Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jon Imber (1950-2014) RIP

By Carl Belz

Artist friend Jon Imber died on April 17, yielding finally to ALS but painting valiantly and brilliantly to the end, a source of wonder and inspiration. I had the privilege of knowing him since the later 1970s, of showing his work at the Rose Art Museum at that time, and of writing about his achievement at the time of a major exhibition of his paintings at Boston University in 1999. That essay is here reproduced.
Thinking About And Talking With Jon Imber
What I first liked in Guston was the image, now what I like is the paint*
I first saw Jon Imber’s paintings in 1978 in the small Somerville studio he occupied at the time, and I decided pretty quickly to include half a dozen of them in a group show of area artists that took place at the Rose Art Museum at the end of that year. The pictures were impressive in size and scale, indicating a large ambition, and they were dominated by the human figure, leaving no doubt about their vehicle of expression. It was their narrative content, however, that I found compelling, even haunting: A father on all fours carries his son on his back, a mother and her two children pose for a family snapshot, a young man creeps into the bed of his sleeping lover, or reads the morning paper while eating a piece of toast, or stares at two freshly opened cans of paint.

The situations are conventional enough, but they are unconventionally presented. The figures look anxious and uncomfortable, they leer and grimace, their bodies awkwardly entangle one another, and their anatomies become suddenly exaggerated, appearing to have been shaped in response not to sight but to feeling. Incongruously, they are also naked, stripped and exposed like the barren landscapes and unadorned interiors they are made to occupy, causing both the spaces and the figures to seem equally forlorn, equally vulnerable. Yet, because they are so large in relation to the worlds they inhabit and so blunt in their nakedness -- so monumentally human -- the figures also assume an uncanny strength, as though, however common the activities they engage, they transform those activities to the level of timeless rituals, to a level of experience we all share.

As Jon is the first to acknowledge, the ambition signaled by the early figure paintings evolved from the combined lessons of the Italian Renaissance and the New York School under the guidance of his teacher at Boston University, Philip Guston: “The size came from New York and me wanting to be a modern painter; I liked the way Guston had made a big statement that changed the art world, and I wanted to do something like that. Before Guston I wasn’t too aware of art prior to Van Gogh and Gauguin and Cezanne, but Guston loved to talk about the Renaissance, and he got me there, to the forms and spaces, the order and symmetry, the monumentality of the Florentine Renaissance, of Giotto, Masaccio, and Piero.” From Guston, too, came advice regarding the subject matter of those paintings: “One specific thing that Guston said was, ‘Paint what’s most important to you, paint what you care about, get to whatever it is that’s going to sustain you for a lifetime as a painter.’ That was my introduction to personal content, and as soon as I looked for it, there it was: My friends and family, my father, my mother, my girl friend, my own life.”  

 So the young man in the pictures, the one climbing into bed, or reading the paper, or looking at the cans of paint, is the artist himself, the leitmotif within the program of figurative personal content he explored into the mid-1980s when he showed a series of landscape paintings having in them no figures at all. While the landscapes extended Jon’s practice of working in a large format and developing his canvases with the aid of drawings entirely within the studio, their shift in subject matter was nonetheless puzzling. Where did the landscape come from? Where had the figure gone? And what had become of personal content? What puzzled me most, however – and also surprised me – was the extent to which the new paintings caused the older paintings to look different, as though, intentionally or otherwise, the two bodies of work constituted a radical critique of one another that probed beyond issues of subject matter alone. The landscapes, for instance, seemed to offer more paint and surface incident, more material pleasures, making the figure paintings appear workmanlike and matter-of-fact, their pigments employed first and last in order to get the job done. They also seemed more tightly and consciously structured, with clusters of rocks and trees and flowers dispersed as compositional anchors, with light and color selectively heightened to guide us rhythmically from foreground to middle distance to deep space.

By comparison, the compositions and spaces of the earlier pictures look unpredictably intuitive, crammed in one moment, accommodating in the next, as if the figures within them had alone determined their configuration. What the new landscapes forced upon me, in other words, was a new awareness of the formal properties of the figure paintings, formal properties I hadn’t much thought about in my initial and highly positive response to them, for I had focused my attention – or they had focused my attention – on their narrative and personal content, not on the way they were put together. But while I may have experienced a momentary regret on seeing the landscapes replace the figures – it sometimes happens when you follow and support an artist’s work for a while that you become presumptuous, you expect the artist to follow your vision instead of his own – I felt no need to choose between the two bodies of work, for I felt they were equally strong, equally ambitious, equally convincing. The significance of any comparison between them lay elsewhere: New art possessing quality always makes you see older art differently.

The shift in subject matter was more natural than puzzling for Jon: “Guston had kept me on the path of making the paintings raw and peculiar and awkward, but you can’t stay raw forever. The big landscapes began in the summer of 1985, but I had done landscapes before, in the Southwest when I lived there and periodically down on my uncle’s farm in Chatham, New York. Landscape took me more to light and space and color and away from the figure and narration. I also wanted to surprise myself, I feel I have to, and landscape encourages that, it keeps the mind at bay, it keeps the thinking process at bay; information presents itself and you have to respond, which is exciting -- you don’t have time to refine the way you do in the studio.”

As  indicated, the 1985 landscapes were developed in the studio with the aid of drawings produced on site. Since 1990, when Jon began spending five or six months a year in Stonington, Maine, nearly all of them have been executed plein-air, one at a time, in three or four hour sessions, and that practice has deepened his relationship with nature and made the paintings increasingly loose and spontaneous. “I quit after three or four hours, after the light has changed. If I don’t like it the next day, I wipe it out; otherwise I try to make it a one-shot painting, which I guess I learned from Abstract Expressionism, because the best paintings by Guston or Pollock or any of those guys feel like they were done in one shot. Painters up in Maine talk about the beauties of nature, but I generally can’t stand them. I feel as though I’m in a battle with nature trying to find myself within it, figure out what’s going on between me and the landscape, so I seem to be drawn to a tangle of trees or a situation that’s kind of a mess that I have to sort out. Nature’s not a very comfortable place.”

A tangle of trees, a mess, an uncomfortable place. While they bear no resemblance to the figure paintings I first saw in his studio, Jon’s landscapes of the past decade nonetheless remind me of them – of those tangled arms and legs, those messy personal relationships, those uncomfortably barren and unadorned spaces – as though, two decades later, he’s come full circle. The fact that the human figure in the form of his wife or son has occasionally appeared in the landscapes encourages the same thought, but that’s clearly not the case. “I don’t feel very sure of myself anymore, not as though I’m on fire in the studio, which is how I felt 15 or 20 years ago. Now painting is like tackling something, as though it’s gotten harder than it used to be.” I can imagine it has, for any genuine passion grows increasingly complex with time, and I’m grateful the challenge here is his, not mine; but equally I’m grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed from the beginning what meeting the challenge has wrought, which is the making of a painter.

Carl Belz
May 1999

* Quotes from the artist are from an interview that took place in his studio in March 1999.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Princeton University Art Museum

By Charles Kessler

The Princeton campus is so beautiful it doesn't seem real. But why is it that college art museums, this one included, are so often the least interesting (if not out and out ugliest) buildings on college campuses?
Princeton University Art Museum.
The exterior of the Princeton University Museum of Art is your basic humdrum modernism; and the interior is a confusing labyrinth. The lower galleries, where the Asian, African, Ancient and Art of the Americas (pre-Columbian and American Indian) are exhibited, are poorly lit, and the installations are old-fashion. According to Lehze Flax, the designer at the museum, they plan to upgrade the lighting and installations. I hope this happens soon.
Installation view, Northwest Coast American Indian art. 
In addition to an inadequate building, the website for the museum is difficult to navigate. Even when I had all the relevant information to search for a painting or drawing in their collection, including the accession number, it was easier to use Google than search the museum's own website. More troubling, the site lacks sufficient information on their art – surprising for an institution of this caliber.

For all that, the museum has a first-rate encyclopedic collection of about 72,000 works. It's perhaps not up to the lofty standards of Yale with 200,000 works in the collection, or Harvard with 250,000, but it's still pretty damn impressive. (BTW, the extensive renovation, expansion and integration of all the Harvard Art Museums opens on November 16th.)
Medieval Art Gallery, Princeton University Art Museum.
Princeton has a large collection of outstanding ancient Chinese art.
Sword-bearer lamp, Chinese, mid Warring States period, 4th–2nd century B.C., bronze with cast and engraved designs,
13 5/16 x 5 5/16 x 5 1/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Lamps like these (above) were found in ancient burial sites and it's thought that the light was used to guide the deceased soul into the afterlife, or possibly to embody the soul of the deceased during the funeral ceremony. I am struck by the ceremonial stateliness of the top half this strange object, in contrast to the informal naturalism of the bottom half.

Massive green-glazed horse, Chinese, Eastern Han dynasty, A.D. 25–220,  red earthenware with green glaze,
55 x 46 7/8 x 13 3/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). 
Han dynasty glazed horses this big are extremely rare, and this one may be the largest of them – plus it's in excellent condition. As simplified and abstracted as the design is, the horse still feels vital and alive.

A lóhàn as an ascetic,  Chinese, Yuan dynasty, 1260–1368, gilded lacquer with traces of white and red pigments,
11 x 12 3/16 x 12 5/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Lóhàn, like bodhisattvas, serve as intermediaries on the path to Buddhist enlightenment. They protect the Buddhist faith until the coming of Maitreya, the prophesied enlightened Buddha. The rather unusual idea of portraying a lóhàn as an ascetic probably had its genesis in the story of the Buddha seeking enlightenment through intense and prolonged meditation under the Bodhi tree.

Lidded effigy container in the form of a descending god, Late Postclassic, Maya, ca. A.D. 1500, red ceramic, lime inclusions and slip paint in bright colors, 5 x 4 1/2 x 4 5/8 x inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Princeton also has a large collection of pre-Columbian and American Indian art, including this beautifully preserved 500-year-old Mayan container. It gives you some idea how brightly colored these sculptures originally were. 

Headdress, Efut artist, Africa, late 19th–early 20th century, animal skin, wood, natural fibers, and vegetable pigments,
22 inches high (photo, Bruce M. White).
This breathtakingly beautiful headdress represents a young woman entering maturity. Dancers would wear it on top of their heads when performing celebrations and rituals. Young girls transitioning to womanhood wore extravagant coiffures like this at their coming-of-age ceremonies.

Francesco Traini, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, 1340–45, tempera on wood panel transferred to pressed wood panel, 33 7/16 x 22 1/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). On the right: detail of the raised relief of a goldfinch eating millet grain (symbol of Christ's passion); the small donor figure on the bottom right was added later.
This painting is one of the first times Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary's mother, was depicted in Italy. One hundred and fifty years later, painters such as Leonardo Da Vinci would make Saint Anne more human, if idealized, but here the medieval tendency toward the otherworldly and abstract still holds. Saint Anne, as Traini depicted her, is formidable, not to say scary – very much the protector of her very special daughter and grandson.

Carlo Portelli da Loro, Virgin, Child, Infant John, and Saint Margaret, 1565-74, oil on wood panel,
49 7/16 x 38 3/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). 
This painting has all the characteristics of super-refined Florintine Late Mannerist painting: elongated figures, contrived gestures, shallow space, and ethereal, acidic color. Carlo Portelli was famous in his time; Vasari, a contemporary of Portelli, mentioned him in his biographies of Renaissance artists, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. For some reason, however, Portelli is no longer placed among the best of the Mannerist painters such as Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino and Bronzino. I think for his early work alone, he belongs in that company.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Studies for foot in "Jesus Giving the Keys to Saint Peter", ca. 1817,
oil on canvas on wood panel, 7 11/16 x 9 15/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
I love this odd little painting. Ingres made many drawings and small preparatory studies such as this one, to prepare for large paintings. He did not consider them as unique works of art, but rather they were working aids that he kept in his studio to refer to.

Édouard Manet, Gypsy with a Cigarette, undated, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 28 15/16 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Right: detail of the horse. 
Manet was attracted to the transgressive nature of gypsy women, as opposed to respectable French women of polite society, so he must have enjoyed the woman's nonchalant, saucy pose, especially the cigarette dangling from her lips. And this close-up detail of the horse shows Manet's bravura brushwork at its best.

The main reason I went to Princeton this time was to see 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum (until May 11th). The exhibition, organized along thematic lines, includes about 100 drawings by such great draftsmen as Parmigianino, Guercino, Giambattista Tiepolo, Michelangelo, and Gianlorenzo Bernini, and extends into the early 20th century with drawings by Amedeo Modigliani.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Bust of a Youth and Caricature Head of an Old Man, ca. 1530,
black chalk on tan laid paper, 7 3/16 × 4 13/16 inches.
I reproduced this Michelangelo drawing extra large so it would be easier to see the comical drawing in the lower right of a grotesque old man looking up (longingly?) at the beautiful young man.

Luca Cambiaso, Sibyl Attended by a Genius Seated on a Cloud, early 1550s,
pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk on tan paper, no size listed.
Luca Cambiaso is another artist that was famous and influential in his time, but is under-appreciated today. (Princeton seems to have collected a lot of these artists.) Luca Cambiaso was one of the originators of the sketchy, economical drawing style reproduced above. He made a large number of drawings which he considered to be unique works of art in themselves. He sold some, gave some away to friends, and kept many for his own enjoyment.

Left: Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Study for Queen Semiramis Receiving News of the Revolt of Babylon, 1624, pen and brown ink on cream laid paper, 7 1/2 × 10 1/4 inches (photo, Bruce M. White). Right: Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Head of Young Man in a Broad-Brimmed Hat, 1630s–40s, pen and brown ink on beige laid paper,
6 3/16 × 5 1/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Known as "il Guercino" because he was cross-eyed, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was self-taught and, because of his lively style, inventive narratives, versatile draftsmanship, and prodigious production, he became one of the most influential painters of the Italian Baroque period. Like Caravaggio, he focused on expressive faces, theatrical gestures and dramatic lighting.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Caricature of a Man in Slippers and Wig Seen from the Rear, 1740s or later, pen and brown ink with brush and brown wash on beige laid paper, 6 13/16 × 4 1/8 inches (photo, Bruce M. White).
Tiepolo's paintings are inventive, grandiose and theatrical. He is arguably the greatest painter of eighteenth-century Europe – he certainly was the most prolific. He was renowned for his extreme facility and for how fast he could paint. In his drawings, he was a virtuoso of the swift, continuous and economical line that determines contour, and subtle washes that create light and volume. And, as the reproduction above demonstrates, he was a master of caricature.

If you go to the Princeton University Art Museum, I recommend taking a free, student-run, one-hour tour of the Princeton campus. Check here for information about it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Bushwick vs. Chelsea

By Charles Kessler

In the last week, I went to about twenty galleries in Bushwick and even more galleries in Chelsea. Here's my overall take – broad generalizations, of course. There are many exceptions.

Bushwick: the art is mostly sincere, authentic and personal – even if sometimes not very good. Bushwick galleries are small, modest spaces run by smart, friendly people, often artists. They sell art that's relatively inexpensive. After a few hours of gallery-going in Bushwick, I'm exhilarated by the conversations I've had, and I'm optimistic for the future of the art scene because the artists and art dealers there have their priorities right.

Chelsea: the art is accomplished, corporate, cynical and flashy. The galleries are large (sometimes preposterously so) and beautifully finished. I have no idea what the people who run the galleries are like, at least the big galleries, because they never talk to anyone other than potential clients, to whom they sell very expensive art – sometimes work selling in the millions. After a few hours of gallery-going in Chelsea, I'm filled with despair because art, something I care about very much, has become a monetized and trivialized luxury item. Of course this type of conspicuous consumption is true in a lot of places, but in Chelsea it's more in your face. And to make matters worse, two of my favorite Chelsea galleries, Postmasters and the Winkleman Gallery, places that gave me hope when Chelsea was getting to me, have recently left the area.

A Selection of Bushwick Gallery Exhibitions:

  at Auxiliary Projects (until April 27th)
Sue McNally, left: Married, 2013, ink on paper, 11 x 15 inches; right: Bed Head, 2014, ink and gesso on paper, 11 x 15 inches.
By coincidence, the co-directors of Auxiliary Projects, Jennifer Dalton and Jennifer McCoy, exhibit with Winkleman and Postmasters respectively. The gallery has a unique approach. They work with each of their artists to help them produce handmade art that can sell for under $300.

In this exhibition, Sue McNally's self-portraits capture a wide variety of moods and attitudes with great economy of means. Even though the self she portrays doesn't look particularly happy, after seeing a lot of her drawings, I can't help feeling she had fun doing them. The woman can draw!

Edge Over Easy by Jerry WaldenRobert Henry Gallery (until April 13th).
Jerry Walden, Hundred Twenty Nine (Tit. Whi.), 2014, acrylic on paper, 26 x 19 ⅞ inches.
What keeps this work from being mere decoration is that it's spatially complicated – lines and columns pop into and out of view, and space become elusive and disorienting.

Standing on Cardboard: Avital Burg at the Slag Gallery (ended April 6th).
Installation view: Standing on Cardboard: Avital Burg at the Slag Gallery.
The warm light and color in these paintings are reminiscent of 17th-Century Spanish painting. There's a quiet mystery about them.

THE INDEXICAL MARK, a group exhibition at Life on Mars Gallery (ended April 6th).
Installation view of the exhibition The Indexical Mark at Life on Mars Gallery.  The column in the center is by Etty Yaniv, Beyond the Impetus of Gravity, 2014, mixed media on board, 36 x 36 x 140 inches.
This exhibition doesn't hold together or make particular sense as a show, but it has at least two works that were worth the trip: Etty Yaniv's column Beyond the Impetus of Gravity, 2014, is composed of hundreds of layers of paper and other materials that at first look random, but the layers visually flow like swirling water. And the column feels both solid (perhaps because of the sharp corners) and, at the same time, porous and weightless.

In the same show is an early drawing by Susan Rothenberg that's remarkably powerful and moving, especially for such a small work.
Susan Rothenberg, Untitled, 1977, Mixed media on paper, 16 x 14 inches.
You can see how good she was before her horse imagery became a trademark and lost its impact.

Tonight (Friday, April 11th) Life on Mars gallery opens a one-person exhibition of Arnold Mesches's paintings. I knew Arnold more than 30 years ago in Los Angeles and he was a hell of a painter then. The 90-year-old artist is having a great late phase. This should be a knock-out show.

Centotto Gallery
Vapors and Squalls, or Mediums, Works by Kate Teale, Karen Marston, Jonathan Quinn and Wendy Klemperer
Installation view of the exhibition Vapors and Squalls, or Mediums at the Centotto Gallery.
Centotto is an apartment gallery – something common in Bushwick – and it makes for a warm and intimate atmosphere to look at art. Their current exhibition of works by Kate Teale, Karen Marston, Jonathan Quinn and Wendy Klemperer, is a refreshingly tight theme show having to do with weather, clouds and water. Centotto, to their credit, usually has gallery discussions about the work on view. To find out when this exhibition's discussion will be, check here.

Philip Buehler, Woody Guthrie's Wardy Forty; Greystone Park Hospital Revisited, Valentine Gallery (until April 13th).
Phillip Buehler, intake and discharge photos of patients at the Greystone Park State Hospital.
Afflicted with Huntington’s disease, the legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie spent five years as a patient at Greystone Park State Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey. It was there that the 19-year-old Bob Dylan visited Guthrie for the first time.

Phillip Buehler broke into the long-abandoned hospital and found thousands of negatives that documented patients when they were admitted and when they were discharged. Buehler presents these materials, and a few other related things, in a straightforward way, without pathos, and thereby creates one of the few conceptual/documentary photo exhibitions I’ve seen that’s truly moving. Especially heartbreaking are the intake and discharge photos of young people.

Oliver Wasow: Studio Portraits, Theodore:Art (until May 11th).
Oliver Wasow, David, 2013; archival pigment print edition of 30 x 20 inches.
These are what I want to call "painterly photographs." This is not a new phenomenon – it goes back as far as the Pictorialists photographers at the turn of the twentieth century. But I notice that this type of photography is being shown a lot more lately.

Oliver Wasow's photos have a "painterly" quality for several reasons: the backdrops are literally taken from paintings, usually from Hudson River School paintings; the photos are easel-size; the color tonality and light is all-over; and the poses are quiet and contemplative, unlike stop-action photography.

A Selection of Chelsea Gallery Exhibitions:

The only good work I saw in Chelsea this time, or at least work that didn't offend me, was in the small and medium-sized galleries. Two photography shows in particular impressed me: Simone Kappeler, DE BUCK gallery, 545 W. 23rd Street (until April 15th),
Simone Kappeler, Elk City, Oklahoma Pool, 1981, Fuji-film color print, 19 ⅔ x 19 ⅔ inches.
and Sharon Ya’ari, at Andrea Meislin Gallery, 534 W.24th Street (until April 26th).
Sharon Ya'ari, Bridge with Flowers, 2013, 60 x 74 inches.
Both have glowing color and a sense of tactility that's more typical of painting than photography.

And, at the BravinLee Gallery is this painterly video:
From Katie Armstrong’s Dark Spring, 2013,  hand-drawn animation. Click here to watch a trailer.
It's hard to see any hand-drawn animation today without thinking of William Kentridge – but Katie Armstrong has very much her own sensibility and drawing style.

Two of Ryan Trecartin's hyperactive videos from 2009 can be seen at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery, 545 W. 20th Street (until April 26th). They're difficult to take because of the frantic antics of his wildly made-up actor/friends, the riotous soundtrack, and the vibrant graphics thrown at you at lightning speed. But his videos are personal and, until recently when his work spawned so many imitators, unique.

And there were even a couple of excellent painting shows in Chelsea:

Los Angeles artist Roy Dowell, at Lennon Weinberg, 514 W. 25th Street (until May 3rd).
Roy Dowell, Untitled #1057, 2014, acrylic on linen, 52 x 40 inches. 
I used to think Dowell's art was too design-y until I saw his painted sculptures at the inaugural Made in L.A. biennial exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2012; and now, with this exhibition, Dowell is making some of the most delightfully eccentric paintings this side of Tom Nozkowski. 

Rackstraw Downes at Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 W. 25th Street (until May 3rd).
Rackstraw Downes, Study, Outdoor Dance Floor, Presidio, TX, from the Bandstand Looking South, 2008, oil on canvas, 13 x 39 1/2 inches. 
They're not only beautifully painted but are endlessly interesting because of the vertiginous space, sparkling light, and mostly because of the haunting, desolate, subtly disturbing subject matter.

Artists Anonymous: Old Game New at Jonathan Levin Gallery's new ground-floor space, 557 W. 23rd Street (until May 3rd).
Installation view, Old Gamd New by Artists Anonymous, Jonathan Levin Gallery.
Artists Anonymous is a collective based in London and Berlin, showing in the United States for the first time in a new additional space the Jonathan LeVine Gallery opened on 23rd Street. Their art-making process is unusual (aside from being anonymous). They paint images in reverse colors, as if it were a negative, photograph them and print them in reverse. The result is something between photographs and paintings done in weird, acidic colors. Then the works are arranged to create an environment that, in this case, is like a life-size pop-up book.

Dan Witz: New York Hardcore at Jonathan Levin Gallery's original 9th floor space, 529 W 20th Street (until May 3rd).
Dan Witz, Agnostic Front Circle Pit, nd, oil and digital media on canvas, 48 x 82 inches.
Witz's new paintings are skillful in a typically Chelsea manner, but it would be hard to call them corporate because of the violent and chaotic mosh pits that are Witz's subject matter. It's interesting that in spite of the riotous subject matter, the paintings are carefully choreographed. It's as if the action is stopped and the figures are posing. It makes for a strangely otherworldly experience.

I fondly remember Dan Witz's inconspicuous little paintings of hummingbirds that he painted on walls all over Soho and the East Village in the early eighties; I wrote about them here. He certainly has come a long way from that – and so has Chelsea!
Dan Witz, Hummingbird from his “Birds of Manhattan” series, c. early 1980's, acrylic on sheetrock (photo © Jaime Rojo, from the Brooklyn Street Art website).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim

By Charles Kessler

Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe (until September1st) is a major exhibition by any standard: 79 artists, 360 works (many brought over from Italy), and 50 different lenders. It's the first comprehensive overview of Italian Futurism in the United States, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, with its swooping curves and vertiginous, disorienting views, is an ideal venue for this show. 

For the most part, Futurism is rehashed and refashioned pointillism and cubism. Roberta Smith, referring to how dated Futurist painting and sculpture looks, wrote: "They almost seem like satires of Modernism, or maybe Modernism for beginners."
Detail: Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises (La città che sale), 1910–11, oil on canvas (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1951, digital image © The Museum of Modern Art, licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York).
Giacomo  Balla, Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences (Linee andamentali + successioni dinamiche), 1913, tempera on paper laid on canvas, 49 x 68 cm. (Gianni Mattioli Collection, long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2008). 
And their self-conscious attempt at modern subject matter – motorcycles, steam locomotives, propeller airplanes, etc. – looks quaint today.
Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral  (Sorvolando in spirale il Colosseo), 1930, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. (Ventura Collection, Rome. Photo Corrado De Grazia).
Futurist art is tame in spite of the boastful, bombastic, and bellicose manifestos Futurist artists frequently published. Here are some excerpts from the first MANIFESTO OF FUTURISM, published in 1909:
  • We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  • We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
  • We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
  • We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.
I used to read the Futurist Manifesto to my Art History undergraduates. They were horrified by the glorification of war and violence, of course. But eventually I got them to see an even more horrifying thing about it: the manifesto is thrilling. One needs to understand this to understand the terrifying (and dangerous) appeal of fascism. 

It's not surprising that many of the Futurists were super-patriots and promoted Italy's entry into World War I in the hope that war, "the only cure for the world," would rejuvenate Italy's static and decadent culture and bring it into the modern world of speed, machinery, youth and violence.

Apparently not learning anything from the brutality of World War I, many Futurist, most prominently the leader of the movement, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, became ardent supporters of Benito Mussolini and Italian Fascism. This lasted until the 1930s when Italian Fascists embraced the German Nazi's view of "degenerate art" and condemned Futurism. (And speaking of "degenerate art," the lines  are long for Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 (until June 30th) at the Neue Museum. Get there early.)

The most interesting, albeit not original, thing about the Futurist movement is their belief in the integration of all the arts and crafts, and of "high" and "low" art. One of the glories of this exhibition is the clothing, ceramics, publications, architecture, film, furniture, and even Futurist toys, that are on display.
Fortunato Depero, Futurist Waistcoat (Panciotto futurista), 1923. pieced wool on cotton backing, approximately 52 × 45 cm. (private collection © 2014, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Vittorio Calore).
Installation view, Gerardo Dottori, Cimino home dining room set, early 1930s 
And of course there is a lot of thrilling painting to see too, like Ivo Pannaggi's, Speeding Train, hurtling toward the viewer at a diagonal; you can feel the power, noise and speed of the train.
Ivo Pannaggi, Speeding Train (Treno in corsa), 1922, oil on canvas, 39 x 47 inches (Fondazione Carima–Museo Palazzo Ricci, Macerata, Italy).
Pannaggi's painting, and Futurist art in general, would be more convincing if it were large. Almost all Futurist painting is easel-size and loses power because of it. Some of the exceptions are the late murals painted by Benedetta (the wife of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the stridently anti-feminist leader of Futurism). It's the only Futurist art on view that has the necessary scale to truly evoke Futurism's "modernist" vision.
Left: original site of Benedetta (Cappa Marinetti) murals from a conference room in a Palermo post office, 1933-34, tempera and encaustic on canvas, each about  7 x 10 feet; right: installation view, top floor of the Guggenheim.
That the Guggenheim was able to borrow these murals was a real coup, and it's indicative of the lengths they went to in order to make such an extensive and comprehensive exhibition. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Gauguin: Metamorphoses at MoMA

By Charles Kessler

I've seen a lot of Gauguin's art in the last few years: Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012;  Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, in 2011; and Drawings and Prints from the Clark Museum last summer at the Frick had some Gauguin prints. In addition, I saw the major retrospective Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the National Gallery in Washington in 2011.
Installation view of the  exhibition Gauguin: Metamorphoses at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
But the current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Gauguin: Metamorphoses (thru June 8th), is different in that it places Gauguin's prints in the context of his other work and makes the case for the importance of prints in Gauguin's oeuvre.

I’m frankly not a fan of Gauguin’s paintings, especially his later work, the work he made in Tahiti. I find them crowded and airless, the drawing inept, the brushwork awkward and without expressive purpose, and his colors boring usually falling back on muddy greens with a contrasting shock of bright orange. 
Paul Gauguin, Hina Tefatou (The Moon and the Earth), 1893, oil on burlap, 45 x 24 ½ inches (MoMA).
And I'm suspicious of Gauguin's primitive exoticism. He was a bit of a phony. He claimed to be an “Incan savage,” but his mother was Peruvian nobility and he spent his early childhood in Lima. And he said he went to Tahiti to search for a lost paradise, which might be true, but mostly he wanted to escape his wife and children and money problems. Tahiti, as he must have quickly learned, was not the earthly paradise he depicted in his art, so I can’t help feeling there’s a calculated disingenuousness about his romanticized primitivism.

However, one thing that Gauguin got better at, as this exhibition so nicely demonstrates, is his prints –most of which he did in the last few years of his life. Line in Gauguin's prints is freer than in his paintings – it doesn't get clogged up by the clunky paint-handling and dense composition. And he is more inventive and experimental with his prints than his paintings. Using the same wood block, for example, several versions of the Oviri prints radically change because of the way they are inked, the size, color and texture of the paper, and by the additions of color.  
Paul Gauguin, Oviri, 1894, five versions from the same woodcut block, each approximately 8 x 4 ¾ inches.
Best of all, his prints aren’t dependent on exotic subject matter, but rather they are explorations of the printing medium itself. To this end he recycled old images from his paintings, from other prints, and from his sculpture (see below). Ironically, these prints are more authentically mysterious and haunting than his self-consciously exotic paintings.
Paul Gauguin, Oviri, 1984, partly enameled stoneware, 29 ½ x 7 ½ x 10 ⅝ inches (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
My favorite Gauguin prints are his last ones, the ones he did using a technique called oil transfer. He would coat a sheet of paper with printers ink and place a blank sheet over that and draw on it, transferring the ink to the back of the paper, making a two-sided print/drawing. Then he would work further into the print with other mediums like charcoal or crayon. The result is an ephemeral, ghost-like image.
Paul Gauguin, Left: Crouching Tahitian Woman Seen From The Back, c. 1901-2, oil transfer drawing with crayon additions,  sheet: 12 ½ x 10 3/16 inches (private collection); Right: Animal Studies, 1901-02, oil transfer drawing in black and red on thin wove paper laid down on wove paper, sheet: 12 9/16 x 9 ⅞ inches (NGA, Washington).
This MoMA exhibition is one of those all-too-rare shows that makes a real contribution to the understanding of art, Gauguin's art in particular. See it if you can.