Aleksandra Mir

Upper East Side: Linger (Quietly) for a While

By Karen Rosenburg
The New York Times, New York, November 2008

White House Purple Heart Ivory Tower Red Neck Blue Devils Yellow Submarine Agent Orange Black Power Green Thumb Pink Dollars Dumb Blond Golden Showers Silver Linings
30 October - 20 Decemeber 2008
Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Chelsea has been the undisputed center of the art market for the last decade, and the young and the new are concentrated below 14th Street. The Upper East Side will always have Museum Mile, but what do the galleries in this staid enclave have to offer?

Simply put, the Upper East Side is a quieter, more idiosyncratic art neighborhood. Particularly in the cloistered townhouse galleries off Madison Avenue, you have the sense of walking into someone’s living room. Chelsea can make you feel rushed, herded from one concrete-floored box to the next; uptown the atmosphere is much more conducive to lingering. You will often be the only visitor in the gallery, even on a Saturday.

Older work by blue-chip artists is the norm, but that means you’re practically guaranteed to see something good, not always the case in other neighborhoods. It’s even possible to find a museum-quality show, like Acquavella’s current “Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse,” without the museum admission charge.

Even for viewers with more contemporary tastes, the Upper East Side has much to offer. Dealers who could have moved south, like Marian Goodman and Mary Boone, have chosen to maintain a presence in the neighborhood (though some have expanded to trendier parts of town).

Art worlds past and present coalesce at Knoedler & Company’s 80th-birthday celebration for the abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler. With nine large-scale works from her personal collection, covering more than five decades, the show takes the form of a mini-retrospective. (A more substantial museum survey is long overdue.) The earliest work is Western Dream, a maelstrom of lavender-and-coral stains on unprimed canvas; the newest is Warming Trend, a near-monochrome field of indigo blue with fiery undertones.

At the ever-expanding Gagosian, as at Acquavella, the artist-muse relationship inspires an exhibition worthy of the Museum of Modern Art. “Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers: Portraits by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon” inaugurates the gallery’s new fourth-floor exhibition space. (Gagosian also occupies the fifth and sixth floors, which are currently given over to a forgettable series of drawings by Richard Serra.) The show was organized by Véronique Wiesinger, the director of the Giacometti Foundation in Paris, and Martin Harrison, who is overseeing Bacon’s catalogue raisonné.

The woman singled out in the title is the model Isabel Rawsthorne, whose chiseled cheekbones inspired several paintings by Bacon and sculptures by Giacometti. Other captivating figures in the exhibition include Lucian Freud, in Bacon’s portraits, and Giacometti’s wife and mistress (in separate, and markedly different, paintings).

A quieter show of portraits can be found at Adam Baumgold, exhibiting Alex Katz’s paintings of family members. You may recognize a couple of the larger works, like Ada in Polka Dot Blouse (1975), from Mr. Katz’s 2006 show at the Jewish Museum. Most revelatory are the smaller studies for works like the blinding yellow Ada Behind Screen Door (1985).

For a bit of history look to the Leo Castelli Gallery. On view now are “Deflationary Objects” by the postminimalist Robert Morris — small sculptures from the 1960s and ’70s with a mechanical, Duchampian edge. Just down the block is the Castelli gallery’s former home at 4 East 77th Street, now occupied by a branch of the Michael Werner Gallery of Berlin. The current show of 1980s paintings by the German neo-Expressionist A. R. Penck is uninspiring, but the gallery has mounted standout shows of European artists like Francis Picabia and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Often the offerings uptown complement shows of brand-new work in Chelsea and elsewhere. Coinciding with Cindy Sherman’s latest solo in Chelsea, the Skarstedt Gallery is showing her History Portraits. In this series of photographs from 1989-90 Ms. Sherman poses as figures out of masterpieces like Raphael’s “Fornarina” and Caravaggio’s “Sick Bacchus.” The disguises aren’t flawless; prosthetic breasts and bellies are clearly visible.

Ms. Sherman is not the only artist straddling the uptown-downtown divide: Lorna Simpson has concurrent shows at Salon 94 Freemans, on the Lower East Side, and the original Salon on 94th Street. Ms. Simpson’s watery ink drawings of women’s hairstyles, as seen from the back, were inspired by 1940s photo-booth portraits of African-Americans.

New paintings and drawings at the Tilton Gallery, by the young African-American artist Jeff Sonhouse, are as colorful and hard-charging as Ms. Simpson’s work is cautious and restrained. Steel wool, matchsticks and paper clips add texture to portraits of masked but recognizable African-American subjects. The overall effect is more mysterious than the works’ titles would suggest (a painting of Colin L. Powell speaking at the United Nations is called “The Sacrificial Goat”).

The headquarters of the Pace empire, at 32 East 57th Street, is a good place to find art that might be labeled “conservative-contemporary.” PaceWildenstein is exhibiting Keith Sonnier’s cheerful neon sculptures of bison, wildebeest and other animals, inspired by prehistoric cave drawings and trips to the Museum of Natural History. Another sculpture from Mr. Sonnier’s “Herd” series, 19 feet high, is on view at 590 Madison Avenue.

Nearby at Mary Boone, drawings and an installation by Aleksandra Mir try to capitalize on our recent election fever. The drawings, in black marker on large sheets of paper tacked to the wall, riff on the words White House in funky, retro-style letters. (One reads White House/ Dumb Blond; another, White House/Green Thumb.) The walls of a second, smaller gallery are covered with handmade political-campaign buttons (Keep Coolidge, Taxi Drivers for Ford). It’s politics reduced to sloganeering or secondhand Pop.

Works by an artist with a genuine Pop pedigree can be seen at John McWhinnie and Glenn Horowitz’s skylighted gallery-bookstore hybrid on 64th Street. The needlepoint copies of recent New York Post and Daily News front pages are by Brigid Berlin, the ’60s debutante turned Warhol superstar who continues to make Factoryesque art. Ms. Berlin’s early Polaroids and amphetamine-fueled “trip books” are also on display, as are rare books with a kitschy-sleazy, John Waters-Richard Prince aesthetic.

“Power Structure,” a group show at Andrew Roth organized by the conceptual artist Nicolás Guagnini, includes names more often found in the alternative spaces of the Lower East Side: Reena Spaulings, Karin Schneider, Alejandro Cesarco. Mr. Guagnini contributes his own “Power Structure,” a display of status-affirming papers from his files. There are letters from Columbia University and the journal “October,” V.I.P. private-view invitations and — most impressive — a business card from Kathy Halbreich, MoMA associate director.

That’s the Upper East Side for you: snooty at first, but ultimately eager to please.