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View of the Pacific Ocean from Marin County, with the Farallon Islands in the distance

How does it work, those mysterious tendrils that some part of us knows how to sprout, rooting us to the places that feel hospitable, that feel like our native habitat? I spent my childhood in California but expatriated to the east coast when I was just 21 years old. But the years away can’t wash out a primal sense of homecoming. There are those smells, earthy and fragrant, that I have only encountered on that western coast of this country. And then of course there is the issue of the light. I remember an article in the New Yorker many years ago that offered up the scientific explanation for what makes the sunlight so distinctive in California, none of which I can remember now. But it IS different, decidedly, and I loved the chance to bask in it for 10 days in the company of my daughter Kellin and so many good friends.

Some public art viewing highlights, of which there were many:

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Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. What a collection ranging from Asian to European to contemporary. A special show, Divine Demons: Wrathful Dieties of Buddhist Art, was small but spectacular.

From the Norton Simon site:

As embodiments of the “demonic divine,” wrathful deities serve as protectors and guardians of the Buddhist faith. Mahakala is an especially fierce deity who militantly tramples a figure that represents obstacles. Resplendently adorned with a tiara of skulls, writhing snakes and a multitude of spiritual weapons, he is one of the most important protectors of the religion.

But then I do have a thing about Mahakala, with a massive image of him hanging in my living room.


My own personal wrathful protector, Mahakala

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MOCA Los Angeles is currently featuring an exhibit, “Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years.”

From the MOCA’s site:

On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), debuts Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years, the largest-ever installation of its renowned permanent collection featuring more than 500 artworks by over 200 artists. MOCA’s collection, which numbers nearly 6,000 works dating from 1939 to the present day, is internationally regarded as one of the most important collections of postwar art in the world. While works from the collection have been seen in more than 100 thematic exhibitions at MOCA since the museum’s founding in 1979, the new installation will make a significant portion of the collection accessible to the public on a long-term basis.

The show spills out of the Grand Street location into the massive Geffen exhibition space a few blocks away. This was a day-long feast of more Robert Irwins than I have ever seen in one place as well as some gorgeous works by Agnes Martin, Ed Moses, Mark Rothko, Franz Klein, Sol LeWitt. Arranged chronologically, the later years feature artists who are primarily working in and around Los Angeles. That bias is to be expected given how many west coast artists have been given little or no traction in places like New York.


Robert Irwin, Untitled (Dot Painting), 1965 (Photo: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)
Note: This image is extremely subtle—you may need to look very closely to see the intricate pattern of dotting that sits on the surfave of the painting. One of the reasons Irwin hated photographic representations of his work!

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SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) is also featuring works from its collection, “75 Years of Looking Forward” as well as a companion exhibit, “Focus on Artists.”

From the SFMOMA site:

From its early days, SFMOMA has been devoted to fostering close relationships with artists, and these ties often have led to significant holdings of their works. This exhibition looks at SFMOMA’s long-term relationships with 18 modern and contemporary arists whose iconic works have been influential in defining movements from Abstract Expressionism to Postminimalism and beyond, with individual galleries featuring works by a single artist. The first half of the exhibition includes eight American artists whose practice fundamentally impacted the development of abstract art in the United States: Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and Clyfford Still. The second section showcases an international selection of artists — Diane Arbus, Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Dan Graham, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Doris Salcedo, Kara Walker, Jeff Wall, and Andy Warhol — whose work has signaled a shift toward more psychological, social, and historical content in art.yuuuuuh

Another jaw dropping set of amazing art, particularly rich with works from some of my all time favorites. A gorgeous wall of drawings by Brice Marden. A room full of Diebenkorns that includes pieces from the Ocean Park series as well as earlier work. Exquisite Robert Rymans. Richter. Salcedo. And most powerfully for me, two of the most spectacularly visual and visceral Sigmar Polke pieces I’ve ever seen, both from the “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible” series from 1980s.


The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III, by Sigmar Polke (Photo courtesy of Sigmar Polke)

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De Young Museum. Just being in this exquisite space (hats off to Herzog & de Meuron) is a joy. And this trip I was particularly moved by the Art of the Americas collection, one of the best assemblages of Pre-Columbian art I’ve ever seen.


Figure of a Crawling Baby, Olmec, 1200-900 BC (photo courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Much more to share, so check back later this week.

After several days in California, I’m readjusting to the stubbornness of a winter overlord who won’t give up New England. Succession planning? We’re working on that. Spring is off stage, bedecked in faille, fluttering her white and pink organzas, just waiting for an entrance cue.

I had some memorable moments last week, both indoors as well as out. One morning was spent at the Gilbert & George exhibit at the De Young Museum. These two have made themselves into art icons over the last thirty years with their provocative poises, proddings, posturings, promulgations. Even though I have not ever been what I would term a G&G advocate, their campy pranks aren’t just empty suit stunts and theatrics. There is more going on than that.

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Death, by Gilbert & George

For example, the following statements by the artists were posted at the beginning of the exhibit:

ART FOR ALL

We want Our Art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.

PROGRESS THROUGH FRIENDSHIP

Our Art is the friendship between the viewer and our pictures. Each picture speaks of a “Particular View“ which the viewer may consider in the light of his own life. The true function of Art is to bring about new understanding, progress and advancement. Every single person on Earth agrees that there is room for improvement.

LANGUAGE FOR MEANING

We invented and we are constantly developing our own visual language. We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art-material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are.

THE LIFE FORCES

True Art comes from three main life-forces. They are: –
THE HEAD
THE SOUL
and THE SEX

In our life these forces are shaking and moving themselves into everchanging different arrangements. Each one of our pictures is a frozen representation of one of these “arrangements“.

THE WHOLE

When a human-being gets up in the morning and decides what to do and where to go he is finding his reason or excuse to continue living. We as artists have only that to do. We want to learn to respect and honour “the whole“. The content of mankind is our subject and our inspiration. We stand each day for good traditions and necessary changes. We want to find and accept all the good and bad in ourselves. Civilisation has always depended for advancement on the “giving person“. We want to spill our blood, brains and seed in our life-search for new meanings and purpose to give to life.

Unfortunately saying doesn’t make it so…I didn’t find this exhibit of large format images to be any more accessible to the average viewer than most other contemporary work. There’s definitely an essential tension between these populist, anti-art world sentiments and the fact that G&G are driving their luxury car down the center lane of the Art World Circus Parkway, busily exhibiting their work in museums everywhere and merchandising a boatload of posters and printed ties.

But the sentiments expressed in these words, idealistic and naive as they may read when viewed in the hard-edged context of contemporary museum scale art, mean something to me. While I don’t want to flatten the complexity of the tangle of issues that exist in contemporary art dialogue today by promoting a bipartisan view of Art World vs Anti-Art World, it might be useful to make a few categorical distinctions. Doing so has been useful to me.

Here’s one set of demarcations that I have been road testing, and it seems to be holding together. Sally Reed, artist and smart friend, has borrowed traditional literary forms, epic and lyric, and applied them to the making of art.

Epic art, says Sally, deals with large arc issues like politics, philosophy, cerebral calibrations, identity and does so through installations in public spaces like art museums and international art fairs. It is often built on a strong narrative armature, with a heavy storytelling and/or content orientation.

Lyric art is more human scaled. Personal. Demanding a relationship with the viewer on an intimate level. This is art that usually exists outside of narrative, outside of time.

I make work that would be classified as lyric. But I have been amazed and moved by both types. Most of what gets written about and discussed however is epic. Advocacy for art that is intended to incite the intensity of a full body experience is hard to find.

More from Sally Reed:

No, I am not “telling a story” — for me it’s more like (how’s this for grandiosity?) creating a world. Or more modestly, creating a place, a “chamber.” When a piece is finished, it seems I am ready to invite people in. Or at least their gaze, their thoughts and feelings.

My problem with narrative is that it often is sequential and always takes place in time. I feel that when I am making art, when I am at my best, it takes place outside of time, as a dream does. For me, the experience of making (when I am in the flow) or experiencing art, is outside of time. I think this might be why many narrative based visual pieces that I like initially can bore me on a second or third viewing. And also why certain masterpieces are endlessly fascinating; there’s always a new way to approach, a new way to experience, to sort of “unfold” all the wonders with which they are packed.

There is more to say on many of these themes, which I will continue to explore going forward.

I saw my first installation by Ghanain-born sculptor El Anatsui at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I came back from that trip and posted about that exquisite object–part textile, part tactile sculpture, made of bottle caps and wire. Since then he was featured at the Venice Biennale and is now getting well deserved attention everywhere. For New Yorkers, good news: The Metropolitan Museum has purchased a gorgeous piece, “Between Earth and Heaven,” which will be featured in a show later this year. (To see a short video of the piece being installed, go to this New York Sun link.)

Here are a few images from a show at London-based October Gallery.

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Nukae?

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Nane