November 27, 2013

"Balthus: Cats and Girls" at The Met

The paintings of Balthasar Klossowski, known as Balthus, are always curious and often disturbing.  With a focus on the dark side of childhood, particularly adolescent girls teetering on the edge of full womanhood, Balthus' beautifully painted studies are never really pornographic but are not very comfortable to look at either.  His portrayals of semi-undressed girls reading, playing cards or languidly dreaming are far too erotically charged for children yet are mesmerizing in their frankness and insight into the sitters' psyches.  Often included in these scenes are cats, possibly representing the artist himself, who preen and tease with a look of self-satisfaction that only a feline can achieve!

For the first time in thirty years Balthus' work is being exhibited in the United States in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art .  "Balthus:  Cats and Girls - Paintings and Provocations" explores the origins and development of Balthus' signature themes from the mid-1930's to the 1950s.  Chronologically arranged, the show begins with Balthus' self portrait as the "King of Cats" (see above) and ends with another self portrait depicting the artist as a happy cat with a fish dinner in a large decorative mural done for the Parisian restaurant "La Méditerranée" on the Place de l'Odéon.  At the same time, we see his most famous model, his young neighbor Thérèse Blanchard,  portrayed along with her cat in a very provocative situation, and later paintings of his favorite model Frédérique Tison cast in similarly intensive scenes.

"Thérèse Dreaming", 1938

In addition to these typically suggestive works is a never before seen group of forty small pen and ink drawings created by Balthus at the age of eleven.  These charming drawings tell the story of the artist and his pet cat who appeared as a stray and disappeared almost as suddenly leaving his young master distressed.  This charming suite of drawings showed such artistic promise that they were published by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1921 in his book "Mistou".

Balthus' work is an acquired taste and his subject matter can be challenging, but this exhibition presents a fair and balanced overview of one of the 20th century's most renowned artists and is definitely one of the "must see" shows of the season.

November 22, 2013

"The Armory Show at 100"

From February 17th to March 15th, 1913, New York City was the epicenter of the art world as it hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue.  The 1,400 works on display gave many New Yorkers their first introduction to Modern Art and created a sensation not only here, but nationwide.

Now, 100 years later, The Armory Show is considered a watershed event in the history of American art and the centennial is being celebrated with exhibitions across the country.  Here in New York it is the New York Historical Society on Central Park West that is hosting "The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution" and judging from the line at the admissions desk, it is almost as popular (if not as controversial) as the original.

To fully appreciate the impact of this show, you have to re-set your aesthetic attitude back to Pre World War I when skirts were long, train travel was chic and the Woolworth Building was the tallest in the world.  To these New Yorkers a painting meant a landscape, portrait or still life that accurately depicted the subject of the canvas.  Imagine the shock at being confronted with the latest art waves of Impressionism, Cubism and, horror of horrors, Fauvism!  It was an outrage!!!

Never mind that this was what the European avant garde had been doing since the 1880's, this was America and American audiences were, for the most part, not fond of these aberrations.  But the organizers of the exhibition, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, were not trying to just shock their visitors, they were really aiming to educate the public in the modern styles and to show that it was a natural progression of traditional painting.

The critics were fierce and the public even fiercer as the exhibition was lambasted as rude, anarchistic, and a threat to the principals of western civilization!  Of course, all of this seems ludicrous today, but works such as Matisse's "Red Madras Headdress", 1907, Van Gogh's "Mountains at Saint-Remy", 1889, and most notably Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2", 1913, were revolutionary at the time.  And, while the American artists represented at the exhibition showed significantly tamer works, the influence of their European colleagues was swift and profound.  The window to Modernism was flung open, never to be shut.

The Armory Show remains the single most important exhibition ever held in the United States.  For one month, the spacious Drill Hall was transformed into 18 octagon shaped galleries with burlap covered panels and decorated with pine trees, bunting and yellow streamers - a pretty tame setting for this radical art.  While only a few of the 300+ artists who participated went on to fame and fortune, the collective impact was immeasurable and reverberates to this day.  The New York Historical Society has carefully and successfully recreated some of this magic a hundred years later and a little farther uptown!

November 20, 2013

"Art of the Automobile" @ Sotheby's

One of my earliest childhood memories is of being buckled in to the tiny back seat of my mother's Jaguar XK150.  It wasn't the most practical of family vehicles, but my father loved nice cars and my mother looked good behind the wheel!  The sports car soon gave way to a much less glamorous but more utilitarian station wagon, but the seeds had been planted.

Now, as a longtime resident of Manhattan, I don't even own a car, but I do appreciate the elegance and power of a really fine set of wheels.  So when an invitation to the preview party of Sotheby's upcoming auction "Art of the Automobile" came along, I thought why not?  One glance at the fancy $100 catalogue convinced me that this was going to be fun!

So last night I joined a capacity crowd at the auction house's York Avenue facilities first for a panel discussion on the subject of the automobile as an art form followed by a reception and preview of the lots coming up for sale.  Sotheby's, in conjunction with RM Auctions, did it up in style, converting the usually neutral viewing areas into an Art Deco lounge, with coverall-clad waiters serving champagne in tall flutes!

The topic of the automobile as art is more valid and interesting than you might imagine.  Moderated by Leslie Keno (of Antiques Roadshow fame and an avid car collector himself) the five panelists ranged from a car designer to a museum director to a photographer.  Each participant made a strong case for automobile design to be considered in the same category as architectural design - a fine, as opposed to applied, art.  A fine vehicle is a module built around a human, much like a home, with the main difference being the machine must work.  Cars that are crafted as objects of beauty, often bespoke and in very limited quantities, bear the hand of the artist, both the designer and the craftspeople who bring the vision to life, much the same as a sculptor and his foundry.  Indeed, the examples coming up for sale are truly sculptures that move.

So let's get to the fun part and go upstairs to the 10th floor where these masterpieces are on display!

Ranging from an 1892 Brewster "Park Drag" carriage to a 1997 Ferrari F310B open wheel racing car, there was something from every era and style.  Some of the highlights would include this 1914 "Flying Merkel" self-starting motorcycle with both front and rear suspension, still sporting its original orange color...

Or this 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ Beverly, one of only 10 with a coach constructed by Murphy in Pasadena to transport its passengers in magnificent style...

Or the epitome of the "teardrop curve" in this 1938 Talbot-Lago cabriolet with coachwork by the noted French firm of Figoni et Falaschi...

I loved this 1955 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing with its silver exterior and luxurious red leather interior complete with matching suitcase strapped in...

For a royal ride, how about this custom Cadillac built in 1941 to transport the Duke and Duchess of Windsor  when they stayed in New York.  It comes complete with a crest on the rear doors...

And finally, a car with a really nice story.  This 1964 Ferrari 250 LM is described as "an Italian operatic masterpiece of sound and color" and while it shines in the showroom it bears the physical evidence of its history first as a road car and then its transformation into a racer in the grueling 24 Hours of Daytona in 1968 by two gentlemen from Ecuador.  You can still smell the grease in the engine and feel the passion of racing in these two drivers who piloted their four year old car to an eighth place finish in this prestigious race...

Built for comfort or for speed, these cars all represent the very best of design and mechanics, form and function, beauty and performance.  Art, in every sense of the word.