Simple juxtaposition of two icons of Toronto’s cultural landscape.
Simple juxtaposition of two icons of Toronto’s cultural landscape.
I went to go see Warhol:Revisited on August 6th. I remember the date, because that is in fact Andy Warhol‘s birthday. I didn’t do this deliberately, it was just a happy accident. Nobody in the gallery that day was making much of a fuss about it. I found this glaring omission a little odd considering the only artist Revolver Gallery collects is Mr. Warhol. Maybe I missed it, but you would think that the anniversary of the birth of the sole reason your gallery exists would warrant a little recognition. If anything, a potential marketing opportunity was missed, and the one thing that becomes abundantly apparent on visiting Warhol: Revisited is that: it is nothing but one giant marketing opportunity. The exhibit feels more like a vanity project for a single minded collector than a true reflection of one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. This is not a survey of an artist’s work, rather a survey of another person’s buying habits.
Phrases like ‘Museum-Style‘ exhibition get thrown about like advertising slogans; they ring as true as phrases like “part of a nutritious breakfast.” It begs the questions: if this is such an important exhibition why isn’t it in a proper museum and why the hard sell? During a TV interview; when asked about their decision to hold the exhibition in a former retail store in the heart of Yorkville, the organizers said” It’s what Andy would have wanted.” This statement makes my skin crawl, firstly the way they framed it: it equates art with commerce and secondly don’t speak for the dead, especially when the rationale caters to your self-serving agenda rather than a dead person’s wishes. The biggest misconception about Andy Warhol is that he was only concerned with surface and the business of art and this show kind of reinforces this notion. Don’t get me wrong, that was definitely part of his approach but I don’t think that it is the core of his work. Andy was an endless innovator who was very serious about being taken seriously. Maybe a better title would be Andy Warhol: Misrepresented.
The core of the problem is that this exhibition reflects one person’s collection and that this collection reflects the availability of Warhol work on the art market. It feels as though the work was bought solely for the name rather than the artwork attached to it. Frankly some of this stuff should never have left the studio and others are just rehashes of some of his most iconic images. There are a handful of nice pieces that demonstrate how good he really was, but the number of weaker pieces seems to dilute their impact. Don’t get me wrong, would I love to own a real Warhol? You know I would, but I feel you should love the work more than the name attached to it. (I’d take one those cows in a heartbeat though!)
All my ranting and raving aside, none of what I’m saying will prevent this show (already in its third month) from being a major success. While I was there it was packed: filled with some art lovers, some curious passers-by and a crazy amount of people wanting a selfie with a Marilyn or a Soup Can. Andy Warhol is an important artist and most of what he did deserves some serious contemplation but if you want to get to know the real Andy, take a trip to Andy’s hometown of Pittsburgh and visit the Andy Warhol Museum; ‘it’s what Andy would have wanted.”
Blogging can be a tricky business at best, coming up with engaging content is not always easy. Sometimes you have to set yourself a challenge to get the juices flowing. Any regular readers of this blog will have noticed an irregular set of posts entitled Who’s the Greatest Artist? What I thought would be a quick summer series has now stretched out over two years. I hadn’t really appreciated the scope of the project when I started down this road, but I would have to say it being one of the most enjoyable to research and write. Close to 14 000 words later and here we are. As I approach writing the final four face-offs: Picasso vs Van Gogh and Da Vinci vs Michelangelo, I thought I would compile the story so far.
Here’s the one that started it all and explains the premise – Who’s the Greatest Artist?
I didn’t want to make it easy on myself so I intentionally tried to create difficult match-ups – Picasso vs Rembrandt
I liked the idea of using the artist’s likenesses in the banner for each piece – Goya vs Rothko
In my mind the outcome of some match-ups were more obvious than others – Dali vs Warhol
I liked this one because it pits two very intellectual artists against one another – Da Vinci vs Duchamp
As I went along, it was increasingly enjoyable to find the parallels between the two – Bacon vs Basquiat
This may have been one of the more difficult one’s to decide – Cezanne vs Kandinsky
Sometimes the two artists couldn’t be more unalike if you tried –Velazquez vs Van Gogh
This was a tough one because whoever got eliminated could easily have gone on to the top of the bracket –
That was the first round, now I had the daunting task of writing about some of the same artists all over again but try to keep it fresh. In my mind I knew I had to pace myself and if I knew a particular artist might advance I had to keep some interesting information for later. Some pairings really helped to inform the direction the piece would take. Now on to the quarter-finals.
I made sure I found pictures where they are both wearing their ‘trademark’ striped shirts – Warhol vs Picasso
This one was probably the most lopsided of the bunch – Bacon vs Van Gogh
I had to eliminate one of my all time favourites, which is always a bit difficult – Da Vinci vs Goya
David and the Giant Peach – Michelangelo vs Cezanne
This brings us up to date and soon the semi-finals. At this point, I’m still not sure who is going to take this thing and that’s part of the enjoyment. I hope you have had a fraction of the amount of pleasure reading these things as I have had writing them.
Oh the eighties, what a decade; a decade of excess – “Everything counts in large amounts.” From the hair to the shoulder pads to the laser discs, everything was bigger and bolder in the eighties and the art market was no exception. The stock market was booming, Japanese investors fell in love with everything Impressionism and art became a status symbol along with an appealing place to invest your money. In the seventies the highest price paid for a piece of art at auction was 5.5 million for a Velasquez. The eighties would shatter that record repeatedly with paintings going for 10 times that amount. Van Gogh‘s Irises was the big winner but everyone benefited from the trickle down effect. Contemporary art of the time reaped the most rewards. If you can’t afford a real Van Gogh, how about a Van Gogh in waiting. Nobody wants to be the one who passed on overlooked genius. Collectors and dealers were ravenous for the next big thing and many artists of the eighties both cashed in and were cashed out because of it.
This was the climate when a 20 year old Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) took the art world by storm, burned bright, started to fade and then was dead only 7 years later. 27 years after his death, The Art Gallery of Ontario is staging the first major retrospective of his work in Canada entitled: Now is the Time. They have assembled an impressive collection of roughly 85 works consisting of both paintings and drawings spanning his entire career. Unfortunately his entire career was a mere 8 years long, cut short by a drug overdose. It begs the question – what could have been? He is now and forever: a young talent never allowed to fully develop as an artist, eternally suspended in a decade of contradictions.
The major contradiction that can be observed about the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is that it can be misconstrued as simplistic, childlike or poorly executed by the casual observer; when in fact he is in complete control, a savvy and clever draftsman who orchestrates what he decides to put down or omit. (He would intentionally cross words out to draw more attention to them.) Basquiat is a self-taught artist whose compositions are constructions comprising of expressionistic flourishes of paint, wordplay, sketchbook drawings and iconography. They are all done with a sense of urgency and an almost disregard for themselves that make them crackle with energy. Now is the Time does a wonderful job of channeling that energy.
Part of that crackle I believe comes from Basquiat’s roots as a street artist. He started on the streets of New York as a teenager spray painting social commentary on the sides of buildings under the name SAMO. Graffiti by its nature is a speedy process that translates in his technique and onto his canvases. The early eighties saw the first big boom for the gallery system to adopt street artists with Jean-Michel and Keith Haring being the standouts. As much as Basquiat was initially brought in as a street artist, his influences also included Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut movement along with mark makers like Cy Twombly. His art is steeped in art history along with what was going on in New York at the time. Throughout his career he employed a cut and paste sampling approach to composition not unlike early hip-hop records of the time.
Basquiat was heavily influenced by music – especially jazz. He embraced it for both its improvisational qualities as well as where it fits into the story of black history. Music and professional sports were two avenues afforded to young black men to improve their stations in the racially biased society of the mid 20th century. These are motifs he returns to again and again throughout his career and Now is the Time (which is a Charlie Parker reference) does a wonderful job of highlighting this through the inclusion of many works and accompanying commentary. Race and racism also factor into the work of Jean-Michel. Being among only a handful of recognized black visual artists at the time, he was in many ways a lone voice using his art to draw attention to the inequalities inherit in the system.
When it comes to assessing the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. No one piece leaves me gob-smacked but seeing so many works together provides the proper breath and scope of what his contribution was. Over the course of his brief career he created 1000 paintings and 2000 drawings, not all with the same results. In some cases his critical filter may have been impaired by the drugs along with the huge market demand that he constantly repeat himself and not allowed to fully develop made the work suffer. One of his dealers at the time notoriously would sell his works as the more desirable “early Basquiats” (1981-1984) as opposed to the “late Basquiats” (1985-) while he was still alive. Some feel that he may have been exploited by an art world that only saw dollar signs.
An artist that was no stranger to dollar signs was Andy Warhol. In the mid eighties the two artists struck up an unlikely friendship and collaborative practice. Critics accused Andy of using Basquiat by riding on his popularity and getting his name back in the headlines. Its obvious by looking at their 4 collaborations in the show that the two are having fun and their relationship was based more on friendship than business. Of the many works they did together the juxtapositions are kind of interesting but mostly fail to live up to either of their solo work.
Now is the Time does a nice job of surveying the work of an artist who was gone way too quick. Make sure to make your way to the Art Gallery of Ontario to feel that crackle, if only for a brief moment.
Feb 7- May 10
People really love to hate Jeff Koons; artists especially. The laundry list of criticisms levied against him are vast and plenty. The fact that he doesn’t physically make any of his own artworks and they are actually the factory fabrications of a team of nameless makers seems to rub some people the wrong way. Marcel Duchamp started that avalanche a century ago and Warhol had no trouble cashing the cheques as a result of it. One major difference between Koons and the elder statesmen of art is that both Duchamp and Warhol had the technical skill to execute anything that they put their name to. With Jeff Koons it’s not so apparent, but Koons’ power stems from what Duchamp so eloquently pointed out forever ago, is that the idea is where the art lies and the object is just the conduit in which it is communicated. Who cares where the object came from as long as an artist infuses it with their own artistic conception?
So what exactly is Jeff’s conception? This is probably the other major sticking point for his critics. Some people think he doesn’t have one. He is accused of creating super polished art-bling for the super rich. It has no worth except for what it’s worth. Is this where Jeff’s genius lies? Like Warhol said “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Jeff Koons’ career trajectory has been cool and very calculated and Jeff is a very clever boy who knew to steal from the best. Take a look at his early vacuum pieces. One part Duchamp one part Dan Flavin and voilà instant art that has an existing built in conception. The vacuum pieces work now more from an 80’s artifact curiosity factor than a neo-dadist sensibility.
Neo-dadist art eventually morphed and transitioned into Pop art and that is where Koons found his true calling. Jeff Koons is a pop artist perfectionist with the budget of a Hollywood studio. In the beginning he didn’t always have the resources he possess today. He did this by investing in himself. He took all his money and put it into the fabrication of his ideas, sometimes selling them at a loss to help perpetuate his brand. Employing scientists to help you figure out how to make a Dr. J basketball eternally float suspended in time doesn’t come cheap. Casting an inflatable dingy in bronze also doesn’t come cheap; irony costs. Is this where Jeff Koons brilliance lies?
In the late 80’s Jeff Koons hit his stride. He became an expert anthropologist/alchemist, mining the cultural landscape for gold. He could turn led into a precious metal. He could turn the banal into candy and intrigue. He played with materials and surface with astonishing results. His rabbit from this time was an artistic revelation. Koons worked in steel, wood, porcelain and fabrication. His work was a celebration and easy fun.
Jeff Koons throughout his career has channeled his inner child. With works like Play Doh and Balloon Dog playfulness is on display in a monumental way. The facts they are in themselves very grown-up feats of engineering (Play Doh took 10 years to figure out) is invisible. They are made to be loved and when it comes to his Balloon Dogs mission accomplished. In my opinion the Balloon dogs are his most successful works. They work on a conceptual and aesthetic level. In their presence you are impressed by their scale and tickled by their polish. On the flip-side, in every way his sculptures succeed, his paintings fail miserably.
His paintings are meticulous recreations of bad Photoshop collages. When I look at them I just feel sorry for the poor painters who had to waste countless hours of their lives creating unneeded forgettable images. The best of Jeff’s art works because he willed it into existence. The fact that Seal Walrus Chairs exists in itself is ridiculous. Creating painted bronze casts of pool toys trapped in a stack of plastic deck chairs defies all common sense and that is why it works. There is an implied narrative there that none of his paintings exhibit.
The bulk of the metallic sculptures are exercises in execution but ultimately don’t come close to a Rabbit or Balloon Dog. There’s a specificity to them that the stronger work isn’t chained to. It could be any balloon dog among millions as opposed to one Popeye, Hulk or what have you. Inflatables are meant to be inconsequential and not revered as monuments.
The Whitney has done a good job surveying an international art star’s evolution and success. They have included the good, bad and ugly (Made in Heaven: Koons’ misstep into sex and images). I was looking forward to this show and was not disappointed. I left wondering: is Jeff Koons a genius? On the one hand, none of this would have happened if it weren’t for the Warhol blueprint ( who in my mind is a genius). On the other hand these ridiculous monuments to the inconsequential were willed into existence by Koons’ creativity and tenaciousness. Are these important art objects or hyper expensive lawn ornaments for the uber-rich?
Why not go to the Whitney and decide for yourself? The Jeff Koons Retrospective is on until Oct 19th.
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.
Think what you will of their work; these two could arguably be considered the most influential artists that have ever lived. The art they produced was like an atom bomb whose fall-out we are still feeling the effects of to this very day. Picasso owned the first half of the 20th Century and Warhol the last. After them nothing was the same again. They may have not been the sole inventors of the movements they are most renowned for, but they sure perfected them. They both launched a million imitators, with very mixed results. In the 21st century; some of our biggest names: Koons, Hirst and Murakami (to name a few) all follow the Warhol formula. In the arena of painting, Picasso’s shadow still looms large. Their output was astounding and they both worked right up until their deaths. Long after the soup cans and the three musicians they continued their respective artistic journeys, but was it still genius? If we set aside all the masterpieces and focus on the later work when the shock of the new had faded and try to divorce the art from their reputations, who’s the greater artist?
Throughout his career Picasso reinvented himself countless times from blue to rose to cubist to neoclassical and so on and on. Along the way he relaxed into a bold hybrid of cubism with expressionistic overtones. He relied on black to outline his ideas and the immediate world to be found only an arm’s length away to inform his subject matter, but because it is Picasso the simple isn’t all that simple. If we look at the Tomato Plant painted in 1944 during WWII we see a moment of change. The fruit is ripening on the vine and the outlook feels promising. Picasso leaves the background flat accentuating the plant. It feels like a simple study in colour and composition but it reflects his deeply entrenched approach to exploration.
Warhol as well constantly changed his game from Pop to film to portraiture to social commentary and so on. Later in his career he collaborated with other artists including Clemente and Basquait. His portraits became more about business than art but he still messed with the formula. Although every portrait he ever did was roughly the same dimensions (22.2 x 22.2 -his intent was to have a huge show of them displayed in a grid at the Met after his death) he did constantly experiment with colour and line. He even famously played with copper oxidization (piss paintings) that poke fun at both abstract expressionism and the art market itself. In the above portrait Jean-Michel was in on the joke and aware of his own critics. Warhol was also hyper aware of his own reputation and even if he didn’t show it on the surface wanted more than anything to be remembered as an important artist and not just a showy personality.
Picasso’s reputation remained intact throughout his lifetime but as the post war world found new delights in action painting, conceptual and pop art his voice was being pushed to the sides. The demand for his work was still high but newer artists weren’t following his lead any longer, so Picasso started looking to the past. In the fifties he decided to tackle one of the heavy weights of Spanish painting -Velasquez. He did 58 variations on Les Meninas, many which can be found in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Standing in front of them you get a sense that Picasso is trying to work out the demons of cubism that he is now eternally chained to. Most of the studies feel unresolved and repetitious. Picasso tries to best Velasquez at his own game but constantly comes up short. The strongest of the suite is the large black and white version that feels like many paintings all rolled into one and has to rely on a reference to one of his own masterpieces – Guernica to compete with original Les Meninas. There will always be something compelling in his attempts but the end result is neither good Velasquez nor good Picasso.
Warhol also tackled the greats throughout his career. The Last Supper painted in 1986 based on a kitschy reproduction of the Da Vinci original works for that very same reason. The fact Warhol used a reproduction as the source material comments more on his own output than the original subject matter. It reflects any version other than the original will always fall short. This is the lesson Picasso had to learn the hard way.
One of the strongest collaboration pieces done with Basquait would be their Punching Bags . Warhol who was a devout Catholic and attended church every Sunday places religion firmly in the ring with public opinion. Like all good Warhols, it satisfies both aesthetically and conceptually.
In the last few decades of Picasso’s life he started to paint against the clock. It would not be uncommon for him to do a painting in the morning, break for lunch and do another one in the afternoon. These works have been considered a side note on a long distinguished career and not taken very seriously due to their fevered execution. Although they seem pale shades of past triumphs,they are still very much Picassos.
As distinct as his style is, and along with the sheer number of paintings he completed, it is mind boggling that there is always something innovative to look at in every one of Picasso’s works. He was always surprising from his first painting to his last. Every brushstroke is applied with a confidence and assuredness that is both intoxicating and humbling.
Repetition was a cornerstone of Warhol’s ethos but sometimes too much of a good thing can take its toll. Near the end of his life new ideas were too often being replaced with recycled ones. Warhol made endless Warhols but if you strip away all the helpers and the mystique of the factory, he was still a brilliant draftsman and colourist. Picasso could have learned a thing or two about colour from Andy and Andy could have benefited from being a more solitary artist like Pablo. In the end, the entirety of Warhol’s career qualifies him as a true artistic genius whose influence will be felt for a long time to come, but ultimately he can never escape from the long shadow of the Spaniard.
Winner: Pablo Picasso
Related Who’s the Greatest Artist?
The art world has never seen anything like them, before or since. Both of their work exposes a nerve and breathes with raw vitality. What on the surface appears to be slapdashery actually on further investigation reveals a surgeon’s precision. For two artists who received no formal training they are in complete control of their materials. One was born from the ashes of World War II and the other from the urban street art scene of NYC. In their lifetimes, both men wrestled with addiction and sometimes could be swept under by its weight. They never pulled their punches, they embraced their outsider status and could somehow wring the beauty from the ugliness of the world. Both their legacies have changed the face of art forever, but who is the greater artist?
They say that if you have a dream that all your teeth fall out; that you are worried about an issue in your life that is out of your control. According to dream logic; teeth represent power. No one knew this better than Francis Bacon, he was fascinated by teeth; actually the whole mouth in general. The mouth is the gateway into our insides. We can greet people with a smile or ward them off with a snarl. We can laugh or scream. In the paintings of Francis Bacon, it is that silent scream that we hear above all others.
The sound we hear from Basquiat is that of a myriad of words all spoken at once; poetry applied to the canvas, scrawled on and then crossed out. It is stream of conscience word association that acts as the mouth of the artist. It lets us in then spits us out again. Basquiat began his career with words as the graffiti artist SAMO. He reacted to the city he lived in by writing social commentary onto its walls. Text became a visual element that he carried with him throughout his career.
As Basquiat fragments words, Bacon fragments visual space. Often times in his paintings, two objects can occupy the same space combining to create a symbiotic entity. People and things seem to penetrate one another leaving them altered. Bacon sets his narratives into a world that is both flat and has depth all at the same time. There is a dramatic quality to his players that seem to find themselves performing for the viewer in an unforgiving arena. His subject matter can seem very harsh, but then he baths his paintings in vibrant flat fields of brilliant colour that radiate beauty. He entices and repulses in equal measures.
Unfortunately throughout their careers, both artists experienced the ugly sting of bigotry. It is hard to fathom that even as late as the eighties that some people had a hard time accepting a black contemporary artist. Throughout his career, Basquiat experienced many obstacles in being recognized by the art community as a serious painter. His radical style was too extreme for many and misinterpreted as naive. His freshness and freedom eventually prevailed but the pressure he felt throughout his career may have contributed to his short time with us. In the end, Basquiat refused to be marginalized as a novelty act and wore his much deserved crown with pride.
Considering the idiotic resurgence of homophobia the world is now experiencing we are reminded that prejudice is still alive and well. Francis Bacon didn’t hide his homosexuality in real life or his work in a time when that was not the norm. He helped to break down barriers and provide a much needed voice . His life was laid bare on the canvas. A few years ago while touring the Vatican I walked around a corner and came face to face with Bacon’s Study for Pope II from 1961. Considering Bacon’s sexual orientation flies directly in the face of the Catholic Church along with the fact that the majority of his Pope pictures show the pontiff in less than a flattering light, I find it an odd choice for inclusion in their holdings. I guess art trumps all.
Basquait’s star burned brightly and attracted the attention of many in the New York art scene including Andy Warhol. What tragically turns out to be the end of Andy’s career, the two artists did a series of collaborative paintings together sharing the same canvases. Although none of their combined pieces ever rose to the height of their individual works, the juxtaposition of Andy’s mechanical process with Basquiat’s expressive touch was quite complimentary. They developed a strong friendship through their partnership. The two would speak daily on the phone to one another and Andy was concerned with Jean’s drug abuse and health. In 1987 Andy’s untimely death due to complications from a routine surgery really hit Basquiat hard. Less than two years later, he too would die suddenly, this time of an overdose at the age of 27.
Basquiat’s career was ended before it really got started. He accomplished an incredible amount in a very short time. His painting instincts were always immaculate. You can witness the act of painting on his canvases and relish in his choices. All his paintings are masterfully executed but I would be hard pressed to find a definitive masterpiece among them. We never got a chance to experience him at the full height of his powers. Bacon has the advantage here by default. He had the opportunity to develop. One look at a painting like Study for a Head of George Dyer and you can see an extraordinary technique and touch that has been cultivated and honed over decades. Bacon’s legacy is impressive, as is Basquiat’s. But in the end, we are left with only one question: poor Jean-Michel, what might have been?