February 3, 2017
Okay, there’s a lot of red… some nice white strokes, a hint of yellow, and… now they’ve all blended into orange and pink dripping endlessly down the canvas. And then there’s the black lines and swirls. Are they supposed to be scratches? What’s written in that corner? It’s all so big, I can’t quite make out the top…
I’m not sure I know what I’m looking at but, I can feel it. And that’s what makes the works of American artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) so significant. His energy can be as subtle as the breath of a mark on a cream-colored canvas, or as animated as the manic blood red loops of Bacchus (2005). No matter the intensity of his energy, one element remains coherent —the unpredictability of where his emotions will take him.
The Centre Pompidou presents an in-depth retrospective of the artist’s long career, beginning in the 1950s and right up until his death in 2011. The show revolves around three major cycles —Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963), Fifty Days at Iliam (1978), and Coronation of Sesostris (2000). The exhibition, organized chronologically, includes some 140 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs featuring well-known works such as Blooming (2001-08), as well as others never previously exhibited in France.
The journey begins with a step into the bare landscape of cream washes, imperfect whites, and clumsy scribbles. The first gallery encompasses Twombly’s early works from the 1950s. During this period he was still in his hometown of Lexington, Virginia and he also began his travels to Europe and North Africa accompanied by his friend Robert Rauschenberg. Often characterized as graffiti (a label which Twombly rejected), his erratic, aggressive lines fill the entire surface, almost as if someone was trying to claw their way out from behind the canvas.
Moving further into this strange new world we discover Twombly’s life-long muse —the Mediterranean. The artist was fascinated by it since his first visits to Rome in the ’50s, and this fascination intensified during the periods that he lived in Italy. The iconography, metaphors, and myths of ancient civilizations left a strong mark on his works. From Egyptians to Greeks, Romans, and Persians, Twombly acts as an archaeologist, layering references from the classical past while drawing connections to contemporary figures and painting practices such as abstraction and minimalism.
The subject matter of Twombly’s oeuvre suggests a vast literary knowledge and a deep understanding of the human psyche. He reinvigorates the ancient myths and histories of Achilles, Eros, Venus, Apollo, Mars, and Commodus with an instinctual understanding of not only their narratives but also their spirits, their dramas and traumas. We can feel the rage of Commodus, the cruel Roman tyrant, as he unleashes terror and chaos in Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963). With each successive canvas the battle between white (innocence and victims) and red (power and oppression) grows more aggressive. Textured paint is thrown back and forth until at last a fresh reddish-orange glistens with victory.
Perhaps the most intriguing and complex element of Twombly’s artistic approach is his use of language. He creates visual poetry by merging the principles of abstract expressionism and the lyricism of words. Coming off as difficult and rather unclear, his script is largely incomprehensible. A mishmash of singular words or illegible phrases float throughout his compositions neglecting any true syntax or logic. The words are activated and energized by the dynamic forms, expressive lines, and bold colors that accompany them. The ten-part series Coronation of Sesostris (2000) perfectly demonstrates how Twombly blends language and image so that each complements and fulfills the other. Referencing Egyptian sun god Ra, Egyptian king Sesostris I, ancient Greek poets Sappho and Alcman, and contemporary poet Patricia Waters, the series shows the artist’s unrelenting dedication to narrative and ancient civilizations.
Twombly is a modern poet. His work can most easily be understood as an emotional and intellectual reaction to an understanding of the past, expressed through the language of color, form, and writing. It possesses an archaic energy that surpasses traditional and one-dimensional representations of history and instead strives to express a universal essence. His work is as sensual and sensitive as it is intellectual and independent. Cy Twombly, a true maverick, interpreting humanity across time and space.
“Cy Twombly” is on view at the Centre Pompidou until April 24, 2017.
August 16, 2016
“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” the photographer’s most comprehensive retrospective is currently on view at The Whitney Museum of American Art. The show boasts an impressive 175 photographs and films as well as rarely exhibited archives and personal documents. It is divided thematically exhibiting Lyon’s most well known bodies of work, and roughly chronologically traces the start of his career in 1962 all the way to Lyon’s work in the present day. The exhibition is divided into seven sections: Civil Rights, The Bikeriders, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, Prisons, New Mexico and the West, Films and Montages, and Ongoing Activism. From the titles alone Lyon’s broad range of interest in social issues and concern for the marginalized and disenfranchised is made apparent. His work represents a nonconventional and intimate approach where Lyon immerses himself in his subject’s world, gaining an insider perspective that moves beyond mere observation and into a wholehearted and genuine interest.
“You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it.” –Danny Lyon, The Whitney Museum of American Art
Lyon began his career in 1962 when he began working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as their first official photographer, documenting the civil rights movement in the South. He captured sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, funerals, and the general turbulent and violent atmosphere of the period. His photographs were used in brochures, posters, and fundraising campaigns, many of which portrayed the brutal force of the police academy, questioning their position and responsibilities to civilians. One 1962 SNCC poster of a [white] officer, arms crossed, reads “Is He Protecting You?” It is highly unsettling to see just how many of these images seem so familiar and resonate in American culture today.
Turning the corner we are met with cool, hard faced bikers in leather jackets with matching “Chicago Outlaws” insignia. This selection is based off of Lyon’s time spent riding with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the late 1960s. Romanticized shots of the Outlaws on the road, such as Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville (1966) and Route 12, Wisconsin (1963) indulge us in the liberating freedom such groups enjoyed, while in several close up portraits we have a rarely seen, tamer version of the bikers—surrounded by their families, girlfriends, and wives. The rebellious nature of the bikers, matched with their unapologetic pursuit of freedom attracted the photographer to the group. After spending more time with them and gaining their confidence, Lyon began recording the group speaking candidly and conducted informal yet highly personal interviews. The photographic documentation and edited transcripts would become his famous book, “The Bikers,” published in 1967.
In his extensive body of work, Prisons, encompassing photographs, interviews, recordings, and film, Lyon chronicled life behind bars. With the help of Dr. George Beto, then director of prisons within the Texas Department of Corrections, Lyon gained access over a fourteen-month period to move freely inside prison complexes and to follow prisoners around on their daily activities. We see personal belongings like photographs and calendars, games of checkers, labor time on the fields, shakedowns, security pat-downs, and officers on guard. These images are as serious and somber as they are filled with humanity and understanding of these men and their situations. The resulting photographs, film footage, and other archival documents would become the book “Conversations with the Dead” published in 1971.
“[I wanted to] make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality.” –Danny Lyon, The Whitney Museum of American Art
Documentation, and truthful documentation, is the end goal throughout Lyon’s photographic practice. His images are transparent, direct, and charged with meaning and message. Each one serves a to bring injustice to the surface with the hope to promote social change. With this approach he has challenged the conventional “sanitized” vision of American life as presented in media, offering up an alternative that portrays the various social histories of America.
From the 1970s and onward he shifted focus as a self-proclaimed “advocacy journalist.” His activist drive took him to various Latin American countries where he captured laborers and street children, undocumented workers crossing the US-Mexico border, and the violent revolution in Haiti. More recently, between 2005-09, he traveled to China to documented communities living in polluted regions.
Regardless of subject matter, geographic location, or time period, all of Lyon’s images are linked through a common spirit: the photographer’s compassionate character and relentless ambition to be a truth teller. The result is his inherent ability to humanize his subjects while returning the dignity and character that social prejudices and ignorance have stolen from them. These are human beings worthy of a second chance and worthy of a second glance.
A single look at these photographs and we are filled with more understanding and compassion than when we entered, a comprehension that seems as relevant today as it did decades ago. If that’s not the point of art, then I don’t know what is.
Danny Lyon: Message to the Future is on display June 17-September 25, 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art.
140 photographs from 10 different series produced by Fernell Franco between 1970 and 1996 are currently shown at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. CALI CLAIR–OBSCUR is a first-time-in-Europe retrospective of this curiously under-recognised Latin American photographer.
The exhibition has not failed to demonstrate Fernell Franco’s photography techniques and unique senses of vision, evidently accumulated from his rich experiences from being a fotocinero (a photographer who takes and sells portraits of people in the streets) to a photojournalist for the newspapers and a fashion photographer. Working as a photojournalist of Cali, Colombia, his sharp and close observation of the city stems from his unbreakable bonding with his native home. As highlighted by the title of the show –Cali, Clair-Obscur, Fernell Franco’s powerful, unobtrusive and yet radical works center on the light and darkness of the city’s urban life.
Since 1954, Fernell Franco had been discovering cinema and eventually became a film aficionado. He would watch several movies a day in various cinemas throughout the city. As a result, cinematic influence of Mexican cinema, film noir and Italian neorealism is significantly visible in the Billare series, presenting interior images of snooker clubs in finely designed composition, and the Interiores series, seeking to record the fast-vanishing urban areas from early 1970s where abandoned homes became slums. What I favor the most in these series is how the cinematic effects were accentuated by the artist’s retouching of colours and the emphasis on the contrast between red and green on B&W photos. Serving as a testimony of the cityscape for later generations, the Interiores series showcases the importance of Fernell Franco’s work within a broader cultural context in Cali at the beginning of the 1970s.
The Prostitutas series depicts young girls and women working in one of the last brothels in Buenaventura, Colombia. It is neither glamour nor seduction. Instead, we see realism and darkness. Uneasiness arose when I saw some of the girls in portraits look like a 12-year-old, too young to appear in such settings. The artist used experimental techniques such as toning and solarisation to enhance the contrasts, underlining the dark shadows as ‘a metaphor for forgetting and confinement’. Ironically, underscoring the contrast is the light-hearted salsa music that accompanies the exhibition. Fernell Franco wanted to recreate the joyful and enthusiastic ambiance typical of restaurants, bars, night clubs and brothels of Cali when he exhibited this Prostitutas series at Ciudad Solar, Cali back in 1972.
I like the creepy mysterious, imaginative and artistic series entitled Amarrados (translated as tied) photos taken by Fernell Franco of wrapped and tied merchandise objects left unattended overnight when he was wandering around the outdoor markets of Colombia and Latin America. According to the text description in the exhibition, these objects in peculiar forms and sizes were seen as dead human bodies.
Fernell Franco’s works, representative of Latin American photography, not only are part of the vibrant art scene in Cali since early 1970s, but also have witnessed the transformation of a Colombian city throughout the decades meandering through light and darkness.
FERNELL FRANCO | CALI CLAIR–OBSCUR
February 6 – June 5, 2016, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”