Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Art Exhibitions of 2013

What better way to end the year then by catching an art exhibition! JM and I fought the crowds at MoMA this afternoon so we could catch Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, about the pivotal years in the Belgian Surrealist's career. The work you see here is entitled The False Mirror, 1928 (image: MoMA) and gives a quick sense of how Magritte's images and titles are plays on one another (the eye is a reflection of the soul? what one sees? of anything?). Alas, his images have become so ubiquitous in reproductive form that upon seeing an outpouring of his paintings such as in this exhibition they become almost tedious and disappointing. Frankly, the curators could have done a better job engaging the viewer with the works (i.e. shouldn't we be addressing the misogyny and violence toward women in his paintings?). We also popped in to see Isa Genzken Retrospective, which turned out to be another prime example of the art style I classify as "Self-Indulgent Crap." Some of her large-scale minimalist sculptures in concrete and wood were interesting, but the rest of it was just mind-numbingly awful. I can't believe this is the same artist who produced the boldly delicate Rose II as part of the New Museum's Facade Sculpture program.

Readers of bklynbiblio know that I visit a number of art exhibitions, but only some stand out for me as the best of the year, and a smaller number ever make it onto this blog. (I attempted to start a "best of" in 2010 but couldn't keep up with it; hopefully we will in the future.) In writing about my top favorite exhibitions, you probably won't be surprised to see that most largely reflect art of the past. But living in NYC I have become more and more attuned to "modern/contemporary art," so I'm always happy when I discover some new artist or great exhibition that can excite me about art post-WWI or post-1980. All that said, it should come as no surprise that my favorite exhibition of the year was clearly Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900, which I saw at the National Gallery of Art, but which had opened in London the previous year at the Tate. Although I was readily familiar with most of the works in the show, it was great to see so many of them from different museums and private collections brought together again for an exhibition that documented the accomplishments of these talented artists who sought to be modern through inspiration from the past. The image you see here is the book jacket for the exhibition catalogue. (See more of my thoughts on the show here.) My second favorite exhibition this year--and I hesitate to call it that, as it is more of an installation and performance--was Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet. Held at the Cloisters, this sound-based piece captured the spirit of its medieval origins not only with the musical composition but with the architectural space, a medieval chapel. They were made for one another. Listening to all of the recorded voices individually as they surrounded you made you feel as if the entire recorded motet was a living, singing sculpture, albeit one that existed in space and time and not in person. You had to close your eyes to experience it best, and it came close to a transcendental art experience.

My third favorite exhibition of the year was Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at the Met. The idea that the Impressionists and their contemporaries were inspired by current trends in fashion and the rise of bourgeois industry were first explored in art history nearly 20 years ago. But the bringing together of important French paintings from the 1860s and 1870s and juxtaposing them with fashion from the day--including some of the same gowns or accessories depicted in the paintings--made for a fabulous exhibition. The mannequins wearing the clothes helped make the paintings come to life. In addition to seeing great paintings by Manet, Monet, and Morisot, lesser-known brilliant artists like Tissot were given their due acknowledgment as well. This was definitely an exhibition worth seeing. (Image: installation view of Gallery 3: The White Dress, Met Museum).

Among my other favorite exhibitions of the year were Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument and Edward Burtynsky: Water, excellent photography shows curated by my friend & colleague Russell Lord in New Orleans. The Parks show played with a journalistic story and opened your mind to understanding so much more about how photographs are manipulated and reframed to tell a story. In contrast, the Burtynsky large-scale photographs of water-themed images were simply mind-blowing and beautiful. (Read more of my thoughts on these shows here.) At Brooklyn Museum, the exhibitions on to El Anatsui's monumental sculptural detritus installations and Sargent's jewel-like watercolors turned out to be a counterpoint in beauty (see more of my thoughts here). And Edwardian Opulence at the Yale Center for British Art was an extravagant, jam-packed plethora of art and cultural artifacts from the post-Queen Victoria period (see more of my thoughts here). Honorable mentions for this year also go out to: David d'Angers: Making the Modern Monument at the Frick, a small but informative exploration into the life and career of this 19th-century French sculptor; Beauty and Revolution: Neoclassicism, 1770-1820 at the Staedel Museum, Frankfurt, a show of important classical paintings and sculptures, Canova and Thorvaldsen taking center stage (part of my Zurich/Frankfurt tour this year); NYC 1993 at the New Museum, on art of a century ago; and monographic shows on the ever-queer Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt at MoMA P.S.1 and Eleanor Antin at the Wallach Gallery at Columbia. 

As always, there were great shows I missed, which I shall regret, including The Boxer: An Ancient Masterpiece at the Met and the Rain Room at MoMA. But fortunately there is still time to see a few shows that have opened and are ongoing for a few weeks or months more, especially The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution at the New-York Historical Society. Hm...I may even go to see that on New Year's Day!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Auction Sales of 2013

Considering today is Christmas Eve, it seems rather appropriate to blog about the work you see here: A Christmas Carol, 1867, oil on panel [image: Sotheby's]. The painting is by the Pre-Raphaelite/Aesthetic artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The picture reveals many of Rossetti's interests at this time, from the beautiful woman in a bower to the connections of the visual with music as a timeless, experiential art form. But the reason why I'm showcasing this Victorian picture is because the painting was sold at Sotheby's London on December 4 and earned a record-high sale for Rossetti, coming in with the hammer price of £4,562,500 ($7,475,200). This actually beat the sale for a Rossetti color charcoal drawing of Proserpine that had just been a record high for him a few weeks earlier at £3.3m ($5.3m). Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic art continues to rise in popularity...an ongoing testament to the recent Oxford conference following up on the successful exhibition held at Tate Britain, that I saw in Washington, D.C., and then went on to Moscow and Tokyo.

That said, auction prices for Victorian art still pale in comparison to the market for post-WWII art, which continues to skyrocket, with more and more sales coming in at the $100+ million mark. As I noted in last year's post on auction sales of 2012, 10 of the highest-priced auction and private sales have all taken place since 2006. We can now extend that to point out that the top 17 spots for the most paid for art in auction/private sales have all taken place over the past 10 years! According to a recent article in Businessweek, "the top 10 auction lots of 2013 raised $752.2m, a 27 percent increase from 2012 and an 82 percent jump from 2011." Trends in the art-buying auction world are showing that the "tres nouveaux riches" are from China, Russia, and the Middle East. (Not coincidentally these are the same groups who are also buying up high-end real estate all over Manhattan, leaving the Everyman little chance of ever being able to own property in NYC.) Art, more than ever before, is a commodity, something to be flipped and sold at a profit. Museums cannot even compete in this new art market. Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic, has written an interesting editorial about this, noting how the super-rich are ruining for the rest of us the ability to appreciate art.

Three major auction records were broken this year for post-War art. Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, sold on November 12 at Christie's New York for $142,405,000 hammer price (see my blog post about this here), making it currently the highest amount ever paid at auction. Andy Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963, silkscreen ink and silver spray paint on canvas [image: Sotheby's], broke Warhol's record when it sold on November 13 at Sotheby's New York for $105,445,000. Finally, Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) stainless steel sculpture, 1994-2000, sold at the same Christie's sale as the Bacon for $58,405,000, giving Koons the record for the most money paid at auction for a living artist's work.

Keeping track of the most money paid for works of art can be tricky, as most resources combine auction and private sales. One example is theartwolf.com, and another is this Wikipedia entry. Both focus on paintings and they also account for inflation and current value (which is both helpful and distracting, as it alters the ranking of "most valuable"). Extracting data from these and other sources, I've put together my own Top 5 Auction Sales of Works of Art. I have no doubt it will change each year, but this is how things stand as of today.

  1. Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, oil on canvas in three parts, sold Nov. 2013, Christie's New York, $142.4m.
  2. Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895, pastel on board, sold May 2012, Sotheby's New York, $119.9m.
  3. Pablo Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, oil on canvas, sold May 2010, Christie's New York, $106.5m.
  4. Andy Warhol, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963, silkscreen ink and silver spray paint on canvas, sold Nov. 2013, Christie's New York, $105.4m.
  5. Pablo Picasso, Garรงon a la pipe, 1905, oil on canvas, sold May 2004, Sotheby's New York, $104.1m.

MWA XX: David's Nativity

Although I've never had the opportunity to study in-depth "Northern Renaissance art" (i.e. paintings by Netherlandish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling), like others I find them to be some of the most beautiful paintings in the history of art. The crisp linearity and precision of draftsmanship is complemented by rich jewel-like colors, making so many of these paintings among the most precious in European art. Many of the works are altarpieces and Catholic in nature, as they pre-date the spread of the Protestant Reformation and thus the removal of Christian imagery (idolatry as it was called) in favor of the Word (Bible) alone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a number of these works, largely because they were collected by Gilded Age industrialists at a time when a number of these early painters were barely known. Gerard David (ca. 1455-1523), born in the Netherlands and active in the now-Belgian city of Bruges, was but one of these highly-respected and talented painters of their day.

His scenes, such as this work from the Met, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, ca. 1510-15, focus on traditional Christian imagery, but often reveal the secrets of his own interest in landscape painting. Just look in this detail over the shoulder of Joseph and you can see the shepherds peering through the window with an exquisite landscape stretching into the distance. The birth of Christ is the subject of the triptych, but the angels positioned beside the open window together echo the connections between God and nature. It's a powerful image, with many layers of meaning. According to the curators, "despite the joyful moment depicted, the figures all wear somber expressions, foreshadowing Christ's eventual suffering and sacrifice." The saints on the two end panels are Jerome and Leonard, but the donors kneeling before them remain unidentified, reminding us how much more we have to learn about the history and reception of these gems in Western painting. Gerard David himself was lost to history and only rediscovered in the mid-1800s. For more about his extensive life and work, see the Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

And to all my bklynbiblio readers, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lucy in Color?

I Love Lucy was ALWAYS a big deal in my family when I was growing up. The story of an immigrant musician who marries a crazy redhead who comes up with the most ridiculous shenanigans? This was basically the story of my mother and father's marriage. Not coincidentally, my red-headed mother in particular loved the show. By the time I ever watched the show with her, it was in reruns during the '70s, but it was originally on in the '50s and remains one of the funniest comedies in the history of television. Watching an episode today is as hilarious now as it was then. There is a timelessness to their stories because, as absurd as the plots are, they somehow still seem feasible. Plus, Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred were likable people you could imagine having as your neighbors (or your family, for that matter), especially if you were New Yorkers! I Love Lucy today remains charming in part because it's in black-and-white, giving it a nostalgic sensibility that makes you think of days gone by. But CBS is now apparently experimenting with that nostalgia. This coming Friday, December 20th, they are playing 2 Christmas episodes of the sitcom-colorized them. The purist in me is horrified by this, of course. When Ted Turner in the 1990s started colorizing old movies, the technology was so bad it ruined the films. And yet, looking at the sneak peek reel on YouTube, there's something about it that makes it look like a Mad Men-like historic recreation of a 1950s sitcom, filmed for the first time now. Lucy's red hair is too orangey-red, so it's not perfect, but the high-quality of the coloration does some reinvigorate it. Plus, it still seems funny though, so I'm looking forward to watching this on Friday night. The YouTube clip is below, or click here to view it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

HBA Interview

I'm pleased to share the news that I was recently interviewed about my interests in British art and my new job at Columbia. The interview has just been published as the first "member profile," a new feature in the Historians of British Art Newsletter (Fall/Winter 2013), with questions posed by Editor Catherine Roach, Asst. Prof. of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth Univ. (You may recall that she was one of the speakers at my Why Victorian Art? symposium back in 2009). The picture you see here was published with the interview and shows me on the campus of Columbia posing with Henry Moore's Three-Way Piece: Points, 1967. For your reading pleasure, here's the interview. I think it gives readers a good overview of my art historical interests and the scope of my job as Curator of Art Properties. Enjoy!

Member Profile:
Roberto C. Ferrari, Curator of Art Properties
Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

What drew you to the field of British art? I’ve always been an Anglophile. Although my father is Italian, my mother’s side of the family is of English descent and I credit Nana (my maternal grandmother) as the source of my interest in all things British. Her parents were Victorian immigrants from Lancashire and, despite only an eighth-grade education, she was surprisingly well-read. We would partake of tea and biscuits while she told me stories about Elizabeth and Essex or the King and Mrs. Simpson. From there I gradually discovered British art, and like many a young Romantic fell for the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. (Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata and Burne-Jones’s Beguiling of Merlin are still two of my favorite paintings.) Once I began studying the Pre-Raphaelites, I discovered the underappreciated art and life of Simeon Solomon and began doing work on him. My interest in British art soon expanded to nineteenth-century sculpture as well. My interest in British art has been a gratifying experience.
Where did you do your graduate work, and on what topic? I earned my M.A. in Humanities from the University of South Florida, where I wrote my thesis on the fatal woman motif in paintings by Rossetti and poetry by Swinburne. I also earned my M.A. in Library and Information Science from USF. After many years as a librarian, I went back to school and earned an M.Phil. degree and my Ph.D. in Art History from the Graduate Center, City University of New York, graduating in May 2013. My dissertation was on the Anglo-Roman sculptor John Gibson, best known for reintroducing polychromy in sculpture with his Tinted Venus, although I go beyond his interest in polychromy to consider other aspects of his long, productive career.

What projects are you currently working on? Two essays from my dissertation on Gibson will be published in book collections over the next few years. I recently gave a presentation at the Pre-Raphaelite conference in Oxford on Solomon’s 1860 painting The Mother of Moses, discussing issues of race and religion. I am turning that into an article, with a related spin-off article focusing just on his mixed-race model Fanny Eaton. My colleague Carolyn Conroy (University of York) and I continue to update the Simeon Solomon Research Archive (http://www.simeonsolomon.com), adding more digital images of his work and exploring the possibility of publishing his correspondence on the site as well.

Tell us about your current post as Curator of Art Properties at Columbia University. As Curator of Art Properties, I oversee the art collections at Columbia. Few people are aware that Columbia even has a permanent art collection. Unlike other ivy-league schools, Columbia decided not to establish an art museum, but they did collect art from the time of its foundation as King’s College in 1754. By the 1950s an administrative body known as Art Properties was established to oversee the art collections, and the first curator was hired soon afterward. When the Wallach Gallery was established in the late 1980s, Art Properties was merged with it, but with the retirement of my predecessor it was decided that the two departments would be separated. This has allowed my department to revitalize interest in the art collections for educational and display purposes. The collection contains nearly 15,000 objects and ranges from Etruscan pottery and Buddhist sculpture to hundreds of portrait paintings and nearly 900 photographs. With my two full-time staff members and occasional interns, we are responsible for the organization and care of the collections, including inventory, exhibition and loan programs, conservation, photographic services, and so on. An educator at heart, I am pleased that we have begun new initiatives bringing art objects into the classroom, allowing students the rare opportunity to study closely and handle objects in a way they never could in other settings.
Are there any British works in the Columbia collections that you'd like to highlight? The art collections at Columbia are culturally diverse and include a few great examples of British art. Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture Three-Way Piece: Points, 1967, a gift from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation (1967.20.1), is a highlight in our public outdoor sculpture. We have some wonderful portraits in the grand manner tradition, including Joseph Highmore’s King George II, ca. 1750 (C00.62), and Joshua Reynolds’s Sir George Grenville, ca. 1764 (C00.442). The Plimpton bequest in 2000 added to the collection about 60 portraits of noteworthy British men and women by painters such as Thomas Lawrence and Martin Archer Shee. We also have a number of prints by William Hogarth and other British artists.

Do you have any advice for student members who might want to follow a similar career path? The job market for art historians is very challenging right now. My advice to any prospective student member is to follow her/his dream in studying what s/he wants in British art, but to be aware of the bigger picture in the art world, particularly trends and names in modern and contemporary art. Apply for lots of grants and fellowships, network as much as possible, and keep one’s mind open to alternative career choices. One never knows how things will evolve.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

First Snowstorm: 2013-2014 Fall/Winter

Much of the country has been going through rather horrific weather, with record low temperatures and a lot of snow. It's even snowed in Dallas/Ft. Worth already! This is clearly unseasonably early for this much snow, especially since Winter hasn't even officially started yet. Today, the NYC area got its share. The snow started about 8am, coming down hard. Sometime after noon it trickled to flurries, and by 3pm it was done and already melting. I wasn't sure at first I could call it an official snowstorm, but the snow did stick and we got at least 2 inches, so I'm declaring this our first official snowstorm of the season.

Here are two pictures showing areas at Columbia University with the snow accumulating. My colleague TG took the picture of Alma Mater, the bronze sculpture by Daniel Chester French, gathering snow on her head and outstretched hand. I took the other one with my iPhone showing the view from Avery Hall's front steps looking west. I don't mind first snowstorms when they're toward the beginning of Winter. It seems picturesque and right somehow. I'm sure by the end of February, however, I will be SO ready for Spring.