The Easel

30th April 2019

El Anatsui’s Monumental New Show Is an Act of Justice

A fierce review. The Ghanaian Anatsui makes textile-like wall sculptures using bottle caps, “some of the most extraordinary sculptures of this new century”. Fumes the writer, why are in-depth exhibitions of this artist so rare? Anatsui seems unbothered: “Individual little caps don’t have much to say but when I put them together, then they have a voice.” Indeed. Images are here.

Notre Dame is an architectural nullity

Notre Dame cathedral is a “collage”, redesigned in the mid-nineteenth century by an “average architect”. Not much of today’s building is “authentic.” Use new architecture, argues the writer, rather than risk a pastiche. He suggests looking south of Paris to the Millau Viaduct “the greatest gothic structure of the past century: the clusters of cables form diaphanous spires. It’s an anthology of superlatives”.

We’ve Been Looking at Jean-Michel Basquiat All Wrong. He Was a Conceptual Artist, Not an Expressionist—and Here’s Why

Early on, Basquiat attracted labels like ‘radiant child’ and ‘primitivist’, leading many to surmise his work expressed inner turmoil. His frenzied scrawls may resemble European expressionism but only by accident. Instead, the key to his complex work is text. Basquiat was “an artist of words and thoughts, [like conceptual artist Jenny Holzer], not of instincts and inchoate emotions.”

“Allowing a modern audience to see Helvetica for the first time”: Charles Nix talks us through the newly released Helvetica Now

Helvetica, “the neutral voice of mid-century modernism”, has been updated. You may care – it is the world’s most used typeface [see The Easel website – Ed]. Previous versions intended for digital applications have struggled, especially on small smartphone screens. Says the lead designer “Having it suddenly be incredibly legible at 3pt is one of those moments where the skies open up and the angels sing.”

Chantal Joffe’s Many Faces

Joffe likes fashion mags – she gets ideas for portraits. That’s where the fashion connection ends. Her portraits, mostly women, are candid, expressive of personality, life stages, relationships. Her current show of self-portraits fits this mould. “When a woman looks at herself, [she assesses herself against] the flawless face we all carry around inside the handbag of our heads.”

Obituary: Monir Farmanfarmaian, the artist who opened the world’s eyes to Iran

An encounter with traditional cut-glass mosaics in an Iranian mosque changed Farmanfarmaian’s career. Thereafter she blazed a trail of allying “modernist abstraction with Islamic ornament.” This brought international acclaim as well as decades-long exile from Iran. Times change – a museum dedicated to her “lucent” work recently opened in Tehran. Images are here.

What makes British art British?

Is art universal or local? A noted art critic opts for the latter. Since Tudor England, there has been a “lack of aesthetic ambition”. Rather, what emerged from about 1700 was a “British empiricism”, based on “a passion for truth”. This idea seems in good health, the art of Freud, Auerbach and Hockney all being based on a “raw, tough, empirical eye”. An unexpected thought from Brexit-befuddled Britain.


Art is often referred to as an ‘alternative asset class’. There is evidence for this view, but Easel editor Andrew Bailey is cautious. Next week he dissects the complex structure of the art market and suggests that a ‘love of art’ should be factored into expected returns.

23rd April 2019

Easel Essay: The Deceptions of Thomas Demand

Images were influencing popular culture long before social media. A 1970’s critic observed “our experience is governed by pictures”. The Pictures Generation soon emerged, artists using photography to explore the gap between image and “reality”. They are Thomas Demand’s antecedents.

“Demand’s paper and cardboard models do two very interesting and somewhat contradictory things at the same time. First, the making of the model detaches his final photograph even further from documenting anything in the “real world.” The second important aspect of Thomas Demand’s picture – the faithful documentation of a fabrication. So, it does tell a kind of truth. This is “re-presentation not representation.””

An art historian explains the tough decisions in rebuilding Notre Dame

After the Notre Dame cathedral fire the French president declared that he hopes for something “even more beautiful”. Should the aim be historical fidelity or alterations that reflect contemporary tastes? Numerous alterations had been made to the original structure, notably its spire. One option is to consider adding “a visibly contemporary but compatible spire to a medieval building.”

In Venice, artist Luc Tuymans is going against the current

Nothing about Tuymans seems lighthearted. A “spectacular” retrospective displays his trademark paintings based on found images. Painterly and widely influential, they often allude to dark historic events. Figuring out these references is difficult because Tuymans wants his paintings to have multiple layers. Otherwise, he fears, they are just “propaganda or illustration.”

The Invention of the ‘Salvator Mundi’

Riveting. A seemingly factual account of how Salvator Mundi went from $1000 in 2005 to $450m in 2017. “About a year into the restoration process, Modestini … noticed a set of color transitions that she described to me as “perfect … I could no longer hide from the obvious… the artist who painted [Mona Lisa] was the same hand that had painted the Salvator Mundi

Arpita Singh: Of stories untold

As a young artist Singh used magazine pages for her art. That led to an affection for text, still visible in her work. Apart from a notable dalliance with abstraction, her work is figurative, displaying narrative scenes focused on female subjects. According to one market observer Singh, though 82 years old, may be “the next really big thing in Indian art.” A background piece is here.

How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s

The 1960’s US art scene was not all abstraction and Pop. Chicago had its own art moment – the Imagists. The group aesthetic was defined by quirky figuration and use of graphics. Sometimes the work looks like Pop – a love of bright colours and signage – though without the irony. Says the writer “I find myself falling for the work against my better judgment”.

‘A Painter Not Human’

Coming from ‘provincial’ Sicily, Antonello struggled to get noticed. The modern view that he was the equal of Caravaggio or da Vinci is thus startling. Obsessed with depicting light and psychological detail, Antonello’s portraits are “utterly individual, unlike what any other artist was doing in his time or ours.” Of one portrait of Madonna reaching forward, “the greatest hand in Renaissance art”.