ONCE UPON A TIME, you entered Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum to visit its world-class collection of early-twentieth-century abstract art, and then climbed a grand staircase to arrive at its Hall of Honor on the first floor. And once upon a time, that first-floor space held the work of the Big Boys of the New York School, thereby functioning as a triumphant climax to the museum’s telos of abstraction.
But that was when the museum consisted only of its original 1895 building. All that began to change in 2012, when the Stedelijk opened its new wing. For then, the Hall of Honor no longer faced the old street entrance to the museum, and instead began to serve not only as a site for focused projects and changing exhibitions but as a zone of interface and intersection between the various strands of modernist art held in the permanent collections of the old and new buildings: in short, a space of dialectical “antithesis,” as the Stedelijk’s director Rein Wolfs puts it, rather than of teleological culmination. And it is in that space that Ellen Gallagher’s “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours” currently unfolds, holding its own with six large paintings dating from 1998 to 2023—punctuated by a seventh, Paul Cézanne’s mysterious 1866–68 painting Scipio—while also opening onto rooms containing works by El Anatsui, Sheila Hicks, and Sigmar Polke at one end, and Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella at the other, and thence onto the rest of the Stedelijk’s later-twentieth-century and contemporary collections.
“All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” organized by Vincent van Velsen and titled after the 1919 composition by the Black ragtime and jazz composer James Reese Europe, is not a comprehensive retrospective of Gallagher’s career thus far, but rather a “position” exhibition, designed specifically for the Hall of Honor, in part to torque the narratives associated with the Stedelijk’s collection. And so, instead of beginning with her post-Minimalist paintings of the mid-1990s, with their gridwork foundations of glued, yellowed penmanship paper and sly eruptions of tiny minstrelsy eyes and mouths, it is bracketed by two of her black paintings from the end of the 1990s: Eleganza of 1998 and Untitled of 1999. Made of rubber, enamel, and paper on canvas, this pair of paintings have the stark look, at first glance, of modernist monochromes, recalling, most obviously, Kazimir Malevich’s “zero of form,” the infamous 1915 Black Square, with its hidden racist joke, “Negroes battling in a dark cave,” discovered under the painting’s top surface in 2015 when Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery had it X-rayed. (That same racist joke was incorporated into the title of one of Gallagher’s later black paintings, the 2016 tetraptych Negroes Battling in a Cave.1)Thus, Gallagher’s two black paintings, between which the rest of the exhibition is installed and which thus serve as bookends to her more recent work, function at once as double cancellations—cancellations of Malevich’s cancellation—and as resurfacings of the content, the figurative allusions and the sometimes bad consciousness of abstract art.
Here the black paintings also serve as riffs on Gallagher’s own work, as well as on the Stedelijk’s collection, looking both backward and forward in time. In them, black rubber—bringing along with it the colonial history of its extraction and industrial use—is laid over those signature pieces of penmanship paper so that they become all but invisible, subtly punctuated by carved figurative elements and effervescent bubbles of minstrelsy insignia, and then varnished to such a high sheen that they transform into mirrors of the viewer when looked at up close, and their very blackness in turn becomes invisible; it is thus that these two black paintings speak self-reflexively about a whole world of abstractionist repressions, excavations, and inversions. One of them, Eleganza, is more abstract-looking than the other; that other, which remains untitled, juxtaposes the intricately inlaid back of a giant Mohawked head to the rectilinear geometry created by the blackened penmanship-paper foundation, in such a way as to suggest that said head is beginning to disappear into the abstract ground of the painting. In short, Untitled explicitly enacts the combined cancellation and excavation of figuration within abstraction—along with the inversion of abstraction’s move away from figuration—that animates the rest of Gallagher’s work, while entering into conversation with abstraction’s larger history. (In the Stedelijk context, I think both of the downstairs room with Malevich’s Suprematist compositions and of the upstairs room of white paintings by the likes of Piero Manzoni, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman, to which Gallagher’s black paintings might be seen to act as an “antithesis.”)
Within “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” the vivid pinkness of Gallagher’s two most recent works suggests a different kind of antithesis to the monochrome blackness of the black paintings: Among other things, it acts as a strong refutation of modernist “chromophobia.”2 In between those two ends of the spectrum sit a 2018 work on paper that belongs to the series “Watery Ecstatic,” 2001–, and a 2022 piece from the new series “Ecstatic Draught of Fishes,” 2019–. Made of watercolor, oil, pencil, varnish, and elaborately cut paper on paper, the 2018 “Watery Ecstatic” features an intricately cut-and-painted underwater algal ecology of spore-bearing organisms that continues the Black Atlantis mythology of “Drexciya” (invented by the Detroit techno duo of the same name in 1997), concerning a mutant water-breathing population descended from the African women thrown overboard during the long, brutal course of the Middle Passage slave trade. At the same time, it proposes a deep link between that germinative theme and its own inverted figure-ground logic, in which aquatic figuration propagates out of a watercolored-paper ground, rather than being negated, modernist style, by its abstract flatness.
It is worth mentioning that this “Watery Ecstatic” variation was previously exhibited in the 2018 “Afro-Atlantic Histories” exhibition at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), hung between two similarly sized vertical portraits of Brazilian Africans by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Albert Eckhout, where its watery, multi-organism verticality proposed an alternative to the portraits’ vertical anthropocentric singularities.3 In the Stedelijk context, by contrast, it shares its wall space with Cézanne’s Scipio (a painting that happens to belong to MASP). I shall return to Scipio; suffice it say for now that here that richly painted Black body inflects not only the “Watery Ecstatic” piece, but also the exhibition as a whole.
The series title of the other painting on that wall—“Ecstatic Draught of Fishes”—alludes to one of Christ’s miracles, the “miraculous draught of fishes” hauled from the depths of the Sea of Galilee, as painted by Raphael and Rubens. But “Ecstatic Draught of Fishes” replaces the “miraculous” of that miracle with the “ecstatic” of the “Watery Ecstatic” series, referring as much to the latter word’s etymological derivation in concepts of movement and displacement (ex-stasis) as to the sublimity of the immersive oneness with the world known as the “oceanic feeling.” This version of “Ecstatic Draught of Fishes”—which was featured in the 2022 Whitney Biennial—births nine incised palladium-leaf caryatids, inspired by sculpted Fang figurines, out of its earthen, carpet-like ground, made as before of those signature pasted sheets of penmanship paper, as if to suggest the mythic children of the Drexciyan Black Atlantis. That ground likely alludes to the seabed, and perhaps also to whale fall, for its fringes of thick, multicolored paint marks, along with the heavily built-up umbilical coils of green, brown, yellow, and pink that wind through and in between the caryatids, reference the newly discovered Osedax mucofloris (translated as “bone devourer–mucus flower”), which grows like a “red shag-pile carpet,” as the marine biologist Helen Scales has put it, on whale bones on the ocean floor.4 This “Ecstatic Draught of Fishes,” in short, deploys its marine-biological theme (partly based on Gallagher’s own earlier seagoing experience as a student) not only to expand its purview beyond the anthropomorphic and into an entire oceanic biosystem but to stress yet again its own generative process of figurative rebirth out of the substrate of abstraction.
And so I come to the two pink paintings, finished just this past year, that both go by the name of Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, after the eponymous chapter in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick concerning the property rights of whalers over claimed and unclaimed whales.5 I have seen the first of them grow from its pink-stained penmanship-paper foundation, with a vibrant spine of a darker pink running down its middle, to its present low-relief constitution out of pink, red, green, aqua, and yellow oil, pigment, palladium, and paper on canvas, in which the ruled lines of the penmanship paper remain visible here and there. Now it has a palladium whale fall spine running vertically down its center, and is crisscrossed by a complex, thickly painted and inlaid weave of straight and wavering trails, along with areas swarming with spore- and sperm-like shapes: Recalling the Osedax worms mentioned above, these also transform the modernist grid into the warp and weft of a biomorphic tapestry, and the ground of the painting into a zone of fertile germination. The painting thus presents as an alternative body. And if we think of it, for example, in disputation with Newman’s 1951 Cathedra, which hangs in one of the rooms adjoining “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” it can be seen to counter not only the empty optical blue of the “zip-painting” with its own teeming, multihued pinkness, but the humanist verticality of Cathedra’s white “zip” with its own vertically spined ecosystem.6 (On the other hand, its textile-like configuration also suggests a continuity with El Anatsui’s 2009 In the World but Don’t Know the World, visible through the opening to another adjacent room in the upper floor of the Stedelijk.)
In turn, the second Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, whose gridded foundation of ruled sheets of paper remains even more visible than in the first, releases a jittering set of palladium and blue-black figurines into its pink environment, densely planted with algae-like organisms. Not a single body at all, then, but a painterly birthing bed for a brand-new world of half- and fully formed Drexciyan creatures, some of which look like mutated vertebra fragments.
On the opposite wall from those two pink paintings hangs the smaller single body of Cézanne’s Scipio, with which I wish to conclude. Why is it there? It’s a reasonable question, and while there is no single answer to it, that question looms over any attentive experience of the exhibition in its entirety. For, like the title of “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” the Melvillean and Drexciyan titles of the individual paintings, and the racial and musical refrains that run through all of it, Cézanne’s painting impinges upon that experience, and does so quite deliberately: It is the mission of its inclusion, and of its art-historical intervention, to do so. A painting from Cézanne’s early dark-and-stormy period of a Black model whom that grandfather of modernist abstraction is said to have encountered at the Academie Suisse in Paris, Scipio also recalls American abolitionist photographs of formerly enslaved men exposing their whip-scarred backs to the camera—or so Gallagher believes, as do I.7 But in Cézanne’s painting, the overt scarification is absent, and in its place is a thickly brushed expanse of chocolate brown layered with terra-cotta, cream, flesh pink, a splash of blood red, and faint, grayed hints of the indigo blue that renders Scipio’s trousers, while the ghostly bolster on which he leans opposes its white impasto to the flat black background that frames his back: multicolored brown between black and white, in sum. In the context of “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” what that substitution of fleshy paint for scarred skin opens onto is the further ramification of Gallagher’s insistence on the bodiliness of painting and of the racial repressions that lurk in it.
And too, it points to the expansion of painting’s meaning by dint of associations and verbal suggestions, overtones and undercurrents, contradictions and antitheses. For running like a series of jazz changes through this exhibition as well as Gallagher’s work at large is the sense not of modern painting’s being “hunted back to its medium,”8 or of its final reduction to some single, inalterable essence, but rather of its capaciousness, its capacity to keep mutating, its ability to alter what it finds, and its power to lay claim to contested contexts: to the no-man’s-land of its title, and of the space in the Stedelijk that it inhabits.
“Ellen Gallagher: All of No Man’s Land Is Ours” is on view at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam through March 10.
Armstrong, Carol. “Not down in Any Map.” Artforum, Artforum, 31 Jan. 2024, www.artforum.com/features/carol-armstrong-art-ellen-gallagher-548436/.