LACMA- Steve Wolfe, George Grosz, Japanese Abstract Expressionist Prints, and R. B. Kitaj

We are very excited to introduce, John Pyper, our newest guest contributor. We look forward to seeing more of his contributions.

Though LA disappointed me with rain and cool temperatures, LACMA had four print shows up to warm my soul.  From the contemporary era, Steve Wolfe’s trompe l’oeil books and vinyl records was an excellent survey of his work. A collection of George Grosz illustrations tracing the personalities found in the world wars. A collection of Japanese prints that reflect the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in the post war era. Last, a 50 print portfolio from R. B. Kitaj of book covers and spines from his library. There isn’t anything that unites these exhibitions, but their divergent nature displays a sliver of the expressive powers of prints.

As an exhibition, “Steve Wolfe Work on Paper” is a compelling argument that Wolfe merits the general public’s attention. Even though his career has been fruitful, he has not received the type of popular recognition that others have received (cf. he currently doesn’t have a wikipedia entry and the show’s three stops at the Menil, Whitney, and LACMA, are what come up first when you search for his name on google). His main operating method is to exactly reproduce his well worn copies of books and vinyl records that have meaning to the development of his career. It would be easy to misunderstand these works behind glass as they look like the artist just ripped the covers off of books from a clichéd liberal arts major. They look so real, that I wanted to touch the 7″ vinyl to see if the grooves were actually there on the paper. Wolfe’s intention is to explore the field of influences that has formed his career by recreating the deterioration of his library. He maps out the habits he has developed– the safe and comfortable places he goes for inspiration.

To read the rest of this great multi-exhibition review follow the jump.

It would be apt to formally compare him with Warhol’s pop images or even Duchamp’s readymades, but the content in his work is more in line with Francis Stark or Dave Muller. These three west coast artists have been mining their creative impulses and their networks of influences for years. They’ve created quixotic bodies of work that have lasting power but baffle when first confronted. They are such good art, that they sometimes don’t feel like art, if that’s possible. They certainly don’t fit into any orthodox theories or easily recognizable art history memes. They examine a very narrow strip of everyday life and have carved out a new area to research that is both memorable and stirring.

The curators, Foster and Sirmans hoped by putting together this show it would get this artist some notice, I have a separate goal for it. I hope some enterprising art historian is inspired to contextualize his career and find a coherent way to discuss his work in a original manner, as saying that it’s an archive or that it is trompe l’oeil is not cutting it anymore.

A less complicated person to discuss is Goerge Grosz. His politically irate caricatures of fat business men, priests, politicians and other disagreeable social leaders are so simple and pleasurable to see. His testy pessimism is so over the top that you have to brush aside his protests and see the characters as pitiable wretches that are laughably sad. This collection is substantial as it comes from LACMA’s center for German Expressionism. It has numerous sketches and drawings that lead up to the publication of many of the lithographic images and even a video of him working.

It brings to the fore the social situation and specifically the irritation of navigating the influential power structures of Germany and America in the war era. Today it seems so ceremonial to be concerned with the prominence of the ruling classes when almost anyone can, for example, publish and declare ourselves as authors based off of the confidence we have in our own self-accreditation. These authorities are very frumpy and outmoded leaving us with very little to identify with other than through the comedy of the situations. There is no single person or group with enough authority to declare what consists of a holiday treat other than the individual, as one of 1922’s Die Räuber (The robbers) declare potatoes and small-beer to be.

These works are very gloomy. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit from 1932’s Hintergrund (Background) is a good example. Here a priest revels in spreading a spiritual message of anger manifested as weapons exploding from his mouth as his flock gambles and with easygoing looks on their faces takes in his carnal passion for hostile attacks that pours out of his writhing body. His enthusiasm seems to be for a sermon on the mounted brigade or a benediction of blessed demolition.

“Japanese Expressionist Prints,” also produced by LACMA is a survey of artistic influences across cultures. The works exhibited here would have been a accepted with great praise in the post war Greenberg dominated New York School. Their push/pull Hans Hoffman style of non-objective compositions rely on numerous other visual modes that we primarily associate with America’s surge to artistic dominance. The thing that separates them is that they were created with a wabi-sabi accent of natural fibers and soft inks. Imagine if DeKooning, Rothko, and Gorky believed in using natural materials and worked only on kozo paper, you’d be close to these works.

Hideo is Yoshihara Hideo, Untitled (1965)- Lithograph, etching

Technically, these prints are filled with raw drypoints, twitchy wood cuts, and reductive works with overlain color. Their abstractions come from intuitive handling of the materials used. The individual flair of each artist is evident, with each visual vocabulary coming from formal explorations and visceral contemplation of what is necessary or what is real. These are certainly not sketches, or students’ work though. They are compositions that were created in dynamic experiments, but the ones gathered here are compositions that hold your attention, even 50 years later. They may have been created in Japan during New York’s transition away from the abstract and into Pop, but these works are certainly grounded in the peak style of the New York school.

Tetsuro is Sawada Tetsuro, White Night (1961)- Watercolor

Unfortunately I didn’t get to one of the print exhibitions at LACMA, Kitaj’s Covers for a Small Library. I just plain didn’t get to that building. But it is interesting that LACMA wanted to present Kitaj’s 50 book covers from 1969 and Steve Wolfe- Work on Paper concurrently. I’d love to compare the two, but will have to leave that to you for your visit.

Steve Wolfe on Paper
Co-organized by Carter E Foster and Franklin Sirmans of the Whitney Museum and Menil Collection, respectively.
November 20, 2010–February 20, 2011

George Grosz: Social Critic
Organized by LACMA’s Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Center
September 5, 2010–January 9, 2011

Japanese Expressionist Prints
Organized by LACMA, Japanese Pavillion.
October 28, 2010–February 15, 2011

R.B. Kitaj’s Covers for a Small Library
Organized by LACMA, Art of the Americas Building
December 18, 2010–July 4, 2011



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Categories: Exhibitions, Uncategorized


One Response to “LACMA- Steve Wolfe, George Grosz, Japanese Abstract Expressionist Prints, and R. B. Kitaj”

  1. Jason Urban says:

    Hey John! Great post. I saw the Steve Wolfe show in Houston and loved it. Had planned to review it but somehow it slipped through the cracks. Welcome aboard- I look forward to more posts.