Category Archives: Art Criticism

“Michelangelo’s Divine Magnitude and Picasso’s Parade of Power,” By Barry Nemett

Pablo Picasso, ’Curtain for the ballet ‘Parade’” (1917), tempera on canvas,1050 x 1640 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, © Succession Picasso, by SIAE 2017


“Michelangelo’s Divine Magnitude and Picasso’s Parade of Power”

‘The intimate drawings of Michelangelo Buonarroti and the largest painting Pablo Picasso ever made.’

By Barry Nemett


Recently, in two shows, on two continents, spotlighting two of history‘s greatest painters, sculptors, and draftsmen, I saw the biggest public display of drawings ever assembled by one, and the biggest painting ever created by the other.

The drawings (133 of them) are by the Italian High Renaissance titan, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). The mural-size painting (more than 30 by 50 feet) is by the 20th-century Spanish master, Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973).

“Parade” (1917), Picasso’s painted stage curtain for a Sergei Diaghilev ballet of the same name, is more than twice the size of the colossal “Guernica” (1937), his landmark anti-war statement of unmitigated suffering.

What could be bigger than tragedy? you might ask. The circus! The painting, with its winged woman in white balancing (sort of) on the back of a winged white horse, is “huger than the whole rest of the world.” as the awestruck little girl I overheard at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome proclaimed to her mom.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the minuscule was devouring the behemoth. Fingernail-scale examples of Davids wrestling Goliaths, Samsons wrestling lions, and other ink and chalk heroes wrestling other foes were busy stealing the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition, which includes more than 200 works, is brilliantly curated by Dr. Carmen C. Bambach. It is called Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (Nov. 13, 2017-Feb. 12, 2018), an apt title because Michelangelo comes as close to any artist, ever, to celebrating the sacred, whether he’s portraying an angel’s wings or a vulture’s.

Sure, there are near-life-size works, but for me the grandest, most impressive achievements in this exhibition are often no bigger than a thumb, or even a thumbnail.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” (ca.1510–11), red chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study, sheet: 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924

In his widely reproduced “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” (c.1510-11), from heads to fingers to big toes, there’s enough divinity to fill the Vatican. But the drawing is not about religion. On the Sistine Ceiling, the mythical Libyan Sibyl is massive, brightly colored, elaborately draped, and holding a great big book. And she’s a major part of a gigantic, gridded masterpiece loaded with figures. At the Met, subdued to a single color, it’s just her. Well, not even. Just details of her.

But that’s plenty. Here, we’re given access to the drawing process itself — the dance of a “divine draftsman” angling in close, leaning back, and circling around a pose as he blocks out his seemingly “uncomposed” composition.

A light touch here; heavy crosshatching there — human anatomy in hints and details. A floating hand fingering an ear; a torqued torso colliding with a face; a face dreaming about a torso dreaming about coiffured hair; a woman who looks like a man (or is it a man who looks like a woman?) — this female prophet, whose model was male.

There are extra lines; changes of mind; separations; morphings; the contours of a hip turning into an ankle; a darkly defined left arm, rib cage, and back echoing the movement of the more lightly toned forms below; three stuttering big toes, and near the center of it all, a serene bodybuilder performing ballet. For, what is a body without its dance? We can identify anatomical parts. But identification is where representational art begins, not ends.

In “Archers Shooting at a Herm” (1530-33) we identify a dozen or so youths. But where are their bows? Or their arrows and clothes, for that matter? (Actually, there are a few arrows.) The drawing’s abstraction makes the curious absence of weapons beside the point. What heart-racing joy it is to be immersed in the archers’ theatrics, the group functioning as a kind of single, singular, heteromorphic creature, kneeling and sprinting and flying, its many cocked and outstretched arms engaged in synchronized flapping.

Meanwhile, in the lower right-hand corner, perhaps lullabied by a chorus of swishing arrows, an angel sleeps. Is this Cupid, with his stage prop of a bow resting uselessly across his lap, dreaming what’s going on above?

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Archers Shooting at a Herm” (1530–33), red chalk; 8 5/8 x 12 11/16 inches, ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017, www.royalcollection.org.uk

The Cupid is a comma, not a full stop. The passage runs on — and flies — to the herm, which is a square column carved with the likeness of Hermes, used as a border marker in ancient times. Here, the archers are apparently using it for target practice. Arrows against stone? The herm has always struck me as a provocative non sequitur. Is it a holdover from an earlier sketch, a new thought for a subsequent one, part of a corresponding page now missing, or simply the kind of random thought that often worms its charming, doodly, sometimes sideways way onto an image where it doesn’t belong, yet somehow gets into the title? Or maybe it was meant as a whimsical stand-in for an arrow-ridden Saint Sebastian, serving to protect, superhero style, whomever or whatever is offstage.

There is no place for whimsy in Michelangelo’s “Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John” (1555-1564 ). Here, Jesus is flanked by staggering, Guernica-like sadness. What could possibly be more heartbreaking than a mother helplessly standing beneath her child as he slowly suffers an agonizing death? Mary is so traumatized she’s hardly recognizable; actually, but for the title, I may not have known she was there, dissolving like a teardrop. And Jesus and John: what a tour-de-force pairing. So much is said with so little, Jesus in physical and spiritual pain; John emotionally devastated. The difference between them is both subtle and stunning.

Jesus: his head is drooping, arms splayed, hands nailed to boards that are as angled as the letter V. Also angled is the rulered stem of the T-shaped cross that backs the Man of Sorrows. Multiplied by pentimenti, his arms seem to flutter like a broken bird. A spot of color on Christ’s foot connects the men — a metaphor for John’s outcry, and a final glimmer of life hanging from the cross.

I’ve previously seen this image only in books. Even in reproduction, there’s magic. Viewing the original could convert an atheist. Or suck every trace of joy out of life. Unless, that is, you love drawing, in which case a few ghostly marks and smudges can be transformed into rapture. Devastation and joy at once — there’s no limit to art’s magnitude.

Like the figures, the paper out of which they are coaxed looks intangible. Pure vapor. Did the artist sigh the trio into existence? After all, for Michelangelo, drawing feels as natural as breathing. Of course, I don’t really care to know how the people Michelangelo portrayed were born. There’s a want of wonder in life, and so, even if it’s hinted at, why not, like a child at a circus, simply lose ourselves in the miracle of a drawing that’s “huger than the whole rest of the world”?

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Three Labours of Hercules” (1530–33), red chalk, 10 11/16 x 16 5/8 inches, ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017, www.royalcollection.org.uk

Which, with a jolt, leads us back to Picasso’s colossal carnival curtain and the child’s declaration that it is “. . . huger than . . .” Though less hyperbolic in regard to “Parade” than it would be to most works of art, her appraisal gives free rein to her fantasy. Likewise, despite the generally naturalistic approach of Picasso’s visual language, as in the balletic “Archers Shooting at a Herm,” “Parade” is all theatrics.

If Michelangelo’s group of archers looks like a multi-limbed creature, in “Parade,” because of playful overlapping and the doubling of black-and white socks and slippers, Picasso’s awkwardly angled young man wearing a black-and-red diamond-patterned harlequin costume looks like he has four feet.

Circus is artifice and ambiguity. Accordingly, in “Parade,” the shuffle of illusion and reality abounds: the blue-shirted man sports a fake mustache; the fruit on the platter is fake, as are the awkwardly made tables with legs missing. The white horse sports fake wings, as does the footless acrobat in her white tutu. The woman in the tan bonnet, framed by what looks like a green canvas, is a painted portrait when we look only at her head and shoulders. She quits her canvas when we notice her leg, foot, and hand. The foal suckling beneath her mother becomes a symbol of the undercurrent of love and public intimacy amidst this closely knit cast of characters.

And then there’s the canvas itself, which totters between being a major painted statement and an intentionally awkward 50-foot sketch that, due to the coarse, porous material and the scrubbed or sponged-on paint, looks like a fresco when viewed close up.

Near the Palazzo Barberini, at the Scuderie del Quirinale, there was until January 21st a simultaneous exhibition, Picasso Between Cubism and Neo-Classicism: 1915-1925. Major paintings like “Three Dancers” (1925), “The Pipes of Pan” (1923), and “Two Women Running on the Beach” (1922) — capering like ballerinas — occupied the first floor of the museum. As the titles suggest, music and dance played a central role in many of these works.

Almost the entire second floor was devoted to the artist’s theatrically related drawings. A 20th-century Renaissance man, Picasso designed sets and Cubist costumes for a number of performances, designs that became as inextricable from their respective productions as Erik Satie’s music, Leonide Massine’s choreography, Jean Cocteau’s libretto, and, of course, Picasso’s art were to “Parade.“

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere” (1505–6), pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over stylus ruling and leadpoint, 20-1/16 x 12-9/16 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1962

With his Renaissance counterpart, the father of Cubism shared greatness and ambition, and a love for preparatory studies. Performers call these studies “rehearsals.” Visual artists call them sketches. For many of us, they are often just as rewarding — sometimes even richer — than what they lead to.

Size, texture and many other qualities affect an artwork’s feel and magnitude, especially when those qualities are pronounced. Scale augments both the grandeur and intimacy of Michelangelo’s “Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John,” and Picasso’s “Parade.” Viewed in books and online, they can fill pages and screens equally, although in reality, “Parade” is more than 80 times wider than “Christ on the Cross.” That’s one reason why, whenever possible, it’s important to see art in person..

Drawings and paintings have sizes. But there’s no limit to their magnitude.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 12.


By Barry Nemett, Reprint from Hyperallergic, 27 January 2018, © 2018 Hyperallergic Media Inc.

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“What 2017 Needs From the Art World: A Commitment to New Art,” By Jerry Saltz

Adam McEwen’s Harvest. Photo: Courtesy of Petzel Gallery


“What 2017 Needs From the Art World: A Commitment to New Art”

By JERRY SALTZ


Whether, with the dramatic change in our politics, a paradigm shift is in the offing or the opposite is happening (and things are just becoming more of what they already are), we need to ask where this leaves the art world? Not artists. I trust they’ll do whatever they have to do to adapt. And thrive. And make us see things we didn’t know we needed to see until we see them. Instead, I address the playing field where we encounter art and artists; close to home in time and space: the galleries and museums.

A change in curatorial tactics is in order; one that might fit the present better than the one that’s been in effect for a while. For the last decade or so we’ve been engaged in an intensive art-history rebalancing act. The post-crash years have been a period of a great looking-backwards to what was missed, passed over, undervalued, geographically shunted aside, or shunned altogether in generations before. Everyone was sifting through histories; rediscovery was the new discovery; course correction was the new staying the course.

This shouldn’t stop entirely. But by now this practice has tilted toward habit and obsession. (I’ve dished my share of it; harping on self-taught outsiders, calling for their integration into permanent collections.) Regardless, we’re now treated to endless numbers of articles in art magazines on the art and artists of the 1960s and 1970s (often written by the same authors who wrote them the first time around). Whole seminars, lectures, exhibitions, and sections of biennials are devoted to it. Museum shows abound. Ever crenulated iterations of the 1960s are explored; the tiniest axiomatic structures of the 1970s; every hypersecretion of performance is examined, documented, restaged. The 1980s are now getting similar treatment. It’s wonderful living in a privileged culture with the luxury of exhibiting what was missed or rejected the first time around; this Borgesian dream of making it all right some day. Yet, recent seizures in events suggest the atlas of the present is changing; chemical signals are different: chains of cognition altered. We no longer have the same surfeit of time for historicizing right now. Certainly not around the same period of the past.

I walk blocks of bigger New York galleries — smaller ones too — sometimes rarely seeing shows of the art of the now. People seem to feel safer thinking in the past tense. That is not what we need. As a critic, I need to make a commitment to the art of this moment; now. I want the art world as a whole to do the same. It is the only way to discern what so-called Art in this Age of Trump is. Part of the reason the 1960s, 1970s, and later the 1990s were such outstanding creative periods was that artists and galleries placed a premium on identifying ideas and art of the present. Identifying one’s own time so one could help change it was paramount. Of course there are downsides to leaving behind the archival, revival, and revisionist work, so much of which has been devoted to correcting the prejudices and oversights of the past. But we need to see what’s possible in the present from the present — not just the past. Supporting the present is a form of supporting one another, a way of paying respect to each other and our time. Thermal winds are shifting; convection currents are in motion. Any evasion of these movements in this actual moment strikes me as indulgent, self-abdicating, unwilling to engage ambiguity, uncertainty, or relinquish a sense of intellectual control.

Space is so limited in New York; every square foot, every month counts. And if small and medium-size galleries take regular chances on lower-priced, lesser-known artists, these spaces are placed in extreme economic peril, especially when things that don’t look like other things come with more risk than ever. If a gallery goes even three or four months with light sales or less-expensive art the gallery could go belly up quickly. If this happens en masse it will be a catastrophic loss of infrastructure having far-reaching repercussions, even placing all but the very top and bottom of the market in jeopardy. But lately I’ve wondered about a simple Darwinian value of just surviving. Just staying open or keeping-going doesn’t feel like much of a goal at all anymore.


By Jerry Saltz, Reprint from Vulture, 6 January 2017, © 2017, New York Media LLC.

“Modern art breaks free of the old borders,” By Jane Morris

Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress (1956), on display at Munich’s Haus der Kunst
(Photo: © Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association; courtesy of Haus der Kunst)


“Modern art breaks free of the old borders”
New generation of curators and patrons expands the canon to encompass the world beyond the US and Europe

By Jane Morris, 14 December 2016


Even as globalism appears to be going into reverse, major museums are pressing ahead with efforts to broaden the canon and internationalise art history. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York recently announced a gift of more than 100 Latin American works that will change the balance of its collections. Meanwhile, the Haus der Kunst in Munich (a non-collecting institution) is presenting one of the most important reappraisals of the post-war period.

Marwan Rechmaoui's Beirut Caoutchouc (2004-08), on show at the new Tate Modern (Photo: © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Marwan Rechmaoui’s Beirut Caoutchouc (2004-08), on show at the new Tate Modern (Photo: © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

“We have become habituated to seeing the history of post-war art through the lens of America and Europe,” says Okwui Enwezor, the Haus der Kunst’s director. “But there is a new reckoning happening in our field.” The Munich exhibition, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-65 (until 26 March 2017), considers the effect on art of the geopolitical transformations that followed the Second World War, from the liberation struggles of Africa to the divisions of the Indian subcontinent.

Museums including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Guggenheim in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) are also expanding their Modern collections to include work from Africa, Asia and beyond. In the process, they are changing the accepted version of Modern art history.

Curators identified the need to revisit the canon as far back as the 1990s, prompted by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil, and the rise of the internet and cheap travel. Now, museums are devoting unprecedented resources to the endeavour, at least partly thanks to wealthy patrons such as the Latin American art collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Pamela Joyner, whose stated mission is to put African-American abstract artists on the museum map.

The inaugural installation of the new Tate Modern, which opened in June, offers one of the most radical examples of this approach. Curators divided the collection into thematic sections, acknowledging a loose timeline but cutting across geographies. Carl Andre’s floor sculpture Equivalent VIII (1971), for example, is shown alongside works from the 1990s and 2000s by the Chinese artist Liu Jianhua, the Pakistan-born, London-based Rasheed Araeen, and the Brazilian artist Jac Leirner—all of which reference Minimalism and architecture—rather than alongside his fellow US Minimalists.

Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, says the initial decision to acquire work by contemporary artists from around the world “wasn’t really a decision—we just started acquiring”. But as plans for the expansion progressed, curators also began to reconsider art by earlier generations. “We started to realise, if we were rethinking history…how strange it was to only rethink part of that history,” Morris says.

In some ways, the Tate has turned a negative—its patchy collection of Western European and US art, which cannot match that of the Pompidou or MoMA—into a positive. Top examples by Cubists and Abstract Expressionists are largely out of reach, but this is less true of pioneering work from other regions. “We’ve a strong research project connecting Japan, Eastern Europe and Latin America through the framework of the Bauhaus, for example,” Morris explains.

The Tate’s strategy has been to set up a global network of acquisition committees. Morris describes it as a three-part process: securing the help of collectors with strong ties to the region, establishing curatorial networks—often working with in-country adjunct curators—and meeting artists.

Collective memory loss

MoMA’s challenge is rather different: to integrate new narratives into a stellar European and American collection. Ironically, the New York institution was an early advocate of global Modernism. Under its first director Alfred Barr, “the geographic and topical breadth was much wider than the clichéd version of our history now presents,” says Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture. Until the 1950s, the museum frequently acquired work from Latin America, India, Poland and Japan. “That focus was lost in the second half of the 20th century, and from the collective memory too,” she says.

Recently, MoMA has returned to its international roots, organising major surveys on the avant-garde in Japan, Eastern Europe and Latin America. This month, the museum will bring together 300 works in the exhibition A Revolutionary Impulse: the Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde (3 December-12 March 2017).

Behind the scenes, the big investment has been in C-MAP, a research initiative focusing on Asia, Eastern and Central Europe, and Latin American art, involving 50 members of staff. “The museum has committed a great deal of money and staff time to educating ourselves,” Temkin says. Unlike the Tate and the Guggenheim, MoMA does not have in-country adjunct curators. “We want the expertise locked into the fabric of our museum,” she explains.

However, MoMA occasionally recruits specialists. Luis Pérez-Oramas has been its curator of Latin American and Caribbean art for the past decade, a post funded by the collector and art historian Estrellita Brodsky—signalling the willingness of wealthy patrons to drive the agenda forward. “We are part of a much bigger circle of art historians who are realising that the linear narratives that were satisfying to previous generations are not satisfying to us,” Temkin says.

Going local

Lacma’s director Michael Govan says that the local audience was a major driver in the museum’s push to diversify its collection. “During the 60s, 70s and 80s, we were a local museum, and we did the first shows of local artists, like Robert Irwin and Ken Price. As Los Angeles has grown and diversified, we’ve tried to keep pace.”

Reflecting the city’s large Hispanic population, the museum has built a substantial programme devoted to Latin American and Latino art. Now, the emphasis is on Korean and Chinese art, too. (California is home to the largest Korean-American and Chinese-American populations in the country.) In 2019, Lacma will present the first survey of Korean calligraphy outside Korea, spanning 2,000 years.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art re-opened in May with a presentation of the biggest names in American and European Modernism, thanks to the Fisher collection. But its photography holdings are more global. Highlights from its collection of post-war Japanese photography are on show until 12 March.

Audiences’ reactions to this new approach are difficult to measure. Still, in cities as diverse as London, New York and Los Angeles, visitors are likely to be receptive. How this new art history will play to the heartlands of Trump and Brexit is a more complicated question.

New frontiers: who is collecting what

Sharon Neshat's Speechless (1996) (© Shirin Neshat, courtesy of Gladstone Gallery; photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Sharon Neshat’s Speechless (1996) (© Shirin Neshat, courtesy of Gladstone Gallery; photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Middle East
Lacma is building up a significant collection of Middle Eastern artists to complement its historic Islamic collections. Recent acquisitions include works by Shirin Neshat, Abdulnasser Gharem and Youssef Nabil. It is also focused on buying work by Iranian artists ahead of a 2018 show.

Magdalena Abakanowicz's Embryology (1978-80) (© the artist; photo: Marcus Leith; courtesy of Tate)

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology (1978-80) (© the artist; photo: Marcus Leith; courtesy of Tate)

Eastern Europe and Russia
Tate’s current hang shows commitments to Eastern European women, including the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz and Romanian performance artist Ana Lupas. It is also focused on early 20th-century Eastern European photography and the Moscow Conceptualists. MoMA has focused on Fluxus and is currently researching Russian art.

Sam Gilliam's 10/27/69 (1969) is in MoMA's collection (Photo: courtesy of MoMA)

Sam Gilliam’s 10/27/69 (1969) is in MoMA’s collection (Photo: courtesy of MoMA)

African-American art
Both the Tate and MoMA are seeking to expand their holdings of Modern works by African-American artists, including Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten and Norman Lewis. The Tate curator Mark Godfrey is planning a major exhibition of work by 1960s and 1970s African-American artists next year.

Instant Mural (1974) by the Asco collective (© Asco; photo: Harry Gamboa Jr; courtesy of LACMA)

Instant Mural (1974) by the Asco collective (© Asco; photo: Harry Gamboa Jr; courtesy of LACMA)

Latino art
Lacma has focused on Chicano artists, including the Asco group. Recent acquisitions include works by Laura Aguilar, Ruben Ochoa and Mario Ybarra. With the launch of the Getty-funded initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA in 2017, which focuses on Latin American and Latino art, interest is likely to spread.


Reprint from The Art Newspaper, 14 December 2016, © 2016 The Art Newspaper