The Easel

22nd December 2020


This is the last regular newsletter for 2020. What a difficult year – and for some readers the disruptions continue, including lockdown. With so few exhibitions being reviewed, producing the newsletter has, to be frank, at times been excruciating. I hope those still under restriction are able to find some positive aspect to isolation (perhaps catch up on back issues of The Easel!).

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 a few weeks with the The Easel resuming on Tuesday January 26.
I hope you have enjoyed your reading over the last year.

Season’s greetings to all.

The Three Key Moments This Year That Changed the Art Market

Covid19 has forced big changes on the art market in 2020. It has “turbo-charged” online auction sales, which are now nearly four times greater than a year earlier. Sotheby’s boasts that discarding traditional marquee sales in favour of small, highly produced online auctions has been especially successful. Apparently, more is to come. “These adjustments are only the infancy of what we will come to know as the new face of the market.”

Zanele Muholi, Tate Modern

Despite opening and closing in a flash, this show impressed the few quick critics, one saying “Muholi is breaking ground like no other”. Her “gripping” art is portraiture, some personal, some “communal” in defense of the LGBTQ minority. That produces a salient judgement in a year replete with politically infused art: “Obviously, this event did not set out to prove that communality improves life and diminishes art. But that is what it does.”

Attention Servicemember

What is truth in war? Brody has published a book on Iraq and Afghanistan. He explains how, as an armed forces photographer, his images were used selectively to build optimism and downplay brutality. As an independent photojournalist, Brody frets his images misrepresent soldiers, making them seem “one dimensional superheroes”? Of course, truth is often elusive; as George Orwell wrote “all art is propaganda”.

Ancient books, an introduction

Books were “the first design object in Italy”. More than their content, the appeal of ancient (16th century) books is beauty and craftsmanship – “composition, illustrations, the balance between text and image, the very refined typography”. Distinguished provenance may add further allure. Admits a clearly besotted interviewee, books’ “preconceived image of dustiness … scares people off … artworks seem more straightforward”.

Struth’s unpeopled photos evoke the loneliness of urban life

A meditation on urban life. Thomas Struth’s photographs of empty streets are acclaimed. What is their allure? Crowded streets sometimes convey “the evidence of people, but no real community”. When empty, New York’s streets show that city “was never a gentle place … What’s revealed is an intrinsic feeling of abandonment that exists below the surface of all human spaces.”

Best Art Books of 2020

Most art book lists feature works that reflect the year’s big themes – recognition of women artists, of artists of colour, and restitution. But there are many additional choices ranging, like the art world itself, from the quirky to the esoteric. For a comprehensive list of accessible books, the New York Times is hard to beat. Lists from the Guardian and Five Books, at five items each, are admirably concise. Christie’s list is admirably eclectic and alluring.

15th December 2020

Thoroughly Modern Richie: A Hamilton Re(tro)spective At Pallant House, Chichester

Eight years before Warhol’s first show, Hamilton produced a collage that he described as “Pop Art … popular, transient, low-cost, mass-produced, glamorous, and Big Business.” Fascinated by consumer goods and with an innate understanding of glamour, Hamilton anticipated much of the cultural impact of mass media and technology. A clearly star-struck reviewer comments “his study of the modern recalls the past and illuminates the future.”

Ralph Steadman’s Wild Life of Illustration: “The World Has Changed So Much”

If it’s the secrets of illustration that you are hoping for, this article may disappoint. For those wanting a glimpse of one of the great graphic artists of the age, it may suffice. Steadman says of himself “I’ve become a pictorial polluter. Too many drawings, really.” His late collaborator, Hunter S. Thompson – himself something of an expert on weirdness – said of Steadman “They said you were weird, but not that weird.” (If the WSJ paywall is troublesome, try this)

The Great Spiritual

Kandinsky did not singlehandedly invent abstract art but was its “outstanding pioneer”. Convinced that art could inspire a better world, a 30-ish Kandinsky gave up the law for art. The spiritualist underpinnings of his art now might seem rather dotty. Nonetheless, his “pictorial vocabulary” – energetic colours and decorative shapes – still stands out, conveying “a feeling of joy and freedom that transcends … time and place.” More images are here.

Pioneering abstract painter Suh Se Ok dies at 91

As Korea emerged from Japanese occupation, Suh wanted his art to be distinctively Korean. He favoured traditional materials – ink and mulberry paper. His paintings, however, were distinctly modernist, looser and more expressive than calligraphy but quite different from the “muscular gesturalism” of abstract expressionism. Said he “I think of my works as a flight toward every possibility”. A video (7 min) where Suh discusses the dot is here.

‘It’s a Matter of Justice’: Bénédicte Savoy on the Argument for Restitution

Two years ago a French report advocated the repatriation of African objects with “negative histories”. What has happened since? Actual restitutions have been few but the debate about “heritage justice” has grown considerably. In particular, there is a push for openness about the background of artifacts – “restitution of the knowledge of the object’s provenance.” Museum-goers now ask “Do I want to enjoy this at the cost of some other suffering?”

How the Monoliths Became an Instagram Trap

A 10 ft polished steel column appeared suddenly in the Utah desert, only to disappear soon after. Similar objects have now appeared elsewhere. Unpersuaded that these are the handiwork of aliens, the writer sees them as someone’s “Minimalist homage to the rock and the grandeur of nature”. This “human intervention in the landscape, an act as old as civilization … [is] a wholesome, or at least joyfully absurd, moment of connection.”

Fernando Botero’s Journey from Aspiring Bullfighter to Art Market Powerhouse

Not the most cerebral of reviews. Still, for an artist who gets limited coverage in the art world’s capitals, its better than nothing. Reputedly Latin America’s most prominent artist, Botero’s early study of Old Masters evolved into an exaggerated “volumetric” style. Although he spends little time in his native Columbia, his work focuses on day-to-day Latin American life. Stylistically, and financially it seems, “he really is his own thing”.