The Easel

14th May 2024

The indestructible art of Frank Stella

Stella was devoted to abstraction but not abstract expressionism. He felt the latter presumed its own spiritual greatness. So, he started making austere black striped paintings – among the first minimalist works – and found instant acclaim. That style, along with many others, was discarded in a career full of reinvention. Despite being seen as an art world “god”, Stella’s advice about his own work was to avoid interpretation, “what you see is what you see.” An obituary is here and a light hearted interview with Stella is here.

The Last Caravaggio: how a once-forgotten masterpiece became the National Gallery’s latest coup

In London, just two works by Caravaggio is sufficient for a show. The painting of St Ursula, shows an “extraordinary” range of emotions. Having spurned the advances of a princely Hun, said prince shoots Ursula with an arrow. Here is Caravaggio at his cinematic best – dramatic lighting that emphasises faces and hands, an ashen Ursula, a furious yet anguished prince and, in the background, observing the violent act, Caravaggio himself. The artist died weeks later, possibly of malaria. “What a way to go out”.

Joan Jonas

Jonas trained as a sculptor but, in the 1960’s wandered into dance, seeing little difference between “a poem, a sculpture, a film or a dance”. Those explorations helped establish video and performance as recognised art forms. Her view was that these were just extensions of traditional storytelling, for which she developed modes of “technologized sorcery” including an alter ego, the “seductress Organic Honey”. Her first major retrospective offers “an experience of unexpected sculptural and scenographic power”.

Brancusi, Pompidou Centre, Paris review – a sculptor’s spiritual quest for form and essence

After a brief period working in Rodin’s studio, Brancusi struck out on his own. He steadily discarded Rodin’s drama and detailed surfaces, instead seeking a refined simplicity that expressed “the essence of things”. His animals, for example, capture not just images of idealised nature but also the dynamism of movement. The results included not just objects of utter beauty but foundational ideas about modernist art. In a Paris packed with Olympic visitors, this show will surely be box office gold. Images are here.

Orlando Whitfield sets the story straight on Inigo Philbrick

Tales of art world theft and deception are usually just “cops and robbers” stories. Inigo Philbrick is an exception whose misdeeds speak loudly about the art market . The mania for contemporary art has facilitated “deliberate, wilful obscurity as a modus operandi.“ Further, it has given rise to the depressing adage that a dealer is “someone who can sell a painting he doesn’t like to a buyer who doesn’t want it.” It’s a reminder of the two most important words in art – caveat emptor. A book excerpt is here.

Why I was wrong about Georg Baselitz and his upside-down paintings

You know Baselitz – he’s the German artist who hangs his paintings upside down. His long career has focused on the past, notably Germany’s turbulent history, but his recent work has turned more personal. It has a sense of “finality” says one writer, “a great artist performing his own last rites”. That doesn’t mean it is sombre; some works have “glorious paintwork … creamy and glistening”. Says another critic “one of the most moving exhibitions staged in London for some time.”

The brighter side of German Expressionism

Gloomy is the right description for German expressionists like Beckmann and Grosz. Not so the Blue Rider group. That small collective, active between 1911 and 1914, explored the ability of colour to evoke emotion. With just two shows and a single magazine, their bold compositions prepared the way for abstraction. Among this talented group Kandinsky and Marc were acknowledged standouts. But WW1 arrived, the group scattered and some died fighting. After 1918, those gloomy expressionists took over.

7th May 2024

ESSAY: The kitsch we need

Ron Mueck, the hyper realist sculptor, is very popular with the gallery-going public. In contrast, critics throw at his work terms like “unrelentingly kitsch and sentimental”. Contributing Editor Morgan Meis acknowledges some of this criticism but thinks that sculptures like his Pregnant Woman or A Girl are important.

“Mueck is actually exploring a subject matter [pregnancy and infancy] that has been strikingly neglected hitherto. [I]f art does happen in Pregnant Woman, it is because Mueck has presented the physical reality of pregnancy, the astounding and mysterious fact of what it means to have one’s body transformed in that way. This is something Western art has not wanted to do, has not allowed space for, in most of its history. I am glad that Pregnant Woman exists.”

Tribute: Richard Serra (1938-2024)

Casual jobs at a steel works gave Serra “a certain respect for the potential of steel”. This respect later expressed itself in metres-high torqued sheets of rust-covered steel. These huge installations commanded attention, in part due to their size, but also some nervousness that the looming steel might fall over. Serra is considered to have redefined “the connection between viewer and artwork” The saga of his work Clara Clara, intended for Paris’s Tuileries Gardens, is recounted here.

Enter the void with Pierre Huyghe

Huyghe is famous for exploring realities that “might have been”. In this Venice show, his sculptures and installations incorporate AI systems that go about the business of harvesting information and reacting to it. These “speculative fictions” of existence are “inert, funereal, [with a] slow moving beauty.” They are conceptually rich but not necessarily artistically rich. “There is the niggling sense of something so meaningful that it ends up carrying no sense at all.” Images are here.

60th Venice Biennale Review: Who Can Judge?

Each Venice Biennale opens to complaints; considered judgements are for later. This year’s show features artists who are often excluded: “artists of the Global South, the art of Indigenous people, the work of queer artists, of folk artists”. Puzzles the writer, how do we look at such diverse work and how should we value it? Shouldn’t a large show such as Venice be helping people to find “what they have in common”? Despite the inevitable rhetoric, it is “an oddly comfortable show”.

Caravaggio Made Darkness Visible

Caravaggio’s favourite compositional trick – portraying biblical characters as everyday Romans – mixed the sacred and the worldly. It reflected his philosophical vision that even the worst person had “sparks of divinity”. No one is perfect, nor purely evil. Caravaggio himself fits the bill. His behaviour, and many paintings of beheadings, suggest that “violence was his muse”. Yet he was also in thrall to human beauty. “Pain and pleasure mixed together, along with good and evil — the chiaroscuro of the soul.”

Art and Memory

A must-read for anyone with an ‘all-time favourite’ artwork somewhere. Is the radiant image in your mind an accurate representation of that piece? For many of us, our recall is “not just the painting itself but its effect on us”. In the rapturous moment of seeing for the first time, do we enhance those parts of the picture of greatest appeal while editing out its imperfections? Oscar Wilde apparently said that only auctioneers can be impartial about art.

Willem de Kooning and Italy at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

de Kooning visited Rome in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Did this inspire in him a new way of looking? It’s the premise of a big show in Venice but the writer is unnconvinced. A group of landscapes are “stunners”, though more related to American highways than Italy. Further, works that show “extreme moods” are less reminiscent of classical Rome than “the Netherlandish Old Masters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel with their images of torment [and] earthly delights.”