A Psych Ward-Inspired Trove of Outsider Art Finally Sees the Light

David Byrd, “Patients into Dining Room” (1989), oil on canvas, 15 x 19 inches (all images courtesy Fleisher/Ollman and the David Byrd Estate; all photos by Tom Gorman, 2013)

PHILADELPHIA — In the fall of 2012, Jody Isaacson, an artist living in the hamlet of Sidney Center, New York, drove by a neighbor’s house a mile up the road. For a few years, Isaacson had seen metal sculptures in the house’s yard and wondered if the owner was an artist. That day, she saw an old man standing in the driveway and stopped the car.  His name was David Byrd. “Are you an artist?” Isaacson asked. “I don’t know if I’m an artist,” Byrd replied, “but you can come into my house and let me know.”

Inside were hundreds of canvases that Byrd had painted over the course of more than sixty years — complex in their allure, disquieting and rarely shown to strangers.  Standing among the paintings in a house that Byrd built himself, Isaacson says that she felt like crying. “I’ve never seen such a collection of work … It was an out of body experience.”

Six months later, Byrd had his first solo exhibit at Seattle’s Greg Kucera Gallery, where Isaacson is represented. He was 87 years old. To get to the show’s opening, the Illinois-born artist flew on a plane for first time in his life — just days after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  In May of 2013, a few weeks after the show closed, Byrd passed away. Nearly all of his paintings at Kucera had sold.

David Byrd, “Awoken Person” (1984), oil on canvas

Trained as a modernist in New York City in the late 1940s under the French cubist Amédée Ozenfant, Byrd was a life-long recluse who worked outside the purview of the art world.  From the late 1950s until the late 1980s, the artist eked out a living as an orderly at the psychiatric ward of the Veterans’ Administration Medical Hospital in Montrose, New York.  A keen and sensitive observer of the VA hospital’s patients — soldiers who fought during WWII, Korean War and Vietnam — Byrd made the psych ward one of the primary subjects of his art, continuing to paint its patients, rooms and routines from memory for another quarter of a century after retirement.

“I painted a lot … because I had this job that I didn’t like and I was trying to get it out of my system,” he recalled in a video interview.

Over 35 of Byrd’s paintings are now on view at the Fleisher-Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia.     

Painted thinly with a dry brush and a muted palette, the works are displayed unframed with tack nails running along the sides of the canvas.  About a third of the images grapple with Byrd’s experience at the VA hospital.  Set inside confined institutional spaces — corridors, rec rooms, cafeterias, shower rooms and bathrooms — the paintings show men standing in line for food or medications, dressing, showering or morphing into eerie accretions of cloth inside their beds.      

David Byrd, “Laundromat Sketch” (2013), oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches

Warped, cockeyed, and geometrically unhinged, Byrd’s alienated human figures — whether inpatient or on the outside — are often at odds with gravity itself. They stoop, prop themselves up or sprawl out on the floor, their shoulders hunched lower than Picasso’s “Old Guitarist.”  There are no portraits and no close ups.  Spaces entrap with sparse perspectives dead-ending into blank walls.  Reified by madness, medications, and a system of power that keeps them in a state of docility, the patients resemble Giorgio Morandi’s contorted still lifes.

David Byrd, “Enigma” (1960), oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches

Outside the hospital, Byrd’s universe can be no less disturbing.  In “Overpass,” a pair of human figures stand on a concrete dam teetering over the abyss. In “Walkers on a Bridge,” a couple pushes a stroller high up above the ground.  The stroller has no wheels and slides surreally through the air. Other erasures abound. In “Rocking Chair,” the chair supporting the reclining figure is patently absent. The face goes missing in “Enigma,” leaving a one-eyed, mouthless Other struggling to wriggle out of its clothes.

Byrd’s paintings of Sidney Center’s residents, whom he observed on his trips into town, emanate a similar air of entrapment and disconnection.  For me, the most compelling of such scenes is Byrd’s “Great American.”  Three figures carrying paper bags, elongated like Giacometti’s figures, cross an empty parking lot without line stripes.  Behind them looms a grocery store called “Great American.”  Eggs are on sale for 99 cents, yams for 58 cents. The sky is a creamy, cloudless, humid void. The paint is so oversaturated with white that the three shoppers seem on the verge of disappearing into the light, as if casting their sharp shadows for the last time.

Byrd’s oeuvre has been enlisted to raise awareness for mental illness, despite of the fact that his subjects look effaced by the system that manages their care.  Yet his work also doesn’t amount to a critique of psychiatric power and the medical gaze. (In his Montrose VA 1958–1988 notebook, a facsimile of which is on view at the gallery, Byrd sides with the doctors and nurses as much as he sympathizes with the patients.) For Byrd, the psych ward was synonymous with the world.  Professing Bedlam’s ubiquity, his paintings celebrate the triumph of artistic over institutional commitment and bring attention to those who struggle in obscurity to reveal the world in a novel light.

David Byrd, “Great American” (1999), oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches

“For 70 years my life has been mostly bad jobs,” Byrd writes in his artist’s statement. “Except now, being retired and having built my house to paint in, I am free. I have found that bad jobs can produce very good pictures. Don’t know what good jobs produce.”

David Byrd, “Pulling” (1970), oil on canvas, 29 x 22 inches
David Byrd, “Machine Closures” (2006), oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches
David Byrd, “Woman Stooping” (2013), oil on canvas, 22 x 20 inches
David Byrd, “Woman on Laundromat Table” ( n.d.), oil on canvas, 42 x 51 inches
David Byrd, “Filling Station in Rain” (n.d.), oil on canvas, 15 x 18 inches
David Byrd, “Alcove” (n.d.), oil on canvas, 28 x 34 inches
David Byrd, “Laughing Woman” (2010), oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches

David Byrd: Patient Pondering is on view at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery (1216 Arch Street, 5A, Philadelphia, PA) through November 10, 2018.

The post A Psych Ward-Inspired Trove of Outsider Art Finally Sees the Light appeared first on Hyperallergic.

Original source: https://hyperallergic.com/465972/a-psych-ward-inspired-trove-of-outsider-art-finally-sees-the-light/

When an Art Fair Becomes a Place for Discovery and Unexpected Pairings

Edward S. Curtis, “Kutenai Duck Hunter” (1910) Portfolio Plate 246, copper photogravure printing plate, approximately 12 x 17 ½ inches at Bruce Kapson Gallery (image courtesy Bruce Capson Gallery)

Typically, when I’ve visited TEFAF (short for the European Fine Art Fair) in the past, I’ve been most attentive to the paintings, but this time, objects that had been on my periphery came into clear view.

The first set of objects that mesmerized me were the copper photogravure printing plates of Edward S. Curtis presented by the Bruce Kapson Gallery. I understand that Curtis is a contested figure. He was an ethnographic photographer whose massively comprehensive project, The North American Indian, documented about 82 Indigenous American tribes in images that established for outsiders blinkered and stereotypical understandings of Native Americans. But I had never seen the plates up close. They are set within pristinely clear acrylic fields that mimic fine art photo matting with an outer frame of gleaming copper that mirrors the plates. The figures in the plates seem etched with graphite, dark against the sanguine backdrop in extravagant detail. Hair pulled into winged buns, birch bark, and still water all seem carved out of the world with a devious knife. I would rather look at the plates than the photo images made from them just about any day.

Yokoyama Kazan, A pair of six-fold screens with a hundred terrapins, a mingame and a frog on a silver ground (ca. Edo period 18th and 19th centuries) Japan; in the foreground left to right: Yasumi Nakajima, “Mebae (Sprouting Shoots)” (20th Century, Showa period) Japan; Shugoro Hasuda “Hojo (Fruitfulness)” (20th Century, Showa period) Japan; Shugoro Hasuda “Koma (Spinning Top)” (20th Century) Japan (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted) at Gregg Baker gallery

Other objects that I have glimpsed elsewhere but never paid attention to included the illuminated manuscripts in the booth of Heribert Tenschert, a Swiss collector of antiquities. The history of the particular books they had on display is fascinating: one designed by Geoffroy Tory introduced a type design that did not mimic handwriting and purportedly initiated the art of book design in France. It is also one of only three existing books that are known to have been printed on vellum. The associate of the gallery confirmed that the pages consist of Latin and explained that the particular tome is a book of hours, a religious guide that contained prayers and psalms a follower would refer to throughout the day. At another gallery, Mireille Mosler, I saw a lovely portrait of two nuns, and the older one holds what might well be a book of hours.

S. du Bois and Geoffrey Tory, Horae BMV (1527) book of hours, Paris, at Heribert Tenschert
Elisabeth Sonrel, “Les Rameaux (Palm Sunday)” (1897) watercolor on laid paper; 20 3/4 by 35 3/4 inches (53 by 91 cm.) signed and dated, at Mireille Mosler

Another non-painting highlight was an El Anatsui draped tapestry, presented close to an ancient Egyptian head of a pharaoh (ca. 589–570 BCE), at the Axel Vervoordt gallery. This display scheme strikes me as a strange homology since El Anatsui is Ghanaian working primarily in Nigeria, and in the 21st century, no less, while the Egyptian artifact is both geographically and chronologically distal. Another gallery, Colnaghi, featured a long display table of Central and South American mace heads, which displayed this manner — on a table without any contextualizing information as they would be at a bazaar — suggested that they might be purchased as tchotchkes for someone’s home office, a paper weight with an intriguing back story.

El Anatsui, “Reconstitution” (2016) aluminium, bottle tops, roofing sheets and copper wire, 200 x 797 cm, at Axel Vervoordt gallery
Head of Pharaoh—probably “Apries” Egypt (Late period, 26th Dynasty, ca. 589-570 BCE) Granodiorite, at Axel Vervoordt gallery

TEFAF, which proclaims itself to be a fair of fine and decorative art from antiquity to 1920, offers a manageable and even fun experience for me, because I just ignore all the jewelry and ornamental schtick and look for the unexpected art. Inevitably, I did find some paintings that were quirky and surprising like the Pietro Annigoni portrait of what looks like an inert man on the edge of a couch, with his head collapsed against a dressing screen. The title gives the game away though: “A Mannequin in a Studio” (1947). Lastly, there is the Heinrich Campendonk portrait “Mother with Child and Deer” (ca. 1913) which looks like a lavish fusion of Surrealism, Cubism, squeezed through the palette of Franz Marc of the Blue Rider Group. It’s in those pieces when the TEFAF becomes much more than a bazaar for the decorative: It becomes a place of discovery.

Edward S. Curtis, “Assiniboin Mother and Child” Portfolio Plate 632, (1926) copper photogravure printing plate, approximately 14 x 17 ½ inches, at Bruce Kapson Gallery
Edward S. Curtis, “Pulini and Koyami – Walpi” Volume 12 (1921) copper photogravure printing plate, 9 x 6 inches unframed, at Bruce Kapson Gallery
Lombard School, “A Set of Eight Profile Portraits of Roman Emperors” (ca. 1500) tempera on panel 56.5 x 42 cm, at Tomasso Brothers Fine Art
A collection of Central and South American mace heads at Colnaghi
Alessandro Magnasco, “Monks Warming Themselves at the Fire” (ca 1167–1749) oil on canvas 76.5 x 54 cm at Rob Smeets gallery
Jankel Adler, “The Artist” (1927) oil on canvas, 100.4 x 65 cm, at French and Company
William Degouve de Nuncques, “The Servants of Death (Nocturne)” (circa 1897) pastel on wove paper, 48 by 94.5 cm at Mireille Mosler
Pietro Annigoni, “A Mannequin in a Studio” (1947) at Agnews gallery
Heinrich Campendonk, “Mother with Child and Deer” (ca. 1913) at Richard Nagy Ltd

TEFAF continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 31.

The post When an Art Fair Becomes a Place for Discovery and Unexpected Pairings appeared first on Hyperallergic.

Original source: https://hyperallergic.com/468790/tefaf-2018/

What Do Art Critics Actually Do?

What it Means to Write About Art: Interviews with art critics by Jarrett Earnest

The marvelous compendium What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics by Jarrett Earnest (David Zwirner Books, 2018) presents 30 very lively personalities. We learn how much the art world has changed in the past 50 years, why people become art critics, and how these critics understand contemporary art.

Barbara Rose describes her life in the 1960s with Frank Stella and Michael Fried, Lucy Lippard talks about her relationship with Eva Hesse, and Fried tells of supporting himself in London by writing a column for Arts Magazine for 75 dollars a month.

In that era, Clement Greenberg was still very influential. And Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Lippard, and Rose all had contentious relationships with him. No one has his status today. Indeed, as Barry Schwabsky notes, apart maybe from Roberta Smith at The New York Times, nowadays no critic has any direct effect on the art market.

The role of the critic has changed dramatically. Artists, collectors, curators, and dealers are all needed for the system to function. But the role of critics is up for grabs. Partly the problem is that writing criticism has never been well paid. And gentrification has made the traditional role of an independent intellectual all but impossible.

But also there are serious questions about what critics actually do. In his introduction, Jarrett Earnest calls criticism “a kind of speculative fiction,” a statement that does justice to the varied nature of this kind of writing but doesn’t resolve this crucial methodological question: If critics disagree, how are we to choose between their claims?

Art history is an academic discipline. To teach and to publish, it’s almost mandatory that you have a PhD. And so even the most original scholars have to conform to professional guidelines. But art critics are self-taught, which means that they have more freedom to write in novel, untraditional ways. If you can find some editor who will publish you, then you too can be an art critic.

In the 1980s, when I made my way from academic philosophy into art criticism, I was fascinated by this bold experimentation. Going from an academic publication The Journal of Philosophy to Artforum was like taking your first drink, or smoking your first joint. And then, like many of the critics interviewed here, I benefitted from the support of Richard Martin at Arts Magazine, who gave his writers liberating freedom, without excessive editing. As Siri Hustvedt rightly notes, art historians are territorial. But critics are often highly judgmental, and very unwilling to accept divergent points of view, though they usually have less ability to enforce their ways of thinking.

These interviews reveal the intense academic interest in contemporary art, which is a very recent development. Hal Foster and Michael Fried are just two of the senior critics who have moved into art history departments. Another important change is the fascination with French-style theorizing. Yve-Alain Bois tells how he studied with Roland Barthes in Paris and then, inspired by reading Greenberg and meeting Krauss, moved to New York.

A number of these critics teach in English departments; Lynne Tillman and Michele Wallace tell that story. And many of them were inspired by John Ashbery’s poetry. He is interviewed, and Holland Cotter and Hyperallergic Weekend’s John Yau explain how much they learned from him.

A number of African-American critics have entered the art world. Hilton Als, Darby English, and Fred Moten tell how varied the writing careers of these black writers were. There were numerous female writers. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, Molly Nesbit, and Michele Wallace present that story.

And of course many of these critics were involved with gay culture. Douglas Crimp is one key figure. Cotter is another. But if this determinedly multicultural volume presents a number of figures I now look forward to reading, it is a completely New York-centric commentary. There’s no one whose writing focuses on art from Chicago or California, and no one from outside the United States.

What unites all of these critics is a fascination with the challenging, pleasurable activity of writing about visual art. Jed Perl, Jerry Saltz (whose interview is by miles the funniest one), and Peter Schjeldahl, who certainly have very diverse sensibilities, share this passion. A successful critic needs to be ready to improvise in response to novel art. When Goodeve speaks of wanting “to feel like an outsider, a newbie to the art world, even though I’ve been writing for twenty-five years,” she captures perfectly this sense of things.

Can critics truly be critical when the funding for their publications depends upon the art market? In the late 1970s, under the editorship of Joseph Masheck, who was not interviewed, Artforum was very critical and very slim. Then in the 1980s, when the advertising picked up, truly critical reviews became rare. No ethical editor will tell a writer what to say, but too much negative criticism will alienate the advertisers. More exactly, while Artforum does publish the very critical Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who also was not interviewed, most of its writers have broader tastes than previously, making their writing more inclusive if not more critical.

I understand Foster’s complaint that Hyperallergic and Brooklyn Rail are not “critical projects.” But I think he’s wrong to complain that online reviews have “watered criticism down.” And it seems illogical to link this complaint to their status as online reviews, for in fact they are financed very differently. In any event, whether hard copy or online, every publication needs to support itself. This massive, surprisingly inexpensive book depends upon Zwirner, one of our grandest art dealers. And October, which has played an important role in Foster’s career, is funded by a major university press. Crimp’s account of how he was pushed out of his editorship at October deserves to be set alongside Perl’s discussion of his uneasy relationship with Hilton Kramer at The New Criterion.

I find value in both October and The New Criterion, but their withdrawal from the commercial art world does limit their appeal. How then should art writing be financed? No one, so far as I can see, has any original ideas about how to deal with that question. But as Earnest wisely notes, it’s tedious to speak of a present day crisis when in fact we are a terrifically loquacious visual culture – and have so many gifted art writers. His tight editing, a masterpiece of tact, gracefully brings together very varied, often contentious critics. As Molly Nesbit nicely says: “Nobody thinks all by themselves.” We all need all the help we can get.

What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics by Jarrett Earnest (2018), published by David Zwirner Books, is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

The post What Do Art Critics Actually Do? appeared first on Hyperallergic.

Original source: https://hyperallergic.com/466591/what-it-means-to-write-about-art-interviews-with-art-critics-jarrett-earnest-david-zwirner-books-2018/