Prudence Peiffer

  • Sky Writing

    Lightning is a natural phenomenon that claims: a science (fulminology), an official fear (astraphobia), persistent metaphors (enlightenment, eureka), one of the best examples of concision in English literature (“picnic, lightning,” Nabokov’s explanation of a death in Lolita), and a false maxim (“Lightning never strikes the same place twice”).

    It has also inspired an epic artwork, Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, 1977, located in a remote New Mexico valley. Laura Raicovich’s new book is, as she writes, “dedicated to the recall of highly specific, vivid experiences” of De Maria’s project. It

  • Life Sentences

    When you sit down to read a review, as you are doing right now (unless you are standing—in which case, please sit down and take a minute), you rarely have a sense of where the critic is writing from: what time of day it is, what she has eaten, what else she has just read or seen, what's on her mind. But all of this factors into the work, just as wherever you are as a reader, and how you are feeling, will, too. The pleasure of a critical essay can often be the escape it grants from diachronic time; the living room couch fades away into a painting's scumbled imagery or a book's knotty metaphor.

  • Open Secret

    IF EVERY BIOGRAPHY PEDDLES the aura of the unknown with a promise of revelation, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer acknowledges a darker obfuscation from the start. As his book’s fitting epigraph, Arthur Lubow chooses the artist’s cryptic challenge to anyone attempting to uncover the meaning behind her work: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Arbus wrings out the cliché that a photograph doesn’t lie and rehangs it as a riddle. What is the relationship between a secret and knowledge? How well can we understand someone, even with access to

  • Women of Abstract Expressionism

    TO REVISE OR REVOLT? That’s often the question when reviewing the Western canon’s historic gender troubles. A recent spate of exhibitions and books seeks to rectify the situation—or at least recover women’s place—via the opposite extreme of including only female artists. Even the arrangement of the work in the Abstract Expressionism room at the new Whitney Museum of American Art (New York) now privileges women. And yet curator Gwen F. Chanzit’s claim, in the introduction to this Denver Art Museum exhibition catalogue, that “art histories . . . continue the gender bias” doesn’t feel like much

  • Nowhere Man

    William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest begins with a single tree. Then, across ten volumes and more than a thousand photographs, we see a collective landscape, a vision that sweeps around the United States and overseas, through city centers and to the most forlorn edges of forest on a country road. But in the opening images, we are squarely in the American South, with an open ruin of a building, a gray storm waiting at the end of a road’s curve, the shell of a formal plantation house whose grand arcade has been overtaken by branches, neat crops stretching to a vanishing point. We are at a

  • Days of Abandon

    In Charles R. Rushton's 1991 black-and-white portrait, Agnes Martin (1912–2004) sits in a wooden rocking chair in the left third of the frame, beside the white cement wall of her New Mexico studio. One of her canonical six-by-six-feet canvases hangs low to the ground next to her, its horizontal pencil-edge bands running out of the picture to the right. She's dressed like a plainclothes nun, in comfortable white sneakers, flannel pants, and a collared shirt under a dark cardigan buttoned to the neck. Her hands are seton each armrest with a square assurance that recalls Gertrude Stein, and the

  • The Missing Pieces

    INTO A contemporary landscape of data mining and information fracking comes Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, a beautifully absurd accumulation of useless numbers and gravid blankness. This slip of a book—written in French in 2004 and published this year as one of twenty-two volumes in conjunction with the Whitney Biennial—inventories artworks that “are either unfinished, lost, forgotten, destroyed, or that were never even made” in fragments culled (without footnotes) from ghostly references in biographies, newspapers, and the like. What are we to do with the fact that “ninety percent of

  • The Ongoing Moment

    TO BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME—nothing requires and activates this bromide as much as photography. And there, then—in the center of it all in New York and Paris, and yet out of the picture, behind the camera—was the photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991). “The photographer’s punctilio is his recognition of the now—to see it so clearly that he looks through it to the past and senses the future,” she wrote in 1964. Many of Abbott’s best projects, such as her famous series “Changing New York,” shot over ten years beginning in 1932, are rooted in a perpetual pursuit of finding the

  • Isa Genzken: Retrospective

    THE TITLE OF ISA GENZKEN’S 1992 midcareer survey, “Everybody needs at least one window,” alluded to one of her sculpture series, as well as to the artist’s sustained engagement with architecture and light, and a famous historical discourse on the picture plane. But the exhibition’s title also suggests an ethics of freedom and space not so far removed from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Lisa Lee, writing in her catalogue essay for Isa Genzken: Retrospective, provocatively imagines the artist as herself a kind of window: “The struggle to depict the world, which has preoccupied many visual

  • Eva Hesse 1965

    WHAT DOES A CREATIVE BREAKTHROUGH look like? Can it be something that “abounds with nonsense”? Eva Hesse 1965 attempts to answer this question with a focused, if at times repetitious, study of a pivotal period of Hesse’s artistic development. During a fifteen-month residency in a disused textile factory in Germany, Hesse channeled her ambitious anxiety into a thrilling collapse of interior and exterior form. She first expressed this idea in the elastic biomechanical line of her drawings, and then expanded it into her relief sculptures, which gave her the ability to trace continuous space and

  • Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962

    THAT THE RACE CAR is at the center of Salvatore Scarpitta’s art is hardly surprising, since in life he was perpetually in motion: He was born in New York but grew up in LA, lived abroad for twenty-two years, and traveled a circuit that included the international art world and rural racetracks. His is not the best known of the twenty-six names that make up the roster of artists featured in “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962,” Paul Schimmel’s important final exhibition as chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, but Scarpitta’s work is among its revelatory highlights.