Jonathan Griffin

Criticism and essays on art and culture

Category: Apollo

Bernice Bing

A Lady and a Road Map, 1962, by Bernice Bing (American, 1936– 1998). Oil on canvas. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Museum purchase, 2020.26. © Estate of the Artist. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Once upon a time, everybody knew Bingo. In San Francisco in the 1970s, it’s said she couldn’t walk down the street in North Beach or Chinatown without someone calling out her name. Bernice Bing, the statuesque artist known to most as Bingo, was easy to spot in her sharp zoot suits, boots and jet-black hair. She was born in Chinatown in 1936; when it became the heart of the Beat movement in the 1950s, she found herself at the centre of a community that was not only wildly hedonistic but also close-knit, pluralistic, non-judgemental, socially progressive and spiritually visionary. Later, she worked with at-risk youth in the area, including gang members whom she persuaded to take part in art workshops. She helped found the South of Market Cultural Center (SOMAR, now known as SOMArts), which she ran in the 1980s. Why, then, is Bing – who died in 1998 – so little known today?

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Marcel Duchamp

In 1959, Marcel Duchamp’s career was in the weeds. Not that he minded much. He had largely abandoned making art almost 40 years earlier and, while he still dabbled in corners of the art world, full recognition had never really arrived. Plans for a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were shelved in the 1940s; talk of another, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few years later, fizzled out.

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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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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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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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Lisa Yuskavage

The Tongue Tondo (2018), Lisa Yuskavage. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner; © Lisa Yuskavage

Sometime not long ago, before the pandemic rendered such gatherings unconscionable, I met up with a few fellow critics for drinks at a friend’s house. At one point in the evening, during a boisterous discussion about artists’ personal politics, someone casually remarked that so-and-so was ‘definitely a misogynist’, and everyone roundly agreed before cantering on with the conversation.

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Betye Saar

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Black Girl’s Window (1969), Betye Saar. Photo: Rob Gerhardt/The Museum of Modern Art, New York; courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; © Betye Saar 2019

Betye Saar greets me, complaining. ‘I woke up in pain, so I’m grumpy today,’ says the artist, who will turn 93 a few days after we meet in late July. Recently she’s had to do so many ‘silly interviews’, she says, she has been left with no time to work. I’m not offended – it’s an understandable grievance. This year, when she might have hoped to enjoy some quiet time in her studio, or to tend her splendid hillside garden in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, she has instead been obliged to prepare for major solo exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (until 5 April 2020) and at MoMA in New York (until 4 January 2020). On 2 November she will be honoured at LACMA’s annual Art+Film Gala, a calendar highlight for Los Angeles’ cultured elite. Read the rest of this entry »

Judy Chicago

Three Faces of Man from ‘Power Play’ (1985), Judy Chicago, Palmer Museum of Art, Penn State University, Pennsylvania Photo: © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Judy Chicago is excited. ‘This morning my Instagram completely exploded!’ she tells me, clutching her iPhone, when we meet at her Santa Monica hotel. It is late September 2018, the day after Christine Blasey Ford’s devastating testimony, and Brett Kavanaugh’s subsequent tantrum, during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. A friend has forwarded Chicago an article on the website Bustle headlined ‘The Whole Country Just Watched What Happens When Angry, Powerful Men Don’t Get Their Way’, in which the faces of Kavanaugh, Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley were shown as a triptych, contorted in what the writer described as ‘fury and condescension’.

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Mary Corse

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Mary Corse, Untitled (White Diamond, Negative Stripe), 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 84 in. Collection of Michael Straus. Photograph © Mary Corse

I am standing in Mary Corse’s studio, a large white box with a sloping flat roof that she built two years ago beside her home in the wild landscape of Topanga Canyon, just a few minutes north of Santa Monica. She has lived on the same secluded property, first with her two sons and now alone, since 1970. One side of the studio is given over almost entirely to sliding glass doors which frame a stunning view of the Santa Monica mountains, green with chaparral and live oaks, with ochre rocks jutting in between. Corse apologises for the emptiness of the studio; it is late May, and several new works have just shipped to her solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery, London (11 May–23 June), while a long-term installation of her paintings opened at Dia:Beacon a few days earlier, following the institution’s acquisition of three works from the 1960s and ’70s and another from 2010. Many more pieces have been gathered at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where her retrospective – the artist’s first solo museum survey – opens in June (until 25 November). Read the rest of this entry »

Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us

Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

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Installation view of Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us (1974) Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 4–April 22, 2018 Photo: Brian Forrest

In 1972, Carl Andre wrote a note to Harald Szeemann in response to the Swiss curator’s invitation to participate in documenta 5. ‘DO YOU HAVE AN ART SECTION?’ asked the irascible artist. As it turned out, the sarcastic enquiry was not entirely unfounded. Szeemann’s radical curatorial mission, developed in documenta 5 and pursued over the next three decades of his career, was to pollute the category of art history with artefacts from the entire field of visual culture, and to subordinate the static art object to a more fluid representation of a creative individual’s interior world. At documenta 5, there were areas featuring political propaganda, the art of the mentally ill, advertising, and science fiction. (A proposed pornography section was cancelled.) Read the rest of this entry »