Review of reviews: Art & Stage
Exhibit of the week
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, through Jan. 11
Agnes Martin is a painter who demands your attention, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. The Canadianborn artist (1912–2004) insisted that each of her abstract works requires a full minute of contemplation— and the Guggenheim’s “out-of-this-world-beautiful” gathering of more than 100 of her paintings demonstrates why. Viewed from several feet away, Martin’s pinkish grayish surfaces “look hazily blank, as if they need a dusting or a buffing.” When you edge closer to most any one of them, though, the subtleties of the colors become apparent, along with “complicated, eye-tricking, self-erasing textures” and a painstakingly hand-drawn grid of graphite lines. Martin was an abstractionist who aimed to reward every viewer who has the patience to really look. “Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my paintings,” she said.
The climb up the Guggenheim’s rotunda takes us on “a sort of secular pilgrimage,” as our eyes adapt to minute differences of texture and tone, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Martin’s own path in art was far less straightforward. Raised in a strict Scottish Presbyterian farming family, she attended college on a swimming scholarship and held a variety of odd jobs—ice cream packer, dishwasher, tennis coach—before turning to art at age 30. She landed in New York at “the high noon of abstract expressionism,” but her exposure to Zen philosophy and the influence of neighbors like Robert Rauschenberg pushed her away from that movement’s histrionics. Early works, such as 1958’s This Rain, “look like bleached-out versions of Mark Rothko’s floating rectangles,” said Deborah Solomon in WNYC.org. But Martin lit out from New York for New Mexico in 1967, and as the Guggenheim’s show progresses to the 1970s, you see her come into her own. “Her paintings seem to generate a sense of radiance with increasingly less infrastructure,” imitating the natural landscape “not in its sensual fullness but stripped of everything except for the subtlest shifts in atmosphere and light.”
Many have tried to use Martin’s history of schizophrenia to explain her art, said Ben Davis in ArtNet.com. But her grids are more than tools for soothing a troubled mind. Through her work, Martin very deliberately engaged her East Coast peers in a conversation about what a painting could and should be, and her position was clear: “The object of painting,” she would say, “is to represent concretely our most subtle emotions.” Early in her career, Martin made a bonfire every year from the paintings that didn’t meet her standard. The survivors are neither as ego-driven as the work of the abstract expressionists or as clinical as that of the minimalists. Instead, each one “unfolds as a story, the drama of the human mind straining toward a state of clarity.”
Brooklyn Army Terminal, New York City, (212) 206-6674
If the current presidential campaign is scaring the bejesus out of you, “by all means run, don’t walk,” to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, said Christian Viveros-Fauné in ArtNet.com. Mexican artist Pedro Reyes has created a temporary haunted house inside the gloomy complex, and his funhouse vision of near-future America will convince you you’re not alone—at least if you’re a Brooklyn liberal. After gathering under a mock Statue of Liberty meant to remind you of a Trojan horse, you’ll be ferried away by van only to be halted by a SWAT team and herded through darkness into a darker room. In the tableaux to come, 34 actors play the frightful characters you encounter, including poll workers tearing up ballots and gun-toting soccer moms. “Wellwritten, expertly acted, and not very politically correct,” Doomocracy “confronts our spectacularly troubled times straight on.”
As political art goes, the show is no Guernica, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. But the pacing is swift and much of the satire stings. You traipse through a spoofy art opening, a corporate meeting, a classroom of children wearing bulletproof vests, and when you emerge at the end of the 45-minute expedition, “you’ve felt the thrill that good theater delivers, the sense of having been through something energizing and focusing.” Then again, you might recoil at the nervous giggles elicited when the hostile SWAT team starts patting down guests, said Priscilla Frank in HuffingtonPost.com. For me, “the strange rush experienced by the art elite in re-enacting the suffering of others was perhaps the most haunting element of the night.”
On other stages...
San Francisco Playhouse, (415) 677-9596
Theresa Rebeck’s new play leaves a viewer hungry—but only physically, said Jean Schiffman in the San Francisco Examiner. Set in a restaurant kitchen that often fills the theater with mouthwatering aromas, it proves “insightful and even poignant” about the tension between art and commerce. Brian Dykstra is a temperamental chef who fiercely resists when his partner hires a consultant to help cash in on a recent rave review, and Dykstra makes his diva character “a man you somehow simultaneously love and hate.” Unfortunately, “it’s often hard to see his point of view,” said Sam Hurwitt in the San Jose Mercury News. Rebeck, who created the TV series Smash, has delivered an intimate drama “packed with clever dialogue” and “a genuine love of food.” Sadly, when we’re called on to extend Chef Harry sympathy, “it doesn’t come naturally.”