The Easel

26th September 2023

Very Veritas: Barkley L. Hendricks – Portraits At The Frick

Hendricks’ portraits are acclaimed because he painted black subjects in the grand style of the Old Masters that he so admired. This fell flat with late-1960’s American audiences, but times change. New York’s Frick, with its rather “white” collection, has hung Hendricks’ works amongst its own. Their portraits by Van Dyck communicate “a single idea, ‘attitude is armour’, and it’s precisely this idea Hendricks portraits appropriate”. Background to the show is here and images here.

Tetsuya Ishida: My weak self, my pitiful self, my anxious self

Japan’s dizzying postwar economic success abruptly stopped in 1991 and was followed by stagnation. Ishida belonged to that “lost generation” of young adults whose dreams were not met. Ignoring the cute aesthetic of mass culture, he adopted a surreal/realist style, depicting anonymous workers who convey “a sense of estrangement and rupture”. This is a “society of tiredness and fatigue … a world lost to reason”. More images are here

Marina Abramović’s catalogue of self-harm

Abramović’s most critically acclaimed work was Rhythm 0 in 1973 when audience members nearly assaulted her. Wider recognition, though, came from a 2010 work where she sat in a New York museum for 700 hours. Her works, especially when done by hired performers for a London show, don’t persuade this writer. “Abramović needs buy-in from the viewer. Her catalogue of self-harm provokes a reaction, but to what end is less than clear.” A review of her key works is here.

The avant-garde artists who went wild in Paris

In the aftermath of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat, some Paris artists developed a radical idea. Rather than using colours that match reality, why not choose colours for their “expressive value”? Explorations of this idea included Matisse painting a beach with red sand. The artists who gravitated to the idea – the “fauves” – had coalesced by 1904. But their “all-out assault on the senses” barely made it to 1908.  Said Braque “you can’t remain in a state of paroxysm forever”.

Pulled from a Field in Albania, a 2,500-Year-Old Statuette Comes to Getty

A cute story. Archaeologists watching an Albanian farmer plough a field after onion harvest noticed a green object (that wasn’t an onion). It turned out to be a solid bronze statuette made in about 500 BCE when the area was a Greek colony. What has caused much excitement – apart from its age – is its high quality craftsmanship, indicating it was likely made in Corinth, an ancient centre of metalworking. And, unusually, the stars of the story are unsung conservators.

Bernard Cohen: Things Seen

Is Cohen an abstract artist? He says no, claiming that his paintings have a “storytelling capacity”. Finding those stories, however, is a challenge. For decades he has produced labyrinthine works, variously colourful “tangled spaghetti” or shards of glass interspersed with patches of colour. Cohen’s paintings are “a series of diagrams about painting”, is one suggestion. Less ambitiously, perhaps they simply reflect “the visual cacophony of everyday life”. A video (4 min) is here.

19th September 2023

The deadpan precision of Ed Ruscha’s L.A. sensibility

What is it about Ruscha’s word paintings? Their lineage goes back to Picasso and Braque who put advertising text in their collages. Ruscha’s works feature deadpan phrases plucked from the “clamour of American life”. Sometimes, their meaning is so literal, so obvious, that the viewer doubts themselves. Such works are like “billboards that are empty of sentences but have plenty to say.” Little wonder the writer calls Ruscha the “genius of Pop Conceptualism”.

Why is Frans Hals still not considered the equal of Rembrandt?

In advance of a major London retrospective, an enquiry into the artist. Hals portraits are acclaimed, argues a curator, for how well they characterize people – less psychological depth but tremendous relatability. So why is he usually ranked below Rembrandt? Hals specialised in “the group portrait. You have to look carefully to see their brilliant naturalness, [but] the spontaneous becomes habitual … you need variety of subject to be a great painter.”

Fernando Botero dies at the age of 91

Botero, widely acclaimed in Latin America, found more stinting praise elsewhere. For years, critics wrote negatively about his corpulent figures. “I am interested in volumes” he responded, “the sensuality of form”. His images undoubtedly have a lighthearted side but a series of works in 2005 depicting torture in the Abu Ghraib military prison forced an abrupt, positive reassessment. He was, it was acknowledged, a “deft observer”.

Is Keith Haring’s Art for Everybody?

Haring’s graphics were so effective that, decades later, the style he developed is integral to our visual environment. He saw no fixed meaning in his own work, believing instead that art is inherently social. His immense influence owes much to self-promotion, his egalitarian media – subway drawings, for example – and the “strength” of his line. Says the writer, “ the enormity and impact of Haring’s output is awesome … never boring”. Images are here.

Albrecht Dürer’s genius for self-promotion

A book on Dürer tells the tale of an altarpiece that he was commissioned to paint. It turned into a battle between a filthy rich patron and Dürer, “one of the most narcissistic artists that ever lived”. Part of what makes the story memorable is its context – dynamic Northern Europe, pressing its claims for artistic ascendancy over Italy. Further, Dürer and his buddies were pioneering the commercial art market. He was, says one writer, “the first truly international artist”.

Hitler’s bronze stallions unveiled in Berlin

After 1945, Nazi sculpture was mostly destroyed, stolen or hidden in storage. Hitler’s massive “Striding Horses” disappeared in that year but were dramatically recovered in 2015. Now restored they are being unveiled in an exhibition of “problematic” art. The organisers, who aim to specialize in “toxic” art, described the show as an opportunity to “come to terms with the great symbols of National Socialism”.  As for the sculptures, they “radiate a certain violence”.

Find six similarities between these two paintings by Picasso and el Greco

The Spanish distained El Greco. The young Picasso (among others) disagreed. His early work was clearly influenced by the 16th century master as well as, it is argued, his seminal cubism. El Greco, with his distorted figures and unreal colour choices, prioritised the psychological over the literal. Analytical cubism similarly used geometric fragments to create a 3D impression of an object in 2D. Says one curator “To me, Cubism seems to have been born with El Greco”.