The Easel

18th December 2018


This is the last regular issue of The Easel for 2018. Next week, and the week after, the newsletter will highlight the year’s most popular stories among Easel subscribers. There will then be a break of two weeks before The Easel resumes on Tuesday January 22.
Many thanks for your interest over the last year. After four years, The Easel is starting to feel a little bit grown up!
Season’s greetings to all.

Moneyball for the Art World

Some fancy analytics show that a small network of “curators, art historians, gallery owners, dealers, agents, auction houses and collectors” drive artists reputations and prices. Sounds alarming – is this new news?  After all, every era has its tastemakers. The writer claims the concentration of influence comprises an “undemocratic and impenetrable structure” Really?

The Struggle to Resolve

A survey of African American art, now in New York, “succeeds brilliantly” in capturing the spirit of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It also reveals the dilemma those artists felt about focusing on “overtly racial subject matter” versus art “unconstrained by ethnicity”. Probably unresolvable, the issue nonetheless stimulated a “collective mass of respectable efforts” that helped a few “to reach the stars”.

Magic Touch: Jasper Johns Show Dazzles at New Menil Drawing Institute

Houston scores a double hit. A show of Jasper Johns drawings “dazzles. He captivates us with things we’ve known all our lives.” But that’s not all. The show inaugurates the Menil Drawing Institute, the first museum in the US specialized in contemporary drawing. Namechecking the renowned Vienna museum, one critic gushes “This week at the Menil, America gets a modern Albertina.”

Rethinking Schiele

A defense, in three parts, of Schiele and his sexualized imagery. His works were explicit but also granted women “an uncommon degree of sexual agency”. At the time, childhood was considered little different to adulthood. Finally, he was trying to expose the decadence that lay behind Vienna’s espoused conservatism. “One can depict something horrid without endorsing the horror.”

Was History’s Greatest Art Theft an Inside Job? The Creators of the “Last Seen” Podcast on Investigating the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

The 1990 theft from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is rated art’s biggest ever heist. Even after resorting to unorthodox methods such as a social media campaign, the case is unsolved. Now, a TV series is being tried. “As years have gone by, I’ve gotten far more suspicious about [the guard’s] activities that night … there’s really still something there … the mystery just deepens over time.”


Not a review of Delacroix the precursor to modernism. Rather, Sillman gets into his head. He was “frail, sexist, … a snob [with] bombastic ambitions. In other words, he’s full of it.” Delacroix “made the picture plane something “bloody and animal and hot. His famous idea was that paintings are bridges to the souls of the spectator [but] his paintings are more like planks thrown over his own abyss.”

11th December 2018

Sex is down, spirituality is up

Sotheby’s has introduced a prize to “support and encourage museums to break new ground”. Applications for the prize are hardly a comprehensive sample of current museum thinking about exhibitions. Still, the collection of new ideas, combined with the comments of a heavyweight jury, perhaps provides a glimpse of the zeitgeist.

Charlotte Prodger Claims This Year’s Turner Prize With Film Shot on iPhone

A Turner Prize that is slightly less controversial than usual. Some are unhappy about white artists depicting racial issues; others complain that all shortlisted artists produced video art. One critic grouches  “the gallery audience of today is not going to sit on their bums for a total of five hours and watch video art.” The jury liked the winning work’s “painterly quality”. Few seem to disagree.

Richard Long: The Tide is High

In a show that mostly gets respectful reviews,  one critic asks a bigger question. Is this “giant of British art” still on the cutting edge? “The old certainties about what is certifiable ‘avant-garde’, still extant in the 1980s, have mysteriously vanished. [Long’s works] still seem to whisper under their breath ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Monet’. They are drifting away from the world we inhabit now.”

Peeling Back the Paint to Discover Bruegel’s Secrets

The unprecedented Bruegel show in Vienna has been accompanied by new X-ray analysis of the paintings. They show numerous changes by the artist as well as by later hands. Were these merely his second thoughts about some details? Was he criticizing the government? Was he too macabre for later tastes?  “The question of what Bruegel is trying to convey is not resolved.”

Why Look at Art When You Could Watch TV?

John Berger had a bit of talent as a painter, quite a lot as a writer. Television, then new, offered him a way to combine these to tell art’s powerful stories. His landmark show, Ways of Seeing, “originally and humbly planned as a late-night polemic, lit the fuse for the meteoric rise of cultural studies in the academy and the now taken-for-granted politicization of visual culture.”

Christo: ‘Art is useless’

Christo is repelled by the idea of a retrospective but did agree to reflect on his remarkable career. Self-description – “I don’t know what I am; sculptor? painter? architect?” His success rate? “46 projects refused for 22 realised”. What is success? Something that evokes “elemental emotions … constituting the sense memory that alone will endure.”

Man with a Bloody Paintbrush

For most artists, a two-volume book of one’s paintings would signify recognition. A new luxe collection of Lucien Freud’s works feels different. Is it a celebration of his portraiture or just a marketing opportunity?  “There is nothing remotely critical in these books about either the art or the man”. Or, as another critic puts it “more a monument than a book”.