BlackBook Art View: Yuji Agematsu Turns Trash Into Treasure


Detail, Zip: 01.01.03 . . . 01.31.03, 2003, mixed media in cigarette pack cellophane wrappers on wood backed acrylic shelf, latex paint, 26 1/2 x 34 1/4 x 5 1/4 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught


Yuji Agematsu is perhaps creating the most unique work of any artist active today. And he now has a show on view at the Miguel Abreu Gallery on NYC’s Lower East Side.

Not only is the work unique, it is unquestionably some of the best art being made today; which is interesting, of course, because Agematsu’s fabulous tiny sculptures are actually made of…trash.

Since the 1980s, he has been taking daily, dedicated walks in different New York City neighborhoods, collecting select items of debris and initially putting them into a zip-lock bag. After 1995, he replaced the plastic bag with the cellophane wrapper from his cigarette packs. Collected items include chewed gum, lollipop sticks, condoms, cigarette butts, wire, stones, hair, string, fragments of paper, twigs and leaves. The walk and the collected junk were then meticulously recorded in small notebooks, one for each month, a facsimile of which a collector gets upon acquiring a piece.



Detail, Ziploc: 12.01.95 . . . 12.31.95, 1995, mixed media in Ziploc bags (31 units), magnets, oil pen, on steel, 29 1/2 x 31 x 1 3/8 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught


Generally, Agematsu assembles his findings into miniature sculptures shortly after collecting them, laboriously gluing his “treasures” together and into the cellophane, thus transforming the mundane and unwanted into the most fantastical compositions, and breathing new life into discarded and decaying material. Sometimes his individual pieces suggest landscape; other times they are anthropomorphic, or resemble miniature still-lifes. They can be witty, comical, peaceful, tired, sad, unsettling, or tragic.

Since Agematsu initially rarely exhibited, there was no prescribed way for displaying the work, although it was always presented in calendar increments of a month or a year, but on any kind of shelving. In the last few years, the work has been displayed on plexiglas shelves, each unit representing a month and the works arranged in a calendar configuration. The earlier work in zip-lock bags is mounted on a metallic plate and held in place with tiny magnets that match the precociousness of the art itself.


Detail, Zip: 01.01.03 . . . 01.31.03, 2003, mixed media in cigarette pack cellophane wrappers (31 units) on wood backed acrylic shelf, latex paint, 26 1/2 x 34 1/4 x 5 1/4 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught


Everything about his art has the delicacy of a bonsai. When one buys a work, for example, the days of the month, each in its cellophane containers, are neatly laid out in a box resembling a large shoebox, with an empty cigarette pack separating and protecting them.

Agematsu, who lives in Brooklyn, is 62 and essentially an untrained artist. He came to the States during the 1980s from Japan, where he was born. But as mentioned before, he did not show his work with any regularity…until about 2015. Each succeeding year has resulted in an enormous jump in the number of  exhibitions, and thusly also his acclaim.

His breakout show was the group exhibition The Keeper, at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York in 2016. He and Helma af Klint were perhaps the most talked-about artists in that groundbreaking show. In 2018 he had a solo exhibition at the prestigious Power Station in Dallas. And also in 2018, he had an entire year displayed at the Carnegie International, 57th Edition. His current show at Miguel Abreu is titled 1995 & 2003, because each of those years is presented in its entirety – 1995 with zip-lock months, and 2003 with cigarette-pack-cellophane months.

Yuji Agematsu, 1995 & 2003, is currently on view at the Miguel Abreu Gallery, 88 Eldridge Street, New York, until June 21.



Detail, Zip: 06.01.03 . . . 06.30.03, 2003, mixed media in cigarette pack cellophane wrappers on wood backed acrylic shelf, latex paint, wrappers, each approx.: 2 1/2 x 2 1/8 x 1 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught
Ziploc: 12.01.95 . . . 12.31.95, 1995, mixed media in Ziploc bags (31 units), magnets, oil pen, on steel, 29 1/2 x 31 x 1 3/8 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught

BlackBook Art View: Painter Shara Hughes Nods to Hockney, Matisse

You’re Highly Evolved and Beautiful, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York



Shara Hughes could well be the best representational painter of her generation, taking the baton from David Hockney, with whom she shares an interest in brilliant color and landscape painting; which is not to suggest she is in any way a Hockney clone. And her new show, In Lieu of Flowers, which just opened at the Rachel Uffner Gallery and is running until June 23, underscores her genius. It’s a knockout.

Hughes began her career in the 2000s by painting wacky, almost surreal interior scenes that were indeed inspired by Hockney, but filled with personal symbols and metaphors. In 2015, she turned to landscape painting and her originality blossomed. The pictures can be placed in the color line established by Monet, Van Gogh, and Matisse by the beginning of the twentieth century, and run through German Expressionism, American Modernism, to Milton Avery and Alex Katz. But there was no mistaking her creations for those of her predecessors.


Earthly Delights, 2019, oil and dye on canvas, 94 x 72 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York


Hughes’s reputation was launched in 2016 with a breakout exhibition of large landscapes at Marlborough Contemporary in Chelsea, which got a rave review in the New York Times and sold out. The following year, she was included in the Whitney Biennial and given an entire room to herself, which exploded with color. Since then she has been consistently showing in both America and Europe, in both museums and galleries, with such major institutions as the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Smithsonian acquiring her pictures.

What makes Hughes so good? First, the paintings are thematically very smart. This can be seen in the title of this show, In Lieu of Flowers, which takes flowers, obviously, as a theme. And it’s also found in the titles of the works, such as Pretty Prickly, Naked Lady, Earthly Delights, and You’re Highly Evolved and Beautiful. Unlike Matisse, Hughes is not making art that functions like a comfortable armchair. Yes, the works are beautiful, but they can also be unsettling, evoking a broad range of emotions, from joy to fear to distress to discomfort. Some are just topsy-turvy fantasy. These are not just pretty flowers; the works are fraught with meaning, which is immediately conveyed to the viewer, even if it cannot be verbalized.


Pretty Prickly, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, 78 x 66 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York


In addition to the emotion, Hughes pictures are loaded with subtle references to the history of landscape painting. One work may evoke Charles Burchfield, another Georgia O’Keeffe, and a third Joseph Stella. Entire movements, such as German Expressionism, the Nabis, and Fauvism make appearances. But the result is always one hundred percent Shara Hughes.

The second notable quality found in her pictures is the structure. Her compositions are complexly constructed, the complexity existing down to every mark. This complexity can even be seen in the range of textures and mediums she uses in a single work, and the eye delights in every one of these shifts.

It is not surprising to learn that Hughes does not work from preparatory drawings, or even an idea of what she is going to paint. She will sometimes just put two brushstrokes on a bare canvas and let the picture develop from there, sometimes just staring at the canvas for hours before deciding on her next move. And when we look at the picture, we are drawn to every one of these belabored decisions, thrilling to each one of her moves as we feel as though we are reconstructing how she thought out the picture. If only everyone could respond to a bare canvas or, in the case of writers, a blank page with such triumph.

Shara Hughes, In Lieu of Flowers, is at the Rachel Uffner Gallery, 170 Suffolk Street, New York, through June 23, 2019.


I Got You Babe, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, 58 x 50 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York; Naked Lady, 2019, oil and dye on canvas, 78 x 66 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York

Tribeca Film Festival Report: New Doc Traces Photographer Martha Cooper’s Unending Street Art Love Affair



Who is Martha Cooper? The short answer is she’s a 77-year-old photographer who is essentially unknown to the general public. But in the world of urban graffiti, which today is a global phenomenon, she is a legend. This is the point of the new documentary Martha, A Picture Story, directed by the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles, and first being screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The film opens with the world-renowned Sao Paulo graffiti artists Os Gemeos describing how Cooper’s 1984 book Subway Art, which she co-authored with photographer Henry Chalfont, transformed their lives. As important, the twins explain how this book, which originally had a small print run of 3,000, was extremely rare, forcing the graffiti underground of the 1990s and 2000s to photocopy it, often hand-coloring the images, and treating it as its bible.

Almost single-handedly the book launched a worldwide vogue for graffiti. And everyone in this world knew who Martha Cooper was – she was their rock star, which the doc makes clear.



The film goes on to sketch Martha’s biography, beginning with her fascination with photography as a little girl (her father and uncle owned a camera store in Baltimore) and continuing with her enrolling in the Peace Corps to teach English in Thailand, where she discovered tattoo art – an interest that would eventually result in a book about Japanese tattoos. She interned with National Geographic, which did not hire her, and then married, settling with her husband (who is unnamed in both the film and Cooper’s Wikipedia page) at the University of Rhode Island, where he taught.

There she felt stifled, both by the boredom of a small college town, and by being dependent on her husband. At that point she left him to establish a self-sufficient life in New York, and this sets forth a major theme of the film: that Cooper was a feminist, who was not only not going to be tethered to a man, but was also dead set on elbowing her way into a world dominated by men.

In New York, she received periodic assignments from the New York Post. But her obsession was photographing the marginalized in the poor, blighted neighborhoods of the 1970s bankrupt city, and revealing how the disenfranchised created meaning, often by making art, in their shattered surroundings – including the South Bronx and the East Village. This is when she met Dondi (Donald Joseph White), one of the most famous graffiti artists – responsible for painting entire trains – who in turn ushered her into the entire subculture. It eventually led to her to discovering B-Boying, as break dancing was initially called, another major underground social circle for her and a major photographic series.



But Cooper did not just photograph these alternative cultures; she became a part of them, being invited, for example, into the train yards to document the artists’ clandestine raids to tag MTA cars. She photographed all of the “greats” and their creations; and as the 1984 Subway Art went viral in the next century, she was invited to accompany graffiti artists around the world as they indulged in their surreptitious activities. The film, for instance, documents her following 1Up Crew in their Berlin escapades; the 75-year-old Cooper runs alongside the youths through subway stations and train depots.

Martha… touches on some of Cooper’s later projects, such as her chronicling the casitas (small social houses) that Puerto Ricans erected in gardens in the East Village and the South Bronx, where gutted tenements once stood; and most recently, the gradual transformation of the African-American Sowebo neighborhood in Baltimore, where Cooper herself moved to, again becoming one with her subjects.

But the thrust of the film is the subway artists of the ’70s and ’80s. It does not, however, resolve two interesting issues that it raises, instead taking an objective stance. First, the question of whether the subway spray paintings are art or vandalism – although for Cooper, it is clearly actually high art. New York mayor Ed Koch, among others, is shown expressing his disdain for their activities, considering it defacement and sabotage.



The second question that is handled objectively is whether Cooper’s pictures are fine art or just documentation, meaning photojournalism. There is one informative episode in the film where we see her sitting with her New York dealer, Steven Kasher, discussing what work to put in her upcoming exhibition at the gallery. Kasher tells her that the art market does not like people smiling, that images of people smiling are just not considered fine art – and not to put them in the show.

But we have to wonder if Cooper wants to be considered a fine artist, or if she even cares about the distinction. She herself states in the film when her pictures are rejected by National Geographic and The New York Post that she “takes pictures,” that she “doesn’t make them,” and that magazine editors want the latter. This is not to suggest she is belittling her work; almost more important for her is recording marginalized subcultures unknown to the greater world and documenting their creativity for posterity.

One of the many strengths of the film is its portrayal of Cooper’s personality. She is an extremely gregarious and kind person, with an extraordinarily buoyant temperament and an unbounded energy. And it is a tribute to Selina Miles that she so effectively captures this.

This is Miles’ first feature film. Previously, she specialized mostly in commercials and music videos, among other genres – until her love of street art brought her to do short videos of graffiti artists at work. While Martha, A Picture Story reflects the slick, concise expertise found in her earlier shorts, it relies less on the rapid editing and cinematic tricks of video, and instead comes across as a highly professional documentary work – explaining why it was indeed selected to be a part of the Tribeca Film Festival 2019.



All images: Stills From Martha, A Picture Story

Andres Serrano’s Provocative Exhibit ‘The Game, All Things Trump’ is Disturbingly Comical

Ego Best 



The renowned artist Andres Serrano just opened a new exhibition, The Game, All Things Trump, and he could not have timed it any better – since its appearance corresponds with the release of the Mueller Report. The timing, however, is coincidence, as Serrano had planned the show to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Culture Wars, in which he was a feature warrior.  

Serrano became front-page news that year when his Piss Christ, a large photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in the artist’s urine, was shown at the Virginia Museum of Arts.  The subject was perceived as vile and sacrilegious by the religious and political right, namely Christians and Republicans, who advocated censorship of public exhibitions and launched a vicious attack on government funding of the arts, including endless attempts to terminate the National Endowment of the Arts.  




Serrano survived the assault and continued to make photographic series – morgue, Ku Klux Klan, firearms, the homeless – that investigated a range of social issues.   

The Game, however, is Serrano’s first installation. Over the past year, he scoured the internet and auctions, among other sources, to acquire some $200,000 worth of objects that are “All Things Trump.” The show includes Trump mugs, action figures, masks, matchbooks, plates, golf bags, posters, steaks, vodka, and water. There is a display case of Trump ties. There are gambling tables from his casinos, and Taj Mahal security uniforms mounted on mannequins and wearing Trump socks.

There is a case filled with Trump University “educational” material. Magazines with Trump on the cover and with Trump’s signature are geometrically and tightly arranged in vitrines – a favorite is Mad magazine, although most are such prestigious news publications as Time, Forbes and Newsweek. The centerpiece of the installation is a rotating sign for the Taj Mahal’s Ego Lounge, and a nearby eleven-foot-high photo portrait of Trump.


Ties, Best


The object that seems to sum up the exhibition best is a small commemorative cake that Trump and Melania gave their guests at their wedding. It is stained and collapsing, looking sick and sad, as would be expected of a 12-year-old confection. And the entire installation, while quite engaging, is also depressing. The bulk of the objects that Trump elected to put his name on are trinkets made of plastic or paper and are cheap and disposable.

Or they are unintentionally hideous, such as the weird Trump mask and the bland Trump ties.  Even the endless signed magazine covers seem forlorn – instead of glorifying Trump they simply feel like rote mass publicity, and his unreadably dramatic signature looks like graffiti.

The upshot is Serrano’s portrait of Trump is very unsympathetic. He states that his presentation is objective, and that he is just letting Trump be Trump. And that is certainly true. What we get is a portrait of man who is tawdry, crass, self-promoting and completely self-centered.  And as we go through the installation, we realize that the vast majority of the Trump material reflects failure, such as the Trump shuttle, casinos, university, and food products.  


Wedding Cake


But what best reveals Serrano’s intentions is the venue itself – it is a former nightclub, Lotus, located on West 14th Street in the Meatpacking District. It almost couldn’t be more sacrilegious. When you enter, the first display you see is behind a bar. The interior is painted black and the lighting is gloomy. The space feels like a funhouse, reflecting both the comical and frightening sides of Trump.  

While the objects are nicely arranged in neat rows in vitrines, they are also cramped – we get the feeling we are in a thrift shop, although let’s not underestimate the power of the commercial trashy quality of much of the material for generating this feeling. In other words, we know we are not in a hallowed presidential library. But as stated previously, Serrano is simply letting Trump be Trump.

Andres Serrano’s The Game: All Things Trump is at ArtX at 409 West 14th Street and runs through June 9.  It was organized by Becky Haghpan-Shirwan and Sylwia Serafinowicz of a/political.  

The Game: All Things Trump
A multi-media installation by Andres Serrano
Images Courtesy of a/political and ArtX
Photo Credit: John Mireles


Lord of the Financial Jungle

BlackBook Art View: Paul Anthony Smith’s Photographic Manipulations are Rife w/ Metaphorical Language

Paul Anthony Smith, Untitled, 2018-19, unique picotage on inkjet print mounted on museum board, 40 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


The 31-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Paul Anthony Smith is definitely hot. He has recently had a short article in the “Metropolitan” section of The New York Times and a profile in T Magazine. And he currently has a striking solo exhibition at both of the Jack Shainman Chelsea galleries, one at 513 West 20th Street and a second at 524 West 24th Street.

While his art is photography-based, it is difficult to label Smith a photographer. His process indeed begins by taking a photograph. But after printing his image, he then creates what appears to be a white decorative pattern over this initial picture by pricking the paper with a special tool, making tiny vertical triangles that reveal the paper’s white underside, a process that he calls “picotage.” On occasion the integrity of the photograph is further compromised by the addition of spray paint.


Paul Anthony Smith, Only in America, unique picotage with spray paint on inkjet print mounted on museum board, 58 x89.5 x 2 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


But Smith’s white overlay of decorative design is not as abstract as it looks. He is originally from Jamaica, and his patterning is based on Caribbean breeze-block fences or walls, and in some instances, Caribbean design and decoration in general. The stippling of the surface also references African scarification, an act that reached even further back into African-Caribbean history.

Smith’s photographic imagery is equally Caribbean. Among his subjects are the annual West Indian Day Parade on Eastern Parkway, individual portraits of Caribbean New Yorkers, and Caribbeans socializing in Brooklyn.


Paul Anthony Smith, Dead No Have No Reason, 2918-19, unique picotage on inkjet print mounted on museum board, 40 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


Wire fences also appear in many of Smith’s photographic images. Like the decorative cinderblock fences, this motif has a dual function, since it simultaneously suggests protection and restriction. The fencing evokes the numerous barriers immigrants face upon coming to the States, as well as their isolation and need for security and protection. And the fragmentation of Smith’s compositions reflects the unsettled fragmented state of the people of the Caribbean diaspora, as they attempt to assimilate into a new life and redefine themselves.

And this metaphorical language is the strength of Smith’s art. His laborious modification of the original photographic image is fraught with meaning. And the work is indeed laborious, easily taking a full week of pricking paper for a single picture, the long solitary days of repetitive, almost meditative motions ameliorated by listening to jazz and hip-hop.

This is a must-see this spring.


Paul Anthony Smith, Sense of the Familiar, 2018-19, unique picotage on inkjet print mounted on museum board, 40 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Paul Anthony Smith, Blurr #14, 2017, unique picotage and spray paint on inkjet print mounted on museum board, 20.25 x 30.15 x 1.5 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

BlackBook Art View: Fluxus Icon Mary Bauermeister Returns to NYC

Mary Bauermesiter, Red China Tinta-Import Forbidden, 1966, ink, glass, glass lens and painted fabric and wood construction, 16.65 x 16.75 x 6.24 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY


Mary Bauermeister is back in New York after an almost 50-year absence.

The German artist came to the city in 1962 and soon showed at the pioneering Galeria Bonino. In rapid succession, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Hirshhorn, among others, all acquired her work, both her lens boxes and her stone progression reliefs. The boxes, in fact, sold almost as fast as she could produce them, and in 1966 the rising young artist was featured in the Whitney Annual.

By the early 1970s, after her separation from her husband – the exalted electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen – she decamped back to Germany, so her two children could grow up in her native country. With her exodus, she effectively vanished from the New York art world.

Now the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Chelsea is presenting a large Bauermeister show, open until June 8, and including both her iconic 1960s work, as well as her more recent. For many, it’s a chance to see the art that so distinctly shook up the art world in the 1960s, and today has seen a surge in auction prices, rising some tenfold in the last three years.



Mary Bauermeister, Some Stones Missing, 1962-67, stones, paint, in and sand mounted on linen panel and particle board, 39.75 x 39.75 x 4 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY


Bauermeister was already a recognized avant-garde artist before arriving in NYC. Her studio in Cologne was a well-known space for presenting art, performances, and music, and was a center for what would become the Fluxus movement – frequented by the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Nam June Paik. By 1962 she and Stockhausen were invited to do a multi-media presentation at the prestigious Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and over in New York her circle included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. She was included in major international exhibitions of Fluxus, New Realism, as well as Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual Art, a list that reflects just how difficult it was, and still is, to label her.

But labeling her is irrelevant, as what matters is the pure aesthetic beauty of her art. It is literally shimmering, magical, and mesmerizing. To wit, her white, glass-encased wooden boxes filled with magnifying lenses, prisms, balls, and found-objects, all or much of which are covered with wiry, whimsical, undulating wording and drawing. The boxes evoke the cosmos and its constant movement, and the chance jumbling and jostling of all things.

Bauermeister’s stream-of-consciousness, graffiti-like writing is light-hearted and Pop in feeling, often diaristic, since it reflects specific events in her life. Often it questions the meaning and value of art. The enormous Oldenburg-like pencils that appear in some of her installation-scale works arguably function as symbols of how her work is partly about making art itself, paralleling the similar concerns of Jasper Johns’ multi-media work.


Mary Bauermesiter, ONNO (Light Sheet), 1963, found linen sheet, fluorescent tubes and painted wood construction, 106.15 x 89.5 x 7.85 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY


It is perhaps difficult now to understand just how revolutionary Bauermesiter was when she first arrived in New York. But in the early 1960s, the move away from conventional painting and sculpture was very new, taking the lead from the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Alan Kaprow and Nam June Paik.

One piece in the show particularly summarizes much of her inventiveness. It is ONNO (Light Sheet), made in 1963 and consisting of cut and collage sheets hung backlit in a light box. Look carefully at the different shades of off-white and light-brown cotton, and you’ll make out the letters O and N, spelling On, which when reversed is No. Of course, put together they spell Onno, referring to Yoko Ono, who then was a leading Fluxus figure.

Clever, subtle, innovative, and hauntingly beautiful, ONNO concisely encapsulates Bauermeister’s astonishing and important output of more than 50 years.


Mary Bauermeister, Brian O’Doherty Commentary Box, 2017, ink stone, offset print, glass, glass lens and painted wood construction, 17 x 24.75 x 4.35 inches,  © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Mary Bauermesiter, No More Bosoms, 1969, ink, stone, watercolor, glass, glass lens, canvas, paperboard, dyed fabric and painted wood construction, 60 x 60 x 23.75 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY


BlackBook Art View: Was Lee Mullican the Great Overlooked Abstract Expressionist?

Lee Mullican, Oblique of Agawam, 1950, oil on canvas, 50 ½ x 40 inches, courtesy of the Lee Mullican Estate and the James Cohan Gallery, New York, image copyright the Estate of Lee Mullican, courtesy of James Cohan, New York


The Lee Mullican show at the James Cohan Gallery can be described as nothing less than an eye-opener.  Numbering 23 paintings and 11 works on paper from the late 1940s through the 1960s, the exhibition contains some of the best art from the period, aesthetically competing with the iconic pictures of such contemporaries as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman.

It not only questions how the pantheon of Abstract Expressionism is formed, but also the very definition of the movement itself. And as important, it reflects the trend in the art world to rediscover forgotten artists and rewrite art history, a role perhaps played more by commercial galleries than by scholars and museums.

Mullican (1919- 1998) was a Los Angeles artist, who despite showing briefly in New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s with the prestigious Willard Gallery, was never associated with the Abstract Expressionists or the New York School of painters. Nonetheless, his work shares with theirs an emphasis on abstraction and a goal to capture the sublime, most evident in the work of Rothko, Newman, and also Clyfford Still.


Lee Mullican, Untitled, 1965, oil on canvas, 75 x 100 inches, courtesy of the Lee Mullican Estate and the James Cohan Gallery, New York, image copyright the Estate of Lee Mullican, courtesy of James Cohan, New York


His sense of the transcendent derives from his spirituality: he was born into a extremely religious Christian family in Chickasha, Oklahoma, which was surrounded by Chickasaw Indian reservation. While abandoning any adherence to Christianity after leaving home as a teenager, he nonetheless retained a burning passion to seek and depict the spirituality that he believed pervaded the universe. His imagery suggests the sun, the cosmos, and the earth. It is often saturated with hieroglyphic shapes that reflect not only the Jungian psychology that consumed contemporary artists at the time, but also his Oklahoma experience of Indian culture that mystically reduced the universe to pictographic symbols.

Sometimes his pictures look topographical, the earth as seen from the universe above, and reflecting his experience making topographic maps while in the army.

Even Mullican’s means of applying oil to canvas was spiritual. Instead of making broad gestural brushstrokes like de Kooning or dripping paint onto canvas like Pollock, Mullican used a printer’s knife, which had a blunt straight end, to methodically and slowly create his surfaces with long, parallel and uniform slats of paint. Rather than spilling his guts on the canvas, like Pollock, he seems to paint in a Zenlike meditative trance as he repeatedly transfers with his printer’s knife his little sticks onto the canvas, an operation that brings to mind Yayoi Kusama’s own meditative, repetitive process when painting her Infinity Nets in New York at exactly this same time.



Lee Mullican, Above and Below, 1966, oil on canvas, 75 x 75 inches, courtesy of the Lee Mullican Estate and the James Cohan Gallery, New York, image copyright the Estate of Lee Mullican, courtesy of James Cohan, New York


Despite this laborious, precise process, Mullican’s pictures burst with energy. They never sit still. Sometimes they explode with energy. In others they twitch and turn restlessly, with individual elements of the composition appearing to be in constant rotation.

There is no question that Mullican can be considered an Abstract Expressionist, although it is questionable whether there is ever any value to any labeling. He shares with Rothko and Newman, for example, a sense of the awe-inspiring, and with de Kooning and Pollock a cubist push-pull sense of composition and a rich paint surface. And with all of them he shares the use of abstraction as a vehicle to project emotions and an existential awe when confronting the unknown expanse of the universe.

But Mullican was a Californian, and not a New Yorker, a modest, quiet man and not a self-promoter. And his painting did not look like the work of the Abstract Expressionists, which, of course, is what makes him great – his individuality, his personal style, his own unique path, which perhaps forces us to actually rethink Abstract Expressionism.

BlackBook Art View: Three Video Artists Who Are Invigorating the Medium


Go to Chelsea art galleries on any given day and you are bound to see at least one video installation, if not several. But it is quite remarkable to discover three installations in three contiguous galleries, and just as remarkable to encounter three exceptionally strong videos – especially since so much video falls flat on its face. Perhaps we should not be so surprised since the three galleries, Metro Pictures, Gladstone, and Marianne Boesky, all in a row in West 24th Street, are major galleries with impressive track records.

Marianne Boesky is presenting Hans Op de Beeck, a 50-year-old Brussels-based artist who makes drawings, sculpture, and films, all of which are included in the exhibition. But the show-stopper is his new 44-minute, single-channel, black-and-white film, Staging Silence (3). In it we see a miniature stage, with two sets of hands gracefully descending to first create a set, and then slowly altering it from a landscape, to a cityscape, to a suburban neighborhood, to a seascape, and to interior spaces, such as a library or a living room. These tiny scenes are fashioned using such found materials as dirt, sand, stones, broccoli, mushrooms, costume-jewelry plastic pearls, and fabric.

The hands create clouds out of cotton, crinkled aluminum foil becomes mountains, and Saran-wrap is stretched to become shimmering water. Day is turned into dusk and then into night by sliding increasingly darker sheets of glass in front the scene. In addition to working with found material, Op de Beeck laboriously makes miniature palm trees for landscapes, and furniture for interior scenes. Gradually the artificial set magically becomes real, transformed into an idealized yet mysterious, never-never world, its surreal quality reinforced by the film’s eerie grey tonality, its slow graceful pace, a haunting soundtrack, and an unsettling calm.


Still from the film Staging Silence (3) by Hans Op de Beeck
Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. © Hans Op de Beeck. Photo credit: Studio Hans Op de Beeck


Op de Beeck says he “regards man as a being who stages the world around him in a tragi-comic way,” and Staging Silence (3) is certainly tragi-comic. We smile at the clever whimsy with which his world is created, only to see it washed away as it is transformed into an entirely different environment. The film powerfully highlights how we seek to manipulate the world and create identity within it, and ultimately how artificial and impermanent everything is. Reality is never what it appears to be.

In contrast to Op de Beeck’s single-channel video, the Philippe Parreno installation, next door at Gladstone Gallery, is an environmental work in which video is but one component. Parreno is a 55-year-old Parisian generally identified with the Aesthetic Realists, artists who do not make discreet works of art, such as a painting or a sculpture, but instead create multi-media art that functions in a real environment. Consequently, he has installed carpeting in the gallery and covered several walls with an ironic wallpaper of black irises on a yellow background.

Throughout the gallery (which consists of one large room, two smaller ones, and connecting corridors) small speakers descending on poles from the ceiling emit peculiarly unsettling sounds. Grey shades on the gallery windows periodically rise and fall, sometimes only attempting to rise, going up just a few inches before dropping with a thud. In the main gallery, two beach ball-size globe lights are installed on the wall some 7 feet above the floor, generally unlit, but unexplainably flickering from time to time. Two large black wooden boxes sit on the floor, one emitting a rumbling sound and the other light.


Installation shots for Philipped Parreno’s Anythen in a Time Colored Space, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York


The focus of the installation is an enormous floor to ceiling video projection, which is in the main gallery.  The film features a live cuttlefish, which, like an octopus, ejects ink for protection. But more often than not, the cuttlefish is not apparent in the film, and instead is reduced to an abstraction through close-up photography. There are moments when the fish is seen in dramatic silhouette, tentacles extended. Occasionally it is presented with the tentacles tucked in. Whether abstract or representational, the color of the film is deeply saturated, making it lush and sensual.

The installation, which is titled Anywhen in a Time Colored Space (an earlier incarnation of the installation appeared at the Tate Modern in London), is extremely visceral, as is the entire installation. We hear shades moving, and sounds coming from the ceiling speakers. We feel the soft carpet beneath our feet as well as the vibrations from the shade movement and the rumbling large black box. Time and space as well as perception and perspective are constantly changing in Parreno’s world.

Next door to Gladstone, Metro Pictures is presenting Isaac Julien, a 59-year-old British artist who is best known as a filmmaker, although he produces photographs as well, which are included in the show. In 1991 he won a Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his Young Soul Rebels, and his expertise as an award-winning filmmaker can be seen in his Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass. Its production values are extremely high, with dazzling cinematography, costumes, and sound effects. And the work is extremely complex.  It consists of 10 screens suspended from the ceiling with wires, and set against a rich red fabric on the wall, almost transforming the screens into paintings seen installed in a formal nineteenth century gallery or room.

Julien describes the installation as “a poetic meditation on the life and times of Frederick Douglass,” and the imagery shows fragments of Douglass life, especially focusing on his physical and emotional experience. We see scenes of Douglass, a runaway slave, walking in nature, often leading a horse, and by the seaside, supposedly in 1840s Ireland or England where, as he wrote in his book, for the first time in his life he felt free, and where he was lecturing as well as raising money to purchase his freedom. We see the interior of a charming, nineteenth-century home, where Douglass lived, and settings of contemporaneous train and carriage travel. The film also underscores Douglass’s fascination with newly invented photography, an inexpensive reproduction process that would become a social class equalizer. We also see images of cotton fields. Julien’s installation includes early twentieth-century, black-and-white film footage of a lynching and train travel.

While multi-channel installations are commonplace, Julien use’s of the technique is brilliant, for the ten screens give the work a sense of how the historical past is for us living in the present highly fragmented. We see history not as a continuum, but rather as an accumulation of facts. His imagery is extremely visceral, pulling us into the scene, making us feel as though we are there in the nineteenth century and directly experiencing what Douglass himself experienced.


Top Image:
Photograph made in conjunction with the video installation Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass:
Isaac Julien
J.P. Ball Salon 1867 (Lessons of The Hour), 2019
gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum
22 7/16 x 29 15/16 inches 
57 x 76 cm
© Isaac Julien
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
Bottom Image:
Photograph made in conjunction with the video Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass:
Isaac Julien
Lessons of The Hour (Lessons of The Hour), 2019
matt archival paper mounted on aluminum
63 x 84 inches
160 x 213.29 cm
© Isaac Julien
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York