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.