The Easel

29th November 2022

Things, Musée du Louvre, Paris review – the still life brought alive

Still life, a genre that goes back to the ancient Greeks, is sometimes thought of as the study of inanimate things. A “stupendous, exhilarating” exhibition in Paris demonstrates that, irrespective of their subject, these are works that throb with life. They are made vital by our ideas about things – “our attachments, our hopes, our whims and our follies”. In that sense “the world of things … is always alive”. Multiple images are here.

Painting is having a special moment: look at Amy Sherald

With her first solo show in Europe, Sherald wins a new fan. In the flesh, her portraits are full of subtlety and reveal her to be a “daring colourist”. More than that, though, they are about “strikingly and profoundly black” subjects, a group woefully absent from the art canon. These works “pull you in and make you imagine things about this modest but gripping cast. It’s what great portraiture has always done.  [They are] exceptional art” A recent interview is here.

GDR art is dead. Long live East art!

When Baselitz and Richter left East Germany for the West, each disparaged the artists who remained. That Cold War mud has stuck, especially against visual artists. Some groups, like musicians and writers, avoided such criticisms and East German architecture – “Eastern modernism” – is attracting growing interest. The writer predicts “a fundamental upheaval … with dwindling resistance [from] former opponents … and the next generation plowing other fields.“ (Google Translate)

The story of architecture in 100 buildings

We all use buildings. That makes architecture “the art form most pregnant with meaning”. Further, the peak achievements of a culture are expressed in its “best” buildings. A new book tries to explain why these structures impress us. It offers one rule – “comfort is to architecture what justice is to law”. Beyond that, though, its not clear if “buildings [are] famous because they are great or great because they are famous”. The same, of course, might be said of great art.

This devastatingly brilliant and unconscionably awful book will delight and appall

After “failing” as an artist, Jerry Saltz drove trucks. After that, he started writing art criticism. He is criticized for being insufficiently knowledgable of art history, too “woke” and prone to exaggeration. He also is highly influential and writes in a passionate yet accessible style that has won him a Pulitzer prize. His new book gets a mixed report card. Saltz’s vision is so “clouded by superlatives” that his writing sometimes resembles a press release. But, “he seems like a perfectly nice guy”.

22nd November 2022

Meret Oppenheim Exhibition Is a Marvel about a Swiss Unicorn

Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup was so instantly famous that it makes her seem a ‘one hit wonder’. She wasn’t. After a lean two decades, her diverse and cerebral output– paintings, sculpture, assemblages, collage – reveals less an orthodox surrealist than someone able to put unlikely things together. States one critic “Oppenheim deserves a place in any modernist pantheon you can assemble.

John Currin’s Paintings Are Disgusting and Amoral. That’s Why They’re So Good

Libido is in danger of becoming a “persona non grata, an entity too embarrassing to engage with openly” in contemporary art. Figurative painting is increasingly populated with works driven by a desire to be ethically good while avoiding “interiority”. Enter the work of John Currin, an artist known for his “libidinous” portraits of women. His current work is “horny, gross and humiliating” . But it expresses a sought-after quality – spirit. “A sick spirit, undoubtedly, but a spirit nonetheless.”

Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial blazed a path in 1982, but no one followed

Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “the most consequential monument of the 20th century”. Initially crticised by some as a “wall of shame”, its radical character is, forty years on, more easily seen. Lin wanted the memorial to be experienced as art – “open ended, ambiguous” – rather than a “curated sentimental experience”. Although now widely copied, no similar work “forces the visitor into the emotional space and isolated contemplation” of this memorial. An interview with Lin is here.

In Memoriam: Billy Al Bengston (1934–2022)

At one time, Los Angeles was an art world “afterthought”. Its now loftier status owes something to Bengston. His early 1960’s minimalist works, often painted with gleaming auto lacquers, referenced biker culture and were early examples of consumer culture influencing fine art. This gave LA credibility with the New York-centric art world. Presumably it was less enthused by Bengston’s later comment that “both racing and art take tenacity, talent, hard work, knowledge and skill”.

A thrilling female perspective on sex, self, birth and death

A Royal Academy group show of early twentieth century female artists is an “essay in rediscovery”.  Kollwitz – the best known – is especially accomplished though many critics also note Modersohn-Becker’s “singular brilliance”. While stylistically diverse, they were collectively “central” to the emergence of German expressionism. Further, in contrast to the “masculinised gaze” of Gauguin and Picasso, this is “art rooted in the body, in feeling … a woman’s perspective”.

Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern: strange, evocative, extremely suggestive tapestries that think they’re sculptures

You probably haven’t heard of Abakanowicz. In the 1970’s, though, her enormous textile sculptures were seen internationally as a commentary on communist Poland. More likely they explored her view that fibre is “the basic element constructing the organic world”. She helped spark a revival in fibre sculpture. Her works, resembling huge coats or hollow trees invite, as one critic puts it, “physical and psychological closeness”. This writer agrees, calling them “a superb contribution to 20th century art”.

The best female Old Master you’ve never heard of. Until now.

A chance discovery in a Vienna museum in the 1990’s has uncovered Michaelina Wautier as a major Baroque-era artist. She was adept not just in the ‘female’ domain of still lifes and portraits but also complex history paintings and even male nudes. Art market valuations have skyrocketed leading to the emergence of further works – now numbering about 40 – including some previously attributed to male artists. Wonders a curator “how did we miss these things for so long?” More background is here.