The Easel

23rd February 2021

Christie’s Auction House Will Now Accept Cryptocurrency

The above headline misses the point. Beeple is a popular digital artist whose images are each a digital file. Digital art is easily copied but if it is “published” to blockchain a verifiably original version can be created. For the art market, uniqueness means saleability. Spotting an opportunity to validate this artform, Christie’s will auction a Beeple work next week. Says Beeple “I don’t think people are fully recognizing that this is going to be a massive, massive shift”.

The self as cipher: Salman Toor’s narrative paintings

New artists like Toor can struggle for recognition if (older) critics can’t describe a context for their work. This essay is a good example of how it can be done. The rise of “autobiography and memoir [in art] has likely been encouraged by social media. The “self” is formed through social constructs of gender, sexuality, and race. Being perceived by someone can be both liberating—to see an idea of you through someone else—but also really narrowing and debilitating.”

Why the Art World Is Embracing Craft

A 1969 survey show on American crafts “rebooted” respect for the handmade. A similar survey show, with new names, (review) has opened in celebration of that earlier event. It comes when craft is resurgent, especially in ceramics and fibre art. One piece of beadwork “communicates a nearly religious quality—a quality of wonder. Handwork provides a firm anchor … it gives us something to believe in. Art needs craft, and badly”

The typographic utopia of Tallone Editore

Catnip for bibliophiles. Letterpress printing is now an artisanal process, affordable only for limited editions. Typeface characters, hand carved, are “little sculptures of thought”, their imperfections making the text “warmer”. Rare paper may be French (“Canson, the sublime one”), Italian or Japanese, while the ink should be “bright”, not “mournful”. Pages are cut and bound by hand. The end result – “small conquests of our civilization”. Videos are here.

Ansel Adams: the politics of natural space

For a time, Ansel Adams was America’s most acclaimed photographer. What exactly was his aesthetic achievement? His images of pristine, majestic nature were not pathbreaking and nor were his technical achievements. Perhaps he was tapping into the Romantics idea of the wilderness as a “metaphor for heroic aspirations.” If so, the untouched frontier is now lost to us, making Adams images just “artifacts of a lost contentment.”

Chaïm Soutine: his best paintings

Soutine doesn’t get many large exhibitions. That is surprising – he painted “some of the most touching and unmistakable art of the early 20th century”. Sitting outside the major movements of 1920’s Paris, his claim to fame is the “unrestrained expression of emotion” in his works, achieved with “thick, squidgy, excited paint”. Plus, an attitude to his subjects that can only be described as hungry – “like an aphid sucking at a leaf”.

16th February 2021

Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective

Scully’s most acclaimed paintings depict richly coloured blocks and stripes. Those colours, plus Scully’s gestural painting style, give a sense of “geological compression” that makes the works seem both new and old. Scully says he is aiming for abstraction that is “more expressive and that relates to the world in which we live”. Most reviews of this show are truly horrible, some almost unreadable. The linked piece is okay – just – but does have great images.

Irving Penn: Photographism @Pace

From quite early, Penn showed that commercial photography could merge into art. Clearly, his early training to be a painter shaped his modernist aesthetic. But what magic did he bring to photography? An ability to balance “allurement with revulsion”? The graphic quality of many of his images? Perhaps the timelessness of his images reflects the lessons he derived from great painting and sculpture – “simplicity, rigor, wit, elegance”.

Man Ray’s Subtle Surrealistic Genius Women

Man Ray left painting for photography only to keep striving for photography’s “painterly potential”. Surrealism’s ideas about paradoxical imagery were thus bound to appeal. Did he produce “stunning works of visual art”? He certainly expanded the boundaries of photography and created some memorable images. However, Ray’s work did nothing to prevent surrealism’s decline and, to modern eyes, his images seem overly full of young nude studio assistants.

Rembrandt and slavery: did the great painter have links to this abhorrent trade?

The prosperity of Holland’s Golden Age was built on global trade and … slavery. A new exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum highlights this link and, controversially, includes works by Rembrandt. He did not participate in the slave trade but did paint portraits of those who were. Perhaps his moral unease can be seen in those works. A century later, when Britain controlled the slave trade, the same tainted windfall came the way of Gainsborough.

When the Painting Has Really Begun

Between the fireworks of a newly launched artist and the insights of the veteran is the “amorphous phase” of mid-career. The two artists reviewed have approached it differently. One has changed her style and then, after a decade or so, changed back. Another has been more consistent to her impulsive abstract style. Both approaches have worked because mid-career has brought “a deeper vulnerability [and] in that vulnerability is strength.”