Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Alice Neel: Up Close and Personal

Born at the dawn of the 20th-century, artist and feminist icon Alice Neel was a woman ahead of her time -- a distinction for which she paid dearly throughout much of her life. She lost her first child to diphtheria, her second was taken from her by her husband to be raised by his family in Cuba. She suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide and was hospitalized for nearly a year. A series of bad relationships followed. One boyfriend was a drug addict who destroyed about 60 of her early paintings. She had two more children by two different men, one of whom was physically abusive to her and their son. She isolated herself from the artistic community of Greenwich Village and moved to Spanish Harlem searching for "the truth." She was a female figurative painter in a world that was dominated by male Abstract Expressionists.

Yet none of that stopped her from painting the psychologically charged portraits of her friends, family and neighbors for which she finally became recognized.

Grandson Andrew Neel's 2008 documentary, Alice Neel, takes a very personal look at Neel's struggles as a female artist and single mother who led an unashamedly bohemian life, sacrificing much along the way for her art:

"It's a privilege, you know, to paint and it takes up a lot of time and it means there's a lot of things you don't do. But still, with me, painting was more than a profession, it was also an obsession. I had to paint."

Interviews with family members, friends, art historians, artists, and Neel herself, are woven together with still images of her life and work, making for a compelling and very personal narrative about the life of this amazing woman.

Neel's two sons, Richard and Hartley provide some of the most poignant insight into their mother's life. Both sons cherished their mother but strove as adults for lives that were as dependable and stable as their childhood was not. Richard became a lawyer and a right-wing conservative, Hartley a doctor.

Richard, who was abused by his father, describes what it was like to be raised in this non-traditional household:

"I don't like bohemian culture, frankly. I think that a lot of innocent people are hurt by it. I consider that I was hurt by it. And the people who engage in it really don't care about or don't feel responsible for those that are around them or those who depend on them. If people are in that position, you don't put them at risk by your behavior."

Alice Neel, Antonia and Carmen Evarnacion, 1959, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5 cm
© The Estate of Alice Neel
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

His brother, Hartley, says of his mother:

"If she had been satisfied with the paragon of what women were supposed to be in her era, she would have accomplished nothing!"
He goes on to say:
"Out of the chaos of the emotional situation, Alice somehow teased out some higher reality for herself . . . and I don't know how to say it exactly, but she got energy from the emotional stress and intellectual jousting that went on in these interactions."

Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978, Oil on canvas, 57 3/4 x 38 inches, 146.7 x 96.5 cm
© The Estate of Alice Neel
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York
Ultimately, it was the feminist movement in the 1970's that brought Alice Neel's work and struggles to forefront of the art world. In 1970, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of feminist activist Kate Millet that appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In 1974, her work was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. In 1979, Neel was presented with the National Women's Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement by President Jimmy Carter.

Looking back on her work, Neel says:
" I liked it first to be art, so actually dividing up the canvas is one of the most exciting things for me. And then I like it not only to look like the person but to have their inner character as well. And then I like it to express the zeitgeist. See, I don't like something from the 60's to look like something in the 70's. And they don't. It's amazing. Every decade changes like that. Lucky for me, as old as I am, I can still change. Because I've known people, they get stuck back in the 30's or 40's and never get out of it and just keep on doing the same thing over again."
Neel died in 1984 at the age of 84 and at the height of her recognition. Andrew Neel ends this touching film about his grandmother with these inspiring words from her:
" . . . man is the measure of all things. That's what I've always thought. And in fact, one man said, 'you can do anything you will to do.' He didn't just mean art, he meant anything in the world. And I love that too because that means if you're sufficiently tenacious and interested, you can accomplish what you want to accomplish in this world."
Click here to buy the DVD from Amazon.com

Click here to rent from Amazon.com

Click here to rent from iTunes

Upcoming Events at Offramp Gallery
Closing reception and artist's talk, Sunday, May 1, 2-5pm

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Welcome to the Dali Dimension

Surrealist painter Salvador Dali has always had a mixed reputation -- on the one hand, a brilliant, innovative artist, and on the other, an outrageous, arrogant, money- and publicity-loving showman. This split identity dates back as early as 1934 when a mock trial was held and Dali was expelled from the Surrealist movement. He was criticized even then as being a clown who trivialized his work by his public antics. This dismissive attitude toward Dali's work continues to this day.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water -- the man was a genius!

Nowhere is this case made more convincingly than in Director Joan Ubeda's award winning documentary, Dali Dimension: Decoding the Mind of a Genius (2008). The film explores an under-recognized but substantial part of Dali's genius-- his relationship with the science of the twentieth century and how it influenced his work.

Dali Dimension includes interviews with leading experts in science who talk about their experiences with Dali, as well as rare clips of interviews with Dali himself. If you want to fully understand this complex and often outrageous man, you need to see this film.

Dali had a life-long obsession with scientific writing and aspired, like the Renaissance masters, to merge art and science. As he explains it:

"Every painter paints the cosmogeny of himself . . . Dali paints the atomic age and the Freudian age, nuclear things and psychoanalytic things."

Even Dali's "crown" signature was inspired by a scientific image. The crown of milk was taken from a stroboscopic photo of a drop of milk by American engineer Harold Edgerton first created in 1936.

Dali "crown" signature

Harold Edgerton, Milk Drop Coronet, first created 1936 © MIT 2011. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (For more information go to http://edgerton-digital-collections.org/ )

Early in Dali's career he was fascinated by the role played by dreams in Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis and strove to develop a pictorial representation of the hidden world of the unconscious. We see Freud's influence in early paintings such as the Great Masturbator and Accommodations.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator, 1929, oil on canvas, 110 cm x 150 cm, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
In 1938 Dali traveled to London to meet Freud (who had fled to London from Vienna to escape the Nazis). Dali says of the meeting:

"I made a scene there. I showed him The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. He liked it a lot and said: 'I realize that I haven't really understood the surrealists. I thought they were drunkards and drug addicts. Now I'll take them more seriously because this painting . . . ' I told him 'forget about the painting . . . I would like you to read my thesis on critical paranoia.' But he turned to the painting again, and I insisted that he read my scientific thesis. I banged on the table and said: 'I want you to read it this very night!" Freud was taken aback and said to Stephan Zweig, 'I have never seen such a perfect example of a Spaniard . . . The man is a fanatic.'"

Dali was also fascinated by the work of physicists Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg who were studying the nature of matter at the atomic level and laying the ground work for quantum mechanics. After the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 Dali showed an even greater interest in nuclear physics.

When asked about nuclear physics in an interview, Dali replied:

"The modern atomic age is very gay. Nothing is more gay than the collision and the explosion of intra-atomic conflicts of nuclear physics. . . For me the more happy thing is nuclear, these terrific conflicts about electrons and penisons [sic] and atoms is everything jumping and rumping [sic] in a completely extraordinary eurhythmic feeling."

Salvador Dali, Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, oil on canvas, 43 x 33 cm., Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, UK
In a 1959 homage to Nobel Prize winner Sever Ochoa Dali wrote:

"Though I am no scientist I must admit that scientific developments are all that guide my imagination and illustrate my poetic intuitions of traditional philosophers until they achieve dazzling beauty in certain mathematical structures or in the sublime moments of abstraction which, on the electronic microscope appear like a polyhedra-shaped virus confirming what Plato said: 'God always does geometry.'"

Other scientific principles that fascinated Dali and were often incorporated in his work are the golden mean, 4-D representation, holograms, antimatter and the DNA double helix. In 1985, at the age 81, Dali hosted the Figueres Congress at the Dali Museum. The theme of the congress dealt with the role of chance in nature. In attendance were Nobel Prize winners, artists, writers and musicians. Unable to attend because of poor health, Dali watched the entire proceedings on closed-circuit TV.

Dali died January 23, 1989. By his bed were books by physicists Stephen Hawking, Erwin Schrodinger, and mathematician Matila Ghyka.

Click here to buy the DVD from Amazon.com

Ongoing at Offramp Gallery

Closing reception and artist's talk, Sunday, May 1, 2-5pm

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Art Made the World

We live in a world that is saturated with images. We take them for granted and can hardly imagine a world without them. Just look around the page you're reading this blog on. Logos, ads, photographs, symbols, video, art -- they're everywhere -- telling us what to do, where to go, how to dress, what to buy and what to think. We churn out new images at an unbelievable rate with 24-hour news cycles, digital technology, internet, films and print media. These images have the power to inform, entertain, and inspire us -- or conversely, misinform, repulse or terrify us.

But how and why did ancient humans take that first step toward capturing three-dimensional reality in a two-dimensional space? How did people who had never seen a two-dimensional image know what they were looking at? How have those images from ancient times evolved over the course of human history and shaped the world we live in?

These are some of the questions that the epic five-part BBC series, How Art Made the World sets out to answer. Dr. Nigel Spivey takes us on an incredible journey across five continents and countless millennia to examine the origins of human creativity and how images have influenced and even formed our society. Spivey, a classical archeology professor, attempts to answer these questions by presenting theories augmented by recent findings in archeology, anthropology, art history, psychology and neuroscience.

Spivey begins with the Venus of Willendorf , a 25,000 year old statuette of a female figure, discovered in Austria in 1908. He theorizes that the statuette, with its exaggerated breasts, abdomen and vulva, is not a fertility symbol as is widely held, but evidence of a hard-wired need in early humans to represent and exaggerate the human form.
From there we travel to ancient Egypt and the temple of Karnac where we begin to see the first non-exaggerated images of the human body.

Spivey transports us to Altamira in northern Spain where in 1880 a nine-year-old girl first discovered prehistoric paintings of oxen on a cave ceiling, sparking a public controversy that lasted for 20 years about whether or not the paintings were a hoax. We visit the San bushmen of South Africa, where we find similar cave paintings -- not prehistoric, but done a mere 200 years ago. Records of late 19th century interviews with the bushmen indicate that the paintings were not depictions of everyday life but of altered states of consciousness achieved in a trance-like state.

Cave painting suddenly stops about 12,000 years ago. Why? Spivey turns to the archeological site of Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey for the answer. A hill-top sanctuary erected by hunter-gatherers about the same time that cave painting stopped, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human-made place of worship yet discovered. Huge monoliths are decorated with
carved reliefs of animals and of abstract pictograms. DNA analysis of wheat shows that it was first cultivated in this very spot at the time the temple was being build. Spivey claims that farming first came about to feed the workers and the worshipers who came from all over to worship at Göbekli Tepe. This, he claims, is what sparked the agricultural revolution in human history.

We learn that Augustus Caesar was the first ruler (but certainly not the last) to promote a lie to manipulate and unite his people. In figure 1 below we see what I call "big hair Augustus," sporting the flamboyant style of the Monarchists. This style was seen as threatening to the Republicans, a more traditional and austere people. In figure 2 we see the do-over, a humbler, gentler, and more mature Augustus, the peacemaker, who was much less threatening and thus able to unite his people. He restored the outward facade of the
Roman Republic, with governmental power vested in the Roman Senate, but in practice retained his autocratic power and royal lifestyle.

figure 1: Augustus Caesar, Vatican, Rome

figure 2: Augustus Caesar, Vatican, Rome
These are just of few of the highlights of How Art Made the World. One criticism I have of the series is that Spivey tends to present his theories as proven fact, when, at least from the evidence shown, they remain very interesting theories. That having been said, this series is intelligent, thought-provoking, beautifully photographed, and makes for compelling viewing. I recommend it to both the lay person, as an introduction to art history, and to the arts professional, for its substantial contribution to the dialog about how and why we make art.

Click here to buy the DVD from Amazon.com.

Ongoing at Offramp Gallery

Closing reception and artist's talk, Sunday, May 1, 2-5pm

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Short Takes: Hokusai's Great Wave; Yayoi Kusama's Dots; a Low-Tech iPad

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa,
first publication: between 1826 and 1833, this edition: later,
color woodblock print, Library of Congress, courtesy of Wikipedia.
In the aftermath of the recent disasters in Japan, I found this BBC video about Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai's iconic print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, particularly poignant. Hokusai, born in 1760 in Edo (now Tokyo), was a ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period. Forced out of retirement after a long career by a grandson who gambled away all of his money, Hokusai went on to produce the work for which he is best known, his woodblock print series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The series includes the iconic print, The Great Wave, which is the subject of this documentary.

It is said that on his deathbed, Hokusai exclaimed "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years . . . Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter." (note to artists: keep working!)

In another BBC production, contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama brings us from 19th century Japan to 21st. Often called the "Queen of Polka Dots" Kusama was born in Japan in 1929. At age 27 she left Japan for New York City and soon established herself as a leader in the avant-garde movement. Having suffered from mental health issues most of her life, she returned to Tokyo in 1973.
Today, she lives, by choice, in a mental hospital, where she has continued to produce work since her return to Tokyo. In 2006, Kusama became the first Japanese woman to receive the prestigious Praemium Imperiale for internationally recognized artists.

Kusama is often quoted as saying: "If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago." (note to artists: keep working!)

A reader wrote in about Art Authority, the iPad app I reviewed last week, asking me what an iPad had to do with art. I think it was more of an awkward attempt to make a statement on technology than a question, so I thought he might prefer this low-tech version of the iPad.

Ongoing at Offramp Gallery
Nicholette Kominos: crumpled, cut, and divided
April 3 - May 1, 2011

Opening reception, Sunday, April 3, 2011