Cotton Comes to Harlem


As a teenager during the Harlem Renaissance, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) heard tales of the great African-American exodus from the Jim Crow South to the big northern cities after World War I. But the hoped-for promised land often proved unwelcoming—whites resented the influx of cheap labor, and many of the migrants suffered from their new home’s harsh climate, a sentiment conveyed in Langston Hughes’s “Po’ Boy Blues”: “When I was home de/Sunshine seemed like gold./Since I come up North de/Whole damn world’s turned cold.” Still, the North offered greater opportunity for education (the migration was characterized as “from medieval America to modern” by Alain Locke, the nation’s first black Rhodes Scholar), and Lawrence studied art at the public library on 135th Street while trekking regularly to the Met to take in Giotto, Goya, and Matisse. In 1941, the still-maturing painter completed the 60 panels of his “Migration Series”; quickly recognized as a major achievement, it was featured in Fortune magazine and sent on a nationwide tour. Executed in tempera on board, 18 by 12 inches each, the paintings retain a powerful modernist aura. The figures are succinctly abstracted and vibrant, revealing the influence of Lawrence’s Depression-era community: “Our homes were very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs, all around the house. . . . I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement and so on.” The 17 panels exhibited here come from Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection and include No. 9, “They left because the boll weevil had ravaged the cotton crop,” which pictures snaking green stalks topped by pink and yellow puffs surmounted by cartoonish black insects. The brilliantly simplified view in No. 31—a tricolor apartment wall jazzily syncopated with red, yellow, and blue window blinds—recalls the semaphore rhythm of shades and awnings in Hopper’sEarly Sunday Morning (1930), while also looking ahead to a kinship with Mondrian’s final, stripped-down primary abstraction,Broadway Boogie Woogie, which was completed two years later. One of the strongest panels, No. 1, depicts crowds moving through gates marked “Chicago,” “New York,” and “St. Louis”—the throng breaks into three distinct pyramids echoed by triangular travelers. These layers of repeated shapes at different scales imbue the composition with movement and narrative drama: an oppressed people in search of a better life majestically marching into the unknown. It’s not hard to imagine Lawrence himself in that colorful tumult, a visionary whose masterpiece has come home to Harlem.


Kohei Yoshiyuki: “The Park”
Yossi Milo Gallery

Kohei Yoshiyuki

September 6–October 20

Yossi Milo, 525 W 25th, 212-414-0370

During the 1970s, Yoshiyuki ventured into Tokyo’s public parks with camera and flash at the ready, capturing nocturnal trysters and crouching onlookers—some of whom joined the anonymous lovers—on infrared film. There is little nudity in these black- and-white shots, mostly hands reaching under uplifted skirts, spectators crawling through leafy bushes toward entwined couples, and men warily pairing up as they edge around tree trunks. Yet there’s a queasy, erotic charge that photographer Martin Parr identified as “the loneliness, sadness, and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like Tokyo.”

Lee Krasner

September 6–October 13

Robert Miller, 524 W 26th, 212-366-4774

An artist who often recycled her own drawings and canvases for collages, Krasner (1908–1984) showed grit and resilience in her work (and in her difficult marriage to Jackson Pollock). A piece such asWater
(1969), with its lithe drips of lavender over thick blotches of magenta on rough-hewn paper, conveys a forcefulness that belies its seven-by-10-inch dimensions. In Heiroglyph #4, umber splatters are barely constrained within a cruiform maze of calligraphic brushstrokes. This energetic gouache painting foreshadows the violent beauty found in the hard-edged arcs and drippy arabesques of her large collage canvases.

Liset Castillo

September 7–October 13

Black and White, 636 W 28th, 212-244-3007

This Cuban-born artist photographs elaborate cityscapes that she sculpts from sand, mixing geography and architectural epochs. One image includes the massive monument to Christ the Redeemer (in reality, perched high over Rio de Janeiro) cheek by jowl with a collapsed Empire State Building and the Taj Mahal. A different incarnation of Castillo’s ever-changing metropolis features a spiraling Tower of Babel contrasted against the inverted cone of the Guggenheim Museum. Her imaginary world is literally as ephemeral as a sand castle, yet the photographs proffer documentary “truth,” lending historical gravitas to these fleeting civilizations.

Poe and Twain Projects

September 8–December 2

Wave Hill, 675 W 252nd, the Bronx, 718-549-3200

Three artists tackle the legacies of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain in this spectacular garden setting overlooking the Hudson River. Allison Smith’s period room riffs on Twain’s riverboat themes and Wave Hill’s flora and fauna. Simon Leung’s video project is built upon intersecting scenes that explore some of Poe’s most famous stories, while Amy Yoes expands on her recent delightful multimedia show at the Michael Steinberg gallery by delving into Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture” in an installation featuring sculpture and animated film.

Mark Stillwell: Super Defense Force

September 14–October 14

Front Room, 147 Roebling St., Brooklyn, 718-782-2556

Coney Island is under attack! Panicked throngs flee gargantuan insect-monsters in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel! Stillwell constructs his DIY tableaux from plastic bottles, paper-towel rolls, takeout cups, painted cardboard, plastic straws, and other homely materials that add exuberant charm to this gallery-filling panorama of carnage amid the carnival rides.

Piranesi as Designer

September 14–January 20

Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2 E 91st, 212-849-8400

You probably already know his labyrinthine views of “Imaginary Prisons,” filled with shafts of Spielbergian light and zigzagging shadows, but Piranesi (1720–1778) only managed such convincing drama through solid compositional skills that resonate with architects and designers to this day. Promising a “major reassessment of Piranesi as a radical design reformer,” the show will include comparisons of his work with antique pieces such as an 1802 Settee in the Egyptian Taste, made of gilded and ebonized beech and viridescent silk, and the architectural plans of such modern heavy hitters as Peter Eisenman (represented by his rendering for the Cardinals’ stadium in Arizona).

Dara Friedman: Musical

September 17–October 5

Between Grand Central to Central Park South and Broadway to Park Avenue

You’re walking along some leafy block just off Park Avenue (you don’t live there, of course—just passing through to the Modern), and suddenly the doorman of a tony apartment building steps from under the awning and bursts into song. Later—maybe on your trip back to the No. 6 train—a young girl begins serenading passersby. What’s up? Well, since Gotham is the greatest back lot ever, Friedman, a Miami-based video artist, has orchestrated nearly 100 spontaneous performances intended to “turn the volume up on the song that’s going on in your head as you’re walking down the street.” Do we have to tip her crooning cabbies extra?

Molle Babbe at
“the age of rembrandt” at the Met
Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Age of Rembrandt”

September 18–January 6

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., 212-535-7710

The masters are all here: Rembrandt! Vermeer! Hals! Plus lesser-known artists representing the 228 Dutch paintings in the Met’s collection, begun in 1871, when an American publishing magnate acquired a bumper crop of European canvases during the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War. (Wars are always a good time to snatch up masterpieces at fire-sale prices.) In addition to the marquee names celebrating Rembrandt’s 400th birthday (technically, last year), there will be paintings by their imitators—an unforgiving portrait of a stout woman done in the “style of Franz Hals” was described by Henry James as “a miracle of ugliness”—and one of only two known paintings by Margareta Haverman, a luminous and maniacally detailed still life of flowers.

Land Grab

November 7–December 22

up2 Apex Art, 291 Church St., 212-431-5270

Gentrification is the scourge of art. When brokers start eyeing that ratty outer-borough studio warren, can luxury lofts (and artists’ migration to Peekskill) be far behind? This show promises artworks that will “explicitly concern themselves with the claiming and naming of space,” while considering the ethics of squatting and how “the possession, habitation or designation of a site alters the place itself.” The international roster, including Romanian Dan Perjovshci (witty cartoons) and Icelander Katrin Sigurdardottir (topographical constructions), will perhaps give us locals solace—we’re not the only ones just workin’ for the rent.

“Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road”

November 9–March 16

The New York Public Library, Fifth Ave. and 42nd St., 212-930-0830

This broad exhibit features the Beat icon’s “scroll” manuscript of On the Road—60 feet (or roughly half of the entire work) unrolled in specially built glass cases. Ephemera and relics include a pair of crutches Kerouac kept after he’d been injured playing football for Columbia, and a lantern from his days as a railroad brakeman, plus manuscripts and drawings by such usual suspects as William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Topping it off: a selection of lurid paperbacks representing publishers’ attempts to cash in on the “Beatnik” wave, and detailed fantasy-baseball materials that Kerouac created as a kid and played with throughout his life.

Ron Klein

December 13–January 5

Howard Scott, 529 W 20th, 646-486-7004

Sponges, sea shells, twisted twigs, and pine cones only hint at the organic cornucopia that Klein pins to the wall in these rhythmically cascading assemblages. The 11-foot-high Monk’s Rhyme pairs the double helix of a thickly barbed vine with two large seed pods gathered from equatorial rainforests; these hard-shelled, banana-shaped scoops are filled with wax that has settled at steep angles, as if it had cooled in mid-pour. Klein leavens these natural shapes with springs, steel stars, fan belts, and other industrial bric-a-brac to create elegant deadfalls from some hybrid jungle.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 28, 2007

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