Thursday, January 9, 2014

Motherwell Collages & Chris Wool

Perhaps because I’m very much interested in the hands-on, low-tech sort of things nowadays, I went to the Guggenheim to see the Motherwell collages & Chris Wool paintings.

His significance over the years seems to have diminished; a few have even spoken of him as a lesser Ab Exer. But in the 1970s he certainly could draw a crowd. I saw him speak at the School of Visual Arts (1977?). He had established some cache on the political spectrum of painting primarily because of his “Elegy” series. When asked about them he recalled: “at the time there was a feeling that evil could take over the world”. These days it seems like there are multiple evils hovering about, but on that evening the singular weight of his statement, simple as it was, filled the space with a profound silence. Later asked to further explain some of his work he said to much applause: “if I wanted to use words I’d be a writer”.  Of course he was well read and quite articulate (see Painters Painting), when he chose to be.
Not a large show this. And not just collages either. A couple of sweet paintings and drawings are included in this selection of rarely seen works.  Although there might be touches of Matisse, Picasso or Arp here and there, it’s the connections to his contemporaries that got me.  It wasn’t his working through Surrealism and Cubism; it was his dialog with Gorky and David Smith. It was a painting in homage to John Cage. It was the evocation of the years when American abstract painters were starting conversations with each other rather than looking over their shoulders at the Moderns in Paris.
This was an open notebook sort of show, full of experimentation. Shapes and textures that would come into play in future works scurried about.

Works from the 1940s

I always felt that he and Phillip Taaffe were large-scale printmakers, not painters really.  Nonetheless here was his work spiraling down the Guggy, which is a difficult space for large flat artworks. I remember a Noland retrospective where his wide horizontal paintings seemed to visually warp because of the curvatures behind them. Wool doesn’t have that problem. His verticals hover in front of the viewer, bathed in a light unique to the Guggy. Cantilevered off the curved walls by flying buttresses attached to their rears, a space is created behind the works that is an exhibition in and of itself.
His jokey word paintings aside, looking at his small noirish photographs made me wish that Wool’s early work had visually darker manifestations. Black on black perhaps. Instead he was content with an obdurate, simplistic black on white technique. Later on his work did become much more painterly in a “Goodbye to All That” sort of way. Wiping away imagery with solvent soaked rags. Layering and muddying up the imagery. And in one of the rectangular rooms, a group of four paintings suddenly suggested a Rothko Chapel moment of their own. Now that’s a painter.

Hovering in Space

The Flying Buttress

The Space behind a wall, behind a painting

Since these were not blockbuster exhibits why all the people? Museums are quite full these days. All museums should be open 7 days a week. No? And at least one day a month for 24 hours straight. Yes!
Otherwise we’ll never again have that feeling of being alone with a body of work.
There was also a small Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim. It merited much more time than I could give it. The room was simply way too crowded.

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