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 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.

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”.