Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Performance Art at the MoMA

Marina Abramovic is sitting like a queen, a priestess, in the middle of the atrium at the MOMA. Her subjects can face her and gaze at her eyes as long as they feel like. The line is long, and there is a crowd watching the scene. "The Artist Is Present" is a Performance Art show, with the artist sitting daily from the opening of the museum till it closes.
The day I visited, she was wearing a white gown. It looked like she was still in her comfortable bathrobe and it felt homey. This red gown would be appropriate for Christmas. Is she afraid of her aging body? Days after days, she is facing a viewer at a time, surrounded by the crowd but ...absent. Did the patient visitors feel different after this lifetime experience? Was this like hypnosis? Did she communicate some energy? Was this encounter uplifting? What occurred during these long minutes or hours? Watching this event, I was quickly bored and ...

went on to the upper floor. Ignoring the warnings at the start of the exhibition, I plunged into the noise and the images to look at 40 years of the retrospective... It was not a pleasant experience: looking at a beautiful woman screaming till she passes out, self-inflicting wounds , reaching a catatonic state after ingesting medications... The videos were graphic.
Several performances were reenacted by actors.These are not "Happenings", spontaneous with the involvement of the viewer. They are well rehearsed pieces, with very slow motion, forcing the visitor to stay and stare. Voyeurism? Interest? An actor is lying naked with a skeleton on top of him in "Nude with Skeleton" (2002). An actress perched high along a wall, naked on a bicycle seat, moves her arms slowly at times in "Luminosity" (1997). Was it shocking? Not really, I did not feel involved and just watched.
Freud would have brought an interesting side to this exhibition.
A video shows Marina naked wearing only the hat from her mother (or father) with the communist star, standing mesmerized with blood oozing from the wound drawn on her belly (the five pointed star). One can imagine the little girl, who never felt loved by her powerful communist mother, rebelling.
The beautiful scene with the arrow titled "Rest Energy" (1980), made me think about these old postcards lovers used to send each other. But can it be reenacted with actors? The intensity of the relationship between Ulay and Marina Abramovic which transpire in this scene cannot be reproduced.
The artist who mixes her history and Balkan's history early on, has developped a cult of personality over the years, and this weakens her message.
A debate is heating up among performance artists ( galleries, copyright lawyers, museums). Who should perform? The artist only? Can actors reenact a performance? As a viewer, I feel that the point to all of this art is to look at the artist perform. The performance belongs to the creator, otherwise it feels like looking at a copy. The presence of the artist, his/her aura is essential to the performance of the work. I found the videos powerful because I was looking at Marina Abramovic, the artist, struggling, suffering, conquering her fears, her mind and body. How can some actor reenact this?
This is the path the artists has to go through to reach beyond. Watching another human being suffer, struggle, is unsettling. I think that the videos had more impact on me than the reenactments because I felt some empathy for the artist, the actor is paid and doing a job. This experience was thought provoking. Art is not always pleasant to look at.

The cult of personality...because Marina Abramovic is unique.

links to photographs http://www.flickr.com/photos/sixteenmiles/4422517148/


no photographs were allowed

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

History lesson

The works from the German painter Otto Dix (1891-1969) are at the Neue Galerie in NYC, a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Upon entering the building, I felt like attending a private party. The Staff was courteous and directed me to the tea room on the first floor, I was hungry and cold. The music was soft in the background and to reach the exhibition on the third floor, I chose the steep wooden stairs lined up with beautiful ironwork, bathing in the soft light from the glass ceiling, instead of the elevator.

This cozy feeling was short-lived when going through the entrance of a dark room lined up by 50 etchings. "Der Krieg" was published in 1924. The painter volunteered during WWI and was assigned to a field artillery regiment in the Army. He took part in the Battle of the Somme and was wounded several times. He was sent to the Eastern front and back to the Western front at the end of the war. The works are graphic accounts of these years, depicting soldiers, maimed, brains dripping from skulls, a soldier dead with bones pocking out of the uniform. The white and black prints are telling the story.
Some compared these works to Goya, known for his paintings, also a printmaker.

Several watercolors were also in the same room, paintings of decayed intestines. This is not the imagination of the artist, this is not a caricature. This was reality during the "Great War".
During my childhood in the East of France, I visited Verdun and the battlefields several times for "school trips". There it was, horrific.

Next were paintings depicting the society from the Weimar Republic, well to do personages, pathetic and grotesque, several self-portraits with models even the painter's family, also watercolors depicting sexual murders.

The last room was filled with portraits of well known citizens, a lawyer, a physician, a poet, the dancer Anita Berber. My preferred is the portrait of the journalist Sylvia Von Harden which was not included in this exhibition ( seen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris). The painter captures his subjects with the same technique using the pose, the color of the clothes, the background. He has become the painter of a society, a sick society, and Hitler did not appreciate this.

It is a time in history we would all like to forget... on both sides.

top photograph by the author

Monday, May 10, 2010

Blue, pink, and more...

Picasso (1881-1973) brings crowds at the Metropolitain Museum of Art, at least it did the day of my visit. His works are breaking records at the last Christie's auction. The Met could not go wrong with the latest exhibition titled "Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art". Three hundred works, the entire collection from the Met is on display.

The early works start in 1901. The progression is chronological and it is interesting to see a now famous painter like Picasso trying different techniques, copying other painters like Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, his neighbours in Montmartre.

Several paintings from the Blue period (1901-1904) are in the next room, depicting tragic characters like in the "The Blind Man's Meal". The Pink period is also well represented with harlequins and the famous painting titled "At the Lapin Agile". Slowly, one can see the artist experimenting with lines, colors and his transition to Cubism.


His mistresses are represented with "The Dream" or "Woman Asleep at a Table", and several portraits of Dora Maar.

A succession of neo-classic portraits mainly pastels made after a trip in Italy following WWII depict his wife Olga. They are lifeless and academic.
The show goes on with linoleum cuts which I found soulless, technically interesting.

The last room is occupied by prints, works done at age 83 years old, the painter allows himself to be irreverent to the church, other painters and famous personages. They are representing scenes of debauchery, soft pornography. The commentaries next to the prints are essential to follow the stories.
A well-intentioned father is explaining to his 6, 7 years old daughter the works of Picasso:" this is woman and here is a man..." In the name of art, the little girl is allowed to look at scenes that would embarrass adolescents, but she is looking avidly, very interested!

Every work from Picasso IN the Met, must have been displayed and I wondered about the goal of this exhibition, 0ther than presenting the works chronologically.
Picasso, Picasso, Picasso! Picasso is also at the MOMA till August 30th.

The Picasso Museum in Malaga is showing 50 works with a common theme: horses, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona is opened with more works to look at. How can an artist fill so many places?

The Musee National Picasso in Paris is closed till 2012 for upgrades.

I visited the exhibition "Picasso et les maitres" (October 08-February 09) at Le grand Palais in Paris. Picasso's inspiration has been called "cannibalism pictural", but when measured with the Great Masters he cannibalized, he fared well.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Painting the Blues

The Blues in New Orleans is played, sung. This month at the NOMA, "Beyond the Blues" is the title of the exhibition showing the paintings from the Amistad Research Center " specialized in the history of African-American and other minority ethnic groups".

One hundred and fifty works have been selected from a rich collection and are displayed in several rooms organized in five categories: Inhabiting our world, Believing in Divinity, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Living in the Moment and Seeing with Candor. I chose to wander from room to room and enjoy the paintings from known or unknown painters. I was discovering most of them.

The works cover more than 120 years from the late nineteenth century painters and early twentieth century like Edward Bannister and Ossawa Tanner who were exposed to European influence and studied there, to the painters from the "New Negro Movement" in the 20s and 30s followed by more modern painters like Vincent Smith from Brooklyn represented by "Annie Lou loves Bill" done in 1960. In this painting he mixes collage and graffiti on a rough red background. It was standing out among the other artists, most of them represented by non controversial subjects, depicting winter like Driskell with "Winter Landscape" 1974, "Triborough Bridge" from Aaron Douglas, "Carnival" from Keith Morrison 1966, with Caribbean colors.

Sam Middleton is the closest to Jazz, I thought, with his spontaneous colors, lines, movements, splashes, represented in "Still Life" 1970 and "Beyond the Blues".

For the women, Clementine Hunter, whose work is considered "Folk Art", was present in a corner. I found the sculpture "Target" from Elizabeth Catlett very powerful, with the bronze head of an Afro-American male in the sight of a gun.

Other painters were inspired by the naive style from Haiti, like Ellis Wilson with his famous "Funeral Procession", 1954.

The star of the show was Jacob Lawrence with his series on the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Haiti's history.
Forty one paintings, gouache on paper, from Jacob Lawrence, a painter, story-teller. It made me think of the" images d'Epinal", the colors were darker with stylized shapes. Each painting is depicting a chapter of Haiti's history. In parallel, it tells the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture's life. He was the leader of the slaves revolt and eventually became a General. He was imprisoned by the French and died one year later of a "broken heart". A medley of cubism, naive art creates flat paintings using the color to create some perspective. The painter himself stated that the colors came from his childhood, Harlem where he was born and raised. He was 21 years old when he painted this series.

The revolt of the Amistadt is also depicted by Lawrence Jacob. My preferred version is from Romare Barden made from a mixture of collage and painting : a map of Africa, a boat and the face of an African slave with red, black and other bright colors.

Of course , two sons from New Orleans should be mentioned, Jeffrey Cook who went back to his African roots to create the sculpture called "Dogon Box" 1996 inspired by the sculptures from Mali, and John Scott (1940-2007) with "Closest to Blues and Jazz". He made this statement:"what I have been trying to do...in my art is make a piece that would be similar to what African-American musicians have done with gospels, and blues and jazz, so that when you hear it , it wraps around your soul."

photograph NOMA from the author

General Toussaint L'Ouverture: danforthmuseum.org