Sunday, August 14, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Artrage: the Story of the BritArt Revolution by Elizabeth Fullerton

Artrage: the Story of the BritArt Revolution

By Elizabeth Fullerton

Thames & Hudson/285 pages/$45.00

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The moment that all artists should fear has arrived for The Young British Artists. The YBAs have become an institution. 

These "BritArt" iconoclasts of the 1990s are the subject of a superb chronicle of their lives and art. The aptly-named book, Artrage, recently published by Thames and Hudson, comes just as the work of one of their founding members, Damien Hirst, has entered the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Can the dreaded word, retrospective, be far off? 

Artrage: the Story of the Britart Revolution was written by Elizabeth Fullerton. An accomplished journalist, Fullerton worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. She has an MA in art history and has covered the cultural scene for a number of top tier publications. Fullerton writes about contemporary art in an engaging, exciting and insightful way. The Young British Artists could not have asked for a better biographer.

For her part, Fullerton could not have dreamed-up a more colorful group of protagonists. Collectively and individually, the YBAs personified ambition and anxiety, brash outward behavior and repressed fault lines of insecurity.

The YBAs - Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Mat Collishaw, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst, Angela Bullock, Gillian Wearing and  others - first made headlines in 1988. The Thatcher Revolution was in its terminal phase. Having destroyed the labor movement in Britain and undermined the Welfare State, "Thatcherism" created a polarized environment ripe for revolution. 

A number of the YBAs came from working class families who had suffered under the Iron Lady's rule. But their "revenge" came by embracing many of the principles of the Thatcherite creed. With van Gogh paintings being auctioned at Christies for mind-boggling sums, the YBAs decided to manipulate the system in their favor rather than overturn it.

Several of the YBAs, notably the sculptor Rachel Whiteread, have created social statements of enduring merit. But making "relevant art" generally took a back seat to just making the kind of art that Sarah Lucas described as "what's sort of poking me in the eye." 

Marcus Taylor, Rachel Whiteread, Fiona Rae and Richard Patterson in Venice to celebrate Gary Hume at the British Pavilion, 1999

Five years before the YBAs scored their 1988 breakthrough, Cyndi Lauper released the song that would become the anthem of the 1980's and 1990's, Girls Just Want to Have Fun. One of the lines from the song directly pertains to the YBAs. They refused to follow in van Gogh's suicidal footsteps or meekly accept what the elitist art establishment cared to offer:

I want to be the one to walk in the sun

The YBAs were mostly graduates of Goldsmiths College of Art in South London. The faculty at Goldsmiths encouraged personal initiative, equipping "students with a set of valuable practical tools with which to face a hostile art world."      

Fullerton provides just enough background detail to set the tone for her narrative. But she quickly - and sensibly - launches into the story of the 1988 "Freeze" exhibit, organized by Damien Hirst. Although still a student at Goldsmiths, Hirst demonstrated the finesse and daring of seasoned impresario. He gained access to a vacant London Docklands building as a site for a group exhibition and secured enough funding to mount the show.

Hirst gave everyone their marching orders in a typed memo with the bold-face declaration "IT IS GONNA BE GOOD."

Angela Bulloch sitting on Damien Hirst’s lap during the preparations for “Freeze”

Despite an intolerable work load, cruel dismissals of the work of a couple of the participants (for not "fitting in") and a drinking binge at the exhibit opening, "Freeze" was a success. The exhibit generated a momentum and elan that would last for over a decade.

Sales and media reviews were a different matter. A deal for Mat Collishaw's brilliant, disturbing Bullet Hole fell through. The solitary major review of the exhibit - in The Guardian - castigated the group for their lack of "self-doubt." 

Mat Collishaw, Bullet Hole, 1988

Self-doubt? The YBAs might have sampled a bit too much from the drinks table at the "Freeze" premier but they ignored such absurd media commentary.

"Freeze" introduced the work of the YBA's to art dealers and collectors. Artrage focuses on  these gallery owners and patrons almost as much as upon the artists. Visionaries like the German-born dealer, Karsten Schubert, worked to raise the public profile of the YBA's while struggling to keep from drowning in red ink. Others, notably the aristocratic Jay Jopling, joined in for the fun and profit of it all.

Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst, 1992

When it comes to collectors of YBA art, Charles Saatchi is a special case. Saatchi virtually created several YBA "brands." Saatchi purchased  Damien Hirst's notorious "Shark Tank" piece and Adam Chodzko's compelling, unsettling Secretors

Saatchi also used his British establishment connections to win approval for an exhibit of YBA art at the sanctum sanctorum of the Royal Academy in 1997. It is a key episode in Fullerton's narrative which she recounts with a judicious balance of drama and analysis. 

The planning committee for "Sensation" at the Royal Academy included Damien Hirst and Norman Rosenthal, the exhibition administrator of the Royal Academy. This insured that noteworthy art by the YBA "core group" like Fiona Rae's Untitled (Parliament) would be included. 

But it was a work by an artist on the periphery of the YBAs that detonated the major explosion at "Sensation." Marcus Harvey's billboard-size portrait of the child-murderer, Myra Hindley, triggered howls of protest. 

"Sensation" was mounted only a few weeks after Princess Diana's death. Presenting a "heroic" portrait (at least in its physical dimensions) of a child-murderer so soon after the passing of a noted humanitarian like Princess Diana was bound to give offense and to detract from mature assessment of works like Rae's Untitled (Parliament).

Fiona Rae, Untitled (Parliament), 1996

Was the inclusion of Myra a misstep or a case of "there's no such thing as bad publicity?" Saatchi after all manages a very successful advertising agency. Dark thoughts about his manipulation of the art scene are not easy to dismiss. 

Only a short time after the closing of "Sensation," Saatchi castigated the YBAs for having embraced the cult of celebrity. Yet it was  Saatchi who had insisted that the "Sensation" artists be featured with full page portraits in the exhibit catalog against Rosenthal's dissent. 

Whether or not Saatchi was a malign Svengali-figure or just a very astute player in the lucrative art market, he did provide needed financial support early-on and pointed the YBAs in the direction of career success.

Yet, in terms of validation, the mere fact that many of the YBAs never succumbed to "starving artist syndrome" has worked against them. Jealousy and resentment of their success began to surface around the time of the "Sensations" exhibit.

Gillian Wearing  unwittingly served as a lightning-rod for such criticism. Wearing had questioned contemporary society with a series of portrait photographs. She took pictures of people on the streets of London holding placards with a word or phrase that described their emotions. In a wise choice, a  London "Bobbie" chose the word, "Help." 

Like much of YBA art, Wearing's photo expressed a theme, however brilliant, that allowed for little variation. With devilish (and terribly unfair) sarcasm, critics sharpened the barbs on their tongues. Her photo series was lambasted as "Gillian Wearing-Thin."

By extension, such criticism was aimed at the whole YBA group. In 2004, a devastating fire at a London warehouse used by many of the YBAs destroyed a huge trove of art. An editorial in The Daily Mirror exulted at the incineration of the "over-priced, over-discussed trash that we have had rammed down our throats in recent years by these ageing enfants terribles..."

Fullerton emphasizes dramatic incident over extended commentary. But when she pauses to provide insight, her words command respect. Collectively, the YBAs are a generational group rather than a stylistic one. Fullerton notes:

The vexed issue of what connected the BritArtists has never been resolved for want of a simple answer. While common threads exist in their art, such as black humor, focus on the self or emphasis on death and decay, there was no overriding style. The artists certainly didn't consider themselves as a movement and had no manifesto or shared philosophy; yet they were undeniably a phenomenon.  

Fullerton manages the difficult task of presenting these disparate artists as individuals while coming to terms with the "phenomenon" of BritArt during the 1990's. If the YBAs were "self-absorbed" or included elements of gratuitous violence, these can be interpreted as comments on the era as well-as pandering after quick sales or headline-grabbing. 

Too much media attention has been given to the "bad-boy" or "bad-girl" images of the YBAs. Fullerton's book certainly opened my eyes - and my mind - to the work of artists I scarcely understood because of all the hype surrounding them. 

The work by Angela Bullock is a case in point. From her early "drawing machines" using infrared detectors to Firamental Night Sky: Oculus.12, 2008, Bullock has brilliantly utilized cutting-edge technology. Firmamental Night Sky used LED (light-emitting diodes) technology to create a "starry" sky in the oculus of the Guggenheim Museum's rotunda during a 2008 exhibition. This was a profound statement on humanity's place in the cosmos and a comparison with van Gogh is entirely deserved.

I missed this 2008 exhibit at the Guggenheim. At that point, I simply could not appreciate innovative contemporary artists like Angela Bullock. The kind of media chatter that has - until now - defined the YBAs has been an obstacle for me. It has made it difficult to appreciate them as creative individuals.

Thanks to Elizabeth Fullerton's outstanding saga of The Young British Artists, I won't make that mistake again.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image: Artrage: the Story of the BritArt Revolution. 2016 (book cover) Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Marcus Taylor, Rachel Whiteread, Fiona Rae and Richard Patterson in Venice to celebrate Gary Hume at the British Pavilion, 1999.  Photograph Fiona Rae  © Fiona Rae. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016

Angela Bulloch sitting on Damien Hirst’s lap during the preparations for “Freeze” in Port of London Authority (PLA) building, 1988. Photograph Simon Patterson Courtesy Angela Bulloch

Mat Collishaw, Bullet Hole, 1988. Cibachrome mounted on fifteen light boxes.                   243.8 x 265.8 cm (96 x 44 in.) Copyright the artist

Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst, 1992.  Photograph Jillian Edelstein  © Jillian Edelstein

Fiona Rae, Untitled (Parliament), 1996. Oil and acrylic on canvas , 274.3 x 243.8 cm (108 x 96 in.)  Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery, London © Fiona Rae. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016

Monday, July 25, 2016

Embracing the Contemporary at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Embracing the Contemporary: The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Collection of Contemporary Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art
June 28–September 5, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There was a moment during my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibit, Embracing the Contemporary, when the opposite  of the title words occurred. The art "embraced" me.

Embracing the Contemporary; the  Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Collection presents masterpieces of art created during the last fifty years. The collectors are a dynamic husband-wife team who have promised their collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Katherine and Keith Sachs at the Embracing the Contemporary Exhibit

It was neither this commendable generosity nor their appreciation of contemporary art that made such an impression. Rather, it was a sense of the living reality of art - art pulsing with life, ideas, awareness - that struck me as I examined works by Brice Marden, Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly.

Keith and Katherine Sachs did not merely collect art that is representative of the present age. Many of the works in their exhibit strike to the most primal levels of creativity. I might have been looking at a  blackened ceramic Nagada vase from Egypt, c. 3500 BC, or the 1966 painting by Ellsworth Kelly, Black Red Orange

Ellsworth Kelly, Black Red Orange, 1966

In art, there really is no timeline, no yesterday, today or tomorrow. That is the powerful feeling that "embraced" me as I engaged with the art on display in Embracing the Contemporary.

Of all the paintings in Embracing the Contemporary, Brice Marden's Red Ground Letter exemplifies this ongoing effort to give today's art its voice. It also articulates the resonance of enduring, essential themes of art that speak across centuries and national boundaries.

Marden is famous for his 1984 mid-career shift. From color-drenched minimalism, Marden began experiments in a calligraphic style. 

Anne Lloyd, Gallery View of Brice Marden's Red Ground Letter, 2007-2010

Following  a visit to the “Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th-19th Century” in New York City, Marden unsheathed strands of color and propelled them as cursive lines across the canvas. These powerful pronouncements may well be the visual language of the future. Yet, a sense of meaning - just beyond our grasp - is already apparent in these arching, scrawling lines. 

In his wonderful book, American Visions, the late Robert Hughes noted that Marden,"liked his paintings to be the size of a person - so that one would be induced, without quite being aware of it, to experience them as standing figures, other "presences" in the room ..."

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Boy with Frog, by Charles Ray, 2008

Embracing the Contemporary is filled with "other 'presences' in the room." The most obvious is the huge Boy with Frog, created by Charles Ray. This cast stainless steel and acrylic polyurethane statue measures eight feet in height. It evokes our modern sense of ancient marble sculpture. A monumental scale, which in antiquity would have been reserved for a Roman emperor, is applied to the sense of discovery of an adolescent boy.

Boy with Frog anchors the Embracing the Contemporary exhibit. But in some respects, the insistent "voices" of other works on view are nearly overwhelmed by this towering sculpture.

5 Postcards is an example of a work that could easily be overlooked is the ensemble of paintings. Fortunately, the artist, Jasper Johns, has plenty of name recognition. Johns is also a personal friend of Keith and Katherine Sachs, who collect his work in depth.

Jasper Johns, 5 Postcards, 2011

So there's not much of a chance that the superb examples of Johns' oeuvre in the Sachs' collection will be undervalued. But 5 Postcards is a work filled subtle insight. A quick glance, however admiring, just won't do it justice.

Johns used imagery, both familiar and ambiguous, to explore a situation from five different contexts. It is like interviewing five different people who have viewed the same incident from five different vantage points. Everyone involved will have seen the ghostly outlines of children and adults, the ladder, the towel and then come up with five different explanations. 

Anne Lloyd, Detail of 5 Postcards by Jasper Johns, 2011

The key to 5 Postcards are the Rubin vases displayed on each.The Rubin vase is a visual device created by Danish psychologist, Edgar Rubin, to test human perception.The outlines of the vases form inverted profiles of unidentified people. But just who are they? Isn't that Pablo Picasso's face on several of the Rubin vases or is it Uncle Harry? Your guess is as good as mine.

Modern art is not about certitude but questioning. Johns became famous - and in some circles notorious - with his variations on the theme of the American flag. The Stars and Stripes was an example of “things the mind already knows” Johns declared. The multiple variations of the flag depictions and the five postcard scenes affirm the importance of searching for meaning.  At the same time, the possibility of finding an answer, THE answer, is cast into doubt.

Keith and Katherine Sachs began collecting art in 1970 and among their first acquisitions were works from the immediate post-1945 era, by Franz Kline and Louise Bourgeois. The art of the Abstract Expressionist evidently held little appeal for the Sachs. Instead, they favored works by Ellsworth Kelly who was one of the painters who reacted against the idea that Abstract Expressionism was the definitive American art form.

Kelly, a World War II veteran, studied art in Europe after the war. Fascinated by Romanesque architecture, he hearkened back to the very roots of art. He reached deep within himself, as well, to create art that had an "object quality"  which needed no elaborate explanations. Harris quoted Kelly's terse commentary in American Visions:

"Instead of making a picture that was an interpretation of a thing seen, or a picture of an invented content, I found an object and " presented" it as itself alone."

Anne Lloyd, Galley View showing Ellsworth Kelly's Black Red Orange and Red Green Blue at the Embracing the Contemporary Exhibit

Standing in front of Kelly's Black Red Orange and Red Green Blue enabled me to to connect with the voice of art, directly and without story-line. I was very moved by Kelly's "Matissean ... joy of color" and  conscious of  the "presences" which Kelly's works  summon to the exhibit gallery.

Kelly, Johns and Marden are "gold-standard" artists. So too are other contemporary artists, Gerhard Richter and Howard Hodgkin, whose works are represented in depth in the exhibit. Keith and Kathy Sachs have reached out personally to many of these artists. Their astute selection of quality art is matched by an openness to the ideas and ideals of the artists.

In recent years, Keith and Katherine Sachs have widened the parameters of their collecting to include film and video. A rotating selection of the video portion of the Sachs Collection will  be presented in the exhibit, beginning with Static, Steve McQueen's helicopter-filmed meditation on the Statue of Liberty and the dangers posed to liberty by the national security apparatus of the post-9/11 world.

Diversity is the overarching hallmark of the Sachs collection. This is true, both in the works of art collected and the emotional responses these evoke. There is a real sense, however, of a unifying "presence" in the way that seemingly unrelated pieces of the Sachs collection are integrated. A wall-text of the exhibition provides insight on how Keith and Kathy Sachs envision their collection.

Keith and Kathy Sachs describe their collection as a symphony: “All the different elements work together to create a cohesive whole,” says Keith. In Kathy’s view, the differences among the individual artworks “open up a dialogue.”

Dan Flavin's light sculpture and Joel Shapiro bronze relate so beautifully together in the exhibit that one would have thought that these works were part of a joint commission. And yet they are utterly dissimilar in creative methods.

Anne Lloyd, Joel Shapiro's Untitled, 1989-90 (left) and Dan Flavin's Diagonal,1963

Flavin (1933-96) like Marden had a mid-career change of focus. He abandoned painting to create striking works using  fluorescent light tubes to create works that were both painterly and sculptural in effect. This example of Flavin's work was dedicated to the great art historian, Robert Rosenblum, whom Flavin admired.

Shapiro acknowledged both present and past in his untitled work. His bronze sculpture appears to be a component of an industrial superstructure. However, if you look closely, you will see that Shapiro is depicting beams of timber, the wood "grain" cleverly added as part of the casting process. Shapiro's sculpture evokes organic materials and hand-made human labor. Paired with the flaring light of Flavin's Diagonal, Shapiro's work registers a striking, unforgettable impact.

The brilliant juxtaposition of Flavin's and Shapiro's works is a testament to the outstanding curatorial skill of Carlos Basualdo, the curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He has worked closely with Keith and Katherine Sachs to develop their collection which they have long envisioned bequeathing to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I could continue to pile-on praise and superlatives upon Embracing the Contemporary. Such accolades certainly would be well deserved.  However, a work small in size and easily passed-by will serve to conclude this review.

As I examined the works in Embracing the Contemporary, I was repeatedly touched on an intuitive level where theme, style, language, etc., did not operate - or need to. This level of appreciation begins in childhood. The astonishing miniature work by Charles LeDray, Toy Chest, speaks directly to this primal moment in human lives.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Toy Chest, 2005–6, by Charles LeDray

LeDray is a hugely accomplished artist of a "small is beautiful world." Each toy in this tiny box is hand-crafted. A bewildering amount of materials were used - wood, wire, metal, gold‑plated chain, screws, epoxy resin, fabric, synthetic fur, leather, etc. etc. An enormous amount of patience and meticulous skill were devoted to this small wonder.

I had a similar wooden toy box made by my father many years ago. It too was stuffed with play things - not as well cared for as those in LeDray's box. Except for a couple of threadbare survivors, all the toys and my toy box are long gone. It's amazing how many of these vanished treasures I can recall, when I set my mind to it.

Anne Lloyd, Detail of Toy Chest by Charles LeDray, 2005-2006

Looking at LeDray's wondrous work of art, I was stuck by the thought that we begin to collect memories as children and continue to do so throughout our lives. This in turn leads to a point when we are moved to share our emotional riches with others.

At this moment, the "art instinct" takes tangible form.This is the genesis of the creative urge that finds all manner and ways of expression.

I suspect that the Keith and Katherine Sachs first approached art collecting from this level of caring and sharing - and still do.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:                                                                                                       Anne Lloyd, Detail of Red Ground Letter, 2007-2010, by Brice Marden. Oil on canvas, 6 × 8 feet (182.9 × 243.8 cm). Collection of Keith L. & Katherine Sachs. Digital photo, 2016 
Anne Lloyd, Photo of Keith and Katherine Sachs at the Embracing the Contemporary Exhibit, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Digital Photo, 2016

Ellsworth Kelly (American, 1923-2015) Black Red Orange, 1966. Oil on canvas, two joined panels, Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. © Ellsworth Kelly, Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Anne Lloyd, Gallery View Showing Red Ground Letter, 2007-2010, by Brice Marden. Oil on canvas, 6 × 8 feet (182.9 × 243.8 cm). Collection of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. Digital photo, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Boy with Frog, 2008, by Charles Ray. Cast stainless steel and acrylic polyurethane. Collection of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. Digital photograph

Jasper Johns (American, born 1930) 5 Postcards, 2011. Oil and graphite on canvas, Encaustic on canvas,  Promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Anne Lloyd, Photo of 5 Postcards, (detail) 2011, by Jasper Johns. Oil and graphite on canvas,  Encaustic on canvas.  Collection of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. Digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Embracing the Contemporary Exhibit, showing Elsworth Kelly's Black Red Orange and Red Green Blue, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Digital Photo, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Embracing the Contemporary Exhibit, showing Dan Flavin's Diagonal of May 25,1963 (to Robert Rosenblum), Fluorescent light tube,1963, and Joel Shapiro's Untitled, Bronze, 1989-90. Collection of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. Digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Toy Chest, 2005–6, by Charles LeDray. Wood and mixed media. Collection of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. Digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Toy Chest,(detail) 2005–6, by Charles LeDray. Wood and mixed media. Collection of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. Digital photograph, 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Diane Arbus at The Met Breuer

diane arbus: in the beginning 

Metropolitan Museum of Art/The Met Breuer 

July 12  - November 27, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Twenty years before Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver uttered one of the most provocative questions in the history of motion pictures, Diane Arbus did the same for still photography. 

Beginning in 1956, Arbus confronted 1950's America with her 35 mm camera. Her subjects were kids on the way to school, world-weary people walking down Fifth Avenue, New Yorkers at play on Coney Island, a philosophical cab driver and his chic, cigarette-smoking passenger. Their eyes confronted Arbus in return, always asking the same question:

"You looking at me?"

Arbus did look - without blinking, without concentrating on details of style or composition. It was the person she photographed who mattered. Their reaction to being noticed supplied the emotional alchemy of these unforgettable images.

"I don’t press the shutter," Arbus declared. "The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered."

Diane Arbus, Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C.1956

The result of these encounters is on view in the new exhibit, diane arbus: in the beginning at The Met Breuer in New York City. One hundred of her photos, taken between 1956 to 1962, document the opening phase of her career as an independent photographer. Over half of these photos have never been exhibited or published before, enabling us to see anew what Arbus saw sixty years ago.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was involved with photography long before 1956. As a young person, she actually corresponded with Alfred Stieglitz. Her early collaboration with her husband, Alan Arbus, produced an archive of fashion-related photography. But only after striking out on her own, did Diane Arbus find the right focus for her camera work.

At first glance, most of the protagonists of Arbus' early photos seem "normal." Look more closely and you'll see the suppressed complexity of Cold War America. 

Arbus took a number of photos of children wearing Halloween masks, several on view in the Met Breuer exhibit. But I don't think any disguise could match the emotion-drained, sideways stare of Woman with white gloves and a pocket book

Diane Arbus, Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C.1956

The lined, pensive face of this woman clutching her handbag is a blank canvas upon which we can place any number of interpretations. What truly was going on in this stylish woman's heart and soul in 1956 - we will never know.

The inner uncertainties and the constrained diversity of "the Fifties" were largely masked by the Madison Ave publicity machine. Arbus, snapping photos away from the glamour spots of Manhattan, saw through the pretense.

Arbus was aware of the singularity of her vision as a photographer.

“I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things," Arbus wrote. "I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”  

Very few photographers of that era could have matched the insight of Arbus with her photo, Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961. Backwards Man was contortionist Joe Allen who worked in Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus on Times Square. Here he is posed like a veritable Janus figure, looking into the glare of a hanging light bulb while his feet are pointed in the opposite direction.

Arbus was a brilliant writer, as perceptive in word as she was with images. Her writing, however was largely confined to her notebooks. It is one of the many strengths of this exhibit, superbly curated by Jeff Rosenheim of the Metropolitan Museum, that we are enabled to grasp the wisdom of Arbus - and her literary skill . 

Diane Arbus, The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C.1961

Writing about Backwards Man, Arbus deftly defused all the later commentary on her supposed obsession with abnormality. Instead of seeing Backwards Man as a "freak," Arbus visualized him as "a metaphor for human destiny – walking blind into the future with an eye on the past."

Backwards Man does indeed figure as a "metaphor." But Arbus was obsessed with exploring human uniqueness as well as universality. 

With Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I.,1959, Arbus created a remarkable synthesis of both the symbolical and the individualistic. This photo also prefigures some of the "iconic" Arbus pictures of the 1960's. But to do justice to Female impersonator, you need to forget later pictures and the incidental details of the photo itself. 

Ignore the make-up, the ear-rings and the arching eye brows. The most extraordinary details of Female impersonator are the two points of light reflected on the irises.Were these reflections of the flash of Arbus' camera? Or did they come beaming out, laser lights from the Impersonator's soul, recorded by Arbus and then transmitted to us, the viewers? 

Diane Arbus, Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I.1959

According to the scientific principle known as Occam's razor, the simplest explanation is usually the one more likely to be correct. But I'm going with second explanation - subjective and impressionable. The "encounter" of each photo's protagonist with Arbus and then via her photo to us is what is currently taking place at the Met Breuer every time someone looks at these incredible images.

Every time we encounter Diane Arbus photos in this spirit, the protagonists cease to be "freaks," eccentrics, the other. Then they become what Arbus saw as she first took the photographs - fellow human beings.

Arbus summoned a wide range of emotional responses from her protagonists - from the slightly ruffled dignity of the Lady on a bus, N.Y.C., 1957 to fear in Girl with a pointy hood and white schoolbag at the curb, N.Y.C. 1957. Here a young school child suspiciously eyes Arbus just as Little Red Riding Hood viewed the Big Bad Wolf.

Arbus had an amazing facility in photographing children and teens, perhaps because she was a mother of two daughters, Doon and Amy. Was it maternal instinct that prompted an awareness of the symbolism of the street curb to young people in the journey of life? Whether departing from Camelot on the Grail quest or dodging traffic in the Bronx, taking the first step off the curb is a big moment.

Arbus documented that youthful first step with Girl in profile looking up, N.Y.C. 1956, Girl with schoolbooks stepping onto the curb, N.Y.C. 1957, Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58. Each photo evokes the initiation of a journey into the unknown.

Most of the time, this journey is made in complete anonymity. Nobody knows where we are are going. Nobody really cares to know. The surprised reaction in Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 is in response to being regarded and appreciated. For a brief moment, the universe has taken notice of this boy and his "grail quest," wherever it might lead.

Diane Arbus, Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58

The look on the face of Boy stepping off the curb is also the shock of recognition. What this skinny kid in the baseball jacket was doing, Arbus, the pioneering street photographer, was doing too. They were kindred spirits. The expression of the boy testifies to his awareness that each was taking a big step forward.

What took Arbus so long in making her own initial foray into independent photo journalism is one of two key questions of her life's story. Why she took that step at all is the second - and is much more difficult to answer. 

As the Met Breuer exhibition perceptively notes, Arbus began taking courses in photo technique in 1956 with Lisette Model, an Austrian-born photographer (1901-1983). Model had studied music under Arnold Schoenberg before transferring her abundant talents to photography. Model subscribed to a direct, wide-ranging and brutally honest mode of street photography. Arbus proved an apt pupil.

The lessons with Model triggered the venture of Arbus into hard-edge realism. The "why" Arbus did so is perhaps best explained by her cryptic comment that "Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize."

Arbus came of age in Depression-era America but felt few of the economic and social effects of that terrible era. Her father, David Nemerov, directed Russeks Department Store, an elite Fifth Ave establishment founded by her mother's father. Arbus' entry into the world of photography was initiated by her father, who employed her and her husband, Alan, to take publicity pictures of the store's fashion collection. This led to photos for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, dream assignments for an American woman of the 1950's. Or so it would seem.

When Arbus took her first step toward artistic independence, she went straight to the increasingly "mean"streets, straight to the margins of American society. The photos which Arbus took "in the beginning" mark the start of the 1960's counter-culture revolt. She was ten year's ahead of schedule.

The Met Breuer exhibit is brilliantly mounted, allowing art lovers to dispense with theme and chronology. One wanders though these astonishing images as Arbus did through the streets of 1950's New York.

Diane Arbus, Fire Eater at a carnival, Palisades Park, N.J.1957

There is no "end" or "final" photo of the exhibit. However, Fire Eater at a carnival, Palisades Park, N.J. 1957 points to the ultimate conclusion of Arbus' life quest: her tragic suicide in 1971. 

Arbus was a supremely talented artist and a deeply conflicted person. Her photos reveal her awareness of the nightmare side of American life at a time when the American "Dream" was being used to counter the spread of Communism and to promote the credo of Consumerism. Arbus clearly identified with the "down and out" strata of American society, those excluded from the "Dream." 

Like the Fire Eater in her photo, Arbus gulped down a lot of pain, a lot of the suffering of others. But life is no stunt, no conjuror's trick and Diane Arbus "in the end" swallowed one flame too many.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957, Gelatin silver print. Image: 21.6 × 14.6 cm (8 1/2 × 5 3/4 in.) Gift of Danielle and David Ganek, 2005. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C. 1956, Gelatin silver print. Image: 15.7 x 22.4 cm (6 3/16 x 8 13/16 in.) Gift of Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus, 2007. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C. 1956Gelatin silver print. Image: 25.1 × 16.5 cm (9 7/8 × 6 1/2 in.) Collection of Jennifer and Philip Maritz. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C.1961, 
Gelatin silver print, Image: 25.2 x 18 cm (9 15/16 x 7 1/16 in.) Purchase, Joyce Frank Menschel, and Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gifts; Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest; and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Family Foundation, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, Diana Barrett and Robert Vila, Elizabeth S. and Robert J. Fisher, Charlotte and Bill Ford, Lita Annenberg Hazen Charitable Trust and Hazen Polsky Foundation Inc., Jennifer and Joseph Duke, Jennifer and Philip Maritz, Saundra B. Lane, The Jerry and Emily Spiegel Family Foundation and Pamela and Arthur Sanders, Anonymous, and The Judith Rothschild Foundation Gifts, 2007 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, Gelatin silver print. Image: 24.8 × 14.9 cm (9 3/4 × 5 7/8 in.) Purchase, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, 2015 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58, Gelatin silver print. Image: 25.4 × 17.4 cm (10 in. × 6 7/8 in.) Collection of Jeffrey Fraenkel and Alan Mark. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) Fire Eater at a carnival, Palisades Park, N.J. 1957, Gelatin silver print. Image: 19.5 x 13.1 cm (7 11/16 x 5 3/16 in.) Gift of Danielle and David Ganek, 2005. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum

Sicily: Culture and Conquest

British Museum, London 

April 21 – Aug 14, 2016 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The island of Sicily is the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently at the British Museum, Sicily: Culture and Conquest. Like Sicily itself, the exhibit dazzles the imagination. And like this ancient land, there is much about the exhibit that does not "meet the eye." 

Strategically set in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is a land of opposites. Bursting with fertility and abundance, the island is haunted by violence and death. It is the birthplace of some of the most creative masters of European culture: Archimedes of Syracuse (d.212 BC), Antonello da Messina (1430-1479) and Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936). It is also the homeland of the Cosa Nostra. 

In antiquity, Sicily was the setting for one of the most significant Greco-Roman myths, the story of Demeter and Persephone. When her daughter, Persephone, is abducted by Hades,  god of the underworld, Demeter wins her release for part of the year. In spring and summer, Persephone is free. Nature blooms, crops ripen - and then comes winter. This, to the ancient Greeks, explained the regenerative cycle of nature. 

But how evocative is the myth of Demeter and Persephone of the fate of Sicily! Joy mixed with an equal portion of sorrow, salvation and damnation forever linked. 

There are two hundred works of art in the British Museum exhibition, covering Sicily's history from antiquity to the Renaissance. Two periods, the rise of the Ancient Greek city-states and the Norman French rule during the Middle Ages, are extensively covered. Other eras, notably the long period of Roman rule, are illustrated with only few works of art. Given the thousands of years covered by the exhibit, this imbalance was perhaps necessary. But it does have some unfortunate consequences.

An excellent place to start grappling with Sicily: Culture and Conquest is the Terracotta Altar with Three Women. 

The altar comes from the Greek colony of Gela on the south coast of Sicily. It dates from around 500 BC, well after the first Greeks beached their galleys on the coast at Naxos in 735 BC.  In terms of style, this terracotta statue is early in the Greek artistic tradition and it represents religious and social themes even earlier - much earlier.

Terracotta Altar with Three Woman and a Lioness Mauling a Bull, 500 BC

Here we see Demeter and Persephone, along with another goddess, Hecate, who cared for Persephone in Hades during her months of wintry exile. Hecate was a goddess of very ancient origin. The three goddesses represent the Mother Goddess cult which preceded Zeus and the Olympian gods. 

Above the three goddesses on the Gela altarpiece is a depiction of a female lion or panther savagely killing a bull. Is this violent scene a reference to the female-male conflict implicit in Persephone's abduction by Hades? Does this  bloody encounter recall a myth from the pre-Greek people of Sicily, the Sicels? We are unlikely to know with certainty.

Gela was a major site of terracotta production in ancient times.The British Museum exhibit also displays a  terracotta roof ornament with head of a gorgon from a temple in Gela. Gorgons were fearsome female deities in Greek myth whose very look could turn a person to stone. This one was likely placed to protect the Gela temple in time of war. 

Antefix in the form of a Gorgoneion, c. 500 BC

Sadly, Sicily was to figure as a battleground from antiquity to the 1943 invasion by Allied forces in World War II. The principal combat in ancient times was between the Greeks in Sicily against the Phoenician maritime power, Carthage. 

The Phoenicians, originally from Lebanon, had established the major city-state of Carthage in North Africa and settlements in Sicily during the 9th century BC. These Semitic peoples were intrepid seaman, creators of the alphabet we still use and tough fighters. But they were merchants first of all. The Phoenicians preferred the art of the deal to the art of war.

There is but one work of Phoenician art in Sicily: Culture and Conquest, a mask designed to protect graves at Carthage from evil spirits. This does a disservice to Phoenician culture. Compared with the Greek art on view, it is easy to look at this grimacing image and conceive of the Phoenicians as an alien civilization.

Grave Mask from Carthage, 5th Century BC

The Greeks had early developed a jealous dislike of the Phoenicians. Sicily represented  the promised land to the Greeks and they were not prepared to share it with Carthage. Syracuse, with one of the most superb harbors in the Mediterranean, became the superpower among the Greek city-states on the island. The rulers or tyrannoi of Syracuse were determined to expand their territorial holdings over Sicily.

The British Museum exhibit displays several outstanding works of "the art of war" recalling ancient bloodshed in Sicily.  A marble statue of a warrior from the city-state of Akragas (modern-day Agrigento) was created around 470 BC. It was certainly part of a monument celebrating the resounding victory over Carthage ten years before by the Greek forces commanded by Gelon of Syracuse and Theron, the ruler of Akragas. 

Statue of a Warrior, c. 480 BC

This great battle in 480 BC, Himera, was won at the same time as the victories of Athens and Sparta against the Persian invaders, 480-479 BC. The Akragas war monument was clearly intended by the Greeks of Sicily to remind their boastful cousins in the ancestral homeland that they had triumphed over the "Barbarians" as well.

After the battle of Himera, the Greeks in Sicily followed the example of Athens, Sparta and Corinth by fighting endlessly among themselves. Carthage regained much of its strength and began to reassert its power in Sicily. After a deadly chess match lasting over two centuries both the Greeks and Carthaginians were checkmated by a new player, the Romans.

Amazingly, Carthage had been an early trade partner and ally of the fledgling Roman Republic, founded in 509 BC. It took many years for the Romans to bring the Italian peninula under their rule. All the while, they watched Carthage and the Greeks wage costly wars without either side gaining hegemony  over Sicily.

In 264 BC, the Romans made their move, clashing with Carthage in the first of the three Punic Wars. The British Museum exhibit displays a truly remarkable piece documenting the "art of war"  during those terrible conflicts. 

Bronze Rostrum or Roman naval ram, 243-241 BC

Normally,  I would hardly consider the rostrum or battering ram mounted on the prow of Roman warship as a work of art. But this menacing weapon illustrates perfectly the relentless warfare that turned Sicily into the gate of Hades for thousands and thousands of war victims, not merely for Persephone in the myth. 

The rostrum was excavated from the seabed in 2008 near Levanzo, on the western tip of Sicily. Here on March 10, 241 BC, the Roman fleet smashed the naval squadrons of Carthage in the climatic battle of the war. The rostrum came from one of the 30 Roman ships lost in the battle. 

Detail of Bronze Rostrum, showing figure of Victory, 243-241 BC

It is a measure of Roman determination and confidence that the bronze ram had been cast with a winged-figure of Victory. 

Rome was to sustain further losses in the Second Punic War, when Hannibal invaded Italy in 218 BC. But Rome won in the end, destroying Carthage in 146 BC. Sicily was reduced to vassal status. Its rich lands were turned into vast, grain-producing estates called latifundia

Apart from this bronze naval ram, Sicily: Culture and Conquest presents few works of art or artifacts from the Roman era. Since this period lasted for an entire millennium, up to the brief Arab conquest in 965 AD, this is a debatable curatorial decision. Indeed, it may well be a serious omission preventing a proper understanding of Sicily's history.

Sicily is the site of the greatest surviving mosaic installation of the Roman era in Europe. This is the great series of mosaic pavements at the Villa del Casale near Piazza Armerina in central Sicily. Created early in the  fourth century AD, it shows wild animal hunts and bikini-clad (or at least the Roman equivalent) female athletes. 

What the mosaics of Villa del Casale really depict is the staggering difference between the privileged lifestyle of the elite of Roman society, the honestiores, and those who served them. The grinding existence of the humiliores is notably absent from these mosaics.

It is missing too from Sicily: Culture and Conquest.                                                                                                                                                                                              . Yet, without some acknowledgement of this centuries-long impoverishment, the rise of the Cosa Nostra cannot be understood. Indeed ,the first Mafia were the Gabellotti. These were the managers whom absentee landlords during the 1800's - descendants of the honestiores - relied upon to run their estates.  The Gabellotti, with no Roman legions to fear, seized power themselves. Sicily and much of the Western world, is still dealing  with the deadly legacy of the Gabellotti.

If the British Museum exhibits skims lightly over the Roman domination of Sicily, compensation is abundantly made in the galleries devoted to the Norman Kingdom and the the reign of Frederick II. These incredible episodes from the Middle Ages are brilliantly explored, presenting art and literary treasures of a unique realm, tolerant, multilingual and open to new ideas. 

Bronze Falcon from Norman-era Sicily or Southern Italy, c. 1200-1220

The Normans arrived in Italy as mercenary knights in 1016 AD, fighting for and against just about everybody including the Pope. The Normans, descendants of the Norsemen who had raid the north of France, were mighty warriors. Christian baptism had changed them barely at all. They were Vikings on horseback. 

In  1061, the Normans launched a thirty-year campaign to "liberate" Sicily from the Arabs. The details of their campaigns and their later rule has been memorably chronicled by the great historian, John Julius Norwich in his books, The Normans in the South 1016-1130, and The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194. We will concentrate on the amazing  - and unexpected - flourishing of culture under the Normans.

Like the Carthaginians, the Normans in Sicily had limited manpower. Instead of hiring mercenaries to wage war, they used others, Greeks and Arabs, to build churches, create works of art and manage the economy. 

The Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, c. 1130 AD

The exquisite mosaic, the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, was made by Byzantine Greeks around 1130 AD. This was the era of King Roger II, the greatest Norman ruler. Originally from the Cathedral in Palermo, the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race beautifully evokes the toleration that was the foundation of Roger's tremendous achievements.

The compassion and empathy in the Virgin as Advocate is reinforced by a work which symbolizes the spirit of "coexistence"  that marked the era of Roger II. It is easy to miss this funerary piece, insignificant in size, but it is key to the medieval galleries of the exhibit.

Tombstone with Eulogy to Anna, Written in Four Languages, 1149 AD

In 1149 AD, a clergyman named  Grisandus set-up this memorial plaque for his mother Anna. The eulogy was  written in the four languages used in Norman Sicily: Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script) on top, Latin on the left, Greek on the right, and Arabic below.

If only this touching, multi-language work of art could have characterized the whole course of Sicily's development from the Norman era to ours!

Unhappily, this is an "exceptional" work of art because it is an exception. Sicily's golden age came to an end when Frederick II died in 1250. The "wonder of the world" to some, Antichrist to others, Frederick was a rare example of a brilliant, tolerant and effective ruler during the Middle Ages - and today. 

Sicily: Culture and Conquest concludes with a painting believed to be a work by Antonello da Messina. One of the earliest Renaissance artists in Italy to use oil paint, Antonello was a master of psychological depth as well. His Madonna, from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in London, is vastly different from the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race.

Antonello da Messina, Virgin and Child, c. 1460-9

The eyes of Antonello's Madonna are firmly closed. She does not look at Jesus, who is not a child but rather a weird, doll-like man. As the angels lower a glittering crown on the Madonna's head, we become aware of the dread anticipation she feels. The pain on her face reminds us of Antonello's depictions of Christ being crowned by thorns before his crucifixion. 

This jewel-covered crown may not have skin-piercing thorns. But Mary's sorrowing countenance conveys the pain it will bring. This disturbing work is entitled  - most inaccurately - The Virgin and Child

A much more appropriate name for this strange, haunted painting springs readily to mind:    

The Madonna of Sicily's History.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. 
Images Courtesy of the British Museum, London, UK

Introductory Image:  
Fragment of a Metope from Temple C, Sicilian Greek, Limestone, c. 540 – 500 BC, H: 460 mm, W: 470 mm Lent by: Palermo Museo Archeologico Regionale, Antonio Salinas, Via Bara All'Olivella, 24, 90133 Palermo, Italy, museum # NI 3899                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Terracotta Altar with Three Woman and a Lioness Mauling a Bull, Sicilian Greek, 500 BC, Terracotta H: 1140 mm, L: 750 mm, D: 350 mm Lent by: Museo Archeologico Regionale Di Gela, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 1, 93012 Gela 

Antefix in the form of a Gorgoneion, Sicilian Greek, about 500 BC, Terracotta, H: 385 mm, L: 380 mm, D: 880 mm Lent by: Museo Archeologico Regionale Di Gela, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 1, 93012 Gela

Grave Mask, Carthage, North Africa, 5th Century BC, Baked Clay, H: 17.7 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum, British Museum # 133128

Statue of a Warrior, Sicilian Greek, c. 480 BC, Marble, H: 861 mm Lent by: Lent by: Museo Archeologico Regionale di Agrigento, Contrada San Nicola, 12, Agrigento, 92100, Italy, Ag 217

Bronze Rostra from Levanzo, Roman-era Italy, 243-241 BC, Bronze, H: 700 mm, W: 500 mm Lent by: Soprintendenza per i Beni culturali e ambientali del Mare Palazzetto Mirto - Via Lungarini, 9, Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo, 4521 (Istituto Roosevelt) Palermo 90100, Italy  # Egadi 4

Bronze Falcon, Norman-era Sicily / Southern Italy, 1200-1220, Gilded Bronze, H: 279 mm, W: 165 mm, L: 79 mm Lent by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York  Metropolitan Museum # 47.101                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Mosaic of the Virgin Haghiosoritissa, Norman-era Sicily,  12th Century, H: 750mm, W: 620mm Lent by: Museo Diocesano di Palermo, Via M. Bonello, 2, 90133 Palermo, Italy, museum # 6

Tombstone with Eulogy to Anna, Mother of Grisandus, Written in Four Languages, Church of  St. Michael the Archangel, Palermo, Sicily, 1149, Inlaid Marble, W:  410 mm, L: 320 mm, D: 45 mm max Lent by: SoprIntendeza di Palermo, Soprintendenza BB.CC.AA. Via Calvi, 13, 90139 – Palermo, museum # 19304

Antonello da Messina (Sicilian, 1456-1479) Virgin and Child, c. 1460-9, Oil on wood, 43.2 x 34.3 cm National Gallery, London, UK, Salting Bequest, 1910, NG2618