10.6.17 — Stuck Inside of Memphis

Before Memphis in Italy, there was Olivetti. Before the most postmodern of design collectives, there was the firm that produced hypermodern technology—from typewriters to the first programmable desktop computer. Olivetti did so with style, too, well before Apple, and it hired Ettore Sottsass as a design consultant in 1958. The Met Breuer claims him for not just Memphis, which he helped found in 1981, but for sixty years as a “design radical,” through October 8—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review as my latest upload.

Americans may have forgotten him, but Sottsass started his studio in 1957, at age thirty, and moved to New York the next year to work for the firm of George Nelson. That brought him to the attention of Olivetti, which hired him as a design consultant on its mainframe—the first in Italy. Ettore Sottsass's Carlton Room Divider (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981)He had time for more, though, and the first sign of his mature work comes with a portable typewriter. Critics have derided Memphis for cuteness and tackiness, quotation and obscurity, and products for the rich alongside talk of design for everyone. Fans have embraced it for eclecticism, color, and an insistence on design as a matter of not just style, but “ways of living.” And one can see all of these in the typewriter that quickly became a fashion accessory.

Sottsass grew up in Turin, near where Olivetti had its headquarters, and he wanted others to feel at home as well. He made that typewriter light and portable, with a slip-on case as a carrier. Both are fire-engine red, the color of toy trucks. “You don’t save your soul,” he said, “just painting everything in white.” He had taken a basic tool of office work and made it more efficient. Yet he also made it a work of art, a work of the soul, and a matter of play.

The colors keep coming, and so does the eccentric assemblage of simple parts. Even in the 1960s, tables and shelves fly off in all sorts of directions, whether stacked or cantilevered. Color appears from the start, too, with a chest of drawers in acid yellow—a tribute to Austrian Expressionism, but with a greater delight in excess. t appears as well in patterned tapestry, table settings, and clunky necklaces in red, yellow, black, white, and blue. “Everything in white” applies not just to Minimalism in painting, as with Robert Ryman, but also to architecture from Le Corbusier to Brutalism and Louis Kahn. Sottsass and Memphis wanted none of it.

Not everyone is out to save souls, especially in mass production. Olivetti declined to make much of the typewriter, and Sottsass soon moved on. He did worry about souls, though, big time. Those yellow drawers form a cross after the floor plan of a church by Otto Wagner in Vienna. He also visited India in 1961, and he could not get enough of hoary civilizations. He modeled cabinets, glass, and ceramics on reliquaries, totems, funeral mounds, and symbols of enduring life. His retrospective becomes a vocabulary lesson out of more cultures than I can say.

The show becomes a massive puzzle, just as some of the furniture seems in need of assembly. Seemingly everything turns up, needed or not, including all those global cultures. A room for “Superboxes” has a tall cabinet at its center, in a stark gray and black—but also Egyptian archaeology, the Wiener Werkstätte (or Vienna Workshop) of 1903, Donald Judd, and a contemporary Italian’s striped ziggurat. You may find yourself asking what belongs to Sottsass. What continent is this anyway? What decade or what millennium?

That eclecticism still has its lessons, though, and so does the fear for market forces and modern life. So, too, do the wild colors, defiant masses, and broken symmetries. Their influence shines in the exhibition poster, with staggered pairs of letters from Sottsass—all the more so after the much derided redesign of the Met’s logo. The fire still burns, too, in that portable typewriter and its fire-engine red. Could Sottsass have known that you would want a colorful case for your phone? Could he have known that you would want to take your laptop or tablet with you on the train or to the beach?

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

10.5.17 — Shifting Sandy

Picking up on the theme of climate change from yesterday on Maya Lin, permit me an extra post this week as part of a busy fall in the galleries.

Art is a tough business, but some artists can still get lucky. They might, say, get hit by a hurricane.

At least Tom Burckhardt seems to count that as luck. He invites one into his flooded studio transplanted to the Lower East Side. What it lacks in sensitivity it makes up in its recreation of an artist’s working space. As it turns out, the most precarious space of all lies not in a house of cardboard, but in painting.

Katharina Grosse's Rockaway! (photo by John Haber, MoMA PS1, 2016)Studio Flood looks precarious enough before one enters. Nothing disguises its coarse honeycombed edges, and nothing covers its tan face beyond black paint. One may not need to take off one’s shoes or to duck much to enter, but it presents a healthy reminder that artists take to whatever space they can. It may even determine the scale of their work, much as the gallery determines the scale of the installation, at Pierogi through October 8. It may also be disorienting, even before one realizes that something has turned it upside-down—and that something extends beyond the weather. Posters, their text inverted, put in a word for both the Clinton and Trump campaigns, in an election year that still feels like a natural disaster.

Burckhardt knows the feeling, for he sees a hurricane as a reminder that few artists are ever in control of their fate. That lesson hits home inside, where one cannot always tell the back of canvases from their black or blank surfaces, like Allan McCollum without the cynicism. It hits home again when one emerges on the far side, in the gallery’s back room. There he displays more cardboard substitutes for paintings, along with framed views of many more lined up against a wall. Who knows what was lost to the storm and what the artist never managed to begin? Maybe he is the master of his fate after all, and maybe that hits him as the harshest lesson of all.

Then again, maybe not. The sheer number of blank canvases attests to a control freak with a well-stocked studio, and so do the carefully organized brushes, paints, and tools. After Jasper Johns, it makes perfect sense that some brushes rest in a Savarin can. Even the puddles outside the studio, sketched overhead, look more like creative roofing. In a fall opening show, from the gallery that once inaugurated an art scene in Williamsburg, whose crisis is this anyway? Indeed, which hurricane?

Burckhardt began with thoughts of Tropical Storm Sandy, although the campaign posters made news more recently. Back in 2012 the shuttered storefronts had lessons of their own about the precarious state of the midlevel galleries that contribute so much. The costs linger at that, including repairs to the Canarsie subway tunnel starting in 2019—a shutdown sure to place Brooklyn art at risk. So far, though, galleries have recovered just fine from the weather. With spray paint on a house in Far Rockaway (the photo here), by Katharina Grosse last summer, Sandy may even have offered an opportunity. One may have to remind oneself that the abandoned house was slated for demolition, and so is Burckhardt’s cardboard studio.

Artists do get lucky, but climate change is frightening and real. The show may seem to have impressive timing, coming the week between Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida—with Jose on its way. Any one of these would have passed for a “once in five hundred years” event not so long ago. Does the timing also trivialize the damage, including lost homes and lost lives, as if all that matters is painting? No doubt, but credit Burckhardt with a bittersweet sense of humor and a broader sense of loss. For art, the greater threats have come from pricy real estate, crowded art fairs, unscrupulous art advisers, competitive markets, and less than compelling art.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

10.4.17 — Go with the Flow

Maya Lin may seem less an architect than a conservator. Is it any wonder, then, that she is tracking the ebb and flow of the planet in her art?

Water and weather were on everyone’s mind at Lin’s opening in Chelsea, for a show in fact called “Ebb and Flow.” It fell between two devastating tropical storms, with first record rain and then devastating winds. It coincided with an installation by Tom Burckhardt that recalls Tropical Storm Sandy on the Lower East Side. The onset of fall in the galleries that night was only figuratively torrential. Lin is also at work on what she has declared her final memorial at age fifty-seven, to be called What Is Missing? She intends it to raise awareness of habitat loss and loss of biodiversity.

Yet she alludes to climate only circumspectly, at Pace through October 7. Her new work maps the course of rivers, but it leaves unstated how their course has changed and what that change will mean. Titles identify the sites as the Arctic and Antarctic, where the borders are shifting fast, but also the Nile and Victoria Falls. Maya Lin's Three Ways of Looking at the Earth (PaceWildenstein, 2009)They show no obvious evidence of drought or melting ice. They seem more like an abundance.

Maya Lin has always made an art of gratitude as well as loss, part of what makes it effective. When her Vietnam War Memorial opened in 1982, critics underestimated the combination’s power. They wanted a testimony to heroism and not also to loss, just as conservatives deny global warming today. The combination also makes her a conservator as an architect. SculptureCenter retains its crumbling basement infrastructure as an effective site for objects and installations. The combination also makes sense for the Museum of Chinese in America, where history is not always pretty.

If anything, she is conserving more and imposing less than ever. Lin was a student at Yale when she designed the memorial in Washington, and she is returning to its roots in Minimalism and earthworks. Now, though, she is no longer moving earth but rather mapping it. A show in 2009 (reproduced here) stuck to topography as well, but at least waist high, and one’s perspective shifted as one walked through it. Here the rivers form narrow streams along the walls and floor. The tallest runs in a circle at the level of one’s ankles, like a wading pool that has lost its water.

They can still make a big impression. A single work includes more streams than any one river could reasonably hold, and they cascade across walls and up to the ceiling. They also make use of marble, marbles, pins, and no longer molten silver. The materials have had their own ebb and flow. Her idea of earthworks has less in common with Walter de Maria and his dirty masses than with plantings for Agnes Denes or “maintenance art” for Mierle Laderman Ukeles. It exploits the tension between things as they are and the cutting edge.

That tension can work against her quiet artistry. One may not know that she, like Renzo Piano, can take credit for more than one New York museum—in his case, the Morgan, the Whitney, and Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery. She said little when SculptureCenter later moved its entrance, added a stairwell, and cut into its pebbled garden while hardly adding exhibition space. This time, too, circumspection comes at the expense of glory, wonder, sorrow, or anger, and the materials can look a little too pretty. For the designer of a war memorial and a Women’s Table at Yale, Lin seems almost reluctant to speak out. Maybe she is daring the planet’s survivors to go with the flow.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

10.2.17 — Symbolism as Pop-up

Joséphin Péladan was a writer, a mystic, and not incidentally an entrepreneur. That very year that Frederic Leighton in England was painting his Flaming June, Péladan was creating a bridge from estheticism, decadence, and the spiritual to a still unknown modern art. At least he did so in his own eyes—and in the eyes of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art. For the museum, he helped make Symbolism central to the arts, with an influence as far reaching as Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, and Piet Mondrian.

Fernand Khnopff's I Lock My Door upon Myself (Neue Pinakothek, Munich, 1891)It shows instead artists largely forgotten and even then late in the game. “Mystical Symbolism,” through October 4, tracks the annual Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris over its mere five years, beginning in 1892—six years after Jean Moréas, never once mentioned, published his Surrealist manifesto. It suggests an obsession not with another world, much less a more spiritual future, but with the past. With just twenty paintings along with prints and documents, it comes off as a curator’s thesis not yet ready for prime time. It would be criminal if it leaves visitors thinking that they have seen Symbolism. Yet it has one asking about the place of Symbolism in modern art.

Péladan may not have become a household name, but he sure had charisma. Jean Delville paints him in the white robe of a choir boy or a savior. Marcellin Desboutin lends him the richer costume and dashing pose of a visiting celebrity from the East, while Alexandre Séon accentuates his pointed beard, wild hair like a Russian’s fur hat, and gaze toward a higher power. One could mistake him for Rasputin at the court of the tsar, and indeed they label him a sâr, or leader in Assyrian. Unlike the official Salon that had cast out Edouard Manet and Impressionism, his was in today’s language a pop-up, turning up where it may. Of course its name stands for its dedication to a none too secret society, the Rosicrucian order.

That order had its heyday in centuries past, and the artists look back as well. The most prominent symbolist painter, Gustave Moreau, appears only through a pupil, Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, and his influence. It shows in the death of Orpheus for Delville, with a bejeweled and shining face drifting in a blue-gray sea. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch do not appear at all. Others, like Charles Filiger, turn instead to silhouettes and color out of Paul Gauguin or to Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (which is why I have appended this to an earlier report on Leighton as a longer review and my latest upload). Armand Point mimics their Madonnas, shallow spaces, and decorative naturalism, as with a peacock after Antonio del Pollaiuolo in the Renaissance.

Toss in a fin de siècle weariness, a touch of the ancient Greeks, and a heavy dose of fantasy, like the willowy figure with a lyre in an exhibition poster by Aman-Jean, and one has a style. And a high style it was. The curator, Vivien Greene with Ylinka Barotto, welcomes one into a near recreation of a Salon, right down to velvet red walls and background music—by such heroes of the movement as Richard Wagner and such contemporaries as Erik Satie. What, though, did the style mean? For one thing, the artists took style seriously, in a time of arts for art’s sake. For another, its looking back reflects a thoroughgoing revulsion at modern life.

The movement’s estheticism appears in the frequent return to Orpheus. Naturally, he wants something more, and naturally, too, he is doomed. Séon paints his lament, face down on a rocky beach with his lyre cast aside. And the revulsion is implicit in the choice of styles. Most are quite conservative—although the flat colors in narrative paintings look forward at times to Gustave Klimt and German Expressionism. A poor follower of John Singer Sargent might have painted the portraits of Péladan, give or take their pointed disdain for a secular aristocracy.

The disdain appears in subject matter as well. Charles Maurin poses nubile bodies against smoking factories as The Dawn of Labor. They play out beside the twisted flesh and lamentations of his Dawn of the Dream. Ferdinand Hodler paints The Disappointed Souls as less a circle of hell than a bad day on a park bench. Jan Toorop uses his own daughter as a model for The Next Generation, only to lose her amid bare branches, a willow as a sign of mourning, a snake, and delicate curves of paint. Could the trees alone promise a next generation, with humanity left behind?

To save themselves, the artists have only the dream—and an idealization of women that women today might not appreciate one bit. They paint anonymous saints and shepherdesses with a youthful vision. And that idealization comes at a price. When Delville looks at a woman, he sees only an Idol of Perversity, in graphite, her hair and chest all but exploding toward the viewer. A languid young woman for Fernand Khnopff has the eyes of a zombie, like a beleaguered temptress. She also has a terrible fate, as (in a quote from Rosetti’s sister Christina in poetry) I Lock My Door upon Myself.

Symbolism sought a departure from the allegory and iconography of older religious art in what words cannot express, and writers truly at its origins, like Stéphane Mallarmé, look beyond narrative and mysticism to words themselves on the printed page. Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian take painting beyond narrative, too, to the birth of abstraction. One can be grateful for the occasional familiar name, like Félix Vallotton in woodcuts or a young Georges Rouault. One can be grateful, too, for the insight into a newly cosmopolitan Paris. Artists come from as far as the Dutch East Indies or Algiers—with a plurality from Switzerland and Belgium. Or one can settle for jewel-like patterns and worldly fears.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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