Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello

By Charles Kessler

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello is at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway at 61st Street, through June 14th). All the work in this exhibition was made in the first decades of the fifteenth century for the Cathedral of Florence ("The Duomo"); and it's all on loan from the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Duomo Museum) while it undergoes renovation and expansion. The exhibition consists of twenty-three sculptures by the early Renaissance artists Brunelleschi, Nanni di Banco, Luca della Robbia, and, most impressively, by Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, a.k.a. Donatello.
The Museum of Biblical Art.
This is a rare opportunity for Americans to see Donatello's sculpture – the only one in the country I know of is Madonna of the Clouds, ca. 1425-35, a small relief in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The Museum of Biblical Art is not exactly on the art world map – I would pass it sometimes when I went to Lincoln Center, or to a movie in the area, but I never went in. So it's surprising that this small, little-known museum is not only a venue for this blockbuster, but the sole venue. It was the only institution that could accommodate the time schedule of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. There's something wrong when our art institutions are so inflexible that they have to pass on a major exhibition of early Florentine Renaissance sculpture as extraordinary as this.

The museum's exhibition space is relatively small, but the installers managed to keep the space from feeling crowded or claustrophobic. Because the sculpture stands are the same warm white color as the walls, things don't feel busy; and because semi-transparent scrim curtains are employed to define separate areas, viewers can focus on one or two works at a time and still feel a sense of openness.
Installation view of the exhibition Sculpture in the Age of Donatello at the Museum of Biblical Art. In the foreground is Brunelleschi's model for the top of the Duomo. 

Let's start with the greatest work in the exhibition, and one of the greatest sculptures of all time: Donatello's Prophet, know by its nickname “The Zuccone” (meaning pumpkin head or bald head)
Donatello, Prophet (The Zuccone), 1423–1425, marble, 77 inches high.
I find it awe-inspiring and mysterious that a large hunk of carved stone can have such a powerful emotional impact. I guess it has something to do with our empathizing with the sculpture as if it were a real person –  a person in this case who is a gaunt 7-footer, with a bald head, sinewy limbs, and who wears voluminous heavy drapery – a person with the stern, ascetic presence and uncompromising nature of the Old Testament prophet he was.
Detail: Donatello, Prophet (known as The Zuccone), 1435-36, marble.
And it's not only the person depicted that produces this emotional impact; it's abstract elements as well. The rough-hewn quality of the stone imparts a sense of solidity and heaviness, and the sweeping, soaring curves of the drapery add to the exhilarating drama.

The Zuccone was originally placed in the Duomo bell tower 70 feet up in the air. In order to keep the sculpture looking monumental and formidable from that distance, Donatello elongated and narrowed the body, making it seem even taller than it actually is. And the head is small relative to the body, making it appear even further away from the viewer. (See the photo below which I took from as low as I could manage.) This elongation is reinforced by the vertical lines of the drapery whose folds converge like railroad tracks to create the illusion of even more distance.
Low view of Donatello's The Zuccone, 1435-36, marble.
While The Zuccone and other sculptures in this exhibition are very big, they're not colossal. The figures are big enough to be extraordinary, but not so big that they couldn't be credible as real people.

Attributed to Giovanni d'Ambrogio, The Annunciation; left, Virgin Mary; right, Archangel Gabriel, late 14th century, marble (about 5 or 6 feet high).
This charming pair of sculptures illustrates The Annunciation  – the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. Mary looks as if she's saying, "Oh, go on!" and the angel Gabriel is saying, "Hold on a minute while I explain." That we're able to read human emotion in these figures is a radical departure from the otherworldly art of the medieval period, and it's the main change brought by the Renaissance.

Donatello with the assistance of  Nanni di Bartolo, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1421, marble, 75 inches high.
The Sacrifice of Isaac  (also known as The Binding of Isaac) is, of course, the story in Genesis in which God tests the Patriarch Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. At the last minute, an angel stops the sacrifice and tells Abraham, "Now I know you fear God." Most artists before and after Donatello chose the moment when the angel of God stopped Abraham from killing his only son; Donatello chose a less dramatic a moment – after the angel interceded and Abraham withdrew his knife. Perhaps Donatello chose this moment to put more emphasis on Isaac, whom he portrays without anguish or fear, calmly accepting his fate – a reference to Jesus accepting His fate.

[There's an interesting discussion here (halfway down the page) about Kierkegaard and Sartre's perspectives on this story. Some of the questions the two philosophers posed are: Does Abraham have a free will to decide what to do? How could Abraham be sure it was a real angel? How did he know the command really came from God and not the devil? And why didn't it occur to Abraham that he might be going crazy?]

Can you spot an anachronism in Donatello's representation of Isaac?

Installation view, left: Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist, 1408-15, marble, 82 inches high; right: Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1410-11, marble, 82 ⅔ inches high.
An "Evangelist" in this context (with a capital "E") is an author of a Christian gospel, not someone who proselytizes. Both figures are formidable and monumental (seven feet seated!), and both figures seem lost in thought, perhaps listening to the word of God. But Nanni di Banco's St. Luke is more serene and classical (note St. Luke's Roman-like hair and beard), whereas Donatello's St. John is dramatically expressive down to his toes.
Detail: Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1410-11.
Originally, Donatello's St. John the Evangelist was prominently placed to the right of the main portal of the Cathedral of Florence where, one hundred years later, Michelangelo would have seen it every time he passed by; it no doubt influenced his Moses.
On the left: Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1410-11, marble, 82 ⅔ inches high. On the right: Michelangelo, Moses, c. 1513-1515, marble, 92 inches (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome). 
As if Sculpture in the Age of Donatello isn't reason enough to make a trip to the Upper West Side, there are two other important exhibitions within a few blocks of the Museum of Biblical Arts. The American Folk Art Museum has a show of multi-media art by folk and outsider artists that Roberta Smith favorably reviewed here; and the Museum of Art and Design has an excellent Richard Estes exhibition. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bushwick Galleries – A Photo Essay

By Charles Kessler

There have been a lot of good shows in Bushwick lately. Here are one or two images each from some of my favorites, and links to more images and information.

Fred Valentine: Toward Grandfather Mountain (closed March 8th)
Studio 10 Gallery, 56 Bogart
Installation view, Fred Valentine, Studio 10 Gallery.
Fred Valentine, Untitled Abstract Picture #26, 2012, oil on canvas, 9 x 12 inches.

Henry Khudyakov: Final Brain Storm (through May 8th)
Black & White Gallery, 56 Bogart
Installation view, Henry Khudyakov, Black & White Gallery.
Front and back of Henry Khudyakov, Avengers, 1985-1996, collage on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. (Image courtesy of the artist and Black & While Gallery / Project Space.)

Tim Kent: A World After Its Own Image (Closed March 18th)
Slag Gallery, 56 Bogart
Installation view, Tim Kent: A World After Its Own Image, Slag Gallery.
Closeup detail: Tim Kent, The City Upon A Hill, 2015, oil on linen, 80 x 120 inches.

Jack Davidson: love, mistake, promise, auto crackup, color, petal (through April 12th)
THEODORE:Art Gallery, 56 Bogart
Installation view, Jack Davidson, THEODORE:Art Gallery.

Philip Taaffe (through April 26th)
Luhring Augustine Gallery, 25 Knickerbocker Avenue
Installation view, Phillip Taaffe, Luhring Augustine Gallery.

James Fotopoulos: The Given (through March 23rd)
Microscope Gallery, 1329 Willoughby Avenue, #2B
Installation view,  James Fotopoulos, 75-minute video featuring Sophie Traub as the lead, Microscope Gallery.

Alex Paik & Debra Ramsay: Generative Processes
TSA Gallery, 1329 Willoughby Avenue #2A
Carl Belz wrote about this show here.
Installation view, Alex Paik & Debra Ramsay, TSA Gallery.

Outlet Gallery, 253 Wilson Avenue
Installation view. On the left: glass beads, thread and rope panel by Steven and William Ladd; and on the right: Jacquard woven cotton hanging by Phillip Stearns, Outlet Gallery.
Two views of Samantha Bittman, Untitled (028), 2015 acrylic on handwoven textile, 25 x 20 inches.

Robert StratiLayers (through April 19th)
Robert Henry Gallery, 56 Bogart
Installation view, Robert Strati, Layers, packing tape and wire, Robert Henry Gallery.

Tim Spelios and Matt Freedman: Once Upon A Broken Time (performances every Friday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm through April 5th)
Studio 10, 56 Bogart
Tim Spelios (on drums), Matt Freedman (drawing and telling a story), Studio 10 Gallery.

Curated by Jason Andrew and organized by Norte Maar
1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery (between 51st and 52nd Street, Manhattan). 

I included this large group exhibition because it is curated by a Bushwick organization, and many of the artists are associated with Bushwick galleries. 
Opening reception, between a place and candy - new works in pattern + repetition + motif. 
Installation view, Julia K. Gleich, Combinations - a study of infinite or countable discreet structures, 2015, video.
Installation view, Niki Lederer, Northside Gyre, 2015, found re-purposed plastic, machine screws, hex nuts, steel pipe, plywood and acrylic paint.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Small Shows Currently at the Met

By Charles Kessler

I love the Met for the small shows they do. These shows are hardly ever reviewed or even publicized, so you have to find out about them either on the Met's website, spot them on the list of current exhibitions given out at the entrance, or, best of all, happen upon them as you walk around the museum. Usually these shows focus on a major work loaned to the Met for a short period, augmented by work from the permanent collection. Some of the most memorable have been Rembrandt at Work, The Great Self-Portrait from Kenwood House, from a few years ago; Velázquez's Portrait of Duke Francesco I d’Este: A Masterpiece from the Galleria Estense, Modena; and last year’s Goya and the Altamira Family.

One such small show currently at the Met is Innovation and Spectacle: Chinese Ritual Bronzes (through March 22nd).
Second Floor, Asian Art, Gallery 207. 
It includes some of the rarest, best preserved, most dramatic, and fantastic (in all senses of the word) Chinese bronzes you'll ever see, including three fifth-century B. C. bronzes, lent by the Shanghai Museum, that have never been seen outside of China.
Ritual Wine Container in the Shape of a Buffalo, early fifth century B. C., Eastern Zhou dynasty, bronze (Shanghai Museum).
The relief patterns on the bronzes are stylized eyes, ears, snouts, fangs, wings, horns, etc. of animals such as tigers, buffalo, owls, birds, and dragons and other mythological animals. As you can see from this closeup detail (below), the technical virtuosity of the bronze relief is astounding, especially given how old they are.
Detail: Ritual Wine Container in the Shape of a Buffalo, early fifth century B. C., Eastern Zhou dynasty, bronze (Shanghai Museum).
The Met augmented the work from the Shanghai Museum with even older bronzes from their own outstanding collection.
Altar Set, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, late 11th century B. C., bronze, table is 7 ⅛ x 35 ⅜ x 18 ¼ inches.
Spouted ritual wine vessel (guang), Shang dynasty, early Anyang period (ca. 1300–1050 b.c.), bronze, 13 inches wide.
The bronzes were used in ritual offerings of food and drink for ancestors, so while they have the vitality and animation of a real animal, they are also abstract, symbolic and timeless.


Painting Music in the Age of Caravaggio (through April 5th).
Painting Music in the Age of Caravaggio, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2nd floor, gallery 624.
The subject of this small show, completely drawn from the Met's collection, is the status of music from the late 16th century through the 17th century in Italy. To this end, Caravaggio’s The Musicians is installed along with two other gorgeous paintings from the period that also have music as a subject: Valentin de Boulogne’s The Lute Player, 1626; and Laurent de La Hyre’s Allegory of Music, 1649. In addition, instruments like the ones depicted in the paintings are on display. Best of all, piped into the gallery is a recording of music from the period that was played on these instruments.
Caravaggio, The Musicians, 1595, oil on canvas, 36 x 46 ½ inches (52.81).
Music was experiencing its own renaissance during this time. There was a growing demand for professional musicians, especially solo singers; and opera as an art form was just emerging. It was also a time when many new musical instruments were invented. (If you want to learn more about these instruments, check here.) The music depicted in Caravaggio's The Musicians (it was originally legible) was chosen by his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who was passionate about music.
Detail: Caravaggio,  The Musicians, 1595.
Caravaggio’s The Musicians, the focal point of the show, is an allegory about how music goes together with love (Cupid, sporting wings, is in the back left), and wine (Cupid is holding grapes). But even though there's a pagan god with wings and they're wearing classical drapery, this is not a typical High Renaissance allegory. Caravaggio's painting is more realistic, less idealized, than High Renaissance allegories. Caravaggio painted real musicians (including Caravaggio himself in the right background); and the scene includes music and instruments casually scattered about, and the drapery they're wearing is all bunched up. Also, the composition of the painting isn’t hierarchical in the High Renaissance manner; it isn’t ordered with higher ranking people given prominence. Instead it’s an all-over composition with everyone given similar attention. The god Cupid is, if anything, given less prominence.


Another small show is Hans Hofmann: Selected Paintings (through July 5th). Like many of the other small shows, this is an opportunity to see work that's usually in storage. The Metropolitan Museum owns a lot of work by Hofmann – 15 paintings and 29 works on paper, but only one or two of them are usually on display.
Hans Hofmann: Selected Paintings, 2nd floor, gallery 918.
Four of the paintings in this show are from a series of nine paintings Hofmann made in 1965 as a tribute to his wife, Renate. This is work done at the peak of his mature phase. The masterful painting (below), for example, is pure joy. It just keeps coming at you with color, light and movement.
Hans Hofmann, Renate's Nantucket, 1965, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches (1996.440.4).
Hofmann was know for his teaching, and the main thing he taught was what he called "push/pull." To over-simplify, "push/pull" is a way of creating the sense of depth by using the natural properties of color instead of the traditional methods of perspective or tonal gradation (modeling volume) which Hofmann felt did not acknowledge the essential flatness of the painting surface. So, for example, warm colors (red, orange) tend to advance (push) and cool colors (blue, green) recede (pull). Hofmann acknowledged Cézanne's influence in this. In Search for the Real, Hofmann wrote "... Cézanne understood color as a force of push and pull. In his pictures he created an enormous sense of volume, breathing, pulsating, expanding, contracting through his use of colors."
Detail: Hans Hofmann, Renate's Nantucket, 1965.  (This detail is redder than the painting.)
And just like Cézanne, in order to simultaneously keep things flat and frontal (i.e."real"), everything is tied together, butted up to each other like a mosaic or puzzle. (See especially the right and top edge of the red/purple rectangle.)  

Hofmann was a master of riffs and had a large bag of tricks he used and taught. One of my favorites can be seen in the detail above. The red small brushwork at the top of the rectangle looks like it's going underneath and making the purple rectangle seem redder; and the blue on the left looks like it also floats underneath, making the red more purple. Among other things, this keeps the rectangle from becoming solid, opaque and clogged up. Instead, it breaths and glows.


Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art (through September 7th).
Installation view, Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art, 1st floor, gallery 359.
This is a more typically curated show in that all the art is borrowed. But it’s not a large show, and it hasn't been publicized as far as I know, so, to that extent, it fits in with the other small shows.

These sculptures are almost three hundred years old, and because they were kept outside for most of that time, they are very eroded. They are the oldest wooden figures from Sub-Saharan Africa, and they're among the largest too (almost life-size).

Mbembe peoples, Seated Mother and Child, 17th-18th century, wood, 35 x 23 ½ x 29 inches (private collection).
The subjects of the sculptures are nurturing mothers and defending warriors – both protective, but in different ways. Originally the figures were painted and covered with ornaments, and their eyes were mirrors. They were positioned on either side of a carved drum made from enormous hollow logs. When the drum was played it could be heard from 12 miles away. Looking at these striking figures while listening to that great drum must have been a thrilling experience.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oldies But Goodies in Chelsea

By Charles Kessler

Except for older art, and new art by older artists, I wasn't impressed with anything I saw in Chelsea last week. This is not a reflection on contemporary art in general, or Chelsea in particular, because these are the art and artists that have lasted and are of interest today. As I remember, there was a lot of bad art in the sixties and seventies too.

My favorite show was Edith Schloss, Still Life, Myths and Mountains, A Retrospective at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 547 W. 27th Street (through March 28th).
Edith Schloss, Mont Amiata, 1965, watercolor on paper, 15 x 19 inches framed. 
Edith Schloss, Isola del Tino, 1966, oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 23 2/3 inches.

Edith Schloss, Agon, 2000, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 23 2/3 inches.
It was curated by my friend Jason Andrew, the dynamic co-founder and director of Norte Maar; but that's not why I liked it so much. I liked it because I got to find out about an excellent artist who was unknown to me and to see a comprehensive selection of her art from her still lifes of the 1950s through to the mythological abstractions she painted until her death in 2011.

Schloss was under-recognized even though she was married to the photographer Rudy Burckhardt and was friends with many artists who played an important role in the post-war art world, including Will Barnet, Willem de Kooning, Rackstraw Downes, Alberto Giacometti, Mimi Gross, Robert Moskowitz, Philip Pearlstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers and Cy Twombly.

Which brings me to another reason why this is such a good show: art by these artists and others from her circle is on display with her work, placing Schloss's paintings in the context of her milieu. Moreover it's humble work by Schloss's friends, the kind given as gifts, traded or bought from the artist – work she might have been surrounded by. And for even further context, there's a glass case of letters, photographs, diaries and other memorabilia. (You can see a selection of Schloss's correspondence with many artists here.)

So why, in spite of doing good work and having important friends in the art world, was she not discovered? I can speculate on several possibilities. She was active at a time women's art was scorned; she made relatively small, delicate paintings when only large, macho paintings were prized; and in 1962 she separated from her husband and moved to Rome, so her work wasn't seen in the United States.

Here are the other OBGs:

Tony Smith at Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 W. 24th Street (until April 18th).
Installation view of three 1960s Tony Smith steel sculptures painted black.
Smith spent most of his career as an architect, and the way these sculptures define architectural space and mass is indicative of how it influenced his sculpture – it as if the work was made for this space.

Duane Michals The Portraitist at D. C. Moore Gallery, 535 W. 22nd Street (through March 21st).
Installation view: Duane Michals, The Portraitist at D. C. Moore Gallery.
Duane Michals, Johnny Cash, c. 1960s/2015, gelatin silver print with hand-applied text, 8 x 12 inches, edition 1/5. The two dates are when they were originally taken (in the 1960s), and when they were first printed (2014 and 2015).  
I remember learning about Michals's photographs in 1982 at my first job when I moved to New York. It was at a tiny store in Soho called Untitled that, like museum stores, sold postcards of art – but they got them from many different sources all over the world. I loved the job because it was a common stop for artists (although I never met Duane Michals), dancers (Pina Bausch was a highlight), and actors (I got to say "nee" to John Cleese – he kindly laughed). They carried a large selection of Michals's postcards, which were popular because they were of famous people in addition to being interesting as photos.

Michals tries to make each photograph unique to the person he's photographing, and that stimulates a great deal of invention in his photography. He also hand-writes his impressions of the person on the photograph (in the photo above he wrote: "Johnny Cash was hotter than a pepper sprout"). That can sometimes get cute, but it can also be profound.

Isamu Noguchi, Variations at PACE Gallery  508-510 W. 25th (through March 21st).
The PACE Gallery's typically poor website (easier to navigate now, but still bad) has only one reproduction, but fortunately I took a couple of decent installation photographs.

Installation view: Isamu Noguchi, left to right, sculpture made in 1958, 1970 and 1968

Installation view: Isamu Noguchi, a selection of his paper lamps. 
PACE produced this exhibition in collaboration with The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City. It's a big exhibition which, in the case of Noguchi, is a good thing since his work looks better in the context of his other works. Seen separately, his sculpture can seem over-refined and empty, but seen in quantity you get an idea of how playful the work is, and how inventive. 

Noguchi's sculptures work best in small rooms (like the one pictured above) where the work can play off of clean white walls. Unfortunately the work in this exhibition is mostly installed in large rooms and tend to get lost.

Nam June Paik at James Cohan Gallery, 533 W. 26th Street (through March 14th).
Nam June Paik, M200/Video Wall, 1991, 118 x 378 x 19 ½ inches (Cha Zoo Yong Photography Copyright POMA / fazi, inc.)
The title of the above video installation, M200/Video Wall, refers to the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death, and the soundtrack includes Mozart's music as well as John Cage's, and some pop tunes. Parts of this video (videos?) were quite moving, especially, not surprisingly, the parts with Mozart's music.

The center monitors often combine to form single images, while the outside monitors play other images. I tried to figure out what was happening on the smaller TV monitors along the outside but finally decided they acted like a decorative frame to the main images with no particular content as far as I could tell. The shear quantity of visual information seems like a chaotic visual attack, which I guess is the point.
Installation view: Nam June Paik, Beuys Voice, 1990 two channel color video on laser discs, antique television cabinets, felt, mixed media sculpture, 104 x 74 x 37 inches. 
This title refers to Paik's friend, the German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys, and includes Beuys's signature gray fedora.

I saw two other oldies in Chelsea, but I'm not a fan of either of them.

Louise Nevelson is at PACE Gallery, 534 W. 25th, (ended February 28th).
Louise Nevelson, Untitled , 1964. wood painted black, 100 x 132 x 19 inches. 
I find her wood assemblages and reliefs arbitrary and easy – all black, a grid ... can't miss. Compare Nevelson's work with Edith Schloss's, and you can easily predict which of the two would find acceptance in the sixties and seventies.

If you're interested in Nevelson, read Roberta Smith's review in the Times.

Sean Scully at Cheim & Read, 547 W. 25th Street (through April 4th).
Sean Scully, Landline Blue Brown, 2015, oil on aluminum, 98 ⅜ x 78 ¾ inches.
Scully is an oldie – if you count 70 as old. He's been doing basically the same painting for at least thirty years. He takes no chances with color – everything is close in value and usually dark. This work was slightly different in that it was painted with large, luscious, loose brushwork – you have to love it, but it's a shallow, cheap, kind of love.