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