Category Archives: 20th Century

LICHTENSTEIN’S CHINESE LANDSCAPES


Much like the reproductions of Song landscapes Roy Lichtenstein consulted, the Landscapes in the Chinese Style project the illusion of a transcendent realm. The vastness of nature in both Song works and his renditions is heightened by the inclusion of tiny details such as a lone tree, boat, or philosopher in repose. Lichtenstein’s virtuosity is especially impressive, as he used a technical. approach radically different from traditional Chinese brushwork. This was a consequence of both dot size—Treetops through the Fog (1996), for example, utilizes at least 15 different sizes—and the complex spacing, which accounts for the extraordinary suggestion of atmosphere.

The Chinese landscapes, the last series Lichtenstein completed before his death in 1997, were included in the retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.

1989: Robert Mapplethorpe

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Robert Mapplethorpe was the subject of two retrospectives in the last year of his life, Robert Mapplethorpe, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (26 July – 23 October 1988) and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, which traveled to five other museums in 1989-90.

The religious right successfully pressured the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to cancel the The Perfect Moment before it opened in 1989 and caused the Cincinnati district attorney to bring criminal obscenity charges against curators of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 1990. Right wing politicians made Mapplethorpe and the exhibition the centerpiece of their campaign to discredit and do away with the National Endowment for the Arts, which ultimately failed.

I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied.
–Robert Mapplethorpe, 1987

In the starkly-lit, static, black and white photos he produced in the last years of his life, which were heavily featured in the 1988-89 exhibitions, Mapplethorpe certainly aimed at perfection. The still-life arrangements, portraits and heroic nudes are virtually Neo-classical in their purity, restraint, and severity. Every object his camera focuses on turns to stone. In his late portraits in particular, faces are slightly over-lit, like old Hollywood publicity shots, to create a soft focus, luminous effect very close to the lustre of polished marble; applying this technique to actual statuary allows hard surfaces to appear soft and mutable.

I really believe that Robert sought not to destroy order, but to re-order, to re-invent, and to create a new order.
—Patti Smith, 2010

Deeply influenced by Edward Weston and Minor White, Mapplethorpe used the camera to abstract from objects and bodies an inner or underlying essential form. The effect of timelessness—a moment captured and preserved—is, to some extent, unavoidable in photography. When a photographer takes as his or her subject nothing less than beauty itself and purity of form, time ceases to be a referent at all.

In the 1980s, critics praised Mapplethorpe either for his transgressive depiction of graphic and hitherto unrepresentable content or his formalism, which gave the impression of a seemingly split artistic personality (the essays in the Whitney catalogue read as if they were about completely different artists). The problematics of foregrounding the formalist over the hardcore Mapplethorpe became very evident in the expert testimony in the Cincinnati trial, which attempted to explain one version of Mapplethorpe in terms of the other.

Because his Black Book photos are now widely-known, and due to changing perceptions of gay sexuality, Mapplethorpe’s work is less shocking than he was in 1989 (which is what it sought to achieve, on some level). This makes the consistency of his visual interests clearer. The perfect moment turns out to be the perfect form, which is visible in all subjects once the filters of the dominant paradigm are removed.

This concludes The Art of the 1980s series.

1988: Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955) organizes his artistic production in series defined by abstract themes—The New, Equilibrium, Celebration, Easy Fun, Antiquity, each one having the aura of a new dispensation. The component works in each grouping are fashioned by a team of artists and manufacturers using the same materials, which gives the series a high degree of visual coherence. At the level of subject matter the groupings seem less crisp—almost all of Jeff Koons works are engaged with the new, the banal, the celebratory—and many works could be reassigned to a different series without any conceptual damage.

The Banality series was first exhibited not in a gallery, but at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1988. The series is introduced by an outsized Hummel-style bisque group of two angels and a boy in modern dress, leading a pig, entitled Ushering in Banality (Koons commented that he thought of himself as the boy in back pushing the pig). The banality (which is both an era and a condition), that ensues is tremendous. Among the large-scale, polychromed and gilded, precision-made cast-porcelain figures are representations of a pure white Michael Jackson holding his pet chimp, Bubbles, a semi-nude woman embracing the Pink Panther and Leonardo’s shiny, leering John the Baptist. Sickeningly cute bears abound. One hardly knows how to react to this high-key spectacle of finely-wrought bad taste.

Koons brilliantly combines fine materials worked by highly-skilled mastercraftsmen and artists with cutesy, saccharine kitsch and soft porn subjects to create objects that are highly seductive and highly repellent in equal portions (equilibrium being a central epistemological construct in Koons’ work). One feels embarrassed to look at the Banality works too closely, yet ineluctably drawn to do so. Koons frontloads his subjects with potentially incendiary topics—racism, beastiality, sanctity, cultural decline, self-degradation and delusion, but holds them all in perfect suspension. It is impossible to decide if works like Michael Jackson and Bubbles are intended as sincere tributes, examples of catastrophic bad taste to be derided, or critiques of the culture that produces and consumes the imagery from which the work is derived. At the same time, one feels the need to try to sort these issues out because nothing less than the state of western culture is at stake. Extracting all that out of a reproduction of a gift-shop teddy bear is no mean feat.

Unlike conceptual art, these highly-intellectual issues are expressed purely in visual terms that require no specialized knowledge or priestly cast to decipher them. For Duchamp, the demi-urge who instigated Koons’ career, art was either conceptual or merely “retinal,” an instance of intellection or something just to look at, substance or decoration. Koons squared that circle, framing philosophically-inclined, aesthetic and moral content in gorgeously-realized, oppulently-appointed terms (Koon’s monumental, expensive and entertaining balloon-animal sculptures showed well at Versailles). This is all done with a lightness of touch and without any of the pretention and preening (although just as much self-promotion) of other top-drawer ’80s artists – and – Koons, the artist who stirred some of the most acrimonious re-hashings of the middle-brow is-it-art debate, has incredibly enough become a popular favorite of the masses whose tastes motivated the his work in the first place.

After an unexpected hiatus, The Higher Inquiètude is back.

1987: The Starn Twins

The photo collages made jointly by identical twins Doug and Mike Starn (American b. 1961) created a sensation at the 1987 Whitney Biennial, which led to show an equally well-received show at Leo Castelli in 1988.

The Starns had been assembling altering, adapting, and appropriating photographs, many vintage, together since the age of 13. They refused to discuss their work in terms of individual contributions, thus creating an attribution issue that reinforced the sense of age and loss. To underscore their corporate identity, they made numerous self-portraits, in which it is impossible to differentiate between the two.

Creased, worn, faded, and held together with Scotch tape the Starns’ fictive keepsakes and artifacts are someone else’s memories created with archaic media. The inward-turning melancholy and fragility are utterly unlike the self-aggrandizing and florid Neo Expressionism or the impersonal, hard abstraction that preceded them.

They were also of their times. The shared the decade’s taste for outsized scale. Along Daguerre Julia Margaret Cameron and Edward Muybridge, the photography of Joel Peter Witkin, the animated films of the Brothers Quay and David Lynch’s Eraserhead were also influences. The inclusion of Twins in their official moniker, as well as the gauzy layering and romanticism of the Cocteau Twins comes to mind as well (the cover photo of Treasure, released in1984, shares many characteristics with the Starns’ work). The 1980s was also the decade of chemically-induced or “distressed” faux-vintage fabrics and materials, meaning the retrospection and nostalgia of the Starn Twins is in some way the most contemporary aspect of their art.

JUGENDSTIL

Der Zeit ihre Kunst,
Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit.

WASSILY KANDINSKY

Born: Moscow 16 December 1866
Died: Neuilly-sur-Seine 13 December 1944

Form, in the narrow sense, is nothing but the separating line between surfaces of colour. That is its outer meaning. But it has also an inner meaning, of varying intensity, and, properly peaking, FORM IS THE OUTWARD EXPRESSION OF THIS INNER MEANING.*

* It is never literally true that any form is meaningless and “says nothing.” Every form in the world says something. But its message often fails to reach us, and even if it does, full understanding is often withheld from us.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Part VI, 1912

MATISSE / PICASSO

dancers

Matisse wanted to express an affirmative vision of the world… Picasso dared to question everything. Matisse was generous… Picasso had a flair for the new, the unexpected. Matisse intensified the interplay of color, while Picasso’s revolt was aimed at structure and form. Their polarity was mutually invigorating… they needed each other as a permanent challenge.

—Françoise Gilot

matisse cone odalisque

I think they are both interested— and know that the other is interested —in what the other is unable to do. Picasso sends Matisse something that he knows is very, very different from what Matisse is doing. And it’s a very powerful portrait (of Dora Maar). And Picasso chooses, because Matisse gives Picasso a choice, Seated Young Woman in a Persian Dress, which in its innocence is completely removed from what Picasso would do.

Picasso knew that Matisse was fantastic with color — he knew that right from the start. Matisse always admired Picasso’s facility as a draftsman, and Matisse knew that he had to go to endless lengths to achieve the same kind of fluency.

In other words, they each recognized the special talent and facility of the other, and each knew that it was not theirs. So, when they dialogued in their world, they tried to address or to combat, to circumvent the facility. And so, that became their goal. Picasso became an incredibly good colorist because Matisse was there as a competitor. He knew that he would never be able to really compete with Matisse, but nevertheless, he worked very hard.

Matisse became an incredible draftsman, especially at the end of his life. His drawings are just masterpieces. They look effortless. They’re not effortless at all, but they look it. And I think it had a lot to do with the way in which each tried to surpass the other’s achievements. Each was obliged to apply his talents in more diverse and more powerful ways.

—Yves-Alain Bois, Matisse/Picasso

Matisse, La Bonheur de Livre

You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.

If I were not making the paintings I make, I would paint like Matisse.

—Pablo Picasso