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Huzzah for Richard Rand

Posted by Sebastian Smee April 26, 2011 08:19 AM

Richard Rand 2.jpgTomorrow, Richard Rand, the senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, will be receiving a singular honor: He will be introduced into France's Ordres des Arts et Lettres with the rank of Chevalier (Kinight).
Rand, pictured, is a brilliant scholar - he has organized exhitbiions and written authoritatively on French artists such as Fragonard, David, and Claude - and he's a very nice guy to boot. He's being recognized for his contribution to French culture. In receiving the award, he will be joining the ranks of Americans such as Paul Auster (the novelist and translator of French literature), Ornette Coleman, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Richard Meier.


"Comedy" or tragedy? Ai Weiwei doesn't come to Harvard

Posted by Sebastian Smee April 13, 2011 12:05 PM

Thumbnail image for ai weiwei portrait.JPGAi Weiwei, the acclaimed Chinese artist who remains in detention in China, has a major outdoor installation at Harvard University right now. The work is linked to exactly the activities that have been getting Ai into so much trouble with the Chinese government.
Untitled, the work consists of nine steel frames in the shape of cubes loosely arranged in a grid on the lawn outside the Northwest Science Building on Oxford Street.
The cubes are covered with a total of 5,335 school backpacks. The work is one of Ai's multiple responses to the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake, and the subsequent "Citizens Investigation" initiated by Ai and his studio. The investigation publicized the finding that defective construction of school buildings was to blame for many of the children's deaths in the earthquake, a finding that has been denied by government authorities. The names of the victims are recited in a sound piece accompanying the work.
aiweiwei installation.jpgAi's work at Harvard is part of an engrossing exhibition called "The Divine Comedy." The shoe features installations by two other celebrated contemporary artists - Iceland's Olafur Eliasson and Italy's Tomas Saraceno - both of whom, like Ai, studied at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, which organized the show.
At a talk by Saraceno and Eliasson hosted by the Graduate School of Design's Sanford Kwinter, there was an empty chair on the stage. At intervals throughout the talk, different students placed a heavy coat on the chair, removed it, replaced it, and removed it again. The panelists were clearly thrown by the interruption. But at the end of the talk, Eliasson gratefully acknowledged the students' actions, which were clearly intended to draw attention to Ai's absence, and his current plight.
The Association of Art Museum Directors has just released a petition calling for the release of Ai.

Rare, obscure, modern

Posted by Sebastian Smee April 7, 2011 11:07 AM

Schwitters Doesburg. Kleine Dada Soiree.jpgLast month's story about the South End book dealer Elmar Seibel and his business, Ars Libri, has generated a great deal of interest. The history of the business and of Seibel's connections with Persian and Islamic culture is amazingly complex, and, long though the finished article was, a great deal that might have appeared in it did not. As I researched it, windows kept opening onto whole vistas that seemed to cry out for their own articles.
Perhaps the most important part of what was omitted is the story of Seibel's colleague David Stang (pictured below), who has spear-headed the company's move into the area of rare 20th century avant-garde books and related material (above, a poster - already sold - designed by Kurt Schwitters and Theo van Doesburg for the "Kleine Dada Soirée," an uproarious Dada performance held in The Hague in 1922.)
Stang came to Ars Libri from the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University in 1978.
The field of modern art in the rare book world was relatively new then. It "really began," says Stang, "with a series of auctions in Switzerland in the late 1950s and late 1960s. The first Tristan Tzara sale was a major event in 1968. By the late 1970s, not long after Ars Libri was established, there were a handful of specialist dealers in the field, all but one in Europe.
"In those days," he continues, "this was still a small world. Today it draws a far wider audience, though the number of serious specialists is still rather small and most of the original figures are now dead or retired."
David Stang.jpgArs Libri buys this material from private collectors and scholars, here and in Europe, at auction, and from rare book dealers and galleries in Europe and Japan. WHo buys this stuff? Primarily museums and rare book libraries. Regular clients include the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as overseas museums such as the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo; other major clients are libraries at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, as well as the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and so on.
The shift into this area began, says Stang, when Ars Libri acquired three important (and huge) collections in 1985-1986. All three were sold onto the Getty Research Institute, which was Ars Libri's major client at the time.
One of the collections was centered on Russian avant-garde material; another was a world renowned library of books, periodicals and documents relating to the modern avant-garde, and the third was the Jean Brown archive. Stang describes the latter as "perhaps the single greatest collection in the world of contemporary experimental art and artists' books, focusing on conceptual art, Fluxus, mail art, concrete and visual poetry, and so forth." Mrs. Brown had long made this material available to the artistic and scholarly community at her Shaker house in the Berkshires.
Because there was a great deal of overlap between these three collections, Ars Libri had a large number of duplicates which it was at liberty to sell. These duplicates became, says Stang, "the basis of our first official catalogue of rare modern material, in 1988."
Stang had worked on late 19th and early 20th century art as a graduate student at Harvard. This was an area that appealed deeply to him. The first catalog was well received, so, he says, "we just kept going, issuing catalogues regularly every year. I now do four or five a year, most years. The research for them is often very interesting, and I enjoy designing them as well. Finding the material calls for frequent trips to Europe, some of them rather long."
Ars Libri continues to deal in antiquarian material in the fine arts, as it always has. But, says Stang, "the modern avant-garde - Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Pop, Fluxus, Minimal and Conceptual art, and others - remains our central focus. Over the past decade we've gotten into Mavo - the radical Japanese movement of the 1920s: absolutely fascinating; the material is excruciatingly rare - and into modern graphic design, from the 1920s to Herbert Bayer.
"It's all brilliantly interesting. I find that the more I learn, the more complex and interwoven it all becomes. The material is often very beautiful, and there are still all kinds of marvelous things to discover."


George Tooker, 1920-2011

Posted by Sebastian Smee March 29, 2011 11:42 AM

tooker2.jpgThe Vermont-based artist George Tooker died on Sunday from complications related to kidney failure. He was 90 years old.

He was one of America's most idiosyncratic and compelling post-war painters.

I interviewed Tooker in his modest Vermont home for the Globe in the winter of 2009 on the occasion of a travelling retropsective of his work. Here is a link to the story.


Molesworth honored

Posted by Sebastian Smee February 25, 2011 03:33 PM

Wiggs_helenmolesworth3_living.jpgIf you know anything at all about contemporary art, you know that Hans Ulrich Obrist is everywhere. He's the most influential curator in the world, and he's famous for collaborating - in the form of interviews, books, exhibitions, and all manner of other projects - with living artists.
Helen Molesworth is a more traditional - but no less dynamic and effective - kind of contemporary art curator. She works mostly within the parameters of a given institution (she's chief curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art). She does less flitting about, more deep digging, and she's especially well known for her intelligent themed shows.
But she and Obrist (who is associated with the Serpentine Gallery in London) have at least one thing in common: They've both been honored with the 2011 Award for Curatorial Excellence by the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.
Congratulations to both.

Gorey's perfect captions

Posted by Sebastian Smee February 18, 2011 11:30 AM

"The author introduces two small, distant, ageless, and wholly imaginary relatives to fifty seasons of the New York City Ballet."

It's hard to say if the caption above by Edward Gorey should be spooky, dismal, depressing, or sweet - all I know is that it's hilarious, and in its way, perfect.

The drawing it goes with is at the Boston Athenaeum, part of "Elegant Enigmas" the Art of Edward Gorey" (through June 4). It put me in mind of Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan" - pathos made exquisite.

But it also just seemed like a sentence to savor on its own terms - like one of Felix Feneon's early 20th century newspaper squibs, published in "Novels in Three Lines" (New York Review Books): "Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law, and connected."

Or this one, from my old newspaper in Sydney: "An unemployed relaxation consultant was arrested with three kilograms of cocaine inside his golf bag." 


Is Google Art Project second-rate?

Posted by Sebastian Smee February 10, 2011 11:25 AM

For people who think Google Art Project is stunningly new and world-changingly wonderful (and from the comments thread attached to my Critic's Notebook on the subject, that would seem to be quite a few people), consider checking out the website of a company called Synthescape.

Synthescape, and I quote from their website, "works with museums and galleries to assist them with digitizing collections and exhibitions. We are particularly skilful at high-resolution, multi-perspective imaging of artworks, artefacts, installations, and exhibitions. Our speed and efficiency are unparalleled."

If you want to compare, try the virtual tour of London's Courtauld Gallery that Synthescape developed and links to on its website. It's way better than any of the virtual tours on Google Art Project. Or you might like to look at the interactive website they developed with Tate Modern for that museum's 2008-2009 Mark Rothko exhibition.

"We've been doing this type of work for years now," wrote Sythescape's managing director, Darin Freitag, in a letter to me this morning, "and have always obsessed about image quality, consider that something sacred, strive always for perfection and to be as faithful as possible to the artist's work... "

Freitag went on to write something about the quality of Google's imagery that he would prefer I didn't reproduce, before adding: "That so many critics and directors - persons whom I'd assumed to be discriminating about image quality... - have leapt to their feet to applaud what Google have done - well, I find it all quite perplexing."

It's an interesting perspective, and goes to my point about Google's ability to hype their own adaptations of technology that is already out there, and often in more advanced form than their own. 

A final point about my perspective. I have no doubt Google Art Project will have a big impact, and I have no trouble seeing that it provides a valuable service. My point was twofold: I am underwhelmed by the quality of what it offers. And I think that it's helpful - to balance out the rampant technophilia we all tend to succumb to - to be reminded of things that are fundamental about the experience of art and which, to my mind, Google Art Project, for all its interest, fails to really advance.



Lurking in the MFA's basement...

Posted by Sebastian Smee February 10, 2011 10:05 AM

york.jpgAlbert York, a painter born in Detroit, died last year at the age of 80. Described by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker back in 1995 as "the most highly admired unknown artist in America," his paintings have been intermittently championed by critics such as Fairfield Porter and John Russell, and owned by the likes of Jacqueline Onassis (she had five of them).
The Boston poet William Corbett tells a perturbing story midway through his leisurely but riveting essay on York in a slim new monograph published by Pressed Wafer. Preparing to write on York for "Modern Painters" magazine in the late 1990s, he had tracked down one of his characteristically small, obdurately mysterious paintings, "Landscape with Two Indians," (pictured) to the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
"The employee who showed it to me," writes Corbett, "herself about to leave the museum because of a shake-up brought on by the new director [Malcolm Rogers], told me that the York would never hang in the museum again. She gave no reason but spoke in a flat, authoritative way, and to this day the York has remained in the basement."
Corbett wrote his essay before seeing the MFA's new Art of the Americas Wing, which opened in November last year. The wing has vastly increased the space available for the display of American art at the museum. And yet all that extra space has made no difference to the fate of York's "Landscape with Two Indians." It is still in storage; the MFA staffer's bleak prophecy still holds.


"Emperor of Atlantis" is sold out

Posted by Thomasine Berg February 4, 2011 03:58 PM

Unless you already have your tickets, you probably won't be able to catch the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Quits, " Viktor Ullmann's dark satire composed in the Terezin concentration camp. The BLO announced today that all remaining performances -- tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday -- are completely sold out. Tickets may yet be available from individual ticket holders, though. A few have shown up on Craigslist.


A 'lightweight' ICA?

Posted by Sebastian Smee February 1, 2011 09:17 AM

My two bob's worth: the Institute of Contemporary Art was criticized in the current issue of Boston Magazine (see Geoff Edgers's post below). Fair enough. I've directed my own share of criticisms at the museum over the last three years. But it's crazy to say it hasn't been a success.

And not just by the measure of attendances, which have been strong. Since I arrived in Boston in 2008, the ICA has mounted a series of superb exhibitions, starting with Anish Kapoor and moving on through Tara Donovan, Charles LeDray, and Mark Bradford. When the shows have had shortcomings, they've nonetheless been serious, provocative, bold - one thinks of the decision to give Shepard Fairey his first ever museum retrospective, and of smart, engaging shows by Roni Horn, Damien Ortega, and Dr Lakra. They have not, on the whole, been "lightweight."

All this has helped the ICA, in its new waterfront home, carve out a strong national reputation.

That they have accomplished so much (and I haven't even touched on the music and dance programming) in such a tough financial environment says much for the leadership of Jill Medvedow and for her team.

The lack of intelligent development around the ICA has been a problem, sure. But is that really their fault?

Anyway, perhaps I am insufficiently civic-minded, but I don't really care about that, or the shop, or even the café (both of which seem fine to me, by the way). I care about the art. And the ICA has been a good place to go for art.

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Culture Desk is a blog that serves to highlight both local and national stories of interest in the worlds of art, music, movies, TV, theater and more. Most items are written by writers and editors from The Boston Globe arts and culture staff.

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