Conversation with Hampton Fancher

Published in Figure/Ground
Interviewed by Suzanne Unrein


© Hampton Fancher and Figure/Ground
Hampton Fancher was interview by Suzanne Unrein. March 24, 2019

Hampton Fancher was born in East Los Angeles in 1938 to a Mexican-Danish mother and an American father.  At the age of fifteen, he went to Spain to pursue a career as a Flamenco dancer.  After returning to Los Angeles, Fancher began acting in the late 1950s appearing in films such as The Naughty Cheerleader with Broderick Crawford and Klaus Kinski, as well as a number of classic TV shows such as Bonanza, Perry Mason, and The Fugitive. In the 1970s Fancher began focusing on directing and screenwriting.  He would go on to write the screen play for Blade Runner (1982) and 35 years later its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  He wrote and directed the Owen Wilson film, The Minus Man (1999).  In addition to teaching screenwriting at New York University and Columbia University, Fancher has published a collection of stories entitled The Shape of the Final Dog, and most recently, The Wall Will Tell You: The Forensics of Screenwriting. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “a world-class raconteur,” Fancher was the subject of the recent, highly praised documentary Escapes directed by Michael Almereyda.


photo credit: Nesa Azimi

Your life has been a work of art, so much so, that Michael Almereyda made a film about it.    When everyone else set out to become a doctor or a lawyer, did you intentionally go in a different direction?  

No I set out to be a doctor and a lawyer and wanted to do it.  The difference is that when other kids start to integrate with school at a certain age, I never did.  I couldn’t do it.  I was stuck.  I had learning disabilities. Consequently I missed the brainwash.  You have to decide to become a doctor or lawyer.  You can’t do both.   I didn’t care about choosing because I was always pretending and in a way that’s never stopped.  I’m still pretending.  Still living in a fantasy because I’ve had the good fortune of living in a way where I don’t have to report to the commander every day and do the commander’s work.  I’m a bum but with the good fortune of having a rug and a couch and clean sheets.

If you didn’t have the ability to learn the way other people did how did you become a writer?

It comes from reading and the impulse.  Those things were simultaneous.  Reading and writing happened at the same time. My mother and father and sister read.  I didn’t. I drew in the pages of books. No one ever said “Don’t do that.”  I never heard that.  I didn’t read until a buddy of mine’s older sister who hated my guts said “You are an asshole.  A worse asshole than all of them.  But you could be saved if you read.”  She gave me this book at the height of the Korean war that was called Conscientious Objector, and I read it because she gave it to me.  There was sex in it.  I didn’t know books had those things. I read it and liked it enough to read some more.  The next book I read changed my life.  I went to the library and stole one because I didn’t know how to check it out. It was Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.

You just happened to get that book?

Well that’s just how life has been.  I’ve been lucky.  I read that and I was already a dancer.  And those things went hand in hand.  Bullfighting and Spain and Flamenco. I went to Mexico and studied bullfighting – one lesson maybe two.  So that book was very important and then another, Matador by Barnaby Conrad.

Is that something that continuously happened to you, that reading informed choices you made in your life? 

Oh yeah.  I think that happens to a lot of people.  That and the movies.  Movies, music, books.

You became a writer and a filmmaker and not a painter or musician and I know you love all those things.  What made you become a writer and filmmaker?

People follow their capacities maybe and I don’t think I had enough talent as a painter.  I drew and I tried to paint.  Never went to school for it and never identified myself as one, but I did dream myself as a director and an actor and at nineteen or so as a writer. I identified myself as a poet because the romance of it suited me.  I was reading Villon and Rimbaud.  I wanted to be like that so I pretended to be that.  I think those things informed what I became.

Was poetry the first writing that you did?

Yeah. Because I met a poet when I was a teenager and he was spouting poetry and I learned that poetry.  I loved it.  It was because of him that I started memorizing Shakespeare and Rimbaud.  And started reading and writing bad, bad poetry.

Did you know it was bad at the time?

No, no, I was crazy.  It coincided with not only being a bit of a drug addict and an alcoholic. It was also that my brain wasn’t formed yet.  I was doing crazy things.  This was in my early twenties.  By the time I was thirty I was a little more stabilized.

When did you go from writing poetry to writing screenplays?

When I was nineteen or so I met a screenwriter through that poet I mentioned.  He took me to a guy’s house.  A guest house in Los Feliz and he’s smoking and he’s drinking out of a half pint of whiskey.  He’s got a typewriter and a desk and photos pinned on the wall, civil war things. I was just soaking it up because I wanted to be like him.  Researching and making money and writing a movie.  I didn’t even know what that meant but I loved movies and he can smoke and drink and pay for this wonderful place.  They’re paying him to do this.  From then on I said I was a writer.

A screenwriter?

No, a writer.  I never said I was a screenwriter.  I still don’t.

You went from poet to writer?

Yeah, I went from poet to writer and then shortly after I was making my living as an actor but I still said I was a writer.  Acting to me was all provisional, temporary.  The acting thing was to not collect unemployment this week.  If I had taken acting more seriously it would have been different.  I didn’t have a clue.  I was afraid.

Afraid of what?

I was afraid of exposing myself.  Afraid of showing anything that was real, yet finally I was even teaching acting.  I was telling people to do what I wouldn’t do myself.

So you weren’t any good?

I didn’t think I was any good but when I look at it now I can see why they were hiring me.  I had ideas.  I was studying but not sincerely doing the work that creates honest acting, that makes an art of it. I understood it.  I could talk the talk.  I could act like I was doing it and directors and other actors believed me, but I was pretending to do it.  I wouldn’t go all the way.

When did that change?

It never changed.

You still don’t think you are authentic?

No, I don’t think so.


No, I stumble into things that aren’t bad sometimes.  Basically I dabble. I’ve never had a genuine abiding grip on anything.  I feel completely inauthentic at anything, everything.  I feel like it’s all a charade.  And if you take off all the packaging of the charade, then what is left?  It would be a very tiny little whimper.  I’m not being cute.  Really, that’s what I think.  Something frightened and agonized and crawling and crying and wants to go to sleep sucking its thumb.  And that’s it.


Do you think everyone feels that way?

I hope not.

Do you see other’s acting and writing and feel that they are much more genuine than you are?

Oh yeah.  The actors are great.  They’re brilliant.  That’s the beauty of it.  To see a great movie or great plays.

Well some people say that Blade Runner was their favorite movie of all time.

It is a great movie.

And you wrote that.

No I didn’t.  There’s a lot of great people involved in Blade Runner.  The most salient of which is Ridley.  Usually that’s what it is, it’s the director.  He stood on the shoulders of a lot of slaves and I was one of them and there were others.

Well you have to have an authentic voice with the screenplay to make it believable.

The origin of it, yeah, that’s me but then came David Peoples and what he did became a lot of Blade Runner.   Then you get the graphic design, production design, and then we’re back to Ridley.  Plus the music and the editing. So there’s that.

And you’re the one that thought the book would make a good movie.

I didn’t love the book but I saw a through-line that would make an interesting movie. And then I had the good fortune to get a wonderful producer, Michael Deeley.

You also made The Minus Man.  How do you think about that in terms of authenticity.

Well, that was pretty good.  I’ve done two things in my life, this part of my life.  The early part of my life was about the dancing.  And that’s what I feel the best about.  The dancing.  But since I was 21, there were two things that were really terrific for me.  One of them was writing and directing The Minus Man.  Still is when I indulge in the memories.  And it’s really sad too.  Because that’s what I really wanted to do, wanted to continue that experience.  I was 60 when I made it so that’s a bit late maybe.  I think if I had done it when I was 30 I’m sure my life would have been very different.  The other was a play I directed, Beckett’s Endgame.  That was the other triumph of the spirit for me.

Do you have specific memories from those two things where you felt like, “Yes, I really did something here.”

Well there are memories I have that are learning curve memories.  Where I messed up.  I still think about those all the time.  Why didn’t I do this instead of that?  Let me do it again and I’ll know what to do.  I remember the fun and the beauty of it.  The affirmation of it I guess.  It was a different world when I was doing that.  It wasn’t the same old world. With Endgame I was never satisfied, but with The Minus Man I was very satisfied.  I thrived.  I was old enough then to integrate with everybody.  And the things I wanted to do that everyone said you couldn’t do – social things, simple things – “Don’t ever show your vulnerability” – screw that.  “Stay off your feet.” That was another one I got from other directors, more experienced than I.  But finally I just did what I wanted to do and it was really compatible, except for a couple of moments here and there.

What advice would you give?

Don’t let it end until you like it.  And that’s really hard to do.  I don’t know how to do that but Wes Anderson does, and did, and right off the bat.  He’s a sweetie pie guy, full of warmth and understanding but he’s also steel when the shit comes down. You have to be smart as hell too.

Let’s go back to the dancing.  I didn’t realize you felt this was the greatest thing you did.  

When I was doing that, the romance with it, the connection to it was so deep and so voluptuous, gratifying.  I lived it. I was living The Minus Man but I was living other things too.  I was grown up.  But when I was a dancer, it was just me.  Young stupid me and I thought I walked alone.  The love of it, my adoration of it, like a child’s imagination, I could smell it.  I could sense it everywhere. I was the center of it.  It was Spain, it was me, another time, other clothes, it was all consuming.  I was too dumb to take advantage of my talent and to learn. I didn’t take advantage of it but I pretended to.  I’ve never had that experience again.  I was thirteen.  Thirteen to seventeen.

Why did you stop?

I really don’t know.  I know the superficial reasons.  I think fear had something to do with it.  And stupidity.  Not knowing how to proceed.  Pretending to know how to proceed.  Fighting to proceed but doing it wrong.  Fear of not being able to walk in and do things.  At the same time I was kind of crazy at seventeen, living in New York without anything, in love with a girl who has this thing called schizophrenia.  She’s a model and she’s beautiful and I’m living with her and I don’t dance anymore because I’m so messed up and enamored with her and she’s so crazy and kicks me out and I have no place to go and nothing to do.  I don’t want dancing or insecurity anymore.  Let me go home and get a job and get married and be safe.  So I hitchhiked back to LA and met a girl, got married, had a child.  And then I’m not a dancer. I’m a writer.  I retired at eighteen from dancing.  I was anguished, like a romance, that I didn’t do it anymore.  Until I was thirty I thought I would. I’m not good at knowing the score.

Any lessons learned in life you want to pass on?

Keep it physical.  Take it all in.  What I saw from kids is that they stopped being and doing that at a certain point.  The animal part of ourselves gets diminished and gets replaced by something more conformist and pragmatic.  So I guess in a word it would be “Play.”  And then watch out because when you get older there’s no room for it anymore.  Find the room.  The big challenge I guess is understanding another person.  To understand their experience.  Maybe we are too self-involved.  We are animals.  A bunch of monkeys don’t care that an alligator is getting killed over there.  The monkeys don’t give a shit.  But we do to some degree.  Our fear teaches us something.  Our abhorrence.  So if you are open to knowing the fear of others and know how they feel.  That’s a good idea.

What do you think is your biggest failure that lead to better things?

I think it all started when I stopped going to school.  I started stopping when I was six or seven.  By the time I was thirteen I wasn’t going much at all.  When I was fourteen I was in juvenile hall. No school would take me at that point.  So then I ended up in a private, theatrical school.  No one really showed up there because they had gigs. I went there until I left the country at fifteen. I got a freighter to Spain.  My family understood and said ok.  It also got me out of their hair.  Hard for them in a way.


So failure started you on this wonderful adventure?

No it wasn’t failure. That just sounded funny. No, what it really was, was doing what the dream told me to do.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Hampton Fancher and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Unrein, Suzanne (2019). “Conversation with Hampton Fancher,” Figure/Ground
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Verne Dawson at Gavin Brown's Enterprise

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Bucolic landscapes give way to mysterious narratives, myths, and rituals in these latest grand and intimate paintings by Verne Dawson. A bound Prometheus, an alluring mermaid, and a crucified Jesus are instantly recognizable. Other subjects arouse only a fleeting memory.

In the show-stopping The Theft of Fire (2019), a couple steals fire from a prehistoric era while others go about their ceremonial solemnities, holding unidentifiable objects among modern architecture in the same expansive setting. Time and space are a continuum as the pleased skeleton in the foreground holds court over the contemplative characters. Dawson paints the rhythm of the natural world swiftly and fluidly, laying thick marks over thin gestures in a no-fuss manner. Rough-hewn lines and smudges create the narrative, magically conveying the turn of a foot or the terror of a duck with seemingly little effort.

A concurrent exhibition of Dawson's work is at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, with an emphasis on numerology and astronomy, and an elegy to a most likely extinct bird.


Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Jack Shainman Gallery

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's contemplative works, fictitious black figures painted life-size and larger in minimal spaces, make up this two-gallery exhibition at Jack Shainman.

Thin bright whites, yellows, lime greens, and peaches are sparingly covered up by a dance of deep umbers, blue-blacks, and grays. The underpaint highlights the whites of eyes, the contours of facial features, and the outline of clothing. The figures appear silent even with outward smiles. An insistent inward gaze complements their elegant postures. Their essence is depicted with such timelessness of clothing and spaces that it produces a hologram-like remoteness.

In The Ever Exacting (2018), a man looks skeptically at an owl that looks equally suspicious of the viewer. His white-socked foot reaches out as if to move while mimicking the owl's threat to fly. Both sock and owl are painted in rich white-grays. Yiadom-Boakye is at her best here - hinting at forms with virtuoso brushstrokes, playing vibrant hues off ochres and browns - while conjuring the mysteries of paint and her imaginary subjects.


Shari Mendelson at UrbanGlass

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Bar codes emerge out of filmy surfaces that recall ancient Roman and Islamic glass vessels in the form of animals and mythical figures. Blending observation, memory, and invention, Shari Mendelson creates spin-offs that charm and delight while conjuring histories and collective memories. She constructs them from repurposed plastic, lending a contemporary, disquieting edge.

In Deer Askos (2018), the hoofed mammal becomes an ancient vessel with inward gaze and legs sensitively tucked under a curved torso. A "best by" date is branded on its rear end, a reminder of the environmentally hazardous material that formed it.

A feline appears more house cat than lion in Sphinx with Bar Code (2018). Its human face looks wary. Its wings are clipped. With fragile front legs and a heavy top, this mythical creature seems both vulnerable and heroic in its modern form.

"Glasslike" is a reminder of objects left behind, from the artifacts of ancient civilizations to plastics that refuse to break down.


Jane Fine at Pierogi Gallery, NYC

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Rendered in the style of pre-tech, 1970s cartoons, Jane Fine's paintings of groovy symbols, political imagery, and abstract doodling are a disquieting mix of innocent fun and a darker, Trump-era subversion.

The smaller works evoke 4-color pens with red, blue, brown, and black playing over metallic backgrounds. Flat, rounded planes break up the space while black shapes block out messages. "Sad," "Secrets," and "No" multiply and frolic in puffy lettering. Crossed out swastikas and money signs float among flowers and nonsensical speech bubbles.

In the larger So Much Winning (2018), flags tear and melt while their white stars freed from their confines shine brightly. A torn-apart fence hovers. (Good fences make good neighbors?) A partially concealed Statue of Liberty crown is smeared with red and blue. Missiles and toppled buildings pop out of abstractions. The imagery creates an ominous message amid a dynamic composition of exuberant paint on a powdery pink background.


Dr. Lakra and Mezcal Los Dos Amigos at kurimanzutto, Mexico City

Published by Delicious Line
Written by Suzanne Unrein

Mexican surrealism meets sumi-e ink washes in 77 mashups by the artist and tattooist Jeronimo Lopez Ramirez, aka Dr. Lakra.

Lakra's fluid and masterful drawings combine Japanese iconography with mythical dream states. They skillfully traverse cultures and emotions in a singular vision. A monkey sees, hears, and speaks no evil while a dubious skull lies underfoot. An argyle sweater-clad fusion of snake and shriveled penis portrays the absurdity of impotency. In the poignant Yoru no hotaru (2018), an oni clutches a club in the existential darkness while peering out at fireflies bathed in their hopeful yet minuscule light.

Accompanying the exhibit is Lakra's collaboration with Abraham Cruzvillegas, Mezcal Los dos Amigos. Labels on mezcal-filled recycled liquor bottles become the canvases for the artists to conduct a dialogue through sketches and appropriated images. The project provides a wonderfully homegrown, expanded context for the sumi-e drawings.


Angela Dufresne & Louis Fratino at Monya Rowe Gallery

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published by Delicious Line

"Glazed" combines salacious pleasures with robust sensuality in this exhibit of fresh, modestly sized paintings by Angela Dufresne and Louis Fratino.

Dufresne tantalizes and summons with comic, crazed faces that look out from brilliant, abstract backgrounds with erotic familiarity. Enticing body parts and facial features are accentuated with swaths of surprising hues while restless fingers play at sexual diddling. The rousing compositions are unified in a masterful partnering of frenetic movement and rhythmic color.

Fratino's portraits are stylized, languorous, and romantic with solid, sculptural forms that are reduced and simplified. A slow dance of flat planes and undulating forms surround geometric, contented faces rendered in deep lilacs, rusts, and grays. When not delighting in his decorative patterning of blankets, tilted picture frames and personal objects, his doodles and scratches offer a visual playground for more abstract delectations.


Marlene Dumas at David Zwirner Gallery

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published by Delicious Line

Marlene Dumas is at the top of her game at Zwirner with pictures, some of them monumental, of voyeuristic intimacies. Painted thinly in oil, they are ephemeral and disturbing.

The large-scale canvases are around 118 x 39 inches, creating confined, coffin-like spaces for full-length figures. These portraits of vulnerability throw a gut punch. In Spring (2017) a woman, her face in shadow, pours liquid down her crotch. Her black panties cut into her rust-red legs as she balances over a lime-green stage in front of a bleak background.

In Awkward (2017) a couple stands uncomfortably toe-to-toe. Red edges force them together while the white negative space between them creates compositional tension. Their blue color makes the encounter feel powerful but fleeting.

Near the back of the show are wet-on-wet ink washes illustrating a recent edition of Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis. Dumas is in her element with the tragedy and tenderness of unrequited love.


Ursula von Rydingsvard at Galerie Lelong

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published by Delicious Line

Ursula von Rydingsvard's new, fierce, undulating sculptures take on a courageous vulnerability in these towering works (and a few smaller ones) in cedar, bronze, paper, and resin.

The cedar works are carved, sliced, bruised, and then re-constructed into ferocious pieces that haunt with fragility. In Nester (2016), eleven feet high, the wood inherently recalls the landscape. Yet its formation conjures up a caterpillar's measured crawl or an animal's tail raised in fright. The gaping holes utter silent chatter, as the rhythmic motion of the carved details relieve the overpowering mass.

The majestic, tree-like bronze of Z Boku (2017), with its lacy tendrils, appears to timidly reach for the sky, projecting strength and tenderness in equal measure.

Burrows begin tentatively at the top of Oziksien (2016), while becoming larger and seemingly louder as they plummet downward, reaching an all-out crescendo at the floor. It offers reverence to nature's power.

Ursula von Rydingsvard Nester, 2016 cedar 131 x 55 x 54 inches  

Ursula von Rydingsvard
Nester, 2016
131 x 55 x 54 inches

Trude Viken at Fortnight Institute

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Through virtuoso brushstrokes, scrapes, and smears in Trude Viken's exhibit of self-portraits and couples, hidden emotional states ooze externally. Thick pigments sculpt monstrous faces in unearthly, ashen umbers with shocks of yellows, reds, and pinks. The paint is urgent and frenetic in Ensor-esque proportions.

A hundred twelve-inch canvases make up the Diary Notes series, a visual daybook of the clandestine side of the human psyche. Painted with deftness, the horrific and impotent connect through tantalizing smirks and penetrating stares. Slits of human eyes beckon for understanding as whirls of thick paint obliterate surrounding features. A head slips down a picture frame, losing its footing among a sea of acidic, calamitous, green-gray marks that offer a lifeline.

In Couples and Ghosts, anxiety is heightened with twosomes melding together in otherwise roomy compositions. Only their dissolution offers a respite from their neediness and angst.


Angelina Gualdoni at Asya Geisberg Gallery

Written by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Angelina Gualdoni's "House of the New Witch" revels in the power of the female mystique, the roles of sorceress and creator, while constructing compositional disorders through spatial mashups. Interiors and still lifes mingle with shapes from the works of female artists of the past that are painted on the back of unprimed canvases and seep through as an inherited visual language. Bewitching worlds turn seemingly ordinary household objects into tools for secret ceremonies, and ancient Peruvian ceramics into magical anthropomorphic creatures.

In Cabinet Painting (2018) the stains ooze out of the walls and floor, creating an eerie and dominating lineage. A cabinet of curiosities is dimly lit in a box of emerald, blue, and violet while its doors have a warped perspective that lends form and confuses. A flattened female Moche figurine is freed from the architectural concerns and the secret world of the human-like objects, appearing as a feminist rebellion to the ancestral spirits.

Cabinet Painting.jpg

Mary DeVincentis: Dwellers on the Threshold at David & Schweitzer Gallery

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Mary DeVincentis's paintings percolate at their own speed. Her cosmos gives a virtuoso performance while its enchantment sweeps up diminutive creatures. Its static effervescence rouses and intoxicates, drawing the viewer into various scenes. In one, an artist wields a paintbrush under electric currents. In another a zebra contemplates existence at the edge of a cliff. Elsewhere a tiger tries to touch the sky.

The slick Yupo surface and fluid acrylic brushstrokes of Day Dreamer (2017) create an otherworldly luminosity. The dreamer hovers between conscious and subconscious states, in a bed of lilac flowers or aqueous reflections, the heavens overhead summoning the earth. Blankets of supernatural yellows and greens seduce with their acidic tranquility while suggesting clouds and sea. Pink ears hear the calling of a distant flowering tree, while arms and legs signal death and resurrection.

In DeVincentis's worlds, dreams and personal myths spark a universal recognition.


Lucy Mink at Barney Savage Gallery

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Lucy Mink's paintings hide meaning in architectural playgrounds. Crowded arrangements of forms move you inwardly through the composition while your mind attempts recognition of individual parts. Textile patterns tame nature and offer fragments of homeyness to the rabbit hole of warping perspective.

"On Top of It" (2018) is an expert's game of color and arrangement. A subdued yet vibrant red, shaped like Matisse cutouts, weaves confidently through patterned planes and remnants of construction. The space is seen from above, a staircase leading internally, with the open landscape far away. Like all of Mink's paintings, there is a specific mood here, a feeling that memory and psychological schisms are in play. Multiple thoughts and ideas simultaneously vie for space – integrating and competing, overlapping and maneuvering.

Titles like "Talking," "If You Want It" and "Fall In" nudge at hidden connections to these visual mysteries.

Lucy Mink "On Top of It," 2018 oil on canvas 24" x 20" at Barney Savage Gallery

Lucy Mink
"On Top of It," 2018
oil on canvas
24" x 20"
at Barney Savage Gallery

Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Bronzes from the 1980s at Michael Werner Gallery, Upper East Side, NYC, 28 February through 5 May 2018

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Per Kirkeby is a painter, a poet, and a maker of cosmogonic maps. His layers crash, collide, and build while underlying structures hold the pieces together.

Herbstbaum III (1985) has two steles holding court in a mystical forest by a river. A few marks suggest spacious surroundings outside the picture frame. A yellow totem attempts to stand erect while tipping off of its pedestal. An unflappable partner stands solid in spackled strokes of brilliant light blue.

In Untitled (1981), a landscape becomes a world, and the world becomes a language of mystery. Charcoal marks render the construction, then falter, losing their momentum. Scratches of deep blues mingle with green-blue blacks, while a pinkish gray creates a dim, diffused light that recalls Edvard Munch and the artists of Denmark's Golden Age.

Referring an earlier career in geology, Kirkeby uses his knowledge of sedimentation and stratification to forage for an inner truth, taking clues from the outside world.


Longer version:

Per Kirkeby is an artist, a poet, a maker of cosmogonic maps.  Walking into the exhibit of 1980’s paintings and bronzes at the Michael Werner Gallery is being transported into a world of lost relics.  Unchartered lands set up shop in your psyche.  Underlying structures organize an undecipherable language that speaks loudly and persistently.  Layered marks crash, collide and build.  A symphony climaxes as it disintegrates.

"Herbstbaum III (Autumn Tree III),” 1985, is the first painting to insist on attention.  Two steles hold court in the foreground of a mystical forest by the side of the river.  A few marks suggest this spacious surrounding outside the picture frame.  The yellow totem stands erect while disintegrating, it’s unflappable partner solid in thick spackled strokes of brilliant light blue. The title suggests a portrait of a tree, the painting a signpost to another world.

In “Untitled,” 1981, a landscape becomes a world becomes a language of mystery.  Charcoal marks render the construction, layer upon layer, then falter, losing their momentum.  Deep bluish greens turn into dark umbers, thick slabs of white take the limelight and then bow to the surrounding darkness.  Nearby layers of scrawls like underbrush, rise and fall, thick and thin, awaiting their moment in the dim, diffused light.  The secrets of the universe are revealed and then gone.  Memory has disintegrated in erased marks. 

The bronzes are slabs that once marked sacred territories, forlorn yet stoic on their isolated pedestals.  The heaviness of their material seems like knights in armor.  Only when their forms are transported into the paintings in rich purples and greens and black blues do they become fluid.   Animated and butting against each other, they are more expressive in brushstrokes and plays of light.  

While Kirkeby, 79, began his career under the influence of Fluxus, Cubism and Pop Art, his early expeditions as a geologist are the impetus for these 1980s works.  His underlying knowledge of stratification and sedimentation curates the orchestra of layers and motion.  Outside current art movements, Kirkeby feels unique in this contemporary world; yet in the larger context of Scandinavian art, the lineage to Edvard Munch, Asger Jorn, and the artists from the Danish Golden Age are relevant and substantial in their subdued lighting and fluidity.  What makes this show remarkable and timeless is Kirkeby’s foraging for an inner truth with clues from the outside world.  In an interview with Tom Van de Voorde for Bozar Literature in 2012, Kirkeby says, “I have often had the feeling that there are moments when, with the aid of my own paint, I really see the world in all its reality.”

Per Kirkeby "Untitled", 1981 Oil on canvas 78 3/4 x 94 1/2 inches at the Michael Werner Gallery

Per Kirkeby
"Untitled", 1981
Oil on canvas
78 3/4 x 94 1/2 inches
at the Michael Werner Gallery

7 NYC Art Exhibits to ward off the blues

Spring is here and I fight the blues.  The forecast is filled with dropping temperatures, sleet, rain and snow.  Daydreams of Caribbean islands take hold as I nurse a lingering cold and look askance at my thinning winter coat.  To ward off the onslaught of mother nature, seven art exhibits offer refuge around the city, giving the appearance of Spring through visionary eyes.

1. "Zhang Enli: The Garden" at Hauser & Wirth, 548 W 22nd Street, January 25- April 7, 2018.  These oil on canvas works are explosions of juicy, scumbling pigments materializing from thinned out layers of wash in nearly disintegrating colors of sky blue and pale yellow.  While Enli finds inspiration in the gardens around Shanghai, images of underwater worlds of earthly reflections and the origins of the universe also come to mind.  Resembling enormous (most around 98 x 117 inches) Chinese brush paintings, the scrumptious deep violets, rich earthly greens, and crimson reds all contribute to the exuberance of blooming nature created on a grand scale. 

– Allan Kaprow “
While in the 1940s and 50s Kaprow created New York cityscapes and art studio interiors, the true subject here is the act of painting itself.  Created with bold, expressive brushstrokes of ease and joy, these transformative pictures capture the aliveness of city life while teaching how to delight in the process. 

3. "Sue Williams: Paintings 1997-98" at Skarstedt Gallery, 20 E 79th Street, February 22 – April 21, 2018.  From a distance these lyrical semi-abstractions look like colorful flowery doodles on white slick backgrounds. It’s only when we take a closer look that the connection to her earlier images of dark, subversive figuration take hold.  Not so graphic here, the sexual organs and grabby hands and feet turn into loopy flowers and clouds.  Gestural abstractions are made to please as they warn of darker secrets.

 4. "Francesca DiMattio: Boucherouite at Salon 94", 243 Bowery, March 06–April 21, 2018. The gallery’s main room welcomes with three cartoonish sculptures that appear to belong in a fun house if it weren’t for the meticulous and beautiful craftsmanship referencing art history, children’s books, cartoons and pop culture.  The mishmash of color and styles, along with the combining of animals and blooms - a porcelain dog covered in painted flowers becomes an appendage to a clay torso covered in porcelain flowers - make these works a visual smorgasbord of delight.  Make sure you don’t miss the two paintings tucked in and out of the office that offer fragments from Velasquez and Disney held together by thickly painted textiles.

 5. "Cy Twombly: In Beauty it is Finished Drawings 1951–2008" at Gagosian Gallery, 522 W 21st Street, March 8- April 25, 2018.  This career-spanning exhibit of drawings and works on paper are poetic and mythological meanderings, symphonic rhapsodies, illegible Dear John letters, and abstract landscapes created with scrawling gestural lines in color pencils.  Seeing decades of his work all together is to meditate on his timeless language of lyricism while marveling at the nuances created by years of experiential mark-making. 

 6. "Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, January 17–July 15, 2018.  1970s photographs and drawings by Wegman and his contemporaries make up the majority of this intimate exhibit, but it’s his videos that have audiences outright laughing.  With meditations on the mundane, he entertains himself – and us - by talking to the camera in repetitive phrases, creating mismatched mirror images, filming his palatine uvula dancing as he grunts and groans, and attempting human understanding with his Weimaraner, Man Ray.  Man Ray’s expressions change from excitement to exasperation to trepidation with every failed attempt to smoke, speak, or move a ball, offering hilarious insights into our own confusions about connecting.  It’s these uncanny observations and finding joy in the banal that make Wegman a teacher in life’s potential effortlessness. 

 7. "Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, August 26, 2017–August 18, 2019. This transcendent exhibit of small paintings, wall scrolls, porcelain objects and handscrolls transport you into magical paradises capturing the infiniteness of nature.  With handscrolls over 10 feet long, these landscapes literally move you through time, a wonderful metaphor for the impermanence of nature.
Installation Shot "Francesca DiMattio: Boucherouite" at Salon 94, 243 Bowery

Installation Shot
"Francesca DiMattio: Boucherouite" at Salon 94, 243 Bowery

"Andy Woll: Western Wear" at Denny Gallery, February 15-March 25, Lower East Side, NYC

Art review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

Andy Woll's "Western Wear" at Denny Gallery is an orgy of muscular, slippery paint. The eight works on canvas and paper, inspired by Mount Wilson and the Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles, are motifs for Woll's robust dance of color, movement, and form.

In Mt. Wilson (Santa Ana II) (2017) a thin, rusted red pigment slides over a light bluish gray ground, suggesting a hint of smog. The peak is choreographed with thick, drizzly pinks, magentas, and yellows amid a fluid structure of browns and blacks.

The large abstraction, Santa Ana (2017), is a effusive, confident work, the paint let loose from a binding structure. Wind is made visual. Brushed on and scraped off, pigments slink, slide, crash, and mingle. Juicy reds and oranges counterpoint rich, brilliant blues. Bursts of yellow peek out of green mush. The undulating grays hold the piece together with a rhythmic freedom. The exhibit is a refreshing, dynamic rhapsody of intuition.

Andy Woll Santa Ana, 2017  oil on canvas 78 x 54 inches at Denny Gallery

Andy Woll
Santa Ana, 2017
oil on canvas
78 x 54 inches
at Denny Gallery

"Leon Golub: Raw Nerve" at the Met Breuer, February 6- May 27

Review by Suzanne Unrein
Published in Delicious Line

"Leon Golub: Raw Nerve" at the Met Breuer is a selected survey of his work from 1940 to 2004. Inspired by political and pornographic photos, classical art, and mythology, Golub sources a wide variety of images to create his aggressive and timely works. Interrogators sneer. Mercenaries torture. Good ol' boys posture with cruel authority. Pummeled on and scraped off, the paint mimics the crudeness it depicts with a visceral impact.

While known for his enormous paintings of political violence, Golub created later works that offer a despairing, sublime beauty. Small oilstick drawings of sex workers beckon the viewer as they fade in palimpsestic marks of bright red and blue. Bite Your Tongue (2001), an apocalyptic landscape, is deftly painted with large brushstrokes. Golub portrays the dog and decapitated head using subdued hues. A colorful banner to the left offsets the somber mood, announcing "Loyalty Discipline Renewal," a warning sign about our collective mortality.

Leon Golub "Bite Your Tongue", 2001 at the Met Breuer

Leon Golub
"Bite Your Tongue", 2001
at the Met Breuer