Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Markus Lüpertz, Promenade, 1963-2014 @ Suzanne Tarasieve Paris

Markus Lüpertz, Promenade, Exhibition View
For an exhibition filled with disformed, disabled figures, all of whom have been violated, their limbs torn off, their genitals erased, I found Promenade  to be a curious choice of title. None of these figures were going anywhere in a hurry, and most of them don’t even try to move. In keeping with their classical inspiration, they are more comfortable in a posture of repose, always standing tall, despite their dismemberment and disability. They are the figures of an anonymous war, in an anonymous space, bearing witness to the vagaries of another world. On approaching Suzanne Tarasieve’s tiny Marais Gallery, one of Lüpertz’s figures stands at the window, ultimately, contemplating its own reflection, removed from the busy Christmas shoppers who fill the streets outside. The figure was haunting.

Markus Lüpertz, Figure at the window Suzanne Tarasieve, Paris

I wondered what an artist so closely associated with Cold War, divided Germany and post-war torn Europe would be doing today. How would Lüpertz respond to a world that is so fundamentally different from the one we knew in the 20th century? The one in which he came of age as an artist? And even though we are meant to see Lüpertz as unique, an individual abstract artist, doing something so radically different from those around him, I was reminded, from beginning to end, of the postwar German neo-Expressionist artists, particularly, the works of Georg Baselitz onexhibition a couple of years ago at the Musée d’art Moderne.

Markus Lüpertz
That said, Lüpertz works in plaster, Baselitz in wood, where Baselitz’s figures are pronounced and proud, but inwardly reflective, Lüpertz’s figures are in the vein of their classical forebearers, giving away little emotion. And I noticed very quickly, there were no women here at Susanne Tarasieve’s gallery, just men, mythical, oversized, deformed, crippled men. Similarly, although they are violated in their own individual ways, quite different from Baselitz’s chiseled bodies, each of Lüpertz’s figures has a history, it’s just that we don’t know what it is, where or when it might have taken place. There is a longing a nostalgia, a sadness that we come to perceive, particularly, as we spend more time with each tortured figure.

markus lupertz centaure 2014
Markus Lüpertz, Centaure, 2014

Many of the figures have metal rods, rusted nails, broken stakes, and shrapnel flung through what remains of their limbs. They are warriors, having fought a war that we know nothing of. They are alone, but give the impression that they are content in their loneliness – because they are the descendants of sculptural perfection, masculine superiority, after Dionysos,  Hercules, Orpheous. But as much as they are warriors, they are mythical figures, not real humans, they are without genitals, with imperfect bodies and blown off faces. They are like an ode to every solider who has lost his body on the battlefield, and been given a traumatized identity in exchange.

"Rückenakt", Michael Werner Kunsthandel
Markus Lüpertz, Ruckenakt, 2004
The most striking thing about the figures in the paintings that surround the sculpted warriors is that their backs are always turned to us. They are not looking, as if to retain their integrity at the other side of their trauma. Like the sculpted figures, the painted ones may descend from greek mythological figures, but they don’t belong in any of the categories that are usually given to sculptural, or painted representations of gods: they are all at once historical and mythical, tribal and from antiquity, they are deformed giants and classical figures, always referring to Germany’s tortured past, and yet, telling a story that belongs to everyone on an intimate level. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Garry Winogrand @ Jeu de Paume

Garry Winogrand, Bromx Zoo, 1969
This vast exhibition of Garry Winogrand's photograph at the Jeu de Paume will change the place of his work in the French cultural imagination. This is one of those rare exhibitions where we get to see that photography has a history: Winogrand was working across the second half of the twentieth century when photography processes and practices were defined by the single lens reflex camera’s transformation of the world into the glory of silver gelatin prints. There is an age to these prints, not only in the world they depict, but their substance will not be seen today in digital or laserjet prints. Winogrand’s is the black and white world of single lens reflex photography’s vision of postwar America. And as we study these fine photographs, they demonstrate the medium stripped to its fundamental status of nuanced reflections of light. The composition, framing, the freezing of the moment, the vision itself, all look to be accomplished effortlessly through Winogrand’s viewfinder. But in his ability to capture the most fleeting moment in the perfect balance of light and dark, Winogrand is shown as a genius with a camera.
Garry Winogrand, New Haven, Connecticut, 1970
Throughout his foreshortened life, Winogrand was drawn to crowds, airports, freaks, parades, parties, boxing matches and anything that was filled with energy and movement of a lot of people. Winogrand was where people gathered and he watched them perform for his camera – Venice Beach, the Bronx Zoo, 5th Avenue, student demonstrations and Shea Stadium, as well as Cape Kennedy, Florida, 1969. All of them are places where the people of America don an outfit of sorts, they dressed to perform their version of the American dream. Everything and everyone is in mid-flight, dressed for the occasion, soldiers marines, cowboys, women in heels, in suits, with hair fashioned according to the times.
Garry Winogrand, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1951
At one point in the exhibition, Winogrand is quoted by the wall text to claim that he photographs the mess of America. This is precisely what he does. Even if the images are clear and sometimes brutally honest, Winogrand always represents the chaos of American life. Chaos comes through contradiction: always, in the middle of the crowd, Winogrand finds motion in several different, often contradictory directions. What are a black man and a white woman, a couple, doing carrying chimpanzees along the street at the zoo?  The surrogate children of a mixed-race couple in 1969, the shadow of the photographer creeping into the frame, speak the permissibility and the discomfort of this family constellation. The clash and the contradictions of Winogrand’s photographs so often come from the look, or the not looking of one figure and its opposition to that of another. Looks are chaotic, in that they do not even form relays around the image, they simply move in all different directions. I want to say that this is the hallmark of Winogrand’s photography, all the way through his career: the chaos of looks to create disconnections and social isolation in the middle of a crowd.

Garry Winogrand, Street Beggar Reaching Out to Receive a Donation, 1968
As it is presented here, the final phase of Winogrand’s career is labelled by the exhibition as dark. It is true that there is an anger and a doom and gloom to images such as a group of Yale students in 1970 – especially when juxtaposed with a couple at the Metropolitan Opera, however staged their performance, in 1951. But if the look is directly confrontational, if the eyes are angry, this is not something new for Winogrand. The confrontation, surprise and suspicion everywhere defines the photographs in New York and across America from the earlier decades. It may be that the sadness and isolation does not take up as much space in the photograph, but it is always there. It is true that the earlier photographs express joy and energy, but the opposite is always lurking in the background. I don’t see anything joyous about an arm reaching out to a black man whose facial expression suggests he is being teased with money in Street Beggar Reaching Out to Receive a Donation, 1968. In this image I see a world in which black people are oppressed and social disorder reigns, even though it is 1968.
Garry Winogrand, New York, c. 1962

Winogrand’s photographs show the realization of the American dream. Everyone is an individual, everyone is expressing themselves as such. But always in the crowd they are isolated, either by their look, physically, or ultimately by the camera. There’s very little sense of connection between people that populate or the nation exposed in Winogrand’s photographs.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Anselm Kiefer @ Royal Academy of Arts

Anselm Kiefer, Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations, The New Theory of War (2011-2014)
I was ambivalent about going to see yet another Kiefer exhibition as I am still in two minds as to whether or not this is a body of work that continues to develop. While I have maintained a 30 year love affair with Kiefer’s books, and have always been fascinated by his use of lead, I have become increasingly disillusioned with the monumentality, what always seems to me to be an expression of self-obsession, and the reflection of an overblown ego. In spite of my misgiving,s I went to what turned out to be a superbly curated retrospective of Kiefer’s work at the Royal Academy in London.
Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes, 2006 
The courage to stage a retrospective of Kiefer’s work at the Royal Academy is, in itself, to be acknowledged. It’s odd just to imagine these enormous, industrial-sized sculptures, paintings and installations in a space designed to house the subtle and the emotionally vulnerable, as well as the politically charged work of painting in the eighteenth century. Entry to the courtyard, at dusk on a wet, drizzling, late November day, I am swept up into a world of beauty and calm, where rusting U-boats are suspended in two glass vitrines, floating, as though battle passed through here long ago. These are the traces or remnants of another era. Kiefer’s signature script, in charcoal, on paper, bark, haunts the installation, forcing us to reflect on what we can never fully understand. Knowing that the piece is titled Velimir Khlebnikov:  Fates of Nations, The New Theory of War (2011-2014) gives us the facts, but not the mystery that fills the air in the vitrines, surrounding the boats. Velimir Khlebnikov was an early twentieth-century Russian Futurist poet and numerologist, an absurdist, who calculated that decisive sea battles always occur every 317 years.  But these facts, like the battles, are on a distant horizon, far from the sculpture itself. I wondered, as an appetizer to the exhibition to come, which would transform which: would the centuries of tradition weigh on these otherwise unsightly boats, or did the sculpture mark the beginning of a radical re-vision of the Royal Academy?
Anselm Kiefer, Der Morgenthau Plan, 2012
For me, it was in the final rooms of the exhibition, that I became convinced that Kiefer still has something to say. Kiefer returns to books, again, as though he had not quite finished reading, as though he had new ideas that he had just recalled, recently. The books are, for the first time in his career, in colour. That said, Kiefer has always been interested and devoted to colour, it’s just that his chosen colour for exploration has been a palette of greys. The flyer accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy claims these books, that apparently reference Rodin, are erotic. When he brings colour together with lead, lead becomes delicate and reveals a rainbow spreading across the otherwise dead, static material. They are esoteric, as always, but they are also sensuous, sumptuous and beautiful, much more than simply erotic.
Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013
In the later coloured canvases, the Morgenthau paintings, he not only introduces radiant colour, but there is always a balance of sorts, a scale, though it is old and rusted, its contents burnt and left to rot amid the life that surrounds it. The scale speaks of justice, even if it is from another era. The flier again mentions that these works references van Gogh, the sunflowers, but with their French titles, they also find influence from Monet’s waterlillies, the canvas and colour expressing a chaos that seethes beneath the surface of Monet’s final works. I realize in this last room as Kiefer, unusually, sees light and brightness and colour at the end of his life, that what is overwhelming in the other, earlier works, is not only the size, but the predominance of death and destruction, fire and ashes, bunkers and the detritus of war. The landscapes in his earlier works, up until the last few years are heavy, always landscapes in the middle of a storm, or effaced by a storm that passed through, maybe recently, maybe a long time ago, it’s difficult to tell. In the Morgenthau paintings, there is always a sky, hope, and we are placed to look up, out of the wheat fields, not down, on a land that extends filled with death, lined with graves that are the reminder of war out of control. The details on the much more free form Morgenthau landscapes are executed in gold leaf, and I note the hint of birds in the sky. These elements make me think that as an artist Kiefer is becoming brighter, freer, not necessarily more or less abstract, it’s just that there seems to be more hope. This is unusual for an artist growing older, especially one as preoccupied with the darkness of German history as Kiefer has been throughout his career.
'For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night', 1998-2013
Anselm Kiefer, For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night, 1998-2013
Two rooms back, in a handful of works for Paul Celan (nothing new in Kiefer’s oeuvre) are tactile, grey, sheets of lead as canvases sprinkled with diamonds. Apparently, diamonds remind us of the connection between Heaven and Earth. They remind me of the celestial lights that once decorated the ceilings of medieval churches, light that have fallen into the ground and made the lead luminescent. In the diamond-filled landscape of For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night and Der Morgenthau Plan with their blues and gold leaf, yellows and violets, the alchemical reaction that Kiefer has been working on, looking for all his career has finally materialized. If he began with fire and charcoal and death, the burnt books of the 1970s, it’s as though all is transformed: the richness and prosperity of the skies and the universe have finally reached the earth.