Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Absent an audience, a stage actor can’t truly bring her performance to fruition.  Not so for the visual artist whose self-contained work can be both complete and achieve greatness.  That’s the theory of course, because if they are to be heard, most artists do need an audience.  The collector plays a special role here, one that dates back to early times.  Some collectors simply accumulate long finished work but some become patrons purchasing and sometimes commissioning new creations directly from the artist.  Beyond the “applause” most of us need, collector-patrons often provide the material sustenance that enables the artist to go on. 

Collectors may hold on to their treasure trove, but many donate or bequeath works to museums.  Hardly a museum exists anywhere in the world that isn’t built around, or strengthened by, works amassed by collectors.  In that sense, they haven’t only been collecting for themselves, but also for us.  The Nasher Museum at Duke University is named for such collectors and its newly opened exhibit, Time Capsule, celebrates the collecting of another, if not collecting itself.

Jason Rubell got his collecting start at age 13 with a bar mitzvah gift from family friend and onetime street artist Keith Haring.  Jason was on his way and never stopped.  By his senior year at Duke, he had accumulated enough works to mount a credible exhibition, his senior project.  Shown in 1991 at Duke’s then museum, it traveled on to ten other universities.  Today, Jason Rubell collects with his family and together they have amassed one of the world’s great private art collections, much of it exhibited at the Miami’s Rubell Family Collection.  Recently Jason’s debut exhibition was reprised there.  It has now returned to Duke where it started, filling two gallery rooms with works by the likes of Eric Fischl, Jeff Koons, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter and Cindy Sherman.

It’s appropriate to start at the beginning: Keith Haring’s vibrant untitled work that Rubell describes as a “transition” between his subway and later works.  Haring’s self-described mission was to communicate “immediately and clearly,” and this smallish piece incorporates some of the iconic line drawn figures that became a trademark.  The narrow paint strokes of blue, yellow and green contrast from what is essentially a black on red acrylic that echoes the chalk drawings with which he launched his relatively brief career.

German artist Katarina Fritsch’s five small objects (exhibited in a box) are the product of her dreams combined with the reality of what they depict.  She calls it translating the perfect objects in her mind into an imperfect world.  In fact, each is painstakingly crafted--prototypes of multiples that will never be duplicated.

Another German, photographer Andreas Gursky, is represented by Ratingen Schwimmbad (swimming pool).  Capturing a large pool and surrounding greens, the photo is taken from a great distance.  The result is an image of miniaturized figures in and out of the water.  They look almost more drawn than captured by camera.  While totally different in tone and content (and far less crowded), it brings to mind Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, a canvas so chocked full with individual figures that one is bound to discover something new at every viewing.

Images from the collection of Jason Rubell are at the courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Reflections on Vermeer

Vermeer is justifiably heralded as one of greatest painters in the Western canon.  While visiting his hometown of Delft, I decided to stop in on the Vermeer Centrum, a museum located on the site of his workshop.  The museum owns no paintings, but they exhibit life-size reproductions of all 32 known works in chronological order, as well as some limited information on the artist's techniques.

Vermeer is known for a number of things: his elegant lighting, his preoccupation with music, his use of pairings within paintings, his repoussoir or recessing of figures deep into the picture plane, and his softly rendered women who often stare back at viewers hauntingly (above). 

Vermeer is also known for his unprecedented naturalism.  He achieved this by using a camera obscura (above).  Thus, his paintings are joust reflections of life; they are paintings of reflections. 

It is not surprising, then, that reflection is a theme in the Artist's work.  The detail at the start of this post is the city of Delft, reflected in the water.  In the one above, we see a music lesson; the student's back faces the viewer, but her face is revealed in a reflection from above.  Vanity is theme in the detail below.  A woman with a pearl admires herself in the mirror.  We can't see the reflect she sees, but we admire the painting, which also reflects her.  It is the inverse of the music lesson, where we see the reflection and not the reflected.

In a third example, we see both reflected and reflection.  A woman reads a letter, while standing by a window.  Letters and windows are pervasive themes in Vermeer's work.  Letters express interiority: we are invited to wonder what she is reading, thinking, and feeling.  Windows, in contrast, hint at an exterior world that we almost never see in these paintings.   Vermeer also makes extensive use of maps hung on walls, which hint at the fact that Delft was the home base of the Dutch East India company, and also contrast dramatically with the intimacy of these works.  Like windows, maps both refer to the external world and defer it--the ultimate repoussoir.

Windows are also, of course, a metaphor for art. And this brings us back to reflections.  Like Valazquez in Las Meninas, Vermeer makes paintings about painting.  They are voyeuristic, they are illusionistic, and they experiment with flattening, texture, and light.  Vermeer's portraits of figures staring out at the viewer invert the viewing relationship, and turn paintings into mirrors.  Except, in art, it is not always easy to recognize our own reflection.

Vermeer's most direct painting about painting shows the artist creating a portrait (above).  The face of the sitter does not yet appear on the artist's canvas, and the artist's face is also hidden, anticipating Vermeer's own obscurity.  The secret joke of this work is that the woman has not yet been painted, but she has also already been painted.  The painting within the painting is unfinished, but the painting itself is finished.  The sitter also closes her eyes, unlike so many of Vermeer's women, refusing to view the viewer, or the painter who is also viewing her.  So in this painting about being viewed, the viewing in concealed from view.  It is noteworthy as well that the sitter holds a book (another form or representation) and an instrument (a non-representational mode of expression), as if to locate painting as one art among many.  This painting can be read as a comment on painting as a form of reflection.  Painting reflects reality, but it never captures it.  Even this highly mimetic work, like any image, leaves out far more than in includes.  It is finished, but of necessity incomplete.  We are thus reminded that every painting and reflection is a case of repoussoir.  Such images appear to bring us closer to what they represent, but they do not.  Vermeer's naturalism coyly asserts that images are not nature.  He exemplifies naturalism while undermining it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mapping A City with Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford, "Potable Water", 2005

At the tail end of a blissful five day sojourn in Chapel Hill, I was reminded upon visiting the Nasher Museum, just what a phenomenal institution it is and has become in its brief six year life span.  I have yet to be disappointed by the exhibits curated there.  Upon entering the first room of what houses the permanent collection and new acquisitions is a grouping of Mark Bradford paintings.  I was first introduced to his work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, when he participated in the Romare Bearden tributary show.   It was a fabulous ensemble of contemporary artists, entirely, I believe, of African American descent.   Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas and Hervin Anderson paid homage in the most elegant of ways and it was titillating.  They are living proof that we can learn from our predecessors and offer something fresh and new in response.  It helped to quell the inner fear of the artist who worries that he or she might not be able to reinvent the wheel, at least in the form of visual art, be it a painting or a collage.

Mark Bradford, "Spinning Man", 2007

Mark Bradford’s paintings at the Nasher are no exception. Both painting and collage, he reconstructs maps of South Central LA, from where he was born, with billboard paper and advertisement posters reclaimed from his city, and black carbon paper,  into unrecognizable strips he adheres to a canvas. Reassembled, sanded and layered again, he coats them with paint, carving new imaginary highways, to create a unique urban diagram with a surface that you can almost feel just by looking at it. 

Mark Bradford, close-up of "Red Painting", 2009, 101.75"x143.5"

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Conundrum Squared

Sanford Biggers, "The Cartographer's Conundrum", 2012

Sanford Bigger’s installation at MASS MoCA, “The Cartographer’s Conundrum” offers a journey I highly recommend taking.  The space for it is arguably a bit bigger than it needs to be, but considering the scope of the piece, it worked for me.  Large tetrahedrons like patterns on a quilt are constructed out of basic floor linoleum often found in churches. Stars of many sizes cut out of mirrors lay in rough broken piles, which, in conjunction with slightly mangled musical instruments, look like they might have been mysteriously ejected from a wind tunnel. The star’s reflections are musical notes rising towards the sky.  As you continue your journey, sounds of spiritual Brazilian music emanate from the wall and light passes through bright colored plexi. Sacred geometry gets more sacred when you reach pews that gradually descend from the heavens, and change materials from brightly hued Lucite to a traditional wood.  What continues throughout the entire install, are the mangled instruments and shattered stars.  

When you arrive at the final row of grounded pews, you become witness to a kind of rumpled up Mothership (borrowing from P.Funk), comprised of shattered instruments and stars, where instruments parts speared through space and their meteoric parts lodged into the ground, or alternatively, they exploded outward and landed like a knife thrower’s daggers into the walls. 

In an adjoining room, there are two very large screens, which play the video from his “Cosmic Voodoo Circus” installation, “Shake” mirrored, consistent with the symmetry of the pews in his ‘cosmic slop’ of splattered stars and pianos.  One flashback has the Brazilian artist walking into a coffin shop, where he randomly steals what appears to be a red and gold detailed, Indian sari. In another cut, he is in a bar with staggered hallucinations of himself in a sort of minstrel performance.   In addition to being rich in color and texture, it has a musical quality to it, like his oceans filmed in reverse.  I stood transfixed in a dark room watching this man, Ricardo Castillo, with silver painted face and high heeled silver boots, with outstretched arms reaching to the heavens, and it was moving without even knowing what I should be feeling and why.

 Sanford Biggers, "Splash", 2011  Image courtesy of MASS MoCA

Admittedly, when I first walked through the installation, I missed the reference to quilt patterns with the linoleum flooring. After it was pointed out to me, it was impossible not to think about it, and of course, by the time you reach the final room of the installation, on the top lofted floor, there is an enormous reproduction of Sanford’s cousin, John Biggers’ painting, “Quilting Party”, 1980-81, together with a quilt upon which Sanford painted patterns that are like cosmic trajectories from the installation below.

Sanford Biggers, quilt, image courtesy of MASS MoCA

I’m hardly scraping the surface of what invariably is an intricately woven tapestry of afro-culture, with texts and subtexts and allusions of illusions.  I stumbled into the “Conundrum” and lost myself.  It felt a little like going to an extravagant place for a three-day vacation. With so much to see and not time to see it all, I savored and took in what I could.  And for that I feel richer and won’t soon forget it. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

John Cage, Artist

Today is the 20th anniversary of John Cage's death.  September 5th with be the centennial of his birth.  Few figures approach Cage as a leader in 20th century avant grade music.  His composition 4'33", consisting of random background sounds as musicians sit on a stage in silence, is an undisputed landmark.  But Cage should also be remembered for his visual art.  He regularly produced graphic works, and many of the scores created for music are visually compelling.

One example is Music Walk, a piece composed for a range of different instruments and noise making devices.  The score (above) is an exceptional work of minimalist art.  A similar aesthetic can be found in Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis, which was composed by tracing star maps onto musical paper (below).

Cage move's into a more geometric abstractions with in his score for William's Mix, a piece that integrates country sounds and city sounds.  His geometric mood is even more pronounced in his score for the Fontana Mix, which was performed by using overlapping transparencies containing random shapes and points.  Here is an image from each:

Or consider Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 5 in which brief snippets of 42 records are cacophonously combined according to numerical principles derived from the I-Ching.  The score is picture below.

The I-Ching was an inspiration for many Cage compositions.  He used in to generate random sequences.  One successful implementation is Ryoanji, a musical piece inspired by the zen rock garden. Cage also produced visual works in conjunction with the piece.  He traced rocks using the random numbers as in this lovely example:

Here is a more compulsive example from the series, comprise of 3,375 rock tracings:

Cage also produced works that were not intended as scores or directly linked to his musical compositions.  One example, I believe, is Global Village, based on a phrase from Marhall McLuhan (below).  Here he used smoke to stain the paper.

Cage also made some pieces on Plexiglass to honor the passing of his long-time friend, Marcel Duchamp:

Cage also collaborated with Duchamp.  Notably, he composed music for Duchamp's portion of Hans Richter's film, Dreams that Money Can Buy.  Here is the result:

Duchamp was not Cage's only friend in the art world.  He also knew Mondrian, Breton, Pollock, deKooning, Phillip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Nam June Peik (who made a video in his honor).   William Anastasi regularly played chess with Cage, and, en route to those encounters, made his famous subway drawings, by placing a pen in each hand and letting the train's motion produce random marks.  Here is an example:

Ending with Anastasi allows one to see how well Cage's drawings hold up in comparison to those of visual artists.  Moreover, Cage's obsession with automatism undoubtedly helped to inspire this work.  Thus, in remembering Cage the composer, we must not forget his contributions to visual art, and his work--both musical and visual--can be a continuing source of inspiration.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Northern Masters

The Metropolitan is hosting a small but select exhibition called "Bellini, Titian, as Lotto," with renaissance paintings on loan from the Accedemia Carrera, in Bergamo, Italy.  Spanning a hundred years, these works show off the talents of the two most celebrated members of the Venetian school, Giovanni Bellini and Titian.  But even more interesting, perhaps, are the works by Lorenzo Lotto, and other figures from the region who are less well known to many museum goers.

Admittedly, the Bellini Pieta is the star of the show.  It shows off what I love most about the artist, his poetic, and, in this case, tragic sense of stillness.  Transitioning from Quatracento mediaevalism, Bellini's figures tend to be centrally placed (his St. Francis, at the Frick, is a notable exception).  Here we see heraldic symmetry, with Christ flanked by Mary and St. John.  John's face echoes the dead Christ, but  his knitted brow creates as striking contrast.  This is a magnificent work.

The Titian, by comparison, is pedestrian, and its attribution to the master is not even firmly established.  It shows the work of an immature artist, and is noteworthy mostly for three features.  First, we see the characteristic naturalism.  Drawing on Giorginoni, Titian has a gift for outdoor scenes.  We also see a painterly quality here that anticipates his later work.  Finally, it has the feel of a 19th century Romanic painting, which gives is it some interest and intrigue.

More exciting are the canvases by Giambattista Moroni, a superb high renaissance portraitist.  Though not quite in the league of mannerist Bronzino, it is a great oversight that Moroni is not better known.  His  realism imparts a kind of humanity that is rarely seen in religious subjects from the period.  The first image below comes from the Met show, and two others are added from Wiki for good measure.

For me, however, the greatest revelation was Lotto.  The paintings here are wonderfully dynamic, the opposite of the mournful Bellini.  And Lotto shines too as a colorist.  We even see him using saturation in lieu of shadow, as became the mannerist vogue.  Most affecting is his Stoning of St. Stephen.  Here the fallen saint begs for mercy in the middle of a road.  On the right, four men cast stones with dramatic sweeps.  On the left, we see two others turning towards each other as if whispering about the event.  They hold fierce weapons but do not intervene.  Thus, in this striking contrast of postures, we see an essay on two kinds of evil: crimes of commission and crimes of ommission.  All this, on a tilting landscape with subtly rendered and symbolically poignant architectural ruins.  Though small, the show deserves attention for this painting alone.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Spark Behind New York Dada

Dada was officially born in Zurich in 1916, but a year earlier, in New York, a parallel movement was emerging, which had connections to the European group and would eventually adopt the dada name.  At the center of this movement was Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneer behind art photography and one of the major early promotors of modernism in the United States.  In 1908, Stieglitz opened a gallery called 291 on 5th Avenue near 31st street, which was the first to exhibit Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso on this side of the Atlantic.

That same year, another famous photographer, Edward Steichen, photographed an acquaintance of Stieglitz named Agnes Ernst, an American woman studying literature at the Sorbonne (left).  She had recently graduated from Barnard on a mathematics scholarship.  Upon graduating, she became the first female reporter at the New York Sun.  She met Stieglitz in that capacity, and he nicknamed her the Sun Girl.  Soon after, Anges Ernst set sail for Paris.  There she befriended Steichen, Auguste Rodin, and Gertrude Stein, a major supporter of the local art community.

Two years later, Agnes Ernst married a banker, Eugene Meyer, back in New York.  Now wealthy, Agnes Ernst Meyer could patronize the arts and pursue her own interests as a critic and poet.  As an enthusiast and practitioner of modernism, she deepened her ties with Stieglitz and become a member of his inner circle.

In 1915, Agnes Ernst Meyer co-founded an arts journal named after Stieglitz's gallery, 291.  It ran for one year and was the inspiration behind Francis Picabia's journal 391, one of the seminal dada journals in Europe.  291 published Picabia's early machine drawings, which celebrated the modern era by presenting portraits of people as mechanical objects.  Among these was a spark plug (right), called Portrait of a Young American Girl, which scholars think represents Meyer.  Picabia referred to her as a spark behind the New York avant garde, which would soon evolve into America's dada movement.  

Meyer produced poems for 291, which were among the first concrete poems published in the United States (excerpted at bottom).  These were illustrated by another founding editor of 291, the Mexican artist Marius de Zayas, who created an abstract portrait of Meyer (below, note the equations).

In the first issue of 291, which contained works by Apollinaire and Picasso, Meyer penned a lengthy article about the future of art criticism.  She complained that anglophone critics, like John Ruskin, were too conservative; Ruskin said art should remain frozen in time.  She petitioned for a new age of scientific criticism, that focused on the psychology of the artist.  But she also emphasized  that there are certain questions that escape scientific explanation--principally the question of why artists create what they do.  In addition, she suggested that science can never reveal a universal standard of taste.  To the contrary, science proves that we all perceive things differently.  For these reasons, a scientific form of criticism would not lead to Ruskinesque conservatism, but would rather open up room for endless possibilities.  She said artists, like scientists, should always experiment.

Meyer helped support artistic experimentation through her own cutting edge work and her support of a germinal art scene that would soon blossom.  She was the first American to buy a Brancusi, and her patronage financed Marsden Hartley's trip to Europe, an experience that helped him develop into one of the first American modernist painters.  She also bought work by Max Weber and John Marin (who Clement Greenberg once called "the greatest living American painter").  She even co-curated an exhibition that introduced New York artists to African art.  In all these ways, Meyer helped ignite the American avant garde.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Lou Reed's 1978 Street Hassle album

Five of my monoprints are in a summer group exhibition, ODE TO STREET HASSLE, at the Bronx Art Space, an artist-run collaborative space in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx known for hosting contemporary art, film, and performance exhibitions. The Bronx Art Space is an impressively large venue that I embarrassingly knew little about before participating in ODE TO STREET HASSLE. For both budding and seasoned curators, performers, artists, and filmmakers, I highly recommend looking into proposing an exhibition and/or event there. Although I had little contact with the managers of the space, they seem very open to experimental art and media exhibitions. The other artists in ODE TO STREET HASSLE are Zoe Leonard, Amy Touchette, Myles Paige, Kim Bennet, and Kimi Hodges. Last night was the opening reception and my first opportunity to see all of the work installed together. Chris Hosea, a poet and first time art curator (as far as I know), was asked to put a show together somewhat last minute and chose work from a group of artists he mostly knows---a not so unusual, but sometimes tricky, way of curating a show. 

Amy Touchette, The Insiders No. 2
I have to give Hosea a lot of credit for pulling this show off on such short notice. As an artist, you always take a leap of faith whenever you exhibit your work. Sometimes you know the curator. Sometimes you don’t. You want to show with strong artists in a respected venue and hope that the other artists and the curator put as much energy and thought into the exhibition, opening, and PR as you do. Hosea went above and beyond promoting the show, and I commend him for that. In the limited time he had to orchestrate something with artists on both the east and west coasts, he managed to pull the show together in an aesthetically elegant way.  While I admire Hosea’s verve and energy for promotion and PR, the show would have benefitted from some thoughtful curatorial editing of Paige, Hodge, and Hosea’s work--Hosea’s being a yawnsville meta-ode to irony and Kierkegaard ‘tucked’ in the corner. 

Chris Hosea, 2012

The biggest hole in this exhibition is a lack of cohesive theme, and you can’t rely on a nebulous reference to the rawness of the streets by referencing the title of Lou Reed’s 1978 album Street Hassle to hold the show together. The photographs in the show by Leonard, Paige, and Touchette, don’t have much in common besides the fact that they are all photographs. Yes, Leonard and Touchette both deal with documentation in urban environments, the former focusing on the urban landscape of New York City and the objects within it; the latter presenting a series of portraits of young people growing up and living in the city.  Paige’s sibling series are beautifully rich photographs as objects and some of my favorites in the show, but there is an incongruity presenting them with the Leonard and Touchette’s photographs. Paige’s series could have been edited down from the sixteen presented to give the images a little more space and breathing room. The non-photographers, erroneously lumped together as painters (the only painting I ever made was in high school), also don’t quite fit together. I suppose you could talk about the more formal textural elements of my monoprints and Bennet’s spray paint on vinyl pieces, but beyond that I’m not sure where they line up thematically or conceptually. Hodge’s mishmash of sculptural wall pieces, the strongest being Expand, 2012, are much more powerful than her singular abstract painting which stands out mostly by the awkwardness of it unnecessarily being there. 

Myles Paige, image from Siblings, 1997 - present

Zoe Leonard, Tree + Fence, out my back window, 1998

Kimi Hodges, Expand, 2012

Kim Bennet, Sachem, 2012

Julia Elsas, Untitled, 2011

Besides some light editing, needing a cohesive thematic statement, and the addition of helpful wall labels by the works with the generic descriptive information, Hosea pulled off a solid group show in the amount of time and minimal budget he had to organize the exhibition. I was genuinely impressed by the final iteration of the exhibition and honored that he asked me to participate alongside the other talented and dedicated artists he knows. I am excited to be a part of a show at the Bronx Art Space, a fantastic exhibition venue and a most worthwhile trek. I will absolutely head there in the near future to see what they have on rotation. 

ODE TO STREET HASSLE will be on view at the Bronx Art Space through August 31, 2012. The gallery will be open to the public (free admission) on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2pm-6pm, Fridays 12pm-6pm, and Saturdays 12pm-5pm.

Writers' Art

The connection between literature and fine art has long been recognized. Michelangelo was a poet.  In the 20th century, some of the major movements in art were founded by writers who also expressed them selves visually: Tzara in the case of dada, surrealism had Breton, Marinetti spearheaded futurism, and the force behind vortacism was Wyndham Lewis.  Less appreciated is the fact that some of the century's foremost novelists and poets--figures not associated with art movements--were also artistically inclined.

Authors such as Kafka, Nabokov, Ginsberg, Borges, and, in the 19th century, Dostoyevsky, liked to draw.  In 2007, the Anita Shapolsky Gallery exhibited a large collection of artworks by literary figures.  Some of them just liked to doodle, and often not very well, but other authors pursued art more ambitiously, and  exhibited considerable talent.  The abstraction at the top is by e.e. cummings, who considered a career as a cubist painter, and produced art of varying quality his whole life.  The disturbing sketch below that is by Bruno Schulz, who illustrated his own books.

Herman Hesse was also a very competent painter.  He had an affection for landscapes, and his impressive color use can be seen in the picture above.  Equally impressive is Aldous Huxley, responsible for this reclining nude.

There are a number of artistic poets as well.  Cummings and Ginsburg were mentioned already.  Some other poets like Christian Morgenstern, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Susan Howe produced concrete poems, which are a kind of visual artform.  Poets who wrote conventional verse have also been visually inclined.  Sylvia Plath was an avid illustrator.  She especially liked quaint scenery, as in the harbor below.  Notice her lovely and confident lines.

Other visually talented poets include Mina Loy, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbury.  Both Ashbury and Bishop have been subjects of recent exhibitions at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.  A drawing by Loy appears below (see this one too), and a collage by Ashbury appears at the end of this post.

When one looks at the visual works of writers, it is important to bear in mind that art is not their major vocation.  These are dabblers for the most part, and their art might not warrant our attention if they were not famous for their literary works.  But some of these authors show enough talent that one can surmise that they may have been able to gain recognition as visual artists had their energy been focussed there.  Seeing these works also raises questions about the artistic personality.  Talent is not the kind of commodity that confines itself to a single sphere.  The compulsion to create can push in many directions and those who have a gift for describing the world verbally generally also have the ability to see things in interesting ways.  The ability to see lends itself to visual expression.