November 24, 2015 – January 16, 2016
Curated by Michael Klein
New York City has always been a remarkable and generous model for artists, one who is not afraid to show her good or bad sides. She is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and access to New York City is easy, by bus or subway or on foot. In response to this somewhat overwhelming concrete model, artists have turned urban inspirations into many forms, formats and means of expression.
For artists of any generation who have made their way to New York City and live and work here, the city is a living laboratory; a dynamic world of streets, avenues and alleys, bridges and tunnels. There are buildings big and small, from minute to colossal in scale, with pedestrians everywhere and endless traffic. For some, nature exists outside the realm of possibilities in this city; for others nature is very much a part of city life.
In whatever manner, the artist in New York City is inspired by immediate intoxication or a subtle influence extending over days, months and years, an accumulation of experiences that happen without even noticing them. Many artists become observers of the day-to-day life of the city, reporting back from their studios, or simply absorbing what they see and translating it onto canvas or into sculptural forms. There is no single reaction to the city; night or day, its energy and activities are both enticing and unpredictable. The diverse range of works presented in CITY LIVES underscores this proposition. However, the selection of artists here is certainly in no way complete; this is a topic and theme that has many proponents and could be expanded in many more directions. There are also historic precedents that could tell an even bigger story. These artists do not represent a movement or school of art, though they may share feelings and thoughts about the city; instead they are individuals whose artistic goals come together in imaginative and surprising ways.
So then how does the city appear today in art? Furthermore what are the ways in which the life of the city makes its way into the mind set of artists living here?
Roger Welch, a founder of the Narrative Movement of the 1970s responds to this theme in a short video, Central Park, screened in the CITY LIVES exhibit. This piece is a testament to the endless life of the city and presents a continuous loop; a camera positioned in one location witnessing the narrative of time, light and the city passing through a 24-hour period. It is a portrait of New York marked by a reality in which nature and the built world play equal roles. Welch steps back and acts as editor of the film; everything else that occurs in the film is simply how life unfolds.
Another painter and filmmaker featured in CITY LIVES, one who came to prominence during the 1980s is James Nares, who has a always experimented with materials in his work, which ranges from vibrant abstractions on one end of the spectrum, to films and filmmaking on the other. His black-and-white film Ramp was created in the streets of Lower Manhattan in the mid 1970s, long before Tribeca was defined as a neighborhood and was simply part of the lower part of Manhattan adjacent to the river. Along its streets were commercial warehouses and the West Side Highway was an elevated roadway. Throughout this area, a growing community of artists’ lofts and studios came to be and space was inexpensive in these decades before developers, retails shops and restaurants dominated the area. In Ramp, we witness a large concrete ball being rolled on the entrance ramp to the once-elevated and now defunct West Side Highway. It’s a game played outdoors on a surface that is long gone.
At the same time Alice Aycock, a young sculptor, was exploring New York City as a site. If Robert Smithson or Michael Heizer could explore the landscape across America in terms of its geologic character, so could others. Aycock’s photographic work is a statement about the latitude and longitude of the city as seen from the heights of the Empire State Building, she comments in her notes about this work taken with a 35-mm camera positioned on the top of the Empire State Building and capturing views of New York City from due North, South, East and West. The result is not only a document of the city in gritty 1971, but also a portrait of a young artist trying to locate herself in the art world.
Several of the painters included in CITY LIVES don’t “represent” the city in their work, but they are certainly influenced by the city’s structures, patterns, colors and even its atmosphere, which is familiar to all who live in the city but so much harder to define. Physically, the city is a grand puzzle of textures, forms and shapes. Visually the city is a kaleidoscope of colors: hues, tints and tones all set against steel, stone and glass.
Richmond Burton’s painting, Black Bridge, is not a depiction of any particular bridge, but a response to the pattern and structure of New York City’s over 200 bridges. The picture presents a long, horizontal and repeated sequential pattern, much like what one would see while passing across a bridge and looking from the window of a speeding car. Much of Burton’s work is influenced by the architectonics of New York City and his keen interest in pictorial history is like that of Futurism, which championed automobiles and speed.
James Greco sees his paintings as “portraits of abstraction.” As such he distances himself from the notion of abstract painting as a reckless wandering in search of results. For him, the field is less an arena and more of a platform for visual ideas and reactions to his working and living environment.
Calling his painting Barabas, Greco uses the name from the Bible to capture our attention; the drama of the name matches the drama of a grand veil of deep, dark green that enters and dominates the surface of the picture. This veil of paint obscures the lights and color behind. Could this painting process be a metaphor for night as it takes over the city streets and the darkness obscures all the things we see around us?
Similarly, Maureen Dougherty is an abstract painter, but aspects of the city make their way into the minimalistic geometry of grids and rectangles that populate her canvases. She is not painting buildings so much as capturing the pattern of color, rhythm and spacing that suggest the silhouettes of buildings. Her passion is color and through color that is both invented and intuitive, she evokes the architecture of the city and the way in which light plays on building surfaces to create both color and shadow.
Long-time downtown residents Jane Dickson and Robert Moskowitz are focused in their works on place, or places. For Dickson her latest paintings—premiered in this exhibition—are singular representations of New York City architectural icons, similar in shape and design though built decades apart. And while the two earlier structures in her work represent the Deco architecture of the 1930s, as landmarks neither the Chrysler Building nor the Empire State have gone out of style. These buildings represent New York to New Yorkers and to the world. And as an artist they also are a constant reminder to Dickson of her life as a New York City artist.
Robert Moskowitz has also focused on some of the more important icons of the New York skyline. His work in the 1970s at the time of the New Image Painting exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art was tied to a generation of artists who were attracted both to representation and abstraction as possibilities in their work. Over time, Moskowitz adopted buildings like the Empire State and Flat Iron buildings into his repertoire, but among the very memorable images are now the paintings and works on paper in which he incorporated the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The small pair of his paintings in this exhibition are classic representations of Moskowitz’s visual thinking, in which imagery is adapted to and refined within an idiom of painting that is almost completely abstract. Furthermore, his paintings in this show exemplify how the vertical architecture of the towers lent themselves to be the structure and format of his paintings.
The former collaborative team of Ericson / Ziegler decoded objects, structures and systems. Here they represent the Statue of Liberty not as a picture of “the lady with the lamp,” but instead a simple vertical inventory to the colors used to paint her. She is transformed from a figurative statue into a conceptual idea of five color palettes.
Michael Ashkin and Rita McBride both make use of local architecture as a model. Ashkin’s early works are modeled after scenes both seen and imagined around the urban sprawl of New York City. McBride uses the structure of architecture as form while Ashkin, a model builder at heart, explores the abandoned and often overlooked landscapes in which the degree of urban dwellers has impinged upon, if not come into direct conflict with nature. Parking lots abound and the two works in this exhibition and in most of his tabletop sculpture, the view seems to be from the air.
Priscilla Stadler’s installation in CITY LIVES is from her series Fragile City. She transforms the simple rectangular sharp of an apartment building into a floating hanging cloth. The works are mysterious and yet playful.
For some artists, like Richard Bosman and Kathy Forer, the city is a very intimate locale and a narrative that lies just behind the scenes portrayed in their works; it creates a backstory that in many instances the viewer will never know. Bosman makes paintings of artists’ doorways, creating a kind of portrait, as if using not the artist’s face, but his or place of work. Forer recalls events and episodes of city life in clay. Her tableaux are a mixture of fact and fiction. In one small work we see the modern lines of an empty apartment of a famous New York City art dealer. In another we have a birds-eye view of an area of Central Park which, as she pointed out in a studio visit, is the location of the famous Central Park jogger assault case from the late 1980s.
Walking is of course the best way to experience a city and for artists such as Kathryn Lynch and Sally Davies, walking brings them to their subject matter. Lynch’s wanderings led her to Screaming Townhouses, a street in the West Village of Manhattan where the buildings seem to have a life of their own as they turn from 19th-century homes to characters from a great Edgar Allen Poe tale. Many of Lynch’s paintings have a narrative edge, a matter of observing and finding neighborhoods in the city whose character she augments, exaggerates and turns into lasting memories. Her kinship with the early city scenes of Georgia O’Keeffe is evident in these works, though striving more for an expression of feeling and sentiment than O’Keeffe was allowed in her day.
In an entirely different part of the city Sally Davies turns the camera to the ever-changing face of the city. Her color pictures provide an up-close view of the shifting perspectives beyond Manhattan. Since 9/11, the city has found itself expanding so that now the boroughs beyond Manhattan are active and undergoing a process of gentrification similar to that which has been associated with the center of New York City. Davies is a foot soldier covering the neighborhoods and capturing in remarkable and painterly colors the rhythm and spirit of the city as it is converted from the 19th to 21st centuries, block by block.
As a social commenter, Cary Leibowitz has primarily used language in his work to tell us much about his- and ourselves. He shares his life’s problems and sufferings as an artist, as a New Yorker and as a gay man through pieces including Here I am Please Don’t Be Mean and I Love Me But I Hate Me. For this exhibition, Leibowitz is presenting a group of hot dogs, paintings on wood without woods; but what could be more New York, than a hot dog? You don’t need any words to explain what these are: Crude, weird and odd in shape and scale, the shaped paintings verge on the look of shop signs, or maybe an oversized souvenir of New York—and here they are assembled to make a face, a New Yorker from franks.
For five decades, the sculptor Robert Lobe has focused on the geology and life of trees on this urban island as well as the surrounding terrain in New Jersey and New York State. His latest interest lies in a strange phenomenon. All of us have seen the phenomenon of a tree branch or root that has become, over time, intertwined with a piece of fencing or wall. Lobe has documented this phenomenon in his CITY LIVES works, Fence and Q Stop, and by identifying this anomaly of nature the two very different objects now form a symbiotic relationship; the natural form now resides within or around the manmade object. What results are three-dimensional abstract sculptures; each a unique symbol of city life, something like a shrine or even a small monument.
Spencer Finch presents another kind of shrine, or perhaps “monument” is a better term. He has taken a rough-hewn pile of cement and in its color, shape and overall appearance suggests that in fact, it is a remnant of dirty snow—a very well known New York City phenomenon; frozen and dirty and left out in the open, hopefully to melt, Finch’s sculpture is an all-too-familiar site in any borough one might live.
Michael Spano pushes the nature of observation into very unique directions. Spano’s series of auto portraits plays on the notion of the self-portrait, but instead it’s as if we are spying into the life of cars and drivers that jam the streets of the city. Captured off guard, the portraits are not pictures of us at our best but perhaps caught at our most natural, when defenses are down and we sit waiting for the light to change, lost in thoughts or daydreams. Each image from this series of is an unexplained narrative and unfinished story. Where is everyone going and why and when will they get there? New Yorkers are always on the move, though ironically, not in these pictures of cars.
Like Spano Dietmar Busse is interested in portraiture. His black and white portraits of notables, starlets, entertainers and designers are the personalities and types that make up and give the city its style and presence. From his tiny walk up east side studio he invites his sitters to present themselves as they do present themselves to their world. One could be dressed ready for a fashion show; the next for a stage performance. Busse too knows that dogs are a special part of New York City life and among the images here two dogs of the day.
Lothar Osterburg’s vision of New York is somewhat like a dream because he embellishes landmarks with fictional stories. His working process is an intricate system of constructing sets, photographing these scenarios and then turning those photographs into highly refined Photogravure prints. As an artist based in Brooklyn, he creates a signature work with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, as if he could see it from his studio window. His other works are also a synthesis of imagery that is both fact and fiction: a cityscape of brownstones and high rises where taxi cabs and cars line up, subway trains travel by and Zeppelins float overhead. It is an amalgam of things found in New York and things imagined to be part of the city, too. Even without a single human figure, these extraordinary tableaux have the power and drama of grand opera.
Finally there are the photographs of Philippe Gronon. Not a native New Yorker, but someone who has spent time in the city and has found that the enigmatic exits in the most mundane of objects. The dark, life-size image of a freight elevator is something that feels like a hybrid between a photograph and a sculpture.
All these artists—and there are many more out there—find living and working in New York City a need and a necessity, no matter what. They are inspired by the city and disturbed by it, at the same time. Yet in spite of it all, city lives are the lives they choose to live. —Michael Klein, 2015