Monday, June 28, 2010

Art as Entertainment

Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant, Ken

Last Friday I saw the play Red. It was about Mark Rothko's struggle to keep his art from being compromised.  Rothko was working on a major commission for the very upscale Four Seasons restaurant in the then new Seagrams Building. He hoped the work would be so powerful it would "ruin the appetites" of the rich patrons, and overcome the Philistines. After a visit to the restaurant, he realized he was being naive. He refused to allow his paintings to be used as decoration and returned the money. This was a moral triumph, but a sad revelation.

Rothko and the other Abstract Expressionists of his generation believed their art was too tough, too profound, to be accepted by the public.  They believed that the few financially successful artists at the time had sold out. When acceptance and success eventually came to them, they became alienated from each other, and alienated from their own selves. Many years after the Four Seasons fiasco, I believe Rothko came to realize there was no hope of keeping his art from being trivialized, and this, plus his alienation, contributed to his suicide.

One of the great traumas of my early art education was attending a party (a "gala”) in Beverly Hills for winners of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) “Young Artist Award.”  The curator of LACMA at the time was Maurice Tuchman -- a Freddie Prinze look-alike who was smart, did some great shows and should have known better. He kept going on about how "cool and trendy" the work was -- treating the art like entertainment, and the artists like stars. The Beverly Hills ladies ate it up, but most of the artists were cringing or, like Alex Smith, snuck out. I realized then that no matter how tough or rigorous the work was, approached in this manner, it was dead.

Mark Rothko despaired of people ever understanding his art, but the thing is, these ladies weren't stupid, and they obviously showed an interest in art. All they needed was education.

Museums are trying to be more accessible. They need to show politicians that they have the numbers and diversity to justify their government funding. Museums now have singles nights, rock concerts, nice restaurants, comfortable places to sit and hang out, and many other ways to attract a new audience. That's not necessarily bad, except when they confuse art with entertainment and dumb down their exhibitions (like when the Dallas Museum trivialized their King Tut exhibition by pairing it with belly dancing. I guess they couldn't afford Steve Martin).

Rather than dumb down they should educate people about art like the Getty Museum did with a recent, terrifically illuminating, exhibition: Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils -- Telling The Difference . Here, from the exhibition website, is an example of the kind of things they presented in the exhibition:

Nicolaes Maes, Dutch, about 1655, Red chalk, Frits Lugt Collection, Institut NĂ©erlandais, Paris, France,
Maes was especially receptive to the Rembrandtesque subject of old women. His image (above) is drawn with less energy than in Rembrandts drawing, which is rendered with forceful lines that change directions. Maes's fine handling of the face and headdress is only slightly more delicate than the finely spaced strokes of thin, parallel-hatched lines of her dress, creating a more uniform finish.
Rembrandt, Dutch, about 1640–1643, Black chalk, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute of Art

Basic stuff, but it gets you to look at the drawings and see subtleties that might otherwise be missed. It was one of the few shows where I noticed people talking excitedly about the art rather than spewing inanities about the frame, cost of the painting, sex life of the artist, etc.

Museums need to be careful. They're fooling themselves if they think they can compete with real entertainment.  If they don't educate the public, if they don't create true art lovers, when the admission price increases too much, or when art is no longer cool, or when the public simply gets bored, museums will lose them.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Expanding Vision of Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield, An April Mood, 1946–55. Watercolor and charcoal on joined paper, 40 × 54 in.. Whitney Museum of American Art

By Kyle Gallup

Charles Burchfield was a singular, inventive artist who painted American landscapes with a deep feeling for the natural world around him. He stayed true to himself throughout his career, translating his experience of nature into watercolor paintings that reflected  sounds, light and weather and his own inner emotional terrain. Throughout the decades he painted, he made changes in his imagery and art-making process to better express the monumental influence nature had in his life.

Entering the new Burchfield exhibit, “Heat Waves in a Swamp” at the Whitney Museum, I am immediately confronted by a young master of watercolor. The year 1917 is what his admirers dubbed, “Burchfield’s Golden Year of Painting.” Looking at the work, I think it must have been a fulfilling period for him. The immediacy and individuality of each image is depicted with ease. One painting after another is fluidly drawn and washed with clear light and color.  I imagine that everyday he must have seen images all around him that he wanted to paint. The first rooms are full of eerie looking houses, gardens and backyards taken over by the buzzing of insects, looming churches with ringing bells, rain-filled landscapes and sunny days in the field.

By the twenties, Burchfield is painting images of what was then popularly known as the American Scene. His watercolors turn darker and more opaque as he tackles images of abandoned scrap yards, ships, foreboding industrial landscapes and lonely houses on small town streets. As magnetic as these paintings are, nothing compares to the shift he makes in the forties when he begins to expand his smaller, earlier paintings into large, ambitious watercolor landscapes.

“Two Ravines” (1934-43) and “The Coming Spring” (1917-43), beckon me to look deep into these long-evolving pictures. The experience of looking at them differs greatly from that of his earlier work. The earlier paintings seem to keep me at a distance, looking at the scene, exploring his watercolor technique through his watery brushwork and drawn line.  These two paintings are bigger in scale, more physical. Burchfield works the surface with his brush, covering and modeling every area densely. When looking at the paintings, my eye travels inside the picture, over the moss and fallen leaves, over the rocks, and felled branches, up hills, through flowing water, and into the light and dark trees in the distance. These paintings feel so complete that the experience of looking at them is one of stepping into the picture itself. Now, I sense not just the insects, sunlight, the wind and dark shadows, but the artist’s own presence, as he painted and became one with the landscape in front of him.

At this point in Burchfield’s career, I suspect he must have felt less satisfied with his ability to go out into the field and create another watercolor scene. He needed to search for more, and get more out of each painting for himself. The current exhibit does a good job of explaining and illustrating how Burchfield expanded his earlier themes and paintings. With diagrams next to several paintings in the show, there is an intimate sense of the challenges he set for himself in particular works.

The painting, “The Sphinx and the Milky Way” (1946), yet again expands the boundaries of his technique and ideas. This painting moves past the conventional depiction of a landscape at night. A house is tucked behind animated foliage, flowers and flying insects, stars flicker and form constellations in a thickly brushed and mottled night sky.  Again, I  hear the insects buzzing and feel the thick night air. Its fantastical quality is something that the artist explores throughout the last years of his life. The last gallery in the Whitney includes large watercolor paintings like  “Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring)” (1950) and “Gateway to September” (1946-56) and “Dawn of Spring” (ca. 1960s). The paintings have a sweetness that is not present in his work from earlier decades.

Charles Burchfield, Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring), 1950. Watercolor on paper, 401⁄8 x 293⁄4 in. Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York

After years of exploring and translating his deep and intimate connection to nature, he makes otherworldly paintings that reflect his quasi-religious or spiritual view that would have represented a new kind of fulfillment in his work. Burchfield’s last decade of paintings are often described as cosmic.  I think these paintings allowed him to align his internal passions with a more universal and abstracted view of the natural world around him. He was less interested in the scene before him, continuing to broaden his vision while uniting his internal passion for the visual, spiritual and experiential roles nature held for him.

Kyle Gallup is an artist who works in collage and watercolor.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks: Closet Artist

By Carl Belz

I have to tell you I’m a closet artist, specifically an installation artist, albeit one with a limited output. During the course of my 24 years as director of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum I did two installations, the first of which, “Honoring Carl Belz,” I’d like to tell you about now.

The installation took place during the summer of 1984, meaning July and August. Generally, we weren’t open to the public during July and August, because we had virtually no audience during those two months. Located in Waltham, a suburb about 12 miles to the west of Boston, the museum enjoyed no foot traffic; you could get there by commuter rail, but most of our visitors came by car, they didn’t just drop by. Moreover, Brandeis at that time offered little in the way of summer school programming, so there was no student population to draw from. Nonetheless, the Brandeis president decided that year that the museum should be kept open so we could be included if any prospective donors showed up and wanted a tour of the campus. Which was really annoying, since the mandate came in late June, shortly before I was scheduled to leave for vacation, which in turn meant getting up a collection show on pretty short notice.

Well it happened that 1984 was my 10th year as director of the Rose, and I decided to mark the occasion by devoting two of our smaller galleries—our other two were much larger, which I worried might seem immodest—to my achievement with a two-part installation. One space would feature objects that had come into the collection since 1974, while in the other we’d borrow and hang a few of my favorite paintings from the larger history of art that I’d marveled at since my days as a student.

I put both two- and three-dimensional objects in the first gallery. The flatwork was dominated by paintings, and there were some beauties, among them a Morris Louis stripe, James Rosenquist’s “Two 1959 People” (which I had to love, as I graduated from college in ’59) and Robert Rauschenberg’s “Second Time Painting,” plus a Kenneth Noland pinched diamond, an Adolph Gottlieb burst, and a classic Mel Ramos girl astride a zebra (as anyone who knows the history of the Rose will tell you, some of these pictures entered the collection before I became director, but for this project I decided to exercise some poetic license with the historical facts). From our broad range of realist-type pictures, I selected a major Neil Welliver and a pair of stunning self-portraits by William Beckman and Gregory Gillespie. For paper works, I chose a Frank Stella study for one of his Polish Village pictures, a big Richard Serra oil-stick piece, and an early 50s David Smith drawing for “Australia” (because the Rose was designed as a picture gallery that didn’t comfortably accommodate sculpture, I had started a collection of sculptors’ drawings). I also included at least one photograph, a Cindy Sherman showing a tearful young woman lying on her bed waiting for her phone to ring (which, postmodernism notwithstanding, always reminded me of my life as a B movie). And finally there were a number of pictures by artists I had never heard of or read about in my art historical studies, artists now forgotten that I knew only by single examples in the collection, artists who filled the interstices around their more celebrated contemporaries, yet artists who, good, bad or indifferent, taught me to understand more fully what we mean when referring to the fabric called the art of our time.

We didn’t hang any of the pictures. They were stacked in clusters against the gallery walls, back-to-back and face-to-face and sometimes separated by sheets of cardboard or covered by plastic, suggesting they were on their way in or out of storage and weren’t yet meant for public viewing. Still, it was fun to look at them, to catch a glimpse of an image, maybe a fragment of landscape or part of a figure, and guess the artist; or to see the stretcher bars, some of them impressively professional, others clearly makeshift, and read the labels documenting the museums to which the pictures had traveled.

To accompany the paintings, I brought in some of the crates that our preparator had built for pictures we sent to other institutions, and they were worth beholding for their fortress-like character, as if daring the shipping fates to challenge their strength and endurance. As with the stretcher bars, labels revealed the crates’ histories and added to the gallery’s workaday, behind-the-scenes effect, to which I added an exotic touch by draping them with a couple of objects from our oceanic collection (our members got a major buzz when invited to go behind-the-scenes, like being invited to an artist’s studio or the locker room of their favorite pro sports team). Still, the highlight of the three-dimensional portion of the installation, at least for me, was the old black and white, rabbit-eared TV we got from Bertha Rose’s Back Bay town house after she died (we also got a refrigerator and a Matisse drawing). I ordinarily kept it on a chair in my office (I was in my “General Hospital” phase back then), but I installed it in the gallery atop an ancient middle-Eastern, marble architectural capital that had been given by a long-time friend of the museum/university who was just too endearing to say no to.       

The TV was turned on each day when the museum opened, and a label nearby invited visitors to change channels and raise or lower the volume if they wished—thus, the exhibit was participatory, it welcomed viewer interaction! Which was becoming a hot topic among museum professionals (and the granting agencies they depended on) in those days. No longer would museums present themselves as elitist bastions of culture, they would reach out to their audiences, embrace them, allow them to participate in educational programs and interact with exhibitions. A whole new museum world was dawning, and the Rose was right there at its cutting edge.

The second gallery—devoted to a few of (my) art history’s greatest hits—was a piece of cake compared to the first. Just three paintings: Velasquez, “The Surrender of Breda” (1634, Prado); Pollock “# 1, 1950” (1950, MoMA); and Matisse, “The Red Studio” (1911, MoMA). As you can imagine, we weren’t able to get the actual paintings by the time the show started (some of these museums take forever to consider loans), so I instead mounted a color postcard of each one in the center of the wall where it was meant to hang. Thinking some visitors might be disappointed by the substitute images, I also had our registrar place an explanatory note next to each postcard, thus: Temporarily removed for restoration, or Temporarily removed to be photographed, and so forth, just as you’ve seen in museums elsewhere.

And there you have it. Except I learned within a year of doing my installation that Marcel Broodthaers, among a handful of other conceptual artists, had beat me to the punch with a series of 1970s installations very like my own, so I clearly wasn’t the first to come up with the idea. But no matter, because I also learned that the idea had a name, it was called institutional critique, which meant I was part of a movement—an international movement, no less—and I was fully satisfied, even a little prideful, about that.

Reflections on Marina Abramovic, Performance and Theater

Once again the meaning of art changed when it entered a museum. For some reason this happens a lot at MoMA. The Richard Serra show a few years ago was an extreme example. Serra's early heavy lead works carried a lot of their power by threatening to fall, but at his MoMA retrospective this work was inexcusably roped off. And  I wrote before about Fluxus Art at MoMA and now it happened again with the recently concluded  exhibition Marina Abramovic, The Artist Is Present

I used to think Abramovic's work was pretty tough, but this re-staging (and "staging" is the operative word here) seemed cold, decorative, soulless, and sometimes even hokey,

There's a difference between Theater and Performance -- at least there was in the sixties when Performance as an art form began. A Performance is (at least used to be) a real, spontaneous, here and now event that engages the audience directly. Traditional theater is a rehearsed and controlled replica of a fictional event in which the conceit is that there is no audience (the fourth wall). Performance Art tends to be ephemeral, one of a kind, whereas theater is reproducible. I'm not making a qualitative judgement here -- I love straight theater. I'm saying there is (or was) a difference in kind between Performance Art as it was originally conceived in the sixties, and traditional theater.

It's significant that Abramovic and the actors replicating her performances did not make eye contact with their viewers. It was a way to disconnect from the audience, to construct a fourth wall between viewer and actor. The one time I was moved by any of the work was Nude with Skeleton, when a performer, not apparently an actor or model, but an ordinary looking middle-aged woman, made eye contact with me.

Marina Abramovic in "Nude With Skeleton," Sean Kelly Gallery, NY

When I asked a performer, who was up in a wall-mounted bicycle seat stretched in a crucifixion position, if she was allowed to talk, a guard ran up to me and actually said "don't engage the performers." Contrast this with Chris Burden’s 1973 Performance when he had his hands nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen. (Significantly Burden refused to allow Abramovic to repeat this Performance at the Guggenheim in 2005  -- or for that matter to allow any of his Performances to be repeated.)

The one thing that came closest to a true Performance was Abramovic’s 700-hour sitting and staring (but not engaging) marathon.  But with all the stagey trappings of theater -- the spotlight, the roped off stage, arty and extravagant costume (full length dress in patriotic red, white or blue), pretentious placement in the middle of the rotunda, omnipresent guards -- it ultimately was over-blown and heavy-handed.

What we're left with in Abramovic's work is arty sculpture and photography, and sometimes visually striking theater -- but without the dramatic arc or compelling narrative that makes for good theater, and without the raw immediacy that makes Performance Art so visceral.

There was one good bit of news to come out of this show, however. Even though the replicas of Abramovic’s  performances were relatively tame, it wasn't so long ago that a Guiliani would have caused a big stink over it. So I guess that's a certain amount of progress.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Introducing Carl Belz

Carl Belz will be writing occasionally for Left Bank Art Blog. From 1974 - 1998 Carl was director and curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and has taught Art History for much longer. He was my professor at UMass Amherst in the sixties, and has been a mentor and friend for almost fifty years.  He was the most impassioned and charismatic teacher I ever had, and he inspired hundreds of his students to become interested in art (including Deborah Wye, who will be retiring in September as Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA).

Carl worked with many of the major artists of our time and has remained an inspiring teacher. I'm looking forward to learning about his experiences and some of what he's learned over the years. Here's the first installment of I hope many.
--Charles Kessler

Curatorial Flashbacks: Valuing Art
by Carl Belz

I spent 24 years as director/curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham MA. Yes, that Brandeis, the one that announced in January 09 its intention to close the museum, sell the permanent collection to help pay bills that had been piling up around campus since the start of the current recession, and turn the building itself over to the Department of Fine Arts for use as student and faculty studios. The announcement felt like a dagger in the heart, not just to me, but to countless others across the country who've known, or known about, the Rose since its founding in 1961 and have admired its ongoing contribution to our understanding of the modern and contemporary visual arts.

It's not the first time I've seen a Brandeis president drool over the prospect of turning the university collection into a cash cow, yet I've never been able to believe it could actually happen. Thinking about it now, however, I shudder as I recall the current president proudly announcing-this was about 15 years ago-that the university would henceforth be run on the model of corporate America. Yikes! From that perspective, it goes without saying, the collection objects become mere commodities, appreciated for their market value instead of their esthetic content, which is their value as human expressions of thought and feeling. This, mind you, in the name of Louis Dembitz Brandeis, who must surely be turning in his grave.

Questions about value remind me of the time, early in my tenure at the Rose, when we had a break-in and attempted robbery at the museum, an incident that, surprisingly enough, kind of articulated how I'd felt about art's value all along, and how I continue to think about it even now.

It was a spring evening, and our exhibition comprised pictures from the permanent collection by heavy hitters such as Robert Motherwell, Willem deKooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Fairfield Porter, and Marsden Hartley, to name a few. Three young men smashed a clerestory window at the rear of the building, jumped to the floor of a gallery situated below ground level, and raced up a flight of stairs to the desk inside the front entrance, which is where our head guard was stationed when we were open to the public, and where we kept the museum's unlocked cash box containing, as I recall, seven or eight dollars. The would-be felons took the petty cash and bolted out the front door but then found they'd lingered too long in the museum-a couple of them suffered cuts going through the broken window-for they were quickly apprehended and removed to the slammer.

Naturally enough, we were all relieved. In our first real-life test, everything had worked as it was supposed to work: the alarms had sounded, campus security had responded immediately, the Waltham police had cooperated fully in the process, and we at the museum were in turn rewarded with renewed confidence in our security system and the personnel required to make it effective.

And then there was a bonus, which the head of campus security told me about a day or so after the incident. He said that one of the three young men had, on being questioned, made a confession of sorts when he lamented, "That was a really stupid thing to do, 'cause there was nothing in the building but art." Wow! Nothing but art! I loved it. Art as nothing but itself, of no use or value, Yet, and equally, nothing gives meaning more than art, nothing presents itself so independently of me or thee and thereby models what we might be. And what, I wondered, could be more valuable than that? In any case, that's how one of the Rose Art Museum mantras came into being, the one we invoked whenever we goofed up by misplacing an object in storage, bumping into a sculpture while backing up to sight and hang a painting, or inadvertently hanging an abstract painting upside down, the one that went, "Good thing it's nothing but art!"

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Diva Marina

This says it all!
Photo: Patrick McMullan Company

From ARTINFO: "Marina Abramovic's Givenchy jacket was made with the skin of 101 snakes, which all died of natural causes."