76 Grand Street
“Yes and Not Yes,” the first New York exhibition of the work of Tauba Auerbach, featured more than twenty new paintings and drawings that expounded upon themes of language, both written and spoken. Auerbach’s fascination with the origins of language, its breakdowns and slippages especially, led her to an artistic study of language qua gestalt. How does verbal language relate to the symbols used in written language, and do these symbols reveal anything about the structure of the human brain? How arbitrary are the marks, both analog and digital, used to express language, and where do they begin to muck it all up?
Her answer, of course, is that they are largely arbitrary, but rich with abstract beauty and conceptual depth. With razor-sharp painted execution—which reveals Auerbach’s training as a professional sign painter—her works on panel and paper are a refreshing update to the abstract conceptual tradition, and just as intellectually rigorous.
Each piece has a very different story behind it, often revealed only after reading the title. Two abstract works look like Russian Suprematist paintings; titled Uppercase Insides and Numeral Insides, they turn out to be just that. The Whole Alphabet, From the Center Out traces exactly what it promises as well—in a gouache rainbow-colored code resembling the matrix of an LCD display—evoking the literal-minded whimsy of Jasper Johns’s work with numbers and the alphabet.
Auerbach’s works based on the semaphore alphabet, a signaling system using two red and yellow flags, may require a bit of Googling to decipher, as does her work exploring the Ugaritic alphabet—an extinct language from Syria, circa 1300 BC. But regardless of your familiarity with specific components of these languages, your confusion in the face of them is part of the desired effect: Where direct semantic exchange is impossible, the beauty of the symbolic language comes to the fore.
This exhibition also included a group of eight pieces addressing digital language—how binary code is insufficient to determine gray. All of the pieces were fifty percent black and fifty percent white, simulating the same gray by using different patterns, similar to the fill patterns in Photoshop’s antecedent, Mac Paint. The idea here is that in our most high-tech language we have excluded the possibility of true ambiguity and can only build it out of unambiguous parts
October 21 - December 22, 2017
18 Wooster Street
The faces are melting in Kenny Scharf’s new paintings. “Things are disintegrating,” he says, “I am reacting to our increasingly out-of-control situation.” Scharf’s work continues to be infused by his inexhaustible optimism and his sense of fun but there has always been an engagement with profound issues beneath the façade. Ecology, the environment, and capitalist excess have long been central themes. More recently, his paintings have shown his alarm over the effects of petroleum and the mountains of nondegradable plastic that are produced from it.
Scharf’s work has always combined and contrasted the pop culture he absorbed growing up in Los Angeles with the important innovations in modern and contemporary art. His earlier work fused Dali and Disney. More recently, he has been in dialogue with Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. In the new work, he merges his distinct style with color field and stain painting. “I like to connect with every movement in 20th-century art,” Scharf explains. “I make new hybrids, taking it all in and putting it in a blender.”
A distinctive style is something that Scharf admires in other artists and from the beginning has tried to achieve in his own work. He believes in art as an expression of individual identity. From his first mature work as a student at the School of Visual Arts, a painting by Kenny Scharf was instantly recognizable. Still adhering to his signature style, he continuously invents new forms.
Scharf is very enthusiastic about his new “sloppy style” that characterizes the major paintings in the exhibition. Rows of faces disintegrate into colorful drips reminiscent of both New York School painting and the serial imagery of minimal art. In these new works, Scharf is striving to create clear and simple forms that resonate with meaning. He feels liberated and excited, adding that “it is so much fun.”
The expression of emotion in art is essential to Scharf. Art that is cold leaves him cold. He explains that cartoon faces can express emotion with abstract power. Like his artistic colleagues from his early years in New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Scharf studied cartoons as a way to intensify figurative expression.
It is his early downtown history that brings Scharf back to New York this October. The Museum of Modern Art is opening an exhibition on the seminal performance space Club 57 in which Scharf played a central role. Watching him paint, one can see how his experience as a backup dancer for Klaus Nomi and his other performative roles have shaped his approach to his work. One side of his painting practice is detailed and meticulous to the extreme. The other side is tremendously physical and requires him to use his body like a dancer.
Visitors to Scharf’s Los Angeles studio are greeted by a hundred or more discarded plastic toys in his yard and on his roof. During the early part of his career, Scharf found his art materials in the garbage. To this day, he still stops his car when he finds plastic toys and TV sets thrown away on the street. These discarded plastic objects have inspired the two other bodies of work featured in the show: his Assemblage Vivant Tableaux Plastiques, and his TV Bax. The assemblage works, which are inspired by the Nouveau Realistes, are constructed from his stock of recycled plastic toys. The TV Bax are painted on the plastic backs of discarded television sets. Like the toys, the TV backs have a disconcerting anthropomorphic quality. Scharf wonders if their anonymous designers created these plastic covers, which are different for every model, to resemble a face.
Scharf finds these thrown-away toys and TV backs to be poignant objects, resonant with emotion. “Each of these objects carries a story,” Scharf explains. He thinks about how people might have struggled and sacrificed to buy these toys and TVs, and about the intense relationship that children and families have with them. Scharf resurrects the lives of these inanimate objects in his work. He also notes that garbage keeps changing with technology. The backs of TV sets used to have large protruding “noses.” Now they are flatter and more similar to a canvas.
Since his childhood, Scharf has been fascinated by outer space. Space travel and the portrayal of infinite space have long been central themes. In his life and in his work, he tries to eliminate boundaries and borders. As he pursues his dialogue with the great painters of the New York School, he is increasingly preoccupied with the inner space of painting. His exploration of inner space creates a dynamic tension with his passion for outer space. With his characteristic exuberance and his moral voice, Scharf reformulates his unique combination of Pollock and Pop to create a vibrant new body of work.
Photo Credit: The1point8 and Adam Reich
Read about the Club 57 exhibition at MoMA in the New York Times here.
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18 Wooster Street
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