Friday, September 28, 2012

In Russian Art Embargo Case, Jewish Sect Chabad Insults the U.S. and Says the State Department Should Be ". . . Embarrassed . . ."

The Brooklyn-based Jewish sect Chabad has, in ersatz legal terminology, gone nuts, damning the same U.S. government that in 1940 rescued its supreme leader from Poland, and that for the last two decades has worked at the highest diplomatic levels to resolve Chabad's ongoing property dispute with Russia.

For eight years now that dispute -- over whether Chabad or Russia owns two separate collections of books and manuscripts that are in Moscow -- has been playing out in the federal District Court.

In papers filed in that court today, Chabad, referring to Russia's embargo on lending art to U.S. museums -- an embargo triggered by Chabad's lawsuit -- asserted that the U.S. government "should be embarrassed if . . . it gives any credence whatever to this empty Russian charade."  Chabad also criticized the government as "singularly passive and unsuccessful" in convincing Russia to comply with a court order to turn the disputed collections over.

The harsh language came in Chabad's response to a statement by the Obama Administration urging the court not to impose the substantial monetary sanctions on Russia that Chabad had requested.  The government's position is that such sanctions would be impermissible under American law, unprecedented under international law, and contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests.

Chabad's lawyers did not respond to inquiries.

There is much more to be told.  Check back later.

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Met Museum Expands Old Master Galleries; Meantime, Its Most Expensive Acquisition Disappears from View

Duccio's Madonna and Child, which cost the Met a reported $45 million, is nowhere to be seen
The Met, without any public announcement, is expanding its Old Master galleries by converting adjacent space previously devoted to such large special exhibitions as "The Renaissance Portrait" last spring.  To get an idea of the expansion's size -- it should add 20% to 25% more square footage -- consider that the portrait show displayed some 160 works.  So it's an exciting prospect.

At the same time, the tiny painting of the Madonna and Child attributed to the late 13th-, early 14th-century Sienese master Duccio -- the Met's most expensive purchase ever, at a reported $45 million -- has disappeared from view.

Closures hit the Italian Renaissance galleries
Supposedly, that's because the galleries currently devoted to Old Masters are being renovated, and so far Italian Renaissance art has been hit hardest -- at last visit, five of those galleries were closed, bare walls just barely visible behind tall screens.

But why was the much-vaunted Duccio put in storage rather than displayed elsewhere in the museum?  Perhaps because very few visitors stop in front of this unengaging sad sack of a painting when it is on display.

The Old Masters project follows the likewise unannounced disruption in the Met's Egyptian galleries, where a staggering 18,000 objects have been taken off view to protect them from vibrations caused by reconstruction of the Costume Institute below.  (More about Egypt's being a fashion victim can be found in my article here.)

The expansion of the Old Master galleries is expected to be complete sometime next May.  As far as the renovation goes, I can report that two existing galleries have been combined into one long space and that the walls where the Duccio and other Italian Renaissance art used to hang are now a rich slate gray.

Check back here for updates.

Duccio image from the Met's website.  Other image and text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Onassis Cultural Center Suddenly Closes Its New York Museum; Future Unknown

Installation view of "Transition to Christianity" at the Onassis Cultural Center.  At left are three of the famous David Plates from Greece.  Also seen are a rare early wood fragment of Christ's face next to three mummy portraits.
New York has lost one of its jewel-box art spaces, at least temporarily.

The Onassis Cultural Center, located in prime real estate in Midtown Manhattan, closed its exhibition space last spring at the end of its stunning show, "Transition to Christianity."

The museum was known -- although not nearly well enough -- for putting on challenging thematic shows with sometimes hard-to-obtain loans from monasteries and museums in Greece and elsewhere.

The official word it that the space is being "renovated," a project that will take one year or two, depending on who is answering the questions.  When a Cultural Center staffer was asked soon after the closing what type of renovations would be done, the staffer declined to be specific.

A restaurant and a snack bar in the building's atrium are also closed for renovation.

A sculpture from the Center's last show
The gallery was below ground level in the Olympic Tower -- a building developed in 1975 by shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis -- when it last welcomed visitors.  It first opened in 2000, and the Cultural Center has used it rent-free under a lease that expires in June 2014 -- the building's owner, Olympic Tower Associates, and the Cultural Center are related entities.

Shortly before the space closed, Olympic Tower Associates sold a 49.9% stake in the building to Crown Acquisitions, reportedly to tap Crown's expertise in increasing the value of retail space.

Is the timing just a coincidence, or will the gallery be turned into some money-making commercial operation?

The seller, the buyer, the broker, the building manager, the Cultural Center's president, and the gallery director either refused to respond to inquiries or said they didn't know the answer to questions raised about the gallery's future.

The gallery, L-shaped with two sides facing an interior courtyard, was small in size but big in impact.  A recent exhibition tracing the roots of El Greco's art persuasively emphasized his ties to Greek and Byzantine art traditions.  It was a revelation.

Its last show was a sensitive exhibition of Christian and pagan religions coexisting and in conflict in late antiquity, provocatively examining such ideas as the defacing of ancient Greek statuary with Christian symbols and the Christian adoption of pagan motifs.

The loss of the Cultural Center's exhibitions, even temporarily, will leave a huge hole in the city's cultural fabric.

Images are from the Onassis Cultural Center website.
Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

U.S. Says No to Sanctioning Russia in Art Embargo Case

The Obama Administration has asked a federal court to keeps its nose out of U.S. foreign affairs and Russia's internal affairs in the case brought against Russia by the Jewish sect Chabad.

The Department of Justice urged the court not to impose monetary sanctions against Russia on the grounds that they "would be contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States," impermissible under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and, on the facts of the case, "entirely without precedent internationally."

Chabad had requested that Russia be sanctioned for failing to comply with the court's order to turn over two collections of books and manuscripts to the U.S. embassy in Moscow or to representatives of Chabad.  The judgment in that case triggered Russia's embargo on lending art to U.S. museums, which has passed its second anniversary.

Read more about the U.S. position in my story in The Art Newspaper, here, and more about the dispute and the embargo in my New York Observer piece, here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years": Some Artists Were Wary of Being Included in the Met Show -- and for Good Reason

Andy Warhol's dollar signs and flowers with Jeff Koons' puppy vases
"I can't speak for the dead," Marla Prather, the exhibition's co-curator, told this reporter.  But some artists among the living weren't sure they wanted to be in the Metropolitan Museum's sometimes superlative, sometimes problematic exhibit about Warhol's influence over the last half century.  The show opens September 18.

Take Alex Katz.  "I talked with Alex, and he was reluctant to be in the show," said Prather, pointing out that unlike most artists in the show, Warhol and Katz were contemporaries.

I.e., they could credibly argue over who had bragging rights to various practices.

Alex Katz, "Lita"
Katz told Prather that "Warhol didn't influence me, I influenced him."  Katz was referring to the flat background both artists favored, the double portrait, and the square portrait format, Prather said.

Both artists did a portrait of art collector Lita Hornick, but Katz's came first, and he claimed that he saw Warhol studying his version at Hornick's house before doing his own.

"Influence is a tricky thing," Prather remarked.

Eventually Katz came around to being in the show, and his "Lita" made the cut.

Warhol's Birmingham riots, based on a news photo
Prather asked Vita Celmins, who is represented by her 1965 oil of a Time magazine cover, "On a scale of 1 to 100, what's your comfort level for being in the show?"  Initially Celmins said 75%, but later asked Prather, "Can I change that to 50%?"

Another artist, whom Prather declined to name, told her that "his color came from Warhol, but he didn't want to be in the show because he didn't want to be in Andy's shadow."

He has a point.

The show has some 45 major works by Warhol.  They range from his recreation  of Brillo soap-pad boxes and paintings of Campbell's soup cans, to his silkscreen electric chair series and portraits of Liz and Jackie, to his screen tests of Nico, his dollar sign works, and his cow wallpaper.  The show is worth seeing if only to catch the seminal moments in Warhol's career.

Ed Ruscha's Standard Oil gas station on fire
But inevitably the other artists, represented by only one or sometimes a few works, seem like footnotes to the main event -- even those generally admired like John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha or those with several well-known works in the show like Jeff Koons, whose Hoover vacuum cleaners, sculpture of Michael Jackson with his chimpanzee, and identical puppy vases all make an appearance.

The show is organized around five themes:  daily news, celebrity and power, queer (the curators' term) studies, something called "consuming images," which is an umbrella for appropriation, abstraction, and serial imagery, and finally "no boundaries," which deals with art as business, collaboration, and spectacle.

Tuymans' portrait of Condi Rice
Plenty of outstanding works are on view aside from those by Warhol -- Luc Tuymans' portrait of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example.

And the show also satisfies some "what's the big deal" questions.  Richard Prince, for example, has been much in the news lately because of a court case accusing him of infringing a photographer's copyright, and for those who haven't seen his blown-up photo of a photo of a cowboy taken from a tobacco ad -- well, here it is.

Sometimes the connection to Warhol is strained, which tends to minimize the other artists' work. For example, what do Warhol's neutral electric chairs have to do with Felix Gonzalez-Torres' intimate pile of candy, an allegorical tribute to his lover dead from AIDS?  The theme of death, a constant in Western art, is quite independent of Warhol.

Still, in a cynical all-Warhol, all-the-time art world, "Regarding Warhol" is a reminder of how impressive his art is, how many of his works have become part of the cultural heritage, and how as he was continually remaking himself, he was also in many ways remaking art.

"Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists Fifty Years," Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, September 18 to December 31

Text and photos (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert