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”.

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

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.”

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.