Thursday, May 27, 2010

Modern Art in May

The merry month of May has generated some interesting tidbits in the world of modern art that I thought I would share. For instance, one of my favorite modern artists, Franz Kline (1910-1962), deserves a shout out because it was his 100th birthday on May 23. Kline frequently is overshadowed by his fellow Abstract Expressionist colleagues Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, but I find his work to be enthralling in a way that is uniquely his own. I suspect it may be the persistant use of black and white, as you can see in the example here. In this painting, Nijinsky (1950, Metropolitan Museum of Art), Kline used the power of paint and brushstroke to epitomize action, for which the Ab Ex artists were well known. The title alludes to the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, but at the same time it is sheer artistic expression on canvas. Kline’s breakthrough came when he began painting with large brushes and enamels frequently used by house painters. He then would overpaint it with bold strokes of white paint. His broad expressionistic strokes fly off the canvas, making you realize you are seeing just a microcosm of the larger experience of what the painting suggests. Despite the so-called spontaneity of Ab Ex painting, Kline would sketch his designs using the pages of telephone books until he came up with the pattern he most wanted. Even more fascinating is how his work conjures images of Chinese calligraphy. The connection isn’t so far-fetched: the so-called Qing Eccentrics in the 17th century used to create the same fluid motion when they wrote their poetry and painted their landscapes, allowing their spirituality and emotions to pour forth through the mechanics of their art, not unlike the Ab Ex group.

One of my favorite contemporary artists, the Nigerian-born British artist Yinka Shonibare (whose exhibition I wrote about in September), has been commissioned to erect a sculpture on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London. For the past few years, a new work is commissioned annually for this empty plinth. Last year it was performance art. This year, it’s a ship in a bottle, a work designed to commemorate Lord Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar. The Guardian has great pictures that show how the work was put together. Workers literally slid into the mouth of the bottle to work on the details of the ship itself. The sculpture is scheduled to still be up in the fall, so hopefully I will get to see it when I’m in London.

Earlier this month, I had written about my visit to MOMA to see the thought-provoking and fascinating Marina Abramovic retrospective. The interactive performance piece, The Artist Is Present, continues until Monday, and the museum has captured photographically a number of individuals who have borne witness to the artist's intense visual interaction. Of course celebrities like Isabella Rossellini and Rufus Wainwright have now participated in this, but it is fascinating to see so many everyday people involved, not to mention their range of emotions in response to the work. Jerry Saltz has a review in this week’s New York magazine. He’s somewhat ambivalent about her work; he appreciates it, but he also finds it a little silly. In another article in the same issue, one of Abramavic’s performance artists, Deborah Wing-Sproul, talks about how she prepared to participate in the reinterpretations. There are pictures in the articles, so check them out, including one of Wing-Sproul participating in Nude with Skeleton, which I had noted was my favorite piece in the retrospective. Performance art consciously pushes the limits of the body beyond its natural abilities. I recently finished reading Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a novel about 16th-century nuns, some of whom fast and punish their bodies in order to see and feel the presence of Jesus. We now may call this spiritual ecstasy, but it's striking how performance art can be almost like that, albeit in secular form. Like yogis, performance artists push their bodies to attain a form of personal control and enlightenment.

Pablo Picasso is back on top in the “value of art” world. On May 4, his 1932 painting Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) sold at Christie’s for a world-record price of $106.5 million. Picasso supposedly painted the picture in one day. CultureGrrl wrote a few posts about the sale, noting as she normally does with auctions that the actual hammer price was lower than this. Auction houses always add a buyer’s premium, which is their commission. Regardless, the point is that the unknown buyer spent that much in order to purchase the painting, quickly throwing out of the running the short-lived record from February when an Alberto Giacommetti sculpture sold at auction for $104.3 million. I guess it’s comforting to know that not everyone has been affected by the recession.

Then again, if you can’t afford to buy modern art, you could always try stealing it. Last week, someone broke into the Museum of Modern Art in Paris during the night and stole five paintings by some of the great masters of modern art: Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Fernand L├ęger, and Amedeo Modigliani. It is suspected that the burglar had some inside help, because he was able to exploit a little-known problem with the security system, i.e. it was broken. What else can you say to that, except c’est la vie!

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