by Romain Lopez, courtesy of Arndt Gallery, Berlin.

Dear Thomas,

I’ve just received your answers to my questions and your handwritten letter in an envelope at home. They surprised me in a good way. Thank you very much. When asked to write an introduction to the interview, I decided to answer you with an open letter instead.

I think I allowed myself to understand more about your work through “making” questions. When I was asked to participate in a dialogue with you, I gladly accepted, seeing it as an opportunity to think aloud about your work.

When we met some years ago, in 2003, I think, at Cantina Montejo in Mexico City, a block away from where I live, you invited me to visit you in your studio in Aubervilliers. I had imagined it as a place of labor, a place in which art making means the production of knowledge, of language, of emotions, not as a factory or a sweatshop for art, as it often happens these days worldwide. It turns out your studio was actually a former factory, which your activity totally transformed into a place full of creative energy.

When I visited you in France, on a snowy afternoon, in late 2005, Aubervilliers and its surroundings showed me a landscape and an environment that was very different from my idea of what being an artist in Paris was like. This densely populated industrial area on Paris’s outskirts not only provides the city with labor, but also with culture: music, the sport of parkour, tecktonic dance, and verlan slang. From the entrance to your studio I saw the Stade de France, France’s national stadium, Zinedine Zidane and Franck Ribéry’s playground. You gave me and our dialogue several hours (and some tea); it is there that I learned, or perhaps understood, that I could be in a new situation, in a totally different environment and universe: Paris is alive.

Thank you, Thomas.

Un abrazo fuerte.


Abraham Cruzvillegas Why live in Paris?

Thomas Hirschhorn Because living in Paris is beautiful. It makes sense for me as an artist and it’s a challenge! I love ordinary, everyday life here and I love the people I’ve met who have become my friends. I stayed in Paris because of the Frenchwomen and Frenchmen that are living here. I like France with all its unresolved contradictions, in all its complexity. I really do love the motto: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” I take it as something to fight for, at every moment. To live in Paris was never romantic to me. Coming from Switzerland, a very small country, it’s been my effort to confront myself and find out my own measure. This is only possible in a large urban city. I am speaking about “Le Grand Paris” and it’s clear to me that thinking of Paris includes all of its suburbs. To me, the interest and the beauty of working in this country and in this city come from the work of my friend Manuel Joseph, a French poet, but also from many other poets, writers, and philosophers living and working here today. They create a real dynamic. To me this makes Paris a special, powerful, rich, and graceful city of creation. I love to confront the very condensed, critical way of thinking—a sometimes fucking hypercritical thinking—that only the French can produce. I love it; it’s excessive and not always justified, but is terrifically rebellious and crazily resistant. It’s an intellectual pleasure and an artistic challenge to be confronted with such theories. There is also a real Republican, egalitarian tradition which I love. Living in Paris is stimulating and demanding, but I understand the economic pressure as an invitation to face reality. The possibility of being in touch with the sharp thinking of a Frenchman such as Manuel Joseph, without compromise and without reconciliation, gives meaning and reason for me to work here more than in any other city.

AC You worked and lived in Aubervilliers for a while. What does the banlieue mean for you?

TH I am still working in Aubervilliers, where my studio is located. Paris is not Paris without its suburbs. Aubervilliers is a part of Paris. What I need, as an artist, is to live in a space of truth, and this space of truth exists in Paris. As in almost every large city, the space of truth is its suburbs, their so-called banlieues. In Aubervilliers, as in other Parisian suburbs, one can touch the truth and be in contact with it. It’s in the suburbs that there is vitality, deception, depression, energy, utopia, autonomy, craziness, creativity, destruction, ideas, young people, hope, fights to be fought, audaciousness, disagreements, problems, and dreams. It’s in the suburbs that today’s big issues are written on the building facades. It’s in the suburbs that today’s reality can be grasped, and it’s in the suburbs that the pulse of vitality hurts. It’s in the suburbs that there is necessity and urgency. It’s the suburbs that will save the city center from a most certain death! This incredible energy has to be directed somewhere and be fruitful somehow, find a destiny and a response. This is the problem of “small” Paris. The “small” Paris turns its back to all this energy coming from the suburbs. That’s why I am for “Le Grand Paris.”

Das Auge (The Eye), 2008, Wiener Secession, Vienna. Courtesy of Arndt Gallery, Berlin.

AC How do you deal with humor in everyday life and in your work?

TH I have a lot of humor. The problem is that others don’t understand it—it’s a pity! And it’s the same thing with the humor in my work. People do not understand that there is humor in my work! More seriously, I think humor can be a path and an opening toward the other. But I do not “deal” with humor in my work, I just want to give it form as much as I can. What is certain is that I have a lot of fun doing my work, always and everywhere—in my studio and in public spaces too. To do my work is not glamorous, but it is a lot of fun. And to do my work is pleasure, it is full enjoyment.

AC Is disaster—famine, flooding, earthquake, forced migration, genocide, holocaust—a source of energy, creation, love?

TH Yes, because disaster is part of the world, our one and unique world! I agree with the world I am living in. It is only if I agree with it that I can have the power to change something. To agree does not mean to approve of everything or to support or to endure everything. To agree means to love—to love the world—beyond “respect,” “empathy,” “tolerance,” “compassion,” and “kitsch.” Love is passion, desire, ecstasy, infinitude, and cruelty. As an artist, who is part of the world, I have to confront disaster, my own disaster first, but also all disasters. I have to love this world if I want to change its conditions, I have to love the fact that disaster and “the negative” are also part of it. The world is not the world without the negative. Even within the negative, I have love for art and for artists, love for philosophy and philosophers, love for poetry and poets. This love gives me the energy and the will to create despite all the negative and despite all the past, present, and future disasters. Love is stronger than disaster.

Poor-Racer, 2009, in One-Day Sculpture, Christchurch, New Zealand.

AC What happens to the obscene when we are able to see it?

TH I never use the word obscene or obscenity. I think we are living in a time where words like these are used to impose morality. I refuse this and I refuse the kind of “hypersensitivity” developed and encouraged these days—I am sensitive but no more than any other human being. The Western and Northern luxurious hypersensitivity is the attempt to avoid contact with reality and its hard core. Terms such as obscene are used swiftly in order to protect people from exposure to the truth. Truth needs to be paid for. For there to be truth you have to make a sacrifice. I mean truth—not fact, not opinion, and not information. We are living in a dictatorship of opinions, of facts, and of information. Opinions about what is “obscene,” what is pornographic, and what should not be shown to children! As if everyone and everything should be neutralized by so-called morals or even ethics. There is no longer a single art exhibition without a warning about “obscenity” or “pornography!” But I, as an artist, want to see everything, know everything. I want to be emancipated and sovereign. I do not want to be neutralized. I do not want to be the one saying: “I can’t see this! I don’t want to see it!” I don’t need to be told what to support or not. During the second Iraq war, the former American secretary of defense said: “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” That’s exactly the point: in order to discourage inhumanity, we need to see it! As an artist, I don’t want to dream or escape reality.

I don’t want to flee the hard core of reality.

Exhibiting Poetry Today: Manuel Joseph, 2010, Centre National de L’Edition et de L’Art Imprime, Chatou (France). Photo by Romain Lopez.

AC Can you imagine a noncapitalist way or environment for sex? Not efficient, not productive, not amusing, not serious?

TH Sex is apolitical. Sex exists—thank god!—beyond politics. I think the people in North Korea have sex also, don’t they? Sex happens completely and forever beyond everything else. Sexiness is generosity, expenditure, non-economization, emancipation, infinitude, ecstasy, intensity, risk, self-authorization, pride, the absolute. Sex is not reality—sex is the real. And the real—because it is the real—stimulates, boosts, or even dopes and resists all environments and all contexts. And I refuse to fall—like a mouse—into the trap of “noncapitalist” sex!

AC Why collaborate?

TH I do not collaborate and I do not use this term collaboration. I want to work with friends, I want to work in friendship. Working in friendship, as I do with the German philosopher Marcus Steinweg or with the French poet Manuel Joseph, means to work in unshared responsibility. Unshared Responsibility is a new term we created in order to avoid collaboration. Unshared Responsibility means I am completely responsible for the work of my friend, and it means that my friend takes complete responsibility for my work. Unshared Responsibility does not mean discussion, argumentation, negotiation, or finding a compromise. Unshared Responsibility means to be absolutely committed to the work of the other, to take it for what makes its strength: a sovereign affirmation. To work in Unshared Responsibility means to take the responsibility for something I am not responsible for; it means to be generous and it means to have absolute confidence. Unshared Responsibility does not mean to control but to share the love of art, of philosophy, and of poetry. Unshared Responsibility is something I only do with someone and the work of someone I absolutely agree with.

AC Describe chaos.

TH Chaos is form. I want to give form to chaos. Chaos means complexity, inclusion, incommensurability, clarity, precision, exaggeration. Chaos is a tool and a weapon to confront the world, which is chaotic, but not in an attempt to make it more calculated, more disciplined, more educated, more moral, more satisfying, more exclusive, more ordered, more functionable, more stabilized, more simplified, or more reduced. No, chaos is the form to confront the chaotic world. I must specify the chaos, touch it, struggle with it, to finally be lost in it myself. Chaos is another word for ethics. Chaos is resistance, courage, and hope. In art, the question of form is the most important and essential question. I have to struggle with my will, I must give form in the chaos.

Théâtre Précaire 2, 2010, Les Ateliers de Rennes-Biennale d’Art Contemporain, Rennes.

AC Sometimes while looking at your work, The Planets by Gustav Holst comes to my mind.

TH I do not know Gustav Holst. Should I know about him?

AC It’s not necessary. What are you listening to recently?

TH I am listening to fado. I have three fado CDs: Maria Teresa, Katia Guerreiro, and Amália Rodrigues. My favorite one is the CD of Amália Rodrigues, Uma Casa Portuguesa. It’s beautiful music and I like to play just one song on the repeat track mode and listen to it for hours. “Barco Negro” is one of those songs—it’s sad, beautifully sad.

AC What’s the meaning of labor in your work? Do you work with assistants?

TH I love to work and I love to do my work. I always liked to work a lot, and because I like it, it’s easy for me to work and work a lot. Because I, the artist, am the art maker, I have to and want to do the work, to give it form and to work it out. I want to be overgiving in my work, I want to work with excess, and I want to be generous while working, I want to self-exploit myself! I like the fact that my work involves a lot of labor. Even when something is big, its big size is made with labor, it’s not blown up industrially. The fact that people can actually see the labor is a way to include them in my work, to make an opening. This opening and including is precisely what I mean by working, or put differently self-erection. To me the term of work and labor are positive terms, terms of self-invention, of self-authorization, and of being mobilized. I am for production and I am for affirmation. To me production is related to dignity and pride. Sometimes people tell me: “Do less! Work much less!” They are wrong, I don’t fall into this trap of nonproduction, into the trap of deception and cynicism. They don’t understand that to work—besides the big pleasure it gives me—is a necessity. It’s the necessity to give form; to assert and to defend my form. It’s necessary to insist by working a lot and by producing a lot. For those who want to do less—it’s fine with me—let them do less, let them produce less. But don’t tell me I should do less! I want to do what I love: to have fun and, to me, to have fun means to do my work! Yes, I do work with assistants.

AC How do you choose materials to work with? Do you choose?

TH I love the materials I am working with. To use the materials I work with is more than a choice—it’s a decision. Doing art politically means loving the material one works with. To love does not mean to be in love in a kitschy way or to fall in love with one’s material or lose oneself in it. Rather, to love one’s material means to place it above everything else, to work with it in awareness, and to be insistent with it. I love the material because I decided in favor of it, therefore I don’t want to replace it, substitute it, or change it. The decision about the material is an extremely important one in art. I decided on the materials I am working with because they are everyday materials. Everyone knows about them, everyone uses them—to do things other than art. These materials surround me, are easily available, unintimidating, and nonartsy. They are universal, economic, inclusive, and don’t bear any plus-value. That is the political, and because I made that decision, I cannot yield to wishes and demands for “something else” or “something new.”

AC What are you reading these days?

TH “L’éthique, essai sur la conscience du mal” by Alain Badiou, and the exhibition catalogue from MAK Vienna, “Blumen für Kim Il Sung.”

AC What are you working on now?

TH I am working on Too Too—Much Much. This is my next big work to be exhibited in the Museum Dhondt Dhaenens in Deurle, Belgium. In this work I want to give form to the logic of being overwhelmed by a situation and in assuming the consequences. I will work following my guidelines: Energy: Yes! Quality: No! I have the ambition of creating a new form, to give form to a kind of universal and conflictual hyperconsumption, a form which is the result of confronting three different overconsumptions: 1) The overconsumption of natural disasters; the consequences of being overwhelmed and alone in facing a natural disaster. 2) The overconsumption of the feeling that everything is burning everywhere and everywhere around me; and, 3) The overconsumption of personal and communal human disasters in our lives and their consequences. The question with Too Too—Much Much is: Am I able to give a form which goes beyond usual facts and criticism of consumption? Can I create in my new work some kind of desperate fun that will cut precarious breakthroughs into the hard core of reality?


Abraham Cruzvillegas’s work has been shown in over 20 countries since 1987. The Mexican artist’s most recent multimedia project, Autoconstrucción—for which he charted the makeshift evolution of his family’s house and neighborhood and found the origins of his sculptural practice—was shown at REDCAT in Los Angeles and Kurimanzutto in Mexico City. He is currently based in Berlin, where he is a DAAD artist-in-residence.

Interview: Thomas Hirschhorn on Cavemanman

Thomas Hirschhorn. All photos: Paul Schmelzer

When Swiss-born artist Thomas Hirschhorn visited the Walker last month to install Cavemanman, he spent a few minutes with me discussing the piece, a massive network of tunnels and caves made from cardboard, mailing tape, aluminum foil, and other everyday materials. In this interview, he discusses how his work is a “collage in the third dimension,” the historical and contemporary influences behind the piece, and how a cave is a good metaphor for the mind.

Interviewed in October 2006 in the installation Cavemanman, part of the Walker Art Center exhibition Heart of Darkness: Kai Althoff, Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne, Thomas Hirschhorn

Paul Schmelzer: Your material is really accessible. It’s not high-art material: tape, aluminum foil, Xerox copies… Could say more about that?

Thomas Hirschhorn: I really try to use materials that everybody knows and uses in their everyday life, not for doing art. It’s very important to me that there is no question about from where the material is coming. So tape, cardboard, paper, photocopies, mailing tubes, silver paper: it’s very important to me to have materials that are in everyday use. Also, I like that [they don’t have] this arty aspect. There’s no kitsch behind it. The question is not what material is it from, the question is what’s it about? That’s why I use this material, because I believethey have a part of universality inside them.

Schmelzer: I also see there are a lot of mass communication, mass-culture items. All the philosophical tracts are Xeroxes, which is a mass production technique, and there’s also stuff from mass media.

Hirschhorn: They are a tool to make a window to another reality, or our reality to another world. I like to start with materials. They are accessible, and they still exist, because in fact it’s about a collage. It’s a collage in the third dimension, not in the 2nd dimension. What means doing a collage? It means to put things together who are not made to be put together. This is a collage, and here it is in the third dimension.

The entrance to Cavemanman in the Walker galleries

Schmelzer: Your politics have been described as radical, but I like to go back to the etymology of words. And radical doesn’t mean “extreme,” it really means “to the roots,” if you break the word apart. Are your politics radical in that traditional sense, or in that earlier sense, that sense that you’re going back to the roots of what’s fundamental about democracy, for example.

Hirschhorn: Absolutely. I’m interested in working politically, not in doing political work. Doing work politically means, yes, to question the material, to question the work that is done, to question every element: is every element I use, is it an offer, is it a key, is it a possibility to give the tool for the spectator to establish a dialogue or a confrontation with the work. That means to me, for example, working politically. In this way, yes, I would like that it has a kind of radicality, but in the small questions of materials, of elements, of light, of space, every question embracing my tool as an artist to give form has to be radical, yes.

Schmelzer: There’s often an immersive quality to your work. It’s often an environment you go into. It seems there’s extremeness in the emotional quality; for example, the piece you did early in 2006 with the images of victims of war (Superficial Engagement) or this one, it’s a bit claustrophobic, it’s lots of shiny things and bright things and bomb metaphors. So you’re dealing with things that are emotionally pretty powerful, but also intellectually powerful: Noam Chomsky and Bataille and Foucault. Is this your way of getting people to react, or is it your way of exploring ideas you care about.

Hirschhorn: To me, it’s never about getting people to react. As you say, the immersive manner: I feel as an artist I have to do too much. I have to do the whole thing. It’s always about the whole world. It’s always about the entire possibility, the entire thing. And of course, that’s pretentious and it’s ambitious, but in another way, it’s stupid, also, to want to do this. I have, as an artist, to stand out this ridiculousness of this ambition and this pretension. It’s always about the whole world. So that’s why I like to be over-formed, to make too much, to put everything inside. To try again and again, to put everything into the work. It’s about me, about how I see, as an artist, I can work. It’s not about a spectator who has to react or not to react or who I want to provoke or not. Never. It’s always about: what’s my tool? I think this is one of my tools; the immersive, the too-much, the stupid, the way to go over something who is permitted in a way.

Schmelzer: This work is all over-the-top consumer society kind of stuff; and the fact that you’re using what could be seen as stuff you’ve found on the street, is there a critique or a way of addressing that—the consumption culture idea?

Hirschhorn: It’s not about a critique of the consumption culture or the consumption society we live in. I’m a part of it. I’m part of this chaotic world. I’m a part of this unclarity in the world. I see as one of my missions as an artist to work in this unclarity, to work in this chaos. Not to bring clarity, not to bring clearness, to struggle with the chaos. To struggle with what’s around me. For example, to work in the chaos of the world means not to me create clear forms, to make less things or make not a lot of things. For me, to go in the same direction and even beyond this chaos and this unclarity is what I think I have to do.

Schmelzer: Now this piece, Cavemanman. You said you’re not trying to say just one thing, but, this obviously is the hermit’s cave, the bin Laden hideout, maybe even the little hole in the ground Saddam was found in, the philosopher’s cave: what was your impulse to begin this project?

Hirschhorn: One of the impulses was: a young man was condemned in France because he was making graffiti in a prehistorical site—

Schmelzer: In Lascaux?

Hirschhorn: Not in Lascaux, near Marseille. He did make graffiti, and what did his people make 30,000 years before? Aren’t they graffitists also? That was one of the points, to say I have to work out an un-hierarchical form, because we know caves—there are also fake caves. There are fake caves that are recent, there are fake caves that are very old. There are caves that have nothing inside—no painting or perhaps the painting disappeared. There are undiscovered caves. So I wanted to give this un-architectural and un-hierarchical space form into the cave. That’s why in fact the idea of a cave arised.

Then, it’s also, I’m Swiss. In Switzerland, we have a lot of caves, but we have also have a lot of tunnels. We’re tunneling all the time because there are big mountains, so this kind of obsession to tunnel, to go through the mountains and make caves in the mountain. Then, of course, the picture you mention of the
cave of Tora Bora or the caves people take to find refuge all over the world. This was the point of start for my work Cavemanman.


Schmelzer: I’m curious about the imagery from magazines here; it seems there’s a lot of images of progress and production and marking—sort of marking the earth much like they’re marking the walls of the cave.

Hirschhorn: Yes, absolutely. We are here in this cavation with these color pictures on the wall. What they share together: people at work. Every one of these people has a mission, has something to do, is at work. So I wanted to connect them to the entire history of caves: where is the space more for contemplation or religious space or a space we don’t for spirit or we don’t know. I wanted to connect it to the reality of work. To me the cave that is just a picture, the cave is in your brain, the cave is in your mind. We have our own layout of a cave in our mind. That is why, in fact, Cavemanman.

Schmelzer: So there’s an archetype of a cave we all kind of—

Hirschhorn: Not an archetype—

Schmelzer: Not an archetype but an individual conception.

Hirschhorn: Absolutely. I believe there is the possibility to structure your mind in a cave with cavations where you put something inside, with garbage, with unspeakable things. We think there’s no light on it, we think they’re forgotten. So, yeah, it’s a metaphor for the space in the mind.

Schmelzer: That leads well to all the books that are here: you have large-scale replicas of books, you have actual texts from different books of philosophy and economics even, it looks like, and political theory. And then there are these bomb-like things connected to them. It seems pretty directly that there’s maybe an explosive potential of knowledge thing, but there must be more than that!

Hirschhorn: Of course, the books are important, but not as material to read, but more as the knowledge was here, but who has to be applicated. It’s about the understanding of the world. It’s not about the knowledge we have or have not. That’s not the question. So it’s about this, that’s also why the books are not reachable in the cavation. The shelves are too high. Here there are text excerpts that could be like a decoration. Of course you can read it, because that’s always the possibility I want to give. Then the enlarged books, of course, that make an engagement to the same time, the book becomes empty because you cannot read it. So it’s important to put together these two meanings.

Finally the dynamite bombs with the books, of course it’s an image, as you say, yeah, the dynamite or the explosive in a book, but also it’s an image to me perhaps also to a paranoia idea of somebody who wants to make fear to someone who comes to discover his cave. Lonely people they have this kind of paranoia, this kind of thinking to protect themselves with this often fake protective materials. It’s another image of somebody retiring himself and trying to confront the world.

Schmelzer: It reminds me of Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber.

Hirschhorn: Absolutely. It’s not about him, but it’s just about this kind of, in a way: you have to confront the world. It’s important not to retire yourself in a cave. But in another way you have to build this cave in your mind and to struggle with what happens in this cave, in confronting it with the world.

Schmelzer: When I first started at the Walker back in ’98, the first piece I saw of yours was, in [the Walker Art Center exhibition] Unfinished History, a big Swiss Army Knife, but I didn’t understand it at all… but the materials, post-9/11, really speak to me much more. When I look around here, I see detritus, the sort of things we all saw blowing through the streets after the World Trade Center fell. Do you see your material differently after a big disaster like that?

Hirschhorn: No. It’s interesting what you say. I saw the pictures, of course, of the dust, for example, after 9/11. I saw the pictures of the millions of papers fluttering down. And, yes, it doesn’t change everything to me, but in a way it’s true. These materials, for example, that could have an importance so much at the moment on somebody’s office desk, and because something completely crazy happened, at a moment everything changed and the paper got completely no more importance to nobody. This is interesting me, because I always believe always… nobody can say to me what’s important to me. Everything can be important to everybody at a moment and at a time. This is the thing I get with this visual experience I had, the importance of things. The importance for one human being, for one element, one shoe or one thing you can see after this kind of incredible event happened; that’s touching me. I was always interested in these elements.

Schmelzer: The other day when we spoke, you mentioned the theme of the larger show this is part of, Heart of Darkness. Does that title or your knowledge of the Joseph Conrad book, does that change how you view this work? What do you think about the theme?

Hirschhorn: I think it’s fantastic. It’s a really great theme. First of all, it’s a really beautiful title, of course. And I think—I’m really happy to be in this exhibition because I think there is really a concern that is so deep in this time today, and I think to these four artists who exhibit, everybody, a kind of big work, who is in a way have built a world for himself, each. It is an ambition to build his own world. I like it a lot. This is really what I want, and perhaps what other artists want—to build a known world and to confront this world directly with the world we are living in. Heart of Darkness is beautiful because there is a heart also, in the darkness, also in the unspeakable, also in something very non-communicatable.


Schmelzer: You just struck on the theme of one of the rooms: “1 man = 1 man.” It strikes me that, much like the marking of a wall of a cave 30,000 years ago or the marking of a graffiti wall today, or the way one person’s life is destroyed in 9/11 is the same as one person’s life being destroyed today in Iraq right now. It seems like there’s that idea here, too, all the way around. This work is going to be hard for people because it’s not pretty, but it seems to have an essential love and equality about it.

Hirschhorn: Yeah, there is a heart. Absolutely. That’s why I like the title (Heart of Darkness). There’s a heart. But I don’t want to be kind, but the heart is the beautiful idea of equality between human beings. In a way I wanted to stupidly write it on the wall like graffiti: one man = one man. But in another way, I needed to build a cave that this idea gets acceptable in away. Everybody says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but…” No, no, no, it’s not about but. It’s not about fact. It’s not about journalism. It’s not about who is wrong and who is right, who is OK, who is not OK. It’s just about this idea: one man = one man. This is why I needed to build the whole cave.

Schmelzer: So you’d have a wall to hang that message on?

Hirschhorn: Absolutely.


Volume 3. No. 1. Winter 2009/10
ISSN 1752-6388


The Headless Artist:

An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn on the Friendship Between Art and Philosophy, Precarious Theatre and the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival

Ross Birrell: Why are you passionate about Spinoza?

Thomas Hirschhorn: I am passionate about Spinoza because the lecture of Ethics had a real impact on me and I am passionate about Philosophy in general because I enjoy not understanding everything. I like the fact that, in Philosophy, things remain to be understood and that work still has to be done. “Ethics” is one of the books which, for me, still remains to be understood. What I have made out so far, is that Ethics is a powerful attempt to fight obscurantism and idealism. Ethics – a book I often look into – is overwhelming in form, logic and clarity. Today more than ever it is necessary to confront this. Reading Spinoza means: accepting to insist on receptivity and sensuality without the idea of a certain type of infinity. According to Deleuze, whoever is interested by philosophy, should start with Spinoza’s Ethics. When you read Spinoza everything is transcendence. But if everything is transcendence then there exists no transcendence. If not transcendence, then everything is immanence. But if everything is immanence, there is no immanence. Spinoza presents a concept devoid of transcendence and devoid of immanence. It is the concept – as Deleuze shows – of Here and Now, the concept of Life – Life as a subject without God. An active subject, a subject of pleasure and leisure. A responsible, gay, assertive subject.

RB: Why did you choose to do the Spinoza-festival in Bijlmer How familiar were the residents of Bijlmer with Spinoza prior to the festival? And were they aware of the potential affinity in terms of immigration? For example, many of the present residents of Bijlmer are immigrants from Suriname, a former Dutch colony and Spinoza arrived in Amsterdam as a foreigner, the son of Portuguese Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition? You have said previously: ‘In my works in public spaces the context is never the issue’ Could the ‘Spinoza-festival’ have taken place anywhere?

TH: “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” could have taken place in a different neighbourhood than the “Bijlmer”. This work could have been built in another city, another country or another continent. Because Art can provoke a Dialogue or a Confrontation – from one to one – Art can do this everywhere, in the Bijlmer, but anywhere else as well. And because my work is mentally transplantable, it aims to experience its universality.

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Spinoza Library’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini

RB: ‘Foreignness to the world’, claimed Adorno, ‘is an element of art: Whoever perceives it other than as foreign fails to perceive it at all.’1 As with the Deleuze monument (Avignon, 2000) and Bataille monument (Kassel, 2002), the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival reproduces institutions of the public sphere and commercial life of society (exhibition space, library, theatre, internet café, bar, etc.) formed with familiar everyday materials (tape, cardboard, foil, Perspex, polythene, books, tv sets, computers, etc.). Paradoxically, however, this resemblance is productive of a kind of ‘foreignness’: of the structure to its surroundings, its non-functioning co-existence with community, as an autonomous artwork in society. Do you feel the Monument or the festival remains essentially foreign to the community regardless of the level of ‘participation’ involved?

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Spinoza Library’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini

TH: As always I wanted to do a universal Artwork. I did not conceive “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” as something which implements “foreignness”. Because Art is universal and because – as always – I aim my work towards a “non-exclusive audience” there was no issue about “foreignness” with the inhabitants of the Bijlmer.

But through the daily experience of “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” I realized that something unexpected was being shared with the inhabitants of the Bijlmer: the fact of being a “foreigner”. I, myself, was the “foreigner” in their neighbourhood. My project, my will to do it, my everyday battle to keep it standing was the “foreignness”. It was neither the aesthetic nor the production of my work that created “foreignness” but only the fact of decision to do it. This “foreignness” or “strangeness” allowed me to be in equal contact with the Other. As the artist I was the stranger. Being the artist, I must always accept to be the foreigner. This is my starting-point for works done together with inhabitants and has always been. It is not I – the artist – who can help, not I – the artist – who knows how to help, not I – the artist – with the pretension to help, but instead I’m the one – the artist – to have a project and to need help in order to carry it out! I cannot do it alone, I cannot do it without your help!

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Internet Corner’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Anna Kowalska

RB: Can you elaborate on the importance of the ‘guidelines’ of ‘presence and production’ for the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival? The self-demand that you be present throughout the two month long production seems to be more important to the concept of the work than simply to protect the work from vandalism (as was experienced with the Deleuze Monument in Avingon and the Raymond Carver-Altar in Glasgow). Is there a ‘dual perspective’ to be brought to bear in the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival, implied in the combined use of these terms ‘presence’ and ‘production’ – a dialectic of force and consent, akin to the demands upon the actors in ‘precarious theatre’?

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Child’s Play’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Anna Kowalska

TH: “Presence” and “Production” are terms I use for specific projects which require my presence and my production. It means to make a physical statement here and now.

I believe that only with presence – my presence – and only with production – my production – can I provoke through my work, an impact on the field. “Presence” and “Production” is fieldwork, it means confronting reality with the real. “Presence” and “Production” is the form of a commitment toward myself but also directed toward the inhabitants. “Presence” and “Production” is the key to initiate a relationship based on equality – one to one – with the unexpected. “Presence” and “Production” allow me to come in contact with the Other if I give something from myself – first. I know what this means, I know what it demands and I know what I must do in order to achieve this. “Presence” and “Production” are forms of implication towards the neighbourhood through the fact of my presence and my production. A project such as “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” is only possible because of the three months of presence and production, not only my presence and my production, but also thanks to the presence and production of Marcus Steinweg, the philosopher with his daily lectures, the presence and production of Vittori Martini, the art historian, with her daily implication as “Ambassador” and thanks to the presence and production of Alexandre Costanzo, the editor with his production of the Daily Newspaper.

RB: How does your turn toward ‘Precarious Theatre’ develop or advance your work in relation to precarious form? Has its direct use of actor-spectator relations been informed by experimental theatre directors such as Jerzy Growtowski, in terms of poor materials, or Augusto Boal, in terms of developing the inter-changeablility of the actor and audience developed from Brecht?

TH: “Precarious Theatre” will be the title of one of my next works. It comes directly from my “Spinoza-Theatre” experience which I made and integrated into “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”. I will develop this experience I had in Amsterdam, of directing the actors from the neighbourhood during two months. I cannot respond precisely to your question as I am not familiar with the two names you mention. But for sure I don’t want to be a theatre-director! I want to integrate a theatrical component into my work, during which the work becomes stage and where people are acting in the work. I call this “Precarious Theatre” because it only lasts for a short moment.

RB: Jean-Luc Nancy writes ‘“Political” would mean a community ordering itself to the unworking of its communication, or destined to this unworking: a community consciously undergoing the experience of its sharing.’2 If the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival is not a work of political art but an example of doing art politically, might it also be considered – in all its multiplicity and diversity of forms and events, its ‘not functioning’ experience, co-existence and autonomy shared with a community – as an ‘unwork’ of art, or an ‘unworking of art,’ and thus ‘political’ in Nancy’s terms?

TH: I do not conceive my work as an outcome of philosophers’ concepts or of theory. I haven’t read the book by Nancy you mention. You must be aware that I really do not read a lot – my friends know this – as I have enough to struggle with and think about with my work (I have not read half of the references you give in this interview). Furthermore I am not constructing my work on Philosophy, theory or thoughts from others but – because I am an artist today – perchance there are moments and spaces of similar dynamics. I am very, very happy about this. I am ready and open for these rare and graceful moments of encounters in concepts and forms which – together with Marcus Steinweg – we call “Friendship between Art and Philosophy”.

I want to point out that when saying ‘not-functioning’ concerning “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival” or other of my works of Art, it is crucial not to forget that an artwork can be something which does not function. (I do not say that Art has no Function but Art does not have to function!) Today the question of functioning (“does it function? does it ‘work’? Is it – then – a success or not?”) arises automatically and quickly as criteria for “good” or “bad” art. This is stupid and easy. I think that the problem is not about doing art which “functions” or “works” but to do an artwork which implicates, which creates an event and which can provoke an encounter or allow encounters. But this is something which cannot be measured, there is no “yes” or “no”, there is no success or failure. Art it is something which reaches us beyond such criteria. To believe in this power of Art is to me what “working politically” as an artist means, trying to resist in and with the work to the pressure of functionality.

RB: Writing on Spinoza Deleuze claims: ‘Writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers – painters too, even chance reader – may find that they are Spinozists; indeed, such a thing is more likely for them that for professional philosophers. It is a matter of one’s practical conception of the “plan”. It is not that one may be a Spinozist without knowing it. Rather, there is a strange privilege that Spinoza enjoys something that seems to have been accomplished by him and no one else. He is a philosopher who commands an extraordinary conceptual apparatus, one that is highly developed, systematic, and scholarly; and yet he is the quintessential object of an immediate, unprepared encounter, such that a nonphilosopher, or even someone without any formal education, can receive a sudden illumination from him, a “flash”.’3 Are “the fiery words of Spinoza” also fanning the flames of the general conflagration of It’s Burning Everywhere (DCA, 19 September-29 Nov 2009)?

TH: Again, I am not illustrating Philosophy with my work. I am not reading Philosophy to do my Artwork and I am not reading Philosophy to justify my work. I need Philosophy for my life, to try to find responses to the big questions such as “Love”, to name one of the most important to me. For this, I need Philosophy – please believe it! But of course if connections, dynamics, influences or coincidences exist in my work – as you pointed out in “It’s Burning Everywhere” – I am absolutely happy. I want to be touched by grace, without belief in any correlation to genius or obscureness or that it has something to do with artistic ignorance. If you are working today in the historical field of the moment you live in, confronting all kinds of complexities, struggling with all kinds of paradoxes and contradictions, if you are still working and continue listening only to yourself, it is only normal that at some point your work is going to be a “flash”. Your quotation of Deleuze is truly an important citation to me, because it explains why I started, myself, to read Spinoza. As Deleuze with Spinoza, I – as an artist – admire how great Philosophers had interest and commitment in other thinkers and how these great Philosophers are the most able to explain the concepts of other Philosophers with their own words.

RB: Alain Badiou says in Saint Paul ‘it is necessary to pay careful attention to Paul’s lexicon, which is always extremely precise.’4 In my experience you always take great care and consideration over the language you use, via deployment of a similarly ‘precise lexicon’ to articulate your position as an artist and to distance yourself from definitions drawn from the critical vocabularies of ‘relational aesthetics,’ ‘community-based’ or ‘public art’. Why is a commitment to self-determination in writing necessary for you as an artist? Is it an ethical obligation?

TH: One thing I really understand is that in philosophy terms and notions are important. Philosophers use words with preciseness and exactitude. Philosophers are sculpting concepts following their logic in the strongest way they can. The words they use are important tools to them in order to create new terms in philosophy. I admire that enormously.

As an artist I am often surprised by effortless, inexact and empty terms or notions used in order to “explain” an artwork. I am astonished by the repeated and thoughtless use of terms in art critique. As the artist – I refuse to use them myself when I think it is not the right word to describe what I want. I have to invent my own terms and I want to insist with my own notions. I know – as an artist – that to give Form is the absolute necessity and that writing is not a necessity, but writing helps me clarify, it helps me fix and be committed to things.

Writing is a help to understand, to touch, to speak about something. But it’s only a help, my work does not depend on it. Therefore, when writing, I try – at least as the artist – to use the terms I think appropriate in relation to my work. And as a help, it is an ethical obligation towards my own work.

RB: Your work has had a long engagement with precarity and the precarious and you have used the term repeatedly in terms of materials, structures, the situation in public spaces and the question of form, each of which speak to the precarity of objects, power relations, communities and, above all, life. It seems that recently thinkers have begun to catch up with your understanding of precarious life asserted through form. For example, Judith Butler, Precarious Life (2004)and more recently Frames of War (2009) where she states: ‘Precariousness implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other.’5 Has your adherence to precarity been informed by thinkers of ‘the other’ such as Butler or Levinas?

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘The Construction Team’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Anna Kowalska

TH: Again no, my adherence to precarity comes from my life, from my experience, from what I love – from the precarious forms I love – and from what I understand of it. I am really pleased to hear that Judith Butler, Emmanuel Levinas and also Manuel Joseph (a French writer and friend) have, among many others, developed serious thoughts about “Precariousness” but I must tell you, I learnt this myself and I am not going to learn something more about it. On the contrary, my tendency is – I admit – to avoid going “deeper” – because I need, yes I need, my own, my own strange, wrong, headless misunderstood, bad, stupid – but – my fucking own relation to preserve and to develop. This is not an opposition to theory or a refusal of theory, absolutely not. It has to do with being open to what comes from my own, to what comes only from my own. It just makes me happy to hear that I am not alone with the interest in “Precarity”. And I have the ambition in doing my work to intervene – through the notion of “Precarity” – in the field of Art.

RB: On the Spinoza-Monument at W139 Amsterdam 1999 you state that you wanted some elements to be ‘more overtaxing to myself’, and in the text ‘Doing art politically: What does this mean?’ you talk about ‘not economizing oneself; self-expenditure … undermining oneself; being cruel vis-à-vis one’s own work…’ In terms of expenditure, this equates to an economy without reserve, of giving yourself without reserve and shares a logic of sacrifice familiar to the writings of Artaud or Georges Bataille on the ‘potlatch’. As the language of sacrifice and annihilation at work here suggests (you make altars after all), does the work ever reach the final point of ‘self-cancellation’ or creative ‘auto-destruction’?

TH: There is a difference between self-expenditure, being cruel vis-à-vis my own work, not-economizing myself and what you call “self-cancellation” and “auto-destruction”. I want to undermine myself – my person – in doing my work – I do not want to undermine my work!

I don’t want to take myself seriously in doing my work but I want to do and take my work seriously! I want to give everything I can in order to do my work but I do not want to give my work away! The gift is not the work itself – the gift is to do it and to do it in such a way! What I love in the notion of “gift” is the offensive, demanding and even aggressive part in it, it’s the part that provokes the Other to give more! It’s the part which implies a response to the gift, a real and active response. The gift or the work must be a challenge, that is why I am not using “auto-destruction”. “Self-cancellation” to me is related to narcissism, to tearfulness and I want to resist to the fashionable tendency to self-criticism. Those terms are not related to my understanding of Art as an assertion, an absolute assertion of form, as an engagement, as a commitment to pay for, as a mission, as a never-ending conflict, as a strength and as a position.

RB: You write: ‘I want to show my work everywhere, without making any distinction between important and unimportant places, just as I don’t want to distinguish between important and unimportant people.’6 This position coincides with Rancière’s claim: ‘There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point. Everywhere there are starting points, intersections and junctions that enable us to learn something new…’.7 Is equality the foundation and condition of the universal artwork? Is such universality potentially a form of emancipation?

TH: Universality is constitutive to Art. It’s something very important to me. One can say that Art is universal because its Art. If it is not universal it is not an Artwork, it’s something else. I do oppose the term “Universality” to Culture, Tradition, Identity, Community, Religion, Obscurantism, Globalization, Internationalism, Nationalism or Regionalism. I experienced with my Artwork – and not only with the works in public space – that Universality is truly essential. There are other words for Universality: The Real, The One World, the Other, Justice, Politics, Aesthetics, Truth, the “Non-exclusive Audience” and Equality. I believe – yes, believe – in Equality. And I believe that Art has the Power of transformation. The power to transform each human being, each one and equally without any distinction. I agree that equality is the foundation and the condition of Art.

RB: Would you regard yourself as an Ignorant Artist?

TH: I am not an ignorant artist – because it’s better not to be ignorant, as artist! Of course – I love the beautiful book The Ignorant Schoolmaster and its fantastic enlightening title, but I am not a Schoolmaster – I am not even teaching Art – I am an artist! I, myself, am and want to be a Headless artist. I want to act – always – in headlessness, I want to make Art in headlessness. “Headlessness” stands for: doing my work in and with precipitation, restlessness, acceleration, generosity, expenditure, energy (energy = yes! quality = no!), stupidity, self-transgression, blindness and excess. I never want to economize myself and I know – as the artist – that I sometimes look stupid facing my work, but I have to stand out for this ridiculousness.

RB: To state ‘I’m a Worker-Soldier artist’ suggests the identity of the ‘partisan’ and elsewhere, in relation to the philosophers you have used in your work, you have insisted that you are not a specialist but a fan. Do you see a connection between ‘the partisan’ and ‘the fan’?

TH: With “worker” I wanted to point out the importance of the work, the importance of production and the importance to do it. Being a “worker” also means to refuse the terms “genius”, “star”, “prince or princess” and the term “child of miracles”. With “soldier” I want to point out that I have to fight for my work, for my position, for my form, I want to point out that this fight is never won but also never lost, I want to point out that doing art is a perpetual battle and I want to point out that to be an artist means to have a mission. With “artist” I want to point out that I have to stand up, I have to assert and I have to give form to what is important to me. I ask myself; does my work have the power to reach a public beyond the public already interested in art? Can I, through my artwork, create and establish a new term for art? And I ask myself: can my work create the condition to develop a critical corpus? A fan is somebody who loves beyond justification, beyond explication and beyond reason. Being a fan means to love.

RB: The Swiss writer, Robert Walser who led a ‘wandering and precarious existence’ has been important to you (Robert Walser Tränen, 1995, Robert Walser Kiosk 1999 (Universität Zürich-Irchel, Zurich) and he appears more than once in your Emergency Library (2003). Walser speaks of the ‘courage to create’ and commands: ‘The poet must ramble, must audaciously lose himself, must always risk everything, everything, must hope, should do so, should only hope.’8 How important is Walser to you? Do you share Walser’s hope in extremis?

TH: Robert Walser is one of the most inspired and inspiring Swiss writers. Because of the strength and power of his soul, Robert Walser is a Swiss hero. He reconciles me with my home country – with the specificity of living in Switzerland – which can create graceful writers such as Robert Walser. I love his work which is the work of existential perdition and existential uncertainty. Robert Walser himself lost his way between rebellion and gaiety. I love Robert Walser and – as many others – I am part of the “Tanner family”. And as many, I love his work with a possessive, selfish and exclusive love – I won’t share this love with anyone else, I alone have “understood” Robert Walser!

RB: Might another name for the non-exclusive audience be Multitude?

TH: No. “Multitude” to me is an imprecise and an elastic term. I invented the term of “non-exclusive audience” and I want to insist upon it, because it permits me to clearly address my work to an audience, to somebody, to a person, to one singular person. The “non-exclusive audience” is the term which allows me to direct my work toward the Other. The Other or the “non-exclusive audience” is inclusive. So the “non-exclusive audience” includes also the “spectre of evaluation” (The Institution director, Art critic, Curator, Gallerist, Collector, Art historian and Art professor). I think that – as an artist – I can’t ever direct my work toward the ”spectre of evaluation”. The “non-exclusive audience” permits me not to focus my work on the “spectre of evaluation” but to include them beside an unexpected and open audience. Furthermore, the “non-exclusive audience” is able to judge the work of the artist – directly from the heart – whereas the “spectre of evaluation” only evaluates the work.

RB: In his discussion of Gramsci, Ernesto Laclau comments, ‘The theory of hegemony presupposes, … that the “universal” is an object both impossible but necessary’.9 Is your quest to produce the universal artwork both impossible but necessary?

TH: Each Artwork is impossible. It is impossible because it’s just not necessary to do a possible Artwork! An Artwork is an impossible form and an impossible assertion and it’s impossible to defend it. Doing an Artwork – I think – is not “impossible but necessary” but it is: “impossible and necessary”. An Artwork must possess both: “impossibility and necessity”. Don’t both together make sense? Don’t both together create density, charge and energy? Don’t “impossibility and necessity” – together – give beauty?

RB: Is there a connection for you between your insistence upon the autonomy of the art work and autonomous political movements, for example in political anarchism or the Italian autonomists? I’m recalling here the improvised structure Bridge (2000) which joined the Whitechapel Art Gallery to neighbouring Freedom Press in Angel Alley in the East End of London and also the participation in the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival of Antonio Negri.

TH: No, there is no connection that I could establish. I just believe in the autonomy of Art – because it’s Art – and I do think that it is the autonomy of an Artwork which gives it its absoluteness. “Autonomy” does not mean self-sufficiency or self-enclosure, “autonomy” is something which stands up by itself, which is sovereign and proud.

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Lectures/Seminars : Toni Negri’ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini

I invited Toni Negri because I admire his work and his life. And of course for his beautiful book: The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics. His lecture and the small seminar he held, during which he explained his ‘first love” of the notion “precarity”, was for me a moment of grace at “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”.

RB: In ‘Doing art politically: What does this mean?’ you write, ‘I decided to position my work in the form- and force-fields of Love, Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics’. This seems to echo the four categories of truth adhered to by Alain Badiou who also puts love ‘which alone effectuates the unity of thought and action in the world’ on an equal footing with philosophy, politics and art because of its capacity to act as a universal power. Is love for you another name for universality?

TH: When I decided myself upon these four notions as constitutes for my force- and form-fields, I wanted to use four terms or notions that define a sort of conflict zone – an area that my work always wants to touch. That is why: Love, Philosophy, Politics, Aesthetics. My work need not cover these zones equally or entirely, but I always want to touch all four terms of this zone within my work. But to me, the two terms “Politics” and “Aesthetics” are much more “negatively loaded” than the others two terms “Love” and “Philosophy” which are much more “positively loaded”. Within the force- and form-field itself, I want problematic and conflict to be clearly pointed out so that my form- and force-field is itself understood as a zone of conflict as an “in-fight”.

I am not afraid to say I love the materials I am working with – of course not with self-sufficient and sentimental Love but with the Love of the decision I took to use them, specifically. Because I love them I do not want and can not change them! Because I love them I am committed and engaged with them, this is Love.

“Love” is also another word for passion, cruelty, infinitude and ecstasy and also universality. “Love” means to me, to love someone: Duchamp, Bataille, Deleuze, Malevitch, Beuys, Warhol, Spinoza, Gramsci, Mondrian.

RB: Would you regard yourself as a militant? Of art? Of truth?

TH: I am not a militant of Art because I am an artist. I am the art maker! Art is my passion and I am passionate to be an artist. As an artist – I am a militant of Truth. I believe in the capacity of art to create – through its form its own Truth. A Truth as opposed to information, objectivity, circumstance, context, conditions, correctness, historicism, documentation, opinion, journalism, criticism, morality.

RB: Through the varied alcoves, monuments, kiosks, altars, festivals, emergency libraries you assert a series of ‘elective affinities’ with dead philosophers and dead writers. This is reminiscent of Bataille when he writes: ‘The desire to communicate is born in me out of a feeling of community binding me to Nietzsche, and not out of isolated originality.’10 Is this an ethical commitment on your part, to assert an ‘inoperative community’ with the dead?

TH: No, the explanation is much more profane. An “Altar”, a “Kiosk” and a “Monument” can only by done for dead people. But the “dead” in itself play no role in it, because my work is not about the death of that person, my work is about the life and the work of that person! As an homage to somebody it is simpler to take a person whose life and work are fulfilled. But, as an homage, it is not excluded – even if less simple – to do a work about the work of a living person. This year I will do an exhibition “Exhibiting Poetry Today: Manuel Joseph”. It will be about the work of a living French poet and a friend, Manuel Joseph, this exhibition can be understood of course as an homage.

Thomas Hirschhorn, “The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival”, 2009. ‘Running Events : Manuel Joseph, “5 Uncrescented Readings”‘ Amsterdam, 2009. Photo: Vittoria Martini


1 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), p. 183.

2 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991), p. 40.

3 Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, translated by Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988), p. 129.

4 Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, translated by Roy Brassier (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2003) p. 91.

5 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009), p. 14.

6 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Alison M. Gingeras, Carlos Basualdo, Thomas Hirschhorn (London: Phaidon, 2004), p. 131.

7 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009), p. 17.

8 Robert Walser, ‘Writing Geschwister Tanner’, Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932, selected and translated by Christopher Middleton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005), p. 7-8.

9 Ernesto Laclau, ‘Identity and Hegemony: The Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Logics’ in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 44-89.

10 Cited in Nancy, Inoperative Community, p. 4.

Frieze London 2016 Sales Reports

Dealers Report a Flurry of Sales at Frieze London 2016

Despite Brexit-related concerns, dealers sold well in all sections of the fair.

Frieze London 2016. Photo by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.
Frieze London 2016. Photo by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

The 14th edition of Frieze London previewed on Wednesday to what was described by most dealers as a “flurry of sales” and a much more dynamic first day than at the 2015 edition.

This was particularly evident for blue-chip galleries, those occupying the areas near the fair’s entrance, which this year—after yet another re-design by Universal Design Studio—has two different access points instead of just one, preventing the bottle-neck that used to clog the front aisles.

In the first hours, David Zwirner sold a new $1 million painting by Kerry James Marshall that will go to a major American museum, and another work by Marshall for $600,000 to a private collection. A new painting by Yayoi Kusama also sold for over $1 million, while a 2016 Bridget Riley painting worth £700,000 was bought by an Asian collector.

Related: What Sold So Far at Frieze Masters 2016?

Additional sales at Zwirner included two new oil and charcoal on linen works by Chris Ofili, worth $380,000; two new sculptures by Carol Bove for $375,000 each; a Thomas Ruff photograph for €85,000; and a number of photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans ranging from $8,000 to $80,000, which also sold on day one.

View of the Hauser & Wirth booth at Frieze London 2016. Photo by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

View of the Hauser & Wirth booth at Frieze London 2016. Photo by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

Hauser & Wirth sold a number of works from its eye-catching and crowded (featuring a whopping 46 artists) “L’atelier d’artistes” booth, including sculptures by Fischli / Weiss and Thomas Houseago (for $75,000); a Rodney Graham lightbox; several works by Phyllida Barlow, including a small sculpture for £50,000; and a Jack Whitten work on canvas for $45,000, all of which changed hands on day one, alongside works by Henry Moore and Louise Bourgeois, among others.

Related: Phyllida Barlow to Represent Britain at 2017 Venice Biennale

“It was a great start to the opening,” Neil Wenman, senior director at Hauser & Wirth told artnet News on Thursday morning. “I think the thematic booth got a lot of attention which drew lots of people in, and we did make quite a lot of sales. The atmosphere is really different this year, it was really jovial, also because our booth had such a strong theme, and even music.”

Overall, this year’s edition felt more pared down and elegant, with more galleries choosing to show modern artists. Could this be influenced by Frieze London’s successful younger sibling, Frieze Masters, also evidenced in the higher number of curated booths and throwback presentations?

“I think so,” said Wenman. “I think The Nineties section was a great example of that cross-historical look. There’s definitely a sense of contemporary art galleries looking back, but questioning it through a modern lens.”

Related: Frieze London Is All Grown Up This Year

Contemporary works, however, were high in demand. Over at Timothy Taylor, the London-based gallery reported strong sales at its solo booth of work by Brooklyn-based artist Eddie Martinez, selling 14 sculptures on the first day for prices ranging from $12,000 to $15,000.

Maureen Paley sold a £150,000 sculpture by Rebecca Warren, dated 2005-2016, to a British collector, as well as an installation by Paulo Nimer Pjota, titled Vaporware, some samples (2016), to a New York-based collector for $24,000. On the first day, Wolfgang Tillmans’s photo Kleine Welle (2015) sold to a US collector for $120,000.

Grayson Perry poses in front of one his works at the Victoria Miro booth at Frieze London 2016. Photo by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

Grayson Perry poses in front of one his works at the Victoria Miro booth at Frieze London 2016. Photo by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

Victoria Miro reported strong sales in the very first hours, during which a number of works by Grayson Perry, including sculptures and tapestries changed hands for prices ranging from £50,000 to £450,000. A series of recent paintings by Yayoi Kusama (with prices ranging $400,000 to $1 million) were also a hit with collectors, as were a series of paintings by Chantal Joffe depicting strong Jewish women, including Betty Friedan, Hannah Arendt, Claude Cahun, and Gertrude Stein, with prices between £10,000 and £30,000, a number of which sold in the first morning.

Related: See the Top 15 Booths at Frieze London 2016

Over at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, the first day brought sales of blue chip works by Robert Longo, Tony Cragg, Daniel Richter, Sigmar Polke, and two paintings by Georg Baselitz. Nearby, Berlin’s Peres Projects had sold all its paintings by Donna Huanca, priced between $17,000 and $22,500.

Pace Gallery sold a new LED light work by Leo Villareal entitled Radiant Wheel, (2015) for $100,000. The gallery also sold a new marble bust by Kevin Francis Gray for £80,000; a small minimalist painting made of copper wire and gesso by Prabhavathi Meppayil for $20,000; and two life size works by Kohei Nawa priced at $380,000 and $230,000.

Ryan Gander’s bronze sculpture Elevator To Culturefield (2016). Photo ©Andrea Rossetti, courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin.

Ryan Gander’s bronze sculpture Elevator To Culturefield (2016). Photo ©Andrea Rossetti, courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin.

Simon Lee sold works by Hans-Peter Feldmann between €50,000 and £90,000 on day one, and paintings by Paulina Olowska for around $80,000 on day two. Meanwhile, Berlin’s Esther Schipper reported a number of sales, including Ryan Gander’s bronze sculpture Elevator To Culturefield (2016) which sold for well over £80,000.

Related: Ryan Gander Talks Art, Curation, and Politics for His ‘Night in the Museum’ Exhibition

“The fair has been great to work with as every year and has managed to attract more collectors from Asia and Middle East than previous editions. First day sales have been very strong and I am particularly happy to present Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s historical work R.W.F. in The Nineties section,” Schipper told artnet News.

Meanwhile, Sprüth Magers sold two 2009 Craig Kauffman acrylic and glitter sculptures for $125,000 each on the first day, while the second day brought the sale of the seminal Sylvie Fleury at its booth over at The Nineties section, presented in collaboration with Salon 94 and Mehdi Chouakri.

Sylvie Fleury, A Journey to Fitness or How to Lose 30 Pounds In Under Three Weeks (1993) ©Sylvie Fleury. Photo Kris Emmerson. Courtesy of the Artist and Mehdi Chouakri, Salon 94, Sprüth Magers.

Sylvie Fleury, A Journey to Fitness or How to Lose 30 Pounds In Under Three Weeks (1993) ©Sylvie Fleury. Photo Kris Emmerson. Courtesy of the Artist and Mehdi Chouakri, Salon 94, Sprüth Magers.

New York galleries also did extremely well. Casey Kaplan sold out the majority of its stand in the first hours, including works by Kevin Beasley, Giorgio Griffa, Garth Weiser, N.Dash, and Sarah Crowner, while P.P.O.W. reported strong sales including several Betty Tompkins paintings for $3,000 to $3,500; photographs by Portia Munson at $15,000; and works by Martin Wong, ranging from $25,000 to $200,000.

Related: Portia Munson Talks Color and Empowerment at Frieze

David Kordansky Gallery sold the majority of its booth in the first hours, with most of the interest coming from non-British collectors. A new painting by Harold Ancart sold for $85,000 to an American collector. Mary Weatherford’s Spike Driver’s Moan (2016) sold to an Asian collector for $185,000, and Kathryn Andrews’s Black Bars (Dejeuner No. 1) from 2016 sold for $68,000 to an American institutional collector.

South Africa’s Goodman Gallery also reported a strong start, with early sales including William Kentridge’s drawing Observer (2016) for $450,0000; a Mikhael Subotzky photo from 2006 for $15,000; and a recent work by ruby onyinyechi amanze on graphite, ink, and photo transfers, for $8,000.

William Kentridge, Observer (2016). Courtesy Goodman Gallery.

William Kentridge, Observer (2016). Courtesy Goodman Gallery.

The top galleries from São Paulo couldn’t complain either. Galeria Fortes Vilaça sold two new works by Erika Verzutti, with prices ranging from $45,000 to $50,000; and two new works by Leda Catunda, for prices ranging from $25,000 to $60,000. Galeria Luisa Strina sold three works by Leonor Antunes, acquired through the Frieze Tate Fund to join the Tate collection, as well as works by Fernanda Gomes, Laura Lima, Marcius Galan, Tonico Lemos Auad, and two drawings by Anna Maria Maiolino.

Related: Participants in Laura Lima’s Controversial Show at ICA Miami Claim Abuse

Mendes Wood, also from São Paulo, sold works by Lucas Arruda, Sonia Gomez, Patricia Leite, Luiz Roque, Daniel Steegmann Mangrane, and Mariana Castillo Deball, while Galeria Vermelho sold a 2014 work by Dora Longo Bahia for $25,000.

A piece by Leonor Antunes. Photo Nick Ash. courtesy the Kunsthalle Basel.

A piece by Leonor Antunes. Photo Nick Ash. courtesy the Kunsthalle Basel.

The works by Leonor Antunes sold at Luisa Strina weren’t the only pieces that have been bought through the £150,000 Frieze Tate Fund, supported for the first time by WME | IMG. The six-person international jury, composed of four Tate curators and two guest curators, also selected six artworks by the Turkish artist Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, acquired from Rampa, Istanbul; and one work by the Malaysian artist Phillip Lai, acquired from Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London.

Related: Frieze Tate Fund Announces 2016 Acquisitions

London’s Laura Bartlett sold a unique photograph by Elizabeth McAlpine for £15,000, as well as two works by Lydia Gifford for £6,200, a painting by Sol Calero for £11,000, and a wall-based work by Maria Lund for £5,200.

Younger galleries, those located more towards the back of the tent, also had an exciting start. Vienna’s Galerie Emanuel Layr sold a number of paintings by Nick Oberthaler, priced at €20,000. Athens’ The Breeder sold a brilliant installation by Angelo Plessas, who’s participating in the forthcoming Documenta 14, for $34,000 to a European collector; as well as a delicate bead curtain by Zoë Paul to a London-based collector, for $15,000.

Works by Angelo Plessas and Zoë Paul at the booth of The Breeder at Frieze London 2016. Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Works by Angelo Plessas and Zoë Paul at the booth of The Breeder at Frieze London 2016. Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

So what about the dreaded Brexit and the depreciation of the pound? Has the uncertainty been harmful for the British art market at all, as speculators were quick to predict?

“I think it might have come out as a positive at the moment,” Neil Wenman, senior director at Hauser & Wirth, told artnet News. “Sales have been really strong at Frieze London but particularly strong at Frieze Masters this year, with some of the really high value works we’ve put on display selling, so perhaps this is a particularly strong time for works priced in pounds, as the currency is weak at the moment. If you are an international collector, the pound is weak, so things are cheaper. We’ve definitely seen a strong start to the season. It was a very long summer with lots of uncertainty, politically, with terrorism, Brexit… But now we are up and running, and we are excited,” he added.

Related: Christie’s London Contemporary Art Sale Soars Over Estimates to $42.5 Million Thanks to Ghenie, Schütte

Although it’s too early to say, judging by the excitement of dealers across the fair and the encouraging results of the London auctions this week, it might seem as if, after the doom and gloom of previous months, the market could be perking up again. All eyes will now be on the sales results at Paris’ FIAC and Art Basel Miami.

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London still leads the way – for now

The rich legacy of Leslie Waddington | Solo booths set the tone | New galleries in London | Adrian Ghenie and Pino Pascali lead at Christie’s | Frans Hals forgery sets tongues wagging

9 October 2016

Apollo’s regular round-up of art market headlines and comment. Visit Apollo Collector Services for expert advice on navigating the art market.

The rich legacy of Leslie Waddington | Amid talk that market contraction and post-EU referendum jitters would hit London’s autumn season, Frieze Week kicked off in confident style with a white glove sale of the Leslie Waddington Collection at Christie’s. The 100 per cent sold rate and £28,285,525 total was testament to the late art dealer’s reputation as tastemaker and collector in his own right. It started with a portrait of Waddington by Peter Blake, which sold for double its estimate at £81,250. The plum lot, as expected, was Jean Dubuffet’s Visiteur au chapeau bleu (‘Visitor with Blue Hat’) from 1955, which also doubled its estimate and sold for £4.81 million.

Meanwhile, Waddington Custot gallery (which Waddington Galleries became in 2011 when Stephane Custot bought the late Lord Bernstein’s share) exhibited at Frieze Masters for the first time, its stand hung with the raw, ravaged canvases of the Spanish painter Manolo Millares (1926–72). The abstracts, dating from 1956 to 1970, were priced between £170,000 to around £900,000, and the earliest, Composición con dimensión perdida, sold on preview day. Other early sales at the fair included Elements V (1984) by Brice Marden, which had an asking price of $5 million, and a painting by Wayne Thiebaud (asking price £1.5 million), both at Acquavella Galleries (New York).

Solo booths set the tone | ‘Our artists love this fair. Lots of them visit, because they all collect, but not the obvious things. You find the unusual here’. So said David Cleaton-Roberts, director of Alan Cristea Gallery, sitting on the gallery’s stand at Frieze Masters devoted to the prints of Anni Albers, one of numerous stands at both this fair and Frieze London to concentrate on female artists. Solo artist presentations, traditionally seen as putting all one’s eggs in one basket, are increasingly popular and Cleaton-Roberts is pleased with the gallery’s single-artist format; last year it presented Richard Hamilton; in 2014, Josef Albers. By Friday afternoon of this year’s fair, it had sold more than 20 Anni Albers prints, priced between £2,000 and £6,000. At the moment they’re still affordable,’ Cleaton-Roberts said, adding that the artist will be the subject of a major exhibition in the UK, yet to be announced, in the next few years. She may not be so cheap for long.

New galleries in London | Alan Cristea Gallery also opened a large new space on Pall Mall last week, one of a gaggle of new galleries to open spaces in London during, or in time for Frieze Week. Others included Cabinet Gallery in Vauxhall and, in St James’s and Mayfair, Colnaghi, Skarstedt Gallery, Carpenter’s Workshop Gallery, Limoncello, Cardi Gallery, and Almine Rech Gallery, which opened with a divisive Jeff Koons show. Brexit or not, London seems only to gain in appeal as an essential gallery hub.

Adrian Ghenie and Pino Pascali lead at Christie’s | This has been Adrian Ghenie’s year; the 39-year-old Romanian painter is the market darling of 2016. At Christie’s 6 October evening sale of post-war and contemporary art, which totalled just shy of £34.3 million, the vast, brooding Nickelodeon (2008) made an artist record at £7.11 million, four times the £1.5 million estimate.

(2008), Adrian Ghenie.

Nickelodeon (2008), Adrian Ghenie. Image courtesy Christie’s

‘The Ghenie market had been growing, growing, growing,’ said Francis Outred, European head of post-war and contemporary art. ‘This was the culmination, and it is widely acknowledged as one of his best works.’ Nickelodeon was guaranteed by a third party who ‘proactively approached’ Christie’s, said Outred, a phenomenon they find is ‘increasingly common’ on desirable high-value works.

A sign of a contracted but hardened market, this was another ‘tightly curated’ (or small) auction of 41 lots, more conservative in content than the larger, more speculative contemporary sales of old. However, Christie’s sale did offer works by several up-and-coming artists under 40; alongside Ghenie, records were set for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Lucy McKenzie, and Henry Taylor.

(1966), Pino Pascali.

Coda di delfino (Tail of a Dolphin) (1966), Pino Pascali. Image courtesy Christie’s

Immediately afterwards, in the 59-lot Italian sale, seven new artist records were set, including for the Arte Povera artist Pino Pascali, whose joyful Code di Delfino (‘Tail of a Dolphin’) sold for £2.7 million.

Frans Hals forgery sets tongues wagging | Art fairs love a scandal. After all, what better way to fill those long dull hours on a stand than with a little gossip. Talk of Frieze Masters has been the story of a fake Frans Hals , following Sotheby’s revelation that a portrait by the Dutch artist that was sold to a US buyer by private treaty for £8.4 million in 2011 has been reassessed as a fake (as reported in the Financial Times). Sotheby’s refunded the buyer in full for the work after pigment tests showed the work was ‘undoubtedly a forgery’. A forger of exceptional talent, it seems – and other works are now under suspicion.

What Sold at Frieze London and Frieze Masters

Installation view of Lisson Gallery’s booth at Frieze London, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

Uncertainty has been the chorus to each of this year’s major art market events—and the pervading sentiment across the wider economy as well. Brexit, the U.S. election, and concerns about the underlying fundamentals of a global economy propped up by low, and in some cases negative, interest rates have weighed on collectors’ minds and lightened dealers’ wallets. As Frieze London and Frieze Masters readied to kick off this week in tandem with London’s major fall auctions, the political and economic climate got a bit more certain—but not in the way many had wished.

At the U.K.’s Conservative Party conference this week, Prime Minister Theresa May quashed any lingering hopes among Londoners that their government would simply never invoke Article 50, the provision of the Lisbon Treaty that starts a two-year clock for Britain to officially leave the EU. That process, the PM declared, would begin in March 2017. Next on the list of crushed dreams was the prospect of a so-called “soft Brexit,” in which the U.K. government would aim to negotiate lenient immigration policies with the EU in order to be able to more greatly benefit from the Union’s single market. No, May’s statements suggest, immigration restrictions outweigh the importance of low-friction trade with the EU, where 44% of British exports are currently sent.

Both moves have been cast by business leaders, collectors at Frieze among them, as yet another indication that the British political apparatus is more interested in populist sentiment than in the fundamentals of its economy—and intends to continue to enact policies anathema to the business and financial community at large. This populism is of course rife across the political scene of the world’s major economies and art market behemoths at present, from the rise of Germany’s Frauke Petry-led far-right party, AfD, to the potential U.S. presidency of Donald J. Trump. In the U.K., concerns about the implications of May’s comments caused the pound to plunge to a new 31-year low. It closed out the week at just $1.24, after recovering from a flash crash early Friday morning when the pound was priced momentarily for as low as $1.18. By some measures, this now places Britain’s economy behind that of France.

To the credit of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, London’s auctions succeeded in painting a picture of the market in rebound against this backdrop, thanks to a handful of record-setting sales and many more above-estimate results. But, in many cases, those estimates were set very low. And it would be premature to make too much of a connection between what happened in the secondary market this week and the current state of play for gallerists and dealers like those exhibiting at Frieze.

Installation view of Kujke Gallery / Tina Kim Gallery’s booth at Frieze London, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

For example (at the risk of being overly didactic), when a work hits the auction block, you have a few minutes to purchase it, locking in what might be a favorable price and, in the case of this week, a very low exchange rate. In most cases at a fair or in a gallery you have days, if not months, to pull the trigger on a purchase—particularly in the current climate. And with these prices negotiable, it’s less likely the pound’s sway one way or another will end up strongly affecting your outlay. Spot a painting you love along Frieze’s aisles? It can probably wait until November 9th. Better yet, hold up until Q2 of next year when we have a clearer picture of how well the global economic engine is actually purring along.

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There is little debate that serious collectors were still buying at Frieze, and that many dealers made out quite well. But there is equally little debate that this is a very different market than we’ve experienced in the past few years. A number of dealers typically eager to publically report sales were mum this year. According to both major blue-chip players and young gallerists, this is due in part to pressure being placed on them by artists whose works traveled to the fair and haven’t sold—more so than to increased confidentiality around actualized transactions. That should give some indication of a financial squeeze being felt not just by some gallerists but by artists, too.

Like many markets at this moment of unsteadiness, the art market is heavily focused on underlying fundamentals. That means scrutiny of an artist’s CV, the collections in which his or her work is held, and, for secondary market pieces, provenance. And it’s good news for certain sectors of the market that had more recently languished while attention focused only on the new and young. “It’s great to see artists getting attention like Steven ClaydonEvan Holloway, and Kathryn Andrews,” said David Kordansky Gallery partner and director Mike Homer. “They’re mid-career artists and have the critical support and the CV to back it up but are also at a reasonable price point; the market is not inflated.” He cited sales of a new painting by the London-based Claydon for $30,000, three sculptures by Holloway for $50,000 apiece, and two paintings from Andrews’s “Black Bars” series, selling Black Bars: Dejeuner No. 1 (Girl with Napkin, Visor, Lemon, Lighter and Shuttlecock) (2016) for $68,000.

“Considering the turbulent economic climate, especially here in London, we didn’t know what to expect going in,” said Homer. The Los Angeles-based director added that while that climate means people were by no means clamoring to buy work in the first few minutes and hours of the fair, the outing could still be considered a success. Kordansky further sold an untitled Harold Ancart painting from this year for $85,000, Mary Weatherford’s Spike Driver’s Moan (2016) for $185,000, and one edition of Torbjørn Rødland’s Cake (Studio 798) (2008–16) for $13,000.

Installation view of Hauser & Wirth’s booth at Frieze London, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

Collectors’ increasing desire to buy works with a proven track record continues to push dealers to acquire more artists’ estates. And even at Frieze London, technically meant to be a fair for contemporary art, historical work cropped up in a number of booths. By far the most prevalent—indeed, almost overflowing—with works sourced from estates was Hauser & Wirth’s stand, modeled after a fictional artist’s studio and hung with some 140 works by 47 artists, priced between $3,000 and $3.5 million. According to senior director Neil Wenman, who curated the booth, around half of those works are from estates. “Because the concept is contemporary, it allowed us to pull out works from the ’40s and ’50s to add fuel to the fire,” he said.

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Among the gallery’s sales made at Frieze London were a Francis Picabia work on paper; a Henry Moore bronze maquette for CHF 48,000; sculptures by Phyllida BarlowBerlinde De Bruyckere, and Thomas Houseago for £50,000, €130,000, and $75,000, respectively; and two Richard Jackson neons for $20,000 apiece. “It’s important to let people understand the similarities between older art and contemporary,” Wenman said of the idea behind the booth, pointing to a pair of David Smith works on paper, which flanked a Moore work and a drawing by a gallery technician named Gary McDonald. “Of all of them, Gary’s sold. He’s an artist in his own right, just not the stature of David Smith or Henry Moore—yet.” The director said that “sales, especially at Masters, have been very high,” the gallery having placed a number of works—including an over half-million-dollar Dieter Roth cheese painting, a $600,000 stabile by Alexander Calder, a Fausto Melotti sculpture for €300,000, and a Picabia painting for $220,000—early in the fair.

The blurred lines between modern and contemporary could be seen at the number of dealers like Hauser & Wirth with stands at both Frieze fairs this week. Another was London’s Timothy Taylor. “Over the last 18 months there’s been a movement away from the new, fast, and young and onto great modern artists who, when seen in the right light, look contemporary and relevant. Maybe there’s an inherent value in that maturity and a conservatism creeping into the market,” said Taylor, who pointed to the wall of works by Hans Hartung that make up the back of his stand at Masters but could just as easily have been made by a young artist showing at Frieze London’s Focus section.

Installation view of David Kordansky Gallery’s booth at Frieze London, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

Taylor nonetheless reported having sold best thus far from his solo booth of Eddie Martinez’s bronze sculptures at Frieze London. (Frieze Masters is a longer game, the dealer noted.) Around three-quarters of the sculptures, which were made in an edition of five but are individually painted, had sold by Friday evening for between $12,000 and $15,000. Martinez was one who gained particular prominence during the speculative boom of 2013 and 2014 but has been able to maintain his presence, according to Taylor, because “he’s handled himself very well. He’s been very careful about what he’s released.”

The conservative market has also led dealers and collectors alike to comb back through art history to look for artists who have enduring relevance and touchpoints to major art-historical moments but haven’t yet fully made it into the market. “Our goal is to discover artists who have been overshadowed or forgotten in the same way that a young gallery looks to find a new emerging artist,” said Roxana Afshar of Waddington Custot. Late gallery founder Leslie Waddington’s collection was the talk of the start of Frieze Week when it achieved a white glove sale (or 100% sell-through rate) at Christie’s on Tuesday night.

At the fair, Waddington’s gallery, now run by Stephane Custot, was presenting a solo booth of work by Manolo Millares. His Composición con dimensión perdida (1956) sold on day one of the fair. “He’s an artist that we’ve been following and gathering work from for two years now,” said Afshar. “We just think he’s completely underrated, but we see that things are shifting slowly.” The market seems to agree, with a work from 1959 having sold at Christie’s in June for £842,500 (est. £300,000–400,000) and another,  at double the low estimate, for £605,000 on Thursday night.

Installation view of Cardi’s booth at Frieze London, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

As the week began to wind down, Adrian Ghenie’s £7.1 million record-setting result for Nickelodeon (2008) at Christie’s on Thursday night was a hot topic of conversation—and another data point being put forward for the case of a market rebound. According to Ghenie’s gallerist Mihaela Lutea of Galeria Plan B, the result is perhaps not so surprising, given her estimation that Nickelodeon is among the artist’s three most iconic works, and the fact that the artist, who only ever produced a handful of works each year, has cut back even further on his production. At Frieze London, Lutea was particularly enthusiastic about the reception she had received for the paintings by new artist to the program Iulia Nistor, all three of which had sold for €4000–10,000, along with others back in Berlin. Two drawings on the stand by Achraf Touloub had been purchased by the Deutsche Bank Collection (clearly undeterred by worries last week that Germany might have to step in to bail it out amid a regulatory settlement in the U.S.) and a third went to a Chinese collection.

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Lutea’s take was that of most galleries I spoke with this week. “The times are difficult,” she said. “You have to invest a lot of money in the gallery and traveling. But you also need time to go and discover new artists.” She suggested, as had been a takeaway from Frieze London’s newest section The Nineties, that galleries need to be more rigorous in defining a model that works for their particular program and goals. To the extent that they haven’t yet accomplished that, it may explain some of the dissonance currently felt on the primary side. As market commentator Josh Baer put it particularly well, “Business here and [in] general is “normal”—neither fast and furious nor cowardly. ‘Normal’ just feels different.”

Part of that sentiment, I’d venture, is that the expectations built up over the past few years—whether of gallerists, artists, collectors, or fair directors—don’t quite work when things are “normal.” One hopes that the uncertainty clouding U.S. politics will soon wane, that a dose of reality will hit the rhetoric cleaving the U.K. from the continent, that the central banks can agree on measures to make our markets and underlying economic indicators better match up, and that this “different”-feeling “normal” can subside. In the art market, collectors returning to spend from their current respite would then find a more equally distributed—and frankly more interesting—group of artists leading the conversation. In the meantime, it’s a good occasion for the art world to sit back and make sure its structures and conventions are all currently to the benefit of the end goal here: facilitating the creation and propagation of culture.
—Alexander Forbes

Simon Fujiwara’s Latest Film Draws Attention to the Crucial Mentorship Art Teachers Provide

Simon Fujiwara, Joanne, 2016. Image courtesy of FVU and The Photographers’ Gallery.

A woman, supine, her face partially concealed by her pillow, stares intensely at the camera. Wearing little or no makeup, her hair is brushed back, unkempt. As this 12-minute film plays out, we see the woman, Joanne Salley, tell her story. She has been the victim of a scandal in the press, and she is concerned it portrays her unfavorably. This film by Simon Fujiwara, we are told, will redress this balance—and that it does. It follows her as she discusses her childhood, her personality, her weaknesses, and her brand. The hope is that we see her as an empowered, multifaceted personality, as she twirls in couture, rips up flowers, and films herself through her daily routine.

Within days of the initial publicity material appearing for Fujiwara’s “Joanne,” debuting October 7th at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, the battle Salley faces for a nuanced depiction in the public sphere was thrown into relief. “Joanne Salley sets pulses racing with shower trailer for film,” ran the headline in the Belfast Telegraph.

Such British tabloid-style journalism on Salley began several years ago, due to a scandal that erupted while she was teaching art at the elite Harrow School in north-west London, around a series of private photographs that students stole and distributed. Now Fujiwara, who was taught by Salley several years before the incident—and whose work often draws on biographical themes—hopes to depict a more complex truth about his former teacher, revealing the artificiality of her portrayal in the media. In doing so, he sheds light on themes including the multifaceted relationship between artist and mentor, one of the oldest and most profound pairings in artistic history.

The artist met Salley when he was a 17-year-old scholarship student. “My refuge was the art department,” he says. “Joanne arrived in my final year.” He adds that part of what drew him to her was that “she had come from a completely different system as well”—she had trained as a ballet dancer, and was a former beauty contest winner, which informed her art practice’s obsession with aesthetics, surface, and skin. “We connected,” he says. “I was one of these teenagers who wanted to explore his sexuality, and she was one person who’d had some life experiences that weren’t just ‘I’ve been to another boarding school.’ It was encouragement from a voice that I valued.”

Simon Fujiwara, Joanne, 2016. Images courtesy of FVU and The Photographers’ Gallery.

The resultant work allows Salley the chance to recount her experiences of the aftermath of her scandal in her own words. In the film, Fujiwara and Salley are shown meeting professionals from public relations, advertising, and fashion companies as they seek to construct a new public image for her. Alongside the film, light boxes display fashion photographer Andreas Larsson’s pictures of Salley, which were taken as part of the project to rebuild her profile. While the show tackles public identity, female iconography, and Salley’s voice as an artist, the pair’s close working relationship—one in which the conventional power relationship has been overturned—no doubt aided their collaboration.

Necessarily, such teamwork between artists and teachers has a long, storied presence in art history, from Classical apprenticeships, to European academies of art, and the artist-teachers of the 19th century in Britain such as George Wallis, to this century, where there have been a plethora of successful artists spawned from successful teachers. In British art colleges, for example, there’s Michael Craig-Martin teaching at Goldsmiths, and Frank Martin at what is now Central St Martins School of Art and Design.

If we track back earlier in an artist’s career, the condition of arts education in the state school sector has been a common source of criticism in Britain, and is one of the reasons why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s recent proposals for an “arts pupils premium”—extra funding for arts in state schools—was so popular. In a cash-strapped state education context, artistic mentoring might depend on class size. Harrow’s average is 13 students per class, under half the local average. There, at A-Level, when Salley and Fujiwara met, the student-teacher ratio was even better. Such conditions are perfect for artistic mentoring relationships to thrive.

“Harrow’s a boarding school, you’re with your teachers all the time,” says Fujiwara. “But it was more that the art that she had made herself was more interesting than what the other teachers had done.” He describes some of Salley’s work as resembling that of British painter Jenny Saville. “She introduced me to Cindy Sherman and the idea of taking on characters and roles. She was the most inspiring voice around me at the time.”

Simon Fujiwara, Joanne, 2016. Image courtesy of FVU and The Photographers’ Gallery.

Fujiwara says his school’s all-boy environment meant an attractive woman appearing was a “gift,” though Salley tried hard to undermine her image as a “beauty queen” at the school. “She’s never really been the caricature of a beauty queen, she’s very active and very sporty,” he adds. “I know the male students in the art department respected her a lot and it was a very difficult position to get.”

While the show specifically tackles the reconstruction of Salley’s identity, it seems as though the seeds for its obsessions with beauty and the image might have been sewn when the pair first met. In that sense, it is as much about how artist-mentoring relationships provide inspiration, as it is about the pair’s longstanding friendship.

“I’ve always wanted to be an artist, so it was about having someone who was encouraging who could introduce me to other artists who I hadn’t discovered,” concludes Fujiwara. “To help me focus my interests. In that sense, all of my art teachers have been more mentors than technically teaching me. Everyone has one or two amazing teachers when they grow up and they are the people they remember forever. There’s always in that a feeling of connection.”

—Rob Sharp

London Auctions Bound Past Expectations—But Is the Art Market Really Back?

Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

The white glove sale at Christie’s of 44 works from the personal collection of the respected art dealer Leslie Waddington on Tuesday set the pace for a successful week of contemporary sales in London. After a difficult summer consigning works against a backdrop of Brexit, a tumbling pound, and uncertainty over the impending U.S. presidential election, the auction houses approached the season with caution—in many cases offering works with enticingly low estimates.

For the most part, the move paid off. Specialists at Christie’s said that 80% of works in the Waddington auction sold above their estimates, something that had not been witnessed since the single-owner sale of another legendary art dealer, Ernst Beyeler. Bidders from 37 countries pushed the total well above the pre-sale estimate of £11.9–£18.5 million to fetch £28.3 million (all prices and totals include buyer’s premium).

Conservative estimates also lured bidders at the auction house’s contemporary evening sale two days later. Last October’s sale at Christie’s carried double the estimate of this year’s auction, but achieved a very similar result. “We were chasing unusual material during a difficult summer and we always felt we had to keep the estimates attractive to galvanize bidding,” said Francis Outred, the house’s head of post-war and contemporary art, Europe. The auction flew above its estimate (£14.9 million–£21.8 million), making £34.3 million with fees, and sported a robust sell-through rate of 90%.

Adrian Ghenie, Nickelodeon, 2008. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Rebuffing speculation that the bottom has dropped out of the market for young and emerging artists, two of the seven records at Christie’s were for artists under 40: Adrian Ghenie and Lucy McKenzie. Ghenie’s Nickelodeon (2008) sparked a bidding contest among at least six hopefuls, rising to almost five times its high estimate of £1.5 million to sell to a European buyer for £7.1 million, a new record for the artist. The Austrian dealer Thaddaeus Ropac was an underbidder. Outred says the key with young artists is to keep the estimates attractive. “People have got tired of the estimates for some of the young and more fashionable names,” he says.

Speculation continues as to whether Brexit will harm or help the London trade, but the consensus is that foreigners were incentivized to bid at this week’s auctions as the pound slumped to a 31-year low. “If the Ghenie had sold last year for £7 million, it would have converted to $12 million; this year it was $9 million,” Outred points out. Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips all noted strong bidding from Asia, the U.S., and Europe.

Damien Hirst was one of the hits of the week; some in the trade have predicted that his market is poised for a comeback. Prices for the YBA’s works hit rock bottom during the recession, but the opening earlier this year of Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in south London to display works from his collection appears to be boosting his own career.

Two Hirst canvases—one, Salvation (2003), covered in butterflies, the other, Damnation (2004), covered in flies—both doubled their estimates at Christie’s to sell for £665,000 and £485,000, respectively. The Los Angeles-based dealer and artist agent Stefan Simchowitz bought both works on behalf of a client. “Damien’s market has found its bottom as people have had the opportunity to collect him at more affordable prices, as it should be,” Simchowitz says. “It can now stabilize and regain its strength.” An early spot painting from 1992, painted by Hirst himself rather than one of his assistants, sold at Phillips on Wednesday for £509,000 (est. £300,000–500,000).

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Further boosting market confidence, Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale also vaulted over its pre-sale estimate of £24.1–32.7 million to fetch £48 million with fees on Friday. The sell-through-rate was a strong 91%. The result was largely buoyed by a trio of high-flying paintings, including a garish oil stick and acrylic canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat that failed to sell at Sotheby’s in New York 11 months ago. Hannibal, painted in the artist’s golden year of 1982, was the most expensive work sold at auction this week, going to a telephone bidder for £10.6 million (est. £3.5–4.5 million). Dealers said the work was around 25% cheaper in sterling than it was six months ago.

The other two paintings to soar above estimate on the night were Peter Doig’s Grasshopper (1990), which sold on the telephone to Sotheby’s Asia-based specialist Jasmine Chen for £5.9 million (est. £2.8–3.5 million), and an early and unusual Gerhard Richter painting in two parts, Garten (1982), which went for £10.2 million (est. £3–4 million). Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art for Sotheby’s in Europe, says there are pocket of Richter’s oeuvre, such as works from the early 1980s, that are still undervalued. “Garten found the right level on the night,” he says.

Phillips was the only auction house to not surpass its upper pre-sale estimate. Its Wednesday sale mustered a decent total of £17.9 million (est. £14.2–20.5 million), with 94% sold by value. The result represents an almost 50% drop in value from last year’s sale. Phillips is known for specializing in emerging art, but the market for a type of quasi-minimalist abstract art—coined “zombie formalism” by the critic Walter Robinson—dried up towards the end of last year when prices, which had been astronomical in 2014, crashed back down to earth. The auction house has followed suit and artists such as Dan Colen and Lucien Smith have duly dropped off its books.

Photo courtesy of Phillips.

Indeed, there were few emerging artists in this week’s sale at Phillips. A 2004 work by Alex Israel was withdrawn prior to the auction, while a 2008 spray painting by Sterling Ruby was bought in at £340,000 (est £400,000–600,000). The top lot was Andy Warhol’s 20 Pink Mao’s (1979), which sold for £4.7 million (est £4–6 million). The work was one of four in the sale to be backed by an anonymous third party guarantee. “The froth that was in the market that was driving optimistic estimates has gone,” said Ed Dolman, the chief executive of Phillips.

Meanwhile, the Italian sales declined dramatically at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s this year. Christie’s had a tough act to follow after a record auction last October, when 90% of lots sold for £43.2 million including premium, the highest-ever total for an Italian sale and £7.6 million more than the post-war and contemporary evening sale the same night. This year’s 59-lot sale achieved a total of £18.7 million. The equivalent sale at Sotheby’s made £23.3 million (est £19.7–27.9 million).

All in all it was a reassuring week for the trade in London, with many noting the market is moving in the right direction. “The market is healthy and no longer overweight. It was back to business as usual under more normal conditions,” Simchowitz says.

—Anny Shaw

What It Takes to Recover a Stolen Work of Art


Last week’s highly publicized announcement that two stolen van Gogh paintings had been recovered after 14 years was a welcome surprise. Axel Rüger, director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museumwas ebullient in a statement, saying, “The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for.” He had reason to be joyous: According to the FBI, fewer than 10% of stolen works are estimated ever make it home safely. And while it may have seemed shocking that the works turned up during an Italian police raid on a Mafia-affiliated safehouse, this link to organized crime actually fits with who it is that steals art. Unlike Hollywood’s dramatic portrayals, art thefts are generally not commissioned by wealthy art patrons with a penchant for the finer things in life. Rather, art is stolen by people already involved in petty criminal enterprises or with organized syndicates such as the Mafia.

So how do thieves make off with a painting? And what should a victim do after realizing they’ve been robbed? Why are only a tiny percentage of works recovered?

Simple Theft, Difficult Sale

At its origins, art theft is primarily a crime of opportunity and simple burglary. To steal the two van Gogh paintings, a pair of thieves used a ladder to climb up to the roof of the Van Gogh Museum and broke into the building. The 1911 theft that rocketed the Mona Lisa (1503–19) to international fame involved a Louvre employee hiding in a closet overnight, then taking the painting off the wall when no one was around and walking out of the museum. In 1994, two thieves broke into the National Gallery in Oslo, nabbing Munch’s Scream (two different versions of which have been stolen.) An alarm that went off was ignored by a guard, and the grateful criminals left a note stating, “Thanks for the poor security.”

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After a theft, artworks typically enter the black market. But criminals looking to cash in will likely experience some difficulty. Generally under U.S. law, neither the thieves nor anyone they subsequently sell the work to can acquire good title. This means illicit owners can admire the piece in private, but they cannot truly own the work in the eyes of the law or sell it again in a legitimate marketplace since it remains perpetually vulnerable to seizure. In fact, even if the buyer of a stolen painting is acting in good faith, believing their transaction totally above board, authorities may seize ill-gotten property from thieves and unsuspecting purchasers.

The challenges associated with selling looted art can diminish the work’s value, to the point it drops so low that thieves abandon the piece. In some cases, the works are so famous that they become entirely impossible to sell at full value or on the open market. But this doesn’t prevent art from acting as a kind of currency within organized gangs. Indeed, one expert noted that the two recovered van Gogh paintings “were most likely used in what we call ‘art-napping’ — the Mafia often steals work of art and uses them as a kind of payment within their own families.” And despite publicity, a stolen work can find an unscrupulous or unknowing buyer.

What To Do after a Theft

When art is stolen, victims should first report the theft to law enforcement authorities, including local police and the FBI (if you’re American) which has an art crime team. By reporting the theft, international law enforcement agencies like Interpol can work to recover the object no matter where in the world the thief tries to sell it. Second, victims should report thefts to a stolen art database, such as Art Recovery Group’s database, Art Claim. Reputable private buyers, museums, and auction houses search stolen art databases when completing their due diligence before purchasing a work of art. If a piece appears on a registry such as Art Claim during this process, then the buyers are notified that it is stolen or has a disputed title. Buyers may refrain from purchasing the art, or in some cases, government authorities may be able to seize the property and return it to the rightful owner.

This happened in a recent case, in which I represented the rightful owners of a stolen 13th-century Italian painting by a follower of Duccio (although some believe it was by the master himself). The Madonna and Child was stolen in 1986 and went missing for over two and a half decades. Then, in early 2014, it appeared at Sotheby’s. The sale of the work was halted by the auction house after the Art Recovery Group matched the painting to an item on its database. The work was then pulled from the auction catalog, and federal authorities seized the panel and initiated a legal proceeding for its return. I represented the owners, filing an ownership claim such that my clients eventually succeeded in regaining their property. Reporting thefts and diligently seeking restitution often allows victims to more easily claim title to property in a lawsuit.

As is typical in stolen property matters, looted items sometimes disappear as time passes. The trail goes cold as thieves and black market buyers lay low, hoping that the crime is simply forgotten and that they might resell the work once that happens. And indeed, it can be more difficult to prosecute art thefts as the years tick on, as witnesses may pass away and evidence of the crime is lost. This is why reporting a theft is so important: It prevents works from ever being sold on the legitimate market (such as at a major auction house or gallery) by creating a record of the theft that follows the art.

The Risks and Rewards of Going Public

Hard work and perseverance are often required for the lengthy hunt that can follow a theft. A well-known restitution case involved 6th-century Cypriot mosaics. The rightful owners were the Autocephalous Greek-Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus. The nation was able to recover the looted mosaics from an American dealer, Peg Goldberg, in 1990 because it contacted numerous international cultural heritage organizations and informed museums, auction houses, universities, and research institutions about the missing pieces. Well-known Cypriot antiquities experts also disseminated information about the mosaics to their colleagues and scholars throughout the world. In addition, the Embassy of Cyprus in Washington, D.C., distributed press releases and information to journalists, Members of Congress, legislative assistants, and heritage professionals. As a result, the Republic of Cyprus located the mosaics when Goldberg tried to sell the works to some of the same people who knew they were missing. After a legal process, they were eventually returned.

Sadly, the number of successful restitutions is low because there are many challenges facing rightful owners—some even created by the very attempts to recover the work. Some victims broadcast the theft more publicly, hoping that a subsequent owner may return the stolen goods. But publicizing a theft can cause the value of stolen works to plummet to zero or cause a sale to carry too many risks. In such instances where profit is impossible, the thieves and their associates may choose to dispose of the evidence by destroying the works (though that is a rare occurrence). In the case of prolific art thief Stéphane Breitwieser, his mother destroyed paintings by old masters including Lucas Cranach the ElderPieter Brueghel the Younger and other artists by cutting them up and forcing them down a garbage disposal. She threw other art objects into a river. The mother of one of the gang members involved in the Kunsthal Rotterdam theft of 2012  also destroyed evidence—she incinerated the stolen paintings from the museum. This didn’t prevent some of the criminals involved with the thefts from being caught, however.

Facing all these challenges, recovering a work can sometimes be a badge of honor. The publicity surrounding international restitution cases can even cause the piece in question to rise in notability and potentially even in price. The Mona Lisa, although valuable before the theft, became the most famous painting in the world only after it was snatched. But when a work is stolen from a museum, it is the public who benefits from a recovery. After criminal proceedings end, the recovered van Gogh paintings will go back on view (hopefully with a little better security) for all to see and enjoy.

—Leila Amineddoleh

Today’s Young Dealers Could Learn a Lot from the ’90s

Wolfgang Tillmans with his work at Buchholz & Buchholz, The Nineties, Frieze London, 2016. Photograph by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

Whispers have turned to shouts around the doom and gloom of the art market following a period of rife speculation. Galleries are closing their doors; others contemplate calling it quits. Artist prices are plummeting. Buyers from emerging markets are disappearing from auction salerooms.

This situation could be a dramatized snapshot of 2016—but the year is actually 1991. The bubble of the late ’80s has burst; the art market is reeling. But, in the midst of this chaos, a group of dealers who now dominate the discourse around contemporary art are getting their start. “The ’90s was the decade which really created the environment we find ourselves in now,” said Jo Stella-Sawicka, artistic director of Frieze, which launched a new section this week, The Nineties, recreating 11 seminal exhibitions from this era under the curation of Nicolas Trembley.

The 20 Best Booths at Frieze London
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“We had no money at the time. Young people keep asking if this was my office—no, it was my gallery,” laughed Daniel Buchholz in the 3-by-3-meter gallery space he’s recreated for Wolfgang Tillmans’s first-ever solo in 1993. At Frieze, some 70 photographs and magazine spreads are scattered across the walls of a replica of the tiny space behind Buchholz’s father’s Cologne bookshop where the show was originally mounted. For the now hugely influential German dealer, who keeps galleries in Cologne, Berlin, and New York, it’s a reminder of an era when fewer funds meant fewer expectations. “It’s good to remember that it’s not necessary to have a $20,000 production,” he said. (Though he noted this install wasn’t cheap.) “It’s not always about the money.” In its original installation the photographs sold for £200 a pop. As of Thursday afternoon, the photographs at the fair, now on offer as a single work (Buchholz & Buchholz Installation), were on reserve with a German museum.

Installation view of work by Pierre Joseph at Air de Paris’s booth, The Nineties, Frieze London, 2016. Photograph by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

“There was certainly a different type of relationship between artists and galleries at the time,” said Florence Bonnefous, founder of Air de Paris, who noted that galleries didn’t need to put the same pressure on artists to make the right number of works—or the right type of works—for art fairs. Perhaps in a nod backward for the French gallerist, her presentation at Frieze is not so much monetarily driven: two of the three “living sculpture” works on view by Pierre Joseph had sold in the ’90s. (Characters portrayed by actors in the booth include a policeman, a leper, and a Cinderella.) “It allowed some kind of liberty,” Bonnefous continued. “We didn’t have much but we didn’t need much. It was not about making big objects that are very expensive to produce, it was about producing ideas.”

In this spirit, Bonnefous recalls the gallery’s first show in 1990, “Les Ateliers du Paradise,” where Philippe Perrin, Philippe Parreno, and Pierre Joseph turned a summer holiday into a month-long live-in exhibition, with chefs, artists, and writers passing in and out—now considered a key moment in the start of relational aesthetics. “The gallery was open when we didn’t want to go for a swim at the beach,” she recalled. “But we could also go swim for a couple of hours.”

There were of course two schools of thought here, as alongside the gallerists carving out their programs, New York’s mega-dealers began to build up stables and commercial brands marked by high production costs and the emergence of art-world stars, YBADamien Hirst being the poster child. But Frieze, a fair famed for its support of artists and gallerists, appears to have focused its gaze for The Nineties on the former.

Installation view of work by Sylvie Fleury at Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin/Salon 94, New York/Sprüth Magers, Berlin’s booth, The Nineties, Frieze London, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

With the route to market for work not always so pronounced, when collectors did buy, they bought with passion, not speculation. “There was never a question of price and value, is the price going to double soon—auctions didn’t play a role at all,” said Mehdi Chouakri, standing amongst 14 ’80s–’90s-era television sets broadcasting aerobic lessons by Cindy Crawford, Jane Fonda, and Raquel Welch. The work, A Journey to Fitness or How to Lose 30 Pounds In Under Three Weeks (1993), restages Sylvie Fleury’s pioneering installation from Aperto ’93 at the Venice Biennale and sold on Thursday to a European collection. It sits within the artist’s wall painting, Modulateur Ombres et Lumières, Welcome to the World of Chanel Beauty (1993), which sees three hues of Chanel makeup cover the booth’s respective walls. This sounds eerily similar to the trend we’re seeing amid today’s softened art market: Across Frieze, dealers have reported that when people are buying, they are spending more time researching and contemplating the artists they want to support.

According to Chouakri, the more thoughtful pace seen amongst collectors was also a tenet of the era’s artistic production. “A young artist of the ’90s was perhaps older than 30, while a young artist nowadays is 23 or 24,” he said, noting that Pierre Huyghe and Parreno, while both extremely active in the ’90s, took some 20 years to reach the success they’ve seen today. The dealer attributes this rhythm to the early stages of the Information Age—with limited access to email and internet—when a letter between the United States and Europe would easily take a week and FedEx was still on the rise. “Even within the velocity in our time, sometimes stepping back and thinking, being more careful in doing things is in fact much better whether you are an artist or a gallery,” he said.

In 2016, it’s hard to imagine a gallery or artist possibly surviving without email. (Even Buchholz, who famously writes all communication by hand, still has his assistant type up his notes and hit send.) The quickened pace of commerce afforded to galleries by technology and globalization allows more to thrive—and more artists to show. But considering the similarities of our current times to those of the groundbreaking era The Nineties encapsulates, it’s instructive to dig deeper about what may be more easily applied.

Installation view of work by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at Esther Schipper’s booth, The Nineties, Frieze London, 2016. Photograph by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

How could young galleries today find themselves in the shoes of dealers like Esther Schipper, who some two decades after mounting Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s solo exhibition R.W.F. in 1993 (an apartment-turned-film set which is restaged at Frieze) ushered her roster to stardom? (This week in London sees no fewer than five of her artists open major exhibitions: Roman Ondák at South London GalleryMartin CreedUgo Rondinone, and Gonzalez-Foerster at the Hayward Gallery; Philippe Parreno at the Tate’s Turbine Hall.) These dealers emerged during a difficult market, and amid social and political upheaval—the AIDS crisis and the Gulf War playing no small part. But our decade has its own set of issues. What could we do to be able to look back in 25 years time and recall the 2010s as the time when art once again took a new and groundbreaking tack?

Ultimately, it seems clear that galleries are in need of greater opportunities to define what works for their own businesses in regards to output, programming, and fair participation. “I’m not sure [today’s] young galleries know much about this time, because they’ve started out with a series of constraints and rules which are so firm,” Bonnefous said. We’re just starting to see these rules be broken: Last year, younger galleries diverted from FIAC initiated Paris Internationale; others, rumored to have been displeased with their performance at Frieze and other fairs began the online-only Dream art fair, put forth as a free-of-charge platform for small, young galleries unable to afford the hefty overhead of the top-tier fair circuit. Looking at The Nineties, it’s clear that there are benefits for galleries being allowed to chart their own path, whatever that means for each individual gallery.

“It’s just about what you stand for,” said Chouakri. “Quality and good work is the most important thing—and not speed, money, value.” This, he said, is what we learned from the artists of the late ’80s and the ’90s, like the Guerrilla Girls or Fleury. “You stand for your passion. It’s your life. And you’ve got to be able to do it over years and years and years. And the ’90s were for that.”

—Molly Gottschalk




The Art Market: London hosts Frieze and 1:54 African art fair

Buyer found for Zak Ové’s masked men installation; Ordovas expands in New York

The Art Market
Zak Ové’s ‘Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and The Masque of Blackness’ (2016), a courtyard installation made for the third edition of the 1:54 African art fair in London’s Somerset House © Victor Jules Raison

The 14th edition of Frieze London and fifth outing of Frieze Masters opened in an uncomfortable economic environment — a situation made stark by the coinciding turmoil surrounding the fairs’ lead sponsor, Deutsche Bank. While the mood was yet upbeat at the busy VIP openings on October 5, the optimistic thirst for cutting-edge contemporary works has given way to a more sober environment.

New this year at Frieze London is a minimal and largely conceptual section dedicated to works from the 1990s. Not so long ago, perhaps, but the new focus contributes to a different, gentler feel in a tent that previously stipulated that works had to be made after 2000.

Other works from the 1990s feature in the main sections of the fairs. “People now want to look back a bit,” says Wendy Olsoff, the co-founder of New York’s PPOW gallery. At the Frieze London opening, crowds were circling around a striking table of pink plastic goods by the feminist artist Portia Munson on the PPOW booth (“Pink Project: Table”, 1994, $225,000). Early sales at the fair included some of Munson’s accompanying photographs ($15,000 each, edition of six). Newer works also sold on the first day, including a 2016 painting by one of this year’s hot names, Harold Ancart, for $85,000 (David Kordansky gallery).

The Frieze fairs are open until Sunday evening.

A buyer quickly emerged for Zak Ové’s impressive site-specific courtyard installation made for the third edition of the 1:54 African art fair in London’s Somerset House this week (“Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and The Masque of Blackness”, 2016). Modern Forms, a contemporary art platform founded by Hussam Otaibi, managing partner of the investment group Floreat, and Nick Hackworth, the curator who previously ran London’s Paradise Row gallery, bought one of three editions of the 40 identical, life-size sculptures of Nubian masked men, priced at £300,000, through London’s Vigo gallery. The plan is for Ové’s installation to be part of a sculpture park that Modern Forms is creating at a property in Berkshire. Modern Forms was founded this year and draws on Otaibi’s 500-plus collection of mostly emerging art. Floreat is also sponsoring the fair (open until Sunday).

The modern and contemporary art dealer Pilar Ordovas has proved that art fairs are not the only way to succeed in today’s market. She instead focuses much of her creative energy on mounting three high-quality exhibitions a year in her London space, while dealing privately. Now Ordovas has decided to commit to an additional exhibition a year in New York, having tested the waters with an Eduardo Chillida exhibition last year. Rather than open a dedicated space stateside, Ordovas plans to choose a different venue for each show. “We are the opposite of a supermarket for art, one space doesn’t fit all,” she says. The first formal pop-up is in a townhouse on the Upper East Side, near the Mark Hotel, for which she is taking the Artists and Lovers exhibition currently on show in London. She opens in New York on November 7 (until January 7).

The Fine Art Group, previously known as the Fine Art Fund Group, has become the latest business to launch an art loans operation. Founder and chief executive Philip Hoffman says that the rebrand reflects the firm’s broader offering, including the seven investment funds that he continues to manage. The group has also been running an art advisory service for the past few years. The new art lending business is headed by Freya Stewart, who has worked as a finance lawyer, and as senior legal counsel at Christie’s. Stewart says she expects to offer relatively low rates — and a loan-to-value level of up to 50 per cent, which is high for the art market — because the group will be using its own invested equity capital, and because it already has an in-house team of art experts. She expects to lend against works valued between $250,000 and $20m.

Hoffman would not comment on the individual performance of his funds (two of which provide third-party guarantees to auction houses), but says that his company has been involved in transactions worth $325m at Christie’s and Sotheby’s over the past two years.

The Frieze Week auctions opened in style at Christie’s on October 4 with the sale of works owned by the respected art dealer Leslie Waddington, who died last year. The 44 works all sold — a so-called “White Glove” auction — for a total £23.8m hammer (£28.3m with premium), comfortably ahead of their presale upper estimate of £18.6m.

The sale’s success shows the marked difference between selling a single collection that has been amassed over a lifetime versus the hurried, seasonal gathering of available material. Waddington bought many of the works directly from the artists (including Peter Blake, Michael Craig-Martin and Patrick Caulfield) or their foundations; only two works had been on an auction block before. Several works sold above mostly attractive estimates, including Francis Picabia’s “Lampe” (c1923), which went to a telephone bidder for £3.1m (£3.6m with fees, est £800,000-£1.5m).

It was a rather more hurried auction at Phillips the following night. With two works withdrawn (by Robert Longo and Alex Israel), the 28-lot sale felt thin but managed to squeeze within its revised £14.2m-£20.5m estimate to make a total £15m (£17.9m with fees). High points deservedly included Mark Bradford’s “Rat Catcher of Hamelin III” (2011), which sold for £3.2m (£3.7m with fees, against an estimate of £1.5m-£2m).

Christie’s and Sotheby’s contemporary auctions and Italian sales were still to come as this column went to press.

Photograph: Victor Jules Raison



At Frieze Art Week, All Eyes on the Pound



“Nickelodeon” by Adrian Ghenie sold for 7.1 million pounds, or about $9 million. Credit Hannah McKay/European Pressphoto Agency

“Great price, great picture!” exclaimed the auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen, under a screen that showed “GBP 6,200,000” above conversions into a range of currencies that had strengthened against the pound in the last few months — and days.

Mr. Pylkkanen, the global president of Christie’s, had just sold the star lot of his auction house’s Thursday night “Frieze Week” sale of contemporary art. Adrian Ghenie’s almost 14-foot-wide canvas of an octet of sinister figures in an interior, titled “Nickelodeon” and dating from 2008, was pushed by at least six bidders to a final fee-inclusive 7.1 million pounds, or about $9 million. The price, given by an anonymous telephone bidder, was seven times the low estimate and a new salesroom high for Mr. Ghenie, a 39-year-old Romanian artist.

What might be called the “Brexit Discount” was the talk of Frieze Week, the logjam of fairs, auctions and gallery shows clustered around the contemporary Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park. (On Tuesday, the pound slumped to a 31-year low of $1.27; on Friday it momentarily fell as low as $1.20.) Christie’s kick-started the week’s auctions on Tuesday with its £28.3 million sale of the private collection of the renowned London gallerist Leslie Waddington, who died in November. All 44 lots sold.

“It’s a dollar market. It has to have an effect,” Mr. Pylkkanen said on Thursday after Christie’s deftly curated sale of 41 lots raised £34.3 million, or $43.5 million, with 90 percent of the works sold. The total at the company’s equivalent sale last year was £35.6 million, which was then $55 million.

This year, because of a lack of growth in major economies and the volatility of geopolitical events, international collectors have been more cautious at auctions and fairs. But the weakness of the pound gave a boost to Frieze Week— certainly at Christie’s, where bidders hailed from more than 35 countries.
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Stefan Simchowitz, a collector and adviser based in Los Angeles, was an active bidder, buying about a dozen big-ticket lots for clients over the two evenings of Christie’s sales. These included a 2003 Thomas Schutte sculpture, “Bronzefrau Nr. 13,” which he purchased on Thursday for £3.7 million.


“The pound is certainly attractive in these sales to collectors. 100 percent,” Mr. Simchowitz said in an email.

Christie’s was careful to pack its Thursday night sale with fresh works by artists who are now in demand with collectors. The American figurative painter Henry Taylor, for example, is currently the subject of a sold-out exhibition at the Los Angeles gallery Blum & Poe. Mr. Taylor’s 2008 painting “Walking With Vito,” showing two boys walking a dog, was a timely offering at Christie’s. Four bidders pushed the price to £137,000. Gallery prices for paintings at Blum & Poe range from $25,000 to about $100,000.

It had been a rather different story the previous evening at Phillips’s sale of 20th-century and contemporary art, which was weighted with familiar names that have been heavily traded — and speculated — over the last decade. The slender 28-lot auction raised only £17.9 million with fees, 43 percent down on the £31.5 million Phillips achieved at its equivalent London sale last October.

Only two lots sold for hammer prices above their high estimates. Most prominent of these was the large 2011 word-splattered abstract “Rat Catcher of Hamelin III” by Mark Bradford, who will be representing the United States at next year’s Venice Biennale. With a high estimate of £2 million, it was bought by the London dealer Inigo Philbrick for £3.7 million with fees.

Works by reputed contemporary artists whose markets have not been “burned” by speculation was the commodity most in demand at the Wednesday preview of the 14th annual Frieze Art Fair, the centerpiece of Frieze Week.

“It’s the one week of the year in which you get the chance to take the pulse of the whole market,” said Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser based in New York. According to Ms. Cromwell, Frieze, which this year featured 166 international gallerists, has “fallen off the map” for many American collectors, in spite of the falling pound.
Josef Albers, study for “Homage to the Square.” Credit 2016 the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via Christie’s Images Ltd. 2016

“I’ve seen a bunch of advisers, but not many collectors,” she said. “The fair has lost its buzzy edge. It’s now a commercial entity, but it still affords opportunities to buy exciting work,” she added, after buying one of two new triangular paintings on linen by the British artist Chris Ofili, priced at $380,000, at the Frieze booth of David Zwirner.


The New York dealer David Lewis was among 37 “emerging” galleries in the main Frieze fair’s “Focus” section. Underlining the fair’s commercial maturity, Mr. Lewis was showing nine new abstract paintings and a sculpture by Lucy Dodd, 34, an artist based in New York State, who this year had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The works ranged in price from $7,000 to $60,000, and all had been sold or on reserve by the end of Wednesday.

Frieze’s sister fair, Frieze Masters, whose fifth edition previewed on Wednesday, remains an enigmatic event. Supremely elegant in design and pleasant to visit, the fair is dominated by fully-priced modern and postwar art, with a shrinking representation of historic material to appeal to “crossover” buyers. Data quantifying whether the fair works commercially for dealers remains fragmentary.

It is a sign of these post-boom times that arguably the commercially “hottest” artist of the moment isn’t a 20- or 30-something in New York or Los Angeles, but the German-born American Josef Albers (1888-1976). The market for his work has been transformed since May, when the New York mega-gallerist David Zwirner took over representation of his estate. Zwirner, who will have solo Albers shows in New York in November and in London in January, sold a gray 30-inch “Homage to the Square” from 1964 to an American collector for $1 million at the preview of Frieze Masters.

The previous evening at Christie’s Waddington auction, Mr. Simchowitz, the Los Angeles-based adviser, had to pay £665,000 each, or about $849,000, for two 16-inch “Homage” paintings, respectively graded in shades of red and orange-to-burgundy and dated 1969 and 1973. Last year, Albers’s 16-inch abstracts were selling for $150,000 to $250,000 at auction.

The London dealer Dickinson was showing a small-scale 1949 version of René Magritte’s painting “L’Empire des Lumières” (The Dominion of Light) at a spectacular booth devoted to Surrealism. Formerly owned by Nelson A. Rockefeller, the Magritte was one of 17 oil versions of the subject and had been consigned for sale by another American private collector with a Rockefeller-size asking price of $25 million. The “Surrealist Revolution” display offered 50 works, starting at $35,000 for an Yves Tanguy ink drawing.

As of Friday morning, the gallery had not reported any confirmed sales.

“Healthy, robust, contracting, healthy, robust and contracting like a lung that breathes in and then out,” said Mr. Simchowitz, describing the current state of the art market. “Sometimes it has oxygen and sometimes not.”


Phillip Guston: Painter 1957-1957 at Hauser & Wirth New York- Reviews



Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957; Photo: Arthur Swoger; © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957; Photo: Arthur Swoger;
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967, which opened in Chelsea at Hauser & Wirth last week, offers a rare, comprehensive peek into one decade in an artist’s process and career.

Curator Paul Schimmel has organized an exhibition of 36 paintings and 53 drawings culled from museums (two from the Museum of Modern Art), a gallery and private collections. The paintings fill all but one of the rooms and feature thick oil or gouache brushstrokes in progressively dim colors that form indeterminate shapes. Guston finally abandoned these types of paintings for the “pure drawings” that hang on the wall of the final room.

Guston’s career progressed from figuration to abstraction and back again. The exhibition’s paintings, as a group, tilt heavily toward abstraction, though murky forms emerge upon close examination. At a preview, Schimmel identified heads, targets, and what could be a paintbrush. “The creation of these forms is really the subject of this entire exhibition,” he said. Guston was concerned with the “loss of the object” in the abstraction that many of his peers were practicing at the time.

Philip Guston, Last Piece, 1958. © The Estate of Philip Guston; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Last Piece, 1958.
© The Estate of Philip Guston; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

“This has been described to me as the transition era,” Schimmel said about the ten years the exhibition explores.  It doesn’t really make sense though, he pointed out, that you would describe ten years in a master’s life that way.

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Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

“He had an ability to push back on his own history,” said Schimmel. “Push back on his own success. Push back on both the critical and commercial success that he achieved remarkably in the 50s.” It’s a lesson that young artists of any medium can appreciate: continue to challenge yourself, avoid complacency and refuse to allow external praise to guide your career. When Guston eventually left behind his version of abstraction for figurative works that often invoked social issues, many critics were initially appalled. Yet, those works may now be his strongest legacy.

Philip Guston, Inhabiter, 1965. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Inhabiter, 1965.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Schimmel spoke about the paintings’ titles as evidence of Guston’s approach to painting as a journey—Traveler III, Turn, ReversePath II, Path IVAlchemist. The names offer small hints for viewers, friendly clues into material that can seem initially unapproachable.

Schimmel also emphasized Guston’s creative challenges. “The word ‘free’ is something that Guston often wrestled with,” he said. “Free was a blank canvas but was ultimately an enormous constraint.” He spoke of Guston’s sense of “unfreedom” as “the freedom of being able to reject and embrace the past. In the beginning, you’re free. When you face the white canvas, you’re free, and it’s the most anguishing state.” It’s a relatable feeling–the simultaneous sense of possibility and fear upon starting a new project, taking all your predecessors into account while attempting to begin something unique and meaningful.

Philip Guston, The Year, 1964. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, The Year, 1964.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967 is not the most Instagrammable show in Chelsea right now: lots of muted colors particularly toward the end, vague forms that take a while to reveal themselves, and textured paint to which photographs won’t do justice. It’s not going to break the Internet, but it’s also not trying to. The show is, more importantly, a deep and quiet meditation on process. Schimmel and his team provide a rare opportunity to examine, painting to painting and year to year, how one of the most important artists of the 20th century charted his path.  It’s a show to remind creators of all kinds to continually challenge themselves, to appreciate art as a journey and to find encouragement in both the limitations and opportunities of a blank canvas.

Philip Guston, Leaf, 1967. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Leaf, 1967.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967 is on view at Hauser & Wirth from April 26 through July 29.


PHILIP GUSTON: PAINTER, 1957-1967 @ Hauser & Wirth New York

Painter III, 1963 Oil on canvas 167.64 x 200.6 cm / 66 x 79 in Private Collection, London

Painter III, 1963 Oil on canvas 167.64 x 200.6 cm / 66 x 79 in Private Collection, London


Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967
26 April – 29 July 2016
Hauser & Wirth New York, 511 West 18th Street
Opening: Tuesday, 26 April 2016, 6 – 8 pm

‘I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself. And I think the best painting that’s done here is when he paints himself, and by himself I mean himself in this environment, in this total situation.’
– Philip Guston, 1960

New York… Beginning 26 April 2016, Hauser & Wirth will present ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’, exploring a pivotal decade in the career of the preeminent 20th century American artist. Featuring 36 paintings and 53 drawings, many on loan from major museums and private collections, the exhibition draws together a compelling body of work that reveals the artist grappling to reconcile gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction. Calling attention to a series of works that have not yet been fully appreciated for their true significance in the artist’s development, ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ explores a decade in which Guston confronted aesthetic concerns of the New York School, questioning modes of image making and what it means to paint abstractly. In the number and quality of paintings on view from this period, the show parallels Guston’s important 1966 survey at the Jewish Museum in New York, a half century ago. As its title suggests, the exhibition offers an intimate look at Guston’s unique relationship to painting and the process by which his work evolved.

On view through 29 July 2016, ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ has been organized by Paul Schimmel, Partner and Vice President of Hauser & Wirth. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogue focusing specifically on the period beginning in the late 1950s and spanning a decade until the artist’s return to figuration in the late 1960s.

About the Exhibition

By the mid-1950s, Philip Guston (1913 – 1980) and his contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, were among the leading figures of the New York School, standing at the forefront of American avant-garde painting. Guston, whose work was widely exhibited during this period, achieved critical success as an abstract painter, whose work was lauded its luminous, ethereal, and tactile fields of bold gesture and color. At this pinnacle moment, with the artist seemingly at the height of his career, an unexpected shift occurred in Guston’s approach. Dark, ominous forms began to crowd his paintings, coalescing into what would become a new language that consumed his practice over the next ten years.

Fable II, 1957 Oil on illustration board 62.7 x 91.1 cm / 24 5/8 x 35 7/8 in © 2016 Hauser & Wirth. Private Collection

Fable II, 1957
Oil on illustration board
62.7 x 91.1 cm / 24 5/8 x 35 7/8 in
© 2016 Hauser & Wirth.
Private Collection

The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth opens with ‘Fable II’ and ‘Rite’, two small paintings from 1957 that suggest evolution in both Guston’s mood and technique. Disturbing the pictorial field of these canvases, thick, densely clustered black strokes burst through heavily pigmented colorful patches ranging in tone from radiant azure and blazing orange, to fleshy pink and deep forest green. Similarly, a silvery wash of glimmering brushstrokes begins to encroach upon Guston’s lighter forms. Enveloping the background completely in ‘Last Piece’ (1958), the expanses of grey field suggest erasure – an obliteration of the artist’s previous association to pure abstraction.

In that same year of 1958, Guston exclaimed, ‘I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart’. In the face of abstraction, Guston’s search for corporeality intensified. He challenged himself to create and simultaneously dissolve the dialogues of the New York School in a field that evoked ‘something living’ on the surface of his canvas. The introduction of brooding forms can now be understood as harbingers of a new figuration, wherein titles such as ‘Painter’ (1959) go so far as to suggest the pictorial presence of Guston, the painter himself. Wrestling with the simultaneous existence of abstraction and representation, ‘Painter’ strikes a precarious note: ambiguous, but semi-recognizable forms recall the artist’s early figurative works of the 1940s. A red shape and the loose application of blue paint hint at the return of his signature hooded figure, here with a paintbrush in hand. At the same time, however, the artist’s gestures dissolve legible shapes into a swirling field of energies in flux.

Alchemist, 1960 Oil on canvas 154.9 x 171 cm / 61 x 67 3/8 inches Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968 Photo credit: Milli Apelgren

Alchemist, 1960
Oil on canvas
154.9 x 171 cm / 61 x 67 3/8 inches
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968 Photo credit: Milli Apelgren

The exhibition continues across four dedicated rooms, tracing the evolution of Guston’s forms through the 1960s until they are reduced to “the isolation of the single image”. With such works as ‘Path II’ (1960) and ‘Alchemist’ (1960), dense pictorial dramas are unleashed, with colors and forms competing against one another in a storm of darkened strokes. In ‘Path IV’ (1961), Guston’s blackened, weighted masses emerge victorious, swarming in an atmosphere of rusted reds and ashen greys. Meanwhile, ‘Accord I’ (1962) reconciles the grouping of Guston’s black forms while still offering richness and warmth, as faint hues of color peek through pewter grey grounds.

Accord I, 1962 Oil on canvas 173 x 198.4 cm / 68 1/8 x 78 1/8 in Private Collection

Accord I, 1962
Oil on canvas
173 x 198.4 cm / 68 1/8 x 78 1/8 in
Private Collection

Such concessions disappear in the following year: In a significant group of works created between 1963 and 1965, Guston interacts directly with the raw surface of his canvas, marking gestural, smoky fields in greys and pinks. One of the largest paintings from this period, ‘The Year’ (1964) is dominated by the presence of two great black personages floating in a field of luscious wet-on-wet strokes. Using white pigment to erase his looming black strokes, Guston creates heaving washes of nuanced grey matter that seem to pulsate with energy and life. As forms become fewer and denser in other works, the artist’s titles imply vague narratives. In ‘Group II’ (1964) or ‘The Three’ (1964), head-like shapes and bodies emerge. In the latter, Guston represents a family: the artist, his daughter, and his wife. The culmination of this extraordinary series is ‘Position I’ (1965), in which a single black shape nestles in a barren landscape devoid of chromatic variation.

Position I, 1965 Oil on canvas 165.1 x 203.2 cm / 65 x 80 in Private Collection

Position I, 1965
Oil on canvas
165.1 x 203.2 cm / 65 x 80 in
Private Collection

In the years following his 1966 Jewish Museum survey, Guston would abandon painting and turn to drawing during a time of internal conflict and personal turmoil. In the two-year span between 1966 and 1967, he produced hundreds of works on paper in charcoal and brush-and-ink that are known as his ‘pure’ drawings. Works from this period occupy the final room of the exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. Presented together in a grid, they recall the manner in which Guston lived with these works, which were tacked to his studio walls.

Commenting upon the decade explored in ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ Paul Schimmel said, ‘If there was one way in which Guston was consistent as an artist, it was in his unwillingness to be pinned down or to rest on his own considerable accomplishments and influence. As one of the most significant proponents in the reconciliation of gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction, he was a solitary figure, ‘moving vertically’, unencumbered by the responsibilities and pressures that others often felt as they worked in his shadow’.

Courtesy of  Hauser & Wirth New York – Press Release


May 24, 2016 3:03 p.m.

How Philip Guston, America’s Great Painter of the Night, Completely Reinvented the Sublime



Philip Guston, Painter III, 1963. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

As late as he came to the style, by 1957 Philip Guston was a highly admired first-generation Abstract Expressionist — a phrase he hated. How “late” was Guston? In the 1940s peers like Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were finding their ways into all-over abstraction. Yet Guston experimented with figures, grounds, solid spaces, and objects until 1950. Pollock — whom Guston went to high school with in Los Angeles (the two were expelled for designing satirical leaflets) and who urged Guston to move to New York in 1935 — had been making abstract paintings since 1939. Gorky had done so since 1932; Rothko and Willem de Kooning reached these further shores by the early 1940s. Guston didn’t go fully abstract until about 1950! History is lucky; had he waited a minute more the Ab Ex train would have left without him and we might never have heard of him.

Guston was always a hesitant plodder, and when he finally did get to real abstraction he stayed ambivalent about it. “Every real painter wants to be, and his greatest desire is to be, a realist,” he said. The abstract works that deservedly won him fame are beautiful shimmering lyrical fields of broken brush strokes, flickering grounds of pearly blue and pink, serene combinations of Monet and Turner with inflections of Mondrian’s early piers-reflected-in-water. But Guston started to feel as if he was only taking small bites. By the 1950s, he felt he “had nowhere to go.” Saying “I hope sometime to get to the point where I’ll have the courage to paint my face … to paint a single form in the middle of the canvas,” he started doing exactly that. And had the courage to do it at the apex of his career.

By 1970 he’d finished “clearing the decks.” From then until his death, in 1980, at 66,* Guston left abstraction behind and made some of the most memorable and influential paintings of the late 20th century, big and small: huge, gloppy, opaque-colored images of Ku Klux Klansmen driving around in convertibles, smoking cigars; cyclopes heads, in bed, staring at bare lightbulbs; piles of legs and shoes; figures hiding under blankets, clutching paintbrushes in bed. A lot of these are so narratively accessible they can seem almost comic-strip-like. But also cryptic. I see spiders, newts, malignant clouds, boatmen, snake charmers, lanterns lighting up existential nights. The list of artists influenced by this incredible work includes Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, Albert Oehlen, Carroll Dunham, Elizabeth Murray, and Georg Baselitz, who saw as early as 1959 that Guston was involved with “a distortion of the abstract … full of concrete forms.” Jasper Johns saw that, too.

But the stakes of abandoning abstraction were high. Recognition had come late to Guston’s generation. The Abstract Expressionists had labored alone in America, dirt poor, with no audience, no art-world apparatus to support them. Only one another. As Barnett Newman famously put it, “We were making it out of ourselves.” And those selves were obsessed with going beyond Picasso and into non-objective painting. They had bet their entire lives on the gamble, which is why any sign of apostasy or disaffection was seen as a threat to all. Even after America took notice of the group, in the early 1950s, they were the constant butt of jokes about “my 3-year-old” being able to paint like that. Worse yet, no sooner had they arrived then a new group of artists — led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg — arrived on the stage doing totally antithetical work. The world turned on a dime. In 1962, the Sidney Janis Gallery organized a show including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, and Claes Oldenburg. This was seen as a betrayal by Guston, Robert Motherwell, Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, who all quit the gallery in protest. It was the show in which de Kooning reportedly told Warhol he was “a killer of art.” But Guston wasn’t really in line with his colleagues; amidst all this he harbored secret feelings of wanting to change.

By 1957, he’d done everything he could do to avoid doing what he had to do, and his work began to solidify into something new. The lesson of his career is that in order to really be themselves all artists must find their inner Guston: an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art — not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist. All great artists must be able to create a machine that can make things that they cannot predict. Even when they make what might be nightmarish or ugly to them.

Philip Guston, Position I, 1965. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Which is why “Philip Guston; Painter 1957–1967,” at Hauser & Wirth, a showcase of Guston at the turning point of his career, is an incantatory lesson for all artists. Perfectly curated by the gallery’s Paul Schimmel, the exhibition sounds a secret chord for artists in search of one of art’s many strange grails: how to make art that is original and entirely one’s own. This is especially pressing now that there are promising signs of artists everywhere trying to break through the fog of professionalism and careerism that have crept into the art world; the corporate carefulness that’s made too many painters make little moves in known directions; toe pre-approved formal lines; and make the system feel clogged up, static, sterile. Guston, who was desperate to change, knew this. He said “I got sick and tired of all that purity… the extreme codification of beliefs and the institutionalism of everything.” If that sounds painfully familiar, make it your business to see this show.

On view in the airplane-hangar-scaled museum-level gallery show are 35 paintings and 48 drawings. All are from this lesser-known decade of his career, 1957 to 1967. The entire group has not been exhibited together since the 1960s. So this is new information for many in the art world. What we see is a lead-up to what is perhaps the greatest last-act in 20th-century American art history: Guston’s all-hell-broken-loose id-under-pressure late figurative paintings.

The change comes slowly at first; Guston is always fighting it. As Jasper Johns put it about being an artist, “If you avoid everything you can avoid, then you do what you can’t avoid doing, and you do what is helpless, and unavoidable.” Guston did that. The opening gallery shows his first steps — so small you might not see them, thinking, Oh, he’s getting choppier, is all. I guess that triangle could be a hood or something. In 1957, Guston’s colors turn more opaque; warm tones turn frosty and muddy; odd, armlike shapes appear, torsos or trunks, hillocks, shadowy head configurations. But nothing definite. Being figurative was so strictly verboten that at one point Guston said he painted a can with paintbrushes in it, lost his nerve and scraped it off. It was just too much. In the next gallery, Guston’s backgrounds turn blocky. The shimmery thing is gone. So are the little snaky strokes. Things are thickening. A huge maroon hand thing emerges from the top of one canvas. Compositions get optically bolder. In Garden of M, named after his wife and daughter (both named Musa), we spot something like a patchy garden grid, or maybe two lumpy figures clutching each other in bed. Sooty grays, yellows, and crimsons abound. But things stay abstract. What’s happening is that Guston is looking for every way possible not to make a figurative painting. He couldn’t just paint that single thing inside a canvas, a head, or even a can, without retreating back into abstraction. It must have been hellish. These works are almost ugly.

Philip Guston, Garden of M., 1960. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Then, in 1963, he just blows through the fear. A big, black-hat-wearing, egg-shaped head appears with a shaky arm holding what might be a paintbrush and maybe a small canvas. This wasn’t Ab Ex, it wasn’t Pop, it wasn’t like anything. The title Painter III tells us what’s going on; it’s a self-portrait and a collective portrait of all artists’ immense inner temperaments when venturing into realms unknownBut it’s too much for Guston and he pulls back. Again. Looking is just a smooshed figure that might be gazing at a black rectangle. It’s almost self-as-grub. This one-step-forward, one-step-back crab dance continues as Guston looks for biomorphic, architectural, or geometric solutions rather than what’s staring him in the face: the horror of going both figurative and expressionistic. In the last work in the show, Guston hits the wall of all the implied image-making. An all-gray field that is so confusing to Guston he doesn’t even go to the edges, leaving swaths of canvas unpainted. In the middle of this is what looks like a black sun hovering — as if everything that Guston can empty out has been emptied out: except the truth. The implication of figure, ground, narrative, image. He’d reached Johns’s “helpless” place.

Guston must have known the return to figuration couldn’t be denied any more. And still he refused. He was in a battle of wills with his art. It must have been nightmarish. So much so that he stopped painting altogether for three years after the last canvas in this show. He didn’t show his work again until 1970. Critics had slammed that work  as “displeasingly raw”; the canvases were said to have “unpleasant texture.” His colleagues were shocked, suspicious, and thought he was trying to hop on the Pop bandwagon; one painter friend asked why he had “to go and ruin everything.” Lee Krasner was said to find the work “embarrassing.” New York Times critic Hilton Kramer lambasted Guston as “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum,” dismissing the work as “cartoon anecdotage … funky, clumsy and demotic,” and concluding “We are asked to take seriously his new persona as an urban primitive … and this is asking too much.” But the die was cast. While Pollock was the first to truly break through to pure non-objective painting, it was Guston who was the first to break out. And yet nobody seemed to understand. He’d risked everything and lost.

But Guston had crossed the Rubicon and was becoming the great painter of the American night. Not the night that follows day; the night of self. He said he wasn’t painting “pictures” but “one’s experiences and one’s enlargement of self.” Guston moved the sublime — the bigness of it all — away from abstraction where the Abstract Expressionists located it, away from nature where the 19th century placed it, off the ceilings of churches where it went in the Renaissance, and back, finally, to where it really is and probably has always been since it left the fires in the caves: The sublime is in us! To see that pictured brings Emerson’s “alienated majesty” back to us. Guston helped push everything aside, all the classicizing, romanticizing, philosophizing, or being a theologian of the sublime. This is epic. And it’s in all of Guston’s late work. Of his contemporaries, only the always generous de Kooning saw the real, deep content of Guston’s late art. He said that the subject of this art is “freedom.”

*The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Guston died at age 76. He was 66.

*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.


Reflections on Philip Guston
PHILIP GUSTON Painter, 1957 – 1967

HAUSER & WIRTH | APRIL 26 – JULY 29, 2016

One of today’s most influential painters is having his first museum-quality, posthumous show at Hauser & Wirth: Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967. It’s an exhibition that showcases a transitional decade, a gap that links his earlier, acclaimed abstract expressionist pictures and his later figurative, cartoonish works, which continue to resonate with many important artists of our day, including Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, and Katherine Bradford. In the works on view, we see Guston emptying himself. He leaves sumptuous color behind and simplifies his compositions, even temporarily abandoning painting in 1967 to draw. Philip Guston: Painter allows us to focus on the formal: the touch, the color, the composition.

Installation view: Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967. Hauser & Wirth New York, 18th Street. Photo: Genevieve Hanson. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

With the knowledge that such moving, significant paintings are around the corner, it is difficult to look at this decade of painting without anticipating what is to come. Guston’s early use of pink, beginning in 1965, will be pushed forward in 1970, the color becoming more corporeal, more atmospheric, and more emotional. He will use it as both the sickly skin color of his figures and the walls behind them. Guston will shape the roughly rectangular, black forms that almost touch in his 1962 painting Untitled into recognizable shapes: shoes, cigarettes, shadows. He will use that same confident, fast, responsive brushwork that is non-referential in this decade to make his figures and their environments. He will tighten the stacking that is just becoming visible in May Sixty-Five or Reverse (both 1965): his paintings will soon feature glasses, people, cars, and shoes resting on tables, beds, streets, and floors.

But what does the viewer lose by understanding these paintings as merely transitional, as I have just done, or by contextualizing them as an attempt to reconcile “gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction,” as the press release does? This rush to find hints of future paintings, or to triangulate them within different art historical genres, distracts from the painterly elements that create the rhythm and energy that make Guston’s work so exciting, so fresh, so contemporary. Without the striking, psychological, and emotionally resonant images that will come to define Guston’s late work, the formal qualities that make Guston’s work so compelling are easier to discern.

Touch: immediate, direct, responsive. He loads a two-inch brush with paint, and seemingly without hesitation, applies the paint with a consistent pressure to create a dense network of marks. In the earlier abstract paintings, (Rite (1957) and Painter (1959)), Guston nestles his forms close together, creating a claustrophobic, Soutine-like space packed with forms made with tight, impasto brushwork. The paintings are structural and architectural. But in the paintings from 1964 – 65, Guston’s brushwork becomes more open. The brush follows the extension of his arm. It registers the movement of his body.

Color: muted, close contrast. Guston insists that he is not a colorist, as Bonnard was, but a tonal painter, in the vein of Rembrandt, Goya, or Zurbarán. As articulate verbally as he was manually, Guston explained his transition to a more controlled color palette in one of the many wonderful excerpts collected in Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition catalogue:

Gray and black seems magnificent to me. And I guess, also, I want to see how much I can do with very little things. Very simple. Just two colors. I mean, white and black. And a brush. My hand. Nothing to paste on. I want to see if there’s anything left to express with the more elementary means. So far, I’ve found it very challenging and inexhaustible.1

Philip Guston, Painter III, 1963. Oil on canvas. 66 × 79 inches. Private Collection, London. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

For Guston, reduction of means allowed for expanded communication. In Portrait I (1965), his grays are inflected with the reds and pinks underneath, creating a color that feels less like a wall and more like air.

Composition: variations on a theme, awareness of the edge. Guston’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962 proved crucial for his development. Never satisfied to continue thoughtlessly, Guston visited the Guggenheim every Monday, critiquing the nearly 100 abstract paintings that hung in the rotunda. The museum itself became, as he described, “an extension of my studio.” After the show ended he was “more ruthless” in his practice and began emptying the canvas not just of color, but of structured composition. In The Year (1964), he uses white to “erase” his blacks, creating the grays that surround his black forms, which he saw as objects of a kind. Throughout 1964 – 65, Guston repeated these one, two, or three black forms in slightly different places and in different sizes so that one can see the paintings as a continuum, aided by Hauser & Wirth’s installation. The density of these black forms contrasts with the openness of his edges, which he leaves as unpainted canvas, partly as a practical issue—at this point, he paints on unstretched surfaces—but also as a poetic one. The unpainted edges keep his paintings open and unfussy, allowing for breath. But they also complicate the relationship between image and surface: the painting seems to hover in front of the picture plane, but then an awareness of the unpainted edge locks the painting back in place.

Guston empties the canvas of color and compositional complexity so much that he reverts to drawing; more than fifty ink and charcoal works on paper hang on the final wall of the gallery. As fresh as they were in 1967, these drawings register Guston’s transition back to figuration (he was a WPA muralist in the 1940s). Here we see his recognizable hand: confident (indicated by the pressure he exerts on his material), yet wobbly. We see his openness to images, his humor and playfulness, and ultimately, his willingness to experiment his way forward.


  1. All quotes from exhibition catalogue: Paul Schimmel, Philip Guston: Painter 1957 – 1967, Hauser & Wirth (2016).


Kate Liebman KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.


Master Baffler: How Philip Guston Gave Form to Doubt

Endlessly animated: Fable II (1957)EXPAND

Endlessly animated: Fable II (1957)
©The Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
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“Paul Valery once said that a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning,” Philip Guston told an interviewer in 1966, adding, “In a painting in which this is a room, this is a chair, this is a head, the imagery does not exist — it vanishes into recognition…. I want my work to include more.”

The abstractions on view at Hauser & Wirth contain much more than what we can see. Painted between 1957 and 1967, they culminated two earlier phases of Guston’s life’s work and previewed a final act that would leave many of his contemporaries despairing for him — and later viewers rapturous.

When Guston (1913–80) was about ten years old, his father committed suicide, and it was the youth who discovered the body hanging from a rafter. He reacted by escaping whenever he could into a closet with a single light bulb, spending hours drawing in solitude. His mother enrolled him, at thirteen, in a correspondence course from the Cleveland School of Cartooning, hoping to coax him out of his isolation. A couple of years later, in high school, he became friends with Jackson Pollock, and a teacher introduced the boys to Picasso, de Chirico, and other modernist painters; both students were ornery and were eventually expelled for distributing a leaflet satirizing the school’s elevation of sports over the humanities. By his early twenties Guston had become a skilled muralist, working first in Mexico, then California, and ultimately in New York City, where, at age 26, he won first prize for his mural Work – the American way, painted on the façade of the Works Progress Administration building at the New York World’s Fair.

In 1940 Guston completed another WPA mural, at the Queensbridge housing project, which exudes a hopeful earnestness through the community of musicians, basketball players, workmen, and roughhousing children depicted across its forty-foot expanse. But he was getting fed up with the government program — at one point federal inspectors ordered him down from his scaffold while they investigated the possibility that a dog’s tail curling around a boy’s leg in the Queensbridge mural (a composition inspired by Guston’s intensive study of Renaissance masters) might actually be a camouflaged hammer and sickle. More significantly, he was beginning to chafe against the aesthetic complacency of figuration at a time when his colleagues in the nascent New York School were struggling to find paths to abstraction beyond Picasso’s cubism, Kandinsky’s squiggles, and Mondrian’s geometries.

By the early 1950s, as Pollock was refining the explosiveness of his drip technique, Guston was atomizing his figures into fields of delicately tuned color. In 1966 he told another interviewer, “In the Fifties I entered a very painful period when I’d lost what I had and had nowhere to go. I was in a state of gradual dismantling.” His sense of being caught in limbo is manifested in those early abstractions as crosshatched clumps of color that dissipate into tinted fogs as they spread across a white tract.

In the later works on display here, ranging from two to seven feet across, those scattered clots of pigment have coagulated into forms that gain metaphysical heft from such open-ended titles as Fable II and Rite. With pink, red, orange, and green wedges parrying around black fulcrums, these two paintings (1957) feel as endlessly animated as the waltz of a Calder mobile. Painted with a wet-into-wet vehemence that pushes beyond Guston’s earlier elegance to achieve an earthy gusto, the images refuse to drift into biological allusion or cubist grid. Twinkling humor radiates from the rounded square with depending tail in Traveller III (1959–60), which levitates to the top of the composition like a balloon. Whether it is filled with helium or dialogue is an unanswerable question. In all of these works, Guston’s forms shamble up to the brink of representation (one might flash on the convolutions of the human brain in that scramble of orange and black brushstrokes) but inevitably shear off into abstraction. Narratives gibber behind the thrumming colors, visceral textures, and shifting proportions but never quite cohere. “Doubt itself becomes a form,” Guston told the poet Bill Berkson in 1964, and you can sense in these emphatic shapes the artist searching for a reason to let the classically derived figures he’d abandoned twenty years earlier re-emerge.

Guston mixed much of his color right on the canvas, but the smears here never degrade into mud. Instead, they positively glow. Quick struts of blue or crags of black partially obliterated by squalls of white create translucent layers as luminous as the sun through smoke (a haze that perpetually surrounded Guston, a chain-smoker — it is a rare photograph that doesn’t portray him with either cigarette or brush in hand). “What am I working with?” he once asked the composer Morton Feldman. “It’s only colored dirt.” And while Guston probably wasn’t grandiose enough to equate his own painting with fashioning Adam from dust — or even a golem from clay — he was tireless in trying to make something that had never existed.

That day came with Guston’s startling 1970 exhibition of galumphing cartoon paintings — those comical heads — which was nearly universally panned as willfully retrograde in an age when abstraction was already under assault from minimalism and conceptualism. John Perreault, writing in this newspaper, was one of the few critics to realize the breakthrough he was witnessing, a perspective that would be ratified more confidently by each generation: “It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart…a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. But not me.”

Perreault was dead-on about the hatred that followed — Feldman and Guston’s friendship was actually destroyed by the cartoon paintings — but that coming pain and revelation was still unknown to the artist when he painted the abstractions in this show. He was working his way to surprising even himself, telling Berkson, “I want to end up with something that will baffle me for some time.”

He got his wish — and so have we, for half a century and counting.


The Chameleon Painter

Even in his most pared-down paintings, Philip Guston was digging for something new.

My wife and I had spent a good bit of time at the opening of “Philip Guston: Painter, 1957–1967,” the current exhibition (through July 29) at the Chelsea-docked starship that is the downtown Manhattan branch of the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Just as we were about to leave, I said, “Wait a minute—let’s not go just yet. I want to see something.” I’d noticed David McKee walking in, and I wanted to get a sense, if I could, of what the exhibition would look like reflected in his eyes.

McKee was Guston’s dealer from 1974 until the painter’s death in 1980, and afterward continued to represent his estate. In 1967, McKee was working at Guston’s previous gallery, Marlborough, just when Guston was producing the extraordinary array of drawings that cap the current show. In an interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, McKee explained that when he started working for Marlborough, Guston “was reluctant to have me visit, [saying:] ‘Well, it’s not going to be the sort of work that you’re expecting. My work has shifted.’” When McKee finally did visit the studio, he found it full of drawings of meager, abstract lines, like the ones now at Hauser & Wirth. Stark and powerful for all their obliquity, they seem oddly confident in their reduction of the Abstract Expressionist gesture to nearly zero. McKee saw something similar in the studio of another of Marlborough’s heavy hitters, Robert Motherwell, although his line, by contrast, was “extremely tentative.” McKee realized that both artists “had come to the conclusion that they’d exhausted the possibilities of their fifties and early sixties period. And were now curious about taking their work into other directions…. I never told the other what the other was doing. I couldn’t. It was like a secret that I held.”

Those drawings really were the end of something. When Guston took up painting again in 1968, he was making figurative work for the first time in nearly two decades. He had changed course completely. ( Well, maybe not completely: One of the first of the new figurative paintings, Paw, shows an animal appendage, rather than a human hand, drawing a stark horizontal line that might well be one of those in his 1967 drawings.) Raw and confrontational rather than cool and flashy, the new works showed the influence of comics but not of Pop. Instead of being shiny and new and void of the past, they were populated by Ku Klux Klansmen (a subject that Guston had painted years earlier, as a social realist in the 1930s) and haunting echoes of precursors from Piero della Francesca to Giorgio di Chirico by way of Krazy Kat. Fellow artists at the time responded coldly: They thought Guston had betrayed the cause of abstraction for which they had sacrificed so much. Guston had succeeded in scandalizing not the bourgeoisie, but the self-defined avant-garde. The critics were even crueler: Hilton Kramer’s verdict in The New York Times—that this was the work of “a mandarin masquerading as a stumblebum”—was only the most quotable censure. Guston’s contract with Marlborough was not renewed. Four years later, his new painting show inaugurated the McKee Gallery.

When his gallery shut its doors a year ago, McKee explained: “The art market has grown so vast that our gallery model is in danger: the collector’s private experience with art matters much less, as the social circus of art fairs, auctions, dinners and spectacle grows.” He went on to lament, “The value of art is now perceived as its monetary value. The art world has become a stressful, unhealthy place; its focus on fashion, brands and economics robs it of the great art experience, of connoisseurship and of trust.” For McKee, the epicenter of the new gallery model is Chelsea. In 2009, he remarked that he wouldn’t want “a big gallery in Chelsea” where “the spaces are anonymous, and they’re like cruise ships, where the captain doesn’t really know what’s going on in the ship…. I like a gallery to have a more intimate experience. And you know where if you want to sit and talk with a dealer, you can, who’s not going to kick you out.”

While McKee declined to adapt to the hypertrophy of the 21st-century art market, Hauser & Wirth—a sprawling enterprise with branches in Zurich, Los Angeles, London, and Somerset, England, as well as New York—is among the alpha galleries of the new environment, alongside Gagosian, David Zwirner, and others. Its Chelsea spaces are among the neighborhood’s biggest. The chances of being able to walk in and find Iwan Wirth minding the store and willing to sit down and schmooze about the work with you are close to nil. When McKee walked into the first-ever Guston exhibition in Chelsea (as well as the first with Hauser & Wirth), I was watching him look at art that he knew more intimately than almost any other living soul, and in a context more different than he might ever have expected. The look on his face was that of a man rather stunned—with dismay, or relief, or a little of both, I can’t say. I’d like to think that, without necessarily relinquishing his qualms about what the art business has become over the last 40 years, he was reconciled to seeing Guston in this new light by the evident care and respect with which the exhibition was prepared—no matter if it was installed in one those anonymous white caverns he never wanted for himself.

* * *

It’s often said that mega-galleries mount shows that might once have been the grand projects of museums, and that’s true. The point of an exhibition like “Philip Guston: Painter” isn’t merely to hang works on the wall that happen to be on the market (most of them probably aren’t); instead, the choices are based on serious art-historical considerations. Another such show is taking place nearby at Zwirner, through June 25: “Sigmar Polke: Eine Winterreise,” curated by the former Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí. Like the Guston exhibition, it is not to be missed.

The Guston show really encompasses three distinct stages in his career. Early in the 1950s, his painterly touch was often considered a bit refined compared with some of his more swashbuckling colleagues. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, when this exhibition picks up the story, Guston’s mark starts to look blunter, more declarative; the paintings acquire a greater sense of the “objectness” of things. They are richly colored, with awkward, hard-won forms that clearly exhibit what Guston once called “an infighting in painting itself.” Then, in the mid-’60s, comes a reduction of color to mostly shades of gray, with loose, almost blowsy brushstrokes massing together to form simple, nebulous shapes. Finally come the drawings already mentioned, with their nearly zero-degree mark-making.

The coherence of the Hauser & Wirth show isn’t surprising, given that it was organized by one of America’s most respected curators, Paul Schimmel, the former longtime chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. His involvement reflects yet another aspect of the changes afoot in the art world. In one of those strangely chiastic situations characteristic of the times, MoCA had hired art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as its director in 2010; Deitch and Schimmel didn’t see eye to eye, and two years later Schimmel either resigned or was fired, depending on whom you ask. Deitch himself didn’t last much longer in his new role and is now back running his gallery in New York. Schimmel left the nonprofit world to become a partner at the gallery whose Los Angeles branch is called Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.

For McKee, seeing Guston in this new context must have meant seeing his old friend’s work differently, for better or worse. I saw something almost completely new. That’s because I’d always thought of the essential Guston as the figurative painter of the 1970s. His abstract work was good, I knew, but mainly of interest as the precursor to greater work—an impression confirmed by the only large-scale Guston show I’ve ever had a chance to see, a rather skimpy retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Art back in 2004. This present show has changed my view: Had the 1967 drawings that form the conclusion to it been the last works Guston ever made—had he retreated into silence, which could well have been the next logical step for him after those defiantly reductive works—we would still have to recognize Guston as one of the great artists of his time.

And yet, however logical—and despite Guston’s friendship with the apostle of silence, John Cage—silence was probably never in the cards for him. Even his most pared-down work was less about shedding the inessential than digging for something new. The search for fresh ingredients meant not only poring through the history of art, but also keeping an eye on younger painters. I don’t think it’s really true that in the late 1950s and ’60s, Guston was—as a gallery wall text claims—“very much removed from the public debate, apart and alone in his studio.” Could those final drawings ever have come into being without him having been aware of a younger artist like Cy Twombly, with his sparse mark-making? A group of paintings from 1964 to ’65, their gray and black lit up by a bit of pink, seems like an attempt to observe how much can be done by varying and redeploying the fewest possible elements, as if he’d been observing the kind of “systemic painting” that had been in the air (and would be the subject of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966). In a 1966 interview with Guston, Harold Rosenberg pointed out how the paintings “have a great deal of resemblance to one another. Or let’s say a great deal of thematic continuity. It’s as if your paintings of the last three years were one long”—at which point Guston cuts him off, as if to avoid facing a verdict: One long what?

All the same, despite the seeming suddenness of Guston’s shift to figuration, hints that he was trying to go in that direction (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, trying to avoid an irresistible pull in that direction) are recurrent. They are most evident in the rather awkward work for which the Hauser & Wirth show is titled, Painter III (1963), in which the large central black oval is clearly enough the head of the painter whose brush-wielding hand can be made out just below. Looking (1964) gets its title from the eye-like marks that seem to face the viewer from the head-and-shoulders form on the painting’s right. Reverse (1965) anticipates the head in lost profile (with cigarette and smoke) of Guston’s 1978 Friend-To M.F. ( The composer Morton Feldman was one of the friends whom Guston thought had turned away from him in 1970.) Even earlier works like Fable II and Rite, both from 1957, earn their titles by the nonspecific figurative connotations of their bunched shapes; it would take only a little bit of further manipulation to turn those forms into the kind of stylized figures found in the paintings that Jan Müller was making around this time, or Bob Thompson just a little later. This was the period in which, as Frank O’Hara would write, Guston’s forms “pose, stand indecisively, push each other and declaim.” As early as 1961, the conservative New York Times critic John Canaday was wondering whether “in the end it should prove that he has really gone in a circle, carrying abstract expressionism back to its figurative start.” Just as Guston’s paintings explored the porous boundary between sameness and difference, his career was an essay in the single-mindedness of a chameleon.

In the Abstract

Art | Apr 2016 | BY Katy Diamond Hamer

What do brushstrokes tell us about a painter? Similar to a written signature, those singular linear marks are unique to each individual, and can change over time. Case in point: a new Philip Guston exhibition at the New York location of Hauser & Wirth, which recently announced its exclusive worldwide representation of the estate of the painter, who died in 1980. The gallery’s premiere Guston show features a series of paintings and drawings dating from 1957 through 1967, a time when the artist was known specifically for his abstraction. Early in his career, Guston made narrative figurative paintings, often working with the WPA on large-scale murals. Then, as Hauser & Wirth Director Anders Bergstrom points out, “In 1950 he started painting completely abstractly and became well known for these works.”

Guston’s Position I, 1965

Curated by Paul Schimmel, “Painter” includes a series of pieces with a limited color palette consisting of earth tones: greys, muted blues, deep reds and greens. The artist moved paint around the surface in a varied yet seemingly specific way. Sometimes it goes to the edge of the work, such as in Fable II from 1957, an oil painting on illustration board. Often it’s possible to recognize the thought process of the artist as he applied his medium thickly by brush, working it with other colors on the piece itself rather than the palette. A few years later, Guston made Traveler III (1959-60), an oil painting on canvas containing a frenetic life energy.

Guston’s Last Piece, 1958

Most of the pieces on view in “Painter” were celebrated in a 1962 exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. After his death, in 2003, Guston received a major retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum, “but there were only maybe eight paintings that represented 1957 to ’67,” says Bergstrom. “We’re taking those years and blowing it up to 30-plus paintings. People will literally for the first time in 50 years be able to see this many works from that era in one place at one time.”

Guston’s Painter III, 1963

In the 1982 documentary Philip Guston: A Life Lived, he was asked a question about his stylistic evolution between 1962 and 1969. While slightly shrugging his shoulders and lighting a cigarette, he replied, “You work in this style or that style, as if you had a choice in the matter. What you are doing is trying to stay alive and continue and not die.” Guston’s later body of figure-based pieces, once reviled, has influenced a generation. But regarding the abstract paintings currently on view at Hauser & Wirth, the artist stated, “I recognize that they are dissolved and you don’t have figuration, but that’s really besides the point. What is to the point is that I’m in the same state [when making them]. The rest is not my business.”

David Hammons: Five Decades Retrospective at Mnunchin – Reviews

Seeing David Hammons

Given that the artist is such a spectral presence, how can his multifarious oeuvre be summed up in a single retrospective survey?

The most passionately discussed New York City gallery exhibition of last season might have been Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth, but the most talked-about one by a living artist was undoubtedly “David Hammons: Five Decades” at Mnuchin Gallery. Each of the two shows cast its own spell, one very different from the other, but both seemed to offer one emphatic if understated lesson to young artists: Keep your distance from the art world. Guston sought solitude by “painting a lot of other people out of the canvas,” as Harold Rosenberg put it in a conversation with him. Guston concurred: “People represent ideas…. But you have to paint them out. You know, ‘Get out.’” He told Morton Feldman that “by art I don’t mean the art world, I don’t mean lovers of art.” Lovers of art—people like me—might love it to death; what we love in art may not be what the artist needs from it. Guston once compared the art world to a country occupied by a foreign power.

Hammons is even more vehement. For him, not just the art world but art itself is suspect. “I can’t stand art actually. I’ve never, ever liked art,” he told the art historian and curator Kellie Jones in a 1986 interview that remains the most complete exposition we have of this notoriously unforthcoming artist’s philosophy. Claiming to have finally become “too old to run away from this gift,” and fascinated by the “outrageously magical things” that sometimes come of it, Hammons gave in, but without surrendering his reservations. Art should catch you unawares, he told Jones, preferably anywhere but in a gallery: “I like doing stuff better on the street, because the art becomes just one of the objects that’s in the path of your everyday existence. It’s what you move through, and it doesn’t have any seniority over anything else.” In a legendary 1983 performance, Hammons set up a sidewalk vendor’s space on Cooper Square, peddling snowballs that he arranged by size and priced accordingly.

The distance the artist has put between himself and the institutions dedicated to cultivating the appreciative penumbra around art has been not only intellectual but also, so to speak, tactical. He’s famous for making himself scarce. In her contribution to the “Five Decades” catalog, Alanna Heiss—the former director of PS1, where, in 1990–91, the largest exhibition of Hammons’s work appeared, curated by Tom Finkelpearl—­recalls that because the artist “refused to be available by telephone” while the show was being planned, “intricate systems were set up to contact him. The most familiar one I remember was that to meet him, you had to go to the corner of 125th Street by the Orange Julius stand and call a number. He would call you back, and come down and get you. Sometimes it would take a long time. Tom and I had long conversations about the show waiting for David to emerge from the protective cover of the Orange Julius sign.”

Guston and Hammons are hardly the only important artists whose legends are woven around their ambivalence or antagonism to the institutions of art, or rather to art as an institution. An important precursor for Hammons’s brand of found-object assemblage is the great Bruce Conner, whose retrospective, “It’s All True,” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through October 2. Conner once threatened to “quit the art business entirely,” and while he never quite succeeded, he made it as hard as he could for the art business to deal with his orneriness, which could also take the paradoxical form of pretending not to care. In 1963, he printed a card stating: “The bearer of this card is authorized to alter any collage or assemblage made by Bruce Conner which is displayed for public consumption.”

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Such haughtiness might seem risky to artists coming of age in the social-media era, where accommodation and availability are the minimal conditions for success. Or possibly not, since it’s Guston’s and Hammons’s refusal to assimilate—­and, of course, the eye-opening art that it made possible—that continues to inspire. But who gets to be inspired? Hammons has complained that “the art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?” The paradox is that, at least for Hammons, dissing the art world turned out to be the best way of winning it over, and his art is no longer a denizen of the street but of the toniest galleries. When Hammons bites the hand that feeds him—and it feeds him very well; he’s one of the top 10 living American artists by auction price, and the piece that scored this record was auctioned not by a collector, but by the artist himself—the response is usually a swoon of pleasure. His first show with L&M Arts, Mnuchin Gallery’s predecessor, in 2007 featured fur coats despoiled with swaths of paint; it didn’t look like much to me, but lots of people waxed lyrical over the sublime nerve of scandalizing the posh uptown crowd by trashing their most precious apparel. No matter that there are always more minks to ranch and foxes to hunt, or that these coats had become even pricier with the swipe of a brush. That’s what counts uptown (and in most other places), isn’t it? So the joke was on whom exactly?

If that 2007 show was a one-liner, Hammons’s second show at what was still L&M, in 2011, was anything but. The artist had never been known as a painter—though I suppose his treatment of the fur coats could be seen, in retrospect, as an unorthodox example of that genre—but this was a painting show unlike any other. The works were big, bold, and brushy in a manner reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism—­or, I should say, so they seemed from what little one could glimpse of them, because they were mostly covered by torn black tarpaulins, plastic garbage bags, and the like. Was this a cruel joke on the market’s preference for painting? Some observers thought so, though given Hammons’s long-standing association with outstanding painters like Ed Clark and Stanley Whitney, that hardly seems likely. In fact, the hybrid three-dimensional constructions that he’d eked out of the dubious amalgamation of relatively traditional artistic means and grubby everyday stuff were nothing short of magnificent. Significantly, Hammons insisted that L&M break with convention by issuing no press release, but the works themselves spoke eloquently enough about how an artist need neither to renounce nor adhere to any aspect of his tradition (including the by-now-traditional rejection of tradition) in order for “outrageously magical things” to happen. With Hammons, they do, more often than not.

Delving even further back into Hammons’s exhibition history gives an even stronger sense of his unpredictability. At a 2002 show at the Ace Gallery in New York, “Concerto in Black and Blue,” the rooms were unlit, shrouded in darkness; visitors were given small blue flashlights so they could make their way through galleries empty of everything but whoever else was passing through. Roberta Smith elo­quently described the experience as “like being surrounded by Arctic fireflies or walking among faintly visible ghosts.” Given that Hammons is such a spectral presence himself, how can his multifarious oeuvre be summed up in a single retrospective survey? What could it mean to look back on five decades of work by someone convinced that being an artist means (as Hammons told Jones) “never liking anything he finds, in a total rage with everything, never settling or sacrificing for anything”?

At Mnuchin last spring, it meant, for one thing, last-minute changes to “Five Decades”—­and more changes made during the course of the show—that were much talked about in the art world. Apparently, Hammons decided as he was hanging the show to exclude some of the works that had already been loaned by important collectors—­an affront in itself—and substitute some small, cheaply framed photographic pieces, many of them documenting some of the more ephemeral works he’s done over the years.

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Is Hammons contrary for the hell of it? It would certainly jibe with his proclaimed admiration, as a younger man, for artists who “were like poets, you know, hated everything walking, mad, evil; wouldn’t talk to people because they didn’t like the way they looked. Outrageously rude to anybody, they didn’t care how much money that person had.” It’s a lot easier to talk that talk when, despite all expectation, you’ve ended up with more money yourself than you probably ever imagined. But still, that attitude is justified only by the art it makes possible and, so to speak, defends. Making bad art to spite an art world primed to accept your every whim as a sign of genius would be the ultimate self-defeating gesture. It’s strange that some of Hammons’s admirers think this is his modus operandi.

There’s no doubt that the great impression left by “Five Decades” came from some of the show-stopping, indelibly strange, sometimes haunting sculptures Hammons has made over the years. I’m thinking of pieces like the 13-and-a-half-foot-high Basketball Chandelier (1997), a pole leaning against a wall and topped with a hollowed-out backboard and rim, the basket itself made of crystal prisms; or the eerily simple In the Hood (1993), a hoodie’s excised hood mounted on the wall and held open by a wire rim, emptily gaping from on high. There are also the recent untitled works—taking off from the paintings of a few years back, a couple of which were also on view—made of big old mirrors draped with torn fabric or blocked with sheets of galvanized steel. These are strangely figurative works: The mirrors become bodies clothed in outlandish, maybe mournful garb, at once scavenged and ceremonial.

But what made the show more than a collection of captured trophies was the selection of small photographic pieces scattered among the larger works. My favorite is from 1989: Untitled (Three Leg Chair), which shows the artist himself (still as elusive as ever in sunglasses) leaning back in an elegant old chair that only has its two back legs. The third leg promised by the piece’s subtitle is Hammons’s own, firmly planted: It’s all about balance, and self-reliance, even when you think there’s an independent support system sustaining you. Other pieces were more mysterious: for instance, a found photo of an all-white basketball team, the ball inscribed with the year “1936.”

That the young athletes’ whiteness seemed so striking in this context probably means I have to use a word I’ve been consciously trying to avoid using. But while Georges Perec managed to write hundreds of pages without using the letter “e”—he failed if you consider his name on the title page of La disparition (in English, A Void) as part of the novel—I’m not virtuoso enough to write a couple of thousand words on Hammons without talking about blackness. That’s unsurprising, considering how deeply race informs his approach, his subject matter, and even his materials (an untitled sculpture from 2004 is a gray stone turned into a kind of portrait head by being topped with hair gathered from a Harlem barbershop). But my reticence, I hope, is just as understandable, because one thing Hammons makes me feel is how much of an outsider I am to his world. That’s not accidental: “White viewers have to look at someone else’s culture in those pieces and see very little of themselves in it,” he told Jones. “And that’s the beauty of looking at art from other cultures, that they’re not mirror reflections.” Is that why he later decided to work with shrouded mirrors?

* * *

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of the reason I didn’t write about “Five Decades” back when it was on view was that it made me self-conscious about how race and culture condition interpretation. I didn’t feel ready to think through my reactions to the work. And the last thing I wanted was to let myself off the hook by just joining the chorus of praise for Hammons, as if that might make me right with the Lord. What’s more demeaning than joining the laughter at a joke that might be on you?

Luckily, I’ve had another, unexpected chance to delve into Hammons’s art. In Greece this summer, there was a scarcely publicized show of his work on view (through September 30) at the George Economou Collection, a private museum in Marousi, a northern suburb of Athens. (Its owner is a Greek shipping magnate, not the American poet who happens to have the same name.) “David Hammons: Give Me a Moment” is billed as the artist’s first European survey, although it’s a smaller show than “Five Decades”; it even includes a couple of the same or very similar pieces. Ably overseen by Mark Godfrey, a senior curator at the Tate Modern in London, the show’s tighter focus makes it stronger than the one in New York. But whether it’s because of Godfrey’s selection or simply because I was looking at the work in a different context—one in which the specifically American history of racial oppression slips from foreground to background—I saw Hammons’s work differently.

Not that race disappears as a subject. Recalling the 2002 show at Ace Gallery, which was his first encounter with the artist’s work, Godfrey observes: “Readings that try to force Concerto to be a symbol of African American experience are reductive, but to ignore the metaphorical or cultural resonances of darkness, black, and blue would be equally wrong.” In Athens, though, Hammons’s work seemed blessedly indifferent to such dichotomies. Although as sly as ever, it made the artist appear less of a trickster; the characteristic anger of his work was still discernible, but it suddenly seemed less important than the love embodied in it. The overwhelming tenderness in his handling of material corresponds to his feeling about the people whom his art is finally about: black people, in the main, but not only. One of the most touching pieces, inspired by his stay at the American Academy in Rome, is called Roman Homeless (1990). Nothing more than a piece of worn-out, nearly colorless embroidered fabric draped around a cylinder of metal mesh that might or might not be a trash basket, and with some discolored old tennis balls and bits of crystal from a chandelier hanging from one side, the piece is an unforgettable portrait of someone to whom you might give a coin in passing without really noticing—but who, on second thought, could just as well be the soothsayer in Julius Caesar foretelling your Ides of March. There’s something minatory about this eerily faceless head decked out in poverty but also in great ceremony—and yet there’s also the implication that if you had the heart to break the boundary of difference and at last simply see this person face-to-face, the threatening spell might dissipate.

Hammons keeps reminding us that seeing each other is not so easy. At the Economou Collection, there was an untitled work from 1996 consisting of a sequence of African masks—cheap knockoffs, not museum pieces—placed atop one another, bound together with wire and cord: masks masking masks masking other masks, and behind them a blank wall. And just in case you think you can see through them to the underlying reality, at the front of the pile, there’s a little mirror.

Who or what is reflected in the mirror that Hammons holds up to our culture? Keeping in mind what he told Jones about the beauty of an art that can be experienced as not just “mirror reflections,” it might be that the best mirror is an empty one. The mirror that fronts the untitled African-mask sculpture was too high on the wall for me to catch my reflection in. Is that really what the work is offering: an escape from the self, from identity? It wouldn’t be surprising. As abstract as Hammons’s art can be, it is often implicitly figurative, still very much about things—and about how things become magical when you can lose yourself in them. When you work on things, you transform them—the way the rusty, bent bottle caps in Air Jordan (1988) metamorphose into cowrie shells—but they just might transform you at the same time. A change can always come, if you manage to wait long enough.

David Hammons: The Private Public Artist

The staging of Hammons’s work at Mnuchin Gallery amounts to the punch line of a joke that has extended throughout his half-century career.

Flying high outside the galleries of the Studio Museum in Harlem and overlooking 125th Street is artist and perennial prankster David Hammons’s most famous work, Untitled (African American Flag), which reimages America’s flag in the Pan-African tricolor of red, green, and black. Whenever Hammons art is included in an exhibition, as the flag recently was at MoMA P.S. 1 during “Greater New York,” viewers are offered an opportunity to renegotiate what can be art. This is the case again in the recently opened solo exhibition, “David Hammons: Five Decades,” at the Mnuchin Gallery through May 27.

“Five Decades” is Hammons’s first survey in about 25 years. In 1990, he presented the solo exhibition “Rousing the Rubble” at MoMA PS1, and since then he has used Mnuchin’s space twice to show “Fur Coats,” in 2007, and “Tarp,” in 2011, with just a handful of authorized offerings in between. The idea for this year’s show started as a museum-worthy retrospective that Hammons whittled down to 33 works, which include a series of never-before-seen photographs. Hammons cut, for example, his clever 1988 portrait (How Ya Like Me Now?) of Jesse Jackson, depicted with white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, from the show. The exhibition’s earliest work is the 1969 black-and-white body print Spade (Power for the Spade); it concludes with a vibrant and earthy abstract-expressionist painting wrapped in a tattered red tarp made in 2015.

During a time when museums are dramatically expanding their holdings beyond Eurocentric art, the Hammons exhibition is a tour de force of the art of black life. For the notoriously private artist, this exhibit seems to have presented another opportunity for subversion: Is there a better way to address the hard realities of racism and wag a finger at the institutionalized art world than to present his work in a genteel mansion converted into a gallery between Madison and Park avenues?

The staging of Hammons’s work at Mnuchin amounts to the punch line of the joke that has extended throughout his half-century career. Hammons, who is 72 years old, was born in Springfield, Illinois, to a poor family in 1943. During the early 1960s, in Los Angeles, he studied art and joined an informal group of avant-gardists including Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, and John Outterbridge, of California’s Funk Art Movement. Hammons later became involved in the Black Arts Movement typified by groups like the Chicago-based art collective AfriCOBRA. In 1974, the artist moved to New York City and a Hammons-ian rule emerged: You never know what you are going to get from him, or where you’ll see it. He took over an electronic billboard in Times Square in 1982 to present cryptic messages to the public (harlem can you stand such beauty? one read); in 1983, he sold snowballs alongside street vendors in Cooper Square; in 1986, he covered five 20- to 30-foot-high basketball hoops with bottle caps, an installation, called Higher Goals, that aimed to challenge the imaginations of opportunity-strapped black youth. In 1990, Hammons was awarded the Prix de Rome prize, and in 1991 he won a McArthur “genius” grant. Still, Hammons keeps his distance from the art world as such: He rarely shows, barely grants interviews, and doesn’t have a dealer.

* * *

The conceptual artist challenges the notion of a monolithic blackness in the sculpture that opens “Five Decades,” Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like… ? (2001), which is comprised of three microphones set to different heights. Hammons evokes the physicality and cultural positioning of Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan with humor and word play: three black men who represent dramatically different illustrations of blackness. It also serves as one example, among many in the show, of the ways that Hammons is able to examine the human condition and uncover both trauma and transcendence.

For example, a wooden Bakongo sculpture uses satire to reveal a pause-for-thought truth about modern American society: Hammons painted the double-headed, nail-punctured dog orange and titled it Orange Is The New Black (2014). The Congolese sculpture, traditionally used to ward off evil spirits, makes you wonder who needs to be protected from the haunts—those swept up in mass incarceration or those who make and consume its watered down, pop-culture version.

In the corner of the gallery that Hammons personally arranged sits an untitled 2004 sculpture of a rock with a fantastically fresh fade fashioned from coiled hair swept up off a barbershop floor. The work evokes the ways in which the barbershop—where black boys and men often gather to form community—is, for some, as revered as any American institution. The process by which Hammons, like a barber, finely fixed nappy hair into a celebrated style also serves to question traditional politics of beauty.

Two mirrors, one shrouded in worn fabric (2013) and the other boarded up with galvanized steel (2014), purposely obstruct reflection. It seems that Hammons wants us to look harder at the conditions that shape black life because the truth is not always easily rendered. And, as with most of Hammons’s art, another message is just under the surface: The joke may be on us.

* * *

On the opening night of “Five Decades” a line of viewers hoping to glimpse Hammons’s art stretched down the north side of East 78th Street. Inside, an assemblage of stars in the contemporary black art world—Thelma Golden, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, Kimberly Drew—gathered to pay homage to Hammons and his work. Hammons was nowhere to be found, as is typical. By now, his absence from the social and commercial spheres of the art world has turned into a kind of performance art itself.

In a 1986 interview, Hammons said, “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?” Thirty years later, the audience continues to show up, but Hammons might be having all the fun.

Laughter and Anger

A David Hammons retrospective.

A concise retrospective—a sampler, really—of important works by David Hammons, at the Mnuchin Gallery, on East Seventy-eighth Street, is a big deal, as Hammons shows generally are. Now seventy-two, the African-American artist has, by choice, exhibited rarely during the five decades of his now-you-see-him, mostly-you-don’t career. When glimpsed in person, he’s a watchful dandy sporting a colorful knit cap, but sightings are few and far between. Hammons so successfully shuns and fascinates the art world that he is almost an art world unto himself. The qualifier “elusive” clings to him. “Unique” applies, too. He is both a satirical oracle of racial fissures in society and a subtle aesthete, in forms of post-minimalist sculpture and installation.

Comedy and spleen seesaw in Hammons’s art. “In the Hood” (1993) is in fact the hood of a black hoodie, hanging agape, high up on a white wall of the gallery. It’s rivetingly clever, but may strike some, at least, as menacing. “Traveling” (2002), a beautifully atmospheric grisaille, nearly ten feet tall, was made by repeatedly bouncing a basketball soiled with “Harlem earth” onto paper. The themes of other works stray from race to class. Purple paint is slathered across the back of a gorgeous fox-fur coat, while two apparently lovely abstractions painted by Hammons are largely concealed by tattered plastic fabrics, reminiscent of homeless encampments. Like earlier Hammons shows, this one feels like a combined diplomatic mission from an ominous polity and a guerrilla raid by a force that departs as swiftly as it pounces.

The artist spoke with me, bracingly and delightfully, for a column in this magazine, in 2002. He wouldn’t do so again. “We hear that he’s in Morocco,” Sukanya Rajaratnam, a partner at Mnuchin, told me. She shrugged: maybe, maybe not. This is Hammons’s third show at the gallery since 2007. The owner, Robert Mnuchin, a collector who was a partner at Goldman Sachs, cheerfully acknowledges that his relations with Hammons are conducted, often by proxy, at the artist’s unpredictable initiative and always under his conditions. It is a tangy arrangement, strictly ad hoc. The works in the show differ from those in the catalogue, because Hammons dropped by the gallery at the last minute and dictated some changes. (“Difficult” is another epithet that trails him, voiced with rueful smiles by dealers and curators.)

Hammons has never had a regular dealer, but he plainly favors the Mnuchin Gallery because it’s at so far a remove from the rough streets that provide most of his material. (It’s in an Upper East Side town house, to which you are admitted by a buzzer through one locked door and by a guard through another.) His first two shows there, of ruined fur coats and shrouded paintings, coolly affronted the wealthy neighborhood, which could roll with it by regarding him as a sort of court jester, licensed by the lofty market value of his work. (Museums and collectors, especially in Europe, crave his sparse output.) He would reject that belittlement, of course, while leaving himself open to it. Paradox becomes him. Andrew Russeth, of artnews, has reported that two years ago Hammons bought a one-story brick building in Yonkers, which the city’s mayor, Mike Spano, announced would be renovated to house an art gallery. The thought of Hammons as a curator excites. Already, he sometimes incorporates other artists’ works into his own shows; for instance, a delicate abstraction by Agnes Martin recently appeared in an otherwise rugged installation in London to enigmatic effect.

Hammons grew up in Springfield, Illinois, the tenth and youngest child of a single mother. He did poorly at school, except in vocational courses. He considered becoming a commercial artist, and, with that goal in mind, in the early sixties he moved to Los Angeles, where he attended, among other schools, the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts), a hotbed of avant-gardism. In L.A., he befriended jazz musicians and was caught up in the ripples of the Black Power movement. His first mature works, four of which are in the show, are body prints that he made by greasing and pressing himself and others against paper, applying black pigment, and adding such symbols as American flags and spades from a deck of cards. The best-known of his works include versions of the flag in Africanist red, black, and green and “How Ya Like Me Now?” (1988), a large painting of Jesse Jackson with white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. (None of them appear in this show.)

In 1974, Hammons settled in New York and slowly gained notice for startlingly beautiful sculptures made of empty bottles that had contained cheap fortified wine. For the “Times Square Show,” a well-remembered populist event put on by the artist-activist group Colab, in 1980, he covered the floor of a space with glittering shards of smashed bottles. In the winter of 1983, outside Cooper Union, in the East Village, he staged a legendary performance in which he solemnly peddled snowballs, priced according to size. That jape is memorialized in this show by a glass sculpture of a snowball on a wall-mounted bric-a-brac shelf, and by the printout of an e-mail from a collector couple (their names redacted) who had it in their heads to shop for one of the original snowballs but reported that “not a single insurance company would cover it for us, and we called half a dozen.” For a similar burlesque on the market, “Concerto in Black and Blue,” in 2002, Hammons turned off the lights in the immense windowless Ace Gallery, on Hudson Street, and provided tiny blue key-chain flashlights for visitors. Reinstallations of the work were offered to collectors at prices scaled to the spaces that they wanted darkened.

A recurring theme in Hammons’s work is the seductive and sometimes tragic allure of stardom for impoverished black youth. It is addressed with painful directness in the outdoor sculpture “Higher Goals” (1986), in Brooklyn, which raises basketball hoops twenty or thirty feet in the air. In the Mnuchin show, “Basketball Chandelier” (1997)—a full-sized mockup of a hoop and backboard festooned with dangling crystals—evokes the glamour of the game. “Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like . . . ?” (2001) consists of three standing microphones of different types and vintages. The Mikes alluded to are Jackson, Jordan, and Tyson. On more assertive notes, two sculptures incorporate human hair that Hammons gathered at black barbershops. In a magnificent untitled piece from 1992, borrowed from the Whitney Museum, a vast, stilled explosion of projecting wires is covered with hair. (The piece molts when it is at all disturbed; Hammons maintains a supply of hair to repair it.) In “One Stone Head” (1997), a stone has been given a raffish haircut, suggesting a self-portrait.

More recent pieces in the show include amateur copies or pastiches of African masks and fetish sculptures, which Hammons found or bought and then smeared with orange paint. They are collectively titled “Orange Is the New Black.” Also lately he has extended the motif of his occluded paintings, but without paint, to decoratively framed secondhand mirrors. He fronted one, standing ten and a half feet high, with two sheets of battered galvanized steel. The sheets are angled relative to each other in a way that uncannily recalls classic Cubist or Constructivist composition.

The show has an exquisite soundtrack of traditional Japanese court music, played on koto and bamboo flute. Hammons is enamored of Japan and travels there often. In 2002, he fashioned a faux Zen garden on a flatbed truck and drove it around Yamaguchi. “A Movable Object / A Japanese Garden” (2012) rings a change on that idea with ragged chunks of asphalt heaped on a swatch of lovely blue fabric, by Issey Miyake, and mounted on a wheeled platform. Beautifying asphalt would seem to be no cinch, but the naked quiddity of the stuff, after a third or fourth look, turns cherishable. It’s typical of works by Hammons to repel at first glance and weave a spell on successive viewings.

Hammons’s strategic independence is inescapably self-conscious. It’s a quality he accepts for keeping his several identities—artist, cosmopolitan, American, African-American—in continual play. Infrequently, some of what he does is throwaway slight or arch—take, please, “Standing Room Only” (1996), a taxidermied cat curled up on a West African-style drum—but he is always original and never wanting in point or in purpose. Each piece intervenes in the normal course of art and society, creating a turbulence. He makes people nervous. Some white critics—such as me, when I first encountered his work—have reacted defensively, purporting to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the references and provocations.

But even if you understand a joke it can still be on you. The test is authenticity. The proof of Hammons’s art is his life, and vice-versa. His double-rootedness in demotic culture and in patrician sophistication brackets a social zone that he leaves void, anticipating polarized responses. Whatever you are, at this biting and elegant show, you become the ground zero of the lack and the possibility. 

Goddess of Painting Carmen Herrera: Interviews. Images. Texts


U.S. New York NY Culture


Painter Carmen Herrera, at 101, Is Making Her Mark
New exhibition at the Whitney shows artist’s works from her earlier years as she refined her distinctive approach to geometric abstraction


Carmen Herrera at her studio in May. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal
By Susan Delson
Sept. 11, 2016 6:48 p.m. ET

When the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new building in 2015, a striking green-and-white abstraction by a little-known artist hung alongside works by renowned painters like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.

And it more than held its own.

But the new kid on the block wasn’t new—she had been making art for decades. And she certainly wasn’t a kid. At that point, Carmen Herrera was about to turn 100.
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How Ms. Herrera developed her incisive, razor-sharp style—the same style in which she paints today—is the focus of “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” opening Friday at the Whitney. The exhibition zeroes in on the pivotal decades of 1948 to 1978, when Ms. Herrera’s distinctive approach to geometric abstraction came into its own.

“Frankly, she didn’t bloom late, she was noticed late,” said Dana Miller, the exhibition’s curator and until recently director of collections at the Whitney. “She bloomed a long time ago.”
The Manhattan studio of Carmen Herrera. ENLARGE
The Manhattan studio of Carmen Herrera. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

The exhibition opens with works from Ms. Herrera’s Paris years, 1948 to 1953. They trace an evolution from lyrical, curving shapes and a lush palette to the visual punch of straight-edged forms painted in two colors only—as in a stunning black-and-white series, begun in 1952, that anticipated the minimalism of the 1960s.

In these and other works, Ms. Herrera also began painting the frames and edges of the canvases and using multiple panels to create the works—treating them as three-dimensional objects rather than two-dimensional surfaces.

Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg were doing similar things at the time, Ms. Miller pointed out. But while their innovations won art-world recognition, Ms. Herrera’s went largely unacknowledged—until recently.

The idea for the exhibition emerged from the museum’s 2014 acquisition of the Herrera that appeared in the inaugural show—a 1959 work from her “ Blanco y Verde” (Green and White) series (1959–1971).


Carmen Herrera’s ‘Amarillo Dos,’ 1971. Photo: Carmen Herrera

Ms. Herrera considers “Blanco y Verde” her most important series, and “Lines of Sight” gathers an unprecedented nine of them—perhaps more, Ms. Miller said, than even Ms. Herrera has seen in one place.

Hanging in a gallery of their own, the works have a concentrated, almost electric energy. So do the seven paintings in the “Days of the Week” series (1975–78), which is positioned as the first thing visitors see stepping off the elevator.

With some 50 works, “Lines of Sight” asserts Ms. Herrera’s rightful spot in 20th-century art history. But Ms. Herrera herself is no museum piece. She works in her studio almost daily, and shows no signs of stopping.

She has deepened and refined the style she developed in those earlier years, and within its stringent parameters continues to create work of intense visual power.

‘I work, and I work, and I work.’
—Carmen Herrera

At age 101, she now grapples with the demands of her growing international recognition and the limitations of age, balanced against her own fierce absorption in her art.

An assistant does most of the physical labor, but by the time the canvas is prepped Ms. Herrera has already conceived the painting in full detail.

The process takes her from small pencil sketches to larger colored drawings and schematics indicating the dimensions of each area of the canvas. Specific colors are chosen from charts.

Ms. Herrera does much of her drawing at a counter at the front of her loft on East 19th Street in Manhattan, behind a bank of sunny, south-facing windows lined with orchid plants.

“I work, and I work, and I work,” she said in an interview. “I’m happy, and I do it. And then somebody rings the bell,” she added with a mock scowl. “All I want is to be left alone, like Greta Garbo. And you see what happened to her.”


Carmen Herrera and husband, Jesse Loewenthal, in Paris in 1949. Photo: Carmen Herrera

Born in Havana, Ms. Herrera was educated in Cuba and Paris, moving to New York with her American husband, Jesse Loewenthal—a cosmopolitan, multilingual writer and teacher—in 1939.

In 1948, the couple moved to Paris. There, Ms. Herrera quickly fell in with an international community of artists—including members of the forward-thinking Salon des Réalités Nouvelles—who encouraged her in developing her mature style.

In early 1954, financial pressures sent the pair back to New York, where abstract expressionism dominated the art scene with its explosive mix of gesture, drama and testosterone. Ms. Herrera’s cool, cerebral distillations attracted little interest.

Still, she persisted.

Her fortunes changed around 2004, when she began exhibiting with New York dealer Federico Sève at his Latincollector gallery. She debuted as the last-minute substitute in a group show.
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That year, collector and philanthropist Ella Fontanals-Cisneros acquired Ms. Herrera’s work for her Miami-based Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. Other influential collectors—most of them women—also acquired works around that time.

Ms. Herrera’s career got another boost in 2010, when the London-based Lisson Gallery began representing her internationally. This past spring, a show of her recent work inaugurated the gallery’s New York space—and sold out in a matter of weeks. According to Alex Logsdail, Lisson’s international director, several pieces are headed to major museums.

The auction market has started to catch up too. At last November’s Latin American sale at Phillips, Ms. Herrera’s 1965 canvas “Basque,” estimated at $120,000 to $180,000, fetched $437,000, including buyer’s premium.

“I never expected that,” Ms. Herrera said, before pausing to correct herself. “I did expect it,” she said firmly, speaking not only of the sale but her newfound recognition as a whole. “And here it is.”

rt & Design | Studio Visit
An Artist at 100, Thinking Big but Starting Small

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Carmen Herrera, 100, in her home studio on East 19th Street in Manhattan. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The painter Carmen Herrera, who turns 101 in May, was sitting in her wheelchair on a gray day last month, waiting and watching, catlike.

She was quiet for the moment, but at any time she might toss off a teasing zinger toward an old friend who was present, or a directive to her assistant to make a minute calibration to one of her hard-edge abstract paintings.

Ms. Herrera, who has shoulder-length white hair and wire-rim glasses and was wearing a black cardigan sweater, held up a small, rectangular piece of painted vellum and compared it to the larger version of the same work, one done on paper, which was hanging on the wall of her large, floor-through home and studio on East 19th Street.

She grunted softly.

Silently assessing the diamond-shaped areas of red and blue on the canvas, Ms. Herrera was working, in her way — deciding how much red, how much blue, and where the line between them would be — though she was not applying paint just then.

Ms. Herrera still makes art every day; it sustains her. “I’ve painted all my life,” she said, nodding her head firmly to make the point. “It makes me feel good.” She sold her first piece 81 years ago.

Ms. Herrera in 1965 with Jesse Loewenthal, her husband of 61 years, who died in 2000. Credit Jesse Loewenthal

Her sense of humor remains intact, and she has tart, firm opinions. “Don’t do it,” she said with a chuckle about being 100. “It’s horrible.”

In the last dozen years, Ms. Herrera has a thriving career that would make any artist jealous: a show opening May 3 at Lisson Gallery in New York, the debut for the American branch of the London dealer, and in the fall, a solo exhibition of early work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Lisson show features some dozen paintings, all made in the last couple of years, and all filled with her signature bold simplicity: sharply delineated blocks of color often energized by a strong diagonal line.
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Her age and lack of mobility — she no longer gets out of the house regularly and has live-in round-the-clock care — have forced a series of adjustments to her work habits.

Far from undermining her project, however, these concessions have served to highlight the conceptual nature of her work.

Dana Miller, the Whitney curator who organized the coming exhibition of Ms. Herrera’s, said that these quiet moments were clearly productive for the artist.
Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“The more I delve into her work, the more I understand that it’s conceptual in nature,” Ms. Miller said. “She said to me, ‘I don’t have the heart to paint, I have the brain to paint.’”

As Ms. Herrera has become physically shakier, she has relied on a team of people to help her — but then again, Jeff Koons relies on others to make his pieces, too.

Robert Storr, the former Museum of Modern Art curator and Yale School of Art dean, who wrote a catalog essay for the Lisson show, compared her to late-stage Henri Matisse, who was famously photographed sitting in bed and making his “Cut-Outs” series with scissors and paper.

“He was using someone else to be his arms and legs, and she’s doing the same thing,” Mr. Storr said.

He added that her work is part of the Constructivist tradition and shows “how much can be done with really simple elements.”

Born in Cuba in 1915, Ms. Herrera lived for two long stints in Paris, where, in the 1940s, her art became fully formed. Ellsworth Kelly (who died last December), whom she knew, and whose works have some similarities to hers, was developing his art in Paris at the same time.


Carmen Herrera’s “Night Forest” (2016), acrylic on canvas. Credit Carmen Herrera/Lisson Gallery

“I like his work, but I didn’t like him,” Ms. Herrera recalled. “He was kind of eeeehhhhh.” She screwed up her face.

Ms. Herrera settled permanently in New York in the 1950s, where she became friends with Barnett Newman, Leon Polk Smith and Wilfredo Lam. She has spent 49 years in her current apartment. Her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal, died in 2000.

She didn’t gain wide attention until she was in her 80s, but unlike the late-blooming painter known as Grandma Moses — Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860–1961), who took up the brush in her 70s — Ms. Herrera came to fame for a consistent style and sensibility she had been practicing for decades.

She speaks faintly now, often switching between Spanish and English. Often on hand to translate is her friend Tony Bechara, who helps her negotiate the outside world, from dentist appointments to dealer relations.

“I may end up as a footnote to history,” Mr. Bechara joked about his Zelig-like presence at her side. A painter himself, he met Ms. Herrera in 1972 when they were both featured in a group show — but he doesn’t assist with her art.

For that, Ms. Herrera has Manuel Belduma, who shops for supplies and does all the physical work she cannot. He was specifically hired for his lack of art-making knowledge, Mr. Bechara said, so that Ms. Herrera gets exactly what she wants on the canvas, with no art-school suggestions.

“Red Wall’ (2015), acrylic on canvas. Credit Carmen Herrera/Lisson Gallery

“She has financial means that enables her to have staff,” the Whitney’s Ms. Miller said. “It enables her to continue to work, period.”

The early stages of her process have stayed remarkably the same over the years.

“When I wake up, all I am thinking about is breakfast,” Ms. Herrera said. “After breakfast, I know I have something waiting for me. And I get going.”

She pointed to a desk by a long block of windows fronting the street, where she starts around 9:30 every morning. “That’s where I think of the composition — if I’m lucky,” she said.

Stage 1 is her sketch, which Ms. Herrera does in pencil on graph paper by the window, flanked by her potted orchids.

For Stage 2, she transfers the idea to a small piece of vellum, and, using acrylic paint markers, does the sketch in color. Sometimes what follows is a larger version on paper, to see if the composition is working.

“We do it small, and then we do it bigger,” said Ms. Herrera, who studied architecture in Havana in the 1930s. “When it gets big, you might think of it in a different way.”

Photo 17carmen6-master675
Ms. Herrera in 2015, using tape that is instrumental in the creation of her paintings. Credit Jason Schmidt/Lisson Gallery


Once the painting process starts, Mr. Belduma places the canvases horizontally on an old architectural drafting table on wheels, so that Ms. Herrera can spin it around and get a closer look.

Ms. Herrera tells him exactly where to place blue tape — the nonstick kind found in most utility drawers — as well as a special green tape that prevents the paint from bleeding onto adjacent sections.

When it comes to rolling the paint, Ms. Herrera often does a first coat herself. Mr. Belduma does the later ones.

Then he hangs them on the wall, and Ms. Herrera considers them, sometimes for days.

It takes from one week to several weeks to make a painting, and Ms. Herrera will often scrap a piece and go back, literally, to the drawing board — though everyone who works for her knows not to actually trash the attempts she throws in the garbage.

Ms. Herrera enjoys a glass of wine at lunch and dinner — an inexpensive merlot is the current favorite — and she still reads The Times Literary Supplement every week.

“I’ve known a lot of older artists, and she has the least signs of old-age problems of any of them,” said Mr. Storr, who has observed her working on multiple occasions.

She recalled the deprivations of Paris during World War II in terms that could also apply to the limitations and liberations of creating art in one’s 11th decade.

When there were no canvases available, she simply switched to painting on burlap.

“When you don’t have much,” Ms. Herrera said, “anything will do.”
Correction: April 15, 2016
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the location of Carmen Herrera’s studio in Manhattan. It is on East 19th Street, not East 17th Street.



CARMEN HERRERA with Laila Pedro

In recent years, Carmen Herrera (b. 1915) has become as renowned for her elegant, geometric abstract paintings as for her unflagging productivity during the decades in which the works were overlooked. Born in Havana, Herrera moved to New York with her American husband. The two spent several years in Paris in the artistically charged years following the Second World War. It was in Paris that Herrera, absorbing and transforming the city’s febrile creative currents, arrived at the deceptively minimal, restrained, and chromatically evocative style that we have come to recognize, unmistakably, as hers. On September 16, her long overdue solo exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ahead of the opening, Laila Pedro visited Herrera at her home and studio in New York to celebrate and reflect upon her long and finally groundbreaking career.

Portrait of Carmen Herrera. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu.

Laila Pedro (Rail): Carmen, here we are in New York, in your beautiful home and studio, as you are about to open a solo show at the Whitney. It’s a huge moment.

Carmen Herrera: Yes!

Rail: I was just reading the catalogue proofs. Dana Miller, who organized the show, writes its lead essay, which explicitly positions this exhibition as a corrective to the fact that your work, as hardly bears repeating, was overlooked for so long. I was struck by the very intelligent decision to focus this exhibition on a critical period for you: the years from 1948 – 78. This is the time when you were in Paris and in New York. And it was in Paris that you distilled your style—the minimal, restrained compositions that we now instantly identify as yours.

Herrera: Paris in 1948 was essential for me. I love France. It’s a tragedy to see how it is changing now. It is not only the terrorist attacks, but simply that the way of living, as an artist, which was so formative for me, is no longer possible. When I was there, everyone was there. It was a delicious time. But, these things end.

Rail: When you were first in New York, you were still doing figurative work. It wasn’t until Paris that you really evolved the precise, geometric abstract constructions that characterize your mature style.

Herrera: Of course. It was about meeting new people and gaining a new set of influences and learning to filter and absorb those. Everything was marvelous; everything was possible.

Rail: And in Paris you met and showed with the Salon des réalités nouvelles, which was important for you as well.

Carmen Herrera, Equation, 1958. Acrylic on canvas with painted frame, 24 × 42 inches. Collection of Stanley Stairs and Leslie Powell. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Ikon Gallery.

Herrera: Every year everyone came to exhibit—well, not everyone; you had to be accepted! [Laughter.] We would come together, people from all around the world. I showed with them several times. Someone who was very important to me was Fredo [Sidès, director of the Salon des réalités nouvelles]. He always told me the truth, like when a painting was too crowded, or I was trying to do too much, and I was grateful. I just showed up at his house and knocked on the door. I wasn’t scared of any of them.

But it was another time, and another community. And it was so open that I was able to gain all this exposure. Before, I didn’t know anything about all these different kinds of people. Germans, Italians—I barely knew anything about Americans! So it was very good, and very important, to be exposed to that community.

Rail: That was a sense of community that you hadn’t been able to find in New York, but that you had experienced in Cuba, with women artists like Amelia Peláez (1896 – 1968) and Loló Soldevilla (1901 – 71).

Herrera: Yes. Amelia had won a scholarship to study in France, and she spent some time there, but Cuba drew her back. She was older than me, significantly, and I admired her tremendously. She was tiny and she swore like a sailor. I admired her as a painter, but more so in her personality. Her personality informed her work, of course, but she was tough, and that was what inspired me. Loló also traveled to France, so she was part of everyone who was there. Wifredo [Lam] helped her a lot.

Rail: Did Wifredo help or influence you? I know you were friends—and people would even try to get in touch with him through you—but there is some artistic influence in your early work, no? In your Tondos from this period, for example. It’s this kind of more Cubistic, organic abstraction.

Herrera: We got along very well. I had been to school in Paris, but when I went back as an adult artist, Wifredo had already been there, in those circles, for some time. I would help him to navigate socially, because he came from a very humble background; he was not very sophisticated. And he always thought he had something to teach me! But in France everyone fell in love with him. And everyone thought we must be related because we were both Cuban.

Rail: In Cuba, your family collected art; you come from a very cultured, progressive home. Did they collect works by Cuban painters?

Herrera: They collected European works, but many intellectuals did visit our home. Langston Hughes came to visit. It was a very intellectual environment. There wasn’t as much money as there was culture. And in Havana there was also the Lyceum, the women’s club. That did a tremendous amount of good because it exposed women to literature and art. It was magnificent. And I had wanted to go to the university and take architecture classes, but it was difficult, because of all the political unrest. I had a group of friends who gathered to study architecture together—and they did all become architects.

Rail: Then you met your husband, Jesse Loewenthal.

Herrera: Yes, and we came to New York. You think you’re steering your own life, and then, all of a sudden, things change. That was it! [Laughter.]

Carmen Herrera, Amarillo “Dos”, 1971. Acrylic on wood, 40 × 70 × 3 1/4 inches. Private collection. © Carmen Herrera.

Rail: Carmen, can we look at some of the works you’ve produced in this time? There are some I am very curious to ask you about.

Herrera: Yes, ask whatever you want. [Laughter.]

Rail: Let’s look at the Estructuras [structures], like Amarillo “Dos.” You’re very specific that they’re not paintings, they’re not sculptures—they’re structures. The use of depth and negative space to deploy shadow as a painterly device—almost a chromatic element—in what is otherwise a monochrome seems hugely important to me.

Herrera: I wanted to make these for a long time, and I think they are very important, but I couldn’t find the right person to help me with the fabrication. So there are many of them that are unrealized. I had a wonderful carpenter who helped me make them, but he passed away and I could never find anyone else who could do it properly. Recently, I’ve found a new assistant, who is finally able to fabricate and execute work the way I conceive it.

Rail: Are they free-standing?

Herrera: Some are. Some are hung on the wall, but they also protrude.

Rail: They’re obviously informed by your architectural mind.

Herrera: Of course. They’re minimal but you can walk around them. You can turn them around when you display them and change the display.

Rail: There’s the architectural aspect, which is part of a general concern with the materiality of your works. Sometimes, you’ve painted the frame as well.

Herrera: Painting the frame is my defense of the work, my way of protecting it.

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949. Acrylic on canvas on board, diameter: 40 inches. Collection of the artist. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Rail: Looking at your “diptych” works gives a sense of the intensity of expression and composition that you extract from very minimal elements. It’s not symmetrical: even where you’ve painted the edges, in some cases you’ve only painted one edge. Through radical reduction, you’ve made minimal optical components incredibly dimensioned and textured. It magnifies the relationships of scale.

Herrera: I didn’t always divide them in the middle. Sometimes the proportion is almost identical—but not quite.

Rail: This black-and-white work, Equation, from 1958, plays with some of the issues of scale, but also with orientation and dislocation.

Herrera: I think that is one of my first really serious works. One of my first serious, geometric works.

Rail: Now that you have a fabricator, a technical assistant that you trust, you are able to keep realizing your paintings. Can we talk about your daily process?

Herrera: Every day I make drawings in color, on paper, at my desk over there by the window. I make the drawings and then they are hung on the wall right over here. These are all the drawings I’ve been working on. I hang them and live with them for a while so I can see how I feel about them. I can see what needs to change, what needs to be taken out. This orange and black one, here—the small orange section at the bottom right needs to go. I’m absolutely sure. Do you see? It will be much more interesting if you remove that piece.

Rail: You are always reducing, Carmen.

Herrera: It seems obvious, now!

Rail: Like an architect, you make scaled preparatory drawings, with the dimensions indicated along each side of the work. Here you have them all marked; they look almost like blueprints. Do you always have a sense of the scale before you sit down to draw?

Herrera: Yes. When I’m working on the drawing, I always know roughly the size of final work I want it to become. I mark the proportions and then my assistant executes them. Behind you is one we just finished. He did all that blue there with a small roller, to get the very smooth surface, and the lines are marked off with tape.

Rail: You’ve left the bottom quadrants unpainted, so it is almost like in this section of the painting the bare, ivory cotton is working as its own color, its own pigment. The material is acting as a paint.

Herrera: Yes, everyone keeps telling me to leave that white there but I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure. I’ll leave it a bit longer and see what my brain tells me.

This conversation has been condensed and translated from Spanish by Laila Pedro. Carmen Herrera’s longtime friend, artist Tony Bechara, provided invaluable assistance and support.


Laila Pedro LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.



Art & Design
A Carmen Herrera Solo Exhibition at the Whitney


The painter Carmen Herrera, who turned 100 last year. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“Don’t do it,” the painter Carmen Herrera recently counseled an interviewer, about turning a century old, which she did last year. “It’s horrible.”
Carmen Herrera’s “Wednesday” (1978). Credit Carmen Herrera, via Lisson Gallery

But Ms. Herrera, who was born in Cuba and labored for decades in Paris and New York before finally coming to the art world’s notice, has something this year to chase away thoughts of another birthday. On Friday, Sept. 16, the Whitney Museum of American Art opens “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” her first solo museum exhibition in New York in almost 20 years, focusing on work from 1948 to 1978, when she was finding her signature style: a hard-edged, radiantly colored, vertiginously geometric way of making very little do a lot. Dana Miller, the show’s curator, describes the effect as being less like paint on canvas than “like cuts in space,” an innovation Ms. Herrera shares with painters like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly (though they became famous for their versions 40 years before hers began to enter important public collections). (Through Jan. 2; 212-570-3600,

Art & Design
At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting


DEC. 19, 2009



Carmen Herrera in her Manhattan loft, surrounded by her art. She sold her first work in 2004. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Under a skylight in her tin-ceilinged loft near Union Square in Manhattan, the abstract painter Carmen Herrera, 94, nursed a flute of Champagne last week, sitting regally in the wheelchair she resents.

After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off. As cameras flashed, she extended long, Giacomettiesque fingers to accept an art foundation’s lifetime achievement award from the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Her good friend, the painter Tony Bechara, raised a glass. “We have a saying in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The bus — la guagua — always comes for those who wait.”

And the Cuban-born Ms. Herrera, laughing gustily, responded, “Well, Tony, I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years!”

Since that first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued Ms. Herrera, and her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern. Last year, MoMA included her in a pantheon of Latin American artists on exhibition. And this summer, during a retrospective show in England, The Observer of London called Ms. Herrera the discovery of the decade, asking, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”

In a word, Ms. Herrera, a nonagenarian homebound painter with arthritis, is hot. In an era when the art world idolizes, and often richly rewards, the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who persevered because she had no choice.

“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she said of painting. “I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”

Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, called Ms. Herrera “a quiet warrior of her art.”

“To bloom into full glory at 94 — whatever Carmen Herrera’s slow rise might say about the difficulties of being a woman artist, an immigrant artist or an artist ahead of her time, it is clearly a story of personal strength,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.
Carmen Herrera at work. She has painted for six decades, and since her first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued her. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A minimalist whose canvases are geometric distillations of form and color, Ms. Herrera has slowly come to the attention of a subset of art historians over the last decade. . Now she is increasingly considered an important figure by those who study her “remarkably monumental, iconic paintings,” said Edward J. Sullivan, a professor of art history at New York University.

“Those of us with a passion for either geometric art or Latin American Modernist painting now realize what a pivotal role” Ms. Herrera has played in “the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Painting in relative solitude since the late 1930s, with only the occasional exhibition, Ms. Herrera was sustained, she said, by the unflinching support of her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal. An English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Loewenthal was portrayed by the memoirist Frank McCourt, a colleague, as an old-world scholar in an “elegant, three-piece suit, the gold watch chain looping across his waistcoat front.”

Recognition for Ms. Herrera came a few years after her husband’s death, at 98, in 2000. “Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above,” Ms. Herrera said, shaking her head. “Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud.” She added: “I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.”

In a series of interviews in her sparsely but artfully furnished apartment, Ms. Herrera always offered an afternoon cocktail — “Oh, don’t be abstemious!” — and an outpouring of stories about prerevolutionary Cuba, postwar Paris and the many artists she has known, from Wifredo Lam to Yves Klein to Barnett Newman.

“Ah, Wifredo,” she said, referring to Lam, the Cuban-born French painter. “All the girls were crazy about him. When we were in Havana, my phone would begin ringing: ‘Is Wifredo in town?’ I mean, come on, I wasn’t his social secretary.”

But Ms. Herrera is less expansive about her own art, discussing it with a minimalism redolent of the work. “Paintings speak for themselves,” she said. Geometry and color have been the head and the heart of her work, she added, describing a lifelong quest to pare down her paintings to their essence, like visual haiku.

Asked how she would describe to a student a painting like “Blanco y Verde” (1966) — a canvas of white interrupted by an inverted green triangle — she said, “I wouldn’t have a student.” To a sweet, inquiring child, then? “I’d give him some candy so he’d rot his teeth.”

When pressed about what looks to some like a sensual female shape in the painting, she said: “Look, to me it was white, beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for the green, and the little triangle created a force field. People see very sexy things — dirty minds! — but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles.”

Born in 1915 in Havana, where her father was the founding editor of the daily newspaper El Mundo, and her mother a reporter, Ms. Herrera took art lessons as a child, attended finishing school in Paris and embarked on a Cuban university degree in architecture. In 1939, midway through her studies, she married Mr. Loewenthal and moved to New York. (They had no children.)
Ms. Herrera’s “Red Star” from 1949. Credit Collection of Estrellita Brodsky, First Sale

Although she studied at the Art Students League of New York, Ms. Herrera did not discover her artistic identity until she and her husband settled in Paris for a few years after World War II. There she joined a group of abstract artists, based at the influential Salon of New Realities, which exhibited her work along with that of Josef Albers, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay and others.

“I was looking for a pictorial vocabulary and I found it there,” she said. “But when we moved back to New York, this type of art” — her less-is-more formalism — “was not acceptable. Abstract Expressionism was in fashion. I couldn’t get a gallery.”

Ms. Herrera said that she also accepted, “as a handicap,” the barriers she faced as a Hispanic female artist. Beyond that, though, “her art was not easily digestible at the time,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said. “She was not doing Cuban landscapes or flowers of the tropics, the art you might have expected from a Cuban émigré who spent time in Paris. She was ahead of her time.”

Over the decades, Ms. Herrera had a solo show here and there, including a couple at museums (the Alternative Museum in 1984, El Museo del Barrio in 1998). But she never sold anything, and never needed, or aggressively sought, the affirmation of the market. “It would have been nice, but maybe corrupting,” she said.

Mr. Bechara, who befriended her in the early 1970s and is now chairman of El Museo del Barrio, said that he regularly tried to push her into the public eye, even though she “found a kind of solace in being alone.”

One day in 2004, Mr. Bechara attended a dinner with Frederico Sève, the owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Manhattan, who was dealing with the withdrawal of an artist from a much-publicized show of female geometric painters. “Tony said to me: ‘Geometry and ladies? You need Carmen Herrera,’ ” Mr. Sève recounted. “And I said, ‘Who the hell is Carmen Herrera?’ ”

The next morning, Mr. Sève arrived at his gallery to find several paintings, just delivered, that he took to be the work of the well-known Brazilian artist Lygia Clark but were in fact by Ms. Herrera. Turning over the canvases, he saw that they predated by a decade paintings in a similar style by Ms. Clark. “Wow, wow, wow,” he recalled saying. “We got a pioneer here.”

Mr. Sève quickly called Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a collector who has an art foundation in Miami. She bought five of Ms. Herrera’s paintings. Estrellita Brodsky, another prominent collector, bought another five. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, also bought several, and with Mr. Bechara, donated one of Ms. Herrera’s black-and-white paintings to MoMA.

The recent exhibition in England, which is now heading to Germany, came about by happenstance after a curator stumbled across Ms. Herrera’s paintings on the Internet. Last week The Observer named that retrospective one of the year’s 10 best exhibitions, alongside a Picasso show and one devoted to the American Pop artist Ed Ruscha.

Ms. Herrera’s late-in-life success has stunned her in many ways. Her larger works now sell for $30,000, and one painting commanded $44,000 — sums unimaginable when she was, say, in her 80s. “I have more money now than I ever had in my life,” she said.

Not that she is succumbing to a life of leisure. At a long table where she peers out over East 19th Street “like a French concierge,” Ms. Herrera, because she must, continues to draw and paint. “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going,” she said.articlelarge popup popup-1



To inaugurate its new Chelsea space, Lisson, one of London’s most significant and established galleries, presents works created over the past two years by the painter Carmen Herrera. Born in Cuba, Herrera has been a New York resident since 1954. She found her path into abstract painting upon discovering the artist group Salons des Réalités Nouvelles when she lived in Paris in the 1940s, and her earlier paintings tend to organic abstraction—curved shapes echoing natural forms. By the mid 1950s, the edges of these forms had sharpened and a radical simplicity—honed to this day, and a salient feature of this exhibition—had taken hold. This desire for “utter simplicity,” in Herrera’s own words, produces a lucid complexity even when, as is often the case, she uses only two colors and one shape.

Carmen Herrera, Alpes, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 120 × 70 inches. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

A single painting on one wall, Alpes (2015) is the kind of work that stops you in your tracks: it is at one and the same time direct, open, and unpredictable. The composition is utterly compelling in its implications of a continuous space, which includes the white of the wall behind it, and in the contradiction of this, its two green triangles: one is seemingly incomplete, a half of the other—which is itself already complete. Herrera creates this effect with a sophisticated optical structure. She paints the sides of each painting the color of the shape that reaches that edge. Alpes comprises two panels; the vertical line of their meeting divides the complete isosceles triangle. The green and white triangles interchange visually as positive and negative inverting shapes. The white triangles, one complete at one scale while the white space to the right of the second green triangle implies a much larger one that is only partially seen, imaginatively continues across the wall itself. These differences are felt, rather than intellectually discerned. While they can be analyzed formally, their effect is more intense, musical and emotional. It could be described as spiritual: not only are we engaged physically, we are displaced from a state of certainty by such ambiguities, and—with pleasure, it has to be said—made to see something so apparently simple operate on another nuanced plane of visual experience. It is not so much a case of reduction as of distillation and refinement.

In Portal (Diptych) (2014) the black, central, symmetrical shape makes a mirror image across the two panels of the painting, in fact resembling a portal, or an Italian Renaissance portico. At 84 × 56 inches it is a size (like the majority of paintings here) that invites a physical relation with the viewer. What would have been a painting of sharp chromatic contrast and finely judged enigmatic symmetry instead becomes, through the use of the two panels, a play of doubling or reflection. The line created by the juncture of these panels is, in existing as a line, another contrasting element. As with the other works Herrera has painted the sides of the panels. This allows the paintings to be read as colored objects, an effect enhanced by the use of the abutted panels. The one sculpture present, Untitled Estructura (Blue) (1962/2015), is a logical extension of the optical into fully three-dimensional space.

Herrera’s achievement is clear. An artist who, subjected for decades to what might be called “benign neglect,” (as she put it: “I was happy to be ignored because I was interested in painting,”) continued working, despite being told by gallerist Rose Fried sometime in the 1950s, “You are a wonderful painter, but I will not give you a show, because you are a woman.” Thankfully, this absurd and stupid attitude towards women artists is a lot less in evidence these days (although of course—infuriatingly—not entirely purged). Herrera is making her best work now; this exhibition (along with further deserved acknowledgment upcoming in a survey exhibition at the Whitney this fall) offers the chance to fully appreciate its significance.


David Rhodes