The looming spectre of a large scale photograph : Our choice of New York contemporary galleries

Drawing on draughtsmanship at Alexander and Bonin, Paula Cooper, Zwirner and Marlborough

o American culture is often all the more fascinating when mutated through the lenses of foreign observation and a notably curious case in point is the German fascination with Native Americans, a passion largely fostered by the continually best selling nineteenth-century books of Karl May. Aspects of this improbable cult, sustained in different forms in both East and West Germany during the Cold War, are revealed in the photographs of Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, presented by Leslie Tonkonow. Although at first these colour images are inherently amusing, they also create an important document of a movement which reflects on larger issues of national identity and historic fantasy.

o “I can do that!” could be the title of a fantasy of another sort, nurtured by many art critics faced by the current gallery crop. John Coplans, once known as a writer, curator and editor (most notably of Artforum in the Seventies) actually made the leap to become a professional photographer. His intimate black and white photographs of his naked body began as a series in 1980, at age sixty, and have detailed the physical effects of the years in images both abstract and brutally figurative. Coplans is the oldest artist selected for next year’s Whitney Biennial, which is appropriate, as old age is the theme of his oeuvre. His latest series of sombre folds at Andrea Rosen Gallery includes two new “bodies” of work: “Self-portrait: fingers” and “Self-portrait: hands on knees.” By coincidence, at Gary Tatintsian Gallery there is another series of close-up photographs of artist’s fingers by Thomas Florschuetz, featuring magnified images of his own digits.

o Meanwhile, a show running at exactly the same time a few streets away at Stefan Stux Gallery shows aged naked flesh of the female variety, also in black and white photographs. This series of portraits of Japanese women by Manabu Yamanaka is entitled “Gyahtei”, one of the four Buddhist stages of suffering, and these full-scale nudes of extremely elderly females, mostly in their nineties, are all the more shocking for being in a medium in which one has come to expect naked women to be always of a certain age or shape.

o Large scale photography has become a genre unto itself, often on the basis of “the bigger you print ‘em, the bigger you price ‘em”, but not all snappers are up to the demands of these expanded dimensions. One of the undisputed masters of the majestic is Andreas Gursky, who is unveiling his latest looming vistas at Matthew Marks Gallery, including a new series featuring pages from Musil’s novel The man without qualities, which are both very specific and conceptual, a literal landscape of text.

o The dominance of photography and video within certain sectors of the contemporary art affects artists known for their work in more traditional spheres, and can be for them a liberating exploration of new forms. The Portuguese painter Julião Sarmento is showing a film installation at Sean Kelly and, although this might seem a departure from the fragile, haunting paintings on which he has built his international reputation, he has, in fact, been investigating the possibilities of film for the last twenty-five years. This Super 8 image of a woman walking down a street in Lisbon may be very simple, but it suggests a range of narrative possibilities close to his own aesthetic based on the physical form.

o In contrast to this glut of photo-film forms comes “The last picture show”, a suitable title for an exhibition of monumental paintings by Lawrence Gipe at Joseph Helman Gallery. Gipe’s work may be best known for its painterly qualities, but it is based, yet again, on photographs, in this case small images from Nazi-era magazines that have been transformed from monochrome cuttings into big, juicy full-colour paintings. This may seem a post-modern gambit, but Gipe’s technique is sufficiently assured to expand his project beyond pastiche.

o If painting itself currently seems relatively thin on the “ground” (to make a technical art-term pun), drawing seems even less in evidence, which makes the sudden mini-boom of drawings shows all the more welcome. Alexander and Bonin presents twenty-eight artists of no particular affiliation, providing a joyous burst of post-Christmas energy. As might be expected, these drawings utilise a range of techniques, materials and styles, pushing the boundaries of drawing to include everything from Cornelia Parker’s gunpowder explosions to wall paintings, architectural theories and even theatre designs by Robert Wilson. There is, however, a plein air watercolour of an oak tree by Sylvia Mangold which will reassure the more die-hard traditionalists.

o Another group show of drawings, this time strictly by sculptors, occupies the front space at Paula Cooper Gallery, including sketches by everyone from Bruce Nauman to Louise Bourgeois, a range of blue-chip names as much favoured for their graphic flair as for their three-dimensional heft. Meanwhile, her main gallery is showing a set of icy cool Dan Flavin fluorescent sculptures, works which were originally based on classical ideals and are increasingly looking “classic” in the art-market sense of the term.

o Drawings are also much to the fore at David Zwirner, thanks to Raymond Pettibon, an artist who works in no other medium, unless the one were to count his curious quasi-poetry as an alternative. His vast body of work, a seemingly endless flow of ink sketches and mysterious phrases, has created its own self-contained cosmos, expanding with every exhibition and taking the shape of a metaphor, both personal and universal.

o Meanwhile at Marlborough uptown, a big, chunky show called “On paper 2000” includes almost as many artists, although few are of a notably futuristic bent. Marlborough presents these group drawing round-ups every five years and this is a particularly tasty one. From Géricault and Delacroix, through Redon, to Pollock, Blinky Palermo, Alex Katz or Lucian Freud, this generous show fully exploits the collectability, the sheer “mantelpiece” desirability, of so many works on paper.

o Pat Steir, who recently closed an exhibition of paintings at Marlborough’s Chelsea gallery, is one half of a show at Art Resources Transfer which pairs her work with that of the ceramic artist Betty Woodman. As this is Woodman’s seventieth year, there is a larger retrospective exhibition at Max Protetch covering the last forty years of her career. This includes pieces in paper, bronze and clay, including her latest series of bronze wall pieces called “Italian garden benches” which come out of her recent working sojourn in that country.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 99 January 2000