Wednesday, October 31, 2012

At the Art Institute of Chicago

Modern Wing, View of Chicago Skyline from Modern Wing Gallery, The Art Institute of Chicago
Photography Charles G. Young, Interactive Design Architects

I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to visit the extensive collection of postwar American painting, and what held me there was the (relatively) recently completed extension. It’s the first time I have been to Chicago since the Renzo Piano designed extension was unveiled in 2009, and I was amazed. It was stunning. I can’t think of another exhibition space that would compare, most notably for the comfort of moving through it, for the privilege it gives to the art works, and yet, simultaneously, is able to integrate them into the city outside. Not only is it a delight to be in the space, but the creative design of the building and exhibition of the art works invites us to see both in a whole new light.

As we walk through the entry hall, the three level space is so voluminous that it lifts us upwards and forwards, inviting us to move through the spaces without effort. But it is the spaces along the north side of the museum, and in particular, those that face Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavillion, that are the most exciting to experience. Because the floor to ceiling glass panes require that we see the city and the art as being in relationship to one other. Unlike the 6th floor view over the city of Paris from the top of the Centre Pompidou, or the Tate Modern’s windows onto the River Thames and beyond, we are never enticed to stare out the window and admire the view when we look out from Piano’s extension to the Art Institute of Chicago. Rather, we are constantly reorienting our gaze to embrace both city and paintings, city and sculpture, in an attempt to understand the vibrant communication that is struck up between them. 
Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man, 1960
Among the most striking of the displays is that of Giacometti’s familiar elongated bronze figures in motion. When I last saw the sculptures (at the Centre Pompidou retrospective) I remember being focused on the fact that they were caught between the motion of their bodies and the fixity of their feet, as if permanently bound to the ground by the pedestals from which they could not break free. On display in the new modern wing of the Art Institute, the figures all face outwards, and they stride with determination into the city outside. They are completely transformed, given a lightness and purpose that they cannot quite reach when cemented to their pedestals in other exhibition spaces. And even more exciting is the way our relationship to them is reoriented by their relationship to the opened out space. We are naturally encouraged to stand, even move, together with them, side by side looking out at the city, rather than standing still looking at them.  This encouragement to join together with sculptures in their purpose, rather than to see them as objects to be looked at, within a museum space was powerful.
Gerhard Richter, Ice (1), 1989
The galleries likewise transform Twombly’s driftwood sculptures, surrounding them in a world that is as peaceful, serene and gentle, as that of the Giacometti’s is energetic. It is as if Twombly’s sculptures belong on the seemingly infinite expanse of Lake Michigan to the west; together with the space, they create an oasis of calm in the middle of a city that is built up all around them, outside of the windows. All of the spaces that face the city not only have a whole wall as window, but they are open – where art usually appears enclosed by a space, the paintings for example, in the north galleries reach off the walls and into the city. An abstract Gerhard Richter series that I was not previously familiar with, Ice (1989), not only speak to the blur of the Woman Descending the Staircase (Frau die Treppe herabgehend), 1965 to their left, but their colors, and moods echo the steel sculptures, the blue, grey and smattering of colors that are the general tone of the city outside. A strip of green above the underground parking in front of the Gehry Pavillion stands out and catches the attention as we see the green on the canvas.

Gerhard Richter, Woman Descending the Staircase, 1965
 It’s not simply the building that gives the visitor a whole new experience of the works, but the curatorial decisions are equally outstanding: the works’ organization is as important to the experience. As is, of course, the city of Chicago.

I want to describe downtown Chicago as harmonious, a city defined by a balance not usually found in urban environments. The expanse of Lake Michigan makes Chicago what it is: as Mies van der Rohe insisted all those years ago, Lake Michigan defines the city, and so, he designed the skyscrapers such that they speak to the water. The water is transient, ephemeral, reflective, the skyscrapers are forceful, stalwart, reaching up into the clear sky of the gorgeous October days that I was in Chicago. The water is about movement and harmony and it lifts the city out of its concrete fixity, emphasizing the glass and steel, not the cement of the structures. Thus, as the water gives balance to the city, so the new wing of the Art Institute creates a balance between the art and a city built around Lake Michigan.

This is so unique that it is worth the pilgrimage to the mid-west.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch @ BAM

As a graduate student I used to venture out to BAM regularly to visit what was, in the 1990s, one of New York’s few locations for international experimental theater. And when I went over the bridge last night, I was relieved to find there is still one place in New York where people are not glued to their iPhones, one place that technology consumerism hasn’t yet colonized. Anja insisted that we get there 20 minutes early to watch the people arrive, and to be sure, the audience was as varied and as interesting as any cross-section of New York’s cultural and intellectual world. There were people of all ages, some dressed with abandon, others very meticulously put together, still others who arrived with their head still in a book. New York’s most vibrant intellectuals had crawled out of the woodwork to see Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s final work.

I last saw Tanztheater Wuppertal perform in New York, at Lincoln Center, in 2002. I remember it as being intellectual, avant-garde, somewhat experimental, I remember the dancers being of all different ages, being strong in personality, and saw them pushing at the boundaries of what it means to dance, to perform, to act.

But last night’s performance at BAM was softer, more fluid, more dreamy, less intellectually challenging. It was a delight. While it was enjoyable and engaging, there was nothing particularly radical about the dancing or the message being conveyed in the series of vignettes that made up "…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…" (Like moss on a stone). Unlike vintage Pina Bausch from the 1970s, the performance was not experimental and nor did it push boundaries. The overall narrative was resoundingly heterosexual: men and women struggled, fell in and out of each others arms, loved each other, writhed in agony and anger, but always, they came back to the fundamental belief in the resilience of the heterosexual relationship.

While the kind of relationship explored in the vignettes that made up "…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…"  was conventional, so much of the delight of the piece was in the strength and power of the women as they reveled in their femininity. Not only did the women outnumber the men, but they wore an exquisite array of colorful, sensual dresses – in familiar Pina Bausch style. The men, however, were often shorter, wore black, and were more generic, less distinctive in their appearance. The women teased the men, combatted them, resisted them, and then they fell into their arms, like honey as they melted into their feminine softness. And all the time, the women were playful and joyous, filled with an energy that spoke their endless enthusiasm for life.

The women dancers were beautiful, but not always in a conventional sense: striking in their defined facial features and the clarity of their movements.  They all had long, thick hair that became as integrated into their identities, their power, and the overall narrative as did their gorgeous dresses. They used their dresses not only as clothes, but as paniers for rocks, for grass, they transformed them into screens, fans, and curtains between them and the men. The women were always more beautiful and more exotic than the men with their colorful dresses, their long hair determining the shape of the dances as well as the stories, claiming their power as women. This feminine strength was uplifting, something to be celebrated.

The theatrical dance itself was about the intensity of what it means to love, to be intimate, the struggle to find emotional security and the difficulty of holding onto it. So the emotions conveyed in movement were at times profound. The pain, for example, of a woman at the end of a rope tied around her waist as she tugged, and writhed at speed, like a dog on the end of a lead was excruciating. It was painful because we may not all have been tied to the end of a rope, but we know the feeling of being unable to break loose from the chains that hold us back, hold us in one place. Then, in one of the most sensuous and erotic scenes, all of the dancers formed a line diagonally across the stage, sitting linked in the space between the legs of the one behind (above). As they sat, leaning back into the one behind, each brushed and massaged the hair of the one in front, to the beat of the playful music. It was, again, revealing of intimacy and tenderness.

Such moments of harmony were broken when a single dancer broke into an intense solo, at a pace that ensured we were transported into a realm of confrontation, into the isolation and untrained energy that puts distance between the need for love and the love itself. And so, the dancing was expansive and intense — as we came to expect from Pina Bausch — between comedy and intimacy, antagonism and isolation. And, to reiterate, I came away uplifted by the energy of the women as they indulged the depths of their femininity. Ultimately, however, I am not sure that this performance added to my understanding of what dance can do, or where it can go.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Raphaël, les dernières années au Louvre

As an undergraduate art history student I wrote an essay on Raphaël’s School of Athens because I was so captivated by the movement and energy of Plato and Aristotle as they bring the spatial recession towards us while simultaneously filling the picture plane with their verticality. It’s an extraordinary painting for its dimensions, but also its philosophical and aesthetic reach. Indeed, it’s the painting that I have, ever since, associated with Raphaël, one of the three high Renaissance masters of Papal Italy (Michelangelo and Leonardo being the other two). This autumn’s exhibition at the Louvre, Raphaël, Les dernières années, opens up to a quieter, more reflective Raphaël. This is probably because the exhibition features the works that can be moved: the smaller, more intimate, though nevertheless breathtaking paintings and drawings that he made in the final ten years of his short life.

Raphaël, The School of Athens, 1510-
That said, in the second room of the exhibition is the dynamic, complex narrative of Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, c. 1514-16. The agitation, or the “spasm” of the painting’s Italian title, creates anger, surprise and a depth of other complex emotions that emerges as Mary reaches out to help Christ having stumbled from bearing the weight of the cross. Simultaneously, we see here, the precision of Raphaël’s technique in the perfectly crafted, if disproportionate muscles of Simon of Cyrene, the man compelled by the Romans to carry the cross.  His arms are as exquisite as the cloth of Mary’s red robe in the bottom right corner. The rich, vibrant reds and blues, the sculpting of the human body, and the realism of the highly charged scene brings alive the rarely painted narrative, making it hard to believe that it was painted 500 years ago. This is a painting that does so much more than tell the biblical story.  

Raphaël, Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, c. 1514-1516 
The portraits, however, were for me, the most sublime of the images on display at the Louvre. They are sublime because of the luminescence of the skin, the perfection of the face, the grace and serenity of the look as it the sitter greets the eye of the spectator in quiet reflection. Because Raphael is best known for his frescos in the Vatican living quarters, the portraits are surprising, though frank. In the examples in the Louvre exhibition, the background is often a single color, placing all emphasis and our complete attention on the exquisitely perfect faces of the sitter. Everything that needs to be said about the sitter is in the face, the hands softly resting, and in contemplative eyes.

Raphael, Portrait of Bindo Altiviti, 1515
 The Portrait of Bindo Altiviti (1515), the rich banker who was also a highly cultured man, is once again, striking for its realism. And also, as the first of the portraits to be exhibited, the viewer is struck by the contemporaneity of his soft, graceful face caught in the shadows. And I am surely not the only one to be seduced by the eroticism of his full red lips, his golden hair falling on his bare skin.

Raphaël, Portrait of Cardinal Bernardo Douizi da Bibbiena, 1516-1517
It’s difficult not to be wooed by the sumptuous red ecclesiastical dress against a luminescent green background in the portrait of the Cardinal of Santa Maria in Portico, Rome: Portrait of Cardinal Bernardo Douizi da Bibbiena, c. 1516-1517. Even if he is not someone we would want to spend time with, his dress, his delicate hands holding what is presumably a message for the Pope, and his intense eyes that follow us as we walk around the room, make him irresistible.

Raphaël, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1519
My favorite was the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1519) because it is grey. His hat and his beard frame his face which, other than his folded hands at the bottom of the painting, are the focus of an otherwise “fully lit” monochromatic palette. Apparently, it is not just for compositional purposes that the hat, as if an extension of the coat, covers his head: it also covered his baldness. But the most sumptuous and most sensuous aspect of the painting is Baldassare’s grey fur: it is so finely painted, so soft and subtle that it made me want to reach out and stroke it. I am no Cinquecento scholar, but I can’t think of another painting from this time that ventured into an entirely grey palette to create such a compelling, richly textured, yet entirely somber canvas.

Giulio Romano, Portrait of a Woman at a Mirror, 1523-1524
There are so many delights in the exhibition, but the execution and articulation of fabrics must have been among the most exciting. In an unsettling image by Giulio Romano, one of Raphaël’s assistant, Portrait of a Woman at a Mirror, 1523-1524, the woman covers herself with a piece of entirely transparent fabric. Or in Portrait of a Woman, 1512-1518, the trimmings of the woman’s dress are so opulent and finely rendered that they appear to be three dimensional, protruding into the spectator’s space. Next to the theatricality and energy of the better known frescos, the economy of line and form to create an equally dense, yet thoroughly individual story in the portraits cannot help but mesmerize any viewer.