Sunday, 24 January 2016

Robert Zakanitch at the Nerman Museum, Overland Park, Kansas

When the Pattern and Decoration movement came into being in the late 1970s I was an enthusiastic follower of Robert Zakanitch, whose overall paintings of patterned flowers were simply beautiful. I lusted after his Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart poster but could never afford it (It appears to be available on Ebay for $32 now; I was just out of graduate school.) Pattern and Decoration lasted a very short time as a movement and I stopped seeing or hearing much of Zakanitch's work.Sometime in the early 2000s I was on an NEA panel and could not figure out why a young curator on the panel was so entranced with a new artist who was painting flowers all over the walls and floor of a room. At lunch I mentioned that I thought it looked like "Neo P&D" and she said "What's that?" so us geezers on the panel explained it. But that's how lost the movement had become.

So it was a surprise, in a way, to discover that the Nerman Museum at Johnson County Community College was announcing an exhibition of Zakanitch's work. The Nerman shows a lot of colorful, cheerful contemporary painting, and what I remembered of Zakanitch would fit well into that context. I wanted to see what has become of his work. Now I discover that of course he has been working and exhibiting all along, and much of the Nerman show was had been displayed recently at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York and Samuel Freeman Gallery in Los Angeles. The Nerman show included work from three series by Zakanitch. Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed but most if not all the images, and more, can be seen on the internet, if not to the full advantage of seeing them at scale. They do not have the same impact on the screen or the page, where both scale and texture are diminished.

The opening room had three of the five enormous paintings on unstretched canvas from his "Big Bungalow Suite." All five paintings are reproduced on his website, often with him standing next to them to indicate scale, since they are huge, 11 by 30 feet! They're quite a stretch from that Mostly Mozart poster, but very consistent with the architectural commissions he has done for curtains, wall decorations and flooring, specifically for the Miami Cultural Center's Ziff Opera House. The huge canvases are covered with repetitive flowers or ornamental objects, with other objects or images interjected. According to the label, they are recollections from his childhood in Rahway, New Jersey (where, by the way, my aunt and uncle and cousins lived), and objects from his grandmother's house. For me the most striking composition was a black and white pattern with flecks and splashes of orange, yellow, green and gold. On the left side is a huge staffordshire spaniel.

The second group is from a series called "A Garden of Ordinary Miracles," exhibited at Samuel Freeman Gallery in 2010 and joyously reviewed in the LA Times. These very large gouaches (opaque watercolor, for short) on double sheets of paper combine large bold imagined flower arrangements with small drawings of animals, birds and insects as sort of marginalia, sometimes with humorous inscriptions, like "I'm not late" above a white rabbit, or "madame bug" over a ladybug. The combination of fanciful flowers and quite accurate animals with fanciful inscriptions suggested to me that the works might have been meant to inspire children, or inspire childlike responses in adults.

The third group was five images from a series called Hanging Gardens, shown at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in 2013. I spent the most time with these works, especially the two paintings of wisteria. These are overall images of hanging lavender wisteria flowers below a cartouche drawn in graphite. At first the flowers look to be all the same, but the colors range from blue to pink through lavender , with bright green vertical stems and above a dark green background. The paint texture and colors are mesmerizing and one senses the artist's pleasure in creating this actually fairly complex floral image. The other three paintings are Blue Bottles, Snow White, and Fireglow all with similar variegations of color.

Writers about Zakanitch talk a lot about joy and beauty, of course. I also notice, though, that his paint texture is rich, his handling controlled but loose and free, and his floral and patterned images abstracted. I enjoy the idea of nature in his work and take pleasure in his process of transforming it into painting. What a delight to rediscover him. And I see online that he has a new show at Nancy Hoffman opening January 28!

Monday, 3 August 2015

Glasstress 2015 Gotika (2)

British artist Mat Collishaw's Jewel Slot Empire, 2015, completely engaged Tom, a cathedral model with images of slot machines glowing on all its walls. I suppose one could think of religion as a game of chance.

On Murano his work, titled A Different Self, is an elaborate oversized black Murano-glass-framed video of a slightly animated version of Georges de la Tour's famous painting of Mary Magdalen in front of a mirror with a skull on her lap and a candle on the table in front of her. Unfortunately it seems to be impossible to photograph this image without getting oneself in the picture too; maybe that's intentional. 
I was very struck by two cases of bizarre marionettes by the artist Wael Shawky, titled Cabaret Crusades, The Secrets of Karbalaa, 2014. Only when we returned home did I learn that  Shawky used these marionettes to make videos of conflict that were on view at the MOMA PS 1 in New York. They are bizarre and fascinating creatures, both human and animal. And to know that the artist used them to call attention to centuries of conflict connects them with both the Gothic theme and issues of life today.

A pair of extra long glass crutches hanging from on high by Turkish artist Erdag Aksal seemed quite decorative from a distance, but the title, Crescent Disabled, 2015, and the details of grenades etched into the glass clarified its, and his purpose. 

Another aspect of the Glasstress show is the fascinating venues. The Istituto Veneto is a gorgeous building and many of its rooms have significant Murano chandeliers. Petah Coyne took advantage of one to hang long strings of glass beads from it. On the table full of glass mirrors I found a few candles, referencing the wax I usually associate with her work.

Petah Coyne, Mirror, Mirror, 2015, detail
On Murano the rugged remains of a glass factory create a completely different environment, where Maria Grazia Rosin's strange green creatures, Gothik Mechanical Meateaters, 2015, seem right at home.

There are 53 artists represented in the two-part exhibition; I have learned about a few of them in writing this essay, and shared some images. But I haven't mentioned the inventor of the video game Syberia, Benoit Sokol and his glass mastodons, or Ernst Billgren's Duck Cathedral, or the Chapmans glass skulls, The Same but in Glass, or Karen van Mednelen's eerie Siren, 2015, made from glass and crowfeathers, or Hila Amram's Still Glass, 2015, antique glass with video projections. It's a very rich and varied exhibition, the work connected both by its medium and by its connection to the concept of the Gothic seen in the contemporary world.

Glasstress 2015 Gotika (1)

For the last four Venice Biennales we have made a point of visiting Glasstress, the exhibitions initiated by Adriano Berengo, with the purpose of consecrating "glass as a noble material, one of the most innovative in contemporary art," as Berengo states in the introduction to the exhibition brochure. Each exhibition focuses on artists not usually associated with glass, and often the artists are invited to make new objects using the facilities of Murano glass studios.

This Glasstress was possibly the best, and was also one of the very best things we saw in conjunction with the Biennale. The show is in two parts, one at the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in the Palazzo Franchetti, very near the Accademia Bridge on the San Marco side, and the other at the Fondazione Berengo on Murano.
Istituto staircase with Penny Byrne, Hurt Locker, 2015, at right
In this instance I would recommend the Istituto half much more enthusiastically than the Murano one, unless you really want to see the camel (Koen van Mechelen has participated in all the Glasstress exhibitions, with his ecologically based installations and objects, this time expanding from chickens to diversity in plants and animals.). Other times we have found the Murano section particularly engaging.

The Gothic theme was enhanced by loans of Gothic and neo-Gothic objects, most of them in glass, rock crystal and gold, from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, precious objects displayed in cases along the walls, but without identifying labels, as far as I could tell.

Glass and metal objects from the Hermitage, Glasstress
 I was drawn, and still am drawn, but a section of the introductory label, where curator Dimitri Ozerkov compares the "magic rituals" of contemporary daily routines - checking email, charging devices, deleting spam, online chatting, instagraming, tweeting, gaming and reading news online - to the laborious tasks of medieval monks copying manuscripts. He suggests that we see the internet as comparable to a medieval amulet to ward off evil. And with that he celebrates the craft involved in creating objects for this exhibition.

Glasstress has always involved contemporary artists not usually know for their work in glass. This year a few of those I know best are Tony Cragg, Olafur Eliasson, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Jaume Plensa, Petah Coyne, Qiu Zhijie, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Bernar Venet, Joana Vasconcelos, Mimmo Paladino, and Zhang Huan. But those by artists I did not know were at least equally engaging.

Although very few people read my blog, I find writing it a great learning opportunity. The Glasstress exhibition was fascinating in and of itself, but in order to write about the objects, I do a certain amount of research and am amazed at what I find about the artists whose work interests me, but who are unfamiliar. It's a great learning opportunity, and I try to share it through images and links. These artists are amazing.

"Gothic" suggests stained glass, and several works capitalized on that idea. At first I found Belgian artist Wim Delvoye's stained glass images of the muses Melpomene and Calliope, 2001/2, merely interesting. Then I looked closer and saw the x-ray images that make up the two figures, combining multiple body parts, chains, rings, keys and other elements. Calliope, on the right, is multiply bound, so that the windows call to mind political issues rather than religious contemplation. And I learned that Delvoye specializes in disturbing, challenging art.

Wim Delvoye, Melpomene, 2001/2, detail
In a similar vein, the lovely classical-looking chandelier by Chinese artist Song Dong turns out to be a bit less harmless. Titled Glass Big Brother, 2015, it is composed of glass surveillance cameras.

Song Dong, Glass Big Brother, 2015
American Bart Dorsa  (He has lived in Moscow for several years and his grandfather invented Eggo waffles.) showed fragmented hollow white sculptures of partial bodies in a totally darkened space. While I was not particularly engaged by his exhibition of photogaphs of a young woman named Katya as a collateral event of the 2013 Biennale, these glass sculptures were more evocative. In the label he associates them with a sculpture of Joan of Arc he discovered in Notre Dame in Paris.
Bart Dorsa, Relic Glass #1 and #2, detail

)More on next entry)

Sunday, 7 June 2015

A late spring day at the farm - Wednesday

For some reason today seemed like an especially characteristic day at the farm and I’m more aware than usual how different this is from the other places I’ve lived (suburban New Jersey, New York, New Haven, Austin, even Lawrence itself).  All the rain we've had has limited our ability to take care of the apple trees, especially clearing the grass away from them. I figured it was dry enough to weedwhack around 11 in the morning and I got about 20 trees done. It was cloudy and I did feel a few raindrops. Then I noticed that Thunder was hanging around, looking at me expectantly and it started to rain a little more. Thunder the dog is terrified of thunder and lightning, so I paid attention to his attention to me. In a pause of the weedwhacker ( which is very loud and I wear big ear plugs), I heard a bit of thunder, so we all three, Thunder, Rosie, and I, hurried toward the house. By the time we got there it was pouring.
This afternoon the new birdbath came. The old one has crumbled and is leaning against the side of the deck. The new one is colored glass on a metal stand and I like it a lot, but I’m afraid a good wind, or an eager raccoon, will topple it right over. So I’m figuring out ways to fix that.
After dinner, I suggested that we go out and check on the cherries, and Tom wanted me to take my pole saw and cut off some dead branches on the cherry tree. I did that, but a lot of the cherries were ripe, so we picked about 6 pounds of sour cherries, for jam and cobbler. I’ll need to be pitting them real soon. And there are hundreds of unripe and nearly ripe cherries. We also picked about 7 sweet cherries; that tree is new and taking a while to produce anything. But they are sweet cherries, which I love.
About four pounds of sour cherries
So for dessert I decided to have my ice cream on the deck. We sat out there and I was noticing how huge the sky is here and how the thin clouds are just calmly wafting by in it. But the hummingbirds were buzzing around and I realized that all three feeders were empty, so I had to make some nectar and fill the feeders. Earlier we saw a house finch feeding a juvenile house finch on the deck railing.

To end the day, I fed the dogs their treats just when the coyotes started to howl. I heard the high pitched ones coming from around the barn and the lower pitched, stronger ones, coming from just past the fence line of the back yard. They really seemed close, so maybe that’s why the raccoon doesn’t seem to have been around the past few days. They drive Rosie crazy with barking.

Since Wednesday we've picked, and I've pitted, enough cherries for four cobblers and made 5 jars of sour cherry jam. More to come. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

At the Time of Klimt: The Vienna Secession

On the last of our days in Paris we finally went into Notre Dame, which we had been looking at from our hotel room window all week. And for the first time I got to see the tombs and the structure at St. Denis, which was actually a lot easier to get to than I had imagined.

After lunch we wandered back to the center of Paris and decided that we should go to the Pinacotheque de Paris (which I had never heard of) and see the new exhibition of Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession. Because we go to the Neue Galerie in New York quite often, we weren't really sure if we needed to bother with this exhibition, imagining that it might be similar to the offerings there. But it had some stunning objects and provided a broad view, sort of in vignettes, or aspects of both the politics and the art of early 20th-century Vienna.

The exhibition began with an orientation to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Vienna's position in Central Europe around the turn of the century as a cultural hub of great diversity. Portraits of the Emperor Franz Joseph as a rather simpering young man and a substantial old man spanned his extraordinarily long rule from 1848 to 1916. The exhibition also acknowledges that Paris was still an important venue for artists and many of the Viennese artists made a point of going there.

After a couple of informative galleries we were surprised and impressed to find Klimt's Beethoven Frieze, an amazing and beautiful work of 1901, made for the Vienna Secession building as part of a Gesamtkunstwerk celebrating Beethoven. The floating figures above completely white walls, followed by various figures either simply outlined or decked out in gold and elaborate patterns are spectacular. Seeing that frieze convinced us that we had made the right decision to see the exhibition.

The actual organization of the exhibition, each room representing a theme, was ultimately not completely coherent, since the themes varied from historical context to subject matter to the various media of Secession artists, and I'm not sure we came away with a better understanding of the work of this group of artists, although we certainly saw work by unfamiliar painters who were active at the time. I was not convinced that two rooms representing the "Femme Fatale" and the "Femme Fragile," for example, really made the point they intended.

On the other hand, Klimt's paintings of Salome and Judith are captivating, gorgeous in their gold and patterning and a bit scary in the seductive expression of Judith and the clawlike hands of Salome. I went back to that room a couple of times. While I usually think of Klimt as an artist of geometric patterns and gold leaf, these paintings and others of people had the power to frighten in a very personal way.

A room of portraits provided the best sense of the breadth of Klimt's ability. A female portrait of 1894 could have been any society portrait, a standing woman turned with her face in profile, wearing a fashionable dress and with delicately modeled features and a calm expression.  Head of a Young Woman, 1898, is a soft-focus image of only a face against a black background, staring directly at the viewer with a disconcerting intensity.

The exhibition includes architecture, sculpture, furniture and painting by other members of the Secession, including Kolomon Moser, Carl Moll, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Michael Powolny, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos and many others whose works all merited attention. But the star of the show was definitely Klimt.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Velazquez at the Palais Royale

In Paris we saw quite a few exhibitions, visiting two museums a day for 6 1/2 days. We never went to the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, or most of the museums near the Louvre.The Velazquez exhibition at the Grand Palais had just opened and I thought we needed to go, since he is such an important artist, but I didn't find it nearly as exciting as just seeing the Velazquez paintings at the Prado, an unforgettable, powerfully moving experience. At the same time I was sad that the lines for the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition were far longer. The exhibition, organized chronologically, seemed to have a lot of portraits and a lot of work by his followers, which is fine, except that they weren't necessarily all that exciting. (On the other hand I was very impressed with the work of his teacher Francisco Pacheco.) The Rokeby Venus (London, National Gallery) was there, and a selection of works from the Prado, including Baltasar Carlos on his Pony, 1634-35 and The Forge of Vulcan, ca. 1630, all fabulous paintings. For the press release that explains the organizers' purpose, click here.

Among the paintings that caught my attention, I was surprised that so many were actually familiar since I had seen them in American collections. The portrait of the young Baltasar Carlos and his Dwarf of 1631, for example is from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Others were from Cleveland, Chicago, Fort Worth and other American collections. However I missed the Velazquez that probably attracted me in him in the first place, the portrait of Philip IV from the Frick Collection. I always love the experience of looking at the silvered lace of Philips sleeve and robe and watching it turn into daubs of paint as I get close to the painting. Velazquez painted Philip IV many times, but this one always seems particularly flattering to him, despite his unappealing Hapsburg features. The exhibition included a pretty good painting by Juan de Pareja, Velazquez's slave who studied with him and also became a painter, but not the famous portrait of Juan from the Met.

Of the many portraits in the exhibition, that of Pope Innocent X is, of course, stunning, as it is considered one of the great portraits of all time. The artist captured the complexity of the elderly pope's emotions so that looking at it for a while one sees the full range of his character. And there is that virtuoso brushwork.

Among the masterworks it seemed that there were quite a few portraits that did not sing with the individuality of the sitter or the virtuoso brushwork of the master, and then there were also works by those who imitated Velazquez, skilled artists who captured the appearance of their subject, but perhaps not his or her essence.

I thought that if one lives in Europe this exhibition is a fabulous way to see a lot of Velazquez works from the diverse and distant cities in the United States, and if one hasn't been to the Prado or seen many of these works in other places, it's a fine introduction to Velazquez's work. At the same time, he was a brilliant artist, but not every one of his paintings is brilliant and some of those are in this exhibition.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Musee Jacquemart-Andre and its Exhibition Giotto to Caravaggio: The Passions of Roberto Longhi

It appears that I had never been to the Musee Jacquemart-Andre despite the fact that it houses not only a significant collection of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture but also lots of medals, plaquettes and bronze statuettes of the Renaissance, all subjects I studied much in the past. I had diligently used the catalogue of its medals and plaquettes as references my own publications, but am sure I would remember the building if I had been there. It is a splendid museum, built in the late 19th century as a residence, with wonderful rocaille decoration, a gorgeous conservatory and extensive galleries. I suspect it as a model for the Frick Collection in New York, although it is somewhat grander. We were there on Easter and the beautiful café was full or we would have lingered longer.

Aside from the masterpieces of Renaissance art in the permanent collection and the spectacular eighteenth-century works - including a Tiepolo fresco of the Arrival of Henry III in Italy, purchased from the Villa Contarini in Italy in 1893 and transported to Paris to decorate the staircase, with the ceiling from the same cycle, which adorns the café ceiling - the Museum offers exhibitions.

At first when I saw the publicity for the exhibition in the Metro, I was not enticed. "Giotto to Caravaggio" sounds like a generic exhibition drawn from some private or public collection. However the subtitle referred to the art historian Roberto Longhi, who died in 1970 and I became curious as to how a museum might create an exhibition around an art historian. The show is a fascinating entrée into the world of connoisseurship and the history of how the reputations of works of art can be changed, in this case by the enthusiasm and dedication of a single scholar. The link above goes to the exhibition website and some very helpful accompanying information in English.

Books on art historians and historiography have proliferated in the past couple of decades, but I don't recall exhibitions celebrating the discoveries, connoisseurship and reinterpretations of art historians. I imagine that the fact that there is a Longhi Foundation in Florence that houses his collection of mostly Caravaggist paintings may have been an incentive to this project. In any event, the objects are absolutely wonderful and the information gives one a sense of how Longhi during his lifetime actually changed how we understand the history of Italian Renaissance and baroque art. I wonder what other art historians might merit the same attention.

The exhibition celebrates Longhi for reviving, or creating interest in Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio and a host of Ferrarese painters (who are still actually relatively unknown - Cosimo Tura, Francesco del Cossa, Dosso Dossi) and for his new discoveries about Giotto and Masaccio. His promotion of the artists influenced by style of Caravaggio - the Caravaggisti painters - is also significantly represented.  Having studied art history beginning shortly before Longhi's death, I was unaware that their reputations had needed reviving; they were central to the curriculum by the time I was taking courses.  And the exhibition, of a rather small and manageable size, contains several wonderful works of art that one could study at length in comfort and with informative educational materials around them.

I was first struck by a Caravaggio Sleeping Cupid, 1608 from the Palazzo Pitti, not completely different in pose from antique and Renaissance Cupids, but I became fascinated that the flesh on his chest was uneven with cellulite, a disturbingly realistic detail that only Caravaggio would have emphasized in the early 17th century. Of course the strong contrast of light and shade modeling his figure, the highlights on the edges of his wings and the dark background also identified the artist. Many other works in the exhibition were by Caravaggio or his imitators and followers, and one could compare the master with his imitators and with those he inspired, such as Jusepe de Rivera. Longhi is credited with reviving Caravaggio's long reputation and with documenting his widespread influence in 17th century Europe.

In another room a small Masaccio Madonna and Child from the Uffizi of 1426-27, caught my eye. Longhi was the first to attribute this charming small work to Masaccio, in 1950. In 1940 Longhi had published Fatti di Masolino e Masaccio, in which he distinguished their styles and identified Masaccio as a key figure in the foundation of the Renaissance style.  Masaccio's paintings are rare and this small example glows with the red and blue of the Madonna's robes. Her face is softly modeled as she gravely looks down at the infant Christ, tickling his chin with two fingers (also interpreted as a gesture of benediction) as he giggles slightly and clasps her arm. It seems very simple and straightforward, but the three-quarters turn of her body, suggestion of a light source, human gestures and soft handling of flesh were enormously innovative at the time.

The next work worth some time is a pair of Saints, St. John the Evangelist and St. Lawrence, attributed to Giotto by Longhi in 1930, then disputed and re-attributed to Giotto in 2013. One can understand the dispute, since the St. Lawrence is not what I would expect from Giotto; it's somehow clunky and stiff, either poorly restored or just clumsily designed. But the St. John is wonderful, with the beginnings of individuality, the sense of volumes, and even the handling of the eyes and ears one sees in Giotto's work.

Longhi published several works on Piero della Francesca, including a 1927 monograph on this great painter and mathematician of the mid-15th century. It is hard to imagine that Piero was not considered one of the major painters of the Renaissance (even the painter of the small masterpiece featured in several Downton Abbey episodes) until Longhi revived his reputation. The exhibition includes St. Jerome and a Donor (ca. 1460, Venice Galleria dell' Accademia) by Piero, a small painting that demonstrates Piero's luminous light effects, carefully structured compositions including landscape, and interest in geometry.

Longhi had wide ranging interests and friendships. He was a fan of Courbet and impressionism, collected Giorgio Morandi's work, and was a friend of the avant-garde film director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. Longhi wrote on the importance of studying works of art in their full context, not just in relation to other paintings but to history, biography and broader culture. This was a strikingly informative exhibition that opened my eyes to some wonderful objects and to the evolving nature of art history through the work of someone I had only known by a name.