The Easel

9th February 2021

Gordon Parks: Beautiful photos of an ugly history

There are two sides to Parks’ photography. One was the chronicling of civil rights protests. Those images focus on individuals rather than scenes of conflict and show, in a way that still resonates, what it means to be black and American. His other side showed when Parks “allowed his poet’s eye to roam”. These images show “the ambiguity and complications of reality, genuine people … You just see a lot of beauty in these pictures, always beauty.”

A Close Look at Henri Matisse’s Bather

Forensic. Matisse wanted his paintings to appear spontaneous -and he wanted to use flat planes of colour. That meant working “exhaustingly” to communicate volume, movement, sensation. In Bather (1909) you can see “the drawings are done with force and how he’s layering the paint. Areas alternate between matte and glossy, thickly worked paint to convey an astonishing range of volume and light and hue. This was an opportunity for him to … go for broke.”

Joyce Pensato

Bored with drawing fruit in still life classes, Pensato instead chose cartoon characters. Suddenly, sweet Disney originals, became charcoal-heavy figures with “malevolent” feelings. It proved her artistic liberation. Her characteristic style emerged – portraiture, done in an exaggerated abstract expressionist style that spoke to “the appeal and toxicity of Americana”. Said one critic “Pensato’s work is a jolt of manic energy … a kind that can’t be faked”.

Fabric Cybernetics

Textilemaking was deemed unimportant in Cold War Russia and thus less closely scrutinized. The designer Anna Andreeva used this to return to Constructivism, an art movement banned by Stalin in the 1920’s. Her striking designs, a marriage of “Constructivism, op art, and mathematical algorithms” went into both mass-market textiles and commissions for the elite. With her private archive now opened, expect some post-Covid shows. Images are here.

Deaccessioning Empire

Restitution of colonial-era artifacts is a familiar topic. Now, authoritative books have appeared that will add yet more fuel to the debate. Research leaves little doubt that these artifacts often have sordid origins. Refusal by European and British museums to restitute looks increasingly like “the unfinished business of imperialism”, the equivalent of asserting “Western superiority”. Surely there is only one way that this issue is going to be resolved.

The Artist Disappears

Helen Frankenthaler’s contribution to abstract expressionism was important. So, a major biography is deserved. The criticism that has dogged her is that she was “insufficiently ambitious”, her paintings too “decorative”. This biography offers a defense which seems only partially successful. The reviewer’s conclusion – this book is “less a biography than a work of [mere detailed description]”.

Burning Cole

Temporarily ungated. Cole inspired the landscapists of the Hudson River School. Therein lies a paradox. Those artists, most notably Frederic Church, painted what they saw, allowing nature to “speak for itself”. Cole didn’t. He was anxious that progress would despoil the sacred wilderness and impose a human cost. He conscripted his paintings in support of such ideas. “His compositions were both allegories and real places … science and fiction in equal measure.”

2nd February 2021

The Empathy of John Singer Sargent’s Portraits

John Singer Sargent’s portraits are in the grand style and brought fame during his lifetime. Since then, critics have taken to calling him names; “staid”, or “a society flatterer”. That’s a superficial reading, suggests Contributing Editor Morgan Meis. Sargent was “neither of the avant-garde nor of the conservative reaction”.

One painting “seems to rise above its clichés, to brush them aside in the service of something greater. He lets each sitter create their own tragedy, their own farce. He lets them reveal the image they have of themselves, and then he lets that image waver and falter. The end result is not ridicule but compassion. Sargent’s genius was to reveal the fragility of these moments of person-being without completely dissolving the necessary illusions.”

The beastly return of Francis Bacon

Bacon was electrified when first confronted by Picasso’s disregard for the rules of figurative painting. Bacon determined that he too would be a painter and break rules. Break them he did, creating faceless heads, human/animals and other unclassifiables. What was it all for, this parade of “anguished creatures”? For his supporters, Bacon was “a violent seeker after truth”, an artist whose central goal was “to “trap the fact” of our animal nature through painting.”

Richard L. Feigen (1930–2021) – a legendary art dealer whose own private collection was the toast of New York

Feigen had a protean talent for spotting the “undervalued or underestimated.” After starting with an eclectic artist roster, the Old Masters caught his eye. Over the 1980’s he became the “ultimate dealer” in that genre. Museums around the world sought his advice and bought from him, though he confessed he often kept the very best for his own superlative collection. Asked about his legacy he said “Taste. Not prescience or anything like that. But just taste.”

The Uffizi’s New Dante Exhibition Takes Us To Purgatory

Around 1315, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, a pilgrim’s tour of the afterlife. Centuries later, the Renaissance artist Zuccari made 88 illustrations of the epic poem. Florence’s Uffizi, which has shown the drawings only twice in 300 years, has put a digital rendition online to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Dante’s work is an awkward fit with contemporary worldviews, but Zuccari’s illustrations suggest one thought – Dante is but “our stranger selves”.

Rothko, Reverential and Otherworldly, in Houston

Following a renovation of Houston’s Rothko chapel, a re-evaluation. Rothko viewed the chapel as his “final statement” and the paintings have an “end-of-life” character.  They are “nocturnes”, their dark colours (some only dark plum and crimson) better appreciated under the new hi-tech lighting. And they are big works, as if Rothko wanted to create a separate world. Approvingly, the writer says the chapel is “an Old Testament place”.

Review: Robert Irwin’s virtuoso light art, minus the light

Irwin, one of the Light and Space group, is famous for his clusters of coloured fluorescent tubes. These meditative works show the interaction of light and colour. Now he is exhibiting new works where the tubes are not lit. Does it work? The reviewer thinks so, calling the show “unexpectedly gorgeous and deeply absorbing”. Perhaps so. It is surprising, though, that the appeal of these works is not diminished in the absence of their previously defining element.

At Peabody Essex, a reset on South Asian art

The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts has long collected Indian art.  It seems a risky area for a western museum. Were all the works ethically acquired? What about work, made during British colonial rule, that pandered to colonial stereotypes? How much of the diversity of India can Western audiences absorb? One solution, partial at best – include contemporary works that address issues like rural – city friction, a reality understood everywhere.