For this month’s edition of Art Beat, SIXTY has selected shows in New York and Los Angeles that illustrate the history of art as well as those on today’s cutting edge. Pesky curators, Pop Art pioneers, and prison abolitionists are all on the agenda. Herewith, your guide to the best art shows happening this August.
NEW YORK: Harald Szeemann at Swiss Institute
The late, bearded Swiss man Harald Szeemann is one of the most important people in contemporary art that you’ve never heard of. Rocketing to the role of director at the Kunsthalle Bern at the tender age of 28, Szeeman challenged art world expectations. Though curating had typically been a scholarly and administrative role, Szeemann approached it with the experimentalism of an artist.
In 1969, Szeemann put on Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. Rather than showing aesthetically pleasing, finished works, artists were given studio space in the museum to display process and thinking (one artist excavated a corner, another was arrested for painting around town). The museum cancelled Szeemann’s next planned show—a Joseph Beuys exhibition—and Szeemann quit.
In 1974, the troublesome curator put on a show in his apartment. Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us examined the life of Szeemann’s grandfather, a famous inventor and hairstylist. At Swiss Institute, a restaging of the exhibition is taking place, with over 1,200 objects. This show will make you seriously reconsider using the term “curated” for things like an Instagram feed or cheese plate. Through August 18, 2019.
NEW YORK: Mirror/Echo/Tilt at New Museum
It was from a prison in Algiers that Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes wrote much of Don Quixote. That story, with its mix of fiction and reality, totally upended literature. A show at New Museum, titled Mirror/Echo/Tilt, was partly inspired by the book, the possibility of communicating what it’s like to be held captive, and using this language as a means of escape.
But rather than Renaissance Europe, artists Melanie Crean, Shaun Leonardo, and Sable Elyse Smith explore the system of mass incarceration in the United States, which disproportionately holds people of color. Over a span of four years, the artists conducted workshops and filmed footage in empty courtrooms and decommissioned prisons.
Drawing elements from radical theatre, experimental dance, and fiction, the artists worked with people who have been incarcerated in order to develop this project. Aiming to challenge the ways that criminality is perceived, the project combines art and social justice and asks people to imagine a less carceral future. Through October 6, 2019.
NEW YORK: Tom Wesselmann at Gagosian
Our final exhibition suggestion for New York is less conceptual, more eye-pleasing. Tom Wesselmann was a stalwart of the Pop Art movement, with an interest in the classical subjects of painting: landscapes, nudes, still-lifes. A show at Gagosian displays the ways he upended these tropes and expanded the notion of painting itself.
Born in 1931, Wesselmann left behind a long legacy of works when he died in 2004. As the artist said: “The prime mission of my art … is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art.” In his efforts to do so, his works played with frame shapes and subjects. In this exhibition, titled Flowers, a series of works from the 1990s show his commitment to experimenting late in life.
Rather than using canvas, Wesselmann used metal cutouts for the creation of brightly painted flowers. Painting images on flat surfaces was spurned, instead, lasers were used to create cutouts from metal that provided the shape, turning the pieces into something between a painting and a sculpture. Through August 16, 2019.
LOS ANGELES: Gordon Parks at The Getty
In 1961, a photographer for Life magazine traveled to the Catacumba favela just outside Rio de Janeiro. Assigned to document the extreme poverty experienced there, Gordon Parks met a 12-year-old boy named Flávio da Silva. Jaundiced and skeletal, clothes dirty and stretched out, Flávio worked in spite of his severe asthma to maintain the house of siblings, while his parents sold kerosene and bleach.
The resulting essay grabbed the attention and empathy of countless Americans, who read about Flávio’s struggles. But it was the photographs that piqued their empathy, resulting in so many donations that the da Silva family was able to move from their destitute home.
The Getty acquired 21 photographs that Parks took during his visit, which are currently on display, and they speak to the power of the image, especially at a time when culture was not awash in them. Though the glut of images can desensitize, the show is a reminder that there is power in representing the conditions that others live in. Through November 10, 2019.
LOS ANGELES: Sarah Lucas at Hammer
When people think of the YBAs—the Young British Artists, the group that shocked the art world in the late-’80s and ’90s—they usually think of Damien Hirst and his taxidermied shark in a tank of formaldehyde. However, an exhibition at the Hammer is shining a spotlight on one of the group’s female members, Sarah Lucas.
Lucas challenged the patriarchy with works that mixed body parts, furniture, and images of female bodies found in British tabloids. Anthropomorphizing everyday objects became a commentary on the ingrained norms valuing men over women, the relegating of their labor to the home. But Lucas wasn’t didactic and obscuring—her work was hilarious and provocative.
This point is especially clear when you look at her work with eggs. A photo series shows the artist sitting, eyes focused on the camera, with two freshly fried eggs placed on her breasts. Other private body parts abound in her oeuvre, as well as plenty of cigarettes, demonstrating a sense of humor that is equal parts hilarious and skewering. Through September 1, 2019.
LOS ANGELES: Robert Nava at Night Gallery
When we first saw some of Robert Nava’s paintings, we were tickled with both joy and unsettling curiosity. Nava’s subjects include dragons, witches, and lions, and they mix a fingerpainted quality with masterful gestures. Acrylic, spray paint, and pencil come together in a way that at first seems like a kindergartner made it, but upon closer inspection, reveal a deep maturity.
In his first solo show with Night Gallery, a selection of his works showcase Nava’s fun and intelligent approach to painting. The artist, who engages a daily drawing habit, chooses from his sketches the ones to be transferred to canvas. The creatures include winged figures with creepy smiley faces, or strange hybridic things.
Though they may seem like a sloppy mishmashing of subjects, the exacting application of materials indicates a studious method. Nava draws viewers in with the apparent amateurism of his art—crude images of two-headed beasts and the like—but keeps them there with his elevated mark-making. Through August 17, 2019.
Header image: Robert Nava, Psychotic Hotline Wolf, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery