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Wednesday, April 20, 2011


On Saturday I went by the SOFA (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) show at the Armory In New York. It was one of those situations where you enter and see a couple of wonderful things and think it’s going to be totally great, but then it ends up being only marginally so. I missed there being more functional objects, but I guess that's not the purpose of the show. Still, I loved the ceramics by Molly Hatch that used traditional shapes and glazes but with a contemporary spin and Michael Eden’s monochromatic plastic pick-up-sticks covered urns.

My favorite work was by beadist, Jan Huling. Her anatomically correct human heart, Japanese anime figures, pony and babydolls were simply wonderful—perfect eye candy with an ethnic vibe and a decided edge. I love obsessions and clearly in order to produce such intricate work, one must be obsessed.


It probably wasn’t such a good idea to go to the George Condo show at the New Museum hot on the heels of the resplendent Picasso show at the VMFA in Richmond, Virginia. Condo’s smart alecky, scattershot approach is just so lacking when compared to the master of exuberant, and comprehensive artistic daring do. 

That Condo is trying hard to emulate Picasso, particularly in the area of portraiture is abundantly clear. One need look no further than Spanish Head Composition, Condo’s Picasso rift for affirmation. But he plain doesn't get it; it's all superficial—a lame attempt to reproduce what Picasso looks like rather than to understand the substance of what he was trying to accomplish. 

Condo also seems to be sampling Francis Bacon but with none of Bacon’s subtlety and finesse. Bacon knows how to parse visual information, leaving much up to the viewer’s imagination, allowing him to connect the dots of his pulpy, grotesque visages. As a result, his work has immense psychological power.

Though Condo knows from paint and creates really beautiful surfaces—The Fallen Butler was extraordinary in this regard—his insistent use of monstrous faces, which reminded me of the sophomoric doodlings in a high schooler’s notebook are the visual equivalent of a phonograph needle scratching across a record making it impossible to see the forest for the trees. (Forgive the mixed metaphor, but the work inspires such misguided hyperbole.) Sadly, you lose sight of what a great painter Condo is on account of his sledgehammer shtick that he seems unable to drop.

But all was not lost. I actually liked his quasi-abstract work, which reveals a powerful sense of composition and allows Condo to revel in paint and surface. Here, I could not help but think of Gorky and Matta, but with Condo’s own vision shining through.


The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts scored big when they nabbed the collection of the Picasso Museum in Paris, which needed a temporary home during building renovations. I saw the collection in Paris many years ago. With my focus on Cubism and thanks to a Picasso coloring book I was given as a child, I dismissed much of Picasso’s other work as trite or as trying too hard. (Ah, the callowness and arrogance of youth!) I enjoyed my position of contrarian and proud New Yorker that I was, I knew many of Picasso’s masterpieces resided in my hometown: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Three Musicians, Girl with Mandolin, Ma Jolie. Indeed from my perspective, the city seemed lousy with Picassos. Twice I had had the good fortune of visiting the Victor Ganzes’ expansive collection on tours conducted by Mrs. Ganz herself in their sumptuous Gracie Square apartment, where several works are actually personally dedicated to the couple, souvenirs from their visits to Picasso's villa, La Californie. The Ganzes owned La Reve which Steve Wynn subsequently acquired and famously put an elbow through in 2006 just prior to completing a deal to sell it for $140 million. (I just read an account of the incident written by Nora Ephron where she erroneously alludes to the Ganz apartment as "small" and implies that the Ganzes were church mice along the lines of the Vogels. This is nonsense; they had plenty of money. Victor Ganz ran the family's very successful costume jewelry business and the Ganzes' apartment was a very grand duplex overlooking the East River in the same building that Gloria Vanderbilt lived in.) When the Ganzes' collection, which the couple bought for less than $2 million over the course of their lifetimes, sold at auction in 1997 for over $206 million (a return of over 10,000%) it was the largest private collection art sale in history.

Aside from the eye-popping work on the walls, I remember that as we mounted her gracious stairway to the upper floor, Mrs. Ganz allowed as how she always walked on tip-toe when climbing stairs to ensure shapely legs. She also said her daughters (alumnae of my school, hence the entrée) referred to one of his great portraits of the ‘30s hanging in the grand salon as the “Saks Fifth Avenue portrait” because of the resemblance of the cross-hatched pattern in one area to a SFA shopping bag.

When a friend invited me to the Picasso show in Richmond, I was delighted to go on an outing with him, but I didn’t hold out much hope for the show. Even though I had seen the collection, I had retained the false impression that it consisted of the dregs, works that were left lying around the studio at the time of Picasso’s death.

Boy was I wrong. The show is totally inspiring. I wonder whether viewing the work through the “lens” of the art of the intervening years has made me appreciate Picasso all the more for his innovative spirit, endless creativity and vibrant character; qualities that explode forth from nearly every work. He makes the others I see as his artistic progeny: Schnabel, Salle, Clemente look stale and even kind of timid. (The one exception is Basquiat who I think actually does have “the goods.”) Painting like they did after Picasso is the easy part; painting as he did when he did is the mystery and the magic. My friend and I kept marveling at the fact that the work was nearly 100 years old and still had such freshness and power.

The show is beautifully curated with wonderful juxtapositions of art. We loved Painter with a Palette and Easel of 1928, a supremely satisfying and subtle study of black, white, grey and pale yellow paired with the sculptural piece, Figure (submitted as a design for a monument to Guillaume Appollinaire), 1928 the bold lines in each echoing one another. Other favorite pieces are Seated Woman in Front of a Window, 1937; Self-portrait in Straw Hat, 1938 (that just knocks your socks off; the image reproduced here is a washed out shadow of the original, conveying none of its zing, but I used it because it is not often seen) and Large Still Life with Pedestal Table, 1931. And of course there’s the winsome Portrait of Olga in an Armchair painted the same year as the Synthetic Cubist Pipe, Glass and Playing Card—I love Picasso for his confidence and flexibility in daring to move back and forth between styles and doing it so brilliantly. Among other things, not wanting to be pigeon holed, he realized this kept him on pointe. With a mind as lively as his obviously was, he would have become incredibly bored plugging along in one style.

It occurred to me that it may be that some of the show-stopper pieces in the collection were donated by family members after my visit many moons ago, for surely I would have been as captivated by the paintings that grabbed me on this visit. I know for instance, I have always loved the portrait of his wife, Olga and hadn’t realized it was in the collection.

The exhibition includes photos and film footage of Picasso and it’s a delight to see this brilliant manchild at work and play. In the shop you can buy a pull marin and even a rather goofy looking Picasso doll; I wonder what the man himself would make of that?

Museum Design

I was thinking about the Getty Museum recently and remembering its dramatic outdoor spaces with their killer views of Los Angeles. While I’m not a huge admirer of Richard Meier and the Getty design doesn’t bowl me over, I was impressed with how the building takes advantage of light and shadow, its brilliant white travertine against its desert canyon setting, the pleasant outdoor café and the wonderful Contemporary garden. I realized the most profound lasting impression of the museum was that I couldn’t remember a single piece of art.

This got me thinking about museum buildings and what constitutes successful ones. I was puzzled because the Getty is basically a conventional rectilinear building as opposed to say, the Guggenheim in New York, which I would characterize as unconventional given it’s circular shape. But while I do delight in the Guggenheim's design when I visit, I also always manage to see, appreciate and remember the art, whether it's a retrospective of Yves Klein—mostly 2-dimensional work or MatthewBarney which included video and installations and even incorporated the building into the work. Part of the fun there is seeing the art across the central atrium, and then again up close.

So are my Guggenheim memories more vivid because the art is just better there, or is the Getty (and its kick ass setting) just too distracting for the art it contains?


One of my earliest memories of my mother is her coming in to say good night before she left with Daddy for a party in Washington. She rustled to my bedside accompanied by the tinkling of her charm bracelet and a cloud of Arpège. I remember the dress: pale pink silk faille dotted with rows of pearls. I remember too being enveloped in her arms, the warmth, the love, the feeling of inestimable pride that this fairy queen was my mother.

Some while later, on a summer evening, my older sister and I had been bathed and put to bed in our matching yellow gingham nighties. My father was away on a business trip and Mummy was going out. I don’t recall the circumstances, but before I knew it, my sister, Felicity and I had snuck out of the house into the crepuscular, insect buzzing evening to crouch on the floor of the back seat of the station wagon. How we managed to get out of the house past my mother, the baby sitter and our brothers undetected and then keep from giggling on the ride over to the club, which granted wasn't far, I don’t know. But we did, popping out only after my mother had parked. “Surprise!” we yelled very pleased with our feat of daring do. I don't know what we expected, but our wonderful mother didn't get cross; she laughed—I think she was quite pleased with the chutzpah of her two little girls. She even took us over to say hello to her friends before driving us back home.

In 1981 the summer before I went to graduate school, Mum and I went to Italy. In Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, we were looking at a series of photographs of Peggy Guggenheim lining a downstairs corridor. A woman, clearly American, in flashy white pantsuit and bouffant hair rushed over to us. “Are you Americans?” she demanded. “Yes,” we replied, thinking she was in some kind of distress. “So, can you tell me something?” she asked; we nodded expectantly. “Why with all her money," she pointed at a photograph, "Didn’t she get a nose job?” There was a long pause while we digested her question and then my beautiful, but un-surgically enhanced mother said in an incredibly diplomatic tone: “Well, I guess her mind was on other things.” It was a Mrs. Prothero-worthy remark.

About a month before she died, Felicity and I were tucking Mum in for the night, all three of us curled together on her bed singing “Dites Moi” from South Pacific and “Jesus Tender Shepherd,” which was our lullaby when we were small. As we moved to go, she grabbed our forearms with a real sense of urgency. She was beaming and her eyes shone, “I wouldn’t trade this for a sharp price,” she whispered, squeezing our arms. What a gift it was to feel our mother’s abiding love expressed so poignantly as she struggled with the words she once so delighted in.

In reading the many condolence notes, “beautiful,” “elegant” and “intelligent” were used again and again to describe Mum. She also had a great sense of humor and a great sense of fun, though an acquaintance would not necessarily pick up on this, for Mum could be quite formal. A woman of substance who’d been forged in no-nonsense New England, she demanded the best from herself and expected it from others. In all her life, I don’t believe she ever did a petty or unkind thing. She was my lodestar, my mother and my friend.

Matt Kleberg

It’s hard to breathe life into an area like portraiture that’s been done to death. But Matt Kleberg’s portraits are so fresh and also masterful, providing accurate representations of their subject while at the same time being compelling stand-alone Contemporary paintings. Kleberg is in his early 20s and about to enter graduate school to obtain his MFA. How he applies the paint—with bravura brushstrokes—his sure line, strong palette and clear grasp of compositional arrangements reveal a confidence rare in one so young.

At this juncture, Kleberg seems poised between representation and abstraction. Graduate school will provide the study and time to discover his path. There is no question in my mind that he has all the tools in his grasp to be a truly great artist.