Jonathan Griffin

Criticism and essays on art and culture

Larry Bell

‘Pacific Red (II)’ (2017) at the Whitney Museum © Larry Bell. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Timothy Schenk

Although he has lived in Taos, New Mexico, since 1973, Larry Bell is still chiefly associated with the Light and Space movement that emerged in southern California in the 1960s. His early works epitomised the group: semi-mirrored glass cubes that, through their fleeting reflectivity, reacted to — as advertised — the light and space around them, deft exercises in highlighting the processes of perception.

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Suzanne Lacy

Suzanne Lacy, Los Angeles, 2022. Yudi Ela for The New York Times

On a cold day last December, sitting outside her studio in Santa Monica, Calif., the artist Suzanne Lacy  talked excitedly about the coming year. In Manchester, England, exhibitions of her work were already open at the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery. She looked forward to a prestigious fellowship at the University of Manchester in the spring.

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Charles Ray

Unbaled Truck (2021), Charles Ray.  Photo: Josh White; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery; © Charles Ray

In May 2020, the sculptor Charles Ray was driving north from his home in Los Angeles to Anacortes, in Washington state, to see a man about a boat. Locked up in the early months of the pandemic, the restless Ray got what he calls ‘Covid fever’ and, despite the entreaties of his wife Sylvia, threw a sleeping bag into the back of his car and set off for the boatyard, near the Canadian border, where he needed to make some decisions about the layout of a sailing boat that was being built for him. Ray takes sailing very seriously indeed. In 2003 he was nearly shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean when an unlit military vessel collided with him in the middle of the night; this new boat, he tells me, is designed to accommodate his wife and her friends so Ray will not have to sail alone.

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Ben Sakoguchi

Detail from ‘Towers’, 2014, © Courtesy the artist/Bel Ami

“Pop & me in front of our brand new grocery store,” reads the inscription on a small acrylic painting, part of Ben Sakoguchi’s multi-panel “Postcards from Camp” (1999-2001). In the picture, a man in a long white apron holds a toddler in front of a neat shopfront underneath the date of the scene, 1940, and the ominous words “Before camp . . . ”

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Ulysses Jenkins

A photo taken during a rehearsal for Ulysses Jenkins’s ‘Without Your Interpretation’ (1984) © Courtesy the artist

In the early 1970s, a young muralist named Ulysses Jenkins was encouraged by a friend to come down to the boardwalk in Venice, Los Angeles, to check out a videomaking workshop. The Sony Portapak — the first portable consumer video camera — had come on to the market in the late 1960s and was still very expensive. New owners often ran workshops, renting out their equipment to try to recoup some of their costs.

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Howardena Pindell

Howardena Pindell, Untitled #100, 1979, Mixed media on board, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches, Courtesy: Garth Greenan, New York

Many – if not all – artists eventually acquire origin stories, formative experiences to which all their subsequent artistic achievements can plausibly be traced. Tony Smith had his night-time drive on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike; Louise Bourgeois had her father’s affair; Andy Warhol had his time drawing ads for shoes. Such stories become more meaningful as they recede in time, ossifying with use and reuse.

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Liz Larner

Liz Larner, black iris, 2021, plastic, 61 × 71 × 61 cm.
Courtesy: © Liz Larner, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin/Paris/London

Of all the plastic ever produced by humankind – over nine billion tonnes and counting – less than nine percent has been recycled. Some was burnt. Most of it went into landfill. This tally is not improving. Since 2017, when China stopped importing plastic waste, developed countries have been recycling less, not more.

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Beatriz Cortez

Beatriz Cortez with Chultún El Semillero, 2021, in ‘FUTURES’, Arts and Industries Building, Washington DC © Greg Kahn

The Arts and Industries Building, built in 1881 by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, began life as a place to house artefacts from the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. It became the US’s first national museum. Over the years, its purpose was rejigged as new Smithsonian museums spawned around it, and it accrued various nicknames from “the Mother of Museums” to “the Palace of Invention”.

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The Transcendental Painting Group

Composition #57/Pattern 29 (1938), Robert Gribboek. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Photo: Geistlight Photography, Albuquerque

Depending on who you ask, Helena Blavatsky was either a mystic and a sage who introduced Eastern spirituality to Western culture, with the stated aim of establishing ‘a universal brotherhood of humanity’, or she was a plagiarist, a racist and a fraud. If you ask me, she was a bit of both. Kurt Vonnegut called her ‘the Founding Mother of the Occult in America’, which is not entirely hyperbole. When she arrived from her native Russia, in 1873, the United States was already in the thrall of new religious movements such as Spiritualism, but it was Blavatsky’s co-founding of the Theosophical Society with fellow seekers Henry Olcott and William Quan Judge that cemented her influence on Western esotericism on both sides of the Atlantic. 

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Sarah Cain

Sarah Cain, “My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy,” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 2021 Photograph: Rob Shelley

Last summer, the painter Sarah Cain was contemplating the biggest project of her career: a 45-foot-long painting for the East Building Atrium of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. Cain, 42, has been making caustically colorful, improvised abstractions since the mid-2000s and had been commissioned to hide construction walls during refurbishment of the atrium’s skylight. Nearby sculptures by Max Ernst, Isamu Noguchi and Richard Serra, too large to relocate, were protected by wooden boxes. Cain was tasked with painting on the boxes, too — each bigger than her studio. (And she needed a title.)

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