The Easel

31st March 2020

Maintenance work

How will the art world be changed by this pandemic? One writer expects a legacy of less travel, thus undermining the art world’s propensity of assigning “relevance through motion”. Images of empty streets are newly resonant. We will recognise new heroes – janitors, deliverers, maintenance workers. “[M]aintenance is … the hidden force that makes so much possible. Now is a time for Maintenance Art.”

Inigo Philbrick, the Art World’s mini-Madoff, and Me

A rollicking tale for your lockdown. Schachter is an art world insider and an insightful writer. He took a precocious young dealer under his wing. Various high jinx followed. “Prices sometimes can be manipulated by the very well connected but nothing goes up forever. Rather than rein in his bets, Philbrick seemed to grow ever more audacious. Though criminal charges have yet to be filed, he’s worth more out of jail to some than behind bars.”

Michael Craig-Martin in conversation at Art Geneve

Craig-Martin, the renowned conceptual artist, thinks we under-rate everyday objects. “We express ourselves through the objects that we make”. He wants his images to have the same quality as the objects – the perfection of something mass produced. And his intense colours? “Color has to compensate for everything that’s missing in the drawing … physicality.”

A day to see Titian’s six masterpieces of classical storytelling at the National Gallery

A set of seven paintings commissioned from Titian by Philip II of Spain have been reunited for the first time in centuries. A decade in the making, they are a Renaissance masterpiece. Titian’s taste for erotic fleshy nudes is on display but so too is his ability to convey emotion and psychological depth. Collectively they are a “supremely assured” narration of classical themes – power, passion, death – and “can’t be beaten.” All images are here.

Has LACMA lost its way?

Controversy over the new building of the Los Angeles County museum is spectacular. Critics are apoplectic about cost and diminished options for displaying the permanent collection. A major donor has jumped ship. Apart from the merits of the building, bigger issues are at play. Should museums try to be encyclopedic? Should donors’ wishes be prioritised? Says an aggrieved donor “Once that wrecking ball starts to hit the buildings, there’s no turning back”.

1st Stellenbosch Triennale, “Tomorrow there will be more of us”

South Africa’s success with big art events has been patchy. So it takes courage to launch a non-commercial trienniale, especially in the Afrikaner town of Stellenbosch, the “former intellectual redoubt for apartheid”. The modest event attracted international attention before its virus-related closure.  In a country where art is rarely taught in schools, the event “asserts an expanded notion of belonging.”

The radical transformation of Madame D’Ora

In fin-de-siècle Vienna, Kallmus made her first career in charming but conventional fashion photography and society portraiture. After WW2, her focus shifted radically to the “unperfumed world” of refugees and slaughterhouses. A survey show is fascinating not because of any one image but because of this “strangely inevitable swerve, … penance [to] make up for the slick lies that preceded them.” A video (4 min) is here.

24th March 2020

Schlock Sculpture

Early 20th century modernist painting loosened its moorings to the literal, the figurative. Sculpture did likewise. While painting has periodically returned to its figurative roots, sculpture, in its materials and visual language, has sailed off into the pale blue yonder. Morgan Meis says we now face ‘schlock sculpture’ and – wait for it – ‘schlockiness’ has its virtues.

“The problem of sculpture became, for many of the great mid-20th-century sculptors, exactly that: the problem of sculpture. They are sculptures about being sculptures. They are trying to figure out ways to fit together and hold together … without falling back on the discarded language of figuration or architecture, or, really, anything at all. Smith’s sculpture … just is what it is. A sculpture trying to be a sculpture … This is what can make the experience of looking at a David Smith, or any other Modernist sculpture, mysterious to the point of bafflement.”

How Artist Brian Clarke Is Pushing the Medium of Stained Glass

From his earliest days, Clarke set out to revolutionise stained glass. He has done so, taking it “out of the cathedral into the secular world”. Combining traditional glassblowing with modern architectural glass has eliminated the need for lead supports and created a contemporary art form “at the highest level of poetic achievement”. And he is not finished “I want to surpass the Middle Ages, not equal them.” A background piece is here.

Gloves: Through the Magnum Archive

Fashion piece, social anthropology or photo essay? Perhaps all three. Gloves go way, way back – they were in Tutankhamen’s tomb. They are a source of some fascination in photography because of their potent symbolism – warmth, protection, glamour, the erotic. Plus, let’s be honest, status. “[A] white glove is only desirable when it’s pristine … [they] nod to the fact that one won’t be getting their hands too dirty”.

The Met’s Just-Opened Galleries Cast a New Light on British Decorative Arts

The renovated galleries for British decorative arts at New York’s Met are “a triumph”. What stories do they tell? One is that these objects reflect an entrepreneurial global power drawing inspiration from everywhere. But there are other narratives, notably colonization and slavery. Take, for example, the teapot: “tea has a far more illicit history than any drug or hard liquor … conditions on the plantations were shocking”.

James Turrell, Pace Gallery

How best to characterise Turrell’s “immensely influential” work? “Turrell manipulates light” is a favourite phrase, though some writers get woefully obscure. The linked piece opts for just describing the sensory experience. “[A] visual geometry that pleasures the eyes. Is it merely a trick of the light that there’s something churchy about the experience? That the roundels have something of the rose window about them, that the alcoves feel whispery, like a chapel?”

Garden of Painterly Delights

A tiny exhibition in London perfectly suited to our collective pandemic moment. Artists seeking  refuge from the ghastly memories of WW1 turned to the ordinary household garden. For them it was a mythical Eden, “a source of … enduring healing power.” Such ideas may sound quaintly English, but they tap into a bigger thought: “to confront the world, we can still retreat to nature as a refuge and resource.”

How Léon Spilliaert’s dark paintings are strangely uplifting

Léon Spilliaert is overshadowed by his Belgian compatriot James Ensor. Should he be? His early career yielded lonely self-portraits and nuanced seascapes. Then came a happy marriage and, it seems, fewer artistic fireworks. “Enigmatic works [that] inhabit a twilight netherworld between reality and dream” says this writer. Another is unconvinced: “an uneven, repetitious and limited artist”