Contemporary Art – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Thu, 15 Mar 2018 20:47:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Contemporary Art – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Out of the Shadow Mon, 29 Jan 2018 21:17:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> One of the great innovators in “allover” painting, Lee Krasner eclipsed her own career in order to advocate for that of her husband, Jackson Pollock.

Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries

Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries, circa 1960–61, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914–1984, bulk 1942–1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution © 2017 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Lee Krasner, Sun Woman I, 1957 Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries Lee Krasner, Another Storm, 1963 Lee Krasner, Fourteenth Street, 1934 Lee Krasner, Portrait in Green, 1966 Lee Krasner, Seated Figure, 1938–39

Lee Krasner’s Another Storm (1963) is nearly 15 feet wide and therefore big enough to justify her claim to a place in the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists, those maestros of the expansive canvas. Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and of course Jackson Pollock—Krasner’s husband until his death in a car crash in 1956—were among the Abstract Expressionists who abandoned the easel painting to work at a scale that verges, often, on that of the public mural. When the Museum of Modern Art sent selection of the paintings on an eight-city tour of Europe in 1958, critics were shocked by their sheer size. As a Spanish critic noted, one of Pollock’s canvases were only able to enter the Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporaneo, in Madrid, after the main doorway had been enlarged.

Among the 17 artists included in this show, the only woman was Grace Hartigan, a member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Krasner, who had found her distinctive variant on the style before the end of the 1940s, was unrepresented. She did, however, lend two of Pollock’s paintings to the exhibition, earning herself an acknowledgment as “Lee Krasner Pollock.” Even now, she is sometimes seen more as Mrs. Jackson Pollock than as a painter in her own right and a major contributor to the development of the first genuinely American art movement.

Krasner made the first of her “Little Image” canvases in 1946. With their small, flat forms deployed in rows, these come very close to qualifying as allover paintings—that is, they exchange the thrusts and counter-thrusts of a traditional composition for an expansive and potentially infinite field of imagery. Though the term was first applied to Pollock’s airy webs of dripped and spattered color, his brushwork had begun to imply alloverness several seasons earlier. Krasner’s “Little Image” paintings were strikingly original responses to these implications. She and Pollock stood as equals on the frontiers of pictorial possibility. If their equality is rarely noted it is in part because, toward the end of the 1940s, she set aside her own career to advance his. This was an extraordinary sacrifice, for Krasner was among the most promising painters in the New York art world of that era.

A Brooklyn native, she was born in 1908 into a family indifferent to art. Her interest in drawing and painting appeared early and yet, when quizzed by an interviewer in 1964, she could not account for it. Nonetheless, she believed that she would become a painter, and chose to study at Washington Irving, in Manhattan, the only New York high school that offered a major in art. Upon graduation, she enrolled in a women’s art program at the Cooper Union, the celebrated art and science institute on Astor Place. After several years, she went uptown to study at the National Academy of Design. The curriculum was doggedly conservative at all three schools. Only after long semesters of foundation work and drawing from plaster casts of ancient statues were students permitted to paint from living models. Krasner excelled at none of these disciplines, yet she persevered and eventually found her way into the present—not in the classroom but in exhibitions where she first saw the paintings of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso. and Georges Braque.

Her exposure to modernist art was, as she said, “like a bomb that exploded.” In the wake of this shock, art “came to life in some magical way.” Living in Greenwich Village now, she was primed for a place in the classes taught by Hans Hofmann, a German émigré and a painter with roots in the Parisian avant-garde. Invited in 1931 to teach in the United States, the rise of the Nazis persuaded him to stay. Settled permanently in New York by mid-decade, Hofmann opened a school on West Eighth Street, in the Village, and became a mentor to several generations of American painters. One of Hofmann’s best students, Krasner absorbed his belief that painting is not a discipline to be learned but a set of formal possibilities to be reinvented nonstop.

As a young Hofmannite, Krasner was at the center of Manhattan’s downtown art world—a milieu inhabited by such figures as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and John Graham, a painter and visionary impresario. Toward the end of 1941, Graham asked Krasner to lend work to a show of American and French painters he was organizing for the McMillen Gallery. The names of the participating artists, which ranged from Matisse and Picasso to de Kooning and Stuart Davis, were all familiar to Krasner, with one exception: Jackson Pollock. Puzzled, she tracked him down in his Eighth Street studio, invited herself in, and, as she said on many occasions, was “completely bowled over.” Soon they became a couple and Krasner took on, step by fateful step, responsibility not only for Pollock’s troubled life but for the advancement of his art, which in 1947 had surged into new territory. His drip-and-pour paintings had no precedent in the history of Western art.

Shy when sober and unmanageable when drunk, Pollock had no talent for art-world politics. Convinced of his importance, Krasner took on the task of persuading critics and dealers to take him seriously. Peggy Guggenheim was her greatest challenge and most significant early success. An American heiress who had immersed herself in the Parisian avant-garde, Guggenheim returned to New York soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1942, she opened Art of This Century, a gallery on Manhattan’s West 57th Street. At the urging of Krasner and others, including Marcel Duchamp, Guggenheim gave Pollock a solo exhibition; and not so much urged as badgered by Krasner, she loaned the couple enough money to buy a house on Fireplace Road, in Springs, a small settlement at the Eastern end of Long Island. Krasner hoped that, away from the Cedar Tavern and other Greenwich Village hangouts, Pollock would stay sober and focus on his art. For three years, her hope was realized, and it was during this time that Pollock broke through to his mature work.

Due in part to Krasner’s advocacy, Pollock became the subject of contending theories by Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, the two most influential art critics of the era. Asked in 1950 to select three of the six artists to represent the United States in that year’s Venice Biennale, Alfred Barr, of the Museum of Modern Art, chose Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock. The previous year, Life magazine had shown Pollock posing in front of a recent drip painting. Above, a banner headline asked, “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”—a question prompted by the art-world buzz Krasner had done so much to generate. She helped in the studio, as well.

Talking in 1969 with the critic and biographer B. H. Friedman, Krasner recalled that Pollock would sometimes crop a canvas and, as confident as he felt when slinging his colors, wasn’t always sure how to take this irrevocable step. “Sometimes,” said Krasner, “he’d ask, ‘Should I cut it here? Should this be the bottom?’ He’d have long sessions of cutting and editing, some of which I was in on, but the final decisions were always his.” By making herself so important to Pollock, in the studio and in the larger world, Krasner eclipsed her own career. That she did so willingly should not, however, obscure either the intensity of her ambition or the significance of her achievement. Her version of the allover image is among the most powerful to emerge from the first generation of Abstract Expressionists.

At Hans Hofmann’s school, Krasner mastered a curriculum derived from modernist precedents: Cubist structure merged with Matissean color. His sensibility tinged by mysticism, Hofmann spoke of art as a high road to “the Real”—a concept he never explained, though his visionary writings suggest that it was an avant-gardist painter’s variation on the Platonic ideal of transcendent Truth. There is no sign that Krasner responded to this thread in the complex fabric of Hofmann’s teaching. She was bent chiefly on learning how to make a painting “work,” as New York artists were beginning to say in those days. This was a formalist approach, and Krasner’s command of her strictly pictorial options prepared her to understand, as few others did, Pollock’s achievements.

During the mid-1930s, Krasner painted cityscapes with a faint—one might say, carefully measured—tinge of Surrealism. Later in the decade, the formal lessons she learned from Hofmann inspired elegantly structured quasi-abstractions. Then she met Pollock and put his career ahead of her own. Yet she never entirely stopped painting. The “Little Image” paintings appeared and, after them, a series of experiments that Krasner found unsatisfactory and destroyed. She was a ruthless editor of her own work. As the 1950s began, she launched the first of her collage paintings. Invented by Picasso and Braque, collage brings with it the small scale and compositional devices of early Cubism. Krasner freed herself from this historical baggage by expanding the size of her paintings—she was working now on immense lengths of canvas unfurled across the floor—and by dismissing all traces of traditional composition. From this rejection of art-historical precedent emerged the fully realized alloverness foretold by the “Little Image” paintings.

Since the early Renaissance, Western painters have worked to reconcile disparate forms in balanced compositions. When they succeed, their images are not only harmonious; they also rest comfortably within the frame. When Krasner, Pollock, and other painters in New York dispensed with the machinery of the well-composed picture, their works were often seen as chaotic—fields of disorganized imagery devolving into a meaninglessness infinite. Yet the absence of an overarching composition does not necessarily produce chaos. In Krasner’s allover paintings, each form prompts the appearance of the next, generating a field held together by localized incidents of order. Rather than resolving forms into harmonies, stable and enclosed, she creates images that remain open and filled with energies that take them, in the sympathetic viewer’s imagination, far beyond the limits of the frame. Like Pollock and other allover painters of their generation, she charges her imagery with the optimistic openness of American space.

Pollock’s allover paintings assert his grandly idiosyncratic gesture. Still gives alloverness a dark, heavy, almost geological feel, and Newman built his open structures from an austere geometry. By startling contrast, the lines and blots and spatters of Krasner’s allover painting have an unmistakably floral quality. Yet there is nothing delicate, nothing conventionally feminine, about her allusions to petals and stems and leaves. Some of her paintings are quiet. Some are raucous. All of them draw us into zones of pulsing, organic energy. Her imagery is not feminine but female, as challenging as it is seductive, and heroic not only in ambition but also in its impact.

Nonetheless, to be a female artist is to be hindered. When feminist protest disrupted the 1970s Whitney Annual, Krasner had no patience with those who argued that the art world had gotten over its gender biases. Any women who says that she faces no discrimination should, declared Krasner, “have her face slapped.” By then she had been given a retrospective by the Whitechapel Gallery, in London, and in 1978 she was finally accorded her rightful place alongside Pollock, Rothko, and the others in Abstract Expressionism: “The Formative Years,” an exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, at Cornell University. In the decade before her death in 1984, Krasner received a full measure of honors, awards, and exhibitions. She had become, at last, a fully recognized member of her generation. Yet her fierceness never abated. It is there to be felt even in her most subtly painted canvases.

By Carter Ratcliff

James Rosenquist: Below Zero Tue, 28 Mar 2017 21:36:22 +0000 Continue reading ]]> James Rosenquist’s art eschews purity to reach an eye-popping clarity.

James Rosenquist, Voyager–Speed of Light,

James Rosenquist, Voyager–Speed of Light, 2001, oil on canvas, 90 x 144 in. © 2017 James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Photographs courtesy of the artist

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) James Rosenquist, The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light James Rosenquist, Time Machine Illustrated James Rosenquist, Time Stops the Face Continues James Rosenquist, F-111 James Rosenquist, Voyager–Speed of Light,

In 1978, James Rosenquist made a painting from three fragmentary images: a close-up of clasped hands, one female and the other male; a portion of an automobile, possibly upside down; and a cropped view of chinaware sitting in a suds-filled sink. Called The Facet, this painting seems suitably named until a question occurs. Why “facet” in the singular? Doesn’t the artist show us three facets or fragments or aspects of his subjects? Throughout his career, which began in New York in the early 1960s, Rosenquist has made paintings from unexpected, sometimes startling juxtapositions of images displaced from their places of origin and, in the process, deprived of their original unity. A monochrome painter might emphasize a single aspect of a color. A Minimalist sculptor might try to focus our attention on the singularly planar aspect of a geometric form. But Rosenquist’s paintings congregate several aspects of several things—or of many things. What, then, does he mean by calling this canvas The Facet?

Perhaps he is being ironic. Or perhaps he offers these three fragments as an isolated facet of some larger whole. We can’t know with certainty about this or any of the other mysteries that fill Rosenquist’s oeuvre. According to the title of a painting from 2001, The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light. Where in this dazzling play of layered, flickering, interwoven form is the stowaway hiding? Imagining for a moment that the stowaway is a surrogate for the artist, we could ask: as he peers out, is he seeing the speed of light itself? Or has his peering somehow attained that incomprehensible speed? Ever since Piet Mondrian and other geometric abstractionists of the 1920s began numbering their canvases, painters have often seen titles as intrusions on the exclusively pictorial nature of their medium. By contrast, Rosenquist’s titles give language a lively role to play in shaping our responses to his imagery.

Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1933. His aptitude for drawing emerged early and, during his high school years, was sufficiently developed to win him a scholarship to the Art Institute in Minneapolis, where his family had settled in 1941. At 19, he enrolled in art classes at the University of Minnesota. Encouraged by one of his teachers, a veteran avant-gardist named Cameron Booth, he applied to the Art Students League, in Manhattan. Awarded a tuition grant, Rosenquist studied at the League for a year, starting in 1955. During summer vacations from college, he had worked with a sign-painting crew in the Midwest. Now he found work painting billboards. By the end of the ’50s, he had become the head painter at the Artkraft-Strauss Sign Corporation. And he had gotten to know Claes Oldenburg, Chuck Hinman, and other young artists in downtown Manhattan.

Paying the rent on various Manhattan lofts with proceeds from his commercial work, Rosenquist struggled, on his own time, with the challenge of inventing an original style of abstract painting in a time dominated by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Then, as the 1960s began, he suddenly merged the parallel but incompatible paths he had been following. Hey! Let’s Go for a Ride (1961) juxtaposes a soft-drink bottle with a smiling face. Transposing advertising images from a billboard to a stretched canvas, Rosenquist crops and layers them with such jolting verve that he loosens their representational moorings. To put it the other way around, as critics of the period often did, these bluntly rendered representations read almost as abstractions. This collision of the figurative and the non-figurative brought Rosenquist into the first rank of the Pop artists, alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. By the mid-’60s he had achieved the status of a major figure in the history of American art. Nonetheless, the “Pop” label never adhered very firmly to Rosenquist, and as the years went by it became clear that his art is too inventive, too expansive, to be confined within any stylistic category.

Appearing in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and in the same moment as the blank geometries of Minimalist art, Pop was a defiantly explicit return to figurative art. Moreover, it held its representational mirror up to a world of commercial imagery that had, for the most part, been excluded from serious art. Like Warhol and other Pop artists, including Tom Wesselmann, Rosenquist made subject matter of corporate logos, advertising layouts, and familiar household items. Yet he did not join these contemporaries on their collective trek to the realm of immediately recognizable imagery. His path to the familiar took him through the “zero,” the “nothing,” that he saw in abstract art.

Consciously disinclined to theorize, Rosenquist proceeds by intuition. To understand his aesthetic, we must join him in the realm illuminated, fitfully, by metaphors and anecdotes like the one he told in 1987 about a visit, years earlier, to an exhibition of paintings by a veteran abstractionist who had studied with Hans Hofmann. A leading practitioner of Abstract Expressionism, Hofmann became toward the end of his career an advocate of “pure painting” uncompromised by any reference to the world beyond the edges of the canvas. Not all his students accepted this dogma of purity but the painter in Rosenquist’s story did, so he was chagrined when Hofmann stopped by his show and, pointing at a painting, asked, “What’s that there? It looks like Popeye to me.” Continuing the story in his own words, Rosenquist said, “And there was Popeye. He had a pumpkin head, a stick body, big feet, hands, and it was supposed to be totally non-objective painting. Only colors.” Seeking the “zero” of non-objectivity with pure color, the painter had been unable to keep a cartoon character from making a ghostly appearance in the pictorial space “below zero.” And it was this space, Rosenquist realized, that he wanted his images to occupy.

What Rosenquist means by “painting below zero” is clarified by his recollections of painting billboards. Up on a scaffold, at arm’s length from an image at the scale of architecture, he knew he was painting figuratively—“These huge cheeks,” for example, which were “twenty-five feet across.” But all he could see was an expanse of paint that “looked like the Sahara”—in other words, empty. High above the city’s streets, he had arrived at the place “below zero” where the distinction between abstract and representational imagery blurs or disappears. In a statement from 1966 Rosenquist favors abstraction, saying, “most of my pictures are about nonobjective art, although that does not mean they look non-objective. I use objects for the benefit of the viewer, to relate space and color.” There are faces, automobiles, and allover expanses of spaghetti in his paintings only because viewers need to anchor themselves in the familiar as they sail, speculatively, into vast spaces defined by color relationships. To block the notion that an aspiration to purely pictorial color lurks in his art, Rosenquist has stated, “I am not interested in purity.” He is interested, rather, in “clarity.”

Clarity, one might ask, about what? For the artist’s comments about the non-objectivity of his art are difficult to reconcile with his comments on F-111 (1964–65). Named for a fighter jet, this multi-paneled painting, 86 feet wide and 10 feet high, is a panorama of jarring motifs, military and civilian: a hair dryer, the spaghetti mentioned earlier, a mushroom cloud, an automobile tire, the fuselage of the jet plane, and more. Several interviews from that time make it clear that Rosenquist assembled this seething jumble of images as an argument that war production, ramped up for the Vietnam war, had joined with a flourishing domestic marketplace to set loose a real-life jumble of destructive forces. This social-political statement had a powerful impact not only in America but in Europe, where F-111 was widely shown. Nonetheless, its imagery still has the power to take us “below zero,” to a virtual place where both figurative and non-figurative readings are not only possible but compatible. Far from an exercise in pictorial purity, F-111 has a message—one that its formal power intensifies. As for the painting’s clarity, it could perhaps be said Rosenquist found a way to be clear about the roiling ambiguities that turn F-111 and other paintings from this period into unbounded fields of meaning, much of it disquieting.

Throughout the 1960s, Rosenquist elaborated his complex clarities with imagery that recalls the “Sahara” he traversed as a billboard painter. Colors are bright and usually matte. The motifs that migrate to his art from the television screen and the pages of mass-circulation magazines have forms and textures reminiscent of mid-20th-century photography. As the play of figurative–non-figurative continues into the following decade, the look of Rosenquist’s paintings changes slightly. Highlights become sharper and outlines display a new crispness. A smooth gleam replaces the matte textures of his earlier work, as if he were deploying the latest, most sophisticated technology. Elegantly placed passages of blankness appear and, as the 1970s begin, open onto immeasurably deep spaces.

In the ’80s, these spaces often fill with scatterings of stars and other astronomical phenomena, even as quotidian things—strips of bacon, nuts and bolts, tubes of lipstick—proliferate. And Rosenquist invented an extraordinary new way to layer his paintings. Early in the 1970s, he had begun to divide his time between studios in New York city and Florida, where, as Sarah Celeste Bancroft has noted, the artist was inspired by the saw-tooth fronds of palmetto trees to give zigzag edges to certain motifs—women’s faces and tropical flowers, primarily. The serrations are so deep that, when one of these images is placed over another the effect is of crosshatching or even weaving. Thus the interlacing of the abstract and the representational takes on a new complexity, and does so again as the millennium approaches. Photographing objects in a cylinder of reflective metal and transferring the results to canvas, Rosenquist produced the gleaming intricacies of Voyager-Speed of Light (2001) and Time Stops the Face Continues (2008). In these paintings, abstraction predominates until one learns to see—or at least glimpse—identifiable objects in the sinuous flow of high-keyed color.

The outrage that prompted Rosenquist to paint F-111 has persisted. With its emblems of American fecklessness and Middle Eastern spirituality, The Xenophobic Movie Director or Our Foreign Policy (2004) registers his horror at this country’s excursion into Iraq. Yet political commentary has evolved in recent seasons into the visionary tides that surge through such paintings as Multiverse You Are, I Am (2007). Speaking for himself and all the rest of us, the artist once said, “Trying to figure out where you float, that’s always the question.” Immersion in Rosenquist’s sprawling fields is like immersion in the world’s—indeed, the universe’s—flow of energy, and it is always a surprise when you figure out, if only for an instant, where the swift currents of his imagery have taken you.

By Carter Ratcliff

Images Copyright 2017 James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Photographs courtesy of the artist.

David Hockney: Here’s Looking at You Tue, 24 Jan 2017 23:43:45 +0000 Continue reading ]]> David Hockney, a perpetual student of art history, throws everything he has at the still-unsolved problems of perception and representation.

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 83 1⁄2 x 119 1⁄2 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) David Hockney, A Lawn Being Sprinkled, 1967 David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy David Hockney, Garden 2015 David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) David Hockney, 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon

“The history of pictures,” David Hockney wrote recently, “begins in the caves and ends, at the moment, with an iPad. Who knows where it will go next? But one thing is certain: the pictorial problems will always be there—the difficulties of depicting the world in two dimensions are permanent. Meaning you never solve them.”

As Tate Britain’s retrospective (“David Hockney,” February 9–May 29) shows, Hockney may have looked at modern problems from more perspectives than any living artist. Over six decades, he has worked with fax machines and photocopiers, computer graphics and digital drawing apps, Polaroid snappers and video cameras, and of course the iPad, too. Yet Hockney has also attacked the monocular authority of the camera and the one-point perspective theorized by Alberti and Brunelleschi and returned repeatedly to the fundamental practices of drawing and painting, as well as the traditional formats of landscape and portraiture.

“The fox knows many things,” wrote the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the hedgehog one big thing.” In 1953, when Hockney was a teenager at school in the northern English town of Bradford, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously observed that Tolstoy had the convictions of a hedgehog but the nature of a fox. Hockney has addressed the problem of perception and how to represent the charge of human emotion that it carries, with the deep and sometimes prickly conviction of a hedgehog. He has answered it with the ingenuity of a fleet fox, often with a lightness that can be mistaken for levity and a distance that can be mistaken for coldness.

Hockney found fame and freedom amid the pools and palms of his mid-’60s Californian paradise, but he comes from a colder clime. Hockney is a gay man from Yorkshire, in northern England. In 1959, he arrived at London’s Royal College of Art speaking with a provincial accent at a time when class snobbery was still acceptable, and as a gay man speaking a coded language at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. From the camp comedy of A Rake’s Progress (1961), his satiric account of his first trip to New York, to the spiritual landscape of Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1998), Hockney has derived liberation and inspiration from America, but his painterly sources remain mostly European. Walt Whitman may have influenced Hockney more than Edward Hopper.

The tension between foreground and deeper space in Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon recurs in Red Pots in the Garden (2000), a Matissean excursion into the English sublime. Similarly, Hockney’s persona remains that of the Yorkshireman abroad: sharp-eyed in intimacy and distant in irony, high-minded in aspiration and honest in labor, and always determined to do it his way. The speed and skill with which he went his own way still impress.

In 1960, Hockney discarded a brief and unhappy experiment with Abstract Expressionism, discovered a model in Picasso—the century’s great confounder of the hedgehog-fox antagonism—and synthesized a distinctive figurative vocabulary from contemporary British and French influences. In 1962 Hockney exhibited alongside contemporaries including R.B. Kitaj and Allen Jones in the group show “Young Contemporaries.” Careful to distance himself from Pop Art, he titled his four contributions Demonstrations of Versatility. Another pair from that year were titled The Marriage of Styles. The assimilation is so accomplished that it becomes almost mocking. The element of challenge can only have been intensified by Hockney’s candid subject matter, which he defiantly called “homosexual propaganda.”

In Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10PM), W11 (1962) Dubuffet’s naivety collides with Pop, as two men, their genitals replaced by tubes of toothpaste, fellate each other’s Colgate. In Domestic Scene, Notting Hill (1962), a naked man stands behind a clothed, sitting man who may or may not know the other man is there. The sinister expressionism and patches of bare canvas of Francis Bacon meet the bedsit paranoia of a Joseph Losey film. A Rake’s Progress (1960–61) an early excursion into the history of English painting and a souvenir of Hockney’s first excursion to New York, replicates Hogarth’s narrative sequence but spoofs its morality tale, turning a sermon into a series of saucy postcards.

With similar boldness, Hockney created a visual identity for Los Angeles after his arrival there in 1964. “There were no paintings,” he recalled. “People then didn’t know what it looked like.” When he saw a freeway under construction, he thought, “Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am!”

Evelyn Waugh, who was not impressed by California, observed that when Aldous Huxley went west, he changed not just his address but also his mind. Hockney’s Los Angeles is less a terrifying Piranesi prison than a liberating dreamscape—an artificial paradise in which, Gauguin-like, erotic forms are woven into bright patterns amid the sharp edges and rectilineal structures of office blocks and low-rise residences. The artificiality of the patterning is overt, advertised by the implausible perfection of the abstract architectural forms, the impossibly tight rhythms on the surface of the swimming pools, and the strip of bare canvas that runs around the image, creating a border like that around a staged photograph. In A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967), the water is not water in the realist sense so much as it is photo-realist. Hockney had been using a Polaroid camera as an aide-memoire since 1964 and bought a 35mm Pentax in 1967. The recession of the garden lawn is flat. The liquid to whose dispersal the eye is drawn is paint itself.

In A Bigger Splash (1967), the sky, the building, the pinkish concrete that surrounds the pool and the surface of the pool itself are all built from flat planes. A spindly pair of palms stand completely still, unnaturally smooth and rigid against the turquoise sky. The windows reflect a scene of equal tedium—more glassy square buildings and a few more noncommittal palm trees, all in shades of gray. Everything enhances the laboriously modest, affectlessly perfect acrylic brushwork that catches the movement of the splash. Is this an ironic rejection of the demonstrative splashing of expressionism, an argument for the understatement of personality? Or is the disappearance of the diver beneath the water an existential lament, like the multiple dives of Burt Lancaster as he searches for the traces of his lost youth in The Swimmer (1968)?

These are not actual places and people, even when they are identifiable people and real buildings. The buildings are shown in their Platonic form, without car parks, neighbors, or dirt. The fall of sunlight onto the water in the pool is represented by symbolic patterns from Dubuffet. The acrylic is applied with smooth dispassion, as though everything is under glass. Yet people live and work, swim, and have sex in these unnatural boxes of light: the naked man by the pool patterned with Bridget Riley squiggles in Sunbather (1966), the elderly collector with her zebra-stripe sun lounger in Beverly Hills Housewife (1966–67), the invisible sick people who must be hidden behind every window in the blank-eyed Medical Building (1966), where the lone luxuriant palm in the foreground sprouts in a pastiche of good health.

In Hockney’s revolt against abstraction, the senses break up the grid of forms. In Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966), the naked young man drags himself upwards, out of the grid of water. The imagination rearranges reality, with one eye on erotic satisfaction and the other on the history of art. In The Room, Tarzana (1967), Hockney’s boyfriend Peter Schlesinger lies on his stomach, wearing a white t-shirt, a pair of dirty white socks, and a pair of pale white buttocks. The pose has been compared to Boucher’s Reclining Girl (Mademoiselle O’Murphy) of 1751 and Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching) of 1892. The bedroom interior is derived from an advertisement for Macy’s department store, circa 1967.

The Room, Tarzana, with its controlled light effects and carefully staged interior, and Hockney’s simultaneous experiments with painting from photographs initiated a phase of increased naturalism. At the same time, the male nude, the white-buttocked symbol of sexual freedom, started to appear less often, to be replaced by a focus on intimate relationships. The plashing of sprinklers and pool water gave way to awkward silences, and tensions as unresolvable as the problems of two-dimensional representation.

Hockney had already identified the potential for psychological and structural drama in the double portrait. As early as The Last of England? (1961) he had imagined Ford Madox Brown’s heterosexual emigrants as himself and an imaginary “doll boy,” exiled by homophobia. The sequence of double portraits that he painted after 1968 are really triple portraits, in which Hockney is the third presence, and the viewer placed in his position.

Where Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach distort and damage the human form, Hockney insinuates himself into a domestic relationship. Often, one member of the couple faces Hockney. The other is in profile, and often depicted as less certain of his position in the relationship. In Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (1968), Isherwood is so serene that we can barely make out his expression. Bachardy looks across and frowns, as if Isherwood is not listening, or is more interested in Hockney. In American Collectors (Fred & Marcia Weisman) (1968), Marcia faces the viewer proudly, but the subdivision of the space makes Fred look as if he is in a viewing cabinet, and as inert as a stuffed animal.

The use of one-point perspective, a device associated with religious art, intensifies the imbalance of power, and gives the revelation of a couple’s secret an annunciation-like significance. In Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1967), Geldzahler sits in a halo of light befitting a major art dealer, but it hardly matters whether Scott is on his way in or out. In My Parents (1977), it is Hockney’s mother who gives her attention to the viewer. While his father is distracted by an art monograph, Hockney inserts himself into the marital scene and catches himself at it, by showing himself in a mirror. It could be a scene from that other master of camp Yorkshire irony, Alan Bennett.

Yet naturalism, Hockney decided, became a “trap.” He escaped by Picasso’s method, in which the fox’s various paths always start from and return to the hedgehog’s question. For the last four decades, Hockney’s shifting approaches—the grids of Polaroid photographs that form a multi-perspectival temporal image, the photocollages that trace an event across time, the video recordings of dancers and jugglers at work, the processing of Cubism through the camera lens—have circled around the same question as Secret Knowledge, his scholarly examination of the use of optical devices in Western art, or his regular reversion to the classic formats of line drawing, portrait, and landscape.

The object of Hockney’s study remains human perception and its representation. The painter of light on surfaces likes to quote Auden’s long poem, Letter to Lord Byron: “To me Art’s subject is the human clay.” His demonstrations of versatility and his marriage of styles are ways of working the clay, of bringing the history of art to bear on new technologies of vision and creation. The history of pictures can be assembled into a linear sequence of past styles and closed schools, but the making of pictures occurs in a kind of eternal present. Technology changes the terms of the pictorial problem, but not the permanent difficulty of its resolution. As a modernist eclectic, Hockney is the most traditional of radicals and the most radical of traditionalists.

Following Picasso’s death in 1973, Hockney created the prints The Student—Homage To Picasso, in which Hockney, portfolio in hand, approaches a statue of Picasso; and Artist and Model, in which Picasso sits across the table from a nude Hockney. Here, Hockney is Picasso’s model, naked before the eye of the artist who will remake him as an image. Picasso is Hockney’s model, the image of the tradition to be emulated. In the process, Hockney, who to this day describes himself as a “student” of art, becomes the model student whose loyalty and diligence will be rewarded by inheritance. It is a double portrait and a triple relationship, in which the process plays out before our eyes.

By Dominic Green

Belkis Ayón: Mythical Figures Tue, 29 Nov 2016 00:40:26 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Belkis Ayón gets her first museum retrospective in Los Angeles.

Belkis Ayón, Nlloro (Weeping), 1991

Belkis Ayón, Nlloro (Weeping), 1991, collograph

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Belkis Ayon, La familia (The Family) Belkis Ayon, La cena (The Supper) Belkis Ayón, Nlloro (Weeping), 1991 Belkis Ayon, Arrepentida (Repentant) Belkis at the Havana Galerie, Zúrich Belkis Ayon, Siempre vuelvo (I Always Return)

Cuban artist and printmaker Belkis Ayón’s wanted her images to envelop the viewer. Says Cristina Vives, the guest curator of the exhibition “Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón,” which is currently at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (through February 12), “Belkis wanted the viewer to feel equal in front of her characters and prints, as if he or she might be able to go into the scene she was representing.” It was necessary, then, for Ayón to create large, human-scale prints—a feat perhaps more challenging than it sounds. “The traditional engraving techniques used small paper sizes, and that was a problem for her,” says Vives, “She wanted to go beyond tradition and push the technique forward.” To create one large image, Ayón used multiple parts—sometimes up to 18 sheets joined together. As a result, her prints are imposing and dramatic. They have no equal in contemporary Cuban printmaking.

But Ayón’s chosen scale isn’t simply for innovation or vanity’s sake. As we learn from Homeric epic and major religious texts, when a mythology is being divulged, there is no such thing as too large a scale. Ayón’s work takes the foundation myth of the Afro-Cuban fraternal society Abakuá as its major theme. Her prints depict initiations and rituals taken purely from Abakuá or mixed with Christian ceremonies and symbolism. The society, which does not allow female members, was a fascination for the artist, though not something she herself could be a part of. As with other societies, such as Freemasonry, the group’s strength is derived from members’ loyalty to its secrets. In Abakuá it is said, “Friendship is one thing, and the Abakuá another.” While Ayón’s work hopes to be inclusive, her subject matter is determined to be the opposite.

Ayón rarely used color, instead opting for black and white. Her tonal grays, rich blacks, and stark pops of white somehow seem just as expressive, if not more so, than color, not unlike the clarity of vision one can experience after one’s eyes adjust to the darkness. The artist’s signature process was collography, a printing technique in which materials of various textures are collaged onto a cardboard matrix which is then inked and printed from, either with a press or by hand. The method produced incredibly intricate and evocative textural elements in Ayón’s work; just one print can reproduce the effects of reptile skin, fish scales, tile, feathers, and fauna. Ayón used chalk, varnish, acrylic, sandpaper, abrasives, and various types of paper to create these patterns; knives and scissors to create lines and cuts; and glue to fix them to the cardboard. Her methods were incredibly labor-intensive, and the complexity and scale of her work bears a sacramental quality akin to the frescoes of the Italian Renaissance.

Ayón was born in Havana in 1967. She studied at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, finished her education at the Higher Institute of Art/Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1991, and within two years was teaching engraving at both institutions. In 1993, she exhibited at the 16th Venice Biennale and won the international prize at the International Graphics Biennale in Maastricht, Holland. Her work has shown around the world—notably in Los Angeles, Germany, South Korea, and her native Havana—and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1999, at the age of 32, Ayón committed suicide. She left behind an incredibly ambitious body of work and a string of accomplishments most young artists only wish to achieve.

Vives was instrumental in organizing the first real retrospective of Ayón’s work, which was held at St. Francis of Assisi Convent (a converted art space) in Old Havana in 2009—a decade after her death. However, the show at the Fowler Museum is Ayón’s first true museum retrospective. Vives and Ayón’s estate were keen on the idea of moving the show to Los Angeles. “Belkis frequently exhibited in Los Angeles during her life and she has a lot of collectors there,” says Vives. “Her last show was at Couturier Gallery on La Brea, and so it is very symbolic to have a show in L.A.” “Nkame” adds to the Fowler’s history with exhibitions dealing with the religions and mythologies associated with the African Diaspora, such as “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” (1995) and “Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work by José Bedia” (2011). “Nkame,” which translates in the language of Abakuá to “greeting” or “praise,” features 43 prints that range in date from 1984 to the year of the artist’s death. The show is as much a tribute to her life and output as it is an unprecedented viewing experience for American museum-goers.

Abakuá began as a fraternal association in the Cross River region of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon. It established itself in Haiti and the western port cities of Cuba in the 19th century, when slaves were brought from Africa. Members of the society, Ñáñigos or diablitos, as they are sometimes called, are known in Cuba for dressing in ceremonial garb and dancing through the streets during the Carnival on the Day of the Three Kings. One of the myths of Abakuá is that Ñáñigos can transform into leopards in order to stalk their rivals like prey. In Veneración (Veneration), an early lithograph (circa 1986) and a rare color print by Ayón, four figures of a group of seven are depicted in leopard skins. In many of Ayón’s other prints, spotted-looking textures cover human figures, suggesting leopard skin.

In the society’s founding myth, Sikán, a princess, is the first to hear the mystical voice of Abakuá from a fish she accidentally catches. Fish bones and scales are featured prominently in Ayón’s prints. Sikán is instructed never to reveal her sacred knowledge, which woman were not permitted to have. She later confides in her fiancé and is therefore condemned to death. In Ayón’s work, however, Sikán remains alive. In La cena (1991), for instance, the work that opens the exhibition, Sikán, depicted in stark white with a black serpent around her neck, sits in the center of an Abakuá initiation dinner, taking the place of Christ in The Last Supper. Sikán, who is represented frequently in the artist’s work, is depicted with a blank face, save for a pair of wide-open eyes. The princess was a symbol for Ayón herself, who wrote, “I see myself as Sikán, in a certain way an observer, an intermediary and a revealer… Sikán is a transgressor, and as such I see her, and I see myself.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Getting Real Wed, 28 Sep 2016 21:12:10 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A show at the Delaware Art Museum presents the many modes of contemporary realist painting.

Scott Fraser, Lemon Fall, 2015

Scott Fraser, Lemon Fall, 2015, oil on board, 51 1⁄2 x 66 inches.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Paul Fenniak, Theme Park Patron, 2014 Scott Fraser, Spider Lullaby, 2012 Steven Assael, Passengers, 2009 Scott Fraser, Lemon Fall, 2015 Robert C. Jackson, Enough with the Bubbles, 2015

A few years ago, the artist Robert C. Jackson decided to write a book about contemporary realist painting. He chose 19 fellow artists whom he considered the most interesting, and instead of writing about them from his own point of view, he decided to interview them and let them explicate their own work. He also interviewed himself, bringing the total to 20. In 2014, the results were published in book form, along with reproductions of all the artists’ work, under the title Behind the Easel. The Pennsylvania-based Jackson, at 52 a senior and much-respected figure in the world of representational painting, had created a sort of democratic manifesto for contemporary realism, and now his book has become the basis of an exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, “Truth and Vision: 21st Century Realism,” which opens on October 22 and runs through January 22.

Margaret Winslow, curator of contemporary art at the Delaware Art Museum, says that the idea for the exhibition came to her after the museum acquired one of Jackson’s paintings. “I realized that the museum had not presented a contemporary representational art show in quite a while, and I saw that there’s increasing public support for representational painting,” she says, citing The Representational Art Conference, a yearly event which began in 2012, as an example. She also points out that the Delaware Art Museum has a long tradition of supporting representational painting, in particular the Brandywine tradition, which began with Howard Pyle’s school in Wilmington and Chadd’s Ford, Pa., at the turn of the 20th century and continues today in the Wyeth family.

The work on view in the exhibition is quite diverse, and despite the “realist” label, much of what it depicts can’t be found in ordinary life. Take, for example, Robert Jackson’s Enough With the Bubbles (2015). Painted expressly for this show, it gives us a sort of Mad Hatter’s tea party attended by multicolored balloon animals feasting on lobster, shrimp cocktail, and oysters while one of them exuberantly blows soap bubbles from a pipe. Each detail of the composition is rendered naturalistically, with keen attention to detail, from the food to the balloons to the upturned wooden soda crates that serve as a table. What Jackson has done is to take what are basically still life objects, each one quite sane and everyday in itself, and combine them in a way that breathes a bizarre, hallucinatory kind of life into them (he may also be making fun of Jeff Koons, but that can’t be proved).

“Truth and Vision” is full of still lifes of various kinds, many of which can be considered trompe l’oeil. This particularly American art tradition also has a local connection—one of its greatest 19th-century exponents of trompe l’oeil painting, Jefferson David Chalfant, lived and worked for his whole career in Wilmington, Del. Alan Magee paints arrangements of smooth stones placed on a flat surface, a classic trompe device to create uncertainty in the mind of the viewer as to whether he or she is looking at a very slightly three-dimensional collection of objects or a completely flat rendering thereof. In Aphorism, an acrylic on canvas from 2010, Magee gives us only the stones, arranged in a pattern that could be random. In Treasury (2009), stones have been artfully combined with other objects to make a humanoid creature that lies on top of a handwritten letter and a manila envelope that appears taped to the background, with trinkets scattered across the whole thing. Winslow considers Magee to occupy “an interesting place between trompe and still life.”

Jackson has contributed some classically trompe paintings to the show, and like Enough With the Bubbles, they use humor as a major ingredient. Looking at Art (2014) plays the old trompe trick of tacking pieces of paper to a vertical board, as in the “letter rack” paintings of John F. Peto. But instead of letters we get those postcards of artworks that museum shops sell by the thousands—Chuck Close, Richard Diebenkorn, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Wayne Thiebaud, Giorgio Morandi, they’re all there, inviting the viewer to “name that painting.” Hanging over one of the postcards is a pair of 3-D glasses, in winking acknowledgement of the illusionistic game being played. And in Mr. Rothko, Mr. Johns, Meet Mr. Jackson (2013), Jackson ingeniously creates art-historical references out of trompe l’oeil elements. Other artists in the show who use trompe l’oeil techniques are Will Wilson, whose Infrastructure (2012) is an updated version of the classic back-of-the-framed-canvas view, and Scott Fraser, whose Lemon Fall (2015) does the peeled citrus thing—a staple of European still life from the 17th century on—but with a twist.

Figure painting—one of the classic trio of representational art, along with still life and landscape—also figures prominently in “Truth and Vision.” Steven Assael’s Passengers (2009) actually combines two of these genres. It shows three young people asleep in what appears to be a train car; through the window glows a sublime Hudson River School-like landscape. But is it really a window? It might be a painting hanging on a wall, and the three figures may be snoozing in a room at home instead of being bound on a journey. As with so many of the pictures in this exhibition, Passengers is enigmatic, realist but not quite realistic. Paul Fenniak paints moments that could be snapshots of real life but that nonetheless have an unsettling, ambiguous quality. In Departure (2012), a woman pauses on a wooden stair by a picket fence. It’s either dusk or night, and a pale light catches her in a beam that sets her off from the surrounding gloom. Is she about to leave that house forever, and if so, why? Is one of the RVs in the background about to carry her away to a nomadic existence? Impossible to say. Theme Park Patron (2014), is a bit weirder but still plausible; the woman strapped to a ride may just be enjoying being high up over the amusement park, or she may be stuck up there, unable to resist. There is an awkwardness about her posture that suggests something is not quite right.

The Delaware Art Museum’s broad survey shows that representational painting is alive and well. The resurgence of this approach to art has been going on in the U.S. since the 1960s, when a reaction against the austerity of abstraction set in, and artists found that viewers, in some very deep way, crave images of people, objects, and scenes that they can recognize from their own visual experiences. Whether the paintings are true to everyday life or visionary and fantastical (what Winslow calls “imaginative realism”), they gratify this need while affording the artists a chance to make full use of their technical skills.

“There’s been so much conversation and scholarship about the trajectory of representational painting,” says Winslow, “which of course has been with us since the Paleolithic period, re-examining the impact of Abex, Minimalism, and conceptual art. I think that there has been a shift back to representation. In this portrait-heavy environment that we’re in, in regard to social media, it’s an interesting time to embrace representation.”

By John Dorfman

Master of Mysterious Images Wed, 28 Sep 2016 19:21:53 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Known for his distinctive poster designs, the veteran Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo is earning belated attention overseas for his work as a painter, too.

Tadanori Yokoo, no goal for art, 2015

Tadanori Yokoo, no goal for art, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 35 3⁄4 inches;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Tadanori Yokoo, A La Maison de M. Civecawa, 1965 Tadanori Yokoo, Chinsetsu Yumihari-zuki, 1969 Tadanori Yokoo, Having Reached a Climax at the Age of 29, I Was Dead, 1965 Tadanori Yokoo, no goal for art, 2015 Tadanori Yokoo, 49 Years Later, 2014

The Tokyo-based graphic designer and painter Tadanori Yokoo is regarded as one of the most accomplished doyens of modern art in Japan, even if, for all his renown, the scope and diversity of his oeuvre are still not very well known in the West. However, Yokoo’s work in the field of poster design, for which he won acclaim earlier in his long career, still boasts a cult following among design mavens and specialists around the world. Meanwhile, in recent decades the artist has devoted his energy primarily to painting, a development that may have confounded Yokoo-watchers both inside and outside Japan who thought they had his work neatly pegged and placed somewhere in the Eastern division of modern art’s complex, global history.

In fact, as the artist’s most recent series of paintings, which New York’s Albertz Benda Gallery has been showcasing over the past several years, have demonstrated, Yokoo is not only an artist whose moves are unpredictable but also one who mines his own life’s history for thematic reference points in enigmatic ways.

Yokoo was born in 1936 in Nishiwaki, a town with a long history as a textile-producing center in Hyõgo Prefecture, in the southwestern part of Honshu, the main island in the Japanese archipelago. He was brought up by elderly adoptive parents who had run a kimono-fabric company. He grew up at a time when Japan was militarizing and then during the years of World War II in the Pacific. In the decades leading up to the right-wing militarist takeover of the government and the outbreak of war, Japanese art, culture, fashion, and intellectual life had been influenced by waves of incoming Western styles and democratic ideas. In his novels and essays, the contemporary writer Junichirõ Tanizaki identified the sense of nostalgia mixed with anxiety that his people and their tradition-embracing society felt in the face of modernity’s seemingly unstoppable approach.

Even as a child, Yokoo loved to draw. After finishing high school, he went to work at a printing company, then at a newspaper in the port city of Kobe. He soaked up the colors, textures, and ambience of the fading world in which he had grown up and, after moving to Tokyo in 1960, worked for an advertising agency and then as a graphic designer at Nippon Design Center. That company was run by Ikko Tanaka, an innovator who profoundly influenced modern graphic design in Japan. At the time, the Japanese capital was undergoing rapid reconstruction, as war-devastated neighborhoods of old wooden structures and cozy back streets gave way to high-rise concrete apartment blocks and commercial centers.

Yokoo fell in with underground avant-garde artists, including Tatsumi Hijikata, the creator of the psychologically intense butõ dance form, and Shuji Terayama, a poet, dramatist and filmmaker. Yokoo began creating collage-like posters to promote their performances and events. In developing such projects—and, through them, a signature look and aesthetic that imitated no known style—Yokoo, who as a child had enjoyed classic warrior tales, evoked the look and character of such indigenous, pre-modern source material as printed menko game cards, with their images of samurai, movie stars, or famous athletes; old kimono-fabric labels; Hokusai-style waves; antique typography; and the Hinomaru, Japan’s traditional Rising Sun flag, with its bold rays extending out from a red disc.

Breaking with the uncluttered approach to modernist design that prevailed in cutting-edge poster, book, and advertising design in Japan in the 1960s (and which typified Tanaka’s own spare, elegant style), Yokoo packed his poster designs with allusions to a pre-modern past, but with all the verve and some of the irony of the emerging Pop Art style. A few years ago, in an interview published in a newspaper in Japan, Yokoo recalled that his work “constituted quite a critique of design as it existed” at that time.

Eventually, professionally, he set out on his own. He became friendly with well-known sports stars and performers, his own celebrity rising in tandem with the power and influence of postwar mass media. In 1966, Yokoo presented his first solo exhibition at a Tokyo gallery, and as his unusual work became known overseas, foreign critics were quick to tag it “Pop Art.” In 1968, he designed a poster for the “Word and Image” survey of poster art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It featured Hinomaru-style sun rays shooting out from a giant eyeball. Four years later, MoMA mounted a solo exhibition of Yokoo’s work, consolidating his stature at home and abroad.

Since that time, outside Japan Yokoo has often been called a Pop artist, referred to as a Japanese counterpart to such iconic American artists of the 1960s as Andy Warhol or Peter Max. However, in Yokoo’s case, that label has never been completely accurate. Certainly American pop-cultural influences could be strongly felt in Japan after the war years, but for all their bold color and impact, thematically, Yokoo’s posters looked back, not ahead to some fantasy of a high-tech future, nor did they celebrate the emerging postwar consumer culture. (One of his most famous posters mockingly announced the artist’s own death at the age of 29.) At the same time, Yokoo carefully balanced the emotional temperature of the potentially nostalgia-provoking elements of his poster designs in a way that prevented them from becoming kitsch.

Even as he produced a vast body of work and developed friendships with such leading cultural figures as the fashion designer Issey Miyake (for whom he has routinely created runway-show invitations for many decades) or the writer Yukio Mishima (a nationalist who famously committed ritual suicide after a failed coup d’état attempt in 1970), there were periods in his career during which he made paintings. And in 1981, after visiting a Picasso exhibition at MoMA, Yokoo declared that he had given up graphic design in order to devote himself to painting. “When I entered that exhibition, I was a graphic designer and when I left I was a painter,” he recalled many years later.

In fact, Yokoo told Art & Antiques in a recent written interview, “I started creating my first paintings in 1966. My motifs in those early works were young girls in seductive poses in various situations.” He made about 20 such pictures in acrylic on canvas, including some depicting women with pink-red skin and bathing caps swimming in a moat surrounding a medieval Japanese castle. Yokoo did not exhibit those paintings outside Japan around that time. Instead, as he grew his hair long, savored the Beatles’ music, assimilated the hippie and psychedelic trends of the 1960s and early ’70s, and traveled to India, it was his distinctive posters that attracted the attention of fans and collectors.

When Yokoo switched his focus to painting in the 1980s, in Western Europe and the U.S., the aesthetics of so-called bad painting were in the air. In 1978, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York had presented “‘Bad’ Painting,” a controversial exhibition curated by the late Marcia Tucker. It examined the notion of taste, at which certain contemporary artists had begun taking aim in a postmodernist critical spirit that questioned canonical art history’s assumptions and narratives. Tucker wrote of the “bad” painting genre (which would in some instances find fuller expression in the 1980s in such movements as New Expressionism), “The freedom with which these artists mix classical and popular art-historical sources, kitsch and traditional images, archetypal and personal fantasies, constitutes a rejection of the concept of progress per se. […] Bypassing the idea of progress implies an extraordinary freedom to do and to be whatever you want.”

In that pre-Internet age, such ideas reached Japanese artists mainly through art magazines. Whether or not Yokoo was directly influenced by the “bad” painting trend, when he first started exhibiting his pictures in Japan, some critics and viewers did not know what to make of his big career turn. Animals, starbursts, ectoplasmic garlands of color, dramatically lit figures like characters in movie posters, old buildings, assorted motifs from traditional Japanese art, whole panels of abstract patterns, and fragments of words written in Japanese or in Roman letters—Yokoo’s compositions could accommodate just about anything. Sometimes, in an atmospheric manner, they suggested recognizable narratives but mostly their intended meanings, if any, were anybody’s guess.

In a more recent development that echoes similar late-career gestures by such well-known modern artists as Picasso and Jasper Johns, in the past few years Yokoo has been dipping back into his own catalogue of emblematic images and reconsidering them in all-new works. He has shown them at Albertz Benda, calling renewed attention to his painting and to the variety within his broader oeuvre. In 2002, for a retrospective of his work at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, Yokoo recreated two paintings from what he calls his “Pink Girls” series of the 1960s (the originals, in private collections in the U.S., were not loaned to the exhibition at that time). The artist told Art & Antiques, “That was the beginning of my recreated works. Through the process of copying my own paintings, I felt a strange sense of excitement. They were copies but they were original works as well.”

Yokoo explained that, as he has continued to revisit and rework some of his earlier pictures, the process “has developed into something like conceptual art.” As it turns out, it was only last year, in the “International Pop” exhibition that opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was more recently presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that Yokoo’s “Pink Girls” from the mid-’60s were first shown in the U.S. “I wonder what would have happened if these works had been shown in the U.S. in 1966,” he said.

In his more recent pictures, Yokoo’s swimmers are still pink and can still be seen splashing about in a moat—but he paints them blue, orange, or black, too, in pools or other bodies of water, their transparent heads sometimes overlapping to form faces filled with eyes and mouths like images from Cubist-Surrealist dreams. He has also created compositions resembling jigsaw puzzles, in which random patterns and fractured dancers’ bodies play tug-of-war in densely packed pictorial space. His sources for such images, he told Art & Antiques, were “parody photos” of movie actors he had found in old issues of Life magazine. “The original actor was Rudolph Valentino,” he explained, “but Tony Curtis was dancing with Natalie Wood in the Life version. I made a kind of parody painting out of the parody photograph. I decided to create various versions in different styles.”

In a posthumously published essay, Mishima observed that in Yokoo’s work “there is a direct line connecting the sadness of Japanese local customs and the demented, blatant nihilism of American Pop Art.” For Mishima, who was no fan of modernity’s fast-advancing forces of change, Yokoo’s art offered a kind of “spiritual exchange along a grim path to and from the deepest places in the mind in opposition” to such phenomena as “tourism, world trends, industrialized society [and] urbanization.” (The broader arc of Yokoo’s lifelong creative journey may be examined in depth in the collection that is on view at the Tadanori Yokoo Museum of Contemporary Art in Kobe, which opened in 2012.)

In Yokoo’s paintings, as in his poster designs, which bring together so many seemingly disparate elements, whose individual or collective meanings, if any, he leaves wide open to interpretation, he has created an art of mystery and strange allure. In it, he carefully balances his own emotion regarding his subject matter somewhere between fond engagement and cool detachment. Still, his spirit is inescapably very present in each of his productions. That’s because, for Yokoo, the source and ongoing flow of his creative energy are as real and enduring as a mountain is illusive to a sensitive Buddhist monk. As this prolific artist once observed, “I guess the real foundation [of my work] is my own experience, my own memories.” In his art, he said, “The past and the present become one.”

By Edward M. Gómez

Windy City Wonders Thu, 28 Apr 2016 17:37:28 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Chicago’s rich art scene offers prehistoric art, contemporary works, and everything in between.

Anna Kunz, Untitled, 2016

Anna Kunz, Untitled, 2016, gouache on Sakamoto paper, 13 x 15 inches;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Mace heads, Chavin culture, Peru John James Audubon, Frigate Pelican Francesco Pergolesi, Pino, Spoleto, 2013 Gabriele Munter, Blumen Mit Wisser Rose, 1950 Bill Traylor, Untitled Spotted Cat Puck’s Monthly Magazine and Almanac, June 1905 Anna Kunz, Untitled, 2016 Restorer Matt Bergbauer inpainting a portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant

Chicago has long been a haven for public and outdoor art, with its excellent city-sponsored public art program providing more than 700 pieces throughout the city. So it should come as no surprise that Chicago’s indoor art offerings, from galleries to museums to artist workshops, are just as impressive. You’ll find the city’s art scene in general weighted slightly toward modern and contemporary works than traditional; however, the depth and breadth of options will leave even the most strident traditionalist satisfied.

Art enthusiasts visiting the Windy City should start in the River North neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of galleries in the city. Contemporary painting, Outsider art, fine art prints, photography—you’ll find plenty of this and more in River North, and all within walking distance.

A standout in River North is the Catherine Edelman Gallery (CEG), one of the best galleries devoted to photography in the entire Midwest. Opened in 1987, the gallery focuses on showing prominent contemporary photographers alongside emerging talent. CEG’s next show is the American debut of Italian photographer Francesco Pergolesi. Titled “Heroes,” Pergolesi’s exhibition is a series of photographic tableaux that pays homage to his memories of growing up in Spoleto, Italy. He creates both traditional prints and small photographic boxes that are lit from within. Edelman came across Pergolesi’s work last summer while in Arles, France, says gallery director Juli Lowe. “Catherine saw the work and was completely taken with it. His [photo boxes] are really interesting—they’re these beautiful, unique little objects.” Pergolesi will be in attendance at the May 6 opening reception from 5–7 p.m. The show runs through July 1.

After viewing the Pergolesi show, try stepping into the brand-new Rivera Contemporary Fine Art Gallery. Judith Rivera is an abstract landscape painter who depicts the American Southwest and Mexico, reveling in the textures and colors of the Arizona-Sonora desert. Born in Sonora, Mexico, Rivera studied there and at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in San Miguel de Allende, where, she says, “they taught me the techniques of the Mexican master painters, like José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo.” Rivera achieves a three-dimensional effect by using a very heavy impasto and overlapping many layers, reinforcing the desert effect by adding sand to her paint. “I do extensive research on pigments and the optics of colors,” she says. “I’m not a lazy painter.”

Although River North has the highest concentration of galleries, it’s just one of many places in Chicago to get your fine art fix. For a change of pace—and time period—head to the Douglas Dawson Gallery in the South Loop, a fascinating collection of ancient and historic ethnographic art from Africa, the Americas, and Asia. The Douglas Dawson Gallery takes a slightly different tack to showing tribal art than many in the industry. Co-owner Dawson decided to echo contemporary art gallery models, offering the standard art gallery opening reception for his themed exhibitions, along with more scholarly events like lectures. In May, the gallery will open the show “Stone: Prehistoric Hand Tools.”

Other notable galleries include the Michael LaConte Gallery (MLG), which specializes in contemporary paintings and photography. In June and July, the gallery will host a group Impressionist show featuring artists Andrea Harris and Aubrey Barrett. In addition to a roster of more than 30 artists, the gallery offers a selection of sculptures from Indonesia and antiquities from China and Africa, which LaConte selects and brings back from his frequent travels.

At the Carl Hammer Gallery, on North Wells Street, art enthusiasts can find a stimulating mix of Outsider, American Folk, and contemporary art. Founder Carl Hammer, a true enthusiast himself, says that when he opened the gallery in 1979 he showed exclusively self-taught artists. “But the gallery has evolved in terms of representing emerging, academically trained artists as well as picking up some that have established track records both here in Chicago and nationally,” he says. “It’s a happy blend. The aesthetic I developed was focused on self-taught and Outsider, and that has definitely has educated my eye.” Hammer has works by Outsider masters such as Bill Traylor, Henry Darger, and William Edmondson, while the contemporary non-Outsider artists featured include Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, Marc Dennis, and Michael Hernandez de Luna, whose exhibition “Philatelic Adventures” is up through May 14. Visitors will also be intrigued to see Hammer’s selection of circus sideshow banners, which he put together during trips through rural America looking for Outsider artists. “I saw the potential of it being treated seriously as art,” Hammer says. “The Chicago Imagists were into it even earlier than I. It’s a perfect fit—it fits Chicago and that kind of very honest aesthetic.”

Visitors should also stop in at the McCormick Gallery, run by the enthusiastic former antiques picker-turned-paintings dealer Tom McCormick. The gallery specializes in mid-century American abstract paintings, and offers a large selection of works by an equally large number of artists. McCormick’s emphasis began as something of an accident. During his early antique-picking years, he had to find relatively cheap pieces, as they were all he could afford. Over time, he began seeing a renewed interest in the Abstract Expressionist era. “I realized this was important material that merely needed to be put into context and presented, or really re-presented to a wider audience hungry for affordable, vintage work from an important historical period,” McCormick says. He now represents several contemporary painters and sculptors as well. “In the past year I’ve become more interested in our contemporary program, and we have added some exciting new members to our family of exhibiting artists,” McCormick says. Many of those artists will be participating in the gallery’s summer exhibition, a group show curated by the independent curator Jessica Cochran.

And more great contemporary art —along with fine jewelry, furniture, decorative arts, and much more—can be found on the auction block at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. This major house will host several auctions in the months of May and June at its headquarters in Chicago, as well as at their various other locations throughout the country. On May 24 there will be a Fine Prints sale, featuring a Chuck Close color silkscreen Self-Portrait from 2000 (est. $80,000–120,000) and Roy Lichtenstein’s The Sower, a lithograph, woodcut, and screenprint from 1985 (est. $30,000–50,000). Also on the 24th, Hindman will hold a Postwar and Contemporary Art sale, and on the 25th an American and European Art sale, highlighted by Gabriele Munter’s floral still life Blumen Mit Wisser Rose, from 1950 (est. $60,000–80,000) and Ralston Crawford’s Smith Silo, Exton, from 1936–37 (est. $300,000–500,000).

Bird and nature art lovers will want to visit Joel Oppenheimer, Inc., a landmark for natural history art. Located in the historic Wrigley Building, the Oppenheimer gallery offers exquisite antique botanical, ornithological, and other prints by Mark Catesby, John James Audubon, Edward Lear, Basilius Besler, and other major contributors to the field of natural history. Oppenheimer also offers art conservation and restoration services.

Another excellent art restoration company is Restoration Division, LLC, which handles everything from classical paintings to historic textiles and contemporary assemblage. They’ve recently started an initiative to locate and restore regional works of historical significance housed in small, regional museums and foundations. “So far, the project unfolds well,” says owner Dmitri Rybchenkov. “We’ve found a historically significant banner that came from Philadelphia—it’s about 140 years old. We’re finding interesting artworks and presenting them, raising awareness so that we can restore them.” Restoration Division hosts occasional art shows and installations, as well.

Those in town with an eye for design can’t go wrong with the Pi Squared Collection, an interior design, home decor, and furniture company run by designer Susie Chiu. Chiu designs and imports furniture and decorative pieces from Asia, specializing mainly in exotic woods. One of her more distinctive specialties is petrified-wood sinks.

And a visit to Chicago wouldn’t be complete without stopping in some of its many fine museums. One of these is the Driehaus Museum, housed in the beautifully preserved Gilded Age mansion of Chicago banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson. Beginning on June 25, the Driehaus will host the traveling exhibition “With a Wink and a Nod,” a collection of cartoons from the Gilded Age (on view through January 8, 2017). The focus of the show is Puck magazine, a satirical publication focused on politics and society. “It’s very timely,” says director Lise Dube-Scherr. “A lot of the issues that they examine are many of the same issues we’re facing right now, today.”

Head down to the South Loop to visit the monolith of arts and culture, the Art Institute of Chicago. Founded in the early 1800s as both a museum and a school, the Institute has remained true to both of those missions throughout its history and is recognized today as among the top fine arts institutions in the U.S. The museum’s ongoing exhibition “The New Contemporaries” showcases 44 works by 20th-century icons from the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art movements, tracing the course of these developments into contemporary times. Among the many other exhibitions on view are “Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and the Portrait Print,” showcasing portrait etchings and prints spanning the 1500s through the 1900s (through August 7); and “Aaron Siskind: Abstractions,” which exhibits 100 of the photographer’s most famous and influential images (through August 14).

Another notable exhibition is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago. “Diane Simpson: Window Dressing” runs through July 3. The show exhibits this Chicago sculptor’s window display-inspired installations, which originated as a commission for the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wis. “The show’s been getting a great response,” says curator Lynne Warren. “Simpson’s work is speaking to a younger audience for sure, as it has that familiarity—clothing, this idea that we are what we wear—along with this very vintage, Art Deco style, which is really popular now. And everything is handmade. The work has that fine Chicago craftsmanship that we’re so known for here.”

And through June, MCA will present the exhibition “Surrealism: The Conjured Life,” showcasing works by René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington, among many others. To coincide with this show, fine art dealer and scholar Thomas Monahan will present works by the Surrealists Roberto Matta and Marcos Raya throughout the month of May at his gallery, Thomas Monahan Fine Art. The show will coincide with the publication of Monahan’s new book Matta: On the Edge of a Dream, which will be released on May 23 (Skira, $45).

By By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Popping Up Everywhere Wed, 24 Feb 2016 18:52:40 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art highlights Pop Art from around the world.

Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963

Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Joe Tilson, LOOK!, 1964. Evelyne Axell, Ice Cream, 1964 Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963

“International Pop,” an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center and currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through May 15), showcases what Erica F. Battle, the John Alchin and Hal Marryatt associate curator of contemporary art at the PMA and the organizer of the museum’s edition of the show, calls “a newly expanded frame of Pop Art.” As the show’s title suggests, broadening Pop’s frame also means redrawing the movement’s geographic borders.

The exhibition, which features work by over 80 artists from over 20 countries, began as a meeting of international curators and scholars at the Walker Art Center some five years ago. What became clear during this consortium was that Pop Art had an illustrious life outside its birthplace the U.S. With this in mind, the exhibition’s curators, Darsie Alexander (now executive director at the Katonah Museum of Art) and Bartholomew Ryan (now an independent curator), organized the show around five major contextual sections or “hubs,” as Battle calls them: “Britain: The Independent Group & the New Scene,” “Germany: Capitalist Realism,” “Brazil: The New Consciousness,” “Argentina: The Instituto Torcuato Di Tella & Pop Lunfardo,” and “Japan: The SÕgetsu Art Center & Tokyo Pop.” To support its thesis, the exhibition puts work on view by Peter Blake and Clive Barker (Great Britain), Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter (Germany), Antônio Dias (Brazil), Dalila Puzzovio, and Edgardo Costa (Argentina), Keiichi Tanaami and Genpei Akasegawa (Japan), among many other, as well as U.S. stalwarts Andy Warhol and Jim Dine.

With Pop, the avant garde swallowed, chewed, and spat out the imagery and tactics of mass media and communication (this can be seen quite literally in the show in Belgian artist Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream (1964), which both mimics and reproaches overt sexual imagery in advertising by depicting a woman licking an ice cream cone). Taking the rhetoric of advertising, periodicals, and television, artists such as Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein utilized figuration and mass production to pump out timely works that simultaneously celebrating and chastised American consumerism. On the other hand, work that was created in some other countries reflected harsher political and economic realities—Japan and Germany were still dealing with the aftermath of World War II, and Brazil was in the throes of a 1964 military coup that was followed by heavy censorship laws.

How and where artists were exposed to mass imagery had an important effect on how they conceived of and produced their work. Depending on where they lived, artists had greater or less access to imagery, particularly in print. Scottish artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, who is often credited as the earliest adopter of Pop, used images of a pinup girl, Coca Cola, a fighter jet, and the word “POP!” itself in his 1947 collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. For Paolozzi, who compiled collage scrapbooks, images weren’t easy to come by—something that can be hard to believe in the age of Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram. “He had to get American magazines from servicemen,” says Battle.

As Battle notes, many of the artists in the show did not regard their work as Pop, or were seeking to reject or cannibalize the movement. When Battle, who helped curate the British section of the exhibition, spoke with the New Zealand artist Billy Apple about Pop in Britain, Apple said, “I’m not British and I’m not a Pop artist.” Battle’s response was, “Let’s just talk about the fact that you were there.” Apple, who studied at the Royal College of Art in London with David Hockney, Frank Bowling, and Pauline Boty (Hockney and Boty have work in “International Pop”), was featured in the pivotal 1964 exhibition “The American Supermarket” at Paul Bianchini’s Upper East Side gallery, in which the exhibition space was decorated to mimic a standard American supermarket. Apple’s work appeared alongside pieces by Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, Jasper Johns, Mary Inman, James Rosenquist and Robert Watts (many of which are featured in the Philadelphia show). Apple could claim not to be a Pop artist, but he was on the short list of one of the seminal Pop exhibitions in history. While some overseas artists may have felt that their work was an ironic take on an already ironic American art phenomenon, their work nests comfortably in the Pop fold.

America and American pop culture were front and center in a lot of international work. As cemented with Jasper Johns’ Flag (1958), America as a literal aesthetic was up for grabs. British artist Derek Boshier (also a Royal College alum), used the familiar Kellogg’s logo in his 1961 oil on canvas Special K. Says Battle of Boshier’s choice of imagery, “[Boshier] said, ‘You wake up and there’s America on the breakfast table.’” In Brazilian artist Antônio Henrique Amaral’s 1967 work Homenagem ao Século XX/XXI (20th/21st Century Tribute), the gaping mouths and active tongues of a military dictator are depicted in bright, grabby colors before an American flag, showing the influence of America’s cultural and political presence in Brazil at the time (the U.S. was supporting Brazil’s dictatorship).

Ushio Shinohara’s Coca-Cola Plan (After Rauschenberg), a 1964 appropriation of Robert Rauschenberg’s Coca-Cola Plan combine, based on an image Shinohara saw of the 1958 piece in a magazine, shows the importation of American art and culture to the East. Shinohara, who met Rauschenberg when the American artist visited Japan, asked him if he could make a version of his work. When Rauschenberg said yes, Shinohara showed him that he had already done it, saying, “The first one to imitate will win.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Cuban Art: Cuba Libre Tue, 26 Jan 2016 18:55:59 +0000 Continue reading ]]> As the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba winds down, Americans are becoming aware of what an exciting art scene exists just 90 miles off our shores.

Manuel Mendive, Ofrenda (Offering), 2002

Manuel Mendive, Ofrenda (Offering), 2002, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 51 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) William Perez, Siempre Hay un Lugar (There Is Always a Place) The-Merger, Rubik’s Globe Manuel Mendive, Ofrenda (Offering), 2002 Mabel Poblet, Piernas Trillizas Ruben Alpizar, From the series “My Ark II,” 2015 Mario Algaze, Haciendo cola, Santiago de Cuba, 1999

Cuba is the only country on earth where the richest people are the artists. “They are the wealthiest of the wealthy,” says Ramon Cernuda of Cernuda Arte, a gallery based in Coral Gables, Fla., that specializes in Cuban contemporary art. “A mid-career artist makes an average of 100 times what a neurosurgeon makes in a year.” And why is that? Because Cuban law allows artists to sell their works to foreign collectors and dealers in exchange for hard currency. The situation, though lucrative, is paradoxical: Within Cuba, there are no commercial galleries at all, and just one state-run auction house. “There is virtually no art collecting inside the country,” says Cernuda, “except for government collections. We are talking about an export market.”

Also paradoxical is the tremendous vitality of Cuban contemporary art. One might imagine that 50 years of Communist rule would have stifled creativity and freedom of expression, but the opposite is the case. Although propaganda and heroic images of Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leaders have been common themes of Cuban art, especially in the 1960s, on the whole the government has been far less controlling of artistic expression than the Soviets used to be.

Just as important is the fact that the state supported the arts and subsidized artists. “One of first things the Cuban government did after the revolution was to build an incredible free art school,” says Sandra Levinson, a former journalist who runs the Center for Cuban Studies in New York and leads art tours of the country. “In Cuba they are very proud of their trained artists.” While many observers today associate Cuban art with “naïve,” self-taught, or folk expressions, in fact the country has a long tradition of formal instruction in academic art. The Academy of San Alejandro was founded in 1818 by a French painter, Jean Baptiste Vermay, and is still one of the island’s key arts institutions. From Spanish and French influence during the 18th and 19th centuries to modernism during the early 20th, Cuban artists have been absorbing international influences and blending them with local culture to create a diverse, but uniquely Cuban, art.

Contemporary Cuban art owes a lot to the Afro-Cuban modernism of painters such as Wifredo Lam and Eduardo Abela, but today’s artists are just as likely to work in mixed media, found materials, photography, and conceptual modes as in oil on canvas. The range of themes, concerns, techniques, and aesthetics is huge. Abel Barroso’s playful, text-emblazoned mechanical wooden constructions reflect on the consumerism and international tourism that are having an increasing impact on Cuba. Kcho (Alexis Leyva) uses found objects to make large-scale sculptural works that riff on the image of the homemade boats that so many Cubans have used to flee the island for the U.S. Mabel Poblet’s mixed-media works, based on photographs, depict her own life, as refracted through a colorful, fantastic-cinematic sensibility. In Dayron Gonzalez’s figurative oil paintings, splotches of paint disturb the otherwise smooth renderings, imbuing ordinary-seeming scenes with eerie strangeness. Ruben Alpizar is a meticulous craftsman whose paintings are inspired by Old Master still lifes and religious allegories. Carlos Estevez creates timeless, non-perspectival paintings featuring symbolic figures interlaced with cosmological-looking skeins of stars, dots, and lines. He also makes marionettes that combine human anatomy with everyday objects like sewing apparatus or musical instruments. Assemblage artist William Perez works in etched plexiglass illuminated by colored lights; many of his objects depict the architectural legacy of Cuba, in which palatial, European-inspired buildings from the pre-revolutionary era are repurposed for occupancy by the working class. Dagoberto Driggs Dumois’ art also deal with the architectural legacy and industrial history of Cuba. He takes fragments of metal and wood from old sugar mills in his home town of Obin—a now-defunct sugar-refining center—and combines them into assemblages along with old photographs of the area printed on metal plates. Kadir Lopez makes his art out of discarded advertising signage from the pre-Castro period.

This use of found materials, so characteristic of Cuban art today, has its roots in pure necessity. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Cuba suddenly lost the financing it had had depending on for the past three decades. The ensuing so-called “Special Period” of economic disaster caused art supplies to become virtually unobtainable, so artists had to look for alternatives. With typical Cuban resourcefulness, they started making art from decidedly non-traditional materials, and this up-from-the-bootstraps process led them into new creative expressions. Darrel Couturier, a Los Angeles dealer who has been going to Cuba for 20 years, recalls, “When the U.S.S.R. fell apart, the funding to Cuba disappeared overnight and everything came to a dead standstill. No one came to their aid. Artists continued to pursue art, but with no materials. The result was incredible work.”

Roberto Diago, an Afro-Cuban artist who explores the legacy of Cuban slavery in his works, was led to a new style during the ’90s, when he started making conceptual installation from cast-off objects he picked up during walks through his neighborhood. In a 2009 interview, Diago said, “We didn’t have the materials you need to paint like we were taught in school, so we had to adapt our art to what we could find. Now I can afford to buy good paper and oil paints, but that no longer interests me. The symbolic weight of my materials has become a characteristic of my work.”

The symbolic weight of history continues to have a major impact on Cuban art, despite a revolution that aimed to negate the past and restart the clock. Manuel Mendive, one of the most senior figures in Cuban art, has built his entire oeuvre on a foundation of Afro-Cuban history and religion. A priest of Santeria as well as a painter, Mendive depicts the rituals of this syncretistic Yoruba-descended faith in works such as Ofrenda (Offering), a vision of a world in which men mix with gods on a equal basis as nature envelops them all. Mendive’s dreamlike, tropically-tinted style may suggest folk art, but he is classically trained. He is also a performance artist who has choreographed Santeria-inspired dances in which he painted the dancers’ naked bodies with his trademark imagery, causing both consternation and wonder in his audience both in Cuba and in the U.S.

At the other end of the broad spectrum of Cuba’s cultural currents, photography and photo-based art have become especially popular among the generation of artists that came of age after the ’90s. “Photography has become a really important medium in Latin American art in general,” notes Couturier, “particularly since digital cameras. It used to be really expensive; now it’s democratic. I’ve noticed that painters who never really did any photography have started working with digital images.” One example he cites is Aimee Garcia, whose work blurs the line between painting and photography. Garcia’s moody, contemplative images explore the way in which one looks at oneself and is looked at by others. Cuban photographers are also continuing with “straight” approaches to the medium: Mario Algaze, born in Cuba but now living in the U.S., works in the tradition of black-and-white artistic photojournalism—whose most famous Cuban practitioner was Alberto Korda, Fidel’s longtime personal photographer—chronicling life across Latin America, including Cuba.

As it experiences this fantastic burst of creativity, Cuba also finds itself at a geopolitical crossroads that stands to have an major effect on its art market and even art-making. After five decades, the U.S. embargo of Cuba is finally being wound down, and travel restrictions on Americans are about to be significantly eased and eventually eliminated. American eyes are on Cuba as they have not been in a very long time, and one consequence of this is a growing interest in Cuban contemporary art. Cernuda points out that the U.S. market for it has been growing very fast: “For the past five years the growth was 20 percent—4 percent a year. This year it’s up 40 percent from the year prior.” He ascribes the change to increasing U.S. tourism in Cuba. While it’s actually been perfectly legal for Americans to buy art in Cuba since 1992, when a group of advocates including Sandra Levinson successfully petitioned the U.S. government to make art an exception to the embargo, awareness of this legality has been limited. Levinson recalls that American gallerists were reluctant to get involved, incredulous that it could be “really legal.”

Now, however, the message has finally gotten through, and Cuban art has new level of presence in this country. More dealers are showing it and making frequent trips to Cuba to find the best works. More Americans are attending the Havana Biennial, a showcase for the art of Cuba and the developing world in general, founded in 1984 and held not quite every two years since (the most recent was in May–June 2015). The U.S. has been granting Cuban artists long-term visas that allow them an unlimited number of visits over a 5- or 10-year period, and a good number of artists now divide their time between the two countries. According to Couturier, “half of Havana” was at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Group exhibitions on both coasts have given new prominence to Cuban contemporary art in the past several years. These changes are great for the market, but they cause some longtime observers to wonder whether the go-go attitude will end up harming the artists and the art.

“My fear is that if too many people from the U.S. start rushing to buy Cuban art, some artists will find themselves repeating what is saleable,” says Levinson. “I think the artists I like will not do that, because they are very inner-directed. But the more often some go to Miami, to Art Basel, the more often people say ‘please do this, please do that,’ they’ll feel pressure.” Cernuda echoes this concern, saying, “It’s absolutely an issue. We have artists who are very authentic, conveying beliefs and sentiments about aspects of life in Cuba. Then we have artists who are trying to please international markets.”

Couturier takes a hopeful view. “I daresay there’s going to be a real explosion. That’s my sense. I think Cuban art overall has been undervalued because of lack of access, but at this point now, there’s greater interest than ever in the art itself, and the more people go down there, the more context they’ll have to appreciate the work. I’ve been taking people down there for 18 years, and a very common reaction is, ‘I had no idea how sophisticated and international it is.’”

Undoubtedly, some of the creative ferment in Cuba has been due to the island’s isolation, fraught political climate, and scarcity of resources. Despite the wealth flowing into the Cuban art world, artists still struggle with lack of materials and lack of access to the internet, but the way things are going, the situation will likely improve, sooner rather than later. Will that take away the specialness of Cuban art? Most observers think not. Cuba’s specialness is deeply embedded in its culture, dating back long before the revolution. “Historically, Cuba has always been very rich in culture,” says Couturier, “predominantly because it was a crossroads for travel between Europe and Mexico, Central America, South America. It was, per capita, the wealthiest country in the Western Hemisphere. They hired the best artists and architects.” Nance Frank, a Key West, Fla.-based dealer of Cuban art, says, “Cuba has been in a special, unusual position since the beginning. In the Spanish colonial era, they were the center of the Latin American art world. If you couldn’t afford to go to Paris, you went to Havana.” And then there’s Cuba’s sense of artistic community, fostered by the collectivist mentality of the Castro era. Art collectives such as Los Carpinteros (Marcelo Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez) and The-Merger (Alain Pino, Mayito, and Niels Moleiro) create work together without seeking to draw attention to individuals, prizing practice above personality in a manner reminiscent of the medieval guilds. And then there’s the legendary intensity and ambition of Cubans, national traits that will doubtless survive any political or economic change.

There is a sense, though, that now is a special moment, one that collectors should take advantage of while it lasts. Levinson urges those who are interested in Cuban art to go to Cuba, to see it in its native environment, and above all to meet the artists. “Right now,” she says, “for art groups, the artists are completely available. We go to their homes and studios. Almost never will they say, ‘Well, the meaning of the work is just what you see.’ Oh, no. The Cubans will say, ‘Let me tell you what it’s about,’ and you’ll be there for the next hour. But once a lot of people start expecting that, they’ll have to close their doors, because they need to work.”

By John Dorfman

Glass Italian Style Mon, 31 Aug 2015 21:11:44 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Centuries’ worth of technique meet modern aesthetics to create the incredibly beautiful and complex pieces of 20th-century and contemporary glass art that Venice is famous for.

Ercole Barovier, monumental Intarsio vase

Ercole Barovier, monumental Intarsio vase

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Yoichi Ohira, "Canale di Venezia N. 3" vase Yoichi Ohira, "Cristallo Sommerso N. 72 – Scolpito" Vase, Ercole Barovier, monumental Intarsio vase Ercole Barovier, Lenti vase Ercole Barovier, monumental Rostrati vase

It’s 1926 in Italy, on the legendary island of Murano. Your family name is one of the oldest and most revered in the history of Italian glass-blowing, dating back to the 14th century. Your father and your uncle have delighted the world by updating Roman-era techniques to make breathtakingly gorgeous and complex works of glass, but now it’s your turn to lead. Can you live up to your family’s storied reputation?

Fortunately, Ercole Barovier proved himself worthy. Born in 1889, son of Benvenuto Barovier and nephew of Giuseppe Barovier, who were both stars of the 19th-century revival of Murano’s glassworks, Ercole did not train as a glassblower himself. But in 1926 he became artistic director of his father’s company, which bore the family name, and marched forward with confidence. He navigated the Art Deco era, World War II, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and several Venice Biennales and World’s Fairs before retiring in 1972, two years before he died. “He was an amazing guy,” says Jim Oliveira of Glass Past, a New York gallery founded in 1995 and devoted to Italian glass made between 1870 and 1970. “All of those decades, he did incredible work and it never looked tired. It was always fresh and playful, and at the same time, there was a serious consideration about design and about the design sensibilities of the moment. His work was always on the cutting edge.”

Oliveira and his Glass Past cofounder, Sara Blumberg, consulted on a historic June sale at the Chicago auction house Wright that included perhaps the greatest concentration of Ercole Barovier works within the largest, most important auction offering of Barovier glass ever—about 120 of the 212 lots emerged from Barovier furnaces. In fact, there was so much Barovier that Oliveira, Blumberg, and auction house officials had to grapple with the question of whether it was best to disperse everything in a single event. “It was risky to bring them out,” says Oliveira, “but we believed in the material, and it did exceptionally well.”

Held on June 13, the single-owner sale became the second-highest grossing auction of Italian glass ever recorded, its total falling just short of $3 million. It’s an especially strong number considering how few pieces from Venini, Barovier’s great 20th-century rival, appeared in the lineup. The highest-grossing auction of Italian glass, which topped $4.1 million, took place at Wright in May 2014, and that sale boasted many more Venini pieces, including almost two dozen by the much-sought-after Carlo Scarpa. Top-quality 20th-century Italian glass is tough to find regardless; the owner of this collection, who was well-known in the collecting community but didn’t want his name publicized, pursued the material for more than 20 years before consigning it.

The sale’s top lot was not the handiwork of Ercole, but it’s doubtful that he would mind losing the honor. A unique vetro mosaico vase created circa 1918 and credited to Giuseppe and Benvenuto Barovier fetched $137,000 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. The 7.5-inch-tall vase, graced with a landscape-like image dominated by shades of blue, includes murrines, colored patterns imparted to the glass through a tedious, challenging technique that was first recorded in the Middle East four millennia ago. A more detailed explanation of how the vase was done would require a multi-paragraph detour, so instead, let’s let Oliveira cut to the chase: “There are so many steps involved. It’s an insane process and it’s emblematic of Italian glass generally.”

There’s no telling how many attempts at vetro mosaico failed for every piece that survived the inherent hazards of the production process, but their beauty made them worth the trouble. “Murrines don’t have to be a difficult technique,” says Tina Oldknow, senior curator of modern and contemporary glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., “but the level [of skill] required to make some of these things is very high. Even within the Barovier studio, they had glass-blowers who were specialists in this. People aren’t looking to do this sort of thing now.” Richard Wright, the owner of Wright, has seen only three other examples of the sort of vetro mosaico vase that he sold in June. “The physicality of making those delicate objects is unbelievable,” he says. “Technically, there’s no margin of error. It’s artistic and painterly and wonderful to see. It really is a marriage of art and craft.”

Pieces done on Ercole’s watch could be just as taxing, albeit in different ways. The monumental (14.25-inch) clear Rostrati vase from 1938 is an example of how a photograph and a catalogue entry, while perfectly accurate, can fail to capture how powerful a piece is. “In person, it’s wildly dimensional and heavily sculptural,” says Blumberg. “Spikes are coming off of every conceivable part. It’s magnificent. It’s really an extraordinary example. It caught everyone’s attention, and it certainly caught ours.” Also not quite covered in the lot description of “glass with applications” is that said applications involved individually pulling the spikes by hand from a massive blob of molten glass as it hung from the end of the glass-blower’s pipe. Consider that Wright estimates that the vase “probably weighs about 40 pounds,” and your arms should ache in sympathy for the team of Barovier artisans who realized the design. Oldknow likens the task to “holding a bucket of water on the end of a two-by-four.” Estimated at $10,000–15,000, the Rostrati vase commanded $100,000.

The lots in the auction served as a temporary museum of Ercole’s techniques and of of Italian glass of the past few centuries. The sale started with a series of 19th-century pieces, including some from Salviati and Co. The firm was founded by Antonio Salviati, a former lawyer who breathed life back into Murano’s glass-blowing industry and employed Ercole’s father, uncle, and grand-uncle Giovanni. “They [the 19th-century pieces] are really the roots of the field we’re discussing—how it began, the reinvention and rebirth of this particular applied art,” says Blumberg. “But those pieces are inconsistent in terms of their reception.” The majority of those that drew bids went for sums within their estimates. “It’s a smaller market and harder to sell,” says Wright, explaining that “the aesthetic is more 19th-century than 20th-century. The forms are much more traditional.” Collectors of today are simply not as enamored of ewers, chalices, and the other old-school shapes that were in vogue before World War I.

Collectors of today are also spared the paucity of knowledge that prevailed 30 years ago, when the secondary market for more recently made Italian glass started to take shape. When Blumberg and Oliveira hung out their shingle in 1995, there was very little information about 19th- and 20th-century Italian glass out there, published in Italian, English, or otherwise. They schooled themselves directly by gaining entry to private libraries, rummaging through auction catalogues and Venice Biennale records, and picking brains. The companies’ internal documents helped, too, but that help was limited. “It’s important to recognize we are talking about Italy as opposed to Scandinavia,” Blumberg says, adding that her and Oliveira’s hard-won expertise “really required piecing together from various sources.”

Some things cannot be known with certainty. For instance, it can be difficult to confirm exactly how many examples of a given piece were produced. The concept of the limited edition didn’t really exist in Murano before 1970, but these objects were generally created in small groups, and if a group sold out, the company might eventually make more. The scarcest pieces are those for which six or fewer are known; the next level up represents examples for which about 18–20 survive; and the biggest hits, the ones that were reissued again and again, might number in the hundreds. The hand-made nature of even these super-popular designs ensures that they aren’t abundant. “It’s more along the lines of studio glass,” says Blumberg.

Blumberg and Oliveira draw their line at 1970, and many collectors do as well. After that point, the Murano brands start to lose their mojo, and creative dominance shifts to independent glass artists. Some of this devolution is connected to an inability to let go of old strategies that once protected Murano’s industry but no longer do. Jealously guarding glass-making secrets made sense centuries ago; today, it just guarantees that the knowledge remains with its discoverers until they take it with them to their graves. Oldknow relays a telling anecdote: In the 1960s, Dale Chihuly wrote to 40 glassworks on Murano, asking to come over and learn their techniques; the only company that responded was Venini. It was founded in 1921 by a man from Milan, Paolo Venini, and that Milanese legacy—Italian, yes, but not Muranese—was enough to grant the company outsider status on the island. But arguably, Venini’s openness to outsiders and outside perspectives helped raise its profile with collectors and the world at large, cementing it as the prevailing favorite.

Another issue with post-1970 material is the fall-off in quality, even at the most storied Murano names. “In the ’50s, they [the company artisans] were super-skilled. In the 1960s, they were still skilled,” says Oldknow. “By the late ’60s to the early ’70s, they began to lose skill rapidly, and the quality control was not as strict.” The situation has not improved in the decades since. “There are amazing people, but they’re not working at these companies,” she says. “The skill has really gone down, partly because they were never teaching and training.”

The last four lots in the Wright sale were made by one of those “amazing people,” a living artist upon whom Oldknow and other experts heap praise. Yoichi Ohira, born and trained in Japan, initially relocated to Venice in 1973 to study sculpture and fell under the spell of Murano. He served as artistic director of the de Majo glassworks from 1987–1992, when he struck out on his own. He has since collaborated with some of the island’s most highly respected masters, including glass-blower Livio Serena and glass-cutter Giacomo Barbini. “Ohira is one of the very few who actually still channels the great technical mastery of Murano,” says Wright, explaining that Wright Italian glass auctions never include contemporary artists, except for him. Oldknow of the Corning, which bestowed its 2001 Rakow Commission on Ohira, speculates that collectors of mid-century Italian glass love his work because “it’s still vessel-based, the scale is similar and the complexity is similar, and there’s a lot of the surface patterning that you get in 1950s glass.”

Ohira also carried forward the flame of creativity rekindled by Murano’s revival by rethinking and transforming old ways of making glass. “He’s so innovative. He takes a technology used since antiquity and does something no one has seen before,” Oldknow says. “He shows us a totally new way to conceive of this ancient technique. No one else makes anything even close to this. It only comes from him. While he certainly has imitators, he has a strong, clear vision for something very different in glass.”

Barry Friedman, Ohira’s longtime New York dealer, holds nothing back when speaking about the man, who retired in 2010 and returned to his native Japan after 38 years in Italy. “He’s the most innovative artist working in glass for the past 100 years, in my opinion,” Friedman says. “He’s always changing, always inventing new things.” Almost by definition, Ohira’s works are technically difficult to produce, but Friedman does not hold with the notion that the difficulty is inherent to Ohira’s aesthetic. “It’s not that he likes complexity,” he says. “Sometimes he needs it to get the results he wants.”

The quartet of Ohiras appeared at Wright less than a year after Christie’s London set a world record for the artist at auction. A 13 ½-inch tall Nostalgia vase from 2005, executed with Andrea Zilio and Barbini, featuring berry-like spots of red against a field of blue ringed by a flourish of green, sold for £170,500 ($272,460) against an estimate of £20,000–30,000 ($31,900–47,900) in November 2014. While none of the Ohiras in the Wright auction soared quite as high as that, they all beat their high estimates and garnered five-figure sums. The sale’s final lot, a nine-inch-high vase Ohira executed with Serena in 2003 that resembles a flowering field under a night sky, took in $20,320 against an estimate of $7,000–9,000.

With a fourth healthy single-owner sale under their belts (Wright has been holding Italian glass auctions, with Glass Past as consultants, since 2011), Blumberg and Oliveira are thinking about 2016 and are confident in where the Italian glass market is headed. “I think it’s going to keep growing,” says Oliveira, citing how the Wright auctions and museum exhibitions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Carlo Scarpa show in late 2013 and early 2014, are keeping the material in the public consciousness. “Collectors are better informed, and there’s more information about the field in general. I think it could go where the Tiffany market has gone.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley