July 2020

NOTES & COMMENTS

Heartening Reminder from a Classic Children's Book
In this difficult time of enforced isolation for so many, we recall the lesson taught by the little mouse-poet Frederick, the eponymous hero of Leo Lionni's Caldecott Honor-winning picture book. Scorned by his fellow mice for seeming to do nothing while they were busily working at storing up supplies, Frederick saved the day when spirits were laid low by dreary winter. So we, too, can turn now to music, literature, and art for reminders of better days, and for embodiments of those who faced equal or greater hardships and prevailed--in short, for inspiration.

EXHIBITION: Masterly Drawings
Michelangelo: Mind of the Master, Getty Center (J. Paul Getty Museum), Los Angeles. Among the exhibitions we have recommended, this one is especially worth repeated visits online for exploring the key role played by drawing in the artist's creative process.

Metropolitan Museum's New British Galleries
Marking its 150th anniversary this year, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has unveiled an ambitious overhauling of its outstanding collection of British decorative arts, design, and sculpture. The curatorial emphasis is on the island nation's complex imperial history (political and social, as well as cultural and artistic), revealed by an astonishing diversity of objects---rather than on the objects themselves. Its visual centerpiece may be the dazzling display of no fewer than a hundred teapots, which help to tell the often-troubled story of Britain's engagement in the tea trade. Though we normally eschew the verbal narratives appended to art exhibitions, these galleries require reading (or listening) to the extensive explanatory material provided. If you visit when the museum reopens, allow yourself ample time.

Since our main interest lies in the fine, rather than the decorative, arts, we limit ourselves here to mentioning just a few works of sculpture not to be missed. The most commanding of them is the recently restored portrait bust of Bishop (later Cardinal) John Fisher (1510-15), by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Torrigiano--which greets visitors in the first gallery. Though Torrigiano (1472-1528) is probably best known as the pugnacious rival who broke Michelangelo's nose, this work reveals him as a master in his own right. It is an extraordinarily powerful portrait of a courageous cleric who eventually lost his imposing head for defying Henry VIII's Protestant Reformation.

Also memorable, albeit in a very different vein, is the portrait bust of a young boy, John Bernard, by the Flemish-born sculptor John Michael Rysbrack. Note how much more nuanced the terracotta version (at the right) is than the marble version displayed alongside it [to enlarge, click cursor on the center of each head].

The animated terracotta figurine of a black craftsman demonstrates the skill and sophistication of artists employed in England's flourishing eighteenth-century porcelain industry. In spite of his bare feet and ragged attire, the figure projects strength and self-command. The curator sees it as a caricature. We see nothing of the kind.

Praise for New Book by Aristos Co-Editor
"Solidly argued and thoughtfully presented . . . eloquent . . . thought-provoking and often enjoyable," writes Kirkus Reviews about Michelle Kamhi's Bucking the Artworld Tide: Reflections on Art, Pseudo Art, Art Education & Theory (published on May 15)--a collection of more than three decades of articles and talks by her. Kirkus concludes: "Kamhi's passion for her subject is undeniable and makes even the more technical aspects of the work accessible. An illuminating, strongly opinionated, and enthusiastically acerbic critique of today's art world." For more on that and other reviews, see this website page. The book is available in both paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com and countless other booksellers.

Data Visualization as "Art"?
Remember the days when "data visualization" meant a graph or chart and was regarded as a mathematical tool? No more. At least not according to purported art educators--who think it's an art form, practiced by the likes of Chris Jordan. As noted by the National Art Education Association (which conducted a recent webinar on the subject), Jordan describes his artistic process thus:

When 300 million people do unconscious behaviors, then it can add up to a catastrophic consequence that nobody wants, and no one intended. And that's what I look at with my photographic work.

As explained by the NAEA, Jordan "digitally scans everyday objects from bottle caps to Barbie Dolls, duplicates [them] thousands of times, and arranges the multiples of data into a larger image, a larger statement."

The problem is that the statement made by Jordan's work, as in most other "conceptual art," is not discernible without the accompanying verbal caption. Who could otherwise guess that his Gyre (2009), for example, "depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world's oceans every hour"? For our part, we'll take the original by Hokusai that his work rips off. That is indeed art. It is a visualization of life that requires no caption.

EXHIBITION: The Creative Process of a Musical Genius
Beethoven 250: Autograph Music Manuscripts by Ludwig van Beethoven, an exhibition by the Morgan Library (through September 27), celebrates the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth by showcasing his arduous creative process--from the early stages of his scrawled notations on paper to the final realization of each piece in recorded performance.

A Young Pianist and Her Siblings Inspire
If you haven't yet heard of Isata Kanneh-Mason or heard her play, let us introduce you. She had been scheduled to play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 on April 18 at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When the concert was cancelled owing to the Coronavirus, she and her four siblings decided to record a chamber ensemble arrangement of the concerto's first movement in their London home. This YouTube video [17:22] (Isata is at the piano on the left) was posted on April 19, and as of July 26 it had attracted 140, 510 views and 950 Comments! If you can access the video on Facebook [19:31], you will see her introduce the program and her musical siblings. For much more, especially about Isata or her brother, the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (who performed at the royal wedding of Harry and Megan), search for them on Google and YouTube. Enjoy!

Tel Aviv Museum Succumbs to Koons Boondoggle
In yet another instance of curatorial capitulation both to the hype enshrouding the worthless output of Jeff Koons and to the influence of wealthy but tasteless collectors, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is offering Jeff Koons: Absolute Value--From the Collection of Marie and Jose Mugrabi. Consistent with his holdings in Jeff Koons, Jose Mugrabi has the dubious distinction of being the world's biggest collector of Andy Warhol's work. Needless to say, in tacit exchange for his "remarkable generosity" in the loan of the works by Koons, their market value will be considerably enhanced by the museum's affirmation.

Among the "spectacular works of art" on view are the "celebrated" Balloon Dog (Orange) and Balloon Venus Dolni Vestonice (Violet). Though you might think the latter is merely a crudely suggestive variant of a children's party decoration, make no mistake. It is a reinterpretation "in balloon form [of] the prehistoric Venus figurines depicting a stylized figure of a female form."

According to the Tel Aviv Museum's director, Koons is "one of the greatest artists of our time," and this exhibition is "a significant cultural milestone" for Israel. For our very different view of Koons, see "Art Education or Miseducation? From Koons to Herring" (Aristos, August 2017).

An Extract from Today's Clueless Artworld
Former Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens, now retired, is also an abstract artist. The Texas Gallery in Houston, Texas, recently circulated this announcement of a show of New Collages by him. The work is sensuously pleasing enough--an impressionistic sort of Joseph Albers Homage to the Square redux. But don't be surprised if you can't figure out what they're supposed to mean. Their creator doesn't know either. Here is his artist's statement, which we reprint in full:

I don't plan these things; rather, I just follow my bulbous nose. One thing leads to another, etc. For quite a while now, I haven't composed in that old left/right/top/ bottom balancing act, nudged Golden Section and all that. A long time ago, when I worked for the late great Newsweek magazine as its art critic, my estimable colleague, the theater critic, Jack Kroll, gave me a writing tip: "Put everything about one thing in one place." That seeped into my art: the "center of interest" (as art teachers used to say) went . . . quelle surprise . . . to the center of my paintings.

All right, that's the carpentry: what about the meaning? I don't know, save that it has to do with my existentialism, liking of modern art's art-about-art, and trying to make abstract paintings that nevertheless mean something philosophical. If that something isn't in the painting, it can't be stuffed into it with words. Well, we all have our pentagrams to bear.

Perhaps the following variant of John Cage's famous dictum would be more apt here: "I have nothing coherent to say, and I am saying it."

Let Us Know What You Think
We invite readers to comment on any of the items on this or other pages. See information on Letters to the Editors, as well as archived letters [look for "LETTERS" in all caps].