Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Musee Jacquemart-Andre and its Exhibition Giotto to Caravaggio: The Passions of Roberto Longhi

It appears that I had never been to the Musee Jacquemart-Andre despite the fact that it houses not only a significant collection of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture but also lots of medals, plaquettes and bronze statuettes of the Renaissance, all subjects I studied much in the past. I had diligently used the catalogue of its medals and plaquettes as references my own publications, but am sure I would remember the building if I had been there. It is a splendid museum, built in the late 19th century as a residence, with wonderful rocaille decoration, a gorgeous conservatory and extensive galleries. I suspect it as a model for the Frick Collection in New York, although it is somewhat grander. We were there on Easter and the beautiful café was full or we would have lingered longer.

Aside from the masterpieces of Renaissance art in the permanent collection and the spectacular eighteenth-century works - including a Tiepolo fresco of the Arrival of Henry III in Italy, purchased from the Villa Contarini in Italy in 1893 and transported to Paris to decorate the staircase, with the ceiling from the same cycle, which adorns the café ceiling - the Museum offers exhibitions.

At first when I saw the publicity for the exhibition in the Metro, I was not enticed. "Giotto to Caravaggio" sounds like a generic exhibition drawn from some private or public collection. However the subtitle referred to the art historian Roberto Longhi, who died in 1970 and I became curious as to how a museum might create an exhibition around an art historian. The show is a fascinating entrée into the world of connoisseurship and the history of how the reputations of works of art can be changed, in this case by the enthusiasm and dedication of a single scholar. The link above goes to the exhibition website and some very helpful accompanying information in English.

Books on art historians and historiography have proliferated in the past couple of decades, but I don't recall exhibitions celebrating the discoveries, connoisseurship and reinterpretations of art historians. I imagine that the fact that there is a Longhi Foundation in Florence that houses his collection of mostly Caravaggist paintings may have been an incentive to this project. In any event, the objects are absolutely wonderful and the information gives one a sense of how Longhi during his lifetime actually changed how we understand the history of Italian Renaissance and baroque art. I wonder what other art historians might merit the same attention.

The exhibition celebrates Longhi for reviving, or creating interest in Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio and a host of Ferrarese painters (who are still actually relatively unknown - Cosimo Tura, Francesco del Cossa, Dosso Dossi) and for his new discoveries about Giotto and Masaccio. His promotion of the artists influenced by style of Caravaggio - the Caravaggisti painters - is also significantly represented.  Having studied art history beginning shortly before Longhi's death, I was unaware that their reputations had needed reviving; they were central to the curriculum by the time I was taking courses.  And the exhibition, of a rather small and manageable size, contains several wonderful works of art that one could study at length in comfort and with informative educational materials around them.

I was first struck by a Caravaggio Sleeping Cupid, 1608 from the Palazzo Pitti, not completely different in pose from antique and Renaissance Cupids, but I became fascinated that the flesh on his chest was uneven with cellulite, a disturbingly realistic detail that only Caravaggio would have emphasized in the early 17th century. Of course the strong contrast of light and shade modeling his figure, the highlights on the edges of his wings and the dark background also identified the artist. Many other works in the exhibition were by Caravaggio or his imitators and followers, and one could compare the master with his imitators and with those he inspired, such as Jusepe de Rivera. Longhi is credited with reviving Caravaggio's long reputation and with documenting his widespread influence in 17th century Europe.

In another room a small Masaccio Madonna and Child from the Uffizi of 1426-27, caught my eye. Longhi was the first to attribute this charming small work to Masaccio, in 1950. In 1940 Longhi had published Fatti di Masolino e Masaccio, in which he distinguished their styles and identified Masaccio as a key figure in the foundation of the Renaissance style.  Masaccio's paintings are rare and this small example glows with the red and blue of the Madonna's robes. Her face is softly modeled as she gravely looks down at the infant Christ, tickling his chin with two fingers (also interpreted as a gesture of benediction) as he giggles slightly and clasps her arm. It seems very simple and straightforward, but the three-quarters turn of her body, suggestion of a light source, human gestures and soft handling of flesh were enormously innovative at the time.

The next work worth some time is a pair of Saints, St. John the Evangelist and St. Lawrence, attributed to Giotto by Longhi in 1930, then disputed and re-attributed to Giotto in 2013. One can understand the dispute, since the St. Lawrence is not what I would expect from Giotto; it's somehow clunky and stiff, either poorly restored or just clumsily designed. But the St. John is wonderful, with the beginnings of individuality, the sense of volumes, and even the handling of the eyes and ears one sees in Giotto's work.

Longhi published several works on Piero della Francesca, including a 1927 monograph on this great painter and mathematician of the mid-15th century. It is hard to imagine that Piero was not considered one of the major painters of the Renaissance (even the painter of the small masterpiece featured in several Downton Abbey episodes) until Longhi revived his reputation. The exhibition includes St. Jerome and a Donor (ca. 1460, Venice Galleria dell' Accademia) by Piero, a small painting that demonstrates Piero's luminous light effects, carefully structured compositions including landscape, and interest in geometry.

Longhi had wide ranging interests and friendships. He was a fan of Courbet and impressionism, collected Giorgio Morandi's work, and was a friend of the avant-garde film director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. Longhi wrote on the importance of studying works of art in their full context, not just in relation to other paintings but to history, biography and broader culture. This was a strikingly informative exhibition that opened my eyes to some wonderful objects and to the evolving nature of art history through the work of someone I had only known by a name.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Keys to a passion: Fondation Louis Vuitton

One of the reasons we went to Paris was to see the Fondation Louis Vuitton and its new Frank Gehry Building. We were fascinated by the building, as everyone else has been. I loved that Gehry has truly separated the “sails” that cover the building from its actual structure, that there are many levels under those sails to explore outdoors, and that the galleries indoors are rectangular with straight vertical walls. I also like the sculptural shape of the interior structure as you see it from outside, contradicting the regularity of the interior spaces. I could not photograph it from above or the long side, so what I can offer are details of the complexity of the structure.

The building structure makes some sense, it seems almost infinitely varied, and it is possible to install most kinds of art appropriately in the galleries. A couple of the galleries have wonderful high skylights, where sunlight can enter but is unlikely to hit works of art directly.

We explored the building and its permanent collection exhibits – a quirky variety of generations and media. A video by Akram Zaatari, Tomorrow Everything will be Alright, 2010 seemed familiar and we realized that we had seen it two years ago at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC) in Mexico City. Given the political nature of much of his work, choosing this one for a collection seems a bit eccentric, although its gay theme and easy accessibility, at least to an English reader, may be considerable assets. Giacometti and Ellsworth Kelly among artists I find more difficult: Isa Genzken, Annette Messager, and other contemporaries - Maurizio Cattelan, Thomas Schutte, Adrian Villar Rojas.
Wandering downstairs, partly intending to get a closer look at the water feature, we found the exhibition, Keys to a passion, which coincidentally had opened the day before. This exhibition has already been widely discussed just because of the rarity and high value of the loans, important treasures from major international museums. The atrium was set up for crowds, but there were very few people. Guides handed us a booklet of all the exhibition labels in English, a wonderful asset that enables one to read the label and look at the art at the same time, without having to wait for the nearsighted person or people in front to finish. And you can re-read them later.
It took us a while to realize how stunning the exhibition is. Organized on four disparate and inconsistent themes: subjective expressionism, contemplative, Popist (as in Pop, not the Pope), and music, the works, about 60 objects by 29 artists, are generously spaced in six rooms. The guide says they "established the foundations of modernity.... By breaking rules, these irreducibly singular works have become touchstones in the history of art." Well, I think maybe some of them more than others, although each object merits the substantial examination and contemplation the organizers hope for.
Indeed the works are masterpieces, but perhaps because we had no publicity to set us up for it, we didn't feel like we were in a textbook of masterpieces. Not everything was completely familiar and I was most taken by Nolde, Hodler and Mondrian landscapes, a Malevich figure, a gorgeous red Rothko, and the two Franz Kupkas. Of course, the Kandinskys from the Edward R. Campbell atrium, Matisse's Dance, and the Munch Scream were obviously major loans. And, finally I wondered, and still wonder, how the curators chose works by three other artists. First were five self-portraits by the wonderful Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck, whose major retrospective we saw in Helsinki three years ago. They are stunning and hold their own with the Munch and Otto Dix's Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, 1925 (Tom's favorite) nearby. But her expressionism without any of the standard Germans seems a bit odd.
Similarly, in the "contemplative" section, near the Noldes and Mondrians were four very similar paintings of Lake Keitele by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. I was engaged by the slight variations in the stylized interpretations of this series, impressed that the four paintings had been brought together from at least three disparate collections, and curious as to what inspired these particular works to join the exhibition, especially since they are quite uncharacteristic of his oeuvre, which we had the chance to see in a major exhibition in Dusseldorf in 2012. Perhaps the Vuitton curator made the same rounds we did of Finnish artists in 2012. And I wondered if the artist was continuing to work out a composition, as the label suggests, or if he found a popular subject and was repeating it for additional sales. The paintings certainly fit into the context of the room, but seem unlikely as foundation works for later art, especially when one of them was acquired by the National Gallery in London only in 1999 and become "iconic" only since then.
Then, in the section titled "Popist," which I initially believed must have to do with the Catholic religion, I was rather puzzled at Robert Delauney's inclusion, since I think of him more for his abstraction and color than for his popular subjects. But the real amusement came from Francis Picabia's cavorting naked women with dogs that seemed to come from exactly the same girlie aesthetic as the Jeff Koons paintings I had rather dismissed the day before. These Picabias were as unlikely in their present company as the Finnish artists in theirs, and again I wondered what the curatorial impetus was for including them as sources of the "Pop" in modern art. They are also quite different from most of Picabia's work, as is evident if you search Picabia images.
So I am curious and puzzled by some of the curatorial choices in this exhibition, which nonetheless is one of the three really memorable, important, and innovative shows we saw in Paris.


Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jeff Koons at the Pompidou Center

In Paris earlier this month we made a point of visiting the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Pompidou Center. Koons is a puzzlement to me. I want to be able to dismiss him, as several critics do, as vacuous and pandering to collecting fashion, but somehow that seems to dismiss the fact that Koons is so popular with the general public, with collectors, and with some critics. His commercialism and superficiality speak to an aspect of contemporary American culture. But it’s a little embarrassing to think that we embrace that superficiality as eagerly and fully as the market for his work would indicate.

So I wanted to see how the work was presented and interpreted by the exhibition curators. They provided some excellent context that helped me to see what inspired the objects and to understand Koons’s process. But in the end I still don’t feel convinced that I should value his art emotionally or intellectually, because it doesn’t mean much to me, even if it does, sadly, speak to contemporary culture and is occasionally amusing.

I was surprised that the first few objects were simply store-bought inflatable flowers and a bunny set against mirrors. By using mirrors Koons refers to Robert Smithson’s mirror works, although Smithson uses the mirror corner to enlarge or modify the object - usually a small earthwork - set against it. Then Koons set teapots and vacuum cleaners against florescent bulbs, the “found” objects inspired by Marcel Duchamp and Dada and the lights perhaps by Dan Flavin’s florescent works. While the labels indicate that the vacuum cleaners will remain pristine in their plexi boxes, they will eventually deteriorate. Personally I do not find the forms of the teapots and vacuum cleaners to have the design sense or the wry humor of Duchamp’s readymades. Duchamp makes you look at everyday objects aesthetically and see them as sculpture or design: not so much with Koons’s vacuum cleaners.

The first Koons I ever saw was the floating basketball, which left me cold many years ago. We did not see this in Paris, but it is in the catalog, something about equilibrium, in a series about rising and falling basketball stars and bronze aqualungs and lifeboats, perhaps deriving from trompe l’oeil sculptures of the 1970s.

I was very interested in the section where Koons enlarged alcohol ads to monumental size because he says he was interested in how the ads became more abstract as the neighborhood became wealthier. However, although I imagined that it was there, I couldn’t actually see anything about that in the ads exhibited – they were just enlarged booze ads, as Richard Prince had done with tobacco ads.

I thought the 1986 stainless steel model train that actually contained bourbon was interesting (had no idea the artist's proof had sold for $33,765,000 in 2014), but couldn’t really figure much out from it, except that it seemed to reproduce a commercial set of Jim Bean bottles.  I suppose alcohol ads and bottles are always fun. This was followed by multiple stainless steel casts of baroque portrait busts and other sculptures. The labels address the fact that stainless steel is a “proletarian” material and so the busts suggest “fake luxury.” They are shiny and cold and pretty boring replicas. Among them was a stainless steel reproduction of an inflatable rabbit, which the label says ‘transforms this inflatable disposable object into a durable and precious one,’ (albeit of “proletarian” material). Even when the curator offers several interpretations, it still looks to me like a cute trick.

Buster Keaton, 1988
Polychromed wood (Ed. 3/3)
Sonnabend Collection
and Antonio Homem
We used to have a small collection of ANRI figurines, which I sold on Ebay several years ago for more money than I’d expected. Koons’s Banality series of giant versions of cutsey carvings reminds me of those figures. Is making collectibles giant a way of giving them aesthetic value? Or is it pandering to the lowest common denominator? Koons’s comments seem to co-opt the condescension I feel toward these really, really stupid objects. Following these with the vapid pretty-faced images of Koons himself having sex and/or sculpted heroically in marble starts to make my stomach ache. On the other hand, I did sort of want the blue glass version of him having sex for our glass collection.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988
Porcelain (Ed. 1/3)
Private Collecton
Then there’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a huge gilt porcelain sculpture copied from a photograph, made by assistants in a sophisticated technique in an edition of three. Having little personal interest in Michael Jackson, I still find this entertaining in its lush surfaces and Pop sources., not to mention that it has become some kind of icon of both Jackson and Koons.

Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1994-2000
Stainless steel, clear polyester, transparent varnish
1 of 5 unique versions
Pinault Collection
I also loved the giant topiary Puppy when we saw it in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1999. And I can’t help but smile at the giant Balloon Dog that exists in five versions. It’s shiny, looks like a child’s toy, and contrasts the hardness of steel with the fragility of balloons. I think it’s fun and a kind of extension of Pop art, but I can’t take it very seriously. What does that mean? I smile when I see these works and that’s fine, but they don’t cause me to think or feel anything more profound than that initial response. Amusement and delight are valid responses to a work of art, though and more than a lot of art evokes from me.

About this time in the exhibition I learned that all of Koons’s paintings are executed by assistants following a paint-by-numbers system to assure conformity to his requirements. And I find minimal evidence that he draws or paints or sculpts himself. Andy Warhol’s studio concept is fully realized in Koons’s production system, where the ideas are his (I must assume) but the execution is by others, as in a factory.  The effect of this painting system is surprisingly photo-realistic. My snapshot of a detail of a painting looks to me like the actual plastic toy sculpture. And the sculptures are meticulously crafted by the fabricators he employs.

Shelter, 1996-98, detail
Oil on canvas
The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection

There follow quite a few paintings in various series that combine multiple commercial sources (“product packaging, advertisements, and magazine photography,” as well as cartoons and images of toys) in collages that are then significantly enlarged and painted by assistants. They remind me of Frank Stella’s paintings that employed computer imaging; here Stella’s smoke patterns are replaced by fishnet stockings.

More recent editions in the exhibition were Antiquity, monumental reproductions of well-known sculptures in brightly colored stainless steel, so shiny that they are difficult to see and in colors that make me grit my teeth. In fact one effect of all the detailed stainless-steel sculptures is that they are very difficult to see because of the hard reflectiveness of the medium. These were followed by Gazing Ball, mostly oversize plaster replicas of famous classical sculptures,  each holding a blue gazing ball, combining two garden-sculpture types.  (The addition of a mailbox with a gazing ball might be intended to clue me that the works are about things one would fine outdoors.) It’s a way of transforming ancient treasures into contemporary kitsch, so the collector can have it both ways, I suppose, i.e. the ancient object and a spoof of antiquity, but not a garden sculpture, since the plaster would not survive well out-of-doors.
Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules), 2013
Plaster and glass (Ed. 3/3)
Private Collection



Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Sarah Burt

My friend Sarah Burt died on Tuesday April 7 after about 5 months struggling with pancreatic cancer. I’m glad I saw her in early March, when she was still feeling relatively good and we could have the endless conversations we, and all her friends, have always enjoyed with her. Sarah had a long career, first as a journalist, then as an art historian, but at the age of 62 she was just coming into her own as a scholar and curator and when I saw her in August, before she was diagnosed, I was really impressed with her accomplishments and her confidence about her work as a museum curator. She was always a brilliant scholar. You would tell Sarah about something that interested you that she had never heard of and the next time you saw her she could tell you everything about it. And she had ideas!  About artists, about exhibitions, about the way art works.

Sarah started graduate school at the University of Kansas in the Japanese art program, but about the time she completed the masters she realized that the Japanese language was going to be too much of a challenge and she switched to American art. As I recall, she worked on William Keith, and on the Swedenborgians, helped with American painting publications at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, then got a job in Santa Fe working for the Georgia O’Keefe Foundation, where she was assistant curator for an exhibition of O’Keefe’s book collection. After she was hired at the Joslyn in Omaha as the curator of Western Art she became extremely knowledgeable about Karl Bodmer and Maximilian’s expedition up the Missouri, and began to make scholarly and museum connections in that field. Finally, as curator of the Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Plains, she immersed herself in Russell and his compatriots, as well as managing many details for the museum’s annual auction of contemporary and historical Western Art. At the Russell Museum she was still in the upward curve of her scholarly arc and had many more great projects in the works.
Sarah was a collector. She had collected American arts and crafts pottery in Kansas, then lost it in a divorce, but still had some of her European pottery. She had well-chosen Western landscapes; I was always impressed that she could pick out the best object in a group. And she loved to talk about objects and their history with dealers and curators, usually in great detail. Once when we went to the flea market in Santa Fe she deliberated and negotiated over a rug for hours, finally purchasing it.
Sarah loved movies and we loved to go to them when she was in Lawrence. She knew a great many movies of the 30s and 40s, as well as good contemporary ones. When I saw her in Great Falls, we watched “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and a couple of episodes of “House of Cards.” She loved good food and wine. While I would order the house white, she would choose the Puligny Montrachet or the Russian River chardonnay or something else much more exotic.
Probably most of all, she loved her dogs.  She had always wanted Border Collies and got the first ones about 17 years ago. First Sam and Maggie, brother and sister she acquired in Santa Fe and kept with her till they died at over 15 years old. They went everywhere with her and she had them trained to do all sort of amazing things, so that you almost thought they could talk (Of course they could speak, and whisper.). More recently she acquired Alice, the very smart, quick one, and Sylvester, who is beautiful and loving but perhaps a little intellectually challenged.
For the first two years I was in Kansas, Sarah and her husband were my only Lawrence friends, and we regularly went to movies, to Kansas City, and on trips together.– skiing in Wyoming and Montana,  hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.  After she moved to Santa Fe I often stayed with her there and she was a guest at my wedding in 2005. We have a huge email correspondence, detailing our activities for the past decade.
I visited Sarah in Great Falls in August, a couple of months before she was diagnosed, when she was feeling pretty good. We toured the Russell Museum, which is much larger than I had anticipated and much of which she had reinstalled very intelligently. Then we went to Glacier National Park, staying at the lodges Sarah most liked, eating the best meals we could get, and driving through the park, looking for mountain goats for Sarah and bears for me. We found the goats first and I took her picture with the goat in the distance. Then when we were almost through the park we came upon a crowd watching a mother and baby bear, so we both got our wishes fulfilled.