Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
On Saturday, when in Prague for the Laver Cup tennis tournament—a short break en route to Asia and London—I starting writing this introduction in-between matches. (As a side note, I am told that Roger Federer, who is playing for Team Europe, is a serious collector of contemporary art; John McEnroe, captain of Team World, is a seasoned collector and one-time art dealer.)
Traveling always makes me pine for a great book to read (if I had the time). There are three books that I have often thought about writing, though almost definitely never will—but which I would love to read.
The Medicis of Modernism: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Heavenly Conduit
This is a book I conceived writing in the late 1980s but never did. The Dia Art Foundation was the brainchild of Heiner Friedrich, one of the great visionary art dealers of the postwar period, and Philippa de Menil, youngest child of John and Dominique de Menil, who was amongst the greatest art collectors, humanitarians, and art patrons of the 20th century.
Friedrich moved to New York in the early 1970s and began mounting ambitious single-artist exhibitions at 141 Wooster Street and 393 West Broadway, including a Dan Flavin installation that was a cotton-candy-colored revelation of environmental experience, Andy Warhol’s 102-panel Shadow silkscreens (1978) and Walter de Maria’s The Broken Kilometer (1979).
De Menil was Friedrich’s principal client, and soon the Heiner Friedrich Gallery became the Lone Star Foundation, which shortly thereafter evolved into Dia. At the time, Friedrich said that “dia” means “conduit” in Greek; it also translates as “heavenly”, and still others quote him as saying that it means “gift of the gods”.
393 became the permanent home of The Broken Kilometer, and therein began the geographical spread of the most ambitious program of arts patronage of the postwar years. The way Friedrich and de Menil (who later became Mrs. Friedrich) saw it, the contemporary American artists they patronized, amongst them Donald Judd, Flavin, Warhol, Cy Twombly, James Turrell, La Monte Young, Fred Sandback and Robert Whitman, were the great visionaries of the latter part of the 20th century, and they formed Dia to make possible the creation and permanence of contemporary masterpieces which would be the Gothic cathedrals of Modern Art.
Dia would provide the funds necessary to make all of this a reality, including ample monthly stipends for each artist, the accumulation of extraordinary holdings of each artist’s work, the acquisition of the real estate necessary to fulfill each artist’s ambition (whether a building, a crater, a castle, or a town), each to become a museum to the greatest works of art that the greatest artists of our time could imagine (and in this, the era of earthworks, those ideas could be awfully large).
It was a utopian commitment to art that had not been seen in centuries, since the times when art was understood as the product of divine intervention. As the ambition to enable this greatness to be manifested grew, so too did the ambitions and needs of the artists.
Dia acquired Dick’s Castle on the Hudson River (which had bankrupted the financier who built it, Evans P. Dick, in the 1910s) for Flavin’s collection of Hudson River School paintings; bought Judd an abandoned army post and much of downtown Marfa; and de Maria enough land in the New Mexico desert that nothing could ever be erected anywhere within sight of The Lightning Field (1977). Young had 30 staff to fulfill an iteration of his and Marian Zazeela’s Harrison Street v from 1979 until 1985.
The vision was remarkable‑every artist was brilliant and every project was amongst the greatest of the century (Dia’s unparalleled collection of Warhol Disasters was what got the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh going). All this was funded through de Menil’s trust, courtesy of stock from Schlumberger, her mother’s family’s company, one of the world’s most successful oil industry services providers.
But, in the period during which Dia’s ambitions grew, along with its costs, the value of the stock plummeted, and not only were dividends not enough to fund the project, but the money borrowed against the stock became equal to the value of de Menil’s trust.
The bank called in the loans, and this artistic tower of visionary brilliance nearly collapsed, resulting in unseemly public divorces from the artists and the sale of much of the real estate (including massive holdings of major properties in Manhattan and elsewhere for the future permanent homes of museums that would never be built), and some very great art.
It was thanks to the steady resourcefulness of director Charles Wright, a Seattle attorney, who replaced Friedrich in what was originally conceived as a custodial role, that Dia remained alive and developed a program in Manhattan, and through the ambition and pragmatic vision (if that’s not an oxymoron) of subsequent director Michael Govan, that there is even a Dia Art Foundation today.
This is the story of artistic vision, its extraordinary brilliance and grandiosity, as well as its hubris, vanity, and gluttony; of worshipful devotion, the end of Modern Art and, with that, the toppling of the Olympus of male artistic genius whose towering presence and ego had heretofore characterized the history of Western Art.
The Last Bohemian: A Biography of Gordon Matta-Clark
But before telling the story of the end of Modern Art through the collapse of the vision of Dia, I had intended to write a biography of one of the greatest artists of the postwar period: Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-78), who changed the course of both art and architecture.
He was the son of the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, and dancer Anne Clark. He had an identical twin brother, Sebastian (called Batan). His godmother was Teeny Duchamp, wife of Marcel.
When the twins were young, the father abandoned his family and moved to Paris. Clark, without the funds or means to support her sons, moved with them to live with Matta’s family in Chile. Gordon would go on to study architecture at Cornell, though he never practiced it in the traditional understanding of the field. Instead, he invented what he called “anarchitecture”, which instead of making buildings, liberated them, as sculpture and as public space.
An urban, quasi-anarchic Robin Hood of public space, Matta-Clark believed empty buildings, of which there were many in New York in the 1970s, to be a criminal waste, and in the making of his sculpture liberated such spaces by opening them and carving them up. The result was heroically anti-heroic “monuments” about space, shelter and the people they are meant to house and serve.
Matta-Clark was a charismatic pied piper of the New York art scene. Along with the Fluxus artist George Maciunas, he transformed the nearly abandoned warehouse district of SoHo into the most vital artist community in the world. He founded the neighborhood’s first restaurant, FOOD, a communal hangout where many of his artist friends worked, gathered and ate.
He made photographs, films, and sculptures. His anarchic interventions, such as shooting all the windows of a disused building, or carving through the floor of an abandoned tenement and displaying the removal as sculpture, were as counter-culturally heroic as they were political. His films, some made of his acts of deconstructing architecture, others of performances in their own right, mix the everyman of Frank Capra with the tragicomic wit of Harold Lloyd. In the early 1970s, in a work titled Fake Estates (1973), he purchased at auction slivers of property that belonged in a no-man’s land of ownership between other properties, on sites too small to be used or developed.
Matta-Clark’s environmental sculptural works no longer exist, and were never meant to. They live on in the artist’s photographs and films. Chief amongst them are Splitting (1974), a house in New Jersey he sliced down the middle and tilted as though cracked open like an egg, and Day’s End (1975), in which he took an empty, locked pier on the Hudson River, cut a slice through it, and opened up a rose window of sorts at the far end, transforming this massive, disused behemoth into a sculptural cathedral, letting light and people in.
I always read his work not only in political and social terms, but as a continual enactment of dismantling the tyranny of authority, of killing off the father who broke up the family. The collapse of the towering presence of Minimalism that was typified by Dia found its antidote in the work of Matta-Clark, his work itself an unraveling of the phallocentric nature of authority.
Whereas magnetic, libertine, freethinking Gordon personified the New York art scene of the 1970s, which in large part he created, his brother Batan, who was also an artist, was the opposite—withdrawn and alone in the crowd. One day in 1976 Batan took his life by jumping out of Gordon’s loft window. At the time Gordon was healthy and virile; six months later, at age 35, he died of pancreatic cancer. It is not uncommon for identical twins to die within six months of each other.
While much of Matta-Clark’s work may read as anarchic, he was at the same time forward-looking and visionary (with a dose of the absurd). Throughout his artistic life he practiced alchemy, melting all kinds of materials in an ongoing effort to create gold, perhaps as an ode to optimism, or a ritualized act of futility. It is believed by many that this heroic process is what killed him.
There has not been an artist like Matta-Clark since. When he died, so, too, in my mind, did the spirit of the radical, and the fearless adventure that had defined the artist for more than a hundred years. A world defined and populated with artists soon gave way to an art market and a professionalism of the field that has characterized the art world we have known since.
Ileana Sonnabend: The Sphinx With a Secret
Now, here is a book I would never be qualified to write and that I believe can no longer be written, but which we all need to read.
Leo Castelli, the greatest art dealer of Pop Art and beyond, who invented the art market we know today, was charming and public. Leo got the glory, and he deserved it, but I think the power behind the throne was Ileana Sonnabend, his first wife and lifelong friend. Sonnabend had the wealth, eye, and lustful gluttony that characterizes the greatest collectors.
I didn’t know her well, and found her formidable and enigmatic—less by her bearing than by her being. I never heard her talk much, which I took to mean that she was often silent, but maybe this was the invention of an intimidated young man. When she tried to engage me in a chat, I shrank and became a monosyllabic mouse.
The key to her peerless collection of Pop Art and beyond, she said, was that she collected works from her Paris and New York galleries that nobody wanted to buy, which in retrospect often proved the most compelling. I am sure this is true, in part. But her collecting was so much more than that. She owned hordes of great works by the greatest artists that she showed as well as masterworks by artists such as Twombly, and, what I am told was the finest collection of Art Deco furniture ever assembled.
When once asked what two words best describe her, she replied “curiosity” and “greed”. An old friend told me a story of sitting through a business meeting she had with a major European art dealer who wanted to deepen his business relations with Sonnabend. To impress her, he took her to the finest restaurant in town. He tried to lavish upon her all the culinary finery, regaling the pleasures of every great dish. Instead, she sat silent through the meal, and when asked what she would like to order, she said simply, “A boiled potato.”
She had the face of my aunt Shirley and the shy, bemused smile of the proverbial cat who had gotten away with eating the canary. She had what must have been an intentionally ordinary appearance, usually attired in a shapeless dress and wearing an ill-fitting wig. Still, she had a gentle and regal aura—a true presence. I imagined her to be shy, but maybe this was a ruse to let the secrets die with her. If she had ever agreed to tell her story, which she never would, it would change our understanding of art in the postwar period. And now, to our loss, all of those secrets are now in the grave with her.
Whether troubling or liberating, necessary or enforced, limbo is a state that taps into our fundamental need to belong. As these three books illustrate, presciently it seems, when we’re in between harbors our identity is all at sea.
The Passport Book
One of the pleasures of international travel is spotting a peculiar passport in the hand of some Phileas Fogg or Jason Bourne. They emerge out of pockets weighted with authority and mystery and sometimes look very odd indeed.
Well, you can now refer to The Passport Book, which provides a survey of all those curious volumes scrutinized by customs officers. Each cover is illustrated in color and accompanied by statistics—population, area, GDP—and a statement about national character (Norway: “Highly congenial people, including the royal family. Very expensive”).
We have the French Revolution to thank for the modern passport: King Louis XVI supposedly tried to cross the border dressed as a manservant. After that it was: “Vous papiers s’il vous plait.” In the years since, however, they have saved countless people caught up in conflicts.
This fascinating book illustrates how your passport says a lot about where you are from, even if the modest format—125 by 88mm—offers little scope for eccentricities. They are issued in various shades of blue, red, green or black (although the Dutch do an eye-catching version in pink).
Dark covers are the most popular. “Smudges are less visible,” notes editor Nicola von Velsen. Fonts err on the side of stuffy (only two countries dare to italicize). The Vatican City passport is the only one not to feature text—just a small crest, gold on black.
Indeed, it’s the heraldry that creates variety. Most national coats of arms are muscle-flexing—a menace of lions, eagles, spears and sabers—with an occasional palm leaf or olive branch to soften the scene.
But there are anomalies. The countries that reach for a sense of informality and character are a delight. The Barbadians provide a jolly pelican; New Zealand includes a spray of silver ferns; Cyprus peppers its paper with golden birds. African nations look to the wilds: zebras (Botswana), camels (Eritrea) and elephants (Ivory Coast).
For me, however, it’s the Swedes who have perfected the passport: their deep red document illustrates a tree-lined avenue of Belle Epoque mansions. And in the bottom right-hand corner a small, embossed airplane is beginning its descent to land: coming home.
*The Passport Book is published by Prestel
The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens
I have a fondness for ghosts. Everyone I love will, one day, die and the thought that I might see them again is a comfort. Ghosts are generally considered to be figures to fear but, as Susan Owens reminds us in her fascinating study The Ghost: A Cultural History, they “do not always set out to frighten us”.
She references early 11th and 12th-century ghosts with protective intentions; others appear benevolent, comical and even romantic. Of course, from the pen of M R James and Susan Hill to the pictures of William Blake, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, specters have also scared us senseless.
Owens is the former curator of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum and has written and lectured widely on British art and natural history. Here she finds a subject which ignites both her passion and expertise. “What captivates me are the ghosts that we create in our imagination,” Owens observes. “It is here that ghosts hold up a mirror to us, one that reveals our desires and fears.
The gallery of ghouls on view includes prints, oils, drawings, photographs, book dust jackets and film stills. Owens has curated a wonderful range of images, from evil revenants to willowy women in white floating around four-poster beds. Those gothic-obsessed Victorians—Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt—are well covered. Later, Paul Nash created wartime ghost stories in watercolor and Rachel Whiteread made eerie plaster casts.
Each era provides a new lens on the subject, explains Owens. The Reformation did away with the notion of purgatory, changing the reasoning for a ghost’s presence. In the 19th century they were uninvited guests at country house weekends. More recently, they have become vehicles for psychological and social narratives.
There are even ghosts in conceptual art: on 1 July 2016, to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more than 1,500 men dressed in First World War uniforms silently mingled with commuters all over Britain in Jeremy Deller’s performance work We’re Here Because We’re Here. Owens has written an illuminating—dare one say, haunting—book about artistic endeavor and existential curiosity.
*The Ghost: A Cultural History is published by Tate
Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings by Matthi Forrer
“The trick would be to put the bridge at an angle for some compositional tension … and miss the graffiti on the walls,” observes Robert Kincaid, the fictional grizzled 1960s photographer in the 1995 film The Bridges of Madison County. A century earlier, Hiroshige, the 19th-century Japanese firefighter-turned-printmaker had similar concerns—albeit without the graffiti issue.
Utagawa Hiroshige created magnificent woodblock prints that captured the natural beauty and bustling life in and around Kyoto, Osaka and, in particular, Edo (now Tokyo). A key and constant motif in these prints—or “Famous Views” as he called them—are the bridges that cross the bays and large rivers, as well as the myriad streams and tributaries that lace through the landscape.
“Edo’s bridges figure abundantly in his views,” acknowledges Matthi Forrer in Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings, a beautifully presented new monograph on the artist. Ferrer, who is curator of Japanese Arts at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, is a superb guide to the artist’s series, working practices and thematic interests.
Hiroshige’s bridges create narratives. Tradesmen, merchants, locals and visitors, are momentarily caught on a temporary stage. Here they experience life’s theatre: huge bridges teem with the flow of commuters; small ones provide humpback havens for women to talk; on toll bridges, samurai cross for free.
Sometimes the structures’ beams, struts and towers frame the surroundings; in others, a bridge is itself bordered by cherry blossom. Hiroshige pictures them in snow, rain and sun. There are bridges in winter nocturnes and summer idylls. Above them, kites hover and fireworks explode. The reproductions here are stunning, printed on looped paper stock. It is perhaps the finest art monograph of the year.
Hiroshige’s influence traversed continents and centuries. Pissarro called him a “marvelous Impressionist”—Monet and Van Gogh were equally enamored—and Whistler looked to him for inspiration when painting London’s Battersea Bridge in the green-black light of the night. Even Hergé was stirred by his themes: Tintin dashes across a lot of railway, road and rope bridges. As Hiroshige noted, these periods of transit create both drama and quietude alike.
*Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings is published by Prestel
In Must See
Much of the art world flocked to Africa for the opening of the largest contemporary art museum on the continent, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town. Designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, the founding collection of the museum is on life-time loan from the German businessman and former CEO of Puma, Jochen Zeitz.
The 12 inaugural shows range from the group exhibition “All Things Being Equal…” which features work by African artists of international renown such as El Anatsui and William Kentridge, to “States of Grace”, which includes a powerful performance by emerging South African artist Gabrielle Goliath.
In addition to the museum, here are several must-see exhibitions in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
During the 10th anniversary weekend of the Joburg Art Fair, one of South Africa’s oldest contemporary art spaces—Goodman Gallery—opened a solo exhibition by the Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai entitled “We Live in Silence”.
The cinematic photographs, paintings, drawings and installation work on show comprise the final show in a three-part series that included Revelations (2011) and Genesis (Je n’isi isi) (2016), all seeking to disrupt the institutions—governmental, financial, religious—that Africa inherited from colonialism.
Inspired by Mauritanian film-maker Med Hondo’s 1967 drama Soleil Ô, images like, We Live in Silence XI (2017) seek to reshape what the artist calls “colonial futures”.
In Chiurai’s picture, a young black woman takes the posture of a would-be African leader at a press conference. Wearing a cheetah-print jacket before a row of microphones and jabbing her finger into the air, she is silent no more.
Chiurai, who also has an early career survey on show at Zeitz MOCAA entitled “Regarding the Ease of Others”, is considered of the emerging stars of African art. His vision of empowerment is not to be missed.
The recently opened, A4 Arts Foundation is a public arts center created by the Guggenheim Museum board President —and avid South African collector—Wendy Fisher, whose intentions are to support artistic inquiry in Cape Town.
The non-profit art foundation, which hosts an expansive multimedia library; a research archive drawn from Fisher’s vast collection and a white-cube gallery space, opened with “You & I”, on the theme of collective unity.
Organized by curators Ziphozenkosi Dayile and Kemang wa Lehulere, the exhibition opens with Glenn Ligon’s Give Us a Poem (Palindrome #2) (2007), an edition of the Me/We wall sculpture that also greets visitors at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Other artists include the late Malian social photographer, Malick Sidibé, Haroon Gunn-Salie and Eija-Liisa Ahtila.
Today, when we think of contemporary African photography, Zanele Muholi’s arresting images of LGBTQI+ people living in South Africa are not far from our minds. For the first time in five years, at Stevenson gallery in Cape Town, the photographer who mixes—with rare power—her activism into her documentary photography and self-portraiture has mounted an exhibition of two bodies of work.
The series Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the Dark Lioness) confronts the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive through self-portraiture and Brave Beauties, a photo-essay that sees Muholi documenting with her camera the life of trans women in South Africa. For the exhibition Muholi turns the gallery into a social sculpture, where on a back wall, visitors are encouraged to pen their feelings and support for trans women. The show is a testament to the power of art.
In Must See
Robert Longo, Untitled (Raft at Sea) (2016-17)
There are images that leave you speechless. In an age of ubiquitous digital photography, only very rarely are those images charcoal drawings. But, a 23ft work of art stretching across three darkly framed panels, Untitled (Raft at Sea), by the 64-year-old American artist Robert Longo shares the distinction—alongside photographs of the Moon landing and Hurricane Irma devastation—of capturing images that speak louder than words. Like them, this monumental picture grabs the viewer by the scruff of the eyeballs.
Partly sourced from a photograph taken by the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders of more than a dozen Syrian refugees floating on a raft on the Mediterranean Sea, Longo’s meticulously executed drawing exploits its incredible similarity to an actual photograph to trigger what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “suspension of disbelief”.
The drawing’s perspective casts the viewer inside the water’s giant swells, pointing to Longo’s desire to disorientate. A museum wall text terms it “a drowning point of view”. Part of the exhibition “Proof: Francisco Goya, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Longo“, Untitled (Raft at Sea) is one of 23 large-scale charcoal drawings by Longo currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum (until 7 January 2018).
Curated by Kate Fowle, the chief curator of Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, from where the show has traveled, and Longo himself, the show spans three continents and four centuries, while bringing together drawings and films by Eisenstein and more than 50 prints by Goya. Besides showcasing new and recent works by Longo, “Proof” provides an up-to-date insight into the work of two unflinching historical artists Longo cites as major influences.
Created as a composite, the workings behind Untitled (Raft at Sea) are also on show, including various pencil drawings and a preparatory collage as well as digital snaps documenting the work’s production that viewers can scroll through on a nearby iPad. But, even after the curtain has been lifted, it remains hard to reconcile illusion with reality. Longo had made a magical image.
The fine-tuned charcoal likeness locates the viewer viscerally inside the picture. A gut-roiling twist on modern-day photography as well as a 21st-century analogue to history painting, Longo’s drawing provides proof of art’s enduring capacity to move us.
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