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In Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, marble becomes a medium for a metamorphosis. (Photo: Arnold de Luca/Corbis)

In the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, when you first see Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo catch up with Daphne, you would swear that her flesh is turning into a tree, although both she and the tree are made of marble. An interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals has become the medium for a metamorphosis, a tour de force of drama, like almost everything Bernini did. As a sculptor and setter of scenes, he made Rome the pace-setting city of Europe in the 17th century, the age of the Baroque. Materializing out of the marble, his popes, kings, horses, and women set the style for an era.

Then neoclassicism took over, and his renown was eclipsed for more than 200 years. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, with the most marvelous of all his horses, was still there in the Piazza Navona to delight all foreign visitors, but somehow their delight did not build him a reputation for genius. While he was alive and working, even his enemies thought he was a great man. During the next two centuries, almost nobody did. His luster was still on its way back when I was young in the late 1950s and saw his statuary photographed in black-and-white for the Phaidon album that bore his name. Years before I got to Italy and saw the actual objects, the pictures of them bowled me over.

It was the effect he wanted. Bowling people over was his aim in life, along with making money with which to raise the status of his large family to a princely level. The two goals were closely connected. Almost to the end of his life, a string of popes wanted his theatrical best from him, to swell the crowds of marveling visitors to Rome. Bernini could turn churches into histrionic events. Most of the drama in Saint Peter’s comes from various achievements by Bernini, headed by the Baldacchino, the enormous gilt-bronze edifice—the tent for the throne of Saint Peter—at the center of the church. Outside, those are his colonnades framing the piazza where people gather 100,000 at a time to hear the pope speak. Bernini had an organization of assistants to handle all the work, and they had to be paid. But still, by today’s standards, millions of dollars were left over for Bernini to put under his mattress.

Bernini’s new biographer, Franco Mormando, is good on the scholarship and the account books but less so on the dramatic detail… In a standard scholarly way, Mormando blames the rise of neoclassicism. But the same thing didn’t do much to diminish Michelangelo, whose fame has never faltered. A better explanation might be that Bernini was simply too good. His chisel could make marble flow like water, and much as we love the results, we tend to think that the sculptor’s talent had no merit, because it was too facile. When Donatello and Michelangelo sculpted David, they transmuted his rock-throwing dynamism to monumental potential. Bernini’s David actually swings the sling, his face all screwed up in concentration like yours or mine would be, with every little muscle picked out and straining. One tends to think there is a dimension missing, when in fact there is an extra dimension present: natural humanity.


Clive James


Rachel Whiteread's sculpture Ghost at the Gagosian gallery
London stone … Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

I just want to take a moment to salute Britain’s greatest living artist.

A few weeks ago I was in an American art museum looking at the modern masters. Pablo Picasso and Richard Serra share space with Sol LeWitt and Jackson Pollock in the tremendous collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. But not far from Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross paintings, an unexpected thing from home caught my eye.

It was like seeing a ghost. In fact, I was seeing Ghost – a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread that I first encountered, what, 20 years ago, in the London whose Dickensian chill it reproduces. Ghost is a cast of an entire room in an old-fashioned, perhaps Victorian, house. It is the solid trace of all the air that a room once contained. Empty space has become solid. Because it is solid, it is closed. Nothing can get in or out. On this side of the white surfaces of the massive block, engraved with negative images of fireplace, door, window and light switch, we wonder at the dark invisible silence within. Vanished lives, lost voices, forgotten loves are trapped in that fossilised room like prehistoric creatures in limestone.

Ghost is the closest living relative of Whiteread’s destroyed artistic masterpiece House. She made Ghost in 1990; three years later she took the same casting process to its logical conclusion by preserving the inner world of a house scheduled for demolition.


Jonathan Jones

This relief plaque depicting a battle scene is one of the pieces donated to the Museum of Fine Arts by New York collector Robert Owen Lehman.

The Museum of Fine Arts has been given 34 rare West African pieces from a group of works known as the Benin bronzes, marking a dramatic upgrade in a long-neglected area of the museum’s collection.

The 28 bronzes and 6 ivories come from New York collector Robert Owen Lehman, son of the famous American banker, and will go on display late in 2013 in a newly created gallery.

“This is the transformation of our collection,” MFA director Malcolm Rogers said Thursday. “It’s some of the greatest art ever produced in Africa, and it has been poorly represented in our collection. It’s going to really open visitors’ eyes to an extraordinary world.”

The museum did not start collecting African art until 1991 and, before this gift, had only one Benin piece. Though the Benin works are very difficult to acquire today, hundreds of them are held by a few major museums, including the British Museum, Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and Field Museum in Chicago.


Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

Josiah McElheny’s “Island Universe.”

On the face of it, Bob Dylan’s surreal, sardonic, incendiary poetry has little in common with artist Josiah McElheny’s professorial aesthetic – a sensibility that traffics in science, self-consciousness, and shiny surfaces.

McElheny makes art deliberately, methodically, and critically.

But Dylan cries out for quotation on many occasions, I find. And McElheny’s compelling show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, “Some Pictures of the Infinite,” just happens to be one of them.

“Inside the museums,” sang Dylan in “Visions of Johanna,” a twangy, portent-filled song from the great 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde,” “infinity goes up on trial.”

The same verse goes on, of course, to give us the unforgettable images of Mona Lisa with the highway blues (“you can tell by the way she smiles”) and – in a climax of inspired rhymes – a jelly-faced woman with a mustache saying, “Jeez I can’t find my knees.”

But it’s that notion of museums putting infinity on trial – staking their own claims on timelessness, insulating their contents from the endlessness of the outside world – that lingers in the puzzled mind, and which seems so apposite to McElheny’s “Some Pictures of the Infinite.”

It’s a show, after all, about infinity. It’s also about museums, mirrors, modernism, multiverses, revolution, the Big Bang, and much more.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has said that the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a spiraling goliath of red tangled steel that stands 35 stories above the city’s Olympic Park, would have “dwarfed” the aspirations of Gustave Eiffel and “boggled the minds” of the ancient Romans.

Many Londoners don’t see it quite that way.

They’ve called the Orbit, designed by the Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor and the Sri Lankan architect Cecil Balmond, the “Eye-full Tower” and “Helter-Skelter,” and have compared it to a “contorted mass of entrails.” Envisioned as a symbol of London looming over the site of this summer’s Olympic Games, the Orbit, which visitors will enter, ascend and explore, is designed as an attraction to rival the London Eye and Big Ben for decades to come. And, at least for now, the sculpture is also serving as a prime target for British Olympic crankiness.


Amy Chozick
New York Times

To see gargantuan steel sculptures fashioned by Richard Serra, you could visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, or the Dia: Beacon, 60 miles north of New York City. Or you could go to a crane yard near a heating-oil terminal in Port Morris, an industrial corner of the South Bronx.

There, amid belching smokestacks and clanging delivery trucks, sits artwork made by Mr. Serra, a secret grace note in a decidedly ungraceful block. The briny air from the river just steps away blows across the steel plates, bent in a trademark Serra arc that would be recognized on the moon — which, in the art world, Port Morris might as well be.

The piece — five plates, about one and a half stories high — is not displayed for public view or assembled as Mr. Serra intended. It stands behind a raggedy chain-link fence while a stray black-and-white cat stands watch. Cranes and falling-down sheds surround it. It has sat there for years, waiting to be delivered to its owner, said Joe Vilardi of Budco Enterprises, a Long Island rigging company that placed the steel in the Bronx lot and has long worked with Mr. Serra.

“It is parts of a sculpture that are just in storage right now,” Mr. Vilardi said.


Sam Dolnick
New York Times

Anna Hepler’s “The Great Haul,” at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. (Scott Peterman)

Anna Hepler, one of Maine’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, has for a long time talked about her work in terms of its connections with nature. Born in Boston and based in Portland, Hepler, 40, has an enviable track record of successful shows and ambitious installations in prominent venues, from the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. She uses language beautifully and confidently — alive to its limitations but eager, where possible, for precision.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

(Photo: Yana Paskova for The New York Times)

One of Antony Gormley’s naked men, easy to mistake for someone about to jump, atop a building in Madison Square.

They stand about six feet tall and look like naked human beings. Over the next few days, 27 of them will be scattered across rooftops and ledges of buildings in Midtown Manhattan — including the Empire State Building — as part of a public art exhibition.

About the same time that the first figure was placed atop a four-story building at 25th Street and Fifth Avenue on Tuesday, the Police Department issued a statement reassuring New Yorkers that the figures are not despondent people on the verge of leaping to their deaths.

Police officials said they were trying to prevent an overwhelming number of emergency calls from concerned pedestrians or office workers. Nevertheless, they said that all emergency calls about a potential suicide would be taken seriously — even those from places where one of the figures is located.

“We are going to respond no matter what because there could be a jumper at the spot,” said Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman.

The figures, which are anatomically correct, are modeled after the body of the artist Antony Gormley, who created the exhibition, which is being presented by the Madison Square Park Conservancy.


Michael S. Schmidt
New York Times

Digital rendering of Doug and Mike Starn’s “Big Bambú,” a site-specific sculpture made of 3,200 interlocking bamboo poles lashed together with nylon rope.

In the 12 years that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has presented exhibitions on its roof, visitors have seen sculptures by Jeff Koons, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Roxy Paine. They have glimpsed more unusual projects too, like miniature black smoke shells that resembled inkblots bursting into the sky every afternoon, the work of the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Now for the 13th installation, Gary Tinterow, the Met’s curator of 19th-century, Modern and contemporary art, has decided to try something more ambitious.

From April 27 through Oct. 31 the twin artists Mike and Doug Starn will be creating a site-specific installation that is part sculpture, part architecture and part performance. Called “Big Bambú” it will be a monumental bamboo structure in the form of a cresting wave rising as high as 50 feet above the roof. Throughout the summer the artists and a team of rock climbers will lash together an intricate network of 3,200 interlocking bamboo poles with nylon rope, creating on the roof’s floor labyrinthlike spaces through which visitors can walk.


Carol Vogel
New York Times

(Photo: Dwayne Senior)

If you had asked me 30 years ago what sort of career Anish Kapoor was going to have, I would have replied: a short one. Not because I am a bad caller of these things, and a lousy art critic, but because Kapoor’s early sculptures felt rather derivative. Providing you had been to India, that is.

Kapoor and I are more or less the same age. I remember his debut vividly. The first works of his to have an impact were bright heaps of unmixed pigment — red, yellow, blue — deposited on the gallery floor in Jungian clusters and looking as if they had been tipped out of giant cake moulds. The intensity of those unmixed colours gave away their Indian origins. Anyone who has ever approached a Hindu temple will recognise these startling hues from the stalls of the pigment pedlars lining the final mile. In India, temple stall after temple stall offers a Kapoor experience in miniature.

My mistake, and of course it was a huge one, was to imagine that quoting from his origins was all Kapoor would ever seek to do. It’s not that I did not respond to his unmixed pigments; the sight of them was electrifying, then and now. But, like one of those Booker Prize winners who writes a fine novel about their childhood in Calcutta, and that’s it, I thought he might not have a volume two in him, that his subtext would become his text. How wrong was I?

A selection of Kapoor’s colour shockers pops up in the first room of the Royal Academy’s impressive half-retrospective of his career so far. It’s half a retrospective because the RA is too small to accommodate the full beast, and because Kapoor is too alert and ambitious a sculptor to settle for nostalgia. When the RA invited him into its galleries, it invited him into a new range of sculptural possibilities, which he explores here with characteristic fierceness. This is a battle as much as it is a retrospective: Kapoor v the Royal Academy’s spaces. Why, there’s even a cannon in the show, firing splats of gooey Napoleonic wax at the gallery walls. Extraordinary.


Waldemar Januszczak
Times Online