The Easel

7th July 2020

ESSAY: Alexander Calder in Public and Private

Alexander Calder’s signal achievement is the mobile. It was profoundly radical in 1930’s Paris – and in a way still is. Why is it so difficult to place its innovator in the broader sweep of 20th century art? This was a central issue for Jed Perl in concluding his biography of Calder.

“Calder didn’t ever want to be constrained by any dogma. Whenever he went into the studio he wanted to make something that would be new in the world. He and his wife, Louisa, were creatures of the 1920s … when people still believed in the freedom of the imagination. It’s important to situate artists in their time and place. But it’s also important to remember that an artistic vocation has its own life and logic. [Calder’s] art is both totally in the world and completely in a world of its own.”

What Might the Artworld’s ‘New Normal’ Look Like?

Recently joyful at art galleries re-opening, this writer is now sombre. He is anxious about the big museums. They face an increasingly “fraught debate” about their “failings” on gender and ethnic representation. Those with weakened financials could fall back on wealthy patrons, who have their own agendas. Caught between the demands of activists and philanthropists, this is a “future of contradiction”.

Matisse & the surrogate figure

Matisse’s studio seems a familiar place. He painted its contents frequently – brightly patterned textiles, furniture, his own works. Why his own works? Referencing “achievements to date”? His nudes could provide a “body-like presence” without the need for a model. Using an image of an image gave him greater latitude to visually rhyme different objects. In his studio Matisse was self-sufficient, his art nourishing itself, “[forming] its own republic of pleasure”.

Li Zhengsheng : The Genius who photographed the Cultural Revolution

Li was a photographer on the main provincial newspaper during the Cultural Revolution. While covering political events he also recorded, secretly, mob hysteria and communal violence. This body of work constitutes a unique documentation of “the “loss of mind” of a whole nation”. Says one critic, the “most important Chinese documentary photographer of the twentieth century.” More images are here.

Mystery of the tainted cache

Restituting art looted by the Nazi’s has great moral clarity. So, when a trove of over 1600 art works linked to “Hitler’s art dealer” was discovered in 2013, many hoped for a moment of justice. Reality has disappointed. Despite extensive research, only fourteen works have been returned. Provenance of most other works is, says an investigator, “a very large grey area”. Tainted or otherwise, the collection now resides in a Swiss museum.

What Are Art Galleries For?

More soul searching, this time about private galleries. A “winner-take-all” economy has suited the few mega-galleries. Galleries outside this blue-chip stratum have long been under pressure, reducing their capacity to support emerging artists. The post-lockdown world may prefer a “sparsely populated gallery” to the crowded art fair. Things may become “more localized”. And bring, one hopeful artist adds, “a more transparent, slower way of working”.

30th June 2020

Walking a tightrope

Beckmann came out of WW1 in bad shape. Thereafter, he portrayed city life and modernity in grim, often obscure ways. How do we interpret his acclaimed self-portrait, done at a time of career success? Is it a self-celebration, or does the figure’s inaccessibility denote some unease? Beckmann often juxtaposed conflicting imagery in a work. And, he admitted, “I can see neither all in black nor all in white.”

Cosmopolitan Craftsman

New silver mines in mid-19th century America made silver affordable to the middle class. Tiffany, then a fledgling, was transformed by the opportunity. Its “genius” designer Edward Moore drew inspiration from ancient works and, notably, Japanese lacquerware and metalwork. His works displayed “phenomenal artistry” and defined a design aesthetic that made Tiffany a powerhouse in the decorative arts.

Milton Glaser: graphic designer who created the look of the Sixties

Glaser felt design differed from art, but with some overlap – both involve “a passing on of gifts”. He took ideas widely, from Renaissance art through to Bauhaus modernism (without its “puritanism”). Glaser’s work is influential and renowned, like the logo for New York City. Except, he said, “it wasn’t a logo. It was a cry for acknowledgement”. It certainly met Glaser’s aspiration for all his designs – to “open the heart “. An excellent interview is here.

Gazing at the Moon

A scholar ponders a late Renaissance work – “why make a vast male arse the focal point of a major religious painting?” Bared buttocks in antiquity were meant to insult, but during the Renaissance, acquired multiple meanings. Sometimes a shapely posterior alluded to the homoerotic. More often, the male nude conveyed “physical power and divinely inspired grace.” Says the writer, a “wonderful topic we are yet to completely get to the bottom of”.

Experiencing the shock of the old, fiber artists rediscover shows like MOMA’s pivotal 1969 “Wall Hangings”

An advocacy of textiles, or now, fibre art. One myth overdue for deletion is that the loom is essential. Off-loom techniques – “knotting, wrapping, and plaiting” – have an ancient lineage. They allow a more varied material palette that greatly expands the genre’s vocabulary. Colour can take a secondary role while previously mute attributes now speak forcefully – “structure, mass … tactile nuance”.

He Made Stone Speak

At 71, Michelangelo took on the build of St Peter’s Basilica and its problematic dome. “[It] presented the elderly artist with challenges on every conceivable front, from the declining powers of his own body to the demands of spiritual aesthetics to the physics of construction.” Michelangelo gave this task fully a quarter of his career, well aware he would never see its completion: “God had called him, and he had answered”.

A Space Where the Soul Could Go to Rest

After WW1 what mattered to chic Parisiens was “being modern”. It was the perfect milieu for Frank. Appalled by cluttered, bombastic furniture, he helped pioneer a minimalist aesthetic in interior design. Individual pieces of his furniture could be “severely modern”, yet as elements of a room design, they contributed to his signature look – “classical curves and symmetry, a becalmed air, and a sense of past and future seamlessly merging.”