Sunday, June 26, 2016

Currents 2016

Late to the party yet again but we were not in town for most of this show which lasted just 3 weeks.  Every year there is a New Media show with artists from all over the world.  See my Missive from last year.  The most important thing to repeat is that New Media is a 21st century term that translates as where art meets technology.  This means that it is much more interactive than a traditional art exhibition and could not be more different.

The main show is always at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe known simply as El Museo.  Located in a former warehouse, the organization has a large permanent collection of art from local and international artists which is rotated regularly in a small gallery but the larger space is available for outside fairs.  They also have a black box theater.

Going into the Currents exhibition I find a disorienting experience because you go into a totally black space lighted only by the individual exhibits, which are usually moving and flashing everywhere.  Since I am not as steady on my feet as I once was, I walk very gingerly.  Then like an oasis you encounter an exhibit that intrigues and usually there are chairs or even a couch you can observe from.  If only more traditional museums and exhibitions would learn from this.  Often there are earphones for audio connected to the exhibit which I find sometimes adds and sometimes detracts from what I am watching.

This little Robot roaming around, it seemed within a limited radius suddenly grabbed my leg!
It let go quickly but I was surprised.  In fact I totally forgot to look at the label to identify the artist!   When I returned to the exhibition a few days later the tank shaped robot was not there but I learned it was also the Currents’ mascot and its name was Stanley made by Michael Schipling of Santa Fe.

“Nowhere Near” (2015) by Sarah Choo Jing  from Singapore is a bit easier than some to relate to.  Here are two street scenes where you have to look everywhere in the moving image or you might miss something.  In the first you see some action in two places and in the second part the only action is a woman in a window who I believe is washing her hair in the shower.  There are other scenes as well which force the viewer to concentrate and keep looking at the image in order not to miss something.

A new technology has arrived in the last few years at least commercially speaking and that is Virtual Reality.  With the right goggles and video you can look at a 3D image not only in front of you but also all around as well as above and below by simply moving your head and turning around.   As this develops it will bring us some fascinating material which could scare the hell out of us in a horror movie or help in our understanding of an historical event.  What knowledge you could absorb and observe if you could be in the middle of the second Continental Congress of July 2, 1776 and knowing the Declaration of Independence was going to be issued on July 4, listening to the arguments both pro and con about separating ourselves from the Crown!  There were several virtual reality experiences to be had at Currents.  I watched “Hypnagogic Hympnopompia” (2015) by Reilly Donovan of Seattle, Washington.  At first I thought the title was nonsense syllables, but, thanks to Google, I learned that it had to do with hallucinations during sleep.  This made sense as I as saw objects floating and moving all around me.  You need goggles and earphones to get the full effect but here is a video showing how you could use your hands to move around the scene.

We went with an old friend from New York, a museum designer who has worked at museums around the world, Clifford LaFontaine.  He found many of the entries rather superficial and not original.  I have picked as an example “New Millennium Workout Routine” (2014) by Yaloo from Chicago, a parody on our obsession with exercise.

Clifford’s favorite was by Yang Yongliang “Code and Noise: Rising Mist” courtesy of Duval Contemporary.  The video image is done in the traditional style of Chinese painting and calligraphy.  It is about “the devastating effects of uncontrolled urbanization and Industrialization” but it also resembles a traditional Chinese landscape painting.  In my short video there is not enough time to see how the mist starts to rise eventually enveloping the entire landscape.  You can see, however the 3 waterfalls and at the lower left the cars on the highway and the bridge.  You will probably spot moving images I have missed.

I have always believed that art is a qualitative term and just being able to put paint on canvas or throwing a pot does not make one an artist.  The work has to reach a certain inspirational level.  I am still working on how much of what I saw at Currents qualifies but the search has been enjoyable.  Next year we will have to get to some of the other Currents events all around town.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation may have moved from its lovely property in Lower Merion Township near Philadelphia, but it has not gotten any easier to deal with than when Albert Barnes himself ran the show with his odd art historical ideas.  

At that time the Barnes was at its original site and one could enjoy the eccentricity of a very wealthy collector, Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951).  See my Missive from the last time I was there.  But to move it and do the same thing to a new building in Philadelphia just frustrated me.  I understand that the judge in the case acted in his King Solomon capacity allowing the move but insisting that every work of art remain in the same position as it was in Barnes' last instillation.  Since the latter moved his pictures around regularly I am not sure what the judge thinks he achieved.  Barnes did not have enough room to install all his paintings so some will remain in storage?!  Too bad the Judge did not leave well enough alone and keep the Barnes in the house that the collector and his wife had built for it.

This time the pictures became a cacophony of images for me.  Barnes had a very interesting eye and for some artists such as Cezanne and Matisse it could not be better.  This is also true for Picasso and Gauguin.  Unfortunately, it does not hold true for Renoir and while there are a few decent ones there are over 150 small truly dreadful potboilers which are heavily interspersed with some gems. 

One of the great Gauguins was placed between two Prendergasts making the latter seem like a mediocre artist, which I don't think he is.  The installation that bothered me the most was in gallery 1 where the great Seurat, “Les Poseurs” (The Models) was placed above the great Cezanne, The Card Players, so one could appreciate neither!

Barnes would not allow labels so they get around that with an audio guide as well as printed guides in each gallery.  Also, since Barnes wanted no interference from art historians whom he discouraged from coming to the Barnes, the printed guide mentions tentative re-attributions after Barnes's original designations.

What would have been wrong with limiting the number of people allowed in any one day into the old Barnes?  The people of Lower Merion enjoyed complaining about the tour busses but then protested when the Barnes was moved. 

The truth of the matter is that it was a battle between two titans.  Walter Annenberg (1908-2002)  and Albert Barnes, and since Annenberg lived longer, he won!  If you don't believe me, a huge atrium at the new Barnes, suitable for large parties, which brings in revenue, bears the Annenberg name who, of course, contributed a great deal of money to the entire effort!

I have the temerity to suggest that I could, on my own, turn the new Barnes into a first class museum without having to acquire a single work of art and by just changing the installation.  How wonderful it would be to show all the great masterpieces, and there are many, on the first floor and then use as much space as needed for all the Renoirs on the second floor with one important one in each gallery so that you could see the changes during various periods of the artist’s life.  I would put sculpture, possibly with the silver and pewter decorative arts, in their own galleries as well, rather than sky them high on the walls where they look like mere adornments or relegated assortments to mixed vitrines.

Pablo Picasso, “Child Seated in an Armchair"

Years, in this case half a century, after someone has died the world has  changed, following their wishes to the letter can very well do a disservice to their legacy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Main Point Books

My daughter, Cathy, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a combined major in English and Economics.  She then took her LSAT's for law school because she was not sure what she wanted to do after college.  She did well on the test but as Cathy put it,  "the essay on my law school  application 'why do you want to be a lawyer?' saved me”!

Instead Cathy got a job at a prestigious  public relations company, Hill & Knowlton.  Not satisfied with her well paying job and nice office, she went on for her MBA at Wharton Business school and got a job at Lever Brothers where she was given a cubical from which to market soap products.   Proving her father wrong yet again, she made back her tuition and lost salary within the year!

Like so many women of her generation she then left the labor force and went on to bear two sons, Joshua and Matthew.  As they reached junior high and high school she would pick up small jobs here and there using her business school skills and worked for her kids school in development.

Cathy loved to read from a very young age and always had her face in a book even in the bathtub!    When her boys were old enough to take care of themselves, it was only natural for her to follow her dream and open a book store.  Happily, throughout this process her husband, Jon, who is in the financial world, was there to support her and give her intelligent advice.

Photo by Dan Stiebel

Now her business degree came in handy.  The first question to answer was where to open the bookstore.  She lives in one of the towns outside Philadelphia and  wanted it to be within easy driving distance of home and find an area where she could depend on people interested in books.  She hit upon Bryn Mawr where there's are several colleges and the last book store, a Barnes & Noble, had closed 18 months before.  Her shop was lovely but modest, with little room for expansion.  We have been in a few times and It did have a wonderful selection of books.  In fact I was surprised to see that the Native American writer, Sherman Alexie had books in 3 different sections of her shop.   I have sent a few people from New York and even Santa Fe there who loved it and particularly Cathy's expert counsel on book selection, either for an individual or as a gift.

Photo by Matt Godfrey

Unfortunately, there is not enough going on in the area to bring the the foot traffic desired to Bryn Mawr's Lancaster Avenue.  When Cathy learned about a larger space in the nearby town of Wayne she went to see it.   There she found that the new space was larger and on a street with 4 restaurants and the movie theater emptied out a couple of doors down.  If you come in by train and walk into town you have to pass the new Main Point Books. This will all add up to far more foot traffic!  Her husband was also encouraging the expansion.  They both knew that if you don't grow you shrink. She went for it! 

Here is an interview Cathy gave about her book store and the opening of the new one:

In the extra space she is not going to put in the proverbial coffee bar but rather make more room for books and an expanded space for people to come and attend the more than 100 programs she has a year for book groups, children’s book readings and  authors signing their books and talking about them.

Main Point Books in Wayne is not quite ready yet.  It is scheduled to open on July 25 with the official celebration of its new home on Sunday, July 31 ... with a midnight launch party for the new Harry Potter Script, the play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

“The Improbability of Love” by Hannah Rothschild

Hannah Rothschild is the daughter of Lord Jacob Rothschild. And her first novel is an exciting satire on the art world called, “The Improbability of Love”.  She comes from the perfect world to write on this subject.

Allow me to digress, should you find yourself in England with a craving for French culture you need not cross the channel but visit Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschild residence that is now a museum, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, a one hour train trip from London.

I remember going there with my cousin Raphael Rosenberg who was working with Dorothy de Rothschild, known as Dolly, the widow of Baron James de Rothschild.  The land was originally farmland, which Baron Ferdinand purchased in 1874 to build the palace and gardens and was inherited by Baron James.  Raphael was assisting Dolly with an appraisal for the family and that is when I was allowed to come along.  I don’t remember the name of the curator who showed us around but he was known as the Colonel.  Waddesdon was turned over to the government as a trust house but Dolly supervised the opening of the ground floor slowly opening more and more of the palace until her death in 1988.  What a treat it was for me as a student to get up close and personal with the works of art with no crowds and no ropes holding us back.  Going back since has been wonderful but never quite the same!  In this short video you can see a few of the treasures from the house.

Waddesdon may now belong to the Nation, but it is administered by the Rothschild Charitable Trust overseen by Lord Jacob Rothschild.  You can see why the daughter of this philanthropist and art lover who continues to buy works of art for Waddesdon, and is herself on the board of the National Gallery in London, is perfectly equipped to write on the art world.

The novel includes a wonderful cast of characters.  At its heart is a young woman, Annie, whose aspiration is to become a great chef.  She buys a painting in a junk shop for an unrequited love and does not know what to do with it when she is stood up.  The hero of the piece is the painting itself, which is not shy to tell the highs and low points of its life.  It has lived in some of the great palaces of Europe but dwells on its owners such as Catherine the Great and Napoleon.  We learn that the painting is by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) the artist that brought to the fore, the fĂȘte champĂȘtre, scenes of elaborate garden parties with plenty of frolicking most popular at the French Court.

Antoine Watteau, Wallace Collection

The picture refers to itself as "Moi", me in French, its first language.  “Moi” being from pre-revolutionary France, French phrases slip in every once in a while.

Annie wants to get rid of the picture but her alcoholic mother who has moved in with her daughter believes there is merit in the work and therein lies the plot.  How do you authenticate a painting?  What role does the condition of the picture have and what is it worth?

Believing in “Moi” Annie's mother, Evie, wants to investigate further and stuffs the painting into a plastic shopping bag, to take it to the Wallace Collection.  “Moi” complains bitterly that this is just not on for such an important picture, though no one knows this for sure at this point in the plot.  At the Wallace Evie takes the picture out of the bag and starts comparing it to paintings on the walls.

Nicolas Lancret, Wallace Collection

The picture shares the title with the book, “The Improbability of Love”, though never spelled out the theme appears in a number of the relationships including between Annie and Jesse, an artist and tour guide she meets at the Wallace Collection.  Jesse tries to teach Annie how to learn more about her painting.  They visit his friend the conservator at the National Gallery and he tells her to visit the drawings room at the British Museum.  On her own she visits the expert art historian who declares the masterpiece a fake.  Every stop both advances the plot and teaches something about the art world.

Like any good novel on the art market there is a “Nazi War Loot” angle and, of course, the inevitable auction.  The exaggerated motives for all the high and mighty to bid at the auction are hilarious, such as the President of France who feels it is a matter of French pride to repatriate this lost masterpiece and the Prime Minister of England wants to buy it just to spite the French, the Russian Oligarch wants to impress his girl friend, and the old dowager wants to liquidate her late husband’s foundation for this one last great purchase.

In between we get a number of lessons from “Moi” as well, such as his fear of the restorer as they can so easily damage his surface. There is the esthete Barty who shows the expatriate Russian what he can do to demonstrate his love for his girl friend.  The irrepressible Barty also tells the director of the National Gallery who complains that he has no time to look at art because he has meetings with Union leaders and lunches and dinners with prospective donors that he  is not alone -- the great  Renaissance sculptor “Donatello couldn’t pick up a chisel without Cosimo de Medici bursting into his studio.”

The most hilarious part of the book is probably at the end when you hear how all the characters ended up.  My intention, however, with this Missive is to encourage those interested in the Old Master world to read or listen to “The Improbability of Love”.  So no more spoilers!