‘Billboard art’ is the rage of late. No idea why. But this example raises questions of politics, public art, commercial interests and on and on…
Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
Archive for August, 2008
Five favorite things I saw over the course of the summer…
1.) Two super installations at the Akron Art Museum, which is taking full effect of its striking new Coop Himmelblau building: Upon entering the museum’s smart new post-war galleries, visitors are greeted by an enormous Lari Pittman: Thankfully, I will have had learned to break glass with sound (1999). While Pittman is one of the most important American painters of the last 25 years, his work is rarely on view in permanent collection galleries. (Perhaps that’s because it’s often huge, perhaps it’s because museums shy away from the intensity of Pittman’s imagery). Akron, whose director Mitchell Kahan is one of just a handful of openly gay American museum directors, doesn’t just exhibit Pittman, he does so in the most fantastically confrontational way imaginable. It’s the first thing you see when you enter the museum’s post-war galleries.
2.) Later on in Akron’s finely-detailed new space: This Alma Thomas, 1972’s Spring Awakening, is one of the best Thomases I’ve seen. (It’s been in the museum’s collection since 1976.) Across a gallery is an El Anatsui, Dzesi II (2006). It’s a fairly typical El Anatsui, complete with flattened aluminum bottle caps. The juxtaposition of the Thomas and the El Anatsui really works: All that division and layering comes together to form a powerful whole. (Incidentally, art ghettoists who scoff at the idea of the alleged hinterlands are really shooting themselves in the Moleskine by not appreciating or visiting places like the Akron Art Museum. Its Doris Salcedo is haunting and perfectly installed. Its Kusama chairs are the best I’ve ever seen in a museum’s collection galleries. Akron’s 1966 Bontecou is wonderfully frightening and war-like. And on and on.)
3.) The trompe l’oeil wall at the Brandywine River Museum. George Cope, John Haberle, William Hartnett, and more. I live in a city (Washington) that doesn’t have much American trompe l’oeil painting, which is too bad. The more I see the more I want to see more.
4.) Francisco de Zurbaran’s Jesus and Mary in Nazareth at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This is really about ten paintings in one: A floral still-life, plus seemingly self-contained presentations of a basket, a bowl, books, pears and birds. (Oh — Jesus and Mary are there too.) There also appears to be an unlikely indoor weather system affecting the scene. It’s all quite surreal — and rollicking good Catholic fun.
5.) Trevor Paglen’s Active Military and Reconnaissance Satellites of the United States of America at the Berkeley Art Museum. Picture a darkened room, a large globe, and four projectors projecting ’satellites’ onto the globe. Where you see the dots on the globe is where the satellites are. Thoughts: Why are American military satellites going over us?! Why do the satellites flicker in and out, like fireflies? Why is there only one satellite over China — aren’t they a potential enemy? There are none over Iraq or Iran! (I looked at North Korea, but it was so small…) After I walked around the globe a few times, a few satellites finally flew over all of those places. Which made me feel better. But should that make me feel better? Or do I have some kind of latent militarisitic streak that just popped out?
- When ‘watercolor painting’ was an Olympic event, from the LAT’s David Colker.
- The Boston Globe’s Geoff Edgers explains what college art museum lost a Leger and how they seem to have done it.
- Sebastian Smee, the Boston Globe’s new art critic, says that discovering old art in a new places helps free the mind from the tyranny of wall text, education departments, interpretive aids, curatorial explanations, etc., etc. etc., etc.
- How did I miss this? Two years ago the Smithsonian decided that its name was more valuable than its integrity, reports the Washington Post’s Jackie Trescott.
Last week I posted about how the “Diebenkorn in New Mexico” show now at the Phillips Collection reveals how Richard Diebenkorn worked his way through a number of modern masters on his way to becoming one of the greatest post-war painters. I focused on this 1951 Diebenkorn, a painting the NYT said has been exhibited only once in 32 years. I traced it back to Picasso’s 1932 Still Life: Bust, Bowl and Palette.
In 1952, just before leaving Albuquerque for a teaching job in Urbana, Ill., Diebenkorn made a second visit to that Picasso. This time he banished orange, the dominant color in the 1951 painting, from his palette. The first time around he had exaggerated the bust, this time he minimized it. Where at first he ignored the structure of the Picasso to play with components of the painting, to de Kooning-ize them with letters of the alphabet, this time he sublimated everything else to delineating Picasso’s structure with clear, straight black lines. The two paintings — frustratingly installed out of sight of each other at the Phillips — are a fascinating revelation into how Diebenkorn worked through his forefathers. (I can’t think of another example of Diebenkorn working through one painting in multiple paintings of his own. But if anyone else…)
There’s one other painting at the Phillips in which Diebenkorn explores Picasso’s artistic legacy: In 1951’s Albuquerque (Motorcycle Wreck) Diebenkorn directly plays at mixing a cubist ‘quote’ with an abstract ground. The painting (at right) features one motorcycle wheel up against the picture plane, and one lying down, receding into the picture. It’s almost as if the young artist was testing cubist flatness, seeing whether there was something there for him. (Answer: Not much.)
The New Mexico paintings are ripe for these kinds of readings. In a recent lecture at the Phillips, ex-MoMA chief curator John Elderfield drew similar specific links between New Mexico paintings and Gorkys, Miros, Rothkos and de Koonings. He also made a persuasive case for how the great St. Louis Art Museum New Mexico painting was informed by a Gottlieb.
So no, unlike the shows organizers I don’t think that “Diebenkorn in New Mexico” reveals that New Mexico seeped into Diebenkorn’s art — I think that Diebenkorn’s time in graduate school allowed him two years of relative quiet during which he worked his way through the dominant painters of his time. And I think the show inadvertently explains Diebenkorn’s frequent contention that critics read too much Matisse into his work: The show demonstrates that in his formative years Diebenkorn didn’t think much about Matisse at all. (Of course, once he found him…)
I am confused. In Sunday’s NYT, Roberta Smith declares that public art is “one of contemporary art’s more exciting areas of endeavor and certainly its most dramatically improved one.” Sure. There may be an argument to be made in that direction.
But Smith did not make it. First, her definition of ‘public art’ is curious. She specifically excludes earthworks — many of which, most famously Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative — are absolutely public. (Urban, no. Public, yes.)
Then Smith goes down some strange Jeff Koons
rabbit bunny-hole, using Koons’ Balloon Dog (Yellow) as an example of public art. Balloon Dog (Yellow) couldn’t be any further from public: It’s owned by hedge fund-enabled impresario Steven Cohen. [Picture] It is on temporary loan to the Met, where it sits stands on the roof. Which makes it just as much public art as Cohen’s toothy (but hardly toothsome) Damien Hirst. And why exactly is a privately-owned Koons on view at the Met ‘public art’ when a foundation-owned Koons on view at LACMA apparently isn’t? Or is it?
As if this weren’t confusing enough, Smith cites sculpture in privately-owned, security-guard-filled skyscrapers as ‘public art.’ At best, office building lobbies/atriums are selectively public.
(Smith’s consideration also reveals her New Yorkness. There are
numerous healthy, exciting public art programs around the country and
have been for years: San Diego alone has featured inSite and the Stuart
Collection at UCSD. And up the highway, the most exciting public work I’ve seen in the last
year is Chris Burden’s Urban Light.)
It’s possible Smith has a point about a revival of public art. But yesterday’s essay only confused the conversation.
- Speaking of public art, I dig this Baltimore Museum of Art idea. Podcasts here.
- Not only did Richard Lacayo slam the University of Iowa regents for considering a possible Pollock sale, but for good measure he twice eviscerated the muddled, self-revealing musings of Felix Salmon. In other Iowa Pollock-related pontification, the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Gibson comes down on the side of the angels too.
- Art critic John Russell, dead at 89.
- The Dallas Morning News’ Scott Cantrell on the SITE Santa Fe biennial: Life is short, art is shorter.
- Martha Schwendener never writes like this for the NYT, which says more about the NYT than it does about her: This stemwinder on Kehinde Wiley is superb.
- Jen Graves finds a clever way to bring up a sticky question.
I was going to spend more time on Diebenkorn today, but I’m having image issues. So that’ll wait…
I linked to this yesterday, but LATer Suzanne Muchnic’s story on LACMA’s purchase of Ed Kienholz’s The Illegal Operation (1962) hit every note: socio-cultural relevance, art historical import, and ways in which today’s artists have picked up from Kienholz. The story — Museum Buys Art – is pretty simple, but Muchnic really nailed it. It’s the kind of ‘why this art matters’ arts journalism that just about no one does anymore.
(Certainly not the NYT, which has turned just about all of its so-called arts journalism into business reporting or hyperbolic feature writing, the most recent example of which declares Denver as having a “new art movement.” Yes, that’s right: fauvism, cubism, Denverism. Meanwhile the NYT still hasn’t reported accurately on the Denver Art Museum/Anschutz scandal. Why cover the news when you can blow smoke, I guess.)
Muchnic’s story also reminded me how au courant Kienholzes often look, both in terms of their formal import to what came next art-making-wise, but also in terms of the issues they address. The last big Kienholz show was the Whitney’s 1996 retrospective.
Last year MoMA’s then-chief curator John Elderfield told me that the museum was evaluating the 1970s in an effort to determine who from that era was under-examined and under-collected at MoMA. Ed Kienholz goes back further than 1970, but I’d have a hard time thinking of an artist from Kienholz’s generation deserving of another close-up.
- Time’s Richard Lacayo is the latest to knock the University of Iowa regents.
- LACMA scores this great, important Kienholz, reports LATer Suzanne Muchnic.
- Press release of the day: The Art Institute of Chicago devalues the phrase “major acquisition” and, for some reason, decides its press release should be an advertisement for the gallery from which it bought the painting. Say wha?!
In the summer of 1952, just after completing a master’s degree at the University of New Mexico, Richard Diebenkorn made a quick swing through California. He stopped in the Bay Area to drop off some paintings, and in Los Angeles to see the landmark Alfred Barr-curated Matisse show at the Municipal Art Gallery. Diebenkorn had seen some Matisse before — notably at the Phillips Collection when Diebenkorn was stationed in the Washington area during World War II — but it was through that show that Diebenkorn first truly absorbed Matisse. There’s little sign of Matisse in any of Diebenkorn’s pre-1952 work.
The exhibition reveals that Diebenkorn was far less influenced by New Mexico’s mountain topopgraphy and desert colors than is generally believed. (The show’s curators grope for this explanation at every turn, both in the show’s frustratingly thin catalogue and especially in the broken-records masquerading as wall-texts.) From 1950-52 Diebenkorn wasn’t so much directly abstracting landscape, light, or anything else we typically associate with Western artists. He took specific paintings and techniques from favorite artists, and then built his own Esperanto out of them.
The most thrilling examples stem from Diebenkorn’s apparent study of Picasso’s Still Life: Bust, Bowl, and Palette, from 1931-32, a painting Picasso made in preparation for a major exhibition at Galerie Georges Petit. Picasso’s Petit exhibition has become famous for following — and responding to — a 1931 Matisse show at the same gallery. The Picasso painting Diebenkorn used shows Picasso re-claiming a trope from Matisse, whose 1916 treatment of the same subject was featured in a popular art magazine on the occasion of Matisse’s show — and then studied by Picasso. (I wrote about these two paintings in February.)
Albuquerque No. 3 (1951, above left) is Diebenkorn’s processing of the Picasso. As is evident time and time again in the Phillips show, Diebenkorn isn’t directly abstracting the Picasso, he’s letting Picasso guide him. Picasso stole the painting’s subject matter and its elements from Matisse, and Diebenkorn stole structure and shape from Picasso. The bust in the upper-right of the Diebenkorn is an obvious crib from the Picasso. In a nod to de Kooning (highlighted by John Elderfield in a recent Phillips lecture), Diebenkorn used letters to abstract other elements: The fruit bowl becomes an ‘O,’ the palette and hook is echoed in a scribbled ‘e’ or ‘l’. [The de Kooning, Zurich (1947) is now in the Hirshhorn's collection and is on view now.] At the place in the Picasso where a tablecloth folds over itself forming 3/4 of an ‘X,’ Diebenkorn finds an ‘X’ in de Kooning, seems to like it, and inserts it in almost the same place in his painting.
But the hallmark of these paintings isn’t just direct inspiration, it’s more subtle appropriation, including the way Diebenkorn allows Picasso to influence his palette. In numerous paintings from this period Diebenkorn uses little patches of a strange faint purple, a color that hadn’t been in his palette before and that wouldn’t much be again. It’s a color that has nothing to do with New Mexico’s desert landscape, either. I posit that it’s a color he took from his study of early 1930s Picasso: That lavender-purple is Picasso’s Marie-Therese Walter color. It’s in gouaches from the Albuquerque period, in the great, Albuquerque No. 4 (1951), and it slides into the best painting Diebenkorn made in New Mexico, an amazing untitled 1952 abstraction.
In a catalogue essay Mark Lavatelli writes: “What comes out of the Albuquerque period — the multiple uses of line, the abstracted landscape quality — continues in the Urbana, Berkeley, and Ocean Park series.” Lavatelli is right to a point: Diebenkorn learned how to abstract away from subject matter in Albuquerque, but he wasn’t abstracting away from landscape. He was working from modern masters.
No. 3 isn’t Diebenkorn’s only consideration of Bust, Bowl and Palette. Tomorrow: A 1952 painting in which Diebenkorn goes back to Bust, Bowl and Palette in order to use Picasso’s structure.
Enjoying the August lazies. Back tomorrow.
Slightly amusing Erin Jordan story in the Des Moines Register on the reaction to the Pollock events. (Amusing in part because it missed some recent developments, including the Iowa governor’s position against the current process. Uh, how…)
As you may recall, last week I pointed out the potential conflicts of interest inherent in a University of Iowa regent suggesting that UIMA’s greatest painting be sold to a museum (at a cut rate, no doubt) that might allow UIMA to borrow it from time-to-time when the wife of the UI regent in question is on the board of the Des Moines Art Center.
The UI regent in question, Michael Gartner, told the Register that my noting such was “bizarre.”
More from Gartner in the Register: “‘My wife, like probably 2.9 million other Iowans, didn’t even know
the university owned a $150 million painting (if that’s what it’s
worth) until it was in the news in recent weeks,’ Gartner wrote in an
If Gartner is right and his wife Barbara didn’t know that one of the two or three greatest Pollocks in America was 115 miles down the street at the University of Iowa Museum of Art, I wonder what she’s doing on an art museum board.
Also, Gartner appears to have a firm idea of how the Pollock should be assessed. Then why go through with the whole assessment charade? (At the very least Gartner just signaled to the UI assessors what he thinks the assessment ought to find, which seems improper.)
Is it likely that the Pollock is sold? I think that the events of the last week — including Iowa Gov. Chet Culver’s opposition to the current process and the unusually prompt response of art world leaders — make it unlikely. (Of course: If Alice Walton waltzes in with a $175 million offer, all bets are off…) But what’s troubling is this: The UI regent pushing the idea has no apparent compunction about pre-judging an assessment that he himself pushed through and he also fails to recognize another obvious bit of ethical stickiness. So who knows what’s next?
- The Des Moines Register (finally) writes a smart editorial opposing any sale of the Pollock — or civil war cannons, etc.
- Wanna borrow UIMA’s great 1943 Pollock? Your insurance costs will be a lot less than you think, reports the LAT’s Mike Boehm.
- From SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker: An SFMOMA board member buys David Ireland’s house, plans preservation.
- On a week when one of the biggest art world stories of 2008 has been taking place, the New York Times gave us Where’s Waldo at the Met, a Russian scenester, and the development of a parking lot in Venice, Calif. Awesome.
- The Dallas Morning News’ Michael Granberry reports that the Kimbell and Renzo Piano are reconsidering where to build the Kimbell’s planned expansion. Here’s the Google Satellite image of the site.
- Susan Robb’s ‘Toobs,’ at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, are strikingly seductive, says The Stranger’s Christopher Frizzelle. Jen Graves has more here.
- Robert Pincus of the San Diego Union Tribune examines a show of artists responding to climate change at MCASD, BAM — and at UNESCO sites. (In a related story, does Ann Hamilton have her own wall-text typist?)
- The Berlin Monument to the Homosexual Persecuted in the Nazi Era — an Elmgreen and Dragset — has been vandalized.
- The Houston Chronicle’s Douglas Britt sees an arts resurgence in New Orleans.