Jonathan Griffin

Criticism and essays on art and culture

Category: Uncategorized

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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Made in L.A.

The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and the Huntington Museum, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino

Fulton Leroy Washington (aka MR. WASH), Mr. Rene # MAN POWER, 2011, oil on stretched canvas, 61 × 50.8 cm.
Courtesy: the artist, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Before entering the long-delayed (and now revised) ‘Made in L.A. 2020: a version’, I pitied its poor curators, whose exhibition has been kyboshed by a succession of lockdowns. Originally scheduled to open in June, the biennial – split this year between the Hammer Museum and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino – has lain partly dormant, partly unfinished. With (almost) all works installed, museum leaders allowed in a few members of the press, who, they hoped, might grant ‘Made in L.A. 2020’ a little exposure to daylight. (The biennial is currently expected to open to the public next year.)1

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Charles Gaines

‘Numbers and Trees: London Series 1, Tree #6, Fetter Lane’ (2020), photo: Fredrik Nilsen; © Charles Gaines, Hauser & Wirth

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.

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Diana Markosian

Diana Markosian, “The Arrival” (2019) from “Santa Barbara” (Aperture, 2020)

In a soundstage on a quiet street in Glendale, Calif., a whisper passed among the crew. Svetlana, the director’s mother, had arrived.

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Doyle Lane

Doyle Lane, c. 1976, El Sereno, Los Angeles. Photograph: Ben Serar

One afternoon in the early ’90s, the banking consultant Rudy Estrada returned to his mansion in Pasadena, Calif., to find two members of the local sheriff’s department standing over a lightly built African-American man spread-eagled on his front lawn.

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Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford, Q1, 2020 © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Joshua White / JWPictures

“I’m adjusting to life on Mars,” says the artist Mark Bradford, as he folds his frame into a chair positioned a prudent nine feet from my own, and unpeels his mask from behind his ears. Yes, he says, his glasses fog up, too.

Since mid-March, when California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, issued a statewide “stay at home” order, Mr. Bradford has kept a low profile. Throughout the nationwide unrest that flared after the killing of George Floyd, he remained silent. While Mr. Bradford, 58, is one of the more visible figures in the arts community in Los Angeles, he is not on social media. But with three new paintings on the wall in front of us, he’s finally ready to talk.

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The Breakfast Club

The multigenerational artists’ salon hosted by Derek Boshier inside a fast food restaurant
Photograph: Steven Simko

The invitation, when it comes, is invariably by email and typically consists of the entirety of the note crammed into the subject line, plus a random image.

“Can you make Ricks tomorrow Thursday at 8.30 am…….derek,” read a recent message accompanied by a photograph of a headshot of Julie Andrews adjacent to a paper Union Jack. “Sent from my iPad.”

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Betye Saar

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Betye Saar, Palm of Love, 1966 Etching with relief printing 48×66 cm. Courtesy: MoMA, New York

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.

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