The Easel

24th December 2019


This is the last regular newsletter for 2019, somewhat reduced because it’s Christmas Eve. Next Tuesday, and the Tuesday after, the newsletter will highlight the year’s most popular stories among Easel subscribers. There will then be a break of two weeks. Around then I will send out a short note providing feedback on the results of the reader survey. The Easel will resume on Tuesday January 28.
Many thanks for your interest over the last year.

Season’s greetings to all.

Theater of Operations

What should art about war look like? Works by Goya and Picasso come to mind – arresting imagery, abstracted from reality. The Iraq war, as seen on TV, was curated to seem easy and tidy. Few challenged this falsehood and the work of some artists seems “smoothly dutiful”. The awkward question posed by this show – “how should we look at those art objects that spring from crisis but shrink from witness?”

From Impression to Expression; Martin Kippenberger at the Bundeskunsthalle

Kippenberger constantly satirized the German art establishment, partied to excess and died early with a small reputation. Now it’s big. His paintings were peppered with references to consumer culture – prompting some to use the term ‘neo-Pop’ – which he promoted using his own celebrity. This writer thinks Kippenberger’s work shared little with Pop – “despair behind the façade of the cynical joker”. An illuminating interview is here.

The Most Important Art Exhibitions of the 2010s

“Best of” articles usually stand little chance of getting into The Easel. Yet, by looking across a decade of activity, this one neatly highlights art world trends. Diversity is the meta-theme du jour – female artists, identity art (in all its varieties), outsider art, globalism. The runner-up meta-theme is probably technology.  A discussion piece on ‘key’ artists serves a similar purpose.

An unlikely ‘collaboration’

By the late eighteenth century, the East India Company was hugely profitable. Prosperous executives commissioned paintings by Indian artists to send back home. These anonymous “company paintings” were stylistically distinct from the Mughal court style but, in their own way, “very, very beautiful”. The challenge now is to identify those artists, give them their due and promote their work as “Indian art, not colonial art”.

Art forgers face a new challenge from high-tech authenticators

Authenticity underpins an artwork’s value. Much rests on the catalogue raisonné. Scholars doing this painstaking work have become cautious in the face of more and better forgeries, a perceived decline in connoisseurship and threats of legal action by those adversely affected. Observes one writer, excluding a work from the catalogue raisonné “is the kiss of death and Mr Collector doesn’t like being kissed that way”.

17th December 2019

Down through the layers: the paintings of Mark Bradford

The buzz around American artist Mark Bradford grows unabated. Once a hairdresser, he now boasts a McArthur “genius” Award, featured artist at the Venice Biennale, auction room stardom and more. Morgan Meis takes a closer look.

“[A]s a hairdresser, you’d never want to forget that, beneath the waves and shine and flow of all that hair, is an actual person. The content matters. It sure as hell matters when you are doing someone’s hair … Bradford’s paintings wiggle back and forth on that tense razor’s edge where the intense and often socially explosive nature of the paintings’ content always threatens to disrupt the aesthetic space of the canvas. Bradford’s work is powerful because these two forces are in conflict, the from-a-distance aesthetic effect versus the freighted social meaning of his raw materials.”

In Defense of Maurizio Cattelan’s Banana

You may have heard about a banana taped to the wall of a booth at Art Basel Miami. Three editions of the “work” were sold, for big money. Was it meant to be serious? Satire is always serious. Is it art? Cue Warhol’s observation – art “is what you can get away with”. The sense of art world critique is overwhelming: “Buying art now is about being seen in the right circles and acquiring the right names.”

David Hammons follows his own rules

A classic. A backgrounder about David Hammons, the reclusive artist “at the summit of the art world”, for whom “lords of the art world turn somersaults”. ““I just can’t talk about how [my artworks] came about, because it’s so personal—it’s almost like raping me to talk about it.” Hammons, I realized, was close to tears. Dodie said, “We don’t have to talk about that, or about anything. It’s wonderful just to be here.””

Stretching the Canvas

Postwar US government sponsored schools had a narrow view of native American art. Baskets, ceramics, beadwork, flat narrative painting. Of course, as a big New York show illustrates, that idea didn’t last. American Indian art now reflects the stylistic profusion of modern art with its own diversity of voices. Says one, who found inspiration in de Kooning’s work, “We’re native, but we’re all these layers on top”.

Michel Laclotte with Joachim Pissarro

Some say the Louvre is the world’s most important museum. Laclotte, a former director, reflects on his experience and the dilemmas of museum management. Should curators or managers be in control? Why the hostility toward the Louvre’s famous glass pyramid? Should contemporary art be combined with an historical collection? Any regrets? Yes – missed acquisitions. “I am almost more interested in the paintings didn’t get!”

Portraits for the People

JR calls himself a “wallpaper artist” … not that that tells you much. Photographing people from local communities, he pastes their huge blown up images onto building exteriors. It seems almost an extension of graffiti – ephemeral, anti-authoritarian, local. In his words “I was [doing graffiti] to say ‘I exist,’ then I started pasting pictures of people with their names to say they exist. I feel safe when I see graffiti because it shows there’s life.”

Pierre Soulages: Beyond black

Soulages, a national treasure in France, is getting a rare solo exhibition at the Louvre. His paintings are abstract – exercises in colour, texture and mark making – and for decades done entirely in black. Unlike the New York abstract expressionists,  Soulages doesn’t see his black works as an art ‘endgame’. “There is no progress in art, only techniques that are perfected”.  A discussion of the Louvre show is here.