Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
In Other Words was always intended as a subjective, insider view of the art market and the salient issues facing the art world. I never thought that reviewing exhibitions would be critical to my introductions. And yet we are living in times in which the art market is increasingly consolidating around top-tier trophies made by a limited number of validated masters, punctuated by the occasional newcomer whose market tends to capture interest for a short period of time as a next-generation high-wire performer.
Demand for their work, more often than not, shoots up from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars but—within six months or a year of such targeted hype and over-speculation—plummets. These are art market supernovas whose markets crash and burn with the same fleeting speed of their ascent, regardless of their real or imagined importance and potential.
The process of hyper-speculation followed by disintegration of faith and value is not new: every decade since the 1980s has seen various artists anointed by a consensus of market-influencers as next-generation messiahs, only to be subsequently disparaged as false prophets in a brutal Darwinian process that resembles an elite sport. But today is different in that the phenomenon takes place over months, not decades.
This merciless savaging of art is in part an enactment of dying by the sword that we have come to live by. It speaks to the current and growing demand to grab the golden ring; to the relatively insignificant value of the dollar for many of the people operating within the art-collecting field; to the reality that greatness in any generation does not increase proportionately to the population of artists and the demand for great art to collect. It often leaves me wondering if we are living in a post-art period.
And so, what a relief it is to have seen, over the past month or so, a number of exhibitions that provide hope for the enterprise of greatness and thus a potential, whether sooner or later, to support and nurture it.
There is nothing like epic painting to set the bar high for big-picture thinking. Two shows of artists of very different generations, cultural backgrounds, and arcs in development have recently caught my eye. The first was an exhibition of two of the last monumentally scaled paintings made by James Rosenquist, on show at Kasmin in New York, “James Rosenquist: Two Paintings” (until 16 November). (Concurrently there is an exhibition of Pop masterworks from the 1960s, “James Rosenquist: Visualising the Sixties”, at Thaddeus Ropac in London until 22 November). The other was the work of a French artist of Algerian background, Mohamed Bourouissa, which was on show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles until the end of October (“Mohamed Bourouissa: Pour Une Poignée de Dollars”).
I have always found Rosenquist to be the most vexing of Pop artists. He works directly with “pop” imagery, but summons up so much content that his art slips into simultaneous states of contemporary urban representation and a Surrealism born of the overflow of imagery in our media-saturated world.
Rosenquist never seemed to develop a grounded art market base of support, like Johns or Lichtenstein, and many savvy viewers long ago dismissed his work as being of a specific moment. But I have always revered the quality of his brushwork, the panoramic scope of his imagery, and the consistent inventiveness. Without Rosenquist, I am certain that we wouldn’t have had the sweeping fascination for how content is depicted and its meaning formed in the work of Polke, Salle and many other touchstone artists of recent decades.
It is especially wonderful to revel in the senses of hope, fascination and awe in the futures of art and consciousness of Rosenquist’s last works, with their hypnotic bending, folding, reflecting, fragmenting and peeling back of space. They depict the blindingly bright light of reflection and the cosmic light of the universe; spaces that are geometrically ordered and thematically slippery, in the way that nanoseconds of sense can flicker into abstraction.
I can’t help but think of the dramatic space of Tintoretto as processed through the immeasurable space of light and the speed of virtual reality—that Rosenquist, coming out of a representational style rooted in the imagery of Pop, is exploring color, pictorial space, and mediated experience more akin to that of much younger artists such as Wade Guyton, who use instead the printer as a brush.
I hadn’t been that familiar with Bourouissa’s work, but found his assemblaged wall and floor-based pictorial sculptures energetic, compelling and innovative. They contain the voluminous image flow of daily life one associates with Rauschenberg, presented in structural forms akin to those of John Chamberlain with an occasional nod to Cady Noland, artistic references which Bourouissa is comfortably emulating.
The full thrill here is not just in the fecundity of printed imagery or dynamism of sculptural form (which also includes life-size figures configured by 3-D printing), but in the world from which the imagery derives. Bourouissa’s work, mostly rooted in the immigrant community of his youth in the outskirts of Paris, is here focused on a very particular community, that of Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. The group, which is more than 100 years old, was created by African American cowboys, and today trains and gives focus and refuge to young people in a community that struggles with economic and social conditions. Bourouissa creates works that are both epic and heroic.
At another end of the artistic spectrum are two exhibitions of work by artists who focus on a few details that they explore from countless perspectives. These artists explore an infinite range through the most narrowed approach to imagery.
I am still savoring every morsel of drawing and paintings on paper by Maureen Gallace shown at Gladstone Gallery last month (“Maureen Gallace”). It took me years to grasp the greatness of Gallace. Like many, I had initially corralled her paintings of the ocean, flora, and lone houses of rural New England into the realm of the old-fashioned, but I couldn’t discount that curators for which I have the greatest respect had been her earliest and steadfast supporters.
Several decades ago I had an hour to kill in London, so went to see new work of hers. I got the bug, discovering what others had long seen. She is one of the greatest gestural painters of our time. She spends a lifetime focusing on the same limited visual language and—like Morandi, Ryman or Martin—each time re-creates painting as if for the first time.
Gallace rarely exhibits her works on paper, and so this was an especially delightful treat. There is a freedom of gesture and stylistic range to the drawings that are a fresh experience for a Gallace devotee. There is such love of gesture, touch, nuance and tone in these works that one begins to gain insight into how much goes into making those paintings of the seashore seem so natural and spontaneous, but it is the result of a lifetime of observation and experimentation.
And last but certainly not least, is the amazing Philip Guston show at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles (“Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971”, until 5 January). To today’s market, which tends to see bigger as best, and often overlooks amazing moments in favor of big-bang trophies, this exhibition revels in the masterfulness of the morsel. The focus of this exhibition is the dozens of small paintings Guston made in Rome after studying the Renaissance masters. The paintings depict almost primal subjects, examined from numerous perspectives: paintings of hooded heads, trees, towers, walls, tablets, feet, books, and shoes. It is Guston heaven.
Ai Weiwei lives such a public life, at least on Instagram, that it’s hard to imagine he has kept anything private. But there is one thing he has long kept under wraps: his personal collection of Chinese jade, which experts say is first-rate and now runs to hundreds of objects.
In Jori Finkel’s new book It Speaks to Me—which comprises interview with 50 leading, international artists about a work of art that truly moves them—Ai opened up about his lifelong interest in jade, which dates back to his childhood during the Cultural Revolution when collecting the material was forbidden.
“Of all the artists I interviewed for the book,” Finkel said, “Ai Weiwei is the only one who truly had a connoisseur-level knowledge of the work he chose to discuss. I learned so much about the different qualities of jade just talking to him.”
Each of the interviews in the book focus on works in museums which have inspired artists— from a painting by Mark Rothko at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, chosen by Mark Bradford, to one of Rembrandt’s final self-portraits at the National Gallery in London, selected by Gillian Wearing. Ai’s focus was a small jade figurine in the National Museum of China that came from the tomb of Fu Hao, a powerful female ruler from the Shang Dynasty.
Finkel—a veteran arts journalist who is appearing on an upcoming episode of our In Other Words podcast—says she got to know the artist during her New York Times coverage of his 2014 Alcatraz project, but securing his participation in the book was a hard get. “When I first asked him to choose a museum piece that inspires him, he chose the New York City skyline.”
She decided to wait it out for a few months. “It was tricky, because he’s very good at pushing up against authority, and I didn’t want to become that person enforcing some rule,” she says. But, when she got back in touch, Ai was more responsive. “He had so much to say about this piece and his passion for jade—I was really surprised,” Finkel says.
The following is an excerpt from “Ai Weiwei on a Shang Dynasty jade from the tomb of Fu Hao” published in It Speaks to Me: Art That Inspires Artists (DelMonico Books-Prestel) © 2019 Prestel Verlag, Munich, Texts © Jori Finkel. Reprinted by permission of DelMonico Books-Prestel.
My interest in classical Chinese artifacts started very late because I grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and the Communist Party was trying to erase ancient traces from Chinese history. They were trying to destroy the older culture to establish the new world. You couldn’t have a jade piece at that time; it would be confiscated or you would be destroyed yourself.
Growing up I really only saw one piece of jade—a seal given to my father before he went into exile that had five characters on it: “If you know how to endure hardship, you might find the way.” He later tried to smooth down the characters for fear the words would give him away. It wasn’t until 1993, when I moved back to China from the U.S., that I really started going to antiques markets to buy jade. Beijing has an ocean of antiques. Now I probably have one of the largest jade collections.
This kneeling figure comes from the tomb of Fu Hao, the most complete archaeological discovery made by the Chinese government, one undisturbed by tomb thieves. Fu Hao was a remarkable military leader, maybe the most powerful female ruler in that period of Chinese history. Archaeologists found 755 jade pieces in her tomb, which speaks to her status. Jade is a very hard stone, so think about the amount of time and energy needed to carve these pieces—this incredible manpower.
Some people believe this small carving represents Fu Hao herself, but I believe it’s more mythological than memorial in function—a ritual object related to a higher power. The piece protruding from her back looks like a fishtail, which would mean she’s a god or ghostlike figure. In the Shang Dynasty, you often saw depictions of humanlike figures with a dragon’s head or a fish’s tail. They are images of transformation. The kneeling position is common, but the tail and headdress are unique; they don’t repeat in thousands of objects that come later.
Jade carries such weight in Chinese culture that every dynasty has used it. In the Chinese language, there are a few hundred words just to describe the qualities of jade, whether black, fine, small, or transparent. This figure is an example of white jade, so it has this feeling of translucency and softness. When you touch it, it’s extremely smooth, like silk.
In Must See
Elizabeth Peyton is known for her small, pensive portrayals of people, ranging from rock stars to figures from history as well as fellow artists, friends (and even her dog). Now she is the first contemporary artist to be given the run of the entire National Portrait Gallery (NPG) for “Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels” (until 5 January).
Calling Peyton “one of the great contemporary portrait painters”, NPG director Nicholas Cullinan previously spoke on an In Other Words podcast (“Expectations and Epiphanies” published 31 January 2019) of his desire for her work to connect directly with the museum’s permanent collection, “because it’s in that dialogue where we can do something different”.
To this end, along with more than 40 works by Peyton have been installed in the gallery’s temporary exhibition spaces and her paintings and drawings have also been hung in four of its permanent galleries, sparking rich dialogues with some of the gallery’s best-known portraits. The juxtapositions offer new and decidedly different perspectives on all manner of artists.
In the Tudor rooms next to The Darnley Portrait (around 1575) of a bejeweled Queen Elizabeth I, Peyton’s portrait of grunge music hero Kurt Cobain, Alizarin Kurt (1995), bows his head, causing locks of brilliant orange hair to fall over his face. In this meeting, both the pallid monarch and the ashen-faced pop star seem to hover uncannily between life and death.
Sandwiched between a pair of posturing Elizabethan nobles, William Cecil, the first Baron Burghley and Sir Henry Lee, a ruby-lipped portrait of Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, Blue Liam (1996), gazes out with a piercing blue-eyed stare, while languorous likenesses of fellow musicians Jarvis Cocker (Jarvis (1996)) and Keith Richards (Keith (From Gimme Shelter) (2004)) loll alongside a portrait miniature of the Virgin Queen (1572), this one by Nicholas Hilliard.
Peyton’s lush images of 20th-century celebrities sit comfortably amongst the dashing, self-fashioning Tudors. Both Shakespeare’s flamboyant patron Nicholas Wriothesely the third Earl of Southampton—striking a pose in ornate armor—and Peyton’s platinum-haired David Hockney, Powis Terrace Bedroom (1998) seem equally dedicated to projecting a distinctive self-image to the world.
Elsewhere, Peyton’s juxtapositions pose more questions about the nature of portraiture, identity and representation. The bravado of Van Dyck’s swaggering (around 1640) self-portrait is more than matched by the quietly confident air of the women artists Peyton has grouped around him. Self-portraits by Gwen John and the 17th-century painter Mary Beale are joined by Peyton’s 2010 portrayal of a young Genzken—based on a photograph from 1980 in which she glares impatiently out—and the artist’s own fluidly-painted self-portrait, Portrait at the Opera (Elizabeth) (2016). Here the artist appears as an androgynous dead-ringer for actor Leonardo DiCaprio, swathed in a scarf and wearing an alert, if wary, expression.
As a parade of her colored pastel drawings in the 19th-century galleries confirms, it does not matter whether Peyton is depicting the rapper Tyler, the Creator, a brooding youth copied from Michelangelo, the artist Cy Twombly or the fashion designer Phoebe Philo, each is animated by her intense and affectionate scrutiny which transports her subjects into the immediate here and now.
Let loose among the Victorians, Peyton also challenges and complicates their sentimentality with her own versions of contemporary romantic love. This is especially evident in the vitrine shared by a tiny and limpidly painted 2009 oil of the embracing teenage lovers from the film Twilight and Harriet Goodhue Hosmer’s bronze cast of the clasped hands of the poet husband and wife Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In both instances, what could be cloying is instead tender and emotionally charged.
Downstairs in the exhibition galleries most of the work has been made in the last decade since Peyton’s major exhibition, at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2009. Here she has also mixed things up by inserting a shadowy 16th-century portrait of the metaphysical poet John Donne who, with his large black hat and full lips, seems completely at home amongst her parade of romantically-rendered heroes through the ages.
The exhibition’s title is taken from one of Donne’s poems and it seems particularly appropriate given how in recent years Peyton’s paintings have become increasingly spare, loose and fluid. Yet, while her figures seem increasingly to almost dematerialize, their presence has become stronger. A posthumous portrait of David Bowie (David, March 2017 (2017)), splashily painted in vivid watercolor, has the presence on the wall of a firework. A tenderly translucent oil of Angela Merkel (Angela, 2017 (2017)) shimmers with compassion and empathy.
It is almost as if each individual brushstroke has now become charged with Peyton’s strength of feeling for her subjects. For, as she told me in an interview a few years ago, her work is “all about love—ultimately, all great art is about love”.
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