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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Franco Vimercati

I’d never heard of Milanese photographer Franco Vimercati (1940-2001) when I stumbled on his stunningly beautiful photographs at the Museo Fortuny in Venice.

To say Vimercati was obsessive would be an understatement. With Zen-like devotion he photographed the same humble objects over and over again (he reputedly spent ten years on the soup tureen above), both searching for that perfect print that would capture the beauty and essence of his subjects, and also reveling in the subtle variations between the repeated images.

I was mesmerized by Vimercati’s work that pairs simple compositions with a photographic technique that can only be described as sumptuous.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tintoretto Re-Do

I spent a good deal of time recently with the Tintorettos in the Academia in Venice. He’s an artist I had given rather short shrift to in the past, but this time around I took a closer look and was blown away by the high wire act he performs in his paintings.

Giving his drapery a casual once over you see realistic folds, and shadows and light hitting believable velvets and silks. Closer examination reveals amazing gestural, rough brushwork. No smooth, hidden transitions here. The sleight of hand is right there on the surface and when isolated, resembles nothing so much as a stand-alone Abstract Expressionist work.

I noticed this again and again, but most remarkably in the Madonna dei Camerlenghi (Madonna dei Tesorieri). Here the noblemen’s cloaks and the Madonna’s garments are tour de forces of dazzling, expressionist, badass brushstrokes. You’ve got to admire the confidence and freedom such audacious technique implies. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans

Stockholm’s Moderna Museet reminds me of the way museums used to be: small, light filled, un-crowded. The polar opposite, in fact, to the glitzy mall-like experiences one gets at a place like MoMA. When I was there, there were two excellent exhibitions: a joint show on Picasso and Duchamp and a solo exhibit of photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans.

I was unfamiliar with Tillmans, whose range of work is quite staggering, each room boasted a completely different direction: astrophotography, portraits, still-lifes, color abstracts. On a superficial level, one might have been tempted to surmise they were the work of several different artists. But the sleek prints shared a common technical discipline that made it clear they were by the same hand.

Tillmans favors a nonhierarchical arrangement with different sized unframed photographs, from different series (both black and white and color) pinned or taped to the walls, together with inkjet prints and postcards and magazine clippings of his own images. It sounds like a hodgepodge, but it isn’t thanks largely to the elegant restraint of Tillmans’s aesthetic. In fact, the jumble adds a bit of relief to what might be a little too perfect and refined.

It is interesting to note that Tillman approaches each exhibition as a site-specific installation—a large composition of which the individual photographs are parts.

Looking at Tillmans’s arresting portraits, it’s hard not to think of Catherine Opie and Nan Goldin. But Tillmans's have an immediacy and realness (although many are staged) that is all his own. (While Opie, is also an amazing technician, her work is more theatrical. To me, Goldin’s work has always been first and foremost about the titillating subject matter. Formal concerns? Not so much.) Some of Tillmans’s images are quite graphic, but the strength of his ability lifts them out of the realm of the gratuitous into the realm of art.

I also loved his car headlights and his sublime color abstracts that stemmed from mistakes and his own in-depth experimentation. Produced in the darkroom without a camera, they showcase Tillmans’s interest in the chemistry of photography and are just delectable. Some even push the photographic envelope entering into the realms of drawing and sculpture.

Tillmans, who is German, divides his time between Berlin and London, which he first visited as an exchange student in 1983. He went on to study at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in southern England, and is the only photographer (and non-Brit) to win the Turner Prize. Perhaps most admirable though, is in 2006 he opened the non-profit Between Bridges exhibition space in the ground floor of his London studio specifically to exhibit political art from artists who he believes have been overlooked.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Berthe Morisot

I developed a new appreciation for Berthe Morisot recently seeing an exhibition of her work at the Odrupgaard museum outside Copenhagen. I had always dismissed her as a lesser Impressionist. Boy was I wrong. I found her work fresh and confident with wonderfully expressive brushstrokes that reveal an exceptional sensitivity to both formal and psychological concerns.

A beauty, painted repeatedly by her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, Morisot was born into affluence and lived her life as a member of the haute bourgeoisie. Her family supported her decision to become a painter (her sister Edma was one too) and she was accepted and admired by her male peers—Manet had four paintings of hers hanging in his bedroom—exhibiting repeatedly at the Salon de Paris (the annual exhibition of the Ácademie des Beaux-Arts) until 1874, when she joined Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley in the Salon des Refusés held in the studio of photographer Nadar. The one real hardship Morisot experienced was her husband’s premature death, which left her devastated, turning her hair white overnight.

Morisot’s many advantages didn’t blunt her talent, although her circumstances limited her oeuvre to what was considered appropriate subject matter: domestic life, landscapes, portraits and the like. Her composition, palette, light and representation have a remarkable veracity. Morisot is also a master of restraint. Because her work doesn’t shout, you almost overlook what a truly great painter she is. I was struck by how she conveys so much with so little. On display at the museum were two portraits of Morisot’s daughter, Julie, one by her (she painted many), the other by Renoir. Hers depicts the ennui and nascent beauty of a pouty teenager; Renoir’s a flabby orange-tinged simp.

Morisot died at just 54 in 1895. One wonders the direction her work might have taken if she'd made it into the 20th century and lived another 20-30 years, like Monet for instance, a year older than she, who died in 1926.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Finn Juhl House

Mid-century Danish architect/industrial designer Finn Juhl’s house, located in a suburb of Copenhagen, is a must-see. I'm still not completely sold on Danish furniture, but seeing Juhl’s designs in their natural habitat, surrounded by his careful arrangement of objects and inspired color accents in this modest, richly appointed abode made me a convert.

In the living room, the "Chieftain" chair’s oversized proportions and shield back seemed to reference some ancient Viking past. The one here is a pinkish leather. The diminutive "poet" settee was inviting with its high curved back that looks like it would surround the sitter in an embrace. The graceful and petite "sculptural armchair" spoke to me of Wegner. An elegant shape with a carved curved back, contoured arms and clever "V" shaped support. The design was sufficiently challenging that only 12 were ever made, making them exceedingly valuable. I couldn't like the other armchairs used in the living room and dining room. I think I saw too many of the type in cluttered Upper West Side apartments.

But Juhl's use of Asian ceramics, Scandinavian woven rugs, his collection of artwork, palette, proportions and modesty of scale was genius. It was these elements, together with how he treated nature and light that reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in particular Wright's Usonian houses, although the exterior, at least, looks totally different.

I loved the almost adobe fireplace in the living room and bookshelves which boasted three doored cabinets and a set of colored drawers. 

I think my favorite room was the dining room. Here, one wall is a two sided glass display cabinet, which allows light in from the adjoining conservatory. Opposite, tall windows afford a view of green--a curtain of vines growing up an exterior wall p
rovide color and texture. The piece I covet most in the house is the dining room table which features Swedish coins sanded down so that they look like silver metal discs embedded in the surface. It appears to be an abstract pattern but was apparently intended to act as a guide for where to put the place setting.

The dining chairs are covered in an intense kelly green wool to echo the outside foliage and pick up the hues in the artwork. Here, the ceiling is painted a surprising deep curry gloss, adding warmth and a wonderful, unexpected dash to the room. His use of ceiling color was inspired overall--I love the electric blue in the entrance foyer. I adore that color, the inside of the Whitney Museum's elevators were painted it originally. It's too much to have on a wall, but on a ceiling it's brilliant: you see it only when you look up. 

There was so much to admire and emulate in this wonderful domestic interior.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wanås to Venice

I am leaving today for Sweden to visit the Wanås Foundation in Sweden. Wanås is a world class contemporary art site specific art venue on the grounds of a 17th century (? ) estate in southern Sweden. I will know more after my visit! Pictured here is Maya Lin's Eleven Minute Line http://www.wanas.se/

After Wanås, I will spend a few days in Stockholm and then in Copenhagen, I am very excited about seeing these two cities and soaking up not just their history and beauty, but also the art and design, and of course food!

After my inaugural visit to Scandinavia, I will head south to Venice, specifically for the Biennale of Architecture in which a friend has a piece on exhibit. And also because well, Venice is Venice.  I was there last 31 years ago! How time flies.

I intend to check out the Aula Baratto in Ca' Foscari designed by Carlo Scarpa. I also plan to take a day trip to Verona to see the museum he designed there.

And then there's the Academia, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, The Basilica dei Frari with the sublime Titian Ascension of the Virgin, San Marco and Venice itself! 

My iPad comes with and so I will blog as I go. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Quay Brothers

Intrigued by a macabre photo in the NY Times, I decided to go see the Quay Brothers’ show at MoMA. I must confess, I had never heard of the Quay Brothers and have to say their aesthetic is not mine. All that Victoriana. And dolls. Piero Fornasetti insipidness and Joseph Cornell dark whimsy...

However, I am drawn to obsessive, oddball artists. Indeed, the Quays seem like outsider artists even though they aren’t. I admire the fact that these twins, who settled in England in 1969 and seem to live and breathe only art, burst forth from rural Pennsylvania to scale the very heights of the art world. 

I also admire their work ethic. Though most famous for their stop-action animation, featuring puppets made of doll parts and other materials, there’s nothing they haven’t seemed to have done. From the 1968 Blood, Sweat & Tears album cover (the Quays’ original headless design was altered to include the band’s heads) to T.V. ads. In fact, I loved their ads. Many of their films resemble the opening credits of the Monty Python show, which doesn’t float my boat, but the Doritos ad has a definite Brazil vibe and the ones for Slurpee and a British throat lozenge, Lockets, were terrific.

During their long and fecund career, the Quays have worked as professional illustrators designing book covers; they’ve also designed sets for theatre and opera (in 1998 they received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for the play The Chairs) and have shot music videos for various artists—artists I’ve never heard of, I might add, not that that means a thing.

I was interested to learn about the Polish Surrealists who the Quays admired and emulated, and I realized just how pervasive their influence was remembering back to the posters that graced my high school homerooms in the 1970s.

I sat through the Quays’ most famous film, Street of Crocodiles based on a novella of the same name (nearly all the Quays’ films are inspired by literary texts and feature compelling musical scores) because I thought I should, and liked some aspects of it, most of all the creepy eyeless dolls and the actual liver, but I was really drawn into the shorter film, Bruno Schulz, Fragments and Scenes—Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (2006) (actually the "pilot" or preview for their third feature which is currently pre-production) that incorporates live action and nature with puppets. It was mysterious, shimmering and beautiful.

The Quays' objects have a uniformly excavated look, threadbare and covered with grime or dust. This cuts through the saccharin, but in trying to be sinister, is also trite. There are a number of references to screws and watch works, perhaps a tribute to their father, a machinist.

In 2010 the Quays were commissioned to produce a new film entitled Anatomica Asthetica focusing on the history and collections of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. Having long known of the gruesome nature of the Mütter and never quite having got up the courage to go there, it sounds like a match made in Heaven.

Tomás Saraceno on the Roof: Cloud City

Tomás Saraceno on the Roof: Cloud City—part of Saraceno’s series Cloud Cities/Air Port City is a site-specific installation of 16 interconnected multipolygonal modules on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum. Composed of transparent, opaque and reflective materials connected by an internal network of staircases, the piece provides a funhouse experience where orientation is skewed. Discombobulation and vertigo flood one’s senses as one explores the interior space and tries to figure out what is reality and what is reflection. Taking in the exterior vistas framed through Cloud City’s apertures, it's clear that as with Big Bambu, New York City's an integral part of the piece.

On entering the structure the guards made me put away my pad and pen, which I thought silly, but soon realized I needed to grasp both handrails as I crawled, white-knuckled up the stairs. Though the piece goes up only 20 feet from the Met’s roof, one feels much higher seeing the city and park below. Some of the floors of the modules are clear adding to the knee-buckling experience. My companion said being in it felt like skydiving, which she has actually done. To me, it felt like I was inside an enormous kaleidoscope or even some giant honeycomb made by robotic bees. According to Saraceno: “Cloud City’s composition is based on a complex three-dimensional geometry from Weaire-Phelan, which is an idealized foam structure resembling the perfect packaging of spheres with a minimal surface and maximum volume."

Saraceno trained as an architect (he also attended the Space Studies Program of the International Space University at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and judging from his writings about the piece is pretty out there) and there is a definite habitat feel to the piece. According to the Met’s wall dialectic this is intentional: “Over the past decade Saraceno has constructed habitable networks based on organic forms, naturally occurring geometries, and interconnectivity that merge art, architecture, and science. His multidisciplinary project Cloud Cities/Air Port City is rooted in an investigation of how to expand the ways in which we inhabit and experience our environment…Saraceno uses his art to envision floating or flying cities that defy traditional notions of space, time, and gravity. He challenges the boundaries of earthbound living and explores the possibility of utopian airborne habitation, looking to the atmosphere, rather than terra firma, for inspiration.”

All I can say is it's an exhilarating experience to be high above the streets of Manhattan in the ethereal Cloud City.  

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Long Strange Trip

Sunday I flew to Seattle for an intensive immersion in Dale Chihuly. I went as part of a team composed of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts officials and press in advance of the museum’s Chihuly show scheduled for October 2012.

A lot has changed since my previous visit to that fair city, where the last time I was there, in the mid ‘90s, there was no Chihuly to be found. Now there is a glorious new museum and garden that is open late so one can see the glass in its greatest glory, dramatically lit up against the night sky. 

But this is just a foretaste. I will be writing more about the trip and Chihuly for later publication.

I flew home on Wednesday and am now ensconced in a dream of a house in Southside Virginia (that feels more like 19th century Ireland than America) a continent and world away from the “Emerald City.” 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Ungovernables

The New Museum’s second Triennial, “The Ungovernables,” a saucy comeback to the Whitney Biennial, is a smaller show, consisting of thirty-four, mostly non-Western, artists and collaborative groups.

The Trainee (2008) by Finish artist, Pilvi Takala, is a mixed-media installation that documents the month-long job Takala held with a global financial company. During her tenure, Takala, intentionally exhibited increasingly abnormal behavior: sitting at her desk staring straight ahead for hours, spending a day in the company’s tax library not doing any work, and for the entire span of another day, riding up and down in the elevator. In addition to everything else, you have to admire Takala’s ability to maintain the ruse in the face of what must have been pretty uncomfortable circumstances dealing with co-workers and superiors perplexed and even angered by her odd behavior.

Though there’s a whiff of Candid Camera about the whole thing, the work speaks to the soul-crushing corporate environment, while also taking a swipe at the asleep-at the-wheel practices that have governed big financial firms, allowing for the kind of mismanagement that led to the recent global economic crisis.

Takala’s installation includes the company’s welcome letter, and a card key, workstation and computer. She even includes voicemails and emails from co-workers and bosses that discuss Takala’s conduct.

Hassan Khan’s compelling video, Jewel (2010) features two men dancing to hypnotic Middle Eastern music composed by Khan. The dancing treads a fine line between belligerence and eroticism. Adding to the tension, the men and the clothes they wear suggests different social classes. There’s something primal and out of control about their interaction; they seem ready to explode and you don’t know in which direction they will go.

Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machadovideo’s 2011 video, O Século (The Century) opens with an aerial view of an empty street. It’s unremarkable, empty and quiet. All of a sudden, objects begin being hurled into the street from the right of the picture: chairs, oil drums, tires, crates, bicycle wheels, and lots of fluorescent light bulbs, all making satisfying crashes when they hit the pavement. After 5 minutes in which the ferocity of the barrage waxes then wanes, the video returns to an empty street and the whole thing starts again, only this time the objects come from the left. I’m not sure what it’s about, but I enjoyed watching it, especially the fluorescents that hit the ground with a pouf and a pop.

Material for a sculpture commemorating the life of a soldier who died defending his nation against intruding enemies (2012) by Iman Issa features an assortment of colored geometric objects on a plinth. With their distinct shape and placement, the objects suggest there’s some sort of symbolism attached to them. I liked the cleanness of the lines, the purity of the colors and how the dispassionate quality of the physical objects jarred with the title. It speaks to the impersonality, inevitability and futility of war.

Rita Ponce de Leon’s 2011 installation of 120 tiny, beautifully executed India ink drawings in a table-top installation, Acepto que nada es mio (I accept that nothing is mine) toyed with scale and obsessiveness.

Eavesdropping (Version # 2, large), Amalia Pica’s 2011 installation, presents an array of different sized colored glasses placed against a wall, at the ready for listening in to next-door neighbors. The lusciousness of the vividly colored glass is visually appealing and in these times where our privacy is threatened by high tech devices, its reference to this low-tech spying approach is darkly amusing.

When I first saw Danh Vo’s We the People (2011) I took it for a series of purely abstract copper sculptures, possibly inspired by or evoking water or wind. But, it turns out they’re fragments—parts of the drapery—of a full-size replica of the Statue of Liberty that Danh is working on. Danh has broken the icon, and in pieces, not only has the sculpture become abstracted, but so too the ideals for which it stands. Danh has taken pains to exactly reproducing the thin copper skin. Looking at it, it seems impossibly fragile. In the original statue, the interior feature’s supporting scaffolding makes this fragile skin strong enough to stand and endure—a fitting metaphor for our democracy.

Finally, it was a delight to see Lynette Yiadom Boakye paintings (paintings are rare sights at this kind of show). Boakye compositions feature figures, generally one of two against stark backgrounds. Applying the paint liberally with forceful brushstrokes, Boakye uses color sparingly, but to great effect. I loved her surfaces and the way she conveys so much physical and psychological information with relatively little.

I haven’t been able to put my finger on why the downtown show seemed somehow better when compared to the Biennial. In terms of quality, the work was pretty evenly distributed between the two. In looking back, I wonder if this had something to do with the way the work was displayed in gallery spaces—the New Museum airy spaces are very appealing (so long as you’re not too close to the elevator and its annoying dinging bell), well-suited for displaying contemporary art. I hope this isn’t the case, as I love the Whitney and am sad that the museum is pulling up stakes and leaving its Breuer-designed home. If it is the case, it seems misguided as its collection includes more than just contemporary art. I hope the Whitney doesn’t go down the road MoMA took in their rush to reinvent themselves to “stay relevant,” and sacrifice the intimacy of their spaces.

“The Ungovernables” says it all. It’s a wonderful title, funny and subversive and youthful. It tells you right away that it’s not taking itself too seriously. By contrast, the Whitney Biennial has become so fraught with expectation (for both bad and good), and it’s also just gotten so unwieldy that it seems heavily weighed down with gravitas.

Monday, March 26, 2012

2012 Armory Show

Once again the pickin's were slim at the Armory Show where I could count on almost just one hand, the artists I admired. But I'm in the minority, judging from the masses of super serious, blinged-out people there lapping it all up. On the whole, it was a case of bad ideas, badly executed. A number of big name galleries were absent and favorites of mine, Lisson and White Cube from London, had nothing really to write home about—though I liked the Andreas Gurskey of Niagara’s Maid of the Mist. The reliable Sikkema Jenkins didn’t come out to play, but stayed put at their space in Chelsea. I high-tailed it over to the Paul Kasmin booth hoping for a Walton Ford fix and was rewarded by a rare dud of his. Even Pierogi 2000 failed to impress this time around.

There’s a lot meant to shock, but it just ends up being boring. I’m thinking of the 30 plaster heads of Osama bin Laden by Wang Du at $15,000 a pop or $320,000 for the lot. Then there’s Jota Castro who uses handcuffs (actual ones and photographs) in various prurient ways. For real shock and awe, I suggest he take a look at Catherine Opie’s truly enthralling photographs of Ron Asthy, which (one can hope) might encourage him to hang up both his camera and handcuffs. Andreas Serrano’s contrived photographs of toy figures in silhouette reminded me of the equally dull James Casebere’s toy houses that he photographs in real landscapes. I swear the exact doppelganger of Ai Wei Wei’s polyhedron is in the window of my local Urban Outfitter. I don’t care if it’s hand carved, Ai’s got studio assistants up the wazoo to do the carving for him.

Special kudos go to the revolving group of women dressed in lab coats taking turns lying on a slab with a jagged hunk of quartz suspended millimeters above their foreheads. I actually saw a man cross some kind of line and touch one of these intrepid women, which reminded me of the groper at the Marina Abramovic show who was ejected and permanently barred from MoMA after pulling a similar stunt with one of the nude participants in her piece, Imponderabilia. People were delighted by the piece at the Armory Show, madly snapping pictures of them the whole time. But really what was the point?

I’m tired of seeing one-trick ponies that pop up in more than one booth and in show after show: the aforementioned Casebere and Kehinde Wiley—whose heroic super-realist portraits of black men on highly-patterned backgrounds I liked the first time I saw, but now they’re sameoldsameold.

Without a doubt, the most startling artist at the fair would have to be Mary Reid Kelley. There was something a little too slick about her drawings, but her video, The Syphilis of Sisyphus was jaw dropping. Reid Kelley plays Sisyphus a “grisette,” (French working class woman). The action begins with Sysyphus pondering the fate of woman as she sits at her dressing table and ends with her being dragged off by the "Morals Police," to the infamous Salpêtrière Hospital where women were “treated” for hysteria. Joining her in the performance are four Pierrots (played by Reid Kelley’s family members) who also assume other roles along the way. Reid Kelley employs antique costumes and painted set designs that look like they come from the dawn of cinematography, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligheri or Nosferatu. Her highly articulated make-up and weird black eye covers are downright creepy, evoking simultaneously a death’s head and also somehow not. It’s a wonderfully odd mix of serious, stylish and screwball. Retro and yet contemporary.

Watching the video, I felt strangely out of control, hijacked into some weird netherworld. It was like a bad acid trip in a good way. My one complaint is that I found her flat, girlish voice a little jarring and at odds with the dark intensity of her video. Reid Kelley is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Yale. She is one to watch.

Yang Jiechang’s series of paintings, Tale of the 11th Day, resemble traditional Chinese screens. On closer inspection you realize there’s a whole lot of monkey business going on between different species and between humans and animals. But the bestiality is presented in the same restrained manner as the landscape and adds a dash of spice and outlandishness to these otherwise austere works.

London-based Israeli artist, Gideon Rubin uses a subdued palette of olives, beiges and mauves with wonderful painterly brush strokes to produce curious and compelling paintings. His work has a 1940s aesthetic, recalling old sepia snap shots. What is most distinctive about his work is that he leaves the faces blank. Particularly effective was the girl on skis sitting in the snow and a whole group of small portraits hung in grid fashion, next to each other. Despite their featureless faces, Rubin successfully conveys each subject's individual character.

I think my favorite artist at the show was Mike Bayne, a photographer (Nope he's a painter see comment below.) This makes me like him even more I had never heard of. He paint incredibly realist paintings of sad-sack neighborhoods and down-at-heel commercial strips. Bayne doesn’t go for big statements; he seeks out the ordinary, everyday things anyone anywhere could see: a tawdry motel sign or rundown ranch as opposed to attention grabbing glitz or nifty visual sights. But Bayne’s little gems do grab your attention. It’s all about composition and scale. Bayne frames his work really, really well and they’re diminutive (5” x 8”?), which for me works as well as large format as far as photography’s concerned.

This is the third year of the Armory Focus, which devotes a section of the Armory Show to an important arts community. This time, the attention turned to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Included in the line-up was a conversation between visual artist Ragnar Kjartansson and Bjork, which I am sad to say I missed.
Two Nordic pieces confront you straight off the bat: Kjartansson’s divine 40-foot-long pink neon sign that reads “Scandinavian Pain." Funny and poignant at the same time, it’s suspended above the bar where you can purchase an $18 flute of champagne. Scandinavian Pain was acquired from the show by Sweden’s Moderna Museet where it's rumored it will be placed on the top of the museum building. On entering the Armory Focus area you soon become aware of a whooshing sound, almost like the surf, but one having an extra long pause between waves. It’s Helsinki-based artists Tommi Grönlund and Petteri Nisunen’s Wave of Matter. The piece consists of a table-like platform that holds hundreds of tiny ball bearings on its surface; as the piece tilts slowly back and forth the balls roll across the surface creating the sound. It’s mesmerizing to watch and listen to.

Just based on his materials—light glass, water—you’d know Olafur Eliassion came from Scandinavia. His slices of colored glass, two in each arrangement, are set atop pieces of driftwood. The glass is different colored, forming a solid hue. At the edges,where it doesn't quite overlap you see the separate colors. They’re luscious to look at, unsettling because they appear to be so casually placed on their narrow "shelves," and texturally interesting: the shiny, sleek glass contrasting nicely with the dull, rough wood.

One entire wall in this booth was taken up by the work of the late Icelandic artist, Birgir Andrésson. Like over-scale paint chips, his paintings of pure color feature the name of the color printed across them. One series, different variations of grey, seemed to comment directly on Iceland’s potential for bleakness. But the work is much more than this, referencing a “blind reality” that Andrésson was only too familiar with having been born to blind parents.

Over on Pier 92 was the Modern section. There I saw a nifty blue slit canvas by Lucio Fontana whom I had only recently been introduced to at the Suprasensorial show at the Hirshhorn. Here, also was Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, yours for a cool $13.5 million, and a not very good, but interesting because it was so uncharacteristic, abstract painting by Chuck Close.

I was lucky enough to meet up with a well-connected art dealer friend who had been invited to parties hosted by the consular generals of Finland, Norway and Belgium at their uniformly splendid apartments. (Not being a Nordic country, I surmise Belgium jumped on the Armory bandwagon purely because, unlike here, art is important in that country.) The work at the Finnish apartment was the most impressive with a number of interesting artists: Hanna Väisänen, Susanna Gotteberg, Margatta Palasto, Raili Tang and Robert Lucander whose triad of paintings Harmaa, Tummanvihreä, Musta (Grey, Dark Green, Black) 1993 (pictured) with their brooding, spare yet dense presence were the best thing I saw in New York.

On the Norwegian Consular’s terrace we were treated to one of the most spectacular moon rises I have ever seen: a great orange orb that matched exactly the lights on the warehouses of Queens, rising slowly above the East River. Framed by tall buildings, city lights and water, it was breathtaking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Almost a decade before the Light and Space movement emerged in this country, in the late 1960s, Latin American artists were working with light and color in innovative ways. Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space, at the Hirshhorn in Washington presents a small gem of a show curated by Alma Ruiz, featuring the work of artists at the forefront of the movement: Carlos Cruz-Diez, Lucio Fontana, Julio Le Parc, Hélio Oiticica and Jesús Rafael Soto. Challenging the idea of art as a static experience to be looked at, these artists created work that bursts forth from the traditional confines of picture plane or 3-dimensional sculpture, and in some cases fully envelopes the viewer.

I am a sucker for light—have far too many luminaria of all kinds in my possessionso this show is a natural for me. Right off the bat, you’re greeted by Fontana’s grand squiggle of cool, white light, Neon Structure for the IX Triennial of Milan, 1951 that’s suspended over the escalators. A nice counterpoint to this expansive gesture is Le Parc’s 1962 intimate installation, Light in Movement, that uses mirrors, angled metal squares and spotlights to cast reflections around a darkened room, creating the effect of being underwater in some otherworldly, nocturnal pool.

I loved Soto's lawn-sized rectangle of blue plastic tubing, Penetrable BBL Bleu. It reminded me of a piece I saw when I was a child in New York, an entire room of ceiling-to-floor. clear plastic strips one had to make one’s way through. It really was a seminal piece for me, opening my mind up to the possibilities of what art could do: it could be visually arresting and it could also be fun! As a youngster, I was particularly taken with the notion of touching and moving through an artwork. This was a revelation. I remember it being at the location of the folk art museum on 53rd, but think there was another museum there, possibly of contemporary art?

Much like that earlier piece, you must breaststroke your way through Soto’s plastic tubes, which slap against your face and body and resist gently your forward movement. I felt like I was in some weird plastic jungle or savanna. Looking at people making their way through it produced an almost stroboscopic effect and the piece remained animated for some time after one exited, the moving tubes producing a wonderful striated pattern. It’s a fairly recent work, dating from 1999, but Soto has been exploring the idea for 30 years.

The showstopper is Cruz-Diez’s 1965 large-scale box, Chromosaturation. Walking around the front, one sees rectangles of intense colored light: red, blue, green that turn out to be windows. Around the other side, is the entrance to the box, which is divided into three zones with rows of colored fluorescent tubes in each space suspended from the ceiling. The color is not as intense as it appears looking through the windows, which must have some kind of film on them. Still, it’s plenty intense, surrounding one in a haze of color that is almost tangible, yet curiously, looking at another person, he appears normal in terms of form and colors. Standing in the corner and looking across the entire box, seeing the colors meet and bleed into one another was simply ravishing.

I gather that at the exhibition’s installation at MOCA in Los Angeles where it originated, there was an installation by Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida that featured a swimming pool ringed with blue neon and illuminated by green spotlights. On the opposing walls, slides of John Cage's 1969 book of musical notations, as well as drug imagery were projected. Visitors were allowed to swim laps in the pool—what a sensory experience that would have been, and talk about engaging with the work!

Too bad for me I was at the Hirshhorn during the day and couldn’t see the new commission by Doug Aitken Song 1, a 360° projection that at night, illuminates the museum’s entire façade.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Bit of Fun

These beauties are a natural target after my last post and given the fact I'm a shoe hound. They delight me with their Cadillac taillights and hot rod-detailing wings. A fine balance between humor and style, they’re elegant and fierce and just darn sexy unlike those goofy, faux mary jane booties from Prada’s last season. They're a breath of fresh air next to all the clunky out of scale platforms so in vogue these days.

Car Culture

Cars are getting uglier and uglier. Whether they’re American, Japanese or high-end German, it doesn’t matter. The worst offender may be Nissan, which a couple of years ago came up with what was the ugliest car ever: the Cube. Just because you have the technology to make a wrap around window, doesn’t mean you should. Nissan may have outdone itself this year with the perkily named Juke whose headlights extend up onto the hood. It’s an unfortunate precedent because you just know that other car companies have taken notice and this hither-to-fore expanse of plain metal will now become bedazzled and bedecked with all sorts of lighting bling.

Bling and collagen seem to be the theme here, the Juke looks plumped up like the bee-stung lips on a Bravo Housewife as does the is-it-a-sedan-or-an-SUV BMW X6 whose upwardly tilting rear end (and I’m sorry to be coarse here) reminds me of a baboon in heat presenting her ass to a courting male. I think perhaps Infiniti can be blamed for the introduction of the fubsy look to automobiles; they're no slouch in the hideous department this year with their JX and QX models.

And does anyone else see a goofy toothless grin when they pass by the front of a 2011 Mazda? It’s not an attractive look that’s only accentuated when the car is a light shade. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to look imbecilic driving down the road.

Don’t get me started on the SUV-pickup truck hybrids (and I’m not talking gas-electric hybrids here). The industry refers to this class of car as a crossover. I think Cadillac makes the worst version, though they’re all loathsome. These seem to be popular with pro-ball players, rap stars and recent lottery winners.

I could probably devote an entire blog to American car names, which in the past included Mirage, Charade and Caprice. Among the current line up in these macho post 9/11 times, Avalanche and Armada might be the best (i.e. worst) with special irony kudos going to GMC for co-opting the Indian name for Mt. McKinley, Denali, to bestow on its gas guzzling behemoth.

Speaking of irony have you ever noticed the disproportionately high number of SUVs out there that have the "9/11 Fight Terrorism" license plates? A friend says this is just because the drivers of such para-military vehicles are militaristic. But I believe it's more than that. On some level there’s an awareness of the ultimate toll vehicles like this have extracted from this country and it’s the owners' attempt to shift blame for the Iraq War from oil to terrorism.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

La Bella Principessa

Last night I watched the PBS special La Bella Princepessa on a drawing some experts believe to be a Leonardo da Vinci. A beautifully executed portrait, the pen-and-chalk drawing on vellum, features lovely rosy and golden tones. One of the highlight’s of the TV program was watching a contemporary artist recreate it using authentic materials. She began with a vellum calf-hide, which she cut to size before sketching in the figure. It was trial and error to get the colored chalk to adhere to the vellum and she eventually resorted to using her fingertips to rub it on. Interestingly, there is a partial fingerprint on the drawing, Leonardo left prints on other works, which not only supports the likelihood of finding one here, but also provides an example of the real McCoy for comparison. In the end, the print from the drawing wasn’t extensive enough and the results were inconclusive.

The drawing’s story is the kind that galvanizes the art world. Purchased for a relative pittance ($21,850) in 1998 by New York dealer, Kate Ganz (who held on to the painting for ten years) it was eventually bought by Canadian collector, Peter Silverman who suspected it might be a Leonardo and sent an image of it to eminent Leonardo scholar, Martin Kemp.

Kemp noted "uncanny vitality" in the work and says, "I experienced a kind of frisson, a feeling that this is not normal." The vellum had been carbon-dated c. 1440-c. 1650, which was within the range of Leonardo’s dates. Intrigued, Kemp embarked on his own investigation using high-resolution multispectral scans. Studying the drawing in extraordinary detail, the evidence began to mount up. Kemp discovered many areas that seemed to confirm that it was a Leonardo, most notably that the artist of the drawing was (very unusually) left-handed like the master himself. Other aspects include: the precise lines and adept modulation of colors and the enigmatic expression that is reminiscent of Leonardo’s other muses: Mona, Anne, Genevra. Lastly, the sitter’s headdress belongs to the Milanese court of the 1490s where Leonardo was.

Because there are stitch marks on the edge of the portrait and vellum was used for books, Kemp theorized that the portrait came from a book that may have commemorated a royal marriage. (This might also explain why hidden within the pages of a book it remained unknown for so long.) Armed with this clue, further research led him to theorize the sitter was Bianca Sforza (Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis (c. 1455–c. 1508) painted a strikingly similar portrait, right down to the hair net, that's positively identified as Bianca), the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, who married Galeazzo Sanseverino in 1496. Her husband was not only commander of the Milanese troops, but most tantalizing, a patron of Leonardo's. Sadly Bianca, who was probably only 14, died just a few months after her wedding.

All this is very compelling, but there are experts who are not convinced that the portrait is by Leonardo and it was excluded from the blockbuster show now on view at the National Gallery in London. I have to say that while I think it is a gorgeous drawing by a consummate artist, it doesn’t look like a Leonardo to me. Now, I am no Leonardo expert, but his women are distinctly odd looking (it would be interesting to have a forensic facial reconstruction artist translate their features into “living” people to get a sense of odd they really are) and tend to look alike, probably because he used the same model. There are a couple of exceptions: The Lady with an Ermine (who kind of resembles Bianca) and his Portrait of an Unknown Woman aka La Belle Ferroniere. But even these have a stylized, almost archaic quality to their features. Not so the drawing, which not only looks like a real person, but possesses an ideal of female beauty that seems distinctly different from Leonardo’s. While there were contemporary artists who did paint beauties that look like actual people—Botticelli springs to mind—Bianca looks too pretty for Leonardo and too fleshed out, if you will, for the period. She’s more like a pre-Raphaelite glammed-up take on the Renaissance (though I’m not suggesting the drawing is from that era). Or I'll put it this way, if you asked Gustav Klimt to paint a by-the-book Renaissance portrait of a young girl, I think you'd end up with something like this.

It’s possible she was done by some other Renaissance artist or else is the product of an incredibly skilled forger. The multi-pronged expertise required to pull this off would be incredible, but with a potential $100 million payout it’s not completely inconceivable. While the evidence that points to Leonardo is manifold, for me it’s how something looks, it’s the ultimate test and all the facts in the world can’t take away from this. Just sayin’.