The Easel

30th July 2019

Pining for the Moon

Galileo drew the first detailed map of the moon in 1609. Four centuries of study later and the moon has lost most of its mystery. It is completely familiar. What it has not lost is its ability to evoke a sense of romance. On the anniversary of the moon landing, this exhibition of moon-related art and photography is surely the most resonant – and inevitable – of the year.

In memoriam: Carlos Cruz-Diez (1923-2019)

Colour, Cruz-Diez realized, is unstable. His influential career was spent making works in which colour changes with the viewer’s position and the surrounding light. Collectively they deal with a central preoccupation of modern art – how we perceive. “[Colours] are permanently in the process of becoming. This work is not happening in the past. It is forever in the present.” Images are here.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing

Da Vinci’s impatience is revealed by his output – fewer than 20 completed paintings but many thousands of pages of drawings. Few projects came to fruition, so the drawings are a record of his thinking. They show what we all know – his art reflected a scientific mind. One of the last drawings he did, of an old man, also reveals his humanity: “He redraws this old man’s nose again and again no longer sure of himself.”

‘It’s Just the Beginning’: Art World Responds to Warren B. Kanders’s Resignation from Whitney Board

A Whitney Museum board member has resigned amid protests about his company’s production of tear gas. There is an ongoing campaign to refuse philanthropy from the Sackler family. Are these two controversies comparable? Have events at the Whitney strengthened institutional “morality”? One critic notes “the idea of moral purity in the arts is a fantasy”; another thinks more such conflicts are to come.

Curator Clare Lilley on David Smith

Seeing photographs of some Picasso metal sculptures was, for Smith, an epiphany. He went on to explore metal sculpture in a body of work that “had no precedent”. Like a collagist, “material determined imagery”, and Smith used “tools, off-cuts, boiler lids, waste and bought steel” to create works with a strong human narrative. At his funeral he was described as “delicate as Vivaldi and as strong as a Mack truck”.

Unvarnished Truths

All artworks deteriorate. Conservation is thus a “necessary evil”. Colours can fade or shrink as they age: varnishes can lose transparency. Modern artists, trying for visual impact, sometimes use materials with “unresolvable” problems. Which approach best respects a work and its artist – “a hygienic interest in the object [or] an aesthetic interest in the image.”?

Always the Model, Never the Artist

A review angry at Morisot’s “erasure” from the Impressionist story. Besides being technically bold, Morisot uniquely celebrated feminine life and domesticity. “She killed the aesthetic in which women had for so long been “immortalized” as art.” Whether Paris’s Musée d’Orsay (which focuses on Impressionism) has worked hard enough to correct this erasure remains unclear. More images are here.

23rd July 2019

Leon Kossoff: Figurative and landscape painter who chronicled London life

Kossoff enjoyed a rare compliment from London’s National Gallery – after-hours access. A central figure in British art, his reputation rested on Expressionist paintings of London’s people, streets and buildings. A slow worker, the final canvasses were thick with heavily worked paint “as if made of coloured, solidified engine grease as put into a grease gun.” Says one writer “a playful and serious genius”.

Drill, Baby, Drill: Hito Steyerl Stares Down Hidden Histories at New York’s Park Avenue Armory

Steyerl is a visual artist with an agenda. Her commentary on technology, media and contemporary culture – in film, video and writing – is widely acclaimed. While not every one of her works is equally successful, their cumulative eloquence is undeniable – images on social media are an all-pervasive influence. As one critic notes “You can’t log off when the internet and the world are one”.

The 25 Works of Art That Define the Contemporary Age

The New York Times tries for the impossible – a shortlist of contemporary artworks that define our age. A group of artists and curators produces a list. Few auction room stars, few paintings, little consensus. Instead, what emerges is a profile of art world preoccupations with identity and today’s fractured political discourse. Inclusive, idiosyncratic, inconclusive, interesting.

In a Morris Minor key – Michael Collins presents the lost world of family slides

An interesting perspective. Amateur cameras in the 1950’s and 60’s were clunky, making for slow photography. Careful, matter-of-fact family snaps, at their best, are aesthetically akin to the celebrated photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher. “They have an eloquence that goes to the core of what photography really is … each of these family slides is a biography written in the vernacular”. More images are here.

Can we decolonise the British Museum?

In late 2017 the French President promised to repatriate art objects stolen from French colonies. The announcement resonated in Britain because of its extensive holdings of colonial-era artifacts. It seems the British Museum remains untroubled. “We believe the strength of the collection is its breadth and depth … the integrity of the collection should be maintained.”

Finland’s Munch’: the unnerving art of Helene Schjerfbeck

Schjerfbeck does not provide a tidy narrative. She was fashion conscious but many of her portraits show a preference for “an averted gaze”. She adored Paris but ultimately chose provincial Finland – where her art became modernist. One critic’s view that her work is “a cold shower of second-rate art” is an outlier compared to this writer’s summation – “wan, authoritative and unnerving”.

Why so serious? The reason we rarely see smiles in art history

The closed mouth half smile – the smirk – appears in portraiture but rarely a full smile. Why? Until being rehabilitated by photography, a toothy smile was thought unfashionable, a gesture of the lower classes. Perhaps a better explanation, though, is that a smirk is easily interpreted – coyness for example. In contrast, a smile is more ambiguous – “unnervingly unreadable … is it a revealing expression or one of concealment?”