Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Black, White, All Shades of Grey

Conceptual Art and Minimalism are represented  at the
Centre Pompidou-Metz with thirty-three Wall Drawings from Sol LeWitt. Chosen among 1200 drawings, they represent the early to late works from the artist, from 1968 till 2007.
The visitor is reminded of the technical feats of such an installation with a video produced during the two months it took to execute the instructions and diagrams from LeWitt. After a careful priming of the walls, the projection of grids are filled with pencil, crayon, inkwash, acrylic paint or graphite to produce a perfect result. A dozen people from the LeWitt studio, thirteen artists, sixty-three students from five local art schools, the manpower required to install the exhibition makes it unique. Each drawing is accompanied by a number, and detailed information concerning the medium, the location where the work was first installed, the name of the drafters who first executed it, the date of first execution and the collection to which the work belongs.The dimensions are not specified, they are site specific.
What about the visit? Like a walk through lines, patterns, designs, sometimes creating dizzying optical illusions, black, white, and greys, the exhibition becomes monotonous, an intellectual experience at best.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Art Brut and Psychiatry

Madman, schizophrenic, prisoner, handicapped, deaf-mute, illiterate... at Les Halles Saint-Pierre in Montmartre where the exhibition "Banditi dell'Arte" features works from known or anonymous Italian artists who have in common a total freedom of expression. Without any formal education, they are driven by an uncontrolled inner force to create works of art and their production has been labelled Raw Art or Art Brut.
The exhibition which occupies two levels of the building starts with colorful paintings and sculptures of dragons, alligators, birds. Is the bestiary from Rosario Lattuca 1926-1999, born from his imagination or a state of delirium?
Orest Fernando Nannetti, diagnosed with schizophrenia, carved the walls of the psychiatric hospital in Voltera with the buckle of his vest during the nine years of his confinement. Words and pictures became his way to freedom.  
Well-known Giovanni Podesta is heavily influenced by the Church: crosses, religious themes, red and gold colors cover paintings, sculptures or furniture.  
The media include embroidery to describe naive happy dreamlike scenes or plaster and gauze to shape tortured masks, Versino G uses pieces of the mops he is cleaning the hospital with to fabricate costumes, boots, hats.
Eugenio Lanzi's art is getting a lot of attention from his physician who comments on the pipes made of wood, stones, bones. He notices that the production is repetitive, theme and style are frozen. 
Franscesco Toris, suffering from paranoia and autism, carves his "New World" with the bones left over from the psychiatric hospital's kitchen, without glue or nails. 
Carlo Zinelli, very prolific during his years spent at the psychiatric hospital is represented by several of his paintings. His naive style is recognizable with little personages, symbols, he creates a surrealist world.
On the second level, the exhibition goes on with photographs from giant works, locally famous, like Angelo Stagnaro in Ligura with his "bombo-sculptures", Vincent Brunetti in Puglia, Fiorenzo Pilia with his "Enchanted Garden" in Sardaigna or Filippo Bentivenga in Sicily, with his "Enchanted Castle", forms of Land Art. 
Madmen, geniuses or both? The artists are now recognized and their works make up the permanent collection of the Collection de l' Art Brut in Lausanne.

photograph from the Website
no photographs allowed

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New Dimensions

 Common objects are becoming art in the latest exhibition Lifelike, brought by the Walker Art Museum to the NOMA. Size, medium, give them a new dimension, literally, and a new status as symbols of our time.
Fifty five artists are represented and in an attempt to organize the works, the curator arranged them into five themes: "Common Objects", "The Uncanny", "Realism into Abstraction", "Handmade Sleight of Hands" and "Special Effects: The Real as Spectacle".
The visitor is greeted by "I Am Amazed", 1971, from Edward Ruscha, and just in the first room, will meet a now classic work from Andy Warhol, "Yellow Brillo Box and White Brillo Box", 1964,
a giant "Paper Bag", 1968, "Legal Pad Sheet", 1967 from Alex Hay, "Eraser", 1967, from Vija Celmins and next to each other  "Cardbird Box II", 1971 from Robert Rauschenberg and "Bread", 1969, from Jasper Jones. Robert Bechtle, a photo realist painter permanently displayed at the K&B Plaza Building on Saint-Charles, is well represented with several works.

Among the plethora of works, some bring emotions and provoke thoughts like "Nomad", 2001, from Gavin Turk featuring a sleeping bag, shaped by the body of the  wanderer or across it, "Newspaper", 1992, from Robert Gobert, a pile of newspapers ready to be delivered, a morning ritual soon to be history like the bottle of milk left daily at the door.
I felt like a voyeur looking at "Crouching Boy in Mirror", 1999-2000, from Ron Mueck. We surprise the boy, modern Narcissus, contemplating his body in the mirror. I find " Bremen Towne" from Keith Edmier, 2006-2007, disturbing. It represents an American dream turned into a nightmare: a kitchen, equipped with cabinetry, stove, sink, colored in a dirty vulgar yellow. It is an exact replica of the kitchen from the artist's childhood home. Jud Nelson's trash bag in marble, "Hefty 2-Ply" is a masterpiece of high and low art. Plastic becomes marble, trash becomes a symbol of our society.

 Well-known artists should bring big crowds and the list includes: Chuck Close with a giant self-portrait, Gerhard Richter, Ai  Weiwei. The latest is represented by a mason jar three-quarter filled with a sample of the 100 millions of the sunflower seeds which were spread on the floor at the Tate Modern, creating an infinite landscape. Size does matter as discussed in a previous blog, and the idea gets lost in this small version. 

The viewer must look carefully to see "Weeds" (2005-2009) from Yoshihiro Suda, or a fly on the wall "Untitled" 2010 from Tom Friedman. .I never thought that a plastic bag could be a piece of art. But the checkered bag worth a few dollars behind a black line at the museum has now the status of art work. What is the price of  "Refugee", 2007, from Susan Collis? It is the traditional, international plastic bag carried by migrants, displaced populations, a symbol of loss. It usually holds the  belongings and dreams of the new nomads. Other works related to the same subject include the luggage from Kaz Oshiro or "Still Life", 2009, from Ugo Rondinone, pieces of cardboard left along the wall, ready for a move.

The last room is taken over by the giant work from Robert Therrien, "No Title (Folding Table and Chairs)", 2007. Visitors are scrambling to avoid the guard and have their picture taken. It becomes a game. Children are running around the display, fairytales become reality at the museum. 
Upon leaving the exhibition, I thought about Duchamp, his works would fit just fine.

photographs by the author:
grandstaircase at the NOMA
"Sunset Street", Robert Bechtle, 1984 (at K&B building)
"Refugee", Susan Collis, 2007    

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Visual Fantasy

Great news, the New Orleans Museum of Art is presenting its collection of twenty-one works from Joseph Cornell in a new setting. Previously relegated in a backroom, they are now assembled in a dark blue gallery which allows contrasts  between lights and shadows and creates the right atmosphere to fully appreciate  the pieces.

The compositions give a second life to abandoned objects, now symbols, memories, relics, gathered in a box to construct a parallel world, bizarre,  playful, poetic, mysterious, magic. Each work is a visual riddle to decipher. The collision of objects assembled in the boxes or pictures in the collages creates a surrealistic world with a spiritual dimension. 
Like an insect, the viewer is attracted by each piece, glowing in the dark blue room.

The unique artist has finally found his place at the NOMA.

photographs by the author:

view of the exhibition at the NOMA
"The Existentialiste", n.d., Joseph Cornell
"Untitled (Sun Box, Series, Blue), cc. 1934, Joseph Cornell

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Geometry + Unconscious= Abstract

The book published at the occasion of the exhibition titled "The Geometric Unconscious: A Century of Abstraction" at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, offers interesting insights on abstract art with four essays and numerous illustrations.
A detailed overview written by Jorge Daniel Veneciano, director at the Sheldon Museum of Art, is followed by the first essay from Sharon Kennedy, curator at the Sheldon. From the early 1900's in Europe to the United States, East and then West Coast, her presentation gives a historical perspective of the  century old movement. The long list of references invites further reading.
This is followed by Peter Halley's essay: "The Crisis in Geometry", a discussion about a fundamental question, why geometry in our culture? Referring to two texts (from Michel Foucault then Jean Baudrillard), the artist discusses geometric abstract and its sociology: started in a carceral industrial world, evolving in a world of computers and reaching the ultimate, finality without purpose. The argument is solidly built with numerous references and appropriate illustrations from known and not so well known artists.
Next, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe presents himself, a painter. His discussion is less disciplined and the dense text lost me at times. He introduces four artists, three of them females. 

The last essay is a masterpiece written by Veneciano. It brings abstract art to its next level, the search for the spiritual and the universal.
Starting in the 60's with Ad Reinhardt, back and forth to Malevich, Kandinsky, Stella, Mondrian, the author explores the higher goals of geometric abstract and its search for purity. It is not an exercise but an ascese, which finds its roots in the occult. Joseph Steiner still influences artists like Olafur Eliasson or Tony Cragg . Veneciano brings us from the birth of geometric abstract, Cubism, to its shift from a spiritual to an intellectual quest as the movement travels West in the United States. His overall message is: "All modern abstract art functions as a catalyst for transcendent experience."

Abstract art may appear hermetic, because it is. It will help the reader to have some previous exposure to abstract to fully appreciate this book. At the end, one better understands the two pillars of abstract: geometry and unconscious.

"Untitled", Eugene Martin, 1995
"Kagu", Frank Stella, 1976
"Homage To The Square", Joseph Albers, 1965
"Throwback, Tony Smith, 1976-79

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rothko's Thoughts by Rothko

The book written by the painter Mark Rothko in 1940-41 (maybe started as early as 1936) and published by his son Christopher in 2004 "The Artist's Reality, Philosophies of Art" is short but dense. Written by the artist to define his thoughts about art in general, art history, artists, philosophy, sociology of art, he also discusses the foundations of Beauty and Myth. Ultimately, Rothko appears haunted by the question formulated in his introduction to the chapter titled Art as a Natural Biological Function: "Why paint at all?".

The painter stays mute about his own path or works and the reader will find only a few references to abstract.
The book is a catalyst for Rothko's search and ends abruptly without a conclusion... Rothko kept painting.

photographs by the author:
"Untitled" (The Subway), 1937, Mark Rothko
"Untitled", 1949, Mark Rothko

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Marketing Pop

...or Soup.

Andy Warhol can be in your kitchen this Fall with the launch of a limited edition of Campbell tomato soups sold exclusively at Target to commemorate the first paintings of the now famous "Campbell Soups Cans". At the time, the Campbell soup company considered suing the artist...and now promotes the soup, thanks to the artist.

Warhol is everywhere this season, starting at my neighborhood art gallery, Pop is in the air. The gallery offers an interesting exhibition featuring the works of local artists, like Jeffrey Pitt, Sarah Ashley Longshore next to well-known artists like Keith HaringAndy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg. I could buy a silkscreen of Jane Fonda or Marilyn Monroe. ( respectively 68,000 and 160,000 dollars).
Now what about the market? Confusing.
The Andy Warhol Foundation is getting ready to put more than 350 paintings, 1000 prints, thousands of drawings for auction (flooding the market), in an effort to raise money.

An exhibition just opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: "Regarding Warhol Sixty Artists, Fifty Years" explores the impact of Warhol on contemporary art.

photograph by the author

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Visual Medley

Summertime, a random walk in New Orleans brings me to the K&B Plaza. For months...years, I have been driving by, every day, on my way to work. The building, occupied by offices, was purchased by the art collector Sydney Besthoff and some pieces of the collection are on display for the public. Of course, most of the outdoor sculptures from the Sydney and Walda Besthoff collection can be seen at the NOMA's sculpture garden
The small Plaza stays cool in the shade of a few trees, refreshed by the mist from Isamu Noguchi's sculpture-fountain, " The Mississippi",1961. "The Bird" (for Charlie Parker),1979, from Charles Ginnever looks like a giant blue piece of origami. With a steep angle of attack (aeronautical term), the sculpture appears unstable and heavy and at the same time ready to fly and soar in the blue sky. The iconic piece represents the work made by Ginnever in the 1970's. The sculptor stated "The sculpture is not made to trick anybody. It's just that [in] the way they are placed, they challenge our perception."  A sculpture from George Rickey swings in the wind and frames the clouds. Like in any collection, there are odds and ends, a sculpture from Tony Cragg"Sinbad", 2000, appears discarded in the background. Arthur Silverman's sculpture "Interlocking boxes", 1978, from Arthur Silverman, a local surgeon-sculptor is given a prime spot in front of the building. The visitor can sit in the shade on "Three Hand and Foot Bench".
In the entrance hall, two soundsuits from Nick Cave, 2011, (recent acquisitions) greet the visitor. Loud, colorful, they represent the "New Orleans Mardi Gras" spirit and clash with a minimalist sculpture from Nicolas Schoffer, "Chronos 8", 1986, and a white marble sculpture from Nicolas Neri " Carrara Figure #2", 1979 faced by a succession of randomly selected works: a bronze from Renoir , "Bust of Venus", 1915, next to a sculpture form Lin Emery, "Variations", 1978, a kitschy clock from the furniture designer Wendell Castle, "Bird Clock", 1984. Then, right and left, two narrow passages are cramped with paintings, sculptures mainly from the 70's and 80's. Three photo realists painters are featured with "Sunset Street", 1984, Robert Bechtle , "Bond's Corner Spring", 1975, Tom Blackwell , "Pullman", 1974, John Baeder. Sculptures scattered along the walls,  organic like "Sunburst", 1964, from Harry Bertoia or Michel Malpass, clash with "Sunbird", 1982 from Nikki de Saint-Phalle. Two paintings from Charles Bell complete the display (I may have forgotten a few names).
 The randomness of the display transforms the visit into an adventure. I had to squat to get a better look at some pieces, under the eyes of amused office workers behind their glass doors.

photographs by the author:
"The Mississippi", 1961, Isamu Noguchi
"The Bird" (for Charlie Parker). 1979, Charles Ginnever
"Pin Ball #3", 1984, Charles Bell
"Sunbird", 1982, Nikki de Saint-Phalle
"Three Hand and Foot Bench"

Monday, September 3, 2012

Moving Sculptures

Sounds of bells awake the Ogden Museum of Southern Art on a Saturday morning. Lin Emery's sculptures are on.  The automatons come alive with their servo-motors humming. The artist is well-known for her kinetic sculptures powered by water, magnets or wind.
"Breaking News", 2002, a large installation, fills a whole room. Protesters on the left, a tense group driven forward with fighting energy, on the march, are facing soldiers, straight and ready, in a tight formation on the right. They stand on each side of a body of water represented by a mirror surrounded by a red lining, symbol for blood. In the background hands are turning right, left, right, left, below white banners. Under the bridge of hands the ground is made of  Penrose tiles decorated with words in different languages. Littering the floor, they are meaningless and powerless. The subject of the work is dark and bloody and throws off the viewer. One expects automatons to be fun , a music box, a bird for a clock, not to show a battlefield or allegories to represent the Media and its inefficiencies. The shadows on the wall multiply the participants and animate the whole space.

Next room, "Acolytes", 1990-1992, feels incongruous. 
The four priests are part of a larger installation called "Sanctum"  and used to stand outside the temple, guardians of a sacred ceremony. Undisturbed, they rise and fall, up and down,  kneel, stand, kneel, stand, respectable, projecting their halos on the walls, but part of the work and story is missing.

A kinetic wall installation (2005) creates shapes and the sculpture redesigns itself  with a repetitive shape and rhythm. It is the closest  work to another kinetic sculptor's concept, George Rickey.
Across, the "Flower Drum", 1985, is producing the bell-like sound which fills the museum. The flower opens and closes, symbol of the cycle of life.
The exhibition confirms that, for me, Lin Emery's most powerful message is contained in her giant outdoor sculptures, " borrowing the forces of nature".

photographs by the author
"Breaking News", 2002
"Acolytes", 1990-92
"Flower Drum". 1985

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Under The Spell in New Orleans

Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) is not the first visitor who moved permanently to New Orleans. He is even buried at St. Louis Cemetery. The artist, well-known for his urban and  industrial paintings, discovered the Crescent City and under the spell, recorded with his camera the microcosm around him. The exhibition " Ralston Crawford and Jazz" at the New Orleans Museum of Art presents an extensive collection of his work. The catchy title is an understatement, the photographs and paintings treat a much broader range of subjects.

Hundreds of photographs are regrouped into themes:
 music, portraits, cemeteries, New Orleans streets. At first, paintings, lithographs, inks on paper, appear randomly scattered among them, but a closer look shows a careful selection to illustrate the influence of the photographs on the paintings and vice versa. The painter, considered a precisionist, was also a photographer ...or the photographer was also a painter, one finds the same "eye" in the construction of the scenes. With the lines created by shadows in bright sun bathed streets, he builds a geometric background to frame the subjects: Mardi Gras bands, funeral parades, crowds, portraits... 
A few examples give a glimpse in his technique. The portrait of Bill Matthews, 1955, is a lesson in composition. The arms of the trombonist smoking a cigarette, draw a triangle with the table and the face is a circle falling along the slope of his left arm. Most of the photographs are built around simple shapes suggested by a pillar, telephone poles, a drapery... Waldon "Frog" Joseph, trombone and Joe Thomas, clarinet is another example with the instruments arranged in parallel oblique lines in the center of the photograph. The musicians are accessory to the composition with the clarinettist's face melting in the trombone's shadow. The subjects are seldom looking at the camera and even the bodies turn away from it as featured in the photograph of two dancers.  If their looks are caught , they remain expressionless like the absent stare of a sick woman on a gurney or in the shadows like the eyes of the "Woman with Hands on the Hips" 1950-60's. The musician Jerome Green is caught with his eyes closed.  
All the photographs are black and white. What about the paintings and lithographs? The palette is limited to earth tones, flat blue, grey, with occasional black and white to depict lifeless, cold, emotionless landscapes.   
A complement to the exhibition, a selection of photographs from the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University confirms the historical legacy of Crawford's work: New Orleans 1950's-60', Louis Armstrong's birthplace, Old Clubs, Big 25, Dew Drop Inn, Blue Lamp Bar, Golden Leaf Hotel, Mulberry Grocery Store... 

Interestingly, his heartless industrial landscapes, his photographs show the same lack of emotions, an emptiness leading to expectations. Lines and shapes from buildings, instruments, musicians or crowds build a tense scene set before or after the action. 
Five films are also projected, for more than one hour, great studies in light and shadows.
At the end of the exhibition , a whole room is dedicated to geometric abstract lithographs showing the same preoccupation with shapes to create tension.
The text at the beginning of the exhibition made an attempt to justify the title, trying to apply the definition of Jazz (improvisation, polyphony, syncopation) to Crawford's work. I could not find the connection but discovered an artist's vision, a lesson in catching the unseen and untold.

no photographs were allowed at the NOMA
photographs by the author
banner at the NOMA's entrance

"Under The Third Avenue El" (The Brewery), Ralston Crawford, 1934
Montgomery Museum of Art

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

YBA...not so Y

The late 1980's saw the birth of the Young British Artists movement which fired up the art scene in Britain and spread globally. A quarter of a century later, it is time to reread the book from Julian Stallabrass written in 1999: "High art lite. The rise and fall of young British art".

In ten chapters, approximately 300 pages, the author describes the cultural, economic, political landscape that allowed the thriving of artists described as preoccupied by money and a cult of personality. The book presents a negative critic of their works, intellectually flawed but accessible to the masses. The world of the collectors is represented by Saatchi whose name is closely associated to the rise of  the YBAs, manipulating prices, making and undoing artists .... In the process, the author goes in great depth to describe the history of the movement also called: "The New Neurotic Realists". The list of artists is long, some are now very famous, others forgotten. 
Whatever happened, a generation of artists put Britain on the world map and names like Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin keep making the headlines.

A must read book, sometimes lengthy, controversial because of its negativity. 

photographs Flickr
"My Bed" Tracey Emin
"Fluoroidobenzene" Damien Hirst

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sampling at the Mississippi Museum of Art

A trip to Jackson was the occasion to visit the temporary exhibition titled "The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art" at the Mississippi Museum of Art. With forty works on display, it could have been called "Sampling Walter O. Evans' collection...". The permanent collection is located at the recently refurbished SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. There are two ways of looking at the exhibition: a walk through the vast hall at the entrance of the museum, a fifteen minutes visit at the most or an in-depth look at the works and the artists in the context of the African American art movement. I chose the latter.

A dozen artists including Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Horace Pippin, Benny Andrews were represented by a work or two and a short biographical note.
"Dust to Dust" (The Funeral), 1938 was my preferred work, a gouache on paper from Jacob Lawrence, a reminder of his skills in using colors, compositions, subjects to capture the moment and give a sense of history to a simple street scene. The display of his epic work "Toussaint L'Ouverture" made for an unforgettable visit at the NOMA in the past.

Two collages represented the other star of the exhibition, Romare Bearden, who is in the spolights lately with the celebration of the centennial of his birth. In the Summer issue of ArtNews Gail Gregg reminds us of the artist's legacy in an article titled "Beardenmania" and provides a list of all the events related to the celebration.

Artists like Charles White are remembered for their political involvement, Elizabeth Catlett, who passed away a few months ago, for her social engagement. She was represented by an iconic sculpture in bronze "Black Women Poets", 1984 and one print "Head of a Nigerian", 1976.

If I had not seen works from Benny Andrews at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in the past, I would have gone by without noticing a small painting, not one of his bests. Abstraction was represented by one oil on paper from Norman Lewis, "Untitled" 1975, a blue composition.
Lois Mailou Jones was present, in the background with two watercolors, seascapes.  The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts  just presented a survey of her career "Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color" with fifty five works. I had a chance to go through and discover the artist I did not know before.

The names of the artists echoed terms like Harlem Renaissance, activism, militancy, identity, protests... a period which paved the way for the next generations of African American artists and I would refer to the recently released book from Bridget R. Cook " Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum" to place their works in their historical context.

photograph by the author:
"Caribbean Forest", 1977, Romare Bearden

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Money, Power, Beauty

In his book "The Value of Art", Michael Findley (Prestel, 2012) tackles the big question: What makes the value of a piece of art?
Using an allegory, the Three Graces, Thalia, Euphrosyne and Gayea represent  the commercial, social and aesthetic value of art. 

In the first chapter, Findlay defines basic terms like primary and secondary market, discusses factors influencing the price of a piece of art: size, media, supply, demand and the role of galleries, auction houses, artists and art fairs.
What makes a specific work of art valuable? provenance, condition, authenticity, exposure and quality.
Who are the makers and shakers? corporate art, banks, art investment funds. Are indexes, trend analysis useful? The appraisal of art varies from gallery to fair market value, auction estimate and even insurance value.
His conclusion: "buying art is an art, not a business."

In the next chapter, referring to Euphrosyne, the goddess of joy, the author describes the value of art as a social tool. The aesthetic side is last, with Aglaea and should be the most important according to the author.

A whole chapter is a historical reminder of the value of art and a projection into the years to come.

The numerous anecdotes collected during decades of dealing with artists, collectors, galleries illustrate the points made by the author who shares his experience in this entertaining book.
Beyond this, the afterword is enlightening: "The essential value of art ... is best absorbed privately and personally."  

"The Three Graces", Antonio Canova (19th Century) Hermitage Museum
"Abstract Painting 780-1" Gerhard Richter, 1992 (photograph by the author)
"Fontaine" Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Creative Commons

Friday, June 22, 2012

All Lights On The Hirshhorn

The show at the Hirshhorn must be popular. Scheduled to end May 13, it is still on and brings crowds the day of my visit. Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space is spread throughout the museum. Starting on the top floor, a huge neon sculpture from  Lucio Fontana hangs above the escalator like a shining message drawn by the wand of a magician. Unfortunately, the ceiling is too low, and the lines from the beams intercept the sensuous curves. I turn around, try another spot, to no avail, the intrusive background spoils the magic scribble. The sculpture was first shown at the Milan Triennial in1951 displayed in a more appropriate setting, the grand staircase of a contemporary art gallery.

A walk through Jesús Rafael Soto's Blue Penetrable BBL is another experience, visual as well as tactile. The blue nylon strings shiver and whisper, disturbed by the visitor who emerges on the other side, from the sea? the sky? a forest?  The intense blue falls and fades on the floor.

Painful auditory stimuli come from a tent-like structure and people walk out with glazed eyes, shaking their heads. A quick look reveals cushions on the floor, a dark space with giant images projected on the wall... my ears cannot take the cacophony and I walk by Cosmococa No. 1: Trahiscapes from  Hélio Oiticica.

Carlos Cruz-Diez shares an enchanted world in Chromosaturation, a work full of adventures in color. The immaculate space feels like a surgical suite ( the visitor has to wear shoe covers to preserve the spotless floor). Bubblegum green, red, blue, orange, mauve, pink... reflect on the walls, ceilings, floors, define sharp angles and lines and fade as the visitor walks through the three rooms. One feels like breathing, bathing in color, possessed by an urge to grab a handful of green, yellow, orange, but it is already gone, a fleeting illusion. The artist created a fifth element: color and provides a path from the material to the immaterial.

In contrast, Light in Movement from Julio Le Parc is black and white. In a dark room, mirrors and spotlights produce animated shadows on the wall. The speed of the images combined with the rotation disorients the visitor and creates a dizzying effect.
The exhibition ( minus the pool, MOCA in 2010) requires a direct interaction between visitors and works. The artists have reached their goals. 

photographs by the author:
"Neon Structure for the IX Triennial of Milan", 1951, Lucio Fontana
""Blue Penetrable BBL", 1999, Jesús Rafael Soto
"Chromosaturation", 1965, Carlos Cruz-Diez

Friday, June 15, 2012

Southern Exposure

The Art of Eugene Martin: A Great Concept, the latest exhibition at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, MS, is all colors, so it seems when walking from the main building to the Gallery of African American Art.
Facing the entrance, the largest piece, The Fall of Icarus, 1998, acrylic on canvas, attracts the eyes like a magnet. Technically an iconic piece for the artist with its sharp bright colored, geometrical lines and shapes surrounding a dynamic subject of milder tones and blurry contours, it is an unusually dramatic theme for the painter who is known for his humorous, light, whimsical pieces. Furthermore, unless pressured by museums or galleries, he rarely gave a title to his works to avoid distraction and allow the viewer to see freely. The exhibition's checklist on the catalogue can attest of that with only eight titled works out of thirty-eight.
Starting on the left side of the vast room, a series of four bamboo reed stick pen drawings, made in the early 80's represent a technique used by the artist who produced calligraphic works full of expressions and movements with thin and thick lines. The creatures born from the artist's imagination, surrealist, from another planet, with usually happy and benign expressions, tell several stories when looked at with attention. A similar technique is used with different media for other works like A Great Concept, 1987, which represents a benevolent aquatic monster or the ten colored drawings on the right wall. Made at different periods, from 1970's to 1990's, one of them is about an insect devouring a dog, and several smaller birds ready to devour the insect... this is what I saw. The soft colors, pale orange, light brown, olive green, are in contrast with the bright colors of the acrylic paintings made in 1999-2001. These are pure geometric abstraction, lines, and colors give the mood to the painting, sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant. There is always music and rhythm with a rupture, a disturbance, a blurred colored surprise added to the painting, bringing a new dynamic to it and an element of surprise.

With his skills at drawing and painting, the artist uses his imagination to stimulate the viewer. It is like a good book you read and read again, the works become familiar but stay new.
The exhibition can be visited in any order, each piece  tells its own story. What is guaranteed is that more you look, more you see, this is what I like about Eugene Martin's works. 

"Too Slippery", 1981
"Mean and Green", 2000 
"Untitled", acrylic on canvas, 2000

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Other Miró

From the Tate in London to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the works of Joan Miró are travelling with the exhibition Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape. The text at the entrance makes it clear, the visitor will discover a politically engaged artist, an often ignored side of Miró's work.
The National Gallery of Art's website provides a detailed overview of the exhibition, with an outline of the    different periods presented by chronological order. What strikes the visitor is the rapid maturation of the artist. The Portrait of Vincent Nubiola, 1917, inspired by Cézanne, is followed by naive, primitive paintings depicting Miró childhood's surroundings, among them The Farm, 1921-22 (bought later by Ernest Hemingway). The styles collide with obvious influence from Cubism (which Miro found too bourgeois) and Surrealism like in The Hunter, 1923-24. After meeting with André Breton, Max Ernst and other members of the surrealist movement in Paris, the artist assimilated their theories and put them in practice. His subjects stayed regional with the Catalan peasants series which became a symbol of oppression. The message is subtle with its description of peasants: red hat (the barretina which alludes to the red phrygian hat worn by the sans-culottes during the French Revolution), mustaches, eyes and pipes. The shapes are getting leaner with stick like bodies. A closer look shows symmetrical lines built on a grid lightly delineated on the background. The canvas is pierced several times with a blunt object, a call for rebellion?
In the same room, three Animated Landscapes look peaceful and poetic with their monochrome backgrounds animated by a few floating objects, moon, hare, dog and the symbolic ladder, a way to escape from reality to an imaginary world.
Following these, the political message becomes louder. Wars, politics, social upheavals influence paintings like Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement, 1935 or The Two Philosophers, 1936, clouds gather on the horizon with the start of the Spanish civil war which lasted till 1939. Miró uses bright, angry colors, convoluted shapes to create beastly creatures and an hallucinatory landscape. Across these, the "savage" pastels, which sounds like an oxymoron, works of small format on paper, oil on copper, collages, masonite, tar, caseine and sand, six Metamorphosis dark, with a rough texture. Then, several symbolic paintings like Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937 introduce new objects: a fork piercing an apple to represent oppressive regimes, bread, a shoe to represent the people. The colors are screaming on a black background and express violence, anguish, destruction. The artist's use of simple symbols  evokes propaganda posters. The following paintings made in 1939 are dada in their absurdity. This is the end of a terrible war...and the start of another. The Constellation series made in 1940-41 is a nice break after these dark works. The automatic drawings, a total of twenty-three, are of small format, cosmic with stars, abstract symbols, ladders, eyes, birds, female shapes on soft colored backgrounds. 
 But the painter's preoccupation with war, dictators, is always present and The Barcelona series (1939-1944) line up a wall, threatening lithographs in black and white. Suns are black, shapes have teeth, angry features, sexual appendages hanging of noses. In contrast, across the room, the gigantic triptych Mural Painting I-III, made in 1962, in the Color Field painting technique, is blinding with the uniformly saturated canvas orange-yellow, green and red with a few cryptic signs, a dot, a line.
The last room erupts with protests: May 68 inspired by the French riots is a colorful green, red, orange, yellow, blue painting defaced by thick black lines.
The painter is all action, splashing grey paint on the canvass for the triptych titled Fireworks,1973, a firework of doom and ashes. Two works from the Burnt Canvases series (five total), made also in 1973 conclude the exhibition. In a dramatic gesture of despair, the artist well-known by then, burned five paintings. His message never changed just got stronger. The visitor leaves the exhibition with these few words from Miró:
"When an artist speaks in an environment in which freedom is difficult, he must turn each of his works into a negation of the negations" (1979)...The artist became very good at this.

photographs were not allowed
"The Farm", 1921-22, Wikimedia
"Head of a Catalan Peasant", 1925, Wikimedia
"The Morning Star" (from Constellations series), 1940-41, Wikimedia
"Persons in the Presence of a Metamorphosis", 1936, photograph by the author: permanent collection, New Orleans Museum of Art

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Gone, Muddy Waters or Keith Moon, gone, the two lovers whose heartbeats were recorded on the audiotape, gone Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp... Nostalgia could be the title of the exhibition "The Prelives of the Blues" from the conceptual artist Dario Robleto at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The rooms are quiet but the works are all about music. For example, "The Minor Chords Are Ours", 2010, is made with "vintage mason jars, vintage wooden spools, stretched audiotape, minor chords, linseed oil, willow". Further comments state " The minor chords from a family's 60 year record collection were isolated to audiotape, stretched into thread and spooled." The text along the composition is essential for its interpretation. " Lunge For Love As If It Were Air", 2012, reaches romantic undertones with two symbolic feathers enclosed in a mason jar, like two relics, still for eternity, made of "stretched audiotape of two now-deceased lovers' recordings of each other's heartbeats".
The artist uses other materials to evoke love, death, memory. The stars in the night sky are photographs of stage lights taken from the album covers of deceased musicians' live performances. Muddy written on the wall is made of seashells, each exposed to Muddy Waters' music for 48 hours. A triptych in blue, like an abstract painting, is a ghost image of the original handwritten lyrics of a song.
It turns morbid, with two anatomically perfect pelvises made of " hand-ground and powderized vinyl and shellac records, and carved vinyl records, bone calcium, resin, pigments and dust", tightly bound, music literally in the bones. The artist becomes an alchemist and transforms matter not in gold but memories.
The exhibition goes on with four kitschy wall pieces and more works made from everyday objects, artefact's, even glass produced by lightning strikes or the first atomic bomb. Every piece brings more reflections.
Innuendos, shadows of memories, the work is sensitive, poetic, exudes melancholy, what we call "the blues" in the South.

 photographs by the author
"Lunge For Love As If It Were Air", 2012
"The Sun Makes Him Sing Again (Brown)", 2012