The Easel

14th July 2020

Damien Hirst: Colour Space Paintings

A blizzard of name dropping in this piece makes one wonder – is it just marketing? The 19th century Pointillists thought dots “the fundamental unit of representation”. Hirst’s dot paintings are representational – they show a world of “tiny details”. Except, all that detail doesn’t convey extra information. In that sense these paintings “fail – [and] failing, grandly, is modern art’s best recipe for success.” Convinced?

First There Was Zombie Formalism—Now There’s Zombie Figuration

For decades, art buyers have wanted art that is contemporary – especially abstract painting. The flood of art produced to meet this demand was of variable quality – hence the tag ‘zombie formalism’. Now figurative works are hot and the writer laments we are seeing ‘zombie figuration’. The artists are good but “they combine several unlike things and call it a picture … [no] sense of subtlety or nuance”. Rather depressing.

The pandemic has shown us what the future of architecture could be

Is the pandemic a “transformational” moment for architecture? Modernist ambition is not the problem so much as the image of what a building should be. Architecture has thought of a building as a machine. However, “[many] buildings offer little sense of comfort, safety … the built environment is threatening us.” A new paradigm might be buildings as “living organisms” – after all, “breathing is an architectural and spatial problem.”

State vs. Church: Uffizi Director Provokes Controversy Over Who Owns Sacred Art?

The Uffizi Gallery director has proposed returning some religious artworks to the churches they came from. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees. However, the Uffizi’s collection is larger than can be displayed. Current visitor restrictions reduce further how much art can be seen. Behind the proposal is the idea of the diffused museum, where artworks are shown in their original context. Says one church official “a very positive provocation”.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Taueber-Arp helped start the small but influential Zurich Dada. It gave her the impetus for a diverse career of sustained creativity. A “great artistic polymath”, her work spanned painting, sculpture, textiles and interior design. Despite an early death and the eclectic nature of her output she is recognised, along with Kandinsky and Malevich, as one of the great geometric abstractionists. A short bio piece is here.

Eight odd details hidden in masterpieces

If new art is unavailable, then find something new in the old favourites. The curl of hair that Botticelli placed on the shoulder of Venus mimics the logarithmic spiral of a nautilus shell. Turner placed a rabbit in front of a speeding train. And the motifs that Klimt put on the woman’s dress in The Kiss represent petri dishes “pulsing with cells”. “Beauty always contains a touch of strangeness.”

7th July 2020

ESSAY: Alexander Calder in Public and Private

Alexander Calder’s signal achievement is the mobile. It was profoundly radical in 1930’s Paris – and in a way still is. Why is it so difficult to place its innovator in the broader sweep of 20th century art? This was a central issue for Jed Perl in concluding his biography of Calder.

“Calder didn’t ever want to be constrained by any dogma. Whenever he went into the studio he wanted to make something that would be new in the world. He and his wife, Louisa, were creatures of the 1920s … when people still believed in the freedom of the imagination. It’s important to situate artists in their time and place. But it’s also important to remember that an artistic vocation has its own life and logic. [Calder’s] art is both totally in the world and completely in a world of its own.”

What Might the Artworld’s ‘New Normal’ Look Like?

Recently joyful at art galleries re-opening, this writer is now sombre. He is anxious about the big museums. They face an increasingly “fraught debate” about their “failings” on gender and ethnic representation. Those with weakened financials could fall back on wealthy patrons, who have their own agendas. Caught between the demands of activists and philanthropists, this is a “future of contradiction”.

Matisse & the surrogate figure

Matisse’s studio seems a familiar place. He painted its contents frequently – brightly patterned textiles, furniture, his own works. Why his own works? Referencing “achievements to date”? His nudes could provide a “body-like presence” without the need for a model. Using an image of an image gave him greater latitude to visually rhyme different objects. In his studio Matisse was self-sufficient, his art nourishing itself, “[forming] its own republic of pleasure”.

Li Zhengsheng : The Genius who photographed the Cultural Revolution

Li was a photographer on the main provincial newspaper during the Cultural Revolution. While covering political events he also recorded, secretly, mob hysteria and communal violence. This body of work constitutes a unique documentation of “the “loss of mind” of a whole nation”. Says one critic, the “most important Chinese documentary photographer of the twentieth century.” More images are here.

Mystery of the tainted cache

Restituting art looted by the Nazi’s has great moral clarity. So, when a trove of over 1600 art works linked to “Hitler’s art dealer” was discovered in 2013, many hoped for a moment of justice. Reality has disappointed. Despite extensive research, only fourteen works have been returned. Provenance of most other works is, says an investigator, “a very large grey area”. Tainted or otherwise, the collection now resides in a Swiss museum.

What Are Art Galleries For?

More soul searching, this time about private galleries. A “winner-take-all” economy has suited the few mega-galleries. Galleries outside this blue-chip stratum have long been under pressure, reducing their capacity to support emerging artists. The post-lockdown world may prefer a “sparsely populated gallery” to the crowded art fair. Things may become “more localized”. And bring, one hopeful artist adds, “a more transparent, slower way of working”.