Notes from the Street: Charles Simonds at the IFA

On October 7, for this year’s inaugural Artists at the Institute lecture, Charles Simonds delivered an energetic and astute summation of his career to date. He began with his earliest Dwellings—miniature architectural structures, made of clay, sand, and small bits of wood—which in the early 1970s seemed to emerge organically from the gutters, broken walls, and empty lots of downtown New York, springing up wherever the city’s crumbling infrastructure afforded a place for their putative inhabitants, whom Simonds dubbed the “Little People.” Simonds’s rich practice, which incorporates elements of sculpture, architecture, urban planning, craft, performance, conceptualism, narrative fiction, and social engagement, has taken many forms in many places since those early breakthroughs. Yet even today, viewers seem perpetually drawn back to the original Dwellings, which remain landmarks of his artistic practice and of the downtown scene though they exist only in photographs and in memory.

Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.

Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.

There are many reasons for this consistent focus on Simonds’s early work, not least the powerful charm exerted on us by things that are gone. The Dwellings’ loss helps establish them as a kind of founding myth—both for Simonds’s mature work and for the narratives he wove within it. But at play here is also the art world’s typical exhaustion with itself, the self-disgust that has, since Duchamp, drawn art irresistibly toward things it hasn’t yet absorbed. For that reason viewers may think that the Dwellings’ natural habitat is the city, and the white walls of the museum can showcase only taxidermied specimens, removed from both context and life.

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Painting the Infinite: Roman Opalka at Dominique Lévy

The show at Dominique Lévy is Roman Opalka’s first U.S. exhibition after the artist’s sudden death in 2011. Divided between two floors of the gallery’s Upper East Side brownstone building, Roman Opalka: Painting ∞ provides a synopsis of the artist’s career by showcasing over twenty five works in different media. Although Opalka’s art may at first appear modest, this show proves its uniqueness and complexity. By focusing on the artist’s inimitable technique, Roman Opalka: Painting ∞ offers insight into his scrupulous and orderly approach to Conceptual art.

Second Floor Installation View of Roman Opalka: Painting ∞ at Dominique Lévy. Courtesy of Dominique Lévy. Photo credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

Second Floor Installation View of Roman Opalka: Painting ∞ at Dominique Lévy. Courtesy of Dominique Lévy. Photo credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

Opalka, who was born in France but raised and educated in Poland, began his artistic career in Warsaw during the late 1950s by experimenting with the “phenomenon of disappearance.”[1] The gallery’s third floor, devoted entirely to Opalka’s earlier works, presents the effects of these experiments with two of his 1963 black-and-white Chronome paintings and the series Étude sur le Mouvement (1959-1960), made with black ink on paper. As one walks around the room, the artworks reveal themselves as precursors to Opalka’s later work in their conscientious method of execution and monochromatic aesthetic. The smudges of ink in Étude sur le mouvement, though visibly influenced by gestural works of the American Abstract Expressionists and their European counterparts, the Tachists, reveal his fascination with repetitive patterns. Across the room, two tempera paintings from 1963, Chronome II and Chronome IV, present an intertwining of black and white spots, creating a nearly monochromatic surface.

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Chromes at Home at Room & Board

An oft-forgotten fact about Ad Reinhardt, the American artist best known for his black monochrome paintings, is that he was an avid photographer who made a practice of presenting his pictures in slideshow format. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, he showed hundreds of slides from his travels to his colleagues and to Hunter College students in rapid-fire succession. Reinhardt grouped images by formal and compositional qualities irrespective of geography or culture, hoping to overpower viewers’ capacity for identification and to induce a new way of looking. Long attention spansReinhardt thought, were in increasingly short supply. In the face of a mounting onslaught of modern distractions, only time and patience would reward the diligent observer.

Details from the series “Northwestern Chromes” (2014).

Detail from the series “Northwestern Chromes” (2014), image courtesy Samuel Budin.

In terms of photographic technology, a lot has happened since Reinhardt’s presentations, but his ideas about an image’s ability to condition and edify its audience are not out of date. Last Saturday evening, a living room slideshow also sought to provide a counterpoint to the normal circumstances of contemporary art production and consumption. It was a festive conclusion to photographer Samuel Budin’s month-long stay at Room & Board, an “experimental residency” run by IFA doctoral student Julia Pelta Feldman. For a month, Budin lived at Feldman’s home in Williamsburg; while saving a month’s rent (no laughing matter in New York), Budin worked closely with Feldman to finalize the exhibition Northwestern Chromes and Other Chromes, a two-part documentation of his travels in the Pacific Northwest.

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Mark your calendars! Fall 2014 at the IFA

Tuesday, October 7, 2014, 6:30 PM
Artists at the Institute
Charles Simonds
Open to the public. More info and RSVP here.
(Don’t miss Simonds on Bomb!)

Monday, October 27, 2014, 6:30 PM
Artists at the Institute
Simon Fujiwara
Open to the public. More info and RSVP here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014, 6:00 PM
Latin American Forum featuring The Great Hall Exhibitions Artist Marta Chilindrón
A Conversation with Marta Chilindrón and Edward J. Sullivan
Open to the public. Please check back for RSVP details.

Thursday, November 20, 2014, 5:30 PM
Director’s Extracurricular
Conversation with Sheena Wagstaff, Chairman of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Event details to follow, here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014, 6:00 PM
The Daniel H. Silberberg Lectures
Photorealism: A History of Surfaces
Joshua Shannon, Associate Professor, Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of ​Maryland
Open to the public. RSVP here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014, 6:00 PM
Latin American Forum
Conceptualism in Latin America: A Conversation with Luis Camnitzer, Alexander Alberro, and Robert Slifkin
Luis Camnitzer, Artist
Alexander Alberro, Virginia Bloedel Wright Associate Professor of Art History, Barnard College
Robert Slifkin, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU
Moderated by Edward J. Sullivan, Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in the History of Art, Institute of Fine Arts and College of Arts and Sciences, NYU
Please check back for RSVP information.

Blowing Up                                                   The Koons Effect

The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.

The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.

Adding to the ever-increasing influx of (add preferred noun here: airtime, hype, prestige, simple volume of written or spoken words) about Koons’s work in the wake of the Whitney’s current retrospective, the joint IFA-Whitney symposium, The Koons Effect was a game participant. Unlike much of the other dialogue around the show, however, The Koons Effect aimed for tough methodological questions from the start; indeed the symposium could be said to have centered on the question of whether Koons’s work proves itself beyond the pale of established historical interpretative frameworks and vocabularies, warranting something “new.” Two points were immediately clear: facile and default recourse to models (like the commodity fetish) or to figures (like Duchamp and Warhol) bear little fruit in the collective effort to advance the discourse on Koons, and the lighter the reliance on the artist’s own manicured explanations and language of self-presentation, the deeper the insight.

Rather than synopsizing the conference here, however, what follows are abbreviated summaries of four of Friday’s eight presentations, in part to signal their diversity (I consider only part two of the event, the September 12 proceedings, which were fully recorded and are available online). The challenge of precisely summarizing any individual talk points not only to the complexity of the ideas grappled with and the lines of inquiry opened up, but—and maybe more importantly—the supremely unresolved state of current thinking on the artist. Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf’s show is revelatory for bringing the full trajectory of Koons’s production into view, enabling—unbelievably—for the first time what one hopes will be a spate of ambitious art historical work based on direct experience and study of the objects.
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