The Easel

22nd September 2020

The radical quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins

A collector stumbled across Tompkins’ quilts at a Berkeley flea market. After decades of collecting her work he bequeathed his collection in 2018 to a museum. The writer’s glee at this first show is palpable. “I left in a state of shock. The sheer joy of her best quilts cannot be overstated. They come at us with the force and sophistication of so-called high art … with the power of painting. Tompkins seems to have been an artist of singular greatness.”

Giorgio de Chirico and the Paintings Which Cannot be Seen

To declare de Chirico’s paintings “non-interpretable except for the mood” sounds about right. He reached adulthood in fin de siècle Europe which was struggling with a sense of loss as its present was “rapidly being gobbled up by a ravenous future”. His signature motif was the strange cityscape – empty piazzas, arcades lit by a late afternoon sun, perhaps a distant train. Far from utopian scenes, they were his attempt to “depict not the thing but the effect it produces.”

Sir Terence Conran: A life for design

Some are a bit sniffy about commercial design. Conran was firmly in the camp that praised it as democratic. He pioneered stylish products for the younger part of a middle class weary of post war austerity. A serial entrepreneur, his innovations included flat pack furniture, retailing concepts, restaurants and architecture. Said London’s Design Museum, which he helped found, “he changed the way we lived and shopped and ate”.

A museum plans to auction a crucial Jackson Pollock painting. It’s inexcusable

The deaccessioning debate grows ever more acrimonious. One curator, citing the imminent sale of a prized Jackson Pollock, declares it “an institutional and social betrayal of lasting impact”. But some museums are in financial crisis. Others question the sense of keeping rarely exhibited works when their sale could fund the acquisition of more diverse contemporary works. Fumes the writer, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”.

The greats outdoors: Michael Andrews’ valedictory Thames paintings

Andrews was somewhat famous – he had famous pals (Freud, Bacon and others) and the works he laboriously produced were of the highest quality, “only masterpieces”. Mid-career, he switched from group interiors to landscapes. His last two paintings of the Thames river are “grave and mysterious”. He was dying and, as one writer puts it, “the water becomes a thing of unknowable beauty, halfway between this world and another.”

Jacob Lawrence, Peering Through History’s Cracks

For some painters a single canvas just isn’t enough. An early series of 60 paintings about African American migration to the North made Lawrence’s name. A later series, reunited for the first time in a half century, describes the early history of the American republic. Lawrence’s “punchy modernist vignettes” tell an “integrationist history … and will come to be seen as a juggernaut among American historical documents”.

A Slew of Shows Celebrates Surrealist Women

Few art movements have been as determinedly misogynistic as surrealism. Breton, its founder, regarded the role of women in art as the “passive muse”. Multiple exhibitions over the last decade have shown that women in fact played a much bigger role. They were lively contributors – at least, that is, before quitting, fed up with lack of recognition. Relative to men, says one curator, the women were “more daring, both in their personal lives and their art”.

15th September 2020

Commoner with the divine touch

Raphael was a terrifyingly brilliant teenager. In Florence fame came quickly and, moving on to Rome, a certain reverence. For centuries he was seen as the pinnacle of the High Renaissance, combining da Vinci’s emotion and Michelangelo’s buff bodies. Impressionism diminished his allure somewhat by showing that representation is not the only thing in art. Still, a huge show in Rome reminds us that Raphael was “a genius beyond all measure”.

The Colourful Worlds of Pipilotti Rist

Artist interviews aren’t always illuminating but, if you struggle with video art, this one may help. Rist has helped bring video into the mainstream with works that are visually beautiful and popular. Colour, she says, is “borderless, dangerous, emotional” and often underestimated. Her practice is “painting with light” and technology provides her with a “colour piano”. And the main theme of her work – “the glory of life”.

Trevor Paglen Is Putting the Art in Artificial Intelligence

Paglen’s images of trees and flowers are pretty though, on close inspection, somehow odd. His blossoms are AI generated, reflecting a computer’s ‘training’. No matter how good this training, understanding nuance remains a huge challenge for AI systems. “Artists have a massive tradition of thinking about what “seeing” is. I think artists have the capacity to ask questions … that would never occur to engineers.” Images are here.

Where’s Betsy?

Short, but intriguing. The widow of American painter Andrew Wyeth died earlier this year. She had been a major presence in his life. – Wyeth told his biographer “Betsy galvanized me … she made me see more clearly what I wanted.” So why did she feature so rarely in his works and, on those rare occasions, seem “absent emotionally”? “Maybe Betsy hated sitting for her husband … [or perhaps] he needed to escape Betsy … the “director,” as she called herself.”

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gallery Sector

Dismal news from the art world’s most authoritative score keeper. In the first half of 2020, gallery sales fell a whopping 36%. Further falls are expected and a 2021 recovery is a toss-up. Having to restrict visitor numbers, galleries are cutting back on staff, art fairs, splashy openings and lavish dinners. One New York gallery, after a recent opening, “invited anyone who attended to go to a nearby park for tacos.”

The future of Britain’s stately homes

Britain’s stately country homes have among the greatest holdings of decorative art objects anywhere. Without visitor revenues, the National Trust (the “superpower of stately homes”) has gloomy plans for shutdowns. Denials that curatorial staff will be cut –  “we will not dumb down” – have failed to convince. Indeed, one commentator frets that the Trust intends “to ‘dial down’ its role as a major national cultural institution”.

Bruce Nauman: Endurance Act

Nauman boasts coveted art world accolades and ongoing influence. Yet his “wildly eclectic” work is often baffling. The critic Robert Hughes described it as exploiting “whatever turns you off” while admitting there is a “peculiar grip” to some pieces. The linked piece usefully covers Nauman’s key works and concludes he is a great “permission-granter”, carving out areas for others to explore. “His work … ranks among the glories of postwar art”.