The “Mix Master” himself. Self Portrait, 1962, Ink on paper, 18 x 26 in.
Benny Andrews’ prowess as a master of materials and social and emotional narratives is on display in a current solo exhibition titled Mix Master at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida. The exhibition was realized through the collection of works owned by Edward J. Littlejohn, a renowned expert of African-American legal history.
It is fitting that an outstanding scholar of social justice law would collect works of art by an artist who was steadfastly committed to equality and equity. Benny Andrews represented and re-presented the African-American narrative, most notably through his signature mixed-media collages depicting domestic, economic, political, and social themes. Outside of the studio, Andrews fought on the frontline for the equal representation of black artists in the cultural scene. He co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested the disproportionate portrayals of black artists by cultural institutions, and created art education programs for marginalized urban youth and for individuals in juvenile detention centers. His work in prisons inspired a national model for youth art programs behind bars. In 1969, Andrews and six other artistic colleagues (Ken Bowman, Peter Dean, Michael Fauebach, Jay Milder, Peter Passuntino, and Nicholas Sperakis) formed Rhino Horn, an art collective that maintained figurative and politically themed art when abstraction and minimalism were trending in in galleries and museums. All of his activist and artistic accomplishments aptly led to his appointment as the Director of the National Endowment for The Arts (1982-84), where he oversaw a powerful platform that advocated for African-American artists who had been largely overlooked by mainstream art circles.
In Mix Master, we are presented with a diverse view of Andrews’ socio-cultural narratives and personal themes from his life as a modern artist. In addition to his expressionistic mixed media works –a combination of paint and found materials such as fabric and burlap– the exhibition features Andrews’ unique contour line drawings, which he created using pen and ink, and some color etchings that demonstrate his skills as an illustrator.
Gigantomachy II, 1966, oil on linen
Upon entry to the 4th floor gallery at the Met Breuer, where Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is on view, viewers are greeted with the colossal tour de force of the 9 feet, 11 1/2 inches x 24 feet, 10 1/2 inches, unstretched, oil on linen painting titled Gigantomachy II (1966). The larger than life canvas depicts a ferocious battle of nude muscular Olympian gods and giants (the title refers to a battle from Greek Mythology), who through a deliberately rough treatment of paint, appear savagely brutalized. Immediately upon gazing at this work of art, we are given an unapologetic overview of Leon Golub’s epic career as a Humanist artist, whose paintings are a scalding condemnation of the evil that men do.
The 19th-20th century philosopher, George Santayana, stated “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Golub’s paintings are a visual paraphrasing of that famous statement. In fact, Golub was an astute scholar of both history and art history, however, he viewed the canonical legacy of both through the lens of a skeptic. Golub references the Western canon of art history in paintings like Dead Bird II (1955) and Colossal Torso (1960), however, his treatment of Classical imagery is anything but glorious, nor representative of the Democratic label that often accompanies Greco-Roman culture. The rough surface texture on Colossal Torso, realized through a process of layering paint and peeling it away again, is akin to the act of sculpting. Golub even used tools that are more common in a sculptor’s toolkit than a painter’s. His additive and subtractive methods of transforming the surface of the canvas result in an unfinished look or a feeling of decay. The material appearance of these rough canvases typically lends itself to strong visceral and reflective feelings from the viewer. The emotional response is further exemplified through Golub’s use of unsettling and uncomfortable subject matter, which is steeped in a grotesque critique of Western empires that span from the Greco-Roman era through the 21st century.
Peter Dean, Second Kiss, Courtesy of CCMOA
There’s a lot to catch up on in the world of Rhino Horn. Lot’s of current events and recent exhibitions to report on! Full reviews will follow, but for now, here’s a short list:
- Peter Dean: Visions and Fantasies was recently on view at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. The exhibition featured a selection of both real and imagined landscapes as well as the vivid mythical narratives that Dean is most known for painting.
- Works by Benny Andrews were featured in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition titled Figuratively Speaking. The exhibition examined works by a diverse group of figurative painters throughout the early and mid-20th century.
- Andrews is also featured in a current exhibition at the Ulrich Museum of Art (at Wichita State University) titled “WE THE PEOPLE: American Art of Social Concern”. The exhibition is on view through March 25th, 2018.
- Joseph Kurhajec was featured at the Outsider Art Fair in New York. He presented a combination of historical works and his most recent works, a series of totemic masks made from palm fronds.
- Jay Milder and Peter Passuntino were part of the seminal group show Inventing Downtown, which debuted last year at NYU’s Grey Gallery in Greenwich Village. The exhibition’s theme explored the plethora of artist run galleries, which fostered an inspirational and experiential environment for many avant-garde artists during the 1950s and 60s. The exhibition travelled to NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where it recently closed. A review was written in Harper’s Bazaar Arabia.
Boris Lurie, Big No Painting, 1963, oil and paper on canvas, 65 1/2 x 85 in. Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York © Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York.
This art’s not Kosher, and that ain’t a bad thing either for the spectrum of artists in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition titled Unorthodox. To quote Jens Hoffmann the museum’s Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs:
“Unorthodox does not comment on Jewish religious orthodoxy or critique it, but takes its inspiration from the Jewish tradition of dialogue and debate to investigate the impact of unorthodox concepts on orthodox systems. Unorthodox aims to break with a cultural and artistic uniformity that has developed over the last century among artists and museums, proposing a nonconformist engagement with art as a means to disrupt the status quo.”
So just how does one define the status quo these days where the art world is not as clear cut as it was during the 20th century and centuries prior? For me it is defined by two separate yet equal courses, academia and economics. Art School and the Art Market are the driving forces of dogmatic art discussions today. In some cases, rebellion and “unorthodox” approaches are rewarded. For example, the Hairy Who as well as Peter Saul are enjoying a honeymoon within the art establishment. Their work was hard to digest during their time, but today it is revered, as it well should be, for its forward thinking and groundbreaking aesthetic vocabulary. However, there are many times when the rebellion and maverick nature of an artist or a group of artists is the disdain of academic and institutional tastemakers. Often times, the disdain comes from the fact that the work is non-linear to the canon of Western Art or seen as too grotesque.
Jay Milder’s paintings pre-installation view. Courtesy of Amstel Gallery/Gregory de la Haba.
Mark your calendars for Sunday, December 13th, 2015, because Amstel Gallery is presenting a kickoff brunch for the The Judy Rifka Project and The Jay Milder Catalog Raisonné Project (1950’s-1970’s). The epic pairing of two renowned New York artists is curated by Gregory de la Haba inside of an incredible venue with a large 21 foot high ceiling.
Both artists’ work is driven by an empirical process that entices human consciousness and pushes the boundaries of painting beyond material forces. As noted in my essay “Unblotting the Rainbow”, Milder came of age during the Second Generation of the New York School as a seminal Figurative Expressionist. Jay was one of the pioneers of the SoHo loft scene and participated in some of the first happenings with Red Grooms. He’s exhibited worldwide and is considered an inspiration on graffiti art and Neo-Expressionism. Judy Rifka emerged in the 1970s in downtown Manhattan, particularly Tribeca and the Lower East Side. She has been the subject of over 50 solo exhibitions and numerous prominent group shows such as The Times Square show (1980) and the 1975 and 1983 Whitney Biennials.
Come celebrate from 1-4pm on Sunday, December 13th, The Yard, 106 W. 32nd Street, New York NY.
The Yard, Herald Square
Personnage from the Napoleon Series, 1974
As this blog reflects on the past and present artists whose work is/was largely expressive and full of socially charged Humanist imagery, one perfect candidate for discussion is Maryan S. Maryan. I first heard of Maryan through discussions with both Rhino Horn co-founder Peter Passuntino, and the late Figurative Expressionist Irving Kriesberg. Passuntino had brought up his name immediately as the first response to a question I had posed while I was initially interviewing the members of Rhino Horn. The question was “which other contemporary artists would you have included in Rhino Horn?” While Maryan never did become a member, Passuntino always held his work in such high regard. While his unabashed paintings are a sight to behold, Maryan’s biography makes for just as remarkable of a story.
Today in observance of National Cat Day is a 1977 expressionist painting by former Rhino Horn artist Bill Barrell. Barrell’s monochromatic painting depicts his nephew Tad inside of the artist’s “cat room.” The story behind the painting is a whimsical tale that begins with the artist looking for a way to pay the rent on his studio and living space when he moved back to New York City. His solution: to board cats inside of his Long Island City loft. This proved to be a profitable endeavor for Barrell and he was able to move back into Manhattan on Lafayette Street in SoHo. Once back in SoHo, Barrell built an even bigger room for boarding cats! If that’s not a New York story, then I don’t know what is! The painting itself is a strong precursor to the Neo-Expressionist movement that would sweep through New York City in the 1980s.
Bill Barrell, Tad in the Cat Room, 1977, Oil on canvas, 47 x 65 inches
The following is a personal account from Bill Barrell’s blog published on 8/22/10:
Click on the image above for a look inside the exhibition catalog.
A few months before the 1974 publication of his seminal text New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change, the social psychologist Barry Schwartz curated an exhibition titled Counter Currents: The New Humanism at the Center for Humanist Art at the Aida Hernandez Gallery at 99 Spring Street in SoHo.
The exhibition consisted of thirteen artists: Miriam Beerman, Jacob Landau, Arnold Belkin, Anthony Conger, Peter Dean, Michael Faurbach, Leonel Gongora, Cliff Joseph, Richard Karwoski, Jay Milder, Alice Neel, Philip Sherrod, and Nicholas Sperakis. Each of these thirteen were also included among a great spectrum of artists in Schwartz’s book. While some of Schwartz’s theses and statements in his book unabashedly walk the line between agitprop and objective criticism, Schwartz is one of the few that have deeply analyzed contemporary Humanist art.
Magnet Hands, 1972, crayon and ink on chipboard, 84 x 72 inches
For an artist who eschewed the New York art scene with subversive art, Karl Wirsum has been getting a lot of love from the Big Apple these days. Chicago based Wirsum, along with James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, and Suellen Rocca became known as the Hairy Who, after a show in 1966 by the same name was co-curated by Don Baum at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. The Hairy Who as well as their precursors, the Monster Roster (which included Robert Barnes, Don Baum, Fred Berger, Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Dominick Di Meo, Leon Golub, Theodore Halkin, June Leaf, Arthur Lerner, Irving Petlin, Seymour Rosofsky, Franz Schulze, Nancy Spero, Evelyn Statsinger, and H. C. Westermann), paved a new path for an aesthetic vocabulary that was unique to Chicago. During the 1970s these artists began being categorized more broadly as the Chicago Imagists.
Self Portrait at Age 87
“Art to me is an adventure in which I attempt to unearth the darker realm of consciousness with irony and the absurd.” – Allen M. Hart (1925-2014)
Allen M. Hart explored the physical and metaphysical world for nearly nine decades and has an incredible art historical account to show for it. Born in 1925 in New York City, Hart studied at the prestigious Art Students League from 1940 to 1948 studying with influential and renowned artist-teachers Frank Vincent DuMond, Anne Goldthwaite, and Jean Liberte. In 1944, Hart was included in a group show at Gallery Neuf on East 79th street and met Peggy Guggenheim, who became interested in his paintings. In 1948 Hart made his first sojourn to Mexico where he connected with the artists Ignacio Aguerre, Pablo O’Higgins, Frida Kahlo, Mendez, and Siqueros; became member of the Talle Graphicos in Mexico City; and had a solo show in 1950 at the Museum of Michoacan in Morelia. Reflecting on his experiences submersed in Mexican Modernist culture, Allen said he felt at home there and had a deep respect and admiration for indigenous people. Additionally, the politically left leaning artistic community of Mexico City had a long lasting influence on Hart’s work, which is in part, fueled by socially engaged themes and poignant Humanist metaphors.
After meeting his wife Mildred in 1952 at his solo show at the Roosevelt House on East 65th Street, the couple traveled extensively. They settled in Spain and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. When they moved back to New York, Hart became the director of the Visual Arts Center (Greenwich Village), where he administered the Children’s Aid Society program for 30 years (1969 to 1999).