April 30, 2010

"The Artist is Present" Marina Abramovic at MoMA

Okay, I'll admit it, it was the titillating newspaper and magazine accounts of stark naked male and female performers that lured me to MoMA last week! The acclaimed show "The Artist is Present" featured pioneer performance artist Marina Abramovic herself in an audience participation piece in the lobby, but the main draw was the retrospective on view on the sixth floor. I went not knowing exactly what to expect and left with an intense and unsettling but ultimately positive art experience.

Let's begin at the beginning. Yugoslavian born Marina Abramovic began her innovative career of conceptual performance based art about 40 years ago when the repression of the former Soviet Block was in full swing. Working alone and in collaboration with her partner Ulay, Abramovic produced videos, sound pieces, installations, photographs and live action works that were challenging and unforgettable to those fortunate enough to witness them.

Now, for the first time, her performances are being re-created using other artists so that a wider audience can be stunned by her visions. Added to this repertoire is a brand new piece featuring Ms Abramovic in a daily "stare down" with members of the public entitled "The Artist is Present". Presented in the museum's atrium and broadcast live over the internet, the artist sits motionless in a chair across the table from a seated volunteer. Not a word or even a blink passes between them, just the constant gaze, un-relenting, un-changing, and un-nerving.

Upstairs in the exhibition, approximately fifty works spanning Ms Abramovic's professional œuvre are on display. The videos with their accompanying illustrations and documentation are fascinating, but it is without a doubt the live performers who get the most attention. A man and a woman, both dressed, watch each other while pointing a finger. Neither moves, neither smiles. A man and a woman, totally undressed, stand facing each other on either side of a narrow passageway forming a doorway through which the intrepid visitor can pass. That was too much of a challenge for me - I opted for the non-human portal! A man lying naked on a platform with skeleton draped over him, touching his hand, the skeleton moving with the breath of the living being underneath him. And probably the most controversial, a woman, again naked, with her arms spread apart and positioned on a cross, high on a wall looking down at the viewers.

Several recent articles have reported on a few unruly visitors who got "a little too friendly" with the performers, and the male model who could not keep his mind off the nude person in front of him and also had to be removed. But far from an erotic or sensual experience, this was an exercise in tension, in self-examination and in our relationship with other humans. The Artist Will Be Present until May 31st.

April 24, 2010

Picasso Invades New York!

If you have a penchant for Picasso, New York is the place to be this spring! With special exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and Marlborough Gallery, the prodigious œuvre of Pablo Picasso is covered from beginning to end!

Let's start with the new exhibition "Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art" which features 300 works drawn exclusively from the museum's own impressive collection. The Met's entire group of 34 paintings, 58 pastels, watercolors and drawings, 2 sculptures and many of their 400 prints are displayed by period, with an emphasis on the artist's early works.

Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain, in 1881, to a middle class family with an artistic background. His early years were spent between Spain and France where he studied art and associated with groups of Modernist writers, poets and artists. This show begins with several quite beautiful works done in Paris at the turn of the century (see "Seated Harlequin", 1901, oil on canvas, above right) and continues into the melancholic "Blue Period" of 1901-3 (see "The Blind Man's Meal", 1903, oil on canvas, right).

By 1904, Picasso had settled in Paris and his palette became less gloomy and more optimistic. His "Rose Period" of 1904-6 is a reflection of his growing professional success and a fulfilling relationship with a woman, the model Fernande Olivier, and includes many images of circus performers, especially harlequins, and actors.

Art history will confirm that Picasso did not remain true to any one style, or any one woman, for very long and by 1906 he had moved on to Cubism, a period that would span ten years before evolving into Neo-Classicism and Surrealism. Each epoch had a different female companion including his wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, the very young Marie-Thérèse Walter, the photographer Dora Maar, the mother of two of his children and the only woman to actually leave him Françoise Gilot and his second and final wife Jacqueline Roque. Throughout his life and up until his death in 1973, Picasso worked incessantly producing drawing after drawing, canvas after canvas and print after print.

For a look at great works from the artist's mid-career, let's move downtown to The Museum of Modern Art and visit their permanent collection as well as a special exhibition of graphics entitled "Themes and Variations". The MoMA is home to one of Picasso's masterpieces and an icon of Modern Art, the incomparable "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", 1907 (see left). Influenced by African masks, Iberian sculptures and El Greco's paintings, the discordant image reflects his obsession with the issue of pleasure versus mortality vis-a-vis the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases prevalent at that time. Featuring five prostitutes in a brothel, this painting caused a sensation at the time and continues to draw crowds 100 years after it was created.

The collection at MoMA boasts many Cubist, Surrealist and Modern gems all hanging on the walls of the permanent galleries. But for a limited time, visitors can see the museum's outstanding stock of prints and illustrated books. Organized by theme, the exhibition looks at portraits of lovers and wives, the Saltimbanque series, the Minotaur series, bullfighting, and the prints done "after the Masters". Each example is wonderful but I loved seeing the illustrated books on display in vitrines. As in the Metropolitan Museum of Art show, MoMA has exhibited pages from Picasso/Buffon "Histoire Naturelle", 1942, with its etchings and aquatints of various birds and animals, and examples from his monumental Suite Vollard, conceived and produced in cooperation with his great dealer Ambrose Vollard in 1939.

Finally, for a fabulous survey of the graphic works of Picasso, visit the Marlborough Gallery at 40 West 57th Street to see their exhibition "Celebrating the Muse: Women in Picasso's Prints from 1905-1968". This is a museum quality show in a commercial gallery, complete with a fully illustrated catalogue. On view are over 200 pieces done in a variety of print-making techniques including etching, drypoint, linocut, aquatint and lithography, that explore the theme of women as muse. And we know he liked women! Exquisite examples of his most famous prints, including the haunting "Repas Frugal", 1904/1913 (see left), "La Femme qui pleure", 1937, "La Femme au tambourin", 1937, and "Le Chapeau a fleurs", 1963, are on display as well as a large group of works from his later, very erotic, "347 Suite", 1968. This show runs until May 8 and is well worth a visit.

Pablo Picasso has gone down in history as one of the most prolific and influential artists of the 20th Century, if not all time. The scope and magnitude of his output is astonishing and it is a testament to his genius that two major museums and an important gallery can all mount an exhibition without overlap. From capricious clowns to starving prostitutes, from raging bulls to distorted ex-lovers, Picasso's 70 years of work cannot easily be classified and deserves at least one look.

April 17, 2010

A Visit to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

The City of Buffalo, New York, is known for many things - its proximity to Niagara Falls and Canada, its famous "wings", its infamous snow and its heartbreak football team the "Bills". But Buffalo is also home to a superb art museum, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

In 1901, through the generosity of Buffalo philanthropist John J. Albright, the Albright Art Gallery was conceived as an adjunct to The Buffalo Fine Arts Society and the intended site of the Fine Arts Pavilion of that year's Pan-American Exposition. Unfortunately, the building was not completed until 1905 - too late for the fair but it quickly became a center for the cultural life of the city. In 1962, thanks to the benevolence of Seymour Knox Jr., the museum was significantly expanded and ultimately re-named. The neo-classical structure is beautifully situated in Delaware Park, part of the Olmstead Park and Parkway System, on swanky Elmwood Avenue.

I have wanted to visit The Albright-Knox for years, ever since I found out that it was home to one of my favorite artist's masterpieces - James Tissot's "L'Ambitieuse / The Political Woman", 1883 (see right). Despite passing through Buffalo many times en route somewhere else, I had never taken the time to stop by. Last Saturday was the day and I looked forward to it more than almost any museum visit I can remember! I got there so early that I had to sit in the parking lot for a half hour before the doors opened to the public! I asked at the front desk where exactly I could find this painting and made a beeline to see it. When I finally stood before it it was almost anti-climactic - yes, the work is magnificent and the finest example of Tissot's considerable skill as a painter I have ever seen, but I was not prepared for the extraordinary examples of 19th and 20th Century art that kept it company.

Though the Albright-Knox is not a major museum as far as size, it has an amazing, world-class collection of American and European Modern and Contemporary Art. My jaw dropped as I walked from treasure to treasure of works by some of the most famous artists of the time. Pointillist perfection by Seurat in "Study for Le Chahut", a large Rose Period Picasso painting "La Toilette", a 1912 Futurist gem by Balla "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash", a 1924 Surrealist Miro "Carnevale of Harlequin", and the epitome of Modernist sculpture, Brancusi's bronze head "Mademoiselle Pogany".

Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art were also well represented with outstanding works by Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Jackson Pollock (see below), Mark Rothko (see left) and Andy Warhol. What I found especially impressive was that most of these works had been acquired at the time and donated to the museum, many by its great patron Mr. Knox. The choices reflect a remarkable foresight and appreciation seldom realized until well after the artist in question has already become a commercial success.

Jackson Pollock "Convergence", 1952

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery also has a strong collection of Contemporary works and mounts temporary exhibitions such as the intriguing "Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960" that is currently on view. But, for me, there was nothing that could compare to the drop dead fantastic display of works from Gauguin to Gorky, from Impressionism to Conceptualism, that forms the heart of this jewel of a museum. I had come to see the Tissot and I left with an art experience that was almost intoxicating.

April 09, 2010

The New York Antiquarian Book Fair 2010

Where can you find a first edition Charles Dickens, an antique map of Australia and a Russian Avant Garde leaflet all under one roof? At the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue where the 2010 New York Antiquarian Book Fair is now underway! The 50th Anniversary of this annual event is a book lovers paradise with 200 exhibitors from across North America and Europe offering every form of printed material imaginable.

From incunabula to contemporary artists' books, from leather bound sets of Shakespeare to elephant folios of botanical plates, from autographed letters to celestial chartss you can find it here! Every language, every period, every price point is all on view this weekend as New York becomes the center of the book world once again!