(Versions of this piece first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Op-Ed page and The Broad Street Review)
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
(Versions of this piece first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Op-Ed page and The Broad Street Review)
Monday, January 27, 2014
|Tall Tale Post Card|
There are several photographs of pictures as well, some the interiors of artists' studios with still life setups and canvases on easels, others of trompe l'oeil paintings on building walls and still others of the pictures that make up the artifacts with which people surround themselves. In one, from Claremont, KY, a framed photograph presumably of the deceased stands next to a grave and fresh flowers. In front of them is an image on fabric of a telephone with the receiver off the hook and the caption "Jesus Called". One might be tempted to say this subset constitutes Graham's foray into an examination of the process of making pictures itself, but the probing is strictly for effect, not insight.
There are colorful views of old cars parked in front of a garage offering batteries; multi-colored doors on motels; public monuments of canon aimed at wall murals of the Statue of Liberty; road signs out in the middle of nowhere offering "Good Luck"; football players doing drills beneath a huge tower capped by an ear of corn; and an abandoned gas station in Golden Meadow, LA, at which the huge canopy over the pumps has partially collapsed.
Unlike the work of his best-known predecessors who focused on vernacular expression, Walker Evans in particular, Graham's work inevitably plays for the easy laugh rather than anything penetrating. Indeed, what impresses most here is how Graham treats every subject the same without nuance or distinction, just an endless supply he needs to collect and add to the catalog.
Though he started his project nearly forty years ago, long before the age of computers, Graham's work most reminds me of today's internet jokes. You read them and then delete them.
(A version of this piece first appeared in the Broad Street Review: Read it here)
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Much more than just the art was moved when the Barnes Foundation relocated its collection from Merion to Philadelphia a year and a half ago. The powers-that-be also packed up and moved the attitude for which the collection was equally famous.
Many people unfortunate enough to purchase memberships in advance of opening day were more than a little miffed to discover that their privileges expired in exactly one year, even though it was months before they could first exercise them. Even more subscribers were angered when repeated phone calls and emails protesting this policy went unanswered.
One anecdote in particular stands out in underscoring just how unreasonable and outrageous the Barnes staff remains.
A friend and her out-of-town companion went to the museum on a summer weekend. Midway through their visit, both went to the rest room. When they returned by the only route available to re-enter the galleries, they were told to stand in line and wait to be admitted.
They explained that they’d already been admitted earlier and simply went to the rest room. The attendant wouldn't budge.
For years, the old Barnes restricted the number of people who could enter the institution at any given time. Even certain kinds of footwear were restricted. Visitors were eyed with suspicion. Many residents in the immediate Merion neighborhood objected to the numbers of cars (not to mention buses) parked along Latches Lane.
Apparently the new Barnes continues to view attendance as a necessary evil.
Then, of course, there are the eccentricities of the collection itself. For every fine Matisse or Cézanne, the Barnes offers mind-numbing quantities of saccharine Renoirs. For every fine Glackens, there are pedestrian others.
Albert Barnes knew a stick in the eye when he saw one. All of that hardware sprinkled among the paintings, hinges and other pieces of medieval ironwork purporting to support his peculiar notion of art were transferred to the new location with absolutely no changes permitted.
It’s all of a piece: the bizarre theories and uneven quality of work, coupled with indifference spilling over into outright hostility. Then and now, the Barnes is no unalloyed pleasure to visit. The people who run it have maintained that tradition!
A version of this first appeared in the Broad Street Review.
Sunday, February 03, 2013
Curators periodically prefer to take the path of least resistance and mount exhibitions culled from their own institution’s vaults rather than pursue the more exhaustive and expensive enterprise of assembling works from far-flung sources. Apart from the time and money saved, there is surely some appeal in the notion of seeing what’s in the basement rather than racking one’s brain coming up with an original idea.
(A version of this piece first appeared in The Broad Street Review. Click here to see it.)
Saturday, March 17, 2012
The curator of photography, Peter Barberie, was not content merely to install the 150 photographs by Strauss in what the museum officially called a "mid-career retrospective". He and the museum's PR machinery had their own agenda, seizing on the opportunity to market Strauss as a one-woman outreach program aimed not only at the usual museum-going crowd but at her disenfranchised and marginalized subjects -- as well as their friends and neighbors -- many of whose visits were likely one-offs. (Frankly, in our Twitter age that may be all the attention span a museum board should expect!)
The proceedings got underway with a lavish and raucous opening night dance party attended by thousands. (See the obligatory YouTube here) Strauss' work was also installed on 54 billboards around town replete with a trolley tour making the rounds. In addition, an office was set aside at the museum to allow visitors to sit and chat with the photographer. It all had a carefully planned common touch.
The forty-two year old Strauss took an unorthodox route to the big time. She had no formal training in either art or photography, beginning her public career by mounting photographs she'd taken in the adjacent neighborhoods on the support columns beneath I-95. "Invitations" to this ultimate open studio went out to the hood by word-of-mouth, flyers and the internet and the show became an instant sensation and annual event. Strauss even sold photo-copies of the pictures for $5 a piece.
The art world soon took notice. Strauss received a PEW grant and was included in the Whitney Biennial. She acquired a New York dealer. In the process, she was anointed an artist of the people, for the people and by the people. No one seemed willing to consider whether her celebrity begged a larger question: just how important is her work?
Strauss' photographs fall into four general categories: portraits, the urban environment, signage, and graffiti. Nearly all the images were made in Philadelphia with occasional forays to the hinterlands. With rare exception the subject is smack dab in the middle of the frame. Everything is meant to be simple and honest. And it is. Lots of people in tank tops with tattoos. Endless dilapidated store fronts seen head on. Signage, some ironic, but in a sophomoric way. Scrawled graffiti such as "You shouldn't of taken more than you gave." In the end, however, one should never mistake bad grammar for profundity, and therein lies the rub with Strauss' work.
The overriding approach here is of straight forward description and relentless cataloging. There is nothing particularly artful about what she does. Indeed, given her outsider origins it isn't surprising Strauss eschews artifice, considered composition or handsome prints, focusing solely on content, specifically the downtrodden and decay.. The work certainly isn’t original, nor is it particularly imaginative (apart from the I-95 venue). If her intent were to evoke sympathy or offer insight into the worlds of people living hard lives in tough environments, the work falls flat, competing as it must with endless daily images of a similar persuasion to say nothing of a long tradition of concerned photography. Strauss is empathic but apart from her subjects, those looking at the pictures are more likely to feel inured from overexposure.
Did Strauss deserve such unprecedented exposure and treatment on the merits of the work? I'm afraid not. There is no mistaking her sincerity, but the work fails to challenge our preconceptions or expectations or to engage us in any discovery. Strauss' photographs are like snapshots in other peoples' albums; we recognize them for what they are but we cannot know the stories behind them. More to the point, Strauss does not enlighten us or compel us to understand more.
Since the curator considered this a mid-career treatment, one has to wonder what Strauss will do in the second half. The guess here is more of the same.
(A version of this piece first appeared in The Broad Street Review. Click here to see it.)
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Featuring approximately 100 works, a full-scale facsimile of his Merzbau, along with some writings and sound recordings, this is the first major exhibition of his work in the United States since the retrospective at MOMA in 1985. If it took a generation to gather these pieces from collections all over the globe, the prospect for future shows of this scope promises to get even more difficult given the insurance, logistics and related costs of such undertakings.
Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, it is curated by Isabel Schulz, co-editor of the Kurt Schwitters catalogue raisonné and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.
Schwitters has long been thought of as one of the chief proponents of non-traditional media, incorporating every-day found objects into his collages and constructions. There were precedents, to be sure, including Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning of 1912 and Duchamp's Readymades of 1913 - 17, but unlike these artists, Schwitters would make incorporation of common objects the centerpiece of his aesthetic. As this exhibition makes clear, however, treasure-hunting, displacement and recombination were hardly the sum total of his legacy, a lesson not altogether convincingly understood by some of the artists who acknowledge his influence on them, particularly Robert Rauschenberg. On the other hand, artists who may not have openly spoken of their debt to Schwitters, especially Joseph Cornell, shared more of his feel for color and organization than is commonly thought. They were clearly on to something long before the Princeton show reinforced this central point: Kurt Schwitters was an image-maker whose palette included things as well as pigments and forms.
Frequently viewed in the light of Dadaism and Constructivism, in the end Schwitters was sui generis. He coined the term merz, derived from the German word for commerce, to express his ambition to synthesize quotidian experience with art but without the nihilism and polemics of the Dadaists, nor, frankly, their posturing..
The collages and constructions that issued forth were the distillation of this ambition, the marriage of every day commerce with the more rarefied world of the studio . The public, including many of the artists he would subsequently influence, took away only part of his message, the finding, displacement and synthesis. This exhibition restores the full force of his vision, acknowledging his magnificent feel for color, composition and surfaces. Schwitters may have begun with ordinary, common objects of no apparent "value", but the results were uncommonly beautiful and tranquil. He understood it was just as reasonable to "dab" a patch of newsprint onto his "brush" as a cadmium yellow.
Schwitters also experimented with the effects produced by the glue he used, creating subtle layers above and beneath the tram tickets, newspaper clippings and product labels he incorporated. Trained as a painter, he would embrace Modernism's challenge to Renaissance tradition by shedding the frame altogether in some of his assemblages of three-dimensional found objects. (It is worth noting that even the frameless assemblages are presented here with newer frames around them. Some conventions just don't die.)
Many of Schwitters better-known images are the large assemblages, bold, dimensional and masculine. The Merzbau he built in Hanover, destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, was the logical culmination of this strain in his work, literally a walk-in sculpture that began in one room in his home and extended finally to six of them. The reconstruction of a single room in Princeton relied on the few extant photographs of the original but is forced to leave out many of the surface details and objects the source pictures' fuzziness and distance could not reveal.
Naturally, the walls of the "room" have no right angles as their surfaces organically veer off in multiple directions, a variation on this framelessness. And just as naturally, the logical extension here was Schwitters' literal combination of every-day life, his own living space, and his art. In the end, however, this facsimile, stripped of most of the color and ordinary objects he incorporated, barely hints at the culminating spirit of the original, the dichotomies of messy, chaotic, random life and ordered, considered, practiced art.
Had this survey stopped here, it would have fulfilled its organizers' dream, the bringing about of a reassessment of Schwitters' importance; however, there is much more in Princeton to enhance his value. Included are several collaborative lithographs made with a commercial printing establishment in which Schwitters combined his own drawings with portions of advertisements from previously printed litho stones lying about, i.e., found in, the printing plant.
Along with samples of his written work (poems, essays, childrens' stories), the gallery is filled with the sounds of Schwitters reciting his phonetic poem “Ursonate,” or “Sonata in Primeval Sounds.” Nonsensical sounds usher forth in a staccato pattern beneath a large series of photographs of the artist himself, arranged on the wall, repetitive themselves save for subtle changes in facial expression.
This audible accompaniment to the overall experience of standing in front of and walking into Schwitters' art underscores his insistence on a total experience that makes no distinction in forms or media or where they come from. There aren't many artists about whom that can be said, even those in the pantheon.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Miss Maier, who died a few years ago at the age of 83, is simultaneously the subject of a very flattering piece in the New York Times (online), a profile in Chicago Magazine, a show at the Chicago Cultural Center and several blogs.
She is also the subject of a televised interview showing, where else, on YouTube, conducted with the chief guardian and most likely beneficiary of her work. Moreover, she is the subject line in thousands of emails from photographers, curators and admirers of the medium, most of whose messages begin with a variation on "Have you seen this amazing stuff?!".
Born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father, she lived off and on in the U.S. and France many years before settling in the States for good in 1951. In the mid-fifties she moved to Chicago where for the next forty years she worked for various families as a nanny.
Some time around 1930, Maier and her mother appear to have lived briefly with Jeanne Bertrand, a successful portrait photographer, but little else about that relationship or influence is known. What remains of her personal effects included a number of monographs of photographers. What we know of her years as a nanny can be read and heard in various interviews with former employers and charges alike.
Whatever else propelled Maier to take pictures remains something of a mystery.
Maier is hardly the first photographer to work the streets, but she is that rarity among those who command our attention precisely because she appears never to have sought it. How much she knew about contemporary photographers is unknown at this time. The monographs found among her possessions and a well-documented penchant for routinely taking the children under her care to cultural events strongly suggest she was familiar with at least some of them.. Moreover, she lived in one of the major photographic centers in the country at a time when Harry Callahan and Ray Metzker among others were actively working. One can clearly see echoes of Callahan, Weegee, Diane Arbus, August Sander and other contemporaries in her work but these similarities may be due as much to period dress, a square format, and a preponderance of odd, eccentric characters in the city as to conscious emulation.
The freshness of her vision is undeniable. Maier's sense of light and composition is impressive. Her feel for humor and irony is Gallic and profound. (The French, in particular, always see right through Americans on their home turf. Witness the work of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, who was Swiss.)
Apparently, on her days off Maier walked the streets of Chicago, Rolleiflex in hand. No neighborhood nor subject was off limits to her. She was as likely to photograph women in mink stoles standing on downtown streets as a young boy riding an over-sized horse underneath the Loop. She was also as likely to photograph herself reflected in the mirror of a cigarette vending machine. Self-portraits abound, her camera nearly always visible, as if she would occasionally pause to record herself as the artist she aspired to be but perhaps could not quite bring herself to believe she was.
The sheer range of subject matter and sensibility further underscores Maier worked with few apparent conscious constraints, particularly of audience. The thousands of unprinted negatives she left along with hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film strongly suggest she was too busy looking to worry about being seen.
Friday, July 09, 2010
The Academy and Oldenburg announced recently the famous Pop artist would produce an enormous sculpture of a paint brush for the new Lenfest Plaza planned on the block of Cherry Street directly across from the towering extension to the PA Convention Center and between PAFA's original building and the Hamilton Building.
The sculpture will rise 53 feet and be pitched at a 60 degree angle over the sidewalk fronting Broad Street with a dollop of paint on the ground below and illuminated bristles at night. It is doubtful this looming instant cliche will intimidate pedestrians as some fear, but it seems certain the dollop will eventually take on the color of a palette on which too many colors have been mixed.
In describing the impetus behind the work, Oldenburg decried the lack of interest in painting among today's young artists and expressed the hope his planned piece would remind visitors, students and passersby of its primacy. The guess here is few observers will be persuaded.
Oldenburg is well known to city residents for his Clothespin at Center Square, directly across from City Hall, and the lesser seen Split Button on the campus at Penn. The former has long held a special place for city residents, especially those looking for an easily identifiable meeting spot downtown. Installed in1976, the Clothespin spoke volumes to a culture so imbued with the Pop phenomena that commercial enterprises had already gladly taken over the role of transforming everyday pop icons into consumer goods. Nearly 35 years later, however, this sort of illusionism no longer excites the imagination.
The issue here is hardly one of questioning the value of a foundation rooted in painting and drawing so much as it is the particular kinds of painting and drawing that result from such training. In PAFA's case the emphasis remains squarely on the most academic approach. As such, the proposed Oldenburg sculpture seem more likely to underscore the conservative initiatives of the sponsoring institution that prefers looking backwards than to spur new commitments if not directions.
Follow up: The reality is far worse than the renderings. The brush itself is a pasty orange and the dollop on the ground is a huge mound. It's hard to imagine anyone would willingly set his course for this travesty as a meeting place.
Monday, May 17, 2010
These portraits reveal little other than a mostly bored-looking bunch of young men lounging around, stuck in the low minors and unlikely to rise. If participation in sports builds character, little if any is much in evidence here. Bad food, long bus rides and less than ideal playing conditions describe the life of most minor leaguers and Modica's portraits succeed merely in contributing to the drabness.
Among those pictured here are catcher Jorge Posada, who did reach stardom in the big leagues, and slugger Daryl Stawberry, in a Dodgers uniform no less. (Someone should tell Modica that Yankess and Dodgers don't mix...ever!) Since Strawberry began his big league career with the Mets in 1983, was traded to LA in 1991 and to the Yankees in 1993, it's hard to fathom what his portrait is doing here among the hopefuls other than to possibly raise the overall level of Modica's game. It doesn't.
Minor League indeed!
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Arrived in New York, checked into the hotel and went straight to the Morgan Library & Museum to see Palladio and his Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey and Flemish Illuminations in the Era of Catherine of Cleves.
The Morgan is always welcoming with its emphasis on small-scale contemplative art, its library reminiscent of a bygone era and the absence of crowds. Not so welcoming is the latest addition to the building, designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2006. The central court may be the most profligate use of museum space in all of New York, standing in sharp and banal contrast to the intimacy of the work the Morgan collects and shows.
Once inside the exhibition space, however, the serenity that is the Morgan is re-established immediately. Palladio's renderings and scale models of some of his and others' projects directly influenced by him draw me in with their detail and intricacy. What impresses me most is learning about Palladio's exhaustive determination to observe classical traditions first hand and later recapitulate them in his own elegant modern terms for both individual and institutional patrons. He was, among many things, a first rate student of the traditions out of which he came. The fruits of this studiousness ultimately resulted in his Four Books of Architecture, published and republished throughout Europe and America, sometimes with substantial liberties taken by publishers as the exhibition makes clear. The books became and remain among the most influential works on architecture.
The presence of scale models cannot be overestimated here, providing scope to Palladio's theories and practices, especially for those of us who haven't seen many of his buildings. Among the pleasant surprises is a rendering by Thomas Jefferson, Palladio's most fervent American adherent, of a rejected submission for the competition to design the White House. Compared to the structure eventually built, Jefferson's proposal is positively palatial...an irony in a new democracy apparently not lost on the judges.
Illuminated manuscripts are the Morgan's stock and trade. No institution save the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore approaches (but does not match) their impressive collection overall. The current show of Dutch illuminations by the Master of Catherine of Cleves are among the most treasured in the world. Deeply satisfying for their rich detail, ornamentation and narratives, their vibrant colors offer a respite from Palladio's monochromatic drawings.
The emphasis on visualizing biblical events in ordinary, every day settings is typical of northern artists during the profoundly sacred Middle Ages and anticipates the far more secular Golden Age of Dutch still life and genre painting that will follow. The elaborate borders surrounding these scenes are unprecedented as far as I can tell not only for their variety but for their avoidance of the sort of repetitive decorative motifs that we shall see the next day at the Met in the Limbourg Brothers work. Instead, all sorts of ordinary objects, some quite whimsical, surround the narratives and contrast sharply with them. I find myself wondering whether or not this particular book anticipates the tradition of drolleries seen in later works. I am also left wondering how other illuminators and scribes managed to see works such as these given their private nature and individual, cloistered if you will, ownership!
Before departing we spend time examining the ongoing exhibition Masterworks from the Morgan: Near Eastern Seals. These always curious objects fascinate as much for their technical brilliance and difficulty as for their iconography.
Up early to walk from our hotel in midtown to the Met. I always approach the Met with some trepidation, scanning the normally overflowing front steps to gauge the size of the crowds awaiting us inside. Being early and cool this particular morning, the scattered visitors on the steps belie the throngs indoors. All [unrealistic] hopes of a quiet interlude are immediately dispelled.
The Met may always be packed and bustling yet once past the entry points it becomes manageable. Our principal objective today is The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. Only in New York, I muse, can two of the greatest examples of manuscript illumination be on display at two different institutions at the same time.
This exhibit of arguably the most famous manuscript illuminators of all time, is brilliantly displayed, each page given ample space either on the walls or at free-standing podiums that invite close inspection while leaning on inclined display cases. A rack of magnifying glasses greets visitors at the entrance and makes viewing the details very rewarding. We are informed that "because [the book] is currently unbound, it is possible to exhibit all of its illuminated pages as individual leaves, a unique opportunity never to be repeated." (The Morgan lacks the space for such an extensive display and can only show a few of the 157 pages from the book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.)
Fortunately, the exhibit is sparsely attended, allowing as much time to linger over each page as I want. I am struck by how dazzling the colors remain, due no doubt in some measure to the limited exposure of the folios to light of any kind. The colors used by the Limbourg Brothers and their contemporaries seem unique to illuminated manuscripts of Medieval Europe, much as the colors of Indian miniature paintings have always struck me as having their own special palette. In these Belles Heures deep royal blues, rich carmine and aquamarines abound while gold leaf is liberally and delicately sprinkled about. Each page seems more dazzling than the next.
The unanticipated highlight of our visit turns out to be a nearby display of The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy. Their loan is made possible by renovations at their permanent place of residence at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. Temporarily separated from their normal location spread among the carved cloisters that form the base of the tomb of Duke Philip the Bold itself, these figures by Claus Sluter and his workshop are displayed in two free-standing rows at the Met. They can be seen here http://www.themourners.org. What makes the Met's display such a unique opportunity is that we see each figure in the round for the first time since they were carved, unimpeded by their placement in the supporting structure that forms the tomb's base. Momentarily freed, the individuality of the mourners comes through, especially the pathos in their faces, posture and gestures. We found them quite moving.
After our morning sojourn in the Middle Ages, we began our chronological march forward with the Bronzino drawings which surprisingly did not particularly interest me and followed these with visits to old friends including Vermeer and Rembrandt whose work always does. The Met owns five of the 34 paintings experts agree are by Vermeer and together with three more a few blocks further south on Fifth Avenue at the Frick, one can see nearly a quarter of his oeuvre in a single afternoon. To my mind this fortuitous proximity is one of the great museum-going opportunities of our age.
Next came my mandatory visit to the American collection, particularly the Hudson River School painters whose sublime interpretations of the American landscape always leave me nostalgic for a country I have never experienced. Mine is a rather odd response, I'll admit, but nonetheless I am exhilarated!
We concluded our visit to the Met breezing through the photographs from the permanent collection with a stop at the exhibition Surface Tension: Contemporary Photography from the collection, purporting to show how a substantial number of photographers exploit the tension between the medium's inherently heightened three-dimensional illusionism and actual two dimensionality. This is hardly a contemporary notion, the whole of modernism's realism strain having addressed this concern beginning more than a hundred years ago, but, then, photography still suffers an inferiority complex at times in relation to its older brethren and seems fated to reinvent the wheel every few years. Few photographers shown here managed anything approaching insight on the subject and only one, Andrew Bush, produced images of any fascination and these owed far more to the 19 Century trompe l'oeil paintings of Harnett and Peto than to modernism.
After leaving the Met we made a slight detour en route to the Frick to visit the Acquavella Galleries which have mounted a much-talked about exhibition entitled Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection. The most remarkable thing about this exhibition was the reunification of 37 pieces from the now widely scattered collection, a triumph of the curator's art of persuasion if nothing else.
The Sculls were not only among the earliest and most prominent collectors of Pop and Minimalism, they were themselves the subjects in several instances, most notably Andy Warhol's "Ethel Scull 36 Times," and George Segal's "Portrait of Robert and Ethel Scull," both of which were loaned to the show. The Sculls friendship with these artists blurred the line at times between patron and participant and that, in the end, is the real interest of this show, not the work seen here which despite having entered the canon no longer excites for the most part. (Perhaps some of the works not made available would alter my opinion...though I doubt it.) The Sculls had a good eye for the work of artists who would eventually enter the pantheon as their eventual sale of the collection for then-record prices only underscored, but time has dulled much of the work itself...though not the prices which have soared since that auction.
Our last stop of the day is the Frick where we continued to reacquaint ourselves with old friends, especially Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Holbein. It wasn't that long ago that one virtually had the Frick to oneself, so tranquil was the atmosphere and leisurely the pace. The crowds have grown here, too, but remain manageable because the space for special exhibitions is limited and not capable of blockbusters, which after all are what draw the masses.
As we stroll at a leisurely pace we enter a room in which Holbein's portrait of Oliver Cromwell hangs on one side of the mantle and his Sir Thomas Moore on the other. Holbein's ability to see surfaces and the character beneath them with equal intensity has never been matched in portraiture even by Rembrandt, for whom character and light, not surface, were paramount.. These two paintings remain fascinating year after year.
Standing in front of the Moore portrait I am reminded of an exhibition at the Morgan several years ago of Holbein's drawings from the Court of Henry VIII. Loaned entirely from the Queen of England's collection, the dozens of drawings provide a comprehensive portrait of the royal court's many and varied personalities to a degree not undertaken of any particular subculture or group as far as I know prior to the advent of photography. Many artists painted numerous members of a given court, but never on a scale comparable to that of Holbein.
The drawings, many done in silver point on a pink paper, probe character to the same depth as the paintings mentioned above but with far more economy. Many barely outline the upper torso and clothing but finely render the facial features and expressions.
To my surprise and delight, I am also intrigued by some of the Gainsborough portraits here including Elizabeth and Mary Linley - the Linley Sisters, in the special exhibition Masterpieces of European Painting from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Gainsborough had always seemed quite rarefied to me, his society portraits of gentlemen and women remote and mannered, but today the sitters' personalities emerge from the dreamy attenuation of his technique and palette.
This was the day we had set aside to "do" MOMA. Arriving early, we were greeted by long lines that stretched from the entrance at mid-block nearly around the corner of Six Avenue. We struck up a conversation with four Spanish women from San Sebastian and gathered some information for a forthcoming trip.
The lobby requires cattle chutes to process the large crowds purchasing tickets but the line moves quickly and efficiently. Once inside we take the elevator to the top floor and begin working our way down starting with one of my primary objectives of this visit, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century.
Was there ever a photographer who possessed such equal parts profound sympathy and skepticism as Cartier-Bresson? I think not. His pictures share absolutely nothing with the pablum comprising the core theme of The Family of Man yet they took for their departure many similar circumstances and were executed around the same time as quite a few.
Cartier-Bresson possessed an uncanny sense of timing, an acute understanding of the underlying structure of whatever scene unfolded before him and a Gallic sense of irony. It is also worth noting he possessed considerable personal courage as well, venturing into alien, sometimes hostile territories and situations that daunted lesser men. His three escape attempts from a German POW camp during WWII, the third successful, testify to this courage.
The show contains nearly all the iconic images of his enormous oeuvre and more than a few surprises, too. Several things always strike me in his work:
1. How did this diminutive man with short cropped hair manage to place himself before dozens of people, sometimes out in open country but nearly always in a setting where he was the only Westerner present, raise his small Leica discreetly to his eye and shoot many frames without being noticed? Oh, sure, occasionally one individual in the crowd will be looking at him, but this is the exception. He managed to slip into a situation, stalk the "decisive moment", snare it and slip away. The results were hardly mere National Geographic tourism in other peoples' realities. One need only look at images such as those he took of the bank runs in Shanghai as the Communists took over or at the funeral of Gandhi to understand the differences.
2. Though he is not particularly well known for his landscapes, these are always magnificent. The cypresses lining a French road are pure Cartier-Bresson, seemingly glimpsed as he passed by on an adjacent road yet supremely ordered and considered. The decisive moment is rarely if ever an accident; rather, it is anticipated, planned, stalked patiently and finally identified swiftly.
3. His pictures in America are almost universally his weakest, descending at times into cliche but nearly always tinged with an underlying disdain. It is clear he held Americans in little regard and like many of his countrymen failed to see how the vulgarity he despised here had its counterpart in the French bourgeoisie .
The chief surprises were the inclusion of several spreads from magazines such as Life showing the picture stories resulting from his assignments. Adjacent to the pages were some of the images themselves, always full frame, allowing the viewer to clearly see the legendary tension that existed between photographers and editors, who routinely cropped pictures to fit layouts disregarding the original framing. Though the photographer's stamp clearly indicates cropping is to be avoided, editors had their priorities, too.
We tend to forget Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist much of his professional life and a founding member of Magnum, still the most famous cooperative of photojournalists, because his images are rarely shown in the context of assignments. The inclusion of these spreads addresses a needed reminder but do not alter the perception that Cartier-Bresson was less interested in narratives than in forms.
The show is the first mounted since his death earlier this decade and is a fitting tribute to those who already knew his work and a marvelous introduction to those who did not. Cartier-Bresson, one of my earliest influences, is both old master and old friend of the first water.
After leaving this exhibition we happened upon Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense, a mini survey of her work covering roughly four decades. Though familiar with her name, I'd never seen a substantial number of works in one place. The show here features works on paper, wall-mounted sculptures and a recently acquired piece suspended from the ceiling and strikes. Bontecou's work is appealing but strikes one note.
Next, we passed through the permanent collection of Photography. These sort of survey installations of a great institution's holdings invariably omit some people the viewer believes important and includes others thought undeserving. Nowhere do I see a photograph on display by Ray Metzker, one of the most important American photographers of the last fifty years [full disclosure: he was my mentor in graduate school], but John Szarkowski, longtime curator of the department at MOMA, is included. I am appalled by both decisions. The rest of the installation seems skewed in so many directions as to give very little feel for the history of medium the collection no doubt well illustrates...in its vaults.
From Photography we move on to the many of the galleries showcasing the museum's magnificent collection of later 19th Century painting and early to mid 20th Century masterpieces. Here the old friends pour forth. Rousseau, Delvaux, Matisse, Cezanne, Cornell, Ernst et al. As I pass through these galleries I am suddenly struck by the number of people having their pictures taken in front of this or that masterpiece. They are not photographing the paintings; rather, they are having themselves photographed in front of the paintings. "I was here," the pictures declare, just as people have always done in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Famous pictures have become tourist destinations.
The great surprise of our visit turns out to be the show Picasso: Themes and Variations. Comprised entirely of prints, the exhibition focuses on themes ranging from his portraits of women (lovers and wives) to the Minotaur and Bullfighting. What makes the exhibition so revealing is that as Picasso aged he avoided repeating himself; he reinvented and reinterpreted himself and the people and things around him, but he never grew stale. He remained vital and engaged, his art growing well into his eighties.
Mention Picasso and eyes won't roll, but brows invariably furrow. His persona and work are so overwhelming one is daunted at the prospect of fully grasping what he has meant. He is prodigious and awe-inspiring, racing through the history of art that preceded him, acknowledging old masters like Velazquez and nearer contemporary ones like Cezanne, fully integrating their lessons and remaking their legacies in his own image. Then he abruptly turns from painting and makes three-dimensional objects of extraordinary imagination and ingenuity. Now ceramics. Next prints. Back to painting. He is less Protean Man than he is the master of self-invention and reinvention. The show at MOMA captures this lightning in a bottle.
We are now exhausted and after pausing for a late lunch decide to depart, our brains and our feet aching. One more stop is scheduled for this afternoon. We head over to the Edwynn Houk Gallery and the show Pioneers of Color: Stephen Shore, Joel Myerowitz and William Eggleston.
Pioneers may not be an exhaustive survey but it is clearly a representative one including several well known images. This trio was pioneering in their exclusive use of color when the preponderance of photographers with artistic aspirations or credentials were still using B+W but much of the work is hardly pioneering in any other respect.
Eggleston's reputation may be the most overinflated in 20th Century photography. While he occasionally has an uncanny feel for chaos and the messy appearances of things his work frequently falls flat. Consistent with his uncanny sense is an even rarer feel for garish color, most notably his iconic image of the red ceiling with cords sloppily intersecting at the light bulb. This is a marvelous photograph...and a rarity in his career.
Shore seems the most derivative of the three, taking his cues from a variety of sources, most notably Walker Evans, and applying color. His color views of American roadside life and the man-made landscape might have held some initial fascination in the way that rare color movies from World War II always surprise viewers who thought the war was fought only in B&W, but beyond their curiosity they show little else. Other pictures contain large hints of the work of Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank but without the former's wry wit or the latter's edginess.
Myerowitz is the only one of the three who seems to have had a subtle feel for color, particularly what happens to colors in crepuscular light, but too often his images seem best suited to coffee table books, decorative and nostalgic.
I note that some of the works here are being offered for $40,000 or more. Pioneering can be profitable, at least in the eyes of the seller.
Our final day begins with a diversion to a flea market followed by a leisurely brunch and concludes with visits to the Whitney and the International Center for Photography.
It's biennial season at the Whitney, not only the current show but a retrospective of previous ones occupying several other floors. Many big names from the past are here, of course, but their presence doesn't add much luster to this year's installment. The most disturbing contributions from the current winners are the photographs by Nina Berman of former Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel, who was horribly disfigured by a bombing in Iraq. The images focus on Ziegel and his fiance in the weeks leading up to their wedding. The photographs are a blunt, unflinching reminder of the terrible human toll of the war and of the human spirit but their presence here in this context is troubling.
War photographs are no strangers to museums beginning with Roger Fenton and running through Alexander Gardner, Robert Capa, Larry Burrows and Eddie Adams among others but their inclusion always underscores several difficulties beginning with how should we treat documents intended as artless polemics on the one hand and images that while they share formal qualities with works of art were not originally intended to be see in that context. Photography was born straddling this fence and has remained astride it through the eras of picture magazines such as Life and online sites like Flickr.
Berman's pitiless approach to her subject grabs our attention by the throat, but my inclination is to turn around and jamb them down George Bush's throat rather than to contemplate the meanings of the images themselves. Berman succeeds in raising the temperature of my blood but having done so, my thoughts wander to the lies and deceits fundamental to the prosecution of this war and her images become mere souvenirs of the occasion. They are worthwhile but artless.
After the Berman images we decide to depart for our final destination, the International Center for Photography.
Regrettably, we arrive near closing time and scurry through the principal exhibition, Twilight Visions: Photography, Surrealism and Paris. The show is quite large and meanders more than a few times from the purported central theme of surrealism, particularly the well known images of Paris after dark by Brassai. The curators speak of contrasting "real and imagined" versions of Paris, but the inclusion of Brassai's petty hoods, prostitutes and cafe types seems a stretch when speaking of Surrealism or its influence. Ironically, in the next room there is a small and disappointing cache of Atget photographs on display. Many Surrealists acknowledged a far greater debt to his work than to that of Brassai but Atget, who never considered himself as Surrealist, is set apart.
With few exceptions, chiefly Man Ray, photographers were the second stringers of Surrealism and this exhibition attempts to put forth the notion that nothing is more "unreal" or "surreal" than reality itself. It doesn't succeed.
We end the long weekend exhausted and looking forward to returning to our own reality.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Bill Russell is widely known and highly regarded throughout the nation for his vinegar painted furniture, most of it reclaimed and salvaged pieces he strips, paints in intricate vibrant patterns of color and varnishes to a glass-like sheen. They are dazzling tours de force of imagination and execution. No wonder he is known as the Vermeer of Vinegar. (Such is Russell's reputation, he is sought out as much for what he can teach as what he produces, having published a book on his techniques and offering ongoing workshops.)
The "other" Bill Russell was trained as a fine artist and his latest work on view at his studio in Philadelphia represents a distinct departure from the exquisite details and palette of his furniture. Russell is showing four Shields, each measuring roughly 14" wide by 60" tall. Their surfaces are "crudely" carved and the colors used are greatly muted earth tones.
The immediate impression the shields make is that they are primitive in origin, perhaps some African or Oceanic artifact. Indeed, Russell drew inspiration from the shields of the Asmat people of Papua New Guinea. However, he is hardly another sophisticate masquerading as an outsider. On the contrary, he shares something fundamental with the artists who influenced him. The Asmat shields are made from lateral roots harvested from mangrove trees in the swamps. Russell's shields are executed on reclaimed wood, white pine beams in this instance, harvested from local salvage yards. Their pre-salvage use partially explains the shields' dimensions but at the same time clearly suggested their new identities.
The designs are far more crude than the precise or trompe l'oeil ones in Russell's furniture yet they have an underlying order and rhythm to them. Though forced to use techniques diametrically opposed to those required by the furniture, Russell's shields possess a presence that invites close scrutiny and a delectation in surfaces and color...just like the furniture displayed in the rest of his studio.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
This is a rare opportunity for a wider audience to see what newly minted graduates of a prestigious program are doing. As it turns out, a few of them have already established a presence outside the walls of academe. One among the group, Sarah Stolfa, is represented by Gallery 339 where she had a one-woman show in 2006.
Apart from being classmates, one would expect these photographers to have little else in common but collectively they echo a number of prevalent tendencies. Primary among these is the mania for making big prints that look like photographs are expected to look these days. Small is out and apparently the considerable expense of making huge prints, on student budgets or those of anyone else for that matter, is no obstacle. Also on display here is a love of quotidian subject matter, found or re-concocted, in all its banal glory along with the requisite flat tone of disengagement, especially evident in the works of Ms. Stolfa, Jen Davis and Samantha Contis.
Many images in this show could be easily interchanged with thousands of other anonymous portraits of blank stares, disjointed slices of this American life, and overwrought tableaux vivants but not those of Richard Mosse.
Mosse's enormous compelling photographs of air disaster simulations challenge two canons. Despite their documentary approach, more is decidedly less: we simply don't know what is going on despite their straightforward handling. They also benefit from their size (two editions are available, the larger being 8X6 feet) because huge objects - airliners for example- and overwhelming events - engine fires and oil tank conflagrations -- are involved. In his hands these elements literally constitute an over sized experience. The rest of the show is filled with large prints because bigger is simply the new orthodoxy.
If student life is an inherently self-conscious balancing act between inculcating the lessons of the past while challenging accepted practices of the present the majority of these students have overwhelmingly opted for playing it safe by just trying to look like everyone else.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Lavish, indeed extravagant, words have been used to characterize the photographs of Tina Barney, whose work is currently on view at Gallery 339 in Philadelphia through October 27th. Barney has been called a “chronicler of upper crust society,” cited as an “anthropologist,” and anointed a maker of “cultural artifacts.”
The irony here – wholly unintended on the part of the photographer – is that hers is an impoverished vision rooted in wealth.
Much has been made of Barney’s insider look at well-heeled friends and relatives, yet most of her subjects come off as ordinary and uninteresting. Apart from the stylish trappings visible in many of the images, Barney's circle are truly sphinxes without a secret. If her intention were in effect to say, look, without their clothes and their environments these people are just like you, it seems an enormous amount of effort in aid of little or no insight. If, on the other hand, her intention was to draw attention to differences, the results are literally superficial.
Typical is the picture Marina and Peter, 1997, featuring a sullen-looking young woman in jeans and a tank top, cigarette in hand, standing next to a glum middle-aged man dressed in a pin-striped shirt and tie and leaning on the bed in front of them. Are they father and daughter (likely) or lovers (unlikely)? Whatever their relationship, in the end the picture succeeds in only conveying the subjects’ exasperation and impatience with being photographed. Suggestions that Barney’s unique access to her subjects’ private lives permits her to penetrate their inner sanctums are really beside the point. Having arrived there, what she shows us is nothing of consequence.
The fourteen images in the
Apart from a few single environmental portraits Barney’s photographs straddle the line between staged tableaux and moments glimpsed without ever plumbing either tradition. Unlike the elaborately planned, painstakingly executed and art historically self-conscious works of Jeff Wall, with whom she is sometimes compared, Barney’s casual arrangements offer up far more aimless standing around than stagecraft. Indeed, her disengaged subjects are often stuck smack dab in the middle of the frame, awkwardly acknowledging the presence of the photographer and looking uninterested in the proceedings.
These images are far too self-consciously presented ever to be confused with snapshots, and too intellectually lazy to be compared with more thoughtful work. What they have in common with the output of many practitioners today is their enormous size, which seems to have been dictated here by the notion that large prints are possible rather than meaningful. According to the gallery’s web site, three editions measuring either 24X30, 30X40 or 48X60 inches are available for a few of the images, while the latter two sizes are available for all the rest. Naturally, the price of each varies in proportion to its measurements.
In the end, banality at any size is still banality.