Posts Tagged ‘art’

museums: Fahrelnissa Zeid

27 August 2017

Tapestry, carpet, stained glass window, mosaic, kaleidoscope are some of the metaphors that come to mind in viewing the work of the Ottoman-born artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. Her dominant tones were modulations of primary colors – tomato red, denim blue, Girl Scout green. A lover of great cities, especially Paris, she preferred a big, crowded canvas, with some geometric and tonal regularity. She varied the way she wrote her name, on her work and off, through her career: Fahrünissa, Fahr-El-Nissa, Fahrelnissa Z, FZ. Most of her work lives in private collections, including those of her family, and in the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

Works to spend time with include Third Class Passengers, which seems to layer dancers, subway straphangers, prostrate prayergivers, and families lounging on their rugs; Loch Lomond, where revelers and boats form a net of 45 and 60-degree triangles that melt into abstraction at the top; the rippling, Escheresque panorama of My Hell and the beaded city map of The Octopus of Triton. Abstract Parrot is the culmination of her stained-glass type. The three open page spreads from her sketchbooks tantalized with a bright watercolor-and-ink mountain landscape, writing (“pourquoi la mort m’appelait …”), and a stunning self-portrait. Her portraits of others, displayed in the last room, were deliberately naive, if not actually bad.

There were a few callouts to England. London (“The Firework”) is a blurred futuristic cityscape filtered through yellow-red light and then through a network of orthogonal brushstrokes that recall latticed window screens. Someone from the Past is a self portrait with, Zeid wrote, Persian hand attitudes, Byzantine dress, Cretan face and “Oriental” eyes. What it also resembles is formal portraits of Elizabeth I, if she had posed crownless wearing kohl and earrings.

This Tate Modern retrospective, supported by Deutsche Bank, moves to Berlin after 8 October. Zeid lived there in the mid-1930s while her husband was the Iraqi ambassador, and even took tea with Hitler. Fifty years later she asked Donald Trump if she could paint his portrait, and did so from a photograph, according to the exhibition catalog. The result is not to be seen here.

museums: David Hockney

13 May 2017
Is that … the Ladybird Book of David Hockney?

A few things about David Hockney, based on the exhibition now closing at the Tate:

1. His palette resembles the acrylic paints we used in school – those saturated hues that came in squeeze bottles, like condiments. The blues were especially intense, including the bright turquoise color of the squeeze bottles themselves. Hockney likes that blue spectrum, a bit more to the purple and less to the green side. Most of his works have at least one patch of intense blue, like a ground socket. Some of them work through the blue obsession more subtly; for example, pictures of modern window-walled buildings and tiled bathrooms in which the blue/grey patches vary systematically like Pantone samplers.

2. Hockney loves to vary techniques and treatments event within the same work. A single painting may have faces with their features resting lightly on the skin in the Alex Katz style, wireframe representations of furniture, deep fluffy fur, solid and shaded Platonic shapes of Russian constructivists, the depth of pool water, and the occasional patch of realism just to show he can do it. Sometimes the same object gets a double treatment, as in Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool where the ring flickers between Rothko style abstract with extra layers, and photorealism.

3. Some favorite paintings:

– A landscape of the Pacific Coast Highway, showing the variegation of terrain with different paint treatment techniques – layering, swirling, scratching – and another of the Colorado River in rich reds.
Breakfast at Malibu Wednesday 89 and Sunday 89, with the background of deep blue and teal ocean, zen-combed like a Japanese print, looming over the willow pattern pieces on the table in the foreground. He uses the broadest of brushstrokes to suggest the willow pattern, blue in one canvas and deep pink in the other.
– And of course Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy. The basic story of the love quadrangle comes through even in reproductions, but what you get extra in the painting is the textures of the objects ringing it: cool copper frame, elegant vase of flowers, supertufty rug, and oddly flat lamp. All these are not enough to fill the void at the center.

4. He experimented with mosaic photographs, which split the field of vision into hundreds of white-edged panes like an old window. The three early portraits and double portraits assembled from SX-70 Polaroids are especially fine. The overlapping and repetition, especially of the central human features in the portraits, gives the cubist effect of multiple perspective. There was also a large oblong assemblage of a pool with a swimmer. The swimmer appears in successive frames like a graphic novel, several chains of them in different parts of the pool. All of the mosaics feel cognitively real in that the field of vision is not even and the glance must dart around.

5. David Hockney can work in any medium including crayons, mostly with exquisite control though some of his portrait sketches are a bit distorted. His video installation The Four Seasons gives a sense of layered, simultaneous time by surrounding visitors with massive, pinpoint sharp slow zooms of the same Yorkshire forest in winter, spring, summer and fall. It is the same forest but not quite the same view, exclusive of the seasons, as if he wanted to make the point that you can’t walk into the same forest twice. His pictures on the iPhone and iPad, in streaky Warhol brights that appear through time lapse video, are astonishing. It’s like watching someone paint a Gauguin on a blackboard using only the eraser. Part of the pitch of Apple devices is that they make everyone a creative. It takes more. David Hockney is still streets ahead.

art: goya: order and disorder

2 January 2015

Before visiting the latest blockbuster MFA show I had little sense of Francisco Goya except a vague and incorrect association with Maja soap. I came away flattened by his reach and versatility: portraitist, cartoonist, war artist, realist, imaginer, storyteller; in oils, watercolor, half a dozen forms of printmaking, and patterns for tapestry. His life began before the Enlightenment revolutions – basically in feudal times – and ended after the Napoleonic Wars, almost but not quite into the age of photography.

Goya’s most memeworthy image is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which created logjams when people saw how small and intricate it was – or wanted to comment on the cats, like these two patrons:

“I like the upside-down head.”
“Look at the kitty in the bottom corner. That’s a strong kitty.”
“I’ve always liked the dark kitty, above his waist, watching, looking out.”
“And we’ve seen that kitty before, in the painting in the Met, of the little boy in the red suit.”
“Well, there’s only one black cat.”


“You know, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos has two meanings – it can be that when reason sleeps, monsters come out, or that the dream of reason produces monsters. Very Spanish.”

In the next room, there was the the Met painting of the little boy in the red suit (Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga). Same feline fans:

“I love the foreshortened hand.”
“I love the magpie with Goya’s card in its beak.”
“The cats look a little friendlier.”
“That cat on the left reminds me of Amelia.”
“You don’t think.”
“That’s a pretty fat cat.”

The curation was exceptionally good, organizing the spaces around themes including self-portraits, life studies, play and prey, buoyancy, witchcraft and disasters. Two remarkable aspects were the giant video wall showing works and details to patrons standing in line to get in – as my father said, it was like looking at the paintings with a magnifying glass, which they don’t let you do – and the quality of the texts on the walls. These were erudite without being obscure, informative without being condescending. The text for The Sleep of Reason ended, “Watch for this image again, in a later state with more bats, later in the exhibition.” That for the Manuel Zuñiga portrait observed that he “seems to rule over his own small domain of natural enemies who coexist in harmony – for the moment … Manuel died only four years after this portrait was painted.” That’s the stuff we can’t see for ourselves, or can’t work out right away with a hundred people jostling behind us. More, please.

Goya: Order and Disorder closes 19 January. Free with museum admission. Lines are long but worth it. Thanks to Lisa G. whose member guest I was, and to K. who even found free parking.

british open

5 August 2013


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, June 10 to August 18 (hurry!), London

A few weeks ago I went to the RA Summer Exhibition, guided by Liz Z, who was going for the fourth time. I had never heard of it. Apparently anybody at all can submit one or two pieces of work (for a small fee), which if chosen will be shown alongside contributions from the 80 Royal Academy members.

Isn’t Britain a great country?

More than 10,000 entries were received this year and more than 1,000 works were on display, many so high up on the lofty walls that I regretted not bringing a periscope. Most were for sale, with bids indicated with red dots. (One ironic picture consisted entirely of red dots.) Liz has a game where she doesn’t look at the catalog but tries to guess the artist and the price, based on the quality, size, medium, price of materials, difficulty of technique and prevailing trends. I gave up about halfway through and just concentrated on the trends.


art: the eighties at ica

7 January 2013

This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston

ica pixel

The subway advertisements for this show promised, in punky cyan-magenta-yellow letters, iconic Eighties artists – Basquiat, Sherman, Mapplethorpe, Koons, Goldin – while the title suggested anticipation of our backward gaze. The show, as it turned out, did not revolve around the stars, and the innocent historical documentary embedded in the materials, their past-ness, is more compelling than any of the high concepts claimed in the show briefs.

Tucked beside the entrance is Charlie Ahearn‘s Wild Style, a documentary of graffiti, rap and breakdance, fresh as a cookie from a time capsule and crisp as a musical comedy routine (check minute 25). How was it not obvious to everyone that hiphop was going to be enormous and remold a vast range of performance forms? Other films record conversations with early AIDS sufferers, the burlesque of high fashion and the protean practice of Cindy Sherman, robotically changing her look with every conversational turn. The mercenary skirmishes that held the place of war are invoked when Alfredo Jaar counterpoints an ad for Fortune featuring an infant and the slogan “We’re All Created Equal. After That, Baby, You’re On Your Own,” with a blurry news image of soldiers. Even without the war angle, the Fortune text was a more direct indictment of the class-money-power nexus than anything else in the show. But then a museum supervised by mysterious millionaires is unlikely to threaten the military-industrial complex to its face.


art: our land at the cable factory

23 November 2012

Maamme (Our Land), Minna Rainio and Mark Roberts. Finnish Museum of Photography, Cable Factory, Helsinki

Musically, the Finnish national anthem is easy to sing except for the devilish first line, which sounds as if it combines two wrong-way key changes with a series of jumps to rival “The Star Spangled Banner.” It made no sense until I got the music and saw how manageable the intervals really are.

Socially, national anthem singing is a constrained interpersonal act involving politeness, and this is brought into relief by the immigrant participants in the video installation Maamme. A thin white man with black hair and a striped shirt swallows, raises his eyes above the camera, and starts to sing, accompanied by an offscreen piano. After a few lines he is joined on a second life-sized screen by a black man with wire-framed glasses and then more people are added until there is a rotating series of a dozen singers on six screens, united, we are told, by their status as naturalized citizens. They embody a broad range of phenotypes (excluding east Asian), and all are of working age.

The configuration is not random. For much of the three-minute loop, four singers dominate: two tenors, a soprano, and a bass, providing a full-sounding arrangement. The second tenor, a man whose blue-grey shirt matches his eyes, produces an operatic sound without apparent effort, leaving his face free for acting expressions while others grimace to hit the high notes or remember the words. The soprano, an equally confident young black woman with a sweet voice, wrinkles her forehead slightly on “ei vettä, rantaa rakkaampaa” (no water or shore is more beloved) and “maa kallis isien” (land of our dear fathers), two of the more problematic lines for newcomers. She wears a shawl that is almost but not quite the Marimekko grey poppy print and gold ball earrings that are almost but not quite the model from Finnish ethno jeweler Kalevala Koru. She can’t repress a smile after finishing the Swedish verses.

The general effect however is rigid, with the singers isolated from each other in life-sized portrait frames rather than embracing in “We Are the World” communitas. The trending look for the men is striped or checked shirts with suit jackets, and they stay stiffly at attention when they finish. Except for the black soprano, the women are self-conscious, reluctant to meet the camera’s eye. A blonde in a blue shirt decorated with newspaper headlines looks as if she’s trying to figure out what the assignment really is. A long-haired woman in a black lace top loses the words and mitigates her confusion with a broad smile at the end. The one casually dressed man (wearing a red sweatshirt – for Puma, not Angry Birds – and woollen Rasta cap) grins throughout as if it’s all a huge goof. Perhaps this is a necessary stage of modern nationhood but it’s disappointing that seeing naturalized Finns sing the country’s anthem is still considered radical enough to count as art.

seven ways of looking at a Fabergé exhibition

29 August 2006

Reposted for Easter 2013 before returning to original spot in the timeline.

faberge enh

The Era of Fabergé, Vapriikki, Tampere, Finland, 17 June – 1 October 2006

1. As a celebration of an exploitative imperial autocracy, rationalized through the familiar rhetoric of drawing attention to the ways the Romanovs were a family just like ours – only prettier, more popular, and, crucially, at some point in the past stronger and more violent. And able to give really cool Easter presents.

2. As a tribute to a visionary designer and craftsman. Aesthetic elitism is integrated with power worship through the establishment of hierarchies of taste, with unique and labor-intensive products at the top: by admiring the costly treasures we have the illusion of raising ourselves to a position of distinction, and of virtually taking possession of our favorites.

3. As a subtle exercise of Finnish nationalism. The exhibition stresses that many of the Fabergé workmasters and workers were Finns, and also shows that Finns made significant contributions to the industrial rise of the Russian empire; their work is nevertheless described as the contribution of mobile elites and largely separatist guest workers, not as the work of enthusiastic members of the empire or a colonized people. Great play is given to an official of the Finnish Diet of Estates who took some unexplained but no doubt very risky stance about something, and was later given an exquisite Fabergé cigarette case by a boxmaker’s widow in thanks for his service to the Finns. I am sure there was more to be told there.

4. As a rewriting of art history into labor history, foregrounding the role of middle managers and hands-on workers over that of Peter Carl Fabergé who is reduced to a company founder and figurehead. The Fabergé workmasters, particularly Holmström and Wäkewä, have been credited in past books and exhibitions about the firm, but here it is made insistently clear that they (Finns! don’t be misled by the Swedish names!) actually designed the objects and commissioned lower-level craftsmen, and some women, to execute them.

5. As a showcase of ordinary Fabergé production. The Fabergé firm did not just make the exquisite picture frames, cigarette paraphernalia and egg fantasies collected by Malcolm Forbes and the Queen of England. It also made quite a bit of kitsch, notably some animal sculptures that are only slightly more attractive than the frightful china miniatures given away in boxes of Red Rose Tea at home. (Hint: when an animal image gets that neotenic, top-heavy look, it’s always kitsch.)

6. As a marketing opportunity for a firm apparently owned by Fabergé descendants that makes ornaments bearing no relation to the best of the real thing. For example: a set of crown-shaped card holders in different colors that look like props from a children’s play. I’ve seen things more in the spirit of Fabergé at H&M.

7. As an imperfectly executed translation project. Perhaps I should be grateful that, like the toiling gemsmiths at Fabergé, my contribution was uncredited, since errors like “chrystal” and “jetton” were added after my part was finished.

5 June 2000

Stages of house moving (assuming one has keys to both places for several days): 1. Denial. 2. Moving unobtrusive things. 3. Moving good things. 4. Confronting the junk that’s left. 5. More denial. 6. Oh crap, the old place doesn’t feel like home any more. I need to finish and get everything to the new place as fast as possible.

In this case there was an externally imposed deadline. I finished at 6:30 this morning and the workmen came at 8. And in addition to my own stuff, I had to save everything from the common room that was attractive and small enough to move, since the workmen were going to trash it all anyway. Thus the painting of Prague is now in my hands.

painting of prague

PS 2015: I still have the painting of Prague, a bit worse for intercontinental moving since the canvas is actually an unfolded cardboard box. The flatmates could never remember for sure who painted it but thought it might be Martina Cleary.