Month: July, 2012

Let’s Call it Square

Josef Albers (1888–1976) Color Study for Homage to the Square, ca. 1950 Oil on blotting paper 61 x 48.3 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.197

In 1933 the Nazis ordered Berlin’s Bauhaus to close, leading artist  Josef Albers—then a teacher at the school—to move to the United States, taking a job as the the head of the art department at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It wasn’t until this move that the artist—who previously worked primarily with glass— began producing paintings. “Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper,” currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, examines this turning point in Albers’ career. The show focuses on the artists painting process, featuring nearly 80 never-before-exhibited preparatory paintings and color studies.

Some of the most eye-catching paintings in the show are those from Albers’ brightly-colored “Adobe” series. The artist spent the majority of 1947 in Mexico. There, he was drawn to the homes and their color pallettes of tawny yellow, rich ochre, burnt orange, and bright tirquoise. These Adobe homes became the paradigm for Albers’ paintings that year and several studies for them are on view here. The “Adobe” paintings are planned on graph paper. As the show’s curator, Isabelle Dervaux, explained, Albers would methodically map out each painting. Using the measurements on the paper, he would mark off equal portions for each color he planned to use. The color ratios do not appear to be equal in many of the “Adobe” paintings, but in reality the quantities are the exact same. This type of illusion—the way colors paired in geometric patterns can play tricks on the eye— was one aspect of painting in which Albers was particularly interested. He said, “With two separate colors in no way overlapping, three are produced, through interaction. Each borrows from and gives to the other.”

Two years later, Albers left Black Mountain College to teach at Yale University. This marked the beginning of Albers’ most widely recognized period of paintings, his “Homage to the Square” series. These paintings evaluate the ways in which variations of shape, size, and color can alter the visual perception of an artwork. For his “Homages,” Albers applied paint in a single coat using a palette brush. This eliminated any painterly brushstrokes, or thick, impasto layers of paint, allowing for a smooth surface in which colors can play off one another. Albers would paint over 2,000 editions of Homage to the Square, but his very first version is—done in white, black, and gray—is on display in the exhibition. The creation of the painting was documented by Elaine de Kooning in the November 1950 issue of ARTnews as part of the magazine’s artist-in-process series. In the article, De Kooning explains how the artist—who possesses what she calls “an almost oppressive consciousness of every aspect of his art”—arrives at his final product using a calculated, intellectual approach to art-making which involves countless sketches (done in both oil and pencil) varying in size and color. The selection of these preliminary sketches as the focal point for the exhibition allows for the successful portrayal of Albers as a disciplined, methodical painter and draftsman.

Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper is on view now through October 14, 2012

Image provided courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York


Where There’s a Will, There’s Ai Weiwei

Photo Courtesy of Never Sorry LLC. A Sundance Selects release.

A runner-up for Time magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has demonstrated the ways in which art and politics can connect with one another to incite social change on an international level. In the new film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman follows Weiwei’s incredible journey as an artist, activist, and icon. The documentary was shot over a three year period in which Klayman collected thousands of photographs of Weiwei and his family, and over 300 hours of footage. The result is an inspirational—and at times comedic—work which thoroughly elucidates the artist’s commitment to free speech and love for his country.

In the film, Weiwei discusses several of his most ambitious projects including his 2009 piece Remembering, in which the artist assembled over 5,000 backpacks to honor the lives of the children lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Klayman also travels with the artist to the installation and opening of his 2010 Tate Modern exhibition, where Weiwei covered the museum’s Turbine Hall with upwards of 100 million porcelean sunflower seeds, representing agrarian culture and labor in China.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film, though, is the role that social media appears to have played in the success of Ai Weiwei and the spread of his ideological message. Despite China’s Great Firewall, Weiwei has managed to use his Twitter feed to mobilize supporters and plan demonstrations. And in 2011 when the artist was detained by Chinese police for 81 days, Weiwei followers took to the web where they championed for his freedom.

The film concludes with Weiwei’s release in June 2011, at which point the artist appears to have lost some of that fearless bravado his followers so greatly admired. Though Weiwei has been back on his Twitter feed since, he has kept his pointed anti-Communist statements to a minimum, focusing instead on the umbrella topic of free speech. At a screening for the film Thursday night, Alison Klayman predicted that while Weiwei has tamed his government criticisms in order to comply with his current bail conditions, he has not wavered in his convictions or lost the passion he feels for his country. She expects that Weiwei’s fall retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. will bring with it a new wave of Weiwei activism. After seeing the film, I can only hope that this is true because like Weiwei said, “don’t retreat, retweet!”

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry will open in limited release July 27, 2012.

Fare to Remember

Haim’s Quick-Lunch Restaurant menu. New York, 1906. CREDIT: NYPL, Rare Book Division.

For their current exhibition, Lunch Hour NYCThe New York Public Library has dissected lunchtime in the city—creating various tableaus which not only explore the meal’s gastronomical progression, but its social and political evolution as well. The show begins with a history of the lunch hour in its most literal form: the business lunch. A tradition dating back over 100 years, the business lunch was (and still is) a symbol of status and success for New York professionals. A mid-day meal at Delmonico’s or The Forum of the Twelve Cesars wasn’t  an option available to everyone, though. Many of the city’s most famous lunch hour institutions catered only to white male customers. The Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, for instance, did not start serving women during lunch until 1969.

The exhibition also explores the tradition of lunch outside of restaurants—explaining everything from the evolution of the school lunch and the at-home lunch, to the curious (read: questionable) history of the New York hot dog. It even delves into the development of the delicatessen into a lunchtime staple.

Though the show is largely text-based (which is fitting given the location), there are several interactive elements as well. To the right of the entrance, for instance, you’ll find the Automat display. Here, videos and wall texts explain the history of the the original grab-and-go-lunch, while Automat replicas and recipe cards (which you are invited to keep) allow you to see firsthand how the food was prepared and served.

The exhibition provides a feast of trivia and history, and I recommend stopping by during your next lunch hour.

Image provided courtesy of the New York Public Library