After being imprisoned for conscientious objection during WW1, William McCance still refused to conform. McCance rejected the more conventional art which flourished in Scotland in the 1920’s like Cecile Walton. Instead, influenced by the Cubist elements wafting over the Channel, he began a series of paintings which reflected his anti-war stance. This painting at the Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow, from 1922 called ‘Conflict’ offers aggressive shapes which appear to be almost Guernica-derived. An outlier in the largely Art Deco decorative environment, he turned to book design and teaching in London and Wales. He had a small touring retrospective in the UK in the 70s but has largely been lost to history.
Uncle Horace (Walpole) commissioned Joshua Reynolds to paint his nieces, the ladies Waldegrave, in 1780. Though they look to be purely Three Gracelike in their white dresses, making lace and spinning silk, the portrait was actually a come-hither to potential suitors for Charlotte, Elizabeth and Anna who were still single. It was the 18th century version of Tinder.
Frida Kahlo underwent something like 40 surgeries to correct the cascade of physical ailments (possible spina bifida, polio, a horrendous bus collision which had driven an iron handrail into her pelvis) which tormented her but which gave her paintings, often made from her convalescent beds, a very particular vantage point and haunting quality. (Kahlo also worked with mirrors to serve as the limbs she was not able to mobilize). This photograph, which I’d not seen before, was sold at Sotheby's—as part of a Nickolas Muray collection— for 28,000 dollars.
Muray is the Hungarian born US based photographer with whom she had a decade long affair. He was married four times, Kahlo almost as many (counting the re-marriage to Diego Rivera, whom she considered her true soul mate.) but they stayed close. Frida in Traction, was taken in 1940 when Muray visited her in the hospital in Mexico, and goes tight on Kahlo’s face which allows the uncertainty of her gaze—will this surgery be the answer?—full measure. Is she accepting or fearful? The folded white cloth around her famous unibrow signifies a moment when Kahlo was incapable of facing down her legacy of pain through her art. But works made that same year which include necklaces which cut into her neck and make her bleed and hearts which are ex-corpus, show she was the eternal phoenix. Muray once wrote to her that he wished he could find “the secret how to make you well again so you could sing, and smile, love and play again as I have seen you before in the bright sun or in the dark night.” As a document of one of those times when she was not able to vanquish her pain, it is unforgettable.
Photo by Nickolas Muray; © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives
In the midst of all the brouhaha about architecture gone wrong from coast (Hudson Yards) to coast (Lacma), the new Richard Gluckman building for the Brant Foundation in New York stands as a model of discretion and an excellent showcase for art. Remember when the art was the thing? The ceiling pool that greets you in the brick walled space feels like a dreamy light filled upside-down Turrell rather than a gimmick, you’re underwater without having to hold your breath. Gluckman has taken many inspirations from the mid century (Quincy Jones?)—the mullioned windows, the white birch landscape, the decomposed granite hardscape—and the wood plank or brutalist ceilings (Mendes da Rocha?) and supersized them made them neater and grander, but still, dare I use this word, tasteful. The view from the top 4th floor in particular is neatly centered on a church spire and the Manhattan one sees is not the new pencil thin spires dotting the island but rather the humbler East Village of yore. The Basquiats are plentiful and look very well in the space, especially enchanting when hung salon style downstairs, and a friend and I calculated that he was only in his early twenties when many of them were painted. They feel electric —a young black prodigy whose time was over too fast communing with Walter de Maria who had repurposed a ConEd station for his studio. Basquiat’s capabilities as a wordsmith—he almost seems to playing a version of Jotto with himself—also come to the fore. It was a pleasure to like something so unreservedly for a change.
The following is an excerpt from my Huffington Post piece on Volume III of Richardson’s Picasso biography.
…All the more reason then to be worshipful and impressed at the astounding work of John Richardson who has produced the third volume of his biography of Picasso, The Triumphant Years, published this week to great acclaim. Richardson’s unflagging erudition, meticulous reporting, insatiable digging, clever connections, and vast and deep personal knowledge of the players makes this series much closer to a performance piece of biography , the definitive text.
And because Richardson makes it perfectly clear with engaging narrative and precise scholarship how worthy his subject is, even those who have read about Picasso before will be newly swept away by the intricacies of this complex character. This is not, however, just a tome for insiders, though it helps to have a healthy interest in art and artists.
Richardson met Picasso while living with Douglas Cooper (who had himself wanted to write the biography) in the south of France and saw him regularly from the early fifties through the early sixties. He began by thinking he would write about the wives and mistresses of Picasso, the way the artist used art and sex, painting and making love, as metaphors for each other and how the style of his work changed as he changed women—volatile relationships that Dora Maar, herself one of the mistresses, characterized to him as ‘first, the plinth, then the doormat”. This was the template we used on the film, (WNET, Picasso, A Painter’s Diary) and it’s reductive and catchy, certainly one way to process the gargantuan archive when you only have ninety minutes.
But as Richardson himself says, “Picasso’s work is far too protean and paradoxical to be limited to a single reading.” And so he abandoned that seductive narrowcasting at the outset in favor of a much more comprehensive and penetrating approach.
One that would more or less take the rest of his life.
Richardson isn’t the first to devote most of his life to Pablo, as the volumes make clear. The Picasso bibliography includes everything from kiss and tells to scholarly treatises about the work and any number of memoirs and biographies. (Richardson is impatient and dismissive of some of these earlier efforts, calling them everything from “unreliable” to “rigamarole” or “fairy tale” to outright “wretched” or “sheer fantasy”.) But his end result is entirely different. Encyclopedic without being boring, any future artist’s biography, or really any biography, will inevitably have to step over Richardson’s very high bar.
Occasionally, biographers manage to be fans of their subjects for the duration. It’s hard to love someone unreservedly whom you come to know so intimately— Richardson doesn’t shy away from scandal, rather he is propelled by it, and sometimes, if this works to Picasso’s disadvantage, so be it. Looking at a life from the perspective of the warts and all can produce battle fatigue but at the end of the third volume (the ballets, the project for a memorial to Apollinaire, the bourgeoise life with Olga, the flirtation with Sara and Gerald Murphy, the rebellious hedonism of his attraction to the seventeen year old Marie Therese) with Picasso shrugging off Surrealism and heading for the shattering Guernica, one still feels Richardson’s magnificent enthusiasms for the moods, the settings, the entourages that may have influenced him; the motivations, the myth-busting, the sexual/historical/empirical digressions often taking us far afield only to bring us back a bit later with a much richer understanding of what made this man, and his world, tick.
The volumes look and are dense, (Volume 1 ranges from 1881-1906, Volume 2 from 1907- 1916 and Volume 3 from 1917-1932) but they are intensely readable—chatty, personal, with mini- biographies of others in the Picasso circle—so that we come to know just how convoluted and complex the roots of the art were with Pablo often devouring the hands that were feeding him. The tangents, however “vaut le detour” and are every bit as juicy as the three star view of the man himself. Often, Richardson makes patently clear, Picasso was conceptually leagues ahead of everyone else. But at times he was in debt to other geniuses who were his friends and competitors-Braque, Gaugin, Matisse, Seurat—and to the other protean talents from whom he freely stole(Manet, Ingres) ideas and images.
The normally heavy lifting of biography thus seems like gossamer in his hands, the facts arranged in such a way as to ease you on down the road with the tone of a confidence or a wink. The iconography of each important work is disarmingly traced, threading the personal and professional antecedents into one comprehensive whole. There are no sacred cows for Richardson—and like a cat he sneaks up and circles the truth and then pounces on it, explaining the artistic breakthroughs, the changes from one style to another, the sexuality and drugs which fueled some of them, and Picasso’s own drama-king ego that self-mythologized to the point that he came to believe in the stories too. As a myth debunker Richardson, however, is unsurpassed, adroit at peeling the layers: first, those of Picasso himself, then the second generation contemporary witnesses who often rewrote history, then the third generation anecdotal whispers, the fourth generation scholarly reckoning, and so on, often a daisy chain of prior confabulation.
Richardson leaves no dwelling, no voyage, no influence (the wonders he saw and appropriated into his own work), no woman, no friend , or enemy uncharted. One resists the tendency to makes lists only with difficulty: the houses (in Volume Three alone: Montrouge, rue la Boetie, le Gueridon, La Vigie, la belle Rose, la Haie Blance, Boisgeloup), the Women (madcap Fernande, lissome Eva, bourgeoise Olga, , sexpot Marie Therese, free spirited Francoise, imposing Jacqueline), the friends (Apollinaire, Cocteau, Jacob, Breton, Gertrude Stein, Stravinsky, Diaghilev) and the enemies and some that straddled the two camps, the Dealers (Kahnweiler, Rosenberg), the ballets (Parade, Tricorne, Pulcinella, Mercure, L’epoque des Duchesses, La Danse), the Museums, (besides Paris, Antibes, Barcelona and now Malaga) the Galleries, the retrospectives and exhibitions, the media (paint, sculpture, photography, poetry, collage, tapestry). All come under his watchful, painstaking and often bemused eye.
Richardson’s gift for language also has the added bonus of a mini-tutorial in French and Spanish slang —gratin (high society), bien couillarde (ballsy, or well hung), tertulia (group of friends).
And as far as wrangling goes, Richardson is unrivaled. Some of the images were a revelation to me; many classified or in private collections that were being carefully concealed at the time of the documentary but his long personal cultivation of so many of the Picasso personages has reaped its rewards and the astonishing selection of photographs from the Olga years in Volume Three is testament to this.
Richardson notes that for most of his life, Picasso was already in the spotlight, that the tributes and retrospectives one normally gets at the end had been ongoing since his twenties. Little details, why Picasso’s black was blacker than black (he added silver powder) or his relationship with Chanel (one night stands) make the reading lively. But it also helps to be reminded of his early genius, the sheer power of his intellectual and instinctive audacity—the breakthrough Demoiselles D’Avignon for example,was painted when he was 25!
In short, Richardson seems to have found a way to see Picasso plain while at the same time respecting his obviously century-dominating genius. Fernande, an early “official” mistress apparently said, “He who neglects me, loses me” and Picasso might well have intimated the same thing. Fear not, Richardson has made amply sure we won’t.
Like Warhol, Dorothea Tanning, the subject of a new retrospective at the Tate, toiled first in advertising when she came to New York. She had been deeply affected by the groundbreaking MoMA Surrealism/Dada show of 1936 and her ads for Macy’s and others reflected this new awareness of the ability to disassociate body parts and imagery.
She herself was selected by her future husband Max Ernst—then married to Peggy Guggenheim—for a show of women artists at Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery when she returned from a stay in Europe. (Was this the moment of the Ernst-Tanning coup de foudre? A year later they were together) Georgia O’Keefe refused to be relegated to this show of ‘women artists” but Tanning accepted. When next invited to participate however in a women-only show in the 70’s second wave of feminism, like many creative women who had already made their own way (Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman et al) Tanning was also finally a refusnik. ‘Women artists,” she said, “There is no such thing – or person. It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as “man artist” or “elephant artist”. You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you.’
She had by then grown into a bold, incisive, self-confident practitioner of painting, poetry, sculpture, costumes and set design.
"Just put yourself in my place, George, " she wrote after she had, in a labor of love, produced the costumes and sets for Balanchine’s new ballet Night Shadow, supported by Lincoln Kirstein, "and you would cry too." Tanning was passionate about ballet, but her production had an unfortunately short shelf life when a new production by the Monte Carlo ballet appeared just a few years later. "I really thought all this time that I had helped to make it a good work, and lots of other people thought so too. I was proud to have worked with you to make such a pretty ballet and I felt it was a real collaboration of all 3 of us. But I suppose it’s a very complicated story and I don’t understand very well how these things work."
Tanning went on to work on other ballets and had plans for many more, but was thwarted by lack of funding and the nature of the collaborative process which stymied her as a solo practitioner .
I wonder what Tanning would have made of the many women-only international shows organized this year in response to #MeToo. Ghetto or Gift? The concurrent counter narrative solo exhibitions—besides Tanning (Ernst), Lee Miller(Man Ray) and Gala Eluard (Dali)—who have finally been removed from the rolls of the ‘muses’-only, tell a more complete tale.
The exhibition runs from February 27 to June 9, 2019 at the Tate Modern. All images courtesy of the Tate.
Dana Schutz’s new show at Petzel opens on a woman painting in an earthquake. Her sneakered foot rests on a skull.
I think of Schutz having to work after the earthquake of the last Whitney Biennial, debris flying at her that she never expected, yet managing in spite of the --in my opinion--wholly undeserved misplaced vitriol about her painting of Emmett Till, to carry on with her work and her life.
Another painting in this collection shows a woman on a treadmill watching a blank screen. Maybe this was the only way to exorcise that troubling time.
We are told as readers never to conflate the work with the writer. And yet it’s impossible not to conjure up the life surrounding this new work, at odds with a self-effacing, private self. Instead it is filled with monsters and demons, bold slashes of color, trouble, wandering, marching and strangers as well as the occasional more pastoral: the sun, a boatman, a mountain group.
My favorite image, having spent the previous evening with Manet’s Odalisque is Schutz’s equally provocative version, a green eyed woman who boldly confronts the viewer, refusing to sink beneath the waves, a pelican with a raspberry standing in for Laure and her bouquet of flowers.
Shutz imparts more emotion into a finger or a limb than most artists can into a face. Each element of a body is articulated. It reminds me of flamenco dancing—sometimes your head is going one way, your hands another, your body yet another. Your feet are stamping to get attention. Yet somehow the whole makes sense if you add enough emotion. Emotion is the overlay to Schutz’s more formally excellent qualities. I feel a gut punch at every image.
There is still plenty of Philip Guston in Schutz and even Picasso, but that’s all to the good. Schutz is not afraid to reference her heroes and heroines, to give credit where it’s due. Her bronze sculpture is new and engaging, her painting impasto translating readily into the dynamic, often humorous creatures as if Giacometti had run riot.
I am obviously a fan of Schutz’s bold and ambitious work. I believe she is one of our leading, most authentic artists.
Dana Schutz, Imagine Me and You, Petzel Gallery, 18th Street, open until February 23.
Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today has a long title but in this case its thoroughness mirrors the truly deep and expansive exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery at the newish Renzo Piano designed Lenfest Center at Columbia University. Based on her disseration, Denise Murrell has curated an investigation of gender, race and class via the role of black female model in 19-21st century art history.
It’s the precisely right exhibition at the right time at the right place.
Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the exhibition takes as its premise the centrality of the black female figure in modern art, that these models were both much more important to the development of painting and to the personal lives of their painters than anyone has presumed. No longer exotic, they were full participants in the culture. They became individuals instead of stereotypes.
There are so many surprises in the exhibition that my companion and I, an erudite former curator and head of a foundation found ourselves constantly stopping and pointing things out to each other.
Who knew that Alexandre Dumas pere was black?
Who knew that Matisse regularly visited Harlem?
Who knew that La Dame aux Camelias and subsequent adaptation La Traviata was based on the story of a mixed race American actress called Adah Mencken who had been one of Dumas’s many mistresses?
Who knew it was Baudelaire’s visits with actress Jeanne Duval and his sessions with Laure, both Civil War era free black Parisians that inspired Manet’s Olympia and other paintings?
Olympia is alas not here but you can always find her luscious white body, her black cat and Laure as her maid carrying flowers at the Musee d’Orsay where this exhibition is next destined. We are sorry to miss her in the flesh, since so much of the exhibition derives from this historic painting but instead we have a variety of prostitutes, nannies, slaves from the West Indies, circus stars and grisettes from Paris in images from Nadar, Degas, Norman Lewis, James Porter, James van Der Zee among others. it is another kind of bouquet.
The show summons how extensive the pattern of black modeling was for 160 years, how close some of the models were to these famous painters, and how much their work was influenced by the then novel inclusion of their race and gender in works no longer destined for the salon. The legacy of Olympia runs deep and long. The last room is devoted to contemporary riffs on the Manet from Ellen Gallagher to Mickalene Thomas.
For me, even as a writer not a painter, the painting has cast a long shadow, summoning the 19th century literary heroines who were both revered and sometimes destroyed by their desire and devil-may-care. Behind these paintings were some very brutal stories of painterly and writerly disaffection and dismissal. Yet in the end, these models have more than withstood the test of time and represent an uplift of subject and grace.
Columbia’s new complex of buildings by Piano is a fine home for the show and rightly sited in Harlem and it bodes well for the university as a legitimate and first tier venue for class A material. Congratulations to all.
P S. I include two images of Manet and Baudelaire not only to show you how lively and modern they look but also to see that it’s possible that Baudelaire was separated from Bill Murray at birth!
William Kentridge is a polymath, an entrepreneur, a ringmaster, an historian, a singer, a writer, a visual artist, a designer, and so on. There is probably no challenge too great for this maestro of the visual and performing arts.
The Head and the Load, a production workshopped at his The Center for the Less Good Idea atelier in Johannesburg and at Mass MoCA, and performed already at the Tate and in Germany, arrives at the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory already finely tuned. I’ve long had trouble with seeing productions try to successfully fill this vast space. But apparently if you build it they will come—and there is no one better than Kentridge to think big.
Taking as his ostensible subject the role of Africans in WW 1, Kentridge envisions a world where Africans are finally allowed to speak truth to power about what it was like to be a human vehicle (soldiers and porters) for troop strength and munitions during this global war in which Africa became part of the spoils. With his principal collaborators, composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, choreographer Gregory Maqoma, a local NY chamber orchestra The Knights and other accomplished dancers, singers, musicians and actors, Kentridge deploys some of his signature elements: live and video shadowplay, original documentation, animation, processionals et al) and delivers a vast and moving panoply of heartbreak and political strife.
In an artists talk before the performance, Kentridge described the gestation of the piece in an 8 day workshop in Joburg with 60 artists that gradually evolved over the course of other subsequent workshops. Some elements were also stimulated by his processional piece in Rome on the Tiber River. For The Head and the Load, Kentridge modified this processional approach with waystations: breaks for us to understand the deeper history and meanings of the conscription of native African troops into a far away war they barely understood.
English, French, German and African languages are deployed alongside voices in an arsenal of sounds that both emulate aspects of the destruction and elevate it. Having seen Kentridge perform the Schwitters Ursonate last year I heard the elements of Rakka Ta Bee Bee in the opening moments. Instruments are voices, voices are instruments, and as Kentridge says, he would be hard pressed to find opera singers who would challenge their vocal equipment quite so audaciously as these performers are willing to do.
Kentridge is recalling Dada and its emphasis on collage, on the spoken automatic word, on repetition as a tool for engagement. But the most affecting moment for me was the extraordinary pas de deux between two soldiers, one in a state of collapse, the other trying to haul him up and get him to salute. This is probably the most affecting new piece of choreography I have seen in a very long time, and is as moving and intricately plotted as any of the Swan Queen with her Prince. Kentridge says he wanted to emphasize the contrasting “tenderness and violence”
Kentridge resisted the temptation to focus on one character’s three act journey, a more conventional operatic approach. Instead this collage method (his default) allows him to graze on many stories which percolate, evaporate and then re-constitute as the evening progresses.
I still have trouble with the Drill Hall. My head moves in a kind of robotic 180 degree rotation, trying to capture the fullness of what the team is showing me. It’s not only tiring, I think it distracts from the pithiness, the anguish, the intensity.
But ok. Here’s a guy for whom the work size is irrelevant. He can work small (Ursonate) or large (The Nose), in museums, or in performing arts venues with equal aplomb. He is bravely opening a different window on non-western culture and history for all of us and is to be commended.
The Head and the Load continues at the Park Avenue Armory through December 15.
Julian Schnabel is a very brave artist. After being a wildly successful artist du jour and then coming down off that perch, he turned his hand to film and made, among others, some beauties: the story of Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
At Eternity’s Gate, his film portrait of Van Gogh is as ambitious as the others but is hampered more than anything by the dialog seemingly lifted in whole chunks from letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, to Paul Gauguin fellow artist, and others. Despite help from veteran screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere (or maybe alas because of it) nothing ever sounds natural. And therefore the performances, though earnest and deep, draw attention to their static quality instead of to their verisimilitude. Schnabel should have trusted himself more.
Instead of bringing on a French screenwriter, the casting could have been more European. Not that I am PC about that. But the American-ness and British-ness of the principal roles doesn’t help you dive into the characters.
Willem Dafoe is abjectly tortured, (even if a good thirty years older than the artist actually was as this series of events unfolds), the artist who can’t get anyone to even hang his work for free in a bar, whose manic depression overwhelms him, whose obsessions for capturing on canvas a girl walking home from work or a fellow asylum mate get him into trouble. His compulsive desire to fill every canvas, to layer it, to exhaust the paint itself, is made real and here Schnabel’s own expertise comes into play. We feel keenly his desire to suck up the sights, sounds and even smells of the world.
Oscar Isaac is a suitably arrogant Gauguin who alternately thrills and chills his less successful friend. The best surprise is Rupert Friend as brother Theo.
This relationship of the brothers is wonderfully drawn: Theo the sane, Vincent the genius madman, linked forever as helper and helpless. Theo’s desire for his own life eventually overrides his compassion for Vincent when he institutionalizes him.
Van Gogh’s intellectual heft, his knowledge of Shakespeare and the Bible is set against his dramatic deficits of personal intelligence. I don’t know if Schnabel invented this or it was real. (I reached out to John Walsh, ex Getty director, now giving a series of lectures on Van Gogh at Yale open to the public for some context. Walsh reminded me he would be dealing with this period in Arles next semester .)
The production is filled with the southern French light that so warmed Van Gogh’s aching heart and soul. (Arles, once a favorite city of mine, is now undergoing massive development by the Luma Foundation. I saw things in construction a few years ago. I’m hopeful they can retain something of the city’s historic character) Schnabel managed to find the still rural Arles, the one that was Van Gogh’s home at the end of his life both inside outside the asylum walls.
Every loaf of bread, bowl of fruit and indeed every character from barmaid to priest is filled with the unique texture of real life. And then every once in a while the screen goes black. A moment of darkness descends on us just as it does on Vincent.
The film opens on November 16th.
Private museums are all the rage. A month ago, Glenstone opened in Maryland. There’s the Broad and so many others worldwide.
But Magazzino Italian Art Museum seems an outlier. It took me a year to finally have a Sunday to get up to Cold Spring. I had hoped for a better show of leaves along the Hudson River train route, but like everywhere else, global warming has pushed back on nature. For at least the second year in a row, there were only muddy browns and golds with the occasional red pop to remind us of what we were missing.
Derived from the collection of Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu, the largely Arte Povera works at Magazzino were lovingly collected with intense focus and scholarship. Arte Povera really becomes understandable at this museum, its motives less murky. Having been lured by post war Torino and north Italy and then tumbling headlong into Sicily and Puglia these last years, the art had special resonance for me.
Margherita Stein was Arte Povera’s champion in Italy and she has passed the torch to the Olnick/Spanus with white heat. Architect Miguel Quismondo has designed a home for them in nearby Garrison and they asked him to carry on with the museum. Having only seen exterior shots of Glenstone’s gray pavilions and coming upon the (smaller) Magazzino gray pavilions, I was slightly put off by the austerity. Once inside however, there is a warmth and logical spaciousness that felt in keeping with the art.
An hour and a half long series of short films hosted by Germano Celant who coined the term Arte Povera at the entry is too long for one go, but 15 minutes will give you the necessary tools to approach the art. No wall labels of course (my pet peeve) but the small booklet you are given at the entrance is a pithy port to the artists and their works.
Celant explains the crucial animating theory of this group, largely a sixties reaction to industrialization and the loss of nature and natural elements. Taking their cues from water, air, land and fire, the primitive elements revered by the Greeks, as well as the animal kingdom, this self-organized Italian group juxtaposed the work of man and the work of nature in novel ways. The point, a very contemporary one, is that we are losing our way.
Alas, until Marisa Merz’s work was ‘exhumed’ a few years ago at the Whitney there was little attention paid to the concurrent work of women. Merz--husband Mario was more closely associated with the group—is here represented by works that captivate for their “warmer” delivery system.
Workers and students were unusually aligned, especially in Europe during the late sixties and the art reflects a rejection of the status quo, then more oriented towards Pop and Minimalism. Other groups of Italian artists were seeking a different way out of the postwar but the Poveristos (my coinage) including Michelangelo Pistoletto, Marco Anelli, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Pino Pascali, Jannis Kounellis, Giuseppe Penone, Giulio Paolini marched to their own drum.
The Olnick Spanus also support contemporary Italian art, some currently on view at the Italian Culture Institute and the exhibition, which closes this week, makes a good pairing with the works at the museum.
The Price of Everything is a comprehensive and clear-eyed documentary on the subject of the relation of art to commerce. To that end, we hear from collectors, curators, journalists, auctioneers and artists—from the wildly successful (Jeff Koons), to very successful (George Condo, Marilyn Minter) to those whom the market lost sight of (Larry Poons) and those just coming into view (Njideka Akunyili Crosby).
It could not be more depressing.
Koons’ hedge fund factory art which some collectors can’t get enough of is on full display. So is Poons’ neglected ramshackle self and barn. So is Amy Cappellazzo’s auction house sophistry, and Jerry Saltz’s I’ve-seen-it-all shrug. And Crosby’s face as she realizes a work of hers has topped 900,000 at auction—and she won’t see a cent of it.
A Russian collector cries over her Hirst butterflies. Condo paints an entire painting as if he’s painting a fence while carrying on an interview. Between him and Koons and really the rest of the interviews with the possible exception of Crosby, the veil is entirely lifted so as to dispel any remaining magic we ever felt about artists or certainly the art world. The film is in direct contradiction to the artist’s panel I attended last week.
The following conclusions are drawn:
It’s very important for good art to be expensive.
If the gimmick owns you. it’s over.
To be an effective collector, you have to be a decorator.
Everything is metaphor.
Contemporary Art is a luxury brand.
Kill me now. Or maybe the messengers? The producer of the film is Jennifer Blei Stockman, an art collector herself, former chair of the Guggenheim Board, once named ‘Republican Woman of the Year”. The director is Nathaniel Kahn, architect Louis Kahn’s son who once made the infinitely more marvelous and uplifting documentary about his father.
The film opens theatrically this weekend in NY and then makes its way across the country to depress everyone else. A program at the 92nd Street Y on November 4th with some of the subjects is just more masochism if you ask me. On November 12th it hits HBO.
The Hilma af Klint exhibition curated by Tracey Bashkoff, just opening at the Guggenheim is an almost perfect marriage of subject and space. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, and a number of other artists working at the time, af Klint was absorbed with spirals and circles. These forms had migrated from spiritual practices, specifically Theosophy, Rosicruianism, and Utopianism, and influenced the practices of Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, and other artists and architects who were seeking to find some kind of artistic compatibility with the universe and scientific discoveries. Color theory became connected to mood and a number of new ideas relating to psychiatric states of being. Symbols and words were incorporated.
Like other adherents, Klint, who had already been a member of a Swedish women artists group, began to hold séances with four other like-minded women. After ten years, at one of the séances, she felt herself ‘instructed’ by one of the ‘High Ones” to create a cycle of paintings. (I would have liked to have been at this one). Af Klint felt herself to be a receptacle, similar to the adherents of surrealism and Breton’s automatic writing. Out of this impulse, arose The Paintings for the Temple, 193 works begun in 1906 , many on view at the museum. These works, some quite large, are lush abstractions that build on the geometries of the spiritual but are not in any way circumscribed by that impulse. The colors pop, but also soothe, and a rare harmony is achieved. They were never installed in any temple, but now they are installed in Wright’s temple. And it is heavenly.
Smaller works, later watercolors, display similar forays into geometric and biomorphic work, but then you will see hints of Josef Albers, Georgia O’Keefe and Victor Hugo. Af Klint often worked in series, variations on a theme. This adds to the didactic quality but surprisingly, that does not get in the way of delight.
It is going to be a social media extravaganza. Contemporary artists and audiences will thrill to these lesser-known works. (There is a roundtable on her, and her work on Friday open to the public) Apparently, wounded in love at an early age, she decided never to marry.
Af Klint’s will stipulated that the work not be shown for 20 years because it had been misunderstood by Rudolf Steiner, one of her philosophical idols, and he counseled her that she might get a similar reaction among her contemporaries. She was part of a 1986 exhibition at LACMA where I first saw her work, and much more recently a retrospective in Sweden but her foundation still is the principal proprietor. This exhibition marks the first dedicated solely to her in the US, .
An ordinary/extraordinary thing happened last night. Three artists and a moderator/interlocutor sat down on folding chairs in a funky, large space with peeling paint and mottled stained cork floor at the NY Studio School and talked about their art with each other, with him, and eventually with us. They sat with a mini slideshow that read Tell Me Something Good.
Miles away from trickster artists letting their paintings explode, fancy gallery shows and auctions where artists do not generally participate except through their work, it was just three guys and a girl sitting around talking.
It was not contentious. It was not invasive. The artists got to talk a little about their own practice and what other work inspired them. They got to ask questions and interact with each other. People were respectful and listened to each other at non CNN/Fox/MSNBC decibel levels. It was everything that the world, not only the art world, is mostly not these days. It was a real pleasure.
Nominally also hosted by The Brooklyn Rail (still free, a commercial publication would never let its writers run on so…) moderator Jarrett Earnest and artists Rikrit Tiravanija, Matvey Levenstein and Dana Schutz revealed something of what made them get up in the morning and work. All of them have taught, or are teaching, but they were not professorial. They are just worker bees.
There were references made to Pontormo and angels, Caspar David Friedrich, Philip Guston, Rudolph Schindler, Ned Kelly, Sidney Nolan, the Vienna Secession, Expressonism, religion, Utopia, dystopia, certainly an eclectic set, and we were an eclectic audience: young, younger, old, older, male, female, students, artists and I don’t know what else. Politics, blessedly, was mostly not present. It was a good break from all the #Toos.
We first looked at Pontormo’s Visitation (now at the Morgan Library)
We looked at Levenstein’s Peonies
We looked at Schutz’s Self Exam
We looked at Tiravanaja’s Performance Structure
Among other things.
Only Schutz is US born. The others privileged their immigrant status as both adding and subtracting to their experience here as artists. They talked about meaning in art. Should art have to mean anything? Does it by default? No conclusions were reached. That was ok.
Schutz was brave enough to ask about the impact of social media. The elephant in the room was of course her own experience with its vicious onslaught last year. But the others did not push her to revisit this terrible time.
Do artists need to be in NY? Not really, it was agreed for the nth time, NY has changed. I wanted to tell them they are asking the same thing in LA, London, Paris, Rome, et al. Artists, and all creative people, by definition, are always wondering if they are in the right place to receive the magic and also sleep and eat reasonably well. The grass is always greener, or in the case of LA, browner.
The evening did almost end however on a bit of down note. It was generally agreed: There is too much art. There is too much art writing. Nobody has time to see (or presumably, read) anything except her or his favorites anymore.
Earnest ended by telling us just to go have fun.
I hopped on the subway and read the latest issue of the Rail on the way home. Really there is too much art and writing about art. But it’s fun.
As a college student of 19th Century French literature, I became enamored of the great observers of love and life, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola and Balzac. Though Victor Hugo, poet, journalist, statesman, politician and hero of the Republic for his resistance to waves of Napoleonic repression and the death penalty was among them, it was not until I saw Francois Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adele H while working at the New York Film Festival that Hugo resounded for me in a more personal way.
The story of the film is based on the true story of Hugo’s daughter Adele, diagnosed in real life with schizoprenia, but in the film primarily the victim of unrequited love. As anyone who has seen the film knows, Adele goes crazy after being rejected by a handsome solider with whom she’s had an affair, follows him to Halifax, then Barbados where she eventually collapses in the street and is returned to Paris and her father. Hugo never appears in the film as Truffaut, who got the rights from his son Jean, was contractually obliged never to depict him on screen. We hear him only in voice over.
In another stroke of luck, I was often able to stay at the home of friends on the Place des Vosges, right near Victor Hugo’s home which has been preserved qua home and archive.
All this came back to me when I entered the magical exhibition of Victor Hugo’s drawings at the Hammer Museum curated by Allegra Pesenti and Cynthia Burlingame. Besides being one of the leading writers, politicians and human rights advocates of his century, Hugo was a marvelous and ingenious draftsman and observed and depicted the world in a very original way.
The exhibition of 75 drawings is titled Stones to Stains (Taches) as these were the methodologies with which he began and ended his drawing practice which took place largely while he was in exile for 20 years in Jersey and Guernsey, the Channel Islands to which he had repaired when political events continued their downward spiral. Not content to use the formal methods available to him, he creased, folded, puddled, stenciled, smudged, traced, collaged, frottaged, cut out, and literally shadow boxed with his paper. Though most of the drawings are a range of sepias, browns, beiges and blacks, it is the ones with a just a touch of polychrome that do stand out.
A highly romantic and skilled amateur of photography, astronomy, oceanography, and spiritualism, Hugo incorporated aspects of these passions into much of the work. Yet the work is not literal minded or illustrative. Instead as Pesenti reminds us, he took the simple tools with which he was writing Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and other works—pen, paper, and ink—and gave them alternative expression in the drawings.
I imagine him late at night in Hauteville House, his splendid home on Guernsey which he decorated himself, after a long day of writing, taking out a clean sheet of paper and giving his automatic style which the surrealists eventually so admired, free reign, a release after the long day of keeping together his complex plots and syntax. Florian Rodari, a consulting curator on the project says in his excellent and enlightening catalog essay that he “defended disorder and the commotion of life”. He describes how Hugo looked on architecture as another alphabet, stones set upright, each one a letter, finally forming words in the ensemble.
Adele was not the only Hugo family victim. Her older sister Leopoldine, reportedly Hugo’s favorite, was drowned in a horrible accident along with her husband who tried to save her. Hugo had many devoted mistresses in addition to his wife and so we see the elements of the classic genius syndrome where geniuses are allowed things the rest of us are not.
Hugo did not sell his drawings. They were given to friends as gifts or aides-memoires of events, or eventually to publishers who used them in various publications, outlined in Burlingame’s catalog essay. The loans for this show, primarily from the Bibliotheque Nationale and the Maison of Victor Hugo in Paris will probably not be allowed to travel outside of France again, and the Hammer is the only venue Do watch the video of the curators in their behind the scenes of the creation of the exhibition.
Pesenti summons Odilon Redon, Andre Breton and Picasso, as artists akin to Hugo in various ways, but all I could think of was Alberto Burri, perhaps because I had so recently both written about his Guggenheim exhibition and the Gibellina Cretto.
The exhibition is open until the end of the year. The Hammer is screening the film on November 20 but it’s also for rent on Amazon. It’s a great warm up to the exhibition as it’s filmed almost entirely on Guernsey. And if you’ve ever been rejected in love, you will weep along with Adele as she tries to win back the favor of her lover. In real life, Truffaut, who often fell in love with his leading ladies, apparently was rebuffed by the much younger Isabel Adjani who played the role and she instead had an affair with her co star Bruce Robinson, who was also a very good writer. So real life imitated the art which imitated real life, precisely in keeping with the masterful Victor Hugo.
Images courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Metropolitan Museum of Art / image source, Art Resource, NY, Collection of David Lachenmann, Maisons de Victor Hugo, Paris / Guernesey / Roger-Viollet, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay.
I worked on a film biography for PBS on Picasso in conjunction with MoMA’s first comprehensive retrospective after Picasso’s death. William Rubin, the chief curator of MoMA, who was organizing the exhibition was adamant we not interview Francoise Gilot because he was very concerned about getting loans from Picasso’s widow Jacqueline who was controlling an important part of his estate and he thought contact with Gilot might jeopardize that, given the acrimony with which Picasso and Gilot had landed after her 1964 tell all memoir about her life with him.
I had read Life with Picasso and thought it not only bold but instructive. It told how to hold your own with a powerful man. I came away admiring the only woman who had been able to extricate herself from Picasso and go on and have a productive life. I fought for her inclusion in the film, but I was very junior and had no say.
Though I did spend time with Claude and Paloma her children, it wasn’t until 2012 on the occasion of her show at Gagosian Madison that I finally got to meet her. She was on the arm of John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, who is still working on the last volume of his definitive series on the life. Frail but steely is how she came across to me.
Alas I have never admired her work as much as her person.
But having now received the new Taschen set of three sketchbooks she made while on travels to Venice India and Senegal, I am newly taken with it. These more spontaneous drawings, watercolors and make for a window into this remarkable woman that is a fresh look at the open, attentive, original way she has seen the world.
Gilot was a young artist when she met Picasso at 21, an acolyte. Inevitably, there has always been Picasso in her work. That’s not being revelatory. There is something of Picasso in almost every artist who worked in the 20th and 21st centuries.
But it is Matisse she invokes in these sketchbooks. She says he was the painter she felt closest to. That would have driven Picasso, who felt Matisse was his most important rival, crazy.
The Taschen series, 1974-1981, is a lively, colorful pictorial diary of her exotic travels. They began when she traveled with Jonas Salk, having moved on from an artistic genius to a scientific one (there was photographer Luc Simon in between). Francoise was both a companion to famous men (some women have a talent for that) and an artist who was able to maintain her own practice even in the midst of these larger lives.
“These little books are complete in themselves,” she says. “I made them, and then once I’d made them I was free. For me these little books are a step toward freedom.”
I am not an ardent fan of landscape, however beautifully wrought, so Camille Corot, one of the great 19th century practitioners has not been much on my radar.
All this changed when I saw the jpegs of 44 of Corot’s Women in the National Gallery exhibition which has just opened in DC. I have not seen them in their sumptuous flesh yet but I have seen the catalog and heard the curators talk. Many of the paintings are on loan from the Met, but as this is the only venue of the exhibition which has also aggregated other important works, it’s worth a special trip.
To be female in the 19th century was fraught. In France, Balzac, Zola and Flaubert were zeroing in on the dilemma of those of the fair sex who did not have the resources to maintain a position in society. You were either well-to-do, or poor, a milkmaid, a courtesan or princess. If you were beautiful, it helped but then you had a choice of how to deploy your resources. Sometimes that did not turn out so well.
The paintings do not reflect the down trodden. And yet being a model in those times was certainly not an upper class occupation. The question about what the models did besides model is ever present. Curator Mary Morton suggests they were not performing for Corot. Are they thinking about how hungry they are and how soon they will be able to eat after posing, or something more elevated?
Corot, like his peers, had also certainly come to depend on photography, the medium that had taken the century by storm, and had fostered the development of collections of erotica.
Yet like Delacroix, after touring Italy or southern regions, Corot portrayed the exotic woman in situ, in costume, fully attired. His portraits are often pensive, his nudes not nearly as confrontational as Manet’s who looked the viewers directly in the eye, daring them to respond. Though he played with the male gaze, my impression is of a certain chastity and remove, even in his splendid odalisques. Picasso was apparently quite taken with them.
Corot was by all accounts religious and devoted to his mother and sister with whom he lived. Possibly asexual. He swore off marriage. His family had the resources to allow him to become an artist and finally with their blessing, after his sister’s death, he did so. His family were bourgeois wigmakers and hat makers and he had worked as a draper. Though he was reportedly very shy and wary of the female clients, he obviously had occasion to observe them in close quarters when they were at ease.
I have seen the sumptuous and thrilling Delacroix show in Paris now largely arrived at the Met. Delacroix is a favorite and I have to confess that Delacroix’s portraits of women are even more splendid.
But Corot captures something else. Not patriotism or sensuality, but a haunting interiority, a penny for their thoughts.
I came to the Kusama-Infinity film by Heather Lenz a skeptic and emerged something of a convert.
There isn’t one city I’ve visited in the last years that has not had a Kusama retrospective recently completed, up, or on the horizon. Museums fight to get a Kusama show, attendance increases dramatically when they land one. Who does not covet a selfie with a Kusama?
It was not always thus. Lenz’s film makes a strong case for another Kusama, the outsider who came to the US in 1958 with money sewn into her kimono at a time when Japan was stifling and reactionary after the war. Her family—in the seed and flower business—did not recognize or support her talent. Her father was a philanderer and filled her mother with anger which spilled over into the children. To escape this toxicity was bold and rare.
New York held its own challenges. Kusama was neither Ab Ex nor Minimalist nor Figurative. Maybe she had a little bit of Pollock’s energy—less drippy- and Agnes Martin’s precision—less restrained. She could not get arrested (later this would change). But Kusama had extraordinary belief in herself and her work. She was very striking. She recognized early on the value of documenting her work, and her person. Artfully draped over her or standing amongst her creations, she is every bit as arresting.
Finally, in some smaller shows, other artists began to see her value and innovation. There’s no doubt that Oldenburg—stuffing—Samaras—mirrors—and Warhol—immersive patterned installations—and later Hirst-dots--were inspired by her. Stella craved and eventually bought an early yellow work for 75 dollars. Cornell had a crush on her, called her “my princess’ even though he was celibate (as was she.)
She cycled through obsessions with dots, infinity nets, balls, stuffed fingers, mirrors, naked happenings and protests. She was against the war in Vietnam. She did get arrested. I could not help but think of Yoko on a parallel path at this point only instead in bed with a Beatle. Kusama was in bed with her dots and fingers. I also glimpsed affinities with Rei Kawakubo. And with Ruth Asawa, another outsider who marched to her own net-like drums.
Finally she moved back to Japan and eventually she had to check herself into a psychiatric facility, where she still sleeps each night. Being obessesive compulsive and celibate? I don’t know how she was able to survive.
“When I see dots my eyes get brighter”, she now says with her signature red wig. Alas, though I very much appreciate the earlier work, mine now glaze over when I see the red and white dots. But I’m an admirer of the grit and determination with which she has approached her life and practice.
The film is in general release
The Getty's fashion photography exhibition Icons of Style is more modest Yin to the Met Museum Heavenly Bodies extravagant Yang. There we experience actual fashion. Here we experience it largely by its more quotidian delivery system: an ad or a spread in an increasingly moribund genre, the print magazine. (The recent announcement by Conde Nast that they are selling three more of their titles including fashion magazine W is testament to this trend.) It’s still mostly via photographs that we salivate over a dress or pair of shoes artfully displayed or that we are made ambitious to look a certain way. What will we do without these commissioning print magazines which represent extraordinary curation (and expenditures)?
A general chronological survey from 1911-2011, the Getty exhibition goes down easy. Some of these images are familiar: Helmut Newton's Lisa Taylor in her man-spread, Avedon’s Dovima with her elephants. The big guns are all here, and blessedly not just the males. Some delightful excerpts from film and video are interspersed.
But what inevitably drew my eye were the lesser known vintage gems. (Dora Maar's Model in Swimsuit, Man Ray's Model wearing a Gown, Baron de Meyer's Frightened by a Mouse ) There is true art in these fashion photographs, some counterposed with architecture, others in very original formal but playful compositions There’s a great deal of humor in surreal juxtapositons that bring a smile or create mystery.
I attended a panel with some famous models including Cheryl Tiegs and Beverly Johnson. Alas, none spoke in depth of the actual work as art, but more of long hours, branding, acting, the celebs they met, how they broke through, which is after all what the sold-out crowd came to hear. There was too little conversation about the many male photographers and stylists accused of systemic abuse. (At least one included in the exhibition)
The conversation seems to be suggesting this is a cultural moment for female empowerment. But hey, y’all. I know we thought we had this licked in the sixties. We need to go back to the ur-texts: Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, et al. Let’s raise awareness and not be fooled by the fact that media is paying attention. It’s in the actual workplace that change must come about, and models need to be talking seriously about that as much as anyone.
Certainly the crowd was not the typical art crowd and the Getty got a lot of new bodies in the door—and that’s the goal for many museums these days. The curator of the exhibition was there, I was sorry he wasn’t invited to say a few words. There are other events attached to the exhibition which are probably more in keeping with discussions of the actual work.
At the Annenberg Center for Photography there is a Library of Congress companion exhibition that brings other vintage photography front and center. And I’ve been delving into the Los Angeles Public Library online collections, newly databased, also worth a look.
Photography (with writing as a close second) has probably both gained and suffered more because of the internet than any other medium. As in the debate over a hard copy of a book vs the Kindle, we know many readers have gone back to the real thing. Instagram, with all its virtual breadth and disposability cannot match the in-person richness of these professional photographs.
The exhibition runs through October 21st.
Alongside the fantastical Bodys Isak Kingelez exhibition in an adjacent gallery, MoMA has produced an architecture show Toward a Concrete Utopia of a very different sort, much more in keeping with their comprehensive Latin American show that Barry Bergdoll so deftly curated a few years ago. This is architecture that made a different kind of historical statement, and had everything to do with the post-war Eastern European socialist movements of the 1950s-1980’s.
Yugoslav architecture? It doesn’t sound sexy. But it is! The more I look at Brutalist architecture the more I see the cragginess, the undulation and not the monolithic. And its monuments are apparently a great hit on social media. The images above may tell you why.
The architects will not be household names, but they were deeply influenced by people like Paul Rudolph and Kenzo Tange. This Brutalist ethic was in keeping with the desire for monumentality, permanence and commemoration that swept Eastern Europe at the time. This is a region that has gone back and forth from federation to separate nation-states --these buildings and monuments are the most permanent residue of the shape shifting.
Architecture as a symbol of utopia, dystopia or even myopia—all this is present in the exhibition.
I won’t be able to get to this show right away but I’m very interested in flagging it having plunged deeply into Communist era and mid-century architecture this year in neighboring Prague, Vienna, Berlin and previously in Cuba and Latin America and especially Mexico.
All images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.