Romantic Vienna

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 Oil on Canvas

The ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts presented Romantic Vienna at the Italian Academy this past Thursday as part of the Musical Capital series.  The program works to further understanding of “music in context.”  The evening focused on two works, Franz Schubert’s Sonata for arpeggione and piano in A minor and Brahms towering Quintet for piano and strings in F minor  — a solid dose of the spiritual and aesthetic values of nature.  And of course the imagery of dreams.

The “Wiener Klassik” or Viennese Classical Style between 1780 and 1827 led by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven reflected order and symmetry.  Vienna, the capital of the newly minted Austrian Empire, became a center for musical performance and composition raising the prominence of this city.  The death of Beethoven in 1827 ushered in a new period of Romanticism, a seed that the great composer planted with his late works that were moving away from strict classicism.  In Franz Schubert’s (1813-1897) short lifetime he continued this process of compositional experimentation that was greatly effected by new developments in the musical instruments, namely the piano.  The arpeggione, a six-stringed hybrid between a cello and a guitar also had a brief moment is music history.  Schubert would play in salon-style performances that were convivial in nature.  Stephen Johnson, the eloquent BBC Radio presenter, commented on the intimacy and non-competitive nature of these musical soirées in his preconcert talk that touched upon this period of profound change both economically and artistically.

The arpeggione, a six-stringed hybrid between a cello and a guitar had a brief moment is musical history.  The instrument took center stage in Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata,  a work of wistful nature that toggles from nostalgia to a more airy nonchalance.  “As the accompanist Graham Jonson puts it, its character is one of mellow introspection and poignancy rather than profound tragedy,” read the liner notes.  The sense of longing and wonder in the piece perfectly illustrates the very Romantic characteristic of reverie.

Johannes Brahms (1813-1897) Quintet for piano and strings in F minor was the main event of the evening, a composition that has the ability to lift both musicians and observer out of their seats.  A powerful work of High Romanticism the Quintet passed through stages of instrumental preference, from string quintet to Sonata for two pianos before crystallizing in its present form.  Brahms dedicated the work to Princess Anna Hesse in Berlin who was an ardent supporter and tantalizing court figure.  Stephen Johnson painted a wonderful picture of Brahms as a Janus-like figure, deeply embedded in the study of classicism but heavily engaged in the psychology of Romanticism.  This intense emotional makeup is on full display throughout the work described as “positively Byronic” by Johnson.

Portrait of Anna Langäfin von Hessen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

A wonderful ensemble led by Vsevolod Dvorkin on piano were in sync throughout Brahms’s distinguished work.  The theme, which is stated in the first eight measures, takes a dramatic and extended journey.  The first movement in Allegro non troppo is a study of thematic inventions and rhythmic variety while tendering a noble character through chromatic leaps into major key inflections and syncopation.  The Andante is a quiet intermezzo contrasting the tumultuous action and contrapuntal character of the allegro.  After this incredibly sensual movement, the Scherzo takes on more ominous tones accentuated by the plucking of the cello in C.  The pulsating Allegro Finale  ranges from F to D-flat-major, to C minor and back to F with qualities reminiscent of Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance.”  The agitated final measures emphatically return to the final three notes of F minor scale with the resounding force.

The Musical Capitals series continues on February 23, with Prague: Czech Romantics.  For more information visit www.aspectfoundation.net.

Seurat’s Circus Sideshow

February 17–May 29, 2017
Exhibition Location: The Met Fifth Avenue

Parade de cirque by Georges Seurat (French, Paris 1859–1891 Paris) 1887–88, Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 59 in.

The Ringling Bros. announced in January that it will be closing its run of 146 years this May, a year after letting its elephants free.  As life itself gets more anomalous perhaps there is less of a need for big tent attractions.  Centered around Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Circus Sideshow, the roots of this carnival fascination will be explored in a thematic exhibition at The Met of more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, period posters and illustrated journals.   Seurat’s great work spurred interest in other artists in the late 19th century leaving behind many depictions of what we affectionately call in the parade of life.

The Met wonderfully describes Circus Sideshow, “Seurat took a raucous spectacle that depended on direct appeal, the banter of barkers and rousing music, jostling crowds, and makeshift structures, and he silenced the noise, rendered the staging taut and ordered, hieratic and symmetrical, exquisitely measured and classically calm. Enveloped by the hazy gloom of night, the players and public are presented with the solemnity of an ancient ritual.”

Like art, the circus represents many things to many people, but for artists, those sensitive souls, it was a double-edged attraction grasping both its fiction and truths.  Paul Bouissac says in his conclusion to Circus as Multinodal Discourse: Performance, Meaning, and Ritual, “The circus encapsulates all the challenges of human existence.  The fundamentally same game is refracted from act to act.  The odds follow a crescendo which eventually leads to a soft landing in the cradle of unanimity.  The circus provides us with a sense of fusion, risk, and triumph.”  Baudelaire famously referred to art as a gamble. Certainly, artists can relate to life up on the high wire.

This ancient ritual of entertainment is woven into the very essence of culture.  Cirque de Soleil seems to be the new standard measure.  The show must go on as they say.  This unique exhibition will surely provide in great measure an interesting look into the pageantry that has excited or in some way horrified generations for over a century.

Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques by Fernand Pelez, 1888, oil on canvas, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris

Cleopatra’s Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle in Alexandria, Egypt before coming to America.  Image: Getty Open Content Program

Cleopatra’s Needle, the towering 68-foot granite obelisk behind the Museum of Metropolitan Art is the oldest man-made object in New York City.  Its journey, a veritable odyssey, began on the banks of the Nile in 1450, then to Alexandria, Egypt c. 1800 AD and finally to Central Park in 1878.  The transportation, over 4,772 nautical miles, started in the Mediterranean Sea, passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, where it then traversed the Atlantic to the safety of Manhattan funded by William Vanderbilt.   The obelisk offered to America by the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, in 1869 commemorated the opening of the Suez Canal a key moment in the modernization of the country.

Cleopatra’s Needle has a twin of the same name that resides on the banks of the Thames, gifted to Britain by Muhammad Ali, pasha of Egypt in 1819.  Both obelisks have a time capsule buried beneath the monument to ancient civilization. They were originally carved for Pharoah Tuthmose III in Aswan, Egypt and then moved to the ancient city of Heliopolis, which is present-day Cairo.  The hieroglyphics exalt the rule of Tuthmose, venerates the sun-god Ra or Re, and glories Osiris “life giving like the Sun forever.”

A watercolor of Cleopatra’s Needle in London by Frank Crane.  Image from The Met archives

According to the Central Park Conservancy’s website the restoration of Obelisk’s terrace and landscape with new illumination, benches, and paving was executed in 1989. “From 2013 through 2014, The Conservancy completed a comprehensive project to clean and conserve the monument. Although the primary purpose was to enable further study of the monument and promote its long-term preservation, cleaning the monument had the most dramatic outcome, revealing its granite surface and hieroglyphs that had been obscured by decades of dirt and pollution.”  The conservation project was also accompanied by an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The monument stands as a testament to eternity of both gods and art.

Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, New York City.  Photo:NYCA

 

 

 

 

Walkers Evans 1903-1975

Walker Evans had a pure sense of vision.  He looked at the world honestly, without embellishment.  It is this lack of adornment that makes his photography so captivating.  His understated engagement with world is seen in artists like William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Bernd and Hilla Brecher who all used their lens to document one form or another with the same deliberate awareness.

Second Avenue Lunch/ Posed Portraits, New York, about 1933, Gelatin silver print

 

The complete lack of any shred of the self-conscious is why Walker Evans’ images have such memorable pathos and intriguing depth.

“Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.” – Walker Evans

 

Floyd and Lucille Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936, Gelatin silver print

 

There is a simple grace to Floyd and Lucille Burroughs’ portrait that belies the subjects tattered clothing and barefoot nature of a sharecroppers front porch.  The image does not feel unkempt, but rather is sense of pride and strength of a father and the shyness and curiosity girl.  All of which is perfectly clear.

“The meaning of quality in photography’s best pictures lies written in the language of vision. That language is learned by chance, not system; …our overwhelming formal education deals in words, mathematical figures and methods of rational thought, not in images.” – Walker Evans

 

South Street, New York, 1932, Gelatin silver print

Today, digital photographers may grovel over the difference between crop sensors and full frame.  The argument is funny when you take into account the sensors, (the size of the window that allows light into the camera) is a tiny fraction of the 8×10 camera that Walker Evans used for his work with the Farm Security Administration during the depression.  The clarity and quality of light that a camera of this aperture achieves is simply astonishing nearly one hundred years later.

“Detachment, lack of sentimentality, originality, a lot of things that sound rather empty. I know what they mean. Let’s say, “visual impact” may not mean much to anybody. I could point it out though. I mean it’s a quality that something has or does not have. Coherence. Well, some things are weak, some things are strong…” – Walker Evans

Corrugated Tin Facade / Tin Building, Moundville, Alabama, 1936, Gelatin silver print

John Sarkowski, the great curator of photography at MoMA from 1962 to 1991, had a theory about photography.  He expounded on this theory in the catalogue of the 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows . . .

The two creative motives that have been contrasted here are not discrete. Ultimately each of the pictures in this book is part of a single, complex, plastic tradition. Since the early days of that tradition, an interior debate has contested issues parallel to those illustrated here. The prejudices and inclinations expressed by the pictures in this book suggest positions that are familiar from older disputes. In terms of the best photography of a half-century ago, one might say that Alfred Stieglitz is the patron of the first half of this book and Eugène Atget of the second. In either case, what artist could want a more distinguished sponsor? The distance between them is to be measured not in terms of the relative force or originality of their work, but in terms of their conceptions of what a photograph is: is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world?

Walker Evans was most definitely a window, a perfectly clear window.

Political Poster, Massachussetts Village, 1929, Gelatin silver print

 

“Die knowing something. You’re not here long.” ― Walker Evans

 

All digital images courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

 

Ada Louise Huxtable 1921-2013

 

Portrait of Ada Louise Huxtable by Lynn Gilbert, 1981

Ms. Huxtable passed away four years ago today on January 8, 2013.  She was 91.  Today we celebrate her life.  Here  is a reminder of her persona and passion . . .

“I take history and authenticity seriously. I have never disguised my defense of originals over copies, or my distaste for the Disneyfication of reality or the more genteel “authentic reproduction,” an oxymoron that devalues the creative act by glossing the knockoff with a false veneer of respectability, because a faux is a fake is a phony, by any other name. And I have been one of the most ardent defenders of the small, personal museum that you remember with particular affection, as opposed to the awe inspired by the increasingly affectless grandeur of our enormous arts institutions that expand relentlessly as their price of admission rises.” (1)

New York City was lucky to have Ada Louise Huxtable fighting on the front lines of our visual reality; the built world around us, this system we call New York City.  One of the most eloquent writers on architecture in the last century, Ms Huxtable could turn a phrase that would stick to any building like a massive post-it for all eternity.  Just cite the “Lollipop Building”, Edward Durell Stone’s ignominious failure, the 1964 building at 2 Columbus Circle.  Ms. Huxtable truly believed that architecture was part of our fabric and spirit as city dwellers. A notion that is relatively lost today.

“It was not until our own day that this great art became irrelevant, that the tradition of building well ceased to matter. For those in positions of power, architecture has no redeeming value; it is a frill to be eliminated as a virtuous, cost-cutting, vote-getting measure; it can be abandoned without regret. It took today’s mean mentality to see cathedrals and courthouses as ‘wasted space,’ to consider beauty as an extravagant and expendable add-on only now has that impoverishment of the human spirit become politically and aesthetically correct. What no one appears to have noticed, while deploring the decline of public standards, is that trashy buildings trash the institutions and people they serve.” (2)

One the most delightful civic advancements in public space to happen in downtown Manhattan in a long time is the High Line. Urbanism has been in decline for a century but projects like the High Line gives us hope for the future.  Here is Ms. Huxtable on the importance of this space and landscape in general . . .

“In one of those totally unpredictable shifts in sensibility that occur when least expected, it is the landscape architects who are re-engaging today’s radically innovative aesthetic with human needs and social functions; this is where the essential connections with the human condition are being made. And just in time, as architects, seduced by celebrity and technology, engaged in a dead-end contest in egos and engineering, have become more fixated on object making than place making, more removed from the intrinsic social purposes of their art.” (3)

-JSB

Further Reading:

1. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2008/09/close-reading-l.html

2. http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/h/huxtable-unreal.html

Footnotes:

  1. Ada Louise Huxtable, The New Barnes Shouldn’t Work-But Does, Wall Street Journal,
  2. Ada Louise Huxtable Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, The New Press, 1999
  3. Ada Louise Huxtable Down-to-Earth Masterpieces of Public Landscape Design, Wall Street Journal,

Manifesto

The most common form of the vernacular is spoken, straight off the tongue.  Through compression and ellipsis, it fits new words and phrases to needs, and, by naming them , promises, in its own way, access to “new” emotions.  In early modernism, it tended to be born out of rural and folk traditions; in late modernism, out of the city, out of minority and teen subcultures, where its function is exclusive.  It defines groups, and as it moves outside them, must be altered or abandoned.” – Brian O’Doherty American Masters: The Voice and the Myth

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” – Pablo Picasso

One would be hard-pressed to think of a time when philosophy had any critical importance in America.  Taking things as they are is the consumptive mode.  However, late capitalism is begging for a strong manifesto.  The spoils of wealth and ego centrism are full-blown.  “Make America Great Again”  is a little thin.  The art world is wanting too.  How many Balloon Dogs must we suffer?  With so much farce in politics and culture an artist must mine for truth.  “When the primary sense of being has been snatched,” what next?

Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing.

Manifesto, (2015) directed by Julian Rosefeldt (b. 1966 Munich) and starring Cate Blanchett is high art as entertainment, playfully esoteric and philosophically rich.  Beautifully shot in HD by cinematographer Christoph Krausse, the North American première of this 13-channel film installation fit perfectly into the cavernous 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory.  There is just enough space between screens for singular focus but enough proximity to create a confounding sense of mumbo jumbo, a modernist stew of declarations cancelling each other out.

Rosefeldt has produced highly aesthetic films that build on typologies and contextualization since Detonation Deutschland (1996).   Recent efforts like Deep Gold (2013/1014) and American Night (2009) are dramatically off beat, almost dire, but funny in a witty way.  There are inflections of Lynch’s quirk, Kubrick’s precision, and Jarmusch’s deadpan dialogue.

The auteur met Cate Blanchette at an exhibition in Berlin and they began a process of  “idea ping pong” as Rosefeldt put it.  Within the concept of re-presenting artist manifestos Rosefeldt saw an opportunity to use a single female voice in reflecting the hotbed of male dominated artistic discourse of the last century.  It’s a fresh look, turning the tables on the hierarchies of art history.

The manifestos are wide-ranging, covering the many isms of the 20th century and more general aspects and reflections on film and architecture.  The cinematic experience is formulaic, all the films are 10 minutes and 30 seconds except for the 4 minute prologue.  They all feature gorgeous establishing shots and lengthy overhead tracking before getting into proper dialogue.  The birds-eye-view, which is reminiscent of clinical surveillance video, establishes the story of hand selected parts of manifestos stitched together in a dramatic scenes like in a homeless man talking madly, a choreographer’s frustration, a funeral eulogy, and so on, until we reach the epilogue of an elementary school teacher in a classroom.  Embedded in each segment there is a hypnotic break when Blanchette’s face comes into extreme close up and she dictates a passage in an eerie, robotic cadence.  This moment is purposely synced on all screens, an interesting touch that has a powerful effect on the individual films and the installation as a whole.  The moment immediately reminded me of Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier” from OK Computer.

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In a four-minute prologue we hear Marx and Engels’ famous line from the 1848 Communist Manifesto “All that is solid, melts into the air.”  The line signifies the revolutionary power of capitalism to destroy previous systems such as tribal customs, religious faith, and feudal economies.  Seventy years later, at the tail end of World War I, art was going through a similar Modernist transformation when the modes of representations were overthrown as Rumanian Tristan Tzara pens the Dada Manifesto (1918).  Tzara’s screed is part of the Prologue as well, declaring that everyone “makes his art in his own way, if he knows anything about the joy that rises like an arrow up to the astral strata, or that which descends into the mines strewn with the flowers of corpses and fertile spasms.”  All the while a long fuse is slowly burning on-screen, perhaps a metaphor for something only just begun but not completed.

The first film (if you follow the diagram in the helpful handout) features a homeless man’s monologue on Situationism, an international movement (1957-1972) which sought to bring together the many avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century in order to dismantle advanced capitalism.  To no avail.  It features a poetic moment when a chimpanzee looks down on the confused man from a pile of rubble in the derelict compound, the NSA Field Station Teufelsberg, designed to intercept military secrets during the cold war.  (Coincidentally, it is the same location used in Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun (2015) in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016.)  I keyed into a quote from Draft Manifesto (1932) by the John Reed Club of New York, that looked to propagate proletariat art and sentiment.

The general crisis of capitalism is reflected in its culture.  The economic and political machinery of the bourgeoisie in decay, its philosophy, its literature, and its art are bankrupt . . .

The tumultuous world wars are significant in many of the manifestos in the film installation.   During a time when the Industrial Revolution raged to some degree in every city, many artists were looking to break out of certain machine like systems, i.e. the Symbolists, or conversely adhere themselves to it, like the Futurists.  Futurism is represented brilliantly in the sixth film of the installation, no doubt a number denoted for its devilish connotation.  Blanchette plays a broker as stock charts flash on computer screens and a massive ticker tape.  We hear a part of Marinetti’s The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1909): “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”  It is a disturbing reality, especially when you take into account the commodification of art in the last thirty years by the world’s èlite.

In the following film Blanchette plays a conservative mother at the dinner table, hands clasped, rifling Claes Oldenburg’s I am for art . . . epigrams like prayers.  “I am for art that comes in a can or washes up on the shore.  I am for the art of bar-babble, tooth-picking, beerdrinking, egg-salting, insulting.  I am for the art of falling off a barstool.”  It is a brilliant moment of routine behavior juxtaposed by Pop Art blather.   The children and husband, charmingly Blanchette’s in real life, suffer through the long discourse until finally scissors gouge the roasted turkey completing the scene.

The eighth installment,  SUPREMATISM / CONSTRUCTIVISM, is a space-age Kubrick affair.  Revolution means to be free from the past and even the future.  Naum Gabo’s opening salvo of The Realist Manifesto (1920) proffers a new ontology born among the rubble of world war, “Above the tempest of our weekdays/Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past/Before the gates of the vacant future/We proclaim…”  The new vision is a cleansed modern version of ourselves married to science, forgoing mysticism, the Nietzschean Übermensch as an image of Cro Magnon in “The Thinker” pose.

The most overtly funny segment is the pas de deux between the newsreader and reporter both played by Blanchette.  Starting with, “Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.  All current art is fake . . . All of man is fake.  All of man is false, not only because he lies and cheats with charming ease and hates and kills with determined speed, but also because man’s new cyber form is Man as god”  These words from Elaine Frances Sturtevant, (née Horan; August 23, 1924 – May 7, 2014) one of the few women cited in Manifesto, are as telling as they are comical.  This film on CONCEPTUAL ART / MINIMALISM is a conceptual work in and of itself, taking a poke at all things esoteric including art critics who use a “secret language when communicating with each other through the medium of art magazines.”  We all know that to be true.

Artists are always picking up in naïve ways philosophical tenets and warping them in one form or another, telling pretty lies.  The last twenty years has seen a great influence from the post-structuralists Derrida and Deleuze.  This is the most dangerous thing of all,  the pseudo-intellectual art movement based on piecemeal interpretations of serious philosophic thought.  This is our past and present epidemic of ism schism.  Ultimately, they don’t hold water.  As the tattooed punk says in the film STRIDENTISM/CREATIONISM, the “insincerity of the whole world is like an amateur band.”  So, she becomes its leader.

Meanwhile, what was stated in 1932 at the John Reed Club still holds true . . . “Mankind is passing through the most profound crisis in its history. An old world is dying; a new one is being born. Capitalist civilization, which has dominated the economic, political and cultural life of continents, is in the process of decay. It is now breeding new and devastating wars.  At this very moment the Far East seethes with military conflicts and preparations which will have far-reaching consequences for the whole of humanity.”

So what do this manifesto collage tell us in the end?  Certainly, there is an evolutionary bent to placing all these proclamations into what Rosefeldt calls “manifesto of manifestos.”  The struggle for new forms of artistic expression created revolutionary rhetoric, an endless repetition of the “shock of the new” and “razzle dazzle of thinking.”

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The epilogue of the teacher making her rounds, squashing the creativity of children, preaching “nothing is original,” gives us a sense of the failure of education.  The key to a equitable and just society is the middle class, the strength of which relies on its educational system.  When that system is merely interested in capitalist ideals (Trump University) we see a failure of both society and education.  So the question remains, as artists and human beings, “Have we really evolved?” Or have we devolved into cyborg like worker-bees supporting an invisible super structure where the only thing created is more and more garbage.

“We call upon all honest intellectuals, all writers and artists, to abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art’s sake, or that the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts in which all men must take sides. We call upon them to break with bourgeois ideas which seek to conceal the violence and fraud, the corruption and decay of capitalist society. We urge them to forge a new art that shall be a weapon in the battle for a new and superior world.” -From the John Reed Club of New York 1932

Thanks to Julian Rosefeldt, Cate Blanchette, The Park Avenue Armory and all who had a hand in the production of Manifesto.  It is both refresher course and blueprint, a profound web of associations moving forward.  And remember . . .

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work, and theft, will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”  – Jim Jarmusch 2004

-JSB

2016 Top Ten

New York City is a place where expressions are plentiful, a visual history courses through the galleries, museums, and studios.  Here are some of our aesthetic highlights from 2016.

Vincent Smith: Seventies New York  (Alexandre Gallery, January 7th – April 9th)

A cohesive show of six oil and sand paintings and one woodcut on paper depicts the psychological oppression of the projects with brutal honesty.  This dominant perception was heightened by the roughness of built up sand on the canvas and the stark red and black color scheme.  The coarseness of the overall picture plane is also indicated in the figures themselves, who were almost entirely isolated in darkness or imprisoned.

1972, oil and sand on canvas, 44 x 48 inches

Attrition, 1972, oil and sand on canvas. 44″ x 48″ Courtesy of Alexandre Gallery

Jean Dubuffet “Anticultural Positions” (Acquavella Gallery April 15th – June 10th) and Dubuffet Drawings, 1935-1962 (The Morgan Library & Museum September 30, 2016 through January 2, 2017)

Dubuffet like Vincent Smith worked with unconventional materials and created imagery that was at times extremely distorted but somehow exceedingly attractive.  His portraits and nudes have a magical depth of character brought about by their curious simplicity.  The playful side to Jean Dubuffet could use any means of expression to create vibrant, arresting imagery.

David Hammons: Five Decades (Mnuchin Gallery, March 15th – May 27th)

The ironic drift of David Hammons’ work fit awkwardly in an upper east side gallery.  For an artist who famously sold snowballs on the streets of the Bowery the clash of interior and purpose was undeniable.  It was rumored at the last-minute the artist re hung some of the his survey here probably to make a point or to upset the order of things. This is what Hammons does best, refutes certain conditions, at times refusing to do any art at all as a response to where we are now, the commodity art market. Hammons remains a true New York artist with a vision and intellect that reflects the city’s glaring dichotomies. It was almost like a protest, the microphones screaming silence.

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View of “David Hammons: Five Decades,” Mnuchin Gallery, New York, 2016.

New York based artist Tony Matelli (b. 1971) has had a wonderful year, taking part in MoMA PS 1 Greater New York, a solo at the Aldrich Museum and a High Line’s group exhibition Wanderlust.  Matelli’s realistic sculptures have playful sense humor, looking at art and culture winkingly.  The insertion of “Sleepwalker” (2014) on the High Line’s mixed bag exhibit caused a bit of row with certain parties thinking the a middle-aged man in his underwear might be an affront to passer-by.  It became a crowd pleaser.  “Human Echo” (2002) a sculpture of a chimpanzee in an Apple t-shirt vomiting on Marlborough Gallery’s wall in a fall exhibition perfectly summed up the present crisis we face in art and humanity.

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No one has more available resources for a blockbuster gallery show than Gagosian.  “Nude From Modigliani to Currin” September 20 – November 19, 2016, was a fascinating journey of how artists reflect the human form from modernism to present day.  The distortion was palpable.  Amazing to see the movement away from beauty towards dehumanization and the grotesque.  Nothing is more redolent than how we choose to depict our selves.

Nicole Eisenmen’s two brilliant exhibitions at the New Museum, “Al-ugh-ories” May 5th – June 26th and a show of large-scale new works at Anton Kern May 19 – June 25, 2016 distinguished her intellect and prominent skills.   Eisenmen is a special painter with a sharp mind bent on describing her story with rare honesty.  With a wonderful wit the artist is able to pinpoint body and identity in the technological age.

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The two survey of Kai Althoff and Francis Picabia on the 6th floor of the Museum of Modern Art is a match made in heaven: Two kindred spirits investigating form and stretching its articulation.   Both artists charge the senses with ingenuity, a frenetic search through the means of expression where no thought or perception in left unturned.  Their disregard for convention is not like Duchamp’s grand and shocking statements but rather a steady defiance of institutional standard through boundless creativity.  “Whatever there be of progress in life comes not through adaptation but through daring.” – Henry Miller.

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Francis Picabia. Aello. 1930. Oil on canvas, 66 9/16 × 66 9/16″ (169 × 169 cm). Private collection. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

 

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Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern) Installation view of Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017. Photograph © Kai Althoff

Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC (Museum of Modern Art February 21st – March 20th) was the ideal performance of 2016.  The slowed down choreographed intervention on the staircase and atrium of MoMA produced a confounding feeling in today’s almost manic ‘museum’ as opportunity for selfie or Disney attraction.  A necessary transference of more subtle emotional qualities and careful reading lacking in our fast paced technological age.

Nan Goldin The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, (Museum of Modern Art June 11th – February 12th, 2017)

Goldin’s personal visual diary of snapshots of friends and family stand out with terrible potency in the fantasy digital realm we all live in today.  The strength of which comes from a shared understanding in the way the person behind the camera has affection for the one in front, providing a sense of repose when true selves emerge.

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The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Marian and James H. Cohen in memory of their son Michael Harrison Cohen. © 2016 Nan Goldin

Met Breuer Renovation

Architecture is the mother of all art and represents the strongest visual history of any city.  The Met’s loving restoration of Marcel Breuer’s 1966 modernist masterpiece on Madison Avenue was in concert with the great architect’s original vision.  The restoration led by the New York City firm Beyer Blinder Belle, who have a long history of preserving architectural landmarks with the integrity they deserve.  The building’s substance is all-consuming, inside and out, exhilarating in its neutrality.  Every space holds something original and uplifting, lighting and aperture par excellence.

Julian Rosefeldt and Cate Blanchett, Manifesto  (Park Avenue Armory December 7, 2016 – January 8th, 2017)

There is no better way to enter 2017, a year of massive pendulum swing, then with Manifesto: A brilliantly crafted cinematic reflection on the history of artists’ rhetorical assumptions.  Cate Blanchett performs 12 incredible roles proclaiming male dominated declarations with wry humor and a modern twist.  Displacement perfectly pitched.

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Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing.

-JSB

Immersive

As esthetic inquiry has been absorbed into social and economic history, which in turn has generated an academic industry, the question of the vernacular presents itself more urgently.  – Brian O’Doherty

Introduction

The most talked about aesthetic experience in 2016 was by far the “immersive.”  The word is used in a multitude of ways for a variety of purposes.  It could be found in press releases from every aspect of the arts, from music, theater, cinema, museums, galleries etc. replacing 2015’s catchphrase “poetics of space” as the crème de la crème of artspeak.  It is not surprising given the encroachment of virtual reality on every aspect of our lives.  The need to cash in on its cultural currency has curators scrambling for next best immersive experience.  Our phones are already number one.

Starting today, The Met presents “The Museum Workout” where a select group of museum-goers can experience the galleries through constant movement, light stretching, and a disco soundtrack.  Tanya Bonakdar Gallery recently presented Ernesto Neto’s  “new body of finger-crocheted immersive sculptures . . . inviting the viewer into an all-encompassing sensorial experience.”

Installation view of Ernesto Neto’s The Serpent’s Energy Gave Birth to Humanity

A Hollywood reporter describes The Pearl, a documentary about transgender community in the Pacific Northwest,  as “immersive,” meaning that it attempts to fully engage the viewer in the lives of its subjects while providing no external narration, talking heads, etc.  Gladstone Gallery uses the descriptor for a recent Jim Hodges exhibition entitled, I dreamed a world and called it Love, where the artist used colored reflective glass to create a luminous panorama.

Installation view of Jim Hodge’s I dreamed a world and called it Love. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

The Whitney Museum’s exhibition Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016 places the buzzword in history, specifically exploring “the ways in which artists have used the moving image to articulate technology’s dramatic influence on how we see and experience the world.”  Concurrently, Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest at the New Museum gives us a sense of the evolution of technology, “ranging from the television monitor to the cinema screen, and from the intimacy of the smartphone to the communal experience of immersive images and soundscapes, this survey charts the ways in which Rist’s work fuses the biological with the electronic in the ecstasy of communication.”  These are just a few examples of surging circumstance called immersive.

Installation view of Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest at the New Museum

The drive in the new century to develop new ways of communicating in step with the advancements in technology is evident in all aspects of culture and society.  Our phones are now worn on our head in the form of goggles creating a fascinating landscape of possibilities and potential barriers in perception.  Businesses can no longer just place an ad, marketing is now 360 degrees.  You walk into a store and it will have your entire history, in the form of likes and dislikes, in order to better serve you.  So, questions arise.  How do we create an experience of real interaction?  How do we draw the viewer in?

What I will attempt to argue in a series of posts is that a new art of technological envelopment is not necessarily immersive but rather splintering.  By contrast, I will point to instances of artistic invention without technology, that may create far greater engagement or fascination.

Part 1 will examine recent exhibitions and historical precedents of immersive art to gain a better understanding of heightened perception through technological means.

-JSB

 

Nan Goldin

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

June 11, 2016-February 12, 2017 at The Museum of Modern Art

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Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City. 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 15 1/2 x 23 3/16″ (39.4 x 58.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker. © 2016 Nan Goldin

When I was sixteen, my older sister, who was dating a drummer in band, introduced me to the downtown music scene, namely CBGB’s.  Around that time she received Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) as a gift.  For a young imagination this book of snapshots held intense intrigue.  The work was dark but not without a louche bohemian attraction.  It was a glimpse of the city, and of the lives I sensed late at night in the streets of the lower east side.  But, most importantly, it was my introduction to realism, especially for someone sequestered in the wooded acres of northern Westchester County.

At the same time, I came into contact with the directorial work of John Cassavetes and the writing of Doris Lessing.  Gena Rowlands slipping into insanity in Woman Under the Influence and Ben Gazzara dealing with a mob debt in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie struck me as something all together new, revealing a certain psychological underbellyMy quiet suburban framework steeped in materialism and pretense was upset by this exposure to realism in art, giving me a better understanding of life in general.  The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was Nan Goldin’s calling card and her very personal visual diary that she shared with the world.  I disturbed many a peaceful sunlit afternoon trying to reconcile the overpowering darkness of it all with its palpable sense of undeniable love.  The awful, aching realization that that love is potentially destructive and dependency is a sinking condition.

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Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Trixie on the Cot, New York City. 1979. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Marian and James H. Cohen in memory of their son Michael Harrison Cohen. © 2016 Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin had an early childhood trauma that modeled the way she looked at the world.  Her older sister’s suicide and the emotional “sweeping under the rug” conducted by her immediate family caused her opposition to rosy outlooks.  Revealing imperfections was a kind of healing.

Not long after this tragic event, Goldin attended a free school modeled after Summerhill in England at age 15, where she ran around “naked and had sex.”  It was there that she met her first muse, David Armstrong, a drag queen.  She also found photography as a means of expression.  Drag queens became an instant fascination and the focus of an early exhibition.  Her own sexuality vacillated between gay and straight.  After graduating from the Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Art in 1977, she moved to New York City where she began to live a life that was entirely excessive, nocturnal, and free of inhibition.

The 70’s and early 80’s were hard but relatively high times for artists in downtown Manhattan.  Rent, drugs and alcohol were cheap.  The pasteurized playground we live in today where blight reduction takes place on every horizon is a far cry from the rough and tumble transition out the 70’s to the gradual ramping materialism of the 80’s.

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Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Philippe H. and Suzanne Kissing at Euthanasia, New York City. 1981. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2016 Nan Goldin

Goldin is roughly lumped into the Pictures Generation 1974-1984, but more specifically grouped together with David Armstrong and Mark Morrisoe, along with others in what is informally known as the Boston School.  On one hand you had the Pictures Generation tapping into advertisements, playing dress-up, mimicking roles reflecting the state of culture in general, while the Boston School worked in the opposite direction towards an insular realism, portraits of peers.

Today, the posing and posturing of the selfie generation is antithetical to the candid representation of most of the work the Boston School.  Imagery now portrays the best of our experience on social media.  And fine art photography in the last decade has taken to a conceptual tendency, often research based, like the work Bernd and Hilla Becher or Taryn Simon.  The precursor for Nan Goldin was Larry Clark, whose frank documentation of junkies and discontents compiled in the 1971 publication,  Tulsa. The imagery is strikingly similarDiane Arbus may also come to mind as a precedent but her subjects were hired, an entirely different set of circumstances with respect to photographic portraiture.

Even before The Ballad became widely famous Goldin would show her growing body of work in underground clubs to her peers. They were first exhibited publicly in the 1985 Whitney Biennial.  Commercial interest followed and a definitive version came together in 1987. By then Nan Goldin was in throes of serious addiction to heroin and cocaine, so deep that for two years she said she barely saw the light of day nor spoke to anyone except her dealers.  In 1988, she went into detox clinic and has remained mostly clean barring a few setbacks.

Goldin’s unadorned style was starkly against the grain of the commercial photography of the her time, the contrived setups and styling of Vanity Fair imagery from Liebowitz, Ritts and Weber.  Under that smooth perfection lay the real world that surfaced in The Ballad.  Her story is a struggle with many demons but mostly with a suburban upbringing that left her adamant to live a life of non-revisionism.  The determination not to gloss of over anything in life and her imagery.  A life of honesty, of love, and community.  Unfortunately the community that she created was in large decimated by the AIDS epidemic.  Even the hundreds of photographs cannot replace the physical presence of another, such is the void of death.

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Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan and Dickie in the York Motel, New Jersey. 1980. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2016 Nan Goldin

The snapshots in the exhibition at MoMA,  some 700 in total, are projected with a soundtrack from artists like Velvet Underground, James Brown and Nina Simone to name a few, providing a narrative to the 49 minute running time.  The soundtrack provides the jubilant, Downtown by Petula Clark, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Velvet Underground & Nico, to the low down, Sweet Blood Call by Louisiana Red.  And everything is revealed in the saturated, flash-lit images.  The intimacy is almost claustrophobic at times, we witness bruises from battery, masturbation, the needle and the spoon, empty bottles of endless nights, the precariously pregnant, blurred morality and the psychological and physical interdependence.  Guilty by Randy Newman is particularly resonant with its telling final refrain: “You know, you know how it is, baby/You know, I can’t take care of myself/And it takes a whole lot of medicine/For me to pretend that I’m somebody else.”

In the fantasy digital realm we all live in today these works stand out with terrible potency.  The strength of which comes from a shared understanding in the way the person behind the camera has  affection for the one in front providing a sense of comfort and repose, when our true selves emerge.

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Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan One Month After Being Battered. 1984. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2016 Nan Goldin

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Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours, New York City. 1980. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/4″ (39.4 x 59 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2016 Nan Goldin

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Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Max and Richard, New York City. 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 15 9/16 x 23 1/16″ (39.6 x 58.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2016 Nan Goldin

-JSB

 

Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov

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Violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov have worked together for over twelve years recording extensively, including a 2009 release of Beethoven’s Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano.   Both artists have a light touch and measured approach that compliments one another sweetly.  On November 19th, at the 92Y, the pair performed Beethoven, Brahms and Busoni, closing out the first half of the 2016-2017 season in magnificent form.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in A Major is perfectly suited to Faust and Melnikov’s more cheerful spirit.  From the opening measure, you can feel the sunny disposition of the composition as Melinkov’s swift and subdued handling of a series of six ascending half steps over staccato chords on the violin.  The unity of the two instruments is not overstated as Melnikov performs the pauses perfectly. The second movement introduces a more somber minor key before ending in Allegro piacevole, meaning fast and charming.

Beethoven’s lighthearted sonata was a perfect aperitif for Brahms’s last Sonata, No. 3 in D Minor.  Brahms was principally a pianist but had the good fortune of a productive relationship with Joseph Joachim, considered to be one of the finest violinists of the era.  Faust, being a formalist, has studied Joachim thoroughly and her approach is historical but not pedantic.

The first movement, in sonata-allegro form, had a uplifting effect after the understated Beethoven sonata.  The straightforward accompaniment of the piano allows the violin’s soft voice to prevail in the gentle introduction to the first subject.  I felt jolted out of my seat as the piano took charge of the subject, subito forte, while Faust played the supporting role.  The feeling of sentimentality is then broken by the aggressive modulation to F-sharp major before skipping directly back to D minor.  The prolonged final statement stretched out beautifully.  The adagio’s simple melody in D major, a cavatina for violin filled with nostalgia and vibrato.  The playful third movement led into the Presto Agitato returning to the home key.  The final movement, a moody affair, ends in an all out assault with both musicians firing on all cylinders.

After intermission, we had the privilege of  listening to a rare performance of Ferrucio Busoni’s  (1866 – 1924) Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op 36a.  Busoni was a child prodigy from a musical family in Tuscany who went on to become a renowned pianist.  However, he was not often heralded for his compositions.  Composed between the ages of 32 and 34, Busoni’s Sonata No.2 has leanings toward Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.109 and Bach’s chorale Wir wohl ist mir.  The work is in part a memorial to his friend and viloinist Victor Novácek, who with Busoni first performed the piece in Helsinki but passed away before it was fully written in the year 1900. The somber introductory statement leads ever further into the abyss with alternate chorale moments juxtaposed by frenzied dance sections.   The dramatic finale is sweet and loving.  Bach’s chorale is written into the piece, “How well I feel, oh Friend of souls, when I rest in your love.”

We look forward to the new year and more exciting musical programming at 92Y.  Director Hanna Arie-Gaifman continues to do an outstanding job at the helm of this vital institution where intimacy and collaboration are emphasized.

-JSB