February 21, 2008

What's On In London

It's been a lovely few days here in London and only now, sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow, do I see a few raindrops falling outside.

Art lovers have several great reasons to come to London right now! The most recent, and for me most exciting, is the exhibition "Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia" now on at the Tate Modern. Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Francis Picabia were three of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. Past exhibitions tended to focus on the work of one artist at a time, or as part of a larger group such as the Dadaists, but Jennifer Mundy and her staff at the Tate have chosen to explore the influences and collaborations between the three.

The result is a mega show, in effect three retrospectives in one, featuring over 400 works of art. Included are icons such as Duchamp's painting "Nude Descending a Staircase No 2", 1912, his controversial urinal sculpture "Fountain", 1917, and his parody of the Mona Lisa "L.H.O.O.Q.", 1919, Man Ray's inspired rayographs and "Objects of My Affection", and Picabia's machine drawings and Transparency paintings. Themes of Movement, Machines, Light, Eroticism, Transparency and Opacity are examined and presented in clear and fascinating displays. The organizers' ambitious goal, to explore the connections between these 3 pioneers and their profound influence on the direction of art today, is achieved in superb fashion.

The Tate Modern opened in 2000 in a former power station on the South Bank of the Thames River, across from St Paul's Cathedral. Visitors enter through the former Turbine Hall, 35 meters high and 152 meters long, with a long ramp sloping down into the museum admissions area. This entrance has recently been transformed with a work by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo and her installation piece "Shibboleth". Consisting of a long, snaking crack in the cement floor that runs from one end of the Turbine Hall to the other, the artist asks us to consider historic and current divisions that exist in society as well as the fault lines in our own world.

For a very fun trip from the Tate Modern to their more traditional branch, the Tate Britain, take a ride on the Thames Clipper - a shuttle service that runs every 40 minutes between the two museums, with a stop at the London Eye in between. It costs the same at the Tube, but it's a fast trip with a wonderful view of the sights of the city from the Thames.

The Tate Britain tells the story of British Art through the ages from 1500 to the present day. From magnificent Constable landscapes to figurative neoclassical marble sculptures, there is a lot of great art to be seen. Presently, the Tate Britain is featuring a special exhibition of work by the contemporary artist Peter Doig. Born in Britain, but raised in Canada and now living in Trinidad, Mr. Doig has earned quite a fine reputation as an artist and his pieces brings big prices at auction. This show is a concise but impressive look at his work, both oils and works on paper, from 1990 to the present. I found his early works, inspired by his time in Canada, the most haunting and provocative but that might just be a personal flashback to my own childhood! His later paintings seem thinner, less worked-up and for me less interesting, although his most recent works with staining paint have a beautiful dreamy quality.

The Banner announcing "From Russia" outside
The Royal Academy with
Sir Joshua Reynolds' statue to the right

Last, but by no means least, is the blockbuster show "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925" now on at the Royal Academy of Arts. There is a reason why the ticket line stretched out the door and down the stairs every single time I passed by the museum. The pre-opening drama with the Russian government very nearly refusing the loans only added to the excitement and the 11th hour negotiations that allowed the show to continue have been well rewarded.

This show is impressive for several reasons. It is an important survey of Russian and French paintings spanning the movements from Realism and Impressionism to Constructivism and Abstraction and featuring over 120 paintings on loan from The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and The State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow and The State Hermitage Museum and The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. These masterpieces, acquired by the Russian government from 2 major private collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, include works by Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Gaugin, Picasso, Matisse, Gontcharova, Chagall, Kandinsky, Tatlin and Malevich, and they provide a fascinating look at the exchange between French artists and their Russian colleagues. This is a ground breaking exhibition as it is the first time many of these paintings have been seen outside of Russia and it is an amazing look at what was going on artistically in that country before the Revolution changed everything.

As you can see, it's been a museum-packed few days here in London, and I've enjoyed every minute. I leave you with a photo I took from the Waterloo Bridge earlier this week and I'll be back in touch next time from New York! Cheerio!

February 18, 2008

A Visit to The British Museum

Hello from Jolly Olde England where, believe it or not, the sun is shining and the daffodils are in full bloom! This lovely weather makes walking the transport of choice and it a great opportunity to get to know the city in a way that taxis and the Tube just don't allow. I still have to get used to checking in every direction before crossing a street but for the most part it's been most enjoyable to get around on foot.

One of the big attractions in London at the moment is a special exhibition called "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army" at The British Museum. The timed entry tickets are often sold out and I was very glad that I had pre-ordered mine online well in advance of this visit.

The First Emperor was born Ying Zheng in 259BC. He became King of Qin at the age of 13, and went on to build an empire that eventually earned him the title "Qin Shihuangdi", or, "First August Divine Emperor of the Qin". His rule was short, he died at age 49, but had a huge impact on the development of China as the mighty nation we know today. By amassing an enormous army, mostly through conscription, and devising methods of combat and arms that were far ahead of their time, he had the military strength to conquer the independent states in the region that is now China. He unified these states by instituting a common script, currency and legal system, although his idea of rule through punishment was merciless. His soldiers constructed the first Great Wall of China, an edifice that remains impressive to this day.

Despite this absolute power and strength, The First Emperor had one great fear that dictated many of his actions. He was afraid to die. He wanted to remain Emperor of the Universe forever. He tried to postpone death by taking special herbs and medicines, but in case that didn't work, he persevered and constructed an eternal empire - a massive underground tomb complex guarded by a huge terracotta army. Lost for centuries, this amazing buried treasure covering 56 square kilometers, was re-discovered by accident in 1974 by a farmer working in his field.

Since then, excavators have uncovered about 7,000 life-size terracotta soldiers, officers, musicians, acrobats, and horses as well as countless bronze statues of chariots and birds. Archaeologists estimate that there are over 600 pits containing untold treasures, with the great prize being the burial mound of The First Emperor himself. This remains untouched although experts believe it to contain rivers of mercury and skies of pearls.

Museum goers who have already visited the site at Xi'an in China will be disappointed with this exhibition. However, those of us who have not yet cast our eyes on the acres of excavation with thousands of statues will find the history and the artifacts fascinating. This special presentation remains on view until April 6.

The British Museum's permanent collection is a treasure trove of antiquities like the famous "Elgin Marbles" from the Parthenon, the colossal statues of winged lions from the Palace of Ashurnasirapal in Assyria/Nimrud, and, of course, the Rosetta Stone.

On a more contemporary note, The British Museum celebrated the New Millennium by commissioning Sir Norman Foster to design and build The Great Court, a glass covered square that encloses the area around the world famous round Reading Room and created the largest covered square in Europe. The result is spectacular and expands the museum's indoor common areas exponentially.

There is lots to see in London at the moment and I intend to check it all out! So stay tuned - I'll be back soon with more British art adventures for your armchair museum pleasure.

February 10, 2008

"Jasper Johns: Gray" at the Met

What comes to mind when you think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The Temple of Dendur? The Neopolitan Christmas Tree? The Greek and Roman antiquities? The amazing collection of Impressionist paintings?

In what seems to be an effort to move forward into the 21st Century, the Met is now focusing more and more on Modern Art with an emphasis on American masters. Their latest foray into this category is the new special exhibition dedicated to one of the greats of the Postmodernist movement and an icon to all subsequent generations of artists, Jasper Johns. Born in South Carolina in 1930, Johns moved to New York in 1949 and made his debut at the Leo Castelli Gallery just 10 years later. He, along with Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, are considered direct descendents of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada Movement - revolutionary and ahead of their time, but finally revered as living legends.

"Jasper Johns: Gray" is the Metropolitan Museum of Art's homage to this living legend. Not content to chose the easy route and hang his colorful and high impact images of targets, maps, cross hatching and flags, the curators of this exhibition have selected 119 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, all (except one) done in shades of gray.

How can I convince you, the reader, to go to an exhibition that is monochromatic to the extreme? I can tell you that gray takes on a whole new life in Johns' hands. Yes, gray can be flat, solid and unemotional, but it can also take on innumerable nuances in both hue and texture that imbue these works with a power and intensity that you cannot imagine without seeing them for yourself.

I am not an academic or an art theorist. I am familiar with and have profound respect for Mr Johns, his œuvre and his contribution to Modern and Contemporary Art. With this exhibition, the Met has thrown down the gauntlet and challenged the visitor to look beyond the pretty pictures and focus on the how and the why of art, even if no answers are forthcoming. Will gray replace the gorgeous pinks, violets and blues of a Monet "Waterlilies"? No, it's not intended to, but it makes one think, and that's the point.

"Jasper Johns: Gray" is on view until May 4th.

February 03, 2008

A Visit to the New Museum

The latest addition to the New York museum scene is aptly called the New Museum and is dedicated to promoting new art and new ideas. It is the only museum in New York City that is devoted exclusively to contemporary art and most recently, contemporary architecture as well.

The New Museum was actually founded 30 years ago in a one room office on Hudson Street. It was the brainchild of Marcia Tucker, a curator with a vision of presenting new art to new audiences. The museum has evolved through various incarnations culminating in the opening last December of its first free standing dedicated building located on the Bowery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Old New Yorkers remember the Bowery as a place to get away from, rather than gravitate toward, but the pressures of real estate prices and availability have caused the gentrification of this former flop of the down-and-out. Don't get me wrong, the Bowery Mission is still 2 doors down, but the previously boarded up tenements are now thriving as chic boutiques and restaurants that attract the curious and the avant garde. Much of the credit for this positive change must be given to the Board of the New Museum who risked investing millions of dollars to build such a monument to the contemporary in an area that was until recently pure squalor.

The new New Museum is housed in a building comprised of seven off-axis stories covered in an aluminum mesh. Designed by the architectural firm Sejima + Nahizawa/SANAA, it features 3 floors of column-free gallery space, an auditorium, a glass-walled gallery, a café and shop and a penthouse observation deck. The building is a success both visually and practically and speaks to the museum's goal of pushing the envelope in contemporary design.

I cannot say that I was as enthralled with the inaugural exhibition "Unmonumental" which runs until March 23. Although I understand the idea behind it, and respect the organizers' goal of reflecting the New Museum's commitment to very contemporary art, I found many of the works presented to be uninspired and therefore uninspiring. I admit, really contemporary art is not my strong suit, but I try to look objectively and sometimes find interesting and desirable works by new and emerging artists. I did not leave this exhibition with the feeling that I had discovered the next great art sensation, but as I said, I'm not an expert.

Nevertheless, a trip to the New Museum is well worthwhile if only to see what's happening in that part of the city. Try to go on the weekend when the Sky Room is open and you can go outside for a fantastic view of Downtown. Take a walk through a neighborhood that you never dreamed could be so inviting and imagine the possibilities!

The view facing West from the 7th floor deck