Laszlo Moholy-Nagy @ Guggenheim, NYC

Guggenheim

Guggenheim Museum, New York City. All Images Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Moholy-Nagy: Future Present

Before a recent visit to NYC, I was set on visiting the new Met Breuer Museum (housed in the former Whitney Museum building) that is hosting a large photographic exhibition by Diane Arbus. But my interest in European Modernism pulled me away to the Guggenheim, which has mounted a major retrospective of work by the Hungarian artist, László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) who is unknown to me.   The compilation of work is the first comprehensive retrospective of Moholy-Nagy, likely the first artist with a large and diverse field of media, including painting, sculptures, works on paper and Plexiglas, photograms and films. Despite his visibility as a Bauhaus teacher and artist, his profile has been little known to American art schools. This exhibition conveys the experimental nature of his work that includes industrial materials, movement, light, and a variety of photo-based images.

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Installation View: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Future Present, Solomon Guggenheim Museum, 2016

The Bauhaus School (1919-1933), meaning in German to construct, struggled to exist at three locations in Germany during the early part of the 20th century. Founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, in Weimar, it moved to Dessau in 1925 where it housed an artist faculty that included Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy, and then finally ended up in Berlin for one final year until the Nazi Party came to power. The school specialized in fine and applied arts influenced by the Constructivism movement that originated in Russia in 1913 under Vladimir Tatlin, where art was practiced for social purpose, and included architecture and typography. Constructivists proposed to replace art’s traditional concern with composition, rather a focus on construction. For many Constructivists, this entailed an ethic of “truth to materials,” the belief that materials should be employed only in accordance with their capacities.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, CH BEATA l, 1939, Oil and Graphite on Canvas, Collection of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum

Juxtaposed against German Expressionism, Moholy-Nagy creates an image that reminds this writer of Kandinsky in his large oil on canvas, CH Beta 1. A non-objective abstract composition, the work relies heavily on design and the use of space, line and color on a flat plane void of objective meaning. If Kandinsky is the father of abstract art, then Moly-Nagy is an apostle presenting a new venue of work for the modern world. Born in Hungary in 1895, he attended art school in Budapest before bringing his Constructivist aesthetic to the Bauhaus school in Dessau. The mechanical free-floating geometries influenced many artists in the United States to follow, including Frank Stella, David Smith, Ad Reinhardt, Sol LeWitt and Sean Scully.

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Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Nickel Sculpture with Spiral, 1921, The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy

Moholy-Nagy’s nickel plated on iron-welded sculpture, owned by the Museum of Modern Art, demonstrates his industrial design and constructivist approach to the machining of objects and a spiral that inadvertently echoes the Guggenheim’s internal architecture.

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László Moholy-Nagy Photogram, 1941 Gelatin silver photogram, 28 x 36 cm The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Sally Petrilli, 1985 © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Collected by Hilla Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim, founders of the museum, this exhibition is beautifully arranged by Kelly Cullinan, the senior exhibition designer. I especially appreciated the extensive writings of Moholy-Nagy displayed on each level of the museum in vitrines. If I were still teaching painting at the college level, I would spend more time discussing European Modernism, especially the influence of the Bauhaus School and its teachers and artists.

Moholy-Nagy: Future Present is co-organized by Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Karole P. B. Vail, Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography, Art Institute of Chicago. The Guggenheim presentation is organized by Vail, with the assistance of Ylinka Barotto, Curatorial Assistant, and Danielle Toubrinet, Exhibition Assistant.

Guggenheim Museum

 

 

 

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” @ University of Michigan Museum of Art

Treasures from the Collection of Nesta and Walter Spink at The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Installation shot Connoisseurs Legacy 2016

Installation – Connoisseurs Legacy 2016 All images Courtesy of the Michigan Museum of Art

“Our bodies love metaphors because they join our bodies to our soul rather than abandoning them to a soulless state. The ancient alchemists called this body-soul state “the subtle body.” They believed that the deeper we go into “the subtle body,” the greater the soul treasures it contains.”    -Marion Woodman, from The Maiden King

In a recent review, I speculated that museums and galleries have become depositories for objects we currently don’t know what to do with- that seem to have lost their vital place in culture-building. “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy,” a delicately curated selection of works from the private collection of Nesta and Walter Spink, provides a stark counterpoint to that idea- it speaks of the vital place works of art still have in the private lives of people who shape, and are shaped by, the lives of these works in the outer world.

The Spinks have been collecting works of art since the 1950’s, the early days of their long marriage and the gestation period of their respective paths of scholarship. Nesta specialized in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century prints and drawings, and would become one of America’s foremost experts on James McNeill Whistler, compiling, during her years as curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the most comprehensive catalog raisonne of Whistler’s prints ever written. Walter took as his subject the vast Buddhist shrine and monastery at Ajanta, India, and continues to advance his radical theory of the site’s history and development in an ongoing series of books about the caves. At age eighty-eight, he still spends several months a year in Ajanta.

The Spink’s collection is important, because it offers a unique opportunity to view great works of art from vastly different time periods, cultures and traditions side by side in one gallery. The collection, consisting mainly of works on paper from various traditions, punctuated by gems of religious sculpture, lovingly wrought textiles and charming decorative objects, testifies powerfully to the role graphic art (printmaking, illustration, stylized genre painting) plays across all cultures as a distillation of our human story into a universal, uniformly legible narrative.

Image 1

Milkmaid Manika Offering Curds to Jagannatha and Balabhadra on Horses Composed of Human Figures, India, Orissa, Puri School early 20th Century, opaque watercolor and lacquer on cot

The artists represented, from anonymous Mughal miniature painters and regional Indian folk artists to J. M. Whistler to Paul Klee and Andy Warhol, are all, “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” clarifies, driven by the same passion- to translate lived experience into a visual language that brings the body a bit closer to the soul. This, according to the psychologist Marion Woodman, is the purpose of metaphor- literally a “carrying over” of tangible life from this plane onto the subtler plane of our interior selves. Seen in this context, the diverse work in “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” sheds linear chronology, aesthetic movements, and regional traditions and unites in breath-taking waves of visual metaphor- allegorical dreams brought into the light.

Image 2 Hans Sebold Beham Achilles and Hector Engraving on laid paper 1510-30

Hans Sebold Beham Achilles and Hector Engraving on laid paper 1510-30

One of my favorite things about graphic art is its ability to both describe and subvert space- the void we move through and fill with our objects and ideas. The line that weaves through all the work in “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy,” the line that describes first and foremost, defines each century and tradition even as it unifies them. One gets the dynamic, jazzed-up line of the Twentieth Century as transcribed by Max Ernst and Paul Klee a hair before it leaps back into foursquare reality and forms a can of Campbell’s soup, appropriated as Art and autographed by Andy Warhol.

Image 3 Paul Klee Drawing for a Drama of Disunion, ink on paper, 1921

Paul Klee Drawing for a Drama of Disunion, ink on paper, 1921

Reel this line backward in time, and it grows, across America, Europe and Asia, more disciplined, hushed, and devoted to the sublime, describing fragments of statuary and architecture from Ancient Rome in two brilliantly mind-bending etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi that collapse space into an orderly grid of venerable objects floating on Enlightenment illumination. Leap across the gallery to a group of contemporary Mughal miniature paintings, and the same hushed veneration is there- describing the indescribable in a different way. The unearthly jewel tones and dream-like minglings of people and animals- many-armed deities astride tigers and giant pigeons- have the same spiritual devotion to beauty as their French and Italian comrades.

Image 4 Page from an Indian zodiac manuscript, Figure Mounted on a Tiger, possibly Saturn, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur school circa 1840, ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Page from an Indian zodiac manuscript, Figure Mounted on a Tiger, possibly Saturn, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur school circa 1840, ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper

The line meanders and condenses from the Warhol soup can back to a taut, potent carving of Christ crucified and back again to sensuous Jain statuary which draws on traditional Hindu sculpture to capture the ecstasy of spiritual union.

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” is also important because it exemplifies collecting for the best possible reasons. The works of art on display reflect the insight of the individuals who fell in love with each piece and fitted it in with the rest without an agenda, a rigid vision, or focus on material gain. It’s a reminder, as well, of the vital contribution private curation makes to the Humanities- Nesta and Walter understand the ensoulling power of these objects, and the instruction they can offer us about ourselves and our cultural inheritance. “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” suggests a continuous loop of visual language that cross-pollinates and subtly alters itself and its context with each change in perspective, each newly discovered visual rhyme that spans continents. This privately curated collection highlights the similarities, more than the differences, between works we are trained to view as vastly different from one another.

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy: The Collection of Nesta and Walter Spink” is on view at The University of Michigan Museum of Art from June 18 through September 25, 2016.

University of Michigan Art Museum

Vagner Whitehead @ Cass Cafe

Where Allegory Meets Autobiography – Vagner M. Whitehead’s “Writings on the Wall” at Cass Café, Detroit, Michigan

Vagner Whitehead Installation shot

Vagner Whitehead Installation shot, Image Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

“Writings on the Wall,” Vagner Whitehead’s farewell solo exhibition currently on view at Cass Café (he’s sadly leaving us to take a job in Texas, he’ll be missed on the gallery circuit and at Infinite Mile Detroit, where Whitehead and I were colleagues) provides an interesting counterpoint to the ideas I’ve been juggling lately about identity-based work. Generally speaking, I find it problematic. My definition of the genre ropes in any work that takes as its subject an examination, unpacking, or sounding board of the earthly presence of the maker herself- her body, her biography, her socio-economic place, her sexual orientation, any and all factors that combine to make her who she is. Such work carries the risk of lapsing into self-examination that effectively shuts the door to any possibility for true communication or transcendence. The presence of casual self-portraits and other Snapchat-worthy visual flashes in Whitehead’s work quickly establishes as its subject an exploration of the artist’s identity. Whitehead avoids the drab self-examination so common to this type of work, however, through an intriguing mixture of cross-pollinating media, differing modes of visual communication, and a beautiful, over-arching theme of movement- manifested specifically in flight- that opens up what so often presents as a sealed conversation between the artist and her ego.

Image 1 Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Laser etching collage and acrylic on panel

Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Laser etching collage and acrylic on panel

Image 2 Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Detail

Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Detail

“Writings on the Wall” somehow places its maker both center and off-center through a multi-paneled, open-ended meditation on the rhymes that ring between migration, barriers in communication, and the bridging of these distances by any means necessary- via text (presented in collaged leaves from found books) transcriptions of sign language delivered in drawings of hand movements, gorgeous, juxtaposed studies of airplanes and birds, scaled-up prints of typeface lettering, and, amid the cacophony of rote communication, brief moments of non-verbal respite that read as breaks in a migratory journey- delicate graphite studies of intimate moments of iPhone-captured eye contact with the artist himself, or with lovers on languid, bed-bound mornings.

Image 3 Vagner Whitehead Besame Mucho Oz 2012 Acrylic and Inkjet transfer on canvas Detail

Vagner Whitehead Besame Mucho Oz 2012 Acrylic and Inkjet transfer on canvas Detail

Mylar overlays wreath milky glazes over rapid-fire selfies, combining with their carefully considered graphite rendering to elevate them into sacred territory. One gets the impression that the wonder with which Whitehead approaches these mundane likenesses is, somehow, not self-regarding, but universal- that it carries a subtle lesson in the true purpose such images carry in popular culture. Whitehead balances his busy, content-loaded transcriptions of movement with these contemplative, humble moments of stillness (so difficult to grasp these days) that carefully articulate, in dissonantly traditional media, the nearest we can possibly come to identity in a world with a constantly shifting, evolving ground that threatens to swallow us up if we don’t document every moment of quiet autonomy we can. Whitehead’s work in “Writings on the Wall” captures, via quaintly allegorical images and materials, the overwhelming speed with which we must move through an increasingly global, competitive art world, spanning distances similar to those a migratory bird must cover in order to survive. The same distances which technology- airplanes, printed text, smart phones- can cover instantly and effortlessly. The part of us that is still struggling to cross oceans, using only our bodies and what we can articulate with our hands and our brief, snatched experiences of true connection, is one key to the ideal execution of identity-based work. This work can tell us something about how, and why, we build visual narratives around ourselves as we navigate contemporary life.

Image 4 Vagner Whitehead Blind Path 2014-15 Laser etching acrylic and oil on panel

Vagner Whitehead Blind Path 2014-15 Laser etching acrylic and oil on pan

 “Writings on the Wall” is on view at Cass Café in Detroit, MI July 9 through September 17, 2016.  Cass Cafe

 

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia @ Cranbrook Art Museum

 

Two exhibitions offer a preponderance of material objects to make sense of the past

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Psychedelic posters and printed matter, installation view

These days, the San Francisco Bay Area is neatly divided into two camps: you either are a tech bro, or you hate them. Back in my day as an errant Bay Area youth, there was a different kind of division: you either were a hippie, or you hated them. I, my friends, was certainly no hippie. Of course, in my time they weren’t even real hippies—although there were still a healthy number of Summer-of-Love burnouts quietly resisting the rising tide of capitalism. They were proto-hippies, the spawn of Baby Boomers, appropriating the fashion or rediscovering the music as it made its 20-year orbit in retrograde. Whether the die-hard originals or the new school posers, hippies were not, by any metrics, modern.

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Isaac Abrams, Hello Dali (1965)

In fact, the seeming paradox between hippie and modern sensibilities provides the immediate tension of Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia—a sprawling exhibition initially organized by Andrew Blauvelt during his tenure at the Walker Art Center, which has subsequently followed him to be presented at the Cranbrook Art Museum, where he took up the mantle of Director last year. Hippies are commonly associated with back-to-the-land movements, eco-sustainability, and the timeless human yearning for peace and simplicity. Modernism is more concerned with technology, rapid progress and development, clean, modular design, and spare, white spaces.

 

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Ken Isaacs, The Knowledge Box (1962-2009)

But, as Hippie Modernism proves, these odd bedfellows forged a powerful connection indeed (who wouldn’t hippies jump into bed with, really?), fused in a social pressure-cooker of late-60s radicalism and wartime unrest. This extremely dense exhibition is not so much an art show as it is a walk through time with an art-historical lens—one which captures facets of hippie culture that have been elided by a typical focus on the flashier and more simplistic culture of drugs, fashion, rock-and-roll, and sex.

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Works by Haus-Rucker-Co, (installation view)

These facets are loosely divided into three galleries: Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out. Each of these examines a dominant theme of the time period, roughly the mid-1960s through the early 1970s—that of consciousness-raising on an individual level, social awareness on a geo-political level, and active rejection of certain cultural pressure of normativity and technological progress (to name a few). The objects and information on display demonstrate a deep interest in modern design not as an aesthetic exercise but a practical one, as applied to communal and off-the-grid living, mobile housing, and sustainable infrastructure; technology, not at as means of warfare but as a means for more direct powers of computing and personal representation; and tool use as a mechanism for exploring the inner workings of the mind. The exhibition, which occupies the entire main floor of Cranbrook is veritably papered in schematics of ergonomic living solutions, imagined vehicles, and visions of bio-domes (not to mention an actual geodesic dome that features an interactive and highly trance-inducing installation, The Ultimate Painting, by Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, and Charles DiJulio.

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Superstudio, Prints from the Superstudio Series (1969-1973)

Many of the works bear collective credits, the products of communal discussion and creative efforts; many have the earmarks of what today would be considered “social practice art,” but at the time was considered radical politics—leaving the viewer to marvel at the subsequent commoditization of art in the 1970s and 1980s to defang its inherent power as a social catalyst! There are, as one might imagine, a room splashed with dozens of examples of psychedelic poster art—but the collection is not limited to the vivid band promo materials that probably still line the halls of the Fillmore (if they haven’t turned it into a vape bar or something). Rather, there is a kind of radical parallel to the Madison Avenue advertising culture that was taking hold of the market—a conscious and deliberate exploration of type, color, and imagery as a mechanism to promulgate messaging. There are, undeniably, quite a number of chill spaces distributed around the exhibition, and a good thing, too—with so much going on, the opportunities to stop, drop, and contemplate are welcome interruptions. These include a handful of audio/video screening rooms, a Relaxation Cube from Nomadic Furniture 1 (1973) with floor cushions and a soothing slide show, and a full-gallery installation of a work by Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress, complete with hammocks.

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John Glick: A Legacy in Clay, installation view

John Glick: A Legacy in Clay @ Cranbrook Art Museum

It bears mentioning that Hippie Modernism is not the only spectacular exhibition currently on display at Cranbrook Art Museum, though it certainly warrants a visit all on its own. A career survey of ceramic artist John Glick—John Glick: A Legacy in Clay—is a dazzling walk through the life work of a virtuosic artist who managed to find fresh takes on vessels and forms as old as human society. From the wall of teapots, to the hanging friezes, to the physical timeline of Glick’s singular and beautiful ceramic forms, laid out in an engaging and accessible 360-degree display that mimics the sort of tables where they might otherwise be found, the Glick retrospective offers eye candy at every turn.

Food for thought, vessels for food, and much to take in at Cranbrook Art Museum!

Michigan Fine Arts Competition @ BBAC

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center Hosts the 35th MFCA

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BBAC / MFAC Installation Image – Courtesy of DAR

The Michigan Fine Arts Competition (MFAC) exhibition opened June 24, 2016, and is one of the best they have had in their long existence, beginning in 1982. Not many know that the competition was previously held by the Detroit Institute of Arts, but with their demise of leadership in contemporary art, they were pleased to find a home at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center (BBAC). The key to this year’s success is Terence Hammonds; the juror selected to make this year picks. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for his BFA, and Tufts University for his MA. One of the factors that make this exhibition so exceptional is that it draws on a mid-west region, where more than 500 artists compete from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

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Gerald Moore, Late September Field, Oil on Canvas

Gerald Moore is an expressive landscape painter who holds an MA in painting from Central Michigan University. He says “I work opposite the Oriental painting philosophy that ‘less is more.’ ‘More’ is the engine of my work; ‘more’ is more.” His large landscape painting seems to draw on the landscape as a subject, but flirts with abstract field painting and gives us a little of both. Color field painting, championed by Clement Greenburg in the 1950’s characterized this expression as solid color creating an unbroken surface and flat picture plane. One might view the Wheat Fields of Van Gogh to see early examples.

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Mary Brodbeck, Blanket, Woodblock Print

Maybe it’s because we don’t see a lot of artists working with wood-cut printmaking, that this landscape with rings and melting snow is so attractive. She says in her statement “ Affected by my travel and study in Japan, notably by visiting traditional Japanese gardens, my landscape prints are carefully designed in abstract and stylized ways that are intended for viewers to have a contemplative experience. “ These Zen-like impressions made by the woodblock can transport the viewer to a place that blends design, craft and a spiritual aesthetic. Ms. Brodbeck holds a BFA from Michigan State University, and an MFA from Western Michigan University.

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Mario Inchaustegui, Into the Unknown, Digital Print

Mario Inchaustegui’s digital print “Into the Unknown” draws purely on composition for its power and interest. The geometry along with perspective leads us to four figures on the edge of some type of a concrete pier. This middle school teacher at West Bloomfield Schools has been part of photo exhibitions in Metro Detroit, most recently at the Scarab Club.

Clay Hydrant

Susan O’Connor, Can I Get Some Water, Clay

Susan O’Connor, who teaches hand-built ceramics at the BBAC, grabs the audience with a pop art object, that also carries a current social message. So, she got me with this Fire Hydrant from Flint, Michigan where the water has been contaminated by a decision leading to elements of lead in the water supply.

This exhibition has many generous prizes totaling $5800 and goes a long way to showcase artists in the Midwest. I will mention here that I usually stay away from covering these large competitive exhibitions, largely because they jury the work from jpegs, which makes the process more of a challenge. In this particular case, I give Mr. Hammonds a lot of credit for getting most of his decisions right. I have heard it many times, that it is the only practical way to conduct such a large undertaking, however when only viewing an image of an artwork, mistakes are made.

The 35th Annual Michigan Fine Arts Competition – June 24 – August 26

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center