The Easel

27th August 2019

For the Love of Orange

As the title suggests, an ode to the colour. Initial interest – the history of how orange appeared in the English language – gradually becomes affection – “Van Gogh’s heady landscapes or Monet’s sunsets over shimmering water”. Finally, the admission of love – “a zip of joy in all life’s gray … a reminder of how it feels to begin … like a banner flapping in the breeze.”

The Artist at Home with Her Art: Ruth Asawa

The craft / fine art distinction is an idea that just won’t die. Asawa studied under Josef Albers, absorbing his Bauhaus view that the artist is an “exalted craftsman”. Her beguiling knitted wire sculptures exemplify that view – a humble material transformed by manual effort. Recent exhibitions evidence growing critical engagement and endorsement. A background video is here.

Point of No Return: East German art finally gets its moment

Events have not been kind to artists from the former East Germany. After reunification, key cultural posts went mostly to West Germans who assumed that artists from the East were producing socialist realism schlock. In fact, work of that period is diverse and strong. A curator advocates “synthesising the history of East German art into German art history [without] politicization and devaluation”. More images are here.

Interview with Mary Schmidt Campbell, author of An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden

It took Bearden ages to find his métier. Straight out of art school – and perhaps influenced by his mentor George Grosz – he painted figurative works. A post-war shift to abstraction was poorly received, insufficiently abstract for New York, insufficiently black for his own community.  A friend suggested photographing the collages that Bearden had made as a side project. They were an instant hit. America’s “foremost collagist” had arrived.

William Kentridge retrospective: Africa’s largest modern art museum goes beyond identity politics

Kentridge regards himself as “basically a drawer”, taking inspiration from Johannesburg life and its “unsentimental” landscape. Starting out, he thought his work might have a “safe provincialism”. In fact, he is a major voice in African art. Sadly, even a landmark exhibition such as this is not immune from South Africa’s sour identity politics. Images are here and an interview with the artist here.

Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance

Gothic art was elegant but static. Although trained in that tradition, Angelico and others (notably Giotto) gravitated to newer ideas – about colour, perspective and, above all, on what it is to be human. Angelico’s Annunciation altarpiece reflects this transition – “medieval flatness gives way to Renaissance depth … his marriage between medieval and modern remains one of the peaks of European painting.”

Exodus at Italy’s top museums as populist government sweeps away renaissance

It is widely acknowledged that Italy’s museums, with their innumerable cultural treasures, have been woefully managed. Reforms introduced in 2014, that gave museums more autonomy and the ability to recruit internationally, have been hugely successful. Incredibly, all this seems likely to be abandoned, due to internal government rivalries. As the author of the 2014 reforms notes “What damage to our image!”

20th August 2019

The Right To Dare Everything: ‘Paul Gauguin: The Art of Invention’

It must be Gauguin’s immense influence that keeps writers gnawing away at his biography. Gauguin borrowed ideas from everywhere. A synthesis had started in Brittany but emerged fully in Polynesia – a “modern aesthetic, with its direction rather toward suggestion than description”. One writer concurs: “a protean talent who influenced the course of modern painting more than anyone except Cézanne”.

David Hammons Taunts the Art World in Los Angeles

Hammons doesn’t maintain a public profile and doesn’t have a gallery relationship. If he wants to exhibit, he just asks a (“extremely blue chip”) gallery. His stellar reputation ensures ready agreement. Hammons is quoted as saying “the less I do, the more of an artist I am.” His infrequent shows are thus notable – indeed, it is difficult to decide if the linked piece reviews the art or the event.

A Depression-Era Mural, Caught in a Very Contemporary Controversy

Debate over an “insensitive” San Francisco school mural continues. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Only two years ago some advocated removing “insensitive” Confederacy-era statues. What is the principle at issue here? One writer suggests it should be the preserving of objects that “tell the stories of our lives”. Sounds reasonable – presuming that it means all stories, not just the ones we happen to like.

‘All art is voyeuristic’: Lisa Yuskavage on the joy of provocation

Yuskavage’s paintings of nude women lead some (but certainly not all) to say her work has a “soft porn aesthetic”. Yuskavage disagrees. Why so much nudity? It’s “the biggest subject in the history of art”. Is her work voyeuristic? “All art is voyeuristic. It’s fun to be provocative. I’m Apollonian in my life [but] in my studio, I’m pretty Dionysian. My experience is really smart people get [my work]”

I Learned Enormous Things: Hans Ulrich Obrist Remembers Marisa Merz

Merz was the only woman – and lowest profile – member of the 1960’s arte povera movement. Recent shows reveal her to be the “liveliest”. Her works were hugely varied, including a violin sculpture made of wax. “As we were installing the violin … it started to melt in the summer sun. Marisa wasn’t bothered: ‘Why would an exhibition have to last?’” An excellent video (10 min) is here.

Home Sweet Home

The British middle class started being fond of their houses in the early 19th century. A “sensitive and confronting” exhibition of British photography reveals that it is now well beyond fondness. For individuals, houses are both a safe haven and a point of “collision of dreams, aspirations and realities”. Collectively, they help define national identity. So, is the home more a state of mind than it is a physical place?

Asset management

An academic criminologist calls the attribution of Salvator Mundi to da Vinci a “miracle”. Is it? With improved analytic techniques, changed attributions on old paintings are not that uncommon. In the absence of new evidence, skepticism about this painting (presumably because of its price tag) doesn’t really add much value. Elegant though this essay is, it’s taking the debate nowhere.