The Easel

17th September 2019

Robert Frank Revealed the Truth of Postwar America

Frank was widely regarded as the “most influential living photographer “. The Americans, published in 1958 to mixed reviews, is now celebrated as a masterwork. Its sometimes rough, personally expressive images “shaped the trajectory of 20th-century photography” as well as “embedding “the snapshot aesthetic” into visual culture”. Some of his most renowned images are here.

William Blake: The greatest visionary in 200 years

Blake was baffling two centuries ago and, it seems, remains so. His poetry is dense, his iconic paintings “small and dark and hard to interpret”. Often considered together, the prevailing view is that Blake was primarily a painter. Perhaps we shouldn’t try too hard at interpretation. Perhaps it’s enough that this “isolated visionary” helped inspire English Romanticism and somehow still has resonance today.

The American realism of painter Amy Sherald

Having painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, some things follow – notably higher expectations. Sherald doesn’t seem fazed, holding fast to the idea of painting people like herself “just being themselves … [not] about identity necessarily”. The Obama portrait is about a specific person but her other portraits are less about individuals and more conceptual, ““archetypes” of black experience”.

Winslow Homer was sentimental, and that’s a good thing

Rehabilitating sentimentality. Modernism brought the view that art should be individual and tough. It was not always thus. Nineteenth century artists like Winslow Homer strived for sentimentality and its constituent emotions like compassion, affection, patriotism. Says one  writer, such emotions provide “a sense of connectedness to others and to place. [T]he sentimental is at the core of much of the art we admire and enjoy the most”.

The Disturbing Greatness of Hyman Bloom

With admirers like Pollock and de Kooning, Bloom seemed destined for fame. It didn’t happen. One reason was his choice of still life painting with an odd subject – bodies and body parts. Bloom’s “autopsy paintings”, executed with beautiful colours and technique, are “paradoxes of sensuality and repulsion”. Great they may be but they were never going to be competitive with the exuberance of abstract expressionism.

What the Rise of KAWS Says About the Art World’s Ailments

KAWS, who makes cartoon-based figures, boasts auction room clout and museum shows. Perhaps he will lead street art to credibility, just as Warhol did with Pop. Fine with popular culture icons being used in art, the writer argues that KAWS isn’t “doing a very interesting job of it. KAWS purges the intelligence of popular culture … Unintimidating to viewers and flattering to institutions, [these works] embody art at its most docile”.

11th September 2019

Lions, Lifelines, Speedos: The New Paintings of Peter Doig

Critics tackle the strangeness of Doig’s paintings in different ways. Some think his residency in Trinidad helps explain things. Others muse about his Scottish / Canadian upbringing. Even if his motifs resist explanation, Doig’s use of them is well recognized. “Everything seems ordinary and completely weird at once. It’s a portrait of the quietly inexplicable drama within each human life.”

Sebastião Salgado: Gold

Salgado’s images of a gold mine in the Amazon were instantly famous. The mine had been photographed before, so why were his images special? His then editor thinks the absence of colour helped to highlight an “ideal” version of the male body. Mostly, though, he ascribes it to Salgado’s patience in seeking out images that spoke to his chosen narrative- “the idea of labour, its dignity and its degradation.”

Claim to Fame

Sam McKinniss copies. He takes images from the internet, “emblematic images of pop culture”, and recreates them as paintings. Most revealing are images of the famous – “celebrities are fictional, whatever else they are”. His art “[invests] pieces of the cultural commons with their due grandeur. For me, the best of McKinniss’s paintings express exuberance and dread in equal measure.”

How Kenyan-Born Artist Wangechi Mutu Is Taking Over the Met

The façade of New York’s Met has four niches intended for sculptures. Empty for over a century they are about to be filled with part African, part futuristic female figures, cast in bronze. This is a signal gesture for an august institution attempting to connect with “the new and the global”. With a forgivable touch of exaggeration, the writer declares “an institution founded on … a Eurocentric view of culture is being turned on its head.”

Why has figurative painting become fashionable again?

A nice piece except where the writer tries a bit hard. The argument runs that, coming out of WW2 the figure was “a wreck” but it found new impetus in the desire to “bear witness to … identity’. Well, figurative painting was under siege for decades, both before and after WW2. What has changed, besides curatorial fashions, is a new appreciation of the narrative capabilities of figuration. Want to tell a story about identity? Paint someone.

The buried Nazism of expressionist Emil Nolde

Let the record be clear. Nolde’s anti-Semitic views are well known. His defenders hasten to add that the Nazi’s deemed his art “degenerate”. Perhaps he wasn’t really a Nazi. New research, supported by the Nolde Foundation, reveals his long, full throated support for Nazism. Hitler’s dislike of his work led to its inclusion in the notorious Degenerates exhibition. Himmler, a supporter, had the works removed after one day.