Monday, January 24, 2011

"Project Europa": Francis Alys, Jens Haaning, and Delusions of Political Art at Columbia

Yes, art can shoot an arrow through the heart of the bourgeois West.  And yes, art can reveal meaning unmediated by the typical, almost requisite measure of distrust.  And most definitely, a ham-handed approach to political themes will stink out a show.

What's worthwhile in the just-opened "Project Europa" is that Jens Haaning does the first and Francis Alys does the second.

As for the rest -- well, this show, with 19 artists looking at Europe after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, proves once again that politics and art don't sit well together.  But it's worth the trip to Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery just to see the Haaning and Alys.

Haaning is represented by 10 photos of first-generation male immigrants in Denmark who are identified by Muslim-sounding first names (Aurangzeab above and Murat left).  They're shown full-length, seated or standing, matter-of-factly posing for the camera but presented in the manner of fashion magazine shots.  The styling information about their clothing and jewelry, with price in Danish kroner, is printed in the corners:  "Socks by Adidas 79DKK at Sport Master.  Underwear by L.O.G.G. 59 DKK at H&M," and so on.

It's totally disjunctive to see "The Other" identified by Western brand-name clothing and packaged like a fashion spread.  A send-up of the trappings of power and style and at the same time a democratic equalizer.

Alys's "Nightwatch" is a video of a fox let loose one night in London's National Portrait Gallery and filmed by its surveillance cameras.  Of course it's about government surveillance set amid a history of British power, but what struck me flat out was how, through the eyes of a disinterested camera, I felt such sympathy for that fox -- by turns bewildered, wandering, trotting, lost, looking for a place to sleep.

Maybe only in watching an animal can we tolerate emotions in contemporary art that might otherwise be considered too hopelessly naive to be taken even half-seriously.

The premise of "Project Europa" is that Europe has changed, and who could argue with that?  The end of Communist Eastern Europe is huge.

But this show is impossibly inept.  Not because it's overcurated, which any show of this ambition is apt to be, with loads of wall text and overbroad categories.  And not because of its simplistic history -- implying that terrorism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance are new in Europe.

The show fails because most of the art is reactionary.  As so often with art that skirts the political, there's a fetish for realism, as if that's the only medium for truth-telling.

Some of the work is pseudo-journalism with a frame, like the double channel video of war footage shot in Yugoslavia by Reuters and ITN but with an artist's name attached.  Some is so literal as to be tedious -- overcrowded living conditions shown by painting crowded rectangles.

Some is just tired, as if anything new could be learned from a staged video of a car blown up with accelerant or from the same-old, same-old graffiti of Dan Perjovschi, the Romanian artist who was a dissident under Communism and whose site-specific work in the hallway before you enter the gallery proper is perhaps the greatest disappointment of this show.

Tacita Dean, on her way to the Venice Biennale, has six smallish, lackluster photos of the partially stripped East German parliament building.   What I found most engaging here was that the photos were loaned by Baker Botts, the law firm of James Baker III, former Secretary of State to the first President Bush and still a big dog on the national scene.  Now that's politics meeting art.

"Project Europa:  Imagining the (Im)Possible," Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, Broadway and 116th Street.  Through March 26.

Images:  Second and third photos by Laura Gilbert.  Others from Resnicow Schroeder.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sotheby's Old Masters Sale: A Preview

Next week's Old Masters sale in New York includes a Titian, a Rubens, and an unusual portrait of a man with a Hebrew tablet proclaiming the Torah.  Here are some highlights to tickle your checkbook:

Until brief appearances this fall on a Sotheby's shopping tour, Titian's Sacra Conversazione, offered by a private collector, hadn't been publicly seen since 1978 and not seen in the U.S. since 1957 -- ironically, at the Cleveland Museum, which is dumping 32 Old Masters at this very sale.

Titian could do it all -- portraits, altarpieces, mythologies -- and his art was so highly valued in his lifetime that he kept kings waiting for his work.  But be forewarned:  He had a big workshop, and his hand here may be confined to the Madonna and Child.

Estimate: $15 to $20 million, the highest in the sale.  Yet the last high for a Titian was $70 million in a 2004 private sale for a portrait of Alfonso d'Avalos paid by the Getty, which, though it may still be a buyer, is selling eight works here.  Why's that?

Lucas Cranach the Younger's Portrait of a Lady is, judging from the catalogue photo, totally winning in character and costume, with a green and orange velvet dress and a black hat embroidered with pearls.  It sold in 2007, at the height of the art market, for $3.6 million and is estimated to bring $3 to $4 million now, roughly the same price.  This painting could prove an interesting price marker.

Very little is known about the Dutch painter Willem van der Vliet, but A Scholar in His Study, of 1627, sure makes me want to know more.  Judging from the photo, this woman is planted like a column, and how sophisticated and sensual are the white blouse against yellow skirt against flesh.  The meaning of this enigmatic painting of figures with masks has sparked a lot of theories; the Met's Walter Liedtke suggests that it's a warning against fraud.  Estimate:  $1.2 to $1.8 million.

Rubens' Martyrdom of St. Paul is one of his oil sketches, which rarely fail to impress for the artist's absolute mastery of his medium and his bravura efficiency in composition, color, and detail.  It's a modello done near the end of Rubens' life (he died in 1640) for an altarpiece destroyed in 1695 when France invaded Brussels.  Though small, only 15 x 9 inches, it should pack a big punch.  Estimate:  $1.5 to $2 million.

If you liked the Jan Gossart show that just closed at the Met, consider Adam and Eve by the Netherlandish Mannerist Joachim Wtewael of around 1610-15.  In this moment of temptation, both clasp the apple.  The work is oil on copper, which gives color a richness not possible with canvas or panel.  The catalogue gives no exhibition history, states that the work has been in a private collection for the 20th century, and describes it as "previously unknown."  Estimate: $800,000 to $1.2 million.

Perfect for stimulating after-dinner conversation in your living room, or anywhere, could be this work attributed to Antonio Campi.  I mean, how many 16th-century portraits can you count where the sitter points to Hebrew words on a tablet?  In the whole world, there may be one, and it's here.  The words read "Torat Moshe Emet," meaning "the Torah of Moses is the truth."  Estimate:  $150,000 to $200,000.

Also up for grabs:  a French papier-mache diorama and a door-knocker in the shape of a frog, the kind of things you might find at a flea market.  Sadly, too, there are remains from the Fresno Museum of Art, which shuttered its doors during the current collapse of the economy.  Cleveland, take note.

Sotheby's, York Avenue and 71st Street.  Exhibition: January 22 through 26.  Sale:  January 27 and 28.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cleveland Purges More Than 10% of Its Old Masters Paintings in Sell-Off at Sotheby's

In what's being referred to as the "largest sell-off from its collections in more than half a century," the Cleveland Museum of Art is purging itself of 32 of its Old Masters paintings.  They'll be on sale (including the landscape by 17th-century Dutch artist Philips Wouwermans, below) at Sotheby's January 27 and 28.

The thing is, Cleveland's Old Masters collection is none too large to begin with -- just something over 200 works.  That means that its Old Masters paintings will be reduced by more than 10%.  And Cleveland is pruning its holdings when it's in the middle of a renovation that will expand its gallery space by 30 percent.

The museum insisted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that it's not about the money.  Instead, it's spinning the sale as one about quality, pointing to two works acquired as Tiepolos being no longer accepted as autograph and a Bernardo Strozzi being so overcleaned as to be "a mere shadow of its former self."

Still, it admits that "the money is certainly helpful."

Indeed.  According to its most recent annual report, its investments and charitable perpetual trusts have declined precipitously, from $821 million in June 2007 to $560 million in June 2009.  In 2009, the museum eliminated 41 of its 300 staff positions and instituted rolling salary cutbacks.

Then there's the massive renovation project, begun in 2005 and not scheduled to be completed until 2016.  It's projected to cost $350 million, with a third of that yet to be raised.  "The renovation and expansion of the museum stands to play a leadership role in shaping the region's quality of life and economic rebirth," the website brags.

An economic rebirth in Cleveland, one of the country's most depressed areas in the chronically depressed state of Ohio?  Dream on.

Build a museum, get rid of the art.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Art Authentication, a Vice Presidential Sideline?

 In the junkyard auction of "urban art" at Bonhams Tuesday, a Shepard Fairey "Change" poster for the Obama campaign signed by the artist sold for 4,560 pounds.  Without the buyer's premium, that would be a little over $6,000.  A nice price for a 5,000-copy print.

Except this one had a letter of authentication from Vice President Joe Biden's office.  A cool sideline, vouching for autographed copies of the boss' campaign posters.

As the Bonham's catalogue noted, "This lot is accompanied by a letter from the Office of the Vice President Elect confirming that the work is from a signed edition of 200."

That office may not be wholly credible when it comes to art authentication.  The catalogue also states that "this print is believed to be one of only 200 which were handsigned by the artist and given to members of Obama's campaign team."  (Emphasis added.) 

So how many posters were thus "authenticated"?  Shortly after the Bonham's sale, a "Change" poster went up on eBay, this one also claiming to have a letter from the Office of the Vice President Elect.  Asking price:  $4,999.

It's tempting to speculate why the "Change" posters are being dumped -- another, number 153, was up for grabs at Swann's in November.  Change we can no longer believe in?  Maybe failed economic policies have required some poor souls to cash in for a few thou.

Image:  From Bonhams' website.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Leonardo's Ghost

If you haven't gotten any lately and you want to set your heart aflutter, go to the Met, walk up the grand staircase, hang a left into the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. gallery, walk to where the corridor narrows, and plant yourself in front of this photograph taken by Leon Gerard around 1857 (click to enlarge):

It's an image, an albumen silver print, of Leonardo's preparatory drawing of Christ for "The Last Supper." That is, it's what Leonardo's drawing (then and now in the Brera Museum in Milan) looked like a century-and-a-half ago.

At first glance you think, "What a wreck!"  The paper is badly abraded and appears buckled, the contours of the drawing reinforced by other hands.  But still, Leonardo's magic shines through, a testament, captured by a photograph, to what was.  It's breath-taking (unlike the drawing in its present state, which, judging from reproductions, is ghastly).

Turn to the right and you'll see a deep-gray, light-protective curtain hanging on the wall.  Lift the curtain and take in the lush detail of this dagguerotype taken by William Langenheim, one of Philadelphia's top dagguerotypists in the 1840s and 50s.

In the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. gallery itself are several  just-opened mini-shows selected from the Met's vast collection of 15,000 drawings and 1.5 million prints.

A group of German landscapes is overwhelmed by a large, wondrous sepia landscape by the great romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (above) -- by large, I'd guess something like 2 feet by more than 3 feet.  It's a small figure contemplating a vast nature, and shows Friedrich finding his trademark theme already in 1805-6, early in his career.

There are more than a dozen artist portraits and self-portraits.  Outstanding among them -- no surprise here -- is a Rembrandt 1639 etching in which the artist is done up like a courtier (left).

But there's also this unexpected Matisse intaglio (right) where light seems to emanate from the artist's hands, and a Cezanne of 1880 with wonderful, assertive marks.
Jaw-droppers include Seurat's portrait of his artist-friend Edmond-Francois Aman-Jean (below left), a large Conte crayon drawing that was his first exhibited work, and a miniature by the Netherlandish artist Simon Benig (below right), tempera and gold leaf on parchment from 1558.

In how many ways can women be portrayed as threatening or be celebrated, objectified, or simply beside the point?  The Met here gives us eight, in another mini-show, and it's an impressive list: by Degas, Gauguin, Munch, Klimt, Schiele, Otto Dix, de Kooning, and Sigmar Polke.  The Dix 1920 "Syphilitic" (below) whose brain is being devoured by women who gave him the disease, next to the anger in the de Kooning, next to the dehumanized sex objects in the Polke -- it's not easy to take.

After your tour, sit down, take a breath, repeat. On your second go-through notice the lovely Maarten van Heemskerck from the 1530s of antique sculptures in Rome that shows this Netherlandish artist at his best, with strong fluid lines and unusual vantage points.

Photos: Gerard's Leonardo, Friedrich, Matisse, and Dix by Laura Gilbert.  All other images are from the Met's website.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cezanne Survives the 'Death of Modernism!' and Other Hot Upcoming Shows

A preview of the shows that should generate heat during the cold winter months in New York.  

Cezanne's Card Players, opening February 9, Metropolitan Museum

Small Show Has Huge Impact.  That's the word from London, where "Cezanne's Card Players" is currently on view at the Courtauld Institute.  It's been receiving ecstatic reviews, with one powerhouse in 19th-century studies saying it is "worth travelling the earth" to see Cezanne's still "astonishing" portraits hung side by side.  The exhibition brings together for the first time three of the artist's five "Card Players," including the Met's (the Courtauld's is shown here), and related paintings, oil studies, and drawings.

Rooms with a View:  The Open Window in the 19th Century, opening April 5, Metropolitan Museum

Despite its unfortunate title, this show, organized around a theme rife with contemplation and longing, promises some great stuff -- i.e., works by Caspar David Friedrich and Adolf Menzel, two 19th-century painters inadequately represented in New York.

Menzel in particular deserves to be better known, and I hope this show will prove it.  His concerns with capturing modern life and the effects of light and atmosphere arguably put him in the same camp as the Impressionists -- he lived from 1815 to 1905, so he was roughly their contemporary -- but he was very, very German, and the collections here are very, very French.

(Above, a sepia drawing by Friedrich in the collection of Vienna's Belvedere.)

Richard Serra Drawing:  A Retrospective, opening April 13, Metropolitan Museum
The first retrospective of Serra's drawings, organized with SFMOMA and the Menil Collection, sounds like a whopper.  Serra has worked in unusual media, including melted paintstick, and on a monumental scale -- floor to ceiling and as wide as 20 feet -- making this the type of exhibition where reproductions can never suffice.  Some 40 years of work will be on view, including responses to the removal of his sculpture "Tilted Arc" (above) from Federal Plaza, sketchbooks, and films.

Picasso:  Guitars 1912-14 (sculpture and other media), opening February 13, MoMA

Picasso, one of the few artists in all of Western art who can accurately be described as protean.  MoMA will be presenting a small window on his work, just two years, but during that time he made sculpture as it had never been seen before.  The bookends to this exhibition are a paper guitar of 1912 and a 1914 sheet metal guitar.  The show will include 70 works from more than 30 public and private collections.

Rembrandt and His School:  Paintings, Drawings, and Etchings, opening February 15, Frick Collection

The Frick is doggedly hanging on to its attribution of "The Polish Rider" (right) to Rembrandt in its display of five paintings from its collection.  The new meat should be downstairs in the tiny special exhibition space, where it will be showing 66 works on paper and offering an opportunity to compare works attributed to Rembrandt with those attributed to his circle.

Glenn Ligon:  America, opening March 10, Whitney Museum of American Art

This midcareer retrospective will look at 25 years of Ligon's art with approximately 100 works -- paintings, prints, photos, drawings, video, sculptural installations, and neon reliefs.  The monograph accompanying the show sounds equally ambitious:  as described by the Whitney, it will have "an essay by curator Scott Rothkopf considering the artist's entire career, a text exploring the themes of literature and democracy in Ligon's art by the distinguished curator and critic Okwui Enwezor, and contributions by Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman, New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, LACMA curator Franklin Sirmans, and LA MOCA curator Bennett Simpson."  The show travels to the LA County Museum in the fall.

Will Ryman, The Roses, on display on Park Avenue's medians beginning January 25

For those who can't wait till spring, the Park Avenue medians from 57th to 67th Streets will display the sculptor's roses, some as high as 25 feet.  (The rendering here is from the New York City Parks and Recreation Department's newsletter, "The Daily Plant.")