Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, November 10, 2005

Sperone Westwater

Mary Boone

Guillermo Kuitca Opéra de Paris, Palais Garnier 2005
mixed media on paper, 58-5/8 x 58-3/8 inches
Courtesy Sperone Westwater

Guillermo Kuitca makes poignant abstractions out of maps, seating plans, architectural drawings, and other such schematic representations.  His images are in a sense palimpsests of human presence: His principal motif in recent years has been the auditoria of world-renowned theaters and opera houses, in plan or schematic elevation of the kind you see on a booking form or at the box office.  Up until this present exhibition, these were rendered as large, almost monochrome canvases in which the printed element (the actual seating plan) seems about to either sink into or be dusted off the surface.  This gave Mr. Kuitca’s impersonal, found plans a sense of contingency, a life of its own.  In their vacant state, the theatres teetered between memory of past performances and expectation of future ones.

In his latest show at Sperone Westwater the Argentine artist has moved into new terrain: He has kept the old motifs of auditoria and, a prior interest, maps.  What is new—at least in the theater pieces—is a decontructive complexity and a chromatic chirpiness.  Some of us warmed to the old Kuitca for his washed-out, somewhat dissipated, melancholy palette and mood.   A restraint bordering on nonchalence made him a painterly ally of Luc Tuymans.  After a moment of adjusting to the new light and energy level, however, these latest works are equally striking in emotional resonance.

There was a slight element, it must be admitted, however impressive each individual example, of his working his way around every beloved opera house in the world without significant differentiation between the mood of, say, the Colón in his native Buenos Aires and La Scala, Milan—what you could call the Christo syndrome, when an artist grants himself a global concession.  His new idiom replaces repetition with complication.  Instead of the found plan in its state of fusty decay we have auditoria caught in drastic meltdown, whether earthquake or nuclear.  The plans are now rendered in collage.  In some works, like “Acoustic Mass IV (Covent Garden)” and “Acoustic Mass VI (Old Vic)” (both 2005) the collage element is densely clustered shreds of paper that almost read like the heavily scrubbed graphite of a Giacometti.  In others, the cut-out element is more overt, in “Acoustic Mass I (Covent Garden)” where individual, irregularly sized fragments in orange, red, black and a steely gray blue cascade implosively.

But this, you could say, is an operatic interpretation: The image also invites a reading at another, more abstract level at which the collage elements operate as a form of musical notation.  In their vibrations and contortions the lines and shapes operate as a spatial analogue of received sound.  Mr. Kuitca’s is a kind of emotional minimalism that encourages both responses.  His early paintings, in the 1980s, depicted small figures caught in psychologically charged dramas in ominously cavernous interiors.  More recent work, riffing on the neutral pared-down form of blueprints, ranged provocatively from peep show booths and liturgical furniture to works stations and workout machines.  The deconstructing auditorium is as ambiguous as it is potent: It could equally be a metaphor of exhileration or crisis.  It could place the spectator center stage or completely out of the picture.

David Salle Snow White 2004
oil on linen, 96 by 120 inches
Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery

If exhileration and vacuity seem an odd couple, they make for happy bedfellows nowhere better than the paintings of David Salle.  He too has a new motif, which in itself may not seem like news: In his quintessentially postmodern pictures, wanton juxtaposition is the norm, as he constantly mines popular culture and high art alike for image fodder.  But there is a new, defining idiom in the latest group of his work, the Vortex Paintings, jointly presented, at Mary Boone Gallery, by Ms. Boone and the impresario Jeffrey Deitch. 

Each picture has at its heart a whirling tornado that sucks the eye into nothingness, set against wallpaper-like backdrops of appropriated imagery, and objects like shells, airplanes and porkpie hats flying out towards the viewer.  “Snow White” (2004) for instance has a tornado in black and white and fleshtones swirling away at the center while a couple of single-engine Cessna planes (of the kind, Mr. Deitch informs us, that were made in Mr. Salle’s native Wichita, also famous for its twisters) waft by with indifference.  The background  has erotic scenes of the eponymous heroine failing to live up to her name as mischevious dwarves have their way with her. 

The swirling gestalts, it emerges on closer inspection, have their origins in distorted faces: Once armed with that expectation you will notice hair and face contributing to the color schemes, with grossly distended eyes and other facial features merrily surviving the stretch.  It emerges that Mr. Salle has created these vortex faces himself, digitally.  He is quoted by Mr. Deitch as saying he wanted “to find a reason to paint a face in a way that was more about pure painting and to make that the container for all the other emotional currents that run through the painting.”  His tornados are thus (literally) a spin on the “Dehumanization of Art,” Ortega y Gasset’s 1925 polemic in which abstraction represents the triumph of form over content.

In these paintings Mr. Salle plumbs new depths of kitsch and scales new heights of painterly finesse.  His touch and vision have a cold, macabre meticulousness to rival Dalí who shared a similar passion for anamorphy and other tricks and quirks of perception.  Mr. Salle dispatches his fast, gooey, distortive swirls with a slick, impersonal, nerdish precision.  His porn and other appropriations arrive in a fractionally, but crucially differentiated hand that is tellingly more remote, making the vortex, for all its hyperrealist affectation, the more lushly compellingly.

Kuitca through December 17 (415 West 13 Street, 212 999 7337)

Saller through December 17 (541 W 24 Street, 212 752 2929)


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