June 27, 2009

James Ensor at MoMA

James Ensor (1860-1949) is a difficult artist to classify. Considered a preeminent figure in the Belgian avant garde, he had a profound influence on the 20th Century schools of Expressionism and Surrealism. And while every Flemish school child is familiar with his work, it is certainly not well known here in the United States. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, aims to change that with a major new exhibition that will open American eyes to the weird and wonderful world of this captivating artist!

James Ensor was born in the coastal town of Ostend, Belgium, where his parents owned a curiosity shop that stocked shells, china, tourist trinkets and most importantly for James, masks for the annual carnival. His travels were limited to London, Paris, Holland and Brussels, and he lived in Ostend all of his life, either on a floor above his parents' shop or later in his Uncle's nearby house. Ensor was obsessed with light, the sea, death, performance and carnival which he interpreted on paper and canvas with his own peculiar sense of humor.

The exhibition's curator, Anna Swinbourne, admits she had a hard time coming up with a unifying theme, but her 2 1/2 year effort has produced a masterful show. 120 drawings, prints and paintings from his most creative period (1880-1895) are presented in more or less chronological order and give the visitor a deep appreciation for his satiric wit and macabre visions.

The first galleries are fairly traditional with landscapes and interiors done in sombre colors applied with sketchy, flat brush strokes. But before long his palette came alive and by 1885 he was painting more imaginary and spiritual subjects and developing the curious style for which he became famous. Now the skeletons and masked figures were everywhere, "Skeletons Looking at Chinoiseries", 1885/8, "Masks Confronting Death", 1888, and "Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring", 1891, all a little ghoulish but with a certain twist of humor. After all, Ensor was Belgian and Belgians have long had a subversive streak in their culture, expressed in a tradition of satire and parody in their literature and art (think Felicien Rops or René Magritte).

By the Turn of the Century, James Ensor had achieved recognition and success, but he had peaked artistically. While his paintings hung in major museums, he was named a Baron by King Albert and was awarded the Légion d'honneur, he was never able to produce the provocative yet magical works he had created in the late 19th Century. When he died in Ostend in 1949 he was a local legend with a devoted cult following. Now, 60 years later, he is receiving the credit he deserves for his unique and highly influential perspective.

I encourage you to check out the fabulous world of James Ensor on view at MoMA until September 21, 2009, after which it travels to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris until February 2010.

June 21, 2009

The Paris Print and Rare Book Fair

One of my favorite events in Paris is the annual "Salon International du Livre Ancien et de l'Estampe", a joint exhibition of rare books and prints held under the glass covered nave of the glorious Grand Palais. Not only is the setting amazing, the variety and sheer volume offered by 172 book and print dealers is mind boggling.

This year the doors opened to an invited public at 5 o'clock on June 18th. Quite a crowd had assembled in anticipation of the treasures that awaited discovery and visitors made a beeline to their favorite dealers to see what was for sale. It was truly a paradise of books, maps, autographs and prints from every age, subject and origin with booths extending for acres in every direction. The Salon du Livre (books) comprised by far the major part of the joint show with exhibitors from all over Europe, United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, and a special stand honoring the Bibliotheque & Archives nationales du Québec. The Salon International de l'Estampe (prints) section was quite a bit smaller but still offered a good cross section of prints from Old Master to Contemporary and some very fine dealers participated.

The joy of this fair is that there is something for everyone and all in a very friendly atmosphere. Having been in the rare book and print field for nearly 20 years now, I know a lot of people in the business and enjoy seeing old friends and acquaintances. But even for the amateur, the pleasure of meandering through the aisles and coming across new and wonderful works on paper at every booth is addictive!

Illuminated manuscripts, fine bindings, scientific tomes, illustrated books, children's books, botanical books with gorgeous color plates, hand written letters by famous people, historical maps, first editions - the range was fabulous. On the print side one could find works by artists from Rembrandt to Warhol and even some pieces that were literally "hot off the press".

On opening night the champagne was flowing until the doors closed at 10. But it was so much fun and there was so much still to see that I went back the next day for some more! Dealers generally seemed to be very happy with sales and I was certainly happy to be there among the bibliophiles and print collectors on a sunny day in Paris in June.

June 14, 2009

What's On in Basel

The annual Art Basel International Art Fair is an occasion for the city's museums to pull out all the stops and organize some blockbuster exhibitions for the visiting aficionados. This year was no exception and I was able to take in several outstanding shows in between visits to the fair. Here's a short survey of some of the highlights.

Located a short tram ride from town in the pastoral village of Riehen, on the German border, is the Fondation Beyeler. Housed in a splendid building by Renzo Piano (really one of his best designs) the Fondation showcases the superb modern art collection of Ernst and Hildy Beyeler, and is a venue for memorable temporary exhibitions as well. This year visitors were treated to two excellent shows, "Visual Encounters" and "Giacometti".

"Visual Encounters" is a look at the similarities between primitive art and modern painting and sculpture. Ethnographic works from Africa and Oceania are grouped according to region with a complementary modern work or two displayed as well. For example, Nkisi nail figures from the Congo are alongside two 1911 Cubist paintings, one by Braque and the other by Picasso. Or, colorful, linear Matasor carvings from Papua New Guinea are posed in front of Piet Mondrian's geometric "Picture No. III", 1938.

The idea is not to suggest an influence, trace a history or suggest religious significances, it is purely a juxtaposition of two exceedingly different art forms. The result is stunning and the viewer is free to simply enjoy the diversity and excellence of the works without hunting for hidden meanings.

Recently opened at the Fondation Beyeler is "Giacometti", a first rate exhibition of the work of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), considered one of the most influential figures in modern art. Although a major figure on his own, Alberto was deeply influenced by and bound to his family and the exhibition includes pieces by his father, Giovanni, his brother, Diego, and his Uncle Augusto as well.

There have been many retrospectives on Giacometti, including a major show at MoMA, New York, but this exhibition is different. The works presented here have been carefully curated to include only the finest examples of all phases of his career and include paintings, drawings, Diego's furniture and lots of sculpture grouped and presented for maximum impact. A tiny (1 1/2") bronze man on a pedestal ("Small Man on a Base", 1940/1) sits all alone on a massive cube in the center of its own gallery. The result is visually arresting and a very graphic example of Alberto Giacometti's obsession with the cosmos of space and time. Another gallery featured life size bronze figures including "Standing Woman", 1948, "Walking Man", 1947, and, "The Chariot", 1950, posed not under cases or on stands but grouped seemingly randomly on the floor so the visitor could walk among them. I found this installation marvelous and it gave me a new appreciation for the work.

Let's return to the City of Basel and a very special exhibition entitled "Vincent Van Gogh: Zwischen Erde und Himmel (Between Heaven and Earth)" now on at the Kunstmuseum. We are all familiar with the works of Van Gogh, the Dutch painter who gave us "Sunflowers" and "Starry Nights". However, this show focus' exclusively on his landscapes and gives the clearest, most informative overview of his life and artistic development that I have ever seen. From the 360º video introduction that greets visitors in the museum courtyard, to the excellent wall notes (in French, German and English), to the 70 fantastic examples of Van Gogh's paintings from Basel's own collection and borrowed from major museums around the world, this is a terrific show.

The exhibition begins at the beginning with Vincent Van Gogh's (1853-1890) childhood as the oldest of six children born to a Calvinist minister and his wife in Groot Zundert, Holland. It follows his attempts to find a career, finally settling on painting in a very academic style typical of historic Dutch Old Master works. At the urging of his brother Theo, an art dealer, Vincent left Holland for Paris in 1886 and was promptly welcomed by some of the leading French Impressionist painters of the day.

The change in Vincent's style and palette was immediate and dramatic. Painting excursions to the outskirts of Paris where nature and industry met, produced canvas' that were far lighter and freer than anything he had produced until then. But Vincent was a bit of a loner and missed the countryside and in 1888 he quit Paris and its cafés for the peace and quiet of Arles.

In Arles he really opened up and used color and brushstroke with abandon. He began to accept modernization and industrialization, both in his life and his work, and his paintings reflect a new confidence and intensity. He experimented with perspective, moved the horizon up to the top of the canvas and incorporated more figures into the image. Unfortunately, this peaceful time was not to last. It was here in Arles that Vincent self-mutilated his left ear after a quarrel with his friend and colleague Paul Gauguin, and he committed himself to an asylum in Saint Rémy.

Even while hospitalized, Vincent was painting. His love of nature and religion surfaced with renewed passion and he interpreted the landscape within the confines of the institution's grounds with fervor. Intense colors, swirling brushstrokes and copious use of paint typified his new style depicting gnarled cypresses, windy skies and clouds and writhing groves of olive trees.

It was a highly productive time for Van Gogh artistically, but he felt increasingly depressed and removed from the world. After a year in Saint Rémy, he sought treatment from the noted Dr. Gachet in the town of Auvers. Dr. Gachet encouraged painting as a means of therapy and Van Gogh completed an astonishing 75 oils in just 70 days.

Fearing another mental breakdown, increasingly dependent financially and emotionally on his brother Theo, and overcome with a crushing loneliness, the amazingly gifted Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the head with a revolver on July 27, 1890 and died within two days. Theo died of natural causes just 6 months later and they are buried together in the cemetery at Auvers sur Oise.

Although by no means successful during his life, Vincent Van Gogh's work now hangs in the most prestigious museums and collections in the world and he is credited with influencing the Fauves and pioneering the Expressionist art movement. His paintings have been reproduced in almost every form imaginable, from playing cards to tea cups, reaching an iconic status in the public psyche. Given the global popularity of his imagery it is remarkable that the Kunstmuseum Basel could present his art in such a fresh and original way. It was a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition as the masses of visitors, both Swiss and foreigners, will attest. I would love to be able to see it again, but it's off to Paris and some more adventures to blog about so please check back soon! A bientôt!

June 13, 2009

Art Basel at 40

It was with some degree of trepidation that I made the bookings for this year's Art Basel / The International Art Show. After all, the art business has been suffering along with the financial and real estate markets and the recent New York art fairs and auctions had not been confidence builders. But book I did, and after a diversion through Heathrow and no luggage when I finally arrived in Switzerland, it was time to go to work. Tuesday morning broke bright and beautiful as I lined up (dressed in my brand new clothes purchased in the Zurich train station!) with a very chic European crowd for the preview of Art Basel '09.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Art Basel, and the 10th of Art Unlimited, the adjacent space for large installation pieces. Originally featuring 90 galleries and 30 art publishers from 10 countries, the fair has expanded to 300 galleries (selected from 2000 applications) representing 33 countries with 4 of the original exhibitors having participated every year.

In the past few years the fair had become almost a circus event with hoards of people circulating through the main fair at the Messe Hall (now occupying 2 full floors), the innumerable satellite fairs for hyper-contemporary art, and the plethora of exhibitions mounted by Basel's excellent museums. But 2009 was definitely going to be different. No one was expecting the huge crowds and frenzied buying that typified the recent past. In fact, before leaving New York I had spoken with a number of regular attendees who declared that they were opting not to visit Switzerland and the fair this year.

The tension was palpable on opening day. Yes, there were definitely fewer American collectors and dealers in attendance, but there was still a very well-heeled crowd of mostly Europeans. The booths were hung with high caliber material as exhibitors opted for safety over speculation. I think The Art Newspaper put it best with their headline "Bye bye to bling: out goes the glitter, in comes the classics". But now was the moment of truth - would it sell? At the end of the first day, dealers breathed a collective sigh of relief as quality works were indeed selling, although not at stratospheric prices.

For me, it seemed a return to sanity within the art market. Purchases were made thoughtfully and carefully with an eye to value and true desirability. Many prominent collectors were there and dealers took the time to speak with everyone and not just the high rollers. Naturally, the appearance of Brad Pitt caused quite a sensation - especially when he made a few purchases - but it was far less a venue for beautiful people than an opportunity to see some really great art.

A few of my favorite pieces would include Andy Warhol's 1979 "Big Retrospective Painting", a bargain at $74 Million, at Galerie Bruno Bishofburger, Zurich, Marcel Duchamp's comet haircut photograph "Le Tonsure" at Galerie Françoise Paviot, Paris, and, Jaume Plensa's 2009 "Song of Songs" a stainless steel curtain of poetry hanging at Richard Gray, New York.

Art Unlimited was hugely entertaining again this year. Some standout projects were Pascale Marthine Tayou's shredded paper woolly mammouth entitled "Le Verso Versa de Vice Recto" (see above right), Tatjana Doll's enormous mural "Container Ship", and, :MetalKLINIK's glitter sucking robot vacuum cleaners in "PuFF". Special mention must go to Matthew Day Jackson's "The Dymaxion Family" (see above left), an installation of four skeletal sculptures made of found objects as a reference to Utopian scientist Buckminster Fuller's "Dynamic Maximum Tension" theory.

While not the unmitigated success of the recent go-go years, Art Basel's 40th birthday is certainly a happy one and I am looking forward to another celebration of art next year!