Sunday, April 1, 2012

Diego Rivera: Murals at the MoMa

A few weeks ago, my business partner and I went to see Diego Rivera's Murals at the MoMa, which runs for another few weeks until May 12th. You should go and see it, not only because of the beauty of the murals and the artistry behind these images that are so familiar that they are simply unappreciated, BUT because it's a fantastic exhibition to illustrate to us, viewers, the importance of critical thinking of information presented to us.

But first, the soft balls and the background. Most people are familiar with Diego Rivera, if for nothing else than his ubiquitious images of peasants gathering calla lillies AND for being the husband of Frieda Kahlo. However, 80 years ago he was what can only be considered a power player in the international art world. He was invited by The MoMa to come to New York and to create a series of murals that could be shown here (since by and large the concept of transporting a mural is challenging)and he created 5 almost "mini murals" (they are no more than about 7 feet tall at their highest and 4 or 5 feet wide for the largest ones). The show was the most well attended show in MoMa history at the time and ran from December 22, 1931, to January 27, 1932. After the show opened he added 3 more murals, dealing with the changing landscape of Manhattan, which he was transfixed by during his time here in New York.

The murals themselves are at once amazing and disappointing. If you have seen them reproduced in art books and in poster form, the scale of them in person is a bit underwhelming. But, the technical execution and subject matter is stimulating, invigorating and, even all these years later, politically charged. Murals have always been designed to be publicly consumed art forms, and it was a medium that Rivera clearly excelled at because with relative simple composition and choices, he is able to convey not just a scene, but a political position and an emotional rationale for taking his position. In short, this is socialist propaganda at it's best- so good that whatever your political view point, you feel lost in the moment and emotion of the mural. Take for instance, Indian Warrior (1931). It is bold and graphic and digestible: an Aztec Warrior wearing a Jaguars costume stabs a Spanish Conquistador through his armour with nothing more than a stone knife. Simply put: it advocated Indigenous rebellion against lifetimes of domination by a leaden, stiffened culture. The sheer WILL of being a warrior gave them power over the might of the Spanish armor. An empowering image. A call to action.

Artistically, the most exciting aspect of the exhibition however wasn't message nor mural, but actually the amazing, moving, fluid sketches Rivera prepared for his murals. Seen in some cases side by side with the finished products, I had new respect for Rivera as an illustrator and a visual emoter. And I had new understanding for the limitations of a medium and the compromises an artist makes when choosing his or her medium: For Rivera, the mural provided a large platform to convey message and enabled him to fulfill his mission of creating "art for the public", but in choosing Fresco he lost the emotion and fluidity. And for his purposes a worthy tradeoff, but a fun thing to see for the viewer.

And now, the meatier, more provocative weird stuff. This is the stuff you totally don't need to bother reading, but that still has me scratching my head a few weeks later. Back as a student at Brown just before the turn of the millennium, the mode was to teach a very "X-Files" type of thinking... Question everything... including canons and institutions. It could easily make someone into a conspiracy theorist, and the emphasis on critical thinking could sometimes strip an experience of it's joy... But walking through the Rivera exhibition I couldn't help but think to myself "Isn't it FUNNY how the MoMa put this exhibition together this way..."

Upon entering the room, the viewer has a choice to start the walls to their left or the walls to their right. Being western, 90% of the viewers go left because that's the way we are taught to "read"...both a book and a room. The exhibition starts off with a lengthy documentation of the the conflict between Rivera and the Rockefellers because of Rivera's commission to complete a mural for Rock Center and his inclusion of imagery of Stalin and it's highly socialist message. Long story short, Rockefeller claimed to be shocked at the inclusion, Rivera claims it shouldn't have been a surprise. Rivera fired and slayed in the media and falls off his golden pedestal in America.

As we, the viewer progress through the show we then see the 3 murals that Rivera created in New York, after he'd spent some time here. They are fascinating insights into an outsider watching New York while under Massive modern construction.... skyscrapers popping up everywhere and the skyline as we know it being created. The show then moves to his more "Socialist" images such as "The Uprising", which shows a clash between soldiers and working class protesters. These are positioned side by side with amazing images from Rivera's Sketchbook of images taken during his time as Stalin's guest in Moscow in 1928. Stalin invited Rivera, a member of the Mexican Communist Party, to visit for the 10th Anniversary of the Communist Party being in power in Russia.

Buried in the object placards around the various sketches and drawings from his trip to Moscow the curators from MoMa outline the following narrative: It was during this visit that Rivera met Stalin's OTHER important guest, Alfred H. Barr, a founder of MoMA. Barr, like Rivera was on an all expenses paid trip to see the festivities. Barr then introduced Rivera to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (husband to John D. Rockefeller), who loved Rivera's sketchbooks from his time in Moscow so much, she purchased them to help Rivera cover his expenses to come to New York. It was also during this trip that the entire concept of Rivera coming to New York for a Solo Show evolved and it was after the introduction to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (and the sketchbooks) that the commission for the controversial mural at Rockefeller Center...

After this narrative was revealed, there were about 1 or 2 more drawings and murals left to view before the exhibitions' end. The entire thing was puzzling to me because I couldn't understand why the exhibit would OPEN with the Rockefeller controversy? Why not simply tell the story chronologically and let the viewer assign "blame" to Rivera or not in the Rock Center mural controversy on their own. Why "Frame" the entire show around that debacle when it was clearly a well intentioned, intellectual NY infatuation gone awry? How many political and spiritual trends have we seen (in our lifetimes) celebrities and socialites champion, only to see them go awry? It happens. But instead it seems the museum didnt want to leave that conclusion to chance... And then I realized it's because the Rockefeller family still calls a lot of the shots at MoMA and, in the rearview mirrors of life, history has mourned the loss of those murals at Rock Center as much as we mourn the loss of the old Penn Station... Perhaps a moment of rashness that always brings the blush of embarrassment.

All of this is to say, this show was a great reminder to me to view critically. Unless you are viewing art in an artist's studio, we never just SEE the image alone... we see it in context. We can't help ourselves. So remember, there are two artists at every exhibition: the one whose work is on the walls and the one who curated the way in which you viewed it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dark Dancers

Recently I went to see Black Swan.... recently, I mean the day that it opened, I did not walk, but RAN to the theater because I couldn't BEAR to not have a bit of Darren Arronovsky (a fellow Edward R. Murrow HS alum) in my life as soon as humanly possible. Basically, two weeks later and I'm still thinking about it, or, more accurately, haunted by it.

I'm always fascinated by the frothy notion of dancers that we carry around. Perhaps it's the nearly ubiquitous ballet school experience that most American girls have, including the pink tights and the ballet box and the recitals with the really awful costumes. Perhaps because it's something that so few people travel with it past the Saturday morning phase into the "wow, my legs hurt, my feet are hideous and I have no life outside ballet" phase.

I was really intrigued at how clearly this male director was able to see past a largely female romanticized fantasy about ballet into the much more dark, competitive and, physically wretching world of professional dance. It got me thinking to another man who was able to see the darkness of this world, Edgar Degas.

For most people, Degas' ballerina drawings are actually a buttress for the myth of the charming, romantic world of dance... since it was drawings and sculptures of young, teeny girls in big, pastelly costumes that were simply as light as air.... and after all, isn't that the fantasy of every young girl who studies dance (until it's time to take it super seriously?).

But, in all reality, the work is actually a bit darker. Very rarely did we see his little dancers on the stage once he truly "owned" the little dancers as a subject. They were stretching and massaging limbs and practicing and, in short devoting their lives and days and bodies to ballet.

And, they were, by the way, very, very little girls. Think 11 to 14 for the most part. Wealthy, older male subscribers (which Degas eventually became) paid handsomely for the privilage of gettng back stage access to watch rehearsals and get to know these young girls. (Ew.) The girls, largely from poor backgrounds, relied on patronage and "emotional appeals" by these patrons to the directors of the ballet for "promotion" and "notice" since their fortunes largely depended on "making it big" in the ballet. Actually, in truly a sad story, apparently the girl who posed for the famous and beloved Ballerina with Tutu sculpture (one of which is at the Met), eventually was pimped out by her Mama and ended up in a Bordello in Montparnasse. Triste, indeed!

One of my overwhelming takeaways from Black Swan was how rare in today's world we see artists completely, utterly, devoted to their art. This dedication is historic and I suspect it has always been tinged with a bit of desperation and working against the clock... before you get too old, or too fat or too whatever. I think that this desperate devotion to the ballet had to have been one of Degas' main attractions, it certainly seemed to be Aronofsky's. (Dancers, Pink and Green 1890 and The Little 14 Year Old Dancer Age 14 both at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Sunday, December 5, 2010


I haven't written in ages and ages, but I've decided to re-dedicate the purpose of this blog. I've been told that I am a model guest for cocktail parties and dinner parties (to which I am often invited). This probably comes from my natural ability to make good conversation. I abhor boring talk, and I'd much rather hear people's opinions of music and movies and feelings and weird happenings in their lives than talk about what they do for a living or what they think about Brad and Angelina (though sometimes that too can be interesting!). So, I am going to repurpose Art for Cocktails to NOT JUST educate a bit about ART (which it certainly will still do), but to hopefully also spur some good topics of conversation, even if it's simply to tell other people how utterly dumb or silly you find this blog.

So, in that spirit, I had a funny thing happen to me recently. I found my old journals. I have kept journals for the better part of my life since I was in high school. It's fairly amazing to have chronicled 15 years of your own stupidity and to read through it and see yourself almost like a fictitious character in a predictable movie..(predictable because, obviously, I know how each of my mini-sagas was going to end... INCLUDING all of my relationships!). I read through my junior year of college like I was watching a 70's horror movie "RUN! RUN!! Why aren't you running! No! Not that way!? Why are you moving so slow!". To say that I made the same mistake over and over again would be the understatement of the decade and to say that I genuinely had never noticed that I did this before is probably the only testament to my sanity that I have. It's funny because, if you yourself journal, the documenting is easy, but the revisiting, not so much. Well, as Oprah says, to know better is to do better...
Anyway, I did have MOMENTS where I realized I was making bad decisions, including one where, while being tortured by a boyfriend (which is actually a much more straight forward word than the complicated, horrible relationship we really had) I copied down this poem that I felt perfectly encapsulated how I felt at the moment. If you have ever loved the wrong person (which really is another way of asking if you've ever really truly lived) I hope you find some comfort, and even humor in this poem.

It's actually a very famous song called Malo by the incomparable Argentinian singer Liliana Felipe, here translated into English..

Bad because you don't love me
Bad because you never touch me
Bad because you have a mouth
Bad whenever you please
Bad as lies
Bad breath, constipation
Bad as censorship
as a bald rat in garbage
Bad as poverty
as a drivers license photo
Bad as a rubber check
as smacking your granny
Bad as trichinosis
Bad as a hit man
Bad as spiders
Bad & full of cunning
Bad as order, decency or a good conscience
Bad wherever you look
Bad as a throbbing root canal
Bad as a rusty nail
Bad as a Czech film
Bad as cold soup
Bad as the end of the century
Bad by nature
Bad from head to foot
Bad, Bad, Bad
Bud, but so damn beautiful

The image above is "The Day After" by Edvard Munch (1894).... For me, Munch, above most artists always shows heartbreak so well, and this is certainly no exception. Munch was part of the Expressionist movement. Basically, the easiest way to think of EXPRESSIONISTS is to think of them as the next logical step after the Impressionists movement made it's mark. The Impressionists were scandalous in the beginning because they presented impressions that the beautiful images left on them, the artists. The expressionists (who really originated in Germany as an outgrowth of a theoretical movement.. Nietzche, etc)were more interested in placing on canvas their impressions of FEELINGS; they were EXPRESSING their emotions. Munch tended to really wear his poor little broken heart on his sleeve a bit more obviously than some of his contemporaries, which I think helped make him the big "star" that he did in an art historical perspective.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Monet, Manet, Nas and Jay-Z

Saturday night I went to First Night at the Brooklyn Museum, which is always a fun party, but maybe NOT the best night to REALLY see the art (or at least not if you show up at 10PM).  However, we did pass a really lovely late Claude Monet (Le Parlement, Effet de Soliel, 1903) and I had a pain in my heart when my friend said "Oh, a Monet!"

It's not that I don't have love for Monet, it's just that I always feel irked that Eduoard Manet,  his slightly older,  contemporary is often confused for, or forgotten because of Monet and his commercial success.  Part of my annoyance is because I just like Manet better, and I realized it's how vehement Nas fans feel when they hear and see Jay-Z all over the place.  Here is a Manet, (Olympia from 1863 at the Musee d'Orsay)- this sort of put him "on the map".  

Actually, to continue my hip-hop metaphor, just as Nas and Jay-Z were one time friends and collaborators, so were Manet and Monet. (later, like the two rappers, they became estranged over a "beef" about a novel by Emile Zola). Both of the artists were hugely influenced by Gustav Courbet, the so-called "Father of Impressionism".  Courbet was older and on the scene before either Manet or Monet were, acting a bit like a "Big Daddy Kane". He made a name for himself by painting realistic scenes of things like funerals and people at work, generally unfashionable subjects at the time. However, he did so in a pretty way and captured natural light in a way that inspired many. He was controversial, but it appealed to younger painters and started a movement.  (below, Funeral at Ornans,1849 by Courbet at the Musee d' Orsay in Paris)

Manet took Courbet's love of realism in subjects and ran with it.  He captured the grimy, edgy side of then modern Parisian life.  Like Nas, who is known for his lyrics as much as his subject matter, Manet also broke ground with his STYLE of painting as much as his subjects. He painted hookers (like Olympia),  barmaids, and controversial current events. His painting style was rough, loose, and far less polished than the accepted standards at the time.   It angered and provoked lovers of art.   (The Execution of Maximillian, Manet,  1863 The National Gallery)

Monet, on the other hand, really ran with the brighter side of things, in both subject matter and in style; in turn, Monet found acceptance and financial backing from a broader range audience. Like the commercially unstoppable Jay-Z, this isn't to say that Monet didn't have talent or substance (he had both), or even that he was never controversial (his painting style angered so many people, it coined the term Impressionism). However, Monet almost always restricted his subject matter to "flossy" topics like middle class ladies or gentle landscapes. Monet never shied away from being commercial, a label that Jay-Z got comfortable with early on. (below, La Promenade, la femme a l'ombrelle, 1875, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; La Portail (soleil), 1892 (signed 1894), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
Monet painted things that he knew people wanted to buy and he painted them well. So well, that to many doing more controversial, less successful work (aka, Haters), it seemed almost too easy.  Indeed, as his career went on, Monet selected subjects like the Haystacks and the lily pads that he could paint again and again and again, partly to satisfy the demand for his work.  Like a later Jay-Z album, each painting was solid in and of itself, but to a point, it was formula to fill a commercial need. 
To me, I don't think it's possible to love them both alike. I think you can enjoy them both, but the human appeal, the chords that their work strikes, are completely disparate.  It seems unnatural to me for someone not like one a little more than the other.  But then again, I don't think it's possible to love Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt equally either.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why not start with Jeff Koons? I think we all know him....

If you watch the Today Show, you know Jeff Koons. He made the ginor-mous, 43 foot tall (from paws to ears) that was on the plaza back in 2000 and it probably made you smile! (as it should have. I mean, it's a friggin' 43' tall puppy made of flowers... the Terminator would have smiled!)

But, it's important to know that in addition to earning tons of money (at one time, circa 2007, the highest price at auction for any contemporary artwork - around 27 million), and being hugely accessible, Jeff Koons is WILDLY hated. Sort of like the way that anyone hates on Beyonce, or Anne Hathaway. The bigger you get, the harder they want to smack you down (Mo' Money, Mo' Problems).

The big thing about Mr. Koons, who has made works in paint, ceramic, bronze and more, is that he tends to speak to the part of the brain that US Weekly, or a visit to Granny's or a trip to the dinner does... but with a twist. It's normal, but better, and more interesting. Like eating at Cafeteria or the Conde Naste employee cafe vs. a regular lunchroom. Works like Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) showcase how he takes images that are super regular (and even simply fantastically enjoyable in their mindlessness- like Life & Style might be) and elevates them by putting in all of this tedious detail. The concept of how long it takes to construct Puppy, or cast Michael Jackson in Porcelein is insanely detailed and more tedious than such a frivolous topic SHOULD warrent... but that's sort of the point of art, right? It's not necessarily, neccessary?

So, the big thing to know is that all of this accessibility and commercial success has made Jeff Koons a loved and hated artist. A lot of people wonder if he's just about Kitsch for Kitsch sake? Like, is he like a current Robert DeNiro... where he just plays Robert DeNiro because it gets him a large paycheck? He finds something that works and makes it again, and again and again (the made "Puppy", in large form, at least 4 times). Or is Jeff Koons genuinely in love with making really pretty versions of American crap? Generally speaking, it's hard to say.... Whenever any artist gets popular, it's hard for them to keep "creating" stuff that is true to them, and not a reflection of the persona who got famous.... I think that's part of why why Kurt Cobain killed himself... matter of fact.

But, to be honest, there has to be more to Jeff Koons' than simply making the SIMPLE really pretty (and tedious). Last summer I went with a friend to the Met and saw a few of his new, large scale sculptures replicating, once again, Kitschy Mylar balloon art. Alone, they were so lovely and fun and funny. They enhanced the backdrop to my rooftop cocktail. If I were a hater, I'd love to say that they were fun because they were big, expensive versions of silly memories I have from being a kid in America. But, I'm not much of a hater..... And I think there's a bigger thing to Mr. Jeffy.... He loves things that are filled with Air, and life and that are transient and moving. (Like Michael's face. LOLOLOLOLOL!)

Seriously though, if you think about it, his newest work is all large scale balloon art... involving air and breath. Puppy involves this gorgeous and yet living, breathing and dying flowers. And then there are his older works.... things like Life Boat from 1985... a saving water device cast in heavy, heavy, not gonna save anyone bronze. But there is something fascinating about the idea of such heavy, heavy, big pieces involving life and air.

Wiki Mr. Koons and see what you think... If it just makes you smile, that's OK! If it makes you think, it's probably even better.

Really? An art blog?

A couple of years ago I went to visit a friend in London and he took me to the Tate for lunch. Afterwards, we went through the museum together. He's an attorney, but never really got into art much and I basically devoted my entire undergraduate time to the subject and the practice of art. I figured rather than try and explain why every piece was amazing, I'd just tell him cool factoids about the artists, or why a piece was valuable, or just why something wasn't "total crap" in an art historical context even if it seemed totally stupid to him.

When I was in college my professors would tell me that I had a real knack of explaining art in layman's terms. I don't know if that's totally true, but I do know that it's always seemed a shame that something lovely and emotionally connective was kept so mysteriously out of reach to the regular dude on the street.

So, here we go: Art, for Cocktails. Hoping to bring a little more pleasure to the art viewer in you! Mainly, I think I'll visit shows at museums and write about the artist and some of their work. But sometimes, I'll probably just babel about artists you "should know about" in straight shooter terms. Hope you'll enjoy!
BTW, the banner has the works of (top, l to r: Egon Schiele (who had a weird foot fetish and never painted them); Jan Van Eyke wedding portrait laden with sexual symbolism; Jackson Pollack; my personal favorite, Edouard Manet's Le Fifre; Robert Gober; the amazing Nan Goldin.... who really somehow made the sad, so gorgeous; Freida Kahlo's self portrait called Los Dos Freidas; Dorothea Lange who captured the dustbowl/ depression on film; Jean-Michel Baquiat's (another BK native/ part Puerto Rican like myself) statement against police brutality; a portrait by Paul Cezanne. He would make his sitters sit for hundreds of sessions until he got the image correct; Coco Fusco, performance artist and poet and one time Fort Greene resident.