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”.
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.)
At one point in Rachel Kushner’s recently published novella, “The Mayor of Leipzig,” the narrator, an American artist, reveals: “I personally know the author of this story you’re reading. Because she thinks of herself as an art-world type, a hanger-on.”
When Charles Gaines was in elementary school in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1950s, he showed an aptitude for drawing. His well-meaning teacher suggested to his mother that perhaps he should be an artist. He could be the first black artist in the history of the world, she said.
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.
Robert Longo makes aggressive, powerful images. They are usually big. Sometimes very big. High-definition, high-contrast, high-octane. Stereotypically masculine, he’d be the first to admit. Emphatically American.
This summer, for the first time in two decades of drawing figures, Christina Quarles found out what it is like to be drawn by other people. During lockdown, she and a small group of friends and acquaintances organised socially distanced life-drawing sessions, taking it in turns to model.
Betye Saar has lived in the same shingle-clad house up a winding lane in Laurel Canyon for nearly 60 years. To reach the front door, on the house’s top story, visitors ascend several flights of steps, passing the kind of thickly planted garden—filled with ornaments and trinkets—that can only be created with decades of care and cultivation.
Saar moved to Laurel Canyon with her former husband, Richard, and three daughters in the early 1960s, shortly before the Hollywood Hills became the nexus of Los Angeles’ hippie music scene. Frank Zappa lived in a log cabin just a few doors down, and Neil Young, Brian Wilson, and Joni Mitchell were also neighbors. The Saars were a hip, artistic family: Betye was a printmaker and designer, and Richard a ceramicist and art conservator. They led a comfortable middle-class life but were far from famous. As with most Black artists of her generation—and virtually all female artists—Saar made her way outside of what little limelight shone on the local art scene. For years, she didn’t even consider herself a real artist.
Gladys Nilsson’s “Plain Air” (2018), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy: Gladys Nilsson; John and Susan Horseman; Garth Greenan Gallery and Matthew Marks Gallery
In 1966, Gladys Nilsson and five other young artists organized an exhibition of their work in Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center, and overnight became the talk of the town. The group called themselves the Hairy Who.
Their art could be caustic, outré, vulgar and loud; psychedelic patterns and clashing colors abounded. It was bad taste and brilliant fun. Tattoos, graffiti, comic books, fanzines, games and toys, newspaper and magazine advertisements were all influences, as was the encyclopedic, global collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rooted in the Surrealist traditions of Chicago’s art scene, it was unlike anything else in America at that time. Read the rest of this entry »