Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
This is the time of year when top ten lists proliferate: a time to look back and take stock of the year. While there is an appeal in wrapping up 2018 with a bow, I don’t really look at time that way (I lose track of time all the time).
It is obvious, though, that we are living through a particularly complex and muddled period in which there is more disruption than clarity. I have seen a lot of great art this year, been fortunate to be able to place some very special works in wonderful collections and taken on thrilling new advisory projects. And yet so much of my time has been spent grappling with where we are in art during these vexing times.
When I try to make sense of art today, it feels similar to the 1970s—a period during which the rule book was thrown out, and artists splintered into byways of plurality. Then as now, it was unclear where art was going. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we can now recognize the 1970s as one of the most exciting and epoch-transforming decades in the history of modern culture. But then, that was a daring, liberating and revolutionary time for art while today feels rife with careerism, stylistic conservatism, and sophomoric (or base) chess moves.
I have a nagging sense that we are in a post-art period where work of true greatness and vision is barely making itself known, if at all. This is one of several issues: another is the sharp decrease in supply of A+ work demanded by today’s collectors (made by an increasingly narrow list of artists), and the concomitant decline of market interest in the work of living artists (whose names are not on the list). There has been a dramatic shift in the spirit of (and commitment to) collecting as a newer group of collectors surpasses an aging-out generation that is losing the appetite to attend the grand feast conjured up by a hyped and often superficial market.
At the same time, we are in a rich period in which the work of great artists who had previously been ignored or compartmentalized is being rediscovered, especially work by African American and female artists of the postwar years. But to many of us these artists were not hidden: they have simply been excluded from the feast that began in earnest when the market began writing the history of the art of our times in the early 1980s.
I keep asking “Why now?” Why are we replaying the recent past? I think, precisely, because we didn’t get it right. Look at all those in leadership positions in various industries who were abusing their power sexually, as we have discovered in recent years. There has been a huge resurgence of the women’s movement, as society at large is beginning to shout that it is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
And so, I am beginning to see this from the other side: maybe we are reexamining the past because the present can be so damned scary, corrupt, indecent and obscene. Society itself is demanding we get it right. To what extent it will succeed, I am not at all confident. But I do have abundant confidence in the world of art to lead the way.
For me, a person who has never really thought of December as a time to reflect backwards and set goals forwards, the spirit of our times is most poignantly and hauntingly encapsulated in the great retrospective “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” (at MoMA and MoMA PS1 until 18 February and 25 February respectively).
This exhibition of one of the greatest, most compelling and most incisive artists of our times roughly begins with a key early video work, Walk with Contrapposto (1968), and ends with a revisitation of it (Contrapposto Split, 2017). Walk with Contrapposto is a key early work, in which the artist takes the classical sculptural pose of a contrapposto out of the object and into the body of the artist in real time and space.
In a later rendition—the most recently made work in the exhibition—the basic technology of early video art displayed on a monitor has been transformed into an enveloping environmental experience, the lithe, youthful, artist-maker now old, his body split at the waistline and moving in opposing directions in 3-D video, a colostomy bag casually visible as the split artist seems to move forward and back at the same time.
In art and the art market, we are at a crossroads of body and soul: the market becoming more efficient as it forensically consolidates; and art in search of its soul, looking to the past to prepare for a future while searching for meaning. There may be moments of brutal cleansing in the process of getting there, but I do believe that clarity, wealth of content and purpose are not so far around the corner.
Wishing everyone peace, clarity and conviction for 2019.
In Must See
Conventional art it isn’t, but there is definitely an art to over-the-top holiday displays. That virtuosity is, arguably, best cultivated in the US during December, in the aftermath of that other ur-American festival: Thanksgiving. If you are a light enthusiast and celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus (this last agnostic tongue-in-cheek celebration boasts the ritual “airing of grievances” and an unadorned aluminum pole instead of a tree) then the United States is your electric Eden, and your high-wattage Mecca is New York.
It all started here
The island of Manhattan is justly celebrated for its seasonal light displays. Fittingly, New York was the home of the first electrified Christmas tree: In 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, Thomas Edison’s business partner, wired up the family fir with red, white and blue lights and placed his faux-burning bush in the parlor window.
One of the most recognized displays is the LED-lit, dinosaur-shaped Christmas spruces at the American Museum of Natural History. But festivities are not limited to museums: from the Brobdingnagian light displays in store windows along Fifth Avenue, the Big Apple offers a blaze of visual treats during the holidays, most notably the Rockefeller Center’s enormous 70ft-plus Christmas tree.
Get your skates on
The winter holidays mean Bryant Park, usually tucked peacefully behind the New York Public Library, is transformed into a Christmas village, including a 17,000 sq ft outdoor rink (bring your own skates or rent a pair for $20) and a 55ft Norway spruce decked out with more than 30,000 lights. There’s even a biergarten to take the edge off the Christmas cold.
Hit the heights
There is no competing with Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, for homemade Christmas lights displays. The Kings County neighborhood is home to what is far and away the most flamboyant razzle-dazzle show in the land. Since the 1980s, competition among homeowners has kept the neighborhood buzzing each December. Each year more than 100,000 people flock to catch the annual glut of glitz.
The attractions include a baroque profusion of inflatable Santas, singing snowmen and motorized deer lining front yards from 11th to 13th Avenues (also known as Dyker Heights Blvd), and from 83rd to 86th Street. Baptized by The New York Times as “Con Ed’s warmest heart-throb” and the “undisputed capital of Christmas pageantry”, the neighborhood’s larger-than-life holiday displays get bigger, brighter and camper each year. Rock Center? Fugheddaboutit!
Meanwhile, over the Pond, and perhaps as a response to the widespread anxiety about Brexit, London is being especially festive with its holiday season displays. For his tree at the Connaught hotel in Mayfair, Sir Michael Craig-Martin asked himself what are the two essential ingredients for a Christmas tree? His answer? “The tree itself and the lights”.
His tree is distilled down to these two basic components. The nine-meter-tall Norway spruce was meticulously selected from a cast of hundreds for its dense foliage and its conical shape before then being wrapped in a single strand of 12,000 bulbs for maximum illuminated effect.
The lights were then hooked up to a super-complicated computer program so that the tree is continually engulfed in what Craig-Martin describes as “a full palette of ever-changing colors”. The result—mesmerizing rainbow-hued washes of light—transforms a familiar Christmas tree into a dramatic kaleidoscopic beacon.
Slugging it out.
The night-time mating rituals of slugs are an unlikely theme for a festive light display but are indeed the inspiration for Tate Britain’s dramatic holiday decorations courtesy of Monster Chetwynd (formerly known as Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and Spartacus Chetwynd), an artist known for her exuberant mass-performances and flamboyant props.
Standing sentinel on either side of the museum’s main entrance are two giant leopard slugs, illuminated by LED rope lights. They appear to have slithered over the entire façade of the building, which is draped in swathes of snail trails glimmering with energy-efficient blue and white LEDs.
Apparently, leopard slugs emit a blue glow when they mate, an activity which usually takes place after dark with the creatures dangling from a glittering thread of slime. In these most unorthodox of seasonal decorations what is normally considered ugly and repulsive is here transformed into something quite wondrous.
A really green tree
Both the V&A’s collections and environmental awareness are this year celebrated in Aberrant Architecture’s family tree, which takes its sharply geometric pyramid shape from the cover of The Christmas Tree, a 1966 children’s book illustrated by Fredun Shapur that can be found in the museum’s holdings.
Twelve triangular windows set into the surface reveal laser-cut cardboard replicas of an array of toys and Christmas-related objects, also taken from the V&A’s collections. These range from a 19th-century rocking horse to a 1920s teddy bear and Christmas cracker and a 1970s wind-up tin reindeer.
The tree and its contents are all made from waste materials: with the colorfully-speckled top and bottom parts created using recycled plastic bottles and the blue middle section made from recycled paper. It is a timely, slightly sobering, reminder of the mountains of extra garbage generated during the festive season.
Giving someone a book is a risky business, and with art books there are specific, complex tastes to navigate. This column recommends some top titles to wrap up this festive season— but with some suggestions on who to (and not to) give them to.
For: Fellini fans / Not for: Star Wars fans
My photography book of the year is NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960, a volume full of human drama. During the mid-20th century Italy rolled with the punches of Fascism, war and poverty to emerge like a Fiat 500 accelerating out of a tunnel. This photographic survey delivers extraordinary instances of pomp, such as Mussolini’s rallies, alongside moments of hardship and joy (an elderly seamstress threading her needle; a clarinetist on feast day).
Neorealism worked “in the service of the here and now and the everyday courage to live with dignity”, writes Martin Scorsese in his foreword. Shots by celebrated photographers, such as Ugo Mulas and Mario Giacomelli, show just such humility and poise in Neapolitan brothels, Milanese markets and the cafes of Emilia-Romagna. Fotografia paradiso.
NeoRealismo: The New Image of Italy, 1932-1960 is published by Delmonico Prestel
For: ramblers / Not for: agoraphobics
The great outdoors is the focus of Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood, an elegant monograph on his current exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (“Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood”, 26 May 2018-28 April 2019). It is a perfect stage for the work of the Arte Povera veteran. Penone’s trees, cast in bronze and gold as well as carved out of trunks of oak, fir and elm, reflect the human body, the mysteries of time and the strengths and weaknesses of the natural world.
Penone’s other materials include boulders, leaves and even potatoes. “As an artist, and a person, he emerges from the forest,” writes Martin Gayford in his introduction. This is a book forged at the intersection of the organic and ornate.
Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood is published by YSP
For: Northern Lights lovers / Not for: city types
It is heartwarming when an artist’s reputation goes beyond their national borders. 2019 looks set to be the year of Norwegian landscape painter Harald Sohlberg, whose turn-of-the-century panoramas blend precision with Scandinavian symbolism to striking effect. Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes —accompanying a traveling exhibition to Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Museum Weisbaden—showcases the breadth of his eye.
It’s a revelation. Sohlberg’s meticulous works include sweeping scenes of flower meadows, coastal cottages and, most famously, the spires and streets of Røros, a 17th-century mining town in the heart of Norway. As one critic observes: “It’s this attention to detail that makes you believe a world could exist in a dewdrop.”
Published by Hirmer
For: interior decorators / Not for: the color-blind
A special mention for Spectrum by John Pawson (Phaidon) which makes a mood-board out of a photobook.
A vast selection of the British architect’s snaps, taken by over 30 years, forms a color palette (the cold blue of an Argentinian iceberg is paired with the washed-out blue of a Tuscan morning). Hues ebb and flow across seasons and surfaces.
Spectrum is published by Phaidon
For: the tactile / Not for: futurists
One of the ironies of the tech-era has been a new appreciation for the hand crafted. Fewer, Better Things by Glenn Adamson is a considered treatise on how globalization, the drive towards virtual realms and mass production have all taken us away from something essential—the sense of attachment, physical and psychological, to beautiful objects. This could be a tea cup, chair or doll house.
Adamson, who is Senior Scholar at Yale Center for British Art, writes convincingly about “material intelligence: a deep understanding of the material world around us”. Along the way, he draws on a variety of voices, from Alexandre Dumas to Thomas Heatherwick.
Fewer, Better Things by Glenn Adamson is published by Bloomsbury
For: readers of The Paris Review / Not for: readers of the National Enquirer
In the early 20th century, feminist Vernon Lee was a popular author of supernatural fiction, but she had another literary life as an art critic.
In The Psychology of an Art Writer, Lee is refreshingly honest about the constraints of criticism. “At least nine times out of ten,” she claims, “the description of a painting will never amount to more than a description of the objects represented in the painting”.
The Psychology of an Art Writer by Vernon Lee is published by David Zwirner Books
For: fans of Michel Foucault / Not for: fans of Agatha Christie
The bounds of knowledge shape Via Roma 398. Palermo. This is (possibly) a murder mystery and (undoubtedly) a conceptual work of art. In 1933, the body of French poet Raymond Roussel was found in the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in Palermo. Artist Luca Trevisani compiles an investigation into his death, written by Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia in the 1960s, with other texts and photographs of the hotel.
“Via Roma 398 is not a book you browse through or read,” writes Trevisani. “It is an environment into which you fall.” A woozy time-travelling environment.
Via Roma 398. Palermo is published by Humboldt Books
For: dreamers / Not for: drones
A final word from the late great Joan Miró, the Catalonian artist who nurtured his paintings like crops. “Things come slowly,” he said. “They grow, they ripen.” In the tiny but beautiful I Work Like a Gardener, an interview with Miró from 1958 provides a window into the painter’s philosophy of art and life.
He was a pessimist who found beauty everywhere. And he delivers possibly my favorite observation made by any artist: “People who go bathing on a beach and who move about impress me much less than the stillness of a pebble.”
I Work Like a Gardener by Joan Miró is published by Princeton Architectural Press
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