Artist of the Month: Francisco de Goya

Artist of the Month (December)

Francisco de Goya

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A Giant Seated in a Landscape, sometimes called “The Colossus” (by 1818), copyright belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2016. Not on display.

There is something dark and deeply disturbing about the work of Spanish Romanticist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Goya once said that he only had three teachers: nature, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. It is easy to see the penetrative, noirish tones of Rembrandt and the structural depth of Velazquez in his work, but nature? Take, for example, Goya’s Los Caprichos, a series of 80 aquatint and etching prints, and a set called The Disasters of War, considered by art historians “a protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising.” They depict marginal elements of the human narrative: writhing bats and reptilian figures; skeletal, starving people plagued by famine; twisted interactions; bizarre romances; and eerie, mythic monsters. Yet to write these pieces off as dystopian and artificial is fallacious, for the Los Caprichos personas, however fantastical, seem intended as the physical manifestations of mankind’s spiritual demons and gory products of evil gone unabated. (more…)

Max Beckmann at the Met, Reviewed

On the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum, past the Greco-Roman relics and on your way into European sculptures, is the airy but contained gallery housing Max Beckmann in New York through February of next year. Compact, light, and unassuming, the show is rather excellent: the wall text adequate and not too imposing, the paintings both palatable and intense. It is exactly the kind of exhibition that is easy to digest and worth digesting. The history behind it is simple: Beckmann, typically classified as a German Expressionist, resided in New York from 1949 through his death in 1950, having originally fled to Holland from his native country under Hitler’s regime. Fourteen of the 39 pieces were created in this brief interlude, while the 25 others are earlier works from New York collections. The paintings’ subjects are the artist himself; various interiors and landscapes; nightlife spectacles; voluptuous figures, mostly female; artists or performers; and strange, chimerical scenes. Common devices include Beckmann’s trademark broad, black strokes, strong color pairings, and emphasis on large, jointed body parts, especially the hands.  (more…)

Artist of the Month: Eva Hesse

Artist of the Month (November)

Eva Hesse
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No title (1969-1970)Copyright belongs to the estate of Eva Hesse; courtesy of Hauser & Wirth (see here).

November is a month of struggling. We wake up from October’s slumber to a world cruel and cold. I was having trouble making art and I listened to Benedict Cumberbatch performing Sol LeWitt‘s profanity-ridden letter to Eva Hesse about what to do when this happens: just go for it, create. So I read up on Eva, elusive character that she is. There’s a lauded documentary about her, and if you like her work, you’re probably more “in the know” than not. It’s complex and confusing, centered on abstract concepts like sensuality and mortality in her manipulations of material, tangible things. I wanted to understand her to tap into that, myself. Her childhood suffering and tremendous trauma (see below) shaped all that she did. But Eva went beyond her pain. I wanted to use her strength as a roadmap for attempting transcendence, too. I have so much to pour in but often feel impotent, artistically blocked. I’ll share with you what I’ve found on Eva, what’s guided me this past week to finally do.

Here is her bio, by Artsy:

One of the first to work with synthetic materials like fiberglass, latex, and plastic, Eva Hesse is best-known for her innovative sculptures, dubbed Postminimalist for the time and style in which they were made. Reacting to the rigidity and uniformity of Minimalism, Hesse’s sculptural forms appear soft, slack, and uneven, conveying a human sensibility. A pioneering feminist artist, Hesse desired, in her own words, to “challenge the norms of beauty and order.” Hesse’s painful childhood—having fled Nazi Germany followed by her mother’s suicide—significantly impacted her artmaking, prompting close friend and art historian Lucy Lippard to describe Hesse’s work as a “materialization of her anxieties.” Hesse’s artistic engagement with her own psychology is apparent in her Spectre paintings, where she uses muted tones and a thick and gestural application of paint to create haunting pictures reminiscent of Munch.

The Art Story website has an equally excellent version, which includes a timeline and some of her best works.

Onwards and Upwards with Sally Mann

Above photograph by the author. Depicts pieces in the show.

Gagosian Gallery on Madison is still showing Sally Mann – Remembered Light: Cy Twombly in Lexington, and it is worth a visit. This is Mann’s homage to the late artist, a close friend and mentor from their joint hometown of Lexington, Virginia. The photographs are not exclusively posthumous tributes: she took them from 1999 through 2012, both while Twombly was still alive and during the year after. The exhibition is incredible, intimate. Mann captures his studio: ordinary objects, dirty floors, leftover supplies, scratched walls, lamps, window shades gaping just-so. The “artist” as an entity is present without ever showing his face.

At the front of the space are smaller, edgier pieces that are objective and distant from the viewer; at first, Mann does not infuse any kind of personal history into her studies. She is careful, reticent, holding back. Her connection with Twombly seemingly deepens as one proceeds further into the show; they grow closer, are “in dialogue,”per say (and I mean it). Mann seems to be talking to him through her photographs. A paradox: she grasps in vain for Twombly, but navigates her way through his sea of stuff seamlessly, comfortably. Her characteristic filmy gaze renders the works time-capsules; she presses pause and breathes it all in sensing Twombly’s mortality, reminded of the fragility of his art and her own. One becomes aware of how invested Mann is in her subjects; this exercise is rooted in her memories of him, not just in places and material things. Spaces are illuminated according to blurred choices: near-blinding clinical whites evolve into warm, homey creams. Gothic noir meets residue of human existence; Twombly’s habitat is rendered fondly in his passing. Someone was there, Mann tells us. Her works are honest; refreshing, but familiar. Vignette-like shading recalls Kathy Ryan‘s “Office Romance.” A collection of images by NY Times Magazine‘s director of photography, it is published by Aperture and absolutely stunning, a great reference point by radiating simplicity, asking readers to explore what kinds of shadows and natural designs might we encounter on a daily basis, allowing us to both escape and embrace reality. Mann’s quiet, ethereal take on Twombly’s setting is very much in the same vein. Meditating on mourning, she asks, softly: what becomes of us when we’re gone? What happens to the tangible relics and voiceless remnants of who we were that are left behind?

Remembered Light is on through October 29th. In this article, she also invokes her departed son, Emmett in explaining her preparations for the show. Transcending grief is a major focus of the exhibit, and one Mann tackles admirably.

The Artist As a Multi-Hyphenate

Above photograph adapted from Daniel Kramer’s original. Assumedly copyright of the latter.

News from Stockholm this week (I think word first appeared on Thursday) that Bob Dylan would be this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature was met with much media buzz. Critics debated: is he– a poet or bard, at best– deserving of the esteemed Prize? Does Dylan hold a candle to past recipients; is he a prosaic match for Toni Morrison, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Many, like Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, embrace his anointment (after all, the publication’s epithet is, in part, a Dylan homage). They celebrate his uniquely American scope, the possibilities Dylan brought to music as a genre and a form and his endless, Picasso-like ability to reinvent himself, stemming from his intimate knowledge and vocalization of the frustratingly familiar. The award even begs the question: does the Nobel Committee listen to the NY Times (given an Op-Ed piece from 2013, though it veers into cynical paranoia to consider whether yet another feted institution has become a partisan progressive mouthpiece, despite a reasonable supporting argument)? Well, either way, the NY Times contradicted itself in referring to him. And then again, kind of, ending one of its write-ups, unsurprisingly, with President Obama’s Dylan endorsement.

Each editorial outdoes the other in showering praise on the singer-songwriter of 75 years or burying him in scathing criticism. It is as if the Nobel Committee decided 2016 was barren enough journalistic territory that, for fun, it should throw a match at the press and watch it fan its own self-righteous flames. One wonders whether Stockholm is having a laugh at the vast levels of Dylan-driven contention spanning the internet’s expanse, then remembers that the Swedish are notoriously dark-humored: is this whole affair a polished exercise in sadism?

For a moment after I heard what happened thoughts like these materialized, exorcised speedily through the imaginary balloon above my head. Then I took to Twitter. “Hey, this is news,” I wrote concerning the announcement, redundant in the narratorial spirit of the medium. In shorthand: “And remember when Dylan collab’d with Gagosian?” I linked a review of 2011’s The Asia Series, a Dylan show at the famous gallery, also besought by much-covered controversy. The viewer cannot knowingly deny the parallels between his paintings and famous photographs of the Orient, despite Dylan’s defensive statements to the contrary: “I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that… I have the cause and effect in mind from the beginning to the end. But it has to start with something tangible.” According to Politico, his 2012 exhibit– entitled Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan– in attempts to overshadow or transcend the plagiarist flavor of its antecedent by riffing on Americana such as Babytalk magazine covers, for which Dylan has a soft-spot, an almost nostalgic penchant. Here, too, the oeuvre of notorious borrower artist Elaine Sturtevant, who received a retrospective at MoMA relatively recently, comes to mind.

The thing is that, unlike some ArtsBeat assignees, I don’t really care whether Dylan’s pieces are cheap or dull imitations or blatant copies. Even Chuck Close, great portraitist of our times, models his work on photographs. Another oils novice, Bush II, was not any more inventive than Dylan, clumsily drawing on results from Google Image search for his portraits of world leaders, all of whom he was in personal, often fleshly, contact with during his tenure in office. Rather, I am referencing this facet of Dylan’s career to spark a dialogue, much in the same vein as that about his Noble Prize in Literature, regarding the merits of having more than one finger in more than one creative pot. I could start spewing facts and figures about various cultural icons who have followed this path, or tell you to read “I Love Dick” by Chris Kraus, in many respects devoted to the subject of aesthetic interconnectivity, the bridging of the intellectual with the experiential and sensual, and what got me considering the quandary of the artist as a multi-hyphenate in the first place. Instead, I open it up to you, dear readers. This time, it’s me that’s asking: do you think Bob Dylan should be recognized for more than one thing, or heralded under the broad characterization of the literary arts, when he’s dabbled in other stuff, too (even sculpture, as of late)? To what extent is his sideshow a perpetuation of his whole act, and to what extent should it be divorced from his folksy protest anthems? Dylan is a case study, a test-run or microcosm of a large-scale issue that weaves the legacies of video art, performance art, slam poetry, and a thousand other movements, with their contexts and attached personalities. If 2016, year of newly discovered fluidity (between genders, especially), can be rebranded by 1964’s Times’ They Are A Changin’, maybe our approach of benign-neglect to how we look at innovators in numerous fields– e.g. through the singular lens of what they pioneer, rather than what they lightly toy with– should be, too. Let’s forgive Dylan for exploring, seeking to sow his wild artistic oats.

Respond with insights below.

Artist of the Month: Frederick Church

Artist of the Month (October)

Frederic Edwin Church
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Copyright belongs to the Museum 2016.

Ah, the Hudson River School, capturing the literal nature of what it means to be one with the world from 1825 through 1870! I recently saw this Romantic (capital ‘R’) Church painting, as well as a whole host of others in the same tradition, under the bright, promising lights of the Met‘s American Wing, a rediscovered favorite. In all likelihood, you will not get an accurate sense of the breadth of Church’s masterpiece (it spans 10 feet)– nor that of his mentor Thomas Cole‘s equally stunning and beloved work, View from Mount Holyoke– from the above photo. It deserves a trip to the Museum, a pilgrimage of sorts. But why Church to begin with? Who was he? What do we know about him besides the fact that he made really large and intricate pieces? (more…)

Comings and Goings at the Jewish Museum

When I reference other write-ups of art shows, I tend to cull from the “knowns”– the NY Times, the WSJ, all the major New York-based magazines, etc. And then there are the industry favorites that I sometimes cite, e.g. Artforum, Hyperallergic, and Art in America. Everyone has something to say about the quality of their articles and whether or not their writers are just making stuff up all the time in an indulgent, psychobabble-filled frenzy. Reviews are often rife with the kind of abstruse jargon very few, much less its employers, actually understand. What are the boundaries between allusions and illusions? Does anybody really know what they’re saying? And if not, then who is the art world’s naked emperor? Or is it not a question of who singular, but plural: in failing to challenge fallacies of the highest creative and intellectual order, is the public conscience accommodating them, therein helping to further a facade of complexity with nothingness hiding underneath?

But I digress. My point is that I love how the New Yorker’s editors, for instance, distill shows down into their simplest forms, articulating opinions about exhibitions with concision and authority. Many writers struggle to do as such. Others would prefer crafting longer editorials to demonstrate their skillful prose (though at times with weighty, bloated results). I’ve come to appreciate the succinct paragraph as an art unto itself. So as Fifth Avenue’s Jewish Museum transitions from its summer success– Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist– to this fall’s Take Me (I’m Yours), I’ve decided to defer to the masters. Below you’ll find excerpts from the New Yorker on Burle Marx and E-Fluxx on Take Me (I’m Yours), which I hope will inspire your own consideration of how critics express themselves and give a taste of the two exhibits.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist

As Brazil endures a dreadful conjunction of political, economic, and medical crises, the buoyantly optimistic designs of the country’s great landscape architect can seem like an elegy for a place that Stefan Zweig once wrote was condemned to remain “the country of the future.” Burle Marx, who died in 1994, was trained as a painter, and this broad exhibition, capped by a ninety-foot-long tapestry, highlights his omnivorous, cross-media approach: an abstract gouache from 1938, with fluid curves of solid yellow and maroon, supplied the form for a flowing rooftop garden in Rio de Janeiro, then still the capital. (The show underplays Burle Marx’s substantial contributions to the current capital, Brasília, though there is a brilliant planning drawing for the new ministry of the army, all jazzy greenery and syncopated lakes.) In line with the Brazilian artistic theory of antropofagia, or “cannibalism,” Burle Marx fused European modernism with indigenous culture—see his Portuguese azujelo tiles painted with free-form native fish. He also worked outside of Brazil, and those who know only his glorious promenade along Copacabana Beach, with its black-and-white tiled waves, should not neglect his similarly swank landscaping of Miami’s Biscayne Bay. The show takes a wrong turn when it includes lightweight tributes by contemporary artists, such as Nick Mauss’s faïence plaques and Juan Araujo’s appropriations. Burle Marx’s greatest contemporary relevance is that he put his imagination to the public good—an example that should shame the corrupt politicians who have now brought Brazil to its knees.

Unfortunately, the Burle Marx show closed on September 18th. It will be on tour at the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle and the Museu de Arte do Rio over the next year. Podcast about the exhibition available here.

Take Me (I’m Yours)

Opening September 16th, the Jewish Museum presents Take Me (I’m Yours), a highly unconventional exhibition that encourages visitors to touch, interact with, and even take home works of art by a group of 42 international and intergenerational artists, many of whom are creating new and site-specific works for the exhibition. The exhibition aims to construct a democratic space for all visitors to participate in the creation and ownership of an artwork, thus commenting on the politics of value, consumerism, and hierarchical structures of the art market. Take Me (I’m Yours) encourages shared experiences and direct engagement with works of art, suggesting alternative ways that artists can live in, contribute to, and gain from society at large.

First mounted by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Christian Boltanksi in 1995 at the Serpentine Gallery, London, Take Me (I’m Yours) featured works by 12 artists that explored concepts of value and participation in the arts. More than 20 years later, Take Me (I’m Yours) at the Jewish Museum features an expanded roster of artists and projects specific to both New York City and an institution of art and Jewish culture, including several from the original exhibition. In addition, the Jewish Museum’s installation marks the first time that Take Me (I’m Yours) is on view in a collecting institution, examining the role of museum collections by giving works away rather than holding them.

The exhibition runs through February 5th. Catch it on a Sunday and you might see me there.

Learn more about the show in this short video:

Artist of the Month: Sally Mann

Artist of the Month (September)

Sally Mann
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Copyright unknown (appropriated from Artsy, 2016).

I know what you’re thinking. Another MolaPola feature on a black-and-white photographer whose heyday was two decades ago. The thing is, I’m enamored with Sally Mann’s work. I couldn’t put off covering it, especially now, when the youthful, brooding, exciting, and sinister qualities of her pieces are actualized in my own life as summer fades to fall. There is so much to love about how Mann captures perfectly the prolonged complexity of female adolescence. Her monochromatic vignettes of the pre-teen years– shadowy, mysterious, glowing, and ethereal (I could go on)– resonate with me even as I near adulthood. The work above has this carefree joy unique to ages eleven, twelve, and thirteen as the lighthearted, love-the-world insouciance evident in the photograph slowly devolves into the hard-edged cynicism and anxieties of high school and onwards. Even when I was younger, I was never truly happy-go-lucky, nonchalant, or easygoing. I was always an introvert, deeply troubled by what I saw around me, forever shy and reserved. I’m still that way. And Mann also embraces this character (see Ponder Heart and Katie and Painting); her work attests that there are more of us serious types out there than one tends to think. But I idolize the girl in Untitled. Never being “chill” myself, I have great respect for her ideals; her freedom and mellow sensibilities remind me of a favorite 1969 Pippi Longstocking film. It is hard today to echo her relaxed comportment; other burdens tug at me, requiring my attention. I strive to embody her airy grace. Welcome, September.

Here is Mann’s bio, courtesy of Artsy, for your enjoyment–

While photographs of poignant Southern landscapes and historic architecture earned Sally Mann initial accolades, it was her portraits of girls captured in the ephemeral moment between childhood innocence and womanly sophistication that solidified her reputation as provocateur. At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988) emerged out of intimate, black-and-white photographs of her own young children, often nude, going about their daily lives—eating, sleeping, and playing. Besides eliciting controversy over her sexually charged images of children, Mann is noted for using large-format cameras—sometimes with damaged lenses that admit light leaks and imperfections—to reveal the uncanny beauty in her subjects, be they decomposing corpses, Civil War battlefields, or her own family. More recently, she has revisited the 19th-century process of wet collodion on glass plates, which captures fine details, but requires exposing and developing the film within 15 minutes. Limited control over the process leads to what Mann describes as “happy accidents” in her work.

Here are some lovely articles about Mann. Plus, read about these 20 young female artists pushing figurative painting forward.

Rodney McMillian’s Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1

Above photograph by the author.

I recently attended the month-long Cooper Union summer art intensive where I studied graphic design, drawing from life, and contemporary art issues. I’ll be posting samples of my work shortly, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a response I had written for one of my classes after visiting Rodney McMillian: Landscape Paintings at MoMA PS1. Our assignment was to choose a piece and write about it poetically. I hope I accomplished this task. Unfortunately, the show closed on August 28th, but hopefully the image above and the following description will give you a good sense of my experience.

Out of all the pieces in the exhibition, I elected to write about Site #1, an origin narrative, specifically, for I felt it was far more kinetic and aggressive, emphatic in its blackness, in comparison to McMillian’s other works. I also considered it one of the most successful in conveying the appearance of a landscape, as was the artist’s objective, and thereby worthy of discussion. Standing before it, I think immediately of looking down from a helicopter upon a tattered relic of the past, the scene below transformed or perverted by industrial modernity, but somehow still archaic with its residual organicism. From above, I see flowing wellsprings; if I were closer I could walk the Bible, journeying through a desert of green gingham and leftover paint from construction supply stores. He cunningly employs an aerial view, so familiar an image style it has become contemporary visual currency, in the process of communicating the scene. But McMillian’s portrayal is also effective by way of his thick, goopy brushstrokes and the sense of friction in the work, visible through the juxtaposition of heavy paint with a light, delicate background. Myriad other contrasts overwhelm the piece: as an object, it is filmy and fragile, but from far away, it resembles the aftermath of the BP oil spill with its both inky and rough textures. Secondly, there is this anxiety, an urgency that pervades it– the viewer might get the impression that the work is asking him to decide what to see or what to feel– and yet it is also exacting, dictating, and demanding. There is a certain messiness to the piece, and although how it actually looks may not seduce the eye in its imperfection, its beauty carries through. I especially enjoy the fusion of a cracked marble surface, discernible via a blend of blue and black pigment, with the glossiness of the other layers, garbage bag-like in their stretchy sheen. Almost crunchy, I would say, if not for some lingering plasticity, distinguishing the central mass from tides seeping outwards. Site #1 has this unique synthesis of noir undertones– scratchy, bleak, and matte– with a superficial gleam reminiscent of nail polish and duct tape. Hardness versus malleability. Permanence versus movement. The vibrant aquamarine strands, which give way to the aforementioned fractured veneer, whirl as they ride in waves up an ebony river, rocking to an O’Keefe-ish tune of juvenile sophistication. They are intrepid in exploring expansion beyond the sheet’s confines, though it seems that here the artist eschewed this possibility, opting out of the third dimension exercised in neighboring works that conjure the carpet “sculptures” of Faig Ahmed. There are echoes of Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, and even famous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas illustrator, Ralph Steadman, in Site #1, which for me is part of its appeal. But it is the slender blueness of the piece, shyly confronting a suffocating barrier of black, that really pushes McMillian’s work out into the spotlight, enabling its transition from blasé obscurity– paralleling so much that has been done already by antecedent mixed-media masters– to importance or at least to being pronounced in its own right. 

The show was also reviewed here by Hyperallergic. Seph Rodney’s article compares the MoMA PS1 exhibit to McMillian’s overlapping Views of Main Street at the Studio Museum in Harlem. While aptly reflecting on the quotidian nature of McMillian’s chosen materials (in addition to the bedsheets, he also plays with furniture), Rodney politicizes the pieces to such a frustratingly self-righteous extent that their aesthetic merits are completely overshadowed.

Personal Reflections on Charles Demuth’s “My Egypt”

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My Egypt (1927), from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Copyright Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2016.

Charles Demuth’s My Egypt is one of the works that attracts little or less attention in the Whitney‘s Portraits show. Hidden in a small and crowded corner of the seventh floor, the piece depicts a “steel and concrete grain elevator belonging to John W. Eshelman & Sons,” in the artist’s hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, according to the wall text. It would not be truthful to say that I fell in love with it at first sight; my affection for My Egypt is founded primarily on a simple fact: Demuth painted the work in sickness, bedridden with diabetes and near the end of his life, looking out towards death with a certain resigned pride and introspective contemplation.   (more…)