Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wendy Beckett

Sister Wendy Beckett in her starring role as seen on PBS.
My introduction to Wendy Beckett
Years ago (1998), when I first began writing for the Internet, I didn't have the modern-day convenience of Wikipedia or the dozens upon dozens of other wonderful websites from which to glean the content of my daily musings. The delivery came from me but the content came from books. It was easy at first. Nearing the end of my teaching career, I had in my brain some 26 years of art history lectures delivered mostly to middle school and high school students. I wrote on that level. There were no photos to augment the text, and the writing was quite often "conversational" (to put it in the best light). Eventually I embraced a volunteer editor in New England and a photo editor in Florida, both of whom were immense assets. I had the further asset of a sizable library of art history books, many leftovers from my college days or my years teaching art history and appreciation at a community college. Eventually however, having wrung these texts dry, putting together three or four coherent paragraphs about art grew to be more and more difficult. I went in search of new material. Among my discoveries, was the book, Sister Wendy's History of Painting (left).

Sister Wendy Beckett (top) was already something of an upper middle-class household name from her shows on the BBC (above) and in the U.S. on PBS when I began exploring her books. Although I knew her by name from TV, I "discovered" her through the written word. She's written no less than fifteen books on various art and religious subjects. She writes and speaks carefully and with great intelligence, but she never speaks down to her audience. Instead, she seems to naturally "sparkle." Her ebullient personality might well be the one quality explaining how a cloistered nun could become a TV "star." There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, maybe even thousands of art experts from erudite university professors to old pensioned-off high school art teachers like myself who can speak intelligently about art. But there's only one Sister Wendy.
Sister Wendy's "caravan," Quidenham,
Norfolk, England
Wendy Beckett was born in 1930 in South Africa, but raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where her father was studying medicine. She wanted to become a nun from childhood, and at the age of sixteen, joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an order dedicated to education. She completed her novitiate at St. Anne's College in Oxford where she graduated with honors in English literature. From there she moved on the Notre Dame College of Education in Liverpool to do graduate work. Then it was back to South Africa and several years teaching at an all-girls school while lecturing at the University of Witwatersrand. In 1970, chronic ill health brought her back to England where she took up residence at a Carmelite mission in Norfolk, residing in an ancient "caravan" (house trailer in American jargon). It was a life dedicated to God, prayer, and silent contemplation. She recently celebrated her 83rd birthday.
Sister Wendy on American art.
Sister Wendy made her television debut in 1991, narrating a documentary for the BBC on the London National Gallery (Click here for Sister Wendy's story in her own words.). What followed were six, ten-minute films on discovering hidden art treasures and a loyal following among British and European art lovers. From this success, PBS brought her to America for Sister Wendy's American Collection, a series in which she visited six American art museums to talk about that art within their wall which she liked (and that which she didn't like as well). She visited the Met in New York, the MFA in Boston, and Chicago's Art Institute, as well as the LACMA on the west coast, the Kimbell in Texas, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Today, Sister Wendy no longer does TV or writes books. She still does the occasional magazine article but by and large (a favorite phrase of hers) she has returned to the solitary, contemplative life of prayer, art, and silence. Her only benefit from her publishing and television excursions into the outside world is a newer, slightly larger version of the proper, English mobile home.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Billboard Art

Found on Redondo Beach, August 21, 2005.
The billboard becomes the work of art, reminiscent of Picasso and Jackson Pollock.
The artist makes his point, however.
Things change. Along with everything else, art changes. When two things change, complementing one another, those changes can often be quite important and long-lasting. As the title suggests, two such changes involve art (of course) and, in this case, billboards. We all have some idea how art has and is changing, so let's start with the billboards. Billboards along our major highways and cluttering our urban thoroughfares largely came hand-in-hand with the automobile. That means they've been around about a hundred years, give or take a decade or so. For most of that time, they've been detested, especially by the upper middle-class "arty" community, who have often gone so far as to seek having them banned or at least removed in individual cases. In recent years, they've become even more obnoxious, taking the form of LED screens, lighting up and moving. However, it is this new, digital, development which actually complements the changes in art.

Billboard art protesting art, 1970s, a costly endeavor paid for by feminist
artists calling themselves the Guerrilla Girls, hence the gorilla mask
adorning Ingres' famous Grand Odalisque (1814).
Though primarily used in advertising everything from soup to nuts (literally), billboards also have long been used to urge, even demand, social change. Sometimes they're more public relations than confrontational, but very often they take on the primary function of all great art--they communicate creatively (above), and they deliver their message "smack in your face" again and again as you drive by. Far more people see them than ever visit art museums in a given year. Traditionally, however, from an artist's perspective, such an exposure forum comes with one prohibitive fact--billboards cost money. First there's the billboard rental fee (usually for 30 days), then the cost of creating the temporary image itself (on paper or plastic). Those factors, however, are where digital imaging has made a difference. Billboard companies often donate their LED signboards for up to twenty-four hours to various art groups while digital artist need never touch costly paint, brush, and canvases in creating their images. Thus, both are virtually free.
Chicago's Billboard Art Project LED screen allows several artists to share the limelight.
Several major cities in the U.S. have what are called Billboard Art Projects (above) with long waiting lists of artist applicants. These groups serve to facilitate such exposure for deserving artists with important things to say and the genius to say them, in an eye-catching, creative manner. In the U.K. it's called Art Everywhere (click here for video), and in that country emphasizes the exposure of important British artists from the past on traditional billboards (below). As art and the way we think about art (or in some cases don't think about it) changes, there develops the need to reach out to those who have never (or very rarely) set foot inside a museum or art gallery. Whether it's old art or new, billboards can fill this need. They provide artists with huge, bright, splashy, new canvases which, unlike framed paintings in art museums, can not only move themselves, but also move how and what people think. That is the definition of art at its best.

Lady of Shallot, 1888, John William Waterhouse.
In England, the Tate Museum takes to the billboard.

TOO MUCH, 2011, Andrew Willett. He gets his point across, but it's rather blunt.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Anna Boch

Red Vineyards near Arles, 1888, Vincent van Gogh, purchased by Anna Boch, 1890.
Anna Boch in her studio
In my book, Art Think, I composed an item on the only painting Vincent van Gogh ever sold during his lifetime (there's some dispute about this but it's too complicated to get into). The painting was titled, Red Vineyards near Arles (above). It was sold for 400 francs (a little over $1,000 in today's cash). The buyer was the sister of a friend of van Gogh's. Her name was Anna Boch (left, sister of Eugene Boch). The painting was one of six Vincent sent via his brother, Theo, for display at an 1890 invitational art exhibit in Brussels organized by an avant-garde group calling themselves Les XX (the twenty) of which Anna Boch was the only female member. Belgian by birth (1848), and a Neo-impressionist painter herself (as oppose to Post-impressionist), Anna was a great admirer of Vincent's work, having been first exposed to it through her brother. She dabbled in pointillism, though most of her work shows the influence of established impressionists, as well as her teachers, Isadore Verheyden and Theo van Rysselburghe.

The Gatherer, 1890, Anna Boch
Henry de Groux
At the 1890 Les XX exhibition, van Gogh displayed along side invited artists Paul Cezanne, Odilon Redon, Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alfred Sisley, and his old friend, Paul Gauguin. These men were what we'd call today "cutting edge" painters of their time. Yet as radical as they might have been, van Gogh's inclusion among the group was seen by one organizer of the show, Henri de Groux (a minor Belgian Symbolist painter), as an affront to the others displaying with him. He especially hated van Gogh's sunflowers (Vincent sent two such paintings, below). At the opening dinner, de Groux (left) attacked van Gogh (who was not present) personally calling him: " ignoramus and a charlatan." At the other end of the table Toulouse-Lautrec suddenly bounced up, his arms in the air, and shouted that it was an outrage to criticize so great an artist. De Groux retorted with similar anger and animation. Tumult ensued. De Groux challenged the dwarfed Toulouse-Lautrec to a duel. Seconds were appointed. Signac announced coldly that if Lautrec were killed he would assume the quarrel himself. The organizers seemed to agree. Almost before dinner was over, De Groux was expelled from the group. He later apologized and was allowed to resign. The duel was averted.
Van Gogh's suggestion for hanging his work at the Les XX show.
Red Vineyards near Arles was to hang above or below these.
(The center painting, Ivy, has not been seen since WW II.)
One can only imagine the reaction of the only female member of Les XX. She too was no doubt angered and dismayed by De Groux's behavior, though as a lady, she was probably restrained by proper etiquette to merely shaking her head is despair and perhaps muttering to herself, "men!" Despite the uproar, the whole affair must have seemed a roaring success to the impecunious Vincent. Following this show, Theo entered the five remaining paintings plus five more in the 1890 Artistes Independants show in Paris a few months later. Alas, Anna Boch did not come by for a second purchase. She did, however assemble, over the course of a lifetime, quite an impressive collection of valuable impressionist paintings. Numbering some 431 works in all, there are paintings by Monet, Seurat, Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Armand Guillamin, Maurice Denis, James Ensor, even one by Henry de Groux.

Anna Boch, photographed late in life, among her collected
efforts to help support struggling impressionists.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

David Gilmour Blythe

Old Man Peering from a Jail Cell (Crime and Punishment), David Gilmour Blythe.
No, it's not a self-portrait. He was not much of a portrait artist in any case. This
work, however, seems an indication that as he matured as an artist, Blythe
gained a pretty good handle on capturing character and painterly nuance.

Art Versus the Law, 1860,
David Gilmour Blythe
Being an Ohioan, it always gives me great pleasure to highlight the work of a native-born Ohio artist, although in this case, the man spent most of his life next door in the Pittsburgh area. Nevertheless, David Gilmour Blythe was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, in 1815. East Liverpool, by the way, is a small town just down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. Blythe was a self-taught artist and this lack of academic training often shows in his somewhat stiff, awkward figures. Like many frontier artists of his time, he began as a limner--a traveling portrait painter--one might even say the artist equivalent of a beggar. He literally went door to door, farmhouse to farmhouse begging for modest portrait commissions. His Art Versus the Law (left) depicts an artist locked out of his studio, a scene Blythe may have known well. Either he wasn't very good at likenesses, or his works were deemed by the owners' descendants as not worth saving; few of his early portraits survive. Nonetheless, Blythe was ambitious. He even tried his hand at carving monuments...from wood. His travels took him all up and down the Ohio River and as far south as New Orleans in the 1850s. In doing so, he came face to face with slavery. He didn't like what he saw.
Lincoln Crushing the Dragon, 1862, David Gilmour Blythe
Financial failure and the death of his young wife in 1855 had a profound effect upon the then 40-year-old artist. Blythe turned toward satire. He was anti-slavery but also anti-immigration. He was influenced by the works of William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and George Cruikshank, all English satirists or political cartoonists of a generation before. Satire and humor usually go hand in hand. Blythe was the exception. In his work, the two were usually divorced. His humor could be gentle, harmless, often centering on social derelicts or their juvenile counterparts. Some of his paintings could almost be considered to have influenced Norman Rockwell. Blythe's satire was far from funny. Bitter would be a better word. His painting, Lincoln Crushing the Dragon (above) depicts a fiery president angrily flailing away at the "dragon of rebellion" with a long-handled maul. Civil War political satire had little in the way of subtlety. Though a loyal Unionist, Blythe seems to have disparaged all politicians with an equal passion.

Abraham Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, David Gilmour Blythe
Blythe's 1863 painting of Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation, while not rancorous, nonetheless pokes sly ridicule at the president in his disheveled state. We see his cluttered office, which suggests a cluttered mind, disrespect for the flag (seen used as a window curtain), and in the background, the bust of Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, about to topple from a shelf. With most politicians he depicted, the kid gloves came off in favor of bare knuckles such as his A Higher Law (Southern Attack on Liberty) (below) from 1861.

A Higher Law (Southern Attack on Liberty), 1861, David Gilmour Blythe
The Dentist, David Gilmour Blythe
In depicting children, Blythe is never sentimental (often quite the opposite, in fact). His boys' colorful pranks would be considered quaint today, but in their time might be viewed as criminal misdemeanors. Not all of Blythe's work had the biting edge of satire or social comment. His The Dentist (left) could be mistaken for a Saturday Evening Post cover. By the same token, his dark, gritty depiction of the infamous conditions at Libby Prison during the war (bottom), might not seem out of place on a Civil War era version of Time magazine. Blythe learned to paint in what might be considered the best way--by painting a lot. Moreover he yearned for greatness, taking it upon himself to follow the Union army, sketching source material first-hand for future history paintings. Yet he steadfastly refused to travel eastward to compete in the major art markets of his day. He died in Pittsburgh in 1865 at the age of fifty. Though highly regarded locally in his day, it was nearly a century later before recognition as one of the top Civil War era satirist was attached to his work.

Libby Prison, 1863, David Gilmour Blythe. Having never visited the prison, the painting was based on written accounts and Blythe's vivid imagination.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Venice Biennale

As we arrived in Venice this summer, it was hard to ignore Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper Pregnant, perched in front of Palladio's San Giorgio Maggiore just across the water from St. Mark's Square. The inflated sculpture, depicting a pregnant woman handicapped by the drug, Thalidomide, was part of the British presence at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
A few days ago, in exploring the art of the early abstract expressionist, Hyman Bloom (08-24-13), I mentioned in passing his having been a part of the American delegation to the 1950 Venice Biennale (Biennial, in English). I called it in the briefest terms, "the world's most prestigious international art competition." It is that, of course, but so much more. We might be tempted to call it "the World Series of art," though that phrase may be too American to be appropriate. Perhaps a better designation would be "world's fair of art," though these once popular international extravaganzas are now becoming somewhat rare, not to mention inconsequential. That does not describe the Biennale (pronounced bee-en-AL-ee). Held, as the name suggests, every other year (odd numbered years since 1993) it's about as consequential as the world of art gets these days. Likewise, the image of a world's fair with dozens of national pavilions in a park-like setting is quite accurate. The United States has had a (somewhat dated, architecturally) pavilion there since 1930.

The American pavilion, circa 1930, seemingly designed by
Thomas Jefferson with an assist by Louis Sullivan.
Venice's Giardini, the World's Fair of Art.
The Giardini, is a large park on the eastern tip of the main Venetian islands. Though ignored by the city's populace and somewhat rundown most of the time, every two years the park is immaculately spruced up to host the Biennale. I counted thirty permanent pavilions on the map (above), the largest being Italian (of course) the smallest, next door, that of Iceland. The American pavilion is near the center, in a "U" shape accentuating a modest Greek portico, probably thought to be quite appropriate eighty years ago, though hardly an exemplar of American architecture today. Each pavilion houses what is presumably the best that country has to offer in the way of art, with each curator striving to out-stun visitors with their artistic daring. Countries not having pavilions display at various palazzos elsewhere in Venice. Work too large for inside display is likewise farmed out to various important sites around the city. One such work I couldn't help but notice was that of British artist, Marc Quinn (top). My question was, in seeing this eye-catching piece displayed on the piazza just to the left of Palladio's San Giorgio Maggiore, "I wonder if anyone asked the local parishioners if the they wanted a huge, pregnant, naked woman on their front doorstep?"

The Venice Biennale, 1954, Francis Bacon,
Lucien Freud, and Henry Moore were the headliners.
The Venice Biennale first began in 1895 as little more than a local art show run by the city emphasizing the sale of local decorative arts. As the 20th century dawned, the show gradually became international. From 1907 on, permanent national pavilions began to pop up with Argentina being one of the first. After WW I modern art raised its startling head as many modern day art icons began to display their work. Names such as Braque, Matisse, Calder, Dufy, Arp, Giacometti, and Rauschenberg dot the list of prize winners. By 1930, the show had grown too big for the city of Venice to handle, so it was passed off to the country's fascist government which initiated similar, but separate, festivals in music, film, architecture, and dance during the off years. What had, before, been mostly an art sales event became a true competition as Grand Prizes were initiated for painting and sculpture. Such prizes were abandoned in 1968 in favor of a lifetime achievement award and another for "Best Pavilion." Called the Leone de'Oro (Golden Lion), this list has since grown to include two more categories, Best Artist and Best Young Artist.

The 2013 Venice Biennale Russian pavilion
---beautiful, highly scientific, and I didn't understand a work of it.
After time-out to have a world war, the Biennale became more about prizes than sales, which were officially suspended in 1968. In more recent years, the Post-Modern era has seen the Venice Biennale become far more about the making of artists' international reputations than selling or even winning prizes. The 2013 show hosted some 300,000 visitors, though the real audience came via television and the Internet. Mere paintings (no matter how large) hanging on pristine white walls are ignored in favor of room-size installations, ostensibly promoting some important theme or protesting some social injustice, but all too often seemingly more intent upon shocking the viewer or creating massive, stunning, visual impressions. However, stunning people gets to be harder and harder every two years. In defining the Venice Biennale, perhaps it would be best to call it a barometer registering the state of art in the world today.
Spiral of the Galaxy, a giant bronze seashell also by Marc Quinn.
My first impulse was in wanting to touch it. A guard nearby said, no in Italian.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Flooded Art

The mud of the Florence flood, November 4, 1966.
Santa Croce Basilica well before
floodwaters crested around eight p.m.
After several days of hard rains, the dams holding back the floodwaters of Tuscany's Arno River in Italy threatened to give way. November 4th, 1966,  4:00 a.m., fearing even greater destruction if the damns broke, engineers began a controlled release of waters. Within hours a wall of water hit Florence, Italy, traveling at an astounding thirty-seven miles per hour. By ten a.m. the square in front of Santa Croce Basilica (left) in central Florence was under water, eventually reaching a height of 22 feet. With the water came even worse, mud, and oil from ruptured tanks on the outskirts of the city (top). There was no gas or power with many areas cut off from communications. The greatest art disaster in modern times was under way. Florence would never be the same again.

The floodwaters reached well up into
the second floors of many buildings.
I visited Florence some thirty-five years later. The water was gone; so was the nearly three feet of mud it left behind. The Arno river appeared serene and harmless. Stories recounted by guides seemed hard to fathom. Only high-water marks on the walls of some buildings gave any hint of the devastation they had encountered. In a city full to the brim with valuable ancient architecture, books, and art, any water at all reaching street-level brings with it costly, sometimes irreparable damage. All during the day, Florentines watched in helpless horror as the waters continued to rise, inundating valuable works inside Santa Croce, the famed doors of the Baptistery, priceless paintings on the lower level of the Uffizi, and dozens of other well-known repositories of the city's cultural treasures. Florence hadn't seen such damage in more than four-hundred years (1557). Moreover, 101 Florentines lost their lives due to the flood.
A group, which came to be called
the Mud Angels, worked tirelessly
to try to rescue tens of thousands
of books seen here stacked several
stories high for drying.
In writing about the Uffizi (05-23-13) I briefly discussed the effect this flood had upon the art and artifacts housed there. However the museum, because of Vasari's elevated main floors, was relatively unscathed as compared to Santa Croce (above, left), the Duomo, the Baptistery, and especially those structures housing Florence's long, detailed, written history. As bad as the damage was to works such as Cimabue's Crucifix, Ghiberti's bronze Gates of Paradise door panels, or Donatello's wooden sculpture, Magdalene Penitent, and others, such pieces constituted a manageable number and, except for the Crucifix, could be restored pretty much to their pre-flooding condition. Far worse, however, was the widespread devastation the water wreaked upon thousands of priceless printed volumes and manuscripts on paper or parchment. Especially hard hit were the collections owned by churches and government archives going back hundreds of years. Damage to various holdings ranged from thirty to one-hundred percent.
Donatello's 1453-55 Magdalene
Penitent was restored to a condition
actually better than before.

Cimabue's Crucifix (ca. 1288) was found more than half submerged, flecks of paint floating in the water around it. Though Donatello's Magdalene Penitent and the baptistery doors were eventually restored, damage to the crucifix was irreparable. The face and body from the knees to the shoulders was virtually destroyed. Floodwaters reached about half-way up on the crossbar. The damage is especially noticeable in comparing the before and after images (below). Ironically, had the crucifix not been removed from its original placement over Santa Croce's high altar in 1566, it would have remained well above the floodwaters. However, at that time, the gigantic, fourteen-foot work was moved to the church's refectory (dining hall) where it was hung low on the wall. Four hundred years later, it's placement proved to be too low.

Cimabue's 1288 Crucifix before
the 1966 flood.
The Crucifix after the flood.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron, 1870,
Henry Hay Cameron
"Mrs. Cameron exhibits her series of out-of-focus portraits of celebrities. We must give this lady credit for daring originality, but at the expense of all other photographic qualities. A true artist would employ all the resources at his disposal, in whatever branch of art he might practise. In these pictures, all that is good in photography has been neglected and the shortcomings of the art are prominently exhibited. We are sorry to have to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interest of the art."--Illustrated London News , 1865

Such a critical review might serve to discourage many amateur photographers, especially at a time when women were considered as too mechanically inept to "handle" a camera. Julia Margaret Cameron had, in fact, taken up photography for the first time little more than a year before, when she received a camera as a birthday gift from her daughter. She very much consider herself an amateur. But she also considered herself an artist--a portrait artist uninterested in merely recording, as she put it, the "topography" of the face, but the inner beauty of the individual. When she began in the 1860s, her art was far more science and technical protocols than aesthetics. Perhaps because no one except her family took her seriously, Julia Cameron was a self-taught photographer, something virtually unheard of in that day. She had no one to insist her exposures be precisely timed, evenly lit, or sharply focused. She took her ideals from painted portraits, not the work of other photographers.

Henry Hay Cameron, 1864, Julia Margaret
Cameron. Notice the striking differences in
her technique and that of her husband.
Julia Cameron Pattle was born in Calcutta, India in 1815, her father, a British official in the East India Company. Though educated in France, she returned to India in 1838 where she married Henry Hay Cameron, a Law Commission member stationed in Calcutta. He was 20 years older than she. After her husband retired, the family moved to London where she fell in with her sister's social circle of artists and writers. It wasn't until she was 48 years old that she first picked up a camera (no simple common expression) they were literally quite boxy, awkward, and heavy at the time. As any experienced photographer will tell you, over time, a camera tends to become almost a part of the human anatomy--an extension of who the photographer might be. Julia Margaret Cameron essentially became "one with her camera."

My First Success, 1864,
Julia Margaret Cameron
Julia Cameron had no London version of Eastman Kodak to mail her film. In fact, she had no film. Fine photography used wet, glass plates, which the user was obliged to shoot, then develop immediately in any form of makeshift darkroom he or she could cobble together. Being self-taught, most of her first efforts were disastrous. She was known to user her bare hands to wipe the emulsion from a the glass when she deemed her efforts unsatisfactory. It was more than a year after she began before she shot and processed what she termed her first success, a poignant, image of a little girl named Annie (right). The year was 1864. Though still considered an amateur, especially by her peers, Mrs. Cameron threw herself into her art and craft with all the gusto and shrewd business acumen of the most successful professional. She had all her work copyrighted; she opened a two-room studio in the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum; lined up a West End printseller to publish and market her work; and in the short span of just 18 months, managed to sell some 80 of her photographs.
Charles Darwin, 1868, Julia Margaret
Cameron, who often made portraits
of leading thinkers, writers, and artists
of the Victorian era..

Alfred Lord Tennyson,
Julia Margaret Camera. Tennyson
was her next-door neighbor.

The photographic career of Julia Margaret Cameron was tragically short. In 1875, the Cameron family moved back to the far east, Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), and though Julia continued producing her distinctive photographic art, Ceylon was not London. There was little market there for photography of any kind, much less what we'd term today the "art photo." There was also the added difficulty of obtaining the necessary chemicals and the pure water needed for processing. In 1879, she died of what was, merely a bad cold. With her, also died her valuable contribution to the photographer's art. Her work was largely forgotten until her niece, the modernist writer, Virginia Woolf, helped edit a book on the life and work of her Aunt Julia. Culled from some 900 surviving photos, that book, and a later one by Helmet Gernsheim, published in 1948, brought Cameron's work to the discerning eyes and appreciation of a generation of photographers far removed from the technical purists of the 1865 Illustrated London News.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hyman Bloom

Rabbi with Torah, 1945, Hyman Bloom
Hyman Bloom
In 1940, Hyman Bloom was dubbed the "Greatest Artist in America." Of course, that's easy to say, but hard to prove. It might help to know who said it. That would be none other than art critic Clement Greenberg. Still not convinced? How about we add the names Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning? Okay, that's a bit more impressive, even though at that early date, before the war, none of these would-be stars of modern art were exactly what you'd call household names. And while we're dropping names, add to the list Ashile Gorky and John Marin, who, along with Bloom, Pollock, and De Kooning, were among only seven artists receiving Guggenheim Fellowships to represent America at the 1950 Venice Biennale (the world's most prestigious international art competition). Pollock and De Kooning considered Bloom "the first Abstract Expressionist artist in America." And since American artists, in effect, gave birth to Abstract Expressionism, that might be considered quite a distinction. Yet, even though the same year, the Whitney Museum of American Art gave Bloom a highly regarded retrospective, why is it, given all these other instantly recognizable artist icons, we find ourselves wracking our brains, not recognizing the name Hyman Bloom?
Seascape II, 1974, Hyman Bloom
Hyman Bloom was born a hundred years ago, 1913, within a decade of most of the others we've mentioned. He was Jewish (as was Greenberg), born in what is now Latvia, but then a part of the Russian Empire. Thus his work was influenced by his Jewish heritage, but also a long list of others, including Albrecht Altdorfer, Grunewald, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, William Blake, Rudolph Bresdin, J.M.W. Turner, John Martin, Chaim Soutine, and Denman Ross. That's quite an artistic pedigree, especially for an abstract expressionist. In truth, in studying Blooms work, it's not hard to see elements of each of these historic artists. The only reasonable reason to account for Bloom's relative obscurity as compared to these other stars of the famed New York School would seem to be that his career peaked too soon.
Nightfall (detail), 1981, Hyman Bloom
Jackson Pollock hit pay dirt with a four-page spread in Life magazine in August 1949. De Kooning rose to fame in 1953. Gorky's fame came mostly after he hanged himself (at the age of 44) in 1948. Marin's reputation came to life somewhat earlier, in the 1930s, but he was by far the oldest of the lot (born in 1870). And then there was Greenberg, who was in fact, more a writer than painter, and has the distinction of having been one of the first to embrace Abstract Expressionism and thus the entire "faculty" of the New York School. Though it might be going a bit far to say Greenberg made it all happen, he certainly played a part in elevating himself and the others to stardom. It would seem that Bloom simply fell through the net. We might suggest, in fact, that Abstract Expressionism came and went leaving Bloom in is colorful dust. Not so fast. Hyman Bloom had one important advantage. Pollock, De Kooning, Gorky, and all the others lived and died in the previous century. Bloom lived well into the 21st Century, until 2009, in fact, when he died at the age of 96. Longevity has its advantages. Only as they commenced writing his obituary did critics begin to ask, whether, quite possibly, and despite all the others, Hyman Bloom might actually have remained the first, perhaps even the greatest abstract expressionist in America.

Wrestlers, ca. 1930, Hyman Bloom, Harvard student drawing created from memory.


Friday, August 23, 2013

The Empire State Building

The Caroline Astor mansion at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street is dwarfed by her brother-in-law's Waldorf Hotel. Her husband tore down the house to build the other half of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which was razed to make room for the Empire State Building.
Anyone who has ever visited what was once the John Thompson farm will tell you, there have been a number of improvements in the past 214 years since he purchased the patch of land from the City of New York in 1799. He paid $2,600. They were slow in coming, however. For the next 26 years, Mr. Thompson simply farmed the land. Then, in 1825, a real estate developer on the make bought the farm for $10,000, making a tidy profit for old John. The developer made a tidy profit too, selling half the plot to the son of the inimitable John Jacob Astor for $20,500 just two years later. For the next thirty-two years the growing city of New York gobbled up block after block of farmer Thompson's former cornfields and pastures. Then in 1859 John Jacob Astor Jr. built a mansion there, on the corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Not to be outdone, a few years later, his younger brother built his own mansion next door, 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. These were four or five story townhouses, not the overwrought, Beaux-Arts, piles of stone designed by Morris Hunt, which the Astors later built up the street (Fifth Avenue). By today's standards, they might even be considered "temporary housing."

Architect, Henry J. Hardenbergh's rendering of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel,
razed in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building.
Well before the turn of the century, both were gone, replaced by the ornate Waldorf and the Astoria hotels (later combined into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). Such was the real estate market in mid-town Manhattan in the early 1900s that even these landmark structures had a shelf-life of barely thirty years before also being razed (to be rebuilt up-town). By that time, the one square block plot of land, probably no larger than John Thompson's vegetable garden, went for $20-million. Then, on January 22, 1930, construction crews moved in and started digging up the place. They planted there perhaps the most iconic work of art to ever grace the city's skyline. Within little more than a year, there sprouted the tallest building in the world. They grandly called it the Empire State Building.
The R.J. Reynolds Building,
Winston-Salem NC., by
Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon.
There are a lot of different levels upon which to consider the Empire State Building (some might say 102, to be exact). We've already taken a look at its pre-history. Besides history, I write about art, so, all else aside, this is a work of art by architect William F. Lamb of the firm, Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon. Normally we would think of such a creative effort as taking many months, perhaps a year or more to design. Lamb's firm took two weeks. How did they manage such a complex assignment in so little time? Well, it was a big firm, but the main reason was that they'd just completed the R.J. Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, though it was only 314 feet tall, a mere 21 floors. As we might say today, they merely "up-sized" it. Other than the floor-count and the iconic spire, they look remarkably alike.

It's red and green, must be Christmas
If the design time was minimal, the construction time went nearly as fast. By May 1, 1931, less than 15 months later, they were cutting ribbons. It's amazing what 3,400 construction workers can put together backed by $41-million (because of the Depression, well under the anticipated cost). Rivaled only by the Brooklyn Bridge (04-07-13) and the Statue of Liberty (09-06-11) the Empire State Building is New York. Designed in the prevailing Art Deco style of the day, the New York City landmark was far from an instant success. Office space in Manhattan was going for pennies on the dollar. For a time, the building was dubbed the "Empty State Building," its observation deck taking in more than its 85 stories of offices rentals. The building failed to show a net profit until 1952. Since 1964, colored lights have illuminated the upper floors, varying according to the season.

Like the giant ape, Americans have fallen in love with the Empire State Building, rating it number one in the list of their favorite American architectural landmarks.
Few buildings in the world can match
the restrained visual impact of America's
number one skyscraper. Even its lobby
seems to glow.
Though occupying only about two acres of costly Manhattan real estate, no building in the city, including the tragic World Trade Center Towers, has had a greater cultural following. Every year, athletes race up the stairs to the top; tourists insert thousands of coins into massive console binoculars to peer at the surrounding cityscape; in the movies, King Kong has embraced its lofty heights; and during the past 83 years, more than thirty people have jump to their death from those same lofty heights. Few works of art anywhere in the world can claim such a broad human impact. Record breaking statistics as to heights, elevators, TV antennas, celebrity visits, crimes and other facts are as startling as they are boring. Though far from the tallest building in the world today (or even the tallest in the U.S.), the Empire State Building stands head and shoulders above the others as an artistic masterpiece of architectural will-power and human triumph over adversity.

The New York City Skyline from the 102nd floor observation deck--One of the
few building in the world where more photo have been taken from it than of it.