Robert Rauschenberg: Night Shades and Phantoms

Installation views of Phantoms (all 1991) in the Chapel, the artist’s former studio. Robert Rauschenberg, Night Shades and Phantoms, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, NY, March 14 – July 19, 2019. Photos: Chris Murtha.

Over the past year, I had the opportunity to research, plan, and develop an exhibition at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation with my Hunter College colleagues, Daniela Mayer, Lucy Riley, Joseph Shaikewitz, and Melissa Waldvogel, under the guidance of our distinguished professor, art historian and curator Emily Braun.

The exhibition, which opened on March 14 and will close on July 19, is the first to exclusively focus on Rauschenberg’s Night Shades and Phantoms, two distinct but related series of “metal paintings” from 1991. Produced on brushed and mirrored aluminum panels, these silkscreens are composed exclusively of the artist’s own photographs, which were captured on travels at home and abroad from 1979-1991. Rauschenberg’s photographs replaced those he previously appropriated from mass media print sources, shifting the frame of reference in his paintings from the public realm of current events and popular culture to one more defined by the artist’s personal experiences.

The Night Shades are distinguished by Rauschenberg’s application of Aluma Black, an oxidizing agent that immediately tarnished the aluminum surface, revealing and concealing the artist’s matter-of-fact images. In the spectral Phantoms, the faint screens compete with the transient reflections that enter the frame, which inherently include the viewer. Produced on the heels of three separate retrospective exhibitions, these ethereal works allude to Rauschenberg’s artistic past and, by conjuring the foggy realm of memory, address the difficulties of looking back.

“Photosensitive Rauschenberg,” my essay on the centrality of photography to these works and much of the artist’s creative output, will be included in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue.

Installation view with Vanities (Night Shade), 1991. Robert Rauschenberg, Night Shades and Phantoms, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, NY, March 14 – July 19, 2019. Photo: Chris Murtha.

Bending Light: Allison Malinsky's Sculptural Paintings

Allison Malinsky, Passing Through, 2016, oil on canvas, rubber, linen twine, and wood dowel, 35 x 12.5 x 18 inches; Courtesy of the artist

I recently wrote a catalog essay for painter and longtime friend Allison Malinsky's solo exhibition at Galería Victor Saavedra in Barcelona, Spain. Titled "Bending Light: Allison Malinsky's Sculptural Paintings," my essay traces the development of her work since she relocated to Spain. Karen Leader, Ph.D., also contributes an essay on Malinsky's evocation of the body in her three-dimensional paintings. You can read both texts and view an electronic version of the catalog below or at

Malinsky, whose work I featured in Force of Nature, is currently an Artist in Residence at Cooper Union. You can view her recent paintings and works in process in the residency's exhibition, which opens Wednesday, August 3rd, and remains on view through August 17th. More info at Cooper Union.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s Otherworldly Treasures

In King of Lesser Lands, an eclectic but focused exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery, we are introduced to the world of self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein by a long row of erotic pinup portraits of his wife. As intriguing as they are awkward, these photographs are almost generic compared to the visionary works that follow. Von Bruenchenhein proclaimed that he was of noble descent but also referred to himself as a visitor to this world, theorizing that there was a “First World” that Earth had splintered from during a cataclysmic event. In light of this, many of his works can be interpreted as documents and artifacts of this fantasized world.

Von Bruenchenhein’s vision is most fully realized in his paintings—Technicolor skyscrapers and otherworldly landscapes that evoke popular science fiction imagery and Charles Burchfield’s more mystical works. The imaginary vistas and aquatic microcosms depicted in paintings like To The Endless Span of Creation (1954) and Sea Fringe (n°882) (1960) radiate with frenetic energy. To achieve this effect, the artist worked quickly and spontaneously, using his fingers, combs, crumpled paper, and sticks to manipulate the paint—scraping, pushing, and fanning out the oils in vibrating, electric patterns.

Von Bruenchenhein’s sculptures are evocative of unearthed royal treasures: miniature thrones intricately constructed from painted chicken bones, leafy ceramic crowns and vessels, arrowheads fashioned from broken glass (not exhibited here), and large-scale concrete heads that lined his house like spiritual guardians. All of Von Bruenchenhein’s works were made entirely at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he even hand-dug the clay for his ceramics and fired them in his coal-burning oven—and they remained there during his lifetime.

Photographs taken of the artist’s home shortly after his death document the overwhelming accumulation of artwork and bric-a-brac. His ramshackle palace was an extension of his art and a kind of museum in its own right: the exterior was a patchwork of color, doors and walls were painted with scenic and abstract imagery, and placards with handwritten poems and theories hung throughout. His paintings and sculptures are presented here in stark contrast to the way that Von Bruenchenhein lived with them and, though that may be unavoidable, some of their power is lost. Nonetheless, we should be thankful to behold such curious and forceful treasures.

Top: Untitled, 1978, Oil on cardboard, 29 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches; Middle: To The Endless Span of Creation (detail), 1954, Oil on board, 24 x 24 inches; Bottom: Installation view, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, King of Lesser Lands, March 24 – May 8, 2016, Andrew Edlin Gallery, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

Waiting and Aging: David Byrd’s Hospital Paintings

Fourteen small-scale paintings by David Byrd, who worked in obscurity for most of his life, were recently included in The Patients and the Doctors, a two person exhibition with Peter Gallo at Zieher Smith & Horton in Chelsea. The two artists were brought together because of their shared experience working with psychiatric patients, but their work—while equally compelling—could hardly look more different. Dripping with paint, scrawled text, and images of lilting clipper ships, Gallo’s tumultuous and violent works appear to channel the psyche of a patient. While Byrd’s more subtle paintings offer an outsider’s account, his muted and sympathetic portraits piqued my interest in this unknown artist.

David Byrd, Waiting and Aging, 1989, Oil on canvas, 23 x 33 inches; The Patients and the Doctors, Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

Though Byrd lived most of his adult life in various upstate New York towns and spent periods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, this was his first exhibition in New York City. He studied with Amédée Ozenfant and made paintings and sculptures for over 65 years without any attention from a gallery, or very many people for that matter. It wasn’t until Byrd’s neighbor, artist Jody Isaacson, discovered his work and introduced him to her dealer Greg Kucera that Byrd secured his first solo exhibition. The exhibition, Introduction: A Life of Observation, at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, featured nearly 100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and opened just weeks before Byrd’s death in May 2013 at age 87.

Byrd’s spare, washed-out paintings look like they are about to evaporate, but his imagery is heavy with the weight of anger, despair, and confusion. Most of these emotions can be attributed to his subjects: psychiatric patients at the Veteran’s Administration hospital he worked at for thirty years until retiring in 1988. Still, it is hard to imagine that Byrd did not empathize with the patients on a very personal level considering the care and skill with which he repeatedly captured their anguish and weariness. Even long after retirement, Byrd would continue to paint scenes and images from his time at the hospital—sometimes from memory or from sketches he made at the time.

David Byrd, Mopper, 1998, Oil on canvas, 20 x 26 inches; The Patients and the Doctors, Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

Several paintings depict the type of ordinary interactions that Byrd must have witnessed daily—orderlies administering medication, patients struggling to dress, a janitor mopping the floor—but the focus on these banal routines do not diminish the intimacy, anxiety, and pain that pervades his work. In some cases, it is the commonness of the scene that makes it so tragic. Though the patients in Line for Meds (1989) are anonymous and stripped of any distinguishable characteristics, their ennui and despair as they wait in line for medicine is apparent. Here, as in most of Byrd’s hospital paintings, emotion and personality are communicated with body language, through slumped and writhing figures.

Some of Byrd’s figures are rail thin, stretched like Giacometti sculptures, and others are twisted up like roots. To study the figure and its contortions, Byrd frequently returned to the ritual of dressing, portraying patients struggling to put clothes on or take them off. He depicts his subjects in a moment of frustration, trapped and bound by their clothing, neither naked and free nor clothed and secure. One example, Arising (1972), was included in the Zieher Smith & Horton exhibition, but paintings such as Man Undressing Shirt (1994) or Man Unbuttoning His Cuff (1986) more acutely capture the anxiety and frustration of his subjects, as well as their liminal state.

David Byrd,  Patient in Corridor , 1976, Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches;  The Patients and the Doctors , Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

David Byrd, Patient in Corridor, 1976, Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches; The Patients and the Doctors, Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

Though Byrd’s expressive figures are the main focus of his hospital paintings, his depictions of the confined spaces of institutional architecture are integral to the work’s claustrophobic tone. Several paintings evoke the melancholy of Giorgio de Chirico’s austere and desolate dreamscapes. In Waiting and Aging (1989), patients fidget and pace within an indeterminate space that seems to be folding in on itself. The solitary figure in Patient and Corridor (1976) is drowned in muted yellow and orange washes with two triangles, delineating the ceiling and floor of a long hallway, meeting at the patient’s shoulder. It's as if he’s being pulled into the vanishing point.

It is important to mention that Byrd’s paintings do not feel exploitative of his subjects. It is clear from this body of work that he was very affected by his interactions with the patients but also sensitive to their condition. Considering how frequently he returned to this subject, it appears that Byrd was wrestling with how to most honestly tell this story on behalf of the patients. In Patient Homeward Bound (2013), the most recent painting in the exhibition, a patient is seen running through an arched passageway (again recalling de Chirico), casting a sideways glance over his shoulder. It is unclear whether the subject is gleefully returning home, escaping early, or—given the white minimalism of the painting—this is a vision from a dream, a premonition of release. Perhaps Byrd, through his restrained yet affecting art, was searching for a similar sort of release.


You can view images from The Patients and the Doctors, which was on view from November 19 through December 24, 2015, at Zieher Smith & Horton. Additional works can be seen at Greg Kucera Gallery and the Estate of David Byrd.

Review: David Nelson at 80WSE

Untitled (from "1 Hour"), c. 1992-1993, photogram, 20 x 16 inches. (All works by David Nelson; all photos by the author.)

This somber, pensive, and sometimes haunting exhibition of David Nelson’s multidisciplinary art at NYU’s 80 Washington Square East Gallery is expertly assembled and presented by gallery director Jonathan Berger and Nancy Brooks Brody, a close friend to the artist. Brody’s personal relationship with Nelson is important, because once you know even a little bit about his life it’s hard to separate his work from the personal experiences that influenced it.

After moving to New York City in the late 1970s, Nelson became involved with a close-knit community of artists in the East Village. In 1985 he met his partner, the artist David Knudsvig, but he would lose him to AIDS in 1993. All of the works included in the show come from the period between Knudsvig’s passing and Nelson’s own death in 2013. Pairs, conduits, and ghostly images are prevalent in the exhibition, and many of the works are meditations on loss and time that can be seen as attempts by Nelson to reconnect with Knudsvig.

The first works encountered are a series of knobby and tangled sculptures of resin, roots, and dirt—the kind of earth that is so specific to New York City: dry, rocky, seemingly devoid of minerals and nutrients. After uncovering a cistern in his backyard, Nelson was inspired to keep digging holes, always by hand. The sculptures were created by pouring resin directly into these holes and extracting the hardened form, along with any matter that adhered to it. Some sculptures are then embedded in cubes of resin, frozen in time like a photograph or fossil.

Left: Untitled (Hole), detail, c. 1997, photogram mounted on canvas, 40 x 43 1/2 inches; Right: Hole Reflection 2, detail, 1997, silver gelatin print, 28 x 38 inches; Bottom: Installation view of "David Nelson" with Hole #16, 1999, and Untitled (Cube), c. 2000.

Many artists have given form to negative space—Bruce Nauman, Robert Overby, Rachel Whiteread, among others—but Nelson’s efforts contain a sense of exploration and discovery that feel more akin to archaeology. He further inspects his excavated sculptures with a series of abstract photograms, and the one on view here, Untitled (Hole), c. 1997, resembles an X-ray of something bodily or embryonic. In a similarly disorienting photograph, Hole Reflection 2, 1997, he captures the reflection of the sky and the edge of the hole in the newly poured resin. It’s a haunting, claustrophobic view from down within the hole that hints at what he was trying to dig up.

Central to Nelson’s work in this period is a small wooden figurine—a man with a top hat that holds two bone dice—that belonged to Knudsvig. Unknown to the couple, the figure is a representation of Papa Ghede, a Haitian Vodou deity that is thought to usher the deceased into the afterlife. After Knudsvig’s death, Nelson paired the figurine with his own prized toy train and dubbed it “train man,” establishing a talismanic stand-in for his departed partner. To create Untitled (Train Man, Brother: Doppelgänger), c. 1997, an extensive series of photograms installed in a large grid across two walls, Nelson converted his living room into a darkroom. Drawing with sand directly onto light-sensitive paper, he repeatedly captured unique but remarkably consistent images of the figurine. The repetition and subtle differences of these ethereal traces, especially within such an immersive installation, makes for an affecting tribute.

Above: Installation view of "David Nelson" with Untitled (Train Man, Brother: Doppelgänger), c. 1997, and Untitled, c. 1992; Below: Detail from Untitled (Train Man, Brother: Doppelgänger).

A series of works featuring a miniscule hourglass or sand timer are installed in the same room as the “train man” photograms. Representing the measurement of time as an exchange between two vessels, these pieces bring many of the themes in the show together. Time is malleable in the series 1 Hour, c. 1992-1993, in which nine photograms of the timers are presented out of sequential order, oscillating drastically between measurements. In a separate series of photograms, the timer’s glass is broken and the image is created with the sand pouring out of the vessel. Knowing this process, one can imagine that the “train man” photograms were similarly drawn using sand from broken timers, symbolically conjuring images of loss and absence from the remnants of time. In some of these pieces, there are traces of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work, but Nelson’s approach is darker and more brooding, less political. Whereas Gonzalez-Torres drew the viewer in via direct exchanges and shared social and political experiences, Nelson’s work is so personal and mysterious that a viewer can’t help but feel like an intruder.

Among several late paintings that evoke the work of Nelson’s friend Robert Bordo, the last gallery offers an intriguing sculpture made by combining several model train tunnels to form a disjointed landscape and passageway, conceivably for the “train man.” Here, without tracks, the tunnel is a conduit only in the sense that it leads from one point to another. There is nothing at either end though, just a negative space—a hole to be peered into, mined, traversed.

David Nelson @ 80WSE
80 Washington Square East (West Village)

Though the exhibition is no longer on view, you can find a selection of David Nelson’s works on the website for Visual AIDS, a sponsor of the exhibition and co-publisher of the excellent catalog, which is also available through them here.

Installation view of "David Nelson" with Untitled, c. 2009.