Get Visual is the grateful recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Keith Haring at Fenimore Art Museum

Installation view of Keith Haring: Radiant Vision at the Fenimore Art Museum
photo provided
Keith Haring was born in 1958 (one month before me) and became a defining artist of his generation before he died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31. Keith Haring: Radiant Vision, on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown through Sept. 6 Oct. 11, tells the story of how that remarkable career happened, and explores what it meant. The exhibition uses a clever graphic timeline, wall text, and ample quotes from the artist to recount Haring's history, and features a broad and deep sampling of the artist's work (including more than 100 works from a private collection, and a very impressive gigantic etching from the Fenimore's collection).

A news release about the show states that Haring "was arguably the most accomplished and prominent American artist of the 1980s," a claim I can neither fully agree with nor effectively refute. As an exact contemporary of Haring's, I can only say that he never held a lot of interest for me, partly because of the very commercial nature of his work, and partly because, though incredibly successful, he didn't have the chance to reach his full potential as an artist.

Radiant Vision offers an excellent opportunity to see for yourself what you think about a young man whose contributions included helping to bring graffiti art and hip hop into the mainstream, extending the art-for-all populism of his good friend Andy Warhol, and combining art with activism, perhaps more successfully than anyone else, before or since. The latter two achievements are, to me, the more valuable, but all of it is astonishingly impressive for a person whose career lasted just 10 years.

Keith Haring is seen at an early exhibition
of his work at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York
photo by Allen Tannenbaum 1982
Haring was essentially a graphic designer whose pictures relied on super-simplified line drawings of iconic symbols to communicate primal messages, just as corporate logo designers strive to do. And he was incredibly good at it. He used pure primary and secondary colors, vivid unmixed paints and inks, big shapes, and empty backgrounds, along with words and symbols, to make exuberant, bold statements about life as he saw it.

As seen in this exhibition, Haring invented his own visual vocabulary - a crawling baby, angular barking dogs, leaping stick figures, etc. - and rode it to vast global dissemination. He also used these skills in eminently worthy campaigns against AIDS, apartheid, and drug abuse, work that is well documented here, and which shows how effective simple graphic art and youthful sincerity can be. 

However, there are a few outliers scattered here and there throughout the exhibition that hint at a much more subtle artist who may have been trying to emerge from behind the public Keith Haring. That artist worked looser, with less clearly defined boundaries, used thinner lines and more shading, and employed a less bright palette to evoke deeper meanings and messier emotions. Some of those works reminded me of Miro' and Picasso and, as I walked around the exhibition, I found that I liked that version of Keith Haring a lot better than the one we all already knew.

One of the best aspects of Radiant Vision is the way it demonstrates Haring's humility and humanity, through quotes on the wall, in which he repeatedly explains how much he wants art to be accessible to all, and through a charming TV show interview in which he asserts an almost selfless modesty, alongside a crystal clear vision. These were the things in the show that did the most to convince me of Haring's significance. Though it goes without saying, it's a terrible shame that he died so young. Despite his own almost superhuman optimism, I simply couldn't shake the sadness.

Checkerboard, polychrome assemblage 2020
by Laurene Krasny Brown
Also currently on view at the Fenimore are a pair of shows that opened a couple of weeks ago and will remain there through Dec 31. Toying with the World: Works by Laurene Krasny Brown and 
Believe In Yourself: What We Learned From Arthur, which features the work of illustrator Marc Brown, stand alone in separate galleries but are closely linked, in that the two artists are a married couple.

Marc Brown is known to anybody with kids through the Arthur books and TV series, and the exhibition does a fine job of sharing the process involved in creating those products. Brown is an absolutely first-rate illustrator and, like any successful commercial artist, he clearly works his tail off. It was great fun to see the thumbnail sketches and story boards that lead to a finished book, but even better to see the exquisitely detailed paintings that are so easily taken for granted once they're on the printed page.

Laurene Krasny Brown is a much more interior artist, working with modest materials to pursue an almost mystical personal vision built around the concept of games. Where I was expecting stuff more childlike, instead I found a persistent exploration of geometric and architectural themes, characterized by a soft palette of early-American colors in paper and gouache. Brown's playfulness was apparent, but tempered by the same seriousness that I've observed in certain active toddlers.

Both shows are well worth spending some time with. By the way, admission to the Fenimore is free for those 19 and under for the duration of these exhibitions - so feel free to bring the kids.

A painting by Marc Brown from Wild About Books

Friday, August 6, 2021

Spiritual Roots: Wendy Ide Williams at Laffer Gallery

Night Blooming Riot - mixed media on paper 2019
It's been quite a while since the painter Wendy Ide Williams has been the subject of a solo exhibition, and her current tour de force at The Laffer Gallery in Schuylerville, entitled Spiritual Roots, shows just how overdue this event is.

I've been following Williams' career since the late 1970s, when we were both art students in Providence, R.I., and she was already pretty good back then - but I can easily say that she just keeps getting better. The selection of 48 paintings on paper or canvas currently at Laffer presents an artist absolutely on fire.

Bathed in Deep Water, mixed media on paper 2019
More than half the show consists of a grid of same-sized small works on paper, all of which are quickly made drawings in ink and watercolor from the last couple of years. This display alone would be worthy of a show, as it eloquently delineates the complex and heartfelt process of daily exploration that is the backbone of Williams' process. In contrast to the larger works on paper and the much more layered acrylic paintings on canvas that make up the rest of the show, these pieces have a lightness and a more visibly direct connection to nature that reveals an essential quality of Williams' otherwise persistently abstract imagery.

Flowers, mixed media on paper 2018
That tension between the abstract and the representational is at the core of Williams' painting, such that the generally non-narrative canvases read as pure shape and color, yet within them there is always a recognizable presence of natural forms, ranging from plants and paramecia to birds and (if you let your imagination go with hers) even humans. These subjects, however, are hidden in a network of patterns, chains, cells, stripes, and dots, often distributed almost evenly over the picture plane and, always, in a riot of vivid colors.

One of Williams' tricks is to cast the majority of her compositions in a vertical format, adding some square canvases to a mix that includes very few horizontals. This is one way of avoiding the confines of landscape while, in fact, often depicting natural subjects. Williams also increasingly employs intense color combinations, sometimes so busily covering the painting surface that there's no relief, but also regularly providing restful zones of white or black.

Unburdening, acrylic on canvas 2021
Some of the most recent pieces in this show veer toward a darkness that I found myself very drawn to, and in them the black areas serve to make the other colors look even richer to the eye (a technique I first observed in paintings by Matisse and Picasso). These more heavily worked paintings are among the best in the show, and the best I've seen Williams make. They show not only skill and vision, but aggressive and persistent technique that dares to take chances by going beyond the first or second solution to a problem. It's harder work - and more dangerous - than most non-painters would ever know.

In the Jewelry Box, mixed media on paper 2019
Perhaps best of all, in a certain sense, is that these paintings are selling like crazy. Gallery director Erik Laffer told me on a recent visit that it may be the most successful show commercially that he's ever had, something really striking to consider given the fact that the paintings are non-representational and not at all purely decorative. Maybe that's a sign - could it be that well over a year of living with a terrifying pandemic has caused art buyers to dig deeper? One can hope.

In any case, it's a very healthy sign for both Laffer and Williams that art lovers are lining up for challenging work from a regional favorite. Without a doubt, she has earned it.

Spiritual Roots will remain on view through Aug. 22; The Laffer Gallery's hours are from noon to 5 p.m., Thursday to Sunday, or by appointment.

Covid Gift (Previous a Caterpillar), acrylic on canvas 2021