The Swim of Things

hockney splash
“A Bigger Splash” (1967)

It’s not quite summer yet, but it is an especially good time to celebrate the work of one of the art world’s most iconic artists, British-born David Hockney, whose two pieces shown here are among those featured through May 29 at London’s Tate Britain, in the largest retrospective to date of his long career.

Hockney’s pool paintings (in acrylic), created mostly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, occupy a well-known niche in his creative output, so memorably capturing the lazy ennui of L.A. life in that era; a stark palm tree – or two—and the sharp and masterful use of color (as seen above) allow no mistake as to their location. It’s a languorous realism that dives deep into the mind.

It’s also interesting that around the same period that Hockney began his foray into the architecture of the aquatic, the novelist John Cheever wrote his classic of suburban angst, The Swimmer (1964), set at the same time but in a different place, its message one of emptiness and underlying despair. Hockney’s timeless tableaux speak rather of the uncomplicated contentment to be found beneath superficiality; or, as expressed simply in the artist’s words, “Enjoyment of the landscape is a thrill.”

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“Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” (1972)

Picabia in Three

From the exhibit, wonderfully entitled Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, a trio of pieces by one of the most multifaceted of 20th-Century artists you’ve probably never heard of, Francis Picabia (1879-1953). On view at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York through mid-March, the three paintings shown below capture just a taste of the scope and breadth of the work of the French-born trailblazer who’s perhaps most associated with the Dada movement, but whose career is difficult to sum up in any sort of categorical way. In these examples alone, Picabia swerves from the cubist abstraction of La Source, at top, to experiments in what were called “mechanomorphs” based on mechanical imagery, middle, to later works fashioned on photos, some with Hollywood-themed undertones, from the popular “girlie” magazines of the day (bottom). Picabia once claimed, “Art must be unaesthetic in the extreme, useless and impossible to justify.” No doubt his brand of radical iconoclasm influenced many to follow.

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“La Source” (The Spring) (1912)
reverence picabia
portrait of a couple picabia
“Portrait d’un couple” (1942-1943)

Age is Abstract

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Linear perfection: a canvas from the “Blanco y Verde” series (1959-1971)

She sold her first painting at the tender age of 89. She turned 101 years old in May. And now, Carmen Herrera, born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, finds herself with a career retrospective at the fabled Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Who says perseverance doesn’t pay off?

portrait carmen herrera
“I work, and I work, and I work”: Carmen Herrera, shown here on her 94th birthday

Herrera’s works, now recognized as seminal pieces in the development of abstract minimalism, were long kept largely private by the artist, who was a bit overshadowed by her great Cuban-born contemporary Wifredo Lam. Celebrated for her perspicacious use of lines, shapes, and colors, Herrera is often  mentioned with another master of the abstract, Barnett Newman (who, coincidentally, was a neighbor in 1950s New York — they often shared breakfasts together), as well as that other magical juggler of lines and color, Ellsworth Kelly.

The recently opened exhibition at the Whitney, entitled Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, makes clear the artist’s lifelong obsession with precepts of architecture (which she studied at the University of Havana); her artworks are drawn with the geometric precision of a draftsman in search of linear perfection. In fact, Herrera once said that, “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going.”

herrera green and orange
Precise geometry: “Green and Orange” (1958)

She continues to create, albeit when she’s up to it, as even she is not immune from the mundane maladies of aging. More involved now in conception rather than execution, Herrera sketches out ideas for new paintings that are then transferred to grid paper and which her assistant subsequently finishes.

“I work, and I work, and I work,” Herrera recently told the Wall Street Journal  (which praised her “intense visual power”). And there’s no fear of the future. Also known for her acerbic sense of humor, she wryly quips: “When death happens it will happen – it can’t be that bad if everyone is doing it.”

Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 2, 2017.

Scent of the Strawberry

garden earthly delights
Detail from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hiëronymus Bosch

Whither the power of the strawberry? A closer look at one of the most analyzed paintings in history may provide a clue or two. The artwork, of course, is the center panel of the famous triptych by Hiëronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights; it’s also part of the most comprehensive exhibition of the Dutch master’s work (timed with his fifth centenary), on view at Madrid’s Prado Museum through September.

The symbolism of that incongruously chaotic middle panel (it should be noted that Bosch is now widely considered the art world’s first Surrealist), has been forever debated. Does it depict the insanity of hell, or the pleasures of an eternally sybaritic life? And, alongside the discussion, the liberal use of fruit — in particular, berries — that sprouted from the artist’s imagination.

In 1605, the historian and poet José de Sigüenza wrote about the “short-lived taste earthly delights strawberryof the strawberry, and its scent that one barely appreciates before it has passed,” in his description of the ubiquitous fruits at the heart of the masterpiece. Many believe that the message of Earthly Delights was that humanity must push back against the temporal temptations of the flesh, amongst which the strawberry – with its metaphorical connections to sex and lust – could serve as a substitute for the apple of Adam and Eve.

It’s not coincidence that the unruly abandon that pervades the piece is mirrored in the fact that the strawberry is noteworthy for its tendency to grow uncontrollably. An oversized specimen (shown above) is seen hoisted in almost pagan adoration; if you look closely at the image shown at the top of this page, you’ll see one of the figures hugging a strawberry rather possessively, as if in fear of losing something highly cherished – reluctant to let go of the ephemeral joys of life and love.

Another detail, my favorite, is the one shown at bottom, of the owl perched with omniscient eyes as it observes the frolicsome proceedings. Another portentous symbol in an artwork already ripe with them (excuse the pun), the owl has long been viewed as representing learning and wisdom. I can’t help but think that his place in the tableau, along with the all-knowing gaze, foreshadows Shakespeare’s immortal lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

bosch strawberry
Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition runs through September 11 at Madrid’s Prado Museum.

Christo Connections

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“The Floating Piers” (2016)

Way back in 1983 (when I was just a toddler of course), the excitement was palpable in the summery Florida air when the wildly creative conceptual artist, Christo, unveiled his and wife Jeanne-Claude’s now-iconic “Surrounded Islands.” Eleven small oases skirted in glistening pink polypropylene along Miami’s Biscayne Bay, they gave the impression of a “trail of giant flowers on the water’s surface,” as the New York Times then described it, and the event put the city, just beginning its own flowering into a cultural mecca, very much in the arts spotlight.

I remember venturing out with my dad in our tiny speedboat to see the “installations” up close, feeling it was all a bit of history, which it was. But the spectacle wasn’t designed to be viewed at eye level; the scope of the project could only be appreciated, of course, from the sky.

surrounded islands christo
“Surrounded Islands” (1983)

And there was so much more to follow from Christo in the coming years, including the “Wrapped Reichstag,” Berlin’s parliament building enveloped in aluminum and described at the time (1995) as a “symbol of the new Germany”; as well as “The Gates” in New York City (all 7,500 of them) along the walkways of Central Park, which four years after 9/11 “reminded the world that our city’s artistic spirit was alive and well,” in the words of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Fast forward now to 2016, and this weekend specifically, when the legendary artist, now 81, debuts his latest adventure — again aquatically themed — “The Floating Piers” in the northern lake region of Italy. This time (sans collaborator Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009), he picked the tranquil waters of Lake Iseo for his 23rd large-scale installation.  It will connect the town of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola via a two-mile oscillating runway, created with nearly a quarter of a million floating cubes covered in sunshine yellow fabric, whose hue will adjust depending on the time of day.

Numerous volunteers, including lifeguards, have been engaged to ensure safety for the 16 days the installation is in place. Coinciding with the conclusion of Art Basel (a couple of hundred miles away), the event is expected to draw about half a million visitors. “They will feel the movement of the water under foot,” Christo told the Times last year. “It will be very sexy, a bit like walking on a water bed.”

It also “creates an incredible urgency,” Christo said, “because it will never take place again.”

In a tradition begun with Jeanne-Claude early in his career, he also plans to provide visitors with mementoes of sorts, even possibly actual pieces of fabric from the installation. “Normally it’s a postcard you bring home,” said Germano Celant, project director for “Floating Piers.” “A bit of fabric becomes a part of history.”

Oh for a little piece of pink from one of those islands so many years ago…

Photos: Wolfgang Volz


Vigée’s Vision

Le Brun Self-PortraitThe painting flashed across my Twitter timeline like a breath of fresh air, startling in its realism and immediacy and lightness of being.

I wasn’t familiar with the artist, Vigée Le Brun (the piece is a self-portrait), who’s now featured in a new exhibition that opened this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Subtitled Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, it’s the first retrospective of Le Brun’s work in modern times, and she’ll also be celebrated as one of the lesser known trailblazers in the annals of art as part of Women’s History Month in March. Portraitist at the court of Marie Antoinette, Le Brun’s “success as a young female painter in a male-dominated profession made her an object of envy and the target of vitriolic, often misogynistic libels in the anti-establishment press during the years leading up to the French Revolution,” wrote the New York Times last year… “and her association with the anciens régimes of Europe was a source of lingering prejudice against a remarkable artist and independent woman.”

The technical mastery of the painting can’t be overstated. The portrait, evocative of Rubens (a lifelong influence), nearly jumps from the canvas in soft lucidity, its facial expression harboring the tiniest hint of discovery: you somehow sense that she’s recognized you across the span of the centuries (it was painted in 1790).

It’s a feeling that only great art has the capacity to impart.

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France runs through May 15 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yellow is the Color

“The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.”
Wallace Stevens

cadmium yellow
Cadmium yellow, above, is involved in a chemical contretemps affecting priceless artworks.

In some recent news that caused a bit of concern in art circles, researchers have confirmed that those golden hues so brilliantly used in paintings by Henri Matisse (as well as Vincent van Gogh) have been slowly degrading over the years into dullish, beige-like tones, giving the works a considerably altered appearance since their creation a century ago.

It’s all due to a complicated chemical process involving the pigment known as cadmium yellow (not to be confused with chrome yellow, which falls differently on the color spectrum).  Used by artists from the 1880s until the 1920s, cadmium yellow was a popular compound among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at the time (though, alas, not Edgar Degas, who once harrumphed, “What a horrible thing yellow is.”) The ramifications of this not-so-mellow yellow debate are not insignificant: “Literally billions of dollars’ worth of art is affected by this chemistry,” said one scientist at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Henri Matisse was, of course, the “master of color” — and naturally, the master of yellow. The intensity of his passion for all things chromatic is captured in several conversations cited in the book, Matisse on Art, an illustrious detailing of the artist’s insights on the subject. In one interview, he talks in gushing terms of a cactus flower in his French garden: “…look how it shines like a burning coal against the grayish green background, like a spider web hanging above thick dark silk!” In another, he speaks of the blue tomatoes that appear in a famed canvas. Why blue? “Because I see them that way, and I cannot help it if no one else does,” he answered. (You go, Monsieur Matisse!)

As for yellow, it’s one of the colors (blue and green being the others), which appears most often in his work. A hue he specifically derived from the blossom of the cactus tree, he considered yellow an abiding and life-affirming symbol.

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Matisse’s “Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa,” from 1940.

I wondered about Matisse’s thinking in the use of the color in Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa, above (the painting was unaffected by the cadmium controversy, as it was produced in his late career). More than just a splash or a highlight — it’s red that he chose to do that with here, even on the chair itself — the yellow envelops the reclining figure in an almost organic sense. And is it too farfetched to think the patterns on the young lady’s blouse as well as those that appear directly behind her, put together, are reminiscent of cacti? Maybe a stretch, but the artistic mind works in curious fashion, as they say.

“Color acts in the way that music does,” the Cubist Georges Braque once mused. “You put a blob of yellow here, and another at the further edge of the canvas: straight away a rapport is established between them…”

The yellow glistens, in the poet’s words — and it sings, as well.