In: art history

Are you bored of seeing the same types of paintings over and over again, flat and on a regular canvas hung up on a white wall? Or are you an artist in need of some inspiration to move past the traditional image of a painting? Here is a list of artists from the past century that approached the flat surface in innovative ways, leaving behind conventional practices and taking their works to a whole new realm.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Henri Matisse, 'Memory of Oceania', 1952-53. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas. 112 x 112 7/8” (284.4 x 286.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse, ‘Memory of Oceania’, 1952-53. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas. 112 x 112 7/8” (284.4 x 286.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse was one of the first to depart from the classic method of applying paint onto canvas. While he is known for his “traditional” paintings, towards the very end of his life he broke away from this and pulled out the scissors. With the help of a large crew of assistants, Matisse created what are known as the cut-outs. For these cut-outs, he and his crew hand-painted white paper using brightly colored gouache paints, then proceeded to cut these painted papers into simple geometric and organic shapes. These cut-out pieces were then either pasted onto canvases and paired with other materials such as charcoal or, for the first time in art history, pinned directly onto the walls of the museum or gallery.

Georges Braque (1882 -1963)

Georges Braque, 'Still Life with Tenora' (1913). © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Georges Braque, ‘Still Life with Tenora’ (1913). © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Along with Picasso, Braque made some of the first collages in art history, also known as papier collé. As part of the development of Cubism, Braque introduced other materials and patterns onto his canvases, suggesting the subject through the use of found flat materials instead of describing the subject-matter through paint. This may seem like a simple idea, or resemble an art project you did with your kindergarten teacher, but it was a true innovation at the time. This idea soon evolved and inspired other artists to further explore it by introducing three-dimensional objects in their works.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Kurt Schwitters, 'Merz Picture 32 A. The Cherry Picture', 1921. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kurt Schwitters, ‘Merz Picture 32 A. The Cherry Picture’, 1921. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kurt Schwitters came from a very academic background, but around 1920 he became very involved in the Dada movement in Berlin, which mocked academic practices and provided artists with the opportunity to approach visual arts with complete freedom. Schwitters brought to this movement what is known as assemblage. Assemblage is linked to the concept of papier collé, but instead of using found paper materials, it consists in fixing actual found objects on the flat surface. Schwitters’ work plays with the shadows made by the objects stuck to the canvas, shadows that move and change depending on the light hitting the pieces.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968)

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, 'Waiting', 1960. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, ‘Waiting’, 1960. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Fontana went one step further in the use of scissors. Instead of simply cutting shapes and placing them onto the canvas, like Matisse and Braque had done, he cut the canvas itself and punctured purposeful holes into it. Fontana saw this acts as a means of building a bridge between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional in art. He referred to these series of works as Spatial Concept, and was quite proud of himself for discovering the power of the tagli (“cuts”). He stated “my discovery was the hole and that’s it. I am happy to go to the grave after such a discovery”. Some of these cut canvases are painted in a single color, some are simply left white. These white canvases in particular evoke the sense of destruction of the pure as a vehicle to progress into the sculptural realm.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Jackson Pollock at Work. Photo: www.Jackson-Pollock.org.

Jackson Pollock at Work. Photo: www.Jackson-Pollock.org.

Jackson Pollock took his very large canvases and placed them on the floor instead of upright on an easel. Photographs of his creative process have circulated thoroughly. Once the canvases were on the ground, Pollock used paint brushes to drip and splatter paint across these large white surfaces. Pollock is a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement, an artistic current that seeks to represent ideas and emotions using abstract forms and color instead of a figurative and realistic representation. Anyone interested in this important figure of American art can now visit the studio where Pollock worked, where you would find evidence of his technique.

Takis (born in 1925)

Takis, 'Magnetic Painting No. 7', 1962. Oil on canvas, magnets, silk ribbon, and cork. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

Takis, ‘Magnetic Painting No. 7’, 1962. Oil on canvas, magnets, silk ribbon, and cork. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

This artist ties together art and science. He is known as the first person to “send a man into space”, six months before Yuri Gagarin, during a performance. Takis’ work explores magnetic field energy, which he uses as a tool for altering the shape of the canvas. Takis transforms his canvases into sculptural pieces through the use of magnets, creating works that are a sort of magic trick. He often hangs small three-dimensional magnetic objects from the ceiling using thin wire strings, creating the illusion of floating geometric shapes in front of large brightly colored monochromatic surface. These geometric shapes are held up through the use of magnets on the back side of the canvas, which in turn is slightly pulled by the magnetic forces around it.

Yves Klein (1928-1962)

Photograph of Yves Klein's performance.

Photograph of Yves Klein’s performance.

Yves Klein used the body as a paint brush, transforming the act of painting into a performance. Klein experimented with his “living brushes” technique in small apartments in Paris. He would invite women to strip, dip their naked bodies in paint and press themselves against large white canvases. This, of course, became quite the hip thing to witness, and thus the creation of these pieces became a performance accompanied by live music that was also filmed for us to watch to this day. These pieces were kept very simple, with only one to a handful of single imprints of female bodies per canvas. For these, Klein used very strictly the color now known as International Klein Blue, whose significance for the artist is unclear and highly debated.

Günther Uecker (born 1930)

Günther Uecker, 'Untitled', 1967. Paint and nails on canvas on wood. 32 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches (82.5 x 82.5 cm). Photo: Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Günther Uecker, ‘Untitled’, 1967. Paint and nails on canvas on wood. 32 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches (82.5 x 82.5 cm). Photo: Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Günther Uecker used yet another surprising material in place of paint on his canvas: nails. He became obsessed with purification rituals, especially those used in religious contexts such as Buddhism. He used the hammering of nails as a meditative practice that eventually monopolized his artistic works. The canvases are supported by wood paneling in order to make this process possible. The nails create organic shapes through systematic and repetitive patterns. Most of his work is completely monochromatic, meaning the nails and the canvas are painted in a single color, usually a play off of black or white. After a full career of hammering nails to canvases, Uecker eventually progressed onto land art.

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The “Kollektsia!” exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris was born out of a donation of more than 250 artworks from the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, collectors, artists and their families. While not being too exhaustive, this ensemble of works by major Russian artists adequately offers a panorama of some forty years of contemporary art in the USSR and then in Russia, covering the most important movements. It includes works by confrontational artists created outside official structures, from the Moscow conceptual school to Sots Art, from non-conformism to perestroika (a political reform within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, widely associated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost [openess] policy reform).

The first section of the show is dedicated to non-conformist art since the late 1950s when artists revived the aesthetic practices of the avant-garde and sought innovations of their own formal approach. My favourite pieces are the “Milk Box” sculpture (1970) by Igor Shelkovski, a hanging object called Space-Movement-Infinity — the first kinetic work in postwar Russian art and some intriguing photographic works by Francisco Infante-Arana. The non-conformist artworks are not following a homogeneous movement with shared objectives. However, as a whole they represent the budding diversified creativity confronting the strictly controlled official structures in art in the USSR.

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Andrei Monastyrsky, I Breathe and I Hear, 1983. Image courtesy of Centre Pompidou

My favourite section of the exhibition is of the more playful Sots Art, invented by Komar and Melamid to subvert, in a Pop-art way, the codes of the mass propaganda that saturated Soviet life. In contrast to the Pop artists — confronted by a superabundance of consumer goods — Sots artists, such as Alexander Kosolapov, Boris Orlov and Leonid Sokov, sought to demythologize official cliché and the ideological environment of the Soviet society through absurdity and paradox. For instance, the eye- and phone-camera-catching “Malevich-Marlboro Triptych” (1985) by Alexander Kosolapov demonstrates how the artist drew on broad iconographic sources from both Soviet and Western clichés while using an advertising image. On the other hand, Leonid Sokov’s hanging sculpture “Glasses for Every Soviet Person” (1976) delivers ironic humour through simple graphics and raw wooden texture.

Alongside Sots Art, the 1970s brought about Moscow Romantic Conceptualism which accord greater importance to text and language, with artists working at the intersection of poetry, performance and visual art, such as Dmitri Prigov and Andrei Monstyrsky. The latter advocated a conceptual art that reflected the ascendancy of literature in Russian culture. A section of the exhibition pays homage to Dmitri Prigov who was known for writing verse on cans. The conceptualists also embraced the power of text through performance, such as “I Breathe and I Hear” (1983) by Andrei Monstyrsky, who is a part of the Collective Actions group; the group taht has carried out a lot of planned performances.

The onset of perestroika brought an exploding sense of freedom and accelerating artistic processes from the mid-1980s onwards. Following the sudden liberalization, artists were then able to take part in exhibitions and find a place on the international art arena. This period in Russian history not only witnesses the diversifying artistic approaches, but also paved the way for legitimizing of formerly marginalized art. In 1988, a first auction organised by Sotheby’s in Moscow gave a tangible value to unofficial art, and the boundary between official and unofficial abruptly disappeared. In this sense, the impressive “Last Supper” (1989) by Andrei Filippov, with hammers and sickles on a red table, is one of those works marking the end of “unofficial art” while it preceded the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Perhaps some of Yuri Leridrman’s works in 2009 displayed at the exhibition could reflect this lively flourishing of creative energies in post-Soviet era; the artist juxtaposed painted plants onto collage of newspapers, thereby transforming textual material into images.

 

“Kollektsia!”, 14 September 2016 – 27 March 2017, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Louise Bourgeois: No Exit is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Bourgeois (1911-2010) is best known for her large-scale sculptures, one of which is located in the museum’s sculpture garden. However, with twenty-one works, including drawings, prints, and sculptures, the exhibit provides an intimate look into the mind of a truly remarkable artist as she contemplated themes of life, death, domesticity, and womanhood.

The French-American artist was born to a prosperous Parisian family in 1911. Her family owned a gallery in Aubusson, the tapestry producing region of central France and home to Bourgeois’s mother’s family. The artist spent part of her childhood working in the gallery where her family sold and restored antique tapestries, helping repair them by filling in worn areas, using lines to indicate where stitches should be made. These experiences made a lasting impression, as displayed in Bourgeois’s early works on view in the National Gallery’s exhibition. The images recall the cascading rivers and mountain peaks of Aubusson, while simultaneously recalling the interweavings of textiles.

Louise Bourgeois, La tapisserie de mon enfance–Mountains in Aubusson (The Tapestry of My Childhood), 1947. Brush and black ink and gouache on cream paper: 19 x 12 in. (48.3 x 30.5 cm)Corcoran Collection (Gift of William H. G. FitzGerald, Desmond FitzGerald, and B. Francis Saul II) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, La tapisserie de mon enfance–Mountains in Aubusson (The Tapestry of My Childhood), 1947. Brush and black ink and gouache on cream paper: 19 x 12 in. (48.3 x 30.5 cm) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

She began her long and prolific career as an artist in the early 1930s after being introduced to the Surrealists, whose ideology centered on the creative potential of the unconscious mind. After marrying the American art historian Robert Goldwater and moving to New York in 1938, she became reacquainted with the European Surrealists who were exiled during the war. Yet, the artist herself denied the label of a Surrealist. “At the mention of surrealism, I cringe. I am not a surrealist.” Still, it is difficult to separate the whimsicality and bizarre juxtapositions of her work from that of the Surrealists, or even their predecessors, the Dadaists. The works in the show bring to mind Francis Picabia’s mechanical portraits, Max Ernst’s collages, or Joan Miró’s landscapes.

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 7, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 17.78 x 13.65 cm (7 x 5 3/8 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 7, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 17.78 x 13.65 cm (7 x 5 3/8 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Instead Bourgeois preferred the label of existentialist, admiring the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit, from which the exhibition takes its name, is the story of three recently departed souls on their way to hell, anticipating the physical torment they are about to endure. As it turns out, the pain they experience in hell is not physical, but psychological. Their hell is being trapped in a room from which there is no escape for all eternity with the people they despise the most, each other just imagine going to a dinner party with all the people you’ve ever blocked on Facebook, and then multiply that feeling by infinity. As Sartre famously says, “Hell is other people.”

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1952. Painted wood and plaster, overall: 161.9 cm (63 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1952. Painted wood and plaster, overall: 161.9 cm (63 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

While Bourgeois draws her inspiration from Sartre, her personal hell seems to be the absence of other people. The nine engravings and enigmatic parables that volume He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947) show Bourgeois at her most Surreal. The subjects, ranging from a little girl who buried her coveted candy in the ground, only to find that it has been ruined by the damp soil, to a man who cuts up his wife and serves her at a dinner party, represent what the artist referred to as “tiny tragedies of human frustration.” The characters of her story show indifference, or even cruelty towards one another, conveying the deep sense of isolation that often embodies Bourgeois’s work. We are left with a sense of ambivalence towards them, they commit acts that signal both internal and external conflict. One plate tells the story of a loving but overbearing mother, and a son “of a quiet nature and rather intelligent,” but who is indifferent to his mother’s love. The prodigal son leaves, and later the mother dies without his knowledge. Three haunting, elongated figures occupy the space, prompting us to wonder who the third figure could be. The feeling we are left with is one of remorse and sympathy for the mother, but also for the son. The print could be semi-autobiographical, Bourgeois lost her mother at 21 years old, around the time she was beginning her career. This loss had a profound effect on her artwork, seen especially in her series Maman, and again in what could be seen as a companion piece, M is for Mother (1998). The latter, on view in the exhibit, is a drawing of an imposing letter M that conveys both maternal comfort and control. With such a conflict, Bourgeois forces us to question our relationships with those around us.

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 9, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 22.54 x 10 cm (8 7/8 x 3 15/16 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 9, 1947. Engraving in black on wove paper. Plate: 22.54 x 10 cm (8 7/8 x 3 15/16 in.) Sheet: 25.4 x 17.78 cm (10 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as the Gift of Dian Woodner © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Like Sartre, she believed that free will was the essence of existentialist thought, but unlike Sartre, she also believed that our pasts inform our future. Deeply fixed memories inspired her oeuvre over the course of a remarkably long career. This reluctance to let go meant that she rarely considered a work finished, generally leaving open the possibility of a future iteration. One of her later books, the puritan (1990), deals precisely with this theme. This bound volume of eight hand-colored engravings on handmade paper takes place in New York, and is a story of lost love. “With the puritan,” Bourgeois explained, “I analyzed an episode forty years after it happened. I could see things from a distance…I put it on a grid…I considered the situation objectively, scientifically, not emotionally. I was interested not in anxiety, but in perspective, in seeing things from different points of view.”

Louise Bourgeois, the puritan (4), 1990. Engraving in black with additions in gouache on Twinrocker handmade paper with Japan gampi chine collé. Plate: 42.55 x 27.31 cm (16 3/4 x 10 3/4 in.) Sheet: 65.72 x 50.17 cm (25 7/8 x 19 3/4 in.) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, the puritan (4), 1990. Engraving in black with additions in gouache on Twinrocker handmade paper with Japan gampi chine collé. Plate: 42.55 x 27.31 cm (16 3/4 x 10 3/4 in.) Sheet: 65.72 x 50.17 cm (25 7/8 x 19 3/4 in.) © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

A number of sculptures are included in the exhibit as well, ranging from her small but recognizable cast Germinal (1967), to the life-sized sculptures the artist referred to as “Personages.” These sculptures, Bourgeois said, were made to be exhibited at ground level so that they could be interacted with “like people.” While they exist in our space, they also stand isolated and detached. Made from modest, often discarded materials and employing simple methods of construction, these totemic figures reflect a wartime sensibility of salvage and reuse in a damaged environment.

Louise Bourgeois, Mortise, 1950. Painted wood, overall: 152.4 x 45.7 x 38.1 cm (60 x 18 x 15 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Louise Bourgeois, Mortise, 1950. Painted wood, overall: 152.4 x 45.7 x 38.1 cm (60 x 18 x 15 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY

Bourgeois’s work asks a timeless and essential question: in periods of conflict, uncertainty, or hostility, can we live meaningful lives? It seems to me that Bourgeois would say that it is in these moments that we are at our most authentic, and that the greatest struggle we have to overcome is not external, but internal. This is, however, a question Bourgeois would want us to answer for ourselves.

Louise Bourgeois: No Exit is on view until May 15, 2016.

The delightful Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side is my favorite escape from the hustle and bustle of life in Manhattan, but you may already know that from my review of Berlin Metropolis. There is nothing like great art, old world nostalgia, and sublime Viennese desserts to take your mind off the stresses of everyday life. The exhibition, “Munch and Expressionism,” does not disappoint. Munch, who is best known for his iconic piece, “The Scream,” painted works that dealt with heavy existential themes and were both horrifying and erotic. The show displays the fascinating symbiotic relationship between the Norwegian father of Expressionism, Edvard Munch, and German and Austrian Expressionists; the German artists being Max Beckmann, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gabriele Münter, and Emile Nolde, and the Austrian artists Richard Gerstl, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. This exhibition, organized with The Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, features “The Scream,” in addition to several other captivating paintings and woodcuts from this fascinating period of modern European art.

Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1895. Image Courtesy of The Artist and The Neue Galerie

The exhibit is organized into four different galleries that chronologically document the evolution of Munch’s provocative aesthetic. The first gallery, “Experimental Printmaking,” features some of Munch’s early works from the late 19th century and demonstrates Munch’s “radical approach” to his craft. In addition to Munch’s innovative woodcuts, this gallery includes some great paintings such as the three versions of one of my personal favorites, Munch’s peculiar “Madonna” from 1895. This painting features a beautiful nude female subject; the lithograph version is adorned with a border of tiny sperm-like creatures and a little fetus in the corner. While the painting is conventionally erotic, it also conveys Munch’s association of sex with death and other grave consequences.

The second and third galleries, “Munch and the Expressionists in Dialogue” and “Influence and Affinity,” delve a bit deeper into the dynamic between Munch and the Expressionists. These sections explore how Munch paved the way for these artists to break with the conventions of realism and experiment with color and brushwork. I was especially drawn to the playful use of color in Munch’s “Model by the Wicker Chair” from 1919 and “Bathing Man” from 1918. Although these paintings are done in vibrant shades of blue, green, and violet, they maintain Munch’s signature ethos of anxiety and grief.

Edvard Munch, Bathing Man, 1918. Image: Courtesy of The Artist and The Neue Galerie

Edvard Munch, Bathing Man, 1918. Image: Courtesy of The Artist and The Neue Galerie

I was also intrigued by the equally colorful “Street, Dresden” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The painting exudes brilliant color, yet simultaneously reads as dark and devastating. No exhibit at the Neue Galerie would be complete without a few pieces by Egon Schiele, one of the (literal) poster children for the museum and one of my favorite expressionist painters. I really appreciated the addition of Schiele’s “Self-Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder,” which, with its liberal brushwork and penetrating eyes, is full of intense emotional pathos. Prior to visiting this exhibit, I wouldn’t necessarily associate Munch with Schiele because I consider their aesthetics so distinct from one another. However, after looking at Schiele’s paintings in the context of Munch, I began to see the similar themes of anguish that pervade the works of both artists.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder, 1912. Image: Courtesy of The Artist and The Neue Galerie

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder, 1912. Image: Courtesy of The Artist and The Neue Galerie

The fourth and final gallery in the exhibit is an appropriately claustrophobic and dimly-lit room dedicated to the main event, Munch’s “The Scream” from 1893, and the two original lithographs. Additionally, the room features Erich Heckel’s woodcut “Man on a Plain,” as well as a few Schiele portraits. Above the final version of “The Scream” is a quote by Munch himself:

“I was walking along the road with two friends,

“The sun was setting – the sky turned blood-red.

And I felt a wave of sadness – I paused

tired to death –Above the blue-black Fjord

and city blood and flaming tongues hovered.

My friends walked on – I stayed

behind – quaking with angst – I

felt the great scream in nature” – Edvard Munch

Although I had seen this iconic image countless times reproduced in textbooks and on the internet, I felt like I was looking at “The Scream” for the very first time. There was something powerfully cathartic about standing in that tiny dark blue room and confronting the painting live. After gaining a better understanding of the cultural and historical context that Munch was operating in, the painting resonated with me on a much deeper level. Visitors can expect to leave “Munch and Expressionism” emotionally moved and curious to learn more about this innovative period of art history. Don’t forget to treat yourself to a slice of Sachertorte, mit schlag on your way out.

“Munch and Expressionism” runs until June 13th and is definitely not to be missed. Bring a friend or two for a solid afternoon of superb paintings and delectable pastries.

From the top floor of Artsy’s impressive office space overlooking bustling downtown Manhattan I sat down with Jessica Backus the director of Artsy Learning and The Art Genome Project to discuss her work at Artsy and how she has achieved success in the art world. Founded in 2009 and making its public debut in 2012, Artsy has gained quite the following as one of the most exciting and user-friendly online art platforms. From educating and exposing the public to all genres and periods of art history, to tracking the art market, galleries, and art fairs, the search engine covers all corners and quirks of the perpetually expanding art world. Before coming to Artsy Backus studied Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia for her undergraduate career and completed her master’s in Art History Hunter College, specializing in Post-War German art.

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 How did you enter the art world?

It really wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that there were many methodologies [within art history] and that I was much more interested in the social history of art, but my interests started to crystalize when I started my first job out of college, working at the gallery Peres Projects in Berlin, where I worked for 4 years as an associate director. My favorite part of working at the gallery was working with the artists, and seeing their works start to germinate; being there for that magical moment when they went from being just a of collection of materials and impressions to being a fully-fledged object. I knew that I wanted to continue doing that, so that’s when I decided to go back and get a master’s in art history.

What did you take away from your pursuit for a master’s degree in Art History?

I kind of went back to grad school for the wrong reasons, I looked around me and I saw the people whose lifestyle I wanted to emulate, or whose job description I wanted to emulate, and those were art advisors. I remember reading something David Zwirner said in response to the question of who are his favorite types of people are: the people with well-formed opinions. I was 26 or so when I read that, and I was like, huh, I don’t know if I could say that I have many of my own well-formed opinions about art. I knew I would need to have that to be an art advisor.

How did you get started at Artsy?

I ended up getting the job at Artsy while I was in grad school. I think I was in my second year and at that point it was a position as a research assistant for the Art Genome Project. I loved the idea of it. For the first time I realized I could actually have one of those rare jobs in the art world that didn’t require you to sell stuff.

Why Artsy?

It was attractive to me because it was the first art search engine. For my studies I was using the tools that were available to me, and I basically wanted to build the tool that I would want to use as a graduate student. I also found the idea of democratizing art really appealing. 

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Could you describe the Art Genome Project?

The Art Genome Project is a discovery engine for art that powers Artsy. It was started under Carter Cleveland, Artsy’s founder and CEO. He was in his dorm room in Princeton and wanted to buy art and didn’t know where to start—which really reflects the opaque nature of the art market. So he started Artsy and the Art Genome Project as a way to help people fall in love with art, while also aiding in the practical purpose of discovering it. Ultimately, what we do is create connections between artists and art works for our users.

Is Artsy comparable to anything out there already?

In the same way that Netflix or Pandora’s Music Genome Project can make recommendations for you based on the genre or the quality of things that you like, The Art Genome Project does that with art. It’s important for me to acknowledge that we were in a lucky position in that we were able to build upon already existing classification systems to create a user-focused system. In other words, a framework for our audience instead of one for cataloguers or the future art historians—one for people who really want to learn about art. That was the real breakthrough for the Art Genome Project, and that’s what makes it interesting and unique.

What is a “gene?”

We call them “genes” but on the front end of the site they’re called “categories.” They are motifs, memes, themes, concepts, modes, moods, basically all the various ways of approaching art. A “gene” has to be something about art, which might seem basic, but we have to start with the basics.

How does this process work?

Everyone on our team has to be a generalist because you never really know from one day to the next what you will “genoming” (or the process of researching and annotating works of art and artists). Any of the genomers can propose a gene, and then we vote as a team, and if it gets enough votes then it goes directly into “labs,” where we test it out to make sure it’s working. We’ll then survey the team and make sure that we can all agree on its application with 80% consistency or more, and then it graduates and becomes a fully-fledged part of the genome.

Do you have a favorite “gene?”

If had to choose my favorite gene… It might be “mediated view,” which refers to either the use of a specific framing device within the image itself, or the presence of something that impedes or mediates your view. This strategy makes you aware of the artist’s hand; it can add a sense of mystery. There are also a lot of images of windows in “mediated view,” where there’s this attempt to hide something and expose something else in a very explicit way as a part of the composition.

What does your typical day at Artsy look like?

*Laughing*

Oh, I don’t think there’s every a typical day at Artsy. We’re still a start-up; I know that people can forget that.

One thing we might do on a day when we have our weekly Genome meeting is to play a game we call “Genome Pictionary” to get the team thinking more holistically about genoming. One person draws and the other guesses; the drawer doesn’t see the artwork, but is presented its genome, and they have to figure out what it is and draw the work. It’s fun, but we also use it as a chance to take a step back from the “back end” of the process and ask ourselves, what is a good genome? A good genome says something specific about a work of art. You should be able to conjure an image of the work in your head. If the genome fails to do that, then it’s not a good genome.

 What are your personal perceptions of contemporary art?

Looking at the top emerging artists today, the theme seems to be breaking borders or breaking boundaries (I should add this was actually an insight of our editorial team, who explored it in their recent year-in-review feature). 2015 was an intense year for the world. In the same way that we see a lot of societal changes happening—whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or gay marriage in the United States, or the incredibly divided politics of this country, or even the refugee crisis in Europe—throughout the world there seems to be this global conversation of who we want to be and who gets to be included in that conversation. In the actual demographics of the art world you see these changes reflected. There are more women artists, more artists of color, and they have an audience that’s not just collectors from their specific niche. You know, we receive a lot of criticism for even having a gene for e.g. Woman Artists, because it implies that this is a relevant aspect of someone’s practice, and women artists just want to be considered artists, without the qualifier of gender. While I don’t think we are at a point yet where it’s incidental if you’re a woman artist or that it’s irrelevant if you’re a woman artist or a black artist, I do think that we start to see now, for the first time, that that future exists. The space of creation, the audience, the opportunities and possibilities for being an artist are all changing. That’s what I find is most exciting about the state of contemporary art.

Do you have advice for young art professionals?

Make sure you do something you really want to do, not just something that seems cool. From there, realize from there that the next step is to figure out the process. What process, what things, what activities really make you happy? I think that will largely dictate where you end up. The earlier you find what’s really coming from you and not other people’s expectations from or reactions to you, the better.

Also, don’t be afraid to return to the drawing board. It’s usually rare for students to do something, acknowledge that it didn’t work, and start over. That’s the biggest thing that we see from recent graduates, that they are so compelled to do something perfectly the first time that there’s often a missed opportunity; they are not always agile, flexible, or willing to totally revise their thinking on something.

Part I of this article explores the current exhibition “Warhol Unlimited”, but why Andy Warhol again? With this “King of Pop Art”, we are now still struggling to distinguish the actual influence he had on his time from the artistic importance of his art, and indispensably also ours.

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In order to better understand the influence of Andy Warhol’s art, we may first try to look at the rise of pop art. Though we often associate pop art with American artists from the early 1960s, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, pop art actually began in early 1950s when a group of artists, such as Richard Hamilton, architects and critics formed the Independent Group and organised conferences and exhibitions with topics such as popular culture’s place in fine art. This group wanted to counterbalance the hierarchical and rigid English society.

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By the 1950s, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, artists in the United States such as Jasper Johns started to react to abstract expressionism by using abstract expressionist techniques to depict easily recognisable objects from reality, such as the American flags. Thus, the emergence of pop art can be seen as a way to counteract the prevalent abstract expressionism and to reintroduce figurative representation into modernism.

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Contrary to traditional “high art” subjects of morality, mythology or historical events, common objects and people from daily life are adopted by pop artists. In this sense, they uplift popular culture to the level of fine art, disrupt the hierarchy of culture and blur the division between “high” and “low” art. The central feature of pop art, that anything can be art, has had a tremendous influence over art ever since. It became an international phenomenon that artists from different cities were making use of forms and representations from popular culture. At the same time, since pop art integrates many commonly seen popular images, it has become one of the most discernible genres of modern art.

Quite a few pop artists come from the commercial art field, for example, Andy Warhol had gained recognition as magazine illustrator and graphic designer; James Rosenquist started his career as a billboard painter. Their commercial art background equipped them with the abilities to make use of mass culture as the visual vocabulary, and in turn, to finely blend the dimensions of high art and popular culture.

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Among the pop artists, Andy Warhol has cast remarkable influence on spreading this art movement. Warhol is well-known for his unique style with vividly coloured portraits of celebrities. Warhol explored various subject matters throughout his career, with mass consumer culture having always been the common theme throughout. In the 1960s the United States actually witnessed the advancement of production and the diffusion of mass-produced consumer products. Then, Warhol would reproduce Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans in an infinite quantity virtually transforming the gallery space into a supermarket shelf. At his first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, he showcased 100 canvases of Campbell’s Soup, which has changed the face of modern art ever since. Through this mass-produced product put within a fine art context, Warhol especially draws attention to people’s perceptions of commodities in consumer society. This early work, Campbell’s Soup, a version of which is also exhibited in the current “Warhol Unlimited” exhibition in Paris, is then recognised as one of the most representative and important works of pop art.

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Warhol relied on screenprinting for large-scale replication of popular images. His persistent adoption of this mechanical method repudiated notions of artistic authenticity and genius. In that sense, paintings became comparable to common consumer goods such as cans of Campbell’s soup that can be bought and sold. Even celebrities in Warhol’s art, such as Marilyn Diptych (1962), were treated as parts of mass-produced consumer products. By acknowledging the commodification of art, Warhol eliminated the boundaries of art. Therefore, pop art has become widespread and unlimited. Art is emancipated from traditional perceptions and limits, and as a result, has gained appeal to a much wider common audience.

Driven by my art-inspired soul, find below a list of things, I personally think are essential when looking at art. Apart from stating some undoubtable art-historical principles, I have mixed in a few personal favorites.

  1. When, What, Who, How. First things first – read the label. This most banal thing most of us overlook and just don’t read it. These details are the most important, as they situate a work of art into a specific time period, already creating a sense of what it might relate to, look similar to, explain or even criticize. When – DATE, What – TITLE, Who – ARTIST, How – MEDIUM.
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  3. Subject Matter. What is the work of art about? Is it a portrait? A battle scene? An abstract piece? An icon?
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  5. Composition. How do parts of the piece relate to each other? Is there a perspective?
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  7. Color. One of the most important way to feel the work of art. What artist felt, what the traditions were, what paint was available, what compliments one color and another. Is there chiaroscuro?*
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  9. Shapes. Are the shapes rounded, triangular, squared, rectangular etc? Symmetric or asymmetric? Regular or irregular? Fat or thin? Concave (turned in) or convex (turned out)?
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  11. Lines. Are the lines horizontal, vertical or tilted? Short or long? Straight or curved? Smooth or sharp?
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  13. Size. What is the size of the work of art? Is it small or large? Though not always a fact, small objects could have been created for private use, private houses, whereas large ones, for public entertainment.
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  15. Texture. Is it smooth or uneven? Is it a painting, sculpture, performance piece?
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  17. Personal response. What do you THINK about it? What ATTRACTS you to the piece? What does it make you FEEL? Does it REMIND you of anything? (A place, person, memory, story or another work of art?)
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  19. Talk. It is essential to speak about your thoughts and ideas with whoever is with you at a gallery, park, museum or theater. Getting cultured in your own company? Talk to people around you! Not only will you help them understand art better, but will also compare your impressions.

 

These are just a little of much more to consider while looking at art. Professionals in the field say that one should spend at least 15-20 minutes looking at one single work of art in order to get a truthful first impression of it. Even if you don’t have that time on your hands (and let’s be real, not many of us do), try singling out just a few works of art that catch your eye instantaneously and go look at them. Trust me, it is worth it. After all, you may always use this knowledge later on.

*Chiaroscuro – (from Italian “chiaro” – light, “scuro” – dark) an art historical term, meaning the strong contrast between light and dark, usually affecting the whole composition.