Thursday, August 31, 2017

Derain, Balthaus, Giacometti, An Artistic Friendship

Alberto Giacometti, Aika, 1959
The goal of this exhibition is to bring together the lives and work of the three artists to illustrate their mutual influence, and consequently, to appreciate the art of each in a new light. For me, the exhibition works to illustrate one thing: the extraordinary imagination and unique talent of Alberto Giacometti. Hanging next to works by Derain and Balthaus, Giacometti’s paintings and sculpture are more moving than when viewed on their own, if that is possible. The exhibition will convince everyone who sees it that Giacometti was a genius in his own time, and remains one today.
André Derain, Geneviève à la Pomme, vers 1937-38

Giacometti’s portraits are exquisite. That he made them all in various shades of grey while the other Derain and Balthaus were still using a full color palette must have been so daring at the time. It is true, the subject matter and form of what the three artists paint may be similar at times, and again the texture of the paint as Giacometti explored it may resonate with the same in the work of the other two. But Giacometti takes everything to an extreme that sees his painting stand out in unimaginable ways, thus lifting his art into a whole different realm. The other two don’t go to the same extreme of placing frames around frames around frames, both within and external to the canvas of a portrait. I have always understood Giacometti’s portraits to be about entrapment, much like the sculpted figures are stuck to the base of their statues. The portraits are like sketches; they are worked over again and again in pencil, rubbed out, smudged, drawn again. The heads make the figures anonymous, held within a drawn frame, then that of the canvas, and again by that of the picture frame. There is always something unfinished about Giacometti’s portraits, as if the reworking wants to go on into infinity. It is as though he wouldn’t let the figures go until he was finished, so they become eternally trapped in a mise-en-abîme of frames. I also noticed in the portraits on display here that the space behind the head often opens up within the painting, as if the figure is on a stage with exits and entrances, curtains and backdrops. This changes everything: because the figures are free to end the performance and leave the stage whenever they want.
Alberto Giacometti, Apple on the Buffet, 1938
If I have to admit a similarity between or mutual influence of Derain, Balthaus and Giacometti, it might start with apples on tables. All three are interested in still life, and all three put apples on tables. For the other two, there is usually the attempt to create a scene, with a cloth, a knife, water, and for Derain, even the woman Geneviève. Thus, for Derain and Balthaus, apples on tables are placed in a narrative. Giacommeti pushes further towards abstraction. He takes the image over the edge so that still life becomes literally that: lifeless, frozen, to the point where everything is taken out of the picture until all that is left is an apple on a table scratched into and onto the surface of a grey painting. It’s similar to the portraits in which Giacometti removes human the expression until they become “portraits.” Likewise, the still lives verge into abstraction until they are a composition in a frame, as both become the genre in skeletal form.
Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme qui Chavire, 1950-51
I thought the greatest indication of the expanse between Giacometti and the other two was realized when Derain and Balthaus made traditional costumes for Cosi Fan Tutti, while Giacometti made the tree by which Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot. From classical opera to absurdist drama, it’s difficult to find the connections. I was struck in one of the final rooms by a hanging of two paintings with Giacometti’s L’Homme qui Chavire, 1950-51 placed between them, in the middle of the room. The movement of Giacometti’s fragile figure in the wind is breathtaking to be sure, and the resonance of the movement between sculpture and paintings is identifiable, Balthaus and Derain put women not men in motion in their paintings. For Giacometti, it’s almost unheard of to place women in motion. Rather, in his painting and sculpture, men move while women are stuck in their iron base, in the frames around them, and by extension, in the dark reality of the world of their time. Some might want to argue that Giacometti’s vision of women was misogynist, but to me it’s realist, and even more so next to the fantasies of Balthaus and Derain.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Travels to Buenos Aires - Definitely not the Paris of South America

Photographs of the disappeared on windows at ex-ESMA Detention Center
It’s difficult to move past abduction, torture, detention and disappearing when thinking about the experience of being in Buenos Aires. It is a lively and buzzing city with friendly people and a vibrant cultural life. It has some interesting museums, diverse neighborhoods, plenty of colonial architecture, an equal measure of which is in disrepair. But I found it impossible to get past the fact that justice has never been served for the crimes committed under the military dictatorship. Everywhere I went in Buenos Aires, I felt the weight of the unresolved past: the crimes of the fascist death squads hang over Buenos like a dark cloud. As I walked around, I kept wondering if this man or that was guilty of crimes against humanity. I saw big burly men in suits sauntering down the street and I immediately thought “ex-military.” The walls of Buenos Aires’ streets are also filled with graffiti that protests the violent rule, and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo still gather and protest the disappearance of their children, forty years on. Perhaps most frightening of all, the remains of detention and torture centers are barely disguised, right in the middle of the city. For all of the celebration of daily life in Buenos Aires, I was not expecting to be confronted by the darkness that haunts the streets.
Political graffiti on the streets & images of the Disappeared
I asked a local if there was corruption in Argentina as there is in so many other South American countries, and his response, was “well, not of overt kind, but of course, that’s how government runs.” The broken pavements, daily demonstrations, the artificially inflated peso, the curious absence of indigenous or black people in the streets of Buenos Aires, it reveals that something is not right with this city.

"Paris of South America"
I was in Buenos Aires for a conference that took place in the Borges Cultural Centre that shares the building with a plush downtown mall, Galerias Pacifico. The mall is filled with street designer shops, eateries and it’s even a hub for changing money on the black market. Again, just another location bustling with daily life. That was, until I learnt that the military junta had set up torture chambers in the basement. By the time I learned of the building’s history, I was not at all surprised as I had been in Buenos Aires a few days and was feeling the ghosts of the these nine long years (1974-83) wherever I went. I read that the walls in the basement of the Galerias Pacifico building still bear the graffiti of the tortured and disappeared. I didn’t go down to see if these markings had been erased by the 1991 renovations of the building. I didn’t need to see any more traces of violence and death in Buenos Aires: I had seen enough.
Street Graffiti
On the final day of the conference, we visited ex-ESMA, the centre for torture, detention and transition to death for over 5,000 people during the fascist dictatorship. My skin shuddered as I looked at buildings in close proximity, even integration into daily life, from the fascist period. They were, at the time in 1974-83, used by the armed forces, mainly naval, as a training facility. In the basement of the building we visited, detainees identified as resisters to the fascists were herded, hooded, stripped of their identity, then their humanity, before being detained upstairs, tortured some more, and finally, taken on a plane and dropped in the ocean, alive. All these clinical activities took place while the officers in charge lived, worked, and slept on floors one and two of the same building. One wonders what inhumanity it requires to eat and sleep with the business of torture and murder taking place all around. It is clear on visiting the building that the guards and officers saw their prisoners, handcuffed, hooded and shackled as they were led to their pit measuring 70cm wide and 2m long. They must also have heard  the prisoners upstairs as they waited for their call to death.
Walls at ex-Esma

Windows at ex-Esma
The most heinous part of the story was told us by our guide: the officers moved the stairs and the elevator. When the prisoners who became survivors, told of their memory of the spatial organization of the building after the fact, they remembered the stairs and the elevator that took them to and from their living death, from street level to basement, from basement to 3rd floor, and finally to street level to be disposed of in the sea. After they had testified at the ongoing tribunal, court representatives came to verify the layout of the building to prove the innocence and rectitude of the survivors. However, the stairs and the elevator had been removed. Similarly, when bodies started to wash up on the shores of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the perpetrators studied the currents of the sea and made sure to drop the bodies in a place and at a time that would ensure they were not carried by the tide to shore. That they could even imagine doing these clinical actions was a chilling reminder, not one of them has yet been brought to justice. I don’t think I can imagine the torture of having my reality discredited in this way: the denial of removing the spatial co-ordinates to disprove the captives’ memory must have been psychological hell. To date, not one person has been charged with these crimes.

Projection of books on 3rd Floor (prison and torture area) at es-Esma
As we walked through the centre, the guide also reminded us not to touch the walls of the cells and the rooms because the building was still being used as evidence in the trials to prosecute and bring justice to the captors. So effectively, with the history ongoing, I felt as though the murderers were still watching the corridors, and was sickened to think, not only of the torture that took place within these walls, but that the world can sit back and wait for what should be the most urgent of actions.

Former Detention Center under a traffic bridge in San Telmo
Buenos Aires, and all of Argentina, as a place that suffered a violent and bloody dictatorship will take decades and still more decades before it can recover from the torture, abuse and crimes of its government. While it was the rulers of the past that committed these crimes, there was no secret made of the fact that the Argentinian government of the present is taking steps to oust the humanitarian groups who occupy and activate for human rights at ex-ESMA. Their funding is being cut. And so, I came away from Buenos Aires wondering how can this festering wound can ever begin to heal when not only do the people who committed the crimes not admit having done so, but some of those charged with bringing justice are doing their best to deny? 

Many had told me before I went that Buenos Aires is like Europe, it's the Paris of South America. It’s true that France is not the epitome of governmental right doing, but, there’s no doubt that while Buenos Aires might have wealthy bourgeoise neighborhoods with splendid colonial architecture, this city is a long way from being the Paris of South America.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Helen Frankenthaler. After Abstract Expressionism @ Gagosian

Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1959-60
I wonder how differently history would look upon Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings if they had been made by a man. Every piece in this extraordinary body of work from a leading American postwar artist is luscious and brilliant. But they are also a relatively little-known, relative that is to the oeuvres of Rothko, Pollock, DeKoonig, Kline, her husband Robert Motherwell, and all the other men whose paintings define the history of modern American art. My guess is that if Frankenthaler had been a man, her paintings would have been revered to the same, if not greater degree as those of her male counterparts. In many ways, her work is more intellectually interesting, more lyrical and sensuous than that of any of the men in her world.
Helen Frankenthaler, First Creatures, 1959
In his catalogue essay for Frankenthaler’s landmark exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1960, Frank O’Hara, then curator at MoMA, wrote that her painting was filled with courage. Even in this small exhibition at Gagosian, it is possible to walk around and see the risks that she took. Something in the paintings looks like the visualization of an artist following her instinct at a time when formalism was on its way in and expressionism on its way out. That has to take courage. Like the other Abstract Expressionists (and the visual resemblance to De Koonig’s work is clear here) she painted from her instinct and intuition, in the search for a place to find freedom. The instantaneity is so present in these paintings that we witness her come alive on the canvas. Thus, the movement of her brush or fingers around the canvas is visible in the colour fields, and lines that occupy surprisingly busy canvases.
Helen Frankenthaler, After Abstract Expressionism 
Installation View @ Gagosian
However, the paintings are also highly calculated. I was intrigued to see that the pools of colour on a number of the paintings began and ended very precisely, with no two colours touching each other. This precision is not the work of someone who is working solely through improvization and chance. The colours touch, and are always in conversation, but without overlapping, or drowning each other out. This has to reflect the control of a painter who uses enormous judgment in the architecture and organization of the painted canvas. Also, in keeping with this marriage of intuition and intellectual precision, I saw the works as somehow following the rhythms and patterns of dance. Not only because of the visibility of the body in motion, but because of the abstraction, the lines floating and cutting across empty swathes of canvas to suggest a body or a bird in flight. These trajectories are not mapped out by emotion or instinct, but again, are very consciously designed.

Helen Frankenthaler, After Abstract Expressionism 
Installation View @ Gagosian,
Italian Beach, 1960 on RHS
The film in the upstairs gallery is enlightening and should not be missed. There are conversations around a table with the who’s who of the New York art world—including Clement Greenberg, Frankenthaler’s boyfriend at the time. Then the film moves to show her at work. Alone in her studio, or together with an assistant, we see her manipulating colour—often the same colour—to extract its multiple effects. The same colour can be dense and opaque, filled with light and iridescent, shadowy or confident. I want to say that she pulls these often conflicting characteristics out of each colour. Then we see her using different tools: fingers, sponges, spatulas, brushes, and squeegees of various kinds. We also see her working over a canvas from above, in Pollock style, but thinking and controlling in a way that Pollock’s process did not allow him to do. As one critic acknowledges, Frankenthaler’s work is great because she does the impossible: she takes Pollock’s style and process, and does something different. I would say that what results from her process enables the paintings to sit between pouring and smearing, between random and carefully measured reflections on paint and its expression of our relationship to the world.

Helen Frankenthaler, The Red Sea, 1959
Some of my favorites were the landscapes, reminding me of Clyfford Still's representations of the desert. But unlike Still’s paintings, the colours move from vivid primary colours to more muted tones, from the beaches to untitled landscapes. And reminiscent of some of Twombly’s greatest work, there is often as much unpainted canvas as there is colour. Again, like Twombly, every single area without paint is filled with something, whether it is the drip of colour escaping the instrument of application as it was carried across the canvas, or a consciously unfinished moment, there is no place on Frankenthaler’s canvases where nothing happens.


Images courtesy Gagosian