The Easel

31st October 2017

EASEL ESSAY Alexander Calder and the Optimism of Modernism: Jed Perl in Conversation with Morgan Meis

In the view of renowned US author and critic Jed Perl, Alexander Calder remains America’s greatest sculptor. Easel Contributing Editor Morgan Meis recently talked to Perl about his biography of Calder (“Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940″) the first volume of which has just been published.

“When so many emigres arrived from Europe – artists, writers – the Calders were the go-to people even for those they didn’t already know… In a larger metaphoric sense that is part of what mobiles are about. The Calders loved dancing. On New Year’s Eve, the Calders would entertain their friends at their house in Roxbury, Connecticut, and they would all still be dancing wildly in the early hours. You can see the connection between that social dancing and the idea of a mobile. Mobiles are about a sense of community, a sense of connectedness, the relations between people, the way parts go together.”

Image: Alexander Calder Vertical Foliage, 1941 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

How Cezanne rescued the portrait: the UK’s exhibition of the year

Isolated in Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne struggled to express in paint what he truly saw. This quest impacted his portraits just as much as his famed landscapes. Early youthful romanticism give way to later exuberant use of colour. And then came his multiple portraits of his wife, “by turns casual and straightforward, stylised into flattened shapes … complex and dissonant”. Beyond this “painterly evolution” lay the path to modern art.

Sleeping By The Mississippi

As a young photographer with “nothing to lose” Soth did a road trip down the Mississippi. The resultant book, just re-printed, is regarded as one of the “great representations of the United States”.  “Charles – with his aviation gear and model airplanes – represents a “humble search for creative exploration”. Sleeping by the Mississippi, [is] a lyrical way of moving through the world that hints at sleep and dreams.”

Murakami Deftly Modernizes Japanese Art in MFA Exhibit

A new perspective on the puzzle that is Murakami. Eccentric humour is a long standing tradition in Japanese art. Boston’s MFA is using its collection of historic Japanese masterpieces to place Murakami squarely within this tradition. Criticism of Murakami – that his art is too decorative – perhaps fails to take account of these foundations. The curator notes “He said to me, ‘There’s a need for play. It’s just fun.’” A video (2 min) is here.

Saul Steinberg’s View of the World

Steinberg aimed to draw like a child. Easier said than done over a decades-long career. Magazine drawings, which brought fame, ran in parallel with a diverse artistic career that ignored boundaries. Steinberg was aware of the category confusion – his self-description was “a writer who draws”. And his description of his work also had a certain innocence: “[my hand explains] to myself what goes on in my mind.” More images are here.

Image: Saul Steinberg Foundation

Body shock: the intense art and anguish of sculptor Alina Szapocznikow

An interesting bio piece. Having somehow survived both ghetto and concentration camp Szapocznikow abruptly trained as a sculptor. The works that eventuated focused on the “fragile and abject” human body – frequently using casts of her own body. Despite being a notable art world figure in Paris and Warsaw, Szapocznikow faded from memory outside her native Poland. Now sustained resurgence in interest is underway.

The meaty essence of humanity – Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys review

Some critics think Soutine’s portraits of hospitality staff reflect a concern for others. This writer is unconvinced. Soutine was indifferent to anything outside his own emotions – “these people are meat for his artistic vision.”  What is not in doubt is that his extraordinary, raw, portraits have been highly influential among artists, acclaimed by Willem de Kooning, Lucien Freud and more. More images are here.

24th October 2017

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait

Metal spider sculptures secured Louise Bourgeois’ fame. It seems, though, that for large parts of her career, print making was the focus of her creative process. A survey show of these works on paper will help free her reputation of the “clichés miring her sculpture in rabid feminism.” Because of “their vigour, breadth and intuitive gesture, [they] release Bourgeois from her legend”. A video on the show (31 min) is here.

Inside The Dramatic Yves Saint Laurent Museum In Marrakech

Yves Saint Laurent, as much as anyone, brought art and fashion together. His partner observed of this connection “Fashion is not an art, but you need an artist to make fashion”.  All this is now celebrated in two new museums. One, in his Paris atelier, is a kind of permanent retrospective. The other is in Marrakech. Why Marrakech? As the great man once declared “Marrakech taught me color”.

Other French Artists

The 19th century French art establishment viewed women as “scaled down men”. A ban on women artists studying life (nude) drawing was just one of many barriers. Nonetheless many persevered and a few, such as Berthe Moriset and Mary Cassatt prospered. “[I]t’s possible to look at works that are different not just because they’re by women, but because they’re not what’s mainstream.” Some images are here.

The Fearless Chris Ofili Enters His Own Personal Paradise Lost

Chris Ofili is an important painter. But his latest, widely reviewed, show seems plain difficult – four paintings in a gallery, displayed behind a floor-to-ceiling wire fence. Some explanations are lengthy and one critic admits “I don’t fully grasp this exhibition”. This writer thinks the show is “stunning”. Summoning up his explanatory powers he suggests the difficult-to-see works are about “venturing resolutely upon a new vision of reality”.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

When London’s National Gallery acquired van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait in 1842, it inspired the Pre Raphaelite movement in British art. This much discussed art is hailed by some as radical. For others, however, it’s “Victorian tripe”, or even “a fraud … mediocre.” Ouch! What is not in dispute is van Eyck’s 1434 work. “Mesmerising” is undoubtedly a consensus view, “the first really lifelike domestic interior ever painted.”

‘I wanted to do something I have never done before’

Going from the Memphis Design Group to fine art painting is something of a leap. Du Pasquier’s work still reflects her design DNA – using scale models to assist still life compositions and the ever-present bright colours that so characterized Memphis designs. Several shows reveal a new shift underway, toward abstraction. It’s “a different kind of position. I became a builder, an inventor.’ More images are here.

The Master of Eglfing-Haar

Eugen Gabritschevsky was a distinguished Russian biologist until engulfed by mental illness. Confined to a psychiatric hospital he started painting.  What had before his collapse been the occasional drawing, afterwards became a prolific activity. When a new medication was introduced his art stopped, though he seemingly retained “a deep wisdom full of resignation.”