The Easel

14th May 2019

The ecstatic nihilism of the painter Alberto Burri

After internment in Texas, Burri returned to an Italy impoverished by war. These straightened circumstances suited his interest in unconventional materials – burlap, tar, plastics. His radical idea was to present “material as the subject matter itself”. Rauschenberg and Johns were just two of many disciples. “Brutally gorgeous paintings” says the writer. Images are here.

How sex and power collude: the uncompromising art of Nancy Spero

Its easy to see why Spero got angry. The 1960’s New York art scene was ruled by male abstractionists unimpressed by female artists and hostile to figuration. Undeterred, she developed a delicate frieze-like style that has deeply influenced today’s design vernacular. Spero illuminated how the world looks from a female perspective and depicted “woman as protagonist”.

How Auction Houses Can Improve the Ways They Describe Non-Western Art

A persuasive, uncomfortable argument. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are called out for “Eurocentric” descriptions of African artifacts. Marketing descriptions tend to be “ahistorical … suspended in some imaginary, pure realm.” These works thus acquire edited biographies, without “messiness [meaning] in many cases, the very people who created the object. Perhaps this is what sells.”

Nari Ward

In the 1990’s Ward made art using stuff found on the streets of his Harlem neighbourhood. His acclaimed work embodied “the accidental aesthetics of street life” and was, of course, political. Harlem is now gentrifying. Ward’s work is perhaps also changing, less immediately political, more aimed at where “politics and poetics find common purpose”.

Garry Winogrand and Jeff Walls: photography in two phases

Winogrand, “the all time champion of street photography” captured telling moments in real life. Wall, and others from the next generation, mostly use actors and props to create staged images. What accounts for this shift? Even though society is awash with personal data the writer thinks it is about privacy: society no longer tolerates the “impugnity” of the street photographer.

How T.C. Cannon and his contemporaries changed Native American art

The marginalizing of indigenous art is all too familiar. But sometimes an artist uses contemporary art tools to tell indigenous stories afresh. Cannon is one such case. Notably, he discarded aesthetically conservative Native imagery, instead using garish, Pop-like colours. All the better, presumably, to show the complexities of native American identity, “people getting by in the modern world”.

7th May 2019

Easel Essay: For love or money? The merits of investing in art

It is common to see art referred to as an “alternative asset”. The market’s growth in size and sophistication since 1990 provides some justification for the claim. Impressive though its track record is, the intricate structure of the market complicates the usual investment analysis.

“Schiller’s argument is that asset markets like real estate (and art) are prone to making price “mistakes”. Perhaps Salvator Mundi was a mistake in the sense that it was a price spike, an expression of exuberance that may be followed by buyer’s regret. Perhaps low prices for art by women artists are also a mistake. Price overshoots and undershoots usually get corrected but as to when – sadly, that is unknowable.”

At 84, Sheila Hicks Is Still Making Defiant, Honest Art

A bumpy interview. Hicks likes her tapestries and wall hangings big. Sadly, they are sometimes thrown out when foyers get a make-over. Hicks is unfazed by the implied lack of recognition of her art. Of her piece shown at the last Venice Biennale: “The idea of its monumentality is to envelop you … you’re not thinking about the grains of the sugar. You’re into a very big meringue”. A better, older interview is here.

A Buyer’s Guide to the Venice Biennale: What Collectors Need to Know About the (Technically) Noncommercial Event

Venice Biennale opens shortly and, for a period, will monopolise artworld attention. It is ostensibly non-commercial, with 90 participating countries and various “collateral events”. Most countries choose a working artist as a representative, a coveted recognition not driven entirely by the saleroom. Eight are profiled here, not all household names.

Michael Wolf, photographer, 1954-2019

Wolf was an acclaimed photojournalist but earned most praise for his own projects on city life. Tokyo Compression showed uncomfortably crowded commuter trains. Architecture of Density displayed the immensity of Hong Kong high rise apartments. For him, these images showed urban ingenuity: “his work defied categorization … his main muse was Hong Kong”. Images are here.

Blossoming artist: Damien Hirst on returning to the studio, fluorescent florals and the ‘muppets’ in government

Hirst’s “polarizing” 2017 show in Venice persuaded some that his sole interest is money. There is no sign he is chastened by this criticism but still, except perhaps to the irredeemably skeptical, he sounds thoughtful. Of his recent 18 months of studio work – “You need time to make things, and also time to consider them. You don’t want to show things before you believe in them.”

Verrocchio: Restored to greatness

Being the art tutor of da Vinci would surely accustom one to second billing. Such has been Verrocchio’s fate. A first-ever retrospective in Florence is a revelation. It shows that he innovated widely and his studio was “the principal artistic powerhouse of the Florentine Renaissance”. When he switched from sculpture to painting, this work “influenced his successors for decades.” Images are here.

Devan Shimoyama’s Vision of a Dazzling Black Future

A review, dense in parts, but worth it because of the artist. At just 30, yet already with two solo shows, Shimoyama is perhaps a soon-to-be big name. A series of works, set in barbershops, explores “queerness and blackness”. Not all see these as explicitly political images. What is plain, though, is Shimoyama’s “impulse to complicate conventional notions of masculinity”.