The Easel

16th July 2024

Bill Viola, artist and navigator, left a world drenched in beauty

Viola saw earlier than most the artistic potential of video. Starting as an audiovisual assistant, he pioneered the development of video art, doing more than anyone to bring it into the cultural mainstream. He was especially interested in Old Masters works and their themes of life, death, love and spiritualism. Among his favoured techniques was slowing footage down to emphasise the passing of time. “Time and the unfolding of awareness is the real subject of a lot of old master paintings”, he said,

‘Eva Hesse: Five Sculptures’: Humanity and Otherworldliness in the Artist’s Late Work

If minimalism was all about the impersonal, pristine object, post-minimalism was an attempt to re-introduce emotional expressiveness. Using materials like latex and fibreglass, Hesse was a star of the movement. In one work, rubberised canvas was used to create “ghostly wrinkled bedsheets”. Other works “bear the curves, asymmetries, and blemishes of flesh, even if they aren’t figurative”. Sadly, her materials have become brittle and are now falling apart. As Hesse said, “life does not last, art does not last.”

The Eternal Youth of Yoshitomo Nara

One critic says Nara’s “simple cartoony/illustrative paintings … have a depth that is a match for any contemporary painter”. That’s bold. Several writers note that his child-like characters “teeter between innocence and defiance”, but what are the “profound emotional and social themes” that they illuminate? Perhaps this show will fare better in London but this writer seems sceptical: “Nara’s bold dynamism peters out … with later paintings marred with sentimentalism.” 

Arts and Sciences

Famous in ornithology, Audubon should also be regarded as America’s first great watercolourist. Self-taught, he reputedly was immune from the influence of other artists. A comparison of his work against Rembrandt and (particularly) the French artist Oudry, suggests otherwise. Yet he went further, showing the drama of movement amidst “the fierce beauty of the natural world.” Says the author, Audubon was “a nineteenth-century American Leonardo da Vinci, who married art and science.”

Jean Hélion goes against the grain

Language barriers deprive artists outside the Anglo-sphere – like Hélion – of due recognition. An early advocate of geometric abstraction in Paris, he helped introduce it to the US but then shifted to figuration. The critics thought his surrealism-influenced arrangements of figures “incongruous” and called his nudes “insipid”. Yet his final works of Paris street scenes are “climactic achievements”. Says a curator “The more we look at Hélion, the more his work seems immense,” Images are here. (Google translate)

How Images Make the Objects We Desire Seem Irresistible

Product photography first appeared in catalogues in the mid-1800’s. Those early images, compositionally influenced by the still life genre, exploited the “truth claim” of photographs. In 1920’s Paris, product photos expanded the “visual language” of modernism. And, by the 1940’s, the distinction between product photography and fine art photography had blurred completely. After more than a century of change, though, the challenge is still “what makes you pay attention?” Images are here.

Can the Museum Survive?

Is the debate about restitution turning into a museum “crisis”? Museums were a response to public curiosity about the “trophy art” arriving from newly colonised territories. Their social licence is now under attack, and not just because of restitution. Are these institutions obsessed with “identity politics”? Are they even necessary? Why not re-imagine them as cosmopolitan places where cross-nation cultural linkages can be explored. The British Museum, a bête noir in this debate, claims to be just that.

9th July 2024

Christopher Wool Tries Blending Bad-Boy Energy with Blue Chip Clout

If your paintings sell for multi-millions and you have had a Guggenheim retrospective, what comes next? Wool’s answer, if it is that, is to mount his own show in a grungy vacant office block. His famous text works long gone, he has returned to abstract paintings, some made “gritty” through “degraded reproduction”. This is not traditional painting but rather feels like a return to the mid-1970’s when he was a struggling DIY artist. Wool seems to agree, indirectly; “I don’t recognize our culture”.

Vera Molnár: Parler à l’oeil

Molnar’s art has its humour but essentially it is an intellectual exercise into order and the breaking down of order. Starting with a page of squares, for example, she “joins them, divides them, spaces them, squeezes them, flattens them and shakes them” until the image is reduced to an aesthetically pleasing incoherence. Some call her the “godmother of generative art”, but she was a godmother prone to intervention. In an interview, she said “I love order, but I can’t stand it,” Images are here.

The Next New Thing

Debate amongst architects about cutting edge design versus tradition rumbles on. Some blame Le Corbusier for his uncritical advocacy of what is modern. Ignoring the past, though, means lots of “fresh starts”, some of which fail because they repeat past mistakes. Old is loved, often because it is beautiful, and it works. Suggests the writer, why not design buildings as a blend – for example, minimalist designs built using traditional materials. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s diplomatic or sitting on the fence.

Janet Sobel

Art history knows Sobel as a “Brooklyn housewife” who was the marginalised inventor of drip painting. What should be her true status?  She was influenced by surrealism, just like Pollock and Rothko, but transformed those ideas into abstract expressionism’s foundational ‘all-over’ concept, sometimes accomplished using the drip painting technique. Misogyny and a move away from New York thwarted her progress. “History is not just a game of firsts. Innovation must be coupled with endurance.”

Ruys garden

The Dutch garden designer Mien Ruys is feted at home but almost unknown elsewhere. Influenced by the Bauhaus and later by the artists around Mondrian, she pioneered geometric “’modernist” garden designs, the humble components for which can be found in “millions of suburban gardens across Europe”. They often show a “dynamic connection” between building and landscape, which Ruys achieved using a “bold, restricted colour palette, geometric structure and appreciation of seasonality”. More images are here.

The body, pleasure and play: Beryl Cook and Tom of Finland united in London

How serious is this new London show? Cook’s exuberant images feature working-class women with unapologetically ample proportions. Tom of Finland’s pioneering drawings of hypermasculine machismo define a lexicon of happy gay male imagery. Both artists loved to show “fleshy excesses”, notably “exquisite depictions of the bum while raising broader issues of gender, sexuality and class. Sighs one critic, “this is a small show, but I wouldn’t want more.“ Images are here.