The Easel

27th October 2020

Bruce Nauman

A London retrospective demonstrates Nauman’s huge influence. Deft neon text pieces, quirky sculptures and incisive video work, all are examples of his “transformative presence”. Gushes one artist, his work is “so nimble and so complicated”. He offers us “a bewildering array of gifts. There’s humour in his work, but it’s always nervy and problematic, never open-hearted or fun … a perfect fit for the Covid world”.

An eyewitness to an important moment in history’: Jeanne Mammen in pre-war Berlin

We usually associate inter-war Berlin with names like Dix, Grosz and Kirschner. Now add another name, Jeanne Mammen. Her watercolours and sketches were stylistically similar to those artists but distinguished by their empathetic focus on women caught up in the decadence and “cold hedonism” of Weimar Berlin. Colourful at first, her works became steadily gloomier as befitted the times. The linked piece has a sales tilt; more background detail is here.

Amy Sillman

Will the pandemic prove an enduring focus for new art? What surprises in Sillman’s new show is not the “characteristically turbulent abstractions” that have brought her acclaim. Rather, it’s the uncharacteristic works – still lifes of flowers – that she made during the lockdown. “Things don’t have to be topical to be timely … Sillman’s blossoms speak not only to springtime renewal but, especially given our context, to mortality and death.”

F is for fake

The art world is slowly waking up to indigenous art. As that happens, authentication becomes a priority. In the case of American indigenous art, forgery seems widespread. However, it’s difficult to be sure. A “careless chain of custody” doesn’t prove a work is a fake, and sometimes artists copied their own works. It’s an unwanted problem for communities who “remain marginalized by inaccurate representations, persistent cultural appropriation”.

Velázquez’s Las Meninas: A detail that decodes a masterpiece

A new hypothesis about Velázquez’s masterpiece. A study of life at the opulent but declining Spanish Hapsburg court, it has long been acclaimed for being a “riddle”, a painting of hidden meanings. New research reinforces this narrative by revealing that an earthen pot being offered to the princess had hallucinogenic as well as cosmetic properties. What Velázquez painted was a meditation on the “hereness of here … the inevitable evaporation of self.”

Botticelli: A Closer Look at Young Man Holding a Roundel

A Botticelli portrait is coming to market and will sell for gazillions. Sales promotion aside, it’s “linear simplicity, bold colors, human expression and religious reference” make it a Florentine Renaissance masterpiece. These features brought acclaim and were later taken up by da Vinci and others. Still, Renaissance Florence was a rough place and the death of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici, meant decline for Botticelli’s fortunes and life.

The Surprising Power of Color to Ease Quarantine Anxiety

Colour is one of art’s great preoccupations. When suddenly confronted with pandemic-related stress, what do we learn about the influence colour has on us? A “quarantine palette” has emerged apparently, one that favours “silky blues, quiet greys, and subtle shades of pink,” that convey “stability and timelessness”. “Color therapy is definitely at play … an attempt to adapt to our newfound mode of introversion.”

20th October 2020

Essay: Abnormal / Normal: the art of Cao Fei

Does contemporary Chinese art express a sensibility that is uniquely Chinese? Morgan Meis uses this perspective to look at the art of Cao Fei, the acclaimed multimedia artist. Some critics think her beguiling work draws on a Western aesthetic. No, says Morgan, its not that simple. She is expressing what it means to live amidst constant change.

“Cao Fei came to be Cao Fei in the bewildering landscape of a massive city of manufacturing and trade that was completely reinventing itself. She is aesthetically fascinated with the creation of a new normal. She is interested in the new normal as a matter of fact, not as a diagnosis or proclamation. Who would have predicted that [new mega-factories] would look and feel exactly like this?”

The Real Richard Avedon

Avedon craved art world respect but faced an array of prejudices – photography was a “bastard medium”; studio images were “less serious” than street photography. Eventually, his “visually radical” portrait photography conquered all. “His signature portrait style, the formality of a straight-on figure against a white backdrop, sober expression is … not only a document, but a monument of that individual”.

In memoriam: Enzo Mari (1932-2020)

Mari was nothing if not unconventional. He skipped secondary school in favour of street peddling, before later studying fine arts. An avowed communist, he wanted his designs to be affordable but also interesting for workers to make. Chairs, household products and DIY furniture all brought him acclaim, and a reputation as an uncompromising critic of poor design. Said one peer – “He’s a genius. Grumpiest man on the planet”. Images are here.

In love with the Louvre

The Louvre has had a charmed existence. Competent early administrators; spared the wrath of various rebellious mobs; the beneficiary when French armies “looted with terrific taste”; and the Mona Lisa. Visitors enjoy “enormity and intimacy, unequalled by any other gallery”. The collection is old, which serves to illustrate “how constant taste is’. And the Louvre is nothing if not constant: “The continuity the Louvre represents is the continuity of the French state.”

Recollected works – ‘Howard Hodgkin: Memories’, reviewed

How might one paint fleeting sensations and memories? With great deliberation, in the case of Hodgkin. By mid-career, when many of these works were made, he was resourceful at deploying painterly tricks – characteristic marks, deft handling of paint, “sensuous” brushstrokes, “flamboyant” colours. When all these came together Hodgkin was able to reveal his true preoccupation, the “evasiveness of reality”.

Corita Kent’s Politics of Printmaking

Becoming a nun didn’t deflect Kent from her interest in art. She was teaching printmaking when, in 1962, she saw a show of Warhol’s soup can images. It impacted her art which became a distinctive mix of text, colour and images, deployed to promote her political views. Being an activist ‘pop artist nun’ didn’t win many fans in her church but public acclaim was more emphatic and re-emerges sporadically, most recently in fashion.  A good backgrounder is here.

As immersive art goes, nothing competes with Berghain

Located in a disused Soviet era power station, Berghain is a legendary Berlin techno club and a “temple of hedonism”. With normal operations suspended, it is supporting Berlin artists with a large exhibition of art made during the lockdown. Despite some big-name artists, the art is “swamped by the venue’s charismatic immensity. Inevitably, a tension [emerges] between subcultural vitality and corporate ambition”.