All posts by Jody

Art Historian, Art Educator (Ph.D., 2001, SUNY/Stony Brook).

A New era for us all

Like so many things, Covid-19 has finally has brought this endeavor to a close (more ways than one). Hopefully, a re-invention will appear here soon. Go #Fauci; go #vax – two, three, four — whatever it takes. #Stopthespread … stay safe.

Donna Festa, Woman with Protective Mask,2021, oil on wood
3.75 x 5 in. (courtesy www.donnafesta.com )

worldviews collide in “crossroads” at the met

“Crossroads”; a tripartite ongoing installation (check metmuseum.org for three current gallery locations)

With The M.C. Rockefeller galleries at the Met closed for a major renovation, just a few works from the permanent collection of African, ancient American, and Oceanic art have found temporary homes elsewhere.  A figurative sculpture from Mali by a Dogon artist stands out in one section of the small integrative exhibition, “Crossroads,” subtitled “Power and Piety,” installed at a crossing gallery between areas of, primarily, European Medieval art. The Dogon work is presented in striking juxtaposition with a German carved polychrome “Black Magus” — both are about life-size and probably made within a century of each other on either side of c. 1500 (the European work more securely dated); both assume distinct gestures that suggest animation.

The stylistic variance is stark—one with simplified, tubular anatomy and one with naturalistic detail. One emphasizing biological sex and gender (genitals; beard, puffed chest), one, a covered, ambiguous body–identified, a priori as male (king). Renditions of the apocryphal Balthazar, who met his regal peers from afar at the Bethlehem bedside of the (white) baby Christ, as a Black African were becoming popular in Adoration scenes throughout Europe at this time this was made. So one is an insider and one an outsider vision of an African spiritual “ancestor”? Through this pairing I saw the European work as more votive than in more pervasive formal contexts of early Renaissance naturalism. So that was … expansive. Both sculptures tap into ancestor worship common to most mystic traditions. One subsumes and familiarizes an “other” for its intended viewers, while the others portrays a shared idealistic view of forbears.

The eroded condition of the Dogon work probably is due partly to ritual use outdoors and its periodic moving in and out of storage. Its aesthetic value in its own society depended on its effectiveness in its intended spiritual functions–inextricable from its form. Not at all was preservation in perpetuity prioritized in this time and place for this object type, pace the mimetic magus meant to stand forever in the altar tableau in which he was first displayed. In fact, not much is known about the production, use, or transport of this specific Dogon work.  The brief accompanying text beneath the pair, followed by object labels, is rather vague: “Two wood figures embody similar responses … ” –  similar for/to whom? Don’t get me wrong … I really like this thinking and thought-eliciting exhibition. Its vagaries (almost any object and juxtaposition could be stretched to fit the themes) are also its strengths in potentially rotating the permanent collection in new ways.

Then again, oversimplifications implying close comparison can seem to force, in some cases, similarity over differance (sorry – it works here ;)–or a differentiation between object/image qualities and the paradoxes of culture-crossing that can illuminate.

The depiction of Balthazar seems individualized (i.e., portrait-like) and flattering in balance and proportion; a representation which, however, turns on the sartorial signification of European (“white”) Christian patrons to whom it was primarily addressed. Perhaps the museum texts could be a bit more probing – or, a provocation to viewers to question how and why and what this pairing might evoke about the past in various contexts–emphasizing the inevitable Western perspective/s in which these … effigies (?) are engulfed.

The veneration of bodily and object relics of earthly turned-to-divine beings is shared across the globe as well as time, addressed here with the juxtaposition of a French carved wood (with polychrome traces), stiff and frontal Virgin and Child (c. 1200), and a small-scale, intricately-worked Tibetan brass sculpture in the form of a stupa (c. 1500) or early Buddhist temple.  The Christian work has a hidden compartment, an element prevalent in many medieval free-standing images of Christian saints, partially differentiating them from full-on “idols” (challenged in the juxtaposition discussed above, as mentioned, in terms of the Christian work). In fact, this element is rarely emphasized in assessments of medieval sculpture for focus on developments in sculptural figuration. The Virgin Mary is “the church”– building, vessel, in Catholic theology. Inversely, the architectural stupa invokes the incarnate as well as spirit of the Buddha (along with some of his enlightened “helpers”).   

Other pairings in this section include colossi (some in fragment form) from Egypt, Rome, and Meso-America that obviously conjoin godly and earthly omnipotence. 

The two other clusters are somewhat more narrow and subdued, but interesting, namely Spanish interaction with the Americas and the Far East; and Greco-Near Eastern overlaps in “mythical beast” types. Collectively, again, the overall curatorial concept points to potential for creative, ongoing gallery re-arrangements of the permanent collection, on the heels of relevant ideological shifts in postwar museology broadly.

Botanicals and Beasts in two Shows at The Clark: Nikolai Astrup and les Lalanne

at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA:

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway, through Sept. 19, 2021

Claude & Francois-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed, through Oct. 31, 2021

Take heart, struggling artists. Just keep going and be sure to leave a few works with at least one person who will take care of them and perhaps facilitate your coming out a century later. Actually, Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is fairly well known in his native Norway as a tentative modernist on the heals of elder compatriot Edvard Munch, but hardly known elsewhere until a 2016 show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (London). Yet his work sits squarely within the European Post-Impressionist milieu of his time in engaging emotional as well as formal ways. He clearly moved away from naturalism towards highly subjective transformations of the visible world into pictures, on occasion broaching Symbolism, yet retained plein air effects held over from Impressionism. The collection of work here imparts an idiosyncratic painterly charm, tempered by gestural, impasto brushwork and content suggesting the metaphysical dimensions of humans interacting with nature. 

Beyond the promotion of personal stylistic autonomy and disavowal of mimesis as an art goal, Post Impressionism’s orbit reined in a catch-all European-defined “primitivism”–in Astrup’s case, fomented in depictions of regional folkloric–aka pagan, according to Astrup’s preacher father–festivals gathered in an opening gallery. They suggest blended earthbound and mystic experience, a la Gauguin in Brittany and Van Gogh in Arles and recall Munch in their swirling, smoky bonfires. 

Paintings by Nikolai Astrup at The Clark (6/22/21)

Following some traditional art training, Astrup, like Munch, apropos of interest in a questioning new art, sojourned in Paris and Berlin. His animated renderings of rugged mountains and spectacular fjords are kin to Alpine views by his German contemporary, Ernst Kirchner and others of the expressionist Die Brucke group.  Unlike Kirchner or Munch, Astrup enjoyed a close-knit married family life intertwined with the environment on a near self-sufficient farm-residence.  Think holistic healing idyll a la Heidi (the late 19th c. novel. best known from a 1937 Shirley Temple film). Several ersatz replications of his last homestead in the form of hi-rez photo wall paper appear in gallery corridors (as in the header image above).  A bit overblown (literally)? I liked this curatorial touch, considering the simultaneously intimate and monumental, transporting sense of place that his art itself registers. Somewhat ironically, Astrup died of pneumonia at 48, reminding of the probable many harsh realities not alluded to in these portrayals.

Among the engaging technical variations in Astrup’s paint application, breezy but deliberate dabs approximating botanical details stood out.  At times, swaying foxgloves, blankets of marsh marigold, and giant rhubarb (for example) suggest transformation from wood’s edge to wonderland. 

Foreground detail of a Nikolai Astrup painting at The Clark (6/22/21)
Nikolai Astrup, “Foxgloves” (1920); at The Clark (6/22/21)

Domestic scenes are conspicuously filled with cut flowers, towering plants, and table-top produce, and often include open doors and windows to meld inside and outside space.

Nikolai Astrup, “Early Snow” (1926); at The Clark (6/22/21)

A substantial cache of Astrup’s woodcut prints, most hand-colored in experimental ways, are also on display, along with some of the corresponding carved blocks.   It is obvious he shared a trendy interest in Japanese woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e “school” then flooding the European market, notable especially in his images of the local Mount Klauva as a repetitive, stabilizing stand-in for Mount Fuji in the protoypes.

Some compositions and ostensible subjects veer distinctly away from naturalism through awkward scale, and enigmatic, sometimes anthropomorphized shadows and objects (like giant coffee-pot silhouettes and scarecrow-morphing grain stacks); even a few anamorphic forms, like a rocky crevice or ridge that can appear alternatively as a skull or a woman’s body, can be discerned sparingly.  But it’s Astrup’s ability to convey the ethereal through his rooted allegiance to the earth that is awesome and uplifting.

***

Astrup’s pictorial nature segues nicely to non-human creatures featured in the sculptural work of Claude (1925-2019) and François-Xavier (1927–2008) Lalanne, couple-creators somewhat akin to the ubiquitous art collaborators, Christo and Jean-Claude.  Each Lalanne, however, generally created independent works, albeit with related content, namely, fauna, which they exhibited and marketed jointly as Les Lalanne. 

Among their signature designs are woolly-coated “sheep” seats, examples of which are included, some replete with cast bronze faces, some distorted and partial, first created by Francois-Xavier in the ’60s and popular with the European jet set.  

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Moutons de Laines (first created 1965) at The Clark (6/22/21)

Having seen some of these previously in outdoor settings, I wondered, at first, whether a glimpse, beyond the glass gallery wall, of still cattle in the distance at the edge of the Clark grounds was a site sculpture extension of the exhibition—not.  But a perfect backdrop, past a large cast metal fish sculpture in an architectural pool just outside the gallery that is.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Carpe (Tres Grande; 2000); at The Clark (6/22/21)

I found the large-scale bronze “flying rabbit” richly evocative, conjuring a prosaic Pegasus, an updated ritual Near Eastern lamassu, and a Brancusi fish, for starters.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Lapin a Vent (1994/2004; bronze)

Jointly, the collection here may insinuate inter-species development and mutation–discordant and slightly sinister–but also suggest blow-up toys in a futuristic 3D bestiary.     

The Astrup and Lalanne exhibitions are unexpectedly complimentary, each striving for a child-like visual and psychological examination of non-human living things as extensions of being.

Claude Lalanne, Choupatte Moyons (bronze; 2012) at The Clark (6/22/21)

 

Alexander Calder: American Modernist at Mid-Century tied to MoMA

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start; through August 7 at MoMA (New York)

Calder is renowned as the “mobile” guy whose shape-shifting sculpture inspired an industry of dangling decorative objects.  His prolific public art and high print yield has capped his status as among the most famous American artists of the 20th century, up there with the populist Norman Rockwell and Pop-ist Andy Warhol.  Equally feel-good and recognizable in his buoyant modernist metier, he shares with them a conveyed optimistic sensibility.  Specifically, Calder offers an accessible snapshot of European-derived abstraction between and immediately following the wars through an American roots lens.  This exhibition provides an overview via Calder’s relationship with and presence in the collection of MoMA from early on and throughout his career. 

Despite the many NYC venues where one might seek out or run into a Calder at just about any moment, I still appreciate a cache of his art just about any where, as in, most recently, the Whitney’s targeted show “Hypermobility” (2017)– and again here. Ultimately Calder delivers an unpretentious kind of elemental universe–concerned with opacity and transparency, shadow and light, mass and line–but also content-wise as in the actual universe, along with the micro version, our personal space. And therefore not “non-objective” per se; along with astronomical phenomenon, generative subject matter includes, prominently, an array of creatures (including human beings).

Indeed his earliest mature works are small-scale figures of wire and wood (good examples on view), quintessential examples of making art magic with next to nothing, that belie acute visual shorthand, low-tech ingenuity, and a certain humility. His later large-scale steel assemblages cut sinuous contours into space somewhat similarly, stretched out and opaque.

In his day, Calder was part of the art in-crowd (white, male) from the West to East Coast US to Europe and back and forth; exposed to Ashcan School influencers followed by Duchamp and Mondrian; and a recipient of formal training in mechanical engineering and art.  Still, much of his oeuvre seems a direct off-shoot of his childhood tinkering and memories, for example, adornments for his sister’s dolls, and formative experiences of the sky. Early commercial gigs included illustrations of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and images for a toy manufacturer—culminating in his famous artist-activated suitcase circus (Calder’s Circus, Whitney Museum) and entrée into the bohemian art crowd in Paris.

Much of Calder’s art is inhabited by a kind of child-like wonder, a vocal if elusive goal of many canonical (again, European, male-coded) modernists, prominently Picasso. Overall, Calder’s output comes across as authentic vis-a-vis art gestures derived from immediate, momentary reflection.

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start, at the Museum of Modern Art (4/14/21)

What Becomes a Legend Most? Kusama grand in garden setting

Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature, at New York Botanical Garden (The Bronx), through October 31, 2022.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is arguably the most famous living artist globally, her art widely appreciated and sometimes disparaged by diverse constituencies among both cognoscenti and the general public.  As she claimed decades ago, even more true today, her only rival in postwar art renown and notoriety has been Andy Warhol.  Her backstory is so well known, expounded by herself in innumerable candid interviews, that it has become part of her art in a way that exceeds the obvious intrinsic connection between any artist and her work.  Kusama has created for herself fashions that match her installations and collages that feature photos of herself interacting closely with her art. She has described her art activity as a life-saving compulsion that fills an emotional lack—a kind of neurosis for which she has been treated by mental health professionals as well.  A long-term symptom has been hallucinations, which at times “obliterate” (in her terms) her being.  Most prevalent are blizzard-like masses of dots, represented throughout her oeuvre. However, among her earliest such episodes, according to her self-propelled legend, was a flower pattern that extended from a tablecloth throughout a room; related representations tied in with her close examination of nature early in her art training (in the nihonga school). And so, an apropos and grand return to a garden in NYC, where she pushed her way into the avant-garde scene in the mid-1960s but also succumbed to mounting mental stress that led her back to Japan permanently in about a decade. From there, she laid low, art-wise, although she continued to make art and exhibited sporadically. She turned to literature in an equally frenetic way (including stories, novels, and poems, several awarding-winning; and she has continued, with a recent autobiography). A gradual shift back to the center of the art world was spurred by her appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1993–officially representing Japan.  Not debatable: a committed, prolific trajectory, from small works on paper to expansive canvases to sculpture and gallery-scale installations to an army of production assistants, and manufacturing and commercial design partners.  So what is hype and what is boring (you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all?) and what is purposefully, consciously repetitious to hypnotic aesthetic effect? Well, a lot of postwar art that is very interesting — imo. In these (and other) aspects, there’s a strong connection between Kusama’s oeuvre and Minimalism; mainly, it’s about the space around and between, as much as or in some cases more than particular images and objects.  Whether or whatever influence or osmosis of work by predecessors and peers (she has always claimed not – or at least “not much”), it is clear that, as in the case of Van Gogh, it is hardly the result of “madness,” although conveying insight into extreme psychological disturbance.  Hers is a a practiced, knowledgeable, studied oeuvre, vis-a-vis techniques, materials, surface, color, line, mass, scale, et al.

For my money (more on that below), veritably any Kusama show is exhilarating in some way or many. Bold and riotous; idiosyncratic and bombastic; predictable and inventive; individualistic and universal in its limited elements – namely, dots, and, secondarily, a netting motif, each possibly borne of deconstructed, isolated flower parts.  Thirdly, phallic forms, increasingly plant-like, which she derived as an apotropaic strategy to address her decried fear of sex (along with intimacy overall). Intermittent additions include pumpkins and eyes. Despite the immense size of and “workshop” participation in realizing her grandiose sculptural projects in recent decades, an authenticity of artistic mien and mission comes through.  Along with a wild and wacky sensibility that is freeing from the very idea of art analysis, contemplation, and, to some degree feeling. It’s nearly pure optical phenomena with a few thorny, metastasizing, tromp l’oeil effects that can suggest diseased sight. 

The exhibit spans Kusama’s career, extrapolating from the nature theme that is foundational equally with her psychic motivations. Displayed in three main indoor spaces and outdoors on the grounds, it’s a good walk to see it all, although it’s not as big a spread as several international traveling solo shows for the artist over the past two decades. Of course, you get the great NYBG as well–indeed, you pay extra for Kusama. Access to it all is a steep $35 (adults).  The current entry system, with tiered fees for varied indoor permanent and special exhibit points is confusing and not conducive to efficient navigation of the campus. Perhaps it’s time for museums to scale back increasing extravaganzas in lieu of reasonable visitor costs, or to otherwise limit according to specialized fundraising. Not to mention, it’s “rain or shine” ticketing and the stormy day of my reservation really put a damper on things — though still well worth it imo if you can swing the full fare.

I started in the lower library building, not far past NYBG’s main Moshulu Parkway entrance.  In the foyer area, a glass vitrines foyer hold strange sculptural “growths” that suggest alien, perhaps poisonous specimens; while a floor piece of glittering serpentine “phalli” rises in a cluster like luminescent tentacles.

From the exhibition, “Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library building (4/12/21)

Further inside are a few exquisite, very early works on paper that reveal a formative blending of botanical and cosmic with Surrealist inflection. Also introduced here are her complete repertoire of media and forms, including a relatively recent wall-sized, segmented painting with graffiti-like, all-over short-hand symbols, and an array of sculptures embellished—or blighted—with spots and sparkles. Pumpkins (as mentioned) are another staple–as they were in the war-time Japan of Kusama’s youth (as she has recalled).  They also evoke fairy tale play and Halloween-ish magic—the latter especially in a small, dark gallery found near the main visitor center/gift shop that you’ll come to later.  It features dotted pumpkin-shaped lanterns in a box of mirrors—not as fantastical as some of her past “mirror room” installations, but still engaging for its illusionistic infinity via simple concept and contraption, mashing up nothingness with stream-of-consciousness associations.    

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

In another part of the library building (one must go out and enter through another door) is a small “info” gallery with a mundanely presented timeline and small slide show of an early Kusama performance piece. You could skip that and just google later (if you didn’t already).  

Approaching the gorgeous conservatory building is a huge, hollow painted steel pumpkin sprouting “legs.” Inside, Kusama’s wide-eyed, over-blown Pop art flowers, along with a shining, half-hidden pumpkin piece, are inserted into bright floral displays—perfect.  A bit Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, Kusama loved the bronze of Alice and cohorts at the giant mushroom tea table by Jose de Creeft in Central Park, which she incorporated into staged “happenings” in the 1960s.

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; inside the Enid Haupt Conservatory (4/12/21)

Along a main thoroughfare, selected towering trees are animated with with red-and-white polka dot fabric wraps. From a distance, the brightly bandaged branches may signal Anthropocene distress, but also facilitate an impression of a costumed tree ballet. 

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Elsewhere, depicted cheery hybrid “organisms” can evoke the more forthright feminist biomorphism of Nikki de Saint-Phalle (playing over at PS 1 at the moment).   

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

A tour de force is the siting of a 1966-conceived installation, Narcissus Garden, in a pooling section of a stream (as in the header photo above).  Comprised of bowling-ball-sized silver spheres, it was first exhibited, unofficially, on a lawn at the 1966 Venice Biennial, where it caused a success de scandal, especially as Kusama tried selling off the orbs for a few dollars each.  Here, the myth of Narcissus—i.e., the death-drive inhered in his magnetic attraction to his own image, is brilliantly conjured up in the fractured pull of bouncing reflections into the dark water.   Jarring in its juxtaposition of nature and artifice from close up, as one approaches and recedes, the flickery elements blend, like Seurat’s pointillism, into a buzzy and beatific environmental scrim.      

A stand-alone “cottage” installation returns to the early flower hallucination described above (and other of her work through the decades), with visitors handed plastic flower tokens to participate. As you go through the motions, you may find yourself musing once again on the timeless metaphorical trickery of Lewis Carroll’s fun and frightening fantasy. A shrine to and sharing of potent poetic vision.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is kusama_flower_house_small-768x1024.jpg
“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Garden” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Goya and nft’s: tragedy and Farce (each in more ways than one)

Obligatory comment on the “nonfungible token” (NFT) craze;

Goya’s Graphic Imagination; at The Met, through May 2, 2021.

Everyone interested in any way in “contemporary art” must comment on the development and encroachment of NFTs — virtual-only stuff stored in cyberspace in that makes Photoshop-minded and delivered imagery seem archaic –into the elite art world.  In some ways, art collecting always been that way–i.e., about chancing a “find” that would accrue in cultural as well as financial value in some sort of tandem. There’s been admiration, in retrospect, for collectors and dealers who made and jumped waves, individually and as part of art world cabals, variously near- and far-sighted; in short, part of what reifies art, artists, and artistic directions in history. Almost too obvious to be said, media and materials as well as what may be, in many cases, mementos of a particular moment in historical time (aka artificial [human-made] things) evolve.   There is evidence that elite members of a number of very ancient peoples sponsored the creation of symbolic and/or documentary “tokens” (art; artifacts), perhaps musing far into the future. 

It has been a tenet of many art dealers working with living artists across at least two centuries: don’t buy art only as investment–barely such a thing as sure-fire in the early days; make sure you like it as art or you may ultimately be very disappointed in more ways than one. Somewhere c. 1990 (formulating gradually under Reaganomics) that changed and so now we’re here with the crypto-currency crowd buying up code.   Who is shocked?

There is only so far I want to go with this after so much more explicit blabber, better and worse; honestly, I am not that interested. The idea that novelty per se in any form seems to have a kind of instinctual appeal and titillation for many, itself provokes mild curiosity. Specifically, I do believe the recent rise of this one particular $million sale of an NFT by the artist Beeple this week marks a pending final death knell for a postwar art world that survived the first decades of the new millennium (for better and worse).   Late boomers (me) have remained tethered to a mixed sensual and psychic interaction with art by any means (i.e., art in person, wherever, however – even if its in a booth or isolated place on a screen yet presented as the surround of the art). Traipsing through the galleries and museums of NYC for all sorts of reasons and non-reason and in many different hats and contexts–that was a norm and a boon and a privilege in New York for the art-leaning (in myriad directions). Whatever the exclusionary, financial-and-other scandal-laden networks of elite New York art dealers and galleries for several centuries now, the fact remains that their respective office spaces (as it were) have been largely open to anyone to peruse art for free. For many of us art-loving plebes the galleries were en route every day or a frequent small detour, if not a full-blown scene. That “norm” has drastically changed now in more ways than one. Veritably all art and general interest journals and newspapers cover physical art through online interaction.  Covid-19 of course is tied up in the kind of synchronistic event that is the Beeple sale. Certainly the gallery sphere appears to be headed to a wholly virtual reorganization very quickly. Likewise, some museums, spurred by the pandemic to be sure, are nearly saturated, even in online presentations, with digital bells and whistles.  So this blog was started at the the tail end of that era and the crest of addiction to “art on Instagram” that everyone acquired in isolation. We’ll see what happens.

For the moment, I reacted to the hype with an antidote–the sensitive, Gothicizing works on paper of Goya at The Met.  Goya is a good go-to when the going gets bad. His often cryptic, sometimes oddly breezy iconography of fear and suffering, especially that humans directly provoke in each other, are visceral at intimate scale, close-up, IRL. I find myself taking, or looking for, “sides” with Goya–not so much politically drawn as emotional and spiritual, in terms of reactions to his miniature mis-en-scenes–here fluid ink-washed drawings are included with his signature scratchy etchings. Images from some of his most renowned series,such as the intricately brutal Disasters of War, still shock–thank goodness. Also included are a few studies of more mainstream period subjects to remind of the stature, training, and assorted patronage of the “enlightened” artist; but the disturbing ones remain most compelling and communicate a soul-searching creative, as well as a unique artistic hand.

Looking at Norman Rockwell at a time of National Crisis*

*Below is the initial musing … . For an edited version with repros: Reconsidering Norman Rockwell.

Looking at Rockwell paintings, and a show of photographs by Pops Peterson on view through May 2021, at the Norman Rockwell Museum

The work of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) resonates in new ways in the age of the Covid pandemic, the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and the Biden/Harris inauguration. 

Prolonged pandemic relocation has led to explorations of art venues I probably never would have sought out otherwise—such as the Norman Rockwell Museum, located in the pre-Revolutionary-established village of Stockbridge, MA, by far the most popular museum in a region that encompasses The Clark and MassMoCA (according to mainstream touristic press in recent decades).  Recent national events relative to what and who and where America has been and hopes for its future spurred me on.

Opened in 1969 with the facilitation of the artist, who spent the last two decades of his life in the town, the museum was reestablished on new grounds in 1993, along with Rockwell’s last studio. Since then Rockwell’s art historical and market stock has risen incrementally. Previously, art cognoscenti generally resisted consideration of Rockwell as a serious artist, per se. His populist success was his failure, to paraphrase Arthur C. Danto, who begged to differ, based mainly on Rockwell’s ability to tap emotion in viewers (google Danto, “Age of Innocence,” The Nation, Jan. 7, 2002). The millennial (final) fall of canonical modernism as the only path for artists who had their proverbial hand on the pulse of their times has also opened onto new critical looks at Rockwell. Straight away I will say that, beyond these somewhat dissipated debates about Rockwell’s intent as a painter (i.e., artist) on the one hand and an illustrator (aka picture-maker-for-hire) on the other, seeing his original paintings first hand if you know them only through repros and adaptations for print will probably effect your assessment of his oeuvre.

Rockwell has been best known, at least until recently, for idealized representations of white-American-middle-class life from the eve of WWI to the 1960s. His mid-century pictorial appeal (in dual senses) to viewers overlapped with emerging tropes in advertising and television programming; indeed, familiarity with timely iconographic cues were key to his quickly amassed faithful following, facilitated through his long affiliation with the Saturday Evening Post.  Over 300 of his cover illustrations for the publication spanning five decades are on long-term view on the ground floor of the museum.  The installation reads as a collective visual history of changing fashions, gadgets, transportation modes, public persons, holiday trends, and a mostly upbeat view of two world wars and their veterans.  Beyond certain cliché settings and very light humor, and along with impressive, detailed realist style, Rockwell’s prosaic humanism (for lack of better term) seems to have rung true with diversifying viewers over time.  In fact, his seeming knack for capturing human postures and expressions, and apparent technical skill were diligently nurtured through art school in his native Manhattan. From there, he relocated to rural Vermont, where he became famous as the Boy Scouts of America artist who immortalized the local ginger-headed kids, apple pie moms, Barney Fife policemen, et al., –in carefully arranged set-ups to be sure—carried to a climactic phase in Stockbridge. 

Rockwell considered himself an illustrator, unabashedly, although he admired “fine artists,” especially historical painters, suggested in many paintings worth dissecting formally as well as thematically. These are found on the main floor, most ultimately related to Saturday Evening Post covers. Currently, as with most museums in the Covid era, exhibitions focus on works in the collection, sometimes in lieu of cancelled or postponed shows and open-ended. Here, several ostensibly discrete permanent and special displays run into each other–it doesn’t much matter the order in which one meanders through the apropos New England-Classical galleries. A tour de force is Shuffleton’s Barbership (1950), in terms of spatial illusion, narrative detail and simulated texture–far more complex than a functional printing guide need be. (It’s on view here via long-term loan agreement from the Los Angeles Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in 2018 after its controversial deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum of Art). Apparently deferring to the demands of producing lucrative mass media, Rockwell exhibited paintings intermittently but sold relatively few; thus, the cache he had in store for posterity here.

Several galleries comprise an abridged version of a previously traveling exhibition, “Imagining Freedom,” and includes graphics by peer artists of the WWII era in the museum’s expanded collection. The star is Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series of four paintings and related studies and resultant prints. Based on points enumerated in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 address to the nation and created to be issued as posters to raise funds for the war effort, the series secured Rockwell’s national ubiquity—and makes a great case for art directly effecting social action, judging by public response. Perhaps the most famous, Freedom from Want, aka the “Thanksgiving” painting (although other of his works include “Thanksgiving” in their titles and this one does not), benefits in person from the nuanced perspective that seats you at the depicted dinner table. This work has been as copiously appropriated in diverse visual culture as its precedent kin, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).

Today Rockwell is increasingly known for his late forays into topical Civil-Rights subjects, which led to his break with the Saturday Evening Post and an affiliation with the more forward-looking magazine, Look. Prominently, The Problem we all Live With (1963) has generated an enormous amount of brilliant academic and pedagogic, as well as popular coverage in the past decade, furthered by an extended loan to the White House during the Barack Obama years, and the increasing activism of Ruby Bridges, whose seminal case of grade school integration in New Orleans inspired the painting. What could be more relevant than the 2020 Democratic debate in which Kamala Harris stated to Joe Biden her similar experience with busing in California? In fact a substantial amount of political cartooning and a brilliant manipulated photo meme by Bria Goeller (google it) on the incident referred back Rockwell’s painting. Standing in front of it was quite moving, the internal scale of the giant cropped guards against the child especially impactful at eye level. Rockwell photographed several young girls to model in a white dress he had created to develop the final composition, which helps qualify his brand of realism and complicates his intentions and ours in excavating its latent layered messages. Among his last works, studies and paintings from a loose series based on several brutal Civil Rights murders, are highlighted in a separate presentation.

The museum also mounts small special group and solo exhibitions of other historical and contemporary artists. On my visit, a big bonus was an intro to Pops Peterson, a Stockbridge artist who riffs on Rockwell with photo-based works printed on canvas to simulate (imo), a light impasto characteristic of Rockwell’s paintings (only discernible in person in both artists’ cases). Especially acute is Peterson’s version of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear, which foregrounds particular concerns of African American families as far as domestic safety, and an updated take on The Problem we all Live With, which reflects on its unfinished business after the Michael Brown police shooting and aftermath in Ferguson, MO. All in all a highly thought-provoking excursion.

Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Jan 31

Well, a bit behind the times (aren’t we all in veritable lockdown) …

I’ve had finally had a chance to reflect on this extensive spread at the Whitney—which sticks to its theme of influence and confluence vis-à-vis Mexican artists after the revolution and American artists through the Depression era into WWII—led by Los Tres Grandes, Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros.  All three had direct and indirect, personal and professional ties to the US and, in the main, were thus recognized by the Americans included here, several sojourning in Mexico at various points in their careers.

Near the start (main wall off the elevators and to the right, moving towards a central cluster of galleries) the tone is set by several characteristic Rivera paintings featuring Olmec-like soft geometry and folksy subjects mixing ancient, historical, and his own time. Following are other kinds of culturally and geographically specific scenes, painted, photographic, and (in one case) sculptural, by (among others) Frida Kahlo, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Rufino Tamayo, Tina Modotti, and Mardonio Magana.  Moving into direct juxtapositions of Mexican mural projects and WPA-type projects by Americans, an illuminating installation of mainly studies and disparate panels by Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton, along with other more and lesser-known practitioners of mural-scale art.  Collectively, a good sense of the kind of imagery that infiltrated the American public square in the period covered is conveyed–namely, a charged Social Realism. Peasant and proletariat protest, pain, injustice, and heroic workers, agricultural and industrial, are featured, gathered in spaces that mash together current, asynchronous, and symbolic political events and gatherings.

The influence of Orozco and Siqueiros, vis-à-vis fiery visual tone and gestural bravura on a formative Jackson Pollock is also given substantial attention, reminding of Pollock’s art journey beyond the hype.      

One pending critical quandary (still thinking): the inclusion of several wall-papered repros of murals that go beyond documentation into a kind of simulacrum. Especially so here with a huge image of Rivera’s famous Controller of the Universe fresco (Bellas Artes, CDMX), the result of a famous controversy over a commission for Rockefeller Center, covered through ephemera here.  This work is crucial to the trajectory of the exhibition and the impulse to give a sense of its scale is understandable.  At the same time, at this moment when online art viewing has been rapidly disintegrating lines between virtual and physical art, an alternative, expanded documentation with additional related original studies might have been another route.  Being very picky, I also felt coverage of Siqueiros’s recently restored Los Angeles mural, Tropical America (1932), a scathing anti-colonialist visual tract centralizing the crucifixion of a Native American that was ultimately covered and hidden for decades, could have been given more context, although its recent recuperation is past the scope of this exhibition. BTW, note the powerful foreshortening, overall, in Siqueiros.     

Mardonio Magana, Motherhood, 1931 (collection: Museo de arte moderno, INBAL, Mexico City; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)
David Siqueiros, Revolutionary March, 1935 (collection Palm Springs Art Museum; at the Whitney, 10/30/20)

Who’s teaching arts online in this first full covid-19 semester?

‘Nuff said — hope to be back here soon 🙂

I’ll just mention, don’t miss Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at The Met, through October 26, 2020. An astutely organized display of intriguing objects whose creators and their cultures interacted in known and most likely still unknown ways over time throughout the Sahel (aka Central Sudan region)–as seen in intermittently shared forms, subjects, themes.

Installation shot of sculpture of the Bamana (with headdresses/distinct hanging hairstyle) in "Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara" at The Met (9/12/20)
Installation shot of Bamana sculpture (with headdresses/distinct hanging hairstyle) in “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at The Met (9/12/20)

It’s a wrap: R.I.P. Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Detail of “Reichstag Wrapped” (Berlin, 1995).  Photo: Oscar Wagenmans, 2019; Wikipedia Creative Commons / ShareAlike 4.0 International]

The death of the amazing Christo sent me back to the musing mode and keyboard — there’s so much to say . . .

At this scariest of points in baby-boomers’s lives, we’re partly reflecting on the gradual loss of artists we grew up with, who have excited and guided us–the latest, for many, Christo (b. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, June 13, 1935, Bulgaria; d. May 31, 2020, New York City). His art journey began within the propagandistic parameters of a repressive Communist society and ended at the pinnacle of the international avant-garde.  No one familiar with his oeuvre would dismiss it with his pop-cultural reputation as preeminent “wrap artist”–at the same time, not that far off–and through the decades, an endearing and referential sobriquet across many aesthetic constituencies.

Among his earliest widely known works, wall objects he called “empaquetages” (“packages”; late 1950s-early 1960s) were associated with the loose “Nouveau realisme” movement and portended what was to come. Critics have turned to Man Ray’s Dada sculpture, “L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920), a mysterious blanket-covered ready-made, as a suggestive precedent.  Within a decade he had begun creating the quintessential environmental works for which he became famous, in collaboration with Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon aka Jeanne-Claude (born the same day as Christo; d. 2009).  Most of their work features miles of industrial-strength fabric swathed, bunted, and/or wrapped with roping over buildings and landscapes, sometimes incorporating added structural elements.  Google “Wrapped Coast,” (1969, Sidney, Australia), in which fabric hugged and billowed from seaside cliffs, and “Valley Curtain” (1970; Rocky Mountains, Colorado), in which a seamed, continuous length of cloth is hung on cables above an expanse of remote terrain.  One of my favorites, “Surrounded Islands” (1983, Biscayne Bay, Miami) resembled, from aerial views, a Monet waterlily painting for the gods.  As well as innovative forms and spatial conceptions, there are political dimensions encoded in most of their works based on place, perhaps climactic “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995, Berlin).  

As can be imagined, administrative work related to the logistics and legal codes involved with realizing such projects normally necessitated long gestation periods from the drawing board to 3-D fruition.  “The Gates” (2005, Central Park, New York) took over two decades of negotiating and planning to become, ultimately, a shared point of pride for us locals who followed its newsworthy genesis from early controversies to celebration. 

It is sobering to recall, at this critical moment of the world refugee crises, Christo’s WWII-era escape from brutal regimes in Bulgaria and then Czechoslovakia.  From Prague he made it to Vienna as a rail car stowaway; and on to Geneva and Paris—technically a stateless person for over a decade before receiving U.S. citizenship in 1973.  At the same time, he maintained certain Socialist, even Communist skepticism about the “culture industry” in capitalist society—namely, the connections between patronage and art content and context.  He refused economic support for the public works so that they could not be ideologically distorted or piggy-backed upon by sponsors. Instead his site work relied on revenue from related conventionally portable work such as sketches, plans, and dramatic photographs.  The installations were not for sale (via diagrams and permissions as is common for Conceptual artists), but exhibited temporarily and de-assembled, with salvaged materials reused or redistributed.   

Christo’s oeuvre explored and offered a multiplicity of meanings about what art might be in the general and specific. Look for a proliferation of forthcoming material over the next few decades about it all–most of it sure to be fascinating.