When Graffiti Was Great

 . Posted in Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown, Arts West Side Spirit.


Tagging gets its due at The Museum of The City of New York

The exhibition, in a tightly packed installation, showcases the famous “black books,” bound sketchbooks that young street artists used to work out their scripts and drawings before hitting the subway cars with spray paint. Martin Wong bought over 50 of these books from the artists, and the exhibition shows them off in referential glass cases that belie their subversive intentions.

 Street signs, graffiti on canvas, clothing and many wonderful documentary photos from the 1970’s and 80’s round out this show in an attempt to convey some of the gritty roots of this artwork. Pieces by Futura 2000, Ikonoklast and Sanesmith are real standouts. These artists show their terrific sense of design, creating fonts and drawings that give understanding to the ways in which graffiti writing and culture affected mainstream design.
But for me, the biggest delight is how this show acts as a nexus for community engagement. On the bitterly cold Saturday that I visited the museum the galleries were packed. Young street artists showing their portfolios to whomever wanted to look, parents eagerly introducing their children to art works that they perhaps shuddered at seeing thirty years ago on a train car. Two serious old school graffiti artists- Sharp and William Nic-One Green were in residence, chatting up gallery goers about their work and giving impromptu history lessons about life in the city in the 70’s. Rarely have I seen a museum show so abuzz with conversation and life. After a lively conversation with the gents about their views of the dubious “cred” of Keith Haring and Banksy as street artists, I turned to leave the gallery and saw a line of people waiting to get in; the line stretched down the length of first floor of the museum and around a corner. This is an exhibition that has really struck a chord for New Yorkers. Personally, the show made me a little nostalgic for the “bad old days” of New York, when the brilliant blurs of moving subway cars enlivened what was admittedly a more dangerous and dirty city. But a city where an authentic and totally original art form could be born and thrive, literally in the streets.

“City As Canvas: Grafiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection” through August 24 at Museum of the City of New York. http://www.mcny.org/



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Ma! is the word I’ve heard most commonly everywhere in Israel. It’s literal translation is “What” but it has many other more subtle translations, the most common of which is “What the fuck?”. It’s a place holder, to use while you’re considering what to say next. It’s a  sly request for more information, spoken in a purr it’ s like “Tell me more, darling” It can be a term of agreement, as in ” Yeah, I get it”  but mostly I’ve heard it used in the first way…..”Get outta my way”, “Are you insane” and ” I’m getting in line in front of you, even though you’ve been waiting patiently  in the Post Office for an hour”. One of the many things I’ve learned during six weeks in Israel.  Here are a few more:

Israel is not America ( really?). Despite America’s obsession with Israel and Israel’s keen awareness of all things American, it is in fact a Middle Eastern society. I noticed this most on the street. Walking down the street in NYC , I make eye contact, I smile at people, I help blind people , I smile at children.   A real freakin’ boy scout. Here, no one makes eye contact on the street. Especially men and women. Smiles are met with a look of suspicion if not hostility. I learned not to take it personally, but it saddened me a bit. Here’s a snap of Rami, a motorcycle mechanic near the studio who always smiled and chatted with me…..Even after I told him that I was married, he continued to spread a little sunshine on the street.


And my buddies at La Rampa. These gents make a mean cuppa joe, always have a smile and a wisecrack for me. They seem to think that I am a weird exotic bird that has temporarily landed in their Universe. They may be correct.

my friends

I took the bus to Jerusalem. Traveling by public transportation is great. Buses pick you up and drop you off where ever you want. There are bus stops, but we don’t let that detail control us! The only down side is that the driver can play whatever music he wants -very loud. You also get to hear him to speak on any one of the three cell phones that he juggles whilst driving. It’s cheap and it gets you there. I walked from the bus station with this lovely gent from Iran. He spoke not a word of English, nor much Hebrew. Nonetheless we chatted as we walked, smiling and nodding in a gentle bubble of mutual non-understanding. He wore a great deal of gold around his neck. mustachePortraits of his children, I think. Bling bling Iranian style.








Here is a detail. He was very happy and proud to show me and in fact asked me to take his picture gold. Jerusalem is beautiful. A stunning world class museum- The Israel Museum. A really edgy, brilliant contemporary art museum called The Seam. It’s right on the “seam” between east and West Jerusalem and devoted to showcasing political and socially relevant art. The current show is about the notion of Loneliness, and it’s very moving. There’s ancient history. A terrific art school. Good restaurants. Elegant neighborhoods. And lots and lots of soldiers and tension. When I arrived the bus station was in full scale bomb alert. They take that pretty seriously in Israel. It’s sobering and  a million miles away from the fun and funky world of Tel Aviv.  I found the city very sad. But here’s some snaps of Arab school girls at the Israel Museum, taking pictures of each other and blissfully ignoring their teacher. Some things are the same the world over.


school girls


And a magical moment. While in the Nougichi sculpture garden I wandered into a breathtaking James Turrell room. Pink stone, blue sky, brilliant golden light. And happily crawling on the cool floor was a baby. Her mother watching joyfully from the side. The three of us smiled, gurgled and basked in the glorious room.

turrellturrell and baby

I saw no street art in Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s not part of the culture. Perhaps it gets painted over, since J Town is a major tourist site.

Sadly driving IS a contact sport in Israel. I’ve seen more car accidents, or the aftermath of, in six weeks than I have in my entire life. Some bad ones. I saw a cop car run into the side of a building and a pedestrian run over by an electric bike. Which, since you asked, are allowed to ride on the sidewalk. It’s stupid, crazy, insanely dangerous  and and should change. All two wheeled vehicles- bikes, electric bikes, Vespas, motorized skateboards careen down the sidewalks in Tel Aviv. It is your responsibility to jump out of their way. No bells, no nothin’ warn you that you are about to be mowed over. I watched a teen with two broken arms, on a skateboard run into an ancient old woman carrying her groceries. Maybe he broke another limb. It would have been a bit of Old Testament Justice, fur shur.

Israelis are obsessed with many things. Everyone says that they are sick of politics and then proceed to passionately dive in, again. It is a very intense place. My keen political analysis of the situation boils down to several issues……..Israelis are deeply invested in  the music of Lenard Cohen. Every home I went into was playing his dreary dirges ( there, I betray my own prejudices) I find this problematic and feel that perhaps if we could encourage a move away from LC it could positively affect the peace process.

I find another  second cultural investment less problematic. That is is the man himself- Robert “Bob” Marley. Every taxi cab plays Bob’s music. Teens on the beach wear flowing pants emblazoned with his image. Dreadlocks abound ( and yes they even look stupid on young and beautiful Israelis).  The market is draped with these pants in all their polyester glory. I feel that we should encourage Marley, discourage Cohen.

marelypants marelypantsll

Do I have other, perhaps more relevant ideas about the political situation in the Middle East? You betcha!!!! Am I going to post them on the Inter-web? Nope.  Invite me out for a glass of wine and I will happily expound, like everyone else, about what Israel should and shouldn’t do and be. No problemo.

Check out these drawings. It is, after all, a democratic and uncensored country…..burka

blindfold Bibisweet future

So many more snaps of street art. I will post some on their own……

As seen in store windows throughout Te Aviv- Pride week comin’ up, yo.gay

The Spring flowers are amazing. After a week of tremendous unexpected rain the countryside burst open-

yaelflowers spring flowers

And finally- While in Jerusalem I went to Ammunition Hill, the site of a crucial  battle of the 1967 war. I found a plaque honoring my father’s service in Europe during WW ll . It made me happy. It made me sad. A lovely and tender site. Rarely visited by tourists. Mostly a place where schoolkids are taken on trips to learn about the nation’s history.

amunb hill3

It’s been six weeks. I’m tired and tan and full of new thoughts…….Home again, home again, jiggity jig……..



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Akko, Akko, Akko

Napoleon meet Rabbi Nachman… What? Now there’s a historic meeting that would have been fun to witness. Yup, Napoleon invaded Palestine, attempting to capture the stunning and strategic city of Akko. Having heard about this, and that Akko is a World Heritage Site and that it’s a Christian Arab, Muslim Arab and Jewish city built on a thumb of land that juts out into the sea and  that everyone in history seemed to want to invade it – well seemed like a road trip was in order. Took the train- (traveling by train on cushy double decker trains in Israel is def. the way to go). Met the lovely Mark Yudell, my companion for the trip at the  train station on one of the most beautiful days in the Universe and we were off to explore……..

So Akko is actually awesome. It’s walled port-city that has been  continuously  occupied since the  Phoenician period. The remains of the Crusader town, dating from 1104 to 1291, lie almost intact, both above and below today’s street level, including a wild maze of escape tunnels designed to let those in the walled city escape to the sea. More on that later….The present city is classic  Ottoman from the  18th and 19th centuries. If you look at it on a map it becomes obvious why everyone wanted to own Akko. It’s a perfect port and a perfect strategic location from which to control the coast.  There is a modern part of the city , outside of the ancient walls,  but we’ll ignore that.

Akko is  a magical, peaceful place inhabited by people of many faiths and what appears to be thousands of cats. The local feeling is that in a port city you have rats. if you have cats there are no rats. Makes sense to me.  Winding ancient streets that double back on each other lead you around and around and eventually everything leads to the sea. The city is off the tourist trail and as a result feels special and somehow private. The coffee is superb. Enough chat. Here are some snaps-coff bar akko Coffee bar, Akko Style. Extraordinarily good coffee, served with side dishes of baklava and pickles. A taste combo I never need to repeat.

Most of the shops are decorated with historical and personal pictures, leading to some incredible combinations…..

dad and kids akko girl portrait akko portraits akko portraits in Akko


Sign at a fish monger’s shop….Damn, I love this drawing….

fishmonger sign

The Old City has a beautiful little Mosque ( little is a relative term when it comes to Mosque size) It’s claim to fame is that the Mosque contains a hair from Muhammad’s beard. And I want to say to the French tourists who angrily refused to pay the 10 shekel entrance fee ( about $3.00) Really?  And did you have to be so damn rude about it? mosque 3 mosque1 mosque4 mosque5Every Mosque should have a cat in a basket!cat in a basket
Kids riding ponies bareback thunder down the street, Orthodox Jews shopping in the market next to veiled and robed women. Stores with equipment that looks 100 years old making things out of copper and tin. Tis’ truly a marvelous  city.

We descended into the Crusader tunnels – they wind underneath much of the city, clever escape routes for a besieged army. Some of the tunnels are about four feet high, arched tunnels perfected constructed. It’s a little mind bogging to think of how they were been built. The floor of one tunnel actually  fills with sea water as you get closer to the sea. Akko is layer upon layer of history. We came upon these two gents who were actually bricking up a tunnel. Upon questioning we learned that an entire new part of the ancient city had been discovered but the funds to properly excavate it weren’t available, so they were closing it back  up to preserve it. These guys  had been working in the tunnels for 22 years…..tunnelsMeanwhile, above ground. The seawalls, seafood restaurants cling to the side of the city, the sea lapping up against them.walls seaSweets, fish nets, street posters, seafood, a wall of seashells, shops sweets2sweets


street posters2 streetposter


seashell wallshop


It’s a dizzying array of color, scent and light.  A strong breeze blows off the ocean. The sky is a shade of  blue right out of a renaissance painting.  A perfect respite from my normal uber urban Tel Aviv  days, where taxi drivers vie with insane electric bike riders to see who will blink at that moment of contact……..I like Akko.


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More Street Art!!


Yo- I’ve gotten so much feedback about the street art pictures I posted a few days ago, that I’m posting a few more. I now have about 300 images in total….. Planning to make a bigger project out of the whole mess. Stay tuned, and thanks so much for takin’ a look!

No comments, just snaps-

death shirt bars head hand boy on ground

rat eat fishbowl car bug fish tongues striped guys pink panels bird eye two guys

five storiesup pink stripe  vent graf bird yellow head skull in israel sweet future many heads music

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Not “Mr. Rogers” neighborhood…..

Let me tell you al ittle bit about the neighborhood that I’m working in……I am in an old printing factory which has morphed into the Benyamini Center. On our right is a tee shirt company that prints shirts for the military. The female owners seem to hate everyone, there is a near constant cacphony of yelling from the factory….Next door to them is A La Rampa, the sweetest restaurant in town that regularly hosts Israeli film stars, plays kick ass great music and offers me a Whiskey or an Arak on the house at lunchtime.  The restaurant is on the loading ramp  of the factory next door to them, hence the name…. a series of unlikely neighbors, for sure. It gets even weirder and more fun….Around the corner is a series of low covered buildings that houses every kind of early industrial era manufacturing that you can imagine. Some of the machines look 100 years old. In one block I could have things made in wood, steel, copper, glass, vinyl, plastic, get my motorcycle repaired, have something spray lacquered, buy weed, and/or smoke at the corner hooka bar. We are on the edge of a massive neighborhood of Ethipoan and Sudanese refugees. Across the street is Haartez, the opposition ( Left leaning) newspaper of Israel). Next to that are huge ugly 1960′s era concrete  buildings that house artists, illegal immigrants, art galleries and clandestine activities of all kinds. Needless to say, I feel very much at home here!

Below are some snaps of my neighborhood-

Benjamini Center


A La Rampa, not in any guidebook. Go there.

a la rampa

The tiny, intense kitchen, preparing my grilled fava beans with olive oil and sea salt, served over polenta and goat cheese dumplings…..

a la rampa kitchen

Ugly, slightly scary, piss smelling warehouses across the street-COVERED in Graffiti. I will post separately about this.


ok, some graffiti-

street art-kitchen

Two men grafiti

street artgraf house

rabbit graf

And this is just a tiny number of shots I’ve taken of the street art. One of the things that I love is that the street art is everywhere, not just in show off-y very public sites. It’s in alleys, on the back of dumpsters, the back walls of junkyards. Here’s another fav. of mine. It’s only about five inches tall and is in an alley. The sun caught it in a very pretty way here…..

little man graf

Here is a shot of a canvas manufacturing shop nearby, every day they move the sewing machines out on the sidewalk to work. But inside is the brain trust, check it out-

shop in TA


Yossi and Erez, the gents I buy dates and nuts from. They think I’m the funniest thing they’ve ever met……

Israel 2014_3196

And finally- Meet Dr. Weed. I met this guy as he was driving a car around Tel Aviv advocating the legalization of marijuana. Very cute, very stoned. I salute you, sir and wish you the happiest of days!

pot guy 2pot guy

Back to work…….( after my shot of Arak, of course)

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Dina Park…..

The first day in Israel was a total blur. Arrival, customs, bags, pick up at airport, go to see new apt, go to the art center, my wonderful friends mark and Yael showed up to whisk me away to lunch in Jaffa, the hippest place, ever and then to Ra’nana to my cousins house, where I was to stay for my first week. That was day one. Day two began with a huge family lunch and then off with Mark and Yael to Dina Park a fabulous and totally off the beaten track park near Hertzelia. In the center is a heavily fenced off ruined building complex. It was the site of a munitions factory that blew up sometime in the 1970′s. The gov’t decreed that the land was too polluted to ever build on and this huge wild and natural sculpture park created itself. There are only a few roads and many of them are sand traps ( the park drops off into the ocean and the cliffs are truly perilous). No maps, no visitors center. it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and in a sense you are- I just goggled Dina Park and virtually nothing comes up, which is actually kind of cool. It doesn’t even exist on goggle. It’s  just big open rolling fields dotted with sculptures. Wild and beautiful.  Deer and fox, gorgeous birds.  And then there is the ocean- pounding against the cliffs. There are some serious looking shipwrecks and signs everywhere about how dangerous the cliffs, the surf and the beach are… so of course we hiked down. This fella had been spearfishing in the dangerous surf. Check it out- what you can’t see is that the fish were almost four feet long. This guys looked exhausted, and he promptly celebrated by having a cigarette, they smoke alot, alot alot in Israel, but more on that laterspearfisherman

What you really want to see is pictures of the sculpture, so here ya go-

Beautiful, poetic little girl dresses, hung like rescue flags-

dina park dresses

Various sculptures out of wood, metal. Most of them are HUGE, thus a little hard to capture in one shot…..sculpture park-treedina park wood towerCrazy great sculpture made out of vintage children’s chairs-

dina park chairs

Elegant- fence made out of stones and wood-

dina park stones and wood

then this crazy guy ran past us and jumped off the cliff ( literally)…


And I’ll end with some incredibly trippy food in the marketplace.

candyfood market

It’s a beautiful and complicated country . Everyone is incredibly kind and welcoming….. Everyone tries to feed me, give me tea. And everyone has a brother, sister cousin in NYC!!!!

More fun to come!

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Hitting History Hard

by MELISSA  Feb 18, 2014 •
Frohawk Two Feathers brings revolution to art and politics

Horace and Isabel (2014)

Horace and Isabel (2014)

Frohawk Two Feathers is re-writing American history.  In his current exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, “Heartbreaking and Shit, But That’s the Globe. The Battle of Manhattan,” he has re-imagined the conquest of North America from a very different point of view than what you were taught in grade school.

Exquisite drawings done in the style of 18th formal portraiture depict a radically new narrative of American history. In Frohawk’s America the European colonialists, residents of “Frengland” (an alliance of the historically opposed colonial empires of France and England) have gone to war with “New Holland.” Both sides have formed constantly shifting allegiances with local Native tribes. Rather than the expected portraits of White Colonialists the works in this show portray various characters of the Native army. Both men and women are posed in a formal, somewhat stiff manner, yet the drawings pulse with life and excitement.

An elaborate narrative accompanies each drawing, a back-story of each character and the role they play in this grand parade of faux history. The show works on two levels. If one wanted, you could simply walk through the gallery looking at the drawings (and several faked “artifacts”) and enjoy them for their virtuosity. The artwork stands well on its own.  On the other hand, with a little time and your reading glasses you can dive into the strange and elaborate narrative that threads all of the work together. It is a totally engrossing, logically consistent story about empire building, conquest and the ways in which we create mythology from history.

Now here’s the kicker: the drawings, as mentioned, are based on formal portraiture. They are beautifully painted in acrylic and ink on coffee and tea stained paper, which gives the works a faux ancient look. But as you draw closer you notice that the Native Americans portrayed, though in period costume bear all the markings of contemporary urban life. Tattoos, on their faces, necks and hands- some reminiscent of gang tags, some filled with longing for a loved one. This device fast-forwards the work immediately into the present–right now–and adds yet another level of complexity to the narrative.

This exhibition is both subtle and brilliant. Think about the macro-story in simple terms. Frohawk creates a giant tale where the White colonialists are dependent on the Brown Natives, an underground army, if you will, of street-wise mercenaries whom the Whites depend desperately in their battle for Empire and dominance. These portraits then both celebrate the bravery, treachery and lives of a revolutionary army and remind us that there is a completely contemporary parallel to this grand narrative. We live in a society that is both fearful and celebratory of what is called “urban culture.” The tip-off is a drawing entitled “Paid advertisement for the Bartica Liberation Brigade.” It depicts a handsome couple, a man and a woman snuggled together, he, proudly holding a pistol in the air. Reminiscent of a Black Panther poster from the 1960’s or a defiant piece of street art, daring the authorities to act. Either way, it boldly promotes the possibility of revolution in a Colonial society. Frohawk hits it hard and once you’ve gotten this message then the entire body of work morphs yet again into a new narrative. A narrative that questions all of our notions about race and power and history in America, this is an exhibition that delivers on its promises–and then some.

Frohawk Two Feathers’ “Heartbreaking and Shit, But That’s the Globe. The Battle of Manhattan” through March 1 at Morgan Lehman Gallery 535 West 22nd St. 212- 268-6699 http://www.morganlehmangallery.com/

Tags: Frohawktwo Feathers, Melissa Stern, Morgan Lehman Gallery

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Working Class Art Hero

Spiegelman’s comix and more in Jewish Museum exhibition

Much has been written about Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that recounts the harrowing tale of Spiegelman’s parents’ experience and survival in Auschwitz. Much has been written about Spiegelman, the New Yorker magazine artist who produced challenging covers that addressed real New York issues. The Feb 15, 1993 cover of a Hassidic man and Caribbean woman, lips locked in a passionate embrace, for example.

Far less has been written about Art Spielgeman, journeyman, working artist working class hero, a career on view in “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective” at the Jewish Museum. It is this aspect of Speigleman’s career that captured my attention amidst the huge retrospective currently on view at The Jewish Museum.

Spiegelman earned his first paycheck for drawing when he was fifteen. While still a student at The High School of Art and Design, he began to make money for his drawings and from then on has seemingly never stopped working. Imagine my delight to discover that it was Art Spiegelman who drew the absolutely wonderful and inappropriate “Garbage Pail Kids” stickers of my youth. Produced by Topps gum and Card Company they were guaranteed to piss off adults and delight pre-teens with their outlandish humor and gross-out sensibility. For Spiegelman it was both a paying gig and a chance to stretch his drawing chops and explore the world of satire.

Spiegelman drew for advertising, he drew for comic book companies, he drew for magazines–he always worked. Combining a dark and transgressive view of the world with an immigrant’s drive to work, earn money and make it in America, he plugged away at commercial jobs that paid the rent. At the same time he infiltrated the world of the underground comic strip sharpening his wit and drawing skills on such classics as “Ace Hole, Midget Detective” and “Breakdowns.”

It is in the preparatory drawings for both his advertising and comic strip art that we really see the artistry of one who draws constantly. These drawings are stunning. Vigorous strong lines breathe an incredible sense of life into whatever it is he is drawing – be it a first sketch for the Maus graphic novel or the cover of “Breakdowns”. Having the opportunity to see erasures, messy lines, the stops and starts of the pen is the revelation and gift of this exhibition.

Whether you like comics, graphic novels or commercial art is not the reason to see this show. The reason to visit “Art Spiegelman’ s Co-Mix: A Retrospective” is to witness the triumph a man who never stops drawing the world, both around and within himself.

12 Study for Maus II

Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective at The Jewish Museum thru March 23, 2014. http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/Visit for more information

Tags: Art Spiegelman, Melissa Stern, The Jewish Museum

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Re-launching the Ready-mades

by on

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the debut of Marcel Duchamp’s art-world shaking piece Bicycle Wheel. By mounting a bicycle wheel on an old wooden stool and declaring it “art,” Duchamp effectively set the 20th Century art world in motion.  To celebrate the act that launched a million artists, Pavel Zoubok Gallery has mounted an ambitious and satisfying exhibition entitled “L’Objet Trouve’: Readymade, Rectified & Reassembled”. Assembling an impressive blue-chip roster of artists, the show examines, in an idiosyncratic way, the use of found objects in artworks throughout the past 100 years. Certainly a big topic for one show to get its arms around, and Zoubok has done it with grace and intelligence.

Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Richard Pettibone, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Mitchell, Sherrie Levine, to name a few, have contributed meaningful works to this show. The exhibition provokes numerous questions about the appropriation and re-use of found objects. Andras Borocz uses materials in a way that completely transcends their original purpose, laminating pencils into a large block and then carving them into a sinuous pair of legs. At the same time Ray Johnson, with his sly piece entitled Barnet Newman Belt Club (which consists solely of a belt hanging on the wall) is working within the original Duchampean definition of the readymade: If I say it is art, then it is art. This thoughtfully crafted show embraces both approaches to materials.

My favorite piece in the show is by an artist with whom I was not familiar- Rich Remsberg’s found-object, Solar System. Starting in an upper corner of the gallery and traversing in a gentle downward diagonal, we see the Sun; a record from Sun Records in Memphis, Mercury, a 1950’s machine handle, a Venus brand toilet tank ball can, an Earth tin of bicycle patches, a Mars lock, a Saturn radio, Jupiter brand rope reel, a Neptune meter cover, a Uranus watch and finally an empty bottle of Pluto soda. The sum is greater than its parts and this particular model of the solar system is funnier and more poetic than anything you made in elementary school. The objects are what they are, and at the same time by repurposing and ordering them in this way, they become so much more.

In addition to the thoughtful selection of the work, the installation of this exhibition is exemplary. This is the second exhibition that I have seen at this gallery in which the design of the exhibition itself becomes an integral and important part of the show. The way that Zoubok has installed the art, using color and shape to define the way the eye moves through the exhibition works to illuminate the connections between art and artists. Zoubok’s choices reinforce in a direct way the underlying logic that organizes this show.

This rare exhibition is an opportunity to see over 30 artists working with and around found objects, either transforming them physically or by declaration into something new.

“L’Objet Trouve’: Readymade, Rectified & Reassembled” thru Dec. 21. At Pavel Zoubok Gallery,  531 West 26th Street, 2nd floor http://www.pavelzoubok.com/  


On a swing uptown I went to the Art Spiegelman retrospective at The Jewish Museum.  I have no patience to shuffle along with a crowd and read graphic novels on the walls of a museum, so I focused on the preparatory drawings that Spiegelman makes before the work is codified into a comic strip or novel. Stunning, vigorous and full of life these studies are the jewels of this show.  Spiegelman is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel; Maus, New Yorker magazine covers and subversive comic strips, and these are wonderful.  But for me, the revelatory part of the exhibition is the opportunity to see Spiegelman’s work when he is simply drawing – the flourish of the pencil, messy erasures, the marks of an artist working ideas out on paper, this is what makes this exhibition soar.

Art Speigelman- Breakdowns

“Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective” at The Jewish Museum 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street thru March 23, 2014 


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Joy in Darkness

The dark brooding men that are hanging on the walls at Steve Harvey Fine Art Projects these days are a powerful presence in a tiny gallery. The exhibition ”Lester Johnson: Dark Paintings” consists of six paintings and two drawings. Small in number, they inhabit the gallery with a strength that is ready to burst the walls.

These paintings, executed in the early 1960’s, are masterpieces of Johnson’s oeuvre. The marriage here between Johnson’s use of the materials and the subject matter shows the artist at his best.  Thick layers of impasto oil paint are delicately, but urgently, scratched through to reveal the somber portrait of a man (Dark Portrait 1965). Bits and pieces of architecture behind him, he stares impassively at the world.  As you move around the painting, light catching on the impasto reveals new nuance and depth within the painting’s surface.

In contrast, the works Three Transparent Heads, Untitled #7 and Untitled, Head 1961 work with thinner layers of oil paint, veils revealing and hiding the figures inside.  The luscious drips and strong gestural sweep of the paint elegantly connects this work to that of Johnson’s contemporaries working within the Abstract Expressionist movement. The play between matte and shiny surfaces creates a dimensionality that is both beautiful and emotionally raw. Most of the works in the show are black, blue and dark green, a disciplined and restrained palette that adds to the sense of monumentality and strength that these pieces convey. Beyond the literal subject matter, these paintings reveal a deeply felt love for the act of painting–an eloquent love letter to painting. There is joy within the “darkness.”

During the time that these paintings were made Johnson inhabited a studio directly across the street from The Bowery Mission, a long time refuge for homeless men. To this day, in the increasingly gentrified LES, one can see long lines of somber men lining up for a hot meal or a place to sleep. Clearly this daily ritual outside his studio window influenced the subject matter of the Dark Paintings. But to me they also refer back to an earlier 20th century vision- that of bread lines during the Depression of the 1930’s. Johnson, old enough to have seen and absorbed this history into his memories appears to have connected the turbulent 1960’s with the equally turbulent 1930’s. Either way he created a striking body of paintings that refer simultaneously to both subject and process, and in so doing, stir the soul.

Lester Johnson- Three Men in Hats

Lester Johnson- Three Men in Hats

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