The Easel

29th September 2020

The ‘Real’ Cindy Sherman

An avalanche of reviews of Sherman’s Paris retrospective mostly just state the obvious. This one does better. Of course her work explores identity, but is that all? For some of her characters -aging female socialites, for example – the use of disguise works to expose rather than conceal. “The whole range of injustices that age has imprinted on their faces and bodies suggest an underlying melancholy … you see [them] vulnerable and exposed.”

Goya and the art of survival

Review of a new Goya biography. In his lengthy career as painter to the Bourbon court Goya produced admirable, naturalistic portraits. His modern appeal does not rest with these works but others “of blistering negativity”. The Disasters of War series depicts “universal depravity”. In his later Black Paintings Goya is the “tour guide to Hell”. Collectively, these are “a homing beacon for worried people in worlds that are subject to unpredictable changes”.

The fine line between art and pornography

What a quagmire! Female nudes were surely often intended as “soft porn for the [male] elite”. If not, why so few male nudes? Does that matter if the work has artistic merit? Where does that leave female viewers? Is the offence nudity or rather the stereotyping of women? Should dubious works be removed from museum walls, or is that censorship? “Compare Goya’s Naked Maja to a Playboy centrefold and tell me the line [with pornography] is not blurred.”

Lucie Rie from the Estate of Claire Frankel

The linked piece has great images of Rie’s work and this piece fills in some background. Fleeing Nazism, Rie arrived in London to find British ceramics in thrall to a sturdy, Japanese inflected style.  With her refined modernist sensibility, Rie was having none of that. Her elegant designs, vivid glazes and textured surfaces gradually overthrew the prevailing aesthetic and established a lexicon now synonymous with contemporary ceramics.

Matters Of Fact

Bechtle was one of several important realist painters to come out of 1960’s San Francisco. A meticulous photo realist, he always worked from photos. While careful to borrow photography’s “veracity”, he still played painterly tricks with perceptions of scale and depth. “Bechtle grapples with serious issues of representation, but he does so in such a laboriously off-hand way that it takes a while for a viewer to realize what the artist is up to, and just how good he is.”

In Berlin, a retrospective of one of Germany’s most influential photographers

Schmidt started by photographing his Berlin neighbourhood. That style – factual, black and white images – stuck. He spent 25 years making images of the commonplace – “empty lots, murky puddles, distressed brickwork”. They reveal a Berlin trying to shrug off the burden of history. Schmidt was a “lodestar of postwar photography in Germany … unideological, [and his work] offers a rich vocabulary without being anecdotal.”

22nd September 2020

The radical quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins

A collector stumbled across Tompkins’ quilts at a Berkeley flea market. After decades of collecting her work he bequeathed his collection in 2018 to a museum. The writer’s glee at this first show is palpable. “I left in a state of shock. The sheer joy of her best quilts cannot be overstated. They come at us with the force and sophistication of so-called high art … with the power of painting. Tompkins seems to have been an artist of singular greatness.”

Giorgio de Chirico and the Paintings Which Cannot be Seen

To declare de Chirico’s paintings “non-interpretable except for the mood” sounds about right. He reached adulthood in fin de siècle Europe which was struggling with a sense of loss as its present was “rapidly being gobbled up by a ravenous future”. His signature motif was the strange cityscape – empty piazzas, arcades lit by a late afternoon sun, perhaps a distant train. Far from utopian scenes, they were his attempt to “depict not the thing but the effect it produces.”

Sir Terence Conran: A life for design

Some are a bit sniffy about commercial design. Conran was firmly in the camp that praised it as democratic. He pioneered stylish products for the younger part of a middle class weary of post war austerity. A serial entrepreneur, his innovations included flat pack furniture, retailing concepts, restaurants and architecture. Said London’s Design Museum, which he helped found, “he changed the way we lived and shopped and ate”.

A museum plans to auction a crucial Jackson Pollock painting. It’s inexcusable

The deaccessioning debate grows ever more acrimonious. One curator, citing the imminent sale of a prized Jackson Pollock, declares it “an institutional and social betrayal of lasting impact”. But some museums are in financial crisis. Others question the sense of keeping rarely exhibited works when their sale could fund the acquisition of more diverse contemporary works. Fumes the writer, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”.

The greats outdoors: Michael Andrews’ valedictory Thames paintings

Andrews was somewhat famous – he had famous pals (Freud, Bacon and others) and the works he laboriously produced were of the highest quality, “only masterpieces”. Mid-career, he switched from group interiors to landscapes. His last two paintings of the Thames river are “grave and mysterious”. He was dying and, as one writer puts it, “the water becomes a thing of unknowable beauty, halfway between this world and another.”

Jacob Lawrence, Peering Through History’s Cracks

For some painters a single canvas just isn’t enough. An early series of 60 paintings about African American migration to the North made Lawrence’s name. A later series, reunited for the first time in a half century, describes the early history of the American republic. Lawrence’s “punchy modernist vignettes” tell an “integrationist history … and will come to be seen as a juggernaut among American historical documents”.

A Slew of Shows Celebrates Surrealist Women

Few art movements have been as determinedly misogynistic as surrealism. Breton, its founder, regarded the role of women in art as the “passive muse”. Multiple exhibitions over the last decade have shown that women in fact played a much bigger role. They were lively contributors – at least, that is, before quitting, fed up with lack of recognition. Relative to men, says one curator, the women were “more daring, both in their personal lives and their art”.