Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Mon, 13 Jun 2016 17:24:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 From Harlem to the New York School Mon, 13 Jun 2016 17:24:12 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Once overlooked, the painter Norman Lewis’ contributions to the New York School have come into the spotlight.

Norman Lewis, Title Unknown (March on Washington), 1965

Norman Lewis, Title Unknown (March on Washington), 1965, oil on fiberboard.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Norman Lewis, Seachange, 1975 Norman Lewis, Aurora Borealis, 1972–76 Norman Lewis, Afternoon, 1969 Norman Lewis, Title Unknown (March on Washington), 1965 Norman Lewis, Hep Cats, 1943 Norman Lewis, Girl with Yellow Hat, 1936

It appears that the American artist Norman Lewis (1909–79) is having what is known as “a moment.” In Lewis’ case, the attention he has been receiving lately from the art establishment and, more precisely, from the art market, one of its biggest and most influential components, seems to be something more substantive than a mere “trending” blip on the radar screens of fickle social media. Instead, it seems to be the stuff of evolving cultural history, fueled by a recent series of high-profile exhibitions of the artist’s intriguing but still not very well-known oeuvre. Together these shows have prompted serious critical reassessment of Lewis’ contributions to modern art’s development in the post-World War II era, especially during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism from the 1940s through the early ’60s.

“Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis,” a comprehensive retrospective, was organized by and first presented at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts starting late last year. It will be on view again at the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Tex., from June 4–August 21. Earlier this year in New York, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, which represents Lewis’ estate, offered a fine selection of the artist’s paintings and drawings; that show coincided with a two-artist exhibition of works by Lewis and Lee Krasner at the Jewish Museum, which is also located in Manhattan. Last December, seven Lewis pieces appeared in an auction at Swann Galleries in New York, in which one of the artist’s untitled abstractions, a beige-colored, oil-on-canvas painting dating from around 1958, set a new record price for his work of almost $1 million.

Various factors may help explain why Lewis’ art has been attracting more attention from museums, collectors and the market. In recent decades, buoyed by postmodernist critical thinking, younger art historians, critics and curators—many of whom are not white and male—have looked beyond canonical art history’s pantheon and drawn attention to other innovative artists who were overlooked in the past.

As it turns out, in past decades, many of those inventive, fresh-thinking artists were female, homosexual, or black. Some came from Asian or other non-European ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some were overlooked because they created their art in places where the mass media and mainstream institutions were less likely to become aware of them. Others, like Lewis, were well known to, friendly with, and active among their white-artist peers. Often, prominent curators, critics, and other art-world figures were aware of their activities, too.

Still, due to the prejudices that prevailed in the past, many of these artists did not earn significant critical recognition in their time as their careers were actually unfolding. Another reason why substantial bodies of work like Lewis’ are being appreciated anew is that, although many collectors might covet a painting, drawing, or sculpture by such heroic-historic figures of Abstract Expressionism as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, for all but the world’s wealthiest buyers, such works have become prohibitively expensive. Thus, a door has opened in the market for the appreciation and active handling of works of high quality by less well-known makers of abstract art from the same period.

Born in Harlem in 1909 to parents from Bermuda, Lewis grew up at a time when the New York neighborhood’s population was dominated by Italian and Jewish immigrants. (Harlem’s population changed dramatically following the so-called first Great Migration, which lasted roughly from 1916 to 1930, during which masses of Americans of African descent left the rural South and headed to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest and West.) Even as a young boy, Lewis enjoyed making art. In high school, he studied drawing and commercial art. As a young man, after working as a cook and elevator operator, he became a merchant seaman and sailed throughout the Caribbean and to South America.

The long, tough years of the Great Depression had begun. After returning to New York, while still in his early 20s, Lewis approached the Harlem-based sculptor Augusta Savage and asked her to become his teacher. He worked in her basement studio, which she called “Savage’s Uptown Art Laboratory,” but was more interested in painting than in sculpture and eventually left. In time, Lewis taught himself to paint. Through his association with Savage, he had come into contact with such figures of the era’s Harlem Renaissance as the Jamaican-American writer and poet Claude McKay, the singer Roland Hayes, and the white writer and photographer Carl van Vechten, who became a champion of Harlem’s cultural movers and shakers.

In an interview in 1968 with Henri Ghent, who at the time served as the head of the Brooklyn Museum’s Community Gallery, Lewis recalled his childhood: “I always wanted to be an artist. […] I remember coming home and I said to my father that I wanted to be an artist, and he said this is a white man’s profession. It is a starving profession.” His parents, Lewis said, encouraged his brother to become a violinist but “couldn’t understand” his own “desire to be a painter.” He added: “I pursued [it] on my own…feeling as I did very inferior about becoming an artist, despite the fact that I eventually got a scholarship to the John Reed [Club Art] School, which I didn’t attend. I taught myself, which is a hell of a long way of going about it, because there are shorter ways of discovering what you are.”

In the early 1930s, Lewis became interested in the ideas of the Philadelphia-born philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke, one of the rare black men of his generation who had earned degrees at both Harvard University and the University of Oxford and whose vision of “the New Negro” helped fuel the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. In 1934, Lewis founded the Harlem Artists Guild along with Romare Bearden and others; that organization helped create professional opportunities for black art-makers while focusing on political and social issues affecting their community. During the ’30s in New York, Lewis also took classes at Columbia University, saw an exhibition of African art at the Museum of Modern Art that deeply moved him, taught at the Harlem Community Arts Center (where the young Jacob Lawrence was a student), and worked for the WPA as an art instructor.

As “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” makes clear, during the ’30s Lewis produced his own version of social-realist art. He created images like Dispossessed (1938), which showed a black couple with their belongings, stranded on a sidewalk. This picture expressed with more quiet exasperation than overt anger the artist’s awareness of the effects on his people of such abiding, pernicious forces as poverty, injustice and, of course, racism. But in such paintings as Meeting Place (1941) or Hep Cats (1943), Lewis celebrated life’s everyday pleasures and the personalities that gave his community its distinctive character, too.

In the 1940s, Lewis’ social-realist works gave way to an exploration of the language of abstraction as he found that his earlier, more explicitly political mode of making art would not vanquish racism. Still, however subtly, Lewis continued to fold references to his people’s aspirations and hardships into even his most abstract expressions, either through their titles or through certain colors and forms, which he employed symbolically. He continued refining this approach to his art, technically and thematically, throughout the rest of his career. Thus, many of his dense compositions or those in which clusters of vertical forms appear to be parading across an image’s pictorial space may be read as processions—sometimes he used the word “procession” in their titles—of human figures, evoking the marches of jobless men or of racism-weary black Americans who in hard times took to the streets to call attention to their plight and demand relief and social justice.

Lewis elaborated his abstract visual language in everything from wiry, lace-like drawings like Too Much Aspiration (1947), in opaque watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, and luminous essays in vibrant color and form, such as the oil-on-canvas paintings Five Phases (1949) and Ritual (1962), to such atmospheric images as Study in Blue and White (1954), an oil on canvas in which a thicket of black and blue vertical shapes lumbers mysteriously through a bleached-out fog.

In the late 1940s, Lewis began a long-lasting relationship with Willard Gallery of New York; his first solo exhibition there took place in 1949. His artist friends included the abstract painter, teacher, and art theorist Ad Reinhardt, who was white, and like him and many other prominent white modern artists of the time, Lewis was a member of American Abstract Artists, a professional association that had been founded in 1936. Still, both because of his race and, ironically, probably because the abstractions Lewis was creating were not visibly “black” enough—they did not explicitly depict subject matter associated with the contemporary lives of black Americans—over time his work was overlooked. Still, Lewis embraced abstract art with gusto, reveling in the creative freedom and possibilities for personal discovery and expression it allowed. He went on to co-found SPIRAL, a group of black artists who supported the civil rights movement of the 1960s through their art, to teach at the Art Students League, and to win prestigious awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Jeffrey C. Stewart, a professor of Black Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, has contributed one of the more provocative and illuminating essays to the catalogue of “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis.” In it, he observes that, given the nature of Lewis’ later work and the perceptions surrounding the kind of art it represented, the painter might have “seemed like an oxymoron to most people—a Negro abstract expressionist.” Stewart regards Lewis as having used “African and African-American aesthetic forms in his paintings to enact a spiritual message,” and that the artist continued to convey it, even when he “venture[d] into pure abstraction,” for his art consistently expressed the idea “that spiritual transcendence is always possible.” Indeed, Lewis’ abstract art, like that of many now-classic examples of the genre, which, critics and historians have long argued, may reflect their creators’ existential anguish or their search for soul-lifting transcendence, probably expresses and embodies more of the latter theme than the former.

About his art, in typewritten notes Lewis once observed, “It is my misfortune and probably my delight to use things as my passions tell me…. Not necessary for spectator to analyze. The ideal is when the spectator allows himself without knowing it to be engaged by the mechanism of the picture. The real function of art is to express feeling and understanding.” Unabashedly motivated by such concerns, which it still inevitably conveys, Lewis’ art may well be finding an appreciative new audience precisely because it offers some kind of antidote to the conflicted spirit of a cynical age. If so, it has earned its deserved moment in the spotlight—right now.

By Edward M. Gómez

Mothers of Abstraction Tue, 07 Jun 2016 17:49:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A current exhibition at the Denver Art Museum gives 12 female Abstract Expressionists the show they should have had during the art movement’s heyday.

Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1942

Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1942, oil paint on linen, 21 x 27 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Sonia Getchoff, The Beginning, 1969 Perle Fine, Early Morning Garden, 1957 Mary Abbott, All Green, about 1954 Joan Mitchell, Hudson River Day Line, 1955 Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, 1959 Deborah Remington, Apropos or Untitled, 1953 Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1942

That any exhibition centering around one half of the population is necessary, can be illuminated by Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin wrote, “The question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, ‘influenced’ by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by ‘social forces,’ but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.”

The “social situation” for women during the rise of Abstract Expressionism in America in the 1940s, was such that breaking out as a representative figure of the movement was unlikely or even impossible. This phenomenon is not particular to this movement or time period, but rather, as Nochlin notes, to the plight of women throughout art history and human history in general. Women working in abstraction took the same classes as men—be they summer courses with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, or with Esteban Vicente or Clyfford Still—ruminated over ideas at the Cedar Street Tavern, attended meetings at The Club, and showed work at Betty Parsons and, on occasion, in notable MoMA exhibitions. Many of the most prominent female abstractionists socialized with their male counterparts, or were involved in relationships with male artists. Yet they were seen as supporting characters rather than stars because of their role as women in society rather than their levels of artistry. And thus, though female-centric museum and gallery exhibitions can be frustrating because they serve as reminders that all other shows are “male-centric,” they also create opportunities to celebrate art that was always equal, even if its creators weren’t treated equally.

“Women of Abstract Expressionism” opens at the Denver Art Museum on June 12, where it will be up through September 25, later traveling to the Mint Museum in October and to the Palm Springs Art Museum in February 2017. The show, which is the first full-scale museum exhibition of its kind, focuses solely on female artists working in the Abstract-Expressionist movement in mid-20th-century America. Over 50 paintings will be on view, by a select group of 12 artists: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher.

Gwen Chanzit, the DAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, began thinking about the show in 2008—though she says she never set out to do a “women’s show.” She had seen an exhibition in New York that included men of color and women—people whose works are rarely seen in Ab-Ex exhibitions. “This particular movement is very male-centric,” says Chanzit. “The textbooks are all about the paint-splattered man. When I started to think about who had been left out of the history of Abstract Expressionism, I realized that it was this whole group of women.” Chanzit surveyed well over 100 artists, and the exhibition’s catalogue includes over 40, but the curator chose to limit the presentation to 12 women. “The exhibition is divided into 12 spaces, and each artist has her own space,” says Chanzit. “Each one will be seen as an individual with a grouping of her own works; if we were to have 18 to 20 we couldn’t do that.” Each artist’s section has at least three major works; Krasner’s boasts seven.

Krasner, like Elaine de Kooning, is among the best-known artists in the show due in part to matrimony. Aside from being Jackson Pollock’s wife, Krasner has been widely shown at many of the most important museums in the world. Yet even in her retrospectives, which have largely been posthumous, the art-historical narrative has struggled to allow Krasner an individual identity. In the present exhibition, the seven painting on view provide a glimpse into the evolution of her work. Untitled (1942), a highly geometric oil painting on linen, nods to Cubism’s influence on the artist, while The Seasons, a 1957 oil and house paint on canvas piece that is nearly 8 feet wide and 17 feet long, is dramatically looser and more corporeal. Its pink shapes, which bring to mind the pinks in Willem de Kooning’s Woman paintings, resemble fruits swollen and heavy with ripeness.

Painted not long after Pollock’s death, The Seasons finds Krasner trying to forge her own identity—not only apart from Pollock but within a landscape of artists who were beginning to adopt signature imagery. In this painting, as well as others of the same year such as Listen and Sun Woman I, Krasner’s actual signature, scribbled in umber, is woven throughout the body of the painting. The desire to assert her individuality is not surprising. She had frequently exhibited with her husband—notably in the 1949 “Artists: Husband and Wife” show at the Sidney Janis Gallery—and recalled a studio visit from Betty Parsons in which the dealer largely ignored her in favor of Pollock.

For most of the female abstractionists working in New York—even Krasner, who seemingly had all the right connections—it was difficult to gain lasting support. Perle Fine, who was one of the only women asked to join The Club—a meeting place for artists on East Eighth Street—began showing with Parsons in 1949. Fine moved to Springs, East Hampton, N.Y., in the mid-’50s, around the same time she was dropped by Parsons for poor sales. Outside the city, Fine’s, who was heavily inspired by Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, had a breakthrough. Early Morning Garden (1957), an explosive oil paint and collage piece that will be on view at the DAM, substitutes natural forms for purely abstract ones. Grace Hartigan, whose bold 1960 oil on canvas New York City Rhapsody will also be on view, gained early support from the influential critic Clement Greenberg, who featured her work in a 1950 show at the Samuel Kootz Gallery. However, Greenberg withdrew his support after Hartigan introduced figuration into her canvases (which led Hartigan to call Greenberg a coward in one particularly pointed letter). Hartigan, who later received attention for her work seeming to resemble Willem de Kooning’s figurative compositions, was the only woman in MoMA’s 1958 “New American Paintings” exhibition among 16 male artists.

In San Francisco, which is the other geographical focus of the DAM’s exhibition besides New York, consistent support for female abstractionists seemed more tangible. Sonia Gechtoff—the exhibition’s bi-coastal Tiresias—enjoyed a lot of praise in the Bay Area, but after moving to New York in 1958 found that there was much less support there for female artists. Gechtoff’s richly colored 1960 oil painting The Beginning, in the exhibition, is so textural and blurred that it nearly seems like it was drawn with pastel, its composition so energetic that it seems like a shaking rendering of a cosmic explosion.

Gechtoff’s mother opened the East and West Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco in 1954. Across the street was the Six Gallery, a prominent exhibition space co-founded by Deborah Remington and five men, which happened to hold Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of Howl. Remington, who traveled extensively around Asia from 1956–58, imbued many of her subsequent canvases with influences from Chinese and Japanese brush painting. Exodus, a 1960 oil on canvas that will be in the DAM show, bears qualities of a sumi-e chrysanthemum, while Apropos or Untitled (1953), though painted before the artist’s trip, somehow suggests images of the East.

Abstract Expressionism shares several qualities with jazz. For one, its gestural spontaneity—which can be wrongly perceived as disorderly or simple—sits firmly on the bedrock of practice and honed skill. Like the musical genre, Ab-Ex is considered to be the first purely American art movement, and—as jazz did with music—shifted the art world’s center of gravity to the States. And both Ab-Ex and jazz promoted the image of the roguishly masculine freak of nature as the brilliant master of his craft. To the abstractionist or trumpet player physicality and stamina were part of the job, bad behavior an accepted occupational hazard. Pollock, who had affairs, bad moods, too many drinks, and (perhaps with the exception of his “black paintings”) a mountain of praise and recognition, was Ab-Ex’s man of action and genius. In response to Hans Hofmann suggesting he should paint from nature, Pollock is famously said to have responded, “I am nature.” But it was, in fact, Krasner who said it, or at the least recounted it, in a 1967 interview about her husband.

In a 1959 essay, the representational painter and critic Fairfield Porter wrote, “The Impressionists taught us to look at nature very carefully; the Americans teach us to look very carefully at the painting. Paint is as real as nature and the means for a painting can contain its ends.” The Abstract Expressionist artist takes on the role of nature—nature’s processes, movements, and creative powers are channeled into the act of painting and then into the painting itself. Though there may be a physical referent or memory on which an abstract painting is based—as for instance with Elaine de Kooning’s Bullfight (1959), which is inspired by bullfights the artist saw in Mexico—the gestural and corporeal nature of abstraction ensures that the image is inextricably tied to the artist’s hand, body, and mind. No other painter can create the same thing.

Barnett Newman said, “The first man was an artist.” Yet there is a group of people that is accustomed to creating something that without them couldn’t exist, a group that is born with the ability to take on the role of nature—women.

By Sarah E. Fensom

City on a Hill Tue, 07 Jun 2016 17:38:04 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Thanks to a historic collaboration between the Met and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, an almost unbelievably rich trove of Hellenistic antiquities has come to New York.

Small Statue of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalos, Roman

Small Statue of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalos, Roman, Late Republican or Early Imperial period, second half of the 1st century B.C.; copy of a Greek original of circa 320–300 B.C., bronze, 48.6 x 47 cm. Opposite

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Triton Acroterion from the Great Altar, Greek Stater of Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysos, Greek Rhyton in the form of a Centaur, Greek Fragmentary Colossal Head of a Youth, Greek, Hellenistic period Small Statue of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalos, Roman Friedrich (von) Thiersch, The Akropolis of Pergamon, 1882

The death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. marks the moment when Greek culture jumped the borders of Greece and became a world culture. Alexander’s rapid conquests had pushed the borders of the Macedonian Empire as far east as what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, and when he died without naming a successor, his generals fought each other for control. After several civil wars, the empire broke up into political units known as the Hellenistic kingdoms, which for the next three centuries ruled most of Greece, parts of Southern Italy, Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Near East. During that time, they made Greek an international language, and with the language went Greek art. The art of the so-called Hellenistic period (a modern coinage; it was never called that at the time) broke new ground in terms of realism, eroticism, and the development of new media.

One of those Hellenistic dynasties was the Attalid Kingdom, which ruled from the city of Pergamon near the west coast of what is now Turkey. Under Attalid and then (starting in 133 B.C.) Roman rule, Pergamon grew into a wealthy and cultured city, distinguished by its massive acropolis (hill city) bearing a monumental altar—the famous Great Altar—with elaborate friezes. In the mid-1860s, a German engineer and amateur archeologist, Carl Humann, stumbled on the site of ancient Pergamon while excavating for an Ottoman Turkish road construction project. Noticing that exposed portions of marble from the partially buried city were being cut into fragments to be burned in a lime kiln, Humann used his influence with the Ottoman authorities to stop the destruction and get a permit to excavate the site.

Actual digging, though, needed to wait until 1879, when Humann was able to get financial support from the Berlin Museums, a branch of the German royal state. Thus began the historic connection between the Hellenistic city and the German city, which eventually constructed an entire structure, the Pergamon Museum, to house its negotiated portion of artifacts from the site (the balance was claimed by the Ottoman government). To Berlin went the friezes from the Great Altar, which were touted as worthy rivals to the British Museum’s “Elgin Marbles” (sculptures from the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens) in the geopolitical game of archeological one-upmanship. Today, under the auspices of the Pergamon Museum, excavation of the site continues.

In 2013, the Pergamon Museum closed for major renovations, providing the occasion for pieces from the collection to travel to New York, where they are now on view at the Metropolitan Museum in “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” an exhibition on view through July 17. About a third of the 265 objects in the Met show are from the Pergamon Museum; the show also features loans from some 50 public and private collections from around the world. Together, the astonishing assemblage of objects showcases not only the achievement of Pergamon but of Hellenistic high culture in general, in many ancient states.

The Met’s chief curator of antiquities, Carlos Picón, describes the exhibition as “unabashedly an ‘objects show’” that “does not pretend to offer a straightforward art-historical survey.” In any case, he writes in the exhibition catalogue, “there is no single approach to the study of most branches of Hellenistic art. One can only examine the artistic trends and attempt to discover avenues that either lead to further study or, at the very least, allow us to look at this rich material with fresh eyes.”

For many visitors to the Met, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” will be their first look at the material, but even to those familiar with the period, the works on view are likely to be visually and even emotionally overwhelming. While the Great Altar itself cannot travel (since it is literally embedded in the walls of the Pergamon Museum itself), some elements from the friezes are in the New York show, along with a striking architectural model that conveys what the altar must have looked like when it was new. A huge 1882 pen-and-ink-and-watercolor rendering of the whole acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich von Tiersch, situated near the entrance to the exhibition, also helps visualize the ancient site in its heyday. An assortment of documents and sketchbooks immerses the viewer in the thrill of the German discovery of Pergamon, when Humann was able to exult, “We have found an entire artistic epoch!”

From the north and east sides of the Sanctuary of Athena at Pergamon, a set of large marble balustrade reliefs, discovered in 1878–86, are in the exhibition. These very imposing and compositionally bold designs, made around 180 B.C., depict spoils of war—shields, a ship’s standard and rudder, a helmet with mask—that commemorate battles won by the kings of Pergamon against the Seleucids of Asia Minor. The haphazard, tumbled-looking arrangement of the trophies suggests a still life turned vertically, almost Cubistic in its overall effect. The dedication of such an important structure as this sanctuary to the goddess Athena reminds us that Pergamon, as a foreign city, had to a particular effort to tie itself to the sources of Greek religion and integrate itself into the mythology.

Actual arms and armor are on view right near the frieze fragments: A 32-inch-diameter bronze shield with relief decoration, discovered at Pontos in present-day Turkey, is one of the very few surviving Hellenistic pieces of its kind in the world. The Greek inscription running in a circle between two concentric decorative bands reads, “Of King Pharnakes,” referring to Pharnakes I, who ruled Pontos in the 2nd century B.C. The shield, which has a six-pointed star design in the middle, would originally have a wooden or leather support mounted behind the brass front.

Images of Alexander, the progenitor of the Hellenistic world, are appropriately displayed at the beginning of the Met’s installation. One particularly impressive piece—though small, about 20 inches high—is a bronze sculpture of the ruler mounted on his favorite horse, Bucephalos, who is rearing up as his rider, dressed in typical Macedonian style, prepares to strike a blow against an unseen enemy. The weapon he would have been using is also unseen, at least by us, because it has been lost to time. Alexander is shown with no helmet, an allusion to a famous incident in 334 B.C. when the king was attacked and nearly killed by the satrap (provincial governor) Spithridates during a battle. This sculpture, which was found at Herculaneum, is a late Republican or early Imperial Roman copy of a Greek original that is believed to have been created not very long after the event itself, circa 320–300 B.C.

Another object on view that is likely a portrait of Alexander, on a very different scale, is the fragmentary colossal marble head of a youth discovered at Pergamon. Probably carved in the 2nd century B.C., the head is twice life size (almost 23 inches high) and is believed to have been mounted on the wall in the Pergamon gymnasium. The expressive, slightly open mouth; the nose; and the curly locks of hair are all that remain to conjure the visage of the young king; the rest of the head has been dramatically sheared off, creating an unintentional but nonetheless beautiful and strange effect.

A Late Hellenistic bronze portrait of an unknown man, excavated on the Greek island of Delos in 1912, is vividly lifelike. Every feature seems like that of a real person, not an idealized archetype. The eyes, with the whites modeled in inlaid white stone and the irises in a dark gray stone, are particularly expressive, full of pathos or even anguish. The pupils, too, were once inlaid, and the eyelashes were rendered with fringed strips of copper, though those pieces, unfortunately, have been lost. This kind of intense dedication to naturalistic detail, coupled with a desire to convey the true personality and character of the sitter, is typical of Late Hellenistic portraiture. The man shown here may have been a public official, a man of letters, or some other prominent citizen, but what the artist gives us is not the public façade but the inner man.

Another trait of Hellenistic art is frank eroticism. A beautiful example in the Met show is Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a 2nd century A.D. Roman Imperial copy of a Greek original from 2nd century B.C. Asia Minor, found in Rome in the late 19th century during the construction of a theater. According to myth, Hermaphroditos, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, rejected the advances of a nymph, who then appealed to the gods for assistance. They obliged by fusing her with her beloved forever, creating a bisexual being. In this marble depiction, the figure is sensuously abandoned to sleep, partially wrapped in a sheet, one leg crossed over the other, the face supported on the arms. Though still, it looks as if it might stir at any time. The body and face as we see them from the side to which the face is turned are more or less gender-neutral, though they skew feminine. But on the other side, the sculptor has depicted both a breast and a penis, graphic reminders of the androgynous nature of this hybrid entity.

Naturalistic painting was a signal achievement of Hellenistic art, though sadly, very few paintings have survived. Mosaic pictures, however, give some sense of what Hellenistic painting must have been like. A late Republican Roman emblema (inset illustration from a floor) from the 2nd–1st century B.C. and excavated at Pompeii, shows a group of busking musicians dedicated to the cult of the goddess Cybele. All three wear theatrical masks. One blows a double flute, one plays a large tambourine, and the third snaps a pair of small hand cymbals. Off to the side is a small figure that may be a child or a dwarf. The image, signed in Greek by the artist, Dioskourides of Samos, is most likely an illustration of a scene from Menander’s comedy The Possessed Girl, which is lost except for a few scattered verses. The composition is believed to be a copy of a painting from a century or two earlier. Even though it is mosaic, the colorful piece uses chiaroscuro and shows a command of three-dimensional space.

An especially impressive multi-figure composition can be seen carved in relief around the outside of a marble calyx krater, called the Borghese Krater. Even in a show consisting mainly of high spots, this one really stands out. Discovered in the Gardens of Sallust in Rome in 1569 and now in the Louvre, this gigantic, monumental vase was made in Greece around 40–30 B.C. Its frieze depicts a procession of Dionysos, god of wine and ecstasy—quite fitting, since the type of ceramic kraters on which this showpiece is modeled would have been used to dispense wine at a banquet. Running under the lip of the krater is a grape vine, also symbolizing Dionysos. The figures in the frieze are the god himself, depicted semi-nude, three maenads or female worshippers, and five fauns or satyrs, all dancing and playing musical instruments. One of the fauns seems to have had too much to drink and is being supported by another. Evidence from an ancient shipwreck discovered just before World War I indicates that this vase was made in Attica for export to a wealthy Roman client. Important contributions to the development of the so-called neo-Attic style of art were made in the city of Pergamon.

“Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” contains many examples of the decorative arts, including numismatics and jewelry. One of the most eye-catching pieces in that category is known as the Vienna Cameo. This large double portrait, made of 10-layered onyx, dates from the Early Hellenistic period in Ptolemaic Egypt, circa 278–270/269 B.C. It depicts the Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister-wife Arsinoe II (Philadelphos means “sibling-lover” in Greek), in profile. The white layers of the stone have been used for the faces—which, unsurprisingly, are exceptionally similar—while the brown layers have been used for the king’s helmet and crest and the surrounding negative space. The technique of cameo carving, shown here with such mastery, is an innovation of the Hellenistic period.

In Barry Unsworth’s 1988 novel Pascali’s Island, an English amateur archaeologist named Anthony Bowles makes a fantastic discovery on a Greek island, a Hellenistic bronze figure of a youth, possibly Dionysos, unseen for over 2,000 years. Like Carl Humann, Bowles has cultivated the local Ottoman authorities in order to get permission to dig—although things are about to get complicated for him. By way of explaining the sculpture’s particular beauty, Bowles says, “He is just at the point of decline. … At the brink. That is why he is so marvellous.” Immersion in “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” will make it clear to anyone that there is nothing decadent about Hellenistic art, no need for invidious comparison with Classical art, and that its particular beauty is due both to advances in technique and to an increased desire to observe and depict the world as actually seen and lived.

By John Dorfman

American Art By Mail Thu, 26 May 2016 17:18:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> How one company brought fine art into homes across the country.

James Chapin, Boy, That’s Tobacco, 1942

James Chapin, Boy, That’s Tobacco, 1942, oil on canvas, 36 x 44 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) A Treasury of Fine Art Masterpieces Created by Famous American Artists to Bring Beauty and Better Living into Your Home. Signature Fabrics advertisement showing Vogue dress pattern James Chapin, Boy, That’s Tobacco, 1942 Irwin Hoffman, El Jibaro, Puerto Rico, 1940 Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Farm Auction, Jackson County, 1947 Berta Margoulies, Pioneer, 1950

Grant Wood’s oil on masonite painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) can be seen in Gallery 900 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Further downtown, however, at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, the picture is also on view—that is, printed on a vintage piece of fabric (1952). The textile hangs in the downstairs room of the gallery’s current show “Art for Every Home: Associated American Artists, 1934–2000” (through July 9). On it, the painting is reproduced over and over in undelineated row and column. When turned into a pattern, Wood’s characteristically exaggerated perspectives become almost cartoonish, and here his colonial Town Square appears to form multiple blocks of one larger, steeple-dotted city. The effect is almost dizzying—and Revere’s route seems to wind like the Alps-traversing legs of the Tour de France. No fabric seems better suited to dress the bedroom windows of a kid growing up in 1950s America—the type who watched Lassie and played cowboys with a holster and toy gun.

Shortly before his death in 1942, Wood was commissioned by Reeves Lewenthal, the founder and president of Associated American Artists (AAA), to create fabric designs for The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Spring Plowing (1932), but Lewenthal couldn’t find a fabric manufacturer interested in making them. However, after the rationing of World War II, consumers were thirsty to spend, and well-known artists—such as Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso—began to produce high-end artist-designed home furnishings, including fabrics, wall panels, china, and ceramics. Lewenthal struck a deal with Riverdale Fabrics and released a line of fabrics and drapery in 1952 with coordinating Stonelain ceramics designed by “America’s Famous Artists”—among them, of course. was Wood, who as a recognized name, was a great selling point. The line, titled “Pioneer Pathways,” included seven other designs, all with motifs connected to American folklore and culture. Named after a design produced by Russian-born muralist and painter Anton Rifrigier, the line offered multiple colorways of readymade draperies, bedspreads, pillows, and lampshades or fabric available by the yardage. The collection was given a weeklong debut at Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, after which it was available at over 100 stores nationwide—a cross-country ride for Paul Revere.

Lewenthal began AAA as an art print publishing company in 1934. In July of that year he met with a group of 23 American artists, including Doris Lee, John Steuart Curry, and Thomas Hart Benton in Benton’s Manhattan studio and developed a plan to commission prints directly from artists and sell them to a wide audience. The company, which effectively did just that until 2000, started selling prints by Benton, Curry, and Wood, who at that time were well established in the art world and known by those outside of it. The prints were priced at $5 (approximately $88 today) and published in limited editions of 250, with the artist getting $200 when an edition sold out.

Early on, Lewenthal’s company benefited from a lack of competition. Artists, whose ability to make money from their work suffered during the Depression, profited from AAA’s production and promotion of their prints. To the middle-class consumer, Lewenthal offered a slice of the American Dream—making it possible to hang a piece of fine art in even the humblest of abodes. Regionalism and the etching revival, which were all the rage at the time, formed the bedrock of AAA’s inventory. Prints like Curry’s John Brown (1939, published 1940) and Benton’s Frankie and Johnnie (1936), which were wildly popular, cemented the idea that AAA was selling the American scene to the American people.
AAA used a direct-to-consumer model, much like the e-commerce businesses of today. The company produced a mail-order catalogue with reproductions of the prints alongside descriptions. The catalogues often teased that print runs had sold out or were about to, hoping to invoke a “better act now” mentality in the consumer. AAA also took out advertisements in periodicals and on the radio and set up displays in
department stores.

All of AAA’s materials promoted the idea that collectors were buying “Fine Art,” and strove to help collectors enjoy their budding collections. The catalogues even ran instructions on the right way to hang art. “AAA promoted its patrons, too,” says Gail Windisch, a California-based collector of AAA catalogues and ephemera who was instrumental in organizing “Art for Every Home.” “There’s a catalogue from 1946 that features a woman from North Carolina on the cover. She’s sitting in her living room reading, and she’s saying to the world ‘I’m sophisticated and educated—I’m reading a book and I have fine art on my wall.’” The photograph was sent in by the woman herself, an AAA collector, and the company, smartly highlighting their prints in action, chose to run it on the catalogue’s cover.

In 1936, AAA opened its eponymous gallery on Madison Avenue (it moved to Fifth Avenue in 1956). There, gallery goers could view museum-quality exhibitions and also buy prints. Says Windisch, “It was the largest public gallery in New York City at the time—it was more akin to a museum even though it was a commercial enterprise. They even had living room furniture set up, and prints on a pulley system, so you could see what they would look like on your wall.” The gallery would also provide framing services and boxes to store purchased works.

Lewenthal, a skilled marketer, used various devices to sell and promote prints. Benton’s mural in the Missouri State Capitol, A Social History of the State of Missouri (completed in 1936), which featured 235 individual portraits, captured the state’s people living and working, suffering hardships and enjoying simple pleasures. Benton received harsh criticism for his depiction of the Midwest, which Lewenthal used to his advantage when selling prints of the mural. “The mural had some images that weren’t positive,” says Elizabeth Seaton, the show’s curator and a curator at the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University (where the exhibition was first installed), “and AAA promoted their editions as ‘the controversial prints from the mural.’” Wood’s Sultry Night (1939), which pictured a farmer in the buff bathing after a long day of work, was banned by the United States Post Office for sale by mail order. AAA had 100 impressions of the image made and sold them at their gallery.

Lewethal also worked with corporations throughout the ’40s. Companies such as Maxwell House and Standard Oil commissioned AAA artists to create imagery for their ads. The American Tobacco Company commissioned 19 AAA artists to produce art for them, including James Chapin, whose painting Boy, That’s Tobacco (1942) was featured in an ad for Lucky Strike. The painting, which features a burly, denim-clad farmer holding a large tobacco leaf, creates an idealized picture of American agriculture.

Acknowledging that Regionalism wouldn’t be in vogue forever, the company began courting international artists after World War II. In 1946, AAA established the Department of Latin American Art, and in 1947 it released Mexican People, a portfolio of 12 lithographs by 10 members of the Taller de Grafica Popular, a group from Mexico City that promoted social change. Around this time, Lewenthal began making deals with consumer goods companies, as with the Riverdale Fabrics and the “Pioneer Pathways” collection. AAA released its first ceramics collection with Stonelain in September 1950. In 1953, M. Lowenstein & Sons produced a line of clothing fabrics with patterns designed by AAA artists. The following year, United Wallpaper did the same thing with wallpaper patterns. Other collaborations, with companies like Steuben Glass and Castleton China, came and went over the years.
By the time AAA closed in 2000, it had published some 2,600 prints by 600 artists. However, its legacy was not well tended. According to Seaton, who eventually borrowed prints from over 25 museums for the “Art for Every Home” exhibition, many museums have AAA prints in their collections without even knowing it. The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art was gifted a collection of about 200 AAA prints from the widow of an insurance salesman who lived in a small town in Kansas. Seaton became interested in putting together a show about AAA.

In 1999, Windisch found a print that came with an AAA biography card (AAA prints often came with cards that provided information on the artist and the piece). Curious about the company, she started purchasing AAA catalogues on Ebay. Later, with the help of print dealers and Sylvan Cole Jr. (Lewenthal’s successor at AAA), she began the arduous task of putting together a catalogue raisonné of AAA prints. Seaton was given Windisch’s name at a print fair in 2007, and in 2008 the two got in contact.

Around the same time, Karen Herbaugh, the curator of the exhibition’s textile component and the curator at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass., began researching AAA textiles. “A textile dealer brought us a couple of pieces that were AAA in the late ’90s,” says Herbaugh, “and on the selvage, it actually said ‘Associated American Artists, designer, title of piece.’ This was unheard of—designers, typically unsung heroes, rarely get individual credit.” Finding no information online, Herbaugh, used the sparse holdings she could find in the Archives of American Art and in the Syracuse University library, pieced together a presentation on AAA textiles. “When you Google AAA textiles, you see my early presentation,” says Herbaugh. Seaton did just that, and the two curators connected. Slowly, over time, the exhibition began to come together.

When walking through the presentation at the Grey Art Gallery, the viewer is confronted not only by a cache of incredible prints but also by a picture of 20th-century American life: its imagery, its consumerism, and its industry. Lewenthal, an enthusiastic proponent of contemporary American art, was also an incredible businessman. He used all available resources to support his artists or wares. When asked whether Lewenthal would have used the Internet to promote his business, Seaton, who relied heavily on the connecting power of the web to put together the show, said without hesitation, “absolutely.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Birth of the Modern Thu, 26 May 2016 17:16:59 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Intended as interior design for the “common man,” so-called Biedermeier style turned out to be uncommonly prescient.

Suite of four Biedermeier side chairs attributed to Josef Danhauser

Suite of four Biedermeier side chairs attributed to Josef Danhauser, solid maple with mahogany inlays, Vienna, circa 1830, 35 x 20 x 20 inches;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Biedermeier secretary, cherrywood Suite of four Biedermeier side chairs attributed to Josef Danhauser Pair of Biedermeier barrel-back bergeres, 1820s Biedermeier chaise lounge, Vienna Biedermeier sewing table with lyre base 201606_biedermeier_04 Globe Table (Globustisch), Austrian Biedermeier sofa attributed to Josef Danhauser

Biedermeier furniture didn’t have a name when it was new, and didn’t receive one until decades after it ran its course. “Biedermeier” comes from the moniker of a fictional village-dweller who starred in satirical German-language poems of the 1850s. His surname translates to “common man” or “everyman,” and the term didn’t stick to the early 19th-century European furniture until the 1890s. But unlike other aesthetic movements that win their names in hindsight, Biedermeier’s original meaning does not capture the qualities that we treasure in Biedermeier furniture now—its clean, sleek modernism, achieved centuries before modernism arrived on the scene. “A lot of the forms, when you look at them, they look 20th-century,” says Adam Brown, principal of Iliad, a Manhattan gallery that specializes in Biedermeier. “It’s in keeping with the modernist aesthetic that’s all the rage right now.” He points to a circa-1825 pearwood veneer Biedermeier pedestal table, dubbed a “trumpet” table for the shape of its base and its single central support. “It could easily be mistaken for 20th-century design,” Brown says, noting that the trumpet table inspired Eero Saarinen to create the tulip table in 1957.

On the other hand, New York dealer Karl Kemp points out that the clean simplicity of Biedermeier was an inheritance from ancient Greek and Roman furniture. In the book he co-authored, The World of Biedermeier (Thames & Hudson, 2001), Kemp observes that “Biedermeier was the paring down of the complex aesthetics of Classicism to essential moods, which resulted in designs that are extremely refreshing, relevant, and timeless.”

Michael Flick of Bonnin Ashley Antiques in Miami points to another 21st-century advantage of Biedermeier. “It also lends a warmth. If you go to a contemporary environment and see antique Biedermeier pieces, they work, but they have warm, beautiful woods,” he says. Referring to the use of French polish, a labor-intensive period finishing process that enhances the appeal of Biedermeier, he says, “It’s so different than anything used today. It does not obscure the beautiful grain, which was what [Biedermeier] was about—the celebration of beautiful grains.”

Peter Janowski, owner of Biedermeier-Vienna, a gallery with locations in Chicago and Vienna, Austria, identifies three aspects that make Biedermeier what it is: “Design, the beauty of the veneer, and its functionality.” Design shines through in the proto-modernist nature of Iliad’s trumpet table. Beautiful veneers might be the most visually alluring detail of Biedermeier; while its practitioners were not the first to decorate with wood, the advent of mechanical and steam-driven saws in the 1820s let cabinetmakers cut thin slices from woods that were too difficult to cut veneers from by hand. “The way Biedermeier uses veneers is unique,” says Tanya Paul, Curator of European Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) in Wisconsin, which has a strong Biedermeier collection. “You don’t see anything like it before that point.”

The Biedermeier style’s reliance on wood grain to shoulder most or all of the decorative work reaches its zenith with table tops. Janowski has a walnut center table, dating to 1820–25, with a stunning top. It is a fine example of bookmatching, a woodworking technique in which pieces of veneer mirror each other like the pages of an open book. “It shows how sensitive people were to the beauty [of the wood], and they knew how to use it,” he says, going on to explain how the otherwise unadorned tabletop approaches modernism—its grain has “almost abstract forms, something that people can put their eyes on and look for shapes.”

Functionality is another issue. Biedermeier was built to be used, and with the exception of some of the more delicate chairs, it can still be. Certain varieties of furniture seem especially far-sighted in an era where trophy apartments in world hubs can sell for more than $500 per square foot. Virtually all Biedermeier tables, including Iliad’s trumpet table and Biedermeier-Vienna’s walnut center table, have tops that tilt from a horizontal position to a vertical one. Owners who need to convert the dining room to a dance floor can tilt the top and store the table against a wall, regaining precious space. Janowski says he “tries to convince clients to use [Biedermeier pieces] the way they were used 200 years ago,” and he’s had success on this score with “vitrines, armoires, chests, the most heavy-duty pieces.”

The generally accepted brackets on Biedermeier’s lifespan are 1815–48, but these brackets are political, not aesthetic. The year 1815 marks the Congress of Vienna, when most of the city-states and countries whose cabinetmakers advanced the Biedermeier style haggled and redrew their borders in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, and 1848 was the year in which rebellion and revolution blazed in most of those same places. This accounts for the retro aspect of the retroactive naming of Biedermeier; to Europeans looking back over the 19th century, the period appears relatively peaceful, even if it did not seem that way at the time. Of course, the forces that were tamped down in 1815 and burst forth in ’48 simmered throughout the years in between. Simple, unfussy Biedermeier furnishings shaped the private spaces where Austrians, Germans, Prussians, and others hashed over the prickly, complex, controversial issues that they couldn’t safely talk about in public. And though it is described as a style for the middle class, and certainly was, Biedermeier was not exclusively a middle-class phenomenon. Napoleon’s wars destroyed a lot of wealth, and broke aristocrats found much to like in Biedermeier’s avoidance of ormolu and other gilded fittings, which could cost as much as the piece itself (or more), and in Biedermeier’s favoring of fruit woods and local timbers over exotics like mahogany, which had to be imported from distant lands and were taxed accordingly.

Despite everything, a few people nonetheless had the finances to commission lavish furnishings in the Biedermeier style. Right now, MAM has two spectacular pieces on display: An Austrian globe table from the first quarter of the 19th century and a Viennese writing cabinet dating to 1810–15. The globe table, or Globustisch, is a rare Biedermeier form and a cherished one; most examples reside in museums. While it has a function—it was made for storing sewing gear—Paul observes that it is “too specialized, too detailed, and too elaborate to be a practical piece of furniture. There is not a surface that’s unornamented.” Within the camouflage-like decoration on the legs are sections of root wood, one of those woods that could only be cut into veneers with the new generation of saws. “[Root wood] has very pronounced grain in it. That’s why it’s so highly prized,” Paul says.

The oval-shaped writing cabinet is a decorative hybrid, reveling in its choice woods (maple veneer, ebonized pearwood, mahogany) as any good Biedermeier piece does, and reveling just as exuberantly in its Empire-style touches, which include gilding, elaborate hardware, and figurative elements. “To me, the thing that’s most interesting about it is it has a foot in both worlds,” Paul says. “It harkens back to the Empire style and it looks to Biedermeier style.” Both the globe table and the writing cabinet will be on view at the museum until Thanksgiving, and possibly after that.

Biedermeier furnishings were produced in many workshops across Europe, but it is the Viennese designs that tend to have the most modern-looking profile. Proto-modernism’s reign in Vienna might be a product of keen competition. Research shows that more than 950 registered master cabinetmakers were active in the city in 1823. Chief among them was Josef Danhauser, whose furnishings are much sought after today. “He was one of the most innovative cabinetmakers in Vienna,” says Heinrich “Heinz” Leichter of Ritter Antik, a New York gallery that has handled Biedermeier since 1968. Referring to a walnut-veneered sofa he has that was created between 1810 and 1820 and matches known Danhauser drawings, Leichter says, “There is nothing from other periods to see in this sofa. The total design of the sofa is very modern. Only Danhauser was able to do this.”

Leichter had the sofa cleaned, had its French polish rejuvenated, and chose a colored fabric for its upholstery that meets contemporary tastes. Choosing more up-to-date fabrics is common among Biedermeier dealers, and a look at a period-correct piece illustrates why. MAM reconstructed the upholstery of a circa-1815 Danhauser settee in its possession from actual surviving drawings, which called for a cream-white fabric with green accents. “The form of the piece has a real modernity to it, but it has a fussy swag,” Paul says, while agreeing that white was a dangerous choice of color and likely indicative of the wealth of its original owner. “It’s not a functional thing in that sense. You’re not going to eat off it,” she says, laughing. “It’s not something meant to be used very heavily.” The settee may go on display at MAM after the globe table and the writing cabinet rotate out.

While Biedermeier spanned several decades, most acknowledge that its aesthetic shifted after 1830 and became less modernistic. “You start to have a transitional style,” says Flick. “It still retains some of the austere values of what Biedermeier was, but it starts to become more decorative.” Coco House and Company of West Palm Beach, Fla., has a mid 19th-century satinwood secretaire, possibly from Sweden, that hints at the shift. Its minimized hardware and the emphasis on the beauty of the wood speak of Biedermeier, but the crown, or top, features scrolls and other neoclassical-like details.

Daring and cutting-edge in their time, Biedermeier furnishings will continue to find a place in 21st-century interiors because they fit into them seamlessly while losing none of the authenticity of their 19th-century origins. “Biedermeier has always been the hub of any well-composed environment,” says Brown. “It always stays in taste. You can pair it with hard-edge contemporary art to midcentury modern. It’s timeless. It doesn’t really fade away, and it hasn’t yet.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

White Gold Dialogues Thu, 26 May 2016 17:16:14 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition of Chinese ceramic at the Met calls traditional categories of export and non-export into question.

Garniture (West Lake), Qing dynasty

Garniture (West Lake), Qing dynasty, ca. 1700, porcelain painted with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze, 3 covered jars: height: 41 in. (103.5 cm), 2 vases: height: 37 in. (93 cm);

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Garniture (West Lake), Qing dynasty Set of five dishes in the shape of oxen, Ming dynasty Ewer, Ming dynasty, Jiajing period Ewer, Yuan dynasty, 14th century Crescent-shaped Kendi, Ming dynasty Dish with Crucifixion, Qing dynasty

In the 3rd century B.C., around the time the fires began to burn at the great Chinese porcelain kiln complex at Jingdezhen, logician Gongsun Long created his infamously brain-twisting linguistic puzzle, “A white horse is not a horse.” At first glance the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Global by Design: Chinese Ceramics from the R. Albuquerque Collection” (through August 7), might leave visitors—especially Western visitors with ideas about Chinese porcelain formed by 19th-century exports—with questions akin to those the “white horse dialogue” poses concerning the nature of the Chinese porcelain objects aimed at European tastes and sensibilities and how to understand them. The exhibition, like much of Chinese philosophical thought, however, proves simply that seeing without presuppositions can open doors to complex and subtle intricacies and hopefully lead to a more complete understanding of the world, the things in it, and how they connect.

Connection is a major theme of “Global by Design” and resonates on multiple levels throughout the exhibition—culturally, historically, aesthetically, and personally. The personal aspect of the show stems from a collaboration between two curators, Jeff Munger of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Denise Patry Leidy, Brooke Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art. Munger and Leidy have been discussing the idea for the current exhibition since their “days as baby curators at the MFA Boston,” says Leidy. She jokes, “We’re still fighting some of the same fights, we’re having some of the same discussions.”

The next personal connection came in the form of Brazilian collector Dr. R. Albuquerque, whose collection of stunning Chinese ceramics, acquired largely in Europe provided the perfect representative nexus where Munger and Leidy’s respective expertise and passions meet. Albuquerque put it together with his own personal, cultural, and historical hopes for connection in mind as a Brazilian in a former Portuguese colony. “I was actually contacted by the Brazilian owner of this collection and invited to go down and see it,” says Leidy. “When I saw it I realized, this is of great interest to Jeff’s department, as well. So then he and I went to Brazil together and studied it together and started thinking about what we could do that would allow us to tell a story we were each fascinated with in a slightly different way.”

The collection, which is being shown publicly for the first time, provides visitors with a view of 60 rare Chinese ceramics of unparalleled quality and highly unusual character, offering a valuable snapshot of cultural and commercial exchange frozen in time. These porcelain treasures are quite literally the point of exchange, both as artifacts of global trade and as fine and complex works of cultural-aesthetic fusion captured in delicate and beautiful “white gold.” The ceramics, with their give and take (and sometimes head-on collision) of Chinese, European, and Islamic sensibilities and traditions, begin to rewrite the history of global trade, illuminating a level of sophistication not commonly associated with the cultural and economic exchange of the 17th century. “It does make us rethink the whole issue of global trade,” remarks Munger. “You realize how advanced and sophisticated it was centuries ago and that there’s sort of nothing new under the sun. They were remarkably adventurous and commercially driven and savvy.”

In Chinese porcelain Europe found a strange and beautiful emblem of the “Age of Exploration” along with a major technological advancement. True porcelain dates back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), and eventually found its way into the hands and imaginations of Europeans. Before the introduction of porcelain, European dining ware was something much more crude, and the introduction of porcelain presented an attractive and hygienic alternative. Beyond its practical and commercial desirability, however, porcelain seemed to cast a spell over European explorers and merchants, and the Chinese welcomed and exploited the material’s mesmeric hold on foreigners and in some instances tailored objects to foreign tastes. This is what one finds captured in some of the most fascinating objects in “Global By Design.” Munger says, “These are actually incredible. They’re not distinctly European, they’re not distinctly Chinese, but they’re something entirely original and something other. Something shared.”

To today’s viewer the cross-global connections represented in a piece such as an early Qianlong-period tureen (circa 1740) with cover and stand can be truly mind-bending. The rococo shape of the tureen, inspired by a Meissen porcelain model, is clearly European, as are the faces and reserves that decorate the object. The Chinese elements are impossible to ignore, though, from dragon-like scaled feet to pink lotuses, an umbrella-like lid, and a small pagoda detail. Both cultures struggle for the aesthetic and formal upper hand in the delicate material and reach, at the very least, a unique compromise. Each time the visitor turns their attention to the tureen its character shifts from European to Chinese, and back again. In the most exhilarating moments, however, both cultures speak at once in a language both old and new, one of ancient ingenuity and global exploration, and visitors are left to decide whether they are hearing a European tongue with a Chinese accent or vice versa.

The Qing-dynasty figure of a European woman (circa 1735–45) depicting a German Jewish woman in a bonnet and ruffled collar (garments connected with Jewish anti-sumptuary laws), is European in subject but Chinese in material and execution. At the time paintings of foreigners were popular in China, and the figure seems to be an embodiment of this curiosity about other cultures, people, and places. The figure represents cross-cultural psychology and wonder made manifest, and for Western viewers the experience of seeing themselves (or maybe one of their ancestors) re-represented to themselves could be a strange but enlightening one.

The quality and rarity of the pieces on display are remarkable beyond simply anthropological and discursive concerns. The large Kangxi-period five-piece garniture (circa 1700) at the center of the installation is one of only two known existing sets, the other in the Zwinger Museum in Dresden. Impressive in its size and decoration, the scene represented in varying shades of blue underglaze is, according to the show’s catalogue, “typically Chinese” with its “drooping young willow branches” and appears to be based on the “Ten Views of West Lake” theme, whose popularity with Chinese artists dates back to the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). The detail and effortless flow of the magnificent pieces that comprise the garniture are a testament to a wholly Chinese art, and it’s easy to see how such stunning objects could lodge themselves in the minds of foreign travelers and spark a hunger for similar objects adorned with European images and words.

The exhibition itself establishes the final, contemporary connection, that of American audiences with such rare and important pieces. The passport of the objects on display has been stamped in many ports and traces a history of global trade and cultural exchange that echoes the connections found within the objects themselves. What better place to end such a long and storied trip than New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art? When asked how he feels about his collection being shown at the Met, Dr. Albuquerque laughs, smiles, and provides one last tribute to the power of gesture across language and culture, saying in Portuguese that is clear to anyone open to understanding, “Well, The Metropolitan is the Metropolitan.”

By Chris Shields

Language of Light Wed, 11 May 2016 16:25:11 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A Guggenheim retrospective of László Moholy-Nagy examines the full breadth of the Bauhaus artist’s oeuvre.

In 1916, while serving in the First World War, the Hungarian artist and Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy’s entire battery perished in a battle along the Isonzo River in Venezia Giulia, in northern Italy. Moholy-Nagy alone survived, fleeing with a shattered thumb. His injury soon turned to rampant infection, and Moholy-Nagy, who was then in his early 20s, spent a great deal of time being treated in military hospitals. In early 1917, while convalescing, he wrote a personal doctrine on vision. An excerpt reads:

…Precarious balance—time, material, space—
Resting on nothingness and meaning everything.
But human brain, so pitifully small,
Pierced through the darkness of the void, and tied
Material, space and time to Light contours,
To Light eternal, Light the striding life.
And nothingness, so vainly measured out
In time and space, transforms the darkened man—
Light, total Light, creates the total man.

László Moholy-Nagy, A 19, 1927

László Moholy-Nagy, A 19, 1927, oil and graphite on canvas, 80 x 95.5 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) László Moholy-Nagy, Photogram, 1926 László Moholy-Nagy, A II (Construction A II), 1924 László Moholy-Nagy, CH BEATA I, 1939 Cover and design for Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, and Farkas Molnár, Die Bühne im Bauhaus László Moholy-Nagy, Photogram, 1941 László Moholy-Nagy, A 19, 1927

Moholy-Nagy, a utopian artist who believed that a union of art and technology could create a better world, devoted his career to representing light’s relationship to material, space, and time. A true interdisciplinary worker, Moholy-Nagy explored a number of media—many of which he advanced—in the service of this phenomenon and his principle that light “creates the total man.”

As a result, many of Moholy-Nagy’s works deal quite literally with light, both as effect and product. His photograms, which are perhaps his most widely-known works, are cameraless photographs in which light-sensitive paper is exposed with objects layered on top of it, producing a ghost-like record of the objects and the movement of light through them and around them. Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic sculpture Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1929–30) creates light architecture, producing patterns and reflections in the space around it. His experiments with oil paint on incised Plexiglas—such as B-10 Space Modulator (1942) or Papmac (1943)—rely just as much on the transparency of Plexiglas, or rather, the material’s ability to simultaneously reflect light and let it permeate it, as they do on the colors and forms of the paint.

Examples of these works will be on view at “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present,” a major retrospective of the artist, which opens at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York on May 27 (through September 7). Co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (the show travels to the former in October and the latter in February), the exhibition amasses some 300 works from public and private collections in Europe and the United States, including paintings, photographs, film, documents, and ephemera. The first retrospective of the artist in America in 50 years, the show is not only a momentous occasion for scholarship and the conservation of Moholy-Nagy’s work, but also a rare opportunity to see so many of the artist and teacher’s thoughts and experiments at once.

“We wanted to show the breadth of his work, and that he’s not just a Bauhaus artist and not just a photographer,” says Karole P.B. Vail, associate curator at the Guggenheim and the museum’s organizing curator of the show. “We’re showing how interdisciplinary he was.” To that end, the show, which like any exhibition at the Guggenheim must interact rather particularly with the museum’s architecture, will not be separated by medium. “We will not have just one floor for his paintings and so on,” says Vail. “What I’m doing is trying to integrate the work as much as possible, to show how he was working on paintings and photograms at the same time, and how he was using different mediums simultaneously.”

After being discharged from the army, Moholy-Nagy returned to Budapest and focused his energies toward becoming a painter, creating paintings driven by harsh lines and primary colors. Disillusioned with the Communist regime he once supported for its inability to use nonrepresentational art as a revolutionary weapon, the artist briefly relocated to Vienna. Already embracing a Constructivist approach, Moholy-Nagy found no contentment among the Symbolists and Expressionists in the Vienna cafés, and in 1921 he arrived in Berlin.
Working through collage, the artist arrived at his first big breakthrough, in which he proved to himself that pure color and form are the essential elements in any medium. He also codified his belief that Constructivism was the true art of a society under reconstruction. Art—“the language of the senses,” as he describes it in his treatise “Constructivism and the Proletariat” (which appeared in the Hungarian revolutionary magazine MA in May 1922)—was the true mirror of the times, succeeding where words and their associations failed; it needed to embrace the technological, mechanical, and political nature of the 20th century. “Constructivism,” Moholy-Nagy wrote, “is neither proletarian or capitalistic. Constructivism is primordial, without class or ancestor. It expresses the pure form of nature—the direct color, the spatial rhythm, the equilibrium of form. The new world needs Constructivism because it needs fundamentals that are without deceit. Only the basic natural element, acceptable to all senses, is revolutionary.”

In these early years in Germany, Moholy-Nagy met Kurt Schwitters, the German artist who created his own style of Dadaism called Merz. Schwitters impressed upon Moholy-Nagy the potency of humor in political collage and an interest in typography, more specifically the disassociation of letters from their formal uses in the alphabet. Moholy-Nagy’s fascination with typography would persist throughout his career, but manifested itself in 1921 in the canvas Gelbe Scheibe, 1921 (Yellow Disc, 1921), in which the artist arranged the letters of his name MOHOLY as a Constructivist experiment. Soon afterward, Moholy-Nagy discovered the photogram.

Embracing the Dadaist assertion that any material was of pictorial worth, Moholy-Nagy captured kitchen utensils, household objects, plants, fruit, and body parts, namely hands (Photogram, 1941, which appears in the show, is one such example). Through the photographic process and the making of photograms in particular, the artist was able to achieve the “concretization of light phenomena,” and represent visually the way light moves through space. He wrote in the catalogue of his first photo exhibition in 1923: “The photogram is the realization of spatial tension in black-white-gray. Through the elimination of pigment and texture it has a dematerializing effect. It is writing with light.” The artist believed that just like a Constructivist painting, the photogram was capable of “evoking an immediate optical experience” and thus constituted a supreme form of both art and information. Throughout the rest of his career, Moholy-Nagy would champion he photographic medium through his work, writing, and teaching.

Moholy-Nagy joined the faculty of the Bauhaus in Weimar in the spring of 1923. The school’s focus on an interdisciplinary practice, which fused the practical creation of craft and an analysis of material and form within the fine arts, gelled with the artist’s pre-established beliefs and helped to push his work forward. There, he furthered his investigation of photography, typography, and painting and explored printmaking and industrial design, while also solidifying his interest in pedagogical theory. He left the school in 1928 and enjoyed success in Berlin as a commercial artist, exhibition and stage designer, and typographer. After the Nazis came to power, Moholy-Nagy fled with his family to the Netherlands and then to London.

He finally relocated to Chicago in 1937 and never returned to Europe again. There he became the director of the New Bauhaus, a school which functioned on the same tenets as the German original. A year later, the New Bauhaus lost its funding and closed. In 1939, Moholy-Nagy opened the School of Design, which became the Institute of Design in 1944 and became a part of the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1949, three years after Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia.

The Guggenheim, which opened in 1939 as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, amassed a substantial collection of Moholy-Nagy’s work under the advisement of artist Hilla von Rebay. “Solomon Guggenheim started collecting Moholy-Nagy’s work, and it was nearly always on view. They were friends and correspondents,” says Vail. She notes that Guggenheim was keen to collect the artist’s most recent work, and that the museum now has the benefit of that close relationship. “We know how his work should be lit in the space.”

The exhibition will include a contemporary fabrication of Moholy-Nagy’s Room of the Present. Conceived by the artist in 1930 but never realized in his lifetime, it contains examples of Moholy-Nagy exhibition and product designs. In it will be a replica of Light Prop for an Electric Stage. The sculpture, which is powered by an electric motor, is the subject of Ein Lichtspiel: schwarz weiss grau (A Lightplay: Black White Gray), an abstract film created by Moholy-Nagy as an attempt to fabricate the act of seeing from several viewpoints at once. These works, which hatched out of the influential 1927 book Malerei, Fotografie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film) that Moholy-Nagy co-edited with Walter Gropius, were designed to showcase his belief that photography and film had surpassed painting, creating a “culture of light.” The utilization of new materials—be it photography, film, or otherwise—was inherent to Moholy-Nagy’s work. “He believed in using the materials and means of one’s time,” says Vail. “He wasn’t interested in repeating the past; instead, he was curious about new materials. I’ve been told he had the curiosity of a scientist.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Designs of the Times Wed, 11 May 2016 16:15:54 +0000 Continue reading ]]> As the barrier between design and fine art crumbles, today’s artist-designers are giving their imaginations free rein.

Gregory Nangle, Forrest Bowl, 2015

Gregory Nangle, Forrest Bowl, 2015, cast silicon bronze leaves, cast bronze, 15 x 7 inches;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Vivian Beer, Ruffle Chaise, 2013 Laura Kishimoto, Yumi Chair II, 2014 Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 6, 2014 Philipp Aduatz, Melting Chair Alex Rasmussen, Blue Lunar Console, 2016 Ball Nogues, Music Leg Glob Lamp, 2012 Gregory Nangle, Forrest Bowl, 2015

A delicate skein of openwork bronze leaves and branches coalesces to form a bench or a chair. A sinuously curved steel construction coated with auto-body paint is a chaise longue. What looks like an asteroid fragment glowing with cosmic rays is actually a floor lamp. With creations like these, today’s emerging designers are playing havoc with the modernist mantra “form follows function”—unless the function is to provide delight as well as utility, to stimulate the imagination as well to support the body. The design scene is being pervaded by a spirit of exuberance and playfulness, and something more—a sense that the traditional separation between design object and work of fine art is arbitrary and obsolete.

Some pieces seem at first glance to be sculptures but then turn out to have a functional aspect. Others may be non-functional (at least by the traditional definition) but are made by people who come out of the design world and show at galleries primarily dedicated to design. “It’s been my experience over the last 20 years that the lines drawn between artist, sculptor, designer have become increasingly porous and that the individuals in those categories are open to exploring other territories,” says Edward Cella of Edward Cella Art & Architecture in Los Angeles. “As a dealer, it’s been fascinating.” Lewis Wexler of Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia, which specializes in design, glass art, and ceramics, concurs: “The lines are blurred between fine art, design, and craft. The field has really changed. Fifteen years ago there weren’t design fairs at all; now at those fairs they would like you to show art as well as design. It’s a very exciting time to be in.”

To some extent, both the market and the museum world are simply ratifying what collectors are already feeling and doing. “Clients and collectors don’t tend to see the difference,” says Cella. “Go to Design Miami, and you see works by artists who are showing in museums next to design objects that are also in museums. Many museums are doing installations that combine art with design. At the Art Institute of Chicago or MoMA, you may see a Frank Lloyd Wright chair next to a contemporary piece, next to a painting, next to sculpture, with a rug underneath—an assemblage of objects with varying degrees of functionality and decorativeness.”

Thinking of fine art and design objects as being arranged along a spectrum of “functionality and decorativeness” is a good way to make sense of the diversity of today’s design. Toward the far end on the “fine art” side are works such as the ceramics of South African designer Andile Dyalvane, which will be on view in a solo show at the New York design gallery Friedman Benda from June 23–August 19. Some of the pieces have an opening at the top, giving at least a nod to the traditional concept of a vessel, but others are closed, which essentially makes them sculptures. The artist–designer incises the surfaces with patterns that allude to Xhosa ritual scarification, and to express the mixing of cultures in South Africa, some of those marks are made with fragments of 20th-century technological detritus found in street markets. The Friedman Benda show will also include a monumental ceramic-and-wood screen that recalls the forms of skyscrapers going up in Cape Town.

Another artist represented by Friedman Benda, Adam Silverman, also creates ceramic vessels, egg-shaped or asymmetrical, with differing degrees of functionality. A former architect, Silverman is having his first show at the gallery this month (May 5–June 11). Director Carole Hochman says, “To the question ‘are they functional,’ I would say they fall on either side of that line. He’s now starting to do groupings of open and closed vessels, so there’s a narrative between those elements. What I think is so incredible is his experimentation with surfaces—altering the thrown surface by pummeling, slashing, repeated firings and scraping away. It’s hard to classify him, but I don’t think that’s really important.”

Some of the non-functional pieces that are shown in a design context are made by people who come out of the design and architecture worlds and now are being given the chance to create works free from the constraints of function. Cella represents an L.A.-based collaborative team called Ball Nogues, led by architects Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues, who formerly worked for Frank Gehry. Known for producing large-scale outdoor installations, they now “take architectural methodologies and design skills and apply them to fine-art work,” says Cella. Some of the pieces have domestic functionality, like the glowing, rock-like floor lamps mentioned above, but others are pure aesthetic expression, like their wall-mounted rectangular pieces made of folded and crumpled strips of steel. These present themselves to the eye as framed abstract pictures, but the materials speak of the construction and thought processes of architecture and heavy industry.

The support of dealers who give designers the opportunity to make fine-art pieces has been instrumental in forming and sustaining this trend. Hochman says that at Friedman Benda, “the goal is to work with the designers so they have the freedom to develop new bodies of work. What you’re seeing with all these people is exuberance and energy; that’s what’s driving them. Our collaboration helps them get the freedom and time to experiment and push the limits, to come up with something new and fresh.” Wexler comments that this kind of freedom has been a longstanding need on the part of designers. “A lot of craftspeople always wanted to be in the fine-art world,” he says. “Talk to Wendell Castle—he wanted to be a sculptor. We’re about freeing up artists to create a body of work that doesn’t necessarily have to meet the confines of functionality, giving them the freedom to experiment with many different things.” Occasionally the process goes in the other direction—one of Wexler’s designers, Gregory Nangle, who makes the bronze-leaf furniture, was originally a glass artist and then wanted to do something functional.

One of the things that a lot of younger designers are experimenting with is materials—in particular materials typically used for mass production or industrial fabrication but now worked on by hand for unique or limited-edition pieces. An example is Alex Rasmussen, who makes tables, chairs, benches, trays, and more out of a patented colored anodized aluminum product that his family’s business, the Neal Feay Company of Santa Barbara, Calif., has been making for six decades. Rasmussen, the third-generation owner of the company—which started out making dental instruments and stereos—has fabricated pieces for designers including Marc Newson and Peter Marino and is now designing his own pieces. “He does hand-drawn design and digital design,” says Cella, “milling the aluminum himself. He knows that material like nobody else. There’s a kind of hand to it, a kind of intimacy; that is what connects it to art making process. The Jeff Koons model is a whole other thing.”

Vivian Beer, who is represented by Wexler, also uses industrial materials and processes. She works with welded steel and automotive paint in what Wexler calls “hot-rod colors” to make innovative pieces of furniture such as her “Anchored Candy” series of chaises longues. She has also made some chairs and benches out of steel tubing and a kind of artificial concrete composite called ferrocement. “She is one of those who bring a certain excitement to the design community,” says Wexler. “She’s incorporating car culture and also fashion.” Beer, who recently won “Ellen’s Design Challenge” hosted by Ellen De Generes on HGTV, spent a good part of 2014 researching the history of American industry, architecture, and transportation with a fellowship at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

A different kind of materials experiment is being made by Great Things to People (gt2P), a design, architecture, and art studio in Santiago, Chile. In partnership with Friedman Benda, they recently made a table that merges marble with bronze in one smooth finish. The marble is given a cutout treatment, and the resulting gaps are then filled in with bronze, which seems to spread like liquid across the table’s surface and then down into the legs. While these two time-honored materials have often been used together in pieces of furniture, this almost biomorphic interpenetration of the two is something new. Hochman says that Gt2P, which the gallery introduced at Design Miami, “are very energetic, using 3-D imaging techniques and pairing them with traditional techniques and local sourcing from Chile.”

One aspect of the exuberance of today’s design is a strong dose of fantasy, playfulness, or humor. Misha Kahn, a 27-year-old American who just had a show at Friedman Benda, makes wildly colored pieces of furniture and mirrors than look like they should be squeezably soft but are actually made of hard resin or concrete—sort of a tactile version of trompe l’oeil. He also works with bronze, plywood, epoxy, and even sawdust. Philipp Aduatz, an Austrian designer who shows at Wexler, made a black-chrome chair that is perfectly solid but looks like it’s melting. And nendo inc., a design firm founded in Tokyo in 2002, has created a series of 50 polished aluminum “Manga Chairs” that play with the visual language of comics. The series debuted last month in Milan at the Basilica Minore di San Simpliciano, in conjunction with the Salone del Mobile, Milano. Some of the chairs look like they have speech bubbles emanating from them; others have straight or curved lines of metal sticking out to one side indicating movements like spinning or zooming. Each can stand on its own, but together they form what Friedman Benda calls “a collective narrative.” In fact, says Hochman, all the pieces the gallery is showing “are more than just design. They all have some sort of narrative to them.”

But those narratives are inherent to the pieces; they’re not narratives about design becoming art, or art becoming design. “It’s not necessary to label,” says Hochman, “it’s how the pieces are realized. You have collectors who want to furnish and collectors who want more sculptural pieces to be juxtaposed with their art collections. Some are more concerned with function, some less. We don’t define it; we present it.”

By John Dorfman

The Collector Wed, 11 May 2016 16:07:25 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Claudio Bravo used Old Master-inspired techniques to create a modern and very personal body of work in which the roles of artist and collector seem to merge.

Claudio Bravo, Tríptico beige y gris/Beige and Gray Triptych, 2010

Claudio Bravo, Tríptico beige y gris/Beige and Gray Triptych, 2010, oil on canvas, center panel: 59 x 47 inches, side panels: 59 x 24 inches, overall: 59 x 95 inches;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Claudio Bravo, Tríptico beige y gris/Beige and Gray Triptych, 2010 Claudio Bravo, Khabyas, 2002 Claudio Bravo, Cascos/Helmets, 2009 Claudio Bravo, Minerva and Arachne, 1981 Claudio Bravo, Onions, 2002

The wrinkles in a sheet of brightly colored, crumpled paper. The sheen of the lead glaze on a painted Moroccan jar. The individual fibers of a skein of wool yarn before it is transformed into a carpet. A virtuoso at rendering reality in oil paint with exactitude, the Chilean artist Claudio Bravo, who died in 2011, was a painter of rare talent whose use of color, lighting, and textures was in many ways unmatched.

But to dismiss Bravo as an impressive draughtsman is to miss the point completely. Despite whatever eye-fooling effect one takes away, these works are anything but simple, static, dry copies of a perceived reality. Certainly, at first glance a canvas by Bravo strikes one with the attention to minute detail that underlies his technique but, in fact, he sought to communicate something much more meaningful and personal. Indeed, Bravo’s oeuvre speaks to the emotional power of color and light, the lens of his own lived experiences, his own informal and largely self-given artistic training, and his role as a collector, both of things and of histories.

An exhibition of selected works that was recently on view at Marlborough Gallery in New York highlighted the simultaneous effect and affect with which Bravo infused his art by means of masterly technical precision but perhaps more importantly through a singular use of color inspired by quotidian life in his adopted home of Tangier, Morocco, and the depiction of the art that he collected and maintained while living there. These paintings, several of which have never before been exhibited or published, cover nearly every phase of the artist’s career, with the exception of his portraits—wrapped package paintings, including three massive triptychs; numerous still lifes and trompe l’oeil works, like that which depicts faithfully the back of a canvas and its stretcher peeking through; and plein air studies of Moroccan towns.

Born in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1936, Claudio Bravo grew up on his family’s farm. His father saw his artistic interests as frivolous, but his mother, a painter herself, nurtured his budding talent, and in 1945, while at Jesuit school, Bravo made the acquaintance of the artist Miguel Venegas Cienfuentes, from whom he received his only formal art education, that being to copy, copy, copy. Venegas insisted that Bravo closely examine and replicate art history’s masterworks, from those of 15th-century Florence to 17th-century Netherlands, an influence that remained an undercurrent throughout his long career. At just 17, he was offered his first solo exhibition in Santiago, Chile.

Having achieved local success as a portrait painter, Bravo decided to leave South America for Europe in the early 1960s. In Madrid, the artist attached himself to the capital’s elite social circles and continued to produce portraits, fashioning himself as a sort of mid-century John Singer Sargent. (His apartment eventually became the first home of Marlborough’s Madrid outpost.) The Spanish Baroque painters which he encountered at the Prado Museum, particularly Francisco de Zurbarán, left an indelible mark on him. Despite this indebtedness to the Old Masters, it was during this time that Bravo first experimented with the novel modernism that came to define his oeuvre—that is, his wrapped package paintings, which were initially exhibited in 1963 at the Galerìa Fortuny. After moving to New York, Bravo gained fame there in 1970 when these works were shown at the Staempfli Gallery.

By 1972, Bravo left the West for good, moving to Tangier, where he would spend the rest of his life. His adopted home and the new way of life it enabled for him entirely altered the course of his art, and the works in the latest exhibition at Marlborough Gallery, which has represented Bravo and his estate since 1981, span the last 20 years of his career. These paintings reveal a deep affinity with the Mediterranean’s distinctive quality of light and color palette, as well as to half a millennium of European art history. Canvases as seemingly varied as his still life Cascos / Helmets (2009), the North African landscape seen in Casbah de Tiout (2008), and the minutely detailed Marruecos triptico / Morocco Triptych (2009) are all imbued with the memories of a lifetime spent across three continents, immersed in diverse cultures, histories, religions, and traditions and finally emphasized through Morocco’s vivid hues.

This connection to Tangier was even made the subject of the 2004 exhibition “Claudio Bravo and Morocco” at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. As Edward J. Sullivan wrote in the catalogue for that show, “Bravo has found in Morocco not a distant or ‘exotic’ visual culture, but rather a confirmation of the enduring visual realities that have permeated the human artistic experience throughout the ages.” With this in mind, and given the place of Moroccan landscapes, weavings, and pottery in his work, one might consider Bravo a 21st-century Orientalist, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Bravo consciously eschewed the term and separated himself from the lineage of 19th-century artists in North Africa who, as he saw it, were concerned not with accurately representing the Arab peoples and their culture but rather with exoticist and colonialist storytelling.

Likewise, some critics have also made the mistake of aligning Bravo with the Photorealists and Hyperrealists. In 1970, New York Times art critic John Canaday lauded Bravo’s “staggering technical exercises,” and the following year, Canaday reversed his praise, accusing the artist of cheapness and vulgarity in what he saw as his Hyperrealist and even pseudo-Surrealist subjects. Doug McClemont, director of Marlborough Gallery, says that to include Bravo among the Photorealists is to misrepresent everything the artist believed in. “The Photorealists painted from photographs and Bravo worked with virtuoso skill, from life.” “From life” is the operative phrase here, not only in the sense of rendering objects arranged directly in front of one, which was Bravo’s daily practice in his Morocco studio, but also because those very objects were the ones he chose to live with. McClemont continues, “The goal was to create a positive aesthetic experience and in his own words ‘to capture the rarity in nature.’ He felt that art was communication and perfection too cold.”

This communicative aspect is perhaps best conveyed by Bravo’s still lifes, many of which contain objects collected and arranged by the artist, from a fragment of a Roman marble head to a bowl filled with ostrich eggs. Seeing works like Khabyas (2002), featuring a collection of covered jars set atop a Hispano-Moorish painted wooden chest, juxtaposed with the Lucio Fontana-esque Green Paper on Green Background (2007) draws out such artistic, emotional dialogue while reminding the viewer that everything from the antique earthenware to the detailed rendering of a pierced and crumpled piece of paper was an integral part of Bravo’s daily life. These were the things, both tangible and intangible—that is, intangible until brush met canvas—that Bravo effectively collected at his home and studio in Tangier.

Labeling Bravo a Photorealist or an Orientalist would be an error, but he could be considered a collector, both in the traditional sense and more unconventionally in his amassing of an internal assemblage of histories, artistic impressions, and cultural experiences from which he constantly drew and which manifested itself in his output during the last decades of his career. It was during the last half of his life Bravo avidly acquired art objects with which to populate his environment and his art. These included African and Asian textiles, Moroccan ceramics, Greek bronzes, and Roman marble sculpture purchased during his time in New York. McClemont notes that these “work[s] from his own collection often found their way into his paintings,” as well as his prints and works on paper. In 2000, he donated 20 Classical marbles and bronzes to the Prado Museum, the institution that he spoke of as having “continually nurtured [his] imagination.” In an image that successfully combines Bravo’s art with his passion for collecting, the cover of the catalogue commemorating the Prado donation even depicted a Greek bronze foot superimposed, and seemingly floating in space, over a detail of a hanging fringed shawl from one of his paintings.

Walter Benjamin wrote that a collection’s meaning is lost when the collector is lost. But Bravo’s artistic oeuvre makes it clear that the meaning behind a collection, whether it is physical or not, can also shift when the collector is himself a maker. Bravo memorialized his collections of objects and a lifetime of encounters through their incorporation into his own work, which culminated in his move to North Africa. Thus, the art of painting communicates that which might have otherwise been silenced; that is, a lifetime of collecting itself. Even after Bravo’s death, up to which point he had continued to paint tirelessly, the significance of his collections and the associations that he felt with each of them remain. In fact, Bravo’s masterful two-dimensional works perhaps even strengthens those links. Irises (1990) expresses the melding of objects, histories, memories, and Bravo’s embrace of Arab culture. Four glass vessels and one wooden bucket, each containing sprays of the purple flower, are set upon a rough-hewn table nonchalantly draped with a woven multicolored textile. A set of shears, along with the remains of cut green stems, have been left on the table. The scene is set against the backdrop of a hanging with motifs inspired by Islamic architecture. The glasses, the flora, the textiles, the wooden surface, and even the shears each have a place in Bravo’s arrangement. In this micro-collection, one can unpack a great deal of personal importance.

Bravo is by no means the only artist to have commemorated his collected objects and memories in his artwork. Nevertheless, it feels as though he particularly wished to share some intimate secret with us through the medium of oil paint by offering us a window, both literally and theoretically, into his private world in Morocco and his own collection of things, of lived experiences spread across the globe, and of impressions left from his own exposure to art and nature. Bravo would want us to study the imperfections of the glazed surface of the jar in the corner, to roll the yarn laid out across his table between our fingers, to hear the crinkling of sheets of paper in his studio—all while remembering that this is a painting, his painting.

By Martina D’Amato

Brother Act Thu, 28 Apr 2016 17:57:59 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The realistic yet mysterious paintings of the Le Nain brothers get a rare showing at the Kimbell Art Museum.

Le Nain, The Last Supper, 1650s

Le Nain, The Last Supper, 1650s, oil on canvas.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Le Nain, A Quarrel, circa 1640 Le Nain, Three Men and a Boy, circa 1647–48 Louis Le Nain, Peasant Family in an Interior, circa 1642 Le Nain, Peasant Interior with an Old Flute Player, circa 1642 Le Nain, The Last Supper, 1650s

The Le Nain brothers, Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu, who flourished in France in the early 17th century, are among the most mysterious Old Master painters. In terms of biography, very little is known about them, and that small amount only serves to increase the mystery. None of the three artistic siblings ever married or had children, and they not only lived together but worked together, signing their paintings with their last name only, so that it has always been extremely difficult for art historians to figure out which brother painted which picture. Most likely the Le Nains would have wanted it that way; over time their individual abilities and styles apparently merged into an artistic celebration of family. Among Old Masters, only the Carracci of Bologna—two brothers and a cousin who worked a generation before the Le Nains—come close in terms of collectivity. The phenomenon of the Le Nain brothers reminds one of the observation that in harmony singing, the voices of people who are related to each other by blood blend best.

The subject matter for which the Le Nains are most famous is, if not mysterious in the sense of weird or arcane, at least question-provoking. The brothers devoted painting after painting to genre scenes of French peasant life, rendered with painstaking, delicate realism. However, they were not completely realistic in terms of social observation—the Le Nains’ peasants, while painted with pathos, are just a bit more trig and comfortable than one would expect them to be. In Peasant Interior With an Old Flute Player (1642), the walls are bare and gloomy gray and the faces are somber (except for one mischievously grinning boy catching the viewer’s eye), but there’s a nice glass of red wine on the table, brass andirons (an expensive item at the time) in the fireplace, and the dog and the cat look well-fed. This is typical of the Le Nains’ peasant scenes—what we get is a kind of heightened, if not hopeful, reality in which the dignity and soulfulness of the rural poor are rewarded with an unusual level of prosperity.

This Peasant Interior is one of around 50 works—not only genre pieces but history and devotional paintings, landscapes, and portraits—that will go on view late this month at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., in “The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France” (May 22–September 11). The first Le Nain show in the U.S. since 1947, it is only the second in the world to give a comprehensive account of the brothers’ work; the first was a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1978–79 that was organized by the great art historian Jacques Thuillier. The current show, organized by the Kimbell’s C.D. Dickerson III and Esther Bell of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was originally conceived as a survey of Le Nain works in U.S. collections, but then the Louvre expressed interest in lending paintings and partnering with the American museums to create a truly encyclopedic international exhibition. The breadth of the show (which will travel to San Francisco and to the Louvre’s outpost in Lens, in northern France) is such that viewers will be able to judge for themselves what the brothers’ artistic intentions were and even try to match wits with the curators, who have used all available physical and documentary evidence, plus connoisseurship, to distinguish the artistic hand of each brother and attribute specific works to each wherever possible.

Born at the turn of the 17th century (the exact birthdates are unknown), the Le Nains themselves came from a relatively well-off farming family, in the northern French province of Picardy. Their father, Isaac, was probably a wine-grower, and the family lived in the city of Laon, where the boys took their first steps in art around 1618. After about 10 years of painting there, they moved to Paris, where they redefined themselves as urbane artists with a high-end clientele that included Anne of Austria, mother of the future king Louis XIV. Membership in prestigious artists’ associations followed; Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu were among the first to join a new organization, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which sought to enhance artists’ independence as against the traditional guild system, which imposed restrictions on them and treated them like skilled tradesmen rather than creative artists.

In Paris, where Italian art was popular and patronized by the Queen, the Le Nains absorbed influence from Italian masters such as Caravaggio and Orazio Gentileschi, more than from their fellow French painters. The sometimes brutal realism and sympathy for the common people that characterize these Italian Baroque artists were more appealing to the Le Nain brothers than the austere, Classicizing purity of Poussin. One French artist they did admire was Georges de la Tour, whose habit of illuminating his domestic scenes with a single candle flame inspired the Le Nains to attempt similar feats of contrasty, dramatic lighting. But as the curators of the show point out in their catalogue essays, the Le Nains changed their styles fairly frequently in response to the public’s shifting tastes, before settling on the rustic realism for which they are now remembered. As for their single-subject portraits, only one has survived, so it is hard to assess their work in this vein (a number of small group portraits are extant, including a collective self-portrait of all three brothers.)

Based on extensive research and analysis, the curators of the present show have isolated three distinct hands in the oeuvre of the Le Nains, which they label “brother A,” “brother B,” and “brother C.” They have not been able to go further, however, and definitively match each letter with a named brother—although they have a strong presumption toward identifying B with Louis, who French art historian Pierre Rosenberg calls “the unquestionable genius of the family.” To him the curators ascribe such masterworks as The Forge (circa 1640), which shows a blacksmith at work against a background of fire emitting sparks, surrounded by a group of companions, male and female. The fairly loose paint handling and the way some of the figures lock eyes with the viewer are considered typical of the B painter, as is the dynamic, slightly off-center composition. The aforementioned Peasant Interior With an Old Flute Player is also given to brother B.

To brother A (probably Antoine) is attributed The Card Players (circa 1640–45), a genre picture that directly inspired Paul Cézanne’s famous series of Card Players paintings of the 1890s. After seeing the Le Nain painting, the modernist pioneer said, “That is how I would like to paint.” Cézanne was not alone among 19th-century French painters in his admiration of the Le Nains. Around the time of the revolutions of 1848, there was a resurgence of enthusiasm for their work, which was thought to incarnate some elemental quality of Frenchness as well as a kind of leftist, proto-revolutionary concern for the masses. New apostles of uncompromising realism such as Courbet and Manet were inspired by the Le Nains. Writing in the 1850s, the critic Champfleury dubbed the brothers “worker-painters.”

This is all a far cry from the polished courtier-painter image that the brothers themselves cultivated in their business life, but it does touch on something important and essential in their work. The Le Nains’ style was not social realism, but it was psychological realism, an attempt to see the true humanity and individuality in the poor rather than casting them as victims to be pitied or types to be categorized. The Le Nains clearly wanted to give their peasant subjects dignity, and the intimacy of their portrayals invites us to think of ourselves as right there alongside the poor, not different from them in any essential way.

The brother act came to an end in the fateful year of 1648, when Louis and Antoine died within days of each other. Mathieu lived on until 1677, and it must have been a very lonely existence. He continued to have success as a painter and was even elevated to the nobility, but his work from those later years shows a sad falling off in originality and verve. Without his brothers in blood and in paint, Mathieu’s creativity withered away.

By John Dorfman