The Easel

20th April 2021

The Swirl of History

The writer greatly admires Mehretu’s retrospective but what is he seeing? She has developed a distinct visual language, of city grid patterns – and more recently photos – overlaid with “ink-and-acrylic swirl storms”. These works, gorgeous, strikingly original and complex, achieve a “fusion of historic sweep and minute human drama [that] is stunning”. Mehretu, he states, is “the most exciting visual artist of our time”.

New tricks, but this show still finds the soul in everyday objects

Whiteread sculpts household objects – hot water bottles, chairs and once, famously, the inside of a terrace house. Her first post-pandemic show comprises derelict sheds, made from reclaimed materials and painted deathly white – “mortal remains, like piles of bones”. These “unsettling” works share a family resemblance to Whiteread’s previous work – revealing the marks that life leaves on things. They are masterpieces, says one critic – “great lockdown art”.

Philip Guston’s Peculiar History Lesson

Elegant description of Guston’s famous self-transformation. Unlike his school buddy Jackson Pollock, Guston was cautious. He had doubts about abstraction, but stuck with the style until, finally, he couldn’t. Perhaps, despite his renown, his self-view was “a child of immigrants, a man on the margins”. Guston’s wariness was motivated by doubt while Pollock’s motivation was audacity, “yet one went as far into the unknown as the other, each at his own speed”.

Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkins and Polka Dots Have Officially Taken Over the New York Botanical Garden

Will this be New York’s most welcomed show of the year? Kusama’s work is immensely popular. Even so, her works will surely gain something extra from being shown in a springtime garden. It’s not a cerebral art event but, as a sensory experience, it could be right up there. As Kusama advises “Become one with eternity. Obliterate your personality. Become part of your environment.” A video is here.

Architecture as Philosophy

Kahn was a committed modernist architect. A purist modernist, though, he was not, happily admitting to finding virtue in buildings like medieval monasteries. His great contribution to Western modernism was “an integrated union of space and mass, solid and void”. Many Kahn buildings are monumental but, through attention to light and space, they also have a contemplative quality. Architecture, he said, is “an elementary expression of human consciousness”.

Dawoud Bey on 6 photos that have pushed his work forward

The deluge of interviews, now that Bey’s retrospective is in New York, are mostly spoiled by inane questions. It’s more interesting when Bey talks about his favourite images.  Of one, “even the warm-brown backdrop … related to what I found interesting about Rembrandt. With these two I like their style and how they are performing coolness for the camera. I think the human community always wants to be in conversation with its own image.”

13th April 2021

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start

New York’s MOMA and Alexander Calder were best buddies. MOMA promoted Calder in key exhibitions while he enabled the fledgling institution to boast a modernist American artist. Calder was their “household god”. The museum’s marketing blurb says that this exhibition celebrates this decades-long relationship. Does it, or is it just a lovely show that will tempt cautious people to visit? Who cares? “Nobody doesn’t love Sandy Calder”

Curator Laura Hoptman Reflects on Meeting Artist David Hammons and Organizing New Show at Drawing Center, the First Museum Exhibition Dedicated to His Body Prints

Despite being personally reticent and his work being enigmatic, Hammons is “America’s most important living artist”. The virtue of the linked piece is that it addresses a new show of his iconic body prints. An overview of his work argues that these body prints communicate a sense of black “vanishment”. Hammons has subsequently addressed “blackness” less directly – his art is still about black identity, but “blackness is both everywhere and nowhere”.

The story of the supposed ‘caravaggio’ that revolutionized the art market and hung in a Madrid salon

Irresistible. Two elderly sisters living in a Madrid suburb sent to auction a painting that had been on their walls for decades. Images of the work circulated on WhatsApp and were noticed by an Italian expert. She (not he, as the story suggests) declared it to be Ecce Homo, a lost Caravaggio and “the most beautiful and important discovery in the history of art of the last three decades”. Its value? Assuming it is by Caravaggio, think of any huge number and double it!

In the kitchen of art

Art restoration – “the kitchen of art” – has long been a battleground. Art historians emphasise context and expert judgement. However, due to perceptions of elitism, they have lost ground to conservators and their dazzling technologies. Conservators now realise that “brutal cleanings” have damaged many works. A reconciliation of sorts emerged with the “spectacular success” of the century’s greatest restoration – the cleaning of the Sistene Chapel ceiling.

Every Dealer’s Nightmare: The Inevitability of Fakes

Why do we worry about art works being “genuine”? We assume that only genuine works allow us to ask questions like “What does the painting reveal about this [artist] and how does it make its revelation?” What happens, though, if experts disagree about a work? What if a forgery is masterful? Questions about authorship rest on expert judgements which are “always uncertain.  This uncertainty … follows from the nature of art. Much about every work of art is up for grabs”.

What does Warhol “fair use” ruling mean for artists and copyrights?

When is appropriating an image a ripoff? The Warhol Foundation has lost a court case about Warhol’s use of a photographer’s images, with the court ruling that his use was not sufficiently “transformative”. Protests Warhol’s biographer “we need parody, we need criticism and … we also need this stuff called appropriation art. When you take a soup label … and bring it into the museum, you’ve done a really profound transformation.”