June 25, 2010

"Klee Meets Picasso" at the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

On the last full day of my European adventure I took the bus from Bern's old town to the outskirts of the city to visit the Paul Klee Foundation. Housed in a Renzo Piano designed building intended to echo the Swiss Alps with three steel and glass "hills" set into the landscape, the Center is devoted entirely to the work of native son Paul Klee (1879-1940) and has the largest collection of any single artist's work in the world.

This Summer the Center celebrates its five year anniversary with a very special exhibition that compares the work of two 20th Century masters, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. At first I thought the idea was preposterous - what on earth could Klee's delicate poetic watercolors possibly have in common with Picasso's bold distorted paintings? But the more I looked, the more I could see how, despite only having met twice (in 1933 and again in 1937), each had indeed influenced the other.

Personality-wise the two were polar opposites. Klee was romantic, musical, devoted to his wife and son. He worked in the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, he was an art professor in Düsseldorf, his work was condemned by the Nazis as "degenerate" but he enjoyed professional success during his lifetime in both Europe and America. Picasso was Latin, forceful, challenging in both his art and his personality. His range and output was prodigious and he is probably the most famous artist of our time.

So how can these two artists co-exist in the same exhibition? Very happily it turns out. Both presented revolutionary works that were seized upon by the art world. Both were influenced by "primitive" sources, Klee by childhood drawings and Picasso by African art. Each was respectful of the others' work and incorporated elements into their own throughout their artistic lives as you can see in the images below.

On the left we have Paul Klee's "Doll Suspended from Violet Ribbons" a watercolor executed in 1906. One year earlier, during his "Rose" period, Pablo Picasso painted "Harlequin Seated Before a Red Background", also a watercolor, and very similar in both subject matter and coloration.

In the 1930's we again see similarities in style with Klee's "Cursed Woman", watercolor, 1939, on the left and Picasso's "Crying Woman" oil on cardboard, 1937, on the right.

Paul Klee died in 1940 having been ill for the last five years of his life. Picasso lived to the ripe old age of 91 and worked up until the very end. Although not physically together, their lives had intersected and engaged in more ways than one could imagine, until this marvelous exhibition exposed the parallels and imitations that each appropriated from the other.

"Klee Meets Picasso" was a wonderful wrap-up to my art filled adventures here in Europe. I hope you've enjoyed the ride as much as I have and now I can't wait to get back to New York to see what's happening there!
Auf wiedersehn and see you soon!

June 15, 2010

Art Basel 41 :: Art Unlimited

The City of Basel, on the banks of the Rhine River, is famous for its pharmaceutical industry, its plethora of cultural institutions, its unique type of gingerbread called "Läckerli", and, since 1969, as the home of the foremost fair for modern and contemporary art, Art Basel. This year Art Basel 41 opened to the public on June 15 and despite cool weather and overcast skies was the hottest spot to be for dealers, collectors, museum curators and anyone who loves 20th Century art.

Art Basel has changed a lot since it first began. Now, as well as the main show spread over two floors of the Messe, the fair has expanded to include Art Unlimited - a fair devoted to exhibiting works of huge proportions and held in an adjacent exhibition space. I love this show! To me it's like a playground for adults with site specific works of art that one can enter into or climb on or just be overwhelmed by. This year's edition of Art Unlimited was as much fun as always and I thought I would share some of the works with you here.

At the far end of the entrance was this wall of colored mirrors by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone and called "Clockwork for Oracles II". Intended as an "invitation to slow down and contemplate the nature of time", but I just thought it was was beautiful!

These monumental aluminum sculptures by Urs Fischer are called "Ix", "Miss Satin", "Zizi", "Marguerite de Ponty" and "David, the Proprietor", but don't ask me who's who!

This is a video installation by American artist Doug Aitken called "Frontier". It was shown in a special room with large rectangular cut-outs that distorted the images and gave the whole piece a rather surreal quality. A lot of people I spoke with thought this was the coolest entry at Art Unlimited and I thought it was a great video too.

Another American, Dan Flavin, created this light sculpture in 1969. "three sets of tangented arcs in daylight and cool white (to Jenny and Ira Licht)" is a room size installation of florescent lights that span and bisect a gallery making it a study in space and barriers. It was one of the oldest pieces on display!

Another work that used light as a medium is "Doubles and Couples" by Korean artist Haegue Yang. Here the lights are encased in steel frames with aluminum venetian blinds for walls. The theory related to the "presence of machines in private spaces creating a peaceful battlefield", but I just thought it was a good public sculpture.

This suspended temple in wood is the work of Takahiro Iwasaki. I cannot speculate as to its intention, but I was intrigued by the craftsmanship...

...as I was here with this massive crochet project by an artist whose name I cannot find (my apologies).

This one speaks for itself! Jack Pierson's homage to old time marquis lettering and an idea that still makes the world go around - "Romance"!

An audience participation piece - Belgian artist Agnès Varda has created a movie theater on the beach with "La cabane sur la plage" where visitors literally walk across the sand to watch a film projected inside a small cabana.

In the "massive" category is German artist Michael Beutler's ventilation tunnel construction "Pipeline Field". Here he recreates a nest of pipes that he had accidentally discovered while on his bicycle near Rotterdam that spoke to him of quiet and weight and space.

Another large and circular installation is Hungarian artist Yona Friedman's exploration of space and arcs in "Ville spatiale (Space-chain structure)". Fabricated of iron wires and fabrics, this enormous sculpture is a geometry project that is actually quite compelling.

Finally, here is my favorite piece at Art Unlimited 2010, Jan Tichy's "Installation No. 4 (Towers). Mr Tichy is a young Czech artist who has created a video/architecture installation that suggests the rotation of the earth and the sun and the moon in a very personal way. I found it quite beautiful and magical and was fascinated to watch the light intensify and fade and the movement of the shadows and forms.

I hope you've enjoyed my "Greatest Hits" of Art Unlimited here in Basel. Next stop, Bern!

June 11, 2010

"The Surreal House" at the Barbican, London

I must admit, I found the concept of an exhibition on "The Surreal House" a little hard to figure. But the more I heard about it the more intrigued I became. So last week I took the Eurostar train from the Gare du Nord in Paris, through the Chunnel, to the gorgeous St Pancras Station in London to go to the preview of the show.

Anyone familiar with the Barbican Complex in London's East End will wonder how this anonymous concrete structure could function effectively as an intimate art space. The success depends on two principals - the curator and the designer. In this case all the stars aligned in the form of Jane Alison, senior curator at the Barbican Art Gallery, working with the young and energetic architecture firm of Carmody Groarke, who transformed the cold, 1970's Brutalist interior into an intimate "maison Surréaliste".

The show is spread over two levels with the lower level set up as a sort of village of small houses, each devoted to exploring domestic interiors through themes like "Femme Maison", "Haunted House" and "Panic Space". The upper level offers a view of the "rooftops" and focus' mainly on the dialogue between art and architecture.

The exhibition turns the idea of "home" into a totally different place - a temple to the marvelous, the mysterious, the mischievous and the monstrous - far from comfortable and cosy! It doesn't take long to figure out that this is not a "Designer Show House". The first gallery features a nipple doorbell (Marcel Duchamp's "Prière de Toucher", 1947) which leads to Rachel Whiteread's unsettling bathtub cum sarcophagus "Untitled - Black Bath", 1996! Or the "Theatre of the Domestic" that is dominated by a grand piano suspended upside down from the ceiling that periodically opens and shuts, the creation of Rebecca Horn and titled "Concert for Anarchy", 1990.

Paintings by Salvador Dali and René Magritte are classics in the category, but Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad", 1925, becomes totally Surreal in the category of "Haunted House". Joseph Cornell's enchanting boxes are "A Home for Birds" and add to the duality of freedom versus confinement. The medium of film is well represented with several amazing video clips from Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr", Jean Luc Goddard's "Le Mépris" and Cocteau's full length feature film "La Belle et la Bête" in an vintage movie theatre that evokes a dreamy atmosphere.

What is very special about this show, and adds considerably to its success, is the wide range of both mediums and artists on display. Paintings, sculpture, collage and photography are interspersed with film, architectural maquettes, installations and objects. Certainly the original Surrealists, the group of artists who worked with André Breton after he decried Dada with his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, are the most well represented, but the show expands its reach to proto-Surrealists and several Contemporary artists and architects whose work can be taken in this context.

"The Surreal House" will certainly challenge your ideal of "Home Sweet Home", but isn't that what keeps life interesting?

June 06, 2010

"Ich Bin Eine Berlinerin" Part II

The next day was still chilly but at least the rain had stopped. First on the agenda was the Neue Nationalgalerie to seen their renowned collection of German Expressionist paintings. The exhibition of works by Beckmann, Kirchner, Pechstein, Grotz and other icons of the movement were typically full of angst and "dark" to say the least. However, the museum building is fantastic. Designed by Mies Van der Rohe and opened in 1968, it is a spacious temple-like pavilion of glass and steel. The ground floor is currently home to an interesting installation project by Rodolf Stingel who has transformed the simple Bauhaus interior with an enormous Indian Agra rug and a crystal chandelier in the center. The temple to Modernism becomes a mosque!

A short walk through the Tiergarten, a massive wooded park in the center of the city, brought me to the road leading to one of Berlin's most famous sights, the Brandenburger Tor. Built in 1791 as a triumphal arch it was probably most celebrated as the location broadcast around the world when the Wall came down in 1989. Today, just a discreet double row of cobblestone bricks in the roadway marks where this division stood for 28 years and the gate is now a symbol of free passage rather than captivity.

In 1991 the Bundestag voted to return Germany's capital from Bonn, where it had been established since the country was split, to its historic capital of Berlin. The Reichstag was to once again be home to the German Parliament and had to be renovated to accommodate its new role. Enter esteemed British architect Sir Norman Foster who modernized the structure and gave it a new look with its signature glass cupola. Berlin was once again ready to take center stage. I had visited the new Reichstag just days after it re-opened and was hoping to do so again, but the hundreds of visitors queued up outdoors waiting to pass through the new high tech security change my mind. So, I walked around the exterior and continued back to Pariser Platz to see how the former East had changed.

In what was once a virtual "No Mans Land" is now a very chic square with newly constructed Embassies and posh hotels. The Brandenburg Gate has been restored to its former glory with the Quadriga statue, a four-horse chariot driven by Victory, and a reproduction Iron Cross returned to their original positions of importance and lots of visitors are taking pictures of the "Eiffel Tower of Berlin".

It was time to head back to the hotel and as I walked along the elegant avenue Unter den Linden I wondered to myself what Lenin would think to see how quickly his "Workers' Paradise" had reverted back to the center of luxury it had always been. Passing Ferrari and Bentley dealerships, clothing and cosmetic boutiques and a ton of tourist centers, I arrived at Friedrichstrasse. I followed this up to the former Friedrichstrassebahnhof, one of the few points of entry between East and West during the Cold War and known as the "Palace of Tears" for the many sad goodbyes between family members separated by the Wall. This area along the Spree River is now a thriving neighborhood with nice shops and lots of restaurants and I enjoyed a delicious Berliner Weisse at an outdoor café before heading indoors for dinner.

My last day in Berlin and the sun came out! Hooray! It was a pleasant walk over to the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former railway station that had been refurbished and reopened in 1996 as the Contemporary Art branch of the National Gallery. The permanent collection includes major works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kieffer, and the large nave, where the tracks had been, houses temporary shows such as the new installation by American artist Bruce Nauman entitled "Dream Passage". The upper levels on either side also feature rotating exhibitions on a smaller scale. Currently on view is Walton Ford's "Bestiarium" - modern day animal paintings on a very large scale and each with an allegorical message, and a very interesting piece by German artist Gerd Rohling called "Kollektion".

On such a beautiful day it was hard to stay indoors so after an al fresco lunch I walked over to Museumsinsel (literally, "museum island"). To be perfectly truthful, I couldn't face another line, nor did I want to go back inside, so I viewed these great cultural institutions from the exterior only. I walked past the fabulous Berliner Dom, a magnificent Italian Renaissance cathedral now repaired and open to the public, and carried on to Alexanderplatz the focal point of the old East Berlin and an area where one can still see vestiges of architecture and landmarks of the old GDR. Walking back to Friedrichstrasse past ice cream vendors and guys selling faux Soviet souvenirs I saw a gaping construction zone where the infamous Palast der Republik once stood. In an ironic twist, the Communist government had torn down the old Royal Palace to erect their new headquarters in the 1970s. After the re-unification of Germany, this symbol of modernism was found to be so full of asbestos as to render it totally unsalvageable and it was very carefully decontaminated and destroyed in 2008. A fitting end to an ignoble structure.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my four days here in Berlin and am looking forward to coming back. There is so much to see that I feel I just scratched the surface of all the city has to offer. I was sorry not to visit the Pergamom Museum's fantastic Egyptian collection and I regret not having had tickets to Berthold Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera" being performed at the Reinhardt Theatre near my hotel. But one can't do everything and it's nice to have a reason to return. As I passed through the magnificent new Hauptbahnhof, a soaring glass structure and the largest railway station in Europe, I marvelled at the resilience of the German people and the sheer determination that has overcome the abominations of the 20th Century. Auf Wiedersehn Berlin!

June 05, 2010

"Ich Bin Eine Berlinerin" Part I

I had visited Berlin once before, in the summer of 1999, a mere 10 years after the Wall fell and East and West were re-unified. My most vivid impression of the city was of the hundreds of construction cranes working day and night to erase the old and create a new metropolis that would hopefully reflect some of its former glory. It was also a personal journey for me as my father had been born in Berlin and forced to leave when the situation became dire in the 1930's.

For several years friends and colleagues had been telling me it was time to go back to see the result of all that building and to experience the energy of a city risen from the ashes. This Spring provided the perfect opportunity to revisit Berlin - after Stockholm and before Paris.

Monday was cold and rainy but off we went armed with umbrellas and an all-day S-Bahn pass. Between the foul weather and the few museums open it became more of a sightseeing day but I did manage to visit a few galleries en route. Walking along the main avenue in the former West Berlin, the Kurfürstendamm ("Ku-damm" for short) was like strolling Fifth Avenue, except for the overt reminders that this was a city nearly leveled during World War II. Dominating Breitscheidplatz is the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, a grim souvenir of a 1943 bomb which left this neo-Romanesque church in ruins. A post-war concrete tower was built directly alongside which, despite the pretty blue stained glass windows, is a very stark contrast to what was lost.

Farther East along the Ku-damm is the renowned department store Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe. Not only do they carry the latest in fashion for men and women, the 6th floor is totally devoted to gourmet food and since it was close to Kaffeestunde, the perfect time for a piece of strawberry torte and a delicious cup of coffee!

Once fortified I was ready to continue through the cold drizzle and visit one of Berlin's most infamous sights - Checkpoint Charlie. Once a notorious crossing point along the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie is one of the few remaining symbols of the Cold War. While the original guard house has been re-located and the watchtower and razor wire fence destroyed, there remains a small but popular museum that chronicles the site's inglorious history and honors the brave souls who attempted to cross over into freedom.

The calendar said June 1 but the weather was more like March on my second day in Berlin! A friend had kindly offered to drive us in his car to the Charlottenburg section of the city which was really wonderful as Berlin is huge! I had visited the Palace on my prior trip, so this time we went to two museums housed in former guardhouses at the entrance to the Schloss.

On the right side is Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, a formerly private collection of Surrealist art that was donated to the State in 2008. On display are fine examples of graphics, paintings and sculptures from the proto-Surrealists such as Odilon Redon through masters of the movement including Max Ernst and René Magritte. A special exhibition entitled "Double Sexus" compared the works of Hans Bellmer and Louise Bourgeois (whose death at the age of 98 was announced on the day of our visit). Both artists used the metaphor of the Doll to express issues of sexuality - fantasy, phobia and ambiguity - using sculpture, drawing and photography.

Crossing the street to the other guard house we came to the Museum Berggruen that features the collection of legendary, German-born art dealer Heinz Berggruen who moved to Paris and later emigrated to the United States before returning to his homeland. This is a museum of a very manageable size but it packs a big punch. Herr Berggruen was known for his very discriminating eye and his legacy of Picassos, Matisses and Klees is well worth a visit.

Back in the car heading East through Charlottenburg and Tiergarten to the Mitte section and the Martin-Gropius-Bau where this season's blockbuster art show is now underway. I waited in line over an hour, no exaggeration, to finally get into the Frida Kahlo retrospective but my patience was rewarded. What a terrific exhibition! This homage to one of Surrealism's, and Feminism's, great icons is a major show comprising over 150 paintings and drawings and a lot of documentary photographs to give context to the work. Featuring many of the rare but very powerful self portraits the show traces her amazing story from her childhood in Mexico (with German grandparents) through the terrible bus accident that left her a virtual cripple, her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, relationships with Leon Trotsky and other revolutionaries, and finally her torturous mental and physical disintegration and demise.

The Martin-Gropius-Bau is located in a curious spot right at the edge of where the infamous Berlin Wall once stood. Right next door is the ominously named "Topographie des Terrors" which is now a historic site marking the location of the former Prinz Albrecht Palais - known from 1933-1945 as Gestapo headquarters. Today, in a brand new outdoor documentation center, one can see some of the ruins of these institutions of detention and horror as well as several meters of remnants of the Wall.

After this rather intense experience something a little lighter was in order so it was back to Savignyplatz for dinner at the celebrated Paris Bar. The smoke stained walls are filled with art and regulars include stars of screen, fashion and of course, the art world. After a restorative meal with some good French wine, it's time to say Guten Abend and I'll catch up with you tomorrow!