In: New York City

Chris Burden. Courtesy of the Chris Burden Estate and Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Rob McKeever.

Chris Burden’s ever-popular Urban Light (2008) might just be the most Instagrammed (yes, it’s a verb) installation in the Los Angeles area. The 202 restored street lamps that once lit the streets of Southern California in the 1920s and 30s have been reappropriated, now standing in a vast sea of light, greeting visitors as they approach LACMA, the largest art museum on the West Coast.

However, if you’re like me, the closest you’ll get to interacting with this beautiful, large-scale assemblage is by double clicking as you scroll through your Instagram feed. So, you can imagine my delight when Gagosian on Madison Avenue presented Buddha’s Fingersa small, though no less entrancing, version of LACMA’s Urban Light.

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Buddha’s Fingers is one of Burden’s last works before his death this past May at age 69. It features thirty-two similar antique, cast-iron street lamps as found outside of LACMA; however, the lights are grouped in tight, honeycomb cluster that disallows visitors to weave in and out, unlike Urban Light. Although the installation may only be viewed from outside of the circle, the bright, cold light of the LED bulbs forms a singular, radiating spectacle that envelops the ceiling and trickles down the hexagonal shaft, creating a play of light and shadow that one can only truly appreciate from the exterior. There is a disjunction between the classic, Art Deco-meets-Manchester style of the antique street lamps and the somewhat harsh blue glow of the energy efficient LED lighting. The combination of the old and new forms an arc through time, creating a whimsical realm in which antiquity and contemporary can be experienced all at once, fulfilling our longing for a not-so-distant past, without losing the conveniences (though, sometimes aesthetically disheartening) of the now.

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©Chris Burden. Courtesy of the Chris Burden Estate and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Jeff McLane.

Buddha’s Fingers is on view until March 12th, having been extended from its February 20th closing date due to popular demand. New Yorkers: check this out now before it’s too late.

Ultra-precise bold lines, simplistic geometric design and cubist-esque abstractions characterize Caleb Kibly’s work. He excels in creating unique designs that play on traditional perspective yet retain the essence of their original form and subject. These designs are beautiful, far from over-done, and express a knowledgeable background in modern masters.

Standing as artworks in their own right, I was absolutely thrilled when an Insta post showing the work of Caleb Kibly popped up on my feed from East River Tattoo’s account.

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The UK-based artist was on a visit to the city and was extending his tattooing hours over the weekend in the Brooklyn based shop. Having had the god-awful ink itch for a couple months I decided to set up an appointment.

Tall and lanky, with hair slicked back, Kibly was wearing a plain white t-shirt tucked into navy blue flaring trousers and woven espadrilles. As we stood outside the studio, he took a much needed smoke break and explained to me why he couldn’t give me a custom tattoo. “I’m not in that state of mind right now, you understand.”

The devotion to his craft is remarkable and honorable. He only does custom work when he is able to devote all of time and attention to the design and make something that he is proud of. No half-assing around here.

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Disappointed but persistent in my quest to get one of his designs, I flipped through his portfolio, pointing at various sketches I liked. “No, not that one. I don’t repeat tattoos. I don’t feel it’s fair to the person getting the tattoo.” Fine. I made my decision–the face of a dreaming woman, one long-lashed eye closed, with voluptuous lips and three locks of curled hair. He approved, “perfect, that’s a good one.”

This is Kibly’s first time tattooing in NYC, a change of scenery from his UK studios: Old Habits in London and Two Snakes Tattoo in Hastings. He has been tattooing for years now but started getting them at a very young age. After experimenting on himself, he started to practice more seriously and then served as an apprentice for six years while also studying classical painting.

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This is not surprising–his training and art exposure are evident through his craftsmanship. His lines are exact and expressive. His subjects evoke masters such as Cezanne, Magritte, and Picasso. The designs reflect his own style and individuality. He knows what he’s doing.

As I settled in to get my tattoo, the soothing Cuban rhythms of Buena Vista Social Club playing in the background, I asked Kibly which he liked better, getting tattooed or tattooing?

“At this point, I like tattooing way better. I hate getting tattoos now. Another artist in the shop and I will be tattooing each other and we are not looking forward to it.”

“What’s your favorite tattoo?”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. At this point I don’t really have a single one that stands out.” After a pause, he pointed to one on his forearm, a design of his—a rugged-looking sailor type smoking a pipe.

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Popular themes seen throughout his designs are people smoking or drinking, dreamlike faces, double-portraits with their faces merging into one another in a kiss, ferocious feline heads, women, cubist-inspired table scenes, and the occasional flower.

If you’re ever in the UK itching for an artsy, unique, and badass tattoo, hit this guy up–maybe he’ll even show you some of his paintings.

Whenever the New York grind gets me down , I head straight to the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian Art on 87th and 5th for a heaping dose of old European romance and, of course, great art. Admittedly, I am often lured by the smell of apple strudel and hot chocolate mit schlag at the adjacent Café Sabarsky, but I am never disappointed by the museum’s permanent collection and their masterfully curated temporary exhibits. The Neue is currently featuring an exhibit called “Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933” which opened on October 1st and will run until January 4th. This collection features paintings, photographs, films and other works by the great artists of Germany’s Weimar Republic. This period in between the first and second world wars was a brief, but prolific and innovative time for art and German culture in general.

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The exhibition is chronologically divided into five themes that correspond to different aspects of Weimar Berlin: The Birth of the New Republic; A New Utopia; The “Neue Frau” or New Woman; The Crisis of Modernity; and Into the Abyss. This layout successfully illustrates the progression in Weimar society from the vibrant and hedonistic early days to the horrors of the Third Reich.

Upon walking into the “Birth of the New Republic” section, I was greeted by a pig headed mannequin dressed in a military costume suspended from the ceiling: “Prussian Archangel” by John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter. This whimsical yet austere figure sets the tone of the room, which features the great works of the Berlin Dada movement by Heartfield, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Hannah Hoch (the only woman in the group), and many other Dadaists.

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I was especially drawn to a wild and grotesque series of 11 lithographs by Max Beckmann from 1922 called “A Trip to Berlin”. With titles like “Striptease”, each lithograph is extremely provocative and energetic and transports the viewer to the hustle and bustle of Weimar Berlin.

Striptease-from _A Trip to Berlin_. Max Beckmann 1922

I definitely learned a lot about Berlin Dada from the first room, but my favorite section of the exhibit by far was the pink tinted room dedicated to the “Neue Fraue,” or New Woman.  Not only does this room pay homage to the sophisticated and liberated Berliner woman of the 1920’s, it also showcases the innovative genius of Hannah Hoch.

In addition to Hoch’s clever collages such as “The Bride” (1924) and “Journalists”(1925) below, the room also features gorgeous costumes sketches from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) production stills from The Prince von Pappenheim (1927), and other posters and images celebrating the glamour and talent of the “Neue Fraue”.

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The exhibit ends on a rather grave note in the “Into the Abyss” room. It features the same Berlin Dadaists as the beginning of the exhibit- Grosz, Heartfield, and Schlichter, but deals with very different subject matter. John Heartfield’s sinister “Adolf and the Superman” (1932) is a far cry from the playful Dada collages from the beginning of the Weimar period.

John Heartfield-Adolf and The Superman (1932)

“Berlin Metropolis” is definitely worth a visit, if not several.  I will definitely be back to the Neue to learn more about this culturally explosive time period that unfortunately ended in such horrible tragedy. Should “Into the Abyss” kill your vibe, don’t forget to drown your sorrows in some pistachio and chocolate “Mozarttorte” and hot chocolate at Café Sabarsky. While you can’t take pictures of the art, you are certainly allowed to post your Viennese delights on Instagram (which for the record, taste even better than they look).

Everyone is talking about the Frank Stella Retrospective at the New Whitney museum this fall. However, the art world is split right down the middle when it comes to their opinion of the show. Some find that the Whitney dropped the ball, stating that the show’s monumentality is purely just that, an aesthetic play on the public’s taste for the spectacular in the modern day of Instagram and Snapchat. However, some find that it is exactly this focus on the aesthetic that so greatly captures why Stella was revolutionary for the art world.

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Frank Stella was born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts to first generation Italian-American parents and attended Princeton where he earned his degree in history. While attending Princeton, Stella furthered his interest in art and studied underneath the painter Stephen Green and art historian William Seitz, who introduced Stella to the New York art world, and in turn, the Abstract Expressionist movement that he was soon to react against.

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Stella moved to New York in 1958 and quickly became famous due to his emotionally cool and aesthetically sleek geometric black paintings that stood dark and menacing in the face of Ab-Ex. Whereas critics like Clement Greenberg believed Pollock to be the ultimate destroyer of perspective (this is a good thing) and king of formalism, others like Michael Fried praised Stella for removing the “theatre” from art and allowing the works’ own formal properties, such as two-dimensional surface and structural shape, to define it. Ever since his explosion on the scene in the late 50s, Stella’s career has ceased to slow. Moving from Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism into Lyrical Abstraction, Color Field and Abstract Illusionism; Stella’s work is always reactionary, aware of the times and its own influence over the path of artistic experimentation.

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The best word to describe the Whitney’s Stella Retrospective is monumental. Visitors are greeted by the artist’s enormous forty-foot painting entitled Das Erdbeben in Chili, 1999, paired next to his huge, gray-scale geometric work Pratfall, 1974. It is fitting, as the exhibition takes you from the early Minimalist works of the artist, though while minimal they are not small, to the “Maximalist,” hyperbolic pieces that the artist has created during the later years of his still on-going career. In its entirety, the show is filled with huge paintings and sculptures that tower over visitors and snarl with metal tongues or stare blank faced, sometimes almost haughty, from their painted structures; while the works at the beginning of the show may seem completely unrelated to those at the end, their differences highlight the true genius of the artist, a formalist with no limits.

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The museum’s new space enhances the already intense overall visual impact of his works. The visitor follows Stella’s career as he shoots to art stardom with his Die Fahne Hoch! 1959, the epitome of his black painting series that is comprised solely of the shape of its own structure; at the time, a rejection of the exploding Abstract Expressionist movement and an embrace of the antithesis of gesture and human expression. This idea of allowing the art and its formal elements to define the very content of the work will remain with the artist throughout his career.

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The show is designed in a mainly chronological order, exemplifying Stella’s experimentation with color and shaped canvases that create dynamic and complex structures to form the subject of his work. As visitors move through the open galleries, they can stand before a metal sculpture that is grotesquely kitsch, baroque to a point where Gaudi himself would be proud, and look two decades back at the artist’s first shaped, colorful canvases. The space allows the viewer to make connections and understand the artist’s progression by putting fewer restrictions on the visitor’s visual input.The one noticeable trait about Stella’s oeuvre that stands out in the retrospective is the display of true dedication to formalism. Whether it is the rejection of expression and perspective on a canvas to the embrace of gesture and curvature in metal works, Stella is always seeking to highlight the formal aspects of the materials, the object, itself. The motif that marks Stella’s career as presented by the Whitney’s retrospective is the growth and diversification of aesthetic in the realm of abstraction. The exhibition stays true to Stella’s early motto of “what you see is what you see.”

As I walked into the next gallery at Wolfgang Tillmans’s most recent exhibition at David Zwirner, I kept hearing gasps, whispers and hushed comments.  As I turned the corner, I saw why immediately. A large-scale photographic print showing the close up of a man’s hairy ass and scrotum greets visitors as they enter one of the largest galleries within David Zwirner’s West 19th Street gallery. “Is this supposed to be art?” a woman next to me, evidently perturbed, mumbled curtly to her friend under breath.

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To some Tillmans’s work may seem unsophisticated, crude, and ordinary. Some say there’s no point–it’s just a bunch of photos that anyone could have on their iphone or in a family album. To say make these comments is not to truly see the work, to not take enough time to look at his images and allow yourself to feel an emotional response. For this is what Tillmans’s work is all about—a personal, intimate and emotional connection to something or someone within the realm of the everyday.

A German photographer and artist, Tillmans has made quite the impact in the contemporary photography world. His career gained a high level of prominence in the 1990’s with its new approaches to subjectivity, pairing intimacy and playfulness with social critique, and the persistent questioning of existing values and hierarchies.

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This latest exhibition, which closed on October 24th in New York, titled PCR (polymerase chain reaction) presented a diverse array of subjects and photographic styles. The prints are displayed haphazardly around the galleries; some are hung so low that you have to bend over and crouch to see them whereas others are stuck high up so you have to crane your neck back. It’s different, but makes you physically interact with the space, most likely what Tillmans hoped for as he designed the layout.

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Everything and anything was on display; from mundane yet carefully arranged still lifes of fruit, to beautiful nature landscapes, to snapshots of protests from around the world, to dark and smoky club scenes, to intimate portraits of couples or families, to night shots of Los Angeles traffic intersections.

The arbitrary nature of these images is frustrating at first—what are we even looking at? Do any of these things even matter? Where is the artistic revelation…perhaps under that heaping pile of laundry (which every single person in the gallery has dreadfully waiting at home) that he decided to point his camera at and transform it into a print priced in the thousands?

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The beauty of Tillmans’s work is that he humbly brings us back to reality. Everything around me seems familiar, like I’ve experienced or seen something similar to it before. It is comforting in a way that many contemporary shows strive not to be. Instead of shocking or irritating us with nonsensical, perverse, or ridiculous manifestations of “the limitlessness of art” Tillmans gives us a much needed breather from the weirdness of contemporary art. The images on display at David Zwirner are the in-between moments. They are reminders us of the small, seemingly insignificant details of our daily lives, which we so desperately try to ignore or transform into something fabulous and “likable.”

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His next show will be opening at the end of November in the Gallery of Contemporary Art and Architecture at the České Budějovice House of Art in the Czech Republic.  After that his next show will open in December at the Hasselblad Center, Göteborgs Konstmuseum in Gothenburg, Sweden. 

Walter Swennen, who is now a very successful painter, is a great family friend of mine. In an era of young beatniks in Brussels in the 1960s, my grandmother and Swennen spent their days in a crowd of poor young artists driven by their need to create. They lived off of very little and were each other’s sources of inspiration. They would introduce each other to foreign art pieces from the United States, and would discuss within themselves late at night over a drink while brewing up new ideas. My grandmother wrote poetry and, being that she was much younger than the rest, around the age of 16, learned and grew from this group of artists who had adopted her into their circles. Various members of this social scene adopted alcoholism and other issues that stemmed from the fundamentals of this very social and experimental community, and therefore did not make it very far in their careers, but left behind great shared memories and inspiration for the others.

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Swennen was much more fortunate and has continued to paint since. He has recently come into the public eye after a couple of successful exhibits in Belgium. He is now showing at the Gladstone Gallery in New York City – a very well known gallery. His work utilizes visual aspects inspired by Pop Art and abstract expressionism; some pieces more so one than others. Swennen might not agree to these sources of inspiration, but either way these are the art movements his work is reminiscent of. He also often incorporates poetic writing into his work. To this day, his work portrays the essence of the young group of artists that created and struggled together.

Walter Swennen- 2Another large theme throughout his work is an evocation of childhood. Figures seemingly appropriated from cartoons or comic books have been an undying subject of his throughout his career. Belgium is a country overwhelmingly full of comic books, about two comic book stores per block, therefore this imagery, that has been most definitely drilled into Swennen’s head, is unsurprising. Yet it is very effective in evoking recognition and a sense of shared nostalgia for most of his audience.

Swennen works in a way not uncommon to his generation of artists. One could summarize it by saying he lets the ideas come to him, and he does not seek them out. By this point in his career as a painter he knows what interests him and what does not. Some of the things that do interest him, which is evident when looking over his work, are cartoons, poetry, labels and philosophy. Some of these subjects are also commonly found in Pop Art, which is why his work is so reminiscent of this art movement. However, some of his subject matter will not fall into any specific category because he will literally let it come to him naturally. For example, he once based his subject matter off of a drawing made at school by his daughter when she was very young. Swennen is not much interested in the meaning behind his pieces, but is instead very preoccupied with the aesthetics, the process and the stories behind how his subject matter came to be. It is interesting to look at his work and attempt to guess the sources of inspiration for a specific subject in a piece.