Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama in Yellow Tree furniture room at Aich Triennale, Nagoya, Japan, 2010 (detail). © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Yayoi Kusma Studio Inc.; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Gagosian Gallery New York

The 1960s was a decade of deconstruction as artistic practice was married to the social and political tumult of the era. Art and performance fused and symbolized a commentary on cultural and political conflicts. The environment and the spectator became central to the artist’s concept of creation and artists such as Yayoi Kusama, abandoned their classical training, moved to New York, and produced provocative “Happenings.” Also a savvy marketer, Kusama would orchestrate street performance pieces where she would paint dots on naked performers. One such event created a scandal when she had eight naked people mimic poses of statues in the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

Hype and misama would remain her calling card throughout the 1960s. Plagued by life-long hallucinations and later, psychiatric problems – that some believe to be fabricated – she returned to Japan in 1977. Once at the vanguard of the cultural revolution of the 60s, she never regained that momentum. But the legacy of Kusuma’s work continues to resonate – particularly in an era where instant communication takes place via the click of a mouse. “Communities” are conducted in an online environment where actual human contact may, or may not happen. The idea of art has taken on a complex patina where anything by anyone can be viewed anytime, in the digital landscape.

EncounterWithFloweringSeason:  © Yayoi Kusama

An Encounter with a Flowering Season, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 51 5/16 × 63 3/4 in. (130.3 × 162 cm). Collection of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo; Victoria Miro Gallery, London

The 1960s,“Happenings” were the embodiment of an experience where the viewer was involved in an artistic event. The aesthetic was spawned out of a dingy urban landscape – in basements, dusty lofts, and street corners. It’s birth and subsequent evolution was grounded in a grass roots, hands-on, tactile environment – the opposite of how ideas about art are now communicated in the digital age. It seemed a natural extension of a disaffected culture whose ideals had evaporated in the murk of the 1960s counterculture, the Vietnam War, racism, the sexual revolution, and disillusionment with institutions.

Yayoi Kusama was a frontrunner of this movement. The idea of annihilating what had come before – armed with a new-found psychic freedom – dominated artistic thought. Kusama was primed for this deconstruction. Unfortunately, it is impossible to recreate the explosiveness of this era at The Whitney. Walking through the exhibit, one has the sense that Kusama has been reigned in and in retaliation, her most recent work is large, bold, bright, and graphic. It is as close as one could come to a “Happening” and indeed it is the gallery that generates the most heat. This is not – in any way – meant to diminish the remainder of her impressive body of work.

Heaven-and-Earth: Yayoi Kusama, 1991

Heaven-and-Earth: Yayoi Kusama, 1991

Her soft, cushioned Accumulation sculptures resemble creatures emerging from an ancient primordial sea. Soothing and dreamlike, several people express the wish to jump on – and sleep in – Heaven and Earth (1991). I prefer tendrils of coral, but “phallus shaped” has been ascribed to these multiple clusters of hand-sewn objects and so it is. The dark, moody pastel and ink collages in the following gallery are the antithesis of the repetitive polka-dots that she returns to time and time again. These early works on paper (1950s) are layered with Surrealist imagery and reveal the artist’s compulsion to create a singular vocabulary of recurrent symbols and themes. The obsessive precision exercised in the Infinity Net Paintings is daunting. Large white canvasses ripple with repetitive and intricate detail. Each is different and one can spends hours scrutinizing the vastness of the work.

The history of civilization has been coerced by agendas designed to pinion societies into constricting social contracts and it has been left in the hands of the poets and artists to incite fervor. Discontent continues to impel artistic catharsis. The concept that catharsis is powerful and transformative remains the impetus behind all art movements. Now 83, Kusama continues to harness this power and mold it to eradicate her own demons. In doing so, we bear witness to an ever-changing, insistent, whirlwind of reinvention.

– Deborah Johnstone
“Yayoi Kusama” continues through September 30th at the Whitney Museum of American Art; New York City (212) 570-3600, whitney.org. http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/YayoiKusama/Images


Peggy Serdula

Peggy Serdula: Portraits, Abstracts, and Pastels

Lola, Peggy Serdula: copyright © 2011

Lola: Peggy Serdula, copyright © 2011

Opening Reception: 
Tuesday June 12th, 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm
Exhibition runs: June 12th – August 4th, 2012
Gallery hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 12-7 pm

Gallery Onewtentyeight
128 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002
212 674-0244

New York City plays host to searing adversity and incomprehensible privilege. Its bustling streets mirror a microcosm that reflects a much larger landscape. As wealth is hoarded and poverty surges, we spiral into a more complex and vexing existence. This is the legacy of the digital revolution – an epoch that has systematically destroyed face-to-face human contact. As an über-connected universe spreads like wild fire and a “wired world” becomes de rigueur, real human interaction is replaced with a sense of digital belonging to environments that never really exist – worlds so fleeting they are forgotten as quickly as they emerge.

Under the Lamp: Peggy Serdula, copyright, © 2011

Under the Lamp: Peggy Serdula, copyright, © 2011

In Serdula’s work, we are riveted in a real and resonant world – one that cannot be abbreviated into digital form. Her portraits confront us with a reality that has hitherto been hidden. 
Lola explodes off the canvas to challenge our lethargy. She exists in a whirlwind of chaos that only she controls. Rachel is more reticent. Her deep-set eyes wait for an event that will remove her from the edge of a precipice. Woman in Scarf looks ahead with a resolute gaze. She has endured much but she possesses resilience – a steadfast determination that compels us.

Serdula’s austerity of palette allows her to pull us into a complex and fractured narrative populated by a diversity of emotional beings.  Visit Peggy’s Website

Join us at the Opening Reception on June 12th!


Sculptor Helene Brandt uses discarded, found, and organic objects, to create a symbiotic universe in the throes of change. Steel, wood, roots, wire, leaves, paint, varnish, and vegetation, all meld and focus our attention on the revelatory characteristics of each object. Indeed, they appear to come to life before our eyes. There is an acute sense that each sculpture could move at any instant and exchange parts with the next to create a new entity. In Brandt’s work, a new truth becomes visible and we are allowed to create our own narrative. Even curious, suspicious, elements are treated with reverence and allowed to participate in the process. It is this willingness to abandon the familiar that is at the core of her work.



Together, the community dwells in a contradictory state of permanence and instability – change is imminent. It is in this place of tumult where we perceive an emotional resonance that both confounds us and begs our scrutiny. Each sculpture engages in a sly hybridization that reveals anthropomorphic elements – attributes – that when considered in tandem, invite comparisons.
Introverts and extroverts, young and old, and the unruly and the obedient, all coincide. Twister, perched on limbs of welded steel, wood, and vines, watches furtively – ready to scramble should it sense peril. Crane, fashioned from steel and lambs ear leaves, watches over the proceedings with a sense of bemusement – he thinks he may be a bird but can’t be certain. Will he fly? Should he? Delicate Melazana is exuberant – she has just discovered that the unruly wires from her top can be used as a conduit to gather important information.

The tension between clinging to the familiar and fearing the unknown facilitates constant movement. This adaptive universe is always “in progress” and like all good symbiotic relationships, the members depend on each other for survival and reinvention. Each change, no matter how divergent or incomprehensible, somehow contributes to the whole and the metamorphosis continues.

— Deborah Johnstone, Curator


Helene Brandt

Private viewings of the exhibit can be arranged after the opening reception by calling: 212 647.7800

Viewing George Condo’s work is like watching avant-garde performance art; one is not quite sure what to expect, even though the canvas is static. Recurring motifs – bubbles – appear suspended over grotesque copulating figures lending the proceedings an ironic incongruity. Portraits posses bulging, bugs bunny eyes that are at once funny and pathetic.

Uncle Joe: George Condo

Uncle Joe

Irony punctuates Condo’s work but it isn’t overt. We are required to think about our plight and it makes for good theater. Culture is wading through the digital age, where no one really knows each other yet everyone “connects” on a cyber level. As we struggle to maintain our Renaissance ideal of the individual, we move closer to a homogenous gruel of monotony. It is this journey that Condo depicts so well. As we peer at his canvasses we are simultaneously seduced and aghast.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art is presenting the first solo exhibition for George Condo: George Condo: Mental States. Curator and artist, Robert Storr writes, “It is the exhibition-maker’s responsibility, not the viewer’s, to lay the string that marks a trail in and out…. the viewer must be able to read the installation as an ensemble of discoveries” [1].

Mental States turns out to be a continual discovery where the viewer is allowed to uncover aspects of the artist’s intent and to unravel complexities that – at first – appear puzzling. Kudos must go curators Ralph Rugoff and Laura Hoptman, who have orchestrated an intrepid balancing act comprising two floors and four galleries of carefully edited work. The exhibit is presented in four thematic groups in four separate galleries entitled: “Portraiture,” “Melancholia,” “Manic Society” and “Abstraction.” But one doesn’t need to read labels to discern our post-human depredation.

Client Number 9

Client Number 9

It was in a smaller gallery, with the theme Manic Society, where everything came together and one could see clearly the “perceptual gestalt” [2] that Robert Storr takes great pains to unravel. The “ah ha” moment was sublime. It was here that the crystallization of Condo’s oeuvre burst forth and revealed itself in all its dystopic glory. The curators edited and distilled the essence of Condo’s mental state down to a precise vision. With only five paintings, we intuit the unfolding story of our civilization.

The pivotal works that defined the story were two portraits in the thematic gallery entitled, Manic Society. Each portrait flanked opposite sides of a doorway. The Priest is a scary, angry, and demonic looking character that elicits a less than comforting response. If it weren’t for his clerical robe and collar one would have little inkling that this was of a priest. Opposite him on the other side of the doorway is Uncle Joe, who resembles a degenerate as he reclines in a field of grass under blue skies naked from the waist down. His privates hang out in the breeze while bubbles, a recurring motif in this room, swirl about him. He clutches a smoke, a bottle of wine, and with the dexterity of an acrobatic, he perches a wine glass on an extended foot. Unlike the lovely and ornate frame on The Priest, Uncle Joe is frameless. Upon closer inspection, the two characters look suspiciously alike. Indeed, they appear to be the same person.

The Priest

The Priest

The rather ugly portrait of The Priest sits in a beautiful frame that serves as sly punctuation. Its pairing with the subject mirrors our culture’s penchant to overlook the hideous in human nature and heap accolades on the unworthy: celebrities, false prophets, political tyrants, and the powerful. We venerate façade and choose to overlook hubris and greed when it serves our purpose. As Storr points out, the clues have been provided. “The primary means for ‘explaining’ an artist’s work is to let it reveal itself”.[3] Condo’s disdain for the hypocrisy of religion and for the duplicity of human nature is revealed by the curator’s adroit juxtaposition of these two paintings.

The revelation continues with two other portraits in the same room. The Return of Client # 9 and Couple in Blue Stripe Chair. In both paintings, the couples are in the midst of copulation and it is a very ugly affair. I would have guessed that The Return of Client # 9 was depicting Elliot Spitzer’s fall from grace without even reading the title. Condo depicts him as literally “suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as he is caught – the supreme hypocrite – in a media frenzy of disapproval. Nonetheless, the characters all peer out at the viewer defiantly – daring us to look back. A complete lack of chagrin characterizes the subjects in this small gallery and they attest to Condo’s power to reveal a “Manic Society” in the throes of spiritual decay. Storr’s metaphor that art “[can] blind people rather than open their eyes” [4] is the danger in a solo show but that is not the case here. Our minds have been pried open and we are seduced into making the connections that permit us to comprehend. Because we are engaged in the art, the subtext of the work is revealed and revelatory.

Salon Wall

Salon Wall

To effectively utilize a space with thirty-foot ceilings is certainly a challenge especially since the curators had already filled the third floor with enormous works. When the elevator doors open on the fourth floor a wall of bizarre and wondrous portraits assails us. It is spectacular and I actually have to sit down for a minute to take it all in. Oversized ears, exaggerated expressions, and grotesque smiles, peer at us – salon style – as the text panel indicates when I finally get around to reading it. Here we perceive the consummate skill of George Condo. In case you missed it in the other galleries, this one will knock you out. The soft and subtle spotlights on the ceiling provide the only light but it is completely sufficient. The lighting renders the remainder of the gallery in shadow and all our attention is focused on one wall. It is so much information that the curator’s have wisely left the remaining walls bare. Storr points out that, “A good exhibition does not ignore the idiosyncrasies of its site: it either exploits them to unexpected effect or makes them disappear to the measure possible.” [5] Here, the exhibition-makers have accomplished both feats.

Rather large laminated text panels hung from small hooks just outside the elevator on the third floor. They are easy to lift off and read but also easy to ignore. It was left up to the viewer as to whether or not they read them. The one thing I recall was the curator’s final point: “Condo’s paintings and sculptures create a singular view — dystopic, humorous, empathetic, and critical — of our post-humanist age.” [6] I had come to that conclusion long before I picked up the text panel.

1. Robert Storr, “Show and Tell”, in What Makes a Great Exhibition? ed. Paula Marincola, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006), 17.
2. Ibid., 17.
3. Ibid., 29.
4. Ibid., 23.
5. Ibid.,29.
6, New Museum of Contemporary Art: http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/431

In the spring of I997, artist and teacher Doug Ashford was invited to teach an undergraduate class at Antioch College in Ohio. What resulted was a brilliant excursion into the socio-logical effects of museums within cultures. In the resulting essay entitled, The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium, Doug Ashford states in his class syllabus, “The function and habits of the contemporary museum are today under great critical and social pressure. No longer accepted as pristine containers, their galleries and catalogs are increasingly understood as repositories for ideological and emotional directives.” 1

Ballpoint pen on paper

In The American Folk Art Museum’s current show, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Freelance Artist / Poet and Sculptor / Innovator / Plant man / bone artifacts constructor / Photographer and Architect / Philosopher, one can see evidence of the emotional underpinnings that curator Brett Littman was striving for. Littman serves as Executive Director for The Drawing Center and I recall viewing the Gerhard Richter exhibit there this past November, Lines Which Do Not Exist. Holland Cotter, in reviewing the show states, “One reality seems fairly clear. At present, the fashion for work that is ideologically overdetermined in meaning, political or otherwise, has passed.” 2

The passage of overtly ideological work is due in part to the advent of technology. It serves as catalyst, ushering in an era of global connections to a diversity of worlds, cultures, and socio-political thought. It has made us smaller – in a sense – and more granular in our observation of society, art, and intent. At this level, we can discern more intimate and revealing constructs that open up different ways of seeing and understanding. It is this granular level that is in evidence at the Eugene Von Bruenchenhein exhibit. One sees the curator’s attempt to bypass the idea of the museum as simply a repository and present artifacts that represent an individual’s collective experience.

The Alternate Worlds of EVB

It is significant to note that The Drawing Center’s mandate, “to provide opportunities for emerging and under-recognized artists”, is aligned with The American Folk Art Museum’s position as, “… a vibrant cultural community and the world’s leading center for the study and enjoyment of American folk art, as well as the work of international self-taught artists.” 3 Von Bruenchenhein is certainly under-recognized and on the final point, he meets the criteria for inclusion at the American Folk Art Museum – Von Bruenchenhein had no formal training. Littman takes advantage of this fact to place Von Bruenchenhein’s work in the realm of a “culturally specific” 4 exhibit – albeit one that is specific to an individual. 

Littman presents multiple artworks culled from Von Bruenchenhein’s disciplines – they are all contained in the title of the show – to order to guide the viewer through the artist’s evolution. The text panel at the beginning of the exhibit, explains, that “…leitmotifs of leaves and floral patterns [are] organizing principles in Von Bruenchenhein’s multidisciplinary oeuvre.” 5 The curator equates the artist’s body of work with a musical term that denotes a recurring theme. In this way, the viewer is prepared to look for clues in the work itself and not refer to predetermined cultural markers.

Chicken bone chair

We are to understand that Eugene Von Bruenchenhein never studied art, never finished high school, and lived his entire life in a small run-down house in Milwaukee. He worked as a baker and then a florist until health problems forced him to retire. For 24 years – until his death at age 73 – he existed on monthly social security checks in the amount of $220. What possessed a poor, uneducated, man to create the ethereal landscapes, bone chairs, pottery, and meticulous and beautiful ballpoint drawings? Von Bruenchenhein would fall squarely into Doug Ashford’s depiction of the “politically disenfranchised, and historically isolated” 6 – those who are not represented by traditional, dominant, museum practices. Von Bruenchenhein lacked entitlement and access to connections, so to present his work within the confines of an academia that embraced this paradigm, would be counterintuitive.

Littman wisely takes the first step by choosing not to contextualize Von Bruenchenhein’s work within the tumult of the era. Several paintings appear in the exhibit with most being produced between 1954 and 1963, a time in the art world when Abstract Expressionism was giving way to pop art. The lush and vibrant works are expressionistic renderings, reminiscent of science fiction landscapes – both futuristic and bordering on horror. As America entered an era of extreme social unrest in the 1960s, agendas of feminism, racism, and war, would dominate public discourse – but none of this dialogue appears in text panels. Instead, we learn that Von Bruenchenhein painted on discarded bakery boxes, was deeply influenced by his stepmother Elizabeth Mosey, and that he used tufts of his wife’s hair as paintbrushes. He also believed he was a royal descendent from an ancient Pre-Columbian tribe.

Elizabeth Mosey also served as Von Bruenchenhein’s mentor and fostered an acute reverence for the natural world, including botany and horticulture. Mosey painted floral still lifes and wrote booklets on reincarnation. In general, she was possessed of a free-thinking, spiritual temperament that impacted Eugene for the remainder of his life. Her influence is prevalent throughout. Littman has chosen to present a thematic framework as opposed to arranging the exhibit within a historical timeline. We are able access each genre of the artist’s work within the gallery in any order, without sacrificing the relationship of artist to object.

Upon entering the exhibit, we are greeted by a small cactus garden accompanied by a text panel that reveals that during the 1930s, Von Bruenchenhein built a greenhouse and grew cactus. He even studied botany and maintained that he was a horticulturalist. His entire oeuvre was dominated by floral patterns and cursive, leaf-like motifs and the unifying theme of a primordial nature underscores the exhibit.

Across the room, we are presented with an entire wall of the artist’s black and white photographs of his wife, Marie. The photos are reminiscent of a bygone era; now all have faded into sepia and all feature Marie in front of a floral background – whether wallpaper or a tablecloth. Littman chose to install floor to ceiling panels of large floral wallpaper in muted pastel tones – evocative of the 1950s – behind over 100 photos. He repeats this floral wallpaper motif behind other objects. The effect is twofold. The floral paper speaks to the artist’s obsession with plant life, the natural universe, and the otherworldly. Secondly, it ties him to a specific time and place in a social background that may have isolated him from the mainstream. Littman was purposeful in his depiction of the artist as a very singular personality. We have a sense that this world is solely orchestrated by Von Bruenchenhein and not dependent on outside influences. There is a disconnect between the austerity of the architectural space of the museum and the interpretation of the artist’s oeuvre. Again, the curator circumvents this obstacle with the repetition of the floral motif, thus reinforcing the idea that Von Bruenchenhein was possessed of a fierce individuality and a mind that did not stray from its purpose. These are clues that the viewer finds within the exhibit. In Robert Storr’s essay, Show and Tell he says, “Showing is telling. Space is the medium in which ideas are visually phrased. Installation is both presentation and commentary, documentation and interpretation.” 7

In The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium, Doug Ashford points to interpretation as something that should be fluid and not predetermined by a museum paradigm. He insists, “… we see [ourselves] as authors of identities already consolidated through consumerism.” 8 He believes that we produce a conscious notion of what we are via our relationships with objects. In his classroom at Antioch, Ashford’s intent was to create multiple realities in the museum by juxtaposing disparate artifacts that would, hopefully, challenge the viewer’s idea of meaning.

In another section of the gallery, Littman juxtaposes seemingly disparate objects in very close proximity, which gives the viewer the impression that they may have entered a different exhibit. It is a calculated effect that doesn’t fully resonate until after one has left the building. Delicate architectural thrones fashioned from bleached turkey and chicken bones – culled from countless poultry dinners – are displayed in pristine glass cases. The clear cubes with stark white bases are incongruent considering the contents. But it is clear that the painstaking attention to detail and the energy it required to make these sculptures is deserving of an ornate display case – and reverence for the artist. Directly beside these sculptures, are two walls of exquisitely rendered ballpoint ink drawings – 34 to be exact – first discovered in a wallpaper sample book. Littman continues the floral wallpaper motif behind these drawings. They are biomorphic, art deco, and cursive renderings that reveal Von Bruenchenhein’s dogged attention to detail and an ability to access an endless well of creativity. There is also an electronic version of the ballpoint drawings that the viewer can watch on a monitor. It is an interesting choice to present the drawings as digital references alongside their paper counterparts. The viewer is forced to consider the delicacy and rigor required to render such images in an age where a computer would now be used to complete such detailed work. One can also see the character of Von Bruenchenhein emerging – that of a whimsical yet determined man who harnessed his creativity despite few resources and no recognition during his lifetime. Littman leads us through a conceptual journey where we intuit the artist’s deep passion for nature and his acceptance of a metaphysical universe that could become muse or tormentor in an instant. By the time we leave the exhibit, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein has emerged as the seminal Outsider, whose creativity both alienated him and fueled his existence.


1. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, Art Journal, Vol 57. No. 2 , (Summer, 1998) p 28-37, accessed February 10, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778006.
2. Holland Cotter, “Building an Art of Virtuoso Ambiguity”, The New York Times, (September 9, 2010), accessed November 18, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/arts/design/10richter.html.
3. American Folk Art Museum’s mission statement, http://www.folkartmuseum.org/.
4. Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon, “With our faces to the rising sun”, in What Makes a Great Exhibition? ed. Paula Marincola, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia 62.
5. Brett Littman, Exhibit text panel for Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.
6. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, 28.
7. Robert Storr, “Show and Tell”, in What Makes a Great Exhibition? Ed. Paula Marincola (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006), 17.
8. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, 29.

Art, politics, and war

I believe that history always informs how art is interpreted. I had the opportunity to see a Rauschenberg exhibit recently at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City and it really drove home how art reflects the cultural milieu that it is created within. In many ways, it was easy to see how Rauschenberg held a Capitalist consumer society up for inspection.  

Dylaby (Combine Painting), 1962

His method of using everyday images from a cacophony of discarded items revealed our cultures’ penchant for constant consumption. It also exposed our reckless abandonment of items that we use up or become tired of. Discarded Nabisco crates masquerading as a wall installation drove home the fact that our society is completely brainwashed by advertising – we covet and discard almost simultaneously. In his larger canvases, newsprint, everyday items, the fruits of mechanization, and iconic images are layered and meshed so that everything appears to be fading – transitory. Photographs of people from leading magazines of the time appear as silhouettes – ghosts in fractured landscapes. The effect lays bare a culture obsessed with the fabrication of things – items we are not able to live without: bridges, newspapers, telephones and gas stations. The paradox of needing so much and yet having nothing no matter how much one accumulates is echoed in works that appear stranded between Abstract Expression and Pop Art. Art historian Gavin Butt writes, “… the general politics of the experiential and participatory arts of the fifties [were] based upon enlivening the perceptions of the spectator to the everyday realities of capitalist society – of detritus, of crime, of the hidden maneuverings of power – as well as of the repressed contents of the unconscious mind.” Rauschenberg’s work epitomized the fragmentation of a collective psyche. The 1950s prefaced an era where the seduction of the masses would evolve into a social phenomenon as the 1960s galvanized agendas of feminism, racism, and war.

ANSELM KIEFER: Next Year in Jerusalem

On the same day, I viewed Anselm Kiefer: Next Year in Jerusalem, which I found more reflective of this era. Kiefer replaced commercial imagery with a psychological foray into historical acts of atrocity. The very unsettling and provocative installation recalled to me how extinct species are displayed in museums – incased in glass – seemingly frozen in a narrative we may never fully comprehend. Enclosed in an enormous glass case, a white frayed gown is impaled with shards of glass. Above it hangs a Kabbalah, Tree of Life. Huge bleak landscapes clearly transmit a sense of destruction – the devastation of war is implied yet not explicit. The exhibit made me stop and think about everything I had read or known about all wars throughout history. In an age where war has been positioned as entertainment in the media and packaged to society as news, it was startling to see Kiefer’s interpretation. The social and political upheavals of the modern world are only a small reflection of our entire history. Psychoanalyst, Erik H. Erikson states:

Some periods in history become identity vacua caused by the three basic forms of human apprehension: fears aroused by new facts, such as discoveries and inventions (including weapons), which radically expand and change the whole world image; anxieties aroused by symbolic dangers vaguely perceived as a consequence of the decay of existing ideologies; and, in the wake of disintegrating faith, the dread of an existential abyss devoid of spiritual meaning. (1)

It could be argued that the history of civilization has been coerced by agendas designed to pinion societies into constricting social contracts. Whether Marxist, Totalitarian, or Democratic, all cultures evolve in a similar manner. It is left in the hands of the poets and artists to incite fervor. The idea that cultural groups have power and that this power can be transformative, remains the impetus behind all art movements.

1 Erik H. Erikson, Identity Crisis in Autobiographic Perspective, Life History and the Historical Moment (New York: Norton, 1975), 21

Gagosian Gallery, 522 W 21st St, New York – (212) 741-1111

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Modern Century
MoMa, 2010, curated by Peter Galassi

Actually, I’m not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I’m not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks.

— Henri Cartier-Bresson

Alicante was one of Cartier-Bresson's very first pictures.

Alicante was one of Cartier-Bresson's very first pictures.

Somehow, this statement makes perfect sense. After all, to pick up a camera and record a split second is tantamount to capturing a historical record. Some records may be sweet; some may be chilling, and others revelatory. One has no control over the outcome – you are not conspiring to render a conclusion fait accompli. One is trying to capture an instant – a moment in time. But to be cognizant of that second, one must possess an innate curiosity about the world around them. The rest is interpretation.

Gestapo Informer

As a child, I remember my mother designing and sewing clothes for a living. I can still see the old black Singer sewing machine by the lone window and our kitchen table laden with reams of fabric and Butterick patterns. Harper and Vogue fashion magazines were piled everywhere. I spent hours pouring through the pages, absorbing photographs of beautiful clothes, pouty models, and exotic locales. The photos were like a portal to another world. It was here that I first saw a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Years later, I became aware of his street photography and then I become enamored with black and white film. About ten years ago, I picked up a Vogue magazine when I was studying graphic design and marveled at a gorgeous photo spread that he had shot. As a child his pictures were simply beautiful and evocative. Now I can fathom that there was a much larger conversation going on than simply a fashion shoot. Cartier-Bresson was possessed with a rapture for life and for the transformative power of moments.

There is an advantage to seeing a host of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs in one place. One can see a conversation that sweeps through continents, embraces a diversity of people, and reveals entire epochs. In viewing curator Peter Galassi’s excellent exhibit one can discern Cartier-Bresson’s ability to disappear and simultaneously, to capture a split second in time and never intrude on the moment. He had an acute awareness of socio-political events and their effect on society. He was able to interpret that significance and make us see culture in ways not before possible. Cartier-Bresson’s photographs revealed that there is another world within the world you think you see. That is what captivates me most.

More than two centuries ago, Britain’s Industrial Revolution marked one of the many beginnings of modernity. Born when the automobile and airplane were sill in their infancy, Cartier-Bresson never lost his affection for old traditions, yet he did not shrink from change. For him, modernity arrived in the 1950’s with the triumph of consumption and leisure and his later pictures fluently describe its vulgar depredations, messy accumulation and sprawling hedonism.
— Peter Galassi, Chief Curator, Photogrpahy, MoMA

While reading this text panel, I reveled in Galassi’s choice of the word “depredations” to describe the universe that Cartier-Bresson captured through his lens. Galassi’s intrepid observation lays bare the legacy of the “The Modern Century” – which has been to manifest supreme acts of pillage and decay. But within that chronicle, we have had the privilege of bearing witness to Cartier-Bresson’s interpretation of the events. Certainly, his photos depict extremes of the human condition and Galassi has done a superb job of juxtaposing tiers of society within eras. To the casual observer, this grouping is essential to facilitate understanding of Cartier-Bresson’s genius.

The poor receiving sugarballs on the 39th birthday of the Maharajah of Barada

In Baroda India, 1938, we see sugar balls being distributed to the poor on the 39th birthday of the Maharajah of Barada. The photograph reveals rail-thin bodies, barely covered in rags – all are crushed together with arms outstretched reaching for a sugar ball to ward off hunger. Immediately beside this picture, we see the Maharajah arriving with his entourage – all resplendent in exquisite clothes and excessive jewels. In India, two tiers of society are held up for inspection. Because Galassi places these two photographs side by side, we immediately intuit a broader understanding of a culture that may not be too far removed from our own.

As a result, we become privy to a narrative spanning time and space. Indeed, our “Modern Century” is precariously perched on a fault line, poised for dissolution – and Cartier-Bresson never dismisses this scenario. But he also recognized the beauty in diversity and the warmth of a lover’s smile. The dichotomy of privilege and disadvantage was never lost to him and he possessed the uncanny ability to infiltrate any class of society.


The Modern Century reveals Cartier-Bresson’s deep connection to civilizations in the throes of change and chaos. He could access intimate moments without calling attention to his participation in the act of photographing. He had the ability to completely blend into the mise-en-scène, never disturb or impose his ego, and he moved effortlessly from the conversations of kings to the banter of paupers. Though Cartier-Bresson had access to the upper echelons of all societies, he could just as quickly delve into the plight of everyman and disappear into the crowd.

Samuel Beckett, Paris

In his portraits, very few luminaries look directly at the lens. Cartier-Bresson seems to have caught them while they are consumed by their own thoughts. Jean Paul Satre, Simone de Beauouvior, Albert Camus, Coco Chanel, Matisse – all appear to inhabit a plane of existence only made possible by Cartier-Bresson’s lens. Rich and poor, they all parade before his camera: the defiant, the proud, the lost, the rebels and the minions. Some faces are frozen in consternation or an argument that for us, will never have resolution. Nonetheless, the depiction is no less significant.


Simone de Beauvoir

Cartier-Bresson takes us on a journey – we become historians traveling through time. As he records the seconds – the minutiae – of our daily lives, volumes are revealed about culture and society. We are witness to excess, depravity, poverty, loss, decadence, and awe. They all dance before his lens to tell a never-ending story.