Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:19:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Objective: Non-Objectivity Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:03:47 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Rolph Scarlett joined the quest for a pure art so independent of the everyday world that it couldn’t even be called “abstract.”

Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0382)

Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0382), circa 1943, oil on canvas, 23 1⁄4 x 30 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0018) Rolph Scarlett, Reach Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0382) Rolph Scarlett, Surreal Landscape

Long before the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, bringing modern art to the masses and putting its stamp on the skyline of New York, there was another Guggenheim museum. It was called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and while it didn’t carry the family name, it was wholly funded by Solomon R. Guggenheim, heir to a mining fortune, art collector, and late-in-life convert to high modernism. Unlike the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting did not reside in an eye-catching structure designed by an icon of American architecture; during the 15 years of its existence, from 1939 to 1954, it moved around town, occupying several inconspicuous-looking buildings. And unlike the second Guggenheim, the first wasn’t bent on omnivorously gathering the best of what the 20th century could offer in the way of art. Instead, it was a hyper-focused institution whose mission, as defined by its director and guiding spirit, the German-born artist and critic Hilla Rebay, was to passionately advocate for a particular strain of modern art—geometric abstraction.

The artist with the most works in the museum’s collection was the Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky, the dean of non-objective art and a master theoretician, author of On the Spiritual in Art and From Point and Line to Plane, which are among the formative texts of modernist art. The second-most represented was the German artist Rudolf Bauer, a member (along with Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Marc Chagall) of the avant-garde group Der Sturm and founder of his own, self-named museum in Berlin. He had 350 works in the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. The third-most represented—and the only non-European in the bunch—was the Canadian-born American artist Rolph Scarlett, with 60 works. Today, both Scarlett and Bauer are less known, while Kandinsky is fixed in the firmament. This disparity, while reflecting the quality and originality of their work to some extent, is also due to the vicissitudes of cultural history and the mechanics of marketing. During the 1930s and 1940s, however, Scarlett’s star was high, and even after the closing of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and the mothballing of much of its collection, he continued to be a vigorous creator of abstract art until his death in 1984 at the age of 95.

Scarlett’s paintings from his classic period are perfect embodiments of the concept of non-objective painting. They consist of geometric shapes—circles, triangles, lines, spirals—interlaced or free-floating and placed within a luminous, almost conceptual space that is somehow neither flat nor three-dimensional. The colors tend to be very bright and vibrant, and Scarlett made full use of the principle of complementary colors, creating an overall impression of opposing yet harmonious forces. Throughout his career, Scarlett worked in several styles, almost all of them non-representational, but he recalled, in interviews done late in life (published in 2003 as a book written in collaboration with the artist and writer Harriet Tannin, the administrator of his estate, titled The Baroness, The Mogul, and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum) that “non-objective geometrical…is the most difficult method of painting I have undertaken. The problem is to create an organization from a few geometrical elements that is alive in color and form, with challenging and stimulating rhythms, making full use of one’s emotional and intuitive creative programming yet keeping it under cerebral control…”

Scarlett’s geometrical paintings rigorously eschew any reference, no matter how tangential, to the natural world. Unlike, say, Cubism or Futurism, non-objective art does not take figurative elements and transform or distort them; in fact, Rebay insisted on the term “non-objective” rather than “abstract” because the latter term implies that the forms in question have been “abstracted” from things seen in the external world. Non-objective painting, on the other hand, is, quite literally, without an object, built from a vocabulary of pure shapes and colors. Rebay argued that non-objective art is the most creative kind of art, because it comes directly from the artist’s mind and inner vision, unlike art that depends on what nature happens to place in front of us.

In Kandinsky’s and Rebay’s theories—strongly influenced by Platonism and Theosophy—forms and colors inhabit an eternal, spiritual universe. For Rebay in particular, the purpose of non-objective painting was to bring spiritual enlightenment and transcendent peace, and therefore educating the broad public to appreciate this art was a quasi-religious endeavor. Scarlett, however, felt that art did not need mysticism. Rebay, he recalled, “would look at Bauer’s or Kandinsky’s work and read something spiritualistic into it. Kandinsky did that too. It was a mistake. The main thing is not mysticism or metaphysical phenomena, it’s esthetics: order, form, color, and rhythm.”

Scarlett was born in 1889 in Guelph, Ontario, to a family of moderate wealth and early on decided that he wanted to be an artist. At 14 he quit school to take up painting, but his father, worried about his future, stepped in and apprenticed him to an uncle who owned a jewelry shop in Guelph. For the next four years, Scarlett worked there and learned the jeweler’s craft, an education that stood him in very good stead in later life. For although he rarely made enough money from selling paintings to support himself, he was always able to make money by finding commercial applications for his artistic skills and vision—as an industrial designer, theater set designer, and jewelry designer whose pieces resemble works of abstract sculpture.

When he was 18, Scarlett was finally able to leave his job and go to New York, where he stayed for the better part of four years, earning his living by working in the jewelry business and studying briefly—in 1908 and 1909—at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase, John Sloan, and George Luks. When World War I broke out, he was back in Guelph, and though he was rejected for military service, he contributed his design skills to the war effort, helping to make munitions at the Massey-Harris Company (owned by the family of fellow Canadian modernist painter Lawren Harris, who would later become a friend of Scarlett’s in New York). During these years Scarlett painted figuratively, making some Cubist-influenced landscapes that resemble those of the German-born American painter Oscar Bluemner and cityscapes reminiscent of the Italian-American Joseph Stella.

Scarlett’s breakthrough into abstraction took place in 1923, sparked by a brief chance meeting with none other than Paul Klee. This took place in Geneva, where Scarlett had traveled on behalf of the Moser Watch Company, for which he was doing some design work. The president of the company gave a dinner party at which both Scarlett and Klee were guests. After the meal was over, Klee was passing the time by making abstract geometrical drawings on a sketchpad. Scarlett noticed and mentioned it to a fellow guest, who told Klee about the Canadian’s interest. Klee graciously handed the pad to Scarlett, encouraging him to add his own patterns to the drawing. “I scribbled a little,” Scarlett recalled, “but didn’t seem to get anywhere. On looking closer, I realized that his scribblings had a definite design, while mine were utterly meaningless….When I got back to my hotel room that evening I dug up every scrap of paper I could find and scribbled until four in the morning. That was the moment I left the world of realism completely. It changed my life.”

Back in the States, Scarlett moved to Toledo, Ohio, for another design job. While there he submitted a pastel piece in the Futurist style to a juried show at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1926. The work, titled Static, was, in the words of a critic for the Toledo Blade, “an attempt in primary pastels to describe ocularly the blasting torments of the electrical interference which regularly assails the ears of radio enthusiasts.” This artistic synesthesia became a recurring theme in Scarlett’s work, and he often spoke of the equivalence of painting and music, using terms such as tone and rhythm to describe the effects he was after. And the technological aspect of Static is in keeping with Scarlett’s industrial experience, which continued to be visible in his work even after he stopped working as an industrial designer. In fact, a good number of his paintings, non-objective though they may be, look like they could be diagrams of cosmic machines, with wheels turning, gears meshing, and belt-drives spinning.

Scarlett spent most of the 1930s in Southern California and New York, where he spent a good deal of time on designing sets for plays, musicals, and films. Surviving gouache drawings for some of these designs show that he was bringing expressionistic and abstract concepts to this work, creating very bold avant-garde looks. His designs for a 1929 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the Pasadena Playhouse were photographed by Johan Hagemeyer, who taught Edward Weston how to use a large-format camera. The eerie, constructivist cityscapes Scarlett created for this play, he said, took him “further into the non-objective world,” even though he “didn’t realize it at the time.”

By 1938, Scarlett was back in New York, where he was soon employed designing an installation for the Bakelite Company’s booth for the 1939 World’s Fair. At the same time, his wife did him a major career favor by sending a portfolio of some of his paintings and drawings to Hilla Rebay. Rebay had risen in the art world since she met Solomon Guggenheim a few years before. Guggenheim commissioned her to paint his portrait, and she infected him with her enthusiasm for non-objective painting. (She may also have become his lover, although the exact nature of their relationship is difficult to ascertain. Certainly they had an intense friendship and association that yielded practical results and no small amount of controversy.) Up to that point, Guggenheim had mainly collected Old Masters.

Rebay—whose full name was Baroness Hildegaard Rebay von Ehrenwiesen—had emigrated to the U.S. in 1927, having already acquired some fame in her native Germany and in Paris as an abstract painter. A strong personality, she was persuasive and passionate but also given to outbursts and the breaking off of relationships. When she saw Scarlett’s work she immediately took him under her wing, promoting him, buying his work, and giving him a position as a lecturer at the newly-founded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. She also introduced him to Bauer, who had recently arrived in the U.S. after being released from a Nazi concentration camp, to which he had been sent for persisting in making “degenerate art.” Bauer and Scarlett became great friends, but the relationship was shattered about a decade later by a lawsuit filed by the ever-litigious Baroness against Bauer, her one-time protégé and romantic partner.

Rebay’s imperious nature, doctrinaire pronouncements, and ambiguous relationship with Guggenheim led to her downfall after Guggenheim’s death in 1949. The tycoon’s family, his wife in particular, resented her presence in his life and influence in the art world, and when plans for the Guggenheim Museum were drawn up, most of the collection of non-objective was exiled to storage, and Rebay was ousted. While these developments spelled trouble for Scarlett’s career and reputation with posterity, he himself was not overly unhappy, because while he appreciated her patronage and admired her energy, he disliked being controlled and bullied (Rebay would sometimes mark corrections in chalk on Scarlett’s canvases, which he would promptly ignore). Starting in the 1950s, Scarlett’s work took a turn away from the hard-edged geometric style, becoming looser and more expressionistic. Some paintings resemble biomorphic abstractions, while others are non-objective but more like crystalline refractions and explosions of light than like pure Euclidean geometry. Occasionally, figuration appears, in the form of cartoonish human figures or animal forms such as birds emerging from a tangle of abstract forms. For a brief time in the early ’50s, Scarlett engaged in drip painting à la Pollock. In the late ’60s he returned to his geometric non-objective style with renewed vigor, creating works as energetic and captivating as those of the ’40s.

Recently, Scarlett’s work has been rediscovered. In the mid-1990s, the Guggenheim deaccessioned a number of works from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting collection, including some 30 Scarletts. These went on the market and stimulated interest from collectors and made it possible for galleries to mount important exhibitions. In 2011 Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco did a comprehensive retrospective titled “Listen With Your Eyes.” With the help of shows like this, Scarlett can now be appreciated for himself, not as the exemplar of a movement. The Rebay influence ended up having a a boomerang effect, with a downward force after her eclipse that was nearly as strong as the buoying she gave her artists when she was in the ascendancy. In a broader sense, the facile identification of Scarlett’s work with the dogmas of non-objectivity led to their being marginalized after that school of art came to be perceived as a side road of the highway of modernism. But now that the art-historical dust is settling, we can see his work for what it is, the unique creation of a multi-talented, visionary man of the machine age.

By John Dorfman

Taken at the Flood Tue, 29 Nov 2016 01:43:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Fifty years after a catastrophic flood, the last of Florence’s damaged artworks have been restored and returned to their rightful places.

Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence

Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence at work on the painting.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Conservators at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper (1546) Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence Piazza del Duomo, 1966

Rainfall in the Appenine Mountains of Italy was torrential in the autumn of 1966. On November 3, the waters cascaded into the usually serene Arno River, which divides Florence, and exploded above its banks. Water roared through the medieval city’s narrow streets and broad squares, rising 20 feet above the ground. Over 100 people drowned or were battered to death. Fiats and Vespas floated away. Mud and sewage seeped into every building. Thousands of paintings and sculptures—any artworks on the ground floors of museums and churches—were damaged or destroyed by the worst flood suffered by Florence in four centuries.

I was a college student in New York and vividly remember the black-and-gray scenes from the disaster on the grainy television screen in our dormitory’s lobby. And in subsequent days, I was riveted by the frantic efforts of a battalion of volunteers—dubbed “mud angels” by the media—to pull masterpieces out of the floodwaters.

This year marks 50 years since the catastrophe. The last of the damaged masterpieces have been restored in time for a commemoration, held in November, of the flood and the city’s heroic response. Some months before the festivities, I visited Florence to get a closer look at the repairs being done to the remaining masterworks and to figure out why in some cases it has taken so long.

First stop is the laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones), or the OPD, a public institute of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage, that has been in charge of the restoration work. The OPD dates back to the 1500s when, under the patronage of the Medicis, it was famed for fine mosaics and inlaid stonework. Over the last century, the OPD has focused on the conservation and restoration of artworks. So it was natural that it would be asked by the Italian government to assume the leading rescue role after the flood. Besides public subsidies, the OPD has been able to draw on generous contributions from foreign philanthropies, such as the Getty Foundation and the Friends of Florence, among others.

The OPD laboratory is located at the Fortezza da Basso, a squat 14th-century fort with daunting gray walls and ramparts. I’m greeted at the entrance by the longtime OPD director, Marco Ciatti, who invites me into a cavernous former storage room. At center stage is Giorgio Vasari’s monumental The Last Supper (1546). The most important remaining artwork still under repair from flood damage, it hung on the ground floor of the Basilica of Santa Croce.

During the catastrophe, Vasari’s masterpiece was under water and muck for more than 36 hours. The five panels—altogether over 8 feet high and 21 feet long—sustained two types of damage: the first was to the wood, and the second to the painting, particularly the layer of gesso and animal glue between the artwork and the wood.

The water made the panels expand. But it could not be allowed to evaporate too quickly because it would destroy the layers of paint and gesso, and shrink and crack the wood. A decision was made to store the waterlogged masterpiece in a room in which humidity levels were carefully reduced from 90 percent down to nearly zero over the course of two years.

Staunching the damage to the painting itself was more complex. Over 20 percent of paint was lost. To hold the remaining colors in place, the painting was covered with a thin layer of adhesive resin. Paper was then placed over the resin.

After the two-year, humidity-controlled storage, two further problems arose. Each wood panel had shrunk by almost an inch, which meant that the surface area of the painting was slightly larger than the surface area of the panels. And the resin holding the colors in place had hardened to a glass-like consistency. “It took decades to come up with new techniques to restore the paintings over the shrunken panels and to safely remove the resin,” says Ciatti.

With funding mainly from the Getty Foundation, graduate students in art, chemistry, and physics were asked to devote their doctoral theses to explore possible solutions. Their research eventually created techniques to stretch the wood back to its original proportions while preserving the paints on its surface. A gel was concocted to dissolve and absorb the resin through the paper overlay without damaging the original colors and gesso.

Even after these techniques proved viable, putting them into practice was a painstaking process. “To precisely match the wood and paintings, we had to work one millimeter at a time,” says Ciatti. “Only then were we able to move on to the stage of esthetic restoration—the cleaning, filling in of lost portions, and retouching.”

On a scaffolding some eight feet above us, a young woman using an oversized magnifying glass and the thinnest of paintbrushes was applying color to the elbow of a disciple to the left of Jesus. “Our theory of conservation here in Italy is that we don’t want to completely restore the original colors because we believe that retouching must indicate that restoration has taken place,” says Ciatti. To illustrate this, he shows me a panel at ground level that is closest to full restoration. At the bottom of the painting, he points to an urn of water or wine below the table where the Last Supper takes place. Up close, I can see faintly etched lines that mark the restoration spots. The paint has a slightly different pigment than the original.

Work at the OPD laboratory isn’t confined to flood-damaged art. Close by the Vasari panels, cleaning and restoration proceeds on masterpieces from Florentine museums, including paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci, Fra Angelico—and even Jackson Pollock. But my jaw drops at the sight of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, one of the top draws at the Uffizi Gallery. Under restoration here since 2011, it will be returned to the Uffizi in 2016.

Nature had nothing to do with the damage to this masterpiece. It was left unfinished by Leonardo when he moved from Florence to Milan in 1481. The painting passed through several owners, finally entering the Medici collection sometime in the 17th century. The Uffizi has owned it since 1670. “Over those many years, a lot of varnish was applied to the painting, probably to hide the fact that it was unfinished and instead pretend it was done in a monochromatic style,” says Ciatti. As evidence he points to the azure and white sky that Leonardo had just begun to paint before abandoning the work; it also was covered by a honey-brown varnish.

The OPD lab is in the process of slowly thinning the layer of varnish, though not removing it entirely. “We want the artwork to have the patina of an old painting,” says Ciatti. “This is the traditional Italian philosophy of conservation.” The British approach, by contrast, tends to take the cleaning process further, leaving a newer sheen.

Across town from the OPD lab, I pay a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce where Vasari’s Last Supper will be returned. I am here to see Cimabue’s Crucifix (circa 1288), another masterpiece heavily damaged by the 1966 flood and returned to Santa Croce a decade later. This large tempera-on-wood crucifix (176 by 154 inches) represents a break from the Byzantine style that showed Jesus as aloof, regal and triumphant. He is instead depicted as a suffering, dying man—victim of a fate shared by ordinary mortals. He is the Christ who would become the universal symbol of Christian spirituality.

The Cimabue work now hangs much higher than before—some 20 feet above the Basilica floor—to guard against any future cataclysmic flood. Even after the OPD’s efforts, the damage from submersion in the muddy waters a half-century ago left portions of Christ’s face and his thighs discolored. But considering the near obliteration of the paint and the cracking of the wood, it seems a miracle that the masterpiece survived at all.

Another near-miraculous event occurs on my walk back to my lodging on a hillside across a bridge over the tranquil Arno. Just as I arrive at the river’s edge, a police convoy slowly drives past, with the Popemobile at its center. I had forgotten that Pope Francis was visiting Florence. In a city of only 362,000 inhabitants, and at the low point of the tourist season, everybody in his path had a front-row view. To my astonishment, I am no more than nine feet away from Francis as he smiles and waves back on his way to deliver a homily at Santa Croce.

By Jonathan Kandell

Richard Erdman: Set in Stone Tue, 29 Nov 2016 01:06:55 +0000 Continue reading ]]> For sculptor Richard Erdman, marble is a living thing.

Richard Erdman, Continuum IV

Richard Erdman, Continuum IV, Italian travertine, 24 x 25 x 24 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Richard Erdman, Continuum IV Richard Erdman, Cascata Richard Erdman, Miranda Richard Erdman, Sequita ll, 68 x 52 x 20 inches Richard Erdman, Tondo Rosa Richard Erdman, Torso in Motion

Richard Erdman can make marble float. In his sculptures, ribbons of stone curl like smoke through the air, or like plumes of paint diffusing through water. His abstract forms evoke thoughts of wings, waves, snakes, or human bodies. And beyond the initial impact of the geometry, the color and texture of Erdman’s materials commands attention. To many people, marble may connote whiteness, coldness, and even death, as in the marble of a tomb effigy. But Erdman’s marbles are colorful—buttery yellow, pink, red, and dark grey as well as white—and they seem alive, as if the veins in the stone were actually vessels for some vital essence.

Love for marble is certainly in Erdman’s blood. He was born, raised, and still works in southern Vermont, an area so rich in marble quarries that during the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the marble used in public buildings and monuments in the U.S. came from there. As a boy, Erdman used to play and explore amid the raw marble deposits. “I would spend time on weekends sneaking into this quarry; you could pry the wooden doors open in those days,” he recalls. “You entered another world, this enormous underground cavern, tons of of compressed calcium all around you, over your head, supported by natural columns. You’re standing in the stone, not on it.” Erdman points out that the marble was formed over geological eras from plankton and other tiny forms of life from the sea. “With the sculpture I make from this stone,” he says, “I think of myself as re-forming older life into a new life that should last a millennium or two. Marble is the most life-affirming material available, in my view.” His sculptures give prominence to the inherent, individual qualities of each piece of stone. For example, in a piece titled Tondo Rosa, Erdman intentionally kept the strata of the Persian travertine oriented horizontally with respect to the base—“like the layers of the Grand Canyon,” he says. “The veins of the stone pulsate with time.”

An early work, Torso in Motion, is very revealing about Erdman’s relationship with stone. It’s a little bit rough, looking almost as if it were a found object like a Chinese scholar’s rock, or perhaps a Neolithic fertility figure. The fact that the stone is flesh-colored makes it seem even more human. Back in the ’70s, when he was starting out, Erdman was looser and more experimental in his technique than he is now, partly because he didn’t have a staff of assistants to help him polish marble, and partly because he couldn’t afford to throw away any odd scraps of stone. While Torso in Motion is not a representational piece, its strong allusion to well-muscled human anatomy illustrates something else about Erdman—his profound debt to Michelangelo.

“Michelangelo was so influential for me in what I want to do with stone,” says the artist. “Jean Arp and Noguchi were, as well, of course, but Michelangelo understood the internal life in stone. When I was young I read a quote from an art critic, saying that since Michelangelo, nothing significant has been done with stone. And that drove me!” Not that he tries to imitate the Italian Renaissance artist in any overt or literal way. For one thing, Erdman is not a figurative sculptor. “As soon as you try to work figuratively, you are constrained by trying not to imitate,” he says. “I admire artists like Picasso, who never painted abstractly in his life, but there’s always something in his work that references what we know. I’m interested in going where we don’t know.”

A lot of Erdman’s work now is large-scale commissions for outdoor spaces. Presently he is working on two in Taiwan, one of which is for a Richard Meier building. “Because stone is a classic material,” he says, “and Meier is known for pure white, modernism, and a linear approach, they want to offset this building with an organic piece that has an architectural feeling but is also vibrant and moving.” Both of the sculptures are examples of a new style that Erdman has developed, in which the sculpture is installed over a pool of water on which it appears to float. The fact that the sculptures taper from more volume at the top to less below enhances the illusion of anti-gravity.

Currently, through January 31, six new outdoor sculptures made from white Carrara marble are on view at Melissa Morgan Fine Art in Palm Desert, Calif. In these pieces, Erdman pushes the stone to its limits with ultra-fine carving, conveying a sense of balance between safe solidity and risk. This element of risk, of making marble perform extreme feats, is key to Erdman’s mission. While he is clearly in the tradition of modernist abstraction, he describes his work as having a conceptual aspect. “The values that I’m pushing are things that really shouldn’t be happening in stone, that defy what our innate sensibilities think should be happening,” he says. “It’s abstraction, but that gives it a contemporary push.”

If the scale of a sculpture is monumental enough, marble is just not feasible from an engineering standpoint, so in those cases Erdman uses bronze. By welding together a number of components, a gigantic bronze piece can be assembled without compromising structural soundness. Bronze can also go thinner than stone without breaking under its weight. Another reason Erdman uses bronze is to make multiples. “I cast one from the original marble, take a mold, and at the appropriate time make a cast if I think it works. That way I can extend the one-of-a-kind marble into a small edition of six or seven,” he explains.

Still, though, for Erdman it has always been about one medium only. “I don’t want to discourage the bronze pieces,” he says, “but I am a stone guy. That’s how I started and that’s where my heart is. Stone has never been, is not, and never will be old.”

Works by Richard Erdman are available from:

By John Dorfman

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

A New Model Thu, 27 Oct 2016 19:42:57 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An innovative exhibition charts the path by which Picasso transformed the age-old relationship between artist and model.

Pablo Picasso, The Women of Algiers (after Delacroix), 1954

Pablo Picasso, The Women of Algiers (after Delacroix), 1954, oil on canvas, 26 x 29 inches

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921 Pablo Picasso, The Women of Algiers (after Delacroix), 1954 Pablo Picasso, Bather, winter 1908–09 Pablo Picasso, Woman in Green (Dora), 1944 Pablo Picasso, Rape of the Sabine Women, 1963

The title of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s exhibition “Picasso: The Artist and His Models” (November 5–February 17), is derived from the artist’s 1926 painting Artist and His Model, which visualizes the complex relationship between the two. With this in mind, the title of the show at the Buffalo, N.Y.-based museum becomes a guiding light when approaching the work of Pablo Picasso. The towering giant of modern art did not use models in the traditional sense but instead based his work on subjects from his own life: friends, lovers, meaningful objects, literature, music. When we consider this in the context of art history and the results it yielded in modern art, particularly Picasso’s work, the artist takes on a new role in the art-making process in relation to his models. The historically direct relationship between artist and “model” becomes abstracted in modern art—the relationship itself now the subject of the work. In Picasso’s works this relationship is explored through art-making, the work being the site of the interaction. In the artist’s own words, “painting is a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us,” and art becomes “a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.”

The Albright-Knox presents 25 works including paintings, sculptures and works on paper pulled largely from its own impressive collection, with a small but important selection of loans. The goal of the show is to explore the work of Picasso while also moving the conversation and timeline toward the emergence of pure abstraction in visual art. One of exhibition’s curators, Holly E. Hughes, says, “The idea was a series of exhibitions that allowed us to create a new context for our collection, and we identified artists whose careers traversed a period of time that was formative in the development of modern art.” The gallery’s most recent show was devoted to Monet, “from the Academy to the cusp of abstraction,” in Hughes’ words, and who better to continue to tell the story of the move toward modern art than Pablo Picasso? In his work we see parallels and precedents to 20th-century philosophy and aesthetics, which position the artist as a unique visionary as well as a symbol of a larger cultural shift.

The show utilizes Picasso’s work to create a timeline for the development of modern art but also allows for digressions and connections to some of Picasso’s notable contemporaries, such as Henri Matisse, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, and Georges Braque (also on view in the exhibition), in order to complete the picture. One such connection viewers can make—and the exhibition’s curators hope they will—is between in Matisse’s 1939 oil on canvas La Musique and Picasso’s 1921 oil Three Musicians. Comparing the two works is at first glance deceptively simple. Picasso’s painting is built from a collection of seemingly disparate rectangles which somehow moves from abstraction to the representation of three musicians seated at a table. The representational aspect of Matisse’s work is grasped more quickly—two women seated, one of whom strums a guitar. The longer we examine La Musique, however, the more the work moves toward abstraction, the proportions of the figures giving way to pure shapes and colors. The two paintings are like trains entering the same station from different directions, both carrying with them modern art’s concern with spatial and psychological perspective.

Picasso’s work is a visual expression of emerging modernity, and, like the poetry of Gertrude Stein (one of Picasso’s friends and “models”) and the prose of James Joyce, his work shows that a new vision of the world necessitates a new way of expressing and representing it. Picasso’s life in fact parallels the birth of the modern world. Only a year after he was born, Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement “God is dead” appeared in The Gay Science (1882), Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity between 1907 and 1915, coinciding roughly with Picasso’s Cubist period, and the horrors of industrialized warfare and the atomic bomb had their most cataclysmic effect in the middle of the artist’s life. The modern world was rapidly becoming one filled with existential dread as the privileged place of the human being became more and more abstract.

Picasso’s Cubist period is arguably modern art’s clearest reckoning with the radically shifting perspective emerging in the modern world. His 1910 oil on canvas Nude Figure embodies this new vision of reality. The visual data of the nude is deconstructed and reconstructed in service of the artist’s own geometric and psychic desires. The “model” becomes the “stuff” of personal expression. A ghost of the figure in flux moves in and out of being, the image existing at the crossroads of Picasso’s subjectivity, pure form, and physical reality. Neither totally realistic nor totally abstract, the painting is completely Picasso. There is something important at stake in Picasso’s painting, a deep psychic reckoning. Picasso’s place in his own work is paramount—the artist’s psyche is now the model.

Picasso’s own vision is inescapable when viewing his work. His 1944 oil on canvas Femme en vert (Dora) puts us in the mind of the artist like few other works. The viewer’s eye is drawn to spirals and curves, following the path of Picasso’s thoughts and concerns in an inexhaustible trip from top to bottom, left to right. The seated figure seems to stare out from the canvas like countless other portrait subjects which have come before in the history of art, and then in an instant shatters into purely geometric puzzle. This tension between representation and abstraction is key to modern art, opening the door to the psychology of images and how we view them. Questions emerge: when two horizontal ovals containing black spots are present (as they are in Femme en vert (Dora), why do we see “eyes”? Are we conditioned into a way of seeing and understanding through the art that has come before? Picasso’s work combines tradition (portraits, still lifes, nudes, etc.) and radical new perspectives in order to pose these questions, and it invites the viewer into the artist/model relationship as the third essential perspectival element.

The constant consideration of what came before in the history of art makes the artist’s radical redefining of perspective and the relation between artist and subject in a rapidly changing world possible. By acknowledging the past, Picasso could more clearly define his place in the present. Hughes remarks, “The idea is that the concept of the artist and the model is an ages-old idea; where Picasso is concerned, the models include the figure—people he was close to, certainly his lovers, his friends—but also mundane objects and art history.”

This process is most clear in Picasso’s neoclassical period during the 1920s but is reconciled with his experimentation and abstraction toward the end of his career. In the 1963 oil painting Rape of the Sabine Women there are shades of grandly historical composition, and the subject is one previously depicted by artists including Nicolas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens—the rest, however, is Picasso. The figures are addressed with Picasso’s geometric concerns, not obliterated into abstraction but retaining just enough representational familiarity to tell a story in a space at once recognizable and abstract. When looking at the painting we are seeing the art-historical event of the Rape of the Sabine Women in Picasso’s mind.

As much as the Albright-Knox’s show hopes to use Picasso’s work as a point of demarcation on the road to visual abstraction, it is also important to consider the artist’s place in the practice of art and persona-making in service of another type of abstraction. Like the museum’s previous exhibitions, the choice of Picasso helps tell the story of a particular art historical period but also contains hints of what was to follow. Picasso created sculpture, wrote poetry and plays, and created ceramics, his staggering output estimated at nearly 50,000 works—all of which were born from the artist’s unique genius, all “Picassos.” The legacy Picasso passes down to later artists is that of the Artist, the person/idea at the center of the art, not necessarily the flesh-and-blood artist but the artist abstracted. In Picasso’s Mask, André Malraux wrote after the artist’s death, “I had never known Pablo the private person, or his feelings. I had known only Picasso.”

For this very reason, though, Picasso is uniquely suited to guide viewers through the maze of modern art—the perfect “model” for representing the mediating process between material and idea which is central to the period.

By Chris Shields

Defining Modernity Thu, 27 Oct 2016 19:30:08 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An enormous exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art examines the many dimensions of Mexican Modernism.

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec (Baile in Tehuantepec), 1928

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec (Baile in Tehuantepec), 1928

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) José Clemente Orozco, Barricade, 1931 Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec (Baile in Tehuantepec), 1928 David Alfaro Siqueiros, Peasants, circa 1913 Diego Rivera, Portrait of Martín Luis Guzmán, 1915 Diego Rivera, Liberation of the Peon, 1931

From the ashes of the Mexican Revolution rose a strident phoenix. The 10 years of civil war, which began with an insurrection against President Porfirio Díaz in 1910 and ended with revolutionary general Álvaro Obregón taking presidential office in 1920, led to an outpouring of artistic expression. The newly instated government responded by bolstering the arts in Mexico with support and encouragement. Obregón placed José Vasconcelos, a prominent intellectual at the head of the new Ministry of Public Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública [SEP]). Vasconcelos enlisted a contingent of artists to paint murals on public buildings—a means of disseminating the ideals of the revolution to as many people as possible. Just as the frescoes commissioned by the Catholic Church during the Italian Renaissance glorified Christ and the saints and lamented sin and worldliness, so did the murals of modern Mexico lionize leftist politics and depict the plight of the worker while condemning capitalism and imperialism. Through the murals of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros (often referred to as los tres grandes) and their contemporaries, there emerged a style of social realism that defined Mexico both in ethos and aesthetic.

But murals were not the only art form the Mexican government supported, nor were they the only medium to flourish in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century. Open-Air Painting Schools (Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre), which nurtured future members of the Mexican avant-garde such as Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Ramón Alva de la Canal, and Leopoldo Méndez, eschewed the exclusivity of traditional private art schools. Adolfo Best Maugard, a prominent modern Mexican painter and the eventual head of the government’s prints program, developed and instituted a drawing method made up of seven fundamental principles (thought to be based on Pre-Columbian art) that was taught in Mexico’s primary schools. Printmaking—often highly political in nature—was an important and potent form of expression for many of Mexico’s leading artists, such as Emilio Amero and Jesús Escobedo, and print workshops, such as the Taller de Gráfica Popular, flourished during this period. International artists, too, such as Elizabeth Catlett and Jean Charlot, made prints in Mexico, and the Weyhe Gallery in New York published Mexican modern prints throughout the ’20s and ’30s. Lola Álvarez Bravo, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and Amero, along with international artists such as Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson, cemented the legacy of modernist photography in Mexico.

In 1943, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) staged the groundbreaking exhibition “Mexican Art Today.” By the ’40s, commissions of work by Siqueiros and Rivera in the United States had familiarized an American audience with Mexican muralism. “Mexican Art Today,” which traveled to seven locations in the U.S. and Canada, broadened its audience’s understanding of Mexican painting on canvas. Henry Clifford, the chief curator of the museum at the time, co-organized the show with Inez Amor, a leading figure in 20th-century Mexican art. Amor founded the Mexican Art Gallery (Galería de Arte Mexicano) with her sister in 1935 and put works by Mexico’s most celebrated artists—Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, as well as Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo—on view. “Mexican Art Today” was not only instrumental in defining Mexican painting’s international legacy; it also helped establish the PMA’s cache of Mexican modernist artworks, a collection that includes some 45 paintings and sculptures and over 500 works on paper. In fact, in the United States, only the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago rival the PMA’s holdings.

“Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950,” a new exhibition at the PMA (through January 8), revisits the museum’s history with Mexican modernism, while expanding further on the movement than ever before. The show is the most comprehensive exhibition of Mexican modernism in the United States in more than seven decades. Many of the works in the museum’s collection will go on view alongside loans from international institutions, most notably from the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, the exhibition’s co-organizer (the show will travel to the Palacio after it closes in Philadelphia). Through painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography, and digital recreations of murals, viewers will be given an in-depth look into one of the most important periods in the history of modern art.

Self-Portrait with Popocatepetl, a 1928 painting by Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), is a highlight of the exhibition, as well as a cornerstone of the PMA’s collection. It was gifted to the museum in 1949 by Dr. Mackinley Helm, a friend of Amor and Clifford’s and an intellectual who wrote multiple books about Mexican art. The piece, which is painted with “Atl color”—a mix of oil, wax, dry resin, and gasoline—depicts the artist in front of Popocatepetl, a 17,877-foot active volcano, which is among the mountains that surround Mexico City. There are several prints in the exhibition by Dr. Atl that also feature volcanoes, a favorite motif of the artist and a distinctive feature of the landscape just outside Mexico’s urban center. Matthew Affron, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the PMA and one of the lead curators of the show, says, “Atl had an obsession with volcanoes. He became a volcanologist and even lost part of his leg in a volcano.” Atl, who was an associate of Vasconcelos and a prominent figure in the Mexican avant-garde before, during, and after the revolution, was outspoken in his opinion that Mexican art should bear a distinct Mexican spirit culled from its own landscape, symbols, and history. “He was a great cultural agitator,” says Affron, “who knew Mexican folklore and saw no conflict between Mexican traditions and modern art.” Dr. Atl, Affron adds, was “one of the first to jockey for traditional pottery to be seen as fine art—he saw it as a way of getting outside of the European tradition.”

During the decades that “Paint the Revolution” examines, it was a major question among Mexican artists whether to look to Europe or to express purely national, Mexican ideas. For artists such as Julio Castellanos, who studied engraving in the United States (where he met Rodríguez Lozano, a major influence on his work) and European art in Paris, after matriculating at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Open-Air Painting Schools in Mexico City, European tropes held an allure. Three Nudes (The Aunts), a 1930 oil on canvas that entered the PMA’s collection in 1943, features two women and a child lounging at a table. Affron describes the painting as “Picasso-like” and concerned with “the heroic nude and a new classicism. It’s working hard to create connections with Europe.” Castellanos, Affron explains, was “part of the Mexican avant-garde that didn’t think art had to be political but could be about the individual and express issues through that.”

Other artists of this period vacillated between work that was political or more formal. Rufino Tamayo, who studied with Castellanos at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, didn’t completely turn away from political topics but instead expressed them through a humanist perspective. Man and Woman (1926), a piece that became part of the PMA’s collection in 1957, depicts a man and woman with indigenous-looking features standing—much like Dr. Atl’s self-portrait—in front of a group of mountains. A later piece, The Mad Dog, which was painted in 1943 and gifted to the PMA in 1945, shows a panting, sick dog stumbling among cactuses in front of a blood-red background. The painting, part of Tamayo’s series of animals in distress, was painted in reaction to the trauma of war, which was raging throughout the world at the time.

For Siqueiros, the situation was more cut and dried. Affron says, “Siqueiros believed one should be an activist artist, a citizen artist.” A Marxist-Leninist and a member of the Mexican Communist Party, he advocated art that held a “constructive spirit”—that championed the proletariat and avoided meaningless decorative or fantastical flourishes. He painted War in 1939, after having fought in the Spanish Civil War. The piece, which was given to the PMA by Amor in 1944, was painted with Duco paint, which is usually used on automobiles. “Siqueiros believed that materials should reflect one’s beliefs,” says Affron. “He used spray guns and other normal tools and used overlays to suggest angularity.” The piece, which is an allegory of the horrors of war, features a bulbous, contorted nude that is brutal and suffering. “It’s supposed to be disturbing,” Affron says.

One of the three murals that “Paint the Revolution” will digitally recreate is Siqueiros’ Portrait of the Bourgeoisie (1939–40). Commissioned by the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas [SME]), Siqueiros painted the mural in a staircase at the headquarters of the labor union in Mexico City. In the decade leading up to this project, Siqueiros had been vocal about Rivera’s “bourgeois individualism” as well as his readiness to paint within corporate and federal buildings and within the confines of state or commercial commissions. Inspired by mass media, particularly film and the theories of Sergei Eisenstein, Siqueiros assembled a team to create a mural that uses a montage-like composition and extreme juxtapositions in style and size to create a fractured narrative and elicit an active emotional reaction in its viewers. Siqueiros’ commitment to industrial technique and materials led to the use of spray guns, nitrocellulose pigments, and photo-projectors. Spanish-artist Josep Renau (who eventually finished the project after the team collapsed) created a photomontage of references for the mural from his extensive archive of negatives. In the mural, capitalism is a giant machine that mints coinage from the blood of the working class.

The exhibition will also digitally recreate the two suites of images—Ballad of the Agrarian Revolution (1926–27) and Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution (1928–29)—that Rivera painted on the courtyard walls of the SEP building. The building, a three-tiered structure that takes up two city blocks in length and one in width, also contains work by Siqueiros, Charlot, and Amado de la Cueva. Rivera had returned to Mexico in 1922, after a 14-year absence during which he witnessed the advent of Cubism and became infatuated by the work of Cézanne in Paris and studied frescoes in Italy. Though he painted his first important mural, Creation, at the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City before he began working in the SEP building, it was the series in the Education building that he believed captured the spirit and story of Mexico.

For Rivera, it became increasingly important to create work that was essentially Mexican and not simply an interpretation of the European tradition. A trip to the Yucatán to study Mayan ruins captivated Rivera, and he made countless sketches of Mexico’s indigenous people and their artwork. Rivera begins his fleet of frescoes with Mexico’s pre-colonial history, tracing his country’s folklore, cultural traditions, strife, and revolution. Among the series of 124 frescoes is one of the most celebrated self-portraits by the artist, as well as an image of Kahlo passing out arms to revolutionaries. Pride of place is also given to the robber barons of Mexico’s northern neighbor, whose avarice Rivera portrays with cartoonish disdain. Technology and industrialization, themes that are present in many of Rivera’s murals thereafter, make appearances, as well.

Though Rivera painted hundreds of frescoes in Mexico, his fame as a leading figure in his native country would eventually lead him to become a known—and, for a period, a frequently commissioned—artist in the U.S. In 1931, Rivera was given the second single-artist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On view at the PMA will be two of the portable frescoes Rivera made for the show, which were given to the PMA in the ’40s. Between 1930 and 1933, Rivera painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York with Kahlo in tow. (Kahlo, it should be noted, was highly critical of Americans and American life. A 1926 painting, Self-Portrait in Velvet, is in the exhibition, but she did not become the pop-culture figure we now know her as until the 1980s). Notably, Detroit Industry (1932–33) in the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts was made possible in part by the patronage of Edsel Ford, and Rivera’s mural in Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads (1933), was removed due to its inclusion of a portrait of Vladimir Lenin.

Orozco moved to New York in 1927, three years after he painted a series of murals at the National Preparatory School (now known as the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso) that were partially destroyed by conservative students and the artist himself (he later repainted many of them). In the U.S., Orozco painted three major murals in private colleges. The first, Prometheus (1930), was painted in the dining hall of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and has been called the first modern fresco in the United States. The second, a cycle depicting revolutionary politics, was painted in New York at the New School for Social Research (1930–31). The third, The Epic of American Civilization (1932–34), was painted at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and is the third mural the PMA will digitally reproduce in the exhibition. Made up of 24 panels, it is a retelling of North America’s history, beginning with its Mesoamerican, rather than colonial origins. Orozco defended the series as an “AMERICAN idea developed into American forms, American feeling, and, as a consequence, into American style.”

The exhibition will also feature work by two leading avant-garde groups working outside the concerns of the tres grandes but very much in service of modern art in Mexico. In 1921 Manuel Maples Arce, a young poet, plastered a broadside called Actual No. 1 all over the walls of Mexico City. It read, “Let us become more cosmopolitan,” and thus Estridentismo (Stridentism) was born. A response to international movements such as Dada, Italian Futurism, and Spanish Ultraísmo, Stridentism bulldozed through what it saw as the constraints of nationalism in favor of the chaotic, multidisciplinary utopianism grounded in socialist politics. Visually, the Stridentist philosophy manifested in many ways, such as Alva de la Canal’s Cubist café scenes, Charlot’s depictions of trains and factories, and Germán Cueto’s terracotta and acrylic masks.

The Contemporáneos, another group that began in the early 1920s, was more like a social network. In fact, it was only named after the publication of the literary journal Contemporáneos some years later (1928–31). Tamayo, Castellanos, María Izquierdo, and Rodríguez Lozano, among others, banded together over an interest in French painting and international art movements. The group placed individual and aesthetic aims above the collective or politicized message. Though they were often criticized by the Stridentists and muralists for their lack of a political agenda, the Contemporáneos chose instead to look both internationally and within themselves for inspiration—a thoroughly modern approach to art-making.

By Sarah E. Fensom

The Art of Enlightenment Thu, 27 Oct 2016 19:15:43 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Buddhist sculpture is a rich field for collecting and contemplation.

Bodhisattva Maitreya, Pakistan, ancient region of Gandhara, circa 3rd century

Bodhisattva Maitreya, Pakistan, ancient region of Gandhara, circa 3rd century, gray schist, height 23 3⁄4 inches;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Head of Buddha, China, Northern Qi Period, 550-577 Bodhisattva Maitreya, Pakistan, ancient region of Gandhara, circa 3rd century Buddha Amitabha, Eastern India, Bihar, Gaya region, Pala Dynasty Lohan holding lotus on pedestal, China, Tang Dynasty, 618–907 Manjushri, Nepal, 1690

The paradox of Buddhist art is that it uses the human form to represent something that is formless and more than human. A sculpture of the Buddha is not a portrait of a person but an invitation to enter the higher state of consciousness that the Buddha (a Sanskrit term meaning “awakened”) discovered and wanted to share with all people. For the first 500 or so years of its existence, up until around the first century A.D., Buddhist art was purely symbolic, consisting of geometric forms and impersonal symbols such as wheels, architectural elements, trees, and animals. It was an austere art meant as a support for contemplation by the spiritual elite. What changed that was concern for the unmet needs of ordinary Buddhists.

In Buddhist philosophy, enlightenment (nirvana) is not just a state of consciousness but deliverance from the suffering inherent in the ever-changing world (samsara). To guide people toward this deliverance is considered to be an act of compassion on the part of the Buddha, and his life as a human being and participation in suffering are considered expressions of that compassion. Therefore, in order to guide people to the goal, Buddhist art itself had to become human. Even then, of course, it was still symbolic. No one knows what the historical Buddha looked like, and Buddhist art is not a naturalistic art—although the faces of Buddhist sculpture can be very expressive and individual. The artists who created these works intended for them to seen in a special way. As the Asian art scholar and curator Ananda K. Coomaraswamy put it, “The spectator is not so much to be ‘pleased’ as to be ‘transported’: to see as the artist is required to have seen before he took up brush or chisel; to see the Buddha in the image rather than an image of the Buddha.”

In order to experience something of this kind of seeing, it’s not necessary to be a practicing Buddhist, but it does help to live with Buddhist sculpture and have the ability to look at it over and over again. The art market is full of opportunities to acquire beautiful and historically significant pieces, at prices that can be quite affordable. Due to the huge geographical and cultural range of Buddhism, the variety of the art, in terms of iconography, style, and medium—gilt bronze, carved stone, wood, and others—is truly vast.

Buddhist art began in India, where the religion itself was born but not destined to take root. Instead it spread south and east to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia—where the original form of Buddhism, called Theravada, still flourishes—and north and east to Nepal, Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea, where various forms of what is called Mahayana Buddhism are now prevalent. In Mahayana (“the great vehicle,” a later development), instead of being eternally separate, nirvana and samsara are considered to be one, in the deepest sense, so that avoidance of the world is not necessary for enlightenment. The appearances and phenomena of ordinary life can be occasions for awakening; one can, so to speak, escape the world through the world. For art, the consequences of this way of thinking were enormous. It greatly strengthened the impulse toward visual expression, the desire to depict Buddhist truths through images drawn from life in all its richness and variety. Buddhist iconography became more complex, and in some cases freely adopted the forms of gods and supernatural beings from other religions, repurposing them Buddhistically.

Nowhere did this happen more extravagantly than in Tibet and the Himalayan regions, where a gigantic, colorful pantheon developed, borrowing from Hindu tantra and native shamanistic religions. While Buddhist art may connote serenity to many in the West (and certainly many Chinese, Japanese, and Thai Buddhas are transcendently peaceful-looking), much Himalayan Buddhist art is anything but serene—in addition to smiling, gracious Buddhas is features angry, grimacing, weapons-brandishing deities who look more like warriors or even monsters than meditators. But their aggression is on behalf of the faithful, whom they defend against demons that symbolize temptations and lower impulses.

The sheer complexity and artistic exuberance of Tibetan and Nepali Buddhist sculptures make them favorites among collectors; in fact, this sub-field is the most active on the market right now. Prices are relatively high, driven in particular by buyers in China. During the Asia Week auctions in New York in September, a Tibetan Buddhist sculpture, an 18th-century gilt bronze figure of the fifth Dalai Lama, sold for $1,510,000 at Sotheby’s to a Chinese buyer who bid it to 15 times its high estimate. New York dealer Walter Arader, a specialist in Indian, Himalayan, and Chinese art, says that “65 percent of my buyers are now Chinese, and some of the Western private buyers are put off by the sharp rise in prices they’ve caused since 2009 or 2010.” Arader explains that despite the Chinese occupation of Tibet and a government campaign against Tibetan culture over the past several decades, there is now great respect in China for Tibetan Buddhism and its artistic expression. “The devastation of the Cultural Revolution can’t be erased, ever,” Arader says, “but major figures even in the Chinese government are practicing Tibetan Buddhism and funding it.”

Most Himalayan Buddhist sculpture is gilt bronze rather than stone, sometimes ornamented with materials like coral or turquoise. A 9-inch high gilt bronze Nepali figure of the bodhisattva (Buddhist saint or deity) Manjushri, at Arader’s gallery, shows many of the features that make Himalayan Buddhist sculpture distinctive. Dating to around 1690, the seated figure, atop a throne encircled by cobras spreading their hoods, has four faces and eight arms, one of which waves a sword, symbolizing wisdom that dispels ignorance. The attention to detail that characterizes Tibetan art is on view in a gilt bronze sculpture of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (“he who looks down”) from the Tsang Province in the 15th century, also available from Arader. The figure has 11 faces, stacked in four rows and getting smaller as they go higher, without losing any of the fine delineation of the features. Arader points out that it’s often hard to define styles regionally within Tibetan art, because sculptures were often given as diplomatic gifts from one monastery to another, so that a piece will often be found very far from where it was made.

One of the earliest and most desirable schools of Buddhist sculpture is the Gandharan, from what is now Afghanistan, beginning in the first century A.D. (Gandhara is an earlier version of the place-name Kandahar). With their elaborately draped garments and Western-looking facial features, these works—all in stone—are reminiscent of Classical sculpture. That is no coincidence, since the artists were influenced by Hellenistic culture brought via the easternmost conquests of Alexander the Great. “Gandharan sculpture is very approachable,” says New York dealer Carlton Rochell, “because it almost looks provincial Roman.” Despite the Classical connection, though, Gandharan artists in many ways set the pattern for a transnational Buddhist iconography that traveled up the Silk Road to North and East Asia. Rochell has a magnificent Gandharan Buddha from the 3rd–4th century, of gray schist with traces of polychrome still on it. Seated in a meditation posture, the Buddha has a contemplative expression with downcast eyes, and a disc-like halo hovers behind his head. One hand rests on the other in a mudra, or stereotyped symbolic hand position, called dhyana-mudra (meditation mudra). On top of his head is a topknot of hair, like a bun, which in later Buddhist iconography became exaggerated or specialized until it became a protuberance of the skull itself, called ushnisha. As Rochell puts it, the ushnisha is an expression of the Buddha’s “extra brain power.” Rochell also has a Pala Dynasty Buddha from Bihar, Eastern India, circa late 10th–11th century, which is made of a dense dark gray stone that renders detail particularly well. Pala art was one of the strongest influences on Tibetan art. This piece is an Amitabha (infinite light) Buddha, which represents the transformation of lust into wisdom. The meditating figure sits on a throne supported by beasts and flanked by stupas, or Buddhist architectural structures.

New York dealer Spencer Throckmorton, one of the specialists in Buddhist sculpture, particularly favors certain Chinese examples: “To me, the most sublime and beautiful are Northern Qi and Wei stone sculptures.” A Northern Qi limestone head of the Buddha, circa 550–577, has an ineffable smile, curly hair, and long earlobes, another typical mark of the Buddha-nature. The stone is veined with white, which gives it a distinctive look. A Northern Qi standing figure of the Buddha, from the same period, is limestone and has significant traces of the original red pigment and gilding. The standing posture gives it an imposing feel, but the outstretched hand and downcast eyes counteract that with a gentle, comforting quality.

The facial expressions of Buddhist sculptures are subtle and often enigmatic. A just-published book, The Face of the Buddha, by the great English literary critic William Empson (Oxford University Press, $50) sheds a fascinating light on the subject, and is itself an exciting discovery. Empson wrote the book, which he illustrated with his own photographs, based on his trips through East Asia during the 1930s. Right after World War II, the manuscript was misplaced and believed lost, and Empson, who died in 1984, never saw it again. A few years ago, an archivist found it among the papers of a long-dead editor, and now at last it can be read. While written by a non-specialist and of course not able to avail itself of the most up-to-date scholarship, The Face of the Buddha makes some keen observations and applies inexorable logic to the evidence of the eyes and the camera. What Empson—not a Buddhist but sympathetic to Buddhism—noticed again and again was a slight asymmetry in the faces, which he struggled to account for. His conclusion was that such sculptures are showing two aspects of the Buddha’s nature and function simultaneously, and also underscoring the Buddha’s humanity with naturalism, since real human faces, in fact, are also asymmetrical. One might imagine that a religious artist creating idealized, symbolic works would aim for perfect symmetry, but Empson cites convincing reasons why this would not be the case with Buddhist art.

Whatever one’s interest, Buddhist art is, to use Coomaraswamy’s terms, both pleasing and transporting. As Throckmorton puts it, “These pieces were carved by monks, who made them out of devotion. That’s why Buddhist sculpture has that incredible intangible quality of transmitting peace and harmony. It resonates with real power.” Rochell says, “It was made for a higher purpose, to be ideally beautiful. The themes that carry through are benevolence and a benign beauty that is universal.” And from the collecting point of view, he adds, “You can still pay in the tens of thousands of dollars and get museum-quality objects. There are not many areas of collecting where you can do that. Ninety-five percent of the books on it have been published within the last 30 years. This field is on the cutting edge of research and discovery.”

By John Dorfman

A Fabergé Trove Comes Home Thu, 27 Oct 2016 19:03:41 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts reinstalls its massive collection of Fabergé objects after a world tour.

Fabergé firm (Russian), Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, 20th century

Fabergé firm (Russian), Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, 20th century, gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies, enamel, bronze, sapphire, watercolor on ivory, rock crystal, 4.25 x 3.125 inches;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Fabergé firm (Russian), Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, 20th century Fabergé firm (Russian), Imperial Tsarevich Easter Egg, 1912 Fabergé firm (Russian), Imperial Pelican Easter Egg, 19th century Fabergé firm (Russian), Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg, 20th century Fabergé firm (Russian), Monumental Kovsh, 1889–1908

Fabergé eggs, today virtual bywords for the stratospherically rare and expensive, were once hard to sell. When the Russian Revolution ended Romanov rule in 1917, most of the Imperial family’s treasures, including thousands of decorative objects made by the firm of Karl Fabergé, were carted off to the Kremlin by the Bolsheviks. There they were stored in crates, ostensibly preserved as items of national heritage but actually consigned to oblivion for 10 years. Then, in 1927, Stalin decided that such detritus of decadence be sold to the West, so that the capitalists might help fund the socialist state while laying the groundwork for their own inevitable demise. But the Soviets picked an inopportune moment to release the Fabergé treasures onto the market. By the time they got around to it, it was 1931, the depths of the worldwide depression, and Armand Hammer, the U.S. agent for the U.S.S.R., had trouble finding buyers at any price for the 14 Imperial Easter Eggs he had on hand.

To promote the eggs, Hammer took them on a tour of American department stores, showing them in elaborate displays and lecturing on their history and meaning. When some eggs were shown at the Russian Exhibition in London in 1935, the media characterized them variously as “a melancholy joke,” “Imperialism gone crazy,” and “wonderful, but, of course, not of our world to-day.” Eggs that sold at auction brought as little as $500. Seeing opportunity but also beauty, four wealthy American women collectors, Matilda Geddings Gray, Marjorie Merriweather Post, India Early Minshall, and Lillian Thomas Pratt, acquired Imperial Easter Eggs at this time. Pratt, the wife of a wealthy Fredericksburg, Va., businessman, John Lee Pratt, bought five from Hammer, paying for them on her Lord & Taylor charge card. He also sold her a range of other Fabergé pieces including animal and human figurines, picture frames, presentation boxes, and other jeweled, enameled objets de vertu. Upon her death in 1947, she willed her collection of Fabergé and other Russian decorative arts to the newly-created Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

As a result, the VMFA now has the largest collection of Fabergé objects of any museum outside Russia, and its group of five eggs (out of a total of 52 made for the Imperial family) is likewise the largest outside Russia. Of the 190 pieces at the VMFA, 167 come from the Pratt collection, which comprises around 400 works. Starting in the fall of 2012, the collection went on a world tour that began at the Detroit Institute of Arts and then went on to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and, for its last stop, the Palace Museum in Beijing, where it closed on July 17 of this year.

On October 22, the Pratt Collection went back on view in Richmond, and to celebrate its return, the museum has created a special installation for it, with 280 pieces (mainly from the Pratt bequest but supplemented by a few later acquisitions) in a 1,963-square-foot suite of five renovated galleries that feature interactive touchscreens on which visitors can view animations of the eggs being rotated and opened to reveal the moving parts and “surprises” within. VMFA director Alex Nyerges says, “Our Fabergé and Russian decorative arts collection is a longtime visitor favorite, and we are thrilled to be reinstalling it this year in a larger modern space. The Fabergé collection has traveled the globe and is coming home to a suite of galleries that boast digital components, which will allow visitors to engage with the art in new and dynamic ways.”

Karl Fabergé, who died an impoverished refugee in Switzerland in 1920, would probably be astonished not only at the digital technology but at the admiration for his products in a mass society far removed from the aristocratic world of pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg. Fabergé was an exacting craftsman who learned the jeweler’s and goldsmith’s art from his father, Gustav, in the 1870s. A business manager as well as a creator, he eventually operated five branch offices and employed 500 craftsmen who manufactured some 150,000 objects of hardstones, precious metals, and gems. His friend Henry Charles Bainbridge, who managed the firm’s London office, described Fabergé’s prickly, task-obsessed personality in his 1949 biography: “To trespass unreasonably upon his time, to subject him to some inane remark, to irritate his sense of the fitness of things was to expose yourself to instant attack. One of the Grand Duchesses once enquired of him: ‘And what new eggs have you this year, Mr. Fabergé?’ ‘This year, Your Highness, we have square ones!’ was his reply.”

The five Imperial Easter Eggs on display at the VMFA—the Rock Crystal Egg (1896), the Pelican Egg (1898), the Peter the Great Egg (1903), the Tsarevich Egg (1912), and the Red Cross Egg (1915)—are anything but square. Sharing the basic egg shape but otherwise diverse in design and finish, they celebrated the Orthodox faith as well as commemorating specific events in Russian history and the lives of the Romanov family members. Among the other Fabergé objects in the show are a circular Imperial presentation box ornamented with nephrite, gold, and diamonds; a six-pointed star-shaped picture frame of gold, enamel, pearls, gold, and ivory; a hardstone statuette of an Imperial Navy sailor; a dandelion sculpted from rock crystal, gold, diamonds, and asbestos fiber; and a monumental kovsh, or traditional Russian drinking vessel with a boat-like oval form, made of silver, chrysoprase, and amethyst.

By John Dorfman

Let There Be Light Thu, 27 Oct 2016 18:51:05 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Today’s best lighting designs are really sculptures that illuminate.

Verre Lumiere, Flower Lamp, 1970

Jean-Pierre Vitrac for Verre Lumiere, Flower Lamp, 1970, chrome metal and stainless steel.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Christopher Côme, Double White Loukoum Table Lamp Bibliotheque Nationale Floor Lamp by Philippe Starck Sabine Charoy for Verre Lumiere, Floor Lamp, 1969 Table lamp by Stilnovo, 1968 Jean-Pierre Vitrac for Verre Lumiere, Flower Lamp, 1970

The website for R & Company of Manhattan categorizes Jeff Zimmerman’s Illuminated Crystal Cluster as a “hanging lamp,” but it is much more than that. The crystal chandelier is a tantalizingly literal take on the well-established form of the crystal chandelier, a status symbol that enlivens royal palaces and imposing estates the world over. Instead of clear teardrops of leaded cut glass cascading from the ceiling in glittering rows, Zimmerman’s sculpture looks like he has hewn actual oversize crystals from the bowels of the earth and suspended them in the center of the room.

“Each is unique. No two could be the same if you tried, and that’s the idea,” says Zesty Meyers, co-founder of R & Company. “The color would never be the same. The density would never be the same. It’s limitless in scale, in shape, in size. They’re customized to the space, always.”

Zimmerman’s Illuminated Crystal Cluster does more than look great and shed light, however. “What he accomplishes is amazing,” says Meyers, explaining that by the time that Zimmerman is called in to contribute to a home project, “The architecture is already done, the art is hung, and the interior design is already done. He’s the glue holding them together. He is the one that does that. This is his genius. He makes a sculpture that doesn’t interrupt a thing, and ties them all together. He has to connect all three and highlight himself. He has the hardest job.”

The tale of Zimmerman’s cluster neatly captures the tale of how high-end lighting design has changed from the end of World War II to now—it isn’t enough for a light to simply be a light anymore, and thanks to technological advances on many fronts, it can be so much more. It isn’t restricted to the role of a tool that liberates us from dependence on sunlight and candles. Many of the most exquisite contemporary designs aren’t strictly lights at all, but artworks that happen to glow.

Postwar high-end lighting designs tilted toward prizing functionality as much as aesthetics. A rare floor lamp created in 1954 by Gerald Thurston for Lightolier, and now available at Patrick Parrish in Manhattan, sports Calderesque colors and unimpeachable utility: its nine shades can point in nine different directions, and the lamp itself is light enough to pick up and move with ease. An exquisitely rare set of three-light Dahlia sconces, made by mid-century glass master and designer Max Ingrand for the Italian firm Fontana Arte and currently on offer at Donzella in Manhattan, look enchanting but never lose sight of their basic purpose: to illuminate.

Things started to change by the late 1960s. The designs championed by the French firm Verre Lumiere, which was another initiative of Ingrand and was active from 1969 to 1989, pushed the boundaries of what was possible. Sabine Charoy’s brass and steel Floor Lamp from 1969 stands nearly six feet tall and resembles an unearthly piece of industrial equipment but proves itself practical. Its counterweight lets the user wheel its light around at will to loom over a desk or hover near the floor or float near the ceiling. Its light, which sits in a semi-circular metal bowl, rotates in a circle for still more flexibility.

An even greater Verre Lumiere triumph was Jean-Pierre Vitrac’s Flower Lamp, dating to 1970 and fashioned from chrome and stainless steel. Stephane Danant of Demisch Danant, a gallery with locations in New York and Paris, has a special place in his heart for Verre Lumiere and Vitrac’s lamp. He estimates that the company made perhaps 20 examples, and he happily lives with one. It has six individual petals that can be posed in various ways—closed, open, partially open. “When it’s closed, or has one petal open, it’s much quieter,” Danant says. “When it’s all out there, it’s like a Christmas tree—too crazy, too noisy. It’s more of a lighting sculpture than a real lamp.”

It’s also heavy. When Vitrac brought the cardboard Flower Lamp model to Verre Lumiere, he apparently assumed it would be produced in plastic, not metal, so it likely carries a heft that he did not intend. But Danant isn’t bothered by its quirks, and neither are its admirers. “I never tire of it,” says Danant. “Serious works of art and design, you never get bored of them. They always stay beautiful.”

Around the same time that Vitrac was toting his cardboard maquette to the Verre Lumiere factory near Paris, American studio furniture artist Wendell Castle was unveiling Pinkie, a bubble gum-pink arch-shaped floor lamp made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic and crowned with a single round bulb. Castle had intended it as a limited edition, but for whatever reason, it didn’t find favor with the public in 1969. Forty years later, Meyers and his gallery stepped up to realize the artist’s vision of a series of eight. “We think he’s a good designer, and people need to know more about him,” Meyers says, adding, “In the end, Pinkie is really not a lamp. It’s a sculpture with a bulb in it,” says Meyers.

Then he utters a phrase that Danant uttered about the Flower Lamp, and which other gallerists voiced spontaneously about other objects of theirs, without prompting: “You’re not going to read by it.” Artistic and aesthetic lights existed before the late 1960s, but it took until then for boutiques and galleries to begin offering objects that give light, but aren’t really usable as lamps. And it took until then for elite clients to begin to wrap their heads around the notion of buying them.

While lighting designers created fine things between 1970 and 2000, the advent of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) changed everything, and continues to change everything. LEDs give off less heat and can assume far smaller sizes than traditional bulbs, and many varieties are extremely low-maintenance, able to shine for decades before they must be replaced. “It’s unbelievable what designers can do now with the new technology,” says Cristina Grajales, who runs an eponymous 15-year-old gallery in New York. “It gives them so much freedom. It’s really quite fascinating.” David Alhadeff of The Future Perfect, a 13-year-old firm that has outposts in Manhattan and San Francisco, concurs. “You can make a chair that’s fresh and new, but it’s still a chair. Designers are sculpting with the new technology,” he says. “The reason why lighting is so exciting right now is it feels fresh, and it actually is fresh.”

The liberating effect of LEDs reaches far and wide. The range of FLOS, a firm founded in 1962, includes the Ipnos Outdoor, a deceptively simple-seeming outline of a three-dimensional rectangle. “[It] would not have been possible before LEDs,” says Jack Schreur, CEO of FLOS USA. “The design needed to look fragile while actually being quite sturdy, which is why we ended up coming up with an aluminum treated for outdoor use,” he says, adding, “Ipnos hides the light source so successfully that it looks as if the warm glow is coming from the metal itself.”

Michael Anastassiades’s Mobile Chandelier series, which began in 2008 and is offered through The Future Perfect, is another seemingly simple design that was impossible before the LED era. “It could not have been done in halogen light because the globes are so small and so delicate, they require cold light output so they don’t melt the glues,” says Alhadeff. In other words, halogen bulbs might burn hot enough to cause the precisely balanced brass chandelier to weaken and fall apart.

Artists should receive some credit for accelerating acceptance of LEDs. Todd Merrill, of Todd Merrill Studio in Manhattan, remained on alert for years for someone who could make the new light source worth gazing upon. “I was not representing contemporary artists working with light before 2010. LED was so ugly and no one had designed anything that made it beautiful,” he says. “There was no way to dim them, and the light was cold and white. It had an institutional feel.”

Irish artist Niamh Barry was the one who changed his mind. In the designs and prototype that she showed him, Merrill recalls that “she had encased the LED in polished true bronze and covered it with alabaster-like glass. It was really winning.” On the strength of pictures alone, Merrill accepted Barry’s work into his booth at a major fair, and it was an instant hit. Merrill has since invited other artists who work with LEDs to join his roster. Particularly notable is American sculptor Colleen Carlson, who unites one of the world’s oldest artistic mediums—clay—with LED strips that radiate through cross-hatching or mesh.

Strategically placed LEDs allowed Christophe Côme to create his Large White Loukoum, a 2012 piece that fuses two pieces of polished crystal and stands almost a foot tall. Earlier, smaller pieces relied on flame-shaped incandescent bulbs placed under the glass for their illumination. Côme switched to LEDs for the bigger versions. “You have to take the glass off and change the light in the base. It’s heavy glass,” says Grajales. “With LEDs, you don’t have to change them for a lifetime.”

This is not to imply that artists and designers have abandoned other forms of illumination. Sebastian Errazuriz tried using an LED for his Chicken Lamp and discovered that it just wasn’t right for the job. Also represented by Grajales, the Chicken Lamp is a limited-edition successor to a one-off sensation that had its origins in a trash bin in Santiago, Chile. Errazuriz spotted a headless duck in the garbage outside a shuttered taxidermy museum and decided to give it a new life as a lamp. Grajales displayed the duck in her Design Miami booth in 2008 and she says it sold “in two seconds.” The 2014 Chicken Lamp is an homage to the duck, and no LED can deliver the visual punch that a classic incandescent Edison bulb does. “He wanted the honesty of the naked light bulb on top of the chicken, no frills, no nothing,” says Grajales. She has sold eight of the edition of 12 and unlike other art-lights, it’s eminently functional. Many have gone to art collectors, and Grajales reports “they actually do use this lamp,” setting it on side tables and consoles.

Lindsey Adelman’s 2014 limited edition series of Totem chandeliers for The Future Perfect combines LEDs and halogen lights, as well as elements fashioned from porcelain, wood, glass, and brass. Extending to between five and six feet, and perhaps longer depending on the space, Totem chandeliers have been chosen by clients to adorn grand staircases. “They give off light, but they are sculpture,” Alhadeff says. “That’s not to say they don’t have light output. They do. But that’s not why people purchase them. They purchase them because they really love them.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

The Return of Walter Quirt Thu, 27 Oct 2016 18:32:08 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An important American painter, nearly forgotten for decades, is being rediscovered.

Walter Quirt, Shipwrecked, 1943

Walter Quirt, Shipwrecked, 1943, oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Walter Quirt, Head, 1948 Walter Quirt, Shipwrecked, 1943 Walter Quirt, Creation/Horse, circa 1961 Walter Quirt, Lake Harriet Series, Four Figures, 1964 Walter Quirt, Man and Horse, 1959–62

Fame is fickle, and an artist can slip out of art history for reasons that have little or nothing to do with art. Case in point: Walter Quirt. By the early 1940s, Quirt had a built a national-level reputation, both for his painting and for his spirited defense of modern art as a writer and lecturer. In 1943, Robert M. Coates, art critic for The New Yorker (and coiner of the term “Abstract Expressionism”) called him “the most impassioned artist alive today.” In 1944, Quirt was included, alongside Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and William Baziotes, in Sidney Janis’ Abstract and Surrealist Painting in America, a landmark book that mapped the landscape of the avant-garde at a pivotal moment.

However, that same year, worried about making a living, Quirt decided to leave New York for Milwaukee to take a teaching job and then remained in the Midwest until his death in 1968. Relocation to a place that was peripheral to the art world certainly did Quirt’s future fame no favors, but far worse was a near-total lack of posthumous exposure. Except for a retrospective in 1980 at the University of Minnesota (where he had taught for two decades) and a smaller show there four years earlier, there were no shows at all until 2015 because Quirt’s widow, Eleanor, chose to keep his work private, within the family. The effect of 35 years of absence was that Quirt came close to disappearing from the art world’s collective memory.

The situation was salvaged after Eleanor Quirt’s death, when the artist’s sons decided to bring his work back to public view, through Seattle dealer Frederick Holmes & Company. Holmes and San Francisco Bay-area independent curator Travis Wilson have spearheaded the return of Walter Quirt, together organizing two major shows—a 30-work retrospective in May 2015 titled “Walter Quirt: Revolutions Unseen” and, exactly a year later, “Walter Quirt: Works on Paper, a Curated Survey of Paintings on Paper, 1956–1964.”

Moving through many styles and theories of art over the course of his career, Quirt always remained true to the ideals that fired his youth. Born in 1902 in Iron River, Mich., a poverty-stricken mining town, he worked in mines and lumber camps as a teenager while showing a precocious talent for drawing. Radical politics was in the air in the 1920s, as the country was convulsed by strikes, and Soviet Communism inspired many workers and intellectuals. In 1921 Quirt entered the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, where he not only studied drawing and painting but became a local union organizer. Having gained recognition for his art through exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Institute, Quirt decided to make the move to New York in the fateful year of 1929.

The Depression, while unkind to art commerce, was profoundly stimulating to socially conscious art, and Quirt plunged in. By 1931 he was the secretary of the art division of the John Reed Club, an important Socialist organization; his associates there included Social Realist artists such as Raphael Soyer and William Gropper. Like them, Quirt believed that art had a mission to depict the situation of the workers and the poor and to advocate for justice. He published political-themed drawings in highbrow radical magazines such as Art Front and New Pioneer, as well as more populist political art, such as a comic strip for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker titled Jim Martin, which chronicled the ongoing travails of a young labor organizer.

By the mid-’30s, Quirt had moved on into Surrealism, a recent import from Europe. In fact, he was one of the first American artists to work in a Surrealistic mode, soon to be followed by Louis Guglielmi, James Guy, and David Smith. They called themselves “Social Surrealists,” meaning that while they embraced automatism as a creative technique and no longer adhered to realism, they still intended to deal, more or less explicitly, with contemporary social and political problems. Quirt was denounced for abandoning Social Realism in favor of Surrealism, but in fact Surrealism had always been profoundly political. André Breton and his followers were leftists and conceived of Surrealism, in both literature and art, as a revolutionary instrument with the power to destroy bourgeois society from the inside out, taking the psyche as the front line in the battle for freedom and justice. Quirt’s objection to Social Realism from a political point of view was that it was “dumbed down” and insulted the intelligence of the very people it was supposed to be appealing to.

Quirt’s new work got him an exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, which championed Surrealism, but it didn’t pay the bills. Seeking gainful employment, Quirt went to work in 1935 for the WPA’s mural program, where he stayed seven years, absorbing influences from contemporary Mexican mural masters such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Quirt’s greatest achievement for the WPA was a panoramic mural in New York’s Bellevue Hospital, The Growth of Medicine From Primitive Times, which combined Surrealism and history painting on a grand scale. He completed it in 1937, the same year that he publicly debated Salvador Dalí at MoMA, attacking the Spaniard’s brand of Surrealism as politically imbecilic. This earned Quirt few friends and much criticism. In 1941, he published an essay titled “Wake Over Surrealism, With Due Respect for the Corpse,” in which he articulated a need to move beyond Surrealism but affirmed the usefulness of automatism in art-making.

Quirt’s work from the early ’40s is incredibly dense and powerful, seeming to explode from the canvas while at the same time drawing the viewer into a multicolored maelstrom of emotions and fractured images. Quirt, an enthusiast of Freudianism, was psychoanalyzed during this period, and his work shows him sounding the depths of the unconscious. While its use of line and color was basically abstract—in fact, with its sense of furious freedom very much foreshadowing Abstract Expressionism—Quirt’s early 1940s work was still figurative. In The Crucified (1943), the central figure of Christ (who has an eerie smile on his face) and the figures who surround him (including a Deposition from the Cross group) blend into the curving ribbons of color that envelop them. In Compulsion to Anger (1944), a graphic representation of a mental state, the human figures are reduced to faces that emerge from the tangle of curving colored stripes, only to be swallowed up again, as if they were drowning in a sea of psychic forces. In Shipwrecked (1943), that experience of sinking is more literally depicted, but still within the context of Quirt’s special technique.

After his move back to the Midwest, Quirt changed his style again. The later ’40s saw him painting more abstractly, in linearly-defined geometric patterns of color including a lot of white. These paintings are somewhat reminiscent of Stuart Davis, who was a great friend of Quirt’s. Starting in the early ’50s, his technique became looser and brushier, as if taking a new direction in the old search for freedom. The energetic curves persist, but they manifest themselves in a new way, a more gestural one. The compositions are less dense, sometimes quite open and airy—a single figure over a wash of color, and in some works even the colors are attenuated, almost to monochrome. The lone figure is often a woman or a horse; Quirt had strong childhood memories of horses, and they seemed to connote freedom and joy to him.

After briefly teaching at the Layton School of Art, where he had been a student 20 years before, and at Michigan State, in 1947 Quirt got a teaching position at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he would remain until his death. He showed his work at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis during the ’50s, and had a traveling retrospective, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, in 1960–62. While his youthful dreams of revolutionary Socialism were disappointed, he never abandoned his belief that art has a mission to change the world for the better. Late works like the luminous abstraction Quiet Dreams (1958) and the lyrical, figurative Man and Horse (1959–62) exude a sense of deep peace and contentment that is diametrically opposed to the palpable anger of the wartime paintings. Quirt’s desire to bring about social change and psychological transformation was also expressed through his teaching of countless students over the years.

“The great artist,” wrote Quirt, “is one who faithfully follows his impulses, who vigorously and courageously peels off layer after layer of restrictions, prohibitions, and inhibitions. This takes courage, for it automatically means suffering.” In his art, in his career choices, and in his willingness to express unpopular opinions, Quirt had that courage, and he suffered. But he also found great joy, which he was able to put into his paintings.

By John Dorfman