One of my favorite things is to travel to see art. As you know, I've half-jokingly described myself as an Art Ninja: I feel I'm wearing x-ray goggles, and my mind and heart race as I weave through museum crowds like a wisp of a shadow. Travel, getting out of one's world and away from one's cares and duties, frees up the mind. Art viewing skills are heightened and I have the capacity to clock more museum time. Thankfully, my patient spouse is game for my relentless and (let's face it) greedy approach to museum-going. But, how much of it sticks? I mean, really sticks? I like to fully immerse myself, see and read as much as possible, take notes and photos, and then sit down a few weeks (or months) later to recall the few works, of the thousands that I may have seen during a trip, that have permanently adhered to my brain cells. My beloved and I recently spent two weeks in Munich, Salzburg and Vienna, and I'm still sorting through museum ticket stubs, catalogues and books, hundreds of photos and a notebook filled with my decidedly unattractive scrawl. But, here are a few things (in no particular order) that I'm still thinking about and continue to see, as afterimages.
1. Edouard Manet, Luncheon in the Studio, 1868
There are a number of treasures at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, including several terrific van Goghs, a moody Gauguin, a decent Monet and an interesting Bonnard, but this Manet really knocked my socks off. The first thing that popped into my mind was, "That black! Manet's black! Boy, I would love to be a fly on the wall, listening to Manet and Kerry James Marshall discussing the color black!" In this case, the young man's black jacket takes hold of your eyeballs and doesn't let go. It's a bit shocking, really, in a purely retinal/optical sense. And then...the eyes begin to take in the scene. What's going on here? The space has a strange push/pull, like a wheezing accordion, opening and closing in only the midrange. The oysters and the lemon...oh, the lemon peel! So tantalizingly tangible, just falling off the edge of the table. The young man, one Leon Leenhoff-Koella, seems plucked from another scene, and pasted onto this one. He was allegedly the younger brother of Manet's wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, but was possibly her son, maybe from a relationship with Manet prior to their marriage. Thus, the woman in the painting might be his mother, and the man might be Manet, who might be the young man's father. However, scholars seem to disagree about this, and of course we will probably never know the truth. To the left is a pile of weapons and armor, in relatively sharp focus. I thought, "This young man is in a toxic family and he's aiming to get the hell out of Dodge." A fantastic painting, in true Manet-mystery fashion. Apparently, I'm not the only one seduced by the black jacket. I found this quote on www.manet.org: "Henri Matisse saw Lunch in the Studio in 1910, and was so struck by it that thirty-six years later he could bring details of the work to mind: 'The Orientals used black as a colour, particularly the Japanese in their prints. Closer to us, there is a certain painting by Manet, I remember the black velvet jacket of the young man with the straw hat is in downright black and light.'"
2. Mike Kelley, Untitled, 1991
I was delighted to stumble across this gem, part of the The Michael and Eleonore Stoffel Foundation at the Pinakothek der Moderne, in Munich. In general, I respond to Kelley's works as I would to an old friend kicking me in the gut: a mixture of surprise, pain, anger and sadness. But, wait! Back up! Before the gut punch: a brief, naive moment of pleasure and joy, even. Pleasure, in response to the formal qualities of the work. Joy, in the feeling of recognition: I know this. Case in point: a patchwork of 70s & 80s wool sweaters, with a carefully arranged assortment of panels, some merely blocks of solids and stripes, some displaying vintage graphic logos of ski resorts. For a moment, I was lost in a reverie, thinking of guys and girls with feathered hair, wearing Levis and brightly colored ski jackets, hot-dogging on the slopes. But... oh, wait, what's that? An oddly-proportioned dummy’s torso, adorned in a sweater of similar patches. But in this case they are arranged like so many colorful bricks, and sewn together with very prominent, thick stitches (think Frankenstein's monster). Suddenly: an intense wave of sadness for the outsiders (Yes, me. Yes, us.) living in a world of insiders.
3. Max Beckmann, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1937
Beckmann painted nine large triptychs in the 30s, following his dismissal from his position at the Frankfurt School of Art in 1933 (after which he fled to the Netherlands for a self-imposed exile from Nazi Germany). I think I've seen three of them. I felt a chill down my spine when I turned a corner in the Pinakothek der Moderne and into a gallery containing several Beckmanns. Seeing them in Munich felt different than seeing them elsewhere. The vivid, relentlessly violent imagery, the compact compositions and the high color are an unequivocal indictment of human cruelty. Legs and arms are torqued into impossible positions, compositions are compressed and claustrophobic and the graphic use of black (and the triptych format) harken to medieval art. The reds and blacks and nickel yellows are thrilling, but they're just a smidge away from being nauseating. I stared at this painting for a very long time. The only other people in the gallery were the guard and a very old German man who brought one of the portable museum stools into the room. He sat. I stood. We stared in silence.
4. Martha Rosler, Untitled Postcard, 1973
Well, this was a surprise! We spent a couple of days in postcard-picture-perfect Salzburg, in the historic city center, amidst its Christmas markets, castles, churches, fanciful shops and incredible views of snow-capped mountains. We popped into the Museum der Moderne's Rupertinum (the old town location; the main museum is situated high above the rooftops of on Salzburg's Mönchsberg). The Rupertinum is a small baroque building in the heart of the old town. We were delighted by the Art & Politics exhibition. An excerpt from Curator Stefanie Grünangerl, Librarian Museum der Moderne Salzburg:
"This exhibition showcases works from the museum’s collections that articulate pointed views and solicit debate on issues in society and politics. Such socially critical art is especially apt to illustrate the value of a collection of prints and other “ephemeral” media that allow for comparatively inexpensive reproduction and dissemination such as flyers, posters, postcards, stickers, and magazines. Politically “engaged” artists do not primarily make work so that others contemplate it with a view to its aesthetic merits; they rather want to broadcast concrete messages. Yet they also reflect on the constraints that circumscribe their scope of action and the limitations of art and political activism in general."
I confess: sometimes my eyes glaze over when viewing a show like this. I mean, it's not exactly a visual feast. And yet, this little exhibition, very text-heavy, minimal and (at first glance) rather dry-looking, was the perfect antidote to the formidable cuteness of Salzburg. There, in long, plexiglass vitrine tables, were countless gems, but this is the one I'll always remember. From the accompanying text:
"This first-person narrator of a postcard by Martha Rosler would seem to recount trivialities, yet there are subtle but unmistakable political overtones, raising questions of economics and labor. The missive is a prelude to several novels in the form of postcard series...in which Rosler examines the linkages between food, imperialism and exploitation as well as resistant practices."
This piece, so juicy, so dense with layers of meaning, its fragmented thoughts so provocative, absolutely captivated me. The awkward yet pointed phrasing, the balance between what is suggested but not elaborated upon, the contradictions of meaning...I fantasized for a moment that I was back in grad school at CalArts, deconstructing and parsing out meaning for hours, in a windowless room, thick with cigarette smoke under horrid florescent light. I find this small, discolored postcard to be a poetic call to arms.
Haus der Kunst, Munich
The Haus der Kunst had not one, not two, but THREE excellent exhibitions on view: Sarah Sze, Centrifuge; Thomas Struth, Figure Ground; and Frank Bowling, Mappa Mundi. Also on view: Oscar Murillo's Going Forth-The Institute of Reconciliation, Polina Kanis' The Procedure and Mel Bochner's The Joys of Yiddish (A small encyclopedia).
First, a bit of history. From the museum's website:
"After its opening in 1937 as "Haus der Deutschen Kunst” [House of German Art], the Neoclassical building served to demonstrate National Socialist cultural politics and became the party's leading art institution. After the end of World War II, the museum building was first used by the US army as an officer's club. Art exhibitions took place as early as 1946. The return of modernism to the very place where the denigration of artists had begun served as part of a larger historical contemplation.
Haus der Kunst became an important venue for featuring avant-garde works - like Picasso's Guernica in 1955 - and thus a counterbalance to its defamatory stance during the Third Reich. Since then, Haus der Kunst has been transformed radically into an international center of modern art exhibitions, and, today into a global museum of contemporary art. The cultural examination and curatorial analysis of this process has become an ongoing, integral part of Haus der Kunst's program."
The Director of the Haus der Kunst is none other than Okwui Enwezor, former Dean of Academic Affairs and Senior Vice President (from 2005 to 2009) at the San Francisco Art Institute , where I taught in the undergraduate and graduate programs for 11 years.
As if all of this history weren't enough to pique one's interest, the building itself is quite astonishing in both scale and fascistic demeanor. The vast, cavernous spaces have been adapted into serviceable galleries that would likely swallow more intimate or subtle exhibitions. However, the shows on view were all capable of holding the space.
5a. Sarah Sze, Centrifuge, 2017
Sarah Sze's Centrifuge is positioned in the main gallery on the ground floor. The space is enormous, dark and downright intimidating. I was drawn in by the piece, an impossibly fragile structure of reed-thin supports, fashioned into a fantastical, stadium-like form that serves to display fragments of paper, many of which serve as projection surfaces. The projections and sound elements extend into the far reaches of the cavernous space. As is typical for Sze, the piece employs a range of detritus, presumably scavenged on site: office supplies, trash, coffee cups and the like. This fragile arrangement somehow humanized the cold, forbidding gallery, with delightfully fanciful, unexpected detail and delicacy.
According to Sze: Centrifuge’s “interior sculpture will seem caught in an indeterminable state between growth and decay. As the visitor approaches the sculpture it will immerse them in a micro scale at its interior, while simultaneously gesturing to a macro scale as it projects into the larger space of the hall. The sculpture will function both as a site of action, as well as a projector, illuminating the ceiling and giving the space the openness of a palazzo or city square.”
For me, the sum of this piece is much greater than Sze's description.
5b. Frank Bowling, Mappa Mundi
Frank Bowling's Mappa Mundi was a revelation to me. I am sorry to admit that I was unfamiliar with Bowling till now. According to the museum's website:
"Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi presents a comprehensive overview of rare and never-before exhibited large-scale paintings along with other works by the Guyanese-born British painter Frank Bowling. Born in Bartica, British Guyana, in 1934, Bowling left his native country at the age of nineteen, arriving in London in 1953 as part of the momentous wave of Anglophone West Indian and Caribbean populations who migrated to England in the aftermath of World War II. Later he would study painting at The Slade School, University College London, and the Royal College of Art, distinguishing himself with the silver medal for painting (David Hockney received the gold medal) in RCA's 1962 graduating class.
The principal anchor of this exhibition is the monumental and celebrated "map paintings" (1967–1971) that were first shown to acclaim at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. For Bowling, whose art is preoccupied with place and history, like those of his Caribbean contemporaries, the poet Derek Walcott and philosopher Edouard Glissant, the use of maps as conceptual objects of painting make for a fitting transactional trope through which to tackle the idea of geography and narrative. Maps and mapping present not only an exploratory metaphor through which to mirror the physical weight of painting; they also project absorbing, metaphysical and protean domains."
I was blown away by this exhibition. The map paintings, in particular, are gorgeous--especially those employing fiery yellows and hot pinks. The color and surface qualities are compelling, the progression of thought and action is convincing and the show was perfectly installed. The wall text was informative and direct and the exhibition included the artist's archive, which would more than suffice on its own as a fascinating exhibition. It was pure joy to be surrounded by and immersed in this terrific, accomplished body of work, with only the occasional gallery guard disrupting the view. What a treat! The catalogue for this exhibition is at the top of my post-travel wishlist.
5c. Thomas Struth, Figure Ground
Haus der Kunst describes Thomas Struth's Figure Ground as:
"... a comprehensive survey of his genre-defining oeuvre. Covering four decades of work and every phase of his career, the exhibition focuses on Struth's social interests, which represent the important forces of his influential artistic development. Comprised of more than 130 works, this exhibition is the largest survey of his artistic career to date. It brings together never-before-shown early works and collected research material drawn from his archive; these, elucidate the far-reaching and long-standing ideas behind the works and demonstrate the process of his artistic translation up to the perfection of the image."
The exhibition was so huge that I kept losing my Beloved in the massive gallery spaces, which seemed to go on forever. Some bodies of work appealed to me than others. My favorite is the recent series "Nature & Politics," in which Struth documents technological environments of the aerospace, energy and medical industries. I had recently seen one of these enormous prints in a collector's home in San Francisco and had been astounded by the visceral, writhing quality of the extreme-focus details. These sterile spaces (research labs, space vehicles, energy facilities) are almost too much to take in, with their harsh, cold light, miles of cables and wires, and vastly complex conglomerations of engineered metallic and plastic forms. Though the human figure is absent, these environments nonetheless imply the presence of the human body and its frailties, through the technology required to sustain it, transport it and study it.
6. The Venus of Willendorf
We had to look high and low to find this little lady, in Vienna's Naturhistorisches Museum. First, I confess that I was surprised to find Venus in a natural history museum...in my mind, she resides in the first chapter of Janson's History of Art. We were in the museum on the one night of the week that it is open until 9 PM (all the better for packing in four museums in one grueling day). We tromped, in reverse order, through the hierarchy of biological classification, beginning with the primates and ending with microscopic life forms. On and on we went, through rooms of massive wood and glass cases full of taxidermy and specimens in jars, flesh and feathers faded to a dull grey-brown. Perhaps it was because we were alone in the quiet, stately galleries, without huge groups of squealing school kids, or perhaps I'd just hit a wall after 10 hours in museums, but I was overcome with sadness. I couldn't look at the elephants or lions. My heart broke when I saw case after case of birds, and then butterflies, the latter being the only creatures who still sported flashes of color. Oh, the loss of animal life over the years, the spoils of human destruction, corridors filled with extinct and near-extinct creatures encapsulated and displayed in eternal stillness. Once, I would've said that I love natural history museums. But now, I'm not so sure. We pressed on, through the gems, the splendid meteor collection and the prehistoric art. Finally, we found our Venus, in a special side gallery--basically, a black tomb--in the dark, lit by a dramatic spotlight. She's small, but mighty. Faceless, anonymous, a symbol...a vessel. My beloved said, "She is the grim little seed of the Patriarchy. Her humanity is amputated. She has no arms, no feet, no agency, no personhood. Her head is encased in a basket. Things haven't changed much in 30,000 years."
I thought of the Commodores song, Brick House:
"Ow, she's a brick house
She's mighty-mighty, just lettin' it all hang out
She's a brick house
That lady's stacked and that's a fact
Ain't holding nothing back"
7. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Kunsthistorisches Museum is a world class museum, on par with the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery, the Met, and the like--the grand museums of the world that specialize in old master paintings and antiquities. The museum building is a veritable mirror image of the Naturhistorisches Museum, and the two face each other across Maria-Theresien-Platz. The Kunsthistorisches is literally packed with treasures. My head was spinning, trying to take in the abundance of first-rate works by Rembrandt, Bruegel, Vermeer, Raphael, Velázquez, Dürer, Holbein, et. al. I often find myself tallying masterworks when I'm in museums such as this. "Okay, there are 35 or 36 Vermeers in the world, and now I've seen 19 of them." I'm not advocating this, and in fact it's probably a bad habit, but I can't help it, especially when I am surround by masterpieces so old and so rare. So much art, so little time. But, hey, it's not as if I'm tallying Warhols.
It's tough to pick a favorite, or even a handful of favorites, due to the general level of excellence reflected in the collection. One thing that stuck me: we saw a lot of paintings of decapitated men. I mean, a lot. A good number of depictions of Judith and Holofernes, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, and a very interesting Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath. Perhaps they just happened to be hanging in close proximity, but the quantity seemed somewhat remarkable. Of course, old master depictions of women holding the heads of decapitated men has always provided a bit of relief from Jesus' suffering, Mary's placid steadiness and relentlessly chubby, rosy putti. The triumph of the bloodied, disembodied head represents the feminist impulse within the unforgiving symbolic world and general misogyny of Christianity. So, here are two of my favorites, each of which displays a pretty astonishing level of symbolic gender-bending.
8. Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, 1902
Confession: I now count myself among the legion of Gustav Klimt fans. Don't get me wrong, I never really disliked his work. If you spend time in Vienna, you will be immersed in Klimt. You'll find his work at the Belvedere and the Leopold, as well as Secession, which houses the Beethoven Frieze. We saw a lot of Klimt paintings, including Death and Life (1910/1915), Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901), The Kiss (1907-08), all of which are pretty spectacular. However, the piece that will remain burned into memory is the Beethoven Frieze. According to Secession's website:
"Gustav Klimt created the famous Beethoven Frieze for the XIVth exhibition of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, which was held between April 15 and June 27, 1902. Conceived as a tribute to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, the presentation epitomized the Secessionists’ vision of an encompassing synthesis of the arts."
After the exhibition, the frieze was cut into sections (overall, the piece is 7' h. and 112' w., with the plaster panels weighing in at about four tons) and stored for decades, both before and after being confiscated in 1938 from the dispossessed August Lederer who bought it in 1915. It is a sordid story, but not an uncommon one. It wasn't until 1985 that the restored frieze was mounted in its permanent installation, which was designed to be similar to the original configuration. One wishes for a lesser degree of veracity; if only one could see it at eye level! I was taken by the composition, most of all. The vast expanses of soft, unadorned plaster punctuated, in a staccato rhythm with delicate figures. About halfway through, a dark, dense, fantastical arrangement of figures, including a serpent and an unexpected gorilla. Then: another soft passage, a few more figures and a final crescendo of lavish gold, patterning, and a couple locked in an embrace, diaphanous fabric falling around their ankles. It's stunning, and was marred only by the fact that the so-called climate-controlled room was cold and damp and reeked of cigarette smoke, presumably emanating from the surly guard.
9. Cecilia Bartoli at The Musikverein
I could not capture a decent photo of this magical performance, but here's a shot of the Musikverein. Cecelia Bartoli performed with Sol Gabetta and Cappella Gabetta. The program included works by Vivaldi, Handel, Gabrielli, Albinoni and Boccherini. During the concert, I was alternately crying and grinning ear to ear. What a night to remember!
Do yourself a favor: buy the album, Dolce Duello.
10. Franz Mayer of Munich
Last, but not least, the reason for this amazing journey: an invitation from Franz Mayer of Munich, architectural glass fabricators, to work for a week with their artists, in their amazing, historic Munich studio. I am so grateful for this opportunity and the chance to work amongst this renowned and talented group of people.
Franz Mayer of Munich was founded in 1847. The studio has produced some of the world's most successful public art over the years, in stained glass, glass mosaic and float glass. The range of techniques and possibilities is astonishing. I literally felt like I was entering a magical space, akin to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory: five floors of light and color, incredible work spaces, row upon row of colored glass (sheets stored in vertical bins, as well as mosaic pieces lining the hallways in rack after rack of numbered boxes) and works in progress by some of the world's most renowned artists. Together, we produced several samples that I will use for future public art proposals. We now have a sense of what it's like to work together; there is a big learning curve for both artist and fabricator, and it takes time to build a common language.
I did not want to photograph the studio's work in progress, out of respect for other artists, but here are a few photos of FMoM's stores of materials, as well as my samples in progress:
Well, there you have it. Until next time!