HANDS DOWN: Nicolas de Largillière

NICOLAS DE LARGILLIÈRE (French, 1656-1746)

Hand gestures function as kind of a shorthand in 18th-century French portraiture. They are summary indicators of the subject’s station, qualities and character, which are set forth in full in the expository longhand of costume, facial features and setting.

These details taken from portraits by Nicolas de Largillière (French, 1656-1746).


1984: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was already well-known in the SoHo art world and downtown club scene as a member of the graffiti art collective called SAMO, but his first show at Mary Boone in 1984 marked his arrival as A-list artist whose sought-after paintings commanded high prices.

Basquiat’s work was immediately and warmly received by dealers, critics, and collectors because it was imbued with the conventions of high modernism to the same degree it was informed by the street. His middle-class family had encouraged his talents and supported his art education so that when he began spray painting walls in lower Manhattan, he was already self-conscious about the place his medium and style occupied within a tradition. Basquiat’s dual-citizenship in both the street and the gallery and his fluency in the visual languages of both high and low art, effectively neutralized charges of dilettantism and of selling out.

Although Basquiat ceased to be a graffiti artist when SAMO disbanded in 1981, the iconography and graphic style of street art were carried over to his studio art. More importantly, the ability to address the public directly through language and image, in an improvised, rhetorical manner allowed Basquiat to present politically-charged content with a low-key confidence and authority honed by practice. The 1980s were notorious for the proliferation of unenlightening politicized art and for ugly racial confrontations, yet Basquiat’s work was able to speak persuasively and compellingly to major historical and cultural issues like the legacy of slavery, racial inequality and identity politics not because he was a man of color (an essentialist fallacy that marred much of the political art made by his contemporaries), but because he had five years of experience in public speaking before he began making politically-charged art.

Understanding the rhetorical nature of Basquiat’s art helps to explain why his collaborations with mentor (and landlord) Andy Warhol were not successful. Warhol’s impersonal use of found and reproduced imagery derived its power not from addressing the public from a position outside of it with the intent to persuade, but by appropriating the imagery and passive point of view of that public for ironic and subversive purposes. Next to Basquiat’s discursive engagement and bravura painterly style, Warhol’s contributions seemed anemic and evasive.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in New York City on 12 August 1988, at the age of 28. On 13 May 2013, Basquiat’s Dustheads (1982) was sold at a Christie’s auction for a record $48.8 million.

ART OF THE 1980s

1980 – Cindy Sherman

1981 – Robert Longo

1982 – Keith Haring

1983 – Barbara Kruger

1984 – Jean-Michel Basquiat


I hate parasitical art bureaucracies. I hate nonprofit organizations. I love willful rich people who are obsessed with art. The context always determines the meaning of a work of art (The New York Times, 6 July 2012).

The phenomenon of art fairs taking over the art world does not bother me. I find the brutality of the current art market refreshing, especially when compared with the hypocrisy of the museums, and the pretentiousness of the academic world. All the old art distinctions have broken down. Collectors are dealers. Consultants are curators. Galleries are museums and museums are auction houses (Art in America, 1 May 2014).


In his history of early Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus credits the success of the empire not the heroics of Aeneas, republican rectitude, or the virtues of the emperor, but to unglorious feats of civil engineering:

The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains.

Roman Antiquities, 3.67.5

The citizens of the great cities of the Roman Empire viewed public amenities like baths, fountains, latrines and sewers as indices of civilization that distinguished them from barbarians. Those amenities were dependent on an abundant and regular supply of clean water, usually in excess of local supplies. Water from distant elevated regions were brought into the city via aquaeductus (aquae = waters; ductus = led, directed), or aqueduct. At itThe aqueduct system consisted mainly of underground pipes and tunnels, but occasionally to maintain the correct elevation and grade, or to ovecome a topographical obstacle like a ravine or valley, the water had to be carried above ground over bridges.

The overland aqueduct spans are the product of two building technologies invented by the Romans—the arch and concrete. Unlike the Greek post and lintel system, the arch supported much greater weights and spanned longer distance. Whereas the Greeks essentially piled cut stone into stacks to make walls and columns, the Roman mixed rubble with quicklime and water into concrete, which could be moulded into whatever shaped the tensile strength of the aggregate would bear. The combination of the arch and concrete made the gigantic structures of the empire possible, including the aqueduct, which is a sequence of arches, or arcade, made of concrete covered with stone or brick revetment. The aqueduct system, in turn, quadrupled the water supply into Rome, enabling its rapid expansion and causing its population to rise due to the health benefits of fresh, running water.

Water traveled along a deep trench at the top of the arcades, which was often covered to prevent evaporation and contamination. Deep valleys and ravines could be spanned and rivers traversed by bridges composed of superimposed arcades, without fear of wind sheer or currents. Some of the more elaborate spans, such as the Pont-du Gard in Provence have roads and walkways added at different levels allowing them to serve as roadway bridges as well as aqueducts. In the city, the aqueducts were incorporated into the city walls, the arch openings serving as gateways. The attic story of the Porta Maggiore in Rome carried water from two separate aqueducts, the Aqua Anio Vetus and the Aqua Claudia, both of which originated near Agosta, some 67km away. The Aqua Claudia, begun by Caligula and finished by Claudius in A.D. 47 delivered 185,000 cubic meters of water everyday, 20% of the city’s supply.

When the water reached the city it emptied into a castellum, a large cistern on a hill; from there ceramic or lead pipes directed the water to the various access points. In ancient Rome, water was free and no one had to walk more than 150 feet to the nearest public fountain. Waste waters from latrines and baths and rain water emptied into the cloaca or underground sewer system which emptied into the Tiber at a point just south of they city. The 260 miles of aqueduct supplying Rome were overseen by the curator aquarum, appointed by the Emperor.

SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND IV: The Treppenhaus of the Würzburg Residenz

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In his first year as Court architect and engineer, Johann Balthasar Neumann was charged with designing and building a new Residenz, in Würzburg, from the ground up, for the Prince-Bishops of Schönbrunn. As Neumann was often called away to other projects, his plans were carried out mostly by architects favored by the Prince-Bishop’s uncle and brother, including Lucas von Hildebrandt, Maximilian von Welsch and Germain Boffrand. The stone and masonry exterior was completed in 1744; the interior of the 300-room palace was finished in 1770. After Neumann’s death in 1753, Hildebrandt, Welsch and Boffrand each took full credit for the Residenz’s design in its entirety.

Neumann oversaw the building and decoration of the most important spaces in the Residenz, the suite of formal and ceremonial rooms and antechambers through which visitors passed on their way from the carriage entrance on the ground level to the Kaisersaal on the upper, where the Prince-Bishop would receive them. The centerpiece of this progression is the Treppenhaus, built in 1737. The grand, indoor staircase is the cold-climate equivalent of the double-ramp stairways seen on the exteriors of Italian villas.

Neumann had to get guests up one floor in a manner befitting their rank, without taxing them physically, and while preparing them, step-by-step, as it were, for the magnificence of the Prince-Bishop. Neumann devised a scheme whereby the two stages of the stair, which reverses direction at midpoint, forms a cantilever, allowing the huge mass of stone to be carried on think columns, giving the impression it floats on the air. In Rococo Bavaria, one did not climb or mount the stair, one ascended, drifting upwards towards the vast pastel empyrean above.

The entire span of the Treppenhaus (18m x 30m) is covered by a vast vault composed of rubble and concrete that has no supports other the the walls it rides on. Neumann’s critics warned of collapse; the vault is not only still intact today
, it survived direct hits during the Allied bombing of Würzburg on 16 May 1945, which largely destroyed the old city and much of the Residenz. Neumann made use the vault’s weight, the downward thrust of which clamps the cantilever in place at both ends. By engaging the staircase to the wall the staircase acts as a strainer arch would, countering the tendency of the walls to buckle under the load of the vault. It is a mutually-reinforcing structural solution of great elegance.

A second Treppenhaus of equal dimensions was planned for the other side of the Kaisersaal, but was never begun.

The Treppenhaus vault was frescoed by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1752-53. Measuring 670m², it is the largest painting in the world painted by the highest-paid artist of the 18th century ( Tiepolo was paid 15,000 gulden, for his work at the Residenz, over 13 times the annual salary Neumann drew from his court  appointment). The fresco represents an allegory of the the world, represented by the four continents no less, paying  tribute to the Brince-Bishop. The fresco includes a portrait of Neumann, dressed in his Officer’s uniform, seated on a canon. A trompe l’oeil dog sniffs at his outstretched hand. Canon and dog must have been inside jokes between the painter and architect. Balthasar Neumann died in Würzburg just as Tiepolo was finishing the fresco, in the late summer of 1753.


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The firmly held and frequently articulated convictions of Clyfford Still (American, 1904-1980) concerning the expressive power and transcendent purpose of advanced art (or his art, the two terms being synonymous in his personal lexicon), are indicative of the high seriousness of Abstract Expressionism in general, and emblematic of the existential heroics of one particular strain:

I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be revealed with clarity. … Therefore, let no man undervalue the implications of this work or its power for life;—or for death, if it is misused (Albright-Knox Art Gallery Exhibition Catalogue,1959).

He also felt that his work was “engaged in that which exalts the spirit of man.” Even the most vain and self-promoting of artists working today would hesitate to make such claims for their work.

The imperious mode of address, scriptural cadences, lofty abstractions and verbosity of Still’s pronouncements bring to mind the fatuous voice-over narrations of government propaganda films and 150-page speeches made by Ayn Rand characters. After 15 years of listening to self-congratulatory, delusional artists like Still issuing solemn screeds composed of platitudes, one readily understands why the laconic, know-nothing, disengaged irony of Pop Art was so quickly accepted as the new dominant paradigm in the early 1960s.

I had made it clear that a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation. (Letter to the Editor, Artforum, December, 1963.)

Still is the Charlton Heston of Abstract Expressionism, a rugged, individualistic and uncompromising trailblazer, entirely unencumbered by self-awareness. Born in North Dakota in 1904, a place where “you either stood up and lived or laid down and died,” as he put it, he was one generation away from pioneers, covered wagons and the Sioux wars, and his authentic, frontier roots became a conspicuous feature of his self-mythologizing (Robert Hughes called him the “prairie Coriolanus”). If, however, Still is to be understood in terms of pop culture clichés about “the west,” he risks the comparison of his gigantic, dramatic, craggy, topographical paintings, executed in a painted desert palette, to imitation cowhide and souvenir-stand Indian blankets.

To be stopped by a frame’s edge is intolerable, a Euclidian prison, it had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated without dissolving one’s individual integrity and idea in material and mannerism. (Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art Exhibition Catalogue, 1963)

Still thought very few people were worthy of owning his creations and over the course of his career sold only 150 paintings—about 6% of his entire output—to carefully vetted collectors and museums. Museums permitted to buy his work were contractually forbidden from displaying works by other artists in galleries where his pictures hung. To secure loans from the artist’s collection, the curators of the retrospective exhibition of Still’s work mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979 were forced to cede all control over the show to Still, who dictated the number (79) of paintings to be included, how and where they would be hung, and who wrote the entire catalogue himself. After agreeing in 1967 to sell his painting. 1944-N to the Museum of Modern Art, the institution he most loathed and tastelessly referred to as “the great gas chamber of culture on 53rd Street,” in an unconscionable and actionable act of malice, Still painted and shipped a mediocre copy of the painting to MoMA and kept the original, all of which he gleefully recounted at the time, to his friend, Gordon Smith, the director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

These are not paintings in the usual sense, they are life and death, merging in fearful union.

Still’s estate consisted of the 94% of his oeuvre —825 paintings and 1,500 drawings—he had refused to sell in his lifetime, the majority of which had never been seen. Still’s epic will dictated that those works be could only be displayed in a newly- created museum dedicated exclusively to his art. His will also gave detailed instructions concerning every aspect of the proposed monument to his own greatness, including gallery size and layout, the placement of works, wall labels, and lighting. The terms of the bequest forbade museum from displaying works by other artists, loaning any of Still’s works to other institutions, and selling any of them.

The pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator. Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul.

Visitors to the museum would only be tolerated only if they swore to look at and think about only Still’s art, and nothing but Still’s art while on the premises. Gift shop, café and auditorium were expressly proscribed.

Given the nightmarish restrictions, stipulations and requirements imposed the sociopathically-self-regarding artist, the hoard of paintings languished in storage at an undisclosed Maryland location for 30 years, until the city of Denver was designated by Still’s widow as the recipient of the bequest. The sealing of his work for so many years killed off all memory of the artist, placing the administrators of the new Clyfford Still Museum in the awkward position of having to explain to the public who Clyfford Still was, when his museum was opened to the public in 2011. On display are 116 works, including the original, conspicuously more finished, version of 1944-N.

1983: Barbara Kruger

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The Institute of Contemporary Art in London mounted the exhibition We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture: Works by Barbara Kruger in 1983. The show featured Kruger’s first works executed in what would become her signature style— large-scale, black-and-white images appropriated from popular culture, overlaid with red or black bands, bearing cryptic texts rendered in Futura drop out-letters. Several of the works were also included in the 1983 Whitney Biennial.

When Mary Boone stated that her gallery’s roster of artists was all male because women artists didn’t sell, she was spoke a little too candidly about an ugly reality of the art market. Barbara Kruger had made it clear that not only could work by women artists sell, but that work by polemical, uncompromising, feminist artists could, and did, sell. Boone responded by signing Kruger, her first woman artist, in 1987, and giving her carte blanche to transform the West Broadway space for her first show in the same year.

Feminist art of the 1970s was largely concerned with the recuperation of craft traditions, which resulted in earnest, handmade objects. Kruger, who had learned the arts of visual persuasion while working as a commercial layout designer (specializing in text) at Condé Nast, took a different approach. Like the Russian Constructivist graphic artists, who used avant-garde means to accomplished radical political ends, believing that a revolution required revolutionary art, Kruger presented feminist political thought in a clean, modern, professional style on an assertive billboard scale.

The combination of meticulous graphic design, concise, yet eliptical, slogans and ironically-recontextualized, popular imagery made feminist agit-prop seem hip, confident and current. Like Keith Haring, another commercially-trained artist, Kruger knew how to use images to get the public’s attention and her visual style, like Haring’s, caught on immediately. Just as Haring’s art did much to incite action to fight AIDS, Barbara Kruger’s art played a significant part in the re-energizing, expansion and changing of the public’s perception of the feminist movement that took place in the 1980s, role for which she has yet to be fully acknowledged.

By the end of the 1980s Kruger, now an established art star, stepped up from the insular art world to the national stage, where she exerted a clear influence on the shaping of public affairs through the creation and deployment of stark images like with memorable rallying cries like Your Body is a Battleground. Designed for the Women’s March for Reproductive Rights on on Washington DC in 1989, the poster went on to become the standard of an entire movement. In a decade of political art, Kruger’s set a benchmark that has yet to be surpassed in terms of its political prestige, influence and widespread instant recognition.