Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, New York

This fall and winter in New York featured an ambitious citywide art project by Ai Weiwei called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. Through fences, cages, netting and other forms of “barrier”, Ai Weiwei well-known landmarks as well as quintessentially “New York” locations into expressions of global migration – a complex phenomenon that includes refugee crises around the world as well as the fights for and against immigration in our own country. While the large installations at Washington Square and Central Park perhaps get the most attention, they are also scattered in smaller locations that are part of daily life in the city. We at CatSynth attempted to track down all the major installations and compiled our experiences into this video.

The large sculptural pieces in Washington Square Park and Grand Army Plaza at the corner of Central Park were the most impressive as iconic.


[Grand Army Plaza / Central Park]

The cage at Grand Army Plaza is quite literal, an easily identified barrier between those in the cage and the rest of the city going about its business outside. Of course, one can freely enter and exit this cage at will. The mirrored piece that fills the Washington Square Arch is more abstract, with the silhouettes of human figures forming a welcoming portal in the midst of an imposing fence. This one was the most aesthetically beautiful for me, with its play on reflections and light from the surrounding city.


[Washington Square Arch]

Many smaller installations were scattered around the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood long associated with immigration and new arrivals to the United States. Indeed, the European Jewish side of my family settled in this neighborhood in the early 20th century, so it holds particular significance.


[Chrystie Street]

Ai Weiwei. #goodfencesmakegoodneighbors #NYC Essex Street Market

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One could be forgiven for overlooking some of these (though the Essex Street Market installation is quite large). In fact, one at East 7th Street was just a narrow fence in the space between two apartment buildings. It took me a couple of minutes to locate it. And business at the boutiques and cafes at ground level went ahead seemingly oblivious.

We also made it to some of the installations in other boroughs, including the one surrounding the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.


[Unisphere – Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens]

The Unisphere is one of the remaining ruins from the 1968 Worlds Fair and with its positive (albeit cynical) message of global and international solidarity, its an apt setting for reflecting on the current migration crises and increasing nationalism worldwide. The borough of Queens has also involved since 1968 to become one of the most diverse places in the world.

And no artistic journey through the would be complete without Brooklyn. Fulton Mall – a section of Fulton Street closed to form a pedestrian mall and bus corridor – was the site of a series of installations adding fencing to some of the bus stops.


[Fulton Mall, Brooklyn]

One more Fulton Street Mall. Ai Weiwei #goodfencesmakegoodneighbors #brooklyn #NYC

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Downtown Brooklyn has become an important part of my own experience of New York in the past decade, and it seems fitting to end here, where older discount stores and new high-rise condo buildings collide. We will have to see how this ultimately plays out…

We end in the Bronx, where this billboard on the Deegan Expressway may not be part of the official presentation, but it made for a fitting conclusion.


[Deegan Expressway (I-87), The Bronx]

Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors will be on display through February 18, 2018. You can read more about the project and its many locations here.

Wordless Wednesday: Vacant Lot, Long Island City (5218)

A rare vacant lot with graffiti and older facades amidst the booming construction in Long Island City, Queens, New York. How long will it last?

Wordless Wednesday: Zaha Hadid on the High Line

Zaha Hadid

Building on the High Line in New York by the late great Zaha Hadid.

Wordless Wednesday: Borough Park

Borough Park Subway

The elevated tracks of the D line in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Wordless Wednesday: Metal Sculpture and Cat, SoHo

Metal Sculpture and Cat in SoHo

A photo captured in SoHo, New York City, framing a metal sculpture and black-cat painting on a wall.

Projects 107: Lone Wolf Recital Corps and Works from “Travel Ban” Countries, MoMA

Our coverage from our recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York continues with Projects 107: Lone Wolf Recital Corps. The Lone Wolf Recital Corp is a multidisciplinary performance collective founded in 1986 by artist and musician Terry Adkins (1953-2014) and has featured many musicians and visual artists over the years. The performances were as much visual art as performance, with Adkins’ sculptures and other objects.  Indeed, the main artist attractions were the many musical-instrument sculptures.

Lone Wolf Recital Corps

The horns above look like they could be played with enough strength and energy. By contrast, Adkins’ musical sculpture Nenuphar, which consists of two horns fused together seems impossible to play.

Terry Adkins. Nunafar
[Terry Adkins, Nenuphar (1998). Brass and Copper.]

When one is deep in the details of music making – and using electronic gadgets in the process – it is possible to forget the aesthetic beauty of musical instruments as objects and sources of inspiration themselves. Adkins’ sculptures and the work of the ensemble remind us that. The performances, which employ collective improvisation also centered around a diverse set of figures such as John Coltrane, abolitionist John Brown, explorer Matthew Henson, and singer Bessie Smith. Adkins billed the performances and dedications as “an ongoing quest to reinsert the legacies of unheralded immortal figures to their rightful place within the panorama of history.” (it should be noted that here at CatSynth, John Coltrane, in particular, is anything but unheralded.)

Unfortunately, we were not in town to attend either the opening performance or the second performance on September 26, which brought members of the ensemble together in live improvisation around the sculptural elements of the exhibition.


[Opening performance of Projects 107: Lone Wolf Recital Corps at The Museum of Modern Art, August 19, 2017. Photo: Scott Shaw.]

It looks like it was a great event, and while we are sad to have missed the performances, we are glad to have found the exhibition. It was one of the happy surprises that one expects when exploring MoMA.


Since February, MoMA has hung artworks galleries by artists from countries affected by the administration’s various travel bans – something which is poignant this week as the latest incarnation of in the ban covering seven countries (six majority-Muslim countries plus North Korea) has been announced. Below is one such work, a beautiful exterior perspective of a proposal for The Peak: Hong Kong by Zaha Hadid, who passed away last year.

Zaha Hadid. The Peak, Hong Kong
[Zaha Hadid. The Peak, Hong Kong (1991). Exterior perspective, synthetic polymer on paper mounted on canvas.]

The pieces are scattered among the rotating display of works from the permanent collection in the middle floors, which are otherwise organized in a near-religious temporal and historical progression from early modernism at the turn of the 20th Century to the post-war period. Hadid’s painting stood in high contrast to the early modern works surrounding it. Others, such as The Prophet by Parviz Tanavoli blended more subtly with their surroundings. The following statement was included with each artwork:

This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens would be denied entry into the United States according to recent presidential executive orders. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.

We at CatSynth could not agree more, and strongly support MoMA’s action through art.

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a large exhibition of works by Robert Rauschenberg, billed as the “first 21st-century retrospective of the artist.” In 1999, I attended what was probably the last major 20th-century retrospective at The Guggenheim, which resulted in mixed and complicated feelings about his work. I was skeptical of the white-on-white paintings and openly detested the pieces that consisted entirely of unfolded cardboard boxes; but there were other works that were captivating, like his sculptural paintings with electrical elements. This new exhibition elevates the entirety of Rauschenberg’s work by placing it in the context of his many collaborators, both in the New York School of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. The show also demonstrated the importance of place in the development and evolution of his art.


[Robert Rauschenberg. Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987). Riveted street signs and other metal parts, 60 x 121 x 14″ (152.4 x 307.3 x 35.6 cm), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York]

The source of his many collaborations can be traced to his time at Black Mountain College. He studied with (and was influenced by) Josef and Anni Albers. It is here that he met John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as fellow visual artists Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and more.

John Cage 4'33
[John Cage. 4’33” (In Proportional Notation) [1952/1953]. Ink on paper, page (each): 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm); sheet (each, unfolded): 11 x 16 15/16″ (27.9 x 43.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis.]

Cage’s 4’33” is a piece that I admire greatly. He later claimed that his encounter with Rauschenberg’s white paintings was a major inspiration for the piece. In the context of place and collaboration, the white paintings take on a significance that was lost the first time I saw them. (I still don’t like the cardboard boxes, though.) One can also see in his white (and black) pieces the influence and evolution away from the precise minimalism of Josef Albers.

The friendships and collaborations formed at Black Mountain continued in his work abroad and then at his studios in downtown Manhattan, first at Fulton Street and then at Pearl Street. One amusing collaboration was a long ink-on-paper piece featuring the tire treads of a car driven by John Cage.


[Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage. Automobile Tire Print (detail). 1953. Tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. × 22 ft. 1/2 in. (41.9 × 671.8 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis. Photo: Don Ross. © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation]

Rauschenberg continued to work with simple elements to produce three-dimension works both on and off the wall that would lead to his celebrated “Combines.” Some of these early pieces were quite small and often focused on just one or two elements, such as the piece Untitled (c. 1953) consisting of wooden and linen boxes. As an interesting aside, the original fabric box was destroyed by Rachel Rosenthal’s cat – another example of chance collaboration.


[Unititled (1953). Wood box with lid and removable balsa wood-and-fabric cube. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.]

During the period of his early Combines and red paintings, Rauschenberg collaborated with Jasper Johns on a large mixed-media set design for Minutiae a dance piece by Cunningham with music by Cage. While red was the principal color of the piece, it also brought in a variety of other textures and materials, including wood, mirrors, newspaper and even a paint color chart.

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae
[Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae (1954). Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, paint sample color chart, graphite, metal, and plastic, with hanging mirror, on wood supports 84 1/2 x 81 x 30 1/2″ (214.6 x 205.7 x 77.5 cm) Private Collection Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.]

The music is very sparse, and the dance moves between very slow minimal motion and periods of frenzied activity. These contrasts are reflected in the set’s various materials and textures. Remy Charlip’s costume designs also seem to reflect the colors and patterns of the set.

In 1960, Rauschenberg participated in Jean Tinguely’s seminal performance piece Homage to New York. Tinguely and his collaborators assembled a large sculptural installation that was designed to self-destruct over the course of the performance, which took place in the sculpture garden of MoMA. Only a few fragments of the original piece remain today.

Fragment from Homage to New York
[Jean Tinguely. Fragment from Homage to New York (1960). Painted metal, fabric, tape, wood, and rubber tires. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.]

Rauschenberg’s contributions included “The Money Thrower”, a mechanical contraption with springs, an electric heater, gunpowder, and silver dollars.

The Money Thrower
[The Money Thrower for Tinguely’s H.T.N.Y. (Homage to New York) [1960].  Electric heater with gunpowder, metal springs, twine, and silver dollars. 6 3/4 × 22 1/2 × 4″ (17.1 × 57.2 × 10.2 cm) Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Gift of Pontus Hultén]

One can also see the performative at play in some of his larger Combines, including Gold Standard, a collaborative piece with artist Alex Hay.


[Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay. Gold Standard (1964). Oil, paper, printed reproductions, metal speedometer, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, pair of men’s leather boots, and Coca-Cola bottles on gold fabric folding Japanese screen with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base 84 1/4 × 142 1/8 × 51 1/4″ (214 × 361 × 130.2 cm) Glenstone.]

 

These collaborations and the increased presence of electrical elements and technology in Rauschenberg’s work foreshadowed E.A.T., the “Experiments in Art and Technology”, an organization which he co-founded with Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman and the engineer Fred Waldhauer. Among the works that came out of E.A.T. was Mud Muse, in which a large glass case filled with bentonite and water is excited by a sound recording fed into an air compression system. You can see a bit of the piece in this video:

Mud Muse. Robert Rauschenberg. #moma #nyc

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Mud Muse was a collaboration with Carl Adams, George Carr, Lewis Ellmore, Frank LaHaye and Jim Wilkinson.

Place is an important element of many pieces. This is perhaps no more apparent than in Tinguely’s Home to New York. But the influence of New York and the artists who coalesced there is apparent in his solo works as well, sometimes visually and sometimes spiritually. Eventually, Rauschenberg moved his home and studio to Captiva Island in Florida, where we worked on a larger scale and in a more solitary manner than during his days in New York. While there are currents that run through his work in both the New York and Captiva periods, the later Captiva works seemed to lack a bit of the edge of the earlier New York work – or perhaps it is simply part of bias towards the city that I always return to.


[Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas 95 3/4 x 69 3/4″ (243.2 x 177.2 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967.]

There was far more in this exhibition of over 250 individual works than I can cover in this article. The continuity and focus on collaboration made it not too overwhelming to take it all in. I quite enjoyed the show, and it has given me a renewed appreciation overall for Robert Rauschenberg’s career and body of work.

Wordless Wednesday: South Bronx Train Overpass

South Bronx Train Overpass

Wordless Wednesday returns! Today we have a photo from our recent excursion in the South Bronx.

James Chance and The Contortions, Seaport Music Festival, New York

This past weekend marked the 15th annual Seaport Music Festival at the South Street Seaport in New York, and we at CatSynth were there on Sunday afternoon to see James Chance and The Contortions.

James Chance and the Contortions

For those who are not familiar with James Chance, he was an icon in the New York post-punk and “No Wave” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is actually the second time we have seen him and his band, including collaborators Mac Gollehon on trumpet and valve trombone, Eric Klaastad, and Richard Dworkin on drums, in 2017, the previous being at the Knockout in Francisco in March.

For the Seaport show, they were joined by Chris Cochrane on guitar and Robert Aaron filling out the horn section on tenor saxophone.  The San Francisco performance was great, but this performance was even better.  There were the tight funky rhythms with blaring saxophone and trumpet lines along with Chance’s fancy footwork and intense stage presence that channeled James Brown, but the band as a whole was more of an imaginative musical whole.  Cochrane seemed more in tune with the rest of the band and shined on slower tune “Jaded” with a cool Robert-Fripp-like countermelody using an e-bow.  The combined horns of Gollehon and Aaron brought out the jazz and funk elements that separated James Chance from others in the No Wave scene.  And Klaastad was full and powerful on eight-string bass.

The energy of the performance fit well with the setting.  It was a beautiful late-summer day, with the Brooklyn Bridge and waterfront bathed in golden-hour sunlight, matched by Chance’s yellow blazer and trademark pompadour.

James Chance

It was also special to see him performing in New York, given his long history in the local music scene.  Later on walking in the West Village, we espied this old poster advertising one of his shows from the early 1980s on the wall of the former Bleecker Street Records (sadly, now a Starbucks).

James White and the Blacks

We would be remiss if we did not also mention the other bands we saw at the Seaport Music Festival.  The Contortions were preceded by Wolfmanhattan Project, a supergroup featuring Kid Congo Powers, Mick Collins (Dirtbombs/Gories), and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth).  They played to a quite enthusiastic audience.  The Nude Party combined sounds of hard rock scene of 1970s New York with a Southern edge from their hometown in North Carolina.  And Martin Rev (formerly of Suicide) played an energetic solo set on keyboards with backing rhythms from a variety of sources, including classic soul such as the Ohio Players.  A fine day of music on the waterfront.

[Jason Berry contributed to this article.]

9/11 Tribute in Light

9/11 Tribute in Light

Last night in downtown Brooklyn, we observed the 9/11 Tribute in Light turning on across the river.  One beam was on first, and then later – following the pattern of the towers attack and collapse.

It is a somber reminder.  And it is the second time I have been in New York on 9/11 to witness it.

You can read more about the 9/11 Tribute in Light here.