“Is this a joke?” was the most frequently recurring thought I had inside the one-work show “Roy Lichtenstein: Bauhaus Stairway Mural” (through December 22 at Gagosian on Twenty-fourth Street).
The painting in question is a reworking of Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Stairway (1932), a modestly sized piece on display at MOMA. Schlemmer’s Stairway, completed a year before the Bauhaus was shuttered, is a testament to the utopian aspirations of the school. He renders his subjects—Bauhaus students ascending a staircase—in cool, geometric form, clean and dancerly.
For his 1988 canvas, Lichtenstein distended the original’s composition to a gargantuan height of twenty-six feet and a width of eighteen. And gone are Schlemmer’s quiet palette and peaceful flatness; they’ve been replaced by Lichtenstein’s saturated hues, frenetic patterns, and—of course—Benday dots. Schlemmer’s vision is placid and digestible; Lichtenstein’s is manic and busy.
Awe is the immediate impression produced by the piece—Lichtenstein’s Pop colors, lifted as they are from the world of advertising, gush with charisma across the two-story canvas. Add to this the conspicuous veneration afforded it by the gallery and what you get is an experience that is genuinely moving.
But this is Lichtenstein we’re talking about—the king of postmodern irony, the man who wanted his art to “look inept and kind of stupid.” Further, this is the man who criticized twentieth-century art for its “utopian” aspirations, of which no artistic movement is more emblematic than the Bauhaus. And then there is his reduction of Schlemmer’s figures to a comical hodgepodge of sharp cones and rods, sending up Cézanne’s idea (espoused by Schlemmer) that “everything in nature is formed upon the sphere, the cone and the cylinder.” Irony, not solemnity, suddenly seems to be the painting’s dominant trait.
The question thus arises as to whether this piece is homage or parody, or both. Lichtenstein frequently made ironic renditions of canonical works, but none of these spoofs commands the monolithic astonishment that his Stairway does. His intent must be ironic, but the piece functions despite this—it nonetheless instills a sense of wonder. Is the joke then on the viewer for thinking there’s something sublime in the canvas? Only an observer poisoned completely by a relentless tendency toward irony could resist the feeling of admiration the piece inspires. But maybe that desensitization was always Lichtenstein’s ambition.
In any case, the experience of seeing the piece is extraordinary. Ironic or not, the painting is staggering.
Meanwhile, the other exhibition currently showing at Gagosian’s Twenty-fourth street gallery, “Tetsuya Ishida: My Anxious Self,” is suffused with sincerity.
The Japanese word hikikomori describes a Japanese citizen (usually male) who withdraws entirely from society; these individuals go years without leaving their homes, often surviving off their aging parents’ pensions. The number of hikikomori increased drastically in the 1990s with the advent of Japan’s “Lost Generation”; this generation met with an abysmal job market, demanding and fickle, and a concomitant shortage of social opportunities. Those who secured work found it dehumanizing, and those who didn’t (by the hundreds of thousands) disengaged from public life altogether. They’ve been called “postmodern hermits.”
Ishida takes these isolated and melancholy men as his subjects. In a flurry of surreal paintings made over the last decade of his short life (1973–2005), he depicts them suffering a variety of horrific—Kafkaesque, to deploy a cliché—circumstances. Limbs merge with industrial machines and corporate supplies, as in Gripe (1997) and General Manager’s Chair in Abandoned Building (1999), and elsewhere bodies fuse with those of bugs, as in Restless Dream (1996).
This dissonance in the humanity of Ishida’s subjects is exacerbated by his palette: he borrows the type of subdued, neutral colors you’d expect to find in more realist painting, and the application of these understated colors to his absurd scenes creates an uncanny effect in which the subject, though always burdened with emotion, fails to appear fully human. Gagosian presents these canvases (seventy-six of them) in tight succession across six rooms. The cumulative effect is nauseating.
The work is therefore successful insofar as it communicates the gloom of its subjects. And besides closely diagnosing the ills of Ishida’s time and place, it is ominously prophetic. One can easily imagine similar scenes of solitary men (and women) in post-COVID America, with Ishida’s Nineties office equipment replaced by iPhones—but it’s conversely difficult to imagine such pieces not seeming derivative or hackneyed. Therein lies Ishida’s achievement: the cold anxiety induced by his work is so swift and total that the viewer has no time to consider whether the work is trite.
Should one desire respite from all this cagey irony and sour dolor, fortunately, there is “Brett Taylor: Icarus” just a couple blocks away at Hollis Taggart (through October 14). The rediscovery of Brett Taylor by the curator Peter Hastings Falk is a happy development.
From his remote school in the Cyclades, Taylor (1943–83) sought to capture the mythos of Greece itself. To do so, he (following his Cubist idols) attempted to cultivate a perspective that existed outside of linear time: his canvases often depict the same scene occurring repeatedly across a series of wedges, as in the clement On the Mountain (1973). The scenes thus spread over the canvas like an unzipped Goode homolosine projection; the aspiration is to unroll the entirety of perception, in both its spatial and temporal aspects, onto the two-dimensional canvas.
The method sounds tiresome—overly technical and gimmicky, even. And indeed it would be, if Taylor’s actual construction weren’t so loose and his color not so balmy. He implements the technique with less scientific rigor than his Cubist ancestors executed their perspectival tricks—instead, his canvases exude a leisurely mood that comes across as almost more self-assured than that of his rigorously structured forebearers. His most gripping works sustain this slack structure, while his least successful, like the muddy and lightless Around the Island, Stopping at Breasts (ca. 1969), abandon structure altogether and become mired in boggy disorder.
The risk of excessive complexity is also thwarted by the simplicity of Taylor’s forms. Faceless and pruned, the silhouettes of his subjects are only just recognizable as human. They bear an intriguing resemblance to another great Aegean export: the marble figures made by the early Cycladic peoples (ca. 3200–2300 B.C.). Compare, for example, the Met’s marble female figure attributed to the Bastis Master (ca. 2600–2400 B.C.) to the spare and almost featureless characters of Taylor’s Flies (1967). Even many millennia later, the essentialized and abstracted sculptures of the early Cyclades emanate a sort of tangible permanence; a glimmer of that same permanence is found in the work of Brett Taylor.