Wind and Stone: Seung-taek Lee at Levy Gorvy Gallery

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view at Levy Gorvy Gallery

An exhibition at uptown gallery Levy Gorvy surveys the career of Korean proto-conceptual artist Seung-taek Lee, whose inventive careers argues for a reconsideration of the development of Korean modernism as well as some outright swooning over the sensuousness of works that embody both materiality and ephemerality at once. The epynomous solo exhibition features some 40 works by Lee, including a 1960 Non-Sculpture and several Wind paintings from the 1960s through the present. It is the artist’s first solo show in the Unites States, and well worth a visit.

Seung-taek Lee, Wind (1972/82), Rope on canvas

The works on view felt immediately accessible to me, although they arise from a particular context. Born in North Korea in 1932, Lee has been living and working in Seoul since the Korean War. In the 1950s, when Korean artists began to explore ideas of Modernism, Lee early on embraced the idea of an experimental art practice that was uninterested in abstract painting. Working largely independently, he developed a diverse practice, often influenced by Korean traditions, materials, and folk culture. He has worked in mediums ranging from sculpture to performance to land art, using materials that consciously speak to Korean identity even as his formal vocabulary easily slips into the simplified forms of a broader international Modernist paradigm.

Seung-taek Lee, Godret Stone (1958), Stones, rope, wood

Lee’s work with stones that curve inward as if they had waists, known as godret stones, are among his best known. Godret stones are traditionally used for braiding mats in a particular region of Korea. The artist was originally attracted to the stones because they were not art materials but the common tools of artisans. Through suspension and binding with ropes or wires, Lee plays with the potential for transformation–from soft to solid, floating to weighty–that these works inhabit at once.

Seung-taek Lee, detail, Untitled (1959/81)

Just as Lee can make a rock appear soft and pliant, so in his hands a rough rope can become a sinuous line for drawing on canvas. The undulating lines become mesmerizing and suggest subtle movement and depth, yet the effect is created solely through their material nature. At the same time, their placement is indexical, suggesting the trace of the gesture as much as emphasizing a particular form. In this case, rather than the artist’s hand, the curving lengths of rope are meant to give shape to the ephemeral movements of air. This interest in the elements would lead Lee to other works that traced wind or smoke through the air, such as the Wind-Folk Amusement (1971) performance, photographs of which are on view in this exhibition.

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view

Lee’s work is often talked about in terms of “non-sculpture,” an idea that the artist himself has encouraged. Just as he moved outside of traditional art materials, he has described seeking anti-concept or anti-art in his practice. Lee sees his works as creating ruptures in the discourse around art in a very direct way, and in fact considers them as a clear rejections of the traditional notion of art. At the same time, the artist very much views this experimental practice as an art practice (in contrast, say, to the portrait commissions in realist style that he has taken over the years to support himself.)

Seung-taek Lee, Tied Knife (1962) and Tied Knife (1962)

In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Flash Art in 2013, Lee said: “I would like to advise young artists to learn social science and philosophy as much as possible, because I think art is a game of high intellect; the more you understand the better the work comes out. Skills to make something perfect don’t have meaning anymore.” Lee suggests that art is the conceptual gesture rather than the final product, an approach that has shaped his long career of experimenting outside the bounds of the Korean art scene, for which he only came into recognition later in life.

Seung-taek Lee” is on view at Levy Gorvy Gallery through April 22.

100 Years According to “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at the Whitney

Motley The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do  Detail: Detail, Motley - The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, Archibald Motley, c. 1963-72

I walked in through the back. The first painting I saw in the Whitney’s retrospective exhibition “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was The First One Hundred Years, a striking phantasmagoric diatribe about race relations in the United States, as you can see in the image and detail above. Archibald John Motley Jr.’s (1891–1981) last painting, it was completed in 1973 after nearly a decade of reworking. He did not paint again. While the rest of the exhibition makes the case implied by its title—Motley, a black artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, as a jazz age modernist deserving of greater recognition—through a coherent body of work, this painting sticks out as something else entirely.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. (91.4 × 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 × 42 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Motley’s works are presented (if one were to begin at the beginning, unlike me) chronologically, first as a room of Classicizing portraits with clearly defined forms that create gravitas. Then, the exhibition proceeds through scenes of Bronzeville, the area of Chicago where Motley lived, worked, and played, to Mexico, which the artist began to visit in the 1960s. These genre scenes often present figurative groups in social atmospheres—nightclubs and city streets—and these people are largely black, or rather gradations of brown, unusual at the time and also seen in his portraits of family members. With arrestingly tilted spatial constructions and high-key color, the scenes are vibrant, pulsating with a bluesy rhythm. Motley often takes advantage of artificial light to strange effect, especially notable in nighttime scenes like Gettin’ Religion (pictured below).

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981), Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. (101.6 × 122.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

These works hint at a tendency toward surreal environments, but with The First One Hundred Years Motley is in starkly symbolic territory, jumping from colorful but largely Social Realist depictions to an order dictated by an internal compass. The full title of this painting is “The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father for They Know Not What They Do,” which begins to suggest the wallop the canvas carries. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and JFK hover in a blue twilight scene amid a house with a devil and a dove and a tall tree bearing a hanged man next to the Statue of Liberty. The red of a Confederate Flag and the devil stands out among the all-over blue tonality. A dark void with suggestions of features haunts the middle, reminiscent of an unarticulated Francis Bacon. In great contrast to the realism, conviviality, and safe distance of the other canvases, here Motley pulls no punches.

The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sine Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963-72. Oil on canvas.

Rather than understanding The First One Hundred Years as a way of ending the exhibition with an exclamation point, perhaps this painting offers a more directly political lens with which to understand the rest of his oeuvre. The genre scenes and portraits are of course already political for creating visual representations of black culture and showing black bodies. But the manner in which Motley depicts black people is a little more difficult than that; Motley’s figures are stylized and general rather than representing particular individuals, but sometimes they verge on grotesque caricature with skin painted an unmodulated black and mouths oversized, garishly red. The labels at the Whitney propose that it is a form of irony on Motley’s part, at a time when irony was rarely seen in painting. The contention is that those in the know would understand that the artist was dramatizing stereotypes rather than taking them at face value. Titles such as “Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape” also suggest he pointedly engages with social constructs.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (b. 1891–1981), Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. (145.1 × 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 × 45.25 in. Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.

While I don’t have an alternate explanation than the Whitney’s, it is still a shock to see titles that refer to racial designations that would have seemed backwards in Motley’s own time and depictions that from any white painter would read as straightforward racism. In a review in the Wall Street JournalPeter Plagens writes that

Motley called himself a “blues aesthetician,” and the dualism implied by these two words is indicative of his whole career. Motley longed to create a visual equivalent of black music’s vigor, slang and dialect. As a black artist, he could be fearlessly ironic in portraying African-American life, but as an academically trained and Paris-modernized outsider, he couldn’t help but see his subjects through a distancing lens.

That dualism that makes some of his work difficult collapses in The First Hundred Years into pathos and conviction with no distance or irony. The 100 years of the title refers to the centenary since the abolition of slavery in 1865, and the history that Motley depicts since that event looks like a nightmare rather than progress. Perhaps most jarring, it feels relevant today.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” is up at the Whitney through January 17.

Three New York Exhibitions to Catch Over the Holidays

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In New York over Thanksgiving, I saw so many great shows, much of which I want to write about in more depth, and missed so many that I wanted to see. To save you from a similar fate of missing shows in the holiday chaos, allow me to point out three exhibition that will be closing soon after the New Year. Of the shows that I did see, these three stuck out as being well-worth the effort of seeing over the holidays.

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Chris Offili: Night and Day was the biggest (pleasant) surprise for me. I was familiar with the British artist’s work, from his original controversial dung paintings to his red, green, and black makeover at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but I hadn’t realized how lush and sensuous his large, detailed paintings could be. This gorgeous visual quality was apparent overall, and highlighted by the way they were installed in the museum. Especially in his most recent blue paintings, the viewer gets the rather rare experience of painting as one would with Rothko: an intense bodily confrontation and visual experience that grows over time. However, the subject matter quickly pulls it away from the sublime and into the lyrical.

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I, being an ignoramous, or perhaps merely too young, was not familiar with Gober’s work and wasn’t sure what I would make of the artist’s sinks and other examples of warped domesticity at Robert Gober: The Heart Is A Metaphor. What I found was pleasantly tactile work whose logic proceeded like that of dreams, intuitively making sense. It was odd, touching, bizarre–and images of it stick. I only wish I could walk through it again.

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Finally, Egon Schiele: Portraits is a beautiful and thorough show of this Viennese Expressionist painter’s work. The collection overall makes clear the stark break a young Schiele made with Gustav Klimt’s decorative style in favor of the psychological, in a city where Freud was doing his pioneering work in psychoanalysis. Remaining stylized, Schiele veered toward an expression of the inner mind, in ways that feel freshly startling. Similarly, his drawings, sometimes conventional, show his precocious skill as a draftsman.