June 26, 2013

Paris "sous la pluie"

The most popular topic of conversation here in Paris has got to be the miserable spring and summer weather they have been experiencing.  I thought my friends might be exaggerating, but I have to admit, it is depressing.  Daily deluges and chilly temperatures make an umbrella and jacket essential and I almost wish I'd packed my rain boots!

"Reflets et Lumières", 2002
Color etching and aquatint by Lynn Shaler

But rain or shine, Paris is Paris and it is always a pleasure to be here.  I have been actively searching for the last few items for my next catalogue but, of course, I did a little shopping and visited a few museum exhibitions too.

My first stop was at the Louvre where "De l'Allemagne 1800-1939 / German Thought and Painting from Friedrich to Beckmann" was in its final days.  This exhibition has proven far more popular than anticipated perhaps because of the unfamiliarity of French museum-goers with German art, but also partially due to the ongoing press war that has surrounded the show with charges of "Germanophobia" and an attempt to re-write history.

The exhibition is a survey of a century and a half of German art and how it was influenced by the intellectual ideas of the time.  Arranged in three main categories namely Apollo and Dionysius, Nature and Ecce Homo, the works presented tell the story of the German fascination with Classicism, the 19th century's great strides in scientific investigation in the fields of botany, geology, meteorology etc, and finally how industrialism, nationalism and imperialism negatively affected the early 20th century.  It's pretty heavy going and the choices of art and artists represented might not have been the best examples with which to make the case.  One point was made very clearly however, German art, from the Romantics to the Dadaists, was based on thinking, and no nation had more great intellectual thinkers - think Goethe - at that time than Germany.

Simon Hantaï at work, 1989

A short ride on the Métro takes us to the Centre Pompidou and their current special exhibition on the Hungarian artist Simon Hantaï.  Five years after the death of the artist and 37 years since his last retrospective, the show at Pompidou assembles 130 paintings completed between 1949 and the 1990s when he retired from painting.  Considered a master of abstraction, Hantaï's mostly large format works explored pliage comme méthode (folding as a method) as a sort of automatic painting.  Inspired by Jackson Pollack, Hantaï abandoned the easel for the floor where he folded, crushed and sometimes stamped on his canvas' before applying paint.  The result was a free-form image part surreal, part abstract expressionist, and usually quite beautiful.

I have always liked the paintings of Simon Hantaï and was looking forward to this exhibition.  But sometimes too much of a good thing is, well, too much.  For me, a room full of his pliages with the same basic pattern repeated in various colors, became almost like wallpaper and I left the show rather less enthusiastic for his work.

The last two exhibitions were presented at the Pinacothèque de Paris, located just behind the Madeleine and not far from the fancy Fauchon food shop!  I'm going to reverse the chronological order and start with "Tamara de Lempicka:  Queen of Art Deco" now on view at the Pinacothèque 2.

Born Maria Górska to a wealthy and prominent Warsaw family in 1898, she soon set her sights on a Russian nobleman and married Tadeusz Lempicki by the age of 18.  They escaped to Paris during the Russian Revolution where they were able to eke out an existence through the sale of her jewelry.  After their daughter, Kizette, was born, Tamara de Lempicka, as she became known, supported her family with the sale of her paintings.

Tamara de Lempicka became famous not only for her stylized, geometric paintings, but also for her "liberated" lifestyle.  She moved in the most modern circles in Europe and her society portraits were sought after.  Eventually she left her husband and daughter and moved to the United States where she she married her patron and lover, the Baron Raoul Kuffner von Diószeg in 1934.  The Great Depression had no effect on the "Baroness with a Paintbrush" - she was the favorite painter of  both European royalty and Hollywood starlets and was never without a commission.  After her second husband's death in 1961, she re-located to Texas to be close to her daughter and finally ended up in Mexico where she died in 1980.

Tamara de Lempicka is one of the few artists to see her work come full circle from highly desirable, to out of style, to all the rage again.  This exhibition covers her entire œuvre with an emphasis on her Garçonne, or tomboy, period when she was the epitome of Art Déco style.

Across the street, in the Pinacothèque 1, is "Art Nouveau:  La Révolution décorative", my last stop and my favorite exhibition of this trip.  The Art Nouveau movement was a reaction to classicism and the confines of the Victorian Era.  Organic in form with its free flowing natural lines, Art Nouveau became an all encompassing ideal covering music, painting, furniture, architecture, decoration and advertising.

On display are over 200 objects ranging from Gallé glass to Mucha posters, from Lalique jewelry to Majorelle furniture that reflect the aesthetic of the Art Nouveau style.  Each item is representative of the exquisite beauty and refined elegance of this new art form.  Although ultimately squashed by World War I and the modernism of Art Déco, the Art Nouveau movement was revolutionary in its time and its objets d'art remain highly desirable to this day.

This has been a more complicated visit to Paris than most, what with the dreadful weather and especially the untimely passing of one of my most esteemed colleagues whose funeral I attended at St. Germain des Prés a few days ago.  Nevertheless, I am always happy to be in this beautiful city and look forward to returning in the fall.  A très bientôt!

June 23, 2013

A Visit to Some of Berlin's Great Museums

Since the Wall came down in 1989, the city of Berlin has played an impressive game of "catch-up".  The former East is now seamlessly connected to the West and one has to look really hard to find vestiges of the Communist era.  Chic boutiques, hotels and apartment buildings have replaced the unsightly, asbestos-filled Soviet structures that covered the landscape and one can dine very nicely in the elegant restaurants where workers' coffee shops used to be.

This reconstruction has also included some of the great museums of Berlin that were often damaged by Allied bombings during World War II and later "trapped" on the wrong side.  The past few years has seen the re-opening of some world class museums and it was the purpose of my latest trip to visit some of these important cultural institutions.

Let's start at the super famous Pergamon Museum, located on Museum Island near Friedrichstraße Bahnhof.  Known for its outstanding collection of classical antiquities, the centerpiece of the Pergamon Museum is the reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar originally built for King Eumenes II in the first half of the 2nd century BC, in Asia Minor (now Turkey). 

This monumental temple was excavated by German engineer Carl Humann from 1878-1886 and the reliefs and surviving structure was transported to Berlin and re-assembled.  It opened to the public in 1930 but was closed and dis-assembled nine years later with the commencement of World War II and did not fully re-open again until 2004.  The proportions are gigantic - the stairs are 65 feet wide and very steep - and the overall effect is quite impressive.

Another museum highlight is the Ishtar Gate, built circa 575 BC in the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II as the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon.  The gate is constructed of glazed bricks with bas-relief motifs of lions, dragons and aurochs, a type of cattle now extinct. Again, the proportions are enormous and normal size people like myself are dwarfed under the portals. Once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Ishtar Gate was excavated between 1902-1914 and partially re-constructed in Berlin in 1930.  Only the smaller, frontal gate is on view to the public; the larger back gate was too big for the museum's space and is in storage.

Across the square from the Pergamon is the Neues Museum (New Museum) permanent home of the Egyptian Museum.  Built in the mid 1800s and left in ruins in 1945, the Neues Museum recently re-opened to the public after a massive $250 million renovation.  Despite the restoration, the museum retains a very old world feeling which has its charms but can be a little disappointing in terms of informational signage and accessible displays.  But visitors to the Neues Museum are there for mainly one thing - the world famous bust of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten - and she does not disappoint.  Exquisitely sculpted and colored, the bust depicts the ruler's wife as a serene and exquisitely beautiful woman.  Probably dating to 1350 BC, it is one of the most copied works of art in the public domain but reproductions truly cannot do it justice.

Moving out of the ancient world and off the Museum Island, and we come to the Gemäldegalerie in the Tiergarten section of Berlin, not far from the Potsdamer Platz.  The Gemäldergalerie boasts one of the finest collections of European Old Master paintings in the world with masterpieces by a "who's who" of artists including Dürer, Breugel, Van Eyck, Memling, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian and Caravaggio to name just a few.

I had foolishly assumed that we could knock out the Gemäldegalerie in an hour or so and then go on to do something else.  What a mistake!  Within the first few minutes I realized that this was going to be a treat and spent the next five hours (with a short break for lunch) going through the 59 galleries, each one filled with extraordinary works of art.  I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite piece but the one that stuck most in my mind would have to be "Portrait of a Young Lady", circa 1470 by Petrus Christus (see above left).  What you cannot see in the image here is how the artist painted a very fine sheer netting to cover her shoulders, held in place with the finest of silver wire.  It is an exquisite portrait of a noble woman whose identity is now unknown.

After this orgy of old master art it is time for something more contemporary, so the last stop on my museum tour is the Martin-Gropius-Bau located in the Mitte section of Berlin just steps from where the Wall used to be.  Since 1999 it has operated as a kunsthalle - a museum that does not have its own collection but serves as an exhibition space for temporary shows.  Currently on view is an important retrospective of the work of Anish Kapoor, one of the major players in today's art scene and one of my personal favorite contemporary artists.

Born in India in 1954, Anish Kapoor re-located to London to study art in 1973 and lives there to this day.  He is now one of the most important sculptors in Britain, indeed the world, and this is his first big solo show in Berlin.  Covering the entire first floor, the exhibition comprises 70 works, some site specific, covering his career from the "Wound" stone carvings of the 1980s, to the over sized convex mirrors of the early 2000s.  The wax sculptures, like "Shooting Into the Corner" are perennial crowd pleasers as they are created anew for each exhibition and evolve as the show progresses.  For the atrium at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Kapoor created a special installation entitled "Symphony for a Beloved Sun": a slow motion performance involving four conveyers and large bricks of red wax that were rolled up the belts and dropped off the end to form a unique and spontaneous sculpture in and of itself.

My jaunt to Berlin has been stimulating and fun.  It is a dynamic city with a rich history, a vibrant cultural life and a thriving art scene, and one that I am looking forward to visiting again in the future.

June 16, 2013

Art Basel 44 / Art Unlimited

The final stop in this spring's art world merry-go-round of fairs and auctions is the granddaddy of them all, Art Basel.  Now in its 44th year, Art Basel reigns supreme over FRIEZE, The Armory Show, the Venice Biennale and the countless other events that get the art world's juices flowing.

Art Basel is for serious collectors.  VIP's arrive early on private jets with the intention on being first through the doors for a chance to buy a masterpiece.  The remaining 70,000 visitors come over the next few days - many just as spectators, but quite a few are looking to acquire a work of modern or contemporary art.  Of over 1000 applications only 304 galleries are lucky enough to get a booth at the fair.  The stiff competition and high cost of participation ensures that exhibitors bring the best that they have to offer and visitors are treated to a very exciting art experience.

One of the adjuncts to the main fair is Art Unlimited, held next door to the convention center in a 125,000 sq ft exhibition hall.  It is less crowded here, perhaps because these works are not generally for sale.  Often site-specific, these installations are frequently mammoth in scale and sometimes intended to exist only for the duration of the fair.  I love going to Art Unlimited.  It's like a giant playground for adults where one can rush from one project to the next and sometimes even go inside and participate.  Some are intense, some are funny, some are pretty, some I just don't get, but it's fun to see them all.

Here are some stand outs from this year's fair:

One of the first presentations is Brazilian artist Lygia Clark's massive aluminum sculpture entitled "Fantastic Architecture".  I don't think the colored flags had anything to do with the piece, but they looked nice!

American artist Matt Mullican painted this enormous (72' wide) painting done in 70 pieces.  Intended to "map a potential image of the human individual...from the body as a chemical product composed of atoms to the mind as the theatre of intellectual production" it is called "Untitled:  Two into One becomes Three"...

Also on the XL scale is "Open Wide" the creation of Polish-born Piotr Uklanski and comprised of dyed and sewn fabric representing the human oral cavity...

On an entirely different note, this installation of riot shields joined and suspended over a group of household objects rendered in clay, represents artist Michael Joo's take on issues of state authority and civil unrest and is titled "Indivisible"...

Another enigma, although somewhat more amusing, is Justin Matherly's "Sunrise".  Crafted of concrete with walkers, crutches and other ambulatory equipment, this work incorporates motifs discovered on a Hellenistic mausoleum in Turkey...

Something more ethereal is this hanging sculpture by British artist Antony Gormly.  This work, entitled "Drift I" is created of small pieces of fine stainless steel that move and reflect the light making an ever-changing mass...

This is one of the best video installations I have seen lately.  Produced by François Curlet, "Speed Limit" is a multi media event with an Jaguar E-Type sports car converted into a hearse parked in the video room while a film is projected onto a screen.  In the film, the artist is driving the Jaguar through rain-soaked countryside in search of something the audience never learns...

My favorite work at this year's Art Unlimited has to be the hauntingly lovely installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota entitled "In Silence".  The room is filled with a web of black yarn and inside the tangle are two rows of empty chairs and a charred grand piano.  It is a quiet but powerful piece and the one that has stayed with me the most vividly...

Finally, I will leave you on a cheerier note - American Rob Pruitt's project "Not Yet Titled".  The walls of this stand are filled with dozens of small scale color field paintings, each with a face sketched on.  Part Pop Art, part Conceptual Art, these rows of faces on brightly colored backgrounds, cover the full spectrum of emotions and bring a smile to everyone's face...

That wraps up my visit to Art Unlimited 2013.  It's been a fun few days and I've seen a lot of great art, but now it's time to move along to the next stop.  I hope you'll check back soon to continue the journey!

June 02, 2013

"The Street" and "The Store": Oldenburg @ MoMA

When the Swedish born artist Claes Oldenburg moved to New York from Chicago in 1956, it was with the idea that he would pursue a career as a painter.  But by 1960 he had all but given up the painting idea in lieu of making sculpture - a revolutionary kind of sculpture that had never been seen before and reflected both his New York experience and the nascent pop art culture of the time.

In an exhibition co-curated with the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, is currently presenting an unprecedented selection of Oldenburg's earliest works.

"The Street" comprises works created in 1961 that reflect the artist's experience of living on the very gritty Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The objects are crafted out of very ordinary materials like cardboard, newspaper and black poster paint and depict the sights and characters of the neighborhood.  Very crudely drawn and constructed, the end results speak volumes about life in a very run down part of town.  Barking dogs, manhole covers, prostitutes (see "Street Chick" right) and street signs all create a sort of snapshot of the district at that time.

At the end of the year, Oldenburg rented a storefront on East Second Street that would act as both a studio and a showroom.  Here he created a commercial fantasyland of everyday objects made of brightly painted paper maché.  These sculptures were primitive, lumpy and out of scale representations of items like shoes, cakes, soda bottles, cigarettes and hamburgers and they were available for sale to the public from Friday to Sunday from one to six o'clock.

The grit and audacity of "The Street" sculptures was replaced by a sort of sweetness and charm in "The Store" with its cheery and funny depictions of items that we see all the time.  One can only imagine the reaction of passers by as they saw these crazy objects for sale in the window of what Oldenburg called the "Ray Gun Manufacturing Company"!  He later expanded his repertoire to include oversize soft sculptures again depicting common items like ice cream cones and sandwiches made out of sewn and painted canvas.

The MoMA exhibition continues downstairs in the Marron Atrium with two large scale installation pieces rarely put on display.  "Mouse Museum" and "Ray Gun Wing" were completed in the 1970s and represents Oldenburg's own selection of hundreds of his sculptures and ready-made objects in his "museum of popular art, nyc".  One can clearly see the influence of Marcel Duchamp but these are unique works that reflect the artist's own dialogs regarding collecting and creating and the distinction between ordinary items and museum treasures.

Claes Oldenburg was revolutionary in his time and continues to play a major role in Contemporary Art.  This exhibition is a fascinating look at how Oldenburg bounded onto the art scene and why he remains influential to this day.  It will remain on view at MoMA until August 5th.