Color, Shape, and Social Purpose – Three Exhibitions in Philadelphia

With three new exhibitions, Philadelphia’s preeminent galleries investigate nuances of expression in the context of race, gender, and power structures. The Barnes Foundation has paired off Chaim Soutine and Willem de Kooning, two artists who—while pushing the boundaries of painterly composition—depicted everyday people and questioned traditional depictions of femininity. The work of actual female artists is a focus of New Grit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Taking Space at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Even as these exhibitions delve into the complicated identity politics of postmodernism, they succeed in delivering purely aesthetic moments—ethereal outlines, jaunty patterns, and penetrating photographed gazes.

New Grit: Art & Philly Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; on view until August 22

The commissioned wall painting that welcomes you to New Grit encapsulates the two ways—often complementary, occasionally conflicting—of viewing this exhibition. Created by Odili Donald Odita, this work is a concourse-length flurry of slanting quadrilaterals in 65 colors. From a distance, it looks like a Morris Louis canvas, stretched out and sharpened up. Up close, it plays like a Sol LeWitt installation with a better sense of rhythm. And from the exhibition materials, we learn that Odita “drew inspiration from witnessing the museum’s landmark building play a central role as a site for recent Black Lives Matter protests.”

So which do we go with? A celebration of vivid composition and art historical resonances, or a call to social and political purpose? New Grit is a 25-artist test case for how we view art now, one that challenges its visitors entry by entry. With titles such as “The Epic & the Everyday,” “Encounter and Exchange,” and “Imagined Worlds,” the subdivisions don’t force the show—or even any one work—in only one of these directions. These titles could lead towards either aesthetics or activism, and frequently lead towards both if you ramble back towards a favorite work a few different times in your visit.

“Vapor Trail of Debris,” 2014, by Hiro Sakaguchi

Among the most striking compositions is Judith Schaechter’s Over Our Dead Bodies (2020), with two strata of baroque forms rendered on stained glass—techicolored birds and plants up above, crimson-soaked bones down below. Muted and menacing, the lower “graveyard” section was crafted in part in response to the COVID-19 crisis. It reminds us of a problem, but does it offer any solutions? In a sense, the entries in New Grit are at their best when they press past pure aesthetics and pure activism and towards a state of paradox, finding as much off-kilter beauty as they can in an America badly tainted by pollution, discrimination, and paranoia. There is Hiro Sakaguchi’s Vapor Trail of Debris, which illustrates airplane exhaust as a lively pink constellation of everyday objects. There are Daniel Traub’s photographs, which allude to how immigration is shaping modern China while displaying a superb sense of depth and shadow. And there are Odita’s multicolored shapes, which stake out a place for abstraction in a troubled social landscape.

Images from Soutine/de Kooning, courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint at the Barnes Foundation; on view until August 8

Take a brisk walk through Soutine/de Kooning and experience a painterly overload that soon becomes painted bliss. Between expressive realist Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) and abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1977), you will be bombarded with more tones of bubblegum pink, numinous blue, and aquatic green than you can remember. Without ever stripping the works on display of their force, though, the Barnes Foundation has conceived this show as a study of influence, one that works largely by suggestion. It was de Kooning, after all, who hinted at his affection for Soutine in a 1977 interview, noting that he had “always been crazy” about the earlier painter’s canvases—“maybe it’s the lushness of the paint.” That tendency towards lushness is sometimes unmistakable in Soutine, especially in his lurid-hued paintings of sides of meat. Glanced at quickly, these canvases appear to verge on abstraction, and Soutine/de Kooning allows each of its headliners to play against type just enough—reveals Soutine pushing towards formal experimentation even when crafting portraits of brides and waiters, and de Kooning drawn back to the human form even when moving towards his landmark abstractions.

In the decades since those de Kooning breakthroughs, there has been a small renaissance of figurative painting that actually probes its subjects’ personalities—rather than warping the face or form of the nearest man, woman, or child almost beyond recognition. Nobody, probably, was expecting to revisit de Kooning and find the man’s inner Alex Katz or Alice Neel. Still, the passage of time has only revealed the strength of the harmonies in de Kooning’s pure abstractions—Amityville and . . . Whose Name Was Writ in Water among this show’s standouts—and the weakness of the vision behind his more nearly figurative canvases. Beyond exaggerating the female form into something almost alien and then scrunching it forward, de Kooning’s Woman paintings do precious little with the idea of femininity in art. They have potent grays and reds, along with figures so aggressively remixed that any message—even the usual well-meaning and unoriginal business about “objectification”—is overwhelmed by strange shading, abrupt foreshortening, and skittered outlines.

Soutine approaches figuration with some of the same techniques, but for different purposes. Scrunched forward not simply to show off flourishes of paint and contour, his figures exude discomfort; some seem to be on the verge of stumbling or springing forward, while others stare vacantly, and still others look queasy, bothered. Formal flourishes abound—the mind-boggling number of pastel shades, for instance, that Soutine will deploy when painting a wedding gown or a shirtsleeve that any other artist might treat as pure white. For all that, he emerges as a master of atmosphere, with eerily nondescript backgrounds and assured, dusky landscapes that rival Cezanne’s. Yes, there is astounding color in what Soutine, almost definitely the less famous name in Soutine/de Kooning, can do. That, and so much more.

Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; on view until September 5

A moment of “did he really say that?” sexism gives Taking Space its starting point. When Deborah Willis was a student at the Philadelphia College of Art, one of her professors remarked that she was merely “taking up a good man’s space.” That comment was among the inspirations for Willis’s lithograph triptych I Made Space for a Good Man, which welcomes visitors to the PAFA’s latest exhibition. The first two images show a pregnant Willis in dark simple clothes, looking towards her womb; the final one changes tone, with Willis, still pregnant and now nude, staring straight at us like Manet’s Olympia. Confidence of that sort—projected by a woman who eventually won a MacArthur “Genius Grant”—sets a stirring keynote for the entire exhibition, which broadens far beyond photography to bring in painted nudes, shaped-canvas abstractions, and effervescent silvery sculpture.

Such breadth is not always an asset, despite the strengths of the individual works. Altogether, Taking Space spends too much time name-checking artists connected mostly by their gender, their time period, and their now-considerable fame. Space that went to Louise Nevelson and Guerrilla Girls, here, could have gone to artists who aren’t already in the art history books and in the permanent collection at MoMA. Why not lean more heavily into figurative painting and multimedia, building on solid entries by Faith Ringgold and Elizabeth Colomba? Or more aggressively tie the whole showcase to Philadelphia and the PAFA? After all, Ellen Harvey’s immersive Mirror (2005) takes the baroque stylings of the PAFA’s historic Frank Furness building, transforms that elaborate quasi-ecclesiastical architecture into ghostly line drawings, and finally melds form, light, and structure in a cupola-like installation. But the untaken directions and the occasional diffuseness also prove that female artists—no longer seen as taking merely space—have turned contemporary art into a realm of endless possibility.

Top photo: Boahan Straight Street, Guangzhou, China, 2012, by Daniel Traub.