Sunday, September 18, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review:The Prado Masterpieces

The Prado Masterpieces

By the Museo Nacional del Prado

Thames & Hudson/494 pages/$125

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It would be easy to speak entirely in superlatives to describe Thames & Hudson's new book, The Prado Masterpieces.  Magnificent, authoritative, insightful, "all of the above."

The Prado Masterpieces certainly deserves such praise. The value of this huge volume, however, is the way that it truly complements a visit to the Prado. A close study of the Prado masterpieces, either on a pilgrimage to this vast museum or via the pages of this wonderful book, reveals the compelling, often ironic features of Spain's culture. 

The  Museo del Prado opened its doors "for the study of professors and the recreation of the public" in 1819. The museum was constructed on a meadow (prado in Spanish) in Madrid to display the royal art collections of Spain.

Founding the Prado represents the solitary enlightened act of one of the most narrow-minded autocrats in European history, King Ferdinand VII (1784-1833). The Prado was an assertion of Spanish nationalism and cultural achievement at the same time that Ferdinand VII shredded the liberal laws and social reforms formulated after the devastation of the Napoleonic War.  

The royal art works which Ferdinand placed on view in the new museum revealed a further irony. Over the centuries, the Spanish monarchy had lavished huge sums on art that often had little to do with Spain.

Beginning with the "Planet Kings" of the 1500's-1600's, a collection rich in Flemish and Italian paintings was purchased to grace the walls of Spanish palaces. Not until until quite late in Spain's era of world domination did Spanish artists receive the patronage they deserved. An otherwise inept king, Philip IV, appointed the great Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) to a position of prestige in his court.

The truth about many of the Prado's paintings is that these art works were status symbols of Spain's global empire. To be fair to the Spanish, they paid for their art rather than stealing en masse as Napoleon later did. But the payment for these Renaissance masterpieces came from the "King's Fifth." This was the share owed to the Spanish monarchy from the vast wealth coming from the Indies. Untold thousands of native peoples died, particularly in the silver mines of Potosi in Peru, to pay for stunning works of art like Titian's Venus and Adonis

Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554

The text of The Prado Masterpieces was written by a team of curators from the Prado's staff. These unnamed  scholars provide a wide-ranging account of Spanish civilization at the same time as highlighting the treasures of the Prado. Here is a sample of the incisive text of The Prado Masterpieces:

Like his predecessors, Philip II had a preference for Flemish and Italian painting, especially Venetian. He acquired very few works by Spaniards, and the number of Spanish artists who worked for him was small, for the honour was achieved only by those whose versatility allowed them to adapt to his demands.  

The Spanish monarchs and their advisers were certainly knowledgeable  collectors. Along with numerous paintings by Titian, works by Botticelli, Raphael, Durer, Tintoretto and van Dyck are now displayed at the Prado. I was particularly impressed by Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, painted by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) around 1560. This Venetian master is sometimes forgotten, coming as he did between the High Renaissance and the heyday of Caravaggio. 

Paolo Veronese, Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, c.1560

This magnificent work exemplifies the outstanding talent of Veronese. Not only did Veronese place his protagonists in a totally convincing setting, but he displayed acute psychological insight. The conflicted emotions of the Temple scholars are revealed by the skillful way Veronese depicted their facial expressions and bodily postures.

There was another reason why the Spanish monarchs favored art by the great masters from Flanders like Rogier van der Weyden. The Hapsburg dynasty which ruled Spain during its "Golden Age" traced their roots to the medieval House of Burgundy, the feudal lords of Flanders. 

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443

Van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross combined all the elements of Flemish culture, emotional piety and courtly tenderness, vivid depictions of the blood-oozing wounds of Christ and tactile realism of the rich, flowing robes of his mother and disciples.

During the period when Spanish political power was at its zenith, between 1519-1648, there was no shortage of talented Spanish painters. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) were a match for any in Europe. Spanish artists, however, failed to attain the social status of their counterparts in Italy. Moreover, they had to pay a staggering ten-percent retail tax, the alcabala, on any work that was not religious in theme.

Spanish artists, needless to say, painted and sculpted religious works of art on a prodigious scale. Many are deeply moving like Velázquez' 1620 portrait of Jerónima de la Fuente,  a missionary nun posted to the distant Philippines. In order to evade the alcabala, Spanish artists frequently added a theological gloss to a still life or genre scene.

I am not sure what interpretation El Greco intended with his Fable, painted around 1580. 

Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the Venetian-controlled island of Crete, El Greco studied in Italy where he created several early masterpieces. But he did not find preferment at the court of Philip II (reigned 1556-1598) when he emigrated to Spain. Thematic elements in some of his religious works raised questions about his orthodoxy. 

El Greco then set up his studio in Toledo, painting magnificent portraits of Spanish hidalgos, one of which,The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, is among the most beloved paintings on view at the Prado.

El Greco, Fable, c.1580

Fable, however, confounds all attempts at explanation. 

Was El Greco depicting the wonder of human creativity or of worldly vanity? Is this a surreal work of imagination like Francisco Goya's later etchings, Los Disparates (The Follies). Might El Greco have been making a sly commentary of the attempts of Phillip II to "ape" the light of Venice while ignoring the talents of Spanish artists? We will never know. 

We do know that the collection of the Prado would have been richer still but for a disastrous fire on Christmas Eve, 1734, at a dilapidated palace known as the Alcázar. The fire alarm was mistaken for bells announcing midnight Mass. By the time the danger was realized, most of the 500 paintings in the Alcázar collection, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, were consumed by the flames. 

By heroic effort, a few precious paintings, slashed from their frames and hurled from the palace windows, were saved. One of the survivors is now recognized as the supreme masterpiece of Spanish art, Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez in 1656. 

Las Meninas was painted during the twilight of Spain's global power. Ironically, the setting for this stunning work was the Alcázar where so many masterpieces were to be lost. Here Velázquez evoked the rarefied world of the Spanish court as the shadows of history gathered over it. Spain's economy was bankrupt and its population reduced by war, plague, starvation. France under the Sun King, the young Louis XIV, was now the greatest power in Europe.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

But with the bloom of childhood on the face of Infanta Maragarita, Velázquez testified to the promise and resilience of the human spirit. Empires come and go, but the look of wonder and love in the eyes of the young princess is born and reborn everyday.

By an act of great fortune, I was able to visit the Prado back in 1979. I was only a couple of years out of college and knew very little about art. I can't even remember seeing Las Meninas, but I do recall Goya's The Third of May 1808 in Madrid.

Thanks to The Prado Masterpieces, I have been able to relive my long-ago visit.This magnificent book, the closest encounter to an actual tour of the galleries of the Prado short of going there, has rekindled my desire to return. 

I want to go back to the Museo del Prado. What higher praise for a book about this wondrous place can there be?

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

All images courtesy of Thames & Hudson and the Museo Nacional del Prado. The image of Christ among the Doctors in the Temple by Paolo Veronese, is from the Prado website:

Introductory Image:  The Prado Masterpieces. 2016 (book cover) Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Titian (Italian, 1490-1576) Venus and Adonis, 1554. Oil on canvas, 186 x 207 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Paolo Veronese (Italian, 1528-1588) Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, c. 1560. Oil on canvas, 236 x 430 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Rogier van der Weyden (Flemish, 1399–1464) The Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel, 204.5 x 261.5 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

El Greco (Spanish, born Crete, 1541–1614)  Fable, c. 1580. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 63.6 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Diego Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)  Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas. 318 x 276 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Painting with Light at Tate Britain Museum, London

Painting with Light

 Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age

Tate Britain Museum, London 
May 11 – September 25, 2016 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Pictures, rather than religion, were the true opiates of the "masses" during the nineteenth century. 

Images proliferated at an awesome rate during the 1800's. So too did opportunities to see and enjoy them. From the new public art museums to chromolithograph prints on the bedroom wall, from engravings in the morning newspaper to the family photographs on the mantle - there was so much to see. So little time to riot and revolt as had occurred in 1789.

Yet, a provocative exhibition currently at the Tate Britain in London makes a strong case that an upheaval did take place during the Victorian era - a cultural one. New ways of visual representation and a new image-making technology - photography - led this revolution.

Painting with Light, Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age is a vast exhibit with nearly two hundred works of art on view.  

Arthur Hacker, A Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus, 1910

Often seen as being in conflict during the 1800's, painting and photography were paired in a collaborative synergy. Painting with Light methodically - and often brilliantly - shows how these rival art forms joined forces during the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Great Britain. 

It is best to see this relationship as a "dialog." Photography and painting  certainly influenced each other but it is not always clear which was leading the way. Two signature works in Painting with Light illustrate this problematic partnership. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c.1864–70.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti began work on Beata Beatrix in 1864. The painting honored the memory of Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal, Rossetti's wife, muse and gifted artist in her own right. "Lizzie" Siddal had died in 1862. Rossetti, whose emotions were notoriously brittle, struggled with this work and was unable to complete it until 1870.

During the interim, Rossetti's interest in photography waxed and waned. So too did his friendship with the great photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. 

Rossetti had met Cameron in 1857. During the early years of the 1860's, Rossetti lauded Cameron's photos. By the end of the decade, however, his views had changed. In 1869, Rossetti wrote Cameron an accusatory letter stating that "photography is not always a trustworthy reporter even in your hands as regards facts."        

In 1867, while still on good terms with Rossetti, Cameron created a stunning photograph, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die.The ostensible theme, like Beata Beatrix, was Medieval culture. Cameron adopted a line from Tennyson's Idylls of the King as her title and posed her maid, Mary Hillier, as Sir Lancelot's lover, Elaine.    

Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die, 1867

There are few traces of Camelot in this revolutionary photo. Tightly cropped and brilliantly composed, it presented Hillier in dramatic profile. Narrative details are nowhere in evidence, unlike Beata Beatrix. The pose aside, the two works are quite dissimilar. Cameron's photo gestures toward the future, while Rossetti's painting is rooted in the past. 

Was Rossetti annoyed that Cameron had borrowed the pose of Beata Beatrix to create such a strikingly modern work? Did the effect of seeing Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die rouse Rossetti to finish Beata Beatrix, thus reclaiming the image that he had struggled so long to complete?  

We are unlikely to know the answers to these questions with any degree of certainty. We do know that Rossetti never left his allegorical inner world to embrace modernism. 

In 1865, Rossetti commissioned a series of photos of Jane Morris, who had replaced Lizzie Siddal as his muse. Rossetti chose John Robert Parsons, a competent photographer but lacking the inspired vision of Cameron. Parson's photos provided Rossetti with striking views of Jane Morris which informed his unforgettable - but also unchanging - images of "Janey" in such paintings as Proserpine, painted in 1874. 

According to mythology, Proserpine or Persephone was doomed to remain Queen of the Underworld because she ate from a pomegranate while in Hades.This fatal fruit was the erotic focus point of Rossetti's painting and also of two later works in Painting with Light

Minna Keene, Decorative Study No.1, Pomegranates, c.1906

Zaida Ben-Yusuf"s 1899 photo, The Odor of Pomegranates, and Decorative Study No.1, Pomegranates, by Minna Keene, created around 1906, are rooted in the Pre-Raphaelite taste for rich detail. These works evoke the pictorial story-telling tradition which Rossetti's Proserpine exemplified. 

The 1874 date of Proserpine, however, reminds us that the First Impressionist Salon occurred that same year. The 1906 date of Mina Keene's Decorative Study No.1 is even more disconcerting. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was painted the following year.

It is hard to escape the feeling that eminent Victorians like Rossetti had tasted a few pomegranates too many.

Photography was invented in 1839 by Louis Jacques Daguerre (if you are French) or by William Fox Talbot (if you are English). It is clear from Painting with Light that British technical ingenuity never slackened from Fox Talbot's calotype process to the first experiments with color photos, based on theories by the scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, in 1861.

This spirit of British innovation did not transfer to artistic inspiration. During much of the 1800's, Great Britain was the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation. But the price of pioneering the Industrial Revolution was staggering. British painters and photographers generally looked away from social issues, ignoring the child prostitutes, the open sewers and the cholera victims who died by the tens of thousands. 

John Everett Millais, The Woodman’s Daughter, 1850-5

Instead, British painters like John Everett Millais (1829-1896) chose safe, moralistic themes like The Woodman’s Daughter.  

Many photographers likewise averted their eyes from urban and industrial realities. Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1933), to his credit, used advanced photographic techniques to record the lives of rural folk living in the marshes of eastern England.These brilliant images, which record quietly heroic lives little changed from the Middle Ages, were collected and published in a major book, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads.

Ten years before Claude Monet created his lily pond at Giverny, Emerson and his painter colleague, Thomas Frederick Goodall (1856-1944) documented country people gathering water lilies for use in fish traps. Emerson initially believed that photography was a great art form and urged photographers to "first see the picture in nature and be struck by its beauty....”

Peter Henry Emerson,Setting the Bow-Net,1885

In a stunning "about face" in 1890, Emerson declared "Photography not Art." Emerson's reversal, like Rossetti's harsh criticism of Julia Margaret Cameron, shows how difficult was the process of moving a very traditional society like Great Britain into the modern world.

"Festina lente," Caesar Augustus proclaimed in antiquity. "Make haste slowly."  

Thomas Frederick Goodall,The Bow Net, 1886

The British during the last decades of the nineteenth century faced the future with an apprehension of radical change. Responding to the Industrial Revolution, the British opted for unifying art forms based on the narrative traditions of English literature and reverence for the natural world.  

We have only to study John Singer Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose to see this single-minded devotion in action. Sargent painted Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in 1885-86 after he fled to England to escape the Madame X scandal at the l884 Paris Salon. 

Staying with friends at an artist's colony in the Cotswolds, Sargent almost literally "painted with light." He took the en plein air technique of the Impressionists to an unimaginable level of dedication. He painted for less than fifteen minutes each evening to capture the exact light conditions at dusk, when Japanese lanterns would be lit.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,1885-86

Sargent worked in this fashion for two summers in order to complete Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. In essence, Sargent focused with his brush and palette in a way that photographers manipulate their camera lens. 

In 1909, the pioneer of color photography in Britain, John Cimon Warburg (1867–1931) paid a tribute to Sargent's masterful painting. Warburg's autochrome portrait of his daughter, Peggy in the Garden, is so evocative of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose that one would be pardoned for mistaking it as a work by Sargent himself.

In a world beset by bewildering change, British art during the late nineteenth century focused on themes readily appreciated by people across a broad social spectrum. As a result, British art failed to score the breakthrough triumphs that are now associated with Monet, Cezanne and Matisse. France, not Britain, was the high road to Modern Art.

Yet, Painting with Light at Tate Britain shows that quiet revolutions can succeed in making an enduring, effectual mark. In the house of art, as in heaven, there are many mansions.

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

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British,1828–1882) Proserpine, 1874. Oil paint on canvas, 1251 x 610 mm. Tate. Presented by W. Graham Robertson, 1940.

Arthur Hacker (British,1858-1919) A Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus, 1910. Oil on canvas
710 x 915 mm. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British, 1828–1882) Beata Beatrix, c.1864–70. Oil paint on canvas, 864 x 660 mm. Tate Acquisition Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple, in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple, 1889.

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die, 1867. Photograph, carbon print on paper, 372 x 266 mm. © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library 

Minna Keene (British, 1861-1943) Decorative Study No.1, Pomegranates, c.1906. Carbon Print, 470 x 328 mm. © Royal Photographic Society / National Media Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

John Everett Millais (British,1829-1896) The Woodman’s Daughter, 1850-51. Oil paint on canvas, 889 x 648 mm. Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Thomas Frederick Goodall (British, 1856-1944) and Peter Henry Emerson (British,1856-1936) Setting the Bow-Net, in Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads,1885, published 1887. Book – open at ‘The Bow Net’. Photograph, platinum print on paper 300 x 420 mm (book closed) Private collection.

Thomas Frederick Goodall (British,1856-1944) The Bow Net, 1886. Oil paint on canvas,
838 x 1270 mm. National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

John Singer Sargent (American,1856-1925) Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,1885-86. Oil paint on canvas, 1740 x 1537 mm. Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, 1887.

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