The Easel

25th June 2024

Joel Meyerowitz: A year of consecration

Meyerowitz seems to have gone against the tide in his career. He grew up as a “street kid” and still loves the chaos and spontaneity of street life. Yet, he says, “reportage” photography has never been an art world favourite. Further, he wanted to shoot in colour when the fine art market preferred black and white. Of course, there is the ever-present dilemma, “do I represent the world in the right way? Photographs may look like just pictures, but they’re really about your ideas.” A backgrounder and images are here.

Matisse and the Sea

Matisse grew up in France’s industrial north. On first seeing the Mediterranean, its colour shocked him – “blue, blue, blue, so blue that you want to eat it”. A “radiant” show suggests that the sea played a “paramount role” in his subsequent career. Both his hotel interiors in Nice, and his later cutouts, speak to the intensity of his reaction to blue and blue water. Matisse had realised, says one critic, that colour needn’t match appearances but instead could convey emotion. “Colour intensity became the new aim.”

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s MoMA Show Does Too Much

Frazier grew up in an industrial town and her most acclaimed photography records family and friends amidst economic decline. That background gives her work an empathetic and collaborative feel, blurring the line between artist and subject. Frazier calls her groups of images “workers monuments” and says that she wants to “stand in the gap between working-class and creative-class people.” Says the critic “I was knocked sideways by the tenderness of the images, by their toughness.”

Once banned for his work, anti-apartheid activist highlights role of politics in art

South Africa has produced many distinguished photographers, but fewer painters. Jantjes is one of the latter whose major retrospective details decades of activism through art. The above writer thinks the work “terrific” with its urgent testimony about apartheid. Another writer sees it differently. Jantjes’ confrontational screenprints are “incredible” but his paintings are “just not great. Maybe anger can only fuel you for so long before you need to put down the weapon and treat art as … a soothing balm”.

Powers that bead

If haute couture is art, then so too is beaded embroidery. Its most refined form comes from the French village of Lunéville whose tambour embroidery technique goes back to the 19th century. Specialist seamsters make pieces ranging from the small (for handbags) to large (complete dresses), the latter taking perhaps 1000 hours of work. Lunéville work is technically a form of lace and forms part of France’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Craft? Well, if you insist. Better would be small-scale artistry of a most exquisite form.

The Power and Grace of Barbara Gladstone

It is a truly rare compliment for critic Jerry Saltz to devote a column to an art dealer. This piece covers the late Barbara Gladstone. More revealing, though, is this interview that shows Gladstone was an art world ‘true believer’. She believed in looking at art “in the flesh”, that social media was just noise. She believed artists can tell us truths about our age. If able to change one thing in the art world, Gladstone said “I would change the idea that collecting is shopping … there is something that art adds to life”.

Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau: 100 years after its creation, his work is still a balm for a world in upheaval

In the 1890’s art nouveau was all the rage in architecture, art and the decorative arts. Mucha, a Paris illustrator, decided to use this style in poster advertisements. That attracted a commission from Sarah Bernhardt – and his career was made. For about 20 years, art nouveau’s utopian fantasies and flowing aesthetic defined modern taste. With war in 1914, the spell was broken and more functional art deco came to the fore. Mucha wandered off to work on various patriotic projects for his beloved Czech homeland.

18th June 2024

Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern review: delightful but devastating show by one of today’s supreme photographic artists

Muholi’s photography show was cut short in 2020 by Covid 19. Now returned, it amply justifies the writer’s comment that they are “one of the supreme purveyors of photographic art today”. They have recently branched into bronze sculpture, not with complete success. Their photography, which focuses on Black queer life in South Africa “by turns delightful and devastating, is one of the greatest exercises in self-portraiture of this, or any, age.” Wow!

Goya gave Frankenstein’s monster his Hollywood face. Now this museum shows the artist’s larger power

Goya was the real deal. A key artist to the Spanish royal court, he painted the elite culture of Bourbon Spain. Notwithstanding this lofty position, his imagination stayed rooted in the culture of the common folk from whence he came. In four major series of prints he “took the gloves off” and expressed what he really felt about Spain’s aristocracy. It is from these works that comes the adage that still resonates today – “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”

Shahzia Sikander’s Luminous Art Explores East and West, Past and Present, Order and Chaos

Sikander started her career by revitalising the languishing tradition of Asian miniature painting. Since then, her art has explored “the rich precolonial history of Central and South Asian cultures” that art history has marginalised. At her recent show in Venice, she observed that Venice itself is an “in between space …  the traces of cultural trade and connection are evident on every facade in Venice and integrated throughout Venetian [art]”. An interview with the artist is here.

Claire Bishop’s New Book Argues Technology Changed Attention Spans—and Shows How Artists Have Adapted

Interesting ideas. Research-based art usually takes the form of vitrines displaying text documents, and video. It is one example of what an author calls “a distributed model of knowledge” – we understand by sharing what others think. Sounds like social media reality! The author further wonders if viewing art has become “social spectatorship”, that is, something one no longer does alone. As she puts it, “our phones have become “a kind of prosthesis for viewing”. A book excerpt is here.

Advertising as Art: How Literary Magazines Pioneered a New Kind of Graphic Design

In 1890 the typical poster was crammed with text, often promoting a circus or a theatre production. Then came literary posters. Minimalist in design, they eliminated text in favour of visuals that instantly created an impression. And, they targeted a specific audience, often the independent-minded “new woman”. Although lasting only a decade they brought about a radical change in visual culture, “an advertisement that looked and functioned like a work of art, an image … in which commercialism and culture coalesce”.

On Being “Printerly”

Printmaking seems a world unto itself. The medium can create multiple copies – perhaps an infinite number – of an image, giving it a democratic ethos but “cheapening” it as art. Because it takes so many forms – woodblock, etching, silk screen and many more, – it is often encumbered with technical details. However, as Warhol and others have shown, prints vary subtly from one to the next. As the reviewer muses, we talk about aspects of painting as “painterly”. But “has anyone ever used the term “printerly?”