Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Turner. Paintings and Watercolours from the Tate @ Musée Jacquemart-André

J M W Turner, The Lagoon Near Venice, at Sunset, 1840

The Turner exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André is a pleasure from beginning to end. People used to visiting the intimate rooms of this museum will welcome the current social distancing measures. Never before have I had the opportunity to be alone, or at worst, with one or two others in the room. It was a treat. 

J M W Turner, Blair Atholl, Looking towards Killiecrankie, 1801-2

From the beginning we see Turner painting the weather, the time of day, the seasons, the elements as they are reflected in the air. We see the wind blowing in paint. In those moments that would make Turner's work so controversial in his time, in the places where he left the canvas bare, we see some of his most emotional moments. The watercolours follow Turner's ongoing preoccupation with light, seeing him working over and over to illuminate the whole painting from a single source. Even from the beginning, it is clear that Turner is not interested in objects or human figures, even narrative. They are diminished, overwhelmed by the weather, the natural environment and, of course, colour as light. Turner never goes so far as to remove the human figures altogether, he can't quite take us to a point where he eschews representation, but in the watercolours and eventually the oil paintings, we can see the beginnings of abstraction in art. In Blair Atholl, vue en direction de Killicranckie, vers 1801-02, for example, streaks of light, clouds blown in the wind, their shadows, the gentle movement of water, animate the paper surface. 
Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore - Early Morning', Joseph Mallord William Turner,  1819 | Tate
J M W Turner, Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore - Early Morning, 1819

Then Turner travels to Venice. Like so many artists throughout history, Venice changes everything for Turner. In Venice he sees the light, humidity and the sultry atmosphere reflected in the lagoon in Venise: San Giorgio Maggiore-tot le matin, 1819. In Venice, thanks to the water, Turner learns about luminosity, transparency and he manages to capture the something essential that he has been looking for. Venice marks the shift to abstraction. In front of the Venice paintings, we realize that the water helps him to discover new depths to the relationship between colour and light. Twenty five years later when he goes back to Venice on his world travels, in a work such as Venise: une vue imaginaire de l'Arsenal  vers 1840, the heat, the lethargy, the heaviness of the Venetian atmosphere is everywhere expressed in the orange and yellow of the sun-scorched buildings and their reflections. The straw-like lines of the boats, Gondalas, moorings and processions, indistinct from their reflections in the blue water of La Piazzetta avec la céremonie du Doge époussant la mer, vers 1835 cry out to the viewer, as if we are there, participating in the festivities. The sounds, colours, the air, wind and sun are more important than any figures we might be able to be identified. 
Turner: Yacht Approaching the Coast | Buy Art on Demand by Tate | Tate
J M W Turner, Yacht Approaching the Coast (1840-45)

In the final room of the exhibition we see some of his finest oil paintings. Most interesting is their continued reach for abstraction. The line between sea and shore has become an idea, something that is no longer clearly defined in the image. In works such as Yacht Approaching the Coast, we see the signature of Turner's late oil on canvas paintings: the pulling of the viewer into the vortex of an agitated sea. If Venice guides Turner to the marriage of painted colour and light, it's the seascape at Margate that ultimately leads him to the near dissolution of form and the blurring of all structuring sight lines in painting. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Christo and Jeanne-Claude @ Centre Pompidou

Christo, Package, 1960

As thrilling as it was to be back in a museum after four months of "culture online," I was disappointed by the Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibition at the Pompidou Centre. My vivid memories of the 2001 exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau are overwhelmed with a sense of discovery. Learning how and where (artistically speaking) Christo began his career was an eye-opening experience. My expectations for the Pompidou exhibition were for a similarly exhaustive study of Christo's slow developing brilliance. Prior to the Martin Gropius Bau exhibition, I had known him as someone who wraps buildings and hangs curtains across vast stretches of land. Then to discover Christo's body of work to be so intricately woven together with the history of western art was revelatory. This sense of surprise is nowhere to be found in the Pompidou exhibition.
Wrapped Oil Barrels
Christo, Wrapped Oil Barrels, 1958-69
In the early rooms, we see Christo's earliest works made in Paris in which he starts preserving paper and fabric with lacquer and paint. They create a connection with Dubuffet and Fontana, particularly in their materiality of perceived degradation and preservation. Already, in 1958, the packing surfaces, whether paper or fabric, engage the artist's lifelong obsession with concealing and revealing. Whether we are looking at a piece of fabric as an art work placed in a frame, or a wrapped object, we oscillate between admiring the packaging that conceals and imagining the object behind or inside. Either there is no possibility of knowing—thus we don't even try to guess—what is the inside the fabric wrapping, or we know exactly what it is, in the case of the oil barrels, a half-wrapped, chair, portrait paintings in which we see faces through the dirty but clear plastic wrapping. 
Wrapped Telephone
Christo, Wrapped Telephone, 1962
There is no denying that politics are wrapped around each object. Even if politics are denied or claimed to be unintended by the artists themselves. How can oil barrels blocking the passageway through a Paris street to echo the erection of the Berlin Wall not be a statement on disrupting the effects of capitalism? The wrapping of objects must also surely be about consumption. Objects are presented as gifts, things of value, things that need to be preserved, or at times, exchanged, protected. On occasion, the wrapping reminds us of butcher's paper around meat, especially when the string so tightly constricts the expansion and contraction of the object. Hanging Package from 1962, dangling on the end of a rope reminds us of a carcass, hung up to dry. Some viewers may recall  Rembrandt's Slaughtered Ox (1655) before Hanging Package. Art and the dead animal are one and the same; they are both dead objects on display for all to ogle at. 
Show Case
Christo, Show Case, 1963
As Christo continues on his Parisian journey, the work becomes increasingly sophisticated, complicated, and somehow more beautiful. In some of the most exquisite, layered and politically cutting works, a room halfway through the exhibition is filled with vitrines and storefronts. These are multilayered, with references to multiple events in the history of art. We are immediately reminded of Matisse's window paintings and Duchamp's Fresh Window, 1920. From Matisse, Christo continues the push towards abstraction, breaking down the boundary between the real and the illusory, finding the forms and materials and structures of painting in the everyday world. And from Duchamp, Christo extends all of the significance of consumerism, of displays designed to tempt buying, not just art, but all other objects that sparkle in shop windows. However, as in Duchamp's Fresh Window, we are prohibited from window shopping, here because the butcher's paper covers the window, or a hessian cloth stymies our looking. Unlike Christo's wrapped objects, the windows contain things we want to see, the object itself is not enough. The light behind the butcher's paper or hessian cloth draws our curiosity. We peer in, trying to see what it is we missing out on. Again, the game of concealing and revealing is made more complex here as the viewer is persistently tempted to see and to know, but always struggles to do so.  
Purple Store Front
Christo, Purple Store Front, 1964

Thus, the vitrines and storefronts are about looking, but also about blindness, or our inability to see. Simultaneously, the store fronts engage discourses of looking at -- they are, after all, two dimensional objects placed on a wall, as if they are paintings, even though they are not. By extension, they blur even more boundaries; not only between art and everyday objects, but between painting and sculpture, between the conceptual and the aesthetic object of art. 

The Pont Neuf, Wrapped (Project for Paris)
Christo, Pont Neuf Wrapped, 1980
The remainder of the exhibition is given over to the drawings, maquettes, plans, collages, documents and other objects from the project to wrap the Pont Neuf. Included is a screening of the Maysles Brothers film, Christo in Paris from 1990. Of course, the film is interesting for its documentation of the struggle to realize the project against the backdrop of changing Paris political landscapes (and Mayors). However, as is often the case with exhibitions that document past artistic events, the memory is not quite as exciting as it would have been to walk across the wrapped bridge during its brief existence in 1985. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Christian Boltanski, Life in the Making @ Pompidou

Faire son temps : Christian Boltanski au Centre Pompidou
Christian Boltanski, Depart,  Life in the Making
There will be no surprises in this exhibition for visitors familiar with Christian Boltanski's work. Boltanski is an artist who has been preoccupied with similar issues for fifty years, and he found a language in which to express those ideas very early in his career. Moreover, since the 1990s, the innovation has not always been in the works themselves, but in the way the installations are exhibited. In fact, the most interesting iterations of his work have often been the unique and interesting spaces of exhibition. 
Christian Boltanski exhibition at Paris Centre Pompidou - Pictures ...
Christian Boltanski, Les Regards, 2011
On entering Life in the Making on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou, I felt as though I was entering a mausoleum. The temporary exhibition walls are painted a dark grey, the lighting of Boltanski's black and white images is minimal, if it exists at all, and the mechanically sounding heart beat - no doubt the artist's own - drums through the entire space. To the point where the presence of the thumping heartbeat becomes subliminal, working on a deeper level of consciousness, underlying every step, and no doubt, leading to headaches for some visitors. As we move through the exhibition spaces, the black and white family photographs lining the walls plunge us into the familiar Boltanski world of memory, pathos and hopelessness. Given the sounds and images, I was puzzled by the exhibition's title, Life in the Making. Because nothing here resembles life in the present, in the making, or the pleasure of simply being alive. Rather, in familiar Boltanski fashion, everything points to death.
Image result for christian boltanski faire son temps
Christian Boltanski, Autel Chases, 1987
An enormous pile of black clothes, le Terril Grand-Hornu, 2015 resembles the charred remains of the unfortunate people to whom they might once have belonged. A single electrical light bulb hangs above the tip of the pile, barely illuminating the signifiers of death below. It's impossible to see any kind of life after death inside this dark, depressing world. Even when death is far from the work, it's memory haunts our thoughts and imaginations. Thus, for example, in his well known use of images of school children, in a work such as Après in which photographs show anonymous faces of girls smiling as they play in Hamburgerstrasse in Berlin, the blown up, indistinct, anonymous faces printed on very thin, torn veils are haunted by the fact that the girls must be dead. The children may not be  dead, but Boltanski reproduces their portraits in such a way that they remind us of ID photographs of Holocaust victims, or sufferers of other kinds of violence; they are votives encouraging us to mourn.  
Christian Boltanski, Prendre la Parole, 2005

Or in the row upon row of columns made from rusted steel boxes, each with a small photograph on its front, we cannot help but imagine that each box contains the ashes of the person depicted or naming the box. Or perhaps their valuables have been placed in the box, as if in a vault, for safekeeping. Either way, there is no suggestion that anyone is coming back to collect their belongings. 
Christian Boltanski, Les Registres du Grand-Hornu

Boltanski grew up with a father who, as a Russian Jew, had escaped deportation by hiding underneath the floorboards for over a year. The profound effect this had on Boltanski's father is potentially taken up throughout the son's art across decades. The icons and symbols of the death camps are everywhere recognizeable, even if they are not present, in the works: piles of clothes, great numbers of blurred, anonymous faces with blackened-out eyes in photographs printed on flimsy cloths, black mirrors and veils, as well as sound installations that evoke practices of witnessing death and trauma. Of course, the exhibition and the museum are now closed in keeping with the government shutdown. However, should further reiterations of Life in the Making be staged elsewhere, Boltanski's work might just be seen as an omen for the end of the world that appears to be approaching through the silent city streets of our time.