Whitney Museum: New Building, Frank Stella, Archibald Motley and more

Since my last visit to New York, the Whitney Museum opened its new building in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and so it was of course a high-priority stop on this visit.

The first work of art on encounters is the building itself. The overall style neither attempts to mimic the warehouses of the Meatpacking District nor projects the dissonance of some of the other intriguing buildings along the High Line. But it does open up to the neighborhood and the city, making that part of the show along with the formal art.

Whitney Museum sculpture terrace

The main exhibition was a massive retrospective of works by Frank Stella which took up the entire 5th floor of the museum and featured his iconic large and colorful paintings as well as more recent works that veered towards the sculptural. One of the major themes is how over his long career he has shifted his focus and come up with new ways of working in the medium he still refers to as “painting.”

Installation view.  Frank Stella

His most recognizable works are the large-scale colorful cutout paintings. The earlier examples contain elements of abstract expressionism and the emerging minimalism, but then modified by cutting out the shapes to make irregular canvases, freeing panting from being simply “colors spread onto a rectangular surface”. Nonetheless, my favorite examples of this phase are still geometric and stark.

Frank Stella - Chocorua IV
[Frank Stella. Chocorua IV]

From straight lines, we move to curves, which further modify the boundaries of a painting. And then came the radical step of taking a painting outside of the flat plane by cutting, bending, and layering pieces.

Gobba, zoppa e collotorto
[Frank Stella. Gobba, zoppa e collotorto]

While the placement and combinations of shapes may be complex, the shapes themselves remain simple and the whole composition abstract. I found this phase of Stella’s work to achieve its most refined form in La penna di hu.

La penna di hu
[Frank Stella. La penna di hu, 1987-2009. Mixed media on etched magnesium, aluminum and fiberglass.]

It seems natural to ask whether such works are paintings or sculptures. Stella himself comes down squarely on the side of viewing them as paintings. This is true even for his most recent series of work that feature large metal constructions without color.

Frank Stella metal constructions

Stella has also embraced technology throughout his career including new materials and machines. Most recently that includes 3D printing.

It was great to see both his most famous paintings alongside the more surprising elements of his constantly evolving work in this large exhibition. As Stella is still alive, there may be more to come.

The top floor of the museum features a retrospective of works by Archibald Motley. Motley was a prolific and influential painter who came to prominence in the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition focuses on his works portraying African Americans in serious portraits and lively cultural scenes from the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. While the portraits are detailed and striking, it was his scenes of colorful musical spaces that most resonated with me.

Archibald Motley.  Blues
[Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. (91.4 × 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne]

Motley was well known in his time, but faded later compared to other painters of American life and scenes (think Edward Hopper). Because his work depicts an American community often overlooked and his style is more modern and pushing away from realism, it is great to see him getting reintroduced through exhibitions such as this.

The galleries featuring pieces from the permanent collection were also “new” in the new space. Among the themes that permeates the museum’s collection are scenes of the city and industry. There is Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge (a poster of which hangs at CatSynth HQ) but also John Marin’s less-well known Region of Brooklyn Bridge Fantasy with a very different take on the same subject.

Joseph Stella, Brookyln Bridge
[Joseph Stella. Brooklyn Bridge]

John Marin
[John Marin. Region of Brooklyn Bridge Fantasy, 1932.]

In terms of industrial imagery, among the strongest were Kay Sage’s surrealist piece and Elsie Driggs’ Pittsburgh. Both pieces, at least to me, have a very optimistic view of the city and progress even if others of our current time would see them as bleak.

Kay Sage
[Kay Sage. No Passing, 1954]

Elsie Driggs - Pittsburgh
[Elsie Driggs. Pittsburgh, 1927]

It’s also worth noting that some of the strongest images of these themes were done by women, something that inspires me in my own work into this subject.

The 6th floor featured works from the collection of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner, some of which will be come part of the Whitney’s permanent collection and some of which will go to the Centre Pompidou. It focuses American and international art from the 1960s to the present, and demonstrates the wide variety of media and concepts employed during this period. Minimalist works abound, such as Sean Paul’s series featuring arrangements of black shapes on a white background with implied complexity.

Sean Paul
[Sean Paul. Arrangement 17, 2011]

There are also many works featuring technology. Some are the obligatory works with the light (that I do quite enjoy), but one of the more confounding pieces was by Aaron Flint Jamison. It featured two wooden boxes with multiple computers and a shelf of printed sheets. Were the computers the art, or were they just functional elements to support the concept?

Half Matrix Vessel (part of "Manifold to Half Matrix" installation)
[Aaron Flint Jamison. Half Matrix Vessel (part of “Manifold to Half Matrix” installation), 2013]

There was of course more traditional modernist painting, such as Charline von Heyl’s piece Boogey.

[Charline von Heyl (b. 1960), Boogey, 2004. Acrylic, oil, and charcoal on canvas. 82 1/16 × 78 1/8 (208.4 × 198.4)
Promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner P.2011.472. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York

Whitney sculpture garden.

Overall, this was a great visit and a chance to see a new museum in a favorite neighborhood of mine. One question that I had was what would be the fate of the old midtown Brutalist building that housed the museum for decades. Fortunately, it appears that it will survive, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art plans to use it for some special exhibitions. I hope to be able to see one in the future.

[Images without “catsynth.com” watermark courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.]

28 Chinese, Asian Art Museum.

Last week I finally had a chance to see 28 Chinese at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It was in many ways an inspiring exhibit and I had been hoping to write about it earlier than today – a series of unfortunate personal matters have gotten in the way of that. But it is nonetheless worth reading about, and seeing if you can this afternoon or tomorrow before it closes.

28 Chinese presents the work of 28 contemporary Chinese artists working in a variety of media. It ” is the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of exploration and research by art collectors Don and Mera Rubell,” who met with 100 artists in China between 2001 and 2012 to learn about them and assemble works from their collection. The exhibition features famous artists like Ai Weiwei, but also up-and-coming artists such as Lu Wei, whose large-scale oil-on-canvas work Liberation No. 1 was among my favorites in the show.

Lu Wei.  Liberation No 1. Oil on Canvas
[Liberation No. 1, 2013, by Liu Wei (Chinese, b. 1972). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Liu Wei.]

It depicts a colorful and unfathomably dense urban landscape, even beyond what I experienced in Shanghai in 2009. It might be disquieting to some, but I find it welcoming. Lu Wei used computer software to generate the patterns which we then rendered as oil on canvas. Another work that made use of mathematical processes to direct traditional painting practice was Shang Yixin’s acrylic work 1061.

Shang Yixin.  1061.  Acrylic on Canvas.

[1061, by Shang Yixini (Chinese, b. 1980). Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Shang Yixin. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The artist uses the the square as the fundamental building block in all of his paintings. He uses precise rules to generate the patterns of colored squares, which result in different images each time. It seems he must be using stencils or edges to get such precise shapes and textures from acrylic.

An equally modernist but very different type of painting could be found in Zhu Jinshi’s Black and White Summer Palace – Black. The paint was applied using trowels to create a thick and presumably quite heavy topographical structure. It brought to mind the incredibly heavy painting The Rose by Jay DeFao.

Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi
[Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Image from The Asian Art Museum’s Tumblr.]

There were quite a few interesting sculptural and conceptual works in the exhibition. One of the highlights was Zhu Jinshi’s monumental installation, Boat. It composed entirely of layered calligraphy paper and bamboo rods suspended from the ceiling. It was over 40 feet long, and visitors could walk inside of it.

Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread
[Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Zhu Jinshi. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

Not as large in size, but also quite monumental in its weight was Ai Weiwei’s conceptual sculpture A Ton of Tea, which literally was a ton of tea compressed into a cube.

A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei
[A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Ai Weiwei. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The setting for this piece and many others was inventive juxtaposition by the museum of works in the exhibition with the more traditional pieces from their permanent collection. The contemporary works stood quite a part from the traditional, but was interesting to see a few thousand years of Chinese artist practice all together.

One more surprising and intense conceptual work was He Xiangyu’s installation Cola Project, in which he boiled down 127 tons of Coca Cola to create a highly corrosive black residue. He used this as an ink to create traditional Chinese ink-on-paper drawings. In addition to the drawings, the installation featured a case of the rather disturbing substance, and the even more disturbing photos and videos from the worksite where large industrial cauldrons were creating it. The scene suggested a poorly regulated industrial site, and the room was filled with an odor of burnt caramel (probably emitted from the drawings). It was a rather intense work. And fortunately I am not fond of cola.

Like any good exhibition, this one inspired me in my own artist ideas – especially the two-dimension works. It also made me reminisce about my adventures at galleries and art districts in urban China, such as Shanghai’s Moganshan Road, which I’m sure has changed in the 6 years since I was last there.

28 Chinese is on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through tomorrow, Sunday, August 16. If you are in the area I recommend checking it out.