In Drug Journey, an unpublished manuscript written in 1995, Niki de Saint Phalle wonders, “Does one have to go through catastrophe to arrive at vision?” It’s an apt question for the French American artist, whose life was marked by heartbreaking challenges, from surviving sexual abuse at the hands of her own father, to losing close friends to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to battling debilitating illness in her later years.
And yet, despite facing incredible adversity, Saint Phalle’s artworks — including her groundbreaking Tirs series and monumental Tarot Garden — are some of the most powerful and exuberant of the 20th century. “Perhaps to create something incredible,” she writes later, “one has to go through the extremes.”
“What is the truth of a person anyway?” Rudick asks in her introduction to the book. After perusing the artist’s archive in Southern California, the author decided to let Saint Phalle speak for herself. What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined presents selections from the artist’s published and unpublished prints, doodles, letters, and diaries, which Rudick has arranged in roughly chronological order.
Saint Phalle’s texts, which appear in a mixture of handwritten notes, colorful drawings, and typed pages, are composed in both English and French, and peppered with her signature bright colors and imaginative characters. Together, the materials give readers a dynamic and intimate view of the artist through time. “I always felt that the Garden of Eden was right next to Hell,” Saint Phalle writes in her 1995 manuscript, and the book follows her international journey weathering the highs and lows of being an artist, woman, friend, daughter, lover, and mother.
The person who emerges is open, driven, and often remarkably perceptive about who she is and why. “One of the reasons very little has been written on my work is that I am difficult to categorize,” the artist writes in a draft of her text “Niki by Niki.” It’s lucky, then, that she has left so much writing herself.
What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle by Nicole Rudick is published by Siglio Press and is available on Bookshop.
In a gallery slightly larger than the space occupied by a booth in a fancy restaurant, I was literally surrounded by three larger-than-life-sized heads, each of which was in a different position. But whether seen in profile or head on, all seemed to be acknowledging my presence. The effect was eerie, interesting, and unique to urban life. The three portraits were in the exhibition Jenny Dubnau: Regarding at Satchel Projects (February 10–March 12, 2022), which was just launched by Andrea Champlin and Chaitan Khosla. This is one of those one- or two-person, shoestring operations the art world should be rooting for — I certainly am.
The exhibition is composed of four paintings and two works on paper. According to the gallery press release, “Jenny Dubnau […] paints photo-based psychological portraits.” While the portraits are larger than actual heads, they are not monumental. Dubnau is not memorializing an individual. Rather, she is interested in that nameless, momentary encounter that can happen between two individuals, a modern subject that Édouard Manet pioneered in the painting “The Railway” (1873), in which a woman holding an open book, with a sleeping dog in her lap, has looked up and caught you looking at her out of curiosity as you pass.
Dubnau wants to step out of the long-accepted conventions of portraiture, in which the subject is posed and comes across as if frozen in time, a strategy that seems to be true of painters as different as Lucien Freud and Jordan Casteel. By placing the four paintings in a small, semi-enclosed area, all looking at you, the viewer, she establishes a different power dynamic than the hierarchical one that is typically upheld by portraiture. That’s what made me curious about these paintings when I first saw images of them on social media, along with announcements about the gallery’s launch.
The exhibition’s four paintings measure between 36 by 36 inches and 36 by 48 inches, while the two works on paper in the back room depict the same subject and measure 24 by 18 inches. Dubnau is not interested in maintaining the one-to-one relationship that is the basis of most observational or realist paintings. Rather, she seems to be drawn to that psychologically charged instant of the momentary encounter. In contrast to the open-ended narrative that Manet so brilliantly evokes with his attention to detail, Dubnau strips the encounter down to the individual’s face, seen at eye level, looking at you as they pass you by.
For this exhibition, Dubnau invited people she knows over to her studio and began photographing them. They seem to be always moving, and none of the paintings feel posed. Her attention to surface, to skin and volume, seen in light, also struck me. Instead of reifying painting’s two-dimensional plane and photography’s flattening of the subject into an image, she acknowledges the effect of the artificial light on her subjects, from the glint it causes on someone’s glasses to its reflection on the top of someone’s bare head. Her goal is not to replicate the photograph’s image on a larger scale. Rather, it is honor silent momentary encounters, which are tenuous at best. This is urban life. We pass more people than we talk to.
In “T.G., turning” (2018), a Black man with a shaved head and salt-and-pepper beard has turned to look at whoever is there. What does his look tells us? The fact that his look resists translation — and this is true of the other portraits as well — is one of the exhibition’s many strengths. The works stay open to our looking, rather than becoming attached to a narrative or backstory. No matter how familiar the artist may be with her subjects, she does not make them into props in a story.
In “C.H., profile” (2012), the subject’s head is seen in profile, but she side-eyes us. The effect is uncanny, as she seems completely aware of our presence. She isn’t, of course, but that sense is part of the painting’s power. We become conscious of looking when we encounter Dubnau’s work. And once we begin looking, Dubnau’s attention to detail takes over. The monochromatic background isn’t really a solid plane made by a singular color.
Knowing that Dubnau invited these individuals to be photographed was intriguing, as the nature of the relationship between artist and subject is never spelled out. One could say that they refused to be subjugated by being the subject of a portrait, which is almost a condition of appearing in one of Freud’s paintings. That open-ended pas de deux between artist and subject lies at the heart of Dubnau’s works, the unlikely combination of seriousness and playfulness, indomitability and vulnerability. And best of all, the encounter between “I” and “Other” evoked by the portrait resists being put into words. For all of the artificiality of the dance initiated by the artist as photographer (and portraitist) and responded to by the individual (friend, colleague, or stranger), something breaks through. That’s what makes these paintings powerful. At a time when most figurative paintings are inseparable from narrative, Dubnau has created a visual and psychological space in which the relationship between one’s perception of another, unknown, individual and the language used to define that ephemeral contact is not clear.
Jenny Dubnau: Regardingcontinues at Satchel Projects (526 West 26th Street #620, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 12.
John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the… More by John Yau
Under the rule of tolerant Muslims, Indian artists of the Mughal Empire (1526–c. 1857) developed a highly distinctive aesthetic. Court, Epic, Spirit: Indian Art 15th–19th Century at Luhring Augustine, in association with Francesca Galloway, demonstrates how very varied their painted subjects were. The works, loosely organized around the title’s three themes, encompass battle scenes, such as “Battle between the Iranians and the Turanians”(1450) and portraits — “Bust portrait of a prince, probably Muhammad Sultan, the son of Aurangzeb”(1670) is a good example. The exhibition includes one magnificent large still life, “Iris on a gold ground” (1669). A number of scenes portray sacred Hindu themes. In the exquisite “Lakshmana gathers elephant flowers to make a garland” (1799-1810), for instance, three of the figures sit on a delicate violet-colored ground against a luscious dark green backdrop, while a fourth picks buds from a flowering tree on the right. The catalogue explains that here Rama, building up the confidence of Sugriva to fight his brother, Bali, asks Lakshmana to gather these flowers so that he, Sugriva, will be distinguished visually from his brother.
Are any artworks from anywhere in the world any more beautiful than these Indian miniatures? Using intense, flat, un-modeled color, employing shallow and usually aperspectival stage settings, the artists typically composed via addition, juxtaposing figures who often seem to exist almost without awareness of one another. And some of the subjects are marvelously fantastical. What is going on in “A prince, an ascetic and drug-addled sadhus” (1790), attributed to Pemji, in which a vast crowd is assembled before these three named figures and their companions, who sit in a deliciously elaborate setting? The very detailed catalogue description identifies the smoking ascetic, addressed by a young prince, who is holding a parrot and is accompanied by his armed guard. It explains that in the foreground are ascetics, “seemingly stoned out of their minds either smoking drugs or drinking bhang.” Though useful, that description doesn’t unpack the visual mysteries — what in the world is going on here? I really don’t understand, but I do love the elaborate setting, in which the architecture and vegetation frame the scene. In the simpler work “A man of commanding presence” (1700–1730), a man wearing a green striped garment sits before a golden background on a white cushion placed on a flowered fabric; an orange and yellow border frames the image. The colors flash against each other, inspiring prolonged aesthetic ecstasy.
Looking at these small pictures, originally book illustrations, is exhilarating. And describing them, which inspires enchanting memories of the Indian paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I reviewed a decade ago (“Indian painters, 1100-1900,” Burlington Magazine, January 2012), is totally pleasurable. I especially enjoyed “Amir Hamza clings to the Rukh’s legs to carry him home across the sea” (1565), attributed to Dasvant, which shows the golden-feathered bird carrying Hamza through the pale blue sky. The colors are translucent, and the composition, dominated by the mythic bird who tries to peck at Hamza as he hangs on for life, is brilliant in the way that this bird covers the better part of the picture plane. Many of the artists seem attracted to allover patterns. In “Battle between the Iranians the the Turanians” (c. 1450), a folio page from the Jainesque Shahnama, the fearfully battling figures compose a design as elaborately detailed as that of a great Persian carpet. Consider, also, “The death of the demons Mahodara, Devantaka and Tristas” (1790), in which the battle between demons and humans unfolds in a pale green all-over setting that compliments the orange, yellow, pink, and blue bodies of the struggling figures. And in “Battle between Khwaja Qazi and Aba-Bikr at Uzgend in 1493-4” (1589), the group of heavily armed men attacking the castle paradoxically compose a beautiful decorative grouping.
Why are these Indian miniatures so dazzling? I have no idea. Maybe some neurologist can explain how the use of naturalism with full details in a flat space holds the eye. It can be tempting to compare them with familiar examples from the Euro-American canon — their intense color with that of Alex Katz or David Hockney — but that would do a disservice to these artworks, which are distinctive for their small scale and integration of decoration, and revelatory on their own. While “Madhu raga, third son of Bhairava raga” (1630-50), which depicts two seated figures on the left and one on the right, has an affinity with Henri Matisse’s “The Conversation,” (1908-12), in that both show frontal confrontations (Matisse’s with his wife) against a blue background, wherein the color is used to wash away conflict, the older painting’s figures seem — like those in many of these miniatures — to have no visible inner life, for they live so intently on the surface. The mythological stories may be unfamiliar to some viewers, but even without a grasp of the subject of “Krishna’s wives honor the sage Narada and Krishna carries his vina for him on his arrival in Dwarka” (1720), for example, the dispersal of these four figures on an intense red backdrop, framed by a broad yellow border with a blue curtain at the top, is compelling. I walked out of this show dead sober in mid-afternoon, but felt completely visually satiated, as if I were so high that my feet could barely reach to the ground.
Raja Ram Sharma, a contemporary Indian artist born in 1963 who was trained in this style of artmaking, does modernist versions of these “old master” works. He depicts landscapes, along with architecture and, in some cases, rider-less horses (but no people), in colors that are less assertive than those of the pre-20th-century Indian paintings at Luhring Augustine. In contrast to the wars and, sometimes, drunken revelry in the earlier works, he presents somber scenes showing deserted places in a style that evokes the modernist grid. Now the exuberant fantasy is replaced, often, by a sense of mystery, not unlike that found in Giorgio de Chirico’s early cityscapes. Sharma’s concurrent show at Victoria Munroe Fine Art is worth seeing by anyone interested in this artistic tradition, for it reveals that the tradition lives on.
David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins… More by David Carrier
Ike Nnaebue’s No U-Turn—its title a reference to an interrupted journey the Nollywood director embarked on as an impoverished 20something and is now determined to finish—is an ambitious cinematic quest. Part of the Generation Africa project, the Berlinale-selected film is a cross-country trip across the continent to find out exactly why young people are still compelled to risk life and limb to reach Europe — 26 years after Nnaebue himself tried and failed to do the same. (And ended up with multi-award-winning filmmaking fame back home in Lagos instead.)
To learn all about the road (bus) trip and any insights Nnaebue may have gleaned from his in-depth conversations along the way, Filmmaker caught up with the longtime narrative director (and first-time documentarian) just prior to the film’s True/False debut today.
Filmmaker: Since this film is framed as a “quest to understand how hope transcends fear,” and specifically “why young people in West Africa are still compelled to travel to Europe by road despite knowing the dangers ahead,” what did you ultimately learn? Did you have any big takeaways, or were any expectations upended for you?
Nnaebue: I learned that for most people on the trip, it was a quest beyond to Europe the place. It was much more of a search for self. These were people who were searching for a place to dream, for their own place under the sun.
Filmmaker: In what ways has social media changed the experience from when you took the journey over two decades ago? Were you struck by any particular similarities or differences?
Nnaebue: The major difference is that migrants now are fully aware of the dangers, and most times they know how to avoid extreme danger. In fact, some of the migrants have set up micro blogs where they give updates as to what’s happening on the routes. I thought that was something great. Of course these types of things were not available when I went on my first trip 26 years ago.
Filmmaker: Gender also plays a role in this story, as you were initially partly inspired by a desire to find out why so many of today’s young women are taking such a great risk. Yet it seems to me that a strange guy with a camera might not be the person best equipped to get at sincere answers. So was it difficult to actually gain trust? How did you go about getting the women you met to open up?
Nnaebue: I gained trust with most women on the trip simply by sharing my own stories. I was not afraid to be vulnerable. That helped a lot. Also, I genuinely like meeting people, and people can always tell when you genuinely like them.
Filmmaker: I read that your own youthful journey was quite cinematic as well. Did it inspire you to become a filmmaker? Did you later use it as material for any of your fictional work?
Nnaebue: Yes, my resolve to choose a career in filmmaking was totally inspired by the experiences I gained during my first journey. In 2016 I even made a fictional film on irregular migration and human trafficking called Sink or Swim. A lot of the inspiration for that film came directly from my own journey.
Filmmaker: I also read that as a Nollywood filmmaker it was important for you to not make a “NGO or news reportage” documentary. So how did you plan production? Going into the project, did you have specific visual and sound design elements in mind?
Nnaebue: I started with a development trip, where I went with a young cameraman and a sound man on the route. We went up to Ouagadougou to test the type of visual interpretation I wanted for the film. But I also did not want to work with a cinematographer from fiction. It was important to film the real trip with a cinematographer who’d already had a lot of experience shooting documentaries.
Filmmaker: The dire economic conditions that pushed migration when you were young seem to be eternally embedded in the system as a whole. So are you attempting to tackle social inequities within your own Nollywood industry?
Nnaebue: My films and works have always been heavy on social impact. So yes, I am focused on tackling social inequalities in Nollywood, in Nigeria, and in Africa in general.
Born in a small city near Washington, D.C., Golnar Adili spent most of her youth in Tehran, to which her family returned after the revolution, in 1979. Her parents’ activism forced Adili’s father to move back to the United States a few years later, however, and she was reunited with him only when she came to the States for college. Last year, Adili produced a puzzle book, She Feels Your Absence Deeply, revisiting her father’s personal archive of family letters and photographs, which she has worked with since his death.
The book’s exterior is a small, fabric-covered portfolio box that delicately enwraps its contents, suggesting the safekeeping of a treasured memento, even as its intimate scale allows it to be quickly packed and stored. Unfolding this container reveals twelve wooden cubes that form a grid of “pages.” Each face is printed with a fraction of an image from Adili’s father’s archive—including informal snapshots of the artist with her mother, black-and-white passport photos of her mother, and a letter between her parents—so that together the cubes can be assembled into six complete images and many more partial collages. In one such composite arrangement, her mother’s eye pierces through otherwise happy tableaux. Like the memories they must evoke, the contents of this book are malleable, playful even, easily shifted out of place.
As recently displayed in Adili’s solo exhibition at CUE Art Foundation in New York, the book lay open, the cubes placed to show a color photograph of Adili and her mother in Iran. One stretch of adjacent cube faces provided a glimpse of that faded letter; in Persian, the artist’s mother uses the work’s title to describe Adili’s temperament after her father left.
In changing the scale and position of her source materials, Adili reflects how memories become more or less important and harder to see over time. The travel-size puzzle book form, as encased in a portfolio, reinforces the source materials’ prized yet slippery status while facilitating new connections among them. Although the book is activated by rearrangement, in the gallery Adili has opted to leave the work on that single page, offering momentary control over what memories the piece jostles free.
Late last year, Ashley Bickerton revealed on Instagram that he had been diagnosed with ALS, the debilitating motor-neuron condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has left the artist wheelchair-bound at his home and studio on the island of Bali in Indonesia. For those who followed the Neo-Geo artist’s unorthodox career path, the news added an unexpected emotional charge to the recent works on view in “Seascapes at the End of History” at Lehmann Maupin, and certain earlier pieces featured at O’Flaherty’s, both in New York. Born in Barbados, raised in Hawaii and along the California coast, and embraced in New York during his 1980s stint here, Bickerton departed the city for good in 1993, and since then has employed the visual vocabulary of an islander, one centered on the sea. His recent sculptures and wall reliefs, ostensibly meditations on the fragility of the oceans, now suggest in personal as well as metaphorical terms a quest for human survival.
Among these are two large sculptures, Mangrove Footprints 1 (2021) and Floating Family Footprints (Flow Tide) 1 (2022), imaginative life rafts made of resin, fiberglass, and steel in sandy tones, leaning against the wall as if ready for emergency use as sea levels rise. The decks’ surfaces seem to bear traces of bare feet in the sand. It is not surprising to learn that Floating Family Footprints (Flow Tide) 1 was the first work the artist completed after his diagnosis, as it evokes a classic, romanticized image of companionship and mobility. The large object (more than five feet tall and seven feet wide) intimates a family stroll on the beach, containing the parallel footprints of the artist, his wife, and their daughter embedded in layers of clear resin, with a wavy surface and glimmering sheen, apparently encapsulating a shallow wave that has just washed over the surface. But with their dull brown hues and militaristic steel components, the life rafts might also conjure a far more grave, less personal image of refugees trying to cross the sea toward a better life.
A similar split in emotions, alternately playful and tragic, seems to guide the “Vector” series of wall reliefs, including River Vector: White and River Vector: Big White (both 2022). Each of these vitrine-like constructions, recalling a shallow aquarium, features bits of colorful plastic junk and other flotsam collected from the beach, fixed to a mirrored panel set behind glass and etched with delicate, sinuous lines alluding to ocean currents or streams. In Bickerton’s idiosyncratic manner, the colorful pieces of junk enliven the compositions in playful sweeps and swirls like aquatic confetti, or artificial fish.
Also on view are various additions to Bickerton’s “Ocean Chunk” series of wall-hung and freestanding blocky geometric forms made of blue resin embedded with what appear to be stones, pieces of coral, or detritus. Formally, these spare forms suggest a rather irreverent homage to Minimalism, and especially to Donald Judd’s work, which Bickerton has addressed throughout his career. The surfaces and contents are more textured and complex; the works call to mind oceanographic specimens that one might find on display in a natural history museum. They also resemble the ocean as seen from an airplane or as gridded on a map. Some are nearly cubic in shape, with surface textures suggesting the water’s undulations and refraction of sunlight and slight shifts in the resin’s hues indicating variations in the sea’s depth. While these works seem to present placid views of the ocean, a glimmer of mortality persists. Furthering the subtle elegiac tone, a six-foot-tall freestanding work, 0°36’06.2″N, 131°09’41.8″E 1 (2022), resembles a coffin (as the artist noted in the same post on Instagram).
For a number of works in the “Ocean Chunk” series, Bickerton entangles or encases the resin blocks in elaborate accoutrements, treating the bits of apparently ossified ocean as ritual or talismanic objects. Hanging Ocean Chunk (To Be Dragged Up Cliff Faces, Strung Across Ravines, and Suspended From The Forest Canopy) 1 (2022), for instance, features a block set like a jewel within stainless steel bars. The assembly is suspended from the ceiling and entangled in climbing equipment, including ropes festooned with small flags of various nations. The work makes explicit the exhibition’s allusions to migration, border crossings, and entrapment.
Earlier works on view at O’Flaherty’s include several examples of Bickerton’s “Blue Man” series of large photos taken in elaborate setups in his studio, edited, and further embellished with paint, including Neon Bar and Red Scooter Nocturne (both 2010–11). The pieces have thick, elaborately hand-carved and stained wood frames (made with the help of local artisans) featuring the artist’s name embedded in the surface. The images of pairs and groups of grotesque figures, in some sense stereotypes with garish skin tones, counter an idealized view of tropical island living—certainly Gauguin’s images of Tahiti, for example. Instead, Bickerton offers scathing views of Western tourists, alluding to the vulgarity of that industry in Bali and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In Red Scooter Nocturne, a corpulent blue male figure wearing only a gaudy sarong and campy sunglasses—a rather archetypal character who reappears in a number of works—rides a moped as two naked young women hold on to his waist for dear life, the trio speeding along some sleazy, neon-lit street. Still, the implications are, as ever, ambiguous, as the images suggest the ruin of what would otherwise be an island paradise—to which the artist seems to lay claim via his prominently plastered signatures.
The unrestrained excess in these pieces, not to mention the acerbic humor, contrasts with the cool demeanor and relative formal austerity of the Neo-Geo works that established Bickerton’s career in the 1980s, and with the comparatively subdued imagery and cerebral compositions of his latest works. Bickerton has landed somewhere in the middle, neither fully formal nor wholly critical—just at the edge of unease.
Installation view of «Peybak: Strange Aeons – We will meet you there,» 2022, at Galerie GPN Vallois, Paris.
Size and shock value are two of the big factors in why certain artworks go viral on social media. A third, however, is strangeness, which may account for why a sculpture of a hairy humanoid by the Tehran-based artist duo Peybak hit it big on Twitter this weekend.
A tweet featuring video of the Peybak sculpture, which resembles a being curled up in a corner, has garnered more than 28,000 likes since it was posted on Saturday, with many musing on what this mysterious creature may be. Few of the people who interacted with the tweet seemed to understand that it was an artwork, however, given that neither the artists behind the piece nor the place where it’s being shown was disclosed in the viral tweet. Only in a follow-up tweet was it revealed that the object was an artwork in a gallery.
“I came across this thing in Saint Germain des Près can you enlighten me on its nature please,” wrote a user who goes by the name payxdwr, in a post that now has nearly 8,000 retweets. “I am shocked myself and I have no explanation for this.” In one reply to the original post that itself has received more than 5,000 likes, one user suggested that the sculpture was a genetically mutated animal.
In fact, the work is from a Peybak show at Paris’s Galerie GPN Vallois. The show takes its cue from an H. P. Lovecraft quotation: “That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die.” In the exhibition are paintings filled with flying beings that the duo has termed “Arbakan,” with sculptural versions of these creatures shown on the gallery’s floor in some places.
Per an essay accompanying the show by Agate Bortolussi, these beings are part of “the beginning of a journey towards an undefined, unknown region where thought expires and the body awakens in an uncertain, irresolute and yet static state. Creatures lay on the gallery floor, as if stranded, unconscious from this long travel to the emptiness of a shifting green or blue landscape lit by a faraway glimmer.”
The sculptures appear to respire and slowly move, causing them to seem oddly lifelike. Indeed, it was the person who helped make the viral sculpture breathe, a puppet designer named Monir Molavyzadeh, who helped make people aware of the object’s status as art. “I made the sculpture from soft sponge,” Molavyzadeh wrote on Instagram. “Inside his body is a mechanism and the movement of breathing is done robotically.”
A painting by René Magritte, a juggernaut within the modern art market, sold for £59.4 million ($79.8 million) at Sotheby’s on Wednesday, setting a new auction record for the Belgian Surrealist. That price is more than triple his previous record of $26.8 million, paid for the artist’s Le Principe du Plaisir (1937) at Sotheby’s in 2018.
Sold during an evening sale at the house’s London location, three bidders competed for L’empire des lumières (1961). Secured with an in-house guarantee, it was expected to fetch £45 million ($60 million). With bidding starting at £40 million ($53 million), the work hammered for a price of £51.5 million ($68.9 million), going to buyer on the phone with Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s chairman of modern and contemporary art in Asia. That buyer beat out two other determined ones on the phone with Katia Nounou Boueiz, Sotheby’s head of United Arab Emirates, and Sam Valet, a senior Impressionist and modern art specialist based in London.
Before putting down the gavel, Sotheby’s auctioneer Helena Newman urged bidders on in the last few minutes of the nearly-10-minute-long battle, saying, “It’s not a masterpiece to let go.”
The painting depicts a streetscape that appears to be set during the day and night simultaneously. Its composition is one that the artist returned to several times throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
The work was sold from the holdings of Anne-Marie Crowet Gillon, a French baroness and the daughter of one of Magritte’s key patrons, the lawyer Pierre Crowet. Gillon, who met the artist at the age of 16, went on to pose for several of Magritte’s works. It has been on loan at the Musée Magritte in Brussels since 2009.
When Michael Stipe first started engaging with outsider art, he was a young buck learning the curious folkways of Athens, Georgia, while on the cusp of fronting the storied rock band R.E.M. Now, with more than 40 years of worldly and otherworldly experience behind him, he is channeling his initial inspiration into other forms—with an exhibition of artworks from his decades-old collection on view March 3–6 at the Outsider Art Fair in New York.
Among the fair’s offerings presented by some 65 galleries from all over, a special booth titled “Maps and Legends: Featuring Works from the Collection of Michael Stipe” includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Thornton Dial, St. EOM, Dilmus Hall, Bessie Harvey, Howard Finster, R.A. Miller, Royal Robertson, Juanita Rogers, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and other artists engaged by Stipe beginning in his early days as a student at the University of Georgia. The exhibition was curated by Phillip March Jones, founder of the new March Gallery in New York’s East Village and formerly a director at Andrew Edlin Gallery, the namesake shop of the Outsider Art Fair’s director. (Jones also founded Institute 193, a nonprofit art space in Lexington, Kentucky.)
While he was working on gathering works for the exhibition, Stipe spoke with ARTnews from his home in Athens, Georgia, about his history with different kinds of folk art, his visual work with R.E.M., and what he learned from teachers he still reveres.
ARTnews: What initially interested about the prospect of showing outsider artwork from your collection? What was the genesis of the idea?
Michael Stipe: I’ve had a long interest in what we would call outsider artists or untrained artists. I grew up here in Athens, Georgia, surrounded by them and integrated that into the work that I did as the visual deputy for R.E.M., bringing work from several people who are part of the show into the artwork for different albums over the years. Andrew Edlin Gallery [run by the Outsider Art Fair’s owner] is really close to my apartment in New York, and I’ve been stopping by for years to see what he’s up to. Andrew approached me because he knew I had a collection. I don’t think of myself—and never have thought of myself—as a collector, but I have bought things over the years that I found inspiring and wanted to live with. That became, over the course of my long life, quite a collection. The idea of being able to share it with people is really thrilling for me.
ARTnews: The title for the Outsider Art Fair show is “Maps and Legends.” What resonates most about that reference for you?
Stipe: That was [curator Phillip March Jones’s] idea. The presentation is centered mostly on Southeastern artists, people I either met or whose work I came in contact with in the 1980s and ’90s. “Maps and Legends” is a reference to the Southeast and clearly a reference to an R.E.M. song that I wrote way back—I don’t remember which record it’s on, but it’s one of the early ones…
ARTnew: It’s on Fables of the Reconstruction.
Stipe: That makes sense—that’s in keeping thematically with that body of work.
ARTnews: How far back do you trace your interest in this kind of folk art or whatever we might choose to call it? What was the very beginning of it?
Stipe: It’s what was available to me, not living in a city center. Traveling through cities, museums and galleries were available to me going back to 1979. I distinctly remember seeing a Peter Hujar photograph in a small show that I went to in New York that radically altered the way I thought about portraiture, the human body, portrayals of sexuality, and what have you. But my teachers at art school, at the University of Georgia, were very interested in the outsider artists who were available to us, like Howard Finster and St. EOM (Eddie Owens Martin) and Dilmus Hall and Billy Lemming (though I never met him—the one time I tried to meet him, he ran inside when he saw me; he was quite shy, and he wouldn’t answer when I knocked on the door). I never met Juanita Rogers or Bessie Harvey, but I wish I had.
ARTnews:Who were some of your early teachers in this context?
Stipe: The interest really came from Andy Nasisse, who taught sculpture at the University of Georgia. He had a huge collection of outsider artists’ work here in Athens. I would go to his house and ask him questions about the stuff he had. He and I traveled to Mexico in 1987, all around the Yucatan Peninsula with Jeremy Ayers. The three of us traveled around for three weeks and visited artists and Toltec and Aztec ruins. I found artifacts on the ground—it was insane.
Through Andy Nasisse, I met Jim Herbert—he was not as interested in outsider artists, but when we became acquainted with R.A. Miller, he followed the band up to Gainesville [Georgia] to R.A.’s house, which was on this hill with all these whirligigs on it, like hundreds of whirligigs. At that point R.A. was just selling them locally. Jim followed the band up there to shoot footage for a video for us to turn into MTV. At the time, we were not creating video content that they were asking for. We just said, ‘Fuck you, we’re going to do our own thing.’ Jim was so inspired by the footage that he got that he did an entire album-side-long film called Left of Reckoning, which you can find on YouTube. It’s very beautiful. We decided to include it as a part of the [Outsider Art Fair exhibition] because it shows this environment at its absolute peak, with four handsome guys in our mid-20s wandering around. It’s a beautiful Jim Herbert film. I’m so thrilled to have been able to collaborate with Jim as a filmmaker on many R.E.M. videos, but that one in particular is stunning.
ARTnews:Did you send it to MTV?
Stipe: Oh, yeah. And they showed it on the show on Sunday night that that was for indie music…
Stipe: Yeah, I think it was. They wouldn’t show it with their regular programing—it was too weird for them.
ARTnews: Who were some other formative influences, outsider-art-wise?
Stipe: There was Art Rosenbaum, who was also a teacher of mine. Art and his wife Margo are renowned throughout the folk-music world for having made field recordings all around the South, including The McIntosh County Shouters: Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia, which is one of the most stunning field recordings ever made. Their interests in that continue to this day. Margo is also an astonishing photographer—she recently released a self-published book that I’ve been looking through, and it’s marvelous. It’s unbelievable the mixture of people she photographed. There are all these legendary people going back to the 1960s that she and Art had access to—Elaine de Kooning and James Baldwin among many others.
I also met Tom Patterson. He’s from North Carolina, and he traveled all through the Southeast; he would spend time in Athens and use it as a kind of base to go visit people like St. EOM, Howard Finster, R.A. Miller, J.B. Murray, and Athens’s own Dilmus Hall. And then Roger Manley, who is now the director of North Carolina State University’s Gregg Museum of Art & Design. I think the thing that all these people have in common is that their understanding of what these artists were doing allowed them to put it alongside contemporary artists who were trained, or modern artists who were exalted, and see the parallels between, for instance, a Jasper Johns and a Billy Lemming, or a Duchamp and a Leroy Person. They saw these incredible connections by not separating artists into “went to Yale, studied art” vs. “grew up in a shack, never had electricity.” They acknowledged that these are people who, for whatever reason, had to create, and this was what was available to them, either through the mediums that they chose or the education that they had or did not have. That’s something that was profoundly important to my art education: being able to look at something like a Leroy Person and put it in a timeline with a contemporary or modern artist who I also appreciated.
ARTnews:Who among these artists were you the closest with? Would it have been Howard Finster?
Stipe: Yeah, we had a true friendship. I believe it began when he came and gave a speech at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. I went as a student. I think Andy Nasisse recommended it and said, ‘Oh, you have to check out this artist. He’s amazing.’ That introduced Howard to the entire Athens punk-rock scene. And then R.A. Miller I had a friendship with. I went to his house time and again and would just hang out with him. He’d show me his chickens and we’d talk about how funny they looked. I really loved that guy. He was he was an incredible, warm, gentle, very, very smart and very funny human being. And he was a preacher at one point: I come from a line of preachers, so I have a deep appreciation for that. You know, the kind of the levity of humor that comes men of God. Howard had that as well.
ARTnews: What was your relationship with Howard Finster like?
Stipe: Spending time with Howard was like spending time with me when I’ve had a double espresso. You just basically sat and listened. There was no real exchange—he was just jacked all the time. And he had “the sugars,” which was diabetes; he would have a couple coffees with sugar and just go. If you could connect the dots and follow along, then you were doing well. With R.A. there was much more of a give-and-take, and he understood that we were artists who were doing our own thing through music and working with them through the through the graphic art that was going along with the music. They understood that we were out in the world and that their work was going to be seen by a wider audience because of my interest. I was thrilled to be able to offer that to these artists who were doing incredible work and were sweet people.
ARTnews: Did they have did they ever share their thoughts on the band or the music you were making at the time?
Stipe: They had younger people around them who had a clearer understanding of what we were doing and where we sat in the lineage of American music. I think they had an understanding of it, but I don’t know that they sat around and listened to it.
ARTnews: A drawing by Juanita Rogers features on the back cover of R.E.M.’s Life Rich Pageant, and Howard Finster’s work features in the “Radio Free Europe” video and also the Reckoning cover art. Was there other such stuff that figured in the R.E.M. visual sphere?
Stipe: There was there was an early merchandise item that we sold that was completely designed by Howard, a handkerchief with a beautiful drawing of his that will be in the show. It shows the four of us, and it’s the size of a record album—12 by 12. It’s a very sweet and funny Howard piece.
ARTnews: Oh wow. Can you find any of those out in the world?
Stipe: I don’t think you could…
ARTnews: Here’s one on eBay, for $349.99.
Stipe: Good Lord. Well… [Editor’s note: The lot available at the time is no longer online.] Our friendship with Howard I’m really proud of. “Radio Free Europe” was our first music video and we were like, “We’re not going to do what MTV wants—we’re going to do what we want.” And what we wanted was to go to Howard’s Paradise Garden and create a little narrative there. So that’s what we did.
ARTnews: Some of the work in the Outsider Art Fair is for sale. What made you want to part with it after all this time?
Stipe: I’m at that point in my life where I’m getting rid of things and rethinking belongings and material things. I’m reexamining and rethinking what I have around me. I’m clearing out a bunch of stuff, getting rid of a lot of things.
ARTnews: You’ve spent a lot of time in Athens during the pandemic. Is there something about being in the South that makes you commune with or think about this kind of work differently than you might elsewhere?
Stipe: I think there’s an acceptance and understanding across the South that might surprise people. For people who take their own path and people who choose to live on the fringe or to follow certain urges, it seems like there’s an acceptance here that is unwritten and [different from] other issues and other concerns that are often associated with the South. There’s a tolerance within what we think of as a very intolerant place for people to be who they are and to allow for that, and that’s something that I don’t think has ever been really fully understood. I feel like I have to defend the South quite often, and sometimes I’m deeply embarrassed by the choices that are made by people here. But then I remind myself that, you know, the state of Georgia alone gave us Jessye Norman, James Brown, and the B-52s. Gosh, that’s not bad. Throw in Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr., and Georgia’s looking pretty good, along with a lot of a lot of people who are quite easy to disregard or hate.
An alternative response is to say that there’s something in the water here in Athens. I don’t know how to explain what it is, but there’s something about here. It might be that we are at the end of a mountain range—a big part of Georgia and the Carolinas is the end of a huge, very old mountain range moving into the Piedmont. There’s just something very special here. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know what it is, but I feel it, and it’s very strong. For someone who has never felt at home anywhere, this place as a base for me is profoundly important. And I feel like that strongly resonates in the work of a lot of the people we’re talking about.
From the history of donut shops in California to a Barbara Kruger retrospective, March is looking good. In this month’s Los Angeles guide, we also venture out to Long Beach and Riverside, where there is an exhibition devoted to one of the first Black superheroes in comics. Happy viewing.
When: March 4–March 20 Where: Human Resources (410 Cottage Home, Chinatown, Los Angeles)
Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose were pioneering performance artists who investigated pain, S&M, and disability throughout the ’80s and ’90s until Flanagan’s death in 1996. Xandra Ibarra pays homage to their legacy and extends their inquiries in Nothing lower than I. Her sculptures incorporate strands of minimalism, medical aesthetics, and eroticism, questioning notions of abjection and otherness.
When: opened February 27 Where: Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) (628 Alamitos Ave, Long Beach, California)
Through public performances, Salvadorean artist Crack Rodriguez investigates the experience of migration as shaped by war, diaspora, and solidarity. His work was recently showcased in intergalactix at LACE, which traced hidden but deeply rooted cross-border networks. Dream Team, the artist’s first solo US museum show, takes its title from a participatory performance on the soccer field of MacArthur Park, where one team has to score in a basketball hoop, capturing the slim chances facing migrants hoping to achieve their dreams.
When: March 5–April 23 Where: Regen Projects (6750 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles)
Abraham Cruzvillegas’s process of autoconstrucción is based in the practice of building from found and scavenged materials, popular throughout cities in his native Mexico. With Tres Sonetos, he draws inspiration from the poems of Concha Urquiza, using their rhythms as the basis for large calligraphic paintings created on site. Photographs of his face printed on textiles will serve as the ground for colorful paintings, fusing the performative and autobiographical.
When: March 12–May 27 Where: Self Help Graphics and Art (1300 E. First Street, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles)
The vast majority of California donut shops are owned and run by Cambodian-Americans, one of whom is responsible for their signature pink donut boxes. Behind the sweet pastries, however, is a story of trauma, displacement, and resilience, from the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge to the waves of refugees that followed in its wake, to children and grandchildren born in the United States. For her solo show at Self Help Graphics, Donut (W)hole, Phung Huynh draws on research and interviews, as well as her own family’s experience as refugees, in portraits of “donut kids” who work in their parent’s shops, highlighting themes of tradition and assimilation.
When: through March 23 Where: Gavlak (1700 S. Santa Fe Ave., Ste 240 Downtown, Los Angeles)
When You’re On Another Planet And They Just Fly, April Bey’s first solo show at Gavlak, showcases her celebratory Afrofuturist vision that takes place in her invented world of Atlantica. Using sequins, faux furs, and textiles, Bey places Black representation and Black joy at the center of her brightly colored, room-sized installations.
When: March 19–June 19 Where: Culver Center of the Arts (3824 + 3834 Main Street, Riverside, California)
Created by comic book artist Larry Fuller in 1969, Ebon was one of the first independent Black superheroes. Although only one issue of his comic book was produced, the collaborative duo of Stacey Robinson and John Jennings — who go by the name Black Kirby (a play on the legendary comic artist Jack Kirby) — saw potential in the character. Fifty years after he was created, they collaborated with Fuller to expand Ebon’s world and introduce him to a contemporary audience. Fear of a Black Planet opens alongside a companion exhibition focused on 10 years of work from Black Kirby, through which they remix and deconstruct themes of social justice, hip-hop, identity, and Afrofuturism.
When: March 20–July 17 Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles)
Barbara Kruger’s juxtapositions of text and image, rendered in her instantly recognizable bold, graphic style, have become some of the most iconic — and most copied — artworks of the last 40 years. As an influential member of the Pictures Generation, Kruger pairs appropriated images with enigmatic phrases, offering acerbic critiques of the way we interact with media. Her career retrospective, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, includes video installations, soundscapes, and large-scale vinyl wraps.
When: through April 2 Where: Anat Ebgi (2660 S La Cienega Boulevard, Downtown, Los Angeles) and the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (1013 S Los Angeles Street, #9E, Downtown, Los Angeles)
In 1972, Womanhouse opened in Los Angeles: an abandoned mansion in Hollywood was transformed into a feminist art installation, the rooms becoming spaces for biting commentary on domesticity. Now, 50 years later, Anat Ebgi and the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) are revisiting this history by looking at what came both before and after Womanhouse, tracing a history of feminist art in the West Coast and how it continues to reverberate today. Check the gallery websites for upcoming programming and performances.
When: through May 8 Where: Hauser & Wirth (901 East 3rd Street, Downtown, Los Angeles)
Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures are alive. They appear to sway and move, as if in mid-flight. At Hauser & Wirth, they are also monumental and sometimes colorful, bursting with pink. This is the British artist’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles.
When: through April 9 Where: Parker Gallery (2441 Glendower Ave, Los Feliz, Los Angeles)
Rebecca Morris and Christina Forrer make an exciting pair: both LA-based and good friends, Morris is a painter and Forrer is a textile artist. While Morris’s works are abstract and Forrer’s works are figurative, there are delightful resonances across their artworks, particularly in the energetic rhythm and movement of colors and shapes. The installation in the house-style gallery makes the pairing charming and intimate.
Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he is a frequent contributor to Daily Serving, and Glasstire. More by Matt Stromberg
Elisa Wouk Almino
Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. More by Elisa Wouk Almino