The Easel

27th February 2024

The Met is having a Black moment with the ‘Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism’ show

The 1920’s Great Migration brought many Blacks to New York’s Harlem. New ideas about the “new Negro man” encouraged creativity in music and literature – the Harlem Renaissance. The visual arts, however, received scant attention, even though they produced a new “cosmopolitan Black aesthetic”. That aesthetic, says a curator, was a central force in American modernism because it “sought to portray the modern Black subject in a radically modern way.” Background on the Harlem Renaissance is here.

Edward Burtynsky on climate, abstraction, and hanging photos like paintings

Burtynsky wants his landscape photographs to have some of the qualities of abstract painting. He wants an “all-overness” of the image and the whole image surface to be “active” – just like a Jackson Pollock. This, he hopes, will disorient the viewer and prompt the question ‘what am I looking at’? Those aesthetic effects notwithstanding, everyone knows the subject matter is despoilation. As one critic observes about Burtynsky’s current show, “It’s room after room of bludgeoning you with evil gorgeousness.”

When Forms Come Alive: Sixty Years of Restless Sculpture @ the Hayward Gallery

Bronze, being so solid and enduring, has long been a favoured material for sculpture. Yet so much of life is aboutp change. One part of contemporary sculpture takes life’s changeability as its cue and uses a proliferation of materials to explore and communicate transience. Elegance is not a priority – many works are “ungainly, off-kilter”. Instead they suggest “endlessly moving, changing organic life. We are allowed … off the leash of society’s endless worrying about ‘issues’. It feels fun”.

The Time Is Always Now review: Brilliant show puts Black artists at the centre

Black figures, when they appear in western art history, are often portrayed as a marginal presence. As a corrective, a London show surveys the work of prominent figurative Black artists. It achieves the obvious – showing Black people as seen by Black artists. And, because the artists chosen are outstanding, so too is the art. Beyond that, there is a sense of the many Black lives that should have been commemorated but were not. Those lives are now more visible. “A compelling survey of figurative art”.

John Singer Sargent: back in fashion

Fashion, says a curator, was “central” to Sargent’s portraiture. An irate critic disagrees, arguing that this “horrible show” distracts from Sargent’s greatest talent –“it’s the way he paints that makes his art breathe”. Fashion mavens pile on, lamenting a perceived slight The above writer is a bit calmer: “There’s a sense of fun here, but it’s [more than that]. Sargent painted his subjects as individuals. Focusing on their fashion [was his] way of revealing the sitter’s personality beyond the frame.”

Auction pricing is about to become a lot more transparent

After decades of rising fees, Sotheby’s has suddenly announced a reduction. They claim the changes will improve pricing transparency and thus buyer confidence. Perhaps it also reflects concern about a less buoyant art market or even (shock) Sotheby’s desire to strengthen its competitive position against Christie’s and large galleries. “This is a very aggressive move … aimed squarely at gaining market share”.

20th February 2024

He toiled in obscurity – but now Saul Leiter is recognised as a true photography pioneer

Leiter was exploring colour photography decades before William Eggleston came along. Alongside the occasional fashion assignment, the unambitious Leiter devoted decades to taking images of his New York neighbourhood, They reveal a slightly abstract and oddly tranquil view of its streets, says one writer, “less social commentary and more about the beauty of urban life”. Leiter admitted that he “aspired to be unimportant”. Says this writer “poignantly beautiful work …a great photographer”. Images are here.

Choose Your Own Adventure

It’s hard to see past Ono’s fame and mythology and look dispassionately at her decades-long work.  Prior to the “John-and-Yoko” years, she produced deceptively simple but engaging ideas. Her Cut Piece performance and 200 bottoms video are but two examples of her conceptual and ‘participation’ art that one critic says “combine poetry, whimsy, humour and razor-sharp intelligence”. Said she, “By actively inserting a useless act … into everyday life, perhaps I can delay culture.” Images are here.

‘Africa & Byzantium’ at the MET: A Stunning Look at One of History’s Overlooked Stories

The last configuration of the Roman empire – the Byzantine empire –  ruled the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Scholars debate much of its complicated history but all agree it should be less Euro-centric. In particular, art produced in northern Africa was distinguished and influential. One critic, whose review is somewhat more sceptical than the linked piece, calls the show “a fantastic achievement”. The writer agrees – this show “is incredibly important to art history”.

Meet the Mannerists — a forgotten movement that gave us wild, sexy art

The Renaissance represented the triumph of reason. But Michelangelo, for one, has such “pictorial energy” that he started forgetting Renaissance good manners – think sexy angels and bright colours on the Sistene ceiling. His Mannerist followers explored zingy colours and distorted perspective, producing great, psychologically intense portraiture. Mannerism faded by 1590, when Europe’s monarchs decided they wanted flattery in their portraits, not therapy. Its legacy was the makings of baroque excitableness.

Who painted the first still life?

Still life paintings go back millennia – the ancient Romans painted fruit, and Tang dynasty artists painted bird-and-flower scrolls. Europe joined in in the early part of the Northern Renaissance. Flowers started appearing in paintings on canvas, as opposed to being wall or door decorations. Further, they started being the main subject matter, instead of merely lesser details in architectural settings. These still life works finally assumed a recognisably modern form around 1560.