Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, MoMA

For us at CatSynth, no trip back to New York is complete without a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and this time it was an exceptionally rich one, with interesting exhibitions on every floor even amidst the museum’s massive renovation project.  We begin with a look at an exhibition of prints by Louise Bourgeois that focused on her print-making work.  Although primarily known for her sculptures, Bourgeois produced a large body of printed works on paper, textiles and other materials, especially at the beginning and end of her career.  But the themes and characteristic elements remain similar regardless of medium, and the show placed the printed works in the context of her sculpture.  For example, the main atrium of the museum was dominated by one of her large iconic spider sculptures, with late-career prints surrounding it on the walls.

Louise Bourgeois: Spider
[Louise Bourgeois.  Spider (1997)]

[Installation View]

The prints in the atrium featured curved, organic forms, in keeping with the same natural focus in the spider and many of her other sculptures.  We can see this synergy between print and sculpture throughout the exhibition, with early prints and drawings informing her sculptures of the 1950s and 1960s, which combined geometric and architectural elements with organic shapes and textures.

Louise Bourgeois: Femme Maison
[Louise Bourgeois.  Femme Maison (1947)]

Louise Bourgeois: Pillar and Figure
[Louise Bourgeois.  Pillar  (1949-1950) and Figure (1954)]

The vertical nature of the forms enhances the sense of embodiment in the sculptures, while drawings like Femme Maison (shown above) make the connection literal.  Bourgeois revisited these same themes in many of her later prints, perhaps even drawing upon the earlier sculptures themselves for inspiration.

The Sky's the Limit
[Louise Bourgeois.  The Sky’s the Limit, version 2 of 2, only state (1989-2003)]

In addition to the intersection of architectural and biological forms, Bourgeois’ work often explores themes of womanhood, fertility, and sexuality. Indeed, the 1947 Femme Maison combines all three themes.  On particularly poignant series from the 1990s, late in her life, revisits motherhood embodied in Sainte Sébastienne (presumably a gender switch of the early Christian martyr Saint Sebastien).  Childbirth and pain come together in the first more literal series of images, but there is a softer element to the second series, which includes this image combining the maternal figure with a cat.

[Louise Bourgeois.  Stamp of Memories II, version 1 of 2, state XII of XII  (1994)]

Sexuality comes through abstractly in many pieces, but quite literally in some late-career drawings which have a playful, comic-like quality, as in this page from her illustrated book The Laws of Nature.

[Louise Bourgeois and Paulo Herkenhoff.  Untitled, plate 2 of 5, state X of X, from the illustrated book, The Laws of Nature (2006)]

Bourgeois celebrated both the female and male while turning some of traditional roles and stereotypes on their head.  In the above image, it is the woman who appears to be in control in the sexual moment, with the male figure more passive.  Another particularly amusing riff on gender stereotypes is her sculpture Arch of Hysteria in which a suspended male torso is used to represent “hysteria”.

Art of Hysteria
[Louise Bourgeois. Arch of Hysteria (1993) and installation view.]

Having been on the receiving end of “why are you being so emotional?” comments in the workplace, I rather enjoyed seeing this stereotype turned around.

We conclude with one last piece from the Lullaby series in which a simple red organic form is printed on sheet-music paper.

Untitled, no. 11 of 24, only state, from the series, Lullaby 2006
[Louise Bourgeois. Untitled, no. 11 of 24, only state, from the series, Lullaby (2006)]

Like the drawings from The Laws of Nature, these were done towards the end of the career.  I thought it was interesting that she chose music paper as the foundation for this series.  And for us at CatSynth, it allows us to circle back to music, which permeates our experience of art.

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 28, 2018.  You can find out more information here.

Ellsworth Kelly and Metropolis II at LACMA

While in southern California for NAMM last month, I made a point of stopping at the LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The museum and the trip to get there through downtown LA were the perfect coda to the overload of NAMM. And by chance, it was the opening day for a retrospective exhibit of works by Ellsworth Kelly.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

I am quite familiar with Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings through SFMOMA (see my review of the Fisher Collection show from 2010 which featured several large pieces). His large panels in single colors with rectangular or curvilinear shapes are quite iconic, as are his grids of colored squares. But in LACMA’s comprehensive exhibition, which focused on Kelly’s printmaking along with some drawings and paintings, I was exposed to different and unexpected directions in his work. There was a room of minimalist panels, but all in black and white instead of his usual bright colors. There were also pieces with organic and complex patterns based on plants and rivers. In between there were brightly colored abstract works that seem to bridge the gap between the organic and the minimalist.

An example of the familiar and unfamiliar in Kelly’s work appears in the first gallery. Around the corner from a large set of four solid shapes is a piece with a similar curvilinear shape but a rougher and more natural looking texture.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next section featured Kelly’s studies in abstraction, influenced from his time in Paris in the 1950s. Here were see experiments with different pairs of colors on the same shape, with simple titles such as Orange over Blue (Orange sur Bleu). The shapes, rounded rectangles and arrows, seem manually cut and have the imperfections of natural (or at least handmade) forms. But through the medium of printing with different colors, they become more mechanized.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next room was the most surprising. All the works here were in black and white, something which I had not associated with Kelly up until this moment. One wall featured the same curvilinear or angular shapes as his more colorful abstract works, but in monochrome they are far more severe. But this is good thing. In monochrome, he plays with contrasts and positive and negative space with the shapes without the distraction of color.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

But even more unexpected were his monochrome prints based on natural forms, which were in this same room. He did a series of lithographs of botanical forms in the late 1960s that featured simple line drawings that capture the imperfections of natural subjects. I would never have guessed these pieces were his without the labels. More recently, he did a series of large monochrome prints based on the texture of the moving water in the some of the world’s most famous rivers.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

So how does one fit these in the context of Kelly’s more colorful abstractions? Certainly, the black fields can be seen as simply another color study; and the rivers can be seen as abstract but complex textures informed by nature. The textures of the rivers can be seen reflected in abstract piece Red Curve (State I) from the first room of the exhibit. The botanical pieces are the ones that are the most difficult to place in context aesthetically, the artist himself states that “the drawings from plant life seem to be a bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the paintings of 1949 that are the bases for all my later work.” It is possible to see the repeated curving shapes in his abstract work as inspired by plant forms.

The final room featured more of the style that I most associated with Kelly: angular solid fields and color grids.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

It was in this last room that another museum visitor came up to me and asked, “Why is this good? What do you see in it?” I’m sure I was gazing rather intently at various pieces which probably signaled to her that I had a genuine interest in this work. I did my best to try and answer her question, which seemed to be as much about minimalist artist general as Ellsworth Kelly in particular. For me, good abstract and minimalist art captures my attention and “arrests the mind” (with apologies to James Joyce). Additionally, all art and perception of art has context. There was the context of each piece, even if a single-color panel, within the greater body of work on display. There was context of my experience, and joy in looking at these works in the quiet gallery, the calming effect. There is also the execution, choosing the right colors and the right proportions for shape and size of each piece, that Kelly was able to do consistently. I’m not sure the woman was particularly satisfied with my answers. She walked away saying “I guess I just don’t understand why this belongs in a museum.” I did my best – I do truly want to share the enjoyment of modern art, and especially abstract art, with others, which is why I write articles like this.

Also on view at LACMA was Metropolis II, large kinetic installation by Chris Burden. It features stacks of highways weaving their way among densely packed buildings. A continuous stream of cars speed along the highways, some of which are six lanes across. The result is a frenetic pulsating vision of a future city, or an imagining of the pace and anxiety of a contemporary city. This piece is best experienced in motion, and you see a bit of it in this video:

This piece of course appealed to me as a person who loves cities and the urban landscape and who has a fascination with the patterns of roads and highways. Looking from above, the traffic is simply a current like moving water and provides none of the stress that one experiences on actual city streets. I can also admire the amount of work that must go into making something like this. The toylike scale of the installation also gives it a playful quality. It was just fun to experience.

Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings will be on display through April 22, and Metropolis II is ongoing. Both are worth seeing if you are in Los Angeles.

Stefan Kirkeby, Amy Ellingson and Book Release at Gallery 16

Back in January I attended the opening for an exhibition by Stefen Kirkeby and Amy Ellingson at Gallery 16 here in San Francisco. The work of both artists focused on prints and printmaking in its various forms. The show also served as the release party for the gallery’s 16th anniversary book.

Stefan Kirkeby’s photographs have a very minimal and geometric quality, and celebrate these elements in everyday architecture and infrastructure. The prints on display also featured a variety of techniques. Particularly interesting were the series of gravures along one wall. The gravures are made using copper plates to “etch” the image onto paper. In terms of subject, each of the photographs focused on a single geometric element. Up Lift (Venice, CA 2007) featured concentric round solids, while Boxed (also from Venice, CA) featured in square inset. There were also areal views of fields with rectangular patterns, some mechanical contraptions, and in Sun stones (Japan 2008) a large stone cube on tiles that remind me of the distinctive floor of . Perhaps the most striking was Dead Center (Arizona, 2000) which distills the view (looking up from the center of a power-line tower) into a symmetric and seemingly algorithmic arrangement of straight lines.

[Stefan Kirkeby. Dead Center. Image courtesy of Gallery 16. (Click to enlarge.)]

There was also a much larger scale version of Dead Center entitled Dead Dead Center. In addition to the scale and use of a different printing technique, the image was inverted (i.e., white on black). Both versions work well, and highlight the . The power lines are a rich source for Kirkeby, who also presented a series of closeups of the wires at various angles, with evocative titles. The close-ups and high contrast makes these very abstract and bring to mind some of the minimalist and industrial-inspired paintings of early 20th century. I think part of the attraction of the pieces involving regular shapes and straight lines is that they draw ones attention to elements in the real world that have the simplicity and calm of computer-generated or machine-generated object.

Also on display were prints by Amy Ellingson. We have seen and reviewed examples of Ellingson’s work at earlier exhibitions. The pieces in this exhibition all featured the same flattened oval shape that appeared prominently in her previous work, arranged in regular 3-by-3 grids. They serve as areas of contrasting color and texture between foreground and background, and sometimes as windows of sorts.

[Amy Ellingson, Unitited #5 (2011). Image courtesy of Gallery 16.]

In Inverse Title 11, the oval shapes have a light color and bright texture in contrast to the main black field, almost like cut-out areas. In a series of larger untitled works, the shapes are more like overlays against a translucent color field with soft textures, as in Unititled #5 (shown above).

This exhibition also marked the release of Gallery 16’s 16th anniversary book These Are The People In Your Neighborhood. As part of the event, several of the artists featured in the book were on hand for a group signing.

I did of course have to get a copy, with as many signatures as I could get during my brief time at the event.

[Click images to enlarge.]

The book is a mixture of writing and images documenting the many artists and events over the gallery’s history in San Francisco. It was initially located at 1616, 16th Street (in the Poterero Hill neighborhood) before moving to its current location in SOMA. Leafing through the book one can the emphasis on print and although there is a wide variety of styles, I did see a lot of works that represent my own interest in modernist and minimal art (as exemplified by this exhibition) and urban themes such as infrastructure or graffiti/cartoons.