The Easel

26th September 2017

Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican review – the myth explored

There is some skepticism about Basquiat. Snobbery, racism, envy, the wildness of his art – all perhaps play a role. In addition sky-high prices have meant that very little of his work is viewable in public collections. So what is the verdict on Basquiat’s first London retrospective? High energy art, one critic comments, “wholly fresh … jazzy and garrulous, and surprisingly visually powerful”. An interview with the curator is here.

How Alexander Calder Became America’s Most Beloved Sculptor

By 1930, Calder had begun to be noticed, at least by other artists. Late in that year he visited Mondrian in his Paris studio. “Calder later observed, “It was Mondrian who made me abstract”. Calder was beginning to contemplate a new kind of abstract sculpture—the sculptures that would emerge at the Galerie Percier in Paris scarcely six months later and establish him as one of the most radical artists of his time.”

Fred Williams in the You Yangs

Unlike colonial era artists Fred Williams didn’t think of Mother England when observing Australia’s landscape. Its defining character, for him, was a “random scatter of elements with no focal point”. And he deployed the vocabulary of abstraction to express its spaciousness. The result was revolutionary – “From the oldest landscape in the world … something we’d never seen before.” Background on the artist is here.

The Eternal Seductive Beauty of Feathers

Great writing. If high fashion is art surely this owes much to exquisite realization. Enter the plumassier. “In the finished collection, almost every outfit bore a striking embellishment: a coat of arms, an embroidered badge, a feathered breastplate, tufted sleeves. These were refined, modern designs, yet they had a rude vitality—as if they might peel from the cloth at any moment and take flight.”

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, at the National Gallery, London; Degas: A Passion for Perfection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Degas closely aligned with the Impressionist group but in many ways was different. Painting landscapes outdoors was not for him. He preferred half-lit interiors … and nudes. Behind a difficult personality was a relentless innovator. Degas’ approach to the nude was “audacious … a collision with the whole history of aesthetics. He was not concerned with the final, or finished, or even the successful”. More images are here.

The Surprising History (and Future) of Paperweights

Cheap paper led to more letters and documents, for which people needed … paperweights. By the 1860’s the novelty had worn off but not before glassmakers achieved stunning levels of technical and artistic proficiency. A century later, a revival, this time without the merest hint of functional purpose. A video on paperweight masterpieces (46 min) is here.

19th September 2017

The Beauty of Ugly Painting

A paean for disruptive art. Dadaists attacked beauty as a “boring sort of perfection” and many famous names embraced this view. Does the art market prefers inoffensive art? Perhaps, but major institutions seem to be embracing the new and ugly. Hence, today’s ugly might just be tomorrow’s ‘wild and daring’. Or, as the writer notes: “to achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance”.

America—What’s in a Name?

Los Angeles’ has a big Latino population but cares little for Latin American art. The Getty has responded with Pacific Standard Time, a “mammoth” initiative focused on Latino and Latin American art. An “undeveloped” market is not helping, says a curator: “It is only when the collecting community gets involved in a particular type of art that museums can really engage in a meaningful way,” Some local press is here.

Object lessons: Rachel Whiteread and the legacy of the Young British Artists

London’s “YBA’s” – of which Whiteread was a peripheral member – brought a blast of new ideas. Has her early promise been fulfilled? Whiteread’s reputation has benefitted because, atypically, her work is quiet – it carries “the imprint of anonymous lives.  She is a somewhat limited artist … But in refining her technique, she also refines the expressive possibilities of her work … a still-life artist whose work commemorates Everyman”

Camera Obscura

It’s impossible not to be fascinated by Vivian Meier. Working as a nanny paid the bills but her secret preoccupation was street photography, for which she had “magisterial gifts”. Meier made numerous images but printed relatively few. Those she did scarcely overlap with those that have brought posthumous fame. A biography fills in some blanks but she remains a “particularly vivid … ghost”. Multiple images are here.

Vase to Vase

Bernard Leach is often called the “father” of British studio pottery. But by extolling the humble domestic pot he inadvertently introduced the craft / art distinction that has plagued ceramics. A major survey show suggests this argument is now losing relevance as ceramics break out of “the specialized craft gallery context and [come] into the larger world of art”. An excellent overview of British ceramics is here.

The Art of Space Art

An apposite essay in a week when the Cassini spacecraft is no more. Space art thrives, seemingly unconstrained by the flow of factual deep space images. “Humans have always been able to imagine more for ourselves than we can achieve, and this idealism lends a touch of heartache to space art. We can picture the world that could exist, the lives we could be having.”

China’s 8 Brokens

Bapo painting became popular with China’s emerging middle class in the nineteenth century. With its hyper-realistic style – radically different from traditional Chinese painting – and coded allusions, it was more witty than scholarly. Bapo also provided a platform for coded dissent at the presence of Western occupying forces. Forgotten after 1949 it is now being rediscovered by curators and collectors.