Detroit has definitely seen some better days. The once great city is currently suffering under a paralyzing debt of somewhere in the ballpark of $20 billion dollars. Drastic measures are being considered to stave off their financial hemorrhaging: one of them being; selling off their great collection of artworks. As an art lover and lover of museums, this news was very dismaying for me. If this collection were to go under the gavel, most of it would end up in the hands of private collectors scattered to the wind. Public institutions don’t have the resources to compete with the Eli Broads of the world. Great artworks are one thing, but great collections are another, and Detroit has a great collection. Fearing the worse and before it was too late; we called some friends, packed up the car and headed for the border.
The signs of Detroit’s financial situation were immediately apparent once we crossed the river, but among the abandoned and boarded up buildings sits a white marble jewel. The Detroit Institute of the Arts was never on my museum radar until this potential crisis, but that was a huge oversight on my part. The first thing you are struck by is the building itself, with its size and scope. The collection within it houses roughly 66 000 precious objects. What we found around every corner were breathtaking surprises and bonafide masterpieces. Our first big surprise was Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare. Fuseli is a minor player in the history of art but has managed to create one of its most arresting images. It is tragically a fitting allegory for Detroit’s current woes. Debt sits on her chest like a malevolent spirit producing unrest.
The rumour of the potential sale of the Institute’s collection has furthered been fueled by an appraisal (commissioned by the D.I.A.) of its holdings by Artvest: an art investment firm. Artvest values the total collection at roughly 4.6 billion dollars, but warns that if an actual sale were to take place it may garner only a quarter of its projected worth. Values are based on current art market trends and comparable auction prices. The whole report can be found here. The high prices achieved by the sale of art is a hot button issue for many individuals. I personally believe some things on this earth should be valuable. We need to acknowledge the accomplishments and historical contributions of the makers and innovators among us. Genius is precious and should be rewarded. Overall, Art is worth way more than money, but for the time being the market is one way( a flawed way) to help gauge its worth. Bruegel’s Wedding Dance topped the list of Detroit’s top earners with a potential fetching price of $200 million. Van Gogh was next followed by Picasso.
The pleasure of a truly splendid collection can be found in its range and its depth. Detroit is a spoil of riches for any museum goer, starting with the Diego Rivera murals, along with the Rembrandts, Caravaggios, Fra Angelicos and the list just goes on. Here is a small smattering of what Detroit has to offer:
The idea of selling off this wonderful collection is heart breaking. Hopefully the governor of Michigan will follow through with his pledge and keep supporting the museum. The Detroit Institute of the Arts is worth far more than the 4.6 billion price tag it has been allotted. Do yourself a favour and experience one of the great cultural institutions in North America; it’s worth the trip.
What may appear on the surface as two artists that are world’s apart; Goya and Rothko in fact travel a lot of the same artistic highways. Only 75 years separate the death of one with the birth of the other. In many ways their subject matter was to depict the unseen. They both explored the darker reaches of the human condition in their art, culminating in both their painting’s trajectories landing firmly in the colour black. But before they both arrived at a deeper shade of pale, brighter hues burned brightly under their masterful touch. Mark Rothko and Francisco Goya are both titans of painting, but who is the greater artist?
No other artist in the history of art has created more haunting and some cases disturbing images than Goya. His Disasters of War alone would cement this title but he offered so much more. It is hard to fathom that the artist who painted The Parasol believed all humanity was doomed. The Parasol is an early masterpiece painted when the artist was 31. Originally painted as part of a series of designs meant for royal tapestries; the seemingly innocent depiction of everyday life hints at Goya’s acute sense of foreboding. Darkness creeps in from the corners and our lovely maiden front and center is being shaded from the sun. A bit of an odd choice don’t you think? Goya decided to depict her draped in shadow on what is meant to be a sunny day. This is because I believe Goya found the shadows to be the most intriguing and it is in the shadows that Goya chose to spend most of his time.
Mark Rothko couldn’t escape his own personal shadows and in 1970 they would eventually win out. He had come a long way before he tragically took his own life, including rising to the zenith of what may be considered the cornerstone of American painting: Abstract Expressionism. After many years of dabbling with surrealism and expressionism Rothko helps invent colour-field painting. Post World War II, New York becomes the center of the art world and it was people like Pollock, DeKooning and Rothko who put it there. Pollock and DeKooning are both brilliant painters but Rothko makes brilliant paintings. The two action painters are more about the actual act of painting and the process wins out over the product. Rothko’s process transcends the painting and becomes the act of seeing. His paintings are made for the viewer. Rothko wanted people to weep in front of his canvases. For a select few this may have been the case but for many the subtlety of the subconscious may have been lost on them.
Goya also very much kept the viewer in mind, and his artworks range from the historical to the critical to the cautionary. Like Rothko he too wants to evoke an emotional response in his viewer. In many cases that response is horror and in other cases mirth and sometimes he wants both. A prime example of this would be his series of 80 etchings called the Caprichos (meaning: whims or fantastical ideas). In the series of prints Goya’s keen eye is focused on the uglier side of society. He satirizes our vanity, greed and selfishness among other things. Although in his time they were a commercial failure, they have become one of the most important bodies of work by any one artist and their insights still sting true today.
Rothko’s true power lies in experience. No web page or reproduction comes remotely close to the real thing. His paintings are not immediate. You must pause in front of them and let them fill your vision with colour and then wait for the breath. Rothko’s better paintings breathe. The blurred lines expand and contract and the colours glow and recede. Being in a slightly dimmed room full of Rothkos is an out of body experience. An interesting side effect of the attention Rothko received was the colour field artists rekindled a love for none other than Claude Monet. The parallels between his waterlily paintings and what was going on in New York in the 50’s had many people reexamine the father of Impressionism.
Goya is an artist that also gives you pause, he stresses the unspoken truths and drama of the world around us. We are reminded of the colossus over the ridge, a terrible force of nature that can loom large over our lives. The attribution of the Colossus was actually put into question in 2008 when officials at the Prado were convinced that it was the work of one of his followers and not the master himself. Other art scholars have disputed this fact and a general consensus was agreed upon that the painting was in fact the work of Goya.
The beginning of the end for Rothko was his commission for The Seagram murals to be installed in the Four Seasons Restaurant. He painstakingly labored over them, believing that they would elevate the viewer to a higher state. His creative process is wonderfully depicted in John Logan’s play Red. He was paid what roughly would be 2 million dollars today to do the work. After completing the paintings, he and his wife ate in the restaurant. He was so sickened by the gaudy display of wealth he saw there he returned the money and gave the work to the Tate in London. Although I admire his conviction, I’m actually not a big fan of the work. I’ve seen them on several occasions and come out underwhelmed every time. I’m not sure if it is the colour or the scale but they lack the breath of his earlier work.
Every painting Goya executes breathes with life. Whether it is the atrocities of war like his depiction in The Third of May or the simple eyes of a cat waiting in the shadows to pounce. There is always more to the picture. Goya eludes to a much larger narrative even in something as seemingly innocuous as a child’s portrait.
In the end Rothko immersed himself in the shadows and created false landscapes that alluded to the abyss. They are interesting in a way that they plot his trajectory but comment too heavily on the tragedy that is only a year away.
At the end of his life Goya surrounded himself with his infamous black paintings. They were painted directly onto the walls of his house. Executed with a limited palette their images evoke witches, monsters and very dark places. They were only intended for himself but lucky for us were painstaking removed from the house and now hang in the Prado.
Both Goya and Rothko tapped into our collective subconscious stirring up our emotions and making us active participants in the viewing of art. Goya transcends all barriers, conveying his message to scholars and paupers alike. His imagery has the extraordinary gift of being both instantly recognizable and at the same time a slow burner that plays on your memory. Unfortunately, Mark Rothko is nothing but a slow burner. When he burns, he burns brightly but to a lesser degree than the Spaniard.
This was the second Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective I have had the pleasure of seeing and just like the first; it did not disappoint. The first retrospective I saw was in Montreal in 1994 organized by the Guggenheim. Nearly 18 years later, the paintings hadn’t lost any of their punch. The beauty of seeing these paintings in person is their scale and presence. Tiny comics blown up to enormous proportions give the subject matter a sense of urgency and importance. The recently closed show at The Art Institute of Chicago contained nearly 170 works from the late great pop artist. Best know for his iconic comic strip inspired canvases, the retrospective illustrated that the artist was far from a one trick pony.
Lichtenstein was a master of appropriation. He mined sources from the pop culture of his day to the masters of the western art canon and beyond. He had an impeccable eye for subject matter. He spotlighted the art contained in the simple narrative of comic strips by isolating single panels eliminating the context and highlighting the raw emotions. He transformed simple objects into iconic portraits.
His style evolved from the comics but soon eclipsed it. He integrated many printing techniques including benday dots, parallel lines and flat bold colours. Although his style appears to be totally graphic in nature; the influence of the Abstract Expressionists is very evident in a lot of his work. The brushstroke series is a direct comment on how they applied paint, where a piece like Composition II is a nod to the all-over style.
Lichtenstein tackles luminaries such as Monet and Picasso. The Pop filter he applies only helps to accentuate the greatness of the originals. The retrospective does a wonderful job of organizing the many series he explored during his career. Along with the art history paintings; he explored interiors, mirrors, comics, moldings, still-lifes, landscapes and even (a slight misstep in my opinion) nudes. He mostly succeeds in all areas.
Near the end of his career he incorporated the direct brushwork of the abstract painters he so admired. It was nice to see the direct evidence of the artist’s hand that had been camouflaged by the mechanical reproduction techniques he so often employed. The end result of the juxtaposition of the two diametrically opposed styles together on the same canvas is fantastic. I didn’t get to see these paintings the first time around because they hadn’t been created yet. A few notable paintings that were missing this time from the first time around would be Girl with Ball (one of my favourites) and Grrrrrr.
The Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective is now on its way to The National Art Gallery in Washington, then on to the Tate in London and the Pompidou in Paris.
There are days as an artist that you want to take the plunge and work in your studio full time, and then there are days when your furnace conks out and ……well you know the rest.