In: MoMA

It is no secret that music is often a selling point for art exhibitions. From the Museum of Modern Art’s 2015 blockbuster Björk retrospective to the recently closed ‘Stuart Davis: In Full Swing’ show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which focused on the artist’s Jazz-like techniques; music and art just go together. It’s no wonder then that so many great musicians are also talented artists.

David Bowie

David Bowie’s 1976 painting “Portrait of J.O.”. ©David Bowie.

David Bowie’s 1976 painting “Portrait of J.O.”. © David Bowie.

The late, great, thin white duke was known for for being a jack of all trades; musician, actor, publisher, avid art collector, and, of course, artist. Besides his impressive collection of Modern British art, which was unveiled during the massive three-part ‘Bowie/Collector’ auction recently held by Sotheby’s, Bowie was himself a gifted painter. Studying art and design since his days Bromley Technical High School, the South London native’s work reveals heavy influences from German Expressionism, from his use of primitivistic and esoteric symbols to his haunting self-portraits.

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono and John Lennon at John Sinclair Freedom Rally, 1971. By Unidentified (Michiganensian is the University of Michigan yearbook published by University of Michigan) (1972 Michiganensian, p. 203) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon at John Sinclair Freedom Rally, 1971. By Unidentified (Michiganensian is the University of Michigan yearbook published by University of Michigan) (1972 Michiganensian, p. 203) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Another subject of a MoMA retrospective, Yoko Ono’s impact on art and music, regardless of your opinions on her, are undeniable (but seriously, she didn’t break up The Beatles). From her influence on her late husband, John Lennon, and the importance of their experimental albums’ for New Wave music, to her ongoing peace activism and solo music career, Yoko has deservedly left a mark on contemporary culture. Collaborating with Fluxus artists from the 1960s, the conceptual multimedia artist has done everything from text-driven instructions -such as her famous Painting to Be Stepped On (1960/61), which invites the audience to step on a piece of canvas on the floor-, to provocative performance art, acting as a pioneer for the medium. Check out an excerpt from Yoko’s iconic Cut Piece (1965) below.


Grimes

Grimes’ Original Album Art for “Visions” 2012. Source: Arbutus Records.

Grimes’ Original Album Art for “Visions” 2012. © The artist. Source: Arbutus Records.

Drawing inspiration from Japanese anime, manga, and comic artists, Claire Boucher, better known by her stage name Grimes, creates strikingly graphic paintings and drawings. Although the 28-year-old synth-pop singer is known for her experimental music -which channels influences from Marilyn Manson and Panda Bear to Yayoi Kusama and The Legend of Zelda-, she also creates all of her album art. In 2012, during the promotion her album Visions, a collection of Grimes’ drawings were featured in an exhibition at the Audio Visual Arts Gallery in Manhattan, where they were auctioned in support of “Sisters In Spirit,” an organization which raises awareness of violence against Aboriginal women.

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a major exhibition of performance art, which included live performances taking place daily in the rooms of the museum. I am talking about The Artist is Present, a retrospective of the work of the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”, Marina Abramović, which attracted thousands of visitors (700.000 according to The New Yorker).

The presence of performance in leading institutions such as the MoMA has definitely contributed to its acceptance into the mainstream during the last few decades. However, some people still question why performing in front of an audience can be considered art, and not drama/theatre. Abramović herself gave her opinion on this matter in an interview while promoting her MoMA show, stating that “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

Marina Abramović, ‘Rhythm 10’, 1973, performance, 60 min.

I am sure many actors –and perhaps some artists as well- would have many counterarguments to Abramović’s words, but her assertiveness shows that the performance vs. acting debate is still alive. The lines separating performance art and drama are certainly blurry, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a world where everything seems to be more and more interconnected. So instead of focusing on trying to define what performance is against other disciplines, I think it is much more interesting to examine here why its irruption in the world of visual arts has been so important for the development of contemporary culture.

The beginnings of performance art can be dated back at least to the early twentieth century, and particularly to the Dada movement. Dadaists defied conventional definitions of art by mixing poetry, music and visual arts in unconventional performances that took place in alternative spaces such as the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Between the 1940s and the early 1960s, a series of artistic actions (often derived from  “action painting”), interactive installations, and performative events organised by artists such as Yves Klein and groups like Gutai, anticipated some of the characteristics of what was to be labelled “Performance Art” from the 1960s onward.

The Japanese group Gutai was one of the first to take exhibitions and artistic actions outside the traditional spaces of the museum and the gallery. They organised many outdoor events, like the 1956 Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition (Ashiya, Japan), where visitors were invited to take part in the artworks. The idea of opening up art to the participation of the public was also at the heart of Allan Kaprow’s happenings, in which art became a collective experience.

Allan Kaprow's happening Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

Allan Kaprow’s happening ‘Fluids’, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

This new role of the public -who is no longer contemplative and passive as in traditional art exhibitions- that comes with performance art, disrupts the conventional relationship between the viewers and the artworks, and generates new dynamics between the viewers and the artists. Because, as the title of Abramović’s exhibition points out, one of the most important characteristics of performance is that the artist is present. In performance art, the body of the artist is the medium, and it becomes an incredibly powerful tool to express different narratives and ideas.

In opposition to an inert painting or sculpture, the presence of the very alive body of the artist means that art stops being a safe experience for the viewer, given the unpredictability of the situation. With performance, art invaded the “real world”, the here and now. Some artists have put the public in particularly difficult positions by putting themselves in danger in front of an audience. Abramović, Joseph Beuys, and Chris Burden are some of the most prominent examples. The latter is known for his 1971 piece Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm by a friend in front of a small audience.

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me. © Chris Burden. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

Chris Burden, ‘Shoot’ (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. © Chris Burden.

In the 1970s, performance was already a quite established artistic practice, with Fluxus –an international, heterogeneous conglomeration of artists, designers, composers, dancers and other professionals that shaped a highly experimental artistic community- as one of its most important representatives.

Why was performance such a success at the time? One of the main reasons was the rise, particularly in the United States, of a series of social and political movements that demanded civil and social rights, equality, and justice. In such a politicised environment, many artists used performance as a means to address the concerns behind different social groups and communities. For instance, some of the most well-known performances from this period are linked to the rise of feminism and the Feminist art movement. This is the case of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), which culminated with the artist extracting a paper scroll from her vagina while reading from it.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece Interior Scroll, 1975.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece ‘Interior Scroll’, 1975.

These are just a few of the many artists and actions that contributed to the early developments of performance as an art form. It would be impossible to cite them all here, but the changes they introduced during the second half of the twentieth century -the organisation of artistic actions outside traditional spaces, the increasingly active role of the publics, and, most importantly, the use of the artist’s body as a medium- are essential in order to understand our current artistic context.

Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, arguably her magnum opus, is currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art. The slideshow of nearly 700 images is set to a wide-ranging soundtrack of pop, classical opera, and rock & roll music. The images are of the artist, her circle of friends, lovers, and acquaintances that Goldin affectionately refers to as her ‘tribe’ from the 1970s and 1980s.

Her images are so immediate that you feel as if you are there, in the dive bars and bedrooms of her gritty, real world. By creating The Ballad, Goldin documents the events of her own life and the lives of her friends through images that tell deeply personal stories. Her photographs capture unnerving episodes of addiction, drug abuse, domestic violence, and illness, while simultaneously embodying moments of joy, comedy, youth, ecstasy, and beauty.  Goldin wrote that “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read. The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”

"David and Butch Crying at Tin Pan Alley, New York City" 1981. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2009. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

“David and Butch Crying at Tin Pan Alley, New York City” 1981. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2009. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

There are three rooms dedicated to the display of her photographs. The first includes an installation of materials from Goldin’s archive, early promotional objects for the first iterations of the work, and a mock-up of the book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The slideshow has been shown on many occasions since Goldin first created it in 1980. Originally, she changed the slides by hand for an audience comprised of mainly her subjects.

"Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City" 1980. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

“Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City” 1980. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

In the second room there is a selection of prints from the MoMA’s collection that constitute some of Goldin’s most evocative images from the film. They show the artist and her subjects grappling with the realities of physical and emotional abuse, while simultaneously indulging in moments of lust and tenderness. Some standouts include “David and Butch Crying at Tin Pan Alley, New York City,” “Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City,” and “Nan and Bryan in Bed, New York City.” Each of these images feels fiercely candid and intimate, as if the viewer was intruding on an intensely personal moment.

"C.Z. and Max on the Beach, Truro, Massachusetts" 1976 silver dye bleach print, printed 2006. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

“C.Z. and Max on the Beach, Truro, Massachusetts” 1976 silver dye bleach print, printed 2006. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

The third room is the slideshow itself, which runs for about 45 minutes with a short intermission. The images are grouped loosely around visual themes, like people in front of a mirror getting ready to go out, uninhibited sex, New York bar culture, drag queens and performers, the weddings of young friends, parenthood and young children, drug addiction and, ultimately, death. The film is scored to an array of musical genres including an aria performed by Maria Callas, the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.”

"Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City" 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

“Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City” 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2016 Nan Goldin.

In the age of social media and advertising, where you can be bombarded by images that are photoshopped, filtered, and staged, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency presents the raw, unedited truth of what Nan Goldin and her subjects experienced in the New York of the 1980s.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is on view at the Museum of Modern Art on the 2nd floor Contemporary Art Galleries through February 12th, 2017.

The groundbreaking exhibition of Degas’s monotypes, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, presents Edgar Degas to the public in a new light. This incredible exhibition, the first comprehensive show of Degas monotypes in over half a century, characterizes one of the most well known artists in the history of art as an innovator and experimenter.

In two short periods from the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, Degas produced over 300 of these exceptional works on paper. Hundreds more are thought to have existed but were destroyed by Degas’s brother after his death. Although these works are numerous, the majority of them were never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Therefore, these unique works are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Perhaps deemed too personal, scandalous, or experimental to be viewed by a 19th century audience, two centuries later they still retain their ability to both shock and intrigue viewers. The subjects explored by Degas in this experimental medium are wide ranging, from singers at café-concerts to prostitutes and smoke stacks; however, like his more famous paintings and pastels, the subjects which attracted Degas the most are those which capture elements of modern life in Paris.

Edgar Degas, Fireside

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). The Fireside (Le Foyer [La Cheminée]), c. 1880–85. Monotype on paper. Plate: 16 3/4 x 23 1/16 in. (42.5 x 58.6 cm), sheet: 19 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. (50.2 x 64.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, and C. Douglas Dillon Gift, 1968 (68.670). Courtesy of MoMA.

While some of the subjects are scandalous, the medium Degas employs, monotype, is equally surprising. Although Degas himself explained the process of monotype simply as “drawing made with greasy ink and put through a press,” monotype is in fact a complex and contradictory medium.1 Essentially, a monotype is a print. However, the fact that it is mono, or singular, inherently defies the supposed purpose of printmaking, which is to make many copies to be distributed or reproduced. The process of creating a monotype is also very different from other printmaking processes in that the image transferred from the plate to the page is not carved into a woodblock or etched into a copper plate, but simply painted on the surface using ink, or in some of Degas’s later monotypes, oil paint, allowing the image to be changed up until it is fed into the press. This aspect of the monotype process lends the medium to more spontaneous production, perfectly in sync with the spontaneity that Degas hoped to capture in his images.

Most of the works in the exhibition are the first version, however, some are “cognates,” rare second prints made from the original plate. These second images are much lighter than the first, since most of the ink went into the first image. While the cognates are essentially the same image, Degas edited them using pastel, gouache, or event sometimes oil paint to make them entirely new compositions.

cafesinger

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Café Singer, c.1877‑78. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 3/4 × 6 3/8 in. (12 × 16.2 cm). Private collection.

This dynamic between originality and reproduction that defines Degas monotypes can be best seen in a pair of works from the exhibition, which, taken from the same plate, depict the same subject and composition; however, they have almost nothing in common. Both plates show a singer at a café-concert, the first in black and white, characterized by this juxtaposition of light and shadow, emphasized by the five bright orbs of electric lights behind the singer. These lights, which illuminate the scene, also distort it, rendering the singer’s face almost in caricature as her arm bends unnaturally into the hazy, incomprehensible space of the café-concert. In the second version, which Degas has altered using pastel, both the figures and forms of the composition are much more solidly defined. Here, both women are clearly rendered in much more detail than in the hazy original. The five light orbs have been traded in for one fancy electric light on the back wall, immediately elevating the level of the establishment from the mysterious original. When looking at these works side by side in the gallery one would never suspect that they are in fact the same work; however, that paradox between originality and reproduction seems to be at the heart of what Degas is trying to achieve with his monotypes.

Three Women in a Brothel

Edgar Degas, Three Women in a Brothel, Seen from Behind (Trois filles assises de dos), c. 1877–79. Pastel over monotype on paper. 6 5/16 x 8 7/16 in. (16.1 x 21.4 cm). Musée Picasso, Paris.

The brothel monotypes have become infamous within Degas’s oeuvre amongst scholars and, now that they have again been exhibited to the public, they have become a controversial highlight of the exhibition. They present the viewer with a true conundrum as to how to approach the style and subject matter. Some argue that they provide a sympathetic look into the realities of 19th century prostitution, a widespread industry in Paris at the time, while others have seen these works as voyeuristic and “creepy.” Of the dozen or so of the brothel monotypes on view in this exhibition, one of the most striking is The Name day of the Madam (La fête de la patronne). This work shows a group of prostitutes celebrating the birthday of the madam. The women, who are shown in various states of undress, present the madam with flowers. It is these moments that depict the behind the scenes lives of such women, rather than the ones which illustrate them at work, which make them something truly unique.

Edgar Degas, Waiting for a Client, 1879. Charcoal and pastel over monotype on paper. Plate: 6 3/8 × 4 3/4 in. (16.2 × 12.1 cm). Private Collection.

Like many of his contemporaries, as well as many artists working today, one of Degas main aims was to create works which engaged with and reflected the society in which he lived. His monotypes clearly reflect modernity not only in the subjects, but also the medium of monotype itself, and the techniques he used to achieve such varied and incredible effects relate directly to the larger idea of capturing modern life in 19th century Paris. “His loose brushwork turned out to be the perfect vehicle for capturing both ballerinas in motion and the bustle of city life—and the relaxed linearity was well-suited for his foray into caricature, including suggesting the financial exchange at the heart of prostitution. Degas’s method of incising into the greasy pigment offered a way to render the artificial lighting that was not only illuminating Paris in new and exciting ways but changing vision itself.”2

Edgar Degas, Factory Smoke (Fumées d’usines), 1877–79. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 11/16 x 6 5/16 in. (11.9 x 16.1 cm), sheet: 5 13/16 x 6 13/16 in. (14.7 x 17.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1982.

These haunting works present the often romanticized, but gritty reality of life in 19th century Paris and paint Degas as a technical innovator and experimenter in the art of printmaking.

“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through July 24th.

Notes:

  1. Buchberg, Karl, and Laura Neufeld, “Indelible Ink: Degas’s Methods and Materials,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print. P. 47.
  2. Hauptman, Jodi, “Introduction,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. P. 17. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print.

Claimed by critics, professors, professionals and art snobs everywhere as a “once in a lifetime experience,” the Picasso Sculpture exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art stands up to this promise. It is Picasso as we’ve rarely ever seen him before…or dare I say, never seen him before. He is at his weirdest and most innovative (if he could get any weirder), revealing another dimension of his creative side that is lesser known to the general public and less studied at the academic level.

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Needless to say, being the art nerd that I am, I was immediately hooked.

This comprehensive exhibition tracks Picasso’s sculptural and three-dimensional progression from the beginning of the 20th century up until about ten years before his death in 1973. It gives us a taste of his diverse and endless talents, not only as a painter but as a sculptor, ceramicist, and metal worker.  Is there anything he can’t do? While working in a plethora of mediums, he used a number of different materials: wood, metal, bronze, plaster, stone, cardboard, nails, steel, various types of clay, terracotta and found objects. Essentially, anything he used anything he could get his hands on and transformed it into a vision of the near-abstract or a vague familiarity. The Venus of Gas, a small figure made of iron, was brought to life when a simple burner and pipe from a gas stove caught Picasso’s eye and reminded him of the charming prehistoric Venus figurines. When looking at it, you can’t help but smile to yourself and think, “Only Picasso.”

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picasso_moma_7The show is organized as a chronological overview of Picasso’s different sculptural phases and as corresponding to where he was living, the political conditions at the time, and other artistic trends. The galleries are grouped according to themes: The Cubist Years, The Monument to Apollinaire, The Boisgeloup Sculpture Studio (with the various renditions of the well-known Head of Woman, where he worked almost entirely in plaster with Marie-Therese Walter as his muse), The War Years, Vallauris Ceramics and Assemblages, and the final phase of Sheet Metal Sculptures.

picasso_moma_4One of the things that stumped me was the first gallery. When you arrive at the fourth floor, the Sheet Metal sculptures (the final phase) initially greet you in their recognizable Picasso styled eccentricity. We have the basics: female figures with disfigured faces and angular bodies, Chair which looks more like a first grade paper cutting project than anything else, and vibrant colors that break any vision of naturalism. This is the Picasso we all know, in all of its strangeness it is familiar and helps ease us into the exhibit.

One has the feeling of confusion, amazement, intrigue upon entering each new gallery. And once you are finished, you just want to go back around again. For every rotation can reveal something new–another detail, another link, another surprise, another piece of evidence suggesting at Picasso’s relentless genius. (Dude grinds real hard). Once you’ve come full circle again, the first room becomes more clear and you can see how Picasso has gotten there. It’s like solving the ultimate modernist puzzle….but is it ever really solved?

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Ultimately, the show is incredibly fun. Be it a serious art historian or a casual fan, everyone was circling around the sculptures, brows furrowed and smiles cracked at the bizarre visions Picasso brought to life. For anyone who is familiar with some of his other works, we can see that he was literally making art all of the time (grind so hard, am I right?) and constantly experimenting. These sculptures help us understand how he achieved and envisioned his paintings.

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One of my personal favorites, Baboon and Young, is found in the second to last gallery. Picasso used his son’s toy cars to create bronze molds that he stacked on top of each other, wheel to wheel, to produce the animal’s playful head. (I’m sure his son was thrilled with this one.) The catch–it actually looks like a baboon. Honestly, who else would look at their son in the middle of playing cars and think, “Ah, a baboon head!” Again, only Picasso. It’s absolutely fabulous.

If this exhibit does anything, it shows us how much fun Picasso had tinkering away with form and perspective. He could take any ordinary or dumpy object and turn it into something completely new. I can’t wait to go again for round two.

Picasso Sculpture is on display at MoMA until February 7th, 2016.