Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Mon, 01 Feb 2016 20:04:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Jackson Pollock: No Chaos Tue, 26 Jan 2016 20:17:57 +0000 Continue reading ]]> With his drip paintings, Jackson Pollock found a new kind of order that inspired future generations of artists in all media to strive for boundlessness.

Jackson Pollock, The Flame, circa 1934–38

Jackson Pollock, The Flame, circa 1934–38, oil on canvas, mounted on fiberboard, 51.1 x 76.2 cm.;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, 1936–37 Jackson Pollock, Untitled, circa 1950 Jackson Pollock, Stenographic Figure, circa 1942 Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Animals and Figures), 1942 Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948 Jackson Pollock, The Flame, circa 1934–38

Jackson Pollock was born in 1912, in Cody, Wyo. Eight years later, he moved with his family to small-town California. After working for a time as a hotel manager, his father departed with a team of surveyors, returning just often enough so that his wife Stella could never claim to have been entirely deserted. Subsisting on money her husband occasionally sent, Stella was able to resettle her five sons in Riverside, Calif., in 1924. All of her boys had an interest in art. Charles, the eldest, was an accomplished painter—at least in his mother’s eyes. Four years later, the family moved again, this time to Los Angeles. Having discovered that he liked to draw, Jackson enrolled in art classes at Manual Arts High School, on the industrial outskirts of the city.

Charles Pollock had by then moved to New York, where he attended Thomas Hart Benton’s class at the Art Students League, on 57th Street. Following his brother in 1929, Jackson, too, studied with Benton. His subjects were landscapes and genre scenes to which his teacher had turned in the mid-1920s. Impressed by the Armory Show of 1913, which had given America a first-hand view of the European avant-garde, Benton had visited Paris and carried out pictorial experiments in a Cubist mode. Disenchanted for reasons he never made clear, he became, at the Art Students League, a proponent of the virtues of Renaissance painters, especially El Greco and Michelangelo. Though Pollock struggled to make those virtues his own, his sketchbooks from 1930s testify to an incorrigible awkwardness. Benton once said that his student had “the most minimal talents.” Yet he allowed that Pollock was “a born artist” who could find the “essential rhythms” of any subject.

The young artist might have languished and eventually disappeared, unremarked by art history, if he had not been discovered by an émigré artist and writer named John Graham. As Willem de Kooning recalled years later, “It was hard for other artists to see what Pollock was doing—their work was so different from his. … But Graham could see it.” Born Ivan Dabrowsky, in Kiev, Graham affected a shaved scalp and cavalry officer’s posture. A charismatic figure, he was also a relentlessly dogmatic one. Proclaiming the importance of Cubism—Picasso’s, in particular—he proselytized as well for African sculpture, the occult, and the unconscious as the source of genuine art. The painter Ron Gorchov, one of Graham’s later protégés, said that Graham saw Pollock as a “primitive … a kind of a bumpkin—but with a profound nature.”

In 1942 Graham invited him to show recent work in an exhibition he was organizing for the McMillen Gallery, one of the few New York galleries that showed contemporary art in those days. Among the other Americans included in the McMillen show, along with such Parisian luminaries as Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, was Lee Krasner, who was also deeply impressed by Pollock—not as a painter but as a person. Where Graham saw a bumpkin, she saw a shy, irresistibly handsome young man. A star pupil of Hans Hofmann, a formalist with Cubist roots, Krasner could see in Pollock’s paintings of the early 1940s little more than turgid, Bentonesque stumbling. Only after Mercedes Matter, a painter and a friend, had praised Pollock’s thoroughly un-Hofmann-like work, did Krasner begin to glimpse the power that Graham had seen immediately. With her guidance, Pollock found his way into the small, overheated world of progressive painting in New York.

The German invasion of France had driven a large contingent of the European avant-garde to the New World, which many of them—the Surrealists, in particular—found uncongenial. Disinclined to take their American counterparts seriously, they formed cliquish circles and waited for the war to end. Only Roberto Matta Echaurren, one of the younger Surrealists, made an effort to meet Americans. Pledging allegiance to André Breton, Surrealism’s leader, he became an advocate of automatism—a method of suspending conscious judgments and aesthetic intentions so that imagery, whether verbal or visual, can flow directly from the unconscious mind.

Robert Motherwell, one of the youngest of the painters who eventually came to be known as Abstract Expressionists, called Matta “the most energetic, enthusiastic, poetic, charming, brilliant young artist I’ve ever met.” Furthermore, Matta was fluent in English and restless with ambition. With Motherwell’s help, he would recruit the best American artists to a fresh avant-garde; with Matta guiding them, they would set off an aesthetic explosion. Motherwell was game; so was his friend William Baziotes. On their advice, Matta invited Arshile Gorky, Pollock, and a few other painters to his New York studio for a demonstration of automatist techniques. Putting Matta’s lessons to proper use, Gorky impressed Breton as the only New Yorker worthy of induction into the Surrealist ranks. The breakaway cadre never formed.

Not long after the session with Matta, Motherwell stopped by Pollock’s studio and explained, again, the theory of automatism. “To my astonishment,” Motherwell recalled, Pollock “listened intently; in fact, he invited me to come another afternoon, which I did. This would be the winter of 1942.” That year, Pollock painted Stenographic Figure. Color moves through this picture in quick flickers. Anatomy turns elastic. With The She-Wolf (1943), Pollock’s brushwork grew denser and more violent, calling forth an image of bestial grotesquery. Alfred Barr acquired this canvas for the Museum of Modern Art in 1944, having seen it at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. Stenographic Figure, an electric flurry of squiggles and streaks, entered the museum’s collection a bit later. (A career-spanning selection of Pollock’s work, “Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954,” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through March 13.)

In The Guardians of the Secret (1943), quasi-abstract figures guard a cryptic image: a painting within the painting the guardians occupy. Edges reiterate edges, corners echo corners in these works from the early 1940s. Pollock’s willfulness was producing blunt, brutal symmetries. He wanted more command over his medium, not less, and—this is the paradox of his art—he brought his colors under full control only when he began to fling them through the air.

During the years that produced The Guardians of the Secret, The She-Wolf, and Stenographic Figure, Pollock had supported himself and Krasner with a series of poorly paid jobs. He decorated neckties and lipstick cases for several months. He served as a guard at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which had been founded by Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim, and later became the museum that bears his name. There Pollock ran the elevator, helped with frame-making, and mocked the museum’s collection—especially pictures by Mondrian, Paul Klee, and Jean Arp. He was rescued from this job by Peggy, who agreed to advance him $150 a month against future sales. From 1943 “until I left America in 1947,” she later wrote, “I dedicated myself to Pollock.” He “became the central point of Art of This Century.”

And she commissioned Pollock to produce a painting for the lobby of her Upper East Side townhouse. Twenty feet wide and nine feet high, it is filled with writhing tendrils of color, each with a vibrantly figurative presence. Pollock called it, simply, Mural (1943). This was a success and his relationship with Art of This Century had already made him first among equals in the ranks of the New York avant-garde. Yet he continued to be plagued by doubts that drove him to drunkenness and outrageous behavior. The story of Pollock urinating in Guggenheim’s fireplace is fact, not legend. Desperate to remove Pollock from the pressures—and temptations—of New York, Krasner hit upon a plan. They would move to the Hamptons.

Pollock rejected the idea at first, then changed his mind, and in the summer of 1945 they found a house for sale on Fireplace Road in Springs. It was unaffordable, so Krasner asked Guggenheim for $2,000 against future sales, the amount needed for the down payment. Guggenheim eventually, gave in, explaining that “it was the only way to get rid of Lee.” It was there, in Springs, that Krasner persuaded Pollock to stop drinking—but not until 1946. And it was there, from the end of that year until 1946, that he made the drip paintings that give him his place in the long history of Western painting.

Across these canvases, which include Autumn Rhythm, 1950, and One: Number 31, 1950, 1950, paint travels in wide, looping swirls. It streaks, splashes, and spatters. Its force, consistency, and colors shift. Nothing happens on the surface of these paintings save as an urgent response to something else that happened nearby. The texture of a work like this is so far from random that it looks alive to itself, a skein woven from the immediacies of a mind’s self-reflection. All has an open, fluid—sometimes airy—feel, no matter how grim Pollock’s colors become. The eye slithers voluptuously over the surface of this flux and into its depths. It took a European critic to see the implications of Pollock’s art clearly enough to be horrified by them.

In 1950 the Museo Correr, in Venice, presented a Pollock exhibition. The Moon-Woman (1942), a quasi-figurative picture, was among the earliest works on view. Eyes in the Heat was included, as were Full Fathom Five, Alchemy, and some recent drip paintings. The show charted the acceleration of Pollock’s brush and its abandonment, as he began slinging his pigments through the air. A Venetian critic named Bruno Alfieri saw:

—absolute lack of harmony
—complete lack of structural organization
—total absence of technique, however rudimentary
—once again, chaos.”

Alfieri was entirely in error only when he charged Pollock with having no technique. The most unsympathetic eye should be able to gather even from the frothiest of the drip paintings much evidence of this painter’s command of paint. Obviously Pollock could get his material to loop and splash as he wished. However, Alfieri’s eye was attuned to the checks and balances, the resolved harmonies, traditional composition, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to have found in the large patterns of Pollock’s works anything but chaos, disharmony, and a hopeless lack of structure. These paintings are not, after all, traditionally composed. By Alfieri’s standards, which are those of nearly all Westerners, European and American, he was right in coming to the conclusions that he did. When a review in Time echoed the Italian critic’s talk of chaos, Pollock sent a telegram to the magazine proclaiming, “NO CHAOS DAMN IT.” For his drip paintings display order of a new kind, not all-embracing, as in paintings composed the usual way, but thoroughly local.

Here and there, a flurry of pictorial incident may appear to be coalescing into a traditional composition, but it never does. If a compositional impulse appears, the painting’s currents sweep it away. Following these currents to the edge of the canvas, the eye senses a shift, for Pollock never ignored edges. He treated them as facts, indisputable but powerless to enclose the image in any but an arbitrary way. Thus there is no point at which a viewer’s path through the web leads to a sense of a neatly unified image. Stepping back, one sees not a resolved composition but an intimation of the infinite.

De Kooning said in 1950 that “Pollock broke the ice.” And in Excavation, a large painting from that year, he seems to be inventing his own version of Pollock’s “all-over” image. Yet de Kooning never abandoned his Cubist heritage. A master composer, he was never tempted to leap into a boundless infinite. Moreover, most younger painters were finding their points of departure in him. An exception was Helen Frankenthaler, who said “You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock.” Devising a variant on his method, more pouring than dripping, she became the first of a small group called color-field painters. Other were Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. All them found distinctive departures from Pollock’s imagery. Yet it beyond the borders of painting that his art has had its greatest impact.

In 1958, Artnews magazine published a collection of memoirs of Pollock, including contributed by Allan Kaprow, a student of John Cage. Pollock had made painting into a “ritual,” according to Kaprow—a ritual that the edges of the canvas interrupted for no good reason. To his eye, the drip paintings looked truncated. Even so, he said, they feel like “environments.” We are “confronted, assaulted, sucked in” by the swirl of Pollock’s imagery, though Kaprow didn’t mean that a drip painting draws us into imaginary depths. Instead, “the entire painting comes out at us … right into the room.” The impulse to make art is stranded in real space, and members of the audience are “participants rather than observers.” According to Kaprow, Pollock “left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street.”

From this preoccupation emerged the new art form called Happenings. Predecessors of the works of performance art that have been proliferating for decades, Happenings were events choreographed with deliberate ambiguity, to leave participants plenty of room for improvisation. In the realm of the art object, Minimalism, with its potentially infinite grids and endlessly replicable forms, found geometric variations on Pollock’s infinite; and this style was raised to the scale of landscape in earthworks by Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria, and others. Any work of art that implies boundlessness suggests Pollock’s liberating example, if not his direct influence, which we see not only in open-ended works of performance art but also in sprawling installation pieces, and even in the decoratively patterned paintings that have appeared, in a variety of styles, in the years since his death.

The drip paintings obscured the She-Wolf and the other figures that had populated Pollock’s paintings of the early 1943. In his black-on-white paintings of 1950, figures returned. Some of these works are strong, and yet they signaled a real difficulty. Pollock himself saw no way to move forward from his breakthrough works. Feeling stymied, he began to drink. He tried dripping again, with unsatisfactory results. Flailing about, he found a girlfriend, a would-be painter named Ruth Kligman. This desperate expedient lead to such friction with Krasner that she escaped to Europe. In her absence, he began inviting Kligman to the house in Springs. On August 11, 1956, she arrived with a friend, Edith Metzger. After an afternoon of drinking and squabbling with Kligman, he drove off in an Oldsmobile convertible to a concert at the house of Alfonso Ossorio. The two women came with him and, when he lost control of the car all three of them were thrown out of it. Kligman was injured. Metzger and Pollock were killed. A large boulder marks his grave at Springs.

By Carter Ratcliff

Flight of Fancy: Colored Diamonds Tue, 26 Jan 2016 20:01:33 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Colored, or “fancy,” diamonds have gone from being a curiosity to being the ultimate prize among gems.

Flawless fancy vivid blue diamond from the Cullinan Mine in South Africa.

Flawless fancy vivid blue diamond from the Cullinan Mine in South Africa.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Flawless fancy vivid blue diamond from the Cullinan Mine in South Africa. Wittelsbach Graff shown on the wheel The “Graff Pink” “Ocean Dream,” fancy vivid blue-green triangular cut diamond, 5.50 carats. Grima; “Josephine,” cushion-shaped fancy vivid pink diamond, 16.05 carats. The Delaire Sunrise, a yellow diamond, in finished form.

Diamonds are common. Shockingly common, in fact. According to the new book Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World (Ecco, $27.99), enough diamonds have been mined since 1870 to provide everyone on earth with a one-half-carat diamond ring and still have an extra billion carats to spare. But occasionally, miners discover that a weird and wonderful accident happened millions of years ago deep within the earth—the diamonds were exposed to radiation, or some of their carbon was replaced with boron, or they endured just the right amount of stress, and they acquired a color. Most of the time, naturally colored diamonds are yellow or brown, but every now and again they assume a scarcer hue: pink, blue, orange, purple, green, red, or something else in between.

The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) calls diamonds that display rare and unusual colors “fancy.” Fancy diamonds with the qualities that earn the GIA modifiers “deep,” “intense,” or “vivid” and also weigh more than a carat are even fewer in number. So when a good-sized fancy stone that sports the right stuff appears at auction, bidders vie to empty their wallets. The Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index shows that between January 2005 and the fourth quarter of 2014, the value of colored diamonds rose 167 percent. It did so on the strength of a parade of headline-grabbing auctions.

As good a place to start as any is Christie’s London sale of the Wittelsbach diamond, a 35.56-carat fancy deep greyish-blue, in December 2008. English jeweler Laurence Graff placed the winning bid of £16.3 million ($24.3 million) and redubbed it the Wittelsbach-Graff. In May 2009, Sotheby’s Geneva offered the Star of Josephine, a 7.03-carat fancy vivid blue diamond for CHF 10.5 million ($9.4 million), setting a then-record for the highest price paid per carat for any gemstone at auction. Graff struck again in November 2010 at Sotheby’s Geneva, setting a new auction record for any jewel by paying CHF 45.5 million ($45.6 million) for a 24.78-carat fancy intense pink that he christened the Graff Pink. Two other high-profile Christie’s sales that year—a 14.23-carat fancy intense pink that fetched HK $179.9 million ($23.1 million) in Hong Kong and a two-stone ring containing a 10.95-carat fancy vivid blue that sold for $15.7 million in New York—led the auction house to proclaim 2010 the year of the colored diamond.

But more jaw-dropping sales would follow. In April 2013, Christie’s offered the Princie Diamond, a 34.65-carat fancy intense pink Golconda, in New York for $39.3 million, a sum sufficient to earn the titles of the most expensive Golconda diamond at auction, the most expensive diamond sold in the U.S., and the most expensive diamond in Christie’s history. In November 2013, the largest fancy vivid orange diamond yet known appeared at Christie’s Geneva. Weighing in at 14.82 carats and simply called The Orange, it reaped CHF $32.6 million ($35.5 million). November 2014 saw Sotheby’s New York present the Zoe Diamond, a fancy vivid blue that soared to $32.6 million and claimed a trio of auction records—top price for any blue diamond at auction, a price-per-carat record for any gemstone, and the first stone to sell for more than $3 million per carat. In the same month, Christie’s Hong Kong auctioned a 2.09-carat fancy red diamond—not only is red the rarest hue among the colored diamonds, fancy red diamonds are virtually never seen in weights above one carat. It fetched HK $39 million ($5.1 million) and set world auction records for a red diamond and the price-per-carat for a red diamond.

Then came November 2015. On the 10th, Christie’s Geneva sold a 16.08-carat fancy vivid pink diamond for CHF $28.7 million ($28.6 million). The next day, Sotheby’s Geneva offered the Blue Moon diamond, a 12.03-carat fancy vivid blue (see page 96 of this issue). It fetched CHF $48.6 million ($48.4 million), seizing world auction records for any gemstone and for the highest price per carat of any gemstone. It also became the first stone to sell for more than $4 million per carat.

If you’re dazzled by this avalanche of facts, you’re not alone. But don’t form the impression that great colored diamonds are somehow more abundant than they once were. “Record-breaking stones appearing at auction doesn’t mean they’re more plentiful,” says Emily Barber, a jewelry specialist at Bonhams. “People are appreciating how special they are. They’re capturing the imaginations of collectors and investors.”

But why are these record auction prices happening now? Colored diamonds have been cherished throughout history. The Hope diamond is more famous for its alleged curse than for its navy-blue hue, but it remains one of the biggest draws of the Smithsonian museums. Look at any collection of crown jewels and you’re bound to find an impressive colored diamond—France’s contains the Hortensia Diamond, which is peachy in both senses of the word; Iran’s has two pink diamonds, including the largest pink diamond in the world, the 182-carat Daria-i-Noor; and the Green Vault of Dresden, Germany, gains its name from the magnificent 41-carat Dresden Green. Only in the 21st century did colored diamonds push white diamonds out of the spotlight and seize it for themselves.

“Before the last 30 years, colored diamonds were [seen] more as curiosities,” says David Bennett, worldwide chairman of jewelry for Sotheby’s. “Only recently have they been valued just as they are.” The shift in attitude can be seen in the designs of vintage and contemporary jewelry. “Today, when there’s a colored diamond in a piece, it’s the central feature. It’s about celebrating the beauty of the stone,” says Greg Kwiat, CEO of Fred Leighton, the legendary dealer of vintage and estate jewelry, and also CFO of his family’s 109-year-old namesake jewelry business. He adds that before 1980, colored diamonds “would still have been part of the piece, but they might have been part of a greater design. And they were maybe used a bit more whimsically in the past.”

The series of stunning auction results deserve much of the credit for the higher public profile of colored diamonds, but other factors played a role. Several experts cite a much earlier auction—a 1988 sale of a .95 carat red diamond for $880,000 at Christie’s New York—as pivotal. “When it sold for almost $1 million a carat, it created a stir,” says John King, chief quality officer for the GIA. “[The stir] started to build within the industry, and it spilled into greater awareness among consumers.” King also credits the effect of cutting techniques that arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “[The newer cuts] tend to collect and intensify the color,” he says.

Pop-culture events helped, too. When Ben Affleck proposed to Jennifer Lopez in 2002 with a six-carat pink diamond ring custom-designed by Harry Winston, it introduced countless people to the fact that diamonds come in colors other than white. “It was huge,” says Tom Burstein, senior specialist and head of private sales for jewelry in the Americas at Christie’s. “I was at Harry Winston at the time. It was then called the J. Lo pink. It drew great, great interest, for sure, and it had a tangible effect. People called in wanting to acquire a pink diamond of some size.”

The most powerful factor of all is the surge in demand from collectors seeking solid investment options. “Colored diamonds are perceived as a relatively safe asset class in which to put money,” says Barber. “White diamonds are soft at the moment, but colored diamonds continue to grow, and 2015 was a record year for colored diamonds. It’s not plateauing or decreasing. It’s increasing.” Burstein concurs: “The demand base is much broader, much more global.”

But the qualities that make colored diamonds sublime can also make them frustrating to acquire. “Even with the means, it’s tough to get anything exact,” says Scott West, executive vice president of LJ West Diamonds, which specializes in colored diamonds. “If you want a five-carat fancy vivid blue diamond, you may have to wait. It could be years. And when the stone does come out, there’s not just one customer, there’s a few customers that want it. When you have people capable of paying more, it’s a question of do you want to wait a few years for something similar, if it ever does come, or do you pay five or 10 percent more?”

Also confounding is the gulf between words and life. Two colored diamonds that have near-identical descriptions on paper can seem radically different when you hold them in your hands and really look at them. “When you talk about pink and blue diamonds of size and importance, it’s tough to talk about them as a group. They’re all individuals,” says Bennett. “To me, each stone has a personality. They are as different as people are different.” The distinctive personalities of large fancy colored diamonds ensure that every auction is a one-time event: there is no other stone quite like it, and there won’t be one again until it finds its way back to the market. “You don’t wear a GIA report on your finger. You have to look at the stone,” Burstein says. “If this color pleases you, I could show you three others of the same grade and you won’t like them.”

For all these reasons, top colored diamonds are likely to continue to make and break auction records for years to come. “The thing is, white diamonds are not really worth what everyone’s been told they’re worth. They don’t have the rarity that’s been claimed for decades. Colored diamonds actually do,” says Aja Raden, author of Stoned. “They are what white diamonds were advertised to be. They are rare, and they do hold their value. I think they are headed toward being in the 21st century what white diamonds were in the 20th—the icon of privilege and glamour.”

“Nothing interacts with light like a diamond. That’s what makes them so prized,” says Burstein. “When you add color on top of it? Forget about it, it’s over.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Moving Designs: Art Deco Cars and Motorcycles Tue, 26 Jan 2016 19:50:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Cars from the Art Deco era park themselves at the MFA Houston.

Andre Dubonnet, Jean Andreau, Hispano-Suiza, H6B Dubonnet “Xenia” Coupe, 1938

Andre Dubonnet, Jean Andreau, Hispano-Suiza, H6B Dubonnet “Xenia” Coupe, 1938;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) O. Ray Courtney, Henderson Motorcycle Co., KJ Streamline Motorcycle, 1930 Hans Ledwinka, Tatra, T97, 1938. Bodywork designed by Figoni & Falaschi, Delahaye, 135MS Roadster, 1937 Bodywork by Figoni & Falaschi, Talbot-Lago, T150CSS Teardrop Coupe, 1938 Andre Dubonnet, Jean Andreau, Hispano-Suiza, H6B Dubonnet “Xenia” Coupe, 1938

Art Deco, which appeared before World War I in France and flourished internationally throughout the first half of the 20th century, was heavily influenced by new technological developments and industrialization. This thoroughly modern style—which favored symmetry and sharp, straight lines—lent itself fittingly to the design of automobiles. “Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929–1940,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (February 21–May 30), puts 14 cars and 3 motorcycles from the height of the Art Deco era on view. The show also includes historical images and videos, which will help position the cars and bikes within a greater art historical context.

The show is organized by Cindi Strauss, the MFA Houston’s curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts, and Ken Gross, an automobile expert and former director of the recently reopened Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Gross was the brains behind the exhibition “Sensuous Steel,” which was held at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville in 2013. The show, which Strauss describes as a “huge hit,” was larger, putting 18 vehicles on view. “Our show,” says Strauss, “is a more focused view of the period. It conveys the same kinds of themes, in terms of thinking about Art Deco, luxury, glamour, and exceedingly rare automobiles—some one of a kind—but we are focusing all our interpretive materials very specifically on the design.” The vehicles in the show abound with elegant touches and stylish details, from interiors and upholstery to instrument panels and steering wheels. “These choices,” says Strauss, “relate to the larger themes one sees in furniture design, fashion, and metalwork.”

Art Deco was introduced internationally at the 1925 Paris World’s Fair and promptly became an influential style outside of Paris. “Sculpted in Steel,” which boasts vehicles of French, American, Czech, Italian, and German make, will juxtapose international conceptions of Deco design. Says Strauss, “The show places the vehicles within the style of each country.” She also notes that although the earliest car in the show—a one-of-a-kind Bugatti Type 46 Semi-profile Coupe—dates to 1929, the Deco influence can be seen in vehicles from before then.

During the Deco period, bodywork became incredibly important, and design firms were called in to collaborate with car companies on body design. For instance, the Italo-French coachbuilder, Figoni et Falaschi designed some of the most elegant automobile body shapes between the 1930s and the 1950s. (Designer Giuseppe Figoni was Italian by birth but moved to Paris in his youth and started his firm, and Ovidio Falaschi, an Italian businessman, became his business partner in 1935.) The firm is responsible for the bodywork of three of the cars in the exhibition—the 1938 Talbot-Lago T150C-SS Teardrop Coupe, the 1936 Delahaye 135M Competition Coupe, and the 1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster.

At the time, there was also a major crossover between the aerospace industry and the car industry. The H68 Dubonnet “Xenia” Coupe, a 1938 model so sleek it seems to be cutting through the air even when parked, was manufactured by Hispano-Suiza, a Spanish automotive and engineering firm that not only produced cars but also aviation engines in Europe before World War II. The aircraft influence on the coupe’s design is evident. Says Strauss, “So many of the features on that car resemble airplane engines.”

Museum-goers may notice that the vehicles in the show are largely monochromatic. Manufacturers at the time favored either black or silver, to show off the clean lines and emphasize the chrome detailing. Says Strauss, the color choices “evoke the glamour of the age.”

The Cord Corporation, Auburn Model 810 “Armchair Sedan” in the exhibition, designed by Gordon Miller Buehrig, is a model from 1936. Buehrig, a prominent car designer from Illinois, joined the Auburn, Ind.-based Auburn Automobile Company in 1934, after having become the chief body designer for Duesenberg at the age of 25. Buehrig, who worked in the industry well into the ’60s, designed the Armchair Sedan, which has what Strauss describes as having a “complete unification of details, interior and exterior.” Another American model, Ford’s Model 40 Special Speedster, was designed specifically for Edsel Ford by Ford Motor Company styling chief E. T. “Bob” Gregorie and the Ford Aircraft Division fabricators. Incorporating both racing and aeronautical elements, it is the only one of its kind ever produced.

Another one-of-a-kind vehicle, the 1930 Henderson KJ Streamline, was designed by O. Ray Courtney for Henderson, a division of Excelsior Motor Mfg. & Supply Co., a competitor of Harley-Davidson. A nearly Platonic example of streamlining, the motorcycle has tire covers that resemble airplane engines, a teardrop-shaped body, a slightly bucketed seat, and a chrome grill, all designed to look fast as hell. The 1940 Indian Chief, another motorcycle in the exhibition, was more affordable, with a body style that seems more like those of today’s motorcycles. White with green accents and a tan seat, the bike seems perfect for a cross-country trip.

The 1936 Stout Scarab put the suburban minivan to shame. Designed and manufactured by William Stout for his own self-started Stout Motor Car Company, the example in the show is one of 6 to 10 ever produced. Says Strauss, “It’s innovative for its rear engine, styling, and the fact that it operates as a precursor to the minivan. It has a back bench for three people, interior chairs that are moveable, a front passenger seat that can move around, and an option for a table. And it was fast—you could really move along.”

The 1938 Tatra T97 was designed in Czechoslovakia by Hans Ledwinka. For this model, the concepts developed by Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray were licensed. This automobile, which can be seen in the show in bright red, has a rear dorsal fin and integrated fenders, giving it a unique look that is a precursor to the space-age designs of the ’50s and ’60s. Not surprisingly, Strauss says, “it was featured widely in films.”

“Sculpted in Steel” runs at the MFA Houston alongside a sister show, “Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age” (December 12–June 5). The exhibition puts Art Deco objects from the museum’s permanent collection on view, including costumes, furniture, glass, metalwork, and accessories and should give viewers an immersive Deco experience.

By Sarah E. Fensom

The Black Arts: 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints Tue, 26 Jan 2016 19:25:39 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Getty Museum shines a light on some dark works.

Théodore Géricault, Sailboat on a Raging Sea, about 1818 – 1819

Théodore Géricault, Sailboat on a Raging Sea, about 1818 – 1819, brush and brown wash, blue watercolor, opaque watercolor, over black chalk, 15.2 x 24.7 cm (6 x 9 3⁄4 in.).

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Georges Seurat, Indian Holy Man Georges Seurat, Madame Seurat, the Artist’s Mother (Madame Seurat, mère) Théodore Géricault, Sailboat on a Raging Sea, about 1818 – 1819 Gustave Courbet, Head of Sleeping Bacchante, 1847

The second half of the 19th century in France, a period associated with black suits and black soot, was also a time when black came to the fore in drawing and printmaking. Perhaps it was a reflection of the zeitgeist—the fevered horror of Edgar Allan Poe was finding particular favor in France—but the black that became increasingly basic to the works of artists including Redon, Bresdin, Courbet, and Seurat was also the product of changing artistic technology, argue the curators of “Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints,” a fascinating new exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (on view February 9–May 15). Around 1850, charcoal (fusain), a medium that had been used for centuries by the Old Masters to create erasable underdrawing, was adopted as a fitting technique for finished works. Why? According to Getty drawings curator Lee Hendrix, who spearheaded the show, the answer is simple: Fixative. The invention of a chemical process that could coat a drawing so as to prevent the charcoal marks from dusting off the paper motivated artists to push charcoal to new levels of expressiveness. And the achievements of the fusainistes inspired other artists to seek similarly dark, brooding, and mysterious effects in printmaking media such as etching and aquatint.

As Hendrix writes in the catalogue, the seed of the exhibition was planted more than a decade ago, when the Getty acquired a charcoal landscape by Maxime Lalanne, a fairly conservative artist. Castle Overlooking a River, circa 1860s–70s, breaks no particular compositional ground, but its dreamy, soft-focus effect epitomizes a style that was becoming extremely popular among French landscape artists. In 1862 Lalanne published a charcoal-drawing instruction manual which made him the progenitor of a whole school of fusainistes. Soon artists with more avant-garde ideas would adopt Lalanne’s techniques and use them to create moodier, more dramatic, and more mysterious effects. And the taste for heavy deployment of black spread to include other drawing media such as conté crayon and black chalk, as well as the printmaking techniques of etching and aquatint. For Hendrix and her colleagues, the donation of the Lalanne sparked a long exploration of the aesthetic, technical, and optical properties of so-called black media. The show was sourced from Getty holdings and from drawings and print collections in the Los Angeles area, facilitated by what director Timothy Potts refers to as “a support group of drawings enthusiasts known as the Disegno Group,” which was formed by the Getty’s Drawings Department in 2012 and funded the acquisition of a number of works in this show.

The works on view use black media to evoke a wide range of emotions, from the serene to the macabre. Seurat’s Poplars (circa 1883–84) takes the backlit effect of Castle Overlooking a River and blows it up to the point where the boundary between the landscape and the paper it’s drawn on becomes obscured. Seurat’s trees start to emerge from a shimmering mist only to fall back again. Distinction of foreground and background becomes meaningless. Another Seurat drawing in the show, Madame Seurat, the Artist’s Mother (circa 1882–83), uses the charcoal and the way it interacts with the paper’s texture to create a subtle, glowing quality. Odilon Redon, a Symbolist artist, coaxed a spiritual, otherworldly black light from charcoal in Apparition (circa 1880–90). In this drawing, the faintly smiling head of a bearded man, wearing a crown or jeweled headdress, is surrounded by what may be clouds and rays of light or perhaps representations of thought-forms and creative energies. He may be an ancient king, or he may be God himself. In any case, the black radiance of this visionary drawing is made possible by the medium used. As Hendrix puts it, in reference to a good number of the works on view, “The cosmic fantastic nature of the subject matter has everything to do with the black medium.”

An earlier drawing, Millet’s The Cat at the Window (circa 1857–58), in conté crayon and pastel, also treats fantastic subject matter. It illustrates a fable of La Fontaine in which a man wishes for his beloved cat to become a woman so that he might marry her. Though the fable is humorous, Millet’s image is eerie.

The light coming through the mullioned panes, the cat rendered as a silhouette except for its glowing eye, the curtain opening inward as if pushed by a ghostly hand—or paw—all give the drawing a quality of delightful weirdness that couldn’t be achieved in color. Hendrix speculates that the harsh new socioeconomic realities of the mid- to late 19th century caused many in France to want to “retreat from the industrial world into a dream realm.” The grit spewed into the air by the factories becomes the grit of the charcoal that French artists applied to paper to create their dream worlds, whether of wonder or of horror.

By John Dorfman

Pierre Bonnard: Trouble in Paradise Tue, 26 Jan 2016 19:14:08 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Pierre Bonnard’s search for Arcadian bliss may have been frustrated in life, but it yielded a harvest of color that endures in art.

Pierre Bonnard, Self-Portrait, c. 1904

Pierre Bonnard, Self-Portrait, c. 1904, oil on canvas, 18.125 x 18.75;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Pierre Bonnard, Self-Portrait, c. 1904 Pierre Bonnard, The Work Table, 1926-37 Pierre Bonnard, Women in the Garden Pierre Bonnard, Nude in an Interior, 1935 Pierre Bonnard, Women in the Garden: Woman in Dress with White Dots, 1890-1891

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” John Keats wrote in Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819). In the 20th century, however, the philosophical marriage of truth and beauty came apart. Eternal Neoclassical ideals became stage props for political theater, and the intuitions of Romantic optimism dissolved in an empty cosmos. Modernism, born in the 19th century and buried in the 20th, described this disenchantment. In an age of hard truths, ugliness seemed next to honesty, and a manifesto better than no hope at all. And where did that leave Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), an idiosyncratic colorist in an age of terrible simplifications, a private, modest man in an age of public art and self-publicizing artists?

“Painting Arcadia,” at the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco from February 6–May 15, is the first major international presentation of Bonnard’s work to be mounted on the West Coast in half a century. (The exhibition, which originated at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, will also be mounted from September 11 at the MAPFRE Foundation in Madrid.) Featuring more than 60 works from every phase of the artist’s long career, the show demonstrates why Bonnard seemed out of step among his cohort, even as he looked south to the mythical Mediterranean like Matisse and Picasso. It also suggests how, as Fairfield Porter recognized, Bonnard opened for representational art a different, and still underexplored, pathway between Impressionism and Abstraction.

It was Bonnard’s misfortune to be born into a respectable family—his father was a senior civil servant—and to have enjoyed an unremarkably happy childhood in an affluent suburb of Paris. Trained as a lawyer, he practiced as one briefly, and then, defying the canons of artistic biography, became a professional painter without offending his parents. In his 20s, he had the temerity to produce decorative work in various media: dreamy drawings, posters, and book illustrations bearing the influence of Odilon Redon, Art Nouveau, and Japanese prints. Then, in a momentary aberration, Bonnard joined his friends Paul Ranson and Édouard Vuillard in an avant-garde movement.

The Nabis—the name meant “prophets” in Hebrew—were in the tradition of the Nazarenes, Ancients, and Pre-Raphaelites: an extended group of friends, bound as much by youth and ambition as by common aesthetic goals. And just as Ruskin’s defense of the Pre-Raphaelites made better reading than Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s verse, so the most memorable Nabi statement came from a journalist, Maurice Denis, who described a painting as “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

The flatness was Japanese by inspiration, the ordering of the colors Impressionist, and the purpose spiritual in the post-Symbolist manner, with aspirations toward the energetic clarity of primitivism; Henri Bergson’s vitalism was the philosophy of the day. From the contemporary ukiyo-e prints that Bonnard bought in large quantities from Parisian department stores, he learned how to depict “light, form, and character using nothing but color.” This was a constructive misunderstanding: although Bonnard’s Nabi nickname was le Nabi très japonard, he did not know that his Japanese contemporaries achieved these effects by using imported European aniline pigments, rather than traditional plant-based paints.

Maurice Denis described the young Bonnard as an Edo-style “artist of the floating world,” but Bonnard’s 1890s paintings are also the aperçus of a Baudelairean “artist of the modern world,” a flâneur gathering erotic impressions and opiated images on the seamy side of the boulevard. In The Two Carriages (1901), the illusionary merging of two moving vehicles both anatomizes a moment of violence and suspends its consequences. In the foreground of Walking at the Lake (circa 1900), two women walk in opposite directions along a path. The tension between them seems to pull the composition in half. Behind them, a declivity in the park gives the impression of other walkers, all apparently female, being cut off at the waist.

In Dancers (1896), another all-female image, the corps de ballet hold fixed postures that are technically natural but physically painful; the women float on a gray stage, its surface mottled like the pond at Giverny. In The Omnibus (1895), a woman, fashionably dressed with a cinched waist and a lapdog on a leash, is poised before the bus’s bright yellow wheel, itself momentarily halted. The foreshortening of the artist’s flattened world and the raising of her leash hand give her the appearance of a sinner attached to some Dantean device or the wheel of death in a circus.

Bonnard’s capture of unique and impossible moments recalls Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of the horse that might pull the omnibus and the way photography intensified the ancient challenge of depicting movement in stillness. But the implications of suffering and isolation in these pictures evoke another horse from modernist mythology, in another street scene from the 1890s: the carthorse in Nietzsche’s apotheosis at Milan, flogged to death by its furious owner and embraced by the philosopher. In Bonnard’s early compositions, the truth of beauty is psychologically cruel, the violence as much prolonged as deferred; as in the Decadent novelist Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 story Torture Garden, which depicts civilized society as a Nietzschean playpen for sadists and masochists.

Mirbeau cast his dog as the hero of a late novel, Dingo (1913). Bonnard, who reserved expressions of personal emotion for his pets, was already looking for a way out of the urban maze. In Twilight (1892), the restrained, amiable croquet players are hedged in by massing green shrubbery, courtesy of Paul Gauguin’s Tropical Gardening Service. Beyond the shadowed players, a circle of white-clad maidens wheel in a modest dance of tribute to Nature as the sun gently sets. The wheel is both mobile and stable; disturbing forces are, like the horse in The Omnibus, outside the frame—or on their way out. In the Normandy pastoral of The Large Garden (1895), a small girl runs away from her apple-picking younger siblings. She is already halfway out of the image: her face has left the canvas, and her body is blurred in motion: she is a presence, not a personality. The alert posture of the family dog—its face rendered in profile—hints at unseen and un-shown dangers.

In the early 1900s, Bonnard expunged the modern world from his paintings—even cars, which he liked. After a few slow years during which he seems to have confronted his Impressionist masters by imitation, in 1910 he left the gloomy north for Keats’ “warm south.” The Côte d’Azur was the Arcadia of modern painting, where searing light met scenic peasant life, and the amenities of bourgeois civilisation the ruins of its Greco-Roman precursor. One of the decorative panels that preceded Bonnard’s departure—Water Games, or The Voyage (1906–10) is a dreamlike decorative journey into the past, the moving figures as solid as marble.

“Nature,” Schopenhauer wrote, “covers all her works with a varnish of beauty.” The massive triptych The Mediterranean (1911) was commissioned by the collector Ivan Morozov. Shaded by olive and oak trees, Bonnard’s nephews and nieces play in the sun, while his lifelong model Martha de Méligny sits in the shade with a cat. The shadows are purple like grapes, the sunlit gently pinkish. Through the trees, red-tiled roofs zigzag discreetly down to a mild blue sea. Painted as a single composition, The Mediterranean was divided to fit around the Ionic columns of the staircase landing in Morozov’s Moscow townhouse: modern douceur de vie in a Neoclassical frame.

Yet, as the art historian Erwin Panofsky showed, the modern vision of Arcadia was not that of Virgil and the Renaissance pastoral, in which the fullness of Nature includes the tragic. In Poussin’s The Arcadian Shepherds (1637–38), the memento mori skull is outside the frame. This encouraged a creative misreading of the tag on the tomb: Et in Arcadia ego became the last testimony of the tomb’s inhabitant—“I, too, was in Arcadia”—instead of the original and grammatically accurate reminder of death’s unlimited jurisdiction, “Even in Arcadia, I am here.” The erroneous reading, Panofsky wrote, suggests that the Arcadians “are not so much warned of an implacable future as they are immersed in a mellow meditation of a beautiful past.” The accurate reading warns of the transience of beauty and personality. “Even in Arcadia,” wrote Panofsky, “there existed the two fundamental tragedies of human life, inextricably connected with one another: frustrated love and death.”

If Bonnard went back to the garden seeking Gauguin’s fiction of innocent beauty, he found Arcadia’s cruel truth. The biography has the terrible clarity of myth. Bonnard’s companion, the model Marthe de Méligny, was a depressive, a joyless analogue to Baudelaire’s muse, Jeanne Duval. In 1918, Bonnard fell in love with her much younger friend, the artist Renée Monchaty; she, not Marthe, is the model in Naked Girl by the Fireplace (1919) and also appears to be the recumbent nude who completes The Earthly Paradise (1916–20). If Bonnard proposed marriage, he lost his nerve; few self-portraits are as self-mocking as the spindly coward in The Boxer (1931). In 1925, Bonnard married Marthe. One month later, Renée committed suicide. Like an Intimiste Ophelia, she shot herself on a hotel bed strewn with flower petals.

“Poor Marthe has become completely misanthropic,” Bonnard confided to Berthe Signac in 1932. “She no longer wants to see anyone, not even her old friends, and we are condemned to absolute solitude.” In Paris, Bonnard had depicted the seamy Intimisme of rented rooms and troubled sleepers. As Marthe became an invalid, the artist with a plein air palette was entombed in the impersonal intimacy of spa rooms and rented villas near hot springs—grotesque parodies of pagan shrines and temples. Bonnard worked from written notes and memory, carefully building his spontaneous instants. His interiors are prone to phantasmal effects, tricks of Arcadian light, and excess effulgences of color. Alfred Jarry, for whose 1898 play Ubu Roi Bonnard created figurines, described the grotesque as “that other form of the beautiful.”

“The passion excited by beauty,” wrote Edmund Burke in The Sublime and the Beautiful (1756), “is nearer to a species of melancholy than to jollity or mirth.” Bonnard’s endless and tender nudes of Marthe are invariably beautiful and invariably melancholic. Her face is often turned away; she never looks him in the eye. “Solitude,” reflects the protagonist of Mirbeau’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1900), “does not consist of living alone; it consists in living with others, with people who take no interest in you.” If Bonnard, unlike Picasso, respects his subject’s distance, he also blurs her into the water of her baths and the wallpaper of their home. In Nude in the Bath (1936–38), Marthe is depersonalized and cut in half, with only her legs visible. “For me,” Mirbeau’s chambermaid says, “all crime, especially murder, has secret ties with love.”

In Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s sickly masterpiece, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), the decadent emperor delights and then stifles the guests at his banquet by having rose petals tipped onto them in such quantities that some of them asphyxiate. In Bonnard’s The Abduction of Europa (1919), the decorative surface almost masks the sexuality and violence of the mythic narrative: the endless sea, not the tragedy on the shore, is the story.

“To name an object,” Mallarmé wrote in 1891, “is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which is made to be divined bit by bit: to suggest it, that is the dream.” Like Peer Gynt, transported in multiple dreams of his life, Bonnard escaped into fiction, fleeing sorrow and restriction for boundless lyricism. He was not a Nabi without honor in his own country: he was modern enough, and more than French enough. But he was not entirely respected. Picasso mocked him as quaint and twee. When the historian Christian Zervos dismissed him as “insipid,” a spectacle of Impressionism in decline, Matisse corrected Zervos: “Bonnard is a great artist for our time and for posterity.” Bonnard himself admitted feeling “outpaced” by the “evolution” of early 20th-century art. “Society welcomed Cubism and Surrealism before we could reach what we had considered our goal… It was as if were left suspended in space.”

Jean Clair, curator of the 1984 exhibition at the Centre Georges-Pompidou that greatly aided the revival of Bonnard’s critical standing, said that perception itself is Bonnard’s true subject—color suspended in space and time. Bonnard’s infinitude of color, the proof of beauty, adorns and blurs the deeper resonances of an Arcadian memento mori. Keats said that the dream of Arcadia may “tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!” Bonnard, asked about the relationship of truth and beauty, gave an Arcadian reply: “Many small lies yield a great truth.”

By Dominic Green

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

Manuel Mendive, Ofrenda (Offering), 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John Dorfman

The Italian Line Thu, 10 Dec 2015 01:42:40 +0000 Continue reading ]]> ​The grace and verve of postwar Italian design are causing it to find new favor with collectors and take its rightful place in the 20th-century canon.

One of a pair of lounge chairs by Franco Albini, Cassina

One of a pair of lounge chairs by Franco Albini, Cassina, circa 1948;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Max Ingrand for Fontana Arte, illuminated mirror, 1966; Max Ingrand for Fontana Arte, hanging five-light fixture, circa 1967; One of a pair of lounge chairs by Franco Albini, Cassina Gino Sarfatti for Arteluce, floor light with nine Murano glass globes Osvaldo Borsani, two of a set of eight “Triennale” dining chairs Giò Ponti, lacquered circular drop-leaf “APTA” table with painted geometric designs

Whether it’s the smooth, elegant contours of a Giò Ponti cabinet, the biomorphic curves of a Carlo Mollino glass-topped table, or the science-fictional fantasy of a Gino Sarfatti lighting fixture, there is something about postwar Italian domestic design that marks it as unique. Call it flair, or sprezzatura, that especially Italian quality of effortless grace and success. That same quality can be seen even in mass-produced Italian industrial products—an aluminum espresso pot, an Olivetti typewriter, or a Ferrari sports car. While the world has been aware of the excellence of Italian design since at least the early 1950s, it’s only in the last decade or so that design collectors have started to take it as seriously as French or Scandinavian design. In the U.S., a small cadre of dealers and auction houses has been championing the material, educating collectors, and scouring both sides of the Atlantic in the search for the best and rarest pieces.

Part of the appeal of Italian design lies in the process of discovery itself. Not only collectors but even American dealers and auctioneers have had a steep learning curve. One of the most dedicated champions of the material has been Wright, the Chicago- and New York-based auction house that specializes in 20th-century design. Michael Jefferson, senior vice president at Wright, recalls, “For a full decade the market was focused on French design. It was easier to understand, and there was plenty of dealer support. We couldn’t get any traction in pursuing French design, so we went to Italy. Italian design is a very nebulous field to outside observer. It took the crystallizing of the canon to figure out what was important, and now it’s finally turned the corner. It’s expressive and unique from a visual standpoint, and that’s been a strong driver of interest, but it did take a long time for the information to get out and for the market to catch.” In 2012 Wright held its first dedicated Italian design sale. Since then there have been three more, and the auction house includes groupings of Italian pieces (including Italian glass, a related field) in every design sale it does.

Dealers have also played a large part in the revival of interest in Italian design. New York dealer Paul Donzella, who specializes in Italian design, says, “I’ve been in this business 20 years, and Italian design was one of the first things that crossed my mind. I wondered what was stopping it from becoming bigger and more noticed. I started going over to Italy to shop more, and I wasn’t the only one.”

The relative newcomer status of Italian design in the collector market has a lot to do with the economic and historical conditions under which it was created. Unlike French design or American studio furniture, Italian design was, from the beginning, situated within the world of mass production (not that all pieces were mass-produced by any means, and certainly the most collectible ones were not). Rather than being solitary craftsmen, Italian designers, especially the so-called “superstars” like Ponti and Ettore Sottsass Jr., were primarily idea men who worked in tandem with manufacturing companies, mostly located in the northern cities Milan and Turin. Many were trained as architects, and Italian furniture and lighting design can be considered offshoots of architecture and industrial design to an extent that is unparalleled anywhere else.

Although it draws on centuries—even millennia, arguably—of Italian tradition, Italian design is itself a relative newcomer to the field and didn’t really gel until after World War II. At that point, Italy was in ruins and needed to jump-start its economy. In her 1988 book Italian Design: 1870 to the Present (Thames & Hudson), design historian and curator Penny Sparke writes, “It came into its own after 1945, as part of Italy’s need to penetrate new, foreign markets, and to become established as a viable economic, industrial and cultural power within the modern industrialized world.” So Italian design’s obscurity in the American market is only a recent phenomenon. Beginning in the 1960s, Italian design’s “impact was felt most strongly in the wealthy quarters of London, Paris, New York and Tokyo,” writes Sparke. “Thus, while the production of Italian design is inextricably linked to the economic, social and cultural context of modern Italy, its consumption is not.”

With the war over, graduates of Milan and Turin’s architectural schools found themselves without any projects to work on. To earn a living, they naturally turned to interior design commissions for wealthy clients and thereby acquired expertise in furniture design and allied arts. It should be pointed out, however, that some of the key figures in postwar design got their start before the war and were even quite influential during the 1920s and ’30s, when the Mussolini government proved on the whole sympathetic to modernist design. Ponti, for example, was the artistic director for the Richard-Ginori porcelain firm at that time and also founded, edited, and wrote for an important design magazine, Domus, which spread modernist ideas. (After the war he started another magazine, Stile.)

In any case, by the early ’50s Italian design was getting attention outside its native country. A key event was “Italy at Work,” an exhibition of hundreds of objects—from furniture to ceramics to shoes and clothing—by some 150 designers, which traveled throughout the U.S. during 1950–54. Spearheaded by the Art Institute of Chicago, the show was mounted in partnership with two groups, one Italian and one American, that were formed with the express purpose of promoting Italian design and industry in this country. The first venue for “Italy at Work” was the Brooklyn Museum, and when the show closed, about 200 of the objects entered the museum’s permanent collection, ensuring that it would become a major destination for research in this field.

Over half a century later, what is being most hotly collected in this country—and wherever else aficionados of modern design seek out Italian pieces—is examples by the top designers that are unique or in some sense limited-edition. “It’s a very broad field,” says Jefferson, “but there are a few players that the market really focuses on.

There’s a core canon of postwar Italian design that stems from a couple of different lineages.” At the very top of the market is by Carlo Mollino, a polymathic furniture designer, photographer, and writer who is most famous for combining bentwood and glass in an absolutely distinctive way. A unique 1949 oak-and-glass table by Mollino sold at Christie’s New York in 2005 for $3.8 million, a record for the entire field that still stands. “Rare bespoke material by Carlo Mollino has eclipsed, in terms of value, everything else in the market,” says Jefferson. “But the real market, the one that actually trades, is formed by Giò Ponti and all of his circle.”

Ponti’s works are multifarious and his influence was widespread. Starting as early as 1931 he was the artistic director of the Milan design house Fontana Arte, which still exists today and has been responsible for many fruitful collaborations with key Italian designers. “Ponti was a publisher, writer, and artist who was looking to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art,” says Jefferson. “He designed everything from furniture to lighting to the tiles on the floor. He did toilets and coffee machines.” But the Ponti pieces that are sought after today are pieces of wooden furniture, for the most part. “The best Ponti works are from custom commissions,” says Jefferson. “They might be variations of what you’d see in catalogues of his work, but with special modifications. A lot of what you see, on the other hand, is industrial production or serially produced furniture. It’s still at a high level, but simplified so it can be manufactured and mass-produced.” The firm of Cassina, in particular, is credited with executing many of Ponti’s designs, and the American firm of M. Singer produced and marketed many for the U.S. market. Also particularly sought after are Ponti’s collaborations with designer Piero Fornasetti, known for his appropriation of images from 16th-century Italian engravings. Ponti-designed furniture decorated with Fornasetti’s designs represent a very distinctive—and distinctively Italian—combination of high modernism with reverent references to centuries of tradition.

The combination of tradition and modernity can also been seen very clearly in a circa 1950 six-legged wall console by Paolo Buffa with elaborate marquetry, which now resides in Donzella’s gallery. “It’s interesting to me that some of these Italian designers were very influenced by classical or historical design that came before them, and applied it in their work with a very modern twist,” says Donzella. “This piece crosses into both categories.”

This quality of seamlessly blending historical with very modern inspirations has motivated Mallett, the storied London- and New York-based antiques and design dealer, to venture into the modern Italian design market. Andrew Ogletree, of Mallett’s New York branch, says, “Even though these designers were avant-garde, they weren’t anti-establishment. Because they were part of the establishment. What they were doing is a continuation of the great history of Italian design beginning in Rome. Their pieces are sleek and beautifully designed, in terms of the line, and they fit into a 14th-century or a 17th-century palazzo just as well as a modern house. It’s not the same kind of design as American or Danish. It’s more interesting.”

The finest pieces by Ponti now bring six-figure prices, as do those by Ico and Luisa Parisi, a husband-and-wife team who founded the design studio La Ruota (The Wheel) in 1948 and frequently collaborated with artists such as Lucio Fontana and Bruno Munari. As with Ponti, the architectural inspiration is clearly visible in works by the Parisis. Stars of lighting design, an important sub-field, include Gino Sarfatti, a self-taught visionary designer, and Max Ingrand, a French-born virtuoso who worked extensively with Fontana Arte. And of course Ponti also designed lighting.

These masters continued to produce great work through the 1960s and in some cases into the ’70s, a decade in which, in general, it can be said that the Italian design world entered into a period of fatigue and self-doubt amid the country’s economic and political crisis. As the 1980s dawned, a new movement arose to shake things up in a major way. Italian postmodernism, exemplified by the Memphis Group, founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass Jr., brought a spirit of playfulness and social satire to design, producing extremely colorful works in offbeat and decidedly non-elite materials like formica. While these creations made a big impression on design critics and journalists, they have not yet been embraced by the collector market with the same passion as the earlier works. “It remains a selected market today,” says Jefferson, “a very specific taste. We had seen a rekindling of interest in the last five years, representing an uptick of interest from that generation that experienced postmodernism at a very young age. But it seems to have leveled off. I think that’s the way it’s going to be. It was an important moment in design, but for people to actually live with that material is difficult and challenging, as it always has been.”

Be that as it may, the top works by the top designers crystallize a unique national quality that, it is clear at this point, guarantees them a permanent place in the canon of 20th-century design. The essence running through these very diverse pieces, something seen and felt in architecture and fine art as well, has been called “the Italian line.” Following that line through the latter half of the 20th century, collectors will continue to find beautiful and thought-provoking pieces that are a pleasure to live with.

By John Dorfman

The Dappled Infinite Thu, 10 Dec 2015 01:29:50 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Robert Natkin’s serene abstract paintings open up to reveal luminous worlds of color and pattern.

Robert Natkin, The Red One

Robert Natkin, The Red One, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 60 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Robert Natkin, The Red One Robert Natkin, Untitled, 1958 Natkin in his Chicago studio, circa 1957; Robert Natkin, Apollo Robert Natkin, Untitled, 1980

In 1967 Robert Natkin launched a series he called the “Field Mouse” paintings. Patterned passages of high-keyed color—grids, stripes, polka dots—drift across these canvases, held loosely together by solitary stripes and flurries of misty texture. A focus on patterns flattens the image, and we see Natkin as an artist of the intricately inflected surface. Follow the transition from one pattern to the next and the surface opens onto light-filled depths. An analogous shift in scale takes one from a view of these paintings as studies in minutiae to a feeling that they are vast and potentially unbounded. Natkin becomes the author of a dappled infinite. As the 1960s ended, the art world was preoccupied by conceptual art at one extreme and the monumental physicality of earthworks on the other. Unperturbed, Natkin carried on with the “Field Mouse” series, finding ever subtler and luminous mixtures of pattern and texture. He died in 2010, at the age of 79, having produced an oeuvre at once gorgeously complex and serenely at odds with prevailing trends.

A native of Chicago, Natkin studied at that city’s Art Institute from 1948 to 1952. His schooling over, he lived for brief periods in San Francisco and New York before moving back to his home town. After a short stint as a librarian, he found a job teaching painting and became part of a group of artists that included Judith Dolnick, a painter. They married in 1957. Without a place to display their work, the couple renovated a storefront in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood and turned it into the Wells Street Gallery. There they gave solo shows to themselves and others, including John Chamberlain and the photographer Aaron Siskind.

Two years later, the couple settled in New York, where Natkin found a place on the roster of the Poindexter Gallery. His paintings of the late 1950s and early ’60s were already aglow with the rich palette that flourished so vigorously in his later work. However, Natkin covered their surfaces with brushy, agitated gestures that recall Willem de Kooning, whose paintings had impressed him during his early sojourn in New York. His distinctive mixture of clear structure and evanescent light first appeared when he channeled his brushwork into the narrow partitions of the first paintings in the “Apollo” series.

By invoking the Greek sun god Apollo, Natkin celebrates light and clarity. Yet he also subjects these Apollonian qualities to his endlessly resourceful pictorial wit. Vertical forms march across the surface of each “Apollo” painting with the tranquil insistence of a row of Classical columns. Inevitable but far from overbearing, this association makes way for others that connect these paintings to the immediacies of our world. So, for example, a tall streak of shimmering white might evoke muslin as persuasively as it recalls marble. A fluted column becomes a translucent curtain gently creased by the soft breezes of a summer afternoon in a familiar climate. The aura of ancient form does not, of course vanish, for these are abstract paintings and their meanings are manifold. A zone of blue crisscrossed by white could be weathered stone or a sliver of distant sky. And occasionally a stripe of bright red or yellow has the impact, simply, of sheer color.

Natkin named his next series the “Straight Edge and Step Paintings.” With this uncharacteristically dry title he pointed to the sharp focus that entered his art for a few seasons and enclosed his smaller form in clear outlines. There is an architectural feel both to these details and to their interplay, which distributes them over the surface of a canvas in orderly, almost geometric patterns. Thus it is fitting, as Leda Natkin Nelis, the artist’s daughter, points out in her essay for the catalogue of her father’s 1997 retrospective exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art, that he dedicated several of these paintings to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. For these architects are celebrated figures in the cultural history of Chicago. Moreover, both Sullivan and Wright found ways to give decorative detail free rein without obscuring the underlying structure of a building. In the “Straight Edge and Step Paintings,” Natkin achieved a comparable resolution of large and small form, giving each burst of pictorial nuance a crucial part to play in the overall architecture of a painting’s composition.

Next came the “Field Mouse” paintings, named after a creature Natkin found in a poem translated from the Chinese by Ezra Pound.

And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass

Open to endless interpretation, this poem is as elusive as the field mouse—or life itself. Perhaps if we were more attentive, more alive to our lives, ours days and nights would be fuller. With that thought in mind, it may well look as if the “Field Mouse” paintings are supplying us with an exemplary plenitude. Pulsing with visual incident, these works are, as we’ve seen, both wittily delicate and grandly expansive—and in no respect as timid as their title might suggest to a viewer unaware of its source in Pound’s translation. In 1968 the Galerie Facchetti, in Paris, included several “Field Mouse” canvases in an exhibition entitled “Timeless Paintings from the USA.” The following year, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented a Natkin retrospective.

Early in the 1970s, Natkin exchanged his brushes for paint-soaked sponges wrapped in textured cloths and pieces of netting. Pressing these sponges to the canvas with varying degrees of pressure, he achieved results ranging from fine-grained color patches to sharply defined grids. In the “Intimate Lighting” series, he favored graininess, often allowing textures to vanish into large monochrome passages over which patches of texture and the occasional solid form float and congregate, sometimes, into constellations—an effect the artist described as “scatter balance.” Then, in 1974, came what would have been unimaginable until then: a decision to abandon color.

This unexpected development had its origins in a practical problem. In 1974 the Holburne Museum in Bath, England, offered to mount an exhibition of Natkin’s recent paintings. The offer came, however, with a proviso: catalogue reproductions would be in black and white. Refusing to subject his colors to this limitation, Natkin decided to paint a series of black and white canvases for the show. This turned out to be impossible for him to do. The “Bath” paintings are near-monochromes, some of them gray and others in somber shades of blue. Their textures are restrained. Combining this new development with the vertical structure of the “Apollo” paintings, Natkin may have made allusions to the severe, 18th-century geometries that shape the city of Bath’s distinctive architecture. By recycling the “Apollo” format, Natkin arrived a point of culmination, provisional yet impressive, and in 1976 the Moore College of Art Gallery, in Philadelphia, gave him a retrospective.

Among Natkin’s forbears are Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard—painters who build pattern into form and generate light from chromatic harmonies so complex they sometimes verge on dissonance. However, Paul Klee was the first artist to impress Natkin deeply. When, at the age of 17, he saw reproductions of Klee’s paintings, their intensity of pictorial incident led him to assume that they must be large. When he saw one on a museum wall for the first time he was surprised by its modest dimensions. He later said, “I had to turn myself into a very small creature like Alice in Wonderland, and then I could enter Klee’s paintings and watch them open up and grow big.”

A visit to the Klee Foundation in Bern, Switzerland, in 1977, turned Natkin away from the softer focus of the “Bath” paintings and back to diamonds, rectangles, and polygons of the kind that made their first appearance in the “Field Mouse” series. In the “Bern” paintings these forms are more salient than they are in their earlier incarnations. Rendered in black or deeply saturated primaries, they occupy the canvas with the insistence of major landmarks. Landscapes are implied, and these implications grow stronger in the paintings gathered under the “Hitchcock” label.

Natkin’s devotion to modern painting and its history never interfered with his love of the movies. The tense plots of Alfred Hitchcock were his favorites, and, while it can’t be said that Natkin’s “Hitchcock” paintings have the feel of murder mysteries, they do make explicit the elements of story-telling that lurk in all his imagery. Chief among these are the mise-en-scène and the seeming logic that links the disparate elements of a plot into a whole. In a film or novel, this linkage produces the linear progression of a story. In a painting, it charges an image with a visual order that leads the viewer from one point to the next and the next, until the work is fully seen. Of course, there is no one way through a painting’s “narrative.” Most of Natkin’s works offer endless options. In the “Hitchcock” paintings, however, his forms show a heretofore-unseen inclination to settle into configurations evoking rather specific urban settings. Or forms flatten into patterns suggestive of maps with strong indications of the proper path for the eye to follow.

The allusion to a map wins out over the look of architecture in the immense mural—20 x 42 feet—that Natkin painted in 1992 for the lobby of 1211 Sixth Avenue, an office tower included in the postwar expansion of Rockefeller Center. Yet architecture makes itself felt in the form of three columns that prevent a direct view of the entire composition. As Kay Larson wrote at the time of the mural’s completion, Natkin composed it with understanding that its audience would be “passersby in motion.” Because of the columns, she added, they “will be forced to play a form of hide-and-seek that should add some suspense to the walk-through experience.”

Early in the new millennium, Natkin displaced the large, organic forms of this mural to canvas. Reshaping them only slightly and adding minimal indications of facial features, he produced a series of portrait heads. A selection of these paintings was shown at the Butler Museum in 2003. Several months before the exhibition opened, Natkin wrote to Lou Zona, the museum’s director, “In most of my heads, the brush, the color, the paint ties und unties story and narrative while the audience is aware of other aspects of spectacle, of show.” Natkin’s last paintings bring those other aspects to the fore. Dispensing with indications of eyes, nose, and mouth, he let form and color stand on their own, as thoroughly non-figurative now as they had been through his career. These “Abstract Paintings” sum up much that went before them. Yet they register a change, as well, for it is in them that we see the culmination of the artist’s slow drift away from up-front pattern and texture into deep, always playfully fictive space.

Natkin once wrote, “I sew together fragments of cloth unaware of the dress I’m sewing, unaware of its final look and function.” His image of himself as an improvisational seamstress fits well with the feeling of unforced harmony that prevails throughout his oeuvre. Every element of an image seems to acknowledge its immediate neighbors as pleasant surprises. Nonetheless, Natkin had a command of large structure. Plying his metaphorical needle up close, from moment to moment, he was able at the same time to step back far enough to see the big picture. And thus he endowed his images with architectural coherence and sometimes even a touch of grandeur.

By Carter Ratcliff

Carlo Crivelli: Glitter and Gold Thu, 10 Dec 2015 01:20:06 +0000 Continue reading ]]> For the first time, American audiences can feast their eyes on the extravagant, richly ornamented paintings of Carlo Crivelli, an elusive Early Renaissance master.

Carlo Crivelli, The Dead Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist

Carlo Crivelli, restored by Luigi Cavenaghi, The Dead Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, about 1475, on canvas, 66.4 x 64 cm;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius Carlo Crivelli, The Dead Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Carlo Crivelli, Virgin and Child

Paris, 1927. Joe Duveen was in a jam. Edward Fowles, the director the Paris branch of Duveen Brothers, had just sold a small, perfectly preserved panel by the 15th-century Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli to New York financier Jules Bache for a record $260,000 ($3.56 million in 2015 dollars). Unfortunately, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller had seen the picture a few days before and wanted it very much. What to do? “The Rockefellers are difficult people, Eddie.” he told Fowles. ”If they really want that picture it may spoil a large deal for over $1 million which they are contemplating. You get on well with Bache. Please go over to see him. He is over at the Ritz.”

According to Fowles, “I called on Julie (as we used to call him). I found him seated at his desk. He was examining the Crivelli through a magnifying glass. On the parapet behind which the Madonna is seated in the painting, the artist has depicted a fly. ‘Just look at that fly, Edward!’ said Julie. “It looks as alive as a real one,” an observation to which I nodded assent while he continued to discuss the picture’s other charms. Finally, I broached the object of my visit. Mrs. Rockefeller had asked for the picture but Joe was willing to give him $100,000 profit on the painting if he would agree to sell it back. ‘No, Edward. I will never part with it for any sum’, he replied. ‘What does $100,000 mean to me today when I have made $500,000 on my Chrysler stock alone?’” Fowles left empty handed, and the fate of Duveen’s million-dollar Rockefeller deal is unrecorded. Today Bache’s Crivelli is one of the treasures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Who was this artist responsible for giving Joe Duveen a migraine? Since his re-discovery in the early nineteenth century till the middle of the twentieth, Carlo Crivelli (circa 1430–95) was one of the most celebrated (and expensive) painters of the Italian Renaissance, his works hoarded by generations of British and American collectors and museums. Despite his popularity, he has never had an American retrospective until now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: “Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice” (through January 25) featuring over 20 pictures from European and American collections.

Going through the exhibition, it’s easy to see why Crivelli was popular. His pictures could not be confused with anyone else’s. In contrast with the works of his contemporaries and their successors who strove to attain an increasingly pure and idealized realism and majesty, Crivelli wanted to dazzle and enchant. His output was exclusively religious pictures, chiefly Madonnas for private devotion or multi-paneled altarpieces which glittered like Christmas trees with exquisitely worked gold backgrounds and frames, the painted surfaces heightened by applied gilded paste decorations and colored glass jewels. The saints populating his works were likewise unmistakable. Male or female, young or old, they are lean and willowy with faces of almost cartoonish expressiveness, scrunching into scowls or stifling a giggle. Their opulent attire is exquisitely described to the tied ribbons and stitchings. But perhaps the most remarkable features of a Crivelli figure are the busy hands with long fingers curled or cocked, which seem to be modeled from the choreography of Balinese dancers.

Crivelli the man remains an elusive figure. It is believed he was born in Venice and initially learned his craft from his painter father. He may then have undergone an apprenticeship in the studio of Francesco Squarcione in Padua, known both for his extensive knowledge of classical antiquity and the tough workhouse environment of his studio, which caused his most celebrated student Andrea Mantegna to file a lawsuit against him. Back in Venice by 1459, Crivelli himself found himself in another kind of legal trouble when he was arrested and convicted for an adulterous affair with the wife of a sailor, spending six months in prison. After his release, he left Venice never to return, yet he always signed his pictures proudly “OPVS*CAROLI*CRIVELLI*VENETI.”

Eschewing Florence and Rome, Crivelli had a perambulatory career, heading for the Marches. After brief careers in in Zara (in Dalmatia) and Fermo, he eventually settled in the prosperous city of Ascoli Piceno. From here on, Crivelli’s life is documented in a series on dry records of commissions for altarpieces of ever-increasing importance, of which the most astonishing is The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486), patron saint of the city, painted to celebrate the town’s liberation from the rule of Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan. Universally regarded as the artist’s masterpiece, it has been a treasure of the National Gallery, London, since 1864, and its exhibition at the Gardner is its first in America.

Abandoning his usual format of gold-ground multi-paneled tiered altarpieces, Crivelli sets the scene in a side-street next to the Virgin’s luxuriously furnished palazzo. The open-air porticoed gallery above her room features potted plants perilously positioned on the Turkish-carpet draped railing, accompanied by a pet peacock and a goldfinch in a wooden cage. The on the wall of the Virgin’s bedroom study hangs a shell laden with books and covered vessels. The Holy Spirit descends on a ray of gold conveniently entering though a peephole built on the side of the wall. Out in the street, the Angel Gabriel is accompanied by St. Emidius holding a model of the city. The men and women in the background are busy reading or chatting, and nobody notices anything save a puzzled little girl who takes a peek around a parapet. The most conspicuous item in the foreground is a large gherkin (or cucumber), which surprisingly is a symbol of the Virgin, referring to a Biblical quote from Isaiah: “And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.”

Highly regarded by his contemporaries (and knighted by Prince Ferdinand II of Naples in 1490) Crivelli’s fame did not survive his death in 1494–95. His obscurity was hastened by his omission from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, 1568). While Crivelli was first discovered by local historians in the 18th century, it was not until the Napoleonic suppression of the monasteries and churches in the early 19th century that he attracted serious notice. Many of his altarpieces (including the Annunciation) were warehoused at the Brera in Milan, and they caused a sensation, dazzling historians and collectors with their suave elegance and rich decoration. Italian dealers sought Crivellis out all over the Marches, buying whole altarpieces and sawing them apart to sell the pieces separately. By mid-century, the British in particular developed something of a mania for the Crivelli—there are 27 paintings by him in the National Gallery, London—and his pictures were an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites and other contemporary painters and very popular with the public.

There were dissenting voices. John Ruskin sneered, “That embossed execution of Rembrandt is just as much ignorant work as the embossed projecting jewels of Carlo Crivelli; a real painter never loads.” The early 20th-century critic Raymond van Marle offered the psychological analysis, “That Crivelli’s mind was normal does not seem to be likely; nor does his art reveal the mentality of a calm and happy person.” His figures look harassed and angry…” While critic Richard Muther luridly described Crivelli’s paintings as “so much golden perfumed tinsel…uniting childishness with moldy decay and archaic severity with putrid decadence. This perversity also explains why our own time has made a favorite of Crivelli…we love him as we love Gustave Moreau.” Even as late as 1964, Susan Sontag negatively referenced Crivelli in her seminal Notes on Camp: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers. Camp is the paintings of Carlo Crivelli, with their real jewels and trompe-l’oeil insects and cracks in the masonry.”

More typical was the 1885 assessment by the popular British magazine writer Fannie Amar Matthews, describing one of her favorite “corners” of the National Gallery, featuring “Crivelli’s magnificent old Byzantine altarpiece…a lovely Mary and the sweetest, godliest child, both mother and babe full of that intense innocence and purity that Crivelli always seems to achieve….the colors of the garments are rich in the extreme—of that fabled glow and softness that no painter of our time can hope to match or even emulate: and all the ornaments and insignia used in this composition…are apparently carved of wood, richly gilded and stuck with gems, and then put in place in high relief. The effect is curiously pleasing and quaint.”

But it was Bernard Berenson (who engineered the sale of Crivelli’s St. George and the Dragon to Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1897—the first painting by the artist in America) who offered the artist the greatest tribute, likening his aesthetic to the “freedom and spirit of Japanese design,” possessing both the “sweetness of emotion as sincere and dainty” as of a 14th-century French ivory Madonna and a “strength of line and metallic luster of old Satsuma or lacquer and which are no less tempting to the touch.”

For Berenson, Crivelli was one of “the most genuine artists of all times and
countries, and does not weary even when ‘great masters grow tedious.’” Coming away from the Gardner’s celebration and vindication of the artist, it is impossible not to feel similarly.

By Paul Jeromack

Pictures of Power Thu, 10 Dec 2015 00:55:47 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A rare collection of Eastern Orthodox icons comes to Norfolk, Virginia.

The Werhner Triptych, Byzantine, 10th century, ivory.

Mother of God with Saints, also known as The Werhner Triptych, Byzantine, 10th century, ivory.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Saint Nil Mother of God of the Uncut Stone The Werhner Triptych, Byzantine, 10th century, ivory. Cameo of Saint Nicholas Saint John the Baptist

Icon painting is a living tradition. Of the 160 rare icons now on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art’s exhibition “Saints and Dragons: Icons from Byzantium to Russia” (through January 10), many examples date from the Middle Ages. However, “they go all the way up to 2014,” says the show’s curator, Seth Feman, giving viewers a comprehensive look at the iconography of the saints, Jesus Christ, and the Mother of God through the eyes of the Eastern Orthodox Church over centuries of art-making and worship. Icons, which are most typically rendered in egg tempera on wood, are thought to be “windows to heaven,” having the ability to act as a pictorial gateway for communicating with the divine. Each icon bears the spiritual energy of the saint who graces it. Closely tied to Biblical narrative, artists creating icons today must use a template of Church-approved “originating icons.” These time-tested, powerful pictures have been said to have performed miracles such as healing the sick or rescuing a city from an impending threat.

The collection of icons on view at the Chrysler reveals just as much about the history of Byzantine art as it does the story of the Orthodox Church and the spread of Christianity through Russia. It is a collaboration between the British Museum in London and the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass.—the show’s first and only other stop in North America. In fact, before this exhibition of 35 icons and 30 related art-historical objects (such as cast metal objects, ivories, and engraved gems), many of these exemplary pieces had never been seen outside London. Prince Charles, as it turns out, was instrumental in getting the collection on the road. “The show began, as I hear it, in a conversation between Sir Richard Temple, an icon collector, and Prince Charles about the British Museum’s collection,” explains Feman. “Prince Charles learned that a lot of icons were in storage and felt that they should be shared and sent out for conservation.” Soon after, the British Museum approached the Museum of Russian Icons. “They have an extensive collection,” says Feman, “and seemed like a logical partner.” From there, the Chrysler Museum, which Feman says has professional connections with the Museum of Russian Icons, accepted the offer to show the exhibition throughout the fall and winter.

Diverging from the Museum of Russian Icons’ set-up, in which the pieces from the British Museum were shown in a separate room, the Chrysler will combine examples from both museums throughout the exhibition space. “We’re fully integrating them, with the understanding that most of our visitors will be unfamiliar with the material,” says Feman. Initially, the Chrysler wanted to organize the exhibition in a way that would trace the flow of the Orthodox belief system and iconography from its Mediterranean roots to Russia. However, thousands of objects would have been necessary to properly illustrate the journey. The Orthodox Church has its origins in the churches founded by the Apostles in the Balkans and the Middle East in the first century A.D. It gained followers throughout the Byzantine Empire (or “Eastern Roman Empire”) during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously developing a highly devout artistic style, which is thought to be more symbolic than realistic when compared to the naturalism of Greco-Roman art.

The Apostle Andrew is traditionally credited with the origins of Christianity in Russia, having made a legendary visit to the unfounded site of Kiev and foretelling the foundation of a great Christian city on its land. The icons in “Saints and Dragons” come for the most part from Russia, with examples from Greece and Turkey rounding out the collection. It can be challenging to identify the original location of many of the icons. “Some are ambiguously located,” says Feman. “There’s still work to be done historicizing them.” The organization of the show instead falls into four natural groups, representing popular imagery: “All Saints,” “Feasts and Holidays,” “Images of God,” and “Images of the Mother of God.”

Two exceptional icons from the British Museum make their American museum debut in “Saints and Dragons”: Saint John the Forerunner, an icon from Constantinople, circa 1300, and Miracle of Saint George and the Dragon (often referred to as the Black Saint George) from late 14th-century Russia. Saint George—a Roman soldier who spread Christianity while traveling with the military and was subsequently tortured for it—is perhaps the most popularly depicted saint in Greek and Russian Orthodox iconography. In the Black Saint George he is seen riding a black horse, lance in hand, vanquishing a dragon underfoot.

The Chrysler will be the only American institution to exhibit six ivory icons from the British Museum. These incredibly delicate pieces were unfortunately unable to be shown at the Museum of Russian Icons due to government restrictions on the import of elephant ivory. The Chrysler however, with the help of officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was able to secure permission to bring the ivory icons to Virginia—facilitating a rare and exquisite treat for museum-goers.

By Sarah E. Fensom