The Easel

8th October 2019

What the Hell Was Modernism? The Museum of Modern Art tries to open itself up

Last rites for the monarchy of modernism. New York’s MoMA was founded on the view that modernism was the zenith of all art. Major changes in the display of its collection, about to be revealed, are a de facto admission that modernism is just one of many art movements. Expect art that is” less than a century old, less white, less male, and less [American] … the monolith of modernism is gone.” Expect more on this topic.

Kara Walker debuts monumental fountain in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall

Kara Walker is having a moment in London. There is a survey of her acclaimed films that deal with slavery in America’s Antebellum South. A newly commissioned sculpture looks, at first glance, like British Empire bombast. Closer inspection shows it to contain figures that speak to Britain’s colonial past – “playful and inviting, yet brutal in its core.  A video (4 min) is here.

Street art is a crime

The case against street art, at FULL VOLUME. Three charges are made. It is anti-social, “a chronic lack of consideration for anyone else”. Further, it looks awful, “a suffocating and imposing pox on the urban landscape”. Worst of all is its legitimisation by “metropolitan and creative elites”. (That means you, The Guardian and Tate Modern.) Their motivation for doing so – to appear “culturally relevant”.

The Social Sublime: Decoding Courbet’s Burial at Ornans

Courbet was uncompromising. He determined to paint the things that really exist, excluding the Romantics painterly allusions. Burial at Ornans, one of his greatest paintings, does exactly this. Criticized at the time for being “ugly and crude”, it portrays a real funeral and the ordinary people who likely attended it. This is Courbet the Realist, the “proto shock-jock”, telling it the way it is.

How Cuba’s Cold War graphic design found humour in propaganda

Russia’s Cold War propaganda sometimes used “muscular” socialist realist imagery. Without an equivalent homegrown style, Cuba’s artists improvised, often using the tools of advertising – strong images, simple slogans, bright colours, mimicking Pop art. Innovative, without a doubt, though in the fullness of time, it went the way of all Cold War propaganda. More images are here.

Who’s Afraid of the Baroque?

Canova was born soon after the death of Bernini, Baroque sculpture’s great genius. His early works share Baroque’s ornamentation but that style was under attack. “Revolutionary energies” were afoot, not least from independent America. Canova captured these perfectly, becoming the pioneer of neoclassicism. His figures “are dry, airy and delicate … a singular attempt to communicate recognizably modern desires and fears.”

Paris will install controversial Jeff Koons gift on the Champs-Élysées

Jeff Koons has gifted a sculpture to Paris to honour terrorist attack victims. Controversy has dogged the project and, now unveiled,  its public reception is mixed. Initially intended for a location close to upmarket shopping, it has instead been placed in a public garden “partly obscured from view by trees.” A city official observes “some excess in a beautiful place – that represents Paris pretty well”.

1st October 2019

A new vision of nature

This newsletter introduces a new series of essays. In addition to the existing quarterly essays, The Easel will now also carry an occasional series of shorter essays, grouped around the theme ‘Here’s why I love it’. The first of these is about teamLab, a Japanese group of “ultra technologists”.

teamLab’s multimedia art is generated by complex, non-repeating algorithms. This is novel but is it the point of greatest interest? Russell Kelty, a classically trained curator at the energetic Art Gallery of South Australia, thinks not. For him, their work is distinctive in how it mirrors traditional Japanese culture. “Instead of simply staring at a fixed view provided by a painting on a wall, Japanese art has a history of immersing the audience in works of art, whether it be the auspicious shared moment of  unrolling a scroll or sleeping next to a folding screen which were conceived to be moveable wind barriers. Ever Blossoming … speaks a language that all of us can understand … lives increasingly mediated by screens”.

Vija Celmins’s surface matters

Celmins keeps a low profile and produces relatively few paintings. Yet her works “awe critics” and sell for huge prices. They focus on household objects, the sea, starry skies – the images rendered in minute detail and muted colour. Their reticence gives them “a timeless, impersonal, and rather cold beauty”. Or, as one writer says, they have “whispered power”.  More images are here.

A New Exhibit Of ‘Maximalism’ Shows How Artists Trounced Modernism And Made Art Inclusive In The 70s

The pattern and decoration movement had its heyday in the 1970’s. Its frontal attack on minimalism raised difficult issues for art theory. Dry though that debate can be, these issues are important. Is decoration bad art – or perhaps not art at all? What are the boundaries of art and who gets to decide what is in or out? The current flurry of museum shows on this subject suggests resolution is not imminent.

Under the bridge with Mark Leckey

Can one be nostalgic for a motorway flyover? Leckey is. Growing up in northern England’s bleak industrial landscape, he has been shaped by its streets and working class youth culture. Using online found footage he has created films like Fiorucci, an “opus” that has “hypnotic, often arresting images of everyday stuff … a celebration of British urban subculture”. An excellent background piece is here.

With a brass band blaring, artist Kehinde Wiley goes off to war with Confederate statues

Proposals to remove Richmond’s Confederacy-era statues caused a huge controversy.  Virginia’s Museum of Fine Art has a nice response – a “massive” statue of an African American man. Temporarily in New York’s Times Square, the figure wears dreadlocks and street wear and strikes a faux-heroic pose atop a horse. In December it will be installed in Richmond, a “profoundly subversive response to the city’s Civil War dilemma.”

Body Of Work, Michelangelo: Mind Of The Master

If man is God’s most perfect creation, how should the figure be drawn? Michelangelo wanted to show it as even more perfect than real life. This required him to study anatomy – like his older rival da Vinci. More important, though, was the choice of pose: “the torsion of the human body in motion … expressed the inner life of the subject, the emotion of the moment, time stopped in an instant of revelation.”

Reconsidering Ceramics Iconoclast Peter Voulkos at Burning in Water

A visit to Black Mountain College was Voulkos’ first exposure to New York abstraction. What an impact! He set about redefining ceramics, discarding many of its established practices. In particular, what some regarded as flaws he saw as “spontaneous creative accidents.” Voulkos wasn’t thinking pots anymore but rather expressionist sculpture. He was re-inventing American post-war ceramics.  A video (1 min) is here.