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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Siri Aurdal

The largest and first solo exhibition of Norwegian sculptor Siri Aurdal since 1980, Continuum at the Malmö Konsthall presents Aurdal’s breathtaking work in a long overdue tribute to this visionary artist.

After a decades-long hiatus, Aurdal reemerged to great fanfare during the 57th Venice Biennale when her Onda Volante ("Flying Wave") was exhibited at the 2017 Nordic Pavilion. This monumental work of graceful, looping forms is made from reinforced, fiberglass-coated, polyester tubes intended for use in the Norwegian oil industry. With the tubes, Aurdal is able to explore her interest in modular sculptural systems. 

Aurdal is known for her interest in industrial materials, drawn to them because of the engineering possibilities they afford—strength, flexibility and lightness. But she also clearly revels in and is aware of the power of taking something humble and unpretentious and imbuing it with beauty and grace.

The two other pieces, Interview (1968/2018) and Conversation (2018) are hung together suggesting a fluidity inherent in the show’s title. The sheets of colored Plexiglas that comprise them are cut into different shapes that are suspended from the ceiling. One can walk amongst them in a kind of kaleidoscopic maze of color. As you move through, colors (red, green, and pink for the former; deep blue, light blue, and orange for the latter) and figures overlap creating new forms and hues. 

It was very interesting seeing this show hot on the heels of the exhibition on Katarzyna Kobro at the Moderna Museet, Malmö. I thought at first it must be intentional, but I never saw anything linking the two women.The connection between the two seems pretty clear. According to the accompanying literature, Aurdal, like Kobro was interested in the relationship of art to architecture as well as its social context. But more striking was something I could see with my own eyes: how their sculptures occupy and interact with space. They don’t sit within it like separate masses, but actively engage with it. Above and beyond this, the two women share an artistic courage and unwavering determination to create art on their own terms in a field of men. 

Aurdal took her sculpture to a much larger scale—she was part of a generation that did this—but, as a woman, it took a certain uncompromising bravery to be so bold. Because let’s face it, especially in the 1960s (the date of the original iterations of this work), monumentality was considered the province of men. Aurdal deftly co-ops it, while managing to hold onto her female identity. You look at these pieces and know they could only have been done by a woman.

One hopes from the title of the exhibition, Continuum, that what we see here—the brilliance of the past and present work—will carry on into the future and more will be forthcoming from Aurdal.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

More Than a Tea Cup

Meret Oppenheim is a name familiar to anyone who has taken an Art History survey course. Her brilliant, edgy and whimsical fur-lined tea cup, Object, is perennially trotted out as the emblematic symbol of the Dadaist movement. But as Mirrors of the Mind, a comprehensive retrospective of Oppenheim’s oeuvre makes clear, Oppenheim was far more than a one-shot wonder with a long and interesting career. 

The show at EMMA (the Espoo Museum of Modern Art) includes 200 works by Oppenheim and other surrealists like Man Ray and Daniel Spoerri, as well as photographs of Oppenheim herself. Oppenheim died in 1985, but she remains a leader in the field of Surrealism and an icon of feminism. 

In her 50-year career, Oppenheim created paintings, sculptures, drawings and graphics. She also designed and made jewelry, as well as furniture and garments, and if all that wasn’t enough, she also wrote poetry.

The exhibition is beautifully curated and displayed in a series of small galleries that suit the work’s aesthetic, scale and era. Particularly effective, is the room featuring glass vitrines placed within plywood walls that are both warm and perfectly attuned to the work on view—it would behoove the people at the soulless shopping mall-like institutions masquerading as museums to take a look at this presentation and see the power of intimate spaces.

I was charmed by Oppenheim's paintings and works on paper. The Earl Queen is a mysterious, somewhat haunting painting of a strange headed figure holding an infant with the same sort of head but with elongated crossing horns. The heads are kind of sinister, almost satanic. The two figures are next to a bushy tree that seems illuminated. In the background one can see the lighted windows of a train. The dreamlike scene is nocturnal and rendered in grays and blacks. The exceptions are the min figures' red and blue clothes. These are nearly diaphanous and suggest an apparition. Moth is a nearly abstract work of beautifully modulated grays, white and black. These two works reveal a subtlety and range surprising if all you have to go on as far as Oppenheim's work is Object. Her etching, Schoolgirl's Notebook is a replica of her math notebook in which she drew "x = hare", a nonsensical equation meant to illustrate her aversion to both math and school is simple, witty and striking. 

Giacometti's Ear, a true-to-life size bronze rendering of an ear is a marvelous object. You don't really notice at first, but Oppenheim has used something that looks like a tree trunk, or perhaps the silhouette of a woman's body, two lilies and a fist to form the anatomy of the ear. Traccia her famous bronze table with its funny bird legs is here, a delightful union of elegance and farce. I didn't see My Nurse at EMMA, but later in Stockholm during the same trip, a confection composed of a pair of white pumps neatly trussed and served up on a platter. The piece de resistance are the manchettes stuck jauntily onto the heels like the shoes are a proper crown roast. One is drawn to the materials, the humor and also the enigmatic quality. The photographs, taken over many years, are testament to Oppenheim's fearlessness and commitment to art. 

Man Ray's elegant swirl of a lampshade and Spoerri's Transvestite in a Blue Picture with a Glove Holder (from 2001) were two works by Oppenheim's circle that stood out. 

No Ordinary Moments: Visit to EMMA

EMMA, the Espoo Museum of Modern of Art is located in Tapiola in the suburb of Espoo, a short subway ride from Helsinki on one of its spotless and punctual to a fault, tomato red trains. You know you’re at the right stop when you step off the train and are greeted on the platform by Emma Leaves a Trace, a monumental white sculpture. Kim Simonsson’s sculpture is actually bronze painted completely white except for one hand that’s splashed with color. Blotches of the same colors. suggesting the girl’s handprints, appear around the station. There are also a series of digital animations showing the girl’s mischievous antics as she paints the streets of Tapiola in rainbow colors.

The largest art museum in Finland, with over 50,000 square feet of gallery space, EMMA is housed in a former printing company designed by Aarno Ruusuvuori (1925–1992) in 1967. A classic example of 1960s brutalism, the concrete building is a long, low rectangle. From the outside it’s a foil to its woodland setting, and inside, it invites those woods in, thanks to the windows running along the rear wall. This inclusion and reverence for nature is very much part of the Finnish ethos where modern design and nature happily coexist.

You enter the museum on the ground level where the café and shop are situated. Out back behind the museum is a Futuro House. Designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen (1933–2013) in 1968, the living structure was made out of fiberglass-reinforced polyester plastic. It looks like a flying saucer. The one at EMMA is bright yellow, but they came in a variety of colors—white, orange, blue. One can picture it in a snowy landscape out in the woods or in the desert looking quite cool. Unfortunately, Suuronen continued his UFO-theme inside with a row of ugly bucket seats ringing the edge of the main circular room. I kept thinking how much better it would be gutted and filled with natural materials. This also might have helped alleviate the peculiar odor—possibly plastic degrading that made lingering inside for any length of time impossible. Still, the inclination for a small modular house was spot on as evidenced by the explosion of the tiny house movement today. Of the original 100 Futuro houses that were made, only around 60 survive. Several are in the U.S.

Back in the museum building and up a flight of stairs are the main exhibition galleries. Here, the ceiling is suspended from eight massive columns; there are no structural walls, so the enormous space can be easily manipulated to accommodate different types of art and exhibitions. It feels both expansive and intimate, with a warmth and graceful flow between spaces.

No Ordinary Moments, a curated exhibition of Finnish and International works from the museum’s collection of contemporary work required large open space to display the work. A retrospective of the work of Merit Oppenheim occupied a suitably scaled area of intersecting spaces, situated away from the windows, towards the center of the building. Softly lit and rather cozy, it really enhanced the experience of looking at this type of art. In one or two instances, in this show, the exhibition areas had been delineated by many strands of fine twine hung from the ceiling to form a “wall”, which was both exceedingly beautiful and also afforded a cheap solution to separating space.

No Ordinary Moments provides a wealth of new discoveries. With the exception of Olafur Eliasson, not one of the other featured (mostly Scandinavian) artists was familiar to me, but boy was I impressed by the caliber of their work. The very first piece, Apokalypsis 1918, Hennala 4 (pictured) by Heikki Marila is a commanding piece by any standards. From a formal standpoint the painting has enormous presence with frenetic red scratches and squiggles covering a soft monochromatic background that could almost be photographic. Violence and blood are suggested by the strident overpainting and one begins to see the mounds and shapes as people. This is as it should be for the painting references the Hennala prison camp. Originally built as a garrison, during the Finnish Civil War, it was turned into one of the most infamous prison camps of the conflict.

Crystalline and shiny mirrors have a spare purity that is endlessly appealing. Olafur Eliasson uses them for their reflections but also for their lucent quality which references elements—water, air, ice that are the frequently his subjects. His Pentagonal Mirror Tunnel is composed of five round mirrors on stands facing each other in a circle that suggests a cosmic arrangement. Stepping within the circle, one begins to see the infinity tunnel phenomenon of the title. But more interesting, is the cubist effect of the reflections. These visually fragment the mirrors, producing intersecting planes and discombobulating the viewer’s sense of space.

Julian Opie’s striking Woman Walking in the Rain with a Headscarf has a graphically bold composition and snappy Good N’ Plenty palette. Opie is known for his highly stylized versions of ordinary people walking on the street. In his animated versions, he pairs an anonymity and emotional blandness—the faces are usually circles—with lifelike movement for a curious effect. Here, the hijab adds a charged poignancy to the composition.

I was drawn to Irmeli Hulkko’s Variable by her combined use of linear and painterly approaches makes for an interesting dialogue between the two, but also the spindles and lines floating “above’ the background enable her to create an illusion of space within a nonobjective work. She allots equal weight to each approach and also manages to integrate them to produce a cohesive whole. Hulkko’s unexpected palette of watery yellow and gray with a dash of Kelly green was curiously appealing.

Denise Grünstein’s creepy video All Flesh is Grass features a man dressed in a suit, standing in front of a table—you only see his chest and arms—his head is out of the frame. The interior, the figure and the quality of the light recall a Vermeer. Soon a tress of strawberry hair falls on the table in front of the man. Several more begin to drop slowly at first and then more and more frequently larger clumps of hair begin to fall. Pretty soon there is a horrifyingly large pile of hair accumulating in front of him. Throughout it all, the man continues standing there, his hands resting on the linen table cloth.

Saara Ekström’s large format color prints are simply luscious meditations on form and color. Method of a Cloak and Brim were irresistible with their acid 1960s Cadillac palettes and inspired pairings of objects.

Tina Heiksa’s little gem From the Series Pink Coat reminded me a bit of Gerhard Richter’s blur paintings. Heiksa renders the coat with such audacious confidence—the forceful stokes of paint on the left forming the edge of the garment and the left sleeve, and then, the swirls of paint that form the folds on the other side, are marvelous examples of control and panache. Other areas to admire Heiska’s talent are the sheen of the hair, the light on the shoe and the way the window in the background is created through gradations of color.

From high on a wall in one gallery, Pauliina Turakka Purhonen Kibitzer (a sewn and embroidered head of a woman) stares down at the viewer. There is something ancient, earthy and Northern European about her, like a creature out of folk lore or an extra from a Hieronymus Bosch or Bruegel painting. But the material, technique and her disembodied state is decidedly contemporary. I noticed when I enlarged the photo I took that there are tears falling from her rather manic eyes.

It was such a refreshing experience to step into this previously unknown to me corner of the world and fine such a high level museum filled with such exciting work. When the art world has been distilled down to a few huckster technicians that seem to grab all the attention, it is wonderful to discover not only many, many strong artists, but an institution that is willing to support them.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Fantastico! Italian Art from the 1920s and 1930s

A dazzling and comprehensive exhibition, Fantastico! at Helsinki’s Ateneum sheds much needed light on the Magical Realism movement that flourished in Italy between the two World Wars. The Magical Realists used extreme realism to depict everyday subjects, conveyed in such a way—using light, space, strange juxtapositions of objects and just plain glorious painting—to endow them with a sense of mysterious power. It was a revelatory show full of ravishing work by artists who, with the exception of de Chirico, were all unknown to me.

Where have Baccio Maria Bacci, Felice Casorati, Bruno Croatto, Antonio Donghi, Ubaldo Oppi and Cagnaccio di San Pietro been all my life? The richness of these artists' oeuvres in terms of subject matter and technique is simply staggering, harking back to a tradition akin to the great masters of the Italian Renaissance. But the Magical Realists put their own spin on painting, using a modern approach to composition, color choice and subject matter, and infusing their work with deep psychological or enigmatic drama, and sometimes, humor.

The very first work, a strange allegory by Felice Casorati, Young Ladies (1912) depicts four women Dolores, Molante, Bianca and Giocanda together with a turkey in front of an expansive pine tree that takes up the background. Three of the women are dressed, one rather plainly (Dolores), but all quite chic (I question the date because the hemlines are way too short for 1912), the fourth (Bianca), a waif-like creature, is nude. She extends her arms in a kind of supplication. Three are solemn and one (Giocanda), a plump blonde, is grinning. Dolores has her hands at her face in either surprise or distress, Molante holds an embellished porcelain or enamel box and gazes shyly sideways at Bianca. At the women's feet various objects—fruit, flowers, small vases and pots, fans, jewelry, a large silver fluted box, books and scrolls of paper on which the women’s names appear—are arrayed across a green blanket. The juxtaposition of objects, moods and dress is ambiguous and the effect is both curious and haunting. 

With their velvety surfaces and palette of rich color, Antonio Donghi’s paintings have a sumptuous quality that is irresistible. He places his highly-detailed subjects within relatively spare compositions creating an otherworldly, dreamlike effect. This is on full display in The Juggler (1936), with its elegantly attired man in purple plus fours balancing a top hat on a cigar in a stage-set of a room. Donghi revels in his textures, artfully rendering the sheen of the patent leather dancing pumps, the silk stockings and the plush knickers, each perfectly keyed to its distinctive material. The background has a peculiar artificiality with stilted table and vase of flowers on the right and monolithic gold-fringed curtain on the left. 

splendid study in the use of color, Donghi's luscious Vase of Flowers (1928), is a tightly packed arrangement of jonquils, narcissus and purple hellebore in an olive glass vase. His Laundresses, a more down to earth subject, features monumental figures that recall Diego Rivera.

In Bacci Maria Baccio’s Afternoon in Fiesole (1926-29), two couples linger around a table after lunch. The remains of their meal, a bowl of figs and peaches, some red wine and a roll sit on the tablecloth. One of the men is playing the guitar. A woman is standing lost in thought before an arched window through which one can see a distinctive Italian landscape. 
In the foreground, the other woman is seated, her back to the viewer, her head inclined towards the music. To her right, the second man is looking with such wounded longing, not at the guitarist, but directly at her, adding a powerful note of romantic intrigue. There is a degree of spirituality and nostalgia to the scene, but with the man's expression and the obscured woman, Baccio has taken an anodyne domestic scene, and imbued it with such mystery and emotional intensity, it piques our interest and stays with us long after we have moved on.

Ubaldo Oppi’s Artist’s Wife with Portrait of Venice in the Background (1921) made me laugh out loud on account of Signora Oppi’s “don’t-give-me-that-again” expression. This is a wife who has been given the run around once too often and I love the fact Oppi captures that. You wonder how she felt about being represented so. Did it land Oppi in the dog house yet again? Or was she dazzled by the beauty of the painting in which she resembles a modern day Bronzino. The striking teal of her velvet, possibly Fortuny, gown matches the canal behind her and provides the perfect tonal contrast to the salmon brick campanile. Once again, the background is spare, but Oppi does a masterful job of conveying Venice with so very little. He doesn't forget the important details, paying careful attention to his wife’s jeweled rings, the elaborate lacing of her sleeves and the fringe of feathers on her cuffs.

Bruno Croatto’s portraits are stop-you-in-your-tracks arresting.The austere and detailed Portrait of Rodolfo Fogolin (1932) presents the architect and friend of the painter on the terrace of his Roman villa with ruins in low horizon line beyond. In front of him lies an open volume of "I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura" by Andrea Palladio. Fagolin has an interesting face (
he bears a striking resemblance to the Shah of Iran imho). It's oblong with soulful eyes, a large, slightly bulbous nose and thin, set lips bracketed by deep lines. Clearly a man of style, he sports an eye-catching saffron colored jacket and a devil-may-care, askew black bow tie against a blue shirt. He towers over his surroundings, Palladio, ancient Rome, a metaphor perhaps of Croatto’s very high opinion of him.

Un "Adagio" de Schubert (1937) is a portrait of Croatto’s wife. He uses the conceit of painting her listening to music as a means to tell us something essential about her. Clearly, she is enraptured by Schubert’s music. She leans in towards it, her bird like fingers in black gloves stretch out to it, their shadows falling on the wall behind. Their expressive shapes provide a counterpoint to the ruffles of the white jabot at her throat. She is painted in profile. An atypical approach that is dramatic and maybe designed to show off her best features: those high cheek bones and perfect nose. Her hair is swept back, held in place by a tortoise shell headband, to further reveal her visage. A handsome woman, past youth, she is serious about music and serious about life and this is conveyed not only by what she is doing but also by the stripped-down composition and monochromatic palette that recalls a Whistler.

Croatto’s intense Self-Portrait in the Studio (1931) 
conveys the gravity with which he takes himself. An odd looking man with piercing blue eyes and exaggerated lightbulb shaped head, he is deadly serious about what he does. He holds the tools of his trade, brushes, a mahl stick and a palette in his left hand, his right arm is gracefully crooked on the chair with a brush held like a pen in his right hand. He is pausing in the act of painting. On the table in front of him, next to a tube of paint, are cigarettes spilling from a package, a lit one is balanced on the table. They are both important to him and add visual interest and a grounding reality to the work. As with the portrait of his wife, the palette is reduced to a minimum. And here, like a low voice that captures your attention in a room full of chatter, the beige and tans add emphasis by virtue of their subtlety.

Cagnaccio di San Pietro’s After the Orgy (1928) (pictured) is a stunner that showcases Cagnaccio’s photorealist style and compositional brio. It’s a titillating subject matter for the 1920s, but it’s more bark than bite. Despite the title and the nudity, the painting is quite tame. Legs are crossed or backs are turned so the naughty bits aren’t visible. And there's something staged about the figures 
passed out on the floor in different posesas if the whole premise for the painting, in addition to conveying some bad boy cred to Cagnaccio, was to provide a means for him to showcase his anatomical knowhow

Texture and hue are used to great effect. Alabaster skin and muscle, bone and sinew have a substance and quality that stands out against the other inanimate materials. Cagnaccio makes such interesting color choices: gray, rust, carmine and a mossy green. Subtle "off colors", they have a depth and intensity that is just gorgeous, which sets the tone for the work and also comprise what there is of the interior decoration: carpet, curtain, blanket, pillows. If we admire them today, just think how fresh, and even bizarre they would have looked when originally painted, when much of the domestic environments would still be in the grip of a heavy-handed 19th decorative aesthetic.

Littering the floor are two champagne bottles and glasses, some cards and several cigarette butts, one with a cigarette-length ash suggesting it was dropped soon after being lit when its owner became, er, distracted. A lone dress shirt cuff complete with cufflink lies amid the disarray, suggesting abandon and haste during disrobing. Neatly placed on a cushion, a man’s homburg rests on a pair of white gloves. It’s all so studied and decorous as to be amusing. Still, it doesn’t detract from the visual power of the painting. Indeed, it provides the magic unreality of the realism.

Cagnacico’s Zoologia (1928),a nude self-portrait with a female nude is more erotic, and disturbing. It’s not just the way he’s pinning the woman down, but the perspective and lighting add a sense of discord. It's also incredibly modern. Though more refined, or romantic than the nudes of Philip Pearlstein (who would have been four when Zoologia was painted), it has his degree of exacting realism, deemed pretty darn daring when he was painting them 40-odd years later (and post-Sexual Revolution). The title refers to the book on the bed, but also suggests our biological drives are no different from those of animals. If you look closely you’ll see that the authors of the book are Adam and Eve and at the bottom the English translation reads: “Edition revised and corrected by modern society”.

There are several striking Cagnaccio still lifes in the show including Still Life with a Spider Crab (1933) and Play of Colors (1941), a study of transparency that features colored liquid in glass containers.

Portrait of Signora Vighi (1930) is a visual delight with all the details—her smart, red gown, her strapped court shoes, the book on her lap, the rings, the armchair and pillows—rendered with precision and flair. Poor Signora Vighi, though painted in oil, is no "oil painting”, despite her elegant clothing coiffed hair and highly plucked brows. She has a rather lost, bovine look about her. 
In an oddball visual flourish that adds a dash of quirk and makes the painting so modern and relevant to today, Cagnaccio has included two funny brightly colored toys, a dog and a chicken on the polished table beside Signora Vighi. Perhaps they're a reference to her maternal status, but judging from Cagnaccio's other works, more likely they're a waggish comment on the sitter. 

Cagnaccio’s Self-Portrait (1938) takes a completely different tact from Croatto. There are no props to tell you he’s a painter. He’s depicted from above with very little extra space around him. He rests his chin on his finger and gazes out with a pensive, almost quizzical look, not sure what to make of what he sees. You’re not sure if he’s about to burst out laughing. It’s an apt self-portrait for the painter of After the Orgy and Zoologia, someone who seemed to enjoy mischief making.

These works provide a delicious window into early 20th century Italy, its people, fashion, domestic interiors, etc. They are also tour de forces of painting: lush, elegant, technically accomplished with narrative aspects that are equally developed. There is intensity, fervor and spirituality with roots that can be traced to the Renaissance and the Catholic painting tradition. Here, the religious dogma has been subverted by the secular, with the focus on psychological and existential concerns. But the same degree of drama and emotion are there, along with the technical bravado that marks them as distinctly and irrefutably Italian.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Timo Sarpaneva

When I go very deep into the forest, all of my senses are alerted. That is when I can hear with my eyes.
                                 —Timo Sarpaneva

In America, Timo Sarpaneva is not exactly a household name. You may recognize his handsome casserole (1959) with dual purpose wooden lid, which evokes some Viking cauldron. According to Sarpeneva, the pot made a “damn good” reindeer stew—a Finish specialty—and was immortalized on a 1998 Finnish postal stamp. Sarpaneva’s Finlandia glassware, which features a frosted, ridged surface (used by Finlandia vodka for its bottle) may also be familiar. But Sarpaneva’s expansive retrospective at Helsinki’s Design Museum reveals a talent of enormous virtuosity and range who excelled in both industrial design and fine art.

Sarpaneva worked in metal, wood, textiles and ceramics, but his preferred medium was glass. He was drawn to it partly because it recalled the molten metal he had observed as a tiny tot in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop, but he also found it just plain alluring: “Glass is very mysterious. It's changing all the time. That's what makes it magical. It released me from the conventional and the three-dimensional. It opened its deepest reaches to me and took me on a journey to a fourth dimension. I understood the opportunities that clear, transparent glass gives to an artist and designer.”

Sarpaneva descended from a long line of craftsmen and possessed a confidence that enabled him to experiment with radical techniques. For instance, the "bark" effect of the Finlandia line was achieved by scorching and burning wooden molds while blowing glass into them.Typically, molds are soaked in water which produces steam between the hot glass and the mold, keeping the surface of the glass away from the wood. With Finlandia, the molds weren’t soaked in water. So, the molten glass was in direct contact with the mold, burning it and causing the texture of the charred wood to be imprinted onto the glass. One gets the sense that for Sarpaneva, the Finlandia technique was about more than producing an interesting product, but served as a paean to glassmaking and the elemental nature of fire itself.

Sarpaneva introduced innovations into his textile production, as well. The complex coloration and pattern of his Ambiente linen cloth relied on a robotization system employing nearly 2,000 automated settings.

While Sarpaneva considered himself first and foremost an artist, he spent the majority of his career in industrial design. His longest professional affiliation was with Iitallia, the Finnish design company specializing in tabletop and cookware, which first employed him and with which he maintained a professional relationship for most of his life. However, his famous dinner service, Suomi (“Finland”) was launched in 1976 by Rosenthal China. The originally all-white set was selected by the Pompidou Center in Paris to reside in its permanent collection as an example of contemporary design. Rosenthal, which had initially thought the set too simple, subsequently introduced versions of the china featuring decorations by such artists as Salvador Dali and Victor Vasarely.

In looking at Sarpaneva’s work one is struck by how closely tied to nature it is. Natural phenomena of his native Finland like ice, the aurora borealis and the sea inform and inspire his work. This reverence for nature is not peculiar to him, but is very much a part of the Finnish psyche.

A version of Sarpaneva’s glass sculpture, Ahtojää (“Pack Ice”), produced in 2018 specifically for this exhibition measures nearly 7 feet by 30 feet and features 210 blown glass forms. Arrayed on a long, low rectangular table, these weird jellyfish-like protuberances were made using the Finlandia technique. But in this instance, Sarpaneva’s taken it much further, producing irregular, deep channels crinkling the glass. Bulbous nodes, perhaps the result of bubbling due to intense heat, appear here and there across the surface. The forms themselves differ in height—from maybe 8 inches to 2.5 feet—and shape. Some have a brownish cast at the top, suggesting burnt sugar and a longer exposure to fire. Lit from within, it’s a stunning piece that like ice itself, features gradations of opacity, luminosity and hue. The much larger original was produced for the Finnish pavilion at Expo 67.

With Seraphim (1987), Sarpaneva does something pretty extraordinary. Using lighting trained on a large slab of rippling glass, he produces a startling shadow of brilliant, watery light—celestial wings, if you will—against an opaque silhouette, thereby extending the piece beyond its physical borders. With his familiarity with glass, Sarpaneva would understand how its shadow appears and created this work to make the most of that phenomenon. In so doing, he shows us the magic of glass, which has the ability to transform shadow into something lively, beguiling and ineffably beautiful.

And then there are the “jewels”—Sarpaneva’s technically staggering colored art glass, a byproduct of his work with the Venini glass factory in Murano. Sleek and luscious, these pieces feature muted, natural colors and surfaces one wants to stroke…or lick. Though of modest scale (1 ft. to 3 ft. approximately), they are none the less, weighty, imposing works. In some, where different colored glass knock up against each other, one wonders how he kept them separate. This is particularly noteworthy in Protuberans II (1999) (pictured), a piece of mind-boggling technical precision in terms of both hue and shape. Other favorites include the deep amethyst lozenge Lancet (1998) and the simply ravishing “demisphere”, Nocturnalis (1999), which recalls the blue tinged emerald of seawater around icebergs.

Large Iconostasis (1966), a dramatic wall sculpture that both resembles a Louise Nevelson and surpasses her oeuvre, was made from the scorched wooden molds used in the Finlandia series. One can imagine Sarpaneva seeing the molds piled up on the floor of the hot shop, divining their aesthetic merit and formulating a way to employ them in a piece.

Other influences include prehistoric Finland and Norse folk art. The former is evident in his series of sketches of petroglyphs, at once both modern—think Paul Klee—and ancient, as well as his Pohjanlahti rugs, which were produced semi-industrially using traditional Finnish "ryijy" rugmaking techniques, and feature designs based on markings made by seal hunters on the rocky Gulf of Bothnia islands. The drab colors are meant to evoke moss and rock. 

In other drawings it seems Sarparneva was merging folk art motifs with the petroglyph forms to create striking hybrids that are as dynamic as they are charming. Kukko (“rooster”) is in this vein. A delightful rooster-shaped tea cozy with extravagant cock’s comb handle topping it, the piece won a silver medal at the 1951 Milan Triennale despite the fact some people mistook it for a funny hat.

Sarparneva was a modernist who used nature and history to imbue his work with humanity. In terms of inspiration and materials, he never strayed far from his native land, giving his work a rooted authenticity. Far from provincial, his inventive, consummate approach has produced work that charms, astonishes and satisfies.