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.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kate Moss Curates Herself

Maybe it was inevitable in this year that saw MoMA's formerly reputable P.S. 1 putting a fashion editor and a style journalist in charge of a performance thingee called "Move!" and a year that saw fashion designer Jeremy Laing curating an art exhibit at the Toronto International Art Fair.

Now, fashion model Kate Moss will be curating herself at the Pulse art fair in Miami.

More specifically, Moss has curated a portfolio of 11 photos of her posed kittenish self -- taken by 11 of her "favorite" shutterbugs -- that will be for sale at Danziger Projects come December 2.  James Danziger takes co-curator credit.

A new wrinkle in the Art Whore Chronicles:  art institutions and galleries will do anything to get into bed with fashion, even put the fashionistas in charge.

Danziger doesn't call this portfolio art.  Instead it invokes art talk to aggrandize photos that look like slick magazine spreads (despite "elements" of fashion, "the photographs are timeless beyond season"; a "snapshot attitude" creates "a modern-day odalesque," and so on).

It won't come as a suprise that the photographers, except for Chuck Close, are those who mainly shoot ad campaigns or take pictures for fashion magazines like Vogue or W.

So if you think Annie Leibovitz is worth a lot of money, go ahead.  Otherwise, ask yourself if you'd pay $75,000 for Chuck Close's autograph.

As for Danziger's plea that Moss is "one of the most memorable figures of our time," is that hyperbole, or superannuated camp?  Aside from being nonsense, that is.  Chuck Close had the right idea: he cropped her face out of his photo altogether.

Photos, top to bottom:  Inez van Lamsweerde + Vinoodh Matadin, Juergen Teller, Annie Leibovitz.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A New Hugo van der Goes at the Met?

To its already wonderfully deep collection of early Netherlandish painting, the Met has added this stunning new portrait, just put on view last week.

The Met describes it as a work of "extraordinary quality and condition" and "among the finest examples of early Netherlandish portraiture."  For an institution that has portraits by Rogier van de Weyden and Hans Memling -- just for starters -- those are strong words indeed.

The attribution, for now, is "circle of" Hugo van der Goes.

The Met already has two portraits attributed to Hugo himself, one of an older monk (below left) and another of a young man (below right), but these attributions were hard fought.

As for the older monk, some of the biggest names in the field -- Erwin Panofsky, Colin Eisler, Julius Held, and Egbert Havercamp-Beggeman -- couldn't see it as a Hugo.   Panofsky preferred a follower of Rogier, Haverkamp-Beggeman an artist working in Hugo's style and at the same time, i.e. "circle of" Hugo.

The portrait of the young man was exhibited at the Met as an Antonello da Messina before the museum acquired it.  One scholar thought it was by Jan Gossart.

Even now, when the consensus for both portraits has settled on Hugo, someone could compare the two works and rationally think it impossible that they were done by the same hand.

Attributions to Hugo are difficult.  He was hugely influential, even in Italy, and much admired in the North -- "equal to none this side of the Alps" is how a contemporary described his reputation.  Yet, despite his fame, very little is known about him.   Only one painting, the Portinari Altarpiece of 1475 made for a Medici banker in Florence, is authenticated by documentary evidence, and other attributions largely rise or fall on the basis of their similarity to that masterwork.

The Met recognizes that the "circle of" attribution of this new work may well prove provisional, stating in its annual report:  "Independent portraits by Hugo are extremely rare, and further investigation will help to properly place this splendid example within the context of Netherlandish portraiture."

Will the attribution ultimately be given to Hugo?  Art historians haven't weighed in publicly yet -- they've hardly had an opportunity.  So far as I can tell, the work has been published only once prior to the Met's acquisition, in 2008 by French auction house Tajan, where it was bid up to 20 times its low estimate.  Then it was attributed to an anonymous French painter.  In private hands for more than a century, it may not even have been publicly exhibited outside the saleroom -- until now.

Let the attribution debates begin.  In the meantime, hats off to still-new director Thomas Campbell for this acquisition.

Photos:  Top and bottom, Laura Gilbert

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Goya's Reality, and Ours: "Asses Masquerading" and Other Drawings at the Frick

With the Whitney moving downtown, maybe it's time to talk about the Frick taking over its soon-to-be-abandoned building.

The Frick's organized some stellar shows, but its special-exhibitions space consists of two teeny-tiny rooms in the basement -- where the restrooms are -- that you reach by slowly making your way down a narrow circular staircase.  It's just not big enough for the Frick's ambitions and bouts of curatorial brilliance.

The current show of Spanish drawings is a case in point.  One room exhibits just 32 drawings by Spaniards other than Goya -- hardly enough to draw any generalizations about Spanish drawing.  The other room is given over to Goya, with barely more drawings than you can count on your fingers and toes and spanning the last 30 years of the artist's life.  Not fair.

As a draftsman, Goya was hugely prolific.  He made eight albums of drawings beginning when he was in his 50s.  More than 500 of these drawings are extant.

What makes them so special is that they aren't your usual artist's sketchbook -- no preparatory drawing for something else, no exercises of drawing from the model, no working out of ideas.  Each is an independent work of art by an artist with an accessible modern sensibility.  In his drawings, Goya is witness both to the world around him and to the interior life, not mediated by mythology or religion or grandiosity.

That the world around him was a time of turmoil is an understatement (he lived from 1746 to 1828): the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon's 1808 invasion of Spain, the collapse of the monarchy in 1812 and two years later its reestablishment, and then in 1820 a revival of the constitution.  Goya himself was a mass of contradictions, both court painter and exile.

What the Frick shows is tantalizing and wonderful:  asses masquerading as grandees, a peepshow in which a woman looks down a man's crack, a catfight -- between women -- being enjoyed by a man.  Torture, mutilation, imprisonment.  Here we have that too-rare clarity of conception and execution that needs no explanation.

What we do need are more of his 500-some drawings.  One can never see enough Goya.

"The Spanish Manner:  Drawings from Ribera to Goya,"  The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, through January 9

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rauschenberg, "Short Circuit" and Hide and Seek

Early Rauschenberg is still fresh, even 60 years on.  The show now at Gagosian includes works spanning several decades, but the really wonderful stuff dates from the 50s, when Rauschenberg was picking up junk off the street and rethinking art in the age of Abstract Expressionism.

Some works are so exuberant, they seem to convey the delight of an artist discovering new ways of putting art together.  In "Short Circuit," from 1955, this pleasure is almost made literal.  Take a cabinet, open it up, and what do you discover:  A painting by Susan Weil and a Jasper Johns "Flag."*  A game of hide and seek.

"Short Circuit" is exhibited with the cabinet doors open, and it's hard to imagine that it would ever be shown with Johns's seminal "Flag" deliberately hidden.  So take a look at this photo, which shows the doors closed (scroll to p. 95).  "Short Circuit" now works as a painting -- it even has a frame.  Opening the doors transforms it into a Combine.  Perfect.

"Short Circuit" is full of personal references.  Weil was Rauschenberg's ex-wife, and Johns was most probably his lover.  It incorporates yet a third artwork, a collage by Ray Johnson, a friend and talented artist who later did mail art, became a recluse, and was pretty much forgotten until he jumped off a bridge in 1995.  (Then, well, Johnson's estate is now handled by Richard Feigen.)

The story goes that in 1955 Rauschenberg had been dropped by his gallery and his only exhibition opportunity was at the annual group show at Stable Gallery (which would later show Warhol's Brillo boxes).  As Calvin Tompkins tells it in "Off the Wall," Rauschenberg had recommended that Johns and Weil be included in the Stable annual.  When they weren't, he got their works in anyway by putting them in his cabinet.  (According to Jonathan Katz, Rauschenberg was upset by the exclusion of all three artists and hence smuggled them all in.)

There's also a program of a concert by friend and composer John Cage and an autograph of gay icon Judy Garland.

Katz, in "The Art of Code" published in 1993, sees the Garland reference as an allusion "for the first time in Rauschenberg's work to his identification as a gay man" and finds that gay tropes appear in Rauschenberg's Combines with increasing frequency.  Katz was quick to note, though, that Rauschenberg never identified himself publicly as gay and that the references may have been intended only as private jokes "to an audience perhaps no larger than his lover" -- i.e., Johns.  Another game of hide and seek.

As Katz would find out, his suspicion was correct -- Rauschenberg did not intend gay culture references to be read as a statement of identity.  In 2004 Katz organized a show at Yale of works that Rauschenberg had given to former lover Terry Van Brunt.  Rauschenberg objected.  "I am not happy with it," he told the New York Times.  "It was organized by the gay studies department, whatever that is.  It's not an approach that makes sense.  I refused to give them permission to reproduce the works in a catalog."

Katz countered that he was not responsible to the artist's wishes, but to the work.  Bravo.  Unless a piece is commissioned, it's hard to dispute than an artist's personal life will shape the work.

At the time of the Yale show, the Hartford Courant reported that Katz was largely shunned by the art world.  No more.  He's co-curator of the generally favorably reviewed "Hide/Seek" at the National Portait Gallery in Washington, which examines "Sexual difference in the making of American portraiture."  (I'm quoting from the NPG's website, as I haven't seen the show.)

So "Short Circuit" is an entry point for a lot of interesting questions.  It's also a delight for the eyes.  Don't miss "Greenhouse" right next to it.  Made of soil, wire, nested twigs and broken glass, it's like a Joseph Cornell box set free.

Intelligence without pretension, a sense of exploration, an openness to new experience -- looking at early Rauschenberg, it seems to be eternally spring.

*At some point, the Johns was stolen, and what we now see is a copy painted by Rauschenberg friend Elaine Sturtevant.  According to Calvin Tompkins, a dealer once brought in a Johns "Flag" to show Leo Castelli, who immediately recognized it as the painting stolen out of "Short Circuit."  The dealer rushed out and "Flag" was never seen again.

"Robert Rauschenberg,"  Gagosian Gallery, 522 West 21st Street, through December 18.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Anselm Kiefer Plays God at Gagosian

Anselm Kiefer.  He's nothing if not ambitious.  But his ambitions here lead him over the cliff, and it's nothing short of appalling.

We've got a lot of the usual Kiefer in "Next Year in Jerusalem," his first solo show in New York in eight years -- the decay and distress, the death and regeneration, the rusted, dirty, and torn materials. We've also got vitrines encasing most of the pieces.  And a big black shed.

And the expressly Jewish context of "next year in Jerusalem," -- the last words of the Passover seder that are both a reminder of the destruction of the Temple and an expression of hope -- which Kiefer perverts at every turn.

Anyone who's read Kiefer's bio knows that it always starts with the fact that he was born German and Catholic in the last months of WWII and that he's made his career by revisiting what it means to be German, whether in Goethe or the Nazis or mythology or the landscape.  That work can be moving and powerful.  Not here.  It's mostly just plain tired and confused and dismaying.

More burnt books, more sooty clothes.  If you've seen Kiefer's beautiful painting at the Met, you won't learn anything new from the paintings here.  And there's the black shed that actually recycles his art -- it contains blowups of his Nazi salute photos from decades ago (above).  Sometimes the literalism is too easy -- the Tree of Jesse is a real orange tree, the Burning Bush is a bush.  The labels -- large handwritten titles on the outside of the vitrines -- are annoying affections.

And then we get to the symbolism or allegory or whatever you want to call "meaning" in this muddle.  "The Red Sea," a direct reference to the Passover story, is a rusty old boat with three chairs hovering (above, and detail at right) -- Kiefer's representation of the Trinity.  Three chairs, again, in "Jeremiah, Baruch."  Mt. Tabor, where Jesus appeared to Moses.  The Tree of Jesse, from which Christ's genealogy is traced.

"Shekhina," a visually arresting work, is a beautiful white dress pierced by shards of glass.  Shekhina is a Hebrew word that refers to the feminine presence of God in the community.  I wanted to see this piece as Kristalnacht, but no -- she's waiting for the Messiah.

"The Destruction of the Temple" -- if you've ever wondered whether Kiefer's mourning for Germany includes mourning for the Jews, you may have your answer here.  None of the lamentations that Kiefer's known for.  It's made of unspooled film of photos, photos of towers that Kiefer himself built (detail, left).  Walk around with the notes available at the gallery desk so you can read that in Judaism destruction does not lead to new beginnings (whether this is an accurate statement of Jewish belief I have no idea).  From his art, it's clear that Kiefer believes just the opposite.

And what's with the vitrines?  They're supposed to recall reliquaries -- which are mostly associated with Catholicism and not Judaism -- but they look more like displaced store windows or transparent wardrobe closets.  And there are way too many of them for even Gagosian's vast space.

At its best, Kiefer's work is solemn, weighty, reflective, a reminder of art's power to add to the experience of being alive.  He's not good here, where he flirts with playing God to the Jews.

"Next Year in Jerusalem,"  Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, through December 18.

Photos: Laura Gilbert

Monday, November 8, 2010

Gobsmacked! Alma-Tadema Brings $35.9 Million. In Other News, Sex Sells

Whoda thunk it?  Three eager buyers bid up Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "The Finding of Moses" to $35.9 million last week at Sotheby's, about ten times its low estimate.  In other words, it outsold every other artwork auctioned in New York last week except for the $68.9 million Modigliani at Sotheby's and the Matisse "Back IV" at Christie's ($48.8 million).

Proof positive that a readiness to admire art of disfavored styles is not a victory for enlightened taste?

Sotheby's was apparently so astounded that its press release announcing the sale mistakenly described the painting as a "19th-century masterpiece."  "Moses" was painted in 1904.

"Moses" was an inspiration for Cecil B. DeMille, and it had been owned by TV personality Alan Funt, so it wouldn't be surprising if the anonymous buyer turns out to be some studio bigwig.  We already know that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are big Norman Rockwell collectors, so "Moses" would fit right in.

Another artwork that exceeded its estimate by a factor of 10:  Rodin's small 17.5-inch long "Torse d'Adele," even though it wasn't cast until 1955.  What can we say?  Sex sells.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can Bank of America Atone Through Art?

Andrew Mellon did it with the National Gallery.  J.P. Morgan did it with the Metropolitan Museum.

Can Bank of America atone through art?

Let's review just some of what BofA needs to atone for:  Taxpayer bailout of $45 billion necessitated in great part by its own nefarious conduct.  Continued, under-the-radar taxpayer subsidies in the form of near interest-free loans from the Fed.  Fraud allegations concerning its acquisition of Merrill Lynch-- settled with the SEC for a $150 million fine but with an investigation and charges still active in New York State.

And then there are the fraudulent mortgage documents it's been submitting to the courts and the $141.6 billion in home-equity loans on the books, which, when their true value becomes known, may require another huge taxpayer bailout.

So what's a bank to do to make things good again with taxpayers, the jobless, and retirees whose savings evaporated?  If you're BofA, you piss away money on arts projects overseas.

In 2008, when it was driving the economy over the cliff, BofA initiated "Art in Our Communities," under which it organizes pre-curated shows from its multimillion-dollar art collection.

Currently on view -- in Paris -- is a photography show at the Mona Bismarck Foundation.  Just closed -- in London -- 60 paintings by the Wyeths at the Dulwich Gallery.  Opening spring 2011-- in Dublin -- an exhibit of Matisse books.

When I visited the Bronzino show -- in Florence -- I noticed several paintings had been restored by something called the "Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Programme."  BofA initiated this program in 2010 to fund art conservation in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  How many taxpayers do you know who are going to be visiting the Szepmuveszeti Museum in Budapest to see Bronzino's restored "Allegory of Venus, Cupid, and Jealousy" (above right)?

BofA provides funding for the biggest art prize -- in the U.K.  And so on.

Where does the money come from?  Bank of America is insolvent -- it has no money of its own to spend -- so I guess it comes from you and me.

(Top image, detail, "Bailout Bill," Copyright 2009 Laura Gilbert.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Picasso's Record-Breaking $2 Million Print Flops at Sotheby's

Sometimes multiples just don't repeat.

Picasso's "Minotauromachie," one of which set a record at $2 million for a single print sold at auction in London in September, remained in the hands of its anonymous Tokyo owner when Sotheby's failed to sell it in New York this weekend.

What's the London buyer thinking now?

No new homes, either, for some other prints that Sotheby's featured:  Jasper Johns's "Black Numeral Series"; two prints by Degas, including one of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre; and Warhol's double Mickey Mouse (though 40-some other Warhols garnered more than $2 million total; it's still a Pop Art world).

And Munch's "Vampire" sold for way, way below -- about one-third below -- its low estimate of $1.5 million, which makes one wonder whether reserves aren't well below the estimates these days.

So there were some problems at the upper end.

At the bottom end of the market, there were some nice reminders that prints permit people who aren't superrich to own real art, even though here too this was sometimes the result of works selling below their low estimates.  Two Kandinsky's for example, each found buyers at less than their $5,000 low estimates.

A Picasso "Salome," a print seen at MoMA last spring, went for $10,000 with buyer's premium; that means that without the premium, the winning bid was $8,000, which is one-third less than the $12,000 low estimate.  A number of late Picasso prints, some from his "347" series also exhibited at MoMA, were estimated from around $5,000 to $10,000, the winning bids tending to hover around the low end or below.

The Picasso shown here, "Un Couple d'Amateurs" from 1966, went for $4,000 without the buyer's premium, 25% below the low estimate of $5,000.

Has the economy stabilized?  The print market hasn't.

Hirst Out, Anatsui In

At last, Ghana-born El Anatsui gets to sit at the adult's table:  His work has been on view at the Metropolitan Museum for almost three years, but only now is it being shown where it belongs, in the contemporary art gallery (above).

Out of Africa

The Met introduced its first Anatsui purchase, "Between Earth and Heaven," in early 2008.  It's a beautiful piece made with his signature bottle caps and other detritus.  At the time, the Met hailed the artist as "the most important contemporary African sculptor," an assessment hard to argue with.  He'd been the star of the most recent Venice Biennale, and he was then and is now handled in New York by top-flight contemporary gallery Jack Shainman.  His work is in the collections of the Centre Pompidou and MoMA, among others, which specialize in modern and contemporary art.

But when the Met installed the piece, it was hung not in the contemporary gallery but in a space devoted to the arts of Africa, which is mostly filled with anonymous ceremonial objects or objects made for the tourist trade.  I haven't read every wall label there, but I'd guess that "Between Earth and Heaven" (original installation, above left) is the only work with a title and an artist's name attached to it, let alone an artist who is also a university art professor and lauded as an art star.

However strong Anatsui's connection to traditional African art, it seemed he was being marginalized.  There was the obvious comparison with how the Met treated the white South African William Kentridge -- when it displayed his drawings in 2005, they were in a space devoted to temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.

A Global Vision

It also seemed that the Met was abdicating a responsibility to take the lead in writing art history in an era of globalization.  If it bought a painting by hot contemporary Chinese artist Yue Minjun, would it be shown ethnographically, among Chinese vases and tomb sculpture, or with contemporary art?

About Anatsui's place we need worry no longer.  The Met acquired a second Anatsui, "Dusasa II," and when Damien Hirst's $8 million shark left the Met's contemporary art gallery to return to hedge funder Steve Cohen a couple of months ago, "Dusasa II" was one of the works that took its place.  It's quite at home amid pieces by Anish Kapoor (born in India, living in London), Clinton Menezes (Portuguese, born in South Africa), Mouir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (Iranian), and Liza Lou (American).  (Two additional gallery views are shown here.)

"Between Earth and Heaven" is still in the African arts gallery, but now hidden behind a temporary wall (left).  Show one Anatsui, hide another?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Artist Day Jobs: Barber, Baker, Beer-Maker

"Artists rarely had a chance of large-scale public commissions and hardly any possibility of salaried employment.    Consequently the art market was flooded with small easel paintings, prices were mostly ridiculously low, competition was fierce."

Sound familiar?  This is Margot and Rudolf Wittkower -- he's one of the great 20th-century art historians -- writing about 17th-century Dutch artists in their book Born Under Saturn.

Rembrandt and Vermeer supplemented their income with picture dealing, but many painters -- well- known names among those who have spent any time looking at Dutch art and some of the best of the "little masters" -- had occupations wholly at variance with being an artist.

The Wittkowers again:

Steen, brewer-inn keeper
"Jan van Goyen dealt in real estate and tulips, Aert van der Neer owned an inn in Amsterdam, Jan Steen a brewery in Delft and an inn in Leyden;  Jan van de Cappelle carried on his father's dyeing business; Jacob Ruisdael was a barber-surgeon and Joost van Craebeeck a baker; Philips Koninck owned a canal-shipping company and Hobbema held an appointment as a gauger of imported wine."

Ruisdael, barber-surgeon
Artists are often asked, "Do you make a living at that?"  Day jobs -- they come with the territory whenever supply greatly exceeds demand.  This is quite aside from the fact that most of the art out there isn't worth a damn.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Mengs at the Met

If you've been dissed for two centuries, is there any hope for your reputation?

In a quiet move, the Metropolitan Museum has hung, unannounced and unsung, a new acquisition, a late self-portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs dated 1776.   It's catty-corner to another Mengs, his portrait of the archaeologist/art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

The self-portrait's a stunner.  The figure has an imposing presence, enhanced by the simple, broad areas of color; his smallish eyes and steady gaze give him great individuality; and the harsh light that emphasizes the bumps on his forehead -- they could so easily have been left out -- imply a kind of courageous stance of artist against the world.

Mengs (1728-79) was perhaps the most famous artist of his time.  He provided the pictorial example, and Winckelmann the theoretical underpinnings, for the radical turn to Neo-Classicism.  The revolution started with them, in Rome, and then spread throughout Europe.

But who has heard of Mengs now?  Judging from this beautiful new acquisition, it may be time to take another look.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kiki on Her New Perfume: "Smells Like Cat Pee"

Which one is money quote:  "It's complete narcissism" or "smells like cat pee"?

Both are attributed to Kiki Smith in a short article about her new perfume "Kiki" -- mentioned in Monday's post "Art Whore Chronicles" -- that appears in W magazine's November issue, whose cover features a naked Kim Kardashian and the fitting title "It's all about me."

To be fair, when Smith says "smells like cat pee," she's referring not to "Kiki" but to its main component, boxwood, of which she also says, "A lot of people find it revolting, but I love it."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"That Is Then. This Is Now": Pitch Perfect at Cue

Economic distress, war, acute skepticism toward institutions.  Painting on the defensive, artistic pluralism verging on aimlessness.  It seems like right now, but it's also the 1970s.

"That Is Then. This Is Now" at the Cue Art Foundation looks at nine artists prominent in the 70s and compares their work then with the work they are doing today.  Beautifully put together -- no surprise there, since it's curated by Irving Sandler and Robert Storr -- it's also one of the more thoughtful and provocative gallery shows on the scene.

The pieces from the 70s have a raw, anguished conviction that hits hard.  Take a look at Lois Lane's dark "Untitled" (above) or Mike Glier's "Clubs of Virtue" or Donna Dennis's "Subway With Lighted Interior -- or any of the works, really -- for a sense of how embattled, intellectually intense, and often ugly a time it was.

The more recent work (Glier's "August 10, 2007: Mount Duval" is shown below) is calmer but consistently rigorous, committed, and intelligent, especially when compared with the slick creations that still pass for art these days.

Cue is generously giving away its catalogue for the show, which contains a dialogue between Sandler and Storr and essays by Peter Plagens, Martha Schwendener, and Emily Warner.

Cue Art Foundation, 511 West 25th St., through October 30.  (Additional images are on Cue's website.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Art Whore Chronicles

How is it that struggling artists get slammed for appearing on the reality TV show "Work of Art," but superstar artists get a total pass when they get into bed with crass commercial enterprises?

When did it become acceptable to be an art whore, so long as you're already famous and rich?

Is Julian Schnabel the next Martha Stewart?  Check out his new towel, part of Artware Editions' "Artist Towel Series" -- no kidding -- that includes such other blue-chip names as Ed Ruscha and Jim Hodges.

Damien Hirst has designed a beach chair just for you and a gazillion other people, and, with a $425 pricetag, it even comes with a stainless steel plaque bearing his signature.

A tea set?  Try the one by Cindy Sherman -- it's ornamented with her self-portrait as, fittingly, Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's slut-in-chief.

Gerhard Richter and Jeff Koons are putting their names to nylon carpeting -- perfect for the kids' education in how to sell out.  Cicely Brown has opted for jigsaw puzzles.

And if you're in the market for a ring that says "Bulgari" -- Anish Kapoor has designed one of those.

Kiki Smith has her very own perfume -- in shades of Paris Hilton?  You can also pick up her "Cat" knickknack, described by Artware as follows:  "Smith renders the head of a housecat into a porcelain vessel, and turns it upside-down inviting us to fill its empty head with the trivial."  Indeed.