Saturday, December 18, 2010

Recommended Reading and Some Announcements

Shepard Fairey with Jeffrey Deitch and Fab 5 Freddy at Fairey's exhibition at the Deitch Gallery last May
By Charles Kessler

I never liked Shepard Fairey and this clinches it. The weasel "obeys" his dealer, now LAMOCA Director Jeffery Deitch, and defends the whitewashing over Blu's mural.

Europe Rules That Dan Flavin and Bill Viola Artworks Are Not Art
...the European Commission ruled that installations by Dan Flavin and Bill Viola cannot be classified as "art" by the galleries importing them. Instead of being subject to the five percent VAT (value-added tax) on artworks, such pieces will be taxed at the standard VAT, which will rise to 20 percent in 2011.

I wanted to write something on museums reaching out to visitors, but Gail Gregg says it all in this Art News Article.

Via the always informative Art Newspaper:
When the High Line opens its second segment, known simply as Section 2, in the Spring next year, it will double the length of the public art park. This will “greatly increase the possibilities for artists to work site-specifically,” says Lauren Ross, the curator and director of art programmes for Friends of the High Line.
Some Jersey City announcements:
  • Pro Arts is having its third “Art Eat-Up” event on January 14th, 7-10 pm, Grace Church. For a small donation, there’s a meal, entertainment and you get to vote for proposals that artists submit. All profits go to the winning artists. Past "Eat-Ups" have been real uppers. Go here for details.
  • Also, Pro Arts is looking for a part-time Executive Director. Details are here.
  • Art House Productions will be having their annual "Snow Ball" on January 22nd. This is one of the classiest, most fun events in Jersey City, and it supports an impressive organization. Here are the details.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My Two Weeks with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground

Not looking happy, from the left: Mary Woronov, Gerard Malanga, John Cale, Sterling Morrison,
Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Nico and Andy Warhol, c. 1965, Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis
By Charles Kessler

I was still in the Graduate School of Business at UCLA in 1966, about to transfer to the Art History Department (more on that someday), when I learned Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground were coming to LA for a two-week gig at The Trip in West Hollywood. It was timed to coincide with Andy’s exhibition of  “Silver Clouds” (mylar pillows filled with helium) at the Ferus Gallery. Unfortunately the helium leaked out during the course of the show and they slowly sunk to the ground. (Beginning December 19th you can see fully inflated ones at MoMA’s new exhibition, Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures.)

I can’t remember exactly how I met Warhol, but it was probably through Kurt von Meier, a zany teacher in the Art History department whom I met that summer through my mentor (and now fellow blogger) Carl Belz. In any case, Andy asked me to show him around Los Angeles, and even though I was a new arrival and didn't even have a car (I got around on a crummy motor scooter that kept falling over), I jumped at the chance. 

It wasn’t as glamorous or as transgressive as one might think. There was a lot of hanging around the kitchen table because the house they rented, a place called The Castle, wasn’t walking distance to anything, and hardly anyone had wheels.  Sterling Morrison borrowed a motorcycle from von Meier and stayed at the Tropicana in the heart of Sunset Strip with a few of the others, but even he would hang out at The Castle.

Here we were, at the height of the era of sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll, and as far as I knew there was nothing happening. Andy was asexual, although obviously a voyeur, but except for the show at The Trip there was nothing to even watch. (This was confirmed by Mary Woronov in a 2004 interview.) And as to drug activity, what little that may have taken place was behind closed doors. Andy disapproved of drugs and would even go so far as to hide them from Lou Reed. 

The exciting part was going to The Trip to watch the performance Andy and the others put together — THE EXPLODING PLASTIC INEVITABLE. It was a multimedia event in spades. In addition to deafening music by the Velvet Underground and spectral singing by Nico, there were blinding strobes (in an interview Sterling said they wore sunglasses because of the strobes, not to be cool), a chaotic movie of Warhol’s Factory by Ronald Nameth projected behind the singers and overlaid with multiple slide projections (Andy ran one of them), and an S&M whip dance by Mary Woronov and Gerard Malanga.

It was pandemonium, especially in contrast to the kind of Zen, hippie light shows in California at the time. And it didn’t exactly go over well with the public, who sometimes booed, or with the critics, who wrote things like "The Velvet Underground should go back underground and practice."

Here’s a taste of what it was like; but keep in mind, it was a LOT louder than this video.
Among the celebrities attending opening night were John Phillips of the Mammas and Papas, Ryan O’Neal, Sonny and Cher (Cher left early; she was quoted as saying “It will replace nothing, except maybe suicide” — but Sonny stayed).

Memory is tricky. I could have sworn The Doors opened for the Velvet Underground, but it was Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention (Lou hated them and ridiculed Zappa). Jim Morrison, the Doors’ lead (and a recent UCLA graduate), attended the first few concerts and I think was influenced by them, at least to the extent of adopting Gerard Malanga’s tight black leather pants and the Velvet’s droning sound. The Doors were going to open for The Velvets after the third night, but they never got the chance because the Sheriff's Department shut The Trip down for suspected drug use and disturbing the peace. That wouldn’t have bother me — I never liked the Doors much. I thought they were too pretentious. My passion then was Motown — still is. But lucky for me, according to union rules the Velvet Underground had to stay in Los Angeles to be paid, so I got to hang out with them (when I wasn’t busy — I was still a graduate student) for the full two weeks.

Andy wasn’t the easiest person to talk to — he was very shy, and his lack of affect could be disconcerting. He was even more difficult to talk to during this period because he was going around tape recording everything anyone said to him. It’s a little hard to have a conversation with a microphone in your face. (Some of these verbatim transcripts eventually became his “novel,” a, A Novel — a book that makes so-called realistic dialogue seem artificial in comparison.)

Besides Andy I mostly talked to the beautiful, sultry, Mary Woronov. She was an actor in several of Andy’s movies including Chelsea Girls (she also starred in Eating Raoul).  Her role with the Velvets was to do a sexy whip dance with Gerard Malanga ( I only saw him at The Trip). In many ways she was the complete opposite of Nico (aside from both being beautiful): she had a dark complexion, dark brown hair and always wore black, whereas Nico had a pale complexion, blond hair and wore all white clothing; and Mary was a warm, friendly person — not at all the ice queen. (I think I may have been in love!) I also spent time with Paul Morrisey (Warhol's business manager), Maureen “Mo” Tucker (a boyish innocent, and a creative drummer) and guitarist Sterling Morrison when he was around. I hardly ever saw Lou Reed (who spent a lot of the time upstairs stoned) or Nico (who was impossible to have a sane conversation with in any case).

One of the most memorable occasions was a party at the Brentwood home of movie director Mark Robson.  Andy was a great fan of Robson’s movie Peyton Place and was dying to meet him. Via UCLA, I was good friends with two of his daughters, Judy and Martha, and they arranged the party. Again, it wasn’t all that glamorous (although it was the first time I tasted good wine). I don’t think there were movie stars there (not that I can ever recognize them when I see them). No one mentioned seeing any; and it wouldn’t be Mr. Robson’s style in any case. Andy talked to Mr. Robson about Valley of the Dolls, a movie he was working on, and Mr. Robson, who was one of the great Hollywood directors, and a really nice, straightforward guy, kept suggesting kooky ideas for movies. Warhol, in his hesitant, whiny manner, took me aside and told me he didn’t think Mark Robson understood what he did.

The climax of the evening took place when some drunk got belligerent and grabbed Andy. I put my arm between them, and a couple of the Velvets (I don’t remember who) pushed the guy into a chair and stood over him. Andy whimpered to me “I don’t like this party. Can we go somewhere else?” So we left.

The other indelible memory was our trip to, of all places, Disneyland. We all piled into a van and drove to Anaheim (about an hour away). The main topic during the trip was if we’d be allowed in because Disneyland had just refused entry to some famous person who didn’t comply with their strict dress code. The Velvets were convinced that their long hair and black New York clothing would exclude them. I really think they were disappointed when they got in — until, that is, they actually went inside. Then all the bored, sophisticated pretense of Sunset Strip went by the wayside. They were really excited by the place.
The Matterhorn, Disneyland, Anaheim California

Paul handed out money to everybody, including me, for food and rides. I made the mistake of going on the Matterhorn (sort of a tame roller coaster ride) with “the boys” who sang the Mickey Mouse Song at the top of their lungs while trying to tip the car off the rail. Andy didn’t go on any of the rides. I think he was (justifiably) afraid. He’d find some place to sit, drink orange juice (he must have lived on orange juice; I never saw him consume anything else) and watch us. It was like dad (or “Father” in the sense of a priest) watching his flock of twenty-somethings having fun at Disneyland.

I didn't realize then how rare this opportunity was; I was excited, but I guess I sort of thought this would be a common thing for me and not such a big deal. I know better now.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer based in Jersey City

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Architecture of Color “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time” Whitney Museum of American Art

Edward Hopper, The Barber Shop, 1931, (Neuberger Museum of Art)
By Kyle Gallup

The faceless, gold-rimmed clock hangs silently on the wall of the shop. A manicurist leafs through a magazine awaiting her next client. A smooth, aqua-glass table holds the instruments of her trade. The barber in his white jacket, back to us, cuts the hair of a customer. His featureless reflection is muted, a fuzzy oval in the mirror. The painting offers us a momentary look inside one of the city’s many barbershops, and we become observers of the placid scene.

A harsh light shines through the window throwing the interior into a bright white, casting cool purple shadows into the imagined space. Is it the midday sun shining in the window, or is it perhaps early morning? Peering outside, the buildings on the street are dark, showing only the slightest punctuation of windows in their facades. A solid, yellow curtain on the window holds back darkness outside. The stair banister of acid yellow-green heats up the interior. Its ornate scrolled metal, transparently painted in tones of brown and purple, angles into the shop, echoing the purple shadow cast into the room by the outside light. The light and shadow—cool and warm, bright white to dark tonalities—color the painting vividly. Edward Hopper uses the architecture of color to create an atmosphere we enter as viewers of his paintings.

Color is the dominant character in Hopper's work and it's what leads me into his world of cityscapes and small town life. Color and light inventively structure his scenes. They reveal solidity of form while creating ambiance and abstract relationships suggestive of time and place without making specific reference to it.

Edward Hopper’s work has long captured America’s imagination. His paintings have become iconic and he is, in popular culture, the painter of the Everyman. The idea that Hopper painted loneliness and alienation as the human condition has practically become a cliché. However, I believe this idea is actually outside the realm of what he thought or cared about. His interest and attention were in the color and light, geometry and space, making order in a rapidly changing world; a nineteenth century boy in a twentieth century world.

As a young man (b.1882) Edward Hopper lived in Paris. He visited museums and made drawings and paintings around the city. He was very interested in Degas’ work. Hopper took from Degas the idea that he could use intimacy as a way for the viewer to enter a painting, though he executed it differently. While Degas was the master observer with an eye for intimate moments with his subjects—the many sensitive drawings and paintings of ballet dancers and the pastel drawings of women in the bath, for instance—Hopper forges an intimate bond between the viewer of his paintings and himself. He paints his figures simply. Yet, their purpose within the composition is abstract and connected to his formal concerns. The figures go about their mundane tasks and do not have the monumentality that the buildings and urban scenes around them express.

The bond of intimacy with the viewer Hopper creates allows us into his world. He wants us to glimpse what he sees. When we look at his paintings we become a voyeur like the painter himself. Hopper exploits his figures, whether it’s seeing the naked pastiness of their skin through an apartment window or watching them go about the humdrum existence in which they are caught. His paintings are cool and lack human warmth—they remain emotionally remote. His figures are mannequins, lonely placeholders in a formal, finely orchestrated world. It is Hopper’s color that continually gives his paintings fullness and connects us to the inner workings of his private world.

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks #10: Disasters Averted, Mostly (Part 2)

By Carl Belz

Incident: I was called to the office of acting president Stuart Altman at the start of the 1990-91 academic year and told that $120K would be cut from the museum’s budget during the next two fiscal years. The goal was a museum that would not financially encumber the university, funding degree zero. On hearing that, I pretty much went into shock. What the bulk of that $120K consisted of, you see, was the payroll for the museum’s entire professional staff—curator, registrar, membership and events coordinator, and preparator. Fortunately, the directorship had recently been endowed, but wherever would we each year get $120K to keep the place going into the future? Through membership and occasional grants, we were already paying our own way for all of the exhibitions we mounted and the attendant catalogs we published, not to mention the lecture series and other special events that we additionally sponsored. The endowed Rose Purchase Fund enabled us to pursue acquisitions without cost to the university, while expenses for building maintenance were annually covered by yet another endowment that Vice President David Steinberg and I had established back in the late 1970s. Further developmental efforts—to the tune of $120K per year—seemed beyond our reach. Ironically, at the moment when we were close to becoming “a tub on its own bottom”—alas, David Steinberg, long our shield against capricious administration mischief, had left Brandeis in the early 1980s—it was suddenly not inconceivable that we might have to close our doors. Having come to believe that only endowment could secure the museum against future administrative indignities, I determined to build ours, and I elected to do so via deaccessioning.    

We’d done some deaccessioning before, back in the late 1970s when we sold at auction about 15 Old Master pictures, the majority of which turned out to be not Old Masters but rather “followers of” and “students of” and “circles of” Old Masters. We did this in the process of focusing on the modern as our institutional mission, and we did it with the consent of the university administration and after contacting, to the extent we were able, the donors of the pictures, a number of which had come to the university prior to the building of the Rose Art Museum. Per negotiation with the university, proceeds from the sale went into a growing endowment targeted for the museum’s general operation, and that was that. Accordingly, we followed the same procedure in 1990-91 when we deaccessioned and assigned to auction 13 late 19th and early 20th century pictures, including examples by Renoir, Degas, Bonnard and Vuillard. In doing so, we were increasingly identifying the Rose mission as being synonymous with the post-World War II founding of Brandeis University itself.

Outcome: By 1991, however, the cultural climate had shifted. We’d witnessed a decade’s worth of an upwardly spiraling art market so wild that it reminded some economists of tulip mania in the 1630s—a popular candidate for status as the world’s first investment bubble—and in turn alarmed veteran art observers with the thought that works of art were becoming mere speculative commodities. Among museum professionals, there spread concern that some institutions might start selling artworks just to meet their day-to-day expenses—as if they were corporate entities concerned only with the bottom line instead of with the public trust. The most audible voice in articulating that concern was the voice of the AAMD—the Association of Art Museum Directors—and its message was clear: Proceeds accruing from the deaccession and sale of works of art can only be used to make new acquisitions.

I don’t know what the AAMD is like now, but back in 1991 it was like an elite club of individuals representing our country’s wealthiest and most distinguished institutions. It was not, however, an association that just any art museum director could join—as I learned when I naively wrote to them saying I wanted to be a member. You had to apply for acceptance, and to apply for acceptance you had to have an institutional budget of at least $1M a year. I repeat, $1 million! Which left the Rose Art Museum, with its total budget of about half a million dollars at most, on the outside looking in. But which didn’t mean we weren’t on the AAMD’s radar screen. Far from it, as we learned when we were informed after its annual summer meeting in 1991 that the AAMD members, upon learning of our forthcoming sale—it was by no means a secret—had voted unanimously to sanction the Rose Art Museum. Which meant that the institutions they represented would to the Rose neither a borrower nor a lender be, which in turn left us in cultural limbo, adrift, without rank in the professional community with which we were identified. It was a bitter pill to swallow at the moment when we were trying to keep the museum alive, particularly as it came from a group we were prohibited from joining—and not for reasons having to do with our record of achievement, but because of a hoary caste system based on wealth. 

Limbo was not a fun place to be. I didn’t like it. My RAM teammates didn’t like it. Brandeis’s new president, Dr. Samuel Thier—who’d arrived on campus about the time the sanction had been imposed—didn’t like it. And by all accounts, the AAMD didn’t like it either. But with President Thier guiding the process, a compromise was agreed upon, to wit: Brandeis could determine the use of funds resulting from the sale of artworks given to the university prior to the establishment of the Rose Art Museum in 1961, while funds resulting from the sale of artworks given after the establishment of the museum would be used only for further acquisitions.

The auction took place in November 1991 and 12 of the 13 pictures sold, yielding approximately $3 million, which broke down as follows: $1 million went into the acquisitions endowment; $1 million went to an educational endowment requested by the donors of one of the pictures and agreed to by the president; and $1 million was used to establish a conservation and collections care endowment, which, when viewed properly through a creative lens, enabled me to ease steadily the $120K burden originally imposed by the interim administration’s budget cut, the one that precipitated this entire saga and all the discomfort that went with it. I sometimes think about that discomfort and the sagging morale it generated around the Rose in the months prior to the incident’s resolution, and I’m still briefly saddened when I do.

But then I also think about how Rose director Michael Rush must have felt on January 26, 2009 when he woke up and heard president Jahuda Reinharz announce that Brandeis had decided to close the museum and sell the permanent collection to compensate for the huge downturn in the university’s financial resources. Now there’s an incident that could not only sadden, it could actually break your heart. It did mine.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Recommended Reading

Jacob Jordaens, The-Four-Evangelists, ca. 1625-30, oil on canvas, Louvre has a couple of informative posts today.
More Picassos discovered -- it's become even more complicated:
MOUANS-SARTOUX, France— As a French art crime squad continues to investigate the provenance of the 271 works by Picasso that Pierre Le Guennec, the artist's former electrician, has claimed were gifts, another trove of Picassos has also made the news. The artist is said to have given several works to his chauffeur, Maurice Bresnu, who in 1991 bequeathed the collection to his widow, Jacqueline Bresnu. Following her death in 2009, the works were scheduled to be auctioned by Drouot today, but the heirs unexpectedly decided to postpone the sale without explaining why. Now, Pierre Le Guennec has revealed that Jacqueline Bresnu is a cousin and that he and his wife Danièle are among those who will inherit this new cache of Picassos.
They also have an excellent up-to-date summary of the Wojnarowicz video censorship controversy at the National Portrait Gallery.

Steven Colbert defends the removal of the video, saying that the decision was "based on the finest aesthetic criteria — Republicans threatened their funding." And while you're at it, watch his show with Steve Martin, Frank Stella, Shepard Fairey and Andres Serrano.
Blu’s MOCA mural being whitewashed (via Unurth, images by Casey Caplowe)

Another potential censorship controversy MAY be taking place at Jeffrey Deitch's Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Deitch commissioned street artist Blu to paint a mural on the walls of the museum and on December 9th it was whitewashed over. Some think it's a Deitch publicity stunt -- a definitely possibility. For current information on this, go to  MSN's Good Magazine.

Mithila Painting

Ranti Women's Art Coop
By Charles Kessler

There’s a kind of art that has characteristics of folk art, tribal art, tourist art and fine art.  It’s sometimes called “vernacular” art, but that implies the artists are untrained and that’s not the case, unless they mean untrained in the Western Fine Art Tradition. It’s highly sophisticated work within its own realm in that practitioners learn from each other, compete with each other, and evolve as artists within their own tradition with minimal significant outside influence. The art is usually encouraged and promoted by the government or not-for-profits, and a lot of it is bought by tourists, but the best work is sought by sophisticated collectors and shown in major art galleries and museums.  Examples include Gee’s Bend quilts, Australian Aboriginal bark painting, and Mithila Painting -- work which can be seen until December 13th at Pingry, a prominent private school in New Jersey.

The name Mithila (also known as Madhubani art for the large city in the region) refers to a style of Hindu art in the north-eastern region of India and parts of Nepal. It began at least as long ago as the 14th century with women painting gods and goddesses and images of fertility on the walls of their homes in order to bring blessings on marriages and other important life events. The work moved from walls to paper in the 1960’s when the government encouraged the women (and now a few men) to earn extra money by making paintings on paper. Soon the subject matter expanded from religious symbolism to depictions of local deities, and now to domestic life and even feminist and other political subjects like this:
Shalini Kumari, Women Do It All, 2005, paint on paper (collection of the Ethnic Arts Foundation)
The paintings are done without preparatory sketches, and are begun with a framing border of ornamental geometric or floral designs that reflect the subject of the painting. The main subject is in the center and the painting is worked out toward the framing border. Embellishing details are then added, and, the last thing, the eyes are filled in to bring the painting to life. 
Swati Kashyap, Women Grinding Corn, 2007, paint on paper
Bharti Kumari, bin Laden Rules the World, 2009
David Szanton, an anthropologist based in Berkeley, has been the main force in researching, preserving and promoting this art through his foundation, the Ethnic Arts Foundation (where you can find all you want to know about this work). To quote from their mission statement, the Foundation: purchases paintings directly from scores of painters, then organizes or co-sponsors exhibitions and sales to individuals, collectors, and museums. Profits from sales are then returned to the artists, in effect providing a double payment for their work. The Foundation also supports the Mithila Art Institute, a free school that trains young people, mostly women, in the art form.

Locally, Peter Zirnis ( is helping to sell their work.  The larger works (30" x 40") are $300 and the smaller works (5.25" x 7.25") are only $40 (although at present they are sold out) ALL PROFITS ARE RETURNED TO THE ARTISTS. Here are some examples of the smaller paintings:
Mamka Karn, Nandi (Shiva's Bull), 2010, paint on paper
Sharda, Tree with Pond, 2010, paint on paper

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Recommended Links

Sarah Douglas reveals some of the inner workings of the art market in her ARTINFO post, Through the Looking Glass: Behind Jacob Kassay's Meteoric Auction Rise:
The painting's sale exposed a number of things about the art market at the moment, among them the hunger for work by young artists on the part of both collectors and highly competitive galleries. It also raised, once again, discussions about the effect that an unusually high auction price can potentially have on a young artist's career.
Shane McAdams in The Brooklyn Rail has some big picture thoughts about Abstract Expressionism and the art that followed it, "That Barnett Newman 'Onement' Painting Is, Like, So 1948",
There might be a significant lack of self-awareness guiding the angsty, rugged individualism and arrogance of the New York School, but you can’t deny their willingness for a good, hard fight. Self-awareness may have been Hamlet’s tragic flaw, but for now it’s our solution. When the world looks like it’s falling apart, though, perhaps ironic detachment will begin to look less like an antidote to chauvinism and more like a banal evil, unequipped to fight the pricks of history.
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, Khu, October 2, 2010. (Photo, Hugo Glendinning.)

More big picture thoughts in the Brooklyn Rail, this time by Vince Carducci on Matthew Barney's "Heart of Darkness."
The soup can’s serial iteration announces art as the commodity it’s always been in modern western culture. It reveals a reality completely deracinated by capitalist relations, from everyday practices like meal preparation to rarefied high culture experiences such as aesthetic contemplation. It also supplants the Romantic “natural genius” and replaces it with the artist as a commodity-sign, the product of a semiotic system, the “artworld” as Warhol interpreter Arthur Danto would have it. (“Andy Warhol” is a registered trademark, USPTO Reg. No. 3707078.)

Similarly, Barney’s work reveals contemporary art as a potlatch of global capitalism. It provides cathartic release from the imperative of relentless accumulation, giving vent to the wealth concentrations that neoliberalism has delivered into a few hands.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
This week the Science Section of the Times has a few articles about jigsaw puzzles. Here's what they said about the above puzzle:
Note this puzzle’s figures: a snow flake and howling dog among the loose pieces, and a horseshoe beneath the topmost bird.
Polèse, in this well-written essay, comes up with seven reasons, this being one of them:
Personal contact is also crucial in industries where creativity, inspiration, and imagination are vital inputs. For firms working in these rapidly evolving industries—high fashion, say, or computer graphics—the surest way to stay on top of the latest news is to locate near similar firms. The more that information can be transmitted electronically, it seems, the more valuable becomes information that cannot be so transmitted. Electronic and face-to-face communications tend to be complements; business travel, for example, has accelerated since the advent of the Internet. The more people communicate, the more they want to meet in the flesh
Allan Kaprow, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (re-doing), Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2006. Photo by Marion Vogel.
Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, Festival Hall, review.  Richard Dorment of the London Telegraph loves the idea but hates the result.  
...Though often portrayed in the popular press as spontaneous free-for-alls complete with nude girls, film projections, audience participation and clouds of dry ice and marijuana, Kaprow’s early happenings were in fact a sophisticated synthesis of visual art and theatre.

They were also remarkably austere. If marijuana was ubiquitous at these entertainments, it may have been because they were so tedious that audiences needed to anaesthetise themselves before watching them. I know this because over the weekend I went to one in the Festival Hall.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks #9: Disasters Averted, Mostly

By Carl Belz

Incident: You remember my telling you in CF #1 about the break-in at the Rose Art Museum when one of the apprehended felons bitterly complained that there was “nothin’ in the building but art.” What I didn’t include in the story was that one of the thieves cut himself while climbing through the broken clerestory window atop the gallery wall and proceeded to splatter blood on one of our paintings as he jumped to the floor below. Which would have been bad news in any case but was especially alarming in this case, as the painting in question was an air-brushed, super-realist Paul Sarkisian image of a postcard lying on several sheets of creased paper, all of which were resting upon an abstract, immaculate field that was pure snow-white. The sight of blood on the picture was frightening, it looked terminal.

Outcome: We called Morton Bradley, an independent conservator who lived in the area and had done work for us on other occasions, told him our story, and he calmly instructed us to send the picture to his place first thing in the morning. Which we did, and it was back in the museum in less than a week, looking as good as new, as if the incident had never happened. Among the members of Team Rose, Morton Bradley was henceforth referred to as The Magician.

Incident: For about 10 years after becoming director of the Rose, I reported to Brandeis Vice President David Steinberg, an exact contemporary of mine who was knowledgeable about art, genuinely believed in the museum’s mission and well-being, and effectively protected our interests within the highest levels of the university’s administration. He was also development-minded, forever on the lookout for opportunities to “make the museum a tub on its own bottom,” his rather unappealing metaphor for saying that if the museum were separately endowed it would be insulated from the budgetary cutbacks that periodically descended upon it from on high and threatened its very existence. In any case, one memorable developmental opportunity that David arranged entailed our visiting Ben Heller at his spacious Park Avenue residence where we encountered major Rothkos and Motherwells among other contemporary masterpieces—not altogether surprising, as Ben Heller was well known as the early owner of Pollock’s Blue Poles, but seriously impressive all the same. After looking around, I remarked to Mr. Heller that I especially liked his early Motherwell, it had an edge to it, it was a tough picture. To which he responded, “Yes, like the Motherwell I gave Brandeis back in the 1950s, the yellow one I personally delivered in my car.” Which totally stunned me, because—and you can take my word for this—I knew by then every picture in the Rose collection, and there was only one Motherwell in it, an Elegy, and Ben Heller had not given it. In helpless consternation, I asked if he was sure. He said he was sure, and he said it firmly. I told him I’d look into it when I returned to campus. I said I’d get back to him. We left. I could feel the gate to his philanthropy closing behind us. I was reeling, I was dejected.

Outcome: I dug deep into the files and discovered in one labeled Early Correspondence the carbon copy of a letter from Walter Spink, acting curator of the university’s art collection before the Rose existed, to Ben Heller, expressing regrets that on his recent visit to campus Mr. Heller had been unable to see the Motherwell painting he’d donated to Brandeis, because it was hanging in a student’s dormitory room. OMG! Whatever was this, and what could it mean—a Robert Motherwell painting hanging in a student’s room! But then the light over my head went on and, flashing back 25 years, I was able to see what happened. Like many of the pictures given to the university during the early 1950s, the Motherwell had been added to the student loan collection, from which undergraduates were able to rent artworks for $5 apiece for the academic year. (NB: Albeit informally, art was integral to Brandeis’s early institutional mission.) With the passage of time, the collection naturally required periodic editing as many of the objects accrued the aura of high-priced commodities—I personally discovered an exquisite little 1940s David Smith bronze lounging in it—but back in the distant, misty days of the innocent 50s they were merely educational delectations—you might say they were nothing but art—and a few of them seem sadly to have slipped through the cracks and disappeared—like the Motherwell. So, on behalf of Brandeis University, I wrote a letter to Ben Heller acknowledging our responsibility and lamenting our misfortune. We never heard from or approached him again.

Incident: Jake Berthot and I worked together on an exhibition of his paintings that took place at the Rose Art Museum in May/June 1988 and then traveled to the Lannan Museum in Lake Worth, Florida and the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, California. It was a mid-career survey comprising about 40 pictures from the late 1960s to the present that chronicled Jake’s ongoing and unfolding passion for the materials of his art, for the pleasures of mark-making, for painting as painting. Color, always in oil, was somber and earthy at the start, but it increasingly blossomed in the 80s, becoming thick, ebullient, and palpably radiant in the newest pictures we included. Irresistibly so—as I learned to my astonishment one day while walking through the galleries and noticing that the identifying label on one of the recent paintings had been smudged with something red. A closer look revealed—yikes and again yikes—that a visitor’s finger had probed the picture surface, as though swiping a dollop of icing from the top of a freshly frosted cake, only to discover that the paint hadn’t fully dried, and thus needed to be wiped clean. And where to do that? On the label, of course!

Outcome: Though the surface of the painting was everywhere restlessly active with brushwork, I couldn’t talk myself or anyone else on Team Rose into believing the finger probe wouldn’t be noticed. What, then, to do? We needed a creative solution. And who was the best candidate for that? The artist himself! So I called Jake and explained what had happened, and he didn’t get angry or upset, he just calmly advised me to get the picture to him ASAP and he’d see what he could do. Whereupon our registrar hand-carried the painting to New York that very afternoon, delivered it to Jake at his studio, and it was back in the museum in less than a week, looking as good as new, as if the incident had never happened. Jake had worked his magic, but his legerdemain was fully transparent—nothing but the meaning of his painting remained visible.    

(This is part one of a two-fer. Part two will appear before you know it)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thomas Nozkowski’s New Paintings

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-136), 2010, oil on linen on panel, 22" x 28"

By Charles Kessler

From an extensive John Yau interview with Tom Nozkowski in the Brooklyn Rail:
I love being part of a community in time, you know? Before I decided to become an artist, I really thought about becoming a historian. I thought that would be a really interesting thing to do. One of the reasons I love painting, this singular thing, is the communal part of it, all sorts of people in different times and places, all trying to catch and hold some part of the visual continuum...
Nozkowski is a knowledgeable and literate artist who looks at a lot of art — and he’s a real mensch. Maybe it’s a sign the art world is maturing (at least some sector of the art world) that an artists' artist like Nozkowski can receive the recognition he has long deserved. I hope so. Here’s a link to his current Pace Gallery show, but be forewarned, this is one slow and cumbersome website. There are only a few days left; the show closes December 4th.

Each of Nozkowski’s paintings is very different, unlike the work of most other abstract artists. He works more in the manner of Richard Tuttle than Brice Marden, for example. (It’s perhaps worth noting that many other abstract painters make size a significant variant, but Nozkowski’s works are all the same size, 22” x 28”.)  Nozkowski’s work is always recognizably his, but the imagery and what goes on in the paintings are all very different — and there’s a lot going on indeed.  Also, unlike most current painting, Nozkowski’s work comes without a schpeel to justify it (see Christopher K. Ho at Edward Winkleman Gallery).

In the Rail interview, Nozkowski says his paintings are derived from personal experiences in the broadest sense: “Events, things, ideas—anything. Objects and places in the visual continuum, sure, but also from other arts and abstract systems. ... The reality my paintings draw upon is as complex, varied, and self-examining as I can make it.” 

The thing is, one can’t come up with these kinds of rich and complex shapes out of your head. Head shapes are always boring. And the other way to generate interesting shapes — to use accident and chance — results in marks and shapes that feel arbitrary. (BTW, I think this is why Pollock moved away from his classic drip paintings.) But because Nozkowski’s marks and shapes are grounded in the real world, however tenuously, they feel like they mean something, even if we don’t know specifically what that is. On the other hand, if the work becomes too representational, like the drawing Untitled (P-38) 2008 (which looks like two headless dogs walking past each other in opposite directions), the painting loses its free-floating interaction. All the rectangles stay put and coalesce into one thing — dogs.
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (P-38), 2008 oil on paper, 22" x 30"
I’m reminded of what Charles Garabedian (who will be having a major retrospective opening soon in Santa Barbara) once said about his own work:  “I disagree with everything, including myself; so whenever I do something I contradict it.” Nozkowski’s paintings are a rich balance of contradictions. What at first appears to be a distinct figure-ground duality is confounded — sometimes with surprising results. In Untitled (8-136) (top) for example, the black shapes can be seen as space behind a blue shape; or the reverse: black shapes floating in front of a blue field. And the string of small colorful squares — don’t ask! They bounce all over the place.

Space is twisted and wobbles; shapes, formed of smaller shapes, dissolve and form other shapes (or colored spaces). His Untitled (8-129) (below) turns the figure and ground upside down. The smaller rectangles that make up the large central bluish shape are semi-opaque and loosely painted so each one sometimes becomes a field of color rather than a solid shape. They vibrate and interact among themselves, some advancing, others receding.  The yellow “ground” is full with the color of previous painting coming through (unfortunately this can’t be seen in reproduction). And the colorful shapes on the top bop into space at all kinds of quirky angles.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-129), 2010, oil on linen on panel, 22 1/8" x 28 1/8"
This is masterful work — an artist fully in control of his medium and the myriad of painterly moves he’s invented over the years.  

A word about the installation of this show:
In the past, Nozkowski would line up his paintings like soldiers, equally spaced, one after another. His work, more than most, needs to be seen one at a time, but since they’re all the same size there’s a tendency to walk in, take the show in all at once, and feel overwhelmed.  In this show, each painting has a drawing next to it that was made AFTER the painting, so things are broken up a bit. Still, the installation is too regular. I think it would be great if he tried sometime to install the work in as an eccentric a manner as the work itself. Or, if that is too much of a distraction, at least break things up a bit by occasionally changing the spacing of the paintings. 

The best thing about this installation is that Nozkowski asked for the work to be shown with natural light until around 4:00 when it gets too dark. It’s the first time I ever saw his work under really great natural light and it absolutely glows. It’s especially thrilling on a semi-cloudy day when the light constantly shifts.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer based in Jersey City