Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Salut, Chris Marker

With Chris Marker's passing, we have lost one of cinema's most compelling voices, and also one of the few who resolutely resisted the boundary between cinema and art.  Indeed, he resisted many boundaries. Marker was a pioneer of the cinema essay, and many of his works straddle the criss-crossing borders between fiction and documentary, politics and poems, lofty philosophy and gritty verité.  Marker's style relates to that of other directors in his generation: the psuedo-enthnographies of Rouch, the urban documentaries of Varda, the political assaults of Debord, and the meditations on memory by his close friend Resnais.  Marker's methods co-evolved with these other auteurs, but his work is utterly distinctive and irreplaceable.

Among the central concerns in Marker's films are memory, colonialism, and displacement.  Among the repeating tropes, we find statues, soldiers, things that fly, Vertigo allusions, and, of course, cats.  Stylistically, Marker was perhaps the greatest master of narration.  Quotable, provocative, moving, opaque, and also chillingly clear, Marker's work percolates with ingenuity, grace, and integrity.  He gave us a new cinema, and a new way of experiencing the world.  Every newsreel, still image, and artifact resonates both forward and backward in time, proliferating versions of truth.

Marker is best remembered for La Jetée, a science fiction horror comprised mostly of stills, and Sans Soleil, his quintessential celluloid essay, which moves like a drifting cloud from Iceland to Japan and Africa, and back again.  Other highlights include the street-interviews of Le Joli Mai, his probing demolition of post '68 France, A Grin Without a Cat, and his early anti-colonial art documentary, Statues Also Die, with Resnais.  All these films balance the ideology of leftist politics with a kind of directionless malaise, as if they are nostalgic memories told from some post-apocalyptic perch in time. In a somewhat less political mode, he made a marvelous animated short, Les Astronautes, with Walarian Borowczyk.  Marker also made outstanding politically charged tributes to other artists, including director Aleksandr Medvedkin, and photographer Denise Belloc.  A still from each of these is presented here, along with the image at above, which is one of the rare images of Marker, curtesy of Icarus films.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Weiwei Cool

There are several ways to make an artist documentary.  You can film the artist creating or discussing their works, you can do an exposé revealing the artist's personality and personal life, or you can present the broader social context and the artist's involvement in issue that transcend art.  Three recent documentaries illustrate each of these styles: Gerhard Richter Painting is about the process of making art, Marina Abromavic: The Artist is Present is a Geraldo-style character portrait, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is mostly about politics.  Alison Klayman's film follows Weiwei as he takes on the Chinese government.  The film packs a powerful punch, though we learn little about the artist's works or methods of creation.  Moreover, the political issues are presented with little nuance, allowing Western viewers to gasp in horror at Chinese oppression of free expression, while hearing little more than a sentence of dissent (articulated by a New Yorker journalist sympathetic to Weiwei's position).  That is forgivable, though, because Weiwei's battles, from tragic to trifling, do seem to fall on the right side of justice, and he is a rare reminder that artists can have an impact, while also producing work that earns a place in art history independent of its moral message.  Weiwei's charismatic personality shines in this film, both arrogant and humble, serious and prankster, strong and fragile.  The titular epithet, never sorry, speaks to the artist's unflinching resolve, which is presented in almost every frame.

Weiwei is presented as more of an activist than an artist.  His effort to gain recognition for the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake is movingly documented.  This has been a theme is his work, but here it eclipses other things he's done, so that, for example, when taken to a major retrospective in Munich, we see an earthquake-themed facade being installed, but little on other works, shown in passing.  One exceptation is a neolithic vase, which he defaced with a Coca-Cola logo (left), extending earlier work (above), in which such antiques were willfully destroyed--a chilling echo of the cultural revolution.  A bit more attention is dedicated to the photogenic sea of sunflower seeds, which he commissioned artisans to sculpt and paint using traditional methods.  They are seen (above right), filling the ground floor of the Tate Modern.  We also get a glimpse of Weiwei's relationship to other artists, including Tehching HsiehHe Yunchang, and rock musician, Zuoxiao Zuzhou.  Women artists, including Weiwei's partner Lu Qing, are given less air time.  With this supporting cast, we are able to see that Weiwei's political activism has progressed in tandem with his efforts to support the Chinese art scene.

One nice feature of Klayman's apotheosis of a film is her emphasis on social media.  Weiwei has made extensive use of blogging and Twitter to bring attention to his causes, and, in so doing has shown the power of these resources to promote awareness and to mobilize large numbers of people.  Weiwei compulsively tweets his encounters with police and government officials. He watches them as they watch him, and the world watches these reflexive watchings. Perhaps in this perverse tangle of spectatorship, we can see that Weiwei's activism is not separate from his art, but an exemplification of it.

The Clock

Scenes from Christian Marclay's 24-hour video installation, "The Clock." (Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery)

At a recent screening of collaged animations, one of the filmmakers (in the Q&A that followed) remarked that she felt that everything has already been made, and it only needed to be reedited to create a new narrative. Her comment resonated with me this past weekend when I ventured out to Lincoln Center to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock. It was the final weekend viewing of the film. As expected, the lines were long. I waited over two hours outside and entered the screening room around 12:30 a.m. While waiting in line, I had a clear view of the illuminated CNN rooftop sign in Columbus Circle. Under the CNN logo, the current time, which I unconsciously kept glancing at, and temperature, a very muggy 81 degrees at midnight, were displayed.  While it was admittedly a tedious wait, I enjoyed observing my line mates, some reading, some amusingly networking with the strangers around them, and some sitting on the pavement, standing up when the line moved forward perhaps a foot and sitting down again and repeating this action in small spurts over and over for the entire two hours. Only a few gave up. 

Once inside, I stayed for about two hours. I was enthralled by the micro abstract narratives that wove throughout the film. There has been plenty of criticism about the film being “too clever” or “gimmicky” but I disagree. I don’t think that something being clever is a negative. The clean editing and syncing with current time is fantastic. As a viewer feeling exhausted at 2 a.m., I watched the characters restlessly toss and turn in their beds, repeatedly looking at the time and remarking how most normal people are asleep. Unlike David Edelstein, I enjoyed getting sucked into one short narrative only to be thrown into another. As an artist living in a place and time that encourages punching out work at a fast pace, I was inspired to read about the hours and years and of course time that went into creating The Clock If I wasn’t already exhausted from a few long days prior, I would have stayed longer. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ubu Gallery

A gallery has to be pretty damn good to earn the Ubu name.  The Ubu Gallery does not disappoint.  Nestled beneath the Queensboro bridge on East 59th street, this cozy exhibition space is a veritable trove of surrealist goodness.  Yes, surrealism.  That term can trigger an eye-roll among art-world intelligentsia, but one trip to Ubu and that smug shrug will turn into something closer to awe.  On display is an impressive collection of photographic works by Hans Bellmer and his circle (e.g., a lovely "spumifer," or sexual monster, by George Hugnet).  As if that were not enough, the lower level is currently showing 33 exquisite collages by André Breton, Paul Éluard, and Suzanne Muzard (who inspired Breton's poem, Free Union).  There are so many tasty montage morsels here that you will feel like a kid in a candy store; one delectable example is pictured above.  Astonishingly, these treasures are for sale!  This is as good as any museum exhibit you are likely to catch this summer, and it's one in a long string of shows worth seeing.  Previous exhibitions have included such pantheonic figures as Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and Sol Lewitt.  The last exhibition juxtaposed Bellmer with his enormously talented muse, Unica Zürn.  The surrealist collage show is officially closing on July 31st, but you can call the kind folks at Ubu for a viewing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dia Day

New Yorkers take note.  The Dia Beacon is an easy train ride away (a well-signed walk from the Beacon station on the Metro-North line towards Poughkeepsie) and well worth a visit.  The museum occupies an enormous space (a former Nabisco boxing facility), which is a perfect setting for the large-scale, often minimalist art in the collection.  Highlights include several huge chambers of Lewitt abstractions (try to figure out the principles behind the patterns!), a particularly nice selection of Bourgeois sculptures, towering Serra pieces, and wooden piece by Judd that looks like a shipping crate at first but reveals its true form of close inspection.  Also impressive are the Agnes Martin paintings.  The pastels in that collection don't work for me, but a room of monochromes shows the artist at her best, with a yin-yang balance of obsessive order and subtle imperfection (as in the example above).

Irksome, though, are the cafe napkins.  Click on the photo to the right, and read the list of artist names.  Anything missing?  Exactly.  A Louise Lawler exhibit is discretely mentioned on the back, but the ostentatious list on the front is decidedly androcentric, which is especially odd given that the museum houses such exceptional work by Bourgeois and Martin.  Surely a crime of omission.  Shame on you Beacon!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Losing Herb, and so much more.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel (Image from the Telegraph)
The death of Herb Vogel, while not hugely unexpected given his 89 years, comes as quite a blow. I have often "jokingly" inquired, where are the art patrons now? Yes, the predictable outburst of an artist who, big surprise, doesn't make a living making art. The Vogels, Herb and Dorothy, weren't typical patrons because they began collecting with a very small purse.  Herb was a retired postal worker with an extraordinary love of art. He lived for art. Truly. It wasn't about the money, or the status of being art savvy enough to buy a Chamberlain or a Chuck Close for peanuts.  There was no hidden agenda, no retirement plan of selling pieces that had become worth millions for a bigger apartment, or for a time share in Boca.  He and his wife stopped traveling in the 70's (yeah, over thirty years ago!), so that they could afford to buy more art. They lived in a small apartment with turtles and cats, and art filled every other spare nook and cranny of it.  I think we should stop to acknowledge this: real art by real artists can be had even with a meager salary. I mean, they watched Christo's cat as payment for a piece. Sometimes they were forced to pay in installments.  It's easy to get bitter at a big fancy gallery when you see something that moves you, and you wish in your head, "if only I could afford that."  Yes, there are trendy, fabulous artists with fabulous price tags alongside their work.  And I'm certainly as guilty as the next artist when I price my work as I deem it worth. But I also know I would be willing to give my work away for next to nothing if I knew it brought someone so much pleasure. That's kind of the secret wish, that the person/s who acquires your work will really enjoy it.  The Vogels gave away most of their collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  It was an act that speaks volumes about Herb and Dorothy. They gave to the National Gallery what, in away, the National Gallery gave to them: a love and appreciation for art, for everyone to enjoy, for free.  Tonight, I will toast to Herb Vogel, one of a fiery couple who's love for art was endless and limitless.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Minimal Kunst

The wonderful Daimler Sammlung in Berlin has been hosting a series of exhibits on German minimalism, drawn from their own collection.  The current show is a bit cluttered, but full of gems.  It's like opening a drawer of jewels that each glitter despite their need for more space.  Some of the strongest pieces owe to  Charlotte Posenenske, known for her large geometric sculptures that resemble industrial venting systems, and Peter Ruehr, who uses repeated photographs, punctuation marks, and film clips to create hypnotic patterns.  Even more captivating are the works on paper by Hanne Darboven, who uses simple equations to generate series of numerals and forms that she likens to mathematical prose.  These cryptic works initial look like scraps from an engineer's notebook, but, framed and arranged, they serve as comments on overly measured world, while pleasantly domesticating Kant's mathematical sublime.

The Other Enlightenment

The Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin is hosting an exhibition called On the Edge of Reason, which juxtaposes the hyper-rational, scientific, and moralistic Enlightenment with its less appreciated counterpart: the supernatural, pseudo-scientific, and malevolent preoccupations that were inextricably interwoven with more forward looking trends.  One of the many high points of the show is Kant's death mask, a copy of which was apparently owned by founding phrenologist Franz Gall.  Here Kant stares into the face of a phrenological skull reflected in the glass of their shared display case.

Orosco as Collector

Gabriel Orosco seems to be an endlessly inventive artist, and his recent commission for the Guggenheim in Berlin is no exception.  The idea is simple enough: collect and ensemble discarded items found on the beach.  The result is fascinating: photographs and arrays of scraps, buoys, light bulbs, wrappers, rocks, and other items washed up on the shore.

It is a comment on collecting.  Here the artist is a curator of debris.  This takes the readymade idea farther, because it incorporates the accidental manipulations of the sea, and also requires careful arrangement on the part of artist and gallerists.  Each individual item gains interest from decay and juxtaposition.  The work also has an ecological dimension.  Like the Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, or Kurt Schwitters before him, Mexican-born Orosco turns trash into art.

Perhaps most interesting to me is the emphasis on classification.  How should these items be arranged?  Orosco aligns items together by type (bulbs with bulbs), but also by shape and color.  The result raises questions about which things for natural units.  Some assemblies are like the Chinese dictionary described in Borges: objects with little in common, like stones, helmets, and lightbulbs seem to take on a natural unity.

A less obvious theme, important to the artist, concerns travel through time and space.  Many items were manufactured in one place (say, China), discarded in another, washed up in a third, then transported to the artist's New York studio, and shipped to the European gallery.   They will ultimately go back to New York, and then perhaps to a storehouse, or, one might fantasize, they might be returned to the sea.

Deutsche Disco, Ja?

Just thinking about going on a cruise makes me cringe, but if I were somehow forced onto a ship with hundreds of buffet obsessed travelers in search of a non-descript island to get wasted on, I would hope at the very least, there was a dance hall -slash- bar like the one I went to in Berlin (Mitte). It was a bit like Fassbinder filmed with a red gel, in the 90's, hinting to fashion from the 70's, but here in the 2000's. The music appropriately spanned the 60's through the 90's. In a city where everyone drinks beer, folks mysteriously drank mixed drinks out of plastic cups. Original DDR signs listing available drinks remain. Ja, baby, I liked it.

Kinetic Light Sculpture

Anthony McCall has been making art with light for decades, and he is enjoying a recent revival.  An exhibit at the Hamburger Bahnhof features a large dark room full of lights that beam out of walls or down from the high ceiling.  The room is also filled with smoke, which catches the light, creating conical forms that viewers can penetrate and explore.  And that's the most interesting part.  We all know how to view conventional paintings and sculptures, but the McCall exhibit requires the spontaneous generation of new viewing strategies, and each of invented mode of interaction is also an intervention, changing the form of the piece for others to see.

Pink Caviar

The Louisiana Museum outside Copenhagen is hosting an exhibition of acquisitions from the last three years, and they have certainly been busy buying.  It spans everything from collage to large sculptures, paintings, and installations.  Germans are heavily represented here, with works by Struth, Tilmans, Polke, and Kiefer among others, but the range is more global.  There is a spectacular cloud of humming microphones by Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta and a room of lights and mirrors by Kusama.  Another highlight is a room lined with photos by Hans-Peter Feldman depicting people ranging in age from 1 to 100.  A small sampling is shown below.

Intense Proximity

The Palais de Tokyo is hosting a compelling exhibition that combines art from several decades with ethnographic materials that deal with the body, most typically, as it is perceived by others.  Field notes by Claude Levi-Strauss and African masks photographed by Walker Evans intermingle with paintings by Chris Ofili and video work by Adrian Piper.

Of special note is the representation of artists from Poland, spanning four decades.  Videos from Teresa Tyszkiewicz and doctored photographs by Ewa Partum are on view, as is a crowd pleasing video by Aneta Grzeszykowska, which depicts the artist undressed and dismembered, as her various body parts explore each other and try to reconnect.  The opening delivers a powerful blow as the still-intact artist lights a fuse that connects to a bomb in her mouth.  Like the other Polish artists on display, this work is strongly feminist in orientation, but also works as a piece of neo-surrealism, and evokes the cinematic experiments of Georges Méliès (see his Un Homme de Têtes below).  The Palais show reminds us that Poland has long been and continues to be a major center for art.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Richter Retro

The Pompidou is hosting a lavish Gerhardt Richter retrospective, which helps confirm the artist's place as one of the most important living painters.  The exhibition traces Richter's development from blurry monochrome photorealism through controlled accidents in colorful abstractions, revealing a continuity between these ostensibly divergent periods.  At one point, Richter even self-parodies showing a stepwise move from realism to its dissolution, echoing evolutions familiar from Turner and Mondrian.  The curators also portray an ongoing engagement with Duchamp, with an homage to the nude descending the stairs and a series of large glass works.  But unlike Duchamp, who asks about the bounds of art, Richter is forever concerned with the nature of painting.  At times, Richter even tries to paint paint.

Descartes Art

In his Discourse on Meteorology, Descartes includes this image of the mathematics of stargazing.  The Discourse can be read as a work in scientific aesthetics.  Descartes opens with the remark that people are naturally prone to wonder when looking upward at the heavens.  In his final book, Descartes would later say that wonder is the most fundamental emotion, and his analysis of wonder can be read as a precursor to Kantian aesthetics.  We are drawn to sensory experiences that defy easy comprehension.

Morton Bartlett

The Morton Bartlett exhibit at the Hamburger Banhof Museum was everything I hoped it would be and more.  I first stumbled upon his work years ago in Chelsea. It was love at first sight. Bartlett's exquisitely hand crafted dolls, prepubescent girls and boys in finely tailored outfits he made for them, were staged in delightfully uncomfortable poses. Uncomfortable because you get the feeling the dolls aren't wearing underwear, or if they are, you can't help but suspect you are supposed to look up their skirts.

The eeriness continues. Bartlett poses and photographs them. I don't mean to tarnish them with my pervy interpretation,  because I really do think his work is fantastic. But there is an undercurrent of sexual tension which cannot be ignored. One could equally think that he was a loner trying to create an imaginary family. (In fact, the first catalog published by Marrion Harris in North Adams, Massachusetts was titled, 'Family Found".) Either way, it is impossible not to wonder.