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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

435 Years After His Death, Bronzino Gets His First Solo Show

Bronzino, the painter of the don't-fuck-with-me, self-possessed portraits of the Medici court circle, has finally been given his own show.

"Bronzino, Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici" in Florence, Italy (it will not be traveling), is the first show, ever, that has gathered together most of the artist's paintings -- 63 of them, with others by his workshop, his contemporaries, and his teacher, Pontormo.  It includes two works that had been presumed lost, works never before exhibited, and a number of paintings that have been cleaned and restored.

The show is, by any measure, historic, and offers a unique opportunity to look at this artist afresh.  Having seen it in Florence, I can state it's magnificent.

Affectation or Naturalism?

Bronzino (1503-72) has had the misfortune, art historically, of being lumped together with artists called Mannerists, who have, fairly or not, borne the pejoratives of that word -- i.e., affected, artificial, insincere.

The curators here -- Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali -- try to push back against this history.  They urge the viewer to see Bronzino more as a naturalist and through the eyes of his contemporaries, who they claim saw him differently.  Vasari wrote of his portraits, for example, that "they were most natural," "appear to be living, and want nothing but the breath of life."

Alas, the curators go a bit too far.  One look at Bronzino's enigmatic allegories of love puts the lie to their argument -- the contorted poses copied not from life but from Michelangelo's art, the weird sensuality, the lack of atmosphere that might make the figures inhabit some semblance of space.  It's not the mythological subject that does in their position:  Caravaggio's "Amor" is, after all, just around the corner.

The portraits too are highly stylized.  They yield not a hint of inner emotion, vulnerability, or personality.  We see instead a characterization of power, studied propriety, emotional distance, and control.  Like Ingres, Bronzino has his distortions that make sense in the artwork but that no human being could possess as flesh and blood -- the elongated torso, the boneless tapering fingers, the impossible elegance.

At the same time, the appearance and texture of things are convincingly and meticulously rendered.   The hyper-reality of the detail is extraordinary, but his very commitment to the hyper-real at the expense of atmosphere sucks the life from the painting.  A comparison with Raphael's portraits decades before, where the figures inhabit a moment in time and take a breath, makes us appreciate how deliberately Bronzino rejected the naturalist approach for a more abstract rendering.  Indeed, this was one of the lessons of the Met's recent xerographic study of its Bronzino; the underpainting of the face shows an individuality that was idealized in the final result.

Bronzino's art is just plain gorgeous and doesn't need any naturalist hook.  The paintings are knockouts.  As a colorist, he has few rivals.  His colors are intense and rich, bold in their simplicity, unusual in their juxtapositions.  As an oil painter, he was a master technician -- not a brushstroke visible, even in the smallest detail, and he was able to reproduce with exactitude the surface qualities of silk or wood or velvet.

Bronzino should be celebrated for the brilliant Mannerist he is.  He was a court painter, and his art has the cultivated, hothouse feel of aristocracy.  Subject and style coalesce perfectly.


A few of the revelations in this show:
  • The "Double Portrait of the Dward Morgante," which shows the nude dwarf front and back on the front and back of the same canvas, is being shown publicly for the first time since the 18th century.  Newly cleaned to remove the grapevines that had covered his genitalia, the painting is an example of the virtuosity so prized by Mannerist artists.  It also shows Bronzino's involvement in a frequent topic of debate in Florence's academies -- which was the "nobler" art, painting or sculpture?  Here, painting like sculpture can show more than one aspect, but painting can also depict the passage of time: the front of the canvas shows Morgante before the hunt, the back shows him with his catch.
  • The "Crucified Christ" had previously been thought lost but has now been identified as the crucifixion mentioned by Vasari that Bronzino painted for Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi, who were tried for heresy in 1551.  This painting may be an important indicator of the Reformation views current in 1540s Florence.  The curators assert that the almost abstract depiction (rather than a suffering Christ) expresses a belief in salvation by faith alone.  Even here, using a muted palette, Bronzino shines as a colorist, with the pale pink drapery against pallid flesh, brown cross, and gray niche.
The show begins with works by Pontormo, Bronzino's teacher, and ends with works by Bronzino's student Alessandro Allori.  In between the paintings are sometimes organized chronologically, sometimes thematically.  It works, superbly.

The exhibition is at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, through January 23, 2011.