The Easel

28th January 2020

Less Is More

What is minimalism, and what do we mean by its attendant phrase “less is more”? Donald Judd and Agnes Martin both felt “less is more” was irrelevant to their ‘minimalist’ work. Philip Johnson denied that these words encapsulated his glass and steel architecture. Beyond art, Marie Kondo says ‘less is more’ if you declutter. The writer shrugs; “The harder you try to nail something down, the more it escapes.”

On Having No Skin: Nan Goldin’s Sirens

Goldin’s new video works are about addiction and memory. Photography, she has said, is her way of remembering. Her new work is characteristically candid – blurry self portraits, scattered pill bottles, images of friends, dead and alive. Besides documenting “where all the time went” there also perhaps is a bigger point: “What a person is looking for in addiction … is totally sane, totally desirable, totally human”.

Hogarth: Place and Progress. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Hogarth was not a moralising scold. His celebrated narratives depicted London street life but not in a way that made poverty itself a moral failing. Having invented the (highly remunerative) concept of a narrative series, he documented life in this great city, without judgment. As one critic notes, “Charles Dickens is Hogarth’s only rival as a chronicler of London”.

Käthe Kollwitz: War and other atrocities at the Getty Research Institute

Kollwitz’s life spanned social upheaval in Germany plus both world wars. Ample opportunity to observe life’s sorrows. Like others in the German avant-garde she took to woodblock prints, becoming one of the foremost graphic artists of the century. Kollwitz’s socialist leanings are clear but it is her humanistic outlook that gives resonance to her images and conveys “dignity and respect” to the cause of social justice.

Between art & science

Modernist architecture offended Scruton. For him, architecture should be something that serves the public, not a “private art”. This piece, reprinted to mark his recent passing, is a furious denunciation of stars like Frank Gehry. “Humility, order, and public spirit … have been chased from the discipline by the starchitects. [They] are not building for the city, but against it … what people want is not “me” but “us.””

Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years is a portrait of the artist as priapic provocateur

Since winning the Turner Prize, Perry has delighted in promoting himself as Britain’s leading transvestite potter. Pottery’s “nice domestic associations” contrast sharply with his commentary on sexuality, class and gender. All of which he delivers without earnestness. “Decorativeness, sensuousness, laughter, joy, vibrancy, vitality, they are just as important [as] all that misery-making, pseudo-political, woke bollocks.”

John Baldessari Was Anything But Boring

In 1970, dissatisfied with his art, Baldessari took all his paintings to a crematorium and burned them. He called this action his “best work to date”. That set the tone for a half century of his conceptual art, up to his recent death. Widely influential, his work combined insight, humour and the obvious. One work simply bore the text “everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work.”

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”.