BY Amy Zion in Critic's Guides | 27 SEP 16

Critic's Guide: New York

Carol Rama, Carmen Herrera, and a Memphis-style Hanukkah: the best current shows in the city

BY Amy Zion in Critic's Guides | 27 SEP 16

Carol Rama, La guerra è astratta, 1970, acrylic and rubber on canvas, 
100 x 82 cm. Courtesy: © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin

Carol Rama
Fergus McCaffrey
8 September – 22 October

With more than 40 works dating from the 1930s up into the 2000s, this is an exceptional presentation of the work of an underappreciated artist. Carol Rama passed away recently at the age of 97; currently, there is a travelling retrospective moving between five European venues, which will end in 2017 with a stop in her hometown of Turin. On this side of the pond, the gallery exhibition at Fergus McCaffrey is the largest presentation of Rama’s work in the US since ICA Boston played host to the Stedelijk’s retrospective in 1998. Filling two floors, the survey offers a glimpse of the artist’s extensive range: from powerful, sexualized figurative drawings from the late 1930s and ‘40s, inspired by scenes she witnessed at her mother’s psychiatric hospital, to abstract compositions made from rubber bicycle wheels in the ’70s (Rama’s father once owned a bicycle factory), and back to figurative compositions in the decade following. In the ’90s, Rama made work related to Mad Cow Disease and, as the press release states, these late works relate back to her earliest figurative drawings in their themes of insanity, sexuality, and death. This is a rare presentation on US soil and, although it obviously precipitates a larger, museum exhibition, it shouldn’t be missed.

‘Coming to Power: 25 Years Of Sexually X-Plicit Art By Women’, 2016, exhibition view, Maccarone Gallery, New York. Courtesy: Maccarone Gallery, New York

‘Coming to Power: 25 Years Of Sexually X-Plicit Art By Women’
Maccarone Gallery
9 September – 16 October

Originally presented in 1993 at David Zwirner, and curated by the late artist Ellen Cantor (1961–2013), this restaging at Maccarone Gallery is but one component of a larger concentration on Cantor’s artistic production that is running concurrently at multiple venues in New York. As the ’93 press release stated, the show combines works by the ‘first generation of women artists who pioneered a new artistic genre in the mid-‘60s and early ’70s using explicit sexual imagery’, with works by a younger, American generation: Cantor, Nicole Eisenman, and Zoe Leonard, to name a few. Lynda Benglis’s famous Artforum ad from 1974 is installed on a pale pink wall next to a work by Nancy Spero; most of the works are hung or installed in front of sexy, black-painted walls. The only thing missing is a drawing by Rama. 

Carmen Herrera, Green and Orange, 1958, acrylic on canvas, 1.5 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: © Carmen Herrera; collection of Paul and Trudy Cejas

Carmen Herrera
Whitney Museum
16 September 2016 – 2 January 2017

Carmen Herrera is of the same generation as Rama; they are artists who share a similar experience of social violence, yet their work could not be more different. Titled ‘Lines of Sight’, this exhibition focuses on the decades between 1948 and 1978 when Herrera developed her style of slick, hard-edged abstraction. Roughly 50 works trace the evolution from a more painterly, colourful approach into hard lines, a limited colour palette, and simplified forms. Her ‘Blanco y Verde’ series is represented by nine of 15 paintings that were composed over 12 years, and they are described beautifully, as though the artist was turning a wheel in her mind, excising slivers like a jeweller to produce precise ‘cuts’ – sharp, elongated triangles in green and white. Interestingly, the wall texts repeatedly referenced Herrera’s lack of recognition during her lifetime, the result of her status as both woman and immigrant. Although it is refreshing to see an institution carry the burden of begrudging her circumstance, they simultaneously attempt to position themselves outside of the situation. The Whitney was one of many New York institutions that glazed over the Cuban-American artist up until her 100th birthday.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-80, documentation of city-wide performance involving 8,500 sanitation workers across all 59 New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy: Ronald Feldman Fine Arts; photograph: Marcia Bricker

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Queens Museum
18 September 2016 – 19 February 2017

Thirty-six years since Mierle Laderman Ukeles began her unsalaried, unofficial post as Artist-in-Residence at the New York Department of Sanitation, she receives her first survey exhibition at the Queens Museum. Her career began earlier, in the 1960s, when she was producing performance, sculpture and writing – it was then that she penned her infamous MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969!, addressing the vital role of invisible labour in society. Ukeles charted unmarked territory as she sought out new roles for art in the expanded field, becoming the model for what has since become an institutionalized practice of embedding artists as agents in a wide range of public and private (non-art) institutions. I’m most looking forward to the exhibition’s catalogue, which documents the works, the writing, and contains interviews with four different Sanitation Commissioners who worked with Ukeles (insert pun conflating sanitation commissioning and art commissioning here) as well as an essay by Lucy Lippard.

Peter Shire, Hanukkah Lamp, Menorah #7, 1986, painted steel, anodized aluminium and chromium, 53 x 56 x 43 cm. Courtesy: The Jewish Museum, New York

‘Masterpieces & Curiosities: Memphis Does Hanukkah’
The Jewish Museum
16 September 2016 – 12 February 2017

Like Christmas in July, this small presentation contextualizes Peter Shire’s culturally inflected contribution to the Italian design group, Memphis, and is part of an on-going series dubbed ‘Masterpieces and Curiosities’, which creates mini-exhibitions centred around objects from the Jewish Museum’s collection. Shire, an LA native, first met the Milan-based group of designers in the 1970s by way of magazine articles that connected to him to Ettore Sottsass – Memphis’s interest in pop, art deco, and other ‘American-style’ influences often inspired connections to be made between themselves and designers on the opposite side of the world. This integration of cultures, creeds and styles is demonstrated in Shire’s Hannukkah Lamp, Menorah #7 (1986), which displays an obvious homage to Bauhaus constructivism with a Memphis pastel palette, and a funky, almost sci-fi, ‘bad taste’ re-envisioning of an ancient ritual artefact in a way that suggests alternative modes of living and practicing spirituality. It captured at least one lapsed Jew’s attention. 

Cosima von Bonin, 'Who’s Exploiting Who in the Deep Sea?', 2016, exhibition view, SculptureCenter, New York. Photograph: Kyle Knodell

Cosima von Bonin
19 September 2016 – 2 January 2017

This exhibition by German artist Cosima von Bonin presents a small cross-section of works produced since 2000 that relate to a central, recurring motif: the sea. In Total Produce (Morality) (2010), a fabric octopus pieced from printed fabrics and neon flags titled, lays in repose on an equally psychedelic patchwork bed. Behind it, the white cotton, Oldenburg-style giant Bikini II (Ghost version) (2011) is hung high above a scene that includes a soft shark sculpture sat at a desk, and a soft blue lobster perched atop a lifeguard chair, and a host of other creatures. Although the work is generally opaque in meaning, its humour, sound components, use of textiles and overall fresh approach to form, make for reason enough to take the dreaded G train to Queens. (If that’s not enough, those same qualities can be used to describe Aki Sasamoto’s ‘Delicate Cycle’, the concurrent exhibition in the institution’s notoriously difficult basement space.)

Jon Moritsugu, 2016, exhibition view, Ramiken Crucible, New York. Courtesy: Ramiken Crucible; photograph: Dario Lasagni

Jon Moritsugu
Ramiken Crucible
18 September – 16 October

In total honesty, after missing Anthology Film Archive’s Jon Moritsugu retrospective screening back in June (not to mention Light Industry’s double-header back in 2010), I was looking forward to this Ramiken Crucible’s exhibition-style retrospective, ‘Semiotics of Sleaze’, which includes all seven feature films. That was, until I noted one small detail in the press release: the gallery is projecting all the works simultaneously in one room, with full sound. The films’ titles, for the most part, evince the filmmaker’s punk rock approach: Pig Death Machine (2013), Scumrock (2002), Fame Whore (1997), Hippy Porn (1991), My Degeneration (1989)… (Although, Terminal USA (1993), also on view, is an almost hour-long film about an unconventional Japanese-American family, screened widely on public television upon its release.) I am guessing that this curatorial strategy is an attempt to mirror or underscore the films’ aggressive, avant-garde character.  Or perhaps it's a comment on the poor treatment of film and video in gallery spaces more generally? I couldn’t say. But either way, every good list needs a little madness.

Amy Zion is a writer and curator based in New York, USA.