05 December, 2011

5 Dec - Art Basel Miami Beach

Last week was the 10th anniversary of Art Basel Miami Beach. In what amounts to a week-long art viewing, hobnobbing, party-hopping bender, the international art glitterati descend upon Miami Beach to see, be seen, schmooze, acquire, revel, gossip, and generally carouse. In addition to Art Basel Miami Beach there are 16 satellite fairs scattered throughout the city, museum exhibitions, gallery openings, private collection tours, concerts, performances, brunches, and VIP events in a timeline better suited to a month-long endeavor than a five-day art event.

Art Basel originated in Basel, Switzerland and came to Miami in 2002. Over the years, the fair has profoundly transformed the city while it is there. Hotel rooms, flights, restaurants, stores, galleries, museums are teeming, and Miami garners the focus of international publicity on a previously unprecedented scale.

The week is a testament to the unassailable and unnerving fact that money and art are inextricably bound. This week lays bare and unabashedly celebrates the fact of their interdependence.  The art world is an amalgamation of pretense and brilliance – breathtaking imagination alongside gilded Gucci-clad lemmings. Miami invites that dichotomy in its most extreme – amazing works by little known and experimental artists at the fringes of art making presented simultaneously with the insecurity, boredom, and keeping up with the Joneses that is the “dark side” of the art world.

While in Miami I received an editorial by the infamous (and notorious) art collector Charles Saatchi. No stranger to controversy and criticism, Saatchi seemed to have had a massive art epiphany. Or – more likely - his wealth paled in comparison to the “artigarchs” of Brazil, Russia, India, and China who are out buying all of the traditional “major players.” Saatchi seethed that “being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar…do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures…In the fervour of peacock excess, it's not even considered necessary to waste one's time looking at the works on display. At the world's mega-art blowouts, it's only the pictures that end up as wallflowers.”

Beyond the madness and excess, the vulgarity of VIP swagger and “peacock excess,” Miami has gained an increasingly prominent position as a destination for art, culture, and design. The fair and all of its adjacent events have bolstered the Miami economy in profound and quantifiable ways. The fair’s continued success has encouraged the development of formerly dilapidated neighborhoods such as the Design and the Wynwood Art District that are now comprised of major private collections, boutiques, restaurants, bars, and a major influx of galleries - 4 to 45 over the past 8 years.

Another benefit, as described by Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times is that “as Miami’s cultural profile has grown, so too has the government’s willingness to invest. Local museums, including the well-respected Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, are expanding, partly with government money. The Miami Art Museum is in the midst of constructing a new building designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects who reimagined the Tate Modern in London.”

The fact that “trendy” and “chic” is often not (ever?) a sustainable model is an issue that major players in the Miami art world must address in order to maintain Miami’s current cultural growth trajectory. Every “cool” event has its expiration date, and for Miami to bank on the past decade of cultural success it will have to make real-time infrastructural and practical investments. As Rosa de la Cruz, patron of the arts and Miami-based collector explains, “Miami universities need to create graduate programs that will act as springboards for talented young artists.” Other ideas include Miami museums building major permanent collections…Art Basel has been wonderful to Miami, but for the rest of the year we need to start building an infrastructure,” Mrs. de la Cruz said. “We have to be very conscious of that, and we have to work very hard.”

02 November, 2011

2 November - Caravaggio and Francis Bacon

I just completed Francine Prose’s lucid biography Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I have always been drawn to Caravaggio’s stunning paintings and the defiance and innovation with which he approached traditional religious subject matter. I was curious to know more about his work and infamously troubled life after seeing the Caravaggio / Francis Bacon exhibition at the Galeria Borghese in Rome, and this biography provided great insight into his work and life. 

Esthetically, the pairing of Francis Bacon and Caravaggio was a brilliant choice by British curator Michael Pippiat. Both Caravaggio and Bacon unflinchingly plumbed the depths of the human condition. Each in his own unique and extraordinary way painted the sordid and debased, exposed the flesh and decay of the human body. Both artists simultaneously eroticized and laid bare the vulnerability of the human condition in forms that challenged the sensibilities and conventions of the contemporaries and patrons of their respective eras.  Beyond this esthetic connection both artists’ lives were notoriously difficult, conflicted, and enormously self-destructive. Each perpetuated the myth of the tortured genius to the furthest reaches of their capacities. Bacon and Caravaggio were iconoclasts, virtuosos, addicts, and criminals – their very myths defined by the raging intensity of their personal turmoil and the extravagant beauty of their work.

Caravaggio seethed against the constraints of 17h century Italy. He embodied the sacred and profane and with each professional success his life spiraled deeper into brutal street fights, vendettas, exile, and multiple murder charges. His life, like his work, treaded a fine line between the sublime and the beautiful, the sacred and the profane. In Prose’s words “Caravaggio insisted on his freedom to defy categorization, his right to make art according to his convictions and out of whatever engaged his intellect and his soul, as well as his creative, religious, and erotic impulses.” Bacon, too, lived a contradictory and despairing existence. As described in his biography by Pippiat, Bacon was “generous but cruel, forthright yet manipulative, ebullient but in despair: He was the sum of his contradictions. This life, lived at extremes, was filled with achievement and triumph, misfortune and personal tragedy."

It is fascinating that both artists have transcended their times to remain among the most important painters in the history of art. In Prose’s words, describing Caravaggio but also apt for Bacon, “all of these centuries later, the sense of connection, of communication—of communion—that we feel with the long-dead painter seems almost vertiginously direct and profound. Having spent his brief, tragic, and turbulent life painting miracles, he managed, in the process, to create one—the miracle of art, the miracle of the way in which some paint, a few brushes, a square of canvas, together with that most essential ingredient, genius, can produce something stronger than time and age, more powerful than death.” 

12 October, 2011

12 Oct - Bono and Hiroshi Sugimoto

This weekend I attended The Chinati Foundation’s 25th anniversary celebration in Marfa, Texas. It’s founder, artist Donald Judd, conceived of creating a place that would present art (originally his alongside that of Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain) in a permanent space to carefully address the context of place, architecture, and constancy. In Judd’s words, “It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully. This should not always be thrown away. Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place."

The Chinati Foundation opened to the public in 1986 as an independent, non-profit, publicly funded institution (supported largely by the DIA Foundation). The collection now includes 15 outdoor concrete works and 100 aluminum works by Judd, 25 sculptures by John Chamberlain, an installation by Dan Flavin occupying six former army barracks, and permanent installations by artists including Carl Andre, Ingólfur Arnarsson, Roni Horn, Richard Long, and Claes Oldenburg.

In addition to the permanent collection, Chinati also presents temporary exhibitions and this weekend featured an installation by internationally celebrated photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. I have long admired and exhibited Sugimoto’s photography and was surprised to find that this show consisted of 24 glass pagodas, each six inches high, presented on Japanese wood pedestals. At the center of each pagoda, however, I discovered a thread from his earlier works - miniature unique images of his iconic seascape photographs (pictured above, left).

I met Sugimoto on the opening night and attended his lecture in downtown Marfa the next day, curious to learn more about this new body of work. The lecture addressed Sugimoto’s creative influences, exhibition history, and current and future projects. It touched upon his recent architectural work and how his ongoing fascination with Japanese antiquities brought him to this new body of sculptural pagodas and linked him back to Donald Judd who apparently had a similar affinity. The talk, however, took a wildly unexpected turn and got me thinking about the intersection of fame, celebrity, and cross-disciplinary inspiration.

About twenty minutes into the lecture, Sugimoto's slideshow of images went from his own work to his collection of Japanese antiquities to U2's "Claw," a massive four-legged supporting rig build for their most recent world tour. Um, what?

Sugimoto laughed, and said, and now we will talk about something very different. Sugimoto proceeded to launch into a story of being taken by private jet to Bono’s beautiful villa in Nice a few years ago. He had never met Bono and was not totally sure who he was, but he was enthralled with the extravagance of transport and magnificence of locale. Bono greeted Sugimoto at the villa and told him that he was a great admirer of his Seascapes. Bono then asked if Sugimoto might consider shooting a seascape from this villa for the cover of U2's next album. At this point in the talk, Sugimoto chuckles, and tells the audience that he is not a commercial photographer. Had Bono NOT asked him for the shot he may well have made a picture, but since Bono asked him to do it he had to decline. He clearly was entertained with this aspect of the story.

Bono and Sugimoto continued the conversation, and ultimately one of Sugimoto’s existing photographs, Boden Sea, was used for the No Line on the Horizon album cover and title. The photograph was also used in a repeated image that spanned the massive video screens atop "The Claw" during the world tour. Taken with his work being featured amidst the magnitude and scope of U2's fame (it turned out to be the highest-grossing and highest-attended concert tour in history), Sugimoto remains star struck. At one point during the lecture Sugimoto showed a concert clip where Bono interrupts one of his signature songs in a stadium full of screaming fans to give a shout out to "Sugimoto-san." Sugimoto beamed, momentarily speechless, basking in the memory.

This lecture was an example of artists at the pinnacle of their respective careers being awed by the achievements of peers in other fields. For the same reason that I love Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, Adam Bly’s Seed Salon series, and the Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts, it is fascinating to explore the ways that creative visionaries interact with, inspire, and admire one another’s lives and accomplishments. The examples of this interaction is endless and fascinating, the transcendence of "good work" clearly stretches far beyond its intended or understood audience into other realms of thought and interaction. In Sugimoto’s words "the works are really connected to the very deep roots of the human mind, even to the minds of musicians who have reached the pinnacle of success."

Beyond the glitz of private jets, French villas, solo exhibitions, auction records, and massive world tours, this type of intersection is a fertile place for growth and innovation and offers a singular opportunity to explore new ways to illuminate and understand our world.

06 September, 2011

6 Sept - Packing for Mars

I just finished Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach. Admittedly, this book does not discuss, tangentially or otherwise, anything related to art. But it is so entertaining, so fascinating, that I can't resist mentioning it in the blog. And I hear Bruce Nauman also loved it. So there you go.

In Packing for Mars, Roach explores and details the types of stories that NASA would most likely prefer to remain under wraps. This book is about the embarrassing, awkward, mundane, and utterly human aspect of space research and travel. The Publishers Weekly review describes that “despite all the high-tech science that has resulted in space shuttles and moonwalks, the most crippling hurdles of cosmic travel are our most primordial human qualities: eating, going to the bathroom, having sex and bathing, and not dying in reentry. Readers learn that throwing up in a space helmet could be life-threatening, that Japanese astronaut candidates must fold a thousand origami paper cranes to test perseverance and attention to detail, and that cadavers are gaining popularity over crash dummies when studying landings.”

One of the best aspects of Roach's research is that she throws herself into the project - she experiences parabolic flights in the "vomit comet", practices on zero gravity toilets, and drinks her own treated urine in the NASA cafeteria. She is unquestionably t
he type of adventurous friend who would lead you to delicious, scandalous, memory-making trouble. She can even make Jon Stewart

This book is a work of art. It is the dark and dirty and juicy details of rocket science. Roach is brilliant, unfailingly inquisitive, and laugh out loud funny. If my college physics professor had been this interesting I could be working at NASA by now. Well, maybe not.

30 August, 2011

30 Aug - Science is Culture

30-year old Adam Bly created Seed Magazine at the intersection of science and non-science to explore “a new way of looking at the world…like the renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the renaissance before us will be characterized by a revolution in how knowledge is gathered, synthesized, and applied to society.” Bly formerly studied cell adhesion and cancer at the National Research Council of Canada, was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2007 and is recipient of the Golden Jubilee Medal from Elizabeth II. He has lectured at the World Economic Forum, MoMA, Harvard, the Royal Society, the National Academy of Science, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and the State Department on the future of science and its role in society. His book Science is Culture is a compilation of five years of conversations Seed Magazine instigated between scientists and non-scientists as part of its Seed Salon series.

One of the most fascinating dialogs is the conversation between scientist and author Alan Lightman and choreographer Richard Colton. Lightman wrote Einstein’s Dreams, to date one of my favorite novels. The book follows young Einstein, living in Berne, Switzerland in 1905 as a patent clerk privately working on his bizarre, unheard-of theory of relativity. The book strays into fiction as Einstein goes home to take a nap, and subsequently has 30 dreams in which he works out his theory of relativity. Each dream is a parable of a world altered profoundly due to minute shifts in relativity. As described in its book review “in their tone and quiet logic, Lightman's fables come off like Bach variations played on an exquisite harpsichord. People live for one day or eternity, and they respond intelligibly to each unique set of circumstances. Raindrops hang in the air in a place of frozen time; in another place everyone knows one year in advance exactly when the world will end, and acts accordingly.”

Prior to their Seed Salon conversation, Richard Colton collaborated with Lightman to bring Einstein’s Dreams to the stage as a dance performance. The Seed Salon discussion is the continuation of a longer dialog between the two on the intersection and interdependence of art and science. A few highlights of the conversation: On artists’ fascination with science Lightman says “I think artists like to have their world thrown upside down. That’s part of what art is about, in my opinion. Artists like to look at things from totally new perspectives. That’s why artists have always enjoyed staying in touch with science. There’s a long history of salons and groups of both artists and scientists… Artists very much like to get new ideas from science, because they shake up their worldview, which is what they’re trying to do with their art.”

On why scientists are intrigued with the arts: “I think that one of the things that art helps provide scientists with is the language—and the metaphors and the images—to describe what scientists are so desperately trying to understand. Our instruments tell us that these totally unimaginable phenomena are happening, and yet we have no intuitive understanding of them. So we grope for language and pictures, and I think art provides some of these for us.” I must say, this resonates so closely with Jonah Lehrer’s perspective in Proust was a Neuroscientist – I would love to see the two of them in conversation…

Lightman and Colton discuss poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who in writing a letter to an aspiring poet advises, “learn to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, or like books written in a very foreign tongue.” Lightman’s interpretation is that “a lot of art is about the questions themselves. The question is more important than the answer. So I think that artists are much better at living with uncertainty. Ambiguity is an essential part of art.”

Asking new questions, existing with ambiguity, a new way of looking at the world. Like the world created in Einstein’s Dreams, I believe that we can create an exquisite new iteration of our world by exploring the edges of uncertainty, dreaming up new questions, ultimately reaching solutions that have until this point have been inconceivable and unimaginable. In the book’s introduction Bly describes that “science is a lens through which we can visualize and solve complex problems, establish international relations, and embolden (even reignite) democracy. More than anything, what this lens offers us is a limitless capacity to handle all that comes our way, not matter how complex or unanticipated.”

15 August, 2011

15 Aug - Art Crush William Powhida

I recently watched the Powhida Trailer to get a better sense of of William Powhida's recent opening at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea. The trailer is an Untitled-meets-Julian-Schnabel masterpiece, described as "the story of the greatest living artist." Powhida endlessly drains champagne from the bottle, womanizes (they're not hookers, they're my friends), stumbles, staggers, and waxes incoherently about his position of power and authority in an art world he recognizes as utter bullshit. I was instantly charmed.

The press release for his current Marlborough show rhapsodizes that it is the artist’s “most ambitious installation to date.” New York Observer critic Michael H. Miller ranted that “performances like this only work if there is some follow through. No one was being provoked. Mr. Powhida was simply pretending—half-heartedly—to be an asshole.” The critic didn't know that this was a Hollywood actor and that the real William Powhida was at a residency in Wisconsin. Polemical, subversive, button-pushing, deeply offensive to critics. I am willing to go so far as to say that William Powhida is the real deal.

The Marlborough installation consisted of an empty gallery with one bad oil painting hanging on a far wall of a man in a black suit and a purple dress shirt with sunglasses releasing a white dove from his hands. The painting was called POWHIDA, Portrait of a Genius. In a roped off area of the gallery was a table and chairs, a mini-fridge of beer and champagne, Marlborough Reds and ashtrays. Pernod-Absinthe flowed freely for all gallery attendees. People stood around in the gallery, drinking Absinthe and looking confused. And annoyed. Powhida arrived through one of the front gallery garage doors in a dark green Mercedes convertible, arms around two beautiful blondes, drinking straight from a bottle of champagne. He got out of the car, posed, and declared “Well I’m bored as fuck.” He proceeded to sit on the couch the majority of the event with his ladies, hurl expletives, and pound champagne.

William Powhida’s work has become an art world sensation for its scathing criticism of everything ranging from the New Museum, George W. Bush, Jerry Saltz, Zach Feuer, Dale Chihuly, to the Northern spotted owl. Poor Northern spotted owl. In 2004 Powhida began a list of “enemies,” rendering portraits of each “enemy” in graphite and gauche with insults written beneath each face. In 2009 he produced a drawing called "How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality" for the November cover of the Brooklyn Rail. Holland Cotter of the New York Times has called Powhida an "art world vigilante, virtuoso draftsman, compulsive calligrapher and fantasist autobiographer."

As Powhida’s popularity grows, his own fame and celebrity presents an interesting challenge for an artist whose entire oeuvre has been critiquing the art market as elitist and celebrity obsessed. Which is what makes his alter-ego so bewitching and subversive. LA MoCA Director Jeffrey Deitch described that "the irony is that by exposing art celebrity culture, he's becoming a celebrity himself... So hats off to him." Jeffery just wishes he had thought of creating an art world doppelgänger... other than James Franco.

So how does William Powhida address his own fame and place within the art world? As he described to Stephen Squibb for Idiom, “for me, this was the beginning of a dialogue that might help address some of the uneasiness about participating in a star-system and provoke an authentic reflection on the ways in which we, all of us, generate value around art objects. I’m left with the feeling that the market mechanism is bent, but not broken and that we have some collective authority to re-shape it in a more equitable manner. Really, we want to find ways to elevate the importance of culture in our shared social life. That art is a privilege for the wealthy, and not a right for everyone to understand and appreciate about our shared humanity is a concept that we really did challenge.” Half-hearted? Asshole? I think not.

photo credit: nose picker by Micah Schmidt

02 August, 2011

2 August - The BMW Guggenheim Lab

A visionary new venue opened its doors today in Manhattan. The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a six-year collaboration between the Guggenheim Museum and the car company BMW. This project will invite a new generation of leaders in architecture, art, science, design, technology, and education to come together to address the challenges that face the cities of tomorrow by examining those that exist in urban life today.

The lab will travel to nine major cities worldwide with three distinct mobile structures and thematic cycles. Each structure will be designed by a different architect and each will travel to three cities around the globe. As described by Carol Vogel of the New York Times, “In each city curators will invite leaders in fields including architecture, art, design, technology, education and science to participate in programs: lectures, workshops, games, performances and film screenings.”

The first Lab, located in the East Village in a formerly abandoned parking lot, was designed by the Tokyo architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow (pictured above, right). This modular carbon-fiber-mesh structure is designed to literally fold up and move to its next stop (first to Berlin, then to Mumbai) at the end of its ten-week run in New York. The interdisciplinary nature of this project provides an innovative and unconventional venue to engage in critical dialog and explore new ideas, in the words of curator Maria Nicanor it is “only by bringing everyone into the conversation can we achieve more innovative and meaningful answers to the urban challenges of the future.”

Theoretical Physicist and Santa Fe Institute professor Geoffrey West described that "cities have emerged as the source of the biggest challenges the planet has met since humans became social, yet as reservoirs of creativity and ideas, they are also the source of the solution." The BMW Guggenheim Lab is an opportunity to explore solutions within a captivating, intellectual, community-oriented, peripatetic, and mutable new platform. In the words of Reena Jana of Smartplanet.com “what will the public, the Guggenheim, and BMW learn from what promises to be an intriguing adventure in curating and international urban design? Even if the lessons are open-ended, the BMW Guggenheim Lab is likely to be a worthwhile architectural, marketing, and social experiment, one that will no doubt spark ongoing public debates and discussions both inside and outside the movable building itself.”

25 July, 2011

25 July - Midnight in Paris

I just saw the new Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. It is absolutely enchanting.

New York Times film critic Joseph Berger describes that “many a writer or artist has longed to travel back in time to the sizzling Paris of the 1920s, to sip absinthe with Hemingway at Les Deux Magots or dine on choucroute garnie with Picasso at La Rotonde.” The main character in the movie, Gil (brilliantly played by Owen Wilson), does just that. Gil parties with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, has his unpublished novel critiqued by Gertude Stein, confesses the absurdity of his situation with Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí, (who are utterly unfazed by a troubled time traveling novelist), and gets love advice from Ernest Hemingway (love, sex, death, and manliness).

Without a thorough knowledge of the cultural explosion and characters of 1920's Paris some of the incredible dialog and intimate jokes may go unnoticed, but for anyone who loves the literature, art, and legacy of that era this film truly cannot be missed. In the words of Filmtwitch critic Jim Tudor, the “abrupt humanization of these icons of the art and literature is as amusing to Gil as it is to us. The electricity of the time is felt as he makes not just priceless connections and contacts, but friendships. The magic and charm of 1920s Paris is right out in front of everything...”

The film failed for me on one critical level. The moral of the story is that the present is as vital and splendid as the past. Allen attempts to teach us that the lens of nostalgia paints a far more enchanting image of an era than it truly is in its own time. The film is so sumptuous, superbly filmed, and the icons of the past are so vibrant and seductive that I am convinced without a doubt that I would rather be in Paris in 1920 than in Santa Fe in 2011. Sorry, Woody - I'm just not buying it.

images: Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), a moment in the film, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston)

22 July, 2011

22 July - Lucian Freud dies at 88

Lucian Freud passed away on Wednesday at 88. Freud was a figurative painter known for holding steadfastly to his own voice and figurative style through decades that critics, collectors, and curators cast their interest and praise solely upon abstraction. Freud's work ultimately rose beyond art trends and contemporary fancies to be placed firmly within the trajectory of art history as one of the most important artists of our time. In the words of Tate director Nicholas Serota, "The vitality of his nudes, the intensity of the still life paintings and the presence of his portraits of family and friends guarantee Lucian Freud a unique place in the pantheon of late 20th century art."

Freud’s painting delves into the exquisite grotesqueness of the human flesh – it is impermanence and imperfection manifest - his paintings are excruciating masterpieces of lumpy and flawed sensuality. Only Freud could render Kate Moss' nude body both ravishing and ravished in thick and loose strokes of his brush. In his words, “ I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."

Working most of his life in a dingy studio in London, Freud's subjects were predominantly friends, family, fellow artists, and lovers. He described that his "subject matter is autobiographical, it's all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement, really”. In the words of New York Times critic William Grimes, Freud's studio was “his artistic universe, a grim theater in which his contorted subjects, stripped bare and therefore unidentifiable by class, submitted to the artist’s unblinking, merciless inspection.”

Freud touched on the most intimate details of his subjects' carnality and in doing so gave his viewers a glimpse into the delicacy and raw sensuality of the human form. British art critic William Feaver described that Freud “always pressed to extremes, carrying on further than one would think necessary and rarely letting anything go before it became disconcerting.” Through the lens of Freud's sumptuous distortions we are given a glimpse of our own humanity, acutely revealed and inexorably electrifying.

18 July, 2011

18 July - Eva Hesse Spectres

I finally made it to the UNM Art Gallery to see the Eva Hesse Spectres, 1960 exhibition. Seeing this show was a reminder of how visceral and searing Hesse’s work truly is live, her work suffers so dramatically in printed and digital reproduction. I was surprised to find that Hesse's early paintings are as haunting and fragile as her later works in more experimental and ephemeral medium that included string, rubber, cheesecloth, wax, and resin. The Spectres paintings achieve the hollow and fragile need, the teetering vertiginous quality of the installation and sculptural works that propelled her short career into international renown. Walking from painting to painting, I was reminded of a quote from Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman’s 2010 Hammer Museum lecture on the same series, “It is always beyond me how good Eva Hesse is at all times.”

Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936. She and her family fled to the United States when she was 2 to escape the Holocaust. This body of work was created when Hesse was just 24, soon after graduating from the Yale School of Art. The show consists of 19 oil paintings on canvas and masonite. An early departure from the abstraction and minimalism she would later be known for, the Spectre paintings are semi-representational, haunting, and acutely personal.

The paintings are comprised of two distinct groups. The first are smaller paintings that are of cadaverous, loosely rendered figures standing in small groups of two or three. As described by the Yale Press blog, “These paintings seem to emerge from an intersection of the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and the paintings of Willem de Kooning. They straddle the divide of flesh and paint, figure and ground, abstraction and line, proximity and distance.”

The second group are larger in scale and are elegiac and isolated self-portraits. As UNM Art Gallery curator E. Luanne McKinnon describes in her catalog essay, these figures embody “a sense of loss or displacement and pain. More directly stated, in these paintings Hesse’s real beauty was transmogrified into the ghastly.” As described by the Yale Press blog “claustrophobia and aberrant colors abound; skin is thick and dripping with paint; eyes are sightless and reflect nothing but violence. These self-portraits, as with the paintings that comprise the first half of the collection, are embodiments of emotional turmoil and existential frustration.”

Hesse’s work, regardless of medium, cuts to the core of human experience. Almost unbearably desolate, her work also holds a tenderness that I experience as a visceral sense of optimism, breathless expectation. Hesse fearlessly explored pain, loss, and isolation in her work, but also the unchartered territories of life's mysteries - the tender spaces between its excruciating moments. In her words, “I am interested in solving an unknown factor of art and an unknown factor of life.”

IMAGES: No title, 1960. Oil on canvas. 36 x 36 in. (91.44 x 91.44 cm). Collection of Barbara Bluhm-Kaul and Don Kaul, Chicago; Eva Hesse, 1969; Contingent (detail), November 1969 Fiberglass, polyester resin, latex, cheesecloth, 138 x 248 x 43.

09 July, 2011

9 July - Ai Weiwei's Zodiac

While in New York last week, I was able to see Ai Weiwei's “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” installation at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel. As most know by now, Mr. Ai is a political activist who openly criticized the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. He was arrested in Beijing this past April and held for over two months without official charges. He was recently released, but as Bill Lasarow of Visual Art Source describes, Mr. Ai is “effectively under house arrest, under indictment not for a political “crime” but for tax evasion, he is reduced to the statement: ‘I can’t talk to media but I am well’… Perhaps at some later date the artist will once more be who he so recently was, a fearless creative force shaping his art around a brilliant fusion of spot on aesthetic intuition and political passion. If his life hasIf his life has been salvaged, his teeth have been capped and his claws have been clipped.”

In light of the newly released but eerily silent artist, it felt right to see his installation of gnashing, grimacing, and ferocious creatures taking up significant space in New York City. The installation is a series of 12 heads of the Chinese Zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, boar. The cast bronze heads are enlarged versions of sculptures originally designed by European Jesuits in the 18th century for the Manchu emperor Qianlong. Part of a famous fountain clock in the Summer Palace, they were looted by French and British in 1860. As Roberta Smith describes in the New York Times, the installation that “my colleague Holland Cotter rightly predicted would look “winsome” if you didn’t know the back story, but that becomes more subversive if you do… It is a seemingly benign work plundered by the West, now being shown to the West, triumphantly enlarged and reconstituted.”

The installation is a stunning and subversive reminder of Mr. Ai’s message in a moment that he is unable to freely use his voice. Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, read a quote by Ai at the opening ceremony of the installation, at a time he was incarcerated and his charges unknown, “without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.” The installation is up 6 more days in New York. It is then scheduled to travel to Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington. Another edition is currently in front of the Somerset House, London.

06 July, 2011

6 July - Just Kids

Over the weekend I read Just Kids, a biography by punk poet Patti Smith about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. I was astonished by her linguistic radiance, her capacity to make even the most banal of moments enchanted and acute. I did not know much about Smith – I remember looking at stunning and fearsome photos of her in Interview Magazine in the 1990’s and assumed she was a reckless, iconic, somewhat talented drug addict rocker.

Smith and Mapplethorpe met on the streets of New York in the late 1960s and immediately found in one another a confidante, an ally, a lover, and a source of unwavering inspiration. They made a pact to stick together and this book is the narration of that enduring promise. Smith winds her words through New York street life and encounters ranging from fleeting moments to lifelong friendships with such luminaries as William Burroughs, Salvador Dali, Janice Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepherd, Jimi Hendrix, and Brice Marden. The book is the story of finding authenticity in fleabag hotels, clarity of vision in the darkest moments of rejection and fear, and each ultimately finding a distinct voice - through poetry, collage, photography, or punk rock – that transcended the cacophony and messiness of life.

In describing her belief in Mapplethorpe’s profound genius, Smith describes that “it is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or a tin soldier with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child his toys. Robert infused objects, whether for art or life, with his creative impulse, his sacred sexual power.”

Just Kids begins with an account of one of Smith’s earliest recollections of walking along a river with her mother. “The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage. Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky. The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.”

Smith, as she describes Mapplethorpe's "creative impulse, his sacred sexual power" infusing objects with magical life-breath reflexively and intuitively describes herself. Her husband once said that every photograph Mapplethorpe took of Smith ended up looking just like Mapplethorpe. They were bonded to the end, two lives navigating the thin line between chaos and creativity, theirs an integrated existence of life as art and art as life.

23 June, 2011

23 June - Guest of Cindy Sherman

I finally watched Guest of Cindy Sherman, the documentary co-directed by Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, aka Paul H-O. Paul begins with the fabulous and ghetto public access program "Gallery Beat," in which he and co-producer of the film Tom Donahue bust into galleries throughout New York and force their way into the faces of some of the art elite of the early 90's including Julian Schnabel (who hates them and comes off as an odious narcissist in the film), Spencer Tunic (then an unknown artist, Paul records the show in the buff), Tracy Emin (she is so unknown at the time he forgets her name), Ross Bleckner (who mocks public access TV). The list goes on and on and on.

Eventually, Paul finds his way to the already iconic photographer Cindy Sherman. The chemistry is immediate and Paul is permitted rare and intimate access to record Cindy's world. What ensues is an insider glimpse of the glamor, treachery, and mercurial nature of the art world from the late '80's through five excruciating years of Paul's unraveling from being Cindy Sherman's boyfriend, downgraded to "Guest of Cindy Sherman," then ultimately to becoming "Ex of Cindy Sherman."

The documentary is as painful as it is intoxicating, reality TV at its best. As Joy Press of Salon.com describes "We get a sidelong view of the art world and its symbiotic relationship with commerce and celebrity, as well as an exploration of the awkward life of a famous person's "plus one." We also get an incredibly rare look at Cindy Sherman the person, the fledgling surfer, the "Florence Nightingale" of girlfriends. Risë Keller of Movie Habit wrote an insightful review of the film, describing that "because the graceless Paul H-O features so prominently in it, I kept fearing the film would lapse into something clumsy, something that would make me want to stop watching the film before it was over. But the narrative surprised me at those moments by pulling back from his particular brink of clutziness, and the story about this odd couple kept me on edge. Other tensions kept pulling me in, too: the tension between the sunny, pert faces of the “real” Cindy Sherman and the desperation in her portraits, and the class tensions that course through most scenes. "

One of the most compelling, and optimistic, aspects of the documentary in my opinion was the message (delivered as Paul's lament) that authenticity can transcend the bullshit of the art world. Paul was having a blast as a subversive ex-artist documenting (and snidely judging) the art world through the lens of Art Beat. It worked for him. As Cindy Sherman's boyfriend, he begins to resent how hard he has to work in contrast to the ease with which Cindy breezes through the art world. Why? I venture authenticity. What shines through in this film is Sherman's conviction and a drive. Her singular voice in a cacophony of art world sycophants that transcends its superficiality and fickle whims. Sherman makes art her way - has even attempted (unsuccessfully due to her success) to make unsalable art. For that very conviction, she is exactly who she is. And as the movie poster illustrates, Paul finds himself lost in the shadow of Sherman's spotlight.

19 June, 2011

19 June - A Bentonville Bilbao?

Is Bentonville the new Bilbao? On 11-11-11, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will open its doors in the unlikely city of Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum will be 201,000 square feet, over twice the size of the Whitney Museum of American Art and will chronicle the entire story of American art from the Colonial era of the late 1600s to contemporary works including Chuck Close, Kara Walker, Mark di Suvero, Walton Ford, James Turrell, and Roxy Paine. This project is the brainchild of Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune.

In addition to Ms. Walton’s lavish spending to build the collection (over 400 works will be displayed upon the opening of the museum) and initiate the project, her family has pledged to give $800 million to the new art museum, the largest cash donation ever made to a U.S. art museum. Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal explains that “the gift from the Walton Family Foundation trumps the $660 million in oil stocks that J. Paul Getty bequeathed to his namesake Los Angeles museum more than three decades ago.” According to Don Bacigalupi, the museum's executive director, "$325 million from the family's gift this week was earmarked to buy additional artworks. Another $350 million will go to cover the museum's operating expenses (around $16 million a year), and the rest, around $125 million, will be set aside for future upkeep of the complex."

The museum's “encyclopedic sweep (is) reminiscent of the ambitions of the robber-baron museum builders in the Gilded Age, but rarely attempted by new museums today. Billionaire Eli Broad, for example, has pledged nearly $340 million to build and endow a new museum for his collection in Los Angeles, but his vast holdings only cover the past few decades of U.S. and international art.” (Crow)

This is a massive undertaking in any city, but this is located in Bentonville, Arkansas. Why? Because Ms. Walton seeks to bring high art to this middle-American town of 35,000, best known as the headquarters of Wal-Mart. The Crystal Bridges website describes their mission, in addition to expanding access to art, cultural and learning resources, "will also spur the continued economic development of Northwest Arkansas.”

This brings to mind the Guggenheim Bilbao, now the landmark of the city. Built by starchitect Frank Gehry, Bilbao was transformed virtually overnight from a backwater to be avoided to a must see destination. As the city’s website describes “Bilbao was changed forever. Then came the obvious knock on effects of hotels opening, the airport expanding, upgrading of all facilities, extra employment etc etc. Today the advances continue as Bilbao continues to strive to make itself a tourist friendly destination.”

Ms. Walton described that “for years I’ve been thinking about what we could do as a family that could really make a difference in this part of the world. I thought this is something we desperately need, and what a difference it would have made were it here when I was growing up.” Carol Vogel of the New York Times reported that the museum is “planning for about 250,000 visitors in their first year and expect an annual operating budget of $16 million to $20 million. In addition to the 120 full-time jobs the institution is creating, they said, it will pump millions of tourist dollars into northwest Arkansas.”

An interesting story to follow – certainly a worthwhile collection to visit. Let's hope the Field of Dreams concept works for Bentonville as it did Bilbao, "if you build it, they will come."

images: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Bilbao

10 June, 2011

10 June - Spiral Jetty in Danger