Thursday, February 23, 2017

Meandering at the Met: What An Artist Looks Like

Untitled (Painter), 2009, acrylic on PVC panel
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Kerry James Marshall’s recent 35-year retrospective at the Met Breuer, Mastry, ran October 25, 2016 to January 29 this year. It was a big show—almost 80 works, most figurative, depicting the experience of black history and culture, his experience. The two times I went large crowds were gathered around Marshall’s enormous canvases, so much so that photography was impossible. But one gallery was just a little less crowded, and as luck would have it, it held the works that moved me most: a series of portraits of fictional painters that answered the question, “What does an artist look like?”


Ebony-dark figures are depicted with outsize palettes. Some are seated in front of self portraits. These are idealized contemporary figures, most exquisitely coiffed and dressed. Referring to the title of his show, Marshall says in an exhibition-related video, “In the narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has received the title of Master, certainly not an Old Master.” 

In the not-so-simple act of painting a self portrait, every painter inserts himself or herself into visibility, into the history of art whether it is recorded or not. That is exactly what Marshall has metaphorically done here, refuting the narrow Western paradigm of the artist as a white man. Male artists of other ethnicities, and women of any and all, can certainly relate.


Untitled (Painter) in a quieter, less crowded gallery at the Met Breuer


Untitled (Painter), 2009, acrylic on PVC panel


Untitled (Painter), 2008, acrylic on PVC panel



The Artist in a Velasquez

Also as luck would have it, at the Met Fifth Avenue there was a different figurative exhibition, Velasquez Portraits: Truth in Painting (which remains up through March 12). The portrait that holds pride of place in the exhibition is the magnificent Juan de Pareja from the Met’s own collection. Against a shadowed gray background a man of regal bearing looks directly at the viewer--which is to say, the painter--with sadness, tinged perhaps contempt, his coppery skin tone offering the only warmth in an otherwise somber palette.

We know from art history that the eponymous de Pareja (sometimes called Juan de Pareja Morisco) was Velasquez’s indentured assistant, a mulatto Spaniard (morisco) whom the master had inherited. What I did not know, however, is that the assistant learned from observation and painted in secret, and that a short time after the portrait was completed in 1650 Velasquez freed the young man from servitude (the story of de Pareja's manumission
here.) From that point on, until his death in 1670, Juan de Pareja maintained a studio and clients in Madrid.  

This story was, to me, an important coda to the painting. And the painting, splendid on its own, is an important precursor to Marshall’s contemporary series. This, too, is what an artist looks like.


Diego Velasqez, Juan de Pareja, 1650, oil on canvas

Below: Juan de Pareja, La Vocacion de San Mateo (the Calling of Saint Matthew), 1661; in El Museo del Prado, Madrid. Click here to explore the work in detail on the museum site. Well aware of art history, de Pareja inserted himself into it. The gentleman standing at far left holding a slip of paper is a depiction of the artist himself



And the artist whose work opened this post, Kerry James Marshall


More info
. Velasquez at the Met Fifth Avenue, through March 12
. Juan de Pareja's La Vocacion de San Mateo at the Prado

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States . . ."


Detail of drawing by Teheran-born Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. Scroll down for the full view of the work and more info
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The fifth-floor galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hold a wealth of Western art history from the late 1800s to the 1950s. It is there you’ll find tourists clustered around Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy, along with rooms of paintings and sculpture by Matisse and Picasso. In those galleries you’ll now (and for the foreseeable future) also see works from the collection by artists who were born in Muslim-majority countries.


The additions are intentional and timely. Indeed they are a direct response to President 45’s executive order banning entry to the U.S. from seven primarily Muslim countries. The postscript on the wall card next to each of seven works contains this statement: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.”

Now wipe that tear out of the corner of your eye and come with me. I went looking for these works, and this post shows you what I found.



In the lobby: Sculptor by the Iranian-born American sculptor, Siah Armajani (born 1939), Elements Number 30, 1990. Photo: Robert Gerhardt/MoMA

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On the fifth floor: In a small anteroom to the larger galleries, we come face to face with the square Untitled piece by Marcos Grigorian (1924-2007), who was born in Russia and lived in Iran, the United States, and Canada
All photos mine unless indicated otherwise

Margos Grigorian, Untitled, dried earth on canvas

The mandala-like composition of this painting is what drew me to it initially, but upon reflection it is the material that compels. The artist used earth. Whetever Grigorian's intention was in making it, I can't tell you, but is there a better physical metaphor for the free passing through borders than the stuff that covers our planet?   
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Faramaz Pilaran (1937-1982), Iranian, Laminations (Les Lames), 1962; gouache, metallic paint, and stamped ink on paper


The wall card with information about Pilaram
Below: view of the gallery where the work, at left, is installed


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Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930), Sudanese, The Mosque, 1964, oil on canvas


Installation of The Mosque, with information about the work and the artist below

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Parviz Tanavoli (born 1937), Iranian and Canadian, The Prophet, 1964, bronze on wood base

Below: Closer view of the sculpture, which is cast from architectural elements, such as fountains and grillwork. The wall text tells us that Tanavoli, like his countryman Pilaran, was a member of the Sixties circle known as Saqqakhaneh, "a Farsi term referring to commemorative public water fountains often densely decorated and surrounded by metal grills."

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Tala Madani (born 1981), Iranian living in Los Angeles, Chit Chat, 2007, video (silent), 2:38 minutes

I have a short video of this video but no idea how to upload it to Blogger. The best I can do is post the wall card that tells you more:
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Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, (born 1937), Sudanese, Mon Pere et Moi (My Father and I), 1962

Installation view of Mon Pere et Moi with Matisse paintings and sculpture
Below: Detail of the work and info from the wall text


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Installation of a painting by Zaha Hadid (1950-2016)


Below: The Peak, Hong Kong, Project, 1991, exterior perspective, synthetic polymer on paper mounted on canvas


I'll be honest, I wonder about the inclusion of this work since this is a view of a project that the late architect never realized. However the wall text, posted below, makes a case for it



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Shirana Shahbazi (born 1974), Iranian-born now living and working in Zurich, Composition-40-2011;
shown next to Marcel Duchamp construction

Though I neglected to photograph the wall text for Shahbazi, a quick MoMA search revealed that Shahbazi creates "vividly colored pictures made in the crisp style of commercial studio photography without the aid of digital tools." I love the juxtaposition of these two works, the three circular elements in each and the triangular geometry.
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Read more about this exhibition
. Artnet 
. ArtNews
. New York Times
. New York Times, different version of same article
. Vox


Related Story: Davis Museum in Wellesley, Massachusetts, removes all work by immigrants. 
Through Presidents' Day, all work made or donated by immigrants has been removed from display.
Read more:
. CNN
. Hyperallergic

Friday, February 10, 2017

Mothers of Invention, Part 4: Alma Thomas

Part 1: Carmen Herrera


Alma Thomas (1891-1978) at the Studio Museum in Harlem, July 14-October 30, 2016
This panorama looks toward the entrance to the galleries. Photos are mine unless indicted otherwise


Usually associated with the Washington Color School, Alma Thomas began her painting career behind three rather large eight balls: she was older than many of her contemporaries (she began to exhibit after she retired from teaching art at the age of 69), she was a woman, and she was black. In a wonderful show at the Studio Museum in Harlem this past fall, curated by Ian Berry, director of the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, and Lauren Haynes, associate curator of the Studio Museum, selections of Thomas's oeuvre were on display.


Thomas studied fine arts at Howard University, "becoming its first fine arts graduate in 1921," according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In this exhibition we see some of her small early landscape-influenced work. But the paintings for which she is best known are mid-size to large canvases, often more or less monochrome, with staccato daubs that create mosaic-like, non-repeating patterns. Heightened by the cell-like structure of her compositions, the effect is of a pulse rather than a rhythm--color, with variations in paint thickness, texture, and subtleties of hue.

Hydrangeas Spring Song, 1976, acrylic on canvas, is at left, but we begin our walk-through of the exhibition in the far gallery, where Thomas's works on paper were installed on the wall and in the vitrine. Photo: Studio Museum in Harlem


Early expressionist abstractions give way to Thomas's signature fields of organized color, realized with brushy flat strokes. From this wall we will turn 180 degrees . . .


. . . to look over a vitrine in that space to one of my favorite paintings in the show: a field of red daubs over an underlying layer of green, yellow and blue

A nearby wall text quotes Thomas in 1972: "One of the things we couldn't do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there." The works in this vitrine are on loan from the Columbus Museum of Art. Other institutions lending to this exhibit include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Phillips Collection, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The quote finishes, "My, times have changed. Just look at me now."

Approaching Storm at Sunset, 1973, acrylic on canvas


Looking into the second side gallery, with works on paper and paintings

These panoramas, above and below, give you a sense of the space and the work in the gallery




Let's step back  and begin our tour around the large main gallery. At right: Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish, 1976, acrylic on canvas

Expansive panorama lets us turn clockwise around the gallery. In the left corner . . .


. . . we see a closer view of Scarlet Sage and, right, White Roses Sing and Sing, 1976, acrylic on canvas

Detail below


We continue clockwise with  . . . 

Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, acrylic on canvas

Detail below


Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, and Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969; both acrylic on canvas


Peter Schjeldahl, writing in The New Yorker, said: "The boldly experimental work of her last years suggests the alacrity of a young master, but it harvested the resources of a lifetime."
Photo: Studio Museum in Harlem 

End of Autumn, 1968, acrylic and graphite on canvas


Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers is visible at right as we step back in a small gallery on the other side of the partition wall


And Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses is visible at right as we step back behind another partition wall. We're actually at the front of the museum seeing early work, like . . .

. . . Yellow and Blue, 1959, oil on canvas

I love this painting. Though it predates most of the work in the exhibition by almost 20 years, we can see  Thomas's color sensibility and the beginning of her signature daubs. And though Thomas didn't start showing until after she retired from teaching, it's clear she painted throughout her life 


The artist

Thomas's painting, right, was displayed in the family dining room of the Obama White House. She was the first black woman to be represented there



On a personal note I visited the Alma Thomas exhibition on its last weekend in late October with my long-time dear friend, the activist Gina Quattrochi. Gina was tireless in her fight for the rights of all--especially women, queers, people of color (and all of our glorious permutations), and particularly those with HIV/AIDS. She was the CEO of Bailey House in New York City for 25 years. As serious as she was politically, she was also immense fun to be with. We were friends for over four decades. Gina died not long after our afternoon together, after her own personal struggle with multiple myeloma. I dedicate this post to her memory.