The Easel

20th February 2018

The Obama portraits are direct, vital, and above all, cool

The “immensely striking“ presidential portraits have unleashed a deluge of commentary, a fraction of it about the art. As Morgan Meis argued last year, figurative art is having a renaissance because of its narrative power. Kehinde Wiley in particular exemplifies this. His portraits of black men striking Old Masters’ poses redistribute “the aesthetic power of art … [the Obama work] has the aesthetic effect of a baroque portrait”.

The thrill of light that you can touch

McCall showed his early “light sculptures” in lofts and warehouses. Fancy galleries however posed a problem. Without dust and smoke the light sculptures could not be seen. Haze machines and digital projectors have solved those problems splendidly – “the shafts of light are rendered with the same sense of form as a sculptor might imagine marble or bronze” An excellent video (4 min) is here.

At The Prado

Being labelled as “exclusive” runs a risk that one’s coterie may move on. The most celebrated of 19th century Spanish artists, Fortuny’s work was technically outstanding – and expensive. However, the Moorish themes that so appealed to American collectors in particular, dated quickly. By 1900 this “watercolourist of genius” was forgotten outside Spain. More images are here and a nice video (6 min) here.

The biggest takeaways from Dhaka Art Summit 2018

This local review describes the challenge facing South Asian art as developing “infrastructure for the arts for a place already intellectually charged, but lacking global connections”. A London review thinks differently – the challenge is steering clear of bigger players – the west, China and India. Whatever your view, it is notable that senior representatives from MoMA and Tate, among others, travelled to Dhaka for the event.

Joseph Cornell: how the reclusive artist spread his wings

When reticent Joseph Cornell came across a painting by Juan Gris – the master of analytical cubism – it really struck a chord. Cornell subsequently created over 20 of his art boxes, his “poetic theatres”, in homage to that one Gris work. Why do most include the image of a cockatoo? Many objects in his assemblages are odd. Perhaps, as one critic mused, it’s “the emblem of a presence too elusive or vast to be enclosed in a box”

Emil Nolde: an artist ‘more inclined to contrast and discord’

Nolde believed in the expressive power of colour perhaps even more than other German expressionists. His belief in German leadership in art would, he thought, recommend him to the Nazi’s. They proved less keen, labelled him a ‘degenerate’ and thus saved his reputation. Today’s assessment – “one of the leading German artists of his time, an evaluation that still holds, despite his perverse selfishness and moral failings.”

The Harvard Art Museums present Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943–55

Amidst the reckoning in German society after WW2, what was happening in art? Harvard art museums thinks this a “missing chapter”, a period not of apathy but highly charged art making. Individuals grappled with national guilt, ruined cities and an approaching cold war. No single style predominated but collectively they articulated themes such as commercialization and technology, themes that still loom large in German art.

13th February 2018

12 Masterful Portraits Leave Their Castle For The First Time

Velazquez was the greater painter but, still, Zurbarán was a star of the Spanish Baroque. Velazquez went off to the royal court but devout Zurbarán painted for churches and monasteries. Probably intended for churches in the New World these monumental portraits instead ended up in rural England, scarcely to be seen in 250 years. Zurbarán, it seems, “is about to be rediscovered yet again”. A discussion of the paintings is here.

Vija Celmins’ L.A. show: Chalkboards, ocean waves and other improbable wonders

Post-war American artists reacted differently to surrealism. It inspired Pollock to tap into the unconscious to express universal truths.  Celmins, in contrast, has pursued an art of “extreme” attention to detail. Her images of the night sky, ocean waves, the desert, seemingly are without perspective. As a result they evoke “vastness [and] a deeply personal, interior process”.  An older but more helpful review is here.

Moralism and the Arts

Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Picasso, Balthus, Chuck Close: a rogue’s gallery of the #Metoo movement! Should these artists’ works be dismissed because of misdeeds, proven or otherwise? “To judge the moral component of artistic expression, then, we must look … at the work itself. Some art is meant to provoke … People can do things in works of imagination that they would never do in life.”

Nixon’s Angels

In 1975 Nixon did a portrait of his wife and her three sisters. They agreed to a repeat the following year – and now there is a sequence of 43 such annual portraits. “The Brown Sisters” has brought fame and exemplifies Nixon’s broad body of work – a “dogged inquisitiveness into … the fragility, resilience and hope that arise from our human connections. [His images] aren’t always pretty, but their beauty is resounding.”

How Gordon Matta-Clark Saw the City

The Bronx in the early 70’s was crumbling due both to the city’s poor finances and a lack of interest. Matta-Clark thought this an abandonment of public responsibility because buildings help form civic identity. So he set about putting artful cuts into walls, floors and roofs of derelict buildings – a mashup of sculpture, architecture and painting.  His ideas remain influential – notably with superstar architect Frank Gehry.

The Artist Questioning Authorship

Long but interesting essay about conceptual artist Danh Vo. His family were Vietnamese refugees and the experience seems to echo. His work mostly comprises objects—collected, collaged, repurposed – that are in some way ambiguous. He is a “hunter and gatherer” says his gallerist. The curator of his Guggenheim show is more poetic: he expresses “vagaries of lived experience and the flickering instability of the self”.

Love and Theft

A 2013 discovery of a hoard of artworks acquired by Hitler’s art dealer, Cornelius Gurlitt, has created endless problems. To whom do these works really belong? Were they all looted? Why is this art being displayed when much is of “no particular distinction?” “What purpose does it serve to exhibit this? [The victims], in the end, are all that matters. How and why the Gurlitts slept with lies is their problem.”