Todd Gray’s work draws from his archive of photographs amassed during the past forty-five years of his career. Taken in locations from Hollywood to Ghana (where he maintains a studio), these images have been selected by the artist to explore the complex interrelation of Blackness, diasporic identity, and historic systems of exploitation. For his ongoing series Exquisite Terribleness, begun in 2013, Gray collages photographs into a layered arrangements of thrift store frames, creating compositions of fragmented bodies. Many of the individual photographs that Gray uses for his collages were shot following his own creative visions; others, such as in Euclidean Gris Gris 2 (2018) were commissioned, including many he took as Michael Jackson’s personal photographer in the 1970s and early 1980s. Jackson is significant here for Gray not as a celebrity or figure of controversy, but as a global phenomenon whose almost mythic status serves to frame the complex issues explored in Gray’s work. Michael Jackson was accused of child sexual abuse in 1983 and then tried and acquitted for the crime in 2005. New allegations surfaced in a documentary released on HBO in early 2019.
Photographed as Part of The 2019 Biennial Exhibit at The Whitney Museum, NYC
The enormous sandwich and pack of cigarettes in Still Life Number 36 (1964) reflect Tom Wesselmann’s nonhierarchical approach to subject matter and technique. He believed that anything could be art, including the ordinary consumer items that fill our pockets and kitchen cabinets. In 1962, Wesselmann began a series of large-scale still lifes that incorporated fragments of discarded commercial billboards, which he initially scavenged from trash cans but later procured in new, pristine condition directly from advertising agencies. The larger-than-life proportions of the objects in Still Life Number 36 at first seem to celebrate the surfeit of commercial goods in America’s postwar consumer culture. Yet the layers of collage and painted areas bring together incongruent depictions of reality, creating tensions in the composition that Wesselmann described as “reverberation.
Edward Hopper’s Seven A.M. (1948) depicts an anonymous storefront cast in the oblique, eerie shadows and cool light of early morning. The store’s shelves stand empty, and the few odd products displayed in the window provide no evidence of the store’s function. A clock on the wall confirms the time given in the title, and indeed the painting seems to depict a specific moment and place. Yet a series of Hopper’s preparatory sketches reveal that he experimented with significant compositional variations, depicting a figure in the second story window. He even considered setting the painting at another time of day. His wife, Josephine Hopper, a respected artist herself, described the store as a “blind pig” — a front for some illicit operation, perhaps alluding to the painting’s forbidding overtones.
One of the most versatile and inventive English artists of the postwar era, David Hockey settled in Los Angeles in 1964. An especially iconic example from a group of double portraits of friends and associates from the 1960s, American Collectors (1968) depicts the contemporary-art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman in the sculpture garden of their of their Los Angeles home. As stiff and still as the objects surrounding them, the couple stands apart, his stance echoed in the totem pole to the right, hers in the Henry Moore sculpture behind her. Brilliant light flatters the scene and sets the couple in sharp relief; they seem oblivious to each other as well as to their art
The Drinkers (1890) was painted during Vincent Van Gogh’s time in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, a small town in the south of France. Van Gogh was highly productive during this time, but he struggled to maintain confidence in his own abilities as painter. To retrain himself, he made a number of copies after the works of artists he admired, which freed him from having to produce original compositions and allowed him to concentrate instead on interpretation. Van Gogh borrowed this composition from a black and white print after Honore-Victorin Daumier, but the vibrant colors were his own invention. The greenish palette may be an allusion to the notorious alcoholic drink, Absinthe.
By the 1970s, Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip style of painting had become his trademark. While he had adapted his early compositions from actual comic books, here Lichtenstein referred to an art historical rather than a pop culture source: Henri Matisse’s Red Studio (1911, in the collection of MoMA), which features Matisse’s canvases casually set around a room. Into the flattened studio space of Artists Studio Foot Medication (1974), Lichtenstein similarly inserted whole of partial versions of his own real and imagined artworks across a range of subject matter, including geometric abstraction. This painting’s title calls out the 1962 print Foot Medication, reimagined as a monumental painting at the upper left. This kind of self-quotation, at once playful and thoughtful, would become anther feature of Lichtenstein’s production.
This painting, Expansion in Four Directions (1961 – 62), shares its lozenge shape and geometric divisions of color with many paintings by Piet Mondrian, whose work Max Bill (1908 – 1994) collected and in whom he was greatly interested. Bill trained at the Bauhaus in the 1920s under Josef Albers and was an architect and graphic designer as well as an artist. In his work, he aimed to transcend personal artistic expression to achieve universal communication, and to this end he used mathematics as a neutralizing compositional device.
The subject of an exhibition at the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo in 1950 and winner of the grands prize for sculpture at the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1951, he helped to introduce a generation of Latin American artists to European geometric abstraction. Bill designed the catalogue for a 1955 Mondrian exhibition at the Zurich Kusthaus and lent to it three Mondrian paintings in his collection.