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“Mild Winter II” (Photo: Galerie Michael Werner)

This weekend I found Laura Cumming’s review in the Guardian of the new Per Kirkeby show at the Tate Modern. (It is also posted on Slow Painting.) Well known in his homeland of Denmark, he’s a painter whose work does not get as much visibility (IMHO) everywhere else as it should. Hopefully the show at the Tate will change that trajectory. He is also a writer of poetry and essays, a filmmaker and a sculptor, so his sensibilities bleed over into a number of different forms.

Here’s an excerpt from Cumming’s review:


Kirkeby’s colour – radiant violet, cobalt, glowing ochre – is like a gift, a compensation for the complexity of his art. For he never offers any easy statements. None of his paintings is sewn up, resolved, and very often you feel more certain of the mood than the subject matter. His early work has been compared to that of contemporaries such as Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz, but in its primitive and irreducible pleasures seems more connected to Cy Twombly.

Though there are, of course, those who just find it annoyingly resistant and obscure; which is the occupational hazard of the abstract artist. With abstraction, there has to be some kind of affinity, some vocabulary or tone of voice that the audience may recognise as it recognises the content of figurative art. In which respect, the relative unfamiliarity of Kirkeby’s work is a boon.

For it allows one to see the paintings clearly, uninflected by the judgments of others, to meet them like relative strangers. And this show is the ideal encounter, for it has been very subtly arranged to display the fullness of their character. Rich, earthy, spearing, dynamic, fiercely inquiring, solemn, droll, sceptical and yet abundantly romantic: perhaps a portrait of the artist as much as his art.

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Per Kirkeby (Fotograf/Copyright: Peter Beck)

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I’ve been following the Rose Art Museum’s undoing here and on Slow Painting. Over the weekend London-based The Guardian ran an article about this unfortunate state of affairs as well. Reading about the Rose from that Eurocentric point of view brought on another layer of frustration for me.

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Funding crisis … Visitors tour the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, January 2009. Photograph: Essdras M Suarez/AP

Facing what has been described as a potential $79m (£52.5m) deficit over the next six years, a dwindling endowment and a near-exhausted reserve fund, Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced earlier this year that it had no other choice but to close its prestigious Rose Art Museum and sell the 8,000-piece collection. Prior to releasing the statement, it made a last-ditch effort to solicit funds from donors, but many had lost money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the university came to the conclusion that it was out of options.

Economic hardship or not, this didn’t go down well within the art world. For one, these were not the financial problems of the museum – which is largely self-sufficient – but those of the university. Secondly, the loss would simply be too great. Established in 1961, the museum’s world-renowned collection includes early works by masters such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. It also has a long history of hosting extremely significant exhibitions, from Joseph Cornell’s solo show at the Rose in 1968 to Dana Schutz’s first solo show in 2006, which ran concurrently with a Matthew Barney exhibition.

Deciding to shut down a museum of such stature and sell off its works is an extreme option. Brandeis should have tapped the Rose’s fundraising expertise instead. After all, internationally recognised art institutions don’t achieve their reputation without the best development staff in the country. Moreover, as a means of protecting valuable public resources, the ethical code of the Association of Art Museum Directors prevents the sale of objects for purposes other than acquisition. The ensuing debate gets complicated very quickly. In response to public criticism, Brandeis now claims the museum will remain open as an educational centre, with studio and exhibition space. University president Jehuda Reinharz went so far as to describe this as a demonstration of the institution’s commitment to the creative and visual arts community. The statement was understandably poorly received; a learning office is not equivalent to a world-class art institution.

Brandeis also created a new panel to explore further options for the future of the Rose, and last week announced the museum would be staffed for the summer, while it continued to look for alternative sources of funding to support the university. But the Rose already has an independent administrative body designed to direct the museum’s future – its board of overseers. And the mere fact that the Rose employs staff now is not evidence of Brandeis’s support: due to a failure to renew contracts as of June the Rose will have no director, no curator, no education director, no administrator, no funding stream and no programme.

If these actions look ugly now, they will only get worse: a statement on the museum’s website insists that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has insisted the Rose remains open in some capacity, and that it will weigh in should the university attempt to sell the collection. The Rose also now employs a lawyer and is looking for legal documents relative to the trust of the museum. It has all the makings of a long and very messy legal battle. But if the university’s financial situation is as dire as it claims, gambling what money it does have on a court case to legalise the sale of the art collection doesn’t look like a particularly safe bet. It could take years to win – if they win at all.

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Roni Horn is a wonder. She is one of that select group of “large arc” artists whose works are epic and full scaled and yet they still feel personal, intimate and emotionally alive. The ironic stance and political positioning that walls off a lot of contemporary installation art for me is not present in her work. There’s edge and discomfort, but it is not used to outrage or disconnect the viewer. Rather it is a way to pull all of it–all of life–into an experience that is transforming and transcendent. She is in a special category of personal favorites along with Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson.

A new 30 year retrospective of her work recently opened at the Tate in London. A review by Kathleen Jamie from the Guardian is posted on Slow Painting, but here’s an excerpt from Jamie’s piece that caught something of her approach that I have found compelling:

On the morning the Tate show opened, a dull grey-green sky was clamped down over the city, over St Paul’s, and the river was busy as usual. Under its many bridges tugs towed platforms with heaps of sand and other materials upstream. Here the Tate’s situation comes into its own. For this show, the blinds have been opened on the gallery’s north side to reveal the views of the Thames a stone’s throw away, because the London river is another recurring theme in Horn’s work. “I like the fact that you can’t pastoralise the Thames,” she has written. “It’s this wild thing running through this huge urban area … so much stuff gets into the water and vice versa.”

Still Water (The River Thames for Example) is a series of 15 metre-long photographs of the surface of the Thames. It is ever-changing: now swirling, now scrunched like black tin foil, now in Turneresque lemon and flame colours, now plucked up into dune shapes. One can cross from the photographs to the window and look down on the real river, then refer back to the photographs. Each is annotated with tiny numbers, which refer to footnotes. The footnotes, hundreds in total, worry away in small type under the images – they happen, in other words, under the surface, and concern what the water suggests and conceals. (“Black water is sexy. / What is water? / What do you know about water? Only that it’s everywhere differently. / Disappearance: that’s why suicides are attracted to it. / You can’t talk about water without talking about oneself. / Down at the river I shot my baby.”) You look at the surfaces, read the fretful notes, then go back to the window to gaze again at the real water: redolent, bright, sinister, sexual, hemmed in with buildings. Thus, as with much of Horn’s work, the viewer is factored in; you become a participant before you know it.

Hmmm….

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Flower Ben, by Elizabeth Peyton

I have had a long relationship of ambivalence with Elizabeth Peyton’s work. And I’m not alone. As famous as she is–she is a true art world “darling”–there are many like me who cannot find their deep way into her work, to that place where you really feel connected. Sometimes a work will seduce me into engagement (like Flower Ben above), but mostly I am in between.

Some of my artist friends are big fans. But I keep asking myself, what it is about her work that usually keeps me outside of it?

It has a particular flavor of charm, to be sure. A deftness of the hand. And it presents itself as easy, accessible, light. It isn’t dark or brooding, which is its own refreshing change of pace. But I’m on the lookout for art that takes my breath away right there on the spot; the kind that I can feel deep inside, making me dizzy with feelings I can’t describe in words. Being with art you love is like having great sex: It should involve every part of your body, and the feelings should be outside the range of human language.

In the end it is highly subjective, this “like/don’t like” business. But the best part of this in between state is that you get to change your mind. Sometimes that happens all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a potentiality I love having around me.

Regardless of my yes and no regarding Peyton’s work, I did enjoy reading Sebeastian Smee’s review of her current show at the New Museum in New York. I like Smee’s writing. He isn’t afraid to be emotionally exuberant and titillated by what he sees and what he likes. Not one to stand back, he is neither cool nor detached. I find his reviews engaging and fun.

I posted the full Smee review on Slow Painting, but a few excerpts are included here, ones that can be meaningful as stand alone passages:

Elizabeth Peyton attracted attention in the mid-1990s not because her work was any good – that would take years – but because it catered to certain hankerings (for beauty, for human connection, for the rush of infatuation) that up until then the art world had grimly suppressed. People were disproportionately grateful.

***

It’s almost always wonderful when artists dare to be shameless – to go ahead and paint what they want. The trouble was, little of Peyton’s early work rose above the standard of lackluster fashion illustration, or of those saccharine, on-the spot portraits made by street artists in tourist traps.

Still, we can be thankful that she was encouraged by the kind reception extended to her early work, because she has gone on to produce one of the most daring and exquisite oeuvres in contemporary art. I fell completely for Peyton as I ambled through “Live Forever,” the retrospective at the New Museum here, feeling more and more like a mopey, heart-struck teenager every minute.

Many of you will not want to give in to such feelings, deeming them indecently frivolous.

***

In the end, I love the unlikeliness of Peyton’s success. Who would have thought that one of the most acclaimed and closely watched artists of our time would be a young woman who paints small, unabashedly girly portraits in oils on board – pictures that have no tough-guy conceptual underpinning to speak of?

I’ve been a big fan of Tara Donovan for several years, and I am very excited to see her new show at the ICA in Boston this week. I bought the catalog for the show in anticipation, and it is excellent–authored by Nicholas Baume, Jen Mergel and Lawrence Weschler (LW is a particular personal favorite.) The images captured in the book knock me out.

I’ve posted Sebastian Smee’s review from the Boston Globe on Slow Painting if you want to read the entire piece. Here is an excerpt from his review that touches on one of my ongoing aesthetic themes—the role of beauty and how it is played out in contemporary visual language.

More excerpts from the book will be forthcoming.

Of course, it’s nice to encounter almost any proposition about beauty these days – even one as potentially ironic as Donovan’s. Until a few years ago, beauty’s repression in contemporary art was almost absolute. No one talked about it, hardly anyone peddled in it. If they did, they did it furtively, guiltily, always making out that other things – more “important” things – were on their mind.

Beauty has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years. But there has been something willed and strained about the revival. Most recent discussions of beauty are about as appealing as a laborious explanation of a bad joke.

Donovan’s unabashedly beautiful work is a step or two forward from all this. It is not only beautiful, it is relaxed about being so, leaving her scope to admit all kinds of subtleties and ironies into her fantastically simple, if labor-intensive, forms.

Luc Tuymans’ paintings have an atmosphere all their own. They stand out whenever I have seen them on display, with that signatory diluted palette and the painterly, brushstroked surface. His content is usually identifiable and yet the paintings have a mystery to them that makes them feel more aligned to non-representational work. Although much younger than Gerhard Richter, the giant of German contemporary painting, Tuymans shares similarities with Richter (another artist whose work I adore) in the way he uses photographs as source material, the cropping of images and the highlightly of subject matter that is often, on the surface, rather mundane.

Tuymans has achieved that rarefied success in the international art world that is reserved for a select few. I have seen his work on display in museums and galleries everywhere–Europe, Asia, Australia, the United States. So it is rather interesting that he agreed to conduct a version of the “Joshua Bell playing in the subway” experiment in his home town of Antwerp. (A description and link to the video are posted on Slow Painting.)

While the design of the “experiment” that anonymousizes great art or music in public spaces can be criticized, the issue of art and context is still relevant. And the visibility of these stagings with the likes of a Joshua Bell and a Luc Tuymans may shift what we as mere pedestrians on a city street expect. I’d like to think that more people have been opened up to the possibility of seeing and hearing a moment of greatness outside the context of a concert hall or gallery.

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Clyfford Still

So maybe this is my week to air art world frustrations. My latest complaint: The newly unveiled Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

An excerpt about the proposed museum from the Denver Post can be read on Slow Painting. The building concept sounds soulful, more of an invitation to solitude than its brassy, sassy neighbor, the Denver Art Museum, with its angular new Daniel Liebeskind addition.

So yes to a museum that aspires to create a space for “reflection, refuge and intimacy.” But devoted exclusively to the work of Clyfford Still?

Still spent most of his life bucking up against the commercial art mainstream. I’m all for transgressives, but his brand of rebellion had a particular aura of self aggrandizement about it. He was curmudgeonly, demanding that his work be displayed in its own gallery space, under his explicit control.

Here’s an excerpt from an excellent overview on Clyfford Still by Sandy Donabed on Ragged Cloth Cafe:

Still wanted his paintings to be under his own personal control, and did not like them separated from one another or exhibited with other artists’ work. He felt that his paintings could only be understood as part of a whole, with the whole being the evolution of his entire life’s work. This obsession with maintaining absolute control resulted in his rejection of offers to buy his paintings, refusing awards and honors, and declining invitations to exhibit both in individual and group shows. In so doing, with contempt, he rejected the politics of the New York art scene, which for the first time in history had become the international center of the art world.

In his words: “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 achieved. . .and I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”

Beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance? I don’t think so. I would prefer a contemplative, solitude-encouraging museum as this one aspires to be that housed a variety of transcendent-inducing works by Still AND some of his contemporaries like Rothko, Diebenkorn, Newman, Mitchell, Marden.

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