Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
Not since Félix Gonzáles-Torres or Matthew Barney has there been an artist who has worked with the breadth and precision of Danh Vo. This is made exquisitely apparent in the full, yet sparsely installed, mid-career survey that has just opened at the Guggenheim Museum (“Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away”, until 9 May).
Vo commonly sources his materials from the remnants of history, spanning, in this exhibition alone, antiquity, Catholicism and the Kennedy administration—to name just three. His work is a potent and poetic fusion of the cultural, the political and the personal. It is conceptually and intellectually resolute, while humanistically abundant.
His oeuvre is borne from Conceptual art but feels vital, engaged in narrative and our times, as they unfold and transform the past. In a period when there is a lot of professional art being made, there is something exhilarating about an artist whose work is shrewd and complex, while visually still so accessible.
Some reviewers have criticized the work on show as being “complicit” with the market. My view is that, if you look closely, the opposite is the case: this is indeed an exquisitely curated exhibition. It puts everything Vo makes into perspective, where content is king and materials are the compelling vehicle of expression.
The work often deals with the brutality of power, the troubling and occasionally surreal consequences of colonialism and the meanings and symbols of freedom. Vo is truly the embodiment of the global artist. Born in 1975 in South Vietnam, his parents fled the Communist regime when he was four years old in a homemade boat. Rescued at sea by a Danish freighter, the family settled in Denmark, where Vo grew up as a European greatly impacted by Western youth culture.
The work brings Vo’s personal history together with many more sweeping political and cultural histories. Faith, belief, deceit, duality and irony are pondered with insight, poignancy and a quick-witted gallows humor, reanimating the fragments and ruins of history into works of art that reimagine sculpture.
“Vo is a master at presenting slices of horror, casually and without comment,” said the exhibition’s curator Katherine Brinson as she walked us through the installation, referring to a series of obsequious, mundane, and even a little seductive letters from Henry Kissinger to the New York Post’s then theater critic Leonard Lyons. In one, Kissinger apologizes for being unable to attend a ballet performance because of the “contemplation of Cambodia”.
If you are new to the work, undoubtedly you will benefit from reading the wall labels so as to fully appreciate what is here. Yet Vo’s work is so satisfying that, while challenging various preconceptions about history and culture, he is also making some of the most affirmative and profound art of his generation.
Conrad Felixmüller (1897-1977) was a founding member of, and driving force behind, the German Expressionist group called the Dresdner Sezession (1919-1925). In spite of this, he did not receive international recognition until late in his life—he didn’t have a solo exhibition until 1971, in Bologna and Rome—and even today remains somewhat overlooked.
His top price at auction was set in 2005 for the somber portrait of an elderly man, Clemens Braun (1931), which sold at Sotheby’s for $1.1m (est. $300,000-$400,000). Compare this to the top prices for his peers: the record for a work by Lyonel Feininger is $23.2m (est. $7m-$9m) (for Jesuiten III (1915) at Sotheby’s in 2007); £3.6m ($6m) (est. £600,000-£900,000) for a work by Otto Dix (Bildnis Rechtsanwalt Dr Fritz Glaser (1921) at Sotheby’s in 1999); and $2.2m for Wildwest (1916) by George Grosz at Christie’s in 1996.
Felixmüller was fascinated with the dynamism of modern urban life, which he initially represented in his compositions using vibrant, contrasting colors and energetic forms. His style changed in the early 1920s, away from Expressionist and Cubist-influenced art towards a more simplistic and realistic style, often depictions of working-class or private scenes.
Part of the reason Felixmüller is less well known than his peers is because many of his works were lost after their confiscation from public collections by the Nazis, beginning in 1933. Then, in 1944, an air raid destroyed his Berlin studio, wreaking further damage.
The German artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978) is best known for the Dadaist work she created during the Weimar period, when she was a pioneer in collage and photomontage works, but her oil paintings and watercolors also account for a major part of her oeuvre.
In fact, the world auction record for the artist was set in June last year for the autobiographical painting Frau und Saturn (1922), which documents her turbulent relationship with fellow artist Raoul Hausmann. It sold for £1.1m ($1.3m) (est. £400,000- £600,000) at Christie’s, surpassing the previous auction record of $824,000 (est. $8,000-$12,000) for the Dadaist work on paper Mechanischer Garten (1920) at Christie’s in 2007. Höch’s early work from the 1920s and early 1930s is by far the most sought after—when paintings from this period surface on the market they are highly competed for.
While her work shares affinities with Expressionism, Surrealism and Constructivism, she did not identify with any movement. There are several key themes in Höch’s work such as androgyny, shifting gender roles, political commentary, and there is a deep feminist discourse around her work.
She formed close friendships with fellow artists such as George Grosz and Kurt Schwitters, yet was often overshadowed by her male peers. She never chased fame, living in a modest home on the outskirts of Berlin after the Second World War.
Erika Giovanna Klien
Born in Borgo Valsugana in north Italy, Erika Giovanna Klien (1900-1957) was one of the leading figures of Viennese Kineticism, an avant-garde movement that flourished during the 1920s.
A key moment in Klien’s artistic development began with her enrollment in the radical class on ornamental art led by Franz Cižek at the Vienna School of Applied Arts in 1919. An experimental pioneer in the field of art education, Cižek’s classes followed a tripartite structure: developing the observation of emotions (Expressionism); the study of spatial relativity (Cubism); and the representation of movement (Futurism).
Klien went on to develop her own distinctive aesthetic and become a key figure in the Viennese avant-garde. She achieved a sense of dynamic motion in her work through the repetition of elements, such as in Lokomotive (1926), which set the auction record for the artist when it sold for £545,000 ($854,000) (est. £500,000-£700,000) at Sotheby’s in 2015. The other two top prices were set in 2011 at the Austrian auction houses im Kinsky and Dorotheum for less accomplished kinetic works: Bewegung (1930) which sold for €160,000 ($229,000. Est €150,000-€250,000) and Kopf einer Tänzerin (1923) which sold for €104,000 ($138,000. Est. €70,000-€100,000).
Her market development is hindered by the fact that supply is thin because she worked mainly as a graphic artist after the late 1920s. By 1929, after moving to New York, she focused on art teaching and writing.
A true original, the Belgian painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) is best known for his beautifully rendered depictions of Ostend’s broad and sweeping promenades, intense solitary figures and ever-changing seascapes. Largely self-taught, Spilliaert’s style could be described as Expressionist Symbolism. Some of his portraits are as disturbing and angst-ridden as Edvard Munch’s works, which the artist discovered when he stayed in Paris in 1904.
Spilliaert’s Self-Portrait, 3 November (1908) set the current world auction record for his work when it sold for €741,000 (no estimate given) ($816,000) at de Vuyst in 2015, a figure far eclipsed by Munch’s top auction price of $120m for the pastel on board version of The Scream (1895), which sold at Sotheby’s in 2012.
Spilliaert was something of an introvert, which may be part of the reason he never gained the same international recognition as did his contemporary and fellow countryman James Ensor.
The Swiss-born artist Jean Crotti (1878-1958) experimented with several styles including Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism. He studied first in Munich and then at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1901. He then moved to New York in 1915, where his art began to flourish. He became of a community of artists that included Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, sharing a studio with the latter and ultimately marrying his sister, Suzanne Duchamp, who was part of the Dada movement and who was a great influence on Crotti’s work.
Crotti never pursued one immediately recognizable style, which might be one of the reasons he has been sidelined by the market. His most sought after works are from the period between 1915 until the late 1920s: the auction record for his work was set last year at $1m when Les forces mécaniques de l’amour en mouvement (1916) sold at Christie’s (est. $700,000- $1.5m).
In Must See
What is the difference between language and a picture of a thing? That riddle has occupied artist Ed Ruscha for a lifetime. Years before Tom Wolfe’s cranky, hipster-bashing book ruined a perfectly good phrase, the L.A. painter had resolved to address an intractable paradox—the painted word.
More than any other artist since René Magritte, Ruscha has dramatized the visual and rhetorical potential of language in multiple drawings, prints, photographs, film and other media. Yet, as great as these are, they are no match for his word and image paintings. And, among Ruscha’s linguistically-minded masterpieces, none more directly portrays the tenuous relationship between language and the objects it grasps than Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western (1963).
I wish I’d kept some of my better known works. I weep over that.
Presently in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, this oil-on-canvas painting also happens to be Ruscha’s own favorite work. “I wish I’d kept some of my better known works. I weep over that… I consider [this painting] my best one… It embodies the aesthetic of all my work,” he laments on the label next to the work.
First exhibited 54 years ago at Los Angeles’ legendary Ferus Gallery among other single-word paintings, including Smash (1963) and Oof (1962, reworked 1963), the six-foot-tall canvas juxtaposes several unlikely elements onto the edges of a deep blue field.
On the left and right of the painting the artist has placed one-to-one photorealistic representations of two items included in the title: a freshly sharpened yellow pencil and a broken pencil. A paperback western novel is collaged at the bottom. At the top, Ruscha has added the word “NOISE” in expanding 3-D commercial lettering.
A work of art that literalizes the imaginary tension of a pencil breaking with comic book effects, Ruscha’s painting mines the gap between the truth and fiction that exists in all images, metaphors and similes. It also serves as a manifesto for a career spent querying the way meanings are conveyed or frustrated by symbols.
Ruscha’s message is simple but never banal: the thing depicted, whether a pencil or breaking sound, is not really the thing in question. Words and images can never fully engage on each other’s terms.
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