June 30, 2011

"Double Solitaire" at the Katonah Museum of Art

The tiny hamlet of Katonah is located about 40 miles north of New York City in Westchester County. It is known for famous residents past and present including John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and currently domestic doyenne, Martha Stewart. It is also noted for its outstanding cultural institutions including the Caramoor International Music Festival and the small but very significant Katonah Museum of Art.

The Katonah Museum of Art is a non-collecting museum that mounts ten to twelve shows annually, either guest-curated or developed in conjunction with another small institution. I became familiar with the museum several years ago when they produced a superb exhibition dedicated to the art of Joseph Cornell entitled "Andromeda Hotel" that was so well done it warranted a train ride to the suburbs to visit. This summer, in conjunction with the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Katonah Museum is presenting "Double Solitaire: The Surreal Worlds of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy". Several years in the planning and already postponed once, this show has overcome its esoteric subject matter to achieve both critical and popular success and is proof that the public really will come out for something they don't quite understand but find intriguing.

Yves Tanguy was born in Paris in 1900 and grew up on the Brittany coast, an environment that influenced his work during his life. He was one of the original followers of André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto and remained a key member of the Movement throughout his career.

Katherine Linn Sage was the daughter of a wealthy Albany family whose parents divorced when she was quite young and she spent her formative years with her mother traveling in Europe. Although always interested in art, she did not begin her painting career until she was almost middle aged and divorced from an Italian nobleman.

At the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, Kay Sage saw Yves Tanguy's painting "I Am Waiting For You" and fell in love. Not just with the painting but with the artist whom she finally met in person two years later after he came to an exhibition of her work in Paris. "Kay Sage - man or woman? I didn't know. I just knew the paintings were very good" and Yves Tanguy was hooked. They fled Europe together (helping a few other refugee artist friends along the way) during World War 2, were married in Reno, Nevada, in 1940 and set up housekeeping in a farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut, turning the barn into two studios so they could paint.

As a couple Kay and Yves were inseparable, but as painters each retained his own identity and they refused to be considered a "team" of painters. The title of this exhibition, "Double Solitaire", aptly refers to their artistic lives together, dueling yet companionable, private yet shared, and was the name of the only other exhibition ever dedicated to this Surrealist "It" couple presented at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1954.

For the first time their works are co-mingled, with 25 paintings by each artist hanging together in two galleries accompanied by revealing documentary photographs and printed material. It is easy to tell who painted what, but it is fascinating to see how they influenced each other in subtle but definite ways. Tanguy's early anthropomorphic landscapes with their dreamy, maybe nightmarish, overtones, hang alongside Sage's menacing monoliths of the same time. As their lives intertwine his works become less cluttered while hers get more complicated. Eventually a balance occurs as their compositions become more similar although Sage tends toward science fiction architecture and Tanguy a post-apocalyptic rubble.

When Yves Tanguy dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1954, his widow was devastated. Her life had no meaning without him and the prophetic title of the original painting she saw of his, "I Am Waiting For You", became true when she shot herself in the heart to join him in Eternity. The 15 year marriage of Tanguy and Sage was remarkable partnership on many levels and they were able to live their lives as they painted their canvas', separate but together, a "Double Solitaire".

As I drove back to the City, past the many lovely homes and estates in the area, I thought about what it must have been like to live in Woodbury during the 1940's and 50's, surrounded by fellow artists including Calder, Matta and Gorky. Although they all socialized, Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage remained true to their Surrealist roots and never made the transition to the popular Abstract Expressionist movement. Their 15 year marriage was a remarkable partnership both emotionally and creatively, and they were able to live their lives as they painted their canvas', separate but together, a "Double Solitaire". Congratulations to curators Jonathan Stuhlman and Stephen Robeson Miller on a wonderful exhibition!

Left: Yves Tanguy "There, Motion Has Not Yet Ceased", 1945
Right: Kay Sage "I Saw Three Cities", 1944

June 19, 2011

Having a Ball in Basel

For a relatively small city, Basel boasts a world class compliment of cultural institutions including over 40 museums, the Basel Theater staging plays, opera and the ballet, 25 smaller theaters, countless musical stages, 40 cinemas plus the internationally renowned art event of the season - Art Basel. This year Art Basel 42 opened to the public on June 15 and organizers were expecting over 60,000 visitors to pass through the Messe in this annual Modern and Contemporary art extravaganza.

Some of these visitors come only to see the art fair, but many, including myself, stay in town for a few days to enjoy the rest of what the city has to offer. As usual the local museums pulled out all the stops and we were treated to a plethora of wonderful exhibitions and I'd like to share some of my favorites with you.

Let's start at the Kunstmuseum, the world's first public municipal museum and home to an amazing permanent collection of works by Hans Holbein as well as masters of 19th and 20th Century art. This year they have drawn heavily on their own holdings to present "Konrad Witz" a 15th Century graphic artist, muralist and glass painter who was considered one of the most radical innovators of his time. From 1434 until he died in 1447, Witz lived and worked in Basel and it was here that he created some of his most famous altarpieces and panels. Drawing heavily on the techniques of his Netherlandish contemporaries, Witz pursued his own studies of light, shadow and reflections that gave his pieces a unique, almost other-worldly appearance. His portraits stare with mystical, almost surreal, expressions on their faces - a bold and cutting edge approach at the time. But what struck me the most about his paintings was the velvet. You could almost feel the soft pile of the luxurious velvet robes worn by the Madonnas, the angels and the Saints he depicted, beautiful to behold and a technological marvel at the time.

Moving downstairs to the museum's Prints and Drawings Department I popped in to a special exhibition entitled "From Daumier to Degas: French Nineteenth Century Prints". Of course, this is a favorite area of mine and I loved the examples of etchings by Degas, Manet and Pissarro, lithographs by Redon, Vuillard and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Now it's time to hop on the Number 6 tram for a short ride out to Riehen and the fabulous Fondation Beyeler - a must-see on any art tour of Basel. This summer's special exhibition explores the œuvres of two 20th Century sculptors, Romanian born Constantine Brancusi (1876-1957) and American Richard Serra (b. 1939). Now, I know and like the work of both of these artists, but they work in extremely different, and in my opinion not exactly complementary, styles. Brancusi's sensuous and elegant "Birds in Flight", "The Kiss" and "Sleeping Muse" are a sharp contrast to the massive and brutal "Strike", "House of Cards" and "The Consequence of Consequence". The curators' desire to demonstrate similarities and differences might have been better served with two separate exhibitions but they are to be commended on assembling so many superb examples of each of these important artists' works.

Finally we are going to head back into the city and visit the Museum Tinguely, a private foundation dedicated to the "Metamechanical" or "Kinetic" works of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Situated on the banks of the Rhine and opened in 1996, this stunning museum is filled with Tinguely's fantastical moving sculptures, built entirely of found objects, that whirr and ding and squirt and spin in a mad, magical and mesmerizing dance.

Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) was also an auto racing fanatic and it is this side of him to which the museum pays homage in its special exhibition "Car Fetish: I drive, therefore I am". Comprising 160 artworks including videos, paintings, photography and installation pieces, the show explores the enormous influence the automobile has had on 20th Century art. Set up as a driving circuit, the exhibition features works by many diverse artists including Giacomo Balla, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Mel Ramos and Richard Prince.

Far from just a means of transportation, our cars often reflect our cultures, our personalities and our desires as they become our moving living rooms through life. This look at the "art history of automotive inspiration" is a very revealing study of just how much we, as a society, invest our identities in what we drive.

A very fun touch to this exhibition is the drive-in cinema installed on the museum lawn. About 30 old cars are set up in a semi-circle around a large screen and one can call to reserve a car for the evening's movie. I only wish I'd had time to enjoy the Swiss version of an American institution!

It has been a great few days in Basel but now it's time to go home to New York. I hope you'll check back as I explore this summer's offerings and share them on my blog. See you soon!

June 12, 2011

What's On In Paris

One of the first exhibitions I went to at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after moving to New York City was the amazing retrospective of the paintings of Edouard Manet in 1984. I remember listening to the audio guide with Philippe de Montebello's mellifluous tones describing the intense, velvety blacks and being thrilled to the point of buying one of every postcard I could find in the gift shop. What does New York in the 80s have to do with Paris of the 21st Century? I'll tell you. For the first time since that important show, a new exhibition with a fresh perspective on the artist and his work is on view at the Musée d'Orsay. Evidently this is what the public is craving as the galleries were filled to capacity even in the early morning viewing hours when I thought I was so clever to avoid a crowd!

To be sure, the curators can put almost any spin on the work of Edouard Manet (1832-1883) as the paintings speak for themselves. In this case the focus is on his anti-establishment, modernist tendencies but in my humble opinion the case is never clearly made. What I, and I am sure 90% of the other visitors, came to see were the beautiful paintings that we know from books and reproductions, in no matter what context. We were not disappointed. "Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity" is a greatest hits parade of 19th Century masterpieces. His startling "L'Homme mort (Dead Matador)", sensuous "Olympia", disturbing "Le Balcon (The Balcony)" and reverent "Christ aux anges (Dead Christ With Angels)" were all hanging along with less major works, pastels, drawings, decorated letters and books. The only painting missing was "Un Bar aux Folies Bergère" but there was enough to see to make this a really wonderful morning.

Moving on to the early 20th Century and the master of Futurism, Gino Severini, in a small but exquisite exhibition at the Musée de l'Orangerie. Born in Italy but artistically formed in Paris, Severini's styles progressed from Pointillism to Cubism to Neo Classicism, but it is for Futurism that he is most well known All of these movements emphasized division and dissection of forms but with Futurism the deconstructed images create an intense feeling of movement and speed. One can almost see the wheels turning on the canvas.

Severini was a star of the discipline but the outbreak of World War I changed everything. Palettes darkened and a more serious, mathematical approach, Cubism, became the style Despite successful exhibitions in London and New York, Severini marked the end of the War with a return to his Tuscan roots and a more classic approach to art. His later works were no longer fantasies of color and motion, they were murals based on the Commedia dell'arte or traditional still lifes. While still very accomplished the glory days were over. "Gino Severini: Futuriste et néoclassique" is on view at the Musée de l'Orangerie until July 25, and while you're there don't miss the magnificent Monet "Waterlily" oval mural rooms upstairs!

Another artist who worked at almost the same tie but in a totally different milieu was the Dutch painter Kees Van Dongen. Now on view at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, "Van Dongen: Fauve, Anarchist, Socialite" is not simply a review of his stylistic periods, rather a look at his life, his œuvre and the contradictions within.

Van Dongen came to Paris in 1897 as a rebel intent on shaking things up. His style evolved from Steinlen inspired drawings of the Paris underworld, to the riot of color typified by the Fauves, to Middle Eastern exoticism and his signature women with heavily kohl-rimmed eyes to his ultimate cocktail era portraits of elegant flappers.

Van Dongen may have been an anarchist but he was far from a starving artist. Successful throughout his career, he earned a huge reputation and commensurate fees while socializing with the Paris glitterati of the Roaring Twenties. He enjoyed "the good life", both personally and professionally, until he died in 1966. "Living is the most beautiful picture - the rest is just painting" - words to live by from this paradoxical artist.

Finally, some readers may remember a blog of June 2008 when I visited an installation by Richard Serra that was part of the MONUMENTA series, an annual event (more or less) where the organizers invite an artist of international renown to create a site-specific work to fill the monumental nave of the glorious Grand Palais.

This year marks the fourth edition of MONUMENTA and it features "Leviathan" by superstar Anish Kapoor. Born in Bombay in 1954, but a resident of London since the early 1970's Kapoor is probably my personal favorite in the world of contemporary sculpture and installation pieces and a natural choice for the MONUMENTA challenge. Using a single color, a single object and a single form, Kapoor has successfully created a space within the space of Grand Palais that invites the visitor to walk around and inside the work, to immerse him or herself in the monochrome and to have an intensely contemplative experience. For me, the exterior surface was like a purple skin, pliable and warm, and entering the sculpture was a little like entering inside the human body. I found the whole experience fantastic and judging from the other people standing there in open mouthed amazement, I was not alone. I don't know yet who the next MONUMENTA artist will be, but he's got a tough act to follow.

"Leviathan" interior

It's been a wonderful ten days here in Paris and I've seen a lot of great art but now it's time to trade brie and Bordeaux for wurst and beer as I head off for Switzerland and Art Basel 42. See you soon!

June 08, 2011

"L'Art de l'automobile"

I remember being astonished the first time I met a New Yorker who could not drive. I couldn't believe that an adult really, truly, did not know how to drive a car. My parents loved cars, in fact the first car I was transported in as an infant was a Jaguar XK 140 sports car - lovely to look at but not exactly a family wagon, especially in a damp climate. I couldn't wait to turn sixteen and get my driver's license - my ticket to ride - FREEDOM!

So even though I live in New York and do not actually own a car, I can drive, in fact I like to drive, and I love the style of a really beautiful machine. So the prospect of an entire exhibition devoted to the art of the automobile was a "must see" in Paris.

This is no ordinary car show. It is the crème de la crème comprising seventeen masterpieces of vintage cars from the private collection of Ralph Lauren, on view at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, on the rue de Rivoli. Mr Lauren is known world wide for his sophisticated "country manor" look and for making it almost cool to be preppy. What is probably less well known is that he is a connoisseur of fine automobiles and has an enviable collection of top of the line models. But if you stop and think for a minute there is a natural connection between designing elegant and practical clothes and appreciating polished and powerful machines.

For the next two months the normally staid main floor of this museum next to the Louvre has been transformed into the ultimate car showroom. The central section shows a dozen racing models ranging from a 1933 Bugatti 59 Grand Prix to a 1960 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta SWB, the left side section features four touring models on rotating pedestals and the right side offers a 1996 McLaren F1 LM, an homage to the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours road race. Each of the cars has been meticulously restored, has actually been raced or at least driven and represents a chef d'œuvre in both design and engineering. Many are right hand drive, some are one-seaters, a few have marvelous details like leather straps to hold down the hood or copper wire to fasten the body parts together, one has gull wings and another has a rear fin that looks like a batmobile. Each and every one is a work of art.

Whether you drive a bicycle or a Porsche this is a show that will amaze. Seventeen exquisite examples of design and engineering, each with its own tale of speed and daring and each a testament to the beauty of the machine aesthetic, right next door to the most famous museum in the world. Thank you Mr Lauren!