The Easel

15th August 2023

Brice Marden’s Infinitesimal Hinge

Marden started out in the 1960’s when some thought painting was finished. His first works, “subtle and beautiful” blocks of colour, instead vehemently declared “the immense possibilities in this contained surface”. A later encounter with calligraphy inspired him to add rather poetic veins of squiggley, lines. These elements brought huge acclaim and the status of a “flame keeper” for painting. Marden responded that he used painting “as a sounding board for the spirit”.

Edvard Munch: Trembling Earth

In the mid 1890’s and nearing his peak, Munch’s art fully expressed his outlook on life. The Scream says it all about his bleak mindset. Yet his somewhat overlooked landscapes show that nature provided him an “emotional and philosophical wellspring”. Weather is an active element. Trees, and rocks on the seashore seem alive. And, with his “extreme high-pitched color and his painterly brushwork”, he pointed to abstraction, out on a distant horizon. Images are here.

Secessions: Klimt, Stuck, Liebermann

While the Impressionists battled the Parisian art establishment, similar conflicts were happening in Munich, Berlin and, most famously, Vienna. These ‘secession’ movements all sought greater freedom and visibility for modern art. Despite an active interchange of ideas, there was no convergence toward a dominant style. Most were reluctant to include women. Inevitably, internal squabbles took their toll. After 1905, when modern art had managed to get a foot in the door, the secession movements faded.

Our great art institutions have reduced British history to a scrapheap of shame

A Londoner, from Hong Kong, laments curatorial politics behind the re-launched National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain. “The curators seem to want to tell only the obvious story: that British history is a scrapheap of shame. Underwhelming artists [are centred] for political reasons. There is a profound crisis within the arts: national institutions have succumbed to the ever-fracturing logic of identity politics and given up on the possibility of [art] creating any sense of commonality.”

Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy @ICP

Can you photograph love? A group photography show on the theme suggests the answer is maybe … sometimes. One critic attacks the show for its “tired tropes … comely nudes, rumpled beds, preening poses, mirrors”. That’s a bit harsh – themes about death, breakups, motherhood and violence are all addressed.  Notes another critic, despite these renowned artists trying for the same thing, “the exhibition [proves] that they’re not showing the same thing at all”.

Susie Barstow lived a grand adventure but her art was erased

The Hudson River school promoted the idea of the heroic landscape and its famous male members were renowned for works of idealized grandeur. Fine, but what about the school’s female artists? Barstow, one of them, tended to paint intimate, closely observed views where “texture and detail predominate over grandeur and scale”.  The school was resurrected in a landmark 1987 show, but not a single female artist was included – “a case study in the dynamics of historical erasure”. Images are here.

Can a White Curator Do Justice to African Art?

A topic on which reasonable people may disagree. Can a white person curate African art? Yes, of course. Scholarship is what matters – “you cannot qualify as understanding art by virtue of your DNA”. But does this argument fully address whether Black art could be better represented in museums? Hiring more female curators seems to have helped the showing of art by female artists. Perhaps proactive hiring of Black curators may have similar benefits.

8th August 2023

Lisa Yuskavage’s bodies of work

Yuskavage’s latest solo show re-ignites the debate over her “icky” paintings. Some critics and curators are troubled by her “vulgar” nudes. She knows that but embraces vulgarity nonetheless, her idea being to “give the culture the nude that reflects its preoccupations”. Anyway, with her lolly pop colours and Old Master painterliness, there is much more to her work than breasts. Laughs Yuskavage ““I’m Little Miss Underestimated. They think I just do the tits.”

Why would the rich showcase the poor: the art of Giacomo Ceruti

Although just a “skilled journeyman” Ceruti stands out. That’s because of what he painted –portraits of the poor. Portraits in eighteenth century Italy were expensive and Ceruti’s works, empathetic, focused and full of detail, certainly would have been that. The poor were a large part of society, yet these works are devoid of any moralizing tone. So, the question remains, “who would want these “insolent and gigantic reportages in their home?” And why? Nobody knows.

Will Vogt, These Americans

A notable photobook appeared a few years ago featuring partying young English aristocrats. Cross-Atlantic fairness requires coverage of the American equivalent. Vogt is a member of the wealthy East Coast elite, which explains how he could get images of such candour. They offer a profile of a social class accustomed to “privileged hedonism”. Given today’s political correctness, the reviewer expects this book will “plop like a lead brick”. Images are here.

Burma to Myanmar: 1500 years of connection and isolation

Myanmar’s isolation is such that its art is almost never seen internationally. This piece, basically a primer on history and culture, helps explain why. Myanmar’s many kingdoms and tribes historically had separate identities until awkwardly aggregated at the end of colonialism. Never properly recognized as part of the nation’s identity, this multiculturalism yields both cultural richness and constant conflict. There isn’t even agreement on whether it is Burma or Myanmar!

Who is Herzog & de Meuron’s Royal Academy show for?

Herzog & de Meuron are ‘starchitects’. A high profile London show offers a peek into their back office Yes, it reveals the “remarkable trajectory” from austere houses to mega-projects. It also acknowledges H&M’s imaginative use of materials. But architecture is a collaborative endeavour. What is the aesthetic or design philosophy that unites such a remarkable team? This show has an impenetrable quality – “made by architects, just for architects”. Images are here.

The New Renaissance of Old Masters

Old Masters paintings have long suffered declining demand. Amidst nervous talk of a broad market correction, some brave souls think that trend is reversing. Explanations include a fillip from the Vermeer show, the popularity of newly uncovered female artists and the low cost of old works. Whether tastes have shifted is unclear. At least one collector is confident though – “we are on the cusp of a re-evaluation [which] could happen very quickly”.