Moholy-Nagy: Finding the Present in the Past

Z VII by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926, oil and graphite on canvass

Z VII by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926, oil and graphite on canvass

I got up to the Guggenheim to see Future Present, the retrospective of Hungarian-American artist Lazlo-Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).  Spiraling up all six levels, this show presents his work in a chronological fashion, beginning with his years in Budapest, then Berlin, Weimar, Dessau, Amsterdam, London, and finally Chicago, where he settled in 1937, becoming the director of the Chicago Bauhaus, then founding a school of design. (He had been the Director of the Weimar and Dessau Bauhaus between 1923 and 1928)  I would recommend starting at the first floor, and working your way up, so as to better appreciate his progression through the fields of painting, photography, typography,   printmaking, industrial design and sculpture. Through his deliberate subversion of the traditional separation of “high” art from applied art, and his embrace and incorporation of technology, he exerted an influence that continues to resound in contemporary design aesthetic.

The first stop is Room of the Present (Raum der Gegenwart) a present-day fabrication of an exhibition space Moholy-Nagy conceived in 1930 (but was not realized in his lifetime), meant to showcase the vanguard mediums of the early 1930’s. In some ways it was a platform for his ideas about the power of images, and the importance of the way they were disseminated.  Be sure to see the Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930)  a sculpture/device which incorporates glass spirals, perforated disks, and other moving parts. After his death, it was called the “Light-Space Modulator,” and has since been alternatively viewed as either a kinetic sculpture or an early example of Light Art.  Throughout the exhibit, you’ll find works entitled Space Modulator, so this is a good introduction to that concept.

19 by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1921, Oil on canvas

19 by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1921, Oil on canvas

No matter his style or his medium, Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre seems to be suffused with an innate sense of rhythm and balance.   He was constantly experimenting with light, lines, architectural shapes, and relationships.   His works almost always contain a dominant geometric form that is either larger or darker, or that in some way distinguishes itself from the other elements, but is still in harmony with them.  Very often his shapes seem poised to move around the canvas.

I had been familiar with Moholy-Nagy’s paintings from the 1920’s and 30’s, starting with the Dada-influenced canvasses populated with numbers and letters, and moving on to Constructivist influenced paintings. For me it was interesting to see how the artist’s palette shifted from the browns and grays of his early works, to the brighter blues and reds that dominated his later ones.  I was delighted to discover his work in other media in this exhibition.

Slide by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1923, photomontage

Slide by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1923, photomontage

Throughout the 1920’s, Moholy-Nagy was intently focused on photography, viewing this as a medium being able to create “the New Vision,” which could foster a new understanding of art in a fast-changing culture.  His photos are fantastic, creating new optical sensations; they’re always off-center, often with a strong diagonal line, giving them an architectural feel.  Most are taken from either below or above; those taken facing the subject are usually focusing in on a particular section or detail.  Depicting a wide range of subjects, they are all arresting studies in texture, shadow, and light.  The same is true of his photo-montages, comprised of images cut and pasted from magazines, which the artist augmented with pencil and ink drawings, playing with perspective and imbuing them with humor and a cinematic touch.

Poster for the London Underground by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

Poster for the London Underground by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

In the 20’s and 30’s, Moholy-Nagy created photograms, or cameraless photos, by placing objects on a sheet of photographic paper, and exposing it to light.  While these luminous images are mostly abstract,  sometimes you can almost decipher the object. 

Moholy-Nagy also worked in commercial design, employing then-new techniques such as using only lower-case letters for main titles, which seems so commonplace today.  In the same section you’ll also find his posters for the London Underground, which make that subway seem to be the safest and most modern of transportation systems (who would have thought that escalator mechanics and pneumatic doors could be engaging!).  Nearby you’ll see his stage designs for productions of The Merchant of Berlin, Madam Butterfly, and the Tales of Hoffman.  Photos of these sets are projected on the wall, clearly showing Moholy-Nagy’s open design, which in 1929, would have been avant-garde, but which we take for granted today.

Space Modulator by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1939-45, oil and incised lines on Plexiglas

Space Modulator by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1939-45, oil and incised lines on Plexiglas

The last level showcases Moholy-Nagy’s novel use of industrial plexiglas, which he molded into sculptures, or used as a drawing medium, onto which he would either incise or paint lines and abstract shapes. (He heated the plexiglas in his home oven, so he could shape it).  These pieces are mounted on clips or rails, so they can be away from the wall, casting shadows.  You’ll also find several of his larger scale paintings from the mid-1940’s, mostly employing bright red, gold, yellow, blue and black geometric shapes.  I especially liked the three large drawings whose backgrounds are finely rendered curving lines, with a geometric sculpture seemingly floating in the negative space.

Even though there’s a lot to see in this show, you don’t feel overwhelmed, as there’s plenty of space between individual works, and the various sections. 

Moholy-Nagy was active during a period of intense technological and societal change, much like our own time.  Through his response – incorporating the new and breaking down the artificial boundaries imposed by a prior age, he offers us a highly relevant paradigm in today’s cultural and technological shifts.

Be sure to see this show before it closes on September 7th.

Bruce Conner : Embracing Contradiction

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

I’m not sure how you describe work that is indescribable, except by declaring it as such, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I’m also going to strongly recommend that you see the Bruce Conner (1933-2008) show IT’S ALL TRUE  at MOMA.  From the get-go it’s clear you’re going to see a body of work that defies categorization –   at the entrance, you’re greeted with a sign that says:  BRUCE CONNER – I am an artist, an anti-artist, a romantic, a realist, a postmodernist, a beatnik, subtle, confrontational, accessible, obscure, spiritual, profane.  IT’S ALL TRUE

That seems to be a pretty good summation of his oeuvre, which comprises drawing, painting, collage, assemblage, photography and film; the show of some 250 works is divided along these categories.  Most of it is abstract, non-linear and non-narrative, and many pieces are “untitled” which makes it difficult to describe particular ones.  The show begins with his Early Paintings, abstract oils, with thickly layered paint into which he’s layered, carved or scratched flowers or geometric shapes. I especially liked Dark Brown (1959) — out of a swirling expanse of shades of brown emerges a white, whale-like shape with a group pearls embedded where an eye might be – calling to mind stories of mysterious, elusive sea creatures. (He took the title from a book by Michael McClure, to whom he gave the painting).

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED. 1966. Felt-tip pen on paper. 38 × 25 1/2 in. (96.5 × 64.8 cm). Courtesy Conner Family Trust. © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED. 1966. Felt-tip pen on paper. 38 × 25 1/2 in. (96.5 × 64.8 cm). Courtesy Conner Family Trust. © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

From there the show moves quickly to Conner’s collage and assemblages, made mostly when he was living in Mexico in 1961 and 62.  Of varying sizes, these 3-D works make ingenious use of wood, paper, mirror fragments, buttons, trinkets, fabric, wallpaper, and various objects, many of which are wrapped in light tan nylon fabric. While clever, I wasn’t overwhelmed by them, and I found his black wax sculptures rather creepy.

For me, it’s Conner’s works on paper that really captivate.  Black and white – pencil, ink, felt-tipped pen – they’re clearly the work of an obsessive spirit – it must have taken a lot of time and enormous concentration to create each one of these pictures.  His Star & Ink series starts with drawings where the page is covered with black ink from which tiny white specs emerge, then gradually, over the course of the series, the white specs come to predominate. In his Mandala series, he uses felt-tipped pens to draw short lines  of varying widths, and again plays with the black & white spaces and the varying depths of the blacks and the grays from which various geometric shapes – especially circles – emerge clearly, while others are hinted at.  There’s a group called Drawings, which are dense but delicate cross hatchings, composed around geometric shapes.  In this section you’ll find some works done with purple, red, and green felt-tipped pens.  In the Late Work on Paper, Conner employs an ink-blot technique (which he kept a secret) that involved intricate and precise paper folding techniques, which he used to create patterned backgrounds for geometric shapes that resided in the negative space.  Most of these images are small and delicate, reminding me variously of insects, masks, and calligraphy.  In the Illustrations section, you’ll find a different kind of inkblot – large, flat, high contrast black-ink images that made me think of shadow puppets.

Bruce Conner. 23 KENWOOD AVENUE. 1963. Ink on paper, 26 x 20″ (66 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of Achim Moeller in memory of Paul Cummings. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Conner. 23 KENWOOD AVENUE. 1963. Ink on paper, 26 x 20″ (66 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of Achim Moeller in memory of Paul Cummings. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One wall is given to photos Conner took at the Mabuhay Gardens punk club in San Francisco.  These black & white images, mostly single portraits of club goers and performers, capture the spirit, energy, and loud, in-your-face feel of the era.

The Late Engraving Collages are wonderful works where Conner cut up and re-combined fragments of late 19th and early 20th century engravings – landscapes, interiors, portraits – to which he often added his own touches.  There’s a lot of dark humor in this section, as well as social commentary.

There’s much more to see here – be sure to leave yourself plenty of time, especially if you want to see his films.  But be sure to see this exhibit!  Before it closes on October 2nd.

Take the HDC #Preservation Pays Challenge and Have Fun!

The Historic Districts Council  has just issued a fun challenge:  between now and September 6th, participants must snap a photo of themselves in front of all six buildings named in the HDC infographic, as well as the Woolworth Tower Residences in Lower Manhattan and post them either on Instagram or Twitter.   Five lucky winners will be treated to a private tour of the Woolworth Tower Residences in Lower Manhattan led by Historic Districts Council Adviser and official Woolworth Tower Historian Lisa Renz.   The #PreservationPays challenge  is free and open to all.  HDC also runs great public programs and walking tours, so check out their website 

The Feverish Art of Ronald Lockett

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

Homeless Poeple, Ronald Lockett, 1989; paint and wood on fiberboard

The Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett,  at the American Museum of Folk Art is a show that demands your attention, on many levels.  The work is astounding.  But it may require you to linger and dig a bit beneath the surface.  If you do, you will be rewarded.

Lockett lived and worked his entire life (1965-1998) in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama.  A satellite of Birmingham, (which was once a center of iron and steel production, as well as the civil rights movement) this area both engaged in the fight for equal rights and endured the repercussions of the deindustrialisation of the South, as factories closed and jobs became scarce. Lockett would have heard the stories of his family and neighbors who had worked in the fields and factories or participated in the protests.  And he was connected to the larger world through TV, which he liked to watch.  These personal interactions and more distant events combined to shape his work.

Though Lockett’s career lasted only a decade, his output was prolific. (The late artist Thornton Dial was his cousin and mentor.) Working mostly with found materials, especially tin, wood and chicken wire, as well as non-traditional materials such as industrial sealing compound and enamel, he created deeply personal works of hidden beauty, even though they touch on themes of individual and societal suffering and loss.

A recurring motif  throughout his work is the stag, whose body is always surrounded by wire. Lockett also references many historical events, such as Jesse Owen’s victories in the1936 Olympics, the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, using them to point to the contemporary suffering of African Americans.

The front space of the exhibit showcases Lockett’s paintings, some of which have historical titles – Hiroshima, Holocaust – or titles of more localized suffering, such as his Homeless canvases. In all these works, his imagery is allusive, rather than realistic: set against a stark, featureless background of one color, or large blocks of three or four colors, are people (or skeletal images)  who are drifting or falling.  Their lack of defining features gives them a universal, everyman quality. (His Hiroshima series has no people, only swirls of smoke).  In this area you’ll also find Civil Rights Marchers, a powerful painting in swirling grays, white and red with embedded objects, which read almost as an aftermath.  (Two other pictures also from 1988 which use the same colors, materials and techniques, but have environmental themes, Poison River and Out of Ashes, are in another section.)

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The Inferior Man That Proved Hitler Wrong, Ronald Lockett, 1995, tin, colored pencil and nails on wood

The rest of the show focuses on Lockett’s larger scale (about 4’ x 4’) works of found materials, which he took from buildings that had belonged to the Dial family.  Most time, Lockett uses the materials as he’s found them – lots of wood, rusting tin sheets layered over each other or with metal grills – sometimes he’s painted over them with iron-oxide based paint, industrial sealing compound and enamel.

In some cases the image is not readily accessible – it may be made from strips of tin that blend in with their background, or it may be found in the negative space, outlined in nail heads or in holes. It’s worth spending time with these multi-layered works; I found the wall labels helpful in understanding them. His depiction of the runner Jesse Owens is especially moving.

Sarah Lockett's Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

Sarah Lockett’s Roses, Ronald Lockett, 1997, cut tin and paint on wood

There are a few pieces in which Lockett painted over his metal surfaces with bright colors, evoking quilts: I especially liked his homage to Princess Diana (England’s Rose) , and the one to the garden of his great grandmother, Sarah Dial Lockett (Sarah Lockett’s Roses).   He spent many hours in her house, and the influence of her quilts is evinced by Lockett’s use of blocks of color, and his layering of materials.

Environmental degradation is another theme that is important to Lockett, and in this exhibit you’ll also find several collages and paintings that address this issue   

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

Deer, Ronald Lockett 1990, collage

My favorite work is at the end of the show (or maybe it’s the beginning); on paper which has seemingly been washed over in black ink, is the collaged image of a deer, outlined in white, staring straight ahead.  Even though the stag is a recurring motif in Lockett’s work, there is something very specific about this one – it just seemed to grab me.  I’ve posted more pictures on my Instagram feed.

I attended a talk by author and professor Deborah McDowell, who grew up in Pipe Shop. Although she never met Lockett, she certainly understood the context of his art.  In her talk, Prof. McDowell made several points which were helpful to me in understanding Lockett’s work.  Below is my summary of her remarks.

When looking at Lockett’s art, we must think about emotion and affect.  Too often,   African American artists are viewed only through historical and socio economic lenses.  An emotional response should not be viewed as insincere – after all, Rothko invoked emotions when speaking of his work, and how his work provoked them.

Our understanding of the civil rights era comes through photos of violence – sneering dogs, horses, troopers, clubs – or pictures of the spirit of triumphalism.  These images have claimed and cannibalized history, leaving out the experiences the historians didn’t see.  The civil rights era also coincided with the deindustrialization of the South – we need to consider the larger context of this era and look at its casualties.  As people were gaining their rights, there were no jobs for them.  Even though he was born too late to participate in the Civil Rights era, Ronald Lockett was embedded in kin networks and would have heard all the stories, especially as he interacted with older people.

Remembering is re-membering:  taking the remains and putting them back together.

Ronal Lockett  was preoccupied with using the remains and converting them into something new; his work is saturated with grief, loss and mourning. He found resonances of suffering in historical events.  The titles of his works – Hiroshima, Oklahoma, Driven From My Homeland – convey these themes and reflect his engagement with history and also the local, human, personal plane.  Some of his work makes references to mass graves; a mass grave was discovered when the US Pipe factory was built – the bodies were disinterred and re-buried somewhere else.

Prof. McDowell also read from her 1997 book Leaving Pipe Shop, Memories of Kin , which recounts her years growing up in Pipe Shop (1950’s and ’60’s), as well as her return there to investigate her father’s death. I’m about half-way through the book, and even though I grew up in New York City, McDowell’s use of local dialogue and specific imagery creates a very intimate portrait of life in a close-knit Southern community which resonated with me. This memoir also brings to life people who were part of the civil rights struggle, who may not have made the front pages, but whose support and participation were essential to its success.

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Untitled by Melvin Way, ball point pen

Concurrent with The Fever Within is  the exhibition Once Something Has Lived it Can Never Really Die, which mixes ten of Ronald Lockett’s works with some eighty small and portable works imbued with protective qualities and powers, made by a wide range of artists situated outside the mainstream.  There are some lovely amulets, plugs and pendants in the shapes of seals, polar bears and wales crafted from walrus ivory during the 18th and 19th centuries by peoples of the Thule Culture.  One display of Brazilian votive offings consists of wooden carvings of hands, feet, heads, torsos, and a few complete figures, which were made with express wishes for recovery, marriage, good harvest or other important life events.  There’s a wonderful recreation of Noah’s Ark – in the back is a crank that animates the animals.  I especially liked the work of Melvin Way, a contemporary artist whose small scale drawings (ballpoint pen on paper and scotch tape) are filled with mathematical formulas.

The Museum will be hosting other events around this exhibition, the next one being at 6:30 on August 9th, when Director Camille A. Brown will perform an excerpt from her 2014 Bessie Award–Winning production Mr. TOL E. RAncE and will speak about shared cultural themes and issues of race that are common to her and Ronald Lockett.  More information here   

On August 18th, filmmaker David Seehausen will introduce several short documentary films he has made about African American self-taught artists from the South, and will dialogue with artist and filmmaker Scott Ogden. More information here  

Both exhibits continue until September 18th. 

Impressions in the Garden

Ideal Violets at the New York Botanical Gardens

Ideal Violets at the New York Botanical Gardens

This heat has gotten to your intrepid blogger, so with some friends I headed up to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx to see the current exhibit, Impressionism:  American Gardens on Canvas, a small but well-curated exhibit of paintings by American Impressionist artists active at the turn of the twentieth century.  Influenced by their French counterparts, the work of the Americans shares many of the same characteristics; an emphasis on the overall composition; capturing the ephemeral quality of light; thick, rapid brushstrokes and scant attention to detail. Outdoor subjects were particularly well suited for this impressionistic style.

The exhibit, in the Mertz Library, is divided into about half a dozen sections, each with 3 to 5 paintings, by both noted artists as such as Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, as well as lesser-known painters like Maria Oakey Dewing and David Putnam Brinley.

As cities became more crowded, dirty and industrialized, the late 1800’s saw the rise of the urban beautification movement, with the construction of large rambling parks such as Central Park and Prospect Park (both by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux), built to provide green lungs for city dwellers who couldn’t escape to large private estates far outside the city such as those owned by John Rockefeller (Pocantico) and James Deering (Vizcaya) – take a look at John Singer Sargent’s watercolors of the fountains on their grounds. In the suburbs and cities, homeowners with land began employing a a simplified domestic garden style inspired by the informal dooryard gardens of the colonial era.  Plantings would change with the season; depending on the time of year, you’d find  crocuses, daffodils, pansies, violets, poppies, hollyhocks, roses, sweet peas, morning glories or sunflowers.  I lingered over  Maria Oakey Dewing’s Rose Garden, a 1901 oil which hearkens back to the Old Master’s in its realism and technique.

Celia Thaxter's Garden 1890 by Childe Hassam via Wikicommons

Celia Thaxter’s Garden 1890 by Childe Hassam via Wikicommons

During this period, artists colonies started becoming popular, not only as places to work without the distractions of the metropolis, but also as retreats where artists could meet each other to exchange ideas and gossip. Two were especially noteworthy:  in Old Lyme, Connecticut,  Florence Griswold operated a boarding house at her home that became known as the “American Giverny,” while  on Maine’s Appledore Island, many artists stayed at the hotel owned by the family of writer Celia Thaxter – her home on the Island was noted for it’s garden as well as for the salon she hosted.  Two of my favorite pieces in the show were painted there, both by Childe Hassam:  Celia Thaxter’s Garden 1890, with it’s view of the sea from the garden; and Summer Sea, Isles of Shoals, a1902 oil depicting the coast line at Appledore Island, with an especially brilliant blue sea.

Because this is a small exhibit, you’ll have the luxury of being able to take the time to look at all the works closely – they’re all lovely.

After the show, you might want to take a leisurely stroll over to the Conservatory, where you’ll find an interpretation of Celia Thaxter’s old-fashioned, cottage-style garden, evocative of the smaller gardens often depicted by the American Impressionists. 

If you’ve worked up an appetite, I can recommend Hudson Garden Grill, close by on the Garden’s grounds, which serves a tasty lunch in a delightful setting.

Impressify version of my photos of daisies

Impressify version of my photos of daisies

Two last things:  before you go, read the on-line exhibition guide  which will give you a good overview of what you’ll see. And try Impressify,  the Garden’s on-line tool that allows you to upload a photo and transform it into an impressionist painting either as a still image or a moving one (GIF).  It’s a lot of fun! You can see my transformed daisies on the left.

The exhibit runs through September 11.

MAD Summer Exhibits

Two exhibits recently opened at the Museum of Art and Design, in addition to the Studio Jobs show (reviewed previously here) .  Eye for Design is a look back at graphic design in the 1960’s and 70’s, through catalogues, invitations and posters created for the Museum in that era, when it was known as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.  This show not only affords you an overview of design ideas and techniques, and how they create a visual identity, but also allows an appreciation of the many innovative exhibits the Museum held.

4 Fearless Phoenicians by John Reiss

4 Fearless Phoenicians by John Reiss

I especially liked the installation of John Reiss’ work for Amusements Is, a 1964 show which featured artist-designed toys and games.  On one wall is a blown-up version of the catalogue, which eschews the typical photos of objects and explanatory text.  Instead, it was designed like a children’s counting book, on vividly colored pages which mixed photography and typography, as well as absurdist word-plays, such as “4 Fearless Phoenicians,” capturing the playful nature of the exhibit.

One room is devoted to the work of Emil Antonucci, whose work is defined by repeated motifs, clean graphics, bright colors and a certain whimsy that clearly convey their message.  Take a look at the invitations he created for The Art of Personal Adornment, with their hand-rendered drawings of jewelry, as well as The Bed, where the invitation for the exhibition  folds into a bed.  His work on invitations and catalogues for exhibits such as The Bakers Art, Stitching, Tools of Design, and On SOUND also illustrate the ways in which the Museum was expanding the definition of craft to include “mundane” practices, such as cooking, and sensory experiences, such as sound – a definition which is often considered overly expansive. In a nice instance of synchronicity, the On SOUND exhibit also included work by Harry Bertoia, the subject of a current exhibition at the Museum (reviewed below.)

Be sure to check out Linda Hinrich’s work, with it’s Pop art and psychedelic flavor;  in the same room, be sure to watch the video showing submissions for Levi’s 1974 denim art contest, many of which are very imaginative: most images were of flowers and birds, but I also saw a jungle scene, and one of the Golden Gate Bridge. The contestants (over 2,000) employed a wide variety of techniques – appliqué, studding, embroidery and patchwork.

Eye for Design closes on September 18th.

Jewelry by Harry Bertoia

Jewelry by Harry Bertoia

Two floors are devoted to the work of Arri (Harry) Bertoia (1915-78), whose minimalist ethic is manifest not only in the shapes, forms, movements and line of his monotypes, but also in his exploration of the limitless possibilities of metal , both visual and sonic. 

Bent, Cast & Forged: The Jewelry of Harry Bertoia   is a wonderful display of his jewelry from the 1940‘s, with their spare, biomorphic shapes, inspired by nature.  Many have loops, allowing for kinetic movement, and are made from recycled metals (because of the war).  Several of Bertoia’s monotypes are displayed alongside his jewelry, highlighting the connection between them. Presaging his interest in sound, you’ll also find pendants entitled “Gong.”

Sonambient sculptures by Val Bertoia

Sonambient sculptures by Val Bertoia

Atmosphere for Enjoyment concentrates on Bertoia’s tonal sculptures: groupings of metal rods of various heights and thicknesses – sometimes weighted on the top – mounted into a low pedestal, which produce sound when strummed, plucked, or struck.  It’s a bit hard to describe the sound – somewhere between bells, wind chimes, harp, gong – some soothing, some harsh, some lush – it all depends on how the rods are played.   As you walk through the exhibit, you’ll hear excerpts from his archive of “sonambient” recordings, played on a four-channel algorithmic continuous loop created by John Brien.  For a closer listen, go into the exhibit installation – an unenclosed room lined with photos of the Sonambient Barn Bertoia created in 1968 in Pennsylvania, which still stands today.

Throughout the show you’ll find several of the “Diamond” chairs Bertoia designed for Knoll, that you can sit in (very comfortable!) Take time to peruse Bertoia’s monotypes from 1940-1978, whose sinewy, elegant lines are a perfect pairing with his sculptures.

Untitled by Harry Bertoia, monotype

Untitled by Harry Bertoia, monotype

If you take a guided tour of the Museum (our docent, Marjorie, was very knowledgable and personable)  you may actually get a chance to “play” some of the sound sculptures created by Bertoia’s son, Val, who used the same metals as his father had.  I did, and it gave me a deeper appreciation for their construction and sonic abilities. 

Both exhibits of Bertoia’s work close on September 25th.

You can find more photos from these exhibits on      my Instagram feed.

On September 16th, at 6:00pm, the Museum will host a panel discussion with John Brien and New York–based musicians Lizzi Bougatsos and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe about the continued relevance of Harry Bertoia’s sonambient sculptures. The program will include a screening of two films by Jeffrey and Miriam Eger, and a presentation by Val Bertoia, who will play his sonambient sculptures in the exhibition immediately following the talk.

Throughout the year, MAD has numerous lectures, films, workshops, and activities for the whole family.  You can find the schedule here 

Technology Giving Us a New Way to See Art

This year, at the Northside Festival, I attended several of the international tech pitch/demo sessions. I had a chance to chat with Alexandre Catsicas, Co-Founder & CEO, ARTMYN, which has developed a technology that allows you to have a 3-D visualization of a painting on your computer/tablet/mobile screen. In these excerpts from our interview, Alex shares his thoughts on art and how technology can serve it.

Liz Daly (LD):  Tell me about ARTMYN in your own words.

Alexandre Catsicas, ARTMYN co-founder & CEO

Alexandre Catsicas, ARTMYN co-founder & CEO

Alexandre Catsicas (AC):  ARTMYN mixes art and high tech. Art and technology have been evolving together since the beginning of mankind, starting with the first handprint on the caves in Lascaux, France and continuing up to today when you can create art with digital instruments. With ARTMYN, we hope to transcend this barrier between physical art and digital art. For the past two decades, art has been represented using   2-D static images, and it hasn’t really changed until today. We are trying to enhance the way art can be spread and democratize access to culture.

LD:  How else are you applying this technology?

AC:  While we started with paintings, we are also looking at using this technology on other media. We’ve already used it to take a closer look at the first photographic formats, the daguerreotypes and ferrotypes – it’s used by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.

LD:  Some years ago, I led a project in which the participants embroidered a flower onto fabric squares, which were then sewn together to make a quilt. As I moved from sketching, to pattern making, to embroidering, I saw first hand the thread that runs through ancient tapestries and modern day digital pixels.  

AC:  We haven’t done textiles yet, but it would be interesting to apply ARTMYN to a tapestry and then compare the weave with the digital pixels.

LD:  Let’s talk about you for a minute: you’ve studied and worked in Lausanne, London, Glasgow and New York.

AC:  After high school in Lausanne, I studied in an exchange program in California, which I really enjoyed, as I had a chance to mix art history classes with business classes, with biology classes… Then I returned to Lausanne to study economics, but realized I wanted to study other subjects as well, so I transferred to Fordham University in the Bronx, where I majored in business and finance, with a minor in medieval history.   After working for a commodities trading company in Switzerland for a while, I realized I needed to pursue my passion, which is art, so I studied art history at Glasgow University. That was when I decided to combine art history and the business world. Then I worked for Christie’s in London, where I had access to museum-quality art, and could talk to art experts and collectors – it was a fascinating combination of art, business and passion.

LD:  What brought you back to Switzerland?

AC:  I knew that the digital world was something auction houses couldn’t avoid, but the environment wasn’t right.

In Switzerland there was a growing interest in new technologies, as well as research on materiality, on texture, which fit in with what I wanted to do. Ms. Adrienne Corboud, Vice President for Innovation and Technology at EFPL (Ecole Fédérale Polytechnique de Lausanne), introduced me to two great scientists and engineers, Loïc Baboulaz and Julien Lalande, who were also passionate about art – we connected immediately. It’s a funny story: When I told Adrienne about my desire to connect the business world and the art world, she gave me two contacts: one, a famous Swiss gallerist, the other, these two unknown engineers.   The gallery never replied to me; the two engineers did. We laugh about it now, but back then I was wondering “why would I want to meet two engineers” and they were wondering, “why should we meet with an art historian” but we met, and magic happened.

Golden octadrachme of Arsinoe II, ca. 180-116 BC. Image courtesy of ARTMYN

Golden octadrachme of Arsinoe II, ca. 180-116 BC. Image courtesy of ARTMYN

 

Loïc and Julien have almost become art experts because we interact so much with curators, museum directors, art experts… actually one of my partners has now decided to start a coin collection, after digitizing a collection of ancient coins at the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva.

LD:  I noticed on your website you list several government agencies and academic institutions as partners.

AC:  There’s now a nice hub in Switzerland that helps start-ups get exposure.  The Swiss government gives a lot of help, backing very tech oriented projects that can have a global impact. They’re helping us build better scanners and enhance our technology. I think there will be a domino effect: once you get attention from one of these institutions, then you’re eligible for bigger grants. We won the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) competition. We’ll meet with some of their faculty and executive MBA’s, who will review our business plan, tear it apart, and rebuild a stronger one with us. We’re also among the finalists in the MASS Challenge (which is also in Lausanne), so for the summer we’ll benefit from mentoring by experts in specific industries. These competitions are helpful because they bring you money, mentorship, expert advice, and visibility; these are all things that a young start-up like ARTMYN needs.

LD:   How do you want to move forward? Where do you want to go?

AC:  ARTMYN needs to go where fine art is. Switzerland is interesting because it has very important art institutions. It also has the Freeport in Geneva, one of the largest storage facilities for fine arts, but it can be very difficult for the owners to access it, because they may be living in another part of the world, or moving between homes. Galleries also store works in free ports, which they need to show to their clients, who are all across the globe. Right now the only way owners and gallerists have of viewing their art is through the traditional 2-D image, which does not really render all the richness of these pieces. We hope to reduce the distance between the artworks and the collectors with our technology.

We would like to export this Swiss technology to places where art can profit from it. There are also other major art centers like Paris, London, New York. Asia is growing a lot…

LD:  So, to turn away from technology for a bit, what do you think is the importance of art?

AC:  I believe that without art, there’s no society. I think one of the things that differentiates humans from animals is that we can create; for me art is a way of better understanding our history. I hope that our technology will allow people to better understand different art movements, whether modern or antique. We provide various features allowing an art expert to really explain the details, the artist’s technique(s), and the historical background to the viewer. Take Brueghel, for example. In his farm scenes there’s actually a political message – this was the time when Spain and the Dutch provinces were fighting. If you don’t know this, you’ll just see a rural scene with lots of drunk people, and soldiers in the background. But if you have an art expert who can explain the references to you, then it all makes sense; then you can draw the parallels between different eras and today. You’ll also see that art as propaganda is not a modern invention, but was used in earlier times. So I hope through this technology to show how society has evolved, but yet how we’re still trying to answer the same questions, find solutions to the same problems as in previous eras. Artists can evoke, they can express these very things.

LD:  So who’s your favorite artist?

AC: Brueghel, I really like Brueghel. I also have a fondness for Renaissance artists who traveled, like Albrecht Dürer – at the beginning he was copying prints of other artists’ work that were circulating in Germany, but then you see an evolution, bringing back new techniques from his travels in Italy, combining them with his strengths.

LD:  You’ve lived, worked and studied in Switzerland, the US and the UK; what cultural differences have struck you?

AC:  I’ll give you a very funny example that happened yesterday after the Northside demo.   In Switzerland, it’s all about being humble; if you’re good at something, you don’t say it. When you pitch before European and Swiss investors, the first question is, “How much revenue do you generate?” Now if you say to a European investor, “I’ve just started making revenue, but I want to raise about $1 million,” he’ll look at you and say, “No, come back when you’re generating a million dollars in revenue and we’ll talk.” Yesterday, an investor approached me, asking “Alex, what’s your strategy, short-term, how much money are you aiming to raise?” Now I know I’m in the US, and I need to think big, so I said “I need to raise about $1 million.” Then he says, “A million, I’m not interested; but if you’re looking for $5 million, then we can do business.” So there’s a big cultural difference: in the US, it’s all about the vision; Europe likes facts, although this is starting to change.

photograph of Zinnien, by Lovis Corinth, 1924

photograph of Zinnien, by Lovis Corinth, 1924

LD:  Over the years, entrepreneurs have told me pretty much the same thing: that it’s easier to raise $10, $15 million than five hundred thousand dollars.

AC:  That’s true, American investors, they want big projects – it’s the culture of risk. They won’t wait for a company to start making lots of revenue and then say, OK, I’m interested.

LD: What is ARTMYN looking for?

AC:  We’re looking for people who believe in us, will support our project, bring us the connections we need. We’ve been approached by VC’s who want to just inject money, but that’s not what we want– we want people who are passionate about art, who are passionate about our technology and what it can do, and people who can open doors for us.   We just closed a round with angel investors, who will help us, introduce us to their networks – they’re almost like partners.

Detail of brushstroke in Zinnien by Lovis Corinth. Image courtesy of Artmyn

Detail of brushstroke in Zinnien by Lovis Corinth. Image courtesy of Artmyn

LD:  What’s up next?

AC: We’ll be doing an interactive sale with the Swiss auction house Koller in Zurich on July 24th. There will be good press coverage. They’ll be selling Zinnien, by the German painter Lovis Corinth, who was important in the transition from Impressionism to Expressionism. I hope someday that in every auction house buyers will be looking at the artwork using tablets with ARTMYN software, instead of the catalogues.

LD:  When will you be setting up your NYC branch?

AC: As soon as someone introduces us to the museums and auction houses – I would love to come back to New York! (actually if things keep going the way they are…2017 !)

Fibre Art With a Message in the Bronx

Modren-Graves Russian Tiger, hand-knit by Ruth Marshall

Modren-Graves Russian Tiger, hand-knit by Ruth Marshall

I got to Charm & Vinegar at the Bronx Arts Space  just before it closed last week.  Featuring works  of various styles – soft sculptures, embroidery, knit textiles and dolls – by four artists, this exhibit wore it’s title well.  Two of the artists were at the gallery, and I was able to talk with them about their work. 

Ruth Marshall  hails from the state of Victoria in Australia, and even though she’s been living in the Bronx since the 1990’s, the broad vowels of her homeland still pepper her speech.   She came to New York to study art at Pratt Institute, after which she made sculptures in steel and resin.   But it was her work at the Bronx Zoo that impelled her change to fibre art – as a means of raising awareness of endangered species, and raising knitting from a craft to a fine art.  At the Zoo, she worked by the snow leopards, and fell in love with them.  Through her job, she had access to the storage areas of the Museum of Natural History, where she could see animal pelts up close.  And that’s where she realized she wanted to talk about the animals in her art.  Ruth’s mother and aunt taught her how to knit as a child, but she put it aside for a number of years.  It was on a trip back to Australia that she took it up again, knitting socks for her family members in an Estonian style, with lots of color and patterns. 

Detail, Ocelot #6, hand knit by Ruth Marshall

Detail, Ocelot #6, hand knit by Ruth Marshall

Which, in many ways, gave her the skills to make the intricate, detailed stitches needed to render endangered animals in knitted textiles. Starting around 2005, in the back rooms of the Museum, she would make drawings from the specimens, which she used to create a chart she could knit from.  Ruth spends about three months on the larger animals.  Her attention to detail is striking, and is easy to see in animals with distinct markings or contrasting colors, such as the siberian tiger, or the possum, or the numbat.  It really hits you with the animals that are seemingly one color; for example, when you look at the black jaguar from far away, he appears to be made from one shade of black yarn;  get closer, and you’ll see she’s used two shades of black, and recreated the rosette patterns found in the jaguar’s fur in nature. Each of her pieces are unique, even though she may do a series of one animal (i.e., 4 ocelots).  Ruth has also knit a series of 70 species of coral snakes, whose images she found in a reference book on reptiles.

Je ne sais quoi, by Cinnamon Wilis

Je ne sais quoi, by Cinnamon Wilis

Cinnamon Willis peopled the room with Melandollies  –  art dolls that are sad, melancholic… As an only child, Cinnamon would often get dolls, which she noted,  were all smiley, happy … not always the way she felt.  So Cinnamon decided to create dolls that expressed our other, darker feelings – she also likes horror movies – and around 2010 started making them from paper clay, with wire armature, wild hairdos and hand-made costumes.  Some of the dolls are based on actual people – one is based on an Instagram musician.  Her emphasis is on the face of her dolls (and busts) – you can really feel their individual personalities.   

Also in the show is a larger sculptural piece that Cinnamon created in response to the loss of neighborhood identity which often accompanies gentrification – in an attempt to create a new “identity” for neighborhoods that have seemingly negative connotations, realtors and developers will

Sculpture by Cinnamon Willis

Sculpture by Cinnamon Willis

propose new names (i.e., the “Piano District” for part of the South Bronx, “Bedwick” where Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant meet) or attempt to have cultural markers erased (apparently there was an attempt to have “Ave. of Puerto Rico” removed from some of the “Graham Avenue” street signs in Williamsburg.)  I’ll be interested to see how her art develops in this vein.

Crocodile, embroidery by Edith Isaac Rose

Crocodile, embroidery by Edith Isaac Rose

The show also featured embroideries by Edith Isaac Rose,  whose images revolving around war and power are not easy to decipher, but her masterful stitching – wolves and weapons juxtaposed with delicate flowers – creates haunting works. 

The Peruvian artist Liliana Avalos Mendoza  had several soft sculptures, some incorporating indigenous Peruvian imagery on original silk-screened fabric.  Her household appliances were enhanced by her beautiful embroidery.

Escudo 4 by Liliana Avalo Mendoza

Escudo 4 by Liliana Avalo Mendoza

Even though this show has closed, take a look at the work these artists are doing.  I’d also recommend that you get up to see the new work at the Bronx Art Space  which showcases emerging and underrepresented artists, and often hosts talks with the artists.  Every Saturday through August 13th, they are having spoken word workshops, led by Bobby Gonzalez, that are free and open to the public – ages 14 through senior!