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"Simulating Iraq" at the Wadsworth Atheneum

Posted by Sebastian Smee February 13, 2012 12:36 PM

04212010_21galler2.jpgClaire Beckett's riveting show, "Simulating Iraq" is entering its final weeks at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT. My colleague Cate McQuaid already reviewed this haunting body of work when it showed at Boston's Carroll and Sons last year. But I wanted to draw attention to it again because, ever since I saw it at the Wadsworth in January, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind.

There's nothing ostensibly tricky about Beckett's photographs. They're straightforward, in the clinically objective tradition of photographic portraiture that runs from August Sander through to Thomas Struth and Rineke Djikstra.

It's the setting that is the source of their uncanny power.

Beckett went through god knows what bureaucratic hurdles to gain access to military bases in the US that are used for training troops who were soon to be deployed in Iraq. To that end, they fabricated whole Iraqi towns, and employed Americans - both civilians and soldiers - to dress up and engage in role play in various training exercises.

11252011_25pattismith1.jpgThe situation could hardly be more loaded, more culturally and psychologically complex. But Beckett, to her credit, has resisted the urge to "go to town," as it were, with her extraordinary material. She has opted instead for a very pared back and cool aesthetic, taking frontal and more or less expressionless portraits of US citizens dressed up as Iraqi women, or soldiers traumatised by injury. Still lifes, too, of, for instance, raw meat on display in an "Iraqi" butcher shop.

It's all incredibly strange and disconcerting, and one is caught between the impulse to marvel at what Becket is letting us see (This is what they do? How they prepare? It's like a theme park, an exotic reality TV show set!) and to marvel at the way she reveals it: coolly, evenly, without any editorializing of any kind. 

The result is a kind of double awareness that's not so very far removed from the awareness you get in Rembrandt's great portraits of local Dutch denizens (including himself) dressed up as ancient potentates or Biblical saints, or of Velazquez's real models dressed up as figures out of Greek mythology.

Like those great artists, but in an electrifyingly up-to-the-minute context, Beckett's photographs convey a dizzying sense of falling through fictions. Where does game-playing begin? Where does it end? You can't say for sure. But amid so much fakery, being employed as a vaccination against an imminent overdoes of reality, those eyes staring out at us have an extraordinarily heightened claim on us.

Claire Beckett. Matrix 163. Simulating Iraq. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, through March 4.

Pop-Up Books at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Posted by Sebastian Smee January 3, 2012 03:23 PM

Here is an image from a delightful exhibition of pop-up books at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The show, called "Pop-Up! The Magical World of Movable Books," runs through April 22.

Poohs_Enchanted_Place.jpgIt includes this page from a Winnie-the Pooh book (left). The image below is from a Pinocchio pop-up (the possibilities seem immense). Pop_Up_Pinocchio.jpg

It coincides with a show I have reviewed for this Friday's Globe (January 6), called "Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey." Curious_George_Pop_Up.jpg

So it is fitting that one of the books (see below) is a pop-up Curious George.

Sir Anthony Caro pays tribute to Helen Frankenthaler

Posted by Sebastian Smee January 3, 2012 02:43 PM

Helen Frankenthaler, who died last week, was a close friend to both Sir Anthony Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling.

ROOF09952.jpgWhen I was writing up Frankenthaler's obituary for last Tuesday's Globe, I tried to get in touch with Caro, whom I had interviewed for The Art Newspaper a decade ago in London. That interview was at once one of the most humiliating experiences of my professional life and one of the most gratifying.

On the appointed day, we had a long and freewheeling conversation at Caro's studio in London. But when I got home, I discovered (classic journalist's nightmare!) that my dictaphone had been on a setting (VAS) that rendered the entire interview incomprehensible gobbledegook, like the climactic moments of a seance played backwards.

My skin went all prickly. My stomach dipped, and kept on dipping. I was crushed.

What could I do? A whole page was going to be empty if I didn't produce the goods. I called Caro's studio. I told him the truth. I was profusely apologetic.

He didn't hesitate. "Come back, come back tomorrow!" he said.

When I did, Caro, the world's most famous and critically acclaimed living sculptor, didn't just go through the motions: he gave me more time on the second run than I'd had on the first - about two hours, and a tour of his studio and latest work to boot.

An incredible experience. I'll never forget it.

Caro was unavailable when I called last Monday to speak about Frankenthaler. But today I received an email which strikes me as incredibly touching. It didn't make it in to the obituary, so I copy it in here in full:

12282011_28frankenthaler_photo3.jpg"Helen Frankenthaler who died over Christmas was the first of the generation of colour-field painters who took up the baton of New York abstraction from the Abstract Expressionists. Staining onto raw unprimed canvas her paintings had a grandeur of ambition achieved by a seemingly direct contact between eye and hand. She used to say "it's all in the wrist" but this was informed by supreme confidence and faultless taste.

"On one occasion for about three weeks she made a group of steel sculptures in my London studio. It was a revelation to witness her at work making decisions with certainty in a medium new to her. She knew when to walk away from a piece. She allowed it to breathe.

"She was a dear friend to my wife and me for half a century. Her openness both in respect to her work and on a personal level was refreshing. From our earliest days in New York we were recipients of her generosity. She had an inner richness and she knew how to give.

"She was a beacon to young artists especially to women. She had no axe to grind: she took her place naturally among the greats. Six months ago in London she was elected an Honorary Royal Academician by unanimous acclaim. It was a measure of the high esteem in which she is held internationally. Her work continues to delight and inspire those who love art.

Anthony Caro, 28 December 2011"

Reflections on Trisha Brown Dance Company at the ICA

Posted by Sebastian Smee November 15, 2011 11:57 AM

ica_brown3_lg.jpgWatching the Trisha Brown Dance Company perform at the ICA on Sunday afternoon, I was put in mind of the performance artist Stelarc's definition of "awareness" as "that which occurs when the body malfunctions."

Brown's dancers were not malfunctioning - they knew exactly what they were doing. But Brown's choreography, it seems to me, is all about breaking down conventions of choreography and classical movement, causing the old forms, the old patterns, to "malfunction" as such. Some new order emerges, some new form of awareness.

If it's true, as someone once wrote, that "there is nothing in the understanding that was not first in the muscles," Brown's dancers are, as far as I'm concerned, sages.

Inevitably, the absence of music from two of the four dances performed by the company over the weekend (Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoon) only enhanced the sense of acute awareness I'm talking about. In one of the two dances which did feature music ("Foray Foret," 1990), the sounds came from a marching band positioned somewhere off stage. The music, played by the Lexington Marching Band, was now distant and muted, now closer and louder. Sometimes it ceased altogether, but the movements of the dancers on stage continued, and this disjuncture - between music and dance, between presence and absence - was its own kind of malfunctioning, and played its own part in sharpening one's awareness.

I loved the tension in the dancers' movements between taut, linear lines, and a sense of physical unraveling, between balance and collapse. The relationship between these and other opposites created unexpected, syncopated rhymes and near-rhymes, and as I watched I thought of analogies with visual art.

ica_brown5_lg.jpgNot just the old contrast between the order of classicism and the fragmented aesthetic of modernism, but between, in photography, the idea of the "decisive moment" (as in Henri Cartier-Bresson), which art critic Peter Schjeldahl once defined as "an instant of poise in which the past, as blind preparation, pivots and becomes the future, as all-seeing consequence," and the "indecisive moments" captured by Robert Frank in "The Americans."

Schjeldahl describes Frank's photographs as "congested zones of incomplete preparation and undeveloped consequence - 'like life' and 'like America,' to an excruciating fullness of inarticulate, sorrowing symbolization." (Do I wish I could write with Schjeldahl's concision and insight? All the time.)

Brown's dancers captured exactly this sense of "congested zones of incomplete preparation and undeveloped consequence." It felt 'like life,' yes, and - my heart all in confusion - I fell in love with I knew not what as I watched.

Certainly, I had a sense of an inherited language malfunctioning, and of new forms of awareness spurting out, like leaks from clogged and pressurized pipes.

"Dance/Draw," the ICA show which provided the occasion for Trisha Brown's visit to Boston, is full of such moments of new awareness bubbling up as old languages break down. The show, organized by Helen Molesworth, could so easily have been brainy and pedagogical - an undergraduate primer on a relationship between two media - but it's not: There is something unexpectedly heartfelt in the results.

Here, then, since I'm in such a quoting mood, are a few beautiful articulations of the merits of inarticulacy to end with:

"What moves me is the irregular form - the flawed words and stubborn sounds- that affect us whenever we try to say something that is important to us." John Ashbery

"No, incorrect and careless chatter/ words mispronounced and ill-expressed/ evoke emotion's pitter-patter,/ now as before, inside my breast." Pushkin

"Today I noticed that in the big picture I'm doing I was using my brush for absolutely anything. I was amused by it because I was doing something rather delicate and I not only had the big brush but it was all silted with paint. It's like people shouting and using any old word because somehow the way they are shouting will get through. If you know what you want you can use almost anything. An ungrammatical shout is no less clear. It's to do with the urgency." Lucian Freud

Artists do it better: Judy Cotton on Degas

Posted by Sebastian Smee November 15, 2011 11:11 AM

10052011_05degaspicone.jpgRule of thumb: Artists - good ones, anyway - are almost always more interesting on the subject of art than art critics. Not all of them, though, can write as well as Judy Cotton, a terrific artist (and fellow Aussie) who lives with her American husband Yale Kneeland in Lyme, Connecticut.

Cotton and Kneeland came through Boston the other day to see the "Degas and the Nude" show at the MFA, and Cotton wrote about it the next day in an email she sent my way. I reprint most of what she wrote here, with her permission:

"Some of the early drawings were so earnest that it was heartrending, the... effort so palpable. He may have started out with Puvis [de Chavannes] but clearly dropped his hand early on. Having drawn the nude so many times myself I would like to say that one contorts the nude to see what the figure is capable of doing, so the contortions that other critics have made so much of seem exactly what I might have done myself. It is also true that there is no more beautiful part of human anatomy than the long line of a woman's backbone.

"So for me Degas's 'feelings about women' were irrelevant to most of the works. The nude was simply his tool, the question he was asking his paper or canvas, the instrument for using his pastels, charcoal, pencil, chalk, paint in that wonderful feathering stroke. Some of the background details were exquisite little abstracts in and of themselves.

10052011_05degas_photo3.jpg"It was clear too, that just as de Kooning used Picasso as his dictionary, so Matisse used Degas. Would we have had 'The Red Studio' without that late rose/red nude (title escapes me)? So it was a voluptuous pleasure as an artist to see such works realized so brilliantly, the line that turned just where it should, the sudden eruption of coloring or not.

"The monotypes were, I think, the beginning of a kind of true realism. One could smell the sperm to put it bluntly, and with each piece one slipped into the habits and manners of that century not turning aside from any of it.

"His personality, anti-Semitism, feelings for and about women seem irrelevant to me. These were his true pictures, not the dancers, and race horses, the ones for making money. So he was a realist when he worked with nudes in the true sense and we see that from the photograph of him toward the end.

"But what a happy shock to face Matisse's 'Carmelina' at the end, propped up by those two bold black stripes that he used so often throughout his whole career to structure his paintings.

"So I think that Degas mastered the nude, but as an artist, not as a sexual being.

"The sculptures just didn't do it for me, they seemed like the drawings rendered solid but without due cause, he didn't seem to learn anything from them the way Matisse's sculptures worked for him, or Picasso's for that matter."

Dancing the days away in Boston

Posted by Sebastian Smee October 19, 2011 05:28 PM

Brown_Forest.jpg"Dance/Draw" at the Institute of Contemporary Art is the contemporary show of the year. It's smart, it's engaging, and it pulls together lots of ideas in joyful, exuberant fashion.

But it's more than just a show, and part of the pleasure, now that it's up, is thinking about - and anticipating - the show's many links with ideas, shows, and events outside the show proper. It's worth noting, for starters, the rich program of dance performances the ICA has organized in conjunction with the show. They're being staged each Friday and weekend all through November. Put 'em in your diary:

November 4, 5 and 6 (at different times): Jerome Bel's "Cedric Andrieux," a solo performed by Andrieux and choreographed by Bel, weaves together dance and reflective monologue to tell the story of the dancer's collaborations with Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Bel himself.

November 11, 12, and 13 (different times): the Trisha Brown Dance Company performs a series of highlights form their history, from 1978 to 2011. Should be superb.

November 18, 19, 20 (different times): the premiere of a collaboration between sculptor Sarah Sze and choreographer/performer Trajal Harrell called "The Untitled Still Life Collection."

There are other promising things this month, too - including a performance by New York-based dance company, Gallim Dance (Oct 21 and 22) and (on October 23) an evening with Baaba Maal, the Senegalese singer and story-teller.

I'm looking forward to all of this - or as much of it as I can get away to see. But I'm also enjoying thinking about the connections between "Dance/Draw" and "Degas and the Nude" at the Museum of Fine Arts, and also the DeCordova's brilliant show, "Temporary Structures: Performing Architecture in Contemporary Art."

"Degas" includes a number of drawings of naked dancers, so that's an obvious connection. And it's worth noting, too, that it opens at the same time as "Degas and the Dance" at the Royal Academy in London, co-curated by an ex-dance instructor, Jill DeVonyar (the catalogue is a must).

"Temporary Structures," meanwhile, speaks directly to "Dance/Draw" - both shows are concerned with how movement relates to space, which is a dull way of generalizing about a lot of exciting and very diverse work - and even shares two of its artists, the dynamic dance and performance duo who call themselves robbinschilds. Their works are brilliant, and often hilarious.

See all these shows if you can, and as much of the associated extra-curricular activity as you can manage! Exciting times...

To buy Caillebotte, MFA sells Monet, Pissarro, Gauguin, Renoir. Good decision?

Posted by Sebastian Smee September 23, 2011 04:38 PM

08_Man at His Bath.jpgOn 9 February, 1897, Paris's Musee Luxembourg - a repository for French paintings acquired by the state but not yet promoted to the Louvre - opened a new addition. It was called the Caillebotte room, and in it were installed Manet's "Olympia," Renoir's "Young Girls at the Piano," and a collection of Impressionist paintings bequeathed to the French state by Gustave Caillebotte.

It took a lot of wrangling to get the state to accept these works, which are now, of course, among its most prized possessions. Among those pushing for their acceptance - and on advantageous terms, so that they would be displayed, not dispatched to storage - were Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, both of whom were represented in Caillebotte's collection.

Three years earlier, while the conditions of the bequest were still the subject of controversy, Caillebotte himself was given a posthumous retrospective at the Galerie Durand-Ruel. Renoir and Monet both helped in the selection and display of the works. A few sold, and, thanks to Renoir's intervention, Caillebotte's masterpiece, "The Floor-Scrapers," was accepted by the state as part of his wider bequest.

But most of Caillebotte's work was returned at the end of the exhibition to his family and friends, among them Degas, Monet, and Renoir. He sank into obscurity for about 70 years, and even today - when his best works are recognized as masterpieces of the period and fetch huge prices - his name is not well known by an otherwise Impressionist-adoring public.

2.jpgAll this background adds layers of intrigue - and perhaps a distant irony - to the Museum of Fine Arts's decision, which I reported in the Globe on Monday, to sell works by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Gauguin, Maufra and Vereshchagin, in order to raise the necessary funds to buy a single painting, "Man at His Bath," by Caillebotte.

The reaction in some quarters has been dismay. They're going to sell a Monet?! A Re-noir? A Gauguin? A Pissarro? Two Sisleys? All to buy one picture of a naked guy drying himself by... by whom?!

Similar tut-tutting has been heard from commentators who watch the museum world closely and tend to disapprove of this kind of deaccessioning, seeing it as a slippery slope.

Count me, however, among the yea-sayers.

I believe the MFA has made a difficult but courageous choice. The upshot, if all goes to plan, will be good not just for the MFA but for the rest of us. A great and rare painting by a fascinating figure and a deeply rewarding artist has entered one of the world's great public collections.

Meanwhile, a smattering of wealthy collectors will get the pleasure of living with - and no doubt showing off - some fine but not quite first-rate paintings that have not been on public display since at least 2003.

This last thought, of course, is what distresses many people. And it's easy to see why: Transferring works of art by famous names from a public museum to private hands (assuming the buyers keep their acquisitions and don't end up giving them to museums) is never easy to contemplate.

But in cases like these, I think, it's important to be realistic, and not to take refuge in principle. (Principles are fine, but they have a habit of short-circuiting active thought and judgment).

4.jpgFirst of all, consider the MFA's Impressionist holdings. They are, to put it mildly, strong. When I first moved to Boston just over three years ago, my home town, Sydney, was all abuzz about the arrival of dozens of Impressionist works by Gauguin, Pissarro, Sisley, and Renoir, all of them on loan from - guess where?

The MFA. The traveling exhibition included no less than 29 Monets.

Twenty-nine, all down there on the other side of the world!

And yet I didn't hear anyone in Boston complain about missing them. Why? Probably because if you walked into the Impressionist gallery at the MFA, there, hanging on the walls, were still as many first-rate Monets as anyone could rightly hope to see.

So yes, there's some depth there. But it is also true, as George Shackelford, the chair of the MFA's Art of Europe department, said, that the collection is a little lop-sided.

Reflecting the taste of Bostonians who were in a position to buy Impressionist paintings at the time, the paintings in question tend to be rural, not urban. That's fine. Impressionists did rural, and semi-rural - the spaces between town and country - very well; it's one of the reasons we love them.

But as scholars over the past 40 years have been eager to impress on us, Impressionism was not one thing: it was many. There's more to the story.

Enter Caillebotte.

3.jpgHe was not as great a painter as Monet, nor perhaps as tenacious as Pissarro, nor as inventive as Gauguin. As Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian and curator who did so much to rehabilitate his reputation in the 1970s and 80s, admitted: "His career was uneven and relatively brief... He had neither Edgar Degas's skills as a draftsman nor Monet's as a colorist, and his development was not as extensive as those of his fellows."

And yet, continued Varnedoe, "I would value any one of Caillebotte's best works... as a more important, original, and rewarding painting than any Pissarro, all but a handful of Renoirs, and a fair number of Monets from the same period."

Varnedoe does not list "Man at his Bath" among those best works. But I believe that it belongs with them. So much about it persuades: its scale (almost life-sized), its conception (heroic intimacy! quotidian nobility! stabilized vigor!), its execution (the surface is alive, the light beautifully rendered), and above all, its air of truth triumphing over idealization.

This last quality is fundamental not just to the story of advanced 19th century French art, as it moved from neo-classicism and romanticism through realism and into Impressionism. It is one of the central threads running right through the whole history of art, beginning with the Greeks and continuing into the art of today.

Caillebotte's painting is a tiny but by no means negligible part of this tremendous story. It has a precious quota of awkwardness. It feels raw - somehow not insulated, not protected from our greedy, inquisitive eyes. That is part of what makes it so compelling.

Of course, Caillebotte didn't have to paint a naked man drying himself after a bath. His decision to do so - or to do it in anything like this way - was more or less unprecedented. But he chose to.

He didn't have to shift the man's weight slightly off to one side - it makes him look clumsy! - but he chose to.

5.jpgHe didn't have to show one towel, wet and crumpled on the floor, or a pair of empty boots off to the side, or a dark shadow suggesting the presence of the man's scrotum. But all this suited his purposes, which I like to think of simply as truth-telling (which is different in important ways from prurience and voyeurism).

But by the same token, it's not all down-at-heel, rub-your-nose-in-it realism. Look how much intelligence and verve there is in Caillebotte's picture-construction! Note, in particular, the way the lines of the bath, the wooden bath mat, the boots, and the chair are all angled at something like 45 degrees, while the man himself is placed exactly parallel to the picture plane. All those diagonals reinforce and accentuate the vigor of his drying action, since they are parallel to the imaginary line connect his partially obscured hands.

Caillebotte, in so many ways, doesn't quite fit in. Or he fits in (to the story of Impressionism, to the narrative about avant-garde art) in ways that create friction, in ways that complicate our understanding of what happened then, and what still matters about what happened.

The liberation of color and light was one part of that story. It will always matter. But the acknowledgment of everyday life, of physical truths, and even of the rush of intimacy were also aspects of what happened, and they, too, matter - a very great deal.

Varujan Boghosian opens the season at Victoria Munroe Fine Art

Posted by Sebastian Smee September 13, 2011 07:21 PM

boghosian Swan_Serpent.jpgHello Boston! Finally back from five weeks vacation in Australia just in time to tell you about... Varujan Boghosian!

A veteran of the Boston art scene, Boghosian is a maker of immaculate and incomparably poetic collages and sculptural assemblages. He lives in Hanover, N.H., where he allegedly has three studios filled with discarded stuff waiting to find a second life in art, and teaches at Dartmouth College.

I saw a show of his work at the St Botolph Club in Boston earlier in the year, and heard fellow artist Steven Trefonides speak about Boghosian with the respect, warmth, and wit that are obviously at the heart of their friendship.

Boghosian's work I love for its elegance. He has been criticized for this elegance in the past by some who believe collage should be all about disarray and dissonance. For Boghosian, however, whose recent collages kick off the season at Victoria Munroe Fine Art on Newbury Street (through October 29), it is much more about rhymes, echoes, and exquisite composition. He has collage's equivalent of perfect pitch - and yet most of his best works also contain that pinch of poison that seems to lurk beneath all great art.

Boghosian Orpheous_Euradice.jpgThis recent work is inspired by Boghosian's rediscovery of a copy of Audubon's "Birds of America." Two particular images in the book - of the Common American Swan and the Trumpeter Swan - set his imagination going, and the resulting works riff on everything from fairy tales and Greek Myths to Proust (see "A Swan for Marcel," below) They confect sheer delight.

Boghosian Swan_for_Marcel.jpgThey're different to the collages of other masters of the medium (in these parts alone, there's plenty of competition: I rate the older John O'Reilly and the younger Selena Kimball in particular). They're openly sentimental - if we can think of the word not as the common pejorative it has in art become but as meaning "full of sentiment."

And they really are ... just so. 

Season of discoveries

Posted by Sebastian Smee July 26, 2011 01:05 PM

hopper_pic7.jpgIt has been a summer, for me, of revelations, many of them delivered by the state of Maine.
Before seeing "Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World, and the Olson House," at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, I had tended not to rate this perennially popular artist.

Now? Well ("Duh," you might justifiably say), he's a lot better than I thought.

Similarly, before seeing the Clark's "Pissarro's People," I had never heard of this terrific artist's "Les Turpitudes Sociales," a series of extraordinary prints that constitute a withering indictment of French society at the end of the 19th century.

Who knew the fond and deeply sympathetic old man had it in him?

And finally, who knew Edward Hopper had painted more than two dozen scorchingly brilliant open air studies in oil of the rocks and sea at Monhegan, in Maine?

These pictures, which open "Edward Hopper's Maine," a marvelous show at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, are simply superb. They're painted with fresh, juicy - but never loose or flabby - brustrokes, and they're scintillating studies of light and color. Devoid of underdrawing, they're small, freshly felt pictures that are full of the joys of pushing around paint.

Hopper, as we all know, moved on to a very different way of painting within just a few years. But these 30-odd works, which are little known and seldom displayed, deserve to be seen by anyone interested in paint, in Hopper, or in Maine.

The Citgo sign has a place in people's hearts

Posted by Sebastian Smee July 6, 2011 04:34 PM

citgo.jpgMy Frame By Frame column about the Citgo sign in Boston's Kenmore Square prompted many people to write. One of them was Larry Kohn, who took this picture, he says, on the "4th of July eve a few years ago." He was driving over the Boston University bridge as a thunderstorm approached. He pulled over into what he calls "a non-space" on the bridge to take the picture, "knowing full well that if a cop came, I was going to be doing some big explaining."

It was worth it, as he says.

Ann Erikson wrote to say that her husband was in the Army for 20 years. Whenever he returned from his various postings, she said, "we saw the Citgo sign [and] knew we were home."

Barry Petchesky noted that something peculiar about the sign makes it seem incredibly close when seen behind the left field wall at Fenway. He wondered if there was a reason that it throws off all sense of perspective.

citgo2.jpgSusan Vorley said she will always be fond of the sign because it helped guide her when she was caught on the road during the infamous blizzard of 1978. With her head out the window, she ways, "I was able to make out a small red dot in the distance, so I focused on that as my landmark in the all-white landscape. Gradually it got larger and larger and I was able to see that it wasn't a dot at all, but the Citgo sign. I was SO happy to see it."

It took Vorley four hours to get from Cambridge to Hyde Park that night, but she made it - thanks in part to the Citgo sign.

Perhaps my favorite email came this afternoon from Malcolm McKenzie, who wrote: "My son Ian has published a novel and is now a full-fledged diplomat, but to me his most durable accomplishment may always be his pronouncement, at the age of about three, of this landmark as 'the little movie about triangles.'"


Obama asks to borrow Rockwell painting

Posted by Sebastian Smee July 6, 2011 09:32 AM

Problem_We_All_Live_With_7_4.jpgIn the art world, people habitually conflate artistic conservatism with political conservatism, and - flipping the terms - artistic originality with political progressivism.

It's an understandable impulse, since no-one can deny that the fields of art and politics overlap.

But there are those who would like them to be perfectly congruent, and they are often dismayed and confused when told that, say, their favorite avant-garde artist was adamantly against the idea of a social safety net (Francis Bacon), that the 20th century's most protean artistic inventor was an apologist for Stalin (Pablo Picasso), that their favorite Impressionists were vilely anti-Semitic (Degas and Renoir) or that America's cheesiest, most jingoistic propagandist was also a champion of Civil Rights.

That would be Norman Rockwell (though, of course, he was much more than a cheesy propagandist).

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge has just announced that President Obama has asked it if the White House can borrow one of its most treasured paintings, Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With," to mark the 50th Anniversary of Ruby Bridges's momentous walk to school, which marked the beginning of the racial integration of the William Frantz Public School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960.

Rockwell's painting was made for the cover of the January 14, 1964, issue of "Look" magazine. It's one of his most powerful, courageous, and ardent pictures.

The museum has agreed, of course, to the request. The painting will be on display at the White House until October 31.


On Cy Twombly, 1928 - 2011

Posted by Sebastian Smee July 5, 2011 11:52 PM

Twombly.jpgCy Twombly, who died Tuesday, was loved and loathed in equal measure. Those who loathed him considered him a fraud, and were frequently heard to mutter - or shout: "My child could do that!"

Those who loved him often did so a little too earnestly - you felt they professed their love with a stridency equal to the outrage expressed by his detractors - as if honor somehow inhered in adoring an artist who became rich covering canvases with scribbles.

I would trace my own love of Twombly back to the fact that, during my adolescence and early twenties, all my favourite pictures seemed to be of people doing nothing. I liked pictures dense with the humours and vapours of indolence. But I particularly liked those works in which you could feel a struggle, a restless, twitching aching for repose, not yet adequately satisfied.

I would look at Manet's great portrait of Berthe Morisot, for instance (Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art), her body beneath her cascading white dress squirming with the desire for release, ravishment, undoing. I pored over recumbent nudes of every kind, from Giorgione to Courbet, from Ingres to Degas, and I relished their atmosphere of erotic lassitude.

I began paying more attention to marks - the way, for instance, in late Titian one comes across whole passages of paint that describe nothing, that are just slathered on, and yet which somehow become the most emotionally precise ingredients of all.

There seemed to be a connection, I felt, between the sensation I liked of doing nothing and having the brush "do its own thing." So abstract painting caught my attention. But I craved a sense of expended effort rather than vacant atmosphere. So I fell for De Kooning, who seemed to unravel in muscular, skittish ways, rather than Rothko, who seemed too vague; and I adored Matisse, whose "luxe, calme et volupte" seemed the outcome of strenuous concentration.

Cy Twombly I discovered only later. When I did, his work brought back all those visceral, teenage, hormonally charged feelings of physical indulgence and unanchored eroticism. It put me in mind of the sensation of drifting off into unconsciousness, with all its attendant bodily twitches and random dreams. At the same time he infused these feelings with a grandeur, an historical sweep, a sense of the epic that set up exhilarating tensions with the childish-looking marks he made on the canvas.

Twombly's canvases, I find, are incredibly sweet, and at times almost ridiculously romantic. But they're gruelling, too. They are powerfully suggestive of orgiastic energies at some indefinable point in the past. The art critic David Sylvester compared them to "a soiled sheet after a wild night." The image works, if you can imagine a wild night several thousand years ago.



Family matters

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 28, 2011 07:13 PM

pissarro.jpgFor me, the highlight of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute's excellent "Pissarro's People" exhibition was the chance to see the series of ferociously political drawings he did in the late 1880s and 1890 called "Les Turpitudes Sociales" (click link for a slideshow)

Pissarro was an avowed anarchist when that word meant something more hopeful than it tends to mean today. But if anything, governments were less tolerant of self-described anarchists than they are today, and Pissarro, a Sephardic Jew with Danish citizenship, was watched closely by the French government.

Only a few years after making the series, which most people - even Pissarro fans - don't know about, Pissarro had to deal with the foul anti-Semitic fall-out of the Dreyfus Affair. His former friends - and influences - Degas and Renoir revealed their worst sides during this period - really rancid opinions, revolting betrayals.

During the Dreyfus Affair Pissarro was confined to a few rooms in his Paris home. So his optimism bore little fruit. Except, perhaps, in his relations with family. This is from my review of the show in Sunday's Globe:

"In his art, as in his intellectual life, Pissarro was curious, hungry, open to influence. His letters to his eldest son, Lucien, stand beside van Gogh's letters and Delacroix's journals as among the great documents of 19th-century art. In these letters, as in his pictures, Pissarro comes across as integrity incarnate.

"The problem he poses for a critic is that, although he painted a steady stream of very good pictures, he never really painted a masterpiece. Can one be a great artist without painting masterpieces? The short, honest answer is no. But you can be an exemplary artist, and Pissarro was that.

"If you don't know Pissarro, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute's wonderful summer show "Pissarro's People" is a fine introduction. If you do know him, it will make you feel you didn't.

"The exhibition is the first serious attempt to focus on Pissarro's family pictures and figure paintings. If, as a result, we miss out on the dew-kissed, mint-fresh landscapes or the late, magisterial cityscapes for which he is best known, the windfall is that we get a much stronger sense of what he was like as a man - what mattered to him.

"What mattered most was family."


Piero di Cosimo's "The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus" revisited

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 23, 2011 12:29 PM

discovery honey.JPGAfter taking a look at Piero di Cosimo's "The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus" at the Worcester Art Museum in Tuesday's Frame by Frame column, I received an email from a man named Donald Novak:

"One thing you didn't comment on but seems to jump out of the painting is that the tree trunk is a grotesque of a woman in labor. I don't understand how that image might belong to the story. But maybe just another manifestion of his [Piero's] strange personality. Or is it a figment of my diseased mind?"

Decide for yourself, but I personally don't think Mr Novak's mind is diseased. I have no idea how much validity his interpretation has, but it does chime with an interpretation once offered in Art Bulletin by Fr Thomas Matthews of Boston College.

Where Panofsky's interpretation underplayed the significance of the discovery of honey, Matthews points out that honey had long been associated with the theme of love. 

The multiple occurrence of couples in the painting and Pan's offering of a bunch of onions (a known aphrodisiac to the ancients) confirmed for him the amorous theme.

And so perhaps, with this interpretation in mind, Novak's observation about the tree makes sense? 

There is, after all, an infant issuing forth from the hollow in the tree's base...  Or, as Matthews put it: "For this gnarled and very striking tree which holds the hidden and desired honey is the same tree in whose hollow, as in a womb, we discover the child at play. In one bold stroke, the discovery of honey is thus identified with the discovery of love."

El Anatsui at the Clark (and everywhere else!)

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 23, 2011 11:21 AM

pic00911.jpgEl Anatsui, who was born in Ghana and lives in Nigeria, is the most celebrated African artist alive. Museums all over New England - not to mention the rest of the world - are falling over themselves to show his work.

Locally, the Davis Museum of Art at Wellesley has the most credibility on this score: it is hosting a full retrospective of Anatsui's work, due to close this weekend (see my G cover with interview here).

pic02483.jpgThe Museum of Fine Arts recently purchased one of his dramatic wall sculptures (loosely hanging structures made from the glittering aluminum wrappers from liquor bottles), and will display it when the Linde Family Wing for contemporary art opens in September.

The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College also has one on display.

And now the Sterling and Francince Clark Art Institute in WIlliamstown has borrowed three of these marvelous works (two from the foundation of the thrusting LA collector and philanthropist Eli Broad, one from an anonymous private collection) and mounted them in two galleries of the Tadao Ando-designed Stone Hill Center up the hill from the main museum.

pic02963.jpgThey look stunning. Anatsui may be absurdly ubiquitous (he ticks all the right boxes for right-thinking institutions: African, beautiful work, gently political - i.e. anti-consumerist, anti-colonial). But these works disarm all skepticism. They're the best works by Anatsui I've seen since being introduced to his work at the Venice Biennale of 2007. 

The artist welcomes improvisation and creativity in the hanging of his works. One here, "Intermittent Signals," is 35 feet long and slumps disconcertingly toward the floor at one end as it extends to an adjacent wall. The effect is dramatic.

pic04536.jpgAnother, "Strips of Earth's Skin," evokes shreds of tattered cloth - and of course the degradation of land. A third, "Delta," is the more recent of the three (2010). With its criss-crossing stripes of colored foil that extend beyond the rectangular format; its mysterious, semi-transparent circular webs near the center; and its dramatic vertical division between gold and silver, it's also the most visually complex.

If you've not seen this artist's work before, this is a great place to start. If only the Clark would put the loud and intrusive video about the artist somewhere more discrete. Education be damned: these works deserve more respect.


Ai Weiwei released on conditions

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 22, 2011 12:46 PM

ai weiwei.jpgArtist Ai Wewei was released by Chinese authorities on bail. He had been detained for two months without access to a lawyer.

He was released late Wednesday after pleading guilty to tax evasion. He told the BBC he was in good health, and happy to be home. He expressed gratitude to the media for the attention it gave him, but said he could not speak to the media about his case.

Xinhua news agency reported that Ai was suffering from a chronic illness. It reported that he had offered to repay his taxes and was being released because of his "good attitude in confessing his crimes."


Juan Downey at MIT's List Center for the Visual Arts

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 20, 2011 09:37 AM

Dibujos J. Downey 2.jpgIn the mid- to late-19th century, being an avant-garde artist meant being rejected by the official salons, going hungry, and espousing anarchist or socialist views.

What, if anything, did it mean a century later in, say, the 1970s?

One possible answer is offered up by close examination of a group of artists who were affiliated with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

CAVS was set up in 1967 by György Kepes, a Hungarian painter, designer, and educator. Since CAVS was part of MIT, Kepes's focus on new technologies in art was hardly surprising. Nor was his determination to get CAVS fellows working with artists, scientists, and industry.

But there was also a quantity of social idealism in what the artists at CAVS pursued, and it's this that links their ambitions with the social and political ambitions of earlier avant-gardes.

Kepes wanted CAVS to be involved in large-scale urban projects. He liked art that was geared to society and to "all sensory modalities." Painted images framed on walls, in other words, no longer cut it. This was the era of TV, film, and light projections; computers were in their infancy; man had just walked on the moon, wars were being fought far from home; nuclear terror reigned.

New technologies were transforming medicine, the military, and mass communications: The people at CAVS believed they should transform art too. Art, in turn, should be involved in transforming consciousness, and society at large.

How did all that work out, then?

As part of its 150th anniversary celebrations, the List Visual Arts Center at MIT has been looking back at several artists associated with CAVS, and the results have been illuminating. The recent Stan VanDerBeek retrospective gave an overview of that artist's bold and prescient experiments with TV, film-sampling, animation, multimedia happenings, interactive art, and computer art.

I knew next to nothing about VanDerBeek before I saw the show. Now, I'd find it hard to account for such superstars of contemporary art as Matthew Barney and Christian Marclay without first mentioning VanDerBeek.

Later this year, the List will take a look at a better known - and still living - CAVS fellow, Otto Piene, whose enormous light display, "SKY Event," was the culminating event of MIT's Festival of Arts, Science and Technology in May.

But right now, the List is hosting "Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect," the second in a trilogy of historical exhibitions looking back at CAVS artists and researchers. (The show is a collaboration with the Bronx Museum of the Arts and was organized by Valerie Smith, a Berlin-based curator.)

Not unlike the VanDerBeek extravaganza, it's hectic with video and audio spillover. Much of the film footage is shaky and interminable. And almost every audio component is spoiled by competing sounds from nearby. You walk in and immediately sense you are involved, against your will, in a psych experiment designed to stretch your tolerance for noise and visual confusion to the limit. Read more here

Frame by Frame: Piero di Cosimo's "The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus"

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 20, 2011 09:06 AM

discovery honey.JPGWORCESTER. Piero di Cosimo, who painted this enchanting picture at the Worcester Art Museum, doesn't quite fit into the parade of Renaissance greats like Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Raphael.

Granted, they all had their eccentricities. But Piero, if we are to believe the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari, was a genuine oddball. He disliked hot food and lived on hard-boiled eggs, which he cooked in large batches then stored in a cupboard. His studio was a shambles. He let his garden run wild and, and wouldn't even pick the fruit from his trees because he hated to "interfere with nature."

A bachelor until his death at 60 (he died in 1521), he took long walks by himself while building, in Vasari's words, "his castles in the air," and he loved everything in nature that seemed strange and idiosyncratic. (One feels sure, from such descriptions, as much as from the evidence of his pictures, that he would have loved the Jesuit poet and author of "Pied Beauty," Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

Worcester's painting is related to a similar, unfinished-looking work in the Harvard Art Museum, called "The Misfortunes of Silenus." Both pictures, and probably some others, were painted by Piero for the Vespucci family at the very end of the 15th century and displayed in a house formerly owned by the Medici family.

This painting shows an adult and baby satyr on the main branch of a gnarled old tree and another satyr below, all making a loud din with household utensils in order to encourage bees to settle in the tree. The story, which culminates in the discovery of honey, derives from Ovid's poem, "The Fasti."

On either side of the central tree (it's matched by a similar tree in the Harvard picture) we see a crowd of couples and revelers: On the right, there's the tubby old Silenus smiling atop his donkey (he is more the center of attention in the Harvard picture), and in the foreground the handsome Bacchus with his arm around the goddess Ariadne.

The purpose of Ovid's original poem is to account for the origins of Roman holidays and customs. Bacchus, as Erwin Panofsky explained in the first serious interpretation of the painting, is in the picture for a simple reason: After his followers made a noise which attracted the bees, it was he who trapped them in a hollow tree. Honey was his prize, and that is why, according to Ovid, the rites of the Feast of Bacchus include the eating of sweet cakes known as "liba" (their name derives from Bacchus's Latin name, "Liber.")

The story illustrates an episode in the evolution of man. It's given a dramatic frame by two background details: on the left, a serene hilltop town, symbolizing civilization; and on the right, a higher rocky outcrop, with threatening weather, symbolizing wild and threatening nature.

Clearly a lover of nature, Piero was allegedly terrified of lightning but loved heavy rains.

The picture is at Worcester Art Museum, Worcester (508-799-4406,

Three afterthoughts: 1). The family name of Piero di Cosimo's patrons, the Vespucci, deries from the Italian word for "wasp," and wasps were part of the family's coat of arms. The painter seems to make reference to this in the related Harvard picture, which describes Silenus's misfortune in stirring up a wasps' nest shortly after the happier discovery of honey.

2) I happened upon these lines by Rilke, which seem apt - perhaps as descriptions of all art-making?: "We are the bees of the invisible. Tremulously we gather in the honey of the visible to store up in the great golden hive of the Invisible."

3) Michelangelo almost certainly saw this painting, and seems to have used the female figure at far left breast feading her infant as the basis for a similar pair in his famous drawing "A Children's Bacchanal." 

Ursula von Rydingsvard at DeCordova

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 17, 2011 10:05 AM

Thumbnail image for rydingsvard.jpgUrsula von Rydingsvard makes hefty sculptures from cedar wood. They smell good. Walking into her indoor show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, you catch a zesty whiff, as of a sauna or northern lumberyard.

At times, however, her works look more like geology than wood. They have a layered, blasted look, as if wind, water, and subterranean pressure had gouged out their forms and patterned surfaces. Some call to mind unique formations like the Giant's Causeway on Northern Ireland's Antrim Coast, others the striations and folds of less outlandish cliffs and caves.

And yet even as they look born, von Rydingsvard's sculptures are also - self-evidently - made, by human hands and tools. The artist emphasizes this by leaving her own marks and notations on the works' surfaces.

Her process varies with each piece. But it involves hard labor (stacking, gluing, and clamping cedar beams), challenging logistics, and lots of planning.

Von Rydingsvard won the Rappaport Prize in 2008. Set up and sustained by Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport, the prize is dispensed through the deCordova. So even though this mid-career retrospective was organized by Helaine Posner for the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, NY, it is a return, of sorts, for von Rydingsvard.

The artist arranges and re-arranges blocks of wood almost like collage, building up monumental forms from smaller sections, before setting to work with a circular saw to carve out their exterior shapes. She ends the process by covering parts of the surface with graphite, darkening the natural patina of the cedar.

Process is one thing. But do they work as sculptures? A lot of the time, yes. There are two tremendous pieces in the deCordova's main gallery, and another one on the roof. All three instantly convince you of von Rydingsvard's force as an artist, and of the originality of her achievement.

But a little too much in this show fails to get going. I suspect it's because, even as von Rydingsvard has gouged out a powerful new language, she is not always so convincing when it comes to forms. Not unlike Chakaia Booker, who was the subject of a compelling survey show at the deCordova last summer, she can be mesmerizing one minute, and nerveless the next. See more here

NB. The deCordova has just announced that this summer, from July 5 through September 2, entry will be free on weekdays.

John O'Reilly at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 15, 2011 10:44 AM

O'Reilly_Nijinksy_2010_halftone montage_9.875x10.675in_72dpi.jpgJohn O'Reilly is one of New England's most bewitching artists. His photographic montages are bravura exercises in comoposition. They're also, more importantly, drenched in associations - poetic, erotic, literary, historical - that always seem purposeful, never merely arbitrary (the curse of so much photomontage).

O'Reilly has had brilliant shows at Howard Yezerski Gallery in recent years (I reviewed one of them here). His latest show, "Recent Montage," has just opened in New York at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. This typically brilliant piece, "Nijinsky," is one of the works in the show.

Anish Kapoor at MIT

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 15, 2011 09:00 AM

kapoor mit.jpgAnish Kapoor, one of the world's most renowned sculptors, was given an impressive one-room retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2008 (It was the first show I reviewed for the Globe).

Kapoor crops up everywhere. In Venice, during this year's Biennale, he has work in the Prada Foundation's stunning hang of Miuccia Prada's collection at the Ca' Corner della Regina. And he also has an ambitious work, called "Ascension," in the church of San Giorgio.

Too ambitious, it seems, because when I saw it, it wasn't working. Smoke that should have been sucked up in a spiral by a massive vacuum pump beneath the cupola actually petered out a few feet off the ground in faith-shattering shreds of wispy gas.

Modesty is not what Kapoor is known for, but he tends to be at his best when resisting the lure of grandiosity. Those who want to see less self-intoxicated work by Kapoor can see a few examples locally. One of his large reflective sculptures, "Halo," is on long term loan to the Peabody Essex Museum. And another, this one, can be found in Frank Gehry's Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT.

Okay. it's just a wobbly mirror. But I like it.

MFA Art of the Americas Wing Six Months On, Part V

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 8, 2011 02:21 PM

revere bowl 07042010_04mfa.JPGThere's something restrained and yet sumptuous about the Level One galleries in the MFA's Art of the Americas Wing. These display the art of colonial and revolutionary America, so the rooms are thickly populated with portraits of important personages, as well as silver and furniture. Let's face it, unless you're really in the mood, this sort of thing can fail to get the pulse going.

So why is the atmosphere in here so often electric?

Last time I was there, for instance, there was a palpable buzz. A young student, late teens, was almost hopping from work to work, saying, "Oh my god, they've got this! And this! And check this out - it's unbelievable."

6_Paul Revere, Copley.JPGAnd it actually is. It's history in tangible form (well, not quite: touching is still a no-no). 

The centerpiece of the first gallery is, of course, John Singleton Copley's portrait of Paul Revere, Jr. It's flanked by examples of Revere's silver, and out in front, in its own glass vitrine, one of this country's great treasures: the Sons of Liberty Bowl.

How absolutely incredible to have these things all together, right in front of you.

But your eyes are quickly pulled away by less triumphal things. Note, in a quiet corner, Copley's portrait of his half-brother, Henry Pelham, on loan to the museum: it shows Henry in profile and illuminated by orange candlelight, and it's a wonderfully intimate antidote to the prevailing pomp of the other portraits.

MFA LG images 2 007.jpgWhat's so astounding about these galleries is the way everything seems connected to everything else. So, for instance, the Pelham portrait connects with another, more famous portrait of Pelham by Copley, "A Boy with a Squirrel." This was sent by Copley to England, where it was shown to Benjamin West, who was sufficiently impressed to compare it to Titian.

Another example: in these and the nearby gallery devoted exclusively to Copley, you can find three very distinguished - and distinctive - portraits of the same man, Isaac Winslow.

One is a single portrait by Robert Feke:


MFA LG images 2 017.jpg





















Another a family portrait by Joseph Blackburn:

MFA LG images 2 018.jpg












And the third is a double portrait - Winslow and his wife - by Copley:

MFA LG images 2 016.jpg














Admire, too, Blackburn's ravishing portrait of Susan Apthorp in a silk dress that reflects the dusky sky with flashes of pink and iridescent blue.

The furniture in these galleries is as eloquent as the portraiture. The curators have displayed Copley's portrait of the expatriate loyalist Gilbert DeBlois, for instance, next to DeBlois's clothespress (he was a merchant who sold, among other things, fabrics).

There are a few astonishing loans from the City of Boston in these galleries (the MFA better hope the city's budget woes don't induce it to sell them off to out of town collectors or museums - what a disaster that would be!). One of them is Copley's portrait of John Hancock, which hangs close to a silver cake basket by William Plummer, commissioned by Thomas Hancock and passed down to his son John.

Another is Copley's stirring portrait of Samuel Adams pointing, erm, pointedly, at the Massachusetts Royal Charter - and by inference demanding the expulsion of British troops. He has a half-smile on his face, which radiates both impressive equanimity and ferocious conviction.

The work was commissioned by John Hancock, and it hangs beside Paul Revere's engraving, "The Bloody Massacre," hand-colored by Christian Remick.

MFA LG images 2 006.jpgNo wonder that students were excited.

Copley’s portrait of the doctor and leading radical Joseph Warren is  matched in a nearby gallery by a painting by John Trumbull commemorating his heroic death at Bunker Hill.

But many viewers will walk first into the New Nation gallery.

Here they’ll see lots of evidence of the neo-classical style that emerged after the Revolution, and a particular emphasis on the civic virtue and military readiness represented by the Roman republic.

Look out, here, for a tray and plate both marked with the emblem of the Society of the Cincinatti, and for a splendid Grecian couch that signals an emergent culture of independence, affluence and self-confidence.

MFA LG images 2 002.jpgAlso for Horatio Greenough's splendid "Arno," a marble sculpture of his greyhound, named after the river in Italy, where Greenough studied under the great Danish neoclassical sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen. Neo-classicism, we're reminded, was an international style, echoing a new era of international geo-diplomacy.


MFA LG images 2 004.jpgThere's also, of course, John Neagle's dramatic portrait of "Pat Lyon at the Forge" - a sort of "up you!" by a self-made man who overcame great odds, including wrongful imprisonment, to achieve success (Lyon was an early incarnation of the great American myth)....














MFA LG images 2 010.jpg...And it's hard to go past Gilbert Stuart's portrait of the aged, tired John Adams.

That taut mouth and those lop-sided, watery, watchful eyes seem to say it all: Nation-building is exhausting.




Marclay wins Golden Lion at Venice for "The Clock"

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 8, 2011 01:25 PM

Christian Marclay The Clock 2010 a4 4.jpgIt was a rendezvous with destiny, a fait accompli. In a relatively weak field, Christian Marclay's video collage, "The Clock" - the most talked about work of contemporary art since Matthew Barney's "The Cremaster Cycle" - stood out a mile in "ILLUMInations," the group show at the heart of this year's Venice Biennale.

So it came as no surprise to learn that Marclay had been awarded the Golden Lion for best artist.

Marclay's film ties together snippets from the history of cinema. Every few seconds there is a visual showing a time-telling device, or a verbal reference to the time, that corresponds exactly with the real time. The film lasts 24 hours and is, as the description suggests, incredible.

The good news is that, as Geoff Edgers recently reported in the Globe, the Museum of Fine Arts recently teamed up with the National Gallery of Canada to buy the work (for somewhere in the vicinity of $500,000).

The MFA will screen it over 24 hours on September 17 when it opens its Linde Family Wing for contemporary art. I'll see you there at 4.39am.

Frame by Frame: Edwin Elmer's "Mourning Picture" at Smith College Museum of Art

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 7, 2011 10:52 AM

Elmer Mourning Picture SCMA.jpgThis is one of the more remarkable pictures in the superb collection of Smith College Museum of Art. It's also the most upsetting.

It was painted by the little known Edwin Romanzo Elmer in 1890, and it shows the artist, his wife, and their 9-year-old daughter, Effie. They are shown in front of the house that Elmer and his brother built in Western Massachusetts, not far from Smith College, around 1875.

The catch is that when Elmer painted it, Effie was dead. Hence the picture's title - given much later by others: "Mourning Picture."

Elmer was the youngest of 12 children. He and his wife, Mary, had just one child: Effie. For a time, the family of three lived in the house together with his parents and his brother's family. Over time the others moved away.

Then Effie, at the age of 9, died of appendicitis. The force of the loss overwhelmed Mary. Intent on abandoning the house, the couple packed up Effie's toys and gave away her pets.

Presumably, they were trying to forget - or at least to escape the clutch of the memories the house and Effie's belongings all held. But before they left, Elmer felt he needed also to remember. (The lurching human soul forever contradicting itself!) So he painted this strange, haunted picture, which seems stretched so tight that it might crumble at the slightest touch.

The painting looks at first like a summer reverie painted by the hand of an untrained but talented artist with a meticulous eye for detail, all of which Elmer was. Note the flowers at Effie's feet, the delineated blades of grass, the trees' individuated leaves, the crisp shadows: The whole effect is hallucinatory. It's reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites, yes, but it points forward, too - to the "stuck" dream-lucidity of Surrealists like Magritte, de Chirico, and Dalí.

The figures seem to occupy different planes of existence, all vivid but none quite real. The parents, in black clothes, look up from newspaper and knitting with cheerless expressions (observe the vivid light on their chairs!). Effie herself, meanwhile, has the sluggish, artificial air of someone posing for a photograph - which makes sense, because Elmer based his rendering on a portrait photograph of her.

She holds her pet lamb by a collar, while the lamb looks down upon her small kitten - a triumvirate of adored, adoring, and adorable things with its own internal hierarchy. It's almost as if Elmer were attempting his own domestic version of one of the Quaker Edward Hicks's "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings.

Perhaps the strangest effect in the painting is the craquelure, or spider-web-like cracking, in the clouds. This came about by accident, of course, over time, the result of the white paint drying faster since it contained less oil. But it only increases the picture's trembling atmosphere of extreme fragility and splintering grief.

First take on Venice Biennale (critical review to follow)

Posted by Sebastian Smee June 5, 2011 02:58 PM

us pavilion venice.jpgMayhem, in the form of a water transport strike, an artists-collective protest, and canceled or misfiring art installations, threatened to engulf the first two days of the Venice Biennale, an event commonly described as "the Olympics of art." But Boston-born R.H. Quaytman rose above the fray, emerging from the Biennale's main exhibit as one of the clear standouts among the hundreds of artists selected from all over the world.

The first day of the May 31-June 3 preview week - which sees dealers, collectors, curators, and press descend from around the globe looking for art's best and brightest - was thwarted by the vaporetti (water buses) strike, which stranded visitors staying far from the main exhibitions. Attendance, as a result, was reduced to a trickle.

Rain marred the second morning, but by afternoon, huge crowds, eager to make up for lost time, had accumulated in the punishingly humid heat. Many waited in long lines outside the US pavilion in the Giardini, the gardens that are home to one part of the Biennale. They watched as a guerrilla-style artists collective from Poland called The Krasnals handed out pink flags and held up a banner that read "Make Love Not Art" and "Art is Expensive, Love is Priceless."

The US exhibit, a series of archly conceptual sculptures and performances dreamed up by the young Puerto Rico-based duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (pictured above), features US Olympic gymnasts performing routines on wooden replicas of airline business-class seats.

There is also a scaled-down replica of the figure known as "Armed Freedom" which perches atop the dome of the United States Capitol, reclining on a Solaris sunbed, and a functioning ATM attached to a massive church organ that plays music when you enter your PIN.

Meanwhile, outside the pavilion, a neoclassical building erected in 1930, athletes from a US team run on a treadmill attached to the track of an upside down World War II-era tank.

The Biennale and its hundreds of affiliated events and exhibitions spread across this entire, waterlogged city.

Elsewhere at the Biennale, art's worth - along with the public's patience - continued to be put to the test. An ambitious and expensive installation called "Ascension," by the British artist Anish Kapoor, failed to work properly. Smoke that was supposed to rise in a vortex to a massive vacuum placed underneath the cupola instead petered out in barely visible wisps. Read more here.

About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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Effortful ease in Matisse ‘masterpiece’

Effortful ease in Matisse ‘masterpiece’

There’s a great big metaphysical joke at the core of the genius that was Henri Matisse, and it has to do with the idea of work, of labor, of effort.


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