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Tuesday, April 28, 2020


Spring 2020 will be recalled by all who read this as the surreal season of sheltering to protect ourselves and our friends from the spread of the COVID19 virus. The world is out of work, out of money, and out of the cultural pleasures we long to resume but probably won't for months or a year to come. I'm not alone in missing museum-going. 

Though the museums be closed (or take your chances: Indianapolis is open), many are still providing for art lovers in the best ways they can. Peering at the computer screen, we don't have to wait in line, overhear a chattering self-appointed critic, or huff at the extravagant price for a simple refreshment.
Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Many art museums now offer us  via the Internet in-depth experiences we might otherwise overlook: closer looks at shows and individual works presented by curators or connoisseurs; commentaries by artists; oral and pictorial essays that make unexpected connections. We can travel much farther than we do with gallery labels skimmed on the fly in shows too big to digest. All that I'm learning now, I'll plow back into my viewing when museum doors finally open again.

I'm concentrating on museums I'd love to visit but can barely dream of seeing any time soon. From London, the Royal Academy website yields rich rewards from the scholarly to the amusing. From the homepage, we can access "Picasso at Home," a literal galley tour of the Picasso on Paper show, or visit "Artists in Isolation," reflections by Ai Wei Wei and others about the state of seclusion. Farther down the page is "Go for Walkies through our collection," which leads to a wonderful, often light-hearted feature of 250 objects (with notes) in the five categories of dogs, doodles, self-portraits, and representations of war. There's a list of films about artists available from streaming services. 

A fantastic feature of the RA site is "Art and Artists" in the top ribbon on the home page. From there you can search for any artist you wish to explore in their collection to find samples of their work, with notes, biographical information, bibliography and a list of holdings. A lot of fun here is the page with a large collage of works from many periods in many media and styles, drawn from across the RA collection. Click on one of these pictures to be led to a page where it's featured and linked to works by the same artist, works of similar shape, and others on the same theme. These take you down several paths: It's an ideal way to wander the collection, and a delicious device for pleasant idling an otherwise dull afternoon

San Francisco MOMA from Yerba Buena Gardens
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art welcomes us with open arms. Its home page is simply, "Museum from Home," and everything on the site is geared directly to the art-hungry house-bound. There aren't references to local installations that you couldn't and won't see: It's all immediate and ready to hand to you, hungry at the curbside. There are lots of "Artist cribs" videos of about two minutes each, tiny studio visits like "Tony Oursler's Multimedia Madhouse," and "Jim Campbell’s Illuminated Studio," wherein the artist experiments with LED lights. These are very diverting and well-made. Longer and more searching is their "Focus on Japanese Photography," based, it appears, on an exhibition catalogue. Five artists are presented with long bios and images of all of their works in the show. There is a video interview with each. Naoya Hatakeyama tells us that underneath Paris lie limestone quarries with collapsed ceilings that generated his Fallen Sky series. Ishiuchi Miyako explores scars as ways to stop time. The experience of the entire show is haunting. 

Among the materials at our fingertips at SFMOMA is the remarkable Rauschenberg Research Project. Scholars of the artist undoubtedly know it well, but newcomers will be absorbed by this catalogue of 88 works completed between 1949 and 1998 with overview commentary and histories of exhibition and ownership. The images can be greatly expanded and studied in detailed sections. When you come back to the "Museum from Home," there is a panoply of new wonders. At "Beyond the Canvas," you'll find many great interviews—Judy Chicago on the female aesthetic, Kristina Kubisch on discovering new sounds, and Ellsworth Kelley explaining abstraction— among the many.

Portland (Oregon) Museum of Art
Fine art and film alternate from day to day on the Daily Art Moment on the site run by the Portland Art Museum with the Northwest Film Center. PAM invites you to the event of the day, alternating images with films. If you miss a day or wish to indulge in a week's worth of viewing, there's an archive that allows you to browse past highlights. Before you go back though, there's the opportunity to see today's featured work in the online collection or an online exhibition where you'll get to appreciate more about the artist and their place in their genre and time. At the moment of this writing, the featured work is a poignant black and white image of wounded sailors by Victor Jorgensen, which can lead the viewer into a show of his work with the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in the South Pacific. Also featured so far: Carrie Mae Weems, Katherine Bradford, Rajendra Roy, and many terrific Northwestern film artists like documentarian Julie Goldman, an executive director of Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, and Amy Dotson, a creator of the series Ozark. All the film and television entries give links, so they can be watched or streamed. Portland's site is more direct and succinct than some others, and takes less hopping from page to page. 

The Frick Collection, New York

A trip to the Frick Collection in New York City always makes the heart sing. They haven't done much in particular to call in the coronavirus visitor, but it is very easy to use their menus to access their world of beauty and connoisseurship. If you click on "Exhibitions" on the home page, you can click on "Virtual Exhibitions" on the next to be led to a great array of shows. In each, you can, if you wish, wander the galleries using navigation tools, should you be more adept than I at using them. You can click on objects to get closeups and commentary. Unless you are particularly interested in the installation, though, and wish to see "Whistler as Printmaker," for instance, a left sidebar will offer you all the show's images, associated lectures, a glossary of printmaking terminology, and other features. A truly exceptional series has begun in "Cocktails with the Curator." In this COVID19-inspired series, the head curator, Xavier Salomon at home in his lounging robe, discusses a great painting at the Frick while the viewer shares a cocktail a home, the drink having been suggested the week before (week one: a Manhattan). The setting is grand and fun, and his fifteen-to-twenty minute disquisition focused on the background and details of the painting is truly illuminating. So far, we've discussed Rembrandt's Polish Rider, Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, and Van Dyck's Sir John Suckling.
Frick Collection gardens

Museum sites cannot reproduce their works life-sized, and we cannot enjoy the great spaces that live visits offer. But I'm finding that on-line visits are satisfying. I'm feel like I'm lucky to learn in pleasant settings and by my brief lectures from scholars and curators who can deepen my art experiences. I'm learning not only about works, but about conservation, curatorship, and artists' thoughts and experiences. 

While we have a lot to learn and to enjoy on museum websites during these long weeks and months of quarantine and sequestering, the museums themselves are without ticket sales and new memberships; fundraising is at an ebb too. What will museums be when they are allowed to open again? Will all the new digital content be the permanent new face of the museum? Will videos and virtual tours satisfy us in the long run? They are opening new doors to my appreciation of museum holdings and my understanding of artists, their works, genres, and times. I hope these will be permanent features. But let us hope that the institutions behind our screens flourish and fling wide their doors again. Let's trust that we will enter again museums that remain something like the ones we left. I doubt they will ever be the same. In the meantime, though, we can continue to keep our appetites keen on the rich digital resources with which they continue to lure us in.


Just a few more interesting sites: (New Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)  (Andy Warhol Museum)  (Corning Museum of Glass)  (Morgan Conservatory: paper making and related paper arts)  (Art Institute of Chicago)  (Eastman Museum: photography and digitized film)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

DAVID NASH: 200 SEASONS. Trees and Land Art

The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex
The Towner Gallery  in Eastbourne on the English Channel presented a retrospective of the sculptor and land artist, David Nash, in the fall of 2019. I was lucky to be visiting the Towner at the time, on the trail of Eric Ravilious, of whose work they have a substantial collection. Ravilious turned out to be the least of it, though, because I was drawn into the vast David Nash: 200 Seasons. This retrospective epitomized the range of his work, where any single series— small sculptures, towering sculptures, plans, drawings, and photographs of works out of doors— could have filled the galleries brilliantly by itself.
Gallery view, David Nash: 200 Seasons

I knew nothing of Nash when I went in, and I was dazzled by his exquisitely undazzling sculpture. Nash's medium is trees—whole trees, which he uses in toto, and which, once deployed in parts as sculptures, uncannily remain trees. To see Nash-worked wood in the gallery was disconcerting, like encountering wild animals in human habitations. The difference, though, is that the wood still seems comfortable, as if it's essential state has not been brutalized, but opened up.  We see wood as we have never been able to before, up close, more intimately. "No trees were harmed" in its transformations.
David Nash, two of Nine Cracked Balls, ca. 12" diameter

Nash's handling of wood is rough and patient. His favored forms are spheres, cubes, and pyramids, but he is most interested in what the wood itself suggests by its nature. He must work slowly in the sense that once he's committed rough whacks of his cutting instrument (axe, saw, chisel), he is willing to wait to see what happens next. Wood will dry and split. Rain will split it or warp it. In time, its color will change. I wondered, as I toured the show, if any of this work is ever "finished," or if that is a term that makes much of a difference. When is a tree finished? Hacked down, uprooted, even burned, its wood lives on, as Nash's lively work so eloquently testifies.
David Nash, small work

David Nash, small work, wood piece with multiple
slices left to dry.
I am writing now about the small works in this show, which demonstrate many of Nash's common sculptural techniques and apparent attitudes toward working with his material. His work is, I think, very thoughtful, but his ideas are developed long before the moments of execution. What seems to happen when he acts with the wood is direct, rough, and quick. By the time he makes a piece, he has come to know the type of wood, its properties, the effects of his tools, and imagines some of the possibilities of the environment on the future of his work. It also appears that he does not throw out "mistakes," since he is devoted to using every piece of a tree. This suggests that pieces of wood are like the organs of a body and can't be disposed of thoughtlessly.

David Nash, Twig Chair. A represen-
tative work with a wry twist.
These small pieces strike me as studies and showpieces equally. They are visually striking: dynamic, full of personality and energy that seem to have been released by the minimal shaping. As with Nash's monoliths, sometimes there is a suggestion of symbolic connection, but it is incidental. Unless his work is plainly representative, I don't see that the artist tells us anything, despite his work's being receptive to viewers' imaginations. It draws attention to wood and all wood can make us feel, which, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

The dome, a round gathering, is a suggestive form that Nash explores over and over. These were displayed on the gallery floors, and I found them exceedingly beautiful, especially because the materials distinguished each. They are made of individual components of varying heights assembled in roughly concentric rings on the floor. Each piece is rough-hewn, in itself a unique small sculpture with its own personality. The domes can feel sacral, archaeological, comical, or entirely like beautiful, gathered wood, filled with the artistic thought of its assembly.

David Nash, Cork Dome
 While the concept was the same, and the means were similar in each dome, and the different wood itself was star of each. Each had its own color, texture, and cut marks. Each component was an individual that called for the viewer to particularize it as well as to comprehend the whole of the dome.
David Nash, interior of hardwood dome.

Many of the magnificent works in this show were beyond the ken of my camera, shown in Nash's beautiful, fluent memorial drawings. Nash is not merely a sculptor of wood, but he is best known as a land artist. His most innovative works are time-based conceptual pieces wrought on the English countryside. His tools and methods are those of the arborist in works like the Ash Dome, in which he planted a circle of ash trees that he pruned, grafted, and fletched for many years, training them to bend together so they formed a circle with the aspect almost of Matisse dancers in a ring. His Seven by Seven was a grid of Himalayan birch trees that he nurtured, each year trimming off new branches and washing to clean off peeling bark and green fungus. (These and other land works are documented in process in an excellent film by the Royal Academy on Nash's Academy homepage.) His works are not singular productions or statements like Christo's, but gradual, time-saturated processes that mark not only the changes in the land, but in the aging artist himself as his works continue in process for ten or twenty years.
David Nash. Drawing of several land projects.
Several of Nash's monumental sculptures fashioned from whole trees were included in the show. These are yet another distinctive branch of Nash's vast and deeply unified work. I found each tree almost overwhelming in its power and beauty, but I spent little time with them. They appeared stranded in an alien environment, ungrounded on the material of the gallery floor, like elephants on concrete. I would love to see them out of doors, though I do not know Nash's thoughts about ideal sitings.   

Nash, Two Ubus with The Useful Pig on the floor beyond.
Retrospectives not only celebrate the many years of a major artist's career, but they are primers for those of us new to his work. This is how David Nash: 200 Seasons worked for me. The catalogue, named for the show, takes the viewer much deeper than the show can go, into Nash's studio in Wales, Capel Rhiw, into his processes, the importance of locations, and his ideas and observations about particular works. It also has magnificent pictures. Most of all, it demonstrates even more clearly than the show already did how close it is possible for artist and medium to grow.


There is a good deal written about, with, and by Nash:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

GEORGE IV: ART & SPECTACLE at the Queen's Gallery; The Sins of Those Who Fill the Museum

George IV, 1826. Marble, approx. 31.5 x 23 x 11." 
Sir Francis Chantry. Author photo.
Americans aren't likely to know much about England's King George IV, though students of literature and decorative arts know the Regency Period. It is named for the years in which George as Prince—"Prinny"—was regent during the madness and decline of his father, George III, of whom Americans do know. Jane Austen wrote during the reign of George IV, who was in fact her patron, as he was of many great artists: painters Sir Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Stubbs; architects and decorators Henry Holland, John Nash, Jeffry Wyatville, and John Crace. 
Jane Austen, Emma: a novel in three volumes,
 Royal Collection Trust /
(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
During the years of his regency and reign (1811-1830), George IV commissioned Britain's and France's finest jewelers, cabinet makers, and decorators. His collections of gems, armory, furnishings, paintings, and miniatures defy the imagination. He built or renovated Carlton House (subsequently destroyed), Brighton Pavilion, St. James Palace, Buckingham Palace, and Windsor Castle. In the current show at the Queen's Gallery adjoining Buckingham Palace, the breadth of vision, the taste, and the inexhaustible vanity of George IV are suggested in a stunning show. We can gather through sumptuous display of choice artifacts this single individual's almost inconceivable influence on Western art and culture, permanently imprinted in so few years. 

George Stubbs, George IV (1762-1830) when Prince
of Wales, 1791. ca. 40.5 x 50." 
Royal Collection Trust  
(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.
Art & Spectacle gives us a choice sample of George's prodigious relish for the world stage. George Stubbs portrays him as a man of fashion on a handsome horse; John Singleton Copley paints him in scarlet military costume on a prancing steed; Benjamin Robert Haydon shows him with Wellington, overlooking the Waterloo battlefield. But we see him reflected not only as the royal and tastemaker he saw himself, but also as a lustful man whose appetite for art is but one of many
Robert Seymour, The Great Joss and his Playthings, c.1829. Royal Collection Trust.
 (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.  
insatiable cravings the public mocked. In prints and cartoons, he is satirized for his expensive, eccentric taste for chinoiserie. He is reviled for his pursuit of mistresses and humiliation of his wife, Queen Caroline. We see that he infuriated his people as a wanton spendthrift who drained the national coffers on his personal pleasures.

Jan Steen, A Woman at her Toilet, 
1663. Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her 
Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Only royal or imperial riches could assemble the treasures displayed in Art & Spectacle; even if he acquired much at discount. George was a committed Francophile when the French aristocracy was trying to save itself in the aftermath of the French Revolution and after the fall of Napoleon's Empire. George was glad to relieve them of their Dutch Masters paintings and exquisite porcelains a bon marche. He acquired Napoleon's Table of the Great Commanders of Antiquity, Sevres porcelain and gilt bronze, on which he significantly rests his hand in the 1821 Sir Thomas Lawrence royal portrait. 

Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV (1762-1830), 1821. 
Ca. 116" x 81." (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

George IV, least loved of monarchs, 
created through his imagination and desire a phenomenal material legacy. To amass such treasure to fill his sequence of new palaces required dreaming and acquisition of knowledge on a prodigious scale. Study and imagination on that level are among the capacities and the gifts of great wealth, whatever their follies or crimes.

Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820), Detail of a
commode, 1785-90. Oak, ebony, hard stones,
tortoiseshell, brass, pewter, mahogany, boxwood,
purplewood, gilt bronze, brocatello marble.
Author photos.
George's grand scale was seen not only in his ambition or acquisition, nor in the illusion of endless wealth (for it was an illusion—George IV's bilking of artisans was beyond Trumpian). We find in every painting and artifact artists' soaring and informed conceptions. We see breathtaking attention to details of materials and workmanship. 

Each work on display is a self-contained, fabricated world of history, idea, design, and discipline: a treasure of human invention and effort. The accumulation of these magnificent objects is indeed Luxury and Spectacle. Even in the directed context of a labeled art gallery, the softening effect of sumptuousness must be absorbed by the most morally straitened viewer. Ebony, gems, gold, and silver: the work of carvers, painters, drapers, ceramicists who elevated this world of clay to an empyrean ideal through mastery of precious elements, the same used in the greatest edifices for worship of every god.

Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, The Diamond Diadem,
Royal Collection Trust /
(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

My mind several times returned to the United States while I viewed this exhibition, for I was bound to contemplate not only the heart-stopping art, but the riches behind it, almost unfathomable to most Americans. We do not have a national treasury supporting royal collectors; our government is, in the best of times, a reluctant and penurious supporter of any arts. That a national collection would have been assembled on tax dollars in the U.S. is a risible notion.

Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860),
Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817),
Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, ca.
1817-1819. Oil on panel, ca. 30" x 25."
Author photo.
In America, the philanthropy of capitalists—their corporations, families and heirs—has blessed our national art institutions, our private and university museums. Robert Lehman, the Guggenheims, Martin A. Ryerson, Michael Bloomberg. The Sacklers.The Sackler family's pharmaceutical company manufactures the addictive painkiller OxyContin, which has been involved in millions of deaths in the United States. The relationship between the manufacturer, prescribers, suppliers, black marketeers, and social factors is complex; culpability for loss of life is not neatly ascribed. Yet some would simplify this morass by blaming the biggest targets for the whole complex of problems. They denounce the billionaire Sackler family, sparing the doctor's offices, pharmacies, or dealers of Nan Goldin and all other protestors who suffered by the drug. Major art institutions (the Tate! the Guggenheim! the Met!) that have long-established relationships with the Sacklers have responded to pressure from the moral minority, rejecting Sackler offers of new art donations. The Louvre went so far as to remove the Sackler name from a wing.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Shipbuilder and his Wife:
 Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans, 1633. 

Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen 
Elizabeth II 2019.  

 Any time is a good time for cultural institutions to examine their policies regarding the ethics of acquisitions, but that should entail broad, considered, and comprehensive questioning: Ethics is philosophy, not a protest movement. 

For museum boards and directors to be so short-sighted as abruptly to single out such a donor under popular pressure shows a simplistic, temporizing approach to a complex issue with repercussions far into the future. What is this protest really about? That the Sacklers are causing damage to museums? When Goldin marshaled protestors at the Guggenheim, I doubt that she or anyone reflected on the source of the Guggenheim family wealth in mining and smelting, two industries ruinous to the longevity of workers. 

Our National Gallery of Art, similarly, was founded with the philanthropy of the Mellons, American "royalty." Were the Mellon Bank, Chevron, Gulf Oil, and Alcoa benevolent institutions? Was Mellon money cleaner than Sacklers'? Did it do less damage than BP's has done to the National Gallery in London? Where are the “pure” capitalist donors for public institutions? Shall museum directors in the future administer ethics quizzes to potential donors while righteous crowd-funding attempts to fill the gaps left by the defection of the monied?

Americans are very uncomfortable with extraordinary wealth, whatever it accomplishes, much of which we find distasteful and wasteful—as George IV's people did his. Particularly at this moment, income inequality is an urgent issue in our country.The opioid crisis highlights the chasm between very wealthy capitalists and those whose lives are bearable only when they are relieved of feeling, and OxyContin is the perfect emblem of this class stress.To contort this issue of economic injustice into one that undermines the future of public art collections is a mistake.

The blood that inevitably stains capitalist hands does not prevent them from giving. And to refuse gifts out-of-hand from the compromised super-rich will create gaps in public collections that future museum-goers will consider the result of whimsical, moralistic excesses from a brief, high-minded historical movement. To ask whether it's right to place the Sacklers' gifts and name in a museum is reasonable: Ask those questions of every donor in a context of thorough and on-going ethical study within the museum. 

Ethics is a practical, everyday study that should be considered without haste, accounting for the complexity of the institution and the interests of everyone with stakes in it. Ethics takes a long look to make decisions in the present. Though a museum doesn't exist only in the present, it legitimately can be where topical expression flourishes. In the museum, the opioid crisis can be witnessed by Nan Goldin and the many other artists affected, if they truly believe in the power of their art. When the institution itself becomes an actor in a drama unrelated to its central missions of presenting and collecting art (exceptions: Is it art to be returned to a rightful owner? Was the building built with slave labor?), it is depriving current and future art-goers of a growing collection.

George IV may have been a despicable king, but we note it on the labels, while we stand in awe before his collection, enthralled by what he left us. In the next century and the one after that, may viewers have the choice to read about or to ignore the footnoted opioid crisis of 2020, while their eyes feast on the Sacklers' shared legacy of great art?


For further reading:


Spring 2020 will be recalled by all who read this as the surreal season of sheltering to protect ourselves and our friends from the spread ...