The Easel

10th May 2022

The Space Between: An Introduction to the Exhibition

Longish, but insightful. Riley’s early black and white abstractions were so startling they were viewed as optical illusions. Time has revealed that to be a gross underestimation. Her prolific output is about “open space, shallow space, multifocal space”, an exploration of perception via the use of ovals, circles and lines. From mid-career, Riley’s increasingly “liberated” use of colour has been an exploration of a different kind – “I was trying to paint sensation.”

Andreas Gursky

Gursky makes photography seem analogous to painting. Some analogies are purely visual. People in a frozen landscape look like a Breugel painting; images of tulips have a “formal similarity” to Rothko. Then there are analogies coming from how he manipulates his images – for example, adding a jet’s contrail to a landscape. That suggests a conceptual analogy – paintings and photography both need an underlying inspiration. Gursky’s current inspiration … “portents of a period of upheaval”.

Artist Simone Leigh’s work transforms the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Leigh, the first Black woman to represent the USA at Venice, states quite plainly that her work primarily addresses other Black women. If that seems exclusionary, it’s worth considering how little of the art canon was intended to be inclusionary. Leigh’s art – notably her bold ceramic and bronze statues – sympathetically imagine a history of Black women that was never written. These works have “grandeur … the power that exudes from Leigh’s art is unrelenting.”

Matisse’s Miracle in Red

When Matisse’s painted The Red Studio, his adoring patron baulked. Its “flat pictorial figuration” and enveloping Venetian red created “weird spatial architectonics” that, in 1911, were shocking. Ignored for decades it is now thought a masterpiece. Why? Sensing a distant future of contemporary art, Matisse was “an artist turning away from the “real” world of space, structure, color, narrative, surface, and composition — an artist bound for new beauty”. An excellent video with the curator (8 min) is here.

3rd May 2022

Philip Guston’s paintings are controversial. But here they are

After a hugely controversial postponement, the Guston retrospective has now opened. A “dramatic reimagining of the curatorial process” has provided a fuller context to the hooded KKK figures. Along with Guston’s  other icons – cigarettes, eyeballs, boots, light bulbs – they communicate a “malignant foreboding” that drew on the social turmoil of late 1960’s America. In this context the hoods “were—and are—a reproach. They are terrible in their ordinariness. [A] magnificent exhibition”.

National Gallery of Art enters new, overdue era with African diaspora show

Why do we know about the achievements of the 17th century Dutch “Golden Age” but not the African diaspora that, via slavery, was intertwined with Dutch history? A “landmark” show at Washington’s National Gallery tries to correct this exclusion and is full of “arresting moments”. Can such institutions use their “scholarly and curatorial superstructure” to tell such diverse stories together? “Think “histories” instead of “History.””

Inside the Glorious Art—and Fierce Rivalry—of Ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome

Ancient Greece and Rome were superpowers but, in the same millenium, so too was Persia. Despite military rivalry, these nations were culturally highly interconnected, employing each other’s craftsmen and tradesmen as well as trading actively.  This process only accelerated with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia in 330 BCE. While ancient Athens and Rome have great artistic achievements, “the art and cultures [of Persia] was every bit as sophisticated and intriguing.”

Warhol’s Mao turns fifty

Warhol had long been making celebrity images when US-China relations began to thaw. Mao’s personality cult, a “synthesis of mass marketing, political status, and stardom”, was an obvious target for pop sensibilities. Warhol’s images of Mao seem prescient given China’s subsequent integration into the world economy. They encouraged Chinese artists skeptical of their politics. Elsewhere however, these images now symbolise the “relationship between art and capital”.