Olivia Guterson Carries Ancestral Patterns Into Contemporary Art

Olivia Guterson and Laura Earle, “Night Menorah” (2020) (photo courtesy the artist)

Not all stories are written with words. Some are encoded in patterns — swirling, squiggly, and zig-zagged lines that have been engraved in stone or woven into cloth for generations in nearly every culture. Olivia Guterson, also known as Midnight Olive, carries these ancient patterning traditions into contemporary art, drawing from her Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and African American roots to create a dazzling new ornamental language. 

An intricate surface design drapes effortlessly over Guterson’s sculptures, almost as if it emerged organically. If you haven’t crafted patterns before, you might think it gets tedious to mark the same shape over and over again. Rather, she finds it healing, telling Hyperallergic, “This meditative practice feels so spiritual and ancestral — it’s almost as if it’s like the language of everyone I came from.” She treats the pattern as another form of language, pulling in symbols and memories from her multicultural family. Her Ashkenazi grandmother was a quilter and even stitched her own doilies.

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Sam Gilliam, Groundbreaking Abstractionist, Dies at 88

Sam Gilliam, “10/27/69” (1969), acrylic on canvas installation, collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio)

Sam Gilliam, whose draping, color-drenched canvases insisted on the radical potential of abstraction, died at the age of 88 this Saturday, June 25. The cause was kidney failure. The news was confirmed by Pace and David Kordansky, the two galleries that jointly represent the artist.

Emerging at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a time when many Black American artists harnessed figuration to represent their reality and spur social change, Gilliam did not just pursue non-representational art but managed to turn it on its head. Inspired in part by women he saw hanging laundry on clotheslines from his studio window, he freed the canvas from the stretcher for his pivotal “Drape” paintings, suspending them from the ceiling or on the wall in sensual configurations that embrace the organic folds of fabric. It was the zenith of American postwar painting: Abstract Expressionism, the New York School, and the Color Field movement collided in a frenzy of drips, splashes, and egos, mostly those of a rather male and White coterie of artists. Gilliam, along with contemporaries like Howardena Pindell and Alma Thomas, made their mark on the medium while asserting the creative autonomy of Black artists in the United States.

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Alison Hall’s Hypnotic Paintings Invite Slow Looking

Alison Hall, “A Ballad (for this pain in my heart), (2022), oil, graphite, and plaster on panel; artist frame, Virginia maple and plaster, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches (all photos by Lacey Leonard, courtesy the artist and SOCO Gallery)

The artists who many critics cite when writing about Alison Hall’s paintings are Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, and Ad Reinhardt. Hall is one of the few contemporary abstract painters that I know of whose highly formal paintings do not diminish in the company of such rigorous ascetics. This is because her slow, mesmerizing, monochromatic works provoke a state of exalted seeing that is unlike anyone else’s, including the aforementioned artists. Working within her established limits, which she set early in her career, Hall keeps finding ways to pull willing viewers closer, to encourage them to get lost in looking as well as reflect upon this experience. This is one of the reasons that I have continued to follow her work.

Her current exhibition, Alison Hall: Cold-Eyed and Mean, in a new project space in Chinatown opened by SOCO Gallery (May 20–June 30), features 14 paintings divided into two groups: a suite of 11 intimately scaled ultramarine paintings collectively titled A Ballad, and four black paintings in three different sizes.

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Geometric Abstraction for a Shattered World

Gary Petersen, “Both of Us” (2022), acrylic and oil on canvas, 54 x 90 inches (all images courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York; photos by Jason Mandella)

I have been following Gary Petersen’s work since his debut exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art in 2016. I attribute the difference between the works he has previously shown at this gallery (and which I reviewed) and the ones in his current exhibition there, Gary Petersen (May 20–June 26, 2022), to a growing confidence in his ability to further skew his layered geometric compositions. Having begun with a vocabulary of solid-colored, stacked quadrilaterals, Petersen has introduced new elements with each exhibition. These elements suggest that he is trying to find ways to undermine the painting’s rectangular authority without resorting to shaped canvases, as did previous generations. 

As complex as Petersen’s compositions are, it is not surprising to learn that drawings lead the way. Working in either black, white, and gray or colored pencil, the drawings in the current show convey the artist’s constant probing for possibilities.

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The Endless Realities of Evelyn Statsinger’s Art

Evelyn Statsinger, “Central Forces” (1985), oil on linen, 24 1/4 × 26 inches

Evelyn Statsinger (1927–2016), who was born in Brooklyn and studied at the High School of Music and Art and the Art Students League in New York, and the University of Toledo in Ohio, moved to Chicago in the late 1940s to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). The school’s proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago, and its encyclopedic art collection, was one of the draws for Statsinger, who once said about herself: “I look at everything.” 

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Looking Back at Vivian Browne’s Shift to Abstraction

Vivian Browne, “Umbrella Plant” (1971), oil on canvas, 48 3/4 x 40 3/4 inches (all images © Vivian Browne, courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York, and Adobe Krow Archives, Los Angeles)

The eight paintings and five works on paper that comprise Vivian Browne: Africa Series 1971-1974, Browne’s second solo show at RYAN LEE Gallery, were prompted by the artist’s first trip to West Africa in 1971. At the time of her visit, the Florida-born, New York-based figurative painter and printmaker, then in her 40s, was at the tail end of her first major body of work: over 100 paintings and drawings of pathetic and grotesque Little Men, all of whom were White. As she labored over this scathingly clear-eyed series, Browne was hard at work outside the studio as well, pushing for a more equitable world.

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Neo-Concretism: the short-lived but influential art movement

Lygia Clark, Máscaras sensoriais, 1967. WIKIART. © LYGIA CLARK

The ground of art history is littered with manifestoes. Those documents, often written by art critics, poets, and artist-philosophers, explain the underlying motivations of a coalition of creatives and help identify who is “in” and who is “out” of the group.

In retrospect, these declarations often run parallel with the politics of a particular place and time. They are also usually a revolt against some earlier manifestation made by a different if tangentially related, group of artists. Such is the case of the Neo-Concrete Movement.

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Marta Minujín Looks Ugliness Right in the Face

Marta Minujín, “Gran mancha” (Big Stain) (c. 1959) (© Marta Minujín Archive. Photo by Arturo Sánchez)

Anyone who has known a teenager will recognize in Marta Minujín’s early work a spark of that distinctive rebellious spirit. When she was around 16 years old, the Argentine artist began making paintings in the Informalist vein, applying layer upon layer of muddy acrylic tones onto rough surfaces constructed of carpenter’s glue, sand, hardboard, chalk, and other substances unbecoming of fine art. Debasing not just her medium but her approach — eschewing the easel, she worked on the floor — Minujín distilled the essence of postwar disillusion and her immediate political reality, holding up a mirror to an ugly world indeed.

Unlike so many adolescent dabblings, however, Minujín’s foray into Informalismo was not just a phase — though transient, it was foundational, paving the way for the Pop interventions, environments, and happenings she is best known for today. This is the central thesis of Born of Informalismo: Marta Minujín and the Nascent Body of Performance, a compact exhibition on view at New York’s Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA).

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In Praise of Illegibility

Nadia Haji Omar, “December” (2017), ink and graphite on paper, 12 x 9 inches

There is a strain of abstract art that I don’t remember ever being the subject of an exhibition in New York, a city where more than 600 languages are spoken and written: asemic writing. An exhibition focusing on “writing without the smallest unit of meaning” could include works by Xu Bing, Henri Michaux, J. B. Murray, Cy Twombly, and Isidore Isou, founder of Lettrism. To this distinguished company, which transcends cultural boundaries, I would add Nadia Haji Omar, whose work I first wrote about in 2018.

Haji Omar, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, and raised in Sri Lanka, grew up learning different languages (Arabic, Sinhalese, Tamil, English, and French), some of which she studied after moving to the United States. 

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Disquiet In The Abstract: The 2022 Whitney Biennial

Ralph Lemon, Untitled, 2021, oil and acrylic on paper, 26 by 40 inches.

The most significant aspect of this year’s Whitney Biennial is its exhibition design. For the first time since 2016, the museum’s fifth floor has been restored to its Renzo Piano-designed primordial state, forgoing walls in favor of a field of fragmented, Tetris-like half-walls arranged in no discernible order or pattern, bookended by city and Hudson River views. The sixth floor, by contrast, is a funereal warren of black walls and black carpet: a “dark video hallway,” as my friend put it. It’s a mess. But bless this mess; it’s the biennial postponed because of a global pandemic, following the Black Lives Matter protests, and at the dawn of what feels like another world war. With “Quiet as It’s Kept,”curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards peer into the broken mirror of the past three years, gathering shards to figure out what just happened, and where to go from here.

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