The Easel

26th November 2019

Troy: Will Gompertz reviews the British Museum’s new blockbuster show

Why do stories about Troy have such enduring resonance? The ancient city of Troy probably existed. Fictional Paris abducted possibly fictional Helen (antiquity’s hottest babe), leading to the (unlikely) 10 year Trojan War. All this is recorded by the mysterious Homer in The Iliad. What gives the tale its enduring appeal are its powerful personalities, epic emotions and, above all, the futility of war.

Grave hopping with Gilbert & George

Gilbert and George revel in the confrontational. Dressed in immaculate tweed suits, they started as a living sculpture (“two people, one artist”) straight out of art school. Since then their art has become “more extreme” – difficult subjects, brash images, profanities. They feel unloved by the art world, perhaps happily so. “If we saw more art, more artists, we’d become normal. We don’t want to be normal like them”.

Annie Leibovitz: “I’m just a photographer”

Leibovitz is one of the eminent photographers of our age. How does she describe her own work? Her first work was effectively street photography, followed by portrait photography, “rock-and-roll”, then celebrity portraits. Nowadays? “I have a point of view … I think of myself as a conceptual artist using photography.” Reflections on her career’s work? “It’s hard to put what you see into a rectangle.” Her survey show is reviewed here.

Shirin Neshat: a stare that challenges us to look away

The art of Iranian-born Neshat looks like it might be a critique of religious Iran. Not exactly. Stranded in the US by the 1979 Iranian revolution, her art comes from the experience of being an outsider – in Iran and elsewhere. She expresses the immigrant experience as “foreigners inside a country we call home”. An interview with Neshat, more accessible than the above review, is here.

The Ambiguous Colors of Nanotechnology

Pigments create colour by reflecting light of a particular wavelength. Nanoparticles have both this and a second property, “structural colour”, that is created by the shape of the particles themselves. This accounts for iridescence in butterfly wings, for example. So what colour is a nanomaterial? “There is no simple answer … You understand, then you don’t. It’s almost mystical.” A TED talk is here.

The art of attribution and the attribution of art

When is an Old Master not an Old Master? When an “expert” says so. Technical evidence of authenticity is sometimes very helpful. Often, though, the key question is who wielded the paint brush – the master or their helpers. Therein lies temptation. The professional kudos of making a big discovery “is often more than enough to make people suspend their disbelief.”

19th November 2019

The Ceaseless Innovation of Duane Michals

Some artists – just a few – seem endlessly innovative. Michals is one. He was never attracted to the photography of objective story telling, à la Life magazine. His work is almost the opposite – staged sequences, handwriting on his images, manipulated images. In so doing he has expanded what photography can be. As the curator expresses it “Duane cut photography’s umbilical cord”.

A motel room of one’s own

Hopper liked to travel. Once successful as an artist, he and his wife began taking road trips. Some hotels they stayed at ended up in his art. And why not? Empty hotel rooms have an air of loneliness, something that would have been obvious to Hopper, a loner. What better a subject for his detached, “empty” compositions, where he could lay out “the truth of a scene”. What remains elusive though, is which truth?

Dora Maar: A solo retrospective

Before her relationship with Picasso Maar enjoyed commercial and artistic success as a surrealist-influenced photographer. The famous romance obliterated those early achievements. While now getting recognition, can Maar the artist be disentangled from Maar the muse? Probably not, concedes the curator: “it is simply impossible to represent the professional without the personal – they are intertwined.”

Curators of Culture

In a landmark moment, New York’s Met is holding an exhibition of native American art. Good news, right? Well, not according to this writer who argues that this “deeply depressing” show fails to present objects in their cultural context. Others suggest that many items, being ceremonial, are not even art. The Met protests that it consulted widely on the show but is now moving to hire a curator specialized in this area.

The Dream Team

A fun piece. Here’s a game of “restrained gluttony” – choose ten artists whose work you would most like in your home. The writer is co-head of Sotheby’s high end advisory firm and gets to see lots of the best. To play, it may help to brush up on your art history – eight of his picks are before 1650!

Why Architectural Elites Love Ugly Buildings

The proponents of popular versus highbrow architecture continue to battle it out. Much of the argument comes down to the merits of modernist (high rise) functionality versus the reassurance of the familiar. Sweeping urban “renewal” is discredited but a mania for “starchitect bling” persists. Architects should abandon “grand societal visions … leaving only purely aesthetic judgements”.

MoMA Director Glenn Lowry, Photographer Nan Goldin Top ArtReview’s Power 100 List

Art Review has just released its 2019 Power 100 list of art world notables. Individuals who have made a significant institutional impact take the top spots, followed by prominent artists, big gallerists, museum directors and so on. Art Review comments that the list “continues to reflect a shift away from the traditional power hubs.” Make of it what you will.