Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Africa & Calder

There is nothing quite like seeing a child’s reaction to works of art. I experienced this firsthand when I conducted a tour for two 4 year olds and their mothers at Sotheby’s back in November. We previewed an exhibition of African, Oceanic, and Indonesian art from the collection of a legendary contemporary art dealer, Allan Stone.

According to the sale catalog, we learned that Stone acquired his first African artwork in 1955, and over the next 50 years built one of the most important private collections in the world of arts from primary cultures. Many of the works for sale had been featured extensively in museum exhibitions and important publications. To see the collection in its entirety and under one roof was certainly a rare and exciting opportunity.

To put the art we were about to see in context, I showed the group several maps. We started with a map of Africa, moved onto a map of the Oceanic Islands in the Pacific Ocean, Australia, some parts of Hawaii, and finished with a map of the archipelago of Indonesia.  We referenced these maps as we moved throughout the exhibition to remind ourselves where the artwork we were looking at came from originally.

We discussed several objects, all with different functions and constructed of various materials: a necklace from the Fiji Islands made of whale teeth, an Asante hair comb from Ghana, A Yoruba – Ijebu bronze armlet and Ibibio monkey mask from Nigeria, and a Bamileke beaded elephant mask from Cameroon. We made interesting observations about the objects’ textures, colors, and materials and speculated who we thought wore the pieces, if they were comfortable, what animals were portrayed, and brainstormed about how old we thought they were. We had quite a lively conversation.

Art history is a language of comparison, and Sotheby’s allowed us to do just that. After we left the objects and jewelry of Africa, we were able to see extremely different pieces of sculpture and jewelry in a Contemporary art preview just a few floors away. I was able to show the children works of art by Alexander Calder (1898-1976) a highly revered and recognizable American painter and sculptor. Calder is perhaps best known for his mobiles, which I explained are moving sculptures made of wire and most always fabricated out of the primary colors, red, blue, yellow (along with black and white). The children had just studied primary colors in art class, and loved being able to talk about the color wheel. In addition to his sculpture, I explained that Calder was also a prolific jewelry designer. We saw an extraordinary necklace, bracelet and comb, all made of silver. While the materials and time period were clearly different from what we saw earlier, the children definitely recognized the similarities they could draw between the pieces, in terms of their size, how they were designed, and their function. 

Who ever thought that decorative arts from Africa and the modernist jewelry of Calder could ever be grouped together – but as we saw, it was not only possible but made perfect sense in this context.  

Ameringer McEnery Yohe, Matthew Marks & Gagosian

Chelsea is comprised of hundreds of galleries. There are three, however, that consistently curate wonderfully rich exhibitions. They truly transform their white washed walls time and time again, showcasing cutting edge artwork that never fails to disappoint the spectator. 

I am referring to Ameringer McEnery Yohe, Matthew Marks and Gagosian. 

Some time ago, I took five families to these three galleries, and want to take a moment now to reflect on the experience. At each, we saw solo exhibitions - meaning, a show consisting of only one artist’s work - that featured three tremendously different styles.

At Ameringer McEnery Yohe we looked at the paintings and sculptures of Michael Reafsnyder (b. 1969). This artist impressed me for his bold and original techniques of painting without using actual paint brushes. I quote the artist: “I don’t like cleaning brushes…I use anything but a brush.”

To paint, Reafsnyder turns to pallet knives and sometimes found objects, and amazingly, he is able to keep the colors from mixing or turning into a muddled brown hue.

Regarding his work, Reafsnyder states: "The liquidity of paint and clay allow for 'Indiana Jones'-type adventures, a sort of immediate experience in which every turn or twist presents a new pleasure and a new concern. The trick is to make sure that the works do not end up solely as a record of those decisions, but take on a new life."

Perhaps, I suggested to the tour, Reafsnyder embodies a modern-day Jackson Pollock. I referenced several of Pollock’s works so they could visually understand my comparison and gave them a summary of the life of Jackson Pollock. I think I convinced them.

Reafsnyder, like many artists, has a trademark, a signature that lets people know what is his. It is not his name, but rather takes the form of a smiley face.  He adds the smiley faces to all of his pieces. It takes a moment to find them, but they are always front and center, and add a sense of whimsy to his paintings. It is certainly something I have never seen done before.

The exhibition also included sculptures by the artist. Reafsnyder constructed them by hand of clay, engobe (clay slip), glaze and his signature smiley face.

This is a good time for me to point something out. I have two goals for each of my tours. One is to teach people about what they are seeing physically in front of them. The other is to draw comparisons between works of art that someone without an art history background might not know to make.

I shared with the group that in my opinion, Reafsnyder’s sculptures are not dissimilar to the machine constructed sculptures of American artist Roxy Paine (b. 1966). Paine has said, "I’m interested in taking entities that are organic and outside of the industrial realm, feeding them into an industrial system, and seeing what results from that force-feeding. The end results are a seamless containment of these opposites.” Whereas Reafsnyder’s sculptures were created by hand, Paine’s are manufactured by machines that the artist has built. His hand, therefore, is removed, but still factors into the equation.

A few doors down at Matthew Marks, we saw a solo show of Darren Almond, an English artist, which was his sixth one-person exhibition at the gallery since 2000. The show included16 photographs made between 2002 and 2012 on all seven continents as part of the artist’s Fullmoon series - photographs made at night, with exposures lasting between 15 and 60 minutes. This exhibition was the first time that Almond’s images from all of the continents were on view simultaneously.  Our discussion focused on three works in the show, all of which I related to Asian art, in the form of Chinese painted hand scrolls, and Japanese woodblock prints.

Lastly at Gagosian, our third and final gallery, we saw a solo-exhibition of the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, recognized to be one of the greatest American artists of the twentieth century. In her words, “the only rule is that there are no rules. Anything is possible. ... It’s all about risks, deliberate risks.” The exhibition included 30 paintings, from what was known as her mature style, the period between 1950 – 1959. It is known that Frankenthaler took inspiration from various sources: landscapes, figures, paleolithic cave paintings, mythical scenes and childhood memories. I focused on several paintings that clearly showcased one or more of these influences. For instance, we spoke about a piece titled Eden, 1956 and showed the group a cave painting from the Midi-Pyrénées region in France which contained similar imagery. Similarly, in Mother Goose Melody, 1959 I saw clear references to Picasso’s cubism and showed the group a work titled Girl before a Mirror.

The day terminated with a walk down the High Line, a must-do when I’m in Chelsea on a clear day.

Gallery shot
Chinese landscape comparison
Cave painting

Latin America and the 19th Century

Some months ago I took a family and their two sons to a Latin American Art preview at Sotheby’s. The first sale in this category took place at the auction house in 1977 and the sales have been going strong ever since.

This department offers paintings, sculpture, works on paper and religious icons spanning 500 years from Latin American artists. Major sales of Latin American Art are held two times a year in May and November in New York.

We discussed several prominent artists in this category: Rufino Tamayo, Fernando Botero, Diego Rivera and Jesus Rafael Soto. As with all of my tours, we not only had in depth conversations about the works Sotheby’s presented, but also spent time making art historical comparisons.

The first piece we saw, Tamayo’s Watermelon Slices, 1950 prompted a discussion of the term ‘still life.’ Below are a few key points about this type of painting:

Still lives are created by artists, often in their studios, of traditionally two types of subjects: natural and artificial - natural meaning organic materials such as food, flowers, or fruit and artificial referring to objects that are inanimate, such as the image above. With a still life, an artist has total control of his subject, which is certainly not the case in landscape or figurative painting where external elements play a large factor in the makeup of the composition. Traditionally, still lives became a popular form of painting in 17th century Europe, some of the most well known examples being of Dutch and Italian origin.

Artists like to share and borrow ideas with and from each other. It is my feeling that Tamayo’s Watermelon still life is the artist’s way of interpreting Cubism. I went onto show the group a Picasso cubist still life.

No discussion of Latin American art would be complete without the mention of the infamous Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, known for his oversized and proportionally exaggerated figures and portraits. We talked about an oil on canvas titled Man and a Horse.

Botero explains his use of these "large people," as they are often called by critics, in the following way: "An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.”

Diego Rivera is an equally prominent figure in Latin American Art, and we examined a watercolor on paper titled Hombre con Burro y Olla [Man with Donkey and Pot]. Prior to the Rivera we focused on looking at oil paintings but whenever possible I always like to include a discussion of different artistic mediums such as works on paper rather than canvas, and the use of watercolor as opposed to oil.  

Speaking of alternate mediums, we next turned to sculpture with a discussion of Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto. Soto is known for interactive sculptures that consist of square arrays of thin, dangling tubes through which observers can walk.  The artist traveled to Paris in 1950 and began associating with optical artists – this prompted a discussion of Op Art and Victor Vasarely.  Op Art is the short form for the art movement known as Optical Art.

An issue of Time Magazine in 1964 described Op Art as “Pictures That Attack the Eye” for the tricks they play on the human retina and the optical illusions that result. A year later in 1965, the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan created an exhibition solely dedicated to Op art called The Responsive Eye. Art in this style elicits different responses in observers through patterns, flashes, contrasts, movement, and hidden imagery. The viewer is pulled into the picture in the same way that he or she is attacked by the image.

No discussion of Op Art would be complete without mentioning and showing viewers a piece by Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely (1906 – 1997) who was widely regarded as the father of Op Art.

Moving completely away from Latin American art, a few floors down I took the family to see an exhibition of 19th century American and European furniture and decorative arts. We stopped to discuss several pieces, one of which was a large gilt bronze mounted ebonized pietra dure center table that I’ll briefly describe here.

To break down the title a bit, gilt bronze, found most prominently on the legs of this table, is an alloy made to look like gold. The term ebonized refers to a stain or finish applied to furniture to make it look black.

Pietre Dure is a wonderful technique that deserves some attention. Popular in the late 16th and 17th century, whole workshops in Florence, Italy specialized in producing objects decorated in this manner. It was a mosaic technique using hard stone; the term pietre dure literally means "hard stones" where semiprecious stones and other colorful hardstones were cut to fashion extravagant luxury objects, from architectural ornament and furniture to ornate display items and personal jewelry. From the Renaissance to the early 19th century, the affluent societies of Europe were mesmerized by works in pietre dure, both as diplomatic gifts and as objects of desire dedicated to this magnificent medium. In 2008 the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exceptional exhibition titled Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe.

Overall it was quite a diverse tour and allowed us to travel extensively without ever leaving York Avenue.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Chelsea Galleries

I recently met a fellow Brandeis alumna and several of her friends in Chelsea to preview three exhibitions at three different galleries. Chelsea is known for showcasing the most avant-garde artworks produced today, both by regional and international artists. There are hundreds of galleries in the area, which technically spans from 13th – 31st street, between 8th and 12th avenues. I would say that in that range, from 20-28th street is where the most popular galleries reside. Often, multiple galleries in Chelsea can be found under one roof, which makes them quite accessible to the viewing public.

Our first stop, Winston Wachter Fine Art, is located in one such building, which contains about 10 galleries- 530 W. 25th street, on 10th avenue. We saw a solo exhibition of photographs by Margeaux Walter, produced between 2009 and 2010. In her work, the artist is interested in exploring themes such as identity, individuality and technology in modern society. She uses her own image in digital photographs and lenticulars (a lenticular is a type of digital photograph that, due to its printing process, the image appears to move or shift with the movement of the viewer). The artist is a longtime resident of New York City, and describes herself as a people watcher. In her works, she has manufactured images of crowds in familiar scenarios, among them (to name a few) being a ball game, a morning commute, and a graduation ceremony. The crowds are composed of dozens of images of the artist who has transformed herself via elaborate costumes and makeup.

The next gallery we visited, called P-P-O-W, is just down the block. The exhibition they are hosting is called Debris, and is comprised of three separate artist’s works. The idea of the recycled material is a big theme in contemporary art. Artists like to use second- hand materials that they scavenge from a variety of sources. Stripped of their original context, these objects take on a new existence, and are created into works of art. I focused my discussion on the work of one of the artist’s, Sarah Frost. A native of Missouri, this show is her first time exhibiting in New York. Frost scavenges materials from garage sales and garbage bins. In her pieces, she uses recycled keyboard keys from a variety of sources- individuals, small businesses, financial institutions, government offices and fortune 500 companies. Each key has a unique history and bears the imprint of the thousands of taps by countless users. These days, keys are very connected to the human body. They are an extension of our minds and our bodies- specifically our hands, eyes and brains- and grant us access to the world around us.

We then returned to 530 W. 23rd street to visit the Noho Gallery, an artist run cooperative. The entire fourth floor of the building is comprised of such galleries. The artist currently showing at Noho is Zarvin Swerbilov, who was at the gallery at the time of our tour. Besides talking about his life as an artist, he gave the group a detailed picture of his artistic process. Before he begins to paint his canvases, he creates pencil drawings as he listens to classical music or jazz. He is not the first artist to make a clear connection between his art and music. Wassily Kandinsky (Russian-born French Expressionist Painter, 1866-1944) is particularly well-known for stressing this relationship. Swerbilov then records his reactions to the music in spontaneous strokes, only to then re-create the studies in color. The artist then shared a very endearing personal story with everyone. He told us that he showed these color studies to his wife on her deathbed. If she nodded and smiled, he created large-scale paintings from his sketches. If she did not, he would throw that one away. Something that I immediately noticed about Swerbilov’s work is his use of intense color. When I asked him about his color choices, he told me that they were a result of his years of studying primary colors, the color wheel, and color theory and by trial and error. The primary reason that I choose to go to Noho Gallery on my tour was because I knew that Zarvin Swerbilov would be present to talk about his life and his work. My guests agreed that it was a very special and rare opportunity.

To see examples of the artists work mentioned in this post, visit the websites below: