Sunday, November 21, 2010

Art Institute of Chicago : Ancient Chinese Bronzes from the Shouyang Studio

Ancient Chinese Bronzes from the Shouyang Studio:
The Katherine and George Fan Collection
at the Art Institute of Chicago
through Jan. 2

Chinese art history begins with the Tang Dynasty (618-907) – or, at least that’s what you might conclude after seeing the plethora of colorful ceramics and monumental Buddhist sculpture in American art museums. Or perhaps a few charming tomb figures would take you back to the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE ). But it was in the previous millennium that the language, customs, and ideals of Chinese civilization really came together, and the surviving visual art of that period mostly consists of the kind of ceremonial bronze vessels that a Hong Kong engineer, George Fan, has collected and is now showing at the Art Institute.

Mr. Fan says that his interests have been primarily historical, focused on the inscriptions that determine so much of what can be known about the political history of Central China. The aesthetic qualities of these objects were tangential, and only a few pieces are as thrilling as the best work in the A.I.C.’s permanent collection that was assembled in the early 20th C., back when China was in turmoil and so many national treasures came onto the international market. But still, his collection is large enough to assign separate areas to several historical periods (early Shang, late Shang, early Zhou, Warring States, Jin, Qin, Spring and Autumn, etc). And many of the pieces reward close examination of their intensely designed surfaces, which all seem to express the powerful yang hexagrams of the I-Ching (which was also developed throughout this era). Especially engaging are the tall Shang goblets that might well have served as weapons after some partying warlords had quaffed the contents.

The historical significance of many of these objects has led to their designation as gifts to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China’s current dynasty, the Peoples’ Republic. But Mr. Fan has been a collector, not an archeologist, and with no indication of provenance, the origins of these pieces is problematic. Even if un-altered and authentic, they still have been excavated by treasure hunters not scientists, so their relationship to specific sites, and the other objects found there, has been lost forever. Archeological looting remains a huge industry and international problem, and art museums only exacerbate it by singling out individual collectors like Mr. and Mrs. Fan for high praise and status.

Smart Museum : The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

"Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan
Smart Museum thru January 16, 2011

Back in August of 1909, distinguished orientalist, Victor Segalen, author of “La Grande Statuaire chinoise” (translated and published by the University of Chicago,1972) found himself and a colleague alone with a remarkable statue of Buddha in a remote shrine in China. Despite some damage to the torso, “its profile had retained its nobility, its eyes their gaze, the smile of its mouth its generous sweetness and a kind of irony.” And immediately they knew what to do. “This statue, we must have it! We will not leave without it!.” Removing an ax from their luggage, Segalen began chopping at the neck, and when the clamor attracted the attention of two peasants who were passing by, the locals obligingly showed them how to apply wedges and wooden blocks to make the work so much easier.

Imagine that process repeated tens of thousands of times in grottos and temple shrines throughout China in the early 20th Century, where unable carry off entire tableaux, plunderers, servicing the world art market, chopped off heads, hands, whatever -- many of which fragments would eventually enter the collections of American museums

But times have changed, and one of the greatest changes is the focus of modern scholarship. The pioneering scholar of Japanese Buddhist art, Ernest Fenellosa (1853-1908), may have believed that : "We are approaching the time when the art work of all the world of man may be looked upon as one, as infinite variations in a single kind of mental and social effort" But modern scholars are more likely to agree with Sir Edmund Leach(1910-1989): "works of art are not just things in themselves, they are objects carrying moral implications. What the moral implication is depends upon where they are"

So now, a century later, the University of Chicago has begun a project to restore one of the original sites, the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan. No, museums will not be sending the loot back to China, but 3-D scanning techniques allow for fragments to be scanned and then assembled into a virtual reality, which has been projected onto a wrap-around screen in this exhibit, and supplemented with touch-screens that offer iconographic information.

But as another pioneer in world art, Andre Malraux, once asserted : “Art is not learned, it is encountered”, and happily (perhaps has an afterthought) curators have complemented this digital display with 13 actual sculptural fragments (mostly heads and hands, but also a few complete figures) which have traveled here from museums in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and San Francisco.

But when these 13 original fragments (some which are monumental in size) have been encountered, at least one viewer is convinced that the moral context involved is not specific to Buddhist doctrine, and the place where they belong is anywhere on planet earth, rather than just some shallow mountain caves in southern Hubei Province.

What’s especially delightful and unique about this display is that all of the pieces come from one place, Xiangtangshan, and one time, the short lived Qi Dynasty of northern China (550-577), and they all have a kind of simple sweetness that feels less severe/dogmatic than the Wei dynasty statuary that preceded it, and more natural than the Tang dynasty Buddhas that followed.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many examples of this (or possibly any) site specific genre of Buddhist sculpture, unless you travel to Washington for it’s next installation, which will be augmented by even more pieces from the Freer Gallery (which are forbidden to travel)

It’s also a chance to compare original fragments with the computer mapped versions derived from them. However accurate those mappings may be in terms of size and iconographic detail, aesthetically, they’re as ruined as original statuary when badly weathered by wind, ice, and water. And what is so remarkable about the 13 originals is how good each and every one of them looks. They’re in great condition, and just as in the great French cathedrals, the standard of workmanship, and quality control, was very, very high.

Perhaps, some future generation of scholars will re-discover the technique of rubber-mold making and use it to re-create some these shrines exactly as would now appear if they had never been butchered.

But for our generation, the fascination with digital technology is still too compelling, and interest in historic context still trumps aesthetic quality.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Moissei Liangleben

Moissei Liangleben – at the Palette and Chisel, through Oct. 24

Born in 1925 and emigrating to Chicago in 1991, Moissei Liangleben’s life spanned almost the entire history of the Soviet Union, surviving famines in the 1930’s, conscription into the great war of the 1940’s, and finally winning admittance to the Surikov Art Institute in 1945 and membership in the artists’ union in 1952. American museums, like the Art Institute, have limited themselves to Russian avant garde artists like Malevich, Kandinsky, and Chagall .But Moissei lived in a whole other world of 19th and 20th C. Russian creativity. His family owned a landscape by Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898), and he studied with Sergei Gerasimov (1885-1964), knew Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876 - 1956), and many other leading Soviet painters and sculptors. When Americans think of this genre, we think of propaganda like the exhibition of war posters that will come to the A.I.C. next year. But Soviet painters, just like Soviet poets, musicians, and dancers, had aesthetic agendas as well. They were a privileged class, distinguished by the very high level of classical technique required for admittance, as well as by the melancholy moods appropriate for life everywhere on planet earth, but especially in the evil empire. This exhibit by Moissei Liangleben spans the 7 decades of his career (and yes, he’s still climbing the 50 steps up to the third floor of the Palette and Chisel to paint the model several times a week). Unfortunately, there’s not much in this exhibit from his middle years, when he specialized in portraits of the intellectual elite, like Veniamin Kaverin, Viktor Shklovsky, Vsevolod Ivanov, and Anna Akhmatova (who had first been painted by her lover, Modigliani). But there are some fascinating self portraits of the teenage art student, and 60 years later, many charming views of young Chicago women. Like contemporary American Impressionists, he is interested in beauty. But his nudes are not just about flesh. Like many Russian artists, he is mostly interested in describing a unique personality. As he puts it, he wants to “show my sense of brightness and beauty in the model’s appearance”. But relentlessly, though subtly, there is also a sense of impending grief and sadness.

Above all, he is proudest of how he integrates the figure with its background to create an atmosphere, but despite his extensive training, he does not practice the kind of academicism whose smooth finish approaches that of a photograph. The Soviet school is closer to the flat, rough, expressive angularity of Cezanne. Whether new generations of painters will continue to pursue this direction remains to be seen. It’s a style that may disappear along with the idealistic but tragically flawed mega-state that sponsored it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Luc Tuymans at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Critical response to the paintings of Luc Tuymans has fallen into three areas of concern.

First, and often foremost, is the historical subject matter. Why have right-wing Europeans (and Americans) done such terrible things? (Holocaust, Imperialism, colonialism, racism), and what should we think about them? Second, are issues of image, perception, and memory. What are the limits of memory and image recognition? Third, come issues of contemporary art history. Can painting ever reclaim the high-ground of representational territory it seems to have lost to the digital camera. Regarding history, memory, image, and perception, Regina Hackett (Arts Journal) helpfully notes that the image of each Tuymans painting is “perfectly transportable. Seeing it reproduced online is not significantly different from seeing it in person” So there’s really no need to climb the endless granite steps up to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tuymans hasn’t revealed anything more about his historical subjects than his original source material did (much of which is conveniently displayed in a gallery adjacent to his paintings) And if you’re really interested in perceptual psychology or 20th Century European history, your time might much better be spent elsewhere.

But regarding the visual quality of his paintings, yes, you do have to see the works in person, and yes, Tuymans actually is a good painter, with a sensitive feeling for space, texture, and drama.

Compared to many local painters, his drawing and compositional abilities are limited, but he has wisely limited his palette to muted colors and his procedure to whatever he can do in a single session, much as traditional ceramicists have done. The total effect is melancholy – bordering on depression, especially as the labels and commentary connect them to thoughts about mass murder, incurable disease, Disney hucksterism, or, worst of all, the George W. Bush administration. But if you savor contempt and the dark moods of despair that accompany it, you might find this an enjoyable exhibition. (and apparently, there are quite a few wealthy collectors around the world who share that highly educated taste)

Happily, the first week of this exhibit coincided with the last week of an ebulliently buoyant exhibition of Alexander Calder. But after all that colorful, playful eye-candy comes down this weekend, you should probably schedule a few stiff drinks after the show. (just like Tuymans himself probably does. As Dorothy Spears of the New York Timesc reported, he carries around his own flask).

Is it true that “Tuymans' work specifically addresses the challenge of the inadequacy and 'belatedness', as he puts it, of painting. (as promoters a the Tate museum have quoted him)? – i.e. “the fallen state of painting since the 1960’s” ?

Apparently, if a painting is depressing enough, and makes enough politically and theoretically correct references, the answer is resoundingly in the affirmative as Tuymans takes over the entire 4th floor of the M.C.A.

But when will European representational painting, like Odysseus back in Ithaca, finally be allowed to throw off its gray, threadbare, stinking rags and reveal all the beauty, power, and splendor of which it has been capable?

That might take a few more decades.

(BTW - a quite perceptive and breathlessly written commentary on Tuymans has been written here by that Tory gadfly, Bunny Smedley)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Roger L. Weston Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago

Nishikawa Sukenobu

The Roger L. Weston Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago

The incredible collection of Roger L. Weston takes center stage in the premier exhibition of the newly remodeled Japanese galleries that bear his name. For the first time in recent memory, there’s a roomful of Japanese hanging scrolls and lacquer boxes, mostly made by the top names in 18th and 19th C. Japanese art: Shibata Zeshin, Ogata Korin, Chobunsai Eishi, Nishikawa Sukenobu, and even Utamaro. With 55% more floor space,

there’s also enough room now to show a large selection of tea ceremony ceramics

and ingenious bamboo baskets.

But where did this additional gallery space come from? Unfortunately, these are galleries that recently held Korean ceramics/calligraphy and Chinese painting, so unlike the South Asian, Pre-Columbian, and African displays, the far-eastern collection is not going to benefit from the all the gallery space freed up by the building of the Modern Wing. Most of the Korean ceramics (but none of the calligraphy) have been moved to the small gallery that flanks the entrance to Alsdorf Hall, but all of the Chinese paintings have been taken off view, and will not reappear until the Chinese galleries are remodeled at some unspecified date in the future. And, unhappily, certain questionable changes have been made to the older rooms of Japanese art. In order to make the Ando Gallery feel more accessible, the heavy glass entrance doors were removed, so now it also feels less intimate.

But more dramatically, the new display of medieval Buddhist sculpture reminds us just how effective the 1992 design by Cleo Nichols used to be. Fierce guardian figures once flanked the small entrance room that opened up into a dark, quiet chamber, at the center of which a Bodhisattva sat upon a raised platform, protected by a railing instead of a glass box, free to measure and control the space of the entire room, while other Buddhist statuary were dramatically lit within boxes embedded into the surrounding walls. The effect of the whole was spiritual and meditative. Like a Buddhist shrine should be – and it was quite a feat to achieve that using the disparate artifacts at hand; each originating from a different temple, province, cult, and century. Now they feel jumbled together in their glass cases, like ethnographic artifacts on display at the Field Museum. What once felt sacred, now feels clinical. But, thankfully, every museum display is built to be demolished, and we can be sure that in twenty years these rooms will be changed yet again.

Masterpieces from Ancient Mexico at the Art Institute of Chicago

Ballplayers, Gods, and Rainmaker Kings:
Masterpieces from Ancient Mexico
Through January 21,2011

Much of this display repeats the survey of Pre-Columbian cultures that is done more extensively in the permanent “Ancient Americas” exhibit at the Field Museum. But the 13 spectacular pieces from the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia in Mexico City is what makes this show indispensable. There’s a life-size, stone version of the mysterious chac-mool reclining figures that seem to have been so important to Henry Moore. Also included is the waist-high greenstone head of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, whose decapitation by her brother was reprised by the ritual slaughter of captives on the steps of the great Aztec temples.

A few feet away, is the famous Aztec statue of Xochipilli, the god of art, games, beauty, and homosexuality, seated in a trance and moaning under the influence of the psychotropic flowers that ornament his body.

But even more remarkable might be the over 40-inch high terracottas that represented various deities from the 7th through 15th Centuries. How did these enormous, intricate, fragile pieces manage to survive so many centuries of upheaval? Aesthetically, most of the work in this show is not far above the merely functional level of grabbing attention and telling a story.

But the late classic Mayan limestone ballcourt marker from La Esperanza Chiapas is a masterpiece of sacred world art. It’s only 22 inches in diameter, but its carving is monumental, and it’s ring of 12 glyphs is a festival of powerful, virtuosic visual expression that can scarcely be found in the American cultures that followed (including our own)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gray Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

The Gray Collection, 7 Centuries of Art,
through Jan. 2, 2011 at the
Art Institute of Chicago

As Richard Gray recalls the first purchases he ever made for the eponymous art gallery he would open in 1963: “I knew that I had to have art, and presumably by people that somebody has heard of, or nobody is going to come to Richard Gray's gallery, because he's a complete unknown”. It turned out to be a successful strategy for business, as well as for the personal collection of drawings that he and his wife have accumulated over the years and now put on display in galleries 124-127 at the Art Institute.

The word “iconic” comes to mind. Iconic themes by iconic artists from iconic periods. So we have two great modernists drawing, yet again, voluptuous women , in the studio with a burly sculptor (by Picasso) or in the salon with tropical plants (by Matisse); the Impressionist, Degas, drawing a café singer; and two 18th C. Venetians,

drawing the quay beside the Doge’s palace (Canaletto) or the Madonna and Child floating up in the clouds (Tiepolo). And many of these, like the five mentioned above, are breathtaking drawings, the best of the best. But there’s also a few memorably unusual pieces,

like the small, furtive sketch of a woman’s head by Jacques Louis David, or the large, academic charcoal figure studies drawn by the young Degas or Seurat. Which is not say that there are not also some major disappointments, like the mediocre pieces by those icons of Baroque draftsmanship, Guercino and Rubens.

But good or bad, all these pieces taken together tell the story of two collectors – their tastes and opportunities – and is a good example of why collector-based exhibits do much more than just “glorify a private collector and his/her acquisitiveness rather than independently investigate the history of art and culture.” ( as Tyler Green has recently asserted in “Season of Shame” on his modern art blog). Because the history of art and culture includes the history of collectors like Gray, Goldman, or Braude (all three of whose drawing collections have recently been shown at the A.I.C.), especially in our post-modern age, when art is defined as whatever is recognized as such. Much of what they have collected will be donated to this museum or others. Which reminds us that gradually, all the historic, iconic work will end up in public collections, and eventually professional curators will be the only ones able to assemble a great exhibition of it. Which should make Tyler Green quite happy.

But there is still a lot left to be discovered, made by artists whose fame may never be commensurate with their achievement, and selected by collectors who are distinguished by personal taste and opportunity, rather than by curatorial career.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Angelbert Metoyer at N'Namdi

Angelbert Metoyer: Icon Execution at N’Namdi Gallery, through Oct. 22

Angelbert Metoyer is a young poet-seer-shaman-prophet-musician-painter who has a message for Amerika: “The past is a red dust distortion of the krick-kack sunshine blasted truth created by those in higher echelons of POWER. Only by returning in time-black-crystal-speed to the iconography of the past via abstractus can we reframe the NOW.” But is the NOW really being reframed, or is Metoyer just one more mumbo-jumbo huckster who has thrown together a tasty Creole gumbo of glittery, soft-focus metaphysics for an ever credulous American public? To which, he has added a side order of historical outrage. (the “icon execution” of the title – which refers to a fantasy of defacing equestrian monuments to Confederate generals of the American Civil War). It all feels so much like the psychedelic, anti-war counter-culture of the late 60’s, with its charming blend of naïve spirituality with calculated commercialism. But, just like some of the best music from that period, Metoyer’s paintings really are beautiful, and feel cosmic/expansive, rather than personal/self-referencing (like so much of the abstract painting found in galleries today). And there’s no doubt that he’s some kind of magical guy. (even without knowing that he was born with 11 fingers on 7/7/77). So, while I don’t think his glittery, soft-focus art can be taken all that seriously – it’s impossible to walk away from his abstract paintings without feeling happier, inspired, and refreshed. (which is probably just how a major Houston art collector felt, when he first discovered Metoyer fifteen years ago in a high school art contest)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Henri Cartier-Bresson : The Modern Century

Henri Cartier-Bresson : The Modern Century
at the Art Institute of Chicago, through October 3

To reverse Picasso’s famous epigram, photo-journalism is the truth that tells a lie. Yes, the photo-journalist really was on-site shooting people who really were ironworkers, priests, or baseball fans (instead of hired actors). But that’s where the reality ends – and whatever we imagine those people are doing is just that: our own imagination, aided by the photographer’s composition.

So what, for example, is happening in this shot of an executive with his nose in the air and his face conspicuously framed by images of great ocean liners? Is he an arrogant, ruthless captain of finance ? Or is he the assistant's assistant taking a break from paper pushing?

All of our responses are prompted by the composition, and apparently, back in the middle decades of the 20th C., there was a much larger market for big, glossy photo magazines that presented the world as lively and engaging, without a whole lot of critical thought required.

Cartier-Bresson and his colleagues ably serviced that market with photographs taken all over the world, and the vitrines in this exhibit display the resulting copies of popular magazines like "Life" and "Match"

Was Cartier-Bresson really the best of the lot?

Or was he just better connected to the artworld?

But there are certainly some wonderful photographs in this exhibit - beginning with the above scene from the Gare St. Lazare shot in 1932. How acrobatic! For the both the leaper and the photographer who framed that split-second leap so perfectly.

And what about this perfect image of sacramental contrition and forgiveness?

For history buffs, there's this great shot of the last Viceroy and the first Prime Minister of India, standing beside the happy, attractive woman who was the wife of one and allegedly the mistress of the other.

Perhaps the portraits are his best work, where personality, instead of social issues, can take center stage. And who can ever forget this iconic image of Matisse enjoying his life as an aging artist?

Though, I don't think we need to share his contempt for Americans

.... or his celebration of totalitarian regimes in Russia and China,
even if such attitudes were more acceptable in the artworld of his day.

And what's really missing from this exhibition is Cartier-Bresson's paintings and drawings, because, believe it or not, that was his preferred means of expression, with which he began and ended his career as an artist.

That's the sort of thing that can only be fully appreciated in a museum exhibition.

Most of the photographs are better seen in books or on-line , where they are not abused by reflections off the protective glass.

And does the Art Institute
really need yet another
Carier-Bresson exhibit?

This is the fourth
since 1954,
and the last one
was just in 2009.


One more issue I'd like to raise is the omniscient text up on gallery walls.

I have no problem with anonymous text that is exclusively factual information about dates and places.

But sometimes the text in this exhibition offers
opinions like this one:

"But his keen attention to particulars redeems the strain of romantic nostalgia in his work, and his vision of premodern societies"

And just whose opinion is this? The curator's ?
(Peter Galassi, from M.O.M.A.).

Gallery walls are fine places for opinions,
but let the authors be credited,
so that dialogue will be encouraged.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present

photo by Agustin Casasola, 1910

“The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present”*
The DuSable Museum, through Nov. 14

Returning to Chicago following a nationwide tour that began four years ago at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, this didactic exhibit might be considered a commendable promotion of ethnic harmony between African American and Hispanic populations. Using photographs, reproductions of art from the colonial era, and contemporary arts and crafts, the exhibition documents the African presence in Mexico over the past five centuries. But, unfortunately, this exhibit is less about African culture than about identifiable African facial features. As Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post has noted “And so the exhibition becomes a game: Find the African identity. This puts the viewer in the strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, position of looking for blackness in the faces of strangers, in images of people who would not necessarily consider their African descent of much importance, but who would, in this country, be labeled "black.”” But is that really a game we want to continue playing? And what is really the benefit of presenting a one-sided historical argument, including, for example, many pieces by the prominent African –American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett just because she happened to move to Mexico ? While the other contemporary arts and crafts on display don’t seem to rise above either the folkloric happy-talk of the paintings by Aydee Rodriguez Lopez or the angry bombast of the woodcuts by Mario Guzman Oliveres. ( Where, again, the primary connection to Africa is skin tone and other facial features.) Like the Dusable Museum’s animatronic Harold Washington, this exhibit seems mostly to have been targeted at school children. But shouldn’t even school children be encouraged to take both history and art a bit more seriously?

National Self-Portrait Show at 33 Collective Gallery

Adam Bock

6th Annual National Self-Portrait Exhibition, through August 16, 33 Collective Gallery

Self absorption has got to be a prerequisite for becoming an artist in our day and age, so why not kick-start some careers by posting an invitation on the internet and to art schools around the country, for an exhibit of self portraits. Sergio Gomez of 33 Collective Gallery has been doing this for six years now. All of the submissions are posted on his website, and every year a curator is chosen to select about 50 pieces for display in his gallery, tucked away in back of the Zhao B. Art Center in Bridgeport. The results are wacky, fun, challenging, dreadful, and sometimes surprising. The guest curator for this year’s show was Tami Miller, from the Krasl Art Center in St Joseph, Michigan. As she notes, she was looking for “a diversity of visual languages, mediums, and forms”. But the classical realists, as well as the followers of any non-modern tradition are noticeably absent. And nowhere can be found the image of an artist who has presented him/her self as relaxed, erudite, or sophisticated. Today’s emerging artists are more likely to depict themselves as desperate, determined, dangerous, angry, goofy, or bored – and definitely with attitude. Of special note is the work of recent Northwestern graduate, Jason John, who was selected for a gallery award, and who has that old-fashioned ability to make a convincing representation with brushes instead of pixels. Every year a few paintings get sold and the artists pay a submission fee, so the gallery does receive some compensation for the effort. But this should probably considered ongoing research rather than a commercial project. How do the brave, bright young people who want to be artists today see themselves? And will the character of the self images change over the many years that Sergio will continue to run this project? It’s all on the internet , so take a look for yourself.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art

19th C. tile

text from the "Survey of Persian Art"

The 10th C. bowl
pictured and discussed above

I may have gotten a bit carried away by this project,
writing four reviews
none of which the editor
saw fit to publish.

Was the show too modest?
Was my reaction too immoderate?


Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art
Art Institute, through Oct. 3

The most important thing about this exhibit is its diminutive size, reflecting the relative insignificance that Persian, and indeed all Islamic, art has had in the history of the Art Institute of Chicago, in sharp contrast, say, to its interest in the arts of Japan. Back in 1925, Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1965), a former Berkeley professor of Aesthetics who became something of an aesthetic activist, began his spectacular career in Persian art by lecturing the soon-to-be crowned founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and his court about the glories of 2500 years of Persian civilization.

 The new regime locked onto this as a source for a new, secular, nationalistic pride, and Pope’s lecture was immediately translated and distributed to schools throughout the kingdom. Within a year, there was a revival of Persian architecture and handicrafts, and five years later, the Shah managed to  end  the monopoly which France had been enjoying over Iranian archaeology. Thus one could credit Arthur Pope with the priceless collection of ancient Persian artifacts that was soon unearthed by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Pope also exploited his extensive contacts with bureaucrats as well as dealers to serve as a commission buyer of antiquities for several American museums, including the Art Institute, for which he held title of “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” for the next ten years.

 But judging from the minimal size and quality of this exhibition, most of his effort went elsewhere, including the mounting of blockbuster Persian shows in London, New York, and Leningrad, the founding of his “Asia Institute” in New York, and the publication of his 2700 page “Survey of Persian Art”. All done by a man who could not read Farsi, had no degrees in art history, and had to earn or beg for the necessary funding. The one bright spot in this disappointing exhibition (which features not a single miniature painting or carpet) is the curator’s emphasis on Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) work, which Pope had mostly neglected, possibly for political reasons. But any exhibit is better than none, and incredibly enough, the A.I.C. has never had a special exhibit of Persian art, beyond just the collections of one or two individuals. Much credit should go to the current director’s special emphasis on encyclopedic world art and maximizing the display of the museum’s own collection. But this is an area of that collection which has been sadly neglected.


Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art

As Japanese born curator, Dr. Yuka Kadoi, has noted “ the AIC's Islamic art collection is not so well-known, compared with MET, Freer/Sackler, and LACMA, for instance, but Pope's involvement in the museum collection development is quite unique”

So this exhibit has more historical text than Persian miniatures or carpets up on its walls. (indeed, it has no miniatures or carpets at all,). And the point which that text would like to make is that a “new survey of Persian Art” should give greater emphasis to the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) than Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1965) had done back when he was the first (and only) “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” at the Art Institute (1925-1935). Which point is well taken since Pope was personally connected to the military leader who ended the Qajar dynasty to become Shah Reza Pahlavi, and Pahlavi’s son would eventually invite Pope and his wife to live in Shiraz and bury them in a magnificent mausoleum. But the Qajar work on display in this exhibit hardly recommends itself for special attention, though, come to think of it, none of earlier ceramics in the exhibit can compare with the Plotnick collection that was on display at the AIC in 2007. So why is the museum’s collection so modest when Pope must have given it so many good opportunities? Or more importantly, why has the museum never followed Pope’s example and gathered together a blockbuster exhibit of Persian art from museums and private collections around the world? There is no doubt that this exhibit raises many interesting questions about the politics and morality of archeology and the international antiquities market in the early 20th Century. It was an “Indiana Jones” kind of world, and Pope had to stare down his share of angry Mullahs, competing archeologists, rioting crowds, and desert bandits while driving on camel-track roads and flying in death-trap airplanes. But there’s not really very much worth seeing, and not even a single one of Pope’s 10,000 photographs that he made to document the great mosques and palaces of Iran. And that would have concerned an aesthete (and designer) like Arthur Upham Pope much more than it apparently concerns the kind of art scholarship being practiced today.

Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art

One of the primary functions of an encyclopedic art museum, like the Art Institute of Chicago, is to promote respect and admiration for cultures other than our own, a function that is especially important when international conflicts arise that tend to demonize perceived opponents. So much credit has to be given to any exhibit that focuses on Islamic art. But the A.I.C.’s permanent collection of Islamic art is so modest that it would hardly qualify as even an ethnographic display at the Field Museum of Natural History. No wonder, that when it was decided to give that permanent collection a special exhibit in Regenstein Hall, it was also decided to focus attention on the man responsible for beginning it, Arthur Upham Pope, rather than the collection itself. Pope (1881-1965) remains something of a super-star in Iranian art history, primarily for his 2700 page “Survey of Persian Art” that he and his wife organized in the 1930’s. He also was closely connected to the Pahlavi dynasty that seized control of Iran in 1925, and effectively opened the country up for American archeologists and museums. In his hey-day, he claimed, without dispute, that he had the first right of refusal for 80% of every Persian antiquity that entered the market. So the Art Institute seems to have wisely appointed him the “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” from 1925-1935. Except that it does not appear that the museum bought much art from him, including any of the 10,000 photographs that he took to document Islamic architecture. Nor, are subsequent acquisitions very impressive, even if they include some pieces from the Qajar Dynasty(1794-1925) which Pope might have rejected out of respect for his patrons, the Pahlavis, who overthrew it. So this is possibly not the best collection to accompany an examination of “The aesthetic criteria that Pope, his wife, and his contemporary colleagues established for the assessing the importance of cultural remains from Modern Iran, Western Afghanistan etc”, which is, purportedly, the purpose of this exhibition. And above all his other scholarly, diplomatic, academic, and business ventures, Pope was an aesthete/designer who, according to another leading scholar, Cary Welch, “experienced works of art more than he studied them”. So this modest exhibit is hardly a fitting tribute to either him or the world of Islamic art. Those interested in the fascinating life and times of Arthur Upham Pope are encouraged to read “Surveyors of Persian Art” by Jay Gluck and Noel Silver. And those interested in seeing Persian art, are encouraged to fly to New York.


Arthur Upham Pope and the New Survey of Persian Art
Art Institute, through Oct. 3

Dr. Yuka Kadoi, the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago, was given a stiff challenge for the first exhibit that she would ever curate in a major museum: how to celebrate the re-installation of the museum’s rather modest collection of Islamic art. How can a curator highlight a collection that doesn’t have any highlights? Her solution was to focus on Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1965), whose 2700 page “Survey of Persian Art” made him an icon in the field back in the 1930’s, a period when he also was serving as “Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art” at the Art Institute. But how can you tell the story of such an incredible, controversial, and unlikely scholar in the limited text that can be mounted on the wall of a gallery? Pope began his career as a professor of aesthetics at Berkley. And since he never got a PHD, that position must have relied upon his extraordinary ability as a lecturer. As a former director of the Met once said “I know of no man who could so quickly talk one into – or out of a thing” He was fired from the university when he divorced his wife to run off with one of his brightest students, Phyllis Ackerman (who would also become a noted art historian as his assistant). And so began his career that included consulting on the purchase of antique carpets, designing hotels, mounting photographic expeditions throughout Iran, compiling scholarship, founding the Asia Institute in NYC, and eventually being honored by the last Shah of Iran with a magnificent mausoleum in Isfahan. Controversies include accusations that he was working with dealers and that he was unconcerned with the illegal excavation and sale of antiquities. You can’t tell such a story in 1000 words. So this exhibition comes up short. But it does have some interesting aspects, including the display of an ornamented bowl side-by-side with the explanatory page from Pope’s “Survey”, and the display of several pieces from the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) which Pope possibly had neglected since he had such strong connection to the Pahlavi dynasty that overthrew it. It is the role of an encyclopedic art museum, to enable the public to respect and appreciate other cultures, and unfortunately Chicago has not assembled a good collection of Islamic art. But perhaps this exhibit will highlight that fact and draw more attention, and funding, to that meeting that need.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Peter Hoffer and Patrick Adams at Gallery KH

Peter Hoffer

Patrick Adams

Peter Hoffer and Patrick Adams : “Surfaces” --Gallery KH -- through July 20

”The images I paint are observed and are meant to reveal the landscape in its essence. Yet I find that its essence can only be found, paradoxically, by revealing myself as well” So writes Kentucky artist, Patrick Adams, and the same could be said of every landscape that has ever been painted, which always differ according to the ideals, feelings, and character of the person behind the brush. It’s just that some kind of naturalism was a dominant ideal in 19th C. America, while evident self expression became more fashionable fifty years ago. Look elsewhere for a quiet, bucolic, natural retreat. An Adams landscape feels like a massive construction site, with all of its open vistas and upheaval, and the roaring energy and tumultuous optimism of an ABX painting. In clever contrast, Gallery KH is also now featuring a different kind of self assertion with the introspective landscapes of Canadian painter, Peter Hoffer,. In a melancholy mood, the artist seems to have wandered into some scruffy trees to get away from his busy life, but personal anxiety has followed him right into the bushes and erupted with flecks of colorful static on the surface of the image, which has also been coated with a thick coat of clear resin so it reflects the viewer like a mirror. Yikes! Is there no escape from our neurotic selves and the modern world? Of the two artists, Hoffer seems the more innovative with techniques, dark claustrophobic views , and materials (he paints on boards, often letting the wood grain show through). But sometimes his work feels more like a gimmick than a dark mood, while Adams is consistently exuberant about how we are tearing up the planet.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Quick Sketching at Tom Robinson Studio and Palette and Chisel

Tom Robinson Studio/Gallery: “Drawing Attention” through June 26
Palette and Chisel Gallery: “Summer Suite” through June 20

(piece shown: Peggy Sanders)

Unless they’re attributed to famous artists, quick sketch life-drawings have negligible cash value. Nudes have always been problematic for American collectors, and quick-sketches do not demonstrate the excruciating detail that appeals to both neo and paleo academics. So you will hardly ever find quick sketches in the kind of galleries that have to pay big rent. And yet, they can present not only a spontaneous, thrilling virtuosity and beauty, but also a way of looking at people that characterizes both the artist and a specific time and place. And what looks more interesting to the human mind than the face, flesh, and posture of other humans?

Of course, the quickest way to get make some kind of image is to click the shutter of a camera. Only a few people have the time and patience to develop the skill of composing so quickly, while controlling a spatial illusion with ink or chalk on paper, especially now, when that ability is no longer demanded by art schools. But, incredibly enough, some people do persist with this arcane European practice, and a few even get very good at it, as demonstrated by two shows running concurrently in local studio/galleries.

The Tom Robinson show is especially interesting because of the wall of drawings done by Chuck Walker, a leading Chicago figuralist whose next show will be at the Linda Warren Gallery next Autumn. Walker stands out because his figures don’t – that is, he draws the space both inside and outside the contours of the body. And he always seems to be telling some kind of gritty story about the yearning of full, ripe, and sensual young women. While the work of Peggy Sanders stands out in the Palette and Chisel show for its dignity, strength and quiet grace. And there are several other good artists in both shows, all of whom rise above that cartoonish quality that has defined narrative visual art in Chicago for many decades.

What’s missing, though, is the male nude. Whatever happened to the virtues of masculinity? And where are the young artists? None of the artists in either show are under 30, and most of them are 20 years older than that.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tom Parish at Gruen Galleries

25 years ago Tom Parish discovered Venice (Italy) and realized that the real world could be more fascinating than his imagination. And so this Surrealist painter became a realist, taking photographs in the ancient city for a month each year ever since, and then traveling back to Detroit to realize his painterly visions. Back in 1933, the year he was born, Chicago galleries were a likely place to find paintings on this subject, because. Venice epitomizes romance and old world culture. But don’t go to this exhibit expecting to see reflections of gondolas and magnificent palazzi shimmering on the sun-drenched lagoon. (like Monet’s “Palazzo Dario” now showing in the Art Institute) There still is plenty of atmosphere, but it’s more like the gritty ambience of a modern Euro-crime television drama. A bit off-kilter, because with everything sinking, there’s no longer any such thing as a true, vertical line in Venetian architecture And these paintings are so large (6’ to 8’) and the space so deep, the viewer is immersed in this sometimes dark, always crumbling, illusive, watery world rather than kept at a proper, dry, and comfortable distance. . Happily, the second floor of Gruen Galleries is just the right space to see a dozen of these large paintings, which become like windows looking down on the canals. You can feel the dampness and almost smell the gasoline fumes from the outboard motors. Sorry, no gondolas. And no people either, since this is a very private, personal vision that follows the program of surrealist cityscapes that Parish was painting back in 1980. You won’t find the civic pride of Gentile Bellini, the architectural vistas of Canaletto, the teeming urban life of Guardi , the spacious, Romantic drama of JMW Turner, or the social vignettes of Singer Sargent. But what you will find is a sharp sense of time and place, and a very useful metaphor for growing old and lonely with dignity and grace.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Steve Tobin at Morton Arboretum

Steve Tobin, who calls himself a “visual philosopher” has done a lot of weird things since he got a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics 30 years ago. He’s blown up barrels of clay, made shelters out of disgarded glass art slides or tank windows, walls out of animal bones, and bronze casts of termite mounds. His bronze cast of the “Trinity Root” in 2005 gained him celebrity for the only art memorial permanently installed in the vicinity of Ground Zero. But since then, rather than casting real tree roots, he has been designing his own, , and now seems to be doing what traditional garden sculptors have done for centuries: make elegant figures that enhance the landscape. And yes, his sculptures are figurative even if they have no sense of mass, flesh, or human character. What they do have is the balance, expression, rhythm, and gesture of classic dance. Or Chinese calligraphy. Indeed, some of his pieces look like they were assembled from Asian logograms that have been drawn by bending and welding enormous steel pipes instead of pulling an ink-filled brush over paper. And their effect is electrifying on the somewhat sterile landscape that holds the extensive conifer collection of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Some of the choreography is for solo dancers, others for groups of two or three. One figure arches over the garden path so viewers must walk between its legs, and one, that reaches up to 40 feet high, seems more like a dancing brontosaurus than a human. Which makes this is the quintessential Baroque garden: full of harmonies and happy surprises. As the art critic, Donald Kuspit, has noted, it is completely outside the “insidious, hypocrical irony” that is so endemic to the contemporary artworld. And indeed, with zero art school background, Tobin is more like a crafter who has been inspired by Michelangelo or Rodin rather than a contemporary sculptor. Each of the 14 pieces is a “spontaneous gesture and personal idea, giving it new life, refreshing our sense of its reality and integrity.” And until the Chinese/Japanese/Korean galleries of the Art Institute re-open next September, this outdoor exhibit is the best place to find those qualities in Chicago this Summer.

(deleted passages are high-lited in red, edited version is found here )

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dirty Dozen

John Santoro

John Santoro

Ben Tinsley - "Furniture Store on Whyte"

McCormick Gallery “Dirty Dozen” through Oct. 24, 2009

We can all admire fine craftsmanship – but that’s the first thing that comes to mind when standing before most of the paintings and sculptures in this survey of 12 contemporary artists at the McCormick Gallery. And shouldn’t painting demand attention to something more important? As Ben Tinsley does in “Furniture Store on Whyte”, a vignette of urban life that is “fixed in an artifice of eternity” (to quote Edward Snow regarding Vermeer). It’s half boarded up and definitely out of business, but unlike those melancholy Hopper scenes of New York, this abandoned little Chicago storefront sings with joy. Every detail is perfectly drawn and measured, especially the calligraphic graffiti that seems to have been applied by a wandering poet rather than gangbanger. Also exceptional in this exhibit are the two suburban cityscapes by John Santoro. No meticulously painted brickwork here – instead, these are meticulous paintings of paint. But they also present places the artist likes to live (his yard, front and back), rather unkempt, but no less timeless than the “10,000 years” mentioned in the titles he gave them. All the other abstract paintings in this exhibit just seem to be about paint.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gladys Nilsson at U.I.M.A.

It’s not just that Gladys Nilsson is a female artist, but also that she presents a distinctly, if quirky, modern woman’s world. Which is presumably why the Illinois Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts has partnered with the Ukrainian Institute of Modern to give her this 40-year retrospective, pulling in paintings from area museums and collectors, as well as her own collection. And it’s hard to say just how her large, cartoonish watercolors have changed in all that time. There’s a few pieces from the sixties that share her husband’s (Jim Nutt) vision of an ominous, unhappy world. But mostly, she’s been consistently upbeat – with a colorful, cheerful, goofy clutter and a large, central female figure who seems triumphant to be just her own buoyant, dumpy, rubber-armed self. This is the happy, high energy world of children’s book illustration, except that the playful characters and primal colors of Nilsson’s paintings have escaped the confines of thin, simple narratives, and run riot from painting to painting, each busy corner demanding attention, and making an entire gallery of it as overwhelming as a trip to a child care center. But for relief, one can always wander over to the adjoining room through which rotates the museum’s permanent collection of Ukrainian as well as non-Ukrainian modern artists, as they echo the grim problems of the 20th Century, mostly caused by males.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 - at the Art Institute of Chicago

Like the Seurat exhibit at the Art Institute in 2004, this show is built around a single piece in the museum's collection, in this case, Matisse's "Bathers by a River" :

so, happily, it can continue to enhance the experience of that piece on permanent display, long after the rest of the show has closed. But while Seurat worked so creatively at discovering what he could fit in, 30 years later, Matisse seemed to be working very hard to find what he could take out. Recent x-radiographs have uncovered seven stages in that painting's eight years of development, and two computer stations allow viewers to scroll through diagrams of each one. Even better, since each stage can be seen completely, the exhibit has all 4 versions of his monumental sculptural relief, that begins with something like a woman's back, and ends with something more like an arrangement of cylinders. All of which may be fascinating , but does the piece get any more radical - or just more peaceful and decorative? And is this process of abstraction,"the modern method of construction", with all its layering and scraping, really the "radical innovation" which the title of this exhibit would suggest?

All such techniques can also be found in Cezanne's "Three Bathers" (also in this exhibit) , which was done 30 years earlier and later owned by Matisse himself.

Reducing the human figure to a kind of hieroglyph, Cezanne pioneered a kind of painting that was more like a personal calligraphy and less like a window on the world.

So Matisse’s innovation was just the development of his own personal logographics. His earlier work in this show, the “Blue Nude” of 1908, resembles the brash, angry, explosive modernism of Picasso and Stravinsky.

But then his painting became more subdued, as he cocooned himself into a quiet, prosperous domestic life, probably in response to the war that was decimating his countrymen.

Contemporary art theory requires that important artists be radically innovative, and if the results feel angry , dreary, or otherwise unpleasant, so much the better, as they trumpet the arrival of a new, modern world and challenge the self satisfied, mindless hedonism of the bourgeoisie.

It’s just that Matisse doesn’t always fit that mold, and hard as he may have worked to expunge anecdotal details, he still liked to paint flowers, goldfish, and pretty girls, and their charming ambience comes through, especially in his small, dry point or monotype figure drawings and various views of Tangier or his studio in Quai Saint-Michel.

Rather than exemplifying the radical, iconoclastic, transgressive innovation demanded of a modern European artist, Matisse’s work from 1913-1917 seems to better exemplify an aesthetic that is traditionally Asian.

Still Life with Goldfish, 1914

Some different responses are here:

Erik Wenzel
Janina Ciezadlo

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus

Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” and other “Caravaggesque” paintings, at the Art Institute of Chicago, through Jan. 31

1600 was a big year for Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), and for the history of European painting, as that young man became famous for a dramatic realism that would develop a style for the counter-Reformation and begin to visualize the world of the street instead of the palace. One year later, he painted the “Supper at Emmaus” which is currently hanging in Gallery 211 at the Art Institute, surrounded by the works of those who followed him in the 17th. Century. And it has to be seen to be believed. Not so much for its fine detail, as for its size, and the way the figures project themselves into the viewer’s space, as it realizes that moment when God, through the Holy Ghost, dramatically entered human history. Which is to say, this is a very effective liturgical painting, and makes almost everything else in the room feel merely picturesque, especially the otherwise excellent painting by his rival, follower, chronicler, and bitter enemy, Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643).

Here's the Baglione
St. Francis

And here's a version
that Caravaggio did
about 5 years earlier

Why is it so effective? Certainly the drawing is important. Caravaggio drew directly on the canvas, unlike so many others who could only make great drawings on paper (Il Guercino, for example, whose “Entombment” hangs on the opposite wall).


And here, in the actual painting, you can feel the careful modulation of tonal values that escaped so many of his followers (especially Bartolomeo Manfredi and Cecco del Caravaggio, whose works now hang on the same wall),



and escape all of the reproductions. (especially those transparencies that visited L.U.M.A. a few years ago) But overall, you just have to credit this tormented young man’s prophetic vision, which seems to have needed the power and beauty of divine grace much more than the rest of us.

(Note: here is the review that New City published.)