Sunday, March 22, 2009

The garish and provocative Brücke

  When then 15-year-old teen idol Miley Cyrus, of Hannah Montana fame, posed semi-nude for Vanity Fair, in 2008, young fans and parents were in an uproar.

Her Disney Channel avatar of a regular school girl by day and a pop star by night took a beating, leading to apologies by the young performer.

When I saw the painting "Marzella (Fränzi)," 1909-10, left, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) of a naked 9-year-old girl at the Neue Galerie exhibition of Brücke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin 1905-1913, I wondered what some conservative and even more liberal Germans at the beginning of the 20th century thought when they saw the picture. Although Fränzi crosses her legs and modestly covers her private parts, the big, white, innocent bow in her hair seems to accentuate the absence of her attire. Is this pornography, exploitation of a young girl or an artist pushing convention by presenting without judgment a vision of pre-nubility in a female youth?

The question is as relevant today as it must have been then. What do we think of as acceptable in aesthetics or taste and why do these ideas change or stay the same?

The small group of communally-living German artists in the Brücke, which means bridge in German, wanted to create art that would serve as a link from the art of the past to the art of the future. "Drawing on diverse sources, ranging from medieval woodcuts to African and Oceanic art, the artists fused these influences into a highly distinctive style," the press material says. "Through their art, they sought to restore a sense of value and unity in a fragmenting world." They become the predecessors of German Expressionism, an art exploring pure emotional expression.

What is so interesting about the the Brücke and the many other artists in Europe and America working in the early 20th century--following on the work of post-Impressionists--is how they forever revolutionized Western art. A Renaissance-based view of reality in art would now become only one of alternative means of depiction. For example, the wild beast Fauves in France, inspired by Van Gogh, used brush strokes of pure colors to shape forms, with a minimal attempt at blending, similar to the Brücke artists. Arthur Dove in America was painting pure abstraction.

Also like the Brücke, contemporary cubists in France were paying homage to images of beauty from other cultures, such as Africa. Pablo Picasso's "Demoisselles D'Avignon," 1907, was inspired by African masks, El Greco and Iberian art. Demoisselles also confronted middle class values of propriety, by portraying prostitutes and sexuality, at least from a male artist's perspective.

The Neue Galerie exhibition, the first major showing of Brücke artists in the United States, divides the 100 or so works mainly into street, nature and studio-based imagery. Many of the paintings use psychedelically bright colors together, such as red and green, or pinks and yellows, that have absolutely no place in nature, in reality. The distorted houses and chaotic street scenes, see right, Kirchner, "Berlin Street Scene" (Berliner Strassenszene), 1913-14 Oil on canvas, Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection, are not urbane and sophisticated but humanity pushing, scraping and rushing up against each other in crowded environments. The faces of people in the portraits peer directly at the viewer, not in a posed or calm manner. Even a pink lighthouse in a rural enviroment does not seem to provide solace from a possible storm.

The images are disturbing. They are challenging. They are provocative. They are garish. The fervency of the time is quite apparent. The confrontation of international and socioceonomic cultures, uncertainty about the future, an attempt to create new identities, and the resulting angst are omnipresent in these paintings. The resulting feelings, we a hundred years later, can certainly relate to.

(Images courtesy the Neue Galerie, "Marzella (Fränzi)," from Moderna Museet, Stockholm.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why art in hard times?

That approximately 12.5 million Americans are currently unemployed is staggering. What are all those people doing without having a place to go to for work? Although looking for work is a full-time job, it can be discouraging when there is no work to be found. How are people going to adapt to the changing economy?

What can a museum or art offer to jobless people who are terrified that in a few months to a year, they might not have enough money to support a family or be able to stay in their homes?

"Historically people use museums more in tough times (economic/wartime)," says Chicago's Museumist, a forum for all things museum- related, through Twitter. "Perhaps it is a form of escapism or quiet place to think. So, I think now more than ever museums (particularly art) need to step up and realize that in tough times people look to them for comfort."

The Dallas-based Womens Museum, points out via Twitter that many museums are accessible, inexpensive ways to experience culture: "Museums are cultural centers and are open to the public - they can educate and engage for little or no cost."

I guess, I would have to say, that for me, museums and the "culture" within them represents humanity's instinct for creation and continuation--even in dark times--rather than destruction. While art has been used for propaganda and self-aggrandizement, even a painting of a historical battle promoting the victorious or a vicious ruler's portrait provides a lens to the past from which we have emerged. Life has been awful before, without question, and somehow we human beings have muddled on, even creating monuments to ourselves in the form of art.

Survival, however, may not be inspirational to some. For others, religious art, regardless of the religion represented, provides quiet contemplation, because it was made to express spirituality. Similarly, modern abstract art can offer a meditation, a relaxation or even a release of irritation, "My kid can do better than that." And many kids, inspired by the history of art, actually do indeed go on to become artists, continually adapting to the changes in technology offering representations via the web or video.

But catharsis through annoyance or tears may alone just help relieve tension. The beauty of certain paintings can make me cry. There also have times in my life when sadness would dissipate in the presence of art. I would go to a museum feeling down and a painting would engage me. I would try to figure out what this artist, most likely working alone in his or her studio or in plein air, was trying to say to me, some unknown viewer. Such non-verbal communication via color, texture, subject matter and composition across decades and centuries really is a remarkably primal, sensual, intellectual and reinforcingly human experience.

"We need art for escape," says Lori McNee, an Idaho artist via Twitter. "Art is universal language, [and] remember art is at the forefront of any great era."

(Image courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, Reproduction number, LC-USW33-035391-C DLC, from 1930-1935, a bread line by the Brooklyn Bridge approach.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Following" art on Twitter

to scan my Twitter "art-based" stream feels like a form of madness. I click on abbreviated urls, spend time finding people to follow and then have them follow me. There is no structure, per se. It is sheer randomness. Yet I do it.

Much of the 140-character art "lineage" is self-promotional, such as museums or artists linking to their current exhibitions or cool things, which is fine with me. I wouldn't know what a Cleveland gallery is doing from my local New York City media. But alot of the abbreviated, hypertexted verbiage is also just a way for folk to share links to images, galleries, artists, artblogs, antiques, pretty pictures, ugly pictures, flickr streams, videos, neat visual stuff or photographic tips. Or at least that's who I choose to follow. I am not interested in consuming "I ate a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast."

So what criteria do I use to look at a link? Clever or humorous writing gets my attention. Soon you realize you are in sync with some people's aesthetic taste more than others and you will routinely hit their links. Also, I like retweets, or RT, because they have been filtered by an "editor," so I think they might be worthwhile. (I know, I am so old-media) I like to RT, too.

How do I choose to follow someone? I look at the followers of my followers and followings and go through 'em to find new sources and victims. I also search Twitter for terms, such as art, artists, museum, etc. I checked out the Twittering art leaders on WeFollow, too, and hooked to a few of them. (Last I looked at WeFollow, RobinLe, me, was #112, but it doesn't seem to update so frequently. I should have been more careful about having my Twitter and blog identity, artfultext, the same, but when I started out I didn't know what I was doing. And now, I am an such an expert, hah.) I am also sure there are better ways to find twittermates, but I am not a new adapter and haven't felt comfortable giving passwords to my Twitter accounts or control of my computer to Twitter-efficiency software. I am not yet a mobile Twitterer, fearing I could too easily get addicted. And yup, as the Twitter tiptweets say, the short profile and link to a website or blog, showing off one's art or writing, suckers me in.

But why am I doing this? I figured Twitter would be a natural fit to "learn" about art because it is relatively new and it enables visual, text and video expression. (And my Facebook "friends" aren't that into art. I am what you could call a somewhat trained-in-the-arts, art enthusiast.) So I decided to experiment. Initially I was skeptical. How can you say anything in so few words? But some people are really good copywriters and there is a staggering amount of good art to link to in the universe. (As there is Twitformation on so many other topics, some of which I also follow.)

What have I learned to date? People put significant sweat equity in their art, websites, blogs and tweets, for some hope, I guess, of a return on the investment. All my life as a professional writer (on other topics) I have been paid for my words. But I must say, I take great inspiration from the artists and the art tweeters. Artists create without knowing necessarily beforehand if anyone is going to buy or appreciate what they make. They apparently don't care about competition, repetition or today's recession. They keep doing it, crafting a "market," one tweet at a time. The bigger picture, if there even is one, still evades me. Though, I am sure someone is going to figure out how to make money off of me. Feel free to follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

End arts philanthropy?

Peter Singer, apparently, is trying to goad us into doing the right thing and to personally contribute to ending world poverty, according to a review of his new book "Acting Now to End World Poverty" in the New York Times. I agree. We could all do more to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Personally, even in these economic times, my family gives as much money as it can to different philanthropies and we are no Gates Foundation.

But, like the reviewer, Dwight Garner, I have to take issue with Singer for the following quoted statement in the Times:

“Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious,” he declares. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought a painting by Duccio in 2004 for more than $45 million, an amount, Mr. Singer says, that would pay for cataract operations on 900,000 blind or near-blind people in the developing world.

He continues: “If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child?”

I think Singer creates false choices pitting a child or poverty on the one hand against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other. If you take Singer's argument to the extreme, why even have cultural institutions at all? They just waste money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

But, I think, places like the Metropolitan Museum expose people, of varying economic means in a city like New York (where I live) to all the different cultures of the world, asking viewers to respect humanity's similarities and differences. What would be the point of living in a world where you could restore vision but the cultural history of our achievements was gone?

Yes, we may be living through a global recession, but there is still room for philanthropy in the arts, in medicine, for the homeless, for the hungry and for the needy. Yes, the $45 million Duccio is a large amount of money, but Singer would probably like to stop supporting the arts completely. Imagine what the world would be like if all the philanthropists, whose name line the walls of the first floor of the Metropolitan and the different gallery spaces, didn't give their money to the Metropolitan or other cultural institutions?

I surely would not want to live in a world without the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Art in my neighborhood!

Sometimes it is difficult to find art in the Manhattan streets you walk every day. In the six block radius that I traverse in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, mostly it is commerce that rules: Barnes & Noble, Food Emporium, the Gap, Pottery Barn, Ugg, Loew's movie theater, restaurants and other businesses. No galleries line the boulevards here. On certain days, though, reflections in apartment building windows can be visually arresting and five people will walk by all wearing red.

But usually the trek around the area generates the mundane: groceries and sundries. So there I was walking on Columbus Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets and what do I see? An installation of video art in the window of the former Reebok store, which has been empty for about a year. Whoa! Art on Columbus Avenue. Given so many empty storefronts nearby--Circuit City on Broadway gone, Cafe Mozart on West 70th Street gone, among others--video art seems an innovative way to keep the spaces vibrant through the recession and the ailing real estate market. The attention might also help lease the property.

Ellen Scott, spokesperson for, which put together the exhibition, says she hopes the Columbus Avenue location will bring more attention to the project. "We think the current economic conditions will spur more people to seek creative solutions [to their spaces]," she writes in an email. "Smartspaces is just starting up--we're planning to produce six to eight spaces in 2009, and scale much larger once we raise enough resources." Their inaugural venue is 266 West 37th Street.

All they need for publicity at Columbus Avenue is a local or national reporter from ABCNEWS, located across the street, to notice and, voila, mainstream media interest. But on Sunday, most passersby with cell phones in hand, shopping bags or baby carriages, hardly registered the flickering images in the window showing seven different video artists' work projected on an extremely thin screen, provided by openPLAYER. Had anyone stopped, they could have texted comments that would have been scrawled across the top.

Although I received some quizzical looks from pedestrians, I stood there and watched the half hour's worth of videos. It was worth it.
  • There was Ana Prvacki's "goose step" dance between a rather aggressive goose and a woman in a purple dress "tangoing."

  • Francisca Caporali (Brazil) and Mary Jeys (USA) offer animated explosions superimposed on different real locations in New York City.

  • Three "Forget Me Not" videos by Trine Nedreaas present individuals vying for attention: a woman sword swallower, a guy breaking concrete slabs with his head and a man eating a plate filled with sausages.

  • Venetian blinds opened and closed to reveal a changing urban landscape in "Cegueira" by Jessica Mein. Another by Mein, "White Shadow" has a figure almost fighting its shadow with a shovel.

  • "Delicatesse" by Triny Prada shows a hand cutting a small sliver from a seed pod in what appears to be a rain forest, seemingly reminding of our continual exploitation of natural resources to sate our needs.

  • "Mounted Horse Men," by Christy Gast, was most intriguing to me. She spliced videos of a man explaining cave paintings, of a painted pueblo settlement with the message "Jesus is the answer," of a guy fixing the stones on his house, of a donkey and other caves. All I could think was how someone in a thousand years was going to find meaning in our current cave paintings: YouTube videos and these video art works.

The Columbus Avenue opening, the press material says, was meant to coincide with other art fairs going on in New York City in early March, such as the Armory, Fountain and Scope exhibitions. But frankly, after recovering from a stomach bug, I wasn't feeling well enough to go too far from home. And given this economy, I wasn't about to buy any art at these art shows, either.

So thank you,, for bringing art into my corner of the world.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"The Third Mind" @ the Guggenheim

Each work of art in the "Third Mind" exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, represents a step in a journey, not a destination, as the expression goes. But, even so, I must say, getting to the top of the spiral ramp was quite the culmination to a two-hour trek through the history of contemporary American art.

The point of the exhibition is to show how Asian art and ideas, as co-opted by American artists, influenced the development of a range of modern art American movements from the mid 19th century until now. There's approximately 250 works on display with examples of aestheticism, tonalism, abstraction, calligraphy, minimalism, video and performance art. More than a 100 artists (and writers and musicians) are represented.

Curator Alexandra Monroe says the "Third Mind" [from a William Burroughs Beat work that combines and rearranges texts to create a new narrative] challenges the widely-held view that American modern art evolved from a dialogue with European impressionism, cubism, expressionism and surrealism. Instead, she says imagery and ideas from the East more directly changed Americans sense of nature, existence and consciousness in their art. Seminal American artists, the show points out, even lived and worked in Asia.

(Europeans, though, I would add, also were also influenced by Asian art and ideas. Edouard Manet's 1868 "Portrait of Emile Zola," also flattens perspective and pays tribute to Japanese art. The 2-D surface of the painting is important to Manet, leading to the slippery slope, one could argue, to abstraction, too.)

Nevertheless, what struck me about the "Third Mind" was how the Eastern mindset contributed to changing the relationship between the work of art and its viewer, a bond, of course, still evolving. As time progressed, the ego of the artist as expressed in the work of art begins to disappear, in a manner analogous to the concept of selflessness in Buddhism. With time, the artist's role lessens as the viewer plays a more important part. Of course, as much as the artist "vanishes", he or she never quite escapes.

A viewer, for example, interprets the 1904 photograph of a canal in London, [far left] by Alvin Langdon Coburns as an atmospheric study in shadow and light pretty much as the artist presented it. But the viewer has to work a little harder to understand the white mesh network in Mark Tobey's 1944 "Crystallization" [upper right], even though the tempera paint has been carefully applied (more so than Jackson Pollock's paint drippings).

Isamu Noguchi's 1959 "Cry," [bottom left] seems to have elements of an open mouth in a crying face, perhaps an upraised arm in pleading, too. But that is purely my "vision" of the sculpture. Ultimately, with John Cage's 1952 4'33'' silent symphony, the ambient sound of the audience and the environment becomes the performance.

That dialogue between artist, work of art, and viewer obviously continues today. James Lee Byars"The Death of James Lee Byars," 1982/1994, [bottom right], one of the first pieces in the show, is a room you enter to live in the present moment, the audioguide says. It is a gold-leaf covered monument to the transitory nature of life and its ultimate demise. The artist would come into room, lie down on the altar and leave behind crystals. Although the gold leaf is peeling in some places, perhaps to mimic decay, the overall effect is still quite impressive. The ego of the Byars, like that of the pharoahs in Egypt, is quite apparent, even if the ephemeral nature of life is the theme.

Interestingly, the last "stop" in the ramp in the "Third Mind" brings you back to the main floor, by way of an installation piece by Ann Hamilton, commissioned by the Guggenheim for the exhibition. In the work, Tibetan bells follow a winding track along the walls of the Guggenheim's rotunda, ringing intermittently along the way. At the bottom floor, behind a curtain, the bells bang into a bunch of waiting cut-up books, which then plop to the floor. An attendant on the top floor, then pulls up the bells and hoists down more books for the process to start again. The piece, Hamilton says, represents a visual metaphor for the process of "reading, which leaves no material trace but which might forever change you."

Without the explanation, I thought Hamilton's work was about trying to use a symbol, the bells on the track, as a way to integrate the works in the exhibition into a whole, which is possible--the curator did it--and impossible--so much to absorb. I think my"interpretation" is consistent with artist's explanation and with curator's intent for this show. Monroe has imposed a powerful paradigm on the many disparate works in the exhibition. She has changed the way I will forever look at these artists' works and other current modern art, which, without question, owes a lot to these predecessors.

(Images courtesy the Guggenheim Museum. Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Regent's Canal, London," 1904, Photogravure print, 21.6 x 17 cm, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester; Mark Tobey,"Crystallizations," 1944 Tempera on board, 45.7 x 33 cm Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Mabel Ashley Kizer Fund, Gift of Melitta and Rex Vaughan, and Modern and Contemporary Acquisitions Fund © Mark Tobey Estate/Seattle Art Museum Photo: M. Lee Fatherree Photography; Ismau Noguchi, "The Cry," 1959, Balsa wood on steel base, 221 x 85.1 x 47.6 cm including baseSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York66.1812© 2009 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New YorkPhoto: Kristopher McKay, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York; James Lee Byars," The Death of James Lee Byars," 1982/1994Gold leaf, crystals, and PlexiglasDimensions variableVanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels, Courtesy Marie-Puck Broodthaers, Brussels© Estate of James Lee ByarsPhoto: Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and Cologne, and the Estate of James Lee Byars.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Borderless art: Bonnard's late paintings

Something about the perspective, color, flatness and yet depth, in Pierre Bonnard's late paintings exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art remind me of David Hockney's interiors.

Although separated by a little more than a half century, both artists dissect the picture plane into facets, not unlike cubism, yet still maintain the essence of the space or reality being depicted, with the image somehow transcending the border of the painting.

Revealing Bonnard's (born 1867) modernism is the intention of curator Dita Armory in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of the artist's late paintings, made from 1923-1947, while he lived in a house in France overlooking the Mediterranean until his death. I am convinced.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art press release and the exhibition copy explains how Bonnard did not work from life, directly, but would make sketches and then synthesize the paintings from memory, using the most luminescent, opalescent, mauvescent, whitescent, colors imaginable.

But besides fluttering every color from a shimmering pastel rainbow palette onto the surface of his canvas, his intimate interiors, still lifes, and window views extend their reach beyond the painting, almost capturing the curve of the earth, if you stand far enough away to look at them, while at the same time zeroing on a table with a breakfast waiting to be consumed.

Impressionists often relied on somewhat traditional and aerial perspectives in their representation of reality. Bonnard, a so-called post-Impressionist, seems to have created his own perspective, like Mr. Hockney. No reproduction, postcard, website image or words can capture that vertiginous sensation of nearness, depth, distance, color and immediacy. No wonder the exhibition was so crowded on a recent Saturday.

(Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Left, Pierre Bonnard, "White Interior," 1932, (Oil on canvas, 43 1/8 x 61 3/8 in. (109.5 x 155.8 cm) Musée de Grenoble Photography © Musée de Grenoble © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris); Right, Pierre Bonnard,"Dining Room Overlooking the Garden,"(The Breakfast Room), 1930-31, (Oil on canvas, 62 7/8 x 44 7/8 in. (159.6 x 113.8 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously 1941, Digital Image © The Museum of ModernArt/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.))

Monday, March 2, 2009

Outsider art from New Zealand

Self-taught artists who work outside mainstream culture show a very human drive to create, even if it is mental illness sometimes that inspires the scrawls on paper with pen, pencil or paint. These so-called "outsider artists" are not expressing themselves using the signs, symbols or perspectives of an art history they learned at university. The imagery is coming from a deeper place, inside the folds of their brain writ large on wood, canvas, paper or whatever material is available to alter with their hands using color, line, text and shapes.

Each work is unique, but interestingly, because each is made by Homo sapiens, similarities of subjects and techniques exist among the artworks. Some are realistic while others are abstract. Some reveal spiritual or religious themes, others are almost mathematical in their precision.

In a manner analogous to Darwin studying the evolving forms of animals in the remote Galapagos Islands, in 2001 Stuart Shepherd, formerly an art teacher at New Zealand's Massey University, surveyed the visionary and self-taught art in his country. Ultimately, he amassed 3,000 2-D and 3-D works, which he has organized on a web site, "Self Taught and Visionary Art in New Zealand," and in a gallery. He also developed a taxonomy of categories to characterize the art. They include geometry, exoticism, text-based and preacher art, Maori-themed and others.

Shepherd, partially supported by Arts Access Aotearoa (the indigenous name for New Zealand) is now bringing the works from his gallery to the world. Recently, he brought some pieces to the New York's "International Outsider Art Fair," (Jan. 9-11, 2009) the first time New Zealand works were shown there. "Andrew Blythe created a splash, with a good review on, "Out is In"," Shepherd wrtes in an email. Blythe falls in the "obsession decoration school."

Shepherd has works in New York's "Fountain Art Fair" (Mar. 5-8). Additionally, he is collaborating with the Creative Growth Center from Oakland, Calif., a group dedicated to helping adult artists with mental and physical disabilities. Last year, the center opened the "Gallery Impaire" in Paris, France, where Shepherd is developing a show with work by self-taught and contemporary artists in video and photography.

"The idea is that the photography and video work will provide a context for the work on paper," he says. "It will be a kind of showcase for New Zealand art, the loose theme will be around the notion of normalcy."

"...Any publicity generated is appreciated and will help me prove to the gate-keepers of the arts institutions in New Zealand that there is something of real value in [this type of art]," Shepherd writes. "Even though they didn't study it in school."

(Images, courtesy of Stuart Shepherd. From left, Teressa Woodrop, "Circles" (acrylic and sand on canvas); Andrew Blythe, "No, No, No," (2008, acrylic on paper); and Justin Morshuis, "Eyes" 2008, (pen on paper))