Paintings that Conjure the Ghostly Hand of the Artist
Ghost Maker brings together Ginny Casey’s new large-scale paintings of still lifes and floating hands. The surfaces of these paintings are lovingly worked over in multiple thin layers which build up the forms, providing a visual depth and a paint history. The colors are mostly muted, adding power to moments of saturation. The namesake color of “Blue Hands” practically glows. These are very considered paintings, self-referentially depicting the unseen acts the painter undertakes to make a final piece.
Giorgio Morandi comes to mind when looking at this body of work. Outside of the obvious shared focus on jug-like objects positioned carefully on tabletops, both artists share a complex understanding of composition. Although Morandi’s paintings have the potential to appear like simple arrangements, closer inspection reveals the magic in the meeting of shapes and colors, creating a marvelous surface tension of hard edges dividing space between objects and the horizon line. Casey’s paintings hold up to this lineage, where the interactions between negative space, color, and shape are just as exciting as the narratives the paintings relay.
It’s within these narratives, and the character and inherent strangeness Casey gives to her objects, that she truly diverts to her own wavelength. Many times the paintings feature apparitions of hands working to make or change objects, but often the action has already passed and we are presented with carefully arranged mementos. Each painting positions a few stock elements: amorphous vases standing, tilting over, or smashed alongside ghostly hands;wire clay cutters; and violent tools, such as a hammer and knife. No matter the object, each belongs to the same world. Here shapes are mutable and slightly wonky, obeying a logic specific to the painting. The ceramics have personality: They can be bird-like, like in “Droopy Vase,” or phallic-like in the background of “Blue Hands.” Mostly, the ceramic shapes are like the objects depicted in the painting’s foreground, caught in the transition of creation. Perspectives shift in these quivering landscapes where shapes morph and repeat, but what you see is always believable, and always grounded.
“Pressing Matter” presents an elusive narrative. There is a disembodied hand pushing down, at a diagonal, held stationary and caught in the act of molding some material. Meanwhile, a single autonomous finger points forever upwards, encircled in pink bands. A knife is positioned near, and whatever action separated the hand and finger from their respective bodies is far in the past, bloodless now as the scene is set. Two eyes peer out from a sliver in a rock, fixed not on the scene but the viewer. Everything else feels frozen, including the rock encasing the eyes.
We similarly find remnants of destruction in “Broken Vase.” Here, a hammer has smashed a vase to several bits. The hammer is enormous, curving around most of the table. The violent action has even bent the weapon’s handle. Each of the shattered pieces has a beauty and specificity to it, destroyed in order to create.
There is an outlier here: “Little Stack”features a hand as many of the other paintings do; however, here, it creates a rift which distorts the viewer’s understanding of the other pieces. Like a Kilroy that hasn’t fully climbed over the horizon and set in its usual pose, the hand makes what would be a horizon line suddenly sharp — the edge of a cliff. All the other paintings contained the objects within the same understood space and the horizon read as flat. With this break, that edge lends the rest of the series a mysterious tone.
Through these ghost makers, the paintings refer to their own origins. They are paintings that have been built up, rearranged, worked over, molded, and assembled, seemingly caught in motion — in transformation.
How a Working-Class Couple Amassed a Priceless Art Collection
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, GALLERY ARCHIVES
By Jed Lipinski
Herb Vogel never earned more than $23,000 a year. Born and raised in Harlem, Vogel worked for the post office in Manhattan. He spent nearly 50 years living in a 450-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with his wife, Dorothy, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived frugally. They didn’t travel. They ate TV dinners. Aside from a menagerie of pets, Herb and Dorothy had just one indulgence: art. But their passion for collecting turned them into unlikely celebrities, working-class heroes in a world of Manhattan elites.
While their coworkers had no idea, the press noticed. The New York Times labeled the Vogels the “In Couple” of New York City. They counted minimalist masters Richard Tuttle and Donald Judd among their close friends. And in just four decades, they assembled one of the most important private art collections of the 20th century, stocking their tiny apartment floor-to-ceiling with Chuck Close sketches, paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, and sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. Today, more than 1,000 of the works they purchased are housed in the National Gallery, a collection a curator there calls “literally priceless.” J. Carter Brown, the museum’s former director, referred to the collection as “a work of art in itself.”
The Vogels had no formal training in art collecting. They didn’t aspire to open a gallery or work in museums. They bought art the way any amateur collector shops: for the love of the individual pieces and the thrill of a good deal. But you don’t accumulate a priceless collection of anything by accident. Herb and Dorothy developed a methodical system for scouting, assessing, and purchasing art. When it came to mastering their hobby, the Vogels were self-trained professionals. This is how they did it.
THE ART OF BUYING
Herbert Vogel was born in 1922, the son of a tailor and a homemaker. A rebellious teen, fond of jazz and zoot suits, he dropped out of high school because “I hated people telling me what to do,” he said. Instead, he worked in a cigar factory before doing a stint in the National Guard. When a dislocated shoulder resulted in a medical discharge, he enrolled in art history seminars at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where legendary art historians like Erwin Panofsky and Walter Friedlaender held court. In the evenings, Herb frequented the storied Cedar Tavern, listening in awe as artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline roared at each other over the meaning of abstract expressionism. He decided he wanted to be a painter. To subsidize his new passion, he landed a job at the post office, working the graveyard shift in the dead-letter department.
In November 1960, Herb, then 38, went to a dance at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. Scanning the crowd, his eyes fell on a pretty, bookish young woman 13 years his junior. This was Dorothy Faye Hoffman, the daughter of a stationery merchant from Elmira, N.Y. Dorothy had moved to Brooklyn two years earlier, after receiving her master’s in library science at the University of Denver. Herb thought she looked “intelligent.” Dorothy found him “cuddly” and liked his dance moves. It was love at first sight.
Herb and Dorothy were married in 1962 and spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C, where they made their inaugural voyage to the National Gallery. “That’s where Herb gave me my first art lesson,” Dorothy said. At the time, she knew next to nothing about art, having always preferred music and theater. But her husband’s enthusiasm inspired her. She enrolled with him in painting and drawing classes at NYU. That same year, they bought a small sculpture made from crushed car metal by the artist John Chamberlain. They had no idea that the joint purchase would be the first of thousands.
The Vogels rented a tiny studio in Union Square, painting there at night and on weekends and using the vibrant, abstract products to decorate their new apartment on 86th Street. But by the mid-1960s, the couple realized that their artistic ambitions outweighed their abilities. “I wasn’t bad,” Dorothy claimed, adding, “I didn’t like Herby’s paintings.” Herb, an unfailingly modest man, admitted as much: “I was a terrible painter.” They decided to concentrate on collecting instead.
At the time, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism were in vogue and too expensive for the Vogels. Minimal and conceptual art, on the other hand, had yet to be embraced by the art world establishment. The Vogels made a pact: Her salary would go toward living expenses, his toward art. Under these new terms, they visited the SoHo studio of an obscure artist named Sol LeWitt and walked out with the first piece LeWitt ever sold: an untitled, golden, T-shaped structure. “He had more than average potential, and I felt it,” Herb said. LeWitt would later become a titan of contemporary American art.
But Herb and Dorothy’s obsession was just starting to kick in. The couple began visiting dozens of galleries and studios each week, becoming what artist Chuck Close called “the mascots of the art world.” In making purchases, they functioned as a team. Herb, the impulsive Dionysian, searched for art “like a truffle hound,” said the artist Lucio Pozzi, who has more than 400 works in the Vogel collection. Dorothy, the Apollonian librarian with the encyclopedic memory, was more passive, hanging back and calculating the financial realities. They had only a few criteria: The work had to be affordable; it had to fit in their apartment; and it had be transportable via taxi or subway. Not part of the equation? The artist’s reputation. “We bought what we liked,” Dorothy said. “Simple as that.” And they continued to lead their double life—racing from studio to studio to gallivant with artists and to scout their next big purchase every night, while keeping their passions private from their work colleagues. Still, assembling such an incredible collection on such a tiny budget required a few other tricks.
WORK OF ART
Many in the art world call the Vogels’ method cheating. That’s because the couple never dealt with galleries and art dealers. Instead, Herb and Dorothy negotiated with hungry artists directly, arriving at studios with cash in hand. Artist Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009, remembered receiving a phone call from Herb back in 1971, when the creators of “The Gates” were still broke. “It’s the Vogels!” Jeanne-Claude cried to her dispirited husband and partner in art, Christo. “We’re going to pay the rent!” But the Vogels didn’t just take their cash to big-name artists; they were equally passionate about unknown talents, often helping them to develop. David Reed, now a famous conceptual artist, said the couple encouraged him to make more drawings, which later became a central part of his practice. “The Vogels made you aware of what you were doing as an artist,” he said. “They had artist sensibilities.” When they spotted something beyond their means, they’d find a way to make the purchase: They’d buy on credit; they’d forgo a vacation; they’d even throw in cat-sitting to sweeten a deal. And the artists loved them for it. As Chuck Close told Newsday, “You knew when you were selling them something it was becoming part of an important collection.”
It wasn’t long before the artwork overtook their home. By all accounts, the 450-square-foot apartment on East 86th Street was more of a storage facility than a place to live. The Vogels’ collection gradually replaced all their furniture save the kitchen table, some chairs, a bureau, and the bed, which concealed dozens of drawings by Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis. Visitors cracked their heads on clay Steve Keister sculptures hung from the ceiling and discovered typographic texts by Lawrence Weiner on the bathroom wall. And while they stashed the pieces wherever they could, Dorothy has repeatedly tried to squelch one persistent rumor: The Vogels never stored art in their oven.
Herbanddorothy.com/Fine Line Media Inc.
It wasn’t just the masterpieces that were crammed into the space; the Vogels shared their storehouse with 20 turtles, eight cats and an aquarium filled with exotic fish. To protect the artwork from kitten claws and rogue turtles, the couple boxed and wrapped the pieces not hung on the walls, further diminishing the available living space. “Art is Herby’s only interest, except for animals,” Dorothy once said. (Fittingly, they named their cats after artists, like Matisse, Renoir, and Manet.) When National Gallery curator Jack Cowart first saw their apartment, he was stunned. “It upset all of my alarm systems as a curator,” he said. “I began to think: What if there’s a fire? What if one of the mega-gallon fish tanks that Herb keeps his fish in springs a leak?”
By the mid-1970s, the Vogels were famous—at least in New York City. The Clocktower Gallery, run by Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, staged the first exhibition of the Vogels’ collection in April 1975. The opening coincided with a profile in New York magazine called “A New Art-World Legend: Good-by, Bob & Ethel; Hullo, Dorothy and Herb!” The title referred to Bob and Ethel Scull, a vulgar taxi magnate and his Vogue model wife. After a messy divorce, their entire collection of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist was auctioned off for an eye-popping $10 million. The Vogels, by contrast, never sold a thing. “We could easily have become millionaires,” Herb told the Associated Press. “We could have sold things and lived in Nice and still had some left over. But we weren’t concerned about that aspect.”
Pozzi offered an alternate explanation. “To ask them to sell a piece of their collection would be like asking me to cut off a square yard of one of my paintings,” he said. “They were artists, and the collection was their work of art.”
Herb retired from the post office in 1979 and, naturally, used his pension to continue buying art. But the increasing size of the collection threatened to overwhelm the Vogels, like hoarders crushed to death by towering stacks of The New York Times. In the 1980s, they were forced to admit that their apartment could no longer contain their beloved art. They began meeting with curators and evaluating their options. They knew they wanted to donate their collection instead of selling it, and they liked the National Gallery, which is free to the public and maintains a policy against deaccessioning objects, meaning the collection would never be sold. In 1990, the year Dorothy retired, the Vogels followed through on their promise: Art handlers from the National Gallery transferred an astonishing 2,400 works from the Vogels’ tiny apartment, in a move that required five 40-foot trucks. In fact, unloading the works from the trucks and into the gallery tied up the museum’s freight elevators for weeks!
Realizing that the Vogels hadn’t invested for their future, Jack Cowart, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art at the time, paid the Vogels a small annuity in exchange for their generous donation. But instead of saving the money for medical expenses or splurging on a better retirement, the Vogels couldn’t help themselves: They immediately started collecting more art. The annuity helped the couple purchase another 1,500 or so items. As Dorothy put it: “If we wanted to make money, we would have invested it in the stock market.” This led the grateful if overburdened institution to create the Fifty Works for Fifty States program, in which 50 museums across America will receive 50 pieces from the Vogels’ collection.
In 2008, Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about the couple directed by Megumi Sasaki, was released to rave reviews. Sasaki, a former field producer for Japanese public television, had met the Vogels years before while filming a series about Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “I couldn’t believe it was a true story, that such people exist,” she recalled.
It wasn’t until 2009, when Herb’s health began to fail, that the Vogels ceased collecting. “It was something we did together, and when Herb was too ill to enjoy it, we stopped,” Dorothy said with typical matter-of-factness. Herb died in July 2012, at the age of 89. Dorothy’s job now, she says, is to make sure people don’t forget the collection she and her husband built, which is considered not just the most impressive art collection to have been housed in a tiny apartment, but one of the most important art collections of the 20th century. “I have no regrets,” Dorothy said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. And I believe Herb and I were made to be together.”
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 12
Opening: “Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” at Cooper Hewitt
Exploring the notion of beauty through seven lenses—extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental and transformative—the fifth installment of the Cooper Hewitt’s sensational overview of contemporary design features 63 international designers exhibiting some 250 works, which nearly fill two full floors of the museum’s recently renovated Upper East Side space. Highlights include Guido Palau’s extravagant hairstyles, Studio Job’s intricate wallpaper, the Haas Brothers’ transgressive sculptural creatures covered in beads, Sissel Tolaas’ ethereal scents, digital whiz Neri Oxman’s emergent fashions, Scholten & Baijings’ transformative housewares and So-Il’s elemental architecture for an art gallery in Brooklyn.
Cooper Hewitt, 2 East 91 Street, New York, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., free with museum admission
Opening: “This Place” at the Brooklyn Museum
Offering a variety of views into the lives of people in Israel and the West Bank, the group exhibition “This Place” presents the work of twelve international photographers who spent an average of six months in the region between 2009 and 2012. Conceived by French photographer Frédéric Brenner (known for his documentation of Jewish communities around the world), the striking show features more than 600 images shot in Israeli and Palestinian territories by such critically acclaimed photographers as Germany’s Thomas Struth, Canada’s Jeff Wall, England’s Nick Waplington, Slovakia’s Martin Kollar and Americans Wendy Ewald and Stephen Shore.
Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., free with museum admission
Screening: “Beauty and the Beast” at Film Forum
Celebrating the 70th anniversary of French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s famous adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Janus Films presents a newly restored 35mm print of the romantic movie, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Starring Josette Day and Jean Marais, the classic 1946 film tells the tale of a beautiful young woman who takes the place of her father as the prisoner of an enigmatic beast that wants to marry her. The story is full of surreal twists as her family falls on misfortune and connives to benefit from the beast’s immense fortune. The movie is also notable for art director Christian Bérard’s stylish costumes and sets, which call to mind scenes from the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and French illustrator Gustave Doré, as well as the enchanting soundtrack by composer George Auric.
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, various times, $14
Opening: “Heidi Hahn: Bent Idle” at Jack Hanley Gallery
Making her New York solo show debut, Brooklyn-based artist Heidi Hahn presents a series of new paintings of women in psychological settings. Painted in a loose, folkloric style, the canvases capture young women with blurred or caricatured faces sharing thoughts together in lamp-lit rooms or solemnly sitting alone on a bed or in nature with a dog while thinking of time passing by. The Yale grad’s use of moody colors and flat planes lend her paintings a dreamlike quality—one in which the full narrative remains a mystery.
Jack Hanley Gallery, 327 Broome Street, New York, 6-8 p.m.
Talk: “To Be Is to Be Updated” at Triple Canopy
Media theorist Wendy Chun sits down with Art in America associate editor Brian Droitcour to discuss her forthcoming book Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. In her book, Ms. Chun argues “that our media matter most when they seem not to matter at all—when they have moved from ‘new’ to habitual.” Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, Ms. Chun also ponders “Why do we view our networked devices as ‘personal’ when they are so chatty and promiscuous?” in her hardcover, which is being published by MIT Press, with a scheduled June 2016 release.
Triple Canopy, 155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn, 7 p.m., $5
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 13
Opening: “Virgil de Voldere presents Nina Bovasso: The Covers Album” at Josée Bienvenu Gallery
Best known for her big, colorful, cartoonish abstractions, artist Nina Bovasso switches gears with a new series of subtle, painted-cardboard collages. Still abstract, these small-scale works are cover versions of some of her favorite modernist painters, including Kazimir Malevich, Philip Guston and Robert Ryman, while they equally flaunt the nurturing influence of her father, an abstract painter, and her mother, a textile designer, in their playful colors and forms. Organized by Virgil de Voldere, a former art dealer in Chelsea, the show is the sixth in a continuing series of guest-curated exhibitions in the gallery’s Project Space.
Josée Bienvenu Gallery, 529 West 20 Street, New York, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Talk: “Walkthrough of ‘Jennifer Bartlett: Hospital’ With Brett Littman and Raphael Rubinstein” at The Drawing Center
Tour the exhibition “Jennifer Bartlett: Hospital” with Drawing Center executive director and curator for the exhibition Brett Littman and poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein, who wrote the essay for the 2012 series of ten pastels. They discuss these pieces and additional works by the celebrated artist that are also on view. Based on a series of photographs that Ms. Bartlett took during an extended stay at a hospital in New York, the pastels capture interior spaces and window views with a sense of boredom—as if the convalescence might never end. The artist’s formal compositions and delicate touch somehow pump life back into scenes that might otherwise seem melancholic.
The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, New York, 2 p.m., free with center admission
Opening: “Keith Cottingham: Biology and Cosmology: Below the Visible” at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts
A pioneer of digital art, Mr. Cottingham is known for his images of lifelike figures and forms. Over the past 20 years the artist has hyper-realistically rendered pictures of prepubescent boys, non-existent 19th century ethnographic studies and invented architectural spaces, as well as animations of physical forms in motion. In his new series of large-scale photographs, Mr. Cottingham visualizes crystals, spheres and other shapes from scientific realms. Mining the natural environments of biology and cosmology, the artist (with a little help from his digital tools) creates new worlds.
Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer Street, New York, 6-8 p.m.
Opening: “Mika Tajima: Embody” at 11R
A conceptual artist and musician, Mika Tajima makes installation and performance-related works that reference architecture and design. For her second one-person show with the gallery and eighth solo outing in New York, the Brooklyn-based artist presents a new series of transparent paintings, woven abstractions and light sculptures. All of the works in the multifaceted show symbolize some aspect of human existence—whether it’s the spine of an ergonomic chair found in Ms. Tajima’s mood light sculptures or the spiritual presence of workers at a textile factory in her abstract portraits made from woven felt.
11R, 195 Chrystie Street, New York, 6-8 p.m.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 14
Performance: “Valium Valentine” at MoMA PS1
A six-hour musical performance conceived by acclaimed songwriter/producer and Miike Snow lead singer Andrew Wyatt and German artist Sarah Ortmeyer, this experimental collaboration is an improvised durational piece that features guest musicians and performers. Hisham Bharoocha, Xander Duell, Damon McMahon aka Dunes, Akwetey O.T. of D.O.Z. and a host of others join the duo, as female singers perform a special song composed by Mr. Wyatt at the top of each hour on Ms. Ortmeyer’s dreamy stage set, which transforms the VW Dome into a planetarium with egg-shaped stars.
MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, 12 p.m., $15
Performance: “Second Sundays” at Pioneer Works
A monthly series of open studios with the artists-in-residence, exhibitions, live music, Clocktower radio programming and site-specific interventions, “Second Sundays” at Pioneer Works is always a barrel of fun. February’s programming features Charles Harlan’s minimalist installations and sculptures made from industrial materials and the detritus of suburban environments; Adam Stennett’s realistic Survival Paintings, which he made while residing in a sustainable-living tent on Long Island (the artist currently has his tent pitched in the backyard of Pioneer Works); and live music from Bil Afrah Project and Lions, a seven-piece group playing classic 1960s and ‘70s’ Ethiopian music.
Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn, 4-10 p.m., $10 suggested donation
Opening: “Low” at Lyles & King
Organized by artists Michael DeLucia and Ethan Greenbaum, “Low” presents a group show of 11 artists who imaginatively visualize architectural settings and sculptural forms in two-dimensional ways. John Divola photographs wrecked apartments in abandoned housing developments; Brie Ruais flattens out the corner of a room with a bulky ceramic sculpture; and Michael Henry Hayden makes details of rooms—complete with light fixtures, door locks, and mood lighting—that look more like photographs than painted replicas of the real thing.
Lyles & King, 106 Forsyth Street, New York, 5-8 p.m.
Raise your hand if you went to the Museum of Modern Art this summer.
I’d imagine more than a few New Yorkers are lifting an appendage, confessing to having seen either the museum’s massive flop homage to Björk or the soon-to-close exhibition devoted to 10 years of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde career. Both of these shows were marketed as the art world’s equivalent to blockbuster events, bringing two of the most norm-bending of women artists to the forefront of a major institution.
And then MoMA announced its upcoming roster of shows. Included is a Donald Judd retrospective set for 2017 and a Bruce Nauman retrospective planned for the following year. Besides these two headliners, there will also be “Picasso Sculpture,” a survey of Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s work, a retrospective of Uruguayan painter and sculptor Joaquín Torres-García’s work, and a retrospective of Belgian multi-media artist Marcel Broodthaers’ work. (On view now, if you’re interested: a Gilbert & George show and a group exhibition featured around Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series.”)
Sense a pattern here? For the foreseeable future, art fans venturing to NYC’s palace of modern art will be ogling over male artists, and a lot of them. Of course, this isn’t such a new trend — a look back on the 2014 calendar looks pretty grim, gender parity-wise — but after a summer of Björk and Yoko, it feels a little defeatist to just return to the way things were.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be excited about Walid Raad or Jacob Lawrence or Joaquin Torres-Garcia, who, at the very least, don’t fall into the DWEM (dead white European male) category. It’s just … it’s hard to ignore the numbers, stats that consistently tell us that women artists are underrepresented in major museums and galleries. Critic Jerry Saltz brought up MoMA’s “Women Problem” once, and then he did it again. But still, circumstances don’t seem to be changing fast enough. Today, a better question for MoMA might be: where are all the women artists of color?
So to help speed up the progress train — or, let’s be honest, to simply shine yet another spotlight on the art world’s inability to stop undercutting the potential of 50 percent of the planet’s population, here’s a list of deserving women artists, compiled by a few of the writers and editors of HuffPost Culture, MoMA should take heed to consider.
Venezuelan sculptor Marisol Escobar, 85, is known for her boxy wooden sculptures, at once eerie and adorable, flattened totem poles that combined Pop art sensibility with the raw impulses of folk art. Marisol’s sculptures, reminiscent of Egyptian tombs and toy soldiers, feature the faces of movie stars, families, political figures, and often, Marisol herself. The artist was a crucial player in the 1960s art scene, though her work slowly faded out of view over the next 50 years. However, recently, the enormous impact of Marisol’s work has been embraced. “Proudly independent, she did not fit into any of the era’s retrospectively sanctified movements,” Sebastian Smee explained in an article for the Boston Globe. “And yet she played a key role in shaping a cultural shift away from mid-century, atomic-age existentialism… toward the visual pizzazz, double-edged irony, and deadpan distillations of Pop.” — Priscilla Frank
Kara Walker, 45, has gained critical acclaim for her large-scale silhouettes, which set startling black images against white backgrounds, warping the Southern portrait tradition. Since then she’s translated this aesthetic to the diverse media of animations, shadow puppets and “magic lanterns.” Walker, it seems, can take any ephemeral art form and give it the sharp power of racial and social critique — without ever losing artistic and technical skill. Her most recent work, “A Subtlety,” or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, saw an enormous sphinx made of white sugar installed in the doomed Domino Sugary Factory, surrounded by molasses child figures. Like her previous work, it reshaped visitors’ relationship to old traditions, poking holes in our nostalgia, bringing to light the unsaid beneath our pure white sugar. (Can you imagine this inside MoMA?)
Walker never comforts nor reassures her viewers, so her retrospective would be a refreshing counterpoint to the consumer-friendly curation we’ve seen with MoMA pop culture icons. Watch out though: Sunday museum goers might actually have to think about race. — Colton Valentine
The late Ruth Asawa, born in 1926, is probably best known for her wire sculptures, the bulbous, basket-like creations that she crocheted to perfection, a technique she learned in Mexico in the 1940s. San Franciscans might know her as the “fountain lady,” due to the simple fact that she helped erect more than a few public fountains in the city over the course of her lifetime. Beyond these three-dimensional offerings, her works on paper feature ghostly black-and-white figures alongside Rorschach-like patterns dubbed “Desert Flower” and “Plane Trees.”
But aside from her art, Asawa’s biography is varied and complex. She was one of seven children born to Japanese parents who made their living as truck farmers in Southern California. She lived through the Great Depression, and she spent several months in an internment camp during World War II after her father was arrested by FBI agents. Eventually, she ended up at Black Mountain College, where she became a student of Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller. Once she settled in San Francisco, her art flourished, but she continued working in public schools — her first career ambition — and advocating for public art until her death in 2013. This is the kind of woman I’d like to see in a career retrospetive. — Katherine Brooks
The late Agnes Martin has been getting overdue recognition this year, with a big biography out with Thames & Hudson, and a retrospective at the Tate in London. Still, her subtle genius would benefit from an in-person celebration of her work in America — the quiet hues of her abstract paintings translate clumsily into print. Many of her works have found a cozy home at Dia:Beacon where they’re housed aside Sol LeWitt’s repetitive, geometric wall sketches. Like LeWitt, Martin’s work is delicate and benefits from the juxtaposition provided by sturdy, unchanging museum walls. Unlike LeWitt, her paintings are fluid rather than rigid — she pairs pastels inspired by the warm landscape in the American Southwest, where she produced some of her most remarkable work. Before that, she lived in Manhattan, making her steel-and-black toned abstract paintings a nice fit for a New York museum. Hours could be devoted to standing in front of her earth-toned canvases, getting lost in calm, meditative thoughts. — Maddie Crum
Carol Rama’s artworks, some of which date back to the 1940s, could scandalize contemporary audiences with her erotic watercolors. In one, a woman masturbates with a snake, in another, a woman looks back at the viewer and sticks out her tongue while taking a shit. In a third, she crouches crotch-length between two men, who each jiggle a deck of penises in her face. Rama’s early graphic works turned more abstract in the ’50s and incorporated multimedia materials and hints of surrealism into the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’80s and ’90s, things got explicit once again. Through it all, Rama, 97, incorporated motifs both personal and punk: syringes, doll eyes, animal claws, bicycle tubes — some images reminiscent of her father who committed suicide when Rama was a child. Above all, Rama created work to heal her own wounds, as well as those of others who’d undergone extreme suffering. She said of her work in an interview with Esso Gallery: “They will be liked greatly by those whom have suffered, and have not known how to save themselves from the suffering.” — Priscilla Frank
Wangechi Mutu’s work is refreshingly corporeal: it makes the body central to the art and makes you feel the art in your body. She takes that human body and mashes it up with organic and inorganic forms, plant tendrils and machinery alike, all formed from collage materials. The visual effects are stunning, as are the theoretical implications. Mutu, 42, is often associated with Afrofuturism — which envisions alternate sci-fi realities for the African diaspora. More recent works have delved into sculpture (“Suspended Playtime”), animation (“The End of Eating Everything”), and performance art, such as when she distributed chocolate mermaids at a London gallery opening as a commentary on consumption of brown bodies. In 2014, the Brooklyn Museum held a survey of Mutu’s work, and though she’s a Brooklyn resident, we’d love to see her work cross into Manhattan.— Colton Valentine
Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010 at the age of 98, created mammoth spiders both sinister and maternal, suspended sculptures both firmly tethered and vulnerably floated, polished metal figures that seemed alien yet reflected your face in every one of their curves and angles. She was full of these contradictions, but seemed cemented in the messages she wanted to communicate. For me, I’m always attracted to the way she represented anxiety, a condition so many men before her had attached to the female body alone. I think of her “Arches of Hysteria,” contorted bodies that showed the male image in the throws of disquietude. Sure, she was recently on view at the Guggenheim, and she had a mid-career retrospective at MoMA in 1982. From fabric to bronze to marble, Bourgeois took on a dizzying array of media that just begs to fill the halls of the museum again. — Katherine Brooks
Kiki Smith, 61, is a German-born artist who seems ever at ease with confronting the human body, ailments, gender and race. Her ink and pencil characters appear to be plucked from the same universe, rendered as images that stretch and exaggerate the female (sometimes nude) body in ways both spiritual and fairy tale-esque. A previous survey of her work, “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005,” originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to the Whitney in New York City, the city she lives in today, and a short exhibition of her “Prints, Books & Things” went on view at MoMA in 2003. But why stop there? — Katherine Brooks
“Don’t ask what it means or what it refers to,” the late Eva Hesse once said about her art. “Don’t ask what the work is. Rather, see what the work does.” The artist fled Nazi Germany at three years old with her family and relocated to New York; just seven years later her mother committed suicide. Hesse is known for her groundbreaking sculptures, toying with the tropes of minimalism, the dominant art movement of the time, but making room for a hint of slop and chaos. Using unconventional materials like wax, latex and cheesecloth, Hesse imbued her deceptively simple forms with a certain bodily quality, hinting at the sag of a breast, the wrinkle of skin, the coiling of intestines.
Because of her unorthodox materials, Hesse’s works are especially difficult to conserve, something the artist herself was aware of. “At this point I feel a little guilty when people want to buy it,” she was quoted as saying in The Nation in 2006. “I think they know but I want to write them a letter and say it’s not going to last. I am not sure what my stand on lasting really is. Part of me feels that it’s superfluous, and if I need to use rubber that is more important. Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last.” Hesse passed away from a brain tumor at only 34, but in her short lifetime, changed the trajectory of sculpture forever. — Priscilla Frank
Carolee Schneemann’s feminist performance pieces are jubilant celebrations of everything taboo — from vaginas to body odor to uncooked chicken. The 75-year-old’s most well-known work, 1974’s “Meat Joy,” features a jubilant orgy slash buffet, with unclothed participants rolling around in paint, uncooked chicken, sausage and fish, quite literally soaking in all of life’s juices. And then there’s “Interior Scroll,” in which Schneemann recited a monologue while pulling it out of her vagina, which also earned its place in the archives of feminist art. In more recent years, the artist’s work has taken a political turn, addressing issues from Palestine in the ’80s to Sept. 11 with equally an incisive eye. Almost all contemporary feminist artists — from Marina Abramovic to Petra Collins to Lady Gaga — owe a nod to Schneemann’s fearlessness. She also basically invented the selfie. — Priscilla Frank
“He just kept saying, ‘I didn’t think anybody would care, I didn’t think anybody would care,'” Paige Wery explained in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Wery, the owner of Los Angeles’ Good Luck Gallery, is describing her first interaction with artist Willard Hill, who, for the past 20 years, has been creating bundled sculptures of masking tape and discarded goods in the privacy of his own home, with no knowledge that anyone from the outside world would consider his secluded pastime art.
Hill was born and raised in Manchester, Tenn., a city with a population of approximately 10,000. One of eight children, Hill lost his mother when he was a kid, and his father left the family soon after. Without any grandparents to step in, the Hill children virtually raised themselves. “It was survival mode,” Wery responded when I asked if Hill had ever visited a museum as a kid. “He has never been to a museum, and he is 80.”
His standout memories from childhood involve being selected from his class to paint Christmas scenes on the windows during the holidays. “He never thought of any of that as art,” Wery clarified. As an adult, Hill expressed himself mainly through cooking, working as a chef specializing in Southern food.
Things took a turn for Hill around 20 years ago when he suffered a hernia that kept him tethered to the home. He got sick of watching TV and, according to Wery, noticed some wire and tape sitting nearby. He just started making things, and has done so every day for the past two decades.
More specifically, Hill makes ragtag sculptures from whatever loot he happens to scoop up from his surroundings, wrapping his spoils in masking tape in a variety of wiry configurations. In one, a horse draws a carriage with a rider on top and three miniature passengers in the rear, a small bug-eyed critter dangling off the back as a final punchline.
Hill never plans out what a sculpture is going to look like beforehand, but rather lets the materials guide the way. The figures emerge organically from no particular vision. Googly eyes are the one constant, giving the miniature works an adorable yet monstrous feel, while uniting the whole bunch as one big, motley family.
Hill had only tried to sell his artworks once before. At a friend’s suggestion, he brought them to the Manchester flea market and set up a booth, offering them for $20 each. None sold, and that was that. He traded a couple of figures with an auto body shop in exchange for a car service, and another visitor to the auto shop noticed the dusty totems and recognized them as art. He contacted Wery, who eventually travelled to meet Hill in person.
“I had never seen anything like it before,” Wery said. “Like a lot of outsider artists, it’s solely his original voice. Taking trash and creating these little scenes — people in fancy outfits, riding horses and buggies. It’s kind of a treasure trove, for an outsider gallery to find someone like this.”
Although Hill offered to sell a work for $20, Wery offered $200, estimating what she thought she could get for the piece at her gallery. Hill was floored, even more so when Wery took home 200 works on commission. The exodus of creatures, didn’t even make a dent in Hill’s extensive home collection, which numbers in the thousands, with creatures and characters crammed into nearly every corner of his home. “You couldn’t even tell that we had taken anything. That’s how much work is in his house.”
“He is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” Wery continued, explaining that the checks he’s received from the gallery so far — half of all sales — have gone toward providing the members of his church community with Christmas dinner and repairs for their basketball hoops.
Now retired, Hill is a homebody through and through. He occasionally goes fishing — the fruits of which he also gifts to his neighbors and friends — but aside from that, he prefers not to leave the house. He cooks at home for his wife and kids, and he makes art — lots of it. “Nowadays, most of us don’t think there are people just sitting in their house making thousands of pieces of art,” Wery said, “but they’re still out there.”