Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hubert Robert, Les Décourvreurs d’antiques, 1765
It’s been months since I went to the Louvre on a Friday night. I went in last night and fell in love all over again. The exhibition, Hubert Robert (1733-1808) A Visionary Painter comes at a strange time for the museum as it changes exhibition policies, expands its reach into Metz, Lens and Abu Dhabi, and renovates the entrance under the pyramid. For all these reasons, this wonderful exhibition of one of France’s most exciting eighteenth century painters comes as a treat.

This huge exhibition is glorious from beginning to end. The architecture sketches that open it are fascinating because even in these first works we see the concerns that will preoccupy Robert for a lifetime beginning to emerge. Buildings that are not realistically proportioned, seen from impossible perspectives in the interests of highlighting movement through space, as well as the display of features—in the case the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Piazza del Campidoglio. And from the very beginning we see Robert’s fascination with light, with space, and the built environment, his meticulous foregrounding of space as the primary subject of painting. And from the earliest rooms, we see the people as sketches, going about their daily life on the steps, in the foreground, in the squares, figures that will become the raison d’être of his work.
GYuBER ROBERT view of the Capitol Square in Rime. About 1770
Hubert Robert, View of the Capitol Square in Rome, 1770
These images are about light, framing, perspective and the merging of imagination and reality. Robert left for Rome aged 22 and stayed for eleven years. What he sees and learns in Rome will stay with his painting for the rest of his life. Yes, the paintings get bigger—to the point of the monumental—but their basic concerns remain consistent until his death aged 75 years in Paris.

I was amazed by the use of light in Robert’s paintings. Even more than the luminosity of the German romantics, Robert saw in painting the qualities of the cinema: light creating shadows and making the spaces of the built environment. There are images such as the Vomitorium du Colisée avec une femme et un enfant, 1764 that effectively do what Daguerre’s architectural studies were doing, only seventy years before Daguerre. In this image we foresee what might be a cinematic image at the stop of the stairs. The woman and the boy down below are not watching the so-called screen, but it is, nevertheless, an image about watching and performance, another motif that recurs again and again throughout Robert’s career.
Hubert Robert, Personnages dans une baie à Sainte Pierre de Rome, 1763
I was also fascinated by Robert’s creation of space through paint and light; again, we will find this in Daguerre as the apparent father of French photography in the next century. There is always another frame within the frame – look at Personnages dans une baie à Sainte Pierre de Rome, 1763. Here we see another trope: the painter in the corner, painting the scene that then, of course, cannot be the scene that we see. Robert the painter, looks on and sees a painter painting. The layer upon layer of distance and depth are the precedent—or at least the visualization through a similar language—of distance and depth. There is always a foreground, middleground and background, as well as this an extension into the verticality of space.
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Hubert Robert, The Burning of Rome, 1771. 
I have barely begun to discuss the vast exhibition. The fascination Robert had with tourism, with antiquity, with the coming together of the past and the present, with the Enlightenment inspired by Antiquity, all of these disparate concerns are brought together on a single canvas. Look at Les Décourvreurs d’antiques, 1765 and its appearance as a cinematic image, bringing together the most ancient and modern of representations. In the image, we see the visualization of the watching, performance, ruins as objects to be ogled at, statues brought to life, always animated by light, by tourism. 

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Hubert Robert, Corridor de la Prison de Saint-Lazare (1794)
The fact that there is so much to say in response to Hubert's work is also an indication of the size of this exhibition, a vastness that can only do justice to the reach of Robert's painting. Even though all the works embrace life and brilliance they are also imbued with the strand of Romanticism that is melancholic, that is overcome with a nostalgia for a past that has gone forever. And yet, at the same time, he brings the past into the present, surrounding antique statues with people who use them to fasten clothes lines. In addition, the paintings may be filled with monuments as ruins, but the ruins are made breathtaking by the sun and water and light around them. Unlike his German counterparts, Robert doesn’t capture a certain moment of crepuscule, the moment that signifies loss. Often he paints in full sunlight to capture the drama of nature as it impacts the built environment. To me it is also filled with the surreal. Even when the revolution comes to influence his work, in for example Corridor de la Prison de Saint-Lazare (1794) is more like Goya than it is Friedrich or Turner with its concern for real life. Unlike the Romantics in Germany or England, Robert’s sublime moment is always framed, given context within man made structures that are perfectly recognizeable. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sculpture in Bottrop and Marl: Germany's answer to Italian Renaissance Painting

Inside the Glaskasten Museum, Marl

In Bottrop and Marl, cities that are almost at the end of the world, North Rhine Westphalia boasts two of its most exquisite museums. Bottrop and Marl are not high on the tourist list, though they should be. Before stepping inside the Josef Albers Quadrat Museum in Bottrop and the Glaskaten Museum in Marl, I was overcome by a feeling of peace and serenity, as though I had stepped into oases of perfection in the
middle of these former industrial hinterlands. Both museums are encircled by sculpture gardens filled with works behaving like totems imploring our contemplation, engagement and conversation. As I wandered through the two sculpture parks I couldn’t help thinking that the Ruhrgebiet does sculpture like Italy does Renaissance painting. In the same way that a Masaccio or a del Sarto change color and meaning as the sun moves across the sky on the walls of their Florentine chapels, outdoor sculpture in these Ruhr museums convinces me that I can never see it in a white cube again. In fact, their exhibition by these museums is so convincing that the placement of sculpture in the natural environment feels like a return to where it belongs. The magical transience of the day, the changes in light, in the weather, the mood of the trees, give the sculpture a narrative that sweeps both art and viewer into an ethereal other world. The elegant and poignant structures in steel and concrete enter into conversation with the trees, the wind, the rain and the birds that give them a community, making a mockery of the apparent intransigence and rationalization for which their materials are better known.
Alf Lechner, 3/72 Rahmenkonstruktion, 1972

The sadness and melancholy of Alf Lechner’s 3/72 Rahmenkonstruktion (1972), four steel cubes on a hill in the park, in the fading light of the long Northern European summer night, the glinting playfulness of Naturmachine, 1969, finding use as a playground for children, the game of Richard Serra's Untitled,  1972 two steel blocks, one balancing precariously on top of the other on the Rathaus plaza in Marl, all of them convince us they are alive, personified, performing for us. In Bottrop, I sat in the garden and watched a bird cleaning itself, displeased when I sneezed and disturbed its solitude. Max Bill’s Einheit aus Drei Gleichen Volumen 1979 looked on from the opposite side of the pond in which the bird stood on a rock among waterlilies. Donald Judd’s Bottrop-Piece (1977) changes shape and color, and the appearance of its material from stone to steel depending on where we stand to view it. At a distance it could be concrete, up close it is the same corten steel out of which so much of the work in the Ruhrgebiet is made.
Installation View, Quadrat Museum, Bottrop

The indoor spaces of both museums are likewise superbly curated - in Bottrop, room upon room of Josef Albers' color experiments. Homage to the Square in green and gray, orange and red, blue and purple. The Quadrat museum is a veritable retreat cut off from the rest of the world. It seems impossible that Albers’ silent and delicate paintings in what feels like sacred gray rooms could be conceived in the same breath, in the same century, as the coking plant 10km down the road. And in Marl, the collection belongs to the town, paid for with taxes charged to the employees of the one time prosperous mines. The richness of the collection is a reflection of the success of mining and industry in the once wealthy town. The Glaskasten sculpture museum is literally that, two layers of glass constructed around a former thoroughfare. The outside rim offers something like a pleasantly confusing disorientation between inside and outside.  Walking across the original rough-hewn floor, the same surface as the plaza outside, is like a no man's land in which to be restored.  A poignant work, Danzatore, 1954, by Marino Marini sees a woman look up and out through the windows to the sky, facing the plaza, imploring passers by to connect with her. When I stumbled upon Hermann Breucker’s Die Trauernde, a woman in mourning, her face hidden in her hands, in the former cemetery that has become an extension of the sculpture park, I thought Marini’s dancer must have been reaching out to her suffering sister.
Anna Schuster, Continued Landscape, 1997
with Tony Cragg in the foreground, inside looking out

One of my favourite pieces in Marl was a shipping container with video images for windows, placed in the thoroughfare outside the glass box; it forms an obstruction to the world passing by. Anna Schuster’s Continued Landscape 1997, shows images of a passing landscape seen from a train window: we look inside a box at windows that provide a view of an outside where we cannot be. The multiple perspectives of images in motion in a shipping container left to rust outside a museum, is confusing. I thought the piece was like a summary of all the sculptures, like the museum with its unique architecture is an expression of what lies beyond it. Everywhere across the Ruhrtal is an ever-transforming landscape, being looked at and looked from, unlikely perspectives, confronting and changing our view of a world in which the opposite always holds true.

Tetraeder, Bottrop
Though I didn't do this because I was too confused by the train connections, I suspect that a visit to Marl should be completed by a tour of the local Chemical Industry which includes a panoramic view over the Ruhrgebiet. Climbing up a tower to gain a strange re-orientation of a world whose identity was for so many years governed by what was below ground, invisible to the eyes of people like me.  Likewise, in the environs of Bottrop, the Tetraeder is a must. On the top of a slag heap, this steel construction demands so much from us: to look up and at, to look down from, to climb, stand still and let go to a landscape infinitely more filled with secrets than we can ever imagine. The command of the wealth of sculptures in the two museum parks speaks to the industrial and post-industrial landscapes, confronting us with their ephemerality, their transience and reflection back on a natural world that will continue to change, well beyond the immense structural redefinitions that motivate the region’s identity today.   

Monday, May 16, 2016

Zentrum für Internationale Lichtkunst, Unna, Germany

Mischa Kuball, Space Speech Speed, 1998/2001
Unna, a sleepy town in North East NRW has one attraction that makes the effort to get there worthwhile: the Centre for International Light Art housed in an old brewery. The exhibition spaces are built into the underground storage, cooling and change rooms, that is, spaces otherwise cloaked in complete darkness. It is, apparently, the only museum of its kind, devoted solely to light installations. This makes it a big drawcard, and though I enjoyed the visit, I was slightly disappointed. More on that later, first, what’s most impressive is the array of international artists’ whose work is exhibited here. There's no Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman Anthony McCall or Robert Irwin, but many major contemporary international light artists have at least one piece on display in the bowels of the unrenovated Linden Brewery.
Olafur Eliasson, Der Reflektierende Korridor, 2002
Built for the working brewery 120 years ago, no one space is the same as the next, and no space seems to have a natural or logical connection to the next. Accordingly, each art work, exploits this isolation and is contained by its space. Thus, the experience is one of going from room to room, where corridors and transition spaces constitute discrete and often unusual spaces. This is all to say, the experience is not one of wandering through the light installations, but more a series of unrelated immersions in light. Most impressive are those works that engage with the architecture of the building. In one of the most extraordinary works, Olafur Eliasson has us walk across a grated bridge between what at first appears to be a curtain of sparkling light on either side. And then, as we step close to the curtain, our feet get wet. The beads of light are created through spot lights above shining on drops of water as they cascade into the pool beneath the grated bridge. The confusion of what we are seeing, hearing, touching, even smelling, is the most outstanding example of the lesson taught by a number of these sculptural installations. Visual perception is only the first of the multi-dimensions of light art.
Keith Sonnier, Tunnel of Tears for Unna, 2002
Some of the works are confronting, again in ways that surprise. Keith Sonnier’s Tunnel of Tears for Unna installed in a storage space, for example, turns the rough hewn walls, lined with pipes, switches, butts and other paraphernalia into red and blue tunnels. Sonnier plays with the familiar visual effects of opposite colours, so when we are in the space bathed in red through murano glass fluorescent tubes, we look back at a white lighted space and it appears green. And then when we move to the blue room beyond the red one, the white becomes yellow. Most surprising of all is the warmth we experience over time standing in the blue light, and then when we move back to the red, it is harsh, cold, alienating. This is the surprise of Sonnier’s tears: blue and red are supposed to create cold and hot respectively, not the other way around. From Sonnier we also learn that light is an emotional experience. The confrontation of the harsh red light is so unexpected. Furthermore, we are reminded through this confrontation that the seeing is just the beginning of our experience of light.

Image result for james turrell third breath unna
James Turrell, Third Space, 2009
Image result for james turrell third breath unna
James Turrell, Third Space, 2009
Light art, like the stuff itself, comes in many different media or types of light. The exhibition includes a lot of neon, as the chosen material of the -post-Nauman generation of light artists, but there is also a very special natural light art work using the sky over Unna by James Turrell. Turrell has made a camera obscura in the only above ground installation. It’s a simple circle cut in the ceiling of a purpose built room (not part of the original brewery) through which day or night light falls onto a circular marble slab inside. Turrell place lenses in the circular opening, and thus, when inside the room, we look down at the sky as it moves across the opening above. Thus, it is not only the image that is inverted through Turrell’s camera obscura but logic too: we look down to see what is above us. In addition, the clouds in the sky seem to race across the opening, a striking antithesis of their apparent stillness when we stand below and look at them above us. Having spent the last two hours in the catacomb-like spaces below ground, immersed in neon and artificially created spaces, coming above ground to be in the midst of Turrell’s creation, I was amazed by the fact that, all along, nature gives us, afterall, the most surprising art work.

Francois Morellet, No End Neon (Pier and Ocean), 2001

There are many other works - by Joseph Kosuth, François Morellet, Christian Boltanski, Rebecca Horn and Mischa Kuball among others. As we go through the spaces, we are given new perspectives on space, on our body, on the relations between art and nature, above and below ground, all of which we experience through our own movement and senses. My one disappointment in the exhibition was that, even through a large number of works intelligently engage the spaces they occupy, none of them engage the history of the production processes or the work and activities that once took place in the Brewery or its spaces. This, in itself, is not a criticism. However, considering the tendency of public artworks, even those in museums, to engage the history of the region’s past in the Ruhrgebiet, it would have been interesting to see light works engage on this level. Energy, water, light are all key to the industrial production that gives the region its identity, and I would have thought it’s acknowledgment would make this museum more than just the only one devoted solely to light art. Otherwise, once down in the storage spaces of the Linden Brewery, we could be anywhere in the world.