Wow! Who made that?

You know you’ve found something special, when the same artist takes you by surprise on different occasions.  I remember the first time I saw Lee Bontecou’s work at MoMA.  I stood in the middle of the gallery, looking up, gobsmacked.  I said to one of my art friends, Look at that!  Who is it?

Without a moment’s hesitation S. said, That’s Lee Bontecou.  Isn’t she great?

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

I was only slightly, and fleetingly, embarrassed that I wasn’t familiar with this artist, and her work.   Lee Bontecou was born in 1931 in Rhode Island, U.S.A.  She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1957; in 1966 she won the first prize from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  There have been major solo retrospectives of her work in the last twenty years, including  at MoMA / MCA Chicago / Hammer Museum in 2003/4. In 2014 the Menil Collection in Houston had a exhibition of her drawings.

Last October (2019), at the newly renovated MoMa, I came around a gallery corner and encountered  this:

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Bear in mind this sculpture is about 5 feet wide by 5 feet high and protrudes from the wall.  It is an arresting presence that stopped me, and demanded my attention.  The darkness of the central void, the somber palette, and the varying depths and shapes encompassed in the piece make it extremely powerful.

I had to check the label, as neither my friends (S. and J.) nor I recognized the work. I was pleased to read Lee Bontecou.  This sculpture cemented my admiration for Ms Bontecou’s work.  The label explained that it is constructed of old conveyer belts that the artist salvaged from a laundry below her East Village apartment.  The curators suggest that the piece expresses anxiety, as it was created when the U.S.A. entered the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall construction began, and the American tensions with Cuba were at fever pitch.

Here is a short video from MoMA highlighting Bontecou’s piece within the show Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction. (You can skip ahead to the 4 minute mark to hear specifically about this sculpture.)

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

The details are exquisite, don’t you think?  The copper stitching appears fine and delicate, yet it holds together the muscular, voluminous forms.

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Bontecou said, My concern is to build things that express our relation to this country…..to other worlds to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exists in us all and hangs over all the young people today.

It’s not surprising that the work is strong – it expresses much of the human condition.  Despite being 60 years old, it is still relevant today.

 

 

 

 

Out of control!

It’s not only how our lives may feel at the moment, but it’s how the artist Pat Steir describes her work.  Some of her musings about making art are surprisingly relevant to our pandemic times.  The chance in a painting is like a companion, she says.

As I said in my last posting, there are about a billion ways you can spend time in front of a screen right now.  (I find myself experiencing a kind of ‘screen fatigue.’)  This short video from Pace Prints is worth five minutes of your time.  In it,  Ms Steir discusses some of her motivation and the processes for making her art.  I’m really only interested in the performance of painting and colour.  The photography is effective, and a lot of intriguing ideas are packed into a few minutes.  She cites John Cage and Agnes Martin as influences.  It’s fascinating, and inspiring, to see her combine printmaking and painting in large scale works.

Pat Steir, NYTimes image

Good news and bad news:  There’s a significant exhibition of her paintings, Color Wheel,  at the Hirshhorn, a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.  It opened October 24, 2019 and is slated to run until  January 18, 2021. It’s wonderful that the work is being featured, but it’s unfortunate that so few people will be able to see it as all the Smithsonian Museums closed on March 14 for public health safety.  In the meantime, feel free to browse the Smithsonian Institution’s extensive on-line resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cocktails with a curator……

Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?  Looking at visual art, sipping something delicious …..not a bad way to pass the time as we all shelter in place.

There are thousands (millions?) of videos, presentations, discussions, interviews, podcasts chats, and forums digitally available to us during the pandemic.  One has to be selective, and release any FOMO feelings.  There’s an enormous amount of great material available.

I thought I’d spare you some time, and frustration, and point you directly to the best use of 18 minutes of your attention and screen time.  Cocktails with a Curator is produced by the Frick Collection in NYC.  Every Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. (EST) Xavier F. Salomon, the Frick’s chief curator,  welcomes us to his apartment.  He discusses the evening’s thematically chosen cocktail, and then launches into a brief discussion of an artwork  from the Frick Collection.  Accompanied by appropriate visuals, he outlines the provenance of the painting, offers some interpretation of the image, and ends with a thoughtful commentary on the relevance of the work to our present days.

Salomon’s presentation is professional, and knowledgable.  It  lacks pretence (despite all his credentials, including being named a Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia) and is accessible to all.  I find his tone sympathetic, engaging and compassionate.

If you’re interested, do sample the first evening’s cocktail and discussion of Giovanni Bellini’s  St. Francis in the Desert.  Keep in mind that it was first available April 10, which was Good Friday.

I readily acknowledge my fondness for the Frick Collection.  Last year I wrote about The Frick Collection (available  here ) and I did ‘buy the postcard’ of St. Francis in the Desert on one of my visits.

St. Francis in the Desert, Bellini, The Frick Collection (NY Times image)

If you enjoy the talk, you can sign up to receive reminders to ‘tune in’ every Friday.  Fortunately, the presentations are available at any time online, and there’s only been two so far.  (Not too much FOMO….)

Of all the things you’ve watched or listened to this past month, which one would you most highly recommend?

 

 

 

 

In love with a poet….again

I have accidently fallen in love with another poet.  It happens. The timing is perfect:  It’s April, National Poetry Month.  (Do you ever wonder who makes these kinds of proclamations?  Could we declare a National Fruit Pie Month, or a National Dark Chocolate Month?)

Fortunately, in these days of physical distancing, it’s a literary love and not a romantic one.  Ada Limón’s collection of poems, The Carrying, was on my library Hold list.  I can’t remember where the recommendation originated, but with the libraries closed indefinitely, I’ve had the luxury of time to enjoy it.

The Carrying by Ada Limón, published by Milkweed Editions

It’s not surprising  that The Carrying won the National Book Critics Award and was named A Notable Book by the American Library Association in 2018.  I found myself wanting to share many of the poems with others.  Limón’s tone is narrative; some of poems are the result of a letter/poem correspondance with Natalie Diaz.  The first New Yorker on-line poetry column featured their poetry collaboration.

The collection is beautifully structured.  It begins quietly, with The Name, a brief poem about Eve encountering the animals in Paradise.  It ends with Sparrow, What did you Say? where we find the narrator in her own garden, listening to bird song.  Limón moves easily between societal and personal concerns, showing us how they are inextricably connected.  Her voice is honest – unflinchingly so – and compassionate.

Enjoy listening to Ada Limón as she reads a couple of the poems from The Carrying.  

Despite very limited shelf space, I want my own copy of The Carrying.  I look forward to exploring her four (4!) other poetry collections.

 

 

 

Romeo + Juliet

Some of the many consequences of the current pandemic are the cancellations of art exhibitions and dance, theatre and music performances.  I had tickets to see Ballet BC perform their new ballet, Romeo + Juliet, on March 14.

Romeo + Juliet, Ballet BC (image by Michael Slobodian)

Romeo + Juliet, Ballet BC (image by Michael Slobodian)

I am a huge fan of this Shakespearean tragedy.  I enjoyed teaching it to high school students (Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?  No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.) and I always showed them the gorgeous Franco Zeffirelli film from 1968.  (If you watch the film, look for a very young Emma Thompson as an extra in the ballroom scene.)

Romeo and Juliet, 1968 (IMDb image)

Romeo and Juliet, 1968 (IMDb image)

In 2003, Winnipeg’s Shakespeare in the Ruins theatre company did an unforgettable version of it, set in a downtown parkade.  I think it was one of the most creative and engaging theatre performances I have attended.  Ever.

I enjoy dance, and have a fondness for most classical ballet.  I was looking forward to the show.  The title typography, Romeo + Juliet,  promised a fresh take on the story, just as the film, Romeo + Juliet had done in 1996.  Click here for the movie trailer.  (If you haven’t seen the film, be prepared for the very in-your-face, distopian setting.)

Romeo + Juliet, 1996 (IMDb image)

Romeo + Juliet, 1996 (IMDb image)

Dance Victoria and Ballet BC made the brave, financially challenging and wise decision to cancel the performances, to avoid the spread of the virus.  Fortunately, season ticket holders were given a link to a video of the première performance in Vancouver, on March 6.

I watched the performance twice, before the link expired.  Wowser!  It is, indeed, a creative interpretation of a classic story.  It did not disappoint.

The choreography is by Medhi Walerski, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Walerski is a dancer and a choreographer at the Nederlands Dans Theater.  (May I suggest that if you are going down any rabbit holes today, please avail yourself of the NDT link.)

The show is visually stunning, with the costumes, set and lighting design a collaboration between Walerski,  Theun Mosk, and Pierre Pontvianne.  The minimalist style is a marked departure from many interpretations of other classical “story” ballets, such as The Nutcracker.  Here are a few brief video images that will give you a sense of the style of this production.  I appreciated how the lighting changed, depending on the scene.  The chiaroscuro-style lighting was particularly effective in the ballroom scene, as Romeo and Juliet were spotlit amongst the corps, who sometimes moved in slow motion, and sometimes became completely still, signalling an important moment in time.  It allowed the audience to focus on the couple, and not be distracted by the other dancers.

The set was minimal. The movable rectangles, decidedly coffin shaped,  were symbolic and functional.

The dancers were strong, confident and lyrical.  They were as much actors, as they are talented dancers.  Here is a (too) short video of the creation of the ballet at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity.

Ballet BC, Romeo + Juliet

Walerski uses the corps to express the emotions of the characters.  In the scond act,  when Juliet prepares to drink the sleeping potion, the corps is a shadowed, writhing mass on the floor, and around her. It dramatically represents her fear, anxiety and turmoil. The image of the scenes will stay with me for a long time.

Ballet BC and Medhi Walerski have created a noteworthy interpretation of this classic ballet.  I hope we can all see this as a live performance one day.  In the meantime, one last short video from Ballet BC’s Romeo + Juliet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just when you think it can’t get any worse…..

It’s worse than I thought, and I thought it was awful.  (See my brief post from 2016 here.)  According to a report  published on artnet News….just 11% of all museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by women.  Yes, you have (unfortunately) read that correctly.  (No typo:  eleven.)  To add insult to injury ….the number of works by women acquired  did not increase over time.  In fact, it peaked a decade ago.

Go ahead.  Take a moment to let that sink in.

Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns’ report is worth reading.  It’s a nuanced examination of the reasons why there hasn’t been any progress in gender parity in museum collections.  It’s based on research by Julia Vennitti and part of ongoing research into the presence of female artists’ work in museums and the art market in the past decade.

Perhaps one of the most important observations is expressed by Helen Molesworth, former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.  The art world is simply not the liberal progressive bastion it imagines itself to be and you can’t solve a problem if you don’t own it.  

It’s true.  I had thought we were making some progress, albeit glacial,  in this area, didn’t you?   But as the report says ….perhaps one of the key takeaways is that the stories we tell ourselves – about our museums and our societies – are not to be trusted.

Sigh.  Just like almost every other issue, we need to dig deeper to discover the reality.

I’ll leave you with some images from the Hilma af Klint show, which I saw at the Guggenheim, NYC, in December 2018. The research indicates that this show …drew the youngest audience of any exhibition since the museum started to measure visitor demographics and drove a 34 percent increase in membership.

Seems like showing work from interesting female artists is a recipe for success and longevity.

Hilma af Klint, Guggenheim Museum, December 2019

Hilma af Klint, Guggenheim Museum, December 2019

Hilma af Klint, Group IX/SUW, The Swan No.13, 1915

Hilma af Klint, Group IX/SUW, The Swan No.13, 1915

Thanks to @artgirlrising for bringing the research article to my attention.

 

 

 

 

 

The Hummingbird Paints Fragrant Songs

Isn’t this a beautiful title for an art exhibition?  The Hummingbird Paints Fragrant Songs was a highlight of my visit to The Outsider Art Fair in New York City in January.

The OAF consists of many exhibitors showing art from self-taught artists  (think Howard Greenberg Gallery selling original Vivian Maier photographs) as well as special programming, on and off the main exhibition site.

The Hummingbird Paints Fragrant Songs was one of the featured Curated Spaces. This compact exhibition was curated by Brett Littman  of the Noguchi Museum in partnership with the Shipibo Canibo Center. It consisted of works by Sara Flores and Celia Vasquez Yui, Peruvian artists.

The Hummingbird Paints Fragrant Songs

The Hummingbird Paints Fragrant Songs

The artists’ process of bringing these works to completion is astonishing. Sara uses natural dyes for the hand drawn works on canvas;  Celia begins her work with shamanistic-like rituals of fasting and abstinence.  All the works are rife with symbolism and patterning specific to their areas of the Amazon.  Please read this brief, but fascinating description of the artists and their work.

The Hummingbird Paints Fragrant Songs, sculpture by Celia Vasquez Yui

The Hummingbird Paints Fragrant Songs, sculpture by Celia Vasquez Yui

The works are exquisitely detailed;  to this viewer they exude a feeling of harmonious energy.

I’m glad I followed the recommendations of others to attend the Outsider Art Fair.  I can now  add the Shipibo Canibo Center to my list of  things to do and see in NYC.  The Noguchi Museum is already on the list.  Next time, I hope.