The Daily Pic
Blake Gopnik's Latest Sightings

The Daily Pic: Blake Gopnik's Latest Sightings

Daily Pic: An Early Warhol That Speaks Volumes

I came across this Warhol portrait of Robert Rauschenberg the other week in Andrea Caratsch’s gallery in Zurich. I was shocked to find that one of the most significant works of the 20th century was selling for less than $2 million — maybe five per cent of what less important, later Warhols can fetch. Last I checked, it still had not been bought. (Caratsch wouldn’t take my Sam’s Club card.)

Made in 1962, this is, as far as I can tell, the earliest portrait of a living sitter in Warhol’s mature career, and one of his very earliest silkscreens. (I don’t count his movie-star images as portraits: They are closer to Rembrandt’s “heads” of Aristotle or Jesus.) That means this work is a first experiment in the genre that filled the final two-thirds of Warhol’s career.

The 1962 portrait features one of the cutting-edge artists that Warhol was most keen on emulating, and whose friendship he had only just managed to win. Average museumgoers, and even experts, don’t always realize how deeply committed Warhol was to the classic, egghead avant-garde, and how deeply immersed he was in it at this point in his career; this portrait stands as his declaration of that commitment. It also comes at just the moment when Warhol was able to turn the tables on Rauschenberg, by offering to help his elder learn the new photo-silkscreen technique. (Although the tale’s also told that Rauschenberg taught him.)

Rauschenberg was also some kind of model for Warhol of what it was to be a successful gay artist, even if he had once rejected Warhol as too “swish” for his tastes. I think you can read Rauschenberg’s un-swish-ness from the way Warhol depicts him here, in an image that has none of the camp playfulness of Warhol’s Pop works from this era. Drowning in a deep-blue sea, Rauschenberg has stronger echoes in this portrait of his own Black Paintings, or of Warhol’s later “Disasters,” than of Warhol’s “Troy Donohue” or “Marilyn” silkscreens. You could almost read this dour, barely-there portrait as being in mourning for, or at least a token of, Rauschenberg’s closeted life. With its figure small and lost, gazing up into the heavens, this is one of the most wistful images Warhol ever made. All that blackness, and the filmic stutters running down the surface of the work, remind me most of Warhol’s dark and cryptic “Shadow” silkscreens from 1978.

The painting also comes close to being a direct quote from the all-blue monochromes of Yves Klein. Warhol cannot have missed the Frenchman’s 1961 New York show with Leo Castelli, who became Warhol’s own dealer not long after.  (A couple of years later, Warhol was asking a lover, the art historian Robert Pincus-Witten, to tell him what Klein was like.) Klein is one of the few artists of this era who can rival Warhol for his mix of brainy profundity and absurdist play, and this portrait almost proves the connection. Within a year or two, Warhol was including Kleinian monochromes in his silkscreened diptychs; this earlier “Rauschenberg” can almost be thought of as a collapsed diptych, with a silkscreen portrait sandwiched on top of a blue monochrome. Which means there’s also cancelling-out going on — a deliberate attempt to make a portrait that conceals more than it shows. Warhol may have admired and envied Bob Rauschenberg, but more than anything he wanted to cast the shadow of his own art over his new friend’s. This darkling portrait casts that shadow, symbolically, before Warhol had made a whole lot of art that could actually outshine Rauschenberg’s. (Image courtesy Andrea Caratsch, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.)

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Daily Pic: Kaspar Müller’s Transatlantic Yard Sale

This is a stack of prints by Kaspar Müller. They’re from a project called  Tropic of Cancer, in which Müller has put on sale every single object he owns, from a stack of Artforum magazines to his stereo set. The prints are on view in the group show called “The Saint Petersburgh Paradox,” now at the Swiss Institute in New York. (There’s a dedicated phone line for anyone who would like to make an offer on what they show: +49 176 9098 8107.) Müller’s not the first artist to host such a sale, but in every case I’m attached to the way they work with commodities already out there in the world, instead of adding to our mass of consumables. Has anyone thought of Duchamp’s readymades as the first attempt at green art?

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Daily Pic: Benni Efrat’s Pre-C.G.I.

This is “Matter on the Move,” a 1969 piece by the Israeli artist Benni Efrat, recreated recently for the “Other Primary Structures” show at the Jewish Museum in New York. All it is is a huge block of foam rubber, deformed by the massive sheet of steel that has been lowered onto it. Almost 50 years on, I love the way it seems to predict the kinds of geometrically regular deformations that we now expect to see in computer simulations. (A friend who was a pioneer in digital imaging remembers fooling around with such shapes in the 1970s.) Artists have always created sights that we otherwise would not get to see — whether by means of pigment on cave walls, oil paint on canvas, steel dumped on rubber or charged particles moving around on silicon chips. (Photo by Kris Graves; work courtesy the artist, Tel Aviv © Benni Efrat)

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Daily Pic: David Hartt Documents a Cutting-Edge Past

This image documents the last days of the old Johnson Publishing Company offices in Chicago. It’s from a project called “Stray Light” by David Hartt, now on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Hartt got access to the offices before they were sold off to Columbia College in 2010, and he recorded, in stills and video, what survived of their former glory.  The company was founded in 1942 and went on to become a major force in African-American culture, publishing magazines like “Jet” and “Ebony,” which survive to this day.  Hartt’s images record the fading echoes of the firm’s glory days in the 1970s, when the décor of the corporate offices mixed the sleek curves and shiny plastics of Jetsons modernism with a collection of African sculptures and artifacts — a crucial part of modernism’s history, reclaimed at Johnson by their makers’ descendants.

Most photography has an element of elegy in it, so even if we didn’t know that the company had had to scale back, we might read Hartt’s images as commemorating something sadly past.  Culture doesn’t stay still, and even if issues of race and racism are still with us, the way they play out in the nation may not leave room for another Johnson to find a place.  The Jetsons future its offices predicted didn’t quite pan out; the future came, and it was better than the past, but it was no more shiny than any present can be.

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Daily Pic: Franklin Evans Shows Us Painting Today

This is a view into a manic installation called “paintingassupermodel,” by Franklin Evans. It’s now filling the Ameringer McEnery Yohe gallery in New York. The title is a clever updating of “Painting as Model,” the name of a famous 1993 book by art historian Yve-Alain Bois, sped up to the pace of the 21st century. There’s not even time for a break between words.

Evan’s installation does a pretty good job conjuring the feel of art as it is now experienced, as a ceaseless barrage of image and information and commerce that we’re supposed to take as-is, without too much processing or doubt. “Paintingassupermodel” levels the playing field between Matisse and Photoshop. What I couldn’t decide, as I took in the piece, was whether its frantic complexities acted as an invitation to dig deep to figure them out, or to skim along across their surfaces.

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Daily Pic: Dirk Vander Koo’s Artful Extrusion

This is one of the rare works of design that takes the principals of 3D-printing and uses them to make production pieces. I spotted the Chubby Chair, by the Dutch designer Dirk Vander Koo, at the Cite showroom in New York. I’m particularly fond of how it takes on the messiness of such processes, rather than trying to camouflage it. As an art critic, I can’t help imagining that this chair has been squeezed out of a tube of paint, leaving it as deeply rooted in Jackson Pollock as in Gerrit Rietveld and his ilk.

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Daily Pic: Medardo Rosso’s Sad Impressionism

This photo shows two versions of “The Jewish Boy,” one of the deeply weird wax statues conceived in the 1890s by Medardo Rosso, the Impressionist sculptor (which is almost an oxymoron, isn’t it?). Peter Freeman gallery in New York is presenting 10 different castings of this work, which has never been done before. One strange thing about Rosso’s Impressionism, compared to the painted version, is that his works always come off as deeply plangent and touching, where Monet’s or Renoir’s almost always seem cheery. That must partly be because all figurative paintings inevitably read as a filtered vision of some real thing, so they tell us more about the state of the painter’s vision (giddy, light-dazzled, in the case of the Impressionists) than about the state of the thing depicted.  Whereas sculpture seems just to be the thing depicted, so that a blur or ridge in a sculpture is a scar or blemish in life. That means that, whether Rosso planned it or not, the distressed surface of his Jewish boy comes to stand for the distresses that all Jews would suffer a few decades later.

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Daily Pic: Art That Makes Us Vivid

A second image from the current Metro Pictures show by Louise Lawler, one of my favorite artists. Today, I’m going to steal some ideas from Lucy Hogg, the brilliant, talented, ultra-sexy Canadian artist (who happens to be my wife).

As we looked together at the show, Lucy realized how the withdrawn quality of Lawler’s barely-there new tracings of her own classic photos leaves the gallerygoers in the room seeming more present and vibrant than normal. It’s as though the gallery has been somehow turned inside out, with the pictures on the wall now cast as the passive, demure observers of some flesh-and-blood polychrome “sculptures” in their midst.

Lawler’s famous photos of art objects installed in collectors’ homes have always been as much about the people who use art as about the artworks themselves, and her current show seems to turn that photographic situation into a real one.  When one of Lawler’s new tracings arrives in a collector’s living-room, its neutral black-and-white presence on the wall must make all the other works and objects in the room feel that much more like the contents of a color photo by Lawler.

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Daily Pic: Louise Lawler Gets Meta

This is Louise Lawler’s “Pollock and Tureen (traced),” a wall-size reworking of one of Lawler’s most famous photos of modern art in its natural habitat. The piece is part of a show of such wall-works at Metro Pictures gallery in New York. Lawler’s exhibition feels almost like a survey of her greatest hits, but one in which they’ve been reduced to placeholders for the originals. When you’re as famous an artist as Lawler, once your works go out into the world they must start feeling like shadows of their former selves, mere props in other people’s lives and decors. At the very least, they become images that are so iconic their details are no longer taken in — they work as synecdoches for themselves, if I can get fancy for a minute. In other words, Lawler’s photos have become just like the Jackson Pollock she recorded in the photo traced for this work: Backdrops for soup tureens.  Her huge new works have brilliantly captured that thinning out, and magnified it. That means  they’ve also escaped it, at least for a while. (Courtesy Metro Pictures)

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Daily Pic: Philip Pearlstein, Art’s Updike or Munro

I’m not sure I know any artist who has walked the tightrope between tradition and modernism as surefootedly as Philip Pearlstein. There’s certainly no one who has walked it for as long, given that he’s 90 years old and just mounted a show of recent large-scale oils and watercolors at Betty Cuningham‘s new space on the Lower East Side. The exhibition is built around Pearlstein’s trademark images of nude women modeling with props in his studio, which I’ve never before had a chance to study closely. I had a long visit at Cuningham’s with the artist Alexi Worth, who articulates the challenges and risks of painting better than anyone I know.

One of the things we dwelt on was Pearlstein’s desire to paint precisely and only as well as each picture demands: He never falls into bravura for its own sake – as a demonstration of technical skill or of his links to past virtuosi — but he also rejects any hint of the anti-aesthetic, which has now become such a cliché. I like to think of him as a photographer who happens to explore the world through paint, and who knows that an inevitable part of his job will be to explore the act of exploration, and the qualities his medium imposes on his vision. That’s not to say that Pearlstein isn’t an excellent technician: His big watercolors of nudes manage to scale-up techniques usually reserved for portable little pictures of boats. But he’s the master of his techniques rather than the other way around. Worth pointed out an almost Protestant love of everyday labor in these pictures: A labor shared among Pearlstein, in his act of looking and painting, his models as they strike the same pose again and again, and us viewers as we try to untangle the complexities of what they jointly make.

Worth and I discussed how the closest comparison to Pearlstein’s paintings might not be found in visual art, but in the world of letters: His pictures sit deep within the plainspoken tradition of North American writing, like some of the great descriptive passages in John Updike or Alice Munro. As with both those writers, the plainness of Pearlstein’s rhetoric is at the service of the world’s convolutions. Each of his paintings might be a classic New Yorker story. In visual art, the early, snapshot-like photos of Dan Graham might almost be the closest thing, although their directness is so extreme it becomes its own kind of aggressive rhetorical device — whereas Pearlstein’s paintings just speak, plainly.

The biggest danger with making figurative paintings, these days, is that they will be read as retrospective and reactionary — as anti-modern, not just un-modernist. One way that Pearlstein avoids this danger is by incorporating certain classically modernist tropes in his paintings: The way his figures get cropped by the picture’s edge is totally 20th-century, and many of his nudes are seen from above, in a view that echoes the photos of André Kertész and various Bauhausers. In the confined space of a studio, that skyscraper’s-eye view becomes just faintly comic, and Pearlstein underlines the joke by having actual models of biplanes flying above his figures, casting the viewer of the painting (and Pearlstein himself) in the role of daredevil pilot in silk scarf and goggles. Other props include kimonos, folk rugs from all around the world and various foreign artifacts, such as the carved demon in today’s Daily Pic. All this exoticism makes me imagine that, just outside our field of view, there must be a steamer-trunk covered in Grand Hotel stickers — another reference to the paintings’ roots in the 1920s avant-garde that might get overlooked because of the traditional medium and mode Pearlstein works in.  (But his props also include such contemporary objects as a blue air mattress that prevent our reading full-blown nostalgia into the paintings.)

But maybe the quality I like best in these pictures is their combination of indolence and energy: Nudes lounge about in the studio, but male-ish swans and demons and planes seem about to aggress them. (Pearlstein’s ungenteel light is their accomplice.) The act of fixing a naked woman on canvas is inherently troubled, and these untroubled paintings acknowledge that.

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