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In 1959, the critic Clement Greenberg wrote that “the very best painting, the major painting, of our age is almost exclusively abstract.” It was a tune Greenberg sang early and often. He said similar things throughout the 1940s, and as late as 1967 insisted that “the very best art of this time continues to be abstract.”

Let’s leave the fraught question of whether Greenberg was correct to one side. What we can say with confidence is that the focus of much artistic energy at the time was centered around abstract art.

This has obviously not been the case for some decades. What happened? Several things. On the one hand, there was a powerful upsurge of what Greenberg elsewhere called “novelty art,” the 57 varieties of pop, op, minimalism, and neo-Dada performance art that have infested the art world like a gigantic flea market. On the other hand, there was a quieter but no less powerful return to older artistic sources and traditions — a return, that is to say, to the figure.

It is a curious irony that Andy Warhol — one of the chief perpetrators of novelty art, the man who once said “art is what you can get away with” — should also have had a hand in fomenting the counter-revolution that is now returning artists to a serious concern with traditional figurative techniques. Twenty-five years ago, Warhol helped start The New York Academy of Art, an institution “dedicated to the advancement of figurative painting, sculpture and drawing.”
Who knows? Perhaps Warhol somehow sensed that an art world in which everyone would have his 15 minutes of fame would itself be subject to that 15-minute rule, eventually returning art to the more deliberate rhythms required by technical mastery.

In any event, if large precincts of the art world are still in thrall to “novelty art,” there is also a vital and increasingly prominent current of artistic practice seeking the rehabilitation of aesthetic canons and plastic techniques that were pioneered in the Renaissance and promulgated in the studios of the Beaux Arts.

“Classical Realism” is one name many of the more ambitious new figurative artists embrace. The movement has its home in institutions like The Florence Academy of Art, founded in 1991 by Daniel Graves, which seeks “to provide the highest level of instruction in classical drawing, painting and sculpture.” The Florence Academy has been a fertile source for many other initiatives, including The Harlem Studio of Art in New York, a small but vibrant atelier school presided over by the artist Judy Pond Kudlow. Founded in 2002, it offers rigorous training in modeling, one-point perspective, cast drawing, and all the other technical aspects of art that one used to assume would be part of an artist’s training.

Is technical mastery sufficient by itself to guarantee high artistic accomplishment? The art world has been shouting “No” for decades. That judgment is correct — ultimately — but it leaves out the important codicil that an artist who lacks technical command also lacks competence.

Roger Kimball
The Wall Street Journal

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“Mountains and Sea”, by Helen Frankenthaler

Starting in the late 1950s the great American art critic Clement Greenberg only had eyes for Color Field painting. This was the lighter-than-air abstract style, with its emphasis on stain painting and visual gorgeousness introduced by Helen Frankenthaler followed by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski.

With the insistent support of Greenberg and his acolytes, Color Field soared as the next big, historically inevitable thing after Jackson Pollock. Then over the course of the 1970s it crashed and burned and dropped from sight. Pop and Minimal Art, which Greenberg disparaged, had more diverse critical support and greater influence on younger artists. Then Post-Minimalism came along, exploding any notion of art’s neatly linear progression.

Now Color Field painting — or as Greenberg preferred to call it, Post-Painterly Abstraction — is being reconsidered in a big way in “Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975,” a timely, provocative — if far from perfect — exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here…It is wonderful to see some of this work float free of the Greenbergian claims for greatness and inevitability (loyally retraced by Ms. Wilkin in her essay), and float it does, at least the best of it…

One problem with Greenberg may have been a lack of humor. He didn’t appreciate that if, as he said, Abstract Expressionism was Baroque, then Color Field might be Rococo: beautiful, frivolous and even comedic. Color Field shares its insouciance with Pop Art, its declarative use of materials with Minimalism and its high-key artificial palette with both. It even has links to Process Art in the work of early adapters like Alan Shields and has become a trope for so-called post-Modernists like Monique Prieto, Rudolf Stingel and Kelley Walker.

But given Color Field painting’s long neglect, a time capsule is in itself a new look, and Ms. Wilkin’s retelling has some new twists. Take for example her account of the legendary visit, orchestrated by Greenberg, that Mr. Louis and Mr. Noland made to Ms. Frankenthaler’s studio to see “Mountains and Sea” during their 1953 visit to New York from Washington. Ms. Wilkin writes in passing that the visit occurred in Ms. Frankenthaler’s absence, which completely reframes this pivotal event. Color Field was arguably the first major art movement initiated by a woman, and that woman was not present, in her own studio, to watch the wheels start turning in the heads of two male artists who, let’s face it, were competitors?

Sometimes a critic’s enthusiasm can do as much harm as good, especially when the critic has a blinkered take on the art of his time. The Icarus-like flight Greenberg took with Color Field was damaging to both parties and became a cautionary tale for art critics. New art is an unmanageable beast. If you think you have its reins in your grip, you will surely be unseated. Better to remain on your own two feet, ever alert to the inevitability of surprise and of betrayal, not the least by your own aesthetic responses.

Roberta Smith
New York Times

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Paul Klee Museum in Berne, by Renzo Piano

The notion of a ‘light modernity’ is suggestive. ‘There is one theme that is very important for me,’ Piano remarks: ‘Lightness (and obviously not in reference only to the physical mass of objects).’ He traces this preoccupation from his early experiments with ‘weightless structures’ to his continued investigations of ‘immaterial elements’ like wind and light. Lightness is also the message of his primal scene as a designer, a childhood memory of sheets billowing in the breeze on a Genoese rooftop, a vision that conjures up the shapely beauty of classical drapery as well as contemporary sailing boats as architectural ideals. For Piano lightness is thus a value that bears on the human as well as on the architectural – it concerns graceful comportment in both realms. As a practical imperative, however, lightness confirms the drive, already strong in modern architecture, toward the refinement of materials and techniques, and yet now this refinement seems pledged less to healthy, open spaces and transparent, rational structures, as in modern design, than to aesthetic effects and decorous touches. A light architecture, then, is a sublimated architecture, one that is particularly fitting (that word again) for art museums and the like.

Such lightness is also pronounced in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as renovated by Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004. Its importance to contemporary design was also first signalled at MoMA in a 1995 show called ‘Light Construction’ in which Piano was represented by his Kansai terminal. The curator, Terence Riley, took his cue for the show from another Italian, Italo Calvino, who in his last book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), proclaimed the special virtues of lightness for the new age: ‘I look to science,’ Calvino wrote, ‘to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears.’ The attraction of this dream is clear: it is part of the promise of modernity that free movement will lead to freedom. Viewed suspiciously, however, it is little more than the old fantasy of dematerialisation and disembodiment retooled for a cyber era, and it has become a familiar ideologeme to us all – though it still seems odd that architecture, long deemed the most material and bodily of the arts, would wish to advance it. Viewed even more suspiciously, this lightness is bound up not only with the fantasy of human disembodiment but with the fact of social derealisation: the lightness of the unreal under Communist regimes for Milan Kundera, who proposed this sense of the term before the fall of the Wall, yet under capitalist regimes for the rest of us. This kind of lightness is no ideal at all; it is ‘unbearable’. Perhaps in the end the two notions of lightness must be thought together, dialectically – that is, if dialectics has not suffered its own final lightening, as many people now seem to think.

Hal Foster
London Review of Books

Why is the art world a disaster?…because of the popularization and institutionalization of the antics and attitudes of Dada. As W. S. Gilbert knew, when everybody’s somebody, nobody’s anybody. When the outré attitudes of a tiny elite go mainstream, only the rhetoric, not the substance, of the drama survives.

That’s part of the answer: the domestication of deviance, and its subsequent elevation as an object of aesthetic—well, not delectation, exactly: perhaps veneration would be closer to the truth. But that is only part of the puzzle. There are at least three other elements at work. One is the unholy alliance between the more rebarbative and hermetic precincts of academic activity and the practice of art. As even a glance at the preposterous catalogue…accompanying almost any trendy exhibition these days—demonstrates, art is increasingly the creature of its explication. It’s not quite what Tom Wolfe predicted in The Painted Word, where in the gallery-of-the-future a postcard-sized photograph of a painting would be used to illustrate a passage of criticism blown up to the size of its inflated sense of self-worth. The difference is that the new verbiage doesn’t even pretend to be art criticism. It occupies a curious no man’s land between criticism, political activism, and pseudo-philosophical speculation: less an intellectual than a linguistic phenomenon, speaking more to the failure or decay of ideas than to their elaboration. Increasingly, the “art” is indistinguishable from the verbal noise that accompanies it…

A second element that helps to explain why the art world is a disaster is money—not just the staggering prices routinely fetched by celebrity artists today, but the bucket-loads of cash that seem to surround almost any enterprise that can manage to get itself recognized as having to do with “the arts.” The presence of money means the presence of “society,” which goes a long way toward explaining why yesterday’s philistine is today’s champion of anything and everything that presents itself as art, no matter how repulsive it may be…The vast infusion of money into the art world in recent decades has done an immense amount to facilitate what my colleague Hilton Kramer aptly called “the revenge of the philistines.”

A third additional element in this sorry story has to do with the decoupling of art-world practice from the practice of art. Look at the objects on view…and almost none has anything to do with art as traditionally understood: mastery of a craft in order to make objects that gratify and ennoble those who see them. On the contrary, the art world has wholeheartedly embraced art as an exercise in political sermonizing and anti-humanistic persiflage, which has assured the increasing trivialization of the practice of art. For those who cherish art as an ally to civilization, the disaster that is today’s art world is nothing less than a tragedy.

Roger Kimball
The New Criterion

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Sigmar Polke installation at the Biennale

Most of us who attended the Biennale’s three press days last week agreed that this is the best Biennale we had seen in years.

There are several reasons for this. First, many of the leading nations have made their best curatorial picks in a long time…Second, the artistic director of this year’s Biennale was Robert Storr, the former senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Now dean of the Yale University School of Art, he is indisputably one of the great curators working today, making exhibitions that display both a high degree of aesthetic discrimination, a depth of historical understanding and an impeccable sense of timing.

The German artist Sigmar Polke has been granted the most prestigious spot in the exhibition – the large, sunlit central gallery of the pavilion, in which he is showing enormous semi-transparent bronze-coloured canvases that look like glazed or oiled skins. These are encrusted here and there with imagery drawn from historical illustrations or the history of art. (The figures looked to my eye like explorers or philosophers, some like angels.) Standing back to enjoy these works, you can sometimes see through to the wooden struts that support the canvas from behind. Artifice and the means by which it is made are interpolated, and you find your mind shuttling between the courtly art of the grand European tradition and the primitive imperatives of nomadic cultures. Polke’s vision is encyclopedic.

Around the corner, Storr has installed a killer lineup: Ellsworth Kelly from the U.S. (showing crisp, split-level abstractions), Germany’s Gerhard Richter (a suite of massive multicolored pictures made by scraping pigment sideways on the canvas surface, often suggesting corrupted digital or photographic imagery) and Robert Ryman, the American master of the white-on-white canvas, who is showing new works subtly edged in blue. Taken as a whole, this lineup of senior statesmen seems to demonstrate the vast psychological and aesthetic terrain that painting can cover with the simplest of means – just paint and canvas. Engaging our senses with colour, texture and composition, Storr’s battalion of master painters lays siege to the mind.

Storr never seems to tire of defending painting, but sometimes this enthusiasm leads to uncharacteristic lapses in discrimination. The only weak moments in his show, in fact, occur in the painting department, where he included his long-time American favourites Elizabeth Murray (garish extravaganzas that are to me inexplicable) and Susan Rothenberg (rough-hewn horse paintings that likewise seem a bit dim), and a number of lesser known painters who fail to pass muster (such as Izumi Kato from Japan and Thomas Nozkowski from the United States).

The balance of the show, however – the sculpture, photography and projection works – more than make up for this. A theme emerges: Storr versus CNN. Taken as a whole, this exhibition presents a kind of sustained resistance to the smarmy platitudes and easy generalizations of the media, which so effectively gloss over the jagged edges of confusion, human tragedy and loss. Truth is to be found, Storr seems to suggest, not in grand and sweeping rhetoric. Rather, it is lodged in the nitty-gritty of lived experience, which art can make us witness to…

One of the ironies of the Biennale is that you walk from inside these galleries, where political and emotional trauma are so often the subject of art, into the blaze of the Venetian afternoon, with its pigeons, its fruit stands, its gondolieri singing Volare and its delirious tourists spooning up their hot-pink gelato di fragola in great melting spoonfuls. The contrast can be corrosive.

Storr has managed to select artists whose handling of dark themes is untainted by sensationalism and glibness, and that’s no mean feat in today’s art world. The works hold up, even against all this supreme silliness. Considering the show in retrospect, you feel chastened and inspired to expect more from art, and to think a little more rigorously about how we live. This show’s intelligence leaves a taste in your mouth that not even ice-cold Prosecco can wash away.

Sarah Milroy
Globe and Mail

Marcel Duchamp…hovers, like a damaged angel, over “The Price of Everything: Perspectives on the Art Market,” a think piece of a show at the Art Gallery of the Graduate Center, the City University of New York.

With his ready-mades — the mass-produced items he designated as art — Duchamp tried to redefine what art was: an active tool for thinking, rather than a passive object of looking. He also tried to demonstrate that its value was not inherent but assigned; was, in effect, completely arbitrary. So everyone was, potentially, an artist. Anything could be art.

Once Duchamp’s ready-mades started to be bought by museums, though, and he was inducted into the 20th-century canon, the power of his art was over. Resistance had itself became a commodity. Artists today are still sorting through all this. Some are still fighting Duchamp’s fight, in brainy, zany ways that he would have enjoyed.

Holland Cotter
New York Times

Lama Anagarika Govinda says that “if we look at a landscape and imagine that what we see exists as an independent reality outside ourselves, we are the victims of an illusion. If, however, we see the same landscape represented in the work of a great artist, then—in spite of the fact that the painting creates the visual illusion of a landscape—we experience an aspect of reality, because we are conscious of the illusion and accept it as an expression of a real experience….The moment we recognize an illusion as illusion, it ceases to be illusion and becomes an expression or aspect of reality and experience.”

But what happens if the work of art is not an illusion, but is a life that is being lived? Is it still art? Or has it then become a matter of “right livelihood?” As Nancy Wilson Ross describes it, “if a job help us in our search for an understanding both of ourselves and of the world around us, then it is, for us, samma ajiva (right livelihood)—no matter how futile and crazy it may seem to our friends and neighbors.” This may very well describe what art does for its maker—at least in part, and for some makers.

Marcia Tucker
White Paper II

What really unifies “Global Feminisms,” for a viewer, is the redolence of an almighty cultural agency that overleaps borders, blurs personalities, and purées ideas: the art school. Most of the artists embrace conceptualist strategies that have reigned as an academic lingua franca for three decades. Be they American, Egyptian, or Indonesian, the artists tend to hail from interchangeable sites of a pedagogical archipelago. They have studied some of the same forebears and have read (or been lectured to by people who have read) some of the same critical texts. Their works suggest mastery in the signal product of recent art education, which is, rather than art, the artist’s statement. The impression given, of standard forms embodying tendentious sentiments, is Victorian: an international (or “transnational,” the curators’ favored term) regime of busy stasis. There is no disgrace in this. The show is an exercise in networking on behalf of artists who may or, in some countries, dramatically do face career disadvantages, or worse, because they are women. Accordingly, the prevailing institutional network is projected as a state of nature. The price paid is a jejune savor in presumptively radical gestures that recall past radical gestures and anticipate radical gestures to come, clickety-clack.

Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the Global Feminism show at the Brooklyn Museum
New Yorker

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[John Adams] dismisses talk of the so-called “death of classical music” as pretty meaningless. “The world is full of people with creative ideas,” says Adams. “We could, to make things simpler, just forget about the term ‘classical.’ That might make things easier. But I still like to use it, because it reminds me that what I do aims at having a very long shelf-life.”

The composer finds it impossible to generalize about contemporary music right now. “There are composers, very young indeed, who absolutely love atonality and hard-edged “industrial”-strength dissonance, and they have found a significant following,” he observes. “And there are others who are making headlines writing the blandest, most carefully composed ‘audience-friendly’ orchestra pieces. They too have found a serious and grateful following. Some young composers are deeply influenced by rock and indie music, while others are combing the past to find what they construe to be the key to winning back the confidence of a lost public.”

Elena Park
American Composers Orchestra

When neglected art — art that has not been investment-protected — reappears, it must stand the test of a new context; it must be re-written. During the current art splurge might be the time. There are bargains to be had. Neglected art might be a better investment than the MFA Art now rampant.

I should also remind you that it is not only women artists who have fallen by the wayside — without the collector and institutional support of males, there’s a bigger wayside. But most male artists are also forgotten. Furthermore, it is not just post-minimal abstract painting that has fallen through the cracks. An exhibitions at a top gallery; an art magazine art cover; even a museum retrospective is no guarantee of art history viability. Without descendents willing to gamble on storage costs, the art will eventually rot or simply be thrown out.

Older artists are given the shaft. The collectors want their artists to be young and dumb…and cheap. It doesn’t even help if you are dead.

John Perreault
Artopia