Monday, May 30, 2011

Metzger's "Historic Photographs" at the New Museum: At Age 85 Artists' Hero Finally Gets a U.S. Museum Show

London-based Gustav Metzger — he’s influenced artists as farflung as Paul McCarthy and Santiago Sierra but may be best known here as the one whose work was mistaken for rubbish at the Tate — at age 85 is finally getting his first U.S. museum show.

It appears it’s just too late — or perhaps Metzger’s the victim of bad curatorial choices — judging from what the New Museum presents as “Historic Photographs.”    It’s appropriation art –  with photos taken by others — of the worst kind.

 The exhibition is a series of installations featuring images of environmental degradation and traumatic 20th-century events — children fleeing napalm in Vietnam, a roundup of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, Israeli soldiers standing over Palestinians.

Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, first version 1995, recreated 2011.  Photo taken 1943 with rubble added 2011
Metzger has blown up the photos, and sometimes obscured them and sometimes hidden them entirely.  The intent, according to the artist, is to make us experience familiar images anew, even physically — to break through what he perceives as emotional “numbness” caused by media saturation.

The series, conceived in 1990, had its first two pieces shown in 1995.  Its number has expanded over the years, as have its venues.  The New Museum is showing twelve, the most complete display yet.   As an environmental protest, neither Metzger nor his work flies, so whenever the series is shown it is rebuilt locally.  Everything at the New Museum was made in New York.

The series has been banging around in one version or another for some time.   The concept’s age shows, or maybe it’s just that the artist, once considered ahead of his time, has now fallen behind.

Radical Politics and Techniques

Way back when, Metzger was known for challenging the art world and the public with radical politics and techniques.

In 1959 he issued a manifesto calling for “auto-destructive” art — art that would have a short life because the work would contain the seeds of its own destruction or be destroyed by its creator.  It would use industrial materials to create a public art for an industrial society.

Destruction became his theme as well as his technique for attacking capitalism, nuclear weapons, pollution, and dealers and collectors who, in his words, “manipulate modern art for profit.”

Gustav Metzger
It had its origins in his own experience as a child who grew up in Nazi Germany.  He escaped to England as part of the Children’s Transport.  His parents were killed.  “Those twelve years (in Germany) totally dominate my life, and will do to the last moment of my life,” he told the Guardian in 2009.  For a 1962 show he described himself as an “escaped Jew.”

On the London streets in the 1960s, he painted large sheets of nylon with hydrochloric acid, which destroyed his “canvas” while creating beautiful patterns on it.  (See video here.)  He wore a gas mask, suggesting nuclear catastrophe and Nazi gas chambers.

In 1966 he organized the Destruction in Art Symposium, drawing artists worldwide.  Yoko Ono had audience members cut away her clothes until she was naked.  An Australian artist slaughtered an animal.  Metzger was charged by the police with putting on an “indecent exhibition.”

In the 60s he inspired Pete Townsend to smash his guitars on stage, experimented with scientific processes, and used liquid crystals to create light installations (photo here).  He’s been credited with inventing the psychedelic light show.

“Disgusting Bastards”

He took on environmental destruction in the 1970s, before other artists were even thinking about it.  For Project Stockholm, for example, conceived for a U.N. conference, Metzger proposed lining up 120 idling cars around a transparent cube that would collect their exhaust fumes.  In the second part of the project, the cars would blow up the cube.

In 1974 he called for a three-year art strike, saying artists should spend their time studying rather than colluding with rich collectors and institutions.  When artists didn’t join him, he is reported to have called them “disgusting bastards.”

Kill the Cars, first version 1966, recreated 2011. A beat-up car in front of a photo of a beat-up car accompanied by an audio intoning, "Kill the cars."

Metzger himself produced no art from 1977 to 1980 and pretty much disappeared.  He moved to Frankfurt.  He studied in the Netherlands.

In 1994 he returned to London and was recognized as something of an artist-hero by a new generation of artists and by influential curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist, who in 2009 organized a 50-year retrospective of Metzger’s work at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

"Historic Photographs"

Since his return, Metzger has been working on, among other things, “Historic Photographs.”

The exhibit, with its photos of violence and trauma, presents themes Metzger’s obsessed with and also returns to his own childhood trauma.

Half the installations feature photos from Nazi Germany, beginning with the 12- by 20-foot photo of Jews arriving at Auschwitz that confronts you from about three feet away as the elevator doors open on the fourth floor.  That photo rests on the floor, which for the photo’s width is covered with wood planks.  To the left, at right angles to the photo, are vertical bars that appear to be aluminum (view looking left from elevator, below).

It’s a far cry from the brash experimentation of his earlier career.

The first problem is the literalism:  wood planks = boxcars that took the Jews to the camps, the bars = the prison that was Auschwitz that also imprisons the viewer, a forced “you are there.”

Second, everything about this art is tired.  Big works in small spaces to overwhelm the viewer have been around for a long time. Enlarging photos to make 20th-century horrors present are a commonplace at, for example, history museums.

And disembarking at Auschwitz as a you-are-there, inescapable event has been an installation at D.C.’s Holocaust Museum for, oh, about 20 years.  There it’s Disneyfied — you walk through an actual boxcar seeing only a mural-sized photo at the end of it — but still, the concept is obvious, trite.

“I get it, I’ve seen it” infects this show.  A pollution piece called “Kill the Cars” is an actual beat-up car, its windows smashed, in front of a photo of a beat-up car.  A roundup in the Warsaw Ghetto is accompanied by a pile of broken bricks — the rubble of a destroyed ghetto (top).

With two installations, Metzger invites the viewer to become physically involved with the photos.  One you can see only by walking behind a curtain that hangs in front of it, the other only by crawling under a heavy yellow blanket.

Try experiencing art when you’re boxing with a bunch of cloth — not possible and somewhat ridiculous.

Anschluss, first version 1996, recreated 2011.  A viewer experiences a photo while boxing with a blanket.

Sometimes the photos here are hidden from view entirely, placed behind a piece of steel, for example.  “The fundamental concern here has been to reveal by hiding,” Metzger told one of the curators.

That sounds nice, but I wonder how history can be revealed if the facts are hidden, or how we can experience photos anew if they aren’t there to be seen.

The photographs when visible are searing.  They don’t benefit from Metzger’s help.

Kudos to the New Museum for introducing Metzger to a broader New York audience.  Next time, let’s see work that lives up to his reputation, if there is any.

“Historic Photographs,” New Museum, 235 Bowery, through July 3.

Photo of Metzger from Wikipedia.  Other photos:  Laura Gilbert

Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

U.S. and LACMA Seek Federal Court Help in Russian Embargo on Art Loans: Litigation as Diplomacy in Incendiary Chabad Case

A federal court in Washington, D.C. hearing Chabad v. Russian Federation, the case that set off Russia’s embargo on lending art to U.S. museums, has apparently become the latest forum for some extraordinary diplomacy in the U.S.-Russia art wars.

The case puts into sharp relief how Russia's nationalism and protection of its sovereignty have been frequently underestimated in diplomatic and cultural matters over the centuries, which occasionally led to war.  Chabad, for its part, is no stranger to making incendiary statements, including here.

Among other comments, Chabad's co-counsel in this case stated that it would use "any means permissible" to enforce the default judgment it holds against Russia.  "If the Russians are concerned about the art they send to America, I am happy they are concerned.  If they comply they won't have to be concerned," the lawyer said.

Chabad, a Jewish sect based in Brooklyn, is seeking to recover the "Schneerson Collection," an archive and library of religious books and manuscripts gathered by one of its leaders.  Russia, after an adverse ruling from the D.C. Court of Appeals, abandoned the case, saying the U.S. courts had no jurisdiction over it.

Chabad obtained a default judgment in July 2010 that ordered Russia to turn over the collection.  Russia fears that if it sends art to the U.S. it will be seized by Chabad to force Russia to comply with the judgment, and imposed its art embargo, according to a report by the Agence France Presse, in August.

The embargo has seen loans to the Met and National Gallery cancelled (a few are shown here) and others recalled.

Chabad is now seeking to enforce the judgment, and on April 4 made two motions that are currently before the court -- one requesting sanctions and one requesting permission to begin attachment proceedings.

Unexpected Maneuvering

In the last couple of weeks there has been some unexpected maneuvering by nonparties and Chabad alike.

The U.S. government is considering filing a statement with the court explaining “the U.S. position on the seizure of art loans,” one of Chabad attorneys, Seth Gerber of Bingham McCutchen, told this reporter.

The L.A. County Museum of Art has asked Chabad to stipulate that it will not seize any of the 38 art objects the museum still hopes Russia will lend for its “Gifts of the Sultan” exhibition opening June 5.

And Chabad has filed two sets of papers whose purpose is “for the reassurance of the Russian government” and museums, in addition to the court, Gerber said.

In the just-filed papers — one a letter from Chabad’s lawyers to the U.S. government and one the stipulation with LACMA — Chabad promises not to seize art that federal statutory law protects from seizure anyway.  To quote the letter, “Our client intends fully to comply with the federal law.”

Federal law -- the federal Immunity from Seizure Act -- protects cultural objects on temporary loan to nonprofits like museums.  Chabad’s lawyers have contended — to this reporter as recently as Sunday — that they will go after any of Russia's cultural assets that do not receive federal protection, such as those in the U.S. for commercial purposes.

Incendiary Comments?

Why would an organization feel compelled to state in court, twice, that it wouldn’t do something prohibited by law?

“The law has always been clear,” says Charles A. Goldstein, counsel to the Commission for Art Recovery and a specialist in art restitution: temporary loans to museums “can’t be seized.”  Chabad’s filings, he said, are simply “a statement of the obvious.”

Chabad, Gerber said, thought it “prudent” to file the papers to “clarify” its position because of extensive “media coverage.”  He acknowledged in particular certain incendiary statements by co-counsel Marshall Grossman and Nathan Lewin.

In February, for example, the New York Times reported that when asked whether he would consider seizing art, Grossman had said, “Chabad will exercise every remedy under law to enforce the judgment.  No exceptions.”

And the Jewish Chronicle, in an article that also appears on Chabad's website, quoted Lewin as saying that Chabad would use "any means permissible" to force Russia to comply.  "If the Russians are concerned about the art they send to America, I am happy they are concerned.  If they comply they won't have to be concerned."

Questioned about the statements, Gerber was quick to say they were consistent with the latest court filings, emphasizing the words “under law” and "permissible."  He also pointed out that they were made after the embargo had gone into effect.

Why had Chabad waited until now to clarify its position, given the media attention starting in February?  “No museums had  contacted" him, Gerber said.

But he knew that Russia had cancelled loans to the Met and the National Gallery?  He “didn’t know” the cancellation were “because of the ban,” which hadn’t been confirmed until very recently, he said.

U.S. Government Concerns
It seems the court-filed assurances were more likely the result of Chabad’s attorneys' recent conversations with the U.S. government and LACMA.

On April 4, Chabad filed its motion requesting court approval to begin enforcement proceedings.  Ten days later, the government filed a Notice of Potential Participation, citing unspecified “concerns” about the motion. The government stated that it required 30 days to evaluate the situation and requested the court not rule on the motion before then.

Chabad’s attorneys contacted the State and Justice Departments to find out what the problem was.  On hearing the government’s concerns about Russia’s cancellation and recall of loans — according to Gerber, the government was considering filing a statement of “the U.S. position on the seizure of art loans” — the attorneys assured the government in a May 2 conference call that Chabad would not attempt to seize artworks that were protected from seizure by federal law.

They memorialized that assurance in the letter addressed to the government, and filed the letter on May 13.

On May 16, the government filed a Supplemental Notice, stating that there had been “certain recent developments,” including Chabad’s May 13 filing, and that it needed another 30 days to “evaluate the impact” of that submission.

LACMA then contacted Chabad — the only museum to have done so, Gerber said — and the stipulation was filed May 18.

 Have Chabad’s assurances had any impact?

The Legal Times on May 17 quoted a Russian embassy spokesman saying that negotiations with the U.S. would begin  “very soon.”  If anything’s been scheduled, Gerber said, Chabad hasn’t “been asked to the table.”  Attempts to obtain confirmation from the U.S. State and Justice Departments have been unsuccessful.

At LACMA, a staffer declined to comment beyond saying that the situation was “fluid” and the museum was “moderately hopeful.”

Phone calls to the Russian embassy and consulate for its perspective went unanswered.

As for Chabad’s assurances, they only cover art that comes within federal law — i.e., on temporary loan to nonprofit institutions.  Any art that Russia sends to the U.S. for a “commercial purpose” is fair game, Gerber said.

Will the Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet cancel its trip to New York this July for fear that its sets and costumes will be seized?  Are we witnessing the beginning of a broader breakdown in cultural exchange?

These two intransigent parties may well deserve each other, but the repercussions may be large indeed. 

Images of cancelled art loans, top to bottom:  A Gauguin at the Pushkin; a Cezanne and a Canaletto at the Hermitage.

Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert

Monday, May 16, 2011

Superstar Koons' Sideline: Loaning Old Masters to the Met, Including the Dreadful. Meantime, 51 of His Own Holdings Appear Online

Jeff Koons personally collects Old Masters, many of them recently purchased and some for record-breaking auction prices.

He's getting plenty of wall space for them from the Metropolitan Museum, which, as any serious collector knows, generally gooses up their value.

I found four of them there last week, including a sort of a dog of a painting that may be a workshop production instead of by the master on the label.  All are identified as from an unnamed "private collection."

What's going on?  Neither Koons nor the Met is talking.

The most recent Koons-owned loan, hung within the last few weeks with the "private collection" tag, is surely the most problematic.  It's a bust-length Christ the Met labels as a Quinten Massys, the leading Antwerp painter of the early 16th century. (Enhanced camera technology makes the image I took, right, appear far superior to the actual painting.)

But is it a Massys?  It's the most lifeless painting in the Met's superb Netherlandish galleries -- in truth, it's conspicuous because it's so not up to snuff there. 

The museum, notably, has hung it a room away from the Massys works it actually owns -- fine or amazing paintings each.

Red Flags

The Christ was also represented as a Massys by Sotheby's in a 2008 auction, where it sold for $1.1 million and where Koons seems to have acquired it.
But Sotheby's presented it with big red flags.  It had no provenance, a huge caution.  And there's another version of the painting, signed, in the Prado -- are both by Massys?

Another warning appeared in the catalogue.  To authenticate the painting, Sotheby's had sent a photograph (a common auction house practice) to the highly respected art history professor Larry Silver, who penned the 1984 Massys catalogue raisonne.

Based on the photo alone, Professor Silver, according to the Sotheby's catalogue, considered the work autograph but "does not rule out the possibility of some studio participation."

This reporter contacted Silver last week to ask if he had ever seen the painting in the flesh -- he had in fact finally just seen it at the Met -- and we spoke about its authenticity. 

Silver told me that until Sotheby's sent him the photo, the work was "unknown" to him, a complete "surprise." 

When asked whether there was studio work here, he replied that "No one cares about studio work anymore except auction houses and museums."

(Further inquiry into this assertion has been delayed.)

He explained that Massys was at the "end of his career" when this work was made and possibly "losing his manual dexterity" -- the painting is dated 1529, a year before the artist's death.  So, Silver said, he believes there would be "increased participation" by the studio.

Was he suggesting it actually is a studio work?  Silver told me it was an "extremely fine picture" and better than the Prado version, which itself had at one time been "considered studio."

Is it naive to expect a museum -- an educational institution, after all -- to be more forthcoming about attribution when it displays such a problematic work, even if, as in this case, the lender is a famous artist who is becoming a force in the Old Masters market and whose own works the Met may one day want to own?

Balloon Dog and Big Bull

As it happens, Koons' "anonymous" loans apparently began in 2008, the year the Met showcased his own "Balloon Dog" and other sculptures in its prestigious "Art on the Roof" series.

That June, the Met needed to find a place for Koons' egregiously large "Hercules and Achelous" -- an eight-foot-wide painting -- by Cornelis van Haarlem.

This flat brown mass of cartoonish bull was bought for $8.1 million, reportedly by Koons -- an auction record for any Dutch Mannerist painting and a price that induced gasps in the bidding room -- but who was he bidding against?  The final players made bids by telephone.

Initially, the Met installed it in a gallery full of paintings by Rembrandt and Hals -- in a fit of insanity, perhaps.  It now hovers like an oversize cruise ship amid a sea of Dutch "little masters" (see installation view, above).

Let's not skip over the fact, though, that one of Koons' loans is glorious -- a St. Catherine wood statue by the great German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (left).  It had graced the Met as a loan before Koons bought it (for $6.3 million, a record for the artist), and now it's back on loan in the Medieval galleries.

Then there's Koons' loan of "Adam and Eve" by the talented 18th-century court painter Francois Lemoyne (below), a lovely oil on copper that Koons apparently picked up in 2009 for 1.3 million Euros, another record.  It went on view a couple of months ago as a pendant to an Adam and Eve by Lemoyne's student Charles-Joseph Natoire.

Meantime, 51 works apparently now in Koons' collection can be seen online (at least as of 9:00 a.m. today) at a website that doesn't identify what it is or who owns the works shown, or who even owns the site:

This reporter believes it's a listing from Koons' collection.

Koons was photographed in his home with works posted there, including a Courbet, a Magritte, and a Dali.  He is known to have loaned another Courbet on the site ("Femme Nue," which at $3.1 million also set a record), and has acknowledged owning still other posted works, including the listed Fragonard.

Those familiar with Koons' creations won't be surprised to find, in addition, a work depicting comics character Dagwood Bumstead having at Blondie.

Phone calls and an email to the Met for comment on Koons' ownership of the works on loan, and on the purported Massys, were not returned by post time.  A phone call and an email to Koons and an email submitted to the website yielded no response.

Photos:  Laura Gilbert

 Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Soutine/Bacon" at Helly Nahmad: Are Commercial Galleries the New Museums?

The "Soutine/Bacon" show is one of several presentations in New York that make you wonder, Do retail galleries do it better?

Like a good museum show, it's tightly focused.  It pairs paintings by Francis Bacon (his "Lying Figure" is below) with those of Chaim Soutine ("Portrait of a Man," above), whom Bacon considered a "formative" influence -- a fresh context for both.

And its subjects are compelling:  Two major painters with irresistible life stories -- Bacon the bad-boy homosexual, maybe the original Young British Artist way back when, and the peculiar Soutine, onetime Modigliani studio-mate notorious for his lack of personal hygeine.

It's curated by acknowledged experts -- Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, who co-authored the Soutine catalogue raisonne.  Tuchman used to head up the LA County Museum of Art, so he knows a thing or two about putting on a show.

It includes loans from a laundry list of major museums: the Albertina in Vienna, the Pompidou in Paris, the Tate, the Met, MoMA.  Of the 32 works displayed, a whopping 13 usually hang in museums.

And the show is, I was told by a gallery spokesperson, "completely noncommercial."  That is, nothing in it is for sale, at least for now* (note is at bottom).

On to the art. The pairing of Soutine and Bacon on the face of it makes perfect sense. There are obvious affinities: a shared debt to Rembrandt, figurative distortions, emotional intensity, and an obsessive, almost perverse attraction to animal slaughter.

Bacon was in Paris in the late 1920s and may even have seen Soutine's paintings of beef carcasses -- a persistent theme for Bacon, even indirectly; "we are meat," he said.  These paintings by Soutine were legendary, if only because he worked from the real thing, causing neighbors to complain about the stench.

A side-by-side comparison, though, does Bacon no favors.

Seen here, Soutine's works are metaphorical, emotionally complex, sophisticated in composition, and lush in brushstroke and color, while Bacon's works tend to be literal, psychologically one-dimensional, and simply composed.  Aside from Bacon's brushy figures, his work is flat and dry.  This isn't to say that it doesn't have its own beauty, just that it's limited.

Soutine made everything anthropomorphic, including a fork stuck in a fish, and each painting embraces multiple psychological states.  A single portrait might be both regal and shamed, a landscape playful and terrorized (above left).  "Unflinching" describes even his still-lifes, which can be chronicles of pain (below).

He constructed his paintings with a convulsive sophistication, from the prime focus out to the edges.  Then there are the meaty brushstrokes so favored by the Abstract Expressionists.

With Bacon (below), the emotional range is confined to rage, and it seems that he didn't always know how to enliven the canvas as a composition.  So sometimes we get flat colors, sometimes architectural lines that are traps, or a curved floor tilted up, another no-exit. 

The exceptions here are Bacon's landscapes from the 1950s, which have a bold, experimental feel that encompasses the whole canvas.  Bacon's main interest, though, was the figure and flesh, which, compared with Soutine, too often fail to come alive.

Hats off to dealer Helly Nahmad.  "Soutine/Bacon" is a beautiful and welcome show.

At a time when museums are putting together home-grown shows including works that in flusher times would stay in the basement, the power-dealer show with major-museum loans -- this spring alone they can be seen at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, L&M, and Pace in addition to Gagosian and Helly Nahmad -- may be a harbinger of a power shift.

For good or ill, it's too soon to say.  The reality is that commercial galleries are in the business of moving inventory, and outside curators are not always disinterested.**

* The Gagosian Gallery makes the same claim about its current show, "Picasso and Marie-Therese," which also has museum loans and outside curators.  It bears mentioning that "Maya with a Boat" in that show had earlier failed to sell at auction in New York.  It's likely that at least some works in private hands from both these shows will hit the market again.

** A couple of years ago, the curators of "Soutine/Bacon" were involved in a lawsuit alleging that they had misled a seller about the market value of a Soutine.

"Soutine/Bacon," Helly Nahmad Gallery, Madison Avenue at 76th St., through June 18

Photos: Soutine, "Cagne with Tree" (Tate), Copyright ADAGP Paris and DACS London, and "The Ray" (Metropolitan Museum), Copyright Artists Rights Society.  All others, courtesy Helly Nahmad.