In Praise of: Cy Twombly

“It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning.”

Born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928, albeit to parents from Massachusetts and Maine, Twombly embraces his southern upbringing with gourmandise. “The traditional elements that thickened the “atmosphere” of Southern life – a honeyed ease with spoken language and a rich literary tradition, a certain sensual languor, and the lingering romance of fallen grandeur” *1

With Kurt Schwitters as an early reference, Twombly is affected by European modern art as an ideal of uncompromising self-expression, and a feel for the poetry in the most humble substances.

In 1950 he moves to New York and shares a studio with his new friend, Robert Rauschenberg. Together they enroll in Black Mountain College in North Carolina where their teachers are Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and John Cage. In 1953, Rauschenberg and Twombly travel through Europe and North Africa absorbing, from the primitive to the sophisticated, the bases of western culture. Rome, the chic decaying city and its inhabitants will have a life changing effect on Twombly.

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‘Panorama’ 1955 © Cy Twombly Foundation

During the summer of 1957, while staying with Alvise and Betty di Robilant, the colors, the light, the heat, the food of Grottaferrata, liberate a libidinal fluidity of draftsmanship that find their best expression in a series of drawings done at night with the lights out. With Jean Dubuffet in mind we discover an esoteric elegance of deconstructed, dancing calligraphy.

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‘Untitled’ (Grottaferrata) 1957 ©Cy Twombly Foundation

Establishing a bridge between the US and Italy, Twombly will exhibit with Rauschenberg at the Stable Gallery in New York, and find early patrons in the Franchetti family in Rome. 1959 is a pivotal year, marrying Tatiana Franchetti in April in New York, moving to Rome in June, where their son, Cyrus Alessandro is born in December. From then on, a most prolific and glorious period of production begins, be it in photographs, sculpture or paintings.

“I sit for two or three hours and then in 15 minutes I can do a painting, but that’s part of it. You have to get ready and decide to jump up and do it; you build yourself up psychologically, and so painting has no time for brush. Brush is boring, you give it and all of a sudden it’s dry, you have to go. Before you cut the thought”

Vigorous yet ethereal Bach sonatas as played by Glenn Gould come to mind, when in 1961 Twombly; directly from oil paint tubes to canvas with his fingers and hands, produced “The Triumph of Galatea”. For Twombly, using his hands as the main instrument of picture making had a symbolic and pragmatic purpose. Attracted by the prehistoric, primal applications of paint by humankind (he had visited the Lascaux grottoes with Rauschenberg in 1952), it gave him a more physical, sensual approach to the canvas, rhythmically clawing, dabbing or caressing it.

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Alessandro Twombly in front of ‘The Triumph of Galatea’ Rome, 1963. Photographed by Horst for Vogue

With an uplifting, nervous and elegant choreography, Twombly mixes irregular motifs and organic movement, with intuitional and cerebral expression. The paintings of this era are perhaps a perfect example of what Twombly terms his “irresponsibility to gravity”

In December 1963, soon after the assassination of President Kennedy, Twombly created “Nine Discourses on Commodus“. With Francis Bacon in mind (a painter he much admired) we are ravished by a powerful ensemble of energetic emanations, “From cloud like lightness to agitated bloody violence – a reflection on leaders, disasters and the fate of empires” *2

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‘Nine Discourses on Commodus’ 1963, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao © Cy Twombly Foundation

More than any modern artist, Cy Twombly embodies Cennino Cennini‘s theory. The 14th century Florentine painter asked two of his students to draw an identical circle. Looking at the results, he found that even with the utmost care, no two circles could be exactly identical; because, Cennini concluded, the hand is lead not by the brain, but by the ‘anima’: the soul.

At the end of the 19th century, psychoanalysis developed the idea that our actions are the result of our conscious and the unconscious. Creativity is its proudest emanation. Balanced or unbalanced, artists are the luckiest humans. With their art they can express their inner soul, and we, bewitched, bothered, bewildered, nauseated or elevated, thank them for it.

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‘Untitled’ 1972, MoMA, New York © CY Twombly Foundation

Constantin Brancusi said ” it is not difficult to work; it is difficult to get in the mood to work” Twombly usually found inspiration during periods of parallel activity such as travel or extensive reading. Literature and poetry are a fundamental sparkle throughout the prolific, enlightened oeuvre given to us by Twombly’s generous soul.

Looking at art is primarily a physical experience. Books and computers cannot render scale, texture, depth or nuances of color. Nothing can replace the thrill of standing in front of a cherished image. The Twombly retrospective at Musée Pompidou in Paris is a beautiful and thorough exhibition that should not be missed.

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‘Apollo and the Artist’ 1975 © Cy Twombly Foundation

*1 *2  Kirk Varnedoe, ‘Cy Twombly: A Retrospective’, MoMA, New York, 1994

Centre Pompidou, ‘Cy Twombly’, until April 24, 2017

All images © Cy Twombly Foundation

Richard Avedon: Master Control

“I think all art is about control – the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.”

 From fashion photography, to portraits of a changing world, and up until his death in 2004, Richard Avedon had but one daily obsession: making art. Getting away from the perceived limitations of photography as a “craft”.  Imposing, through determination, rigor, absolute control of intent, and a distinctive sense of self worth, his place in the pantheon of artists. He is the first to ask us to consider photography as a powerful and perceptive expression of art.

“Anything is an art if you do it at the level of an art”.   

Born to a Russian Jewish family in New York in 1923, Richard Avedon was given a Rolleiflex by the time he was ten. After a brief stint at Columbia University, he enlists in the Merchant Marine as a photographer. Discovered by Harper’s Bazaar Artistic Director, Russian émigré Alexei Brodovitch, he joins the staff of the magazine in 1946. Influenced by Martin Munkacsi’s idea of space and action, Avedon breaks the mold of studio stiffness with an influx of movement and vitality.

“There is no truth in photography. There is no one truth about anyone’s person. My portraits are much more about me than they are about the people I photograph”  

Fear, and necessity to manipulate the image we project, are the primary reasons for Avedon’s love of the camera. Everything he could not control as a child, or even as an adult, be it time, desire, self doubt; he could transform and fix with his camera. The camera became his accomplice, his co-conspirator. Master controller, he would use his charm, nervous brutality, and irreverence to seduce his subjects to give-in to his inquisitive eye. “Mirada fuerte”, the strong gaze protruding from Avedon’s dark and destabilizing eyes, were a perfect tool for a determined manipulator. Avedon was tormented throughout his life by the early loss of his beloved younger sister. His first model and early cannon of beauty, he photographed her regularly until, at 18, she started showing signs of mental illness and would withdraw in an asylum until her death at 30.

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Samuel Beckett, writer, Paris, France, April 13, 1979 © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Manic and obsessive, Richard Avedon’s approach to his subjects was anthropological. He made no distinction between the celebrated and the unknown, his only interest was in what they could convey; what we could learn from the reflection of their fleeting existence and eternal soul. Nearsighted, the use of a plain background, either grey or white, was a brilliant, if not exactly new, subterfuge. It gave his images gravitas and allowed the viewer to concentrate on the subject on the foreground.

Most of his powerful images are subject to a form of domination by Avedon, of surrender by his sitter and awe by the viewer. A few favorites come to mind: the portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in New York in 1957. Unhappy with their stilted demeanor and the noise their beloved boisterous pugs made, Avedon tells them that, as he was rushing to meet them, his taxi had ran over and, sadly, killed a dog. Click. Or with Marilyn Monroe, who, wearing a glittering sequined dress, played, danced, sang, drank for two hours in front of the camera to no avail. The seduction game stopped, the shoulders dropped, and Avedon captures Marilyn looking lost and fragile, a reflection of her pure beauty and inner turmoil.

Or, as in 1963, when Avedon photographed Rudolph Nureyev the mercurial Tatar, in the nude. Not exactly of a “passive” nature, Nureyev and Avedon play a twisted game with the viewer; concomitantly impinging upon us his distracting  large “talent”, and, with a slightly raised chin and smirk, bestowing upon us look of utter contempt.

 

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is currently having an exhibition called “Avedon’s France: Old World, New Look”. One meanders from exquisite quality early Harper’s Bazaar contact prints with intricate annotations on the back, to large, effectful images crammed together in unrelated propinquity. Maniacal as Avedon was for impeccable quality printing and framing, I was stunned to see images with creases, others undulating under their mat or, for the very large ones pressed on aluminum, little air bubbles. Conveying overall an impression of haste and amateurism not on par with Richard Avedon’s idea of absolute control on subject, production, presentation and exhibition experience.

 

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Francis Bacon, artist, Paris, April 11, 1979 © The Richard Avedon Foundation

The Richard Avedon Estate is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and  Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Bibliothèque Nationale de France “Old World, New Look” until 02/26/17

All Images © The Richard Avedon Foundation, New York

Francis Bacon: “La Nostalgie de la Boue”

“Mad, bad and dangerous to know” sounds like a promise to a young Cambridge student in need of an article for the University’s art magazine. From 1963 until Francis Bacon’s death in 1992, Michael Peppiatt was a dependable companion and intimate observer of the artist’s turmoil and genius.

“Francis Bacon in your blood” is the most exhilarating book about an artist one could read. Peppiatt’s beautiful prose generously affords us a rare and privileged glimpse into Bacon’s brilliant and complicated mind. Vividly describing the creative process, whose motives are equally simple and sophisticated, Peppiatt takes us through his journey of love, admiration and understanding, like no one before him.

Through colorful accounts of endless nights of prodigious drinking, we discover an endearing figure, a sort of romantic idea of an artist, from raging Bull-Terrier to munificent friend, relishing life, with the good, the bad, and the ugly. (The sublime, the queer, and the truly vile.)

Bacon was in turn generous or brutal, charming or vitriolic, pontifical or in the throes of self-loathing, but never, ever dull. His “nostalgie de la boue”, defined by Merriam-Webster as yearning for the mud, attraction to what is unworthy, crude, or degrading, is a seminal aspect of his character.

“I like unmade beds, but I like them unmade by love.” And here is the key word: Love. But Bacon’s idea of love is a form of sadistic expiation. An unworthy Irishman atoning for his sins of lust and success. Love, as life, can only be short and brutal; there can be no happiness, only yearning, suffering and death. A masterful colourist, his paintings reflect his disquietude. In Francis’s own words:

” As you know I myself terribly want to avoid telling a story. I only want the sensation. What I long to do is to undercut all the anecdotes of storytelling yet make an image filled with implications. I have always believed that great art comes out of reinventing and concentrating what’s called fact, what we know of our existence – a reconcentration that tears away the veils that fact, or truth if you like, acquires over time. “

Triptych August 1972 1972 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Or, in Peppiatt’s thrilling description when, in 1968, he discovers Bacon’s recent work at Marlborough Gallery:

“…twisted bodies rise to the surface of the glass like corpses in water, disfigured, discolored, and stay there. Once you have seen them, there is no getting away, no exit. Each of the figures is held at some extremity of pain, of guilt, of fear, of lust or all combined, it’s never clear.…There are screams issuing from wide-open mouths, but they are muffled, even soundless, because there is no space for screams to be heard and the bodies are pushed up, almost flattened, against the glass, and left there to gasp.

…There is no air for fear to scream or lust to pant, like the new degree of torment invented by a subtle medieval divine. Contours deliquesce, limbs buckle, and the head is reduced to a mere stump of misery. Trying to counter the great waves of threat that I feel breaking over me I get up from my stool and go up to look at them close to, following the great swirls of pigment as if they might lead me to the source of so much pain. But the infinitely pliant, grainy paint only reveals further sadomasochistic refinement and humiliation. No facial feature has resisted the onslaught. Eyes are put out and noses splayed as a matter of course. Whole faces are flayed to a pulp around chattering teeth, while black and green spots bloom on the pink skin like a terminal disease.”
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…”The range and inventiveness in tearing and flaying human shapes is overwhelming. Heads and bodies tumble out in ever-greater extremity, ever-greater virtuosity, on to the picture plane. All the forms in this high wire act are taken to the brink of abstraction. But they don’t topple over, they are brought to the edge and held in check, a hair’s breath from dissolving into formless, painterly chaos. And this seems to me the key: the balance is maintained by the vitality that courses beneath. Under this raging destruction the blood runs so ruddely, as if in defiance, and thick white flares of sperm lace the mutilated body parts together. Are these things essentially about sex? …Far from an anguished record of our brutal times, from death camp to nuclear bomb, are the flailings and gougings, the twisted limbs and half-obliterated heads a kind of paean to the further reaches of sadomasochistic coupling? Is this an extended love song?”

 

© Michael Peppiatt “Francis Bacon in your blood” Bloomsbury Circus, London, 2015

Images @ Estate of Francis Bacon

#NeverForget

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Hiroshi Sugimoto, World Trade Centre, 1997
“Art and religion have the same origin. Art first, or religion first? Maybe consciousness first! Consciousness always comes with religious feeling and artistic identification. It’s the same origin”

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Herb Ritts: Sign ​O’​the Times

Is Herb Ritts to photography what William-Adolphe Bouguereau is to painting? A staged, dated and petit bourgeois idea of titillation? Or is he simply a reflection of a particularly artificial period in our recent history that gave us the “Supermodel”?

A period that revered spotless celebrity idols and fashion icons alike. Fabrications of glamour that were part of a political agenda: a non-threatening representation of stability and satisfaction. A construct of Beauty meant to instill a civilising influence.

“All photographs of the body are potentially political, inasmuch as they are used to sway our opinions or influence our actions. In this regard, and advertising image is as political as the most blatant propaganda. So is the supposedly autonomous art object, in so far as it represents fundamental attitudes and values”. William A. Ewing “The Body” Chronicle Books, 1994

Ronald Reagan and later Bush Père glorified the fifties. Herb, the Brentwood preppy, was clearly inspired by fashion photography giants like George Hoyningen-HueneHorst or John Rawlings. Unlike them, who shot mostly in the studio, he took his subjects outside in the blazing California sun. Thus gracing us with effective images that convey prowess and a glimmer of magic.

But the eighties were not a time we should be sentimental about. Ronald Reagan and his “kitchen cabinet” fostered the mendacity that allows the abject brutality of Donald Trump to exist today.

With nudes, Ritts followed suit. Inspired by California’s supreme sensualist Edward Weston, he also took his beauties outside and mixed them with the “elements”. But, unlike his contemporaries Jock Sturges or Sally Mann, no untoward demonstrations of flesh are to be found. Wrinkles, pouches, objectionable hair, and other imperfections do not disturb us: his beauties are sculptural, chimerical, to be venerated at a distance. “All forms are perfect in the poets mind, but these are not obstructed or compounded from nature, but are from the imagination”. William Blake

“The academic nudes … are lifeless because they no longer embody real human needs and experiences. They are among the hundreds of devalued symbols that encumber the art and architecture of the utilitarian century.” Kenneth Clark “The Nude” Princeton University Press, 1956

But, as beauty is a shield, exalted beauty becomes an armour; Herb Ritts wanted us to be Superheroes. Pain, suffering and death could not touch us. Beyond being a reflection of duplicitous times, Herb Ritts was expressing a sincere, if maladroit, human desire for immortality.

 

Herb Ritts “En pleine lumière” at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until November 30, 2016

All Images ©Herb Ritts Foundation

Happy Birthday Andy!

Andy Warhol would have been 88 today. He most certainly would’ve loved the number, its shape, the repetition of the symbol of infinity, and, as 8 is the Chinese lucky number: “Maybe they’ll buy my paintings!”

There was nothing natural about Andy, everything was a construction, everything was make-believe. He took the mendacious social codes of the 50’s and transformed them into a queer (as in strange and gay) self-serving artsy pose. With one single goal in mind: make the most money at the least expense. What’s more American than that : )

You become an artist because you decide to. Being a wonderful draftsman and having an eye for color certainly helps, but the true success of an artist of Andy’ s generation lies in the “idea”, the thread that leads the art and makes it pertinent.

Andy is prominent among a list of ‘Creative Directors’ who have a feel for what is trending and use shock as an attention grabber. A masterful communicator and polymorphous teaser, he would’ve loved Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
A beautiful example of this constructed persona is revealed in a filmed interview where he responds vaguely to the somewhat dismayed journalist:  “I am what you say I am”. What a performance! Andy, a true Leo, with an ego larger than the Grand Canyon, pretending to be a mere thoughtless and selfless sponge is quite hilarious.
His true genius lied in transforming his desires, greed, avarice, superstitions, fears and sexual frustrations into art. Art that has been reproduced, copied, imitated ad-nauseam, and, is simply inescapable.

While growing up extremely poor in Pennsylvania, the Movies were Andy’s preferred past time and first opportunity in studying how ordinary people could become “other”. Undoubtedly stirred by Scarlett O’Hara’s cry: “I’ll never be hungry again!”, this awkward looking, determined, fay creature set himself on a path to transformation and success.

Andy’s paintings are based on two simple principles. Multiples: (reproduce the same image many times) and use the least expensive technique. The use of multiples comes from his religious upbringing. Andy intrinsically understood the powerful effect of repetition. Roused at an early age by Orthodox Churches glistening with thousands gilded Icons; countless reproductions of the same image scintillating above a myriad of flickering candles.
Andy’s technique was rooted in first year Art school simplicity. Take a copyright free photograph, blow it up, silkscreen it and, with the new water-based, inexpensive easy flowing acrylic paint, print them onto canvas as many times as you want. Use relatable, secular Icons such as Elvis, Marilyn, Liz, Jackie! And make them big. America is big, bold and colorful.
Bear in mind Andy’s conversation with Henry Geldzahler in the early 60’s as he was complaining about Roy Lichtenstein’s success and how to best him. Henry replied: “Andy, just paint what you love and crave for: money, boys, movie stars and Coca-Cola”
So there you have it: it takes talent, determination, the will to adapt, and being able to channel one’s paradoxical character into a single aim. Andrew Warhola, son of poor, uneducated immigrants from Miko, Slovakia became a symbol of America’s power of transformation and opportunity.

Thank you paradoxical America, Thank you Andy. Love you.

​Art Basel 2016: ​Dizzying delights

I was fortunate enough again this year to be one of the many VIP guests, (allegedly more than 10 thousand cards sent) at Art Basel, the ultimate art fair. More than 280 galleries showing everything from classic modern masters and contemporary artists to future art celebs, compete for the attention of pampered art collectors from all over the World.

Walking through the vast treasure filled halls and the gigantic “Art Unlimited” pavilion is a walker’s dream. My iPhone step counter reported 14,627, or 11.62 kilometers in just one day. Proving that art hunting is not only good for the soul but for the heart too!

The New York Times and many other news purveyors report brisk sales. I modestly was privy to a few. Deciding what are the best art works within such a dizzying array of choice can only be the result of chance and subjectivity. Here are some of my favorites:

A must have at $80K, Hiroshi Sugimoto‘s serene and ethereal Five Element Pagodas @ Fraenkel. For the last 36 years, Frish Brandt (the one with the beautiful blue eyes) and Jeffrey Fraenkel have been San Francisco’s taste makers setting quality standards for photography’s modern masters.

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Five Elements, 2011 English Channel, Weston Cliff,1994, 2011 optically clear glass, black and white film, housed in a wooden box , 3 x 6 inches

Quickly sold at $175K a pop, Christian Marclay‘s “Body Mix” series; brilliant, playful and gender fucking early works @ seriously chic powerhouse Paula Cooper. This series generate the same delight as they did when I first saw them in the early ’90’s. Christian Marclay shares the intelligent tongue-in-cheek humor and love for simple craft as his Swiss compatriot elders Fischli and Weiss.

In the $20K range, Peter Hujar‘s haunting “Trucks, night” 1976 @ Thomas Zander. Delighted to see that this seminal 1980’s artist is coming to the fore again.

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Peter Hujar – Trucks Night, 1976 – gelatin silver print on paper

Swiss native Pamela Rosenkranz @ Miguel Abreu. Despite his two-toned South American dictator shoes, Miguel is one of New York’s most successful and young(ish) gallerists representing recently minted stars and up and coming art promises.

African Artists are emerging with great aplomb. I particularly liked the intricate and laborious aluminum wire work of South African Walter Oltmann @ Goodman Gallery from Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Truly sublime @ Art Unlimited: Julie Meheretu‘s immense poetic “Eye of Ra” ink painting – Wolfgang Tillmans “New York Installation PCR, 525, 2015” – the soothing light magic of James Turrelland many more too famous to mention 

In its forty seventh edition, what keeps making Art Basel the best fair ? Why are they always on target? What are their tricks? What do they do that we should learn from? Perhaps it is because of the city in which it was founded and whose name it carries. A small city known for its collectors, Basel has a tradition of quality powered by money, an impeccable Swiss sense of logistics mixed with a passion for art; and the knowledge that today’s avant-garde artists are tomorrow’s classics.