“At the Venice Biennale 2017: the Pavilion of Lebanon,” By David Darcy

SamaS installation at the Pavilion of Lebanon. Courtesy Zad Moultaka Studio at the Venice Biennale 2017: the Pavilion of Lebanon.


“At the Venice Biennale 2017: the Pavilion of Lebanon”

By David Darcy


The Pavilion of Lebanon is at the edge of the Venice Biennale – just beyond the edge, in fact, in a 16th-century boatyard called the Arsenale Novissimo.

To reach the site where SamaS, a display of the work of 50-year-old artist and musician Zad Moultaka is being exhibited and played, you board a boat that glides quietly across the Arsenale, the old fort where a section of the biennale is taking place until November.

Once there, you enter a massive, near-empty space illuminated by dim lights.

As choral music plays from speakers on the side walls, your attention is directed to the far interior wall, which is studded with shiny coins reminiscent of the surface of a mosaic. This is deliberate, as it was inspired by the gold mosaics of the Basilica of San Marco.

The thousands of coins include some with holes in them, suggesting bullet holes.

“This is a gold mosaic but with real coins,” says pavilion curator Emmanuel Daydé.

“It is money that makes war possible.”

The music – 32 voices, each coming from a separate speaker – creates a chorus of mourning and a whirr of energy. Each voice is delicately differentiated, as if pieces in a mosaic.

“This is a wall of lamentation,” says Moultaka, the pianist, painter and composer who designed the space. He expects some visitors might compare it to other commemorative walls, such as the monument honouring the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

Artist and musician Zad Moultaka, centre, with a model of his SamaS installation at the Pavilion of Lebanon. Courtesy Zad Moultaka Studio

The title SamaS is a palindrome, a word that reads the same backwards and forwards. It means “Sun Dark Sun” and is not the pavilion’s only paradox. The music was written for the Chorus of the Antonine University in Beirut. At times it sounds like the hum of an aircraft engine, and at others like what Daydé describes as “the song of angels”.

Some of that sound is the result of electronic manipulation by Moultaka. The choir sings in the ancient Akkadian language, “so ancient that it no longer needs to be in direct relation with meaning”, the composer notes in the exhibition catalogue.

The space seems almost sacred; yet it is also suggestive of a landscape ravaged by war.

“We don’t know if it’s Ur, Beirut, Aleppo,” says Daydé, “or tomorrow?”

In the centre of the space is an improbable object – an upright Rolls-Royce Avon MK 209 airplane engine from the 1950s, standing like a column and positioned to resemble a statue from the era of Hammurabi, who ruled Mesopotamia in 18BC.

His reign is known for some of the world’s most ancient inscriptions, including the world’s earliest descriptions of laws. Displaying the aircraft engine, an instrument of war, in place of a basalt column from Hammurabi’s time suggests conflict has been present in the region at least as long as the precepts encoded by Hammurabi.

Moultaka explains that the two columns – the code of laws and the airplane engine – “are exactly the same form. It’s incredible that, in the human mind, these forms can look so much alike, even if they’re being used for opposing purposes”.

Daydé adds the columns are used to ask pressing questions about modern life.

“The Middle East invented civilisation, with the first codes of law, the code of Hammurabi,” he says. “And now we’re asking the question: who makes the law in the Middle East? The planes that are bombing?”

The deep themes behind the exhibit made their mark on visitors. On the first day the pavilion was open to the public, some people emerged visibly overcome with emotion. Several said that the extra effort to reach it had been worth the effort.

This year marks the third time Lebanon has had a pavilion at the biennale.

Moultaka has exhibited in the Italian city before, but not in a national pavilion. He and Daydé collaborated on an exhibition of what he called “somewhat monumental paintings” in Venice two years ago, for a collateral event organised outside the 2015 biennale.

This year’s pavilion is the culmination of 15 years of work, says Moultaka.

“As a composer, as an artist, I’ve experimented in an enormous number of ways, looking for an identity, looking for a path,” he says.

“[As Arabs] we’ve been a bit locked into traditional music – which is fantastic, very strong, almost sacred – but how can you be modern with that? That leads to questions about form, and about all sorts of things. That’s where I started and I’ve been working for 15 to 20 years on that mission.”

Another paradox emerges. This quest for modernisation coincided with preparing a project for Venice, a city that seems deliberately frozen in the past.

“Did Venice accelerate this process?” Moultaka asks himself. “I think that I’ve reached a place in my own development that coincides with being at Venice.

“This project crystallises something about where I am along this path.”

Venice did indeed play a role for Moultaka.

“It was at Christmas, in the Basilica of San Marco, and I saw all the gold around me,” he says. “How is it possible, with all this wealth, all this money devoted to something spiritual, that everything else around us is going in the other direction?”

The metal coins, the aircraft engine and the shadow of an airplane over land all combined in his vision.

“Obviously we build, we think, we tell stories – but the goal for me is always, always, emotion,” he says. “This is something that I learnt from Bach. The music of Bach has a sense of counterpoint and composition that’s overwhelming. It’s absolutely extraordinary. What’s comparable for me in painting are the compositions of Paul Klee.”

It still seems odd that the pavilion for Lebanon, a country that has been a cultural crossroads, would be located on the fringes of the biennale’s exhibitors.

“The project determined the space and where it would be,” says Dayde, who adds that he and Moultaka considered another site in a more central location in the main Arsenale.

“The idea was to have something of a pilgrimage, to cross the Mediterranean, as it were, from one shore to the other, like a rite that would be undertaken and repeated. That’s what got us here, on the other side of the Mediterranean.”

“You often hear a place of art described as a common ground,” says Moultaka, looking out on the water separating the pavilion from the Arsenale.

“This is art that is bringing down borders,” he notes, which is perhaps a curious way to describe an installation built around a wall.

“I’m happy that everyone finds his or her own meaning here. From the beginning, I wanted to create something that wasn’t simply Lebanese. Each visitor is finding his or her own story.”


Biennale Arte 2017: VIVA ARTE VIVA
57th Venice Biennale
May 13 — November 26, 2017
Biennale Arte 2017 Info: http://bit.ly/2r4nQAf


By David Darcy, Reprint from The National / Arts and Live, 17 June 2017, © 2017 Abu Dhabi Media

“… How ‘Home’ at LACMA rethinks ideas about Latin American art,” By Carolina A. Miranda

Artist Daniel Joseph Martinez with his scale reproduction of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in the exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing” at LACMA. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)


“Argentine slums and a Unabomber cabin: How ‘Home’ at LACMA rethinks ideas about Latin American art”

By Carolina A. Miranda


On the surface, the brightly painted shed recently installed in the galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art couldn’t seem more appealing. Sherbet-y shades of orange and yellow greet the viewer. Around the rear, a belt of camouflage employs candy shades of purple. A door is rendered a grassy green.

But study this structure for a bit and it becomes unsettling.

The building is split down the middle, as if it’s about to fall apart. And if the design has echoes of the familiar it’s because you may have seen something like it on the news: The piece is a scale replica of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in the Montana woods — except this one is painted in colors from Martha Stewart’s Signature paint collection.

The sculpture is a work by Los Angeles artist Daniel Joseph Martinez and it unites, in one fractured monument, the legacies of two highly recognizable American figures.

“One is Kaczynski,” Martinez says. “He believes that technology is a threat, so he blows up scientists — homegrown American terrorism. And there is Martha Stewart, who advances hypercapitalism.

“One sells us an illusion,” says the artist, gesturing at the bright citrus colors on his broken building. “The other sells us terror.”

“The House America Built,” as the piece is titled, is part of the new LACMA exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing,” which brings together artists from throughout the Americas who are using elements of the domestic (say, a cabin) to comment on larger social and political issues. In the case of Martinez’s shed, the state of the homeland.

“Home is a very broad concept,” says co-curator Mari Carmen Ramirez. “It’s something we associate with the everyday. But artists use it to communicate narratives that have been marginalized or repressed.”

Artist Daniel Joseph Martinez with his sculpture, “The House America Built” (2004/2017), inspired by the Unabomber cabin. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The show is the first of the Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America exhibitions, the regional series funded in part by the Getty Foundation, and more informally known as PST: LA/LA. “Home” is the early outlier in the series, which is set to officially debut in the fall, when an estimated 70 cultural institutions around Southern California will have programming related to Latino and Latin American culture.

This will include an exhibition about pre-Columbian societies at the Getty Center and work by avant-garde female artists at the Hammer Museum — as well as shows on Chicano muralism, South American kinetic art and historic illustrations of Latin American flora, among countless others.

Even the Los Angeles Philharmonic has gotten in on the action. The orchestra will present a series of concerts for PST: LA/LA featuring work by contemporary Mexico City composers. It will also collaborate with celebrated Mexican rock band Café Tacvba and L.A.’s La Santa Cecilia for a kickoff show at the Hollywood Bowl.

“Home is a very broad concept … But artists use it to communicate narratives that have been marginalized or repressed.”

— Mari Carmen Ramirez, curator

“47,547 Homes” (2009), by Livia Corona Benjamin, in the exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing,” the first of the Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America series. (Livia Corona Benjamin / Parque Galería)

If “Home” is a harbinger of what to expect for the rest of the series, it has set the bar high.

Few museum exhibitions synthesize currents in contemporary Latin American art. And the ones that do often center on questions of identity — be it ethnic or regional — or around a particular artistic movement, such as abstraction.

“Home” explodes that idea.

The exhibition features roughly 100 works by some 40 artists from all over the continent — including Latino artists from various corners of the U.S. And it shows the ways in which these artists, who span several generations (there are works dating back to the 1950s) have explored a range of global concerns.

This is not a show in which Latino artists just dwell on being Latino. It is about ideas: ones that flow from south to north and east to west and vice versa. The show engages issues such as colonialism, migration, inequity, vernacular construction (of the sort that powers many Latin American urban centers) and the ways in which architecture can serve as a tool of the state.

A second prominent sculpture by Martinez, for example, looks at how the urban design of cities such as Irvine, Calif., with their dead-end streets and gated communities, influenced the layout of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories in the Middle East.

“Israelis took the concept of gated communities, which are already militarized — it has cameras, it has security,” explains Martinez, “and they took those designs and militarized them even further.”

“There are shared histories of language and colonialism and what it means to be Latino or Latin American.”

— Chon Noriega, curator

“Boy in Suitcase” (2015) by Julio César Morales, from a series that examines the ways in which immigrants are smuggled. (Julio Cesar Morales / Gallery Wendi Norris)

“Home” was organized by Ramirez, a curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, as well as Chon Noriega, of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College. In conceiving the show, the three say they stayed away from the idea of doing a show that was “about” Latin America.

“Instead, we decided to set everything aside and focus on the works that had stuck with us,” Noriega says. “And the concept that emerged when we looked at those pieces was ‘Home.’”

Ramirez points to an installation of a dozen illuminated light strings by the late Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a 1993 work called “Untitled (North).”

“People think of it as minimalist work,” she says. “But really it’s about the lights that you see when you are headed north.”

In other words, the process of migration — the search for home.

“Políptico de Buenos Aires” (2014/2016), by the collective Mondongo, shows the disparities of wealth in the Argentine capital. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

The exhibition, as Ramirez observes, is not a strict chronological survey of important works by important artists. Instead, it functions more as “a constellation” — “putting works in dialogue with each other across generations and countries” in ways that connect on the level of ideas or materials.“We wanted to see what work talked to other work,” Noriega adds. “We saw work talking to work from other countries — even if they might be 50 years apart.”

A pair of wall-hangings by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, a U.S. artist of mixed Caribbean and Mexican heritage who made some of his key works in the 1960s, for example, hang adjacent to an installation by Colombian artist Leyla Cardenas, who has been active for just over a decade. Both pry apart domestic settings to examine their psychological and historical roots.

Ortiz’s pieces, which he labels “Archaeological Finds,” consist of dismembered furnishings that he pries apart in violent acts. Cardenas uses elements of old architecture to conduct what amounts to archaeological digs.

Taking slivers of a decaying 19th century house from Bogotá, she’s peeled away layers of wallpaper to reveal decorative elements dating back to the early republic. The structure was made of wood and adobe, in the Spanish style, but the wallpaper added after independence is English. It marks a moment in which Colombia was searching for a new identity apart from Spain.

All of this she presents as a 4-inch-wide slice of a room that looks like a laboratory specimen on an architectural scale.

“From a piece of the room, you can reconstruct not just the room, but the house and the city and the country and what was going on at any given time,” she says. “It fits with the show, which offers a transversal look at the concept of home.”

A carpet from Carmen Argote’s childhood home — titled “720 Sq. Ft. Household Mutations – Part B” — is on view at LACMA. (Carmen Argote / LACMA)

Other galleries tackle the urban realities of Latin American cities.

A 2014-16 sculpture — modeled on Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century Ghent altarpiece — by the contemporary Argentine collective Mondongo, for example, portrays Buenos Aires’ glittering downtown within view of the shantytown known as Villa 31. In the same gallery hangs a piece by Antonio Berni, also Argentine, who in the 1960s made assemblages out of detritus that chronicled slum life.

A couple of rooms over, a large installation by prominent Mexican contemporary artist Abraham Cruzvillegas explores the related idea of autoconstrucción, or self-construction. Cruzvillegas grew up in a squatter community outside of Mexico City in which everything was built, over time, by the residents. It offers an intriguing counterpoint to Martinez’s sculptures about Israeli settlements: the creation of home from the ground up rather than top down.

Also intriguing is the exhibition’s ready blending of the work of Latin American and U.S. Latino artists — breaking with a long-held curatorial convention that frequently displays the work of the two separately. (For much of its existence, for example, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach did not show work by Chicano artists.)

Representing the U.S. are figures such as Martinez, as well as Puerto Rican American Juan Sánchez, who explores the political status of Puerto Rico in his mixed media paintings (a timely subject), and Carmen Argote, a Mexican American artist from Los Angeles, who has turned the rug from her childhood home into a massive wall sculpture that plays with form and memory.

“Excerpts for John #4” (2012), an oil painting by Vincent Valdez in the exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing.” (Vincent Valdez / David Shelton Gallery)

In the museum’s gardens, an installation by Cuban American artist María Elena González examines the architecture of public housing in the United States. Her piece, looking like a giant magic carpet, depicts to scale the layout of the apartments at Nickerson Gardens in Watts.

As with other artists in the show, her concerns are as local as they are international.

Ramirez says that the historic divide between the Latino and the Latin American has historically had to do with issues of class. “Latin American artists are seen as citizens of nations,” she says. “Latino artists are seen as citizens of a marginalized group.”

But in the age of the Internet and globalized everything, the strict separation no longer makes sense — especially with Latin American artists pursuing degrees in the U.S., and Latino artists traveling to Latin America for exhibitions and residencies.

“For younger artists, they’re dealing with home as an idea of the transnational,” says Tompkins Rivas.

“There are shared histories of language and colonialism and what it means to be Latino or Latin American,” Noriega adds.

“There is so much back and forth,” Ramirez says. “You can’t really distinguish between the two. There’s a blurring.”

The show — along with others that will be part of PST: LA/LA, such as the Hammer’s “Radical Women”— is looking to close the gap between the Latino and the Latin American.

“Latino artists have had a low visibility in Latin American circles,” Tompkins Rivas says.

Curators Mari Carmen Ramirez, Chon A. Noriega and Pilar Tompkins Rivas stand next to a work by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres at LACMA. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The curators’ aim is to change that. “Our agenda,” Ramirez says, “is that over the next decade, that people see the affinities between these groups.”

“Home” represents an intriguing argument for the more nuanced ways in which U.S. institutions can present work by Latino and Latin American artists, whose representation in major museums is often weak.

“I’m excited for all of these exhibitions, for the attention they will bring to Latino and Latin American art,” Tompkins Rivas says. “It might convince museums to further integrate these ideas into their programs.”

For curators around the country, perhaps it’s a good time to pay Los Angeles a visit.


“Home — So Different, So Appealing”
Through October 15, 2017
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Info: www.lacma.org


By Carolina A. Miranda, Reprint from the Los Angeles Times, 15 June 2017, © 2017 Los Angeles Times

“Is this a golden age for older artists?,” By Thomas Marks

Franklin Bowling (British, Guyana-born; b. 1936): Fishes, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 38 inches. © Frank Bowling.


“”Is this a golden age for older artists?”

By Thomas Marks


One no longer need be young to be an emerging artist. The news that artists over the age of 50 are, for the first time since 1991, once again eligible for the Turner Prize partly reflects wider efforts to reassess artists who have been unduly neglected, often because their race or gender has excluded them from the dominant narrative of post-war art. But it is also a welcome reminder that, when it comes to art, innovation and potential are not merely the preserve of younger generations. Critics who have complained that the prize risks becoming a lifetime achievement award overlook the fact that, although lifetimes may share certain inevitabilities, their different rhythms of opportunity, experience and inspiration mean that they are otherwise far from uniform.

Take the case of Phyllida Barlow, selected at the age of 73 to represent Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale. In an engrossing recent profile of the artist for the Guardian, the writer Charlotte Higgins set out how Barlow spent decades squaring her time in the studio with the demands of raising a family and teaching at art school, and how her retirement from the latter has coincided with new prospects for her work. Only now, with the backing of a blue-chip gallery, does she have the freedoms of time, space and budget to produce large-scale sculptures. These are works that have an urgency, and even a poignancy to them, for having been made possible at this stage in the artist’s life.

Part of Phyllida Barlow’s installation at the British Pavilion in Venice. Photograph: Ruth Clark / British Council / Courtesy the artist / Hauser & Wirth

It is satisfying to know that the Next Big Thing is now just as likely to be an artist born in the 1930s or ’40s as one born in the 1990s. The new retrospective approach, combined with a growing critical interest in ‘late style’, allows us to assess bodies of work that have been produced over extended periods of time. We can view them at a distance from the expectations that we frequently impose on young artists.

In the case of Frank Bowling, interviewed in these pages, the growing institutional interest in the artist’s work ought to bring deserving public recognition to an influential figure who has long been respected by his peers, but whose specific artistic achievements have rarely been given their due. Reading about his sustained experiments with paint, which continue today, I wonder whether his most inventive work has not at least partly been made possible by a career that has, until now, largely developed at a remove from the more dizzying altitudes of the market.

It can only be healthy, I think, for artists in their twenties and thirties to look to the example of the growing band of ‘emerging’ older artists and realise that their comparative anonymity at this point, though it may dishearten them, is neither a conclusive judgement on their ability nor an impediment to future acclaim. This is hardly likely to mitigate the challenges that most artists face in making a living from their work; but it may dampen their craving for early success, which brings with it different types of pressure to perform in an art world (and market) that is not always as caring as it seems.

There is an element of cynicism, perhaps, in the race between big commercial galleries to sign up and promote artists who are nearing the end of their careers, and who may have much work in storage, but whose market has yet to be established. All the same, these businesses are to be praised for focusing their resources on lesser-known artists and giving them an unprecedented prominence. So long as conflicts between commercial and institutional interests are carefully managed, it is clear that private galleries can also support museum programmes in bringing unfamiliar artists to a far wider public. The new-found interest in centenarian Carmen Herrera, who last year had an acclaimed exhibition at the Whitney, seems to owe much to the efforts of Lisson Gallery.

The combination of youth and talent is not about to lose its allure. At Apollo we promote it – and are proud to do so – through the annual Apollo 40 Under 40 list, featuring artists who may be hot property today but promise to be established stars in the future. But I increasingly think about whether an Apollo 40 Over 40 might be just as optimistic, and even more useful.


By Thomas Marks, Reprint from Apollo magazine, 29 May 2017, © 2017 Apollo Magazine.

“Hokusai: the Great Wave that swept the world,” By John-Paul Stonnard

Thrilling seascapes … Hokusai’s Great Wave. Photograph: British Museum


“Hokusai: the Great Wave that swept the world”

                 ‘He called himself Old Man Crazy To Paint and made his best work in his 70s. As his dragons, deities, poets and wrestlers go on show, we look at the obsessions of the poster-boy for Japanese art’

By John-Paul Stonnard


Had Katsushika Hokusai died when he was struck by lightning at the age of 50 in 1810, he would be remembered as a popular artist of the ukiyo-e, or “floating world” school of Japanese art, but hardly the great figure we know today. His late blooming (the subject of an exhibition, Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, opening at the British Museum next week) was spectacular – it was only in his 70s that he made his most celebrated print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, including the famous Great Wave, an image that subsequently swept over the world. “Until the age of 70,” he once wrote (self-consciously parodying Confucius) “nothing that I drew was worthy of notice.”

It was a good boast but not quite true – he had begun his manga, woodblock print books of sketches that were wildly popular, in his 50s. They stretched to 15 volumes (the last three published posthumously), and covered every subject imaginable: real and imaginary figures and animals, plants and natural scenes, landscapes and seascapes, dragons, poets and deities combined together in a way that defies all attempts to weave a story around them. Leafing through the manga in the original or a facsimile is a mind-expanding experience, one that should be prescribed for all aspiring artists. In their observation and invention they have been compared to Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and rightly so for the thrilling panorama they provide both of the world and of Hokusai’s imagination.

If the manga made Hokusai’s name, the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (there are in fact 46 prints in the series) ensured his fame. Hokusai’s obsession with Mount Fuji was part of his hankering after artistic immortality – in Buddhist and Daoist tradition, Fuji was thought to hold the secret of immortality, as one popular interpretation of its names suggests: “Fu-shi” (“not death”). I saw the mountain for the first time last year, from the window of the Shinkansen bullet train. You quickly understand how it dominates the landscape, as the train curves around, revealing it over woodlands and cities, behind buildings, over the plains – and why Hokusai returned to it so often, like a pivot for his restless imagination.

Ejiri, Suruga Province, colour woodblock, early 1831. Photograph: British Museum

Fuji appears in Thirty-Six Views in many different guises, sometimes centre-stage, elsewhere as background detail. The first five in the series were printed entirely in shades of blue (a combination of traditional indigo and Prussian blue, a recently invented chemical pigment), suggesting views of the mountain at dawn, seen now from a beach, now from a neighbouring island, now as passenger boats and cargo vessels head out over Edo bay.

Hokusai gradually introduced colour into the series, delicate pinks and darker shadows, to show the illumination of the world as the sun creeps up over the horizon. The print Ejiri, Suruga Province shows early morning on a desolate patch of the Tōkaidō highway, Mount Fuji drawn with a single line, while in the foreground a group of travellers are struck by a gust of wind that sends hats and papers flying in the air. It is one of my favourite of the Thirty-Six Views. In Japan the best-loved print is Clear Day with a Southern Breeze. Included in the British Museum exhibition, an early impression of this print shows the delicate atmospheric effects of sunrise, lost in later printings probably made without Hokusai’s direct supervision.

Dragon in Rain Clouds, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 1849. Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Early impressions of the Great Wave, or Under the Wave off Kanagawa, are just as subtle in their colouring: atmospheric pink and grey in the sky, deep Prussian blue in the folds of the sea. Fishing skiffs are lost in the waves, while the great wall of water, with its finger-like tendrils, threatens to engulf both them and the tiny Mount Fuji in the distance. That the Great Wave became the best known print in the west was in large part due to Hokusai’s formative experience of European art.

Prints from early in his career show him attempting, rather awkwardly, to apply the lesson of mathematical perspective, learnt from European prints brought into Japan by Dutch traders. By the time of Under the Wave, the sense of deep space was far more subtle. The rigid converging lines of European perspective drawing become the gently sloping sides of the sacred mountain. In all other ways it could not have been further from anything being made in Europe at the time.

I would love to see an impression of Hokusai’s delicately coloured print hung next to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, painted just over a decade previously, in which a similar large wave is about to crash down on frail humanity. The contrast, and extreme modernity of Hokusai’s print, was certainly on the mind of those post-impressionist painters who so admired his work. You can still see prints by Hokusai, alongside Utamaro and Hiroshige, lining Monet’s dining room at Giverny; Rodin and Van Gogh were also enthusiastic collectors.

Hokusai signed his Thirty-Six Views with the name Iitsu, adding for clarification that he was “the former Hokusai”. It was common in Japan, as in China, for artists to adopt different names throughout their careers, marking different stages of life, and perhaps also as a way of refreshing the brand. He adopted the name Hokusai (“North Studio”) in his late 40s, when he became an independent artist, leaving his teaching job and striking out on his own.

By the time he created his second great tribute to Mount Fuji, three volumes comprising One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (in fact there were 102 views) he was using the artist names Gakyō rōjin (“Old Man Crazy to Paint”), and Manji (“Ten Thousand Things”, or “Everything”). There is indeed a spirit of crazy comprehensiveness to One Hundred Views, all the mad invention and curiosity of the manga combined with the exquisite technique of the Thirty-Six Views. Timothy Clark, the curator of the British Museum exhibition, describes One Hundred Views as “one of the greatest illustrated books” ever printed, and it is difficult to disagree. The drawings are brilliantly conceived, and the prints beautifully made, the woodblock carvers reproducing Hokusai’s line so accurately that we think we are looking at the drawings themselves, rather than carved and printed copies.

Sumo wrestlers by Hokusai, from a collection of woodblock print sketches begun in 1814. Photograph: Corbis via Getty

It’s important to remember that Hokusai was a thoroughly commercial artist, relying on a large turnover of sales of his low-cost prints and the many illustrated books he produced throughout his life. Despite his artistic success, he seems to have been permanently on the brink of bankruptcy, largely a result of financial ineptness. After the death of his second wife, in 1828, Hokusai’s daughter, Katsushika Ōi, returned to live with her father and provided him with support. Ōi was herself a talented painter and worked alongside her father in their cramped and messy studio.

An image of their situation is preserved in a memory-sketch by Tsuyuki Kōshō, one of Hokusai’s pupils, showing the master in rented lodgings, covered by a quilt, hunched over an ink painting on the tatami mat. Ōi watches him intently, smoking a long tobacco pipe. An inscription on the drawing says that rubbish was piled in the corner of the studio, food wrappings and other detritus. On the wall hung a sign: “We strictly refuse to paint albums or fans” – although you can imagine them taking on the work anyway.

The sketch of Hokusai with his daughter Ōi. Photograph: British Museum

The small handful of Ōi’s paintings that survive show her prodigious talent as an artist. Recent research has shown how she might have contributed to her father’s late paintings, which contain elements of her style such as elongated fingers, and depictions of beautiful courtesans (drawn from life in the pleasure district of Yoshiwara, if the 2015 anime film Miss Hokusai is anything to go by).

One of her most impressive paintings, Hua Tuo Operating on the Arm of Guan Yu, a scene from the Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, has a violent intensity and macabre quality quite unlike her father’s painting. Blood spurts from the arm of the general Guan Yu, who has taken nothing but a bowl of rice wine as anaesthetic, and continues with a game of go. It is one of the few authenticated paintings by Ōi, who disappears from the records following her father’s death in 1849.

Hua Tuo Operating on the Arm of Guan Yu, by Katsushika Ōi. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Photograph: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Kelvin Smith Fund

Set alongside his prints, Hokusai’s rarely exhibited late paintings – large hanging scrolls on silk and paper – strike a different note. The subjects are often fantastical: a great dragon writhes in a rain cloud rising above Mount Fuji; a seven-headed dragon deity flies in the sky above the monk Nichiren (Hokusai was a devout follower), sitting on a mountain top reading from a sutra scroll.

In small reproduction (the only form I have seen them in), they can appear a little like commercial illustrations, lacking the sense of emotional and atmospheric depth of his prints. A grinning tiger bounding through the snow, painted just a few months before Hokusai’s death, looks almost too quaint and jolly. All the more reason to make the journey to the British Museum and see them in the flesh. As with Hokusai’s prints, the real qualities of colour and surface, of detailed brushwork and painstaking construction, reveal themselves only on close and lingering inspection.

In his 80s, Hokusai was said to draw a Chinese lion or lion dancer every morning, throwing it out of the window to ward off ill luck. A number of these “daily exorcism” drawings still exist (probably thanks to Ōi running out to collect them up), and they are among his most lively and charming works. Hokusai’s only bad luck was to die 10 years short of his century, and never in his own mind to reach the state of artistic immortality, which he estimated would occur at the age of 110 when, as he once wrote, “Each dot, each line, will possess a life of its own.”

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave is at the British Museum, London WC1B, from 25 May to 13 August, and at the Abeno Harukas Art Museum, Osaka, from 6 October to 19 November.


“Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave”
May 25 — August 13, 2017
British Museum, London
Info: http://bit.ly/2qLGD47


By John-Paul Stonnard, Reprint from The Guardian, 19 May 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

“Everything I know comes from painting,” Interview with Markus Lüpertz, By Maggie Gray

Markus Lüpertz (German, b. 1941): Arcadia – The High Mountain (Arkadien – Der hohe Berg), 2013.  Courtesy the Phillips Collection.


“Everything I know comes from painting”

Interview with Markus Lüpertz

By Maggie Gray


It’s a dirty business,’ notes Markus Lüpertz (b. 1941) as he steps over sheets of paper strewn across the wooden floor. The top one bears the image of a nude viewed from behind, and is dusted with dark footprints. His studio spans the top floor of an outbuilding on art dealer Michael Werner’s 50-acre estate near Berlin, and is littered with the tools of his trade, along with some altogether stranger items. A stuffed crocodile broods in a corner, its back turned to a flock of taxidermy birds roosting in the eaves. A soldier’s helmet rests on a table. Near the doorway, weights and a punching bag lie on the floor, beside a clothes rail packed with long dark coats and a pool table covered in men’s hats. The artist moved here permanently last year, abandoning a larger studio in Teltow after a burglary: it feels like there’s unpacking still to be done.

Immaculately dressed and carrying his signature black cane, the painter heads to the far end of the room past strange, mute gatherings of the rough-edged classical figures that populate his recent works. We stop in front of an easel painting of a muscular nude on a grassy bank. To his right are quiet waterways and trees: to his left, the scene disintegrates and a skeletal figure peers out, painted in a viscous black. ‘If you take away one layer of the world, you see its skeleton,’ Lüpertz suggests through our interpreter, when I ask about it. At this point Michael Werner interrupts. ‘Maybe it’s useful to tell you the ongoing struggle with interviewers and Markus Lüpertz,’ he says with a half-smile. ‘If he could explain a painting he wouldn’t paint it. You’re probably used to well-educated artists who are prepared to give you any answer you want […] He is not this type. He’s complicated.’

For Lüpertz to be anything else would be quite a surprise. For decades he has been an uncooperative force in the art world; a self-styled dandy in the postmodern age; a fervent champion of unfashionable painterly traditions, whose work nonetheless speaks directly to contemporary anxieties. His paintings are packed with recognisable subjects, yet he insists that art is abstract. So complicated – and overlooked – is his substantial oeuvre that when curators in Washington, D.C. began discussing his first US retrospective, they wound up staging two, at the Phillips Collection and the Hirshhorn Museum, both of which open this month.

There was never any doubt over Lüpertz’s calling. ‘Everything I know and everything I am comes from painting,’ he tells me. Born in Liberec (formerly Reichenberg), Bohemia, in 1941, the artist fled as a child with his family to West Germany’s Rhineland. As a teenager, he attended the School of Applied Arts in Krefeld, supplementing his studies with stints in construction work and mining. A truncated period at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and a short spell in Paris introduced him to art history’s methods and masterpieces, but it was only on moving to West Berlin in 1962 that he found an artistic community in which he would flourish. ‘Berlin was a dried-out city after the war, but it rose from the ashes,’ he reminisces, about a place that he now finds disappointingly bourgeois. ‘The bars always stayed open, there was work to find, and you could afford it.’ He fell in with the group of artists – Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, and Jörg Immendorff among them – that gathered around Werner (who opened his first gallery in 1963) and quickly emerged as a force to be reckoned with in German post-war art.

Performance and conceptual art, which was gaining a following around Joseph Beuys, did not interest Lüpertz professionally, but the prevailing currents of 1960s painting – Abstract Expressionism and Pop – dissatisfied the young painter, too. In an audacious early series, the Donald Duck paintings, he crashed both styles together. Donald’s cartoonish features are hopelessly confused in a medley of expressive brushstrokes – and yet his presence there at all renders the ostensibly abstract idiom absurd. The duck’s demise emphasised a problem recognised by many painters at the time – the supposed incompatibility of representational and abstract art. The former was treated with suspicion because it could be, and frequently was, put at the service of propaganda and populism; but abstract artists, Lüpertz believed, were labouring under a misapprehension. ‘Whenever you paint something abstract the eye leads you to search for a figurative element, and vice versa.’ There had to be some way to reintroduce the subject without detracting from the painting itself.

Diamant–dithyrambisch (Diamond–Dithyrambic) (1965), Markus Lüpertz. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, London and New York; © the artist.

Lüpertz’s solution, and his first major contribution to contemporary art, was the ‘dithyramb’. Inspired by the fabled ecstatic chants of Dionysian revellers, he embarked on a series of paintings in which he worked obsessively over shapes and forms. In some cases, he built solid-looking, but nondescript objects intuitively out of patches of colour; in others, he worked in reverse, rehearsing and re-forming a simple motif until – like a word chanted too many times – it lost its original meaning. For one such series, Lüpertz took tents as his starting point. There can be no question over the ‘subject’ of the resulting paintings: canopies, poles, and canvas walls appear, in simple yet legible permutations, in every one. But their very obviousness transforms them. Subject matter established, the viewer can move on to notice the subtle illogicality of their shapes (many are as impossible as the architecture in medieval altarpieces), the intensity of their colours, the ambiguity of their contexts. The imagery acts as a way in to the painting, not a destination in itself – a tent pitched in the colour fields of abstract art.

Manner ohne Frauen. Parsifal (Men without Women: Parsifal) (1993), Markus Lüpertz. Image courtesy the Phillips Collection.

Perhaps the most sustained example of Lüpertz’s dithyrambic method is Men without Women (Parsifal) from the 1990s, a huge series of faces assembled from the sparest of pictorial elements – blocks of colour or networks of lines. It is impossible not to read their features as human, impossible not to see them as grids – and so we must hold both those possibilities in mind at once. ‘My generation lifted the dissonance between abstraction and figuration,’ Lüpertz explains of his breakthrough. ‘Both are possible […] That’s why we can paint so well today.’ He continues to work consistently and prolifically in series. Hundreds of drawings pave the way for dozens of paintings, each inflected by the last. The dithyrambs of the 1960s offered a promising modus operandi, which Lüpertz soon tested out on the most loaded subject imaginable at the time – Germany’s fascist past. His infamous German Motifs from the 1970s depict the uniforms and weaponry of Nazi aggression and the imperial symbols that glorified it. These were images whose significance was impossible to overlook – yet, true to his method, Lüpertz raked over and over them with the result that no particular message or moral could take root. InSinking Helmets, the discarded combat gear presses grimly into muddy painted ground, the monumental scale matching the gravity of the subject. In Helmet II the object rests menacingly on top of an army jacket, while in Black-Red-Goldit balances on a Roman-looking breastplate and chariot wheels stuck in the rutted soil. Germany’s tricolour flag was banned by the Nazis in favour of the imperial black, red and white, and only reinstated after the war. While artistically these assemblages resemble De Chirico’s surreal classical monuments, emotionally they feel like phantoms or, more troublingly, grim resurrections of a still unburied past.

Lüpertz was not alone in his choice of subject. Baselitz had already painted his broken Heroes; Kiefer was soon to publish his Occupations series, for which he photographed himself giving the Nazi salute. Their decision to grapple with Germany’s recent past meant accepting the uncomfortable intimacy that such gestures entailed; inevitably the work proved controversial. ‘There were bohemians, and the establishment’ in Berlin at the time, Lüpertz recalls. ‘The establishment rejected the works because they didn’t know how to deal with the German motifs.’

These paintings have become no less inscrutable with age – just differently so, as the Hirshhorn’s ‘Threads of History’ exhibition, dedicated to his formative years, makes clear. ‘What’s interesting is how his paintings acquire different meanings through time,’ curator Evelyn Hankins comments, explaining how the ears of corn Lüpertz painted at the time, for example, have largely shed their connotations with the ‘Blood and Soil’ rhetoric of the Third Reich and will be understood differently in the US. The exhibition concludes with a set of paintings started soon after the German motif works and named after Babylon – a comparatively remote subject at the time, which this year will surely harbour new emotional charge in light of the destruction in Iraq. Hankins describes the Babylon paintings as ‘the beginning of a retreat into history’ for Lüpertz. But if their political implications were less prominent, artistically they signalled an important opening out of his work.

Over the decades, Lüpertz has painted motifs culled from sources as diverse as fashion advertising, Romantic landscapes, and cubist still lifes. He’s created bodies of work devoted to specific classical heroes, and a series of Arcadias, which pulls them – or the motifs and statuary by which we know them – together in verdant settings. He has quoted directly from old and modern masters, honouring some of them, such as Corot and Dürer, with series of their own. Some of these allusions have the visual irony of his Donald Ducks – in Sleep/Prometheus (After Poussin) from 1989, a reclining figure from the French painter’s Echo and Narcissus naps under a blanket seemingly made by Mondrian – but the gesture of recognition is sincere. ‘I live within painting, and painters who have passed away live on in their paintings,’ the artist tells me. ‘Their work is relevant to me – up to date. I am in discourse with the paintings from previous generations, from my contemporaries, and from the future.’

This sense of the timelessness of art, with nothing off limits to the contemporary painter, is important. Over series and in single compositions, Lüpertz accumulates familiar motifs with the effect of making them more abstract, more fluid. In this context, the German motifs, which he never completely abandoned and includes frequently in recent pictures, take their place among shells, statues and skulls as modern memento mori – the rawest signs of Western culture’s long cycle through periods of aspiration, civilisation, and destruction. ‘There is nothing new in painting. It is a discipline [that] we are working within,’ he tells me. ‘Painting regenerates through the input of new painters – that’s why it is vital. The quality of painting is a given. We all fail [to meet its] high demands. The key is to fail on higher grounds.’ Several times during our conversation, he alludes to painting as something divine, existing outside of time. By extension, the entire, evolving art-historical canon might be seen as one long dithyramb in its honour.

For a man so staunchly committed to painting, Lüpertz has many creative side-lines. He’s a talented pianist (a C. Bechstein sits open in the studio’s anteroom), has worked on set designs, and since the 1970s has published his own poems. At the end of our meeting he hands me his latest book, Arkadien, illustrated with lithographs reminiscent of his paintings. When I ask whether he is tempted to experiment more with printmaking (his repetition of motifs, in different states each time, begs the question) he looks thoughtful. ‘I have only worked with it peripherally,’ he replies, ‘and it is still dependent on what I paint or sculpt. I’m in the process of developing a unique thematic for printmaking, to grant it independence within my oeuvre. My dream is Goya’s Disasters of War. It is the pinnacle of printmaking.’

Achilles (2014), Markus Lüpertz, installed at Michael Werner’s estate outside Berlin. Photo: Thomas Meyer; courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London; © the artist.

Of all Lüpertz’s creative offshoots, his sculpture is the most well known. He created his first works in 1981, ironically at a time when painting was enjoying a critical revival. (That year, Lüpertz participated in the Royal Academy’s  ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ where his work inspired a young Peter Doig.) ‘I created a world with a horizon,’ he tells me of his decision to experiment in three dimensions. ‘This world and the horizon needed inhabitants.’ Several of his sculptures lope through the estate, looking for all the world like they’ve stepped out of one of his Arcadias. Among them is Achilles, seemingly based on Rodin’s fractured Walking Man. This armless, athletic figure is roughly put together; his surface pockmarked; his dark bronze face painted to recall war paint and court makeup simultaneously. Like his paintings, Lüpertz’s figurative sculptures fuse a jumble of art-historical tropes with surprising coherence and grace. They are foolish heroes, or heroic fools, whose damaged forms express the trauma of the 20th century while acknowledging heroism’s enduring appeal.

In 2005, Lüpertz created a monument to Mozart in Salzburg. Gerhard Richter called it a ‘depravation’ of art and a few disgruntled locals tarred and feathered it. ‘I am not interested in provocation: I am part of society’, he tells me when I ask about the controversies that have peppered his career. ‘If society does not agree with what it creates, it is society’s problem.’ Lüpertz is clear in his belief that people have a responsibility to cultivate themselves. In the literature accompanying his 2015 retrospective at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne, he spells it out: ‘Painting is an abstract product, and it is only through the viewer that it tells a story. Painting does not educate the person looking at it, it does not provide lessons, but it takes the viewer seriously and ennobles him by assuming an intellectually emancipated world.’ As dean of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf – a post he held for 21 years until 2009 – he invited great artists not to teach, but to inspire, conceiving of the institution as a meeting place of receptive minds.

Is the next generation of artists up to the challenge? Lüpertz insists that there are great painters in every age, but perhaps the current one is not conducive to their success. ‘People are like puppets – always on their phones and computers,’ complains the painter, who owns neither. ‘Everything is controlled with little room for intelligence. But with the next war this will all be dealt with.’ It’s a provocative statement, particularly today, with nationalistic, racial and religious tensions on the rise around the world. I ask him what role artists should play in times of such uncertainty. ‘It’s not a problem for the artists, but a problem for all of us,’ he replies. ‘We must learn to live in peace, but up to today we have only managed to defend it. People are surprised by peace and degenerate the moment they achieve it. The degeneration is sold as freedom. And that freedom right now is very vague, because freedom demands intelligence and there is a world-wide shortage.’

At the end of our interview, Lüpertz is ushered downstairs by his studio manager, who wants him to make a few phone calls on the landline. I take the opportunity to look again at his work in light of all we’ve discussed. His classical heroes show the wear and tear of centuries – used to bolster one set of ideals, damaged or abandoned in society’s inevitable counter-movement – and the skeleton in the corner seems a fitting symbol of the violence underpinning it all. But then I look again. At the edge of one figure group, a yellow-painted grid lies visible on the surface. In another, a centaur’s human and animal halves are joined by a large block of black dots. ‘If you take away one layer of the world, you see its skeleton,’ Lüpertz said. But this is the world of painting, and its framework is different. There’s nothing to suggest Lüpertz will paint over his grids and leave the skeleton; nothing really to suggest he sees them differently at all. ‘I am curious about your interpretation, not my own,’ he tells me before I leave. ‘I can say something different every day.’

Markus Lüpertz (b. 1941) at his studio outside Berlin in February 2017. Photo: Thomas Meyer.


“Markus Lüpertz”
May 27 – September 3, 2017
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Info: http://bit.ly/2qly2EU

“Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History”
May 24 – September 10, 2017
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Info: http://s.si.edu/2qpdCXw


By Maggie Gray, Reprint from Apollo Magazine, 20 May 2017, © 2017 Apollo Magazine