Friday, December 24, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Singular Visions": A Sometimes Magic Act at the Whitney

If an artwork is buck-naked, alone in an otherwise empty room, divorced from visual context, will boredom or a love match be the result?

That's the challenge set by the just-opened "Singular Visions."  The Whitney has set aside its entire fifth floor to show just 12 works from its collection, each in its own space, to permit, in the museum's words, "intimate and compelling encounters with a single work."

Intimate, yes.  Compelling, sometimes.  But when it works, it works very well.

With AA Bronson's "Felix, June 5, 1994" (above), the encounter is almost literally striking.  Bronson's portrait of the AIDS-wasted Felix Partz a few hours after his death has been all over the internet -- this is the work the artist has requested be taken down from "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery to protest the removal of David Wojnarowicz's video from that show.  ("Felix" is an edition of three; the Whitney has an artist proof.)  But the little thumbnail on the screen does nothing to prepare you for the experience of the actual artwork.

For one thing, it's huge, 7 by 14 feet, big as a billboard.  For another, the surface is in fact treated like a billboard.  The pixels are distinct, all blown up, flattening everything into pattern in a work already filled with patterns -- everything, that is, except the hands and face, which appear so compellingly, impossibly, alive.  The title of the work appears on the lower right, like a date stamp, fixing this moment into history.

"Felix" is in a room so small that it's impossible to back up far enough to make the pixels resolve or to take in the work as a whole.  It's a visual assault, and it's in accord with the artist's intent.  As the museum quotes the artist:  "I tend to exhibit it in quite small spaces so it completely fills your range of vision. . . . It totally takes over your senses and nothing else exists."

The Whitney performs magic with other of its artists as well. Georgia O'Keeffe's dreamy "Ladder to the Moon" (right) is in a jewel-box-like corner, bathed in subtle blue light.  Ree Morton's exuberant "Signs of Love" is spread out over two brightly lit walls.

There's a lot of gloom and mortality in the show.  Morton dead at 40.  Eva Hesse, represented by a spiderwebby latex rope sculpture found hanging in her studio after her death, age 34.  Paul Chang's digital animation with images of bodies falling from the sky, a post-9/11 meditation.  Ed Kienholz's dead old crone in "The Wait," surrounded by useless relics.

Sometimes, though, the art doesn't sufficiently animate the space it's allotted, for even a second.  Tom Wesselman's "Still Life Number36" just dies here.  Instantly perceptible.  Maybe there's an ideal vantage point for viewing Gary Simmons' boxing ring, but this isn't it.

(I would have liked to include more images, including details of "Felix," but the Whitney, unlike the Met, does not permit photography of works in its permanent collection, and the press office has so far been uncooperative.  Those images that the museum has provided to the press are lousy; they dishonor the art.)

"Singular Visions,"  Whitney Museum of American Art, Madison Ave. at 75th Street.  The installation will remain on view for a year, with periodic substitutions.

Top image, Copyright 1999 AA Bronson.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Painting 2010: It's Alive

Anyone who hopes or fears that painting is dead would do well to visit "Between Picture and Viewer:  The Image in Contemporary Painting" at the School of Visual Arts Gallery.

Yes, the title is murky -- forget it.  Yes, the catalogue is turgid -- don't read it.  Yes, the paintings are well worth seeing -- just go and look.

It's a strong show, with works by some artists affiliated with New York's top galleries -- among others, Lisa Yuskavage from David Zwirner, Josephine Halvorson from Sikkema Jenkins, Inka Essenhigh from 303.  One of the treats of the show is seeing these painters under the same roof.  Other artists are less well known, perhaps, but highly accomplished.  This is good stuff, and includes both figurative and abstract art.

Halvorson is the real standout.  Her work here (see the two works above) is lush, though it depicts the most simple and sometimes time-worn objects -- photo albums, wood boards, a cake pan.  Her palette, mostly browns and grays, is quite rich.  This is painting at its intimate best, tactile and personal.  If anyone could resurrect still-life as a contemporary genre, it would be her.

Perhaps because the show was put together by an art historian, Isabel Taube, and a philosopher, Tom Huhn, the selections seem to draw on art history in the best sense, not as a clever quote but as traditions absorbed to strengthen the present.  Alexi Worth's "Smoker and Mirror" (left), for example, seems to draw on Magritte, Essenhigh's whacky fantasies (below) on art nouveau, Halvorson on Chardin and Johns.  Most seem to jump past Pop and consumerism to seek out a seriousness of purpose.

Of the 19 artists, who are represented by 50-some paintings, the majority are women.  The show makes no note of this.  Hallelujah, on both counts.

"Between Picture and Viewer: The Image in Contemporary Painting," School of Visual Arts Gallery, 601 West 26th St., 15th Floor.  Through December 22.

Images, from top:  Josephine Halvorson, "Cake Pan," "Two Primed Boards," courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; Alexi Worth, "Smoker and Mirror," courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York; Inka Essenhigh, "Green Goddess I," courtesy 303 Gallery, New York; Joe Fyfe, "Dargah," courtesy James Graham & Sons, New York.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Poussin's "Ordination" Fails to Sell: No Export Ban Needed in London

Nicolas Poussin's "Ordination," one of his celebrated series of "Seven Sacraments," failed to sell tonight at Christie's in London.  It was offered by the Duke of Rutland, whose ancestors had bought it in 1785 from the descendants of its original owner, Cassiano del Pozzo, who had commissioned it from the artist in the 1630s.

This can only be a major disappointment for Christie's.  Way back in September it had announced the sale at an estimated 15 to 20 million pounds ($23.6 to $31.5 million).  It produced a video about the work and took the painting to France on a get-to-know-you tour.  The catalogue entry ran for pages and pages.

Bidding tonight began at 9 million pounds.  The high bid was 13.5 million ($21.2 million) -- not enough.

Breathing a sigh of relief must be the National Gallery in London, where the painting had been on loan with four of its seven siblings (one perished in a fire in the 19th century, and the series' "Baptism" was sold in the 1930s to department store magnate Samuel H. Kress, who donated it to Washington's National Gallery).  Had the painting sold, it was almost certain that the government would have imposed a temporary export ban to give the museum time to try to raise funds to buy it.  This would have been extremely difficult given the National Gallery's commitment to raise millions of pounds to keep other works from leaving the country.

Ironically, the "Sacraments" had been under an export ban -- from Rome -- more than two centuries ago.  When Robert Walpole (d. 1745) had tried to buy them, then-Pope Benedict XIV refused to issue an export license.  A dealer finally succeeded in obtaining them for the ancestor of the current owner, but only by having copies of the series painted and then smuggling the originals out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bank of America, Overseas Art Czar

Last week it became all that much clearer how enormous a debt Bank of America owes U.S. taxpayers. Not only was it bailed out with taxpayer money to the tune of $45 billion in 2008 -- we knew that before.  But the newly released documents from the Federal Reserve show that during the worst of the financial crisis and through April 2009 BofA and its then-new acquisition Merrill Lynch took indirect taxpayer subsidies of more than $2 trillion in the form of short-term low-interest loans. It has not yet paid them all back.

At the same time, BofA has been awfully quiet in this country -- nondisclosure apparently as much of its procedure in this area as it is in its mortgage frauds -- about its funding of big, expensive-sounding projects overseas.  As just one example, it's sponsoring an entire museum in Italy

That's right.  Although BofA didn't issue a press release in the U.S. that I could find, the Italian press has been busy reporting that the bank is the sponsor, with Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica, of the Museo del Novecento in Milan.  It's a new museum for Italian 20th-century art, and it's opening this week.

BofA is also sponsoring two blockbuster shows in Europe this spring.

On March 3, the BofA-funded "Afghanistan:  Crossroads of the Ancient World" is opening at the British Museum.  It will showcase more than 200 objects from the National Museum of Afghanistan, the earliest dating from around 2000 B.C.  It promises to bring in lots of visitors, both because of its dramatic story -- the artifacts had been feared destroyed after the Soviet invasion in 1978 and remained hidden until 2004 -- and because it includes lots of gold (a gold crown is at right).  According to British Museum curator John Simpson, "They are some of the world's most beautiful and priceless objects."

On April 5, "Manet:  The Man Who Invented Modernism," also sponsored by BofA, opens at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  It, too, is sure to be thronged.  According to the museum's website (illustrated with the Manet painting below), it is the first exhibit devoted to Manet in France since 1983, i.e. the first in a generation, and it will include a reconstruction of his exhibition "La Vie moderne," organized in March 1880 at the start of Paris's annual Salon.

BofA recently announced -- in a press release issued from London -- its most recent grantees for its overseas art conservation program.  It'll be giving money to institutions in Russia, Lebanon, South Africa, Ireland.  Westminster Abbey will even get some refurbishing before the royal wedding.

BofA's contempt for U.S. taxpayers is stunning.  It's not as though the arts here couldn't use some help.  Some of the finest museums in the country have had to lay off staff because of the financial cataclysm brought on by BofA, Merrill, and its mortgage arm Countrywide:  The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Guggenheim.

The Metropolitan Museum, little more than a stone's throw from BofA's shiny new New York headquarters building, laid off 14 percent of its staff in 2009.  The Fresno Metropolitan Museum in the bank's home state of California died in January.