Marina In Murals

Abramovic Artist is PresentLooming large in the neighborhood of Milan’s Largo la Foppa, in the Italian city’s Corso Garibaldi district, is a massive likeness of legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic, whose 2010 project The Artist is Present is the inspiration for one of several Gucci-sponsored “ArtWalls” that currently appear in cities around the globe, promoting an upcoming exhibit curated by the artist Maurizio Cattelan. The reimagined Artist is Present exhibition was conceived as a means of “highlighting the practice of appropriation in the many forms it takes in contemporary culture.” Featuring site-specific and existing artworks from more than 30 Chinese and foreign artists including Damon Zucconi, Christopher Williams, Ma Jun, Aleksandra Mir, and Sayre Gomez, the event is scheduled to run from October through December at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai.

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The Art in a Typewriter

Olivetti ValentineOnce upon a time, a segment of those now nearly extinct devices that served as word processors for generations also provided some creative inspiration for two giants in the design field. The manufacturer was Olivetti, and in 1969 a designer by the name of Ettore Sottsass elevated one of its typewriters, the “Valentine” (above) to museum-level art. His contemporary in the graphic-design arena, Milton Glaser, was tasked with the advertising end of things for Olivetti, which also resulted in several magnificent posters for the brand that delight to this day.

I came across this story in relation to a current exhibit at the Met Breuer in New York, entitled Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical. Though not a household name, Sottsass, who died in 2007, wielded an influence that was as impactful as it was creative on fields ranging from furnishings to jewelry. Some might be most familiar with his contributions to what was known as the “Memphis” movement, the design collective he initiated in the early 1980s. Bright, funky primary colors – especially red – permeated all things “Memphis,” which followed the iconic typewriter by about a decade.Olivetti Glaser

Milton Glaser’s ads for Olivetti, including the one pictured right (highly reminiscent of the “His Masters Voice” logo for RCA Victor gramophones) were works of art on their own. This poster for the “Valentine” has a particularly intriguing subtext. Note the pair of sandaled feet at the bottom left of the image; turns out the artwork (sans typewriter) is a detail from a 1495 painting by Piero di Cosimo (see here), that makes you marvel at Glaser’s caustic playfulness.

Two creative geniuses intersecting via an unlikely source, the story of Sottsass and Glaser and what could just have been just another run-of-the-mill office machine instead is one that will remain unique in the annals of design. And another tale of art coming from the most unexpected places…

That Penn Style

Irving Penn Ice Cream
From “Scoop Dreams,” Vogue, 2004

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective of the unparalleled work of the American photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009), on the centennial of his birth, is an opportunity to marvel again at the creative genius of a true legend of the arts – one who left his indelible mark in portraits, still lifes, and most famously, his fashion photography for Vogue, where he began his career in the 1940s. The magazine provided fertile ground for his artistic labors, which also included stunning food-oriented essays that graced many an issue or two. The culinary portfolios captured Penn’s singular intuition for the unexpected, coupled with whimsical touches that tripped lightly on the eye. (Don’t miss “The Big Cheese”!) Penn once said, “Photographing a cake can be art” – and to that we can add some delectable ice cream, and a few perfectly placed fruits and vegetables, as well.

Irving Penn Frozen Foods
From “Frozen Foods,” Vogue, 1977

Irving Penn: Centennial is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 30.

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.”

hockney portrait
“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.

la source
“La Source” (The Spring) (1912)
reverence picabia
“Reverence”(1915)
portrait of a couple picabia
“Portrait d’un couple” (1942-1943)

Age is Abstract

herrera blanco y verde
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.