Sunday, December 18, 2011

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

By Charles Kessler

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures (until January 29, 2012) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a show of African art that took my breath away. The exhibition is a little hard to find. It’s in gallery 199 where some of the museum's changing exhibitions take place, just off of the barrel-vaulted hallway south of the main entrance where the large-scale Greek and Roman sculpture is on display. This is a major international exhibition that gathers more than one hundred rare works from many museums in the United States as well as collections in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal and France. The show is a big deal and not to be missed.
The sculptures, the embodiment of an ephemeral oral history and tradition, evoke and idealize important people from Africa’s past. In addition to the art, there are about twenty documentary photographs, mostly postcards from the early 20th century, of tribal leaders, kings and their retinue, and other important people.
Chief Kétounou of Bonou Village, Early 20th century French Dahomey, Republic of Benin,
(Holly W. Ross Postcard Collection)
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any good reproductions of the dramatic highlight of the show — an astounding twenty-two full-sized figures made in the nineteenth century by Hemba masters in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Go see them in person if you can.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Day at the Met

By Charles Kessler

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was especially crowded Wednesday so I spent most of my time in the less popular galleries — the English and French Period Rooms and the galleries containing medieval and ancient sculpture. I don’t know why these galleries aren’t popular, but it’s fine with me.

I recently wrote that when I look at art I often notice that many works I'm looking at share some visual characteristic or a theme or subject. In Washington, for example, a lot of work struck me as funny, and at the Met I noticed that a lot of art from different cultures and periods was abstract. Not abstract in the sense of non-representational, but abstract in the old sense of the word — abstracted or simplified nature. These two heads from Graeco-Phoenician sarcophagi of the 5th century B.C struck me as très Art Deco.
And this and other 5000-year old Cycladic figures could have been made by Brancusi:
The Bastis Master, female figure, early Cycladic II, 2600 - 2400 B.C., marble, 25 inches high (#66.148)
There were even several small wrought iron Medieval sculptures that fell into the abstract theme:

And I noticed that the backs of a lot of sculptures were not only abstract, but were also funny.
(I apologize for the poor photos -- I couldn't find them on the Met's site so I had to use the ones I took with my iPhone.) 

The other common theme that kept coming up was what I call the  "awww, how charming motif" -- these sculptures for example:
And then there were the English and French Period Rooms located on either side of the Medieval Sculpture Hall where the Met's famous Christmas tree is located. (BTW, no photographs of the tree are allowed because, a guard explained to me, the tree is copyrighted! You can find a good photo here if you want.)

You're not going to find many good paintings in the Period Rooms, but the rooms themselves are appealing and pleasant, especially when they simulate light coming through the windows. And the galleries are practically empty so you have them to yourself for long periods. 
And on the way out, don't miss the Crypt Gallery of Byzantine Egypt under the Great Stairway.

All and all, an agreeable day at the Met.

Next post: a show at the Met that took my breath away, Heroic Africans, Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures (until January 29, 2012).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Art News, etc.

By Charles Kessler

Art News
Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in 1922 in their apartment in Paris.
Laura Gilbert’s site, Art Unwashed, has become a go-to site for insider museum news. The Metropolitan Museum has reported future exhibitions only until June 2012, but Gilbert managed to uncover their plans until June of 2013. Here are some of the exhibition highlights from her site:

Rembrandt and Degas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, February 23 to May 20, 2012.  Highlights:  two early Rembrandt self-portraits on loan from Europe.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, February 28 to June 3, 2012.  About 100 works collected by expatriates Gertrude Stein and her brothers.

Regarding Warhol: Fifty Artists, Fifty Years, September 2012 to January 2013.  Warhol and his influence, thematically arranged.  A Met rarity – a group show of contemporary art.

Bernini Models in Clay, October 2012 to January 2013.  50 models and several sculptures by the Roman Baroque master.


Typically museum websites are only about the museum itself — their collection, exhibitions, hours, etc., but the Walker's new site contains links and articles about the wider art world and hopefully will be an inspiration for other art museums.


More Bushwick Gallery News:

Storefront Gallery’s co-founder Jason Andrew informed me that Deborah Brown, Storefront’s other founder, has renewed the lease at its current location, and a new gallery will re-open there on December 18th with essentially the same name: Storefront Bushwick. The resourceful Jason Andrew will not be involved with the new gallery but will maintain his association with the Norte Maar Gallery.

Via L Magazine comes the news that Soho gallery Christina Ray will open a project space in Bushwick at the beginning of the year, and they will be changing their name to the Kesting/Ray Gallery to reflect the addition of David Kesting, Ray's husband, as co-director.


The Merce Cunningham Dance Company website has a complete series of videos documenting many aspects of the company. It’s called “Mondays With Merce” and includes 19 interviews with Cunningham that were filmed two years before he died. There are also forty-two interviews with Cunningham’s colleagues and dancers, and footage of 15 technique classes taught by Cunningham and rehearsal sessions of more than 30 works with him in charge. If you never saw Merce Cunningham or his dance company, this is the next best thing.


Warning: political commentary next — just skip it if you want.

Mr. Montgomery Burns
My first love was economics, and I still spend a lot of time reading the literature -- especially Paul Krugman's blog. Very occasionally I come across an article that's not well known, a least not known in the art world, but is so clear and compelling I want to call attention to it here.

A few months ago, billionaire Warren Buffett wrote a New York Times Op-Ed entitled Stop Coddling the Super-Rich. It was mainly about the fairness of taxing the rich; now Nick Hanauer, another billionaire, writes about the economic benefits of taxing the super rich: Raise Taxes on Rich to Reward True Job Creators

Hanauer is a famous venture capitalist who helped launch more than 20 companies, including aQuantive Inc. and; nevertheless in he wrote:
...I’ve never been a “job creator.” I can start a business based on a great idea, and initially hire dozens or hundreds of people. But if no one can afford to buy what I have to sell, my business will soon fail and all those jobs will evaporate. 
...The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the average American, but we don’t buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. 
...So let’s give a break to the true job creators. Let’s tax the rich like we once did and use that money to spur growth by putting purchasing power back in the hands of the middle class. And let’s remember that capitalists without customers are out of business.
Urban Planning:

“Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project.”
     --Bruce Ratner, the developer of the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, quoted in Crain’s, November 8, 2009

I'm a bit soured on Urban Planning lately after my bad experience with Jersey City's Powerhouse Arts District but, like looking at a horrific accident, I continue to read the literature. (I highly recommend the very readable, even entertaining, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It’s still the definitive book on urban planning but heartbreaking to read because, after 42 years, city planners still don’t get it.)

The New York Times had an article recently on how the Dutch, when they undertake big new development projects, put together what they call “structure plans.” Urban designers are called in to work out the best way to organize the site for the public good. They plan parks, squares, the street-scape, access to public transportation, and generally create a pedestrian-friendly environment. (This is the kind of thing the BMW Guggenheim Lab was concerned with.) The thing is, this is done BEFORE a developer submits a plan for the site. You might think "duh", but, except for Rockefeller Center and a few other notable places, that isn’t the way we do things here, e.g., Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and the re-zoning of neighborhoods like Lower Manhattan, Williamsburg and of course Jersey City (see our blog title photo above).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Barnett Newman -- It's Complicated!

The Craig F. Starr Gallery, 5 E. 73rd Street (just east of Fifth), has yet another terrific exhibition of relatively small work: Barnett Newman Paintings (until December 17th).
Barnett Newman, Untitled 3. 1949, oil on canvas, 23 ½ x 6 ¼ inches (private collection).
I complimented the dealer on the show, and on my way out, two nicely dressed middle-aged women asked me why I thought it was a good exhibition. I thought the show was a good one because the work was hard to assemble and it was installed sensitively, without over-lighting it. But of course they were really asking (and I think sincerely): “Why do you like this art?” I tried to help them by pointing out things about the work they may not have seen, but I knew that wouldn’t really satisfy them for a reason concisely put forward in a recent New York Times Opinionator post, Art and the Limits of Neuroscience:
Just as getting a joke requires sensitivity to a whole background context, to presuppositions and intended as well as unintended meanings, so “getting” a work of art requires an attunement to problems, questions, attitudes and expectations; it requires an engagement with the context in which the work of art has work to do.
I was also reminded of the famous exchange between Franz Kline and a collector irate about Barnett Newman's first exhibition. The longer the version of this story the better, and I found a good long one here:
Franz Kline and Elaine De Kooning were sitting at the Cedar Bar when a collector Franz knew came up to them in a state of fury.  He had just come from Newman’s first one-man show. ‘How simple can an artist be and get away with it?’ he spluttered.  ‘There was nothing, absolutely nothing there!’
‘Nothing?’ asked Franz, beaming.  ‘How many canvases were in the show?’
‘Oh maybe ten or twelve - but all exactly the same - just one stripe down the centre, that’s all!’
'All the same size?’  Franz asked.
‘Well no; there were different sizes; you know, from about 3 to 7 feet.’
‘Oh, 3 to 7 feet, I see; and all the same colour?’  Franz went on.
‘No, different colours, you know; red and yellow and green… but each picture painted one flat colour - you know, like a house painter would do it, and then this stripe down the centre.’
‘All the stripes the same colour?’
‘Were they all the same width?’
The man began to think a little.  ‘Let’s see.  No. I guess not.  Some were maybe an inch wide and some maybe four inches, and some in between.’
‘And all upright pictures?’
‘Oh, no, there were some horizontals.’
‘With vertical stripes?’
‘Oh, no, I think there were some horizontal stripes, maybe.’
‘And were the stripes darker or lighter than the background?
‘Well I guess they were darker, but there was one white stripe, or maybe more…’
'Was the stripe painted on top of the background colour or was the background colour painted around the stripe?’
The man began to get a bit uneasy.  ‘I’m not sure,’ he said, ‘I think it may have been done either way, or both ways, maybe…’
‘Well I don’t know,’ said Franz. ‘It all sounds damned complicated to me.’
Thinking it might be easier to get, I sent the women to see the Matisse and the Model exhibition (through December 10th - hurry) at Eykyn Maclean, 23 East 67th Street (just west of Madison). It's definitely worth seeing but, unlike the Barnett Newman show, this one is way over-produced with multi-colored walls and pretentious extra-large wall texts. There's some good work though -- and even the not-so-good work is interesting to see.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November Art News

By Charles Kessler

There’s been a lot of big news in the art world this month including yet another Leonardo da Vinci find. Last month I reported on art historian Martin Kemp’s extraordinary rediscovery of Leonardo’s La Bella Principessa, a portrait in ink and colored chalks on vellum. Artinfo interviews Kemp here about an even more important find, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi.
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, oil on walnut panel, 25 13/16 X 17 7/8 inches  
Due to the blockbuster Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, London, there’s been more than usual  written about Leonardo. One of the most interesting is this post by Jonathan Jones, a Renaissance man himself, on Leonardo as an animal rights activist and a vegetarian. All this has added so much to the already wildly popular Leonardo exhibition that the National Galley had to crack down on ticket scalping — tickets were going for up to £800 ($1242) on eBay.

Then there’s the Met’s new Islamic wing.
Damascus Room, 1119 A.D., Syria, Damascus, 22 ft. 1/2 in. x 16 ft. 8 1/2 in.
(Gift of The Hagop Kevorkian Fund, 1970 #1970.170).
The Met’s website once again does an excellent job of providing visual and art historical information including several videos showing the installation and conservation process. Holland Cotter has an enthusiastic review of the new galleries in the Times.

And finally, there’s been more on Pacific Standard Time — the encyclopedic series of exhibitions about the history of Los Angeles art. Two reviews I'd recommend are by Roberta Smith and Peter Plagens.
Hard Edge group exhibition with works by Ronald Davis and Judy Chicago at Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles,
May 1964. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Rolf G. Nelson, 2010.M.38.2.
Plagens also wrote my favorite article on another big art event, the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.
The Clyfford Still Museum's center exhibition gallery.

Other Art News:
Paddy Johnson reports that even more galleries are moving into 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick. And to help you keep track, Pernod, the company that sells Absinthe liqueur, and WAGMAG, the online Brooklyn gallery guide, have teamed up to create an app that’s a guide to Brooklyn galleries and to nearby bars that serve Absinthe. It’s doesn’t have nearly the number of galleries as our Bushwick guide, and it doesn’t provide an efficient route to take, but like ours it’s free; and if they ever include a lot more of the galleries, it will be useful.

Bryan Appleyard on the website reports that in 2010 Andy Warhol’s work sold for a total of $313m and accounted for an astounding 17% of all contemporary auction sales. Appleyard does a good job of putting this in context. And on the topic of Warhol and Pop Art, here is an excellent interview with Art Historian Hal Foster.

Also from is this entertaining piece about an exchange of letters between Groucho Marx and, of all people, T. S. Eliot. The exchange was initiated by Eliot, a great fan of the Marx Brothers movies. One of my favorite of Groucho’s letters to the famously buttoned-down and anti-semitic poet includes this: “The name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed. I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate. Confide in me.”

Damien Hirst is one of those artists I hate to love. Jonathan Jones doesn't have this problem. In advance of Hirst’s upcoming exhibition at the Tate Modern next year, he wrote this appreciation:
Hirst stands far above his British contemporaries. The depth of his early work is extraordinary and dazzling. The intensity of his imaginative grasp of reality is unique. He makes art that is about life, and death, and money too, which is another absolute truth of our world – unfortunately. The whole of recent British art is a footnote to his brilliance.
Richard Prince, on the other hand, is an artist I love to hate — Laura Gilbert uncovered documents filed with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on October 26 that show what a phony the guy is.

The Daily Beast/Newsweek has an excellent profile on the art dealer Marian Goodman. It corresponds nicely with a 1992 profile of Betty Parsons from the archives of the New York Times that’s been tweeted around (is that a term?).

Finally, there are two informative posts by Jonah Lehrer about creativity:
Need to Create? Get a Constraint:
"It’s not until we encounter an unexpected hindrance – a challenge we can’t easily resolve – that the chains of cognition are loosened, giving us newfound access to the weird connections simmering in the unconscious."
And The Importance of Mind-Wandering:
"...not all daydreams are equally effective at inspiring new ideas. ...According to Schooler’s data, individuals who are unaware of their mind-wandering don’t exhibit increased creativity."