Franz Kline

By Matt Carey-Williams, London   

A Franz Kline brushstroke is like a racehorse at full speed. His fluid, dynamic marks positively gallop across his canvas, simultaneously epitomising the energy and vitality of his abstract gesture, whilst still affording a scaffolding of structure and meaning. Kline arrived at his mature meditations of black on white in the late 1940’s. He was inspired by the de Koonings who suggested he break through something of a creative lull by experimenting with a Bell-Optican projector.

Amplified details of objects were projected on to his studio wall and Kline painted over them in these daring, brutal strokes of black. He never looked back and only a handful of his paintings would ever again embrace colour. By focusing on such an arrant display of startling tonal contrast, Kline was empowered as a painter to properly explore motion in a very condensed, even visceral manner. And that ‘motion’, of course, was noted both physically and psychologically; both aesthetically and conceptually. Meryon from 1960-61 is a very late painting by the artist and is now in the Tate Modern.

Muscular, chunky, calligraphic verticals soar upwards, suggesting an architectural thrust. Meryon represents something of a homophonic pun; Kline here refers to the French printmaker Charles Meryon, who famously made etchings of medieval Paris and its newly sprawling architecture (I cannot help but see Notre Dame in this painting). He also alludes to the Pennsylvanian town of Merion — home to the extraordinary Impressionist and modern art collection of Albert C. Barnes — which was a fast-growing urban centre and provided a swanky, chi-chi contrast to his own humble town of birth, Wilkes-Barre, which was but a couple of hours away.

Meryon is thus an anthem for enterprising construction — both present and past — yet still its signification slides in and out of several pockets of meaning. Content becomes process; process becomes object; object becomes concept. Concept is the content, no matter how concrete and materialistic the painting feels.

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Above: Franz Kline (American, 1910-1962): Meryon, 1960-61. Oil on canvas, 235.9 x 195.6 cm. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Dürer’s selfie

Albrecht Dürer (Germany, 1471-1525): Self-portrait, 1500

By Matt Carey-Williams, London

OK, let’s put our cards on the table here in Amsterdam. Yes, Rembrandt knew how to paint a selfie. Yes, van Gogh knocked up some of art history’s most poignant, self-effacing images of selfhood.

But, for me, the greatest self-portrait of all time is this bad boy, executed in 1500 by Albrecht Dürer at the age of 28. It is one of the treasures of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. So why so good? Well, that’s partly explained by the huge balls on this guy. So huge, in fact, that he presents himself not just as Albrecht the man; not just as Dürer the artist but as some higher being altogether. As, dare I say it, Christ himself. Now, portraits of Jesus in Salvator Mundi guise were usually highly symmetrical, sombre affairs. All frontal pyramids of luscious locks and steely gazes with giant glass balls. Such as here, where a porty, chestnutty tonality prevails and which offers no mortal demarcation of time or space. Are we on Earth? Heaven? Dürer, like Christ, stares directly at us, even raising his hands (which, if you look closely, make the shape of the letters A and D) as if he’s blessing us.

Whilst this is a selfie, you do still feel a little distanced from the artist, as if he’s acting out a role or wearing some kind of mask. The inscription above his monogrammed signature (AD as in Albrecht Dürer, but also as in anno domini, adds yet another layer of meta here, announcing to the viewer that this is a painting made by him of him with ‘everlasting colours’. His indelible palette, used to fashion his likeness, also, in turn, speaks of Christ’s divine immortality. And thus, maybe, of his. So Albs has a bit of a Jesus complex. Not the first time an artist would have that; nor the last. But this absolutely exquisite self-portrait remains one of art history’s most enigmatic images. Dürer liked to write often about his craft and practice, but of this painting he offered no analysis. That would have been far too earthly for something as out of this world as this fucking killer masterpiece.

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By Aldis Browne, La Jolla

The primary directorial and curatorial responsibility of any museum is art. Period. What, then, should be the responsibility of their governing boards – to address issues of the moment, or to consider what will best support the future interests of the institution?  

The legacies of enlightened exhibitions and collections will survive for centuries – donors and patrons soon become meaningless. Controversies over the actions of cultural patrons are nothing new. Originally, the New York Public Library was The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. According to A Short History of American Capitalism (2002) by Meyer Weinberg, “By the 1770s, alcoholism was growing among the Indians. Some historians, swept away by the romance of the fur trade, viewed the operation of the liquor-fed traffic with equanimity: Sensible fur men traded reasonable amounts of liquor for furs; foolish fur men depended heavily upon alcohol as a trade item.

When Kenneth W. Porter set out to write his standard biography of John Jacob Astor, a fur trader par excellence, missing from any records were all traces of large-scale purchases of whiskey by Astor’s American Fur Company. Silence told all. Brooke Astor’s support of the New York Public Library carried John Jacob Astor’s legacy into the 21st century. 

But Lenox and Tilden – who were they? James Lenox was a philanthropic bibliophile. Far better known than the man, Lenox is one of the stone lions that guard the Library (the other is Astor). The sculpted lion that bears his name is better remembered today than the fact that Lenox donated 85,000 volumes, especially bibles and atlases, to help create the Library’s collection.

Remember the Tilden scandal? Of course you don’t. Nobody does. Samuel Jones Tilden, a former New York governor, ran for President. He lost. Why? The ‘Cipher Dispatches’ scandal. According to Wikipedia,  “The NY Tribune claimed to have unearthed and decoded secret telegrams sent by Tilden’s agents at the height of the 1876 electoral dispute, apparently offering bribes to vote-counters in the contested states: $50,000 for Florida, $80,000 for South Carolina, and $5,000 for the single vote from Oregon.”  He was later vindicated. Nobody boycotted the library in protest.

In fact, museum protests frequently backfire. In 1987 New York artist Andres Serrano photographed a plastic crucifix in a glass of his own urine that he entitled Piss Christ. In 1989, a controversy over the homoerotic works of Robert Mapplethorpe forced Washington’s Corcoran Gallery to cancel a planned exhibit of his photographs. This resulted in the resignation of the museum’s director, Christina Orr-Cahall. Under the leadership of Senator Jesse Helms, the art of Serrano and Mapplethorpe was denounced by numerous congressional leaders. NEA funding for exhibitions including either artist was eliminated. Government support for the NEA, itself, was reduced. And the market for photographs by both artists was catapulted.

The career path of Corcoran Director Christina Orr-Cahall accelerated. She was appointed as CEO and director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. In 2009 she became the director and CEO of the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The Seattle museum at the base of the Space Needle was designed by Frank Gehry and endowed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Now known as the Museum of Pop Culture, it was renamed following her retirement.

Conversely, donations to the Corcoran dwindled until 2014 when the museum was forced to close. Like many museums, it was unable to deaccession art to support maintenance. Thus, Washington’s oldest independent museum was dissolved under a court order and its $2 billion collection was incorporated into the National Gallery of Art.

The Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma, the developer of OxyContin, a drug that has alleviated the pain of millions. It has also been widely abused, resulting in addiction and death. On March 6th, writing for Bloomberg, Katya Kazakina and Benjamin Stupples reported: ‘Artists Protest Sackler Family Through Museums That Bear Their Name.’

“Artist Nan Goldin, who has written about her “narrow” escape from OxyContin addiction and founded a group called PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to address the crisis, has been one of the family’s most outspoken critics. “We are artists, activists and people dealing with addiction who employ direct action as a platform for our demands,” according to the group’s mission statement. “We target the Sackler family, who manufactured and pushed OxyContin, through the museums and universities that carry their name.

“The Sacklers have no plans to discontinue their philanthropy. For more than half a century, several generations of Sacklers have supported respected institutions that play crucial roles in health, research, education, the arts and the humanities,” a spokesman for family members said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to support the vital work of these organizations and we remain dedicated to doing so.”

Last December, protestors called for Warren Kanders to step down from the Whitney. True, his tear gas had been used against migrants at the border. It is also used to control criminals, flush out terrorists and quell rioting.

Which will history perpetuate, Purdue Pharma or the Sackler families’ donations to the Met and the Smithsonian; Kanders’ company, Safariland, or the Whitney?

Spiraling costs, closing galleries and increasing challenges are today’s reality for artists even as museum patronage is challenged. If El Chapo were to endow a museum to support contemporary Mexican art, would this benefit the arts, or should it be boycotted? Think carefully before you respond.

Photograph: Yana Paskova, The Guardian

Franz Marc’s The Tower of Blue Horses

tower of the blue horses

By Matt Carey-Williams

The evolution of Franz Marc’s pictorial language is one that charts a journey from expressionism via Der Blaue Reiter and then funneled through Cubism and its sunnier dialects of futurism and orphism. Marc’s passion for animals — depicted as dynamically torqued vortices painted in a rainbow of hallucinatory colours — served to signify the social and political angst that so bubbled away at this time and which would, eventually, burst in to the sulphuric horrors of the Great War.

From 1910 through 1913, one witnesses Marc’s beasts become increasingly abstracted; their already amoebic forms experiencing a more intense transmutation into daggers of colour and shards of light. Such is the case with Marc’s masterpiece, The Tower of Blue Horses (1913). A tornado of four beefy blue horses charge at us out of the picture plane. Dynamic diagonals clash with equally virile verticals, eschewing depth and exacerbating compositional propulsion. The horses are made of latticed blue and white arcs, crescents and obliques and are set against a pulsating yellow, bleeding from the sky and raining down on a small village-scape like nuclear fallout, punctuated only by a rainbow. This most vivid of paintings is about fear. The fear of an impending war; the fear of death — a fear captured most profoundly in the hearts of that most Teutonic of subjects, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which Marc clearly alludes to here. But it is also about hope, which Marc saw the colour blue signifying and which is whispered in the distant rainbow.

Sadly, Marc’s fears were not unfounded given that he would die whilst serving for Germany in World War l. The whereabouts of this painting remains unknown. Originally considered degenerate, that status was revoked by the Nazis because of Marc’s ultimate contribution on behalf of his country. The painting ended up in Göring’s infamous collection and, since 1945, has never been seen. It was March 4, 1916 that Franz Marc died. He was 36.

— Matt Carey-Williams, London

Above: Franz Marc (German, 1880-1916): The Tower of Blue Horses, 1913.
Oil on canvas, 200 x 130 cm./79 x 51 in.




Contemporary Photographers and the Camera Obscura

Manhattan Bridge

By Laura Gardner Heyrman

In this digital age, many contemporary photographers are turning to techniques from photography’s early years. One of the most popular of these is the camera obscura. In this post, we’ll look at the camera obscura and five photographers who have created compelling images with it.

Above: Abelardo Morell (Cuban, b. 1948): Camera Obscura: View of the Manhattan Bridge, April 30th, Afternoon, 2010 © Abelardo Morell. Inkjet print; 60 x 75 in. / 152.4 x 190 cm

Illustration of the camera obscura principle, possibly from the 18th century

The camera obscura actually predates the invention of photography. Though sometimes called a pinhole camera, that term more properly refers to a device that uses photographic film to capture an image. “Camera obscura” means “dark room” and the device consists of a lightproof box or room, with a small opening through which light is allowed to enter. An upside-down image of whatever is outside the opening will be projected into the box. Mirrors and prisms can be used to re-orient the image and a lens can be installed in the opening to sharpen the image. The theory of the camera obscura was described as early as 500 BCE and experiments with the device are described by a number of authors as early as 500 CE. By the Renaissance, artists were probably using the images projected using a camera obscura as a drawing aid, since an artist could trace the image projected into the box. In the early 19th century, the camera obscura device was combined with light sensitive films or plates to create true photography. Our term “camera” for a photographic device derives from the name of the earlier device.

Contemporary photographers are using the camera obscura in various ways as part of their image-making process. An artist who has been working with the camera obscura for many years is Cuban-born American photographer Abelardo Morell. (image above) For Morell, the camera obscura has always been a means of blending interior and exterior. The use of a lens gives both equal weight in the final image. By photographing the projected image in works like “Camera Obscura: View of the Manhattan Bridge”, Morell conveys the sense of amazement that camera obscura projections often inspire.

giza-pyramidVera Lutter (German, b. 1960): Chephren and Cheops Pyramids, Giza, April 12, 2010
Gagosian ©Vera Lutter. Unique silver gelatin print; 14 3/8 × 21 1/8 in. / 36.5 × 53.7 cm

In contrast to Morell’s approach, German photographer Vera Lutter uses only the camera obscura and sheets of light-sensitive paper to create her images. Since she projects the image directly onto the paper, the image is negative – the light areas are seen as dark and the shadows as light. Many of Lutter’s images have a deliberately mysterious look, like this example created during a visit to Egypt in 2010. For Lutter, using the camera obscura and reversing dark and light are deliberate efforts to make the familiar seem strange.

china-bird's nestShi Guorui (Chinese, b. 1964): Bird’s Nest Stadium, 15 Jan 2008
Kunstmuseum Bern © Shi Guorui. Gelatin silver print; 4.5 × 11.25 feet / 137 × 343 cm

Like Lutter, Chinese photographer Shi Guorui creates images directly on light-sensitive paper, often huge sheets well-suited to his panoramic views of urban landscapes. This example is four and half feet tall and over eleven feet wide and depicts the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium constructed in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. Shi chooses places that play important roles in human life, but his long exposure times cause any moving objects or figures to disappear from the image. The resulting image, Shi believes, will make the viewer aware of the permanent and the temporary, of the past, the present, and the future.

Marja Pirilä (Finnish, b. 1957): In Strindberg’s Rooms 2, just when I walk here, 2017
Galleria Heino, Helsinki © Marja Pirilä. Pigment print: 44.88 x 57.48 in. / 114 x 147 cm

Finnish artist Marja Pirilä uses the camera obscura in a wide variety of applications, often constructing installations of the devices through which viewers can move. In 2015, the artist lived in a darkened room for six months, creating various apertures to turn her living space into a camera obscura. Pirilä says “The lens holes in the windows were an interface between the inside and outside worlds, just like the lenses in my eyes are the interface between me and the world. With that interface and light, the reflections of the outside world became part of the room, just like the world becomes part of me.” For “In Strindberg’s Room 2 – just when I walk here,” she photographed the camera obscura’s projected image, but moved into the image so that her body disrupts the camera obscura’s projection.

Robert Calafiore (American): Torre di Vetro (Glass Tower) 09.27.12, 2012
Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn © Robert Calafiore. Unique pinhole c-type print; 40 × 30 in. / 101.6 × 76.2 cm

American photographer Robert Calafiore uses a hand built pinhole camera to create his vividly colored still lifes and figure studies. His still life subjects, as in “Torre di Vetro (Glass Tower) 09.27.12,” are arrangements chosen from a family collection of glassware. In addition to exploiting the characteristics of his wide-angle lens and light sensitive paper, Calafiore’s long exposures allow him to manipulate the still life objects and alter the apparent colors and transparency of the objects in the final image. The unique prints that result from his efforts show what could never be seen by the naked eye and make the ordinary appear fantastical.

More by and about these artists:

Calafiore, Robert:
Lutter, Vera:
Morell, Abelardo:
Pirilä, Marja:
Shi Guorui: