Art-Notes

When geometry becomes art

Euclid’s Elements was one of the first books on mathematics to be printed (Ratdolt Latin Edition, Venice, 1482), and is now thought to be the most widely published book after the Bible. The 1926 essay by Charles Thomas-Stanford clearly demonstrates that while subsequent early editions of Elements might have been graphically enhanced, all decoration and any vignettes were limited to the margins and did not include the visualization of Euclid’s proofs as part of the graphic treatment. The Ratdolt edition was austere in its design and remained the model over the next century. A page from Ratdolt’s 1482 book is included here.

Sebastien Le Clerc is widely regarded as one of the finest draftsmen from 17th century France. At age 31, before seriously pursuing a career in art, Le Clerc published an edition of Elements, Pratique de la Geometrie sur le papier et sur le terrain, Paris, 1669. Though a lifelong aficionado of geometry, living to age 77, his Pratique speaks more to personal aspirations than to elucidating the finer points of Elements. While the example below exhibits an earnest attempt to integrate the proofs into a visually pleasing design, it is no more successful the many works using graphic elements as simple marginalia.

The 20th century saw enthusiasm for the Elements wane as these teachings were integrated into books covering the entire spectrum of mathematics. Still considered a required component of any complete education, contemplation of the individual proofs has seemingly lost the magic to inspire. In fact, the bifurcation of text and image of Euclid’s work in recent books on mathematics tends to diminish the opportunity for easy understanding, especially for some of the more challenging proofs.

As Sol Lewitt began his assault on traditional definitions of what constitutes a work of art, it is possible he considered Elements a source of inspiration. In the early 1970s Lewitt began a series of work that used the basic tenants of Euclid’s proofs as a visual complement to passages of text satirizing the overblown verbal nonsense of post-modern intellectual commentary on the meaning of art. Whether Elements actually played a role in the development of Lewitt’s visual vocabulary cannot be clearly demonstrated, yet an example from 1974 is offered in support of this idea.

Perhaps most intriguing is the possibility that Euclid considered visual explication of the points, lines, angles and planes to be equally, or even more valuable, than commentary. The paucity of words used to describe each element might be a vindication of this notion. That Lewitt would use points, lines, angles and planes as his fundamental artistic palette suggests a similarity of thinking worthy of consideration (all books from the author’s collection).

The Casual Geometry of Sol Lewitt

Sol Lewitt published “Serial Project #1” in an art magazine during 1967. He commented at the time, “The series would be read by the viewer in a linear or narrative manner (12345; AB B C C C; 1 2 3, 3 1 2, 2 3 1, 1 3 2, 2 1 3, 3 2 1) even though in its final form many of these sets would be operating simultaneously, making comprehension difficult.” This description of his thought process would find itself manifested in a mindboggling number of subsequent works over the following decades. Yet it might be argued that underlying this comment is a more revealing interest of Lewitt: A fascination with the Idea of Geometry.

Let’s consider one of Lewitt’s biggest artist’s books (measured by square inches) in defense of this notion. For an exhibition by the Societe des Expostions, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels in the spring of 1974, an 11.5” by 17” folder containing a tri-fold sheet printed on one side was published by the artist. Three geometric figures – a square, circle and triangle – accompanied by Lewitt’s commentary in three languages – English, French and Flemish – provide a telling artifact. “Location of Three Geometric Figures” offers an engaging set of images accompanied by mind numbing texts supposedly explaining the drawings.

Lewitt used this combination of texts describing the creation of images extensively for small books, colorful prints and large wall drawings. Some of the most compelling works from this series embed the text inside and along side the spaghetti-like tangle of lines and curves that result in revealing basic geometric shapes like circles and triangles. But make no mistake, there is nothing Euclidian about this geometry.

In fact, the text is a wicked indictment of mindless academic pabulum attempting to explain art in intellectual terms. Lewitt creates paragraph-long sentences describing how random and convoluted measurements can be used to create, for example, a simple square. The response of a typical viewer is to ignore the texts and focus on the artwork. An excerpt from the book being discussed explains why:

“…the first of which is drawn from a point halfway between the center of the square and a point halfway between the center of the square and the upper left corner and the midpoint of the left side to a point halfway between the center of the square and a point halfway between the center of the square the midpoint of the bottom side…”

In other words, forget any explanation of the artist’s possible intentions and focus on the visual impact of the actual drawings. With all the “points from” lines rendered delicately and the final object – square, circle, triangle, etc… – boldly described in black outline, the images overpower the text. It doesn’t take reading but a couple of lines to ignore the words and return to the image. Just as it should be with any type of art, where too often criticism becomes the focus instead of the object.

So, the often-suggested notion of a cold, geometrical approach to making art turns out to be an incorrect assessment of Lewitt’s intentions. Geometry as a theme? Undoubtedly. Mathematics as a key component? Hardly. Once again Lewitt shows himself to be a master of the shaggy-dog joke.

The Cult of the Spear

     Medieval Precursor

The Holy Grail and its attendant white spear are first mentioned in the unfinished book of Chretien De Troyens, Conte Du Graal, originally published in the late 12th Century. Here the grail and the spear (or lance, or spike…) make a brief, but dramatic appearance. As Perceval – renowned knight of King Arthur’s round table – joins the wounded, long-suffering Fisher King for dinner, the knight witnesses a curious procession. A young page is clearly described as carrying a white spear from whose tip blood flows. Followed by two youths bearing gold candelabras, this parade ends with virginal maidens in possession of a mysterious vessel of ancient mythology, here described for the first time as “The Holy Grail.”

Simply asking the Fisher King to explain this apparition would have cured the King’s ever oozing wound and broken the magic spell holding the inhabitants of the castle captive in dire circumstances. Perceval failed to do so. An untimely death prevented Chretien from completing his story, leaving us without insight to his ideas concerning the grail and spear.

However, a conclusion to Chretien’s story was published about forty years later in Queste Del Saint Graal, erroneously attributed to Walter Map. Here the story is brought to a close when a hand descends from heaven to forever reclaim the sacred vessel and white spear. This final scene in the book takes place in Sarras – identified as a far-distant land on Egypt’s border – where Perceval and fellow knights of the round table Galahad and Bors had been directed by Josephus, the first Christian bishop. The last line, “none can claim to have seen it since” neatly concludes the narrative.

     Ancient Egyptian Origins

The magnificent Ancient Egyptian Temple of Horus at Edfu was one of the last to be abandoned as Christianity replaced the ancient religion of Egypt. The temple was subsequently buried under centuries of refuse while serving as the local dump for the adjacent city of Behkdet. Unearthed in the late 19th century the temple is regarded today as the most perfectly preserved monument from ancient Egypt. Napoleon’s troops were said to have come to a halt and saluted, as if on cue, upon first seeing the two massive and at the time still mostly submerged pylons of the temple.

While dedicated to the ancient, falcon-headed god Horus, it also housed an important artifact, a sacred spear. This spear was believed to be a physical form in which a divine power of the primeval age was resident. The spear was the symbol of protection, the chief magical means that ensured the safety of the sacred space of the temple and all its inhabitants. Texts carved into the sandstone walls identify the sacred spear as the Great White.

The spear had its own chamber within the sacred precincts of Edfu and was brought out on important occasions to be worshipped as the earthly abode of the ancient deity, the God-Mighty-of-Countenance. The sacred hymns recited anytime the spear was brought forth can also be found engraved on the walls in several places. Here we also read that the sacred spear would be led forth in procession carried by a young acolyte, accompanied by torchbearers. Following the Great White would be the shrine of the god Horus. Or, put another way, there was a sacred vessel containing the essence of the god. It is further mentioned that “the spear must be spoken to” in order to be activated.

     Here be Dragons

Among the detritus left behind as the Roman tide receded from Britania was the image of a Roman soldier on horseback, impaling a reptile of uncertain identification with a lance. Today we recognize St. George slaying the dragon. This same image can be seen in a slightly different, earlier manifestation at the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Here the image is not that of a soldier (or knight) but the falcon-headed god Horus on horseback, in his pre-Roman manifestation, as he spears a crocodile.

Yet it is in the Temple of Horus at Edfu that the most significant representations of this icon will be found on the inside of the eastern enclosure wall. In a series of images, Horus – here astride a boat instead of a horse – can be seen slaying a crocodile with the Great White. Horus is using the spear to destroy the embodiment of ultimate evil, the ancient god Seth in his guise as a crocodile.

The respected Egyptologist H. W. Fairman made a persuasive case in The Triumph of Horus that this depiction of Horus and the Great White is, in fact, the text and stage direction for the oldest complete theatrical production known. He speculates that this play first existed in written form no later than 1200 BCE, around a thousand years before it was codified on the walls of the Temple of Horus. This mythology was embraced by Roman troops stationed in Egypt who subsequently carried the story with them to an island at the opposite end of the known world. There, a falcon headed god becomes a brave knight, a crocodile becomes a mythic beast and the spear becomes the weapon of choice to dispatch evil.

     The Cult of the Spear

The memory of Horus slaying his uncle, the evil god Seth, with the Great White survives in an ancient Egyptian temple. Saint George slays dragons with a spear given to him long ago by Roman troops. A medieval Frenchman retells a story, first written in ancient Egypt (that he could not have possibly known about) leaving the Fisher King suffering in his dark castle, endlessly witnessing the procession of a bleeding white spear.

Whose crazy idea was this anyway? – work notes from Invest-Notes post on 12-5-16

Robert Anton Wilson achieved a modicum of well-deserved success as the author of around 35 books, mostly written during the 1970-80’s. And this after a stint as an associate editor at Playboy magazine in the 1960’s. Among his more respected, and commercially successful books, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles (three volumes; 1982, 1985 and 1988) remains a personal favorite. Recently, for no particular reason I determined to reread the copies given to me twenty years ago by my great friend Paul Young.

In the second volume of The Chronicles, The Widow’s Son, on pages 22 to 26 is a fascinating excerpt from the book by Luigi Duccio titled The Revolution As I Saw It published in 1806. Duccio is described as “Hero of the Bastille” in the subtitle. Here Duccio offers opinions as to the causes (or instigators) of the French Revolution that began in the spring of 1789. (You know, when told the peasants had no bread Queen Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” to which the peasants replied, “Off with her head!” with the peasants winning on both counts.) While there are additional brief excerpts from Duccio’s book spread throughout The Widow’s Son, it should be noted that there is no record of anyone named Luigi Duccio involved in the French Revolution publishing a book by this title. Nor does there appear to be anyone else who had written a book by this title in France, around 1806.

Additionally, the spurious excerpt by Duccio includes an author’s footnote referencing an actual book of the period, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism by Augustin Barruel published in 1797. Here, Barruel gives his thoughts about the causes of the French Revolution and is now mostly known as being responsible for giving life to the conspiracy theory that secret societies (The Freemasons, Jacobins and Illuminati, among others) were responsible for the French Revolution.

So perhaps we are left to assume that the ideas are those of Wilson himself – or maybe not. Further complicating a search for the true source of the ideas discussed in the Invest-Notes post of 11-3-16, Wilson published essays about his economic ideas in a couple of anthologies, both of which I’ve read. To my eye there is no explicit reference to the conversation in Duccio’s book. Yet one of these articles talks about an obscure German economist named Silvio Gesell who published in German and Spanish (in Argentina) between 1890 and 1928. Both Irving Fisher and John Maynard Keynes were sympathetic to Gesell’s work, despite his anarchist leanings.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Eric Beinhocker published a thoughtful book in 2006, The Origin of Wealth, that would seem to provide empirical proof that the ideas of Duccio/Wilson/Gesell shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand.

Your thoughts?

The Early Prints of Jim Nutt

My first conversation with Jim Nutt was regrettably brief and took place a few years ago. Star-struck at meeting an artist I have admired for over 30 years, I was tongue-tied and did not take advantage of the situation to have a real conversation. Instead, I simply mentioned that as much as I admire his portraits (see Art-Note below), they were out of my price range. So my focus was on his many small prints done in the 1970’s. He smiled and agreed that those early works were, in some ways, as interesting as his current paintings.

A few weeks ago I enjoyed a more in-depth discussion with Mr. Nutt. After reminding him of our previous encounter, Nutt graciously agreed to answer a few questions. First I mentioned his earlier comment about his prints versus his paintings. Surprised, he was quick to say that he did not remember making that comment and it was in no way a standard response. He diplomatically added that each body of work belonged to a particular place in his thinking and that, perhaps, it might be better to describe the works as distinct rather than better or worse.

Then I shared my observation of the similarities between his recent portraits and those of Leonardo Da Vinci. This idea was based on an unexpected encounter with both a Da Vinci on display for the first time since the 1960’s from a private collection in France and a retrospective of Nutt’s oeuvre at the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago. Having stumbled over the Da Vinci at the Art Institute on a Thursday afternoon (where I stood enthralled for so long a museum guard asked, “is everything okay?”). That same evening at the CAM show found me comparing the many portraits by Nutt with the Virgin and Child on display at the Institute.

There followed a back-and-forth between the two of us about the differences in mediums and techniques, where Nutt remained skeptical of my conclusions. And he also noted his disappointment at having missed the chance to see the Da Vinci painting. I’ll stand my ground and reiterate a surprising affinity can be found when comparing the originals – it does not work to compare reproductions.

Now, on to the small prints. The selection of works I’ve been exploring begin with an etching from 1967/1968 titled “Gay Nurse” and end with an etching from 1977 tagged “oh! my goodness(NO NO). A total of 30 etchings and three lithographs were printed during this period. One enigma is that some were printed in Chicago and others in California with some printed in short editions at both places, starting with “Gay Nurse.” Only the final four prints in this group saw editions of more than 20 copies, with many seeing only five to ten.

Additionally, many editions included one or two of the impressions being hand colored, or even cutout and reassembled. Within single editions there could also be a variety of paper types in different colors. There is even a print I’ve seen with the mat cut to match the contours (very ragged) of the deckled edges of the paper (very handsome). All of these interesting variations make it a bit challenging to compare and date the individual works, even within the same editions.

The remainder of our talk revolved around the reasons for the many editions, the challenges of finding like-minded printers, the use of students (for a couple of the lithographs) and the relationship of a couple of the prints to the paintings being produced during this period. My work to aggregate these fascinating facts and stats is currently underway.

Though some of the prints feature imagery that is a bit too strong for my taste, and unlikely to be added to my growing collection, all are worth a careful look. And it has been interesting to find works that I enjoyed as reproductions proving to be less desirable when finally viewing the originals (especially the more edgy work). Much of this has to do with the quality of the printing, hence my desire to better understand the backstory of who, where and when these prints were put to paper.

We finished our conversation by looking at works by fellow Hairy Who? member, Suellen Rocca, hanging on a nearby wall.

Note: While examples of Nutt’s work can be found in most catalogs and books discussing the work of the Hairy Who? gang in Chicago (including the terrific work by spouse Gladys Nilsson), for a full view of his prints, both before and after the period mentioned above, look to The Chicago Imagist Print, published by the University of Chicago in 1987.

Piero, Giotto and Lewitt (no, really)

Between the time Sol Lewitt made three figurative pen and ink drawings in 1958, copied from the Arezzo murals of Piero Della Francesco, and his comment in the 1980’s that, “I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” Lewitt became the public face of conceptual art. A step even further than the one abstract expressionism took, suggesting the idea was the point, not the physical manifestation of that idea as a painting or sculpture.

With a wink and a nudge, the cognoscenti smirked at the idea that Lewitt could create anything that might impress Giotto. Yes, there were all the wall drawings, almost 1300 of them before he died (including some that were not first painted until after Lewitt died in 2007). But were these mostly geometric wall works really comparable to the humanistic ideals expressed in the murals of the Renaissance that had inspired Lewitt’s famous precursors?

Lewitt moved to Spoleto, Italy in the late 1970’s where he mostly spent his time for about twenty-years. He acknowledged that the Italian quattrocento masters had inspired him to revisit the techniques used for those early wall works. Ink washes began supplanting pencil or pen and ink in his wall drawings. Lewitt’s color pallet began to expand beyond his basic red-yellow-blue-gray-black (and all combinations, thereof) to include both the outrageously gaudy and subtlest of hues.

While the early geometric strictness eventually gave way to a more fluid style, Lewitt’s work is still thought of as rigidly conceptual by the hoi polloi. A suggestion will be made that this is an incorrect interpretation, and not because of the later Italian influence. Early on, both the (first) sculptural wall works and then (second) the wall murals, exhibit playfulness seemingly unappreciated even today. The same can be said of much of Lewitt’s graphic work in paint, print, drawing and sculpture.

A recent exhibition featuring Eva Hesse serves as a reminder of the visual experiments Lewitt undertook as early as the 1960’s that can hardly be described as conceptual or minimalist (a term Lewitt dismissed). The relationship between Hesse and Lewitt was deep and inspired a spirited exchange of ideas. Though Hesse died young, shades of her influence can be seen in even the very last of Lewitt’s work produced decades later. This notion that Lewitt could wrestle with a concept for decades goes to the heart of why the opinion of someone like Giotto mattered to Lewitt.

Having finally visited the Arezzo Chapel (and spending some serious time in that small, magnificent room) the reasons why fourteenth century artists like Piero and Giotto were important to Lewitt become clear. The classic, romantic, mythic Italy of mysteriously blue skies and burnt sienna earth intertwined with verdant greens coexist in Tuscany today. Landscape murals in Arezzo, Assisi and Florence, master works depicting this magical world of earth and sky, are populated with the people who inhabited them as they fought, loved, prayed, lived and died are depicted in a breathtaking jumble of colors. From the strict geometry of Lewitt’s color band etchings to his wavy-line watercolors to the ink-wash wall drawings, the binding theme is color. Even for Renaissance masters, a case might be made that they too were occasionally more interested in the colors than the figurative imagery used to contain them.

And it is here that Lewitt and Giotto understand each other perfectly. Both artists were enthralled by the creation, application and use of color to impact not just the viewer, but also each of the other colors chosen for inclusion. Even though Giottto and Piero lived in a world where the heavy hand of the church had an outsized impact on what could be depicted, how they painted was a personal choice. That Piero would be the first Italian painter to use the recently created oil techniques of the Flemish school – and not on a panel, but on a wall mural! – clearly demonstrates his desire to experiment with color in new ways.

Lewitt was fortunate to live in a time when an artist could get away with completely ignoring any story-telling or figurative expectations and focus on color. Well, Lewitt also focused rather heavily on geometric forms and the many ways they could be manipulated, creating color-free works of surprising beauty. Perhaps most significantly, color found a place in every medium Lewitt experimented with.

Yet, Giotto and Piero might not have struggled with Lewitt’s purely geometric imagery. Exploring the newly discovered science of perspective, with Piero so intrigued as to write an important book on the subject, the use of geometry was not an outlier in artistic endeavors of the period. It is a compliment that Giotto’s work is described as solidly three-dimensional, offering both mass and weight. Creating the illusion of depth on a flat plane remains a magic largely unappreciated.

It is even possible that Giotto could have been jealous by how Lewitt’s colors are allowed to awe and inspire without having to use references to the Almighty and his Book.

The World of Glass

Phillip Glass has had an outsized impact on my life. Though his music has been on the radar for decades, it was a presentation he gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits. Coming after the success of his opera, Einstein on the Beach, he was then working on another major project, the opera Akhnaten. His discussion of Akhenaten’s life and place in history stoked the fires of both my imagination and intellect. That his account proved to be more fanciful than factual proved unimportant. The life and times of Akhenaten remain an enduring interest of mine.

His conversation after the lecture with a small group of students also described a confirmation of the interest I had been developing in the Kabbalah. My mentor and friend Frank Gaard would facilitate a fascination with Jewish mysticism to the point that it became a formidable influence on my thinking about religion. In tandem with Taoism – another topic that fully manifested itself during this time – religion found a permanent place in my studies.

All of this is to say that my admiration of his autobiography published last year is clearly biased. That said, the book, Words Without Music: A Memoir, is terrific. Living in New York at a time when fine art and music were undergoing huge shifts in form and function, Glass worked to pay the bills with folks like Richard Serra. The classic example of a “ten year overnight success story,” Glass was closely involved with painters, dancers and the theatre during a fascinating era. His subsequent visibility and ultimately well-deserved respect were hard earned, often by doing manual labor and driving a taxi. A life still well lived and worth learning about. And Glass looks so very cool in so many works by Chuck Close.

Ziggy, Aladin, and the others

My daughter asked if I would be writing something about David Bowie for Art-Notes. It is fairly well known in my family the impact Bowie had on my early life. And then again…

One of the few memories I have of seventh grade is hearing the comment, behind my back, that, “he looks like David Bowie.” The haircut I had given myself after reading a biography of a guy only a dozen years older than me was well remarked. My Dad said I should go get back any money paid for the assault on my hair. Only later did I have the guts to tell him it was self-inflicted. I thought very seriously about shaving my eyebrows off.

The many, seemingly endless lists of others favorite songs have me questioning whether I should contribute to the deluge of opinions. So I’ll just name one of the many songs that are still on my playlist decades later, Rebel, Rebel. How could anyone know who/what I was if I didn’t? But Bowie told me I could be anyone I wanted to be. Anything I wanted to be. Even something I didn’t want to be.

Over the last few months many people I know, and many people close to my friends have died. Losing a father, or mother, doesn’t compare to the so-called loss of a rock star known only from a distance, from a pieces of plastic. But has been so often remarked, Bowie was different. Agreed.

Mumford Rules

On the recommendation of my good friend David, I have been perusing The Lewis Mumford Reader. It might be accurate to describe Mumford as a modern polymath and an apologist for the American mind. Born in 1895 his work describing the importance of American philosophers – particularly Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Melville – sounds remarkably relevant, even today.

One of the more interesting essays in the collection included his description of how the Renaissance ultimately led to the creation of the American Way. This line of thought started off with Mumford’s observation that the Renaissance didn’t represent a new beginning, but instead marked a start of the disintegration and fragmentation of the old. In his view, the Renaissance was not so much a “rebirth” of Western Civilization as the death knell of the medieval world.

Where the consensus considers Copernicus, Galileo, Leonardo and Newton standard bearers for an inevitable march forward Mumford offers a more nuanced view. Specifically, that the work of these and other innovators was a pitched battle against entrenched interests, in particular the Roman Catholic Church. Piling on over time, this combined force of new ideas served to finally undermine the power of outdated institutions and allow for something new to be built on a firmer foundation. That something new was most clearly expressed in the new world of the New World.

Moby Dick is undoubtedly one of the finest works of American literature and one I only came to appreciate in the last couple of years. The notion of facing a task so daunting that it can’t truly be described speaks to the idea of looking at a wilderness and seeing our place, however unlikely, in the midst of it. And not as Manifest Destiny but woven in as part of the very fabric of everything that wilderness encompasses.

While poetry has rarely found a place on my reading list, Mumford caused me to read The Leaves of Grass for the first time (another embarrassing fact). There is, indeed, a way of speaking of the American Way which is sorely missing from today’s mindless bloviating by politicians and pundits. We should be proud, not ashamed of our America.

America, by Walt Whitman

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

 

Thoughts on Abstract Expressionism

Jackson Pollock has always appealed to me more in theory than practice. The idea of an Action Painting is appealing, and supportive of the notion that the thoughts behind a work can be more significant than the final outcome. Yet then comes that awkward moment, when confronted by one of Pollock’s major drip paintings up close and personal – at the Chicago Art Institute in this case – and magic happens. The painting comes to life, a beautiful example of practice fully manifested and theory be damned. A recent reencounter with Greyed Rainbow from 1953 was forceful reminders of how powerful Pollock’s paintings are.

A new twist on enjoying the painting was an opportunity to compare the Pollock to a work by Willem de Kooning, Excavation from 1950, hanging on a wall perpendicular to Greyed Rainbow, just a few feet away. Roughly the same size, the two paintings made a stunning pair. Typically associated as early practitioners of Abstract Expression, their respective work nonetheless arrives at a similar conclusion but through different means of execution. The deliberateness of de Kooning’s strokes provides an interesting contrast to the splash and drip of the Pollock. That the Pollock also includes touches of a pale yellow that permeates the de Kooning also allows for thoughtful comparison.

From a distance (specifically, outside of the gallery looking through glass doors) the two paintings served as bookends to the notion of how an Action Painting could be created. As I recall from art school, early on Pollock would start with a figurative entity and layer on the paint until the subject was obliterated. Ultimately Pollock worked without the need of a starter image. de Kooning, on the other hand,  never fully abandoned using figurative elements in his works – especially representations of the human figure (sort of), until the last, controversial phase of his career.

Indeed, on close examination it is not hard to look at the de Kooning as a sky filled with clouds that can be imagined as objects (sort of). Whereas the Pollock can only be viewed as an exercise in pure abstraction (paint for paint’s sake). Though both land firmly and reside comfortably in world of Abstract Expressionism Action Paintings. As Einstein taught us in the formative years of these to phenomenal artists, nothing can be analyzed in, and of, itself, but only in comparison to other phenomena.

A short history of squiggles in the work of Sol Lewitt

For a show at Westfalischer Kunstverein, Munster, Federal Republic of Germany in 1987, Lewitt executed a series of wall drawings that fit comfortably within his oeuvre of the time. Cubes, complete or cropped by the walls dimensions, were done in layers of color washes. Many of Lewitt’s best pyramid-form prints were also done around the time of this event. Most striking however are a series of black and white ink drawings on paper, Gekippte Formen (Tilted Forms), that remain in the permanent collection of the Westfalischer Landsmuseum.

These drawings are of interest for a couple of reasons. First, both the catalog for the show and the invitation describe an exhibit of wall drawings, but features the pen and ink works which were not representative of the show’s primary content or of Lewitt’s work of the period. As always, things were not always what they seemed in Lewitt’s world.

Second, these handsome pen and inks are important precursors of the last wall drawings designed before his death in 2007. Mention is made in an Art-Notes of Lewitt pulling his last rabbit out of a hat by having a show of new work created after he was dead. These final, gorgeous “scribble” drawings are wall-sized versions of the drawings from Westfalischer. Only done in a more delicate and gentle manner.

“The two recent exhibits of new work by Sol Lewitt (“Scribble Wall Drawings,” PaceWildenstein Gallery and “A Cube with Scribbled Bands in Four Directions, One Direction on Each Face,” Paula Cooper Gallery – see Weekend Update 9/19/07 at artnet.com) provide an excuse to comment on the legacy of an iconic American artist. This short note is inspired by the fact that Lewitt died in April of 2007, and both exhibits consist of work created after his death.” Art-Notes 2007

And, of course, it should be mentioned that Wall Drawing #65 (now in the National Gallery, Washington, DC) is likely the earliest precursor for the idea of a scribble drawings. This being the only one mentioned here that was executed in color and creating an overall effect, rather than defining a geometric form.

Sinatra on God

“I’m like Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in that I have a respect for life — in any form. I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God. But I don’t believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice. I’m not unmindful of man’s seeming need for faith; I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. But to me religion is a deeply personal thing in which man and God go it alone together, without the witch doctor in the middle. The witch doctor tries to convince us that we have to ask God for help, to spell out to him what we need, even to bribe him with prayer or cash on the line. Well, I believe that God knows what each of us wants and needs. It’s not necessary for us to make it to church on Sunday to reach Him. You can find Him anyplace. And if that sounds heretical, my source is pretty good: Matthew, Five to Seven, The Sermon on the Mount.”

Sinatra, 1963 in Playboy Magazine

Sol Lewitt and Robert Smithson on … Sol Lewitt

I find it difficult to write a statement that will be a correct summation of my philosophy of art. The work itself seems to subvert such statements, while the total of one’s work creates its own philosophy. This emerges from work to work, successful ones or failures, finding its own dimensions. The total of all past work exerts its influence on the new work. The new work combines the reality of the old and destroys the idea in which it was conceived. It cannot be understood in context of other work, the original ide being lost in a mess of drawings, figurings, and other ideas.

LeWitt

Sol LeWitt is very much aware of the traps and pitfalls of language, and as a result is also concerned with enervating “concepts” of paradox. Everything LeWitt thinks, writes, or has made is inconsistent and contradictory. The “original idea” of his art is “lost in a mess of drawings, figurings, and other ideas.” Nothing is where it seems to be. His concepts are prisons devoid of reason. The information on his announcement for his show (Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1967) is an indication of a self-destroying logic. He submerges the “grid plan” of his show under a deluge of simulated handwritten data. The grid fades under the oppressive weight of “sepia” handwriting. It’s like getting words caught in your eyes.

Robert Smithson

David Sanborn steps up

David Sanborn has been a favorite of mine since Bruce first turned me on to Hideaway when we were college roommates. A decade later in 1990 Sanborn recorded Double Vision with Bob James, and again a solid piece of work that spent a lot of time on my play list. So imagine my surprise last year when a new album by Sanborn and James, Quartette Humaine, proved to be a most excellent demonstration of straight ahead jazz. Many reviewers noted that Quartette sounded very different from Double. Indeed.

Now Sanborn has again been featured on a terrific new album that is a long way from smooth, Enjoy the View. What a terrific line up, along with Sanborn is Bobby Hutcherson, Joey De Francesco and Billy Hart. Hutcherson at 73 still sounds terrific and he even wrote a couple of the songs. I’ve seen Joey D play live several times over the years but remain most impressed with a performance at the Blue Note with Hart and guitarist Pat Martino. Never would have guessed Joey D also blows a mean trumpet.

It is always a delight to watch a musician step out of what appears to be a comfort zone to take on new challenges. Sanborn has always been a great sax player and there are plenty of strong performances on his more familiar, and arguably more smooth, jazz albums. Perhaps it is the context and choice of music that makes his playing such a surprise, especially on Quartette. One of the things that made Miles Davis and John Coltrane such influential artists was an ability to move across very different styles of jazz throughout their careers.

Of the two, I prefer Enjoy the View. Partly because of the choice of instruments – vibes, organ, sax and drums; oh yeah, and Joey D on the trumpet – but also because the music has such a timeless sound to it. Hutcherson and Joey D both sound so fresh while remaining grounded in earlier styles (Hutcherson’s classic San Francisco comes to mind). This gives Sanborn the chance to play a tighter sound, one that is more expressive. And a delight to listen to. Both recordings are highly recommended.

An ode to The Poet

Listening to “The Poet” by Bobby Womack I was transported back to my days as an art puppy at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. This album (that’s what they were called back in the day) is so good, and covered such a variety of musical styles it is embarrassing that it hasn’t hit my play list in such a long, long time. So, I need to testify. “Let me talk awhile…” Womack died this week, and it seemed appropriate to reflect on his music by listening to it. What a voice. What a composer.

“The Poet” featured one of Womack’s most popular hits, If you think you’re lonely now, a personal favorite of mine as well. Yet the song Stand up is worth a listen as evidence of the sheer range of music Womack could create. Tell me this one doesn’t go toe-to-toe with the early works of Prince. Another of the songs on this album, Just my imagination, was one of the few songs covered by the Rolling Stones – the other being It’s all over now, the Stones first #1 hit.

No surprise then that while I haven’t heard any of the final works, after Womack had recovered from a drug addiction so overwhelming it cost his fame and fortune, there have been moments since those long ago days at MCAD when his music was top of my mind. Particularly memorable was a mash up of his classic, Across a 110th Street with Wicked Rain, in 2004 on “The Ride” by Los Lobos.

In a 2012 interview he mentioned all the Big Names he has known and admired who ended victims of drug overdoses. It is comforting his fate wasn’t the same. I’m looking forward to buying his last release, The Bravest Man in the Universe. Whether he was or not isn’t so important, but I’ll take any opportunity to hear that voice one last time.

All one, big, happy.

What I learned from the Jeff Lorber concert Jim and I enjoyed on Friday night:

  1. When Everette Hart takes off his glasses, buckle your seat belt
  2. Pay attention to any album produced by Jimmy Haslip (of the Yellowjackets)
  3. There will no longer be any differentiation in my world between genres of jazz

Number three is the big one. My playlists include huge compilations segregated by genre; smooth, classic, Mile’s early, big band. No more. The new designation is good, or bad. If bad, it won’t be available. Perhaps I’ll regret it at some point, but I’m going to put everything into a single play list. That’s right, it will be possible that the following sequence occurs; Miles, Herb Albert, Lee Morgan, Rick Braun and Tom Harrell.

Lorber made the comment, before playing Horace from the Galaxy album, how his major influence, beyond Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, was Horace Silver. Playing as I type this, no one would confuse Lorber’s composition with one written by Silver, but the mutual playfulness is obvious.

In contrast to the Jason Moran concert last week, there was nothing but a lightweight lightshow to accompany the music. But, ah, the music. Every song was a marathon, long and hard driving, that had even the two-year old in the seat next to me marveling at the power of the music. Though I’ve seen Lorber in concert a couple of times, he was on the top of his game.

And that’s no joke about Hart – the purists will cringe at this comment – but he reminded me of live recordings I’ve heard of Charlie Parker. Hart’s sound was fast, hard and very muscular. This was likely what inspired my new response to the idea of genres. Hart’s playing would have sounded just fine in a classical jazz setting, as would the jams by Haslip.

The question has been asked here repeatedly, “why can’t jazz be more fun to watch?” Now the question is, “why can’t jazz be more inclusive?” More to follow…

Yes, jazz can be fun, too.

At one point there were a half-dozen women from the audience were dancing with the two professional dancers who were part of the show. A couple of little kids were also playing along on a tambourine and mariachis. Punctuating all this movement was pianist Jason Moran wearing a huge paper-mache mask of Fats Waller with a big grin and sleepy eyes. It was without a doubt one of the most memorable straight ahead jazz shows I’ve ever attended.

The only downside to the Fats Waller mask was that I never did clearly hear the names of the band members, and only later learned the line-up included bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Charles Haynes. A bit of a surprise was the appearance of a dancer, who’s first appearance left me a bit confused since she, and later a second dancer, didn’t seem to be dancing in sync with the music.

Only when she reappeared during a song featuring just Moran on piano and his drummer did I finally understand what she was doing. During a particularly aggressive drum solo the woman began to move in a way that made it obvious she was playing her body like a musical instrument. The interaction between the dancer and the drummer was a sight to behold.

About half the songs featured vocals by Lisa Harris, plus a number where Leron Thomas set aside his trumpet and sang a deep, barrel-chested blues. One of the many magical moments during this show, again at the Carver, were the amazing arrangements of old standards that were, for all intent and purposes, unrecognizable. The music was terrific, the playing energetic and the show full of fun.

As I’ve complained in the past about the lack of showmanship typical of “serious” jazz performances, Moran’s playful vibe was a delight. Just before the encore started Jim turned to me and said, “This is the best show we’ve seen.” Agreed – and a great model for making jazz come alive.

What does the audience want?

For the final show of the most recent iteration of the SF Jazz Collective, cousin Albert and I headed to the Carver on Saturday night. The music was fabulous, the musicianship impeccable, as should only be expected. The fourth time I’ve caught the Collective in concert, it was one of the best. Opening with a medley of classics from Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner, and including a powerful arrangement of “Crystal Silence” for the entire eight-piece band, they closed strong with “Song for My Father.”

So this additional part of my conversation should be understood in the context of the review of the Peter White show, discussed below: More reflections on the difference between just playing live music and providing entertainment.

From the first number, the band members where wandering, seemingly aimlessly, around the stage. Which makes their ability to suddenly appear perfectly synced at every play point all the more impressive. There was laughter, banter, grooving to the music, yet it also left an impression of a mild disregard for the audience. That many people in the audience had dressed up for what they seemed to consider a special occasion was all the more noticeable in light of the casual band attire. Yes providing a view of the bass solo mentioned below was appreciated, how things are done also impresses.

I was reminded of one of the saddest moments in my long history of attending live shows. It was during the second SF Jazz concert I attended, and toward the end of the performance when one of my all-time favorites, in mid-song, looked at his wristwatch wistfully. “When would the concert be over?” his attitude messaged. Perhaps the issue is that the expectations for catching a show at the Village Vanguard or Blue Note in New York encourages a bit of laid back. After all, the audience is sitting cheek-by-jowl with the performers. An auditorium venue is, perhaps, less appropriate for casual attitudes.

While the trend to wear stylish suits back in the 40’s and 50’s sometimes feels a bit awkward when looked at from today’s vantage point, nobody can deny how good Miles Davis and other like-minded bands appeared. At the other end of the spectrum is the contrast of seeing Pat Metheny in concert live, but more particularly the video of “The Way Up” recorded in Korea. While the dress was casual, the lack of movement unrelated to playing an instrument stands in stark contrast to many of the shows I’ve seen over the last year, or so. The seriousness with which Metheny and his bands takes their playing is almost hypnotic.

Leaving the theatre, “Crystal Silence” was the song I heard being discussed most, and I’ll finish with some upbeat comments about that. Having seen this classic song by Chick Corea and Gary Burton performed live a few years back at the Portland Jazz Festival, the version played Saturday was a magical study in contrast. The horn section provided a special flavor while Warren Wolf on vibes did Burton justice. But pride of place goes to bassist Matt Penman – wow, what a solo. We can only hope when a compilation of the best from this tour is released on disc, this performance is included. And, hey, Neal, thanks for the Steely Dan tip – “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” indeed.

“Where was the improvisation?”

In the company of my good friend Jim Keach, 2014 is off to a great start as we attended our third jazz concert of the year a couple of weeks ago. There is a note below about the Souza show, and the Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith performance was a beautiful run of long, deep grooves (both at the Carver in San Antonio). And now we’ve seen Peter White, an early heavy weight in the smooth jazz arena that followed a career in pop music whose highlights included playing with Al Stewart (where I last saw him perform live). It was a very good show.

The intro act was a young trumpet player, Gabriel Johnson, clearly influenced by Miles Davis and the source of much spirited debate that evening. There were four of us at the show, all with an appreciation for both traditional jazz as well as the smoother variety. After Johnson finished his set, the first question posed was, “Where was the improvisation?” There were solos, but no improvisations. This thread of conversation wove through the evening’s performances. Yeah, where was the stuff that doesn’t fit on a checklist? There wasn’t any. This didn’t make the show any better or worse, just obviously different from the other two we’ve seen this year.

And this, we agreed, was due to this being a “show” and not a concert. Which likely speaks to the headwinds causing the popularity of traditional jazz to slow precipitously. The Peter White show was a near sell-out, making a comparison to the two concerts at the Carver something of an embarrassment. Both offered brilliant musicianship and terrific music. Yet with Johnson and White, the audience was offered an awful lot of familiar pop tunes performed to a jazz cadence with a bright light show and – my only complaint with the evening – far too many opportunities to “sing along” with old favorites like Roberta Flack’s classic, Feel Like Makin’ Love. It was a carefully choreographed performance, not unlike a rock concert.

But it can’t just be that the songs were more familiar in the smooth venue. Souza, in particular, also played some well-known music. As did Miles Davis throughout his career, covering music from Porgy and Bess to Michael Jackson. And Miles was well represented in the set played by Gabriel Johnson, including a number from, well, Porgy and Bess. The difference between Souza and Johnson simply came down to a script. Souza’s band left the sheet music on the ground and played long segments of well-worn music that was not easily recognizable. Nobody colored outside of the lines at the Peter White show. There is room for both styles of jazz, but we shouldn’t underestimate just how different they really are.

In the end, it would seem the current crop of jazz aficionados aren’t so interested in being challenged when listening to music. During my time managing a jazz radio station, I experienced two uncomfortable realities. The first was the majority of the jazz musicians I interacted with – both local and national – had a very cavalier attitude about the audience. There was a distinct tendency for the artist to expect the audience to appreciate whatever moved them during a performance. To the point that I had to remind musicians during performances they were not playing the flavor of music that had been advertised.

Perhaps more importantly, a majority of listeners at the jazz station wanted to hear what they already knew and liked – or at least something familiar. This flies in the face of how so much great jazz was originally conceived. There are those who argue that the decline of jazz began when individual players began to take precedence over music where the orchestra ruled. Sorry, I don’t agree, or appreciate that we seem to have come full circle.

Even with seemingly small matters

A curios sequence of events, leading to an unsettling conclusion, that are presented here with the participants left unidentified. But a true story.

A Sol Lewitt drawing with watercolor from a series of work I particularly admired was being offered at auction. The work, a geometric form inside of a cube, was expected to sell for an amount out of my comfort zone. However, it doesn’t cost anything to make a lowball bid, which I normally do anyway. I contacted the auction house and requested a condition report, which is normally accompanied by additional photographs, as was this one.

I had shared the initial image with a friend in the art business – the same person who told me about asking for condition reports. Also a big fan of Lewitt, he simply responded, “It does not excite me.”

The additional images included one of a close-up of the signature, which was clearly not by the artist. For Lewitt I have gathered a fairly sizable collection of signature samples. Important because there was a time in the late 1960’s when for reasons I remain unclear on, he changed the way in which he signed his name. Yet before and after this period, his signature was remarkably predictable. In this case, the signature didn’t resemble either version. The unusual signature, and the comments of my friend, led me to look more critically at the image itself, which began to look not quite right, proportionately speaking.

Ultimately, I did not make any bid on the drawing. This week I checked the auction results and was not entirely surprised to find that the Lewitt was one of the few works unsold. Buyer beware, indeed.

What jazz is supposed to look like

Jim Keach and I very much enjoyed a jazz show at the Carver Community Cultural Center last night that was also quite thought-provoking, on several levels. Luciana Souza the Grammy-winning Brazilian vocalist showed up with a remarkable ensemble and preceded to deliver a performance that still has me thinking.

First, the band: On guitar, Lionel Loueke, an artist I’ve seen perform a couple of other times, including at the Portland Jazz Festival. From Benin, Africa Loueke has been a sideman to both Herbie Hancock and Terrance Blanchard. Kendrick Scott did a yeoman’s jobs on the drums, and he too I’ve seen perform before, most recently with Terrance Blanchard on the beautiful, and painful, A Tale of God’s Will (a requiem for Katrina). The latest in a long line of the Houston jazz mafia (think Arnett Cobb), Scott is a player who can swing hard and soft. Bassist Massimo Biolcatti, a Swiss-Italian, looked to be about eight-feet tall and a stand-up bass has never appeared so diminutive to me before. A long time colleague of Loueke, I’m thinking I saw Biolcatti at the Portland Jazz Festival as well. Even someone who is not a bass aficionado could appreciate his playing by simply watching the reactions of the other band members.

And then there was Gregoire Maret on harmonica, a player unknown to me. At first I was afraid the lack of a horn – trumpet, sax, trombone, clarinet, something – was going to be a problem. Boy was I wrong. His performance was nothing short of spectacular, especially a particularly aggressive back-and-forth with Loueke that was just smoking. His body language reminded me of sax man Joe Lovano, with Maret up on tippy-toes for high notes, then suddenly doubled over to extend a phrase. So you can imagine my surprise to discover that I am quite familiar with his work. Maret’s playing on Pat Metheny’s The Way Up was terrific and memorable, I had just never taken the time to find out who that harmonica player was (as well as the subsequent tour, of which I have a video). His work as a sideman is as extensive as it is impressive.

Second, according to Souza, the concert we saw last night was only the second of four shows this group has scheduled. Most remarkable was the claim that this ensemble had only one rehearsal prior to the previous evenings debut in Lafayette, LA. Despite the performance including tunes with very complex time signatures and quirky bridges, no better word than “tight” can describe the flow of playing. I couldn’t help but think of jazz’s Golden Age back on 47th Avenue in New York, with players coming together for a couple of shows then moving on to the next gig. Professionals, indeed.

Finally, I’ll applaud the choice of material. Souza is known primarily for Brazilian flavored jazz. Her parents participated in the origins of Bossa Nova, playing with one of my musical hero’s, Antonio Carlos Jobim. Yet while the Bossa sound was often evident, it was also often not. The willingness of Souza to stand back and let this incredible group just swing was brilliant. More performances – and one can only hope a recording – like this show could go a long way toward bringing non-jazz fans to try out something old and new, hard and slow, swaying and swinging.

 

The implied precision of Sol Lewitt

There is an implied precision in some of the early drawings of Sol Lewitt that does not exist. Specifically, the drawings from the series “Arcs, Circles and Grids.” Done with ruler and compass it is assumed these are machine-like renderings of geometric exactness. Closer examination finds something else altogether.

In a perfect mathematical world these busy drawings display no variation in the relationships between lines. As such, the white spaces, and the intersection of lines would all be identical from quadrant to quadrant. In fact, the works display a pronounced difference when viewed critically. This variance from an assumed precision is what makes these drawings so attractive.

Scattered across the page (in the case under review, it is a large poster for an exhibit held in Bern during 1972) are quirky white spaces in one spot, but not another, that should be identical. Lines clump and intersect in ways that wouldn’t happen if the execution of the drawings had been “perfect.” The minute variances in the execution of these works lead to a noticeable imperfect fabric of lines.

As with so much of Lewitt’s work, it takes a critical look beyond the obviously expected to find a human element making his version of minimalism not so calculated. Or quite what one expects.

8-23-13

While reviewing some black and white photos of exhibits from the late 1930’s that featured the work of Piet Mondrian, I was struck by the resemblance of the paintings to calligraphy. Frankly, it appeared to be very much in the genre of Japanese work where the calligraphy is the art. In these old photos, the blocks of color become black fill for horizontal and vertical lines of varying widths, with many appearing to be some unknown hybrid alphabet.

The similarity to work by Ad Reinhardt was pretty striking, and not something I had noticed before. The last works by both artists inform each other, but these calligraphic images show another alignment of thought leading to a similar solution. With so much focus on Mondrian’s later, iconic work, other than a 1987 catalog from a Mondrian exhibit in Japan, these calligraphic works don’t appear to have been reproduced. Nor have I seen examples on display at museums with decent collections of Mondrian’s work.

And while we’re talking about curious similarities between artists, Piet Mondrian created a series of paintings in 1919 that appear to me as precursors to work by Sol Lewitt. Specifically, Composition with Grid 1 and Composition with Grid 4 (called lozenge paintings; a square canvas with the corner oriented to the top). For Mondrian’s development, these paintings are the bridge between earlier geometric paintings and the later, more famous paintings of irregular grids with blocks of primary colors.

As Mondrian was trying to reconcile the linear works of ocean waves and building facades with his irregular blocks of colors, this series provided a more satisfying result than paintings like Compositie in Kleur B from 1917. Though these works can be difficult to associate visually with those later and more famous, it can be argued that Lewitt’s early efforts with cube forms also led to later works featuring pyramids and random forms, far removed from the dogmatic images associated with minimalism. Interesting that one artist moves from loose, figurative works to precise paintings of lines and grids while another moves from precise black and white works of the cube to loose, color-filled images of wavy bands and irregular shapes.

7-31-13

Sol Lewitt, writing in 1966:

I find it difficult to write a statement that will be a correct summation of my philosophy of art. The work itself seems to subvert such statements, while the total of one’s work creates its own philosophy. This emerges from work to work, successful ones or failures, finding its own dimensions. The total of all past work excerpts its influence on the new work. The new work combines the reality of the old and destroys the idea in which it was conceived. It cannot be understood except in the context of the other work, the original idea being lost in a mess of drawings, figurings, and other ideas.

6-7-13

Eric Fischl’s autobiography, Bad Boy, is quite the piece of work – literally. His name was familiar to me, though his paintings were not. One of the New Kids that came of age in the early 1980’s by putting figurative back into contemporary art with Julian Schnabel and David Salle, being his, perhaps, more well known contemporaries. Split pretty evenly between his personal history, professional life and thoughts on art, it made for often-uncomfortable reading. As I’ve discussed with Lauren and Conrad, we all have our demons. Finding some modicum of peace in this world depends on ensuring your demons don’t get the upper hand. Mr. Fischl seems to have fought the hard fight, and won.

The reason to read this book is the fabulous job Fischl does in explaining not just how he goes about the creative process, but how his creative process came to be what it is. While it could be argued (and I think it was in one of the reviews that led me to purchasing the book) his self-introspection bordered on navel-gazing in the worst possible sense. That view is completely wrong-headed.

Fischl’s conviction of the artist as a storyteller resonates strongly with me. To hear the artist as a young man was motivated by the works of both Mondrian and Max Beckmann is a testament to his longstanding desire to understand art in all its richness, contrast and complexity. Though disagreeing with, for example, his assessment of artists like Sol Lewitt, Fischl still makes a solid case for how the ideas of what really good minimalist artists were trying to say was hijacked by the intellectually lazy.

In contrast, Fischl was adamant, to a degree harmful for many of his personal relationships that the artist must have something to say. And yet just as important is the artist having something to say that someone else actually wants to hear. The failure of Art to retain its place of pride as a shared cultural touchstone is correctly blamed on hubris. On page 341, Fischl makes the following comment, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard artists saying, ‘Fuck the audience.’ But I thought: Why fuck the audience? Why not involve the audience?”

The many, brilliant passages where Fischl discusses his creative process, for both individual works as well as his overarching philosophies, were illuminating, and oddly familiar. In 1983 the author Umberto Eco published a very small book, Postscript to The Name of the Rose. In the fifth chapter Eco uses almost identical words to describe almost identical examples of how an artist goes about creating an interesting narrative – interesting for both the artist and the audience. Great minds think alike, indeed.

Finally, as Fischl describes his long friendship with the modern polymath Steve Martin, it became suddenly clear why Martin’s book, An Object of Beauty (reviewed below), had resonated so powerfully with me. Their annual pilgrimage to St. Barth’s has clearly been a mutually beneficial opportunity to discuss life and art. While I didn’t get to read Bad Boy on a Caribbean beach, I could still feel the sand between my toes.

4-21-13

Serendipity is a beautiful thing. With over three dozen works by Miles Davis in my collection (many requiring multiple CDs), other than new releases of music not previously made public, it’s rare to stumble onto something I haven’t heard. Further, there are only a handful of live recordings in my collection, none of which appear on even my top twenty list. So reading a review recently of a twenty-year old recording of a live Miles performance that didn’t ring any bells should have been a non-event.

It was likely the fact it featured the only time Miles and Quincy Jones played together that made me look it up on Amazon. For $10 it seemed like a deal, especially since it featured recordings of Miles playing classics from decades earlier, and Miles never reprised the old tunes. The CD sat around here for over a week before I even gave it a listen.

Quincy Jones doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves for shaping popular music, and here I refer to jazz, pop and rap. He is the ultimate collaborator as a listen to any of the signature Michael Jackson albums, his work with Bill Cosby (yeah, the comedian, a big jazz fan) or his terrific Back on the Block will testify. My introduction to Quincy came with the 1973 release You’ve Got It Bad Girl, this one featuring Stevie Wonder and Herbert Laws, and the classic hit that went on to become the theme song for the sitcom Sanford and Son. Been a fan of Quincy Jones since before I ever heard a Miles Davis album.

Okay, the CD is Miles & Quincy Live At Montreux, featuring the classic arrangements of Gil Evans, with music from Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Just the liner notes by Leonard Feather are worth the price of the CD. It was recorded at the 25th Anniversary of the Montreux Jazz Festival in July of 1991. Miles Dewey Davis died on September 28. This is a beautiful curtain call for a man who reinvented both himself and jazz, over and over again. That he sounds so good on these classic numbers, still making music just weeks before his death, is confirmed by the audience response. When ready to change your stars, read a Miles Davis biography.

But wait, there’s more. After a brief hiatus, I again attended the Portland Jazz Festival this year. David, Scot and I caught some good music, as always, but agreed the best show we saw was Kenny Garrett. While the name was familiar, the artist was not. That he played with Miles was interesting but in those last decades Miles played with a lot of people, who now talk about it a lot. Yet the band was so tight, the music so good that I purchased a copy of Garrett’s new CD, Seeds from the Underground, as soon as I got home.

Turns out Kenny Garrett provided some of the most powerful playing on Live at Montreux. Miles shared the stage with John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter in his halcyon years. That he knew to share it with Kenny Garrett in his last says a lot about both of them. Don’t miss hearing these two recordings.

3-31-13

If you are not a fan of bullfighting please move along now. My interest in proselytizing or defending this sport is exactly zero.

I watched a documentary about bullfighting this weekend that posed an interesting question. The Matador, by Seavey and Higgins, follows a very young (and now very famous) Spanish bullfighter, David Fandila, over a three-year period as he struggled to complete 100 carridas in a single season. A cursory glance at the reviews found the film to have been well received when it premiered in 2008, and this in spite of the subject. While I found the story of “El Fandi” more engaging than the story-telling, it certainly offered up some great bullfighting video and even better quotes; from Jose Antonio del Moral, “The bull and its blood symbolizes a call to nature at its most brutal, pure and irrational.”

Most intriguing was thinking about the comments, including agreement from El Fandi, that he is not an artistic bullfighter. This observation is not without merit, since a comparison to, for example, Enrique Ponce provides a clear contrast in styles. Ponce performs with an elegance of posture and movement that even a first time viewer would likely define as classical. Whereas El Fandi demonstrates a theatrical, often coarse flair more akin to an entertainer. This difference in approach is not just about technique. It is about the purpose of the spectacle found only in a corrida.

El Fandi states unambiguously his desire to deliver a memorable performance, to “bring the audience to ecstasy.” Being a great bullfighter in the traditional sense is of less interest than being an inspiring entertainer, or so it appears. del Moral offers another observation to this point, “…but it is a beautiful savagery with an artistic payoff.” By comparison he refers to ballet, where the movement of the human body is regarded as artistic expression. Yet for El Fandi, it is the elegance displayed in the face of death that defines the artist. While a whiff of fear will destroy an otherwise masterful performance, El Fandi chooses to exaggerate his bravado, delivering a show that forcefully reminds the viewer of the high stakes being wagered with each corrida. His technique is then less in the form (classical) than in the delivery (entertaining).

To close, it is also worth noting that the documentary does an excellent job of reminding the viewer that the bulls can give as good as they get. The remarkable scene of El Fandi being gored, immediately undergoing surgery, then returning to the ring forty-five minutes later to continue fighting is unsettling to the extreme. And a vivid reminder of what separates the truly great from the rest of us mere mortals. Finally, speaking about the bulls that survive the corrida, the young David Fandila talks about the “inner calm” he senses when in the presence of these champions. Interesting observation from a guy whose death in the ring is the only way for a bull to enjoy an “inner calm.”

3-17-13

For no particular reason I’ve been reading the collected works of Rudyard Kipling. Mostly remembered today for two beloved movies based (loosely) on his short stories, the poems, ballads, mysteries, short stories and novels are all proving to be quite impressive. Luckily, weighing in at around 900 pages, there’s still lots more to read.

So imagine my surprise in discovering that the lyrics to the Frank Sinatra classic, On the Road to Mandalay (from 1957’s Come fly with me), were in fact a Kipling poem penned about a century earlier. Equally fascinating has been the number of old chestnuts still in circulation that find their origins in a Kipling work – “He was a better man than me,” indeed. And I’ll bet many folks of my generation (and their kids) have both fond and vivid memories of Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book. Even though the story of Mowgli is but a small part of a larger work.

Yet it has been the revelations around both the short story and the movie, The Man Who Would Be King, that has been the most pleasing. First, while the movie has long been a favorite, it has now taken on an added luster. After the first viewing, this movie was an inspiration for my long serving friend David and me to pursue Masonic studies, though in the book version this theme is not nearly so prominent, though remaining interestingly, quite important. Second, the pairing of Sean Connery and Michael Caine proved to be a stroke of genius. What a great movie.

However, I had been unable to appreciate just what a tremendous job had been done by John Huston (think, The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart, who was originally casted to play Peachy) in preparing the screenplay. I continue to run across lines from other Kipling stories totally unrelated to The Man Who Would Be King that are included as dialogue in the movie, such as the line “Straight as a beggar can spit.” Additionally, the added scenes allowing a short story to fill a feature length movie were brilliantly conceived, and a couple of them I actually missed in the original print version. Clearly Huston was just as interested in recreating the world of Kipling as he was in retelling this one short story.

The next viewing of The Man Who Would Be King will be a first look through a new lens. And what grander adventure than to enjoy discovering something so well worn still has mysteries to uncover.

 

2-10-13

Though referred to as a “Jazz Great” in many of the stories after his death on February 4, Donald Byrd, like so many American Musicians was about so much more than jazz. He left behind a staggering discography that included works across – and beautifully melding – many genres including jazz, R&B, pop and funk. Like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and more recently, Roy Hargrove, Byrd refused to be tied to any one style of music. And in the case of all those listed above, the canon of American music is very much the richer for his work.

A 1956 Art Blakey/Jazz Messengers disc plays as I write this. A precocious Donald Byrd joins an all-star cast including Horace Silver and Hank Mobley, among others, in playing on a terrific hard-bop classic. While the influence of Silver dominates, the solos played by a 21-year old Byrd hold their own in the music of a hard-swinging, experienced band.

My introduction to Byrd was Stepping Into Tomorrow from 1974, which still finds its way onto my playlist regularly – and was the first album I played after hearing about his death. It was one of many Byrd works that “Jazz” critics panned before going on to be a bestseller. Though it occasionally sounds a bit dated today (the unfortunate use of sound effects immediately recognizable to any Star Trek fan being the most stark example), it remains thoroughly enjoyable to hear. A painful memory from days at jazz station KRTU remains seeing Stepping being deleted from the playlist and the CD being discarded by the, at that time, musical director. When I asked why, his haughty reply was, “Well, it isn’t really jazz, is it?”

I’ll note that being in high school at the time the album was released, and unfamiliar with hard-bop jazz, it is unlikely I would have been able to appreciate works like The Jazz Messengers, or another of Byrd’s early albums, A City Called Heaven, which is now a favorite. Like Ellington before him, Donald Byrd understood that it was incumbent upon jazz musicians to create pathways to their music using every means possible. It is not about educating listeners, but using empathy to bring future jazz enthusiasts into the club.

And, yeah Alfredo, it really is jazz, the kind that’s inclusive, not exclusive.

1-19-13

After reading Alan Goldsher’s really terrific book, Hard Bop Academy, The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Hal Leonard, 2002) I was left trying to figure out what seminal jazz figures didn’t play with the Messenger’s. Rather than list the 39 artists profiled in the book, I’m going to talk about a couple of the albums that it inspired me to add to a collection already much too big. (Much to my surprise, Chuck Mangione and Keith Jarrett are alumni of Bu U).

I purchased copies of A Night in Tunisia (Blue Note, 1960) and Free For All (Blue Note, 1964). This is not an arbitrary pairing. Tunisia features Lee Morgan on trumpet while Free features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and both have Wayne Shorter on the saxophone (no doubt the playing that Miles Davis heard). Here we have two fine jazz trumpeters, each with vastly different playing styles, paired with one of the most thoughtful player/composer ever. Both albums sound great, both sound like Messenger albums and yet this shouldn’t be possible.

First, it should be pointed out that Morgan toured with Dizzy Gillespie (composer of A Night in Tunisia) where his playing on this particular song has long been considered nothing short of masterful by critics as perceptive as Nat Hentoff.

The cut Free For All is an 11-minute Shorter composition that let’s both Hubbard and Blakey strut their stuff. A hard driving number where Hubbard hits those high notes he’s famous for, it also has him playing in a groove that would make any trumpeter shine. And you just gotta love the Blakey shout-outs, “Blow your horn,” almost sounds like a live album, “alright.”

And maybe the best quote ever, mentioned by Branford Marsalis in a recent interview, Blakey explains why innovation in anything, and not just jazz, is so difficult. Practicing the music of John Coltrane, over and over, Blakey asked a very young Marsalis what he thought he was accomplishing. Marsalis replied, “I’m trying to play like Coltrane,” to which Blakey replied, “No you’re not.” Then Blakey continued, “Well let me ask you this: When Coltrane was your age, what the f**k do you think he was listening to, tapes of himself from the future?”

Your best bet? Listen to a Blakey album while reading the book.

12-30-12

Lawrence and I were intrigued by a Jim Nutt etching he ran across in New York back in August. While the print itself was pretty nifty, what really got us excited was the mat – yes, that thing between the art and the frame.  The print, from 1977 was done on a thick, textured paper with deckled edges, with the mat having been cut (by Nutt himself, so they said) so as to follow the ragged contour of the paper’s edges. It was a beautiful example of a work whose properties were well considered when determining how it should be displayed.

So, this led to the two of us independently reviewing auction results and checking dealer inventories to understand what the market looks like for Nutt’s prints. Turns out that Nutt did a series of mostly small, cartoon-like etchings from the late 1960’s to the late 70’s that were quite magical. Taken as a group, they would make an attractive series of work (read: collection).

Now understand, Jim Nutt’s work has always required a certain mindset to appreciate. I’ve both read and heard comments describing his work as “grotesque,” “sick” and, perhaps more aptly, “disturbing.” A member of the Hairy Who artist collective that emerged in Chicago back in the 1960’s, Nutt’s work has, over time, displayed the kind of evolution that separates the merely competent from the really good artist (see below for a description of the serendipitous encounter I had with a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and the newest works by Jim Nutt on the same day…). See also: http://brooklynrail.org/2011/04/artseen/jim-nutt-coming-into-character

All of this is simply a bit of background for the photo here of another Nutt print from 1977 that I recently purchased at an auction in Zurich. Lawrence had seen the work in a catalog, and with his help I successfully bid on the print, “Your so Coarse (Tish, Tish).” Here’s hoping this is the start of the collection suggested above.

11-2-12

That I have been remiss in my duties as a chronicler of the arts was brought home by an email from my long-serving friend Mark. He suggested a couple of articles worth perusing, and regrettably, he is correct.

http://www.believermag.com/issues/201211/?read=article_cohen

http://www.vulture.com/2012/11/fake-gerhard-richter-paintings.html

A few random comments; it was interesting to see Norman Rockwell making a comeback on the auction circuit. Six paintings came up at Sotheby’s last week, with five selling for well above high estimates (like double) and one unsold (see previous comments below). Personally, I like his work, but it is, like anchovies, an acquired taste.

My favorite, Sol Lewitt, has had a good run through the fall season, with a variety of works making good prices. An incomplete cube, paintings, sculptures and prints all showing strong interest. Including one print (Irregular Cubes) that I have bid for and lost now on four occasions. For the ephemera collection I picked up some terrific early work, mostly from dealers in Europe.

Lawrence and I have been looking at the early prints of Jim Nutt for several months and now find ourselves baffled by the pricing. Making matters worse, I won a neat little print at auction last week in Zurich for about a quarter of the price being asked here in the U.S. Unclear if I got lucky or stateside dealers are being unreasonable. Not a big market for the prints from the 1970-1980s, but Nutt is fairly hot right now, coming off a terrific show of new paintings (see review below). We’ve discussed the idea of creating a collection of these small works, but determining price points is proving tough.

9-9-12

“Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all.” Sol Lewitt, 1973

For reasons most people will not understand, I’m excited about a little work recently added to my collection of ephemera by the artist Sol Lewitt. Part of the reason this work resonates more than many others is due to the evolution of my goals as a collector. More than other items, many of which frankly offer more pleasing aesthetics, this drawing exemplifies the ideas that draw me to the artist. And to Lewitt’s stated goals as an artist.

The pencil sketch was likely the original conception of a wall drawing intended for an exhibit at the John Weber gallery in March of 1986. I have the invitation to that particular show, and now the working drawing for a signature piece from the exhibit. Further, Lewitt was meticulous in documenting his output, and in a catalog of wall drawings published in 1989, this work can be clearly identified as #472. Its most unique attribute is that it was gray – no colors were used, even for the background. As with so many of the wall drawings designed for specific exhibitions, the assumption was that the work would eventually be painted over, as was the case here. My research has not yet – and may never – come up with a photo of the actual painting.

In the drawing we see Lewitt thinking about the color scheme (for lack of a better term), and in his published description of Wall Drawing #472, we see the final work matches this one. Each number represents how many coats of gray were applied to each segment. Curiously, While “5” indicates five-coats (the darkest), “1” indicates three-coats and “3” indicating one layer of gray (the lightest). The inscription “for Cosimo” implies that the drawing was given to the son of gallery owner, and long time Lewitt booster, John Weber. That the drawing was of little value even at the time is demonstrated by a note, hastily scribbled on the back in ballpoint pen, about a lost bead from an earring.

And all this has what to do with my collection of Lewitt artwork? From early on in his professional career, Lewitt emphasized that the idea was more important than the final artifact – painting, sculpture, wall drawing, etc… This little drawing provides insight into the decision making process of a guy who was most interested in the process.

7-15-12

The annual Western Manuscripts & Miniatures auction in London went off on July 10 with a couple of attractive lots doing quite well. Though I was a bit surprised by the number of works that didn’t sell, considering there were only 36 items offered.

A CALENDAR FROM A BOOK OF HOURS, IN LATIN, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM went for almost double its estimate. This set of all twelve months is, frankly, quite spectacular with scenes reminiscent of the books of hours sponsored by the Duke of Berry.

A nifty 65-page manuscript on the game of chess went for almost three-times high estimate.  The lot, JACOBUS DE CESSOLIS, DE LUDO SCACCORUM, ON THE GAME OF CHESS, IN LATIN, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON PAPER, sporting a handsome provenance, it appears to have been “the deal” of the event even at the price paid.

On a somewhat related note, some beautiful manuscript leaves from the Schøyen Collection also went under the hammer on July 10, and again in London (http://www.schoyencollection.com/). I am well familiar with this collection, one of the most spectacular around and reputedly with the largest number of ancient manuscripts in private ownership.

The high-end stuff went for high-end prices, while less expensive items made low estimates, or didn’t sell. The biggest sale, at over double the high estimate, was THE ADLER PAPYRI, AN ARCHIVE OF DOCUMENTS IN GREEK AND DEMOTIC, ON PAPYRUS. A very desirable collection that included 23 Greek and 30 demotic papyri, including twenty complete pages, was housed in a dozen cloth-covered boxes. At almost 500,000 British pounds, it was a bit out of my price range.

And I particularly enjoyed seeing all the pages that had been recovered from use as binding material in later books. The topic of reused material is fairly common, but examples are not. Books hiding in books, kinda cool.

7-7-12

Georges Rouault is one of the early Expressionist painters whose work I respect without much liking. Heavily influenced by his Christian faith, his images are impressionistic takes on classic themes; the crucifixion, the mother and child, prostitutes. And clichés like clowns. I was aware of his monumental print series, Miserere et Guerre, but had never seen the originals and you can’t tell much from postage sized reproductions in books and magazines (oh, alright, and Internet images).

Today I visited an exhibition now at the McNay where all 58 prints from Miserere are now on view through July 29. (http://www.mcnayart.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=154&Itemid=28 )

A pleasant surprise, I would use a term learned from another great printmaker, Alberto Mijangos – Medium Fabulous – to describe the show. Sadly, I suspect the majority view will be summed up in the words of the lady running the McNay gift shop, who when asked if there was a catalog of the exhibit I could purchase replied, “You mean that really depressing show?” Herein lie the challenges faced by casual viewers of Miserere. The images are dark, they tend to look alike from a distance and the crucifixion scenes are most easy to identify. During the forty-five minutes I spent looking at the prints, only three people entered the gallery, and all left within minutes after a cursory glance.

Rouault spent over a decade working on the plates, which then waited another two decades before actually being printed. And herein lie the beauty of the work. You can’t tell most of them are prints. A full description of the process and timeline to completion can be found at http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/rouaultmiserere0307.shtml, which may, or may not, provide more insight.

More important is to look closely at the prints, forgetting the images and focusing on how the ink interacts with the paper. If these prints had been framed and matted so that the plate line was not visible, it would take a very knowledgeable person to realize that any given work wasn’t a drawing, or pastel, or oil painting, or gouache. At times it was impossible for me to tell what Rouault could have possibly done to the copper plate to make it apply ink to paper the way it did. If you’ve ever wondered what the big deal about fine art printing is supposed to be, you’ll never find a better answer.

As to the imagery, there were a few standouts not reminiscent of Rouault’s more familiar work. In fact, a couple stood far apart from the rest. One in particular (as I recall, the title being something like, “The Chinese invented gunpowder, so they say, and gave it to the West as a gift”) looked suspiciously like a Max Beckmann painting. Another two could have passed as drawings of Modigliani sculptures. And for a guy known for his depictions of flesh, the skeletons were very good.

Finally I’ll note that the titles and captions were terrific, with this being one of the few instances when I’d encourage viewers to pay attention to the attendant labels. Though mostly biblical, the editing was intriguing while the secular quotes provided excellent context for images that would have otherwise appeared quite mundane. So go see the show, focus on the print as object and don’t be depressed.

7-7-12

A shout-out to a couple of my favorite Minneapolis homeboys, who finally found some common ground. Got word today that Bill Thorburn acquired a Frank Gaard drawing. Bill and I were students of Frank at MCAD more decades ago than I care to admit. Frank gave Bill the only failing grade he ever received while I went on to become a member of the Artpolice. During the fabulous retrospective of Frank’s work at the Walker this spring (see reviews below) I had the great fortune to reconnect these guys. Bill has a keen eye for contemporary art, and a fine collection, now even better with a terrific work from the Walker exhibit.

And for those who missed the show at the Walker, you are in luck. One of the most striking parts of Frank’s retrospective was the floor-to-ceiling collection of portraits. Dual Portraits, an exhibit of work by Pamela and Frank Gaard is on display until July 29 at TuckUnder Projects in Minneapolis (http://www.tuckunder.org/Art.html ). Don’t make the same mistake twice, check it out.

6-12-12

Though the Swann Contemporary Art auction on June 14 was personally unsatisfying, there were some results worth noting.

There was a handsome group of work, from several periods, by Robert Motherwell that all sold well within estimated ranges, or above. Of interest here was that the works ranged in price from $2000 to $40,000, an unusually large span of values not often found in a Swann auction. Similarly, there was a nice selection of Ellsworth Kelly prints that also all found buyers at decent prices across a wide span of prices. One I was particularly enamored with, but didn’t bid on.

Sol Lewitt, who’s seen some weakness in recent auctions, did well, with all works selling at, or above estimates. Surprising me was a torn-paper work that went for well above the high estimates. I had put in a lowball bid assuming the work would hold little appeal. I can only guess that the excellent provenance – formerly in the John Weber collection – drove the value. Another print I missed, even with a respectable bid within the estimates, sold above the last price paid (at another Swann auction, where I also bid and lost). A handsome, large print, Distorted Cubes, offers yet another bit of subtle Lewitt humor.

Ed Ruscha had some nice work up for bid, most making very good prices. I bid fairly on a soap bubble print, but it sailed passed the high estimate, as did another from the series. A large group of Rauschenberg’s largely went for low estimate, or worse, with one piece failing to sell. Of the five De Kooning prints, only two found buyers with both selling at the low estimates.

And in keeping with the spirit of the blog, I’ll confess that beyond not winning any of the prints I bid on, two works offered up for sale both failed to make the low estimate. The prints by Frank Stella were purchased several years ago, and with a popular retrospective of early works on display at L&M Arts, the timing for their sale seemed good. Such was not the case. After accounting for the cost of framing, the sale generated no profit – not a bad thing since I had the opportunity to enjoy the works for a long time – but disappointing nonetheless.

6-6-12

I’ve been noodling on an article by Eric Felten that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303640104577438242141270380.html?KEYWORDS=felten. Discussing legal entanglements involving artwork, his angle was different from the typical fare on this subject. Mostly these legal conversations are about questions of ownership, and not really related to the art itself.

Felten, refreshingly, discusses questions of whether or not a work of art is, well, art. The most interesting of the cases seeking judicial rulings that he discussed involves the work of Sol Lewitt. The owner of one of Lewitt’s innumerable wall drawings is suing a gallery who claims to have lost the certificate of authenticity for said drawing. The implication, since most of Lewitt’s wall drawings (this week’s header artwork is part of a Lewitt wall drawing currently on display at MassMOCA) were actually painted by others, is that the certificate (and instructions for creating the work) is the true work of art. The painting in the collector’s home – which I assume was painted by artists hand-picked by Lewitt, as most of the certificates require – may not, in fact, be a work by Lewitt? Only the piece of paper with written instructions and the artist’s signature count as artwork?

But let’s go one step further, and quote Lewitt from an essay published in Flash Art, April 1973. “I believe that ideas, once expressed, become the common property of all. They are invalid if not used, they can only be given away and cannot be stolen.” Ah, spoken like a young, idealistic artist fuelled by piss and vinegar and unencumbered by desires to profit from the fruit of his labour. However, it would appear that since later “ideas” needed to be accompanied by signed certificates of authenticity there was a change of heart over the ensuing years (my collection of Lewitt drawings, prints, books and ephemera numbers in the hundreds, most of which are not signed – and none was ever accompanied by a certificate of authenticity).

Don’t know much about legal precedence, but it sure sounds to me as if a ruling stating the certificate is, in fact, the actual artwork, then it’s open-season for anyone wanting to have one, or all, of Lewitt’s beautiful wall drawings in their living rooms. So let’s close by reprinting a short comment, that might be relevant, I originally posted shortly after Lewitt’s death in 2007 on a blog belonging, at the time, to my brother Ben:

The two recent exhibits of new work by Sol Lewitt (“Scribble Wall Drawings,” PaceWildenstein Gallery and “A Cube with Scribbled Bands in Four Directions, One Direction on Each Face,” Paula Cooper Gallery – see Weekend Update 9/19/07 at artnet.com) provide an excuse to comment on the legacy of an iconic American artist. This short note is inspired by the fact that Lewitt died in April of 2007, and both exhibits consist of work first executed after his death.

The catalog produced in conjunction with a retrospective of Lewitt’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 2000 wanders across a lifetime of output starting with early figurative work, then moves on to the geometric work with which he remains closely associated and finishes with the later paintings of irregular brushstrokes and lines. Lewitt produced a staggering number of drawings and paintings. In between he oversaw the creation of large numbers of constructions, sculptures and wall drawings. It certainly appears that the man enjoyed making things. And, that he enjoyed painting and drawing.

“The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” Lewitt wrote this in 1967 and it remains, perhaps, the most prevalent conception of what his art was about; the idea, not the output. Further, Lewitt was widely known for his use of other artists to actually create his “finished product” so it is not unreasonable that people assume Lewitt was above the dirty work of putting pen-to-paper or brush-to-canvas. This notion of the artwork itself not being the point dogged Lewitt throughout his career. Yet his later work is so colorful and lyrical that the label of “conceptual” no longer seems appropriate. His comment from 1982, “I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” may better speak to Lewitt’s true sensibilities as an artist.

The notion of playfulness seems to escape many discussions about Lewitt and his work. Even such exhausting projects as the “Incomplete Open Cubes” series – with all its manifestations – has, at its core, a jocular sensibility. The cubes as drawings, as photographs, as small sculptures, as big sculptures, in black, in white, all obsessively depict the 122 variations. The doodles evolve into isometric renderings that become little models that become big sculptures that are in turn photographed, all of which are printed in little books and pamphlets. It is not unlike a great shaggy-dog joke. Avoid getting caught-up in intellectual analysis, and the juxtaposition of an incomplete cube in a gallery filled with baroque and mannerist paintings has its lighter side.

His process of seeking every combination of a series served, among other things, to ensure that Lewitt had plenty of material to work with. Seemingly endless variations of bands in four directions were turned out in seemingly endless varieties of mediums. The consistency of the form allowed for an opportunity to fully explore the interaction of colors, or in the case of sculpture, the interaction of light and shadow. Lewitt repeatedly set strict limits that allowed for infinite variety. Or, to use the words of Jorge Luis Borges, Lewitt created “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The art of Lewitt should not be defined by hard logic and cool detachment. Lewitt’s work is better appreciated for the humor, color and inventiveness that Giotto would have enjoyed.

5-19-12

While I always enjoy thumbing through Artforum each month, it has usually proven best to ignore the writing. Generally too reminiscent of the pretentious, pedantic, incomprehensible art-speak endured during my college years, every now and then they can surprise even battle-scarred art enthusiasts like myself – this month’s issue being a case in point (May 2012).

For those of us brought to age in the pages of MAD Magazine, the book review on page 55 is a must read – and maybe even the book being reviewed. J Hoberman’s take on a collection edited by John Benson, The Sincerest Form of Parody (by those stalwarts of the comic arts, Fantagraphics Press), is delightful. Despite phrases like, “The Sincerest Form of Parody” samples the detritus of a vulgar modernism that has become the coin of the mass-culture realm” it’s a great, short read and pleasant stroll down memory lane.

The tribute to Mike Kelley, Images of the People, provides a nice send off for a guy whose art I never could quite embrace. Though I appreciated his intentions and he was, after all, a fan of the ArtPolice. And the interview with Ralf Hutter (sorry, don’t know how to get the dots above the ‘u’) of Kraftwerk was pretty cool. I’ve long been a fan, despite the scorn tossed lately at the first pop band to make it big with electronic instruments. Good art (mostly), and entertaining writing (for a change), check it out.

5-13-12

My Kentucky homeboy and long-time Invest-notes fan, John, and I were sharing notes between races at this year’s Derby. He mentioned reading an article that asserted well-diversified investors should have a painting hanging in their living room worth more than their home. John mentioned that this was similar to my continual harping about investing being more than just a collection of stocks and bonds. And as a guy who took a phone call at Churchill Downs confirming the sale of an office building he owned for far more than the appraised value, he should know.

There was a very early painting by Piet Mondrian that sold for a good price, slightly exceeding estimate, at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale on May 3. His work doesn’t come up much at auction (mostly, I suspect, since museums own the bulk of his output) and I’ve never seen one of the early, representational paintings available.

It was disappointing, though not surprising, that four works by Sonia and/or Robert Delaunay failed to sell. The estimates seemed particularly high, with an early figurative work by Sonia looking for $400K. Though a gouache from 1965 found a buyer at the low end of the estimated range (I’m looking to my left and seeing the newest addition to the Keach/Karcher collection, a lovely print by Sonia Delaunay from 1972). Egon Schiele did well, with both paintings and drawings going for far more than estimates. A pattern I’ve noticed this season is works by big names going for over estimate, or not selling at all.

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction on May 10 held out a few surprises. First I’ll just say that my prognostication of art prices being soft this season was wrong. Second, I’ll just add that there was a lot of unsold works, and for the art that did sell, prices tended to exceed estimates for the big names. A flight to quality? Again, it was noticeable that many artists I’ve never heard of (or seen work by), with what seemed to me very high valuations, constituted a large percentage of the work unsold.

Sol Lewitt sculptures failed to draw buyers, but his drawings and paintings fared pretty well. Not sure what’s up with that since a couple of his sculptures went for big money last year. And I was heartened to see a collection of art books, tagged to sell for between $20K and $30K, go for $140,000. I like art. I like books. I like books on art. Clearly others feel the same way.

5-9-12

The Wall Street Journal reaffirmed its commitment to becoming irrelevant today with a front-page comment on the death of author and artist Maurice Sendak. This comment can be ignored by anyone unfamiliar with Sendak, or the book “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Sendak was identified as, “author and illustrator of unsettling children’s books.” The actual obituary, found inside on page A6, repeats this assertion and refers to the book “In the Night Kitchen” by commenting, “controversy flared over scenes depicting the boy nude.”

What a sad testament to a brilliant mind and outstanding artist that the opinion of a philistine is allowed to stand as the last words about a man who inspired so many in a publication like the Journal. I loved his books as a kid and enjoyed sharing them with my kids when they were growing up. Luscious drawings and intriguing plots are what I remember of Sendak’s works. That 20-million copies later “Where the Wild Things Are” can be subtly disparaged just reinforces the general impression that the Journal now stands solely for an extremely conservative point of view, out of synch with normal Americans. Politicizing  the death of one of the most popular authors of children’s books? Seriously?

I still read the Journal for it’s business reporting, but it’s getting harder and harder to justify supporting this once great publication with my subscription dollars.

4-29-12

Great Jazz Big Bands and Bullfighting:

Or, the many passions of Gerald Wilson

When I first went to work at a jazz radio station there was a new CD by a guy I’d never heard of that was terrific. “Detroit” by Gerald Wilson is a big band album that is simply amazing to hear, though not nearly as amazing as finding out that Wilson was 92 years old when he made the recording. 2012 saw the release of his newest album, “Legacy.”

Talk about a career in jazz, Wilson played trumpet in the Jimmie Lunceford back in 1936. I’ve made a point of listening to Wilson’s earlier works and was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was not only a big fan of the bullfight, but many of his signature works (two of which are reprised on “Detroit”) are named after famous bullfighters of the 1960’s. Wilson was befriended by bullfighting professionals and is an honorary life member of Los Aficianados de Los Angeles (sort of like the Bullfighter Union is the U.S).

The complete oeuvre of Wilson’s tributes to great bullfighters is listed below. I deliberately chose to only include the original of each song, and encourage you to check out some of the later versions on your own.

1962

Viva Tirado

This song is named for Jose Ramon Tirado. “He was a young matador I first saw at the bull fights in Tijuana, Mexico,” Gerald says. “He was sensational, had a lot of style, reminds me of one of the young trumpeters today. I was so impressed that I wanted to do my impression jazz-wise of what was going on with him.”

1963

Paco

This song is named for Paco Camino. “Paco Camino became the biggest man in the bull ring during that period. He came on with some new stuff that was out of sight. Bull fighting is not a sport, you know. It’s an art, continually evolving with new passes, new uses of the cape, new ways of confronting the bull, adding to the repertoire. It’s very much like jazz. Paco was an artist. He improvised. He was the best,” said Wilson in 2004.

Featured in Sports Illustrated in 1963, ” Paco Camino is the greatest torero of the past 20 years,” said Antonio Diaz-Canabate, one of Spain‘s foremost authorities, writing in Madrid‘s influential newspaper, the A.B.C. “He leads the bull with the muleta where the bull does not want to go. That is the most difficult thing in the art of bullfighting, because it involves the total domination of man over beast.” And a well-known Barcelona critic, Jose Maria Hernandez, wrote of Camino, “He does everything to perfection. He has an indefinable magic. People will remember Camino, like Manolete, not for any one pass or quality, but for his general art and technique.”

El Viti

This song is named for Santiago Martín, known as El Viti. This is the only recording Wilson made where he played with the band. “El Viti was a great matador, different from any other I ever saw. He never smiled, and he was tough. I tried to trace a picture of him, as it gets down into a unique part where his stuff in the ring would get, wild but not overbearing. It was a place for me to use my eight-part harmony.” Wilson claimed to invent eight-part harmony. El Viti was considered to be the “master of the verónica.”

1966

The Golden Sword

Dedicated to the pageantry of the bullring.

Carlos

This song is named for Carlos Arruza, known as “El Ciclón” (“the cyclone”). Retiring after a successful career bullfighting on foot, he came back to start an even more spectacular career on horseback. “He was one of the greatest of all time,” said Wilson. Arruza appeared in two Mexican films about bullfighting, and had a part in the 1960 version of “The Alamo” starring John Wayne.

1968

M. Capetillo

This song is named for M. Capetillo, who performed frequently in Tijuana from the 1960s through the 1980s. He was celebrated as the greatest muletero in Mexican bullfight history. Wilson watched Capetillo fight his last bull on the eve of his retirement.

Del Olivar

This song is named for Antonio Del Olivar and was the last of Wilson’s tributes to famous bullfighters. Considered one of the most graceful matadors, Del Olivar once honored Wilson by presenting him with the ear of a bull he had killed.

4-15-12

Intriguing article at Bloomberg (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-03/picasso-s-erotic-women-meet-beckmann-s-elegant-quappi-in-munich.html) about an exhibit in Munich featuring nudes by Picasso, my hero Max Beckmann and De Kooning.

Agreed: The inclusion of De Kooning was not a great choice. My vote goes for Modigliani, whose nudes would have provided a great foundation for the follow-on work by Beckmann, which in turn puts some perspective on the later (and, to my taste, unattractive) nudes by Picasso.

This opinion notwithstanding, it is still refreshing to see a curator stepping out and pairing paintings in such a visually challenging manner.

4-10-12

Looking at the ten most expensive art purchases of 2011 two of the works strike me as unusual for the category. The usual suspects – Picasso, Warhol, Bacon – were accompanied by a Chinese national treasure by Qi Baishi (number one on the list at $65-million), a sop-to-Pop by Roy Lichtenstein and the now infamous Clyfford Still abstract (referenced a couple of times below).

Yet the two works from a pair of Austrian artists, both of whom died in 1918, stand apart for a couple of reasons. First, while “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt is both an iconic and now clichéd image, it reflects the work for which he was most famous, erotic depictions of women popping out of geometrically abstracted patterns of color. And a couple of those more familiar images have sold for far more than the current offering, a lakeside landscape.

Second, the work by his one-time acolyte, Egon Schiele, also better known for striking figurative works (whose frank eroticism put the more tame paintings by Klimt to shame) is also a landscape. A landscape that, in fact, looks remarkably like a painting by Klimt should look. As a long time admirer of Shiele’s work I remember being surprised to read about the sale. That a landscape would draw a new record price for his work just doesn’t seem right.

So, with each painting selling for $40-million, we find two relatively unfamiliar turn-of-the-century Austrian artists known for their figurative paintings and drawings achieving record prices for landscapes.

4-4-12

In reviewing the results of Sotheby’s Old Master, Modern & Contemporary Prints auction held in London last Thursday I can’t help but wonder who is buying all the Warhol prints? All but three of the twenty-six up for sale went under the hammer, with most being won at, or above, the high estimates. Almost 15% of the work on offer was by Warhol and the prices were all over the place, selling from 5,000 to over 300,000 British Pounds. And it certainly seems ironic that prints by Edvard Munch (famous for his “Scream” painting) sold for a mere fraction of what Warhol’s copy of the “Scream” made – the 300,000 GBP winning bid. The three Warhol prints that didn’t sell weren’t iconic (or particularly attractive), but then several of the prints that did sell also weren’t iconic (or particularly attractive). Can you say, “bubble?”

A pair of early Robert Longo lithos made double the high estimate. I was at the San Antonio Museum of Art yesterday looking at an exhibit of works from local collections (I have some antique maps on display in the Egyptian gallery) and there was a pair of Longo lithographs. Long a fan from a distance, I was surprised to see that up close these large, early works are not nearly as finely executed as they look in catalogs – especially in light of the striking drawings Longo has been doing over the last decade. And a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture went for slightly more than it’s high estimate, another work on display in the SAMA show. The half-dozen prints by Damien Hirst went at the low end of estimates (or below) but at least they all sold.

4-1-12

I’ve been collecting the art of David Rathman since we worked together at the Franklin-Nicolette Liquor store in Minneapolis over thirty year ago (Dave, are we really that old?). And when I say collecting, I mean purchasing his books, prints and drawings with money.

David, always a gracious host, gave Conrad and I a sneak-peak a couple of weeks ago at his latest work, scheduled to go on display at the Larissa Goldston Gallery. From the exhibition announcement: “Larissa Goldston Gallery is pleased to present David Rathman’s fifth solo exhibition in New York. Let’s See What Stirs includes eight watercolors and a 9 -minute film.  The exhibition will be on view from April 6 through May 12, 2011 with a reception for the artist on April 6 from 6 to 8pm.” Photos of the paintings should be posted soon at http://www.larissagoldston.com/

Though I’ve always been partial to his printmaking, the paintings we recently saw in Dave’s studio were, in my mind, the finest work he’s produced to date. Included here is one of the paintings, from a photo taken with my iPhone as it was being finished-up. I can count the number of classmates from my alma mater, The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, having gone on to make a living as artists on one hand. No surprise to me that Dave is one of those winners. Congratulations, David.

As an aside, there was a vaguely familiar face chatting with Dave when Conrad and I arrived at the studio. Finding Glenn Grafelman, who I had not seen since his graduation a year before mine, was a pleasant surprise. I immediately recited the title of one of the painting/constructions from his senior show, which remains one of my favorite lines of all time, “I hope my tears don’t stain my image.” Glenn has also done well as an artist and his current work – quite different from what I remembered – can be found at www.glenngrafelman.com.

3-18-12

Catchy title – as are the t-shirts – but a more accurate handle would have been “Color and Light.” Regardless, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis once again demonstrates what makes it one of the finest contemporary art museums in America with this Frank Gaard retrospective, “Poison and Candy,” up through May 6. My biases have been discussed below, so I’ll simply talk about the show, not the artist.

First, hats off for the stellar job in mounting the retrospective. In a high-ceilinged, bright white gallery filled with natural light, no venue could have been better for a show about color. Frank Gaard has spent decades manipulating color and anyone still intent on talking about Frank’s professional history should be barred from attending the exhibit. After talking with both friend and foe, everyone who can discuss the art instead of the artist has acknowledged the quality of the work displayed – including the black and white pen and ink drawings.

The Walker’s effort to treat this show seriously is exemplary. For example, allowing Frank to create the controlled chaos of his collage wall was a risky bet that paid off handsomely. While the portrait gallery – a nearly overpowering collection of large paintings spanning decades and covering floor to ceiling on three walls – is not to be missed. Frank’s love of people and life is on full display here, showing the human and humorous side of a reputedly cantankerous persona.

Finally, a terrific interview (recommended by Frank) by Jonathan Thomas at the Bomb (http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/6461) provides valuable commentary about the thinking behind the paintings. And make no mistake, it was very clear as Conrad and I walked around the exhibit with Frank and Pam for over an hour, there is a lot of thought behind these bright, colorful and provocative works.

3-11-12

In response to a very good question, let me suggest that my interest in tracking the prices paid for artists at auction is about understanding how markets process information.  It is simply fascinating to me that, for example, a new crop of Chinese painters – whose work appears largely derivative – can command prices higher than established and respected artists.

Like the article referenced below, I also believe linking an artist’s performance at auction to their place in art history is a fool’s errand. To determine that Gerhard Richter is an equal to Picasso based on auction results is an insult to both – and Richter has said as much himself.

It was a mixed bag of results for Sol Lewitt at the March 9 auction at Sotheby’s, but I can’t say it was a surprise. A couple of lots went unsold, one a collection of postcards with Lewitt drawings of his iconic square of “lines in four directions,” and a pair of simple line drawings intended for a charity coloring book. On the other hand, a very late scribble drawing (that I dearly coveted) beat its top estimate, and a circular painting (of a style I was, surprisingly, unfamiliar with) came close to its top estimate. The trend I’m seeing is secondary and minor works failing to sell. Not such a bad thing.

3-9-12

Watching the results of some modern and contemporary art auctions over the last couple of week has left me very confused. At Swann’s print auction on Thursday there were some surprises, for me at least, and pairing that with a look at Sotheby’s results from today feel like things are softening a bit. But as a guy who was looking for softness in the spring events its tough to tell how much of that “feeling” is just wishful thinking.

On the plus side I won a beautiful print by Sonia Delaunay at Swann. I’ve been increasingly interested in her work and stumbled across an artist monograph a few weeks ago that really added to my itch. I’ve seen her work continue to deliver good sales results and plan on following her progress more closely. Delaunay died in 1979 in her mid-90’s having known most of the 20th Centuries most important artists. As can be expected from an artist of her caliber, the output of almost 80-years is as far ranging as impressive. I also picked-up a Man Ray print that I’ve bid on several times without success – and at the lowest price I’ve ever bid.

Which leads me back to the original conversation. I was surprised at the weakness of pricing for some fine work. In particular, perennial favorites like Matisse and Cadmus saw prices (or the lack thereof) that surprised me. There were some great prices achieved for classic work by Hopper and Nordfeldt, but the overall results seemed mediocre.

Ditto the action at Sotheby’s, not withstanding lot #2, a Gerhardt Richter drawing that went for over $68,000 versus a high estimate of $12K (more on this later). But buyers appeared more circumspect; with even recent heroes whose work often went for less than estimated lows. And a lot of the names I didn’t recognize (and a few I did), including the new crop of Chinese artists, failed to sell. Both Sotheby’s and Swann will highlight the winners, but it sure looked like the parade thinned out fast.

And about Richter, whose work I saw last spring in Chicago and very much enjoyed. Good friend and long time Invest-notes reader Mark Smith sent me the following a week or so ago, http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/03/04/the-commodification-of-gerhard-richter/ . I agree completely and couldn’t have laughed harder when I saw this story in today’s Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204781804577267770169368462.html?mod=WSJ_LifeStyle_LifestyleArtEnt .

2-25-12 Big Money

So far my predictions of troubled fine art markets have not manifested themselves. Looking at the results from Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auctions in London on February 15 and 16, there seems to be plenty of trophy hunters still around. The evening auctions are typically smaller collections of really, really high priced stuff. And it was clearly the trophies being sought with the usual suspects – Warhol, Hirst, Richter – selling for big money. My favorite work of the evening auction was at the low-end of the price scale but an attractive painting nonetheless. Tabriz, by Bridget Riley from 1984 blew past it’s high estimate of $350,000 selling for almost half a million dollars. An iconic work from the artist, and it was good to see it sell well.

The day auction saw some nice results for Sol Lewitt. A pyramid sculpture, not particularly to my taste, made its high estimate selling for $39,000. More interesting was a small pen and ink drawing, Short lines, crossing, that trumped its expected range and sold for $17,500. A late wavy-line painting, which appear with surprising regularity at these high-end auctions, just made its high estimate going for about $8000. And Sean Scully, who I am starting to like more and more, did well with three paintings covering three decades of output, with prices ranging from $32,000 to $163,000.

Lewitt has some really good work coming up in New York on March 9, and I’ll be curious to see how they sell.

2-5-12 Spring Fever

I’ll mention the Sotheby’s January 26 auction of Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture in New York mostly because it featured three works from the Cranach family – and these fall into the “someday when I’m rich I’ll buy one of those” category. A classic version of “Lucretia” by Cranach the elder went in the middle of its estimated range, selling for about $5-million. It immediately brought back memories of a trip to Vienna many, many years ago to visit my brother Justin. Wandering through the Kunsthistorisches Museum we ended up in a room filled with nothing but Cranach paintings, including a favorite of mine that had been part of my final efforts to ensure graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Two works by Cranach the younger both sold for almost double their estimates. The first, a portrait of a woman, went for $362-thousand while a “Man in a hat” made $158-thousand. Handsome painting all, from a family of very talented artists.

A couple of “from the studio of Rueben’s” made decent prices while a particularly dark (image, not subject) painting attributed to Rembrandt failed to sell. As did, it seemed, most works under $100-thousand. I’ve expressed my thoughts to a couple of folks regarding what I suspect will be an interesting spring auction season. With most of Europe looking into a financial abyss (suspiciously familiar to the recent one in America) my guess is that the art market for Western art will be schizophrenic. With European collectors likely to be on the sidelines – or selling – and the new rich out East showing little interest in Old Master and Impressionist paintings, there could be lots of unsold work and lots of bargains. That the unfamiliar artists and clearly second tier work recently failed to attract buyers could be taken as an early canary in the coal mine for what may be ahead. I’m just saying…

1-28-12 Frank Gaard at the Walker

So it was with heavy heart that I missed the opening of the Frank Gaard retrospective at the Walker in Minneapolis on Thursday night. As a mentor and friend, my affection for Frank runs deep. He was, however gracious about my absence and I’ll quote from his note, “Thanks Chris (and hello Conrad) – Been busy installing, a week of push pins and electric ladders… It looks sweet and very colorful, exotic for Minnesota more like Mexico… Sorry you’ll miss the party but it’s up til May 6.”

Called my Minnesota homeboy Bill Thorburn, but he was doing business in Wisconsin and also missed the opening night, so I can’t offer even a second-hand review of the evening. Conrad and I will be making the trek, at some point, to catch the show and I’m hoping Frank gets the exposure and respect due an artist of his caliber. If you get the chance, be sure and check out the exhibit, you will be impressed by the magnificent output of one heck of a color theorist. And anybody interested in copies of Art Police, the art magazine Frank edited for 20-years, please give me a call. Proceeds from any sales will go directly to Frank.

http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2012/frank-gaard-poison-candy

1-22-12 Don’t confuse the art with the artist

Caravaggio is another of those truly special artists whose personal life tends to overshadow the magnificence of their output. He’s better known for a history of crime – put in context, maybe it wasn’t quite as advertised – than for his ability to create scenes on canvas that rival the works of earlier precursors like Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Rembrandt get credit for the use of dark and light that he learned from the paintings of Caravaggio, while Rubens made a point of painting variations to correct the bits he didn’t like in some of Caravaggio’s work.

When Jamo got back in late November from his visit to Italy he specifically mentioned the Caravaggio paintings he had admired with his son JJ, now a film major in Los Angeles. Spotting an ad in a copy of ArtNews, I mentioned that a major Caravaggio exhibit was making its only U.S. visit at the Kimball in Fort Worth. Then over the holidays I had occasion to visit the Denver Art Museum where a still life caught my eye and on closer inspection turned out to be by Caravaggio. I didn’t even know he made any still life paintings. It was magnificent and the photo I wasn’t supposed to take was the screen shot on my iPhone for several weeks.

Thanks to Jamo, I was able to make the big Caravaggio exhibit at the Kimbell on the Friday before the show closed. While only about a third of the paintings on display were by Caravaggio, placing his work next to contemporary, as well as later artists provided some excellent context. Being able to compare work of similar size, subject and style to those of Caravaggio makes strikingly obvious just how good he was and why his influence is far more important than any questionable behavior attributed to him. Beautiful stuff.

By coincidence, I finished the new biography of Modigliani by Meryle Secrest this week and was struck by both the similarities and differences between the two artists. Both poster children for the tired myth of brilliance brought to ruin by drink, drugs and a dissipating lifestyle. Both admired and supported by peers. Both placing their art above everything else that a more normal life might encompass, and despite ultimately dying at relatively young ages leaving behind a staggering body of quality work.

Yet the influence of Caravaggio on other artists, amply displayed in the Kimball exhibit, was far reaching while that of Modigliani was not. An appreciation of Caravaggio was subsequently lost to public conscience only to be resurrected in my lifetime while Modigliani had only to wait until his death to find himself suddenly understood and appreciated. The point of this tangential conversation is simply to note that we should always be careful not to confuse the artists with his work.

By the way, the Modigliani book by Secrest was mostly a terrific read and her assertion that tuberculosis was the root cause of the Modigliani-myth is quite intriguing. And if you enjoyed Woody Allen’s most recent movie, Midnight in Paris, this book will add about twenty layers of entertaining and fascinating detail.

Finally, a copy of the new Caravaggio biography (by Andrew Graham-Dixon) arrived at my door on Friday and as excited as I am about getting started, it appears to be about an inch thicker than the nearly 400 page Modigliani book, leaving me to need a break. So I started Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer yesterday – one of his last essays, describing a summer of bullfighting in Spain the year I was born. Yet another group of artists largely reviled for what they do, not how beautifully they execute it.

12-31-11 At that dam museum

At the brilliant suggestion of my brother-in-law Skip, he and I made a day trip to the Denver Art Museum on Thursday. A venue I had not previously visited, both the museum and the collection where very impressive. A tip of the ol’ Stetson to Skip for the idea and for driving.

To begin with, the structure is, to my mind, quite daring. From the outside can be seen the dramatic, titanium-clad angles reminiscent of those seen on aircraft carriers when viewed from below, which in turn create vertiginous interior spaces. My initial fear was that the main building would likely win in a competition with the contents. Yet someone was smart enough to make the gallery spaces look like, well, gallery spaces preventing the collections from competing visually with the architecture. All the really weird spaces were predominantly encountered moving from gallery to gallery.

As with any really good museum, there’s too much to mention, so I’ll mention only two of the temporary exhibits we viewed. To coincide with the recent opening of the brand new Clyfford Still museum next door was an exhibit of Robert Motherwell’s work, much of which is roughly contemporaneous with that of Still, who also had work on display in the Motherwell show. It featured several variations of the Elegy to the Spanish Republic, including the last, #172 from 1990. (http://www.denverartmuseum.org/explore_art/temporaryExhibitionDetails/exhibitionId–209332/exhibitionType–Current) This show is a powerful reminder of the quality of his work that often comes across now as somewhat dated. As an aside, one of the better Sandy Skoglund installations, Fox Games, shared the space providing an interesting contrast. (http://www.denverartmuseum.org/explore_art/collections/collectionTypeId–60) I’ll admit now that we did not go inside the new Still museum. It was enough to the see the Still paintings in the Motherwell show. Interesting stuff, though a little goes a long way. But we were treated to a visual tour via MacBook Pro by the proprietor of the wine bar across from the entrance to the Denver Art Museum, who also served up an excellent Torrontes. More on Clyfford Still and the new museum housing his $62-million painting can be found below.

As a long time fan (and collector) of Ed Ruscha, the show Ed Ruscha: On The Road was a pleasant surprise. Also being a fan of Jack Kerouac’s book of the same title, the show can be enjoyed on several levels. First, there’s the version of On The Road designed and published by Ruscha. Second, and more fun, were the many bright color paintings tattooed with quotes from the book. (http://www.denverartmuseum.org/explore_art/temporaryExhibitionDetails/exhibitionId–211094/exhibitionType–Current)

12-18-11 – Not so ephemeral after all

There’s a little part of the art world not widely traveled yet offering a nuanced view of an artist’s oeuvre called ephemera. By definition, ephemera are “items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.” So in the art market this includes exhibition posters, announcements – usually postcards – of exhibits in private galleries, privately printed artist’s books and catalogs as well as personal letters to friends and family. It’s even better when they’ve been autographed and annotated by the artist.

I happen to spend a lot of time traveling in this space, with my collection of Sol Lewitt ephemera numbering over a hundred items. There’s also ephemera on my shelves relating to Max Beckmann, Ed Ruscha, Fred Sandback, Red Grooms, William Wegman and Ad Reinhardt. My friend in the business, Lawrence, is also smitten by the ephemera bug and has graciously added to my Lewitt collection, and beyond.

So it was a great surprise to find a spectacular collection of ASL (autographed signed letters) material on sale December 13 at Sotheby’s Fine Books & Manuscripts auction. Artists included; Cezanne, Van Gogh, Ingres, Cassatt, Dali, Gauguin, Courbet, Dufy, Monet and Rodin. There were dozens of lots, several with multiple items included. No surprise, the big sales were the big names, with a Van Gogh ASL making $194,000 (high estimate of $80,000) and a single lot of five letters from Monet blowing past a high estimate of $35,000 to sell for $134,000. In the bargain basement, a pair of Vuillard letters made the low estimate of $2800. In the loser’s corner were also to be found, to my mind, some surprises. What didn’t sell were American artists, with Bierstadt, Peale, Catlin and Grandma Moses failing to find buyers. Still, the overall results were heartening to a guy who loves this kind of stuff.

http://www.sothebys.com/en/catalogues/ecatalogue.html/2011/fine-books-manuscripts-n08811#/r=/en/ecat.fhtml.N08811.html+r.m=/en/ecat.grid.N08811.html/10/15/lotnum/asc/

Which leads to the point of this missive: I would sure like to know who the collector is so I can call them up and talk ephemera. Ours is a small club, but whoever built this beautiful collection should be president. And I’d love to hear them talk about what they learned by having all this great material to study and enjoy.

12-4-11 – All American

Though not particularly a fan of 18th and early 19th century American painters, there’s a few bright spots in every genre so I wandered through a sale catalog a few weeks ago. And besides, I just enjoy looking at auction catalogs and had noticed some surprising work being put up for bid. So I was curious to see how Sotheby’s American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture finished out on December 1.

Mostly I was interested to see how the several works by a long time favorite of mine, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), were received. You may not recognize the name, but I’d be surprised if you haven’t seen his work. His enormous paintings of the American west devoid of humans but filled with mountains, streams, lakes and breathtaking atmospherics are, in a word, magnificent. Here in San Antonio, the NcNay has a beautiful study that embodies all of Bierstadt’s traits, but on a relatively smaller scale. The sale results were all over the board; three handsome works blew past their high estimates with several others only just barely hitting the low estimates. A surprise was a big, iconic work priced around $1.5-million failing to sell. Not a surprise was a study of a moose head failing to find a buyer.

An attractive Stuart Davis painting failed to find a buyer, as did works by other well-known artists including Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Andrew Wyeth. And a Martin Johnson Heade flowers and hummingbird’s painting went for almost $2-million, nearly thee times the high estimate, while another of his paintings devoid of hummingbirds and priced around $150-thousand failed to sell. Similar story for Norman Rockwell, with several works topping estimates and others going unsold. Frankly, the overall results of the sale seemed a bit schizophrenic.

All of which serves as a reminder that while I’m all for art as an investment, like gold, a piece of art is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. A big name is no guarantee of an easy sell. Buy what you like, you may have to like it for a long time.

11/26/11 – Missed again

I’ve been the bridesmaid, not the bride, at recent auctions. Sol Lewitt had a strong showing in the Swann American and Contemporary Art auction held on November 18. All seven works sold, with two doing very well. Though I’m not a fan of Lewitt’s star motif stuff, a set of eight color aquatints from 1993 went for $13,000, near the high-end estimate. More to my taste was a set of five color screenprints from 1970 that made a respectable $12,000. I even bid at or near high estimates this go-around and still failed to score on one screenprint and one lino-cut work.

It was also nice to see several of Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawing lithographs exceed their high estimates, with all selling. I’ve always found these works to be very appealing. However, two other works failed to sell, including a silkscreen print over six-feet long from 1976 and an iconic lithograph from 1971.

I was also surprised to see a handsome pastel by Red Grooms, “Artist on the Beach” from 1970, only make half its low estimate. Seems like the retrospective at Marlborough Galleries (see below) would have drummed up more interest in early works like this one.

11/10/11 – The Still of the night

After all the buzz about Sotheby’s modern art auction last night – the biggest haul since 2008 – I wanted to see what was hot. Well, Clifford Still and Gerhard Richter were sizzling. Talking with Frank Gaard in Minneapolis last summer as we looked at a Still painting in the Walker, he talked about the Clifford Still Museum opening in Denver. We laughed about what a curmudgeon Still had been and debated the merits of his work. The idea someone would pay almost $62-million for one of his paintings was a concept alien to our conversation. The Still paintings blew past high estimates and set records.

However it was the Richter prices that truly floored me. A visit to the new wing of the Art Institute of Chicago last spring was enough to move me into the dues paying fan club of Richter. Yet the prices achieved for a selection of his abstract works was simply startling. Not just double the high estimates, but even more than that, and I’ll argue, not for the best of his work. Trend or fad, I just wonder… And what was with that Sigmar Polke painting, almost ten-times high estimates?

Finally, it might be worth noting that Bloomberg took an interesting angle in discussing this auction, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-10/clyfford-still-painting-fetches-record-61-7-million-for-museum-in-denver.html I’ll not speculate on whether another bubble is brewing in the art world, though a whiff of what it smelled like when a Japanese industrialist paid a $100+million for a Van Gogh is in the air.

11/6/11 – Golubov?

Blame it on the deKooning show at MoMA, causing me to stop and take a long look at a painting featured in a full-page ad in ARTnews this weekend. I’d never heard of Maurice Golubov before, but the blurb mentioned he was a compatriot of Albers, Nevelson and Ad Reinhardt – good company. There was surprisingly little information on-line of any value (I didn’t at first notice the absence of a Wikipedia reference since that’s usually a source of last resort). Many of the reproductions I found were in black-and-white, many from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. However a search of the MFAH turned up none of his works. Not a big enough name I’d guess.

An American abstract painter, (1905 – 1987) Golubov has some very interesting paintings from early and late in his career. Ignore the figurative work; his form-based paintings are more impressive. The work from the 1970s is intriguing and surprisingly comparable to digitally created images not seen for another decade, or so. Paintings from immediately before and after WWII are the most satisfying. Not a true school, but a type of imagery often found in abstract expressionism, I think of it as being calligraphic in appearance. Reinhardt, maybe, did it best. Yet work from deKooning and Pollock also fall into this category. Mark Tobey also made some fine paintings in this category.

Since the deKooning show has turned up the volume on conversation around abstract expressionism (there’s another story about the deKooning show in said volume of ARTnews, November 2011). Next chance I get to visit Clayton in Houston I’ll make it a point to see what’s on display at the MFAH. Check Golubov out, http://www.mauricegolubov.net/

Finally, another of the always interesting articles about the world of art by Kelly Crow at the Wall Street Journal should be enjoyed at, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203716204577014313913220298.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_MIDDLE_Video_Top

A fascinating article about what the Big Art Collectors are thinking these days, it reads like a debate between money managers. Is it the trend, the overlooked, the undiscovered, the Asian or the blue chips that should be included in your art portfolio? To which I’ll reply, “If it’s going to be hanging on your wall for the foreseeable future, does it really matter?” With a couple of bids in the upcoming Contemporary Arts auction at Swann, as usual, I’m long Sol Lewitt. http://catalogue.swanngalleries.com/asp/searchresults.asp?st=U

10/17/11 – Big Red

Grooms self-portrait

Had the chance to check out the mini-Red Grooms retrospective at the Marlborough Gallery last week. I’ve been a fan of Grooms since college where I am proud to say he had a visible affect on my work. Returning home from school I purchased a cut-out of his Ruckus Taxi from the Met and that little sculpture lasted a long time in our house. Currently I’ve got a couple of catalogs and other ephemera (see left) plus a big, beautiful lithograph.

Let me start by saying I found the experience of visiting the gallery and my (lack of) interaction with the staff to be disappointing. The exhibit (and it is much more reminiscent of a museum show than a gallery show) is, nonetheless, terrific. Including both the city bus and porno shop from the original Ruckus Manhattan show from the mid-1970’s, it was a delight to actually walk through work I have only had occasion to enjoy through photos. Some of the early paintings and constructions were less impressive.

But the action starts with work from the last half-dozen years. A striking monochromatic painting first caught my attention for its size and the vague sense of déjà-vu it engendered. Then I realized all the figures were from Diane Arbus photographs. It was a beautiful tribute to a fellow artist. Probably his most successful ‘gallery’ portrait yet. Most of the newer paintings and smaller constructions were both inventive in their use of materials (still?) and very entertaining. Being able to compare work from the 1980’s with that of today proves just how much Grooms has continued to grow as an artist, despite the seemingly unchanging nature of his work.

And I’ll call the Easter parade construction his finest work yet. Hard to describe, and far too expensive for my collection I regret to confess. It is beautiful in the sense of being able to uplift one’s spirit. This on top of being technically one of the finest, most detailed constructions, I’ve encountered. The brilliant use of pink and yellow and light blue made this enormous work simply float in the air. The soaring cathedral in the background, the seemingly uncountable multitude of figures both far-off and close up were enough to create a real place in which to visit and wander around.

I’ll argue no contemporary artist is able to capture both the joy and pathos of modern city living as brilliantly as Red Grooms.

10/11/11 – de Kooning redux

It’s embarrassing to admit that if Jamo hadn’t mentioned the de Kooning show before I headed off to New York last week, I would have likely missed it. Even after writing a brief note here a couple of weeks ago, I just hadn’t made the connection. So, while in NYC to attend the Big Picture Conference, I had originally planned on just hitting the Marlborough Gallery where a Red Grooms retrospective is on display. But the gallery was closed Monday because of the holiday, so I went to the Museum of Modern Art instead.

It was total chaos when I got to MoMA around 10:45 am, where hundreds of people were standing in a line stretching back to 6th Ave. Not willing to join the crowd I went across the street to Connolly’s Authentic Irish Pub for an early lunch. Sitting under a reproduction of the 1916 notice of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, featuring photos of the seven men who signed the document and were subsequently “executed” in May of 1916, including James Connolly, I anticipated Irish things. Some early, classic James Brown was on the stereo, followed by some early, classic Led Zeppelin as my waiter suggested the Greek salad or a lamb burger.

Returning to MoMA an hour or so later, there was no line, I walked right up to the ticket desk and then headed up to see the de Kooning show. It was breathtaking, surprising and exhausting. And it is simply too much to take in at one time. Though MoMA delivered on their promise of a full retrospective it was still tough to get through. And it wasn’t just me, but other folks as well, “I have had enough of de Kooning, “ he said, as his wife replied, “Yes, I want to leave now.” Yet, what terrific paintings.

Never having met Picasso this is only speculation, but de Kooning seems to have taken his abstract portraits of women down a road Picasso may have been looking for. Watching the evolution of his figurative work during the forties was very engaging. Then de Kooning takes a fork in that road, and ends up beating Jack the Dripper at his own game. de Kooning’s (mostly) monochromatic work from the fifties is simply magical. I later went downstairs and looked at a couple of iconic Jackson Pollock paintings – which I enjoyed immensely – but de Kooning did it better.

The late work, from the early 1980’s is much better in person than it appears in reproductions. I was reminded of Miles Davis in the 1950’s when he really began to use space in his music. Looking at de Kooning’s work from the 40’s and 50’s was like seeing a million brilliant images, but just as fragments, embedded within those big, swirling paintings. I noticed other spectators also focusing on this, or that, little part of an individual work. Then all that busyness gives way to the white spaces and pastel colors that allow these compositions to breath and relax. Like any master, the beginning and the end share a common idea but find it manifested in very different ways. See it if you can, but drink lots of coffee first.

9/27/11 – de Kooning

Well, looks like the de Kooning exhibit at MOMA (through January 9, 2012) will be the blockbuster of the season. I’ve always enjoyed De Kooning’s work because it feels full of humor. There’s a vivacity to the images – especially the paintings of women (or at least of their shapes) – that’s always been simply a delight to look at.

So, wow, how about all the heavy analysis of the artist’s life? The Financial Times weekend edition (9/24-25/11) has a review titled Tragic Trajectory. While The Smithsonian (October 2011) explains why Willem de Kooning Still Dazzles, though only in certain paintings. ArtNews focused on the legal battles surrounding the artist’s estate (October 2011) and talks, “about not only curators but also dealers, lawyers, collectors, and heirs” in their story Shaping de Koonings Legacy. The Wall Street Journal recommended the show, but in their one-sentence review (Saturday, Sept. 17) they still manage to include that the later works were painted, ”following the onset of dementia.”

Much is made in these articles of de Kooning’s predilection for reckless behavior, alcoholism, philandering (sort of) with a wink-and-nod that these things resulted in dementia (maybe, sort of). This information is mixed-in with some analysis of the surface appearance of the imagery and use – or not – of color and line. This kind of thing doesn’t vex me so much as it causes a sort of melancholy.

Artists are people, like you and me, with all their quirks and warts. I’m not willing to dismiss the work of someone because of their political, religious, misogynistic, sadistic or stupid ideas or actions. The best art comes from a place far removed from these things. And a change of style and imagery over time isn’t a liability but proof that an artist was still plying their trade.

Don’t believe me? Go stand in front of Pink Lady from 1944 and then Woman from 1983 and tell me there’s nothing humorous in de Kooning’s art.

9/25/11 – A square deal

At Sotheby’s September 22 Contemporary Art auction in New York there was a curious variety of works by Sol Lewitt – eleven in all – with four failing to sell. I say curious because of the distinct differences, even among works in the same medium. A nifty little gouache, Bands of Color in Four Directions, beat its high estimate to sell for $15,000. The novelty was that it was executed freehand and as such, it was out of character since it appears unlikely to have actually been a study for one of the many prints from this series. A pen and ink drawing from 1979, 1 2 3 4 6 – 2, almost made it’s high estimate, going for $31,250. I have the artist book made from this series of line drawings and was frankly surprised by the price. Other gouaches and watercolors sold comfortably within estimates, including a classic Lewitt cube and some Forms Derived From a Cube.

The four works that didn’t sell included RECTANGLE OF CHICAGO WITHOUT A RECTANGLE a paper cut-out also from 1979, as well as another Forms Derived From a Cube, from 1984 in pencil and gouache. One of the loopy line paintings couldn’t even make a low estimate of $5,000, going unsold. I’ve never been a fan of the loopy paintings, but I saw prints from this series making better prices early in the summer.

An artist I was quite a fan of back in the 1970’s, Richard Linder, also had eleven works in this auction, mostly drawings and studies. Seven went unsold, perhaps explaining why I don’t encounter his work at auction very often. Finally, Sam Francis had a group of paintings offering mixed sales results. A couple sold at the low end of their estimated range, one went for well over the high estimate and another went unsold. I’ve read some interesting reviews of his performance at auction over the last couple of years and its been suggested he’s undervalued. Hard to tell by these results.

Saw the catalog for an upcoming Sotheby’s evening auction (read; the really expensive stuff) of Contemporary Art in London. Yuck.

9/22/11 – Couldn’t catch a bid

With a couple of small bids in for a big Swann Auction today, I’m left with mixed feelings about the outcome. First, neither of the bids I made on really attractive prints even look serious in retrospect. Second, the works I wanted to bid on, but were just out of reach, had surprisingly different destinies.

I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the works of Sonia Delaunay. A Russian by birth but French by choice, she enjoyed a long career (dying at age 94 in 1979) and produced some delightful abstract geometric work in a multiple of media. Her prints appear regularly at auction, and fall at the low-end of work by equally talented peers. So I took a flyer on Composition with Circles, a 1968 “hors commerce” lithograph, and uncharacteristically bid the low estimate (I’m a confessed bottom-feeder and usually bet less than the minimum). This print had the highest estimate of the six lots offered, and, in my mind, for good reason since it was visually the most appealing. All sold for within the estimated range and two exceeded the top estimate. My brave and daring bid was about half the winning hammer price. Next time I won’t be so timid.

A nifty little Dali lithograph was my other bid, and again, I only bid half the winning price. An interesting 1973 pen and ink by Man Ray – an encore production of an original from 1937 – almost made the high estimate of $15,000. Ray is another artist I’ve noted demonstrating consistent interest from collectors. Surprising to me, an iconic Max Beckmann self-portrait woodcut from 1922 just missed its low estimate of $15,000.

Finally, I’ll just mention the Mondrian. A beautiful pencil drawing from 1917 that was clearly a portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, whether she was the model or not. Not to overuse the term “iconic” but this image is an unassailable Mondrian. The careful modeling in and around the face, the solid arms and hands and the tilt of the elongated face. With a low estimate of $20K it was out of my price range, but I did think long and hard about making a bid. I talked with Jamo about the pro’s and con’s; iconic image versus mediocre condition, solid provenance versus weak impression. It only made $15K, but I’ll assert that the new owner got a bargain.

9/10/11 – Yes, but is it art?

Couldn’t help but notice that an article in ARTnews (September 2011, pages 72-74) and blurb in the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904836104576558541478054946.html?mod=WSJ_LifeStyle_LifestyleArtEnt) talk about the Ellsworth Kelly show now at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve long been a Kelly fan, but not for any reasons easily articulated. I’m sorely tempted to fly out for a look at the show and then sharing some wine with my long serving friend Bruce Peterson while we trade opinions on the exhibit.

Frankly, it’s some of the early black and white stuff (including photographs) and the drawings of leaves and fruit that I find most appealing, though I have an autographed copy of the big book published by Abrams back in 1971 with beautiful tipped-in plates of work in color. I never fail to visit the big, bright contour paintings, The Chicago Panels, at the Art Institute when in Chicago – and if I’m with someone the inevitable question is, “You like those?” Yes. I find the shapes intriguing, the colors delightful and the smooth surfaces, somehow, comforting. And I’ve always thought of them as paintings.

So it was interesting to read that some nearly identical works in Boston, dating from the late 1970’s, are described as sculptures. Made of birchwood, the wood grain is the finished surface. They look terrific but had they been painted bright, primary colors would be indistinguishable from the paintings at the Art Institute. Then there’s the Kelly floor piece, The Green Rocker, at the Walker in Minneapolis, which again strikes me as a painting, even though it’s bent metal laying on the ground. Yet another work at the Walker, Yellow/Red, is called a painting while having the same sculptural aspects as The Chicago Panels and the work now on display in Boston.

All of this is reminiscent of an important takeaway from a Duke Ellington biography I read last weekend. During the later part of his long and distinguished career, Ellington began moving beyond the expectations of his jazz audience as he created music, not jazz. After finishing the book, I purchased a copy of “Such Sweet Thunder,” a collection of songs based on the works of William Shakespeare. Yeah, it’s the Ellington Big Band, but it’s also not what most long-time Ellington fans might expect (and with a bevy of earlier Ellington albums I can say that). Mile Davis later faced a similar conundrum as he moved into his electric phase – the music doesn’t sound like jazz is supposed to. Which leads to jazz critics claiming the music is bad because it doesn’t sound like jazz is supposed to. Maybe there’s a difference between being a player of jazz and being a musician.

Definitions in art of what to call individuals and their collective output should be reconsidered. It’s not clear that Ellsworth Kelly, Sol Lewitt, Red Grooms, Louise Nevelson or Frank Stella can be called painters, or sculptures, or conceptual artists. Maybe there’s a difference between a maker of things and being an artist.

8/19/11 – The bright will shine

With all the talk about big money from China and Russia impacting the art markets, it seemed worth a look around to see what that might mean. Personally, the new stars in the Chinese contemporary art firmament have left me unimpressed. Sorry to stereotype but a lot of “new” work has the dated feeling of old ideas repackaged by artists who appear to be better marketers than artists, with the additional good luck of not being from the U.S.

So I was pleasantly surprised while perusing the results of a Sotheby’s auction earlier this summer (Important Russian Art, London, June 6, 2011 – sale L11111) featuring Russian paintings from 1850 to around 1980. Most of the artists were unfamiliar to me since the extent of my knowledge of significant Russian masters is limited mostly to works by Kazimir Malevich and Sonia Delaunay – both of whom I hold in very high regard. The auction was noted in some unexpected venues (Architectural Digest, September 2011) due to the prices achieved by a relatively obscure turn-of-the-century Russian painter, Vasily Vereschagin.

While it’s difficult to ascertain the ultimate quality of a painting solely from an on-line image, the bright will shine. Vereschagin’s work titled The Taj Mahal, Evening is a stunner and the folks who saw it in person must have felt the same way with a final price of almost $2.3M (this after a pre-sale estimate of just $250-450K). A solid majority of the other lots made the high end of their estimates or more. Several other paintings besides the Vereschagin’s impressed me. The auction results were a stellar performance by any standards, and rightly so.

The Vereschagin paintings really appealed to me and I set about tracking down more of them. This led to the discovery that Vereschagin had been a student of Jean-Leon Gerome, a 19th century painter who I first encountered in art school and remain a huge fan of. Interestingly, it seems that Gerome and Vereschagin had a fatal falling out at some point. Both artists aimed for a realism that while impressive today must have been stunning a hundred years ago. Yet I’ll suggest that Vereschagin moved past Gerome in both subject and technique, finding himself ultimately more of a modern than past master of realism. And without being able to articulate it very well, I think I can see this evolution in the Vereschagin paintings I’ve been able to find on-line. New on my to-do list is check out a Vereschagin painting in real time.

So if the flood of new money from “developing markets” serves to raise the visibility of hitherto unknown masters from obscurity I’m all for it.

8/11/11 – The sound of color

During a recent visit to the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), I spent some time with a painting by Alberto Mijangos. It’s a big, bright, abstract work from 1988 titled “Surrounded By Sound.” http://www.samuseum.org/images/morfeoshow/contemporary-6058/big/11.jpg  As to be expected, the thumbnail from the SAMA web site can’t do the painting justice. It’s worth the price of admission for a look.

What intrigued me this time was a drop of bright red paint in the center of a deep purple rectangle that occupies the upper left hand corner of the painting. This, in turn, led me to actually pay attention to the work’s title and read the accompanying commentary. And now the painting looks different than it did after previous observations.

His comment, “Feel the silence that embraces red” caught me by surprise. A little puzzle, no doubt, that the painting’s title is a reminder of his love of music but implies the dominant feature – the big red cross – is about silence. It occurred to me that Alberto might be talking about the red dot and not the work’s focal point. But that couldn’t be right. Then, while standing there, a series of conversations came back to me.

For a birthday many years ago I gave Alberto a couple of jazz CDs, including “Relaxin with the Miles Davis Quintet.” Alberto was a great fan of music and his eclectic tastes were always interesting to sample. He mentioned more than once how much he enjoyed that particular Miles Davis album because of the response it engendered from folks who were neither jazz fans nor familiar with Davis’ work, “People don’t hear it as jazz, but as just good music.” We discussed Miles well-known use of space in his best music: Rather than playing over the band, he would fill the spaces between the sounds of the other instruments. Yes, all these memories came back to me while once again admiring that painting.

So I’ll suggest that red is full of sound – Alberto’s trumpet – and the dark background embracing the dot and cross is the silence that created an opening for the color of his music.

My mini-Mijangos

(Full disclosure: I am privileged to have known Alberto for a long time as my uncle. In fact, the only one-man show I ever had was a direct result of his encouragement, held at his Blue Door Gallery in 1991. Despite ample opportunities, I only ended up with a single Mijangos in my collection, the small work at right, a 3.5″ x 6.5″ painting of which I am very fond. We had very different tastes in art, leading to interesting and spirited conversations.

Alberto was a man of vast erudition and infinite good humor so getting to a mutually agreed upon “Fabulous” was never too difficult. He is missed.)

7/24/11 – Million dollar baby

The news that Artnet has sold a Warhol through their on-line auction for $1,150,000 engendered mixed emotions. On the one-hand, the idea of democratizing the trade in fine art has taken a big step forward. It was the first time that Artnet has sold a work for more than a million bucks. From their press release, “This sale confirms what we have maintained for a long time at Artnet — that art buyers are willing to buy high-end artworks online,” said Artnet chief executive Hans Neuendorf.

The 1978 painting of blue and green Flowers is a fairly iconic work and this one was well provenanced, coming from a German collection where it has resided since the mid-1990’s.  It might be worth noting that previous big sales on Artnet were also artists with a lot of “pop” appeal like Damien Hirst and Richard Prince.

On the other hand, I’ve managed to find some very attractive buys over the last few years at Artnet (including an original Sol Lewitt drawing from the Incomplete Cube series and a beautiful Max Beckmann etching from 1922) and I suspect that as more people become comfortable purchasing fine art on-line the harder it’s going to become finding those little nuggets of art gold.

Invest-notes has suggested since its humble beginnings that fine art is an asset class well worth considering. For those interested but uncertain, regular visits to www.artnet.com is a good place to begin your research.

7/17/11 – The Odd Couple

Quite the pairing in an exhibit reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303678704576442442140060086.html?mod=ITP_fridayjournal_2

As a long time fan of Nicholas Poussin, I can honestly say that it would not have occurred to me that Cy Twombly was a fan. Comparing an unfailingly iconoclastic abstract expressionist with, for my money, one of the best classical painters of all time is a fascinating idea. And this is the last show in which Twombly will take an active role since he died on July 5. With the exhibit on display in London it is unlikely I’ll get to see it. A pity because it should prove quite thought provoking.

Twombly is an artist I’ve liked and disliked for many years. On some days his weakest efforts seem brilliant. On other days his best paintings seem pointless, or worse, like some kind of elaborate joke. I’ve bid on a couple of Twombly’s prints in recent auctions but have yet to win one.

Poussin was a creator of beautiful, and more importantly, often mysterious paintings of a classical age that never really existed. His striking use of color has always impressed me. There was even a crazy book written a many years ago explaining how one of Poussin’s most well-known painting, Et in Arcadia ego, held the key to a fortune that was later discovered by a poor, rural French priest. Mysterious, indeed.

7/13/11 – Minneapolis rising

Had the good fortune during a recent visit to Minneapolis with Conrad to reconnect, face-to-face, with some long-serving, long-distance friends who also happen to be highly regarded artists whose career trajectories are deservedly ascending.

Enjoying a museum tour with Frank Gaard was a trip down memory lane I did not expect, nor could have appreciated more. After a pleasant lunch with Frank and his (in every sense) better half Pam, we wandered through the Walker Art Center and looked at some fine work, including, of course, a lovely Frank Gaard painting that has recently been put on display. I had mentioned over lunch that one of my favorite memories from the days when Frank was my professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, were the museum tours Frank did as part of our classes. The man still has the magic; at one point a young museum guard came over and asked Frank to further clarify a point he had made to me about a couple of small canvases. Nobody can provide more meaningful insight to a painting than Frank. http://www.frankgaard.org/blog

As an added bonus, the Sunday edition of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a story about the upcoming retrospective of Frank Gaard at the Walker next January. A well deserved accolade for a thoughtful artist. He might even include one of his paintings that’s been hanging in Conrad’s room for the last decade in the show. Looks like I’ll be back in Minneapolis this spring. http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/125180884.html

Due to extenuating circumstances, all we were able to see of David Rathman’s show at the Weinstein Gallery was his name on the wall. Too bad, because the cab fare was excessive and the work apparently top-notch. http://www.weinstein-gallery.com/exhibits.php?eid=30. Dave has been a good friend since our days working together in a liquor store back in the early 1980’s, and I have amassed a fine collection of his work. With galleries in Los Angeles (http://www.larissagoldston.com/artists/davidrathman/index.aspx), New York and Minneapolis, Dave is on track for a big year – and a well deserved one at that. He has a couple of works currently on display at the Walker, including one also in our collection. A visit to HighPoint Center for Printmaking was terrific (http://www.highpointprintmaking.org/), as was a trip to Dave’s studio.

So does it get any better than collecting artwork by people you know and respect that bring you pleasure every day and keeps the creative spirits flying high? An investment in happiness is highly recommended.

7/5/11 – Da Vinci and Jim Nutt

One of the most beautiful exhibits I’ve seen recently was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago earlier this spring. Essentially a retrospective of the painter Jim Nutt, it was the first public showing of his work in about a decade. As a long time fan of Nutt, and as much as I enjoyed seeing some of the earlier works again, it was the recent portraits that literally took my breath away.

Comparatively intimate in scale, and most accompanied by an original pencil preparatory drawing, the work is masterful. Layers and layers of color applied in ways that created both striking textural patterns and an inner luminosity. These life size portraits of women could easily be dismissed as a “slicker” version of earlier work where faces and figures are distorted to an extreme that is regularly described as grotesque. But the colors and patterns serve to provide focal points that make the imagery playful rather than malicious. Regrettably, the handsome and beautifully printed catalog just can’t do the recent work justice.

(Pure serendipity, but earlier that same day I had wandered through a show at the Art Institute of Chicago of medieval art that included to my absolute delight and surprise a small Madonna and child by Leonardo Da Vinci known as “Virgin with Yarnspinner.” It was the first time this work had been on public display since being purchased by a private collector in the early 1970’s. Even a background reminiscent of the Mona Lisa but poorly executed by assistants, could not diminish the power of the two figures. I was intrigued by the similarities between the Da Vinci and the Nutt portraits, including the bizarre foreshortening on the face of the child, and the luminosity of the Madonna’s face.)

Noticing that the recent paintings were all on loan from private collections, but that several of the pencil drawings were not, I asked a friend “in the business” to look into the cost of acquisition. Turns out the paintings take about 18-months to execute (no surprise there) and the current waiting list of collectors and museums is very long, even with prices approaching $250K. The drawings were also out of my price range. So it should not have come as any surprise when the Shelf Sale closing out the spring season at Swann Galleries saw an early Jim Nutt etching make the second highest price of all items.

First, a shelf sale is typically a collection of work that for one reason or another isn’t of a high enough caliber to make one of the bigger auctions. Usually it’s an issue of condition, but for those of us with smaller budgets, it’s also an opportunity to pick-up works we couldn’t otherwise afford (like the beautiful Salvador Dali hanging in Conrad’s room).

The on-line catalog had an image of the Nutt image that looked like it was damaged and discolored. Titled, “I’m not stopping,” it was a small etching from an edition of 50 and looked to date to the 1980’s. Estimate was $800 to $1,200 and I made a note to make a bid, but got distracted as well as being put-off by the photo, concerned about the possible extent of damage. Seems that worry was not an issue as the work went for $3,840. I have to believe the show in Chicago had to be a driver of the price realized for this little print. As an aside, the auction had good participation with the only block of works to go unsold being contemporary works of the Nutt piece.

6/22/11 – Properly speaking, the Crisis is in Criticism

In conjunction with an exhibition celebrating the 50th year of his death, a handsome monograph was published in 1994 providing a comprehensive overview of Piet Mondrian’s career. Beginning with the early figurative works the show ended with his iconic grid paintings. Despite their cultural impact (from classic New Yorker magazine cartoons to packaging for shampoo products) Mondrian’s painting are now largely consigned to the quieter areas of museums, curious relics of a time when art still had a power to inspire intense emotional responses.

On page 253 of the monograph is a beautiful painting from 1932 titled Composition B; Composition with Double Line and Yellow and Gray. This work would be immediately recognizable by anyone having taken an introduction to art history class. On the facing page is another painting from 1932, Composition with Yellow and Blue. The paintings are essentially the same with two seemingly minor differences. In Composition B a horizontal line bisecting the painting appears as two thin parallel lines instead of a single bold line; and the blue square is now gray. Mondrian is well known for working variations of a theme to determine the optimal balance of design and harmony in his paintings. In fact, his oeuvre is typically segmented by the themes he so diligently worked through.

So it was a surprise to read the commentary about Composition B: “The doubling of the line, an apparently simple gesture, created an immediate crisis in Mondrian’s art.” A crisis? Over a career spanning fifty years, the man went from painting cows and windmills in traditional Dutch landscapes, to cubist, pointillist and fauve works. True to stereotype, Mondrian’s failure to gain a paying audience left him more than once having to choose between food and paint. Now that sounds like a crisis.

Monrian then moves to increasingly abstract representations of natural elements, evolving into geometric grids, with and without blocks of color. In his later signature works of black lines accented with squares of primary color, to his final painting where the lines contain the color blocks – and all this on canvases big and small, hung traditionally or with the corners oriented to the floor and ceiling. Mondrian’s was a career filled with ideas considered radical for each subsequent period.

At the time of Composition B Mondrian was 60 years old, in poor health and, for all intent and purposes, still just a struggling artist. With the winds of war once again blowing hot across Europe, Mondrian would soon be on his way to America, via Great Britain, where he would again confound those who tut-tutted about his best work being behind him. Mondrian was an early enthusiast of the work of Jackson Pollock, commenting at one point to Peggy Guggenheim, that Pollock’s action paintings were some of the most interesting work he’d seen in a long time. The idea of motion finds its way into Mondrian’s final phase of output, the Boogie Woogie paintings, where the line goes from static to rhythmic. Coinciding with his arrival in New York City at age 70, Mondrian was still breaking ground, moving methodically toward new ways of using line and space without sacrificing form and structure. His last monumental painting remained unfinished at his death at age 72.

The point of critical studies – criticism as a vocation – is to provide a context within which things that are unfamiliar to us can be better understood, or at least appreciated. Sensationalism serves only to distract from the subject itself. Exploring the origins and, more importantly, the significance of artwork demands a focused intellectual rigor, and preferably one that can communicate ideas instead of clichés (my “winds of war” comment not withstanding).

6/19/11 Kenny Karcher

Though I’m the guy that won all the awards in school, graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, went on to exhibit internationally and should have been expected to be the artist in our family, things didn’t, as often happens, work out as planned.

So my younger brother Kenny, the one with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and more physical limitations than people like you and me can conceive of enduring, is the artist in our family, http://www.kennethkarcher.com/. Canadian potter Tony Clennell, a friend of our Mom’s, wrote an interesting descriptions of what Kenny has managed to achieve, and I share it with you here, http://smokieclennell.blogspot.com/2011/06/heart-of-texas.html.

6/18/11 Paul Klee and Sol Lewitt

For no particular reason I bought a handsome catalog of Paul Klee works printed in conjunction with an exhibit at Guggenheim Museum (May 7 to September 19, 1993). Fairly limited in scope, featuring works mostly from the Guggenheim’s own collection, it did manage to convey the breadth of styles that Klee worked through, from adolescence to his early death. An inveterate experimenter, Klee used some pretty unconventional methods to create original works, as well multiples and prints. From sophisticated uses of color (I didn’t know that Joseph Albers was a student of Klee’s) to the more primitive, and childlike imagery that he is most widely known for, the guy did some really fine work. As a bonus, Cece (the ever gracious, always smiling, proprietor of Cheever Books) gave me a pocketbook of Klee paintings (pages were falling out, so it wasn’t sellable), which included works from other collections, including some paintings the Guggenheim catalog mentioned, but didn’t reproduce.

But the “A-Ha” moment came with two works in particular. The first was a pen and ink drawing from a Bauhaus course catalog (1929), “Five Part, Polyphony.” The second was a later painting (1939), “Rocks at Night.” Both were precursor’s – whether Lewitt ever acknowledged them or not – of Sol Lewitt. This suggestion is not to in any way intended to diminish the originality of Lewitt’s work.

I was reminded of the great (well, actually, everything he wrote was great) essay by Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka and His Precursors. Borges reflected on the phenomenon of similarities of early sources to later ones that only become clear in retrospect. In other words, to use Borges example, the relationship of writings by Zeno to those of Kafka, don’t appear until after Kafka writes something that is reminiscent of Zeno. Kafka doesn’t set out to imitate or expand on the work of Zeno, it just appears that way upon a superficial glance at the two. Similarly, Lewitt took some heat in the early 1970’s when his “Circles, Grids, Arcs,” series culminated (logically) with drawings similar to the works of a French artist, Francois Morrellet.

So here in the Klee oeuvre was a drawing, Polyphony, of straight lines in four directions, many converging and overlapping, creating an image reminiscent of, but completely different from, Lewitt’s many versions of his “Lines in Four Directions.” Then the beautiful blue painting, Rocks, which could hardly appear more alike to some of Lewitt’s “Irregular Shapes” images.

And where is this line of thought heading? Some of the most beautiful of the Klee paintings in the Guggenheim catalog look like carbon copies of Australian Aboriginal Dream paintings. Prints reminiscent of recent work by Jim Nutt are obvious. The similarities of some Klee drawings to the work of Milton Avery and Ben Shahn is striking. Like Lewitt’s intersection with Morrellet, it’s fascinating to see people converging at the same point even though they start from very different places and follow divergent paths.

6/17/11    And so it begins…

There’s no reason an investment can’t be enjoyed for more than its monetary value, like an exotic vacation home or a beautiful piece of jewelry. I derive great pleasure from fine art and antiquities. As an art collector my interests tend to focus on artists I studied, or learned about, while in college (Minneapolis College of Art and Design).  Works by Sol Lewitt and Ed Ruscha make up the bulk of my collection, but prints by Chuck Close, Red Grooms, Frank Stella, Dave Rathman and Max Beckmann also hold places of prominence on my walls. Additionally, other works on paper include some beautiful Fourth Century Coptic papyrus, pages from medieval manuscripts and incunabula, antiquarian books, antique maps and a handsome engraving by Albrecht Durer that I’ve admired since childhood.

As Rob likes to joke, real art collectors buy paintings while wanna-be’s dabble in prints. Though I can accept that as a generalization, my college career began in printmaking so I know that many important artists, Lewitt and Ruscha being good examples, deliberately create multiples as distinct work unrelated to other artistic output: The print is the artwork, not a copy of one.  Additionally, there’s a whole subset of contemporary artwork on paper beyond prints and drawings, like artist’s books, posters and ephemera from which I also derive great joy.

Lately I’ve been watching things like the antics of Damien Hirst, and the price movement of Gerhard Richter’s many phases of output through the art market. Over the last couple of years I’ve become intrigued with what’s happening among the current breed of superstar artists and collectors – now including a lot of Chinese. And as curious as I find the work of guys like Hirst (and Julian Schnabel comes to mind as a precursor), it certainly appears that a lot of the multiples are primarily intended to generate income. No judgment here; watching a painting sold for a few thousand dollars later change hands at auction for hundreds of thousands, of which the artist gets nothing, has got to be painful. Paint and canvas ain’t cheap (nor, in the case of Hirst, is formaldehyde). But still, a diamond encrusted human skull, really?

Swann (http://www.swanngalleries.com/index.cgi) holds two contemporary art auctions each year featuring mostly prints, and the occasional work-on-paper, that tends to include most of the major artists. Wanted to share some interesting results from the Swann Contemporary Art auction on June 9, 2011.

The Swann 2010 fall auction of contemporary art didn’t include any work by Sol Lewitt, but the auction last week featured an interesting assortment of both print and originals. A couple of signature woodblock prints of colored bands in four directions, a screenprint of random strokes, two (lightweight) abstract gouaches and a color linoleum cut of distorted cubes provided a solid variety of Lewitt works on paper. The “bands of lines in four directions (square)” exceeded the high estimate (and my bid) to go for $3,600. I’ve seen a couple of similar works fail to sell recently in secondary markets and consider this sale to be very positive. The other works all fell comfortably within pre-sale estimates, with one gouache making $12,000.

As a side note, at Sotheby’s this spring, a couple of Lewitt sculptural works didn’t sell – including an incomplete cube, 8/5, estimated at around $400,00 – while a really handsome structure, 9B, went for almost a quarter million bucks, nearly double the high estimate. During 2010 at the major auction houses, most Lewitt’s sold at the high end of estimates, with the structures typically exceeding high estimates. The market trends seem to remain pretty solid for Lewitt right now.

There were some terrific prints from Ruscha’s Insects series that I was tempted to bid on but didn’t (I own Slant Ant). As usual, all the Ruscha’s sold for prices within the estimates. My friend Lawrence, who’s in the business, has counseled me to avoid purchasing individual prints that were originally part of a series (like Slant Ant).

Even Architectural Digest recently commented on auctions where Hirst screenprints had failed to sell, so it was no surprise that three of six works – including an oil on canvas with collage – failed to find buyers. The other three went near their low estimates. Last fall at Swann, only two of five works offered were sold. And this auction, none of the works by Richter were bought, even a 1969 lithograph I considered bidding on.

Other sales of note (for me) included a 1982 screenprint by Bridget Riley that solidly topped the high estimate going for $9,000 and a Wayne Thiebaud litho, Sorbet, which also blew past the high estimate selling for $9,600. A curious little Ellsworth Kelly black-and-white screenprint, Untitled, made $1,560 – another I considered bidding on. Overall, demand seemed firm and there appeared to be fewer unsold items than in the fall auction.

2 Responses to Art-Notes

  1. Alex Condos says:

    Well Chris, I envy your productivity and push and high level of interest required to sit down and write all this stuff!

    As regards buying art online, I may be really old and out of touch but I just can’t see this being a very big market share kind of thing.

    Kenny being an artist – it’s so ironic the way the mind and body work and how some of the most brilliant people in the world are in other ways the most limited by their physical and social ineptness or by their addictions and/or depression.

    • Thanks for the comments, Alex.

      You are correct, big-ticket on-line fine art purchases are unlikely to become a sizable market. But the art market itself is pretty small and it just seems to me that this is one more harbinger of change in a place where the Internet has always been deemed unlikely to intrude.

      Your kind words about Kenny are appreciated.
      Chris K

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *