On a recent visit to New York, I saw three art exhibitions I highly recommend: Faith Ringgold: American People, on view at the New Museum through June 5, 2022; The Hare with the Amber Eyes at the Jewish Museum, on view through May 15, 2022; and Hilary Pecis: Warmly at the Rachel Uffner Gallery through May 14.
Faith Ringgold: American People is a must-see show. Ringgold is a 91-year-old Black artist known popularly for her children’s books such as Tar Beach (which she adapted from her artworks).
The New Museum exhibition takes up three floors, any one of which would have made for an amazing exhibition; all three together are mind-blowing. Any one of Ringgold’s quilts remaking art history would have been a revelation but a whole room of them is jaw-dropping.
In one series of quilt-based narrative artworks, Ringgold tells the story of a Black woman in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century who places herself at the center of art history – she is one of the models for Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon (which were themselves inspired by an exhibition of African art). In another she subsumes Matisse’s work into her own.
The exhibition also features Ringgold’s graphic design and posters, many of them political, in which she experiments with creating a graphics language rooted in Black identity.
And then there is American People Series #20: Die, Ringgold’s 1967 masterpiece which is her own take on Picasso’s Guernica – as applied to civil rights, race riots and racially motivated murders. Regrettably, the painting speaks as much to today as it did when first painted.
What is most striking is how contemporary Ringgold’s work from thirty years ago seems. Her artworks speak to the present moment in her depiction of the Black experience. Also modern is Ringgold’s use of fabric and quilts (traditionally women’s craft rather than art), and how her work often features written narrative content — all of which seem very contemporary and very much today’s artistic practice.
To that point, I was once in a gift shop at the Perez Museum in Miami, and there was a bag there for sale on whose side was printed The Guerrilla Girls manifesto “Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” – almost all of which are apt concerning Ringgold, including: “Not having to be in shows with men/ knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty/ Being reassured that whatever kind of art you are make it will be labeled feminine…” All of which are only funny because they are true.
Ringgold has finally received an exhibition commensurate with the importance of her body of work.
The Hare with the Amber Eyes at the Jewish Museum is an exhibition that serves as a companion to British ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s best-selling memoir of the same name (If you have not read it – stop here and do so immediately!). Both memoir and art exhibition tell the story of a collection of Japanese netsuke (little carved items that were originally used as Kimono decorations) assembled by wealthy 19th Century Jewish art critic and collector Charles Ephrussi and passed down through the generations to de Waal.
The Ephrussi family saga begins with Charles Ephrussi, the largest grain dealer and oil merchant in Odessa, who became enormously wealthy. His son Ignatz Ephrussi, moved to Vienna where he opened a bank, and where he helped finance the building of the Ringstrasse until Austrian antisemitism made life there untenable; and on to Paris, where the Ephrussis lived opulently and where Charles Ephrussi, grandson of the original patriarch, was a noted art critic, collector, publisher of an esteemed art journal, supporter of Impressionist Painters, and the model for Marcel Proust’s Charles Swann. It was this Ephrussi who assembled the collection of netsuke.
However, the Ephrussi family’s long history and generosity were of no help in 1940s France, when the remaining family members were arrested for the crime of being a Jew (even those who had converted to Catholicism long before) and deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Miraculously the netsuke collection survived and was passed on to de Waal’s uncle, Iggy, who lived in Tokyo; and who, at his death, left the collection to de Waal.
De Waal’s great-grandfather and grandmother were Ephrussis. The de Waals were (non-Jewish) Dutch Businessmen who moved to England. His father, Victor de Waal was Dean of Canterbury Cathedral and de Waal himself was raised Episcopalian.
De Waal’s memoir bears the shock of reclaiming the rise and tragic fall of the Jewish members of his family.
The Jewish Museum exhibit, designed by architecture film Diller Scofidio + Renfro, has used family and loaned artifacts to tell the story of the Ephrussis, recreating a sense of their distinguished homes at the Jewish Museum (which itself is the former Warburg Mansion).
On display are artworks by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet, Gustave Moreau, and Auguste Renoir, attesting to the family’s social prominence and wealth; as well as decorative objects and family photos and ephemera from their lives across time, including the netsuke collection itself, with the famous Hare whose eyes are indeed amber.
What makes the exhibition and the experience truly memorable is the audio tour which is voiced by Edmund de Waal himself, adding an intimacy to this personal saga of a disappeared family and an enduring legacy.
Hilary Pecis: Warmly at Rachel Uffner Gallery. Hilary Pecis is a Los Angeles artist I discovered online during the pandemic. In Warmly, her third exhibition at The Rachel Uffner Gallery on the Lower East Side, she has gathered recent paintings of still lifes, landscapes and domestic interiors. Pecis’ work has echoes of David Hockney, as well as Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse.
Hockney’s influence is seen in Pecis’ subject matter, most often the personal and the domestic, and in her approach to landscapes (particularly in her Mt. Whitney on the 395, which calls to mind Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway), as well as Pecis’ use of bright colors that emphasize design elements in how we live; Cezanne is present in terms of her use of perspective and the dimensionality of objects displayed; and, finally, Matisse, in terms of Pecis’ joyous use of color and how she plays with flatness and depth.
If Pecis’ artworks were mystery novels, they might be categorized as “cozies.” There is something reassuring, even comforting, in her vibrant landscapes and cluttered domestic tables and rooms. At the same time, each work presents innumerable artistic challenges together with personal and artistic allusions. So, for example, in Pecis’ Studio Table from 2021, we have to assume that the placement of books on Cezanne and Nell Blaine call out Cezanne’s paintings of his own studio tables, and the profusion of flowers are like a Blaine painting brought into sharp-edged focus.
Pecis’ work may register as decorative, but when seeing it in person, the precision of the compositions and her obsessive attention to detail, makes a compelling case for her artistry.
Taken together, these three shows reflect artistic investigations of identity and self, and upend our notions of art history and contemporary art today.