If genius means anything anymore—for me it is the union of inexplicably keen insight with an uncanny capacity to say or show what others fail to articulate but everybody knows—then the artist Raymond Pettibon is one, the man of the hour at minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. Fittingly, two exhibitions this spring show an artist obsessed with the larger, grittier, and often hallucinatory contradictions of “this American life.”
If you’ve been watching the news as much as I have these past several months you might be forgiven for forgetting that video as a medium can do more than provide a platform for talking—if not ranting—heads. I nearly forgot myself. The large-scale exhibition on Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist at the New Museum reminded me in the most enjoyable way.
Stuart Davis, the only first-class Cubist to emerge from North America, concentrated single-mindedly on making art quiver with the energy he perceived around him, “jazzing up” details of the American Scene, in particular its stereotypical attributes, advertising hieroglyphics, and verbal colloquialisms. The core of the exhibition of his work, now at the Whitney, shows Davis applying his methodology to easel paintings of varying sizes—including small, amazingly intricate jigsaw-puzzle compositions.
The tragicomic scenes in Philip Guston’s post-1968 work were filled with stubbly, cigarette-smoking, Popeye-like self-portraits mixed with hooded Ku Klux Klansmen (frequently self-portraits also), assigned roles equivalent to those of Babel’s marauding Cossacks. Those who grasped the significance of Guston’s challenge to established “high modernist” taste immersed themselves in the strange vision of contemporary life he portrayed in a tumultuous tidal wave of images.