Scene downtown – Julie Mehretu’s mural and Skin Fruit at the NuMu

Kitty, my Milwaukee buddy, and I spent a misty afternoon with Cate two Sundays ago walking around lower Manhattan and going to the New Museum’s Skin Fruit show.  Part of our downtown walk was inspired by Calvin Thompkins’ New Yorker article about the $5 million mural by Julie Mehretu. $5 million? Kitty, who paints murals in Milwaukee, wanted to see this thing, and so did I.

Julie Mehretu, Mural, detail, at Goldman Sachs headquarters, Vesey and West.

Julie Mehretu, Mural, Goldman Sachs HQ. Click picture to see the scale — there’s a person passing by the mural who looks tiny.

Commissioned by the investment banking firm of Goldman Sachs for the lobby of their new building at Vesey and West, the mural — called Mural — is 23 x 80 ft big. It’s one of two murals commissioned by the firm. The other, by Franz Ackermann, apparently cost $10M but that’s another story. (Read how unhappy the employees are with Ackermann’s mural (and Mehretu’s also).


Goldman Sachs, you must remember, was headquartered in the World Trade Center. Their new building is a block away from where the WTC used to be. We wonder if this new art, which Mehretu mentions in the article as being public art, is in fulfillment of New York’s percent for art requirement.

As for that, unless you’re an employee of GS, you, Mr. and Ms. Public, can view the mural through the office building’s plate glass windows. We dutifully looked and squinted and dodged glare and reflections in the glass and said, well, we can’t really see this very well.  Then we went inside. They’re nice at the front desk but no, you can’t pass through the security turnstiles to get a closer look.  And no, you can’t take a picture inside. And yes, security watches you like a hawk. Not very public, this public art.

Hans Hofmanns painting The Gate 1959–60
Hans Hofmann’s oil on canvas painting ‘The Gate’, 1959–60. , 75 x 48.5 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Mural — with its swoosh lines, dots of ink and flat, circus-colored patches — evokes the push-pull of Hans Hoffman (only skewed) and the diagrammatic narratives of Mark Lombardi.  Unlike those artists, however, Mehretu is cool and clinical about what she’s doing.  Mural — whose subject is markets and the history of capitalism —  is energetic yet not opinionated.  It’s neither celebratory nor angry/bitter. The work is like a Wikipedia page — researched and edited and neutral. It does convey bigness however.

marklombardiGlobal networks front cover
Cover art for Mark Lombardi: Global Networks. Copyright Independent Curators, Inc., 2003.

Lombardi — who wasn’t working on commission for an investment bank — at least suggests a controlled burn of resentment about the constellations of corruption he was uncovering.  Mehretu’s mural, which is built up in layers — maybe 5-6 layers deep — doesn’t suggest that underneath the surface there are woes or shenanigans.

I’m glad a woman artist got this commission but ultimately the piece is a disappointment, and it’s certainly not public art.

Meanwhile, I want to say that the New Yorker magazine writers do a great job at biographical writing and that their articles about Mehretu, William Kentridge, Marina Abramovic recently give you a wonderful sense of the artist. But I wish the writers would devote some time in those articles to critiquing the work, because the overwhelming sense is of a great artist and great art. And that’s not always the case.


Skin Fruit at the New Museum


Charles Ray’s towering woman in a power suit presides over this floor of the Skin Fruit show.

There’s been lots written on blogs and elsewhere about the question of letting Dakis Joannou — who is a trustee of the New Museum — show his collection (well, actually take over the museum) with this show. I will tiptoe into the fray to say, c’mon, get real. Works owned by trustees and collectors have long been shown at museums — collections from trustees often get donated to museums. Museums are built on those collections. Admittedly the NuMu doesn’t collect, but be that as it may, this show is not the ethical travesty it’s being made out to be. Right now we’re at a time when the market and money are in the driver’s seat and museums, strapped for cash for programming and eager to keep the programs flowing, need their VIP collectors all the more.  I’m putting my faith in everybody’s better angels.

Whether this show helps Jouannou by increasing the value of the works is impossible to say–why would it? It’s just one show and there are 100 works by fifty artists. I can’t see the collector dumping works to get the cash for new stock portfolio purchases and he seems actually to like his collection a lot (he’s got 1,500 works by 400 artists and he’s been collecting for 25 years) so probably unlikely to get rid of it anyway.

I am thinking of the Barnes collection and how Barnes didn’t want to let his collection travel, but that when a selection of works finally did go on the road how wonderfully it was received everywhere it went. For people who couldn’t make it to Merion to see the works it was a unique opportunity to see some great things. Likewise, works in this show will be new to many viewers who haven’t been to Greece to the collector’s DESTE Foundation — or who haven’t seen the works elsewhere.

The works seem to be crowd pleasers. There’s a distinct focus on the human form, spurred by Joannou’s targetting work in the vein of  ancient Greek statuary, kuoros (male youth) and kore (maidens). Of course today’s statues, by people like Charles Ray, David Altmejd and Urs Fischer, are a far cry from beautiful. Fischer’s work is a melting mass of wax.  Altmejd continues to make gargantuan Wookies, this one with taxidermic squirrels that seem to be gnawing holes and living in symbiosis with the giant. And Ray’s towering woman in a shoulder padded power suit is both funny and scary.

Maurizio Cattelan, waxen JFK in a coffin. Picture from the 2004 Carnegie International. This piece is now in the Skin Fruit show.

I loved the Nathalie Djurberg claymation videos (on a monitor in an alcove in the stairwell — she was there in the stairwell for another show too and I’m thinking it’s either the gulag or “her” space.) One work titled The Mother showed a group of children climbing back into the womb as the heavy breasted mother submitted passively like playground equipment. It is a strange video, a little long, but compelling in subject matter. Her other video involves a woman being pleasured by a tiger and is titled something like “things I am addicted to.” Also strange.

Skin Fruit, installation on the first floor.

Djurberg’s works are the most surprising in the lot….and that’s even including the stunning dead JFK in an open coffin, a waxwork by Maurizio Cattelan that Libby and I saw at the Carnegie International in 2004 that is a marvel of historical fabrication.

New Museum, assorted stuff in a hallway. More pleasing and full of content than the installation pictured just above.

The museum was pretty crowded when we visited and people were lingering on the three floors or work and not fleeing for the exits in horror/dismay/boredom.  I’d say the show’s a success.